Tagore’s Mukta-dhara: nationalism, science, education and more

November 12, 2019

Rabindranath Tagore’s Mukta-dhara (Translated by Marjorie Sykes) is a play with an interesting, futuristic theme. The King of Uttarkut, Ranajit, employs an engineer, Bibhuti, to build a dam to stall the waters of Mukta-dhara which were flowing into the neighbouring country, Shiv-tarai, in order to make them starve and submit.

The play, written in 1922, can be viewed as a critique on nationalism and the use of science for destruction. There is also a small scene from the play in which Tagore launches a scathing satirical attack on the schooling system, relevant today more than ever. Tagore’s play precedes Noam Chomsky’s description of formal education as ‘a deep level of indoctrination that takes place in our schools’ and a schooled person ‘is one who is conditioned to obey power and structure’.

The Bairagi, Dhananjaya, a character in the play, reminds us of Gandhi and speaks his language of non-violence. Some critics cite the character of Sandip, the antagonist in Ghare Baire, to be a veiled attack on Gandhi. But Ghare Baire was actually written in 1916, much before the phenomenal rise of Gandhi in India and his khadi movement on a national scale, and has to be seen more as a criticism on the swadeshi movement of the previous decade. Tagore, though, did employ some of those arguments in his later debates with Gandhi on khadi. However, it was an ideological debate and not an attack on his personal integrity, which was the case with Sandip. Dhananjaya is a far more representative portrayal of the voice of Gandhi than Sandip. But even Dhananjaya, Marjorie Sykes points out in the introduction, had already appeared in an earlier play of Tagore, Prayaschitta (Atonement), published in 1909.


[Here is the scene where a schoolmaster and his students meet the King.]

The schoolmaster of Uttarakut enters with his boys.

MASTER. You’ll be getting a taste of the cane, I can see.
Loudly now, shout, Jai Rajarajeswar!

BOYS. Jai, Rajara . . .

MASTER [slapping a boy or two within his reach] . . .

BOYS. Jeswar !

RANAJIT. Where are you all going?

MASTER. Sire, your Majesty is to confer honour on our royal engineer Bibhuti, so I am taking the boys to share the rejoicings. They have learned from childhood to honour everything that is to the glory of Uttarakut. I don’t want them to miss any opportunity.

RANAJIT. They all know, I suppose, what Bibhuti has done?

BOYS [jumping and clapping their hands]. Yes, yes, he has stopped up Shiv-tarai’s drinking water.

RANAJIT. Why did he do that?

BOYS. To make them smart!

RANAJIT. And why should he make them smart?

BOYS. Because they are bad men.

RANAjiT. How bad?

BOYS. Everybody knows it, they are very bad, awfully bad.

RANAjtT. But you don’t know why they are bad?

MASTER. Of course they know, Maharaja. Now, you, didn’t you read? Didn’t you read in your book?
[Whispering] Their religion is very bad,

BOYS. Yes, yes, their religion is very bad.

MASTER. And besides, they are not like us. Come now, speak up! [He points to his nose.]

BOYS. They haven’t got high-ridged noses.

MASTER. Right, now what has our professor proved? What does a high-ridged nose show?

BOYS. The greatness of our race!

MASTER. Good. And what will that great race do?
Come, speak up! … they’ll conquer , . . out with it. do! … they’ll conquer everyone else in the world, won’t they?

BOYS. Yes, everyone.

MASTER. Were the men of Uttarakut ever defeated in war?

BOYS. Never, never!

MASTER, Didn’t our former king Pragjil, with two hundred and ninety-three men, drive back an army of thirty-one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three southern barbarians?

BOYS. Yes, yes!

MASTER. Rest assured, your Majesty, all these boys will be a terror one day to all wretched foreigners. If not, I am no true teacher. Not for a moment do I forget what a great responsibility is ours. It’s, we schoolmasters who mould men — your ministers have merely to use them. Yet think what a salary they get, compared with ours!

MINISTER. But these boys themselves are your reward.

MASTER. Well spoken, sir, the boys themselves are Our reward. Alas, but food is dear. Just think; cow’s ghee, which used to be . . .

MINISTER. All right, all Tight, I’ll see about your ghee. Now go, it’s nearly time for worship.

The Schoolmaster goes out with his boys.

RanajiT. This schoolmaster of yours has nothing in his head but ghee, cow’s ghee.

MINISTER. There is certainly a good deal of the cow about him. But, Maharaja, fellows of this kind have their uses. Day after day they repeat, mechanically, exactly what they have been told. Things wouldn’t run so smoothly if they had more sense.


[A scene with Dhananjaya:]

GANESH. Master, only say the word, and I’ll get hold of that bully Chandapal’s stick and show him what beating is.

