Reviving the true Hindu ethos

Reconstructing history: Bhalchandra Nemade. Photo: Vivek Bendre  

At the end of the interview, Dr Bhalchandra Nemade, 72, modestly assures me that his new book will be readable. While the first part of his long awaited quartet “Hindu” will be released on July 15, he is in the throes of writing the second volume. “It’s very pleasant work you know,” he says, in his study at a suburban apartment in Mumbai. He has just begun an exciting new chapter where the protagonist Khanderao’s friend has become the chancellor of Takshashila University. The whole idea to is to link the hero’s present with the past and while doing this, some records show luminaries like Charvak, Panini and Chanakya were the professors there at that time. “I imagine how there could be some infighting and university politics and there is a reference to how textbooks of these people are entered into the curriculum by underhand dealings, which was also there in the old days,” he says.

“Hindu” then switches back and forth in time from the days of Mohenjo Daro to the Mauryan period to Panipat to the present and the scale of the book is expansive and complex. Sometimes the hero is in a Harappan town or at Sanchi and in each of these places; Nemade cleverly connects past history and links it with the various running themes in his book including caste and feminism. Coming after a gap of over thirty years since Zhool was published in 1979, it will reinforce Nemade’s pre-eminence once again. By any yardstick, the proposed four volumes are monumental in enterprise and imagination.

Nemade’s first novel Kosla (Cocoon) was published when he was 24 and is translated into English and many other languages. Then came Bidhar in 1975 followed by Hool, Zarila and Zhool which formed a quartet. Apart from poetry Nemade is also a critic with many works to his credit and “Desivad” or Nativism which sets out his ideas on cultural hegemony and the English language and the need to root writing in one’s own culture and milieu. While his critical works are in English, Nemade’s creative work in fiction is only in Marathi. ‘I would resist writing in any other language,” he remarks. He taught English and comparative literature, linguistics, anthropology and Marathi literature in various universities, colleges and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London. He has won the Sahitya Akademi award.

Born in 1938 in a village in the Satpuda mountains, in the extreme north of Maharashtra, Nemade spoke Khandeshi, a dialect both of Gujarati and Marathi and his first exposure to literature was in the folklore of the area which had tribals and several communities. That left a deep influence on him. “My concept of literature is still that kind of very culturally bound kind of activity, not a kind of entertainment or aesthetic piece or anything. But it’s functional, related to your own ideas and views and culture and so on,” he says.

As a first generation student from an agricultural background, his college experience in Pune exposed him to an Anglicised culture which greatly annoyed him and led to a creative outburst in the form of poems. Nemade’s own experience becomes the experience of Pandurang Sangvikar (the hero of Kosla) who epitomises the fate of “many village boys who end up half frustrated, half degenerated in the face of a sudden “modern” set of values.” Nemade always equated this with a loss of culture in India, which is his essential argument in Desivad. At the end of Kosla, the protagonist disappears from the examination hall. He goes back to his village and declares he won’t learn any more because it’s difficult for him to reconcile the two worlds.

The narratives of Pandurang and Changdev Patil, hero of the Bidhar quartet are different. Pandurang speaks in the first person while Changdev wants to be aloof from things happening around him. He is an observer, not a participant and that makes him very neutral. In Hindu, Nemade has created a new narrative and the hero Khanderao, is very committed to all that is happening around him.

Dr Nemade feels writing in English is a colonial trap and the one major failure of post Independence India is not having a common Indian language.

What is the reason to call your new book Hindu?

I want to redefine the concept of what is Hindu. Earlier the various groups of people were arranged horizontally but after Buddha in the Brahminical period it became a hierarchy, a rigid system. Once Hindu meant all the people living on this side of the Sindhu/Indus river. But now Hindu has become a word in the hands of Hindu fundamentalists, it has become a matter of shame to call yourself a Hindu, this is something quite oppressive for me, I should be proud to call myself a Hindu. I know Hinduism has been non exploitative, has absorbed everything and everyone. If you confine the concept of a Hindu to a vegetarian, Brahminical, sacred thread wearing person that is not proper. Hating other communities, specially Muslims, is not a part of Hinduism. Hindus are intimate with Muslims and we have developed a unique culture with that, all over the world. I want to bring the pendulum back to the old non- exclusive and inclusive type of Hinduism.

