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Perhaps you have experienced the feeling of having missed out on literature that happened before you were born. Taken to its logical extreme, you are likely to browse through your library for the oldest written work, and end up with a book written around the 8th century BC. That is how I got started on this epic by Homer (not the Simpson). As is the case with books that you read after watching the movies based on them, when you read about Achilles you think Brad Pitt, or for that matter, Orlando Bloom when you read about Paris, or the beautiful actress that plays Helen in the movie Troy, when you read about, well, Helen.

The book is about war – and the war is over a woman, Helen. Now imagine your are a soldier in the midst of a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It doesn’t matter what side you are on – your survival depends on whether you have been beget by a God (often, Zeus), or have the special protection (aegis, if you will) of one of those in the pantheon of Greek gods, who will run to your rescue and cover you in a storm of dust or steal you away from the midst of battle at your weakest, most susceptible moment. If you cannot boast of either of the above, then you are likely to be sent to Hades, which is ancient Greek euphemism for – you are f***ed!. You could try bribing a god or two with a hecatomb, and if they are pleased, they will let you breathe a while longer.

I am just about half-way through the book. The battle is still raging on – the Trojans seem like they have an upper-hand, while Achilles and his Myrmidons are twiddling their thumbs and watching the battle but refuse to help the Greeks because the Greek/Argive king Agamemnon took for himself the woman (Briseis) originally won Achilles at the end of the previous pillaging operation. Evidently, the easiest way to piss off a greek warrior is to take away his woman. The gods seem to watch the battle with interest from the comfort of Mt. Olympus; the battle is like reality TV for them, except there is no TV, and ever so often they feel the need to run up to the stage and interfere.

The Iliad reminds us of an earlier, simpler time when having your wife run away with another could be reason enough to wage a long bloody war; when the worth of a warrior was based not on the number of FB friends they possessed, rather on the number of horses and cattle and the soldiers and slaves they commanded. But that shouldn’t stop you from pausing in the middle of battle to remind your assailer that his grandpa and your grandpa were best friends, and ask him if he is willing to make franship with you (in classic Greek, so it sounds mythically sincere). If he is cool with that, he will smile and give you a hug; if he is not, he will send you to Hades, and then smile. You really don’t want to go to Hades.

My goal is to finish the book before the next greek myth movie, Immortals is released. If it interests you, the film has Freida Pinto playing a beautiful Greek woman of unknown heritage dispensing cliche-like wisdom. Imagine that.

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Baabul mora naihar chooto jaaye is a popular thumri that expresses the sadness of a bride leaving her father’s home. Renditions of this thumri include those by Bhimsen Joshi (a personal fav), K. L. Saigal, Girija Devi, and Jagjit Singh among others. Hidden in these lines is a lesser known story – an allegorical reference to the agony of a deposed king separated from his home, his people, and exiled in a faraway land.

बाबुल मोरा, नैहर छूटो ही जाए
चार कहार मिल, मोरी डोलिया उठायें
मोरा अपना बेगाना छूटो जाए
आँगना तो पर्बत भयो और देहरी भयी बिदेश
जे बाबुल घर आपनो , मैं चली पिया के देस

babul mora naihar chuuto hi jaaye
chaar kahaar mil, mori Doliiyaa uthaaye
more apanaa begana chhuTo hi jaaye
anganaa to parbat bhaye, dehlii bhayi bides
je baabul ghar aapano, mai chali piya ke des

that translates to

O father, I depart forcibly from my home
Four men gathered to lift my palanquin
my loved ones will become strangers
the innermost portals of my home will be unreachable
as I leave my father’s home and go to my husband’s country.

On 7th Feb, 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, poet of the above thumri was finally deposed of his title as the Nawab of Avadh by the British and sent into exile to Matiaburj, in the neighborhood of Calcutta. Wajid Ali Shah has been described, at the one extreme as a voluptuary that “lived exclusively in the society of fiddlers, eunuchs and women, and at the other extreme as an avid patron of the arts responsible for a revival of the kathak and thumri, enhancing Lucknow’s reputation as the cultural center of that age.

