A Gash in the World

Chapter 8            The Same and the Different

 

In the candlelight, the Sanskrit form of “Sahityashastra” glowed back at Harold from the first page. The volume’s dimensions indicated that it must have been transcribed in British times, probably in the late 1800s. He wondered at its solitary history. Somehow, by some miracle of fate, this volume had survived. Reading further, he recognized that it was based on Jagannatha’s version of the seventeenth century. It had been copied by Sukumara in 1899.

This discovery suggested a change in strategy. There was no longer any need to read around the Sahityashastra. He had the book itself and could now abandon the scrupulous, painful search for relevant critical materials. He need not fret about reconstructions on such a thin base of evidence. He now had an opportunity to test some of his ideas.

“Where did you find this?” Harold asked the priest.

“It’s been here ever since I came to Ranipur, which is five years ago. The priest in charge  before me died and they called me to take over from another temple. I found the volume in the sanctuary. Though I can read Sanskrit and could tell it was a shastra, I never imagined it could be important to anyone. I assumed it was just one more copy. But there was always a lingering question about it at the back of my mind. What is it?”

“As far as I know, it is the only extant copy of the Sahityashastra written by Bharata in the third century. Many great writers have written that it is a magnificent work, but it got lost after the eleventh century. An Englishman found two copies in the 1860s but drowned with them. Until now there has been no chance of reading it. This will make world news. You and your temple will become famous.”

“And to think that I have had it for the last five years,” the priest said.

“We must act quickly. You must give me the volume, I will read it, and then take it to the proper authorities to translate it,” Harold said.

“Perhaps I should try to manage these things myself. How can I trust you?” the priest asked.

“You have no choice. Very few people are qualified to handle it. Besides, why would I tell you of its importance if I had any ulterior motives? Let me assure you, I have no intention other than to see it translated and disseminated widely,” Harold said impatiently.

“But you must bring it back, because it belongs to the temple,” the priest said, now more concerned to possess it. “I would be happy if you left a deposit of, say, ten thousand rupees.”

Harold said, “That’s fine with me.” He dug into his wallet for three hundred dollars.

“Will this do? It’s about the same amount.”

“Fine. You can keep the volume for now. But you must bring it back soon, let’s say within six months.”

“Thanks very much,” Harold said. “I really appreciate it. This is a great work.” He patted the Sahityashastra, thrilled by the prospect of reading and translating it.

Suresh was mesmerized by what Harold had said and keenly interested in the book’s contents and its future. Harold thanked the priest again and they departed from the temple for Nirana. They were silent on their way back. Harold was busy planning what he would do. Suresh was still captivated by Harold’s revelations.

“Thank you very much, Suresh. This has been most exciting. Who would have imagined we would unearth the Sahityashastra of all things? You’ve been a delightful companion.”

“It’s been great talking to you. I didn’t think you would know Sanskrit. But I suppose Indologists do. Do let me know the next time you visit Nirana,” Suresh said. “Maybe when it’s time to return the book,” he added with a smile.

“All the best to you. Hope to see you soon.”

Harold hurried back to his room, his mind racing at the thought of reading the ancient text. He ran into Mrs. Gupta when he rounded a corner in the lower hall.

“Back from your trip? How was it? Where are you rushing to?” Mrs. Gupta asked.

“Do you know what we found at the temple? A copy of the Sahityashastra! Do you know what it is?” Harold asked.

“Not really. It must be one of the various shastras, I suppose,” Mrs. Gupta said, clearly a little surprised by his agitation.

“Yes, of course,” Harold said. “It was written by Bharata, the author of the Natyashastra, and was believed to be lost. And now it turns up in the Ranipur temple. What amazing good fortune! It is supposed to be a very important work and has been commented on by many people through history. This must surely be the discovery of the decade, and for Indianists the discovery of the century. I’m hurrying to my room to read it. It’s going to be slow and difficult. It’s all in Sanskrit. By the way, please don’t mention this to anyone.”

Mrs. Gupta smiled gently at her guest. “Do tell me about it when you’re done. Don’t let me keep you. And mum’s the word.”

Harold didn’t mind telling Mrs. Gupta about the volume because he knew she would find out from Suresh in any case. But he was anxious not to spread its news gratuitously.

He unlocked his door, strode into the darkened interior, and set the book on the table on top of “Ayodhya and Beyond.” He tugged off his shoes and switched on the bedside lamp. He slouched in the chair next to the table, grasped the volume, and unwrapped it. Once he’d stripped off the cloth, an acrid musty odor pervaded the room. He wistfully fingered the cover.

