A Balanced Conflict: Reading Sexuality and Ideology in
Sushil Gupta’s The Fourth Monkey
Michael Foucault’s seminal work published in 1976 traces the emergence and development of sexuality – the act itself and its perception in society. In the seventeenth century he notes, with the emergence of the Bourgeoisie, sex was repressed (3). The view that it was an act meant solely to procreate and not for individual pleasure (since indulging in pleasure would be a sin according to the Bible) took the form of rather a tyrannical order. It all went down under an Orwellian surveillance.
In the first part of his book, Foucault talks about the emergence of the Victorian bourgeoisie which ordered for sexuality to be confined within the four walls. A false sense of idealism developed and paired with the rising market forces, it started to solidify. Such great emphasis was laid on the idea that it started to create a moral sentiment in the public. Sex was now an act which was to be performed only and only to procreate.
Attempting to build a context from the French philosopher’s work is a deliberate choice here; the Victorian society that Foucault views with a critical lens seems to be fitting for the kind of society we exist in – that of 21st century India, where sex is still a hushed issue despite the fact that its fruits (quite literally) are very much palpable. The “hypocrisy” that Foucault intends to deal with in his work, is something that the Indian society has – for generations – practiced. It has penetrated into our psyche to such an extent that we have barely questioned it; it is now through engaging in a discourse that one starts to find resolve.
Sushil Gupta’s novel, ‘The Fourth Monkey’, is a direct confrontation of this society since it provides a space for that discourse. It tells the story of Madan Swaroop, who teaches English at a Delhi University college. A major portion of the book deals with the rollercoaster of his married life. Shalini, his wife, is a charismatic personality, unlike him. Her entrance lights up the room. Her husband’s on the other hand, is very likely to go unnoticed. After about 25 years of marriage, Madan is offered the opportunity to teach in a college in Bhutan, where his married bachelor life begins. The presence of youth enlivens his spirit. Added to it is the attraction that two of his students, Tashi and Tshering (Sherry), harbour towards him. They smother him with occasional kisses and visits to his house. Another roller-coaster ride ensues.
The duo of Madan and Shalini wade through a number of differences in their way, which are also diluted by the conventions of a married life. Nevertheless, they love each other and are content with each other. The only hassle in this urban Eden is that Shalini had an affair, which continues even after marriage. The twist in the tale is that her beloved is a metaphysical entity, a God - Krishna himself. And in order to maintain a balance between what she calls, her husband on earth and Krishna, Shalini comes up with a regimented sex routine: two nights per week only.
Shalini represents the Victorian bourgeoisie mentality in the novel. What Gupta, a friend of Madan’s in Bhutan, notes about Tashi’s act of changing clothes in front of the teachers fits the mould Shalini belongs to. He says: “You are imposing bourgeois values of a bygone era onto a culture which is fresh, open and clean.” (Gupta 169). Shalini’s limited exposure to the world and her one-track minded devotion to her God seem to obstruct her vision. In some other instances, it creates a comedic effect, but in others, it leads one to truly question the ideology of the system.
Though Madan has his reservations and doubts, he is informed of his wife’s indulgence with the God after some time of marriage. His atheistic self fails to comprehend the affair but it does not persuade him from asking his wife to abandon her beliefs. He assumes the position of a spectator and takes a back seat as Shalini’s engagements pan out. He does try to bend the rules about the limited two-nights-a-week sex policy, but she barely nudges. For her, this hedonistic idea of self-gratification stands in the way of man’s path towards spirituality, which should be the ultimate aim of one’s life according to her. She condemns indulgence of any kind. And interestingly enough, she gets her way.
The title of the book in this regard, becomes pivotal. A clear allusion to Gandhi’s three monkeys which represent the basic senses in humans – eyes, mouth, ears – each standing for the moral jargon “bura matt dekho” (do not see evil), “bura matt bolo” (do not speak evil), and “bura matt suno” (do not listen to evil) respectively, it asks, who is this fourth monkey? What could he possibly represent? What part of the body is left for this fourth monkey’s hands to cover?
As the novel unravels through the development in its protagonist’s life, the question is not only answered, but it also confronts the false sense of morality that has been solidified in the Indian system due to its unshakeable presentiment. The fourth monkey, as the reader would come to understand, has its genitals covered. Gandhi must not have been unaware of this monkey’s importance; history has shown how un-saintly his demeanour was but unfortunately, this monkey had to be abandoned at the time. Portraying it then, and to a very great extent even now, would have been preposterous. The holy trinity ought to remain holy.
In that respect, writing a fourth monkey into an almost century old narrative is a rather brave act. In theoretical terms, it is what Julia Kristeva terms as an “intertext” which essentially refers to the interaction of various texts in one particular text (Kristeva). A text is then not an autonomous entity but rather, a conglomeration of texts (these may be books, artworks, events, etc.); it emerges essentially out of these other texts. Gupta’s “The Fourth Monkey” is a significant example in this regard. Movies for example, are an important part of Madan’s life. Through the club, he is exposed to the cinema of the world – worlds which are in stark opposition to his reality. The difference that lies between what he sees and what he lives is a key element in the novel, for it relies on the production of a balanced space between the opposing ends – Madan and Shalini. It becomes an imminent question of ideology.
