On Nathan Brown’s ‘The Missionary’s Call’ and Other Hymns

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished preparing the manuscript of a new edition of In a Far Country (1911), Harriette Bronson Gunn’s biography of her father, Miles Bronson. Some consider this kind of work academic drudgery but I liked it. I particularly liked doing the annotations. I did similar work on an early Indian English novel some years ago. Then I was working in the very well-stocked library of a leading university. Hence I had all the books I could possibly want at my disposal. My current setting is rather different. But the internet is a great leveller. I did have misgivings about using Wikipedia but allowed myself to be reassured by a review in the TLS which described the Wikipedia entry on the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom as the ‘most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history’ currently available. YouTube was of great help as well, giving me access to musical sources and information I would not have had otherwise.

In the Introduction to the book (out, hopefully, in December), I point out that In a Far Country belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical and missionary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. Protestants in America (and in Britain) created their own print culture by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, memoirs, biographies, and hymns. So I should not have been surprised by the book’s allusion to a number of hymns.  Many years ago, when I first read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, I was struck by the novel’s continual allusions to ghazals. Ghazals were integral to old Delhi Muslim life; even beggars seem to have recited them. However, from a literary point of view, the hymn, unlike the ghazal, is regarded as a lowly form. This is because hymns are perceived to be conventional, both in sentiment and form, rather than creative. Poetry, the argument goes, must be imaginative.Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poems are religious but innovative and so qualify as poems.

Perhaps there is also a feeling that the religious piety expressed in hymns is hypocritical. After all, the hymn composer John Newton, who wrote ‘Amazing Grace, so greatly loved by Americans including, ironically, by African-Americans, was a slave trader. He became a born-again Christian in 1748. Newton captained a succession of slave ships till 1754, when serious illness forced his retirement from seafaring. He became a pastor in 1764 but expressed condemnation of the slave trade only in 1788. Despite this context, it is difficult not to be moved by the emotional power of this hymn. Religious leaders like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have known the importance of hymns in religion and worship. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, is said to have written over 6000 hymns; they were often edited by John. ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ has been called the finest hymn in English.

Hymns can be disrespectful in the cultural and other assumptions they make. One of the hymns referred to In a Far Country is ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,’ written in 1819 by Reginald Heber, who later became become Bishop of Calcutta.  Gandhi found the line ‘every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ offensive. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, he said, ‘My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary … [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so.’

Nathan Brown (1807-86), the first Baptist missionary in Assam, wrote a well-regarded hymn, “The Missionary’s Call.” In The Whole World Kin (1890), his biography written by Elizabeth W. Brown, we read that it was originally a poem, written spontaneously when Brown was nineteen years old, following the inspirational commencement speech made by the President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837). It was sent to the Missionary Magazine and Brown made ‘its acceptance or rejection …a token from providence whether to offer himself for the foreign field or not.’ Though it was not accepted, Brown’s zeal to be a missionary did not diminish. In 1830, Brown published it in The Vermont Telegraph, a religious paper of which he was the editor. The complete poem is published in The Whole World Kin. The shorter, hymn version, set to music (by Edward Howe, Jr.), is printed as an appendix. There is this (slightly) variant version on the internet:

The Missionary’s Call

    My soul is not at rest.

There comes a strange and secret whisper to my spirit

like a dream of night that tells me I am on enchanted ground.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.


    Why live I here?

The vows of God are on me and I may not stop to play with shadows

or pluck earthly flowers till I my weary pilgrimage have done.

             The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.


    And I will go!

I may no longer doubt to give up my friends and idle hopes

and every tie that binds my heart to thee my country!

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.


      Henceforth it matters not

If storm or sunshine be my earthly lot, bitter or sweet my cup; I only pray,

‘God make me holy, and my spirit nerve for the stern hour of strife.’

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.


        And when I come to stretch me for the last,

in unattended agony beneath the cocoa’s shade

it will be sweet that I have toiled for other worlds than this.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

In 1806, five Williams College students had held the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting which gave rise to the American foreign missionary movement. There was intense interest in foreign missions in New England. The Whole World Kin tells us that The Vermont Telegraph carried the latest news from Burma to the villages and farm-houses of Vermont. Burma was the largest foreign field of the American Baptists missionaries, established by the first and foremost missionary couple Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and his wife Ann Judson (1789-1826), and there were calls to send out more missionaries to the field. My internet research turned up an essay ‘God and Man in Baptist Hymnals 1784-1844’ by David Singer. Singer argues that hymns popularized and brought to the average church-goer the sophisticated religious concepts that were otherwise the preserve of the theological and intellectual elite. Hymns also reflect doctrinal changes. He traces the change from ‘a strict Calvinism to Arminianism’ in the hymns produced during his period of study, and notes the rise of the number of missionary hymns in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Nathan Brown’s hymn is obviously a part of this upsurge of hymn writing.

In Bronson’s biography, Harriette relates an incident illustrating the tribal love of music. A group of missionaries reached a locality where no white man had yet penetrated. ‘They were confronted by a bristling array of spears, each tipped by deadly poison, and pointed straight toward them.’ One of the missionaries began to play ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ on his violin. The ‘wild hill men’ were entranced and lowered their spears. ‘And thus,’ writes Harriette, ‘through power of Christian song and melody, the gospel obtained a lodgment in this hitherto inaccessible part of the mountains.’ Several internet sources (here is one) identify the missionary as EP Scott who worked among the Karbis. You can see the evolution of this discourse of the tribal love of music in accounts of the tradition of church music in the Northeast and the success of the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Wikipedia, that modern fount of all knowledge, tells us that as of September 2016 the Bible has been has been wholly and partly translated into 554 and 2,932 languages respectively. It is unlikely we will ever have a reliable figure for all the hymns composed. Sites like hymnary.org and cyberhymnal.org exist and are useful. But these data bases are confined to Western hymns. Accounting for all the hymns translated into indigenous languages as well as composed in them is not impossible but it would be a challenging task requiring the labours of a global team of experts and informants. William Ward (the Assam Baptist missionary, not to be confused with his famous Serampore namesake) is just one of the several hymnists who composed hymns in Assamese. Ward revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new edition. According to Guwahati Baptist Church pastor Aziz-ul-Haq, Ward added scores of original and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book, published in 1890, sixty three hymns were Ward’s.

‘I get one of these hymns in mind,’ wrote Ward in a 1873 letter to Bronson,  ‘and it goes on grinding when I lie awake, or when I wake in the morning, or at odd intervals of other work.’ Ward’s description of hymn composition is not different from the accounts we have of poets describing the creative process of poetic composition. Hymns have been called the ‘poor man’s poetry.’ Perhaps they help articulate feelings and experiences that the average church-goer might not have been able to express on his or her own. I was moved by the story of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), the English poet and hymn writer, who was an invalid for the last fifty years of her life. She wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am,’ in 1835, and called it her spiritual autobiography. (It was adopted by the famous evangelist Billy Graham as his theme song.) I would not like to disrespect the feelings hymns evoke or dishonour the sincerity behind some justly famous hymns.

Annotating In a Far Country (and reading up on evangelical and missionary print culture) has made me freshly aware of the importance of religion in literature. A list of all the writers influenced by Christianity would have to include Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Frost, and Auden (to mention only poets). That is a roll call of the greatest writers in British and American literature. I have always delighted in telling my students about under-theorized or overlooked genres like the essay or the letter (also known as ‘epistle’ back in the day when email did not exist). For me, hymns are a new discovery. Sadly, I do not have the time or the expertise or the resources to pursue this interest. But for a day or two I was a happy child playing on the beach of a vast ocean, with waves roaring in the distance, the swelling music of some great church organ, bringing me a dim awareness of the unplumbed depths beneath.

