Forging an Asian Identity

Forging an Asian Identity
Manoj Das

A common thread binds all the countries of Asia and is seen in philosophy and metaphysics and poetry and folklore. But due to the colonisation of many countries, Asians know more about Western writing than of their neighbouring countries. MANOJ DAS makes a case for a voluntary compulsion to get to know the literature of other Asian countries thereby strengthening the Asian identity.

“Europe is but a molehill; there never have been mighty empires, there never have occurred great revolutions. But the East, where live hundreds of millions of men, is the cradle of all faiths – the birthplace of all metaphysics.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

Calm twilight engulfed us as we sat in a cosy valley not far from Bandung, Indonesia, in June 1956. We, a few Asians, (more interested in literature than other delegates to the .Afro-Asian Students Conference) had broken away from the rest for a rendezvous.

In a jovial mood we told humourous anecdotes of our countries – China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam. Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka. Before long, we were amazed at the intimate affinity underlying those stories. Characters and situations resembled one another so closely. Our conference known as “Little Bandung” – after the historic Bandung Conference of 1955 which gave the doctrine of Panchsheel, the five principles of ideal co-existence – had knit us together into a comradeship, but the few of us certainly emerged from our unpublicised get-together as slightly more enlightened Asians.

Asia the largest of the continents, extending from the Ural mountains to the Caspian Sea, from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea, from the Asia Minor coasts and southeastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea, from the East Indies and Japan to Kamatchka has naturally many faces. Yet, a feeling or affinity runs through the veins of its peoples which the Asians themselves take for granted and the Westerners can feel perhaps only in contrast to their own attitude to life.Kipling’s line “Oh. East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” is famous, but he did not belittle the East. What he meant was, the West should not dream of achieving that unity through the means of Westernising the East. Elsewhere, he said, “Asia is not going to be civilised after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old.” However his picture of the East was that of a static hierarchy. And here is a glimpse of that amusing picture with a British colony as its backdrop:

“Mule, horse, elephant, or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier his general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is the servant of the Empress.” (The Mythology of Imperialism, Jonah Raskin)

While there are many Asias, geographically speaking, there is also an Asia transcending geography and that one is not a vague idea or concept; it has evolved over millennia. From gross facts of history, like battles and commerce, to subtle forces of curiosity for the neighbour and the quest for truth as well as aspirations to spread the truth one has realised, numerous factors con tributed to its formation. Indeed it is based on the needs of the inner life, man’s need for the knowledge of the meaning of life of the enigma of suffering and death, the need for true happiness … expressed through philosophy and mystic doctrines at a lofty plane and through fiction and poetry tales, legends, verses and proverbs at the popular plane. If the Buddhist theories discovered kinship in Taoism and out of their fraternal dialogue sprang the Quingtan school of thought in the third century, dozens from the Indian Panchatantra and Kathasaritasagra, mingling with the elements of Chinese folklore resulted in the cultivation of a fresh crop of tales. Characters and situations from the Indian epic, the Ramayana, in particular, had a unique role to play in this process of intermingling. The relationship between the Indian Hanuman and the Chinese Sun Wukong is unmistakable. Needless to say, such assimilations were not confined to China and India; this went on among practically all the countries of Asia. And the process continued. The genre of fiction in Japan known as Shosetsu since the 19th Century owes its origin to China, though it had undergone a change in its meaning during the past decades. The Japanese Haika has gained currency in several countries including India.

A powerful element that identifies a significant area of the modern Asian literature is the cry for freedom from imperial, colonial, and feudal oppression. Novels, short stories, plays and poetry carrying the voice of protest against the oppressors are too numerous to be listed. 1 would like to refer to a book that belongs to another Asian country – Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by Jose Rizal (1861-1896), the genius who was killed by a Spanish Pearl S. Buck, firing squad at the age of 34. The novel begins on a gentle satire. A native, proud of his proximity to the colonial rulers, is throwing a party. Thus it goes: “So the news of his dinner party ran like an electric shock through the community of spongers, hangers-on, and gatecrashers whom God in His infinite wisdom had created and so fondly multiplied in Manila. Some of these set out to hunt polish for their boots; others collar buttons and cravats; but one and all gave their gravest thoughts to the manner in which they might greet their host with the assumed intimacy of long standing friendship, or, if the occasion should arise, make a graceful apology for not having arrived earlier where presumable their presence was so eagerly awaited. The dinner was given in a house which may still be recognised unless it has tumbled down in some earthquake. Certainly, it would not have been pulled down by its owner; in the Phillipines that is usually left to God and Nature. In fact one often thinks they are under contract to the government for just that purpose.”

