Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Nehru delivered an Urdu version of his famous "Tryst with destiny" speech as India became independent

Thursday, January 21, 2016

How the British victory at Plassey created the modern Durga Pujo

As far as names go, the “Battle of Plassey” is a terrible one. It was actually fought at a place called “Pawlāshi” in modern West Bengal, “Palāsi” being the Persian language mangling of the village adopted by the British. It was also not much of a battle. Bribed by the British colonel, Robert Clive, most of the Bengal army simply deserted Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. After a little more than half an hour of fighting on June 23, 1757, Clive found himself master of Bengal and one of the richest, most powerful people in the subcontinent.

So astounding was his fortune that Clive attributed it to providence and sought to give thanks to the Lord. Unfortunately, the only church in the town of Calcutta had been destroyed by the Nawab. At this moment, Clive’s Persian interpreter and clerk, a zamindar named Nabakrishna Deb stepped up and asked Clive to offer thanks to Maa Durga instead. Nubkissen, as he spelt his name at the time, ensured a grand celebration for Clive at his mansion, as his pandits conducted an equally grand puja to Durga to celebrate the British conquest of Bengal. And thus, it is said, the tradition of Durga Pujo was born in Calcutta. In fact, till today, the pujo conducted at Deb’s historic Shobhabazar mansion is called the “Company Pujo”.

This tale, neat and explanatory, has gained wide fame as the definitive origin tale of the modern Kolkata Durga Pujo. The only problem ­– it’s completely made up, probably by Deb babu himself. The only source is an anonymous painting, maybe commissioned by Nubkissen. Deb only became Clive’s munshi after 1757, so it seems unlikely that Clive would have partied at his mansion after the battle (although, as you can imagine, the rumour did Deb no harm).

Raj associations

However, even if the literal details of this particular story are untrue, it can still act as a fairly accurate allegory, telling us that the modern festival of Durga Pujo was developed by the new zamindar class of British Bengal and was tied closely to the establishment of the Raj.

To begin at the beginning, as academic Saugata Bhaduri points out, while worship of the mother goddesses, both Vedic and adivasi, has been a feature of Bengal for all of recorded history, Durga seems to be practically absent from the pantheon before the 18th century. Yet, by the end of the 1700s, Bhaduri informs us, the sharad or autumn Durga Puja, in a form very similar to the one we see today, had become the “most important festival of the Hindu Bengalis”.

The establishment of British rule was the single most important event in the history of Bengal since the Delhi Sultanate captured the Bengal capital of Gaur in 1203. As such, it had a massive effect on Bengali society. One of those changes was the rise of a powerful zamindari class, whom you might call compradors, if you’ve read one Marxist historian too many. Since they owed their position to the British, the zamindars were keen supporters of Company Raj.  It was in this historical crucible that Kolkata’s modern Durga Pujo was forged. The pujo was an event used by the zamindars to show off their wealth and power, to each other as well as the Raj (this is why Nabakrishna was so keen to claim the first Durga Pujo for himself). The Raj, in turn, patronised the pujo in order to gain popular legitimacy for themselves as the rulers of Bengal.

Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri writes:

For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe.
The trump card was to have the governor-general as the chief guest at the puja. The compliment was duly repaid when the governor-general, Lord Wellesley, ordered a nine-gun salute in honour of Kali on appropriate occasions, much to the chagrin of believing Christians. The sahibs were entertained in great style. There were performances by the ubiquitous nautch girls. Karan bari, the sacred liquid, i.e. alcohol, was of course de rigueur in Sakta ritual. So whisky, champagne and lesser wines flowed freely and the feasts were truly fit for the gods.

Syncretic creation 

The creation of this autumnal Durga Pujo was an amazingly syncretic process and, in many ways, would act as a precursor to the Bengal Renaissance of the next century.  Durga is usually worshipped as a warrior but in Bengal she is also imagined as a family figure. Some of this reimagining of the Bengali Durga involved bits that were at odds with Puranic scripture.  Saraswati, for example, is the daughter of Brahma everywhere else but in a Kolkata pujo pandal, where Shiv and Durga are her parents. And nowhere else is Durga worshipped along with her children.

A number of mantras and rituals are Puranic but, then again, many are not, being borrowed from Tantric, adivasi or folk culture. Some rituals, such as the sindur khela, are secular and have nothing to do with worship at all. Even Bengal’s subaltern Muslim cultivator class seemed to have had an effect: the kolakuli – or triple hug – Bhaduri says is taken from the Islamic practice on Eid.

