29 Jul A Gash in the World
Chapter 10 The Sharp and the Fuzzy
Samir Khanna leaned back in his chair and whistled a short melancholy tune. On this late Saturday night he was working on an article for the Indian Times. The Arts Editor for the daily, Samir was writing a report on a new artist’s first show at Jehangir Art Gallery. “Word, Image, Information,” a collection of installations, had fascinated him. The neo-conceptual artist, Sanjay Lal, liked to say the idea for the exhibition was sufficient unto itself, and the exhibition was just an epiphenomenon. Samir thought this a bit extreme, but found his ideas interesting nonetheless. Sanjay had turned to art late in life. Now, at the age of fifty, he drew his inspiration from Paul Klee; he wanted to plumb the roots of experience, the realm of possibility. His raw material was words and images like many other artists’, but he was interested in their forms and how they carved up reality. What did they include and what did they exclude? There were many installations in which words, images, and objects coexisted in different forms. Did language reflect reality or did it create reality?
Samir was thirty and wore glasses. His long face gave him a leathered, emaciated look. He appeared tall and lean and intellectual in a way that always appealed to women. He had on a deep blue cotton shirt. He lived in an old decrepit house on Mount Pleasant Road that had been in his family’s possession for four generations. Neither he nor his father, a retired newspaperman, had the money to restore it. Besides, they preferred to spend their meager salaries on small luxuries, like books. As a result, the house had retained its original character and had even been marked by the Bombay Heritage Society.
Samir stretched his back and arms and yawned. He had titled his piece ‘How to do things with words,’ a pointer to the English philosopher Austin, whom he had linked in the article with his contemporary Paul Klee, despite their many metaphysical differences. Samir’s clear and concise prose could convey complex ideas to a wide range of people. As a journalist, he possessed a sense of the public.
Samir sat at a worn-out wooden desk with chipped corners, facing his computer. His room, large by contemporary Bombay standards, was alternately bright and dark, each lamp in the room confined to its own narrow radius. It created an eerie atmosphere at night, as if the room was alternately safe and dangerous. He sometimes paced from one patch of light to another, thinking, making the wooden boards creak. It was not a tidy room, with lots of books strewn about, many of them bought second-hand from pavement shops.
Now, on Sunday morning, the redolent spirit of the Saturday night vigil lingered. Samir stood and gathered the sheets from the printer. He stapled them and slipped the document in a folder and inserted the folder into a weathered black briefcase. He changed into his pajamas and climbed into bed. He could see the outline of the house across the street and the stars in the background. His thoughts shifted to Asha and after a while he fell asleep.
Samir had won the Griffiths Fellowship to the School of Journalism at Columbia University for a period of six months. He had accepted it immediately. Not only had he learned a lot, he had even enjoyed himself. In particular, he had met Asha. She had heard about him as an Indian visitor to the School of Journalism and had asked his department about his interests. When she learned that he wrote frequently on modern art, she invited him to speak in her course on modern Indian art, asking him to deliver a couple of lectures on the “Baroda School,” a topic he knew well. He wasn’t particularly keen about the talks, but he agreed readily, more out of a desire to meet the woman behind the sensuous voice.
At first, they were both cool towards each other. Samir’s lectures were very well received by the students. Then one day he asked Asha out to a play. They both found themselves inextricably drawn to each other. Their friendship moved in small steps, sometimes in circles, sometimes even backwards. But with each step, it deepened. Their occasional arguments, whether intellectual or quotidian, whether about the meaning of the Natyashastra or about the time he had forgotten to pick her up at Times Square, only brought them closer, and invariably ended with a hug and kiss.
His program at Columbia ended, but he had planned to stay on for another month at the Southern Asian Department, where Asha had secured a small stipend for him. But then he received news that his father was seriously ill and had to leave immediately. In August he returned to Bombay, cutting off their relationship.