Teaching English in Nineteenth Century Assam and Now

‘The Goddess of English’ was two feet tall, wore a hat, and stood atop a computer. In her right hand she held a pen and in her left the Constitution of India. She was the brain-child of Chandra Bhan Prasad, the Dalit activist and writer. Interviewed in September 2010, he explained the symbolism of the Goddess (modelled on the Statue of Liberty) and why a temple was being built for her in Bankagaon in UP. Dalits, he said, would ‘use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.’ (The temple ran into opposition from an unexpected quarter.)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

‘The Goddess of English’ starred in a talk I gave on ‘Language Proficiency and Communication (including Soft Skills)’ at a workshop organized by the Education Department of my university. The participants were teachers and officials in higher education in the northeastern states. In the first part of my talk (which I confined to the English language), I reiterated the basic facts: how English has been the medium of higher education in India since the English Education Act of 1835; Macaulay’s programme of creating a class of brown sahibs, including the infamous ‘filtration theory’; and the divisive and alienating effects of English and the opposition to its use by Gandhi and others. I then talked about the surprising direction English has taken: instead of fading away with the British Empire, globalization and modern communication systems have made it the global lingua franca, thereby giving it unprecedented power. I proposed that we abandon our lingering colonial misgivings about English and look at it pragmatically, like previous generations of Indians had done, as a language of education and opportunity.

In the interactive session that followed, one participant objected to my advocacy of English; rural children, he pointed out, were forced to learn a strange and alien language. But the others agreed that it was important to learn English and wanted to know how acquiring it could be made more effective. We spoke of creating an ‘ecosystem’ in our schools and colleges, so that students could learn in informal situations. Some thought that it was easier to learn English nowadays because of the availability of educational videos on YouTube and various apps and aids like online dictionaries (which not only give you the meanings of words but also their pronunciation). Our discussion took in Norman Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy, a book which sells by the thousands every year. It was an animated exchange, made possible by the fact that most of the participants were from disciplines and departments other than English.

For, when it comes to teaching the language it is English Departments which show the least enthusiasm. (To be fair, English teachers in colleges and universities often have a rather heavy teaching burden. Also, there is an understandable feeling that if a student didn’t learn the language in eleven years of school and three of college, there is little that can be done at the university level.) There are several reasons for this. The first one is ideological. Postcolonialism in particular and theory in general have made us all too aware of how the English language has been and is complicit with power and oppression.  English departments therefore are likely to want less English, rather than more. But this is a paternal approach, one in which the privileged decide what is good for those not so lucky. (Which is why I cited the Dalit argument.)  Our universities and colleges are changing. They are no longer places for the elite. Students now come from schools and colleges where English is not spoken or taught with any competence. If education is to be meaningful, English Departments have a responsibility to teach English to the excluded.

The second reason (not always acknowledged) is the decline in instructional skills, especially on the part of those now coming into the profession. Generally speaking, younger faculty would rather teach theory or literary texts; they seem uncomfortable taking English classes. (This is a personal impression and may be incorrect. I hope so.) ‘English is a very funny language’, Amitabh Bachchan declares in Namak Halal. It is a tricky language; its grammatical rules are unhelpful and, as is amusingly noted in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie Chupke Chupke, its pronunciation and spelling systems do not correspond. In addition, unlike our Indian languages, it is stress-based (suhm-er, not sum-mar). Collocations like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ can only be learned through immersion.

A third reason is that our classrooms are not the best places to teach English (or, for that matter, any other language). When I began my career, it was in a college in a small town.  There were a hundred and fifty students in the class. I remember asking if they could hear me at the back. No, was the cheerful answer. (I have a loud voice but there was competition from the ceiling fans). Frequent bandhs, holidays and college functions meant that often there was a gap of a week or more between classes. In the university where I now teach, classes are regularly held. But here again the English classes for undergraduate science students tend to be very large. Colleagues in other departments, concerned by their students’ poor language skills, request us to take remedial classes. These classes usually have to be held at the end of the day (sometimes after work hours) because parent departments are reluctant to release their students earlier. After the first few classes (which are attended quite eagerly), students tend to drop out because they cannot cope with an additional course.

A few days after my talk, I was reading some missionary reports of the nineteenth century when I came across a letter by Rev. E.P. Scott, ‘What is to be the Language of Assam?’ Scott, who belonged to the American Baptist Missionary Union, arrived in 1863 and worked among the Karbis. The letter was written in February 1869 and is worth citing at length:

There is a question which begins to affect seriously the work of missions in Assam… By what language are these millions of Babel-like India to be reached with the gospel? I began my work, and prosecuted it confidently till [recently]… in accordance with the firm conviction that each tribe must be taught in its own tongue. This remains true in principle; but practically a new phase appears. The persistent and effective measures of the government in introducing English and Bengali into all its schools in Assam, shutting out Assamese from all its principal schools, importing Bengali and English teachers, requiring all legal business to be done only in Bengali or English, giving prizes to pupils who excel in those languages, etc., have at last produced marked changes. These languages, particularly English, are spreading rapidly. A large per cent of the boys and young men in all our principal towns of Assam can read, write, and speak English more or less, many of them quite correctly and fluently. There is a growing sentiment or presentiment, not only among educated Hindus, but among all classes, now extending up into the hills, that sooner or later, all these petty languages or dialects of barbarism must give way to one general language of enlightened civilization. With one consent all turn to the English language as that one. The book which the Mikirs [Karbis] were anxiously asking for in their own language three years ago, they turn away from. It is only by compulsion that the Mikir pupils in our schools read Mikir [Karbi] books – whether in native or English letters. The result is that I have been obliged to form a class in English, to prevent my best pupils from attending the government school here… The question is, Shall we give our chief efforts to this generation, or to those coming after? Every consideration answers, ‘Work for those now dying.’ Yet we cannot shut our eyes to the wants of the future. These Hill tribes’ dialects are gradually melting into Assamese. This in turn is melting into Bengali, which is fast becoming lost in English.

Christianity is destined to rule the world, no less truly than the language of Christian civilization is destined to be its prime minister. China has a language which is for generations to come will practically centre on itself; but Assam has entered within the outer gyrations of a movement which will find no rest till the languages of India shall be one. Shall we struggle to stem the tide? To do so would be an unwise and useless waste of time and strength. The question is, How can we best secure the salvation of these lost multitudes, while floating with them down the stream? How divide the work of today from that of tomorrow? I hope to print a few hymns and a few selections from the gospels in Mikir, for wants of today; nothing more….

Scott’s question about what language to use comes from his religious convictions.  He was committed to spreading the word of God in the mother tongue of the convert. This was the sola scriptura doctrine followed by the American Baptist missionaries. Hence their feverish study of Assamese, Karbi, and Garo and their project of printing the Bible in the local languages. The Baptists missionaries persisted with Assamese in their schools, even though this pitted them against the British (on whom they were otherwise dependent), whose official policy decreed using Bengali in schools in Assam.

The letter is evidence that English was becoming a language of aspiration in Assam in the 1860s, something that had happened in Bengal nearly half a century earlier. Scott’s ‘outer gyrations of a movement’ are his way of referring to the early winds of globalization. When Scott wrote his letter, the travelling time of the sea voyage from Boston (mission headquarters) to Calcutta had been reduced to four months; it had taken nearly twice that when the missionaries had first come to the field. From Calcutta missionary stations in Assam could be reached in a mere two weeks (it would have less but the steamer pilots would not risk plying the Brahmaputra at night). Then there was tea – Assam was being invested in and connected to the global economy. Of course, not all of Scott’s predictions came true. The Assamese language did not fade away. In a less than a decade, it would be recognized as the official language. The Karbi language has survived.  And the world has come to be ruled not by Christianity (as he had hoped) but by ‘the Goddess of English’.