Durga and Bengali nationalism

Given its popularity as well as the Pujo’s use in statecraft, as nationalist feelings started to develop in Bengal amongst the bhadralok class, it was almost natural that the Goddess Durga would act as an icon for this new type of imagined community. Historian Raychaudhuri writes:

In Bengal, the link between the mother cult and nationalist perceptions was first projected by the writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay. Responding to the comments of an English Professor of Hindu College who asserted that Indians never had a sense of nationhood, Bhudev wrote that the story of the pithasthanas, the legend that the parts of the goddesses’ body was scattered all over India, was really an allegory: the divine body was the same as the motherland. His younger and better-known contemporary Bankim Chatterji carried the idea much further in his novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss). The novel, based on a highly fictionalised version of a popular rebellion in the days of Warren Hastings, the Faqir or Sanyasi Rebellion, has for its protagonists a group of patriotic monks who worshipped Vishnu in his role of a very well-armed God the Preserver. But their monastery also contained three images of the Mother: as she had been, as she had become and as she would be in the future. These images, more of the Motherland than the Mother Goddess, projected the increasingly popular belief in a glorious and prosperous past, impoverishment under colonial rule and the hopes of a great future in which at least some were beginning to believe, The patriotic monks are described by the novelist as the santans, the children of the Mother, i.e., both the Divine Mother and the Motherland. The two are in fact the same. The Motherland is conceived as Durga with ten arms and the song to celebrate her glory, Bandemataram, which became India’s first national anthem, pays homage to a land that is prosperous, beautiful and endowed with the potentialities of great power.
Some twenty-five years after the song was written, Bandemataram (‘Hail Mother’) became the battle-cry of the first popular movement of resistance to colonial rule in which the middle class Bengalis participated. The action was intended to annul the decision to partition the Bengal Presidency into two provinces, a decision seen to be an attempt to divide the politically-conscious Bengali people. Bandemataram was the name adopted for a patriotic periodical with extreme views. The revolutionary movement first born of the anti-partition agitation treated Anandamath as its Bible. Aurobindo Ghosh, the Cambridge-educated Bengali revolutionary, projected the vision of a Bhavani Mandir, a temple dedicated to the goddess, as the centre of revolutionary activity. His Mandir was closely modelled on Anandamath.

To the masses

The growth of a Bengali identity meant that more myths were added to the imagining of Durga. To her worship as a mother and warrior was added the beautiful backstory of her returning back to her parent’s house – which, in this case, was Bengal – for an autumnal holiday, thus also worshipping her as a daughter. Forces similar to those that imagined her as a nationalistic icon pushed Durga out of the courtyard of the zamindari mansion and made the pujo a truly mass event. A popular origin tale of the collective pujo dates to 1790, where 12 friends are supposed to have got together and organised a baro-yari (12 comrades) pujo. However, breaking free of the zamindar mansion, the Durga Pujo in its modern sense, as a sarbajanin, community event dates to 1910, where the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha held a collectively funded pujo in Kolkata's Baghbazar.

The 20th century establishment of a fully developed modern Bengali identity and the simultaneous decline of the institution of zamindari meant that the sarbajanin pujo slowly took over from the rajbari or mansion pujo. Today, the traditional zamindar pujo, as held since the 18th century, is mostly dead. In Rituparno Ghosh’s fantastic movie, Utsab, for example, a family gathers for what could be their last Durga pujo as their ancestral mansion is to be sold to realtors, even as the youngest family member, a young boy, threatens to run off to the “club-er pujo” (public pujo) given how boring and slow he finds this one.

Still maintains its original core

Even as Kolkata’s Durga Pujo has changed immensely since it first took modern shape in the 18th century, its core has been preserved.  Its social, cultural and political role still holds, in a manner rather similar to how it was imagined three centuries back. It might, for example, seem ironic that the Communists would inaugurate pujos. However, it could simply be looked at as the continuation of a tradition where British officials, non-believers in the Pujo just like the Communists, would act as chief guests for zamindari pujos. And, of course, the trend continues till today, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee patronising pandals across the city and even, as it turns out, writing a song for the autumn festival.

Earlier zamindars would compete to show who was boss; today pujo committees do, their finances coming not out of land revenue but from modern capitalism in the form of corporate endorsements. The relatively small role of worship ­­– ironic in a religious festival ­– has also been preserved. Durga pujo in Kolkata is more about community, art and culture than any strict observance of religion. Pandals and idols are meant to be seen by the masses as public works of art and only a small minority end up going through any ritualistic form of faith. Very often idols even convey a political point ­– most famously, in 2001, one pujo had Durga slaying a demon in the likeness of Osama bin Laden.

In this way, Durga worship as imagined in Bengal and, specifically, Kolkata is unique. In Delhi, for example, the simultaneous autumn worship of Durga by Punjabis – the navratri – is a sombre event and, amongst other things, involves intense food taboos even as, in contrast, Durga Pujo in Kolkata is fixated on eating out, extravagant meals being a crucial part of the celebration. Such is the benediction and magic of Durga pujo that, for four days in a year, it renders even the Kolkata Bengali more fun and less pretentious than the Delhi Punjabi.

First published on

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dedh Ishqiya and Urdu in India Today

In a 21st century take on the “Muslims Social”, Dedh Ishqiya does a marvellous job of using High Urdu to amaze and entertain. Looking beyond the wordplay, though, the film’s layered take on language provides some intelligent and much needed commentary on the state of Urdu in India today and its relationship with the country’s Muslims.

