Trickle of the classics

The Murty Classical Library of India is great news. The curious Indian will be happiest when it’s possible to buy bilingual editions in paperback


The Murty library will go well beyond Sanskrit to texts of the subcontinent in general as well as to texts that fall outside the so-called classical period.
The Murty library will go well beyond Sanskrit to texts of the subcontinent in general as well as to texts that fall outside the so-called classical period.

The Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) is being launched with great fanfare across some parts of the world. The New York Times recently did a story on the impulse and energy behind the library and, closer home, the star-studded Jaipur Literature Festival launched the first volumes and held a discussion on the MCLI’s larger intents and purposes.

We are being persuaded that this is big—and there’s no reason to doubt that claim. The general editor of the MCLI is Sheldon Pollock, polymath of Indic studies in our times, the scholars doing the translations (certainly the ones that have been announced) are experienced and wise, the volumes will be a delight to hold and behold. Potentially, as this new canon develops over the next decade, it could change the way we look at Indian literatures and it will almost certainly redefine what we consider a “classic”.

The MCLI is not svayambhu, it did not emerge from nothing. It’s publisher, the Harvard University Press, harks back to its own Loeb Classical Library from a hundred years ago that published translations of Greek and Roman texts. The library also has very recent antecedents in the Clay Sanskrit Library, which was published by the New York University Press and the Joliet Junior College Foundation.

The Murty library has replicated the handy size of the Clay volumes (the latter being just a touch smaller than the projected Murty books) as well as their bilingual printing, which has the original text running alongside the English translation on the facing page.

Where the MCLI extends the mandate of its ancestors is in the reach of its languages and its imprimatur: It will go well beyond Sanskrit to texts of the subcontinent in general as well as to texts that fall outside the so-called classical period. The inaugural volumes show some very careful (and clever) curating: We have the Punjabi (or Panjabi, as the politically correct Murty editors would have it) Bullhe Shah from the 18th century, targeted at young people who listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the first part of the Akbar Nama in Persian; Buddhist women’s poetry in Pali; and 16th century poetry in Telugu and “Old Hindi” (another strategic neologism from the Murty editors).

This width of languages and eras that the MCLI promises is significant and deserves to be noted and celebrated. For one thing, it breaks the hegemonic idea of Sanskrit as the only classical language from the subcontinent worthy of attention and as the only language capable of producing texts that are deemed classics. By opening up these categories, the MCLI is stepping firmly forward into the battle for diversity and difference in our country, a battle that seems poised to become a war and last longer, be more bloody and more fratricidal than the one in the Mahabharat.

For the moment, the Murty stable of translators appear to be all (barring one) Western scholars, the first offerings coming to us from such trusted and true readers of Indian texts as Charles Hallisey, David Shulman and John Hawley, among others. National and linguistic chauvinists are probably chafing at the bit to make the criticism that the series shows hardly any Indian translators and in that, it perpetuates the traditional (in fact, the classical) Orientalist paradigm where Western scholars interpret our texts for us.

It’s hard to imagine that something as carefully constructed and thought through as the MCLI will make a faux pas of these staggering proportions, so before we sharpen our pens (and hopefully not any of our other weapons), let’s wait and see what the next round of translations brings us. We must also acknowledge (and I speak here of people and texts that I know) that in the case of Hallisey’s Therigatha and Hawley and Kenneth E. Bryant’s Sur’s Ocean, there simply are not any translators more familiar with, and more devoted to, these texts than these particular men. We have to believe that the MCLI, under Prof. Pollock’s careful and conscientious stewardship, will be motivated by giving a chosen text to the person best qualified to represent it to contemporary readers in English.

"The murty library is stepping firmly forward into the battle for diversity and difference in our country, a battle that seems poised to become a war..."
The MCLI, catching the unfortunate Indian penchant for unpronounceable acronyms, has promised to sell these beautifully produced little volumes at prices affordable in the local market. The first lot hovers in price from about Rs.1,600 for a hardback with a seriously competitive price of Rs.300-600 for a paperback. The MCLI website tells us that the easily accessible volumes will be available for purchase online as well as at “leading book stores and airport shops around the country”. In an interview with The New York Times, Prof. Pollock’s startling aspiration is that the books are intended for and will be accessible to “...not just scholars in their studies, but kids standing at railway kiosks”. There’s somewhat of a distance between the child at the railway kiosk and the executive at the airport book store, but I’m not going to split hairs at this point.

So, apart from the facts and the quotations from the official sources, as someone who works with Sanskrit classics, how do I feel about the MCLI? I could not be happier—I am over the moon, singing in the rain, dancing in the streets—that it exists at all, curated by people that I (mainly) trust and a politics (so far) that I endorse. But I will be happiest when I can actually buy the bilingual editions in paperback, when I see my bookshelf filling up with these dusky crimson, carefully crafted, superbly translated works.

My meagre collection of well-loved and well-thumbed Sanskrit translations from the Clay library were all given to me by sympathetic American friends, who could afford the books and knew that I wanted them. I may not be the kid at the railway kiosk, but I am certainly not someone who can pay upwards of Rs.1,000 for a single book.

Nonetheless, I remain a curious Indian living in India—the books in the MCLI should be for me as much as they are for the world. I sincerely hope that we in the subcontinent, whose literatures are on display in this library, will not be fobbed off with electronic versions of these volumes. Perhaps, with the launch in Jaipur this month, my dream of a colour-coded bookshelf, holding affordable paperback volumes of these magnificent works from the many languages and cultures of India, will start to become a reality. What a wonderful start to the new year that would be.

Arshia Sattar is a writer, translator and scholar based in Bengaluru.

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