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Excerpt

Akbar: A Novel by Shazi Zaman

Title: Akbar: A Novel of History

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Now people began to hear of Badshah Salamat’s close links with the region of Braj. His visit was described in a dhrupad —

Shah Chhatrapati Akbar visits the Braj region,
Kings of the seven islands, nine regions and ten directions tremble.
Cavalry, infantry, elephants, and brave warriors,
With bows, arrows, swords and spears.
Not one blot on the clothes of Humayun’s son,
How formidable was the army of Jalaluddin Muhammad.

The region of Braj was not far from Fatehpur Sikri. It is said that Badshah Salamat, having listened to the poetry of Surdas, asked when he met him, ‘Surdas ji, God has made me powerful and all the talented people sing my praise. Why don’t you sing my praise too?’

Surdas sang the following words in reply: ‘No space in my heart.’

Badshah Salamat thought, ‘Why would he sing my praise? He would sing if he had the greed to seek something from me. He is a man of God.’

Finally, Surdas sang: ‘Seeing God is like nectar for the thirst that the eyes have.’

Badshah Salamat asked him, ‘Surdas ji, you can’t see. How do you know what this thirst is that the eyes have? How come this metaphor?’

When Surdas kept quiet, Badshah Salamat said, ‘His eyes are with God. He sees there and describes what they see.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘He should be given something but he has been initiated into Vaishnavism. He has no desire.’

People say that when Badshah Salamat heard that the Vaishnav poet Govindswami sang very well, he went out to listen to him in disguise.

Badshah Salamat was fond of travelling incognito among people. In the sixth regnal year, corresponding to about 1560–61 ce, a large group from Agra had camped outside the city on the way to the shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in Bahraich. Badshah Salamat went to their gathering incognito but some petty criminal recognized him and the word began to spread. To convince people otherwise,

Badshah Salamat rolled his eyes upwards. When people saw this they said, ‘Such eyes and expressions can’t be that of an emperor.’

As Govindswami sang the Raga Bhairav, Badshah Salamat was sure he would not be recognized. But suddenly, as he sat listening, these words escaped his lips, ‘Wah, wah!

Recognizing him, Govindswami said, ‘This raga has lost its value.’

At this Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar said, ‘I am the Emperor.’

Govindswami replied, ‘If you are the Emperor, keep to it. But this raga has lost its value because you listened to it.’

Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘I am the ruler of one country. For him, the grandeur of three worlds is meaningless. Why would he obey my command?’

It is said that Badshah Salamat heard an artiste sing the poetry of the Vaishnav poet Kumbhandas and said, ‘Would there be anyone like him who sees God in this manner?’

The artiste replied, ‘Saheb, he lives even now!’

An excited Badshah Salamat asked for Kumbhandas’s whereabouts. The artiste replied, ‘There is a village near Shrigovardhan called Jamunawat. He lives there.’

When Badshah Salamat’s men reached the residence of Kumbhandas he was in Parasoli. Reaching Parasoli, these men said, ‘Badshah Salamat has asked for you.’

Kumbhandas said to them, ‘I am no servant to the Emperor. What do I have to do with him?’

Badshah Salamat’s men said, ‘How do we know what you have been called for? We are under orders from the Emperor to get Kumbhandas ji. Here is a palanquin and a horse. Please mount and come with us. We have to take you.’

Kumbhandas had no option. Wearing his shoes, he said, ‘Brother! I have never mounted a conveyance. I will go on my own.’ When Kumbhandas reached Sikri on foot, Badshah Salamat

said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, come. Please be seated.’

Badshah Salamat’s elegant tent had precious stones and frills. Even so Kumbhandas felt his home Braj was far better because Shrigovardhannath ji played there.

Badshah Salamat said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, you have written much poetry in praise of Vishnu. That is why we have called you here. Sing for me some poetry in praise of Vishnu.’

Kumbhandas thought, ‘The real patron of my voice is Shrigovardhandhar. But now that I cannot avoid it, I better sing something to ensure he does not ever ask for me. Let me say harsh words. If he minds, so be it.’

Kumbhandas remembered, ‘One who has been adopted by Lord Krishna is always safe. He would come to no harm even if the whole world turns against him.’

Then he recited —

Devotees have no need of Sikri.
One walks one’s shoes threadbare, God’s name forgotten,
And salutes those whose face brings no joy.
O Kumbhandas, without Lord Krishna, these are false destinations.

They say Badshah Salamat felt unhappy when he heard this but said to himself, ‘If he had any greed he would sing my praise. He is a true devotee of his Lord.’

Irritated with Badshah Salamat, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni said, ‘… Hindu infidels, who are indispensable, and of whom half the army, and country, will soon consist and as whom there is not among the Mughals or Hindustani Muslims a tribe so powerful, he could not have enough. But to other people, whatever they might ask for, he gives nothing but kicks and blows…’

When it began to be murmured in Fatehpur Sikri that Badshah Salamat had turned Hindu, Sheikh Abul Fazl was forced to respond,

‘This rumour is spread because His Majesty, being of an open mind, would meet Hindu holy men, raise the rank of Hindus and be kind to them in the interests of the welfare of the country… There were three reasons these rumours spread by evil men gained currency. First, people following different religions gathered in the darbar, and because there was something good in every faith, everybody got some bit of praise. Secondly, because of sulh-i-kul, people of various kinds got spiritual and worldy success. Third, the crooked ways of evil people of the age.’

