Ram to Aurangzeb: Audrey Truschke and the Art of Taking Liberties
Professor Pushpesh Pant takes down historian Audrey Truschke’s controversial tweets on Ramayana.
Remember The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest triggering an avalanche of best-selling thrillers? Well, it wasn’t a patch on Prof Audrey Truschke. Prof Truschke specialises in driving the bigoted intolerant members of the Hindutva brigade to hysterical frenzy and murderous trolling.
Not that all this spewing of hate hurts her. She claims that she has been pilloried on account of her gender, race, religion, ideology and a lot of other things just because she, as a historian, has made it the mission of her life to ‘set the record straight’ – removing once and for all the many misconstrued interpretations of Indian history that are controversial and divisive.
The latest salvo fired by her quoting Sita calling Ram names including ‘misogynist pig’ has boomeranged unexpectedly. But who cares?
Lost in Translation
Of course, Truschke had prefaced her comments by the caveat that she was ‘loosely’ translating the original verses in a critical edition. However, Prof Robert Goldman, the scholar whose translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana she has relied upon, has expressed shock at the liberties she has taken with his work and called her choice of words ‘unbecoming’.
Truschke remains undeterred and has hit back at her much less literate critics with characteristic pugnacity and aggression – ‘Why should I do your homework for you? I have gone through pre-modern sources holistically.’ (I am not quoting her exact words but only citing them loosely and holistically).
Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.
What remains unsaid is that she doesn’t translate but ‘trans-creates’. Dr P Lal of Writers Workshop (an erstwhile Calcutta-based literary publisher) of yore would have approved. When you have chosen to set the record straight as a historian, then there is no room for shades of grey. The world is either black or white.
Time for full disclosure: I am an atheist, a beef-eating Indian Hindu, with a reasonably thick skin – not easily offended by the vilest of abuses heaped on Bhagwan Ram and Sita Mata. But how long can one remain silent when provoked repeatedly by self promoting pretentious scholars – Indians or ‘foreigners’?
History’s Blurred Lines
Some time back Truschke had courted controversy by trying to rehabilitate the much- maligned Aurangzeb. The immediate provocation it seems was the renaming of a tree-lined road named after him in Delhi by the ‘New Rulers’ of India, prejudiced against the ‘villain’. In this case too, the professor, committed to revisionist justice, was seen brandishing a sledgehammer to swat flies on the wall she alone had spotted. Nothing in the four books published by her – all variations on the same theme – can lay claim to anything original. Most of the stuff re-tells what others have done (and much more readably) before her.
At best, these volumes, fruits of her scholarly exertions, can be termed ‘compilations of material scattered in different publications’ – scholarly and popular. One is surprised that the author is unaware that most Indians – a majority of them Hindus – don’t look at Aurangzeb as the arch villain. Muhammad of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, and Babur are targets of more vitriolic abuse.
I, for one, have long hero-worshipped Aurangzeb as a political unifier, who almost expanded the Mogul Empire to the limits reached by the conquering armies of King Ashoka.
Nor is there any dispute about the fact that Aurangzeb had many Hindus whom he trusted, employed as high ranking generals, and patronised generously. Mirza Raja Jaisingh and Sawai Jaisingh II Maharajah of Jaipur were just two of them. Poor Aurangzeb suffered throughout his life (and has continued to suffer even in death) due to grossly unfair comparisons with his elder brother Dara Shikoh, who spent most of his time away from battlefields living a life of self-indulgent pleasure, spiced up with scholarly pretensions.
Exposing Shallowness of Western Indologists
Incidentally, translating Hindu metaphysical texts like the Upanishads was one of his pastimes. Ebrahim Erally and Murad Baig have written eloquently and sympathetically about the most misunderstood king of India, and done a much better job of portraying the misunderstood man in the context of his times.
Prof Makrand Paranjape of JNU has aptly commented that scholars like Audrey Truschke actually do us a great favour by removing the scales from our eyes – exposing the shallowness and blatant partisanship of Western Indologists/Sanskritists who continue to carry the ‘White Man/Woman’s Burden’, gleefully long after Rudyard Kipling and ‘Good Man’ Gunga Din have been forgotten.
Need we waste more words or hot breath on comments that have barely been noticed by the members of what is referred to as the ‘Lunatic Fringe Brigade’? The lady protests too much about the lack of legal protection provided to freedom of expression in this land. Her books haven’t been banned, withdrawn by publishers and distributors or reduced to pulp. The sales may be disappointing and sluggish but are hardly likely to be pushed by stirring inane controversies.
(Padma Shri awardee Professor Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He tweets @PushpeshPant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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