history Posts

Manu Pillai’s “Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji”

Award-winning writer Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji makes the history of Deccan very accessible. It is a region of India that has been ruled by many dynasties from the north and south. It is also a a region that is strategically important and many vie for it such as the Vijayanagar kingdom and the Mughals. In Rebel Sultans, Manu Pillai narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth; the Bahmanis, the Mughals and the Marathas including Shivaji. There are interesting titbits of information such as this one of Firoz Shah or of Ibrahim Adil Shah II or “habshi” Malik Ambar, an African slave who rose to power.

In an Economic Times article he wrote to coincide with the publication of his book, Manu Pillai says of Firoz Shah that he came to power because of a coup but was an interesting person. He was a polyglot who spoke everything from Turkish to Marathi, reading the Hebrew Bible and composing Persian poetry. Later in 1406, after war with Vijayanagar’s emperor, a princess of the Sangama dynasty was also given to Firoz Shah as a bride. But for her dowry, the sultan demanded not only the usual mountains of gold, gems and silver, but also as many as 2,000 cultural professionals from southern India. Scholars, musicians, dancers, and other persons of talent from a different cultural universe, arrived in the Bahmani Sultanate, combining with Persian poets and immigrant Sufis to exalt (and transform) its own notions of taste, art and culture. These were different worlds from which they emerged but together in a common space, they also found points of convergence.

Rebel Sultans is packed with information in this narrative history of the Deccan. As Manu Pillai told William Dalrymple in an interview that little narrative history about India exists as what is often lacking is a method to communicate that to a wider audience. Fortunately this is changing slowly.  Manu Pillai adds, “My own effort has been to bridge that gap — to use the best of research, rigorously studied, and to convey it in a style and language that can appeal to a diverse readership. I think narrative history is here to stay, and if people can marry good research with elegant writing, we could really enrich ourselves.”

Offering a new perspective on the past is a critical component of nation building processes as well. This is not a new concept. It was first seen practiced in medieval European communities evident in its literature and historical narratives they created such as Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. ( A story that adapted many of the Romance cycle stories to tell the story of a renowned king who created England as a nation.) In fact a question often discussed in recent times is whether a nation can have many versions of history. Increasingly connections between geographical regions, the environment and history are now beginning to be made. Eminent historian Romila Thapar says in The Past as Present “Historical perspectives are frequently perceived from the standpoint of the present.” It is particularly true when revisiting histories which are a representation of the past based on information put together by colonial scholarship. While unpacking the past as many historians do, they discover “that the past registers changes that could alter its representation. The past does not remain static.” In an interesting observation about the significance of regional history she says:

The interest in regional history  grew by degrees, assisted to some extent by the creation of linguistic states from the late 1950s, superseding the more arbitrary boundaries of the erstwhile provinces of British India. The newly created states came to be treated by historians as sub-national territorial units, but present-day boundaries do not necessarily hold for earlier times. Boundaries are an unstable index in historical studies. Ecologically defined frontier zones are more stable. The perspective of sub-continental history, conventionally viewed from the Ganga plain, has had to change with the evidence now coming from regional history. For example, the history of south India is much more prominent in histories of the subcontinent than it was fifty years ago. Regional histories form patterns that sometimes differ from each other and the variations have a historical base. Differences are not just diversities in regional styles. They are expressions of multiple cultural norms that cut across monolithic, uniform identities. This requires a reassessment of what went into making the identities that existed in the past. 

In his fascinating account of the Deccan, Manu Pillai unpacks a lot of history to understand the regional history of  an area that has always been strategically significant and continues to be in modern times. Combining storytelling with historical evidence is always a good idea for it keeps history alive in people’s consciousness but it is a fine line to tread between getting carried away in telling a juicy story and presenting facts as is. Nevertheless Rebel Sultans will be an important book for it straddles academia and popular writing. A crucial space to inhabit when there is an explosion of information available; but how to ensure its authenticity will always be tricky.

Rebel Sultans will be accessible to the lay reader as well as to the professional historian for a long time to come.

