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Mulling over Miller: The common man’s crucible

Sudeep Ghosh

I have the salt of tears in the roots of my eyelashes.
They taunt me for being homeless in a storm.
-Mirza Ghalib 

To (re)think Arthur Miller, the common man bearing the brunt of being ‘common’, clamours for a conscious and patient hearing. To understand the contemporary affairs of Indian democracy, Miller’s critique of and commitment to moral and social malaise calls for mindful deliberation. To read Miller is to precipitate an inquiry into a self-destructive system of reprehensible repression, reconcile aspirations of successes and assaults on the rights of the common man, and reveal the fractured sense of belonging of the common man, marginalised and mauled by the domineering man trumpeting around unabashedly the dominant political ideology and the inflated ego of the powers that be. To re-read Miller in the post-CAA scenario in India is to recognise the ‘faceless’ retreat into the futility of existence; to re-read Miller is to set right the pendulum of human conscience which has swung too far to the other end of phoney capitalism; to re-read Miller is to retrieve the echoes of the Millerian ‘common man’ making bold strides and edging closer to eternity in the mindscape of Indian writers and beyond. 

Can the common man be redeemed? YES! Miller had this in mind when he wrote his classic essay ‘The Tragedy of the Common Man’. But where is the common man these days? What is the common man doing? What is the common man reduced to? What is in store for the common man struggling to make ends meet in a politically-coloured world, the world that speaks the language of profit/vote-bank with impunity, the world which pulls the rug from under the feet of the common man? How is the common man buffeted by the whims and fancies of the politics of identity? What is the common man searching for, searching ad nauseam? How is the common man caught in a perpetual spiral of desire and disillusionment? How is the common man crushed between illusions and doubts?  How is the common man negotiating the strait that lies between hope and despair? To read Miller is to stem the tide of majoritarianism and its intense lobbying against the ‘common man’. What induces the tragedy of the common man? What elevates the marginal status of the common man? What accounts for the common man’s incredible centripetal pull? 

A parallel can be drawn between Aasa Khosa in eminent Indian poet CP Surendran’s poem Aasa Khosa and Willy Loman in American playwright Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Where do they meet as kindred spirits? Are they only doomed to despair? Do they, by virtue of their singularity and their tragic grandeur, transform into a universal symbol?  Why is Aasa Khosa forced to leave his house in Kashmir, seen walking on the shores of Mumbai’s Marine Drive in sleeping clothes and eyes gazing unblinkingly at the sea? Does it not strike a chord? Are we not jolted out of stupor when the poet C P Surendran captures the inner speech of trauma laconically following the ‘house lost: It exploded.’ He further writes: There was a garden too, / That hissed down like a match in water. /Just flared and was gone in the war.’ Aasa Khosa, the persona, loses his wife and two sons to mindless violence in Kashmir. When asked what his watery gaze peers into the sea, Aasa Khosa confesses with a twinge of disbelief: remembering everything/ Behind his eyes, it’s hard to believe/ Your life’s your own.’ Bereft of a house, a symbol of personal memory and cultural memory, Aasa Khosa is a drifter armed with naïve realism to fight off the ignominy of being an ‘outsider’. The house metaphor recalls Agha Shahid Ali’s poignant lines in ‘The Country Without a Post Office’: Now every night we bury / our houses – and theirs, the ones left empty.’ However, the poet is unerringly optimistic: Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps / in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps / to read messages scratched on planets

Aurodeep Ray, Floating by the Evening Light

Against the backdrop of forced displacement, the common man’s wishful thinking, courtesy the Hindi writer-poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, translated by the eminent English poet Arvind Kumar Mehrotra in ‘This Year Too in the Plains’ is audible, albeit feebly: All places should be displaced/ And brought near all other places/ So that every place is near every other place /And not a single person is displaced.’ When the common man is ravaged by the monstrous capitalism invading the indigenous space, the anguish of the common man, drawing upon the soil for sustenance, recalls the Oriya poet Brajnath Rai : But, today, suddenly,/ covetous eyes of a power-mad hunter/has fallen on your green body/ To cut it to pieces,/ to drink to heart’s content/ fresh red blood./A damned hunter/has indiscreetly taken aim/ at your heart/ To launch a fiery missile.’ 

The common man unravels the oppositional discourses where the vulnerability of the common man is appropriated. Sudama Pandey Dhoomil’s poetic judgement and caustic offering, where the common man is bedeviled by lopsided interpretation, reek of makeshift identity in an exploitative system of democracy. Playing second fiddle to Orwellian demagoguery of sly opportunism, the poet unveils with a snarky cynicism: lo, yeh tumhara chehra/ yeh julus ke peeche gir pada tha.( Take this, your face/ It was left behind the procession). Besides this inner conversation to restore sanity comes the common man unstoppable as a seasoned conjurer, the common man sings the unsung glory that reverberates in the corridors of time. No poet other than Gulzar Saab can capture this pulse in his lyric in Slumdog Millionaire: ‘Come, O beloved / come step with me under this canopy / this azure canopy of a sky / filigreed with the light of the stars’ (translated by Sunjoy Shekhar).

