Colour of India

Colour of India

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Vasanth Dev

As a dedicated cinematographer, scholar, literary critic, lover and collector of books of all kinds, Vasanth Dev loves life in all its manifestations. He loves the sun, the cool breeze, the sea, and warmth, and light; hates cold darkness, physical, intellectual, moral, political. Right from his college days, he has loved freedom, individuality, independence, and detested everything that seemed to him to cramp and constrict the forces of human vitality and enthusiasm. He believes in the fullness of life with a penchant for romantic exaggeration. Generous and warm-hearted, he has much pride. Yet he is free from all vanity and snobbery. Simple, natural and unselfconscious, everything about him is sincere, unusual and absolutely authentic. His un-calculating character, his distinction as a thinker, his nobility as a human being----I can describe these and other qualities which Vasanth Dev possesses in ample abundance as an inimitable quality of moral charm that makes all my intellectual dealings with him delightful.

As a talker, Vasanth Dev is superb and incomparable. His wit is verbal and cumulative. His words come in short, sharp bursts of precisely aimed, concentrated fire, as image, pun, metaphor and parody. He talks like an encyclopaedia. Yet at the same time he is always courteous, serious and charming. During an animated intellectual conversation his body and face movements and other gestures and above all his words radiate a kind of dignity and humanity which bring all his sensitive hearers under his spell. During one of those sessions, he spoke about books which are his personal favourites. I am presenting below the list of personal favourites of Vasanth Dev.
1. The Education of Henry Adams Henry Adams

2. The varieties of Religious Experience William James

3. A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolfe

4. Silent Spring Rachel Carson

5. Black Boy Richard Wright

6. The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman

7. Working Studs Terkel

8. Religion and the rise of Capitalism R.H, Tawney

9. The Elements of Style William Strunk & E.D.White

10. The Second World War Winston Churchill

11. Goodbye to all that Robert Graves

12. A Mathematician’s Apology D.H.Hardy

13. All Rivers Run To The Sea Ellie Wiesel

14. The Acqusitive Society R.H.Tawney

15. The Tibetan Book of the Dead W.I.Evans Wentz

16. American Political Tradition Richard Hofstadter

17. The Gods and their Grand Design Erich Von Daniken

18. Chariots of the Gods? Erich Von Daniken

19. Face to Face Ved Mehta

20. Perennial Philosophy Aldo Huxely

21. Vedanta for Modern Man Christopher Isherwood

I have already touched upon five(5) out of the twenty one (21) books listed above---The Education of Henry Adams, Silent Spring, Black Boy, Religion and the rise of Capitalism and All Rivers Run To The Sea. Let me now take up a few more books from the above list of Vasanth Dev’s favourites.

  Front cover of the book in Vasanth Dev's library

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Vasanth Dev told me that he is very fond of Studs Terkel’s book called WORKING: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. This was published in 1974. This book is a classic instance of oral economic and social history. It is an exploration of what makes work meaningful for people in all walks of life: from Lovin' Al the parking valet, to Dolores the waitress, from the fireman to the business executive etc. The gripping human narratives in this book move constantly between mundane details, emotional truths and existential questioning.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was a noted oral historian, author, actor and radio broadcaster. He won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for The Good War, and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans.

In his introduction to this book WORKING, Studs Terkel wrote movingly as follows: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us. The scars, psychic as well as physical, brought home to the supper table and the TV Set, may have touched, malignantly, the soul of our society. More or Less. (‘More or less’, that most ambiguous are phrases, pervades many of the conversations that comprise this book, reflecting, perhaps, an ambiguity of attitude towards The Job. Something more than Orwellian acceptance, something less than Luddite sabotage. Often the two impulses are fused in the same person.)”

Studs Terkel’s book is about the toiling workmen of America. It is about the search, two, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor. As Studs Terkel puts it “In short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book”.