Why did it take you so long for this new book?

After the Bidhar quartet, there was a long gap. Because of my academic pursuits, guiding students, you teach phonetics and passive voice and active voice and you can’t suddenly shift to Marathi syntax in the evening. I found it was getting artificial, though I tried to write many drafts. So from 1973, I have been trying to find a new structure and new form through ideas. It was when I was nearing retirement that I was able to finalise a draft of Hindu and later work on it in peace during a national fellowship at Indian Institute of Advanced Study(IIAS), Simla. I could have published it earlier but I wanted to get to the bottom of things.

I could have published this as it is but I am not satisfied until I go to the bottom of things. I was not sure how the break occurred between Buddhists and Hindus in India, it took a long time for me to find the links between this. As a professor it was my responsibility to know all this , and writing becomes secondary then. It is interrelated then and also if you are committed to a profession better to guide your students properly, take extra classes etc In the University in modern times you have to be under their thumb and you have many things, seminars, exams reforms committee meetings… This is has taken a heavy toll on my time. But main reason is that I am not satisfied and wanted to dig deeper.

I am working on the second part of Hindu, which is the second phase of the protagonist’s life. The first one deals with his life as a student from a rural background to the time he becomes an archaeologist. The hero had to be changed, he needs to be an archaeologist because of the structure. Because of all the periods of history and the time 5000 years ago, the Mauryan period, the Gupta period, I wanted a new kind of hero. So my old hero, a professor type, was rejected by the structure (laughs) and I had to construct a new hero who is an archaeologist. So wherever my hero is posted he goes into the past of that particular area. For instance in Badami, he has go to back into the past and naturally his personal life and the history of India are somehow connected. I had to create some ingenious exercises to connect his personal life with the past (laughs). Being a bachelor he has a fascination for a girl so that leads him to the Tantrik period. At the end of a second part he quits his job as he is faced with an inquiry.

In the third one he decides to sell off his land and winds up things in India to go abroad. He takes up a job in England and I focus on. this NRI phenomenon which is increasing in Maharashtra. Once he goes to England, he finds there is no history there, nothing to dig, he finds archaeology has no meaning there.. There is hardly 500 years recorded history. In the last part, he decides to come back, which is how the four parts are presented, roughly sketched.

In Desivad you speak of English destroying Indian languages

All I am saying is that it is not authentic. Any writing has to be authentic. Suppose I write in Marathi and you follow it properly. That is authentic, the meanings of the word are known to you, if I use a dialect or some kind of jargon everything is known to you. Because it is a linguistic activity, all the dimensions of the language are known to you when you work in that language. Under colonial rule it has exempted writers from being authentic, they use a language which may not be understood properly and maybe Black slang is put into the mouth of a white girl or an Indian or a coolie. It is so superficially Indian, a sort of a touristic narration, only meant for tourists. This is my first objection, my second is that to qualify as literature it should have roots and branches and stems. You can’t just have a book as literature. It should have folklore, it should have women and their lullabies, jokes, and family jargon and reflect a whole space, cultural space .After Chomsky we don’t have to argue that language is a genetic activity, ultimately it is a part of your genes to speak a language. You search for a language as soon as you are born.

Over years that genetic ability makes you perfect to live in that culture which means language, history. If you suddenly start writing in English, you make a switch over to a culture with which you are not really familiar. So you start groping for the meaning and you try to choose a very neutral sort of style in order to make yourself read. You can’t form any new values or new structures or new form in that language.

I have been critical of all the trends in Maharashtra, but nobody has challenged me and even if someone does, tomorrow if the Shiv Sena challenges me, I will stand in the open ground and say let us argue whether I am wrong, whether Shivaji was really a Kshatriya or not. I have my history with me and my language with me so nobody can question me. This is the confidence that a writer has and this is necessary because anthropologically writing is respected as a value formation activity. It is not entertainment. You are respected more than a manual labourer who digs for the whole day and works more but if you write a two line Haiku you are respected because anthropologically, you are supposed to form values. This is a medium which the poor labourer cannot manipulate. You are given all the freedom so you can do this, take risks, this is not done by any Indian writer in English.

