BOOKS THAT SHAPED HUMANITY
EVERY DAY WE ENTER NEW REALMS OF REALITIES. AND NEW INSTRUMENTS ARE INVENTED TO HELP US BEAR MUCH OF THESE REALITIES, OFTEN UNBEARABLE.
As good almost to kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God itself, as it were in the eye.
Fiji leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays, Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. He’s currently writing his fifth book of poems, Beyond the Fall, to be published in March 2017.
Recently a group of us at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, initiated a series titled: Books That Shaped Humanity. Every month a book is selected and an ‘expert’ on the subject introduces and leads the discussion of the significant selected text. Participants are invited from the university community and the general public.
The series is free and all are warmly welcomed with a glass or two of wine and light refreshments. The discussion is scheduled for two hours, once a month. The five books from August-December, 2016, are : respectively The Ramayana, The Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, The Iliad and A Christmas Carol. In a small way I’m involved in the programme and suggested a few titles. For the first discussion, the conference room was packed. The text chosen was Valmiki’s Ramayana, written in Sanskrit.
The scholar was a specialist in that sacred language. He had no doubt that the Indian epic was written by the poet named Valmiki, albeit that one is not sure if all the 37 plays of William Shakespeare were conceived by a single mind. Shakespeare was born barely 450 years ago; Valmiki’s epic was composed 2450 years ago. The facts are lost in the mists of time and timeless beliefs.
I’m especially fond of the Humanities Research Centre in the A D Hope building, named after the late poetfriend of mine, next to the Department of English where I studied; my wife and a daughter, too, later completed their doctoral studies almost in the same room.
For me it’s a place of pilgrimage full of memories of happy days, lasting friendships, reading and writing. The Humanities Research Centre was established in 1974, the year I went to do my doctoral studies. I completed my PhD in 1977 and returned to Fiji. In December 1987, under difficult circumstances, I was back at the Humanities Research Centre on a brief fellowship but stayed on for many years, thanks to the generosity of its foundation Director, Professor Ian Donaldson, one of Australia’s most distinguished literary scholars, now retired and attached to Melbourne University. Professor Donaldson was recently awarded an Honorary doctorate by the ANU –and he was also felicitated at the Centre by the new Director Professor Will Christie who joined from the University of Sydney this year. Jyoti and I attended the event and the dinner: Ian Donaldson is a major reason for our being here in Canberra and I was made an Adjunct Professor of the Centre and wrote two books there, one dedicated to Ian—that’s often a writer’s way of showing appreciation. Ian Donaldson also came to Fiji as the External Examiner in English to the University of Fiji when Jyoti and I were teaching there: he wrote a most encouraging report suggesting the directions our School of Humanities and Arts should take for future developments in the teaching of language and literature. By coming to Fiji for a week, he’d shown his support for the young university and its very worthy objectives.
So I’ve a particular affection for this Centre and often I attend its lectures by visiting writers and scholars from many parts of the world.
The Humanities, of course, play a vital role in shaping our values by which we live and let live, plant new ideas and grow in our inseparable humanity.
A great deal of expense is involved in training people for a variety of professions that the modern complexity of a nation requires—the technological revolution in science, especially health science, biology, environment and economics are constantly changing our sense of reality. Every day we enter new realms of realities. And new instruments are invented to help us bear much of these realities, often unbearable.
