Books come as life-savers in every situation. A long journey, a sleepless night or a lazy day, a book can be your companion in every mood
There are two very interesting and widely divergent examples of how reading a book has changed the thinking and life of two great people. The first is that of Mahatma Gandhi. He was influenced by American thinker Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (published in 1849) and British writer and thinker John Ruskin’s “Unto This Last” (published in 1860). He read it on a train journey from Johannesburg to Durban. Gandhi was so impressed by Ruskin’s book that he paraphrased it in Gujarati and serialized it in the Indian Opinion, the newspaper he was running in South Africa. He later published this as a pamphlet under the title ‘Sarvodaya’. This is indeed the origin of the word ‘Sarvodaya’!
The third writer who influenced Gandhi was Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. But it was not the novels of Tolstoy that impacted Gandhi. It was the Russian writer’s outpouring on the religious life that left an impression on him, especially Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”, which was translated into English from Russian by Constance Garnett in 1894, and also Tolstoy’s “Letter To A Hindu”. It is now generally recognised that Gandhi’s political experiment with ‘satyagraha’ owes much to Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and to Tolstoy’s idea of “passive resistance”.
The other example is from the field of science. Erwin Schrodinger, an Austrian physicist, wrote a book called “What Is Life, The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell” (published in 1944). Schrodinger was keenly interested in the Indian philosophical system of the Vedanta, which speaks of the unity of forces in the universe. Though a physicist, he chose to speak in this popular lecture addressed to a general public about the basis of biological life. Francis Crick, a physicist read Schrodinger’s book and turned to biology, and Crick along with James D Watson discovered the double helix structure of the genetic material, the deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. Crick and Watson along with Maurice Jenkins won the Nobel Prize for Biology in 1962 for their discovery of the structure of the DNA.
While Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s unique style of non-violent political struggle, a book written by physicist Schrodinger influenced another physicist Crick, which in turn led to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
So books can bring about revolutionary changes. That is why it is said that dictators fear books and writers. The first thing they do is to ban books.
There has been a running debate whether the French Revolution of 1789 was caused by the ideas of a group of writers called encyclopaedists, which included Denis Diderot, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s famous Social Contract opens with the resounding sentence, “Man is born free; but everywhere he is found in chains.” There was keen awareness of the political situation of the day and thinkers and writers of the day addressed those issues with all seriousness. Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”, published in 1791 is a defence of the values of the French Revolution of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity. It was English novelist Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which told in a dramatic fashion the story of the French Revolution. Another English-Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle wrote about the French Revolution as an imaginative historical narrative. Books are part of the historical developments. While books and ideas trigger revolutions on the one hand, historical events inspire great books.
The awareness of modern Indians as to what the British colonial rule was doing to the country was expressed in “Poverty and Un-British Rule in India”by Dadabhai Naoroji which was published in 1901. All the nationalist leaders used Naoroji’s book as a text to criticize British rule. Gandhi himself wrote his own political manifesto, “Hind Swaraj” in 1909. He wrote it in Gujarati and then he translated it into English.. Interestingly, Vinay Damodar Savarkar, Gandhi’s ideological rival, published his Indian War of Independence in English translation in the same year. The original version in Marathi was written in 1907. The book was read avidly by nationalists of all hues. Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Autobiography”, published in 1936, was more the story of the Indian freedom struggle than the life-story of Nehru himself, though there is quite a bit of that in the book. In “The Discovery of India”, published in 1946, was a narration of Indian history in Nehru’s elegant English prose.
In fiction, Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s “Anandmath”, published in 1882, and which included the famous Nationalist song Vande Mataram, showed how literature becomes part of the political developments in a country and how it makes an emotional appeal to the people. Odiya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Chha Mana Aaath Guntha (Six Acres and a Third)”, is one of the earliest fictional masterpieces to depict the harsh and exploitative reality of rural India. Rabindranath Tagore’s “Ghare Baire (Home and the World)”, published in Bangla in 1916 and translated into English in 1919, shows the dilemmas faced by individuals who were fighting against the British colonial rule. The tussle between the main characters in the book is about accepting or rejecting Western culture. The great Hindi writer, Premchand wrote “Godan (Gift of a Cow)” in 1936, which portrayed rural poverty and exploitation of the poor.
