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Alive at India’s Dead Ends: Audio and Text of 2nd A K Ramanujan Lecture by Gopalkrishna Gandhi

24 March 2014

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Alive at India’s Dead Ends

Being the Second A K Ramanujan Memorial Lecture

Speaker: Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Ramjas College
6 April, 2014

It is a privilege to be asked to give the A K Ramanujan Memorial Lecture. I thank Professor Mukul Mangalik for the chance , daunting as it is, to follow the distinguished Girish Karnad in this new series of lectures commemorating an unusual man.

Younger brotherness

Sanskrit has one exclusive word for ‘younger brother’ – anuja. And another for ‘elder brother’ – agraja. Adjectives generally precede nouns. Sanskrit literature, very particularly, does something unusual. Reversong the order, it suffixes that adjective to a noun, the name of one agraja – Rama.
Anuja has, for practical purposes, become a one-use adjective for Dasaratha’s younger son , Lakshmana who is consequentially known as Ramanuja , ‘Rama’s younger brother’. Ramanuja is thus not just the junior sibling but the very epitome of fraternal , one might say worshipful, devotion towards his elder. Bharata and Shatrughna are also, technically, Ramanuja-s. But the name has become very specifically a second introduction, apart from being the first calling, of Lakshmana. It also makes Rama a reference point, the very alpha of relationships, affiliations and introductions of which, after Ramanuja, the most celebrated Rama-derivation is Ramaduta, Rama’s envoy – Hanumat. Ramadas , a massively prevalent name is of course for anyone interested in that form of hypothetical enslavement, ‘dasa’ meaning slave and also being a name given by caste-name givers to a denomination in the lowest of the chaturvarnas.
But to return to ‘Ramanuja’. An anuja’s attentiveness to the agraja is one thing, an anuja’s surrender to him quite another.

Being a Sanskritist, and a words-man, we can be sure that A K Ramanujan must have pondered over the thingness of his given name. He must have seen, in a trice, that people’s given names say less about the name-bearer and more of the name-giver, for the choice is that of the giver. All of us who have been named by others try to live up to or live down the name we have inherited.

Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan’s parents were keepers of tradition. He was a student of tradition’s keepings. Krishnaswami, the father, examined, interpreted astronomical charts, almanacs. Ramanujan examined Krishnaswami. He did so with affection and admiration but not without a son’s playful mischief. His little poem on his father is a gem, not because it is precious but because its facets cut as they glint, glint as they cut.
Unlike his name’s original bearer in the Valmiki epic, Ramanujan did not believe that something , anything, commanded uncritical subordination on the ground that it was older , venerated , celebrated and certainly not by virtue of that senior status alone. Ramanujan was a companion to its grammar, a friend to its prose, lover to its verse, especially dramatic verse. For Sanskrit’s wit he had enthusiasm, for its wisdom, enchantment. Its intellectual rigour held him captive, its imaginative abandon freed him to the skies.

To use a set of appellations employed for an adept’s ideal and, ideally, female, companion, Ramanujan was Sanskrit, Kannada,Telugu, English literature’s mitra - friend, sachiva - confidante, and even its priya-sishya – dearly loved disciple. He was all these and possibly more things ; but he was not their dasa – slave, certainly not its dasanudasa – slave of slave. He was a member of literature’s bandhujana-kula, not of its dasajana-kula.
Ramanujan’s scholarly irreverence towards postured punditry is an inspiration to those who may worry that the reasoning, liberal mind has reached a dead end in India. His resisting the obfuscation of knowledge by prejudice is, likewise, strength-giving to those who fear that the open-ness of free-roaming and yet perfectly calibrated enquiry has reached the dead end of bigotry. In the next twenty to thirty minutes I will share a few thoughts on some of our more prominent dead ends where, in my view, we manage miraculously and redemptively to stay alive.

The dead-ends of language and expression

A language or literature howsoever lofty may expect of its users sakhyam, companionship. Not dasyam, servitude. Language and literary works are the produce of human experience, some more developed in terms of syntax and vocabulary than others. But their value is dependent on two things : first, on how true they are to themselves and second, on how they are put to use. One can find works of average or poor value in the embalmed tomes – I find it interesting that ‘tome’ and ‘tomb’ have a similar dome-like ring to them – of Latin, Greek, Persian or Sanskrit. And one can find sparkle in languages and literatures that are very young, provided they have the ring of truth, and are credible to human longings.

It is not necessary that literature, in order to gain recognition as literature, should be age-marked as ‘ancient’, or brand-marked as ‘popular’. In fact, if it is neither of those, it is likely to survive better. But one thing it has to be ; it has to speak true, not false. This last bit is important.

