A novel India

The Writing from Here, Writing from There series features some intriguing cross-cultural literary dialogue under the umbrella of the Indian Festival.

India 521 (photo credit: Manot)
India 521
(photo credit: Manot)
They say that music is the ultimate universal language and that it transcends all cultural and geographical boundaries, but can literary works do the same? It is a topic that poet-novelist Prof. Miron Izakson is looking forward to discussing on Thursday at 11 a.m. He will be taking part in a panel discussion with Hebrew University lecturer in Indian and Armenian studies Prof. David Shulman and Indian historian, writer and classical singer Dr. Reba Som.
The session is part of the Writing from Here, Writing from There series organized by Mishkenot Sha’ananim and features some intriguing cross-cultural literary confluences under the umbrella of the current Indian Festival. Izakson, Shulman and Som are in pretty illustrious company with, on the Israeli side, such luminaries as A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev and Eli Amir; and on the Indian side, award-winning journalist Tarun Tejpal, feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna, who is not only the incumbent Indian ambassador to Israel but also an acclaimed writer. Later on Thursday, at 3:30 p.m., Sarna and Amir will discuss literary aspects of immigration and identity-building.
Although he is not a musician, Izakson is aware of the divide spanning properties attributed to music from different, and often disparate, cultures. He says he expects to find similar common ground between himself and his Indian counterpart at Thursday’s discourse.
“I truly believe that if poetry is good, you will find common elements in poems from different languages and different cultures. I am certain of that,” he says, although adding that he does not speak any Indian languages and has yet to visit India.
The language aspect is an important area in the discussion, if only for the practical purpose of communication on the day. “We will speak in English and read our works in English,” Izakson continues.
“I will read out my poems in English and, I presume, Dr. Som’s work will be presented in English, too.”
However, literary works possess an intrinsic sonority of the source language, which also has an important bearing on the message the author aims to convey.
The third member of the panel, Shulman, is an expert in several Indian languages and will shed some light on the vernacular intricacies on both sides of the Indian-Israeli cultural divide.
“I think Prof. Shulman will talk about poetry and language and the possibility of translating poems while retaining the original intent,” says Izakson.
If you asked most people whether they perceive any common denominators between Israeli and Indian culture, nine times out of 10 the answer would probably be no. Izakson says he would generally go along with that opinion, although he hopes to come away from the panel session with some fresh insight on the subject. “Indian culture is very different from Israeli or Hebrew culture,” he observes, “but I am very interested to see if there are similarities. I cannot possibly imagine that there is no meeting point between poetry from different places, even if they come from a very different culture.
True poetry must share common ground in terms of the topics they address and the way they relate to them.”
Then again, one presumes that words have different connotations and bear different cultural nuances in different languages. Izakson both agrees and disagrees with that. “The words are the tools you use to write poetry.”
The utilitarian approach to the use of language, in Hebrew, was examined by Haim Nahman Bialik almost a century ago in an important paper he wrote in 1915 entitled “Revelation and Concealment in Language.”
Izakson believes that take on language highlights both the problematic nature of creating poetry and the universality of the literary art form, regardless of the language in which it is written.
“Bialik said that people use words for the most mundane things, whether you shout at someone, swear at someone or express your thoughts at a soccer match. But he said that you use almost exactly the same words for writing poetry. That’s almost impossible. On the one hand, words are highly communicative; but on the other hand, there is no special language for art. I think every language has to grapple with that problem.”
Looking outside the strict linguistic domain, Izakson finds more shared areas between Israel and the Indian subcontinent. “There are many different dialects of each language in India, but it’s very ironic that English is the official language of the Indian parliament, the language of the country that India struggled for so long to free itself from. We also had to free ourselves from British rule, and both countries gained independence from Britain around the same time.”
The evolution of language is also affected by numerous aspects of everyday life and cultural activities. It is said, for example, that the Eskimos have about 40 different words for snow and its various shades, as they are surrounded by and are able to discern so many nuances of the color and texture of snow.
Izakson says that much of the Hebrew language stems from Holy Scripture and from the spiritual endeavor of Hebrew speakers. “We delve a lot into matters of spirit and of the soul, so we have lots of words in that area. But there are other areas where we do not have many words because we do not engage in them much. I am intrigued about learning from Dr. Som about areas in which her language has a rich vocabulary. Indians do not live in a world of our God, and I am fascinated by the prospect of learning how Indians write poetry in their language, with all their cultural baggage. Their beliefs necessarily have to come through in their poetry.”
Somewhat outside the strict confines of the written word, Izakson says he hopes to gain a better understanding of the sociopolitical status of his Indian counterparts.
“Here, the media often tries to get some opinion from artists and writers, as if their thoughts are of great importance. I really wonder why it is important to get the thoughts of writers on issues like peace in the Middle East. I wonder if India treats its writers in the same way. Do Indians expect their artists and, in particular, their writers to be more responsible, and do they take greater stock of what they say?” In the list of discrepancies between Israel and India, there is also the matter of the sheer immensity of India compared with our own tiny strip of land in the Middle East. “Of course, the amount of territory a country has also impacts on its people and on its writers,” says Izakson. Then again, it is not always a matter of mere physical size. “You know life is so intense here and all Israelis have at least five opinions, that there is somehow a sense that Israel is physically larger than it really is. That is a mitigating factor.”
Tarun Tejpal will take part in a session called The Role of Writers and Journalists in Modern Democracies, together with A.B. Yehoshua. Tejpal, 48, is an Indian journalist, publisher and novelist.
He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tehelka magazine, which he founded in March 2000 and has gained a worldwide reputation for his no-nonsense brand of journalism. In 2001 Business Week named him as one of the 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia.
Tejpal says he is a firm believer in the ability of journalists to change things, and to right injustices.
“For me there is no real purpose to being a journalist, or writer, if you don’t have a potentially interventionist role in public affairs, and in the redressal of injustice and inequality,” he declares. “The potency of that role – as deterrent or enabler – may vary depending on any number of circumstances, but its potential must always be large.”
Then again, in an increasingly tabloid- and scandal- oriented media world, there appears to be a growing threat to the professional and moral integrity of editors and journalists. Tejpal says he is acutely aware of the danger.
“It’s a huge challenge, and there’s no easy answer to it. People and societies are what they are, continually seduced by trash and titillation. To force them to focus on issues of equity and justice is a huge ask.
The trick, I feel, is to understand that there’ll be no easy ride ever, that every day will be a tightrope walk [of balancing commercial and editorial demands], and that there will be important battles that you will win and many important ones that you will lose.”
Izakson, Shulman and Som and all the other Israeli and Indian men and women of letters obviously have a lot to talk about on Thursday.
For more information: www.mishkenot.org.il