Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Keay : The Honourable Company

Warren Hastings
by Lemuel-Francis Abbott

There's plenty of both forests and trees in this account of 300 years of world history as it involves the world's greatest trading company.  It was too much for John Keay to handle - so much of this book comes off as a jumble of historical incidents, some entertaining, others less so. And for whatever reason, the author ran out steam in the  early decades  of the 19th C. with the establishment the first Governor General (shown above) , so there's no mention of what followed:  the Afghan wars, the Opium Wars,  or even the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (that finally finished the Company off)

What I take away is:

*a sense of South East Asian  geography - built around the trading route between Canton and the west coast of India.  The British were desperate to establshing a trading base with the Chinese  - since the Manchu emperors wisely forbid them to settle on the mainland.

*an appreciation for the reckless daring of the British adventurers who went to India. The average life span was three years.  Robert Clive - the juvenile delinquent who became a national hero - was probably typical.  And given the 12-months it took for London to communicate with Calcutta, the home office of the company had very little to say about what its agents were doing - other than to continually accuse them of fraud.

*the bizarre utter collapse of the Moghul empire after the death of Aurunzareb - the warlike orthodox Muslim emperor who took it to its greatest geographic extent. (though even he had trouble with the Afghans).  That empire's disintegration, more than British imperialism, led to the Raj.

*As a contemporary capitalist, like Jack Warner  might say, the first responsibility of a business corporation is to its investors.  Since they were so poorly paid, and their job was so perilous, the agents of the East India Company were mostly interested in building their own  personal wealth through private trading. But whatever their commitment - it certainly was not to the folks who, mostly by default, came under their political authority.

The 10 millions deaths from the 1770 Bengal famine made that quite clear.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dalrymple : Last Emperor

Calligraphy attributed to Zafur

Dalrymple's account of Badahur Shah II (Zafur), the last Moghul emperor, doesn't really deliver on its promised inclusion of Indian points of view.  Nor does it give any picture of Zafur, beyond that of an old, feeble, helpless victim of circumstance.  This story is all about the  mutiny at Delhi, its ultimate, and apparently inevitable failure, and the British retribution.

Giving us a good opportunity to wave our fingers at the Raj.  First,  cultural insensitivity pushed their native recruits into mutiny.  Then self-righteous racism had them punish everyone but themselves.   It was interesting to note that the mutineers slaughtered everyone who was Christian (sparing British converts to Islam) -- but in retaliation, the British executed and/or plundered those who were dark-skinned (regardless of previous loyalties)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Dalrymple: Age of Kali

assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Obviously, I like William Dalrymple - a  cheerful Scot who goes to awful places, meets terrible people, and gives a vicarious thrill to homebodies like myself.

In this volume, he circumnavigates the former Raj  in search of depressing stories:

*the decrepitude  of the once beautiful Lucknow
*the fate of Hindu widows in  gangster run ashrams
*the sweet old widowed Rajmata who incites sectarian violence
*the murder of an instructor at a Lucknow school dedicated exclusively to British culture.
*the gang rape of a social worker in Rajastan - and the subsequent destruction of the families whose men were responsible.
*the massacre of a low caste village by its neighboring Brahmins
*the self immolation of a beautiful young Hindu widow
*two thoroughly tasteless stars of popular culture: the Hindu rap artist Baba Sehgal and the pulp fiction, soft-porn writer, Shobhaa De
*American fast food in Bangalore - and violent protests against it.
*the worship of  Meenakshi in the great temple at Madurai. (which is rather colorful - especially the annual trip that the statues of the divine couple make to the temple's tank -- but why is it in this collection of depressing stories about cultural change ?)
*The transformation of charming old Hyderabad - a fabulously wealthy Muslim principality in south-central India - and a report on the rapes and 200,000 murders that accompanied its forced inclusion into India at the time of the great Partition.
*A nocturnal visit to Chottanikkara temple in Kerala where the Goddess miraculously exorcises malevolent spirits (especially the Yakshas from the haunted forests)  from mis-behaving teenagers.
*The Indianization of Goa, the former Portuguese colony - much to the dismay of the traditional Portuguese aristocracy who still live there.
*The kill-crazed teenaged Tamil Tigers - a  Maoist Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka - still active at the time this book was written.
*The strange cult of St. Expedit on Reunion Island - the saint taking his name from postal markings on a package of unidentified holy relics that were once mailed there.
*The Pakistani political career of Imran Khan - a Pashtun cricket super-star who Quixotically defends the democratic ideals of the modern world in a medieval society.
*The career of another Pakistani politician, Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim state in about 500 years. (this was written before assassination interrupted her comeback)