Our national motto ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth Alone Triumphs) is, in its original unexpurgated form in the Mundakopanishad, ‘satyameva jayate nanritam’. The last compound-word na+anritam means ‘Not Untruth’. Mottos can be dead-ends. They ossify, fossilize, emmarble living ideas. ‘Satyameva jayate’ has become marble. But at that glorious rock-end of a white placebo, where we stand with all credulity dead, the wonderfully human assurance of ‘nanritam’ makes us come alive, alive to the truth of the high surface density of untruth, lies, perjurious falsehood around us and yet re-assured that the baddies are not going to get one over us. Put differently , the motto says ‘sachcha hi jitega’ but the Upanishad says ‘sachcha hi jitega, jhutha kabhi nahin’. It also suggests that the battle between the two could be over more than one round – a far more credible scene.


The late Hiren Mukherjee was what can be called a highly desirable paradox – a communist rishi. Pandits need not be tufted or bearded. Nor need communists be hidebound and humourless Hirenbabu gave a remarkable speech , in the mid-1980s, on ‘The Glory Of Sanskrit And Its Relevance To Our LifeToday’ and reminded us of an old Sanskrit line : puranamityena na sadhu sarvam (whatever is old is not, for that reason alone, necessarily right). The opposite, too, can be said with equal validity : What is new is not by that reason alone, right. What has to be looked for is not the thing’s age but its truth. The veteran Marxist also cited in that speech, the delectable character Vidura who has said memorably : apriyasya cha satyasya, vakta srota cha durlabha (for the unpleasing and the truthful, speakers as well as listeners are scarce).

Merely because something has been set down in Sanskrit does not make it great. Some of Sanskrit’s subhashita have survived over the centuries because they are true, often bitterly so. But some are no more than skilful exercises in sound-manipulation or what could be called its sound-effects. One such is located in the coronation hall of Rama’s abhisheka. A young and nervous woman attendant carrying the gold kalasa of anointing unctions is so overwhelmed that as she ascends the grand steps to the throne she drops the gold-ghatam. And as it comes tumbling down the grand stairway down to the hall’s floor, the vessel goes

“Thatham thatham tham
Thathatham thatham thahaha”

That has to be one of the earliest representations in Sanskrit of percussive onomatopoeia, of acoustic and alliterative conceit. But if we were to find in it some extraordinary literary or sublime phenomenon, we would be deceiving ourselves. Sanskrit epics like those in Greek or Latin are works of the highest aesthetic imagination and have to be celebrated as such. They also have to critiqued as such, if only to be enjoyed with more nuanced engagement.

They are not meant to be worshipped. If they become objects of votive attention, they become mere objects, mummified, cold and un-breathing. They become a dead end.

Sanskrit is very often termed, with Latin, for instance, as a ‘dead’ language. There are problems with that typification in as much as, I believe, Sanskrit is a language with a life of its own that does not live in life as it is lived but in life as it is intellected. Sanskrit may be said to be a literature rather than a language , or a literature that is independent , almost, of a language. And , true enough, it is not alive any longer in the sense of being spoken by large numbers in everyday speech, or giving us lively contemporary creative writing.

If we tried today to say in Sanskrit, for instance, that India has a choice between communalism, monarchism and individualism we might end up calling those three dvaita, vishishthadvaita and pure, undiluted advaita where Godhead and the worshipper are one, RTI activist and government are one, question and answer are one – an ideal if implausible situation. The exercise of Sanskritising today’s political reality would , in other words, be dead even before it starts.

Sanskrit is, therefore, one of India’s great dead ends. When you reach it, you have reached the base camp of Mount Everest or kailas. All you can do is either climb up to its summit as often you can and come right down its gleaming side or do a never-ending and ever-repeated parikrama. Living languages, on the other hand, are not mountainous dead-ends. They are forests which grow, change shape, sometimes shrink, and have their own flora and fauna, sometimes endangered, sometimes secure. A sign of literary or linguistic dead-endedness is the absence not just of creative writing but of the potential for creative writing.

If at the rajyabhishekham of the next Prime Minister of India, a member of the President’s Bodyguard were to drop a sword in the Durbar Hall or Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, we would not have contemporary equals of thatham-thatham. And yet , at its very dead-end, Sanskrit is alive, vital, aflame, not in its parental home, the mountain, but in new and modern variants of it that have flowed down its flanks as snowmelt into language streams in the great literary flood-plains of India. There, Sanskrit does not appear as Sanskrit but like the proverbial sugar in milk, it has enriched the receiving language, with its own identity kept at second place. Sanskrit has borrowed its vocabulary from the lexicon of life. Several languages have borrowed and continue to borrow from the lexicons of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a rigid receiver but a generous giver.

Sanskrit has been called the language of the Gods – a very freezing image that makes one want to reach for a shawl ( a Persian word, incidentally). That description – language of the Gods – makes its words seem cold and hard like hoar-frost. But while as the language of the Gods Sanskrit can seem forbidding with a ‘No Thoroughfare’ sign written across it, where Sanskrit in its various modern Prakrits extends public issues for the general exchequer of humanity, it can be quite non-Godlike.

