Editorial/It isn’t easy
A tongue tied to gods
Letters to the Editor

The true and the good are beyond performance. Or so they are assumed to be. BBC’s Hardtalk India recently afforded viewers a spectacle that was at once irresistible and profoundly affecting. Kapil Dev’s fit of weeping when asked to swear, on his heart, that the recent matchfixing allegations against him were false may have provoked a whole range of responses. As a spectacle, it had the power to upset the moral and juridical assumptions that people normally bring to public action. The interview came as a culmination to a shocking and sordid sequence of events that seems to be heading for a surreal and all-encompassing infinite regress. The combination of pity, embarrassment and an appeal made to basic human emotions did not, however, distract most viewers from the participation implicitly demanded by such spectacles. They invite the viewer’s judgment. “Was Kapil Dev lying or speaking the truth?” was the overwhelming question that had to be faced. And this is where it all becomes rather disconcerting, as one is urged to ponder the relations between the media and what is usually referred to as “truth”.

The crumbling of a national icon as he publicly relives a very private dark night of the soul is a humiliation distasteful when broadcast. Yet, it is significant that Kapil Dev chose not to have his breakdown edited out of the programme. Surely, given the intensity of his anguish, the producer would have honoured such a request. The decision to take on the interview was also entirely his own. This, in spite of his repeatedly expressed sense of injustice in having to make himself publicly accountable after years of dedicated service to the nation. Perhaps what Kapil Dev had willingly stepped into is the very special sort of frame that the media — particularly in its visual forms — provides. This is, inescapably, the realm of projection and performance. It is a frame within which the boundaries between role-playing and sincerity, the deliberate and the spontaneous, the projected and the authentic are blurred. This is where truths are performed and lies authenticated. And this does not make the truth any less true. But it could — in certain memorable and entertaining instances — make the lies more “true” to a different order of verity. The cleverest icons, the most skilful entertainers, the best actors and the most brilliant artists know how to use this to their own, often sublime, advantage.

When Diana, princess of Wales, gave her famous BBC Panorama interview, the viewers’ responses were (rather puritanically) divided between whether she was play-acting or being truthful. The vulnerable, self-wounding, yet rebelliously and beautifully individual “people’s princess” and the dedicated, patriotic, “big-boned, large-hearted Jat” are both icons. They are largely constructed by camera angles, lighting, expressions, clothes, gestures and modes of self-presentation through public image and action. Thus, their performances appeal to the truth of a theatre of collective emotions.

Yet, matchfixing is not just a betrayal of faith, but also a legal offence. Another, more absolute and objective, process of inquiry and judgment will have to be allowed its own conclusions in such a case. This is an investigative and judicial process with its own disclosures, invoking an order of truth that must somehow be kept apart from this other truth of theatricality. Kapil Dev’s lawyer has therefore vetoed any media appearances, even photographs. But the drama of Hansie Cronje’s confessions has been played out to quite another set of tribunals — a pastor and a senior judge. As in Bofors, Profumo or Watergate, the third-party allegations that plague Kapil Dev — and in the gathering of which the media will continue to play a definitive role — will have to be made part of a forensic procedure. What investigative journalists call “deep background” must become hard evidence. In April 1973, Richard Nixon, flanked by a family photograph and a bust of Abraham Lincoln, faced a television camera to promise to his nation that “there would be no whitewash in the White House”. As the lights faded, he blinked back tears, muttering “It wasn’t easy”.    

In the present popular perception of Sanskrit, it is best known as the language of religion and philosophy. In most cases, it first brings to mind the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and other sacred works like the famous epics. The scriptural dimension is important. But it has largely relegated other aspects of this magnificent language into the shadows.

Both the causes and effects of this situation deserve notice. Sanskrit has a tradition of usage for at least 3,000 years stretching into present times. As the common language of India’s cultural growth and the principal vehicle of its thought for much of this period, it has a unique position in national identity.

When modern Sanskrit studies commenced at the end of the 18th century, they soon found a sceptical focus in history, linguistics, religion and philosophy. Colonial scholarship sought to learn about India’s past through its ancient language. Representing a new ruling class, it was interested to know more about the origins and evolution of Indian civilization, the nature of its institutions and, increasingly, about its religious and philosophical beliefs and concepts.

