“Renu has often been called India’s Chekhov, and the comparison is justified,” writes Heman.
Ek Aadim Ratri Ki Mahek is a short story by Phanishwar Nath “Renu,” one of the most prominent Hindi writers of post-independence India. The central character of the story is Karma, who shares a very strong connection with railway stations. In fact, most of his life has centered around railway stations. He does not have any immediate family. It was Gopal Babu, a railwayman, who found him in a goods bogey coming from Assam.
Karma has recently moved to a new railway station with the relifiya babu (temporary station master). He becomes nostalgic about his journey, and images from his past haunt him. He is struggling in this new place. In his thoughts, he repeatedly compares the peculiarities of this new arena with the ones in which he lived in the past. This eventually conveys a sense of dissatisfaction towards this new setup. What happens further, and how Karma’s perspective changes in this new setup is what the narrative reveals as it moves towards the climax.
A story of rootlessness and belonging
The story begins with the author stating that “Karma is not able to sleep.” The imagery of chuuna and varnish that Karma cites as reasons for the pain near his ears and his sneezing thereafter, suggests that the place in which Karma resides is unfamiliar and that he is finding it difficult to adjust. Karma is staying with the babu (railway master) and they barely know each other. The challenges of adjustment that Karma faces here can be understood when he says, “Yahaa neend kabhi nahi aayegi” (“I will never be able to sleep here”). This also conveys the overarching idea that Karma does not feel as though he belongs in this place, as he longs for a place in which he had stayed in the past where he could easily fall asleep on the railway lines.
Karma is very isolated. He knows very little about his own self. The babu, who has just met him, figures through his name that he is a tribal man either from Santhal Parganas or from the Ranchi-Hazaribagh region. However, for him, being in a dilemma about his name and place of birth are the hurdles on his way to self-identification.
He conveys his dissatisfaction about this new place through his nostalgia about incidents of the past. While he notices the sound of babu’s snoring, he recalls the snoring sounds he heard in previous places and the babus from each of those places; the story of Gopal babu is about to unfold, but the babu with whom he is staying falls asleep. At this juncture, a dog comes and sits near Karma. The dog plays an interesting role in the narrative, which becomes evident later.
Karma starts thinking about his association with railways. He imagines that he is holding the railway track as the engine approaches. He does not move at all, and his legs and head get chopped off by the engine. Although this is a dream, it signifies the intensity of his association with a railway station. After waking up, the first sound that he hears is that of a maalgaadi.
He feels a connection to railways, but strongly feels that he will never work as an employee for the organisation, even though he can. He justifies this by recalling his past again. He briefly talks about how Gopal babu went from being relifiya babu (one who constantly migrates from one place to another) to saaltan babu (permanent) when he got married to Bauma (whom he hates). Bauma, according to Karma, created havoc and brought a lot of misery to Gopal babu’s life. Eventually she started hating Karma and accused him of being a thief. Karma has since then worked with other babus at different points of time. He justifies his decision of not working for someone through the examples of each of the babus that he has worked with.
Karma then recalls food stalls at various places where he has lived. His nostalgic references to other places become a recurring image that conveys Karma’s dislike towards this new setting. He repetitively appropriates his memories by associating them with his ongoing situation. He recalls the serene water of Lakhpatiya, chutney from Kadam, and food from Maniharghati. One peculiar thing to notice here is how he remembers various characteristics, attributes, and things as associated with various places. At one point, Renu mentions that Karma remembers very miniscule details about previous experiences, but he cannot recall people, their faces, or the conversations that he had with them. This is a very important detail in the story.
He works as a food vendor at his current post, but stays with babu and cooks for him. In return babu allows him to stay with him beside his quarter. One day, Karma asks for leave as he wants to explore the new place. Again, the dog joins him. Despite the fact that Karma does not like his presence, the dog trudges along in the journey. He catches some fish at one point, which brings in him a sense of satisfaction.
However, he arrives at an important juncture when he reaches a village and meets an old man whom he has seen at the railway station. The old man asks about the fish and invites him for dinner, saying that his daughter will cook the fish for him. Karma has his dinner there, and the family treats him with respect. He feels a sense of ambiguity as he takes their leave. He goes back and finds the dog waiting for him near the fishing spot. The dog starts dancing at his sight, which is the perfect culmination of the peculiar message ‘Renu’ wants to convey. As Karma walks back to the railway station, he begins to feel that he was deceived by the old man and his family, who took away all the fish in return for dinner.
Several days pass, and it is time to go to another place. That very night, Karma dreams about peculiar things that he felt while having dinner with the family. When babu wakes him up, he gets ready, but is still in a state of ambiguity. While boarding the train, he notices the dog, who is restless. Karma is on the train, the whistle toots, and the train starts moving. Suddenly Karma tells babu that he does not want to come as he gets off the moving train. He stumbles, but manages to handle himself. The story ends here.
Dealing with collective unconscious
Renu has often been called India’s Chekhov, and the comparison is justified. The beauty of Renu’s narrative is in the detail, and the way he seamlessly moves in and out of his characters’ minds. Renu’s language has a certain musicality and poetry to it, a strength he draws from his deep roots in the language and arts of the Purnia region of northern Bihar.