As he reflected upon his aborted stay, Samir realized that he had not only discovered the U.S., but had also rediscovered his own country—an India no longer simply of the colors of everyday life, but also of depth and stillness and balance. He had accessed a new vantage point from which to view India, as every expatriate does his own country, and that led him to a different reality, one of distance and reflection. It had an air of paradox, this insight into India by moving away from it. His names for this insight were pluralism and minimalism. He felt India was an essentially pluralist society, one without sharply defined internal boundaries between practices, a plenitude resulting from the mingling of traditions—so many languages, so many religions, so many cultures. However, he mused, curiously there was no self-conscious pluralist tradition in India. It had no name.
To the unaided eye, to the casual look, India seemed more “maximalist” than minimalist. After all, everywhere one perceived expression rather than restraint, sound instead of silences, color in place of shape, curves rather than lines, crowds jostling, gods proliferating, textures teeming. But reflection revealed a reality of simplicity, of economy, even occasionally of quiet austerity, of quickness of mind, of questions rather than answers, of sudden revelations, of practices that thrived on danger and contradiction and ambiguity, and on the boundaries of essences. Its minimalism made its maximalism possible, like the root its fruit, like silence speech.
Upon his return, his father recovered, but Samir himself deteriorated. He wrote Asha every day for a month. Then abruptly, he stopped writing altogether and did not even respond to Asha’s less agitated but equally ardent letters. Another month slipped by.
Samir was at the Jehangir Art Gallery again, looking at “Word, Image, Information.” He was studying an installation in which there was an irregular rock with a smooth and flat top. On it was a largish round cake. On the rock’s sides were the words ‘tall’, ‘triangle’, ‘art’, ‘democracy’, etched in a sharp Times New Roman script. Beside and around the cake were scattered a number of knives. A sign read: ‘Help yourself’. Occasionally, half-nervously, someone would hold a knife, cut into the cake, and pick up a piece. About half the cake was gone. Someone said it was the third cake of the day—a new one was brought in when the earlier one was finished. Samir helped himself to a piece, too.
Sanjay Lal was also present that day and Samir detained him during a quiet moment.
“Did you like the cake, Samir? It’s from the Taj,” Sanjay said, jabbing Samir with his elbow.
“Since when have you been visiting the Taj?” Samir retorted good-naturedly, knowing Sanjay didn’t frequent expensive establishments. “Seriously, though, it wasn’t bad. A little dry, maybe. Great show! One of the best I’ve seen in a while.”
“I’m done here. How about a beer?”
They filed out of the Jehangir, and crossed the road to the Wayside Inn. After ordering a Kingfisher, they resumed their conversation.
“Tell me about the cake and knives,” Samir began.
“Only a few artists think hard about the nature of abstract entities like concepts, but they interest me tremendously. Even the conceptualists didn’t tackle the problem head on. What is a concept? It’s a very difficult question to answer. How does it work? When is it effective? When does it fail?” Sanjay paused to sip the cool beer. “More to the point, why are they important?”
“Philosophers and scientists have asked these questions, but you’re right about the relative silence of artists,” Samir responded.
“Let me start with why they are important. They are central to every human activity; you couldn’t live without concepts, they mediate all your thoughts and actions. Indeed, even crossing the street requires concepts,” Sanjay said.
“I know computer scientists, especially those working in AI, talk about concepts in order to realize intelligent behavior,” Samir offered.
“First, concepts are tools, the way knives are tools. They enable us to extend the domain of our actions. You use a knife to cut yourself a piece of cake. In the same way, you use a concept to slice yourself a piece of reality. But a concept is an abstract thing; you need something concrete to grasp it, and this is where words and images come in. A word like ‘triangle’ permits you to pluck out all the triangles in the world, it allows you to name a class of shapes,” Sanjay continued.
“And some knives are sharp while others are blunt,” Samir observed.
“Exactly,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Knives come in so many different shapes and sizes, each for a different task. Concepts are no different. A mathematician wanting to be precise will use concepts like ‘triangle’, a demagogue wanting to sway a crowd will employ flexible terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. It all depends on what you want to do. Reality is like butter. You can impose any kind of grid on it that you desire, sharp or fuzzy.”
“I’m not so sure about that last statement. If reality were like butter, would it offer resistance?” Samir asked.
“Different thinkers adopt different positions about reality. This is just mine,” Sanjay answered.
