No Books page in Mumbai this week since the Indian Railways have a lot of messages that they’d like to convey to Mumbai readers. But Bangalore does have a Books page, in which I have attempted to explain why Bengalis heart Tagore. Voila.
Rabindranath Tagore trended on Twitter on Friday, thanks to playwright Girish Karnad. Criticising Tagore was probably not a good move. Now, every Bengali above the age of 10 will feel obliged to retaliate. Some will tell you about the Tagore play that they’ve acted in or directed, and possibly recite some of Tagore’s poetry; just because they can. The irreverent ones — they’re usually well-read — will quote Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, in which a character named Kakoli sang, “Robi Thakur, R Tagore/ Ohe, what a bore!” The less frivolous will first say that Karnad has every right to his opinion and then proceed to explain in elaborate detail why Tagore’s plays are not to be dismissed. And I’m not even venturing towards how Mamata Banerjee will react.
Here’s what you have to understand about Bengal’s fascination for Tagore — he’s the coolest son of the soil we’ve produced. He was tall, good looking and did not have a noticeable potbelly. This is rare. Our notion of good looks has since devolved into specimens like Prosenjit. Incidentally, Tagore was well aware of his physical charms. You try finding an unattractive photo of Tagore. There isn’t one. That sort of thing doesn’t happen by chance.
Additionally, Tagore belonged to a family that was like a late-19th century version of The Bold and The Beautiful; only bolder and beautifuller. Look at Tagore family photos and it’s an assembly line of the tall, fair, handsome and charismatic. The family was full of geniuses. There were actors, writers, philosophers, what we’d today call fashion designers, artists and even wrestlers. The Tagores were strikingly modern. For example, one of Tagore’s sister in-laws went horse riding in Kolkata. In an age of cloistered women, this was radical.
Then there’s the fact that Tagore wrote poems, lyrics, short stories, plays, novels, essays and letters. He also hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and WB Yeats. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he found the time to try his hand at art, which meant 1,580 paintings (many of which are stunning). It’s not just about the many genres he dabbled in, but also the copious amounts he wrote. Tagore wrote 2,230 songs, eight novels, four novellas, more than eighty short stories … let’s put it this way: the compendium of Tagore’s writings is made up of 32 big, fat volumes. (If you’re struggling to meet your word count for your NaNoWriMo novel, then you’ll probably appreciate Tagore’s productivity more.)
Of course not everything Tagore created was brilliant. Karnad is not the first to have chanced upon this realisation. Many Bengali authors, poets and playwrights of the twentieth century have rolled their eyes at Tagore’s less accomplished works. He’s been criticised for being melodramatic, over-wrought and occasionally schmaltzy. But the fact is that there was a contemporary fluency and elegance in the way Tagore used Bengali — whether it was for the stage or in his prose — that made it possible for Bengali literature to step into the modern era. The language became less awkward and more colloquial without losing elegance and sophistication. And as far as his plays are concerned, not all of them are quite as forgettable as Karnad suggested. For example, Chirokumar Sabha (The Bachelors’ Club) plays to packed houses even today. So yes, Mr. Karnad, if you see a Bengali on the street walking towards you, be afraid.
For the Mumbai edition, I’ve written a piece on Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (Bloomsbury India, Rs499). My mother somehow managed to go through the entire paper without noticing the article. It isn’t surprising that my mother hasn’t spotted my name in bold type — no one except another journalist registers bylines — but I find it shocking that my mother would linger over a cartoon of a Narendra Modi poster (with “HOPELESS” as its motto as opposed to Barack Obama’s “HOPE”) and not notice this incredible photo of Marilyn Monroe:
DP: You’ve written that your students made you reconsider your opinion of Marilyn Monroe.
LB: The post-feminist argument that women gained power over themselves and over men by displaying their bodies was a motivating factor. I had written biographies of three feminist leaders — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, and I wanted to work on a cultural figure with feminist elements to her life and not an obvious feminist. Since I live near Hollywood and have easy access to people and sources here, Marilyn Monroe seemed an obvious choice. I always begin my research intending to write a book. That is the easiest writing genre for me.
DP: What do you think explains her appeal over time and across geographical boundaries?
