My name is Bartholomew, I am at least 12 years old and today, on 20 October 1854, I have founded India’s first museum. I call it the Museum of the World. Smitaben says it should be called the Museum of Wretchedness. But what does a cook from Gujarat really know about such things? I do not want to write anything bad about her (even if she cannot read), but time and again she surprises me with how little she understands – in more than one regard. After over ten years in Bombay, she can barely speak a word of Marathi or Hindi.
Without my help no one in the Glass House would know what she has cooked for us and Smitaben would not be able to tell the sabzi-wallah what vegetables she needs. When he arrives with his cart in front of our gate early in the morning, she has long been up and about cleaning one of the many windows that give St Helena its sobriquet. Smitaben is always the first to get up and I am not sure whether she sleeps at all. In the evenings when the lights are put out in the dormitories, we can hear her downstairs in the kitchen scrubbing the pots and chasing the cockroaches. She does not have a family; at any rate, not a real one. All the orphans call her Maasi. Her hair is white, not grey like that of other maasis, but white like the dough of the Portuguese pão that she sometimes bakes for us.
Smitaben knows a thing or two about taste. I prefer her salty-sweet handvo to almost all, no, to all of Bombay’s dishes. Unfortunately, her other senses are not as well-developed. She has spent so much of her life looking at ordinary things that she does not see what is remarkable. How silly of me not to have thought of that!
Smitaben’s reaction to India’s first museum matched her rustic nature. She gave me a smack on the back of my head, which did not hurt, and disappeared again into her territory, the kitchen. I went outside to show Devinder the museum. Devinder is our gardener. He comes from Punjab. Although he is not a Sikh, he allows his hair to grow. All over, he once whispered to me. He claims that to cut one’s hair, or indeed to shave, means to lack in any masculinity whatsoever. I claim that Devinder is too lazy and too poor to visit a barber.
The first is clearly indicated by the condition of the plants all around the Glass House: the palms bend as if they were bowing down to the sun, the grass has crept back into the earth and the mogra flowers wither away before they have fully blossomed. Still, Father Fuchs does not have the heart to dismiss Devinder. That is how I know that Devinder is poor. Because Father Fuchs is overly friendly to everyone he considers poor. He must be one of the friendliest people in Bombay.
But I wanted to talk about Devinder. Even without Father Fuchs, I would know that Devinder is poor. Everyone I know is poor. We possess nothing more than the clothes on our backs and our hope. Hope that one day we will not be rich perhaps, but at least less poor. For there is only one kind of rich but many forms of poor. The problem, however, is that hope can be a demonic possession.
Devinder is literally possessed by it. This should not be surprising since he lives with his grandmother and his parents, and his wife and her parents, and his children in a chawl in Blacktown. There they
share one room. They sleep, they eat and increase their numbers on the one and the same mat. Devinder’s family dies far more slowly than it grows. A chair hangs on a long, rusty nail in the wall of the room. The chair is only brought down for visitors. Respectable visitors like Father Fuchs. Some years ago, Devinder found the chair in a bay and rescued it from the salt water. The Parsis, Banias, Portuguese and, can afford to throw their properties into the sea. Their pieces of furniture outnumber their family members by far.
Devinder is probably not lazy at all, just tired. His strength is taken up in keeping his hope alive. He does this best behind the garden shed in the shade of the Ficus tree. Buddha attained wisdom under such a tree; Devinder, on the other hand, inhales hope. He does that, like most of us, by sleeping.
Especially in the afternoon hours, when the humid air of Bombay presses all the air from the body like Smitaben extracting the juice from a ripe imli. The objects in my museum had shifted while being transported to the garden. Before waking Devinder up I had to arrange them again.
Then I nudged him with my foot.
Devinder asked me not to disturb him.
I promised him that he had never seen anything like my museum. This tempted him. In contrast to Smitaben, Devinder still has a hunger for the remarkable. He rubbed his eyes. I carefully placed the museum down near him. Devinder blinked a few times, looked at it, then at me, then again at it and finally again at me.
I asked him what he saw.
An old wooden box, he said.
A display area, I said, and asked him what he saw in it.
Garbage, he said.
My collection, I said.
You collect garbage, he asked?
I did not want to give up so soon.
My collection is a holistic one, I said.
He looked at me blankly. I said: Holistic means concerning the whole. It is built on the idea that everything relates to everything else. Every object, however useless it may appear to be, is remarkable in its own way and can help us to understand the world.
Even a stone?
Especially a stone.
He smiled through his thick beard.
This puts me in the tradition of Humboldt, I said.
He wanted to know what a Humboldt is.
The greatest scientist of our times!
The greatest scientist of our times collects garbage?
Now that was a bit too much for me. I picked up my museum and left.
There was something else I had not considered. In order to recognise something remarkable, one needed not only hunger but a certain keenness of the eye.
Excerpted with permission from An excerpt from ‘The Museum of the World, Christopher Kloeble, translated from the German by Rekha Kamath Rajan, HarperCollins.