Ultimately when you choose a medium you choose a value system. If you choose English you choose the English value system, you can’t impose your value system on the English language and therefore wittingly you enter into a sort of a plan for strange reasons for prestige, either for royalties if you write Midnight’s Children you can own an island but you also have to face a price on your head, which is a natural culmination of this. If you are rooted, the people will not have a price on your head but if you are not rooted then people will put a price. For a true writer, there is no price on his head.

How do you link Desivad ideas to your current work and your past work? You have evolved your own structure of writing, your characters are semi- autobiographical and your novel is different from earlier Marathi writers of your time. Your style is quite contemporary.

My first novel Kosla is a first person narrative and it was an experiment in how language alone can control about 300 pages of the text and keep the reader spellbound. So it was a linguistic exercise mainly and I used a new kind of way as if someone is confessing. It is so acute and intense that the listener (or reader) has to hear what he has to say. In the beginning itself that the protagonist is guilty and he has cheated his parents because they work hard and their money is wasted and so on. The reader is bound to enter into his mind and see how he squanders his money and how he goes into various circles and describes the life in the sophisticated circles and so on. All these experiments were a part of what I have heard as a village boy in the folklore of my surroundings. I always find that the Indian tradition believes in a kind of dialogue, a sort of oral give and take. That has been the basic idea of any literature. For many years it was considered even in our country that the oral tradition was a sign of backwardness, only if you are literate you become modern and so on. I have consistently opposed this in my writing.

You go into a secondary orality and it is as if you are conversing with someone. There is nothing like an Aristotelian or Western academic notion of unity of time and place. The Anglo Indian writers and even the Marathi writers, even though they write in Marathi their sensibilities are the same. Then came the artificial notions of unity and concentration on one kind of action, which is totally foreign to our tradition. Let us see Mahabharata, every now and then characters change, stories change, some rishi comes, Draupadi answers some question, it changes to a war scene, in the Ajanta paintings too and similarly in the Jatakas. There is no unity in the canvas of time and place. To bring back those notions into our practice is my obsession. I don’t know how far I have succeeded but in the first novel I did it very effectively. So the whole structure of the Marathi novel has changed after that. I believe that should be the way, we should not go after a monolithic kind of form and Western ideas of unity. We must be diverse and plural because our culture is diverse and plural. This is the ethos I am trying to develop.

Even in my new book I have rigorously followed that principle. Suddenly the protagonist goes back into a Mohenjo Daro period and the story of that period based on historical research of course, or he goes back into the Mauryan period and connects these flashbacks with certain concrete things. For example feminism, how women were free and totally outside the so called range of Hindu dominance. Kunti for example or Draupadi who has five husbands or Gandhari -- all these are passionate women. This is lost in the later Brahminical period. The whole history was re-written, even the Mahabharata was re-written and lot of moral Brahminical ideas were launched and the Mahabharat was mutilated. The Gita too.

All this has to be brought back so in Hindu once the hero goes back into those periods, the true stories would be found. For e.g. they would be discussing if Krishna should be allowed to enter the Mahabharata, he will capture the whole frame, let him out because he is a basically an immoral person, Radha and adultery this kind of discussion would be there among the writers of the Mahabharata and so on. Or Chandragupta Maurya he is not even a Hindu, he is from central India, from a tribe and he became the great Kshatriya, so the Varna system was also flexible. Even Shivaji was not a Kshatriya. He was a lower caste but he became king. All these things are interwoven --the caste system, feminism and about 25 to 30 themes that I have developed along these lines.

How do you rate your influence in the post 1960s period and what is your role in shaping other writers?

In Marathi there is a very vibrant response, you know who reads, who does, who likes, dislikes what. My estimate in a very modest way is that I have reached a sufficient number of writers who have done experiments, all the young novelists, critics they seem to value me. There is already a word like ‘Nemadpanthi’ you know, a school of sorts, it has percolated into the third generation also. Which is also a responsibility, you know they have followed you, so you should not lead them into a disaster. This gives you a sense of responsibility.

