My Friendship with D. D. Kosambi


That two such different persons as D. D. Kosambi and I should have become friends is remarkable. But Kosambi was a remarkable man. I should like to share my memory of him, but I despair of sketching his personality in the brief compass of an article. Instead, I shall let Kosambi, for the most part, tell how the friendship arose. By quoting from his early letters to me, as occasionally interrupted by summaries or fragments of my letters to him, the reader may feet something of the biting satire, the passionate energy, and the abiding scholarship of my late friend.

My first letter from Kosambi was in response to a review that I had written of his book The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartrhari. His letter began with thanks, proceeded, despite his disclaimer, to pounce on one of the points where he disagreed with me, and ended with a characteristic flash of ridicule.

Bombay, January 6, 1951
Dear Dr lngalls,
Many thanks for the most sympathetic and even flattering review of my Bhartrhari, which came yesterday. I shall not join issue with you on the points where we differ, but one day, if you study the background of Sanskrit literature in its social and historical context, I think you will come to much the same conclusions as mine. Incidentally, "office-seeker" bears a connotation (to my foreign ear) which I should not apply to Bhartrhari. ...He was a man without regular means of livlihood, or regular course of action that would qualify him for one. Davour of kings in that period, their patronage, meant reward but not office; at least, not for a poet who wasn't much else.
... In any case is is extremely gratifying to find anyone who takes the trouble to go so carefully through both text and preface! Accept my thanks for the good words.
... There are many supplementary discoveries and additions that will need a paper by themselves.... The Udaipur kings did not read all of Bharatihari so carefully as the sringarapart and the bound codex naturally openedto a worn page of the Anangarnga's section on the aphrodisiacs. Draw your own conclusions !
Yours sincerely,
D.D. Kosambi

Our correspondence continued. Kosambi thanked me for a book of mine. He wrote asking about his father's posthumous Visuddhimagga, which after years of delay had appeared in the Harvard Oriental Series just two weeks before the date of his enquiry. Later, when our acquaintance had ripened into friendship, Kosambi was often to speak to me of his father. Dharmanand Kosambi had lived for some years in America in the course of an extraordinary journey in pursuit of truth that took him on the circuit of the globe. He had returned to Maharashtra a Buddhist, who by his forceful writings inspired those who were intellectually strong and antagonized those who wanted their sanatana dharma without intellectual effort. D. D. Kosambi always expressed an intense admiration of his father. He felt that his father had been mistaken in the goal of quietism that he chose; the son chose a far different goal. But the passion for the search and the scorn of non-searchers were common to both men.

It was because of the father's sojourn that the son had taken his high school and college education in the United States. Why Kosambi failed to go on to the doctorate he explained in a letter where he first suggested that we drop our titles in writing each other. The letter also refers to the plan I was forming of spending the year, from June onward, in India.

Bombay, February 14, 1957,
Dear Ingalls, .
Let us agree to drop the formalities, particularly as I never achieved the doctorate with which you regularly credit me. I had to work my way through Harvard and took the bachelor's degree in February 1929, giving up the attempt to get on with my formal education in May 1929, for the depression was about to break and casual jobs were vanishing before the debacle. Incidentally, I had no fellowship either, being "interested in too many things", not to speak of my uncouth appearance, rude manners, and the rest. This preamble is for your private information.
I should be sorry if you left India without our being able to meet. June is the last month of our holidays, so that I should-in the normal course of events- be back here on July 1. My programme is very simple in that I arrive from Poona on Monday mornings if Monday is a working day and leave again on Friday evening. The week-ends at Poona give me time to do some thinking, while the five working days at Bombay are spent mostly on "scientific" pursuits. ...
[Most of the holidays] I again spend at Poona, though I make two trips of a fortnight every year to Bangalore where my mother is spending the final years of her life. ...

It was some time before this that I had suggested that Kosambi edit for the Harvard Oriental Serics Vidyakara's Subhasitaratnakosa, the oldest of thc great anthologies of Sanskrit verse. He and V. V. Gokhale had ascertained that this collection contained several verses of the Bhartrhari canon. At first they had photographs of only one manuscript of the anthology. These photographs, takcn by Rahula Sankrityayana at the monastery of Ngor in Tibet, crowdcd so many pages onto a single plate that they were almost indccipherable. Soon Kosambi found a library listing of a second manuscript in Kathmandu; then it was reported that Professor Tucci in Rome had a second sct of photographs of the Ngor manuscript. Kosambi had accepted my invitation to edit the work on the condition that V. V. Gokhale be made joint editor.

