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Indianness in Indian Literature

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Indianness in Indian Literature

By Kulwant Singh Virk


The phrase, “Indianness in Indian Literature,” is of recent origin but has become very popular. One cannot, however, say that it has contributed a worthwhile concept to the analysis of Indian Literature. In fact it is redundant. Indianness is the whole of Indian Literature just as juice is the whole of the grapes. To some it may seem cynical also because it suggests that modern Indian Literature is only an imitation of Western Literature and to find Indianness in it, one has to make a search. This is not true. Winds carrying fresh thoughts and ideas have, through the ages, blown freely in and out of this country and continue to do so today. Indian Literature like any other literature is a mirror to the life and thought of the people of India. It has, however, one distinction; it is the oldest literature in the world. Apart from this, no other specialty should be claimed for it. It is not like, say, Yoga, which is peculiar to India.

Indian literature is written in some twenty languages and in each one, the writings go back to hundreds of years. 

As Srinivasa Iyengar asks, “Where is the computer scholarship, where is the wizard omniscience that can comprehend and sort out and assess this miscellaneous opulence of literary activity in the country?” 

It is simply not possible to know the whole of Indian Literature. One can only read something of his own language and a little of what is written in other languages, in translation. Indian literature is different from other literatures, only in so far as, life and thought in India are different from other countries.

I come from the Punjab. I seek your permission, therefore, to talk about Punjab. There, in the city of Amritsar, in 1604, was anthologized a book, called the Granth Sahib or the Adi Granth. The compiler and editor was Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth of the ten Gurus of the Sikhs. It was a biggish book spanning one thousand, four hundred and thirty eight pages, not the usual size for a book in those times. In all, it contains five thousand, eight hundred and ninety four hymns expressing love for and praise of God, and urging man to follow the path of piety and righteousness.

A remarkable feature of this book is the all India (and Pakistan) spread of its hymns; its Indianness. It contains hymns not only of the Sikh Gurus of the Punjab but of saints from all over the country. And the saints singing through this book are not only Hindu Bhaktas but Muslim holy men also. Let us have a count of these religious teachers and their representation in the holy book of the Sikhs. The maximum contribution, five hundred and forty one hymns, is from Kabir, the weaver saint from Banaras, born of Muslim parents. Other revered men from Uttar Pradesh are, Ravidas, Gurdas and Sain. There are Dhanna and Pipa from Rajasthan, Namdev and Trilochan from Maharastra, and Sadhna, the butcher from Sind. From Bengal, there is Jaidev of Git Govinda fame. His two hymns are written in a language which is a mixture of Prakrit and Apbhransh. Some people think that Git Govinda itself was originally written in Prakrit and Apbhranch and it was given a Sanskrit form later. From the South, there is only Ramanand Ji, though one does not quite know whether to call him from the South or from the North. The language used by him is simple Hindi. 

Permit me to quote an English translation of a part of his hymn. 

“ Whither need I go to seek holiness?

I am happy here within myself at home. My heart is no longer a pilgrim.

It has become tied down to itself.

Restlessly one day I did want to go.

I prepared sandal wood paste, distilled aloe wood and many a perfume.

I set out towards a temple to worship.

Then my Guru showed me God in my own heart.”

(Sacred writings of the Sikhs - UNESCO)

Among the Muslim saints, the most prominent is Sheikh Farid, a cousin of the king of Ghazni and preceptor of Hazrat Nizamuddin whose piety was responsible for large-scale conversions in the (now) Pakistan part of the Punjab. Guru Nanak had procured one hundred and thirty four of his hymns in Punjabi from his twelfth successor. Bhikhan and Mardanna are among the other Muslim saints represented.

This book, the Adi Granth, through which so many saints, living in different periods of time and different parts of India and professing different religions, speak to the soul of the country – a Sahitya Akademi dream – is worshipped by the Sikhs. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh ordained that it is to receive the same homage as ‘the living presence of the Guru’. That command is still being obeyed and the adoration offered to it has to be seen to be believed. It is even mentioned in some ‘Believe It or Not’ books. 

Historian Arnold Toybee says,

“Of all known religious scriptures this book is the most highly venerated. It means more to the Sikhs than even the Quran means to Muslims, the Bible to Christians and the Torah to Jews. The Adi Granth is the Sikhs’ perpetual spiritual Guru (spiritual guide). It was formally invested with this function by the last in the series of human Gurus that began with the founder of the Sikh religion, Nanak.”

One consequence of this adoration has been, that not a single comma has been changed in this book since the time of the tenth Guru. Printed copies are made in the image of the old handwritten copy retaining the huge size of the page, the bold letters and the number of pages. While the Adi Granth is the only scripture prepared by one of the founders of a religion himself, it may also be the only book of its time; representing so much of India spiritually as well as geographically.

There were some other influences shaping life and thought in the Punjab. One of these was the Muslim Sufi concept of love between two human beings being at least half divine. One did not have to be a God to enjoy the love of a woman. It was accepted at the spiritual level as a blessing of God. Warris Shah who was a Syed that is, a descendent of the Prophet and a scholar of Arabic and Persian, makes his heroine, Heer, say this about her lover to her father,

“I begged for Ranjha from the High Heavens
God Himself has given him to me.
This is the will of fate itself.
Who can undo the work of destiny?”

Five heavenly beings (Panj Pir) appear to Heer and Ranjha when their love is countered by the community. They tell the lovers as follows,

“You two are to have faith in God.
And not let love be disgraced.
My son, enjoy your life.
And do not let your heart falter.”

