At Great Remove: The Bureau of Indian Affairs

by Mark Harvey

I would go home to eat, but I could not make myself eat much; and my father and mother thought that I was sick yet; but I was not. I was only homesick for the place where I had been. –Black Elk

Chief Sitting Bull

According to Lakota Indians, in early June of 1876, the great tribal chief Sitting Bull performed a sun dance in which he cut 100 pieces of flesh from his arms as an offering to his creator and then danced for a day and a half. He danced until he was exhausted from the dancing and the loss of blood and then fell into a vision of the coming battle with General George Custer at Little Big Horn. Moved by his vision, thousands of Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe warriors attacked Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment on June 25th, 1876, and overwhelmingly defeated it in what is today southeastern Montana. In the battle, Custer, two of his brothers, and a nephew were killed along with 265 other soldiers.

The battle was inevitable. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had insisted that the Lakota remove to a reservation by January 31, 1876, to accommodate white miners and settlers in the area. The Indians hated the idea of living on a reservation and giving up their life of hunting on the great plains so they refused to move to the reservation. Custer was sent by General Alfred Terry to pursue Sitting Bull’s people from the south and push them north to what would be a sort of ambush. But the brash young Custer far underestimated the number of Indians gathered near the Powder River and also their ferocious resolve to fight his regiment. Read more »

The Impossibility of History

by Akim Reinhardt

A Prologue to Prologue | National ArchivesIs the Past Prolog? I’m not convinced. I say this as a professional historian.

The main problem, of course, is that there are many pasts. They are defined by temporality, by subjectivity, and by the limits of knowledge.

The past is ten seconds ago. Ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, ten years, ten centuries. Which past is prolog to which present?

There is no one past. There are countless pasts. Mine. Yours. The billions, or at least millions, of people who were alive at any given moment. The great, great majority of them never meeting or even knowing of each other, having no discernible influence on each other. Humans can be worldly, but never really universal. Whose past is prolog to whom?

Yet even the shared pasts are contested. Because the past is no different than the present in at least one important aspect: it is experienced subjectively. Like the classic Akira Kurosawa film Roshomon, or the countless sitcom shows that borrowed its premise for a chicanery-riddled episode of mutual misunderstanding, there is no one version. Each person had their own. Their own vantage point, their own experiences, their own filters and agendas, their own limits and baggage, their own abilities and inabilities to understand what they see, feel, hear, and hear of. And even under the most favorable circumstances, every person does what every person must do: interpret.

There is a science of life, but life itself is no science. We need to invent and give meaning to what we do and experience. It is an unavoidable feature of the human condition. Our perceptions and understandings of human affairs are subjective. What contested past is prolog to what contested present? Read more »

Does belief in God make you rich?

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Religion has always had an uneasy relationship with money-making. A lot of religions, at least in principle, are about charity and self-improvement. Money does not directly figure in seeking either of these goals. Yet one has to contend with the stark fact that over the last 500 years or so, Europe and the United States in particular acquired wealth and enabled a rise in people’s standard of living to an extent that was unprecedented in human history. And during the same period, while religiosity in these countries varied there is no doubt, especially in Europe, that religion played a role in people’s everyday lives whose centrality would be hard to imagine today. Could the rise of religion in first Europe and then the United States somehow be connected with the rise of money and especially the free-market system that has brought not just prosperity but freedom to so many of these nations’ citizens? Benjamin Friedman who is a professor of political economy at Harvard explores this fascinating connection in his book “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”. The book is a masterclass on understanding the improbable links between the most secular country in the world and the most economically developed one.

