Thursday, May 26, 2011

Elementary, my dear Vidushaka!

In the small corner of the very busy North Usman road in T Nagar, there is a library called Raviraj library. To me, my brothers and cousins it was one of the favorite haunts during school days in the mid 80s. In less than 500 sqft, it carried a variety of books and introduced us to the best of literature: comics like Tintin, Asterix, Archies; Tamil novels of Kalki, Sandilyan, Akhilan, La Sa Ramamrutham, Balakumaran, Na Parthasarathy; and a large number of modern English novelists like Sheldon, Ludlum, Eric Segal, Harold Robinson, Leon Uris, Mario Puzo, Forsythe and so on. It was a matter of pride to discuss them and outright shame to even not know them. Around this time, the Sunday morning national TV shows were becoming popular - Star Trek, Cosmos, Famous Five, Old Fox, and the unforgettable Sherlock Holmes played by Jeremy Brett. Funny enough, though we mostly did not follow the highly-accented(?!) stylized dialogs of Holmes, the library books filled the accent-gap.

In the vast unimaginable compendium of Sanskrit Literature, it almost feels like every topic has been dealt with conceptually. The Mahabharata concludes

यत् इह अस्ति तत् सर्वत्र यत् न इह अस्ति तत् न कुत्र चित् ।
Whatever is here is everywhere, whatever is not here, is not found anywhere else.

Sometimes I am assured that any story or plot of the movies can be traced to a plot or a concept in Mahabharata, Ramayana or the Purana-s. Brothers fighting each other? Yes, Pandavas vs Kauravas; Best brothers? Rama and Lakshmana; Coveting others wife? Ravana. Unconditional Friendship? Can't beat Duryodhana and Karna; A very just hero exhibhiting selfishness? Yudhishtra hesitates sending Bhima to Bakasura; Transgender character? Shikhandi; Partial love to son by father? Think Dhruva; A boy taking revenge on his father's humilation (of knowledge) - Ashtavakra; And any type of revenge stories would easily fit the various sub-plots of Mahabharata. In the non-itihasa, non-puranic literature too, there is plenty to refer. Flashback stories? Kadambari would pale them in comparison; Multiple sub plots meeting at a common take-off? Kathasaritsagara; Man married woman and forgot about her? Sure there is Shakuntala (though it is part of Mahabharata itself);

Given all these, there seems to be one type of story which I feel has not been dealt exclusively in Sanskrit literature: Murder mysteries. May be there is one and I have not read. But no doubt, the landscape of the modern mystery stories is heavily influenced by Sherlock Holmes. His science of deduction spectacularly captured everyone's imagination.

In one of the famous works of Bhasa - Svapna Vasavadatta ("Vasavadatta, who appeared in dreams"), there is a remarkable scene. The context is this: King Udayana is in deep love with his wife Vasavadatta. But in order to defeat his rival king, he is compelled to make friends with a Magadha king by marrying the latter's sister Padmavati. But since Udayana would not forget Vasavadatta, his minister YaugandharAyana (what a name!), along with her approval sets up that both himself and Vasavadatta are dead. So the King is now forced to marry Padmavati. Once when he hears that Padmavathi is having a severe headache, he goes to meet her along with his companion Vidushaka (court jester). Upon entering the anta:pura (queen's chamber), they don't find Padmavathi there. What follows is a very enthralling Sherlock Holmes-esque dialog.

विदूषक: : तत्र भवती पद्मावती इह आगत्य निर्गता भवेत् । (Padmavati must have come and went away)
उदयन    : वयस्य! अनागतया भवितव्यम् । (Friend, She has not even come to this room)
विदूषक: : कथम् भवान् जानाति ? (How do you know?)
उदयन    : किमत्र ज्नेयम्? पश्य (What is there to know? Look -- )

शय्या नावनता तथास्तृतसमा न व्याकुलप्रच्छदा न क्लिष्टम् हि शिरोपधानममलम् शीर्षाभिघातौषधै: ।
रोगे दृष्टिविलोभनम् जनयितुम् शोभा न काचित् कृता प्राणी प्राप्य रुजा पुन: न शयनम् शीघ्रम् स्वयम् मुञ्चति ॥
  • The bed is not pressed down and evenly spread; (शय्य न अवनाता, तथास्तृत समा)
  • its cover is not ruffled; (न व्याकुल प्रच्छदा)
  • the clean pillow is not soiled with the medicines applied for allying headache; (न क्लिष्टम् शिर उपधानम् अमलम् शीर्ष अभिघात औषधै:)
  • nothing charming is arranged that would engage the eye where is illness; (रोगे दृष्टिविलोभनम् जनयितुम् शोभा न काचित् कृता)
  • a person having gone to bed through pain does not leave it again quickly (प्राणी प्राप्य रुजा पुन: शयनम् शीघ्रम् स्वयम् मुञ्चति)

The parallels are extremely striking. Watson is the vidUShaka:, Holmes is udayana. Lets imagine this in Watson's own terminology.

Holmes and I entered the Queen's quiet chamber. I looked around and observed "Well, well. Padmavati seems to have come and left". Holmes replied nonchalantly "My dear Watson, I'm afraid the lady has not even been here!". I turned to him with a quizzical look "How can you possibly know that?". Inspecting the bed closely, he reeled off, "Elementary my dear Watson! The bed is even and there is no dent with the weight of the body. The bedsheet appears not ruffled. And if you recall, we are here on the account of Padmavati having a severe headache, and since you know of my exceptional olfactory abilities, I do not smell the applied headache ointment on the pillows. The room is singularly devoid of aesthetics to please of a sick person. Anyone with a headache would not lie down and get out quickly. Hence the facts present to me that Padmavati did not even enter the room".

Also observe that the approach to sickness is holistic - that the aesthetics must be pleasant to evoke positive feeling during a depressed state. We also conclude that "kimatra jneyam" is the Sanskrit-speak for "Elementary".

Like Spock would say, "Fascinating...".

Text and translation taken from MR Kale's Svapnavasavadatta.
Bhasa is estimated to have lived before 500 BC. Kalidasa and others have paid tributes to him.
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