(Excerpted from Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)

About the book

Conventional historical accounts tend to paper over seemingly minor events related to Akbar’s life, to the detriment of a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most important figures of Indian history. Shazi Zaman fills the gap with this remarkable novel rooted in history.

Akbar’s writ ran from the Hindukush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, an empire his father Humayun and grandfather Babur had only dreamed of. And his religious policy, boldly unorthodox, was as fierce a contest with the clergy, particularly Islamic, as were his military campaigns with his political opponents. Most histories give us Akbar the commander who never lost on the battlefield, and the fearlessly iconoclastic ruler. But we rarely come across the restless, questing soul who wished to reconcile a sensitive and compassionate heart to the sometimes ruthless obligations of statecraft; and the man who, in his struggle for sulh-i-kul, peace with all, could dare to treat as equal not only all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others—but all life as well—human or animal.

With a scholar’s rigour and a storyteller’s insight, Shazi Zaman, in this transcreation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, sifts through fact and many an anecdote to paint a complex yet enchanting portrait of one of the world’s great monarchs. There isn’t another book, as vast in scope and as layered, to help us fully understand the phenomenon that was Akbar: the unsparing pragmatist and benevolent ruler; the austere leader and indulgent friend; the unlettered prince and philosopher-mystic.

About the Author

Shazi Zaman started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since then worked with several media organizations. He has had a long association with the ABP News Network as a senior executive producer and as their Group Editor. He has been on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Akbar is his third novel. His earlier Hindi novels are Prem Gali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism ke Log.

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Review

Sisterhood of Swans

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Sisterhood of Swans

Author: Selma Carvalho

Publishers: Speaking Tiger Books

To feel a kind of belongingness, to find acceptance in a society is an inherent human desire. Perhaps this desire stems from the need to strengthen alliance with something larger than individual identities. It is not only family, but also the place we live in, the community we come from, as well as the prevalent societal and cultural norms which fall into this ambit for most of us. Sometimes the scales in life do not balance till this desire remains elusive. More so when one makes home a place not native to the community one belongs to.

Selma Carvalho is a British-Asian writer whose work explores the themes of migration, memory and belonging. She is the author of three non-fiction books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. She led the Oral Histories of British – Goans Project (2011-2014) funded by UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Her stories have been published in various journals and anthologies. She is the editor of two volumes of The Brave New World of Goan Writing & Art (2018 and 2020). Her work has been shortlisted for various literary prizes including London Short Story Prize and the New Asian Writing Prize. She is the winner of the Leicester Writes Prize 2018 and a finalist for prestigious SI Leeds Literary Prize 2018. Sisterhood of Swans, her debut novel, was shortlisted for Mslexia Novella Prize 2018 in the UK.

Carvalho’s book explores the complexities around this desire to belong and yet the inability to fully embrace the possibilities a place offers because of conceived notions a propos the idea of identity. Her writing, traversing the world of immigrant Indian community in London, is focused upon anxieties and their repercussions, as experienced by a second generation immigrant. Anna-Marie Souza is plagued by a yearning to belong and to hold onto the familiar. Her restlessness stems not only from the inescapability of ethnic alienation, being a Goan-Indian in Horton, but also from the inevitable suffering caused by her parents’ separation.

Consequently, she longs to find a soul mate, a bond for life. In her relationships, first with Nathu and then with Sanjay, she seeks a father figure, a man in whom she may find a resemblance of her father. The choices Anna-Marie makes are flawed and she carries on with them even while understanding that they might be doomed for failure.

The men in Anna-Marie’s world are all adulterers, diving into new relationships and then abandoning their families to move onto other women. It appears almost like a cycle. Every woman she comes across goes through the ordeal. Left in misery by their husbands/partners, they desperately try to put the pieces of their shattered selves together. Their kids endure fractured lives. But it is never the men who suffer, they keep moving on like a river flowing into another and renewing itself, unbroken and unburdened.

It is to this sisterhood of pain of women that Anna-Marie belongs. Like swans, these women look to pair for life but it is disappointment they are fated for. Whether it be her mother, Ines, Sanjay’s wife, Kaya, or her schoolmate, Jassie.

In drawing out the characters of Anna-Marie and her best friend, Sujata, Carvalho also puts the focus on what is inherited from parents subconsciously. In case of Sujata, her father’s illness comes a full circle to haunt her person as she grows up and try to make sense of her existence in a place she recognizes as her home but do not completely fit in. Anna-Marie on the other hand, start relating more to her mother once she steps into motherhood herself, recalling that it was never her father but mother who had always stood by her.

 Carvalho’s pen proficiently renders the intricacies brought about by intersection of different cultures and their consequent uncertainties. She handles the notions of belongingness delicately and with much sensitivity. Her characters are not without flaws and yet they are memorable for their openness and ability to perceive things genuinely. As pointed by Sujata, Anna-Marie comes to accept life as a constantly evolving construct in which to grow also means to allow oneself to evolve irrespective of the contradictions confronted with. To come to a juncture where the permanence of a place or constancy of people does not matter and lives are aglow with the radiance of all the love received.  

