Tag Archives: India

My Great-Uncle Bill in India

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.

Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill

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.

Frederick Glaysher

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Just Published in Kolkata, India, Rupkatha, Excerpt from Book IV

Just published in Kolkata, India > Excerpt from Book IV. Rupkatha Journal

Rupkatha Journal

Just published in Kolkata, India, Rupkatha, Excerpt from Book IV

Just published in Kolkata, India > Excerpt from Book IV. Rupkatha Journal, Volume IV, Number 2, 2012.

Tagore and the Poet, at Kurukshetra:

“We soon were over a plain, a wide field,
where two vast armies were ranked to battle,
legions on either side for war…”


Direct PDF: rupkatha.com/V4/n2/Poetry_V4N2.pdf

Or available from my own server: Rupkatha_Poetry_V4N2_2012

Frederick Glaysher

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Just published in Mumbai, India, The Criterion, Excerpt from Book IV

Excerpt from Shiva Nataraja, Book IV, published in The Criterion: An International Journal in English, Vol. III. Issue. IV (December 2012)

Excerpt from Shiva Nataraja, Book IV

Just published in Mumbai, India > Excerpt Shiva Nataraja, from Book IV.

The Criterion: An International Journal in English, Vol. III. Issue. IV (December 2012). In the Himalayan foothills, Shiva Nataraja.

“Tagore then spoke. “You have heard Krishna, now
Lord Vishnu’s eighth incarnation, Shiva.
He will come down to us from Mt Kailash…”

Or direct PDF: https://www.the-criterion.com/V3/n4/Frederick.pdf

Frederick Glaysher


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Vendor of Sweets. R. K. Narayan.

R. K. Narayan

The Vendor of Sweets.  R. K. Narayan.

India’s Kali Yuga…. December 21, 2000

The novelist R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) was born into a Tamil-speaking, Brahmin family. For several years he attended Christian schools in Madras, where he was raised by his grandmother, a devout Hindu who taught him the traditional songs and prayers. His fiction often presents a persona who undergoes a crisis that drives him back in some way to a resolution suffused with an evocation of the Hindu past. Often portrayed as a simple pious Hindu, R. M. Varma, of the University of Jodhpur, more insightfully observes, “Cultural ambivalence is a marked characteristic of Narayan’s fictional technique and he hovers between his Hindu faith and lack of it. He merely uses it as a landscape in his fiction.”

In his brilliant The Vendor of Sweets (1967), Narayan presents a character named Jagan who owns a small shop that sells sweetmeats. Presented as somewhat of a religious crank, he is a follower of Gandhi who still works his spinning wheel and sits in his shop reading the Bhagavad Gita in between customers. Jagan lives in an idealized traditional India of long ago incongruously conflated with the modern present.

Jagan’s only son Mali fully lives in the modern world, not only of India but of America as well. Dropping out of college, as Jagan had as a young man out of misconstrued loyalty to Gandhi, Mali, without consulting with his father, enrolls in a creative writing program in Michigan and helps himself to Jagan’s attic stash of rupees in order to pay his expenses. Narayan consistently portrays Mali as a son who has lost all the traditional Hindu virtues while Jagan spoils him and makes excuses for him.

After three years in America Jagan abruptly receives a cable announcing Mali’s return with “another person” whom upon arrival at the train station he introduces as his wife, Grace. Jagan suffers a severe shock. His son has not only gone to America, where he in fact does begin to eat beef, but married there without informing his family. Further disoriented because the girl is a Korean-American, Jagan thinks she is Chinese and reflects, “Don’t you know that one can’t marry a Chinese nowadays? They have invaded our borders. . . .” Having stopped reading the Bhagavad Gita while receiving letters he believed were from Mali in America, but were actually from Grace, Jagan starts reading it “becoming mentally disturbed once again.” Narayan subtly dramatizes his reading of the Gita as linked to his disturbed relationship with his son and thereby with modern India. Before long Grace, his new daughter-in-law, begins to take charge of the house and care for Jagan, his wife having died while Mali was in America. Soon she transforms the part of the nineteenth-century house in which she and Mali live with modern Western paintings and furnishings.

In one of the few revealing statements by Mali, “with a gesture of disgust,” he says to his father, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors. Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.” Satirizing the trash creative writing programs churn out in America, Narayan underscores simultaneously the gulf between father and son, traditional and modern.

Shock upon modern shock rolls over Jagan. His son not only lived unmarried with a foreign woman of mixed descent in his ancestral home but shamelessly concealed it from his father. As Jagan explains to the cousin, “Even my grandfather’s brother, who was known to be immoral, never did this sort of thing.” His “dirtied” home, “which had remained unsullied for generations, had this new taint to carry.” Since all of Jagan’s traditional, conventional relations have already “ostracized him” over the “beef-eating Christian girl for a daughter-in-law,” Jagan realizes they would “remove themselves further” should they learn of the “latest development.” In a significant moment of honesty, Jagan observes he “felt grateful for being an outcast, for it absolved him from obligations as a member of the family.” Jagan sits in the dark by the Sir Frederick Lawley statue, a relic from the British past, and meditates on his own arranged marriage in a richly embellished chapter that brilliantly evokes the traditional marriage customs of the joint family system in India and devastatingly insinuates the decayed state of his own house and modern India.

Jagan awakens in the dawn from his night of memories, fantasizing again of entering “a new janma.” In regard to the traditional ceremony marking a man turning sixty, the narrator honestly concedes again that Jagan himself “had had his fill of these festivals.” In his own way, the narrator frequently intimates, Jagan has picked over and repudiated various customs from the past. So one relative is imagined as saying how could the son Mali be different with “a father like Jagan.” Narayan suggests a subtle, logical, and culminating connection of decline between father and son.

The values of the Ramayana and other sacred texts have no resonance for Mali. Jagan, lost and faltering, unable to cope fully with the clash of his traditional values with the modern world, resolves absurdly to retreat across the river, taking his bank book with him, after agreeing to pay for a lawyer for Mali and offering an airline ticket for Grace to return to America: “It’s a duty we owe her.”

V. S. Naipaul has remarked of Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets that it is “a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium . . . collapses into something like despair.” In his “On Alternative Modernities,” Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar has similarly observed, “Everywhere, at every national or cultural site, the struggle with modernity is old and familiar.” Narayan has so thoroughly undermined and complicated Jagan with the tensions of twentieth-century life, deep within the structure of the narrative voice itself, only the most shallow or tendentious reading can fail to perceive the scathing critique of both the antedated and bankrupt, traditional and modern, values of India and Western civilization.

Frederick Glaysher

My epic poem, The pp_150Parliament of Poets, is partly set in India, at Kurukshetra, the Himalayan Foothills, Fatehpur Sikri, and elsewhere, with Vyasa, Valmiki, Tagore, Kabir, Lalan, and many other Indian poets and sages as characters, on Earth and on the Moon…
Read a free chapter online at Amazon, India.

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