I have come to terms with English but there have been several stages in my journey. There was a stage when I believed in the distancing effects of English, a view that is expressed in this passage from Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). (It is interesting that it occurs in a novel that is part of the Ibis trilogy which is admired for the linguistic and creative exuberance of its many Englishes.)

Neel’s schooling in English had been so thorough and so heavily weighted towards the study of texts that he found it easier, even now, to follow the spoken language by converting it into script, in his head. One of the effects of this operation was that it also robbed the language of its immediacy, rendering it into words comfortingly abstract, as distant from his own circumstances as were the waves of Windermere and the cobblestones of Canterbury.

A darker period, in which English became a source of much philosophical gloom, I now call my Jhumpa Lahiri phase. Her just-published memoir, In Other Words (2016), translated by Ann Goldstein, is written in Italian, even though, as she says, she does not have the command over it that she has over English. However, Italian apparently gives her a freedom that neither Bengali, which she learnt to please her parents, nor English, which she learnt because she wished to be American, ever did – she was suspended between languages. The melancholy note which pervades her fiction we can trace to her parents, who mourned their separation from Bengali all their lives in America.

Thanks to the example of the Dalits, and that of generations of Indians in the past who learnt the English language for career reasons (no more, no less), and thanks to my recent discovery of Scott’s letter, I have reached a more hopeful and pragmatic phase.

The Inadequacy of Grief

I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Emerson, ‘Experience’

On weekdays, my wife gets up at five: we have a teenage son whose school van arrives a little before seven. I get up a short time after her. I like being up early.  It’s quiet. I answer my mail and prepare for class. On a good day, I can even write a little. On 12 September 2014, for no reason that I know, I woke up suddenly. After lying in the dark for an hour or so, trying to find sleep, I decided to get up. It was about four.

I worked on my laptop. My wife got up at her usual time; I could hear her in the kitchen. Then my cellphone rang. It was my sister Daisy. There is some very bad news, she began. ‘Probin is no more.’

My wife, who overhears part of the conversation, rushes to me and asks what the matter is. I tell her. I do not know what to do. Should we leave at once for Langharjan Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district where Probin lived and worked? Daisy, who is in Guwahati, doesn’t know what to do. Our mother has been ill for some time. Daisy and Ivy, my just-widowed sister, have been looking after Ma. Ma cannot make the journey to Dibrugarh. So I must go. Ivy has begun – she has been told that her husband is seriously ill. Later on, she will tell us that she discovered that Probin was gone when she began to get calls on her cell. So much for shielding her.

For some minutes, a feeling of not wanting to move or do anything possesses me. But once the difficult decision, we must go at once, has been taken, I opt to rent a car. I like to drive but today I feel it would be too much for me to do so.  I tell the Registrar, who is my neighbour on campus, of my loss. He expresses his condolences – the first of the day. There is a meeting in New Delhi a few days later which the Vice-Chancellor has deputed me to attend. I tell the Registrar that I will be attending. I am now wound up and ready to take decisions. My wife has called her mother in Guwahati. Our plan is to come back after the cremation since our son, who will accompany us, has his school examinations. My mother-in-law will look after him when we go back, a week later, for the sraddha ceremony.

We are expecting the car to arrive by ten. I go to my office in the university; there are matters to attend to. I write a couple of routine but essential emails. A colleague calls to discuss an examination scheduled for the day. I tell her about my brother-in-law. She asks me to take care. Because she sounds genuinely shocked, I am touched. At ten-thirty, our car finally leaves the university campus. I see a tall girl student walking rapidly towards the English Department. She is going to my class.

Daisy is relieved when I tell her that we have started. She is now making arrangements for Ma and will leave the next day. Ivy is ahead of us, on the highway to Dibrugarh.  Our own journey, after some time, begins to acquire a normal aspect. We stop for petrol, pay at the toll-gate, make the occasional comment to the driver, look at the on-coming cars, buses and trucks, the peaceful green paddy fields, the flocks of birds, the grazing cattle, and the hills in the distance. All this lulls us into forgetting why we are travelling.  At Sivasagar we stop for a meal at a wayside restaurant. We are not really hungry but the driver must eat. Boy waiters appear, displaying the airs of adult ones. The incongruity makes us laugh. It seems strange that we can laugh even on a day like this.

Ivy reaches Langharjan and calls to ask how far we are. Moran, I tell her.  It is late afternoon. ‘We’ll wait for you,’ she replies. It is fifty kilometres to the tea estate. At every bend we think we are near. The driver gets confused and announces several times that we ought to be reaching in ten minutes. It is getting dark. I become restless: will we make it in time? Then I realize that I have my sunglasses on. When I take them off, I find that there is still some light.

In the past, arrival at the tea estate was something to look forward to: the pleasure of meeting after a long separation, a shower, a cup of tea, and then a drink – something Probin relished. Now there is a crowd waiting on the lawns. The crowd is huge. There are tea people from gardens in the district, friends and well-wishers from Naharkatia, Dibrugarh, and Tinsukia and other nearby towns. ‘Is that Ivy’s brother?’ I hear someone ask. I look at Probin lying on the lawn. There is a small smile on his face, as though he is not sorry to die. Probin was doing his morning exercises, was on his stepper in fact, when he had a massive heart attack.

I go upstairs to see my sister. She is on the bungalow’s verandah on the first floor, surrounded by women. I am acutely conscious of their eyes watching us:  the bereaved brother meeting his widowed sister. Ivy is composed but, for the first time, tears come into my eyes. I don’t remember what I said to her (maybe I said nothing) before hurrying downstairs – they are waiting for me. When I reach the lawn someone gives me flowers, while others make way for me so that I can shoulder the bier. The crowd starts to surge forward. People jostle to carry the bier to the truck. Probin was a manager here for over thirty years; there is a general feeling that the garden will never be quite the same without him.  The cremation site, half a kilometre away, has been readied. I follow the truck. It stops at the tea garden office. Then the crowd moves on, singing bhajans, while I follow. Someone would have given me a ride, if I had asked. But I want to walk. My son is with me. I want him to see and feel all this. When we reach, the crowd is larger and, unusually, there are women – the tea garden labourers. I notice an old lady in a corner, quietly wiping her tears.

Everyone wants a piece of firewood to place on the pyre. Someone takes me to where it is, making sure I can pass through the crowd. I see Probin’s feet. The rest of him is covered by wood. Three of Probin’s closest friends are there. We meet gravely. I was introduced to them twenty eight years ago when they came for the wedding in Shillong. In the intervening years we had met a couple of times but very briefly. And now Probin’s death had brought us together again, as though we were destined to meet only on the momentous occasions of his life.  One of them has experienced the death of his son, a fine and talented young man.  Such an event must give you a perspective on life. Perhaps that is why he is so calm now.