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Review

In the Service of Free India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: In the Service of Free India

Author: BD Pande

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Memoirs of civil servants offer a ringside view of the events that shape up a country. Of late, there have been several memoirs by civil servants of India. But this one is unique.

In the Service of Free India–Memoirs of a Civil servant by BD Pande has some of the best chronicles as India was in the formative years after she got freedom. In reverence to his wishes, the memoir has been published posthumously. It is a fascinating record of Pande’s own life and that of India in the half century after Independence.

Edited by his daughter Ratna M Sudarshan, the autobiography comes more than a decade after Pande’s death in 2009 at 92. The memoirs were penned between 1986 and 1999 and the family was instructed to publish these at least five years after his death.

B.D. Pande was the first person from Kumaon and Garhwal division to pass the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination in London in 1938. In his thirty-nine years as a civil servant, Pande held many important offices in the state and central governments. He served as finance secretary, development commissioner and food commissioner in Bihar; chairman of LIC at then Bombay; and finally cabinet secretary to the Government of India from 1972 to 1977. The first person from Uttarakhand to be appointed the governor of West Bengal and later Punjab, President K.R. Narayanan conferred on him the Padma Vibhushan for his meritorious service to the nation.

Says the blurb : “In the decades following 1947, as the tallest national leaders were building a new India, they were supported by a band of idealistic civil servants fiercely committed to the country’s Constitution and its people. Among these remarkable officers was Bhairab Dutt Pande, a young man from the Himalayan district of Kumaon, who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1939. Over almost forty years as a civil servant, and later as governor, he played an important role in the country’s administration, and interacted with leaders like Indira Gandhi (as cabinet secretary during the Emergency), Morarji Desai and Jyoti Basu.”

Writes Pande in the preface: “Ever since I retired in 1977, people have been asking me to write my memoirs, even more so after I resigned as governor of Punjab in July 1984. I have also been approached by some publishers. But I always refused on the grounds that I have no talent for writing. I was a student of science and writing was never my forte. During my service, I did not write notes exceeding a page or page-and-a-half, no matter how intricate the subject. And more importantly, I kept no notes during my service or lifetime, kept no copies of important papers, letters or memos and therefore my recollections will tend to be biased. With the passage of years, one’s memory tends to play tricks and might even get facts wrong. Furthermore, I did not possess any means of rechecking what I have written from contemporary accounts or official records. For these reasons I never took up the pen to write.” Honesty at its best!

Pande chronicles several landmark events and initiatives that he either participated in or witnessed. He helped increase food-grain allotment to the state as food commissioner of Bihar in the early 1950s and drew up a new famine code as land reforms commissioner. His work in the Community Development programme some years later still has important lessons for today’s Panchayati Raj institutions. After retirement, he was governor of West Bengal during the resurgence of Naxalism in the early 1980s, and of Punjab in 1983-84—a tragic and turbulent year in the history of the state and the nation. Pande chose to resign as governor rather than carry out unconstitutional orders.

A trumped-up narrative about Punjab’s situation was built in the months leading up to Operation Bluestar in June 1984, leading to disastrous consequences. The five chapters in this memoir on Punjab offers an absorbing narrative of the behind-the-scenes events and negotiations leading up to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and Operation Blue Star is of great value.

Pande, who had a front-row seat of the events, lauds the Sikhs as a community and is highly critical of the central leadership, especially PM Indira Gandhi, and some “Hindu hardliners and vernacular press for contributing to the false narrative”. He also blames the tussle between President Zail Singh and former Punjab CM Darbara Singh for the unfolding of the events. It is his view that many Sikhs had been the victims of attacks by terrorists, he writes, and whenever an incident occurred, the Punjab Police Intelligence was blamed even though they had supplied advance information.

Mark these dauntless words: “I have known people who, living in Delhi, were even afraid of coming to Chandigarh. Then from Chandigarh, if one went to the real Punjab — Amritsar, Jalandhar, or Ludhiana — one would find similar normalcy. Driving through the countryside, all was peaceful, with farming going on normally. The cities were bustling with activity. Factories were working normally, even schools and colleges. Hindus and Sikhs were walking together, visiting each other’s shops, riding together. The contrast between what one anticipated and what one actually experienced was vivid… I could not help but emphasize on this otherwise peaceful atmosphere.”

On the controversial ‘White Paper’ tabled by the Centre before the Army operation, Pande says he was not even consulted. He notes that Akali leaders of the time were divided. They came to meet him separately while other political parties came to one group. He has also questioned the official figures of casualties in Operation Blue Star. “The number of casualties among the terrorists and civilians was 1,200 (and not 700). Some 200 terrorists still got away. Blue Star did not achieve the desired result.”

For everyone who wants to know the truth behind the Operation Bluestar in Punjab, this is a  de-facto account. The machinations by the central government of the time are revealing. The other chapters in this 300-paged memoir make for a fascinating read and give a privileged perspective on issues and their outcome.