His story is a culmination of nostalgic experiences that prevents Karma from liking this place. He is judgmental about the people there, the things that he is missing, and how this place is nothing like the places that he has stayed at in the past. However, the pace of the story suddenly picks up at the climax when he gets off the train. He has never experienced such a strong sense of belonging towards any other place. The reason behind this lies in the fact that Karma now associated his sense of belonging, not on the basis of objectivity, but the subjective reality.
The theoretical connotation to this lies in the theory of Social Facts by Emile Durkheim (1958-1917). Durkheim suggests that the way an individual sees, acts, or thinks depends on the collective conscious that comes from an objective way of adhering to those actions as a performative duty. Even if a person thinks that he is using his agency while making an entirely subjective decision of their own, one follows a pattern that the collective conscious has structured. In case of individualism, Durkheim says that one can fall prey to a pathogenic individualism, when they work in isolation. The collective conscious is then entirely made of objective phenomena when it comes to expressing individual originality, which would have developed very little.
Drawing on this theory, there are times when Karma becomes nostalgic and views, thinks, and imagines everything objectively. When it is mentioned in the story that he cannot recall faces, but can remember the characteristics, descriptions and the traits of places he has seen, it reflects the objective way of seeing to which Karma adheres. Throughout the story he feels that he does not belong to the new place. By means of comparing the conditions of the place, availability of food, and difficulties in adjusting, he implies that this place is not meant for him. However, this is because of the pathogenic individualism by which he is so isolated with his self and others surrounding him that his collective consciousness forms social facts that are denoted by objective ways of seeing, comparing, and drawing notions of belonging.
Cecilie Nordefelt describes how a critical juncture in any event can cause contrasting ways of behaviour in terms of values and belonging (Nordefelt, 2013). This was in reference to modernity and how the notions of belonging were initially associated with hills, where people consumed a particular food like millet and plains were seen as following sedimentary lifestyles. Modernity imposed a conditioning as a result of which people from hills had to disassociate themselves from hills, and come to the plains to achieve aspirations imposed by modernity (Nordefelt, 2013). Such a critical juncture for Karma was when he had dinner with the family, and the way they treated him left him in ambiguity. This opened up the possibility of seeing things in a subjective way. Subjective in ontological and epistemological terms is defined as reflecting the characteristics of emotions, value-judgements, dreams, feelings, etc (Powell, 2014). According to Weber, subjective meanings drive or work as motivation for important actions that one carries out (Giddens, 2009). Giddens explains Weber’s idea by saying “The interpretation of a given course of action is subjectively adequate if the motivation attributed to it accords with recognized or habitual normative patterns” (Giddens, 2009). However, this happens unconsciously.
So Karma falls prey to the collective unconscious. This changes his social facts in a way that Jung calls the forming of archetypes (Jung, 1981). Karma’s changing relations with the dog (creation of culminated imageries throughout the story) becomes a part of his collective unconscious where he starts seeing things subjectively. The last scene where he looks at the restless dog and finally decides to get off the train suggests this very strongly. Also the critical juncture was when the family treated him nicely but there was some ambiguity about whether he was deceived or felt good about the way the family treated him. However, the second dream that he sees towards the end where Renu describes all the peculiar things that the family had said to him comes back to him. These things cumulatively make him see subjectively towards the end of the story. The idea of belonging changes his notions of association with people (everything subjective) because of the change in his collective unconscious. This changes his social facts from purely objective to somewhat subjective. Subjectivity motivated him to take the important decision in the last scene where he gets off the train.
This helps in drawing theoretical underpinnings that play a major role in this story when Renu tries to convey these notions symbolically. The transition from purely objective to somewhat subjective ways of seeing and the change in actions where the collective unconscious overpowers the social facts that lies in collective conscious of an individual. Eventually these things cumulatively result in the formation of a motivating drive that causes Karma to transform his idea of belongingness towards the place that he initially hated.
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Durkheim, E. (2015). What is a Socal fact? In E. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (pp. 53-64). New Delhi: Vani Prakashan.
Giddens, A. (2009). Fundamental Concepts of Sociology. In A. Giddens, Capitalism and Modrn Sociology Theory (pp. 148-149). Cambridge University Press.
Jung, C. (1981). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. Princeton.
Nordfelt, C. (2013). Social change, food and identity in Uttarakhand. In S. C. Arima Mishra, Multiple Voices and Stories: Narratives of Health and Illness (pp. 218-238). Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.
Powell, C. (2014, March 10). Objectivity and Subjectivity in Classical Sociology. The Practical Theorist.
‘Renu’, P. N. (2009). एक आदिम रात्रि की महक. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from Hindisamay.com
Heman is a student pursuing his Master’s in Development from Azim Premji University. His interest areas are concerned with Tribal Welfare, Gender Studies and Documentation of Hate crimes in India. Apart from this he likes reading about sociological theories with reference to urban development (underdevelopment) in contemporary India.
This essay was written for the ‘Art and Cultural Resistance’ course at Azim Premji University