Saturday, 9 November 2013

An end and a beginning...

My writing here may puzzle some of the early readers of this blog, since this was started out as a dedicated space for Mohan Sir's "viewsletters." Those first visitors would know me only as his student who edited Sir's letters into this blogging space. However, when I wanted to start writing, I chose this space for several reasons: one of them is a point of regret that I couldn't persuade Sir to keep on writing even after the unofficial demise of Orkut. The online community for which he wrote still exists (with its 150+ members intact), but is inoperative. However, I believe that his writings may be of interest to my students (and friends) as much as his, and so I've decided to write here in the hope that we may both share a common audience. Though I dare not lay any claim to his versatility, I hope that my concerns would be similar enough to his, to the end that the blog retains its homogeneity.

Talking of one of my idols brings me to the subject I wanted to write about today. It is about an extraordinary woman who has influenced me a lot personally. She is one of the three women I have never had the fortune to meet in person when they were alive, but feel strongly connected to. The first occasion when I came across her name was when I was reading The Waste Land in my classroom copy: my own personal copy is an ancient edition. The editor had alluded to a scholarly version of the poem's manuscript edited and published by the late author's widow. Poets and critics being married to women who were enviable literary figures or scholars in their own right was not altogether new: examples such as the Brownings, Hughes-Plath, and Frank-Queenie Leavis were familiar. But Valerie Eliot was different.

Photo courtesy: © Getty Images

She was seen by the outside world almost as a fire-breathing dragon jealously guarding over Eliot's personal correspondence and his literary estate, and the surprise was to know that she was still alive! Knowing as I did that Eliot had died in the 1960s, I couldn't believe that his widow would still be carrying on a single-handed battle against those who wanted to take "creative liberties" by sensationalising both the life and works of the much-revered Nobel Laureate. Anyone who has known me long enough to discuss books with me knows how much T.S. Eliot has influenced me, especially the changes wrought in my life and beliefs by "The Journey of the Magi." To know that Valerie had been similarly moved by the poem even in her early teens was the first revelation of my spiritual connection with her.

At the time when I was slowly exploring all that I had in common with her, she was still alive, painstakingly editing volumes of Eliot's letters to be published by the publishing giant she now owned: Faber. The more I read about her, the more I was fascinated. For instance, the fact that she decided on her career even before she completed her schoolingto become Eliot's secretaryand went on to achieve such a formidable aim was enough to convince me that I had found my personal role model. That she could actually marry the forbidding Eliot who was then disillusioned about women, 38 years her senior, already a reclusive Nobel Laureate and her boss at Faber's is the stuff fairy tales are made of. But, perhaps not. The news that she married Eliot against such odds is not so wonderful as the way their marriage turned out. All those who knew Eliot testified that they were struck by how much the marriage rejuvenated him, renewed his health and spirits and brought him the peace, joy and contentment that had never been his portion before. The true fairytale element in the story is that she made their marriage a "happily-ever-after" affair. In fact, the only poem which reveals Eliot's personal happiness rather than poetic genius is the greatest public indication of the miracle she had worked in the life of the man who had never allowed the poet and the living, breathing person to be conflated.

Photo courtesy: © The Daily Mail

The real test of her greatness, of course, lies in her life after Eliot's time. With all the justification to withdraw herself into a shell, she chose to shoulder the responsibility of being his literary executor. She faithfully adhered to all of Eliot's wishes about his legacy, including his injunction that there be no official biography of him, despite the enormous public pressure she faced. A woman of enviable taste, she owned a collection of paintings that she had gathered over a lifetime. (The collection is about to be auctioned in about a week from now.) Besides, she created a huge charitable trust to promote upcoming artists and contributed to a literary prize in her husband's name.

The noble soul departed from the world on this day last year (9 November 2012), signalling the end of an era that has gone by. The best I could do today in remembrance of her was to record my feelings for her and share with others an episode from her life: a moment that must have been a test of character for anyone, but a test that she passed effortlessly. Read her interview following the release of the infamous Tom & Viv. She is one of those who have passed away leaving a void that cannot be easily filled, and a particularly painful personal void for me. The only thing I can really say now is: Requiescat in pace Valerie.

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