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Hanging Abstractions

Raja Rao disappoints by serving up old wine in an old bottle

Hanging Abstractions
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
The Meaning Of India
By Raja Rao
Vision Books Pages:204;Rs: 280
RAJA RAO is a considerable writer. He has written several well-known novels, among them Kanthapura and The Serpent and the Rope. He is rich with awards and honours. So, when someone with such a track record writes a book with a title like The Meaning of India, one listens. After all, the matter is one which is of enormous and daily import in our fraught national condition. There are those who would locate this meaning in the past—variously defined, but invariably glorious. Others seek to locate this in the future, so that India is a possible—also ideal and ineluctable—destiny. This destiny the denizens of this plot of earth must seek to realise—even if they do so in a haphazard, one-step-forward-two-steps-backward fashion. Others might well quarrel with the singular "meaning" of Raja Rao's title, and say that not only are there many meanings of India, but that this plurality is, in some sense, essential: i.e. the meanings are the meaning.

However, the timeliness of his title is hardly reflected in the book itself. The wine that Raja Rao has served up in this bottle has, so to speak, an ancient and fish-like smell: old wine in an old bottle, in fact. Not to put too fine a point on it, Raja Rao is much drawn to the Advaita Vedantic position—the absolute monism of the great Sankara. Thus, this book abounds in numerous invocations of the principle of non-dualism. Certainly as propounded by the original Master, this is heady metaphysics. But more to my present purpose is the fact that a kind of pop non-dualism is a widespread and even venerable addiction in our country. Narcissistic masses delight in this all-embracing, aggrandising Oneness: I am Thou, Thou is It, It is....

As I said, this might well be good philosophy. But it makes for bad prose. After all, any prose of quality has to do with the variety and plurality of the universe. The delight that one derives from good prose—which in my dualist universe is distinguished from bad prose—has much to do with precision in registering the dynamic diversity of our alarming everyday world. However, from a sufficiently lofty metaphysical perch, all this is flattened into oneness, or even Oneness. What survives are capitalised entities—Soul and Reality and, of course, God. Somewhat more intriguing are the dangling adjectives—the imperfect, the authentic, the primal, the beyond. After all, nouns can happen only when the narcissistic universe is divided up into the world of discrete things.

Several of the pieces collected in this higgledy-piggledy volume are concerned with promoting the oft-desired dialogue between scientists and humanists. It is worth noting, however, that after C.P. Snow's initial and influential appeal to humanists to get acquainted with the world of scientific enquiry, most subsequent calls have come from beleaguered humanists feebly aspiring to regain their lost intellectual dominance.

But this kind of flabby writing will only confirm the scientists in their assumed arrogance. Even worse, some of them might even be drawn to the presumed domain of the humanities, but they will be drawn for entirely the wrong reasons. Thus, for them the humanities—poetry, language, philosophy—will no longer be forms of intellectual activity, parallel and complementary endeavours whose implicit epistemologies clarify and define the limits of scientific epistemology. Instead, they are seen as a source of sermons, spiritual solace, balm for the soul. The consequent posture of the humanist as guru may well be one that Raja Rao is comfortable with—but it is one that horrifies many practising humanists.

Unfortunately, however, Raja Rao's forays into the mundane world of difference and power, the domain of politics in which I confronts Thou in a dark alley, knife in hand, are not much happier than his dallyings with the Absolute. Consider his caricature of nationalist history. These are the years 1919-1922, Jallianwalla Bagh to Chauri Chaura: "...came General Dyer who shot Indians, hundreds of them non-violent resisters. India rose in nonviolent rebellion. Yet some amongst these, teased by the police, retaliated." He writes a shameless eulogy of Indira Gandhi with not the merest suggestion that his assertions may, at the very least, be controversial

It is as if Raja Rao lived somewhere far away from the real world. And in that "whereless" place—to simply use one of his constructions—he speaks a curious, private language. It apparently makes perfect sense to him. And that, at his time of life, might well be just what he desires—a drawing inwards, sanyas. Which is fine—but what are the rest of us doing here?

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