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.

Babur, Timur and Shastri: as Modi visits Tashkent, a short history of Indo-Uzbek ties

First published on Scroll.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicks off his tour of Central Asia on Monday with a visit to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a speck in modern India’s view of the world but the subcontinent's history has greatly been influenced by a man who was born here in 1483: the founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.

Given the saffron turn in events, many Indians actively revile Babar. But Uzbekistan celebrates the founder of the Mughal Empire as a national hero. Babur’s home is now a museum. Parks and monuments are dedicated to him. The Uzbekis even have an organisation – the Babur International Foundation – expressly devoted to the study of Babur’s history.

Despite this retrospective adulation, Babur didn't have an easy time in his homeland. Although Babur is descended from the fearsome Timur, he was himself born to a rather modest father, the ruler of the small principality of Fargana. Babur struggled to gain a toehold in his home and was eventually forced into neighbouring Afghanistan. It was here that his military genius flowered and he ruled Kabul for more than a decade. He loved his time in Kabul and after he died, his body was buried in the city. His tomb is still there in the city and in fact, the Kabulis see him as a hero too.

Babur could never go back to his land of birth. Instead, he came to India, where the empire he founded is often seen with hostility in modern times, in spite of being a seminal influence in the formation of modern India.  The influence of the Mughal empire can be seen from the fact that in 1857, when the Indian soldiers of the British army revolted, the first place they headed for was the Mughal palace in Delhi. The emperor, although powerless and poor – he received a pension from the British – was still seen a symbol of national unity and thus provided the sepoys the legitimacy they needed.

The Mughals

When Babur first came to India, though, he didn't like it very much. He pined for the mountains and melons of Central Asia, even though he noted how much Indians liked the mango but churlishly added, “It is not so good as to warrant such praise”.

His descendants, however, quickly took to the subcontinent and, of course, the mango. Babur’s grandson, Akbar, planted the “Lakh Bagh”, a mango orchard containing one lakh trees in Darbhanga, Bihar.

While they might have taken to Indian fruit, the Mughals always had a desire to take back the birthplace of their founder. At the height of Mughal power, Shah Jahan sent his sons, Murad and Aurangzeb into Central Asia, with the ultimate aim of conquering the legendary city of Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. The Mughal army never did reach the city, being furiously tormented by the Uzbek tribes in a land that was, after more than a hundred years, now completely foreign to them.

Historian Abraham Eraly writes that in spite of spending Rs 20 million on this campaign, the Mughals gained nothing from it.

Timur’s sack of Delhi

While the Delhi Mughals had great trouble in trying to reach Samarkand, their ancestor, Timur, the ruler of Samarkand reached Delhi with relative ease in 1398. And like in Baghdad and Damascus, Timur sacked Delhi with brutal ferocity. While he did not much like Delhi’s citizens, he did warm to the city’s architecture, making sure to take back a great many builders and architects back to Samarkand.  It also seems that Timur so impressed with the Jami Masjid in Feroz Shah Kotla that he copied a large part of its design to build Samarkand’s greatest mosque, the Bibi Khanum.

Timur is also a national hero in Uzbekistan and Modi might even catch a glimpse of his statue as he is being driven around Tashkent.

While that might be terrible enough, Tashkent has even more recent bad memories for India. In 1966, the Soviets moderated peace talks between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1965 War. The Indian delegation was led by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died a sudden death immediately after the peace agreement was signed. His official cause of death was a heart attack but his family suspected foul play. Nothing, however, could be ascertained since no postmortem was conducted.

On his Facebook wall, Modi said that he would pay his tributes to Shastri during this Tashkent visit.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Do we know if Proto-Indo-European really existed?

In response to my piece tracing the first evidence found of Old Indic to Syria, Rohini Bakshi had this cogent piece. Please do read it since it adds context to this debate.

Let me, however, rebut this rebuttal.