In the near dark, Bonny lights the pyre. He was asleep when his father died. Probin always had a nimbupani after exercising. When he did not call, the bearer decided to investigate and found him lying. The garden doctor came but it was too late. Bonny must have been woken up by the commotion. I try to imagine his state, waiting the whole day with his dead father in the house, waiting for his mother to arrive.  I also think about Bonu, the younger son who is in distant Bengaluru, blindsided by the news of his father’s death. He will reach Langharjan tomorrow and so will miss the cremation. When Ivy had arrived (my wife learns this from the servants) she had hugged Probin’s body and cried. Though they talked to each other every day, the last time they had actually met was in July when Probin had come to Guwahati to visit my mother in the hospital.  It was the last time I saw him, too. His hair had turned almost completely grey but he appeared fit. Seeing Probin, you would guess he was a former sportsman (he was a good football player in his youth). I remember looking down at his shoes. Nicely polished, as always.

Reducing a body to ashes can take hours. (This is why my driver has quietly chosen to avoid the cremation.) Once the cremation gets underway, people start to leave. Many of them have come from distant places. Probin’s friends ask Bonny to go back to the bungalow.  There is really no need to stay till the end, they tell him. It’s been a terrible day for him and he should be taking care of his mother. They will collect the ashes in a pot. Bonny asks me if I want to go back with him. To me, that seems like dishonouring the dead. So, I say no. But I urge him to leave: ‘Go – be with your mother.’

After another hour or so, I feel my irrelevance. Also, my son is with me, he is hungry, though he doesn’t say so. Most of the cars are gone. I walk back with Rahul; it seems fitting to walk (rather than taking a ride).

Biraj, my brother-in-law, has arrived. He is subdued. Ivy is relieved that that my tradition-knowing wife has taken over household responsibilities and is arranging what Bonny and Bonu will eat. Bonny is not a very willing participant; he keeps questioning the scientific validity of rituals. But he’s young.  I am for following each and every ritual, though I to do not believe in them. Perhaps it’s the solemnity which they are conducted that satisfies my notion of expressing grief.

We sit in the dining hall, round the big table. We have had many meals here when we visited. There are several relatives; one of them is insensitive enough to sit at the head of the table – Probin’s place. Nobody says anything (it is angrily discussed later). We wait for food cooked in the Deputy Manager’s house to arrive. We wait and wait. It seems natural to converse and Biraj tells us about the menu of the vegetarian hotel he stopped at in Jorhat. As in the car in the morning, an air of normality seems to pervade, despite the fact that there are more people in the house today and the house itself (usually so well ordered) is rather disorganized.  The food comes at last. I am hungry. Ivy, of course, doesn’t eat.

We go upstairs. It is close to midnight. There are no visitors now, only family and a few close relatives. My wife and I will sleep in the guest room. Bonny tells us there is some problem with the AC. It seems odd that he is thinking of our comfort on a night like this. The silence in the garden reminds me of relaxed nights in the past when we gathered in in the master bedroom to watch TV. It is the first night in thirty years that Probin isn’t here (not counting of course the times he was away on holiday or business). I see Probin’s watches and cell phones lying on the chest of drawers and suddenly realize I’ll never see him again. I want to do or feel something commensurate with this appalling absence.

I wake up early. Ivy, who slept for an hour or so, is already up. From the verandah, I can see the tea garden labourers plucking leaves, the tractors going to the factory, and traffic on the highway in the distance. A servant brings me tea, another is dusting the furniture. Probin’s jeep is parked downstairs. It’s as though he has come home for breakfast after making his early morning round of the factory and garden. Ivy bursts into tears. A little later Bonny wakes up, sees the jeep and cries for the same reason.

On Probin’s first death anniversary, we placed a memorial notice in the Assam Tribune and the Telegraph. It had these lines:

Those we miss don’t go away

They walk beside us every day

Unseen, unheard, but always there,

Still missed, still loved, still very dear.

It occurred to me that we, including his sons, would remember him only as long as we ourselves are alive. When we are no longer there to remember him, Probin will be truly gone.

Life goes on – and on. (When had it stopped?)  Soon after his father’s death, Bonny got a job in a tea estate in the Dooars. It saddened me that Probin was not alive to see his son follow in his footsteps. Bonu is preparing for his entrance examinations. He is a serious kid and should do well. Ivy lives in the Guwahati apartment which she and Probin bought and furnished some years ago. She feels depressed sometimes. Ma has recovered from her illness (we expect her to have a long life) and is currently living in our family home in Shillong. When winter arrives and it gets cold there, she will probably come down to Guwahati and stay with Ivy. Ivy, Daisy and Bonny went to Langharjan after a year for a function in Probin’s memory. They found no great change; the tea estate was running more or less as before. It hasn’t gone downhill, as some thought it would.

Do we meet our dead when we die? Will we see Probin again? When I try to imagine that undefined, unimaginable country (from whose bourne no traveller returns) all I come up with are memories of earthly reunions in Langharjan when Probin was alive. I remember the evenings in the dining hall, the bedroom, the upstairs verandah, evenings of conversation and laughter and a few drinks. Perhaps this inability to imagine an afterlife has to do with the fact that I am an agnostic and have been since my last years in school.

The feelings I am attempting to express here are not new. They first came to me two decades ago when my father passed away.  Not long after a neighbour died, a man my father had known for many years. After attending the cremation, I wrote this poem:


Neighbour’s Death


Our neighbour died this morning.

Soon, over the widow’s wails

you could hear the sound

of bamboo being cut.

I put on my shoes

knowing now it would not be long

before they carried him past our house.


On the way curious shopkeepers

leaned out of windows

to ask the dead man’s name.

And at the cremation ground

it was good to see his other friends

who’d taken leave for the day.


There was a fine breeze blowing

but to turn a man to ashes takes time.

It was afternoon when I left.

Too late to go to the bank

or pay the electricity bill

so I only bought the eggs

for tomorrow morning.

That evening my younger self was trying to convey what I am struggling to express now: the absolute blankness of death and its strange silencing by life’s ceaseless flow.

George Orwell on the Indian English Novel

Orwell and Anand

George Woodcock, Anand, Orwell, William Empson, Herbert Read, and Edmund Blunden recording for the BBC Eastern Service. (Photograph: BBC)

The hanging of Yakub Memon made me re-read George Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’. I had followed the heated debates on TV, newspapers and social media about the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment. In his essay, Orwell, who was with the Imperial Police Service from 1922 to 1927, describes the hanging of an Indian prisoner in colonial Burma. As he escorts the prisoner to the gallows, they encounter a puddle:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unsupportable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

I know of no better argument against capital punishment.

After reading ‘A Hanging’, I re-read ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’, essays I have long admired. Then, quite accidentally, I came across an essay I had not read or even heard of before: Orwell’s ‘Review of The Sword and the Sickle by Mulk Raj Anand’.

In 1912 Yeats read Rabindranath Tagore’s self-translated poems, the manuscript of which he had received from the painter William Rothenstein. The story of how Yeats was deeply stirred by the poems, his subsequent involvement in the preparation of the English Gitanjali (1912), and the award, in 1913, of the Nobel Prize to Tagore is familiar and heartwarming. But it has a not so pleasant ending.  In 1935 Yeats wrote a letter to Rothenstein in which he said: ‘Damn Tagore… Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.’ Unlike Yeats’s comments, which sound absurd now, Orwell’s review, published in Horizon in 1942, has perceptive remarks on Indian writing in English.

The Sword and the Sickle (1942) is the last novel of a trilogy by Anand. (Elsewhere in this blog I have a post on the second novel, Across the Black Waters.) The novel is about a soldier, Lal Singh or Lalu, who returns home after fighting in Flanders and being taken prisoner by the Germans. Orwell remarks on Anand’s lack of bitterness or obsession with English characters. (In the novels written by Anand, Narayan and Raja Rao in the years before Independence, English characters hardly appear or matter. The days of the Raj were clearly numbered. It is Indians and the future India that concern the three novelists.) In a novel on the same theme by a British intellectual, Orwell writes, there would have been an ‘endless masochistic denunciation of his own race, and a series of traditional caricatures of Anglo-Indian society, with its unbearable club life, its chota pegs, etc., etc.’ Was Orwell  thinking of his anti-colonial novel Burmese Days? Or, was he thinking of Forster’s A Passage to India and its disapproval of Anglo-Indian life? Burmese Days, incidentally, is arguably a better novel than A Passage to India.