After some gossip centering on the art world of Bombay, they finished their beer and parted company. Samir then walked along Marine Drive before heading home. Gray and choppy, the sea reflected the brooding sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. Out of the corner of his eye, Samir noticed the sky turn crimson, scarlet, orange, even pink. He kept walking without breaking his stride.
The curtains billowed in the light breeze. Harold peered onto the Arabian Sea, soundless and calm at that early hour. On this November Monday, he remembered a painting of Magritte’s that formed an ambiguity between dawn and dusk. In the canvas was a house by a lake with a street lamp in between and the sky in the back. All the colors receded to the edge of light and darkness. It was impossible to decide if it was night or day. Despite the odd hour, he took out the Sahityashastra from his briefcase and began to read. He reminded himself of the first two steps of the argument, essentially the quartet of institutions and their transmutation into actions.
The third step was to use a notion of balance. Bharata wanted to argue for balance and imbalance in the space of actions. He derived the idea by thinking about how buildings like temples are able to stand without collapsing. His creativity lay in believing that social institutions like religion, state, and literature should also be sturdy in the same way. Temples became metaphors for social structures in Bharata’s fertile mind.
If a social institution could stand like a temple, he called it balanced; if not, he deemed it unbalanced. He argued that for rational actors a minimal religion, a minimal state, and a minimal literature were in balance.
Furthermore, he could show that this balance implied a complete separation between the three minimal domains of action. The three areas did not overlap. As a result, all three spheres of action were jointly in balance and were separate from each other.
This deep result reminded Harold vaguely of equilibrium arguments in economics, something he had learnt from his nephew, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, Bharata’s own inspiration was the stability of temples and other buildings.
The separation of the three minimal spheres of action was an unexpected result with startling consequences. These Bharata developed later in the second part of the book. That enabled him to argue that most of the institutionalized religion of the day was unbalanced.
Drowsy, Harold scribbled a few notes. He dropped off to sleep again and awoke at eleven. He had kept the day entirely free, partly for the Sahityashastra, and partly to relax.
He had completed Bharata’s argument for a separation of religion and state. On looking back, it was clear that the argument could be improved with modern techniques, but the ideas Bharata employed were profound and enduring. In fact, many later thinkers have used similar ideas. Bharata was not content to leave it at that. The second part of his book interpreted this abstract argument.
A visceral shock coursed through Harold’s body. He felt as though he had glimpsed a vision.
The rest of the book teased out the implications of the argument in the first half. The first domain Bharata considered was religion. He fleshed out the idea of a minimal religion, one with a dimension of desire, like the religion of the Vedas, where the fulfillment of desire is the goal of man’s actions. It did not renounce life, like ascetic Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism. Action was not desireless and was not to be desireless. In fact, the world was caused by desire. This intermingling, this identity of holiness and desire, is precisely what offered religion a certain robustness. Another dimension of a minimal religion, according to Bharata, was that it should be philosophical, a little like the early Upanishads, and also founded on reason and argument. In this way, he worked out what it meant for a religion to be minimal.
Next, he elaborated the notion of a minimal state. This was surprisingly close to what would today be an unregulated economy. Not only would the state avoid entanglement in religion, it would also not direct the markets of the day. It appears from his asides that Bharata was himself shocked at his finding, but the logic of his argument was inescapable.
Then came the separation of the two. Here he was at his most eloquent. He depicted different spheres of action for religion and the state. On the one hand, the disconnection gave rise to a holy religion; on the other hand, it engendered an effective state by a secularization of its domain. Radical, this division was not like the secularism of twentieth-century India, for example, which was more like an attempt at equidistance from all religious influence. At this point, Harold realized the significance of the frieze at the temple. The panel represented the disjointing of kingship from divinity. Someone had obviously read the book and had carved out the idea of the separation on the temple wall. That possibly explained why such a panel had never been seen before.
Last was the argument for literature. There were three issues to be resolved here. One was the relation between religion and literature, another was the relation between the state and literature, and the third was the project for literature itself. In some ways, this was the most intriguing part of the framework Bharata had developed, a fitting finale to the earlier deconstruction. While it lacked that prior theory’s deductive logic, Bharata tackled all three problems in one stroke by claiming, at the end of some complex analogical argumentation based partly on the Indian syllogism, that literature would replace religion as the form of life itself.