While it is difficult to decipher the real Wajid Ali Shah from all that has been written about him, his own words such as the thumri above offer a window into some of his thoughts. One can well imagine a king in exile, saddened by separation from his home, his people, and a past that remains a fleeting memory, and perhaps consoling himself that, like the new bride moving to her husband’s home, he will recreate aspects of his home in this place of exile.

The reference to the ‘four bearers of the palanquin’ (chaar kahaar mil, mori Doliiyaa uthaaye ) has also been interpreted as the four bearers of the coffin. The Nawab may have thought of the move to depose him as portending the end of his life , and interpreted thus, the thumri takes on a heightened sense of melancholy.

Almost a year ago, while on the topic of Indian food, a colleague visiting from the UK mentions that the balti is very popular in Birmingham. “You know, the curry is served in a balti“. I did not know that. Perhaps my countenance gave it away, for her next question put me in the spot. “Don’t you know what a balti is?”

One must, as a general rule of thumb, never question a brown guy on food. For one, there are far too many recipes than there are pages in the dictionary. And there are multiple ways of preparing a dish, thanks to a healthy disregard for following instructions in the recipe, and passing them around by word of mouth. But there is a far more compelling reason than this, and one that specifically applies to men.

The stereotypical Indian man exists beyond the confines of the kitchen. Any interest in knowing the name of the food served, if you are not Sanjeev Kapoor, is a feigned attempt at a compliment. For a long time we enjoyed this prerogative, and there are those that still admit to doing so. Somewhere along the way, the world became obsessed with equality, and like erstwhile princes deprived of their princeliness estates and forced into the workforce, the Indian male was deprived of his manliness privileges, and forced to perform acts that he is clearly not trained to handle – such as casting mustard seeds into a cauldron of burning hot oil – one that, for the information of my male compatriots, is best done from a distance of at least 2 feet, never mind the splutter. Therefore when Mr. India is confronted with a question that tests his knowledge of food, he may be sincere in his ignorance of that specific item he is asked about and not food in general, but fears that in pleading ignorance he may inadvertently play himself into the stereotype.

It was not simply the above concern that kept me at a momentary loss of a response to the question posed by my querulous colleague. I admit I had never heard of a balti with reference to food. But I have heard of balti– or baldi – brightly colored buckets used to store or carry water; typical of our bathrooms transforming them into daylight discos and making the western restrooms appear duller in comparison. Yet to use the balti for anything other than acts of ablution was not a savory thought. A part of me craved to grasp this moment to set the record straight; to defend my ignorance with another related bit of knowledge of the I-dont-know-X-but-I-know-Y type. Then again, my thoughts went out to my immigrant brethren who, for reasons unknown to me, decided to use the balti to serve food, unaware that it would find new fame in an alien land. And while I don’t quite believe that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will cause a tornado in Texas, I would wager on my badmouthing of the balti resulting in a sizable Indian immigrant population in the UK losing their means of livelihood . So I decided to take one for the team and responded with a mere shrug – my subtle non-verbal equivalent of I-neither-confirm-nor-deny-that-accusation. By that time my interrogator’s interest in a response had long since waned, and the matter stayed at that.

———–

About a week back, while looking up food stubs on Wikipedia, I happened on the balti, and the memory of this exchange from long ago came back. The wiki-entry refers to the balti as a ‘British-type of curry cooked and served in a wok made of cast iron”. The origin of the word for the dish is somewhat ambiguous. One claim is that it comes from the Baltistan province in Kashmir and refers to the food from that region. The other reference is the one I had alluded to – the ‘balti’ of the bucket kind. But here’s the interesting bit. The word ‘balti’ or ‘baldi’ for bucket comes, not from Hindi, or Urdu, or Sanskrit, as one might guess, but from the Portuguese balde. And balde in Spanish also means a bucket.

So let’s set the record straight: there is a British-Indian dish (think of it as Indian-Chinese) alien perhaps to all Indians outside the UK, that supposedly derives its name from a Portuguese/Spanish word for a bucket. By some weird coincidence, the balti – both the bucket and the food – has more to do with Europe than with India.