He gets down to some practical criticism when he quotes the following passage from the novel under review:

Conscious of his responsibility for the misadventures into which he had led them, Lalu bent down and strained to lever the dead bodies with trembling hands. A sharp odour of decomposing flesh shot up to his nostrils from Chandra’s body, while his hands were smeared with blood from Nandu’s neck. He sat up imagining the smell to be a whiff of the foul virulence of bacterial decay, ensuing from the vegetation of the forest through which they had come. But, as he bent down again, there was no disguising the stink of the corpse. And, in a flash, he realized that though Nandu’s blood was hot now, it would be cold and the body would stink if it was carried all the way to Allahabad.

This, writes Orwell, is the work of a writer at home in the English language but the prose has a ‘vaguely UnEnglish flavour’ – ‘shot up to the nostrils’ is not quite idiomatic. Orwell does not disapprove of this. (He thinks Anand and Ahmed Ali are better novelists than most of their English contemporaries.) Indeed, he feels that there has evolved an Indian-English as distinct as Irish-English. Kamala Das was to later write:

…I am Indian, very brown, born in

Malabar, I speak three languages, write in

Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,

English is not your mother-tongue.

                        The language I speak

Becomes mine, its distortions, it queernesses

All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half

Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,

It is as human as I am human, don’t

You see?

Orwell, I believe, would have had been appreciative of these lines.

Orwell was writing when the Second World War was on. According to him, most Indian nationalists had become pro-Japanese. But this he saw as an emotional reaction, born out of opposition to British imperialism. ‘As a general rule, Indians are reliably anti-Fascist in proportion as they are Westernized.’  His solution to the problem of nationalism was international Socialism, the ideas of which would be carried to Indians through English: ‘Mr. Anand does not like us very much, and some of his colleagues hate us very bitterly; but as long as they voice their hatred in English they are in a species of alliance with us, and an ultimate settlement with the Indians whom we have wronged but also helped to waken remains possible.’ English was ‘a weapon of war’, to be used to co-opt Indians. Today he might have used the term ‘soft power’.

Orwell was wrong about the future of the Indian English novel. He noted that Japanese administrators in the Philippines, Chinese delegates in India, and Indian nationalists in Nazi Berlin, were all forced to use English for communication. But he believed once the economic motivation to learn English ended with the Raj, English would have an uncertain future in India and globally, thereby rendering the Indian English novel a cultural curiosity. The Raj did disappear but what the prescient author of Nineteen Eighty-Four did not foresee was how the coming of the internet, modern communications and a global economy would make the English language a far more powerful international lingua franca than it ever was in the heydays of the British Empire. Also that, with the burgeoning of the Indian economy and an urban middle class, it would be possible to have homegrown Indian English writers who would no longer have to depend on well-wishers like Graham Greene (who championed Narayan) or Forster (who supported Ahmed Ali and Anand) or on an English publishing industry to bring out their novels.  Academics who scorn Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi forget that these popular authors write for Indians rather than for foreign readers (neither Chetan Bhagat nor Amish Tripathi is  known to readers abroad) and that their success has made it possible for more ‘literary’ writers to now write and be sustained by an Indian reading public. The recent high profile launch of Tripathi’s Scion of Ikshvaku, which included an expensive  trailer, is a clear sign of how the  Indian English novel market has ‘matured’.

By the way, Orwell and Anand were friends. When he was a Talks Assistant with the BBC in 1941, Orwell commissioned Anand to deliver a talk on the Spanish Civil War. The talk was prevented from being broadcast by the censors. Orwell however supported Anand and demanded that payment be made for the cancelled broadcast.

‘If Assam is wronged’: Poetry and Jihad

A couple of years ago I bought a book called Poetry of the Taliban.  The title intrigued Poetry Talibanme. The Taliban and poetry? Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms? Poetry requires sensitivity but this was a quality I could hardly associate with men, who in their lunatic quest for religious purity, treated women inhumanly. Also, the Taliban had blown up, in 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas, an act of cultural vandalism that I still find hard to believe or accept. But poetry, I reminded myself, is basic to human beings and can express our deepest hopes and best feelings. The book seemed a good source, if one wanted to hear the other side of the story. After all, a good deal of one’s reading tends to be of the comfortable, even complacent, kind which confirms a shared humanity or ‘universality’. As a window onto a worldview very different from my own, this book promised to be challenging. (It says something about my naiveté that it didn’t occur to me that Poetry of the Taliban could be, as some have suggested, a propaganda ploy.)  And so I ordered it.

But the book lay on my bookshelf as a curiosity, and would no doubt have continued to do so, if it were not for the recent New Yorker piece, ‘Why Jihadists Write Poetry’, by Robyn Creswell, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, and poetry editor of The Paris Review, and Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. One of the poets Creswell and Haykel quote is ‘the Poetess of the Islamic State’, Ahlam Al-Nasr:

My homeland is the land of truth,

the sons of Islam are my brothers. . . .

I do not love the Arab of the South

any more than the Arab of the North.

My brother in India, you are my brother,

as are you, my brothers in the Balkans,

In Ahwaz and Aqsa,

in Arabia and Chechnya.

If Palestine cries out,

or if Afghanistan calls out,

If Kosovo is wronged,

or Assam or Pattani is wronged,

My heart stretches out to them,

longing to help those in need.

There is no difference among them,

this is the teaching of Islam.

We are all one body,

this is our happy creed. . . .

We differ by language and color,

but we share the very same vein.


A cartoonist’s representation of a Taliban poet. (Image source: theday.co.uk)

The reference to Assam is less alarming than one might think. ‘Al-Nasr’s empathy for Muslims in far-flung places,’ write Creswell and Haykel, ‘is a central feature of her literary persona… These moments of internationalist ecstasy are common in jihadi verse. The poets delight in crossing their imaginations borders that are impassable in reality. ’

Creswell and Haykel have been praised for drawing attention to a cultural and social discourse generally ignored by political experts and for avoiding a major pitfall: religious text-centric analysis that gets mired in discussions of ‘real’ and ‘inauthentic’ Islam.  Their focus on the performative aspects of jihadi poetry allows us to see how it ‘involves the creation of an ethos and character, or to use a more Islamic term, an adab (way of comporting oneself.)’ As in many non-western societies, including India, poetry enjoys great cultural prestige in the Arab world. Osama bin Laden was an accomplished jihadi poet (he wrote an elegy for the 9/11 hijackers); apparently, a large part of his appeal came from his effective use of classical eloquence. Jihadi poets draw on the rich poetic tradition of Arab verse (they use classical forms and metres) but their poetry is delivered largely through the internet. This poetry, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, is not made for foreign consumption but is an integral part of jihadi social life: ‘Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks.’ This means the jihadi poet is not the solitary, alienated figure familiar from our reading of modern Anglophone poetry, but someone writing on behalf of a community. (Creswell and Haykel however think that by positioning themselves ‘as cultural actors with deep roots in Arabic Islamic tradition, the militants are attempting to assuage their fears of not really belonging.’) Other significant aspects of jihadi poetry that Creswell and Haykel note are its romantic longing for a return to a caliphate and its deeply ideological nature. (‘The Poetess the Islamic State’ has written a 30 page essay defending the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh.)

