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THE HOLLOW MEN (Kida lee mansen)
by Gaṅgādhar Gāḋ gīl, 1948

A leading and prolific modern Marathi short story writer, Gaṅgādhar Gāḋgīl has written stories in different veins, including the starkly realistic, the surrealistic, the psychological, the semimystical, the comic, and the farcical. But he is probably at his most characteristic when he probes with rare precision and penetration the mind of the urban middle class, to which he himself belongs.

"The Hollow Men" ("Kida lee mansen"), which is collected in Kaḋū aṅī goḋ, is easily one of the most memorable depictions of urban middle-class life and values in Marathi short fiction. The story describes an eventful day in the normally humdrum life of the inhabitants of a crowded chawl, a large tenement house, in a typical middle-class suburb in Bombay. On that day there is an outbreak of communal violence in the city that is attended by gang warfare, murder, and arson. A band of ruffians has just broken into a Muslim shop opposite the tenement, and the story narrates how the Hindu tenants react to this event, revealing the characteristic weaknesses—large and small—of the middle-class psyche.

The opening description of the tenement and its residents sets the tone of the story by striking a strong ironic note. The tenement is a "castle of the puissant nation of office-clerks." The four traditional stages of the Hindu's life are reduced here to landing a clerical job, marrying, educating the children, and earning a small pension. The boss's favor and a raise are the focal points of the life of a man here, and the salary of one's husband and the extent of one's own good looks are the acid test of a woman's worth. The burning questions of this culture are how to obtain supplies of sugar and kerosene, then scarce commodities because of the war.

The reactions of the people to the violence and the looting taking place on their very doorsteps are varied, but they are all typical of the middle-class mind. First, there is the thrill of something exciting happening right in front of their eyes, which breaks the monotony of their insipid diurnal routine. Young Damu, who always has a "nose for news" and who is therefore naturally the first to disclose the wonderful tidings, represents this aspect of middle-class psychology. But the middle-class people know that they can never be actors in the drama of life. At best they are only passive spectators, and hence they can enjoy adventure only vicariously. Ainapure, the armchair politician in the chawl, illustrates this. A rabid Hindu, he bravely talks about teaching the Muslims a lesson, and he rejoices that the shop being looted belongs to a Muslim, although he has no courage to join in the fray. Gharuanna's rejoinder to Ainapure reveals how narrow are the horizons of the middle class: "What's the use of discussing politics? Tell me about a political strategy that will improve my salary." The author adds, "And he looked around in the belief that he had said something very clever; everybody agreed with him, and precisely for this reason, no one liked what he said."

But it is not merely innate pusillanimity or inborn narrowness that renders the middle class incapable of action. Taboos and inhibitions drilled into them for generations are equally instrumental. Thus, it is a northern Indian milk vendor who is the first to grab a pair of new shoes from the burglarized shop. The tenement people's reaction to this is "a happy collective laugh…. for that simple fellow had translated into action what everybody had in his heart of hearts longed to do." Soon, others on the street join in the fray, but not, of course, the tenement people. The author underscores the point by adding, "Ainapure, almost unaware of what he was doing … turned hastily towards the stairs. 'Are you too joining in the looting?' asked Gharuanna in mocking tones. Ainapure suddenly realized the enormity of what he was about to do."

Middle-class greed can sometimes prove stronger than all ethical imperatives. Young Damu, wise beyond his years, boldly joins the looters and returns with his trophy, a nice pair of new shoes for his father. Gharuanna's reaction is typical of middle-class hypocrisy: "You fool … you mustn't…. but well, now that you have them…." Once a dreaded taboo is broken, the floodgates are opened. Thus, Damu's mother now actually gives him a cloth bag to collect more loot, and he gleefully sets out on another foray. His shining example inspires the neighbor's wife Radhabai to admonish her son Madhu, "Go, go down, you good-for-nothing fellow; see what a clever boy is Damu." But Damu's second expedition is an unmitigated disaster. As he is returning with the loot, a burly hooligan slaps him and snatches away his bag. Upon his inglorious return Damu is sternly reprimanded for losing his bag as well, an unpardonable offense against middle-class thrift.

The story ends with the arrival of the police and the dispersal of the mob. The last sentence carries not only ironic but also almost symbolic overtones, "In the vanguard [of those who ran] was a clerk, escorting a couple of women and a large band of urchins shouting in terror, without looking back: 'Run, run, have you all gone lame?"' There could not be a better symbol of middle-class cowardice, helplessness, and escapism.

"The Hollow Men" is a brief but acute study of a representative segment of modern Indian society caught in a moment of crisis. Imbued with a strong social and psychological awareness, it drives home its point with ruthless honesty and sharp irony.

—M. K. Naik

The Hollow Men (Kida lee Mansen) by Ga?gadhar Ga? gil, 1948

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