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Lunch with BS: Michel Danino, Indologist

The wonder that was Hindu

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Indian culture has suffered many ‘assaults,’ contends this French-born Indologist in a controversial new book

Michel DaninoMeekly they follow as I lead them to the promised lunch. At the base of the staircase rising foodward, however, we are turned away by the appointed guardian, who points at a sign saying “Closed for repairs on 19th, 20th, 21st”. Perhaps it is the municipal sealing under way in Khan Market, the meeting place for those who circulate around Delhi’s centre of gravity — well, whatever it is, Michel Danino, Nicole Elfi and I are set to wandering once more. A few doors down we find, not the opposite of Heaven perhaps, but certainly something like Purgatory: Chonas it is, says Rrishi Raote.

Chonas’ terrace has been glassed in and starkly tiled, so we retreat to the first floor, which is less alarming though gloomier. We are well ahead of the lunchtime rush. Danino and his partner Nicole are not superficially vivid personalities – both are slender, earnest and scholarly, with gentle faces and features – so our waiter turns down the eat-fast music to allow us to hear each

Danino is an independent scholar, historian, writer, teacher, lecturer and one-time forest conservationist. His partner Elfi researches Indian culture. She is looking into palmistry and works with children in the village near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu where they live. They are of French origin, though they are now Indian citizens.

Danino has written two recent books, which are the reason for this interview. In 2010 he published The Lost River (Penguin), in which he analysed all the evidence – literary, scientific and archaeological – for the historical existence of the River Saraswati, showed that the later Indus Valley civilisation was centred on this river, and argued that there was continuity rather than a break between the Harappans and the Gangetic civilisation of the Vedas. In this scheme the Aryans and their invasion have no role — and indeed, Danino demonstrates that there is no reliable evidence at all of the Aryans as an incoming entity, not even in the Rig Veda. This Aryan issue is the subject of a forthcoming book.

His most recent title is as potentially controversial. It is a book-length essay on Indian Culture and India’s Future (DK Printworld). Behind that apparently dull title is an invigorating polemic that builds from a compact survey of ancient India’s “Gifts to the World” (not least in science and technology), through a look at “The Colonised Indian Mind” of the present, to the various assaults “Hindu” civilisation has suffered over the centuries.

But first, we order. The two visitors plainly don’t often eat out. Danino is tempted by the prawns, but Elfi mutters across the table in French that he should think again; with some resistance Danino picks a fish tikka and vegetable crispy noodles — odd combination, but he likes noodles. Elfi and I both choose the herb-crumbed grilled fish. And we ask for two bottles of beer, which to Elfi seems ambitious.

With a cheers I turn on the tape and ask Danino about his just-completed round of 10 lectures at IIT Kanpur. “These are very bright minds,” he says. “They are very flexible, very open, and especially the students are very thirsty, they are hungry to know something about ancient India. In India we have this problem that history is so poorly taught at school that it puts off students, most of them irreversibly. But they actually would love to love history. And I come with new lines and a lot of visuals and suddenly something totally new opens in front of them.”

His talks were on the evolution of science from prehistoric times to just before the colonial advent. “I covered mathematics, astronomy, some technology, a bit of chemistry, then systems of thought — there were quite a few elaborate systems. I also discuss issues like, was there an Indian way of doing science if you compare to the Greek way, and then the question that everybody debates: why did Indian science not graduate into modern science?”

But why, Danino asks, does he have to do this at all? When he went to school in France, literature was French literature. “We would go through the whole gamut of French poets and novelists and thinkers.” Shakespeare was not mentioned until university. “In science, if there was a French scientist who contributed something, he would invariably be mentioned, even if it was a passing mention. There’s no such thing in India. If, let’s say, Aryabhata gives you methods to extract square and cube roots, that never comes in the picture at school.”

The result, he says, is that “there is a void, and naturally that void will be filled somehow, and it’s filled usually by second- and third-rate books and articles and on the Net lots of websites which instead of being rigorous go overboard, claiming that ancient Indians had discovered all of science. It becomes ridiculous, that ancient Indians had vimanas flying in the sky and nuclear weapons and what-not. I’m trying to correct that within my limited means.”

Students at these talks and at Amrita University, where he teaches history of science, tell him, “You make us feel proud of being Indian.” He is at ease with this. “It will be pride founded on knowledge. What I object to is pride founded on ignorance... After you study history in a proper way then you get a sense of belonging to this stream of civilisation which is India — it gives you a kind of strength.”

The food arrives. I ask whether they miss French food. Just cheese, they say, and the talk turns to home — their home since 2003, that is, four acres of land under a big hill, with no tarred road and no electricity, that the couple bought cheap. Now road and power have both come, and they have built a house with space for all his books, and the local land price has gone up 30 times. “Partly this is our presence," says Danino. “If foreigners settle somewhere it’s proof that it is potentially residential land and not wasteland!”

Their neighbours in the village some distance away get along well with them. “They know we are not Christian missionaries,” says Elfi darkly, and Danino explains how he disputes with the pushy young missionaries who often come by. In his latest book he describes the growing Christian missionary activity in south and tribal India as a great destabilising factor for the future. “This is going to create a lot of social tension,” he says now. “The whole discourse is flawed because everybody knows there is a hunting ground, there are predators, and basically the potential prey has to be quiet. If anyone makes a noise then everybody calls them anti-secular.”

I ask how his interest in “Hindu” civilisation started. From a book by Sri Aurobindo on the Rig Veda in which he, “as a side commentary, totally dispelled the Aryan invasion theory”, Danino says. “The historical interpretation of the Rig Veda in light of the Aryan invasion theory is untenable. This was interesting because in Tamil Nadu it’s so very much alive, everything is either Aryan or Dravidian, and if it’s Aryan it’s hateful.”

So Danino looked into it. “What did today’s scholar have to say about it? That’s how I started my enquiry, beginning with archaeology and talking to a lot of eminent archaeologists. Archaeology is a good way to start because it’s really down-to-earth, it’s about the things you find in the soil.” That in addition to his scientific education in France set him on his future intellectual road.

Dessert is tiny brownies with ice-cream and honey-glazed noodles, which Danino calls “innovative”. I have to turn off the tape because Chonas is now full and noisy, and our faces are red from screaming across the table at each We totter downstairs for paan. I have a safe “sada”, but Danino and Elfi are left staring with slightly appalled fascination at their gigantic “meetha paans". South Indians! I think, they don’t understand paan at all.

First Published: Tue, March 22 2011. 00:38 IST