Amitava Kumar

In my childhood home, paper, of any kind, wasto be touched only by hand. If you stepped on a book by accident,you were to pick it up and raise it respectfully to your forehead.I am not from a culture, although that seems the wrong word herefor any number of reasons, where you rubbed paper on your arse.

I did not know what to write on the notebooksI first bought as a child when I visited my birthplace, Ara. Thenibs we were given were of wood. We dipped them in ink. My cousinsand I sat in a row near our elderly aunt who had become crippledwith grief after her husband died young. His blood had turned blackbefore his death; when he died, my aunt didn’t move for months.Her legs swelled up and she could no longer walk. That is what atleast I had heard my mother and others say. When she lay on herback in bed, my aunt couldn’t sit up or raise herself without help.Through most of the day, she would sit with her legs immobile onthe side of the bed that faced the door. Her son was studying tobe a doctor. We were told that he wanted to be a doctor becausehis father had died of an incurable disease and his mother was waitingto be able to walk again. There was reverence and also a faintlymorbid, perhaps dread, expectation in that house. My aunt told menot to buy notebooks which had the pictures of Bombay film starson them, and to always remember to touch the notebook with my foreheadif I stepped on it. Her crippled hand gave to the alphabet lettersshe wrote out for me a larger, rounder form. I remember her as beingneat and very strict, this aunt who wore a widow’s white sari. Herroom smelled of Dettol. In her presence, I wrote my first letterson the plain sheets of my notebook, always afraid that I would makemistakes. I always made mistakes and as soon as I had made one,I didn’t want to use that notebook anymore.

It was in that same house in Ara, where my auntlived, in which Naniji, my grandmother on my mother’s side, dieda few days short of my seventh birthday. When Naniji died, her sons’wives tore out the blank pages from our notebooks. The women rubbedclarified butter—”pure ghee”—on my grandmother’s feetand then placed the sheets of paper against her soles. In the monthsthat followed these oily prints were filled with heavy embroideryand hung on the walls of the houses of all the relatives on my mother’sside, including my old aunt. This is what remains of my earliestlessons in writing: the red footprints of my dead grandmother pointingtoward eternity. On those sheets of the notebooks that I used toso quickly tire of when I made mistakes, the creases on Naniji’ssoles were stitched stiff with green silk.

Paper was to be worshipped, like money or theGita. This freed you from the burden of doing any reading.My maternal uncles worked in the prison bureaucracy. I looked upto cousins who, on the flimsy wooden doors of the rooms that theyshared, wrote down in chalk their names with fancy titles. Therewere notebooks around, and some textbooks with their covers wrappedin pages taken from newspapers or magazines, but I do not rememberany books. There was certainly no library. The comfortable ritualthat I enter into now—a part of the privilege of living ina place like the United States—of choosing and reading booksfrom the shelves that line my study, could not have been imaginedat that time. The rituals in my grandmother’s house, in that smalltown in India’s most backward province, had more to do with cleaningyour teeth with toothpowders that had tobacco in them or concentratingon a cure for constipation.

There is a short story I like in which a youngman comes to the United States from India and becomes obsessed withthe desire to know everything about the Indian tradition. The storywas written in Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan, who taught for many yearsat the University of Chicago. In the story, the young man namedAnnayya is amazed at how, unlike him, the American anthropologistsknew so much about Indian culture. Annayya begins to read bookson India: “On the second floor of the Chicago library were stacksand stacks of those books which had to be reached by climbing theladders and holding on to the wooden railings. Library call numberPK 321. The East had at last found a niche in the West.”

The number PK 321 is tied, in my mind, with anothercode or number, a cryptic marker of mid-twentieth century globalization.It is PL 480, short for Public Law 480, 83rd Congress. Beginningin 1951, the United States provided wheat to India and other newlyindependent nations and accepted payment for the grain in localcurrency. The money that was “interest payable by the Governmentof India on the Wheat Loan of 1951″ was used to fund “cultural exchange.”In other words, monies to buy Indian books for American librariesin return for the regulated disposal of wheat from the AmericanMidwest. The PL 480 library program for India and Pakistan beganin January, 1962. The library at the University of Chicago was selectedby the Library of Congress as one of the top beneficiaries of theprogram. The books about ancient Hindu traditions that Ramanujan’sAnnayya was reading concealed a more contemporary exchange involving,among other things, the regulation on the open market of the priceof thousands of tons of wheat from places like Kansas.

