T ‘was the night before the End-Sems and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The “Xeroxes” were strewn through the living-room without care
In hopes that this last-minute studying some fruit would bear.
Itty-bitty Mrinalini shifted uncomfortably in her couch
When pins and needles in the left leg made her go “Ouch!”
Mamma emerged from the kitchen, hot black coffee in a tall mug.
As Itty-bitty Mrinalini through an endless mountain of Xeroxes dug.
Then upon her being descended such demur
“To Hell with the Exam!” she said in a loud murmur
So that her mother would not once more awake
And yet again impress upon her all that’s at stake.
Light from table lamp upon her now-drooping head
Was giving her a migraine and goading her to bed.
When, what to her weary sleep-deprived eyes should appear
A dark faceless spectre cold—with no festive cheer.
The frail man she saw, his vesture drab and morose
Induced such a stupor, leaving her nearly comatose.
She shook her head and came to pretty fast
While the spectre mouthed: “I’m the ghost of Comp. Lit. Past!”
Now, before I proceed any further (and not to worry, I shan’t rhyme anymore), I must let you know what this whole business about “Itty-bitty Mrinalini” is actually about. The inspiration for the rhyme came when I was doing my Masters’. Mrittika (a classmate and dear friend) and I had thought of writing a script to perform at an annual Comparative Literature Students’ seminar, in which this rhyme was to be used in the opening act. The script, as it is apparent from the rhyme, was about a little girl—actually a petite Undergraduate student called Mrinalini (I had recently watched Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrinalini). Mrinalini was studying Comparative Literature at Jadavpur and our story, in true epic fashion, begins in-medias-res on the eve of her first End-Semester Examination. The story captured the trials and tribulations of a somewhat callow and naive comparatist in the making. The story of course abounds in all the conundrums that have, over the years, become stereotypical of Comparative Literature and those associated with it. Thus, in the spirit of the Holiday season—a season of cheer, good faith and hope—I thought, rather than writing an academic piece, I would share with you the story of Itty-Bitty Mrinalini.
So here goes… Now presenting, A Comp. Lit. Carol.
As the rhyme suggests, we find our protagonist Itty-Bitty Mrinalini (IBM) on the eve of her first-ever End-Semester Examination after starting the Bachelors’ program in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur. As all good students all over the world do, she spent the greater part of her two-week study-leave getting all the available “Xeroxes” relevant to her courses under one roof. This, as it usually does, left her with a rather modest amount of time to actually read the said “Xeroxes”, and even less to perhaps make some sense of them. What was she to do? Her mother had chided her, and rather severely at that, for so much as toying with the idea of ‘dropping-out’. When she told her mother that a classmate had decided to ‘drop’ the course, and try again next year for English, she got the usual–“And I suppose you too would jump into a well if your other classmates did?!”
So there sat our dear IBM, shifting nervously and uncomfortably on her couch, thinking of the days of yore…
T’was a bright summer day, not too long ago. IBM was fresh out of school and staring into a future of endless possibilities. She had taken up Science at the high school level, but she wasn’t too thrilled about it. From a tender age she had been fond of reading, and after having waged a long and laborious battle with her parents, had convinced them that her calling lay outside medicine and engineering. So she had filled out forms for a fair few courses in the Arts and Humanities. She sat for entrance tests in English, History, Political Science, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Sociology, and so on.
(Cut to admission day at Jadavpur University)
IBM arrived at the hallowed Gate 4 of Jadavpur University in front of the Undergraduate Arts building, where on a large make-shift bulletin board the results of the entrance tests were put-up for the world to see. She scoured the lists, squinting to read the fine size 9 font for her name and roll number, only to find that her name was waitlisted 37th on the English list and 7th on the Comparative Literature list. She was filled with dismay. Dejected, she went to the helpdesk outside the Students’ Union room, and asked one of the happy-to-help student volunteers if there was any point to hanging around until the admissions procedure commenced. The volunteer, a rather self-possessed young man, taking pity on her plight (who wouldn’t), said: “Chill! Not an issue. You see not everybody who takes the entrance actually turns up. Plus, you’re just 7th on the waiting list. Chaapless!”
