Writers, October: Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam’s short story, Wild Flower, from The Little Mag:


 Angoori was the name of the very new wife of the very old servant of the neighbours of my neighbours. One reason for her being new was that she was his second wife. In Punjabi, they call a man who marries a second time duhaju. Etymologically, a man who has entered a second life — a second life in marriage. The fact that Angoori was in her first life in the marriage made her new. It was not even a year since she had been given away as a bride, so she was still new.

(Amrita Pritam; died, October 31, 2005)

The BS column: English Vinglish

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2012)

The annual birthday party for English is held on October 25, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s birth anniversary, and celebrating it might become a new Dalit tradition.

Over a century ago, Savitrabai Phule, the first woman to teach in the first women’s school in India, wrote a classic ode to Mother English.

Brahman’s rule is now in ashes
Under the English whips and lashes.
It is all for the good of the poor,
Manu’s dead at English Mother’s door.

In another, equally well-remembered poem, Phule urges “Shudras and ati-Shudras” to “learn and break the chains of caste/ Throw away the Brahmin’s scriptures fast”.

It is only fitting that Zareer Masani’s biography of Macaulay, to be published by Random House, opens with a description of a birthday party to English, held at the home of the writer Chandra Bhan Prasad. A poet sings, “O Devi Ma let us learn English/ Even the dogs know English!” And Prasad endorses Phule’s prescription, adding, “Hereafter, the first sounds all newborn Dalit babies will hear from their parents is—abcd.”

Macaulay’s Minute is famous and infamous in India, where the spread of English cannot be denied, but where the influence and importance of the language is often resented. Many in India still bristle at Macaulay’s ignorant dismissal of Indian literature (“a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”), and his intent: “The languages of Western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.”

Until Masani’s biography, though, Macaulay had been reduced to a museum portrait–like so many other figures in contemporary Indian history—British and Indian, in the absence of a tradition of biographical writing. In Masani’s well-researched and engaging telling, Macaulay emerges from the dust of the past. He had little physical charm—Thomas Carlyle called him “a short squat thickset man of vulgar but resolute energetic appearance”—but he had a lively, ferocious mind, and a debater’s zest for argument.

By 1832, he was Secretary to the Board of Control, with an office overlooking the Thames: “I am already deep in Zemindars, Ryots, Polygars, Courts of Phoujdary and Courts of Nizamut Adawlut. …Am I not in fair training to be as great a bore as if I had myself been in India?”

Macaulay’s interest in India was broad, but not necessarily deep; he advocated “an enlightened and paternal despotism” for the new Raj. He met Rammohan Roy before he and his sister Hannah came out to India on The Asia. On board ship he read his Greek, Latin and Spanish, neglecting his Hindi and Urdu grammars, and his Hindi was of the ‘coop tunda’ (“khoob thunda”-very cold) variety.

He wrote lyrical passages about the colour and sounds of India, even though he complained that the fish and the fruit were inferior to England’s cherries and cod. Macaulay’s standards were set by England, and when he met the Mysore Raja, he lamented what the king might have been: “If he had been put under tuition, if he had been made an accomplished English gentleman…” His Calcutta was a racially segregated city, with the natives in Black Town, the Angrezis in power.

Masani doesn’t attempt to excuse Macaulay’s prejudices—he was very much a man of his times—but the biographer also draws attention to his brand of enlightened liberal imperialism. “Almost two centuries later,” Masani says of Macaulay’s Minute, “its underlying principles remain the Bible of Anglo-American nation-building in the world’s trouble spots.”

Macaulay’s aim was to produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”, and for a while, English was indeed the preserve of the babus and the bhadralok in India. As the latest Census figures demonstrate, it is now the fastest growing language in India behind Hindi, and it has become part of the Indian mainstream.

Macaulay couldn’t have predicted that a century after Savitrabai Phule and other Dalit intellectuals saw the potential of English as a way out of the caste labyrinth, there would be a temple to Angrezi Devi. When work started on the temple in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad was quoted saying: “She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever.” It was not an easy undertaking; the construction of the temple was halted on one ground or another, most of them remarkably flimsy. Some newspapers reported tension in the area, after members of the upper castes objected to a temple built for and by Dalits.

Perhaps Macaulay would have approved; his aim was not to replace local languages, but to add the library of English into the “native tongues”. As Phule wrote in her poems: “In English rule we’ve found our joy/ Bad days gone, Mother English abhoy!/ English is the inheritance of none/ Persian, Brahman, Yemeni or Hun.” There it stands, 175 years after Macaulay’s Minute, ready to be claimed by Angrezi Devi’s devotees.

140-word fiction: Nine Lives

Photograph copyright @Saadul Islam.

(Sunday Mid-Day asked for a cat story, in 140 words. Here it is.)

My nine lives?

I had a house, once, and Bigfeet of my own: then they packed everything, except me, and left.

There was a word for kittens who wandered outside for the first time: prey.

Seven bird kills, eight battles with rats, two with puppies, and I found a word that fit me better: predator.

No river cat remembers the names of the boats we lived on; the fish, yes, we taste their names in our mouths still.

In Sikkim, I made babies with a monastery cat, solemn kittens with Buddha bellies.

The vet took one of my lives, the time I crossed the road without looking, but he gave me back two.

Two is ample, I thought, and then one was squandered in a bandicoot brawl, but it was worth it.

I have one life left. Three paws.


