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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.

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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”.

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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.

If stories are to be believed, the luxurious Taj mahal hotel in bombay, completed in 1903 and open to everyone, was Jamsetji Tata’s response to being denied an entry into a city hotel that did not admit Indians. In the rally following the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, the banners that read ‘enough is enough’ seemed to echo a sentiment akin to the one that may have led to the conception of the Taj – one of the landmarks that the terrorists wanted to bring down.

The events of November 26 in post-analysis offer a multiple choice of emotions – remorse over the 188 lives lost, shock and anger at the perpetrators, and a sense of disappointment and rage at the Indian polity. These are not feelings unknown to Mumbai. The train blasts on July 11, 2006 killed 209, the car bombs near the Gateway of India and CST station on August 25, 2003, killed 50, and the 13 bomb blasts in March 1993 killed 257. The latest attack was more in-your-face unlike prior cowardly acts of stealthily placing bombs and remotely cause them to explode. The perpetrators stayed on after arriving undetected on a boat in the city and engaged the security forces on the streets and structures of Mumbai transforming the city overnight into a battleground. They demonstrated to the residents of Mumbai and beyond that their declining belief of security was in fact non-existent.

My personal pet peeve is the one involving the political class in India. I have yet to find anyone I know that confesses a sense of faith in one or more political parties, or denies a sense of resentment against the majority of those that clamber on one another for political office. With the recent terror attacks, as in the case of terrorists that now have a face, the political scum have emerged with tangible heads, like the mythological multi-headed demon, Ravana. As with Ravana, when one head is cut off, another emerges to take its place.

One often hears mention of the two Indias – the rich and the poor. There is, in fact a third India – the inefficient and indifferent political class – that is perhaps primarily responsible for creating this disparity. You can sense their apathy in their words, idiocies, and concerns at a time of crisis. It is this rare combination of being inefficient and indifferent that makes the typical Indian politician an unconventional species – one whose very nature is at odds with the responsibility given to it.

I believe that the among others, the aftermath of the attacks is a time for self-examination. After we have vented our rage and expressed our remorse, and before the memory of the events fade away, perhaps some of us will point the finger at ourselves and ask if we have failed our people. And maybe a few of us will do something about it. Just as the those that were discriminated against more than a century ago decided to do something about it.

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.

Outlook India profiles Dasrath Manjhi. Truly inspiring!

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