Mercy, My Jewels!

In Doniger’s agile mind and in her skilful hands, these become stories, as the very clever pun in the title suggests, about truth and reality, about how memory, recognition and human consciousness work for the self and for the other.

Written by Arshia Sattar | Published:July 22, 2017 1:04 am
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Book- The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry
Author- Wendy Doniger
Publication- Speaking Tiger
Pages- 397
Price- Rs 899

Wendy Doniger’s latest book, The Ring of Truth, has 45 pages of notes and a 30-page index. Yet, it is so much more than a well-annotated and minutely referenced compendium of stories about rings, lost and found, about how jewelry can establish the identity of a person or jog a buried memory of love. In Doniger’s agile mind and in her skilful hands, these become stories, as the very clever pun in the title suggests, about truth and reality, about how memory, recognition and human consciousness work for the self and for the other.

The stories in the book come from many genres, cultures and languages, but the paradigmatic story here is Kalidasa’s Shakuntala — a story about an innocent forest girl who loses the ring of recognition that the king, her ‘husband,’ gives her and then is denied physical as well as psychic recognition on account of its absence. When Dushyanta sees the ring many years later, he remembers his lost love and travels through the three worlds to find her and the son that she bore him. The child he encounters is proved to be his son through another piece of jewelry, a band that he wears on his arm. Eventually, all memories are restored, everyone is proved to be who they said they were and the family is reunited in love and happiness. A crucial character in this story is the fish who swallowed the ring that went missing – the fish, too, becomes a motif in the ocean of stories that Doniger draws upon.

Doniger takes the many strands of Kalidasa’s story and weaves them into other stories from around the world, indicating how they are alike or different from each other. But, unlike so many other gatherers of tales that resemble each other (Stith Thompson and Alan Dundes, for example), Doniger does not care about a mere taxonomy. Her interest lies not in what these stories tell us about themselves and each other, but what they tell us about ourselves — how we think, how we feel, how we construct reality, how we love those that we do and what it is, both within and without ourselves, that is lost when we lose our lovers and our memories.

Although she never leaves the world of classical mythology behind, as the sutradhar who holds the thread of rings and memory, Doniger takes us on a whirlwind tour of narratives from opera, works from 19th and 20th century literature, many contemporary works of fiction as well as to her other great love, the movies. In this volume, we get (re)acquainted with the Celtic fairy Morgana, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Siegfried and Brunhilde, various Shakespeare plays and a host of other lovers who are separated from each other, who cheat on each other in moments of ring-induced forgetfulness, who use rings and other personal objects to reveal their true identities or to unmask imposters.

There is also a fascinatingly detailed chapter about Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace, a rather large, heavy and expensive piece of jewelry which, though entirely non-existent, took the allegedly extravagant and heartless queen to the guillotine. Reminding us that even in the real world, a piece of jewelry can be a potent symbol, a metonym, in fact, for a person, Doniger traces the story of this necklace-that-never-was through various historical sources. The factually verifiable version that Doniger produces of the queens and knaves, the kings and priests, the cuckolds and mistresses that animate the saga of the necklace would put Alexander Dumas to shame. Later in the book, a corollary to this chapter about the Queen’s Necklace is a thoroughly enjoyable, wise and witty takedown of De Beers, the company that markets diamonds as ‘symbols, myths, magic.’ (p.259)

Doniger tells us that The Ring of Truth actually split off from an earlier book for which she was collecting stories (The Woman who Pretended to be Who She Was, 2004). And, so it is that this book about rings of truth stays with many of Doniger’s favourite themes and recurrent concerns, such as sexual masquerade and substitution. Although she often refers to conventional Freudian readings of myth about real and imagined sexual encounters, Doniger is not afraid to call some of these encounters between men and beguiled (and most often, helpless) women ‘rape,’ for that is what they more correctly are. By analysing whatever devices of enchantment (curses, disguises, amnesia, darkness, fog) these stories use, she brings the essential nature of the pivotal sexual encounter to our attention. This persuades us to recognise how violence — emotional, physical and sexual — against women is prevalent in all cultures, hard-wired, as it is, into the stories that human beings love to tell over and over again.

Having said that, this is hardly the point of the book, which is anything but a feminist polemic against telling stories about women who lose their rings and are forgotten (or sometimes, ‘misremembered’) by their lovers. Rather, it is a book that revels precisely in these stories and the myriad ways in which we tell them. While the stories are often about sexual violence, they are even more about the cognitive violence inflicted upon the self and the other by forgetting or by the wilful erasure of memory. At a time when the danger of systematic cognitive violence against truth and memory is all too real, it is comforting to read a book which reminds you that memories can be restored, that truth can return, to heal both life and love.

Arshia Sattar studied with Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Uttara: The Book of Answers
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