Two New Books 2013

Two New Books from
Authorspress,New Delhi

Communication and Clarification:Essays on English in the Indian Classroom        

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

  • Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics:New Directions  

  • Murali Sivaramakrishnan


“Why I chose Pondicherry University to pursue a PhD” –By Mark A. Shryock

Choosing a university for Ph.D. Research is a daunting task which is made all the more difficult if you are considering universities outside your own country of origin. Although I am an American, I have been a professor of English at a South Korean university the last four years. I wanted to pursue a PhD in English specializing in the study of literature and the environment from an interdisciplinary point of view or what is called ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a new a field and there are only a handful of universities in the world that have strong English departments in this area. Most are in the United States with the University of Nevada Reno arguably being at the forefront with its strong ecocriticism faculty and involvement with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).

Mark A. Shryock

Mark A. Shryock

In the Eastern half of the world there are five universities that are heavily involved with ASLE, located in Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Japan, and India. Pondicherry University is the intellectual home of Ecocriticism Studies and the ASLE in India. This is largely due to the work of Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan who heads the English Department at Pondicherry University and is founder and president of ASLE India. The fact that Pondicherry University is one of five universities in the East associated with ecocriticism and the ASLE is in and of itself a profound and compelling reason for me to choose Pondicherry University for PhD research.

But for me, the main reason for choosing Pondicherry was the strong English Department that has developed and the chance to work directly with Dr. Murali. One of my deep interests is consciousness studies involving the ecology and evolutionary dynamics of whole systems. I was already familiar with a small part of Dr. Murali’s broad and interdisciplinary work when I cited his paper, ‘Involution and Evolution: Some Conceptual Issues in the Contexts of Indian Discourses’ in an earlier paper I did during my MA research. Dr. Murali has written numerous books across several areas, has lectured worldwide, and has created paintings, photographs, sculptures, and poems of world renown. He is well known at University of Nevada, Reno, and the ASLE, having won a Fulbright Postdoctoral Travel Grant to teach and do research there in 2006-2007. I especially love his new book “Learning to Think Like Myself” which left me stunned for a couple of days after reading it because it echoed so closely some of my own thoughts and doubts about the cost to my family for wandering the world in search of wisdom and understanding, and the loss of rootedness and home you trade for this privilege. For me, the opportunity to study under Dr. Murali is the most fortunate opportunity of my lifetime. When people ask me why I am studying at Pondicherry, I know I cannot really explain to them how blessed and fortunate I feel, but I always have the thought “My God, why would I study anywhere else!”

There is an intellectual excellence at Pondicherry I have never seen or felt anywhere else. Recently, at the India National ASLE Conference at Pondicherry I was amazed at the depth of articulation and understanding in the research presented. I had been used to presenting in a much more informal manner. I was outshined by every other paper presented. That Pondicherry has such academic rigor and passionite students and faculty only deepens my belief there is no better place in the world for me to pursue my research than Pondicherry University. Combine this with the warmth of the students and faculty, the beauty and location of the campus, and the low cost of an education that I do not feel I could get anywhere else in the world, why would I go anywhere else?

–Mark A. Shryock —

Speaking at a Ceremony to honour Dr.Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan at SACAR

The text of Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s speech in which he has discussed the contribution of Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan in the field of research and English language follows:

Auroratna Award 1

‘In English we use a phase which goes like “To carry coal to new castle” which means when one goes to new castle one does not carry coal. So when I come to SACAR and this might appear rather overburdened if I try to introduce either Prema Nandakumar or Shraddhavan because I don’t know them. I know very little about them. In fact I know so little, when I look all around you, most of you know more about them than I do because I am familiar with their work. As persons I have not had the occasion to meet either Sri Aurobindo or the Mother but I came to Sri Aurobindo through the work of Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. Iyengar has been a kind of eye-opener for me. Then I started working on Sri Aurobindo. I am sure Prema-ji started working on Sri Aurobindo ten years before I was born even, I think, because in the 1950s, she was working on Savitri. In 1957 she started working and by around I think 1960 when she finished her book—her monumental work—I was just a kid. Eventually, when I came to do my work so many years later, her book on Savitri was a piece of revelatory sort of experience for me and that I found quite challenging in two ways because I have always felt that the work of Sri Aurobindo needs to be read in multiple dimensions at the same time. Of course we have Sri Aurobindo as the rebel; we have Sri Aurobindo as the creative writer; we have Sri Aurobindo as the political thinker, the historian, the sociologist, the person who has interpreted the Vedas and the Upanishads, a scholar extraordinary who also participated in the freedom movement of India; we have to see him and his work in a multiple sort of dimension and the kind of comparative element that both Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan provided, I think, were real eye-openers for me specially her work in comparing Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with Homer’s epic which I don’t think anybody in the history of the world would have attempted because here is a work which is the longest work in the English language—Savitri with 24,000 odd lines—which happens to be the longest work available in the English language barring perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which runs into 33,333 lines. So if you consider that as a translation, here is an original work in English which is the longest work and to compare that with another epic of multiple dimensions like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad is something which a person with genuine intellectual and at the same time spiritual calibre can attempt. And that is what I found most intriguing in the work of Dr. Prema Nandakumar. So, it is a pleasure to talk about the work of somebody who has actually cleared the way or paved the way or made new wood in the scholarship in relating epics of two separate cultures, two separate cultural backgrounds, two separate idioms. So this is what I found most intriguing about Dr. Nandakumar’s work.

‘And of course Prof. Kittu Reddy has already mentioned Bharati’s translation. That is something which I wanted to cite also. Of course there is a big debate going on in the Tamil circle in support of Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s translation of Bharati; that apart if we were to look at the selections which she had made, it is not the entire corpus of Bharati of course. But whatever she has done with her discerning eye that, I think, is something which has come from her own reading of Sri Aurobindo’s work because Sri Aurobindo has specifically said that the critical eye that operates in poetry is almost superior to the critical eye that operates on poetry. So in that way she has been able to bring together the critical eye in separate perceptions and to be discerning to identify the kind of noteworthy work of Bharati. That, I think, is a good introduction. More than that Prema Nandakumar has done extensive work in bringing Tamil writings and brining regional and discursive elements of a particular cultural ethos in which Sri Aurobindo himself lived. Forty odd years he lived here in Pondicherry and that is something which is amazing for us because he never left Pondicherry. He has continued to be here and he has also translated Andal; he has done some tremendous attempts in bringing together so many other works which were around him. I don’t know whether he was aware of Tamil language, whether he could speak…’

Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘He knew Tamil language. It is there. And he readPanchali-Shabdnam. He was the first to translate Kulasekhara Alwar into English.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan continued: ‘So that way Prema Nandakumar has been able to bring together a totally different cultural ethos into the study of Sri Aurobindo and she has been able to distribute, or rather, been able to bring together these elements into the discourse of Sri Aurobindo and other scholarship around Sri Aurobindo. To that extent, I think, her work is most admirable. And I am a person who loves to look at her work from a distance and I think I have great respect for Dr. Prema Nandakumar. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to honour her.

‘To talk about Shraddhavan: I know that Shraddhavan came here in early 1970s perhaps. Before that she has been a poet in the English language and I have had many occasions to sit near her and talk to her of British poetry. And I was always taken in by the astuteness and the clarity of the rhythms and eloquence of poetry that she has been able to pick up. She had told me that she had worked in the lines of Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Davies and I could hear the reverberations of the late Modernist and the late romantic British poetry. I consider that as a romantic poetry because Ted Hughes was somebody who revived or brought together Tomlinson, W. H. Davies and others who brought together a sort of a romantic element in the line of British poetry back into the flavor bringing together the human and the non-human elements. That, I think, Shraddhavan has brought into me new shraddha. Shraddhavan has been a kind ofshraddha for me through her writings. And I have followed her English in SriAurobindo’s Savitri. [To Shraddhavan] That is an essay a part of which you had presented at my department when you came there—The Englishness of Savitri.