(To read Sunday Mid-Day’s interviews with Scott Carney, Naresh Fernandes and me, go here.)

Writers, October: Ismat Chughtai

The Lihaf trial, from The Journal of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/15/28naqviExerpt.pdf

 “There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting  ‘ashiqs  ’ (lovers) is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or ‘‘ashiqs’?”

“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.

“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”

“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.


“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”

“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”

“Uh … uh … no.”

“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs.”

“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!” The witness thundered.

“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.”

(Ismat Chughtai; died, October 24th, 1991)

The BS column: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The Itinerary is a reminder of how old the bestseller is

(Published in the Business Standard, October 23, 2012)

Ludovico de Varthema set out to see the world in 1502, leaving Europe four years after Vasco da Gama had reached the shores of Calicut.

His voyage to “Oriental lands”—Egypt, Arabia, Persia, through India to Sri Lanka, Burma and Java—was undertaken roughly 40 years after Gutenberg’s printing press had come to Italy, the printed book a popular entrant into the already bustling manuscript market. The Itinerary, his travel journal, became one of Europe’s first bestsellers, translated into almost 50 languages, including Latin, German, Dutch and Spanish.

The illustrations—copies are on display this month at the National Archives, New Delhi—resemble postcards, in the speed with which they were set down by the unknown illustrator, capturing cobras, elephants, merchants, sati pyres, farmers, festivals, spices etc like a photographic album. De Varthema saw himself in the way a contemporary travel writer might, writing of his desire to “determine personally and with mine own eyes… remembering well that the testimony of one eye-witness is worth more than ten heard-says” the abundance of those fabled, if not uncharted, lands.

He is an entertaining companion, discoursing on the partiality of the women of Arabia for white men—indeed, it’s a susceptible Sultana who springs him from jail. De Varthema had a novel method, perhaps wisely not imitated by many tourists, of getting rid of people who bothered him: when two wise men disputed at length about whether he was mad or holy, he settled the dispute by relieving himself on them. “Whereupon they began to run away crying out, ‘He is mad, he is mad, he is not holy.’”

Both the illustrations and the text of De Varthema’s Itinerary feel contemporary; as one of his translators notes, “It is impossible to peruse Varthema’s narrative and not feel… that the writer is telling the truth, that he is describing men, countries and scenes which he had examined with his own eyes.”

As proof of this freshness, the translator adds that there is “a manifest absence of attempt at composition…neither has he felt any qualms of conscience as to his grammar”.

The text brings out how well-connected the medieval world was, even without today’s technology. By the time De Varthema reaches India, he has already formed an opinion of the richness (and trading practices) of its spice and other commodities markets, courtesy his time in Ethopia and the Middle East. He speaks directly to his audience back in Europe, never forgetting—through all his travels—to underline the unusual.

He records a sultan of Gujarat with “mustachios so long that he ties them over his head”; another king who travels, rather delightfully, with “civet-cats, apes, parrots, leopards and falcons”, aside from the usual entourage; is fascinated with elephants; warns first-time travellers to be on guard against “some lions which are on the road”; pays great attention to the local markets and food habits; and in general, conducts himself with all the skill you would expect from a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide veteran. Sati horrifies him, but he approves of polyandry, especially when one of his fellow travellers is offered the use of their host’s wife for a night.

One of the claims made for the Itinerary is that it is among the first modern bestsellers. It is not hard to imagine how it fed the curiosity and growing appetite for travel—if only by proxy—of De Varthema’s fellow Europeans. And he wrote it at a time when bookselling was perhaps even more important an industry than it is today, since the book held primacy in the absence of television, newspapers and the Internet.

In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt reminds readers: “The book in the ancient world was not a rare commodity: a well-trained slave reading a manuscript aloud to a roomful of well-trained scribes could produce masses of text. Over the course of centuries, tens of thousands of books, hundreds of thousands of copies, were made and sold.” This held true for Rome in the 16th century, too.

De Varthema’s Itinerary would have been packed in bales and barrels, and have been printed, as was the custom, without the covers—to be added by the purchaser at a bookbinder’s, according to his pleasure and purse. But the demand for the Itinerary was phenomenal. There would be many other travellers to the Middle East and to India after De Varthema, and there had been many before him from other parts of the world. He was one of the first, and most influential, of European travellers, however.

And the sense of discovery in the illustrations, De Varthema’s passion for travel—“as I do not see that I am fit for any other pursuit”—survive the passage of centuries, as fresh as when he first wrote his diaries. The Itinerary is a reminder that many ages, especially the Europe of 1510, once thought of their times as modern and exploratory, as we do our own.

Writers, October: Aravind Adiga

From ‘City of The White Tiger’, carried in Live Mint:

The white tiger was locked up in the heart of the city, like the biggest secret in Delhi: like an Iqbal poem behind black bars. And the secret that the white tiger knew was this: Beauty is freedom.

All through south Delhi runs a red wall, stained with bird shit and paan, and guarded by men with guns; behind this red wall live the powerful and important of the Capital. From my first day in the city I had been trying to breach this wall—get myself invited to book launches and cultural events—to join in the Capital’s inner life. But all I had found behind the red wall were third-rate people turning up at third-rate book launches and cultural events.

Outside the red wall, life was raw and beautiful; wild peacocks still roamed through New Delhi. Outside was where I was going to stay from now.

(Aravind Adiga, born in October, 1974)