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The most misunderstood of the Gods...
Jai Arjun Singh |
December 19, 2005
Italian author Roberto Calasso is sneaking glances at his watch; his appointment schedule for the day has crazy-balled and now, with our meeting having barely begun, he has a friend waiting in the hotel lobby.
Meanwhile Dr Mahesh Dutt, publication coordinator, Rajkamal Prakashan, is being more defensive than necessary.
"What controversial elements are you talking about?" he says, when asked about his company's decision to translate Calasso's book Ka into Hindi. "Don't worry, we aren't afraid of the rightwingers. They make a lot of noise but then it all dies down quickly too."
This is scarcely the best environment for an interview, but Calasso manages to be polite and attentive for the few moments he has to spare. He's thrilled about the translation of his 1996 book, thrilled that this will make it accessible to a wider audience in India.
"I know a thing or two about how difficult it is to find good translations of old texts and the effort that goes into making them available," he says.
He was in his teens when he developed a fascination for mythological stories: "Growing up in Rome, it was very hard work to get one's hands on translations of Hindu mythology. I had to work very hard!"
Ka is an intriguing interpretation of the Vedas, told in a novelistic framework that emphasises the 'eternal cyclical tangle' of Indian mythology. ('In the image that precedes all others, Visnu was already resting on the past. The first world was always at least the second, always concealed within it another that had come before.') You need a certain amount of patience to get through it, especially the more abstract passages -- but the retellings of some of the stories are very enjoyable.
Like the birth of Garuda and his mission to recover the soma rasa for his mother Vinata. Or the view of the Mahabharata as 'an overwhelming demonstration of the futility of conflict' (as opposed to a straightforward morality tale).
Calasso's central conceit -- that of naming the book after the Rig Veda refrain "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" -- is also noteworthy and gives depth to the stories. Throughout, the question of Hinduism's many gods is raised, along with the conundrum of who/ what came first.
However, the biggest talking point is likely to be the sexual explicitness in some passages. It's no secret that India's religious texts are frequently sanitised by our 'culture-guardians,' the raunchier bits expurgated so that most readers have little idea of the original tone of those works.
The inability to comprehend the roots of certain traditions often has amusing consequences -- like that of many devout people in contemporary Indian families worshipping the Shiva linga without even knowing it represents the phallus.
Calasso is amused by the amount of euphemism there is in contemporary religious tradition. "But I honestly believe that presenting the myths as they are can only have good results -- it will bring people closer in touch with the realities of where they come from."
The book is part of a five-volume "work in progress" that Calasso tends to be reticent about. Four of the books have been published -- these include his acclaimed The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony, based on Greek mythology.
Are the current differences in Western and Eastern civilisations reflective of their different mythologies? To an extent, says Calasso. "But then, al mythologies -- not just the Indian ones -- are conceived in cycles. The Greek myths also operate in terms of the cycle of Kronos, of Zeus and so on. Fundamentally, the mythologies are not opposed to each other -- they are all powerful stories and full of meaning.
"However, the Judeo-Christian tradition is a linear one with a definite beginning and end, as compared to the Asian myths -- some of the modern-day religious tensions one sees do stem from that difference."
Calasso is already out of his seat when I squeeze in one last question: Does he have any favourite stories from all the myths he has read?
"Too many to recount," he says, "but I can tell you who my favourite character is. It's Prajapati -- the most misunderstood god of all. Read the book to see for yourself." And then he rushes lobbywards.