Indian scholars versed in Western learning also contributed to the growth of what is now called Indology. This discipline concentrated in the beginning on Vedic studies and the scrutiny of other religious and philosophical texts. A good example of its initial thrust is provided by the early translations from Sanskrit into English.

The first such translation was that of the Bhagavadgita by Charles Wilkins, published in 1784 with an introduction by the then governor general, Warren Hastings. The first Indian to translate from Sanskrit into English was Raja Rammohun Roy, whose rendition of the Isa Upanishad appeared in 1816. These pioneering ventures seem to have had a lasting impact. Sacred texts have continued to dominate Sanskrit studies and translations to this day.

Secular works were also translated from the beginning. The rendering of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in 1789 by William Jones, the founder of Calcutta’s Asiatic Society, was the first to stimulate Western interest in the beauties of Sanskrit literature. But such works were comparatively few. The course of future research was set by erudite enterprises like the 50 volume Sacred Books of the East translations, edited over a quarter century period by Max Müeller. The result has been that, in contrast to extensively researched and translated works like the Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads, relatively little of the purely poetical or technical literature of Sanskrit is well known or readily available in English and other translations today.

If the growth of its modern study established the sacred aspects of Sanskrit at the centrestage of popular perception, so did the decline of its traditional learning. Deprived of the opportunities for social and economic advancement available to adepts in official languages like Persian and later English, practitioners of Sanskrit were confined to the religious domain. Gradually, the public use of the language became associated mainly with rituals of worship and various sacramental ceremonies.

The predominant association of Sanskrit with recondite scholarship on the one hand, and with pujas and pundits on the other, has tended to isolate it from a wider audience in the country. This includes those unable to identify with its sacerdotal or metaphysical aspects as well as those who consider them irrelevant to modern needs. The one may find the language and literature sectarian, the other obscurantist. Both perceptions are at best partial if not erroneous, for they ignore the full gamut of the language.

Like any other great classical languages of world literature, Sanskrit too has its full share of fine poetry, drama and prose about the human condition. It is replete with inspirational and creative, narrative, descriptive and gnomic expressions of high literary value. Examples of these, often of surpassing excellence, are also found in scriptural works. But they abound equally in other parts of Sanskrit literature. Their appeal, as in the case of other great languages, is universal and timeless. Better knowledge of this aspect of Sanskrit could help to clarify the prevailing impressions about it.

The classical literature of Sanskrit, wrote the late Harvard scholar, Daniel Ingalls, “has remained to the English reader, like the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tale, hidden behind a hedge of thorns”. The comment applies no less to present day English readers in India. Unlike earlier generations, most of them have little or no access to the literature in the original.

In some respects English occupies in today’s India a position similar to that of Sanskrit in ancient times. It is the language of academic thought and higher learning, and of elite intercourse across regional divides. Its place in popular culture is on the increase. If the richesse of Sanskrit as a whole are to reach the modern Indian, it can most practically be done through translations into English and the regional languages.

Can the splendours of Sanskrit be translated effectively into as dissimilar a language as English? Literal translations convey content but not character, and are often hard to read. Literary translation faces transcultural difficulties, compounded by differences of linguistic construction and idiomatic usage. Some colonial scholars contended that Sanskrit poetry was essentially untranslatable. Such assertions have been disproved by the work of Sanskritists like A.W. Ryder and D.H.H. Ingalls, John Brough and Barbara Miller. However, Sanskrit poetry has still to find interpreters comparable to Ezra Pound from classical Chinese or Gertrude Bell from Persian.

In India, Aurobindo Ghose’s English renditions of Kalidasa’s Urvashi and Bhartrihari’s epigrams are brilliant examples of the translator’s art. The few available translations by Vivekananda captured both the poetic and the devotional spirit of Vedic hymns. Romesh Dutt’s verse renderings from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata enjoyed wide popularity in their time, being lauded, among others, by the Chinese philosopher, Lin Yutang.

