Sri Aurobindo: Life is the first chapter from my book, The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature, published by Authorspress, New Delhi, in 2013. The Agony of Tribal Life (Published in book titled-PERSPECTIVES ON NEW LITERATURE: POSTCOLONIAL RESPONSES. Ed. Dr. R. Janatha Kumari & Mrs. Chitra Thrivikraman Nair). 2015. The Outsider Remains an Outsider For Ever (based on The Outsider by Albert Camus). One of the essays on which I have received Albert Camus Centenary Writing Award, 2013 from Canada /Cyprus) and Tagore’s Gitanjali-A Critical Approach (published in the IIS University-Journal of Arts; V-3, Issue-1, July 2014)
Sri Aurobindo: Life
Born at Calcutta on 15 August 1872, Sri Aurobindo was sent to Loreto School at Darjeeling at five and was sent with his two other elder brothers to England at the age of seven for studies. Sri Aurobindo was a brilliant student occupying highest positions and receiving medals. But he was averse to sports by nature. A book worm, he was highly esteemed as a classical scholar. His classical paper in Cambridge was examined by the famous Oscar Browning who once invited him to coffee and told, as Auro wrote to his father, “I suppose you know you passed an extraordinarily high examination. I have examined papers in thirteen examinations and I have never during that time (seen) such excellent papers as yours (meaning my classical paper at the scholarship examination). As for your essay, it was wonderful.” 1
The essay was a comparison between Milton and Shakespeare. After passing the first part he was to wait for another year to be eligible to sit for the final part of the Tripos as he passed it earlier than due time. He depended on scholarship only as his father’s remittances by then almost stopped. The three brothers spent most of their student days in hardship, sometimes to an extreme extent. While studying and writing poetry he joined the Indian Majlis, an Indian organization seeking freedom, and later became its secretary. He also joined the secret society, ‘Lotus and Dagger’.
Out of his patriotism he joined organizations of Indians and was reluctant to join the I. C. S. though he passed it with record marks in classical papers and had a good overall position, 11th, as he passed it. He became lazy and never appeared for the riding test. Though he could be selected pending his riding test and such precedents were there, the authorities took note of his anti-imperial attitude and never selected him. So he fulfilled the wishes of his father to compete for the I. C. S. but never joined for the above causes and for his dislike for the administrative post.
Back to India he joined the Baroda State service and maintained a good relationship with the Gaekwad of Baroda till the last, in June 1906, when he came to Calcutta to actively take part in the Freedom Movement. Not only a professor of English and French, he worked sometime as Maharaja’s secretary and as the Vice Principle of the College. At Baroda he studied a lot and wrote volumes or poetry and translations from Indian classics, even after learning most of the Indian languages after homecoming. He mastered some half a dozen Indian languages including Sanskrit and Vedic as he had mastered similar numbers of European languages while living there, including Latin and Greek. During the time he joined secret revolutionary group and took one of the leading parts in it and wrote series of fiery articles in ‘Indu Prakash’ in pseudonym.
As a politician he always remained in the background until the rulers arrested and kept him as an under trial prisoner in Alipore Bomb case. He was the first to repeatedly demand total freedom as the political goal of the country in the pages of Bande Mataram.
While in England he was well acquainted with the European history and thought, revolutionary ideas and deeds; Shelley’s Revolt of Islam moved him to some extent. By the time he was in politics his ideal was Indian freedom based on its spirituality. It seemed as if he was born with it. He was a pioneer in spreading Spiritual Nationalism as a practical path breaker on the way to freedom, taking inspiration mainly from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Anandamath. Swami Vivekananda too was an example before him. His spiritualism at that time was based mainly on Hindu scriptures, Hindu ideals and the age old practices, confirmed by his own experiences. Naturally he could not or would not bring in other religions in the scheme of spiritual nationalism which grew spontaneously according to the ethos of the time.
What this religion is he described in full details in his Uttarpara speech on 30 May 1909. According to this, this religion is older than the Hindu religion which is a combination of many faiths. This originated in the Vedas, the oldest source of religion, known as the Sanatan Dharma which he always believed would raise the Indian Nation and along with it the whole world. Though India was divided in many kingdoms and feuds, it was united by this Sanatan Dharma and by its age old culture. India was invaded number of times by foreign forces. While most of them ravished her and left, some remained even after that with their culture and religion. India absorbed all, assimilated all. Even when large number of the countrymen embraced other religions mostly under compulsive situations, India remained one. Sri Aurobindo always stressed on this unity even after it was divided. His Uttarpara Speech was the revelation of his spiritual Self, its experiences and the hope that India would rise again at the behest of Sanatan Dharma. It would remain united.
In his time Hindu Muslim conflict was not so serious. But he observed that the rulers made all possible efforts to divide the minds of the two peoples and were successful in dividing Bengal. He never accepted the situation. The settled fact of division was unsettled; Bengal was united again in 1912 as a result of tremendous anti-partition movement beginning in 1905 when Bengal was divided. He never accepted the constitutional reform proposed by Lord Morley. Throughout the length of different issues of ‘Karmayogin’ he stressed on the subject of unity from time to time.
“In any case it cannot outweigh, however full it may be, the disastrous character of the principle of separate electorates introduced by Lord Morley, intentionally or unintentionally, as the thin end of a wedge which, when driven well home, will break our growing nationality into a hundred jarring pieces.” 2
“We will be no party to a distinction which recognises Hindu and Mahomedan as permanently separate political units and thus precludes the growth of a single and indivisible Indian nation.” 3 Before his eyes this division between the two communities began with the ploy and patronage of the imperial lords. He never thought of any division or partition of Mother India. He wished a way to undo this division of minds:
“We must strive to remove the causes of misunderstanding by a better mutual knowledge and sympathy; we must extend the unfaltering love of the patriot to our Musulman brother, remembering always that in him too Narayana dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom; but we must cease to approach him falsely or flatter out of a selfish weakness and cowardice.” 4
He not only advocated revolt but formulated theories through series of writings in the papers edited by him on such important actions like Boycott, Passive Resistance and non cooperation on which the freedom movement was built later. Lord Edward Baker, the Lt. Governor of Bengal wrote to Lord Minto the Viceroy of India that he attributed the spread of seditious doctrines to him personally in Bengal or possibly in India. He also wrote that though he escaped conviction in the Alipur case, it was beyond doubt that his influence was pernicious in the extreme. And Minto mentioned Aurobindo as the most dangerous man in India in one of his letters to Mr. Morley of India Office. But the Secretary of State wrote to the New Viceroy that though Aurobindo might be a dangerous man he was well-known in England who was looked on as a high-souled enthusiast, averse to crime and that he ought not to have been attacked without the clearest proof. Sir Ramsay Macdonald, the next Prime Minister of England, himself fought for Aurobindo Ghose in British Parliament with his colleague.
He was jailed at Alipur for one year and was acquitted as no charge against him was proved, on 6 May of 1909. He was the de facto editor of ‘Bande Mataram’, a nationalist paper and patron of the fiery Bengali ‘Jugantar’ but after the jail term he founded as editor the English ‘Karmayogin’ and Bengali ‘Dharma’. His fiery writing and speeches with other revolutionary zeal and activities continued. He was least afraid of the Government and of punishment. The Government was trying to deport him. He avoided arrest by issuing open letters in the Press on 31 July and 25 December 1909. But when he was going to be arrested again with fatal intention, he absconded to Chandernagore, as it was called then, most probably on 21 February 1910 and sailed at the beginning of April 1910 incognito to Pondicherry; both the movements were taken as per the exigencies of time and at the same time in adherence to the Divine Call or Adesha, as he later explained. While he was absconding, he wrote letter in Karmayogin, then edited by Sister Nivedita. The last warrant on charge of sedition was issued to him on 4 April 1910 when he reached Pondicherry but ironically, the Government failed in this last case also. He was judged innocent.
He arrived on the shore of the ancient town, then under French occupation, at 4 a.m. on the fourth day of the fourth month of 1910. Four is the symbol of square, completeness and supramental consciousness. Sri Aurobindo’s arrival signified all this. The next year on 12.7.1911 Sri Aurobindo wrote in a letter, “I need some place of refuge in which I can complete my Yoga unassailed and build up other souls around me. It seems that Pondicherry is the place appointed by those who are Beyond . . .”
Almost at the beginning of his yoga, words came to him in a silent mind without any thought. He wrote lines after lines, pages after pages of poem and prose without thinking. Long before he uttered the words, ‘All life is yoga’, he had carried the faith in the core of his heart. Rules and rituals were otiose for him. According to him, yoga was psychological, an entirely inner movement. So he never performed any puja with all rituals. He had no Guru, other than some helpers. The Maharashtrian yogi V. B. Lele was one who had taught him to blank his mind but the result was so astonishing that he himself advised him to depend on God alone. Lele left him finally when he learnt that Sri Aurobindo had not been following any routine as advised by him, as he was then in the thick of a stormy political life.
Mother was the witness that Sri Aurobindo never used to sit cross-legged. “I lived with Sri Aurobindo, who never used to sit cross-legged. He told me right away that it was all a question of habits- subconscious habits. It has no importance whatsoever. And how well he explained: if a posture is necessary for you, it will come by itself.” 5 Mother said. It is known that he used to meditate while walking speedily in his rooms with flowing hairs dancing on his shoulders for hours, sometimes extending to 12/13 hours at a stretch. But he never closed his eyes. They were kept open even when he had visions extraordinary. Samadhi is trance, which a saint or yogi attains usually after many years of rigorous sadhana. Mother said on Sri Aurobindo’s words that he never had a Samadhi in his body. But after his passing his body was placed in Samadhi.
During his life span of approximately 78 years, 3 months and 19 days, he lived mainly in four corners of the globe: Bengal (about 10 years and 5 months), England (about 13 years and 6 months), Baroda (about 13 years and 4 months) and Pondicherry (about 40 years and 8 months), besides his stay in ships, trains and other modes of conveyance. Wherever he lived, in spite of many inconveniences, troubles and hardships, he lived most simply, without any luxury or comfort. He did not seek any such thing. He rejoiced all the houses he lived in and prepared himself inwardly for the great mission for which he had arrived on earth. He was attached to none. None he disliked. He discarded them quite inevitably, as one discards his worn out dresses.
In Pondicherry he remained leaving all direct touches with politics and devoted himself to inner adventure through Yogic practices. He attained Yoga Siddhi on 24 November 1926 and then devoted himself entirely to the realisation of the Supramental consciousness and force, remaining strictly isolated from public view, in a room and adjoining space for long 24 years after which he gave up his body in response to a call for the descent of the Supramental force which he considered more valuable than his body, on the 5 December 1950 to hasten the Supramental manifestation on earth. The golden light was seen on his body after his passing for another five days.
The place where his Ashram is situated now was once the ancient Vedic teaching centre established by Rishi Agastya. It was his ashram, wrote the French architect and scholar, Jouveau Dubreuil.
Even long after the partition and freedom when his student at Baroda and the then Governor of U.P., K. M. Munshi visited him in July 1950 wrote, “Sri Aurobindo was my professor in the Baroda College, and his militant nationalism of 1904 moulded my early outlook. . . .
“When I visited him, after a lapse of more than 40 years, I saw before me a being completely transformed: radiant, blissful, enveloped in an atmosphere of godlike calm. He spoke in a low, clear voice, which stirred the depths of my being. . . .
“The master smiled, ‘India will be re-united. I see it clearly.’”
Munshi had all doubts. He questioned in his article , “Was it an opinion? Or a prophesy? Or was it clear perception?” 6
The efforts to get India united was made by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in their ways but the leaders did not understand them, did not accept them. Time has passed but the actual time none has prescribed.
Even in Yoga he never forgot his country and mission to see it freed, undivided. We remember again and again, what great it would be to accept the offer of the Cabinet Mission through Sir Stafford Cripps in 1942. The country would not be divided. We can’t share the great wisdom of the then great leaders who refused to accept Sri Aurobindo’s suggestion sent through his emissary to them to accept the Cripps Mission to avoid the partition. This was regretted later by Munshi and some other leaders. Neither the Quit India movement was non-violent nor was it the singular action to bring the truncated freedom of the country. The most was made towards achieving freedom at the end by the influence of Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose for what it did and what it could not do, for finally galvanizing the whole of India and its army. A proper study of history beyond the official version will make everything crystal clear.
“The vast world of knowledge he had possessed remains unparalleled. He has himself admitted to us that what he knows will remain untold even if he goes on writing for twelve years. We asked him, ‘Will all that knowledge remain unknown to us and posterity?’ ‘Learn first of all what I have written,’ he replied with a sweet smile, and added, ‘I am afraid I have come perhaps before my time.’ Comes to mind a mighty line from one of his poems: ‘I have drunk the Infinite like a giant’s wine.’ Only with the help of such a Wine could he have given to India and the world his four major contributions: a national awakening and fiery thirst for total independence, a new and deeper interpretation of the Vedas, the rediscovery of the Supermind, and a life-embracing system of Integral Yoga.
“The question that makes us marvel with wonder is how within a short span of years he could gather so vast a knowledge, and even record it, which would need at least a hundred years. The Mother holds an answer to that enigma. She said that he had only to sit before the typewriter and knowledge would pour down like a stream from above.
And is it only knowledge? What about the beauty of expression, perfection of style and masterly composition?
“If this is about the Man of Knowledge, what about the human being he was? What has he not done for the human race? We know he sacrificed his inestimable life for the incalculable benefit of man. In the Mother’s revelation to Dr. Sanyal, a famous surgeon who was called to treat Sri Aurobindo, ‘People do not know what a tremendous sacrifice he has made for the world. About a year ago, while I was discussing things I remarked that I felt like leaving the body. He spoke out in a firm tone, ‘No, this can never be. If necessary for the transformation I might go, you will have to fulfil our yoga of supramental descent and transformation’.” 7
All the religions of the world through their ritualistic practices and ideas ultimately show the door beyond the universe; either transcendent beyond into a heaven or to a final cessation in Nirvana. It was Sri Aurobindo first who pointed out the mistake telling that if the created world of which we are a part was not a mistake, to think that the intention of such creation was ultimately to go beyond it, in its dissolution, is certainly a mistake for the creation was not made by man hence he cannot decide its end. Someone audaciously puts the sentence like this: “He even had the chutzpah to say it was a mistake made by the likes of Shankara and the Buddha.” Sri Aurobindo gave a grand plan, explaining the course of evolution of consciousness, of co-operating with the Nature, channeling the path of desire to higher ends of life through Integral Yoga to attend a harmonious life on earth through no escape route but through ceaseless, dynamic expressions of harmony and unity with Nature and creation, uniting with the divine in a divine life.
Rabindranath Tagore saluted Sri Aurobindo in his youth as a leader of Indian Freedom Movement by a famous poem, “Salutation”. He again met him at his abode in Pondicherry on 29 May 1928 and wrote- “At the very first sight I could realize that he had been seeking for the soul and had gained it . . . . His face was radiant with an inner light. . . .
“I felt that the utterance of the ancient Hindu Rishi spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom of entrance to the All. I said to him, ‘You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world, ‘Hearken to me.’”
And Romain Rolland wrote, “The last of the great Rishis hold in his hand, in firm unrelaxed grip, the bow of creative energy.”
Times Literary Supplement, London: July 1944 wrote the following few words in its lengthy write up titled, “Prophet of Life Divine”.
“Of all modern Indian writers Aurobindo- successively poet, critic, scholar, thinker, nationalist, humanist- is the most significant and perhaps the most interesting. . . . .
“As an Indian scholar and critic he is second to none. . . . Like Coleridge and Heine he displays a piercing and almost instantaneous insight into the heart of his subject. . . .
“Aurobindo we see, is neither East-bound nor West-bound. . . .
“The Life Divine, which, it is not too much to say, is one of the master-works of our age. The book has length, breadth and height. In a sense it enriches our experience. . . . creating round us wide circles of peace. . . .
“Aurobindo is no visionary. He has always acted his dreams. ‘Truth of philosophy,’ he has said, ‘is of a merely theoretical value unless it can be lived. . .
“Long before others he spoke of ‘One World’.”
The name of Sri Aurobindo was proposed for the award of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 by Madam Gabriela Mistral, the Nobel Laureate of Chile and seconded by Miss Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Laureate of the United States of America. The statement supporting Sri Aurobindo’s nomination was signed by many leading citizens of India.
- R. Das, the great Indian leader and barrister of the time who pleaded for Sri Aurobindo in the Alipore conspiracy case in 1909, uttered the following words in his lengthy last speech, “. . . .long after the controversy will be hushed in silence, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed, not only in India, but across distant seas and lands. Therefore, I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court, but before the bar of the High Court of History.”
A Bengali, an Indian of average height with brownish complexion, not at all stylish in dress and habits though brought up in England, Aurobindo Akroyd Ghose became Sri Aurobindo finally. In due course the glow of his body changed entirely, to golden complexion and there was a puff of lotus smell sometimes from the body of a being completely transformed even outwardly, that is what many eyewitnesses testified visiting him after long years. How transformed inwardly he was is beyond any measure of the commoners. He became a Yogi and mystic.
So many sides of his personality and genius were beyond the comprehension of an average intelligent man. We get ample proof of his humour, satire and joke through his writings, letters specially, but outwardly he never rollicked, laughed loudly or perhaps smiled on rare occasions. Usually reticent, such a person might become an enigma to many others. But considering the Himalayan heights of his personality those who did not wish to fall in with him paid him respect from a distance and those who did not like his spiritualism without rituals or religious practices, avoided him. Some smelled rat when he suddenly gave up politics, called him ‘escapist’ but they failed to gauge his steps based on his personal development as they lived in dissimilar planes or dissimilar consciousness, as the materialists denied anything spiritual. There were critics among his colleagues and contemporaries like Hem Chandra Kanungo (Das) and Shibram Chakraborty, some were disproportionately zealous of him without a cause for their matching him or competing with him does not arise. Those who tasted his literature or loved him as a patriot and leader always moved about him. There were many who revered him to the most for his selfless love and sacrifice for the country, for his tremendous fit in different areas of knowledge, for his journalistic and literary works. Hs students liked him most and always remembered him with reverence. He became very popular in his time.
One who so much loved his own idealism like a Raja Rao, fallen in love with Advaita Vedanta, taught and tried to live in its shadow, thought that Sri Shankara’s ideas were at the summit of human thought, that there could not be anything beyond Advaita Vedanta, was shocked to learn of Sri Aurobindo’s radical views. He visited the Ashram in 1939 and met the Mother but how could he think that a Superman was the ideal of Sri Aurobindo and that he built upon it his futuristic theory of Divine Life?
He wrote, “The Superman is our enemy. Look what happened in India. Sri Aurobindo wanted, if you please, to improve on the Advaita of Sri Sankara- which was just like trying to improve on the numerical status of zero. . . . all philosophies are possible in and around Vedanta . . . . The Superman is the enemy of man- whether you call him Zarathustra, Sri Aurobindo, Stalin or Father Zossima.” 8
Sri Aurobindo categorically distinguished between the Supramental consciousness and the Superman as constructed by Nietzsche. Sri Aurobindo analysed different divisions of human mind and planes of consciousness in his ‘Synthesis of Yoga’. He did not build several stories of his philosophy. Even the story of Sri Aurobindo’s passing was not possibly known to Raja Rao so he thought that he might have died as any other in the same way. But differences of ideas, beliefs and thoughts remain and must remain as a way to human progress until man achieves Divine Life and Consciousness.
Besides politics, there are people who try to derecognise his castles of philosophy, poetry and literature, his achievement in yoga and his teachings with their petty mind and puny ideas, being zealous with disbelief , unable to comprehend how an average man (in their eyes) could reach such a gigantic height. Sri Aurobindo himself said that since he as a man could achieve them, any other with efforts could achieve them. Some one among them has tried to prove that he was a lunatic, taking clue from his family links, etc. We can not call it their ignorance for they too have some dark knowledge to proceed with but that is so limited and stunted that they prove themselves ridiculous in the end. Finally it proves to be their unhealthy mindset to try to do something so beyond their reach, a proof of their insanity. A mad may perhaps rationally think, how can one reach such heights unless he or she is mad like me?