The common man springs from the tradition of the troubadour wandering amid the ravages of time. The common man’s tour is a tale of the detritus of memory. The common man is a breed apart, wearing his Kabir’s folksy philosophy of fakiri on his sleeve. The common man’s touchstone is the undying spirit of journey. The common man walks the road oft-travelled; from where to where? With the progressive narrowing of the road, the common man hits the no man’s land. However, his journey to nowhere raises pertinent questions to stir up our consciousness. This sense of nowhere is a romantic doggedness the common man unleashes with a panache. One cannot help but recall the Bangla poet Sakti Chattopadhyay spinning a tender sensibility of attachment in his iconic poem ‘Jete Pari Kintu Keno Jabo’ (I can, but why should I go), translated by the illustrious Indian poet Jayanta Mahapatra. The common man gives not a damn for the final exit. In the poem, the common man’s rebellious romanticism is caught between The moon calls out: Come! and The wood of the pyre calls: Come!’ How does the common man respond? The common man clinches the deal with a redeeming sense of love, I can go / I can go any way I want to/ But why should I? / I shall plant a kiss on my child’s face. This love binds the humanity as the boundaries of personal narrative become boundless. For those hapless souls, forced to flee their homes in Kashmir, the moon in the present poem will be bloody and gory. Remember Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots

The common man is brought up on a diet of agonising exclusion. Yet the common man is rich enough as a foreteller of future and as a figment of poet’s imagination. Poets find the common man integral, not incidental or accidental.  It is ironic that the common man in democratic India can’t sing/recite Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm Hum Dekhenge. The dissent of the common man is considered seditious, he is to be booed and treated like a doormat till a searing sense of guilt tears the common man apart. However, the Miya poets of Assam stand undaunted as they challenge the legitimacy of citizenship, the hidden agenda of territorialisation wedded to power-mongering, the evils of cultural biases that break bonds and build walls! Further, no democratic soul can deny the legitimacy of the subversive voice of Aamir Aziz who gives nationalism a pluralistic configuration as his poetic zeal flares up: Aasman pe inquilab likha jayega.’ The protest by the common man is a metaphoric representation besides a cultural specificity against the essentialist way of interpreting cultural identity. 

Dear readers, lest you think I am going to write an elegy for the ‘common man’, here comes the prophetic lines of St.Paul in one of his Epistles: Thus passes away the glory of the world.’ What does it mean? It means that everything, no matter how valuable, will pass away; what remains or will remain is the longing or desire for search. The common man’s anchor is search, the common man ceases to exist if the search fades away into oblivion. This search is, to quote Paulo Coelho, the impulse for the meaning of life! Aasa Khosa can redeem himself, so can Willy Loman. The common man is the flowing river. This metaphor is pronounced in Hoshang Merchant’s ‘Partitions of Memory’: Our bodies/ This little box, this little chest of secrets/ O set it afloat on the floating water/ Do let it go’; it assumes a prophetic tone: All rivers end / You have died many time before and rebirthed’. I wonder if both Aasa Khosa and Willy Loman are in search of an alternative way to sustain the consciousness of humanity. Their banalities breed a bizarre sense of imaginative indulgence besides their relationship with life’s mystery. Let me quote from Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘In Emptiness’: Broken by excesses or by / Lack of them, let me always feel / The presence of the golden mean…’. I would call it the common man’s emancipatory manifesto to humanise the world. No wonder, the common man, embodying personal democracy, is more than just common! The common man exudes the intriguing beauty of, to quote Joy Goswami’s eloquent phrase for the poetry of Sakti Chattopadhyay, the ever-wondrous search’. Miller’s Willy, who is haunted by the elusive flute, is as common as the clerk Haripada in Tagore’s ‘Bansi’. However, like Willy Loman, what elevates the humble Haripada is the magic of Sindhu-Baroya raag that endows him not only with the ‘eternal pangs of separation’ but also lifts ‘the sad music of a flute/ Towards one heaven.’ 

This unending, dogged search for meaning and existence is the common man’s gallant, the redeeming spirit that can blow away the chilling whiff of fatalism or defeatism.  The common man seems to have the intimate knowledge of what it means to ‘search’ in the face of relentless oppression. This knowing of the value of search redeems the common man who is otherwise reduced to a ‘faceless’ non-entity as the whole world seems to conspire against the common man. Miller’s common man is organically close to the Indian sensibilities. Indian adapters of Miller have always been drawn to the common man. The notable productions include by Ashim Chakraborty’s ‘Janaiker Mrityu’, Rudra Prasad Sengupta’s  ‘Feriwalar Mrityu’ , Rama Prasad ‘Aagsudhi’, Anjan Dutta’s ‘Salesman er Songsar in Bangla, Feroz Khan’s ‘Salesman Ramlal’ in Hindi, Alyque Padamsee’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ in English and Bhanu Bharati’s ‘Ek Salesman ki Maut’ in Hindi. 

The common man, the victim of facelessness, is still searching…May the tribe of the common man grow! The common man flits across the celebrated Indian artist Raza’s Bindu, the majestic geometric space and touches eternity in search for meaning! Isn’t it the common man’s claim to immortality?

Sudeep Ghosh teaches at The Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad.

Aurodeep Ray is a student of Azim Premji University, Bangalore.