When Studs Terkel published his work in 1974 Richard Nixon was the American President. He paid his tribute to Studs Terkel in these words: “We learn from his book what is work ethic. Work ethic holds that labour is good in itself; that a man or woman becomes a better person by virtue of the act of working. We come to understand from this book that America’s competitive spirit, ‘the work ethic’ of our people, is alive and well.” (President Nixon on Labour Day 1974)

Cover Page of Graves’s Autobiography          Robert Graves (1895-1985)
     Book in Vasanth Dev's Library

Good-Bye to All That is an autobiography by Robert Graves which first appeared in print in 1929. The bulk of the autobiography deals with Graves' service in the army during the First World War. This must rank as one of the most outstanding first-hand accounts of that war in English. Graves's insight into the psychology of life in the trenches is unsurpassed. Graves was severely traumatized by his war experience.

It is a permanently valuable work of literary art, an indispensable for the historian of both the First World War and of modern English Poetry. Apart from its exceptional value as a World War I Document, this book has a lasting interest of being one of the most candid self-portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted. The sketches of friends of Robert Graves, like T.E Lawrence of Arabia are beautifully vivid.

Robert Graves published his autobiography in 1929 at the age of 33. Twenty eight years later in 1957 he wrote: “I am always glad to report that little of outstanding autobiographical interest has happened since……..’Goodbye to All That’ reads as ripe as ancient history now….I do not seem to have changed much, mentally or physically, though I can no longer read a newspaper without glasses, or run upstairs 3 steps at a time….And if condemned to relive those lost years I should probably behave again in very much the same way; a conditioning in the Protestant morality of the English Governing Classes, though qualified by mixed blood, a rebellious nature, and an overriding poetic obsession, is not easily overgrown.”

Vasanth Dev told me with a satisfied smile “From the moment of its first appearance in 1929, Good-Bye to All That became an established classic”.

Cover of Book by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White in Vasanth Dev's Library


William Strunk Jr. (1869-1946)                                                 E.B.White (1899-1985)

Till Vasanth Dev invited my attention to The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, I was not aware of the existence of this very beautiful and exciting work. The Elements of Style (1918) by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, is an American English writing style guide. It is one of the best-known and most influential prescriptive treatment of English grammar and usage, and often is required reading in U.S. high school and university composition classes.

William Strunk Jr. (1869-1946) was Professor of English at Cornell University and is best known as the author of the first edition of The Elements of Style, a best-selling guide to English usage. This book, printed as a private edition in 1918 for the use of his students, became a classic on the local University campus, known as "the little book", and its successive editions have since sold over ten million copies.

In his first edition, Strunk described the book as follows: "It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." The original 1918 edition of The Elements of Style detailed eight elementary rules of usage, ten elementary principles of composition, “a few matters of form”, and a list of commonly "misused" words and expressions.

This original 1918 Edition was revised in 1935 by Strunk and Edward A. Tenney and published under the title The Elements and Practice of Composition. William Strunk served as literary consultant to the 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film version of Romeo and Juliet. After Strunk's death in 1946, it was again revised by E. B. White, an Editor at The New Yorker . In 1957 at The New Yorker magazine, this style guide attracted the attention of writer E. B. White, who had studied writing under William Strunk in 1919, but had since forgotten the "little book" that he described as a "forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English".This 1959 edition of The Elements of Style (often referred to as simply Strunk & White) became a companion to millions of American writers and college freshmen.

I have described Strunk and White above as beautiful and exciting. It is not without reason that I am using these adulatory adjectives. In the 1959 edition of The Elements of Style (Strunk & White), E.B White wrote a brilliant concluding Chapter V to the book under the title “An Approach to Style” in which he wrote as follows: ”Up to this point, the book has been concerned with what is correct, or acceptable, in the use of English. In the final Chapter, we approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this Chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised. There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which the young writer may shape his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion”.