In a riotously funny scene from recently released comic thriller Dedh Ishqiya, Jaan Mohammad (played by Vijay Raaz) aggressively threatens a very drunk Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) to leave town so that he can win the hand of the beautiful Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit). In a twist typical of the film, fist fights and gun brandishing suddenly give way to poetry, as Khalujaan picks up the word “wādā” (promise) used by Jaan and starts taunting him using a sher. A gangster by profession and somewhat removed from the world of poetry, Jaan retorts as best he can by racking his brains and coming up with the only sher he knows on “wādā. This change of playing field from violence to poetry, though, can only end badly for Jaan. His verse induces derisive laughter from Khalujaan who then points out that Jaan’s original sher spoke of “bādā” (wine) and not “wādā” at all. Jaan just confused the two rhyming words.

It is credit to the competence of director Abhishek Chaubey that the Bombay theatre I was in, found the wordplay funny and laughed along with Khalu, in spite of the fact that very few would have been able to point out Jaan’s mistake themselves. Anupama Chopra, movie critic for the Hindustan Times, though, might have empathised more with Jaan and his struggles with High Urdu. While generally praising the film, she did end her review with one small regret: “I also struggled with the Urdu,” she said. “It was melodious but I wish I understood more of it.”

This frank admission, and the fact that Dedh Ishqiya is the only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen with English subtitles, contains within it some stark irony for an industry which, it could be said, was born into Urdu. As Mukul Kesavan has pointed out, Bollywood with its fantasy, musicals and location (Bombay) was an almost direct successor to Parsi theatre. And like the theatre, the new film industry adopted Urdu, given that it was the only language at the time which had any sort of pan-national appeal. To churn out words for this new industry, were recruited large numbers of Urdu writers and poets from North India. Bollywood’s Golden Age from the 40s to the 60s was studded with Urdudāns such as Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni and, most relevant to this movie, Ismat Chughtai. Lihāf (Quilt), Chughtai’s story of lesbian love between a begum and her maid, forms one of the principal subplots within Dedh Ishqiya. The movie itself has a subtle hat tip to this source in the scene where Khalujaan and Babban have been tied up by Para and Muniya (Huma Qureshi). As the shadows of the two woman making love flit across the screen—in itself a symbol from Lihāf—Khalujaan remarks impishly to Babban, “thand lag rahī hai? Lihāf māng le!” (Feeling cold? Ask for a quilt).

To grant Chopra her limited point, the language of Dedh Ishqiya is particularly “high” for the average film of today. But go back just 50 years, and you would find a very similar linguistic standard prevalent in the industry, especially in the music. Wonder how a film reviewer reconciles her job as a critic when a film of just 50 years back would be inaccessible to her. But then in an industry where Katrina Kaif, a person who plays all her roles with a thick British accent, is the dominant star maybe Chopra is doing all right. And of course, there is the point that Chopra would hardly be alone. Whatever be the origins of Bollywood, the fact is that a very large majority of Indians would be unable to understand the sort of High Urdu that the movie uses—it’s not for nothing that the film carried English subtitles.

In a mark of the intelligence of the film though, one of the themes of Dedh Ishqiya is this very hollowness of Urdu in India today.

Urdu started life as a standardised register of the local language of Delhi. As SR Faruqi points out in his book Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, “Urdu” itself is a metonym for the city of Delhi. The name “Urdu”, though, is very recent and the language has variously been called Hindvi/Gujri/Rekhta/Dakhani and even Hindi; as late as the early 20th century, the words “Hindi” and “Urdu” were being used interchangeably.

The development of Urdu as an elite language though was a rather late development in the history of North India. Throughout the medieval period, Persian had been the region’s lingua franca and official language. In fact it was so ingrained in India that when the British proposed to do away with Persian in 1839, 500 citizens from Dhaka, split almost equally amongst Hindu and Muslim, vigorously petitioned the government to desist from such a move. In spite of this, the British did replace Persian and, in North India, introduced Urdu in its place as an official language. Unfortunately, the legacy of Farsi was less easy to shake off. The Urdu that took root in the offices of the Raj was corpulently Persianised. This was maybe a deliberate tactic by the clerks—mostly upper class Muslims, Kayasths, Kashmiri Brahmins and Khatris—who controlled the language and profited from the fact that the general populace was totally dependent on them for something as simple as comprehension. In many ways, this attitude was not dissimilar to that of the current Anglophone class which break out into paroxysms every time anyone so much as talks of replacing English with the local languages of each state.

