Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Psychoanalyst, Thinker, Extraordinary

Sigmund Freud– books– ideas– concepts– Google Doodle –psychoanalysis

Freud was born 160 years ago and Google honored him with a ‘Google doodle’ today.

Sigmund Freud was one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In fact, he marked an important development in the history of ideas.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Freud’s work has wide-ranging implications and influence. It cannot be discussed in a short post. In his later work, he did develop a critique of religion and culture.

He redefined human sexuality with a number of ideas. Oedipus Complex was one such concept. His work on The Interpretations of Dreams is pivotal. It has helped heal patients with neurosis.

I had heard of Freud when I entered BA. But my subjects didn’t include psychology. I studied English Literature. In Masters, in 1992, teachers spoke about Freud in the classroom and we heard of Oedipus Complex. But no one really explained his theories in an English Literature course. Not in 1992 or 1993. So, I borrowed The Interpretation of Dreams from the university library and read it myself. It is a difficult book and for an untrained young student over two decades ago, more difficult to comprehend. However, the book did leave its imprints on me. Over the years, I read Freud in bits and pieces. In MA, I was also aware of Carl Gustave Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’.

Carl Gustave Jung
Carl Gustave Jung

A friend of mine, Debangshu Kerr, and I did discuss this while discussing James Joyce’s use of the leitmotif. We also spoke about it, when we discussed the works of Northrop Frye.

Freud was always there for literature students. And, then, this semester, I got an opportunity to teach a couple of essays by Freud to undergraduate students. These were smaller essays on the structure of the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud signature
Sigmund Freud signature

Here, Freud laid out the id, the ego and the superego. He also spoke about the preconscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. And he did explain how repressed memories become part of our unconscious.

When we read and discuss Freud, it is natural that it would be directly linked up with an earlier essay I wrote on Edvard Munch, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf and the need for empathy. In fact, the issue about Coleridge and his dissipating energies could also be looked at.

You can watch this short introductory film on Freud’s work. A longer analytical documentary on Freud is here: Sigmund Freud– The Father of Psychoanalysis.

His ideas have influenced literature, art, and various other fields of study. His ideas were revolutionary.

In his work, The Future of an Illusion, he wrote:

It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.

In the Three Lectures on the Theory of Sexuality, he says:

A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.

My tribute to the great thinker. :):):) I’ll write about Freud in greater detail later.

Uttarakhand–Abandoning Environments, Creating Unsustainable Livelihoods

It pains me a lot to read about the disasters that have plagued Uttarakhand, the Kedarnath disaster and now, these forest fires that have ranged far too long. As children, we grew up hearing about Chandi Prasad Bhatt, the Founder of the Chipko Movement and his colleague, Sunderlal Bahuguna. Listen to Ramachandra Guha talk about one of the great Indians, Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

“People must understand the environment and keep it in mind while planning development.”–Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Chandi Prasad Bhatt
Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Listen to an interaction with Shri Chandi Prasad Bhatt on ‘Himalaya Environment and Development: Experiences of the ‘Chipko’ Movement’ at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

You could watch another discussion with this great environmentalist at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library YouTube channel.

Ramachandra Guha has done his bit to spread awareness about this great Gandhian, who worked at the grassroots and was never seen at any high profile event ever. Chandi Prasad Bhatt always believed in doing his work and didn’t believe in publicizing it. He was born on June 23, 1934. As a child, he learned to take off his shoes as he walked through the bugiyal, the alpine pastures. It was forbidden to spit in the pasture, or to urinate or pollute it in any way. Also, the people were forbidden from even plucking sacred flowers in the week of Nandasthmi.

Another important environmentalist that Ramachandra Guha has talked about is Shekhar Pathak. Dr. Shekhar Pathak is an important historian of the Himalayas and of the Uttarakhand region. He is the Founder of People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR), which he founded in 1983. Listen to him at the Mussourie Writers’ Festival. I find this very useful.

Shekhar Pathak
Shekhar Pathak

Ramachandra Guha’s pieces on both these environmentalists are fine pieces of biographical writing.

