Wendy Doniger on her memories of Calcutta and Santiniketan as a student of Sanskrit and Bengali

December 5, 1963, at Dimock

Last night we went to see Pete Seeger and he was terrific, all devoutly American, sang like a bird, all leftist, sang We will vanquish, and generally behaved as if he were in a Hootenanny at 92nd Street Y, while he was in the middle of Calcutta’s Maidan all the time, with the moon rising and smoke rising from the burning ghats . It was a great evening, and afterwards we went to talk to him and felt very happy.

I’m going to Santiniketan for two or three days now, just to pick things up and bring them back here to the Dimocks, say goodbye to friends, etc. Chanchal and I will still see each other often, as she will be coming to Calcutta, and the formal structures of Santiniketan can be replaced by elements of Calcutta….

It appears that the Ford Motor Company’s net profit last year was greater than India’s total national income, and it has been suggested that Nehru should sell India to Ford to see if it could be exploited profitably. And as for Nehru’s unpopularity in Bengal and Punjab, I found that Gandhi himself is also unpopular, and hatred stems from partition, as it often does in modern Indian life; these are the two provinces that have been divided, because of their position (according to the government, citing statistics of Muslim percentages, etc.) or because they have always been the two centers of revolution and criticism of the government (according to Bengalis and Punjabis).

Whatever the reason, the partition dealt a terrible blow to their economy and they have since hated Gandhi and Nehru, in Bengal especially since they have their own Bengali rulers, notably Subhas Chandra Bose (Netaji), in worship like the others. of the country honors Gandhi.

An ironic note on the persistence of religious bigotry even in modern intellectual life. The two great living poets of Bengal are Bishnu Dey and Buddhadeb Bose, and there is great rivalry between them and their followers, known as Vaishnavas and Buddhists respectively.

I have a special sense of time, like that when I watch crazy hemming in old movies, seeing all the Kaisers and Frazers around Calcutta. I haven’t seen one in years at home. Gasoline is very expensive here, so every car that goes anywhere is always full. Taxi drivers always bring two friends with them for the ride in the front seat.

The streetcars are incredibly crowded, making New York’s rush hour subways seem deserted by comparison; people climb onto the roof, dodging every time the tram antenna hits a cross wire, sit in the windows and hang outside, so you can’t even see the signs outside Outside, they’re so covered with people swarming like ants on a sugar cube.

And every time you hire a taxi to take you somewhere far away, like a temple or a lake, one way or another, the driver’s entire family suddenly materializes, his wife and five children, all s ‘cramming in the car with you, and along the road, they stop several times to go to the toilet next door or worship the idol in a roadside shrine.


December 11, 1963, c/o Dimock [and Santiniketan]

Last week’s visit to Santiniketan, after all the travel and excitement, made me love it all the more as a place to come home to and as a place that has remained uniquely Indian in the face of the modern world invasive. The glorious climate, with the clear blue air and deep blue sky and pale golden afternoon sun, the constant sound of many songs being sung at once, the bougainvilleas and poinsettias, the sounds of the countryside and the jungle at night, everyone getting up at five and the singing, and the familiarity of it all – I know the faces of rickshaw boys and dogs and lizards, a hawk catching a field mouse, and all my friends.

After the terrible schizophrenia of Delhi, the unity of life in Shantiniketan was a welcome thing, although the fundamental error of imposing the personality of a single genius of the nineteenth century on an entire community continues to hamper the process of education. There are such wonderful people there, however, such personalities who could never be bent in Tagore’s image: Chanchal with his wonderful Punjabi English (“I hate it when the fat in the pan goes ‘Phut! Phut!'” and referring to something she likes but can’t think of the word like “this thing sucks”).

There is a small Santhal woman who sweeps and cooks; when I told her I was leaving, she went to say to Chanchal, “All those I love are leaving”, and later, when her friend admired the intricate patterns that Chanchal was knitting, the Santhal woman walked away. turned to her and said indignantly: is it for nothing that they read such small writings?

