Looking for Raskolnikov in 2020

Confined within the four walls of home, I’m afraid boundaries have started closing in on me. For many of us, especially millennials, this is the first time we’re witnessing mass madness

Looking for Raskolnikov in 2020
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Karthik Keramalu

Confined within the four walls of home, I’m afraid boundaries have started closing in on me. I don’t think I’m hallucinating and yet that may just be the case. For many of us, especially millennials, this is the first time we’re witnessing mass madness on this scale. We’ve no tangible memories of world wars, freedom struggle or of earlier pandemics.

We haven’t a clue on how to face this new reality. With such lugubrious thoughts at the back of my mind, I encountered the most famous anti-hero of Russian literature, Raskolnikov. Has Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment ever been irrelevant since its publication in 1866? Is it irrelevant in 2020?

Perhaps, I should go to the balcony and shout, “No,” at the top of my lungs, but that would be totally unnecessary since my intention is to only write this piece and not scare away the pigeons. What motivates a murderer to kill and what kind of a society creates murderers is what Dostoevsky set out to explore. With lynchings, racial violence and terror attacks in our times, has the motivation really changed?

Successive generations have pored over the master- piece, hailed as a timeless but dark psychological thriller, and come up with several hundred theories explaining why it is still relevant to our time. The central theme of the novel lies in the protagonist’s vague, scraggly-formed idea that there are two kinds of people in the world – “ordinary” and “extraordinary”.

While the folks belonging to the ordinary group are more or less like sheep that are supposed to meekly follow rules and laws, the second category have the right to break laws. By virtue of being superior, extraordinary is how Dostoevsky makes his character say it, they can, Raskolnikov argues, commit crime.

While this certainly sounds crazy, many people do believe that they’re extraordinary and not bound by ordinary morality and laws; that they are entitled by virtue of their birth, caste, affluence, education and the office they hold. If you’re itching for an example, I’ll give you a spicy Indian one: have you seen how large sections of the upper caste Hindus feel they’re the original settlers and true citizens of the land and that people whose faiths and beliefs don’t conform to theirs are inferior to them?

Those echo chambers are all around you. Politicians, journalists and actors, too, in recent years, have been commenting on how India is a Hindu Rashtra. When Raskolnikov arrived at the door of an old pawnbroker and killed her, along with her sister, he felt invincible. He did it partly to rob her and distribute her wealth among the needy, but his deeper motivation was to see if he could join the “extraordinary” group and feel no guilt about killing two women.

Somewhere, in a conversation with a few of his acquaintances, he says, “Pain and suffering are inevitable for persons of broad aware- ness and depth of heart. The truly great are, in my view, always bound to feel a great sense of sadness during their time upon earth.” You have to remember that this novel was written a century-and-a- half ago. If this were a contemporary TV show, it’d have sounded very different (I’m winking sideways at Netflix’s BoJack Horseman).

As an aside, as many as 25 films have been made based on the novel but Alfred Hitchcock did not produce any. Asked why, Hitchcock had said he would have to make a 10-hour film to explore the layers. Alright, let me chew on Raskolnikov’s hare-brained logic for a min- ute. If the truly great feel sadness just for spending their precious time on earth, would they, then, feel happier in heaven (if it exists!)? And here comes the bigger question – who decides that a person is “extraordinary”?

If an association does come up to bestow such status on people of our blessed land, will it remain untouched by corruption, nepotism and bias, I wonder. Raskolnikov confessed to the murders and was sent off to prison in Siberia. A century and a half later, we are still grappling to understand societies that thrive on inequality, on misery of the masses and claims of superiority by a section of people. I am left clutching the book and wonder if 150 years later, people will still read the novel and ask the same questions.

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