Shekhar Pathak has also taken a 1100 kilometre trek every decade across the Himalayas to document the changes in the region. This is the Askot-Aarakot Abhiyan, a trip from Askot to Aarakot, where a few friends get together and travel this distance without anything with themselves. They try to map the entire terrain in various ways. You can watch a short presentation of this unique trek here. And there is a long, detailed presentation of the Askot-Aarakot trek at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

I think the voices of the great Chandi Prasad Bhatt, and the historian and ‘encyclopedia man of the Himalayas’ Shekhar Pathak (as Ramachandra Guha calls him) should be heard more carefully. I’m sure it would help the local governments deal with the issues plaguing this beautiful, heavenly state much better.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) on Leadership

I had always heard of William Shakespeare, who hasn’t? His death anniversary, 23 April, was two days ago. In MA, we studied King Lear and I had read Othello earlier. You can watch a short dramatization of King Lear.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

There would be a number of posts on Shakespeare. This is a short post that will point to his great and in-depth study of the human character.

I had the occasion to teach Macbeth for a couple of years. You can watch this wonderful and finely produced BBC production. I’m sure you would enjoy it as much as I did.

Macbeth is a fine example of how unbridled greed and ambition can dehumanize a person completely. Empathy, as a human emotion, doesn’t exist in the play. In Act II, Scene II, of the play, after Macbeth has killed King Duncan, he is shaken and nervous. The reply that Lady Macbeth gives her husband is classic:

Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

She is not just cold-blooded but ambition has made her so.

Look at what another human trait can do. In Othello, human jealousy is such a dominant idea that it leads to murder. And then, the downfall. Othello is not the king but he is a nobleman and holds a leadership position. So, interestingly, while Shakespeare is focussing on jealousy as well as insecurity as an important human frailty, he is making another pertinent point. He is clearly stating that leaders or those in leadership positions should not be jealous or insecure.

Shakespeare also imparts leadership skills to those who read him. Hamlet is a fine example of how an indecisive leader can lead to ruin. He reminds us that a leader must always take decisions, even if hard ones. The lines from this play are again too famous, like an aphorism:

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

In fact, if we look at King Lear, the frailty is credulity, blind belief in his two daughters that brings him down very badly. However, what is even more instructive about King Lear is that it is also a leadership lesson: leaders should not trust blindly their kin and the ones lower than them.

This was my short tribute to William Shakespeare. I’ll come back to him later in future posts.

The Twentieth Century—Edvard Munch, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, A Need for Empathy

I like to tell my students in conversations at coffee shops that the twentieth century can be best encapsulated between the Scream, that famous painting, by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the painful cries of Sylvia Plath. This is just a symbolic way of putting things and a century cannot be covered in an article, even if it tries to be insightful enough. You can watch a short, insightful film on Munch and The Scream here.

In fact, Munch made a series of four paintings, all depicting the scream. The agonized expression against the tumultuous orange sky in the painting says it all. There is so much of noise all around us, so much of screech, so much of what must hurt our inner beings and the natural world at large doesn’t offer us any refuge either. And in the midst of all this, our fellow beings must hurt us constantly. This is the story of the twentieth century as it appears to me.

The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

The painting has been rightly called an icon of the modern age, a painting of our times. It is the long-suppressed cry that is trying to emanate from within us.

The disturbance, the stress, the anxiety, the depression of our daily lives far outweighs anything else around us.  In the words of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch:

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.

Munch also says:

Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.

In 1908, at the age of forty five, Munch was full of anxiety and he suffered a breakdown. He sought medical treatment and was able to recover. It took him eight months to fully recover. That is when his paintings became more vibrant and less pessimistic.

The Scream has been used as a symbol of facial pain and it has also been used for trigeminal neuralgia, which is known as one of the most painful conditions known to humans.

I’m not trying to connect personal, autobiographical, lived-life pain to literary or artistic manifestations of pain in any direct or simplistically vulgar way. However, the point that I am trying to reiterate is the fact that the last century has been the most troublesome for us as humans and we have been singularly unsuccessful to remedy its difficulties. The cumulative effects of the pain do linger on.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) had troubled personal life, which led to a personal breakdown, from which was born The Wasteland (1922), one of the engaging works of the twentieth century. Eliot became lifelong friends with the American novelist, Conrad Aiken.

Thomas Stearns Eliot
T. S. Eliot

In 1914, as a 26-year old, Eliot wrote to Aiken:

I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society).

Within four months, he was married to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a marriage that failed from the start. The couple formally separated in 1933 and Vivienne remained in a lunatic asylum, against her will, till 1947, when she died of heart disease. Maybe, Eliot was cruel to Vivienne or perhaps, he wasn’t. Vivienne’s life itself should be the subject of an enriching biography. The fact that she was kept against her will in a lunatic asylum is also very similar to the fate of Antoinette, who is later called Bertha and kept in an attic in Jean Rhys’s acclaimed novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.  The implications and the treatment of mental health are scary.

