The interconnected world of Vinoba, Ray and Saul Bellow - Hindustan Times
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The interconnected world of Vinoba, Ray and Saul Bellow

Jun 22, 2024 09:03 PM IST

This is a story about Moses Elkanah Herzog, after whom the Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has named his 1964 novel, Herzog.

This is a story about Moses Elkanah Herzog, after whom the Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has named his 1964 novel, Herzog. The character of Herzog, many believe, is an alter ego of the novelist himself. The novel had won the National Book Award for fiction.

30 November 1951 - Acharya Vinoba Bhave accompanied by his party arrives at Gandhi Ashram, Meerut from Kharkhoda at his prayer meeting Vinoba Bhave studying Bhoomidan Papers - HT Photo.
30 November 1951 - Acharya Vinoba Bhave accompanied by his party arrives at Gandhi Ashram, Meerut from Kharkhoda at his prayer meeting Vinoba Bhave studying Bhoomidan Papers - HT Photo.

Well, six decades ago, the fictional character who lives in New York, saw Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali. Prima facie, it was the Ray film that triggered him to write a letter to Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual successor Vinoba Bhave, then living in Paunar Ashram in Wardha district of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, close to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram. Strange it might seem but Moses Herzog was familiar with Vinoba’s writings through the American newspaper Observer. In fact, he had even thought of joining Vinoba’s Bhoodan Movement, which aimed at promoting voluntary land donation for redistribution.

What is fascinating is Herzog’s viewing of Pather Panchali in one of New York’s Fifth Avenue playhouses. The film disturbed him so much that he decided to write a letter to Vinoba to pour his mind out. He addresses Vinoba as Dr Bhave: “Dear Dr Bhave, Recently, I saw Pather Panchali. I assume you know it since the subject is rural India. Two things affected me greatly – the old crone scooping the mush with her fingers and later going into the weeds to die; and the death of the young girl in the rains.”

Moses Herzog, as Saul Bellow describes in the novel, was almost alone in the Fifth Avenue playhouse. While watching Pather Panchali, he had “cried with the child’s mother, when the hysterical death music started. Some musician with a native brass horn, imitating sobs, playing a death noise.” The novel adds more details: “It was raining also in New York, as in rural India. His heart was aching. He too had a daughter, and his mother too had been a poor woman. He had slept on sheets made of flour sacks. The best type for the purpose was Ceresota. What he had vaguely in mind was to offer his house and property in Ludeyville to the Bhave movement.”

In his “non-fictional” letter (written from Brookline on January 1, 1998) to the American novelist and short-story writer Philip Roth, Bellow had described Herzog as a “chump, a failed intellectual and at bottom a sentimentalist”. The novel follows five days in the life of Herzog, who spends much of his time mentally writing letters he never sends. These letters are aimed at friends, family members, and famous figures who are dead or who Herzog never knew.

In his undated letter, Moses Herzog was graceful enough, and candid at the same time, to introduce himself at the outset: “I read your work in the Observer and at the time thought I’d like to join your movement. I’ve always wanted very much to lead a moral, useful and active life. I never knew where to begin. One can’t become Utopian. It only makes it harder to discover where your duty really lies…”

Dr Bhave was not in bad company in Herzog’s archive of unsent letters. The other luminaries included Nietzsche, Spinoza, Governor Stevenson, President Eisenhower, Freud, God, et al. Moses Herzog is an intellectual historian, the author of a book, Romanticism and Christianity, and his letters overflow with erudite allusion and reflection. Herzog, the novel, provides some autobiographical accounts as anything that Bellow ever wrote.

In 1964, when Moses Herzog wrote to Dr Bhave, the United States of America was still struggling to overcome the trauma of President John F Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Probably, Moses Herzog still heard the “death music” of Pather Panchali.

Incidentally, Vinoba (Vinayak Narahari) Bhave had also written letters to Gandhi, his mentor, before he met with him at Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad in 1916. Vinoba had launched his Bhoodan movement in 1951. Just around that time, Satyajit Ray was thinking about turning Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali into a film. He had already illustrated the abridged version of the novel published in 1944. And for the film he himself designed the poster, which is now an iconic presence in the Indian film poster pantheon.

How Pather Panchali, the film, got ready for release is an interesting story by itself but obviously, the city of New York was fortunate to have its world premiere at its Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on May 3, 1955. I have a gut feeling that Saul Bellow must have been part of the invited audience.

The fact, nevertheless, remains that not only Mahatma Gandhi but even Vinoba Bhave, revered as acharya (teacher), whom Gandhiji had selected as a satyagrahi, was known to the world before Richard Attenborough made his film Gandhi in 1982.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, curator and historian of cinema. The views expressed are personal

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