Arrow of the Blue-skinned God by Jonah Blank

Arrow of the blue skinned godJonah Blank: Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God, Retracing the Ramayana through India. New York, Grove Press. Pp.xiv+370. Date of publication not given, but the author’s Foreword to the Grove Press Edition is dated Washington, 2000; originally published in Boston in1992, by Houghton Mifflin Company.

jonah blank

Jonah Blank, Author

Musing on the Ramayana murals of the Mattancherry Palace, Jonah Blank says, ‘every Indian, at one time or another, created his or her own personal epic’ (163). Camille Bulcke’s count of three hundred hardly matters. And so does the unending debate about the historicity of the events in the epic. Blank points out, aptly, ‘Even a hypothesis conclusively proven true soon loses its relevance: does anybody care that the earth really is round instead of flat? Facts falter, only ideas survive. The Ramayana is not a fact but an idea… It can never be confirmed, so it can never be denied’ (10). It is an idea the learned and the lay love to grapple with. Blank notes: ‘How could Rama, the very personification of good, commit an act of evil (killing Vali deviously)? How could Ravana, the Lord of the Demons, behave like a true gentleman (refraining from rape)? These are questions that Indians debate every day, at the dinner table, at the temple, at the tea hut near the village well. Truck-driver philosophers and seamstress theologians come up with many explanations, but never with an answer.’ Blank concludes there is no answer, because ‘Good and evil are not the separate entities we would like to believe’ (173); he iterates the age-old wisdom of the Mahabharata: naatyantam gunavavat, naatyantam doshavat tatha (Nothing is wholly good or wholly bad).

Retracing the Ramayana through India, Blank laces his narrative with lively synoptic retelling of the epic story, with a touch of mild humor. ‘Every happy home needs a Chamber of Wrath. It is a place where people go when they are angry or sad, so that their sour mood does not infect the other members of the household’ (25). As Rama tells his grieving mother Kausalya of his duty to obey his father and cites the instance ‘of his own kinsman’ Parasurama, ‘who did not flinch when commanded to hack off his own mother’s head with an axe’, ‘Kausalya was not comforted by the example, but she did cease her complaining’ (26). On Vali asking why Rama killed him, ‘Rama stared back, and for many long minutes had no reply at all. “I am a man,” he said at last, “you are a monkey. I owe you no explanation and no apology” (173). As Ravana assures Sita that he is a gentleman, she recalls that she has been fooled ‘by appearances three times that day’ and is not ‘about to let that happen again’ (144).  Hanuman offers to take Sita on his shoulders and fly back to Rama. She declines with hasty excuses. As he points out that ‘if it came to war, millions of people would die’, she replies, ‘better that millions of millions die … than that I should cause my husband to break holy dharma.’ Hanuman silently thanks ‘the gods that he was only a simple monkey and that such knots of theology were beyond his unraveling’ (231-32).

Blank recounts the grip on the vast masses of the television serial of the epic, and how actor Arun Govil has often been embarrassed by elderly people touching his feet for blessings, as if he were the modern-day incarnation of Lord Rama. Blank ‘was struck by how much the actor resembled the god – and how little.  An ordinary man disguised himself as a mythical deity, and by this fiction made the god more real than ever before’ (150). But the Desk clerk at Ernakulam’s Grand Hotel prefers Ravana, because ‘Ram is like the government, and Ravan is a rebel. We southerners always like a rebel’ (220). The epic is relevant because it tells us much about ourselves (217).

Blank casts his roving eye far and wide, from recent furor to ancient lore, from the Babri Masjid Ram Janmabhumi of Ayodhya to the Kandy Tooth of Sri Lanka, from the Moghul Avadh to the Hindu Vijayanagara, from the Operation Blue Star in Punjab to the Tamil liberation movement of the southern island nation.

He notices at Babri Masjid ‘pilgrims clad only in loincloths were being searched for concealed weapons’ (11), not unlike the latter-day post 9/11 security checks at the US airports. He asks a VHP leader ‘whether the Hindutva (Hindu-ness) movement might stem from … a fear of modernity’ and gets the answer ‘Yes indeed, we have much to worry about quite apart from the Muslims’ (15).