Robert Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire, Vijaynagar, has this rather gruesome bit of history referred to as the best known of Muhammad bin Tughluq‘s inhumane eccentricities. MBT was the Sultan of Delhi from 1325-1351 and has been described as a a scholar versed in logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and physical sciences, with knowledge of medicine and skilled in dialectics. The said incident concerns the Sultan’s decision to move the capital from Delhi to Devagiri (later renamed Daulatabad) located about 600 miles away. Sewell quotes Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and traveler, who was in Delhi at that time.

“The Sultan ordered all inhabitants to quit the place (Delhi), and upon some delay being evinced he made a proclamation stating that what person soever, being an inhabitant of the city, should be found in any of its houses or streets should receive condign punishment. Upon this they all went out; but his servants finding a blind man in one of the houses and a bedridden one in the other, the Emperor commanded the bedridden man to be projected from a balista, and the blind one to be dragged by his feet to Daulatabad, which is at a distance of ten days, and he was so dragged; but his limbs dropping off by the way, only one of his legs was brought to the place intended, and was thrown into it; for the order had been that they should go to this place. When I entered Delhi, it was almost a desert.”

Battuta relates that during the interval of desolation, the king mounted on the roof of his palace, and seeing the city empty and without fire or smoke said, “Now my heart is satisfied and my feelings are appeased”.

.

I am not half-way through the book; the numerous references to blindings, flayings, bodies being chopped into pieces, and villages massacred in their entirety makes one really appreciate the times in which we live.

In the Fall of 1989 while on a trip to the US, the yet-to-be-president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, visited a supermarket in Houston. He was amazed, or so we are told, by the impressive variety of goods available to the American consumer, an observation that stood in stark contrast to the limited choices and long waits in his home country. Yeltsin’s experience in the supermarket has been described as a watershed moment in his political thinking, and may have influenced Russia’s move towards free market policies when he became President of the Russian federation in 1991. It was in 1991 as well that India moved towards a free market economy, primarily in response to running out of foreign currency reserves and currency overvaluation and perhaps in some measure supported by the forementioned move by Russia, some of whose economic principles India had mimicked until that point. Such was the butterfly effect, if one can use that term, of Yeltsin’s visit to a supermarket in Houston.

My visits to the supermarket have, in comparison, been of little consequence to the world at large, except mine. Ironically, it has to do with choice – a word that has come to be synonymous with freedom as gurgling with babies. And I am not talking of days-in-a-week number of choices – those can be handled without a headache. However, there is something unsettling about being confronted by an aisle stacked with more varieties of cornflakes breakfast cereals than there are letters in the English alphabet. For even in that hurriedly disappearing habit of the weekday that we call a breakfast, it is important to emphatically exercise the right to choose.

Like the guard of honor accorded to visiting dignitaries, the cereal boxes stand in quiet unwavering discipline as I walk by for the cursory first inspection. As the visual information is absorbed and processed – contents, nutrition charts, colors, images, claims – a running tape in my head plays out incoherencies that, if one could slow them down as in time lapse photography, would translate to something like this: “….almost choked on that lethally tasteless calorie-saver; not the one high fructose corn syrup – might as well smoke my lungs out; the boxes in pink or those with smiling kids are not targeted at you; raisins love to cling to molars- don’t want to be reminded of them in subsequent meals; that one doesn’t soak up the milk well; that discounted price is much higher than the non-discounted prices for the boxes stacked about half a mile away and closer to the floor; what are those colored things – m&ms in breakfast cereals? really? thats like exploiting child psychology …..”

From what I have seen in those long moments by the aisle, breakfast cereal buyers range from those that march with singular determination towards the desired box, grab, and go, to those whose cognitive indecisions outlive mine. The former I admire for their monastic disregard of distractions, the latter make me feel like a reality show contestant that has just been told that he has moved on to the next round while the others wait morbidly with the hope that theirs will be one of the remaining names announced. If you thought that your grocery-shopping routine is a boring activity, you probably fall in the first category of those that are in-and-out so quickly they might catch themselves coming in when they exit.

