Göttingen, Niedersachsen

Expecting to find that my Air BnB in the largely undestroyed old University town of Göttingen in Niedersachsen would be in a student hall of residence, my basic needs catered but not in a calm environment, I was pleased to find the apartment instead in a very salubrious area with large houses once owned by Nobel prize winners, Max Planck, an important figure in the development of quantum physics, at Merkelstrasse 12 (and died there in 1947), and Werner Heisenberg at no. 18, who, according to Wikipedia, was initially frowned on by the Nazis because of his association with the ideas of Einstein, which the Nazis self-destructively regarded as Jewish physics. Heisenberg was subsequently protected by Himmler and became an important collaborator in the German nuclear programme. And in my street lived Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, awarded a Nobel Peace prize in 1922 for his work as a League of Nations commissioner for refugees in the first world war. I wonder if Fridtjof Nansenstrasse kept its name during the Nazi period.

Göttingen is bigger than Lund but smaller than Uppsala. Finding my lodgings on the outskirts of the centre reminded me very much of my early days in Lund, liking the laid-back environment where you didn’t always bother to lock the door when you went out but where there was much, including the language, that I didn’t understand. But in Göttingen, I wondered, as I did in Heidelberg, about life in Göttingen in the Nazi period. I want to get hold of David Imhoff’s 2013 book “Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen between the World Wars”. University of Michigan Press.

.My visit to Göttingen university library confirmed what I already suspected, that it wasn’t the place to work on my reading list of books on India as the academic focus didn’t cater for my needs. But I was too enamoured of the picture of myself sitting and reading in a German university library to lightly do the sensible thing and abandon the idea of a visit. And I couldn’t avoid the railway station as it was on my route to France so it was easy to persist.

The town is fine, having suffered only light damage in the war with many old buildings extending all the way back to the thirteenth century. But the cold prevented me from doing it justice, the old man in me lacking the steely determination of earlier versions to complete my intended programme regardless of sporadic externals. I saw the house where Bismarck had lived when a student in the city and the statue of the girl with a goose that new graduates (or was it new PhDs) were supposed to kiss. And the statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), whom I took a fancy to. He was the first person to hold a professorship in experimental physics. An anglophile who visited England on two occasions, hobnobbing with George III; there were many German-English cultural contacts in the eighteenth century when the British king was also Duke and Prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (“Hanover”) in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming king of Hanover on 12 October 1814. 

What interested me most about Lichtenberg was not his royal contacts or scientific contributions but his “sudelbucher”, a translation of “waste books”, an old bookkeeping term. As I understand these were books that bookkeepers jotted economic transactions down in before transferring the information m to a more permanent and organised form when back in their offices. Lichtenberg used his travelling notebooks in much the same way (lettered alphabetically I believe), transferring his jottings and ideas to structured notebooks when back in his work room. His notebooks have subsequently attracted attention from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Jacques Barzon; not sure whether it was his travelling notebooks or the sanitised home versions they admired.

For years, I have had a problem with notebooks. I like having a notebook with me to jot down words and book titles, practical things and whatever cerebral flotsam and jetsam that catches my fancy. But I’m too promiscuous as I fall in love with notebooks at the flick of a creamy page and acquire more and more. And I have become increasingly preoccupied by my obvious need for a notebook policy. A couple of years ago, I took the radical step of collecting every notebook I could find, dividing them into virgin and used, and then categorizing them, but carrying around separate notebooks for etymology, vocabulary/language, book titles, memories, associations etc. is too cumbersome. Instead, they have to be on a shelf in my work room and I will have a general notebook or perhaps binder that I carry with me before transferring my info to my shelf of books at home. Not quite sure yet how this is going to work as home is an infrequent place but I am convinced that a Lichtenberg solution is the way to go, perhaps a digitalized Lichtenberg solution.

I somehow doubt that my collection of notes, scribbled by the Delphic oracle after having taken LSD is going to attract future praise from the latter- day equivalents of Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.

I’m also grateful to Lichtenberg for having led me to read about Jacques Barzon, who lived from 1907 to 2012, according to whom “Old age is like learning a new profession and not one of your own choosing” (he had a few years to sharpen his act in this area). I’d never heard of him before but he was an active writer from 1927 to 2004 and published what some people regard as his magnum opus: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present in 2000 at the age of 93. I must find out more about him; I will undoubtedly find much that I don’t agree with but also the admirable.

