Remains of the day
Book dedications often bare the soul of the writer
- Published 6.03.16
I was recently sent a Tagore quotation that seemed to have been written for our present times in India: "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter... I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live." The words were written almost exactly one century ago, in 1917, in the heat of World War I.
Reading up the essay with this new stimulus, and Googling things around that work, I discovered that Tagore had wanted to dedicate the book to the US president, Woodrow Wilson. But when Tagore's publisher requested Wilson for permission to do so, the idea was turned down. The reason given by Wilson's office was that Tagore "...was involved with Indian revolutionaries in the United States." Erez Dunwalke in his biography of Wilson tells us that Tagore wrote to Wilson protesting against the "lying calumny", but with little effect. To write against narrow nationalism and be seen as involved so with "revolutionaries" is obviously not new.
The loss was Wilson's, because the essay remains the most outstanding example of a work on a political theme by a philosopher. Wilson and his advisers ought to have known of Tagore, already a Nobel Laureate, and should have realized that a dedication of a work on nationalism to the inspirer of the League of Nations would have only done him good. They would not have known that Tagore's book-dedications were a genre in themselves.
His book dedications are fascinating and for a discussion on them in Chennai, organized by that city's celebrated man of books, S. Muthiah, Dr Uma Das Gupta helped me with references to a few of them. The Tagore book dedications belong to all categories, if one might call them that, of book dedications. There are those to family, such as 'Naibedya' (1901) to his father Debendranath Tagore: Ei kabyagrontho parompujyapad pitrideber shricharankomole utsargo korilam. And in a different vein, of his 1940 essays to 'Gandhi Maharaj'. He has dedicated other works of his to his son, his nephews but most notably to the friend he 'gave up' to Gandhi, C.F. Andrews. The Argentinian poet, Victoria Ocampo, got his poems in Purabi (1925) dedicated with the words,"Bijoya (the name Tagore gave her) Korokomoleshu".
Neither Marx's Das Kapital (1867) in German or the first English translation of it in 1887, nor Hitler's Mein Kampf (1925) carried any dedication. Gandhi's 1909 Hind Swaraj, written first in Gujarati and then translated into English for his associate, Hermann Kallenbach, also did not have any dedication.
Those three gentlemen wanted to get the message across. Why should they want anything to distract the reader's attention from that end?
But many works of earnestness have dedicatory commencings. And this tradition is ancient. Asoka's edicts were not books but then there having been no books as we know them in his time, they were authorial works. And they started with an introductory reference to himself -"Thus says Devanamapiya Piyadassi...", by which Deva was invoked, albeit as one who loved the author of the edict, Piyadassi. A very deft combination of self-effacement and self-introduction. If, as is believed by many, Thiruvalluvar lived a century or two before Christ, we have in his one and only work that could have been contemporaneous with Asoka's edicts, an invocatory reference to God, the only Sanskrit compound in the Kural, "...adiBhagavan...."
The Kama Sutra, none other, begins with a dedicatory invocation to Him. "In the beginning Brahma created men and women and in the form of commandments in one hundred thousand chapters laid down rules for regulating their existence with regard to Dharma, Artha and Kama." To which one might say, cut Dharma and Artha out, come to the point.
God, whether out of formality, custom or fear of divine retribution, was a hardy perennial as an invocate or dedicatee. But is now no longer so. The world likes to think of itself as liberated from the need of divine protection. Dedications have been, for almost the whole of what in historical terms is called the Modern Age, not to the divine but to mortals. This started with that branch of mortals who may have been considered by the authors to be invested with some moral weight. Subrahmanya Bharati, for instance, dedicated two of his first books to Sister Nivedita. And Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, with the dedicatee's permission, dedicated his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita simply and movingly, "To Mahatma Gandhi". Sarvepalli Gopal tells us in his biography of his father that Gandhiji at first remonstrated: "Who am I? What is my service? You are my Krishna, I am your Arjuna". Fortunately for book dedications, Radhakrishnan had his way.
The tradition of dedicating books to family, especially, spouses, is a strong one. There is tenderness and pathos in this, especially when the dedication is posthumous. Nehru's dedicating of his autobiography (1936) "To Kamala, Who Is No More", is deeply moving, as are R.K. Narayan's words at the start of his autobiographical novel, The English Teacher (1945): "To my wife, Rajam". Radhakrishnan's enigmatic dedication of An Idealist View of Life "To SRK", is believed to be to his wife Sivakamu.
A successful book is more often than not the fruit of a huge accommodation at home, a huge sacrifice for which the very least that can be done is stating that in so many words or by implication, thank you and sorry. Many books get to be written, honest, good and successful ones at that, not in the perfumes of marital accord but from out of the fumes of marital discord. Mandela's being a case in point. His autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, has "I dedicate this book to my six children, Madiba and Makaziwe (my first daughter), who are now deceased, and to Makgatho, Makaziwe, Zenani, and Zindzi, whose support and love I treasure; to my twenty-one grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who give me great pleasure; and to all my comrades, friends, and fellow South Africans whom I serve and whose courage, determination, and patriotism remain my source of inspiration." It is noteworthy that he does not refer to his second wife, Winnie Mandela, from whom he was clearly estranged by the time the book was written. But she figures in it of course, with the breakdown of their relationship described without any damage to Winnie's personality.
Dedications are written once the book is done, the manuscript all but sent to the publishers, when the tension of writing has given place to the relief and emptiness of completion. The mind travels back then, to times before and beyond the book, in a mood of lassitude and mellowness. Relationships emerge from the mist of calm repose and suggest a gesture in handsomeness. And unexpected results occur.
Book dedications are more, much more, than 'side things'. And though I said I am gripped by what happens on the side, my interest in book dedications is not a side thing. It is, in fact, so strong that very often I remember the dedication when I have forgotten the argument of the book. But there too I know I have 'got' the author. When Tagore calls Gandhi 'Maharaj' and places his book of poems in Victoria's "lotus hands", addressing her as 'Bijoya', have I not reached his soul?
As much as book dedications are fascinating, so are the experiences of book dedications that failed to appear, for reasons like Tagore's intended dedication to Woodrow Wilson. They tell us of the author's warm heart and the dedicatee's cold feet. And might, in some cases, also speak of the need for love and of atonement in the permission sought - 'Yes?'- and the reasons, deep and devious, in the 'no'.