Intense love for a human being is, thus, at least a copy or a shadow of the love for God. Lovers, therefore, come to enjoy great moral and social respectability. The grave of Heer in Pakistan is still preserved and visited. This ethos has given Punjab a set of love stories, all tragedies, which have been, for centuries, the stock-in-trade of every poet worth the name.

Stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas do not have the same vogue in Punjab as in other North Indian States. Punjabis are, comparatively, less wrapped up in Sita and Draupadi, Ram and the Pandavas, and other personages of the Hindu mythology. The Punjabi consciousness, rather, wanders to the Chenab river where Heer rowed in a boat or where Sohni, the potter’s beautiful daughter, was drowned while swimming across to meet her lover. The deserts of Sind where Sassi lost her way searching for her love and was killed by the sun and the scrub land of the Bar where Mirza was killed, unarmed, by the relations of Sahiban who had eloped with him, have also a place on the mental landscape of the Punjabis along with the pastures of Mathura on the Jamuna.

This diversion of consciousness was helped by the fact that Punjabi was the frontier language of (united) India. Languages bordering upon it were spoken in foreign countries also. Pushto was spoken in Afghanistan and Baluchi in Iraq. Persian, which exercised a strong influence on Urdu, was the language of Afghanistan and Iran. We borrowed our neighbours’ stories like Shirin - Farhad and, Shah Behram and Yusuf Zulaikhan for our literary efforts and, the Punjabi mind travelled farther away. It journeyed to the waterless hills of Persia, which had to be cut by Farhad to allow the flow of a canal, which would win him his beloved Shirin and to the Caucasus mountains where fairies lived and where Shah Behram was taken on the back of a magic horse.

Another powerful factor was the formal launching of the Sikh religion by Guru Gobind Singh on Baisakhi day in 1699. To make his followers forsake their castes, he told them that from that day on, they were his own sons. All their previous births and their actions in those births had been totally erased from their beings and their minds. They were completely new people. All their old beliefs were things of the past and they had to turn their backs on them and rub them out from their memory. The result of all this is that in the sub-conscious of so many Sikhs, the world began with the birth of Guru Nanak and no civilization existed before that date.

These were some of the currents that affected Punjab before the middle of the nineteenth century so far as her Indianness was concerned. In the nineteenth century, India accepted the cultural leadership of England and other European countries, and later of America. She was introduced to modern thought and literature through a new mode of presentation, that is, through a novel or a short story or a different kind of poetry. The old distinction that ‘the Indian writer sees the individual as a part of nature, a speck on a large scheme of things and the Western writer sees him as an independent individual’ began to vanish and the two attitudes began to come closer. But the Indian writer has remained a faithful reporter of his own society. To exemplify this, I am tempted to refer to individual books. In a national seminar like this I will speak only of some famous ones.

Hindi novelist Prem Chand’s Godan, which did not find favour with foreign publishers, is a good book to read for those who want to discover Uttar Pradesh. There are two scenes in it, which have stayed alive in my memory over the years. The poor farmer Hari, figures out that he can, at last, buy a cow and lets it be known to his two small daughters whose names in translation are Gold and Silver. The children are excited about it but none of them thinks of milk because they have never been introduced to this commodity. What does occur to one of them is that she should be the one who would lift the dung of the cow, and announces her thoughts. The other one feels deprived of an important right and claims it for herself. The two begin to fight pulling each other’s hair. The cow whose dung they are fighting for, is yet, days and weeks away.

Later Hari dies. The land is taken away by the landlord. His sons have to give up agriculture and start working in a factory. They now eat wheat instead of coarse grain and wear mill-made clothes in place of the homespun. But in the village no one cares for them any more because they are no longer a part of its socio-economic set-up.

One experiences a sense of oneness of India when some highly expressive term of the North is heard in the far South. In Kutty Krishanan Oroob’s novel translated into English as The Beloved, a young boy has to take off his shirt because it has been wetted in water-play. 

His friend, seeing his thin body says, “There isn’t enough for a crow 
to peck off you.” 

This is exactly what we say in the Punjab when we want to emphasise someone’s lack of flesh.

Vyankatesh Madvalkar’s Marathi novel translated into English as Winds of Fire is about communal riots in Maharashtra, when, on hearing the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi, mobs terrorized and looted Brahmins in the Maharashtrian countryside. During the riots, a Brahmin family decides to leave the village for safety in the city of Bombay. Four influential non-Brahmins of the village dissuade them from taking this step. 

Apologetically they say, “You can say we behaved like cowards;
slipped bangles on our hands.” 

This is a common term for cowardice in Punjab also. During the 1947 riots, the goondas of one place sent presents of bangles to goondas of another place to reproach them for their inactivity.

A large number of Punjabis live and work in England. Some want wives from “back home”. Travelling to and fro, for a proper marriage is expensive. An innovation made by parents of the boy and the girl was to marry the girl to a photograph of the boy and then put the bride onto a plane for England. I thought this, a very original device till I read a Sanskrit play in translation, Svapna Vasavadattam by Bhasa written sixteen hundred years ago.

A king, Udayana by name, is decoyed to the kingdom of Ujjain and kept there in prison. He is also used as a music teacher to the princess, Vasavadatta who had fallen in love with him, earlier, in a dream. That is why the play is called Svapna Vasvadattam. When Udayana is set free, he carries off Vasavadatta from her parents and makes her, his queen. Later the mother of the princess sends him the following message:

“In your impetuosity you carried her off without the celebration of the auspicious nuptial rites. So then we had portraits painted of you and of Vasavadatta on a panel and therewith celebrated the marriage. We send you the portraits and hope the sight of them will give you satisfaction.”