Stimulating and exalting in coequal measure, this memoir, with photographs from the author’s personal album, is both a riveting record of an extraordinary life and an important and an informative document. There is also a detailed timeline to refresh one’s memory.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has been, is, or aims to be a civil servant in India and equally, for anyone who is interested in the history of the times. It is a candid memoir of past times, and the events leading up to them. The informal style of the memoir makes it effortless to read and transports the reader to that time period.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Review

Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes

Author: Shylashri Shankar

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Shyalashri Shankar is an academic whose third non-fiction, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Taste, won a woman author’s award in India called the AutHer Award (2021). This book is a detailed and rich journey through India’s multiple cuisines and culinary cultures divulging interesting facts like Aurangzeb was a vegetarian.

In the literature of food writing, we have both advocates of diversity, food fusionists as well as food fashionistas. Shankar’s approach is fairly eclectic and informed, drawing on the anthropology and sociology of both food and the cultures they originate from. Professing to write a “food biography” of India, she also realises that such a task is both “challenging and daunting”, given the magnitude and diversity of the task involved. She describes Indian cuisine as layered and pluralistic, where there is no one cuisine which can be described as ‘Indian’. Her book proceeds to map these regional diversities not only in food and food cultures, but also cooking styles.

Giving veritable gastronomic glimpses into the fascinating world of the great Indian kitchen, Shankar explores food histories of ancient India dating back to Harappans, while keeping a keen eye for networks of customs, habits and styles of living. From time to time, the cuisine has absorbed new methods of food processing and cooking and been hospitable to new and foreign influences. At the same time, it has at times exerted injustices since the sociology of food is shown to be intricately linked to the that of the caste as shown in the section on Dalit foods. Shankar rightly refuses to mythify or romanticise food, instead she refers to social anthropologist James Laidlaw’s notion that nowhere in the world are food transactions socially or morally neutral, and that the politics of and around food are probably the sharpest in South Asia.

She draws from the theories of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, she argues, analysed different cooking techniques to put forward an influential structuralist idea of the raw and the cooked. Food, according to this theory, is a medium between nature and culture. The activity of cooking performs a process of civilising nature.

Shankar asks more fundamental questions: Did our ancestors determine the way we eat? What is the DNA of food preferences? Which is a better diet — vegetarian, non-vegetarian or paleo (what Is paleo)? Does food have a religion? What food creates ardour and desire? What are the transgressions and taboos on certain kinds of foods? What is the purpose and function of certain rituals around food — for instance, the logic of feasting and fasting? As Shankar takes us on this fascinating journey of culinary exploration, we see the emergence of a rich map of cultural anthropology.

Turmeric Nation is an ambitious and insightful project which answers these questions, and then quite a few more. Through a series of fascinating essays—delving into geography, history, myth, sociology, film, literature and personal experience—Shylashri Shankar traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. From Dalit ‘haldiya dal’ to the last meal of the Buddha; from aphrodisiacs listed in the Kamasutra to sacred foods offered to gods and prophets; from the use of food as a means of state control in contemporary India to the role of lemonade in stoking rebellion in 19th-century Bengal; from the connection between death and feasting and between fasting and pleasure, this book offers a layered and revealing portrait of India, as a society and a nation, through food. It takes us on a fascinating culinary journey through the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

The proof of the pudding, many might feel, is in the eating. Why such a learned dissertation on food, gastronomy and culinary traditions? Is it ultimately to map unity, diversity, and work towards an idea of syncretism? Either ways, the book is worth keeping on our shelves and stocking in libraries, swelling the corpus on food studies which is now studied as an important part of Cultural Studies in many universities. The book ultimately gives us much food for thought as it theorises the practices of cooking and eating across Indian cultures.

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Excerpt

What it Takes to be a Redwood Tree: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Title: Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys

Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
                                                                           

What It Takes to Be a Redwood Tree

Lata Mani

When Lata Mani was driving to her office at the University of California, Davis, one morning in 1993, her life turned turtle. Quite literally. A stolen Pepsi Cola truck collided headlong with her on the freeway. As her car flew up into the air and spun several times before landing, much else plunged into a dizzying spin-cycle from which it would take years to emerge. Her career, her health, her worldview, her life as she knew it. 

It had to be one of the rudest and most catastrophic spiritual initiations in the book. A rebirth that turned things upside down, inside out. The most radical lesson in de-hierarchizing the world. The ground beneath her feet vanished, the mind was stunned into silence, the body shocked out of its illusion of solidity into a state of uncongealed pain and seismic uncertainty. And with that brain injury, everything changed. It has never quite been the same again.  

And so, sceptic turned spiritual apprentice. Marxist turned meditator. Scholar turned bhakta. 

I knew the old Lata Mani somewhat. She happens to be a second cousin. She also happened to live in Mumbai in her growing years. She was a remote figure, older by some years, inspiring as an articulate feminist of her generation, glamorous in the life of self-determination that she represented. She left for California to study, proceeding to author a major work of feminist scholarship on the debate around sati in colonial India. I lost touch with her after she left my city. 

But it is the new Lata Mani that I have got to know better. I had my first real conversation with her in 2010. Our connect was immediate, spontaneous, cutting through social natter and nicety with a directness and definitiveness that surprised me. I had known the ‘outer’ Lata somewhat sketchily. I now encountered what one might call the ‘inner’ Lata: contemplative writer, unabashed Devi devotee, a woman of clarity and unselfconscious poise. It was like meeting her for the very first time.  

