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A slice of European literary history in Mumbai

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 00:57 IST
Purva Mehra
Purva Mehra
Hindustan Times
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A PhD candidate in the history department at Princeton University, Manu Radhakirshnan has been inseparable from The Asiatic Society of Mumbai (ASM) ever since he journeyed to the city seven days ago.

His obsession is occasioned by a rare 14th century manuscript of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) in the possession of the library since 1820. “Though I’m a historian and not a paleographer, I can say with some certainty that the manuscript hails from roughly between 1321-1350 AD. The scribe who copied the text has described Dante as a recent poet, suggesting that the manuscript could have been copied very close to his death,” said Radhakrishnan.

The epic poem, written between 1306 and 1321 AD, is a pillar of the European literary tradition. In it, Dante the sinner makes his way through Hell and Purgatory, realising the error of his ways and finally reaches heaven.

“My attempt is to mark the differences between the modern edition and ASM’s manuscript. This would enable scholars to place ASM’s copy in the family tree of Dante’s works, as possibly a most rare copy, which could impact current texts. The copy is in vernacular [then Italian], not Latin. The most obvious difference is that the spellings are much older than in modern texts,” said the 43-year-old.

“An aunt read an article about the Divine Comedy of Mumbai, making a reference to the 26/11 attacks. In it was a reference to ASM’s manuscript,” said Radhakrishnan.

While ASM’s copy sits in a vault, physically inaccessible even to Radhakrishnan (he’s been referring to a digitised copy), Vidya Vencatesan, ASM’s honorary secretary, testified to its exquisiteness. “It’s a beautiful, illustrated copy, bound in brown leather and written on vellum. It was a gift from Mountstuart Elphinstone, ASM’'s then president and governor of Bombay,” said Vencatesan.