Good translations from the full range of Sanskrit literature are nevertheless still too few. Most of the satirical and comic verse, for example, and much of the epigrammatic poetry collected in medieval anthologies, has not been translated at all. The position is largely similar with respect to Sanskrit fiction, drama and other literary works meant pri- marily to entertain rather than to teach or edify.

The principal cause of this lacuna is lack of knowledge. The vast and varied range of Sanskrit writing is little known. Even in India few have any idea of the full extent and content of this heritage. To provide information and arouse interest remains a formidable challenge, probably beyond the capacities of official endeavour.

Given the country’s present cultural dynamics, one hope of change may lie in the operation of the pizza syndrome. A century ago Kalidasa was rediscovered by the new Indian middle class when the Oxford professor, Monier Williams, hailed him as the William Shakespeare of India. Western universities now have greater resources and keener interest, to which their increasing Indian faculty members also contribute. In some of them Sanskrit studies are picking up, also throwing fresh light on the still comparatively shrouded secular face of Sanskrit. Research and translations emanating from these institutions can be expected to animate a corresponding interest and greater awareness in India in coming years.

The author has published translations of Sanskrit works like Hitopadesa and Simhasana Dvatrimsika. His most recent work is a translation of Shuka Saptati    


Game, set and no match

Sir — Was Enrico Piperno, Mahesh Bhupathi’s coach, the sole reason behind his split with Leander Paes? Or is this issue being pushed to the forefront because the others are too embarrassing to talk about? True, the other reasons have not been divulged but will it be unfair to assume that two of the world’s top doubles players did not put in their best effort to get back together? It is also interesting to note that the break-off was Paes’s decision, following his second tournament victory partnering Dutch Jan Siemerink at a time when Bhupathi had not fully recovered from his injury. Would Paes’s decision have remained the same, had his new partnership failed to progress beyond the qualifying rounds?

Yours faithfully,
Dyutiman Pramanik, Calcutta

Dire straits

Sir — The report, “India offers Lanka aid, not army” (May 4) and the editorial “War relief” (May 5) reflect India’s concern for human values and for the right of its smaller neighbours to handle their internal problems without any external pressure or influence. India under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi made major judgmental errors with regard to its strife torn neighbours. The policies might have led to small term political gains, but in the long run damaged India’s credibility overseas. This has led to the hardening of the attitude of the United States and other world powers vis-à-vis India.

Atal Behari Vajpayee has acted wisely and offered humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka. India ought also to study the possibility of evacuating 40,000 encircled armymen of Sri Lanka both by sea and air. It could obtain the assistance of the United Nations in order to avoid a bloodbath. India may consider mediating in the conflict if both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam invite Indian intervention. Otherwise the hands off policy is good for the present.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — The Indian government has acted sensibly in refusing to send its troops to Jaffna. The dilemma of the Indian government is understandable in as much as it faces a similar situation in Kashmir. India has for long been trying to stave off Western intervention in Kashmir on the ground that it is a bilateral dispute. Therefore, it cannot afford to meddle in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. The earlier decision to send the Indian peacekeeping force was a wrong one. India can only offer to invite the warring groups to initiate dialogue in a neutral venue, ruling out third party intervention.

Yours faithfully,
Dipankar Bhaduri, Calcutta

Sir — With the lives of so many Tamils at stake, can India’s policy of staying away from the Sri Lankan conflict be justified? Even if the Central government rules out official intervention, can it prevent the tacit involvement of the Tamil Nadu government and Tamil politicians in the situation?

Yours faithfully,
K. Kamath, Calcutta

Rapid recovery

Sir — The matter mentioned in the report, “Midnight robbery on Rajdhani” (March 3), was thoroughly looked into. The investigation showed the luggage in question was recovered by the passengers on the same day that the incident took place. Owing to the passengers’ negligence in counting the pieces, some of it was thought to have been stolen or misplaced. Later the luggage was collected by the passengers. The question of theft therefore does not arise.

Yours faithfully,
Kaushik Mukhopadhyaya, chief public relations officer, Eastern Railway, Calcutta

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