A Gash in the World

Chapter 6         The Terrain of Interpretation 

6.1

In September, Harold packed his bags for Grindelwald and India. He’d failed to accomplish much over the summer, though Harold was by now better acquainted with the literature surrounding the Sahityashastra. Asha had agreed to help. After Ajit’s death, it was evident that they weren’t faced with mere muggings and accidents. A chain of three closely linked deaths was no coincidence. Even the police’s occasional doubts about the matter were now quelled, vindicating Harold’s initial claims. Bits and scraps of insights into Meghnad’s project and the enigma of the Sahityashastra spurred Harold and Asha on.

Among other things, Harold packed two pairs of white cotton kurta pajamas for India. He looked forward to wearing them. There was also his only Nehru jacket, in black raw silk. For Grindelwald, he folded some sweaters and a parka. He also included a couple of sports coats for the conference and for India. He bundled in two of his handmade Scottish combs, of which he had seven. Harold was fastidious about smaller things like his combs. He thought them beautiful, and kept a supply in reserve.

He was flying that evening to Geneva. In the morning he would board a train to Interlaken, where he would transfer to another smaller train to Grindelwald. He had traveled through Switzerland several times and especially liked the towns of Zurich and Gruyère. This time he would have no time for sightseeing; he would lay over for only three days before flying to India.

Harold made a few phone calls, one to Asha, but her answering machine picked up. In any case, they had had a long chat yesterday. He instructed his secretary to be alert to email and faxes from him in India. At that point, his doorbell rang. His ride to Kennedy had arrived. The driver loaded the trunk of the car with his bags and they sped to the airport.

Not long after, Harold tightened his safety belt in his business class seat. A copy of The Economist was sticking out of the pocket in front of him. He pulled it out and noted the names of the seven countries on the cover under an article titled “The Twenty-First Century.” To Harold’s surprise, one of them was India. He opened to the relevant page and skimmed a World Bank report that predicted that the U.S., Japan, Germany, China, India, Indonesia, and Korea would be the seven top economic powers of the world in the first half of the next century.

After a quick meal, Harold drifted to sleep. When he awoke, they were landing at Geneva airport under a pale blue morning sky. Before long he was on his way by train to Interlaken. As he looked out on the Arcadian hills outside, the train speeding towards its destination, he had a thought about the murder. It struck him that the Sahityashastra might have political implications relating to the current situation in India. He should search for evidence to justify this hypothesis.

 

6.2

Chaturvedi was scrambling to finish his paper on the convexity of form at Khajuraho. He had three days before he left for Grindelwald. He coaxed his wife to pack his bags, and ensconced himself in his campus office.

Amonkar, his student, had also forged ahead. He could easily parlay a couple of his ideas into a dissertation. Chaturvedi had channeled time and energy into that endeavor, and his own paper had suffered.

But most of all, the string of murders Harold had written to Chaturvedi about had intrigued him. He knew about the group Meghnad had formed and thought Harold might find that information useful. He switched to his email and wrote a small note.

“Dear Harold,

I thought you’d like to know that Meghnad had formed a research group to study the literature on the Sahityashastra. Jim Boyd was part of it. He had also approached me, but I had declined on account of our project on architecture. See you in Grindelwald.

Cheers,

Chaturvedi”

Then Chaturvedi returned to his paper. He spooned a piece of idli into his mouth. The hermeneutic method that he was employing had many versions. He favored Fisher’s approach, which enlarged the field of acceptable evidence and brought it in line with the scientific method. This is exactly what Harold was doing in his attempt to solve the murders. He was using his imagination to paint the mental life of Meghnad. And such broader evidence would confirm or refute his hypotheses and deductions. In an important sense, the method was circular. The hypotheses pointed to the evidence and the evidence suggested the hypotheses, resulting in the famous hermeneutic circle.

Chaturvedi’s theory postulated that the rounded breasts and bottoms of Khajuraho were in fact abstract, not intended to be like real breasts and bottoms, but exaggerated, geometrically idealized into regular volumes to depict the fullness of life itself. They represented plenitude and fulfillment.

He polished off the paper the day he was to fly to Geneva. He emailed it to the organizers and, for the first time in days, felt content. He realized that Dwivedi and Trivedi had left the previous night. He looked forward to seeing his colleagues in Grindelwald.

 

6.3

Grindelwald appeared to be a charming hamlet. The first person Harold saw as he stepped from the train was Chaturvedi with boots and a light black parka. He seemed

comfortable as Harold struggled with his bags and hailed a porter. Fortunately, Harold’s hotel, Hotel Regina, was just around the corner. He walked with Chaturvedi who waited in the lobby as Harold checked in.

“You seem all dressed up for a hike. Where are you off to?” Harold asked.

“We’re planning to go tomorrow, during the administrative session. There are about five of us and we were counting on you, too.”