So thank you for that Göttingen, despite the almost inaudible voice of the past dubious

Polytheism, monotheism and henotheism

Are the terms ”polytheism” and ”monotheism” too crude for an analysis of Hinduism? These terms were culled from a western reality before knowledge of the Indian sacred writings became more widespread in the nineteenth century,

The terms seem at least fuzzy to me. Christianity is formally a monotheistic religion but has the awkward construction of the Trinity, which has caused much discussion and dissent as to the relationship and identity of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. And angels are they divine rather than human (including the fallen one, the Devil), not to mention the Virgin Mary, who is also revered as divine. And then there are the saints, whom I believe must have performed a miracle before being sanctified, and to whom believers addresses their wishes. Defining Christianity in terms of monotheism seems rather blunt – it may be monotheistic in principle, but in practical terms, in terms of what believers actually do, this appears less certain when divinity is spread in this way.

The famous German philologist and religious researcher Max Muller, a German, who spent most of his active years in Oxford made widespread use of the term henotheism” coined earlier by Schilling to describe Hinduism, meaning the worship of a single, supreme god that does not deny the existence or possible existence of other deities. Hindus believe in the one all-pervasive God who energises the entire universe. It is believed that God is both in the world and beyond it (definition from Wikipedia, with sources in the article on henotheism).

I found the concept interesting as a further development of the blunt contrast between polytheism and monotheism (other related concepts are kathenotheism and monolatrism). However, after discussion with those more cognisant with Hinduism, I think Muller may have underestimated the importance of the other Gods in the Trimurti. Muller’s reading of the Indian classics was also hardly an innocent reading, not at least in his early years. He wanted to find evidence of tendencies towards monotheism as he wanted to Christianise India.

He translated over 50 volumes of Indian religious texts but he had an agenda:

“I do not at all like to go to India as a missionary, that makes one dependent on the parsons… I should like to live for ten years quite quietly and learn the language, try to make friends, and see whether I was fit to take part in a work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priestcraft could be overthrown and the way opened for the entrance of simple Christian teaching…

— The Life And Letters Of The Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller Vol.i, Chapter X.

I didn’t record the date of this quote but it must have been early in his career.

And later on, he had links with the reformers in the Brahmo Samaj and Ram Mohan Roy, which he hoped would lead to the development of an Indian form of Christianity, hoping that the “superstition” and idolatry, which he considered to be characteristic of modern popular Hinduism, would disappear.

I don’t know about the subsequent trajectory (after Ram Mohan Roy’s early death in Bristol) of his contacts with the Brahmo Samaj. I would assume that they became less important once the Bengali participants realised that many of the English whom they at first regarded as being sympathetic to the modernisation of Bengali society had a “tabula rasa” attitude more in the spirit of Shiva than Vishnu, which they couldn’t support.

Or it may have been that Müller moderated his attitude to Hinduism later in life.

The following is a quote from a lecture he held in 1883.

“If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow—in some parts a very paradise on earth—I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most full developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant—I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who

have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life—again I should point to India”.

Max Müller, India – Lecture I. What can India teach us?, A Course of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge

Müller also met Swami Vivekananda, the disciple of Ramakrishna, for lunch in 1896. According to Vivekananda,

“The visit was really a revelation to me. That little white house, its setting in a beautiful garden, the silver-haired sage, with a face calm and benign, and forehead smooth as a child’s in spite of seventy winters, and every line in that face speaking of a deep-seated mine of spirituality somewhere behind; that noble wife, the helpmate of his life through his long and arduous task of exciting interest, overriding opposition and contempt, and at last creating a respect for the thoughts of the sages of ancient India—the trees, the flowers, the calmness, and the clear sky—all these sent me back in imagination to the glorious days of ancient India, the days of our brahmarshis and rajarshis, the days of the great vanaprasthas, the days of Arundhatis and Vasishthas. It was neither the philologist nor the scholar that I saw, but a soul that is every day realizing its oneness with the universe”.

As I understand it (or perhaps misunderstand it…), Vivekananda did not regard himself as a Hindu, or at least did not have a simple relationship with Hinduism, but argued for a universal religion transcending Christianity and Hinduism etc. But he would hardly have expressed himself in such glowing terms, had Muller been in any way condescending or had devalued the Indian tradition.

It would be interesting to read more but another day, or another year. Having worked intensively on St Jerome, I now have a strong desire to read about the world we live in today and its problems. And until I have done that, no more dabbling with theology!!


