I was saddened to hear of the demise, on the 17th of February, of Chaturvedi Badrinath, a writer and philosopher I admired greatly. Badrinath was the author of several notable books, including The Mahabharata: An Inquiry Into The Human Condition (2006), Swami Vivekananda: The Living Vedanta (2006), Introduction to the Kamasutra (1999), and The Women of the Mahabharata (2008).
Badrinath's literary career began, by today's standards, fairly late in life, when he was in his forties. (He was a member of the Indian Administrative Service from 1957 to 1989, and this consumed his energies in his youth). Unusually, the last decade of his life, with the world of action exchanged for one of reflection, was the most prolific of his literary career. Indeed, it was through his last published book, The Women of the Mahabharata, that I first became acquainted with his work. Merely to read the introduction of this book was to realise that one was in the company of a first-rate reader.
Great literary works, by their very nature, condense thought, pressure language, revel in ambiguities, hum with implication, make meaning through symbols, patterns, leitmotifs and repetition. They replicate life's mystery and complexity through their own patterns of speech, suggestion, and silence.
It follows then that one of the primary tasks of literary criticism is exegesis: the explication, often at a length several times that of the text being scrutinised, of a text's net of meanings and complexity of structure. Sometimes criticism itself becomes pithily epigrammatic, vivid in imagery, rich in the play of ideas. This is the signal quality of Badrinath's work in his two great books on the Mahabharata, books which qualify both as literary criticism and as philosophy. They never make the mistake, as some works of interpretation do, of isolating the work's ostensible message at the expense of the form or context. A short excerpt from one of them is here.
Last summer I happened to be in Pondicherry, and took the opportunity extended by Badrinath's daughter, the novelist and exponent of Bharatnatyam Tulsi Badrinath, to see him at his residence in Auroville, where he had been living in relative solitude for several years. The bungalow was called Badri-La, and inside I found the writer, physically infirm but mentally spry, chortling over a joke with a friend. His spacious living-room was full of fine books on religion and philosophy, many of them of interest to me. We chatted for two or three hours about the writing life, about problems with publishing, about the value of concision and density in writing, and (since he was at work on his autobiography) about the place of the "I" and of self-observation in literature.
Badrinath asked as many questions as he answered, and sucked gleefully on his pipe as he spoke – a pursuit gave him even more pleasure now that the doctor had forbidden it. I noticed too how involved he was with the lives of his staff, and their children. Despite his age and his remote location, he still ran a house very competently. I remember how, when at lunch I asked for some ghee to go with my rice and dal, he was enormously annoyed that the kitchen had run out of ghee the day before, and spoke with some astringency on the necessity of anticipating problems instead of finding oneself embarrassed by them later.
The last honour of Badrinath's distinguished career was the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for his literary criticism, which pleased him greatly. Confined to his hospital bed, he sent his daughter on to receive it, but did not live to see her return. The last interview he gave is here.
On hearing of Badrinath's death, I regretted enormously my failure to take up his invitation to return to Badri-La to stay for a few days. But every writer of distinction lives on in his or her books, and Badrinath's magisterial mind and voice suffuse his written work. I look forward to returning to his books – those I have read, and those that I haven't – and to getting to know Chaturvedi Badrinath better.
One of Badrinath's essays, "The Karma Conundrum", is here.