Rediscovering India


Words are the only jewels I possess
Words are the only clothes I wear
Words are the only food that sustains my life
Words are the only wealth I distribute among people

— Sant Tukaram

The South Asia Institute, which belongs to the Heidelberg University, offers courses in Transcultural Studies, Indology, and other themes related to the Indian subcontinent. I had heard of those courses on a few occasions, but the subjects did not interest me, and I knew no one studying or working there. So for a long time the South Asia Institute remained a name related to my country of origin, no more.

My curiosity grew when I saw, not long ago, a pamphlet that advertised a library, an English library at the South Asia Institute. It was open to the public, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 7 pm. I decided to make a visit.

* * *

No. 330, a six-storied building where the South Asia Institute is located, stands next to a group of similar buildings that belong to the local hospital. They share the same parking lot. You see a few gloomy-faced people walking about, but it’s hard to say if they are university faculty or relatives of a terminal patient. A few bicycles are parked outside 330, locked to the aluminium railing, and a small revolving door, bright red and hard to budge, ushers you into the foyer. The concrete walls inside carry a thin coat of white paint, the gravelled floor looks untidy: the hall bears the unfinished look of a parking garage. At the center a narrow stairway leads upstairs. A man with South Indian features is standing to the left, his hand holding the elevator door open, his eyes on me.

“Are you on your way up?” he asks.

“I’m looking for the library, actually.”

“Take the stairs – one floor up.”

Upstairs the reception area is large and airy. A glass partition splits the hall, and behind the glass are two rows of unoccupied computer terminals. On another glass partition, which encloses two sides of the reception desk, hangs an array of amateurish but well-composed photographs from the subcontinent: a buddhist temple, a riverside ghat in Benaras, a street in Nepal, an Indian bazaar, and so on. Returned books are stacked on a trolley, waiting to be replaced; new arrivals are displayed in glass cabinets, like gems in a jewellery store. Rabindranath Tagore, head inclined toward the half-written page, stands alone in a corner, composed, carved in black. Next to him is a notice board announcing events and courses, and on the opposite wall a series of bronze-coloured frames enclose portraits of Hindu mythological figures. I could be inside a university building in India.

The only person I see around is a young lady at the reception desk, absorbed in a collection of catalog cards like a monk with a manuscript. It is half past ten on a Monday morning.

* * *

The hall next to the reception contains periodicals. Scanning the shelves, I find thickly bound volumes with back issues of journals. Journal of Indian History, Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Political science, Journal of Indian Ocean Studies, South Asian Survey, Medieval History Journal, India Review, Man in India, Asia and African Studies, Indian Literature, The Anthropologist, The Little Mag, Economic and Political weekly, Theatre India, and others.


There is no one else on this floor. The silence is total, and every scrap of sound I make – opening a volume, turning a page – is magnified, like a crackle from a loudspeaker. I pick up the first volume of Indian Literature. Published by the Sahitya Academy, the first issue, dated October 1957, lays out its mission:

The Akademi’s aim is a modest one – to help writers and readers in the various languages of India to know each other better. It is unfortunately true that we in India suffer from and are handicapped by our ignorance about ourselves. As things are, a Bengali poet or writer is likely to know a great deal about Ezra Pound or T.S.Eliot or Jean-Paul Sartre while knowing almost nothing or next to nothing about poets and writers in, say, Tamil or Malayalam or perhaps even in Hindi. The same is no doubt true of writers in every language.

This caution against embracing only the West also surfaces in another essay, ‘Modernism and Indian Literature‘, in the journal’s next issue:

What forms, what techniques would serve the contemporary writer’s purpose? He must grope and find out for himself. Lucky the Renaissance writer who had at his disposal literary forms tried by several generations of Westerners. The contemporary writer, it might be suggested, could very well avail himself of the stream-of-consciousness novel à la Proust and the symbolic poem à la Mallarme or Rilke as useful forms. But the difficulty in his case is that these Western modes are dictated by the peculiar inner needs of the writers in question and the contemporary Indian writer would not be well advised to borrow them, as easily as his predecessors borrowed the ode or the sonnet or the social novel for example. The facts of contemporary life, throbbing around him, may not readily fall into the mould he would so facilely borrow. He must struggle and evolve the form that would answer to his need.

