David Rubin

David Rubin

Literature Faculty 1964 — 1984

by William Park, literature faculty emeritus
Photo courtesy of the Sarah Lawrence College archives

David Rubin once said to me, “I learned Nepali this morning.” From anyone else, such a remark would seem absurd, but from David it was no more than an exaggeration, and possibly not even that. He possessed an uncanny linguistic gift.

We no doubt won World War II because the Army at that time had the ability to recognize unusual talent. In any case, they assigned the teenage David to Army Intelligence and sent him (clandestinely) to the Azores, where he worked as a cryptographer decoding Nazi U-Boat messages.

David came to Sarah Lawrence from Columbia University, where he had recently earned his doctorate in English and comparative literature. “Comparative” at that time meant European, and he had written his dissertation on music in Proust and other Continental novelists. But in his 20 years at Sarah Lawrence, he gave comparative a new and more comprehensive meaning, for he became one of the foremost authorities on India, its languages and civilization. Through courses and friendships he enthusiastically shared that knowledge with all.

This transformation began with David’s first Fulbright to India in 1960, a year in which he acquired both Hindi and Urdu, the two most common languages of the subcontinent. It also resulted in his novel, The Greater Darkness, a Novel of India (1963) which won the Duff Cooper prize in England as the best first novel of the year. That book was followed in 1965 with Cassio and the Life Divine, whose main character had been inspired by Jim Zito, his good friend and Sarah Lawrence colleague. To complete the “trilogy,” Enough of This Lovemaking: Two Short Novels appeared in 1970.

When he wasn’t teaching or traveling in India, he commenced another career as a translator. In 1969 he published Premchand: Selected Stories by the great Urdu writer; that was followed in 1976 by A Season on Earth: Selected Poems of Nerala. All this, by the way, while teaching full time. Then in 1980, after that morning in which he learned Nepali, he published Nepali Visions, Nepali Dreams, a selection of Nepali poetry. Unlike some other College legends, David always turned reports in on time, aided, no doubt, by his belief that there were only 12 basic possibilities for that genre of writing.

He loved to imitate Boris Karloff, whom someone once told him he resembled, but his favorite game was astrology. He insisted it was all bunk, yet he could guess, almost unerringly, the signs of all his colleagues. His wit was matched by his generosity, and I shall never forget the many times, when I was a very impoverished graduate student with three children, that he graciously lent me money to buy food for my family. His entire estate went to worthy charities.

When he retired from the College, he returned to Columbia, where he taught Hindi. He lived on Morningside Heights and 116th Street, in the same apartment building as Esther Raushenbush. Though he continued writing, and in 1986 published After the Raj: British Novels of India since 1947—a work that grew out of the courses he taught at the College—his most creative and prolific years were the ones he shared with us.

David Rubin, novelist and master of multiple Indian languages, died February 2, 2008, at age 83.