With the uninspiring stuff being churned out daily by Indian publishing houses, one feels strangely grateful to pick up a novel which, in the old-fashioned formulation of a good book, can be savoured, chewed, and digested. The Museum of the World lives up to its name: a museum in itself, taking us to various hidden corners of the colonial Indian, European, and human psyche, it can find a permanent place in the reader’s archives too, in the head and in bookshelves. It is that rare story which makes you so invested in the characters and situations that the real world starts looking pale in comparison.
The vivid colours might have something to do with the fact that the three brothers on whose travels the book is based were intrepid explorers. The three Schlagintweit brothers from Munich—Hermann, Adolph, and Robert—arrived in India in October 1854 on a mission to survey the magnetism and other geographical features of India, on the recommendation of the legendary scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. They were backed by the East India Company and the Prussian government to carry out the surveys, which would no doubt help the British better map the territory they had colonised. The brothers would stay until 1857, covering almost every corner of India and parts of Central Asia among themselves and minutely recording various aspects. The fact that they were expert mountaineers, with Adolf and Hermann having explored the Alps in 1853, helped them in their adventures in the remote Himalaya, the Karakoram, the Kunluns, Sinkiang, and the Tibetan Highlands. They were lionised on their return to Bavaria, with the Tsar of Russia giving them the title “Sakunlunski” (Conqueror of the Kunlun).
The material is rich—a colonial project being carried out under the garb of scientific study; three explorers who, while being goras, are not British, and so just a step lower in the colonial hierarchy; the undocumented vistas of India that lay before them; 1857, the year of Sepoy Mutiny, and so on. But it is to Christopher Kloeble’s credit that he has expertly teased out the potentials and further embellished them, creating a sumptuous novel.
The narrator of The Museum of the World is a precocious 12-year-old orphan from Bombay, Bartholomew, who can speak in many tongues, including German, which makes him valuable as a translator to the brothers. But he is much more: highly intelligent, with a well-developed sense of his own self, he is an astute psychoanalyst (who can be wrong at times) and a diligent chronicler.
The museum of the title is his: he accompanies the brothers on their journeys and records them as they record India. If documenting the “natives” was an assertion of power by the colonisers, then Bartholomew outwits them at their own game by gazing back, judging them severely, and putting down all his observations in his diary, which becomes an archive, the first “museum” of India, of Europeans like the brothers and the Englishmen they meet on their journeys, and of Indians of different religious affiliations from disparate parts of the country (Gujarati, Malayali, Bombay Parsi, north Indian Brahmin, Muslim from Madras, Sikh, etc.) who form part of the Schlagintweits’ train.
It is significant that the brothers made ethnographic casts of tribal people (some of which are kept in Mumbai’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum). The characters who feature in Bartholomew’s museum, however, are anything but “types”: like any casual observer, the boy begins by judging them according to given stereotypes, but they soon break out of the moulds as he gets to know them.
In knowing them, he gets to know himself, and the museum of India becomes a museum of the world, a documentation of human beings in their infinite variety and sameness. In this novel strewn with names of philosophers like Goethe, Schlegel, and Kant, Bartholomew could have written a philosophical treatise himself with a title like “Empathy as a guide to the morals”.
But Bartholomew, who seems more real than anybody I know, is not an actual person: Kloeble announces in his Author’s Note at the end: “In the notes and publications of the Schlagintweits, an orphan boy from Bombay is not mentioned.” He and probably the other remarkable characters in the Schlagintweits’ train, like Smitaben the cook, Devinder the handyman, Hormazd the accountant, Mani Singh the manager, Eleazar the translator, nationalist, and “spy”, have been created out of thin air to pad up the real-life adventures of the Bavarian brothers.
The “thin air” is likely to be some sentences in the Schlagintweits’ journals: for instance, they mention one Makshut who was “decidedly wanting in energy” and who “when dangers and difficulties arose… would try to induce us to return”. They also say that because of caste and other considerations, each member of their train insisted on cooking their own meals. It is this sense of a mobile museum, abuzz with the diverse languages and customs and personalities, that is wondrously conveyed in Kloeble’s book through a mixture of real and fictive characters.
Although this is a first-person narrative, each character is differentiated and animated in a Dickensian manner (Dickens was indeed writing at the time this novel is set and his books are full of adorable, loquacious orphans like Bartholomew), especially the three brothers. In Bartholomew’s expert opinion, Hermann “likes to appear scientific” while Adolph “likes to appear artistic”. Robert, the silent one, is the quintessential younger brother who wants to come out of his charismatic siblings’ shadows and yet finds himself defined by them.
