The book really touched a sensitive chord in my heart. It seemed to zoom out scenes from our contemporary life that usually serenaded around me with diurnal regularity. John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. It was his last novel published in 1961.
As I sat in my car waiting for my son to emerge from his school, I read the novel and the plot and circumstances reminded me of everyday occurrences in every strata of today’s society. I looked up and saw Tina, whom I once taught, coming towards me. Now she was well into her teens. The look on her face was that of disgust. “Hi Ma’am, how are you? We miss you so much!” I inquired if she was feeling tired after her day of hard work at school. She then gave me her million dollar smile, “No ma’am, this is the look of the season. The ‘depressed diva look’! This look gains you attention and love.” Something seemed to tug at my heart, a ‘look’ to get love?
One day, I found my son laughing, laughter laced with mockery. “Mamma, we had a survey at school today where we had to rate our school on different parameters. Guess what most of the boys did? They blindly clicked on ‘strongly disagree’ the worst rating. Isn’t that bad, I mean we have been studying in this school since we were four years old. It is a great school.” But I wondered aloud to him as to why would anybody do that? “Ma, they say that their parents have asked them to always rate the school thus, so that the teachers work more and the fees will not go up!” The loss of innocence? Or the reflection of consumerism that happily roller coasters through our arteries these days?
Then there is the newlywed Alifya. She too wears that pretentious look of disdain on her face as and when it suits her. That simple, besotted husband of hers has been converted into a bovine-dying-to-please slave. She advises us, in the staffroom, as we sat looking at her, awestruck, “Never ever let your guard down. If he gifts you a solitaire do NOT fall off the chair in gratefulness! Look at him with tear-filled doe-like eyes and whisper, ‘It is small, but it will do ...’ And lo and behold you will get a bigger rock, not on this cheap gold but on platinum.” Alifya guffawed with triumph. And we the older ones were left totally bowled over!
The characters and circumstances that I have listed are only a few. One can almost draw a parallel with Steinbeck’s protagonist, the honest Ethan Allen Hawley, who is pushed into his moral downfall by his family. His wife Mary and their children resent their mediocre social and economic status, and do not value the honesty and integrity that Ethan struggles to maintain amid a corrupt society. Ethan’s decision to gain wealth and power is influenced by criticisms and advice from people he knows. His acquaintance Margie urges him to accept bribes; the bank manager (whose ancestors Ethan blames for his family’s misfortunes) urges him to be more ruthless. Ethan’s friend Joey, a bank teller, even gives Ethan a lesson on how to rob a bank and get away with it.
His son wins a nationwide essay contest by plagiarising classic American authors and orators, but when Ethan confronts him, the son denies having any guilty feelings, maintaining that everyone cheats and lies. Thus reminding us of the recent cases of plagiarism by stand-up comedians and novelists, who tried to desperately emerge out of this ‘winter’ of their insecurity and greed made ‘summery’ by resorting to hellish plagiarism. The journey of Ethan the honest man to a man on the brink of suicide is so beautifully traversed by Steinbeck in the form of his superb narration.
Isn’t this ‘the winter of our discontent’? The ‘winter’ that we have conjured up to distress everybody around us because we want to extract ‘more’ from life? And thus we dive into the rock-bottom sea of doom. Hence I couldn’t agree more with what Steinbeck vehemently voices out in his novel: “In poverty she is envious. In riches she may be a snob. Money does not change the sickness, only the symptoms.”
Navanita Varadpande is a freelance writer based in Dubai.