Friedman’s account starts with Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, whose “The Wealth of Nations” is one of the most important books in history. But the theme of the book really starts, as many such themes must, with The Fall. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out from the Garden of Eden and they and their offspring were consigned to a life of hardship. As punishment for their deeds, all women were to deal with the pain of childbearing while all men were to deal with the pain of backbreaking manual labor – “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”, God told Adam. Ever since Christianity took root in the Roman Empire and then in the rest of Europe, the Fall has been a defining lens through which Christians thought about their purpose in life and their fate in death. Read more »

Interpretation and truth, part 1: History

by Dave Maier

The word “interpretivism” suggests to most people a particularly crazy sort of postmodern relativism cum skepticism. If our relations to reality are merely interpretive and perspectival (I will use these terms interchangeably as needed, the idea being that each interpreter has her own distinct perspective on a world not reducible to any single view), our very access to objective facts seems threatened. Nietzsche, for example, famously says that “there are no facts, only interpretations” (a careless misreading, but let’s not get into it here). Fast-forward to Jacques Derrida and the whole lit-crit crew, who claim that everything is a text; and with the triumphantly dismissive reference to that notorious postmodern imp, the game is over. Interpretation is for sissies; let’s get back to doing hard-nosed empirical science (or objective metaphysics).

On this account, the opposite of “interpretive” is something like “representational”: our successful beliefs simply get the world right, with no (subjective, open-ended, wishy-washy) interpretation required. This makes sense up to a point. Our beliefs portray the world as being a certain way, not as (primarily) meaningful or enlightening or useful, or whatever is characteristic of our favored interpretations. On the other hand, to distinguish belief from meaning in this way makes it seem as if interpretation does not concern itself with belief or inquiry at all. Yet even if interpretation is not the same as inquiry, or meaning the same as belief, they are – or so we post-Davidsonian pragmatists claim – more closely intertwined than this dichotomous account would indicate.

One way to sort this out is to jump right into it with a close analysis of the notions of meaning and belief in the manner of the later Davidson and Richard Rorty’s frustratingly dodgy use of same. We’ll do more of that later on (he warned); but today I wanted to try another tack. It is generally accepted that history in particular is an interpretive discipline (a “humanity,” not a “science”), yet it is commonly accepted as well that historians deal in facts. If we can see how this conceptual accommodation works in the narrower context, we may be able to transpose it, or something like it, into our larger one. In this post I will set the problem up, leaving you in suspense until next time when I reveal a possible solution. Read more »

The last great contrarian?

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Freeman Dyson, photographed in 2013 in his office by the author

On February 28th this year, the world lost a remarkable scientist, thinker, writer and humanist, and many of us also lost a beloved, generous mentor and friend. Freeman Dyson was one of the last greats from the age of Einstein and Dirac who shaped our understanding of the physical universe in the language of mathematics. But what truly made him unique was his ability to bridge C. P. Snow’s two cultures with aplomb, with one foot firmly planted in the world of hard science and the other in the world of history, poetry and letters. Men like him come along very rarely indeed, and we are poorer for his absence.

The world at large, however, knew Dyson not only as a leading scientist but as a “contrarian”. He didn’t like the word himself; he preferred to think of himself as a rebel. One of his best essays is called “The Scientist as Rebel”. In it he wrote, “Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children.” The essay describes pioneers like Kurt Gödel, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Francis Crick who cast aside the chains of conventional wisdom, challenging beliefs and systems that were sometimes age-old, beliefs both scientific and social. Dyson could count himself as a member of this pantheon.

Although Dyson did not like to think of himself as particularly controversial, he was quite certainly a very unconventional thinker and someone who liked to go against the grain. His friend and fellow physicist Steven Weinberg said that when consensus was forming like ice on a surface, Dyson would start chipping away at it. In a roomful of nodding heads, he would be the one who would have his hand raised, asking counterfactual questions and pointing out where the logic was weak, where the evidence was lacking. And he did this without a trace of one-upmanship or wanting to put anyone down, with genuine curiosity, playfulness and warmth. His favorite motto was the founding motto of the Royal Society: “Nullius in verba”, or “Nobody’s word is final”. Read more »

All Those Yesterdays That Built Today

by Thomas O’Dwyer

An 1820 print celebrating the execution of the English Cato conspirators.
An 1820 print celebrating the execution of the English Cato conspirators.

We still recall the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age. Not many will know that the decade which began 200 years ago with U.S. President James Monroe in office was the Era of Good Feelings, a name coined by a Boston newspaper. In 1820, a presidential election year, Monroe ran for his second term — he was unopposed, so there was really no campaign. He won all the electoral college votes except one, narrowly leaving George Washington to remain as the only president ever to score a unanimous victory.