As a reaction, the rural classes—who were mostly Hindu—championed the cause of Nagari using organisation such as the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (of Banaras) and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (of Allahabad), both founded at the turn of the century. In this way, the origins of modern Hindi were utilitarian and commonsensical—it aimed to simplify Urdu. Unfortunately, this straightforward matter of language, as we all know, got violently communalised and to top it all, the end result was a register which was de-Persianised, as promised, but also corpulently Sanskritised, leading us all back to square one as far as ease of comprehension goes. Alok Rai calls this new register “school Hindi” and wryly remarks that this leads to children across the length and breadth of North India to valiantly struggle to learn a language which is supposed to be their mother tongue. It is no wonder that all popular culture in India, such as Bollywood, steers clear of either extreme and sticks to the spoken speech of Hindustan. In 1947 though, the sharp politicisation of the Hindi-Urdu issue meant that this “School Hindi” was adopted as India’s official language. Suddenly, in places like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the birthplace of Urdu, Urdu stopped being taught and used in government. This lack of patronage had little effect on the everyday Urdu (or Hindustani) of spoken speech, a large portion of the language which was shared in common with Shudh Hindi. It did however have the effect of severely curtailing the sphere of influence of High Urdu. A high or literary register without patronage is, by definition, not going to get very far and that is what happened. Post-1947, Urdu atrophied dramatically.

Normally, if this was any other country, High Urdu would have a dignified death much as Ottoman Turkish did when Ataturk changed the official language of Turkey to Modern Turkish. Indeed, since Urdu offers almost no economic benefits, the only people who study it today as a primary language are people who get this education free at madrasas and are too poor to pay for anything else. In India, though, the communal history of Hindi-Urdu, made Urdu one of various meaningless markers of Muslim identity that can be taken out and flogged whenever necessary. As an example, when AAP want to reach out to Muslims in Delhi, it releases an Urdu pamphlet. This is unneeded because firstly, a large number of Delhi Muslims would be unable to read the Urdu script in the first place and secondly, even those that do, will almost certainly read the Devanagri script better or, at least, just as well. If all AAP wanted to do was to communicate with Muslims, a Hindi pamphlet would have done a much better job. And of course, this was just a minor example. Governments have, for decades, used the “Muslim” symbolism of Urdu—a sort of internal Orientalism if you will—to great effect employing it as a diversionary tactic to get away with non-performance on rather more pressing issues such as health or sanitation.

Given that a majority of its characters are Muslims, Dedh Ishqiya might be classified as a modern “Muslim social”. True to its genre, the film does explore the stereotypical elements of elite Indo-Islamic culture. Dedh Ishqiya has havelīs, nawābs and begums, flowing sherwanīs and, of course, stars High Urdu. Unlike a traditional Muslim Social such as Umrao Jaan or Pakeezah (which would have High Urdu through and through), the movie functions on multiple planes of language. At the almost surrealistic mushairā-cum-swayamwar that Begum Para holds to choose a suitor for herself, the most mellifluous Urdu is spoken and, indeed, Chaubey and Bhardwaj take advantage of the register to produce some crackling repartee and wit. Things though start unravelling in the character of Jaan Mohammed, a local gangster looking to gentrify himself by marrying a begum. Respectability though needs to be earned and before he gets to become a nawāb he’ll have to get the language right. Jaan’s battles with Urdu lead to some curious results. Throughout the movie he uses some high vocabulary (“shamsheer” for “talwār” and “gauhar” for ”hīre-motī”/) but slips up on the simplest of Urdu words, mispronouncing “Ishq” as “Issak” or “shart” as “sart”. And not only Jaan, for all the other characters, this High Urdu is just a mask put on to impress. Khalujaan, who is otherwise a talented poet, talks to his closest friend Babban in their common earthy register of Bhopali Urdu. The one time he does put on airs as a fake nawāb, Babban tells him rather plainly that “tumhārī sārī nawābīyat hai nā, picchwāde main ghusaid doongā” (I’ll stuff you airs up your ass). And when right towards the end of the movie, Jaan Mohammad despotically orders Para and Khalujaan to dance for him, one of his flunkies pipes up to complain, “Yeh itne dinon se ghazlein-wazlein sun ke nā badhazmī sī ho ga’ī hai, sāli. Inse item number karwāte hain. ” (I’m tired of all this high-falutin’ poetry. Let’s get them to do some item numbers).

This sort of linguistic meta-commentary is rare in Bollywood (Chupke Chupke is one exception which comes to mind), which is odd given how integral language is to the art of cinema. But Dedh Ishqiya does take a shot at it and skilfully uses the nuances of language to explore different shades of the story as well as make a larger point about the state of Urdu in India today. And that is

Sunday, September 6, 2015

See Salman Rushdie merge the differing Indian and Pakistani accounts of the 1965 War into a dazzling display of the art of writing

Excerpted from Midnight's Children.

“But who attacked? Who defended? On my eighteenth birthday, reality took another terrible beating. From the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, an Indian prime minister (not the same one who wrote me a long-ago letter) sent me this birthday greeting: 'We promise that force will be met with force, and aggression against us will never be allowed to succeed!' While jeeps with loud-hailers saluted me in Guru Mandir, reassuring me: 'The Indian aggressors will be utterly overthrown! We are a race of warriors!

One Pathan; one Punjabi Muslim is worth ten of those babus-in-arms!'

