Praising and Debunking Sainthood in North Indian Fiction

Prof. Satti Khanna
Associate Professor of the Practice in Hindi
Duke University

At the outset of his presentation, Khanna makes the point that there is not much interest in spirituality in contemporary North Indian fiction. The dominant concern of North Indian literature for the past hundred years has been the striving for social justice. This ideal of social justice frequently looks very critically at the traditional Hindu society and at the social caste divisions it has maintained. What results from this is a very critical view of traditional religious leaders, such as the local priests. Thus, the most celebrated modern Indian author, Premchan, was primarily a social activist. He wrote about the struggles of the lower classes to achieve a sense of basic human dignity and rights, and described their abuse at the hands of the religious establishment. To illustrate an exception, Khanna reads the entire text of one of Premchan’s short stories, Soul Music, which Khanna himself had translated into English. The story is a dialogue between a queen, just initiated by her guru, and a boatman. The queen begs the boatman, at any cost, to ferry her across the river at night, because she is drawn to the beautiful spiritual music she has heard coming from the other side of the river. In the end, she realizes that she herself can become the source of the music; she doesn’t need to travel to become uplifted by it. Khanna refuses to analyze the story; he is against analysis of works of art. The story speaks for itself.