The fun slowly gives way to a bitter projection of the common man’s life at that time which is not so remote in history. The theme of the novel is the making of a rebel and here is the man whose reminiscences feed the spirit of rebellion in the protoganist:.

“About sixty years ago, my grandfather lived in Manila, working as a bookkeeper in the office of a Spanish merchant. My grandfather was then very young but already married and had a son. One night, the merchant’s warehouse caught fire from an unknown cause; the fire spread throughout the establishment and then to many others. The losses were very heavy; a scapegoat had to be found; and the merchant brought charges against my grandfather. He protested his innocence in vain; he was poor and could not retain eminent counsel, and so he was condemned to be paraded along the streets of Manila and publicly flogged. This degrading punishment, a thousand times worse than death, was still in use until long ago. My .grandfather, forsaken by all except his young wife, found himself bound to a horse, followed by a sadistic crowd, and flogged at every street corner, before the men who were his brothers and before the many temples of a God of Love. When the wretch, condemned to perpetual infamy, had sated the vengeance of men with his blood, his suffering and his screams, they had to cut him loose from the horse, for he had lost consciousness -would he had lost his life! In a refinement of cruelty, they set him free. His wife, who was then pregnant, went from door to door begging in vain for work or alms for her sick husband and helpless child. But who would trust the wife of a convicted arsonist? So she became a whore.” (University of Indiana Press, 1961)

This sort of bitter realism sharpened by satire, grew on the soils of all the European colonies in Asia with little or no influence over one another, but out of a common fate. Life under colonial rulers was a field for bizarre experiences – of humiliation, pain and anger resulting in decades of depression, taking among its toll the creative zeal of the writers. But it also cultivated a sense of solidarity among the people of a nation and often among nations too. The literature of protest naturally inspired patriotic upsurges and the sacrifices of the martyrs and the sagas composed by them stirred the minds of different peoples for a long period. But imperialism and colonisalism, in their raw form, are no more. Even feudalism has met its end, though not the feudal mindset in many countries. Tyrannies experienced in the past can still make a solid stuff of literature, but only of memories. A memorable work on such themes can be no more than an occasional phenomenon. Can we direct our national zeals into a transnational zeal, embracing the spirit of our continent? Needless to say, nothing can be forced on the creative mind. Efforts in that direction have resulted in stacks of unimaginative and uninspired literature and no repetition of that or any similar process should interest the writers and authorities today and tomorrow.

But the time-spirit is bringing the nations together on different fronts – social, economic, educational, technological and of course, political. If we neglect forging a literary togetherness, that will be a surrender to inaction, running against the time-spirit.

What then do we do? The answer is not far to seek. Why do I, as an Indian, know more about English, American and French literature than the Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese literature? The colonial rule under which India lay created situations that at first obliged us to learn that way. But what was once a historic compulsion, became a spontaneous acceptance in a changed situation. Thus our acquaintance with western literature which gradually became an exchange too, continues happily. We have not been losers on that account. The West dominated so many countries in the East. At least, some notable works of one Eastern country reached other countries of the Continent through a Western language. That was perhaps nature’s compensation to the East for having lost on many fronts to the West. But sometimes, I ask myself: suppose India had not been colonised and I had the option to choose, which literature should I read? English or Chinese? It could probably have been Chinese.