All of which reminds me of that international hit film from the '60s - "Mondo Cane" - a lurid view of bizarre practices  in exotic places.

But still - the author actually interviews the politicians and celebrities mentioned above - even getting himself driven into the jungle camps of the Tamil Tigers.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Dalrymple : Nine Lives

I love Chola bronzes like the above -- on display in the Cincinnati Art Museum - so it was thrilling to read about the sculptors who continue that tradition today, like Srikanda Stpathy of Swamimalai in southern India.

Unfortunately, no pictures of his work are published in this book (or on the internet) -- and those pictures would be  the most important part of his story.

The details of his practice are fascinating. He seems to be more devoted more to the divinities he depicts than to how his sculptures actually look.  He seems to prioritize the sacred mathematics of proportion - and to running a factory that employs 60 works, turning out 6 new idols per week.   I'm sure that they meet the  requirements of the priests who commission them - but are any of them as wonderful as the piece shown above ?

BTW - the sculptor tells us that  indwelling divinity enters these statues when the eyes are chiseled out - but may depart for a number of reasons - including installation in an art museum - or just getting too old. (apparently 800 years is the maximum life span)

The other nine lives in this collection include:

*Theyyam dancers : this is another devotional artistic practice.  The costume is so enormous, it  takes an exertion to wear them in performance.  The dancer who is interviewed notes that dancers usually do not reach old age -- even though they only perform during the brief Theyyam season.   Indeed he dies soon thereafter.  During the rest of the year, he had worked as a prison guard and digging wells.

*A story teller who travels through Rajasthan telling the story of Pabuji, the heroic cow herder.   A  phad banner, like the above, is used onsite to illustrate the characters.

This episode was especially fascinating to me because it's in the same tradition of epic story telling as the Hamzanama which I read earlier this year - though the last year that epic is known to have been recited was 1928.

* A devotee at the Sehwan shrine of Lal Shabbaz Qalander, a Sufi saint whose tomb is shown above.   She doesn't perform any particular dance, song, or story -- she's just a daily ecstatic celebrant at the shrine - jumping around in her red gown, swinging a heavy club. (kept for protection).   Her life story is quite tragic - her family being driven from India during  the Partition,  and then driven from Bangladesh during the civil war that separated east from west Pakistan. 

*This woman lives in a cremation ground at Tarapith - a worship center for the goddess  Tara.

Her community of devotees seems to take care of each other- and does not harm anyone. But their manipulation of human skulls certainly sounds creepy.  They communicate with the spirits attached to them -- apparently the skulls of suicides and virgins are the best for this purpose.  But what is the purpose, anyway?  It does not seem far removed from what Europeans might recognize as witchcraft:  the practice of supernatural powers to help some and hurt others.  People seek out the devotees when they are in need of divine protection.

As you can see above, Tara can appear quite frightful.

The woman we meet tells us that she left her children - and in-law abuse - to pursue spiritual development.  Back in her village, she was known for being occasionally possessed by the Goddess - and therefore was worshipped as an intercessor

*At the cremation ground at Tarapith, we also meet  a Baul - a member of an itinerant community of devotional musicians.