But all this will be disastrous if the acts of education and living were not under-pinned by ethical concerns and constraints in a society by individual acts and thought of integrity. A knowledge-society without a moral compass is like a ship in turbulent seas and the mind of men and women can get wrecked in the shallows. Some of the most educated men and women were the Nazis, just to cite one extreme example, to show how a whole civilisation can become so depraved and degraded, and human beings descend to monstrous depths. On smaller scales this has happened in so many countries, including ours. This is where the Humanities come in: their essential and invigorating role in shaping our world and ourselves. And giving us warnings from the past depredations. It’s here that books become our priceless gifts. As John Milton said: As good almost to kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God itself, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on a purpose to a life beyond life. This was written in 1644 by the English epical poet who wrote Paradise
Lost and Paradise Regained. He became blind, but saw the world most clearly in his extraordinary writings on many subjects, including human liberty. John Milton died in 1674—two hundred years before Fiji was ceded to Great Britain. I read Paradise Lost in 1957 in a library in Nadi run by the Ramakrishna Mission on the first floor of a shop, in the middle of the town. I didn’t understand much but I ploughed through the epic as I ploughed my father’s farm. The seed then were planted in the fresh furrows. The Sanskrit scholar delivered his erudite lecture, while red and white wines were served with gulab jamuns and rassogoolas. A long and animated discussion ensued after the talk. How these texts, written by men, are to be interpreted in our modern contexts? Questions were raised: Did Raja Dasrath paid the price of polygamy? Was the Ramayana a colonising text? Was the poet more subtle in his portrayal than just the battle between good and evil? Is exile a human condition for our growth of new awareness? Was the treatment of women and the final fiery test Sita has to undergo to prove her chastity justified? What of men and other creatures of our environment? What’s one’s dharma in the face of evil?
We were told there are at least 220 versions of this marvellous epic. And its immense influence on the cultures of South Asian peoples: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the vowels and consonants of several cultural traditions. I, of course, grew up on the two epics—their Hindi versions read by my mother as we lay on her palliasse covered by Matalita’s mat from the koro across the river. We enjoyed the stories immensely: sometimes as we sat outside staring at the starry sky in which flew the black flying-foxes towards one-eyed Ramchander mama’s mango-groves, we imagined we saw in the cloud formations, Hanuman carrying a mountain in one hand and a mighty mace in another—and flying towards Sri Lanka to fix those rakshas, demons, misbehaving. That image remained ingrained in my mind for years until I visited Sri Lanka and discovered the people were quite human and extremely hospitable despite their recent tragic history. I also remembered my days in Ramlila: I’ve written about it in my book
NADI: Memories of a River, published in 2014, pages 97-103. The Ramayana has a special resonance to the Fijian Indian experience. It’s primarily an epic of exile, suffering, battles, and return. Ramlila, Diwali, Ramnaumi, gave many illiterate girmit people hope and illumination in a darkened world, miles away from their millennial habitat. I often wonder how this great poem, in Tulsidas’s version ,was sung in my village every Saturday evening for two hours. It gave us a sense of community and common bonds. In the ideals of its eponymous hero, we saw our own lives mirrored: no-one could emulate the godly-character, but he was there as an example on any dark night. But my favourite character really was Hanuman, the flying BrigadierGeneral, leading Rama’s army to victory. There have been a few bogus Brigadier-Generals but none matches in my imagination the feats of Hanuman. One of my primary school teachers had that name and I often saw him flying in my nightmares before an exam. Like all great texts the Ramayana has been used by ruthless men for evil acts; but its essential goodness has never been devalued in the minds of ordinary people.
As I listened to the talk by the expert, I wondered how comprehensive a vision Valmiki had given the world with men and monkeys, gods and demons, trees and rivers, physical prowess and metaphysical speculations, Rama’s exile on the eve of his coronation, Sita’s loneliness in a foreign forest and so much more.
Who hasn’t felt a sense of exile or solitude even in one’s bedroom? The twice-blessed can also be twice-banished. The epic mirrored our lives in all its ancient modernity and humane contradictions. The legend has it that Valmiki wrote it when one morning, he saw by the river a bird crying for its mate killed by a hunter. The river could be Sarayu, Ganges, Nadi or Murrumbigie?
A great poem was born out of the most common experience of grief and loneliness—much depends how our hearts respond and how we re-imagine and remember the agony and ecstasy called Life in other lives.
Literary works - The Iliad, The Communist Manifesto and A Christmas Carol.