Tuesday, 24 January 2023

It will be an exciting end to my trip to Bengal with both the literature festival, Kolkata Literary Meet, and the Book Fair.

Yesterday, I went to my first event, a digital meet with the Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond discussing a new biography of Ruskin Bond by Barry O’Brien (also Anglo-Indian).

The Anglo-Indians have for a long time been described as people having an English father, who were born in India. The definition has become broader since independence to cover a father from any European nation and, in popular usage, a person with an English (or perhaps Anglo-English parent), regardless of sex.

I’ve seen various estimates of the number of Anglo-Indians at the time of independence, a BBC article “Anglo-Indians. Is their culture dying out? from 4 January 2023 estimates that there were 300,000 at the time of independence. This number fell rapidly after independence as many Anglo-Indians relocated then to the UK (poorly known to many of them) or to another Commonwealth country.

Unlike the French in Algeria, they didn’t all or almost all leave. They were half Indian and regarded India as their home country, even though their grasp of Hindi, Bengali etc. may have been weak.

Their position was difficult; in colonial times not fully accepted as English by the British nor fully accepted by Indians partly due to their ambiguous relationship to independence. Anglo-Indians often worked on the railway system and sometimes in the police, which would hardly be a merit after independence.

It was interesting to see and listen to Ruskin Bond. I was less enthusiastic about his biographer, whose book was described as being easy-to-read and conversational but might be too “popular” for my taste. I shall see if I can examine a copy when I return to the festival later today,

As an Anglo-Swede, it’s been a major theme of my life how I preserve and develop my identity as English while at the same time being open to Sweden’s culture, its literature and history. How to make Swedishness an extra floor in my existential building where I can view the world from a different angle, without having to demolish the English foundation, how to be nourished by both cultures, how to avoid becoming a “museum English person”, visiting the UK and doing the same things and seeing the same people, and viewing anything new from the outside as a tourist. And to avoid being contented with a superficial familiarity with things Swedish where I know enough to get by in everyday life but where the pleasures of the language, Sweden’s history, its place names, its intellectual discussions are closed to me or only afforded a cursory glance. It’s a struggle to make the crisis of moving country into a positive experience but a struggle you have to make if  you want the experience to make you more rather than less.

When I write about preserving my English foundation, I don’t mean preserving the historical baggage that encumbers many British minds – I am a republican, not proud of the legacy of empire and I have parted with insular attitudes a long time ago. But it’s English language and literature I know best and there are many places in the UK that I have an attachment to. I would find it very uncomfortable to lose interest in that foundation in favour of a shallower attachment to another culture (even if I struggle to reduce that shallowness).

I would like to know more about what the Anglo-Indians do to maintain their Englishness and how well integrated they are into Indian culture. It’s a smallish group (by Indian standards) and I suppose they may develop like Irish Americans, who are clearly American but don’t deny their Irish roots.

The session at the Literary Meet didn’t satisfy me but I was glad I went. In learning about India and Bengal, the widespread use of English is very useful for me so that I can follow what’s happening culturally and socially.

To the neighbouring state of Odisha

Wednesday, 19 January 2023

Up early for a 5.30 departure, the station forecourt at Puri (Odisha) was full of people who had spent the night there. But they might have been going upcountry and not on our train to Kolkata. Puri has a fine beach and is a tourist resort for Indians, especially perhaps Bengalis, although the sleepers didn’t look like holidaymakers (they had perhaps been there for a religious festival).

If you have a reserved seat, Indian trains can be spacious; the main Indian rail gauge is broader than in the UK, 5 foot six inches  instead of 4 foot and 8½ inches, five seats across with plenty of space for elbows and legs. And they have not been “rationalised” with additional seating as in some Swedish trains causing some seats to have no window or only a very partial view. Here there was even a foot rest like the old Swedish stock from the 1960s and earlier.

The trains aren’t fast – the average speed of our express was about 50 mph. But it got to Kolkata on time and we had food served at our seat (twice) so I wasn´t complaining but worked my way happily through a couple of Bengali lessons, read a short story by Anita Desai and a few pages of Pagnol as well as thinking about what I would write about St Jerome’s involvement in religious disputes.

I’m tired of hobnobbing with life-denying Christian ascetics. I don’t think he should use his stone to beat his breast for thinking about his libidinous youth but instead give himself a bash or two for his thoughts about the purity of monastic life.

