Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Awareness of History

November 29, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent.

The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities).

The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India.

The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.”

This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated Indian scholarship, etc., etc.

Instead, what JG discovered was a surprise to him: “What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.”

This is the reason JG advises people to learn from history, avoid locking themselves “into boxes” and “to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking.” He concludes with a recommendation that is eminently sensible but surprisingly hard for people to accept: those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up.”

The selected excerpts below speak for themselves. Key sentences are highlighted. The complete interview can be read here:

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/artha-india-and-the-global-preoccupation-of-philosophy/

3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories…

JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape…

3:AM: Last year you published ‘The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?

JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.

What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.

Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form

3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time…

JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.

One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam…

3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?

JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.

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A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 16 “Us and Them (And after all, we’re only ordinary men.)” 

 

It started out as an ordinary day. Cars were plying their routes and pedestrians were rushing to their destinations. By now Samir had dispatched all the pages of the Sahityashastra. On the outside, everything appeared the same.

Two schoolboys strolled homewards around noon. As they walked along Chowpatty, they found themselves taking giant steps, as if they were on the moon. Too awe-struck to say anything, they noticed that other pedestrians were also walking that way, with giant steps. They were sliding, gliding, rising into the air, and trailing down again. Anyone looking at Marine Drive and Chowpatty would have observed a strange sight, like a slow-motion film, with people flying a foot into the air and then drifting down, spanning a distance of about six feet.

At first, the people were shocked out of their wits. They felt apprehensive. They couldn’t quite master the six-foot step. Some of them even fell down. But gradually they began to enjoy it. Soon they were speeding along the pavement.

Gradually, the sight spread to other parts of the city. Suddenly, one of the schoolboys at Chowpatty rose into the air, spiraling higher into the sky. The other boy soon followed. When they halted, they were hovering about a thousand feet high in the sky, the height of a skyscraper. Suspended, they discovered they could walk in the air just by thinking the thought. No dull, mechanical motion and transformation was required. They could descend if they wanted, or stay up if they wanted. And they chose to stay up.

Ten more people joined them. Some of them drove by in a car. The car braked, they climbed out and flew up. In about an hour, a hundred people were circling and dancing in the sky. No one said anything. They were too excited for words. Even the children knew it wasn’t just a matter of fun. By this time, of course, most of the pedestrians on the road were trickling upwards.

Two hours later, the same thing began to happen in different parts of the city. In about five hours, over a hundred thousand people were perched in the sky. Harold, too, who had been walking along the Causeway, found himself floating in the air.

“I tell you this is a symbol,” one of the people said.

“No, no, it’s the real thing,” his companion said.

“It’s both,” a third said.

“It’s the collective unconscious,” another said.

“It’s a space. A space for us to be,” a fifth person said.

“That’s right. A space free of constraints,” a different person said.

“It’s a space of pure desire,” another said.

“What does it all mean?” an eighth person said.

Later that day, one by one, people willed themselves down.

By nightfall, everyone was ensconced in their homes and asleep. Not a word was mentioned in the press for once. The whole city had participated in the event. There was nothing to tell.

Bombay had become conscious of itself.

 

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A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 15 The Politics of the End or The End of Politics

 

The two weeks in Naperville at Kulkarni’s house had flown by in a blur of activity. The beginning of December had ushered in the first snowfall. Samir saw snow for the first time in his life. He and Asha were returning from the supermarket and had just parked the car by the house. As they emerged into the twilight, the first flakes drifted from the sky. Samir set his grocery bag down and reached out for them, their wetness dissolving in his palms. He stood there, not uttering a word, as the sounds around him subsided. The earth turned white. At first, it was gradual, a patch here, a branch there, a roof nearby, until a luminous glow filled the sky. When Asha stepped on a twig, it snapped with a loud crunch. Neither of them said a word. Everything seemed deeper, rounder, fuller, a moment of rare disclosure, of slow revelation that overwhelmed and transformed them. Samir held Asha for a long time.

Asha and Samir stayed indoors most of the time and worked. Somehow she translated as many as sixty pages. Perfect translations were seldom available. The hardest thing was selecting from the many approximate English words corresponding to the Sanskrit. Samir helped by editing her prose and rendering it simpler and more graceful. The pages flitted back and forth between them. When they had finished a page, Samir would email and fax it to Bombay. Samir used Kulkarni’s fax machine and broadcast the page all over. He also emailed a number of addresses.

It started slowly. No one read the first few pages seriously. But it did make them curious. A small handful of people, maybe a hundred, scanned them, and then spread them all over the city. Some read them at home, some at work, and some in the many commuter trains that connected North Bombay to South Bombay. A large map of Bombay would have shown just a hundred sparsely distributed points in the city where the Sahityashastra had descended. As more pages flowed in, they started to talk about them to their families and co-workers. Soon they were copying and distributing them in their offices. The number of points on the map grew in small clusters as the pages circulated. And then people attended to them. As they read page after page, excitement mounted in the air. At first, people discussed the Sahityashastra in hushed tones. They didn’t quite understand it, but the sense of mystery and promise the pages conveyed kept them going. Then a couple of newspapers covered the story, fanning it like wild fire.

Before long, Bombay was full of anticipation. Samir had accessed a hundred addresses, and from what the newspapers reported, these hundred had distributed the pages to another thousand, and from there to another ten thousand and hundred thousand. And they were still being disseminated with the possibility of touching a million. The map would by now have been swathed with points extended more uniformly over the city. People emailed and faxed them to others. Some traveled outside Bombay and even outside India. Those who didn’t read them heard about them. People were enthralled by the pages that trickled in each day. The social organism was responding to the argument, playing out the logic of the Sahityashastra. The spheres of literature, religion, and state had seized their minds and hearts.

By now, the newspapers were trying to anticipate Samir’s next move. In fact, the process was becoming the product and the product was becoming the process. The social organism embodied the argument. As people read about rationality, they began to act more rationally with each other. In this vast realm, different people explored the domain of rationality in different ways. This did not mean that conflicts disappeared. But the way people approached conflict became increasingly rational.

There were many discussions in the press, people attacking and defending the Sahityashastra, and many interpretations of its relatively cryptic formulations. It was like an unfolding of a dialectic of experience, with all its ups and downs, its clashes and syntheses, its successive triumphs over apparently irreconcilable differences. People could join together in a shared transformation, discovering and inventing the many truths of the Sahityashastra. It was clear to Samir as he watched these developments from afar that the Sahityashastra was like a seed crystal in this process of crystallizing people’s ideas and feelings.

After two weeks, Kulkarni had an accident on the highway. He was driving home, talking to Samir from his car phone, when his brakes failed and he crashed into an oncoming car. Samir heard a surprised gasp and was stunned.

Kulkarni had narrowly escaped death but had to be hospitalized. Samir and Asha stayed on a couple of days and helped Mrs. Kulkarni to stabilize things. But an examination of the brakes in Kulkarni’s car had revealed that their failure had not been a mere accident. They decided it was no longer safe to continue in Naperville.

They chose to fly to Boston, to stay with Allison. Asha called her the next day. “Allison, this is Asha.”

“What have you been up to? Have you seen what’s happening in Bombay? The Sahityashastra is transforming the city. Do you know who’s behind it?”

“We are. We still have a long way to go. Can we stay with you for a while?”

“Of course.”

“See you soon. We’re on our way.”

 

 

……

 

 

Though Boston was now severely cold, another month passed in a frenzy of work. The streets were glazed with slush. Cambridge, where Allison lived, was adjacent to Boston. The stretches of white land and reddish brown rooftops appeared still and quiet, insulating them from the idea of a seething, churning Bombay, full of the turmoil of Bharata’s argument.

The days were filled with translating and emailing, and late afternoons were devoted to snow fights followed by coffee in Harvard Square. Allison and Anil and Asha and Samir had a lot to discuss, as they were all working on translation, Allison and Anil on its theory and Asha and Samir on its practice. They compared notes and ideas and tips and strategies. Anil and Allison solved Asha’s central problem with their recent topological breakthrough. She had struggled to choose the best word from a number of possible translations, a process that had slowed her down. Their method enabled Asha to choose the word that was closest to the original word in Sanskrit: translation as nearness! Anil had formulated the mathematics of translation by using the idea of a metric lattice. And Allison had written a computer program for it. All they had to do was feed in a sentence and the program would produce a list of possible translations with their distances from the original words. Asha would then pick the word with the smallest distance. The method didn’t always work. Sometimes they got absurd and amusing results as when, instead of `Religion and state are in harmony’, the program spewed out `The priest and the politician are copulating’. But it succeeded enough to speed up her translation significantly.

Bombay had received about a hundred and eighty more pages from Samir and was completely bowled over by the logic of Bharata’s reasoning. By now it had the whole argument, so it was possible to evaluate it. The city held many public discussions, and there were many articles in newspapers and magazines. The ideas of rationality, of balance and imbalance, of separation, and of optimality fired everyone’s imagination. Many explicators of the argument and the ideas came forward. They simplified it, offering many illustrative examples that inspired a deeper understanding on the part of the lay public. Interpreters and intellectuals broke down the somewhat abstract nature of Bharata’s argument into more concrete segments to make it more accessible to the public. As the argument was explicated and understood, it was absorbed and embodied. The mood of Bombay shifted from one of guarded hostility and latent shame after the riots to one of openness and questioning. Bombay became more gentle, more quiet.

Samir’s idea of emailing the Sahityashastra page by page was now outside his control. He was a mere cog in the machinery he had set to work. Asha’s translations lacked the nuances of the original, but something had to be sacrificed. There would be time for subtle shades of meaning later.

More and more pages sluiced into Bombay.

 

 

……

 

 

As the second part of Bharata’s book, the part in which he had developed the implications of his argument, permeated Bombay, another round of transformations swept through the city. The separation of religion and state and the meaning of their minimalism echoed through the streets and byways. Religion evolved into a matter of personal choice and inclination rather than one of organization and institutionalization. Those who chose religion favored a sense of the spiritual over rite and ritual. A desire for a secular state swelled among the people.

The deepest effect was undoubtedly that of the role of literature, and through literature, of science and secularism. This new sense, a sense of a new form of life, diffused gradually as if by osmosis, from a relatively narrow sphere to all of social life. There were moments when it also transformed the city suddenly, and Bombay changed overnight, to a new grasp of realities, to a new realism. A sense of finitude, of the particular and limited, pervaded the city.

 

 

……

 

 

Samir glanced up and his eyes met Asha’s. The translation of the sixth Veda was over. And he had completed emailing and faxing the last installment. They were both hunched over some cereal. Asha’s face eased into a smile. They had completed their crucial task. Bharata’s book had the desired effect, so many hundreds of years later.

“I can’t believe it,” Samir said.

“Neither can I,” Asha said.

“I find it hard to believe the effect on Bombay.”

“It is a transformed city.”

“I can feel a different pulse in the city, even sitting so many miles away,” Samir said.

“What will we do now?”

“There is only one thing left to do. As Bharata would say, ‘Maximize desire’.” Samir reached for Asha.

“Why don’t you stay in New York for a bit?” Asha said.

“I could become the foreign correspondent for the Indian Times. They’ve wanted someone for the last year. That would work out perfectly. I could write some more books.”

“Do we just pack and return to New York?” Asha said.

“No. I think we should wait a few days and let the waves of Bombay’s internal tremors die down a bit. It’s still a little dangerous,” Samir said. “Fundamentals has still to be completely disbanded, despite Harold’s dismantling of the top and the police’s chasing after the bottom. So far, people at large don’t know that we translated and emailed the Sahityashastra. It is best to maintain this anonymity for some time.”

The juggernaut of Bombay rolled on. The Sahityashastra seeped into the daily life and daily work of men and women. And their life and work was transformed by rationality, action, and balance. A certain equilibrium infused the spheres of literature, religion, and state.

Needless to say, all this did not happen in a smooth way. There was a great deal of chaos, of confusion and commotion. But Bombay muddled through, as it always did. The stock market reflected these ups and downs. The mood of Bombay, the mood of Marine Drive, the mood of its many suburbs all flickered from dark to light to dark to light. Even the sunsets matched the alternating somber and ebullient feel of the city.

By now, by the end of Bharata’s book, the importance of the separation of religion and state had been underscored and accepted. The pluralism of religion was felt to be a source of richness rather than weakness and confusion, a source, that is, of authenticity and holiness and desire. The minimalism that was hidden now surfaced. Literature had come to be the new form of life.

The city felt like it was pregnant, like it was going to give birth.

 

Back to Chapter 14       Back to Main Page        Forward to Chapter 16

A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 12            Veil of the Vidhi

 

Half of Bombay was getting ready for Seth’s party. Samir glanced at Asha in her black dress and felt a surge of desire. At eight p.m. it was time to leave.

The cruise ship itself, the Vidhi, was anchored at sea, and they had to embark from the Gateway of India in a small boat to reach the ship. When Samir and Asha arrived, they found over a few hundred people there, all waiting for the twenty or so motorboats to ferry them across to the ship. The boats bobbed and pitched back and forth as people leapt from the quay onto the boats.