Our attention is drawn to another side of this game of reading or rereading Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo does not attract the attention of average Indians as much as it did in colonial India. The reason has been found by some scholars to be that independence has blunted the edge of Indian Nationalism which had been sharpened by the humiliating and exploitative character of the British rule. Of late Nationalism has been relegated to the background and that must be the reason of so much of corruption and self assertion on one hand and exodus of brilliant Indian youth on the other hand. Sometimes a distorted Nationalism rises up still when India is attacked or is at war as it happened in 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999. The result is a decline of interest in the cultural wellsprings that to a large extent defined the national identity of a vast majority of Indians.
While studying Sri Aurobindo we have to study many others around him, many side issues concerning him as a man for he is a part of History. He was a mystic and yogi besides other things so a complete discussion of him has to take into account such things which are not in accord with the science but that does not mean that he was lacking scientific mentality. Each yogic action he verified with a precision which may surpass that of a scientist. Even science is human speculation which changes with subsequent discoveries; no theory can stand in its earlier place permanently. Professor Gabriel Monod-Herzen, the well-known French physicist, once explained that Sri Aurobindo embodied for him the quintessence of the scientific spirit for he rejects none, no ideas, for there is a place for all opinions, even those which he does not accept and he admits that particle of truth exists in everything because without it that opinion itself could not exist. Sri Aurobindo asserted that ignorance is not absence of knowledge but incomplete knowledge.
According to Aerodynamic laws the Bumblebee cannot fly as its body weight is not in right proportion to its wingspan. But they do fly at ease according to a science which is superior to human scientific views. So a yogi’s life may not be caught by the scientific biographical views. Every opinion about a man is usually coloured by some element of subjective assessment of the viewer. Unless it is too apparent it cannot be said that such views are not scientific. Perhaps in most cases the word hagiography is applied to a biography which does not suit the purpose of a critic who holds an opposite view which to him or to some of his group may be scientific but actually is not so.
1 The Life of Sri Aurobindo. A. B. Purani. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1978. p. 22
2 Karmayogin- No. 13, dated-18.9.09. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library.V-2. p. 202
3 Karmayogin- No. 18, dated 6.11. 1909. V.2 p.246
4 Under the title, “Swaraj and the Musulmans.” Published in ‘Karmayogin’. Vol.2. p.24
5 Mother’s Agenda. Paris; Institut de Recherches Evolutive. V-4. p.133
6 Sri Aurobindo- A Pilgrimage. The Hindusthan Times. August 15, 1952.
7 Nirodbaran. ‘Jyoti’ No. 3 (1999) – the online journal of the Sri Aurobindo Center: EWCC – Los Angeles.
8 The Serpent and the Rope: The Best of Raja Rao. New Delhi; Katha. 1998. pp. 70-71
The Outsider Remains an Outsider For Ever
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913, the year poet Rabindranath Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize. Camus was in Algeria for many years. Among his jobs he was a footballer too before settling in France as a journalist and editor of “Combat”. He was an active member of the Resistance Movement against the German occupation during the Second World War. After writing two dramas he wrote his debut novel, L’Etranger or The Outsider in 1942, which brought him immediate fame. Camus, an Algerian French citizen but domicile of North Africa, supposed to be an home du midi but he was hardly so. He did not carry the traditional French culture but the ethos of Roman Empire in the decaying dynasties of Turk and Moor; decaying Latin civilisation in sultry African corner, according to Cyril Connolly, the introducer of the novel in its first English edition in 1946.
The whole story is narrated by the hero of the novel, Meursault, in the first person. If we are careful we can observe the attitude of the hero towards others in the society, towards himself and to God, as narrated by him. The story begins with the news of death of his mother. He takes leave and goes to the Home, some 50 km away, by bus and becomes very tired by the time he reaches there. He arranged for his mother’s stay at the Home and bore the expenses for her. The story flows through the chapters revealing telling aspects of his own character, the character of the accused.
Attitude towards his dead mother
He was sitting before the coffin of his mother in a room, alone. The lid of the box was purposely not tightened so as to help him see her for the last time but he said ‘No’ to the helpers’ astonishment when they offered to open it. The door porter was with him, coming and going before his retirement for the night. After the fall of evening lamps were switched on. He declined to take dinner as proposed by the door porter. “But I was not hungry. Then he proposed bringing me a mug of café au lait. As I am very fond of café au lait I said, ‘Thanks’, and a few minutes later he came back with a tray. I drank the coffee, and then I wanted a cigarette. But I wasn’t sure if I should smoke, under the circumstances-in Mother’s presence. I thought it over; really it didn’t seem to matter, so I offered the porter a cigarette and we both smoked.” (Outsider/18)
Apathy towards bringing a Change in life
“My employer sent for me . . . . It was to open a branch at Paris, so as to be able to deal with the big companies on the spot, without postal delays, and he wanted to know if I’d like a post there.
“‘You’re young man,’ he said, ‘and I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy living in Paris. And, of course, you could travel about France for some months in the year.’
“I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.
“He then asked if a ‘change of life’, as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed one’s real life; anyhow, one life was as good as another and my present one suited me quite well.” (Outsider/ 47-48)
Relationship with the lover
“Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.
“Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question means nothing or next to nothing- but I supposed I didn’t.
“‘If that’s how you feel,’ she said, ‘why marry me?’
“I explained that it had no importance really but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that anyhow the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said, ‘Yes.’
“Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.
“To which I answered: ‘No.’
“She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked,
“‘Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her- I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me- would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?’
“Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being ‘a queer fellow’. ‘And I dare say that’s why I love you,’ she added, ‘But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.’
“To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.
“She thought for a bit, then started smiling, and, taking my arm, repeated that she was in earnest; she really wanted to marry me.” (Outsider/48-49)
Meursault gets acquainted with Raymond of the same house where he lived and agrees to be his friend, to help him in writing a letter to his girl friend to avenge her misbehavior as he complained, in spite of the fact that he is a man of doubtful character, a pimp and fighter in the underworld. Raymond entertains him with food. He helps Raymond by pleading in his favour to the police. With him he goes to the sea accompanied by his girl friend; a pleasure trip. After some skirmish with the enemies of Raymond who gets injured, he goes to the sea alone after lunch for no apparent reason and meets one of the men they had encounter with. He had Raymond’s revolver with him as he asked for it.
The fatal moment
“On seeing me the Arab raised himself a little and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat-haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpse of his eyes glowing between the half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding fiercely as ever on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.
“It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps towards the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.
“I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks, beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations- especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I shouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up towards me, athwart the sunlight.
“A shaft of light shot upwards from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded: I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
“Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whip-crack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.” (Outsider/63-64)
This narration of the incident or accident is very crucial from the narrator’s point of view helping the readers to fully understand him. Though through this we understand that the Sun and its heat had the compelling effect on him to commit the crime, at the same time we find a rational man’s confession of committing a crime deliberately. Here the writer has presented the open heart of a person without a glitch, without any concealment or any cunning approach towards the subject. If we just cull the following lines from it, we find that the person is admitting his guilt:
“It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. . . .
“I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I shouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up towards me, athwart the sunlight. . . .
“I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy.” (Outsider/63-64)
He was arrested and kept in prison. The case began.
Casual approach to things of serious import like life and death questions
In the court when Meursault’s girl friend is called for witness, the prisoner whose fate depends on her replies to a good extent observes, “It was Marie’s turn next. She had a hat on, and still looked pretty, though I much preferred her with her hair free. From where I was I had glimpses of the soft curves of her breasts, and her under lip had the little pout that always fascinated me. She appeared very nervous.” (Outsider/94)
By all cunning questions exerting pressure on the witness before the public the prosecutor got the confessions from the nervous girl of what had happened between her and the prisoner. After this the prosecutor triumphantly declared before the judges, “Gentlemen of the jury, I would have you note that on the next day after his mother’s funeral that man was visiting the swimming- pool, starting liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film. That is all I wish to say.” (Outsider/95)
Here are the prosecutor’s charges as summed up by the prisoner himself : “He began by summing up the facts, from my mother’s death onwards. He stressed my heartlessness, my inability to state Mother’s age, my visit to the bathing-pool where I met Marie, our matinee at the pictures where a Fernandel film was showing, and finally my return with Marie to my rooms. . . . Then he came to the subject of Raymond. It seemed to me that his way of treating the facts showed a certain shrewdness. All he said sounded quite plausible. I’d written the letter in collusion with Raymond so as to entice his mistress to his room and subject her to ill-treatment by a man ‘of more than dubious reputation’. Then, on the beach, I’d provoked a brawl with Raymond’s enemies, in the course of which Raymond was wounded. I’d asked him for his revolver and gone back myself with the intention of using it. Then I’d shot the Arab. After the first shot I waited. Then, ‘to be certain of making a good job of it’, I fired four more shots deliberately, point blank and in cold blood, at my victim.” (Outsider/100)
Even in Jail his carnal attitude supported his status as prisoner
While in jail the prisoner is engaged in erotic retrospection: “Those first months were trying, of course; but the very effort I had to make helped me through them. For instance, I was plagued by the desire for a woman-which was natural enough, considering my age. I never thought of Marie especially. I was obsessed by thoughts of this woman or that, of all the ones I’d had, all the circumstances under which I’d loved them; so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled me, no doubt; but, at least, it served to kill time.” (Outsider/80)
The old passion kept him alive with new passion and it was described by the chief goaler in a slanting way though he might have wished to put it straight, “‘Liberty,’ he said, ‘means that. ‘You’re being deprived of your liberty.’ It had never before struck me in that light, but I saw the point. ‘That’s true,’ I said, ‘Otherwise it wouldn’t be a punishment.’”
Through all these the writer is showing the inner side of an ordinary man troubled by different weaknesses and consequent thoughts. The real punishment was still to be pronounced by the judge and bench of the jury combined; punishment of death by guillotine. Here comes the question of real liberty, real imprisonment. We are imprisoned by our own weakness inside. Though lustfulness may be natural in a living being, a man of some real worth by dint of his higher status compared to the animals overcomes lustfulness in trying circumstances.
When spiritualism was the weapon of the Indian freedom fighters seeking liberation for the country they were least affected by lustfulness. There have been examples of prisoners like Kanailal Dutta in Alipore Jail Case, sentenced to death in1908, whose body weight gained 16 pounds between the declaration of punishment of death by hanging and the actual execution of the order and his facial expression changed days before the hanging took place. This may be a rare example but large numbers of prisoners at that time and many revolutionaries many times in different countries were completely free from carnal weakness because different types of calls from life and different situations took them to a different serious field of thought, to a different plane where life and death is much bigger issue than involving in that though “natural enough” lustfulness as the narrator explains as quoted above. (Outsider/80)
Attitude to life and God
When condemned to death everyone who could approach him expressed sympathy but of no use, he knew. The prisoner wished to remain alone only with his thoughts. But the prison chaplain wished to come to him to give him divine solace, to prepare him for the fatal time. He persistently refused to see him but finally the chaplain made his way into the prisoner’s solitary cell. He tried his best to convince the prisoner about the existence of God and man’s ultimate dependence on him, as per the Christian belief. During his conversation with the chaplain,
“I explained that I didn’t believe in God.
“‘Are you really so sure of that?’
“I said I saw no point in troubling my head about the matter; whether I believed or didn’t was, to my mind, a question of so little importance.” (Outsider/114)
When the prisoner said that he had fear, the chaplain consoled, “‘In that case,’ he said firmly, ‘God can help you. All the men I’ve seen in your position turned to Him in their time of trouble.’
“‘Obviously’, I replied, ‘they were at liberty to do so, if they felt like it. I however, didn’t want to be helped, and I hadn’t time to work up interest for something that didn’t interest me.’”
Then, “‘I went close up to him and made a last attempt to explain that I’d very little time left, and I wasn’t going to waste it on God.’(Outsider/117)
The Chaplain very regretted as to why he did not address him as ‘father’ which irritated the prisoner and he said that he was on the other side, he was never his father. At this the priest came close to him and lay his hand on his shoulder which further infuriated him and taking the chaplain by the neckband of his cassock he poured all insults on him and at the top of his voice abused him. Here, while the priest was still in his room, half dead, and was not sure of himself, the prisoner felt sure of himself and his time.
“None of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair . . . . Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into- just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. . . . From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing towards me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through.” (Outsider/118)
The prisoner was of the view that whatever he would have done he would meet the same fate, death, as everyone else would meet, whether privileged or otherwise in this life. So there was no value at all whether one lived this way or the other. This is further confirmed by his assertion that “From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing towards me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.” (Outsider/118)
He shouted so much that he was out of breath and the wardens entered his room and was going to strike him but the priest calmed them down and left the room with tears in his eyes.
Exhausted, the prisoner slept for some time. When he woke up, stars were shining down his face. “Sounds of the countryside came faintly in, and the cool night air, veined with smells of earth and salt, fanned my cheeks. The marvelous peace of the sleep bound summer night flooded through me like a tide. Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me, for ever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a ‘fiance’; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I too felt ready to start life over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained was to hope that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.” (Outsider/119-120)
Critique of the novel
Cyril Connolly, the introducer of the book writes, “Sartre, asked in a recent interview if his friend Camus is also an ‘existentialist’, replied, ‘No. That’s a grave misconception . . . . his true masters are the French moralists of the seventeenth century. He is a classical Mediterranean. I would call his pessimism “solar” if you remember how much black there is in the sun. The philosophy of Camus is a philosophy of the absurd, and for him the absurd springs from the relation of man to the world, of his legitimate aspirations to the vanity and futility of human wishes. The conclusion which he draws from it are those of classical pessimism.’” (Outsider-Introduction/6)
The introducer continues, “In 1936 and 1937 Camus wrote two or three essays which have since been reprinted as Le Noces. No writer can avoid in his first essays the mention of the themes which are crystallizing for his later work.” (Outsider-Introduction/6) He goes on to say that they are “A passionate love for Algiers and for the harsh meridional ecstasy which youth enjoys there, and also an anger and defiance of death and of our northern emphasis upon it. These are the two keys to The Outsider.” (Outsider-Introduction/6)
The introducer then quotes from his essay, “Summer in Algiers”- “In Algiers, for those who are young and alive, everything is their haven and an occasion for excelling- the bay, the sun, the red and white checkerboard of terraces going down to the sea, the flowers and stadiums, the fresh brown bodies . . . . But for those whose youth is past no place exists, no sanctuary to absorb their melancholy.” (Outsider-Introduction/7)
Meursault, the protagonist of the novel, the introducer says, “represents the neo-pagan, a reversion to Mediterranean man . . . . He is sensual and well meaning, profoundly in love with life . . . The misfortune into which he is led by his lazy desire to please and by his stubborn truthfulness gradually force the felt but unspoken philosophy of his existence to emerge into the open, and finally to express itself in words.” (Outsider-Introduction/ 8)
“In his essay on the ‘Roman Ruins of the Djemila’ he makes clear how much he admires the fortitude of the pagan ending, even as he shares the sure-set pagan passion for life. ‘What does eternity matter to me? To lose the touch of flowers and women’s hands is the supreme separation.’ . . . in his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ he introduces his conceptions of the absurd. ‘Everything which exalts life adds at the same time to its absurdity,’ he says in ‘Summer in Algiers.’” (Outsider-Introduction/8)
“In his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ referred above, the writer says “the Man under Sentence of Death is freer than the suicide-than the man who takes his own life.” (Outsider-Introduction /8) The writer believes that the condemned man has the chance to rise above the society which has condemned him and by his courage and intellectual liberation to nullify it.
Connolly, in explaining the “Outsider” issue writes, “The Bourgeois Machinery with its decaying Christian morality, and bureaucratic self-righteousness, which condemns the Outsider just because he is so foreign to it, is typical of a European code of Justice applied to a non-European people. A few hundred miles further south and ‘a touch of the Sun’ would have been readily recognized, no doubt, as a cause for acquittal, in the case of a white man accused of murdering a native, but part of the rigidity of the moribund French court is the pompous assumption that Algiers is France.” (Outsider-Introduction/ 9)
Through the introducer we know the basis of the writer’s attitude to life: “What does eternity matter to me? To lose the touch of flowers and women’s hands is the supreme separation.” (Myth of Sisyphus/ Introduction) It may be taken to be the symbol of Algerian youth. Whether it is Mediterranean or Neo-Pagan way of life does not concern us much as long as we can see the characters in the novel. We can justify our critique on the basis of that. The writer’s philosophy of the absurd and inherent pessimism are facts evident in the novel.
By analyzing the story we see that the man behind the bar had no real love for woman but insatiable lust for them. “None of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair,” (Outsider/118) the protagonist states while mentioning the futility of the priest’s certainty. See how there were crowd of women’s faces floating in his cell coming out of his day-dreaming as he remembered them lustfully. He considers woman too trifle, an instrument of pleasure. It is not only that he lacked the usual respect for his own mother, lacked the feelings of love and gratitude for her as a son but also the usual respect and grief for the mother as dead. As a young man he did not welcome a change in posting and position which must be taken as a token of his love for Algeria, truer is his conviction that nothing brings a real change. His indifference towards everything is quite discernible. One is not bound to have faith on God but in a society one ought to show respect to others’ feeling and beliefs. Let whatever Sartre had said about his friend, in Meursault we find a man who is most concerned about himself in the world and indifferent to others, to the whole world. True that he loved life in enjoying the nature around but for man he had little concern. Not very eager, as it seems from the story, to save himself from the impending disaster, the condemned man tells the truth and does not take very effective stand to help his counsel who was appointed by the Government to help him as he did not care to have a counsel for him. Telling truth is very good but in his case extenuating circumstances were equally true but the prisoner does not care much about it as he is indifferent in his own case too which would give him freedom.
Ideas clash, even my own ideas clash with the emerging thoughts in me necessitated by the circumstances. The protagonist of the story is so sure of everything but his life depended on fate. He said that he did not wish to kill the Arab but the extenuating position of the sun and the dagger dazzling in it and the sweat about his face blinding him were the confusing causes impelling his hand’s sudden pressure on the trigger of the revolver. Then he shot four times more, the reason for which he could not explain to the juries in the court. He could not explain why he visited the spot again alone with Raymond’s revolver in his pocket which he asked for earlier. “I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other,” (Outsider/103) he explained later about his answer in the court as the judge asked his reaction to prosecutor’s charges. He admitted most of the charges as framed by the prosecutor as the prosecutor was very shrewd and framed his charges on the basis of evidences supported by the witnesses. All witnesses who were in prisoner’s favour proved futile; not being able to answer certain questions about the causes for some actions by the prisoner, they pleaded that they were coincidences which led to the murder; the main charge against the prisoner.
Now that he is condemned to death it seems certain that he would be executed. He is sure of it but a little before he was cultivating an idea of escaping at the last moment: The Miracle! How could his mother know, as the son was thinking, that she made a fiancé knowing full well that she would die soon? Her friendship with a man must have been considered a prop to live on at her old age when her son was so indifferent to her. He greets the benign indifference of the universe and yet feels it brotherly to him. Is it by affinity of their circumstances? Universe stands in its own place; only the course of life of the prisoner has taken a definite turn when he has become indifferent to everything else. The last chapter of the novel as it is a summing up by the writer of the life and philosophy of the protagonist of the novel seems to be somehow weaker than its beginning and the middle. Dependent on fate but not believing in anything which is not seen materially, as it happens with the materialists, he has nowhere to stand finally. Is fate such a reality and certainty to him; “that certainty was something I could get my teeth into,” (Outsider/118) as he said earlier?
From a desperate condition of life when all hopes are finished he hopes that the crowd would greet him with howls of execration. The hero seems to be a tragic fatalist at the end who had none to rely on other than for cursing him. It is immaterial whether such a person lived in bourgeois society or a communist society for that communist society too has been tested the world over; what their dictators have done so far, how individuals lost freedom under it.
