In a strange coincidence, I have recently read two books that present a grand narrative across a vast span of human history. There is a similarity in the approach of Christopher Booker in his Seven Basic Plots, and Karen Armstrong in her A Short History of Myth: prose that seduces with its lucidity, persuading one to accept their elision of particularities, and an engagement with concepts of archetypes.
This collection of essays on the devotional element in Indic religions has an interesting history. It arises from an international conference organized by the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Religions, University of Cambridge, which was widely attended by academics, interested lay participants and ‘devotees’.
Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer passed away in 1992. His writings reveal an intensely reflective scholar, who provided us, amongst other things, with a definition of Hinduism that is remarkable for its apparent simplicity and inherent fluidity. His works were also informed by a concern with the marginal, especially pastoral peoples. Besides writing, he was a film-maker, documenting the lives of the peoples amongst whom he spent his most productive years.
Jawaharlal Nehru was, throughout his life, a teacher and an educator to others as well as to himself. From jail he wrote the letters to his daughter giving to Indira and the younger generation in India glimpses of world history. In the Indian National Congress he was the preacher of new ideas—of socialism, secularism and internationalism.
Adventures beckon those with pockets deep, despite the fact that being an adventurer entails sacrifice of the very luxuries millionaires may be accustomed to. When Dennis Tito paid $20 million or so to the Russian space agency, he was tapping into a fast growing trend—spending big bucks to experience adventures that remain out of bounds for the vast majority.
This book made such compulsive reading that I found myself reading it in bed by torchlight when the power went off. For many years I had not identified so much with a character that was, after all, fictional. All those who are “plump and plain”, branded as “the brains”, and taught to seek comfort in the idea that beauty is only skin deep, will empathize with Naaz Jussawalla, the heroine of this autobiographical novel.
Three people are enmeshed in a story with a varied background. The hero, Anirudh Shukla is just seven years old when he runs away with a Naga Sadhu who calls himself Jungali baba.The boy’s mother has died suddenly, leaving him to the wiles of his cousins, Hari and Jhankana, older than Anirudh, yet not old enough to discount fairy-tale versions of a wicked stepmother in the offing.
It is difficult for certain writers to outgrow the reputation associated with their first novel. They go back to their first tale in each of their subsequent tales and write newer versions of the same. Some of them do it in pursuit of a quest — spiritual or literary. Some others perhaps end up doing so as they do not wish to grow out of their earlier image. A reading of Namita Gokhale’s Shakuntala raises a strong suspicion that the writer has Sanskritized Paro and named her Shakuntala.
The publishing industry in India these days is exhibiting a remarkable interest in publishing translated texts and there is every reason to be happy about the attention they are bestowing on regional language literatures. Though there is no doubt that the translation is always between one Indian language and English, at least the urge to translate into another language (which happens to rule the world!) certainly exhibits the pressure from below.
Both these books are fresh presentations of famous Sanskrit works for the English-reading public. The two writers, distinguished academics who are also husband and wife, had in the past jointly authored abridged translations of the Vedas and selected Upanishads and Puranas. Drawing further from the ancient language’s treasure trove, they have now dealt separately with the best known of its scriptures and some classics from its literature.
Delivering the Presidential Address at the First Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow on 9 April 1936, Premchand said, “There have been many definitions of literature, but in my opinion the best definition of it is – ‘the criticism of life’. Whether in the form of an essay or a poem, literature should criticise and explain life.”
Geetanjali Shree breaks new ground with her novel Khali Jagah or The Empty Space. And not only in the context of her own writing that has over the years traversed much terrain, finding paths adventurous and often surprising. There is little, yet, in Hindi writing that has dealt with the shadow that looms over our modern lives, the fear of bombs and all that they bring in tow; the pain, the confusion, the fracturing of lived reality,