At one point in the film version of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, Will Smith delivers a spell-binding soliloquy in which he connects an amazing range of dots, squeezing a universe of ideas and using clever bon mots, impressing an audience of adults who should have known more but don’t. Smith begins—and ends—his riff on imagination and paralysis with J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. He also reminds us that John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, said they were influenced by The Catcher in the Rye.
The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, uncannily personified the ennui and loneliness of a teenager who felt nobody understood him, and who thought that the world around him was an artificial construct—or phoney, his favourite term. The world was full of goddamned phoneys. Caulfield wanted to withdraw.
Like Albert Camus’ The Stranger—once translated as The Outsider—Salinger’s brilliant novel is often cited, and singularly blamed, for making people do things they apparently wouldn’t have done otherwise: the ultimate withdrawal of troubled individuals who cannot, or do not wish to belong; who fail to adjust to a “conventional” life.
This idea, of removing one’s self from “being” to “nothingness”—to cite Jean-Paul Sartre’s terms—is not exclusively Western. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951; 11 years later, a town planner in Calcutta called Sudhindra Sircar used the name Badal Sircar and wrote a landmark play— Evam Indrajit (And Indrajit)—which captured the loneliness of post-Independence urban youth with dismaying accuracy.
There is no outward similarity between Holden and Indrajit. Holden is a clever teenager. His self-assured attitude conceals his insecurity, and his laconic tone is funny and poignant. Holden is from a privileged family, and he finds the meaninglessness and hypocrisies surrounding him depressing.
Indrajit is older: He is about to graduate when the play begins. He is from an educated, middle-class (bhadralok) family, studying at a good college, and expected to enter a profession his family would be proud of. The humdrum dreams of his classmates irritate him. Their conversations are about “cricket, films, physics, politics, literature”; their names are identical—Amal, Bimal and Kamal.
Indrajit is different. He loves the intelligent, beautiful Manasi. But she is his cousin, and conventions prevent them from getting any closer. Indrajit can’t stand the rules that tie him, the traditions that bind him. “Is there a rule that one has to abide rules? One can hate rules. Why should they be there at all?” he asks. Manasi says rules matter: “Men can do what they want; women must be obedient.”
As time passes, Indrajit’s ambitions get narrowed; he marries another woman, but calls her Manasi. Towards the end of the play, he calls himself Nirmal. He goes to London—the Mecca for midnight’s children—but the city fails to excite him. He contemplates suicide, saying that past and present are two ends of a single rope. The real Manasi returns, talks him out of it. “I don’t dream anymore,” he says. “Didn’t you ever have one?” Manasi asks. “I was myself then,” he says.
What lies ahead of him is the Sisyphean task of rolling a huge rock up a towering hill, and keep on doing it, even when the rock keeps rolling back.
That’s the fate Holden wants to avoid. Many who read Salinger in their teens identified with Holden’s angst. A few acted out their morbid, alternative reality, harming themselves or others. But Salinger spoke to many more, and The Catcher in the Rye became a haunting portrayal of growing up. As Stephen Metcalf wrote in Slate on Salinger’s death last week: “Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of ‘Holden Caulfield’.”
Holden and Indrajit could have only existed as they were imagined—in a novel or a play. In his introduction to the English translation of Evam Indrajit, Satyadev Dubey wrote: “When Indrajit unwittingly emerges almost a decade later, as a character in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (Siddhartha and the City) then in spite of his real ‘feel’ in cinema, one finds that his wings have been clipped. An Indrajit so totally circumscribed by the realism of cinema never achieves the evocative richness of his original theatrical framework.”
Nearly a quarter century ago, on the balcony of his apartment, I had asked Sunil Gangopadhyaya, the author of Pratidwandi: If we meet Siddhartha today, what would he do?
Gangopadhyaya thought for a while. Then he smiled ironically, and said he would be a boxwallah, or an executive at Citibank. And he would be driving a Maruti, not an Ambassador.
Holden would have considered all of us phoneys.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com