The Immutable Word

Light of Truth

Prema Jayakumar

It is no wonder that the ancients called the letter ‘akshara’ or that which is not destroyed. A recent spate of birthdays, death anniversaries and even deaths of well-known writers prompted this thought. A writer touches so many lives, the lives of a number of people they have never seen or even thought of. The only thing that is shared between the writer and the reader is a common sensibility and the poet sings for the people of similar mind (‘samanahridayarkkayi padunnu njan’) stated the poet. The age, the nationality, the colour of the skin, even the language that they normally use don’t matter when the writer and the reader share this invisible bond.
Another reason for realising anew this immutability of the word is that a consciousness of the mutable nature of political power and military might was clearly illustrated. We have seen what happens to the celebrations and feasts in where their names mattered in the course of time. A political leader, a prime minister or a military leader is at the mercy of his successors. A screen over their names over a period of time and a generation grows up who have not heard of them. A Winston Churchill who was the hero of the people during the Second World War can be seen as a racist and a bigot a couple of generations later. A Jawaharlal Nehru who was the first prime minister of the nation and the longest-serving one can be forgotten in the celebration of a jubilee of his country’s independence. Statues can be brought down, other statues installed, a curtain drawn over people as if they had never existed or done anything. And as I said earlier, in a generation of two, these people might be forgotten.
But this rarely ever happens to a good book. Vyasa and Homer and Shakespeare and Kalidasa continue to exert their spell over people, not just entertaining them, but showing them lives and attitudes that illumine their own lives to them. They remain in spite of fashions and tastes changing. They touch lives that they had never even thought of. They change lives when people read them with understanding. And so also even contemporary writing which cannot yet be elevated to the status of a classic. Especially, a piece of imaginative writing. It can change the understanding of the people as speeches and perorations cannot.
I find it easy to believe that the world started with a Word. It is words that give life to images, a word signifies something or someone and brings a thing or a person to the forefront of our memory, keeping them also safe from loss and destruction. That is why it is such a tragedy when these immutable words lose their meaning, when the ‘palace of love’ actually is a place of torture. No wonder Albert Camus mourned, ‘When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning’. And when words are emptied of their meaning life itself loses its meaning. Words carry so much power, they remain for so long, that corrupting them (oh, not the natural mutation of words into other meanings, but the wanton falsification of meaning) is an unforgiveable offense. If you cannot trust the verity of words, you cannot trust anything. Words have to be backed by meaning, to have any value. We can only say sadly with Hamlet that words without thoughts are worthless when words fly up and thoughts remain below. Words by their very nature are sacred.
After all, being ‘akshara’, they have to endure for ever and they endure only if they have meanings that can be understood by everyone. It is imagination that bolsters up these meanings and that is why writers matter. It is the imaginative use of the word that endures long after the practical words lose their import. We do need to celebrate the writers who gave us words that we remember still, whom we quote with reverence. We need to acknowledge the value of words. And so, we say with the poet, ‘The word and nought else/ in time endures. / not you long after, / perished and mute/ will last, but the defter viol and lute.’

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