A Bold Jatak Katha Retold by Intizar Husain
Intizar Husain’s short story, ‘Complete Knowledge’ is a beautifully and effectively written short story in the tradition of ‘Jatak Katha’. All Jataka tales narrate a moral tale through the experiences of a Bodhisattva, one destined to enlightenment.
The tradition of ‘Katha Vaachan’ where a learned speaker tells a tale of knowledge and wisdom to attentive and eager listeners is based on stories of Hindu mythology. It is a pleasant surprise for the reader to find Intizar Husain using the tradition of Hindu mythological narrative telling in such an easy, effortless and simple manner. Trust and mutual regard between the narrator and listeners is the key to this tradition. The listeners believe in the superior knowledge of the narrator and accept it. The narrator knows the attitude of the listeners, and speaks purely out of the intention to benefit, inspire and train the listeners. As it is, nothing in traditional Indian culture and religion is ever practiced without any eye for utility. The vision is that of totality, merger, osmosis and synthesis. Everything, be they rituals, hymns, practices, ceremonies- everything comes packed with a purpose.
The narrative of Intizar Husain in this story is cute for its simplicity. The wayward son of a Brahmin undergoes a headlong change of heart with just a few simple words of his father, ‘Son, we are Brahmins. Knowledge is our wealth. Wisdom is our ornament. a Brahmin must be a man of learning.’
His father’s words pierced Manohar’s heart like a spear. He renounced all his pleasures and bent over his books. He read the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramanaya, and the Mahabharata; he read everything. In a short while he became a learned man.’(22) How one wishes that life could be so simple where you say a few words to your son and he metamorphoses into a sincere boy ! In this post-modern world of doubt and rebellion, and multiple layers of meanings, this Katha came to me as a gust of fresh wind. Here was a narrative that meant exactly what it said; I did not have to go on searching for unsaid messages as usually the post- modernist texts require that exercise.
The story is simply marvelous for many reasons. It begins with a loaded sentence, ‘Manohar sat out on one path, but ended by taking an entirely different one.’(22) How true it is for life! One hardly knows where one is going. You intend to do one thing but life presents something entirely different. Manohar is set on the path of knowledge by his father. Manohar feels that his knowledge is immense but the great indicator of unexplored knowledge comes from his father, ‘And what about the things that haven’t been written?’(22) Then follows a period of wandering for Manohar. A small but very significant paragraph symbolizes Manohar’s quest but also the eternal human un-fulfillment, the longing, the craving. Then comes another archetypal thirst quenching scene. A beautiful woman makes Manohar conscious of his thirst. Needless to say that this thirst is not only that of water. Manohar did not know that he was thirsty. It is the sight of the woman that makes him know his needs. But without fully realizing the meaning of this meeting, Manohar leaves her for acquiring knowledge. His soul remains restless as ever.
Manohar keeps roaming, searching, seeking, hungering for finding a meaning in life. This wandering, as myth critics tell us, has a deep embedded appeal for the collective psyche. Even the civilized man of today dreams of the nomadic wanderer going about caves, mountains, rocks and cliffs innovating, thinking and making life possible for himself. Manohar finally finds a Guru, whose name (as everything else in the story is very conventional and expected) is Sampoornanandji. His name means ‘complete bliss’. Let us see as to what happens to his complete bliss.
Manohar asks the guru to give him peace of mind. The guru promptly tells him that peace blossoms from within and can be achieved only by meditation. For years together Manohar sits in meditation. But the thought of that voluptuous lady never leaves him. His meditation proves to be as futile as ever. At last, admitting defeat, he sits at the feet of his guru and begs him to give him gyan (enlightenment). Then follows a cycle of stories within the story. Guruji tries to improve Manohar by giving examples. Then come four stories of King Harcharan, Prajapati and Usha, Rishi Parashar and Vishvamitra and Menaka.