DHANANJAYA. Can’t you show him what not-beating is?
That needs too much strength, I suppose? Beating the waves won’t stop the storm. But hold your rudder steady, and you win.

FOURTH SHIV What do you tell us to do, then?

DHANANJAYA. Strike at the root of violence itself.

THIRD SHIV. How can that be done, Master?

DHANANJAYA. .As soon as you can hold up your head and say that it does not hurt, the roots of violence will be cut.

SECOND SHIV. It is not so easy to say that it doesn’t hurt.

DHANANjAYA. Nothing can hurt your real manhood, for that is a flame of- fire. The animal, that is the flesh, feels the blow, and whines. But you stand there gaping — don’t you understand ?

SECOND SHIV. We understand you, but your words we don’t understand.

DHANANJAYA. Then you are done for.

GANtSH. Time presses. Master, and your words take so long to understand. But we understand you, and so we shall have an early crossing.

DHANANjAYA. Early? But what of the evening time?
When you find your boat sinking within sight of shore?
If you can’t make my words your own, you will be drowned.

GANESH. Don’t say that. Master. We have found shelter at your feet, so we must have understood somehow.

DHANANjAYA. It is only too plain that you have not understood. Your eyes still see red, and there is no song on your lips. Shall I give you a tune?

Ayodhya: A nation of pragmatists

November 12, 2019

Pragmatism can never be a substitute for truth and justice. Unfortunately we are seeing that happening repeatedly in our parts in recent times. When Kashmiris are subjugated and silenced by those who claim to be their countrymen; when millions of people are at risk of being rendered stateless; and now Ayodhya: pragmatism cheers and celebrates. Our country has become a nation of pragmatists. And the path of majoritarianism is paved with pragmatism. Conscience is the first casualty. Political mobs and thugs can go on creating more such problems, and we, the honourable, peace-loving pragmatists can keep on lauding such inevitable solutions.

Sensible Hindus should see it as a shame that the pragmatists should consider them incapable of maintaining peace, had the judgement been in favour of Muslims.

So, well, Babur has been punished after 5 centuries for his alleged crime. Will those responsible for the demolition of the Babri masjid, which may well be the only certainty in this case, ever be punished? If they do get punished, will the pragmatists welcome it and will peace still prevail? If the masjid had not been demolished, would the SC have given the same judgment and handed over the site with the mosque to Hindus? Seems unlikely. If so, isn’t the court rewarding the act of demolition, which it holds as unlawful? These are inconvenient thoughts that the pragmatist in me suppresses in the interest of peace.

As a teenager in 1990-92, when I talked about the rath yatra and Ayodhya during school competitions, I was all fire and fury and hope. Today my fuming words seem hollow. The pragmatist in me says, peace.

Discovering and appropriating Thirukkural is all fine. Hope they will follow it someday.

வேலன்று வென்றி தருவது மன்னவன்
கோலதூஉங் கோடா தெனின்.

It isn’t spear that brings victory to a king
But the sceptre that doesn’t unjustly bend.


The Survivors – Gurdial Singh

November 12, 2019

We took these photos 4 years ago while driving through dense traffic on the Sathy Road. The road was being expanded and a CAT was razing down a few buildings along the road. We don’t know if they were legal constructions or not, whether compensation was given or not. But I still can’t stop thinking of that forlorn lady sitting amidst the debris at a corner of a demolished house.

Gurdial Singh’s Punjabi novel, ‘The Survivors’ (translated by Rana Nayar), deals with an issue that has not been dealt with sufficiently in literature – the plight of individuals displaced by ‘development’ measures. Every time I drive on a highway under construction, and see half-demolished houses and old roadside shops that have become inaccessible, I ask myself what happens to the people who inhabit those houses and whose livelihoods have been dependent on those shops. The Survivors is the story of a gritty carpenter, Bishna Singh, and his wife, Daya Kaur, who are forcibly thrown out of their houses, after they refuse to allow a road to pass through it. They could never throw the house out of their minds. Bishna is sent along with his brother to jail for resisting. His brother regrets it thinking they should have simply yielded and taken whatever compensation was offered. He breaks up and goes his own way with his family. Bishna and Daya Kaur survive but could never bring their demolished lives and families back to the old normal. Bishna’s fight is not political and is entirely personal. But his futile fight against a system that has no place for the individual ends only with his death after many years. Isolated in his own village, he finds solace in another place but returns to his village in his old age, only to renew his bitterness and resentment. Despite all their travails and resentment against those who betrayed them, the couple retain love and compassion for those around them. The poverty forced on them does not snatch away their magnanimity and generosity.

A village in Punjab comes alive in the novel. The novel starts during the British era and ends in independent India. But the transition to independence is barely noticeable and I learnt of it only through the pointers shown in the introduction. The total lack of focus on the change in rule is one of the powerful messages of the novel. I may not put it amongst the greatest novels I have read, but it is definitely memorable for the subject it deals with and the doughty protagonist it created.

