Reviewed by John Leonard
In Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary (Chicago, $25), David Shulman -- born in Iowa, transplanted to Israel, a despairing peace activist, "heartsick philologist," and professor of Humanistic Studies in the Department of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, needing "to reinvent myself" -- leaves the Middle East for Andhra Pradesh in the spring of 2006 and would rather never return. So absorbed is he in the Hindu Other, so ravished by Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu poetry, so smitten by rickshaws and tamarind trees, lotus pads and herons, cashew groves and cosmic turtles, sun temples and lingam shrines, royal elephants and Karnatak music, black butterflies and pickled genitals, the dwarf-sage Agastya and "a god who needs to be thickened with flowers," that he disappears for pages at a time into sensuous latticework dream. Yes, he is mastering a language, Telugu, and recovering its thousand years of refined literature, and translating for us court poetry of an exquisite order, and hobnobbing with the local gentry, every one of whom has written either a novel or a book of epic poems, all the while on his scholarly sabbatical disdaining politics (whether of Karl Marx, Indira Gandhi, or the obstreperous Naxalites) and postmodernism (the chichi French). But his fateful relationship is not with idioms and syntagmas; it is with an erotic Other of taste, smell, color, song, and dance -- an intensity that's almost lurid. And Shulman isn't some hippy- dippy pilgrim on the shaggy-yoga road past Om through the Veil of Maya. He is a married man, and middle-aged, and full of obdurate facts. He has been to Berlin and Ispahan. He has read Mandelstam and listened to Haydn. He wears Western culture like a pair of pajamas. Yet his India is sensational, the Other as monsoon.
John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.
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