In the flood of commentary, prophecy, gloom, and nostalgia that has greeted the start of a new decade, many of the comparisons with the past have fixed on the 1920s. That age is almost within living memory, maybe not personal, but at least familial, through the reminiscences and records of parents or grandparents. And for the first time in human history, we have extensive evidence in sound, film, and photography from the fascinating 1920s.

But is also interesting to look even further back, another 100 years, to the 1820s. For here, most people can agree, lie the true roots of the science-driven modernity that was more spectacularly obvious in the 1920s and beyond. Full documentary records in the 1820s were sparse but growing. Nicephore Niepce developed the first photograph in 1826 but sound reproduction would have to wait another 50 years for Thomas Edison. The first moving-picture sequence was made by Frenchman Louis le Prince in 1888. The new inventions and discoveries of the 1820s were physically primitive, but loaded with hidden significance and promise that no one could have guessed. Read more »

The jagged arc of history

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice: Names of lynched victims from different counties etched on iron blocks hung from the ceiling, bearing mute witness to shattered lives. Each block represents a county.

S. C. Gwynne’s “Hymns of the Republic” is an excellent book about the last, vicious, uncertain year of the Civil War, beginning with the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 and ending with the proper burial of the dead in Andersonville Cemetery in May 1865. The book weaves in and out of battlefield conflicts and political developments in Washington, although the battlefields are its main focus. While character portraits of major players like Lee, Grant, Lincoln and Sherman are sharply drawn, the real value of the book is in shedding light on some underappreciated characters. There was Clara Barton, a stupendously dogged and brave army nurse who lobbied senators and faked army passes to help horrifically wounded soldiers on the front. There was John Singleton Mosby, an expert in guerilla warfare who made life miserable for Philip Sheridan’s army in Virginia; it was in part as a response to Mosby’s raids that Sheridan and Grant decided to implement a scorched earth policy that became a mainstay of the final year of the war. There was Benjamin Butler, a legal genius and mediocre general who used a clever legal ploy to attract thousands of slaves to him and to freedom; his main argument was that because the confederate states had declared themselves to be a separate country, the Fugitive Slave Act which would allow them to claim back any escaped slaves would not apply. Read more »

Mathematics, and the excellence of the life it brings

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Shing-Tung Yau and Eugenio Calabi

Mathematics and music have a pristine, otherworldly beauty that is very unlike that found in other human endeavors. Both of them seem to exhibit an internal structure, a unique concatenation of qualities that lives in a world of their own, independent of their creators. But mathematics might be so completely unique in this regard that its practitioners have seriously questioned whether mathematical facts, axioms and theorems may not simply exist on their own, simply waiting to be discovered rather than invented. Arthur Rubinstein and Andre Previn’s performance of Chopin’s second piano concerto sends unadulterated jolts of pleasure through my mind every time I listen to it, but I don’t for a moment doubt that those notes would not exist were it not for the existence of Chopin, Rubinstein and Previn. I am not sure I could say the same about Euler’s beautiful identity connecting three of the most fundamental constants in math and nature – e, pi and i. That succinct arrangement of symbols seems to simply be, waiting for Euler to chance upon it, the way a constellation of stars has waited for billions of years for an astronomer to find it.

The beauty of music and mathematics is that anyone can catch a glimpse of this timelessness of ideas, and even someone untrained in these fields can appreciate the basics. The most shattering intellectual moment of my life was when, in my last year of high school, I read in George Gamow’s “One, Two, Three, Infinity” about the fact that different infinities can actually be compared. Until then the whole concept of infinity had been a single concept to me, like the color red. The question of whether one infinity could be “larger” than another sounded as preposterous to me as whether one kind of red was better than another. But here was the story of an entire superstructure of infinities which could be compared, studied and taken apart, and whose very existence raised one of the most famous, and still unsolved, problems in math – the Continuum Hypothesis. The day I read about this fact in Gamow’s book, something changed in my mind; I got the feeling that some small combination of neuronal gears permanently shifted, altering forever a part of my perspective on the world. Read more »