He suddenly shivered violently. For a moment the room assumed a baleful air. Harold shook off the feeling, and peered at the long room bathed in the lamp’s yellow glow.

He thought the medieval setting was perfect for his reading. It linked him with history, with Abhinavagupta and Dhananjaya and others before them who had also read and commented on the Sahityashastra. He hoped he could do justice to the work. With a reverential sigh filled with joy and sorrow, he began to read.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold read for three straight hours, transfixed by the volume in his hands. The dense text required slow, meticulous concentration and he’d jotted copious notes.

It appeared to be a model of minimalism, as compact and elegant as a spare mathematical treatise. It was expressed in a mixture of prose and verse, the language hard and scintillating. Throughout, there were intimations of the ideas and arguments of other thinkers and texts—even Thucydides and Plato and Aristotle among those from outside India—and it was full of asides. This made the text a cornucopia of ideas and observations, engaging reading for anyone with the slightest curiosity about matters relating to social life.

The book was divided into two parts. By eight o’clock Harold had finished a few chapters of the first part. The beginning surprised Harold. The two thousand year old Sahityashastra started with a deconstructive move. Bharata launched with the triad of literature, religion, and the state. To these three dimensions, he added a fourth, the concept of a rational actor. With dazzling effect it transformed the inert triad completely; it was like inserting the fourth dimension of time into space.

A rational actor was just one who chose his actions rationally, that is, in a way that maximized desire. Rationality and desire weren’t opposed in Bharata’s mind; they unfolded together. This strategy offered Bharata four terms, a quartet of literature, religion, state, and rational actors.

Harold summarized the first step of a complicated, arduous argument.

For a while, he reflected on what he’d absorbed. His own penetration had enabled him to isolate the key contours of the first step. It certainly clarified that Dhananjaya was discussing the modern concept of a rational agent in his comments on the Sahityashastra. Harold was even more animated now after sampling the volume. At the very least, it would have a major impact on Indian Studies. Much would be written about it, many dissertations would be done on it, many conferences would be held on it. It would reconfigure the canon. Beyond Indian Studies, its reach would extend into every pocket of Indian life. And it was bound to lift the veil draped over Meghnad’s case.

He sauntered over to the dining room, where he spotted Frank Thompson in a corner and decided to join him. Frank was the head of “Publish or Perish,” an American publishing house. He also liked India and had visited six times. They exchanged greetings as they ate their dinner, spiced potato balls with dal and rice.

“Hi Harold, what’s new?” Frank asked.

“Oh, the usual,” Harold said. He knew Frank was a hawk who would swoop down on the slightest sighting of the Sahityashastra. “By the way, how long does it take you to bring out translations typically, translations of books in ancient languages? I mean just a ballpark figure.”

“That’s hard to say. It depends on many things, not least the length of the book. But let me say a year to two years. Why?” Frank asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Just out of curiosity. It doesn’t seem to take much longer than ordinary translations.”

The talk drifted to “Rasa Theory: New Developments” by Subhash Mhatre, brought out by Publish or Perish, in which the author had started out with Harold’s account as a base. Frank was well read in the area and even bantered with Harold about the contribution of the analytic Jaipur school.

“When do you leave Nirana? Tomorrow?” Frank asked.

“Yes, I leave in the afternoon. I’m going to be in Delhi for a day, and then I’ll fly to Bombay,” Harold said.

“I’ll be in Bombay too. Where are you staying?” Frank asked.

“At the Taj initially. Then, I’ll move to one of the university apartments. And you?”

“Also at the Taj. Let’s have lunch when we’re there.”

“Sure,” Harold said.

They were rising from the table, smoothing their napkins, when Mrs. Gupta saw her opportunity and accosted Harold. “I wanted to talk to you about arrangements for tomorrow for you to return to Delhi. I’ve organized a taxi for you and Mr. Allen, who is also our guest—he’s from the American Embassy—at three. Our normal checkout time is two, but we do give an extra grace hour. Does that suit you?”

“Very well, thanks again for all the arrangements. Three p.m. is perfect. I’ll be in Delhi by five with a little time to rest before a dinner engagement,” Harold said.

“Very well then. I hope dinner was satisfactory,” Mrs. Gupta said.

“It was excellent. Those potato balls were especially good. Good night,” Harold said, stepping out of the dining room.

“Good night,” Mrs. Gupta called out after him.

