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Twenty-two-year-old Wendy Doniger arrived in Calcutta in August 1963, on a scholarship to study Sanskrit and Bengali. It was her first visit to the country. Over the coming year—a lot of it spent in Tagore’s Shantiniketan—she would fall completely in love with the place she had till then known only through books.
The India she describes in her letters back home to her parents is young, like her, still finding its feet, and learning to come to terms with the violence of Partition. But it is also a mature civilization which allows Vishnu to be depicted on the walls in a temple to Shiva; a culture of contradictions where extreme eroticism is tied to extreme chastity; and a land of the absurd where sociable station masters don’t let train schedules come in the way of hospitality. The country comes alive though her vivid prose, introspective and yet playful, and her excitement is on full display whether she is telling of the paradoxes of Indian life, the picturesque countryside, the peculiarities of Indian languages, or simply the mechanics of a temple ritual that she doesn’t understand. And amid her studies she manages to travel, north to the Mughal forts and south to the ancient temples, and make new friends—the feisty Chanchal from Lahore and the affable Mishtuni, as well as some very famous ones—including Jamini Roy and Ali Akbar Khan.
Those who have read and admired Wendy Doniger will be delighted to find much of her later work anticipated in these letters, and the few who haven’t will get to see, through the eyes of a sensitive, sharp-eyed and witty young scholar, India as they have never seen it before.