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OLD LESSONS

- Old wisdom and a young scholar 175 years ago

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, when Queen Victoria was two years into her reign, Calcutta had for the occupant of its stately Government House, George Eden, the First Earl of Auckland. Remembered very negatively for disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan and the de-throning of Dost Mohammed, Governor General Auckland is recalled, in gentler colours, as the bachelor brother of two gifted sisters — Emily Eden, the novelist and painter of colonial India, and Fanny Eden, the author of a delightful journal, Tigers, Durbars and Kings.

This, however, is written not about those grand and exotic proceedings but about something else, of far greater moment to the world of the mind, that was happening at that very time, with another bachelor Briton, who was to leave an impress on the mind of India rather more abidingly than the rulers of his time.

That man, all of 19 years, set sail that year — 1839 — from England to the southern coast of India. George Uglow Pope (1820-1908) was an Englishman of Canadian descent and had been bitten deep by the India bug that led some unusual men to journey to that far land and preach the Gospel to the ‘Indian heathen’. But this Christian missionary’s India fascination had another, unusual, twist to it. One might call it a sense of expectant wonder that completely outstripped his commitment to the New Testament.

Almost without exception, every missionary learnt the ‘native language’, if only to make communication tasks that much easier. But young Pope wanted not just to learn Tamil but see if some jewels unknown and unimaginable to a European mind lay in it. And so on board the ship, he began to learn Tamil with what can only be called appetite. I do not know what book or tattered notes were available to him on that voyage, but grapple with the strange new and magnetic language, its script and its spirit, he did. So diligent was his study and so fruitful that when he landed in Sawyerpuram, near Tuticorin, in 1839, he was able to ‘reply’ to a welcome address in Tamil.

George Uglow Pope was to stay for nearly half a century in the Tamil country (and finally in Bangalore) before returning to England. During this period he saw as many as two dozen governors of Madras come and go, including the fascinating Mountstuart Elphinstone, rumoured to have been ‘sent off’ to Madras because Queen Victoria had fallen in love with him. Elphinstone, in turn, fell in love with no queen but the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, the Nilgiris, building for himself a cottage in those ‘blue hills’. Pope also saw nearly 20 governors general of India in and out of their Calcutta manor, including Dalhousie, who changed India’s political face through his Doctrine of Lapse as also the face of the Crown Jewels in London through his capture of the Kohinoor and his gifting of it to Queen Victoria. Pope would have heard the rumblings of the Great Revolt of 1857, the massacres in merciless numbers of British residents in upper India, and of Indians in malicious numbers, after it.

George Pope lived through those events, grew from youth to middle age and entered old age in the Tamil-speaking world doing all that he did and was meant to do for his Christian mission. But also doing something no one asked him to, no one expected him to and no one else could have done with anything like his elan — translate into English the formidable Tamil epics — the Tirukkural (in rhymed verse), the Tiruvachakam and the quatrains of the Naladiyar.

Pope had, before him, the extraordinary example of Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680-1742), the Italian Jesuit and, briefly, dewan to Chanda Sahib, whose work under the Madura Mission had been accompanied by his path-finding translation into Latin of the Tirukkural, almost exactly a century before Pope’s English rendering.

A brief description would be needed here, for the Tirukkural-unfamiliar, of that spectacularly important work. ‘Kural’, in Tamil, means ‘small’. This classic of 1330 compact, concise, rhyming couplets, each “containing”, in Pope’s words, “a complete and striking idea expressed in a refined metre”, was written by a single author, known not by his name but by the title given to him — Tiruvalluvar. Described by Pope as “undoubtedly one of the great geniuses of the world”, Tiruvalluvar was a weaver who in today’s political parlance would be called Dalit. He lived in Mylapore, Madras, sometime between 2nd century BCE and 5th century CE. His translation of the Kural is in three sections, or Books, the first on righteous living, the second on statecraft and the third on conjugal love.

Which of these three subjects drew Pope to the Kural? None of them by themselves did, but the work in a totality did, the totality of life. Pope, in his introduction to the translation, quotes M. Ariel: “[I]ts author addresses himself, without regard to castes, peoples, or beliefs, to the whole community of mankind… in the austere metaphysical contemplation of the great mysteries of the Divine Nature, as in the easy and graceful analysis of the tenderest emotions of the heart.”

That Tiruvalluvar knew how exactly kings, ministers, officials, and councils of State fare, comes in the delightfully timeless section that Pope translates as “Not To Dread The Council”: “By rule, to dialectic art your mind apply/ That in the council fearless you may make an apt reply.”

A similar one from the section called “The Correction of Faults”: “Faultless the king who first his own fault cures, and then/ Permits himself to scan the faults of other men.”

Tiruvalluvar’s advice to the ruler on how to take criticism from his ministers is so wise as to never be accepted. Pope translates it as: “What power can work his fall, who faithful ministers/ Employs, that thunder out reproaches when he errs.”

Tiruvalluvar’s understanding of statecraft is canny and Pope sets it out in vivid English. But it is in his translations of Tiruvalluvar’s section on love that the missionary surprises us by what seems to come from his own knowledge of the subject in the manner of John Donne: “Let her, whose jewels brightly shine, aversion feign/ That I may still plead on, O night, prolong thy reign!”

And “A ‘feigned aversion’ coy to pleasure gives a zest/ The pleasure’s crowned when breast is clasped to breast.”

I do not know if anyone knows what George Uglow Pope’s love life was about, if it was about anything at all. But like anyone born to flesh, the 19-year-old could not have turned 29, 39, 49 and so on without something called Eros knocking at his church-bolted door. A mischievous thought occurring to me has Emily and Fanny Eden visiting the south, meeting G.U. Pope at the crest of his study of Tirukkural Book III on Love, both falling in love with him, to the consternation of their brother, the governor general. It also has young George, wanting to dodge them, going away to the Nilgiris, and immersing himself, hermetically sealed, in Tamil scholarship.

This 175th anniversary of Pope’s arrival in our country, anticipating other ordained priests like Charles Freer Andrews and Verrier Elwin in his unconditional love of India and in his reverence for India’s literary and cultural legacies, serves to tell us two things: one, scholarship is about scholarship, not about nationality, ethnicity or indeed any identity other than that of the true scholar. Two, scholarship must pursue its goals un-deflected by ‘the world outside’.