What is style? E.B White gave this bracing answer in his final Chapter: ”Style is an increment in writing, When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation----it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”

In conclusion I would say that The Elements of Style (Strunk & White) should be the daily companion of anyone who writes for a living and, for that matter, anyone who writes at all. No wonder The New Yorker literary magazine paid this tribute to Strunk and White: “The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct, and delightful.”

The range of literary, intellectual and aesthetic interests of my friend Vasanth Dev is truly amazing. He told me that in the early days of his youth in the 1970’s he came under the spell of Erich Von Daniken’s books. Vasanth Dev says: “Though Erich Von Daniken has written several books, yet my two personal favourites are Chariots of the Gods and The Gods and their Grand Design. In his Chariots of the Gods, more than thirty years ago, Erich von Däniken presented his theory of extraterrestrial contact with the ancient world --- a theory so incredible yet so logical that it has become part of a wide ranging debate in several areas of knowledge today. His examination of ancient ruins, forgotten texts, and other archeological anomalies points to evidence of extraterrestrial intervention in human history. Most incredible of all are von Däniken's claims that we ourselves are descendants of these galactic pioneers and that the evidence is out there to lead us to them.”


IN VASANTH DEV'S LIBRARY                   

Vasanth Dev invited my attention to a very interesting book titled "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" or what in Tibetan language is called “Bardo Thodol”. It is a funerary text which draws a parallel with the Garuda Purana of Ancient India and with the ancient Egyptian Book Of the Dead. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is no longer used as a funerary text. The Garuda Purana, on the other hand, is a living text still being put to use as a funerary text by millions of Hindu households in India even today.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead"(The Bardo Thodol) was first published in 1927. Dr.Evans-Wentz of Jesus College in Oxford University prepared a Special Preface for this book. The Bardo Thodol was originally conceived to serve as guide not only for the dying and the dead but also the living as well. This is unique amongst the sacred books of the world.

The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, during the interval between death and the next rebirth. This interval is known in Tibetan as the bardo. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death, and rituals to undertake when death is closing in, or has taken place. It is the most internationally famous and widespread work of Tibetan Nyingma literature.

This text compiled and edited by Dr W Y Evans-Wentz is commonly known by its Western title: The Tibetan Book of the Dead. However there is no single Tibetan title corresponding to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The overall name given to the whole terma cycle is Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones, and it is popularly known as Karma Lingpa's Peaceful and Wrathful Ones. It has been handed down through the centuries in several versions containing varying numbers of sections and subsections, arranged in different orders, ranging from around ten to thirty-eight titles. These individual texts cover a wide range of subjects, including meditation instructions, visualizations of deities, liturgies and prayers, lists of mantras, descriptions of the signs of death, and indications of future rebirth, as well as those that are actually concerned with the after-death state.

According to Tibetan tradition, the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava. written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal, buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, KARMA LINGPA in the 12th century. There were variants of the book among different sects.

Sir. John Woodroffe (1865–1936), wrote a foreword to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sir. John Woodroffe has clearly stated that this Holy Tibetan text bears a strong relation to Pretakhanda of the Hindu Garuda Purana. The Garuda Purana deals with the rites used over the dying, the death-moment, the funeral ceremonies, the building up, by means of the Pretashraaddha rite, of a new body for the Preta or deceased in lieu of that destroyed by fire, the Judgment, and thereafter the various states through which the deceased passes until he is reborn again on earth.

According to him both the original text and Dr Evans-Wentz’s introduction form a very valuable contribution to the science of death from the standpoint of the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism of the so-called ‘Tantric’ type. Dr. Evans-Wentz was a remarkable scholar and savant. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and as a teenager read Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine and became interested in the teachings of Theosophy. He received both his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats. He then studied Celtic mythology and folklore at Jesus College, Oxford (1907); there he adopted the form Evans-Wentz for his name. He travelled extensively, spending time in Mexico, Europe, and the Far East. He spent the years of the First World War in Egypt. He later travelled to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and India, reaching Darjeeling in 1919; there he enountered Tibetan religious texts firsthand.

