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The amazing adventures of a Lithuanian scholar in the Indian subcontinent

The re-connection with Poska, in many ways, underlines the deep-rooted connectivity between the Indian sub-continent and Eurasia along with the eastern and central parts of Europe, much of which remains forgotten or ignored.

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Poška at the Taj Mahal in 1931–32 (Photo: Wikipedia)

A report prepared by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in 2014 mentions that the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) defines adventure tourism as a trip that includes at least two of the following three elements: physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion. Accepting that definition, many of the scholars venturing into and touring within the Indian subcontinent between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could be categorised as ‘adventurist scholars.’ 

One activity that was particularly got encouraged as a part of this celebration of physical culture was long-distance cycling or hiking. The journey by the British cyclist Thomas Stevens (1854–1935) around the globe in 1884–1886 on an early kind of bicycle called a penny-farthing made him an overnight celebrity, and his route had taken him through India. 

There were reports of others attempting something similar, with Europe–Asia as one of the most popular routes. By the 1920s, this had become a well-established trend, not always confined to professional sportsmen but also among scholar adventurers, one of the most notable among them being the Lithuanian linguist and anthropologist Antanas Paškevičius – Poska (1903–1992).

Poska’s Indian connection

Poska’s interests ranged from linguistics and anthropology to Oriental philosophy along with languages. He was originally a student of medicine at Kaunas University but had become attracted to Oriental philosophy and Eurasian linguistic connectivity during the late 1920s. Always a bit of an adventurist, Poska along with one of his friends set on a tour of Lithuania and the Baltic region on a motorbike which they completed in 1925 and 1928, respectively. He had also become an enthusiastic participant in the Esperanto Movement, based on popularising Esperanto, an artificial language developed by the Polish L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 as a global language of communication. Poska continued his lifelong commitment to popularize and spread Esperanto.

The spirit of adventurism combined with his passion for the Orient made Poska make his most challenging journey to the Indian subcontinent via West Asia along with his journalist friend Matas Šalčius. Setting off from home in 1929, most of the journey via Egypt and Iran was completed, as usual on a motorbike. From Iran, Poska boarded a ship for Bombay. He would stay back in India for almost eight years. Poška joined the University of Bombay in 1933. Then he joined Calcutta University researching for his doctoral research. Along with his study, he worked at the Anthropological Laboratory of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Poska also became a familiar figure within the Indian intellectual milieu during the early 1930s. 

During 1933-36, Poska was selected as a member of an expedition team to Southeast Asia and the North-western Himalayan region. He also accompanied the famous explorer Aurel Stein to the Himalayas, Burma, and the Takla Makan desert in Central Asia. During his stay in India, Poška also took up the task of translating the Bhagavad Gita into the Lithuanian language. During this time he had also completed his PhD thesis (titled ‘Physical Affinities of Shina-speaking people of the Western Himalayas’) in Physical Anthropology under Professor Biraja Sankar Guha, but had left India before his final submission.  During his stay, he met Mahatma Gandhi and also visited Santiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore. 

Deep attachment to India

In spite of Tagore’s initial reluctance, Poska managed to persuade him to let him translate some of his poems and writings into Lithuanian. During his stay in India, Poska probably contributed nearly thirty articles in several scholarly journals during his stay in India between 1930 and 1935. His book Fairytale of my Life recollects his deep respect and attachment to India.

Poska was, however, not destined to receive the doctoral degree in person. Soon after his return to Lithuania, the Second World War had broken out and Lithuania was first occupied by the Soviet Union as an ally of Nazi Germany in 1940. With the beginning of Operation of Barbarossa by Germany in 1941, Lithuania came under German control and remained so till 1944. Poska, employed as a librarian, during this time played a major role in protecting the Lithuanian Jews and in preserving the Jewish literature and thousands of documents ordered to be destroyed. In recognition of his humanitarian service, Poska would be awarded the Life Saving Cross of the President of the Republic of Lithuania in 1998 and the Medal of the Righteous of the World by the Government of Israel in 1999, posthumously.

The defeat of Nazi Germany once again led to Soviet domination over Lithuania and Poska was arrested and deported from Lithuania for nearly fourteen years. His scholarship was put to use in several academic institutions and Soviet-led anthropological expeditions in Siberia and in Central Asia, without any independence. Poska would be allowed to return home only in 1959. 

Though he was allowed to work as a journalist, the Communist government still did not allow him to work as an academic and publish any of his major works. The ban would be lifted only after the onset of perestroika and the political reforms in the Soviet bloc during the mid-1980s. Poska, however, did not manage to publish much before his death in 1992.

Indo-Lithuanian connectivity

Poska’s doctoral thesis once again provided a link for renewal of the Indo-Lithuanian connectivity. A copy of the thesis had been submitted to the British Museum, London but it was impossible for Poska to visit Western Europe given the restrictions on his movement.  His correspondence with his supervisor and his friend and fellow linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee shows that both of them had urged Poska to send a copy to Calcutta University, where it could be processed for the final awarding of the degree. Somehow, it could not be carried through during his lifetime. 

In 2014, a new opportunity came as the University of Calcutta decided to honour Poska by awarding an honorary doctorate to him posthumously as a justice he deserved for his extraordinary academic record and footprint in the relations between Lithuania and India. 

Mention must be made here of the then Minister Counsellor in the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in India, Diana Mickevičienė (currently the Lithuanian ambassador-designate to China), who had taken a leading part in the efforts to initiate the process.  Underlining the symbolic importance of the event, the then Vice Chancellor Prof. Suranjan Das (currently the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University), himself being a noted scholar of history, said in a statement, as reported by the Times of India on 9 November 2014, “Poska’s feat is unparalleled when it comes to popularising India in Europe. Poska also studied at the University of Calcutta. Developing a close relationship with Lithuania is a priority for the new Indian government and conferring the doctorate will help seal the friendship.”

In a poignant ceremony held as a part of the University’s annual convocation, attended by then Indian president Pranab Mukherjee and then West Bengal governor  Keshari Nath Tripathi along with the Lithuanian ambassador Laimonas Talat Kelpsa, the award was received by Poska’s surviving daughter Laimute Kiseliene, herself a choreographer and Professor of Arts at the Vilnius Pedagogical University. Poska’s daughter would later recall how it was an emotional moment for her to receive the degree on her father’s behalf and visit the university including the hostel room where his father had stayed during the 1930s, much before she was born.

The re-connection with Poska, in many ways, underlines the deep-rooted connectivity between the Indian sub-continent and Eurasia along with the eastern and central parts of Europe, much of which remains forgotten or ignored. British colonialism made us more Anglicised and even today, with rare exceptions, our understanding of Europe focuses mainly on Western Europe. Poska’s writings along with his collaborative research with many of his Indian friends and colleagues, many of which remain forgotten or under-studied, could open up new doors, change our understanding of Indo-European connectivity and make it broader in scope.

(The author is a professor of history at Calcutta University. Views are personal, He can be reached at chakrabartishantanu@hotmail.com)

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