Comforted by the Good Samaritan’s kind words IBM waited, and much to her parents’ dismay returned home after having admitted herself to the Bachelors’ program in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University.
Mother: (Enters with a tall mug of black coffee) What on earth do you think you are doing?! Staring into blank space won’t get you to pass your exam tomorrow! Look at the mess you’ve made! Notes and photocopies all over the living room…! (Seeing IBM’s sad face she takes a kinder tone) Look, I never liked the whole Comparative thing… you chose this for yourself… you know because you love to read and all… now it’s up to you to see this through… (hesitantly) Don’t worry… it will be just alright….
“Just Alright! What does she know? She’d be singing a whole different tune had I studied Physics like she wanted me to! Burning the midnight oil with me! Quizzing me on formulae and theorems! Love to read! Studying Literature sure fixed that!” IBM thought to herself as she slumped off the couch onto the carpet and sat there, “Xerox” in hand, resting her elbows on the coffee table.
She took a sip of coffee from her favourite Calvin and Hobbes mug. It didn’t help too much… perhaps a smoke…. Naaaa…. she knew better…. why cause her poor mother more chagrin… her mother was rather theatrical… for a Physics professor that is… And her father… well the less said about him, the better… this reminded her of the episode from the Ramayana where Rama takes leave of Dasaratha… Her father had reacted similarly when he heard his only daughter was studying something called “Comparative Literature”… She had on one occasion, while filling out a form for something put her subject down as “Comp. Lit.”, and had in turn been asked: “Comp. Lit.? I didn’t know they run a course on Computer Literacy at Jadavpur!”… What was that the professor had said in class about the structure of the epic…? Was the Ramayana an epic….? Hadn’t the prof called it a “Mahaakaavya”…? How IS one different from the other….? And what was that bit about the epic being akin to an “uncut diamond”….? What DOES all this amount to….? Perhaps Rishi would know….? Should I call him at this ungodly hour…? Well he is always late for class…. which would mean he sleeps late… Oh! What’s the point! He’s just going to carp on and on about how he hasn’t studied anything and how he’s going to fail for sure… How I hate him! Despite All his shenanigans he still manages to keep up a low first division!
And while these random thoughts streamed through her consciousness she slowly started to drift off to the land of Nod…
1. (Enter the Ghost of Comp.Lit. Past)
Barely had she dozed then before her appeared, without much to do, a man- fair, balding and slight. As the rhyme earlier stated, he identified himself as the Ghost of Comp. Lit. Past- a.k.a. Rene Wellek.
“Rene Wellek!” IBM exclaimed, “As in Rene Wellek of Rene Wellek and Austin Warren?”
The spectre nodded, not particularly pleased.
“I’ve have tried reading you… Can you help me pass my end-sems?”
The spectre stared at IBM over his dark thick-rimmed glasses in absolute and complete wonder. IBM stared right back to impress upon the spectre the justness of her question. What else would one ask of Rene Wellek, especially when he appears before one on the eve of one’s examination, even more so given that one was a student of Comparative Literature? The lamp on her coffee table seemed to be glowing brighter than usual, and IBM watched in wonder as the light form the lamp filled the entire living room. She looked up at Herr. Wellek and he had a kind, but slightly sinister smile on his face.
“Come with me, dear”, Herr Wellek said to her.
“Why? Where to?” enquired IBM. To which the spectre replied, rather crossly, “Not to the hills of Salzburg, so that we may sing “Climb every mountain”, that’s for sure!”
“Now now don’t get all angsty. It was just an innocent question. So? Is this little trip going to help me….? You know… help me pass tomorrow’s exam?” said IBM, feeling suddenly rather hopeful.
The spectre, now positively exasperated, took IBM by the hand and the room became brighter… and brighter… and brighter… and started to spin faster… and faster… and faster… until everything was a blur.
