Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy

Shantaram’s Healing

A scene in the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts shows a leader in a Mumbai slum faced with the necessity of exerting discipline on a wife abuser. However, the leader blends the punishment with healing. Roberts’ portrayal of the slum draws us into the need of using a philosophy of exerting discipline mixed with an understanding of inclusion while managing a large group of people.

With over 25,000 souls living cramped in a vise of flimsy huts and an overheated climate, the slum’s residents have to cope with the problems of overcrowding, illness and personal rivalries while suffering from a lack of food and medical help. Yet the spirit of the community thrives as the people willingly seek to comfort others or listen to a leader who adds to the spirit of harmony. We might dare to ask whether that spirit may have grown because of the philosophy of mixing healing with discipline.

When Joseph, a member of the community, beats his wife after a drinking binge, the slum’s leader, Qasim was faced by the need to show discipline for the actions. Once Joseph’s wife was rescued by neighbors to calm her and give emotional support, Qasim had to deal with Joseph’s destructive nature. Qasim ignored Joseph’s immediate need for water. Instead, he instructed people to give Joseph more liquor. Joseph was delirious, but still able to ignore his responsibility. Qasim was close enough to know Joseph’s tolerance. He administered more liquor until Joseph became sick. In the ensuing half a day, Joseph was routinely beaten with the same stick he used to beat his wife. A number of key neighbors took turns beating the wife beater.

However, eventually, Joseph’s behavior shifted, and met a different reaction from Qasim. Once Joseph realized he was becoming sicker and might have killed his wife, he became repentant. Suddenly, the same neighbors who punished Joseph, cleaned him up and soothed him with warm tea — the first he was able to sip despite suffering from dehydration.

The healing and punishment were linked together. Qasim realized that a society could not succeed in changing behavior without the two working together. Qasim acted very differently from many Western leaders. Any community requires a behavioral modification to deal with acts that hurt members. Yet, the usual concept is to divide the punishment from the healing. Keep the punishment going until some designated time way down the road occurs and then maybe think about how the member of society would be reintegrated with other members. Rehab is not in the picture in our perspective. Rehab is so spotty that very few real examples exist of how it works tied together with punishment in a cohesive systematic approach.

Joseph was not separated from society during or after the event. Our American prisons take the person away from society. The person becomes more of a hardened criminal and then the rest of society wonders why rehab doesn’t work. Joseph was forced to see the reactions by neighbors, not jailers. Qasim even planted the stick used to beat Joseph’s wife on Joseph’s hut so the man could see that instrument each day after the event.

Joseph was shown a practical way to remedy his crime. He was told that he would work extra hours for two months and save the money. Joseph would also be separated from his wife for that time so she could heal. Should his wife wish after that time that she wanted to leave Joseph, she would obtain that money he made. Joseph was drawn into the way he could make amends for his crime.

Qasim’s philosophy, part of the Indian slum necessity to share a communal struggle for life, brings the idea of healing right into the concept of punishment. They are not separate and if they are designed in a separate way, then neither works — that was the message from Qasim and Shantaram. Dare we ask whether we could bring part of that into the American way of life where courts, prisons and plea bargaining seem to ignore the role of healing?

- Tom Pope

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