Eliot accepted in a private paper:

“I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of [Ezra] Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”

However, what is important is that Eliot and Vivienne should have received counseling, true friendship and warmth. What they needed was empathy. Eliot was lucky that the personal breakdown, which he suffered, got him to write The Waste Land, but there’s no guarantee that a major literary or artistic work may emanate from such deeply life-changing circumstances.

TS Eliot signature
TS Eliot signature

The Waste Land is a complex work but it can also be termed expressionistic in nature, much as Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an expressionistic work. The structure of the poem, its jagged lines and ideas clearly point to the intense stress, the psychological derangement:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. 

———

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

I have often wondered, pondered, and ruminated greatly on the intense stress, the psychological derangement, the lack of empathy which has markedly governed twentieth century lives. And I know the effects have clearly lingered on in the twenty first century as well.

Look at Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), someone who again underwent intense personal trauma and who was singularly unlucky enough not to get empathy, warmth and love in good measure.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

I have often thought of Virginia Woolf as one of the most impressive women of the century, impressive in every possible way. At the age of twenty two, she suffered a major breakdown due to the death of her father. She suffered many breakdowns and depressive periods and it has been suggested by scholars that it was perhaps due to the sexual abuse that she and her sister received at the hands of their half-brothers. All her life, she was plagued by intense mood swings and associated illnesses. There is no room for pity or sympathy here, much less shaming or insulting. What is required here is boundless love, warmth and empathy. Imagine, if we experienced something similar, what we might have gone through.

Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband
Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband

We teach Virginia Woolf’s novels. For instance, we teach Mrs Dalloway and speak about the psychological scarring of Septimus Smith and the almost-lunatic obsession of Clarissa Dalloway with the perfection of partying. This is akin to writing out a summary of the novel. But what we need to be doing is to uncover the social as well as historical reasons behind such trauma.

It is my considered view that the twentieth century has dehumanized people so much that they have become singularly narrow, petty, self-seeking, hurting to other fellow beings for no rhyme, nor reason, and forget that the pain that they inflict on other fellow beings would necessarily come back to haunt them in their lives. I sincerely believe that we should be full of empathy for our fellow beings around us, even those with whom we strongly disagree or have strong personal or professional differences and at the first signal in a crisis in a fellow being around us, we must rush to their aid with all the empathy and warmth at our disposal. I have known from personal experience as a university teacher for twenty years and also as a private citizen —aged forty four today—that such selfless empathy toward our fellow beings is often misconstrued in a variety of ways. If one is lucky enough not to be imputed darker or selfish motives, one will most certainly be ridiculed as a ‘soft’ person. However, the persons who ridicule others with empathy often fail to appreciate the fact that the intense stress around us, in our times, would come back to haunt them too. I have seen it invariably with a number of people in this short life.

Even highly educated people could suffer from these qualities of pettiness too. Often at workplaces or in our neighbourhoods, we lose no opportunity to publicly shame or insult some individual who is younger than us, who is powerless than us, who cannot harm us (and who has never harmed us) to show to ourselves and – to the world around us—how strong and powerful we are. However, much as we publicly try to insult others at workplaces or neighbourhoods, what we fail to appreciate is that we are actually insulting ourselves, the fact of our being human. In the process, we constantly alienate ourselves from everyone around us, thus, making us more insecure. So, the sense of power that we exhibit over others, to put them down, actually comes back to us and leaves us much weaker.  We live in these false ivory towers, thinking that if we do insult others, we become much more powerful. But only deeply insecure people do so.

For over a hundred years, all over the world, each one of us has suffered from trauma all our lives. All we need is not to belittle it but to empathize with it. I have not said anything – nor did I intend to—speak anything from a religious or a moralizing perspective. I just had a deeply human standpoint. As Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), one of the greatest thinkers of the century said:

Hell is—the other people.

And I would like to add, “the other people” should realize not to give “hell” to the ones around themselves. I even wanted to talk about Sylvia Plath but would do it another time.

Looking at mental health, stress, depression and the traumas we undergo, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) has a clinical approach, presupposing that the “patients” suffer from maladies and maladjustments. T. S. Eliot, in one of his plays, Cocktail Party, suggests something much more interesting for a litterateur. He talks about the need to change, correct, if not transform, the social causes that lead to such stress and trauma. I also wanted to talk about another great name of the twentieth century, whose contributions were immense: Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). But there is no hurry. There’s a lot more to be explored in other future posts as this website keeps on growing from thought to thought. Amen.