And yet, there were connections with the Lata of old. The lucidity and incisiveness of mind was very much in evidence. The commitment to social justice remained, even if its textures were altered. And she was still blazing her own trail—interior, perhaps, but with no loss of self-reliance or intensity.  

‘“Falling upward” into the world of spirit is usually a metaphor. But in your case, it was absurdly literal!’ I tell her. 

‘I think some of us are hard nuts to crack, so it had to happen this way!’ Lata grins. 

My conversations with Lata have been largely telephonic, punctuated by fleeting meetings when I happen to be passing through her city. But I have a vivid recollection of a long evening I spent with her in her Bengaluru flat in 2011—an oasis of luminous quiet amidst the mayhem of metropolitan India. We talked a great deal that day, late into the evening, and again the next morning. We talked of family, books, the Goddess, love, as well as the spiritual ‘crash course’ that redefined her life. She had moved back to India in 2004—a major transition, but perhaps not as disruptive as the inner shift that had already occurred. 

I remember her saying her injury had dropped her into ‘a new neighbourhood’—a quietly laconic phrase with which she summed up this descent into horrifying and unrelenting pain. In her writing, she describes it even more vividly as a state of being ‘in pre-op for cosmic surgery’. The description reminded me of some calamitous rite of shamanic initiation. The experience compelled her to inhabit the body in a way she never had before. Was this a direct insight that happened as a consequence of the trauma, I ask her. 

‘Yes, it all changed when that desperate young man driving at hundred miles per hour sought to end his life by ploughing into my car. We both survived! But while I survived the collision, my brain was no longer intact. Gradually, I began to experience states of consciousness for which I had no language. I first began to sense the connectedness of everything. I had encountered the notion of a unifying substratum before, but only as an idea. Experiencing it was an altogether different matter.’  

The injury catapulted Lata into a land for which she had no name. When I think of the ways in which some saint poets have invoked it (Ravidas’ ‘Begumpura’, the utopian land without sorrows, taxes, travails and hierarchies, for instance, or Kabir’s ‘wondrous city’, the land where ‘fruit shines without a tree’), the descriptions are lyrical. They do not suggest the ordeal, the baptism by fire that can precede it. Lata’s term for the land in which she crash-landed is, by contrast, unsentimental. She describes it simply as abiding ‘isness’. She did not discover it as a lofty philosophical idea. There was no flight into the empyrean. No ‘top of the world looking down on creation’ brand of ecstatic high. No out-of-body experience. Instead, Lata Mani discovered isness in and through her body.  

‘As you know many spiritual experiences or insights are first experienced as spontaneous gifts for which we have no prior frame of reference,’ she says. ‘Isness was gradually revealed to me in the depths of a brain injury which had made thought and communication difficult. Everything was stripped to its bare essentials. And yet there was a certain vibrancy and richness that I was experiencing alongside the very real trauma of the injury. It was not a state in which I “transcended” my circumstances, but one in which I was breathed more deeply into it.’ 

And this is the most fascinating part about Lata’s journey: the upside-downness of it at every level. Her training thus far had prepared her to look at social structures ‘ground up’, but this was about a ‘ground up’ darshan of existence itself—orchestrated by a cellular intelligence rather than a cerebral one. The intellect was no longer in charge. As the reins were handed over to a more grassroots wisdom of marrow and viscera, the mind emerged, redefined—a democratic collaborator on the life journey, rather than dictator of it.  

I imagine this as the state of gob-smacked awe in which Yudhishtira might have found himself at the top of Mount Meru: a terrifying confrontation with reversal of every kind. But then other questions begin to surface. It is wonderful to think of some reversals, but not others. The Biblical image of lions eating with lambs, for instance, gives me consolation. But what of all our divisions of the world into good guys and bad, the forces of light and darkness, or even our political allegiances to left wing or right? What about our longing for poetic justice? How ready am I for a vision of utter and absolute equality, I ask myself? 

(Excerpted from Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.)

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Sri Annapurani Amma left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint. Like Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded before her, she chooses to live naked, and sometimes delivers prophecies, but what shines through is her humour and crazily one-pointed devotion to her path.

Soon after her tenth birthday, Balarishi Vishwashirasini was predicting futures—in no time she was transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, this gifted teacher of nada yoga admits to sometimes feeling she’s missed out on a real childhood.

Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. Today, she talks of how the spiritual life is deeply anchored in the wisdom of the body—not unlike the soaring yet rooted redwood trees of her adopted home.

Maa Karpoori, a feisty young woman, found her calling when she joined a local yoga class. Through a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood, she retains her fierce independence and contagious joy of living.

In this extraordinary book, poet and seeker Arundhathi Subramaniam gives us a glimpse into the lives of four self-contained, unapologetic female spiritual travellers. Sensitive, insightful and spare, Women Who Wear Only Themselves is a revelation and a celebration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Arundhathi Subramaniam is the award-winning author of twelve books of poetry and prose. As poet, her most recent book is Love Without a Story. As anthologist, her books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. As prose writer, her work includes The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru: More Than a Life. She has worked over the years as poetry editor, curator and critic.

Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020; was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, UK; and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2015. Her awards include the inaugural Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Il Ceppo Prize in Italy, the Zee Indian Women’s Award for Literature, the Mystic Kalinga Award, among others.

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

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Interview Review

Unveiling Afghanistan: In Conversation with Nazes Afroz

 Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshe in Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz, as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.

For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.

Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’

“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’

Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’

“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”

The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:

“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”

The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29).  Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?

A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.

Nazes Afroz

Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now.  He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.

You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?

I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.

While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!

As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?

Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.

How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?

My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.

What was it about the book that drew you to it?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.

The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?

Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.

A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.

Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?

The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.

One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.

Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.

Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?

The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.

I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.

Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?

The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.

By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?

Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.

Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.

In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?

The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.

The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.

In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?

In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.

Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.

Click here to read a book excerpt from In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan.

(This is an online interview/review by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Excerpt

In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan

Title: In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan

Author: Syed Mujtaba Ali

Translator: Nazes Afroz

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Over the noise, you could hear the shout that ‘Bacha-e- Saqao is coming, Bacha-e-Saqao has arrived.’ Then we heard the bang of a rifle and the crowd lost all sense of reason. Throwing aside everything they were carrying, people started running for their lives, some landed in the roadside ditch, some slipped time and again while trying to run over the ice on the Kabul river. The blind beggar who used to sit by the road, stood up trying to find his way with his hands in the air.

I somehow managed to leave the road, crossed the ditch and stood on the front porch of a shop. I decided that I would rather die from the bullet on which my name was written rather than be trampled by mad horses or in the stampede of the crowd.

Within a minute another man appeared and stood next to me. An Italian colonello or colonel, aged about sixty, with a long corrugated beard.

He was the first person whom I could ask something cogently. I said to him, ‘I heard that the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao was coming to fight for Amanullah. But what is really happening?’

The colonello said, ‘Seems like wrong news. He’s coming to take over the city.’

If that was the case, then why were Amanullah’s soldiers not going to the north of the city to fight him? How did Bacha-e-Saqao arrive in Kabul so suddenly? How many men did he have? Were they carrying only rifles or did they have cannons? The colonello could not answer these questions; he only kept saying, ‘What an odd experience!’

I said, ‘I can understand why the ordinary Kabulis are afraid, but why have the foreigners joined them? Where are they going?’

The colonello replied, ‘To their own embassies or legations—for shelter.’

The sound of rifle shots was drawing closer. By then the crowd was moving in waves rather than in a stream. In between two such waves I told the colonello, ‘Let’s go home.’ He said he would not leave without seeing the last act. Military whim—there was no point in arguing.

Abdur Rahman was waiting for me at the door. His worries disappeared at the sight of me. As soon as I entered the house, he closed the door and started to fortify it with heavy rocks. Intelligent man. He had made all the arrangements for fortification when I was out. I asked, ‘Where is Benoit?’ Abdur Rahman informed me that Benoit had left for the French Legation in a tonga carrying only one suitcase.

By that time the sound of the gunfire had been overpowered by the heavy sound of machine guns. Abdur Rahman brought tea. Listening to the sounds carefully, he said, ‘The king’s soldiers have now attacked. From where would Bacha have gotten hold of machine guns?’

I asked him, ‘The king’s soldiers are facing Bacha this late? How could he reach Kabul so easily?’

Abdur Rahman said, ‘I asked many people while waiting for you at the door, but nobody could say anything clearly. It seems he has arrived without any resistance. He comes from the north of the country; my place is also in the north—Panjshir. I would have got some news of troop mobilisation in that region from my fellow Panjshiris in the bazaar, but there was none. The king’s troops have gone to the east under the command of Ali Ahmad Khan to fight the Shinwaris.’

The exchange of fire continued. Abdur Rahman served me dinner early that evening and then he sat down to tend to the fire in the fireplace. From our chat I could make out that he was worried about my well-being in case Bacha won, which would be followed by anarchy and looting. But clearly he was highly excited and curious—much like a small child when the circus came to town.

But who was this Bacha-e-Saqao? I did not have to ask Abdur Rahman, he told me many stories about him of his own accord. I realised that Abdur Rahman had many qualities—a jeweller of snow, a doctor of frostbite, chef-decuisine—but he certainly was no Boswell. You could have constructed an image of a Robin Hood from what he said about Bacha, but much of it was certainly a figment of imagination and myth.

After filtering through all the stories carefully, I had a glimpse of the life of Bacha; he was the leader of a gang of about three hundred bandits; lived in Kohistan, north of Kabul; he looted the rich and distributed a portion of his booty to the poor. When Amanullah was away in Europe, he became so powerful that he started to collect tax from the traders of Kohistan. After coming back, Amanullah proclaimed a price on his head, ‘Five hundred rupees reward on the head of bandit Bacha-e-Saqao.’ Bacha removed all the posters and put up his own proclamation, ‘One thousand rupees reward on the head of Kafir Amanullah.’

Abdur Rahman asked me, ‘But Sahib, help me solve a riddle. The colonel’s son asked me, if I cut off Bacha’s head and my brother cuts off Amanullah’s, then how much money would we make together? I said, one and a half thousand. He nearly rolled on the floor with laughter; he said, “You won’t get a penny.” Please Sahib, explain why wouldn’t we get any money?’

