Of human bondage

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

THE time is late 17th century when slaves were mostly from Africa but ownership belonged not exclusively to the whites. You could be an Englishman, a pagan, a Christian or an African and still be a slave. In this society, where all trade depended on slave ownership, there are rootless, alienated inhabitants who respond to the landscape and struggle against it without realising that nature operates in ways human reasoning cannot fathom. Omens, accidents and elemental myster ies control their fate. Perspectives change according to ones relationship with the land and its overwhelming potential to control and impact ones life.

Each character puts across his/her individual story through his/her own experiences, which come together to project a realistic account of American history, with all the upheavals and teething troubles that a new-found nation experiences. The pain of its birth stretches through its long history, seemingly without end.

Toni Morrisons ninth novel, A Mercy, appears at a juncture when a black man sits in the White House. Gradually, the world digests the reality of this unimaginable victory. It is the birth of a new era, probably the most historic moment since the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. Behind the victory lies centuries of servitude and throbbing pain as well as creative efforts that went into building resistance through various art forms. It is historic because a black man will now occupy the White House in a country weighed down with a dark racial history. It is historic because after centuries of slavery and injustice, African Americans stand redeemed.

The Republicans are overwhelmed and the Democrats are in a state of jubilation at the new afterword to the long history of slavery and racism. This outcome became possible because there were mothers in America who, like Sethe in Toni Morrisons Beloved, dared to kill their children to spare them a lifetime of slavery.

The new generation in the post-Cold War era in America has spoken. It is urban, intellectual and young, both white and black, reminding us of the 1960s when revolutionaries believed they were on the verge of a new society, especially those who were college-going then. My mind often returns to the 1960s and its message of civil rights and the counterculture opposing the Vietnam War. The decade witnessed young people joining the Civil Rights Movement and burning their draft orders to show their resentment against relentless violence. Our times are similar when the young stand outraged by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and are conscious of their racist history, which they would sacrifice anything to erase. Toni Morrisons main aim in her novel is to examine the origins of this history of discrimination and human bondage.

Though New Right campaigns have consistently castigated and disparaged the progressive movements of our times, many young people in America have kept the spirit of the 1960s alive. Over half a century has gone by and still the 1960s remain as heady as ever. That the youth came out in all their numbers and strength to back Obama indicates their eagerness to confront contemporary politics and interrogate their social and historical situation. They have indeed come out of the apathy of their generation to a realisation that it is time to set themselves behind the struggle for social justice and freedom of inquiry.

This is at the heart of any anti-racist struggle and is the principal concern of A Mercy, which too interrogates a society where masculine discourse predominates, and questions of justice and liberty underpin a world view where it seems that all hope stands deferred and answers to ones fate are more controlled by circumstances and spirits than by any human agency. Whereas the Africans in the book find answers in a world of signs and omens, the quest of the Christians turns them towards their church for spiritual and moral interpretations: Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha me standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain.

Underlying this struggle to find meaning lies a deep feminist concern: that women never shape the world, the world shapes us. They are at the mercy of the legal system and their religious affiliations and victims of the social world they inhabit. The characters silently share a deep commitment to democracy, a world embodying the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all. However, events lie beyond their human control. Accident and contingency replace any logical or consequential progression. And their hope for freedom is a subtext that becomes all the more important because it remains unwritten and implicit in their heart-rending struggle for survival.

Toni Morrisons novel spans the life of slave girl Florens, who is exchanged for a debt. Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader, takes Florens into his custody from her mother, who offers Florens to him so that she can stay back with her infant son whom she still breastfeeds.

Other characters like Vaarks wife, Rebekka, and Sorrow, a parentless daughter of a sea captain, along with Florens possess the aspirations to face their fate with deep motivations towards the interrogation of their social and historical situation in a brutally male-dominated world with all its sectarian and religious strife. In their awareness of their alienation and suffering lies the need to at least dream of comfort: Sleeping on the cookhouse floor with them is not as nice as sleeping in the broken sleigh with Lina. In cold weather we put planks around our part of the cowshed and wrap our arms together under pelts.

The story goes to and fro, a structural device that depicts the upheavals of a history gone sour with all its slavery and servitude, with its struggles and pain at a site in history where conditions are deeply contrasted to contemporary times. The colonial order is yet to be born. Science and technology is many decades away. Toni Morrison, a dexterous craftswoman with the skills of a historian, recreates in all its complexities an alien, brutal and savage world of landowners and indentured labour from Europe and Africa.

Various perspectives are offered: Florens, the chief narrator tells her story of being sold and brought to the farm at the age of eight. And when she is 16, she is sent on a mission to find the man of her love who once worked on the farm and has some knowledge of herbal medicine that could be the remedy for Rebekkas attack of smallpox. Lina, a Native American, is the other comrade Florens has on the farm apart from Sorrow. Linas narrative consists of her dim memories of her culture. Rebekkas narrative consists of her journey from England into the wilderness of the unexplored land where she would marry a man she had never met. Vaarks outlook emerges from his acute observation of the workings of varied religions and cultures in the states he often visits on his business tours.

Particular to their routinised life is the presence of sugar, rum or the slave trade around which their lives revolve. There are only two characters who seem to be free, one a Dutch farmer and the other a black tradesman, Florens lover and a rebel by nature, who reacts strongly against a rigid system that does not permit any destabilising of the status quo. However, a troublemaker like him is delineated in the novel as a hazy and fleeting presence, a thematic necessity congruous with the strict control exercised in such a social system.

The story weaves its way around the central motif of the DOrtega Plantation with all its vicissitudes and the palpable presence of the owner, who is for the most part travelling or is believed to be dead. And when he finally dies, his hold on the story gets somewhat fragile. Like Caesar, he seems to be more present in his absence. The women and other workers on his farm are held together while he is alive; after his death the need to be free supersedes any bond that might have formed within the community. Profit and economics bring them together and remains the sine qua non of an existence that craves more for survival and money than for freedom, though that is the unsaid desire.

The real-life characters retain the attention of the story and their incomplete and nebulous impressions leave the narrative imperfect and dependent on the skills of the reader to piece together a more coherent account of the period in history when Virginia was yet to advance to the economic development of the northern States. A cosmography in which the human element seems to be absolutely missing rules the fate of the people, who find hope only in the afterlife. In the words of Florens: We are baptised and can have happiness when this life is done.

The skill with which this philosophical and spiritual examination of the roots of racism in America is written becomes the chief reason for reading a novel that reveals a kind of profound irony behind a woolly structure with incomplete individual responses and tortuous progressions. The form and content cohere into a patchwork, or fragmentation, that is inherent in each characters destiny. This could possibly be the reason for the novels deeply poetic quality and for Toni Morrisons reputed stature as a writer.

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