Next thing, IBM found herself standing, Herr Wellek in tow, in what looked like, a very opulent study. There were shelves lined with books from all over the world—the greatest works from everywhere! Also, everything was, as it usually is in good flashbacks, in black and white. Just as IBM was gathering her bearings, a stately gentleman—pleasantly old, entered with a friend in tow. The spectre and IBM watched in complete silence as they discussed the poignancy of Kalidasa’s drama and the beauty of Hafiz’s work in what sounded like German. IBM recognized a word-Weltliteratur. She immediately nudged the spectre. Herr Wellek waved his hand and English subtitles appeared in thin air as the two men spoke.
Kind and discerning reader, as you must have rightly guessed by now, this is a dream. Dreams are fleeting… almost fragmentary… evanescent… it is highly unlikely that our dear protagonist will actually remember anything in any great detail. Thus, for the sake of narrative brevity, and so as not to try your patience, I—the not so omniscient narrator, shall gloss over the highlights of our protagonist’s trip. Also dreams are not always quite factually sound either. Thus, for your own comfort, kind and discerning reader, I would ask you that willingly suspend your disbelief.
So, from Goethe’s study, IBM went to M. Baldensperger’s study where he was busy at work finishing the manuscript of Goethe in France. Next Herr Wellek took IBM to America. There she saw the likes of A.B. Lord and Milman Parry, Hannah Arent, Roman Jakobson, Erich Auerbach, and of course Herr Wellek was there too… She saw Nina Berberova, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak… Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Pier Maria Pasinetti and many such famous writers, artists and academics. The spectre explained to a bewildered and awe-struck IBM, that America, especially after the World Wars, was a land full of possibilities… accommodating and hospitable to diverse languages, cultures and expressions… just the place for Comparative Literature to take roots.
IBM finds herself sitting in a large, and rather noisy, lecture hall and who else but the great Rabindranath Tagore was standing on the dais, prepared to launch into his lecture on Vishwa saahitya, but he couldn’t begin because of the chatter in the room. The chatter soon rose to a din. People seemed to be arguing over what year it was… 1906… 1907… 1908… no no… 1907… 1908?
IBM awoke with a jolt as something in her dream was hurled in her direction.
IBM, obviously distressed by both: the dream, and the prospect of failing her end-sems, went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face. Convincing herself that she wasn’t in the least bit sleepy, IBM, sat down to study with renewed grit, of course, only to fall asleep again.
2. (Enter the Ghost of Comp. Lit. Present)
As it was with the previous visitation, a spectre appeared before IBM. This time it was a tallish woman with exceedingly closely cropped silver hair, wearing a mustard-coloured crisp cotton sari, who was peering at IBM over a pair of reading glasses.
“I am the Ghost of Comp. Lit. Present a.k.a. Madame Spivak… speaking of which… here, this is for you” the spectre said to her, handing her a thin book with a red ribbon bow on it.
“Death of a Discipline”, IBM read the title as she pulled off the bow.
The spectre spoke, with the strangest smile IBM had ever seen, “Hope you find it useful… it might take a few reads though… well… souhaitez-vous voyager avec moi? I mean… Would you like to take a trip with me?”
“Sure! Why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do, like maybe studying for an exam? Anyhow, who are you? And more importantly, will you help me pass my exam tomorrow?” said IBM, now rather distressed.
“Oh… I thought you knew me…? I am the oracle who prophesied the death of Comparative Literature…?” said the spectre.
IBM: So… I’m guessing you’re the last person I should come to for help?
Madame Spivak: No… Not really… you see I do have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature… but that doesn’t make Lizy Borden… you see… Comp.Lit. is a thing of the past… In today’s planetary reality… well you see… it’s all about… how does one put it… umm…. it’s all about irreconcilable subjectivities… perhaps the subaltern can speak… perhaps… but are you equipped… nay willing, to hear what the subaltern has to say…. it’s about taking a stand… you do know that it’s difficult… especially given our reluctance to cross borders… it’s truly about thinking planetarily… but we are forced to take recourse to, for our immediate causes, what I like to call, “Strategic Essentialism”… that’s a small price…
IMB (utterly exasperated): CAN YOU HELP ME WITH MY EXAM TOMORROW????
