The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

India in hot pursuit of Europe
Review by Amritjit Singh

The Indian Imagination: Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English.
by K.D. Verma. St. Martin’s Press, New York. Pages xiv + 268. $ 45.00

"THE Indian Imagination" creates a very specific context for a fresh reading of a few selected Indian-English writers like Sri Aurobindo, Mulk Raj Anand, Nissim Ezekiel, Balachandra Rajan, Anita Desai and Arun Joshi. It attempts a reading that views these writers and their texts to be in an intense conversation with the broad intellectual and philosophical traditions of Europe since the 18th century, especially in relation to the European thought on India generally in service of imperialism. The 30-page introduction defines the author’s approach in lucid detail. The remaining 10 chapters exemplify that approach and are devoted to (a) general re-assessments of individual figures (as in chapters 2 and 5 on Sri Aurobindo and Mulk Raj Anand respectively); (b) some aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s career (chapters 3 and 4); and (c) specific texts by Ezekiel, Anand, Rajan, Desai and Joshi (chapters 6 to 11). Many of these chapters, previously published in scholarly journals, have been carefully revised and all of them illustrate, in one way or another, the author’s underlying approach and method.

Maybe the quickest way of capturing Verma’s perspective on all these writers and possibly most of Indian-English writing is to quote from the conclusion of his chapter on Desai’s "Baumgartner’s Bombay": "(Desai’s novel) is a rewriting of (Forster’s ) ‘A Passage to India’ but with a singular difference: that theorising India includes theorising Europe, that Baumgartner’s individual experiences have their validity in the universal context of collectivity and that their localised identities of race, gender, and nationality are ultimately submerged in the world’s body. . . Baumgartner’s rejection of Europe and his discovery of India define a process of locating truth and of identifying the Other that had been hitherto centred in the narratives of colonialism and imperialism."


Whether with reference to Aurobindo or Anand, Verma has effectively established the significance of reading Indian English writing against the broader context of its "cross-fertilisation" with European thought that has inevitably resulted from "a direct confrontation with the moral and philosophical incongruities and unresolvabilities of history". Verma’s relentless insistence on this approach throughout his book — which, in my view, generally works quite well — might cause some irritation among those readers of his book who either prefer new critical readings of each text or have otherwise made it a habit in recent years to read Indian literature (in English and regional languages) primarily against frameworks centred in narrow or purist conceptions of Indianness or Hinduism (the two being the same for some of them). Even I must admit that there are several moments in "The Indian Imagination" (see pages 8-9, 63, 167, for example) where the authoror’s anxiety about his chosen framework is mirrored in an almost crippling rhetorical sweep of theoretical and historical questions and terminologies.

For the most part, however, there are many rewards in Verma’s method and approach for the attentive reader in terms of insight and overall view. Verma writes in the mature and polished style that one would expect from a scholar-teacher of his diverse and rich experience. He weaves in and out of a Kant precept or a Shelley poem as easily as he glosses a quotation from Coleridge’s "Biographia Literaria" or reads a section of Aurobindo’s "Savitri". Even those who might find themselves resistant to his overall methodology are likely to acknowledge that in "The Indian Imagination", Verma has set for himself very high standards of scholarship and that his book will serve as a model for many others working in the field of South Asian literatures.

In the three chapters on Aurobindo Ghose, Verma has made a valiant effort to place the mystic poet-philosopher in the clear light of day. The process involves rescuing for most of us Sri Aurobindo from the uncritical and adulatory commentaries of those for whom Aurobindo is understandably a cult figure. As with Tagore or Wordsworth, it helps to admist that not all of Aurobindo’s oeuvre is of equal value to those of us who read him primarily as a literary figure and that an uncritical insistence on all of Aurobindo would, in fact, ensure the death of much of his work that is worth preserving in the Indian-English literary tradition. It would be quite appropriate for a non-Aurobindoite reader of this poet-critic to establish and publish a text of Aurobindo selections, a kind of "Aurobindo Reader", for literary scholars. While Verma’s treatment will surely not satisfy many Aurobindoites, many others might wonder if "The Indian Imagination" has gone far enough in its rescue operation of Sri Aurobindo as an Indian-English author and critic.

