Friday, December 05, 2014

Another Aatish Taseer Essay

Must-read: A Historical Sense: What Sanskrit has meant to me

Excerpt beneath the fold.

I grew up in late 20th century India, in a deracinated household. I use that word keeping in mind that racine is 'root' in French, and that is what we were: people whose roots had either been severed or could no longer be reached. A cultural and linguistic break had occurred, and between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, there lay an imporous layer of English education that prevented both my father in Pakistan, and my mother, in India, from being able to reach their roots. What the brilliant Sri Lankan art critic, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, had seen happening around him already in his time had happened to us (and is, I suppose, happening today all over India).
‘It is hard to realize,’ Coomaraswamy writes in The Dance of Shiva, ‘how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West.’

This is an accurate description of what we were. And what it meant for me, personally, as an Indian writer getting started with a writing career in India, was that the literary past of India was closed to me. The Sanskrit commentator, Mallinatha, working in 14th century Andhra, had with a casual ‘iti-Dandin: as Dandin says’, been able to go back seven or eight hundred years into his literary past. I could go back no further than fifty or sixty. The work of writers who had come before me, who had lived and worked in the places where I lived and worked today, was beyond reach. Their ideas of beauty; their feeling for the natural world; their notion of what it meant to be a writer, and what literature was—all this, and much more, were closed to me. And, as I will explain later, this was not simply for linguistic reasons.

I was—and I have TS Eliot in mind as I write this—a writer without a historical sense. Eliot who, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, describes the ‘historical sense’ as: a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense, he feels, compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but that [for him]—I’m paraphrasing now—the whole literature of Europe from Homer onwards to that of his own country has ‘a simultaneous existence’.
My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together.