‘I don’t know whether many of you here are familiar with the kind of controversial work written in the late 1970s which is called The Pedigree of Savitri. I am surprised. Even at SACAR I don’t think you have that essay. It is a controversial essay which actually most counter to… Are you familiar with that by any chance?The Pedigree of Savitri? When I read that essay I was working on Sri Aurobindo in the early 1980s. I came here in 1986 and I was working in the Ashram Archives. There I found this particular reference and then I had to go to Hyderabad to dig up in the Osmania University journals and I came across that article. I found that Shraddhavan’s work on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and language actually brings together the lost connection between Sri Aurobindo and European early modernist poetry. At many times I always felt that Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Poet and a person who lives in the present has to always have a kind of connection with what is happening outside. One cannot be a recluse all the while. Sri Aurobindo was never a recluse. You know, I have always defended this view-point. Many people have said: “Oh, here is a man who has chickened out in the phase of action, who has already moved away and who stayed at Pondicherry in the French resort.” They said that he did not want to step out in the British eye because he was afraid of action. But I also wrote a little bit in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and there I have tried to bring together this attitude of action and inaction and the kind of withdrawal that Sri Aurobindo did. So Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was all the time exposed to the multiple elements around him at manyplaces. He was open to that. He always liked to look at what was happening outside. And Shraddhavan has been able to pick up the element of the quality of language, the tonal variation and the subtle nuances of the English language which Sri Aurobindo carried with him as a remnant of his European learning. And that is something which she has been able to link with the spiritual quality of the language. I have read many other scholars trying to expound the quality of spiritual resonance in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry but Shraddhavan’s shraddha has been unwavering and steady. And I don’t think there is any other person who deserves this award in the present other than these two people.

Auroratna Award 2

‘So it is a great honour for me to be able to share whatever I feel about these two Masters who have led the way and opened up their way for people like us who like to see the quality of poetry and philosophy at the same time. Thank you very much.’

CRISIS IN ENGLISH DEPARTMENTS, PERHAPS… (Concerning the state of affairs of the English Classroom in Kerala, late last century)

Any self-reflexive teacher of English language and literature in Kerala is sooner or later bound to confront questions like: how and why does one teach literature? Is the literary categorizable at all? . What is the essential difference between the common man who reads for pleasure and the scholar who “studies” literature as a discipline? What is the relevance of teaching English literature in Kerala at present? These are theoretical questions, with cultural implications. What follows is a generalised attempt towards problematising them. However, for the sake of gaining certain amount of intellectual clarity in my presentation I would choose to regard this under three major heads– ofcourse, they are interlinked– that of the student, the research scholar and the teacher. And because of my own personal involvement in all these capabilities the discourse is not entirely objective either.

Those students who opt for English itself has dwindled down the years: many now stray into the English class for want of anything better. One cannot blame the student alone for this but the system itself creates such a lacuna between what the student learns and what the everyday life demands. Of what use is an English graduate in a postindustrial society that at every point makes practical demands on the individual: the distance between imagination and a sheer bread-and-butter-consumerist culture is fast increasing. The study of literature has undergone tremendous upheavals in the other parts of the world but we appear to upkeep a dead inheritance with admirable nonchalance and unshakeable faith! Small wonder then that the student of English finds nothing worth his/her while in this foreign burden.

The study any literature exerts certain demands on the student, however eager or involved, but to have to study a literature in a foreign language would be doubly demanding. For many a student the language of English literature is itself the major stumbling block : how does one get to see the finer aspects of a language and culture , feel the subtle nuances and innuendoes couched in an artful idiom ,if the denotative aspects of the language themselves are not fully grasped? Which is essentially more valuable– a language in its bare communicative aspect, or a literary sense that is couched in any language ? The average student in the English class struggles with his foreign words and phrases attempting to work out near equivalents in his native language while the more informed gropes in the dark for the subtler aspects of literature. Have our literary critical theories and our teaching been of any use to either of these at any time in any situation whatsoever?

Perhaps, the most important aspect of literary theory that the keen student would realise soon would be the irrelevance of the English language itself; for the imbibing of any language would mean the imbibing of its culture too, and the more alien a culture the more removed the student becomes from his/her indigenous roots. And this becomes a major crisis– of what use is it to waste five or more years of the best part of one’s life if it is only to realise at the end that what one had pursued is of little consequence to one’s life?

The problems facing a research scholar in the English department is not quite different from those faced by the conscientious student, only that here they take on a larger dimension. Now, serious research in English studies began in Kerala only quite recently. Although among the English teachers of the last generations one could easily cite singleminded scholars imbued with deep commitment to their work — excellent teachers who could expound on any topic at great length and profundity, explicate any text , and make the reading of English literature most entertaining and insight-offering– many of them had not thought of pursuing their knowledge in systematic manner , say, for instance, produce a scholarly treatise or dissertation. Perhaps, they did not feel the need for such endeavours or the times did not demand it of them! I do not mean to say that the dissertations that are churned out a-plenty on all kinds of topics in the present day from the departments of English is a sign of intellectuality and superior scholarship to that of the past generations of great teachers! Far from it.

