FOCUS: A Bridge Between East And West

Satendra Nandan’s latest book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, was published last week. It will be launched at an international literary conference in Germany on July 27. You reach a
16 Jul 2015 10:01
FOCUS: A Bridge Between East And West

Satendra Nandan’s latest book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, was published last week. It will be launched at an international literary conference in Germany on July 27.

You reach a certain age when the death of someone who may have entertained or educated you touches your life with a special sadness. You see a whole world passing by but you cannot say:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman , pass by!

That would be supreme detachment of the Bhagwad Gita, one of the world’s most celestial poems. Most of us are attached to places, people, lives, myths, and memories.

The intimations of mortality are everywhere like life itself.

I’m seldom affected by the passing on of celebrities; but the death of a person I’ve encountered in some form or face, on a page or screen, touches the vulnerable core of my being.

In the deserts of the Middle East, one such individual was Edward Said whose work I read and taught : from Orientalism to Culture and Imperialism. I met him twice :once at a conference in London– we’d lunch together. I was surprised how much he knew about Fiji of the early 1990s. Later I heard him giving the Rajiv  Gandhi Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, chaired by Rajiv’s young widow Sonia Gandhi.

Edward  Said was one of the two most cosmopolitan public intellectuals of the day. He put the tragic case of the Palestinian people into the consciousness of the American policy makers and the guilty conscience of Christian Europe. He was a Palestinian Christian , teaching English in the US.

He countered the prevailing orthodoxy of many western scholars regarding the many seemingly intractable and deadly issues in the Middle East. But he died too young: cancer, the emperor of all maladies, claimed him.


Death of Sharif

I was reminded of Said because yesterday I heard that Omar Sharif died at the age of 83. The Egyptian actor was suffering from Alzheimer’s — that dreadful state that seems increasingly part of growing old. The loss of memory is the deepest loss when one cannot recognize the most loved faces or recall the most precious moments. Its unspeakable sadness I’ve seen in two people close to me.

Egypt is a country I’d have like to visit but never made it. It’s ancient and was a cradle of a civilization. It gave birth to the Arab Spring that has now turned into a desert of wintry despair.

The death of Omar Sharif brought back two special memories for me.

First the lesser one: once I was quite addicted to contract bridge—the card game I learnt and played during my undergraduate days. I would have been quite successful in my first career as a journalist but spent my working hours playing bridge with my college cronies. I should have studied journalism on India’s leading newspaper The Statesman. It was a rare opportunity for someone from Fiji at that time. I squandered it for a  game of cards.

Omar Sharif was an obsessive bridge player: he said he’d lost thousands of dollars in a night. He called it an ‘obscene’ obsession. It happens. In an interview he confessed that so many years were wasted in playing bridge when there were matters of life and death affecting millions in the Middle East, his home-region.His image and influence could have made a difference to so many lives as actors in Bollywood and Hollywood have often demonstrated by their commitment to social causes, nationally and world-wide.

But I remember him most vividly as an actor in two films made by David Lean, the extraordinarily gifted English film director. Lean made large films—five remain my mind: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India.


Elemental nature

David Lean used elemental nature in his epic films.: the jungle in The Bridge on the River Kwai;in Lawrence of Arabia, it was the desert; in Doctor Zhivago, the snow; in Ryan’s Daughter, the sea; in A Passage to India, the landscape and caves.

I first saw Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia—I can never forget the shimmering photography as he approaches Peter O’Toole, the hero of the epic. But for me it’s really Omar Sharif’s role as Yury Zhivago that is most memorable. There’s a reason for it.

More than fifty years ago, I got a gift– a hard-cover edition of Doctor Zhivago. Although I’ve lost my personal library four times before the cock had crowed thrice, for some reason this novel has remained with me. I must have loved the book—and you really never lose the thing you truly love. Doctor Zhivago is essentially a love-story against the backdrop of Russia’s turbulent history of the first half of the 20th century and the degeneration of a society.


Literary event

The publication of the novel was a literary event of the first magnitude. It became a major instrument in the ideological Cold War then raging from Siberia to South Africa, from Moscow to Cuba.

The central figure is Yury Zhivago, a physician and a poet. The terrible saga of Mother Russia is redeemed at the end of the novel by Zhivago’s poems which form an integral part of the text. Literature has always revealed its hidden power against brutal regimes whose power depends from fatwas to fundamentalisms of many kinds. This is confined not to any one religion or race, one ideology or party, one country or continent.

Literature, like people, escapes the ghettos in which we wish to imprison it.

In Doctor Zhivago there’s a powerful scene: besides his love for Lara, Zhivago has another burning desire—the passion to create something aesthetically immortal like a poem. In the ruined cottage ,he sits and writes poetry; Lara is fast asleep. His desire is to create a poem despite the wreckage of destruction all around him. This passion and pertinacity of creativity are contrasted with the brutal reality in which he and Lara live that is not redeemed by the passion of a doctor or the precision of a poet.

Suddenly Yury becomes aware of sinister shadows on the moonlit night outside his window:

‘He was dazzled by the white flame playing on the shadowless, moonlit snow, and could at first see nothing. Then the long, whimpering, deep-bellied baying sounded again, muffled by the distance, and he noticed four long shadows, no thicker than pencil strokes, on the edge of the snowfield just beyond the gully.

The wolves stood in a row, their heads raised and their muzzles pointing towards the house, baying at the moon or at its silver reflection on the windows.’

Reading this passage one politician-writer remarked: ‘All we can say is that those four pencil strokes have now been indelibly drawn upon the sheet of world literature. The miracle of black ink has had its might…asserting itself against death and corruption.’

Pasternak’s book was published in 1957 to world-wide acclaim. To Soviet Russia’s shame it was not published first in Mother Russia; in fact the manuscript was smuggled out to an Italian publisher. Within two years the novel went through a dozen printings. The following year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature which he was prevented from accepting by the powers that be to their eternal disgrace.

The author died a broken man. We all know the brave struggle of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn :That Solzhenitsyn finally won against the Russian regime is a great victory of the Word against the sword.


Vivid memories

Omar Sharif’s death brought back to me memories of this revolutionary Russian masterpiece. It’s the literature that appeals to me even today more than the lyrical film about love and death, although the film’s focus is more on the tragic love-story amidst chaos, revolution, civil war, famine.

Art, Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago, has two constant and unending preoccupations: it’s always meditating on death and it is always thereby creating life. No theory can encompass it; no ideology can extinguish it.

The last lines of the book tell us out of what life grows :

Tightly  closed eyelids.

Heights; and cloudy spheres.

Rivers. Waters. Boulders.

Centuries and years.

In a poem titled ‘The Earth’, Boris Pasternak wrote:

Spring bursts impertinently

Into Moscow houses.

Moths flutter from behind the wardrobe

And crawl on summer hats

Fur coats are hidden away in trunks.

That is why in early spring

My friends and I gather together

And our evenings are farewells

And our parties are testaments,

So that the secret stream of suffering

May warm the cold life.

At a certain age, these words become so meaningful as you contemplate the loss of friends and the kindness of strangers who in some way may have touched your life in a cinema hall or in a bookshop of a strange city.

Omar Sharif had tried to build a bridge of some understanding between more than two worlds.

Feedback: josuat@fijisun.com.fj


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