Saturday, June 1, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The Bible as literature
Khushwant Singh

Loveleen KackerI AM frequently asked by young people to suggest a book that would help them improve their knowledge of English. I tell them candidly that there is no such book or collection of books that could help them gain a better command of the language. They must read extensively: nursery rhymes, fairy tales, poetry (classical and modern) plays, novels — everything they can lay their hands on and they will slowly be able to tell the difference between good, bad and indifferent writing. At times I make a short list of basic English literature in which I put the Bible at the top. I tell them that you do not have to believe in God or be a religious person to enjoy good writing . Most religious scriptures have powerful lines of prose or poetry but unfortunately we can only read them in translations and translations very rarely do justice to the original. Although the Bible has also been translated from Hebrew, its translations have been worked upon by generations of linguists over and over again and like gold and silver which have to be refined many times to attain purity, portions of the Old and New Testament have passages of pure lyricism. Let me begin with the Psalms. You have to be acquainted with the background in which they were composed. Most of the earlier Psalms are attributed to King David. He fell out with his father, his son Absalom rebelled against him and wanted to kill him, he had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and suffered from a deep sense of guilt. David had to face many adversities and was for years hunted like a wild animal by his enemies and ran from shelter to shelter to shelter. But his faith in God remained unshaken. It was to God he turned for help and it was God he glorified when he triumphed and became King of Israel for over 30 years.

Marriage on the rocks
May 25, 2002
Have you ever thought of death?
May 18, 2002
Experiencing the writer’s itch
April 27, 2002
Faiz: A revolutionary Urdu poet
April 20, 2002
Tikka Khan was dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bangladesh’
April 13, 2002
What the Sahibs thought of natives
April 6, 2002
From herbs to haathis and tigers
March 23, 2002
Kashi: The oldest place of pilgrimage
March 16, 2002
When writers talk about themselves
March 9, 2002
Travelling in a women’s compartment
March 2, 2002
Glimpses of Urdu poetry
February 23, 2002
Stamping the police
February 16, 2002
Beer came before bread
February 9, 2002

Psalm 1 ascribed to King Solomon talks of times of prosperity. "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, not standeth in the way of sinners, not sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is the law of the Lord; and on a law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."

Psalm 3 is about David’s travails: "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me’. Many are they that rise up against me... But thou,O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice and he heard me out of his holy hill. I laid him down and slept; I awakened; for the Lord sustained me." In the next Psalm David exhorts: ".... Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still."

David slew the giant Goliath with a sling shot. He records the event in words of gratitude: "O Lord, Our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who has set thy glory above the heavens."

"The Lord trieth the righteous; but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth", Psalm 11 assures us.

There are words of warning for the likes of me in Psalm 14: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." Psalm 19 tries to set the record right: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork."

For some reason the agony of Jesus Christ on his crucifixion is the theme of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? ....I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not, and in the night season, and am not silent."

Much the most quoted of all Psalms is the 23rd. Even non-believers like me know it by heart for the sheer evocative power of its words.

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.... He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters...He restoreth my soul..yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me....Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.... Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."

What is noteworthy in the passages I have quoted is the terseness of the language: not an extra word has been used, not a word can be deleted. If you want to improve your English start with the Psalms. I will come back to the rest later.

Children of the forest

When I first went to Bastar over 50 years ago, my only acquaintance with the tribesmen and women who inhabited the area came from Verrier Elwin’s books and photographs of tribal girls by Sunil Janah. I knew they lived on wild fruits and animals of the jungle. With their bows and arrows they killed only those animals they could eat, never for the fun of killing, or shikar. They made their own liquor, chiefly mahua, and drunkenness was common. They had an institution called ghotul — bachelors’ dormitory — where young boys spent their nights ostensibly to guard the village. Their only diversion was dancing into the late hours: arms round each others’ waists, two steps forward, two back, round and round in circles to the beat of drums. Sex was uninhibited, marriages tenuous, the word bastard did not exist in their lexicon. They had priests, sorcerers and witches who practiced black magic and slit throats of cockerels to divine the future. They were happy in their nudity and backwardness and reluctant to change their pattern of living. Christian missionaries did their best; they built churches in remote areas, tried to teach boys and girls to read and write, persuade girls to cover their bodies, observe marriage vows and behave like good children. They did not get very far. Independent India did worse. Despite having Verrier Elwin as adviser on tribal affairs, all it did was to impose laws banning felling of trees, except when licensed to do so, leasing out forests to contractors and ordering the police to enforce its orders. Timber contractors made fortunes, seduced tribal girls, encouraged prostitution and injected venereal diseases. The police only knew how to rule with dandas and guns. Slowly resentment began to build. The Peoples War Group and the Naxalites gained credibility and were able to give the authorities as good as they got.

We need to know more about our adivasi brothers and sisters. Government handouts are not good enough. Loveleen Kacker has tried to impart some knowledge about tribal life in her novel Terror in the Jungle (UBSPD). The story is contrived and lacks conviction. But there is a lot of valuable information about the way Maria tribals live and suffer. Kacker writes with sympathy and insight gained over years of handling tribal affairs for the Madhya Pradesh Government. Ambala-born Loveleen Kacker (nee Sachdeva) made it to the IAS in 1979, married a fellow probationer and is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, Isha. Under the prodding of her erudite father she took to writing. She has written several children books for Harper Collins and the Children’s Book Trust which have won her awards. She is currently Resident Commissioner of Madhya Pradesh in Delhi. And as her name indicates, she is lovely to behold.

Little laughter

Girl: Do you love me?

Boy: Yes dear

Girl: Would you die for me?

Boy: No, mine is undying love.


Man: How old is your father?

Boy: As old as me

Man: How can that be?

Boy: He became a father only when I was born.

(Contributed by Amir C. Tuteja, Washington)