I was named after the great Rumi. I would be like a sufi, a dervish. Just smiling, in the comic mode of life, and accepting various foibles around us. Whenever I have been insulted by anyone ever, I have only found it extremely funny. I often look at the other person’s facial expressions, their eyes, the psychological reasons for their unduly unwelcoming behaviour. And I have invariably realized how utterly insecure such people are, how they suffer from tremendously low self-esteem, even while they tom-tom high esteem in public. I have only had empathy for all such people that I have ever encountered all my life. I think we must remain humans, above everything else, deeply human, because else we, too, should suffer the same risks these artistic, literary figures did and as so many others suffered too.

The Fine Art of Historical Biography—Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha about biography, authorized biography, biography examples and a lot more

It is not every day that I would get to meet a person whom I have idolized. Today was that lucky day. I heard the noted historian, Padma Bhushan awardee, Dr. Ramachandra Guha—or Ram Guha, as he likes to be known. Today, April 16th, 2016, he delivered the Fifth H Y Sharda Prasad Memorial Lecture at the Kamaladevi Block at the India International Centre, New Delhi. He spoke on “The Art of Historical Biography”. I have idolized him for a long time. One exceptionally useful lecture of his was delivered in Canada six years ago, “Ten Reasons Why India Will Not Become a Superpower“.

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha

The function began at 6.30 pm and went on till 8.10 pm. It started with the Late Mr. HY Sharda Prasad’s son, introducing his father and Ramachandra Guha.

There may be some, who are unaware of Mr. HY Sharda Prasad. He was a multifaceted personality, who served as the Information Advisor to three Prime Ministers of India. He was also an aesthete, scholar and author. His books included, The Book I Won’t be Writing and Other Essays, Indira Gandhi: A Pictorial Biography, Life & Landscapes (Incredible India), Rashtrapati Bhawan : The Story of the President’s House. He also had a deep and engaging interest in Indian classical music. HY Sharda Prasad was also a translator, who had translated the great Kannada littérateur Shivaram Karanth into English. As a teenager, I had the opportunity of seeing him at a couple of functions.

So, Ramachandra Guha began in his inimitable, conversational style. One of his comments was:

I have always written a piece because I have wanted to write it.

Then Guha went on to talk about a piece that he had ever written at anyone’s behest. This was a piece which Gopalkrishna Gandhi wanted him to write. Gandhi made out a case for the great Carnatic vocalist, MS Subbulakshmi, who should get the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. But Guha added:

Gopal Gandhi told me that it wouldn’t look to only write a piece in MS Subbulakshmi, so, I should include Lata Mangeshkar as well.

Guha then added:

Gopal Gandhi had virtually dictated the article to me. But I added two more names, those of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. I said that they too should get the Bharat Ratna.

After these preliminary remarks, Ramachandra Guha spoke about historical biography. He said that “historical biography is an underdeveloped field in India.” He also spoke about histories of individuals written without any emotion at all.

According to him, one of the best historical biographies in India is Sarvepalli Gopal’s biography of his father, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. In that book, Gopal  he lays out the man’s foibles as well. Then Guha went on to lay out, seven reasons –in no particular order of importance—why India does not have a fine tradition of historical biography.

You can also check out this article, which talks about India’s important environmentalists and about whom Ramachandra Guha has written fine pieces, which are good examples of biographical writing.

These were:

  • He first spoke of the burden of religious inheritance in Hinduism. He said,  people are reborn and thus, there is no compelling need to write a biography as opposed to other religious systems, where there is a hagiographic tradition.

  • The second reason was the burden of historical inheritance. Guha spoke of Marxist historians, who always put individuals as subservient to historical or economic causes. Thus, individuals had no role to play in Marxist historiography.

  • The third reason was the tilt of history as a discipline toward social sciences in India. Here, the historian needed to connect events of history to social movements and not to individual personalities. In this context, Ramachandra Guha did refer to Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay who gave history a tilt toward the social sciences. While talking about this point, in the same breath, Guha did refer to an excellent essay. He spoke about “The Revival of Narrative” by the historian, Lawrence Stone. He called it a fine example of the importance of narrative in history writing.

  • The next point was a general one. Guha pointed to an indifference to record keeping in India.

  • The fifth point, Guha made, was the fear of giving offence to the subject, while a biography was written.

  • The sixth point was that it was a challenging literary form. He didn’t dwell on it in much detail. But he did say that writing biographies takes years. He did speak about the biography of Verrier Elwin that he had written.

  • The seventh reason that Ramachandra Guha pointed out was that writers have large egos. He added that writing a biography of someone else meant suppressing one’s ego and spending years working on it.