Now my interest in the anthology was mounting, and with it my eagerness to see Kosambi and examine the photographs at first hand. So my original plan of basing my Indian visit on Calcutta, where I had lived many years before, gradually changed to a plan of staying for the greater part of my time in Poona. Kosambi offered me advice on my preparations at the very moment that he was preparing for a strenuous but brief trip of his own to China. He hoped to get the Ngor manuscript of our text from Tibet through Chinese mediation, but the main object of his trip was connected with the Chinese Peace Committee. I was interested in the first object and disapproved silently of the second.

Poona, May 17,1952
Dear Ingalls,
Yours of the l2th just received. ...
I told you of my hopes of getting something directly from China. Unfortunately, I had to refuse an invitation to China last year, and may have to repeat the performance now. I am supposed to fly not later than a week from today, at the invitation of the Chinese Peace Committee. The Prime Minister informs me through his First Secretary that there will be no obstacle in my way but (and the real reply begins always after such a "but") the others whom I am supposed to lead in a delegation of three will not be allowed. In addition, it is made unmistakably clear that the PM would be very happy to see me refuse. I have asked him to re- consider; if he refuses, I shall have to stay back in protest. Going alone is still a possibility, but to tell you the truth I hate travelling and do not want to go just for the MS. In the Peace Movement we put the Movement first and work as sincerely as possible in spite of all sorts of filth thrown at us by enemies. You see the difficulty, namely that a MS is not likely to be located in distant Tibet for one who refuses invitations again and again. However, I shall try by letter. The last letter was lost by the agent, and this one may be too.
Your decision to come to Poona will be, I think, wiser than the former one. As you know, your Embassy keeps close tabs on most U.S. citizens here and will not be too happy if you advertise your association with me. [Ed. note: the U.S. Embassy never paid me the slightest heed.] But you can count on me for whatever help you need. ...You should write immediately. ..and ask for full access to the facilities of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and also for a suite of rooms at the BORI Guest House. They are tolerable and I can always help out as I live nearby. .

The letter continued with thumb-nail sketehes of various scholars :

X, a windbag. Y works hard but has sacrificed what ability he had to his cupidity and dishonesty, as well as arrogance. ...Z has now only one trade of which he still preserves any mastery, namely, sliding out of obligations once the maximum advantage has been secured.

These bursts of scorn were followed by expressions of admiration for others:

However, you can find less well advertised but far better people even in Poona, as I have told you. Gode does fine work. the BORI, and is in charge of the MSS. I have already written to you about Gokhale, who could also help you with the Bengali. ...At Madras Raghavan's great Catalogus Catalogorum deserves your attention, as does Raghavan himself, one of the absolute masters of classical Sanskrit in India and one of the best- read men in Sanskrit] have met. There are many other people and placcs you should visit, but that can come after you arrive.
If, by some miracle, I gct off to China next week, I shall be back in harness by July 1. Of course, I may be dismissed one of these days for daring to think that public opinion should be mobilized for Peace, even in my spare time. But then I shall have all the more time to devote to research. ...

Five weeks later Kosambi had been to and returned from China. He wrote me to Calcutta, where I had arrived and was stopping over briefly. After advice on the further stages of my trip, he reported on his own. Not a word of the hopcd- for manuscript; but his enthusiasm was running strong on China.

China was a revelation in many ways. The Peace Movement has two classes of delegates, tourists and workers. I was in the latter. In spite of the lack of time for sightseeing, and even for sleep, I managed to see Chin K'e-mu, Dschi Hian-Jin (Mahavastu specialist) , and other scholars; only the two above are Sanskritists, but the rest were impressive. The whole university atmosphere is strange to any of us who have been trained in Europe, the U.S.A., or India. Incidentally, there are not many students now for Sanskrit, but interest in modern Indian languages is rising fast. Hindi classes are popular.
The most impressive thing about China is the total change of character after the liberation: people do not bother to lock up houses at night any longer and nothing is missing. The coolie stands up and exchanges smiles with the policeman. Using the same old hand methods, land yield on the same plots has risen by twenty per cent; buildings rise up in half the time. Sanitation is greatly improved and the country well ahead of India in all ways. You can still see old China-at Hong Kong!

His last letter before we met reached me in Madras.

