(This piece was first published on 10 August 2017 and is being republished in light of recent calls for ‘One Nation, One Language’.)
South Asian Studies have waged an uphill battle in American universities over the past few decades, where ‘Asia’ is probably seen to be covered by the Middle East and East Asia. South Asia, regrettably, is often seen as the ‘other’ area and ignored. Only three students graduated from South Asia Studies at the University of Virginia in 2013, I being one of them.
I wrote my BA thesis on Hindi Dalit literature, inspired by how Dalit authors wedded literature with a social movement to fight regressive traditions to achieve the egalitarian democracy that Ambedkar had always envisioned. My peers included another Catholic proficient in Hindi, Urdu, and Persian, struggling with his sexuality, who wrote on gendered representations of the tawaif in cinema, and a second generation Bengali divided between America and her homeland, who wrote about Indian-American cultural identity in the books of Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee. On the surface we wrote about India, but really, we wrote about ourselves.
Interestingly, it was a nun who first sparked my interest in India. Sister S taught a world religions class in my senior year at high school, through which I learned about India’s religions—Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Islam. I attended a private Catholic school in Oklahoma, a conservative state in the American Southwest. We could only take ‘World Religions’ after we’d had a firm grounding in classes like ‘Scripture,’ ‘Church Ecclesiology,’ and ‘Introduction to Catholic thought.’ Gracious toward religions agreeable to Catholicism, the nun criticised anything that deviated too strongly. Praising Atman and Brahman as nice ideas, she made sure we students went home with the party line: “God didn’t make our souls to dissolve into a cosmic ocean.”
Sister’s efforts to prevent us from defecting to ‘dangerous’ truths only heightened my curiosity about the views of other societies towards a world that we, objectively, shared together. Oklahoma, in this way, felt intellectually landlocked in adolescence—as culturally homogeneous as its endless flat plains.
Always with my nose to the books, I projected my imagination into the vast open sky over the prairie, and imagined the possibility of life elsewhere. Stretching even further than the Great Plains, however, was the homogeneity of English. Along with college classes,
Discovering freedom and originality in thought and expression, I’ve learned, is not so much about inventing new ideas as it is finding traces of ourselves in the thoughts of others.
At least, that’s what I learned reading Emerson in my youth, an early American essayist and intellectual, who inspired canonical American writers like Walt Whitman, shortly after America’s Independence in the 19th century. A harbinger of the American Renaissance, he asked a simple but profound question:
Drawing from world literature—English Romanticism, German Idealism, and even translations of Indian texts like the Upanishads—he encouraged his contemporaries to establish an American identity of thought distinct from Britain, the Church, and Antiquity, and urged the American Scholar “to guide men by showing facts amidst appearances”—an entreaty I’ve taken seriously by pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation at University of Iowa.
Narain emerged on the literary scene in the 1950s, when India was charting a new path for itself as a nation and postcolonial arbiter in a new world order, and the 1960s, a decade of disillusionment with the Nehruvian Dream, when urbanisation, industrialisation, mass migration, and unmet promises of equality had alienated and dislocated communities and traditions.
Narain also looked toward the sky for an original human relationship with the world and to escape a suffocating culture. In his poem, He Never Slept, he writes about being buried alive:
India in its cynical post-Gandhian decades must have also felt like a sky dimming out slowly. Narain and the New Poets experimented intensely with language to keep the human alive amidst this new social reality.
This was not a ‘quick-fix’ to India’s problems, but rather a quest for a path to a solution, which they grounded in human complexity. Narain realised that India was much too complex for any ‘pure’ language or coherent tradition.
Assimilating the techniques of world writers like Kafka, Borges, and Mallarme, he also admired the Hellenistic Persian and Arabic translators, Medieval devotional saint poets, and philosophers like Buddha and Kabir — thinkers who promoted intellectual exchange and harmony in a fragmented India.
He called the space where they found common humanity between traditions the ‘other’ world, a metaphysical space where human insights could be poeticised in language to affect change.
Key to Narain’s poetics is the borrowing from diverse streams of art and knowledge, ensuring a living feedback between creative writing and “a society reflecting upon itself, upon its culture and history, upon the world and the times it is living in.”
Narain believed the role of the verbal arts should be to build a more sensitive consciousness of justice towards life to make proper ethical decisions, and that tradition proves its vitality by meeting new challenges.
In our times of ‘global citizens’ cut off from their traditions and ‘nationalists’ retreating into the past, we’d do well to learn from Narain’s example by finding that middle path somewhere between the earth and sky — or perhaps the example of that early American poet Robert Frost, who resonated deeply with Narain and haunted his thinking: “I shall be telling this with a sigh / somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by / and that has made all the difference.”
(This article was sent to The Quint by John J Vater for our Independence Day campaign, BOL – Love your Bhasha. John J Vater is a scholar of Literary Translation at University of Iowa.)
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