Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“Where the mind is without fear”: Indian literature and the pandemic

Auritro Majumder

Rabindranath Tagore wrote these verses at the beginning of the last century, describing what a liberated nation, and world, would appear to him. Just this January, the American actor Martin Sheen invoked Tagore beautifully at the Fire Drill climate protest rally in Washington D.C.:  

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth … (Gitanjali 35)

I think of these lines, arguably Tagore’s best-known composition, and wonder why Sheen would feel drawn to them now. The former was part of our school curriculum, and I tried my best to stay away from it (in India, we have a powerful tradition of colloquial censure, as much as appreciation, of Tagorean idealism. Criticizing Tagore, like Mohandas Gandhi in a comparable vein, is a rite of passage for young intellectuals). This ambivalence never goes away, mainly because the underlying conditions remain: how to justify an “elite” affair like literature in a country where the people are still denied education and literacy. How to value universalist thinkers when the dignity of human life cannot be affirmed? 

Perhaps one specific answer resides in the promise that literature, what the Renaissance theorists termed “poetry,” nourishes and protects the human being against the fear of annihilation. This is the sense invoked by Tagore’s chitta, in the Bengali original, translated as mind in the English version – a sense of the self (atman) as creatively engaged with and informed by the world. Unsurprisingly, one finds such a conception of non-dualism in India, as elsewhere, in the humanist metaphysics of religion as in the avowedly secular art committed to social amelioration. Here we glimpse the liberatory movement, so to say, from solidad (solitude) to solidaridad (solidarity). 

It is a truism that the current pandemic generates fear. There is the anxiety of isolation and contact, and irreparable loss. We recognize in our more rational moments that the suffering is unevenly distributed, and disproportionately impacts the marginalized. Yet it must also be stressed that the pandemic gives proper shape to a perverse culture of phobia. Beyond the distrust of the government, the media, and the health industries, even deeper lies the irrational repudiation of the outsider, the infirm and the less-valued, sentient beings now reduced to the status of the disposable or worse. In the United States, from where I write, this culture is on belligerent display.

The Indian situation is relatively unremarked and far less understood. Thanks in part to a near-total lockdown the casualty rate is low, though friends and family in different parts of the country attest that the spread of the virus is significantly greater than what official numbers, federal and state, are letting on. But the visceral intensity of what one may term the politics of unreason is surprising, even in a nation long accustomed to orchestrated tragedies. Migrant laborers walking hundreds of miles, the targeting of Muslim communities, the hounding of intellectuals, the list goes on. The counter examples on the other hand are heartwarming and inspiring: the story of Kerala, administered by the communists, and the fearlessness of students, activists, and citizen groups throughout the country striving for another India.

Literature – a reconfigured and expansive version of it – proves to be an ally of the latter. I will list two aspects that strike me as particularly worthy of emphasis. First, the syncretic nature of Indian literature(s) that absorbed influences from far-flung corners of the world, thereby enriching and creating new forms of expression and content. This ranges from the earliest rituals and incantations, to the efflorescence of bhakti in southern India, the sants in northern India, as well as the minstrelsy of the sufis and bauls throughout the subcontinent. Secondly, the resolutely demotic, that is socialistic character of its emergence manifest most clearly in the vernaculars that, while adapting highly cosmopolitan structures, whether Sanskrit, Persian-Arabic, or English, came to contest the elite impositions of church and court. One might mention the regional modernisms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that combined the transnational avant-garde with the folk and the indigenous, or the brilliant afterlives of progressive writing with their resolute commitment to consciousness-raising and anti-imperialism.

The best of Indian literature, pre-modern as well as contemporary, offers splendid testaments to the complexity, the desires, and the inner lives of ordinary individuals and groups. In this sense, Indian literature might be summarized as the historical efforts of the people to articulate their sense of the world over and against the dominant. It is also to recognize that present-day “India” is a contingency, like so many other countries of the colonial world, where linguistic-cultural communities that lived together for centuries found themselves on different sides of territorial borders. To locate oneself within this worldly literature, as Tagore’s poem reminds us, is to take a stance against divisiveness, unreason and fear.

About The Author

Auritro Majumder

Auritro Majumder is Assistant Professor of English at University of Houston. He writes extensively on world literature, critical theory, and intellectual history. He is on the edit...

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