The Bible Annotation Project
‘ Subhasis Chattopadhyay has studied the Bible from the Pontifical Athenaeum, Bengaluru. Later, from this Papal Seminary, he trained as a psychoanalyst. He has written extensively for the Catholic Herald, published from Kolkata. He has been a book-reviewer for Prabuddha Bharata from 2010 till date. Ivy League Presses have cited some of his reviews. His paper on theodicy in the Bhagavad Gita had garnered attention from the Hindu Studies’ Department, Oxford University. From this Department, he has three separate qualifications in Hinduism. He has also specialised in Major Depressive Disorders, Geriatric mental health care and the psychology of exercise. He teaches English at the UG and PG Departments of English at Nara Sinha Dutt College (affiliated to the University of Calcutta), Howrah. He focuses on theodicies in popular literature and has been assisting the Valley of Words in all its online and offline publications. The Honorary Curator of VoW, Dr Sanjeev Chopra, recently interviewed him on a range of questions – from the Bible annotation project to literary festivals and the state of an average Indian’s mental and spiritual well being.
SC: Why do you annotate the Bible online and, have decided not to get it printed?
Chattopadhaya: I believe that the age of non-electronic books is on its way out for two reasons. First, making a real (hard) copy of a book is destructive of our environment since trees have to be destroyed to make real books. With an e-book or a blog post or an answer on Quora, an author’s works are distributed to a broader audience. And everything should be open-access. Knowledge should be accessible to all. Those who are reluctant to engage with online audiences creatively have something to hide. Perhaps they are doing hackneyed literary work.
SC: Can you tell us something about your Bible annotation project?
Chattopadhaya: I annotate the Bible through Hindu hermeneutics, among other hermeneutical lenses. For instance, I interpret the Bible from the angles of Kashmiri Shaivism as also through Guy Standing’s perspectives of a precariat economy.
SC: Is it not ambiguous that you write, both, on Hinduism and the Bible?
Chattopadhaya: Actually, I write on the various branches of Buddhism, too. I have to make it clear that I approach all these three religions from a religious studies’ perspective, which is entirely different from being a believer in any of these three religions. We have to distinguish between religious studies and lived religions. I deal with truth-claims in religions and not with the religious beliefs per se. And also it is like this: Sri Vachaspati Mishra (circa 9th or 10th century) and Fr Raimon Panikkar Alemany (1918-2010) are my models as far as religious studies go. Mishra was ‘sarva-tantra-svatantra’, that is, he moved between systems of thought and was not affected by any of these systems. Fr Raimundo, said that one’s own religion is like one’s one home, but there is no harm in looking out of one’s window to see what is going on in neighbouring houses. Maybe, then, one can approach the neighbour and have a dialogue with them. So, this is how I see my forays into the worlds of different religions. I try to emulate Sri Vachaspati Mishra and Fr Panikkar.
SC: Why have you chosen to be a literary critic and not a fiction writer?
Chattopadhaya: Who brings an author to the public attention? Why has John Milton been remembered as a great poet and not many other epic writers of Milton’s time? Why do we read Charles Dickens even today and neglect Anthony Trollope? Literary critics, over time, have shown the world that Milton’s epic has value, Dickens’s novels have value. Many other writers are not worth our time; since life is short and there are too many books to read. Influential literary critics through their writing keep authors alive over the centuries. Without literary-critics, authors will be forgotten. The late Leslie Fiedler and, now Michiko Kakutani, both canonised authorss, through their critiques of some authors, showed us why we should not waste our time reading trash. I have not published fiction so far because I find great joy in writing serious academic literary criticism.
SC: Which fields in literature do you work on?
Chattopadhaya: My focus is on American Studies and, separately, within popular culture studies. Specifically, I am interested in American horror literature. SC: Why are you interested in a literary festival like ours? Chattopadhaya: Well, I have found that the organisers of this literary festival from its inception were welcoming to me. And it is the only literary festival where serious academic discussions occur. Not the reiterative self-praise that goes on in other literary festivals. Literary criticism, which is an art by itself, is appreciated here. Also, one gets to know here where exactly works of literature in India are heading. By the way, who told you that literary critics cannot be part of literary-festivals? Those literary-festivals which do not have space for literary-critics have little to do with literature. I pointed out that VoW is different. Here, you deal with the serious cultural work of literature. I have seen this from the first edition of VoW.
SC: Since you have studied Formative Spirituality, what do you think is the state of the average Indian’s mental and spiritual well-being?
Chattopadhaya: I want to make it clear that all of us, no matter how well we feel, should seek the help of various talk-therapists. That will transform our lives. If one follows the PERMA method of the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, we will be able to care for our mind and souls. Seligman teaches ‘learned optimism’ in contrast to ‘learned helplessness’. People are increasingly suffering from clinical depression and terrible loneliness. Children have few friends and have to endure bullying and body-shaming within their peer circles. So, mental-health care is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, many children and their parents fall prey to the ‘become a doctor’ or ‘an engineer’ traps. The brainwashing begins these days from class five. Parents force little children to sit for various examinations, which destroy the souls of these kids. Even before they grow older, they become hardened, looking at friends as competitors. This is India’s greatest tragedy.