Jamila Singer was called north, to serenade our worth-ten jawans. A servant paints blackout on the windows; at night, my father, in the stupidity of his second childhood, opens the windows and turns on the lights. Bricks and stones fly through the apertures: my eighteenth-birthday presents. And still events grow more and more confused: on August soth, did Indian troops cross the cease-fire line near Uri to 'chase out the Pakistan raiders'-or to initiate an attack? When, on September 1st, our ten-times-better soldiers crossed the line at Chhamb, were they aggressors or were they not?

Some certainties: that the voice of Jamila Singer sang Pakistani troops to their deaths; and that muezzins from their minarets-yes, even on Clayton Road-promised us that anyone who died in battle went straight to the camphor garden. The mujahid philosophy of Syed Ahmad Barilwi ruled the air; we were invited to make sacrifices 'as never before'.

And on the radio, what destruction, what mayhem! In the first five days of the war Voice of Pakistan announced the destruction of more aircraft than India had ever possessed; in eight days, All-India Radio massacred the Pakistan Army down to, and considerably beyond, the last man. Utterly distracted by the double insanity of the war and my private life, I began to think desperate thoughts… Great sacrifices: for instance, at the battle for Lahore? On September 6th, Indian troops crossed the Wagah border, thus hugely broadening the front of the war, which was no longer limited to Kashmir; and did “great sacrifices take place, or not? Was it true that the city was virtually defenceless, because the Pak Army and Air Force were ail in the Kashmir sector? Voice of Pakistan said: O memorable day! O unarguable lesson in the fatality of delay! The Indians, confident of capturing the city, stopped for breakfast. All-India Radio announced the fall of Lahore; meanwhile, a private aircraft spotted the breakfasting invaders.

While the B.B.C. picked up the A.I.R. story, the Lahore militia was mobilized. Hear the Voice of Pakistan!-old men, young boys, irate grandmothers fought the Indian Army; bridge by bridge they battled, with any available weapons! Lame men loaded their pockets with grenades, pulled out the pins, flung themselves beneath advancing Indian tanks; toothless old ladies disembowelled Indian babus with pitchforks! Down to the last man and child, they died: but they saved the city, holding off the Indians until air support arrived! Martyrs, Padma! Heroes, bound for the perfumed garden! Where the men would be given four beauteous houris, untouched by man or djinn; and the women, four equally virile males!

“Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny? What a thing this holy war is, in which with one supreme sacrifice men may atone for all their evils! No wonder Lahore was defended; what did the Indians have to look forward to? Only re-incarnation-as cockroaches, maybe, or scorpions, or green-medicine-wallahs-there's really no comparison.”

“But did it or didn't it? Was that how it happened? Or was All-India Radio-great tank battle, huge Pak losses, 450 tanks destroyed-telling the truth?

Nothing was real; nothing certain. Uncle Puffs came to visit the Clayton Road house, and there were no teeth in his mouth. (During India's China war, when our loyalties were different, my mother had given gold bangles and jewelled ear-rings to the 'Ornaments for Armaments' campaign; but what was that when set against the sacrifice of an entire mouthful of gold?) 'The nation,' he said indistinctly through his untoothed gums, 'must not, darn it, be short of funds on account of one man's vanity!'-But did he or didn't he? Were teeth truly sacrificed in the name of holy war, or were they sitting in a cupboard at home? 'I'm afraid,' Uncle Puffs said gummily, 'you'll have to wait for that special dowry I promised.'-Nationalism or meanness? Was his baring of gums a supreme proof of his patriotism, or a slimy ruse to avoid filling a Puffna-mouth with gold?

And were there parachutists or were there not? '…have been dropped on every major city,' Voice of Pakistan announced. 'All able-bodied persons are to stay up with weapons; shoot on sight after dusk curfew.' But in India, 'Despite Pakistani air-raid provocation,' the radio claimed, 'we have not responded!' Who to believe? Did Pakistani fighter-bombers truly make that 'daring raid' which caught one-third of the Indian Air Force helplessly grounded on tarmac? Did they didn't they? And those night-dances in the sky, Pakistani Mirages and Mysteres against India's less romantically-titled MiGs: did Islamic mirages and mysteries do battle with Hindu invaders, or was it all some kind of astonishing illusion? Did bombs fall? Were explosions true? Could even a death be said to be the case?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Experience the Wagah

Manto’s Toba Tek Singh is probably one of the most extraordinary pieces of satire ever written. Ripping into the utter mindlessness that was Partition, the story questions the very concept of sanity in a land where, it could be said, with very little exaggeration, everyone had gone mad. If you haven’t already, you can read the short story here in the original Urdu or a Devanagri transliteration or (only if you have to) an English translation. You can also listen to a reading of the story on YouTube [part I, part II]

After reading the story though, should you want to live the satire, and get a first-hand glimpse of the madness that powered Manto’s genius, all you have to do is get on a train and make your way to Amritsar. At a short distance from the city is the only land border crossing between two nations representing a fifth of the world’s population: Wagah. Of course, being a border crossing between two nuclear states is hard work and it’s unfair to expect it to work for long hours. In deference to this sentiment, every evening at five-thirty, the crossing is closed.

And what a closing it is.

