I have followed Devdutt Pattanaik’s writings for some time now. I have known him personally and have agreed and disagreed with him on several issues over time. We have quietly agreed and quietly agreed to disagree when certain matters were discussed. I can say with the least prejudice that he is a brilliant man and writes his books with a world view that doesn’t choose to misrepresent on any account. He reads, he understands and he explains his understanding of the story. That is what most scholars and readers of other works do. One can only seek to glean a proportion – small or large – of any body of knowledge, because in doing so one attributes one’s own self to the perception of it.
In the light of the video that I have just watched yesterday amidst the tumult of news coverage of the past few days, I wanted to write in a few things. These are my opinions. Last I heard, this was a free country and I exercise my right to talk about how I feel without defaming anyone I disagree with. I have been a student of literature, having acquired my Masters in English (it’s a little perverse that I find myself having to write this) and I have a certain view to share regarding language and how it can be used to communicate.
Let me take the example of Chaucer, whom I had an avid interest and respect for. Geoffrey Chaucer, attributed as the Father of English Literature, wrote avidly in the 1400s. He wrote in the English vernacular, which may seem incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with modern-day English language, in the first place. I will not go into intrinsic details of which word then means what now because that is – not – the point. I will say that the language, since his time, has changed and many a word he used can and, maybe, does mean something different now. One has to understand that language cannot be taken ad verbatim when dealing with any literary – and if I have to be completely specific, poetical – work.
What we are taught, as literature students, is to read between the lines. Understand what the poet or the author has tried to communicate and derive lessons from the subject… and in some cases, just enjoy the work as it is, without any need to dissect or personalize. I talk of the language of English in which I have earned my Masters, but I will propound that any language can be placed into the realms of literature and literature, by default, stands a test in time, to see how universally appealing it can be.
I think what makes a book good – and perhaps even great – is a universal theme. Any idea that can be applied to someone’s life, regardless of cultural and geographical differences. An idea that can make you feel the human condition, about human concerns and human nature. Isn’t that what should be promoted in the state of the world that we live in? Maybe, I am wrong: maybe, all it takes for a book to be great is for it to be banned.
A very important factor in understanding what makes art art is the fact of how differently it can appeal to different people. I may look at a Khajuraho sculpture and see virtuosity and someone else may look at the same sculpture and see porn. Neither of our aspects can be wrong, it’s just another way of seeing the world through your own life experience. A word like ‘awful’ wasn’t used derogatorily earlier, it literally meant ‘worthy of awe’, as in ‘the awful majesty of God’.
But then, what makes a word real? Who has the authority to define a word? A person who writes dictionaries? But then again, what about the new words that crop up: don’t they deserve the right to be? Have you heard ‘ship’ being used as a relationship: as in, “So, if I think Ranveer and Deepika should be together, I ship Ranveer and Deepika”. And these words may or may not remain in their current connotations. Could this also not happen in the days when language was forming, maybe, over a million solar years ago?
So then, coming to the words of history and mythology specifically: the words itself have undergone through their own process of deconstruction. History basically is a recording of present facts as they are. It comes from the Greek word ‘histor’ which meant ‘a wise man’ and ‘historia’ which means ‘narrative’ – or literally ‘his story’. It could be derived from Old French ‘estoire’ which meant ‘story’ or from Latin’s ‘historia’ which meant ‘narrative of past events’. Mythology comes from the Greek word ‘mythos’ which actually meant ‘speech or discourse’, later it came to mean ‘fable or legend’.
Devdutt Pattanaik writes, “Linear religions, which have a start and a finish, need history. Cyclical religions, like the ones that thrived in India, seek to outgrow history. History is seen as delusion, a foolhardy attempt of man to define and limit time in ancient Indian philosophies. Science is unsure if time is linear or cyclical, if there is one world or multiple coexisting realities. It is still work-in-progress.”
But, we are talking about languages that were used and may or not be filled with words that are archaic, including the language itself. And then comes the question of the dialects that formed out of the language that is said to be its mother. Latin was for the cultured masses, the language Chaucer used was the lesser form that appealed to the masses, that did not know Latin. But who were the original writers of the language? Did they create dictionaries? Have the dictionaries, if found, not been altered by the minds who read them? What guarantee that they have been changed or they have not been altered?
Devdutt mentions, “Languages are like rivers, transforming and changing as they enter new terrain, mingling and merging like tributaries, and breaking out as branches. We must be wary of indulging the ego by declaring a particular language is ‘older’, ‘purer’, and ‘original’ as we may be tempted to by the qualification of ‘classical’. However, we must also not stop acknowledging the history and geography of a language.”
It comes down to the question of choice and the choice is of what you would like to believe. Is Othello then a hero, because he chooses to act before he thinks? Is Hamlet then the villain, because he thinks so much that he fails to act? Maybe if Shakespeare was around, he could tell us what to think or for that matter, how to. Maybe then I, too, can, with all the vastness of my knowledge (I did say I have a Masters in the English Language), tell him where he went wrong with his work? And, since we are talking about who should be able to use a particular language, we must ask the other philosophical – and thereby controversial – question of whether Shakespeare was the one to write the plays, or were they written by someone who was not of such humble origins and education as he was?