What is it that makes someone brought up in one culture, one environment, travel to the one most unlike it and embrace it as his own? Could there be a world more different from the farmlands of Iowa than the delta of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh in south-central India? Or a language less like English than the languages of that region—Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu? How is such a complicated intellectual and aesthetic shift made, and what makes it happen at all?
There is nothing to suggest that David Shulman could not have made a perfectly rich, rewarding life for himself in “the tranquil flatlands” of Iowa where he was born and lived as a child, or in Israel to which he emigrated at the age of eighteen to study Hebrew. He might have lived the contented life of a scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he also acquired a love of Persian and Iran—but the intifada and the rise of the Israeli right shocked and appalled him and threw him into pacifist activism and work for the organization Ta’ayush (Arabic for “partnership” or “living together”) that he describes in an earlier book, Dark Hope (the original Hebrew title is the more pungent “Bitter Hope”).* Of course the pacifism and civil disobedience practiced by Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. did influence him. (Told by an Indian that “Gandhi is truly dead in Gujarat,” he responded, “Perhaps, but he has surfaced again in Palestine, in the village of Bil’in”—on the West Bank near Ramallah.) But he also states that “politics…is not my métier.”
It was not through Gandhi that he came to India—that involvement followed an attraction that had led him to study classical Hindustani music and Sanskrit at the Hebrew University. From there he “drifted eastwards into Indian studies” and this in turn led him to study Tamil in London at the School of Oriental and African Languages, to study Telugu in Wisconsin, and to visit South India frequently and at length. He admits to a “restlessness that rules me, so the landscapes shift like the languages and the texts,” but adds, about South India:
Still, there was a sort of center. I was happy there; at many moments, I felt that I, too, could rest. Something unexpected happened: the gnawing sense that the real, or the true, or the truly intense and satisfying, lie elsewhere, always elsewhere, somewhere over the horizon, in yet another language or location or set of relations—this familiar hunger abated. I was, you might say, “healed.”
As for the present book, which is centered in the Telugu-speaking city of Rajahmundry, he writes:
How did I happen to find myself in Rajahmundry in the early spring of 2006? It’s a good question. The easiest answer would be: the river called me. She—the Godavari—is imperious, also infinitely seductive; Rajahmundry is her town. When I last saw her, in the year 2000, she exacted a promise that I would return.
And long before he ever saw India, as a student traveling overland from Tabriz in Iran to Erzerum in Turkey, with the Persian mystic poet Hafez “in my head,” he felt “as if India were the magnet, and I the iron filing; unconscious, unmelted…. If words mean anything—but why should they mean?—it is only when the underlying echo, the music that motivates all real language, fades into silence.”
Here lies a clue: music, the classical Hindustani music he had studied, he also heard in Dravidian languages, especially Telugu, which is “spoken with remarkable speed—linguists have shown that South Indians utter, on average, more syllables per second than any other attested speakers of known human languages—and sometimes give the impression of a bubbling or cascading stream.” Telugu is in fact “the main language of classical South Indian musical compositions.” As far back as the eleventh century, “the stable link between music and the language of Andhra”—the traditional region from which present-day Andhra Pradesh derives—had been noted; it made for “a strangely hypnotic, contrapuntal complexity of tremendous aural power—a musical experience unlike any other, perhaps transcending meaning in any of the usual senses of the word.”
Typically, Shulman describes morning in the city of Rajahmundry in terms of music:
The rooftops, white, gray, streaked with grime, partly hidden by the thick green clusters of palm, seem to be humming a barely audible morning raga. Birdcalls, the bells on the bicycles, the constant backdrop of horns from the cars and rickshaws, the cries of the fruit vendors, the distant ring of a radio broadcasting a Sanskrit prayer to the waking god, mothers shouting at their children: all this is the ra¯ga as it breaks through the surface to audibility.
Of course, being the scholar that he is, he goes on to expand:
Fragments held by an unfamiliar murcchana scale, rising, descending, binding these pieces together into something whole, with a few uncanny musical embellishments, alankaras, added for good measure.
These are terms unlikely to be comprehensible to any but the cognoscenti. For the non-Telugu speaker, to read Shulman requires one to put one’s trust in him and let oneself be led along into the unknown by someone who will, by and by, make it known. It is, after all, how he approached the language himself. Listening to his friends recite Telugu poetry, he says “Richness ebbs and flows around me, too much for me, though I am eager to learn, ready to learn, ready to plunge in.” He admits that although at first his tongue refuses to “turn and twirl, as a Telugu tongue must,” in time it does begin to “trickle and tumble in the Telugu way.”
