In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne (surely the most tedious storyteller who ever lived) gives us a customs officer mulling over the late 18th-century zenith of a certain port on the Massachusetts coast. It was a time, he says,
when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither.
Hawthorne was scribbling in the mid-1800s, roughly a half-century after Salem became America’s chief conduit for trade with the subcontinent. Yet his inability to see anything odd about a native of a still wet-behind-the-ears country describing the home of one of the world’s hoariest civilisations as ‘new’ feels bang-up-to-the-minute contemporary.
Something in Americans – perhaps in most Westerners – resists seeing India as any more than an unlikely combination of money-making opportunity and fount of ‘spirituality’ that they can neither define nor understand. Before Indians began to demonstrate their talent as software geeks, during the West’s programmer shortage in the late 1990s, raw Indian brainpower and intellectual sophistication had virtually no recognition.
Most Westerners don’t even know what they don’t know about the subcontinent’s massive philosophical corpus unrelated to religion or spirituality. This is seen as tragic by keen admirers of that corpus – a group that has, over the ages, included the likes of William Jones (1746-94), the Calcutta judge and son of a mathematician who was the first great British Indologist.
But hand-wringing and lamentation on this score are pointless. Here are some practical reasons for caring about oceanic Western unknowing about India’s contributions to knowledge and scholarship.
Surely we can — must, now — look at the country through something other Salem’s exclusively mercantilist spectacles, celebrated in its motto, Divitis Indiae usqua ad ultimum sinum: ‘to the farthest gulf for the wealth of India.’
In Americans in India, an Indian historian, G.Bhagat, has recorded that when Salem dominated the India trade – which far exceeded that with China in this period – Americans’ interest
was almost wholly in the profits to be made in the trade, and they showed little interest in the historical, social and political life of India itself.
Though George Washington dispatched the first U.S. consul to India as early as 1792, Bhagat says:
Consul after consul occupied himself in private interests and ignored official instructions to report on conditions in India . . . There was no increase of friendship and understanding, appreciation of India and her customs by the visiting Americans . . .
Last month, Stanford University – one of the world’s richest, for its entire history – invited applications for a new professorship, explaining in one notice that it is
committed to developing its South Asian program through additional faculty recruitment across disciplines.
This has certainly been a long time coming. Also, it has only been two years since the university, founded in 1885, established its Center for South Asia
for the study of the region—including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan—across all the disciplines in the School of Humanities and Sciences.
News of the recruitment drive took me back to a conversation a couple of years ago with Paul Kiparsky, a Sanskritist and leading computational linguist. He had agreed that it was remarkable that Stanford, his own university, had practically no South Asian expertise to offer. He predicted, though, that that would come with endowments earmarked for the specialisation from successful Indians, probably from among the many migrants to Silicon Valley – which is on the doorstep of this famous institution from which it sprang.
He was half-right. The South Asia centre was financed by an anonymous donor on the subcontinent – rumoured to be a member of its most powerful industrial clan, the Ambanis, and a matching Stanford grant.
I cannot be the only person wondering why no American ever emerged as a sponsor for this branch of scholarship when the thriving East Asian programmes at the university have found many generous benefactors over the decades.