Asha spotted Haresh Chatterjee, her colleague at Columbia, and realized with a start that he had attended Harold’s lecture at the Asia Society, the night of Meghnad’s murder. At just that moment, Chatterjee glanced in her direction, and Asha waved. He looked startled, but waved back.

Samir nudged Asha and pointed to a man in a dark suit. The man was helping his wife into a boat. For a brief moment, he swiveled around and saw Samir.

“Nice to see you, Samir. Still writing for the Indian Times?” he asked.

“How are you, Mr. Murthy? Yes, I’m still with the Times,” Samir answered.

Mr. Murthy boarded the boat and set off for the ship.

“He’s one of the most extreme ideologues of The Ideas Foundation,” Samir said.

“I just saw Haresh Chatterjee, my colleague at Columbia. He was present at the time of Meghnad’s murder. I wonder what he’s doing here?” Asha said.

It was their turn to board the boat. They claimed seats at the front. As they surged forward, the Taj receding in the background, Asha broke the silence.

“I hope Harold is safe. There’s no news about him with the police or Chaturvedi,” Asha said.

“I hope so, too. Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing the right thing in not going after him.”

The sea was calm and the air still; only the boat’s roar broke the night’s silence. They could see the outlines of many ships and boats all around. They arrived after a ten minute ride, a little wet from the flung spray of the sea. When they climbed aboard the Vidhi, they saw Seth in the distance with other people. No one knew him well, no one knew exactly what transpired in his vast and variegated business empire, or what else he controlled.

He was also known as an extremely affable and generous man. He maintained dozens of charitable trusts in different areas. Samir served on the board of his Seth Arts Foundation, a master body with at least ten smaller centers and trusts under it, all operating in different fields of art in various parts of India.

Samir and Asha made their way upstairs and followed the stream of revelers into a lounge where the party was well under way. The first person they noticed was Gautam Bose, who pivoted around to face Samir.

“Haven’t seen you in ages, Gautam,” Samir said, slapping him on his arm. “Meet Asha Raman, a professor at Columbia University. Asha, this is Gautam Bose, a filmmaker.”

“How do you do, Asha? What do you teach?” Gautam said.

“Indian Studies,” Asha said.

“Oh, really? What is your area of interest?” Gautam asked.

At this point, Samir spied his colleague Mohan Mahapatra, and with Asha ensconced in a conversation, took off in his direction.

“Literature and painting. Most of my research has been in ancient literature, but I have of late begun to take an interest in contemporary literature and painting. I’ve just completed a book on the Natyashastra in which I look at the evolution of rasa theory, among other things. You may have heard of Harold Stone’s work. My work is in the same area,” Asha said.

“Harold. Of course. We were to meet, but I was told he had checked out of the Taj. Where is he?” Gautam asked.

After Asha told him briefly what had happened, a dark look veiled Gautam’s eyes. He drew Asha to one corner, and spoke in hushed tones. “Have you heard of Fundamentals? It is a most unusual organization. It is not directly political, but has interests in many political think-tanks. Fundamentals is trying to create a singular doctrinal version of Hinduism. I shouldn’t say strictly singular because that is impossible. But they are trying to narrow down the range of expression of Hindu belief. They feel Hinduism is weak because it is too diverse, because it has no doctrine.”

“Go on,” Asha said.

“It is a secret group, first of all, both a think-tank itself and an action group. Its members have infiltrated many other organizations. You may have heard of The Ideas Foundation. That is only the most prominent organization it has entered. It is like a meta-organization. It is everywhere and you have to be careful. They even have powerful links abroad, especially in the U.S. They are not ordinary fanatics, but rather intellectuals who know India well and want to take it down a particular path. What you see on the surface is the froth. A bunch of simple fanatics. But what lies underneath is the real danger.”

“Who is the head of the organization?”

“No one knows. Its organization is shrouded in secrecy,” Gautam said.

Samir returned and, after a bit, he and Asha excused themselves and ascended to the top deck to gaze at the stars. On the way, they met dozens of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. They also ran into Chaturvedi again. They had met him earlier that day and shared information and discussed strategies.

Asha drew Chaturvedi to one side and told him she had just learned about Fundamentals. “I think you were right. Gautam Bose also had the same thought.”

“I just met Chatterjee. What is he doing in India?” Chaturvedi asked.

“I also saw him. He was at the Asia Society the night Meghnad was murdered.”

“Did you know that Anouk is here too? She said you were with her on the flight.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right. I forgot to tell you.”

They talked for a little while and then Samir and Asha continued upstairs. Each of the five decks included a couple of lounges and a theater. The party had spread all over the ship, with people weaving in and out of rooms. In some lounges, there was live music from different parts of the world. Some people had even sat down to watch old Indian movies of the fifties, “Shree 420” and “Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam.” On the top deck, stars punctuated the cloudless sky.

Samir and Asha headed downward again. For a while, they explored the ship and then circled back to the main lounge where they had started. It was one a.m. They spent another hour talking to various people and then at two, decided to head home.

Samir took Asha on a ghoda-gadi ride home after they reached the shore, lingering at the Taj for a quiet moment. The water lapped idly by the stone walls beside the Gateway of India. The Taj Mahal Hotel looked ghostly in the moonlight, its outline oddly medieval.

When they reached Deepak’s, it was three o’clock in the morning.

 

 

……

 

 

The next morning Asha awoke before Samir.

“We must leave for Chicago tonight. Chaturvedi said we shouldn’t lose a single day. I must start the translation of the Sahityashastra right away. I will phone Kulkarni in Chicago and let him know we’ll be staying with him for a couple of weeks. I think that’s the safest strategy. We need time, and we can get it by visiting a few campuses where I know people we can stay with,” Asha said.

“I’m still working out how we’ll disseminate it,” Samir said.

“I’ve been thinking about Fundamentals. It’s a strange group, made up mostly of intellectuals.”

“You always need intellectual thought to create and sustain a real movement. Otherwise it would evaporate after a few eruptions. The educated classes are always the engine of history.”

They were silent for a while.

“I was surprised to see Haresh Chatterjee,” Asha said. “He was at Harold’s lecture. Could he be a member of Fundamentals? He’s always been a quiet fellow and keeps mostly to himself. Aditya Gandhi is his only real friend in the department.”

Outside in the living room, Asha retrieved the Indian Times lying on the table and gasped. The headline read, “Professor Chaturvedi found dead at sea.” The report detailed how Chaturvedi’s body had floated to the shore, leaving the circumstances surrounding his death a mystery.

 

Back to Chapter 11       Back to Main Page       Forward to Chapter 13

A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 11            The Real and the Rational

 

On Monday morning, Asha awoke late and with no classes to teach, so she lingered in bed. She had received the Sahityashastra and spent the weekend poring over it. Her growing admiration for it matched Harold’s.

On this cold, sunny, windy day, she had no plans to step out. She relished the times when she could work out of her apartment. It was quieter than a library in fact, though the stillness and solitude made the atmosphere a bit spooky.

It was nearly eleven when Asha finally struggled out of bed. Her cat, Panini, who had curled on one corner of the comforter, jumped to the floor and sidled against Asha’s leg. She lifted him up and waddled over drowsily to the kitchen. She cooked herself a breakfast of eggs with chives. After she’d eaten, she read her email. Her second message was from Chaturvedi.

“Dear Asha,

Harold seems to have vanished! No one knows where he is. Even the police haven’t a clue. It seems he’s been kidnapped. His hotel room was thoroughly ransacked. I’ll keep you posted on developments here.

Chaturvedi”

Asha froze momentarily, wondering what she could do. She picked up the phone to call Samir, but then decided against it. After fifteen minutes of vacillation, she resolved to travel to Bombay.

She scrolled through her mental checklist. Where would she find a substitute for her classes? Maybe she could cajole the postdoctoral fellow Clark. There were a million other tasks she had to take care of, and she started by calling a number of departmental heads and secretaries.

Later in the day, she was at the department to meet the head Lawson when she ran into Aditya. She told him what had happened to Harold. Aditya asked her several questions about the matter, but it became obvious that she didn’t know very much about the kidnapping. After a while they parted.

Surprisingly, Lawson, in an expansive mood, offered her leave without much ado. Clark would substitute. The required formalities were worked out in a couple of hours.

She then cabbed it to Air India on Park Avenue to purchase her ticket. Passing by the Asia Society, she recalled Meghnad’s death only a few months ago.

Though three women occupied the counters at Air India, only one counter was open. Several people waited on the sofas. Annoyed, Asha clamored for a second counter to be opened and sat down at it. She bought tickets for Tuesday evening, direct to Bombay.

The next day was preoccupied by chores, arranging for someone to look after Panini and water her potted plants, among other things. Asha packed her bags, and then hailed a cab for JFK. The long ride seemed interminable. After arriving at the airport, and going through the usual airport procedures, she boarded the plane, and made her way towards her seat. As she lowered herself into her seat, a familiar voice spoke to her, “Asha, I didn’t know you were flying to Bombay.”

Startled, Asha looked at the seat across the aisle and discovered Anouk Surya.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold awakened gradually, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. He could discern the shape of a night table with a lamp next to him, a sofa and chair on one side. It felt like a large room. He groped around for the lamp switch, and after a painful minute, flicked it on.

The simple room had a wooden table and a few chairs on one side. Harold considered himself the only untidy object in the room. He glanced at his watch and noticed that it was four in the morning. He stood up uncertainly and staggered to the bathroom to splash his face with some water. When he emerged, he drew the indigo curtains. The exposed French windows revealed a marvelous sight, a night sky bright and starry. He couldn’t be in Bombay. This house was perched atop a hill, and he could see signs of a little hamlet in the valley. His skull hurt terribly. He touched the back of his head gingerly and winced. It seemed like a bump, a bruise, and a cut all in one.

For a brief moment, Harold forgot his predicament and succumbed to the charms of the village that lay sprawled below the hilltop. He felt his aching head once again, and then he remembered. After a brief scuffle outside the Taj, his captors had forced him into a car and knocked him out with a blow to his head.

For the first time, he accepted that he was confronting a powerful enemy. A shiver coursed through his back. So far, he had dealt with it lightly, overconfident after his success with the Harvard killings. But the throbbing bruise in the back of his head warned him of the perils ahead.

The French windows and the white door were locked. He rapped on the door. When no one answered, he banged on it with his fist. Was he alone in the house? He picked up a chair and tried to break the windows, but to no avail.

He thought he would rest and wait till the morning. Perhaps his captors would surface then. He doffed his shoes, burrowed comfortably into bed, and curled off to sleep.

When he awoke again, it was eleven-thirty a.m. He rose, still sore, and tried the door. It was locked. He knocked on it again, but no one responded. They were clearly trying his patience. He wondered what they had in mind.

Hungry, he opened the armoire in the corner. To his surprise, he saw his suitcase. He opened it to find his belongings neatly packed. He realized his captors intended his incarceration to last a long time. They had been considerate, and to him that implied an even more powerful foe than he had imagined.

He bathed, shaved, and dressed. He looked down again upon the bustling village. He could see a class in progress under a thatched roof supported by bamboo poles. About thirty children appeared to be reciting a lesson. The sky was a clear blue, untouched by the pollution of Bombay.

 

……

 

 

Chaturvedi scratched his head. The police had failed to uncover any clues that might reveal Harold’s whereabouts. An annoying fly buzzed around. His office at Kalyna on the Bombay University campus was bare, except for a worn, wooden desk and chair at one end of the rectangular room, with an open window behind him. Along one wall shelves overflowed with books. The walls were painted a curious, creamy yellow, the hallmark of university rooms, but Chaturvedi had adorned the center of the large room with a brown and white dhurrie.

He had one ghost of a lead, Harold’s diary, which he inspected, as the fly buzzed around the room. It alighted on the desk near Chaturvedi’s left elbow, and he swatted it with the diary. He cleared the mess with some paper and wiped the page on Harold’s diary clean.

The diary indicated that Harold had visited KP’s house just before he was kidnapped. Chaturvedi thought he could at least fix the time of Harold’s disappearance more precisely and learn from KP if Harold had indicated anything unusual during their dinner. He felt it was unlikely that Harold was being held in Bombay. On the other hand, his captors couldn’t have transported him very far from here.

He gathered his satchel and moved to the door. He had an appointment with KP at six o’clock at his home. Harold walked to the entrance of the campus and hailed a cab. He was already late and couldn’t reach it in time by bus. As he settled down for the long ride, he pulled out a new work on sculpture that had just arrived in the mail.

When they arrived an hour and a half later, it was already six-thirty. Chaturvedi paid the cab and rang the doorbell. He had attended a party at his house once for a conference on Indian Studies that KP had organized. KP himself opened the door and welcomed him in.

“Come in, Chaturvedi. What a surprise! What can I do for you?”

“I won’t take up too much of your time. Harold has disappeared, been kidnapped.”

“What?” KP exclaimed. “He was with me just the other day. What happened? When?”

“He seems to have gone missing right after he came to see you. The police think it’s a kidnapping because his room at the Taj was ransacked.”

“Come in. Sit down. Tell me what happened. Can I offer you something?”