For Verma, Aurobindo is a figure that we cannot escape coming to terms with as we try to understand the hybridised, even fractured, reality that is post-colonial India. As he puts it, "The conflation of Aurobindo and Marx will provide a nontraditional but intellectually expansive reading, for after all both Aurobindo and Marx are theorists of social reconstruction." . In trying to lift the veil of metaphysics and mysticism that has — in the hands of "critics of the Aurobindo circle" — surrounded Sri Aurobindo, Verma emphasises the importance of Aurobindo as an "astute critic" in the Coleridgean mode and as "a mythopoeic and visionary poet whose poetic combines several traditions in Indian and western literatures." Verma views Aurobindodo’s theory of "creative evolution" as a way of cutting across all binaries in Aurobindo’s spiritual (not religious) focus on individual freedom, on a "new order in which human beings are able to expand their consciousness and to attain psychic integration and wholeness". Indubitably affirmative and defying narrow labeling, "[t]he integralist vision of Aurobindo is an all-inclusive and timeless vision of unity, reintegration, and spiritual freedom".

This centred view of Aurobindo allows Verma — in his chapter entitled "The Social and Political Vision of Sri Aurobindo"— to articulate the interrelatedness of the various phases and components that comprise the poet-saintnt’s career — his immersion in the West during his formative years, his youthful commitment to revolution and political radicalism, and his visionary phase associated with Pondicherry. For Aurobindo, "Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world which makes selfishness the root of action." Nationalism as a dharma suggests a struggle that is not only political but also ethical and spiritual. In the "Life Divine", Aurobindo views evil and falsehood as resulting from ignorance but for him, there is no absolute evil or absolute ignorance. At the individual level, it is egoism that breeds evil, but humans are not inherently evil. As Verma notes, there is no room in Aurobindoo’s vision for repressive measures or for a system of rewards and punishments, for the "self-dissipating bigotry of damnation". Like Guru Nanak, Sri Aurobindo rejects the "overzealous pursuit of other-worldliness and esoteric goals and rituals" that might reinforce "an unwarranted division of life and spirit".

In a footnote (and Verma’s notes are often as illuminating as his main text), Verma cites a remarkably revealing statement from the Aurobindo of the Pondicherry period: "Pondicherry is my place of retreat, my cave of tapasya, not of the ascetic kind, but of a brand of my own invention. . . . I do not at all look down on politics or political action or consider that I have got above them. … all human activity is for me a thing to be included in a complete spiritual life, and the importance of politics at the present time is very great."

As a critic, Verma argues in his fourth chapter, Aurobindo rejects the narrow autonomy of a work of art as rigidly demanded by formalism and stresses the "impersonal" dimensions of both the poet’s creativity and a reader’s enjoyment of the work. Aurobindo acknowledges in "The Future Poetry" his closeness to "the historical theory of criticism", suggesting that "both the poet and the reader contemplate the universal, the infinite, through their inner, subjective imaginations" (64). Verma glosses Aurobindoviews on many 19th century poets, including Blake ("Europe’s greatest mystic poet"), Byron ("different from all the others"), Wordsworth (" Rousseau moralised … and as it were, transfigured by the light of imagination"), Coleridge ("the poet in him never took into himself the thinker"), Shelley ("at once seer, poet, thinker, prophet, artist"), and Whitman ("belongs to the largest mind of the 19th century,"… an "intellectual reconciler" of individual and community).

Verma also notes the paradox that while as a poet of "Savitri", Aurobindo is aligned with the classical tradition, as a critic he exhorts the modern mind "not to become blinded by tradition but to forge ahead on the path of progressive experimentation".

If Aurobindo Ghose takes up three chapters in "The Indian Imagination", Mulk Raj Anand — a progressive of the Marxist ilk — is the presumptive subject of two major chapters. I say presumptive, because the chapter on Anandnd’s "Conversations in Bloomsbury"–an experimental book that comprises a series of imaginary interviews with many Bloomsbury group members — is at least as much a discussion of E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot at it is of Anand. Relying on his memory, Anand recaptures his reminiscences of many individuals from the 1920s and 1930s, including Bonamy Dobree, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Forster and Eliot. Verma sees the book centred on "a highly complicated structure of confrontations, valuations and representations of the issues of ideology, culture, art, and history."