Even the long, complex names of his friends delight Shulman’s ear: “Patanjali Sastry—ravishing name!” he exclaims, and “Paluri Venkata Gopalakrishna Vishvanatha, a name that covers all bases. I would like one like that.” But it also pleases him to abbreviate his friend the poet Mohammed Ismail’s name affectionately to “Smile.”
Because it is Shulman’s principle not only to “always read poetry in the language in which it was written (that is the easy part) but absorb it in the setting where it was written,” he has brought with him, on the journey of which he kept the present diary of three seasons in Andhra, Pe ddana’s sixteenth- century Manu-charit-ramu (The Story of Man), “perhaps the acme of classical Telugu poetry,” and Sr harsha’s twelfth-century Sanskrit Naishadhya—harita, a tale of the star-crossed lovers Nala and Damayanti. “These poems provided a mythic framing for my nights and days,” he says, and apparently has no difficulty in dwelling in the present day as well as five and eight hundred years ago. Nala could be, he thinks, “almost der Mann ohne Eigenshaften [Musil’s Man Without Qualities], though Tenkasi, with its paddy fields and palm trees, hardly conjures up prewar Vienna.” But, he adds, “I like the juxtaposition. Every once in a while two or three of the incompatible worlds inside me collide and shatter; I hear the crunch of broken glass.”
The Telugu poets whose company he keeps seem just as capable of living in many centuries, even many continents, at one time. In discussing Jacques Derrida they playfully give his name a Telugu twist—Daridra, meaning “impoverished,” so that postmodernism in Andhra becomes Daridryamu, “impoverishment,” and Shulman recollects that when Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize, his Telugu friends sent him a congratulatory telegram from Eluru. “Such was the life of the mind in Eluru, and other small towns in South India, fifty years ago: intense, universal in scope, curious, engaged.” So his contribution to a poetry recital is the Hebrew Song of Songs translated into Sanskrit; he is confident it will be appreciated.
Sometimes, as when carrying on simultaneously two conversations—one with an Israeli journalist on his book on the Ta’ayush peace group in Palestine, and another with a Telugu neighbor on Kundalini yoga—he admits he feels “dizzy, spinning between worlds I usually manage to keep separate. Suddenly I can’t remember what language I am supposed to be speaking, and on what subject. Worse, I can’t remember who I am supposed to be, to say nothing of who I am.” Instead of “worse” he might have used the word “wonderfully.” His Indian friends would most likely see this as a mark of the dervish, a sufi.
There are times when he is brought back to himself, almost with a shock, as when he searches up and down the length of a train for his seat on it and finds “miraculously pasted beside a window: David Dean Sul, age 57, berth 38.” Once, when giving a lecture in Telugu on translation into English, he finds his name written in Telugu on a blackboard. “Is that person supposed to be me?” he asks in a whisper and is assured it must be him. “He seems quite certain. In a way, today, that is good news.” There are also moments when he can be quite confident of his Andhra self. A bookseller, perplexed by this Telugu-speaking white man, asks what place is his home. “I don’t hesitate: ‘Rajahmundry!’”
Of course language does not exist on its own, independent of the environment in which it is rooted and from which it draws its sustenance, and Shulman immerses himself in Telugu poetry like the pilgrims he has observed climbing down the steep steps to bathe in the Godavari River, which receives them “with gentle attentiveness, a liquid caress, as a regal goddess should.” It has been an immersion in the beliefs, the philosophy, the myths and legends of the land. “Godavari is not somewhere outside us but deeply alive within.” In answer to questions about the Jewish god, he tries to explain that “he is… nirguna—without qualities, without form; in other words, a philosophical abstraction” and finds his interlocutor “appears skeptical. With the river, a living goddess, at once beneficent and capricious, flowing outside his office, he probably thinks only a madman would bother to worship an abstraction. In fact, I completely agree.”
He is inclined, in the Hindu way, to see divinity in the earth itself, in rocks, in trees, in stone sculpture, in mountains and rivers. He joins those who go to see the Godavari in spate
marveling at the dramatic swelling and acceleration of their goddess, this necklace hanging over the breasts of the Andhra Earth-goddess.”…She is unquestionably a person, a woman, overflowing from time to time with passionate excitement, at other times serene, immersed in the depths of self.
(So holy is the river to him that he thinks, bitterly perhaps, that if Ariel Sharon had been cremated on the banks of the Godavari, “decades’ worth of real evil and the terrible black karma that he amassed, would be washed away.”)
To Shulman, Andhra gods are “strangely accessible, almost too close, like an overbearing uncle or a local village king; he may be king, but he belongs, like us, to the village,” and peering through a window into the shrine of the Fierce God (S´iva) he has the insight that “he seems glad to have us nearby. Might he even be a little lonely (or bored)?” He quotes a friend who says of the god Venkatesvara of Tirupati, “Once…this god must have been a person, very lonely, deserted by his wife, bald, given to headaches, needy, poor. In this mode he became God.”