Gandhi and Rajchandra

November 12, 2019

Triggered by a recent essay in Tamizhini on the Western Influences on Gandhi, I was going through references in Gandhi’s writings to Rajchandra (aka Raychand). They are far more than what I had anticipated.

Rajchandra’s influence on Gandhi is not highlighted much by the Western scholars, perhaps because a lot of their correspondence was lost or was not translated. Narayan Desai, in his four volume biography on Gandhi (My Life is My Message), writes that Rajchandra was the primary influence on Gandhi. He cites Nemchand Gala’s book on Rajchandra in Gujarati, where the author claimed they exchanged over 200 letters. Only 3 of them are said to have survived…only one of them is in CWMG – Gandhi asked him 27 questions in these and received his answers. Narayan Desai gives their entire correspondence in his book.

Gandhi has dedicated a full chapter in his autobiography to Rajchandra. He stops short of calling him his guru, but says ‘no one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandbhai did.’

Gandhi can sometimes be effusive in his praise. But in the case of Rajchandra he is consistent. He wrote and spoke about him in the same vein on many other occasions. He has written a foreword and a few chapters in a book on him [Shrimad Rajchandra]. He made speeches on his birthdays for three or four years. He often quoted from Rajchandra, especially in letters or speeches to Gujarati associates or Jains, and kept recommending his books to them. He translated a few verses of Rajchandra in a letter to Kallenbach. He repeatedly placed Rajchandra above Tolstoy and Ruskin (in terms of influence on him).

Gandhi more or less directly attributes at least three major decisions to the influence of Raychand – none of them appeal to the modern mind and that is probably another reason why his influence is overlooked: 1. Refusal to convert to Christianity 2. Taking Brahmacharya vow 3. Giving up milk

In 1930, Gandhi talked about his other more crucial contribution – and Gandhi’s words are so pertinent today, “Such was the man who captivated my heart in religious matters as no other man has till now. I have said elsewhere that in moulding my inner life Tolstoy and Ruskin vied with Kavi [Raychand]. But Kavi’s influence was undoubtedly deeper if only because I had come in closest personal touch with him. His judgment appealed to my moral sense in the vast majority of cases. The bedrock of his faith was unquestionably ahimsa. His ahimsa was not of the crude type we witness today among its so-called votaries who confine their attention merely to the saving of aged cattle and insect life. His ahimsa, if it included the tiniest insect, also covered the whole of humanity.

Yet I never could regard Kavi as a perfect man. But of all the men I knew he appeared to me to be nearer perfection than the rest. Alas! he died all too young (thirty-three years) when he felt that he was surely going to see truth face to face. He has had many worshippers but not as many followers.”

Gandhi talked about an incident involving Raychand, and we can see why he thought of him to be ‘nearer perfection’. This was another quality he wished to see in himself.

“Raychandbhai once thought that he could do good to the world through his gift of attending to a hundred things simultaneously. If, he thought, he gave demonstrations of that gift in the Town Hall in Bombay, with a High Court judge presiding over the function, people would be converted and seek the welfare of their soul. After two or three days, he felt doubts about the wisdom of such a demonstration. It would be, he thought, a display of his own attainments, but would prove nothing about the power of God. Accordingly, he wrote a letter of apology and said that he had decided not to give the demonstration, but did not wish to explain why.”

‘A song has meaning’

November 12, 2019

‘For a song has meaning
when it beats in the veins
of a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his songs.’
– Victor Jara, Manifesto

An artist is never killed.

‘Last week, up to a million people protesting in Santiago were joined by a cavalry of guitarists. They played a song called “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” which once stood as an anthem for resistance against the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet that began in 1973.’

They paid ‘a musical homage to Victor Jara, a singer and activist who was tortured and killed after the coup d’etat led by Augusto Pinochet’



I discovered Victor Jara only a couple of months ago and have been hooked to his soulful voice and music. Especially, his song, ‘Manifesto’:

Its lyrics sound wonderful even in translation. A ‘song which has been a brave song will be forever new.’


His original recording of El Derecho de Vivir (“The Right to Live in Peace”) is also inspiring.

A new recording of the song has been released by popular Chilean artistes.

South America is posing a challenge to the established political and economic theories. On one side, we have socialist countries in turmoil. Free market zealots always said, ‘Look at Chile’. I don’t see too many of them looking at Chile now.

Poverty alleviation is important. But addressing inequality is no less important. Poverty is not static. To boast that we have removed poverty by comparing data across time can give a high to the economists but is of no use to people. Their comparison will always be at a point in time. They will always be bothered about inequality, and poverty lines get readjusted in their minds with increasing inequality.

There is an alternative path that calls for decentralization and deconsumerization and sustainable local economies. There may come a time when we look at it.