Speaking Volumes: Reclaiming the past

(Published by the Business Standard, May 19, 2014)

When I saw that the Murty Classical Library had released its first five titles, it jogged my memory about my MRI-inspired reading project. There are few art materials as beautiful and as disturbing as MRI scans of the human brain.

Angela Palmer’s art uses engraved details from MRIs to create moving, and haunting, portraits of humans traced in the delicate pulsations of neurons and synapses. Paula Crown uses convex images of her own brain scans to create the eerie impression that her mind is talking to its doppelganger. But it was a friend’s home-craft project – her MRI scans converted into a lamp – that made me the most uneasy: the brain, lit up in red, green and blue, is pretty, but also disquieting. We don’t want to look too closely at the inside of our skulls, at least not over dinner.

Even so, something about looking closely at how the electrical impulses change over time acts as a reminder to be kinder to your poor brain, to give it better fodder than random BuzzFeed stories or yesterday’s editorials. The morning after being introduced to the brain scan lamp, I sat down at my desk, filled with purpose, and instead of doing anything as sensible as drafting a will or making dazzling new financial investments, I drew up a lifetime plan of reading the classics.

At the bookshops I ran into an old, frustrating but familiar problem: it is easier to find world classics en masse, because they are published in well-organised series, than it is to find Indian classics outside the Indian languages you happen to read in. Except for a handful of Penguin translations of Indian classics, everything I have in languages outside Hindi and Bengali from my own heritage is badly ill-assorted, often in old and outdated translations because no modern ones are available.

It is a problem almost all Indians face: the risk of losing touch with your own, monumental, and magnificently variegated heritage outside your mother tongue. It is easier to source the core texts of ancient Japanese literature than it is to source a library of the core texts from our own languages.

This is the gap that Rohan Murty wanted to fill when he and his family took over the ambitious but juddering Clay Sanskrit Library project. The switch from “Sanskrit” to “Classical” – and the addition that makes it the “Library of India” – is not accidental. This four-year project, involving translations commissioned from over 40 scholars worldwide, hopes to create a library of our own. It is also a way of reigniting our collective cultural memory, as is a parallel project by the NYU Press to create a library of the world’s Arabic classics. These might help redress some of the vast and unforgiveable inequities of cultural trade: that the world should know only Rumi but not Surdas, or, as an editor friend says, that the world should elevate Shakespeare without ever having read Kalidasa or Adigal or Molla.

The first five titles from the Murty library are now out, and more titles will be released each year. They should serve as an annual reminder that India’s past was never a narrow one, and that the histories, poems, stories and myths that flooded out of the Indian subcontinent cannot be easily contained by ideologues who choose the thin gruel and the tedious quarrels of Hindu pasts versus Muslim pasts.

Take the Therigatha, for example, poems of the First Buddhist Women, sometimes claimed as the oldest collection of written poems by women anywhere in the world. How strongly Mutta’s voice resounds from the sixth century to ours when she declares:

“So free am I
So gloriously free
Free from three petty things –
From mortar, from pestle and from my twisted lord…”

The women spring to life, introduced by the stories of their rebirths as well as their present lives. Some years after reading the Therigatha, I met women at an ashram in Uttar Pradesh who shared their stories of renunciation, and the freedoms they had found there; and they sounded just like Mutta and Ubbiri, who had lived more than 2,500 years ago.

Sur’s Ocean – the collected Surdas poems, over 400 of them – should be welcome additions to the recent translations of Kabir’s poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Lal Ded’s vacas by Ranjit Hoskote. The Murty Library’s translation of Bulleh Shah’s Sufi lyrics should round out those reminders of the tradition of seeking and dissent, though of course with all three collections, the quality and rhythm of the translations will matter a great deal.

Two chronicles, one a translation of Abul Fazl’s The History of Akbar, and the other a hard-to-find translation of Allasani Peddana’s 16th-century classic, The Story of Manu, round out the first five. The intellectual territory that just these five translations span, and the wide range of Indian thought and experience they represent, should be amply clear – and it is also oddly moving.

When Sheldon Pollock wrote Crisis in the Classics, he mentioned the larger crisis brought about by the rising indifference to the humanities. That indifference, in turn, feeds the idea that success, economic growth and prosperity are the only essential forms of well-being, and that ignores the equally important question of why every citizen of India should not also have access to the best of ideas, the richest of their own heritage. But as Lal Ded wrote in a different context: “As you know, so shall you be.” The promise of the Murty Classical Library is a restorer’s promise: as you claim your past, so shall you shape your future.


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