The gates themselves are fairly unimpressive: made of iron and about as big as what you’d get outside any school. What’s to watch though us how they are shut. Watched over by avuncular portraits of Gandhi and Jinnah on either side, soldiers theatrically goose-step up and down the tarmac multiple times, stopping every five steps or so to stomp the ground after swinging their legs through an impossibly wide angle. If this reminds you of roosters in heat I suspect that was exactly what was intended. To leave no doubts as to the whole foul theme, both sides have massive rooster-style combs crowning their hats which quiver impressively as and when a soldier brings down his boot from shoulder height to stomp the ground.

Watched on by a crowd on either side of the border, all of this is preceded by an impromptu dance/bhangra performance (only on the Indian side though; the Pakistanis take their border crossings seriously) and the marching was interspersed with patriotic slogan shouting and cheering led by a man on a mic wearing, for some reason, a white sweatsuit. The day I’d gone, the Indian side was impossibly crowded and we so comprehensively outshouted the Pakistanis that I couldn’t even hear their slogans. In contrast to the overflowing Indian stands, the Pakistanis barely filled up theirs; a reflection of the ratios in population between the twins or a general indicator of the lack of enthusiasm of the Pakistanis in Pakistan maybe.

Leading up to the Indian side of the gate was an amateurishly built monument to the Punjabis killed during Partition which everyone roundly ignores or at, best uses, as a temporary bench to sit on after all that bhangra. With so many people visiting the place, a soft drinks stall there does brisk business (and suffers from an infuriating lack of change). There’s also a BSF souvenir shop which sells stuffed toys and Monte Carlo woollens at a whopping 40% discount (I liked a sweater but they didn’t have my size)—exactly the sort of stuff you’d like to buy at bristling border crossings.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A short history of the rasgulla

First published on Scroll.

There are many important, even vital things that Bengal claims to have contributed to India. Number-1-all-time-best Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Indian nationalism and the bottom line of the WellSpring Pharmaceutical Corporation (makers of Gelusil antacid) all owe their existence to Bengal. But more than anything else, however, Bengal has touched India via a soft, pearly white globe of cheese, dipped in thick sugar syrup.

The rasgulla, ladies and gents, is as Bengali as Communism. However, just like some reactionaries claim foreign origin for Marx babu, an extra-Bengali source is being claimed for the rasgulla. Odisha (earlier Orissa and even earlier Kalinga) has staked a Geographical Indication claim on the confectionery.

Odiya claim

This bold assertion rests on the fact that the Jagannath Temple in Puri uses rasgullas as prasad during the Rath Yatra. Laxmidhar Pujapanda, public relations officer of the temple, is quoted by the Times of India arguing: "Rasgulla has been part of Rath Yatra rituals ever since the Jagannath temple came into existence in the 12th century."

Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t have much by way of backing. The Chhapan Bhog (ritual offering to Lord Krishna) of the temple does not mention the rasgulla and there is nothing to say that the tradition of offering the sweetmeat didn’t originate sometime in the recent past.

There is also the fact that, as noted food historian KT Achaya points out, cheese was taboo in Hinduism since the act of splitting milk was seen as profane. A logical extension from the sacred status that milk held in the religion. Offering up a sweet made of cheese (in this case cottage cheese or chhana) as a Brahmanical offering in the 12th century seems highly unlikely.

The real cheese

In fact, before the 17th century, there are no references to cheese in India at all. As food writer and historian Chitra Banerji says, “It is notable that in all the myths about the young Krishna [a later incarnation of Vishnu], who was bought up by foster parents among the dairy farmers of Brindaban [in the state of Uttar Pradesh] there are thousands of references to milk, butter, ghee and yoghurt, but none to chhana.”

Not only in mythology, chhana (cottage cheese, the base used in the rasgulla), is conspicuously absent even in medieval Indian history. Banerji has studied the medieval Hindu reformer Chaitanya’s food habits and while he seemed to have a great fondness for sweets, including dairy-based ones, there is no mention of sweets with chhana as a base. In medieval Bengal, in fact, the sandesh was made out of khoa, or condensed milk solids. Only later did it come to use cheese.

How then did Bengalis come by cheese?

In medieval India, if you lived by the coast, very often the most impactful power wasn’t the Mughal emperor far out in Delhi or even your local king. Instead, the very distant Portugal might have been more important to you.

Portuguese India

Sealed off from the land route to Asia by the powerful Arabs, the Portuguese turned this adversity into profit and poured all their energies into the sea with the aim of becoming a major naval power.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama “discovered” India via a route the Arabs had been using for at least two millennia before him. The Portuguese, though, meant business and their superior naval firepower soon displaced the Arabs from India’s west coast. Not long after, the Iberians had the entire Indian coast at their disposal, from Chittagong in Bengal to Bombay (as they named it) in the Konkan.