And others: The girl who, when I tried to explain what it was like to go to the “Dutch Treat” cinema instead of letting her pay for me like she wanted, said, “Oh , you mean mutual aid”; the Greek boy learning Sanskrit who complained about all the retroflex consonants: “I have to put my tongue in so many places in my mouth, I’m afraid to swallow it”; and all the long, long nocturnal conversations, wrapped in blankets and shawls against the countryside night air, walking outside under the amazing tropical sky.

It seems like all the best times I’ve had in India have been related to singing, especially now that I know a lot of Bengali songs. Yesterday I went to Mishtuni for lunch; there are three sisters, Mishtu, Chiku and Thuku (like the Marx brothers), and they all like to sing and dance. They have records of things like Grenade and La Palomaand they insisted on being taught the rumba, in return for which they taught me East Bengal folk dances, usually performed by the bride and groom in a competition between the two houses.

Gradually the afternoon degenerated into a kind of free-for-all with a few rhumbas on classic ragas, Bharatanatyam on When they start the beguine [a 1938 Cole Porter song]folk dances on the theme of limelight [a 1952 Charlie Chaplin film]ballet to songs by Rabindranath, and so on, until we were all too exhausted to stop laughing, and settled down to a lunch of chicken simmered in coconut milk and compote of papayas, tomatoes and dates.

Mishtuni is teaching English and Bengali to a class of five-year-olds, and one morning when I passed by and saw them under the trees in a circle around her, I stopped for a minute, and they asked for a song, then a story in English. . I told them Goldilocks – ‘Oh,’ one said, ‘you mean tinte bhalluk’, which is Bengali for three bears – and I had to really force him to understand, because they don’t know much English.

If they missed something, they would raise their hands and I would say it in Bengali, and they would laugh and laugh at the mistakes I made in Bengali, then they would say poems to me in English (Little Tommy Tupperetc, deliciously mutilated), fighting for a chance to be next, then poems in Bengali.

A poem, about a crazy country where kites fly boys, where you open your mouth to eat a candy and it bites you, and where to see well you have to close your eyes, recalled the Morse and the carpenter [from Alice in Wonderland] and the Big Rock Candy Mountain [the American country folksong]. Then they all tried to give me their oranges, their eggs and their bananas, and the next few days, every time someone met me, they would say, “Wendy-di Namaskar”, like you greet a teacher, and ask if I would stay again.

When I finally left Santiniketan, there were two people in my train compartment. One was an all-Indian football player who composed and sang original devotional songs for the five hours to Calcutta, and when we crossed the Ganges he went to the door, opened it and sang a song to Mother Ganges. At one point he asked my name and I said “Wendy” and he said “Oh, Bindi” and I said “No, Wendy” and he said “Oh” and then he didn’t. said nothing. for about five minutes, then suddenly said, “I already forgot about it. Would you say it again? and when I did, he pulled out a notebook and wrote, WENDY, and that was the end of our conversation.

The other man in the compartment was a professor of philosophy whose books are published by Macmillan, a tall old man of the old school, and he asked me if I knew any songs, and when I told him the ones I knew , he asked me to sing them, then he sang many Sanskrit verses from the Gita Govinda for me, pausing at each verse to apologize, “I’m afraid that’s a little erotic.”

For a moment another man came in, and he sang, and at the same time the footballer and the philosophy teacher were singing, each for himself, but loud enough, as all Indians sing, and each was “sculpting” the song with his hands in the Indian way, paying no attention to anyone else.

Then the teacher asked me why I hadn’t brought lunch, and I explained that I had bought some bananas but left them by mistake at Santiniketan, and when we stopped at the station Next he jumped off and came back a few minutes later with a bunch of bananas, which he wouldn’t let me pay for, because, he said with a sad, compassionate look, “You left your bananas in Santiniketan.”

Excerpted with permission from An American in India: Letters and Memories, 1963-64Wendy Doniger, talking tiger.