From Russia with Love.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
His arms crossed, his beard flowing, Leo Tolstoy gazes towards the Janpath outlet of McDonalds, adjacent to the colonial-era Connaught Place.
You may wonder who unveiled this statue and when? There’s no plaque to answer why this Russian writer? Why not Ghalib or Premchand?
“Tolstoy’s statue in Delhi’s heart is apt,” says historian Mushirul Hasan who is writing Mahatma Gandhi’s biography. “Besides being a great novelist, he was special to India because of his proximity to Gandhi who was influenced by Tolstoy’s ideas on non-violence, chastity and sexual abstinence. Indeed, Gandhi went on to create a farm in South Africa that he named after Tolstoy.”
The plinth contains nothing more than Tolstoy’s name carved in Hindi and Russian. Like the former, the latter too is out of fashion.
It was not always so.
“The Russian language was being taught in Delhi even before independence but the phonological education in Russian started in 1965 with the setting up of the Institute of Russian Studies, which was given a space in IIT Delhi campus,” says Ramadhikari Kumar, the president of the Indian Association of Teachers of Russian language and Literature, and a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where the institute finally found its home. “In 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Moscow, followed by Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s trip to Delhi. Immediately afterwards Russia started helping India in setting up steel plant in Bhilai and oil refineries in Koyalie and Barauni. Russian, the language of a superpower, became a weapon to boost your career.”
Russia, or the USSR, shaped Delhi’s intellectual life in the 60s and 70s. The left leaning romantics were regulars at literary evenings of the Russian Cultural Centre. Kurta-wearing ideologues lambasted American imperialism at the seminars of Sapru House. Maxim Gorky’s Mother was the cult classic. Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin were on the must-read list. If you wanted to make a statement, Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don was the book of choice.
According to Professor Kumar, the JNU’s Russian language institute has produced more than 400 teachers. “By the 1980s, 40 Indian universities had set up departments of Russian language, mostly manned by degree holders of JNU,” he says. “The Russian government offered our students fellowship programmes that included free food, lodging and some pocket money.” The funding stopped after Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991. “We’re asking the Russians to introduce at least a limited number of fellowships,” says Kumar. The institute has 150 students.
Today, Gorky and Sholokhov are rarely found in bookstores, but Tolstoy remains in vogue. “He is a classic author,” says Mirza Afsar Baig of the Midland bookstore in Aurobindo Market. “We sell 40 copies of War and Peace every month.”
In spite of this, we are now no longer intellectually dependent on Mother Roosi alone; post cold war, our reading tastes span from Japani to Englishtani. The Russian Cultural Centre’s influence has waned but a quick browse through its website shows an active monthly schedule: lectures on Russian literature, tercentenary celebrations of scientist M.V. Lomonosov, an exhibition by painters Zhanna Yakovleva and Dina Kalinkina. The centre also offers Russian language in capsules of four months, and takes a maximum of 25 students in a batch.
You may be surprised to know that the author of Anna Karenina is not the only Russian giant in Delhi’s cultural boulevards. Walk a few minutes further east to Mandi House, and there stands the poet Alexander Pushkin. There is no going back in the USSR but Delhi remains firmly attached to the crème de la Kremlin of Russian literature.
A gift from Mother Russia