A representative example may be seen in these unadorned, un-gilded and in their own style, onomatopoeic and deeply sensuous lines from Harivanshrai Bachchan’s ‘Madhushala’: “Jalatarang bajta jab chumban karta pyale ko pyala”.‘Jalatarang’ and ‘chumban’ are Sanskrit. But far from being ‘dead’, they are brilliantly , sensuously, alive. As alive as the line from Auden’s ‘ clink of ice in a drink’. And let none think that these Sanskrit-root words are alive because they are about the living senses.

Despite being the language of the Gods, ancient Sanskrit was as much about the senses as the kiss of water-bowls. Only, those divine bowls were made of gold and such-like resounding metals. And in case anyone missed the sensuousness of thatham-thatham let me say that the dasi in the Ayodhya darbar hall shivering at the thought of seeing Rama, and letting go of her kumbha, is not a elevatingly spiritual image. ‘Kumbhaa’, according to Apte’s Sanskrit-English dictionary stands for ‘harlot’ and ‘whore’.
Sanskrit lives at Sanskrit’s dead-end because it has snuggled , fresh and alive, into contemporary expression not in the shape of archaisms but actualisms.

Take Mahadevi Verma’s :
“Mein nirbhari dukh ki badli
Vistrit nabh ka koyi kona
Mera na kabhi apna hona
Parichay itna itihas yahi
Umri kal thi, mit aj chali.”

These five lines have words which may be called ‘high Sanskrit’ – nir, dukh, vistrit, nabh, parichay and itihas. Of these nir, vistrit, and nabh are not active words today but they have so mingled into Mahadevi’s khari boli organically that they enrich the verse with a living infusion of Sanskrit’s ancient sonority. Mahadevi’s statement is powerful, her image is powerfully alive at the dead end of Sanskrit archaisms,
To return, briefly, to Bachchan. The title and the refrain of his ‘Madhushala’ are pure Sanskrit, as is the recurring ‘hala’, a quite uncommon word meaning ‘wine’. We would not even be aware that in the following very contemporary image, the key words are high Sanskrit :

“Kabhi nahin sun parta ‘isne
Ha, chhu di meri hala’,
Kabhi na koi kahta ‘usne
Jhuta kar dala pyala’.
Sabhi jati ke log yahan par
Sath baithke pite hein ;
Sau sudharakon ka karti hai
Kam akeli madhushala…”
And then the brilliant political, polemical and philosophical
“Samyavad ki pratham pracharak
Hai yah meri madhushala.”

Who can miss the fact that hala, madhu, shala, sudhar, samya, vad, pratham, prachar are all Sanskrit that does not move from its frigid glaciations. But there, at the dead-end of God’s language, stands open and throbbing the madhushala of life, catching the flows , bitter and sweet, as they come cascading down.

Bachchan has also translated Robert Frost’s poem made famous by Nehru’s transcribing of it. For ‘The woods are lovely…’ Bachchan has the highly Sanskritised ‘Gahana saghana manamohana vanataru…’ which is good because forests are where life bustles.Fortunately for the lay reader, he renders the ‘promises to keep’ line with the far less Sanskritised

“Kintu kiye jo vade maine
Yad mujhe aa jaate hein”.
And he concludes with
“Arey abhi to milon mujhko
Milon mujhko chalna hai.”

Archaic Sanskrit (Who would use gahana, saghana and vanataru ?) blends with Hindustani in the gharelu ‘arey’, and the literally pedestrian ‘milon mujhko, milon mujhko chalna hai’.

If there is one language which, on account of its antiquity, could have turned into a dead-end, it is Tamil. But that is just what it has not become for millions speak it.

They regard the Tiru-k-kural, though anywhere between 10 and 20 centuries old, as their guide not because its language is wholly accessible but because it has several words that belong to current language-registers and, more, because, as explained to them by commentators, its nuggets synchronise with their common-sense. Concise, compact, infolded into its kernel of thought, each of the 1330 Kural couplets is alive with a relevance to life as it is lived. Its wisdoms are not so much for the reclusive but for the house-holding citizen with his or her need for trust, for friendships and, incredibly, for what would be today called good governance.

One Kural speaks of a friend in need being like one’s hand which rushes reflexively to a garment slipping from one’s body. Another says of a King that he warms, like a log-fire in the cold, when you are at a right distance from him but can scorch if you try to get too close. No dead-ends there, only dead-right aphorisms from life.

Major dead-ends

Literature speaks to us, music does, as do songs from cinema, movingly. When we hear Mukesh sing ‘koi to ata, do-bat karta, koi to kahta ‘hullo’, ghar na bulata par yah to kahta ‘kuchh dur tak sang chalo’, dead-ends in our imagination seem to open to reveal a ‘kuchh duur…’

India, post-1947, showed many kuchh duur , paas ki manzilen.

These included, chiefly, five ends :
India as a family.
India as a parliamentary democracy.
India free from exploitation.
India moving into modern times.
India fostering the scientific temper.
These five ends have become dead-ends.
We are alive, just about, in all five.