It is significant that after Indian became independent in 1947, novels, plays and stories continued to be written which showed the state of the mind of the nation as it were. Malayalam writer Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s “Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu (My Gran’dad ‘ad an Elephant)” published in 1951, showed the vibrancy and innocence of Indian rural life which a writer, with an eye for detail, could use to create a literary masterpiece. Dharamvir Bharati’s Hindi play, “Andha Yug”, written in 1954, which shows the situation after the end of the great war in the epic of Mahabharata, but which was an allegory of the trauma of Partition that marred the dawn of independence. In the same year, Phanishwar Nath Renu’s novel “Maila Aanchal” too came out, which was a powerful and wistful portrayal of the India of the village and of the poor.
By the 1960s, the literary trends changed and there was a revolution of another kind in the making, especially with the Dalit writers in Maharashtra. Poets likes Namdeo Dhasal articulated what it is to be at the bottom of the social heap, and the poems showed anger and clarity. A landmark event in 1976 was the publication of Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar’s “Jejuri”, a collection of poems in Marathi and English. The English version won the Commonwealth Literature Prize in 1977. Kolatkar brought forth a new sensibility, which worked through images and it showed the sharp edges of belief and the dilapidated social system.
Indians did not give up English as many new writers took to English as they would to any other Indian language. In the 1980s, Vikram Seth showed virtuosity in writing the verse-novel, a gymnast’s feat at the best of time, called “The Golden Gate”. It showed Seth’s deft control of English prosody. In 1992 he achieved another difficult task by writing the huge novel, “A Suitable Boy”, which told a family saga in the India of 1950s, showing the country emerging from a colonial past into a bureaucratic socialist present. The Time magazine described the emergence of Indian writers in English as “The Empire Strikes Back” as Amitav Ghosh started off his series of novels touching upon the recent past of India with considerable craftsmanship. This was especially evident in his “Calcutta Chromosome”, which was a science-fiction thriller. Arundhati Roy winning the 1997 Booker Prize award for her debut novel “The God of Small Things” marked the culmination of the Indian success story in the journey of the Indian novel written in English. Of course, it did not happen suddenly. Writers like Kamala Markandeya and Anita Desai had quietly written the novels in English through the 1960s and 1970s, and it established the invisible base for the new writers to take off. It was poetic justice of sorts when Anita Desai’s daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker Award in 2006 for her sensitive and subtle political-cum-personal novel, “The Inheritance of Loss”.
There were new things happening in the languages in India. Hindi novelist from Kolkata, Alka Saraogi, in her 1998 novel, “Kolkata Via Bypass” wrote about the Marwari community long settled in Kolkata and their life-story with verve and pathos. For a long time, it seemed that the Hindi novel can only be written about people living in the Hindi-speaking states, which was a natural thing to do. Here, Saraogi shows how a Hindi-speaking, or speaking a variant of Hindi, community can find its own literary voice. She shows the life struggles of the Marwari community, their struggles and successes, and their tragedies, in a city where they live as a linguistic minority. It was a natural thing to do because in every part of India, linguistic minorities live and each of them has a story to tell. India offers diverse and rich possibilities of craving a literature of one’s own. She carries the experiment forward with her latest 2018 novel, “Sachi Jhooti Gatha”, where she weaves in the social media into the literary landscape of the novel, and she does this in a rather ingenuous way.
There are others like the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, who lived most of his life in Delhi, who have remained popular because of their delightful use of language so that people born generations after the
poet lived are able to enjoy his wit. Ghalib was not only a great poet because of the wit and pathos of his verse, but he was also a great letter writer where he shaped an informal and lively Urdu prose. The saying
that great writers do not belong just to their times but to all times is true of people like Ghalib. He is popular among readers who read his Urdu poems in Devnagari script and make effort to understand the shades of meaning of the Urdu words he used, and they are happy to have made that effort.
India being a land of many languages – 16 of them are recognized in the Constitution – people read many of the works through translations. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and stories are familiar to a general reader in all parts of India because of the translations of his work. And it is true of two other Bangla novelists, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, whose novels are accessible to many people through translation across the country. Everyone is familiar with the story of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel “Devdas”, and very few pause to remember that it was originally written in Bangla.
Similarly, the two grand Sanskrit epics of the country, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are familiar to people speaking different languages because these works had been translated time and again into the many languages in the country.
The Indian experience with books is full of surprises and fulfilling.
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