‘Dastak’ (Rajinder Singh Bedi, 1970) makes me think of my parents, as they must have been when they were newly married.
When ‘Dastak’ came out, my parents had been married for a decade, and I was 5 years old, but the world that ‘Dastak’ is set in and that my parents inhabited had not changed much in that time, the area around Bombay Central Station, the lanes and bylanes of Agripada and Byculla, the chawls and ‘manzils’ of the area, with small houses and large families. Hamid Manzil. Jasdanwala Building. Raja Building. Everready House.
When Dhanno was doing her architectural thesis on the Salvation Army in Byculla, I walked with her, round and round the streets of my childhood, trying hard to convey to her what it was like then, the mix of communities and classes, my conservative Bohra aunt who lived next door to Anglo-Indian dancers in Hindi films, our Gujarati neighbors whose son and I once had a head-bang and his nose bled because my head was hard as a coconut, my Maharashtrian classmate whose father and brothers worked in a factory and lived in a family of 11 in a small 100 square feet room, my pretty Jewish classmate whose house in a posh building I never saw, my Anglo-Indian best friend whose family owned a building and lived on the top floor with a terrace in noisy gaiety, my grandfather’s house, ‘the big house’, replete with elaborate meals and constant comings and goings.
To my parents, this collision of different worlds was not a threat. As it was not to me, because I spent my early childhood here. But Dhanno who came from the outside, who had never lived here, was often overwhelmed by the noise, the crowd, the overflowing filth. As for the couple in ‘Dastak’, who are outsiders to Bombay, the proximity of so many people, crowding into their lives and their private space feels like a threat.
When my parents married, they lived in the joint family for a couple of years. In the day, the women cooked huge amounts of food for the large family. At night, the older brother and his wife had a private room in the ‘big house’. The younger brothers and their wives rented rooms in the area where they could spend the night.
I try to imagine the beginnings of my mother’s marital life in these rented rooms, what they must have been like. Not different from the several homes and rooms I saw in my own early childhood. Not different from the room rented by the couple in ‘Dastak’. However, my mother conceived me only when they left the joint family and the crowded locality and spent a couple of years in Santacruz, in presumably more privacy and peace.
My mother was the only child of a rich father, had studied at a boarding school in Panchgani for 5 years. She had suddenly been pulled out of school when her father fell ill and wanted her to be married as soon as possible. My father had many sisters and brothers, most of them loud and quarrelsome, left to fend for themselves by their mother’s early death. My mother spent the first two years of her married life wanting to be divorced, wanting to be free. But she stayed on, because my father was kind and loving, and her father had already died by then.
Like the young couple in ‘Dastak’ my parents too escaped the weight of the hot and sultry air of an overcrowded home in the cold breezes and open spaces of Marine Drive and Chowpatty.
Unlike the reel couple though, thankfully, their evenings didn’t end with police or thugs, or falling into manholes.
The other escape was within the kitschy art deco theaters that abounded in the area, through the songs and dances of Hindi films, the glamorous heroines, strong heroes and the valleys of Kashmir.
As I grew up, I learned to escape my horde of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, through books. A small corner within the crowd is all I needed to run off into glens and fields, islands and caves, secret cupboards and large summerhouses, castles and lighthouses. The cool stone corridors and freshly painted walls of my convent school, with its large courtyards and its old trees showering golden yellow ‘ducks’ for us to crunch on, must also have been a haven for all of us in the area. The distance between our tiny homes and the school was short, but the worlds were completely different.
Child as I was, I felt at the time, the striving of almost each soul around me, pushing their way out, pushing their way up, working, working, working, and never quite managing to break through that thin querulous line between respectable poverty and comfortable prosperity. The man in ‘Dastak’ too tries so hard, to retain his job, to get a loan, to avoid taking a bribe, to retain his honesty and dignity, to somehow make a better life for his family, to give his wife a better home, but the city never relents. Back in the village, his father-in-law too is defeated by his lack of money; his younger daughter with her natural desires cannot wait any more for her father to find her a groom. She runs away, and her older sister, trapped, trapped in the city, trapped like her pet bird, almost gives up on the notion of respectability.
Also, there were other repressions I was too young to understand at the time. There was Janaki, the girl who babysat for us occasionally, and whom I loved so much, her bare brown legs in cotton frocks flying down the backstairs, presumably to a meaner house than our own, Janaki had a reputation that I heard of, but could not dissect. There was my grandmother’s neighbor, Asma who came back from her job at the bank everyday and flung away her salwar, and stood by the window baring her pale white legs with coarse black hair on them, even though her mother screamed and her sisters taunted. Her sister Tara, finicky and fair, had left her husband, and now washed her hands again and again and again, through the day. What could I know of these longings that seeped through the crevices of the narrow walls, bookish child that I was?
There is a moment then, in the film, a brief moment where the woman removes her clothes and lies alone, naked in her small room, and in her dream, she runs and runs, across beaches, and bridges and fields. This longing to be only a girl, a woman, herself, not burdened by the lewd looks of her neighbors, or the suspicious ones of her husband, or by the heavy weight of respectability flings aside her ‘purdah’ only to be brought back to reality within a few moments by a rat.
It is this burden of respectability that is the real trap. The husband in his mean assumption that his wife is his property and even a breath of air will pollute her, is unable to empathize with her suffocation, only increasing it more, silencing her, forbidding her to sing, because he does not even want her voice to be heard by anyone else, because her singing voice will give proof to the rumours that she is a ‘singing-dancing woman’ like the tenant before her.
The man however gets to be loved by his Anglo-Indian colleague, and share a minor flirtation with her, and to be teased by his wife’s younger sister, without any breath of suspicion on him.
The film retains the claustrophobia of the environment, remaining largely indoors, within the room of the couple. The brief forays into the city and the village serve as fresh air. The husband’s office too becomes an additional pressure on the couple, in its ruthless expectation for him to fall in line, to give in to corruption.
Not much else is needed in ‘Dastak’ except this woman’s craving to be alone in her house, a lot is superfluous, the caricaturish ‘madam’, the loud clients, the husband even, and the end, the end where her sexuality becomes acceptable only because she is pregnant, she will now be a mother, and presumably, this saga of being lusted for will end. I personally find this end almost negating the woman’s longing for freedom; her becoming a mother makes her acceptable in her husband’s eyes again, pained as he is by her sexuality which eggs on invasion by unwanted eyes, which breaks through all the ‘purdah’ that he wishes to impose on her.