The fourth institution of rationality permeated the other three. Its target was emotionalism, rasa gone awry, and in this context was a revolutionary idea.
Harold finally set down the Sahityashastra. The revivalists and fundamentalists would find it impossible to explain such a treatise at the center of their canon. They would have nowhere to turn. This was a critique from within.
If the Indian people or even just the people of Bombay were to get hold of this book, the communal forces in the city would disappear in a matter of months. Information transmission was an easy matter in view of Bombay’s connectedness, its intersecting selves. No wonder Meghnad had been murdered, Harold realized with a start. The Sahityashastra’s meaning and implications lay behind the string of killings.
He considered the Sahityashastra admiringly. What startled Harold, in addition to the convincing argumentation, was the de-centering of religion that it achieved at a time when religion permeated society, when it was the form of life. To replace it with literature and convert religion into a private practice was a profoundly modern idea. How could Bharata have imagined it in the third century?
He had been reading a copy he had made earlier in the day at the Taj’s business center. The original he would send to Asha. He sat down to write her a long letter, explaining all that had happened in light of his reading. The events now fell into place, and he mused absently how the future could so transform the past. His intuitions and reconstructions had been shots in the dark, but they had barely missed the mark.
He glanced at his watch; it was after nine. He put on his shoes and left the room, carrying the original and the letter with him. He dropped them off at the reception with instructions to courier them to Asha.
Frank Thompson arrived at the Taj early, and after waiting for twenty minutes, he decided to call Harold’s room. Evidently, Harold was out, and Frank figured he would wait for another ten minutes. As he placed the phone back on its hook, he bumped into Harold. The Taj’s lobby provided a surprisingly warm space, despite the cold and hard marble floor. A large square carpet in the center softened the marble, but it was really the number of people that altered it from an abstract space to a concrete, lived-in place. “Form follows use,” a local architect had wryly observed, upending Corbusier.
“I was just calling you,” Frank said.
“Sorry I’m late. When did you get in?” Harold asked.
“A couple of days. Shall we try the Golden Dragon? It’s Chinese food. I hear it’s the best in town.”
“I know it well,” Harold said.
They ambled down the corridor, entered the restaurant, and found themselves a table for two.
“Have you gotten over Nirana and into the bustle of Bombay?” Frank asked.
“Bombay does pull you in, doesn’t it?”
“There’s something happening every day.”
“Frank, I want you to publish a book I’m going to translate,” Harold said.
Frank raised his eyebrows. “What’s the book?” he asked.
“The Sahityashastra. Bharata’s sequel to the Natyashastra, also known as ‘The Sixth Veda.’”
“I’ve heard of it,” Frank said, sipping his wine. “But it’s always been shrouded in mystery. I thought it was lost.”
“It’s a remarkable book, with a surprisingly contemporary argument and message.”
“Okay,” Frank said abruptly after a pause. “What do you want to do with it?”
“I want to start right away and suspend my research for a while. That will have to wait. Chaturvedi is going to be upset, and he will have to be appeased. It should take a little over a year to finish the translation, especially one with annotations. How does that sound?”
“Pretty good so far. I will give you a suitable advance, the standard sum for translations of important old manuscripts.”
“Perfect. But all this must be done in complete secrecy. Why don’t we celebrate with another glass of wine?” Harold said.
For a while they sat in silence, each man contemplating the project, as they spooned their sweet and sour soup. The heavy carpet darkened the room. The wooden furniture added to this dullness. Despite the unexceptional environment, the restaurant was full. As Frank scanned the room, he recognized someone and waved.
“How did you come upon the Sahityashastra?” Frank asked.
“I found it at the temple of Ranipur near Nirana.”
Frank thought he detected a trace of apprehension in Harold’s voice, but shrugged it off. He mentioned Lal’s exhibition and Samir Khanna’s review of it. Both agreed that India was just commencing its ascent. The first fifty years were just preparatory, though a few could discern the outline of the shape of the next century for India.
“But it can’t stay narrowly nationalistic,” Frank said.