Guha, then, came up with a few rhetorical questions. He asked: ‘Why not write a biography of the great Hindi poet, Nirala? He implied that if a Hindi poet or a novelist were to write a finely nuanced biography of Nirala, it would take a number of years to do so. For those years, the biographer would need to suppress his ego and be completely devoted to Nirala. Ramachandra Guha chose to describe himself as a historical biographer. He did speak about his enduring and passionate interest in the biography of the sociologist, Verrier Elwin:

Verrier Elwin changed my life.

Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha
Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha

Enroute, Ramachandra Guha changed course and added personal life histories too. I guess, this is one of his strategies to keep an audience engaged. However, I wasn’t sure if it was needed. The audience comprised people such as the former Union Minister, Jairam Ramesh, former Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar, Mr. T N Chaturvedi, who has been governor of a couple of states. So, Guha began with the personal story of his choosing Economics as a subject as his family disallowed him to choose literature. He said, literature was known as “a girl subject”. The audience seemed regaled. Maybe, there was an inherent sexism in that statement. But then the historical period of his life that Guha referred to, did suffer from such prejudices too. Guha also spoke about his love for cricket:

It took me a week to know that I couldn’t be an economist. And it took me four and a half years to know that I couldn’t be a cricketer.

He said that he was the first and the last PhD in Sociology from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. Guha did say that one of the finest minds of Indian sociology (whom he did not name) gave him some important advice. The scholar told him that the Sociology department at the IIM Kolkata wasn’t any great and he shouldn’t go there. Then, Ramachandra Guha added a one-liner, which I thought was quite sensible.

He said:

For all the young people here in the audience, let me tell you that I pursued sociology. There was opposition from family. And one of the finest minds in Indian sociology told me not to go there. Still I did.

Perhaps, the finest mind in Indian sociology, which Ramachandra Guha did not choose to name, was M N Srinivas. Guha did refer to his journey from structure to process to personality, from economics to sociology to historical biography. He was actively dissuaded from taking up historical biography. But he eventually did persist. I liked this point about persistence and tenacity, which must befit a scholar.

Guha did acknowledge his debt to two people, Rukun Advani, the editor, and the historian, Nicholas Boyle. Guha said they inspired him to become a historical biographer. Ram Guha was clearly influenced by Nicholas Boyle, whom he had met for the first time, when he was thirty five years old. Boyle is well-known for his biography of the German poet, Goethe (1749-1832).

Ramachandra Guha had some very incisive insights on Boyle. He called them, “Boyle’s Three laws” for writing historical biography:

  • It is essential that the secondary characters must be fleshed out in the biography. The wives, the sons, the mistresses, the associates are very important. They lend authenticity to the subject in question. I found this very relevant because this is what a novelist should do too. The minor characters in a novel give insights into the protagonist that the author can never give directly.

  • Look for sources other than those emanating from the primary source. Guha said that while writing on Nehru, one should not just look at Nehru’s writings and speeches. One should also be willing to look for other sources as well. Again, I thought that this was a very relevant point.

  • The third law that Guha spoke about was: Never anticipate. So, he said, never tell the reader in the beginning of the biography that Verrier Elwin renounced Christianity at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi but let it emerge slowly from the book. I would agree with this too. This is again a technique that one should employ to great effect while writing a novel.

To these three laws of Nicholas Boyle, Ramachandra Guha added a fourth, which was:

Do not be deterred even if your subject has written a detailed autobiography.

Guha, then, went on to make a very relevant point. He said that when he embarked on Verrier Elwin’s biography, he was dissuaded from it. He was told Elwin had already written his autobiography, which had been well received. However, as Guha pointed out, an autobiography is “a pre-emptive strike against a future biographer”. He added that in the autobiography, the author may choose to suppress truths, or tell half-truths, or just forget a few facts.

Guha did stress about a wide range of figures in twentieth century India who should have biographies written on them. He said:

We don’t have biographies of leaders who operated like a state themselves.

In this vein, he referred to E. M. S. Namboodiripad, Master Tara Singh. He also spoke about  Sheikh Abdullah, Angami Zapu Phizo as also Jayaprakash Narayan. Guha said that each of these were complex, charismatic people. He said their biographies ought to be written.