On one occasion, my cogitations was interrupted by a sense of being watched. There was a lady besides me observing me intermittently. But before I made any further attempts at interpretation, I realized that she was observing my shopping cart as well. Her attempts at subterfuge demonstrated an evident lack of practice for I spotted her making quick notes in a notepad. Aha! I had almost come to believe that shopping behavior surveyors was another myth perpetrated on a consumer that couldn’t care less. I contemplated on what she may have been noting in her pad. Perhaps something on the lines of:

‘Name: (lets call him) Y
Age-Grp xx-xx,
Ethnicity: xxx,
Shopping Cart: xx1,xx2, xx3 (subject will suffer *evil laughter*), xx4 (hmm..now why would the subject need that?).
Observations: spotted subject in cereals aisle looking at cereal boxes; subject reading contents; subject momentarily distracted by another shopper; subject trying to assess which one is the heavier of brand x and brand y ; subject shaking the contents of a brand x2; subject cleaning glasses; subject knocks off a few boxes; subject is checking the contents of brand x3 again for the nth time; subject goes to brand x1, places his left hand on the box, and with his right hand tosses a coin; subject repeats this with brand x2, repeats with brand x3.. repeats with brand x229.. repeats with brand x512…subject has disappeared.

Conclusion: subject is (such a loony time-waster and needs to get a life!) not a good representative sample of the population.’

********

The news bits about the visit of the late Russian president to the Houston supermarket do not mention if he made a purchase. If indeed he had ventured to do so, certain histories may have panned out without their watershed moments.

The word tawaif is often too easily associated with a prostitute. Hindi movies of the 60s-80s may have partly been responsible for this degradation of usage, through their representation of jilted lovers and men alike seeking solace in the kothas, legendary houses of ill-repute, to be entertained by the erotic mujras of tawaifs. That these courtesans of the Mughal age and after were the living repositories of the art and literature of that time and trained in etiquette, is largely unmentioned. That the entertainment they provided in these mehfils may have been the equivalents of modern-day classical music concerts or a poetry recital is as easily overlooked.

In his excellent albeit unreferenced essay, The Tawaif, the anti-Nautch movement, and the development of North Indian Classical Music”, David Courtney summarizes the chapter on tawaifs with the following words:

The tawaifs were often poets and authors, in a period when the majority of women were illiterate. When everything was considered, the tawaifs had, education, independence, money, power, and self-determination, in a period when many women were little more than cattle.

The essay then explains the situations that led to the eventual stigma associated with this profession leading to their disappearance. These causes are entwined with the history of the country – the failure of the 1857 revolution (the kothas were centers of political debate, some of which led to the uprising), the puritanical wave in Britain around that time that came to India through the teachings of missionaries, and the emergence of an Indian bourgeoise educated in western ideals of society and their social reform movements that came to associate tawaifs with prostitution – a social evil to be done away with. As the tawaifs began to disappear, the art forms that they had sustained and excelled in – kathak, ghazal, thumri, were passed on to a growing literate middle-class in search of a national self-identity, a unifying cultural history that would be a motivator for the freedom movement. It is truly a sad irony that the very champion of women’s rights in India, overlooked the tawaifs’ significance when he rebuked their offer to partake in the freedom movement. This is mentioned in a review of Saba Dewan’s 2009 documentary, The Other Song, that highlights the largely unknown history of the tawaifs.

During the first non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s, a group of tawaifs responded to his call for Hindu-Muslim unity and support for the Independence movement. They resolved to sing only patriotic songs on all occasions. An outraged Gandhi lashed out at their “obscene manifesto”. He wouldn’t accept them as Congress workers or accept their donation unless they gave up their “unworthy profession that made them worse than thieves”.

My own notion of a tawaif was no different from what I wrote in the first line of this post. Delving into the history of this profession has changed this view. Stereotypes, it appears, are best dispelled by making an effort to understand those that we stereotype.

For those old enough to remember this series on Doordarshan, I khojed up videos of Bharat Ek Khoj on YouTube. For the uninitiated, Bharat Ek Khoj (translated “Discovery of India”) is a television series from 1988 based on Nehru’s book Discovery of India.

My memories of the series are inchoate except for the tune in its title track. Two episodes watched so far and I can say with confidence that I would not have comprehended the philosophical inquiry or appreciated the culture dose of classical music and archaeology footage back in 1988. If there was a cartoon network in 1988, the 1988-me would have most likely changed the channel. Certain things take time to appreciate, and Bharat Ek Khoj is one such.

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