Manu S. Pillai Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

17 June 2018 

 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

Humayun’s Tomb: World Heritage Site by Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The incredibly beautiful Mughal monument, Humayun’s Tomb, was recently restored by the Aga Khan Trust. The project was carried out in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, and supported by the TATA Trusts has not only conserved the monument, but has also aided in the revival of traditional building skills, materials, and techniques. It took many years ( 2008 – 2015) was done with great care under the supervision of Ratish Nanda. Now a book has been published by Mapin India for AKTC documenting the magnificent work done in restoring the monument, a blueprint for the Taj Mahal. Here is a short video and a Facebook clip on the restoration. Discovery Channel and National Geographic too showed a documentary on this path-breaking project. According to the book description:

The Humayun’s Tomb-Nizamuddin area, inhabited by a vibrant local community, is visited by millions of tourists and pilgrims each year. Conservation works being undertaken on the monuments in this area have aimed to re-define standard conservation practice in India by setting benchmarks in using a craft-based approach, setting documentation standards, using a participatory and multi-disciplinary approach, and using the conservation initiative as a tool towards improving quality of life for local communities. This book aims to inform the general public about the discipline of conservation and the rationale behind the successful conservation initiative and makes an argument for change in conservation approach in India: from isolated monuments to an urban approach that includes concern for the setting; from a ‘tender-based’ approach to a quality-concerned method; amongst other factors. Founded and guided by His Highness the Aga Khan, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture projects promote the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in ways that can spur social, economic and cultural development.

Ratish Nanda has led the multi-disciplinary team implementing the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative since the project’s inception in 2006. Prior to this, he was responsible for the Bagh-e-Babur restoration and the Humayun’s Tomb garden restoration, also at AKTC.

I interviewed Ratish Nanda ( via email). Here are the excerpts.

  1. Do you think the 1923 Conservation Manual principles need to be updated? For instance “repairs are carried out, no effort should be spared to save as many parts of the original as possible, since it is to the authenticity of the old parts that practically all the interest attaching to the new will owe itself. Broken or half decayed original work is of infinitely more value than the smartest and most perfect new work.’

Though updates are continuously expected and have been done with the National Conservation Policy notified in 2014 by the Archaeological Survey of India, Many of the principles of the 1923 manual remain valid – and these have been highlighted in the book. The quote you provide is one such quote the validity of which remains and as such during the Humayun’s Tomb conservation effort every effort was made to ensure that original – Mughal material is retained. For instance the section on tile work illustrates where even tiles that had lost their glaze were retained. As the book explains repeatedly, what was in fact removed were inappropriate 20th century repairs causing damage to the building – such as cement plaster and cement concrete on the roof. This happened because craftsmen were no longer involved as the British replaced them with engineers, architects and archaeologists and nobody knew better.

  1. Are there any new principles you would wish to add to the conservation manual? For instance the dos and dont’s of using technology in conservation processes or different ways of documenting? Or do you think the 1923 guidelines are valid even now ? 

I think the new National Conservation Policy already addresses new issues such as use of digital technology to document the entire process of conservation. It should be documented prior to, during and after conservation in maps, drawings, photographs, digital records and field notes so as to create records of interventions. The documentation should capture various stages of intervention and all relevant details. This will be useful from the point of view of understanding all past and current interventions in the future. The revised policy also encourages public private partnership in heritage conservation and management. The restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb is a good example of this as it is a collaboration between AKTC, ASI & TATA Trusts.

  1. How long did this book take to write?

The project has taken over a decade; the book is an attempt to put the project learnings in the public domain as well as explain to interested stakeholders what the conservation process was. This is shared with the belief that both conservation professionals as well as officials, administrators, donors, students (history, architecture, conservation, and archaeology) could use this as a case study/ model and more such projects could be undertaken.

  1. You have worked on conservation of other historical sites including in Kabul. Why was Humayun’s Tomb singled out for this detailed documentation?

Kabul has also been published. Detailed documentation of the conservation process is best practice. These significant sites belong to the people and its important that anyone interested has access to information on what has been done and how. For instance in Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme: Strategies for Urban Regeneration.