However, in drawing a picture of such a figure as Meursault, telling his interactions with the society, in bringing him face to face with the bourgeois court and in describing all his thoughts while alone in a solitary cell thus depicting a materialist man and his existence, a helpless orphan before the infinite and indifferent eternity, certainly pessimistic on the whole, Alber Camus has shown extraordinary artistic capacity as per his conviction and ideal. Dramatic, full of suspense, sometimes like thrilling adventure, it evokes horror at the end, showing man as utterly helpless before the collective force of the society; nowhere to go, none to depend on except death. The man as he is, he does not conform to the rules and norms of society; to him living in such society is an absurdity. So the ideal man aimed at by the writer is An Outsider. And here his creation is successful.
The final comment of the introducer bring home a greater truth which requires further discussions: “The Outsider is only a stage. He is a negative destructive force who shows up the unreality of bourgeois ethics. It is not enough to love life, we must teach everyone else to love it, we must appreciate that happiness, and consciousness is one, that all its manifestations are sacred, and it is from these newer schools of novelists and poets in all countries that one day we will learn it.” (Outsider-Introduction/10)
With his last comments in the introduction Connoly brings us nearer to the truth declared thousands of years ago by the Upanishads, that all life emanates from Ananda and goes to Ananda or happiness in a sense. Everything has consciousness including the apparently inanimate things. The second truth that Connoly’s comments aim at is another declaration of different Upanishads couched in different words that everything is Brahma or the divine, so bond of love already exists between beings as on love only the world exists. While Upanishads tell us that existence and consciousness are one and the same, emanating from the same divine source, existentialist believes that beings which we see before our eyes are existent and consciousness is a decomposition of the being. At this point it needs a comparison between the arguments of the two philosophers; one was Sri Aurobindo who saw things by the light of his yoga and the other was Jean Paul Sartre who was out and out a materialist and existentialist who saw things in the light of his own reason.
While Sri Aurobindo, regarded as the adventurer of consciousness, a realised poet-yogi, dealt with consciousness in its relationship with being and becoming in a comprehensive way in his The Life Divine, Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and writer considered the same terms in his materialistic view point in his Being and Nothingness. While the aspect of the divine is ever present in both consciousness and being in Sri Aurobindo, Sartre denies any such immanent being, denies anything like noumenon but only phenomenon. The novel The Outsider is the work of a complete materialist, we may not go into such controversy as to whether he was an existentialist or to what extent he was a communist, it is evident from his ideas and constructs that his thought was similar to Satre, his friend and fellow novelist, at least as we see here.
According to Sri Aurobindo existence and consciousness are one. Consciousness is not merely an operation of the mind or sense but it is in sleep also, in trance, in a state when awareness is annulled. It is intrinsic in being, self-existent. “In the supreme timeless status where consciousness is one with being and immobile, it is not a separate reality, but simply and purely the self-awareness inherent in existence.” (Sri Aurobindo/545)
He explained it further, “As in us, so in the atom, the metal, the plant, in every form of material Nature, in every energy of material Nature, there is, we know, a secret soul, a secret will, a secret intelligence at work, other than the mute self-oblivious form, the Conscient, – conscient even in unconscious things,- of the Upanishad, without whose presence and informing Consciousness-Force or Tapas no work of Nature could be done.” (Sri Aurobindo/588)
Consciousness is not merely awareness, mental or sense activities. It is there, either in action or inaction. Emanating from Being it extends to all Becomings. Being is one, the supreme divine consciousness and all Becomings are part of universal existence, the self expression of the Being.
But the existentialist view point as in Sartre is “Consciousness is the revealed-revelation of existents, and existents appear before consciousness on the foundation of their being” (Nothingness/Intro/6/74).
“Being is. Being is in itself. Being is what it is.” (Nothingness/Intro/6/79) And “Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.
“We must understand that this being is no other than the transphenomenal being of phenomena and not a noumenal being which is hidden behind them.” (Nothingness/5/74)
Sartre considered the distinguishing characteristic of consciousness, on the other hand, is that it is a decomposition of being. The self cannot be a property of being in-itself.
While Connoly’s conclusive remarks in the introduction that consciousness is one and sacred which takes us to another plane of existence as in Sri Aurobindo, his high hope that “It is from these newer schools of novelists and poets in all countries that one day we will learn it,” may hardly be true when we see that the consciousness is nothing sacred to them but a decomposition of the being, which to them is a stark reality. Even if we consider Sartre’s ideas are quite different from Camus, we must agree with Connoly that Meursault’s consciousness is negative and destructive, as painted by the writer as of a bourgeois character.
But if we presume that the introducer’s ideas of consciousness is one, that all its manifestations are sacred, are true for a character which is not that of a bourgeois, we may come to his view that we may learn of such things, such a character from a new age writer. Perhaps a mystic novelist is required to take us towards that path.
Albert Camus has very intimately painted the picture of a man according to his philosophy of life whose ideas and ways of living do not conform to the society of his time hence he was always an outsider to it receiving no sympathy from it. Death, a tragic death, was the only solution, inevitable fate for such an outsider.
- The Outsider. Albert Camus. Middlesex, England; Penguine Books. Reprint. 1969
- The Life Divine. Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry; SABCL, Sri Aurobindo Ashram.1972
- Being and Nothingness. Jean Paul Sartre. New York; Washington Square Press. Reprint. 1966
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2013
The Outsider Remains an Outsider For Ever and The Fall Signifies the Real Status of the Modern Man
was contributed as A Tribute to Albert Camus the Great Nobel Laureate Writer On the Occasion of his Birth centenary
to The Sons of Camus Writers International Journal (Canada and Cyprus) and published by them in Autumn 2013 issue. It won The Albert Camus Centenary Writing Award, 2013
Tagore’s Gitanjali: A Critical Appraisal
Songs unheard of
The songs of Gitanjali were something unique in their approach; direct and pure, unheard of before with such lyrical richness though Rabindranath Tagore wrote Gitanjali, an offering of devotional songs in Bengali, which were somewhat in tune with the religious and devotional culture of the then Bengal. The richness of his songs took him beyond the traditions. Their trnslations in English vibrated with such romantic appeal to the English speaking world that at once it saw a link between Tagore and the Bible. They were overwhelmed to such an extent that they proposed a Nobel Prize for the creator. With the Nobel Prize the poet, first among the Asians to win it in literature, became suddenly so popular that he was enthused to reach the larger audience, almost under compulsion, and translation was almost the only way to reach them even in India, beyond Bengal. He became a great bilingual writer in the world. His creations spread beyond poetry and literature. Gitanjali made him quite unexpectedly an internationalist per se and a prophet.
The Nobel Prize
The editor of The English Writings of Tagore wrote in the introduction of volume-1, “The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to him in 1913 for ‘Gitanjali’ (1912) and ‘The Gardener’ (1913). The citation of the award praised his ‘Profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.’ Whether he indeed made his poetic thought a part of the literature of the West is a different proposition. But with his English translation his transition from a Bengali writer to a world figure became complete.” 1
They made his works part of the West because they found in him echoes of Biblical anthem as the source though his main sources were the Vedas and the Upanishads as they were words of Gods heard by the Rishis. Many times the saints realise the same things and sometimes express them in the same way. God in essence is the same whether Biblical or Vedic. Tagore had knowledge of both.
The story of his becoming
Away from the superstitious ritualistic way of Hindu religion, Maharshi Debendranath, father of Rabindranath, adopted the simple and straight way of connecting with the divine through the Upanishadic path, calling it Brahmoism, based on faith of one divine reality which pervades the earth and water and the nether world, without naming the different Gods. The first founder of Brahma Samaj was Raja Rammohan Roy though Debendranath executed the work to become its real founder. They never shunned Hinduism. Among other songs, Tagore composed songs and poems on Vaishanav theme and on Goddess kali too. He loved the Bauls, Sufis and Fakirs, the free seekers of truth on straight path, with love extended to humans as well as to the divine. Following his father, he entered into a communion with the Lord of his life, ‘Jivan Devata’. The study of Vedas and Upanishads prepared him on the way.
“Then came my initiation ceremony of Brahminhood when the Gayatri verse of meditation was given to me, whose meaning, according to the explanation I had, runs as follows:
Let me contemplate the adorable splendour of Him who created the earth,
the air and the starry spheres, and sends the power of
comprehension within our minds.
“This produced a sense of serene exaltation in me, the daily meditation upon the infinite being which unites in one stream of creation my mind and the outer world.” 2
This was followed by several experiences connecting the poet to the inner world.
“The artist is subdued by the man of God and there is no room in these poems for high flights of imagination or dexterity of thought or emotional exuberance or metrical playfulness. The naked spirit is awed and humble in the presence of God and speaks in tones of utter simplicity”, 3 opined Krishna Kripalani about the book of poems titled, Naivedya. Several poems from this collection were included in the English Gitanjali.
Most of his beloved ones in the family died between 1883 and 1907. Grief and loneliness made him humbly surrender at the divine feet, recording them in tones serene and placid. Circumstances led him to feel God intensely giving him maturity to write poems which later became parts of Gitanjali. A poet is born; time and circumstances make him matured and ripe. Tagore, a born-poet, became experienced by all surrounding influences in life to sing paeans to God, to become the poet of Gitanjali.
Tagore took a leading part in protesting against the partition of Bengal in 1905 but came out of it as it turned violent and was severely criticised by his countrymen. He opposed the British from time to time for their tyrannical rule in India and refused the Knighthood as a protest against the massacre at Jallianwalla Bag.
Krishna Kripalani observed, “All the pain and suffering, the bereavements and rebuffs, the struggles and mortifications, both in the world outside and in his mind, which Rabindranath who had begun his career as a carefree singer, went through in the first decade of this century were finally resolved and sublimated in the songs that poured forth from his full and chastened heart in 1909 and 1910 and published as Gitanjali in the latter year.” 4
Gitanjali is offering of handful of songs to God and the next, Gitimalya, is a garland of songs offered to Him.
Gitanjali was highly acclaimed throughout the world. William Rothenstein, who introduced the manuscript to the first gathering wrote, “Here was poetry of a new order which seemed to me on a level with that of the great mystics. Andrew Bradley, to whom I showed them agreed: ‘It looks as though we have at last a great poet among us again.’ ”
Yeats and Ezra Pound loved them at first sight like many others. Per Hallstrom, the member-secretary of the Nobel committee opined, “It is certain, however, that no poet in English since the death of Goethe in 1832 can rival Tagore in noble humanity.” 5
Entering into the heart of Gitanjali we find:
Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. Thus it is that
thou hast come down to me. O thou lord of all heavens,
where would be thy love if I were not?
It is a very mellow, heart-touching song we have heard innumerable times. In his famous, “Religion of Man” the poet concludes chapter-13, ‘Spiritual Freedom’, with a song of the Baul sect of Bengal, which echoes the above poem-
It goes on blossoming for ages, the soul-lotus, in which I am bound,
as well as thou, without escape. There is no end to the opening of its petals,
and the honey in it has so much sweetness that thou, like
an enchanted bee, canst never desert it, and therefore thou art bound,
and I am, and ‘mukti’ is no where. 6
The ‘mukti’ is an age old Indian idea, something like ‘Nirvana’ of the Buddhist parlance, meaning release of the soul for ever, to be merged with the divine essence, so that one does not come back to this mundane world again. But Tagore wrote,
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground
and where the path maker is breaking stones.
So it is here that we have to see God and not to seek the beyond to merge with him. In ‘Sanhita’, a part of Vedas, it is said that God is ‘Ushan’, ‘Ashmayu’; impatient and eager to come to me. In a song Tagore wrote that to meet him the God has been coming for long. He realised,
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.
Inspite of everything he never wished to get himself exclusively merged in God,
Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the
embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
My world will light its hundred different lamps with
thy flame and place them before the alter of thy temple.
No. I shall never shut the doors of my senses.
The Veda tells of light. Tagore too has been rapturous with light:
Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye kissing light,
heart sweetening light!
The four main deities of the Veda: Agni, Indra, Surya and Soma have been worshipped by Tagore throughout his life, says Gouri Dharmapal, adding, “One way of knowing Rabindranath is Veda just as through Rabindranath we can know the Vedas. Vedas and Rabindranath are one and the same. One tells us in Vedic language, the other tells in Bangla; neither by reading, learning, translating nor by reciting but by realising.”7
Sometimes his beloved becomes the essence of God; God in human. Sometimes the poet addresses the God as the Mother-
Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls for thy neck
with my tears of sorrow.
Sometimes he calls him He-
He It is, the innermost one, who awakens my
Being with his deep hidden touches.
Sometimes God is his friend, sometimes he is the Lord, king or father and sometimes it is neuter. Sometimes the poet waits for him in happiness, sometimes in uncertainty.
I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice;
only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before
my house. . . .
The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly
set; only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.
The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by.
When the waiting is long, he imagines his touch to be happy, but suddenly remembers that there was a time when he played with the God but could not discern him as such and now that the time is over, he finds that it is his playmate whom the world now worships.
When my play was with thee I never questioned who thou wert
I knew nor shyness nor fear, my life was boisterous.
The poet was never ready to leave the world for the beyond but imagined many times the approaching last days of his life even when he was in his midlife which prompted him to write these poems,
WHEN I GO from hence let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable . . . .
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his
touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes
here, let it come- let this be my parting word.
The book ends with an appropriate poem ending with-
Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their
mountain nests let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one
salutation to thee.
His yearning for the eternity was not the spiritul goal but his apprehension of death, a physical conclusion of life,usually. Due to the uniformity of thoughts and ideas, due to the selection and translation of his rhymed poems into prose poems, Gitanjali has acquired a unique feature among all his works.
Tagore the Bilingual Litterateur
This Gitanjali in English is quite different from the original Gitanjali in Bangla. The English Gitanjali has 103 songs or poems, culled from ten books and The Gardener has 85 poems taken from 13 books and some more sources.
Tagore translated the songs from his own Bangla in the above two books and became a great bilingual writer after the publication, with the success of Gitanjali in particular. He began translating large number of his works then. The editor of his ‘English Writings’ has opined that there is no such writer in Europe who translated so much of his own works in an alien language and that there is none in the history of literature who wrote so much in an alien language remaining at the same time a major litterateur in his own mother-tongue. Tagore is known to Benglis through his works in Bangla and the others know him mostly through his works in English including translations. Tagore was a major Indian English writer. I relish him through both the languages.
How Spiritual are his Songs
Living with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, Dilip Kumar Roy, in one of his correspondences with him in 1934, wrote that Tagore himself admitted that his spiritual poems were born out of imagination, that he had become an atheist, as per reports. Sri Aurobindo usually remained silent but some of his observations are worth mentioning here.
“Well, yes, he mentalises, aestheticises, sentimentalises the things of the spirit- but I can’t say that I have ever found the expression of a concrete spiritual realisation in his poetry- though ideas, emotions, ideal dreams in plenty. That is something, but- . . . .
“Russel has his doubts because he has no spiritual experience. Rolland because he takes his emotional intellectuality for spirituality; as for Tagore- if one is blind, it is quite natural for the human intelligence which is rather an imbecile thing at its best- to deny light; if one’s highest natural vision is that of glimmering mists, it is equally natural to believe that all high vision is only a mist or a glimmer. But light exists for all that- and for all that spiritual Truth is more than mist and glimmer.” 8
Sri Aurobindo perhaps realised that all these were reports on the basis of talks, on the basis of their notion about the poet and that he did not read all of Tagore’s poems so he reminded Dilip to keep these ‘Obiter dicta’ up his sleeve. “So, let the seal be there. ‘Obiter dicta’ of this kind are after all only side flashes- not a judgment balanced and entire.” 9
He continued, “I don’t think we should hastily conclude that Tagore is passing over to the opposite camp. He is sensitive and perhaps a little affected by the positive robustuous, slogan-fed practicality of the day- he has passed through Italy and Persia and was feted there. But I don’t see how he can turn his back on all the ideas of a life-time. After all he has been a wayfarer towards the same goal as ours in his own way- that is the main thing, the exact stage of advance and the putting of the steps are minor matters . . . . Besides, he has had a long and brilliant day- I should like him to have as peaceful and undisturbed a sunset as may be. His exact position as a poet or a prophet or anything else will be assigned by posterity and we need not be in a haste to anticipate the final verdict.” 10
Once when Sri Aurobindo was prosecuted by the British Government for his journalistic work, considered objectionable to them in 1907, Tagore wrote a poem and read it before Sri Aurobindo, titled, “Namaskar”. Among other things, the poet wrote-
The fiery messenger that with the lamp of God
Hath come- where is the king who can with chain or rod
(Translation by Kshitish Chandra Sen) 11
The poet visited Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry in May 1928. Remaining with him for few hours he came back to his ship to resume his journey to Colombo. He was so impressed by his presence that he remained silent for the whole day. He wrote an article writing among other things, “At the very first sight I could realize that he had been seeking for the soul and had gained it, and through this long process of realization had accumulated within him a silent power of inspiration. His face was radiant with inner light and . . . .
“I felt that the utterance of the ancient Hindu Rishi spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom and entrance into the All.” 12
Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Tagore’s main biographer, mentioned that he wrote letteres from the ship to Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and Mira Devi, his daughter, separately. In them he wrote that he had realised after meeting Aurobindo that he needed to do that type of tapasya or askesis to know his Self, to know himself. He further wrote that diurnal works and talks make the mind suppressed under the burden of the mundane. If such a sadhana is not done, the inner light would be dimmed in due course.
Krishna Kripalani wrote, “His religious poetry . . . thus began as an intimate t`ete-a-t`ete with his deity whose image invisible though it was and remained, went on changing and assuming different aspects until, one might say, it almost ceased to be independent of what he saw and heard and felt. His God became everything, and everything, however, seemingly ugly or terrible, was lit up with divinity.” 13
The Thrust of Life
Though Tagore was brought up with the study of the Vedas and Upanishads, had some intuitive feelings and experiences all trough his life, he could not engage himself entirely on the yoga-path for which he had longing all along as we have seen in his aspirations expressed after meeting Sri Aurobindo in 1928. This was one of the main causes of his sympathy for him. But bigger was the call of life to him, he admitted at times, through his poetry. He could not remain aloof from men and society, from the dark shades of clouds and the bright rays of the Sun. Throughout his life he suffered many set backs, many deaths of his near and dear ones. The poet with his faith on God and larger life energy survived all shocks. What Sri Aurobindo maintained even after his death, “He was a wayfarer towards the same goal as ours in his own way”, was surely true. He was on the way to divinity though he could not plunge headlong into it during his lifetime. He surely had some psychic touch and golden experience, as are evident from his poems in Gitanjali, however much they may be the product of his imagination and poetic flight. Mentally he must have touched his God though he could never go deeper into it as he himself did not wish; vital life playing a greater role in his life. The whole thing made him as a vessel ready to the point he realised.
“Deliverance is not for me in renunciation,” he said, adding “I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.” And he promised, “I shall never shut the doors of my senses.” (Gitanjali-73)
In spite of all his cravings and thirst for the divine Tagore loved Life more than God. He enjoyed it. But it was Gitaljali, his offering of songs to God, which made him known to the world as it became a link between him and his God, his readers and followers.