Evans-Wentz is best known for four texts translated from the Tibetan, especially The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Evans-Wentz credited himself only as the compiler and editor of these volumes. The actual translation of the texts was performed by Tibetan Buddhists, primarily Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (1868–1922), a teacher of English at the Maharaja's Boys' School in Gangtok, Sikkim who had also done translations for Alexandra David-Neel and Sir John Woodroffe.

Evans-Wentz was a practitioner of the religions he studied. He became Dawa-Samdup's "disciple" and wore Tibetan robes and ate a simple vegetarian diet. He met Ramana Maharshi in 1935, and meant to settle permanently in India, but returned to the U.S. when World War II compelled him to do so. He passed his final twenty-three years in San Diego, and provided financial support to the Maha Bodhi Society, Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Theosophical Society. His Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral after his death in 1965.

In an introduction to Evans-Wentz' version, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) observed as follows: “The Bardo Thödol” [Tibetan Book of the Dead] began by being a 'closed' book, and so it has remained, no matter what kind of commentaries may be written upon it. For it is a book that will only open itself to spiritual understanding, and this is a capacity which no man is born with, but which he can only acquire through special training and special experience. It is good that such to all intents and purposes 'useless' books exist. They are meant for those 'queer folk' who no longer set much store by the uses, aims, and meaning of present-day 'civilization'. “

Vasanth Dev is eclectic and wholly broadminded and catholic in his approach to books, pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. He is as much interested in Hindu Vedanta as in Western Philosophy. He invited my attention to a book edited by Christopher Isherwood titled ‘Vedanta for Modern Man’ which was published in 1945.


Front Cover of Christopher Isherwood’s        CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD
Book in VASANTH DEV'S LIBRARY                                  (1904-1986)

For more than 5000 years, Vedanta has played a profoundly influential role in shaping Eastern Religious philosophy and thought. During the last 117 years --- inspired by the Hindu Missionary work of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) and those who followed him --- Vedanta has taken root in the West. One of the fundamental beliefs of Vedanta is that all faiths are of value. That is why Vedanta has not sought to discredit the great achievements of Western religion and philosophy, but rather to incorporate them in a Universal Design of Enlightenment.

What is the meaning of Vedanta? How does it apply to what we in the West have learnt since childhood? By what means can we experience the broadening of understanding and Ultimate Enlightenment that Vedanta offers?

These are among the questions discussed in 61 essays that examine Vedanta from virtually every angle of vision. Great Swamijis and spiritual seekers, great writers and philosophers like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Prabhavananda, Swami Turiyananda, Swami Satprakashananda, Swami Nikhilananda, Dr RadhaKrishnan, Alan W. Watts, Aldous Huxley, Frederick Manchester, John Yale, Jerald Heard, T.M.P Mahadevan and many others have contributed articles to this volume edited by Christopher Isherwood. This book is one of the most valuable documents in the most important field of meeting of EAST and WEST by way of the minds of intellectuals and mystics from both ends of the worlds. This meeting, being honestly and sensibly conducted by Christopher Isherwood, is indeed a splendid gathering profitable for anyone who chooses to attend or participate in it.

Vedanta has been beautifully summarized by Christopher Isherwood in his introduction. Vedanta (so-called because it was first expounded in the Vedas, the earliest Indian scriptures) is a non-dualistic philosophy. It teaches that Brahman (the Ultimate Reality behind the phenomenal universe) is “one without a second”. Brahman is beyond attributes. Brahman is not conscious; Brahman is consciousness. Brahman does not exist; Brahman is existence. Brahman is the Atman (the Eternal Nature) of every human being, creature and object. Vedanta teaches us that life has no other purpose than this --- that we shall learn to know ourselves for what we really are; that we shall reject the superficial ego personality which claims that “I am V. Sundaram; I am other than Praveen Pillai” and know, instead, that “I am the Atman; Praveen Pillai is the Atman; the Atman is the Brahman; there is nothing anywhere but Brahman; all else is appearance, transience, and unreality”.

