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By the book: reflections on an Indian childhood reading Soviet hardbacks

By the book: reflections on an Indian childhood reading Soviet hardbacks

During the 1960s and 70s, Russian novels were easy to come by in India, even in remote towns. When Deepa Bhasthi inherited her grandfather's collection of Soviet books, she didn't realise the impact they would have on her life

29 May 2015
Text Deepa Bhasthi

Grandma would, every now and then, suddenly look at me as if noticing me for the first time, and remark that I had my grandfather’s forehead and his quick temper. Grandpa was an Indian freedom fighter turned Communist card holder, an oddity in the 1960s and 70s in small-town south India. He died, almost to the day, six months before I was born, leaving behind, among other things, several coats that grandma would later turn into recycled bags and a collection of books that, by virtue of living in the house he built, I almost entirely inherited.

In the little village/town (we could never agree on which it was) where I grew up, it used to rain for over six months a year. In those days, friends didn’t “hang out” and phone calls, if the telephone lines were up, were usually for asking after homework. The only newspaper vendor in town sold only pulp fiction. And so it came to pass that the first novel I read as a ten-year-old was Maxim Gorky’s Mother, a beautiful Raduga edition. The hard-bound book had a cream jacket with a picture of an older woman in a black full-length coat, a wrinkled scarf covering her hair, a half-hidden suitcase in her hand. Perhaps I was judging by the cover when I pulled out the book from grandpa’s library, but it led to a life-long love for Russian literature. It was happily aided by the propaganda-ish books that flooded into India in the years before the USSR disintegrated: books on literature, science, comics and everything else by publishers like Raduga, Progress, Mir and others.

Before the liberation of the Indian economy in 1991, the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed, India and the USSR often sided up to each other. While Indian movies in Hindi were hugely popular in Russia, translations of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin poured into India. At least a few generations of Indians from the 1960s onwards grew up reading Russian literature, not least because these books were sold cheaper than most others in the market. The books of the Soviet Union were almost always hard-bound, beautifully illustrated and with the prettiest covers. I remember, as I write this, the swirling calligraphy of the P in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter and the little house, tree-clad and mysterious, on the jacket of Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.

A whole generation of 80s children, those that knew a little of socialism in their childhoods and went on awkwardly to embrace the excesses of capitalism, has taken to the internet to talk about these books. I hadn’t known how strong a fanbase they had until I wrote a blog post years ago about my grandfather’s collection. I continue to be inundated with offers to buy my whole inventory at whatever price I asked for.

Every new email sparks a little of the interest again to read up on the history of these books. The internet throws up some tidbits but it doesn’t tell me what I want to really know.

The books of the Soviet Union were almost always hard-bound, beautifully illustrated and with the prettiest covers

It tells me that the Foreign Language Publishing House (FLPH) was started to centralise all titles meant for non-Soviet readers. They published books on how progressive the USSR was and how happy its working class, as well as early literature. Sometime in the 1960s, or in 1931 — depending on which source you want to rely on — the FLPH became Progress Publishers with the Sputnik satellite on one half of its logo and the Russian letter for progress on the other half. A decade or two later, they gave up publishing literature to Raduga which went on to publish a lot of classic titles, a few modern-day writers and several children’s books. Alongside existed Mir Publishers, who were in charge of science and technology books. Others, like Novosti Press Agency Publishing House for pamphlets and booklets, and Aurora Publishers in Leningrad for art books, made up the bulk of the Soviet publishing scene. Misha, published by Pravda Printing Plant, was a children’s monthly that had crosswords to learn the Russian language with, as well as cartoons, folk tales and a pen-pal section I got addresses from and used to exchange letters with two girls in Moscow.

The internet tells me this, without giving up any specifics of the people behind them and their stories. It doesn’t, for instance, tell me the first names of Babkov, Smirnov, Glushkov, Maron and others — scientists and engineers at government institutes and universities who wrote manuals and textbooks on things like airport engineering, heat and mass transfer, radio measurements and the like. My ambition to be an astrophysicist, before I began to dread the physics part in high school, was fuelled by a small blue book called Space Adventures in your Home by F. Rabiza. I wonder who Rabiza was; none of the many fan sites for Soviet books say that. I have to be satisfied with an initial before these surnames. Author bios were probably not important in the service of the motherland.

Navakarnataka Publications in Karnataka, my home state, who were supplied with hundreds of thousands of books in every genre, sold a wholesome image of the Soviet Union for Rs 5, Rs 10, or at most Rs 50 for a really fat book. Still much less than a full dollar. Some stray copies creep into the second-hand book stores now and then, selling like hot tea in a park on a cold day, often at three to four times the original price. They call them collectibles, these days.

My copy of Mother was possibly a Progress edition, I forget now. Most of the titles grandfather owned, and the ones I continue to collect, are either Progress, or Raduga. Each prettier than the next. One has Pushkin looking over his shoulder, a tall lady on his arm. The other has Tolstoy, a much older Tolstoy, frowning, with a long, white beard. A young Chekhov looks handsome, serious and intense. Pushkin again, leaning against a pillar and staring out casually, one leg up against the pillar. A blurry structure, grey, fluid, befitting for Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House.

Apparently, most of the works were available in several Indian languages. I only ever read them in English. I wonder who the translators were, for the other Indian languages. I wonder a lot of things. The internet hasn’t bothered digging up too much it seems.

I prefer the mystery and lack of information, because probably the history is too prosaic anyway

There was once a fox that tried and tried to jump up to eat ripe grapes. But try as it might, it couldn’t jump high enough. It then walked away, loudly remarking that the grapes were probably too sour anyway. I am going to say that I prefer the mystery and lack of information, because probably the history is too prosaic anyway.

The 1980s were when I discovered and grew up with books that made names like Boris and Sasha and Nadya and Tatyana and Olga and Vera as relatable as Rama and Sita and Arjuna from the Indian epics that grandma told stories from. They seem like fabulous years, seen through the eyes of wistfulness for the good ol’ days and simpler times. Russian writers, and by extension, the Soviet Union, seemed exotically foreign and thus especially intriguing. But perhaps more importantly for me, these books were my connection to my grandfather. Perhaps it was through these that I came to relate to a man who in his own way was the rebel I would turn out to be — left leaning, liberal — in a household and a community that insisted on voting Right.

Or maybe I don’t really want to know. The invitation to imagine your own stories and endings is what lends timelessness to a work of literature after all.

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