Over the last few years there has been a tremendous rise in the number of M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations in the area of English studies — a large percentage of them worthless primarily because they are “random searches” that are not founded on any thorough scholarship or pursued through systematic methodology. This kind of end-oriented dissertations could not even be called “theses”: they are just extended essays largely culled from somewhere without even acknowledgment– a ritual performed for sheer practical purposes!

Most dissertations during the early seventies were mere explications of single author’s works. Up to about the mid eighties research in English meant simply taking up an author and making a thorough examination of his/her works, categorising them according to their genres, explaining the allusions and references, quoting from a variety of sources , and the thesis ultimately turning out to be a jumble of quotations drawn without any logic from here and there. But by the time literary theory hit our universities, the conscientious researcher found certain concrete methodologies possible in addition to mere re- reading.

As a usual practice (perhaps it is true of most other fields of enquiry as well) the English scholar looked to the West for theoretical sophistication : if earlier literature meant only literature from the British Isles , now literary theory meant only those with the fancy labels like “Structuralism” “Semiotics” “Deconstruction” etc. Everything that was Western in origin was looked upon with reverence and awe, and even to mention anything Indian was anathema — one had to be either fundamentalist or jingoist (something short of an ignoramus in “Theory”) to consider anything Indian as worthwhile at all! So we in Kerala wrote dissertations and journal articles on “English” and “American” Literatures. As our syllabus widened to include the “Third World” writing in the newly introduced form of Commonwealth Literature we gladly shifted our focus to that, but with an eye heavily overburdened with “Theory” and a methodology incorporated from the West. In the eighties our departments of English were overflowing with scholarly treatises on the works and worth of Indian and Third World writers, known and unknown, all studied under several sophisticated theoretical heads! We have dissertations on Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tagore, Bhasa, Kalidasa and even Valmiki– deconstructed and dissected , misread and bisected. Many have even gone to the length of unearthing Feminist and subaltern “subtexts” from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. All for the purpose of securing a degree! Under usual circumstances anything new that happens in the west takes several years to reach our departments, and only after many more years of dilly-dallying with the same do we realize its validity or irrelevance to our condition. But in the case of theory, one was compelled to reevaluate one’s own situation before one could practice it seriously. However, that was a realization open only to the chosen few– those that took even theory seriously. For the others theory meant only just another axe to chop and chisel, and they wielded it mercilessly and indiscriminately on any form of writing whether it be in English, “english”, Malayalam or any language! For years now, any scholarly work from our departments of English will be derided as inferior if it doesn’t carry citations from Derrida, Foucault, Lacan or Said and their kind.

True, in more than one sense theory is liberating in its application, but when handled inadvertently by our anglicized Pundits it loses its relevance and significance. In fact this is not the case only confined to our English departments but in our Malayalam departments as well scholars feel the compelling need to draw and disburse wisdom from the fashionable demigods of the West

When Commonwealth literature came to be looked upon as postcolonial and a new theory sprang up around it our departments caught on to it. The research scholar in English was ever on the lookout for new topics and areas to work on. And here it was – a virgin territory, a whole unexplored terrain rampant with themes and techniques ranging from incest to myth, expressionism to magical realism.
What more could we ask for? Hence we churned out dissertations on O.V. Vijayan and Kakkanadan alongside that of Milan Kundera and Rushdie to unheard of names from Canada , Australia, Latin America and South Africa. Comparison became easy and satisfying! Postcolonial theory also liberated literary canons: there was no need to bother about values! Why should one discriminate good writing from bad? Concepts like hegemony, interpellation, condensation, displacement, abrogation and appropriation have come to be household usages for our scholars. One wonders whether anyone pauses to deconstruct their own reading, thinking and writing! But dissertations are meant only for the academia and no one reads them. In fact where in the world does the scholar have time to read if he/she has to write so much? However, the residual problems that surface need to be interrogated. In the place of canonical writers we have installed new ones!

The crisis facing the research scholar in English in Kerala today is a sort of self-exterminating one: one does not require the self-styled postcolonial critic to tell us that our land and literature are unique. Then why write and discuss in a foreign language burdened with the sense of alienation and dispirit, a lengthy dissertation for a Ph.D. if only to formulate a contradictory conclusion? Why write in English at all? Why not study and write in Malayalam?