Christopher Isherwood has asserted with confidence that the Hindu Vedanta is most likely to influence the West through the medium of scientific thought. In this terrible epoch when our power to do harm seems at length adequate to the evil of our intentions, we are accustomed to blame science for putting the destructive weapons into our hands. Yet science, like the Hindu Goddess Kali is capable of both good and evil. Impartially, science gives us what ever we ask for. At our bidding, the men of science have discovered the secret of atomic energy. Can they also discover before it is too late, a moral sanction which will curb the power of the atom and direct it to peaceful and productive uses? Can science find us a new philosophical synthesis, a restatement of the eternal truths of Hinduism in Ancient India in contemporary terms which our modern agnosticism is able to accept? We get satisfactory answers to these questions in Christopher Isherwood's Book.

I have so far touched upon different kinds and types of non-fiction books covering vast areas of original thought and knowledge. Justice requires that I also refer to one or two outstanding works of fiction, which are the personal favourites of Vasanth Dev. He made my task easier by clearly declaring: “Two works of fiction are dear to my heart. The first one is Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) which was published first in 1900. The second one is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) which was published first in 1951."

First edition cover (1951)      As a young man                  In old age
                                                                               J.D.Salinger (1919-2010)

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. Originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage confusion, angst, sexuality, alienation, and rebellion. It has been translated into almost all of the world's major languages. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million. The novel's protagonist and antihero, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon for teenage rebellion.

The novel was included in a 2005 Time Magazine list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently challenged in the United States for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality and teenage angst. It also deals with complex issues of identity, belonging, connection, and alienation.

The second work of fiction which has captured the mind and heart of
Vasanth Dev is ‘Sister Carrie’ by Theodore Dreiser.


Front cover of Book                                     Theodore Dreiser (1871 –1945)
In Vasanth Dev's Library                 As a young man                         In old age

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was an American novelist and journalist. He pioneered the naturalist school and is known for portraying characters whose value lies not in their moral code, but in their persistence against all obstacles, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of human choice and societal agency. One of the most censored and suppressed of American novelists, Theodore Dreiser was decried and defended with almost hysterical zeal. At the outset of his career, two eminent publishing firms refused to bring out his books after they had contracted to publish them; other publishers were prevailed upon to reject his manuscripts without reading them. Dreiser was treated as though he were a disgraceful exhibitionist, an insidiously evil influence, whose banned books were sought after and surreptitiously read as pieces of subversive pornography. Starting as a doubting and defenceless boy and until the end of his life, Dreiser remained confused by the brittle cruelty of life.

Louis Untermeyer is absolutely right when he says “His very confusions fumbled their way into a series of books which, ungainly and frequently malformed, transfixed an epoch and made a literature of insecurity…..he created timeless characters and projected a shoddy society with unforgettable power. He added something rough-hewn and ungainly but massive to literature. It was said that he had no talent but a great deal of genius. The lack of talent made him vulnerable ……it was his desperate earnestness and lifelong war with timidity and prudery that won him the prerogative to write honestly and without fear or favour."

Sister Carrie (1900) was the first novel of Theodore Dreiser which was published in 1900. It is about a young country girl who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream by first becoming a mistress to men that she perceives as superior and later as a famous actress. It tells the story of a woman who flees from the poverty of her country life and goes to the city of Chicago. There she falls into a wayward life of promiscuity imagining that it was the only way to the sudden acquisition of quick riches. The publishers kept the cover page of this book intentionally bland in order not to promote what was seen as a controversial work. It sold poorly, but it later acquired a considerable reputation. It was made into a 1952 film by William Wyler, which starred Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.

