Local and Universal: Frontline review of Pickles From Home
First Published: Frontline Jun 02 - 15, 2012 | Partha Chatterjee
The message of this book: familiarity with one's natal cultural environment is the key to a good understanding go the world
Sugata Srinivasaraju is a respected translator, journalist and essayist. His mother tongue is Kannada, and he is deeply immersed in Kannada literature and the culture that has inspired it. He is a “senior member of the editorial staff of Outlook, India's premier weekly newsmagazine”, according to the introduction on the inside back jacket. The photograph accompanying the text reveals a thoughtful face, in keeping with the consistently sensitive, probing quality of his writing. His second collection of essays, Pickles From Home: The Worlds of A Bilingual, carries over the concerns voiced in his first, Keeping Faith With The Mother Tongue. He is keen to bring to the world the nuggets of classical and modern Kannada literature along with its philosophical and sociological underpinnings.
Sugata believes that one must master one's mother tongue and appreciate its subtleties, alongside English, which, by its reach, is a window to the world of knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge and the negotiation of realities, imagined and temporal, can happen best in the initial stages in a natal cultural environment. The possibility of understanding the scientific world of the West increases if there is an organic identification with and knowledge of one's indigenous knowledge base. The author observes: “I have referred to the native and the wider world. They automatically imply the local and the universal. Again, these are not mutually exclusive domains. The local also contains an enlightened universal in it and to constantly point out that out is one of the intentions of this book. The local not only looks intently at its own details, but also looks up at the broad sweep and expanse of the sky. Therefore, we need to consider the conceptual prospects of two universals. One vision of the universal is obtained by curating commonalities; another grows organically from the particular.''
In the essay “Pickles From Home” with the sub-title “Does The Ultimate Celebration Happen Only At Home?” the writer observes on Aravind Adiga's winning the Man Booker Prize: “Adiga accompanied his father to Australia immediately after his matriculation; [Bhimsen] Joshi went away to neighbouring Maharashtra in search of greater encouragement for his music; and Raja Rao went away to France for his literary sojourn. In the busy parts of their careers, they were rarely in touch with their ‘original homes' or ‘native places'; but yet the homes they left behind have not forgotten them. ...Their relatives, friends, teachers and classmates have been plucked out of nowhere to comment on their success; their preference for the local food; the jar of pickles that accompanied them in their long journeys across the world; their love for the Kannada language and of course, their pining sickness for home have all been reconstructed and recorded.”
The irony recorded within such situations is not to be missed. Bhimsen Joshi, Kannada-speaking and inextricably a part of the related cultural world, went out into the broader world of Hindustani music to win laurels as few did, after having first made Belgaum, and then Pune, his base. As for Raja Rao, whose poem in Kannada describing the glories of native culture, published in 1931 in Jaya Karnataka, he became an erudite, boring exponent of fiction in the English language with works such as Kanthapura and The Serpent and the Rope. Aravind Adiga, a fine journalist based in the West, despite the Man Booker Prize for his novel White Tiger, has not made any headway in the literary circles of England and the United States, perhaps because of a somewhat belated discovery that his fiction is a bit too journalistic.
There are essays on a variety of subjects. One is titled “A Writer's Habitat” and carries a sub-title “Does A Place Make A Writer?” He quotes his favourite Kannada poet D.R. Bendre, who, when asked why he had turned down an invitation to an international poets' meet in Geneva, answered, “My fights with folks in Shukravarpet [a street in Dharwad] are not yet over, what do I do in Geneva?” The same essay ends with the wry declaration: “Whether a writer roams the world or stays at home, he essentially seeks the universal in a small world around him.”
In “A Breathless Hate Machine” (with the subtitle “Is the IT State Of Karnataka The New Bastion Of Hindu Intolerance?”), Sugata states, “Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa's New Year card had a solemn wish. He hoped 2009 would be free of violence, hate and that peace would flourish. It now appears that it was purely a personal wish and not that of his government, party or the larger saffron parivar he belongs to.” There is trenchant criticism of the attacks on churches in the State in 2008 and the thrashing of women at the Amnesia Lounge Bar in Mangalore by votaries of “Hindu Rashtra”. Need one add that Mangalore is a town with a sizeable Christian population? Sugata understands the machinations of State politics very well. The 2008 attack has him responding thus: “When the attacks on churches broke out, it [the Bharatiya Janata Party] distanced itself from [its militant arm] the Bajrang Dal, which was seen as the major aggressor, and arrested its local chief, Mahendra Kumar.” He further explains, quoting a BJP leader from Udipi: “He was with us for 30 years, but he was sent out as he developed electoral ambitions and we found that his group was collecting hafta. In fact, the Congress funded him during the last Assembly polls to divide the BJP votes.”
