Tradition & Transformation: Time for a Tearful Smile

C. Radhakrishnan

I would like to begin with an off-beat observation. Writers of history of literature often overlook writing per se and delineate the activities of a few reputed writers, their groups or schools, just as world historians concentrate on dynasties and empires as against populations and changes in their condition brought about by forces other than those of the monarchs. The result: we get a chronology of events and not how and/or why such and such came about.

For many, the history of literature is a mere corollary of a nation’s history. But it may not be always so. For instance, a good part of the history of English literature flows parallel to the growth and fall of the British Empire. But in the case of a country like India, the history of literature of any language doesn’t follow the fortunes of the respective rulers or dynasties of the region. A great lot more was worked by inter-regional cross-pollination.

This brings us to another major problem with writer-oriented and ruler-oriented histories: They fail to ascertain, evaluate and connect changes in the background situation of the world around to the events stringed together. To make myself clearer, let me ask the question: What made enlightenment dawn in Europe and nowhere else in the world? What made a Kalidasa possible in India and nowhere else? To answer such questions, don’t we have to take global, why, even universal conditions into account? What do we find if we do?

It can be easily seen that what made the enlightenment-period Europe special was the dawn there of science and technology, made possible by the philosophical legacy of Greece and Rome, together with knowledge collected from different parts of the world visited by seamen. There was no stopping practical rationalism once it sprouted. Its benefits snowballed, creating a new supremacy, bringing in material gains which in turn brought more technological mileage. Unfortunately for the world, it was not realized then, or for a long while thereafter, that the dawn was the expression of an urge for change and progress in the mass consciousness of the entire human race, for the benefit of all. If it had been realized, the world wars, colonialism, exploitation and revolutions could have been avoided. Well, if wishes were horses…


As material comforts improved, living conditions in the enlightened world changed very fast, metamorphosing philosophies and emotional perspectives. All art forms went through successive periods characterized by variations in approach, execution and appreciation. European fiction carries the imprints of these variations in cultural ambience. It has to be remembered that technological transition in the developed nations was a very slow process spread over more than five centuries, each generation imbibing no more than a small fragment of it and therefore getting enough time to accept and get used to it. No generation had to bite more than what it could chew.

For a couple of centuries past what happened in Europe and America kept spreading over the rest of the world as ripples of change. The first masters of technology were not very particular about the rest of the world getting as much of it as they had; in the case of several regions of the world the cultures and traditions latent in those parts resisted the new. As a result, most parts of the world remained technology-deficient to varying degrees. It cannot be denied that there were vested interests too working against the water of technology finding its level.

If Indian literature is considered in the light of the above observations and the stream of thought ensuing from them, some interesting inferences are possible. It is obvious that after a glorious period of poetry, philosophy, fiction, music, theatre and every other art, this country had gone into eons-long hibernation. Writing as in the Mahabharatha, Ramayana, the Puranas and the Upanishads were, in course of time, so much interwoven with the somnambulant daily life of the people that fact and fiction had become one and the same! Despite the fact that the saint who composed the Bhagavatha had, at the end of the tome, stated that the stories in it were all products of imagination and didn’t carry even an iota of reality, people were told and believed otherwise. The magical-realism-characters presented by Vyasa and Valmeeki – children fathered by the god of death, the sun, the air, Indra and the gods of the four directions, the hundred-and-one bad ones cloned by Vyasa himself, the heroines born out of fire or discovered as new-born from virgin soil upturned, someone with ten heads and twenty hands, a vaanara who could jump across oceans and carry huge mountains…. – were supposed to be real! Compared to this, whatever fiction anyone composed anew was false! The pattern of life perpetuated itself so very exactly through centuries that no change was either desired or envisaged. Therefore, there was no ‘novel’ here.

As late as the forties of the last century, Indian society remained semi-feudal and caste-ridden. All the technology available comprised of a box of matches, an ounce of kerosene, traditional carpentry and black-smithy. As a boy I remember to have walked miles to see the wonder of someone riding what was called a bicycle.

But knowledge, like water, finds it level despite everything, and so it began trickling in at the beginning of the last century. Shortly thereafter it became a dam-burst, flooding every aspect of life all of a sudden. Now, in about 50 years, it is cell phone, internet and dish TV everywhere! This sudden influx of technology was a very taxing challenge and a great opportunity at the same time. Challenge in the sense, the gamut of changes that happened spread over more than five centuries in the West happened here in just about 50 years, tending to overthrow every structure and shelter, emotional, philosophical and even material. It took a lot of stamina to survive. The opportunity was that one could study the process and modus of the transition by watching oneself closely, noting down the phases and finding the underlying thread.


Indian writing -- I don’t know much about it in other countries of the region – has, in 50 years, passed through all phases writing in the West did in five centuries. It began with historical narrations in the style of Walter Scott, adopted realism from Zola and Chekhov, toyed with nihilism, anarchism and so on, ripened into surrealism, went existentialist with Sartre, took in modernism, magical realism and has now reached post-modernism – abreast with the developed world. Ideologies and fashions have been imitated without enough ‘life support’ on local turf. The net result has therefore not been much more than just cosmetic.

If a spade is to be called a spade, modern literature in India has at best been only one of the offshoots of an imitation-renaissance. That the imitation had no roots here is proved by the fact that the very debilitating diseases of caste-ism and communalism continue to plague the society and the technology implanted has not been assimilated to become a natural part of its body. (No electricity post anywhere stands exactly vertical!)

Of course, the renaissance that began with the Bhakthi movement and carried forth by saints like Swami Vivekananda has also contributed to the transformation of the art and literature scene in the country. But the two streams – the technological and the philosophical - have not been integrated to become holistic and balanced. This is the real challenge the writer has been facing, at least as far as I could comprehend and continue to strive to meet. However, as was said at the very outset, academic criticism has failed to point this out as it could deal with only the put-on renaissance of which it has been a wasted part. All the jargon notwithstanding, it has been no more than mere sound and fury signifying nothing.

Let me conclude this out-of-the-way foray with the story of the donkey that donned a wolf-skin and made a bid to join a pack of wolves. I humbly invite your imagination to take the story to its logical end to get rewarded with a knowing smile!


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