“That’s true. Not even in the fields of art and culture. It would be retrogressive.”
They bid a warm goodbye to each other and Harold walked back towards his room, humming a tune. It was almost midnight, but the Taj was still bustling with people.
The following Sunday, Harold was dining with Oswal. He arrived at his residence on Carmichael Road at eight-thirty. On this cool evening, as always on Carmichael Road, the quiet was interrupted only by crickets and the occasional car. KP had a sprawling white house with a garden that resembled a Mondrian painting. Lines of pebbles partitioned grasses of different hues, each occupying a discrete rectangle.
Dropped off by a cab, Harold rang the doorbell and waited. A servant dressed in white opened the door. As Harold entered the house, KP emerged from one of the rooms in white kurta pajamas. The interior was Indian minimalist, spare, elegant, and tastefully done.
“Hello, hello, hello!” KP said.
They shook hands and embraced warmly.
KP ushered him into the living room. “Come. Have a seat.”
“You have a wonderful house. I haven’t seen so many rare sculptures and pieces in any single room,” Harold said. “The room creates a context for international objects, a kind of Indian modernism. Look at those Giacomettis.”
“Thank you. They’ve been picked up over a lifetime of collecting. All these paintings too.” KP gestured towards the Shahs and Agarwals on the walls.
“They’re stunning. I keep meaning to ask you—any idea what might happen in the next elections?”
“Things seem fine on the whole. I don’t take much interest in politics as you know. But in the field of culture, there is a move towards indigenization. What do you think?”
Harold sensed KP was being noncommittal. He chose to speak openly. “I think the cultural isolationism is terrible. It will lead to rigor mortis. Of course, there are marvelous indigenous traditions worth emulating and developing. I would be the first to say that. But the conceptual input of contemporary thought must accompany it. Indian art criticism is almost completely westernized in its form, for example. Indeed, one must look internationally, not just to the West. That is the same reason why the arts in the West are atrophying. Think of the primitivism in the art of the first half of this century. That is why it was so vigorous. Your own living room betrays that very vitality.”
“But what about Indian civilization?” KP said. “This is the moment for us to rethink that question. The miscegenation of cultural forms may not be a particularly good thing for India at this time. Even the socialists, who pride themselves on being progressive, are for nationalism in art.”
“The socialists and many others are for nationalism for a different reason. You know that. They have the power relations between the North and South in mind. The West could take from the non-West without acknowledging their debt because they were more powerful. For India to take from the West is more problematic because they would be seen as derivative. But I still think that’s a bad reason for ‘nationalism’ in art. Opening up India would result in a burst of vitality. What you see today is a trickle that would become a flood.”
“Indian culture is also too tightly controlled internally. Those for nationalism are usually those in power, whether it is in politics or in art. Opening up boundaries always reduces such artificial power based on limiting the flow of ideas.”
Another servant interrupted the conversation with wine and hors d’oeuvres.
“KP, I have known you all these years, but I can honestly never tell where you’re coming from,” Harold said. “You may not take an interest in politics, but you are a consummate politician yourself.”
KP laughed. “I have to confess I have been told that before.”
“I actually had a serious purpose in wanting to see you tonight. You see, I have found the Sahityashastra.”
“That’s incredible! How did you find it? Have you had a chance to read it?”
“I plan to summarize it soon. It is perhaps the most beautiful piece of prose I’ve read, about religion and yet not about religion, about the state and yet not about the state, about literature and yet not about literature. It certainly has the stature and range and depth to be the sixth Veda.”
“Is it like the Natyashastra?”
“It is much broader in scope and its language is quite different. It has something for everyone, its insights affect everyday life as well as the organization of society.”
“It will make you even more famous, Harold. Shall we move to the dining room?”
“Before we do, may I make a phone call? I picked up a message from Allison at the reception on my way out.”
“Of course. How is she? Let’s go to my study.” They filed down a corridor and turned left before KP opened the door to his study. The room was dimly lit by a tall lamp in one corner. Harold noticed various carvings and figurines from different parts and periods of India, statues of gods, guardians, and lovers. The French windows overlooked the garden and Harold could see its outline in the dark. KP walked over to his desk in another corner and gestured at the phone. He was about to say something when they heard a knock on the door and a servant appeared. KP excused himself.
