It is the continuous alternation between the text and the world that gives the reading of a classic its real value even when this can be a disturbing experience.
The term classic has suffered a serious depletion of meaning in our time as it is being liberally bandied about in blurbs, advertisements, sponsored book reviews and everyday discourses. Not only are publishers anxious to prove that every second book they bring out is a classic, but the term also appears in the hyped-up publicity material of anything from textiles and furnishings to shoes and floor tiles.
The crisis of credibility that surrounds the word now compels us to attempt a retrieval of the meaning of the word itself. The term, especially in the context of literature, seems to exude the odour of the past as in its immediate signification it is a time-tested work, excluding, by implication contemporary works, avant-garde works in particular, forcing us to add the epithet modern to make it a little more inclusive. But even with the adjective, the associations of the term go so deep in readers psyche that it is difficult not to feel the pull of the past, of that imagined golden age of The Divine Comedy and Hamlet, if not of Iliad, Odyssey, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Abhijnanashakuntala whenever we invoke it.
We know that the term originally meant a work of universal appeal that has stood or is likely to stand the test of time and places itself in a series of masterworks that extend from the past into the future, is informed by the history of ideas and literature and is able to impact the works that follow. According to Sainte-Beauve, the nineteenth century French literary theorist, a true classic is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure and caused it to advance a step, has discovered a moral truth or revealed an eternal passion in the heart where all seemed known and discovered, who has expressed his thought, observation or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it to be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself, who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style, new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time. He finds Vyasa, Valmiki, Shakespeare and Moliere to be such authors. T.S. Eliot, another self-confessed classicist, sees the classic as a work of maturity and insight that can come only from a maturity of culture and language. It draws from the past but does not stay there; it is generally recognised as classic with the benefit of hindsight but not necessarily as Shakespeare was recognised as a classic even by his contemporaries. He also associates the classic with the complexity of the verbal structure, the ability to express finer shades of feeling and thought, without being prolix and cumbersome. The classic author leaves the language richer and stronger than he/she had found it, but also exhausts the language and leaves the ground fallow for some time to come.
There is definitely something for all the lovers of good literature to ponder over in Italo Calvinos interpretation of the term in his book The Uses of Literature. A classic, according to him, is a work of literature that can be read and reread at all stages of ones life, every reading revealing newer and newer levels of meaning and planes of appreciation. They exert a peculiar influence on their readers when they refuse to be eradicated from their minds as also when they hibernate in memory, camouflaging themselves as the individual or collective unconscious. Its eternal fascination also comes from the fact that it has never finished saying what it has to say. Classics come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on culture or cultures they have passed through. The relationship between the classic and its reader can well be critical: one may contradict, criticise and quarrel with the books contents: only he/ she cannot remain indifferent to its impact.
It is of course wrong to think that anything contemporary would contaminate our understanding of the classics. There are many who would like to live forever in the company of Sophocles and Bhasa, in an ivory tower of aesthetic delight, away from the noises of the humdrum world. But one has to know from where one is reading the classics, to relate them to ones own space and time so that one does not get lost in a timeless cloud. It is the continuous alternation between the text and the world that gives the reading of a classic its real value even when this can be a disturbing experience.
While the above observations may be generally applicable to the older classics in our context, let us not forget the word has something to do with classy and hence class, they also need to be qualified further in more than one way. In India too we do have the old classics like the various Ramayanas and Mahabharatas in Sanskrit and in the modern Indian languages as well as folk epics and epics special to different languages besides a lot of works especially of poetry and drama in many languages. We have many coexisting literary traditions and diverse canons that happily complicate the picture. But one thing can certainly be said: no work can be a classic unless it is recognised as a classic first in its own language and literary culture.
Let no one imagine that a work may directly be catapulted to classic status in its translated form in another Indian language or a foreign language; at the same time the reverse is not true: a work remains a classic in its language even if its translation fails to be recognised as a classic. A contemporary reader may not be impressed deeply by the translations of, say, Bankim Chandra Chatterjees Anandamath, Fakir Mohan Senapatis Jhe Man Aadh Gunt, Govardhanram Tripathis Saraswatichandra, Shivarama Karanths Marali Mannige, O. Chandu Menons Indulekha or Kalkis Shivakaamiyin Shapatham, but that does not in any way mitigate their standing as classics in Bangla, Oriya, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil respectively as these works continue to be read, discussed and debated even now and are recognised as major contributions to the genre in their languages.
