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In the concluding bio for “The Brave Queen,” his last piece for India Currents, Frank Rogers, with characteristic humility, identified himself simply as “a retired university professor” and “amateur student of India’s history.” This appellation is understated and yet apt, for Frank, who retired in 1986 from the professorships to which he devoted much of his working life, never stopped learning and never stopped teaching—finding in the pages of even this magazine a forum in which to engage student-readers of all ages, far beyond the walls of the university classroom. At 90 years of age, Frank continued writing, not only articles, but meticulously researched and rigorously executed novels, driven by a love of history, a penchant for storytelling, and other philosophical and critical aspirations. Frank passed away in December 2011, and I offer these notes in celebration of the life and legacy of a dear friend, writer, scholar, and educator.
Frank’s last novel, Dewdrop on the Lotus, was, in his own words, a “rebellion against the current ‘I am’ mode of American writing, not just the craze for memoirs, but also the craze for all narratives written in the first person singular.” The entire novel was written without a single use of the verb ‘to be.’” No “is,” no “am,” no “was,” “were,” or “are.” When Frank revealed this in his last email to me—for Frank maintained a lively and inspiring correspondence with friends, students, and fellow writers of all ages—I was deeply moved. Yes, it made sense that Frank would experiment with a mode of genuinely self-abnegating narration, for his writing and scholarship had always been motivated by a deep love of, and interest in, other people, countries, cultures, and minds. But what to make of Frank’s even more radical rhetorical move: the deliberate omission of the verb “to be”?
There is a tremendous body of philosophy that grapples with the nature of “being” and “not-being,” as well as of “being” and “becoming.” By omitting “to be,” did Frank intend a work that could question the very nature of being, suggesting, then, that all is (there’s that verb again!) maya, or illusion? Or was it rather an effort to capture the force of potential in the world, the dynamism of that which loomed in the horizon, just beyond the narrative, in the realm of imagination, aspiration, and dream?
Frank, who received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1958, and taught all over the world (including at that quintessentially distinguished institute of higher education, the Sorbonne in Paris), wrote often on the nature of what is, what was, and what might have been. He published over a dozen works of nonfiction and fiction, critical scholarship and edited volumes on language, Mark Twain, literary theory, and history. His articles for India Currents, written regularly over the past three years, are sensitive and beautiful meditations on the India he loved, the India he had “learned to admire,” the India that is, as well as the India that was, might have been, could have been, and yet will be.
In “Calcutta Magic” (IC, Feb. 2008), he related his first impressions of the city upon arriving at Howrah Station in 1943 as a member of a U.S. Army radio intelligence unit. Not only was Calcutta not yet Kolkata, but independent India had not yet been born. 65 years later, Frank shared his thoughts on what would be India with the readers of a magazine begun by Indians abroad. In Amy Tan’s words, Frank helped us to “see the universal resonance that lies within images: how they glimmer beneath the consciousness of the reader, accumulate depth of emotion, and become the memory of the story’s life.”
In 1943, 22-year-old Frank, expecting Rudyard Kipling’s “dreadful” Calcutta, saw instead the horse-drawn vehicles and colorful saris, “the most graceful garment,” he mused, “ever devised for the human form.” But Frank’s was no tourist’s fascination with the exotic. Reading his “Loose in the Land of Lugades” (IC July 2008), I learned for the first time the difference between a sari and the Marathi lugade. I learned much else as well, not only about Indian history, mythology, architecture, and culture (not to mention Bengali and Hindi, both of which Frank spoke with fluency), but about Mark Twain and Joán Miró, Paris and Tokyo, Switzerland and Burma.
Frank poured all of himself, his experiences, and his readings into each of his texts and evocative descriptions. He wrote with incredible detail of the formation of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in the earliest years of the common era (“for colors they used mostly local materials, lime white, red and yellow ochre, soot black, and a green made from local glauconite “), and with magical, technical insight into the Rajasthani folk paintings of Udaipur: “in the ‘rounding’ of an elephant’s leg, the artist will juxtapose along the leg two parallel bands of dark and light color with no transitional blending between the two, an unusual but very effective ‘hard-edge’ technique” (“Blithe Spirit,” IC Feb. 2011)
In 1944, Frank experienced Calcutta during Durga Puja. The festive city he saw then was “a beautiful, though temporary, world, the end of which on Navami left me with a sense of longing never again fully satisfied perhaps because of its very transitory nature.” As a reader and editor of Frank’s articles for India Currents, I was often struck by Frank’s response to the transitory, temporary, and fleeting. He did not grieve what was past. Faced with 21st century India, he did not lament the changes wrought in his India of the 20th. “I can sum it all up,” he offered matter-of-factly, “by saying Calcutta had entered the modern age.”
In “Calcutta Daze” (IC March 2008), Frank recounted his return to the city in 1992 with his beloved wife and partner, Mary Ann. The rickshaw driver with a death-wish had been replaced with a sedate taxi driver, but Frank found in the garden of a small Jain temple “even the bench, my bench” where he had found shelter from the war amidst trees and flower blossoms. Frank loved each memory he shared with us, verily caressing it with his words, opening it up fully and generously to his readers, and then, too, letting it go, like the little floats bearing lamps which lit up the Hooghly on the last night of Durga puja.
“Even the bench, my bench…” So much is said with a little possessive “my.” Subtly and deftly, Frank gave us India, his India, and our India. Above and beyond the romance of recollection, Frank was also, plain and simple, an extraordinary writer, in command of all senses—his and the reader’s. “Off we went toward Pune,” he writes, “as top-heavy as a Tata truck.” With one sentence, Frank created rhythm, poetry, vision, and a smile. Each word was chosen because there could be no substitute. He captured beautifully the pathos of leaving a city, perhaps for the final time: “When we left Pune, we did so while acutely conscious of how much we had missed, how much more we should have seen” (“Pukka Pune,” IC Oct. 2009).
Frank, you helped us to see so much more than what we would have seen, of India and of the world. Thank you for the gift of your irreplaceable eyes, ears, and pen. Thank you for challenging us to look outside of and beyond ourselves to the magical world in which we reside, for a time. You will be missed deeply. “I shall never forget.”