If Americans didn't have such an individualistic bent, this is the kind of community tradition that Hippie musicians of the 60's might have sustained: always on the road - playing and sharing music - owning nothing except what can be carried.  In contrast to the other religious devotees in the book, the Bauls do not seem to be attached to any deistic cult or temple.  They look toward the God within them -- so like Walt Whitman, they sing "the song of myself"

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Dalrymple : Return of a King

Elizabeth Butler, "Remnants of an Army", 1879

"History repeats itself"

But not as often as this historian, who repeats that sad refrain  continuously throughout his book, first page to last.

The disastrous 1841 British retreat from Kabul is attributable almost entirely to the incompetence of Lord Elphinstone who was too ill to lead and too stubborn to step down.  When his 5,000 soldiers could have made a difference, he kept them in  barracks.  When they were hopelessly vulnerable, he led them out to  slaughter.  As General Robert Sale proved at the Battle of Jalalabad, a small but well-led force could produce the opposite result.

The intractable problem is not winning battles, it's establishing authority over disparate clans with a delicate balance of negotiation, threat,  bribery, and moral credibility --- a task for which only native, Muslim rulers have been proven competent.

It was interesting that the puppet king, the one who returned in the book's title, was more successful at  doing that after his British supporters had been driven out.  But in native eyes, his loyalty to the non-Muslim foreigners was his un-forgivable fault - eventually leading to his murder.

Evidently, British military leaders learned from this mistake - decisively winning the next two Anglo-Afghan wars,  wisely avoiding any future military occupations, and holding onto their South Asian empire until ready to divest it more than a hundred years later.  They also achieved the original objective of the war, which was to keep Russia out of the country - maintaining  control over Afghan foreign policy thereafter.

Meanwhile, the Afghan ruling class seems to have improved their subsequent performance as well.  After the British left, Dost Mohammed returned to establish the borders of the modern Afghanistan -which would avoid tribal anarchy until the 1973 coup d'├ętat.

So everything turned out well -- except for those who did not survive: the lost British army - and however many Afghans were slaughtered by the British "Army of Retribution"

Though, quite possibly, the results would have been no different if a British army had never invaded.


Regarding the parallels between then and now -- it does seem that three  similar forces are involved: tribalism, Islam, and capitalism.

Then, and now, it took a Jihad to unite the tribes against the infidel.

Then, and now, it was capitalism that got the infidel to cross the Khyber pass - though it was much more explicit in 1841 when the army was funded by the British East India Company to protect its profitable tea and opium trade in India.  The British would eventually leave Kabul not because they were driven out militarily  - but because it was too expensive to stay. 

160 years later, American involvement was more the consequence of the broader cultural clash between fundamentalist Islam and the capitalist West - the American invasion being in response to the Islamic attack on the capitol of capitalism: the World Trade Center.  Had there been no 9/11 --- there would not have been an American invasion to replace the regime that  openly sheltered the perpetrators.


Regarding that cultural clash,  it's pretty clear where I stand: I live, breathe, and prosper in a capitalist state  which promotes no moral values  higher than toleration and personal freedom.  The capitalist West tolerates the mono-culture, autocracy,  and Sharia of Saudi Arabia because we like doing business with them, and we do not suffer from whatever strictures they place on themselves.

Whether that kind of social order can or should take control of more diverse areas like Afghanistan or Iraq is another question. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ferdowsi : Shahnameh

Rustam  (dying) shoots his half-brother who built the spear-pit that trapped him (1482)

300 years after Sasanian civilization was transformed by 7th Century Jihadists, the  poet, Ferdowsi, devoted his adult life to the world's longest epic poem in celebration of its emperors and heroes.   Unfortunately the entirety of that epic remains untranslated, but a substantial amount is now available, and it makes a fascinating contrast with the Hamzanama , the Indo-Persian epic that followed it.