Poetry of the Taliban makes available a wide range of jihadi verse. Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors, are graduates of the School of Oriental and African Studies. They have been in Afghanistan since 2006 when they founded AfghanWire.com, which they describe as ‘an online research and media-monitoring group to give a more prominent voice to local Afghan media.’  They are co-editors of My Life with the Taliban (2010), a memoir of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef who was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, and An Enemy We Created (2012). It was while working on Mullah Zaeef’s memoir that they became aware of Taliban poetry. Though this poetry was ignored by foreign analysts, it seemed to offer a new perspective on the Taliban. So began their project of collecting the 235 poems in the book, translated by Mirwais Rahmany and Abdul Hamid Stanikzai. Unlike the poems in The New Yorker, the poems in Poetry of the Taliban, written in Pashto and Dari, are distinctly Afghan, and make little or no reference to such staples of jihadi propaganda as fighters on steeds. And as the editors’ claim, there indeed a diversity of themes: elegies, love poems, religious poems, nationalist ones, as well as poems that speak of the experiences of ordinary villagers. Much of the poetry can be seen as criticism of human rights abuses by the enemy (incidentally, the enemy is often referred to as the English, rather than American, because the Anglo-Afghan wars continue to dominate the Afghan imagination.) The forms used are the ghazal and the tarana (the Taliban’s infamous ban on music did not include a cappella performances or melodic recitations of poetry.)

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), about Afghanistan incidentally, I found soap operatic. But it had led me to an examination of my readerly habits. Hosseini’s story of the twelve-year old Amir and his Hazara servant Hassan (the kite runner) took me three months to complete.  (Amir watches quietly as Hassan is raped by the half-German Assef, who becomes a Taliban leader when he grows up. Amir’s family, uprooted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, moves to the United States. Later, Amir learns that Hassan was actually his half-brother and that Hassan, now dead, has a son, Sohrab. Amir, who has established himself as a novelist, returns to Afghanistan via Pakistan to rescue Sohrab.) I distrusted the emotional tug of the novel but it made me understand that there is a mind-body split in our institutionally sanctioned ideas of reading which has turned it into a mental, reflective, and calm experience. Such an approach excludes the fact that books (and reading) can affect our emotions and our bodies – as when they frighten and arouse us, ghost and horror stories and pornographic and erotic texts being obvious instances. (Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading, published in 2006, discusses this.) So when I read Poetry of the Taliban, it was, I think, with an open mind. I expected and wanted to be tested.

Reading Poetry of the Taliban turned out to be a disappointing experience. Poem after poem is premised on a binary – Muslims versus the rest. To be sure, there are a couple of poems that lament all violence and suffering, as, for example, this one by a poet going by the pen name Hairan (the poem is singled out by Faisal Devji in the Preface):

End cruelty so that

An ant won’t die by someone’s hand


No traveler will be bitten by someone else’s dog.

And nobody’s dog will be killed by someone else’s hand.

There is also ‘How Many are the NGOs’ by Matiullah Sarachawal, which will resonate with readers in most parts of the developing world:

                Wasting time, they merely sit in their offices,

                        How many are the NGOs!

            Their salaries, more than ministers’,

                        How many are the NGOs!

But all the other poems of suffering and grief are about Muslims’ suffering and grieving. Perhaps it was unfair on my part to apply Wilfred Owen’s great lines from ‘Strange Meeting’ as a touchstone to poems from quite a different place and time:

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .’

A popular Hindi film starring Balraj Sahni as the Pathan in Tagore's short story was released in 1961.

A popular Hindi film starring Balraj Sahni as the Pathan in Tagore’s story was released in 1961.

But I was thinking too of Tagore’s   Kabulliwala’. Though the first Afghan traders are said to have started coming to Kolkata around 1839 (the Anglo-Afghan wars had opened up the route to India), Tagore’s story indicates that they were still alien in 1892 when he wrote it. The story is related by a novelist-narrator who has a five-year old daughter, Mini. When Rahmun, the Afghan fruit-seller, first appears, Mini is terrified of him; she thinks that he will kidnap her. However, Rahmun succeeds in befriending Mini who reminds him of his daughter back in Afghanistan. Mini’s mother is uncomfortable with the friendship that develops between her daughter and the Afghan but her father (the narrator) has a more open attitude. Rahmun is imprisoned when he kills a man during the course of a quarrel. Released eight years later, he comes to Mini’s house to see her. But Mini has grown up; in fact, she is about to be married (Yes, a child-bride. Tagore too married off his daughters when they were still children. Great men aren’t always able to transcend their times):

I remembered the day when the Kabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad… Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her, as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

I took out a bank-note, and gave it to him, saying: ‘Go back to your own daughter, Rahmun, in your own country, and may the happiness of your meeting bring good fortune to my child!’

Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military band, and the ladies of the house were despondent at it. But to me the wedding feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant land a long-lost father met again with his only child.

I am glad I read The Poetry of the Taliban and the poems in Creswell and Haykel’s article since they humanize the jihadis. As poetry of witness, the work of ‘the black turbaned Wilfred Owens’ (William Dalrymple’s phrase) is important. But (barring one or two notable poems) I didn’t find sentiments of the kind expressed in Tagore’s great short story or in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’.  Al-Nasr’s concern for the Muslims wronged in Assam clearly excludes me. And so, almost in relief, I found myself turning to a pre-Taliban poet very popular in Afghanistan (where he is known as Mawlana or Balkhi), Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273).  Of course, the trouble with reading Rumi is that you lean a little too heavily on the crutch of translation. Besides, there is a faddish quality to the enthusiasm that that his poetry evokes: he is said to be the bestselling poet in the US. But Rumi’s poems are inclusive. Jihadi poetry is not – and does not wish to be.

Remembering M H Abrams

M H Abrams on  his 100th birthday celebration in July 2012. (Cornell University photograph)

M H Abrams on his 100th birthday celebration in July 2012.
(Cornell University photograph)

M H Abrams died on April 21 at Ithaca, New York. He was 102.

I met Professor Abrams in the autumn of 1994 when I was at Cornell on a fellowship.  I was writing my PhD dissertation on Thomas Pynchon, a Cornell alumnus, and Professor Molly Hite, my academic adviser, suggested I speak to Mike since he had taught Pynchon. I had a thing about not being an academic tourist, which is why there are very few pictures of me at Cornell. During my year there, I didn’t even go to see Benedict Anderson whose Imagined Communities was de rigueur reading. Anyway, I made an appointment by telephone and went to interview Class of 1916 Professor Emeritus Meyer Howard Abrams at his office in Goldwin Smith Hall. But Professor Abrams wasn’t there. I returned to 110 Highland Place (my Collegetown, Ithaca apartment), feeling quite despondent, and made another call.  Without quite saying that he had forgotten, Professor Abrams gave me a new appointment.

I was impressed by the respect that Professor Abrams, the leading scholar of Romanticism in his generation, enjoyed at a time when the reigning deities in American English departments were the French theorists. In Cornell there was Jonathan Culler, famous for his mediation of French structuralist and poststructuralist theory. Culler had compared Professor Abrams’s two books The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Though the name M H Abrams was familiar to me, as to hundreds of English Literature students in India, I had no idea what he looked like until I saw him. (Priya Gopalan, who was a graduate student at Cornell at the time, told me she had never seen Professor Abrams.) I knew Professor Abrams was eighty-two years old but any preconceptions I may have formed about his health and abilities were very soon dispelled.  I found I was interviewing a man intellectually alive and sharp and in fine physical health.