Sister Carrie became most popular and remained so for nearly a century. Its popularity was due to its subject matter. Seduction and adultery, spiced with sadness, robbery, and general amorality are standard ingredients of the best-seller. But Dreiser had built Sister Carrie around the story of his complacently ruined sister, and unprettified realism gave the tale a simplicity and candour utterly unlike the smirking sexuality of its genre. It was the candour of Sister Carrie which, with its incongruous dignity, outraged the sensibilities of the genteel.

Between 1900 and 1980, all editions of the novel ‘Sister Carrie’ were of a second altered version. Not until 1981 did Dreiser's unaltered version appear when the University of Pennsylvania Press issued a scholarly edition based upon the original manuscript held by The New York Public Library. It was a reconstruction by a team of leading scholars to represent the novel before it was edited by hands other than Dreiser's.

His second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, was published in 1911. Many of Dreiser's subsequent novels dealt with social inequality. His first commercial success was achieved in 1925 when he published his novel An American Tragedy (1925), which was made into a film in 1931 and again in 1951.

Though primarily known as a novelist, Dreiser published his first collection of short stories, Free and Other Stories in 1918. This collection contained 11 stories. A particularly interesting story, "My Brother Paul", was a brief biography of his older brother, Paul Dreiser, who was a famous songwriter in the 1890s. This story was the basis for the 1942 romantic movie, "My Gal Sal". On account of his depiction of then unaccepted aspects of life, such as sexual promiscuity, Dreiser was often forced to battle against censorship.

The GRAND THEME in Dreiser's writings was the tremendous tensions that can be caused to any spirited individual, committed to a lofty idealism, by the continuously warring claims of uncontrolled ambition, insatiable desire, and invisibly tyrannical social mores.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the great American critic, was one of Dreiser's strongest champions even during his lifetime. Mencken’s words of tribute to Dreiser are worth quoting. He declared that “Theodore Dreiser is a great artist, and no other American of his generation has left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped.”

In his Nobel Prize Lecture of 1930, Sinclair Lewis paid this tribute to Theodore DreiserHis great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Walt Whitman”.


The last but one book that I am surveying in this second part is another outstanding work of non-fiction --- American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. He came into national and international prominence as a public intellectual of the 1950’s, making his mark as a historian and political theorist. He was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. In the course of his career, Hofstadter became the “iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus” whom twenty-first century scholars continue consulting, because his intellectually engaging books and essays remain pertinent to the understanding of contemporary history.

Hofstadter’s most important works are ‘Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915’ (1944); ‘The American Political Tradition’ (1948); ‘The Age of Reform’ (1955); ‘Anti-intellectualism in American Life’ (1963), and ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (1964). He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize: in 1956 for ‘The Age of Reform’ and in 1964 for ‘Anti-intellectualism in American Life’.

Hofstadter’s ‘The American Political Tradition’ (1948) is a study of men and ideas in American politics, from the Founding Fathers in the second half of the 18th Century to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The author provides a very brilliant and well researched explanation of the American nostalgia for their national past. He has provided an original interpretation of the American past through 12 brilliant and incisive biographical portraits of The Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), John C. Calhoun (1785-1850), Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). These figures have been chosen as excellent representatives of main currents in American political sentiment.

Here Hofstadter makes it clear: “I have no desire to add to a literature of hero-worship and national self-congratulation which is already large. It seems to me to be less important to estimate how great our public men have been than to analyze their historical roles. A democratic society, in any case, can more safely be overcritical than over indulgent in its attitude towards public leadership.”

Richard Hofstadter says in his introduction that Americans have recently found it more comfortable to see what they have been than to think of where they are going and that their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial. Historical novels, fictonalized biographies, collections of pictures and cartoons, books on American regions and rivers, have poured forth to satisfy a ravenous appetite for Americans. According to Hofstadter, the sad part of this quest for the American past is that it is carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis. Hofstadter provides such a critical analysis of the American political tradition in the light of the evaluations and judgments of selected American political leaders which are often fresh and incisive.

