THE OTHER COLUMN: The kiss of history —Ejaz Haider
The moment has to be cherished precisely because beyond it lies uncertainty and, very often, reality; reality, both harsh and meagre
Every time something historic or defining happens, I am reminded of Chekhov’s short story, The Kiss.
The story is simple. Lieutenant Ryabovitch is a small, rather frail and unimpressive artillery officer. There is of course no reason to ask why a gunner officer in the Tsar’s army would be constituted thus. That’s worse than rationalising a Sikh or, if you prefer, a blonde joke. If Chekhov chose to describe Ryabovitch as “a little officer in spectacles, with sloping shoulders, and whiskers like a lynx’s” then one cannot afford to have the freedom of scepticism.
Anyway, this “shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade” finds himself entangled in a misplaced rendezvous in a dark room with some woman. This bit is plausible because he has been invited, like the other 18 officers of the “N—— Reserve Artillery Brigade” to the house of “His Excellency Lieutenant-General von Rabbek”, “a comely-looking man of sixty” the officers meet on “the threshold” of his house.
At some point Ryabovitch, tired of watching others play billiards, decides to return to the drawing room. He takes a wrong turn — ah! how many of us do that — and finds himself in a dark room. This is how Chekhov describes it:
“Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation... At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered ‘At last!’ And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door...”
For today’s enterprising youth, even at the high school level, this would be rather sedate. But please remember what Chekhov has told us about the shy lieutenant. It doesn’t seem like he has been kissed often enough for him to consider one as rather placid and routine. For him it was a big thing, indeed the thing itself, somewhat like, if you will allow me this presumption and not read too much into it, our reaction to the July 31 decision by the Supreme Court.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me explain this now that I have put it on the table. The SC has decided upon something that more mature societies have already worked out and which they take for granted. But for us, under our circumstances, the decision is considered a defining moment. Such was also the case with our unassuming hero, this Ryabovitch. What would be routine for a strapping, confident gunner officer, was something that made his heart beat and his hands tremble “so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back”.
The kiss was the thing because until then even the kiss, far from the real thing, had never happened to our hero. But as with all such defining moments, for a while the young but un-happening lieutenant began to cherish life. Not unusual, this feeling. Flowers look good; rain strikes a chord; one feels tall and strong; rivers invite men to swim across and against the tide; mountains beckon; and so on — one can go on being mushy.
The list of what can be done begins to grow and its incline is directly proportional to the decline of what cannot be done. Actually, in Ryabovitch’s case it was nothing like this but at least he mustered enough courage to mention it to two of his colleagues.
But then reality comes a-calling. Defining moments are just that, moments, which is why what we think will last till eternity, love being one such overrated emotion, proves rather ephemeral.
Historic from this perspective is more about the moment. Sure, certain happenings lead peoples down strange paths, just like there are instants or moments in individuals’ lives that we call defining, that set lives on a course and impact them beyond the moment. True all that. Yet, historic remains problematic, not least because of unintended consequences — and quite often because the high tide gives way to a dullness that has its own inertia.
Reality pulls Ryabovitch back. Standing by the river, he thinks of the stupidity and aimlessness of it all, the what and why: “And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest...he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless...”
The question then is: should one reject the moment? Perhaps not. Perhaps? Actually, the moment has to be cherished precisely because beyond it lies uncertainty and, very often, reality; reality, both harsh and meagre.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at [email protected]