LB: Her innocence and sensuality; the joy of her self-presentation and the obvious sorrow in her eyes; her obvious beauty; her deep photogeneity. She was the greatest photographic model of the mid-twentieth century.
DP: What do you find the most striking aspect of Marilyn?
LB: Her perfectionism; her ability to overcome the challenges of a deeply flawed body and make herself into a star.
DP: You’ve uncovered a lot about Marilyn that hasn’t been mentioned before (like her lesbian affairs, her nightmares, her affairs). In the course of your research, what surprised you?
LB: I had no preconceptions when I started this biography. I went into it with a vague sense that I wasn’t entirely pleased by the biographies that had been written of her. I was very surprised to discover how brilliant she was; I call her a “genius” and I’m convinced she was. She created her look, her movements, and her career. Remember that she had affairs with or married many of the most famous American men of her ere. That is quite a feat in itself.
DP: There seems to be something about Marilyn that pops up on the radar every day — pages from her diary, photographs, recordings etc. How difficult was it to research this book and sort fiction from fact?
LB: This was the most difficult of the many books I have written. There is no archive of Marilyn’s letters, papers, etc. I had to go all over the country to put one together, read endless movie fan magazines that are hard to find, interview about one hundred people, contact previous biographers of Marilyn and get them to trust me.
DP: How important a part did Marilyn’s affairs and her troubled childhood play in piquing public interest in her? Had she looked the same but not had, for example, stories of affairs or sexual abuse attached to her, do you think she’d have become as popular?
LB: Only her marriages were widely known by the public. Her affairs were not widely reported. Before and between marriage who she seemed to be dating was commented on by the press. This was the 1950s and there was a code of silence around the moral “flaws” of famous people. The sexual abuse did play a role in bringing her public sympathy. Most important, however, was the nude calendar and the marriage to Joe DiMaggio, the nation’s most revered male figure. I can’t separate out fate and chance from her own calculation directed toward making herself famous.
DP: You’ve devoted the largest part of the book to Marilyn’s childhood.
LB: Marilyn’s childhood was so complicated that to write about it properly requires a great deal of space. The adult Marilyn is equally interesting, but her childhood played a major role in creating who she was. She tried hard to get over its negative effects, but she was never entirely able to do so. Her life is heroic, but it is also a cautionary tale, especially to young girls dreaming of fame in the area of public entertainment.
DP: There’s a manipulative aspect to Marilyn Monroe, which is interesting because it adulterates the idea of her being a victim. Would you say this makes her more acceptable from a feminist perspective?
LB: Manipulation can be positive or negative; we all manipulate others to get what we want. What matters is how careful we are of others. She tried not to hurt others, but sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. She was operating in the most patriarchal institution in the history of the United States—the Hollywood film industry. Feminists, I think, will appreciate that I’ve made her into an active shaper of her own life, but the ideology is riven into a lot of different perspectives, so it really would depend on one’s feminist point of view.
DP: How do you react to the fact that despite her efforts, Marilyn’s persisted in public memory as the dumb blonde?
LB: The perception of Marilyn is very much related to the perception of women in any given culture. When women are given equality, the multifaceted ways they have related to male power will become clearer. I tried to show that the “dumb blonde” image was deeply embedded in Western entertainment, and that the figure was always wise, like the male fool of the ancient entertainment tradition.
DP: Did the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Marilyn’s death surprise you? You seem quite convinced she was murdered.
LB: I was very convinced by the interviews Anthony Summers did for his 1983 biography. I listened to them at his home in the British Isles, and I was very surprised that subsequent biographers hadn’t consulted him. He had the story figured out; all the interviews I did with the people who were around Marilyn at the time she died substantiated what he found. So I wasn’t surprised by the cover-up, especially when I contacted the District Attorney’s office through a friend and found out that the record file on Marilyn was virtually empty.
The Kennedys orchestrated the cover-up, but the problem comes on whether or not they ordered her to be killed. There is proof, but not 100 percent proof, that the FBI and the Kennedys may have been involved. She may have suddenly accidentally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate that Saturday evening in August, but there was no alcohol in her blood taken at the autopsy.