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How I inherited scholar Meera Kosambi’s books through several degrees of separation and intimacy

www.scroll.in | October 20, 2018
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A college teacher finds himself with a collection of books that belonged to someone he only knew slightly.

In one of my earliest memories, my father returned from a conference with a book of bedtime stories. I read them all in a night or two. I went to library with my mother every week, and we would issue “this many” books with our arms spread wide – it was our measurement, kitī pustaka āṇale? Evhaḍhe! How many books did you bring? This many!

We even came up with games to play and prizes for reading them. A whole arbitrary system of stickers emerged, with pages in a notebook devoted to documenting what I read with silver and gold stars. Later on, I would learn that reading was its own reward, an experience that cannot be measured, neither in silver and gold stars, nor even with outstretched arms.

Recently, I re-read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude for a class, and paused at a character who knows the intimate details of other places because he reads. Sir John Mandeville travelled the world by visiting a library (never mind that that world was drastically different from what he read), and whenever I enter a library today, I gaze out of the windows dreaming of the world out there, before setting my eyes on the book in my hands, and the people I will meet in it.

Looking for books

Usually, I haven’t been too excited about books given to me as presents – the bedtime stories were a rare success. Like the search for any good item or object, wandering through the narrow lanes of Pune’s Tulsi Baug, or prowling through Phule Market like Baudelaire’s flaneur, searching for a book is part of the experience of reading. One has to fumble through many first pages, glance at many covers, and, if lucky, even sneeze at some accumulated dust before one finds a book.

Sometimes I can stare at an entire bookshelf, and intuit, “Kedar, what you’re looking for isn’t here.” No need for a shelfie with those books.

And at other times, I will travel to Belbag chowk, to the beautiful, if under-maintained neo-classical Pune Nagar Vachan Mandir, stuffed with only two styles of furniture – heavy wooden and steel cabinetry—to find exactly what I’ve wanted all along. But it will be unavailable for lending. And so I’ll gaze out of the particularly large and imaginative windows at the Nagar Vachan Mandir, as nineteenth century figures look down at me from their portraits, and then I’ll turn and search for something else.

Having books thrust on you

A few months ago, I found it odd and strange that a set of books had been thrust upon me. A spacious apartment off Bhandarkar Rd had been sitting empty, and finally needed to be vacated. The apartment had belonged to the late Meera Kosambi, prolific scholar of social history, especially women’s history. But I didn’t receive the books from her – rather, they came to me through several degrees of separation and intimacy.

I had met Kosambi only twice, and otherwise corresponded briefly and intermittently during my dissertation years. Even my own position in the city is marked by presences and absences: On the one hand, I am a third-generation Punekar; on the other, I have spent most of my life away, returning in sporadic stints of one month to three years. But still, Pune often seems like a city where everyone knows everyone.

This particular connection, to Meera Kosambi’s books, required three whole degrees of separation: quite distant by Pune standards. Kosambi had no children and she decided to leave the apartment to a good friend from Mumbai. Kosambi’s friend’s friend, a senior Sanskritist, Dr Madhavi Kolhatkar, is my teacher. On one occasion, while reading Nala and Damayanti, Kolhatkar asked, “By the way, did you know Meera Kosambi?” I must have nodded vaguely – or over-enthusiastically, I don’t quite remember – and I was immediately enlisted to assist in clearing out the apartment.

Are these for me?

So, after some hesitation, during which I called a friend or two, I accompanied my teacher to Kosambi’s apartment and assisted with a few things – I say few because there was far more work to be done even after my meagre contribution. The apartment had the same mid-day colour I remembered from when I sat with Kosambi, a clarity of light that left just the right things hidden. And if I had sat there a little while longer, I would have been convinced of the qualities of that light, shining through the large glass doors of the balcony, like those of a library’s.

But Kosambi had already donated most of her academic material to institutions in Delhi, and what remained were largely published books, available online and in bookstores, which sat among some older archival material and slides on her shelves. Both editions of her work on Pandita Ramabai, my favourite of all nineteenth century personalities, sat there on the shelf. Shelfie time, I think now in retrospect.

A book of hers that I reviewed was next to it, still bound in plastic. Seeing these books felt like revisiting my own past, waiting to be repeated as I gathered the volumes. But if these two books had only the sparest of dust on their jackets, others were more maturely sequestered, and I felt the dust rub off into the sweat of my palms: DD Kosambi’s work, edited by Meera Kosambi, was in my hands. And it contained essays by all the major Indologists of the latter part of the twentieth century, as well as several historians whose work has defined the field of South Asian history, none of whom I have ever met. Suddenly, my breath slowed as I tried to contain my excitement.

What is a book?

We read many authors, and meet comparatively few, as if our books are secret intimacies with ideas and persons, only half divulged in awkward moments, startling and embarrassing and funny at the same time when we do meet them. For example, once, during a thesis defence when I was in graduate school, a faculty member waxed poetic about an amazing argument he had read by someone somewhere about slavery and the American south, and its connection to the study of (Greek) classics.

“That’s in my book!” another, more senior scholar dryly replied, while we all chuckled and the first fellow blushed in embarrassment.

Ideas – the stuff of dreams, of imaginations, and of persons – come to us through the words we read, by persons we may not know, or know only through their words. Like Robert Goldman, who complains in one of the volumes dedicated to DD Kosambi that he arrived in Pune too late to meet him, reading is a way for all of us, who are often tardy, to meet through the book. I have always missed those whom I have wanted to meet by arriving too late: Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, many others.

And how many more that are unknown to-meets? Even though in literary studies we separate the author’s discourse from the voices of narration, as Bakhtin taught us, don’t we become intimate with both when we read? Aren’t we closer to both character and author after reading? And yes, I’d like to meet Bakhtin too.

I spend a great deal of time writing about performance and theatre, all of which is, in theory at least, “live.” We experience it with others, and in front of performers who are physically present. Theatre and performance theory from the 1970s sometimes feels like a race to the bottom, especially when defining what performance is: Two persons doing something while a third watches loses a third of its mass and becomes one person doing something while a second person watches.

But what about books? What is a book? How do we define it? Is it something we read in a nook? What does it kindle? At the cusp of the smartphone revolution, a professor of mine lectured about reading during late classical antiquity, at the cusp of the codex revolution. Codices – manuscripts in book form – were private, secret communions with distant, often dead, persons, their ideas, and the imagination, not too different from books today. It seems as though all books are books left as inheritance, read by belated readers. And the stories they contain, they are all inherited by the living.

Kedar A Kulkarni is Assistant Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune, India.