Samvada | From a community to a consumer network

The Foreign Soap, a story by painter Bhupen Khakhar, is an allegory for today’s consumption habits - a kind of ecstasy that was once associated with sex and spirituality

In describing the nature of the transformation, at least at its surface level, let me allude to a Gujarati work of fiction. During the latter part of the 1980s, the Gadhyaparva magazine was founded by the Gujarati poet-dramatist Bharat Naik. The focus of the magazine was to draw together writings in ‘non-standard’ Gujarati, the lexical style that was called tal-padi. As an ancillary activity, the Gadhyaparva decided to convene an annual camp of writers. This camp was given the name sahacharya, literally, collective stay. The writers joining the camp were expected to write something, almost anything, and read it out to the others in the camp. Some of the participating writers were primarily painters, one of whom was Bhupen Khakhar. Khakhar had by then shot into fame as a greatly experimental painter, a complete iconoclast with a brand of spirituality of his own. Till then he had not published literary works; but the sahacharya camps, which he attended regularly, helped him in overcoming his shyness as a writer. He wrote an unusual play with the title Maujila Manilal and a few works of short fiction. Though I never attended the sahacharya camps, I had the opportunity of listening to Khakhar - we lived in the same city and were friends - and to read out his works to small groups of friends. One of the stories he wrote had the rather strange title The Foreign Soap. Later, I translated the story into English in collaboration with theater director Naushil Mehta.

The story is about disappearing or elusive satisfaction. It is a narrative about a cake of bathing soap that someone accidentally brings into a lower middle-class neighbourhood. This new object quickly turns into an object of desire and gets used first by the protagonist, then a neighbour, then his wife, and their son and even the mongrel dog that the boy has acquired. As it happens to soap, it comes to an end. The loss of this soap triggers a serious existential anxiety among the two families, and the anxiety is no less intense than the one experienced by the protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Khakhar, with his acute eye for society's foibles, was pointing to its transformation from a community to a consumer network.

What Lawrence Birken had said about the American society was rapidly becoming valid for the Indian society as well: “As economic man realised his freedom only by submitting to the law of the market, so psychological man and woman realised their freedom only by submitting to the law of the sexual market.”

The timing of the story matched the neo-liberal economic policies that had started changing India, till then in the grips of ethnic-identity politics. What is even more remarkable is that the Gujarati society that had been on the forefront of this transformation took no note of Khakhar as a writer while his paintings that had been conveying similar tensions were a good fetch since they became an object of desire for investors. The Marathi poet Dilip Chitre wrote during those years a series of essays commenting on the changalvad consumerism that had started becoming a pseudo-spiritual experience for people. The availability of wide ranging goods of consumption had started turning individuals into consumers, and consumption into a kind of ecstasy that was previously associated with sex and spirituality. What Lawrence Birken had said about the American society was rapidly becoming valid for the Indian society as well: “As economic man realised his freedom only by submitting to the law of the market, so psychological man and woman realised their freedom only by submitting to the law of the sexual market.”

The world of the 1980s in India was the one coping with shortages. During those years, one heard of persons who worked their entire life and towards the end of their working career thought of building small houses for their families. During the 1990s, young persons who had recently found their first employment started owning houses purchased with loans and the equated monthly installment (EMI) schemes. Till the 1980s, the present used to be a sum total of the gains and losses accumulated during the past. In the 1990s, the present was a sum of all possible futures. Today, the future has come to be an unending bankruptcy.

(GN Devy is a literary critic and a cultural activist)

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