One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Hamlet is from Denmark but currently he is a Delhiwalla. Feel free to tweet his coordinates to your friends: East Patel Nagar, opposite the Ahuja Nursing Home.
The prince of Denmark has gone local. He lives in the tall, dark and handsome Rupin Walter Desai, who lives in a three-room apartment in this very ordinary part of Delhi.
Unfailingly polite, Mr Desai’s conversations are replete with lines from the works of William Shakespeare and W.B. Yeats, the way ours are intertwined with street slang. Delhi’s most devoted Shakespeareans are, of course, aware of Mr Desai. A professor of English literature, who retired from Delhi University, he is the founder of Hamlet Studies, “an international journal of research on The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”. Mr Desai started it in 1979 and discontinued it 25 years later.
Now he is ready to restart it. “I cannot tell you the exact month,” he says in his deep and resonant voice, “but I will restart Hamlet Studies in 2016, as this is the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death anniversary.”
It will be interesting to see this 82-year-old Shakespearean revive such a specialized periodical. The Yangon-born Mr Desai has no committed plans at the moment, except to begin the new innings in collaboration with a professor in West Bengal. Equally fascinating, however, is the fleeting glimpse we get of this man’s poetic life in Delhi. Just this August, the city lost one of its great scholars, S.M. Yunus Jaffery—he died at 86, after a brief illness. That scholar, who retired as head of the Persian department at Delhi University’s Zakir Husain College, lived strictly within the walls of his home in Old Delhi. His days were spent amid thick Persian tomes. His conversations were peppered with verses by Persian poets, and he talked of Mughal history as passionately as we dissect TV news debates. He rarely ventured out of his mansion, except to offer prayers at the neighbourhood mosque. Mr Jaffery’s book-filled home was his world.
Mr Desai’s home in west Delhi is as different from Mr Jaffery’s as West is from East—Mr Jaffery would feed The Delhi Walla chappali kebabs, while Mr Desai would treat me to cucumber sandwiches. And yet, this address in Patel Nagar is similar in many ways to the address in Ganj Mir Khan. If Mr Jaffery’s study was a shrine to poet Saib-e-Tabrizi, Mr Desai’s apartment is a monument to Shakespeare.
Consider the drawing room scene the afternoon I was there: The Arden Shakespeare edition of King Richard II was lying on the sofa. Shakespeare’s Use Of Dream And Vision occupied the coffee table. Nature In Shakespeare’s Tragedy was on the dining table, beside a bowl of samosas. The Merchant Of Venice: New Critical Essays lay forlorn on the corner stool. And dark wooden shelves were lined with thousands and thousands of books on Shakespeare—a particularly curious title was Hamlet Without Hamlet. One shelf had four finger puppets named Ophelia, Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude. Mr Desai was gifted these keepsakes of Shakespeare’s great play by an American friend.
To be sure, this vast collection of books also belongs to Jyoti Bajaj, Ms Desai’s wife, who teaches English literature at Delhi University’s Khalsa College (the samosas, stuffed with pasta, came from her college canteen).
The couple do look beyond Shakespeare. More than one rack is devoted to Yeats, Mr Desai’s other passion.
The most treasured books in the drawing room, however, are seven black leather hardbacks. They contain all the 25 bound volumes of Hamlet Studies. Mr Desai carefully opens the journal’s “Vol.1, No.1”. The yellowing cover is torn at the edges. The title is in blood red. The journal has five articles spread across 65 pages. Only 100 copies were published. Within a year of its publication, the original publisher backed out and Mr Desai’s two partners left the venture too, believing “it had too narrow a base to sustain”. Mr Desai was left to manage Hamlet Studies single-handedly.
He alone would write to universities for subscriptions, correspond with contributors and get the journal printed at a press in Karol Bagh. He would carry the copies from the printer to his home in his green Ambassador car, make packets of them, and deliver them to the Patel Nagar post office to be sent to subscribers. The subscription charges were a measly 200 rupees for Indian readers and $14 for subscribers in the US and Europe.
In its heyday, the journal, which used to be published twice a year and became an annual publication in the mid-1980s, reached 60 universities abroad and about 20 in India.
In many ways, Hamlet Studies existed like one man’s modern-day blog. Mr Desai never approached anyone for funds. “I thought that no university or academic institution would be prepared to give a grant on a single play,” he says. “The very idea was outrageous.” In 2003, he suspended publication not because it was financially unfeasible—that was not the point at all—but because “I thought 25 years were long enough and I wanted to do other things”.
The next years were devoted to phenomenology, John Milton, Franz Kafka and Sherlock Holmes.
Today, as our world transforms in profound ways, Mr Desai, who is not on social media, continues to make his way through the “dual perspective that literature gives”.
Speaking about the place of Desai in modern-day Delhi, author Jonathan Gil Harris, who is the president of The Shakespeare Society of India, says: “In an age of decolonization and globalization, Shakespeare in India comes in more impure, masala forms: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hindi trilogy, a nautanki adaptation of Twelfth Night called Piya Behrupiya, a bhangwadi adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well called Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon, roadside Romeos, and so on… A scholar such as Prof. Desai, whose scholarly training as a Shakespearean more than half a century ago might find the new Indian Shakespeares—like the Delhi he has lived in, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—‘translated’ almost beyond recognition.”
The Hamlet scholar grew up in a bungalow not far from his apartment, on the other side of Patel Nagar. Called Rangoon Villa, it was built by his father, who once taught history at Rangoon University. The “large, rambling” house had five rooms, two gardens and many terraces and balconies. There were guava and papaya trees and a giant fig tree. The young Desai would read Shakespeare in the back garden or in his room upstairs. That bungalow—too expensive to maintain—was sold in the 1970s and Desai moved to his present cramped home. There are no gardens here, but there are still the much bandaged and much self-annotated The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare—the only collected works that Desai has in his huge library. He had got the hard-bound in 1968 from the US, where he completed his doctoral thesis on Shakespeare’s influence on Yeats.
These days, if you don’t find Mr Desai at home, you may be able to spot him at the British Council library in Connaught Place or at the sombre library at the members-only India International Centre. Although writers of the past provide constant company, Mr Desai keeps in touch with contemporary voices. Last week, while looking for Joanna Trollope’s new novel, he stopped by at The Book Shop in Jor Bagh—its late owner, K.D. Singh, was his student at Hindu College in the 1960s.
But where’s the time to dwell on the past? Mr Desai’s forthcoming days hold the promise of more reading, writing, and editing. Hamlet just won’t let him be.
[This is the 122nd portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Living with Hamlet