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Ask Mint | Of dogs and men: the quest for identity

Ask Mint | Of dogs and men: the quest for identity
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First Published: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 54 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 54 PM IST
There is a story told about Isaac Newton and his dog. One day, as Newton walked into his room, he found that his desk had caught fire. In minutes, the unfinished labours of some years were reduced to ashes. The culprit was his dog, Diamond, who had been toying with the candle. Seeing the destruction, Newton said, “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the damage thou hast done.” He was like a doting father tolerating, even condoning, a son’s remissness.
No other pet enjoys such closeness with your family as your dog. How attached people can be to their dogs is seen in a news story from Kerala (“Doggone it”, Hindustan Times, 15 June). Two people were claiming ownership of the same dog, and the police had to settle their dispute. Kaiser was a sand-coloured Labrador, and a woman complained that Peter, a relative who used to live with her family, had kidnapped Kaiser when she was not at home. Peter produced the purchase certificate to stake his claim; the woman countered with bills from the veterinarian. So, perhaps for the first time in India, the paternity of an animal is going to be determined by a DNA test. Rocky, who sired Kaiser, is in a kennel in Kochi and the DNA test will decide whose claim will stand.
There have been more serious and even more puzzling instances of mistaken or indeterminate identity, in literature and in mythology.
Some of the tales of Vikram and Betaal in Indian mythology raise questions of self and identity. In one of the stories, a young man named Dhavala falls in love with Madanasundari, and they get married. After some days, her brother visits them and invites them to his place to attend a festival. On the way, the three of them pass a Kali temple. The brother goes into the temple and stands before the goddess. Then in a sudden fit of religious frenzy he offers his head to the goddess. Madanasundari sends her husband to look for her brother. Seeing his brother-in-law’s body, he decides to cut off his own head with a scimitar. The wife then sees the two dead bodies and decides to kill herself. But the goddess, pleased with her virtue and devotion, asks her to attach the heads to the bodies to restore them to life. She does as she is told, but the heads are transposed! The husband’s head is attached to the brother’s body.
Here arises the question of identity. Which of the two is her husband, the brother’s body with the husband’s head, or the husband’s body with the brother’s head? The question is significant, because it raises the issue of the relative importance of body and mind. Vikram’s verdict is that the head contains the brain that controls the body and is therefore superior. Whoever has Dhavala’s head is the lady’s husband.
The story was taken up by Thomas Mann, the German novelist, and retold with the title, The Transposed Heads. Here, Shridaman is Sita’s husband, and Nanda is his friend. After the heads are transposed, Mann takes the story further, and shows us how the husband’s head influences the friend’s body to which it is attached; the body gets emasculated. On the other side, the husband’s body, carrying Nanda’s head, grows tough and strong. Girish Karnad has adapted Mann’s story in Hayavadana, introducing some new elements. Padmini is married to Devadatta, but is infatuated with Kapila, the friend. She yearns for a “complete man”, possessing her husband’s intellect and Kapila’s physical prowess. There is a bizarre love triangle and a confusion of identities, which inevitably lead to tragedy. The two resurrected men fight for Padmini and get killed.
Generally, we talk about the search for identity and the pursuit of self-knowledge in relation to human characters in fiction. But here is a novel in which we observe an animal pursuing its identity and trying to come to terms with it. In Jack London’s classic, The Call of the Wild, Buck, a shepherd dog, begins life in the house of Judge Miller in California. He has distinctly human characteristics learnt from life with the judge. Some agents kidnap Buck and sell him to a group of gold hunters. These men put Buck into harness with a team of sled dogs to work for them in the icy north. They torture and beat the dogs to near-death. With each passing day, Buck learns his lessons in surviving such cruelty. He has changed from the gentle dog that lived in comfort with Judge Miller. He fights ferociously when confronted, and kills his rivals. Only Thornton, a gold prospector, treats him gently and Buck feels a deep affection for him. But already he has begun to know himself. At times he hears a mysterious call from the wilderness, and feels a surge of the primordial bestial instinct in him. Thornton and his men are killed by a group of Yeehat Indians. Buck is now free of all ties to civilization, and responds to the call of the wild.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 54 PM IST