  1. What is a unique aspect in the conservation of this tomb as opposed to the other monuments you are associated with?

All monuments where conservation works have been undertaken have been treated with the same level of attention. What we have demonstrated is a truly Indian model for conservation based on utilising traditional building crafts, materials and master craftsmen as well as a multi-disciplinary team. This is the first instance in India of a private agency undertaking conservation works which are cofounded by a another private agency – the TATA Trusts

  1. Are there are conservation techniques that you had to rediscover and have now revived? For instance making of the blue tiles in Nizammudin where you made more than 20,000 samples before selecting the one definite process. Do you think this process of making blue tiles will be revived or exist only as long as the tomb needs it?

We are still making tiles – they are required on at least 40 monuments in the Nizamuddin area as well as several more countrywide. Furthermore it is hoped that the craftsmen will be able to make tiles for the souvenir market as well. The tile-making craft had died in India; its revival has cost a fortune and it is hoped some of the youth will have the initiative to make an industry out of it as there is a significant demand for these tiles – from both conservation purposes and growing demand from the market.

  1. Is conservation of historical monuments only to be done via brick-and-mortar routine using specialists or does it involve sensitisation programmes particularly among school children? For instance organising workshops, historic walks, screening of documentaries, writing / painting competitions etc. 

Awareness is extremely important and this book is one tool towards it. During the conservation effort we have produced other publications – such as the children’s book of which 60,000 copies have been sold till date. Youth from Nizamuddin basti usually walk through 6-7000 school children each year. There is also a very active Facebook page.

  1. Why is it that the Humayun’s Tomb has produced two books — children and adults and none of the other monuments? 

We hope to produce more such technical books to serve as case studies. Our objective is to share the knowledge we have generated as part of the project.

  1. What was the most exciting and most challenging moments in this conservation exercise?

Undertaking India’s first privately undertaken conservation effort has been a challenge as many suspicions have to be addressed and a proper conservation process established. By far the most exciting outcome has been the recent expansion of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage site to include 11 additional monuments on which Aga Khan Trust for Culture undertook conservation.

  1. Were there any portions of the building that were irreparable and beyond conservation? 

There are portions of the building where the original treatment had been lost – such as the tomb chamber – where until the mid-20th century the walls were tiled and the dome gilded – here, with the lack of evidence, conservation effort could not restore the original builders intention. Also the lack of historical accounts that either document or hint at this process are not enough to justify restoration. Conservationists need in-situ or clear photographic evidence to emulate the processes.

  1. What are the learnings from this conservation programme? Are any of these applicable in other conservation projects in India and rest of the world? 

The book lists all the learnings – established that craftsmen need to be in the centre of the conservation effort; conservation is as much responsibility of the private sector as of government; conservation decisions should be based on an understanding of the site and its significance. The conservation process established – including repeated independent peer reviews – is replicable for any project, anywhere in the country or beyond. Also, we must document all such efforts and explain the rationale for these in a written statement. Something that will explain the condition of the monument, the rational for conservation works and outlines the process followed.  

  1. What next? 

We remain available to assist the Government of India wherever they would like us to support an urban conservation effort.

11 April 2017 

 

Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances

On 23 April 2016 Vivek Shanbhag and I were invited by Namita Gokhale, co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival to be in conversation at the Apeejay Languages Festival 2016, Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, New Delhi. We were to discuss his recently translated novel from Kannada to English, Ghachar Ghochar, as part of the topic, “Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances”. Before we began the discussion I read out a note contextualising the conversation. I realised that Vivek Shanbhag and I had spent a while chatting a few days earlier and would happily fall into a chat easily. Hence the note which was passed by Vivek Shanbhag too. With his permission I am publishing it here. 

Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances 

Vivek Shanbhag 1Vivek Shanbhag is a noted writer, editor and translator. For seven years while holding a busy day job he edited a literary journal of Kannada writing called Desh Kala. It was phenomenal in the impact it had in discovering new writers. It is probably the only contemporary journal in an Indian regional language that continues to be talked about in English and now edited excerpts of it are to be published.