“Me? I’ve brought only regular dress shoes.” Harold had never been an outdoors person.

After checking in, they wound along the main road full of vacationers in bright colors and passed by the Sports Centre. Outside on the patio was a large chess set inscribed on the ground with giant wooden pieces. Two Indologists, Franz and Vijay, their brows furrowed, were contemplating moves on the board. Franz was from Austria and Vijay from Delhi. They glanced up as Harold and Chaturvedi approached.

“Here are two of our hikers,” Chaturvedi announced to Harold.

“Franz, Vijay, how are you? We’ll leave you to your game and catch up with you later,” Harold said.

They sauntered down the road. Boutiques lined the streets. The town exuded the feel of a quaint but touristy spot. Many visitors ambled towards the various cable car rides. Presently, Harold and Chaturvedi branched off the main road and arrived at yet another ride.

“In one respect, Switzerland is like India. The people here give you directions even when they don’t know where the place is! I got so many wrong directions to this ride yesterday. Directions that were way off. Someone even sent me to the foot of the mountains themselves!” Chaturvedi laughed.

Harold joined him. “I’ve had the same experience in India, especially in Bombay. They’re trying to be helpful.”

“Do you want to stop for lunch somewhere?”

“Not a bad idea.”

“Then you can tell me all about your progress with Meghnad.”

They soon approached a restaurant with a dazzling view of the valley spread out below, green and wooded.

“Isn’t this beautiful? What an expanse!” Chaturvedi exclaimed.

“Let’s hope the food matches the scenery,” Harold said, knowing from past experience that many such establishments offered indifferent fare.

They sat at a table by a window.

“Thanks for that message about Meghnad’s group. I knew it in my bones. That strengthens my idea about the role of the Sahityashastra in this whole business.”

“But it’s going to be difficult, what with the meager evidence,” Chaturvedi said.

“You can’t ignore the facts. First Meghnad, then Jim Boyd, and now Ajit. What about the group? What were they doing, specifically?”

“Well, I had other commitments, including our research, so I wasn’t really a member…”

After a long pause, Harold continued, “What do you make of Meghnad’s anti-communalism?”

“I feel many Hindus have become fundamentalists not so much because of their differences with other religious communities, but because of the general impact of modernity and the modern world. They feel threatened by this challenge posed to their way of life, and have been driven to extreme views as a reaction to this pressure. This is sometimes hidden from view, because the clashes with other communities, especially the Muslims, are so much more visible. The contrasts, the economic disparities between traditional and modern modes, the greater freedoms available through modernity in practically every dimension of life, the narrowly conceived foreign policies of Western powers, the forces of globalization, all accentuated by the media, create this stress. And the nationwide politics of caste exacerbates this stress. This pressure is very real and what is required is a redefinition of the role of religion. Because of the social vacuum in liberalism, religion and liberalism are quite compatible, as long as religion doesn’t aspire to be the organizing principle of society. It is fundamentalist anti-liberalism that leads to an assertion of Hinduism and this in turn leads to a downgrading of other religions. There is today also a kind of diffidence among Hindus, partly a result of India’s history of being invaded and conquered and partly a result of the collision with modernity.”

“I think I dimly understand the fundamentalists,” Harold said, “though I can’t personally imagine anything but a secular view of things. Religion is no longer available to us; we can’t go back in time. We’re caught in a history of transition: God died in the previous century, an event Nietzsche proclaimed with a certain brazenness to hide his abject condition, and we have yet to invent a formula to live by.”

Chaturvedi nodded. “That is why it’s all so messy. One often can’t condone their actions, but they are not always badly motivated. It’s not always easy to take sides. The world of the so-called progressives is altogether too simple. It’s a realm of blacks and whites and neat partitions. I wish reality were that simple. After all, Gandhi and Tagore have influenced all three traditions—liberalism and Hinduism and Hindu fundamentalism—so there are many points of overlap. Of course, the unique thing about liberalism is that it allows many different value systems in society. A religious state imposes one set of values on everyone.”

“The trouble is fundamentalism is a sign of extreme strain on a world,” Harold said. “This pressure leads either to disintegration or to extreme reaffirmation. The world of the fundamentalist is a sad one. He is no longer at home in the world.”

“It is always difficult to stand outside a world and see inside it. I think it’s easier when you are a Hindu yourself. The blurred lines make it possible to go in and out of that world and see things from within. Basically, it is no different from other worlds, whether liberal or otherwise. Fundamentalists and liberals both have things they will try to protect and things they will try to destroy. The contents of their values are very different, but their forms are the same.”

“Yes, but it’s these contents that make all the difference,” Harold added.

