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Delhiwale: Standing in Tolstoy’s shadow

Many Russian writers who shaped modern Delhi’s intellectual life are rarely found on book shelves now, but Tolstoy is still a favourite

delhi Updated: Nov 01, 2017 11:46 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
A statue of Leo Tolstoy that looks towards Janpath’s Tibetan market.
A statue of Leo Tolstoy that looks towards Janpath’s Tibetan market.(Mayank Austen Soofi / HT Photo)

His arms crossed, Leo Tolstoy gazes towards Janpath’s Tibetan market. But since he is hidden behind trees, it is impossible to see him from… well, Tolstoy Marg.

The plinth contains nothing more than Tolstoy’s name carved in Hindi and Russian, along with the year of installation — 1989.

To understand the logic of having Tolstoy’s statue in the city of Ghalib and Daagh, we called up a Tolstoy reader and an esteemed Russian language scholar who has traced the evolution of that language in contemporary India.

“Russian language was taught in Delhi even before Independence but the phonological education in Russian started in 1965 with the setting up of the Centre of Russian Studies, which was given a space in IIT Delhi campus,” said Ramadhikari Kumar, the former president of the Indian Association of Teachers of Russian language and Literature, and a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where the institute found its home.

Russia, or the USSR, shaped Delhi’s intellectual life in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A publicity-shy environmentalist who grew up in the Delhi of that time, told us that left-leaning romantics were regulars at literary evenings of the Russian Cultural Centre. Kurta-wearing ideologues lambasted American imperialism at seminars in Sapru House. Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother was a cult classic. Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin were on must-read lists. If you wanted to make an impression, Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don was the book of choice.

According to Professor Kumar, the JNU centre 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 said.

“The Russian government offered our students fellowship programmes that included free food, lodging and some pocket money.” The funding stopped after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 “but has now been partially revived.”

Today, Gorky and Sholokhov are rarely found in Delhi bookstores, but Tolstoy remains in vogue. We always see his War and Peace in bookstores. And if the novel is just too fat to read from start to end, you may go for our favourite shortcut — come to Tolstoy Marg and gaze at Tolstoy’s statue. Easy reading, really.