No one who was taught by Professor A.N. Kaul in the 1970s is likely to have forgotten the experience. He would stride into the seedy English Literature classroom in the Arts Faculty Building at the University of Delhi —others might slouch or stroll or canter; Professor Kaul always strode— followed by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke, and he would launch into a controlled but passionate performance of what can only be called The Theatre of Thinking Aloud. Day after day students would be served up an exceptionally rich diet of some Very Solemn Utterances about some Very Thick Books. Professor Kaul would stride to the desk, sit in a nearby chair, speak, gesticulate (cigarette in hand), pause, speak, think, pause, rephrase, and finally— in a Jamesian flourish refined by polished qualifiers —assemble a Very Solemn Utterance. One could almost hear him thinking; it may have been theatre, but there was nothing inauthentic about it. Drawing upon a puckish wit, a composure that was regally assured, and a scholarly authority that was both enviable and terrifying, he would in turn charm and hector his students into original, if reluctant, thought.
Several groups of us were marched, annually, through the vitalities and nuances (both words are his, almost by copyright) of Vanity Fair, Tom Jones, King Lear, The Portrait of a Lady, Middlemarch and, in our case, Heart of Darkness. Speaking for myself, he taught me—both by example and by exhortation—how to read (and write) a critical essay, and he planted in all of us an abiding affection for the mischievous and unpredictable affects of literature. He was that rarest of academics: an exceptional teacher who was also a scholar of some considerable international repute.
An anecdote about him, apocryphal but plausible, goes like this: when asked why he pursued the study of Literature as a graduate student (large L) after having plodded through three years of arcana as a mathematics undergraduate (small m), Professor Kaul replied, famously, that Literature suited him because it was the only subject that could be studied in bed. It was also known that he taught (muted whisper) overseas, Yale in his case, which— during the inflammatory frenzies of Mrs. Gandhi’s socialist nightmare, the Emergency— may as well have been the moon as far as we were concerned. It would be too much to say that his classes were a safe haven for free thought during a thoughtless time, but I suspect that attending his classes—and those of his colleagues as well—provided some of us with something like continuity, a reassuring habit, while the world outside was dissolving into a dreadful discontinuity. He possessed two effectual virtues: the charm of a successful and individual teaching style (personalized, dialectical, didactic, collegial, authoritative) and the robust certitudes of a calling—others might have jobs or careers; Prof. Kaul had a calling— and he remained (wit, shrewdness and all) an embodiment of that sublime academic aberration, charismatic gravitas, the distinguishing feature of all great teachers.
Now, some thirty or so years after being shaped by his rigorous lectures and courses, three of his former students—Rukun Advani, Sambudha Sen, and Ahmer Anwer—have compiled a festschrift in his honour. More than the festschrift, however, the genuine tribute to Professor Kaul may lie in the fact that all the contributors to this volume—many of them Professors themselves in the now demystified United States of America—are his former students and colleagues. It is fairly routine to read of a festschrift in honour of an Indian historian (Kosambi, Thapar, Shastri) or of an Indologist (Bhandarkar, Dandekar) but a festschrift for a long retired Indian professor of English Literature, especially one who made his intellectual debut rescuing the American romance novel from American literary critics, is unusual enough to merit close attention. Yet it seems wholly unremarkable: a collection of essays offered as a commemorative tribute to Professor Kaul needs no justification, and is self-explanatory for those of us who were wrung through and laundered by his cerebral machinery. The more so when the editor, Sambuddha Sen, tells us that he was “amazed at how easily and quickly it all got done.”1
A festschrift [a “collection of writings published in honour of a scholar”, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary] is an event poised somewhere between a furtive gathering of cultic high priests and a dreary family squabble. There is, on the one hand, a professionalized dialect, a history, and a metaphysic already in place—one that is available solely to the initiated—and on the other hand there is the homage paid to a symbolic father coupled with the desire, simultaneously, to outflank him and his other children. An aggressive camaraderie: is there anything more carnivalesque than that? Indian equivalents of festschriften ought to be called melashrifts.
