The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 21, 2000
Time Off

Knowing when to stop
By Manohar Malgonkar

"CLASSICAL quotation" Dr Samuel Johnson pronounced, "is the parole of literary men all over the world."

Literary MEN? That’s right. Dr Johnson lived from 1709 to 1784. In his time, writing, like soldiering or preaching the Gospel, was a men-only preserve. True, one or two brave women had breached the barriers: Jane Walton and Ann Barbauld were writing poetry and publishing it. But it seems obvious that the doctor was not prepared to recognise them as members of the profession.

Today, I suppose we would call Dr Johnson a Male Chauvinist Pig. At that, what he said about the usefulness of classical quotations to all those who write, whether male or female, remains true.

One morning not so long ago, I was working on an article and had just typed the phrase ‘The Barbarians at the gate’. I wanted to find an apt quotation which would illustrate the meaning of the word ‘barbarian’. I have two books of quotations, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODOQ) and The Everyman’s Dictionary of Quotations and Proverbs. Both had just one entry for the word ‘barbarian’. They were different quotations, as it happened, but neither of any help to me in explaining the meaning of the word in the sense I had used it, and which had been so neatly defined by the Sanskrit proverb, Sahitya, Sangeeta kala Viheena: Someone with no literature, no music, no art.

  The ODOQ is a hefty volume, heavy as a doorstop; has nearly a thousand pages of small print in double column, and contains about 30,000 quotations. As a rule it always comes up with one or two quotations to help a writer put across his thoughts. But it has its built-in limitations, which are clearly stated in its introduction. Most of its quotations are from the English language itself, and the few that have been let in from some of the other European languages, mainly French and German, have been chosen because they’re already familiar to the users of the English language. The same test, of familiarity, has also been applied to the handful of Greek and Latin quotations, such as this gem: Probites laudatur et alget. Honesty is commended, and starves. Or again, Contabit vacuus coram latrone viator: The traveller with empty pockets will sing even in the robber’s face.

But not a single quotation from any non-European language.

"Popularity and not merit was the password," the editors point out with disarming candour. So anything that was not already familiar to the English speaking public had no place in the ODOQ. Non-European languages — out. The ancient Persian language of the Parsi scriptures, the Avesta — out. The world’s oldest surviving language, Sanskrit — out! Sure there are perfectly practical reasons for the taboo. Still, just think how much richer ODOQ would have been if some of the more familiar Sanskrit sayings had figured in it?

The oldest literature of the world is in Sanskrit. The Vedas, which are four in number, predate all other written works. Indeed even the term ‘written works’ is incorrect to describe the formation of the first of these Vedas, the Rigveda. It was compiled, almost in its present form, before words could be written down or read. The hymns of the Rigveda had to be passed on from person to person — and generation to generation — only by word of mouth. Those who heard the hymns recited them again and again and memorised them, and that was how they lived on.

The hymns were compiled in the form of verses which could be chanted, and over the years settled into a ritualistic form of reciting them, in a sing-song voice and with appropriate movements of the right hand and of the head. Even to this day, Sanskrit scholars can demonstrate the correct way of chanting them: their heads bob up and down to keep time with the music and their right hand draws figures in the air — movements which had been obviously devised in ancient times to serve as memory-aids.

Much of ancient Sanskrit literature, the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Puranas, are philosophical studies: wise men saying wise things to resolve the doubts and uncertainties about the problems of the times. And this itself makes it a useful compendium of quotable pronouncements except for the fact that there is no index to serve as guide to the right quotation.

But that does not mean it is not there. These ancient sages, the rishis, were nothing if not thorough. Someone had merely to express a doubt, ask a simple question to set them of to , unleash a positive torrent of closely reasoned rhetoric.

For instance, the authors of ODOQ suggest that the most quoted sentence in the English language may be the question posed by Hamlet in his soliloquy, To be, or not to be?

As it happens, that was the precise question that Arjuna, the hero of Mahabharata, asked his chariot-driver in the field of battle, Kurukshetra — and sparked off the Bhagavadgita, which seeks to rationalise the very core of the philosophy of Hinduism.

The Bhagavadgita is the exposition of the philosophy behind a faith, a scholarly study which seeks to delve into questions of right and wrong, the meaning of life itself. And yet its message is said to be compressed in a single sentence: Karmannyaevadhi Karaste: Work is your only right. I tried to find something in the ODOQ which said the same thing, and could only dredge up Arthur Hugh Clough’s Say not the struggle nought availeth. How do the two compare for clarity, precision, economy of words?

Numerous as they are, the pronouncements of the Bhagavadgita are not for everyday use. They’re the heavy artillery of Sanskrit literature. Even the earlier works, the Rigveda and others, are far less ponderous, and some, like the subhashitas which are a collection of proverbs, lightweight, humorous and just readymade for being used as quotations — as meaningful today as they were a thousand years ago.

We use quotations as criticism or satire, as gestures of contempt, such as a clucking of the tongue or shrugging the shoulders. For the self-important cult figure spouting words of wisdom at TV interviews, we have a piece of sage advice: Vidya vinayena shobhate: Modesty only enhances the degree of achievement. For the uncultivated politician who has been pitchforked into ministerial office as a consequence of subsurface horse-trading, we have a handy phrase: Prasada Shukharastopi Kakena Garudayate: Just because he’s found a perch on a palace tower, a crow doesn’t become an eagle. For those whose ill-begotten wealth is an open secret carrying on brazenly, Nirlajjam sadasukhi: The shameless are always happy. For those caught red-handed in stealing public funds....I could go on and on, pulling out quotations from a memory bank.

But during this hunt, I discovered one quotation which I treasure as a rule of writing ettiquette. I found it in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie all of 30 years ago. As Steinbeck was sitting all by himself, he was joined by an out of work, elderly Shakespearean stage actor full of dignity and old-fashioned courtesies. They had a drink together and the actor rose to go. Steinbeck tried to press him to stay and talk, but the old actor shook his head and said: "The most important acting technique is the exit — knowing when to go."

A technique just as important for writers, too — knowing when to stop.

This feature was published on May 14, 2000