Verma’s commentary on Eliot and Forster’s views on Indian freedom builds on his most evocative treatment in his introductory chapter of James Mill’s "The History of British India" (1817) as well as of his liberal son, J.S. Mill’s puzzling but persistent opposition to India’s freedom. It is in the juxtaposition — a "contrapuntal" reading in Edward Saidd’s terms — of the positions taken by Indian writers and intellectuals against the sameness of liberal and conservative English thought on Indiaa’s freedom that Verma’s approach bears its sharpest insights. Aurobindo, Anand, and Ezekiel — all shaped deeply in many ways not only by European liberal thought but also by their own English experience — had strong if varying levels of commitment to Indiaia’s freedom struggle. In constructing all colonised peoples as barbarians, J.S. Mill, in the 1830s, had declared "despotism (to be) a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, … provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end."

A century later, in "Abinger Harvest" (1936), Forster admitted that English liberty was "race bound" and "class bound" — "it means freedom for the Englishman, but not for the subject races of his Empire". Forster showed refreshing honesty in adding the following: "If you invite an average Englishman to share his liberties with the inhabitants of India or Kenya, he will say, ‘Never’ if he is a Tory, and ‘Not until I consider them worthy,’ if he is a Liberal." Anand’s dialogues with Eliot, Forster, and others highlight such contradictions but cover many more topics on art, culture and politics.

The other chapter on Anand is a reappraisal of his career and documents his evolution from his 25 youthful years in England to his continuing work at the age of 96 on the ambitious series of autobiographical novels, "The Seven Ages of Man". Verma disagrees with other critics who feel that in recent decades Anand has lost his Marxist faith "in the capacity of social organism to bring about change". Although he does not provide hard evidence to support his view, Verma sees Anand committed to the disenfranchised and his values deeply rooted in liberalism and English social thought. Anand and other Indian intellectuals who were troubled by the English liberal attitudes toward India’s freedom were caught up in mimicry, a process by which, in Homi Bhabha’s definition, the colonised subject is reproduced as "almost the same, but not quite … so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace" ("Location of Culture 86"). But Anand was not only being a menace to his liberal English friends by confronting their hypocrisies on colonialism, in his first novel, "Untouchable" (1938) — still considered his best by most — he was also exposing the dehumanising effects of a deeply entrenched caste system among fellow Indians.

Bakha, its protagonist, is "mercilessly locked" into a cruel system sanctioned by Hinduism, subjected forever to economic exploitation and social inferiority. Anand establishes the irrelevance of any western models — Hegelian and Marxist included — to Bakhaha’s situation by showing the inadequacy of the three alternatives Bakha faces at the end of the novel: Gandhian pacifism, Christian teachings, and the potential of science and technology. Verma concludes his reading of "Untouchable" by suggesting that … is a universal global problem: in a sense, we are all untouchables and coolies."

For me, however, any such attempt to stretch the concreteness of Anand’s representation to a metaphorical level is to diminish the power of "Untouchable" as a novel. Anand’s novel — like Richard Wrightt’s "Native Son" — works through a kind of Brechtian aesthetic to leave little room for his readers to take shelter behind mimetic empathy and catharsis, forcing them to confront the naked degradation of humanity. For Bakha, there is no redemption at all — not even in the celestial discourse of the Bhagwat Gita whose message is intended only for the twice-born upper-caste Hindus. By 1991, it appears from Vermama’s account, Anand — not unlike Sri Aurobindo — had come to place his faith in the "struggle for higher consciousness" as "the only possible way for the good life." I only hope Anandnd’s Bakhas, Munoos, and Gauris too have made that discovery.

As a text, "The Indian Imagination" engages both our critical faculties and our imagination, as we ponder the historical and intellectual sources of Indian-English writings of the past and the present. What more can one ask of a scholarly book?