I enjoyed my days in Puri. My admittedly superficial impression of Odisha is that it felt less self-confident about its identity than West Bengal. They speak mainly Odia there, with a rounded alphabet that reminds me of Malayalam further south instead of the more angular Bengali and distinctly spiky Hindi. According to one source (perhaps it was.  Wiki), it’s rounded as they used palm leaves when they started to write, which easily break if you draw sharp straight lines on them. It’s a nice story although it has an “apocryphal” feel to it.

The main language is called Odia (or Oriya from colonial times when the state was referred to as Orissa), “d” in Odia is apparently pronounced so that it sounds similar to “r”.

The beach at Puri is fine – long and sandy, although there are apparently treacherous currents. Indian women (of all ages) sit on the beach in their saris – I saw none in the water in a bathing costume. Sometimes, however, they remain sitting when the waves come in making their dresses wet. But I didn’t see any awkward towel-draped gyrations to change clothes. They seemed happy to remain sitting on the beach until they were dry,

While there were groups of women sitting together, there were also mixed sex groups of young people, associating freely with one another and looking and behaving much like their peers in Europe, with the exception of the women (and, in fact, most of the men, not going in the water other than paddling.

But otherwise, the beach was familiar with its cheap eating places, excursion adverts in the neighbourhood, and hired chairs and sunshades; there were,  however, camel rides which are difficult to find in Weymouth.

We made an excursion to the Temple of the Sun with its intricate carvings at Konark a few miles away, It dates from about 1200 and only part of the original temple remains (it’s no longer an active temple). But what’s left is impressive and it whets my appetite for learning more about Indian art. The joie de vivre in the carvings of the dancers was very pleasing after overdosing on the chaste.

Otherwise, there are many fine temples in Odisha so there is more to see for another visit.

The population is more than 90 per cent Hindu, Islam has a much weaker presence than in neighbouring West Bengal.

I tried to find out more about Odisha and discovered a government Survey of the state (which probably exists for other states too) with statistics. It was less agricultural than I thought – just over 20 per cent of the population were engaged in agriculture (still a high percentage compared with Sweden which must be down to about 3 per cent by now but perhaps low for India). I couldn’t find information about land distribution from my cursory throughflick. Mining is an important source of employment in Odisha; I saw evidence of this from the train when we passed long coal trains; it´s many years since I saw that sight, once common in the UK, where steam locomotives were still being produced in the 1960s.

Bhowanipore and Intach

Wednesday, 12 January 2023

Most times I’ve been in Kolkata, I’ve explored an area of the city  looking at buildings, this time Bhowanipore, between the Victoria Memorial and Kalighat. It’s calmer in these parts than in North Kolkata, the traffic is less intensive on the residential roads and it’s not a major operation to cross the road. We have a very interesting book published by Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage), which lists the more architecturally interesting buildings in each area of the city with photographs and makes an assessment of their condition. Some fine restorations have been carried out but unfortunately many architecturally valuable buildings are in poor condition and not a few in our book have been demolished or, in one case, (presumably because of split ownership) half demolished, where the symmetry of the building lauded in the book is no more.

As I understand it, this area was countryside until the nineteenth century. Many of the houses there are first generation  urban houses. The Europeans lived in the so-called “White Town” in the centre and surrounding southern fringes, while Bhowanipore was a bit further south and popular with the expanding Bengali middle classes (and perhaps upwards). Some of the houses were substantial buildings, where ownership was later divided. There is apparently a listed building system in Kolkata and permission must be obtained to demolish valuable buildings, although many may be deemed beyond salvation if deterioration has advanced too far. Presumably from the point of view of  housing development, it is in many cases more financially attractive to clear sites and make more intensive use of them with a modern building. The problem from a heritage point of view is the atmosphere of the district. While valuable individual buildings may be saved, the quantity of demolitions and new stock can change the character of a neighbourhood with the loss of the “ensemble” of old buildings, leaving a gentrified district, which is perhaps pleasant but which has lost the special quality that these old buildings could have conferred on it (see my Facebook page for some pictures of the buildings).

Roaming with and without St Jerome

India, day 19, 10 January 2023

The last few days I’ve mostly spent reading apart from a very pleasant picnic, my first Bengali picnic, where we ate hot food (temperature wise). I read recently that the Portuguese introduced chili to India, its origins being given as Mexico (among other places in the Americas). I wonder what Bengali food was like before the introduction of chili, an important ingredient now, which I’ve become rather used to.