He gets into a discussion with the former Maharajah of Benaras, Bikhuti Narayan Singh, and gets an earful. They talk of monarchy and democracy, of India and US. Narayan Singh says: ‘All your politicians are actors, merely reading scripts prepared by their, what-do-you-call-its, their image makers. It’s all polls and commercials, all pandering and demagoguery.’ Blank admits frankly, ‘He was telling me the same things I’d been telling others for years, but it was vaguely galling to hear it from the mouth of a foreign potentate.’ The ex-Maharajah goes on: ‘And how can you call yourself a ‘democracy’ anyway? … The word is Greek, you know, for “rule by the people”. In America the ordinary citizens do not rule. Only the rich can seek office – I read that it costs four million dollars just to mount a Senate campaign. … America is not a democracy, it is a plutocracy.’ As Blank points out that ‘we do have the power to vote our rulers out,’ the Maharajah counters, ‘yes, but we never actually do it, either in your country or in mine. We exchange one corrupt party for another, but we never change the fundamentals,’ and asserts, ‘the rajahs cared more for their subjects than any bureaucrat ever could.’ (75-79).

Blank looks at the much maligned caste system of the Hindus and the Government’s efforts to meliorate the hitherto oppressed classes. His discussions with Cho Ramaswamy, Gnanam Sambandam, Col. Veerasena, Ambdekar’s grandson Prakesh and others lead him to conclude ‘If America has limousine liberals, India has BMW Brahmins’ (120).  The very tools of reservation meant to end caste distinctions have, Prakesh tells Blank, paradoxically helped perpetuate them (137). Blank notes that ‘a trip to any American hospital or research lab will show, the United States is among the top beneficiaries of India’s caste quotas’ (129).

Blank meets with terrorists of various hues and notes: ‘Here good and evil, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.  One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist… Every devil is, after all, nothing more than an angel who has fallen’ … ‘Separatist longings are strongest in those farthest from home. At a distance, ugly brawls can look like glorious crusades. It is much easier to maintain a moral absolutism when war is an abstraction, when the intestines and bits of splintered bone belong to somebody far away.’ (178-80).

When Blank says, ‘Man’s finest aspirations produce man’s most hideous crimes – as soon as the goals come to dominate the methods’ (196), he comes closest to Mahatma Gandhi on means and ends. And he concludes as much, ‘Most often, perhaps, evil lies not in the ends but in the means’ (197). ‘If you destroy your enemy by adopting his methods, by modeling yourself on him, by becoming him, you have not really survived at all. He has’ (277). But the Brigadier in Sri Lanka says, ‘Once the firing starts, all those pretty rules go right out the window.  You set aside morality until the fighting is over, and only then can you take the law back. Because if your brutal enemy is the one who wins, neither law nor morality will ever be allowed to return.’  (272). Profoundly true is this apparently frivolous comment of a young commando leader in Sri Lanka: ‘It is rather curious that only a single letter turns the word laughter into slaughter’ (275). And this debate, like the one on free will and predetermination is endless.

Instinctively one associates Buddhism with non-violence. But look at the ancient Sri Lankan tales recounted by Blank. ‘The miraculously conceived infant would have a princely appetite for warfare but a monkish passion for the Buddhist faith. … Five hundred holy bhikkhus marched along his troops. … At Anuradhapura one can still see the bhikkhus’ latrines, each stone squatting-trough and urinal carved with the images of other monasteries, so that the monks could piously piss and shit on their rival’s homes.’  A relic of the Buddha, the Kandy Tooth (c. 328 CE) is ‘still a symbol of war and peace, still an icon of Sinhalese pride in the face of Tamil belligerence. Soldiers with heavy machine-guns and high-powered sniper’s rifles ring the roof of the Temple of the Tooth’ (283-88).