“I called Harold in his room late that night, around eleven, because I had just received word of an invitation from Columbia University.” A servant handed Chaturvedi a glass of lassi. “I called again at eleven-thirty and then at midnight and twelve-thirty, but there was still no answer. I was a little worried. That wasn’t like Harold.  Twelve-thirty was late for him to be out. I live nearby so I went to the Taj and forced them to open his room. The room was in a shambles. I picked up Harold’s diary before the police came, an Inspector Ghurye. He spoke at length on the sociology of crime, but there were no clues to be found. Ghurye concluded that it was a kidnapping, a rare occurrence in Bombay, but the logic of the facts was inescapable.”

“This is very disturbing. Why would anyone want to kidnap Harold?”

“That’s what I thought I’d ask you, KP. You were the last to see him. Did he say anything that might indicate he was in danger?”

“No. We talked mostly in general terms about culture and the like. He did mention he had found the Sahityashastra. Could that be it?”

“It could be. We hadn’t had time to meet yet, so he barely mentioned it to me,” Chaturvedi said. “What do you know about it?”

“Not much. But he wanted to translate it and thought I could help him with the distribution.”

“When exactly did he leave?”

“About ten-thirty. He was dropped off in my car, so we know that he got to the Taj for sure.”

A servant appeared to announce that KP had a phone call. KP excused himself momentarily. He returned in just a few minutes and their conversation resumed.

“That’s a good point. I had just assumed it so far, that he got to his room, without quite realizing it,” Chaturvedi said.

“That’s right. He probably got to his room as well, not just to the hotel. I think we can safely assume that.”

“You’ve been a big help, KP. I still don’t know how to proceed, but I think I have a better sense of what must have happened. My hunch is that he is somewhere in the outskirts of Bombay and I am going to suggest to Inspector Ghurye to look in places like Khandala and Lonavala,” Chaturvedi said, rising to leave.

“Not at all. Let me know if you get news,” KP said, as he escorted him to the door.

Chaturvedi walked out of the house and swung towards Peddar Road. At eight, the traffic was still snarled with gridlock. He managed to flag down a cab after about fifteen minutes, and he directed the cabbie towards Colaba. It was dark and eerie when he reached home and the whole building was quiet. The lights had gone out in the lobby and elevator. In the overpowering silence Chaturvedi’s flesh prickled. He entered the lift. As the door closed, and the lift began its slow ascent, he remembered his uneasy feeling in Harold’s room at the Taj. As he stepped out on the fifth floor, his right foot crushed some glass. He realized someone had smashed the bulb on the ceiling. He fumbled for his keys and after an awkward moment inserted the key in the lock and opened the door.

His son was busy with his homework on the dining table as usual and his daughter was watching television. His wife was away in Calcutta. Chaturvedi sighed, and slammed the door behind him.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold’s thoughts drifted to Asha. Just as he was about to sit, he saw the handle on the door turn noiselessly. The door swung open. A young man entered carrying a tray. He had penetrating, dark eyes and an air of confidence.

“Hello,” Harold said. The man set the tray upon the round table.

“Hello,” the man said evenly.

“Where are we, can I ask?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. I’m to ensure that you are comfortable. That is all,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“What is your name?”

“Mahesh.”

“Have a seat, Mahesh. Why don’t you join me?”

“Doctor Stone, you will not get any information from me.”

“Be a sport. Are we alone here? Are there other people in the house besides us?”

“You are persistent. I’m sorry I cannot help you.”

“Tell me about yourself then. You speak good English. Are you a graduate of a university?” Harold asked.

“English has imposed a foreign culture on us. We are nativists. Yes, I graduated from St. Xavier’s College in Bombay,” Mahesh said.

“You sound like an intelligent young man. What do you mean by nativism, Mahesh?”

“I mean ideas that are natural to a time and place, that are not external or foreign. Hindu civilization and Hindu civilization alone is native to this Indian-Hindu soil.”

“And why do you favor nativism?”

“Because our civilization has been suppressed for the last thousand years by foreign invaders and barbarians. Hindu civilization will be great once again. Many in the cultural renaissance of India in the first half of this century said so. We are merely the instruments of those ideas.”

“I agree with you about the greatness of Indian civilization. After all, I’m an Indologist. But I think the way to make it even greater is to expose it to the world rather than turn nativist. The West has been strong for the last four hundred years and India should benefit from its advances in all disciplines and spheres of action. That is what a mature civilization would do. Not only that, it wouldn’t exclude other religions on its soil.”

“Everyone is welcome in this Hindu land,” Mahesh said.

“Who else is in this with you?”

“Knock on your door if you need anything.” Mahesh shut the door.

On the tray was arrayed a South Indian breakfast of idlis and sambar and chutney. Ravenous, Harold devoured the meal. He grudgingly admitted that his captors did things in style. It indicated confidence and strength. He realized for the first time that he was facing a group, perhaps even a secret group. Since Meghnad’s murder, the police had been searching for a single individual, puzzled that one individual’s reach should span India and America in so encompassing a way. He guessed this was a political organization of some sort. His intuition suggested that it couldn’t be a political party or any group affiliated directly with a party. This was something altogether more sinister.

 

 

……

 

 

Samir took Asha to lunch at China Garden at Kemp’s Corner, a popular, marbled, and somewhat noisy place. They threaded their way across the crowded dining room as the maitre d’ showed them to a table in the far corner. Conversations echoed off the floor and walls to produce a din that was usually absorbed by carpets and curtains in other restaurants.

Asha had arrived at two in the morning and stayed at the Centaur. After much hesitation, she had called Samir the next day. Mainly out of nervousness, Asha spoke at length about Harold’s disappearance. Out of a sense of deep relief, Samir didn’t interrupt her.

At the restaurant, Asha brought him up to date with what Harold had written to her. She informed him of the string of murders and how Harold had found the Sahityashastra. Samir had never heard of the text. Asha claimed it provided an internal critique of fundamentalism, and that it could have an impact on the political situation if even a small number of people were to read it. Harold’s letter had been long but hurried, she could tell from his familiar handwriting, and she had guessed at some of the connections.

The waiter approached and they asked for a little more time. They scanned their menus as Samir warned Asha about the spices. They decided on some dumplings and chicken and signaled to the waiter. After they ordered, they resumed their conversation about the Sahityashastra.

As they were talking, a heavy-set man sat down at the table next to theirs. For a brief moment, he surveyed the restaurant, and then looked directly at Asha. “If you do as I say, no one will get hurt.”

As Asha opened her mouth, the man tapped his finger on his lips and shook his head slowly. The rest of the restaurant receded from their view. No one spoke and the noise in the restaurant died down to a distant murmur. Then, all at once, Samir took Asha’s hand and, ignoring the man, led her hastily out of the restaurant. The stranger muttered a loud warning half under his breath, causing some heads at neighboring tables to turn, but was unable to stop them in the midst of so many people. Samir and Asha were soon outside, looking for a cab. Upon hailing one, Samir, agitated, ordered the cabbie to drive to a nearby restaurant called Naaz, a quieter place less likely to attract attention.

A charming, teetering, ramshackle three-story restaurant, Naaz was located on one corner of Malabar Hill, Bombay’s most posh residential location with a panoramic view of the city. The neem trees shielded the interior from the road and shrouded it in secrecy. Its cheap, aluminum tables and chairs lent it a kind of minimalist urgency of purpose, where every word exchanged between lovers counted as solemnly as their gestures and looks. They sat to calm down for a while.

“What was all that about?” Samir said.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. Who could that have been? Maybe it has to do with the book. Maybe they’re already on to me,” Asha said.

“Could be. I wonder how.”

Asha paused to think. Then she said in a measured and determined voice, “I think I should translate the Sahityashastra. And we should somehow disseminate it.” In the long silence, they pondered the boldness of the idea.

“Do you think you could manage a translation? Have you ever translated anything before?” Samir asked.

“Not really. But I think I could do it. But I don’t know how we’d distribute it.”

“We seem to have two choices, to rescue Harold or to translate and disseminate the Sahityashastra. We couldn’t hope to do both simultaneously.”

“I’m worried about Harold,” Asha said.

“I think he’d want us to do the translation.”

“How would we go about it and where would we do it?” Asha asked.

“For a start, I don’t think you should stay at the Centaur on your own. And I don’t think you should stay at my place either. Maybe you shouldn’t even be in Bombay,” Samir said.

“Exactly. After all, Harold was kidnapped here.”

“Don’t panic. So far, it seems like they’re after the Sahityashastra and that we must translate it before they get to us. How long would it take you to translate it?”

“I’ve already skimmed through it. If I did nothing else, I think I could do it in just about three months at the fastest. To make it intelligible to a wider public, I would have to work harder. Harold’s daughter works on translation at AEC and I think they’ve made some sort of breakthrough there, which makes it easier to translate texts. I may be able to ask her about that.”

“Three months isn’t too long. I was fearing it would take a year.”

“It won’t be a scholarly translation. The argument is complex and Harold said it was parallel to ideas from economics. I can’t imagine how Bharata thought of such a beast so long ago. I will also have to translate from Bharata’s world to our world. But it is the argument that will have rhetorical and logical force and that I must clarify. Besides, of course, Bharata’s undoubted place in the canon will seriously undermine the revivalists and fundamentalists, since the argument comes from within its folds, so to speak.”

“I have an idea about distribution. But we can talk about that later. The first task is to find a place to work. Do you know Nirana?” Samir asked.

“Harold mentioned it to me. But do we really need to go so far? How about Lonavala?” Asha said. “Some friends took me there once.”

“I was thinking of something more romantic.”

Asha slid her hand onto his and caressed it.

“On second thought, we should be in Lonavala or somewhere near Bombay. Nirana is too isolated. And if they found us there, we’d be trapped,” Samir said.

“That seems right. But what if we went back to the U.S.? We might be completely safe there. What do you think?”

“It’s a thought. But, don’t forget the murders in New York. I don’t know about being safe. Besides, it’s expensive,” Samir said.

“Don’t worry about expenses. I can support you temporarily. We have to manage just three or four months.”

“Where in the U.S. would we go?” Samir said.

“Anywhere. Or we could keep moving.”

“Let’s think about it tonight. It’s a good idea. They’d never think of looking for us there.”

“Of course, it means we’re leaving Harold to fend for himself and I don’t like that,” Asha said.

“What about Chaturvedi? Can’t he help in some way?”

“I’m sure he’s doing all he can. In any case, we should meet him before we go.”

“Have you brought the original copy of the Sahityashastra with you?”

“Yes. I thought we might need it. Maybe that is what the man was after.”

“Quite possibly,” Samir said.

They had finished their meal. They had been sitting, talking animatedly for about twenty minutes, when the waiter approached them to ask if they wanted to order anything else. With that cue they asked for the check.

“There’s a party in a couple of days we should go to. It’s the sixtieth birthday party of Seth, a billionaire, and it’s on his ship,” Samir said. “A lot of people will be attending and we might meet someone who could give us a clue. I have a feeling our enemies are the types of people who will be there.”

“It might be dangerous,” Asha said.

“Indeed,” Samir replied.

 

 

……

 

 

After fetching Asha’s bag from the Centaur, Samir packed and they cabbed it to a friend’s apartment on Warden Road. Samir had left a note for his father about their plans, adding that he would be in touch with him soon. When they arrived at Deepak’s place and rang the doorbell, a balding, stocky man in a striped kurta opened the door.

“Meet Asha, my friend from New York. This is Deepak. Asha is an Indianist at Columbia University, Deepak writes both fiction and nonfiction. He specializes in Greek philosophy. I’m sorry about the short notice. Fact is stranger than fiction, let me tell you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Deepak said, extending his hand.

“Deepak is writing a book about our concepts and categories and how they can shift and how we use them to perceive and experience and act upon the world. Deepak, you may be writing about it, but Asha and I are in it. We have to stay with you for a couple of days while we make plans. I hope you don’t mind. They’re after us.”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” Deepak said good-naturedly.

As Samir and Asha laughed, they felt themselves relax. Asha recounted the whole story, starting with Meghnad’s death at the Asia Society eight months ago.

Deepak, silent for a while, said, “My word! What have you been up to?”

“That is why we need to lie low for a bit. We have to go to Ahmedabad to meet an Indianist tomorrow. We’ll be away for a day. We’ll go to Seth’s party the next day. You’re coming too, aren’t you? I’m hoping to get a sense of whom we’re up against. The very next day, we’ll fly to Chicago where we’ll stay with a colleague of Asha’s. How does that sound?” Samir asked.

“You can stay as long as you want,” Deepak said.

He showed them to a room and let them settle in.

“I had completely forgotten about Anouk. Did I tell you I met her on the flight to Bombay? She’s staying here with a friend on Malabar Hill,” Asha said.

“I wonder what she’s doing here?” Samir said. “I don’t think you should tell her where we are.”

“Anouk’s fine. But you’re right. Why take a risk? Or put her at risk?” Asha said.