E.M.S._Namboodiripad, great thinker, socialist, leader
E.M.S.Namboodiripad, great thinker, socialist, leader

Talking about the role of Jayaprakash Narayan, Guha said that JP was one person who had an inner struggle between Marx and Gandhi. He spoke about JP’s contributions to the Quit India Movement and to the Quit Indira Movement . He also referred to JP’s writings on Kashmir. Guha went on to say that if JP’s views on Kashmir had been heeded, the people of Kashmir might have led a more peaceful life. This, I thought, was a revelation to me. I had no idea about JP’s writings on Kashmir.

Guha also stressed the need for biographies on figures from the world of art and music. He then made a passing reference to a biography of JRD Tata. The book was was so deferential that it did not seem like a biography at all. Guha ended his talk by referring to two people. The first was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who, he said, was the most remarkable woman of the twentieth century India. He added that she was much more remarkable than Indira Gandhi. The second person he spoke about was Shivram Karanth and Guha said that the greatest Indian whom he has ever met was Karanth.

I have grown up reading Ramachandra Guha and hearing his lectures on Youtube. He has been one of the few scholars that I deeply respect. Guha agreed to take a few questions. The first hand that shot up was mine and I spoke about the book, The Polyester Prince, the biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, by Hamish Macdonald. This book had angered Dhirubhai so much that it wasn’t allowed into the country. I also spoke about the sequel, Ambani and Sons. Guha did agree that the book was a good exposé but not a great book in the fine art of biographical writing.

After the question-answer session was over, I did give Ramachandra Guha my visiting card and he did say, “It’s nice to meet you after the emails we had exchanged.” So, that was my deferential, ‘wow’ moment of meeting my idol.

However, as Ramachandra Guha did point out, one should not just be deferential, one should be critical too. I did notice a few things in his lecture. One was his chatty tone. I thought the audience comprised reasonably intelligent people and the chatty, conversational, personal anecdotal tone wasn’t needed. When he laid out the seven reasons why India does not have good historical biographies, I was reminded of another lecture. At this lecture which he had delivered many years ago in Canada,  he had spoken about ten reasons why India would not be a superpower. It was an insightful lecture too. However, I feel that there are two Ramachandra Guhas. One is the serious scholar in his books, the other is the chatty journalistic writer, who speaks at such lectures. But I wouldn’t hold this as a grudge against him. At least, he does know how to regale his audiences well. That is an art too.

I do have a  few criticisms too. His first reason, ‘the burden of religious inheritance in Hinduism’ why India does not have sufficient historical biographies, I am not sure if that is a pretty valid reason. Yes, his point could be valid for the Christian tradition. However, I am not sure if that is true of the Muslim tradition in India too. For instance, Jamia Millia Islamia, the University, where I teach, does not have a written history yet. Yes, there is a project afoot to document this now as Jamia enters its centenary.  Jamia Millia Islamia was one of three universities founded in 1920 at the call of Mahatma Gandhi and the Ali brothers. They had joined together to provide an Indian model of education.

There were a few people that he forgot to mention. He has written about them: Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Shekhar Pathak. Very illustrious people. But then, a ninety-minute talk with discussions and an introduction could only have as much.

All in all, I was suitably rewarded and enriched as a result of listening to my idol. Ramachandra Guha lived up to the finest traditions of being a scholar—of asking his shishyas to not just emulate him but also question him.

Most Misunderstood, Still Enduring—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My love affair began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in 1992 as an MA student. In my class, there was just another friend who appreciated the poem. Our professor spoke about opium, fragments and also spoke about the river Alph, referring to the English language. In 1995, I wrote a term paper in M.Phil. on “Kubla Khan”, talking about how all this idea of opium was Coleridge’s way of pulling wool over people’s eyes. In twenty years of teaching—from an adjunct position to a full time tenure—I have never been fortunate enough to teach one of my first loves in life, “Kubla Khan”. But then, there is always peace about how systems and structures go. While talking to my students at coffee shops on campus, over the last five years or so, I sensed that not much had changed. They were still on an overdose of ‘opium’ and ‘fragment’ when I chatted about “Kubla Khan” with them.

This is not an academic paper but just to arrive at a sense of the poet. It is my belief that Coleridge was one of the most original minds among English poets and the one who was most misunderstood.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What this “Kubla Khan” episode throughout history tells me is that if you are much ahead of your time, you are likely to face intense ridicule. Coleridge first published the poem in 1816 with a Preface, which talked about his taking laudanum, getting into ‘a sound sleep of over three hours’ and on waking up, he wrote these lines, whilst he was called away by a person. So, stood the account of the poem. The poem was also subtitled ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ’ This immediately led to a number of attacks on the poet. The poet’s persona took over, critics talked about how the poem was written under the influence of opium and for around a century, no one really looked at the poem carefully.