Robert Caro: (Obsessively) Working

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Robert Caro might well go down in history as the greatest American biographer of all time. Through two monumental biographies, one of Robert Moses – perhaps the most powerful man in New York City’s history – and the other an epic multivolume treatment of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson – perhaps the president who wielded the greatest political power of any in American history – Caro has illuminated what power and especially political power is all about, and the lengths men will go to acquire and hold on to it. Part deep psychological profiles, part grand portraits of their times, Caro has made the men and the places and times indelible. His treatment of individuals, while as complete as any that can be found, is in some sense only a lens through which one understands the world at large, but because he is such an uncontested master of his trade, he makes the man indistinguishable from the time and place, so that understanding Robert Moses through “The Power Broker” effectively means understanding New York City in the first half of the 20th century, and understanding Lyndon Johnson through “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” effectively means understanding America in the mid 20th century.

By drawing up this grand landscape, Caro has become one of the most obsessive and exhaustive non-fiction writers of all time, going to great lengths to acquire the most minute details about his subject, whether it’s tracking down every individual connected with a specific topic or interviewing them or spending six days a week in the archives. He worked for seven years on the Moses biography, and has worked an incredible forty-five years on the years of Lyndon Johnson. At 83 his fans are worried, and they are imploring him to finish the fifth and last volume as soon as possible. But Caro shows no sign of slowing down.

In “Working”, Caro takes the reader behind the scenes of some of his most important research, but this is not an autobiography – he helpfully informs us that that long book is coming soon (and anyone who has read Caro would know just how long it will be). He describes being overwhelmed by the 45 million documents in the LBJ library and the almost equal number in the New York Public Library, and obsessively combing through them every day from 9 AM to 6 PM cross-referencing memos, letters, government reports, phone call transcripts, the dreariest and most exciting written material and every kind of formal and informal piece of papers with individuals who he would then call or visit to interview. Read more »

If you believe Western Civilization is oppressive, you will ensure it is oppressive

by Ashutosh Jogalekar


Philosopher John Locke's spirited defense of the natural rights of man should apply to all men and women, not just one's favorite factions.

When the British left India in 1947, they left a complicated legacy behind. On one hand, Indians had suffered tremendously under oppressive British rule for more than 250 years. On the other hand, India was fortunate to have been ruled by the British rather than the Germans, Spanish or Japanese. The British, with all their flaws, did not resort to putting large numbers of people in concentration camps or regularly subjecting them to the Inquisition. Their behavior in India had scant similarities with the behavior of the Germans in Namibia or the Japanese in Manchuria.

More importantly, while they were crisscrossing the world with their imperial ambitions, the British were also steeping the world in their long history of the English language, of science and the Industrial Revolution and of parliamentary democracy. When they left India, they left this legacy behind. The wise leaders of India who led the Indian freedom struggle – men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar – understood well the important role that all things British had played in the world, even as they agitated and went to jail to free themselves of British rule. Many of them were educated at Western universities like London, Cambridge and Columbia. They hated British colonialism, but they did not hate the British; once the former rulers left they preserved many aspects of their legacy, including the civil service, the great network of railways spread across the subcontinent and the English language. They incorporated British thought and values in their constitution, in their educational institutions, in their research laboratories and in their government services. Imagine what India would have been like today had Nehru and Ambedkar dismantled the civil service, banned the English language, gone back to using bullock cart and refused to adopt a system of participatory democracy, simply because all these things were British in origin.

The leaders of newly independent India thus had the immense good sense to separate the oppressor and his instruments of oppression from his enlightened side, to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nor was an appreciation of Western values limited to India by any means. In the early days, when the United States had not yet embarked on its foolish, paranoid misadventures in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh looked toward the American Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for a free Vietnam. At the end of World War 1 he held the United States in great regard and tried to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference. It was only when he realized that the Americans would join forces with the occupying French in keeping Vietnam an occupied colonial nation did Ho Chi Minh's views about the U.S. rightly sour. In other places in Southeast Asia and Africa too the formerly oppressed preserved many remnants of the oppressor's culture.

Yet today I see many, ironically in the West, not understanding the wisdom which these leaders in the East understood very well. The values bequeathed by Britain which India upheld were part of the values which the Enlightenment bequeathed to the world. These values in turn went back to key elements of Western Civilization, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, French, German and Dutch. And simply put, Enlightenment values and Western Civilization are today under attack, in many ways from those who claim to stand by them. Both left and right are trampling on them in ways that are misleading and dangerous. They threaten to undermine centuries worth of progress.