The forms that emerge in later volumes of this journal are, mainly, Chekhovian short stories, essays on literary criticism, and poetry of social change. I read a couple of short stories (‘Light and shades’ by Navree, another one by the Telugu writer Chaso) and skim through a few others. They are all eminently forgettable. Poor translation into English, I feel, has robbed their soul.

Turning to plays, I pick up the latest issue of the Theater India. The first article, by Gowri Ramnarayan, a journalist whose articles I’ve read in The Hindu, traces the struggle from ‘Text to Performance’ of what the author says is not a play but a performance. Dark Horse describes a meeting between a poet and a journalist, and translating it to the stage involves performing the poems, singing them to Carnatic music, getting the actors flow with the music. Another article is a tribute by Girish Karnad to fellow playwright Badal Sircar:

What they (Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh) did was to give Indian theatre an insight into the complexity of human mind, taking it beyond a mere obsession with social reform and political comment to a subtle understanding of the unpredictability of human motivation.

… what Badal Sircar did was to point out the ambiguity in the very notion of a psychologically fully drawn character.

History is next. In the Medieval History journal I run into a marvellous essay on narcotics and drugs in North India in the 16th and 17th centuries. Surveying the situation during Emperor Akbar’s reign, historian Meena Bhargava writes:

The emperor in fact laid down severe punishments for excessive drinking, carousals, rows and disorderly conduct. To maintain proper surveillance, he ordered the establishment of a wine shop near the palace and placed it under the supervision of a porter’s wife, who by birth belonged to the wine-selling class.

… while a woman could sell alcohol, she couldn’t be found drinking it since that activity belonged exclusively to the domain of man.

The emperor also announced a fixed tarif on wine, so that persons who wished to purchase wine as a remedy for their ailments could do so by getting their names as well as names of their forefathers registered with the clerk of the shop. This, however, did not prevent deceit for there were many who gave fictitious names to obtain wine.

The basement floor, gleaming under the tube lights, is crammed with more rows of slotted-iron shelves filled with books. Picking up titles at random, I find myself browsing through one of the Selected works of Jawaharlal Nehru. The first page I turn to displays a memo by Nehru urging everyone to give Urdu the same importance as Hindi. Another one reveals a letter to a minister about a ten lakh rupee cheque Nehru has received from the Saudi Arabian king; it is a donation to the Aligarh Muslim University, and Nehru informs the minister that he has deposited the cheque himself as the university may sit on it for weeks: he doesn’t want the Saudi ruler to think the money is not important.

Such gems are all around me. High on a shelf I spot the title Letters from India. A collection of letters written between 1828 and 1831 by Victor Jacquemont, the French botanist who spent four years traveling in India, before succumbing to a disease in Mumbai, at the age of 31.

He asked me how many soldiers there were in France; how many guns, fortresses, cavalry, the scales of pay etc. I carefully refrained from telling him the pay of the generals, for he would have certainly have thought of cutting down the pays of Messrs. Allard and Ventura. He asked me if I have seen the king of Delhi and, on my replying in the affirmative, enquired what ceremonies took place on my presentation in Darbar. I laughed when I told him of the infinite number of bows I had to make and the absurd picture I presented when invested with khillat. This amused Ranjit very much.

The ‘Ranjit’ above is Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the extract is from another book by Victor Jacquemont, The Punjab a hundred years ago.

On another shelf I find volumes that belong to The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, dated 1736 to 1761. Pillai, I learn from the book, was an interpreter who lived in Pondicherry and worked for the French East India Company; his diaries offer a unique portrait of 18th century life in South India. One more floor below, in the Indian literature section, are books in the vernacular. The Kannada shelf has all the titles I have been searching for on the Internet without much success: Girish Karnad’s plays, U.R.Ananthamurthy’s works.