Although he has been a name in Kannada and other literary circles for a while, few probably know his mother tongue is Konkani. A language that can be written in five different scripts –Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, and Persian.  (Now it is the Devnagari script that is accepted officially by state governments. )Yet Vivek Shanbhag chooses to write in Kannada. And he is not alone in this comfortable oscillation between mother tongue and the language of professional writing. I gather from him it is common practice among the Kannada, Marathi, Telugu writers. For instance, one of the finest Marathi short story writers G. A. Kulkarni was a Kannadiga; Girish Karnad’s mother tongue is Konkani but he writes Vivek Shanbhag 2in Kannada and the list goes on.

Earlier this year the English translation of Vivek’s fine novella Ghachar Ghochar was published by HarperCollins India. It has been translated by Srinath Perur. It was the only translated text from an Indian regional language included in the special edition of Granta on India ( 2015) edited by Ian Jack. “Ghachar Ghochar” is a nonsensical phrase yet the story is an impressively crafted vignette of a middle class family in Karnataka. Peppered with sufficient local characteristics for it to be representative of a Kannadiga family with universal issues such as socio-eco mobility & status of women. It is no wonder that this novella has caught the English readers by storm.

And yet,

Ghachar GhocharWhen you read Ghachar Ghochar it reads like the finest example of world literature. By world literature I mean translations of literary fiction from various cultures. It reads smoothly in the destination language of English but translation purists tell me exasperatedly that it does not retain the “flavour” of the original Kannada text.

One last point. I believe that “cultures” are not necessarily defined by political boundaries but geo-political formations. Under the British this region fell under the Bombay and Madras presidencies. Today it is bordered by the Arabian Sea, Goa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Kannada is the official language of Karnataka and spoken by about 66.26% of the people as of 2001. Other linguistic minorities in the state are Urdu (10.54%), Telugu (7.03%), Tamil (3.57%), Marathi (3.6%), Tulu (3.0%), Hindi (2.56%), Konkani (1.46%), Malayalam (1.33%) and Kodava Takk (0.3%).

With this note Vivek and I launched into our conversation. It touched upon various aspects of translation, Kannada literature, how is Kannada literature defined, the significance of literary awards, the process of translation, etc. 

6 May 2016

Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”


I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing. 

We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins. 

(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman Romecatchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of SPQRRome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth Wolf and baby twinsand baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.

For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.

In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.

SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!

Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

5 April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Sunil Khilnani’s “Incarnations”


Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?

p.243, “Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen (1828-1858)”

‘A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself,’ the American public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued regarding mythic constructions of liberation all over the world. ‘[C]hapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.’ In modern India’s myth of finally, formally confronting its brutal history of case, Bhimrao Ambedkar is that exceptional individual. But every Great Man story is also a story of circumstance. Had India not been devastated by Partition, the formidable lawyer and scholar who led the untouchables might not have become the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.

p.468 “Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps (1891-1956)”

Sikri’s battlements, palaces, shrines proclaim imperial grandeur. But its airy pavilions and halls share little in common with the heavy monumentalism of Versaille or the Habsburg seats of power. Parts of the city have the feeling of a tent encampment, except that the animal skins and wood frames have been replaced by stone and marble, carved with great skill by local craftsmen. Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel, at certain turns, as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawing, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s like touring the physical manifestation of a mind — the expansive, syncretic mind of its creator: Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. 

p. 165 “Akbar: The World and the Bridge ( 1542-1605)

Sunil Khilnani’s magnificent Incarnations: India in 50 Lives gives a bird’s-eye view of history via the short account of people through their ages. The fifty people profiled are those who left a significant stamp in the socio-cultural-political and economic make-up of this land evident in modern India –a nation state that is very complicated, multi-layered. These biographical accounts written like “non-fiction short stories” detail the life and achievements of the person being profiled while placing them neatly in their historical and contemporary context. Incarnations has been published to coincide with the BBC Radio 4 series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rptbv. The principle of arrangement of this book is probably borrowed from another extremely popular BBC Radio 4 series + sumptiously produced book by Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, on A History of the World in 100 Objects  ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads ).

