Sunday, January 16, 2011

Grandma's Treasure

Our last blog was published a few days back, after a gap of around 2 months, a chasm which has been looked upon by our 3 dedicated readers with anxiety and concern. So we follow it up quickly with another short one, one of the many we have been working on for the last few decades.

A member of that unenviable tribe, Managers of Public Sector Banks, yours truly was posted as the head of a largish branch of our Bank, located at one of the leading religious centres of the country. At the end of an action-packed day, we were sitting in a swivel chair, licking the day’s wounds. It was dark, damp and eerie outside and as the Manager’s only loyal companion, the peon on daily wages was downing the shutters, there was a visitor, imploring our man to let him in. The Raven? Or was it a member of another hapless tribe, that of the Salesmen, we thought? Let’s give the poor fellow an audience, we told our man.

The Raven happened to be a lean and tall man. He wore a dhoti and a kurta, dyed in turmeric. On his forehead he sported a long, red, vertical, namam like tilak, and at the back, a pony-tail . He settled on the chair before us, as if it were the bust of Pallas in the poem below, and started to address us, of all languages, in Sanskrit. The speech lasted about two minutes and we could not pick up a single word apart from the aham at the beginning, so fluent was he, and/or so ignorant was the audience. Although our patience was running low, we were definitely intrigued. Our tired little brain, in the face of that torrent of words, was conducting an exercise in free association, and the words that whirred past were (*) ‘living fossil’, ‘crank’, ‘revivalism’ etc., and last but not the least, more ‘expenses-not-enumerated-elsewhere’. (* )-you guessed it correctly, stands for inter alia, the all-time favourite.

For the listeners’ benefit, thereafter, the Swami rendered the speech into Hindi. It was understood that the ‘Sanskrit Prabodhini Sabha’ was to hold a Sanskrit teaching ‘Shivir’ at a venerated temple of the town, and we were to provide the Sabha, funds for publicity banners. To our great relief, they would cost Rs. 400.00 only. That much we could do, one thought, as a mark of our duty towards our cultural heritage, and in keeping with the tradition of ‘community services banking’ of Chabhi-wala-bank... We won’t have to send a ‘nil’ CSB return for the 11th successive quarter next time, he,he,he! Somehow, the Sabha also wanted us to be present at one of their sessions, to establish their bona fides, the resident cynic inside us mused.

So far as their mission was concerned, as an anglicised Indian, we naturally approached the whole thing with a measure of healthy scepticism. What was the point in teaching a reportedly dead language to living beings? Anyway the expenses were sanctioned, and we had them off our back, so we thought. But boyyyy....were they persistent! Our friend grilled us every evening in chaste Sanskrit and ultimately YF was almost dragged to the valedictory function on day 7.

The workshop was being wound up. In that august hall, in the presence of our venerated saint’s statue, squatted about 50 enthusiastic children, women and a few good men. Standing before them was Ms. Laxmi, a dark-complexioned, beautiful young lady from Karnataka, the lady behind the mission. She knew not a word of Hindi, which was the lingua franca of the audience. One stood transfixed and amazed. The pupils and Laxmi were conducting a fluent exchange in Sanskrit which their mentor had taught them in 7 days flat with the aid of a very small common linguistic denominator, which, to the mathematician in us, was like finding the value of two variables with a single, and not two, linear equations. What was remarkable was the enthusiasm of the tutor and the taught. At the end of the workshop, we were told, they promised to each other that they would keep up their communication by way of letters.

Imagine what long term impact this interlude would have on the lives of the kids, leaving aside the linguistic part. It would ‘supply’ ‘super ordinate goals’, as we would teach in OB lectures in our Staff Academy- something above the daily drill of people, something with a non-material content, which encourages them to rise above ‘petty things’....

It was AN experience for us, but according to Laxmi, this invariably happened wherever in the country she went. She, we were told, had made the popularisation of Sanskrit her life’s mission. Familiarity with the language would promote national integration, she believed. Such was her dedication, she had even taken a vow of celibacy!

One almost wanted to be a believer. Wasn’t Sanskrit said to be the most scientific, computer friendly language? No less a person than Dr. Raja Ramanna had vouched for the greatness of Sanskrit. But alas again-did she, i.e. the language, have a future really, or was she, too, condemned to celibacy?

As we left the venue, we were certain of two things, one that the organisation’s money had been spent on a cause someone passionately believed, which is rare, and two, that old Granny Sanskrit may yet have something for us in her humble, derided potli!


 No, my friend,this time it is not about Hairy Harry, but about a fetish of ours, The Raven, which often makes a guest appearance in this blog. Edgar Allan Poe is reproduced below:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

George Bernard Shaw was a great admirer of Poe, and wrote something to the effect that ‘when Poe passes, we lesser mortals just stand and doff our hats’. We’ll have to look for the exact words.

Some other views:

"It's because I liked Edgar Allan Poe's stories so much that I began to make suspense films."
-Sir Alfred Hitchcock

"Your 'Raven' has produced a sensation, a 'fit horror,' here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the 'Nevermore,' and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a 'bust of Pallas' never can bear to look at it in the twilight."
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing to Poe.

"Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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