It was later found out that the young Coleridge gave personal recitals of the poem and a manuscript from 1797 survives at the British Library, London. The poem, in my view, shows an exceptionally intelligent and competent, twenty-five year old, Coleridge, who is much ahead of his time and writes a poem, a masterpiece that talks about the creative process. It is also my belief that, at this young age, Coleridge was trying to develop a new romantic poetic sub-genre called ‘fragment’ and he was apprehensive about publishing the poem so early, as he feared ridicule.

“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.
“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.

Coleridge took a full twenty years before he published his poem and that too appending it with a poor defense. And everyone just jumped at him. William Hazlitt, a reputed critic and contemporary of Coleridge, had an unsavoury and an uncritical remark to make. In 1816, he said:

“Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English”.

There were a number of negative reviews and all of them took cue from the Preface that Coleridge had appended to the poem. But in 1821, the respected Leigh Hunt did write a positive review of the poem. In January 1830, writing in Westminster Review, John Bowring had this to say about the poem:

“The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.”

Of course, much later, in the twentieth century, there were a number of critics who did put the opium controversy at rest. One such important critic was John Livingston Lowes, who wrote a book length work, Road to Xanadu (1927), on the two poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Also, in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider wrote glowingly of the poem:

The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven.

But what often beats me is the fact that, even in my time, young students have often believed that Coleridge took opium and wrote the poem as a kind of an outpouring. So, this also brings me to the role of the teacher in the classroom, the uncritical nature of the student fraternity, or to put it better still, the failure of the academia to inculcate critical modes of thinking into the minds of young students.

Here is the poem in its entirety for you:

Kubla Khan
BY SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


One way to look at the poem is to look at Coleridge’s theories about the Secondary Imagination in The Biographia Literaria and analyze the poem in that context. I would do a fine textual analysis of the poem another time. It remains one of my favourite poems and I would certainly return to it in a later post. But I wanted to write this blog post to clarify that one should not just look at a Preface or what the author says about the text as gospel truth and relegate the text to the dustbin of history. If we do that, then as William Hazlitt, history will come to haunt us and show us as utter fools.

Sensitive Thoughts, Sensitive Words: Agha Shahid Ali

I was barely twenty four years old in 1995 and I had gone looking to meet a poet who had impressed me a lot. I went to the flat his father had. This was Zakir Bagh, right opposite Surya Hotel, New Delhi. The poet: Agha Shahid Ali. But I was unfortunate. Sometimes, we are. Shahid was in the United States. I missed him. I knew him from his poems, from what he translated, from what he wrote—words in different registers, all imbued with magic. Each word of his was drenched with sensitivity.

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali

I also knew Shahid from a couple of people I knew who were so fortunate to have met him. Abir Bashir Bazaz was my student in 1995. Abir now teaches at the University of Minnesota. He had Shahid’s books endearingly autographed by the great poet.

Amitav Ghosh has written an endearing essay on Shahid and of his impending death:

Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This was on May 21st: by that time he had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal sutures. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment, leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked where he was from. Ecuador, the man said and Shahid clapped his hands gleefully together. “Spanish!” he cried, at the top of his voice. “I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca.”

At this the tired, slack-shouldered orderly came suddenly to life. “Lorca? Did you say Lorca?” He quoted a few lines, to Shahid’s great delight. “Ah! ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’,” Shahid cried, rolling the syllables gleefully around his tongue. “How I love those words. ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’!” That was how we made our way through the hospital’s crowded lobby: with Shahid and the orderly in the vanguard, one quoting snatches of Spanish poetry and the other breaking in from time to time with exultant cries of, ‘‘La Cinque de la Tarde, La Cinque de la Tarde…”

Only Shahid could transform the mundane into the sublime. I have always been excited by the moments of sublimity which we experience. As I read and re-read Shahid, I do get insights into the world around me, while being transported into another realm too.

My first exposure to Shahid was through his enchanting book of poems, The Half-Inch Himalayas. “Postcard from Kashmir” passed through my eyes and into my heart:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

But as if this wasn’t enough and yes, with Shahid, if you read as many of his poems, you would find more poems that enchanted you, that transported you into another world, that left such an imprint on you all your life. In the same book, I discovered a love that has stayed with me all these years. “Stationery”, such a short poem, the worlds so deceptively simple and yet so powerful:

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

And in his book of poems, A Nostalgist’s Map of America, there’s another beautiful love poem “A Rehearsal of Loss”.

