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.
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.
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 Screamhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.