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Liberal politics and the contingency of history

by Emrys Westacott

UnknownIt is hard at present to think about anything other than the recent election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This is a cataclysmic and potentially catastrophic event for both America and the world. Severe narcissism and immense power are a volatile combination that usually ends badly. And with the Republicans controlling all branches of government, the hard right are in an unprecedentedly strong position to implement much of their agenda, from scrapping efforts to combat climate change to passing massive tax cuts for the wealthy

Already, much ink has been spilled on what Hilary Clinton, the Democrats, the liberal elite, the media, the intelligentsia, and anyone else who opposed Trump, got wrong. But the first lesson to be drawn from the election is that history is radically contingent.

Reading post mortems on the election reminded me of listening to soccer pundits explaining the result of a close game. In the game itself, the losing team may have hit the post twice, had a goal disallowed for an incorrect offside call, and been denied a clear penalty; the winning team perhaps scored once following an untypical defensive slip. Yet the pundits will explain the result as due to the losing team's inability to cope with their opponent's midfield diamond, along with their failure to spread the play wide. Their explanations are invariably blamings. In truth, though, the result could easily have been, and four times out of five would have been, different; in which case the talk would have been all about the ineffectiveness of the midfield diamond….etc.

Exactly the same sort of thing can be seen in political punditry. The contest between Clinton and Trump was extremely close. Clinton won the popular vote–with counting still going on she has a lead of close to 1.5 million votes–but Trump won the electoral college: which means, given the peculiar and outmoded system, that Trump won. Explanations are legion. Clinton was a hopelessly flawed candidate. The Democrats took their base for granted. The Democrats ignored the plight of the working class. The coastal elites are out of touch with the heartland….etc.

But as Nate Silver and many others have pointed out, a small shift—one vote in a hundred or less—in three of the swing states and Clinton would have won. In that case, the hot political topic today would be the crisis in the Republican party, the gulf between its established leadership and the Trumpistas, the impossibility of a Republican winning the white house so long as the party continues to alienate minorities and millennials…. etc.

Given the dire outcome of the election for the Democrats and for liberal causes generally, it is natural and sensible for liberals to ask what went wrong. But it is important in doing so, to not exaggerate problematic factors, and to keep hold of what was right.

Three areas are especially subject to scrutiny: the candidate; the platform; and the strategy.

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The Past of Islamic Civilization

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

― George Orwell, 1984

Cyprus_by_Piri_ReisThese days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.

As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?

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The Enemies of History

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Haram aur dayr key jhagdey, kahan tak koi suljhayey

Jisey har tarah fursath ho, voh is maidaan mey aayey.

(Till when can we unravel what is sacred, what is profane?

He, who has nothing else to do, let him enter that battlefield.)

—Habib Painter Qawal

Over twenty years ago, if memory serves me well, travelling in Zaheerabad district of rural Telangana in central India, a group of us, all students on a college project, stopped to watch a folk performance at a local village fair, or jatra, as they are popularly known. The chitukulaata was to be performed by thirty odd men arranged in two concentric circles. In the dead centre sat two musicians and in between the two circles, the sutradhar, or narrator, pranced about animatedly, punctuating his vivid storytelling with a stick and a shrill whistle. The whole night affair, with a eager crowd huddled in blankets, for it was a chilly February night, was to be a long narration of stories of the gods from the Bhagavata Purana, in all likelihood from the regional saint Pothana's vernacular Telugu language version, Bhagavatamu. Before the performance, the troupe raised an invocation: “Yesu murthi ki jai“, they sang, “Hail the Lord Jesus”, for the men were lower caste converts, who in all likelihood, would have converted during the colonial era. Many such people over the centuries have chosen alternate identities through a variety of social mechanisms and for a varied set of motivations and provocations, but a common desire for social justice and dignity has broadly informed the breaking free from an exclusionary, exploitative and often brutal, social hierarchy. Some have retained certain acts of popular ritual, of culture and tradition, (perhaps linked to employment), and their process of repudiation is often a complex, graded act over generations. The histories of such complex social and religious life demonstrating a dense synthesis of identities, deftly conflating diverse strands through equally diverse influences and interlocutors, are numerous to say the least. While such syncretic identities can certainly be looked at with a degree of surprise and anthropological curiosity, the pitfalls of syncretism are also numerous; it is a bad word in contemporary humanities and scholars such as Peter van der Veer, Carl Ernst amongst others have alerted us to the traps that the casual usage of such ideas may present, for the proposition of a simple, benign, humanistic blending is generally a false one, often viewed with a ‘Hindu' lens, and in egregious ways, deployed towards an opportunistic polemical gain.

