My Great-Uncle Bill in India
I’ve been asked, “Your love and associations with Indian religion and continent is realized…any particular reason Frederick…!”
A flood of memories come back. Too many for a short reply. So I’ve decide to answer the question here on my blog.
My earliest memory of India is when as a very young boy, somewhere probably between six to seven years old, playing in my Grandmother Glaysher’s basement, I became aware of a modest bedroom in the corner, with little more than a bed and nightstand with some books on it, a few of which I came to understand later were by Albert Schweitzer. It was the bedroom of my Great-Uncle Bill who served in Her Majesty’s Army in India. He never married and in old age, dying of cancer, doubtlessly from too many cigarettes, spent his last days with his brother’s family, living in their basement. He died in 1956, before I was old enough to have any memories of him. But everyone spoke of him with awe and love. He had served Her Majesty in India. For my English people, that still meant something and they passed it on to me, especially my Aunt Amy who never lost her English accent and used to love to tell me stories of Uncle Bill and England while making me English milk tea with biscuits, pouring into me awe for both England and India.
In sixth grade, about eleven or twelve years old, I stood up and fervently recited a poem for the first time in my life, in Mr. Bird’s classroom, for an English assignment. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Though set in the Crimea, not in India, I mention it because I know that at the same time I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and “Gunga Din.”
“Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen…
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
It was only much later, in my early twenties, after having read a few of Albert Schweitzer’s books, having matured eventually beyond, that I began to understand what Colonialism was and the complexity of those issues. But for that young boy standing up in class, he was thrilled at all that heroism under fire, poured his heart into it, like Uncle Bill who served in Her Majesty’s Army. Mr. Bird defended me against the jibes of school mates, and I felt he treated me a little differently after that. It was one of the first experiences that I had ever had that there were men in the world who respected and thought highly of poetry.
A major threshold in my life came late in high school in a class in world religions. The text book was the old warhorse of instruction, The World Bible (Viking 1944 ed.), a selection of scriptures from all of the major religions. I did all the reading, including from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Buddhist Dhammapada which have stayed with me all my life as standards and touchstones. Not all the nihilism of modernity can stand up to the wisdom and spiritual depth of such scripture. My understanding of India deepened significantly during that semester, making me want to study and learn more, which I did, before long, in an undergraduate college level course in world religions and a class in Non-Western History, which included a survey of Indian history from the great Emperor Ashoka through all of the Mughals up to the arrival of the British. It was the first time that I had heard of Emperor Akbar to whom I was immediately and strangely attracted, never forgetting him, but mulling over his importance, year after year, sensing there was something there in his history that was incredibly important for me and my writing. I found myself many times during the rest of my life going back to Emperor Akbar, and what he meant to me, as in my book-length narrative poem, The Bower of Nil, drawing on Tennyson’s poem “Akbar’s Dream,” only coming to fruition in my epic poem. Akbar’s great-grandson Dara Shikoh and his book The Mingling of Two Oceans became very powerful influences on my thinking too. I feel it is unfortunate that India has somewhat forgotten Dara Shikoh and his book.
I should mention that in high school I had a part-time job in a store where I actually met for the first time someone from the Indian sub-continent, a young Buddhist woman from Sri Lanka studying at a local college. As I saw her a few times a week for nearly a year, since I had the duty of fetching supplies for her, she and I became friends and often joked like younger brother with older sister, sometimes talking about her life back home. Knowing her was a very real experience, on a human level, of a person who believed in some of the things I was already reading about. In the almost entirely white suburban world of the early 1970s, in Rochester, Michigan, she was a breath of fresh air, a delightful person. She always wore, of course, the most beautiful saris, which were very exotic for that time. As I was wont to say with other friends, “There’s life outside Rottenchester.” I was soon lighting out to find it. Rochester has now become enriched with people from all over the world, including India. Witnessing that change taking place over the decades, as I would return to visit family, and then eventually return to care for my elderly mother and raise my own children here, has been very important to my understanding of modern life.
As a student at the University of Michigan, I chose to live for a semester at the The Ecumenical Center, a church-operated residence building for international students. By chance, my roommates were two Indians and an African, the last from Nigeria. Looking backing, it was a further excellent introduction on a human level. One of my Indian roommates was a Christian named Bagavandoss from then Madras, and the other a Hindu who regularly read from the Upanishads. As they mildly held, from time to time, different opinions on various issues, I developed a sense of the complexity of life in India, that there was a wide variety of outlook, as in the USA and elsewhere, not simplistically the “mystic East.” Much of that kind of dynamic I try to evoke in my essay on Indian literature, traditional and modern, “India’s Kali Yuga,” in my book The Grove of the Eumenides (2007), where I also mention Uncle Bill.
Somewhere in my experience I should mention reading the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, beginning in the early 1970s, eventually writing two essays on him in my book The Myth of the Enlightenment (2014); developing and teaching a course in Non-Western Literature during the early 1990s, including the major Indian classics; while in 1995 I was a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar on India for eight weeks at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, where I read further into Indian literature and culture, focusing on the turmoil then taking place in Ayodhya, as well as Chishti Sufism and traditional culture and modernity.
I should include a few years of participation with a local interfaith group in which Indians from the nearby Bharatiya Temple, Jains, and Sikhs were very active, as well as people of other persuasions, while I was writing my epic poem.
Much of this is a rough sketch but I would like to think that all of this and more came together for me somehow in my epic poem.