Poster of In Custody. ( Wikipedia)

Poster of In Custody. (Wikipedia)

I had bought a cassette recorder from Radio Shack for the interview. One of the movies I saw at Cornell (which, incidentally, is known for its excellent campus film exhibition programmes) was the Ismail Merchant directed  In Custody in which college lecturer Deven (played by Om Puri Kapoor) interviews the great Urdu poet Nur Sahjahanabadi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and makes a complete mess of the recording.  My own recording was only a little better and I had to spend several evenings transcribing it.  I was hoping to have the interview published in The Indian Journal of American Studies (IJAS) which used to be brought out by the American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) in Hyderabad. However, IJAS changed its editorial policy: it stopped publishing interviews (perhaps too many Indian Fulbrighters had taken the easy way out by interviewing American academics.) So the interview appeared in a college journal. Few, if any, read it. I no longer have copies of the journal or the transcript I made. But I remember asking Professor Abrams what he thought of deconstruction and theory.  ‘All reference is wiped out by these new theories of language,’ he replied, ‘and this gives us an interesting perspective, I don’t deny.’ But deconstruction is only one approach among many, he implied. I also remember asking what he thought of the expansion of the canon. Professor Abrams replied that he would have to give me a qualified reply. New texts could be included provided they measured up.

At the end of the interview, Professor Abrams was in an expansive mood. He reminisced about his visit to India. Old Delhi was too crowded for him and he did not get off the bus. But he said he admired how India had stuck to democracy despite all its troubles.  He spoke with respect of I A Richards who was his tutor at the University of Cambridge but said that his principles (set out in Practical Criticism) struck him as rather ‘defective’. I finally asked him about Thomas Pynchon. He remembered Pynchon submitted an essay comparing Johnson and Voltaire as satirists which was so good that he immediately assumed (‘in that way we academics have’) that it was plagiarized. So he asked Pynchon to see him. Tom Pynchon turned up, a tall thin young man with a moustache. As soon as he started talking it became obvious that the essay was indeed his own. ‘There were no Xerox machines in those days,’ said Professor Abrams, ‘or I would have kept a copy. But I remember the last line. It was: “Voltaire writes satire but Johnson writes wisdom.”’ Professor Abrams talked about his other celebrated student, Harold Bloom. ‘Bloom calls me his intellectual father but I don’t see much of myself in him.’ He also mentioned Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak. (Her PhD on Yeats was supervised by his Cornell colleague, Paul de Man.) ‘One day the most beautiful girl I had ever seen turned up in my room,’ he said. She could play the sitar. (He described her work as part-Marxism, part-postcolonialism.) ‘Have you seen her?’  I said I hadn’t. ‘She has lost her beauty but you still can see traces.’


I told Professor Abrams that his books were known in India. I was of course thinking of his A Glossary of Literary Terms and The Norton Anthology of English Literature and its spin offs like The Norton Anthology of American Literature. He said he received requests for his books from provincial colleges in India and that he tried to send them if he could. (‘Books are expensive.’)

I didn’t quite know it then but the Norton, first published in 1962 with Professor Abrams as its general editor, has shaped the agendas of English Literature departments worldwide far more decisively than Derrida and company have. As the dominant anthology of English literature, the Norton has, in Leah Price’s words, ‘earned the authority of an Académie Française combined with that of an Index librorum prohibitorum.’

Sean Shesgreen who has done a study of the Norton ascribes its hegemonic success to three factors: the use of bible paper (which made the Norton lighter and handier than the existing anthologies while allowing it to include hundreds of authors), the aggressive publishing policies of W. W. Norton & Company (a commercial factor), and Professor Abram’s brilliance (a literary or editorial factor). When Shesgreen met Abrams at Cornell in 2004, the latter mentioned that when he took over A Glossary of Literary Terms (1941) in 1957 from Dan Norton and Peters Rushton, sales soared from 2200 to 67000 copies, showing Abrams’s ‘brilliant mix of academic and business acumen.’  From the Norton, Abrams’s earnings were double – as General Editor and as period (Romantic) editor.  Shesgreen believes his earnings ran into millions, giving substance to the story that Professor Abrams was ‘the richest humanist in America’.

According to Shesgreen, one of Abrams’s major contributions was making the Norton faculty-friendly. Texts were carefully edited from original sources. (The existing anthologies in the 1960s were two Harcourt Brace anthologies, The College Survey of English Literature and Major British Writers. Shesgreen’s comments suggest they were edited in a rather slapdash manner.) The authoritative and updated reading lists, footnotes, and marginal glosses allowed professors to focus on the exciting task of interpreting texts without the burden of ‘compulsory bibliographic drudgery.’ Students were not forgotten or overlooked; indeed, they were ‘respected as aspiring scholars’ and given ‘sophisticated historical introductions, biographical narratives…innovative special topics, all produced with painstaking care’. The editors Abrams chose were elite academics. But Abrams picked only men.

In 1973, the Norton’s preeminent position was challenged by the publication of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Though its editors were academics of the stature of Lionel Trilling, Bloom and Frank Kermode, this anthology did not succeed in making much of a dent. A more serious challenger was the The Longman Anthology of English Literature. By the sixth edition of the Norton, the average age of a period editor was 67. In the late 1980s it became all too obvious that the Norton had disregarded women’s writing. A fundamental reconceptualization of English literature had occurred between 1962 and 2000.  Abrams’s Norton did not ‘account for how colonialism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism had shaped literature written in English.’

David Damrosch, the Longman general editor, made two serious allegations. He accused the Norton of not taking women writers seriously and of having little conception of the multicultural nature of literature in English. The seventh edition of the Norton was a major revision. When the Norton and the Longman anthologies came out in 1998, four-fifths of the contents were identical. The former included Salman Rushdie for the first time.


Abrams will be remembered for his twin towers, The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. 9/11 has dated that comparison, but the two books are undoubtedly monumental works of Romantic scholarship.  In India his name will be kept alive by his Glossary and, of course, battered  library copies of the Norton ‘on whose readers,’ Leah Price has said, ‘the sun never sets’.

Of ‘Babus’ and Sipahis: Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters

Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters, published in 1941, is said to be the only world war novel in Indian Writing in English. It is the second part of a trilogy – the other novels being The Village (1936) and The Sword and the Sickle (1942) – depicting the chequered career and life of its central character, Lal Singh or Lalu. In  Across the Black Waters, Lalu is a sipahi in the 69th Rifles. His regiment lands at Marseilles, is transported to Orleans, then to Wulvergham (Wulvergem), near Ypres (the Belgian town which was the site of some of the worst battles), before being deployed in the Battle of Festubert (May 15-15, 1915). While following orders to rush enemy trenches, Lalu receives a bullet in his leg, and is captured by the Germans (this is how the novel ends).

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment  with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Image Source: UKPHA Archive)

Soldiers of the 15th Sikh Regiment with locals in Flanders, c. 1915. (Source: UKPHA Archive)

To Lalu arriving in Marseilles, ‘the quay seemed to be drowned in a strange and incongruous whirlpool: Pathan, Sikhs, Dogras, Gurkhas, Muhammadans in khaki, blue-jacketed French seamen and porters, and English Tommies.’ A European war in an age of formal empires, the Great War inevitably became a global war (the First World War, at it later came to be known), dragging in countries like India. Recent research published on the occasion of the war’s centenary  commemoration has been something of a revelation for those of us  for whom the First World War was the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Wartime photographs in particular, published in books like Vedica Kant’s ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War (2014) and made available online by researchers, libraries and archives, show the extent to which non-Europeans were a part of the war. Writing about about this new research in the Guardian, Santanu Das (author of Touch and Intimacy in First Wold War Literature) referred to the problem of constructing a non-European archive of the Great War since few of the one million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans who participated left behind dairies and memoirs. ‘In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished.’