An immediate danger here is presented by people such as Dina Nath Batra, the serial right-wing litigant, whose strident advocacy has forced the publisher Penguin India, to cravenly capitulate and agree to withdraw Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternate History, and pulp the existing stock. For many, and one can safely assume that his ilk will no doubt agree, such converted Christians singing stories of the ‘Hindu' gods is evidence of the greatness, ‘plurality' and enduring continuance of an ancient three thousand year old tradition, of an essential, undying ‘Hindu' character belonging to the nation-state. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena, a fierce, militant, puritanical, anti-erotic, ahistorical force is quick to attack heterodox ideas that challenge its centralizing agenda. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena is in deep conflict with the ‘Hinduism' of the scholarly arena and the current disturbance with Doniger's book brings this conflict to the fore yet again, igniting a wide range of debates. Some apportion blame, some analyse it in the light of the current political climate, some critique the ‘brahmanical' bias of the commentary and point to dubious claims of 'Hindu plurality', others decry and lament, and most others discuss the principle of free speech. Beyond these debates lies the realm of history itself, and in particular, religious history of this land.

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The Syncretic Crucible: Another Trip To Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Aib na Rakhe Hindi bola

Maine to chak dekhe khola

Hindi bola kiya bakhan

Je gur Prasad tha muje gyan.

[Don't think bad if I speak in Hindi,

What I experience I speak openly

In Hindi I have preached in detail

All the wisdom from my teacher's blessing]

– From Burhan ‘al Din Janam's Irshad-Nama (Oudesh Rani Bawa, Deccan Studies, 2009)

Rauza1The rich, complex synthesis of the arts, culture, mysticism, shared sentiments, and indeed, of serendipitous winds passing through the open doors of history and influence, are more than amply evident at Ibrahim Rauza, the mausoleum of the medieval sultan of the Bahmani succession state of Bijapur, Ibrahim Adil Shah II. From the striking domed entrance gateway, the serene lawns, to the two structures upon a plinth (the tomb and the adjacent mosque), all fecund with the intense intermingling of a staggering range of ideas, Ibrahim Rauza is truly, a feast for the eyes. “If you look up sir, you will see a carved phanas ka phal (jackfruit)”, says our immaculately dressed elderly guide in the regional Dakhani Urdu, coloured gently with a practiced lilt. “There, sun rays, lotus forms, and there, almost faded away, you will see painted in the alcove, a kalash” he points out, adding that one finds numerous features of southern temple design in the structure. This new phase of Bijapur architecture, “almost synchronizing with the reign of Ibrahim II”, writes Z.A Desai in History of Medieval Deccan (ed. Sherwani & Joshi, 1974), “was marked by better and more refined forms”. From more deftly integrated minars, elaborate bracketed cornices, to foliated parapets and refined arches, Ibrahim Rauza is widely considered to be one of the most glorious examples of syncretic Indo-Persian architecture. The lavishness of the Bijapur style “had reached its culmination” with Ibrahim Rauza, and the “most striking feature of the tomb”, Desai writes on, “is the amazing wealth of surface decorations, comprising of low relief carvings in a variety of geometric and foliage patterns, as well as in the form of beautifully interlaced inscriptions of the entire exterior walls of the central chamber.”