I consoled him, ‘Because neither of them will be alive to give you the rewards. But you can tell the colonel’s son that the throne of Afghanistan will then be bestowed upon your family.’

I had also heard that only a few days earlier Bacha suddenly turned up in front of some high-ranking officials and swore his allegiance to the king in the fights against the Shinwaris by touching the Koran. By doing so he managed to get hold of about a hundred rifles and then disappeared.

Did he turn those rifles against Amanullah?

About the Book

An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali from Sylhet (in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh) spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929. Drawing on this experience, he later wrote Deshe Bideshe which was published in 1948. Ali’s young mind was curious to explore the Afghan society of the time and, with his impressive language skills, he had access to a cross-section of Kabul’s population, whose ideas and experiences he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour. His account provides a fascinating first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history, when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. Deshe Bideshe is the only published eyewitness account of that tumultuous period by a non-Afghan, brought to life by the contact that Ali enjoyed with a colourful cast of characters at all levels of society—from the garrulous Pathan Dost Muhammed and the gentle Russian giant Bolshov, to his servant, Abdur Rahman and his partner in tennis, the Crown Prince Enayatullah.

About the Author

Born in 1904, Syed Mujtaba Ali was a prominent literary figure in Bengali literature. A polyglot, a scholar of Islamic studies and a traveller, Mujtaba Ali taught in Baroda and at Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Deshe Bideshe was his first published book (1948). By the time he died in 1974, he had more than two dozen books—fiction and non-fiction—to his credit.

About the Translator

A journalist for over three decades, Nazes Afroz has worked in both print and broadcasting in Kolkata and in London. He joined the BBC in London in 1998 and spent close to fifteen years with the organisation. As a senior editor in the BBC, Nazes was in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. A passionate photographer and a compulsive traveller, Nazes quit his job in the BBC and moved back to India in 2013 where he is based in Delhi. Currently he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines and is working on a few photography projects.

(Excerpted from In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated by Nazes Afroz. Published by Speaking Tiger Books)

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Review

A Taste of Time

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

 Title: A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta
Author: Mohona Kanjilal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

To say that this is a rattling book on the food culture of Kolkata will be an understatement. Indeed, there couldn’t have been a better book than this on the food history of the City of Joy. In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.

A Taste of Time–A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal goes the whole hog in digging out the culinary history of Kolkata with every minute detail. The book is massive and gorgeous.

An alumnus of Loreto College, Kanjilal spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. From a freelance journalist to a full-time writer, newspapers have been her invariable guidance. She dabbles in short stories, too.

Says the blurb: “Calcutta, once the nucleus of the Raj, was at the heart of a thriving economy and unparalleled administration. Over the centuries, this teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis has become home to people from various communities who have lent its food and culture their distinctive tastes and culinary rituals. The heady romance of palates and flavours in the ‘Royal Capital’ has fostered diversity in food and culture all the while adhering to the city’s Bengali roots.”

Divided into four sections and about a dozen chapters, Kanjilal brings to the platter a full account of the food culture of Kolkata and it, surely, is an intellectual nourishment.

The book is a perceptive journey through the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s food and cultural environment, from its decades-old cutlet, jhal muri,and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo’s and Flurys. Whether it is the oldest tea shop, Favourite Cabin, set up in 1924, to the 21st-century fine-dining restaurant “threesixtythree”, Mohona dexterously captures the stories behind the city’s adorable culture of ‘bikel chaar-ter cha’ (tea at 4 p.m.).

What makes the volume fascinating is her authentic research. From Calcutta’s renowned bakeries like Nahoum’s to the invention of rasgullas and samosas (or shingara), Kanjilal does a 360-degree exploration. Diving into Calcutta’s blazing history, she shows how the food habits of early European settlers, Jewish, Armenian, Chinese, Parsi and other communities, and the city’s next-door neighbours like Odisha, have made the culinary fabric of Calcutta immensely flush and stratified.

Food, Kanjilal says, “has always been an integral part of the lifestyle of the residents of Calcutta… whether it is… the phuchka wallah… the jhal muri wallah, selling the spicy puffed rice preparation… or the ghugni wallah, serving… the semi-dry and spicy preparation of whole yellow peas…”

In close to 500 pages, she weaves scholarly accounts of historians and food writers with the everyday fables one hears from a famous paanwallah or an old-timer of a club. In the introductory part; she deals with the founding of Calcutta — from the Mughal empire to the coming of the British and latter part of the twentieth century when Calcutta became a bursting metropolis.

Writes Kanjilal: “As the capital of British India (1858-1911), Calcutta became a culinary melting pot of Armenians and Parsis from Iran, Jews from Syria and Baghdad, the Chinese fleeing their revolution, and local migrants such as Gujaratis, Punjabis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Oriyas, Biharis and South Indians. Her book explores this culinary evolution across a variety of cuisines and time periods. She structures the book according to when these migrants figured into the city’s consciousness. It is divided into four sections, with each section taking up the culinary influence of a particular set of migrants and the dishes they influenced in a Bengali household’s repertoire.

