Pikoo is a short film Satyajit Ray made for the French television based on one of his own short stories, “Pikoo’s Diary”. It tells the story of a young boy, Pikoo, who comes from an upper-middle-class family comprising his father, mother, and ailing grandfather, who’s been bedridden after a paralytic stroke.
One night Pikoo (Arjun Guha Thakurta) wakes up to overhear his parents arguing, but he doesn’t realise it’s because his father (Soven Lahiri) has found out that his wife (Aparna Sen) has been having an extra-marital affair. The next day Pikoo stays back home since his school is off for the day and receives a call for his mother from a family friend played by Victor Banerjee (Pikoo calls him kaku, meaning uncle), who drops in later with a sketching pad and coloring pens. His mother tells the excited Pikoo to go out into the garden and sketch and color all the flowers he can find there.
In the bedroom, Pikoo’s mother gets distracted from her lover’s amorous advances as she spots her son, sitting out in the sun, painstakingly coloring away. While she’s busy apologising to her lover for her sudden coldness, it starts raining, and Pikoo runs inside the house to see the door to the bedroom shut. When he hears her mother and her friend arguing, he utters an expletive and runs way to his grandfather’s room, only to find him lying cold and rigid in death. Pikoo comes out to the verandah and, with tears in his eyes, starts filling in color to a flower he had sketched in black.
It’s a very beautiful short film and the story of a little boy’s coming of age is depicted almost entirely from the boy’s own perspective, shaped by his limited understanding of things that happen in the adult world. And being a short story, we have no way of finding out if Pikoo understood, in its entirety, the act of physical betrayal with far-reaching impact on his parents’ marriage. But it’s obvious that he felt let down by his mother when he heard her apologising to his uncle. His young mind realised that his mother had deliberately sent him away so she could spend time with her friend. But instead of lashing out at his mother or even informing her about the grandfather’s death, he locks both the traumatic events away in his mind and finds solace in colouring, an activity that’s mundane yet creative at the same time.
Since a child forms the closest bonds with his parents, especially, the mother, it’s obvious that feeling betrayed by either parent might leave behind deep psychological scars. These wounds might not be apparent on the surface, but they remain all the same and can negatively influence future adult interactions and relationships.
Satyajit Ray, in an interview to Cineste magazine, said of the film, “Pikoo is a very complex film. It is a poetic statement which cannot be reduced to concrete terms. One statement the film tries to make is that, if a woman is to be unfaithful, if she is to have an extramarital affair, she can’t afford to have soft emotions towards her children, or, in this case, her son. The two just don’t go together. You have to be ruthless. Maybe she’s not ruthless to that extent. She’s being very Bengali. A European in the same circumstances would not behave in the same way.”
While having the highest respect for Ray, I believe he’s making a broad generalisation here from a purely male perspective. An extramarital affair may stem out of the sheer desperation of being caught in a stifling marriage, an overwhelming physical urge, or out of love for another man. While I strongly believe in the sanctity of marriage and firmly advocate complete transparency in a conjugal relationship, I understand that women caught in an unfulfilling marriage might find succour and love in the arms of another man, and I would definitely not judge them for that or brand them as being ruthless and uncaring of their children.
Many women, not just in India/Asia but across the world, stick to a loveless marriage just because they want to spare their children the trauma of their parents’ separating. Isn’t it possible that during the course of their marriage, they come across someone they care for and end up in a relationship? And if they do form an attachment outside the marriage, does it mean that they don’t care for their children anymore?
It’s obvious that Pikoo’s mother had been carrying on the affair for quite a while, though it was the first time she had invited her lover over when her son was home. In that case, going by Ray’s logic, she’s already ruthless, and having Pikoo home is just a small inconvenience that she’s been willing to risk when she confirmed the tryst. The fact that she dismisses her lover without indulging him on that particular day should not absolve her of being ruthless (‘Maybe she’s not ruthless to that extent.’) because, like I mentioned before, she already knew that her son was home and yet she set up a rendezvous, and while apologising to her lover, she even mentions future trysts. Again, going by what Ray says, isn’t she as ruthless as a European woman since she’s not concerned enough for her child to want to end the affair once and for all?
And while it’s probably true, like Ray says, that fewer women in Europe and North America are likely to remain in a deadbeat marriage compared to their Indian/Asian counterparts, I believe it’s purely because of the difference in societal values and upbringing. They are a society that lays more emphasis on the individual and his/her happiness, whereas our part of the world is still about caring for the family as a unit. And most women, despite having a very modern lifestyle or outlook, would think twice before walking out of a boring and lacklustre marriage, which is otherwise secure, abuse-free, and stable, especially when she has children.
Women may have extra-marital affairs for various personal reasons. And unfaithfulness in a marriage is something two adults need to deal with and sort out, if possible. But a woman who has an affair is hardly ever uncaring or without feeling for her children. While a woman might wear many masks within the home and outside or in marriage or relationships, motherhood is usually not one of them.