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Washed Away

by Gautam Pemmaraju

It is that time of year in Bombay when the city collectively awaits relief from the heat and humidity of the summer months. “The creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything” (see here) is but round the corner, and if recent newspaper reports are to believed, relief from the sweltering heat aside, we are to expect a graver visitation – “the ghost of 2005”. It was on July 26th of that year that the city witnessed an event of unprecedented magnitude. Lashed by rains in excess of 944mm within 24 hours, the flooded city came to a standstill, hundreds died, and the loss of property was enormous. Of biblical nature, much like the hurricanes and tsunamis that have wreaked havoc across the globe in recent times, the flooding was truly, a deluge. A dangerous combination of high tidal movements and higher than normal rainfall are anticipated in June and July this year, according to the city's civic authority, and this indeed was a primary cause for the dramatic 2005 flooding. The colonial era hierarchical network of storm water drains was overwhelmed, and the rushing waters that would have otherwise been carried out to sea, were spat back upon the city, and effectively, in the words of a civic official I spoke to more than a year ago, “the roads became the storm water drains”.

Turner-delugeI was amongst the lucky that did not venture out early that day, but instead saw the onset of the storm from my balcony. The skies darkened rapidly shortly after noon as if in a time-lapse shot, and as it began to rain, the light progressively failed till it became almost pitch dark past two in the afternoon. The electricity went out. I could barely make out the large rubber tree right across from me, and as for the neighbouring building Immaculata, I could no longer discern its shape. It appeared as if I were staring at an opaque curtain, so densely composed of water, that it seemed to be of one seamless form, rather than of discrete water droplets. It seemed, as I sat out watching in bewilderment, that everything around me was, “enchafed”, and I could only but darkly imagine the condition of the sea, a short walk away from where I was.

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The Immutable, Dusty Path

by Gautam Pemmaraju

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.

6a00d83451bcff69e2012875a9ed93970c-300wiThe narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:

In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.

Atmazagaon1In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”

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Summer, Mangoes, Birds, Bombay — Disjecta Membra

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The hot summer months of April and May allow for some indolence. Slack jawed, enervated street dogs, seem somehow to be the most suffering. If their parched tongues say it all, their blinking eyes, bereft of the sharp darting aggression of cooler nights, seem to offer urgent supplication. In part alleviation, they sleep through whole afternoons in the reasonable comfort of a shady spot, on occassion lifting up their heat-stricken heads to cast a listless, impecunious glance at the fools who walk the hot streets. Asleep

Offering vivid descriptions of city life, the hustle-bustle, street hawkers and dwellers, SM Edwardes, in By-Ways Of Bombay (1912), writes,

During the hot months of the year the closeness of the rooms and the attacks of mosquitoes force many a respectable householder to shoulder his bedding and join the great army of street-sleepers, who crowd the footpaths and open spaces like shrouded corpses. All sorts and conditions of men thus take their night's rest beneath the moon,–Rangaris, Kasais, bakers, beggars, wanderers, and artisans,–the householder taking up a small position on the flags near his house, the younger and unmarried men wandering further afield to the nearest open space, but all lying with their head towards the north for fear of the anger of the Kutb or Pole star.

In Sleepy Sketches (1877), the diarist, troubled by the ‘endless accounts’ of Englishmen of privilege and high office, which he finds to ill represent the reality of Bombay life (and life in Bombay), sets out to correct some. Asserting quite vigorously at the outset that the native has ‘no prejudice either in favour of truth or falsehood’ and that they cannot but help mixing the two, he finds issue with “hot glare of the sun and constant heat”, which to his mind “destroy the mystery of life and lead one to look on death as the end of all things” [sic]. The climate threatens the European, the writer adds, and it is so enervating for the professional man, that upon return home at the end of a hardworking day “we have little desire for recreation, and so no recreation is to be found”. The month of May, he writes on,

…brings thirty-one days of close, oppressive heat, and thirty-one nights of close, oppressive heat…when all possibility of sound sleep is gone, and we wake every hour and minute wet with perspiration; when even the crows have lost every power but that of cawing, – a power, confound them! that they never lose, – and stand desolate, with their hot wings held comically apart from their hot bodies…but still in Bombay we go to bed with the thermometer at 89°.