Though Gitanjali seems to be full of hymns, songs of love and surrender to God, it contains his concern for the Motherland, for his fellow countrymen, for the society in general. In a poem in it he prayed to his father, to raise the people of his country to a perfect humane level with all qualities of a perfect man, so that out of all turmoil, depravities and narrowness his country might be ready for a struggle towards perfection; ready to stand on its own feet as a country, marching towards the heaven of freedom. The urge and appeal in it to God, the earnest aspiration of the poet, was to see India Free with its people perfectly humane so it could stand among the nations holding its head high. The patriot poet wished strongly the freedom of his country but did not compose a song of revolt. The poem has been uttered innumerably as prayer, recited in public gatherings, imitated and referred to in learned papers. To end this work on Gitnajali I wish to raise this aspect of Tagore’s concern for his country, a perfect patriot as he was, by repeating this poem which may be no less relevant today in Indian situation than before, though we are officially free. To the poet freedom lay not in physical acquirement of the country but in becoming free in spirit and status.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
1Tagore. Reprint- 2004. V-1. p.10
2 Tagore. Religion of Man. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi; Sahitya Akademi.V-3. Reprint-2002. p.121
3 Krishna Kripalani. Tagore A Life. New Delhi; National Book Trust. 1986. p.102
4 Kripalani. p.120
5 As quoted in Kripalani. pp.124-132
6 Tagore. V-3. p.165
7 Gouri Dharmapal. Ved O Rabindranath. Vira Nagar, Nadia; Ushagram Trust. 2007. p. 38
8 Sri Aurobindo to Dilip. Pune; Harikrishna Mandir and Mysore; Mira Aditi. 2005. Vol.2. pp.41-43
9 Sri Aurobindo to Dilip. p.44
10 Sri Aurobindo to Dilip. p.44
11 As referred in K.R.S.Iyengar. Sri Aurbindo a biography and a history. Pondcherry; SAICE; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1985 edition. p.230
12 Iyengar. p.16
13 Kripalani. p.218
1 The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume-1. Poems. New Delhi; Sahitya Akademi. Reprint-2004
2 ‘Sanchaita’ a collection of selected works of Rabindranath Tagore in Bangla. Kolkata; Vishvabharati. 2008 edition.
3 Gitabitan. a collection of Songs of Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata; Vishvabharati. 1979 print.
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2012/14
THE AGONY OF TRIBAL LIFE
It is an irony of human civilization that the most wealthy areas on earth are most impoverished; the people die of disease and hunger, live in ghettoes being driven out by the agents of civilization, who live thousands of miles away in air-conditioned rooms in sophisticated countries, who become billionaires plundering resources from the bowl of the earth where lived and still live the adivasis.
The legacy continued in India from the time it was a British colony but it was accelerated when Free India wished to take part in the globalization process, for progress in terms of economic development, actually of the few at the cost of the many, plundering natural resources wherever it is available. It was a transition from the License Raj to Economic Liberalisation. Becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation in1995 India invited all Multi Nationals, both Indian and foreign, to reap the fruits of whatever resources India still had. Such tycoons live in cosmopolitan cities anywhere in the globe. Economic prosperity has been achieved but it has not percolated to the millions, the sons of the soils, who could neither themselves exploit the resources nor stop others doing it. They have not joined the technology propped mainstream of society. Instead, they decided to follow their age old life style living in their own place, so they became the worst victims of exploitation.
Looking back we find how millions of original Americans, incorrectly named as Indians, and aboriginals of Australia, pushed to the sea, killed and now incredibly reduced, living in reserves, ghettoised. The latest report in Australia indicates that the standard of health and education in respect of aboriginals have fallen to an all time low, child and women abuse have increased to a good extent; among the aboriginals racist division has been increasing. Many fold increase of their incarceration and remand to custody have been noticed. Crime against such people has been on the rise. Fact is, it is an worldwide phenomenon.
Mining is the Core Issue
Mining is the 21st-century gold rush. Governments dream that this infrastructure insudstry will bolster a new wave of industrial revolution bringing prosperity to people and employment to workers, specially those who will be evacuated from the land or destroyed.
National Mineral Policy was formulated in 1993 after the economic liberalization policy was declared in 1991. Since then mining has become one of the fastest growing sector. It is the well publicized infrastructure sector with the Fund managers. This policy has been revised from time to time to allow gradually 100 per cent foreign direct investment, allowing further venture capital into prospecting and exploration in the mining field. State Governments have been given more discretionary powers. In the presence of huge private sector operators in the field the role of Central Government has been reduced to facilitating and regulating leases, arranging for more infrastructural facilities to business houses, Indian and foreign.
Further steps have been taken on the line in the new National Mineral Policy of 2008. While the emphasis of the NMP 2008 is on extracting minerals for economic development of the country, it pays scant attention to the impact this burgeoning mining activity will have on the environment and the livelihood of local people. Mining always has serious consequences for displacement of people, deforestation, environmental degradation, water scarcity, etc, and these should be seriously addressed in any mining policy. The situation will be further aggravated when the government amends the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act of 1957 to implement the policy directives of the NMP.
The NMP is ambiguous on the subject of rehabilitation and resettlement of the large numbers of adivasis who will be displaced from their lands. Most adivasis are marginal landowners or landless farmers, with no official records to prove their rights over the lands they have been living on and cultivating for centuries. They are thus unlikely to get any compensation or appropriate rehabilitation if a strictly legalistic approach is adopted.
Mining activity hitherto has neither brought any benefits to local populations nor has it shown any concern for the environment as these facts will show that in India there exists an inverse relationship between mineral production and economic growth. Sixty per cent of the top 50 mineral-producing districts are among the 150 most backward districts of the country even after decades of mining.
More and more forest land has been diverted for mining, violating the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. During 1998-2005, 216 mining projects were granted forest clearance annually, as against 19 per year during 1980-97.
Mining projects have displaced around 25.5 lakh people during 1950-1991, and 52% of the people displaced are adivasis.
Chhattisgarh, which has a large tribal population, is one of the richest states in India in terms of mineral wealth. The mineral-rich districts of Bastar, Surguja, Korba and Dantewada are also tribal dominated and heavily forested. New mining projects are coming up in these districts which are among the most backward districts of the state in terms of human and social indicators.
Mining impacts negatively on the ecosystems of the area. In Korba district of Chhattisgarh, mining activity has affected around 78% of the forest area. According to a 2006 study by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, 6% of forest land has been completely converted for industrial purposes, 55% changed into barren and waste land, and around 17% became highly degraded forest.
West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand has abundant reserves of iron ore and forests, and 66% of its population is adivasi. Large-scale mining has not brought progress to the peoples here. Almost 50% of the population lives below the poverty line and a significant 19% of households are not food sufficient.
Forty per cent of the mineral-rich regions are affected by Naxalite insurgency – radicals who use force to overthrow or destabilise existing administrations that they see as corrupt and anti-poor. In Chhattisgarh, the government has pitted the adivasi population against the Naxals under the Salwa Judum, which it calls a peace campaign. This has divided the adivasis who were resisting industrial activity, including mining. This conflict has led to the displacement of about 80,000 people in the state.
It is more investor-friendly policy to the extent of ignoring schedule 5 of Indian Constitution which safeguards the rights of the tribal people as it forbids the lease or sale of adivasi lands to non-adivasis. Going a step further, the R. K. Dang committee
recommended permission to mining in hitherto un-mined adivasi inhabited areas.
The threat of European Union-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), under negotiations from 2007, is ominous to the tribal land and our forest resources including the wildlife. It is said that India is the largest producer of ‘metallic minerals’ and ‘rare-earth minerals’ including ‘chromites’. Greedy eyes are glazing at it. Under the FTA the Government would be legally handing over the rights of resources, the dependent communities and wildlife to business interests. It already happened even before coming into such an agreement.
Mining brings all sorts of disruptive activities that are inimical to conservation of wildlife; roads are cut opening fragile ecosystem for human intrusion. Large scale labour force settlements in the forests fragments the wild habitats. Power lines that bring electricity, water and other pipelines that carry semi-finished product to the nearest ports, briefly the linear structures breaking the continuous tree canopies are highly disruptive to the wildlife. Surface mining is farmer’s nightmare as it changes the hydrological profile of an area by degrading catchments, affecting both quality and quantity of water. Mining has heavily polluted Ganga, Tunga, Bhadra, Kali, Selaulim, Mandovi, Zauri and innumerable other rivers. Reservoirs built with billions of rupees of public money are clogged with mine silt, decreasing water-holding capacity, announcing a colossal waste of public money in exchange of filling up outsiders’ pockets. Remnants of Forest lands in the dry districts of Bellary, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Koppal and Bangalore beyond the Western Ghats are gasping for breath due to relentless exploitation for iron ore and granite. Panna Tiger Reserve has two diamond mines inside it which acted as the most depletive factors aided by human conspiracy for losing all its tigers. Threat looms large over Bandipur Tiger Reserve for iron ore mining and fear of coal mining over Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Goa has 100 mining leases in two districts which have 65 per cent forest cover.
The aluminum industry depends primarily on bauxite, a porous rock that caps mountains; some of the highest and most pristine of which are in Orissa. Bauxite being porous, it retains water, so that the sides and often the summits of these mountains are densely forested; moreover, the bauxite slowly releases the water in the summer, in clear streams that nourish the fields and bodies of the people who live on these mountains, and, further downstream, feed the region’s major rivers. Out of more than 20 mountains in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, mining was planned and has started on all.
Stripping the old-growth forest off the summits and sides of mountains; using explosives to blow up the mountaintops themselves; herding people who live on the hills—who have cherished and nurtured their unique environment for millennia—into settlements that sometimes resemble concentration camps, building dams for supplying enormous quantities of water required to smelt aluminum (almost 1,400 tons of water for every ton of the metal) which drown neighboring valleys and villages, crushing, refining, and smelting, leaving behind toxic smoke that chokes lungs, weakens bones and bleaches crops, leaving caustic, radioactive red sludge that leaches into rivers and kills fish along with the occasional humans are the unheard of stories until recently that make a few billionaires here and there; pride or shame of India at the cost of thousands of lives of men and animals tortured to death. The U.S. Government has not thought it prudent to produce aluminium in their country for these reasons but decided to import it at cheaper cost; India is one of the greatest and perhaps cheapest sources. Bauxite was being sold by India at the pitiful royalty rate of Rs.64 per ton against the world average price of $30 per ton, whereas the finished aluminium is sold by the companies at about $2,500 a ton.
The low, flat-topped hills of south Orissa have been home to the Dongria Kondh long before the name of India or Orissa emerged. Niyamgiri hill, home to their Niyam Raja, God of Universal Law, is worshipped by them as their living deity from time immemorial. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain to a company called Vedanta which is originally the name of Hindu philosophy, a tradition of Vedic knowledge and poetry that teaches the Ultimate Nature of Knowledge, couched in most beautiful words. It is an irony of India’s fate that such a name has been adopted by a modern non-resident Indian industrial tycoon, engaged in destroying the Mother Earth with its original inhabitants.
Let us see the fall out of this mining industry. Borbhata and Kinnari villages with 120 families were displaced to give way to the factory at Lanjigarh. Villagers of Rengopalli and Chattrapur woke up to a stuffy smoke cloud enveloping their villages as ash cloud spread from 500 metres. The poisonous Ash pond and Red-Mud pond of refinery’s alkaline waste disposal are situated nearby that pollutes Vanshadhara river. A ton of toxic waste is produced for every ton of alumina produced. Ground water is contaminated up to hand-wells and other wells. People died of tuberculosis, cattle died, trees did not bear fruit or they do not yield as before. Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee recommended closure of the project as early as in 2005. Still it goes on doing its job. It almost stopped through court order but its revival is on its way.
In Dantewada the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, a Gandhian ashram run by Himanshu Kumar, was bulldozed in a few hours. Salwa Judum, the “official people’s militia” have killed and raped and burned on its way through the forests of Dantewada leaving 300,000 people homeless or on the run, it is reported. Lalgarh in West Bengal was cordoned off, attacked by another undisclosed official force, besides Government forces. The forest once known as the Dandakaranya, which stretches from West Bengal through Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, is home to millions of India’s tribal people. It too has come under fire by the operation ‘Green Hunt’. People who had come from the war zones have spread the stories of police repression, arrests, torture, killing and the corruption; all are done, it seems, on behalf of the industrialists. Muria tribe people, under pressure of conflict between Maoists and the Government, fled to Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. They were in conflict with another group, the Koyas who had come earlier, it is reported.
Illegal mining in large areas in Andhra Pradesh and adjoining Karnataka raised a battle between the miners, locals and the Government. Governments are apparently involved in all such fights. It is a matter of great controversy in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Bellary district alone has shown exemplary disregard for earth and future of mankind through shameless, illegal mining by the unscrupulous persons in connivance with the governmental authority of the State. Even when convicted the evil raise its heads to justify their activities through vicious politics.
Gond tribe constitutes 60 per cent of Bastar’s population. The tribal population of Chhattisgarh is 33 per cent of the total population of the province and the whole Dandakaranya area is full of tribal people. Tribal people are almost everywhere in India.
Most of the tribal people all over India are utterly poor, ignorant, simple folks, almost entirely illiterate. Below is the eye-witness report of an NGO based worker, Sharanya Nayak, living with the tribal people of Niyama Giri hills:
“For a long time they remained untouched by complexities of caste, class and gender. But gradually as non-tribal monarchies laid claim to their territory in the garb of a zamindari system and British colonial rule in the garb of “tribal development”, adivasi communities began to disintegrate. I not only believe but have firsthand knowledge that tribals are not backward — they are independent, vibrant communities/societies, not individuals, which like all of us are constantly adapting to a changing world. Tribal development all over the globe has been characterized by a grossly insensitive schooling, a complete dependency on welfare programmes destroying self-sufficient livelihood systems. The resulting abject poverty has largely destroyed their way of life, their ingenuity, and demolished their self-esteem.
“Unable to fathom the changes and cope with the breakdown of their lives and livelihoods, they have become “imbalanced”. And because of this, domestic violence, distress migration, homicide, etc. have become their new characteristics. In fact some communities have the highest suicide rate in the world and every family knows at least one teenager who has killed herself or himself.” (Nayak/Goolden Chain/2009)
It should be remembered that the tribal people have taken up arms because for centuries they have been exploited, neglected and their resistance paid with violence. They believe that if they do not fight for their land they will be annihilated. They have been pushed to the brink of existence.
According to report from the Ministry of Environment and Forest 1.10.000 hectares of forest land was lost up to January 2010 to mining. Apart from legal mining illegal mining abounds; Andhra Pradesh has more than 35.000 cases, Gujarat has more than 23.000 cases, M.P has more than 16.000 cases pending. Apart from some smaller ventures there are large scale operations too. Recent news is, Kolar Gold field area is being captured by outsiders.
“This time around, several corporations are involved, but their tactics have much in common with those that the British East India Company employed 200 years ago—subjugating or co-opting the subcontinent’s rulers, and then robbing the populace by means of the state’s own lawmakers, police, armed forces, and, on occasion, judiciary- The authors have with laudable argument revealed how the world’s largest democracy has blundered into a servitude to corporations that chillingly resembles the colonization from which it had escaped a mere six decades ago”, opined Madhusree Mukherjee. (Book Review)
As the global economy expands, the pressure on adivasi lands to yield minerals will intensify. Mining is a short-term activity with long-term effects. Though the NMP 2008 talks about scientific mining, it is an unsustainable activity and is based on the extraction of non-renewable resources. Millions of people lose their livelihoods because of mining and it has also become the main cause of social unrest, widespread human rights violation, health hazards for people and environmental degradation.
While it is true that the country needs minerals for infrastructure development, it is equally true that over-consumption by one section of society is destroying the livelihoods and environments of another section, which is at the receiving end of mining. Decades of mining have not contributed much to the economic betterment of local populations and this is particularly true of marginalised groups such as the adivasis. Poor development and marginalisation create conditions for social tensions. Mining is an activity that needs to be strictly controlled at all stages. Above all, people living in mining areas should have the capacity to take fully-informed decisions on allowing mining in their territories or decide on how to carry out the activity and ensure environmental conservation and social justice. The new NMP needs to examine these issues with a sense of urgency. The policy itself needs to be brought to centrestage and widely discussed.
It is not Maoists in particular, they could have joined hands with any group who would help them to exist for it is ultimately an war of existence. It’s worth keeping in mind that the adivasi people have a long and courageous history of resistance that predates the birth of Maoism. To look upon them as brainless puppets being manipulated by a few middle-class Maoist ideologues is to do them a disservice, thinks Arundhati Roy, the writer. (Roy/Guardian/2009)
The other side of the story is that Maoists run with budgets of rupees thousands of crores which comes from extortion, drugs, ransom, loot and robbery. Every sack of potato, each consignment of merchandise and every Government salary has a price. They encourage running poppy and ganja farms and earn fabulous sum from such operations. It carries on in the same line of action as shown by their leader in whose name their party is founded. In fact, to those who know or have read the activities of Mao Tse-Tung (Mao Zedong), how he achieved his goal at the cost of innumerable lives of poor peasants and ordinary people of his country, would find it detestable to find any party or movement named after him, associated with his name. The internal condition of India is far different from the condition of the then China when Mao operated very brutally and treacherously leading towards his dictatorial position. So it is not in the name or group that matters but the spirit of the tribal people who have never been helped to come out of their poverty and ignorance, illiteracy and deprivation, almost losing all, losing the last straw to hold on in the sea of despair, that fights with whatever weapon and help or solace given by any opportunist or others, to fight with their last blood.
The process of destruction continues throughout the world
This war for eviction and destruction of the aboriginals has been raging the whole world
as the recent reports suggest. India is a major partner in the process. All the teak have already been logged in Borneo jungle, spree for more logging and plantation for extracting palm oil have been pauperizing and destroying the original jungle people, the nomadic Penans. In the Amazonian forests of northern Peru tribes such as Awajun and Wambi Indians and others are in a war zone, fighting and dying with indigenous weapons before the modern mercenaries, armed to the teeth. It has been called the ‘Peru’s Tienanmen Square’. Recently Akuntsu tribe of Brazilian Amazon has lost its oldest member, Ururu, who witnessed the genocide of her people, destruction of rainforest by the cattle ranchers and gunmen, besides the construction of the infamous BR 364 highway.
It has been opined that unlike killings in Nazi Germany and Rwanda the genocide of indigenous people are played out in hidden corners of the earth. A massive military force raided the communities opposed to oil companies in Niger-Delta. Indigenous people in Niger-Delta resorted to court cases but that too is under pressure to ignore their land rights when it conflicts with economic opportunities, it is opined. Logging was the main exploitation and now its latest arm is the tourism and encroachment in Andaman and Nicobar islands for agriculture and industrialization, in whatever scale it is. Now tourism is posing a big problem towards giving peace to Jarawas. According to Victor Menotti, Director of International Forum on Globalisation, California, a paradigm war has taken place from the arctic to tropical forests. Wherever one finds indigenous peoples there must be resource conflicts. It is a battle between the industrial and indigenous world views.
It is not only ignoring the world views but our neglect of history and ecological, environmental teachings that create the disharmony.
Amidst the hot blows of death and destruction of the indigenous people throughout the affected parts of India, the Independence Day speech by the Prime Minister brought some apparent solace when we read, “He said the planning commission had been asked to formulate a comprehensive scheme to end the neglect of tribals and make them join the mainstream of development. Apart from payment of adequate compensation for land acquired from the tribals, it should be ensured that they had a stake in the development projects being undertaken.” (Hindu/16.8.2010)
He said that they should be given 26 per cent of mining profit. But if it is a percentage of the meager royalty as is taken by the Government, it becomes a pittance. It seems that one does not have a clear idea about what the future actions on such speeches were or are.
Though there is an admittance of neglect of the adivasis in the past, proposal to bring them in the mainstream may be contested for every community should be allowed to live their life according their tradition and choice. The call is akin to another call to Jarawas whose population in the Andamans is under threat. It has been suggested that compensation for the land taken for mining, etc. from the tribal people on mutual terms be paid as agreed by the tribal people which should be reasonable. It may be suggested that each tree that exists in the land can be valued based on the amount of CO2 it would absorb over its’ life. The land could then be valued based on the value of all the trees. But one very important thing is how it will be ascertained that they agree to such mining and other works and to their eviction? Their Hindi speaking representatives may speak differently, succumbing to different allurements. If at all an agreement has to be reached it should be decided in dialogues with the people at their place, in languages known to them, the majority of the tribal people. It is heartening to note that the United States Government has recently passed the ‘Tribal Law and Order Act’ that tackles violent crime against Native American and Alaska Native women. But this is only a part of the full job of compensating what wrongs have so far been done.