All the four stories depict the woman as the cause of all evil in the world. The fall of man, his deviation from the path of duty and virtue are shown to have been caused by woman time and again. The woman is shown to have inexplicable power to change a man’s mind. She can cause, what Italians call, thunderbolt. There is no remedy to the spell of fascination caused by a woman. If the man goes to the woman, he loses both the worlds. If he does not go to her, he remains unhappy and restless. It is a no win situation. Woman is presented as the opposite of all logic, reason and rationality. The stories bid Manohar not even talk to a woman. These highly suggestive and sensuous stories tell us about eroticism in the ancient Indian mind and literature.
Pavan K. Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani write, ‘Today, the philosophical acceptance of desire and the erotic sentiment has been asphyxiated by a hypocritical morality that has for much too long equated sex with sin and desire with guilt.’ They say that we must have ‘a glimpse of the sense of maturity and honesty that animated our ancestors.’ And again. ‘The absence of inhibition and guilt and the candor and boldness with which society set about seeking its pleasures find expression repeatedly in writings over the ages.
The literature of India, both religious and secular, is full of sexual allusions, sexual symbolisms and passages of such frank eroticism the likes of which are not to be found elsewhere in world literature.’ In this story also, limbs and gait of the woman are suggestively described. Each story ends with a tickling indication of union of man and woman and then the fall of man. The stories also create fear in the male mind regarding a woman and her contagious presence.
Manohar, however, fails to grasp anything and his yearning for the woman of his dreams increases day by day, moment by moment. The Guru gets fed up with the foolish boy and dismisses him. Manohar goes to the woman who had haunted him for years and unites with her. He blissfully lives with her. One day he recalls his father’s words and returns to the guru for ‘gyan’. The guru, however himself was undergoing great mental turmoil regarding Manohar’s behavior and the fall of so many sanyasies (ascetics) because of the mysterious power of women. Sampoornanandji was agitated. When Manohar comes to him, he is startled by the serene, peaceful, gratified look of Manohar’s beautiful face. Making Manohar sit at his place of worship, the Guru goes is search of a woman! The words of Sampoornanand that are refreshingly modern and flexible in approach are, ‘Who has ever attained complete knowledge? Human beings must search for ever.’(32) Human existence is always incomplete. Half-ness, craving, lacking, imperfection- these are human life. There is no need to force an unnatural roundness, and completion to anything related to human existence. There is no destination; the journey is the end. Defects are to be celebrated. The best that a human being can do is to keep on living, searching a meaning to life without losing hope and conviction. My pleasure in reading this story is that I did not expect such post-modernist message in a Jatak Katha.
This story written by Intizar Husain in 1960 and based on ancient Indian Jatak Kathas is so wonderfully open and trendy in its attitude. While the story goes on, the reader feels (especially if she is a woman) the depressing blames put on women. A woman simply exists. She does not do anything. and yet she is held responsible for all misery and vices in the world. Needless to say that the ideas look bogus, off beat, rotten, unfair and dogmatic. They choke a woman as a sex object; her very being, her body and breathing are held her crimes. But the end is to nice; it is simply superb. The mouth that poured venom on the woman at last craves for her. The creature that Sampoornanand cursed beckons him commandingly and he goes. However, the narrative attempts no hint at the will and wish of the woman concerned. The choice is all man’s. The big question is whether a man should go to a woman or not; the thought that woman may also want to make her choices regarding her physical life and regarding her partner never occur to the writer. that a woman may also like to reject a relationship is nowhere in the mental makeup of the writer and it is quite natural. No one ever bothered about the likes and dislikes, whims and wishes, views and vows of a woman. There is no point in doing a feminist dissection of the piece.
On one hand, the end reinforces the fearful power of women, on the other hand, it tells us not to comment on things that we do not know. You have first to experience a thing in order to analyze it.
The traditional wisdom, Eastern, or Western, never fails to emphasize on the corrupting influence of women over guileless men. According to it, women compel men to deviate from the noble path. A woman is a distraction. Eve came under the influence of the infernal serpent, and forced innocent Adam to eat the forbidden apple and go against the divine will. Menaka ruined Vishvamitra’s meditation, and thereby his future prospects of attaining godhood. The examples are numerous. Bhartihari writes in Shatakatrayam,
Discrimination’s lucid light
Continues to shine for learned men
Only when it is not eclipsed
By the tremulous lashes of women’s eyes.