‘Anyone, Indian or Western, who claims to truly comprehend all the subtleties of the Upanishads is either a great scholar or a great fool,’ avers Blank (250). However, he makes recondite theology accessible, reconciling differing philosophical views of the universe. He finds parallels in the Vedic philosophy, Buddhist thought, the Greek metaphysics, and the beliefs of the Australian aborigines (166-67). Comparing the blood rituals of the Hindu goddess Kali and the worshippers of the Christ, he comments: ‘Only the fine line of cultural squeamishness divides the gruesome from the glorious’ (240). Blank concludes, ‘India’s land may be ruled by aliens from time to time, but never her mind, never her soul. …  In the end, it is always India that does the digesting. She takes what she wants of each conquistador’s culture, gobbles it up, and spits out the rest.’ (207).

Gentle humor pervades throughout the book: ‘Long before it discovered capitalism, Kerala decided to wrench off chains not yet forged’ (161); ‘In the face of such devastating holiness, evil has no choice but to vanish’ (85); ‘the holy men of today are not as holy as those of old’ (238); ‘if there is any deity one would not wish to offend it would be Kali’ (239); ‘Children and whistles, I mused with my fingers stuck in my ears, should always be kept far apart’ (257) … An occasional oxymoron makes you smile: ‘dead immortals’ 249 …

Blank’s range is enviable: he is at ease with maharajahs, scholars, commoners, terrorists, freedom fighters, politicians, priests, sadhus…   Among his most moving encounters is the one with the lepers of Calcutta (320-21), proving the power of love that makes the blind see, deaf hear, leper leap.

He knows when to go into detail, when to be brief and when to leave things to the imagination of the reader. These four sentences are remarkable for what they omit: ‘Darshan Singh asked his wife and daughter how they were treated in prison, but neither one would answer. They both just looked at the floor. Darshan Singh did not press them. He did not want to know’ (184). A kinder reporting is hard to find.

A fine instance of the blend of humor and admiration is this comment on the Kathakali dancer of Kerala: ‘The star dancer had such a massive gut that he seemed on the verge of giving birth to an elephant, but the limberness of his stocky limbs could have given a ballerina cause for envy’ (158).

A Chinese saying goes that even a beautifully produced book leaves a printing error or two, to give the reader the delight of finding them. This book gives that joy too. There are minor typos on pages 9, 71, 242… The reference to the Jabala episode is found at 4.4.1-5 in S. Radhakrishnan’s The Principal Upanishads, and not at 5.4:1-5, as mentioned on page 348. The note xii on page 336 refers to K. R. Narayanan as ‘president and prime minister’, but Narayanan has never been the Prime Minister of India.

Occasionally, the author misses the Indian touch of the narrative. On page 86, Agastya tells Rama, ‘Know yourself, my friend, and you will see that you are none other than the Lord.’ In ancient India, a rishi hardly addresses a young prince as ‘my friend’; similarly, the railway conductor telling the author on page 179, ‘Chandigarh Express. Track three. Good day’: Track three is an American expression; Indians would call it platform three.

While the detailed notes at the end are helpful, a select bibliography for further reading and an index would have added value to the book.

There are, of course, numerous variations of the ancient Indian lore, but to say Saraswati is the wife of Vishnu (250) goes a trifle too far; and so is the over-simplification of Bhima as Bhishma’s enemy (250).

While the author has made a close study of the Ramayana, he seems to have no more than a nodding acquaintance with the Mahabharata. He says, on page 259, ‘Krishna never kills anybody in the Mahabharata but merely urges others on to their fated slaughters.’ If Krishna has not killed ‘anybody’, who has killed his maternal uncle Kamsa, cousin Sisupala, and others like Putana, Bakasura, Aghasura… the list can go on!

However, my nitpicking is merely to show how closely I have read and cherished the book. Jonah Blank is not a westerner out to explore ‘an area of darkness’, nor ‘a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country’. Unlike V. S. Naipaul and Katherine Mayo, Jonah Blank brings to his research an understanding mind and a universal outlook. The Arrow is an abiding contribution to India studies for its sweep and depth.

Dr D Subba Rao

Dr D.S.Rao

D. S. Rao, Ph.D. is an author, literary critic, retired professor of English, and former Editor ofIndian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.

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