Non recognition of indigenous knowledge in the sphere of biology and medicine
Another area of deprivation of the indigenous people is the piracy of indigenous knowledge and of biological resources, by governments, scientific establishments, and corporations, has been going on all over the world. However, local communities and sensitive governments have been increasingly raising their voice against this, and demanding that the rights of the originators and conservers of resources and knowledge be protected by both national and international law.
Forest is the mainstay of our life
Apart from the problem with the tribal people there is a greater problem of destruction of forests, so vital for human existence. In India Forest Conservation Act (FCA) was passed in 1980, Environmental (Protection) Act was passed in 1886 followed by Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ) in 1991, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification in 1994 and Biological Diversity (BD) Act in 2002 which was passed as India became a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992.
It has been pointed out that from 1986 to 2006 MOeF (Ministry of Environment and Forest) granted Environmental Clearance in respect of 4016 projects but much larger numbers operated without any clearance. As the Supreme Court ordered closure of all the units operating without clearance in response to a petition, MoEF began seeking temporary working permission followed by amendment to EIA notification. Environment concerns are considered as potential bottlenecks towards development. Streams of amendments were made to facilitate speedy clearance for which MoEF is better known.
More and more areas that are wildlife habitats, agricultural lands, critical watersheds and sensitive coastal and marine areas are being freed of legal and administrative encumbrances for roads, logging, mining, cattle ranching, for new human habitats. Since 1980, with the promulgation of FCA, the MoEF has allowed diversion of 11,40,176.86 hectares of forest land for non-forest use. Illegal encroachments continue with many bitter results. The trees, the vegetation, the rivers and streams, all those human and non-human agencies everywhere help life and existence possible. We can find the consequence of its absence from an example of a glorious civilization ruined hundreds of years ago.
The Mayan Civilisation
Mayan civilization continued for some 1500 years; from before Christ’s official birth to almost the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. Its antiquity has been stretched to 1800 B.C. Hieroglyphics on a temple staircase found in the jungles of Guatemala in Mexico after a hurricane in 2001 reveals a story of the Tikal ruler, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, who ruled in the eighth century AD. After his bloody win over his rival, the Snake kingdom of Chalakmul, Jasaw and his accomplices began rebuilding the city in full euphoria, in an unprecedented scale. Temple was a symbol of their prosperity. He began building huge temples with timber from trees, even 200 years old.
Historians are of the view that before Jasaw forests were conserved and cutting logwoods were prohibited for ninety per cent of the population depended on lakes, ponds and rivers. The massive hacking down of logwood did upset the ecological balance. According to Professor David Lentz, a botanist in U S, with abiding interest in ancient history- “When you clear all the forests, it changes the hydrological cycle. With no trees, you lose water retention in the soil or aquifers so the ground dries up and then there is less transpiration, so therefore les rainfall as well.” (D.T.E/48)
The article mentions that there were three droughts between 810 and 910 AD resulting in crop failure, mal-nutrition, disease and competition for resources causing warfare of different scales; the great socio-political upheaval. The ultimate result was evidenced by the huge excavation at the Mayan site in Guatemala, Mexico, that led to discovery of massive death due to disease, mal-nutrition and hunger. It is a pathetic example of annihilation of a civilization due to annihilation of trees.
We find a solid analysis for such decline in another work. It says that the decline and eventual collapse of the Mayan civilization has been attributed to many possibilities like wars, famine, natural calamity, disruption of trade routes, popular unrests and others. A combination of all these might have hastened the process but the real reason or the core issue is destruction of forest, the essential green belt. It says that the constant need for cal (stucco) to cover the big temples certainly produced a complete deforestation in a land not suited for agricultural use but for forestry due to its very little humus content. To cover just one temple with stucco, the Mayans had to cut 400 hectares of forest because only green wood reaches enough temperature to form it and there were hundreds of big structures in their cities.
Alas, the process still continues; latest report is that great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest are being razed to clear land for cattle-ranching drug barons. The other parts of Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America’s largest protected area, have been burned down by small cities of squatters.
The adoption of the U. N. O’s declaration on the rights of the indigenous people in its General Assembly in 2007 and the observation of the General Secretary of the United Nations Organization on the ‘International Day of the World’s Indigenous People’ on 9 August 2009, that scattered in 70 countries, 370 million people throughout the world are the custodians of some of the most biologically diverse areas of the earth, speaking majority of the world’s languages and that they are the repository of traditional knowledge and diverse cultural resources, calls for our immediate attention towards their struggle to get proper social justice and equal rights for their livelihood and development.
It should be our duty to conserve the forests with its age old residents, human and non-human habitats. To maintain ourselves we have to maintain the biological diversity. Mining should be of secondary importance, wealth from the bowl of the earth to be raised when essential, not exactly for profits. No technology can save us if the nature’s bounties are denied for we depend on natural resources whatever we do.
1 A Tryst with Poverty Among Plenty: My Journey Beyond the Hills by Sharanya Nayak. The Golden Chain; NOV 2009 issue. Golden Chain Trust, Pondicherry.
2 A review of the book, Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das (Orient Black Swan; NewDelhi. 2010) by Madhusree Mukherjee. http://ebookbrowse.com/out-of-this-earth-pdf-d84832433
3 The Heart of India is Under Attack by Arundhati Roy. The Guardian. U.K. 31.10.2009 (www.guardian.co.uk)
4 The Hindu, dated 16.8.2010
5 Temples of doom. Down To Earth. New Delhi. September 1-15, 2009 issue
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2013
Jhumpa Lahiri’s World of Fiction
Though she has earned a number of epithets to her name like ‘Indian-American’ or ‘Bengali-American’ writer (Why not ‘Indian English writer’?), ‘An old Guard New England’ writer, a ‘Teller of Immigrant Tales’ or ‘Brownstone Brooklyn Novelist’- one reviewer writes that her books are more about coastal elite experience than about the Indian-American and her fiction tells that the great American melting pot is in tip-top shape- her atavistic roots still vibrate in the soil of Kolkata and surrounding Bengal. “I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that” 1 – she asserts.
Born to Bengali parents in London and settled after two years of her birth in Rhodes Island, New England, America, Jhumpa Lahiri is a second generation Bengali American or Indian American. Though her name is carried in some other books as introducer or otherwise, her main works are contained in three books till now- two of short stories; ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and a novel; ‘The Namesake’. With these not very voluminous creations she, at her 42 and half years of age, is almost at the acme of popularity, winning multiple awards.
The primary contents of her writings are biographical: “These trips to a vast, unruly fascinating city so different from the small New England town where I was raised, shaped my perception of the world and of people from a very early age.
“I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants- those with strong ties to their country of origin- is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. This has been my experience. . . . As a young child, I felt that the Indian part of me was unacknowledged, and therefore somehow neglected . . . . I felt that I led two very separate lives,” she said in an interview. 2 In tune with this the critics have found a thread running through Jhumpa’s stories- an experience of being foreign.
Interpreter of Maladies
Her first book of short stories- ‘Interpreter of Maladies’-first published in 1999, consist of nine stories. Two of them, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Halder” are based in India and another, the title story, a tale of a second generation Indian-American couple and their children, is set in India. All other stories are based on America involving Bengalis who try to settle in a foreign land.
Mr. and Mrs. Das with three children, dressed like American tourists, speaking with American accents but looking like Indians engaged Mr. Kapasi as their tour guide, as the story, “Interpreter of Maladies” relates. Learning that Kapasi, besides working as tour guide on weekends, worked with a doctor translating the Gujarati speaking patients, Mrs. Das, taking some interest in him, complimented his work as romantic. Kapasi, on the other hand, realizing the troubled marriage situation of the Das family as revealed by Mrs. Das herself, began to lull an idea of romance with her as he too was disillusioned about his married life. Mrs. Das asked for his address so she could send some photos of them snapped with Kapasi, after going back to their country. When she was munching puffed rice making her red painted lips oilier, Kapasi, through the mirror, was relishing the scene.
When she found herself alone with the guide as she stayed back while Mr. Das with their children walked on, she confided to Kapasi her undisclosed secret for eight years. One of her two boys, Bobby, was clandestinely conceived, fathered by a Punjabi friend of her husband at a rare moment during his short stay in their house. None so far suspected. But thence she lost all love for her husband and children, felt herself erratic at times. This suppression made her suffer so long. She confided all this to Kapasi with an idea that he would be able to suggest a remedy for her disease as an interpreter of maladies. She considered Kapasi of her father’s age. Hearing all these from her Kapasi was stunned. He interpreted the language not the maladies, he said, and with this he lost all sense of romance. “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”- He asked.
At last, undergoing lots of harassment including an injury to Bobby’s body in the hands of large number of monkeys, they decided to go back in the evening. “When she whipped out the hair brush, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one but Mr. Kapasi noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Kapasi observed it too. Knowing that this was the picture of Das family, he felt like preserving it forever in his mind.
Told in the suppressed humorous way, the many layered story carries the undisclosed pathos at different levels of life.
Boori Ma or old mother, as they called an old woman driven out of her home in the then East Bengal after the partition of India, took shelter in the stairwell of an apartment building. Finding it difficult to stay there at times, she took shelter somewhere in the roof. Though talkative, she kept the staircase and the roof clean and took notice if anybody intruded in the house. Happy, the members of the house indulged. But when someone, out of benevolence fitted a basin in the common area for everyone’s benefit and sometime after someone stole the basin, all blamed her and eventually she was driven out of the house. They were searching for a “Real Durwan” or gate keeper and it is the title of the story. She left but wished them to believe that she was never the cause of such a burglary but none believed her. She was an easy prey to their wrath. It is an irony of life that honest services are seldom rewarded.
“The Treatment of Bibi Halder” is a curious story of a particular woman. Bibi suffered from an ailment that baffled all around her. At 29 she was none too pretty, rather ugly to the extent that none chose her for a bride. Her burning desire in such a condition, to light fire to the fuel, was to marry and to have children to lead the life of a housewife. After a series of blood tests doctors declared that the only cure for her disease was marriage.
But none came forward to marry her. Her family drove her out of the flat. She took shelter in the roof. Neighbours doled her cooked food, so to allow her to live. One fine morning they found her pregnant, lying on a cot. After all investigations none could trace out the culprit. Eventually she gave birth to a child. With the money left by her parents she started a retail business of everyday-use items. Here the end is unlike in almost all other stories, happy, as the narrator tells us: “But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured.”
Of the lot “The Blessed House” is of a different variety though not much interesting. After buying a nice house for themselves, the newly married Sanjeev and Twinkle, find it to be a treasure trove. Big artifacts; statues, effigies and consumable stores too are discovered daily, unexpectedly. But most of them are adorable by Christians. Though Twinkle becomes highly appreciative of such treasures, Sanjeev is not. Nevertheless, he too helps her with friends to keep them in places.
“Sexy” is a story of corporeal love between Miranda, an American and Dev, a Bengali married man. It is linked to another subplot- a man, sitting on a plane next to a lady, falls in love with her and gets off to her place, Heathrow, instead of completing his journey to the ticketed place, his home town. While his wife mourns, their child is stranded at home-no one to take him to school. The man is a Bengali and his wife is a Punjabi. The main story develops between Miranda and Dev- a tale of gross love affair between two bodies.
Inside the Mapparium at the Christian Science Centre, Dev whispers back to Miranda, “You’re sexy”, in response to her ”Hi!” She relishes it then but later in a tale-tell situation a boy tells Miranda, “You’re sexy” and in reply to “What did you say?” he repeats, “You’re sexy.”
Hearing through the conversation between his parents he learnt as much a child can, as to what transpired between his father and the lady with whom he settled, leaving his mother for good. Being vigorously pursued by Miranda to explain his assertion, the boy says, cupping his hands around his mouth, “It means loving someone you don’t know.”
This worked- “She would see him one more Sunday, she decided, perhaps two. Then she would tell him the things she had known all along: that it wasn’t fair to her, or to his wife, that they both deserved better, that there was no point in it dragging on.”
As in most other stories, in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” Lilia’s parents loved to mix with Indians, specially Bengalis, in a foreign situation. They found out the name of Mr. Pirzada, a resident within their compound, from a telephone directory. He was doing a research in botany in New England area with a scholarship offered by the American Government. There was no problem that he was a Muslim, a resident of East Pakistan and in revolt against the Government, so long as he remained a Bengali. They ate the same mango pickles, fish and rice with hands, gossiped over the tea cups and had almost the same habits of walking bare foot or with flip-flops in the rooms. He was invited to dinner every night and a ten year old Lilia would observe him eating and gossiping with her parents up to late evenings, sometimes up to midnight when she was already asleep. One of these days she took part in the rituals of Halloween. The festival is described in detail including the placing of a pumpkin, jack-o’-lantern, over their gate.
When in 1971, the liberation struggle in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) took a serious turn involving India, Mr. Pirzada has no information of his large family which he left in Dacca. After the war he returned and united with his family. When he writes a letter informing everything, the little girl breathes a sigh of relief. She wrote-“He had no reason to return to us, and my parents predicted, correctly, that we should never see him again. Since January, each night before bed, I had continued to eat, for the sake of Mr. Pirzada’s family, a piece of candy I had saved from Haloween. That night there was no need to. Eventually, I threw them away.”
It is a brief eventful story involving families across the seas. Here whatever the religions touch them, they celebrate with fellow feelings.
The “Third and Final Continent” is a first person tale told by an Indian immigrant. Besides India, his second stay was in London and the third, where he settled with his family, is America.
The introduction of Mrs. Croft, a 103 years old somehow eccentric lady, who lives alone in her big house and rents a portion of it to a bachelor, a boy of Harvard or Tech, draws immense attention of the reader. The boy in question was 36 years old who recently married. The grand lady’s 68 years old daughter, Helen, visits her once in a week to arrange things for her. One evening when she talks to the tenant in his room, Mrs. Croft shouts from below that it is improper for a lady to talk to a man who she is not married with, without a chaperon and that she should not reveal her age or wear a dress so high above the ankle. She compels both to come down. Helen says, “For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”
Mrs. Croft sniffed, “I’d have her arrested.”
Apparently, she did not leave her house or read a newspaper for decades. If she learns now that most of the girls there get pregnant and abort before marriage, what would she do?
The tenant shifted to a new house when his wife Mala arrived, keeping a lasting relation with the lady. Once he took Mala to her who never had seen a woman in sari. Mala, fresh from suburbs of Bengal, stood erect before her, folding her hands on her chest with a dot painted on her forehead and bracelets stacked on her wrists, and red dye still vivid on her feet. After scrutinizing her for long, “At last Mrs. Croft declared, with the equal measures of disbelief and delight I knew well: ‘She is a perfect lady!’”
After this the husband understood his wife better and they, shunning all shyness, became intimate. In the course of time they became veterans in American culture but renewed their love for the life they left behind. When their son became a Harvard University student, the father tells, “We drive to Cambridge to visit him, or bring him home for a weekend, so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speak in Bengali, things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die.”
In “Mrs.Sen’s” Jhumpa has shown that most of the immigrant wives accompanying their husbands to America feel everything about them foreign, feel lonely and hopeless- fish out of water-at the beginning. Some of them struggle all the remaining years trying to fit themselves in their surroundings as did Mrs. Sen, a typical representative of such women, who accompanied her professor husband to New England and took up the job of babysitter of a 11 year old boy, Eliot, after his school hours, at her house to fill up her lonely afternoons as she did not know to drive to Eliot’s home.
She wears sari elaborately, vermilion powder marks the parting of her hair and she wears flip flops as does her husband. She fails to learn driving, exerts herself too much to secure fish daily. Once a passenger complains against Mrs. Sen who had a smelly bag of fish on her lap while she travelled with Eliot.
Frankly she asks, “Eliot, if I began screaming right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?” At home in India, she explains, “Just raise your voice a bit or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighbourhood and half of another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.”
I take up the first story, “A Temporary Matter”, last as it seems to be A Permanent Matter. The story is about the separation of a young couple because of the still-birth of their first child. Little unusual though, the story has progressed step by step revealing the secrets of each to the other to the last, confirming their parting like a plaintive song. It is very touchy.
Shoba and Shukumar (pronounced Shobha and Sukumar), the young second generation Bengali couple, are settled and dated in America before their marriage. They were habituated to American way of living. The writer devised in this story a special way to bring out their undisclosed secrets, to serve the purpose.
There was a notice that there would not be power for an hour for five days ahead in the evenings from 8 pm. Shoba welcomed it to help her scheme of separation. She had already been staying aloof from Shukumar but during the darkness they came closer to the extent that on the fourth evening they enacted their forgotten physical contact, love making, as they call it. She wished to play with her husband, proposing to tell each other during the darkness, the things they did not say earlier. They pointed to some dark corners of their heart. Though wary at the beginning, Shukumar became hopeful gradually. He began to cook and serve, clean utensils and do other household chores. He was still a research student but Shoba was a wage earner. She threw her final disclosure that she had already bought a flat for herself to live alone. A final blow, Shukumar realized, a real impasse. He too had one, rightly not disclosed earlier to help save another shock to the mother of the still-born child- its sex. When it happened Shukumar was not present. None of them new the sex of the child. But actually he had arrived well in time to take the child in his hand- he was a male. Shoba was not awake. This was his last disclosure.
The darkness was over. Power restored. “Shukumar stood up and stacked his plates on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink but instead of running the tap he looked out of the window. Outside the evening was still warm . . . . the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. The wept together, for the things they now knew.”
A serious thing happened very silently though their hearts had a tumultuous experience. At last the question remains- if for such a cause of not giving birth to a child, specially male child, the husband remarries or rejects his housewife, as happened in India some years ago, would the people not blame him for such an act of cruelty? Here it happened the other way- the earning wife separated herself from the househusband, though in a different cultural milieu.
‘Interpreter of Maladies’ was written in 1999 and ‘The Namesake’ in 2003. Another five years passed before the publication of ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, the second book of her short stories. Though the stories of immigrants still continue to occupy the pages of her book, Jhumpa has in the mean time spread more of her roots in American soil. The title of the book has been borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Custom House”.
The forces of globalization have shifted more Indian intellectuals- professors, students and professionals, as are the main characters of her stories, across the countries. Sense of alienation and rootlessness have spread more. The area of operation of one third of the stories in the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ was India but all the eight stories in the second book of short stories have North America as the essential place of enactment of the dramas of life. Disease and death, frustration and desolation have occupied more space. Cultural dissonances too have become more prominent. Most of the characters in this book and the novel have suffered loss and degradation. On the whole there is a sense of pessimism prevailing in these stories for which critics have linked her work to Hawthorne and J D Salinger, fellow New England writers.
Her nice ways of telling tales with all the details does not leave any scope for ambiguity. She is a realist to the core, straight forward in her dealings with her characters. Her style of writing is attractive and alluring. One feels struck by it. Stories in this book are more complex but well knit. In spite of the pessimism or because of it, they are more compelling. One cannot deny the beauty of attraction for such stories as “Unaccustomed Earth”, “Hell-Heaven” or the three connected stories, a trilogy or may be called a short novel about the life, love and destiny of Hema and Kaushik, comprising the whole second part of the book.
Most of the stories in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ are bigger than those in the earlier collection. Of the lot, “Nobody’s Business” is less disturbing or provocative. It begins with a Bengali girl, Sangeeta, who really went by a short form of her name, Sang. It is a sort of exploring relationship between young men and women. There is not much of a serious business hear for anybody to bother.
“A Choice of Accommodations” begins with the propriety of selecting a room in a hotel for the nice stay of a couple. The boarders are Amit Sarkar, A Bengali who studied in America and after some other affairs settled with Megan, an American bride. The reason for the sojourn was to attend a marriage party of their common friend, Pam. A piece of Amit’s thought or the author’s in the story is significant:
“His daughters looked nothing like him, nothing like his family, and in spite of the distance Amit felt from his parents, this fact bothered him, that his mother and father had passed down nothing physically, to his children. Both Maya and Monika had inherited Megan’s coloring without a trace of Amit’s deeply tan skin and black eyes, so that apart from their vaguely Indian names they appeared fully American. ‘Are they yours?’ people sometimes asked when he was alone with them, in stores or at the playground in the park.” (p.94)
“Only Goodness” is a story of parents settled in Penn, America and their children- elder, a daughter and younger, a son- grown up there from their childhood. It is not that children grow nice in India and go astray in America but when middle class people go there, while their habits remain almost the same, socially or otherwise, their children, with new-found freedom and acquired habits and customs prevalent there, which are taboos here, sometimes reach their adulthood like an image of worries and anxieties to their parents.
The story begins like this-“It was Sudha who’d introduced Rahul to alchohol, one weekend he came to visit her in Penn”-(p.128)
Both of them were students then, Rahul in the junior year of high school. When Rahul graduated from high school, his parents, highly elated, threw a grand party of 200 friends.
While the daughter, highly educated, married her English husband Roger and lived in London, Rahul did not prosecute his studies much further. He once wrote, “Dear Didi,
I hope this is you . . . . I have a job at a restaurant, as a line cook.” (p.160)
Didi invited him to visit her and see her 10 months old baby, Neel.
“While Sudha regarded her parents’ separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer, Rahul was impermeable . . .” (p.138)
Rahul, a drunkard with bad habits and thoughts, said, “No one dragged them here, Baba left India to get rich and Ma married him because she had nothing else to do.” (p.138)
Temporarily Rahul recovered from his drinking habits and came to his elder sister with whom he was always in good relationship. She had full affection for him too. After passing a few good days there one day Rahul volunteered to keep the child Neel with him giving chance to Sudha and Roger to go together to view a movie after a long time. Though suspicious, they moved. Once in the interval she phoned Rahul at home to learn that they were fine. Back home at night they found Neel in a precarious condition in the bathtub without the protective plastic ring, trembling. He could fall any moment, face down. They found Rahul, after search, in Roger’s study, asleep fully drunk. A glass tucked beneath the daybed.
The couple had enough of misunderstanding between them. Roger was extremely unhappy. They slept without food. Roger, “stiff as a board on his side.” Sudha unceremoniously asked her brother to leave for the airport the next morning even before the schedule time, giving him the fare for the cab after arranging its arrival to their door step.
“She thought of her parents, who had believed their children were destined to succeed, had fumbled when one failed. After everything Rahul had put them through they never renounced him, never banished him. They were incapable of shutting him out. But Roger was capable, and Sudha realized, as the wakeful night passed, that she was capable, too.” (p.171)
The title of the story is “Hell-Heaven” but I prefer to make it “Heaven-Hell”, following the actual Bengali phrase; “Akash-Patal”, meant to differentiate the things of the opposite poles. Akash is sky or heaven and Patal is the nether world or hell, so heaven-hell difference. However, let us begin.
It is a real love story; not only love of the Bengalis for Bengali culture and Bangla language as others too feel the same way, but unexpected love, shameless love and triangular love between men and women resulting in ties of love broken, broken family bonds. Love affairs happen very naturally and when broken, it has equally forceful reasons. And Bengali woman’s love for cooking and serving relatives and friends, sitting for eating together, are often described in detail in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. The women who accompanied their husbands in her stories are mostly dependent housewives, disempowered, as they say.
Pranab Chakraborty, a brilliant student in America, was gasping for proper food he was habituated to take and for the missing community relationship in the vicinity. He became desperate. One whole afternoon he followed Aparna and her daughter, suspecting them to be Bengalis- “My mother was wearing the red and white bangles, unique to Bengali married women, and a Tangail sari, and had a thick stem of vermilion powder in the center parting of her hair, and the full round face and large dark eyes that are so typical of Bengali women.
“He tapped my mother on the shoulder and inquired in English, if she might be a Bengali.” (p.61)
Pranab observed some more details in her, including her Bangla words as he heard but he was so new to America that he took nothing for granted.
Thence he regularly called on them and she, his Bodudi or elder brother’s wife, regularly served him food. Her husband, it came to be known, lived near Pranab’s house in Calcutta. He became their family friend. With loud laughter, frequent smoking and profuse praise for food, he became more than a relative to them. Though he never so felt about her, Aparna fell in love with him. “It is clear to me now that my mother was in love with him,” (p.67) the daughter said.
When afterwards Pranab was in love with Deborah, Boudi became jealous, a crestfallen woman. Deborah became jealous of her too, sensing her love for Pranab. After twenty three years of their marriage Pranab divorced Deborah with children, falling in love with another married Bengali woman-“Destroying two families in the process.” (p.81)
There was enough clash of ideas and customs during the marriage ceremony and later in Thanksgiving ceremony at Pranab’s residence. At the end of the programme Pranab proposed a walk on the beach by the party to which Deborah’s side of the family readily agreed but “None of the Bengalis wanted to go, preferring to sit with their tea and cluster together at one end of the room, speaking freely after the forced chitchat with the Americans during the meal.” (p.79) But Sudha wished to go her way and won the game finally.
“My mother and I had also made peace; she had accepted the fact that I was not only her daughter but a child of America as well.” (p.81-82)
Pennsylvania, America, is the “unaccustomed Earth” where the first generation settlers, Ruma and Romi’s parents came to strike their roots. Ruma and Romi grew up to adulthood. Romi lived separately without almost any connection with his parents. Ruma settled with her husband, Adam and their only child Akash, at Seattle. She resigned the lucrative job of practicing law to raise Akash while expecting another child in January next. After the expiry of their mother, her father sold their spacious house carrying the nitty-gritty of their memories and shifted to a small apartment. Ruma was very sad for all these but kept herself in touch with her father every evening over the phone. After the demise of her mother, her father took to travelling places in Europe. After a big trip and a pause he was preparing himself for another trip. It was he who proposed a visit to Ruma to see her child and their settlement in a nice house.
“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” (p.4) she told him over the phone but feared that he would become her responsibility. “She could not imagine tending to him as her mother had . . . . Still not offering a place in her home made her feel worse. It was a dilemma Adam would not understand” (p.7), she felt. He would be on tour when her father was to visit. Ruma felt that by allowing her to leave her job, by having a next baby and by splurging on a beautiful house, Adam was helping her. He agreed to her keeping her father but reminded her of her added responsibilities in future and that her father was in sound health. It was a delicate position.
When he came, “She was struck by the degree to which her father resembled an American in his old age. With his grey hair and fair skin he could have been from anywhere.” (p.11) It was her mother who could not have matched him. But at home with them she took sides with her mother in daily affairs.
Father and daughter enjoyed a full week together. Akash loved his Dadu or grandfather and accompanied him to the garden as he dug the ground, planted flower bushes, brought gardening implements and compost from nursery and watered plants. The boy became happier. He slept with him. At night “He turned to face his sleeping grandson, the long lashes and rounded cheeks reminding him of his own children when they were young. He was suddenly conscious that he would probably not live to see Akash into adulthood . . .” (p.51)
On the last day Ruma demanded of him to stay with them. She insisted on him to consider even after going.
“He knew that it was not for his sake that the daughter was asking him to live here. It was for hers. She needed him as he’d never felt sh’d needed him before . . . . the part of him that would never cease to be a father, felt obliged to accept. But . . . . HHe did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life.” (p.53)
He remembered his wife at an early age, busy with children and husband. Ruma too chose that life but he advised her to seek employment. “He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage . . .” (p.54)
Another reason for his remaining non-committal was that he felt drawn to another lady, a widow, Mrs. Meenakshi Bagchi, who travelled with him and would again travel in the next trip. He wrote her a card in Bangla which Ruma could not read. He misplaced it though he had taken a stamp from her to post. After he left the card was found with Akash who innocently kept it.
“She stared at the card and instantly she knew, just as she’d known from the expression on the surgeon’s face what had happened to her mother on the operating table. Here in a handful of sentences she could not even read, was the explanation, the evidence that it was not just with Akash that her father had fallen in love.” (p.58)
She affixed a stamp on it and dropped it in the appropriate box so it could reach the recipient’s hand in time.
“Once in a Lifetime” is told by Hema in the first person and “Year’s End” is told by Kaushik in the like manner. “Going Ashore” is the third story linking the lives of Kaushik and Hema, their parents and friends, told by the narrator but the closing chapter is reminisced by Hema again. The three stories are independent but linked too, carrying Hema and Kaushik from their childhood to their adult years and beyond. The three stories are not continuous. In the middle they do not meet. One almost remains absent in the memory of the other. Again they suddenly meet in a different continent in a difficult situation. In my opinion these three combined story is the best creation of Jhumpa Lahiri, so far.
Kaushik and Hema first meet in a farewell party thrown by Hema’s parents, given to Dr. Chaudhury and his wife, Parul with their son, Kaushik, who after years’ stay at Cambridge, were leaving for their place, Calcutta, in 1974. Hema was six and Kaushik nine years old then.
After seven years they came back to the house of Hema’s parents at Boston to live for sometime till they arranged their own accommodation. The guests with their extravagant habits stayed on till the breaking point but eventually moved to a luxurious house on the North Shore. Hema and Kaushik were 13 and 16 years old then. Kaushik unexpectedly retained the American accents in his speech. He was given HeHHma’s room to sleep. Hema was shifted elsewhere. Hema’s father and mother Shibani remained a perfect host all along. Parul mentioned that they came by first class with fabulous expense where besides all comforts and drinks, they were served even cavier but she kindly remembered Shibani’s cooking. She remained very coquettish throughout her stay. And the first class!
“Once in a lifetime,” she said, smiling, “right?” It was a gift to her fortieth birthday; her husband was proud of the extravagance, “Who knows?” he said, “It could become a terrible habit.” (p.233)
“I was secretly thrilled that you would be sleeping here. You would absorb my presence, I thought. Without having to do anything you would come to know me and like me.” (p.234) Hema reminisced.
It was the first sprouting of love in a teenager. But Kaushik did not notice her, paid no attention to her presence. Parul bought saris, sweaters, borrowed saris from Shibani and always spent her money and time lavishly. “There was your mother, wrapped up in a robe, perched morosely on the edge of the bathtub, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette.” (p.243)
“‘Such a lovely evening’, your mother recalled, her voice betraying a sadness that all of them seemed to share. ‘How different things were!’” (p.248)
At Kaushik’s insistence Hema accompanied him to a wooded area at the back of their house. He stopped at an already familiar place to him and digging the snows found the tombs of Simonds. Kaushik said, ‘It makes me wish we weren’t Hindu, so that my mother could be buried somewhere. But she’s made us promise we’ll scatter her ashes into the Atlantic.’
There he gave Hema a terrible information that his mother was suffering from incurable breast cancer and that they came back to America to avoid relatives and friends hanging around her, so she may die peacefully.
“Year’s End” begins with, “I didn’t attend my father’s wedding.” (p.252)
When Kaushik was in the final year, his father visited Calcutta and married Chitra, a widow with two teenager daughters. Though he came home as his father called, he did not hobnob with them. Since Chitra’s thick long hairs in her hand reminded him of his ailing mother’s falling hairs due to disease, he hated her. He always referred her by name. Though he behaved almost properly with all, including the two teenager step-sisters, he was furious as he found, once arriving from outside, that they had taken out photos of her mother and were scrutinizing them.
“‘You have no right to be looking at those’ I told them, ‘They don’t belong to you, do you understand?’”
As they were trembling and tear rolled down their eyes, “Words continued to pour out of me, words that should not have been uttered . . . ‘Well, you’ve seen it for yourselves, how beautiful my mother was. How much prettier and more sophisticated than yours. Your mother is nothing in comparison. Just a servant to wash my father’s clothes and cook his meals. That’s the only reason she’s here, the only reason both of you are here.’” (pp.286-87)
They stood staring down at the carpet. Kaushik took the shoebox wherein his mother’s photos were kept. His father, always wearing an attitude of irritated disappointment after his mother’s death, kept almost none of her things, distributing them to others. The girls never divulged Kaushik’s words to anyone, thus silently punishing him, he thought. Even they politely behaved during the next meeting.
But Kaushik did not stay there for long. Almost without notice he left driving his car and drove north almost hitting Canada. At times it was horrible, desolate and unbearable as he was inexperienced and yet he relished it in a sense. The sea was nothing like the North Sea Shore of Massachusetts. “The sky was different, without color, taut and unforgiving. But the water was the most unforgiving thing, nearly black at times, cold enough, I knew, to kill me, violent enough to break me apart. The waves were immense, battering rocky beaches without sand.” (289) Somewhere there he buried the photos of his mother with much pain.
A week before his graduation his father informed that he was selling out the house and moving in a less traditional one in a less isolated suburb of Boston. “There were other Bengalis nearby and an Indian grocery in the town, things that were more important to Chitra than the proximity of the ocean and Modernist architecture had been for my mother.” (p.292)
After graduation Kaushik decided to travel to South America to try his luck.
“Going Ashore” is the end piece of the trio. After graduation Kaushik, who wandered through Latin America in 1987, living off his father’s money, but gradually his photo journalism was accepted, paid for and prized. Without fear, in the firing between guerrillas and Government forces and other groups, he lived with a friend, Doglous and moved through Patagonia, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Israeli border, becoming alone at last. Eventually he was taken to Italy and there he got an offer in a paper from Hong Kong, a position of photo editor, based on his reputation.
Invited for a gathering at Edo and Paola’s, he parked his car at a suitable place and turning he noticed a woman on the sidewalk, staring down at some map. As he addressed her in polite Italian she looked up, confused. “He realized, in spite of her dark hair and fitted leather coat, that she was not Italian. That in fact she was Indian. That he needn’t have used the polite form . . . her face was one he’d known.” (p.310)
Hema was at Rome with a study grant and visiting lectureship. Though she had affairs there with a married man, Julian, and both had made contacts with others in the meantime, Kaushik was her first love. They became happy. Seeing them together everyone realized that they were old friends. They loved each other hungrily, living together for some days. Listening to the talks of a holidaying party at a restaurant Kaushik said to Hema, “They have lived here, in each other’s company, all their lives. They will die here.”
“I envy them that,” Hema said.
“I never belonged to any place that way.”
Kaushik laughed. “You’re complaining to the wrong person.” (p.320)
This feeling lives with them- rootlessness; living with many, real love rarely visiting them. They felt tired in spite of temporary relaxations. With the woman’s natural instinct Hema wished to settle in life marrying Navin, a Punjabi man, who would come and settle in America, as negotiated through her parents now living in their native place, Calcutta. She met Navin, who was very enthusiastic to begin a family with her but Kaushik had no such idea; he remained a gypsy. Hema told him everything. Towards the close of their stay in Rome, Kaushik suddenly said, “Come with me.”
“To Hong Kong.” And then said, “don’t marry him, Hema.” (p.321)
“His face glowed with affection for her, with hope and she knew then that it was not just the wine talking, that he meant what he’d said.”
Cogitated inside, Hema thought, “He told her not to marry Navin, but he had not asked her to marry him, and Hema knew that it was not a fair trade.”
Tired of things, she wished a mooring. She was crying and was told, “You’re a coward.”
Upset for the first time by his touch, she moved away, “It’s too late, Kaushik,” she said. (pp.322-23)
I feel to recall here a similar situation in the life of Dr. Shashi and Kusum in the famous Bangla novel, ‘Putul Nacher Itikatha’ or the ‘Story of the Dancing Dolls’, by the famous novelist, Manick Bandopadhyay. Shashi never responded to the shy but ardent love of Kusum though they lived in the same village. Long after, when once he came to ask her to come to a lonely palmyra grove, she was amazed. With feeling of grievance she said, “What can I tell you Chhoto Babu, you understand much. If a reddened hot iron rod is kept aside, doesn’t it get cold gradually? . . . Is that Kusum living any where? She has died long back.” 4
And Hema left. She was married with all pomp and splendour. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Kaushik went to the beach, morosed, forlorn, fully drunk. He moved in a boat with a party of tourists. At last, “The sea was as warm and welcoming as a bath. His feet touched the bottom, and so he let go.” (p.331)
A small obituary ran in The New York Times. And Hema’s mother rang up from Calcutta to ask over the phone, “Remember the Chaudhuris, the family that once stayed with us?” (p.333)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s only novel is “The Namesake”. She may now be working on another but that is talking in the future. Of all her works The Namesake seems to be the most autobiographical. Before coming to that part we may give an outline of the story, now cinematized also.
Though simple, it delineates, takes us through the cultural mix and contradiction of American and Bengali-Indian tradition at each stage of life, enacted mostly in America. Ashima Bhaduri is married to Ashoke Ganguly, both from Calcutta through negotiation and arrangements by their parents and other guardians. They had a long joyous life and much after the death of the husband the wife cries alone for the loss of her husband, feeling lonely at the severance of the permanent bond of life. On the other hand, their daughter and son both had a short but troubled married life, resulting in divorce though such marriages which were the results of free mixing, dating and then selection. While daughter Sonia had another contact, a new boyfriend with whom she was going to be married, her son Gogol at the age of 32 is quite uncertain about his marital life.
The story runs through another thread, naming. While in India there are two or more names given leisurely to a child- a pet name and an official one, in America the name has to be finalized at birth. The authority for naming the child rested with his grandmother. But her naming part never materialized due to postal loss of one of her letters or for other reasons. The real naming remaining pending, his father named him at birth after his very favourite Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. He became Gogol Ganguly. But he was being teased by school mates for his name. He began to hate his name. After reaching the appropriate age he changed his name legally through a court decree, to become Nikhil Ganguly. But for all practical purposes he remained Gogol to all old acquaintances, family circle and friends.
This Gogol carries a special significance in the story as in the life of the writer. Ashoke, Gogol’s father, while reading Gogol met with a serious accident during a train journey. He was saved by chance when someone of the search team found him among the wreckage, moving a little with pages from the book in hand. He was inspired to read Russian writers by his grandfather. Gogol, who immensely disliked the book, ‘The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol’, presented to him by his father on one of his birthdays, opened it to read with interest long after the death of his father, just before his mother’s parting for Calcutta, while she was busy hosting her last party from their Pembarton Road house which was then sold. This was also the first party thrown after the death of her husband.
Jhumpa Lahiri once quoted Dostoivsky saying, “We all come out of Gogol’s overcoat.” With reference to that when she was questioned about Gogol’s influence in her life, she said, “The Overcoat is such a superb story. It really does haunt me the way it haunts the character of Ashoke in the novel . . . of course, without the inspiration of Nikolai Gogol, without his name and without his writing my novel would never have been conceived. In that respect, this book comes out of Gogol’s Overcoat, quite literally.” 3
Jhumpa, it seems, is an admirer of Russian literature. Some critics have compared some traits of her writing with works of Tolstoy, Chekov and Hemingway.
The author too suffered from an identity crisis for some early years of her education. Jhumpa is her pet name which her school authorities recorded as an official name as the easier one than her other names like Nilanjana or Sudeshna.
Through her works Jhumpa Lahiri has shown the result of mixed culture in the second generation Bengali Indians. Most of them could not assimilate the whole of the foreign culture, had some inherent dilemma in them. Some of them suffered for causes which may be applicable anywhere. Usually the first generation Bengalis maintained their Indian identity which includes their cultural practices. This she has shown vis-à-vis other cultural habits as contrast which happened in the unrolling of the stories. Some dazzling contrasts may be cited from “The Namesake”.
“Seeing the two of them curled up on the sofa in the evenings, Gerald’s head resting on Lydia’s shoulder, Gogol is reminded that in all his life he has never witnessed a single moment of physical affection between his parents. Whatever love exists between them is an utterly private, uncelebrated thing.”
“That’s so depressing,” (p.138) Maxine, his girl friend says.
Gogol and Maxine, on their way to vacation for two weeks, come to visit Gogol’s parents on special request, before the departure of his father to Ohio on grant for research. Let us hear them talking-
“ ‘Hi, Ma’, he says, leaning over, giving his mother a quick kiss. ‘This is Maxine. Max, this is my mother. Ashima.’
‘It’s so nice to finally meet you, Ashima,’ Maxine says, leaning over and giving his mother a kiss as well.” (p.146)
Let us now see a meeting among Bengali friends-“The families drop by one another’s homes unexpected on Sunday afternoons. They drink tea with sugar and evaporated milk . . . . They sit in circles on the floor, singing songs by Nazrul and Tagore, passing a thick yellow clothbound book of lyrics among them as Dilip Nandy plays the harmonium. They argue riotously over the films of Ritwik Ghatak versus those of Satyajit Ray.” (p.38)
Now a contrast between the gatherings at two different parties: “They are an intelligent, attractive, well-dressed crowd. Also a bit incestuous. The vast majority of them know each other from Brown, and Gogol can’t ever shake the feeling that half the people in the room have slept with one another. There is usual academic talk around the table, versions of the same conversation he can’t participate in . . . .” (p.236)
“How different they are from his own parents’ parties, cheerfully unruly evenings to which there were never fewer than thirty people invited, small children in tow. Fish and meet served side by side, so many courses that people had to eat in shifts . . . .They sat where they could, in the different rooms of the house, half the people having finished before the other half began.” (p.140)
Teenager and young Gogol was against his parents but as he grows older, gets experiences, he reconsiders and thinks that there is nothing absolutely good in any side. His mother, Ashima, who was a housewife only, learns too through time and experiences. She fears not to go back to Calcutta alone. “She is not the same Ashima who had once lived in Calcutta. She will return to India with an American Passport. In her wallet will remain Massachusetts driver’s license, her social security card.” (p.276)
Towards the end when partying people are gone, the house stands sold, Gogol and Sonia are ready to live in their own apartments and she stands eventually to go back alone. The people and things she and her husband rejoiced are dispersed. That everything changes, that everything is in a flux, does not console her. “Ashima feels lonely suddenly, horribly, permanently alone, and briefly, turned away from the mirror she sobs for her husband. She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and now in its own way foreign.” (p.278)
Jhumpa Lahiri the Writer
Jhumpa Lahiri has worked with characters she knows, knows the areas she has traversed. Intgellectuals, academicians, scientists, professors and engineers are the people she knows best as she herself is one of them, having done Ph. D in Renaissance studies, attended Creative Writing programme, completed fellowship at Province town’s Fine Art work center. She is a true realist, writing without resorting to secondary ways of myth or symbol in fiction, ways of one who usually does not know the details of the path he tries to follow. Her broad areas of writing- cultural mix and clash among ethnic Bengalis and Americans- is a very interesting area of learning and study of people, race and culture, without any bias. It leads to further understanding among the people paving the way towards the establishment of peace.
Many of the characters in her stories and novel wish to mix up or marry within their community. They come back to that even after some misadventure somewhere else. We may, for example refer to Gogol and Moushumi (“The Namesake”), Shoba and Shukumar (“A Temporary Matter”), Searching out the name of Mr. Pirzada (“When Mr. Pirzada came to Dine”), Mala and her husband bringing their son home on weekends (“The third and final continent”), Ruma’s widower father’s post retirement choice of a Bengali widow for friendship (“Unaccustomed Earth”), Pranab’s last love for a married Bengali woman (“Hell-Heaven”), Amit Sarkar’s grief that his daughters did not inherit any physical feature of him or of his parents (“A Choice of Accommodations”), Dr. Chaudhury remarries a Bengali widow (“Year’s End”) and Hema and Kaushik meeting at last which did not last though- (“Going Ashore”)
Lahiri is nostalgic about the past and it seems that she strongly wishes to go back to that origin, in this life or later- a love unshakeable.
But we find that everything is fast changing. The way she has presented Bengali girls and married women have also undergone radical changes, not only there but here too. The world is getting reduced in space through revolution in travel and communication, through continuous movement, through continues mix of culture and tendency to emulate others, particularly among the youngsters. Women are tending to become men. Yet the tendency to preserve one’s heritage and ethnic identity is strongly felt which is very natural for the human existence is savoured in varieties, not in uniformity. There should be efforts to maintain ethnic identity in all colours biologically, rather than losing them through generations, which will be an irreparable loss to humanity.
Notes and References
1 As quoted by Boris Kacheka, in his article titled, Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t afraid to provoke tears, or calls of déjà vu’, published in the ‘New Yorker’ on March 27, 2008.
2 Jhumpa Lahiri on her Debut Novel. An Interview with the author by Arun Aguiar. A Houghton Mifflin Company Release; as reproduced by Hinduism.about.com
4 Manik Bandopadhyay. Putul Nacher Itikatha. Kolkata; Prakash Bhavan. 2008. 38th edition. p. 190
1 The Namesake. London; Flamingo (An imprint of Harper Colins Publishers).2003
2 Interpreter of Maladies. New Delhi; Harper Collins Publishers India. 1999
3 Unaccustomed Earth. New York; Alfred A. Knopf. 2008
4 Manik Bandopadhyay. Putul Nacher Itikatha. Kolkata; Prakash Bhavan. 2008. 38th edition.
Remapping the Female Map: Jhumpa Lahiri and Manju Kapur. Ed. Kalpna Rajput. Jaipur: Yking Books. 2012 (Jhumpa Lahiri’s World of Ficiton.p.63)
Note: She has written her second novel, The Lowland- (2013) which was not included in this Essay
India Forever India
Efforts to Desecrate Ancient Indian Heritage foiled
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the ruling British scholars took special interest in finding the truth of ancient India. They made in depth study of Sanskrit language and its relation with the other European groups of languages. Their similarities led them to name the whole group of languages as Indo European language of which Aryan comprised the leading part. After the discovery of Harrappa and Mohenjo-Daro sites, known as the Indus Valley Civilisation, the rulers and the like minded scholars found out, to satisfy their superiority, that Aryans were the people originating in Europe spread to India and other areas who destroyed the Dravidian or the Indus Valley Civilisaiton. Beginning with Mortimar Wheeler numbers of foreign scholars took interest to prove that India had the Dravidian people and other ignoramuses like hill living tribes who were driven out by the superior Aryan people. Many Indian scholars too helped them in explaining and elaborating such theories. Frederick Max Muller, the German scholar living in England, favoured specially by none of the two countries, took great interest in proving the above theory with apparent show of educating and civilising India with the aim of and by way of conversion to Christian religion. Historians and Indologists like Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, R. K. Mookerjee, D. D. Kosambi, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, K. D. Sethna, N. Rajaram, Romila Thapar, and many others were and are on the job of elucidating the Indian past.
Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) was a great Indologist and scholar who twisted his scholarship, sometimes contradicting himself, to propagate his ideas for a distinct purpose of denigrating Indian past, to help getting it converted to Christianity. Professor Ratna Basu of Calcutta University in her paper “Max Muller’s Indology Revisited” observed (Read at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata; 15-16 December, 2000),
“If we survey his long life, we find India alone had been the centre of all his herculean intellectual efforts and outstanding academic creations. He tried to uproot our established perceptions of our own past and transplant new ones in their place. We had believed that our Vedas had a divine origin and had existed from eternity. He, by publishing for the first time the full text of the Rig-Veda along with the 14th century commentary by Sayana in six volumes between 1849 and 1873, tried to convince us that Rig-Veda was man made and that its antiquity did not go beyond 1200 B.C. We knew that Rig-Veda led us through a maze of multiplicity of cosmic deities to one ultimate reality, but Max Muller told us that Rig-Veda reflected the religious yearnings of a nature fearing primitive man and it neither represented polytheism, nor monotheism, rather henotheism, a word coined by him.”
She further wrote, “Not that Max Muller was not aware of the hoary antiquity of the Rig-Veda. In his Autobiography, written in his last days and published after his death by his son, he admits: ‘As to the actual date of the Veda … if we were to place it at 5000 B.C. I doubt whether any body could reduce such a date, while if we go back beyond the Veda, and come to measure the time required for the formation of Sanskrit, and of the Proto-Aryan language, I doubt very much whether even 5000 years would suffice for that. There is an unfathomable depth in language, layer following after layer, long before we arrive at roots, and what a time and what an effort must have been required for their elaboration, and for elaboration of the ideas expressed in them.’ (Muller/120-121)
“Max Muller knew the thing at heart but wrote the opposite and talked controversially. His design is clear from his letter to his wife in 1866, ‘I am convinced, though I shall not live to see that day, that this edition of mine and the translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India … . It is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.’ (Max Muller/V.1)
“In a speech delivered in the hall of St. John’s College on request of the Vicar of St. Giles in 1887 he said. ‘When I undertook to publish for the University Press a series of translations of the most important of these sacred books, one of my objects was to assist the missionaries. What shall we think of a missionary who came to convert us, and who had never read our Bible . . .’ (Max Muller/V.2/455)
While he wrote for his own purpose it struck the right cord in another heart without his knowing. Sri Aurobindo’s biographer writes, “While reading Max Muller’s translations in the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ series, he came across the idea of self or Atman. This struck him as some reality and he decided in his mind that Vedanta has something that is to be realized in life.” (Sri Aurobindo/35)
It will not be out of place to add the address of Lord Macaulay to the British Parliament on 2 February, 1835 to view the similarity of their purpose.
“ I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that, I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.” (Web; http://g20dalycollege.com/index.php/quet/lord-macaulays-speech-in-the-british-parliament-on-2nd-february-1835.html)
Taking a clue from Professor Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu made huge propaganda in favour of Tamil language and covertly of the community for his political purpose which was resented later by other personalities of similar importance. True that Tamil is one of the oldest extant languages of which some links were discovered by professor Parpola with the Indus Valley scripts which remains, in spite of all claims, so far undeciphered. Asko Parpola was awarded ‘Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award’ on 23 June 2010 by the President of India at Chennai with much fanfare. Let us quote from the speech given by Parpola on the occasion, as reported by a newspaper: “‘While Tamils were entitled to ‘some pride’ for having preserved so well the linguistic heritage of the Indus valley civilization, Tamil was not alone in India in possessing a rich heritage’, Asko Parpola, Professor-Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland, said on Wednesday. . . . ‘There are, of course, different opinions, but many critical scholars agree that even the Rig-Veda, collected in the Indus Valley about 1000 BCE, has at least half a dozen Dravidian loan words,’ he told a large gathering.” (Hindu/24.6.10)
In the introductory part titled, “The Indus Civilization and its historical context”, Parpola, the author of the book writes, “No unambiguous information has been preserved to tell us the names of the Indus kings or their subjects, the name of the gods they worshipped, or even what language they spoke. The Harappan language and religion continue to be among the most vexing problems of South Asian protohistory.” (Parpola/ 3)
But inside the book he has the other story to tell following the footsteps of some early Western scholars with some details like, “In the third millennium when the Aryan languages had probably not yet arrived and the Gangetic Valley had not yet become intensively cultivated . . . the Harappan languages are likely to have formed the majority of the South Asian population . . . . the Dravidian family is the best match for Harappan among the known non-Aryan families of long standing in South Asia . . . . about one-quarter of the entire population spoke Dravidian.” (Parpola/169) He thought that the Aryan language did not arrive before1000 B.C.
Let us now come to Sri Aurobindo, the scholar, social thinker and philologist who was the greatest interpreter of Vedas as he linked up with the origin of it as seen or heard by the Rishis, the recorders of such Shruti, through his yogic power. He found out the symbolic meaning of the words of Veda and wrote them with elaborate explanation which was far from the ken of an archaeologist or a scholar. He wrote as if visualizing the scene of awarding professor Parpola,
“The philologists have, for instance, split up, on the strength of linguistic differences, the Indian nationality into northern Aryan race and the southern Dravidian, but sound observation shows a single physical type with minor variations pervading the whole of India from Cape Comorin to Afghanistan. Language is therefore discredited as an ethnological factor. The races of India may be all pure Dravidians, if indeed such an entity as a Dravidian race exists or ever existed, or they may be pure Aryans, if indeed such an entity as an Aryan race exists or ever existed, or they may be a mixed race with one predominant strain, but in any case, the linguistic division of the tongues of India into the Sanskrit and Tamilic counts for nothing in that problem. Yet so great is the force of attractive generalisations and widely popularized errors that all the world goes on perpetuating the blunder talking of the Indo-European races, claiming or disclaiming Aryan kinship and building on that basis of falsehood the most far-reaching political, social or pseudo-scientific conclusion.” (Veda/553-554)
Let us read some more pieces out of the vast work he did on the Veda.
“The symbolism of the Veda depends upon the image of the life of man as a sacrifice, a journey and a battle. The ancient Mystics took for their theme the spiritual life of man, but, in order both to make it concrete to themselves and to veil its secrets from the unfit, they expressed it in poetical images drawn from the outward life of their age.” (Veda/ 175)
“Secret words that have kept indeed their secret ignored by the priest, the ritualist, the grammarian, the pundit, the historian, the mythologist, to whom they have been words of darkness or seals of confusion and not what they were to the supreme ancient forefathers and their illumined posterity . . .” (Veda/202)
These are the words of revelation by the yogi and the greatest interpreter of the Veda. If there are half a dozen Tamil loan words in Sanskrit language there are hundreds and hundreds of Sanskrit words in all the languages of South India. See everywhere; in personal names, names of shops and institutions and parks and in songs where they love to add Sanskrit words; in every temple Vedic chanting is done. Even when attempts were made to appoint priest from the common folk in Tamil Nadu it was resisted vehemently and the court had to disallow it. Again in October 2011 the Madras High Court dismissed a writ petition challenging the engagement of security guards from the pool run by other religious denomination for a temple under its jurisdiction, telling that even a contractor cannot be engaged if it is run by other religionists as the temple is Hindu temple and it is a matter of their faith; it is not a state affair. Sanskrit is the backbone, the flowing blood in all Indians; they love it with the love for their regional tongues. It is the source of the Mother Tongue of most of the north Indian languages. Ancient India still runs through the veins of India as the river Saraswati flows unseen. Indian people are the same with innumerable variations due to huge admixture in the past and present but basically, culturally India is one. Any fissiparous tendency and attempt is doomed to failure. Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, M. K. Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, K.D. Malavya, Jawharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and host of other great names in the nineteenth and twentieth century were the voices of integration and unity. Going forward in tune with the past, breaking from it whenever it is obscure and obsolete, is our holy aim.
Speaking about the vigour and achievement of India in the past Sri Aurobindo observed,
“Not only was India in the first rank in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, surgery, all the branches of physical knowledge which were practiced in ancient times, but she was, along with the Greeks, the teacher of the Arabs from whom Europe recovered the lost habit of scientific enquiry and got the basis from which modern science started. In many directions India had the priority of discovery,- to take only two striking examples among a multitude, the decimal notation in mathematics or the perception that the earth is a moving body in astronomy,- cala prithvi sthira bhati, the earth moves and only appears to be still, said the Indian astronomer many centuries before Galileo.” (Indian Culture/67)
In general, he said, “The ancient Indian culture attached quite as much value to the soundness, growth and strength of the mind, life and body as the old Hellenic or the modern scientific thought, although for a different end and a greater motive.” (Indian Culture/427-428)
The soul of Indi has survived all barbaric onslaughts for two thousand years. In the concluding part-4 of his ‘Indian Polity’ Sri Aurobindo’s ever positive mind summarised his long discourse on India. He said,
“India has never been nationally and politically one. India was for close on a thousand years swept by barbaric invasions and for another thousand years in servitude to successive foreign masters . . . . (Indian Culture/363)
He further analysed, “The problem that presented itself at the beginning was that of a huge area containing more than a hundred kingdoms, clans, peoples, tribes, races, in this respect another Greece, but a Greece of an enormous scale, almost as large as modern Europe.” (Indian Culture/366)
The whole of the continent was divided into many kingdoms or different divisions, there arose no question of political unity except under some great or powerful kings who won and unified as it happened during reign of Asoka, during the Mughal period and during the British period. India has peculiar mental and spiritual make up. This Sri Aurobindo explains, “The whole basis of Indian mind is its spiritual and inward turn, its propensity to seek the things of the spirit and the inner being first and foremost and to look at all else as secondary, dependent, to be handled and determined in the light of the higher knowledge and as an expression, a preliminary or field or aid or at least a pendent to the deeper spiritual aim,- a tendency therefore to create first on the inner plane and afterwards in its other aspects. This mentality and this consequent tendency to create from within outwards being given, it was inevitable that the unity India first created for herself should be the spiritual and cultural oneness.” (Indian Culture/366)
He further explained that Rome and Greece though militarily unified, could not endure. He did not find a fault in Indian mind, rather a special trend he found in it:
“It is due to this original peculiarity, to this indelible spiritual stamp, to this underlying oneness amidst all diversities that if India is not yet a single organized political nation, she still survives and is still India.
“After all, the spiritual and cultural is the only enduring unity and it is by a persistent mind and spirit much more than by an enduring physical body and outward organization that the soul of a people survives.” (Indian Culture/366-67)
- Max Muller, My Autography. Indian reprint, N. Delhi, 2002, pp. 120-121. Published in ‘Dialogue’; a quarterly journal of Astha Bharati. January – March, 2008. V. 9. No.3
2.The Hindu. Chennai, dated 24 June 2010
- Life & Letter. Max Muller. Asian Education Service. 2005. V.1 and V.2
- Deciphering The Indus Script. Asko Parpola. New Delhi; Replica Press Pvt. Ltd. 2000. p.3
- The Foundations of Indian Culture. Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry; SABCL, Sri Aurobindo Ashram. V.14.
(Chapter from my book, The Story of India’s Progress published by New Man Publication. Narwani, Parbhani, Maharashtra. 2014)
Nuclear Fission: a Threat to Peace
Ever since the dropping of two atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States of America the humanity has been crippled and haunted by fear psychosis. To protect themselves all the countries desire to be nuclear States. Thus fear and threat are haunting the world, prodding them to misuse the scientific knowledge in a devastating way. Cold war waves continue shaking the whole humanity. The most dangerous aspect of it is that it is in the hands of politicians who are a tiny part of humanity; not very bright and progressive always. The terrorist groups are ever threat to human existence and development, more so if they come to possess the nuclear force. The idea of weaponry lurks behind every effort to use the nuclear power for peaceful means.
The Situation in India
Preamble to the present Indo-Us Nuclear Agreement
During the Bangladesh War in the late 1971 the heavily armed US Aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, with nuclear missiles directed at India in the Bay of Bengal, goaded India to make the first nuclear explosion at Pokhran Range in 1974. It was followed by another explosion by a more nationalistic Government in 1998.
All the nuclear powers and those having capability to produce it went against India. The aftermath of its underground test in 1974 was that all the countries supplying technology, components and raw materials, led by USA, imposed sanction against India which almost dried the source of supply for more than 30 years. Though India made another test, Pokhran-2 in 1998 and fought the Kargil War successfully, she has never succumbed to the pressure to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The prospect of growing Indian market coupled with India’s efforts for some years to get the sanction annulled made the situation ripe for the completion of the Agreement with USA involving all other nuclear suppliers, forming the NSG or Nuclear Supply Group.
The Rationale of the Agreement
The primary need was to rejuvenate India’s nuclear energy programme. The contribution of nuclear energy up to the recent past was restricted to about three per cent of the total power generation of 1,28,000 mega watt. Thermal power contributed about 75 per cent of it, wind and nuclear power three per cent each and the rest being attributed to the hydroelectric power. It is said that India’s need for electric power in future will be so great that without the help of nuclear power she will not be able to walk alone. Another very important reason to go for this agreement may be found in the speech of the then Indian External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, on 17.11.2007. He said in the AICC meeting that the deal would enable India to empower itself and gain access to technology without which India could not develop and aspire to become a superpower. This reflects the view of the Indian Parliament too, it seems.
U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement or 123 Agreement
Signed between the United States of America and the Republic of India it is known as the U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement or Indo-US nuclear deal. The framework for this agreement was a July 18, 2005, joint statement by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and the then U.S. President George W. Bush, under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and, in exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India. This U.S.-India deal took more than three years to come to fruition as it had to go through several complex stages, including amendment of U.S. domestic law, specially the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a civil-military nuclear Separation Plan in India, an India-IAEA safeguards (inspections) agreement and the grant of an exemption for India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an export-control cartel that had been formed mainly in response to India’s first nuclear test in 1974. In its final shape, the deal places under permanent safeguards those nuclear facilities that India has identified as “civil” and permits broad civil nuclear cooperation, while excluding the transfer of “sensitive” equipment and technologies, including civil enrichment and reprocessing items even under IAEA safeguards. On August 18, 2008 the IAEA Board of Governors approved, and on February 2, 2009, India signed an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Once India brought this agreement into force, inspections began in a phased manner on the 35 civilian nuclear installations India identified in its Separation Plan. The deal is seen as a watershed in U.S.-India relations and introduces a new aspect to international nonproliferation efforts. On August 1, 2008, the IAEA approved the safeguards agreement with India, after which the United States approached the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant a waiver to India to commence civilian nuclear trade. The 45-nation NSG granted the waiver to India on September 6, 2008 allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The implementation of this waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.
The US House of Representatives passed the bill on September 28, 2008. Two days later, India and France inked a similar nuclear pact making France the first country to have such an agreement with India. On October 1, 2008 the US Senate also approved the civilian nuclear agreement allowing India to purchase nuclear fuel and technology from the United States. U.S. President, George W. Bush, signed the legislation on the Indo-US nuclear deal, approved by the U.S. Congress, into law, now called the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act, on October 8, 2008.The agreement was signed by then Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his counterpart, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on October 10, 2008.
United States passed the Hyde Act in 2006 besides the existing Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Prolonged discussions were made in the Indian Parliament. The Agreement is in force and India is acting according to the agreement. The most controversial was the Nuclear Liability Act which fixes the responsibility on the supplier for any accident resulting out of the supply. Experience tells us that many times they escape liability for which people suffer loss of life and various damages besides economic losses. Soli Sorabjee, an eminent Jurist, opined about the Nuclear Liability Act that the crucial rule of fixing the liability of the supplier in case of any accident to five years is ultra vires and invalid. India is not a signatory to Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but that is not any deterrence, it was explained in the Parliament by the Government side, towards India’s progress in the Nuclear Front with the green signals received from NSG and IAEA.
India is increasing its nuclear establishments and we often find clash with people who object to a plant being installed in their surroundings for fear of life, for fear of contamination in the generations to come. There was a public hearing in respect of Jaitpur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra in May 2010 when several questions were raised opposing the project by the public of the area. During the discussion it came to be known that the cost of production per unit of electricity would be Rs.9.90, a very high rate compared to the average, as per report. (The Hindu/ 17.5.2010).
After Maharashtra the fight has shifted to Tamil Nadu. People objected to the foundation of Kudankulam Newclear Power Project for months after months consecutively in which the Prime Minister intervened and the State Cabinet adopted a resolution to stop construction but it was relaxed later. Finally both the State and Central Governments have given go ahead signals approved by the Supreme Court of India. Power plants have been installed supported by all official authorities of India. The project is in operation. The coordinator of the KKNPP resistance group was quoted to have said that they would think of the other types of agitation than the non-violent one that they have been doing so long if the PM did not honour the sentiment of some 8 crore strong Tamils (The Hindu/10.10.2011). If they are apprehensive of a disaster involving the lives of large numbers of people they can agitate surely. Experiences gained the world over give such a warning signal. It is the fear and apprehension of the people in the area which might be in any other area of India.
India proceeds in spite of some preliminary hurdles. The fourth unit of Kaiga generating station, the country’s 20th nuclear power reactor achieved criticality on 27.11.2012. With this unit becoming operational India now ranks sixth in terms of production of nuclear energy, behind the US, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
After the launch of Agni-4 with a range of 3500 km in 2011, Agni-5 was launched in 2012. With the launch of Agni-5 on 20.4.2012, capable of hitting targets up to 5000 km (The Statesman/21.4.12), India reached a land mark in the missile technology. Chinese experts have expressed the opinion that an ICBM will have a range of 8000 km and Agni-5 has it in its capacity. It is said to be capable of delivering a one tonne of nuclear material to anywhere in China. All have claimed this to be a fantastic feat in the missile race worldwide; making its further progress towards one of the super power positions.
India is testing weapon carrying missiles on a regular basis, may be enriching nuclear ingredients as some agency reports, moving towards super power block in defense against more aggressive and unpredictable neighbours, which is true to its position in the present circumstances but it is far from beneficial to the mankind, far from creating a peaceful atmosphere. Even deadly gases may be highly dangerous for human life as in Bhopal gas leak Tragedy on 2-3 December 1984 in a Pesticide Plant killing more than 8000 people on near dates and larger numbers thereafter, horribly crippling and injuring more than 55000. It is a bitter reminder to Indians and all the people elsewhere of the sudden risk of life in playing with dangerous materials though it was much less virulent than the nuclear radiation. It also reminds one of the horrific effect of using different chemicals and gas during the warfare; whether at World Wars or in Vietnam.
According to reports there still are about one and a half lakh sick people disabled to do any worthwhile work. The cases for adequate compensation go on and the victims and their progeny still cry without proper compensation to their satisfaction. There cannot be any satisfaction in such disasters while the main culprit in the matter was allowed to escape, it is said. If leakage of chemicals may be so disastrous how much disastrous nuclear leakage or attack with nuclear bomb could be is given below.
The Horror of Nuclear Force
At Delhi University
Radiation seems to be a hidden entity which may any time raise its head. Let us remember the story of the gamma cell irradiator of the chemistry department of Delhi University which was there from 1968 but went into disuse since 1985 and as late as in February 2010 was sold to scrap dealers of Delhi. As they broke it into pieces, each such piece radiated poison, killing one on the spot and sending more to death gradually. (The Hindu/6.5.10)
Atom Bomb Explosion
The US attacked Hiroshima city on 6 August 1945with atom bomb killing 1,40,000 people and dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August killing 80,000 people creating unheard of disaster for mankind as a whole but “‘The nuclear death ash continues to emit radiation inside the human body even after 60-plus years,’ said an assistant professor, a member of the research team of the Nagasaki University. . . . ‘Plutonium passes through the human body when people are exposed to it from outside’, says Nanao Kamada, professor emeritus of radiation biology at Hiroshima University. But the study shows that it enters cells and emits radiations from inside the human body.” (The New Indian Express/8.8.09)
Everything moving and stationary, living and non-living, in the vicinity were obliterated. “A New Word, ‘Hibakusha’ was added to the Japanese language to describe the 1945 atom bomb victims and their yet-to-be-born children. Today, there are about 3.00.000 registered ‘Hibakushas’under free medical care but marriage with a ‘Hibakusha’ is taboo in the Japanese society.” (The Hindu/9.10.10)
On the occasion of the 67th anniversary of Nuclear Bombing, as reported in the Japan Times, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with others taking part in the annual Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony said that the calamity 67 years ago must never be forgotten and vowed Japan would act to ensure a nuclear-free world.
“We must never forget the horrors of nuclear weapons and we must never repeat this tragedy that has been engraved into the history of mankind,” Noda told the crowd, “as the only country to be victimized by an atomic bomb and experiencing its ravages, we have the noble responsibility to the human race and the future of the Earth to pass on the memories of this tragedy to the next generation.”
Referring to the March 11 2011 disasters and the meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Noda promised to try to reduce the nation’s reliance on atomic energy, “Based on the fundamental principle of not relying on nuclear power, we will aim in the mid-to-long term to establish an energy structure that will assure the safety of the people.” (The Japan Times/17.10.2012)
The disaster began during a systems test on Saturday, 26 April 1986 at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant, which is near the city of Pripyat and in proximity to the administrative border with Belarus and the Dnieper river. There was a sudden and unexpected power surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, an exponentially larger spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. From 1986 to 2000, 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus.
The accident raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry, as well as nuclear power in general, slowing its expansion for a number of years and forcing the Soviet Government to become less secretive about its procedures. The Government cover up of the Chernobyl disaster was a “catalyst” for glasnost, which paved the way towards the greater move away from the then system of governance prevailing there. Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. An UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The Chernobyl Forum estimates that the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas); this figure includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome, nine children who died of thyroid cancer and an estimated total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia.
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Fukushima nuclear disaster happened mainly on March 11, 2011. Radioactive cesium levels in most kinds of fish caught off the coast of Fukushima haven’t declined in the year since the nuclear disaster started, a signal that the seafloor or leakage from the damaged reactors is continuing to contaminate the waters, possibly threatening fisheries for decades, a researcher said. Workers at the Fukushima No.1 plant were struggling to find space to store tens of thousands of tons of highly contaminated water used to cool its crippled reactors, the manager of the water treatment team said. The Tohoko region reaches the 1½-year anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, with confirmed deaths standing at 15,870 and 2,814 people still missing.
Public consultations on the future of nuclear power show that most people favor doing away with all reactors. Japan pledged to phase out atomic power by the 2030s. There were more missing and 1,50,000 lost their shelters.
According to Greenpeace (7.3.13) the cost of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is estimated at $250 billion US dollars. Hundreds of thousands of people in Japan lost their homes, jobs and communities. None of them have received enough compensation to rebuild their lives. The costs of Fukushima are being paid by the Japanese people themselves, as taxpayers they are footing the bill for this nuclear disaster as the operator could not pay it. A government report mentions that the nuclear disaster was man-made and not a result of the tsunami. The situation in Japan is not an exception; several countries with nuclear reactors face the same risk. There was and is a fear of radioactive ground water leaking into the sea in spite of gigantic activity to contain such water within the limit of walls constructed. This water has poisoned the surrounding sea.
Scenes in Europe
From missing seismic devices to insufficient emergency systems, Europe’s nuclear power plants face hundreds of problems requiring billions in new investment, a European Union report said. EU-sponsored stress tests conducted on 134 reactors point to myriad potential safety hazards, notably in Britain, France and Spain, the report says. However, it does not go as far as recommending the closure of a single plant. In the report, the European Commission estimates the cost of improving nuclear safety across the continent on order of €10 billion to €25 ($13 billion to $32 billion), and wants all upgrades to be closely monitored and then finalized by 2015. Referring to explosions in French nuclear plants a responsible member of the European Parliament representing important committees opined that “The future of nuclear energy looks less radiant with each passing day and we would do well to ponder Germany’s decision not to extend the life of its ageing nuclear reactors and to invest massively in alternative energies.” (The Hindu/13.9.11)
Worldwide Explosive Nuclear Cold War Situation
The issue of nuclear programme with North Korea has never come to an end. Victor Cha who was deputy chief of the US delegation to the six-party talks on North Korea in 2004 when the other countries on the table were China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea, wrote in an article, “The ideal outcome of this negotiation, in the North’s view, is a situation similar to India’s, that is, an agreement in which North Korea accepts safeguards and monitoring under the IAEA but is also assured of a civilian programme. They want the global rules rewritten for them, much as they were for India.” (The New Indian Express/22.6.2009)
He also writes that North Korea does not want a bomb only but the status and prestige of a nuclear power. They want not only security against all attacks but capability to retaliate when warranted. It has not only made successful nuclear tests defying cries from other nuclear capable countries but has been showing no sign of compromise. The belligerent attitude of North Korea is known over the world. After their February nuclear test they launched three short range missiles into the sea of Japan as a part of their military drill on 18 May 2013. South Korea has been maintaining intense surveillance of the North and keeping a high-level readiness.
Another country in direct clash with America is Iran and its nuclear programme. It has nuclear connections and agreements with Brazil and Turkey and it wants to help Afghanistan with India. It has a plan to produce 20,000 MW of nuclear power in 20 years with foreign help in the construction of plants. They also want to utilize the domestically developed reactors which they have done up to prototype of a 360 MW reactor. In an interview Iran’s Deputy Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, Dr. Ali Bagheri expressed his opinion that Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not seem to be accomplished so long as nuclear weapons countries are in charge of steering the global nuclear agenda. He says that the treaty has three parts: disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy. He said that they have witnessed since the inception of the NPT that proliferation has increased and nuclear stockpiles have become more sophisticated and improved. He said that real disarmament would begin when people reject the nuclear weapons.
“Notwithstanding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there are about 22,000 nuclear warheads mostly in the arsenal of the US and Russia. Eight thousand are in the operational ready mode and 2000 are on high alert. Also, there are 14,000 Plutonium cores (pits) and 5000 Canned Assemblies in the storages of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). Moreover, 28 countries have the capacity to build at least one bomb and 12 countries can make 20 bombs. Besides, all ‘peaceful’ nuclear power reactors provide rich spent fuel which is reprocessed to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
“According to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, some 500,000 kg of plutonium are in stockpiles, which could be available to sub-nationalist ‘freedom fighters’ of any race or religion.” (The Hindu/9.8.10)
The situation calls for remembering a warning by Nikita Khruschev, as quoted by The Hindu on 9.8.2010, that “Survivors will envy the dead,” if the situations turns for the worst due to the presence of nuclear poison on earth.
Solutions are lurking from behind
Ichiro Ozawa, leader of Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s First Party) during his six-day visit to Germany hoped to learn lessons from a country that has decided to achieve zero dependence on nuclear power by 2020, party sources said. (The Japan Times/17.10.2012)
In a historic decision for our clean energy future, the Vermont State Senate has voted to retire the Vermont Yankee Nuclear plant, which is owned by the Louisiana-based corporation Entergy. Despite Entergy’s efforts to renew the license for the 40-year-old reactor, the Vermont Senate voted to shut down the nuclear plant as scheduled in 2012. The final vote was 26-4.
A host of problems have plagued the Vermont nuclear plant, from missing fuel rods to the collapse of cooling towers to the uncontrolled and unmonitored release of radiation into the groundwater. The resolve by Japan has already been mentioned.
The heads of as many as 53 nations including India met at Nuclear Security Summit on March 26 and 27, 2012. The first such summit was held in Washington in April 2010, fulfilling a promise of President Barrak Obama in 2009 at Prague, calling for elimination of all nuclear weapons. The main thrust of this call must be getting rid of all existing weapons.
A resolution sponsored by Japan calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons has been approved by a disarmament committee at the U.N. General Assembly, with Britain for the first time among its 97 cosponsors. One hundred and fifty-nine countries backed the resolution Monday with North Korea casting the only no vote. Twelve other countries, including China, Pakistan, India and Syria, abstained. It is the 19th straight year that the resolution has passed the First Committee. (Source: The Japan Times/7.11.12) To the great relief and hope of the mankind Japan ended the continuation of its nuclear establishments by the middle of September 2013. With Germany Japan also joins the No-Nuclear club. This is hope but the threat continues. Threat with what has already been created. United States, the world’s biggest nuclear waste producer seeks the approval of different communities in their country to build repositories for disposal of toxic waste in their area. They have plans to construct from interim repository to underground geological repository to a final repository to be safe for a million years in stages. But that is a so called projection only. No one has ever been successful in such long range projections; who will see to its fruition? No only USA but all other nuclear producers have created nuclear waste and no country has so far been fvoured by the communities to construct such a repository. So far no country has managed to build such a repository, according to report. (Down To Earth/1-15.2.2013)
The Spiritual Assessment of Nuclear Fission
Let us now hear about the spiritual side of the deal. Let us hear from a divine personality, the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. It is reported that she said to one of her disciples, Udar, that nuclear fission is not the way of the future for energy because it has an occult flaw as it profits from division; there might be a good future for nuclear fusion because it is the opposite. She said that Nuclear Power is the power of the Asura, the titan. It comes out of destruction and out of destruction you get power. So the whole character is destructive and even for peaceful purposes it will give no end of troubles.
To end we come back to the beginning of the story; the explosion of the first atom bomb on 6 August 1945. After the explosion, Mother said on 30 August 1945 that, “The Atom bomb is in itself the most wonderful achievement and the sign of a growing power of man over material nature. But what is to be regretted is that this material progress and mastery is not the result of and in keeping with a spiritual progress and mastery which alone has the power to contradict and counteract the terrible danger coming from these discoveries. We cannot and must not stop progress, but we must achieve it in an equilibrium between the inside and the outside.” (The Mother/48-49)
The Sources of Energy in India
Coal based thermal power plants occupy 57 per cent of the total installed capacity in the power sector in India-120 out of 211Giga watts. It provides 70 per cent of the electricity generated. Coal reserve in India is available for consumption for another 200 years. But it gives lots of emissions contributing towards global warming. And mining denudes forest, devastates ecology and environment and creates human problems in adivasi areas. Thermal power is generated from natural gas too to some extent. Hydro Electricity has an installed capacity of 19 GW. It contributes 12 percent of the power generated. This too creates environmental problems and during summer power generation from these unites becomes scanty due to low level of water in the reservoirs.
“The Indian wind energy sector has an installed capacity of 8757.2 MW (as on March 31, 2008). In terms of wind power installed capacity, India is ranked 4th in the world. Today it is a major player in the global wind energy market.
“The potential is far from exhausted. Indian Wind Energy Association has estimated that with the current level of technology, the on shore potential for utilization of wind energy for electricity generation is of the order of 65,000 MW.
“The unexploited resource availability has the potential to sustain the growth of wind energy sector in India for years to come.” (Gobar/1-15.11.08) Recent research has shown that wind potential can be harnessed at a higher hub than thought before.
Solar energy has full potential. India enjoys abundant solar energy. Due to the recent plunge in solar panel prices supplied by China solar energy may be produced at much cheaper cost. Full researches should be made to make it more viable at lesser cost. Infrastructure for solar energy generation can be easily put up. And it is noise and emission free. It is already being harnessed for lighting in villages. Example of Sirohi village in the outskirts of Faridabad may be cited which was darkened with the sunset before the solar energy was harnessed. With five hours of rationed electricity provided to the village it remained plunged in darkness physically and economically. Now it remains illuminated after the sunset with solar energy and the people with enhanced energy are engaged in life saving, progressive activities. Another example is of a doctor who runs his big hospital with solar energy in Gaya which sometimes remains without the boon of electricity power for 18 hours or more in a day. (Based on a story, “Let there be Light” by Swati Daftuar in The Hindu Magazine dated-1.9.13)
Presently the country has 1GW of Solar and 18 GW of wind capacity installed. It has been opined by experts that there are tremendous room for expansion in these areas. Nuclear power constitutes 4.7 GW of installed capacity, merely two per cent of the total capacity. Kudankulam has two units of 1GW each.
Generation of nuclear energy is fraught with danger at each step. Further considerations may be made as how to utilize the huge thorium and uranium reserves as India possesses.
Coming back to the position in our prime fields of life like agriculture, how the people may be interested in the jubilation of the science and technology folk or the people in power displaying their nuclear strength when their fields are dry, when they think of committing suicide? How will they be interested in the rise and fall of share market which gives windfall profit to some? It is surely and greatly a structural imbalance which displaces the large numbers of the ordinary people of the country.
I feel, with all lovers of humanity, that the time has not yet come to gamble with nuclear products. It is better to postpone it for the future when mankind will be ready for it. That India has armed itself with such power is a fact in keeping with the threat from the neighbours but it surely is a time to halt these activities. Instead, with India’s progressive peaceful drive the whole world may be motivated to destroy all such weapons stockpiled anywhere on earth and make further advance in harnessing the solar power and other powers for energy; like bio-energy, wind energy and utilize the other energy sources to make progress in a peaceful atmosphere. In any case, the switch to nuclear explosion should not remain in the hands of the few who happen to be in political power at a particular time. There should be an appropriate body of statesman, scientists, writers and others besides the government ruling at a particular point of time to overview the position of nuclear establishments and the need for further possession of them.
- The Mother. Collected Works; centenary edition. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1980. V.15
- Down To Earth; Gobar Times. New Delhi; Society for Environmental Communication.
(Chapter from my book, The Story of India’s Progress published by New Man Publication. Narwani, Parbhani, Maharashtra. 2014)