He is capable of aesthetic judgments, however, and sees that Andhra temples do not have the well-ordered symmetry of Tamil temples but argues that “another sort of beauty rests on asymmetry,” and he attributes to them human qualities and tells a charming tale of three unfinished temples that he visits. “The villagers say that the gods laid down a condition—that they be completed in a single night—and dawn came too soon. ‘Why did it have to be a single night?’ I ask,” and they tell him “Gods! Don’t you know the gods?” And they talk of a child-eating goddess who is told, “‘Look…you can’t go on like this. People have to live. Let go of the children. Eat something else.’ She agreed in principle but still could not control her appetite.” She was then threatened with imprisonment. “This worked. Since then she has been tame, on a strict vegetarian diet.”
Observing the festival of the goddess Paidi Talli, the crowds clustering about the image with offerings of food, lights, and music, he feels certain that the “God(dess) exists. If there is a meaning to human life, it is something palpable like this, a mango fed to a goddess resting amid camphor lights” and man, nature, and the divine are inextricable, as in this Telugu poem by Pe ddana in the sixteenth-century novel The Demon’s Daughter, which he translated with Narayan Rao:
The sun jumped into the ocean like a yogi taking a ritual bath at day’s end, and the sky was the ochre robe he hung up to dry and the stars, the drops of water that splashed as he dove.
Shulman’s prose has imbibed much of this immediacy, this freshness, and comes close to poetry whenever he describes the beloved landscape of the Godavari River delta and the seasons, so extreme, so overpowering that they become undeniable presences—at times divine, at others infernal. He can write of Andhra in near-abstract terms—“all of it…is frontier. Full of wilderness, a wild place, raw…rough but not harsh,” making him hope he “may even…be turning a little rougher myself.” But mostly he focuses on detail, and when he does, these details flare up with light and color, incandescent. He learns that he was born on Bhogi Day, the day after the solar festival of Sankranti. “Males born on Bhogi Day…are named, alliteratively, Bhogesvara Ravu, lord of enjoyment. The title seems right on all levels. How long it took for me to find it!”
And he comes up with vivid observations, as of milk on the boil: “marvelling at its ability to expand, rise, and overflow, like a living being,” in language that is itself “thick, viscous, creamy, a mass of buffalo-milk sentences, intricate whirlpools of sound on the edge of meaning.” He uses it to describe a temple that is “strangely light, as if the stones might fly”; the sun setting “as if fusing into the depths of fiery green”; the sweet flesh of a mango like “a golden electrocution”; Hyderabad, the city, like “a gracious Iranian princess in translucent veil”; with “air so dry that chunks of it could break off, fall to the ground like clods of gold.”
This gift makes his prose particularly suited to describing the Indian seasons. The summer heat leaves him prostrated and “even beginning to consider modifying, in extremis, the Shulman principle: that it is not enough to read the Symposium in Greek, one has to read it in Greek in Greece.” But he notes that although people love to complain about the heat, their feelings “are actually more complex,” so that when the first showers arrive that herald the monsoon, “a wistful note creeps into conversations—as if people were being cheated out of some beloved, delicious torture.”
When the rains arrive at last, his first impulse is, like millions of Indians waiting along with him, “to rush outside into the flow, to bend and swirl like the palms,” and he notes how “bodily blockage drains away, the anxious wait is over; in the heart, a letting go,” so that one may enjoy, contentedly, “the soothing drum-drone of rain.” Such experiences have him break into epiphanies, as when he writes, “I think, suddenly struck breathless by the idea, defenseless, as with a woman: I am in love. With Andhra. This place, this language, these people, this air, this light.”
The reader may wonder if such a state of ecstasy can be sustained, and one may therefore enjoy equally the wry observations that provide a bracing contrast. The hotel on the bank of the beautiful river is, after all, “smothered in the stench of the Andhra Pradesh Paper Mills upstream.” On taking a launch for a ride on that river, he finds himself in a group of jewellers and gold merchants with extended families and is obliged to watch “exhibitionistic disco dancing to the sound of Telugu cinema music, carried at deafening volume over the announcement system. The discord with the silent landscape of river and hills slowly becomes unbearable, a sacrilege.” He also has that inevitable encounter with a bureaucrat—when requesting permission to photograph: the officious, insouciant official (on his desk a plaque in Tamil praising godliness and patriotism) first keeps him waiting, then demands a ridiculous sum of money, and only with time and persistence can be beaten down to one tenth of it.
Of all of this—the sun, the heat, the mangoes, the music, the poetry, the river—Shulman would probably say what a friend of his said on witnessing an apocalyptic flood: “It was terribly beautiful.”