This is where one major aspect neglected by thinkers like Calvino gets noticed: language. Classics are classics not entirely due to their content and insight into life, but also due to the language in which these insights and visions come to be embodied in them. This may get partly if not completely lost in any translation. I know how the linguistic shock and the stylistic awe that C.V. Raman Pillais Malayalam in his major novels and plays with its many registers evoke can hardly be recreated by its translation into any other language, especially into a standardising language like English. A reader in the language may remember many parts in the text for the sheer irrepressible power of their language. This can be true even of a more recent work like O.V. Vijayans Khasakkinte Itihasam, which even in the authors own attractive translation as The Legends of Khasak fails to invoke the wonder and pleasure similar to those the original does. Authors like Ajney, Nirmal Verma, Uday Prakash, Bhalchandra Nemade, U.R. Ananthamurthy, V.K.N and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, for whom style was/is central, too, may get diluted and standardised even in the best of translations.Literary-historical context
The idea of a classic has also much to do with the literary-historical context of its emergence and reception. A work like O. Chandu Menons Indulekha, Thakazhis Kayar, Anands Aalkkoottam, Ajneys Shekhar, Ek Jeevni, Rabindranath Tagores Gora, Tarashankar Banerjees Arogya Niketan or Manik Banerjees Padmanadeer Majhi came to be counted as classics also because of the moments of their birth in their social, linguistic and literary contexts, besides of course their inherent worth as works of art and their insights into human condition. The canonising agenciesthe critical establishment, hegemonic theories of literature and society, the review journals, the nature of the reading public, the system of education and teachers of literature, etc.too do play a role in elevating the work to a classic, rendering the status relative to an extent and subject to interrogation from the new emerging critics, systems and social groups, though the re-readings too only ultimately help confirm the polysemic potential of these works. Two very different examples from two periods in twentieth century Malayalam fiction may make our points clearer.
C.V. Raman Pillais magnum opus Rama Raja Bahadur was originally published in two parts in 1918 and 1919 respectively. He had already become a celebrity with the publication of his first novel, Marthanda Varma (1891), translated by B.K. Menon, 1936 (Sahitya Akademi Edition, 1998), which was followed by Dharmaraja (1913), another novel based on the history of Travancore (Thiruvithamkoor). The three novels form a trilogy and have for their titles the names of the kings of Travancore partly to help the readers understand the political, social and cultural forces at work at a critical period of the evolution of the modern State. The novelist uses the tapestry of political and military engagements in eighteenth century Kerala and unfolds episode after episode in which the maharaja and his trusted lieutenant Raja Keshava Das succeed in outwitting the enemies who are the descendants of Ettuveettil Pillamar, the eight feudal chieftains of Marthanda Varmas time, and the forces of Tippu, the Sultan of Mysore, aided and abetted by them. Rama Raja Bahadur apparently deals with the political history of Travancore during 1788-89 but is interspersed with the individual destinies of many people from different layers of society. The socio-cultural background gets densely foregrounded here so that the novel may be thought of at one level as a gathering of the private lives of a number of characters who all have roles to play in the events that rocked the State at that time.Epic dimension
Thus these novels do have an epic dimension reminding one immediately of say, a Walter Scott or a Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, but C.V. goes far above them by creating a very intricate narrative design interwoven with echoes from the Indian puranas, mahakavyas and attakkathas (the texts for Kathakali performances) involving the vicissitudes of individuals and families, along with the tragedies and triumphs that impact the people as a whole. What distinguishes C.Vs novels from the run-of-the-mill popular fiction is the Dantesque or the Dostoevskian high seriousness he invests his stories with and the way he illumines his historical narratives with an overarching metaphysical vision. Here is man who, as in Hemingway, can be defeated but not destroyed, one whose will ultimately triumphs over the forces of destiny, his glory depending on how much he can endure and resist. Kunchaikutty Pillais self-sacrifice to save the nation from the enemy is an eloquent example of the power of the spirit not only to survive, but to finally prevail. The miserable exit of the colourful character Chandrakkaran after decades of torture of himself and of others saves him from ultimate damnation because he surrenders in the last minute and even heroically tries to save another life. Ayyappa Paniker points out (Introduction to the English translation of Rama Raja Bahadur by Prema Nandakumar, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 2003, pages v-xii) that the stylistic variations and evocations of varied landscapes bring him closer to the James Joyce of Ulysses. The novelist had different ways of controlling his narrative, shuffling the episodes, dislocating the time sequence and leaving gaps for the readers to fill in if necessary. He uses multiple styles. Passages of description often deliberately obstruct the smooth flow of the narrative and the language becomes dense with allusions and suggestions that travel far into culture and history.
To quote Ayyappa Paniker again, Those ornate passages remind the reader of medieval mansions and castles and fortifications, holding the narrative in their baroque magic spell. Then there are conversations using dialects and rustic slangs full of the gusto of folk expressions and dramatic counterpoints. His portrayal of evil in Rama Raja Bahadur embodied in characters like Kodanath Ashan brings to mind Shakespeares Othello, Melvilles Moby Dick and Dostoevskys The Devil at the same time. His women like Meenakshi and Savitri are resourceful and dignified harbingers of good fortune.
