Run of the Mind is a collection of ninety essays –most of them already published in The Mysore Mail-
by Vijendra Rao, journalist and essayist, about a subject he knows and loves well: India and its highly
idiosyncratic people. It is also any journalist's dream. Who has not dreamt of writing a daily, or weekly
column on any subject, however banal or lofty, and of being assured of its right to
publication? The author himself informs us that he had the
privilege of publishing his own work in his own newspaper while
being the paper's editor, without having to subject it to peer
essay from Run of the Mind)
|I have discovered two terms: 'competitive compassion' and 'competitive inaction.' The first term occurred to me when I was working for a certain publication, where the distinguishing feature at office was 'competitive inaction,' the kind of which is generally believed to be found only in government and public sector offices. Anyway, it is not relevant to what I have set out to say. The term 'competitive compassion' struck me much earlier, when a colleague had been
hospitalised and one day when some of us reporters had huddled together at a restaurant, one particular colleague thumped the table and vociferously asserted that he had called on the ailing colleague the most number of times. (Pardon me for this, but I must tell you that my mind immediately switched on the scene that I had witnessed as a boy of eight or nine: It had just turned dark and I was walking with my parents in a playground. A group of boys, all my age, had formed a circle and in a formation that could be termed a human fountain were targeting their jet stream to its centre. When I grew up I heard similar stories from friends, and I realised that it is not unusual for boys of that age – the age of discovery of one's own body – to compete among themselves to find out as to whose jet had the farthest reach).
But he is honest and explains in his preface
that he doesn't consider "the essays anything more
than mere ramblings of an editor that enjoyed unbridled
freedom." Moreover, his intellectual honesty has compelled
him to seek the opinion of a complete stranger on the other side
of the world. That stranger happens to be me, a stranger who
knows and loves India both as a
stranger as well as an old friend.
I would disagree with Rao when he dismisses his essays as mere
ramblings. They are much more than that. They are keen observations on life,
mores, traditions, modernity, self-delusion and much more. We all go
through life thinking apparently random thoughts, not daring to put them down on paper, as Rao has done. But
our thoughts are never really random, because they are a composite of our daily lives, the values inculcated
by our parents and the formal education we have been exposed to. Vijendra Rao has had the courage to put
down on paper many of the observations that have resulted from his encounters with daily life in a country
where chaos is sustained by the natural order of things whose machinations are not always clear to the
casual eye. We can imagine the author walking, cycling, riding on a tonga or a rickshaw or as a passenger in a
taxi or perhaps driving a battered Maruti recording the smells and sounds and sights of this chaos that is
modern India, as well as the wonder that it was, to paraphrase noted British historian Prof. Basham.
Rao touches upon subjects as varied as rape (the victim should not be stigmatized), the cloning of gods
( i.e. Ganesha), profanity as self expression (it diminishes human dignity and demeans women), the nature of
sympathy (it is not a democratic emotion), the impending demise of literature (Rao challenges V.S. Naipul's
ridiculous claim) and most importantly, the essence of Indianness (difficult to describe in a nutshell). And he
does so with a deep knowledge of Hindu traditions and curiosity about the modern world. He also muses on
the follies of his fellow human beings with compassion and understanding.
And since Rao has been so honest in his appraisal of his own work, I will be equally honest in my own
appraisal, for all it is worth. It took me a long time to get through the book because, even though I have lived
in India for eleven years and visited it many more times, I have lost my ear for Indian English after having
lived most of my life abroad. Some of the author's use of archaic terms or "liberal" ideas expressed within
the context of a very traditional mind-set have struck me as sometimes naïve and often plain outmoded. His
views on women, which are highly respectful and considerate, might be deemed too liberal by
ultraconservatives in India but condescending by Western feminists. However, these are just the views of a
stranger from the other side of the world who does not know the country as thoroughly as the author does.
Some turns of phrases which sound just right in India might sound quaint, if not downright ungrammatical, to
a reader attuned to the language of modern media and literature. But these are minor blemishes that do not
mar the very rich and complex portrait of India painted by Rao.
If you want a polished account of India as seen from the outside, read Dalrymple's books. If you
want a raw look from the inside, read Rao's Run of the Mind and … enjoy!
The review first appeared in www.sawf.org.
(Maya Khankhoje, a writer of Indian origin, was born in Mexico, brought
up in India and now resides in Canada.)
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