Seated in the preschool room where I worked Friday afternoon was a woman who reminded me of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. She wore a sari of silver and green, much gold jewelry and a bindi. She was a large woman for whom walking was painful. Planted on an undersized chair of plastic and tubular steel, with the sari shrouding her legs, she looked rooted. The paperback she read was printed in a script I couldn’t read.
We spoke and I learned she is the sister of another para-educator, and is visiting from India. I asked about the book. “It is an historical epic, the story of my people,” she said. “Fiction?” I asked. “A novel?” “No, The Mahābhārata. You know of it?” I read a sizeable selection in translation 35 years ago. The entire epic is more than 10 times as long as The Iliad and Odyssey combined. “And did you enjoy it?” I had to confess I couldn’t remember. I was young and could read any book of even marginal interest, often retaining not a syllable. I told her I had reread The Bhagavad Gita about 15 years ago when a friend was teaching it in college and asked me to discuss it with her students.
Classical Indian literature I came to by way of Thoreau and Emerson. The former borrowed an 1834 French translation of The Mahābhārata from the Harvard College Library in 1849 and translated portions of it into English. Thoreau incorporates a passage from the “Harivansa” section of the epic into the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden:
“The Harivansa says, `An abode without birds is like a meat without seasoning.’ Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”
The cultural favor was returned when Gandhi read Thoreau and cited him, with Ruskin and Tolstoy, as important Western influences on his thought. I shared this, in brief, with the visitor from India – a woman who looks severe, even intimidating, until she smiles. “Now you must read The Mahābhārata, and I shall read this Thoreau you mention. He must have been an interesting person,” she said, smiling.