Monday, April 29, 2013

A 21st century essayist

Foreword to KN Rao's 'A Mosaic of Human Thought'

I first came across Prof. K N Rao’s writing in a column he wrote for the city portal Chennai Online on the trees of Madras. Little did I know at the time that I would one day be involved in an editorial capacity in publishing a book on the subject by the professor. Not only is he an expert on trees, in Chennai and elsewhere, and botany at large, but also the archetypal polymath we do not come across nowadays. They don’t make them like that anymore!

During the course of that interaction, I came to develop a comfortably warm relationship with Prof. Rao, a friendship between two people interested in literature and the arts. He is more than twenty years my senior, but more energetic than many of my age. I was at the time responsible for Indian Writing, an imprint of New Horizon Media, which was then publishing Indian, notably Tamil, literature in translation into English. He was a great supporter of our initiative and bought every title we brought out. Not only did he read all of them, he also commended us for the great trouble we took to maintain quality. He was probably more hurt and disappointed than we were when some of our efforts did not measure up to our own standard. He took the liberty of scolding us when he thought poorly of our choice of works to translate.

Over the last few years, I have come to know the many facets of Mr Rao’s creativity. He has written several short stories in Telugu, which I have not read as I do not know the language, but his writings in English have been delightfully varied. William Shakespeare is a particular favourite of his, as we can gather from a number of essays included in this volume. In a chapter entitled Wit and Wisdom of Shakespeare, Prof. Rao refers to the chair in which he lounged and spent the “happiest hours of my otherwise drab and long life.”  “And thank God, I chose to read the bard without the help of Verity, Arden and such others,” he continues, a tribute to not only his excellent taste in literature but also his superior intellect. “The Shakespeare bug bit me in the early fifties of the last century. Play after play, I devoured, refusing to seek outside help.” 

Prof. Rao is no ordinary devourer, though. He draws parallels between literature and life, literature and philosophy, literature and nature, so on and so forth. For instance, quoting Nerissa from Merchant of Venice (The ancient saying is no hersy/ Hanging and wiving goes by destiny), he finds resonances with the Hindu doctrine of Karma.

Or take the pathetic plea of the much-maligned merchant of Venice, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If we poison us, do we not die?” Rao says, “This has been the plight of Dalits in our own land, for centuries. Now after millennia, they speak the language of Shylock.” They “eke out their livelihood by manual scavenging, cleaning the cesspools, going down into the drains braving poisonous gas…”  

While on his Shakespearean journey, Prof. Rao is in his element when he compares “the noblest Roman of them all”, Brutus with the politician of today, of whom he says: “Do such men have a chance of succeeding? More often than not, men with ideas of cleansing politics are likely to meet the fate of Brutus. This Brutus had had the satisfaction of dying for his cause. It is more likely a modern day Brutus will end up as a Cassius.”

Prof. Rao’s explorations of Shakespeare lead him to an analysis of the motivations and psychology of three murderers from Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet.  “Othello had the makings of a murderer in him: Iago was merely the stage director for the action,” he observes. Macbeth “was at first a murderer by instigation, through suggestion next and finally a callous, cruel and wanton bloodbather.” “Hamlet’s murders were the fruition of the workings of a highly cultivated mind through its conscious and subconscious moorings,” he says, drawing clear distinctions between the three protagonists

While on the subject of Shakespeare, Prof. Rao is really in his element when he carries out “a brief botanical survey of Shakespeare.” He takes us on a tour-de-force of the many-splendoured vegetation that abounds in the Bard’s plays, starting from acorn cups and burr to the willow and yew trees of Much Ado about Nothing, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Titus and Andronicus.”

The essay, “Harbingers of Indian awakening” provides proof if proof is needed of Prof. Rao’s expansive range of interests that cover far greater ground than nature or literature. A man of science, one who swears by science, Rao does not fail to acknowledge the role played by two outstanding spiritual gurus in Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. He says, “All leaders from Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose and Rajaji downwards agree that the political struggle they launched had gained substance, thanks to this great work of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Their memory will forever be enshrined in the Indian consciousness.”

In ‘Three great men of Athens”, Prof. Rao writes with awe about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Unsurprisingly he says no other city has nurtured such great sons through the millennia. Socrates was so fond of truth that he questioned the wisdom of the wise.  He resisted unjust commands at the risk of his life. “One might say that Socrates was the father of definitions. But it required great courage to pursue his path.”

In another chapter, Rao tries to grapple with the problem of what is or is not truth. He calls it the most elusive element of things in human experience. It is elusive because it stems from the perception of an event, implying understanding of an observation. “Obviously, what appears as truth to one may appear quite differently to another.” He goes on to claim that the truth of science is not the truth of socio-ethical colour. “Rather, it is a bundle of facts, every one of which is incontrovertibly demonstrated as true by observation and experiment.”            Yet, Rao refuses to dismiss the truth as experienced by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

Rao, the compassionate human being and Rao the man of science seem to coexist without much conflict. In the chapter “On Death”, Prof. Rao is able to speak of the devastating personal tragedy of his son’s death in an accident as well as the continuity of creation, of species, including the human race. If after that terrible loss, he could console his wife by narrating a story of Buddha to demonstrate the inescapable fact of death, he could also marvel at the “wonderful mix of mortality and immortality” that began in a group of green algae called Volvocales.”

Death need not be bemoaned, he goes on to conclude. “It is a mechanism which made possible senescence and consequently organs with a lesser degree of efficiency of vegetative functioning die out. The mortal coils of the individual are shed so that the immortality of the species is ensured.” And the last sentence of the book says it all. “”. Whichever way one looks at the question, the thought of God has to reign our minds: maybe not a personal God, but a principle which is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.”

I often meet Prof. Rao at events connected with books or the performing arts. I have invariably been struck by his youthful joie-de-vivre and positive outlook. And though he often has a good laugh at his own frailty and mortality, maybe because he does so, he fills me with inspiration and hope for the morrow. That he has brought out this volume at such an advanced stage of his life is proof of his immortal spirit.


10 July 2009

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