- Cordelia’s Salt: Interspatial Reading of Indic Filial-Love Stories
In 2008 my father, S. Nagarajan (1929–2014), a professor of English, began to consolidate fifteen years of his research toward a new edition of King Lear. He had edited Measure for Measure for Signet Classics years ago, an edition that remained in print for over forty years, and he had taught Shakespeare for decades. But King Lear, for him, remained “Shakespeare’s mightiest play.” The same passion had resulted in his 1961 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on the heroines of Shakespeare’s problem comedies. As he approached his eightieth year, a former student and colleague urged him to write his autobiography. He had dictated his letter to me and it was one that I had saved. He had responded, “think of the other fate which one risks, of writing an autobiography and remaining a deservedly unknown Indian. No, let the summit of my ambition be to edit King Lear for Indian students. One qualification for it I now possess. An old man is always a King Lear, said Goethe.”
And, as things turned out, I became involved in this project because I was in India during the academic year of 2008–09. I was a kind of sounding board for him at first and then gradually became his scribe in addition. We sifted though his notebooks. We spread out multiple editions. We looked at digitized versions on my laptop. We watched stage performances of King Lear on DVD. We were unlikely teammates—a distinguished senior Shakespeare scholar and a just-tenured cultural anthropologist (though with a background in literary studies). Yet, not least of what we had in common, were our evolving identifications with the play. For him, that identification was perhaps a resonance of Goethe’s line, and for me, it was the experience of a daughter working with her father on a play such as King Lear. His edition was published in 2012.1
Memory and Play: Interspace
This essay attempts an interspatial reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Indic filial-love folktales, as I will refer to them in this essay. My reading is located between my father’s edition of the play and my return to it after his death in early 2014. The idea of interspace forms the basis for my analysis of thematically connected but distinct narratives in this essay. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt explains that the interspace is the world that exists between people and things, conscious of individual distinctions, but simultaneously provides the very foundation for constructive dialogue, relations and purposes. So important is the interspace, Arendt argues, that to lose it, is to lose the world itself (1968:13). And “the world” as she means it, “can form only in the interspaces between men in all their variety” (31). Although Arendt imagines the interspace as a political public realm that engages singularities to generate a pluralistic ethic, I re-tune this notion to serve as an interpretive strategy in comparative reading. By interspace, in this essay, I mean the space of dialogue, visualization, everyday rhythms, and materiality that, while not part of a text’s strict boundaries, nevertheless profoundly affects the field of engagement with the text. In the literary-cultural realm, translation, for instance, is a quintessentially interspatial act that connects the borders and the spaces of at least two distinct things and creates a hybrid experience or insight.
When I returned to re-reading my father’s edition of the play after his death, I read it with the memory of his powerful oral dramatization of the play and our conversations during those early mornings and late afternoons. These recollections helped me find his voice once again within the many voices of the play and its critical commentary. Indeed, what had stayed with me had been the lively orality of my “scribal” experience, an orality that created the interspace for my engagement with the play. As someone who works with oral culture, I had known that the tantalizing persuasion of what we broadly call “oral tradition” is its rambunctious heteroglossia and mediation of sensory experience and variant textuality. However, I now realized that...