Some of her points are not rebuttals and some answer themselves. I have clearly mentioned that the Mitanni spoke in Hurrian (#2) and worshipped non-Vedic gods (#3), so simply repeating them doesn’t serve much purpose. As for #4, I am not so sure why residents of northern Syria (for, literally, centuries) cannot be called Syrians. What would I call them? Either way, it is a trivial semantic point. And #6 uses BB Lal as a reference, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a joke. Happy to see some real references to Rig Veda compilation dates.

The two main points are #5, #7.

Rohini's point #5 reads:

Indologists like Theodore Proferes quote the Mitanni treaty merely as a chronological marker - saying that if the Indo-Aryan gods (as opposed to Proto-Aryan;See Thieme ibid.) feature in the Mitanni treaty, and if they were worshiped for the same functions in the Rig Veda - the hymns are at least as old as the treaty. However Proferes is the first to admit that Max Mueller's dating is arbitrary and there is nothing which says the Rig Veda was not composed centuries before this date.

Yes the Rig Veda's compilation is "at least as old as the treaty” (probably). But that just proves the point. Here's how:

1) By the time the treaty was written, the Mitanni had stopped speaking Sanskrit. In fact, we know they had stopped speaking Sanskrit before 1500 BC (founding date of the empire) since they had switched to Hurrian.
2) This means that the Mitanni were speaking Sanskrit before 1500 BC.
3) This means that the Mitanni were speaking in Sanskrit before the Rig Veda was compiled (since no on dates the Rig Veda compilation before 1500 BC).
 4) QED

David Anthony has a great explanation of this in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

Rohini's #7 reads:

Shoaib unqualified-ly quotes PIE (Proto Indo-European) as the founding language of Sanskrit. He doesn't consider it necessary to explain PIE itself is a scholarly construct and there is by no means any agreement on whether it actually existed. Linguistic scholars like N.S. Trubetskoy categorically deny its existence. Even a scholar like Ernst Pulgram who does believe that PIE existed admits, "...a procedure whereby we choose to arrive at a reconstructed proto-language, be it Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Athapaskan, by comparing languages in pairs and advancing by way of a pyramid until we have reached the summit, the reconstructed proto-language, does not in the least entitle us to believe, or postulate, that historically the reverse process-that is, a series of binary splits-actually occurred." So when the jury is still out on PIE I would be very uncomfortable with adding gravitas to an article by quoting PIE (founding language) as a 'Fact.'

Rohini is right that Trubetzkoy denied the existence of PIE. However, Trubetzkoy is an ancient chap – he died in 1938 (always useful to provide a date with an old citation). Almost everyone disagrees with him today including, Rohini’s other citation, Ernst Pulgram. This is what Pulgram has to say:

“Let me first mention, and dispose of, the view (held by few, notably by Trubetzkoy, though perhaps only for a time and for the sake of argument) that there never was a Proto-Indo-European language, but that the similarity of the attested Indo-European idioms is due to progressive assimilation through constant and enduring contact with one another.”

The paper that Pulgram quotes from was written in the 50s. In that he agrees that PIE "actually existed" (to use Rohini's own words). To quote from the same Pulgram paper Rohini quotes from: “there existed a Proto-Indo-European language whence the later attested Indo-European idioms derive their peculiar structure and much of their substance”.

In effect, Pulgram is in perfect agreement with me when I, to use Rohini’s words, “unqualified-ly quote PIE (Proto Indo-European) as the founding language of Sanskrit”.

Therefore, when Rohini says, “So when the jury is still out on PIE I would be very uncomfortable with adding gravitas to an article by quoting PIE (founding language) as a 'Fact'” she is not only disagreeing with me she is also disagreeing with her own citation, Pulgram.

In modern linguistics, PIE is very much a “fact”  with near "agreement on whether it actually existed" (agreement: it did). Pulgram agrees it was a "fact" in 1959 in the very same paper Rohini quotes from. And this fact has got stronger with age. Not only Pulgram, you would be hard put to find a modern linguist who would disagree with my statement that “The founding language of the family from which Sanskrit is from is called Proto-Indo-European”.


Now that I've cleared myself of all charges and have a free conscience, here's something extra.