Bombay, July 21, 1952 Dear Ingalls,
It is clear that you are in India and will come to Poona via Madras, not via Bombay as I expected. My house is less than a furlong away from the BORI Nizam Guest House and my wife will supply you with any urgent necessities that we possess but which happen to be absent in the Guest House. I myself hope to be back the night of the 24th, Thursday. In case you call at our place before then, beware of the dog. He belongs to the neighbours, but has adoptcd us. His ear-shattering bark, unfortunately, is no worse than his bite. ...
Yours sincerely,
D. D. Kosambi

There followed four months during which I saw Kosambi nearly every week-end. I puzzled with him and Gokhale over the text of the anthology. I took no hand in its editing, but the three of us decided "that it must be annotated and for that purpose I was chosen. As matters turned out, years later, the annotation grew into a translation; but in 1952 I was not thinking so far ahead. Most of my time with Kosambi was spent in talking of matters that were miles removed from our common endeavour. We would take all day hikes over the hills about Poona and comi.l".1e our conversation in the courtyard of his house, on through supper into the night.

I have never met a man with whom I disagreed on such basic questions, yet whose company I so constantly enjoyed. Kosambi was a Marxist; I am an anti-systematist and by nature conservative. Kosambi insisted that art should be subservient to social betterment; I that it must break away from political subservience in order to be art. Curiously, we loved many of the same books, often for quite different reasons, and when we found our taste to converge we found it to be strengthened. At least it was so with me; I think it was so with Kosambi also. Blake's Milton had always affected me by its brilliant images :

Bring me my bow of burning gold !
Bring me my arrows of desire!

The poem has affected me more deeply since my discovery that it was Kosambi's favourite. Kosambi, of course, loved it for its leading up to the revolutionary conclusion :

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

But there must have been more than poetry to bring us together. Each of us found in the other certain qualities that he valued. Again, I can speak with certainty only of my own view. What I admired in Kosambi was his instinctive respect for facts, I would almost call it a reverence, that would come into play even when I least expected it. To listen to him theorize on Indian history you might think that he believed himself to have a complete understanding of its every turn. But no; he still had the patience to weigh on a jeweller's scale each new lot of punch- marked coins that came into his hands; he would still worry for hours over which of five manuscript variants to choose for a critical text. This side of Kosarnbi's character, the truly scholarly side, made no great flash in the world. Most of his acquaintances, I think, regarded it as a foible. But to Kosambi it was part of his inner morality and he was comfortable with other scholars only wlien he saw something of the same reverence in their hearts.

I recall my departure from Poona. Kosambi rode with me down to Bombay on the "Deccan Queen". I, the American capitalist, had never travelled in India by other than second class fare. My Marxist friend insisted that I join him in his first class compartment.

For two years after my return to America letters passed be. tween us nearly every week. Most of them concerned the text of the anthology, the difficulty of getting new photographs, and the problems of getting the text set up at the Nirnaya Sagar Press in such fashion that it could be reproduced by offset in America. But often we would throw in a paragraph or two on other affairs and sometimes a whole letter. The following was occasioned by a letter of mine giving news of my permanent appointment at Harvard and complaining of how an application for a research grant which I had supported had been turned down.

Bombay, May 23, 1953
Dear Ingalls,
Yours of the 16th reached me last night. Let me hasten to congratulate you, and even more Harvard University, on your permanency. It is not likely they can get anyone else for a job like yours and you will carryon with credit. ... As for your doing anything un-American during the next thirty years, I have grave doubts; learning Sanskrit as well as you have is un-American enough for one lifetime.
What you say about the grant comes painfully home in several ways. Our fertile but whimsical kamadhenu, the government, can be milked for streams of cash if one does it on a sufficiently large and useless scale. The man who needs 500 for some really useful work is a common swindler; a schcme for 10,000 might get through with heavy backing. In the hundred thousands it becomes routine; and by the million, you not only get everything you ask for, but are certainly a public benefactor, provided the money all goes down the drain.

The letter ends by complaining of a visiting American historian:

In three hours of cross-examination I could not get a solitary definite statement from him on any point in the history of India of any period. Your country does need some real propaganda to counteract this kind, just as we need a lunatic asylum for curing most of our lads who want to go to America.

Toward the end of 1953 an argument arose between Kosambi and me that I feared might undo our joint undertaking and destroy our recent friendship, As events proved, the undertaking, as concluded, and the friendship ripened into maturity.

Kosambi had begun writing his Introduction to Vidyakara's anthology. He sent it to me in two instalments. With the first instalment of four sections I was delighted, for he had managed to ascertain Vidyakara's date and place with accuracy, and by this means was able to assign dates for the first time to a number of Sanskrit authors whose verses the anthology contained. He warned me on November 5th that "the next four sections, mailed to you from Bombay this morning by air, will appear less agreeable to you than the first". His fore- boding proved correct, not because of the Marxist theory of Sanskrit literature which he there set forth- I was prepared for that- but because of the passionate denunciations of non-Sanskrit literature into which he digressed.

