Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clay Sanskrit Library (and Fire Part 2)

The Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) is a handsome and modestly priced series of small-format hardback volumes of classics in Sanskrit literature. Of course, these classics include sweeping epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but also charming coming-of-age adventures (What Ten Young Men Did) and animal fables (Friendly Advice).

In his review of some CSL offerings in the Times Literary Supplement of June 19, Aditya Behl relates a story from Friendly Advice called "The Lion and the Cat": An old lion just wants to be able to nap without distractions. But every time he closes his eyes a mischievous mouse comes and nibbles away at his mane. So the lion asks a cat to keep the mouse away; in return, the lion will share his food with the cat. The cat agrees, and the lion is able to sleep undisturbed. One day, though, the cat catches and kills the mouse. Their bargain concluded, the lion stops feeding the cat, who eventually starves to death. The moral? "Never keep your master free from care."

Behl describes how this story and its moral was included in the primers from which young East India Company officers learned Hindi from Indian teachers. He writes,

"In this situation, who is the colonized subject? Modernity needs to inscribe tradition, especially when coded in classical language, as closed, singular and oppressive in order to define itself as the opposite. Yet when we look at stories such as these, they reveal the classical as open, both in the sense of using older materials in new situations of cultural encounter and in the expanse of what can be represented as part of the human condition." (p. 5)

It seems to me that this is one of the things that Deepa Mehta is doing so cleverly in Fire (1996): she is re-inscribing ancient tales of women's devotion (Karva Chauth, Sita, Radha) with new meanings. It's one of the things that makes Fire such a rich film.

I'm ashamed to say that I've never read the Mahabharata or the Ramayana even in abridged form. I've only picked up elements of these epics through their reworkings in Indian films, and through watching the film of Peter Brook's theatrical adaptation of the Mahabharata. But the Clay Sanskrit Library now makes this fantastically rich literature available in the most comprehensive form yet to readers of English.

Right now 49 volumes are available in the series, with another 7 scheduled for August 2009. But as it stands both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana remain incomplete. Ominously, the "Future Volumes" link on the CSL website does not link to any titles. I can only hope that this series, co-published by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation, will continue to be issued at least through its initially planned 100 volumes, and that in particular the two great epics will ultimately be available in their entirety.

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