Adolph is the most vividly sketched, the derring-do and insouciance of the original lending themselves to the creation of a rounded character, who immerses himself in India and loves Bartholomew. The boy, with his inherent scepticism, does not forgive him his faults—the gora can act entitled at times, he does travel in a palki or a horse, high above the natives, but gradually he starts seating Bartholomew with him, and later even places him on his shoulders “like Jesus carried the cross”. For his kindness, he earns the highest compliment from the boy, “I belonged to Adolph like an object to the museum”, and is honoured with the endearment “Adolphji”.
The real Adolph probably “went native”: he is the only one who achieves some fluency in Hindi. The novel is informed by ideas of language and identity through Bartholomew, who speaks and writes German (his “museum” is in German) as fluently as the brothers. So, what is he, an Indian or a German or both or neither?
Towards the end, imprisoned in solitary darkness with Eleazar in Kashgar, Bartholomew translates the museum in Hindi for his foe-turned-friend: “I do this last translation of my life for the first reader of the museum. All at once, everything I have observed, experienced and written down sounds so true in Hindi, truer than ever before. It was never false, but the first museum of India sounds the way it should only now.”
The translation of a work was perhaps never more justified: translated seamlessly from German to English by Rekha Kamath Rajan, it tells us Indians, as we read and appreciate it in the colonisers’ tongue, that English is also an Indian language now. Like Adolph, it has “gone native”.
As perceptions alter, meanings of words change, too, much to the bafflement of Bartholomew, who, with his pride in his linguistic skills, is taken aback at the slipperiness of words. He is stumped by the word “traitor”: Is Eleazar, who is fighting for India, the traitor in relation to the brothers because he is tracking their movements? Are the brothers themselves spies of the Company? Most important, “What does one call a traitor [Eleazar] who risks his life for you?” In his journal, he addresses Eleazar by the stereotype Baniya (suggesting a shrewd, selfish, money-minded person), throughout, only to eat humble pie at the end when Eleazar turns out to be very different.
In this great game, treachery and loyalty change places every moment. Bartholomew learns it the hard way that even in a given language, meanings cannot be fixed. If Kipling indirectly labelled Indians as bandar-log, Bartholomew thinks that the suspicious look of the monkeys at Jhakoo temple resembles that of English people when they stare at natives. He also oscillates between Kipling’s great pronunciation that the twain of the East and the West shall never meet and what his experience tells him—that they do meet and mingle. When words fail, he defines places in terms of absence: for instance, Calcutta is “not Bombay”.
As an aside, two major faux pas in the novel relate to Calcutta. One of Bartholomew’s gifts for Lord Ganesha (I doubt whether there were Ganesha temples in the chiefly Kali-worshipping Calcutta in the 19th century) is a “stuffed egg”, a piece of information enough to give pious believers a heart attack; and he hears the “cries of seagulls”, a bird not found in Calcutta.
Kloeble can get away with these by saying that the gaffes are Bartholomew’s and not his. That will not be entirely unbelievable because the boy makes frequent errors of judgment in his intellectual arrogance. Learning to forgive himself and others for their frailties is part of his education in this Bildungsroman.
All the other characters pick up something too as they set out to reduce a country to numbers. In the course of their quest, the meaning of nation expands to the point where boundaries collapse and figures become useless. This is the wisdom gained by Adolph Schlagintweit, “the scientist who understood that his people and ours belong to the same world”. One might raise eyebrows at this sweeping universalism, but it is still an affirmation worth holding on to.
- The novel is based on the real-life adventures of three Bavarian brothers—Hermann, Adolph, and Robert Schlagintweit—who arrived in India in October 1854 on a mission to survey the magnetism and other geographical features of India
- The narrator of The Museum of the World is a precocious 12-year-old orphan from Bombay, Bartholomew, who can speak in many tongues, including German, which makes him valuable as a translator to the brothers. Bartholomew is a fictional character
- The museum of the title is Bartholomew’s: he accompanies the brothers on their journeys and records them as they record India
- Adolph is the most vividly sketched, the derring-do and insouciance of the original lending themselves to the creation of a rounded character, who immerses himself in India and loves Bartholomew