Here are a few flashes from the intellectual armoury of Richard Hofstadter presented in ‘The American Political Tradition’ (1948)

“...shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition... They have accepted the economic virtues of a capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.”

“A common ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition, and beneficent cupidity has guided the Republic since its inception.”

        COVER OF BOOK                                        ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1963)

The next book that I am going to refer to in this survey is ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). This book was published for the first time in 1945 and has run into several editions. I read this book for the first time in 1958 and ever since I have delved deep into this book several times. My friend Vasanth Dev presented me a copy of the 1994 edition of this book. He told me: “This is my bedside reference book.”

I replied to him thus: “So has it been with me ever since 1958. ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ is a mine of curious, extraordinary and erudite learning. Drawing on a vast range of sources --- the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, the Buddhist philosophers, the Taoists, the Sufis, the early Quakers and the great Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages --- Aldous Huxley attempts to offer a synthesis of the Revelations of Mystics and the beliefs of the wise and holy of all ages, races and creeds for the enlightenment of the modern world. Subjects like faith, asceticism, grace, hope and immortality are amply and searchingly discussed. Nobody reading this book can fail to recognize that he is in the presence of a mastermind both profound and acute.”

The term philosophia perennis was first used in the 16th century by Agostino Steuco in his book entitled De perenni philosophia libri X (1540), in which scholastic philosophy is seen as the Christian pinnacle of wisdom to which all other philosophical currents in one way or another point. The idea was later taken up by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who used it to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy.

‘The Perennial Philosophy’ is a profoundly influential anthology of excerpts and commentaries drawn from all the major religious traditions of the world, illustrating what Huxley called ‘the highest common factor of all the higher religions’. And yet he went on to say with typical humour and humility: “The greatest merit of the book is that about 40% of it is not by me, but by a lot of saints, many of whom were men of genius.”

In his introduction, Aldous Huxley writes as follows: “ ‘Philosophia perennis’ --- the phrase was coined by Gottfried Leibniz; but the thing --- the metaphysic that recognizes a Divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to or even identical with, Divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s Final End in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being --- the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed form has a place in every one of the Higher Religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than 25 Centuries ago and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.”

In ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ Aldous Huxley has brought together a number of selections from these writings, chosen mainly for their significance --- because they effectively illustrated some particular point in the general system of ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ --- but also for their intrinsic beauty and memorable-ness.

Vasanth Dev’s range of interests seems to me to be truly amazing. He is an avid collector of rare books and more importantly First Editions and Commemorative Editions of the Classics. On 30th July 1935 a batch of reprints appeared on the British Book Market. The titles were familiar enough. They were Ariel by Andre Maurois, A farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Poets Pub by Eric Linklater, Madame Claire by Susan Ertz, Twenty-Five by Beverley Nichols, William by E.H.Young, Gone to Earth by Mary Webb and Carnival by Compton Mackenzie. The format was unfamiliar. The books were paper-bound in variously coloured covers: Orange and White for the Novels, Green and White for the Detective stories, Blue and White for the Biographies. The imprint was completely unknown: The title page said PENGUIN BOOKS, LONDON. The price was six pence a volume. Many predicted that this book venture by PENGUIN BOOKS would be a total failure. All of them were proved wrong by the spectacular growth of Penguin Books between 1935 and 1955.

I am presenting below two rare editions of PENGUIN BOOKS in the personal collection of Vasanth Dev. The first book is the PENGUIN 100 brought out by Penguin Books in 1937. The title of this book is The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The second book is PENGUIN 1000 brought out by Penguin Books in 1954. The title of this book is One of Our Submarines by Edward Young. Can anyone doubt that for PENGUIN, as a world famous publishing firm, the publication of their 100th title in 1937 and 1000th title in 1954 were really landmark events, not only for them
but also for the world of publishing as a whole


APSLEY CHERRY-                                   PENGUIN 100 (1937)  PENGUIN 1000 (1954)                               EDWARD YOUNG

Vasanth Dev gave me a copy of a pamphlet issued by THE FEDERATION OF THE WORLD BOOKS, the Chief Educators, Joy-Makers, Peace-Makers, and Federators of the World.

