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Love across religious divide

Distinguished Indian English author Shiv K. Kumar, whose novel Infatuation: The Crescent and the Vermilion, has just appeared, talks to academic, critic and translator SACHIDANANDA MOHANTY, about the art of fiction, the place of inter-religious love in our turbulent times and related issues.

BORN in Lahore and educated in India and abroad, Shiv K. Kumar has authored six collections of poems, four novels, one play, a collection of short stories and a dozen books on literary criticism. He received the coveted Sahitya Academy Prize for his Trapfalls in the Sky, 1988. Professor Kumar, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL), has taught in many Universities in India and abroad. Although a successful academic, Kumar prefers to be known as a creative writer.

On a Sunday recently, I drove down past Tarnaka to Habshiguda, close to Osmania University campus, Hyderabad. This is where Kumar lives with his wife Madhu. Their two children are away in the United States. The spacious house with an old iron gate sits behind "Johnson Grammar School." The founder of the School, I learn, is an admirer of the 18th Century British critic Samuel Johnson whose moral "high-seriousness," I imagine, is meant to attract parents weary of MTV.

I peer through the "Beware of Dog" sign and my eyes are locked against a fierce canine that slouches strategically against the doorway. The dog, appropriately named "Caesar," stretches itself languorously and eyes me with a mixture of curiosity, disdain and menace.

I open the gate and reach the door-knob with trepidation, ready to bolt if "Caesar" were to change his mind suddenly! Mercifully, nothing happens, "Caesar" lies still. "Good boy," I compliment him. The door opens and I am ushered into Kumar's study.

A life-size photograph of D. H. Lawrence stares at me from above. Against the opposite wall, there is a picture of Kumar during his younger days at Cambridge. The framed photo shows him with Clement Attlee, the Labour Party Prime Minister of England in 1948 when Kumar was the president of the Indian Majlis of Cambridge University. (Kumar's next novel, you may be interested to know, is based on the Indo-Cambridge experience). The study is laden with books, a typewriter, a sofa, mementos received from various literary/cultural organisations. It is a sunny day. The AC hums gently. We sip beer and begin the conversation. Excerpts:

SACHIDANANDA MOHANTY: A reviewer in The Hindu recently said that your novel Infatuation is a fiction of "extraordinary prowess" but it is likely to be "ripped apart" by the feminists for your views on the role of women in society. How would you respond to such a charge?

Shiv K. Kumar: I totally disagree with this! I adore women, for aren't they objects of desire and love? But I do not yearn for the company of women. Most of the committed feminists, in any case, are quite unattractive. If only they would let all beautiful women be on their own...

Some zealots of Hinduism might find Infatuation, like your early novels A River with Three Banks and Nude Before God, probably pro-Islamic. For instance, they might argue that in your latest novel while your portrayal of Syed Alam Ali, the Imam is very sympathetic, you come down heavily on Prema, a married Hindu woman. How would you correct this impression?

I think they have got me wrong here! I am neither pro-islamic nor anti-Hindu. You may call me a liberal humanist. I abhor orthodoxy in any form. This must be the result of my father's influence, who, despite being a staunch Arya-Samajist, learnt Persian and Arabic to read the scriptures in the original. The two characters you have referred to, have to be judged for their individual identities and not as Muslims or Hindus. In any case, what about that mad, Hindu woman Prabha with whom the protagonist's younger brother falls in love at the mental asylum. Isn't she pure and trustful, innocent in body and spirit?

Yes, indeed! A related question of course is insanity which seems to be central to your novel. Could you explain?

I believe that a madman is more sinned against, than sinning. He is always candid, bold and untainted. Most of us who claim to be "normal" and well adjusted to our environment are in fact unscrupulous and devious!

Is Shabir the mentally deranged character in this novel based on any real person you know?

While the story and its locale are mainly imaginary, this particular character came to me straight from real life. I know someone, a senior government official in Hyderabad, who was required by the authorities to remain under medical surveillance at a mental hospital. I was introduced to him by a friend. I found this young man irrepressibly honest and God-fearing. I was told he could read the entire Koran in the course of a day and night! Isn't this incredible?

Yes indeed! Professor Kumar, I see on your desk, a sandal wood chariot typifying the significance of the Gita episode from the Mahabharata. What does this emblem mean to you personally?

I believe that the Bhagvad Gita is the best thing that has happened to Man. Its message - surrender to the Divine Will - is of supreme importance. Do your Karma and leave the rest to God! A sound advice to every writer as well! Keep on writing. Do not feel excited or depressed by your reviewers!

May I ask you a personal question? Have you ever been in love with a Muslim woman?

No, and I am being very candid! However, I live in Hyderabad which is a predominantly Muslim city. Most of my friends are Muslims with whom I share a love of Urdu poetry. I am sure they would come to my funeral when I am gone (smiles)! Let me share with you my favourite couplet:

Mein na Hindoo hoon

na Muslemaan mujhe


Dosti mera mazhab hai,

mujhe jeenedo

(I am neither a Hindu nor Muslim, let me be,Friendship is my credo, let me be.)

Of course, this must explain your decision to translate Faiz Ahmed Faiz into English? Tell me, is there any hope for humanity today?

I might sound naive but I feel that the only way out of this malaise is to have a poet as our Prime Minister. Let there be someone like Faiz or Tagore as the Prime Minister of Pakistan and India. After all, it is only a poet-stateman like Vajpayee who could have extended the hand of friendship across the border although the gesture was spurned.

Your were born in Lahore. Have you ever been to the country of your birth since Partition?

Unfortunately not! When Faiz came to Hyderabad in 1978 and I was asked to preside over his poetry recitation, he invited me to come and stay with him. But there is no Faiz in Pakistan today, only military rulers!

What then would be the dominant message of your novel?

I am never conscious of doling out any message to my readers. In fact, I am entirely oblivious of my audience.when I am writing! Maybe, somewhere at the back of my mind, there is an urge to say that there should be love and more love, and not war. Not hostility and anger. That is the only way to Peace! Peace through compassion, understanding and forgiveness!

Professor Kumar, you have been an academic for about 40 years, teaching British and American literature in India and abroad. How do you relate analytical reasoning, so essential to the critical temper, with creative imagination?

A good question! Indeed, when I am confronted with a blank page, ready to create something, I do succeed in taking my mind off my scholarship. It is somewhat like transcendental meditation. The creative process is somewhat like yoga, a total retreat from the work-a-day world around you. You should even become oblivious of your own breathing!

That must be the secret of your indefatigable self. You certainly do not look your age, Dr. Kumar. How have you managed to remain so vibrant and so actively involved in writing, turning out a novel or a book of poems every alternate year?

Well, life begins at 79 and that's my age! I owe my energy to yoga and meditation that I have learnt from my Guru in Hyderabad. In our current obsession with success, career and money, we have perhaps missed something vital from our ancient wisdom, namely contentment, which alone leads one to a sense of fulfilment. Practise that and all will be well!

Sachidananda Mohanty is a Reader in English at the University of Hyderabad.

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