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German author’s new novel tours old India

Author Christopher Kloeble who lives in Berlin writes about Bombay, Madras and Calcutta in 'The Museum of the World'.

October 16, 2021 / 08:14 AM IST
From 1854 to 1857, brothers Hermann, Adolph and Robert Schlagintweit toured India and High Asia to map the earth's magnetic field.

From 1854 to 1857, brothers Hermann, Adolph and Robert Schlagintweit toured India and High Asia to map the earth's magnetic field.

The past, especially Indian past, comes alive in German author Christopher Kloeble’s new book The Museum of the World, which traces the path three scientist siblings traversed once upon a time.

Commissioned by the East India Company to map earth’s magnetic field, Bavarian brothers Hermann, Adolph and Robert Schlagintweit toured India and High Asia from 1854 to 1857, going up and down the Himalayas, the Karakoram range and Kunlun Mountains. Hermann went on to publish his research on the Alps and Robert returned to Germany as a geography professor while Adolph trailed the Karakash river valley to Turkestan. Somewhere along the way he was mistaken for a Chinese spy and beheaded. The return of this head to its rightful country even inspired Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King.

Kloeble mixes fiction and nonfiction to present a sensitive and culturally faithful portrayal of much of these travels. Like in his previous book, Almost Everything Very Fast, which is available in English, this book too has an orphan narrator. It is his story as an assistant and multilingual translator to the brothers that makes up the book. He was not born in Bombay, as he tells you, but ‘Bombay was born in me’. Plucked from an orphanage against his will, he becomes a key witness to the expeditions, following the brothers through hell and high water.

Via the Indian narrator’s voice, readers get to relive bygone days. About Indo-Europeans, the novel notes, the dads are European and moms Indian – never the other way around. If it does happen the other way, the child apparently does not live long: ‘Indo-Europeans belong neither to us nor to them.’ Details about Bombay include that the city measured 55 sq km and that Malabar hill was 58 metres high… Victorians are Vickys and ‘the moon is white and round like a fresh idli’. A footnote, since the book is written in a child’s voice, describes Karl Marx simply as ‘a German who reflects a lot on the poor and the rich’.

Every man is his own museum, carrying with him keepsakes and memories, pain and small pleasures. And Bartholomew is no different. He wants nothing more than to construct his own mobile museum, of smells and sights, of parchment and perishables. But the young orphan protagonist, flung against a brutal world, is told: ‘Someone like you does not found museums. Someone like you should be thankful if he does not perish as a child.’

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Delicate truisms abound in the telling of this tale. ‘Everyone I know is poor. We possess nothing more than the clothes on our back and hope. Hope that one day we will not be rich perhaps, but less poor. For there is only one kind of rich but many types of poor,’ Bartholomew observes.

The author who lives in Berlin writes about Bombay, Madras and Calcutta in this book. In the process of currently being translated into English, this is one book sure to provide a peep into our mysterious, sometimes impenetrable, history.
Shinie Antony is a writer and editor based in Bangalore. Her books include The Girl Who Couldn't Love, Barefoot and Pregnant, Planet Polygamous, and the anthologies Why We Don’t Talk, An Unsuitable Woman, Boo. Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Asia Prize for her story A Dog’s Death in 2003, she is the co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and director of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival.

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