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Delhiwale: Piecing Tolstoy in times of war

by thesquadron.in
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What does he make of his country’s war against Ukraine?

Leo Tolstoy is as silent as a statue. Arms crossed across his chest, the great writer’s gaze is directed towards the Janpath outlet of the McDonald’s food chain. This is a unique statue dedicated to a novelist in Delhi.

As a repercussion to Russia’s war against its smaller neighbour, Russian artists, musicians and sportspersons are increasingly being barred from the global stage. In Delhi, as is elsewhere, Tolstoy lies too far removed from the present. His art has transcended his ethnicity, so much so that while he is still every inch a writer of Russia, he simultaneously belongs to the world.

In these times of conflict, when one hopes for peace, it is a suitable time to read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Since the novel demands commitment that is difficult to sustain, the next best thing you may do is to pay audience to Janpath’s Tolstoy.

Nestled amid a leafy bunch of trees, Tolstoy is partly obstructed from the pavement by a banner of Central Cottage Industries Emporium. He is wearing a Russian peasant shirt known as tolstovka, named so because Tolstoy used to wear it often. The statue’s plinth is carved with the author’s name in Hindi and Russian, along with the year of installation — 1989.

To understand the logic of having Tolstoy’s statue in the city of Ghalib, one might as well look back to the recent past. Russian language was taught in Delhi even before Independence, while the phonological education in Russian started in 1965 with the setting up of the Centre for Russian Studies, which was given a space in the IIT Delhi campus. In addition to that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, Russia — rather, the USSR — profoundly shaped Delhi’s intellectual life.

An environmentalist who grew up in the Delhi of that time told this reporter about the literary evenings at the Russian Cultural Centre. Kurta-wearing ideologues lambasted American imperialism at seminars in Sapru House. Maxim Gorky’s novel ‘Mother’ attained cult status.

This afternoon, as Tolstoy’s homeland is engaged in war, one might read aloud under his statue the following passage from a battlefield scene in War and Peace — “Rostov looked at the snowflakes fluttering above the fire, and remembered a Russian winter at his warm bright home, his fluffy fur coat, his quickly gliding sledge, his healthy body, and all the affection and care of his family. ‘And why did I come here?’ he wondered.”

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