Harold retired to his room, fatigued but excited. He might have to put aside his research with Chaturvedi in order to translate the Sahityashastra. For a while, he browsed through swaths of the text, studying the introduction of rationality carefully. He made more legible and systematic notes so he could follow the argument step by step.

Soon, though, he fell asleep, his head swirling in triangular visions of literature, religion, and state.

 

 

……

 

 

By five a.m., day still had not begun to break; the indigo sky bled only a hint of light. The air was still and cool. Nirana stood like a dark ghost, only its outline visible. The rest of it rose like a portentous mass from the plains. Nothing stirred in the vastness, betokening a primitive unpeopled time and space when there was no observer and no observed, only an inert beautiful silence in the cosmos. While Nirana slept, Jai Mirdha, the waiter, was busy preparing himself for the temple.

Known as a wise man at Nirana among the staff as well as in the village community, Jai went to the temple every Sunday morning to pray. People confided their troubles to him and he dispensed a kind of folk justice and wisdom. He solved problems that transcended the purview of the Panchayat. He was now bathing to be ready for the temple.

Jai loved this hour of the morning. No one was awake and he could feel a special connection with nature. He realized that he and others like him were no longer embedded in the natural world like the villagers of only a few decades earlier, that the umbilical cords that had bound them to this mute world had snapped and left them uneasy and, in some dimly experienced sense, free consciousnesses. Forces they could not even remotely imagine shaped the new world, full of the jarring noises of trucks plying the roads. They had to learn to find their way again.

The solitary hour allowed him time to reflect. He had many issues to resolve. Swapna had committed adultery, an urban middleman had cheated Bhola, and one of the landowners was bullying Adil. The world outside had intruded upon the village in harsh, occasionally promising, often unpredictable ways, and it was left to Jai to decipher it and offer hope.

He mounted his bicycle and peddled off for the temple. He knew the road well and used the time to observe the nascent blue of the sky bordering the dark green of the earth. He soon heard the sounds of the village starting the day. In the stillness the noise carried far.

He skirted the village to avoid meeting anyone at this hour and soon arrived at the temple. Jai felt something wasn’t quite right. For one thing the temple was deserted. Usually a few penitents were already milling around by this time, but now it was pitch black inside. A strong sense of unease gripped him. He rested his bicycle on its stand and approached the temple.

He stepped inside and walked deliberately through the porch into the mandapa. As he groped in the dark, something touched his forehead. He put his hand out and felt flesh and what seemed like a fingernail. He spread his fingers and felt more nails. His hand traveled upwards till he came to a heel. The foot was sloping downwards and it was cold. Then Jai felt a second foot next to the first and he cried out in terror. He pivoted around and stumbled out of the temple and ran towards the village.

He managed to find another villager to accompany him and told him to bring a light. Expectant and afraid, Jai and Hari rushed back. They entered the temple with a lantern, forming eerie patterns on the walls. The sight was too much for the men. Hari ran, shouting. Jai cried out again.

 

 

……

 

 

An urgent knocking startled Harold awake, causing alarm. A vague chill of trepidation crept over him. He hastened to the door, swung it open, and saw Mrs. Gupta poised white with terror.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, now alert.

“Professor Stone, the priest of the Ranipur temple is dead. I thought I should tell you since you were with him just yesterday. Maybe you know something.”

“What?” Harold exclaimed. “The murders have followed me here. We were with him till about five o’clock yesterday. How did it happen?”

“One of our waiters went to the temple this morning for his weekly puja. When he got there, he found the priest hanging from the temple ceiling,” Mrs. Gupta said.

“What can we do?”

“The police have already been notified.”

“Maybe I should go to the temple and take a look?”

“The police are probably at the temple right now.”

“I should go anyway, just in case,” Harold said. “Is Suresh going to be in today?”

“Yes, Suresh will be here around ten. I’m sure he’ll agree to go when we tell him what’s happened,” Mrs. Gupta said.

“I’ll be ready by then.”

Hanging involved premeditation and planning, a ritualistic method, like an execution. Harold’s chest tightened. He felt certain the hanging was a kind of retribution.

He decided to break his morbid train of thought and changed his clothes and walked over to breakfast. He was glad he was returning to Delhi. His life, too, could be in danger. At breakfast, he met Mr. Allen. They introduced themselves and got up for the buffet.

“Did you hear about the murder?” Bob Allen asked, as they regarded the spread on the table.

“You know about it?” Harold asked.

“Everyone’s talking about it. It seems one of the waiters found the priest hanging from the temple ceiling. Sounds gruesome. Poor fellow. I wonder how they know it isn’t a suicide.”

