by Madhu Kaza
“That girl won't leave any fruit on the trees,” a woman complains looking down from the roof of her home. In the orchard below the girl runs and –once she is in the clear — skips home hiding a guava in her dress. She stashes the fruit under a bunch of bananas in a covered bowl on the veranda. Then she pours some water into a dish that she carries across the yard and places next to a large earthen vessel from which she plucks three white kittens. The opening scene of Satyajit Ray's film Pather Panchali is one of stealing and feeding, mischief and care.
An old woman squats over a bowl of rice on the floor of the veranda. Small clumps of the rice which she mixes and squeezes into balls have fallen on the floor. She eats with her right hand, her wrinkled left hand pressed to the floor for support. Her emaciated face is toothless and her profile dramatic –a hooked nose, sunken cheeks and a sharp, jutting chin. We know she is frail, but hunched over in her white widow's sari, the severity of her features makes her look at times, at medium distance, not unlike a vulture. She eats with absorption and licks her fingers when she is done. The girl, Durga, sits behind the old woman watching her eat. When the old woman turns around and sees Durga she says, “I forgot to save some for you.” She uncovers the fruit bowl and reaches for a banana, discovering the guava that the girl has left for her. She examines the guava closely, beaming with delight.
A French filmmaker once walked out during a screening of Pather Panchali at Cannes and proclaimed, “I don't want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.”
Auntie (as the old woman is called – I imagine she's something like a grand aunt to the young girl) and Durga are both missing teeth – Auntie's are gone forever, claimed by old age, but the gap in Durga's mouth will soon be filled in again. They are alike in other ways, too. They are petty thieves – Durga filches guavas and sitaphals from the neighbor's orchard; Auntie pinches red chilies from Durga's mother's kitchen. Neither display any guilt; they lie when necessary to protect themselves and relish their spoils. Though they live in poverty, they are unapologetic in their desire for little pleasures. When Durga hears the calls of Chinibas, the sweet seller, she goes out to watch him as he walks by, but she has no money to buy anything. So she follows him with a touching obedience and devotion, hands clasped behind her back, to the house of wealthier neighbors where surely she will be fed by her friends. When Auntie is reprimanded by Durga's mother, Sarbajaya, for stealing or for asking for a new shawl to replace her tattered one, she asks, “Can't an old woman have whims and fancies?”
Sarbajaya's answer is essentially, no. In her view a poor old woman, a woman dependant on her equally poor extended family, cannot afford to allow herself whims and desires. Of the women in the film – and this is a film centered around women—Sarbajaya is the character most familiar from cinematic, literary and cultural traditions. She is the figure from melodrama, the heroic mother, long suffering, ever sacrificing to hold her family together. In one fleeting moment in the film she recalls, “I once had dreams, too. Things I wanted to do.” But the moment quickly passes (and those dreams are never named). She must expend all her energy on survival, and in particular on keeping her children fed. She frets as she feeds her young son, Apu, about whether he's likely to grow on his subsistence diet, asking herself if he was even meant to survive. Later we see Sarbajaya eating, too. She is alone, wearing a look of resignation and worry on her face.
Auntie and Durga are not without their own troubles. Auntie's position within the family is precarious, and after arguments with Sarbajaya she is either told to leave or leaves of her own volition because she has been insulted and treated as a burden. She finds temporary refuge in another household, but really she has no place to go. She is an old woman waiting to die. Durga yearns to enjoy sweets, toys and games like the other children in the area. But she also recognizes, to her great sorrow, that without money it's unlikely that she'll find a husband. She tells her engaged friend, “It won't happen for me. I just know it.” At her friend's wedding she is near tears.
It is not because of or despite their poverty but from within their difficulty, their yearning, their want that the old woman and the young girl find keen measures of joy. They seek their own pleasures and they tend to the pleasure and care of the other. Durga brings Auntie fruits and leads her back to the house after she's been expelled. Auntie tells the children stories and sings for them. When Durga is punished and her toy box smashed Auntie tries to defend her and picks up the pieces. Freedom, here, involves an expression of love, of appetite from within very real, very constricting binds. Not being a sour Frenchman, I would want to watch Auntie and Durga eat all day.