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Journeys: The Great Book Transfer

By Franklin Abbott Email By Franklin Abbott
May 2023
Journeys: The Great Book Transfer

An unexpected trip, warm hospitality, memorable conversations, and touching friendships prompted the author to make a generous offer to his hosts. But then came the enormous task of safely transporting half a ton of his books from Atlanta to a college in India.JourneyBook_5_05_23.jpg

Now in my seventies, it is my experience that most of the significant events in life are unexpected. We are calculating creatures who rely on recipes and routine maintenance and yet no matter how much we follow the rules, how wise we seem to be about writing the future out of the past, the unexpected often overwhelms and amazes us. We are radically re-diverted. What we couldn’t imagine comes to pass.

If you had asked me six months before I went to India, would I be speaking at a small college north of Mumbai at an International Conference on the “Pursuit of Happiness,” you may have well been asking me in the local language, Marathi, a language I do not speak or understand.

[Right] Franklin Abbott’s books in their new home

I argued with myself for a month before I booked the ticket. When I landed in Mumbai it was a complete leap of faith that representatives of Joshi Bedekar College in Thane would be waiting for me at the airport. They were. Two faculty members and a driver and a big white van drove me from my early morning arrival to a guest house where I could rest before my hotel room was ready. I was on the other side of the world, sleep deprived and exhausted, and yet my morning was their afternoon and I was transported again to a welcoming session, seated at a table, given tea and biscuits, and surrounded by faculty and administrators, mostly women dressed in their best saris. It was as if Lakshmi and Saraswati had invited me to tea. I was awestruck.


The conference, for me, was an experience in humility. Sponsored jointly by the philosophy and psychology departments, eminent Indian scholars gave brilliant presentations that stretched my intelligence to embrace the concept of happiness from a dozen deep philosophical and spiritual perspectives. Doyens of Indian psychotherapy, who had been teachers, counselors, and mentors for decades, outlined happiness in its marrow and sinews.

JourneyBook_4_05_23.jpgAnd there were a couple of outliers like me—a German professor, who is an expert on real life utopias, and an Indian American philosopher. The latter, Dr. Aakash Singh Rathore, is a scholar of the Indian statesman B.R. Ambedkar and an Ironman triathlete. Then there was me, flying by the seat of my pants. All the scholars and experts were talking to the faculty who sat in the first three rows. Placed at the end of the program, I wanted to address the students. I made my talk basic but not simple. “Happiness and the Seven Senses,” I called it. I spoke about seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and the extrasensory aspects of communion with each other and with what we call “spirit.” At the end when I asked if there were questions, it was quiet. Realizing this was unusual, I tried a different approach. Casually, I asked if anyone was born on December 8th (my birthday) or August 15th (Indian Independence Day)? That broke the impasse, and we were off and running.

The best part for me was the night before. I told my hosts I could do a musical program or a poetry program, having no idea what that might involve. I was put at the end of the student talent show, an amalgam of awkward student folk music and highly vivacious dance troupes from different ethnicities. For my reading, to be in sync with the students’ experiences, I chose poems from my earlier work. This was perhaps one of my most enthusiastically appreciated poetry readings. I felt like a rock star! Afterwards there were so many requests for photos that the faculty member in charge of my well-being, Dr. Manisha Pandey, had to guide me back to the person who would escort me to dinner.

During the conference one of my most poignant moments was walking through the displays set up by students. One was a double set of long tables upon which all of the books in the library on philosophy were proudly on display. There were fewer than a hundred and each of them polished by many hands, corners rounded, covers faded, much loved.


That evening the college administration took us all for a fancy dinner at a fancy restaurant. I sat across from a woman who was, I soon realized, the college principal (president). She was new to her job, but I was delighted to learn that, like me, she was a trained psychotherapist. We bonded right away. I asked her if I could send a bunch of books from my library to the college library. As an avid collector, I said, nothing would please me more than having my books receive the same love as the books I saw laid out on the tables by the philosophy department. She graciously agreed.

After returning to Atlanta from my travels, I did some research on how to do what I had promised. The first company I talked to gave an estimate that seemed too low. I worried that there would be charges added on and I would never know the exact tariff. I asked Indian friends for recommendations and followed through. Sure enough, it would cost more but not enough to deter me. I bought boxes at Lowes and began to pack up room by room. My friend Everett, who had worked in shipping, helped me seal the boxes.

JourneyBook_2_05_23.jpgAnd then, just as I was ready to ship my books, Covid shut the world down. I had twelve big boxes distributed in every room of my house. I covered them with cloth and my cats decided these were their mountains. One... and then two years went by, but the boxes didn’t move. 

Once I was vaccinated and the threat of Covid receded, I made my move. Gandhi Shipping out of Chicago helped me with strategy. FedEx sent one truck but no hand truck, and the next day another truck showed up and a tall African American man took each box out on his shoulder and placed it on the hand truck before taking it to his van. I asked if I could take his picture. Yes. I asked his name. Cairo. Like the city? Yes. The van took the half-ton of books to Chicago and then a train took them to New York and then a freighter named Ivanhoe took them down the East Coast and across the Atlantic and through the Straits of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean Sea and through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea across the Arabian Sea to the port of Mumbai, where they sat for a month as fees were paid and magistrates hovered. 


Finally, they were trucked to the autonomous Joshi Bedekar College in Thane, where they are part of a special collection in the library. So, what did I send? Books from high school (Greek tragedies and comedies), books from college, books with titles like Complex Human Behavior, books with my own work (poetry and anthologies), books given and written by my friends (poetry, novels, memoirs), and back issues of Khabar magazine (a full year).

Having traveled halfway across the world, these books no longer belong to me. Hopefully, they will be polished by the hands of students and scholars. Hopefully, some future Tagore, Einstein, Narayan, or Roy will find a seed and that seed will grow an idea and that idea will become books, books that will make us better people.

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta-based psychotherapist and poet. His 2019 trip to India was his second. He is currently planning his third.

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