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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.