None of his characters is a stereotype; they learn from experiences and evolve continuously. The king, too, despite his steadfastness, suffers pangs of anxiety for himself as well as his people. This is peoples history in all its human dimensions. The diversity of the social fabric is reflected in the different community speech patterns and local settings he puts to dexterous use. The author brings the nation into being by narrating its past in a non-Western, non-linear, puranic mode and suggesting the means to peoples freedom.
My second example is a pioneering novel of high modernism in Malayalam, Khasakkinte Itihasam ( The Legends of Khasak, 1969, English Translation by the author, Penguin, 1994) by O.V. Vijayan (1930-2005). A profound anguish over a world turning absurdly violent day by day cast its sombre shadow on everything Vijayan did: his cartoons, short stories as well as novels. He wrote five novels, each different from the previous one and yet by critical assessment as well as readers response, his first novel that he took twelve years to write and rewrite, remains his masterpiece. Vijayan had learnt from both C.V. Raman Pillai, who created a world of myth and used language like a polyphonic musical instrument, and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, who had striven to transform the very textures of his peoples imagination.Myth and reality
The Legends of Khasak literally revolutionised Malayalam fiction. Its interweaving of myth and reality, lyrical intensity, black humour, its freshness of idiom with its mixing of the provincial and the profound and its combinatorial word play, its juxtaposition of the mundane, the erotic and the metaphysical, the crass and the sublime, the real and the surreal, guilt and expiation, physical desire and existential angst and its innovative narrative strategy with its deft manipulation of time and space together created a new readership with a new sensibility that transformed the Malayali imagination forever.
The characters who walk the imagined land of Khasak, Vijayans own Macondo, based on the real village of Thasarak in Palakkad district, it was later revealed, are now part of common knowledge in Kerala. Ravi, the protagonist, lives at two levels, the physical, instinctive one of lust and longing and the spiritual one of a transcendental quest for the meaning of life. He is haunted by a sense of guilt for his past incestuous relationship with his stepmother and his desecration of an ashram by committing sin with a yogini that prompts him to leave the quietude of that shelter and walk into the blazing sun of Khasak to seek expiation in running a single-teacher school in its rustic remoteness.
An intellectual who had tried to correlate astrophysics and upanishadic metaphysics and had all been set to go to the United States for higher studies, Ravi was driven by his disgrace to this alien folk whom he sees with a kind of philosophical detachment even while mixing with them at the level of everyday experience. But here, too, desire overwhelms and defeats him, and at the end of a series of events, facing the threat of suspension, he keeps his word to his beloved Padma to leave Khasak, but not by reuniting with her, but lying down on the ground in the white monsoon rain in calm detachment, waiting for his bus to arrive, watching with affection the blue-blooded serpent that had struck him and then withdrawn content into its hole surrounded by newborn grass.
There are, too, the rustic folk: Allapicha, the moulvi who denounces modern schools as the devils institutions as they teach the kings angular script and the kaffirs sciences, a potential foe for Ravi but ending up as the schools peon; Nizam Ali, an orphan brought up by Allapicha, the self-appointed representative of Syed Mian Sheikh, the ghost of whose lean horse still gallops in the wheezy east wind and helps invalids and widows, carrying them on his back across the valley, and now a khaliyar supporting Ravi; Madhavan Nair, Ravis confidant, a communist tailor with a Vedantic training; Maimuna, the village beauty, once Nizam Alis beloved and now Ravis, but married by her father to the handicapped and ugly Chukra Rawthar; AppukkiliAppu the bird, an innocent cretin ever hunting for butterflies and spiders in Khasaks valleys with his primordial wisdom; Kuppu Achan, a toddy-tapper and a victim of prohibition; Kuttadan, the temple priest whose oracles twice a week were Gods own words to the pious villagers, trying hard to convince Ravi of the authenticity of his revelations; and Shivaraman Nair, a Hindu fundamentalist who imagined a conspiracy between Comrade Madhavan Nair and the anarchist Ravi to uproot Hinduism in the village, to cite a few of the fascinatingly diverse cast.
Vijayans visionary energy transforms what could easily have been an ordinary naturalistic rural narrative into magical experience of mythical proportions, recognised immediately as a modern classic. When serialised in the Mathrubhumi Weekly, it fascinated the young contemporary readers with a new sensibility as much as it infuriated the conservatives for its disjointed narrative and its so-called moral anarchy. The novel was anti-status-quo in every sense; orthodox readers found it obscure and unsettling. But no more; the novel has seen some 60 editions and is still one of the best-selling novels in Malayalam.