Bengal honour for Baltic biker boy

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By SUDESHNA BANERJEE
  • Published 23.11.14
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In the autumn of 1929, 26-year-old Antanas Paskevicius-Poska set off on a rather long motorbike ride. The Lithuanian would travel down south to Egypt, through Central Asia, with India as his final destination. From Iran, he took a ship to Bombay. In early 1931 he joined the University of Bombay, where he received his Bachelor degree in 1933. Then he shifted to Calcutta to collect material for his Masters. The five years he spent in India, including three in Calcutta, resulted in an eight-volume travelogue titled From the Baltic Sea to Bengal, other than accounts in the Lithuanian press about India and sundry friendships he struck with the intellectual elite.

The story will come full circle on November 28, when President Pranab Mukherjee takes the stage at the convocation of Calcutta University, Poska’s alma mater, and a posthumous DLitt is handed over to Laimute Kisieliene, Poska’s daughter.

“The Lithuanian scholar was brought to our notice by Diana Mickeviciene, a diplomat who came to us on behalf of the country’s embassy in Delhi a year-and-a-half ago to look for material on Poska. We found that he had studied in our anthropology department and had even worked on his PhD. This made us think of recognising his contribution to Indological studies,” said the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Suranjan Das. Rimantas Vaitkus, Lithuania’s vice-minister of science and education, and ambassador Laimonas Talat-Kelpsa are flying down too.

Mickeviciene, who has just returned to Lithuania, had spoken to Metro when she was here. “Poska was Calcutta’s ambassador in Lithuania. It is because of him that Lithuanians know about the city. He also worked at the anthropology laboratory of the Indian Museum on racial anthropology and started translating the Gita. Lithuanian is the closest living sister language to Sanskrit,” she said.

Poska, she pointed out, had also spent some time in Santiniketan as a friend of Laxmiswar Sinha, who, like Poska, was a practitioner of Esperanto, a constructed international language. Here he came in touch with Tagore and translated some of his poems into Lithuanian.

Among his friends was the linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji, who became interested in the Lithuanian and Baltic culture. The monograph of his comparative research of Indian Vedic and Baltic pagan rites, Balts and Aryans, was dedicated to Poska. Chatterji even travelled to Lithuania twice, Mickeviciene added.

Poska met Mahatma Gandhi twice, in Bombay and in Allahabad, and conveyed to him the support of the Lithuanian people for India’s Independence. “Gandhi had gifted him a tablecloth which he took with him even to Siberia, where he was sentenced in 1945 for refusing to comply with an order to destroy books published before the Soviet occupation,” she said. He was the head of the library department of the Lithuanian SSR commissariat then. Most of his archives were destroyed.

Poska’s doctoral research remains unfinished business, though. He did his PhD thesis in physical anthropology under professor Biraja Sankar Guha. It was sent to London for the measurements of skulls to be checked. Poska’s diary mentions that the paper was sent to the British Museum in 1936, and he was planning to go to London to defend his thesis but the delay in his return journey from India, financial difficulties and finally the outbreak of World War II came in the way.

When Chatterji visited Poska in Lithuania in 1966, he had volunteered to retrieve his dissertation from London and to accord the scientist a PhD from the university. However, though Poska’s diary mentions Chatterji’s letter informing him of granting him the degree, and Chatterji himself addressing him as “Dr. Antanas Poska” in the preface to Balts and Aryans, the university archive has no such record.

“Without the defence, his PhD could not have been completed. All we have is the title (‘Physical Affinities of Shina-speaking people of the Western Himalayas’). But we all agree that he deserves recognition,” said vice-chancellor Das.