The Philosopher’s Stone

First published in The Thumb Print. Click here to read.

“…the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good…”

 — The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Is it possible to change evil to good? Are we the right people to judge what is evil or good and go on a witch hunt and start a riot that disrupts lives? The words above were mouthed by a humanoid robot at the end of the novel — in a society where differences among humans persist despite technological advances. Human nature then seems similar to what it is now, though in a futuristic setting.

Recently, reading Devaki Jain’s autobiography, The Brass Notebook, made one thing clear. If you really want something, you can get it. But the desire has to be strong enough to override the feeling of having lost out because one often needs to pay a price. The other thing that is noticeable is Jain’s ability to override societal values with their judgemental outlook of good or evil, of what is acceptable and what is not. A South Indian Brahmin, born in 1933, she cast aside the patriarchal norms surrounding her to reinvent her life in the way she wanted. In the process, she was touched by many great lives and she touched many lives with her own work. She was a woman who with her convictions helped many less privileged and went on to prove that economics needed to be redefined beyond the reaches of patriarchal and colonial thought processes. 

Jain was sexually harassed a couple of times — the kind of molestation which could well be fodder for the ‘me too’ movement or for a less vocal woman, the incident could result in a feeling of being abused and losing self-worth. But she treated them as events to be merely brushed aside and moved forward to live the life she wanted — a strong woman and an influencer. The most impressive thing is that she published her autobiography after having crossed her eighties, at a point when most are obsessed with geriatric issues. Would she have been judged evil by the patriarchal society whose norms she upended? Would she be judged good by the people whose lives she changed with her open outlook and daring theories?

A woman similar to her was created by Aruna Chakravarti in her novel Suralakshmi Villa. Suralakshmi found her own groom late in life — a married irresolute man who she dumps when she finds him sexually molesting and trying to rape her ward, a young Muslim girl. She goes on to open a thriving hospital in rural Bengal and helps the less privileged. Suralakshmi would probably be living in a time parallel to Jain. Again, a strong woman not given to regrets and with the ability to brush aside smaller issues. 

One of the features that is truly inspiring about Chakravarti’s women in novels like Suralakshmi Villa and Jorasanko, her story of the Tagore family, is the strength she portrays in her women, who despite being surrounded by patriarchal values are able to stand for themselves and hold on to their sense of self-worth and independence, as seen in the character of Jain in The Brass Notebook. This is a recurring theme in Chakravarti’s short stories too, like Through the Looking Glass, where the protagonist despite being a victim of patriarchal abuse lives a life of struggle but feels like a princess near the conclusion. The “old, ugly, unloved Pomo Dasi had vanished. Rajkumari Promoda Sundari, only daughter of  Sreel Sreejukta Raja Raghobendra Chandra Rai, seventeenth in line from the Chandra Rai dynasty of Garh Bishnupur, was sporting with her companions in the royal gardens.”  

What could be this philosopher’s stone that makes a human regain their self-worth? 

(Click here to read the full essay)

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