I have sampled Latin literature and African literature as well as Middle Eastern literature, and have loved the journey. Have I done so with Indian literature? Not as much as I could have, or should have. It just didn’t fascinate me. Ever.
But that was probably because my only window to Indian literature were the snippets of chapters in our school books. And that wasn’t too rosy a picture anyway – content fed rigorously and dispassionately only for marks; with the attitude that English will make your future, Hindi and Gujarati are around until class 10 only.
And I thoroughly hated reading stuff like Tagore’s Homecoming – story of sad, sad, sick boy (hope I remember correctly), or a Hindi story titled ‘Dushta’ featuring a pitiable widow as the protagonist – oppressed, neglected, hated, ignored (not the kind of stuff that appeals to children now, is it?), or even the supposedly funny but positively ridiculous ‘Bansidhar’ or the Gujarati author ‘Kaka Kalelkar’s “Khoti be aani”‘. It all seemed pedestrian in comparison with such interesting stories as Maggie cuts her hair, the model millionaire, I met a pygmy, The Highwayman, and so on.
It was the allure of a beautiful world portrayed beautifully versus a world that was already looked down upon, sketched with even darker hues. Why they didn’t find the Spanish inquisition to talk about in a children’s curriculum to act as a counterpart to ‘Dushta’, one will never know. I hope things have improved now.
The only Indian story I remember in positive light was something that talked of teenage infatuation, by Popati Hiranandani (Sindhi woman author who has written 60 books! who knew? Google tells me). It was the rage because it was a subject oh so very relevant – we were in Class 10, sixteen and in love, everyday, with someone or the other. And so, when the protagonist describes the young lady love as Tillotama – I will remember that name till my dying day perhaps – in his intensely touching poem, our hearts were aflutter.
But that was it then. End of Indian literature. If we weren’t schlepping our way through it for marks, we weren’t doing it at all.
All the time deaf to constant urging from our parents to dig deep into our own culture. We disowned it because those who chose the curriculum chose blunt social reform over sensibilities and sensitivities. They probably thought that after all, ringa ringa roses is all about the plague but it’s still enjoyable.
Anyway. The thought has now come a full circle. This book, in the present climate, will make inroads in many a psyche. The time has come for Indian cultural dialogue to take the front seat, at least in India.
The mysticism is there but that distracts from the real goal. The real goal is to now find who we are from who we were. Before the capitalism, socialism, and communism, before the onslaught of imperialism, before the religious imperialism, before it all. Let’s catch it while we still can.
Rajiv Malhotra’s ‘Battle for Sanskrit’ seems well-poised to do this.
It opens with: Dedicated to our purva-paksha and uttara-paksha debating tradition. With gratitude to the purva-pakshins (opponents) I have learned from. May we engage in this intellectual yajna with mutual respect.
Debate not for the sake of intellectual showmanship. Debate for a common goal. Let us be better off after the debate than before.