City Library – Diplomat Maharajakrishna Rasgotra’s Books, Sapru House
Diplomat’s poetic side.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” This maxim by French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin works equally well if “eat” is replaced with “read”. That certainly is a singularly effective way of developing deep intimacies with Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, even if you have never met the erudite man. A retired diplomat in his late 90s, he recently donated his entire collection of books to what is probably Delhi’s best public library that barely anybody visits.
This afternoon, the first floor of the sprawling library in central Delhi’s Sapru House is empty. Books and journals are bound in various shades of brown, except for the diplomat’s collection, arranged reverently in the centre of the hall.
“Besides serving as India’s foreign secretary, Rasgotra sahab was our ambassador in Rabat, Tunis, Kathmandu, Amsterdam, Paris, and he was our high commissioner twice in London,” says librarian Mahesh Chandra Sharma (see lead photo), who personally went to fetch the diplomat’s books at his Vasant Vihar “kothi” in July. A Padma Bhushan recipient, Mr Rasgotra reserved his place in India’s post-independent history long before his stint in foreign capitals — Delhi’s diplomatic district was named Chanakyapuri by him in the 1950s.
As expected, the former ambassador’s collection encompasses a wide sweep of international politics. What makes it distinctive is an extraordinary assortment of poetry books in Hindi, French and English. The ample Hindi collection includes the entire work of poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, whose employment at the ministry of external affairs was possible due to Mr Rasgotra’s recommendation, according to librarian Mr Sharma. The bounty of Mr Rasgotra’s poetry books in English is even more extensive, with innumerable titles by Faber and Faber, the London-based publishing house acclaimed for introducing some of the greatest 20th century poets. In fact, a few of the poets are iconic enough to be spotted in every literary-minded DDA flat in Delhi — such as WH Auden and TS Eliot. Many other poets, however, might be familiar only to the most devoted poetry aficionados, such as… oh well, come and discover this fabulous world yourself!
The opening page of each book in the collection is signed in elegant handwriting by its diplomat-owner. One volume of poetry is inscribed for Mr Rasgotra by the book’s author — the late British poet Kathleen Raine. The inscription reads, “as poet to poet”. Indeed, the distinguished diplomat is himself a poet. His collected poems, Teen Parte, was republished recently, and can be found elsewhere in the Sapru House library.