Yet Incarnations is very much in the tradition of books written trying to make history accessible to the lay reader. To document history in this fashion probably began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to many accounts at chronicling this fascinating sub-continent by authors like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta ( for children) et al. There were many volumes that were published to coincide with the fiftieth year of Independence but it is for the first time that a historian like Sunil Khilnani has put together an account that incorporates even lesser known individuals such as Malik Ambar the African slave who become powerful political force to contend with.

We live in a noisy, reactionary and surprisingly ahistorical world where lies and misinterpretations get amplified rapidly using social media platforms. So to have a book recount landmark moments in history through well-written biographies is a crucial and much appreciated contribution to social discourse. The style of writing is wonderfully catchy beginning with the chapter headings. For instance, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen who is almost revered for her resistance to the British colonial rulers in the nineteenth century with Indian school children even today being taught to memorise poems extolling her heroism; she is simply referred to as the “Bad-Ass Queen”. The list of contents is a delight to read. Similarly are the introductory paragraphs to every chapter –packed with facts, information and incorporating the broad spectrum of views on how the moment in history being discussed in the chapter has been perceived. It is a remarkable example of immense scholarship with a fine sensibility of being able to communicate with a non-academic audience. Peppered in the book are cross-references to other chapters illustrated by the names being marked in bold, a neat technique taken from academic publications and inserted into a trade title.

Outlook magazine’s 19 February 2016 issue focussed on Sunil Khilnani’s book with generous extracts from the book along with an in-depth interview by Satish Padmanabhan. Here is a link to the special issue and interview: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/issue/11449 and http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/self-criticism-and-not-glib-self-congratulation-is-the-deepest-form-of-patriotis/296684 .

For all the stupendous historical detailing in each biography there are some disturbingly jallianwala-baghpuzzling glossing over historical facts. For instance not referring to General Dyer by name instead saying “the officer” ( p.437) or referring to the campaign of installing Gandhi’s statue in London ( 2015) led by Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife, Lady Kishwar Desai but once again not pinning it in history by taking any names. Baffling since General Dyer is well-remembered in India and the 14 March 2015topiary at Jallianwala Bagh nevers allows anyone to forget the dastardly massacre. Similarly, the campaign to instal Gandhi’s statue was a very political and public event splashed across worldwide media with David Cameron PM, UK and Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, India, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan,  Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai attending the unveiling of the statue. So it does leaves a tiny lingering of doubt about the other bits of history that may have been silenced. Even so, this is is a splendid book and must be read.

Sunil Khilnani Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 2016. Hb. pp. 636 Rs. 999

9 March 2016

 

Helen Oyeyemi, “Boy, Snow, Bird”

Boy Snow Bird

I read Boy, Snow, Bird . It is a fascinating tale set in 1950s USA, when racism was rampant, especially towards the people of colour. This story is also about the racism experienced by even those who were fair skinned and light haired by their own people.  At the same time it is magnificent but disquieting retelling of the Snow White fairy tale and the wicked stepmother. What comes through in the novel are strong portraits of the women. The strength is evident in their relationship with each other and not necessarily in terms of the challenges they experience in society and overcome them.

This is 29-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel. It is extraordinarily powerful and worth reading. She exhibits the maturity of a much older writer. The confidence with which she plays with myth, fairytale, and magic while placing the story in a moment of history is astounding. The storytelling too never gets dull. In some of her interviews she remarks upon the powerful novels that have left an impact on her. Usually by making her stomach recoil. This is exactly what she achieves with Boy, Snow, Bird.

