In my childhood home, paper, of any kind, was to 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 here for any number of reasons, where you rubbed paper on your arse.
I did not know what to write on the notebooks I first bought as a child when I visited my birthplace, Ara. The nibs we were given were of wood. We dipped them in ink. My cousins and I sat in a row near our elderly aunt who had become crippled with grief after her husband died young. His blood had turned black before 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 at least I had heard my mother and others say. When she lay on her back 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 on the side of the bed that faced the door. Her son was studying to be a doctor. We were told that he wanted to be a doctor because his father had died of an incurable disease and his mother was waiting to be able to walk again. There was reverence and also a faintly morbid, perhaps dread, expectation in that house. My aunt told me not to buy notebooks which had the pictures of Bombay film stars on them, and to always remember to touch the notebook with my forehead if I stepped on it. Her crippled hand gave to the alphabet letters she wrote out for me a larger, rounder form. I remember her as being neat and very strict, this aunt who wore a widow’s white sari. Her room smelled of Dettol. In her presence, I wrote my first letters on the plain sheets of my notebook, always afraid that I would make mistakes. 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 aunt lived, in which Naniji, my grandmother on my mother’s side, died a few days short of my seventh birthday. When Naniji died, her sons’ wives tore out the blank pages from our notebooks. The women rubbed clarified butter—”pure ghee”—on my grandmother’s feet and then placed the sheets of paper against her soles. In the months that followed these oily prints were filled with heavy embroidery and hung on the walls of the houses of all the relatives on my mother’s side, including my old aunt. This is what remains of my earliest lessons in writing: the red footprints of my dead grandmother pointing toward eternity. On those sheets of the notebooks that I used to so quickly tire of when I made mistakes, the creases on Naniji’s soles were stitched stiff with green silk.
Paper was to be worshipped, like money or the Gita. This freed you from the burden of doing any reading. My maternal uncles worked in the prison bureaucracy. I looked up to cousins who, on the flimsy wooden doors of the rooms that they shared, wrote down in chalk their names with fancy titles. There were notebooks around, and some textbooks with their covers wrapped in pages taken from newspapers or magazines, but I do not remember any books. There was certainly no library. The comfortable ritual that I enter into now—a part of the privilege of living in a place like the United States—of choosing and reading books from the shelves that line my study, could not have been imagined at that time. The rituals in my grandmother’s house, in that small town in India’s most backward province, had more to do with cleaning your teeth with toothpowders that had tobacco in them or concentrating on a cure for constipation.
There is a short story I like in which a young man comes to the United States from India and becomes obsessed with the desire to know everything about the Indian tradition. The story was written in Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan, who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In the story, the young man named Annayya is amazed at how, unlike him, the American anthropologists knew so much about Indian culture. Annayya begins to read books on India: “On the second floor of the Chicago library were stacks and stacks of those books which had to be reached by climbing the ladders and holding on to the wooden railings. Library call number PK 321. The East had at last found a niche in the West.”
The number PK 321 is tied, in my mind, with another code or number, a cryptic marker of mid-twentieth century globalization. It is PL 480, short for Public Law 480, 83rd Congress. Beginning in 1951, the United States provided wheat to India and other newly independent nations and accepted payment for the grain in local currency. The money that was “interest payable by the Government of India on the Wheat Loan of 1951” was used to fund “cultural exchange.” In other words, monies to buy Indian books for American libraries in return for the regulated disposal of wheat from the American Midwest. The PL 480 library program for India and Pakistan began in January, 1962. The library at the University of Chicago was selected by the Library of Congress as one of the top beneficiaries of the program. The books about ancient Hindu traditions that Ramanujan’s Annayya was reading concealed a more contemporary exchange involving,among other things, the regulation on the open market of the price of thousands of tons of wheat from places like Kansas.
It was after coming to America as a foreign student that I read “Annayya’s Anthropology” for the first time. For me,there was even a glimmer of self-recognition in Ramanujan’s description of Annayya in America: “He read the Gita. In Mysore, he had made his father angry by refusing to read it. Here he drank beer and whisky, ate beef, used toilet paper instead of washing himself with water, lapped up the Playboy magazines with their pictures of naked breasts, thighs, and some navels as big as rupee coins.” But, what caught my attention during a subsequent reading was a detail in Ramanujan’s story: the American anthropologist whose book Annayya was reading in the Chicago library stacks was a Ford Foundation fellow in India. In this fact hides the repetition of the link with PL 480.
Under the National Defense Education Act of 1958,a South Asia Language and Area Center was started at Chicago; as a result, the university received substantial Ford Foundation long-term grants. The same Ford Foundation was, of course, also interested in grains. India, with help from the Americans, was trying to succeed at launching the Green Revolution which was to later make grain transfer to India unnecessary. But, that was not the only aim of the Green Revolution. The environmental scientist Vandana Shivahas written that under the Ford Foundation program in India “agriculture was transformed from being based on internal inputs to being dependent on external purchased inputs for which credits become necessary.” The creditor was going to be America. We begin to see the further irony hidden in Ramanujan’s remark that the East had found a niche in the West under the call number PR 321: the ghost that lurks beside that call number is the PL 480 program and the story of American grains and even gain. As Shiva points out, “The social and political planning that went into the Green Revolution aimed at engineering not just seeds but social relations as well.”
In Ramanujan’s story, however, it is in a different way that Annayya brushes against the grain of history. The book that he is reading in the library stacks contains photographs that reveal to Annayya scenes that appear familiar. When looking at the photograph showing a Hindu cremation, Annayya recognizes his cousin Sundararaya, who owned a photography studio in their hometown. Annayya reads the foreword and finds mention of his cousin’s name. He returns to the photograph of the funeral. He realizes that the picture was taken in his own home. He looks at the corpse. Now the truth dawns on him: this is a photograph of his father’s funeral. His father is dead.
I had only recently left my home in India when I read this story and was drawn by the drama of Annayya’s loss. There was a lesson there, too, about books and libraries. I saw that the book is not removed from the world, from the realities of trade and profits and power. I was also coming close to the insight shared in that wonderful memoir Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R.James: “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place. The relations of classes had to change before I discovered that it’s not the quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement, not where you are or what you have, but where you come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”
Perhaps I had also begun to learn, in some complex sense, that you do not know love or death’s loss except through language. This discovery made me see as if with fresh eyes the catastrophe around me and compelled me to think all the more tenderly of the poverty of the culture I had left behind. There is a moment in a short story by a contemporary Hindi writer, Uday Prakash, wherein the loss of a language what is also seen is the arrival of the triumphalist West. The protagonist of Prakash’s tale is a Hindi poet, Paul Gomra. Standing at the turbulent borders of a changing age, the Hindi poet feels bewildered. Gomra has seen nations like Yugoslavia and East Germany and superpowers like the Soviet Unionvanish from the political map of the world. With the demise of socialism in Europe, people have been waiting with great anticipation for its disappearance from Asia and the Third World. Prakash writes: “If matters had stopped there, Paul Gomra would not have been too much worried. But he could see that with the same speed with which socialism had been wiped out of eastern Europe, now all the Hindi magazines and newspapers were being wiped out in Delhi.” This way I learned, too, that books not only offer refuge from the world,they also return you to it. By the time I understood this, I had stopped worshipping paper and become a reader.