I decided to concentrate for a week or so on reading more about St Jerome and try to move that project forward. I’ve re-read most of Kelly’s biography and found what looks like a very interesting book on Jerome and the Renaissance, which I hope will shed light on the many paintings of the saint in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

It’s also provided me a small haul of new and half familiar words (also from some other sources).

I’ve come across “parturition” (childbirth) and “encomiastic” (an adjective formally expressing pride) but they weren’t part of my active vocabulary but “paratactic” (describing a style of writing in which sentences or elements of sentences are set out successively with no indication of relationship), “tropology” (figurative language) and “passerine” (related to birds that perch) were all new. “Paratactic” cropped up when reading about translating from Hebrew as (according to Kelly), it is a paratactic language which can make for awkward reading in a literal translation. There are also “syntaxis” and “hypotaxis” (when some elements of the sentence are more important than others.

From a recent Times Literary Supplement, I’ve also learned “gustatory” (concerned with taste).

And some words that excited my interest in etymology; “ramshackle” meaning disorderly which is an altered form of the obsolete “ransackled”, ransacked, which apparently originates from the Old Norse “rann” meaning house + search. And “fornication” which has its origins in the Latin “fornix” for arch, the explanation being that prostitutes sometimes stood in arches while soliciting customers. It’s apparently from Late Latin, i.e. mediaeval Latin and I’m not therefore sure whether the prostitutes in question were Roman or mediaeval.

I’ve struggled to get a grip on Jerome’s various translations to avoid confusing the Greek Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament by 70 or 72 translators (if you prefer having six translators each from the 12 tribes of Israel) who miraculously produced identical translations, with the Vulgate or other translations.

Unfortunately, the various copies of the translation from Hebrew to Greek (and later to Latin) were far from identical in Jerome’s time and he eventually took on the enormous task of producing a new translation of much of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin, which eventually became the standard translation for the Catholic church. But much of the initial reaction to his labours, first to revise the existing Latin translation and then to begin afresh, was negative as it was regarded as tinkering with the word of God. Jerome wasn’t always diplomatic with his critics, referring to them as two-legged asses on one occasion.

I shall continue on this track for a couple of days as well as reading about Puri in the neighbouring state of Odisha where I’ll stay for four days next week. So far I know that 93 per cent of the population are Hindus, that there are many interesting temples there, especially in the state capital Bhubaneswar, that the language spoken there is called Odia and that in colonial times, the state was called Orissa. The colonial name stirs vague memories of my stamp collection from long ago; presumably the patchwork of arrangements of rule, direct and indirect, during the colonial period was reflected in stamp issues. Not so long ago I got hold of a copy of a Stanley Gibbons catalogue and was fascinated by recognising stamps that I hadn’t seen for over 60 years but where the visual memory was tucked away in some nook or cranny of my brain.

In my moments of rest from reading about translation in the days of yore, I’ve indulged in idle surfing, checking Baltimore, place of publication of one of my Jerome sources. Apparently named after an English aristocrat named Baltimore, it became a place of refuge for Catholics. I can’t remember the track I took but it led to me to St Giles Palladian church in Holborn, which I realise I’ve never looked at despite nearby Charing Cross Road being very much part of my London and working for over a year in Carlisle St off Soho Square. I read about St Giles the Hermit and Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, a place I want to go to as the poet Milton’s house is there. And later reading about Cornish, which led me to the Scilly Islands, where I’ve never been but would also like to go. The January temperature seems very mild there so perhaps that’s a possible venue for escaping the Swedish winter and satisfying my need to tend to my Englishness, although it’s off every conceivable beaten track and I suspect the winter ferry ride from Penzance might have to be endured rather than enjoyed.

I’ve meant to keep a record of where such relaxed surfing leads me. But like a record of dreams, this remains at the vision stage. Perhaps I could interest my AI friend Alexa in this project – she would probably find it a stimulating change from my repeated requests to know which day it is (she does a great job of rescuing me from extremes of chronological anarchy).

On the Grand Trunk road

Day 15 in India, Friday, 6 January

On the GT road, the great trunk road which once ran from Kabul to Dacca.  We first visit the Portuguese Catholic church at Bandel, one of the oldest Christian churches in India, wondering how they managed when taken over by the British, where Catholic churches were only exceptionally tolerated in mainland Britain until the nineteenth century. Perhaps there was a special dispensation – they could hardly have closed down all the Catholic churches in their empire.

