The 15th century fort-palace at Neemrana, Rajasthan, now a hotel, appeared to have been designed for an unending play of hide and seek, with its puzzling labyrinths and unrelenting zigzag passages. A local friend explained that though Devil and his imps had crooked minds, they shunned paths that were not straight. Hence this strategy to elude them.
That was probably true. There was no sign of any impish influence in the atmosphere at least during the first one and a half days of the celebration of Indian literature there — on February 19 and 20 — a brief period during which this author was present and before the sessions had been thrown open to the press. We the Indian writers and writers of Indian origin from beyond the seas had a rich menu before us but our discussions mainly veered off to the concept of identity.
Geo-historical factors apart, could there be an Indian identity in terms of consciousness? The quest of mankind, says Sri Aurobindo, for God, Light, Freedom, Bliss and Immortality, had continued to go strong. Surely this quest had been crystallised in India, resulting in a chronology of grand creativity: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics and the Puranas. Side by side developed a robust tradition of pragmatic lore: the Brihat Katha, the Jatakas, the Kathasaritsagara and the Panchatantra. Practically all the modern Indian languages achieved their maturity through their own masters recreating versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the tales from the second line of literature creeping into their daily exchange of ideas, aphorisms, wit and wisdom.
I am afraid — and happily so — that the Indian consciousness at any given time cannot escape its psychic inheritance traceable to these traditions. It is there in the urbane as well as in the rustic, presence or absence of academic edification notwithstanding.
Once a professor was explaining Evolution to a group of scholars. He began with Darwin, resorted to anthropology and brought in Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual vision, the potential Supermind capable of manifesting at the intervention of a higher power. His audience saw the logic of the proposition but wondered if man could ever be transformed into anything sublime.
The meeting ended. An illiterate elderly man who was probably waiting to lock the hall, quietly observed, while helping the learned speaker into the car, ‘‘Sir, look at that pool yonder and see how a wonderful lotus had emerged out of the mud, with the intervention of sunlight from above. What is surprising in man growing into something splendid with the descent of Grace from above?’’
Where and how did the man obtain this distilled wisdom? It might have filtered into his consciousness out of a myriad stream of influences — the folklore, the song of a mendicant and words casually uttered by his parents.
No doubt, there are spurious products in literature as in everything else — instances of 60 per cent social realism mixed with 40 per cent eroticism attaining sensational ‘success’. But they cannot blot out the genuine — and the genuine so far as the Indian literature is concerned must be found in the Indian languages. If it is there in English too, very few have the humility to discover it, and its most luminous example is avoided as mystic and mystifying — Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri.