Philosopher’s soul

Roopinder Singh meets Ramchandra Gandhi and reviews his latest book, which reminds him of Philosophy Society meetings with the author.

Muniya’s Light: A Narrative of Truth and Myth by Ramchandra Gandhi. IndiaInk/Roli Books. Pages 248. Rs 350.

Ramu Gandhi

Bose Sahib, the legendary teacher, philosopher, cricketer of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, often came to the college campus long after he had retired. He attended the Philo-Soc (Philosophy Society), meetings at the residence of his protege, R. K. Gupta. Among those who dropped in at 3 pm on Friday afternoons at Dr Gupta’s residence were Ramchandra Gandhi, another of Bose Sahib’s students, Jeet Oberoi the sociologist; Ashok Vohra and Vijay Tankha, faculty members, and many students and some guests.

Every week was a different experience, as everyone held forth on various papers presented for discussion. With a brilliant mind and a diction that flowed seamlessly, even as the language shifted from English to Urdu via Sanskrit and Hindi, Ramu Gandhi was a treat, and you were loathe to admit that you did not fully comprehend the point he was making.

Muniya’ s Light

Muniya’ s Light reminds this reviewer of the Philo-Soc meetings. Ravi Srivastava is Ramu, and he is not. (The character in the book graduated from the institution “across the road”) and Bose Sahib’s presence is felt, as he appears more than once. The novel is a story of how a 58-year-old professor of philosophy is excited at meeting Ananya, daughter of a friend, a 22-year-old Indian graduate student in America, with whom he would be flying back to India, via London, on the first anniversary of 9/11.

Ravi has known Ananya since her infancy, and the novel explores the fascinating hold she had had over him since her childhood, only now, the feelings are not just avuncular. That Ananya has flunked a test that involves fundamental questions regarding Indian philosophy gives Ramu, Nay! Ravi, the stage to come forth with a discourse on varied aspects of the teachings of Advaita Vedanta as well as those of Jnaneshwar, Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi and, above all, Ramana Maharshi. Moral episodes from the Mahabharata are narrated brilliantly and given a contemporary relevance.

Ramu makes the girl child the focus of his work. To him, she is the “unexcellable portrait of Atman”. Babu loves Ananya, in not quite an avuncular way, now. However, he has also helped her evolve into a thinking individual and, thus, she shows her care and affection, while steering clear of his desire to possess her.

As this reviewer read the book, it did not evolve as a novel. The story is subsumed by the message it seeks to convey at various times, much like some grand stories and myths. The characters are not fleshed out, and descriptions are minimal, only much dialogue, where Ravi dominates the discourse, much as Ramu did during Philo-Soc meetings.
‘All is self, a variation of that form’

The following is excerpted from an interview with the author at his best known address— the India International Centre, Delhi.
How much of Ramu is in the protagonist?
When you are writing a book of the Advatian or the non-dualist point of view, you have to begin with yourself, because all is self, a variation of that form. So what looks autobiographical is merely a result of following that principle. Because you know yourself best, if you create a protagonist, you have to be with that protagonist, as if you are with somebody else, so that there is much in your life that is in the protagonist, and much that is not. I have not written the books that he has written; I wish I had.
How long did it take you to write the book and where did you write it?
It took me two years. I wrote it in cyber cafés in Delhi and Bangalore because I wanted to write in the real world, not sitting in the isolation of my own home. I would write for five–six hours, often I would not write for half an hour or so and they would come to me and ask “Machine kharab ho gai hai kya?” I would reply: “Machine kharab nahai hia, mera dimag kharab ho gaya hai.” So I would have great fun. I had done my earlier works by longhand, but I wanted to experiment.
Many of your characters just make a brief appearance?
I have followed the Sanskritic tradition of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana elsewhere, in which characters come, do something significant and go. They don’t come back again, unlike in the modern novel, where they keep coming back.
But your characters are not fleshed out, even the clothes they are wearing are not described?
Yes. This is true; after all, in the Mahabharata, Bhimas clothes are not described. The idea is to make the soul, the personality clearer, which is difficult if you concentrate on the clothes etc.

Does Ramu the philosopher dominate Ramu the storyteller?

I am a philosopher. Even if I am writing a novel, there has to be something philosophically different, new, if you like, which I should be able to unearth. Recurring all through the book is the argument that we are certain about our own existence. There can be no doubt about that, but in the objective world, in the world around, the only thing that matches it is that no one can doubt that we have all been children.

We don’t know what our birth is like, we don’t know death, but everyone remembers his childhood and associated with childhood is the feminine figure, a mother or a dai. We have forgotten the girl child as being the reflection of the Atman.

Who is your favourite character in the book?

Archana, Ravi Srivastava’s wife, is my favourite character. She really understands the loneliness of this man. She is caring. The first question she asks Muniya is: “What does Babu look like now?”

This article was printed in The Tribune on May 8, 2005

Please click here to read my obituary on Ramu Gandhi