English Writings of D V Gundappa - 11

This article is part 11 of 12 in the series English Writings of D V Gundappa

DVG never lost an opportunity to express his views on public affairs. To this end, he contributed to the leading periodicals of the country for many decades. In a popular article titled Thoughts on Republic Day, he mused on several important issues that plagued post-Independence India. He made a distinction between an ‘excited hour’ and an ‘average day’ and urged the leaders to promote moral integrity:

To take an excited hour of a special day as the normal specimen of an average day is of course to get into a delusion. The excitement must evaporate after a while, and the norm reassert itself afterwards … When a community has long been under a load of distress and known no way of escape, the promise of relief held out by any novel idea catches; and the community’s response to it seems phenomenal for a day or two. But what of the day after? If the new idea has become assimilated to the norm, all will be well of course. (p. 194)

               The effect of legislation upon the moral character of the people is no negligible matter. Burdensome taxation encourages resort to nominal transactions in property, to fictitious partnerships, faked bequests, cooked-up account books and forged vouchers. The edge of sensitiveness to principle and honour becomes blunted and the habit of mental straightforwardness receives a twist. There cannot be a greater calamity to a people than loss of character. It is a rot in the soul, and no number of Hirakuds and Rourkelas can ever save the people from fall. (p. 196)

DVG’s thoughts on literature and literary theory have a timeless appeal. He firmly believed that literature should have a positive bearing on human life:

What is literature? It is the expression in effective language of a movingly beautiful feeling or a movingly deep thought. The moment you grasp the word it must move you. The phrase must haunt your memory and the sense must work upon your heart. (p. 314)

               Good poetry fascinates the ear by the phonic properties of the words it uses and the rhythm of their arrangement. At the same time, the sense of those words raises pictures in our mind, working upon our memory and on the knowledge we already possess of the world and its ways. The sound gives vividness and intensity to the sense; and the sense vitality and value to the sound. In cooperation, the two create in our consciousness a world different from the one we found about ourselves before. That creation, let us note carefully, is really a collaboration between what the poet has put into his words and what we have developed from within ourselves — between his skill in the use of words and our sensibility to their significance — between the deftness of his fingers and the fineness of our clay — between his stimulus and our responsive faculty … The essence of poetry is emotion culminating in reflection. It is pregnant speech issuing in illuminated silence. (pp. 294–95, 297)

In 1949 DVG delivered a series of lectures analyzing the poetry of Robert Burns. His assessment of the popular Scottish poet is informed by a close study of the relevant literature, a keen literary sensibility, and a truly noble outlook of life that never shirks from giving a man his due – his correct due. This longform is a valuable contribution to English literary criticism:

We may not count Burns among poets ranked as great. He was not a profound or sublime poet. To him had not been given the power which was Shakespeare’s of creating strange and awesome worlds peopled with colossal figures working their way through mazes to their doom. He had not Milton’s inward vision of the splendours of the kingdom of heaven and the blessedness of service there, nor Milton’s grandeur and loftiness of utterance. Nor was Wordsworth’s tranquil, brooding eye among Burns’s endowments; nor Browning’s penetrative insight into the workings of man’s mind. Burns’s was a more modest role. His was to cheer up and strengthen humble folk in Scotland and England in their lives of patient toil and moderate reward; to shout out their humble joys and cry out their piously borne sorrows; to give tongue to their trustful hope and manly indignation; in one word, to be the mouthpiece for their simple minds. (p. 298)

               […] He is a poet that comes to your help in moments when you are made by circumstances to feel small or weak or unworthy of the privilege of living. When wealth mocks at your poverty or success derides your failure, when celebrity insults your obscurity or convention frowns upon your lapses, it is his brave cheery voice, — more than any great or grand poet’s — that will raise an echo in your heart and sustain you in the struggles before you. (p. 309)

Back home, DVG brought the same set of sensibilities to appreciate the elevating poetry of Bhartrhari, a poet and grammarian par excellence who lived in the fifth century ce and wrote in Sanskrit. Among other things, his observations on the era of the poet highlight the salience of adopting a historical approach to the study of all subjects:  

It seems reasonable to take fifth-sixth century as the time of Bhartrhari. It was the period of the break-down of the Gupta Empire in the North. The Guptas, of the line founded by the great Chandragupta, had risen to a great height in power and prosperity. But as Bhartrhari has sadly cautioned us, empires have a way of crumbling down irreparably. Rivals rose in the neighbourhood for the Guptas; and invading hordes of Huns came rushing from Central Asia. Their ravages could not have left the civil and social life of the country untouched. Political unsettlement must have been followed by some unsettlement of morals and manners.