It was after coming to America as a foreign studentthat I read “Annayya’s Anthropology” for the first time. For me,there was even a glimmer of self-recognition in Ramanujan’s descriptionof Annayya in America: “He read the Gita. In Mysore, he hadmade his father angry by refusing to read it. Here he drank beerand whisky, ate beef, used toilet paper instead of washing himselfwith water, lapped up the Playboy magazines with their picturesof naked breasts, thighs, and some navels as big as rupee coins.”But, what caught my attention during a subsequent reading was adetail in Ramanujan’s story: the American anthropologist whose bookAnnayya was reading in the Chicago library stacks was a Ford Foundationfellow in India. In this fact hides the repetition of the link withPL 480.

Under the National Defense Education Act of 1958,a South Asia Language and Area Center was started at Chicago; asa result, the university received substantial Ford Foundation long-termgrants. The same Ford Foundation was, of course, also interestedin grains. India, with help from the Americans, was trying to succeedat launching the Green Revolution which was to later make graintransfer to India unnecessary. But, that was not the only aim ofthe Green Revolution. The environmental scientist Vandana Shivahas written that under the Ford Foundation program in India “agriculturewas transformed from being based on internal inputs to being dependenton external purchased inputs for which credits become necessary.”The creditor was going to be America. We begin to see the furtherirony hidden in Ramanujan’s remark that the East had found a nichein the West under the call number PR 321: the ghost that lurks besidethat call number is the PL 480 program and the story of Americangrains and even gain. As Shiva points out, “The social and politicalplanning that went into the Green Revolution aimed at engineeringnot just seeds but social relations as well.”

In Ramanujan’s story, however, it is in a differentway that Annayya brushes against the grain of history. The bookthat he is reading in the library stacks contains photographs thatreveal to Annayya scenes that appear familiar. When looking at thephotograph showing a Hindu cremation, Annayya recognizes his cousinSundararaya, who owned a photography studio in their hometown. Annayyareads the foreword and finds mention of his cousin’s name. He returnsto the photograph of the funeral. He realizes that the picture wastaken in his own home. He looks at the corpse. Now the truth dawnson him: this is a photograph of his father’s funeral. His fatheris dead.

I had only recently left my home in India whenI read this story and was drawn by the drama of Annayya’s loss.There was a lesson there, too, about books and libraries. I sawthat the book is not removed from the world, from the realitiesof trade and profits and power. I was also coming close to the insightshared in that wonderful memoir Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R.James: “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones taketheir place. The relations of classes had to change before I discoveredthat it’s not the quality of goods and utility that matter, butmovement, not where you are or what you have, but where you comefrom, where you are going and the rate at which you are gettingthere.”

Perhaps I had also begun to learn, in some complexsense, that you do not know love or death’s loss except throughlanguage. This discovery made me see as if with fresh eyes the catastrophearound me and compelled me to think all the more tenderly of thepoverty of the culture I had left behind. There is a moment in ashort story by a contemporary Hindi writer, Uday Prakash, wherein the loss of a language what is also seen is the arrival of thetriumphalist West. The protagonist of Prakash’s tale is a Hindipoet, Paul Gomra. Standing at the turbulent borders of a changingage, the Hindi poet feels bewildered. Gomra has seen nations likeYugoslavia and East Germany and superpowers like the Soviet Unionvanish from the political map of the world. With the demise of socialismin Europe, people have been waiting with great anticipation forits disappearance from Asia and the Third World. Prakash writes:”If matters had stopped there, Paul Gomra would not have been toomuch worried. But he could see that with the same speed with whichsocialism had been wiped out of eastern Europe, now all the Hindimagazines and newspapers were being wiped out in Delhi.” This wayI learned, too, that books not only offer refuge from the world,they also return you to it. By the time I understood this, I hadstopped worshipping paper and become a reader.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from TheKenyon Review and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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