Naturally, these problems lead us to the position of the English teacher in the various colleges in the state. Now that Pre-degree is delinked from the colleges one could consider all the colleges as having to do with graduate and postgraduate studies in English. Here we have two kinds of English teaching: that which is aimed at the English optional student and the other for the student who studies English as Part I. However, the techniques adopted by our teachers by and large is the very same for both! We teach texts, and never anything else. We explicate passages and more often translate into Malayalam, professedly for the benefit of the Malayalam medium students! Many a teacher of English in Kerala teaches much more in Malayalam than in English! Here both the language and the literature content are lost on the students. For the students from the Science optional, the English class rooms have been reduced to mere ritual wastage of precious time which could be more fruitfully spent in their labs! Woe to the teachers of English who have been inculcated with a precious sense of self importance and missionary zeal!

The conscientious teacher is , to say the least, paralyzed by the overflow of all the stuff that he/she reads and the qualitatively irregular situation prevalent in the class room. The students who sit facing him/her seek immediate guidance from him/her and also expect him/her to tidy them over the examination and no more. The text books that are to be taught are often prescribed by a body of people who have several other factors that prod them to do so. The question papers are set by another person who hardly knows what has been taught or even how, and the answer papers are valued by yet another. Considering all these, the situation of the teachers in the English class room is very complicated indeed! Hence, it is not surprising that they often adopt the easiest way out: simple explication- de- text. In fact the majority of students get very upset if any teacher does anything other than this set routine! Several teachers that I am familiar with are quite emphatic about this practice of class room teaching: “what else are we to do,” they ask, “other than explain the texts?”

Any teacher who is adequately well-read in current developments in Theory and who believes in up-keeping scholarship confronts total contradictions in the prevalent class room practice! In an environment where so much discrepancy exists between the committed teacher and a majority that refuses to see the validity of keeping up with the latest, the former is often cramped for breathing space. From my experience, I could classify the English teacher in Kerala and his/her relation to theory in the following manner:

Those who are totally ignorant of theory and continue to be ignorant.
Those who are totally ignorant of theory yet pretend to know it all.
Those who know something of theory and know their limits and so don’t care
Those who know something of theory and would like to know more.
Those who know their theory well yet never think of practical application in the class room.
Those who know theory well enough to ATTEMPT some kind of application.

A majority of my colleagues appear to feel that reading and research are activities meant only for those who are young and have the time at their disposal to squander it on scholarship, while they are by virtue of their seniority blessed by wisdom that does not require them to upkeep any knowledge! Such senior teachers still practise the age old custom of textual explication and take pride in reading from their old notes that their teachers had given to their wards who in turn take it down diligently!( No personal affront meant!)

Once we have seen our situation for what it is, should we still continue with our old texts and older methodologies? Do we really have to recourse to a foreign language to teach our students what their lives mean to them? Granted that on account of certain historical incongruities English has come to stay as one among our native languages , should we insist on teaching literature in English through that language or simply teach the language alone for our practical purposes? If at all we do have to teach the literature it is long past the time to revamp our syllabus and awaken ourselves and our students to much that has happened since the 60-s. Once such a thing happens, ofcourse close on its heels would dog the problems that I have been highlighting! The self-contradictory nature of teaching English literature / literature written in English/ english literature in our class rooms is the crisis that looms large before the English teacher.

I do not wish to close on a pessimistic note. What the self reflexive English teacher thinks today is something that would reach the teachers of other departments quite soon. May be on account of dealing with imagination and its products, the English teacher is blessed with a prophetic insight. Like the hare that senses any minor changes on the earth’s surface the teacher of English senses far in advance. Well,shouldn’t the forewarned be forearmed ? To recall my opening words again, this essay is only a generalised attempt—it erratically displays my as yet unclear apprehensions. My intention was less on finding answers to the problems than on posing them. And if I have not been quite definitive in my arguments it would only show the incomplete nature of my critical awareness of the situation. But nevertheless that such problems are growing day by day in size and gravity no one would deny. Since I consider this to be a shared common problem I would be happy to receive the responses of other like-minded teachers.

*The above essay was published in the local Newspapers and I did receive a great number of responses. I was also asked to submit a rejoinder as closing comments. However, I still think the issues raised therein are currently relevant.