* * *

On my way out, at the reception, I enquire about a membership. Standing behind the counter are two ladies, a young blonde with a rabbit-toothed smile, a middle-aged woman with short brown hair. The older woman speaks.

“The library is open to the public. You can come anytime and use our facilities.”

“Yes, I suppose I can come here to read, but I’d also like to borrow books. How can I become a member? I do not belong to the university.”

“All residents of Germany can get a membership. Do you live in Germany?”

“I do.”

“Then you can get a membership from the main university library building. Do you know where it is?”


“I think it’s building number 368, I am not exactly sure. You go outside, and turn left, and after you cross the road you go along the grey building, and when you come to a small square you turn right, then go straight across a few buildings and after that on the left side you will see the main university library.”

I jot all this down, using arrows, lines, and boxes, unsure if I’ve followed it right. The woman is friendly in the way Germans are friendly, which is to say her manner is confident and firm without being loud or overbearing. I find it hard to imagine her behind a hotel reception.

“That’s nice – thank you for the directions.”

“You’ll need a passport, and a … meldebescheinigung…Do you know what that is?”

“From the Rathaus?” I ask. The town hall is where such documents are issued.

“Yes, from the Rathaus, a proof that you live here. And I think if you do not belong to the university, then you will have to pay about thirty Euros a year for the membership.”

“That’s fine. Thanks so much.” I want to leave, but she isn’t finished yet.

“And yes, you cannot use all our facilities. I think access to the electronic documents is possible only for university students. So you can use the computers downstairs, to look at our catalog, but not those here.” She points to the room with computers across the reception.

“I saw that there’s an online catalog open to the public.”

“Ah, the online catalog has most but not all of our books.” She shrugs, like a woman in a bakery who has just informed a customer that the croissants are sold out, sorry.

She continues: “You see, we are trying our best to keep up and catalog everything, but we do it in … how shall I say … irregular batches. Everything we acquired after 1986 is cataloged, I think, but if you want something before that, then it may be there, may not be there, could soon be there, or may never be there.”

She smiles, pleased with herself, at what she’s managed in a foreign language.

“You have a fascinating collection.”

“Oh, thank you!” That smile again. “Yes it’s unbelievable what we’ve got here. When I look into the catalogs I’m really astonished to see some of the titles. It was established in the early 1960s, you know. The seed of the collection came from the private collections of Wilhelm Geiger und Max Walleser. They had traveled extensively in the sub-continent, and both had a large collection of antiquarian books, which became the source of this library.”

I thank her again, and promise to return soon.

* * *

That day, on my drive back home from the library, my mind was on Pankaj Mishra.

In the winter of 1988, soon after his graduation, Mishra spent some months in Benares, walking four miles each morning to the library at the Benares Hindu University. That library turned into his window to the West. He discovered, in the dusty shelves of the library, the entire works of Edmund Wilson, and read them all. He writes, in his essay ‘Edmund Wilson in Benares‘:

It was miraculous because this was no ordinary library. Wilson’s books weren’t easily accessible. I had always lived in small towns where libraries and bookshops were few and far between, and did not stock anything except a few standard texts of English Literature: Austen Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray. My semi-colonial education had made me spend much of my time on minor Victorian and Edwardian writers. Some diversity was provided by writers in Hindi and the Russians, which you could buy cheaply at Communist bookstores. As for the rest, I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world.

… Miraculously, the library at Benaras had remained well stocked. Subscriptions to foreign magazines had been renewed on time: you could find complete volumes of the TLS, Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books from the sixties in the stacks.