We are heading for the village of Debandapur, birthplace of the Bengali novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, through which the drying-up Saraswati river hardly flows. Chattopadhyay doesn’t have the same status as Tagore but he is none the less an important figure in Bengali literary history. The memorial building in the village has perhaps 30-40 cabinets with models showing scenes from the author’s life, his youth and adolescence in the village, publishing successes, a fire where one of his manuscripts was destroyed, his first wife and child, whom I believe died of plague, his second wife and contacts with other literary figures and honours bestowed. I like the ingenious and pedagogic approach, my appreciation greatly assisted by having the captions translated for me.

After Debandapur, we head back in the direction of Kolkata to Serampore, a Danish colony until 1845 when it was sold to the British, the Danes finding it hard to compete with the East India Company. Other than a fine church, St Olav’s with a Danish King’s initials on the wall, restored in collaboration by Denmark and India, there is not a lot to recall the Danish period. We sample the fare on offer at the Danish Tavern but stick to Bengali dishes as the Danish specialities, listing boiled vegetables, sound less than enticing. There is also a cemetery elsewhere in the town but the names on the graves have long since worn away so perhaps not so much to see there; dilapidated cemeteries are an environment that could favour mammalian-reptilian misunderstandings about natural location so I’m not sorry to give it a miss.

On the way back we pass from one end of Kolkata to the other, appreciating the vastness of this massive dense city. London is large from the Staines by-pass to Brentwood in the Far East but not this large and London also has substantial patches of greenery at Richmond and elsewhere to break up the urban.

Kolkata has seemingly endless rows of sometimes ramshackle shops and fine but neglected buildings. But the city is changing even in the few years I have known it. There are more and more gated upmarket blocks of flats ribbon developed along the access highways with their supermarkets, cake shops and other retail flotsam and jetsam of the rising middle classes, often only metres away from far more modest traditional lock-up shops. Central Kolkata’s attractions are perhaps too chaotic, the air too polluted for the upwardly mobile. But there are so many blocks being built, I ask myself whether it’s a bubble, whether there will be enough people earning enough money to buy all these flats. And I wonder what these people who live there do and who builds the flats – are the investors from Bengal or elsewhere and, if they are from Bengal, is this a sign of the growing robustness of Kolkata’s economy or of a lack of other profitable investment opportunities?

A day trip to Kolkata

Day 13 India Wednesday, 4 January

A day in central Kolkata. It’s not more than 20 miles away but it takes the best part of an hour to get there with slow moving heavy traffic, first on the local road then on the by-pass. Even with slow moving traffic, the newspaper has daily reports of people getting killed or injured; poorly protected pedestrians sidestepping incautiously into the traffic flow, two-wheelers with precariously balanced sometimes side-sitting unhelmeted passengers falling off into the carriageway, unlit invisible night-time cyclists and bigger vehicles dodging and weaving, some bearing the motto “Safe traffic, save lives (or occasionally “Save traffic, safe lives”). A difficult environment for a dreamer who comes to a halt when thinking; my companion has to sharply refocus me several times; I explain about the phalanx of guardian angels with flaming swords surrounding me, which only I can see but I sense scepticism about their ability to deal with Kolkata’s dodgem race.

The city is covered by low yellow-grey cloud and I’m glad for my state-of-the-art mask, which keeps the particle-laden air at bay and enables me to avoid exhaustion. We are making for the university quarter and College St, still popularly known by its Anglo name. I’ve been there a couple of times before but by myself and didn’t then explore the alleys and find the publishers’ bookshops up anonymous flights of stairs. It’s wonderful to see compared with Sweden where a modest-sized town may lack a bookshop and where even Stockholm is now a thin city for bookshops, with Hedengrens hanging on and Akademiska Bokhandeln, which feels like a shadow of its formal self after the great purge of the shelf warmers a few years back. I find a couple of classics that have passed me by to read on the flight home – Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga” and Wilkie Collins “The Moonstone”. I almost buy them but am put off by their poor quality with brown spots and generally scruffy appearance. Back home I remember the technical word for brown spots on old books, foxing. These books were badly foxed. I’m overambitious when I travel and the plane has often hardly left the home runway before I’ve concluded that my chosen reading demands more concentration than I can muster. Unfoxed Kindle it will have to be.

It’s intensive but very pleasurable to explore this area – despite being libro-chaste. There are a few cycle rickshaws here and a wonderful old tram, which I’d like to ride on.