And Mastering Western Texts is gratifyingly just that. Prefaced by Rukun Advani’s delightfully insouciant nostalgia, and introduced by a warm and generous reminiscence of those distant Kauline days by the editor, Sambudha Sen, this is a pleasing collection of pieces by critical essayists doing what they do best, which is opening texts and ideas to readings that are unusual and meticulously reasoned. If Rukun Advani is only partly jesting when he allows Professor Kaul to outrank God in his personal literary theology, then Sambuddha Sen is not far behind when he adopts the term Kauline as the adjective best suited to describe the distinctive perspectives of his former teacher.
The essays that follow the Introduction, all of a remarkably high calibre, are as various as any group of literary essays that one is likely to stumble across. Some of them deal with cultural issues (Gauri Vishwanathan, Professor Brijraj Singh), some with critical terminology (Professor Shirshendu Chakrabarti, Suvir Kaul, Ania Loomba), some with histories (Tapan Basu, Pradip Kumar Datta) and some with Professor Kaul’s critical work (Ahmer Anwer, Rashmi Bhatnagar). Some are textualist unravellings (Suvir Kaul, Madhu Dubey, Ruth Vanita) while others rehearse larger swathes of textual and cultural material (Sambuddha Sen, Gautam Chakravarty). It seems, on the face of it, that the editor is right when he says that they have nothing in common: not a method, nor a period, nor an area, nor a genre.
I did locate a procedural unity in the essays, though, and one which is no less binding for being commonplace. All the essays were exercises in what I would call—rephrasing E.P.Thompson—Literary-Cultural Criticism From Below. That is, they are all revisionist readings of literary texts, social issues, and Professor Kaul’s own commentarial writings; an arbitrary assortment of approaches, no doubt, but revisionist all the same. A few examples will suffice for the entire volume. Madhu Dubey, for instance, locates Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in her (Morrison’s) refusal to participate, during the mid-70s African American turn to the south, in the communitarian nostalgia of former years because it is disenfranchising [pp 71-90]; Professor Brijraj Singh contends that John Wilkes and his radical brethren were at least as important as Locke and his books on government in “strengthening the foundations of liberal democracy and capitalism” [p.156]; Suvir Kaul locates a premonitory gothic moment in Lillo’s 1721 play The London Merchant [pp 116-134]; Ruth Vanita makes a plausible case for Hindi cinemagoers being inadvertently primed to read the once controversial and homoerotic Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall [pp 262-279]; Ahmer Anwer argues that Prof. Kaul’s own work levers the historically specific into the [then] creaking machinery of essentialist American literary criticsim [pp 1-22]; Rashmi Bhatnagar (using Swift and Desani, a perfectly matched pair) establishes the currency of Kaul’s apparently dated perspectives [pp 380-202]; Sen reads Thackeray and Dickens through the illustrations of Cruikshank and the vocabulary of reaction that condensed around Jerrold, the editor of Punch [pp 157-180]; Professor Chakrabarty reveals the tensile strengths of Shelley’s apparent weaknesses. All the commentaries in this book, in short, display canonical ideas modified through the lens of the anti-intuitive; and they are all examples of premium stuff.
There are, of course, some hefty bumps along the way. I had some trouble negotiating Ahmer Anwer’s suggestion that Professor Kaul’s book was both foundationalist and historicist, but that was a minor obstacle compared to navigating the concrete blockade of his style which reads, in fact, like a grand parody of a critical mode. I am yet to be convinced that it isn’t one. Here, for instance, is the first (and quite typical) sentence of his piece:
Tracing a tightly intersticed [sic] path of passage [sic] on the shared borders of bibliophilic passions, the political economy of the book, and the literate sphere’s opinions-scanning curiosity, the reviewer qua genre submits to the conditions of its [sic] possibilities
Some seventeen muscular polysyllables in a 37 word sentence. And what does it mean? That, as we are told in the next line, “reviewing knows its chore”. Who would have thought it? But here is a more resounding sentence yet, marshalled to point to…well, to what? It could be anything from a burp to a snore:
[…] nothing more profound than the ideal-affective reflex of a meaningless muscular spasm that convulses belly and lungs in a paroxysmic [sic] upheaval of little dignity and utter semantic arbitrariness—a strictly aleatory utterance.