Madame Spivak: You really don’t get it… do you? Come along now….
Just as she was earlier, IBM and the spectre guide are yet again transported through space and time.
Now, I must warn the reader that this dream is a bit more psychedelic than the previous.
Madame Spivak and IBM find themselves at what looked like a Thanksgiving dinner, only instead of a Turkey there was this large installation on the table with the word “Theory” carved on it. At the feast there were several people, and oddly enough, they were dressed in smocks that had names of various disciplines in the Arts and the Humanities printed on them. A long and laborious tussle ensued, and English Studies emerged triumphant. Having triumphed it proceeded to swallow the entire installation whole. In a matter of seconds through successive binary fissions English Studies morphed into a series of identitarian studies of some persuasion or the other. Comparative Literature sat throughout in a corner nonplussed by the whole commotion.
Madame Spivak now bored of the scene, and a bit concerned about IBM having seen too much, suggested that they leave. IBM and Madame Spivak now walking through the streets of New York stop at a corner-side cafe. They took their seats at a table between two other tables. The one on the left was occupied by a middle-aged and two other women, both visibly younger than the first. The table on the right was taken by a rather nervous-looking woman and a dashing—rather debonair, in fact—young man. The female occupants of both tables looked very circumspect and were speaking in hushed whispers. The gentleman at the table on the right merely smiled and nodded. Both IBM and Madame Spivak strained their ears to listen.
Table on the Left: The middle-aged woman’s husband was an ex- corporate hotshot who had been “downsized” because of the recession. The woman had tried getting jobs but had failed. Now, she had put together this rag-tag bunch of accomplices and was planning to rob a bank, in order to solve their common problem- debt.
Table on the Right: The debonair gentleman was a very expensive and equally exclusive male escort. The woman was offering him a small fortune to pretend to be her boyfriend at her sister’s wedding next month. She was 30, miserable about being alone, but didn’t want her family, especially her over-critical mother, to judge her.
The lady at the table on the right closed the deal and nervously hurried away leaving her espresso half-finished, while the gentleman stayed on and finished his latte. The younger women from the table on the left took off soon after, leaving the middle-aged woman with her thoughts. The gentleman having finished his latte got up to leave only to stop and look intently at the woman at the table on the right.
Realizing she’s being watched, the woman looked-up and asked absent-mindedly, “Yes. How may I help you?”
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” said the gentleman.
The woman took a good hard look at him and then a faint smile spread across her face, “We both studied Comparative Literature at Brown. I was a batch your senior.”
IBM awoke with a start and a shout. Now she had her mind made up! It simply was not worth it. To hell with the exam! She would drop out of the course and run as far from Comparative Literature as she possibly could. Having made-up her mind, IBM decided to go to bed for real. She tucked herself in and soon enough she was fast asleep.
3. (Enter The Ghost of Christmas Future)
IBM felt someone nudging her. Soon the nudges became stronger and stronger until she was forced to wake-up. She opened her eyes and it was morning already. Her bedroom was filled with light and before her stood a very smart woman with bob cut hair, dressed in the best fitted trouser-suit IBM had ever seen.
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’re late for work!” said the woman.
IBM, now rubbing her eyes from an utter lack of sleep, glowered, “Who the hell are you?! And what do you mean We’re late for work?”
“Well, I’m the Ghost of Comp.Lit Future and I’m taking you on a trip,” said the smart woman with the bob cut.
“Oh well! What the hell… wouldn’t be my first…” said IBM as she prepared herself for yet another trip through space and time.
So the room blurred and spun as it did before and when it stopped they landed in the midst of utter pandemonium. It looked like the office of a news magazine. People were running helter-skelter. There were papers flying everywhere. In the midst of this unmitigated bedlam, the woman with the bob cut- IBM’s spectre guide, took her seat at her work-station.
Everything came to a screeching halt when the Chief Editor came in and screamed, “Emergency meeting!”.