These Portuguese newcomers had a massive influence on India’s coastal cultures. Though mostly forgotten now, this age is quiescently preserved in the languages that came into contact with Portuguese. Since this was the first European power India experienced on a large scale, a large number of Western concepts use Portuguese loans. Both Bengali and Marathi, for example, use the Portuguese word pao for western-style bread. Marathi borrowed the Portuguese name for a new, brown tuber imported from South America: batata. Almari (almirah), chaabi (key), girja (church), istri (iron) and Ingrej (English) are all words that the Bengalis took from the Portuguese. Even “harmad” a Bengali slang word meaning “ruffian”, comes from the word “armada”, referring to the poor reputation of the Portuguese sailors who mostly came up the riverine Bengal delta as pirates and raiders.

Another significant addition was made in cuisine. The Portuguese loved their fresh cottage cheese, which they made by adding citric acid to boiled milk. KT Acharya writes: “This routine technique may have lifted the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling and given the traditional Bengali moira [confectioner] a new material to work with.”

The three cheeses of Bengal

This link to the Portuguese has another strong source: Francois Bernier. Bernier, a Frenchman, was the personal physician to the Mughal price Dara Shikoh and he left behind a highly influential record of his travels in India. He mentions that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade”.

The Portuguese, in all, ended up introducing three types of acid-curdled cheeses to Bengal. One is obviously the basic chhana, milk split with citric acid, consumed fresh. The second is the incredibly tasty smoked Bandel Cheese, an Anglo-Indian favourite which is still available in a few shops in the British-era New Market of Kolkata. The third is today called the Dhakai Paneer. Food writer Kalyan Karmakar explains that Dhakai Paneer has “nothing to do with ‘paneer’” and is “more like a tight feta”. It is now only found in Dhaka.

Chhana, of course, also spread to North India, where it was compressed into blocks and given the Persian name for cheese – “paneer” (a name that Turkish also borrowed).

Now how this chhana was fashioned into the rasgulla is the bone of contention. While we can be pretty sure the Jagannath temple story is not true (given that there was no cheese in India before the Portuguese), who first thought of forging this stuff into those small heavenly little globes is not known.

The Steve Jobs of rasgulla

Maybe it was invented in Bengal and taken to Odisha. Maybe Odiya cooks, very common in rich Bengali households, bought it to Bengal. Given the lack of records, it is impossible to tell.

However, one thing is more certain: the modern method of rasgulla preparation owes its genesis to a Bengali gentlemen from Kolkata called Nobin Chandra Das. He basically boiled the chhana balls in the syrup, making it spongier and, more importantly, from the point of view of commerce, gave it a longer shelf life.

It is this Nobin Chandra Das rasgulla that spread throughout India. While Das is often credited as the inventor of the rasgulla, a title that many Odiyas take great umbrage to, at the very least he is to the confectionary what Steve Jobs was to the smartphone. Even if Das didn’t invent the original rasgulla, it was he who tweaked it and took it to market, making it the popular sweet that we all love.

Given this history, and also the fact that it is now almost a pan-India food, any Geographical Indication claims that Odisha might make on the rasgulla would be just a little unfair.

Ramzan food: Exploring iftar in one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods

First publsihed on Scroll.

Ramzan in India consists of three main ingredients: piety, politics and food.

The piety bit is obvious, and the politics you can see on your television screens, as netas go to great lengths to attract the attention of their vote banks, either by going to an iftar party or making it a point not to go to one. It is the food, however, that perhaps touches the largest number. Hidden from the rest of the country, some of the best iftar, the meal used to break the fast at sundown, is served in Kolkata.

For the best haleem in the city, the place to visit is Aminia in north Kolkata’s Chitpur neighbourhood. The owner, Navaid Amin, 56, is a mild-mannered man who wears rimless glasses and carries a gold-coloured iPhone 6. He told me his grandfather came here from Awadh in 1929 and started this restaurant. As proof he pointed me to an enormous deg in the kitchen (it could fit in a pony) and claimed that this is the pot his grandfather had started cooking in when he started his business.

Chitpur heritage

The deg isn’t the only historical artefact here. Chitpur is one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhoods. In fact, it is the oldest non-European part of the city. It came to be a part of Kolkata in 1717, when the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar’s persistent ailments were treated by a British surgeon, Dr Hamilton. His gratitude, further encouraged by a British bribe of £30,000 and a threat to shut down Mughal shipping from Surat, led the Emperor to gift 38 villages around Kolkata to the British, one of which was Chitpur.

As the European part of Kolkata developed to the south, just north of that grew the Indian or “Black Town”, at whose heart lay Chitpur. Rabindranath Tagore stayed here (Chitpur Road is now named after him), as also Raja Rammohan Roy. Nobin Chandra Das, the person who claimed to have invented the rasgulla, first set up shop in Chitpur.

Gauhar Jan also lived here. Unknown today, she was the first artist in India to be recorded, compressing her Hindustani classical compositions into a gramophone-friendly three minutes. Her house, Salim Manzil, still exists on Chitpur Road, a dilapidated pink building, now occupied by squabbling families and shops selling automobile spare parts.

