Chapter Writing: Tom Shulich ("Coltishhum") a Comparative

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[. . .] 40).

Thus, from the perspective of the bottom rung of Indian society, it is Lapierre's contention that the self/other dichotomy if not fully eradicated, at least becomes practically irrelevant. Lapierre's slum dwellers refuse to entertain invidious distinctions between self and other. The familiar as well as the stranger, the healthy and the diseased, the old and the young -- all are taken in and cared for in one big, harmonious community of the urban poor. In a society of unfortunates who all must struggle simply to survive against great odds, no one is rejected "marginal." The denizens of Calcutta's slums, Lapierre tells us, "had reconstructed the life of their villages in urban exile" (p. 41).

Stephan Kovalski, an expatriate Polish priest, is the main European protagonist of Lapierre's novel. Originally written in French for publication in France, translated within a year of publication into other European languages for distribution in Spain, Holland, Germany, Italy, and the United States, many readers may have identified more with Kovalski as the central character, though the third person omniscient narrative alternates between Kovalski's and Hasari's stories.

Kovalski's sense of self/other was formed at an early age by an overriding desire to seek social justice. This commitment to help the poor was reinforced by the character's Roman Catholicism, and strengthened in the aftermath of his father's suicide. Kovalski's father had been badly maimed in a violent confrontation with the police during a coal miner rebellion over low pay and poor working conditions. Following this incident and some time in prison, his father became radicalized and plotted acts of terrorism as a member of a militant Marxist League. After a series of struggles with the authorities, Kovalski's father hung himself in a prison cell.

Upon learning of his father's death, young Kovalski shut himself in his room to meditate over a picture of the Shroud of Turin his father had given him at his First Communion. When he resolved to become a missionary, he explained this as born of "a desire to achieve by other means what [his father] had attempted to accomplish by violence" (p. 45).

Kovalski's central drive to fight on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged "other" is thus central to his sense of self. His fascination with the non-European Other is an extension of his life mission. The struggling and vulnerable Other provides Kovalski with an opportunity for act on his saintly ideals. The poorer and more wretched the Other, the greater occasion they present for the priest to perform supreme acts of charity and humility.

Both novels use the domain of physical space as a contrast between Western and Other. The Luczaks reside in a middle class neighborhood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Luczak describes their home as "clean and open as a Scandinavian designer's dreams, all gleaming bare wood, comfortable modular seating, immaculately white walls, and works of art illuminated by recessed lighting," and contrasts this with his Indian wife Amrita's childhood home in Delhi: "bar walls encrusted with grime and ancient handprints, open windows, rough sheets, lizards scrabbling across the walls at night, the cluttered cheapness of everything" (Simmons, 1985, p. 16). Thus, the basic contrast of the novel between clean, white, American self and dirty, dark, Indian Other is first introduced.

Lapierre's Western protagonist Kovalski, in contrast, idealizes the Other, desiring to enter their space and participate in their suffering. While still in Europe, Kovalski identified with other displaced workers. He came to think of the North Africans, Senegalese, Turks, and Yugoslavs who visited his family home as members of his own family. A challenge from a Senegalese immigrant was formative in his desire to leave Europe and embrace the Other: "You're always saying you're close to us but do you really know anything about us? Why don't you go live for a while in a shantytown or in out poor countryside? Then you'd have a better idea of why we were forced to leave and come here to break up stones all day at the bottom of a mine" (p. 46).

Kovalski took this challenge to heart and chose to devote his life to living among the poor as a missionary. In his youthful idealism, he describes the allure of poverty in glowing terms:

India! A subcontinent with exceptional potential wealth - yet where areas and social groups of overwhelming poverty survived. A land of intense spirituality and savage racial, political and religious conflicts. A land of saints like Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda, and of spiritual leaders who were sometimes odiously corrupt. A land that manufactured rockets and satellites but where eight of ten of its inhabitants had never traveled faster than their oxen could pull their carts. A land of slums of Bombay or Calcutta. A land where the sublime often stood side by side with the very worst this world can offer, but where both elements were always more vibrant, more human, and ultimately more attracting than anywhere else. (Lapierre, 1985, p. 47).

In contrast to The City of Joy's full spiritual embrace of the Other, the Song of Kali establishes from the first page its white protagonist's total alienation from and rejection of the South Asian Other, as represented by Calcutta and the city's patron goddess. Luczak contrasts the foul air and filth of life of the chawl[footnoteRef:1] with the environmental hygiene of life in an American city: "Slums of tin roofs, gunnysack walls, and mud-path streets... extended for miles and were terminated only by gray monoliths of factories belching flame and unfiltered soot toward the monsoon clouds... The air in Calcutta, already sweetened by raw sewage, burning cow dung, millions of tons of garbage, and the innumerable open fires eternally burning, was made unbreathable by further effusion of raw auto emission and industrial filth." He concludes, "I found it almost impossible to imagine myself living in one of those floorless hovels, working in one of those grim factories," and "I realized that sweeping philosophical convictions such as ecology and pollution controls were luxuries of our advanced industrial nations" (Simmons, 1985, p. 125). [1: A South Asian slum or shanty town]

When later in the narrative, Luczak is challenged over a glass of premium imported Scotch by an upper-class Indian host, Mr. Chatterjeee -- who lives separated from the pandemonium of the city in a walled off, residential section built by the former British colonial officials -- to give his frank opinion of the city, Luczak politely defers. He tells Chatterjee that he finds Calcutta "fascinating" and wishes he had more time to explore it. Mr. Chatterjee keeps pushing Luczak for his honest assessment: "You are diplomatic, Mr. Luczak. What you mean to say is that you find Calcutta appalling. It has already offended your sensibilities, yes?" (Simmons, 1985, p. 130). Chatterjee then comments to Luczak's Indian wife, Amrita, that that "the American psyche is as predictable as sterile as vulnerable as the American digestive system when it encounters India." He says that when Americans encounter Calcutta, they "react in either one of two ways: they will find Calcutta 'exotic' and concentrate only on the tourist pleasures; or they will be immediately horrified, recoil, and seek to forget what they have seen and not understood" (p. 131).

Lapierre's Father Kovalski subjects his health and digestive system to the challenges of poverty in order to more fully empathize with the hardships of the Other. "How could I share faithfully the living conditions of my brothers in the City of Joy without knowing their most fundamental anguish, the anguish that conditioned every instant of their lives: hunger - Hunger with a capital 'H' - the hunger that for generations had gnawed away at millions of people in this country, to the point where the real gulf between the rich and the poor existed at the level of the stomach" (Lapierre, 1985, p. 117). Kovalski then hires a woman from a neighboring Muslim family to prepare meals for him identical to those the other slum-dwellers regularly consume. After three days on this diet, the priest suffered violent stomach cramps, dizziness, and icy sweats. After a period of adjustment, his body seemed to adapt to the austere local diet and his health returned, only to suffer a relapse after breaking his diet and eating some European delicacies offered to him by a French visitor.

The result was disastrous. It awakened the Pole's appetite in a way that was completely uncontrollable. The nausea, cramps, and attacks of sweating and dizziness reappeared with an increased vigor. Kovalski felt himself becoming weaker daily. His muscles wasted visibly. His arms, thighs, legs, and pectorals were as if emptied of all substance. He lost several pounds more. The slightest task, even going to fill his bucket at the fountain, took immeasurable effort. He had difficulty staying upright for half an hour. He suffered from hallucinations. Nightmares haunted his sleep. He even began to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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