“The British were responsible for introducing certain food habits that have, over the years, become pillars of Calcutta’s culinary culture. One of their major contributions was the introduction of beverages to the Bengali table. Tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices are a fixed part of the average Bengali’s breakfast spread today because of the British influence. This nation strongly influenced the foods Bengalis ate for breakfast as well, introducing typical preparations of egg, sausage, bacon and bread to the local palate. Chops and cutlets, which are today as essential to a Bengali as rice and fish curry, also owe their popularity to the role played by the British in Bengali culinary history. Today, kiosks in every nook and corner of the city make and sell these fried foods, usually as accompaniments to what many perceive as a quintessentially British meal: afternoon tea. Finally, egg-based puddings, now a fixture on Calcutta’s dessert menus, were introduced to the city by the British.”

Her investigation is truly fascinating. From the British influence to the Portuguese influence; from the Anglo-Indian to the Armenian; from the Jews to the Nawabi influence; from Chinese to Parsi cuisine, she digs out hundreds of recipes. Then, there is a whole chapter on Bengali cuisine itself. She also deals with Pan-Indian cuisine and the influence of nearby Darjeeling district.

If one ever wants to read a book about Calcutta that takes to the vignettes and the history surrounding the favourite dishes and eateries, this is the book. If you want to hear stories about which famous personality (e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose) ate what and where, and if you want to repeat those experiences for yourself, then this is the suitable guide.

This delicious and all-embracing history of food in Calcutta, peppered with mouth-watering nuggets, recipes and incendiary accounts is a boon for the bon vivant.

Glossary:

* Puchka, jhaal muri and ghughni are savoury snacks.

Paanwallah is the seller of paan or betel leaf.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Author Page

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is A traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of numerous anthologies and journals.

Interview

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam: An online interview with the 2020 Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

Poetry

Catabolic Woman by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

More Poems by Arundhathi Subramian houses three poems. Click here to read. The following poems from her collection can be found here.

  • When God is a Traveller
  • Eight Poems for Shankuntala
  • The Fine Art of Ageing

Book Review

A review by Bhaskar Parichha of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves, published by Speaking Tiger Books. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Click here to read.

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Review

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Horses have a captivating and curious existence in India. Stallions have been graciously carved into the Indian landscape in a variety of ways. To view the subcontinent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept back in its power and propriety. Horses have a galactic connection to Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also popular belief.

The political symbolism of the horse, its vital function in social life, religion, sport and war, its role in shaping economies and forging crucial human bonds is too obvious to point out.

Emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri is an interesting tale of gallantry. In India’s modern history, there were fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. Horses have an intimate connection to grooms, blacksmiths, breeders, traders and bandits.

Rana Pratap’s legendary Chetak, Ranjit Singh’s much-contested Laili, Pabuji’s cherished black mare and those horses captured in paintings and equestrian portraits are riveting. This glorious age of the horse met its painful decline with the onset of colonial rule and automation.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger is an engrossing book not only for the subject but also the research. In this inspiring and scholarly book, Doniger — who has been called the greatest living mythologist — examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history, from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, followed by the Greeks, the Turks and Mongols (who imported Arabian horses) and the British (who imported Thoroughbreds and Walers). 

Along the way, she delves deep into the rituals of horse sacrifice in the Vedic age. She rummages through the stories of warring horses and snakes in the Mahabharata. She digs into   tensions between Hindu stallion and Arab mare traditions; imposing European standards on Indian breeds; the reasons many Indian men ride mares to weddings; the motivations for murdering Dalits who ride horses; and the enduring myth of foreign horses who emerge from the ocean to fertilise native mares.

Doniger combines erudition with storytelling and gives the reader a persuasive account on the horse in Indian culture just as she does it in her other books on Indian mythology. 

Quoting from the book: “The horse is not indigenous to India, except in a few small pockets. Even after it was brought to the subcontinent sometime between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE by the Indo-Europeans. It played almost no part in the lives of ordinary Indian villagers, being too expensive for all but the most privileged people to own. In India’s folklore, epics and popular culture horse stories abound and there are some brilliant images of the animal.”

Doniger’s ride through four millennia of Indian legend and folklore is full of sacrificial horses, horse-headed gods, transformations and couplings. Like Doniger’s other works on Indian mythology and history, this book  is astonishingly accomplished with the threads of mythical narratives woven into a meaningful depiction of the Indian imagination.

Author of classic works like The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger has two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford. She has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her other books include Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities; The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra.  

The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (Fleet). Doniger retells the story thus:

“The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (Savarna) and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.”

Doniger takes us on the trail of the horse into and within India. What follows is a surprising and exhilarating journey, covering caravan-trade routes originating in Central Asia and Tibet, sea routes from the Middle East, and the dominions of different sultans and Mughal emperors, the south Indian kingdoms as well as the Rajput horse-warrior states. 

Doniger professes her earliest exposure to India and the horses was in 1963 when she was twenty-two years old. Her meeting with Penelope Betjeman — daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode who was the head commander of the British forces in India from 1928 to 1935 — gave her an introduction to these creatures. Doniger has dedicated the book to Penelope who died accidentally in 1986 in the Kulu Hills.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares has about a dozen chapters — most of which have a throwback to the Vedic and Puranic times. It is only in the last two chapters where she writes the horse saga of modern India. With a slew of illustrations and profound research, the book makes for a gripping read. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL