Asked for an autograph on his book ‘K.’, an alluring critique of the works of Franz Kafka, celebrated Indophile Italian novelist Roberto Calasso scribbled: ‘A very Indian book’. The admission was anything but Kafkaesque.
“Among the central motifs on which the whole ‘K.’ is built is the attempt to make clear what it means to be someone called K instead of someone called, say, Prince Andrei [the protagonist of] of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ or Lucien de Rubempré created by Balzac.
At a certain moment in Kafka’s ‘The Castle’, the whole narrative turns around a Vedic word ‘Rta’ which best translates as ‘the order of the world’…. So even in Kafka’s writings, you find things that are connected with Indian categories,” avers Mr. Calasso, sitting at the grand old tea lounge of Brunton Boatyard Hotel on Monday morning.
“There is a big struggle among Indologists on what was the first meaning of the word, ‘Rta’. It initially meant ‘truth’… You find it in my first work in the Indian mythology series, ‘The Ruin of Kasch’. ‘Ka’ [Mr. Calasso’s critically acclaimed compendium of Indian myths and legends] also has many references to it. ‘The Ruin…’ that came out in 1983 was based on a vision of Vedic sacrifice. Of course, it was connected with modern history as the protagonist was a great political man. While it centred on rituals, mythology appeared with ‘Ka’,” he says of his passion for classical Indian mythology.
“The job of the mythographer,” he says, “is very ancient. Myths are something out of which different forms and meanings can be extracted in some way. I am trying to do nothing terribly different from what Ovid had done several centuries ago when he wrote ‘The Metamorphosis’ as a collection of age-old myths. Only that, there is a unique relation between mythical tales and ritual theories in India. The ritualists were the first philosophers here. The philosophers succeeded Budha, a very modern thinker.”
While the West boasts a philosophical tradition that is alive till date [Mr. Calasso, however, perceives Heidegger as the last true Western philosopher and thinks Derrida overdid what he was doing], India in modern times has serious scholars working on the history of philosophy, but there’s no philosopher, he says.
“It is paradoxical. The ancient Indian Darshanas were immensely sophisticated. But the ilk of Adi Sankara and Abhinava Gupta belongs to a rather remote past. India is now riding a huge technological wave and is brilliant in science. I don’t know why, but this has happened elsewhere, too. There is nothing in Greece’s modern history that vaguely corresponds to its ancient past,” he says.
Mr. Calasso is concerned that the availability of ancient Indian texts in translation is scarce. That, however, doesn’t prevent him from adding another tome to his Indian mythology series. The forthcoming book would be based on ‘Satapatha Brahmana’, a ‘great metaphysical work’ describing Vedic rituals, which in Mr. Calasso’s words, would be comparable to the works of Baruch Spinoza or Immanuel Kant.
“In ancient India, a commentary on rituals was a commentary on the whole world,” he sums up.