“I suppose because the ceiling is too high. Besides, it’s very unlikely that a priest would commit suicide in a temple,” Harold said.

When they sat down, the entire dining room was tittering with conversation. A rasa-like anxiety floated in the air. Several versions of the killing circulated, from hanging to shooting to poisoning; each version provoked its own brand of perverse speculation. Though everyone was anxious, there was also a certain titillation they derived from gossiping about the murder. Mrs. Gupta was reassuring people that it was a purely local matter, at most an internal vendetta of some kind.

In the midst of this excitement the police showed up. There were two of them, in khaki, and after a brief formal exchange with Mrs. Gupta, she ushered them over to Harold’s table. A silence spread across the dining room as everyone strained to hear the conversation.

“Professor Stone, I’m Inspector Shekhawat and this is Officer Jain. I understand you were one of the last persons to talk with the priest of the Ranipur temple before he died. We would like to question you briefly about the circumstances leading to his death. I hope we won’t be interrupting your breakfast.”

“Not at all,” Harold said.

They led Harold outside the dining room, out of everyone’s earshot.

“Professor Stone, when were you at the temple yesterday?” Shekhawat asked.

“I was there for about an hour, roughly from four to five in the afternoon, Inspector,” Harold replied.

“What was the purpose of your visit?”

“Mrs. Gupta had arranged the trip for me. It was just a casual outing.”

“Did you talk to the priest?”

“Yes, briefly.”

“May I ask what the subject of your conversation was?” the Inspector asked.

“We talked briefly about the carvings on the temple walls.”

“Did you notice anything unusual?”

“No, there were just a handful of people about.”

“And after you finished talking to the priest, what did you do?”

“I returned to Nirana.”

“Thank you, Professor. We think the murder occurred some time between nine and midnight. You were one of the last people to talk to him.”

“What are your thoughts about the murder, Inspector?”

“Well, it wasn’t suicide for sure. We think it is an outside job, though we have very little evidence at the moment. Thank you again,” the Inspector said, and left.

The book never entered their discussion. Harold was not inclined to bring it up himself as he feared it could be lost in the maze of police bureaucracy. He returned to his table.

“Why did they want to question you?” Bob asked.

“I was at the temple yesterday and met the priest,” Harold said.

Mrs. Gupta hurried to their table. “What did they ask you?”

“Oh, it was just routine. When I was at the temple and what I did there.”

“Did they say anything about it?”

“They thought it was a murder and that it was probably someone from outside the village.”

“Did you tell them about the book?”

Harold replied, “No, not really, I saw no point in mentioning it.”

“That was probably wise. I doubt it has anything to do with the murder anyway.” Mrs. Gupta walked away.

Silent through this brief exchange, Bob asked, “What do you do, Harold?”

“I teach Indian Studies at Harvard,” Harold said. “And you?”

“I’m a visa officer at the Embassy.”

“You are a powerful man then.”

“No, not really,” Bob said self-effacingly. “We do what we can.”

Young, of medium build, with clear blue eyes in an oval face, Bob seemed an agreeable sort of fellow, at least as a travelling companion.

“How did you like Nirana?” Harold asked.

“It’s rather nice. I hope I can bring my girlfriend here when she visits. I’m sure she’d like it. She’s an architect. By the way, what is that book you and Mrs. Gupta were talking about?”

“I’ll tell you about it in the car. Excuse me.” Harold folded his linen napkin and rose abruptly from the table.

Mrs. Gupta’s remark “I doubt it has anything to do with the murder anyway” had stuck in Harold’s mind. He hoped she was right.

 

 

……

 

 

Suresh knocked on Harold’s door at ten. Harold put the Sahityashastra down on a bedside table and answered the door.

They walked to the van and commenced their short journey to the temple. The sky, threatening rain, had a gray pall that the sun could barely penetrate. It lent the countryside the look and feel of the interior of one of the rooms at Nirana. A late October shower might not be all that bad, thought Harold, as he bounced along the kachha road. Harold loved the monsoons. In the U.S., the rains were always a bother and always secondary to the basic underlying weather. In India, the monsoons transformed the whole country into a web of pathos.

Harold and Suresh rode silently, each preoccupied with the murder. Harold doubted there were any cults in the village that might indulge in a ritual killing. Who could have done it? He sensed a vague intimation that it concerned the book. He catalogued the events at the temple carefully, trying to remember exactly what had transpired there when he had met the priest.