That evening they were at Bombay Central, a railway station in Bombay from which one of the two arteries of the railway network originated. The maroon compartment with a yellow stripe waited stoically behind Asha, about five feet away from her. The train to Ahmedabad was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. Inside, Samir stowed their bags. People were milling about on the crowded platform, saying goodbyes, boarding the train, and finding their seats. Coolies in bright red helped people with luggage, and vendors attempted to hawk their wares, crooning in resonant tones that carried far. Their chants rose in a cacophony to the ceiling, a good twenty-five feet above.

The engine blared, warning passengers to finish their goodbyes. Asha cast one last look at the color and noise of the platform and climbed aboard. She caught sight of Samir beside a window and sat across from him.

“I love train journeys,” she said.

 

 

……

 

A week had elapsed. Harold had not made any significant progress with Mahesh. He realized that the people incarcerating him wanted to know the location of the original version of the Sahityashastra. They were not satisfied with the copy they had found in his room. It was too dangerous for them to let anyone else have access to it.

He paced about and then knocked on the door. When Mahesh appeared, Harold tried to engage him in conversation once more.

“Does your group have a name?” Harold asked.

“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you that. Our name is Fundamentals,” Mahesh said. “But I’m not telling you any more.” He withdrew as quickly as he came, carrying the tray he had brought in earlier.

The name sounded deeply ambiguous, quite plain at one level, but suggestive, with sinister undertones.

Harold had still not recovered fully from the blow to his head. It continued to throb. His body ached. His daily rhythms and sleep cycle had become quite irregular. He sprawled across the bed and, in half a minute, he was fast asleep.

When he awoke several hours later, the sky had paled to pink, and the town below looked remote, a blur without detail. Harold rubbed his eyes and yawned, startled to notice it was seven p.m. He thought momentarily of Nisha and longed to hold her in his arms. He stood, tidied himself, and rapped loudly on the door.

In a minute, he heard Mahesh on the other side.

“I was wondering if I could have a drink,” Harold said.

“What would you like?”

“Something cold. A Coke, perhaps?”

As Harold sat at the table and waited, he devised a plan. He had to escape. He had no idea what they had in store for him. He had a feeling they wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, not after all the mayhem in New York and Nirana.

The door opened suddenly, interrupting Harold’s thoughts, and Mahesh ferried in a glass of Coke. He set it down on the table.

“When is dinner, Mahesh?”

“Let’s see. It’s seven-fifteen right now. How about eight-thirty?”

“Sounds good to me. Why don’t you join me? It’s awfully quiet here.”

“I have other things to attend to. I’m sorry.”

“When did you get involved in all this?”

“I have to go now.”

“Couldn’t I eat a bit earlier, say at eight?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Before Harold could say another word, Mahesh was gone.

Harold got up quickly and packed, keeping his suitcase ready for a speedy exit. He sipped his Coke and waited. He wondered if anyone had missed his presence by now in Bombay. He had failed to attend two appointments, one with Chaturvedi and another with Yusuf Ali and Gautam Bose. Besides, he thought, the housekeeping people at the Taj would surely have discovered his ransacked room. Maybe the police were searching for him at this precise moment.

As he drained his glass, the clock’s hands tilted towards eight. Harold picked up a chair and waited behind the door, feeling fleetingly bad for Mahesh, but there was no other way. Sometimes, brute force had to be met with brute force.

Exactly at eight, there was a light knock and the door handle turned. Harold’s body tensed. The door swung open. The first thing that he saw was a tray with his dinner, aromatic and pungent odors filling his nostrils, and he felt a twinge of regret at his hastily concocted plan.

As Mahesh appeared in full view, Harold crashed the chair down on his unsuspecting head. Mahesh collapsed and the kadhi and vegetables scattered. Without a moment’s hesitation, Harold picked up his suitcase and sprinted out of the bedroom into a large oblong room with a black carpet on a polished stone floor. The room was simply furnished, but there were clusters of many sofas and chairs. Before Harold could absorb it all, he came to a sudden halt.

Seated in the center of the room, on a dark sofa, was Aditya Gandhi. 

 

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A Gash in the World

July 29, 2008

Chapter 10            The Sharp and the Fuzzy

 

Samir Khanna leaned back in his chair and whistled a short melancholy tune. On this late Saturday night he was working on an article for the Indian Times. The Arts Editor for the daily, Samir was writing a report on a new artist’s first show at Jehangir Art Gallery. “Word, Image, Information,” a collection of installations, had fascinated him. The neo-conceptual artist, Sanjay Lal, liked to say the idea for the exhibition was sufficient unto itself, and the exhibition was just an epiphenomenon. Samir thought this a bit extreme, but found his ideas interesting nonetheless. Sanjay had turned to art late in life. Now, at the age of fifty, he drew his inspiration from Paul Klee; he wanted to plumb the roots of experience, the realm of possibility. His raw material was words and images like many other artists’, but he was interested in their forms and how they carved up reality. What did they include and what did they exclude? There were many installations in which words, images, and objects coexisted in different forms. Did language reflect reality or did it create reality?

Samir was thirty and wore glasses. His long face gave him a leathered, emaciated look. He appeared tall and lean and intellectual in a way that always appealed to women. He had on a deep blue cotton shirt. He lived in an old decrepit house on Mount Pleasant Road that had been in his family’s possession for four generations. Neither he nor his father, a retired newspaperman, had the money to restore it. Besides, they preferred to spend their meager salaries on small luxuries, like books. As a result, the house had retained its original character and had even been marked by the Bombay Heritage Society.

Samir stretched his back and arms and yawned. He had titled his piece ‘How to do things with words,’ a pointer to the English philosopher Austin, whom he had linked in the article with his contemporary Paul Klee, despite their many metaphysical differences. Samir’s clear and concise prose could convey complex ideas to a wide range of people. As a journalist, he possessed a sense of the public.

Samir sat at a worn-out wooden desk with chipped corners, facing his computer. His room, large by contemporary Bombay standards, was alternately bright and dark, each lamp in the room confined to its own narrow radius. It created an eerie atmosphere at night, as if the room was alternately safe and dangerous. He sometimes paced from one patch of light to another, thinking, making the wooden boards creak. It was not a tidy room, with lots of books strewn about, many of them bought second-hand from pavement shops.

Now, on Sunday morning, the redolent spirit of the Saturday night vigil lingered. Samir stood and gathered the sheets from the printer. He stapled them and slipped the document in a folder and inserted the folder into a weathered black briefcase. He changed into his pajamas and climbed into bed. He could see the outline of the house across the street and the stars in the background. His thoughts shifted to Asha and after a while he fell asleep.

 

 

……

 

 

Samir had won the Griffiths Fellowship to the School of Journalism at Columbia University for a period of six months. He had accepted it immediately. Not only had he learned a lot, he had even enjoyed himself. In particular, he had met Asha. She had heard about him as an Indian visitor to the School of Journalism and had asked his department about his interests. When she learned that he wrote frequently on modern art, she invited him to speak in her course on modern Indian art, asking him to deliver a couple of lectures on the “Baroda School,” a topic he knew well. He wasn’t particularly keen about the talks, but he agreed readily, more out of a desire to meet the woman behind the sensuous voice.

At first, they were both cool towards each other. Samir’s lectures were very well received by the students. Then one day he asked Asha out to a play. They both found themselves inextricably drawn to each other. Their friendship moved in small steps, sometimes in circles, sometimes even backwards. But with each step, it deepened. Their occasional arguments, whether intellectual or quotidian, whether about the meaning of the Natyashastra or about the time he had forgotten to pick her up at Times Square, only brought them closer, and invariably ended with a hug and kiss.

His program at Columbia ended, but he had planned to stay on for another month at the Southern Asian Department, where Asha had secured a small stipend for him. But then he received news that his father was seriously ill and had to leave immediately. In August he returned to Bombay, cutting off their relationship.

As he reflected upon his aborted stay, Samir realized that he had not only discovered the U.S., but had also rediscovered his own country—an India no longer simply of the colors of everyday life, but also of depth and stillness and balance. He had accessed a new vantage point from which to view India, as every expatriate does his own country, and that led him to a different reality, one of distance and reflection. It had an air of paradox, this insight into India by moving away from it. His names for this insight were pluralism and minimalism. He felt India was an essentially pluralist society, one without sharply defined internal boundaries between practices, a plenitude resulting from the mingling of traditions—so many languages, so many religions, so many cultures. However, he mused, curiously there was no self-conscious pluralist tradition in India. It had no name.

To the unaided eye, to the casual look, India seemed more “maximalist” than minimalist. After all, everywhere one perceived expression rather than restraint, sound instead of silences, color in place of shape, curves rather than lines, crowds jostling, gods proliferating, textures teeming. But reflection revealed a reality of simplicity, of economy, even occasionally of quiet austerity, of quickness of mind, of questions rather than answers, of sudden revelations, of practices that thrived on danger and contradiction and ambiguity, and on the boundaries of essences. Its minimalism made its maximalism possible, like the root its fruit, like silence speech.

Upon his return, his father recovered, but Samir himself deteriorated. He wrote Asha every day for a month. Then abruptly, he stopped writing altogether and did not even respond to Asha’s less agitated but equally ardent letters. Another month slipped by.

Samir was at the Jehangir Art Gallery again, looking at “Word, Image, Information.” He was studying an installation in which there was an irregular rock with a smooth and flat top. On it was a largish round cake. On the rock’s sides were the words ‘tall’, ‘triangle’, ‘art’, ‘democracy’, etched in a sharp Times New Roman script. Beside and around the cake were scattered a number of knives. A sign read: ‘Help yourself’. Occasionally, half-nervously, someone would hold a knife, cut into the cake, and pick up a piece. About half the cake was gone. Someone said it was the third cake of the day—a new one was brought in when the earlier one was finished. Samir helped himself to a piece, too.

Sanjay Lal was also present that day and Samir detained him during a quiet moment.

“Did you like the cake, Samir? It’s from the Taj,” Sanjay said, jabbing Samir with his elbow.

“Since when have you been visiting the Taj?” Samir retorted good-naturedly, knowing Sanjay didn’t frequent expensive establishments. “Seriously, though, it wasn’t bad. A little dry, maybe. Great show! One of the best I’ve seen in a while.”

“I’m done here. How about a beer?”

They filed out of the Jehangir, and crossed the road to the Wayside Inn. After ordering a Kingfisher, they resumed their conversation.

“Tell me about the cake and knives,” Samir began.

“Only a few artists think hard about the nature of abstract entities like concepts, but they interest me tremendously. Even the conceptualists didn’t tackle the problem head on. What is a concept? It’s a very difficult question to answer. How does it work? When is it effective? When does it fail?” Sanjay paused to sip the cool beer. “More to the point, why are they important?”

“Philosophers and scientists have asked these questions, but you’re right about the relative silence of artists,” Samir responded.

“Let me start with why they are important. They are central to every human activity; you couldn’t live without concepts, they mediate all your thoughts and actions. Indeed, even crossing the street requires concepts,” Sanjay said.

“I know computer scientists, especially those working in AI, talk about concepts in order to realize intelligent behavior,” Samir offered.

“First, concepts are tools, the way knives are tools. They enable us to extend the domain of our actions. You use a knife to cut yourself a piece of cake. In the same way, you use a concept to slice yourself a piece of reality. But a concept is an abstract thing; you need something concrete to grasp it, and this is where words and images come in. A word like ‘triangle’ permits you to pluck out all the triangles in the world, it allows you to name a class of shapes,” Sanjay continued.

“And some knives are sharp while others are blunt,” Samir observed.

“Exactly,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Knives come in so many different shapes and sizes, each for a different task. Concepts are no different. A mathematician wanting to be precise will use concepts like ‘triangle’, a demagogue wanting to sway a crowd will employ flexible terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. It all depends on what you want to do. Reality is like butter. You can impose any kind of grid on it that you desire, sharp or fuzzy.”

“I’m not so sure about that last statement. If reality were like butter, would it offer resistance?” Samir asked.

“Different thinkers adopt different positions about reality. This is just mine,” Sanjay answered.

After some gossip centering on the art world of Bombay, they finished their beer and parted company. Samir then walked along Marine Drive before heading home. Gray and choppy, the sea reflected the brooding sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. Out of the corner of his eye, Samir noticed the sky turn crimson, scarlet, orange, even pink. He kept walking without breaking his stride.

 

 

……

 

 

The curtains billowed in the light breeze. Harold peered onto the Arabian Sea, soundless and calm at that early hour. On this November Monday, he remembered a painting of Magritte’s that formed an ambiguity between dawn and dusk. In the canvas was a house by a lake with a street lamp in between and the sky in the back. All the colors receded to the edge of light and darkness. It was impossible to decide if it was night or day. Despite the odd hour, he took out the Sahityashastra from his briefcase and began to read. He reminded himself of the first two steps of the argument, essentially the quartet of institutions and their transmutation into actions.

The third step was to use a notion of balance. Bharata wanted to argue for balance and imbalance in the space of actions. He derived the idea by thinking about how buildings like temples are able to stand without collapsing. His creativity lay in believing that social institutions like religion, state, and literature should also be sturdy in the same way. Temples became metaphors for social structures in Bharata’s fertile mind.

If a social institution could stand like a temple, he called it balanced; if not, he deemed it unbalanced. He argued that for rational actors a minimal religion, a minimal state, and a minimal literature were in balance.