Further, this space of the novel is termed by Kristeva as “ambivalent” for it “implies the insertion of history (society) into a text and of this text into history” (39) which is one and the same for the writer, as she notes. The title of the novel as well as the various attempts made in creating a dialogue between other forms and works of art amplify this definition. And it is within this ambivalent space where the author-narrator dynamics in the novel also becomes pertinent. The narrator is the author’s tool to achieve that ambivalence which he does by bringing in a variety of texts in one grand narrative. Through the interaction as well as intersection of these texts (artworks, books, philosophies, etc.) the novel alleviates the issue at hand. Thus, lending it the gravitas which allures one more to Madan’s tale. Moreover, it leads to the creation of discourse, the importance of which lies in its appeal brought in by the interaction of texts in the narrative of an ordinary man; the socio-political issues are tackled by this discourse.
To elucidate, in his life in Bhutan, comprising the third part of the novel, Madan comes across two young women from the college in which he teaches who show a romantic interest towards him. Unabashedly, he entertains them. Yet, only up to an extent. In one of his initial classes, he talks of angels being sexless creatures and the same day, Sherry addresses him as one. The comedy involved here in fact, pinches at the reality of things which as far as the novel delves into, only Gupta is able to understand the dynamics of. He states his thoughts very frankly on the subject of restrained sex in their marriage. There are instances in the novel where Madan seems to laugh at his own comical fate and there are also places where he feels frustrated and is shown to be in despair.
Another important perspective emerges at the beginning of the book, from its cover. It features the Italian Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ in which the zephyrs are seen to blow wind on one hand on the other a woman with a cape-like cloth appears to cover Venus’s body. The zephyrs are in clear contrast to the woman; they are also spectators unlike the woman who tries to cover the subject of their interest. This image of Venus is invoked in the novel when Madan is gifted a bonus night of love-making on occasion of his birthday and Shalini walks to him undressed. He writes: “The Hellenic vision of Botticelli came alive in my bedroom.” (57).
The image of a fourth monkey with the goddess of love and sex incites humour and wonder. It is our main character’s very own position. Despite the proximity, sex becomes inaccessible to him. By the end of the novel in fact, his picture is displayed beside the trio of monkeys by his daughter-in-law, Tashi. Thus, finally manifesting Madan’s position in a physical form.
Since novel text alludes to Greek mythologies, it would be worth to note here that the most important characteristic of classical Greek texts is deus ex machina. It refers to when Gods themselves come down from heaven to resolve the issue of mortals. This interference of the Gods in human affairs was a tool used by epic writers (Homer would be the best example) as well as playwrights (Sophocles, for example). It would be fitting to say here that Gods were as biased as humans; one simply had to rely on likeability. To take an instance, Paris reaped the fruit of calling Aphrodite the fairest of three goddesses his entire life and suffered from Hera’s hatred in turn.
In Madan’s life, this interference is caused by a God known for his wooing skills, the blue-skinned Krishna. And it begins precisely right after marriage, almost ominous of what unfolds at the end, “I sat by one window and Shelly by the other, with an eighteen-inch idol of flute-playing Krishna lodged between us.” (27).
In his comedy titled ‘Lysistrata’, written during the time when Athens was at war with Sparta, Aristophanes inverts the power dynamics and imagines his women characters as change-makers. This change is brought by the women’s decision to refrain from any sexual activity and reject their husbands’ advances. To indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, men must abandon war. Though it may be said that it limits the role of women to objectified entities with nothing but sex as their weapon, it would be a better interpretation to think of it as capitalising on the male weakness. Sex becomes a tool for Aristophanes by which the women are able to assert their position (as opposed to always complying with and submitting to their husband’s needs, as patriarchy would ask of them) as well as resolve conflict.
Though no such grand war is to be fought by Madan, Shelly’s regiment makes one think of her as Lysistrata – with respect to dominance and controlling abilities. At the end, when Shelly decides to give up her marital status and devote her life in service of her Krishna, it is to be asked if the plot was always leading up to this – symbolic of a kind of asexuality for Madan. The ‘angel’ reference becomes important here since the issue finally reaches its climax and Madan is left to fend for himself. His admittance of his passivity in this respect fits the mould perfectly: “Women have always had their way with me.” (271).
Interestingly, the author doesn’t seem to make any effort in suggesting or depicting Madan as any hero or rebel. He is not shown to be any different from other men – it is ultimately desperation that drives them. Athenian men too gave in when women held their reins. The success of the text perhaps lies in the realism of Madan’s depiction, as a student observes: “Sir, you are the first teacher I have met who does not hide his mediocrity”. (150).
Gupta, Sushil. The Fourth Monkey. Indialog Publications, 2006.
Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Columbia University Press, 1986.
Akshada Shrotriya is pursuing her Master's in English from Delhi University.