It seemed to me that I was going through the inverse of what Pankaj Mishra did. I had access to the Western literary canon: the American library in Heidelberg, my only stable source of books beyond those at home, was well stocked. I subscribed to The New Yorker and Granta. What I missed was a portal to India. The American library evinced as much interest in Indian literature as the West did: its catalog listed books by Indian writers well known in the West — Rushdie, Ghosh, Lahiri — and Indian themes emerged so long as there was a Western link; colonialism, post-colonialism, globalisation, poverty-development-aid, regional conflicts, and terrorism: this was the limit of West’s interest in India, a limit that explained its blinkered view of the corpus of Indian literature. This gap in my sources preyed occasionally on my mind, and I tried to remedy it by sending long wish-lists to India: generous friends and relatives turned couriers, and my own bags on return journeys from India often carried a hoard of precious books and magazines, a year’s worth of reading. Such lists, however, were the iceberg’s tip; a vast reservoir of words lay submerged beneath the surface visible in Indian bookstores: how could one reach it? The Internet is a good place to search if you know what you are looking for, but an open-ended exploration, with no particular target, is best done in the labyrinths of a library, where chance hovers like a fairy and small serendipities lead to unforeseen discoveries. The South Asia Institute library was the source I desired, and this find prompted in me the delight Mishra had felt in Benaras. This was no ordinary library; it was miraculous.

And so it happened that eleven years after I left India for Germany I began, through works of literature buried inside a building in an unremarkable corner of Heidelberg, a personal journey to rediscover India.

9 thoughts on “Rediscovering India

  1. This is such a marvelous post: a physical discovery opening a door into personal discovery. You must write more as the story develops. It resonates with me because I too am surrounded by a foreign language and culture; it’s not easy to get English books here, except for the most predictable and popular titles. The McGill University library is expensive for non-affiliated readers, though I can request books through interlibrary loan – but that’s cumbersome and defeats much of what I love about libraries – the joy of browsing — so I find I depend on the internet.

    I was moved by the Sant Tukaram quote at the beginning of your essay.

  2. This interesting post made me think about how much of the world’s great writing must be inaccessible to every one of us, even those who understand more than one language. There are so many languages; to be able to read in all of them would be quite impossible. I myself read easily only in English, and therefore rely on English translations to read what is originally written in other languages. I always feel anything translated must be altered in some respects.

    I gathered from your account that you were speaking in English to the lady at the desk? Why not German?

    1. Anne, the answer to your question is simple: my German isn’t good enough. I use German where necessary – in shops, on the street, in public transport, etc – and I can manage a small conversation without difficulty. But given a choice between German and English, I choose the latter. In this case I took a chance and started in English, and it worked. If it hadn’t, I would’ve switched to German. (This has happened during some conversations on train journeys). The ideal format – the one that sometimes works in meetings at office – is to listen to German and speak in English.

  3. I wondered the same thing as Anne did.

    Wow, this is wonderful writing: we enter the place and hear the quiet and smell the books, as well as clearly seeing it. And from the sense of place, so many interesting and vital trains of thought are sparked. On a hollow, tired morning, you have filled my mind with images and questions.

    You also reminded me how much I like the work of Pankaj Mishra and that I should book for his London reading and talk coming up soon.

    Everything I could ever want from a blogpost, really 🙂

  4. This is an outstanding essay. Beautiful flow, nice succession of scenes, good characterization purely via dialogue – I almost felt I was conversing with the older librarian/receptionist myself. The part of a having the reverse experience of Pankaj Mishra was superb (also because Benares, like Heidelberg, in an University town in some ways). It is also apt that you lead with a Sant Tukaram quote. And the line on gloomy-faced people being either faculty or relatives of patients brought a smile.

    Thanks for sharing this discovery. I was pleasantly surprised to find – from the online search – books from Makarand Sathe and Iravati Karve (books one would be hard pressed to find in many Marathi libraries in India!)

  5. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this piece, and writing about what it was that created an impact when you read it. This is valuable feedback, and it means so much to me.

  6. Such beautiful words. You are easily one of my favourite Indian writers. I have been reading your blog since years and I always come back for repeat readings. You should treat us with more of your insight, it is very comforting.

    1. Thank you for your words, P. It’s hard to know what kind of readers I am reaching here, but on the rare occasion I see a comment like this, I am reminded that writing is a worthwhile activity.

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