Shahid made a number of contributions but perhaps, his greatest should be his ghazals in English. He also got a number of poets to write ghazals in English and got them into a fascinating book, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. He has received unmitigated praise for everything in the poetic realm. Years ago, at a Katha Workshop, Shahid had read a paper, where he spoke about the ‘biryanization of English’. In one of his ghazals, Shahid says:

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic.
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Ancestors–you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard–
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?


From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.
….
I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women
And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means–
Listen: it means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali was exceptionally proficient in the craft of poetry. He has written villanelles, sestinas and canzones, which are exceptionally tough to write. Shahid has written three canzones, more than any other poet.

Once Shahid wrote:

I wish all this had not happened. This dividing of the country, the divisions between people – Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu – you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: why can’t you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?

The message that Agha Shahid Ali gives me is that of nostalgia, of love, of loss, of living with it and of celebrating one’s own self.

A World Like No Other—Shangri-La

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
Lost Horizon by James Hilton

The first book that always comes to my mind is Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1900-1954). It is a book as fascinating as any written ever. Lost Horizon comes tantalizingly close to the concept of an ideational world. Such a world that may exist as a refuge from the harshness of modern life. The novel exploded on to the literary scene in 1933 and was made into a movie, also called Lost Horizon by Frank Capra in 1937.

It also won the author the prestigious Hawthorden Prize in 1934. In fact, this book is also known as the book that started the “paperback revolution”.

In popular imagination, the novel gave a new word, a new place called Shangri-La. It is at this lamasery that Hugh Conway finds refuge, inner peace, love and a sense of purpose. You can also watch this really insightful PBS documentary on Shangri-La: The Lost Treasures of Tibet.

The novel has some really memorable passages of enchanting prose:

While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky.

This is visual writing at its best. If I were teaching a creative writing course, I would take this passage as an example of how to write a novel. Here, James Hilton is looking at the world from the protagonist, Hugh Conway’s eyes.

And as they go up the mountains to the lamasery…

About a couple of miles along the valley the ascent grew steeper, but by this time the sun was overclouded and a silvery mist obscured the view. Thunder and avalanches resounded from the snowfields above; the air took chill, and then, with the sudden changefulness of mountain regions, became bitterly cold. A flurry of wind and sleet drove up, drenching the party and adding immeasurably to their discomfort; even Conway felt at one moment that it would be impossible to go much further.

I have read and re-read Lost Horizon many times over. Every time, what amazes me is also that James Hilton does not write a very voluminous book and yet manages to convey a very powerful story, while painting a beautiful landscape away from the raging ills of society.

Lost Horizon (film) by Frank Capra

This was the film, Lost Horizon by Frank Capra. One of the most expensive movies made. The film’s final cost, including promotional advertising, was $2,626,620 and it took a lot many years to recover its costs. However, the movie itself was very impressively produced. Frank Nugent of the New York Times had called it ‘one of the 10 best films of the year’. The original prints had got damaged and the movie was restored and reissued in 1973.

A screen grab from Lost Horizon (1973)
A screen grab from Lost Horizon(1973)

A large number of people prefer the moving image, the way a novel has been rendered on the screen. It would depend on how it was done. Here, the film was impressive too. And sometimes, we do have our personal preferences. Somehow, I found the novel haunting too.

There have been several million copies of the novel sold, making Lost Horizon, one of the enduring and a much-loved novel of the twentieth century. The novel does retain its place as a literary text. Lost Horizon is the stuff that ‘cult’ novels are made of. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. It was renamed as Camp David later.

The idea that it is an ageless world is very fascinating. However, it is not completely ageless. The High Lama does pass away but before he dies, he tells Conway that ‘we have managed to slow age and we practice everything in moderation here’. I find that a very fascinating concept too. Living life in moderation. This is akin to what the great Buddha told us. And the practices of the lamas at the lamasery seem similar to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and his concept of mindful living.

And before I leave you with this little passage from the novel, let me also tell you that Conway does meet Sieveking, who was an expert on the great Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, and Conway plays a piece, which Sieveking says it cannot be Chopin…

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little passage from the novel…

It had, of course, crossed his mind, but a certain initial and fantastic unreasonableness about it had been too much for him. Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared, and carried out at the instigation of Shangri-La. The dead pilot was known by name to those who lived there; he had been one of them, in some sense; his death was mourned. Everything pointed to a high directing intelligence bent upon its own purposes; there had been, as it were, a single arch of intentions spanning the inexplicable hours and miles. But what WAS that intention? For what possible reason could four chance passengers in the British government aeroplane be whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?