Similarly Rig Veda says, ‘...with women there can be no lasting friendship; their hearts are the hearts of jackals.’ (Quoted by Varma and Mulchandani)
In the Indian context, the woman becomes either a ‘devi’ or a devil. The Indian mind rejects the middle path, where actually the truth lies. To me, the woman as the source of all evil, this dictum, underlies a deep seated fear in the male psyche. The defencelessness, the helplessness, the utter futility of any effort, any protest before the charms of a woman, the realization of one’s own weakness, and vulnerability has shaped the male mind to come to a conclusion that woman is the source of evil or rather woman is evil. The point to be noted, however, is that the cause of the fall (if deviation from the spiritual path be called a fall) lies with the male inadequacy to deal with a woman’s raw appeal and not with the woman herself. Apart from this deep rooted psychological fear, the narcissistic instincts of male dominated human existence refuse to recognize anything other than male. Female is held as the ‘other’ and the moment she is held as the ‘other’, all the hostility, reactionary approach, fear and what not crop up.
I am reminded of the wonderful words of Gray Kochha-Lindgren, ‘... Narcissus longs only for the possession of the evanescent reflection of himself that shimmers in a glassy pond. This obsessive self-reflection leads not to the wisdom of self-understanding, which reflection so often claims for itself, but to death... The narcissistic logic of this self-reflection, which is simultaneously murderous and suicidal, is a truncated symbolic dialectic that lacks the capacity to recognize that which is other than itself.’
Intizar Husain as a writer is an excellent example of his own kind. away from the communal bitterness created by politicians out of selfishness, Husain was one of those who believed ‘it was always possible for different communities to create a life of complex and pluralistic wholeness.’(ix) He simply says, ‘I am a Muslim, but I always feel that there is a Hindu sitting inside me.’(xi) Accepting his heterogeneous Indian background, Husain says, ‘I have no idea what a purely Islamic culture is.’(x) Pained at the avoidable, unnecessary and tragic partition of our motherland, Husain never got used to a Lahore based, purely Pakistani existence. He compared fate-forced moving of his likes to Pakistan with hijrat (exodus) of the Prophet and his followers to Madina.
Alok Bhalla, the translator of Husain’s stories, in his brilliant analysis says, ‘He was not, he said, a man of strong religious beliefs, but the place where he had been born, the basti which had nurtured him in his childhood, still had its mysterious charm and pull. For him, watan (homeland). He insisted, was not merely defined by the territory within which he now claimed his rightful citizenship, it was also the larger civilizational space from which he derived his imaginative strength. That is why, he said sadly, as if echoing the sentiments of countless migrants during the partition,’ I still feel that I am an exile who wanders between Karbala and Ayodhya.’ I should add that his Ayodhya was not a real place on some political map, but the utopian kingdom of Rama, where an examined life of truth and moral law alone can confirm god’s presence; and his Karbala was not the present city with a specific geographical location, but a richly imagined site where the traditions of the Prophet gave life a coherence, a reason and a balance.’(xii)
The stories of Husain and this story in particular underline a fundamental principal of life that the most difficult thing in this life is to be easy, simple and good. The ordinary things are not all that ordinary. Life is all about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, being kind to others, not to burn in revenge and hatred all the time, and enjoy doing common things. Religion, philosophy, rituals, nationhood, identity- all these concepts are valid only when they spread love, peace, and make life livable. If religion, and ideology break the social fabric and mental peace of individuals, they are useless.
The very title of the story ‘Poora Gyan’ points the flexible approach of Husain. Instead of Sanskrit word, ‘gyan’ he could have used the Urdu work ‘ilm’ in order to establish himself as a pucca Urdu writer. But he does not do so. So it goes with the sources of his stories.