Here are a couple of interviews with her: Helen Oyeyemi: ‘I’m interested in the way women disappoint one another’ ( 2 March 2014,  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/02/helen-oyeyemi-women-disappoint-one-another) and An Interview With Helen Oyeyemi: “Nothing Happens Without My Teapots” ( 10 March 2014, http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexanderchee/an-interviews-with-helen-oyeyemi-nothing-happens-without-my#.jdJO6oP70 )

26 January 2015

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014

Aryavarta Chronicles 1:Govinda, Krishna Udayasankar, interviewed on 9 Aug 2012, Delhi

Aryavarta Chronicles 1:Govinda, Krishna Udayasankar, interviewed on 9 Aug 2012, Delhi

Krishna Udayasankar The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: Govinda
Hachette India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 350. pp. 458

Early in August I met Krishna Udayasankar in Delhi. She was here for the launch of her debut novel, Govinda. Krishna is a lawyer and based in Singapore, living with her husband and two huskies. She writes although she has a day job as a lecturer at Nanyang Business School. She has a PhD in Business (Strategic Management). According to her, “I write whenever I can – i.e. any available moment. My typical ‘work’ day starts around noon (unless I have classes or meetings in the morning) after a round at the gym, and it goes on past midnight. Of this day, whatever time is not spent on teaching, prep and other university-related duties I try to write, or do research and other things book-related. But lest I sound too hard-working, let me confess that I spend a lot of this time online on FB or mail, passing it off as ‘work’, I do however try to write every day, even for just a few minutes, as a matter of discipline.”

Govinda is the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles, a new version of the Mahabharata. The difference being that in her story, Krishna’s characters come across as ordinary mortals who have to face extraordinary challenges. Plus the women characters are far more strongly etched than ever before. She admits that there are “no passive characters” in her book. (No surprises there, especially a) the canon of contemporary literature that relies heavily upon the epics like Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s The Palace of Illusions did set a trend and b) meeting Krishna, who is a feisty and strong personality herself.) In her introduction the author is quick to affirm that these chronicles “are neither reinterpretation or retelling”. She would prefer to term her book as mytho-history. This is an excerpt from an email exchange where we discussed the terminology:

The most oft-quoted definitions of mytho-history trace back to Prof. Mohammed Arkoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Arkoun ), who is credited with having developed a theory of mytho-history and mytho-ideology. Of course, while the processes that we define as mytho-history are age-old ones, in modern times Prof. Arkoun is credited with giving it theoretical definition, as well as practical application.

It is a more sociological or anthropological sense to describe the process or body of myths that have become part of the collective history of a people and their culture — particularly origin-stories or tales that explain why or how the world around them is the way it is — prevailing norms and cultures. For example, in India, many people believe — irrespective of historical evidence or otherwise — that the characters of the Mahabharata did exist, though with powers and abilities that would today be considered super-normal, such as extended lifespans. By rationalizing what may be abnormal (it was another Yuga, evil has since diminished humanity, etc.) there is an attempt to preserve a logical engagement, which becomes less necessary when we talk of ‘pure myth’.

What I try to capture when I use the word is not just the phenomenon, the attempt at logic that distinguished the narrative from pure myth, but also the rationale. I do so by asking why are the certain stories that become mytho-histories while others remain pure myth. Again, to illustrate by example, we do we never quite ‘believe’ that some of the events described in the Vedas happened the way they did, choosing instead to interpret them as spiritual verse or even mystical metaphor?; possibly because the parts of the Vedas are not historical accounts, but a collection of scientific Arcanum, carefully disguised as metaphor in a bid to protect knowledge (or the keepers thereof). The Mahabharata, on the other, contains the categorical assertion as part of its text that it is history – or was history contemporaneous to its composition.

So, what I mean by myth-history, though perhaps an anthropologist may take exception: Mytho-history is that body of narrative that may well have had enough historical evidence in support of it in the past, to find an enduring place in culture, but today lacks sufficient evidence to be presented as historical fact – even though its half-sister, mythology, is able to recollect the finer details.

Govinda is an example of commercial fiction with a decent print run. Based upon the initial reports from the market, it seems that Krishna’s fast paced story is selling well (and deservedly so!). I met a bookseller two days ago who had displayed the book prominently at his shop and was hoping the sequel would arrive soon. If that is the case, then the author has achieved her intention of getting the reader to engage with the novel even if it is to disagree.

28 August 2012