For one thing -- it's not goofy and there's no low humor.  For another, there's no celebration of "the one true religion.  All speeches and correspondence begins with an invocation to God- but the arrival of Islam at the end of the poem is marked only by the line "and so the throne was replaced with the pulpit."  And, of course, rather than offering the enemy the options of "convert or die", that option was offered by the Muslim warlord  to the Sasanian's last great hero, who,  knowing that he was fated to lose the battle, chose "Hell and a narrow grave"

But there's also plenty that the two epics have in common, as they write about a world that celebrates bling, partying, and brute strength.  There's no warrior like Kongming ("Three Kingdoms") who triumphed by strategy. (though there is a clever vizier who learns how to play chess by simply looking at the pieces)

 Funeral of Isfandyrar  (tragically killed by Rustam) , 1330's

Qadimi (1520-1560), Turanians attack drunken Iranian camp

It's been many decades since I first saw illustrations like the above at the Met - but this is the first time I've finally read the stories they were based on.


There's only one fantastic/magical creature in the story -- the giant, benevolent, all-knowing Samurgh - and it, plus some other magical events is included in the stories of Rustam and his father, Zal.

But in the final centuries of Sasanian rule, the stories become more realistic, more about character and human behavior - especially the recurring problem of a battlefield hero serving an unwise and ungrateful ruler - a relationship  that also set the table for the Hamznama.

Of special note is the appearace of the egalitarian prophet, Mazdak who is presented as converting a gullible ruler until he and all his followers are buried alive, upside down in a garden by a wise prince.

But what about the prophet Mohammed ?

The introduction tells us that Ferdowsi was unquestionably Muslim -- but this epic poem seems markedly non-Islamlic.  The good kings, all pre-Islamic,  are presented as pious, true believers in one God, and the great tragedy of the entire poem is the arrival of the Prophet's armies.  It's leaders are not presented as monsters -- but their clothing is unfit for the Persian court - and as subsequent pictorializations confirm, physical appearance was highly cultivated.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Hamzanama

It feels like I've just spent as much time in the land of Indo-Persian mythology as poor Hamza spent wandering through the magical land of Qaf killing demons and siring half-human children.

It did get a bit tiring at times -- being based on a disparate oral tradition, there are multiple variations on the same stories - with each new giant a little bit bigger and each new monster a little bit meaner.

At it's core, is the contrast between the gullible but unstoppable mighty Hamza and his loyal companion, the clever, vicious, and equally undefeatable Amar the Ayyar.

Even though the Prophet does not appear until the few final pages, Hanza has spent the previous 800  converting warriors and kings to the one-true-faith --- by defeating them in battle and then making them an offer they cannot refuse.  If you needed any further documentation of Islam as a warlike creed, these popular stories would provide it.  In addition to declaring their new found faith, the defeated or rescued kings would also often offer Hamza their daughters in marriage -- so Hamza ended up with dozens of wives and super-hero sons (though I don't recall that he had more than one daughter).

One thing that's memorable is just how nasty his companion, Amar, could be.  As a child he poisons his teachers - as an adult he lies, cheats, steals, kills, poisons, and likes to play humiliating tricks on his enemies after he has sneeked into their tent and drugged them senseless.  For example, he might strip a father and son, and then place the one into the other's lap so that they will awake to discover themselves having anal sex.  A large section of the book involves him protecting Hamz's beautiful fiance while Hanza is gone -- and he does this by repeatedly entering a foritified city in disguise -- gaining the trust of the rulers -- and then killing them and moving into the castle with his followers.  He's about as repulsive as a man can be -- his loyalty to Hamza and Islam being his only positive features.

Also memorable are some of the women - they can be quite powerful and headstrong - most notably Hama's wife in Qaf, Aasman Peri, the daughter of a king saved by Hamza.  She doesn't want Hamza to ever leave her, so she threatens death to whomever tries to help him escape.  One might also note that the only woman whom Hamza ever fights is the only warrior who can defeat him, as she does in the final chapter, using a poison spear and then beheading him.

When he isn't killing men, Hamza is usually partying or honeymooning with one of his many wives.  He does like women - though he had to drown one who demanded too much attention.

Another extreme character is the Emperor of the Seven Climes who is saved by Hamza early in the epic, but tries to kill him ever after.  His resources seem to be as unlimited as his treachery, stupidity, and futility. They exemplify the antagonistic relationship between king and super-hero  (like Arthur and Lancelot) .