The writer's insights into local politics give the reader food for thought; he/she may well ask, “Is this not the way politics works in India as a whole?” It is not merely a rhetorical question but a reflection of contemporary Indian political reality. The mendacity reflected in the BJP's actions in Karnataka under Yeddyurappa will find its mirror image in similar acts of deviousness indulged in by other political parties such as the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the (CPI-M), the two Janata Dals, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The bitter truth is that all Indian political parties are united in one common goal – corruption. It seems they have but one agenda, that of looting the nation.
Sugata's perception of Indian politics does flounder occasionally. He is right when he says in the essay “The Adivasi Precipice”: “A strong reason for the Maoists to cultivate the tribals is because they need to cohabit the dense forests.” However he is wrong when he opines, “Instead of the Maoists, if people from the Sangh Parivar were to engage the tribals in the jungles of Dantewada and Lalgarh, then perhaps the colour of their rebellion would be ‘saffron' instead of ‘red'.” First and foremost, the Sangh Parivar serves the interests of Hindu businessmen of the Baniya caste. The only goal of the Sangh Parivar is economic domination through political subjugation. The sole reason why it may be interested in the tribal people is to pauperise them by seizing their forests and lands in order to exploit the vast mineral wealth that lies beneath. Need one add that the BJP and like-minded organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have the covert backing of the U.S. because they could help further that country's commercial ambitions, and by extension, political influence? One must not forget that the BJP's primary aim is to serve the economic interests of upper-caste, upper-class Hindus in India. The U.S. government, with far reaching roots in capitalism, would find a perfect ally in the BJP.
Sugata is on firm ground when he deals with socio-cultural matters. In the moving piece on the mercurial Hindustani classical singer Bhimsen Joshi titled “Bhimsen Joshi : A Son Remembers”, his talent as a writer and translator blooms. The writer declares, “There was a surprise waiting to ambush me in the crowded labyrinths created by book stalls put up for the annual Kannada literary jamboree in Bangalore recently. The elderly Ramakant Joshi of Dharwad's Manohara Granthamala pulled me aside, took out a few folded sheets of paper from his cotton sling-bag, placed them in my hands and said : ‘You'll like this. I translated this into Kannada from the Marathi just yesterday.'” It was a poignant piece by Bhimsen Joshi's eldest son, Raghavendra Bhimsen Joshi, by his first wife Sunanda.
It would be an understatement to say that the singer was a bad husband and a bad father. In Sugata's translation, Raghavendra remembers him thus: “In your youth Sunanda had stood by you in every which way ...and Bhimanna, you had yourself built the mandap for your wedding. You had such rapturous love for my mother, Bhimanna, that for her plaits that flowed to her knees you brought a basket full of flowers.” After his father's funeral, Raghavendra recalls: “When we immersed the ashes in the Indrayani river, memories of immersing my mother's ashes came back to me intensely... Hey Bhimanna, you'll never abandon us and go away, will you?”
Sugata Srinivasaraju uses the English language in an unorthodox but highly expressive manner. In his essay on Gangubai Hangal, the great Hindustani classical singer, titled “Gangubai Hanagal: Anecdotal Life”, he says, “The two times I met her, I too gathered a sackful of stories to take home.” He then goes on to describe how Gangubai in her old age had become a virtual prisoner of her family. Manoj Hanagal, her grandson, wondered if his grandmother could not get the Bharat Ratna, now that Bhimsen Joshi had got it. “All I heard from Manoj was not stemming from an innocent pride in the colossus, but there was a cold calculation entwined. It saddened me immensely as to how in her old age Gangubai had become a prisoner of this young man's ambition and pettiness.”
The premise on which the book is based is captured in the subtitle “The World Of A Bilingual”. It must be remembered that those artistes who have succeeded in their chosen fields in independent India have been first fluent in their mother tongue before mastering English. Satyajit Ray's films reveal his intimate connection with the Bengali soil and its culture, as do his stories for adolescents. He was a Bengali first, then an Indian and an internationalist. His films ring true because they are rooted in a culture. Ray's contemporary, Ritwik Ghatak, was a brilliant short story writer in Bengali while still in his twenties. His pathbreaking films won him posthumous fame internationally because they were able to bridge the gap between the local and the universal. Sugata Srinivasaraju, a worthy bilingual, puts forward through his work the proposition that knowing your mother tongue well will help you understand the world you are rooted in and the culture that flowers from it, which in turn shall open the doors of perception while encountering other societies and cultures.
The author owes a huge debt to his father, Chi Srinivasaraju, of whom the obituary in The Hindu said, “There are persons who create a void in the cultural panorama of a community by their passing away and then there are those who create similar voids in the innermost recesses of individuals. Chi Srinivasaraju has at once created both of them.” His father's over-arching influence can be felt in every page of this volume and the earlier one, Keeping Faith With The Mother Tongue.
Sugata Srinivasaraju has a thoroughly modern sensibility, thanks largely to his father, of whom he says, “The basic orientation of my writing so far, its underpinning, has been hugely influenced by my father's humanism, his serenity, his atheism and his lifetime work for Kannada language and literature.”
This is a probing, highly enjoyable collection of essays to be enjoyed by most people.