Furthermore, he could show that this balance implied a complete separation between the three minimal domains of action. The three areas did not overlap. As a result, all three spheres of action were jointly in balance and were separate from each other.

This deep result reminded Harold vaguely of equilibrium arguments in economics, something he had learnt from his nephew, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, Bharata’s own inspiration was the stability of temples and other buildings.

The separation of the three minimal spheres of action was an unexpected result with startling consequences. These Bharata developed later in the second part of the book. That enabled him to argue that most of the institutionalized religion of the day was unbalanced.

Drowsy, Harold scribbled a few notes. He dropped off to sleep again and awoke at eleven. He had kept the day entirely free, partly for the Sahityashastra, and partly to relax.

He had completed Bharata’s argument for a separation of religion and state. On looking back, it was clear that the argument could be improved with modern techniques, but the ideas Bharata employed were profound and enduring. In fact, many later thinkers have used similar ideas. Bharata was not content to leave it at that. The second part of his book interpreted this abstract argument.

A visceral shock coursed through Harold’s body. He felt as though he had glimpsed a vision.

 

 

…….

 

 

The rest of the book teased out the implications of the argument in the first half. The first domain Bharata considered was religion. He fleshed out the idea of a minimal religion, one with a dimension of desire, like the religion of the Vedas, where the fulfillment of desire is the goal of man’s actions. It did not renounce life, like ascetic Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism. Action was not desireless and was not to be desireless. In fact, the world was caused by desire. This intermingling, this identity of holiness and desire, is precisely what offered religion a certain robustness. Another dimension of a minimal religion, according to Bharata, was that it should be philosophical, a little like the early Upanishads, and also founded on reason and argument. In this way, he worked out what it meant for a religion to be minimal.

Next, he elaborated the notion of a minimal state. This was surprisingly close to what would today be an unregulated economy. Not only would the state avoid entanglement in religion, it would also not direct the markets of the day. It appears from his asides that Bharata was himself shocked at his finding, but the logic of his argument was inescapable.

Then came the separation of the two. Here he was at his most eloquent. He depicted different spheres of action for religion and the state. On the one hand, the disconnection gave rise to a holy religion; on the other hand, it engendered an effective state by a secularization of its domain. Radical, this division was not like the secularism of twentieth-century India, for example, which was more like an attempt at equidistance from all religious influence. At this point, Harold realized the significance of the frieze at the temple. The panel represented the disjointing of kingship from divinity. Someone had obviously read the book and had carved out the idea of the separation on the temple wall. That possibly explained why such a panel had never been seen before.

Last was the argument for literature. There were three issues to be resolved here. One was the relation between religion and literature, another was the relation between the state and literature, and the third was the project for literature itself. In some ways, this was the most intriguing part of the framework Bharata had developed, a fitting finale to the earlier deconstruction. While it lacked that prior theory’s deductive logic, Bharata tackled all three problems in one stroke by claiming, at the end of some complex analogical argumentation based partly on the Indian syllogism, that literature would replace religion as the form of life itself.

The fourth institution of rationality permeated the other three. Its target was emotionalism, rasa gone awry, and in this context was a revolutionary idea.

Harold finally set down the Sahityashastra. The revivalists and fundamentalists would find it impossible to explain such a treatise at the center of their canon. They would have nowhere to turn. This was a critique from within.

If the Indian people or even just the people of Bombay were to get hold of this book, the communal forces in the city would disappear in a matter of months. Information transmission was an easy matter in view of Bombay’s connectedness, its intersecting selves. No wonder Meghnad had been murdered, Harold realized with a start. The Sahityashastra’s meaning and implications lay behind the string of killings.

He considered the Sahityashastra admiringly. What startled Harold, in addition to the convincing argumentation, was the de-centering of religion that it achieved at a time when religion permeated society, when it was the form of life. To replace it with literature and convert religion into a private practice was a profoundly modern idea. How could Bharata have imagined it in the third century?

He had been reading a copy he had made earlier in the day at the Taj’s business center. The original he would send to Asha. He sat down to write her a long letter, explaining all that had happened in light of his reading. The events now fell into place, and he mused absently how the future could so transform the past. His intuitions and reconstructions had been shots in the dark, but they had barely missed the mark.

He glanced at his watch; it was after nine. He put on his shoes and left the room, carrying the original and the letter with him. He dropped them off at the reception with instructions to courier them to Asha.

 

 

……

 

 

Frank Thompson arrived at the Taj early, and after waiting for twenty minutes, he decided to call Harold’s room. Evidently, Harold was out, and Frank figured he would wait for another ten minutes. As he placed the phone back on its hook, he bumped into Harold. The Taj’s lobby provided a surprisingly warm space, despite the cold and hard marble floor. A large square carpet in the center softened the marble, but it was really the number of people that altered it from an abstract space to a concrete, lived-in place. “Form follows use,” a local architect had wryly observed, upending Corbusier.

“I was just calling you,” Frank said.

“Sorry I’m late. When did you get in?” Harold asked.

“A couple of days. Shall we try the Golden Dragon? It’s Chinese food. I hear it’s the best in town.”

“I know it well,” Harold said.

They ambled down the corridor, entered the restaurant, and found themselves a table for two.

“Have you gotten over Nirana and into the bustle of Bombay?” Frank asked.

“Bombay does pull you in, doesn’t it?”

“There’s something happening every day.”

“Frank, I want you to publish a book I’m going to translate,” Harold said.

Frank raised his eyebrows. “What’s the book?” he asked.

“The Sahityashastra. Bharata’s sequel to the Natyashastra, also known as ‘The Sixth Veda.’”

“I’ve heard of it,” Frank said, sipping his wine. “But it’s always been shrouded in mystery. I thought it was lost.”

“It’s a remarkable book, with a surprisingly contemporary argument and message.”

“Okay,” Frank said abruptly after a pause. “What do you want to do with it?”

“I want to start right away and suspend my research for a while. That will have to wait. Chaturvedi is going to be upset, and he will have to be appeased. It should take a little over a year to finish the translation, especially one with annotations. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good so far. I will give you a suitable advance, the standard sum for translations of important old manuscripts.”

“Perfect. But all this must be done in complete secrecy. Why don’t we celebrate with another glass of wine?” Harold said.

For a while they sat in silence, each man contemplating the project, as they spooned their sweet and sour soup. The heavy carpet darkened the room. The wooden furniture added to this dullness. Despite the unexceptional environment, the restaurant was full. As Frank scanned the room, he recognized someone and waved.

“How did you come upon the Sahityashastra?” Frank asked.

“I found it at the temple of Ranipur near Nirana.”

Frank thought he detected a trace of apprehension in Harold’s voice, but shrugged it off. He mentioned Lal’s exhibition and Samir Khanna’s review of it. Both agreed that India was just commencing its ascent. The first fifty years were just preparatory, though a few could discern the outline of the shape of the next century for India.

“But it can’t stay narrowly nationalistic,” Frank said.

“That’s true. Not even in the fields of art and culture. It would be retrogressive.”

They bid a warm goodbye to each other and Harold walked back towards his room, humming a tune. It was almost midnight, but the Taj was still bustling with people.

 

 

……

 

 

The following Sunday, Harold was dining with Oswal. He arrived at his residence on Carmichael Road at eight-thirty. On this cool evening, as always on Carmichael Road, the quiet was interrupted only by crickets and the occasional car. KP had a sprawling white house with a garden that resembled a Mondrian painting. Lines of pebbles partitioned grasses of different hues, each occupying a discrete rectangle.

Dropped off by a cab, Harold rang the doorbell and waited. A servant dressed in white opened the door. As Harold entered the house, KP emerged from one of the rooms in white kurta pajamas. The interior was Indian minimalist, spare, elegant, and tastefully done.

“Hello, hello, hello!” KP said.

They shook hands and embraced warmly.

KP ushered him into the living room. “Come. Have a seat.”

“You have a wonderful house. I haven’t seen so many rare sculptures and pieces in any single room,” Harold said. “The room creates a context for international objects, a kind of Indian modernism. Look at those Giacomettis.”

“Thank you. They’ve been picked up over a lifetime of collecting. All these paintings too.” KP gestured towards the Shahs and Agarwals on the walls.

“They’re stunning. I keep meaning to ask you—any idea what might happen in the next elections?”

“Things seem fine on the whole. I don’t take much interest in politics as you know. But in the field of culture, there is a move towards indigenization. What do you think?”

Harold sensed KP was being noncommittal. He chose to speak openly. “I think the cultural isolationism is terrible. It will lead to rigor mortis. Of course, there are marvelous indigenous traditions worth emulating and developing. I would be the first to say that. But the conceptual input of contemporary thought must accompany it. Indian art criticism is almost completely westernized in its form, for example. Indeed, one must look internationally, not just to the West. That is the same reason why the arts in the West are atrophying. Think of the primitivism in the art of the first half of this century. That is why it was so vigorous. Your own living room betrays that very vitality.”

“But what about Indian civilization?” KP said. “This is the moment for us to rethink that question. The miscegenation of cultural forms may not be a particularly good thing for India at this time. Even the socialists, who pride themselves on being progressive, are for nationalism in art.”

“The socialists and many others are for nationalism for a different reason. You know that. They have the power relations between the North and South in mind. The West could take from the non-West without acknowledging their debt because they were more powerful. For India to take from the West is more problematic because they would be seen as derivative. But I still think that’s a bad reason for ‘nationalism’ in art. Opening up India would result in a burst of vitality. What you see today is a trickle that would become a flood.”

“Indian culture is also too tightly controlled internally. Those for nationalism are usually those in power, whether it is in politics or in art. Opening up boundaries always reduces such artificial power based on limiting the flow of ideas.”

Another servant interrupted the conversation with wine and hors d’oeuvres.

“KP, I have known you all these years, but I can honestly never tell where you’re coming from,” Harold said. “You may not take an interest in politics, but you are a consummate politician yourself.”

KP laughed. “I have to confess I have been told that before.”

“I actually had a serious purpose in wanting to see you tonight. You see, I have found the Sahityashastra.”

“That’s incredible! How did you find it? Have you had a chance to read it?”

“I plan to summarize it soon. It is perhaps the most beautiful piece of prose I’ve read, about religion and yet not about religion, about the state and yet not about the state, about literature and yet not about literature. It certainly has the stature and range and depth to be the sixth Veda.”

“Is it like the Natyashastra?”

“It is much broader in scope and its language is quite different. It has something for everyone, its insights affect everyday life as well as the organization of society.”

“It will make you even more famous, Harold. Shall we move to the dining room?”

“Before we do, may I make a phone call? I picked up a message from Allison at the reception on my way out.”

“Of course. How is she? Let’s go to my study.” They filed down a corridor and turned left before KP opened the door to his study. The room was dimly lit by a tall lamp in one corner. Harold noticed various carvings and figurines from different parts and periods of India, statues of gods, guardians, and lovers. The French windows overlooked the garden and Harold could see its outline in the dark. KP walked over to his desk in another corner and gestured at the phone. He was about to say something when they heard a knock on the door and a servant appeared. KP excused himself.

Harold called Allison at home. As the phone rang, he fingered the edge of the desk, noting that it was smooth and polished, possibly rosewood. His gaze wandered over the walls and he discerned many stone Ganeshas in the room. A photograph of KP’s son Umesh rested at one end of the desk.

“Hello? This is Allison.”

“Hello. You had called?” Harold asked.

“Oh, hi, Dad. Anil just called to say that we have to make a presentation to IPL in January.”

“That’s very good news, Allie,” Harold said, as his gaze strayed along the cluttered desk, with several papers and pens in disarray, a bunch of black and white photographs of more Indian carvings and statues, a diary, and a copy of Tagore’s “Gitanjali.”

“We’re thinking of coming in January. We should have something definite to say by then.”

“Have you made some progress already?” Harold asked, peering at the photographs in the dim light. He realized they had been taken recently, just a few days ago. He saw that they were mostly details of larger carvings, some of them quite beautiful. KP did have a fine collection of artifacts. One close-up of a crown looked rough and simple rather than smooth and ornate. Another showed an outstretched arm with an outward-facing palm in the manner of Indian gods at an angle suggesting a quiet power.

“Yes, we’ve made quite a leap and I think we will be able to develop tools that could also help people to translate texts with greater ease. We are using ideas from topology, as I had said to you earlier.”

“I’d be very interested to know how that goes. I could use some help myself,” Harold said, and picked up a third photograph, the torso of a female figure. He set it down and glanced absently at the remaining photographs. His eyes wandered to the opposite wall. “I should still be here in January, but Chaturvedi and I may make a short trip to Cambridge some time in February. How long do you expect to be here?”

“About a week, maybe two. I will let you know once our plans are finalized. I should know by next week.”

KP knocked lightly and entered as Harold said goodbye to Allison. He led Harold back to the dining room.

They sat down to a North Indian dinner, navratan korma and sarson ka saag among other dishes. KP had ordered a vegetarian meal, knowing Harold’s preferences. The talk turned to family.

“How is Allison?” KP asked.

“She’s fine. She’s actually working on a translation project at AEC that might involve IPL funding. She’s going to be coming here in January for a presentation.”