We fail, however, to get into the Ashutosh art gallery with its fine collection of Indian art and objects, closed for Covid and not reopened. Hopefully, it just means it’s being refurbished. It’s a wonderful old place with few concessions to the uninitiated, no other visitors while I was there and convoluted requirements for information as I passed from gallery to gallery but I liked it, a museum’s museum.

We retreat to Peter Cat restaurant on Park Street and this time come in swiftly, forgetting about the pot-bellied man who slithers past the queue to gain a paltry few minutes (ideal Kendall wounds him to the quick with a cutting remark, real-existing Kendall hunches his shoulders to deal with life’s vale of tears).

 To enjoy Kolkata, you need oases where you can sit and rest from the exotic (and at times wretched). Staying in the centre on a previous trip in a small fifth-floor guest house with a swastika-decorated door, I could look down on the polluted cloud and a temple garden, fending off the kindly hotel staff  concerned about my sparrow appetite.  I honed my skills at getting through the city – investigating uncrowded parallel streets, finding places where I could safely cross roads, where I could eat and drink, I didn’t get as far as waymarking my trails with small cairns of rocks but I was tempted to do so.

You never quite get as much done in day trips to Kolkata as you plan. Everything takes time in the mega city whether it’s crossing the road or finding a cash machine. But despite the physical and mental strain, the wretched and the ramshackle alongside the super modern, I find the city fascinating with its wealth of associations and want to know more. I enjoyed my day but was glad to be able to remove my mask when I reached the purer air of rural Bengal and think that maybe tonight or tomorrow, the sky will be clear and I can look at the stars.

St Jerome defends his method of translation

Day 12 India, Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Quiet reading days; I have been studying Bengali every day, reading Pagnol, thinking about my aims for 2023 (whether or not to make a plan for the year), reading an introduction to Hinduism (with a view to better understanding Indian art), planning my reading on imperialism and re-reading  J.N.D. Kelly’s biography of Jerome, the patron saint of translators with a view to writing some short pieces for a website. In Kelly’s notes, there is a reference to a letter from Jerome with his views on translation, which is also available on the net. I find it fascinating, a colleague wrestling with familiar problems more than 1,600 years ago.

 I am reproducing an extract here faute de mieux.

Jerome defends his method of translation

Jerome defends his method of translation with appeal to classical, ecclesiastical and New Testament writers. Letter 52 to Pemmachius, AD 395-396, p 112-119:

“5. In the above remarks I have assumed that I have made alterations in the letter and that a simple translation may contain errors though not wilful ones. As, however the letter itself shows that no changes have been made in the sense, that nothing has been added, and that no doctrine has been foisted into it, obviously their object is understanding to understand nothing; and while they desire to arraign another’s want of skill, they betray their own. For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word. For this course I have the authority of Tully who has so translated the Protagoras of Plato, the Œconomicus of Xenophon, and the two beautiful orations which Æschines and Demosthenes delivered one against the other. What omissions, additions, and alterations he has made substituting the idioms of his own for those of another tongue, this is not the time to say. I am satisfied to quote the authority of the translator who has spoken as follows in a prologue prefixed to the orations. I have thought it right to embrace a labour which though not necessary for myself will prove useful to those who study. I have translated the noblest speeches of the two most eloquent of the Attic orators, the speeches which Æschines and Demosthenes delivered one against the other; but I have rendered them not as a translator but as an orator, keeping the sense but altering the form by adapting both the metaphors and the words to suit our own idiom. I have not deemed it necessary to render word for word but I have reproduced the general style and emphasis. I have not supposed myself bound to pay the words out one by one to the reader but only to give him an equivalent in value. Again at the close of his task he says, I shall be well satisfied if my rendering is found, as I trust it will be, true to this standard. In making it I have utilized all the excellences of the originals, I mean the sentiments, the forms of expression and the arrangement of the topics, while I have followed the actual wording only so far as I could do so without offending our notions of taste. If all that I have written is not to be found in the Greek, I have at any rate striven to make it correspond with it. Horace too, an acute and learned writer, in his Art of Poetry gives the same advice to the skilled translator:—

And care not with over anxious thought
To render word for word.