Harold called Allison at home. As the phone rang, he fingered the edge of the desk, noting that it was smooth and polished, possibly rosewood. His gaze wandered over the walls and he discerned many stone Ganeshas in the room. A photograph of KP’s son Umesh rested at one end of the desk.
“Hello? This is Allison.”
“Hello. You had called?” Harold asked.
“Oh, hi, Dad. Anil just called to say that we have to make a presentation to IPL in January.”
“That’s very good news, Allie,” Harold said, as his gaze strayed along the cluttered desk, with several papers and pens in disarray, a bunch of black and white photographs of more Indian carvings and statues, a diary, and a copy of Tagore’s “Gitanjali.”
“We’re thinking of coming in January. We should have something definite to say by then.”
“Have you made some progress already?” Harold asked, peering at the photographs in the dim light. He realized they had been taken recently, just a few days ago. He saw that they were mostly details of larger carvings, some of them quite beautiful. KP did have a fine collection of artifacts. One close-up of a crown looked rough and simple rather than smooth and ornate. Another showed an outstretched arm with an outward-facing palm in the manner of Indian gods at an angle suggesting a quiet power.
“Yes, we’ve made quite a leap and I think we will be able to develop tools that could also help people to translate texts with greater ease. We are using ideas from topology, as I had said to you earlier.”
“I’d be very interested to know how that goes. I could use some help myself,” Harold said, and picked up a third photograph, the torso of a female figure. He set it down and glanced absently at the remaining photographs. His eyes wandered to the opposite wall. “I should still be here in January, but Chaturvedi and I may make a short trip to Cambridge some time in February. How long do you expect to be here?”
“About a week, maybe two. I will let you know once our plans are finalized. I should know by next week.”
KP knocked lightly and entered as Harold said goodbye to Allison. He led Harold back to the dining room.
They sat down to a North Indian dinner, navratan korma and sarson ka saag among other dishes. KP had ordered a vegetarian meal, knowing Harold’s preferences. The talk turned to family.
“How is Allison?” KP asked.
“She’s fine. She’s actually working on a translation project at AEC that might involve IPL funding. She’s going to be coming here in January for a presentation.”
“Oh really? I know we’ve been talking about a strategic alliance with AEC but I don’t know the details of the translation project you’re talking about. Do tell Allison to contact me and I will look into it.”
“How is Umesh? Is he still planning on getting some work experience before he applies to the Harvard Business School?”
“He’s in a hurry. He doesn’t understand the importance of the experience. It would help him assimilate his Harvard education better. Unfortunately, he always points to my example. I was the youngest in my Harvard class, without any experience. So what can I say?” KP sighed.
“I don’t think it will matter to him in the long run, though his educational experience will certainly be better if he works. Let me know when he applies, in any case,” Harold said.
KP’s wife had died some years ago with their daughter in a car crash on the way to Pune from Bombay. Since then, KP had lived a relatively lonely life, doting on his son in the U.S.
They continued to chat about various things till the talk drifted back to the Sahityashastra.
“Where did you find the Sahityashastra?” KP asked.
“In the temple of Ranipur near Nirana,” Harold said.
“Where is it now?”
“In my room at the Taj.”
“I would like very much to see it.”
“Sure. I can make you a copy.”
“Have you told anyone else about it?”
“No, not really. Except for Varma, who was remarkably cool about it.”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
“Translate it, publish it, and distribute it,” Harold said. “The last part is where I need your help.”
“Of course,” KP said. “Why don’t you tell me when you’re ready?”
After some small talk, Harold departed. He rode back in KP’s car. The Taj was busy as usual at midnight as he walked down the long corridor joining the new hotel to the old one. As he opened the door to his room, he experienced a vague uneasiness.
His entire room had been ransacked. The vandals had clearly failed because they had even smashed the night tables, an entirely unnecessary act of destruction. His papers lay strewn all over the floor.
As he stepped inside, the door gently shut behind him.
“Come in, Doctor Stone, we have been waiting for you,” a firm voice said.