'A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail. ' (Source: bbc.com)

‘A British soldier overseeing the work of two Indian clerks who are going through the mail.’ (Source: bbc.com)

David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, published in 1999 and again in 2014, gives us extracts from the thousands of letters written by sipahis in France and England (where the wounded sipahis were hospitalized). These letters (or their extracts and transcripts), which otherwise would have lost to us, have survived in military archives because they wee scrutinized by censors for political references and for damaging and demoralizing comments. The sipahis, aware  that their letters were being read, resorted to using codes – and self-censorship. Also, the sipahis being illiterate, did not themselves write the letters but used  the services of scribes. The letters are thus highly mediated but, despite this limitation, Omissi explains why they are still important. He refers to the problem of writing history ‘from below’ given the absence of material generated by the subaltern classes themselves. ‘The significance of the soldiers’ letters,’ he writes, ‘lies partly in the simple fact of their existence: they allow us to read (admittedly at several removes) the words of the illiterate, and to hear the voices of those who were (at least from the point of view of historical records) normally voiceless.’

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

An illiterate soldier giving his thumb impression on the pay book. (Source: bbc.com)

Sipahis’ letters may be the closest thing we have to an Indian subaltern record of the First World War but reading them is problematic. As Gajendra Singh writes in Testimonials of the Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars (2014), ‘authorial intent, reception, and meaning are uncertain …[and] any form of “resistance” was rarely overt and involved connection with colonial military discourse.’ He cites a letter written in September 1916 by Jemadar Hasan Shah recounting a fictional meeting with a dying British soldier:

I was on the battlefield accompanied by a sowar, and came upon a wounded British soldier. ‘Well friend,’ I said to him. ‘How are things with you? ‘Quite all right,’ he replied. ‘I am proud I was of service in the fight, but I am thirsty.’ I gave him water to drink and asked if he wanted anything else. ‘I regret nothing,’ he said, ‘except that I shall not meet my sweetheart…4 months ago she wrote and said in the whole world she loved only me and begged me to come to her soon.’ ‘My friend,’ I said to him. ‘May the All Merciful God satisfy the desire of your heart, and unite you with your beloved.’ ‘I am finished,’ he said. ‘And when my end comes, my one regret will be that when my love called to me I was unable to go to her.’ ‘My friend,’ I said, weeping with pity. ‘My condition is the same as yours.’ 

Though the censor may have viewed the letter as reflective of the Indian soldier’s affection for his British counterpart,  ‘the main purpose of the letter, however, seems to have been to use the voice of the British Private to express the fatigue and homesickness that the sipahi felt but could not openly admit.’ 

Singh writes that British military intelligence gave Kipling letters written by Indian soldiers so that he could write fictional ones for purposes of propaganda.  The letters Kipling composed, which were published in The Saturday Evening Post and The Morning Post, were intended to counter pro-Indian sentiment in the United States. Lalu, who unlike most sipahis is literate, writes a letter to his mother. It is too long to quote here. However, this letter and the ones Kipling wrote (cited by Singh) seem curiously empty when we remember Jemadar Hasan Shah’s letter. Anand and Kipling’s letters lack polysemy.

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Image source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

Punjab Recruitment Poster: Translation by Amarjit Chandan: Who will get this money, rifle and uniform? The one who will enlist in the army immediately. (Source: War Battles Armies/Facebook)

In Across the Black Waters, the following passage gives us the socio-economic background of the sipahis and their reasons for joining the army:

…when they first joined the army, these legionnaires did so because, as the second, third or fourth sons of a peasant family, overburdened with debts, they had to go and earn a little ready cash to pay off the interest on the mortgage of the few aces of land, the only thing which stood between the family and its fate…

Sometimes a war was on somewhere, in a geography of which the family or the son had no conception, and he faded out into thin air, only to confirm his own and the family’s prejudice that all who went beyond the mountains or across the black waters were destined for hell…

But, occasionally, one man in a village returned, with a stripe on his arm or a star  on his shoulder, or a medal on his chest, and demanded a large dowry… And the young men of the village looked at him and soon the recruiting offices of the district became busier…

Mulk Raj Anand’s father was the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment. In his memoir Seven Summers (1951), one of Anand’s earliest recollections of the cantonment at Mian Mir, where he spent his early childhood, is that of the road separating the white offices’ bungalows form the barracks in which soldiers lived.  But vis-a-vis the sipahis, his father was a privileged man:

He was the only literate man in the whole regiment of Dogra hillmen, to whom the sipahis brought their letters to read, from whom they requested the drafts of their petitions. The indigent sweepers, washermen, and bandsmen of the Mian Mir cantonment came to him for loans of money. And he was greeted with joined hands and the words, ‘I fall at your feet’, by our relations among the coppersmiths and silversmiths who came from nearby Lahore, or our home town Amritsar, or from various parts of the Punjab. 

Babu Khushi Ram, in Across the Black Waters, is an ‘exalted personage’ to the sipahis who both respect and resent him.

Anand was a child when First World War broke out; in Seven Summers he recounts how a family outing was interrupted by the news of the war’s declaration. So unlike Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (or the poems of Wilfred Owen), Across the Black Waters is not ‘witness’ literature.  Anand wrote the novel to honour his father with whom he was on bad terms (his father disapproved of young Anand’s involvement in anti-British protests) and because of his commitment to writing about the lives of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Anand sought to represent the feelings of Lalu on being confronted with the experience of the Great War, an experience that nothing could have prepared him for: ‘For a moment he was cut off from everyone. And he felt as he had felt once when as a child he had gone with his parents to a cattle fair and got lost and had run in panic, weeping salty tears, looking for someone he could recognize.’  He writes about the character Dhanoo who does not fear dying as much as he fears the impossibility of having the last rites performed on his dead body in a foreign land. And he describes the panic in the ranks when it is announced that the 69th Rifles would separate into two – ‘they had come accept to their togetherness as a law of nature and they had naively expected that they would all be put to fight side by side with each other.’

For, the son of the head clerk of the 38th Dogra Regiment was one of founders of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The PWA, which had its first meeting in London in November 1934, was formed at a time when the epic struggle against imperialism in Asia and Africa and the fight against fascism in Europe were on.  It was a charged time when writers, artists and intellectuals felt they had a decisive role to play. In literature, the project involved writing about the basic problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. Anand went on to create Untouchable (and Premchand Godan), a novel about a latrine-cleaner, something unprecedented in Indian literature (and unique even today).

The PWA was a radical and counter-hegemonic movement. Most of its members were middleclass. Today their attempts may strike one as futile or naive. Spivak’s famous essay assures us that intellectuals cannot speak for the subaltern. Tabish Khair’s Babu Fictions (2001) argues that Indian Writing in English is incapable of representing the underprivileged, non-English sections (the ‘Coolies’) of the nation. However, it has been  pointed out that Khair’s argument that Anglophone Indians can never shed their compromised elite status repeats a colonial slur: earlier the British used to assert that indigenous speakers of English could never cast off their ‘Indianness’. (Khair’s use of the pejorative term ‘Babu’ is interesting.) It has also been pointed out that the idea that English in India is an expression of upper-class status is a reductive one.  In the 1934 London meeting, there were Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi writers present. That is why the PWA’s manifesto, first drafted by Anand, was in English.