As everybody huddled into the conference room, IBM followed the spectre in.
The manager informed his staff that there was a huge literary festival coming-up. The festival was in honour of Ghalib’s 225th birth anniversary. So basically, it would be a bunch of very esteemed and distinguished literary scholars sharing their views on Ghalib. The Chief Editor looked around at a conference room full of blank faces.
“Have any of you even heard of the man?” he asked. Then a general murmuring commenced.
“Mirza Ghalib… he was an Urdu poet right?” said someone. “Yes! He wrote that poem… aree that one yaar… something about love being an ocean of fire… drowning in it…” this went on for a while. IBM’s spectre now timidly raised her hand, and the Chief Editor asked her to speak-up.
“Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, or simply Mirza Ghalib, was the last great Urdu poet of the Mughal era. To this day he remains, arguably, the most read and most influential Urdu poet. He was a master of the Urdu Ghazal and is also famous for his intensely personal and poignant epistolary writings.”
“You seem to know a fair bit about Ghalib…” said the Chief Editor looking rather impressed.
“Thank you, Sir. My M.Phil. dissertation was about Urdu poetry from the late Mughal era.” replied the spectre.
“Hmmm…. didn’t know you had an M.Phil…. Well that’s settled then… it’s highly unorthodox to allow a copy editor to fly solo on a story… but since this seems to be right up your street…
you’ll be covering the Lit.Fest.” the Chief Editor said dismissing the meeting.
IBM followed the spectre out of the conference room. The spectre was so thrilled that she hugged IBM and started to jump up and down. IBM too was happy for this particular spectre… she had grown rather fond of her.
“So… you did an M.Phil on Ghalib?” IBM asked the spectre.
“Not exactly on Ghalib…. but yes… his poetry was a huge part of my work…” the spectre replied.
IBM: And now you’re working as a copy editor? After having studied all that much? Don’t you resent your job?
Spectre: I did until now, but you see all good things do come to those who wait… Look, I don’t regret the time I have spent studying… the years I spent studying have enriched my life in more ways than I can tell you… made me a better human being… made me sensitive to my surroundings… a keen observer… I’m not any the worse for it! I earn enough to lead a comfortable enough life… sure there are people who earn more than I do… there always will be… you see… all those years spent in the pursuit of Knowledge… have ennobled me… made me realise how trivial my existence actually is… being exposed to such great and beautiful minds does leave its mark… I wouldn’t trade that in for anything!
IBM: Wow! What did you study? Must have been some real heavy stuff!
Spectre: You really want to know?
Spectre: Comparative Literature….
IBM (an ominous realization dawning upon her as she asks hesitatingly): Who…. are… you???
Spectre: I think you know…
IBM: Are you me from the future?!
Spectre (nodding): Yes. And my story on the Lit. Fest. wins me a very prestigious award… Lucky for me the award comes with a fat cheque, which allows me to switch to freelancing, which in turn allows me to finally earn my Ph.D…
IBM now heard a sharp ringing sound. The sound got louder and louder until finally she awoke to find herself in her bed. It was the 4 am alarm she had set. She had set it the previous day to ensure she woke-up in time for last-minute studying. IBM stretched in her bed. Despite the sleep deprivation she no longer felt tired. A smile spread across her face as she recalled her last dream. She knew what to do. She wasn’t going to quit. She would take the exam. At the very worst she would fail and have to take it again next year. She didn’t care. She was determined to finish what she had started.
IBM was better than her word. She did it all, and infinitely more, and to the Comp. Lit., that did not die, she was a true believer. She became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a human being, and as good a comparatist, as the good old Department at Jadavpur University knew, as any good old Department at any good old University knew. Some people laughed to see the determination in her, but she let them laugh, and little heeded them; for she was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, she thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less relevant disciplines. Her own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for her.
She had no further interventions from myopic Spirits, but lived upon the Total Comparativist Principle, even afterwards; and it was always said of her, that she knew how to keep Comp.Lit well, if any person alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!
God Bless Us, Everyone!