The point that Pulgram was trying to make was somewhat different. He was questioning the method of reconstruction for PIE. 

Say your grandfather had a car which he sold before you were born. It was his favourite car and he spoke of it all the time. Today, though, all that's left of the car is a photo. Also, sadly, dadaji is dead in this tale.

Today if your wife asks you, "jaanam, what was your dada's car like that he bored us to death with?" what will you do? Look at the photo and tell her, right?

That's simple. 

But how good was the photo? Now if the camera was a B&W one you'd never be able to tell her the colour of the car. What if the photo ended above the wheels? You'd never be able to tell what the hubcaps were made off. If your little shit of a son cut out the back of the photo with a pair of scissors, you'd never be able to say whether it had a spoiler. And so on.

PIE is a bit like the car. It's lost since the people who spoke it were ganwaars and didn't write. But using a process of linguistic reconstruction (the camera), linguists have replicated PIE (the photo).

Like no one doubts the car existed, no one today doubts PIE existed. Pulgram doesn't and nor do I in my piece. And nor does any almost linguist today. Even the kooks like Elst agree that there was a PIE (he just says it came from India).

What Pulgram is saying in that paper is that we have a really bad camera which means we have a shitty photo. Hence Reconstructed Proto-Indo-European is a terrible replica of Real PIE. Just like the photo might be a terrible replica of the car.

Of course, PIE reconstructing is something that I don't even touch upon in my piece, so it's not relevant. I simply said the car (PIE) existed.

That said, Pulgram is also old. This paper we're quoting is 56 years old. By now almost everyone is convinced that the photo is a good one (say, some similar models still exist in the market and we've gone and checked them out at the showroom etc etc – this analogy is obviously being stretched now). 

Linguistic reconstruction has been so good that it has many, many times predicted old language features that have only later on been confirmed via archaeology. In effect, real world experiments have proved our camera works and have proven Pulgram wrong.

Fact check: India wasn't the first place Sanskrit was recorded – it was Syria

First published on Scroll

After yoga, Narendra Modi has turned his soft power focus to Sanskrit.  The Indian government is enthusiastically participating in the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok. Not only is it sending 250 Sanskrit scholars and partly funding the event, the conference will see the participation of two senior cabinet ministers: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who inaugurated the conference on Sunday, and Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, who will attend its closing ceremony on July 2. Inexplicably, Swaraj also announced the creation of the post of Joint Secretary for Sanskrit in the Ministry of External Affairs. How an ancient language, which no one speaks, writes or reads, will help promote India’s affairs abroad remains to be seen.

On the domestic front, though, the uses of Sanskrit are clear: it is a signal of the cultural nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, so sacred that lower castes (more than 75% of modern Hindus) weren’t even allowed to listen to it being recited. Celebrating Sanskrit does little to add to India’s linguistic skills – far from teaching an ancient language, India is still to get all its people educated in their modern mother tongues. But it does help the BJP push its own brand of hyper-nationalism.

Unfortunately, reality is often a lot more complex than simplistic nationalist myths. While Sanskrit is a marker of Hindu nationalism for the BJP, it might be surprised, even shocked, to know that the first people to leave behind evidence of having spoken Sanskrit aren't Hindus or Indians – they were Syrians.

The Syrian speakers of Sanskrit

The earliest form of Sanskrit is that used in the Rig Veda (called Old Indic or Rigvedic Sanskrit). Amazingly, Rigvedic Sanskrit was first recorded in inscriptions found not on the plains of India but in in what is now northern Syria.

Between 1500 and 1350 BC, a dynasty called the Mitanni ruled over the upper Euphrates-Tigris basin, land that corresponds to what are now the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The Mitannis spoke a language called Hurrian, unrelated to Sanskrit. However, each and every Mitanni king had a Sanskrit name and so did many of the local elites. Names include Purusa (meaning “man”), Tusratta (“having an attacking chariot”), Suvardata (“given by the heavens”), Indrota (“helped by Indra”) and Subandhu, a name that exists till today in India.