When they arrived at the village, they could see people discussing the murder at street-corners—they were also under the spell of the recent killing. The air had a certain density, an unnamed hybrid rasa, evoking an existential mood of loss and fear and fatality, feelings that only deepened.

They found the temple empty. The villagers had decided to stay away for a few days, a sign of respect for the priest. There was a strange quiet veiling the structure, a stillness echoed by the presence of a single bird in the somber sky. The temple itself seemed forlorn. Harold entered slowly, searching for any signs of a foreign entity. Dark and secretive, the temple yielded no clues; it was hard to imagine that anyone could hope to discover anything there. He stared at the ceiling, but could not discern anything there either. He asked Suresh for a light and the mandapa brightened. But even with the light, they didn’t see anything. The police had thoroughly expunged all traces of the hanging. Harold felt reassured by this and conveyed as much to Suresh.

They emerged from the temple and paused under the open sky. Harold wondered what they might do next. Then, on an impulse, he walked around to the back, where a spasm of fear shot through him. The frieze was gone! It had been chipped away expertly so as to not disturb the adjacent panels. This was surely a rich clue of some sort. Why would the killer have destroyed the panel? What did it have to do with the priest?

They decided to return to Nirana. After a last glance at the temple Harold climbed into the car. On the way back, Suresh plied him with questions about the murder and what he had learned.

They soon reached the resort. Harold wished Suresh luck and thanked him for his help.

Back in his room, Harold decided to pack to distract himself from his tendentious musings. Unfortunately, he was done in twenty minutes. It was just past twelve. He decided on lunch, even though he wasn’t hungry, and strolled over to the dining area. He saw Mrs. Hennie and Mr. Bose there, seated at separate tables, with knives and forks in their hands, about to start their meals.

 

 

……

 

 

Gautam Bose was a tall bearded man with glasses, a rising Indian filmmaker.

“Mr. Bose, how are you? I’ve heard interesting things about your film on Nirana,” Harold said, sitting down across from him.

“It isn’t really a film on Nirana, it was shot partly at Nirana. There’s going to be a screening this week in Bombay if you’d like to come.”

“I’d love to. I’ll be in Bombay on Monday evening. Where is it?”

Gautam retrieved his card from his trousers’ pocket and scribbled an address and a time on the back. “It’s in a little theater in the Metro cinema complex at four on Thursday. You’ll have to come up to the fourth floor. Just ask the liftman for it. I look forward to seeing you there.”

“Thank you. Any plans for your next project?” Harold asked.

“I have no very definite plans as yet. I’ve been thinking about a story involving someone caught in between fundamentalism and secularism, someone who finds both attitudes somewhat persuasive.”

“Ah! A subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I see fundamentalism as growing out of modernity, as a crisis of modernity. That is why many people have something of both. Your character could be quite typical, more the rule than the exception. People in the West often mistakenly see fundamentalism as something outside modernity, as something completely internal to other civilizations. Of course, the fundamentalism in India is sometimes more an expression of religious nationalism,” Harold said.

“I see fundamentalism and religious nationalism as connected. Each is used as a strategy to realize the other. Some want one, some the other,” Gautam said.

“This fuzziness of orientations, whether it is fundamentalism or Hinduism or secularism, becomes sharp only because violence enters the scene. That’s where most people draw the line; where most people are forced to take a stand.”

“The trouble, Harold, is that liberals also defend themselves with violence when they need to. They usually have whole armies behind them. Fundamentalists are often seen as the aggressors. But they are actually defending themselves against liberalism by attacking what they can—the minorities. Defense is displaced into attack.”

“I don’t think one can be an utter relativist, one has to choose. But it is a difficult problem, made acute with all the contact between cultures and times. Perhaps there are no final answers. Many contemporary thinkers have been drawn to a cultural relativism to combat the universalism arrogated to itself by the West, but I think that in the end it becomes self-defeating. I prefer being a liberal and a skeptic myself,” Harold said.

“So do I. In the film, I want fundamentalism to be overcome in a kind of half-willed half-unwilled public transformation that preserves some of its values. I’m not saying fundamentalism has much to redeem it, especially when it turns violent, but it is important to recognize its part in the human story.”

“That makes me think of Hegel. You have to be careful about what you preserve.” At this moment, Harold was reminded of the triad of religion, culture, and state. It struck him that the Sahityashastra might be especially relevant in today’s context.

The emotions that had enshrouded him lifted. He felt light and relaxed, eager to concentrate. He began to connect the Sahityashastra with their discussion. He had the glimmering of an idea.

 

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