A. C. Sukla (1942-2020): A Tribute on his First Death Anniversary


What we call the past is a territory provisionally made available to us by our memories. More often than not, our memories relate more to memories than to events. We are so controlled by the remembering self that we allow this remembering, ironical self to structure our memories of events with little or no realization. To say that our memories are ordered by memories of in-between events—that is, events occurring between the first occurrence of an event its subsequent recollection or recollections—is like accepting that the fragrance of my mother’s cooking is actually one of a series of olfactory inflections triggered by my visits to the bakery during college days, and many other unrelated smells. I left Sambalpur University in March 1983, after completing my MA in English nearly a whole year after I should have. Except for a very brief visit in 1985, I have not returned to the place. So when I speak of the University, our department, teachers, classes and classmates, my memories of the department remain untouched by what Paul de man once called the rhetoric of temporality.

My association with Dr. Ananta Charan Sukla dates back to 1982, when I was an MA student at the department of English, Sambalpur University. Then he used to teach fulltime at Gangadhar Meher College, Sambalpur. He was a visiting faculty at the department. He taught us Comparative Aesthetics. His lectures covered comparative assessments of Indian and Western theories of the literary object. He was known for his research on comparative poetics. As students beginning to study comparative aesthetics, we did not have much idea regarding his field of research. However, we could see that his work involved fundamentals of literary theory: the origin of the literary object, its materiality and reception, and figures of speech.

He was kind and thoughtful as a teacher. While the area of comparative poetics was exciting and rich, there was no accessible textbook to help a beginner. So he gave each one of us a copy of his carefully prepared lectures, a thin volume of cyclostyled sheets, in his first class. We gratefully accepted the sheets from him. These sheets carrying forty-odd pages of typed matter were supposed to be in sequence. I quickly scanned the pages—actually read, with considerable interest—and found that several pages were missing from my copy. When I pointed it out to him, he was visibly unhappy and asked me to read the material first, and then complain. I was upset because I wasn’t complaining, only pointing out what I saw. I did not have the heart to tell him that I had actually finished reading the material at one go. Actually his lecture notes were lucid and you could read through the pages at a fast pace. He was not prepared to accept that a student would have read through his lectures in a class. I apologised, and excused myself, vowing never to say anything about the missing pages again. This was the beginning of an unhappy relationship.

A few days later, another student told him about the missing pages. He was still not convinced that we had a case, but promised to look into the matter. In a subsequent class, he asked me—pointedly, unhappily, I thought—if I had read the notes. When I said yes, he asked me two questions, one I think on Aristotle and Abhinavagupta, the other on Gorgias and Bhatta Lollata. He was very happy that I could answer his Abhinvagupta question but was surprised that I could not answer the supposedly easier question on art and illusion of which there was a detailed account in his notes. I still remember how promptly I rattled off the distinction he made between anukarana and anukirtana, and said that art was not an illusion or imitation but a re-description, a creation as a matter of fact. This is a crucial aspect of mimesis that would surface repeatedly in my professional life when I taught critical theory and tried to grapple with the creation-description paradox in poststructuralist thought. Then he asked me to look up a certain page in his lecture notes. I said nothing, but he realised that some pages were missing from the lecture notes. We were given a fresh set of the notes, stitched awkwardly, but in order. He never asked me anything about the notes again. I had a victory of sorts, but felt awkward, guilty. He was my teacher. But there was a kind of truce, I felt.

Soon after that he joined the department as a regular faculty. I was required to work with him for my third semester term paper. I showed him my draft, but he could not read it as he was hard-pressed for time. We were fighting deadlines, so we needed to get the draft approved. One day he asked a friend of mine to tell me that I should see him in his house. This was after he had cleared the drafts of most of my friends.  So I landed up at his place on a Sunday morning. We were supposed to submit our papers the next day, and he was not there. One of his sons suggested that I should come in the afternoon. He would be back by then, he said. I was nervous and rattled. I knew that his wife was a teacher in the University, so I thought she would perhaps understand my plight. I told her about my problem and she assured me that my job would be done. I returned in the afternoon. He was there, but he looked very tired and worn out. He asked me not to worry. He then asked me to read my draft aloud. As I read through my draft, I saw him patiently listening to me. I was hoping he would ask me to stop here, clarify there. Nothing of the sort happened. He seemed to be fully asleep when I finished my ten-odd pages. I was embarrassed. For a few minutes there was only silence. Then he seemed to wake up from his reverie, said something complimenting my draft, and asked me to change two or three specific points. He also asked me to cite a quote from Vishvanatha Kaviraja. It was about the process of poetic creation: ‘He [the poet] sees the world as he creates.’ The important thing for me was that my draft was passed.