How did you get into writing? You were teaching English and linguistics earlier. Did your early days influence your writing?

After I got my matriculation in two or three villages I went to Pune and I was exposed to an urban background. I was from an agriculturist family and naturally that was my first exposure to what you call an established and standard sort of Anglicised culture and I was quite annoyed for all the years in Fergusson college. I have written several poems and even Kosla which is read in about 12 languages of India, is liked by young people specially because all of them have the same experience to share, exposure from a village background to a sort of Anglicised background. That experience has come very vitally in Kosla because it is a part of my own experience. Pandurang Sangvikar (the hero of Kosla) is almost like me and many village boys experience this kind of half frustration, half degeneration and particularly modernisation which I always equated with a loss of culture. That is my argument in my book “Desivad”(nativism). After that there was a gap. I didn’t know this novel would be read even but the publisher was very kind enough to launch it on a mass scale and he found it was very new. There is no love affair, no love triangle, and no sophistication. People liked it somehow and it became a hit and even today it is read by the fourth generation.

This has become a trap for me because I couldn’t deviate from, even if I wanted to, from the structure I have created. It should not be repeated. That is my argument. This view has come to me by my learning of literature. I became a lecturer in English and then in comparative literature, I taught linguistics, then anthropology and Marathi literature in various universities, colleges and SOAS, London and that gave me a varied sort of exposure to all branches of learning. I came to the conclusion that you should not repeat yourself as a writer. This has been the only advantage of my reading and scholarship to me beyond my career. For about 15 years I could not write and then wrote Bidhar, Hool, Zarila and Zool, which portrays the young generation of Maharashtra, specially bachelors and their sexual life, their estrangement from society and how they are cut off from old traditions in the atmosphere of modernization. A kind of emptiness rules in young minds, which was not so in the young people of traditional societies. This was the theme, among other things of this quartet.

This new book is a departure from your old structure and narrative.

Yes, that is my principle I don’t want to repeat. Or it will be like the fulltime writers of America, every year you produce something. This I have resisted.

You created a new structure and narrative and go back and forth in time.

The difference between Pandurang (Kosla)and Changdev Patil(hero of the Bidhar series) was that the narration is different. Pandurang speak in the first person and depends only on his personal confession while Changdev wants to be aloof from things happening around him but he is a observer not a participant. He is an observer, observing the college, corruption and that makes him a very neutral sort of person – that has given strength to the structure. But now the hero Khanderao in Hindu is very committed to all that is happening around him. He comes from a joint family, he is committed to the feminist ideology. How did women managed to have their freedom, how did they surrender to the male patriarchal principles, all these have been minutely observed by him and he presents it and this somehow is linked to the past of India. For example how did women enjoy the freedom till the Buddhist period to the absolute slavery that they were subjected to in the Gupta period, the Brahminical period. This is a conundrum, how could women go into this kind of a trap. That has to be studied and for that the present alone is not enough. So he tells his aunt’s story. How she gives birth only to daughters and how her husband gives her a warning that he will remarry to have a son. She refuses and then he threatens her with death. She meets a tribal woman, a Madia Gond, experts in medicines, who asks her do you want a husband killing medicine. She was shocked. How did this wandering woman guess her thoughts? She runs away when she has to be killed, a maid tells her this is your last day, I will take care of your girls, don’t worry. She becomes vengeful .Why should she suffer? and then she remembers this Madia Gond woman and get the medicine from her and kills her husband.

This is has been a legend in the family which I have used it to show the individualism that women preserved even in the face of patriarchy. Matriarchy has been suppressed but it is not dead specially in Maharashtra, they say in South it is more alive, as you probably know, in the North it is completely wiped out. Both polarities exist in Maharashtra, the women are not totally slavish. There is Jijabai and Jhansi ki Rani but they are solid examples, but in ordinary families, in agriculturist families, the women decide everything. The hero goes back to the Tantrik period, how women developed the system of Tantrik sex, extra marital relations, the Krishna story, he was suddenly attached to Mahabharat to make it popular. In a husband worshipping country, the Radha story was a hit and it became a popular legend. So he traces this to Mohenjo Daro to the past, going back is not only a technical thing he is going deep into his family, things around him lead him to the past all the time.