In this first draft I found on pages 16 to 18 a diatribe against the detective stories of Mickey Spillane, which Kosambi took as typifying the decadence of a socially destructive United States. In a footnote he had added the comment: "I am told that his books were made compulsory reading for the Army at one time, to inculcate the true martial spirit of an atomic age, which de- fends human values by mass extermination."

I replied by a long letter of criticism. I was willing to print any theory of literature that he wished to frame, but I insisted that "the fireworks must come out". As slightly abbreviated the conclusion of my letter was as follows :

As regards compulsory reading in the U.S. Army, I served in thc Army for three years and never heard of cornpulsory reading. Actually it was my impression that a good many of my fellow soldiers were unable to read. Be this as it may, it does not raise the credibility of a scholarly text to have such bits of propaganda dropped around in the Introduction. Again. the diatribe against Mickey Spillane fails to produce the effect you wish. It reads like a Jain pamphlet on the horrors of fox-hunting.
It may appear curious to you that I should take exception to one passage rather than another in this last instalment. Certainly most of my colleagues, if they were asked, would say: "You're already printing a communist interpretation. What more is there to stop at?" For every day more of us fall into this antinomy. Here it is communism or truth. And in the other half of the world it is communism or falsity. Perhaps it is a Quixotic gesture to swim against this stream, but I intend to do so.

A week later I heard from Kosambi: "Your blast of the 2lst was waiting for me at home last night." After countering most of my objections he rephrased my conclusion :

Let us put it as follows: The world is divided into three groups: (1) swearing by Marxism, (2) swearing at Marxism, (3) indifferent, i.e. just swearing, but forced by the crisis to shift to 1 or 2. I belong to 1, you and your colleagues to 2. Under the circumstances, what is the most effective draft of the Introduction to be?
I have no intention of propagandizing (for which there would be far better media, surely) nor of changing my line. The point, however, is not to proye Marxism or support it, but to use a certain well-proved line of approach to draw conclusions from such meagre evidence as exists. ...

But on the passage I had cried out against most vehemently he did not insist.

Pages 16-18 are the real sore point, as far as I can see. They can be rewritten, and shall be rather than argue the matter out here. Incidentally, page three will receive: an added paragraph, for the jativrajya grows upon me with better understanding of its stanzas.

We both loved the jativrajya, the section of the anthology that furnishes those inimitable miniatures of village and field in ancient India. As I look back it seems to me that the sober vision of the Pala poets forced a corresponding sobriety upon us. Kosambi agreed to give up the fireworks; I agreed that he might print whatever social message he could elicit from the Sanskrit poetry. Such minor flares as "one may see this for himself in the new China" I allowed to stand.

I find only one recurrence of disagreement between us about the Introduction, but it was mild. For its history I have only Kosambi's plea without a copy of my reply. Some of his words are worth saving for the picture they give of what he admired and what he hated.

On revisions, page 5, line 4 from bottom, about control of the press: would you agree to a footnote about press, mass-produced magazines, comics, radio, television? I see no reason why a television, radio, or movie script should not be as good literature as anything Shakespeare wrote. Yet, in all my experience, the sole occasion on which the chance was taken was the movie ]uarez and in particular the scenes, in the first of which Juarez (Paul Muni) defines democracy to Porfirio Diaz and in the second Juarez addresses the ambassadors who suggest that Maximilian be pardoned in the name of mercy and civilization. Magnificently acted, the words by themselves had a rugged simplicity which could have fitted into anything from classical antiquity down and graced the context. Now is it only a degraded popular taste which reduces great works of literature to comics! Who controls the outfit? I recall a take off in Punch some years ago which gave Macbeth as a U.S. style comic, and though it must have seemed funny to the educated British conservative who usually appreciates Punch humour, it was exactly what a publisher of comics would have published without thinking that anything was wrong. The real cause of the ruin seems to me the position of advertising and there is no question of who controls that. ...What should be said here? I feel that something must be said in any case. ...Draft vour own version of what I mean.

I was not quite sure whether Kosambi was pulling my leg-- forcing me to reply to an argument where he knew that my prejudices would agree largely with his own- or whether he was ingenuous. There was no doubt, at least, of the depth of his feeling or of the cleanliness of his scorn. I could only reply that the matter was not pertinent to an edition of a Sanskrit text.