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Another Friday Walk

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, or Tertullian, born at Carthage around 150 or 160 AD, is said to be the first great writer of Latin Christianity. He was a highly regarded scholar, having written three books in Greek, none extant, and was the first to write a formal exposition on the doctrine of Trinity. His principal area of study was jurisprudence. It is said that he converted to Christianity in 197 or 198 AD, and it is not conclusive if he was ordained a priest or not. Breaking away from the Church later, he became a schismatic and a leader and exponent of Montanism. His writings, which include thirty-seven tracts in Latin and Greek, of which thirty-one are extant, cover the entire theological themes of those times – apologetics against Paganism and Judaism, polemics, policy, discipline, and morals. He is said to have disliked Greek philosophy and to have declared philosophers as patriarchs of the heretics, philanderers, untrustworthy and insincere. He was scornful of Socrates, who in dying ordered a cock to be sacrificed to Aesculapius. Tertullian is said to have lived to a great age, and despite his schism, continued to fight heresy, in particular Gnosticism. TertullianRoad

I know all of this on account of the fact that I live on an eponymously named street. It was in fact, precisely on Friday, December 14 2001, that I decided so find out who Tertullian was, after walking out the gate of the building where I stay, to set off, as I had several times before, on a lazy, meandering stroll around Bandra, a western coastal suburb of Bombay. I recall this quite well – it was just the previous day that the Indian parliament had been attacked by five armed gunmen. The television images of September 11 were still quite fresh and there was a sense that something was afoot, and the world had changed.

Setting off on desultory walks, particularly on Fridays, had become a sort of ritual; not one rigidly followed, but instead conducted on airy impulse. They help also to break the monotony of the regimented runs that have become a part of my daily routine in the last few years. Opening my gate precisely at 6PM, as always, I step out once again onto Tertullian Road. I'm certain there is no clear method to what and how one thinks on such walks; I’ve always thought the process to be imprecise, swaying and buckling at whim, setting adrift, only to eventually, run aground. Much like an asynchronous non-linear edit – apprehending a sight here, a form there, affixing these with a stray thought from the previous night, or from 30 years ago, to lead on to a cryptic composite.

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The Industrious God

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Temple-balaji-7The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.

A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.

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Passion Play: Local history, poor governance and divisive politics

by Gautam Pemmaraju

MtCarmelProtest As the picture here suggests, the local parish of Mt Carmel’s on Chapel Road in the western suburb of Bandra in Mumbai, is exhorting upon the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State to exert his efforts elsewhere. Recently, in a most controversial and aggressively conducted manner, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), the city’s main civic authority, went on a drive of demolishing ‘illegal’ religious structures, mostly ‘plague crosses’, around Mumbai – from the centre of the city in Mazagaon and Byculla, to the historic Portuguese Catholic suburb of Bandra. The local community, caught off guard and distraught by this unilateral action, has mobilized itself and is vigorously protesting the civic authority’s drive. Various newspapers as well as a few television channels have reported the events, speculating on a variety of issues – the legality of the structures, the timing of the civic body’s actions, official stances, the historical issues and community sentiments. The archbishop of Mumbai, Msgr Oswald Gracias has termed the action ‘unjust’ and ‘illegal’ and in contravention of existing policy wherein structures before 1964 are deemed to be of legal status. In 2009, a Supreme Court bench, while hearing a petition against a Gujarat High Court order instructing state municipalities to take action against illegal religious structures, issued an interim order to all states of the union, to review the status of existing structures that are constructed along roadsides and which obstruct traffic. In compliance of this Supreme Court order, the state government issued a regulation last October to all municipal bodies to take action against ‘illegal structures’. Following this government regulation, various municipal officials of the different wards began to post notices on numerous crosses and other structures (two temples) over the last two weeks to meet a February 28th deadline – there are 749 illegal structures in the city according to official figures. In the central district of Byculla, the officials posted a notice on a Saturday afternoon informing the residents of an impending demolition on Monday, leaving them no time to appeal the action. Subsequently, a cross in Hathi Baug, Love Lane, in the central district of Mazagaon, was removed and its plaque, dated 1936, was damaged. 1

In 2003 this matter had come before the state High Court and the civic body had then been instructed to take action against illegal structures. Members of the Catholic community had then submitted documentation to the civic body regarding individual structures in support of their historical value and legality. Now community members are accusing the municipality of disregarding this documentation and acting illegally.

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