The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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City rises to myths
- Italian’s telling of India captivates Indians

Calcutta, Dec. 12: Once known to be the country’s intellectual and cultural capital, Calcutta shows every now and then that the tradition ' however muted ' coexists with the shopping malls and the multiplexes.

Till only a few days ago, most of Calcutta hadn’t heard of Roberto Calasso, the scholar from Milan who deals with myths, even their own. This evening, GD Birla Sabhagar overflowed to hear Calasso speak about his love affair with India and its myths.

Academics, students ' even those pursuing careers in medicine and engineering ' and celebrities had come ready to accept the two syllables, swa-ha, Calasso uttered atthe beginning of his talk organised by The Telegraph.

People had queued up to enter the auditorium and some could not because it had filled up. The state’s first citizen, Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, as if representing the collective attitude of the city, told his intrusive security to stay out of the auditorium as he himself took his place in the audience.

What does one call it' The invisible connection, so very central to all of Calasso’s work' Or a rekindling of the famed Calcutta quality of gravitating to wellsprings of knowledge'

Every time Calcutta is offered an opportunity, it has shown a side of its character that may not be visible at Eden Gardens. First it was Salman Rushdie, and it was no wonder he would draw a large gathering given his star value and the fact that he is of Indian origin, then Gunter Grass, the German novelist who has not exactly been partial in his writings to Calcutta.

Calasso, who wears his erudition lightly, was the third in the series of talks organised by this newspaper. The author of Ka (the book on Indian myths), The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (on Greek mythology) and K (on the novelist Franz Kafka) and a complete stranger had come to lead back a caravan of stories to their birthplace in this age of “digital thought”.

On his way, he made connections that would have sounded impossible had he not made them obvious. “Impatience, the only sin” which Garuda’s mother, Vinata, said about human nature finds an echo in Kafka’s novel The Castle and, in a magical instant, connects Ka to K.

The evening was also about distances ' between Italy and India, the present and the Vedic past, between history and literature and between the divine and the human. But all distances were destined to be dissolved by Calasso and many dark areas to be illumined and some questions answered.

Mukul Kesavan, one of the panellists and a professor of history from Delhi, wondered why Prajapati Brahma had to choose Daksha to perform the task of procreation after he himself had awakened to sexual pleasure.

These contradictions, said Calasso, give Indian mythology its unique character.

Supriya Chaudhuri, from the English department of Jadavpur University, was the other panellist.

Sukanta Chaudhuri, professor of English at Jadavpur University, said later: “One gets more insight from his speech than his writings. His erudition is mind-boggling.”

In the brief interactive session, Calasso replied to the questions sometimes in statements and sometimes in images since “images go where statements cannot go”.

Gopal Gandhi said the Italian scholar had made him “more aware of his ignorance”.

Roberto Calasso is convinced that he must have dropped a coin in an Indian river some time, which meant that his love affair with the country and its myths was never going to end.

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