Terence has translated Menander; Plautus and Cæcilius the old comic poets. Do they ever stick at words? Do they not rather in their versions think first of preserving the beauty and charm of their originals? What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learned term pestilent minuteness. Such were my teachers about twenty years ago; and even then I was the victim of a similar error to that which is now imputed to me, though indeed I never imagined that you would charge me with it. In translating the Chronicle of Eusebius of Cæsarea into Latin, I made among others the following prefatory observations: It is difficult in following lines laid down by others not sometimes to diverge from them, and it is hard to preserve in a translation the charm of expressions which in another language are most felicitous. Each particular word conveys a meaning of its own, and possibly I have no equivalent by which to render it, and if I make a circuit to reach my goal, I have to go many miles to cover a short distance. To these difficulties must be added the windings of hyperbata, differences in the use of cases, divergencies of metaphor; and last of all the peculiar and if I may so call it, inbred character of the language. If I render word for word, the result will sound uncouth, and if compelled by necessity I alter anything in the order or wording, I shall seem to have departed from the function of a translator. And after a long discussion which it would be tedious to follow out here, I added what follows:— If any one imagines that translation does not impair the charm of style, let him render Homer word for word into Latin, nay I will go farther still and say, let him render it into Latin prose, and the result will be that the order of the words will seem ridiculous and the most eloquent of poets scarcely articulate.”

W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)

Day 8 India, Tharoor’s Inglorious empire

Friday, 30 December 2022

Friday, 30 December 2022

I should pace myself, define my work sessions better and give the 77-year old a chance. Instead, I charge on and end up like today, feeling listless and uncreative. Or it might, more banally, just be the onset of a simple cold. But my mood also has to do with my starting to read one of the more serious books on my list, Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”. 2016 (17). It’s part revulsion at what cupidity led the sometimes gormless younger sons of the aristocracy and unattractive others to do. But also an awareness of the extent of the task to try to understand how British colonialism and imperialism worked, the need to look at not just textiles, but the Indian steel industry, shipbuilding etc. and understand the effects of the clashes of social forces and that we are not dealing with the workings of a machine but a process where various outcomes were possible.

I have quoted five short extracts from Tharoor’s work below to give a feel of his book.

“In power, the British were, in a word, ruthless. They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a [an East India] Company monopoly. They cut off export markets for Indian textiles interrupting longstanding independent trading links, As British manufacturing grew, they went further, Indian textiles were remarkably cheap. so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and according to at least one contemporary account (as well as a widespread if unverifiable, belief), breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft”. (p,6)

“India had enjoyed a 25 per cent share of the global trade in textiles in the early eighteenth century. But this was destroyed, the Company’s own stalwart administrator Lord William Bentinck wrote that ´the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India´. (p.7)

“The destruction of artisanal industries by colonial trade policies did not just impact the artisans themselves. The British monopoly of industrial production drove Indians to agriculture beyond levels the land could sustain. This in turn had a knock-on effect on the peasants, who worked the land, by causing an influx of newly disenfranchised people, formerly artisans, who drove down rural wages”. (p,7)

“Under the British, the share of industry in India’s GDP was only 1.8 per cent in 1913, and at its peak reached 7.5 per cent when the British left in 1947. Similarly, the share of manufactured goods in India’s exports climbed only slowly to a high of 30 per cent in 1947”. (p.9)

“As late as 1896, Indian mills produced only eight per cent of the total cloth consumed in India. By 1913, this had grown to 20 per cent, and the setbacks faced by Britain with the disruption of the World War 1 allowed Indian textile manufacturers to slowly recapture the domestic market. In 1936, 62 per cent of the cloth sold in India was made by Indians, and by the time the British left the country, 76 per cent (in 1946). (p.8)

I haven’t studied Tharoor’s sources. His extensive bibliography indicates that he is a serious and painstaking author. He is an academic but also a Congress politician. His book interests me a lot and I think will be of great value to me, not least the bibliography. My negative reactions so far are that I sometimes find it hard to pin down his sources (although that might only reflect the fact that I have only nibbled at the introductory pages, the balanced and weighty coming perhaps later. His description of India and its economy as it was before the British took charge makes it sound as if India was more advanced than I believed it to have been (although undoubtedly British actions led to rolling back development) and that the depiction of social forces, the possibility of Indian capital developing in the interstices of an increasingly bureaucratised empire, is not (so far) sharply drawn.

Revisionists would undoubtedly quibble with his statistics (and he would defend them). But I am broadly convinced of much what he says. I do not believe that the British were at any point in India to help what they regarded as a benighted and backward country, that was very largely an ideological smokescreen. They were there, both during the colonial and the imperial periods, to make money, and they did; the white man was not shouldering a burden, he (she) was a burden.

And if a thief, who has smashed up your house while removing your valuables, happens to leave a fine ladder and torch behind, this is not a mitigating circumstance (doffing my cap to the Indian railway system).