Making the hero an archaeologist has helped him make these rich connections naturally.

The imposition of English you said has led to a “low value” culture, and also you defended nativism saying it is not narrow- minded. Is that why you chose to write Marathi?

It is not true I did not write in English, my professional work is in English. I am not against the use of English in this country, it has done so much for us, even now we are having a dialogue because of that. Though I don’t believe without English we could not have had a dialogue. Literature has to include everything, From folklore to the highest expression, poetry and the whole range. It is not one book that you produce and be happy or just write poems. There has to be drama, criticism, in a complete literature there has to be all this. If you say Sanskrit Literature or any great literature there are high examples, even in English there is a range from folklore to dialect literature to epics and everything, but Indian English writing cannot be literature because it is incapable of producing anything other than a few novels and very superficial type of fiction, nothing beyond that. No drama, no criticisms, no values, not even any serious philosophical work all these days.

Would you never write in English?

No, for creative writing I would resist it as a principle.

Literature need not be universal? Or transcend boundaries?

Any good literature is aimed at its own people, its own language culture. If you aim at another culture and people, the major disaster could be you are aiming wrongly and they may not need what you write and you may miss your aim. It will be a failure, totally. But the major thing in writing in your language there is a complete understanding between the receiver and the sender. That’s what communication is in literature. No deviation at all. This is an age old anthropological law, that we do any activity to understand each other. So there is no point in writing in Russian , because I don’t know anything in Russia. Suppose you write there is a Lenin prize or a Nobel prize … it is all so futile.

You have said writers like Shakespeare are nativist in a sense but they became universal thanks to Imperialism by their empires and political systems.

Yes entirely, the ruling systems took them around the globe. Tukaram did not become international because Marathi people did not rule the Europe. But the English ruled over us and launched Shakespeare on us. Otherwise there is no need to read Shakespeare at all. You should read your own Malayalam or Marathi writers and be happy with that. But this will not be sort a rigid law. A person may now and then read something, write in English there is no harm in that, it is available to us, but it cannot be made a principle. This has happened in many places, in Karnataka specially, writing in English and becoming famous. Many writers wrote in English and started translating their works, most of it second rate. You have a notion you will become international. Who cares for all this? They say Latin American writings are valuable, nobody values Indian writing even today- with all these translations, even though the maximum number are from here.

Once while coming back from Goa my bus broke down and I went to a pan shop. I was making inquiries when the owner asked me my name I told him and he asked if I was the writer. He said my wife likes your work, come let us have a chat - I had a nice time with them. This is the real fruit of your writing: you know that in your language or community you are read, valued, respected and people share your views.

Lots of writers want to be universal. Shakespeare is universal, classics are universal, is that not something we are taught?

I don’t care for all this fame. These are the effects of imperialism. You have to be imperial in art, heard, read, your symphonies have to be appreciated everywhere, its meaningless. Symphonies were created by Beethoven or Mozart for Germans who would collect in a square. And they would dance and enjoy, that was the end of it. I don’t deny the side-effects of art. They are there. Side effects are not the objectives of any art. A statue created by Harappa people was for those people, the famous dancing girl was for those people. Its not for us or for museums It was for a particular culture, it was buried under and we tried to dig it up, that was totally besides the objective of why it was created.

You refer to a strong “nativist” tradition in the 60s, in Marathi literature. Why do you think that happened?

The first novels have imbued the western spirit of social action which was missing in India. Early novels are on widow remarriage, women, women’s freedom. It is wrong to believe the novel originated in Italy, we have our own novels we don’t know them. With the British came those values, prizes and awards and we have to write according to the western idea of what India should be. Even Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Justice Ranade, the early thinkers, they had this notion that the old was bad - Ranade said not a bit of Indian ancient learning should be brought to the schools, only western learning. Lokahitawadi, the first journalist said it is better to teach breaking firewood than to teach Sanskrit. The pendulum has come to the other end. Western education, novels, became the norm. People started writing according to that. Post Independence, for the first time the lower strata of society everywhere were influenced by reality. Earlier the Brahmins who played a role in the 1857 were appeased by the British and writers from this community wrote to suit that kind of culture and backed the rulers. Post 1960s writers came from villages - dire backgrounds, revolts took place in writing, structure and language, Dalit writing came around the same time and everywhere in India there was a change. Phanishwar Nath Renu wrote in the North Bihar dialect, in Malayalam also Basheer for instance wouldn’t agree with the Western norms. It is a kind of true revolt, another 1857. Let us say that took place in the sixties and that was successful because now we have re-established the past.