“Of course. My point is just that one needs to make real contact with them, take their ideas seriously. It’s not easy. We live in different moral universes, even though we can sometimes enter their world. The power of the modern world, of the West, leads us to devalue and caricature a dense world of cultural forms and meanings that a large mass of humanity embodies. While it can be extreme and violent and often full of hatred and incomprehension itself, the only solution is a genuine dialogue.”

“I think you’re too optimistic, Chaturvedi. Besides, who in India would conduct the dialogue? Those who oppose fundamentalism are in disarray.”

“Perhaps the dialogue could be carried out at multiple levels, in a decentralized way? Hindus interacting with Muslims and others in everyday life, through all kinds of organizations and associations, especially in the worlds of business and commerce, and also via formal bodies that might be set up for specifically this purpose. Social ties between different groups have snapped in recent times and these have to be rebuilt at all levels, or this paranoia will just escalate on all sides,” Chaturvedi continued animatedly.

Harold nodded in agreement with Chautrvedi. “I suspect that a certain extreme ideology is rampant today, even among the more educated classes, and it will be a while before that subsides. The more pressing task is, of course, to ensure that there are no more violent outbreaks. But ultimately, such efforts usually amount to dealing with symptoms rather than causes. In the end, it is the beliefs and values that need to change.”

“That is the profound challenge of modern civilization: how to integrate the disenfranchised, so that they, too, can play a part in the story of the world. The East once preceded the West, today it lags behind in relative disarray, grasping at whatever straws it can find, a once glorious past being the most seductive siren song of all.”

“It is difficult, but not impossible, especially if the West does not act unfairly, narrowly, and insecurely. It must be the first to recognize the full meaning of globalization, often distorted by the limited search for short-term profits and economic dominance.”

“For its part, the men and women of the East must seek out modern ways without abandoning the wellsprings of their own cultures, the most difficult task of all,” Chaturvedi said.

“It is the old dialectic of recognition of Hegel,” Harold concluded with a sigh.

They switched their conversation to their research on the architecture of India. They had scarcely glanced outside, so absorbed had they been in their ruminations. Chaturvedi had wolfed down the raclette and roast potatoes, savoring every morsel, though Harold grumbled to the waiter about the lack of flavor. A little light-headed from the wine, they rose reluctantly, casting a long gaze at the panorama below. It would soon be time for the Congress’s opening address. They parted company and Harold strolled back to his hotel.

Over a hundred and fifty Indologists had gathered in Grindelwald. The opening address by the President of the Indology Congress was lackluster and monochromatic, but Chaturvedi’s talk, scheduled for eight p.m., sounded promising to Harold. There were also some talks about his early work on rasa theory.

It turned out to be a long evening. Harold walked alone in the cool night to the Regina, half a mile from the conference. His own lecture would follow tomorrow, after lunch. The last time he had delivered that talk, someone had died. He recalled his sense of foreboding and discomfort that fateful evening in New York.

 

6.4

The conference had been reasonably successful, and above all, they had all had a good time. Over sixty countries were represented. Chaturvedi had decided to stay on a few days, but Harold was leaving immediately. They did hike up to Kleine Scheidegg on the last day, and they persuaded Harold to go as well. He was sore when he sat down in his seat on the plane.

Harold had to admit he was tired. First the conference, then the hike. There had been altogether too many talks on Indian Studies itself, indicating to Harold an unhealthy reflexivity in the discipline. Scholars had droned on about issues of method, which in itself was hardly a bad thing, but it threatened to eclipse straightforward studies on regular subject matter. The methodological work all boiled down to reading, like everything else. That is how he had met Nisha in fact, at another lecture of hers “On Reading: The Disambiguation of Texts.” All these things were connected. Nisha had argued that reading was a precarious activity, that you were always teetering near the abyss of meaning and nonsense, and it was precisely the plurality of readings that made it so. Harold wondered how these considerations might apply to Meghnad’s aborted novel, “The Sixth Veda,” not to mention the case itself.

What was both dangerous and amusing were these methodologists’ titles: one was “Indian Studies, Sex, and the Anti-representationalism of Ancient Sculpture,” another was “Sex, Lies, and Indology,” and a third was “Narrativization, Sex, and Indian Figuration.” When queried about the multiple occurrences of ‘sex’ in the titles, these academics from Literature Departments gravely said sex was a necessary component of the study of the arts, whether ancient or modern, and especially of the study of Indian art. And who was going to deny that?

Harold reluctantly left Grindelwald. He had a layover of a few hours at the Geneva airport, during which time he busied himself at the bookstore. He was soon in his seat in an aircraft bound for India, and a different set of images, anticipating the contradictions of a rapidly modernizing country, the pulls of the past and the future set in a confusing present, some of them in harmony, but many more in raucous discord, appeared before him. A spreading saffron shawl began to crowd out the verdant pastures and snow-capped peaks of Switzerland.

 

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