               It is never easy to say whether the conquest of a country by a foreigner was the effect of a pre-existent demoralization there or the cause of a demoralization that followed after. It is quite possible that both conditions apply together in a case. The age that some verses of Bhartrhari point to was one of decay of letters and culture and fall from ideals and loss of the scene of relative values. He lived in times that paid little respect to what he held high. (pp. 311–12)

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Volume Six (1954–1955)

            DVG brought a steady and unhurried mind to the study of public affairs where celerity is typically the order. He did not consider things in their fragmentary phases. This allowed him to discern a whole world of shades between the boundaries of black and white. His explanation of the difference between revolution and reform is a case in point. Incidentally, it gives us the primary reason for his preference for liberalism in politics:

Revolution is change both sudden and radical. The change may be from a very bad to a very good condition; but since it is sudden, those for whose benefit it is meant are not having the time necessary to prepare themselves for it, and therefore the good anticipated goes unrealized. And since it is radical, they are unable to understand its bearings and incapable of responding to it in the expected way, and so also the change may fail and even make way for a new evil. A reform can work as intended only if it has been preceded by a course of public education and discipline for it. In the absence of intellectual and emotional preparation for it, the new regime may break down and become perverted. (p. 10)

In one of the many essays that he wrote on Gopal Krishna Gokhale, he outlined two sets of mutually reflective attributes: the characteristics of a conscientious citizen and the qualities of Gokhale that are worthy of emulation: 

[The conscientious citizen] takes pains to collect knowledge about every aspect of the matter before him and from every source accessible; and he is careful to sift and study the information before acting upon it. He is precise in weighing evidence and argument; and he is persuasive in his manner of presenting opinion, avoiding both overstatement and understatement. He looks upon a dissentient as fellow-seeker and takes note of his evidence too in the search for the true and the good. Finally, he keeps his mind fresh and unfossilized. It is sensitive to new experiences, receptive to new ideas and sympathetic to new conceptions of the good. It is a mind that is continuously growing and grows with life. Such should be the inner make-up of the man who would truly serve his fellow-men. (pp. 14–15)

               Disinterest and active public spirit, tirelessness and freedom from prejudice in the search for the right, a sober appreciation of the realities of the time, and cheerful provisionalism — these are the qualities we have to promote in our citizenship; and Gokhale’s life and work are an illustration of those qualities. (p. 17)

               We all do owe something to the society of which we are a part, and the conscientious remembrance of that debt should plainly be an element of that common morality from which no religion, I think, gives an exemption to anyone. A society in which the educated and the well-placed are habitually indifferent to the duties of citizenship can never expect to fare well under democracy. (p. 36)

DVG was fascinated by life. His interest in the passions and tensions that mark human relationships led him to write truly elevating reminiscences, pen portraits, and biographies. In these writings DVG comes up with poignant phrases and evocative images to sketch the characters of a mind-bending variety of people. Sample these paragraphs that contextualize V S Srinivasa Sastri’s personality and public work:

When you are trembling in suspicion of the presence of a black cobra in a dark corner of your unlit room in the night, the man who fetches you a lighted lamp gives you no less relief than the man who comes with a lethal weapon for the brute. Similar is the value to the country of a public man who brings to her problems the light of a powerful mind expressing itself through a lucid tongue. Such was the Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri in India’s public life for over forty years … He was an artist bearing the burdens of a statesman. (p. 19)

               The public part of Sastri’s activity formed only about a half of his usefulness to his fellowmen, and the other half consisted in the benediction of his private friendship. He had friends in four continents. His talk was a feast to the soul by its unsimulated kindliness and its gentle play of humour. His letters, of which he wrote a score or two every week, were vivifying tonic to their recipients. (p. 22)

To be continued.




Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

Prekshaa Publications

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