This Word For That Books

The face of our unwritten epic

‘Writing’ India.

‘Writing’ India.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock


The essence of Indian culture and of Indian Islam lies in its mixed traditions

The pen thwarted the attacks of the knife and dagger... writers like Krishan Chander set up a veritable fortress and sent an army of afsanas, stories and sketches into the field. The speed with which the riots spread was matched by the speed with which Krishan’s afsanas were circulated in both Hindustan and Pakistan.” —Ismat Chughtai

The anonymous 13th century Telugu poet who said, “Stronger than the bonds shared by those who have the same mother are the ones forged by those who share words” knew what he was talking about. In Uttar Pradesh, far from the land of Telugu speakers, and 700 years later, when her children accused Shafeeq Fatima Shera of being closer to her writer friends than to her family, she said, “Yes.”

As we go from one meaningful reading enrichment to the next, recommending, borrowing and buying what we enjoy or want to share, we manage our addiction to silent conversations with writers against a history we cannot change but need to be aware of.

Only us

A discontinuity we took a long time to recover from was the break with our past which occurred in 1857, after which we put aside a great deal of our own culture, seeing in it what we were meant to see: a capacity for self deception and intellectual failure caused by attachment to unsubstantiated beliefs and romantic myths.

Not that we were alive to it at the time but for many decades our collective psyche took a beating from which we have still not recovered and perhaps never will, fully. Our performing arts and religious practices were openly criticised and with no understanding of their origins or philosophy. “Nothing can be more pleasant to the eye than the spire of a church rising amid the emblems of decaying heathendom” (Rev W. Urwick, 1885).

Recalling this time and our cultural retreat before the confident advance of the British Raj, Shamsur Faruqi, in his acceptance speech when awarded the Saraswati Samman (1996), described how Urdu fell on such evil times that it came to be viewed as a foreign language.

A reminder of another sort of amnesia and from a different direction came 30 years ago when I was preparing the second edition of an influential Macmillan publication, Indian Aesthetics. A casual visitor to my office peered at the contents page and said, “This should be re-titled Sanskrit Aesthetics.” Struggling with both alarm and ignorance I tried to look enlightened while he went on. “What about the Persian influence... and Arabic? Have you not heard of ---- and ---- and ----?”

The face of our unwritten epic

Not only had I not, but I also lacked the nerve to bring it up with the shapers of the second edition. I went through the revision troubled by the realisation that interpretations of poetics, like history, perform a political not an artistic function and were much harder to parse than the emotional complexities of literature.

One of my favourite books therefore is a volume edited by Mushirul Hasan and M. Asaduddin titled Image and Representation: Stories of Muslim Lives in India (2002), a collection of 34 stories from 11 Indian languages. Resting on the idea that the essence of Indian culture and of Indian Islam lies in its mixed traditions, the selections are part of a vast body of writing with their own sociology and canons, which illustrate that despite the rhetoric of divisive politics and publicists, identities are inclusive and rooted in local languages, oral traditions and influenced by complex historical processes.

Although literature cannot bring about sudden social change, it can illuminate aspects of our existence left untouched by political and economic practices. “Writing” India either directly in English or indirectly in English-language translations, is one of the strongest expressions of our renewed and emotionally complex selves.

At one time we might have blamed our colonial rulers who silenced the Indian voice and in its place synthesised something for their needs, making Indian literature someone else’s potential, but now there is only us: we both create and receive the products of our civilisation.

Seventh sky

One such memorable work is Toppil Muhammatu Miran’s Chaivu Narkali (The Reclining Chair trs M. Vijayalakshmi, Sahitya Akademi) which narrates the generational history of a family settled in the imaginary village of Tenpattan on the southern coast of India.

The writer fashions an intricate tapestry of history, myths and social practices, his language reflecting a unique and charming mix of three traditions: Arabic, Malayalam and Tamil. “The almighty Allahu seated on a gem-encrusted throne in the seventh sky suddenly remembered Atturusa, Mariambivi’s father. He picked up his sceptre which measured the distance between the sky and the nether world between its two ends. As he plunged it into the sky it pierced the seven layers and touched the earth and the palm-leaf roof of Atturusa’s hut.”

Nirmal Verma once said that we are influenced by three epics, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the unwritten epic of India. With yet another anniversary of both Independence and Partition behind us, what might we see in our civilisational mirror? Will it include, like Nayantara Sahgal once so beautifully said about one of her fictional characters, a face with Hindu eyes and Muslim cheekbones?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 5:36:32 AM |

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