“Oh really? I know we’ve been talking about a strategic alliance with AEC but I don’t know the details of the translation project you’re talking about. Do tell Allison to contact me and I will look into it.”

“How is Umesh? Is he still planning on getting some work experience before he applies to the Harvard Business School?”

“He’s in a hurry. He doesn’t understand the importance of the experience. It would help him assimilate his Harvard education better. Unfortunately, he always points to my example. I was the youngest in my Harvard class, without any experience. So what can I say?” KP sighed.

“I don’t think it will matter to him in the long run, though his educational experience will certainly be better if he works. Let me know when he applies, in any case,” Harold said.

KP’s wife had died some years ago with their daughter in a car crash on the way to Pune from Bombay. Since then, KP had lived a relatively lonely life, doting on his son in the U.S.

They continued to chat about various things till the talk drifted back to the Sahityashastra.

“Where did you find the Sahityashastra?” KP asked.

“In the temple of Ranipur near Nirana,” Harold said.

“Where is it now?”

“In my room at the Taj.”

“I would like very much to see it.”

“Sure. I can make you a copy.”

“Have you told anyone else about it?”

“No, not really. Except for Varma, who was remarkably cool about it.”

“What do you plan to do with it?”

“Translate it, publish it, and distribute it,” Harold said. “The last part is where I need your help.”

“Of course,” KP said. “Why don’t you tell me when you’re ready?”

After some small talk, Harold departed. He rode back in KP’s car. The Taj was busy as usual at midnight as he walked down the long corridor joining the new hotel to the old one. As he opened the door to his room, he experienced a vague uneasiness.

His entire room had been ransacked. The vandals had clearly failed because they had even smashed the night tables, an entirely unnecessary act of destruction. His papers lay strewn all over the floor.

As he stepped inside, the door gently shut behind him.

“Come in, Doctor Stone, we have been waiting for you,” a firm voice said.

 

Back to Chapter 9         Back to Main Page         Forward to Chapter 11

A Gash in the World

July 29, 2008

Chapter 9         Fact and Feeling

 

“I’ll be down in a minute,” Harold said.

The bellboy lifted Harold’s suitcase and backed out the door. Harold cast a last lingering look around the room. The poignant combination of light and wood left him with a dull ache. He traced a finger along a chair’s arm and wondered when he might find the time to come again to Nirana, and whether it would be more peaceful the next time. Sighing, he picked up his burgundy briefcase, in which he’d carefully packed the Sahityashastra.

Bob was already waiting at the cab, and Mrs. Gupta was instructing the bellboy. As Harold emerged into the open air, he glanced wistfully at the observation tower, still only half-complete, as part of the restoration was still under way. The events of the last couple of days had jolted everyone into the harsh present where decisions must be made and actions taken. The world of Nirana was about to recede from him, a place of nooks and crannies, towers and turrets, winding stairs and terraced levels. Harold tipped the bellboy and thanked him.

“Mrs. Gupta, I’ve had a very restful time, despite the tumult,” Harold said.

“I really hope so. I’m sorry about what happened, and I do hope we’ll see you again,” Mrs. Gupta said.

“I’m sure you will.” Harold smiled.

Harold turned to Bob, and they both climbed into the car, a dark blue Contessa, and waved to Mrs. Gupta. She waved back as they descended down the sloping pathway into the flat plains.

“This is a rough road,” Bob said. “Even when we move to the highway, it doesn’t get much better. It’s full of potholes.”

“I know. Indian roads aren’t the best in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are close to being the worst in the world!” Harold said.

“Harold, tell me about the book that you and Mrs. Gupta were talking about in the dining room. You’ve whetted my curiosity.”

“It’s an ancient tome called the Sahityashastra, written in the third century by Bharata, one of the greatest intellectuals of all time. Many writers paid glowing tributes to it through history, but it was believed to be lost after the eleventh century. David Jones, an Englishman, found it in the nineteenth century, but drowned with the copies he had found. Then the priest of the Ranipur temple showed me a copy that had been in the temple for God knows how long. As far as I know, this is the only copy around today.”

“But what is it about?” Bob asked.

“I have only just started reading it. But I know a little of its background from the writings of others. It’s a philosophical treatise that explores the connections among literature, religion, and state. I don’t yet know what these connections are, but they could be volatile. Many writers considered Bharata’s book heretical. I am especially curious about the impact it may have on current politics.”

The car segued onto the narrow highway as they continued talking.

“If the book is as important as you say it is, and if it is relevant to contemporary affairs, shouldn’t we really pass it on to the U.S. Government? It really is their domain. The Embassy could handle the transfer if you like. I myself could relieve you of the trouble,” Bob said officiously.

They passed a small cluster of trees that formed an arch over the road in an otherwise even expanse. They paused to enjoy the fleeting protection from the afternoon sun.

“Come on, Bob, be serious. Read CIA for U.S. Government. Do you know what the CIA has been doing to India for the last several decades? They have been trying to destabilize it to establish their own geopolitical equation in the subcontinent. And you want me to give the book to them?”

“The CIA’s role in India has been blown out of all proportion. Besides, today it’s a shadow of its former self. You can’t think it could do any serious damage, do you?” Bob said.

“It’s possible,” Harold said. “There is good reason to think that the end of the Cold War won’t affect the pattern of conflict in the subcontinent. That will continue as before. And that will force the CIA to play its old role.”

An hour had elapsed and they were pushing into Haryana now, swerving to avoid the potholes. The road teemed with trucks delivering all kinds of goods, from electrical motors to apples. On both sides of the road stretched green fields, ripe for the kharif harvest that had begun a few weeks ago.

“How long have you been in India, Bob?” Harold asked.

“Two years. I have one more year here. Then it’s Vienna,” Bob said.

“Have you enjoyed your stay here?” Harold asked.

“There are many things I can’t take. The poverty, for instance. But otherwise I quite enjoy it. I’m into old furniture and there’s a lot of neat stuff to be found here. And it’s affordable,” Bob said.

“I like the old furniture too.”

“I find tourists a real nuisance.”

“When foreign tourists come here, they usually only see what they consider the exotic dimensions of the country. In fact, everything, even the most ordinary thing, becomes exotic to some extent. And travel companies exacerbate the problem because they are forced to market everything in these terms.”

They both fell silent until the car soon curved into the driveway of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel.

 

 

……

 

 

After a brief rest, Harold dressed for the evening at the Pals’. The dinner was set for eight, which meant he could arrive by nine, knowing Indian practices as he did. He had met the Pals at one of his lectures on Buddhist art and architecture two years ago. After the talk, they had introduced themselves, expressing keen interest in rasa theory and its variants through history. This was his second visit to their home.

They lived in Vasant Vihar in a spacious house with white marble floors, tastefully decorated though a trifle opulent. Mrs. Pal was an amateur painter and many of her works adorned the walls. The couple also owned paintings by other contemporary artists, especially two by Agarwal. The living room was a large white square with Persian carpets strewn about. There were many artifacts like brass lamps and earthenware in the room, contrasting the stark white of the marble. A winding stairway curved up to other wings of the house. When Harold entered, there were already about fifteen people in the living room, scattered in different corners and groups, creating a hum of conversation.

A waiter was circulating with whiskey, soft drinks, and juice. Mr. Pal strode over and invited him in. Harold felt a strange prickly anxiety as he meandered through the crowd to get a drink. He asked a waiter behind a bar for a gin and tonic. As he joined a couple of conversations, he sensed the presence of something sinister. He quickly moved to another group, but he was still asked the same rote questions, a polite but firm interrogation of why he was in India. He sensed he had transgressed in some way. Or was he becoming unnecessarily paranoid? He couldn’t say.

He spotted Gautam Bose. With a sigh of relief he approached Gautam’s group. Gautam nodded to him, but he was also aloof and distant. He avoided Harold’s eyes and prevented him from talking to him alone. Now he felt that he was not welcome. Partly in exasperation and partly out of an incipient uneasiness, he turned toward Mr. Pal, who was immersed in conversation with two other men.

“But the idealism of ancient Indian art is reflected in the idealism of much modern Indian art. Abstract figuration dominates both, so there isn’t as sharp a break between the two as you are suggesting, unless you go solely by the visual evidence,” Mr. Pal said. “Harold, have you met Nitin and Raj? Dr. Stone is an Indologist at Harvard. We should ask him his opinion.”

But Raj cut in with a question of his own. “Dr. Stone, what are you doing in India at this time?”

Harold searched Mr. Pal’s face for a clue, but it remained innocent and impassive. He didn’t know if he was imagining it all or it was real. Most likely, part of it was true and the rest was his imagination. He forced himself to break out of it and glanced at his watch. Two hours had passed since he‘d arrived. About thirty people were milling about in the room by now. Dinner was about to be served.

Suddenly, Gautam broke away from his group and walked over.

“So we meet again. I hope you will come to my film in Bombay, so we will get yet another opportunity to chat,” Gautam said.

They made small conversation for a while and then withdrew to the dining room. Some of the guests had already helped themselves to the spread on the table. Harold was hungry and the food, especially the vegetable jalfrezie, looked delicious, but he slipped out quietly and hailed a cab instead. The night air was cool, freeing up the constricted world inside. He wondered at the strange atmosphere at the Pals’. For a moment he considered the possibility that it had something to do with the book, because that was the most prominent thing in his mind. But he didn’t pursue that thought.

 

 

……

 

 

The next morning, Harold was up early. He had a busy day ahead, and his flight to Bombay left at five in the evening. He phoned the Sahitya Kendra at ten to schedule an appointment with Dr. Varma, its head. He had met Dr. Varma at some conferences, but didn’t know him well. He managed to secure an early appointment.

The Sahitya Kendra was a government institution, the foremost organization in the country dealing with Indian literature. Its many ongoing projects included compiling an English language comprehensive encyclopedia of select Indian literature from ancient to modern times. It would cover all Indian languages, not just Sanskrit and Hindi. It was estimated that it would eventually grow to about fifty volumes.

At a quarter past noon Harold found himself in front of a three-story house on Rajpur Road that had been converted into the offices of the Sahitya Kendra. Dr. Varma’s office was located on the ground floor, as he had an injured leg and used a walking stick. The paint was peeling off the building walls, giving them a stale and worn air.

Harold mounted the steps and introduced himself to the receptionist. He was asked to wait and told that Dr. Varma would see him presently. At ten minutes to one Dr. Varma stepped out with a bespectacled gentleman who was obviously German. He waved to him and then approached Harold.

“Doctor Stone, how are you? I’m sorry to keep you waiting. Let’s go inside. What can I do for you?” Dr. Varma limped with his stick as he spoke.

Once ensconced inside Dr. Varma’s office, Harold told him about his discovery of the Sahityashastra. He brought out the volume from his briefcase and laid it on his desk. Dr. Varma listened carefully and then inspected the book. A full five minutes must have ticked away before Dr. Varma spoke.

“So what would you like me to do with this?” he asked in a dull, flat tone.

There was no trace of emotion or excitement in his voice. Harold was amazed. Here he was presenting him with the find of the decade if not the century, and Dr. Varma was asking him what he’d like done with it.

“I thought perhaps you could have it translated. I don’t mind doing it myself, but I thought I should discuss it with you first. I think it would take about a year.”

“You have done well to bring it here, but as you know we have many projects at the Sahitya Kendra. You’re aware of our encyclopedia project, I am sure. Something like that takes up practically all our meager staff. We would gladly take it on, but I cannot say when we would get to it. Why don’t you leave it with me, in any case?” Dr. Varma offered.

“I would hate to see it buried under a lot of other work. Maybe I should try to find another avenue for it. Besides, I cannot leave it with you as yet. I still have to finish reading it. You know, there’s something odd about…” Harold’s voice trailed off.

“You were saying?” Dr. Varma prompted.

“No, I changed my mind. I was just thinking aloud. Indiscriminately, to be sure.”

“Let me give you some advice. Why do you want to bother with the Sahityashastra? Bharata’s Natyashastra and other writings are already known. What good would one more volume do? There are so many more important tasks for people like you. Some of Abhinanda’s dramas need to be translated and we are looking for a translator. Would you like to do it?”

“Thanks,” Harold said, “but I have my own project on Indian architecture to complete. But I wish you luck. I look forward to the encyclopedia.”

Dr. Varma changed the subject. “How was the Indology Congress in Grindelwald? I couldn’t attend this year.”

“Not bad. There was an excellent paper by Chaturvedi, ‘The Convexity of Form at Khajuraho,’ as well as one by Madan Singh, ‘New Insights into the Atharva Veda.’ Beyond these two, it was the usual fare, nothing earthshaking,” Harold said. “Oh, there was also some reporting on developments of my work on rasa theories, especially the reader-response strand. It seems people continue to be interested in this dimension because it permits application of rasa theory beyond Indian literature and art. There is also, of course, the interest in the actual mechanism of rasa.”

“Sounds very interesting. I think your work on rasa was very good,” Dr. Varma said. “Well, I have a lunch meeting and I’m already late for it. Let me know if you change your mind about translating Abhinanda. We need scholars like you.”