Dr. Soubhagya Ku. Mishra, whose lectures on Eliot’s Four Quartets had assumed a kind of mythic status by that time, was the external examiner for the viva-voce test. He picked out the Kaviraja line, to my great embarrassment, and asked me to give him two examples to justify the quote in a term paper on Eliot. I gave one example from Radhanath Ray’s Chilika, the other example I do not exactly remember. The Chilika example is about a frog in the mouth of a snake. As an insect flew by the frog, already croaking in misery, already in the throes of death, makes one last leap and catches the little insect. I have not seen many examples that surpass the realism and the dark power of the passage. I got good marks in the viva. It was as if Kaviraja—the great aesthetician—pushed me upward through Dr. Sukla’s sleepy intervention on that fateful Sunday afternoon.

A few years later, when I began teaching at Dibrugarh University—I had moved away from Comparative Literature for professional reasons—I discovered a line in Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’ that I thought beautifully sums up the picture. Great poetry, she holds, has ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’

After I finished my MA, I moved away from Sambalpur and traveled a bit, looking for opportunities, jobs. I now realize that I have not somehow revisited the department that gave me my foothold in the world. I did not meet Dr. Sukla again, though I heard of him from friends. I had called him a couple of years ago, nearly thirty-five years after our last meeting. In spite of his poor health, he spoke to me with great warmth and affection. He had got up from his sleep only to speak to me. He spoke of his edition of Saussure’s iconic work, Course in General Linguistics. Knowing where Saussure got his primary ideas—it was the Sanskrit grammarian Panini—I kind of sense that Dr. Sukla’s commentary is already an exceptional event. As we spoke that day, I was reminded of a Sunday afternoon many years ago. He may sound sleepy, I told myself, but never mistake him for a sleepy man! You get glimpses of his meditation if you are lucky.

But I do not recall this and the other moments to congratulate myself. I recall this to thank a teacher who allowed me to use an idea from his own research to make my term paper more persuasive. Not many teachers would have done this.

I was his student many years ago. Now I can see the importance of his work. His work for the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics from Vishvanatha Kaviraja Institute—in reality, his house at Sambalpur University, Burla, for most of his life—is nothing short of heroic. This journal has, since 1977, hosted, showcased, archived, and introduced ideas about literary criticism and aesthetics covering two thousand years of thinking from the East and the West. The importance of Dr. Sukla’s journal is borne out by the fact that some of ideas anchored or introduced by Dr. Sukla’s international cast would be centre-staged in highly-rated American and European journals on aesthetics twenty to thirty years later, of course with greater visibility. When DrSukla started the journal, he was a lecturer at Gangadhar Meher College, Sambalpur. The college had a fairly good English department, but I cannot really imagine the college doing anything good or bad to push him to starting this very uncertain critical enterprise—an academic journal!

He was an unusual man with unusual interests, interests not always valued by colleagues or compatriots in Odisha, his home state. The way the comparatists of the world look at him, however, is another matter. I am reminded of a line by the Odia poet-humourist-satirsit, Jadumani Mohaptra (1783-1868):

Raja sina puja paye apana desare
Kabi puja paithae desa bidesare

This couplet can be roughly translated thus: The king is extolled in his kingdom, the poet the world over. Dr. Sukla’s work in a way recalls and justifies what this very persuasive Odia poet had said around two hundred years ago to a king, not always willing to credit knowledge over power.

I was never as close to him as some of my classmates were, but I learnt a great deal from him. Learning is not the right word, perhaps—I absorbed a lot from what he gave us, and tried to apply it to what I read and learnt from other sources. His lecture notes were among the most beautiful that I have seen in my life. They were simple, lucid, and inviting, always pushing you to the next stage if you were willing. If you were a student looking to just follow his thoughts, they were magic. I regret not having met him in between, but I would like to quote this line of respect for him: Sadaiva apananka vidyarthi.

Dr. Sukla was a man of rare abilities. Simple at heart, he dealt with complex problems much the same way as ancient India’s greatest thinkers and philosophers. To succeed in your field without hurting others is very very rare with academics. He had the unique distinction of succeeding in his chosen field without hurting people. In his dealings with people, he was unfailingly unassuming, but he always knew who did what. I loved him particularly for his willingness to give without much fanfare. His only wish was for his students to think of good things, read and enjoy complex books, find beauty in great problems. 
People who know his work will ever remain obliged to him for showing the path to an entire century of scholars and students and interested readers. I feel rewarded for this opportunity to express my gratitude to my teacher and offer my deepest regards to him on his first commemoration day. I hope I have been able to recall and reflect on a side of our relationship that I value very much.

— The writer is a Professor of English, Tezpur University, Assam. He specializes in American literature and critical theory. His other research areas are fiction studies, postcolonial studies, translation studies, life writing and travel writing.

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