Geneva Diaries #56

Vernacular Bible – Language for the People, Dussehra Ramayana, Emojis – Multimedia, Le Loi Pour Les Nuls 


Purr-Gate-(s)Tory Contined…

Dear Roger,

How wonderful to get two emails from you back to back! So, you have not forgotten me, that feels so good…even though you may have forgotten my birthday. But your fabulously vivid emails re enacting your vibrant life trailblazing across the globe more than makes up for it. Roger, you are so lucky to have found a soulmate with whom to share your interests and passions, ready to pack up and catch that next jetliner to a mysterious culture or just a friend with whom you can sit back relax, watch a flick and enjoy a glass of champagne. You are living a dream, and I am stuck at the exact polar end of that spectrum. I live in the hope that perhaps one day you will reel me in through the cyber realm.

Yes Roger, the other reality is that I’m writing once again, a bit awkwardly, and cautiously, but I’ve lifted the pen, and finally opened my computer that was sitting in a pile of dust. The last few months have dragged monotonously, without a trace of adventure, nor a ripple of excitement. I have not read, nor written nor reflected, just found myself locked away in a deep dark room. I have now vowed to end this self pity and pick up whatever remains of life as I remember it. 

On the personal front, the theatre continues, but I have managed to put that aside temporarily and reconciled to the fact that my children might be at boarding schools far away from me. However, today, at this point they are both with me enjoying their mid term, Dussehra break, and so the outpouring of words and ideas, a semblance of normalcy. 

As you may remember from last year, Dussehra, one of the big Hindu festivals is celebrated with great pomp all over India. This is the day when the ten headed demon Ravana(Dussehra literally means ten headed) from the great Hindu epic Ramayana, was vanquished by Lord Rama. It is the classic celebration across cultures of the victory of good over evil with Ravana depicting the many vulnerabilities of man despite his great knowledge and devotion to god from whom he acquired many powers but deployed them to benefit his ego. This megalomaniacal king then abducted Sita, the wife of lord Rama, and the great epic of The Ramayana unfolded. 

The Ramayana was first written in Sanskrit by sage Valmiki between the 1st and 5th century BC, (date unknown), and later popularized by sage Tulsidas in the 16th century who wrote this great epic in the vernacular tongue (Awadhi) opening it up to the common man who now did not require the priest to translate it to him. The ideas, the ideals, morals which were privy to a select few who were Sanskrit speaking now opened up to the universe. Tulsidas also had it enacted in a theatrical form called the Ramlila, thus reaching out to an even wider population of the uneducated. Tulsidas, this saint-poet, caused a form of a minor revolution in India with his skillful work of translating the Ramayana, called Ramcharitramanas.

Still remembering my father at the end of his 75th year, the memories of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitramanas from childhood come flooding back, of hearing my father recite it melodiously, and then being my father the eternal prankster who often came down to our age to communicate with us, hearing him recite it backwards, yes the entire Ramcharitramanas backwards and dramatically. He had moved very far away from the world of his adventurous youth, of journeys through the Himalayas in hot pursuit of the elusive game and embraced the life of a much married, silent, settled man, and a father twice over but the spirit remained as did his incredible mind. He mentioned Tulsidas and Luther in the same breath, another revolutionary who translated the bible from Hebrew and Greek into the language of the people. Not only did he translate it into the spoken vernacular German language, he also had copies printed so that the reach was widespread and the average man was no longer at the mercy of the latin speaking priests to interpret their holy book. This Guttenberg bible, the first printed version bring me back to Geneva and to a charming museum called the Martin Bodmer museum that I was fortunate to visit. This museum not only has a rare copy of the Guttenberg Bible, it has the first edition of many of the famous historic and literary works. Books, manuscripts, scrolls, papyrus, in a multitude of scripts from across the globe covering the history of the written word. Do see the images of the museum in Geneva on Dropbox below:

Martin Bodmer Museum

I entered the gates to find myself in a retrospective of Solzhenitsyn’s works. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist, historian and famous political prisoner of the notorious gulag or Russian labor camp.