Harold left the office stunned. Dr. Varma hobbled with him to the door, the picture of propriety. Was this just the usual Indian bureaucracy he’d witnessed or was there something peculiar about Dr. Varma’s behavior? Harold was tempted to discard the first possibility. He couldn’t imagine someone of Dr. Varma’s stature behaving like that.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold hated flying. He had never quite mastered the sequence of procedures at the airport and always got confused. At least there were no checkpoints requiring passports on domestic flights. One less document to worry about.

This was the first time he was flying Jet Air, again on Chaturvedi’s recommendation. He was pleasantly surprised to find attractive young women staffing the check-in counter. Baggage checks, boarding pass, bookshop, security: the bookshop was an essential part of Harold’s routine because he always arrived early for flights and had spare time.

The small shop was crowded with people browsing through a wide array of books. He squeezed his way along the racks and tables, glancing at new editions of “The Kama Sutra” and copies of “A Brief History of Time.” He heard the announcement for his flight. At the security desk, another young girl from Jet Air directed him to identify his baggage just outside the terminal. After a while, he was in the plane, in executive class. He managed to travel business class on his independent income, but he still felt that twentieth century modes of air travel were primitive at best. You were basically herded together like sheep, compressed into tiny cabins with little space to move or stretch. Even in first class one suffered these indignities.

He sat down in seat 3A, by the window. Fortunately, there was no one next to him so he could spread out more easily. Another smiling hostess approached.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” she asked. “It’s a special lime drink.”

Harold nodded. “Thanks.”

Where did Jet Air find all these pretty girls—dark-skinned, sharp-featured, speaking in smart Westernized accents? Harold fished around for some magazines and leafed through India Today. There was a write-up on a big party the billionaire Seth was going to throw on his cruise ship. He’d invited over a thousand people.

It was ten past five and passengers were still streaming in. The plane finally lifted off at five-thirty, late by half an hour. The pilot apologized for the delay and announced that they would land at seven-fifteen instead of seven o’clock.

Harold decided to return to the Sahityashastra. The murder of the priest still troubled him, as did the disturbing experiences in Delhi. He figured his best bet was to race on ahead with the Sahityashastra. He was looking forward to Bombay, a city full of paradoxes that he had visited so many times he had lost count. Chaturvedi (he was never addressed by his first name) and KP (as Oswal was called) would surely serve as good antidotes to the mystifying encounters in Delhi.

He read without interruption all through the flight, denying himself even the inevitable medhu vada the hostess offered. As the plane descended towards Bombay, Harold summarized what he had read. He had now finished the second step of the argument.

Harold bore in mind what he had read of the first step as he reviewed the second. In the first, the revolutionizing force of rational agency had been added to the triad of literature, religion, and the state.

Bharata continued the deconstruction. Now he must transform the triad into action, using the concept of rationality he had introduced in the first part. In itself this was a radical step. Religion, state, and literature were all transmuted into action, converted from institutions into religious actions, state actions, and literary actions.

From this large collection of actions, Bharata identified certain groups as minimal. Minimalist religion, a minimalist state, and minimalist literature were thus established as possible choices for rational agents.

It was likely, Harold figured, that Bharata would later try to show that these minimal choices were the best. Harold marveled at Bharata’s ability to tie together diverse ideas into a compelling unified structure.

Harold looked down at Bombay through a curtain of rain as he thought about the second step. The light was fading, and the rain impeded a clear view of the ground. He wondered how pilots managed in such conditions. He could see a dense mass of colorless buildings amid occasional patches of green. A lake came into sight. The rain rendered the topography distant and romantic, refracting his picture of Bombay.

He tucked the Sahityashastra back in his briefcase. Before long, they were arcing to approach the runway.

 

 

……

 

 

Bombay held many memories for Harold. Once a graceful city of wider spaces and muted sounds, he had seen it surrender to a different, discordant spirit over the years. On his first trip with his wife, when he was still a student researching his dissertation, he had been overcome by the warmth of the people he met, entranced by their cadenced accents, their intelligence, their enterprise, their ready laughter and wit. He had witnessed an incipient capitalism freed of the British, but still with some of their appurtenances that lingered on, not least the Indians’ facility with English. Now this capitalism had become brash, vulgar, but no less vibrant, and it was joined by a vicious, malevolent communalism, full of violence and hatred. What had once been a harmonious fusing of the material and the spiritual had now been twisted into something aberrant and ugly.

He could remember the warm October day in 1967 when Bombay was still not as crowded with people and traffic as it was to become thirty years later. You could drive across the city in just under an hour. It was then a simpler city and in many ways a nicer city, with less corrupt politics, less strident media, and with a greater sense of community and humanity. It had some of the virtues of a small town despite its status as the commercial hub of India. It was even then the object of dreams and an attractor of vast flows of people from all over the country that had city planners worried and thinking about a twin city, a ‘new’ Bombay that could accommodate and grow with this influx. Of course, this decline brought with it all the complexity, all the growth, all the opportunity that comes with the scale the city had realized in recent years, and perhaps, Harold thought, it is better to speak of qualitative change in the very fiber of the city rather than decline, which always betrays an empty nostalgia and conservatism for which this fast-paced world has little patience.

Over ten million people now teemed across the narrow sliver that jutted into the Arabian Sea, filtering into the middle classes, all entering or consolidating their positions in the pother of buying and selling, supplying and demanding, consuming and producing. The restaurants and shops of the city were full as money circulated, flowing sumptuously through the arteries of the city.

Over ten million stories unfolded every day. There was Mohan Rao the clerk, Amina the glasscutter’s wife, Miss Pinto the schoolteacher, Rustom the pilot, Berg the import-export businessman, Anita the corporate manager, all of whom he had run into on his various trips. In some way, everyone seemed connected. Even when Bombay fought, it remained coupled, at least until recently. Durkheim’s organic solidarity rather than Marx’s class-divided consciousness provided the apt model at the lowest level, the level of everyday life.

A mathematician would have called Bombay a connected set, a collection as of one piece, he mused. Sadly, the cosmopolitan air of the fifties and sixties had given way, in the eighties and nineties, to a divided ethic. But the underlying links had not been completely eroded, only rendered invisible in the harsh glare of unrepentant violence.

Bombay was a city that habitually preferred the useful to the beautiful and often demanded, as de Tocqueville once wrote of democracies, that the beautiful be useful. This made the city a jungle of pragmatically shaped concrete, skyscrapers and all, its neo-Gothic British architecture its only visual relief. Its roads funneled traffic down their irregular routes, forcing cars into more lanes than were meant to be.

Bombay was a palimpsest formed by Bhimdev, the Sultans of Gujarat, the Portuguese, the British, independent India, with the Kolis interleaving through all the layers. Ptolemy had mentioned the islands of Bombay as Heptanesia as far back as the second century, roughly the time of Bharata.

The sheer scale of Bombay, its pulse and beat, provided a density, a moral presence that couldn’t be ignored. It bred a tension between freedom and limitation, desire and restraint. The metropolis engendered a public realm of the social imagination, a shared space of discovery and invention and transformation.

The rain pelted down on the canopied stairway as Harold stepped out of the plane and boarded the bus for the terminal. At the baggage claim, he retrieved his suitcase and elbowed his way through the crowds to a cab. He wiped his wet forehead with a handkerchief as he got in and asked the cabbie to drive him to the Taj Mahal Hotel. As they plowed through the slow traffic, Bombay seemed busier than he remembered it from his trip last year—its colors grayer and more somber, its mood darker and edgier. The intensity of the rain diminished as they approached the hotel. A message from Frank of Publish or Perish was waiting for him at the reception counter. He soon found himself in a plush room overlooking the sea. He planned to stay there for a week before moving into the university apartment Chaturvedi had reserved for him.

The rain cocooned the city; it was probably the last rain of the season.

 

Back to Chapter 8         Back to Main Page          Forward to Chapter 10

A Gash in the World

July 28, 2008

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.

 

Back to Chapter 7           Back to Main Page          Forward to Chapter 9

A Gash in the World

July 28, 2008

Chapter 7            The Presence of the Past 

 

On this lazy morning, Harold put down his copy of “Ayodhya and Beyond” on the wooden table beside him. He sprawled back in his ornate medieval chair, took a deep breath, and viewed the restored room reflectively. Restoration, he thought, was basically extrapolation. You were given a fragment of the entity, and you had to construct the rest in harmony with the fragment. The windows, doors and lintels, the chairs and tables, and the beds all possessed this unified character. The windows contained jalis, the doors were decorated with carved panels, and the chairs and tables and beds carried carved work on them too, each curve echoing the other curves on other pieces of furniture, tying them to one another in an abstract intercourse of wooden patterns across the room. And yet, none of it was oppressive, or even opulent. Its charm lay in its being understated, unpolished, quiet. It belonged to a long minimalist tradition in India. Obviously, the room lacked a fireplace to provide a unique focal point, as in the Middle Ages in Europe. The white lime room was multi-focal, like the multi-perspective miniatures of Mewar. There was no symmetrical arrangement of furnishings, and no play of light and shadow, for the light that filtered through the small windows was dim and reticent. Despite this, perhaps because of it, this apparently gloomy interior evoked an extraordinary sense of intimacy.

A fort-palace built in the fifteenth century, Nirana had been transformed into a small resort hotel of just thirty rooms, situated on two landscaped acres of land. The Aravalli hills flanked one side of the resort. Around Nirana it was green and brown and smelt of dry earth. Nirana was located two hours from Delhi, in Rajasthan, and many thought it the perfect place for a weekend retreat. Many embassies and firms in Delhi held their meetings there. Chaturvedi had suggested it to Harold. After the conference in Grindelwald, where he had chaired three sessions, he had needed the rest.

The style of the fort-palace was Rajasthani as influenced by Sultanate architecture. It had proved difficult to restore completely, and required some degree of renovation. But the new parts had been imaginatively done, imitating the style of the fort-palace, without breaking the character of the original. The architects had not allowed themselves the liberty of commentary. They had been fairly literal, erasing their own position in history. But, Harold noted, restoration is complicated enough without ideology.

Nirana was divided broadly into two parts, the zenana or women’s quarters, and the mardana or men’s quarters. Harold could tell that his room was in the zenana by the intricately carved jali screens on the windows. The mardana had a Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience, where the men once gathered in the presence of the king, and which was now just an open court, a modern space for reflection and transition. Narrow labyrinthine corridors linked the rooms to prevent an enemy from advancing in anything but single file. The approach to the fort-palace was steep and long.

Harold rose from his chair, his legs stiff and heavy, and paced in his room, mainly to shake off the numbness. He’d been sitting for a long time. His bare feet felt comfortable as he padded across the Kotah stone. He walked over to a window and looked out on a carpet of lush green grass. It seemed as if Nirana was the only habitation for miles. He wondered vaguely how the garrison had gotten its supplies. When his stomach growled, he decided it was time for lunch.

His room opened onto a corridor that overlooked a courtyard on one side and an undersized terrace on the other. He admired the multiple levels: they provided varied perspectives of the architecture from different angles, like different readings. At the end of the corridor a stairway led to another room and down to the quad. Harold could see Mrs. Gupta in the courtyard giving instructions to a waiter. It reminded him of one of de Chirico’s surreal canvases. She was facing him, so he waved, and she waved back. She was the hostess of Nirana, in her fifties, a widow, and immensely loquacious. Harold headed down the steps, following its turns, and found himself in the square. Arched niches covered the walls and an open stairway rose to the rooftop. Straight ahead a red cloth was draped over a brown bench. The open dining room lay adjacent to the courtyard; a few guests had already clustered around tables, picking at plates of cauliflower, dal, and rice. It was around noon and Harold was famished. Mrs. Gupta was still busy with the waiter, so he walked into the dining room, nodded to the smattering of people there, and sat down at a corner table.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Gupta strode into the dining room, and after a couple of light rounds of conversation with some of the other guests, she appeared at his table.

“Good morning!” Harold said cheerfully.

“Good morning to you, Professor!” Mrs. Gupta said. “Did you sleep well? I was intrigued to learn last night that you were an Indologist. Do you plan to go on any excursions while you are in India?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m going to work with a Professor Chaturvedi in Bombay on some research,” Harold said. “I’m afraid we’ll be cloistered in a little office somewhere in the university.”

Mrs. Gupta said, “That sounds intense. But I have planned a short field trip just for you.”

“Have you really? Thank you! I was hoping to find something to do later in the afternoon.”

“There is a lovely village about two miles from here called Ranipur which has a very interesting temple devoted to Rama. I think you will also enjoy seeing the village itself. If you like, Suresh, my nephew, could take you there in his car. I have already talked to him about it and he has agreed.”

Harold said, “That’s excellent! You think of everything. I would love to go.”

“I will tell Suresh to knock on your door at three-thirty. Does that suit you?” Mrs. Gupta asked.

“Oh yes, three-thirty is fine. I shall be ready by then,” Harold said.

“That’s settled then. Do try some of the cauliflower. I hear it’s very good,” Mrs. Gupta said, and with a smile turned toward another table.