In fact it is about laughter; which set me wondering how a laugh could be “meaningless” and possess “utter semantic arbitrariness”. On the contrary, it seems as if—given silence, eyebrow-raising, eye-batting, lip-pursing and all the extra-linguistic gestures of our social selves —laughter, like tears, is semantically overdetermined.
Nor is he the only offender against aesthetic elegance [his argument, unlike his patois, is entirely acceptable]: the postcolonial idiom of some of the other essays make for a lumbering, join-the-dots tendentiousness, and an unnecessary convolution of the obvious. These lacklustre essays—a goodly few of them—make for vigorous accounts enfeebled by the infected air of rote performance. In wholesome and absorbing contrast to these are the nimble expositions of a fair number of others—Brijraj Singh, Tapan Basu and Ruth Vanita chief among them—who deserve a special mention for lucidity over and above the call of obligation.
My main quibble, though, is with the ungainly and dreary title, Mastering Western Texts. “Mastering” almost submerges the sense of the book [it seems to me that the essays undermine rather than master, and that mastery is therefore assumed]; “Texts” inundates it further [the subtitle, Essays on Literature and Society, closer to the truth, is clearly in conflict with the title]; but the fatal torpedo is detonated by “Western”. As one interlocutor said to Mortimer Adler, the editor of The Great Books of the Western World, “Western? West of what, my dear sir?” Clearly there are many Wests with many texts, and none of them have access to a monocular perspective2 . “The West” and its variants are slogans which work well in political harangue or forensic rhetoric, but heuristically they are worse than useless; they are misleading. An exemplary illustration is fortunately at hand. Is Professor Kaul’s book The American Vision [originally published in America by Yale University Press at New Haven in 1963 and 1971 and reprinted in Delhi by Oxford University Press in 2000] a western or an eastern text? If The West means anything at all, it means a discourse; and since it is a discourse in which we all participate and to which we all contribute, we are all—in a discursive sense— western. 3
Be that as it may, this little volume makes for some agreeable and informative reading. Neither portentous nor self-important (nor diffident nor frivolous), it is a perfect homage to a teacher whose students have not only saturated the Anglo-American academy, but seem to have extended their expertise across the enormous range of the canonical as well. Professor Kaul will surely find enough substance here to satisfy his critical enthusiasm for vitality, and— more to the point—be delighted that he has been significantly responsible for producing so many exceptional academic authorities. Rukun Advani, Sambudha Sen and Ahmer Anwer have good reason to be satisfied with the final product. Speaking for myself, however, I have a suggestion for the editor and the publisher both. Rename the book. For the paperback edition call it, with all the resonance and ambiguity inherent in such a term, Orientations. It does the trick rather well, I think.
- It is only fair to add that one of the crucial reasons that the editor himself furnishes as a raison d’etre for the book is to express (in his words) a “solidarity with the educational system” which produced a teacher like Professor Kaul, an educational system that is rapidly being eroded by the offensives launched by the Sangh Parivar toward higher education, especially in the humanities and the social sciences. That this is not an altogether unreasonable misgiving is all too easily borne out, alas, by the recent gutting of the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune by the Sambhaji Brigade, and the destruction of several thousand manuscripts, some of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. The event, which occurred on January 6, 2004, postdates Sambuddha Sen’s anxieties and clearly justifies them.
- In a slipshod—and inadvertantly ironic— assessment, Adler chooses, as the first representative of his Great Books of the Western World series, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws. Hammurabi was Mesopotamian; that is, he belonged to the Near East and was from Babylon which is now in Iraq. If this does nothing else, it points to the grim absurdity of the American occupation of Iraq, or, if Adler’s ideas had their way, The West’s occupation of The West.
- Huein Tsang’s extraordinary mid-first millennium passage to India, for instance, was mythologized in the Chinese epic Journey to the West.
Arjun Mahey teaches at St. Stephens College, Delhi University, Delhi.