I was too much in love to worry about politics, but poetry became part of my life, with fragments from Hindi film songs and the Romantic poetry emanating from the Lake District…
This is an edited version of a key-note talk given at the international Writers Celebration conference at the Wee Kim Wee Creative Centre, Singapore Management University, on Thursday, April 27, 2017.
Exactly 40 years ago, in Brisbane, I gave a keynote paper as we set up the South Pacific Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SPACLALS) – a branch of the world body, the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), the largest association that concentrates on the study of Literatures in English, with a dozen regional branches world-wide, including in Europe and the USA.
How deeply ‘Commonwealth Literature’ has enriched my life of the mind and imagination only I know. It has taken me to many parts of the literary world’s richest treasures and meetings with writers, scholars, and readers who gave us such a varied and fabulous visions of their societies one had seen as red spaces on the world map on a black board during one’s secondary school days.
My talk at the University of Queensland was titled – Beyond Colonialism: The Artist as a Healer.
In that paper, I had briefly looked at three writers from three different world experiences: Patrick White, Vidia Naipaul and Wole Soyinka. I had tried to read and understand how these writers, all part of the colonial-postcolonial universe, so broken into bits by arrivals and departures, not to mention deportees, attempted to resolve the enigma.
In that broken mirror we tried to see our own faces and features.
How do writers help us to cope with that brokenness of life–the life around us today is not much different, if we can imagine that other world around us.
And that otherness is created through the life of literary characters as Shakespeare so supremely did in his plays; and many a political leader attempts to embrace this otherness in their vision for good and ill.
Writing and politics
I’ve some idea of the hurts of history and politics: I studied in the shadows of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and in the receding echoes of those three pistol-shots that killed Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, in the ruins and relics of imperial Delhi, soon after the subcontinent was so brutally vivisected with imperial connivance and authority.
In the last years of the 1950s and early 1960s, my stay in Delhi was tinged with Pundit Nehru’s writings.
Virtually every speech he delivered was fully reported in the then great dailies of India. India was briefly the centre of the post-independence world.
Nehru was both a writer and a politician– Clement Atlee called him ‘a poet in politics’ ; Winston Churchill said ‘Nehru had no bitterness him’, though he spent more than a decade in prison under the Raj.
I was too much in love to worry about politics, but poetry became part of my life, with fragments from Hindi film songs and the Romantic poetry emanating from the Lake District, taught with tandoori passion in the heat and dust of Delhi.
Outside the classrooms, as the dust-storms of Delhi raged, one was taught the healing powers of nature–although one hardly saw much of nature’s beauty in Delhi’s over-crowded, cobbled streets; except on the stony ridge of Delhi University campus where peacocks danced after a drizzle, and monkeys swung from green trees above the black, wet boulders.
It was here, on April 27, 1959, I was given a copy of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari: the book was bought from Mehta Bros, Booksellers, 39, University Avenue, Bungalow Road, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi. The dates and details are important to me.
When you go through five coups, you lose your library first; and that loss is especially felt as you’re ageing; but somehow this volume has remained with me over the years in my many migrations. I’ve carried it in my suitcases as one carries a few precious gifts that remain. And, therefore, I remember the details of the bookshop.
It’s in Doctor Zhivago that I read perhaps the most fundamental power of literature and the brutal, corrosive influence of a certain kind of politics. There’s a scene in the novel that is worth quoting in full.
Yury Zhivago’s love, Lara, and their daughter Katya, are fast asleep on snow-white, starched pillows; Zhivago is revising and rewriting his poems; the splendour of the frosty, moonlit night is inexpressible as snowfields stretch endlessly outside the windows of his beleaguered house:
One writer-politician, I was to read many years later in a book titled The Strangled Cry by John Strachey, commented:
All we can say is that those four pencil strokes have now been indelibly drawn upon the sheet of world literature.
The miracle of black ink has had its might. In one of the ways that is possible, immortality, which, Pasternak writes, is ‘only a stronger word for life’, has asserted itself against death and corruption.
What I’d not imagined that one day, in faraway Fiji, my life would be entangled in political turmoil of a very special kind, albeit on a much smaller, gentler scale.
I’ve written about this experience in my book The Wounded Sea, published in 1991. This year, May 14, is the 30th anniversary of the first coup in Fiji. I was there a month ago commemorating the centennial abolition of Indian Indenture system on March 17, 1917.
During my six nights of confinement with balaclava-clad soldiers and their shining guns, it was deeply revealing to see among the 28 MPs of various professions, that they all wanted to hear only tales from literature and religious-spiritual texts. I was, alas, being the most literate among them had to read or recite.
Powers of healing
Literature does hurt but it also contains within its aesthetic structures, the powers of healing: often I’ve quoted the lines of William Wordsworth, memorised in Delhi:
The poem ends with thanks to the human heart by which we live.
Wordsworth had experienced the French Revolution–and what could be more political than that ? It’s still inflames the streets of Paris. And there were personal and intimate reasons for the deepening sorrows of his soul.
But it’s in his poetry that he created the healing fountain in the deserts of his heart-breaks – he discovered and expressed the grandeur that is within one’s heart-beats in the lines of his poems.
The point I’m making is that it’s the level of a writer’s creative response to a political upheaval that determines the quality of his or her creation in an aesthetic form and ethical expression.
All around us we see on our TV screens, social media and read in the newspapers, a world in turmoil and the pictures are heartrending but how does one keep that faith of which Wordsworth wrote with such beauteous eloquence.
One can be consoled with the elemental moral of another poet’s words:
Here I find politically the most inspiring words and acts in the life of Mohandas Gandhi. No human hand, as far as I’m aware, wrote more than Gandhi’s.
And I feel in the acts of writing, he acquired insights into human nature for as Professor Albert Einstein wrote: ‘In our time of utter moral decadence he was the only statesman to stand for a higher human relationship in the political sphere.’
Today that challenge applies to virtually and in reality to all the political capitals of the world.
And that is the point: both art and politics are always about human relationships in their many forms, facets, faces, features and foundational values by which we live and survive.
This is what I’ve garnered from history, politics, and poetry : for often the healing begins with the blood of those wounds we give to one another.
At Easter, this is the most poignant and universal message of all.
Though nothing can bring that hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thought that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death;
In the years that bring the philosophic mind.
Cover of the book ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak.
Poet William Wordsworth.
Boris Pasternak writes:
Finally he got into his stride and, carried away, he started a new poem.
After two or three stanzas and several images by which he was himself astonished, his work took possession of him and he experienced the approach of what is called inspiration .
At three in the morning, Yury looked up from his papers and went out.
He was dazzled by the white flame playing on the shadowless, moonlit snow and first could see nothing. Then the long, whimpering, deep-bellied baying sounded again, muffled by the distance, and he noticed four long shadows, no thicker than pencil strokes, on the edge of the snowfield just beyond the gully.
The wolves stood in a row, their heads raised and their muzzles pointing toward the house, baying at the moon or at its silver reflection on the windows.
we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.