Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Organised faith or organised unfaith: review of _Muniya's Light_ and subsequent discussion

IIC Quarterly Summer 2005, 161-4:

Organised faith or organised unfaith

[Review of
Muniya’s Light: a narrative of truth and myth, by Ramchandra Gandhi. New Delhi: Roli. 2005.]

This work of fusion art combines the loosely worn format of a fictionish discursive flow with eighteen black and white reproductions of photographs and paintings. I have no doubt that this book is a generic first. The text’s cross-genre is part of its cross-message. Ramchandra Gandhi (hereinafter “RG”) mixes visuals and text, fiction and philosophizing, spiritual talk and art criticism, humour and serious formality to say that which troubles any audience’s ordinary viewing practices. A revealing, he shows, can be viewed spiritually as a revelation if the viewer is playfully complicit with the revealer and disturbed enough to pay attention to the form that is shown but is only half-accepted. As a serious spiritual seeker writing for the present, RG addresses the fact that many thinkers today who wish to see spiritual aspirations thoughtfully formalized imagine that buying into thought-denying or thought-defying forms of religiosity is the only choice they have.
Primarily a philosopher who is also a Ramana Maharshi devotee, RG’s enterprise is to clarify what we think about thinking, in the context of the fact that India has Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhiji, Ramana, Aurobindo, Krishnamurti on its epistemic screen. RG is intrigued to see the fault line splitting Indian reflections on knowledge into two segments. The popular conceptualization in India views these seven sages as figures of knowledge, not only of virtue. But the institutionalized portrayals of India’s modern history elide the epistemic dimension of these contributors. The theoretical backgrounds that inform those portrayals set aside all issues of virtue and vice (in the name of the freedom to choose diverse definitions of the good life), but more troublingly even issues of self-awareness and absent-mindedness.
RG’s writing consistently addresses this fault line, seeking formally valid images that make sense to the imagination. His images address readers (and viewers – the sequence of RG’s books is punctuated by a film or two) who are in love with the self-confident intellectual power of non-spiritual modern discourses and technologies. RG’s project is to make available to such readers a non-dismissable thought-diary of spiritual labour. His diary stays engaged with theoretical questions and with what one may call “the times”, but surrenders to no alien definition of what our times might be like, no definition that forgets or denies the spiritual. In the recent past, he has focused on how self-awareness keeps rescuing us from ossification into hardened, totemized identities; this focus enables him to oppose contemporary fundamentalisms on principled grounds.
RG sometimes cuts and refashions diary into publishabilia. While meditating on some paintings by Tyeb Mehta, he worked diary passages from the months of that meditation into a work of art criticism, Svaraj (2003). From his thinking shaped by the experience of remaining a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi in milieux often polarized into unreflective adherence to organized faith and unreflective adherence to organized unfaith, RG has now carved out a narrative where pain, joy and watchfulness appear in a cuisine no reader has ever visited before. He serves it to us with a smile, without hiding or being embarrassed by his sense that travelling on these paths, and travelling on them with him, can be embarrassing. None of our habits, either in traditional faith or in modern unfaith, prepare us for such journeys, or show us how to deal with these thoughts and experiences. Perhaps the scientist aware that hypothetico-deductivity runs risks and that spirituality simply is running risks writ large, or the lover aware of putting herself at stake, is a little bit prepared for this. But you will have to read RG yourselves.
In RG’s writings, perhaps most acutely in Muniya’s Light, we face the fact that risk, fear, troubledness, embarrassment, watching the way we watch ourselves and others, and related bits of self-recognition are threads that constitute us. They connect how we do science, how we paint, how we tell tales, how we manoeuvre our politics, how we weave the substance of domesticity through these forms, how we manage playing father/ mother/ child/ ex-child in these spaces. RG connects these contexts through the new idea (which he has been pressing on our attention since the early nineties) that what is distinctively human is not birth or death. It is that all adults were children, can remember having been children, and must reconnect with the truth of childhood while retaining adult dialogical capabilities within which such reconnection is felt and stated. This theoretical idea of RG’s, the notion of human as ex-child (see Dasgupta 1993 for an earlier response spelling out its theoretical import in the postmodern context), comes to life, vividly, beatifully, reflectively, in Muniya’s Light.
This book narrates the progress of a latter-day pilgrim towards the shrine located where language and the world reconfigure themselves as the self. RG’s protagonist Ravi receives as Ramana Maharshi’s gift a specific artistry-laden advaitin notion of self as communication/ communion, an image of self as imageable image. Language lives around the fact that we were once, as children, initiated into language mysteriously, by adults who came across as magical figures. The intrinsic once-upon-a-time character of such beginnings, shrouded in magical myth, can be brought into a certain opening of mythical truth when that narrative is followed, experienced, and sequelled, not by the ex-child, who cannot remember the initiating adult, but by the initiating adult watching her grow into an ex-child. Yes, her; the book imagines the child as a her, Muniya, and the initiating adult as a him, Ravi, who once gave Ananya this special name Muniya.
Muniya’s Light is an extended formulation of one question, a question of creative practice: is this task within our reach? Can one of us today, a non-parent adult who once initiated a child into language, hold in our hands the terrible beauty, the gravity of the fact that we love ourself-and-child, forever, with a love that constitutes that moment of initiation, a moment we know we never owned or fashioned, for it was only by the grace of language, not ours to own, that we were enabled into this love? Do we know how to clean up our act to the point of gazing so purely that an adult male “I” can gaze at an ex-child female “you” whom I once initiated into language, holding intact throughout my communion with you that moment of love and its potential for accretion as our biographies become richer? Or does the ineluctable materiality of our very language today, mired in all the violations that make up our routines, the violences, the fundamentalisms, the artificialities, the vision-destroying impurities, mean that such a dream is not even coherently dreamable?
Rilke shows us how beauty is the beginning of terror; Shaw shows us the artificial creation of modern language by the phonetician in love with his Pygmalion creation. Such associations populate/ circumscribe my reading of RG’s troubled creation as I explore my inability to attain a gaze focused enough to read just this book, and my sense of wonder at how the book makes me see that such a gaze is unavailable. I am shown how to seek the truth of the hybridity, the impurity of my gaze.
Our times harbour no Arjunas holding in view just that target bird-head. Our new camaraderie turns teachers into buddies who happen to be around, we just allow them to hang on as we wait to become us. We are all Yudhishthiras, acutely aware of not focusing on the bird-head, we see everybody around us, we see that we don’t see. The point is to see this truthfully, hoping somewhere in all this to find the Arjuna potential that we can reattain without lapsing either into naïve targeting or into the cardinal sin of turning our Dronacharyas into old-time patriarchal types.
RG introduces into his narrative, as a crystal that can guard us against that cardinal sin, a grown-up Muniya who knows how to get such protection, and who will nurture everybody’s vision in that direction. This crystal works on our water and tries to get us there. Maybe it gets Muniya there. RG gives this character the official name of Ananya, not-other, emblematic of the advaita concept of the self, all “others” are only apparent-others required as communicative poles but not intrinsically alien and incapable of true communion; Muniya is the dyad-bound name Ravi once gave Ananya, an undergraduate student of art and philosophy in California who now heads back home to Mumbai with Ravi, on a plane that starts on September 11 (but 2002). The intertextual links, underscored by K.S. Radhakrishnan’s cover painting, are with the tribal girl Ananya, who was crucial to the narrative of Sita’s kitchen, and with Svaraj, RG’s most recent book, an exercise in advaitin art criticism. Do read them as well!


Dasgupta, Probal. 1993. Anti-fundamentalist investigations [Review of Sita’s kitchen]. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research 11:1.139-51.
Gandhi, Ramchandra. 1992. Sita’s kitchen: a testimony of faith and inquiry. New York: SUNY Press.

                                                                        Probal Dasgupta

subsequent discussion: 
IIC Quarterly Monsoon-Winter 2005, p 307:

A Communication from Ramchandra Gandhi

In his review of my philosophical novel Muniya’s Light (Roli 2005) in the IIC Quarterly (Summer 2005) entitled Organised Faith and Organised Unfaith, Probal Dasgupta seems to doubt the moral integrity of the work.
            Ravi, the protagonist of the novel is blessed with the insight that the girl child is the most poignant portrait of Atman, Self, and that when we ill-treat her we deeply dishonour ourselves.
            Ravi’s conviction awakens the dormant shakti of speech in the four year old, apparently mute daughter of a friend Ananya, or Muniya, as he calls her.
            Ravi and Muniya meet again eighteen years later in California, where she is agraduate student of Art and Religion, and he is teaching a workshop on the Mahabharata.
            Ravi finds that Muniya has grown into a radiant young woman and falls in love with her. He asks her to share his life. She declines, not because he is older than her, nor because she feels no attraction for him, but because she wants to remain a free woman!
            The knowledge that he was instrumental in awakening the power of dormant speech in her when she was a child does not figure at all as a consideration in her rejection of his love.
            Probal Dasgupta’s review (pages 162, 163, 164) mysteriously misreads Muniya’s Light as highlighting the sin of impurity which must sully an old man’s falling in love with a young woman whom he had initiated into language as a child, thus travestying the work’s attempt to bring to its readers a message of philosophical hope for the girl-child beyond the imperatives of legal and social and political action.
            Dasgupta does not cite one sentence from the book in support of his weird reading of it.
                                                                                    Ramchandra Gandhi
                                                                                    August 6, 2005

IIC Quarterly Monsoon-Winter 2005, p 308:

Response: Postscript from Probal Dasgupta

In response to Ramchandra Gandhi’s (RG’s) remarks, I immediately need to point up the Anglophone/ non-Anglophone fault line in terms of which I (explicitly, in the review) thematize my reading of RG’s work. In his spring 1992 Hyderabad lectures, RG noted that a child is normally initiated into home-language by a mother and reinitiated into world-language by society. Reading this book in the light of those lectures, we find that Muniya is a person who missed the chariot of mother-given early linguisticity. When Ravi mediates Sri Ramana’s omkara and inaugurates a differently envisaged Language for the child Muniya, it is structurally a world-language rootable in a new sense of home-language that a grown-up Muniya will need some day to discover. If this Muniya studies in California and fleshes out such world-language in her initial adult take as English, then for her to reboot her access to an Indian language becomes a new question, in the light of which readers will need to contextualize Ravi’s feelings and Muniya’s counterpoint. Further contextualization must come from Shaw’s Pygmalion, as my review notes. The necessity of these contextualizations forces the reader’s gaze into an intertextual or hybrid response to what I characterized as the cross-genre of RG’s text. When I call this gaze impure my reference is explicitly to the non-Arjunic impurity of Yudhishthira’s attempt to take visual aim at the bird-head, and thus to our inability, in these Yudhishthiric times, to be instructed by the old Dronacharya patriarchs. In recording this reading of mine, using the figure of Dronacharya remembered for his treatment of Ekalavya (for dalits too remain marginalized, not just girl children), I was hoping to walk parallel to RG’s message on how to tune our spirituality to the girl child’s needs. That a would-be fellow walker like myself may strike a major runner like RG as too slow to keep up with all he has said and intended is unsurprising. That his impatience with this walker’s dullness takes the form of hearing me as having spoken ill of his work leaves me shocked, saddened, and refuged in the hope that my review did not sound so to other ears. If it has, may these words help.
                                                                                    Probal Dasgupta
  September 9, 2005

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