For the rest we worked smoothly, distinguishing our scholarship from our emotional involvements. A year and a half later the Introduction was finished, the printing of the text was nearing completion, and I had begun to transform my annotations into a translation.

If the year 1955 was a happy one for the anthology, it was far from happy for Kosambi in other respects. The arthritis, from which he had suffered for several years, worsened. The ailment was not only painful but infuriating, for Kosambi had a strong physique which he had always pushed to the utmost. Among his keenest pleasures had been the long hikes over the Poona hills. The hikes were now curtailed. The hand of sickness stretched farther, to two of the persons he loved most dearly. In 1955 his mother died. His sister, falling ill, was to be taken from him the next year. Amid these griefs Kosambi's energy drove him as hard as ever. In the summer he left for Finland and Russia. He was away for two months and my letters to him accumulated at Poona. He wrote me directly after his return.

Poona, August 13, 1955
Dear Ingalls,
I got back this morning from Helsinki and Moscow. The USSR Academy of Sciences had invited me last year, as you know. This year the invitation was especially repeated at Helsinki and I went off to attend their conference on atomic energy for peaceful uses. They have actually begun and have had a 5,000 kilowatt power station in operation, the current being used for household supply as well as Industry, for over a year. Thereafter I gave a couple of lectures on various Indological subjects and got my medical treatment. The treatment was long overdue and at the end gave a lot of relief, though not a complete cure as yet.
All this sounds more impressive than it was. Small matters are not so well organized in the USSR as the big projects. The people are fundamentally easy- going, even slip- shod, just like us Indians, though very nice. The war has left a mark upon every family that I managed to meet: the people as well as their government rea1ly desire peace. But for all that, my personal affairs were in a mess. All the scholars were on holiday, summer vacations havlng begun. Even so, the orientalists came back to hear my lectures, the last of which was held on their foundation anniversary. They were rather shaken by the harsh things I had to say about their pseudo-Marxist scholars (or pseudo- scholars), but the persons concerned to whom I finally tracked down most of the nonsense emanating from the Oriental Institute were not quite convinced; one ended on a note of personal abuse, saying to friends in private conversation that Kosambi's Marxism was only skin- deep. This meant a lack of argument against the specific, defects that I had to point out in public sessions. I could only reply that I had a pretty thick skin; perhaps I was all skin.
In any case, the Sanskritists in the old line are all dead and the continuity has been broken. They were mostly based upon Leningrad, where I hadn't time, strength, or inclination to go. Only Kalyanov is left, the rest being quite new to the game and rather poor in calibre from their own accounts. However, they are interested in Indology and if they turn their mind to it with their characteristic national energy might sweep the field once again. At present they don't even know what is being done in other countries. My own reprints had not reached the proper scholars nor the libraries when I went there. Some of these reprints and the Bhartrhari edition had lain unnoticed for five years with the biochemist who had agreed to take them from India. I called on him and recovered them. Finally, there isn't a library I could get at with the resources and ease of use of Widener [i.e. the Harvard College Library]. What wouldn't I give, except giving up the Peace Movement, to spend a few months working away at Widener again!
Gokhale will call tomorrow. He has sent all your notes and letters to be here with Maya, I except the last loo stanzas on which he is still working. Studying the dossier, it seems that you have reached agreement on most points, while I have gotten very badly out of touch with the work. However, getting back into harness shouldn't be too difficult. ...
I am grateful for the condolences. It was painful not to be present when Mother passed away, but the journey, though physically just possible would in fact have been killing for me too.
Shall we drop the remaining formality now and come to the real personal names on both sides. You have been signing yourself as Dan. I am, to my few friends,

I have proposed here to describe only the forming of a friend, I should be ungrateful, however, not to add a word on benefit I received from it, for Baba was to become the best critic I ever had. From 1956 onward the pattern of the criticism our letters was reversed: where. I had been criticizing his introduction and text; he was now criticizing the drafts of my translation. I valued his praise as actors are said to value acclaim in the city of Boston; if they they can get a round of applause in a Boston theatre, they figure on a full year's run anywhere And I benefited from his ridicule, for Baba was as cruel to my occasional flights of mysticism as I had been to his Marxist gressions. My nature did not change under criticism any more than his did; but my style was chastened. In all the years we each other we never came to agree on theory. We agreed, however, well enough on the meaning of a phrase that I find each of us using in letters that happened to cross: "an honest job, well done". I had said it of of his finished text; he had expressed it as his hope of what my infant translation would become.