A short masterpiece

A short masterpiece

The devastation by floods, earthquakes brings to mind The Miracle of Purun Bhagat.

“Art is long and time is fleeting”, said H W Longfellow. We value the brevity of aphorisms and proverbs, convinced that much wisdom can be conveyed tersely. A bronze figurine or a painting packs horizons beyond the visual span; music can express varied raptures, a favourite kriti can yield fresh exaltation every time one listens to its rendition. Wise teachings are still relevant, as in the Sanskrit ‘Subhashi-tani’ (“what is well said”), the Tamil ‘Kural’, the epigram and fables woven into longer epic forms, eternal masterworks. 

My love of English started with Aesop,  and verses with a story, like the Walrus and the Carpenter in Alice, and poems by Ogden Nash. Deplorably, academic merit favours long essays. But paper gets dearer and scarcer with the fall of every tree. Information technology has vastly enlarged scribbling space, though the cyber wastebasket have saved us from being swamped by our verbosity. 

In fiction, the novel is dominant, but it is too long to retain my interest, except for classics like Tolstoy’s. The novella does not appeal to the market. But the short story, comprising a few characters and incidents in interplay, can capture a truth or intuition that resonates when told with rare verbal skill. The short masterpiece, in art, music or letters, lures us to revisit.
The catastrophic devastations in recent months, by floods and earthquakes in Italy, Nepal, Myanmar and other places brought to mind one such masterpiece: ‘The Miracle of Purun Bhagat’, by Rudyard Kipling. For Indians, Kipling evokes conflicting emotions of an imperial age too close to the ethos of “Britannia, rule the waves” and the Raj that we sent away, though some of us are partial to Mowgli, Sher Khan, the tiger and Kim. 

When the monsoon swept down in torrents of riverine destruction, I re-read this wonderful story it in “The Second Jungle Book”. Kipling’s short masterpiece, published in 1894, shows his instinctive understanding of India as a spiritual and emotive force, linking human-kind with all creation. 

The protagonist is a fictional PM of a “semi-independent native state” in north-west India, who impressed the British by his education and progressive reforms. He is knighted by British as Sir Purun Dass, KCIE. But he decides to become a ‘sanyasi’ and foot it to the Himalayan heights where his ancestors lived, renouncing courtly comforts and power.

In the forest, he befriends animals, sharing his meagre meals with langurs, deer and a bear. Villagers revere him as a holy man and call him Purun Bhagat.  One day, the langurs tug at his ochre robe to warn him of landslides and torrential rain. He understands that the mountainside is collapsing and slithers down the slope to the village and persuades everyone to escape by scrambling beyond their valley. But Purun Bhagat dies in this exploit. A shrine in his name is built later. 

India’s catastrophe and the wonders of rescue work of our heroes prompt me to pay tribute to Kipling’s uncanny fellow-feeling. The story reads like a prose-poem – “He believed that all things were one big Miracle. He knew for a certainty that there was nothing great and nothing little in this world: he strove to think out his way into the heart of things, back to the place whence his soul had come.” 

Let us praise and cherish our own rescue teams working miracles.

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