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In protest of ugliness

In Rome last autumn, I read the novel, Push by Sapphire, the story of a precociously ugly 16-year-old girl who is sexually abused by her father from age three and mothers two of his children. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi writes.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2010 00:25 IST

In Rome last autumn, I read the novel, Push by Sapphire, the story of a precociously ugly 16-year-old girl who is sexually abused by her father from age three and mothers two of his children. If Precious is the subject of her father’s molestation, she is equally the locus of her mother’s hatred, for she believes that her daughter has stolen her lover. Viewed as competition, Precious is repeatedly beaten by her mother and, without a hint of irony, enslaved at home.

This story’s gouache of redemption and hope is that education will free Precious, and that the camaraderie of young women will anesthetise her suffering. Indeed, Precious finds support at an alternative school, and a supportive teacher who takes her under her wing. But this is all the good stuff, the sunshiny particulars to hold onto for dear life in a film promiscuous with life’s bloodied underbelly.

No sooner had I finished the book than I just had to leave the room I read it in. Stepping out on Via Bertoloni, I headed for Trastavere, to meet a friend for supper. The magnificence of Rome was counterpoint to the novel’s genealogy — incest, abuse, the loss of all innocence — and I was sheltered, even consoled, by the statues, the pealing church bells, the tall oaks and dusty porticos. Perhaps Rilke was not correct to say beauty is only terror we can still endure; perhaps there is such a thing as beauty that is a healing unto itself, the very core of life’s renewal, and its resurgence.

This year in Bombay I saw Precious, the Lee Daniels film adaptation of Push, winner of two Oscars. Unlike the novel’s video verite quality, it’s operatic and triumphant melancholy, Daniel’s film is hectic, employing way too many devices: fantasy, flashback, escapism. The reading of the book had, against all the odds, lifted my spirit but seeing the film left an elenchus: I was depressed (perhaps by the quality of the adaptation?). It was difficult to fault the intention of the film, but the truth is: I felt played.

Let me explain. In contemporary artistic discourse, everything serious appears to be a cortege of violations. It was as if the director was drawing up a list — pathological obesity, check; violent incest, check; child abuse, check — and satisfied, gave the world a film so forceful in its pain you wanted to —you had to — look away (which might have been one point of the film). But Daniels’ film is not an exception. Today, novels are about wars in the Congo, photographs examine the floods in Bangladesh, sculptures mock American capitalism. But where are the cells and sweat, the heave and roar and crunch that make up people?

One comes away feeling hustled by tragedy, negotiated by ideas on disadvantage as defined by the advantaged. Books that bear witness to society, its dysfunction and its denial, are considered Baudlairean, their passional bleakness somehow attesting to authorial bravery when it could simply be lethargy: anyone can write a book about life’s ugliness. But to locate, through the noise of public existence, some shard of redemptive beauty, and to make this available so it nourishes those who encounter it, is that not a larger act?

Ugliness, and not just physical ugliness but also the scalding and overripe ugliness of one selectively perceived ‘reality’, is a passport for artists into a serious world: the great dark novel about feudalism; the scandalous film about gang rape.

It’s as if beauty, and by some extension, tenderness, were the realm of a Valentine world, somehow superficial or trite, and secondary to what is ‘truly’ violent and painfully harsh. Beauty has been sequestered to the plebian mind: the fine photograph belongs to Flickr, the novel about single life is only chicklit. But irony is not the same thing as wit, perhaps because it mocks what it cannot be. And when Dickens wrote in the 18th century works that were not a comment in society but of it, his work was considered Literature Lite. Luckily, it endures, as it should.

Of course I understand the unfashionablity of rooting for the transcendence of beauty. I might as well bemoan the ephemera of Delhi Fashion Week. But I remembered why I’d gone to Rome to begin with. To teach, yes. But also to flee the disquiet of personal losses in Bombay. I had only to open my window overlooking the Tiber, and I felt life expand and exhale its abundance. Rome, one of the world’s oldest cities, monument to political deceit and debauchery, also upheld the Keatsian ideal of ‘beauty is truth,’ therefore plenary unto itself. Not for a moment was I immune to Italy’s political failures, its economic static, its cultural insularity. But there was also its raging, rapturous beauty. And because I was open to its succour, it was impossible not to be repaired and uplifted.

Rome also testifies that what lasts is beauty, and that there is an evolutionary distill of ugliness: it is destined to disappear. How many statues were created, intentionally, in honour of hideousness? How many parks were planned to serve what is vile? The books I now see reviewed are angry and fashionably so; the photographs I see force me to look at the wounded and the dislocated. All these are important, valuable documents of time. But time halts only for one thing, which need not be named, and if we look around, we will find it, and we must. Because even without knowing it, it is what will save us.

(Shanghvi is the author of Lost Flamingoes of Bombay)