 

 

……

 

 

Yusuf Ali, a prominent lawyer from Bombay, came over to Harold’s table. Ali wore horn-rimmed Polo glasses; the nub of a pipe stuck out of his breast pocket. He sported moccasins without socks and had on a white linen shirt with gray cotton pants, looking urbane and relaxed. He had met Harold on Friday evening at the reception for the guests. “May I join you, Doctor Stone?” he asked.

“Of course,” Harold said. “How are you this morning?”

“Fine,” Yusuf said. “Mrs. Ali has decided to skip lunch today. I am not one for skipping meals myself.”

“The food is excellent. The chef knows what he is doing.”

“Have you been here before, Doctor Stone?”

“Please call me Harold. This is my first visit. I find it quite fascinating. Do you also see a hint of the surreal in this medieval setting? What makes it especially interesting is that it obviously doesn’t conform to most Western surreal images, and there’s no real tradition of Indian surrealism either,” Harold said, bemused.

“This is my second visit. We were here two years ago. A great deal more has been restored since we were last here. And they haven’t finished it yet. What you say suggests irony because a restoration tries to reproduce the real after all. What do you say, Harold?”

“There is nothing in the concept of restoration that precludes a little aesthetic displacement, a little fiction as it were,” Harold said. “It is the architects’ way of saying you can’t reproduce reality. Like Borges’s Pierre Menard, you know. Even if you copy reality exactly, it becomes something different.”

Yusuf nodded. “Good point. The thing about the architecture that stands out for me is the fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements. Maybe I’m being an idealist after what happened recently, but I like to think of India the way it used to be, the way the architecture of this place portrays it to be, united, interwoven strands of Hindu and Muslim tradition. Nirana could have been an apt metaphor for the country: a work in progress. But perhaps it was not meant to be,” Yusuf said resignedly.

“Were you in Bombay at the time of the riots?” Harold asked.

“No, my wife and I were in London at the time. It was a painful time for the city. It was torn apart.” Yusuf paused as he recollected those events. “There have been riots before, as you know—we have a long history of religious violence. What is different now, what has changed since the eighties, is a growing ideological divide in the country. People seem to identify more with their religious views than with their other affiliations. Bombay used to be very different.”

Harold nodded as Yusuf continued. “What we need is an intellectually progressive and analytically astute leadership that is sensitive to religious matters without being submissive to them. We have to take a twentieth century point of view. We need to be rational rather than be led by emotionalism. Otherwise we will forever remain entangled in this mess.”

There was a lull in the conversation as they ate their food. A waiter, Jai Mirdha, tall and dignified with a thick moustache, who had been at Nirana since it opened, halted by their table and refilled their glasses. They glanced up at him and thanked him.

“The cauliflower really is good,” Harold said to him.

“Thank you. It comes fresh from the village nearby,” Jai said and smiled. He gave a slight nod and left.

“I find Nirana a bit isolated, except perhaps for the village the waiter mentioned. It’s about two miles from here. I hear it’s quite interesting. Mrs. Gupta has arranged a bit of an outing for me to see it and a temple there,” Harold said.

“Yes, I’ve been. It’s not a bad temple, architecturally. I think you’ll find the trip worthwhile. You’re in Indian Studies, aren’t you?” Yusuf asked.

“Yes, I’m a specialist in theater and architecture. I teach at Harvard. It’s been over thirty years since I started off as an Indologist,” Harold said. “And you, Yusuf, what kind of law do you practice?”

“My firm does everything, more or less, but my own specialization is corporate law. I help companies in negotiations with foreign companies, especially to establish joint ventures, strategic alliances, and the like. This is a booming area these days. Businesswise, it’s an exciting time,” Yusuf said. “I studied at your university, at Harvard Law School.”

“Oh, really. Then you know Cambridge,” Harold said. “I went to Berkeley, and started at Harvard as an assistant professor. I’ve been there since 1968.”

“I was in Cambridge from 1967 to 1970. Heady years, weren’t they?” Yusuf reminisced.

“Yes, especially at Berkeley, believe me. It’s very different today. I think we made some mistakes back then, especially the rejection of a rational approach to things. Emotionalism was one of the problems there too, just like with India today.”

“I had a great time. Is the Oxford Ale House still around? I haven’t been to Harvard in ages.”

“Yes, it’s still there. But the Square is very different now because they’ve closed off Mass Ave. I suppose things are more convenient this way, but I miss the old space,” Harold said. “You should come and visit some time.”

“I suppose I should. Our lives are so shaken these days, I don’t know what to do or where to turn. Maybe a change would do us some good, especially to familiar territory like Boston,” Yusuf said.

The two men ate with a renewed appetite, boosted by discovering the connection to Harvard. They exchanged cards and promised to meet in Bombay upon their return.

More people lingered in the dining room now. The previous evening’s reception had helped to acquaint people with one another. A light hum of conversation spread around the room. The aromas from the buffet wafted up in the air. Most of the guests came from Bombay and Delhi. The dining room had no windows, just open arches, and a light breeze blew in from the west, leavening the intense sun overhead. The bare courtyard ached under the sunlight, but the dining room was cool and comfortable.

 

 

……

 

 

After lunch, Harold ambled back to his room, pausing along the terraces for their views of the hills in the distance. Back in his room he flopped down on his bed for a nap.

He was awakened by some light knocks on the door. Groaning, he got up and rubbed his eyes, then glanced at his watch. Half past three already? He strode to the door and opened it. A young man in his late twenties stood there, framed by the doorway, wearing a bright yellow shirt and white trousers. His hair was tousled, giving his face an air of bravado.

He flashed a bright smile and said, “I’m Suresh. Mrs. Gupta asked me to see you at three-thirty. I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”

“No, not at all. Pleased to meet you. I’m Harold. I’m looking forward to our trip.”

“Yes, of course,” Suresh said. “I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. The temple is still active, though it’s supposed to be much older, and is used by the village folk. I took another visitor like you last year, and he really enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure I will too. Do come in and have a seat. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.” With that, Harold freshened up and changed his shirt, while Suresh fidgeted on a chair near the door.

Soon they were ensconced in Suresh’s red Maruti, heading down the road that sloped out of Nirana.

“What do you do, Suresh?” Harold asked.

“I’m doing a PhD in Economics at the University of Jaipur. I’m also a business consultant—in fact, Nirana is one of my clients. I’m from Jaipur and much of my business is there,” Suresh said.

“That’s impressive. How long have you been doing this? You look very young.”

“I’m twenty-nine, sir. Jaipur is developing fast and new businesses are opening every day. That is good for consultants like me,” Suresh said with a grin, glimpsing at Harold.

The road was bumpy and full of stones. Harold recalled the poem “Jejuri” written some thirty years ago, with words arranged in undulating lines to convey the experience of traveling on uneven village roads.

They made a slow turn and Suresh said, “May I ask what you do? Are you also involved in business?”

“I’m afraid not, Suresh. I’m an Indologist. I’m especially interested in ancient theater and architecture,” Harold said.

“Where do you teach?”

“At Harvard in the Indian Studies department,” Harold said.

“I must admit I don’t know much about ancient India,” Suresh said.

“India has a great civilization, one that is wide and deep. I wish Indians themselves would take a greater interest in these things. Perhaps it’s a consequence of colonization,” Harold said.

 “What you say is true. Our government should be more responsible, our universities should be more responsible. But you know, it isn’t just colonization. Sometimes I think we don’t have the right feelings, that is all. Otherwise we could easily do what Japan did in the last decade.”

“Perhaps a major economic transformation is going on right now, one that should be viewed over a long period of as much as fifty years. After all, you did mention the pace of growth in Jaipur. There will be ups and downs but on the whole there will be substantial growth, more than in the last fifty years. Of course, India has a large population and it will be a while before any economic change brings about a change in everyone’s lives. But at least many cities will develop. It’s a pity foreign investment is being resisted by some powerful political groups,” Harold wagged a finger to emphasize his point.

“They are people who think India will be affected adversely by the new consumerism. I think they’re wrong. I think these things for the kitchen and house are very important for a modern identity, for India to really enter the twenty-first century.”

Harold nodded his head, considering for a moment. “I think you’re right. Modernity probably has as much to do with domestic appliances and the infrastructure of everyday life as anything else. These things change the individual’s consciousness.”

“There is also the fear that we will get the worst of Western culture.”

Harold laughed. “That’s a real problem. But it is going to be there no matter what you do. Of course, some of these influences have nothing to do with Western culture as such, they merely have a Western form. They are inevitable parts of any modernizing culture, but they are unfortunately coming to India partly in a Western garb. Take individualism, for instance. Increasing individualism of a utilitarian kind seems to go together with modernity.”

“Maybe, but what about Japan?” Suresh asked searchingly.

“Even Japan shows greater individualism today than it did in the eighties,” Harold said.

Harold noticed, looming in the distance, a scattering of huts.

Suresh said, “We’re almost there. Ranipur is about two hundred years old, or so I’m told. The temple is much older, I believe, as old as Nirana. There are two main streets running north-south and two paths running east-west. A little like a mandala with nine zones.”

“From here it looks like a nucleated village, one with houses in the center surrounded by fields on the outside,” Harold said. “Anthropologists have long debated whether Indian villages were like static self-sufficient republics or like dynamic units embedded within larger complexes. Marx and Gandhi both believed the former, but when one considers economics, marriage, and religion, the village unit is far from self-contained.”

Suresh drove his van into the village from the south on one of its main streets, threaded past pakka houses, kachha houses, both big and small.

Suresh said, “There are many different castes living here, over ten. There must easily be over two thousand people in the village. I know the village chief, the chief of the panchayat, a little bit.”

“What sorts of things grow here?” Harold asked.

“Lots. Wheat and millet and pulses and sugarcane and green vegetables. The kharif harvest is going on right now.”

They arrived at the temple, which stood on the eastern side of the village. They descended from the van and Harold scanned the plaza. Although not a religious man, he was nevertheless moved by religious things, like the simple stone temple before him. It belonged roughly to the thirteenth century, older than Nirana.

“You know, temples don’t resemble the world; they symbolize it. They render, make visible, make palpable the world of truth, going beyond the world of the senses, the world of appearance. Their images often confound our expectations and stir us out of this world of illusion and suffering and transport us to a world of reality and joy,” Harold said, a trifle wistfully.

He studied the shikhara at the back, its axis representing Mount Meru and its ascent the progression of enlightenment. He circled around the temple examining the carved panels on the temple walls. He spotted episodes from the Ramayana—the fight between the monkeys and Rama’s enemies and the building of the bridge to the mythical island of Lanka. In itself, this was odd. Generally, the earlier focus on narrative compositions had given way to an emphasis on single figure elements by the medieval period, each an integral part of a larger whole, a shift from diachrony to synchrony. Here, the narrative form remained undisturbed, mixed in with self-contained figures, both together contributing to the harmony of the whole. None of the figures, whether in the narrative panels or otherwise, could properly be said to be naturalistic. Geometric shapes and linear outlines defined their contours.

Then the topmost panel caught Harold’s eye: although hard to see clearly, it unmistakably showed Rama in two guises, one as a mortal king and the other as God, the two forms separated by a clear carved line. Both figures were simple, even minimalist. Astounded, Harold didn’t know what to make of it. The line that demarcated the two figures triggered various associations in his mind, but he couldn’t place it. It troubled him. He had never seen anything like it before, had never imagined it could exist. What did it mean?

After his circumambulation, Harold suggested to Suresh that they go inside. All Indian temples involve the same movement from light to darkness, from visual complexity to visual simplicity as one makes the transition from outside to the sanctuary inside. As they stepped through the door, into the confined mandapa, they saw in the half-light the outlines of two men sitting cross-legged in silent prayer. A woman stood with a child in her arms. And a priest was reading a holy book by candlelight. The atmosphere in the chamber was still and quiet, almost ominous. Harold glanced at the walls and then headed for the sanctuary. He joined his hands in greeting as the priest looked up. Suresh helped interpret the conversation.

“Namaste,” Harold said.

“Namaste. What can I do for you?” the priest inquired.

“We saw an extraordinary frieze outside depicting the separation of the religious and royal spheres of life. Do you know anything about it?” Harold asked.

“You noticed that. The temple is very old, so it is difficult to say what the artist’s intention might have been. I think you’re right—he was probably trying to separate religion from kingship. A most unusual idea…but I don’t know for sure. It has also puzzled me.”

 “Professor Stone is an expert on ancient India. He was very keen to see your temple,” Suresh told the priest.

“Are there any other unusual signs or carvings?” Harold queried.

“Hmm. Nothing comes to mind immediately,” the priest puckered his eyelids in recollection. “Wait! There may be something. Let me show it to you.” The priest ducked inside the sanctuary and reappeared with a bundle in his hands. “What do you make of this?”

Harold brushed the dust off the bundle and carefully opened the red, musty cloth. From its weight, he could tell that it was a book. Finally, the wrapping was off, and in his hands lay an old volume. It appeared to be very old—older than a hundred years. Although its brown cover was torn in places, it seemed to be in good shape. His hands trembling, Harold opened it. It was the Sahityashastra.

 

Back to Chapter 6           Back to Main Page         Forward to Chapter 8

A Gash in the World

July 25, 2008

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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