Imagine that: the irritating, snot-nosed Subandhu from school shares his name with an ancient Middle Eastern prince. Goosebumps. (Sorry, Subandhu).

The Mitanni had a culture, which, like the Vedic people, highly revered chariot warfare. A Mitanni horse-training manual, the oldest such document in the world, uses a number of Sanskrit words: aika (one), tera (three), satta (seven) and asua (ashva, meaning “horse”). Moreover, the Mitanni military aristocracy was composed of chariot warriors called “maryanna”, from the Sanskrit word "marya", meaning “young man”.

The Mitanni worshipped the same gods as those in the Rig Veda (but also had their own local ones). They signed a treaty with a rival king in 1380 BC which names Indra, Varuna, Mitra and the Nasatyas (Ashvins) as divine witnesses for the Mitannis. While modern-day Hindus have mostly stopped the worship of these deities, these Mitanni gods were also the most important gods in the Rig Veda.

This is a striking fact. As David Anthony points out in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, this means that not only did Rigvedic Sanskrit predate the compilation of the Rig Veda in northwestern India but even the “central religious pantheon and moral beliefs enshrined in the Rig Veda existed equally early”.

How did Sanskrit reach Syria before India?

What explains this amazing fact? Were PN Oak and his kooky Hindutva histories right? Was the whole world Hindu once upon a time? Was the Kaaba in Mecca once a Shivling?

Unfortunately, the history behind this is far more prosaic.

The founding language of the family from which Sanskrit is from is called Proto-Indo-European. Its daughter is a language called Proto-Indo-Iranian, so called because it is the origin of the languages of North India and Iran (linguists aren’t that good with catchy language names).

The, well, encyclopedic, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, edited by JP Mallory and DQ Adams, writes of the earliest speakers of Proto-Indo-Iranian emerging in the southern Urals and Kazakhstan. These steppe people, representing what is called the Andronovo culture, first appear just before 2000 BC.

From this Central Asian homeland diverged a group of people who had now stopped speaking Proto-Indo-Iranian and were now conversing in the earliest forms of Sanskrit. Some of these people moved west towards what is now Syria and some east towards the region of the Punjab in India.

David Anthony writes that the people who moved west were possibly employed as mercenary charioteers by the Hurrian kings of Syria. These charioteers spoke the same language and recited the same hymns that would later on be complied into the Rig Veda by their comrades who had ventured east.

These Rigvedic Sanskrit speakers usurped the throne of their employers and founded the Mitanni kingdom. While they gained a kingdom, the Mitanni soon lost their culture, adopting the local Hurrian language and religion. However, royal names, some technical words related to chariotry and of course the gods Indra, Varuna, Mitra and the Nasatyas stayed on.

The group that went east and later on composed the Rig Veda, we know, had better luck in preserving their culture. The language and religion they bought to the subcontinent took root. So much so that 3,500 years later, modern Indians would celebrate the language of these ancient pastoral nomads all the way out in Bangkok city.

Hindutvaising Sanskrit’s rich history

Unfortunately, while their language, religion and culture is celebrated, the history of the Indo-European people who brought Sanskrit into the subcontinent is sought to be erased at the altar of cultural nationalism. Popular national myths in India urgently paint Sanskrit as completely indigenous to India. This is critical given how the dominant Hindutva ideology treats geographical indigenousness as a prerequisite for nationality. If Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism, has a history that predates its arrival in India, that really does pull the rug from out under the feet of Hindutva.

Ironically, twin country Pakistan’s national myths go in the exact opposite direction: their of-kilter Islamists attempt to make foreign Arabs into founding fathers and completely deny their subcontinental roots.

Both national myths, whether Arab or Sanskrit, attempt to imagine a pure, pristine origin culture uncontaminated by unsavoury influences. Unfortunately the real world is very often messier than myth. Pakistanis are not Arabs and, as the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture rather bluntly puts it: “This theory [that Sanskrit and its ancestor Proto-Indo-European was indigenous to India], which resurrects some of the earliest speculations on the origins of the Indo-Europeans, has not a shred of supporting evidence, either linguistic or archeological”.