I wish to quote Bhalla at length, ‘Trying to give shape to his unique understanding of the Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinent, Intizar Husain draws freely and imaginatively upon the rich and fascinating narrative traditions of the Indian subcontinent found in such diverse sources as the Katha Sarit Sagar, Puranic lore, Sufi legends, religious epics, Jataka tales, popular lore about talking animals and birds, Hatamtai, anecdotes about rishis, who have the learning to challenge the gods but are yet fallible. a thoroughly modern writer, he uses them to reflect upon religious faith and identity, historical truths and modern delusions, power and the endless failure of reason. thus, in his telling of the Jatakas, he points out how difficult it is in the present to locate the ‘good’ and on the basis of our understanding of it, perform the right action in the public realm. In the older Jatakas both these actions are unproblematic. The good is unambiguously located in the Bodhisattva and is available to in every generation to all living things. The Bodhisattava is reborn as a man, a woman, a king, a woodcutter, a witch, a tree or a monkey. Each reincarnation of the Bodhisattava reasserts the fact that good is eternally available and each story about him recalls for us the fact, which we tend to forget, that ordinary people, with the most limited of intellectual and material resources, can always recognize the good man and follow his example. The Bodhisattva of these tales is the ideal man whose personal inwardness is never distinct from his public actions. He is a self governing moral agent who always acts responsibly towards the rest of creation.
‘In Intizar Husain’s rendering of the Jatakas, one is at first enchanted by the tranquility of the forest and by the silence of the bhikshus who walk through them. Unlike the listeners of the old Jatakas, we are located in world which is noisy and agitated. Intizar Husain startles us by reminding us of the fact that even though we live in cities, the realm of trees, birds, rivers, animals, and the sky is in our neighbourhood and that we are both dependent on it and responsible for it... In the old Jatakas, such a lesson would have been enough to make people see, in the world around them, signs of the divine presence. The pilgrims of Intizar Husain, however are like us...
The bhikshus in Intizar Husain’s stories understand the lessons taught to them, but they do not know how to act correctly. They fail to understand that an action is ‘right’ only if it is based in the ‘good’. a good man can, at times, make mistakes without jeopardizing his goodness, but a man who has not achieved wisdom can perform the right action and yet bring disaster upon himself and others.
The bhikshus in Jatakas, who found themselves in the presence of the Bodhisattva, never went back to their old ways of ignorant living. The bhikshus in Intizar Husain’s stories are told a countless number of moral tales, but fail to recognize how the ‘good’ can be achieved in the world in which they live. They cannot reconcile the beauty of the world and the joy of the senses with the demands of renunciation; the demands of humanity with the fear of entrapment in the vast network of illusions. Like many of the protagonists in his Partition tales, they find themselves staring at blank spaces where identities are utterly confused. At the end they give up their quest and are stranded on the border between forests and villages, rational knowledge and uncontrolled passion, religious faith and despair. The learned man of ‘Complete Knowledge’ thinks that evil will always be with us and is paralyzed by that knowledge...’(xvii)
Sampoornanand has no answer to raw sexuality. His ‘gyan’ proves inadequate in dealing with the demands of the body. But the funniest part is that sexuality has been bracketed with evil. My argument is against this is a foolish presumption. The whole Indian psyche is pervaded by concepts of evil, sin, guilt and fall when it comes to man-woman relationship. The healthy spirit of sharing, understanding, intimacy, caring and reciprocity is totally missing. Man-woman relationship is weighed in terms of domination, exploitation, power, money, winning and losing. Emotions have been thrown out of the window. Relationships are bound to prove inadequate and unsatisfying in such a scenario. Although much has changed; still unfortunately basic Indian mentality remains the same.
- Gray Kochhar-Lindgren. 1993. Narcissus Transformed- The Textual Subject in Psychoanalysis and Literature. Pennsylvania: the Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Intizar Husain. 2002. A Chronicle of Peacocks- Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
- Pavan Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani. 2004. Love and Lust- An Anthology of Erotic Literature from Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Harper Collins, India Today.