Solzhenitsyn meticulously catalogued the conditions of these camps and the degradations suffered by the prisoners, often a first person account and detailed them in his great novel The Gulag Archipelago. A novel I dove into as I entered the gates of the Bodmer museum, one that shook my being and wrenched my soul as I continued my walk along the thorn strewn pathway in exploration of human nature.  I never did find the Out Gate, see me below as I struggle to emerge from The Gulag Archipelago:

Purnima in The Gulag Archipelago – US Edition:

I dedicate this to all the women who did not live to tell it

Purnima in The Gulag Archipelago – US Edition

However, despite being extremely impressed by the museum, I could not help notice that most of the museum was devoted to western literature. There was a window for Persian literature, yes, only a window to encompass all the contribution of Persian literature to the world. And finally, when it was the turn of Sanskrit literature, both secular Sanskrit literature like the great novels of Kalidasa, eternal love stories like Meghadutam and Kadambari and the much beloved Panchatantra or animal tales in addition to better known Hindu and Buddhist epics and religious texts spanning many millennia of literary and cultural expression I found allocated to the far end half panel. My mind was reeling through all the Sanskrit books that had been opened before me, that had been discussed and melodiously recited over and over again. And here the entire collection, memory, idea was crammed into a half panel with two or three basic books. When will the western world truly open its mind and eyes to the thriving cultures of the East, and how can they when such an exceptional and well appointed museum relegated all of Sanskrit literature to a panel at the edge. My mind was screaming out, “who is going to remember Lilavati, who will be alive to question her?” Lilavati and all the mathematical questions posed to her were often raised in jest by my father, and answered by him after my long pause.

Before I leave the Sanskrit section of the Martin Bodmer museum, I have to highlight the fact that there is a way to bridge this gap, to connect the dots, to tie in all the cultures and the literature through the ages: through the Panchatantra. This much beloved book of animal stories originating in India emerging possibly 200-300 BC or earlier from around the time of The Buddha, and finding its expression across the globe from Laos, to Burma, Thailand to Indonesia, to Persia and then to Europe through the Aesops Fables. If I were involved in the Martin Bodmer Museum, that would be my primary window and I would wrap the other windows around, showing how closely we all are really connected. Wouldn’t you?

Roger, I have attached a charming old photo of my father to this email, one that I adore, and one that I have shared with my children showing them their very young handsome grandfather whom they never met looking very dapper in his suit. My (very American) son’s response was, “oh mom, Nana looks just like Ryan Seacrest of American Idol”. To their mind, the American Idol host is the epitome of charm and style. So I sent those compliments to my father across time and space, perhaps he will get it somewhere.

See pasted below a pic of my dad in his younger days- Ryan Seacrest from the East?:

Vijay Kumar Viswanathan

Back to Tulsidas, Luther and Guttenberg Bible, and translating core issues into the vernacular for the common man, this is an idea that has gripped me for a while and one I often mull over as I review tedious legal issues that seem so far removed from the persons it is impacting. Not only being out of their purview and knowledge, but having no access for contribution or response. The need of the hour in my opinion is a pamphlet written in a language that is easily comprehensible (and in a popular format which includes music, graphics, multimedia), the equivalent of a vernacular bible, covering basic legal issues that need to be debated by society at large and not merely discussed and decided upon by the pundits, persuading the executive and passing through the legislature. Issues where the ramifications are not limited to national boundaries but have an impact on all of humanity have to be debated on a broader forum translating the repercussions of the far reaching impact of modern technology on our lives with the reality of converting the Earth into one large Jurassic Park and all of us into test subjects. The challenge being able to traverse across subjects areas and string it all together in a lucid, entertaining and creative format all the while keeping the core legal issues highlighted by weaving them into the fabric. Thus the need of the hour is: Le Loi Pour Les Nuls or Law for Dummies! What do you think Roger?

Before I end, I want to take you to the magical valley of Kashmir, a place that was very closely connected with my fathers heart and a place he spend much of his youth… exploring the mountains, valleys and wildlife. He was very keen to share this passion with us kids, so just a few years before he left us forever, he took us to his beloved Kashmir. As we landed, there was a sense that we were known, he was known, he was recognized for he belonged. As he drove us through the countryside he immediately recited the famous Urdu couplet from the Mughal emperor Jahangir, “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto”.  If there is paradise on earth, it is here , it is here , it is here!

I leave you with dreams of magical Kashmir and hope to hear from you soon. Goodnight.




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