A Letter from India
This spring, we wrote to Mark Long, professor of English and American Studies, to ask how his sabbatical in India was going. His reply, filled with colors and images from halfway around the world, tells us that his course reading lists at Keene State will never be the same.
Exploring the caves of Ajanta and Ellora on holiday
Ellinore's diagnosis has been one of the many unexpected experiences we've had as we pass the midway point of our six-month stay in India. I'm on sabbatical – my first semester away from the classroom since arriving at Keene State in the fall of 1998. My wife, Rebecca, an attorney, is a Fulbright scholar in law and environmental policy. And our children, Nathaniel (11) and Ellinore (9), are attending school here in Pune. (View Map)
The author in JodhpurI could go on for some time describing our experiences. Learning to live in the chaotic and cosmopolitan metropolis of Pune, a city of four million people; watching Sarus cranes at Keoladeo Ghana near Bharatpur, or seeing a wild tiger stalk a spotted deer in Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park. Traveling to Hyderabad, where I was invited to give a talk on bioregionalism at an interdisciplinary conference on land and the environment; or visiting Chennai and Pondicherry, where I lectured to students and faculty in the departments of English, botany, and zoology. Touring the northern state of Rajasthan, where Rebecca attended a conference for Fulbright scholars in South Asia, and where we danced with neighborhood children in Jodhpur, caught a glimpse of wild tigers, and rode camels across the sands of the Thar Desert. Or I might tell you about our plans to spend May in the leafy villages of coastal Karnataka, and June in the Western Himalaya in the Buddhist region of Ladakh.
Scenes from the Elephant Festival in JaipurMy sabbatical leave has been a formative intellectual experience. Before departing, we read Indian fiction, for what better way to prepare for living in a different culture than through the imagination? I packed a box of books and notes, too, with plans to write about American poetry. But since arriving, I've also been reading about India.
The first book we picked up was the authoritative Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, and since then we've added a Field Guide to Indian Mammals and The Book of Indian Shells to our library. I've rediscovered the pleasures of Indian poetry, Rabindranath Tagore especially, and commentaries on contemporary Indian life. I've reread (and recommend!) my English department colleague Brinda Charry's two novels, Hottest Day of the Year and Naked in the Wind.
I've been reading about food, religious history, and sociology, too, as well as a fascinating oral history of Rajasthan. Right now I'm spending afternoons with Guha's India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.
A busy market in PuneAs a father, I must confess that our stay in India is about our children. Sure, it was difficult for the family to pull up its New England roots. But we wanted the children to experience radical change, to live outside the United States and to broaden their narrow understanding of the world.
The children are struggling, as we are, with the difficulties of living in India – a nation still primarily agricultural, grappling with the complexities of an ever-expanding economy and burgeoning urban areas. More than 40 percent of the people of Pune, for example, live in slums, and the harsh realities of social inequality, inadequate infrastructure, and environmental degradation are a part of life every day.
Four-footed commerce on the hike up to Shinagar, near PuneBut with the help of new friends, we've become smitten with the unpredictable ways of Indian life. We're speaking some Hindi and even have a few words of Marathi – one of the many regional tongues spoken in this multilingual democracy of more than one billion people.
We've celebrated national holidays with friends, developed an unexpected passion for the game of cricket, and simply can't get enough of Indian food. And we've offered prayers to the Hindu god Ganesha, walked barefoot through Jain temples, and witnessed the beautiful choreography of prayer in Muslim mosques.
Our family is learning how human kindness and concern, struggle and desperation, aspiration and hope are common to all. Everyone is moving together, we realize more fully now, as we all share the future that we will create.
Over the years, I've watched my colleagues make use of this valuable time away from the classroom. And I have been overwhelmed by the generous intellectual capital and passion each person brings back to the College community.
For me, in addition to completing a forthcoming book and other writing projects, the sabbatical will most immediately benefit my students. One of my fields of expertise is environmental literature, and my work with Indian colleagues here is already promising new opportunities for intellectual and cultural exchange.
My reading in the ecological history of India has confirmed, moreover, that the biases of U.S. environmental history, and the inherent nationalism of American literature and culture, are most fully understood comparatively, in the broader context of other literary traditions and cultures. My course reading lists will never be the same.
Ellinore is feeling better, I'm happy to report. Yesterday, the new year here in Maharashtra, the temperature climbed into the high 30s (centigrade), and we picked up our first mangoes of the season at the fruit market down the street. Now that it is April, we sometimes awaken to thoughts of the New England spring – of melting snow, muddy fields, new lambs, and the taste of just-boiled maple syrup.
But this spring morning we rise to warm wind and the chatter of green parakeets in the trees, the cries of circling cheel, and the incessant whine of rickshaws plying the streets of this crowded, dirty, and beautiful city on India's Deccan plateau.
Dr. Mark C. Long, associate professor of English and American studies, and former chair of the department of English, will return to full-time teaching in the fall. For more about his stay in India, and to view additional photographs, you can visit his place blog at http://fromthefarfield.wordpress.com/.