I believe, like the historic compulsion which made me familiar with English literature, it is time we create a moral and happily voluntary compulsion for ourselves and get to know the literatures of Asia. It is true, only a few of us can learn Chinese and only a few Chinese or Koreans can learn any of the Indian languages. But today we live in a world when massive efforts in international cooperation have been made and several have succeeded. The simple fact is, no serious thought has gone into the need for creating an institution or agency which could dedicate itself to introducing the literatures of Asia to one another through translations.

The Asian identity is there, concealed in the heritage of most of the Asian countries. It is also there in contemporary literature. But it is not pronounced. It remains veiled.

We in India have debated as much as other Asian countries have, about issues like the desirability of Western influence on our culture, its inevitability or otherwise, and the relation between tradition and modernity. Like the May Fourth Movement in China which championed western values and ideals in the 1920s, we too had voices against our traditions and they were given a reasonable hearing. An exchange in experiences of this kind would no doubt be highly educative.

For quite some time, Indian literature for the common Englishman meant what Rudyard Kipling and the like wrote. For long, India’s window as well as that of the West on Chinese life has been Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth. But when I read Lu Hsun, a number of his short stories and The True Story of Ah Q, I realised that despite the realism in the works of Pearl Buck and other gifted writers, Lu Hsun’s work had an authenticity that could be expected only of a native of China. I do not propose to display my meagre knowledge of Chinese literature here, but what I propose is a strong and well-planned academy of Asian literatures to take care of the great need to know one another.

And who could take any effective step in that direction? For me, the answer came from the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Speaking to Mr. Paul Feng of the Central News Agency, he said on January 20, 1946, “If China and India hold together, the future of Asia is assured.” This holding together need not be confined to diplomacy; it can, by all means, be a psychological force that can work wonders in the realms of creativity.

Another celebrated Indian, Rabindranath Tagore expressed the same sentiment when, in A Message to my Chinese Friends, he said: “Age after age in Asia, great dreamers have made the world sweet with the showers of their love. Asia is again waiting for such dreamers to come and carry on the work, not of fighting, not of profit-making, but of establishing bonds of spiritual relationship. The time is at hand ‘when we shall once again be proud to belong to a continent that produces the Light that radiates through the storm clouds of troubles and illuminates the path of Life.” (Professor Tan Yun-shan and Cultural Relations Between India and China by V.G. Nair) Tagore established a department devoted to Chinese studies in the Vishwa Bharathi University that he founded.

A great vision of mankind’s future that 20th Century India gave the world is through Sri Aurobindo. He visualised man as an evolving being capable of rising above his present state of consciousness and stepping into a new phase of existence. I had the good fortune to know a Chinese savant Hu Hsu, a great painter and literature who lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry for many years and translated several major works of Sri Aurobindo into Chinese. He lived the last phase of his life in China and passed away on March 6 at the age of 91. His latest translation was Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine.

The subtle, but undying, sympathy that exists between India and China sometimes surfaces through symbolic events and such an event took place in the late 1930s when the Indian National Congress, then fighting for India’s freedom, sent a medical mission to China during a critical phase of its history.

A member of the team, Dr. Kotnis, died in China in December 1942 after rendering heroic service to his cause. I published the story of Dr. Kotnis, And One did not Come Back by veteran author Khwaja Ahmed Abbas in the magazine I was then editing, The Heritage, since the original edition of the book had disappeared for decades. I did so with the help of Abbas and reproduced several photographs of the life of Dr. Kotnis in China provided by Dr. B.K. Basu, the sole surviving member of the medical mission and a great friend of Dr. Kotnis and of China.

“Once in a while, the relationship between India and China may grow hazy at the political plane but it was always warm so far as the hearts of the people are concerned,” Dr. Basu assured me. I learned how true he was once that issue of my magazine was published. “Tell us more,” demanded my readers.

All I could wish was – long live the assurance of Dr. Basu; long live the bond between India and China symbolised by the sacrifice of Dr. Kotnis and let the bond embrace all the other nations of Asia.

(This is the text of a talk given by the author to the Chinese writers when he met them in Beijing as the leader of a delegation of Indian writers.)

(“The Hindu” January 7, 2001)


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.