Children’s books were hard to come by in India during the 1960s, and I was always hungry for more. In those early years after Independence, the government was spending its resources on infrastructure like steel plants, and, where books were concerned, indigenous replacements for British colonial textbooks. Outside of school, aside from animal fables from the Panchatantra (the original source for many of Aesop’s fables, as my father always reminded me) and mythological tales from the epics and puranas published either in comic form by Anant Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha or inexpensive blue-and-white editions by K.M. Munshi’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, we had to rely on foreign books. Once every few months I was allowed to order a batch of Puffin paperbacks from the catalogue of a Calcutta-based bookshop which arrived in a delicious brown-paper parcel that I tore open and devoured greedily, and on birthdays and at Christmas Sally and I would each get a precious new hardcover Tin-Tin book to add to our collection. While English books were expensive and hard to get, books from the U.S. were nowhere to be seen. The only other books that were both readily available and affordable were Russian books published in and subsidized by the Soviet Union, translated into English and numerous Indian languages.
We had at least three of these Russian books. There was a collection of poems for children, including, I remember, one about a “tearful Ganya” (no it’s not a moo-cow’s moo/it’s tearful Ganya’s boo-hoo-hoo) and another about a little girl who refused to bathe, claiming that the dirt was “only sunburn, can’t you see?” We had a picture book of the Ukrainian folktale of the old man’s lost mitten—in Hindi, as I recall, and lavishly illustrated in the Russian folk art style. But by far our favorite, a handsome hardcover which we must have read and re-read dozens of times, was The Old Genie Hottabych, by Lazar Lagin. My Dad loved it too, and he used to read it aloud to us. Many of the repeated phrases in it (“your every word is my command”) became family sayings that are now part of my vocabulary. Our edition was in English, but quite recently I learned from my cousin Prasanna that he and his sister Vidya had read it in Marathi and similarly loved it as children.
Old Hottabych (and he is old—all of three thousand seven hundred and thirty-two) is a real-life genie, accidentally conjured up in Soviet-era Moscow by the twelve-year-old Volka Kostylkov when diving in the nearby river one morning before school. The genie he liberates is Hassan Abdurrakhman ibn Hottab, who had been imprisoned in the lamp by none other than “Sulayman, Son of David (on the twain be peace).” Who is this figure? As Hottabych himself brags, ask any genie, or ifrit, or shaitan, and he will tremble with fear at the very mention of his name. He has
a beard down to his waist and [is] dressed in an elegant turban, a white coat of fine wool richly embroidered in silver and gold, gleaming white silk puffed trousers and petal pink morocco slippers with upturned toes.
Hottabych is loyal and generous to a fault, but also extremely hot-tempered, and thousands of years of imprisonment have done nothing to improve his mood. When he is angered, he is liable to flare up and turn the hapless object of his wrath into a toad or worse, and Volka is always having to intercede and beg for mercy on behalf of Hottabych’s wretched victims.
The humor in the book derives from the culture clash between the old-world Hottabych, whose worldview is shaped by a feudal monarchy and the upstanding young Pioneer (akin to an Eagle Scout, perhaps) Volka, who believes in Science, state ownership of property, and a classless society. Hottabych is always wanting to shower his young savior with riches beyond the dreams of avarice, but the prospect of such wealth appals Volka, who only wants to turn it over to the state. Hottabych is always towering over waitresses and shop clerks in a rage, ordering them to get down on their knees and speak respectfully to him and his young master, but they only laugh at him pityingly and tell him that, as a fellow-citizen, he should be ashamed of himself.
Hottabych first comes into Volka’s life when he is late for a big exam in Geography, one of his weakest subjects, though—as in India in the 1960s—not as important a subject as Grammar or Mathematics. By means of his magic, Hottabych transports him to the examination hall and proceeds to ventriloquize the answers to the Geography questions through Volka’s mouth, to the boy’s horror and mortification. The questions are on the country about which he knows the most, India, but his answers describe it as it was understood in Hottabych’s time:
“India, 0 my most respected teacher, is located close to the edge of the Earth’s disc and is separated from this edge by desolate and unexplored deserts, as neither animals nor birds live to the east of it.”
When Volka’s teacher, Varvara Stepanovna, asks in disbelief what he means by “the earth’s disc” (Volka being an active member of the Moscow Planetarium’s astronomy club), the helpless boy replies:
“I presume you are making fun of your most devoted pupil! If the Earth were round, the water would run off it, and then everyone would die of thirst and all the plants would dry up. The Earth, 0 most noble and honoured of all teachers and pedagogues, has always had and does now have the shape of a flat disc, surrounded on all sides by a mighty river named ‘Ocean.’ The Earth rests on six elephants, and they, in turn, are standing on a tremendous turtle. That is how the world is made, 0 teacher!”
Fortunately for Volka, his teacher concludes that he is suffering from work-induced exhaustion and the school doctor orders a period of complete rest followed by an opportunity to retake the exam at a later date, but thereafter Hottabych is always ready to turn the unsuspecting teacher into a toad for disrespecting his young master, so Volka is perpetually terrified lest they run into her.
At one point in the novel, Volka even travels to India with Hottabych, in search of his best friend Zhenya, whom Hottabych has consigned to slavery in one of his rages. But instead of slavery, what Zhenya finds in India are friendly villagers who greet him with “Hindi Rusi bhai bhai” (Indians and Russians are brothers), treat him to an elephant ride, and regale him with song, including a rendition of Katyusha, a beloved Russian song from the Second World War. As children we too were familiar with the slogan, knew the Russian professors who were visiting faculty on our I.I.T. campus, and were aware that the U.S.S.R. was a friend of Independent India. At ten, I was also dimly aware of the different system of government in the Soviet Union, but saw no contradiction between the ideals of democracy and of socialism.
As children, we delighted in Hottabych’s unashamedly, nay, flagrantly retrograde political views. He was like an old grandfather who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him and seems to delight in shocking people. Although, as young democratic-socialist nationalists of independent India, we sympathized and identified with Volka, we also found The Thousand and One Nights, from which Lazar Lagin had also drawn his inspiration, endlessly fascinating, perhaps in part because of the sterility of a scientific outlook shorn of all “superstition” and fantasy. Like Volka, we were proud of our scientific knowledge and technological accomplishments, but we wanted more magic and fewer exams in our lives as well.
It is only recently that I have learned more about the publication history of The Old Genie Hottabych and the biography of its author, Lazar Ginsberg (pen-name Lazar Lagin), who was a Jew from Belarus. He had to lie low for a time inside the Arctic Circle to escape Stalin’s purges, and the book was revised more than once to serve the political exigencies of the time. I do not know which version we read as children: no doubt it was one that had been approved by the government for export. But it is that version I love, propaganda and all.
Today, I still speak to my loved ones in the flowery superlatives of the old genie. After attending a soccer match with Volka, for instance, Hottabych addressed his beloved young savior as “O goalie of my soul” and “O stadium of my soul.” I have found myself addressing my son similarly ever since his earliest youth, substituting the word appropriate to the occasion, and completely forgetting whence that inflated turn of speech came, until I sat down to write this story.