Is this a phase to look forward to in all writing?

India is like a cell, it passes on from one place to other, it’s a contagious activity, am sure well go back to traditional norms and structures, they suit our culture. Our writing is very open ended and we have many heroes. Dashakumaracharitra for e.g. ten heroes having ten different directions that kind of thing has to evolve.

For a lot of people English seems to be the only language of communication. How would you break this? People think this is the first language.

A You have to understand this phenomenon objectively. There is no point in making this a romantic battle and a vengeful thing against English. The Census report says English speakers are 0.5 per cent, or 0.6 , a very minor group. Even if we speak English it’s a colonial trap, ecause we can’t have another language. I imagine how Marathas established empires in Tanjore and became a favourite with the Tamilians. There is Madhoji Scindia who ruled in Kabul for 50 years. I don’t know how he spoke in Marathi. There was some medium which people developed Urdu, Pharsi a mix perhaps. It was an all India medium. Some vocabulary is common. All Indian languages have the same syntax, only the upper structure changes, like Chomsky says. The objects are eternal, names change, activity is subject to needs and change. Nobody uses English to the heart, really most people translate or rethink from their own language into English and manage this colonial burden somehow. This gives us extra energy. Many Europeans say we are impressive in English, we are also impressing in our languages. Unfortunately we could not develop an all-India medium like Europe has developed. Over the last 60 years after Independence one thing we have not attended to, we need something - an all India medium of communication, it may be Hindi, Urdu. That somehow is our major failure. But on the whole English helps us and we are cleverly keeping it with us, keeping our unity intact, but any moment we can throw it away as hardly one per cent regard it as their language.

Who would you say are promising writers in Marathi? And you don’t like the short story as a form?

I can name about 20 writers. I like Ranganath Pathare, Rajan Gavas, Sadanand Deshmukh whose “Baromas”, is a brilliant work on farmers. Except Pathare and Gavas, who have written many novels, the rest have produced one book. I think Meghna Pethe too is very promising writer, her stories can qualify as mini novels.

I hate the short story. It is a typically commercial kind of thing that has helped magazines to grow and specially in the reality that we live, a small miniscule thing does not help. There may be one or two artisans in that but even in world literature you have a few - Maupassant, Chekhov, Poe, Saki, a few great ones who have developed that form to suit an original sort of text. That is not done now. If you develop a form, it should be in the taxonomy of form, it should be unique. There is nothing unique in the Indian short story. Even in English now nobody reads short stories, now there is no writer of any worth in English or in French, it is outdated as a form.

When you refer to Rushdie and R K Narayan, you speak of rootlessness, that they are not anchored in any language or culture. That rootlessness is celebrated everywhere.

Politically it is the literature of exile, the more exile you are the better writer you are. The perfection of this is to quit India and become a citizen of America, that is the highest achievement of any Indian writer. To remain Indian and go to the roots and become a writer is not possible, the other way is possible. That’s why people right from the first standard want to become Booker prize winners, which are unreadable. It’s print capitalism, nothing else that helps these people. V S Naipaul for instance, even in three books he could find nothing good in India. I taught English for many years, that why I have a phobia since I taught very substandard writers. Poetry particularly, I dislike (in Indian English writers) since should come from the bottom of the language -- these people don’t know words.

Derek Walcott has said something like this about Naipaul-- he kicks his own people and they adore him, he writes in the enemy’s tongue and they knight him. I don’t know if they are victims of the market, who reads them, who are their agents and financiers? I doubt any one with advanced reading taste would read Naipaul.

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