A Conflict of Worlds–Two traditions in Amrita Pritam’s story “The Weed”

Though there are narrated sections in Amrita Pritam’s short story “The Weed,” the real interior story is about a dialogue between traditions which takes place in the actual dialogue and in the happenings of the story.  As the educated narrator says at the very beginning–a sophisticated and more worldly woman known simply as “bibi,” a term of affection–“Angoori [the younger character] was the new bride of the old servant of my neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor.”  “Bibi” takes care in her relation of events to establish that Angoori is a joyous and cheerful and attractive young woman recently married to a much older husband, and is very traditional in her beliefs and values.

For example, Angoori has been taught and apparently believes that it is sinful for a village woman like herself (but not a “city” woman, like the narrator) to know how to read.  She also believes that it is a great sin for a woman to fall in love with her husband except through the intervention of her father.  The acceptable tradition is that a girl child, when five or six, “adore[s] someone’s feet.”  In this, she is directed by her father’s wishes, because he has placed money and flowers at the man’s or boy’s feet.  In this way, it is decided whom the girl shall later marry.  The exceptions, those girls who have love affairs, are thought to have eaten of a mysterious “wild weed” that an intending man has placed in a sweet or paan and given them to eat.  Angoori has seen a girl in her village in such a situation, and she says that the girl sang sad songs a lot, and never combed her hair and acted otherwise oddly.  Angoori regards this as a very unfortunate situation, and is glad, apparently, that she is married to Prabhati, the old man who does not always live at her home because he is a servant and eats at his employers’ household.

Nevertheless, a few days later, the narrator finds Angoori in “a profoundly abstract mood,” and the younger woman asks to be taught to read, and to write her name.  Mark what happens next:  the narrator, Bibi, makes a guess that seems to be correct, that it is because Angoori wants to be able to write letters to someone, and to read letters back.  Instead of immediately agreeing as a friend of equal status would probably do if she knew how, Bibi asks her if she won’t be committing a sin in learning to read and write.  The girl refuses to answer, but when Bibi sees her later, she is singing a sad song, and nearly crying, as she had told Bibi the other girl in her village had done.  Bibi further intrudes and asks her if this was the song the girl in her village had sung, and she admits it.  She tries to force Angoori to sing the song to her, but on this point Angoori stands firm:  she will only recite the words.  The narrator further investigates in a logical, forceful manner, and finds that because Angoori’s husband does not eat at home, and the night watchman, Ram Tara, who has been taking tea with milk as a regular guest at Angoori’s and Prabhati’s house, as is the tradition, has been away on a visit, the girl has had not only not much food, but also not even any tea with milk.

Then the narrator Bibi remembers something else about Ram Tara:  [he was] “good-looking, quick-limbed, full of jokes.  He had a way of talking with smiles trembling faintly at the corner of his lips.”  Instead of just asking, as a person who thought of themselves as equal might do, whether or not Angoori was sad to be alone so much, or missed her friend Ram Tara, Bibi makes a particular kind of mischief by almost making a joke to herself of the girl’s village beliefs and traditions:  she asks her, in what seems a kindly but nevertheless mocking fashion, “Is it the weed?”  If the innocent and superstitious girl did not think so before, to have someone she regards as her intellectual superior ask her this sways her conviction on this point.  Far from being able to persuade herself away from her own unhappiness, she responds, “‘Curse on me!….I never took sweets from him…not a betel even…but tea….'”  We are told by the narrator, who seems to relish this point:  “She could not finish.  Her words were drowned in a fast stream of tears.”

In many ways, because this work shares certain tendencies with other 20th century modernist texts in which traditional, aboriginal, or village peoples are viewed supposedly objectively by a better educated person or persons (Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, with its frame story narrator, comes to mind), it has the tendency that makes of the village traditions and mannerisms something quaint or odd, something the character of higher status muses on with varying degrees of wonder, amusement, or curiosity.  Though these texts are not without a certain amount of compassion by and large, by this point in the 21st century even the compassion seems like a form of condescension, and as we can see in this story, even a writer like Pritam, who was clearly and solidly in the camp of those attempting to better conditions for poorer or less advantaged peoples in her native Punjab region, leaves the question of village autonomies unvisited.  While I really enjoyed the story, and felt sympathy was directed at Angoori, it’s a different matter to engineer empathy with Angoori.  This latter is more what late 20th century and early 21st century aims at, in contradistinction to and in rebellion against 20th century models of social reform and conscience.

So, to view this story from a later perspective than that in which it was written is to see highlighted not only the young girl Angoori, which I feel was the original intention of the piece, but to see also the somewhat downward-looking Bibi as a character as well, not simply as an empty tabula rasa or a quiet sounding board to receive the picture of Angoori.  This is why I call this story “a conflict of worlds, two traditions”:  whereas it is Angoori’s tradition to live simply within the bounds of her own village, and to obey its rules, it is also her tradition to respect the opinions and values of those who look down upon her from a superior social height, and to attempt to scale the heights of reading and writing, which have been posited to her as values she could espouse.  By contrast, the narrator Bibi is in her own way sophisticatedly naive, because she has too her own form of blindness in automatically assuming that it’s not simple loneliness but the love affair attributed by Angoori’s village traditions to “the wild weed” that the girl will claim as her dilemma.  The true kindliness is practiced by the author in showing these two characters face-to-face, two faces of what was once a part of India and what is now a part of Pakistan.  Amrita Pritam is clearly not the narrator, but is even one remove farther away, sharing with us a type of encounter which in all likelihood happens relatively frequently, whatever part of the world one is in.  Two forms of naiveté, two forms of sophistication, first contradicting each other then complementing each other, then cooperating with each other.  At the end of the story, it is clear that something else will happen, but what concerns us most has already been seen:  the women, working through the problem together, despite their other differences.  One will take care of the other if it is necessary, and one will make the other feel significant; and this, perhaps, is one of the fairer exchanges life offers.

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Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

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