Against insularity in literature and criticism
HIMANSU S. MOHAPATRA
Boulton's writing makes up in clarity and vigour for what it lacks in sleekness.
Essays on Oriya Literature, John Boulton, compiled and with an afterword by Ganeswar Mishra, Prafulla Pathagara, 2003, p.215, Rs. 300.
THE odds are stacked against an Englishman aspiring to learn Oriya. No Oriya rules the airwaves or beams at him from the posters and billboards in the streets of London. He has to make a tremendous leap of space and faith to encounter it in its indigenous environment. John Boulton, who was able to raise his Oriya learning to the level of an art in the face of these odds, as shown by the seven essays on Oriya literature assembled in this book thanks to the endeavour of an Orissa-based library movement named Prafulla Pathagara, has performed a rare feat. The achievement gains an added significance from the Englishman's creative attempt to go beyond "little Englandism" to make creative contact with the once despised other. The other features of Boulton's anti-insularity are equally compelling: research at Shantiniketan, Vishwa Bharati in the early 1970s, two brief lecture tours of Balasore, the birthplace of the doyen of modern Oriya literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati, in 1975 and 1976 and, of course, a career-long dedication to teaching Oriya and Bengali at the reputed School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Adapting to the Indian ethos
Boulton's creative apostasy is shown in his effort to adapt his humanistic training to an Indian ethos. It is the idea represented by the etymological meaning of the Indian word for literature, "Sahitya", meaning "with-ness" (p. 9). It accommodates the western notion that a literary work, though a historical product, is a compact symbolic structure which both mediates history and projects an alternate history saturated with compassion for the suffering humanity. Its Indian core, however, consists in the recognition of the author as a purposive human agent engaged in an ethical communication with his/ her historical context and audience.
The first essay on the founder-poet, Sarala Dasa, is an exemplification of Boulton's synthetic critical method as it shifts between long-range views and close-ups of the great Oriya adapter of Mahabharata. Thus, Boulton says in a general way first that "the basic theme of the Mahabharata, as Sarala Das saw it, was the futility of war and the need to avoid it through compromise for the sake of the country as a whole" (p. 13). Then he follows it up with a particularising remark: "he saw in Mahabharata a vehicle for expressing a dire warning about a possible clash between the adherents of two cultures; the alien Sanskritic and the indigenous Oriya; and about the need to avoid that clash through compromise" (p. 14). The same synoptic and analytical formulation is to be found in Boulton's dealings with the other makers of Oriya literature.
There is, of course, a zeroing in on Fakir Mohan Senapati, his most loved author and the focus of the doctoral dissertation he wrote for the University of London. The three essays included here place the author in historical context and studies his work against the backdrop of Oriya nationalism, the traditional role of religion and the modern phenomenon of colonialism. Boulton's final assessment and valorisation of Fakir Mohan Senapati as a cultural conservative may not be to the taste of many modern critics who would like to have him set up as a radical figure. But that is because they are unable to see how retrospect in Fakir Mohan's fiction is often the best vehicle of a many-sided engagement with social reality.
Likewise, many critics might like to class Boulton's work as pre-theory if only because he avoids the fashionable anti-humanism and the flashy style of much of today's theory-driven criticism. The evidence from Boulton's writing speaks otherwise: his conceptualisation of writing as a form of subversive or insurrectionary rewriting in his essay on Sarala Das; his advocacy of the notion of criticism as a form of symbolic autobiography in his essay on the first major Oriya woman poet and novelist, Kuntala Kumari Sabat ["... even in the most depersonalised writing of all namely academic writing one inevitably writes of one's own personal experience, since it is that that illumines the experience of others" (p. 140)] and his intermeshing of literature with economics and politics coupled with a view from below in his essay on translation ["Never trust the educated, ... the actual grammar and history of a language is preserved by illiterates" (p. 170)]. Add to this the fact of Boulton's ex-working-class background and Boulton does indeed steal the thunder from much contemporary theorising.
Based on a strong common sense, wit and observation, Boulton's writing makes up in clarity and vigour for what it lacks in sleekness and is the kind of writing that is most likely to endure. More importantly, the odyssey represented by these warm, erudite and intensely humane essays can be said to have found in Oriya literature its worthy and ennobling destination.
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