In this pamphlet there are 26 Quatrains on different aspects and dimensions of great books. Poetry is nothing but music in words, and music is nothing but poetry in sound. The office of poetry is not to make us think accurately or scientifically or mathematically but feel truly. Poetry is the music of thought, conveyed to us in the music of language. Vasanth Dev told me: “You will find no poetry in the following quatrains about books unless you also bring some poetry with you.”

The English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) rightly said: “Truth shines the brighter clad in verse”. This is wholly applicable to the following QUATRAINS about books.

Books should be found in every house
To form and feed the mind
They are the best of luxuries
‘Tis possible to find.

For all the books in all the world
Are man’s most precious treasure
They make him wise, and bring to him
His best, his choicest pleasure.

Books make his time pass happily
Relieve his weary hours
Amuse, compose, instruct his mind
Enlarge his mental powers.

Books teach schoolmasters, clergymen
Of every rank and grade
And doctors, lawyers, judges too
Books are their tools of trade.

Books show man countries, cities, towns,
Manners and customs too
Books show what all men eat and drink
And every thing they do.

Books give, beside descriptions of
This grand world of our own
Vast knowledge of the starry worlds
And point to worlds unknown.

Books give the choicest, noblest songs
Of every age and tongue
Books give the grandest, sweetest tunes
That mankind ever sung.

Books give the best and greatest thoughts
Of all the good and wise
Books treasure knowledge up
And thus it never dies.

Books show man all that men have done
Have thought, have sung, have said
Books show the deeds and wisdom of
The living and the dead.

Books show that men of every race
Of colour, clime and creed
Have kindred feelings, passions, thoughts,
And are brothers indeed.

Books show that mankind’s leading faiths
In morals are the same
That in their main essentials
They differ but in name

Books show that good men every where
Believe that war should cease
And books will make that feeling grow
And more and more increase.

Books show the joys, grief’s, hopes, and fears
Of every race and clan
Books show by unity of thought
The Brotherhood of Man.

Books thus will cause the Flag of Peace
Through Earth to be unfurled
Produce “The Parliament of Man”
And federate the world.

Thus books are the greatest blessing out
The greatest thing we sell
Books bring more joy, books do more good
Than mortal tongue can tell.

I have carried on long conversations with Vasanth Dev on the great classics of the world --- from both the West and the East. I remember his once making this brilliant and insightful comment: “In my view the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves”.

Once he stunned me at a coffee house by this incendiary observation derived from (if I am permitted to frame my own terminology!) classical physics of literature: “A book is the only place where you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea with out fear that it will go off in your face!!”

Finally, when I put this question to Vasanth Dev: “Which is your most favourite quotation on books and about books?”, he cited the following quotation from the intellectual armoury of Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989). “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world, “lighthouses” (as a poet said) “erected in the sea of time”. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity  

                       VASANTH DEV                              NIMMU VASANTH DEV      

In conclusion I would say that Vasanth Dev has these admirable qualities in abundance: courage, candour, honesty, intelligence, love of intelligence in others, interest in ideas, a lack of pretension, a very sharp sense of the ridiculous, warmth of heart, generosity, --- intellectual as well as emotional --- and finally, dislike for the pompous, the bogus and the self-important. He is, above all, an extraordinarily good man and this shines through everything he does or says. He is singularly fortunate in being married to Mrs. Nimmu Vasanth who too is an equally extraordinary woman with a wonderful track record of selfless service as a social activist and whose high ideals have always marched alongside his own. I give my whole hearted thanks to the Almighty for giving me this unique opportunity of knowing him, loving him and admiring him and his beloved dedicated wife.


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