Is the Poetry of Love Possible in the Age of #MeToo?

Despite the triumph of masculine violence over poetic sublimation in this harsh, prosaic world of disenchantment, I refuse to write the obituary of the music of a non-instrumental relationship.

A thousand years I have walked these paths,
From the harbour at Malacca in the dark of night
To the straits of Ceylon at glimmer of dawn.
Much have I travelled-
The grey world of Ashoka-Bhimsara,
Further yet,
The dark city of Vidharbha.
Around me life foams its stormy breath.
Weary of soul,
I found a moment’s respite in her presence–
She: Banolata Sen of Natore.

∼Jibanananda Das (Translated from the Bengali by Amitabha Mukherjee)

I know it is somewhat odd to speak of a poet’s eternal longing, or visualise a sublime relationship, at a time when all the horrifying narratives of the #MeToo explosion have shattered us and made it almost impossible to believe in the poetry of a relationship – its showers of tears and longing, or its pain and redemption. I know this is the time to feel ashamed of being men carrying the burden of brute masculinity; this is the time for anger and disillusionment – seeing the ‘men of power’ in their nakedness when the masks of ‘sophistication’ and ‘intelligence’ are removed; and this is also the moment for serious interrogation of the culture of sado-masochism filled with the negative vibrations of distorted sexuality prevailing in diverse sites of work, be it a media house, a film studio or even a university. Possibly, this is the time when, as it would be said, poetry has disappeared; what remains is only the unholy alliance of patriarchal domination and official privilege that reduces a female colleague into an object of desire and conquest. There is no love, no trust, no collegial symmetry. There is only violence, direct and subtle. This is the time when the female body is marked and reduced into a site of war – when a victim overcomes her silence, and narrates her pain, trauma and anguish with such remarkable courage:

I stumbled in sheer fright while struggling to get my feet. He ran his hands from my breast to my lips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist, his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts.

Ghazala Wahab

So, at this moment of humiliation, sexual violence and degradation of human soul, how can we invoke a poet who tells yet another story – the story of enchanting love and redemption?

In the darkness she spoke–

“All these years, where had you been?”

Her eyebrows arched like the soaring wings of a bird–

She – Banolata Sen of Natore.

Yet, despite the triumph of masculine violence over poetic sublimation in this harsh, prosaic world of disenchantment, I refuse to write the obituary of the music of a non-instrumental relationship. And, believe me, even when the #MeToo narratives are causing deep pain and arousing a reckless urge to debunk and deconstruct everything around me, I feel the poet’s heart strive for the mystery of ‘Banolata Sen’ and acquire the courage to rediscover a 1969 black and white film Khamoshi and begin to believe in a relationship that, unlike the #MeToo encounter, flows like a river – continually giving, healing and getting reduced to a zero.

Work, love and madness

Tum Pukar Lo
Tumhara Intezzar Hai
Tum Pukar Lo
Khwaab Chun Rahi Hai Raat Bequarar
Tumhara Intezzar Hai
Tum Pukar Lo

∼A song from ‘Khamoshi

Possibly, Waheeda Rehman’s subtle art manifests itself in the rhythm of her eyes. As Radha in Asit Sen’s pretty sensitive film Khamoshi (based on Ashutosh Mukherjee’s Bengali story Nurse Mitra), she is in the public sphere of work, and this domain, I assume, is more challenging than a media house or a film studio. She is a nurse – a ‘sister’ with extraordinary life-energy, professional sincerity and ethical sensibilities – working with the patients suffering from ‘acute mania’ and ‘schizophrenia’ in a mental hospital. Is she merely a ‘professional’ speaking only the language of psychiatry and medicine, and just ‘acting’ as a caregiver to heal the patients living with ‘madness’, and carrying a traumatic history of betrayal and broken relationships? The film complicates the sphere of work, and Radha’s ethic of care gives a new meaning to relationships in a site of professional work. The way she succeeded in healing Dev Kumar (Dharmendra) through her nursing, combining the enchanting power of a mother and a beloved, the lead doctor is convinced that without her it is not possible to heal the patients whose madness indicates their longing for love.

A screenshot from the 1969 film Khaamoshi.

As Arun Choudhury (Rajesh Khanna) – a poet/writer traumatised by a broken relationship, and indicating all the symptoms of ‘acute mania’ and ‘schizophrenia’ – enters the hospital, the same room number 24 where Dev Kumar too was once admitted, the film takes a new turn. Despite Doctor Colnel Sahab’s (Nazir Hussain) persistent request, she refuses to take this case. As a matter of fact, Radha is humane, vulnerable; she cannot act continually as a ‘mother-beloved substitute’. In the process of healing Dev, she too began to love him. Eventually, Dev became “normal, left the hospital, got married,and started a new life.” Radha carries this deep pain inside.

Also read: A Song, a Mountain Peak and the Rhythm of Existence

However, as it becomes exceedingly difficult to handle Arun, and the hospital decides to give him ‘shock therapy’, it becomes impossible for her to remain aloof. She finally chooses to take up the case. With her love and tenderness, empathy and patience, she succeeds in healing Arun. But then, in the entire process, for Radha, Dev has become Arun, and Arun has become Dev. This is like the eternal recurrence of love.

As the final moment comes for Arun to leave the hospital, Radha – this time terribly afraid of yet another loss, another separation and another experience of being deserted – refuses to meet him. The intensity of her work and her emotional churning have already taken her to a new domain. She is not just a professional nurse ‘acting’ as a caring woman to heal psychologically and existentially wounded men; she becomes love itself. And this love – like Bismillah Khan’s shehnai – is characterised by the melody of pain and separation. She can’t bear it anymore. With the echo of Hemant Kumar’s soul-touching song “Tum Pukar Lo”, she crosses the boundary of ‘normalcy’ and ‘madness’. This time she enters room number 24.

Rethinking masculinity: the ultimate redemption

Through love, the dead man becomes alive; through love, the king becomes a slave.

∼Jalaluddin Rumi

At this specific moment when the #MeToo volcano has erupted, Khamoshi, for me, has acquired a new meaning. Yes, I realise it once again that a site of professional work too is an interactive domain filled with the intensity of emotions that characterise human vulnerability. Radha is humane. Her work has become her love; her love has become her work. Her profession has transcended its mere technicality, its ‘legal’ guidelines and boundaries. She gives, she flows, and she suffers. I look at her as she is taken to Room number 24 in the mental hospital. In her revealing eyes and facial articulation I see tears as well as the absurdity of laughter. I see pain. Yet, this pain born out of the existential riddle of love and separation, human vulnerability and professional ethics is qualitatively different from yet another kind of pain that a victim of the #MeToo encounter narrates:

We went back to the hotel without dinner. It was late and I was back in my room… A few minutes after there was a knock in my door. I opened the door….He was inebriated. I instinctively tried to shut the door, but he pushed it, and lunged at me….

Sandhya Mridul

No, I am not romanticising Radha’s pain by contrasting it with the victim’s anguish. I am aware that in that romanticisation of the feminine ethic of care and suffering I may end up legitimising self-obsessed men’s ‘dependence’ on women merely for their own interests. I am suggesting something else. Is it possible for men to rethink their masculinity – its greed, desire, narcissism and possessiveness, and learn from Radha’s feminine ethic of care? Possibly, men’s redemption lies in love, not violence. No wonder, even when every narrative of the #MeToo encounter makes me ashamed of brute masculinity and distorted sexuality, I do not wish to give up my prayer. I seek refuge in Tagore – possibly, like Radha and Jibanananda Das – and strive for the ‘divine flaming touchstone’ to purify men, and free them from the vices of the demonic power of brute masculinity.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU.