On reading Indian Classics
“Why do Indians grow up on Western Classics?” this questioned echoed in the auditorium as Rohan Murty, the person who had asked it looked around half-expecting an answer. Sadly none could answer it.
The question did make me think though. I was attending Tata Literature Live, the annual litfest in Mumbai when I happened to be present at one of his talks. Coming from the impressive lineage of Mr. Narayan Murthy & Mrs. Sudha Murty he is a charmer all the way. And mind you I am not talking just about his looks, qualifications or fat bank balance. I am talking about his persona, his knowledge, vision and the way he wanted to be the change he wanted to see in the world. His topic of discussion was classics and he did manage to leave a mark on everybody present in the hall.
I faintly remember growing up reading classics but very few were Indian. I can safely say few because my great-grandfather was the author of one such classic in my mother tongue which in a way became the gateway for me to explore more books from that era. I never realized this gap in reading habits till I grew up. When my cousins talked about Enid Blyton and I suggested R K Narayan to them their stares were enough to let me know what they thought of me. So it was fairly easy for me to connect with this question of Rohan Murty though unfortunately even I didn’t have an answer to that.
Sharing some words of wisdom from his talk on classics:
“Our culture is lost somewhere in this “aping the west” that we have been trying to master since decades. I realized this when I went to Harvard for higher studies. People talk about classics in Greek, Russian, American English but none talks about the multiple Indian languages which have so many unheard stories. Scarily enough our generation stands to lose lot of knowledge.
It is something we should be extremely proud of. Our stories depicting our culture are our heritage. They hold the knowledge our ancestors wanted us to gain. Classics are unique. They are the product of human consciousness. How many of us know that Pythagoras theorem was actually discovered by an Indian? That is just a glimpse into the amount of knowledge our country’s history has. Imagine what will happen when we manage to unearth the entire treasure held within. Unfortunately some of these languages are no longer in existence. But that is the attempt to immortalize them in words is needed.
Somehow I firmly believe this is the right time to bring this change. As when I grew up people never chose alternative careers. It was engineering, law or medicine. Anything otherwise was looked down up. But today people believe in following their passion. We have stand-up comedians, writers, artists, dancers, playwrights, poets and what not.
In collaboration with Harvard Press I have come up with a project where we translate works written originally in regional languages into English. It is difficult as some of the fonts need to be designed and it involves working with language experts and scholars. But the moment I saw a friend’s father shedding tears of joy on reading a poem he had read in school written in his now defunct mother-tongue it all felt worth it. We have signed up for some 42 titles in it and are still adding to it. I dream of making a library where books are given for free to each and every person. After all the beauty of stories needs to be shared and spread. We are blessed to have such a diverse culture where we have so many various languages to read, learn and know about. It is a matter of great pride to be born in India with a vast culture heritage to be inherited from.”
The other day at an informal gathering all of us were discussing books when suddenly the name of Ismat Chugtai came up. Not many had heard her name, leave alone reading her stories. And mind you, I am not talking about complete nonreaders here. Many of those in the group claim to be voracious readers having read the likes of Charles Dickens and D H Lawrence. This set me thinking, are our classics dying?
Throughout our school we grow up reading Shakespearean plays as a part of our curriculum rising upto Keats poetries by the time we are in high school. By the time we are adults we know everything we need to know about “thou” and “thee”. Have we ever wondered if we have an Indian version of Keats or Shakespeare? Or for that matter wondered why we Indians grow up on English classics? The answer is an embarrassing no.
No wonder today names like Manto, Kamla Das, Ismat Chugtai, Prem chand don’t ring a bell to many book lovers alike! We are a diversified country with so many languages to boast of added to the fact that each language has had some amazing writers in them. Sadly many of them are still lying undiscovered even as we speak. Our generation stands to lose a lot of knowledge which in itself is scary thought.
Our conservative thinking has got a lot to do with this perhaps, as you notice every second child wants to become a doctor or an engineer, how many answer it as a painter or a mountaineer? We have been conditioned to think like this since childhood. It is a product of human consciousness.
What we forget is that our classics are unique and some pure masterpieces. They deserve to be flaunted as they can be easily called our pride. It comes as a surprise to note the number of Indians who know the Pythagoras theorem was invented by whom! I feel that in itself speaks a lot about our knowledge about our own culture.
Long after the session was over his words still keep ringing in my ears. The spark in his eyes when he spoke about his project, the tinkling laughter in his voice when he was reading out from one of the translated books and the smile which refused to leave his face all throughout was proof enough that he had his heart and soul in it. That was also the moment I decided to do something for my culture. Since then I gift Indian classics (translated versions) to friends and family urging them to do the same. And yes I feel proud in adding I have managed to get some of them hooked to it.
Let today be the first step you take towards knowing your own culture. Grab a classic in Indian literature, read it, devour it and spread the word! What was the last classic you read? Any fond memories associated with them of growing up?
P.S: Don't forget to check out the impressive range of translations HERE