Next to it is the younger, and much better maintained, Nakhoda Masjid, the city’s largest mosque (Indians usually don’t bother about their historical monuments but places of worship are an exception to this rule). Built in 1926 by a Kutchi Memon shipping magnate, its main draw is the gateway, built as a rather poor copy of the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri. As a nod to its financier, "nakhoda" literally means “lord of the ship” or captain.

Arbi Haleem

Facing the mosque is Aminia, where – to get back to the food – I was putting away some of its tasty haleem. Egged on by my reaction, Navaid Amin explained how he put in five dals, darra (cracked wheat) and the best cuts of meat to simmer for hours till everything dissolves into a mash. This recipe was invented by his grandfather and, in a bit of marketing spin, called “Arbi Haleem” (Arabic Haleem).

This is not completely made up. Haleem does have Arab origins. Its ancestor, hareesah, is a simple dish, containing meat, wheat, cinnamon and ghee, popular in Yemen till today as an Iftar staple. It is, in fact, a dish with a long history: the 10th-century Baghdad scribe Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar penned down a recipe for hareesah in the Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). Hareesah is still available in the Arab quarters of Hyderabad, Barkas.

At some indeterminate time, though, Indians decided to upgrade this dish. We added our dals and our masalas, making it far superior, in my opinion, than the bland haressah I ate in Hyderabad.

Zakaria Street

While the haleem is the king of the iftar spread, the lesser dishes also stand out. A short distance from the Nakhoda mosque area is Zakarai street, the Urdu-ised version of the original “Jacquaria” street. This area, the Muslim pocket of Chitpur, has such a long history of migration from Awadh that these Urdu Hobson-Jobsons have become as good as official (a small bit of revenge for the mangling of Indian names by the British).

The Zakaria Street area was the second hub of the Awadhis who came to Kolkata when it was the second city of the Empire, the first being Metiabruj, the exiled home of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Ironically, Kolkata has always been home to far more Urdu-speaking Muslims than Bengali-speaking ones. The latter is a rural community and as Salman Rushdie explained, “The distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space.”

With these migrants came their food. The Zakaria Street area is the original hub of Mughlai cuisine in Kolkata. It has the city’s best biryani joint, the 110-year old Royal Indian Hotel, which was snotty – and brave – enough to leave out the potato from its biryani, almost the only place in Kolkata to do so. Kolkata biryani, while an almost perfect copy of the Lucknow one, has one big difference (and, dare I say, improvement): it contains the aloo.

Apocryphally, this was introduced by Wajid Ali Shah’s cooks, as a partial replacement for the more expensive goat meat, as the nawab struggled to make ends meet after being deposed. More probably, it was a simple matter of fusion, since Bengal loves its potato; it is difficult to imagine a Bengali meal without it. Adding it to the biryani, where it would perfectly absorb the spices from the rice and the meat, was a no-brainer.

Pakodas, fruit and ghoogni

At Aminia as well as in the next-door joint, Sufia, since the haleem had run out, quite a few people were making do with the biryani for iftar, although it is an unusual choice to break your fast. More conventionally, people eat pakodas, fruit and ghoogni (black gram).

At the Haji Alauddin sweet shop in Chuna Gali (Phears Lane), mutton and chicken somasas did brisk business half an hour before iftar. Founded in 1915, again by a migrant from Awadh, it is now manned by the great grandson of Mr Alauddin, Ijaz Ahmed. It also has a variety of mawa-based North Indian sweets, rare in a city whose strong tradition of Bengali confectionary uses chhena as a base. Also sold there is the Khajla, a fried, hollow bread which is crumbled and eaten like cereal with hot milk usually for the pre-fast sehri meal.

Outside Alauddin, sold by a vendor, are the more humble but far tastier beef samosas and also, since Eid is close by, a seviyan stall. A bit further off, on a road named after the Khilafat leader, Maulana Shaukat Ali, are bread stalls, stocking baqarkhanis and sheermals.


I’ve grown up seeing baqarkhanis being eaten but never as “Mughlai” food. My grandmother’s Anglo-Indian neighbours would eat “backer-can-eez” for breakfast, often pairing it with a delicious smoked cheese introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese, called Bandel cheese (Bandel was a Portuguese settlement and is around two hours from Kolkata). Baqarkhanis came in from north India to Bengal and then entered Anglo-Indian cuisine.

The last stop was probably the best of the lot. Kolkata makes some amazing Mughlai curries and biryani but it really doesn’t pull off a good kabab. The one exception to that is Adam’s Kabab, a little way from Haji Alauddin’s. Here Mohammed Salahuddin (Sallu to his friends) makes the sutli kabab, so called because the beef is ground so fine, it has to be held up by a soota (thread) while being grilled. The secret to this is unripe papaya, an excellent meat tenderiser, mixed in with the mince along with spices and left to marinate.

The only other place I’ve had sootli kababs is in Old Delhi. There, in the Matia Mahal area, past the overrated Karim’s, is the oddly named Kale Baba ke Kebabs. As in most Mughlai food though, the colonial melting deg of Kolkata steals a march over once-upon-a-time-Mughal Delhi.