Wednesday, July 29, 2020

History, histories, memories

Dr Ghulam Yazdani was the first to photograph Ajanta paintings, and initiated the first serious conservation of Ajanta and Ellora. His work on the two sites was exhaustive and was published in two volumes. But he did much more than that, and he studied and helped conserve several Indian historical sites, including those in Warangal, Mandu and Bidar. His efforts and scholarship were enabled by the Nizam of Hyderabad. 

Please read this article:

Here's a smaller personal anecdote. In the summer of 2016), I had the good fortune of travelling abroad the Deccan Odyssey, a train that went around Maharashtra, stopping at sites of artistic and historic significance such as Ajanta and Ellora, and also at two wildlife reserves, Tadoba and Pench. 

I wrote the magazine article without mentioning the sadness and moments of unease, given the light sprinkling of Islamophobia in the air. The architecture and art is exceptional. That's why people of all faiths come to visit, after all: to admire and perhaps gain some knowledge. But aside from the glory of the sites, most conversations from local guides tended to emphasize the role of the British in conserving the sites, when actually this was territory controlled by the Nizam and it was his administration that conserved and documented much of whatever still remains. 

Some guides attempted to twist the history of Daulatabad; I was traveling with a book ('Aurangabad with Daulatabad, Khuldabad and Ahmadnagar' - Pushkar Sohoni) and was able to note some of these discrepancies. Some people were mouthing the usual falsehoods, describing all medieval-era mosques as having been built over temples. The fact of architectural synthesis was twisted to serve the narrative that something had been destroyed or re-purposed. 

I first heard of Dr Yazdani at Ellora. I had walked away from my own group and guide, and was walking past another group when their guide mentioned the Nizam of Hyderabad. I stopped to listen and as the group began to walk further, I rushed to their guide and asked: what were you saying about the Nizam? 

He told me about Ghulam Yazdani's enormous work, and the state of Hyderabad preserving these Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sites. I expressed surprise because our guide had not mentioned this at all. The young man smiled, as if he understood something secret.

We had out respective jobs to do, though. So I thanked the younger guide and exchanged names. It was a Muslim name. Before he turned away, there was that smile again, rueful. And I understood this time what it suggested: it is not so much that accredited guides don't know but that they want to forget, to discredit and disengage. He knew, and he had this Muslim name, so the positive role played by Indian Muslim rulers and scholars mattered to him.

I have forgotten the guide's name now, but I have not forgotten the look in his eyes, that rueful smile. He may have read some recognition in my name too, and in the rueful smile I returned before turning away. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

In spitting distance of flammable

The meaning of spit changes with context. Literature is full of spitters and the spat upon, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Raj Rao’s Kanthapura. In all of the above texts, a powerful person or dominant community spits or threatens to spit upon the vulnerable, as a way of demonstrating that they can. I was also reminded of Ha Jin’s War Trash, set in the Korean War of the early 1950s. Towards the end, Chinese prisoners of war are given a choice between repatriation to the Communist controlled mainland and going to Taiwan. China was persuading them to return to the mainland. One member of the group that did not want to return suggested spitting at “the Reds” as a way of pre-empting any veiled threats and making their opposition public.

The gesture is always underpinned by anger. In Hindi, we have a saying, ‘gussa thook do’ (spit out your anger) which is a request to calm down or let bygones be. There are other proverbs such as ‘thook ke chaatna’ (licking your own spit), equivalent to eating your words, and ‘aasmaan pe thookna’ (spitting at the sky), which indicates your insignificance relative to the object of your criticism. A person may also be described as ‘thookne laayaq’ (worth spitting at) or not worth even that. Some people spit or say ‘thoo-thoo’ aloud as a superstitious gesture, intending to ward off evil. However, saying the word ‘thoo’ universally signifies disgust, and was recently deployed on Twitter as a hashtag[ii] aimed at journalists[iii] who were accused of fanning Islamophobia during the pandemic.

Read the full post at the CUP blog: 

New notes on Facebook

Yes, yes, Facebook. Carry on spying. I visited Lithub. Show me all the Lithub you've got now. The worst material there might be on Lithub, you've presented to me. Does it not strike you that I am already acquainted with Lithub, outside of you? That I visit other literary sites without any prodding from you, and therefore you bring me nothing I don't already have? What's the point of this? Think, Facebook. Think a little harder about what you want from me.

Update: I thought Facebook and I were starting to level with each other. It figured out that I do 'buy' stuff online but not via FB, and also that I am a mindless consumer of news and trivia items out of a box vaguely labelled 'culture'. Armed with the least and the most valuable items in the information bazaar, it wrestles with my timeline. It *will* have my time and attention if it cannot have my money. Except that we now live in an attention economy (about which you may want to read this wonderful book (free download: and therefore attention is money.

However, FB is also chasing me with 'leisure' garments. It really does spy. It knows I finally caved in and made an online purchase of cloth (and yes, I've got the ad settings fixed and yes, I would prefer it if it did not spy). I must confess that Fareeda Gupta has latched onto the right idea - home-ish clothes that can double up as sleepwear, but the top looks enough like a kurta that you might wear to work, and is therefore suitable for online meetings.

There are the 'festival edit' ads too, ahead of Bakreid. One gharara suit-set costs as much as two goats, or a goat and two chickens. Not buying. 

It does persevere with sarees too. It knows that anyone who wears them, wants them. But it doesn't yet know that I am put off by anything that advertises itself as being favoured by 'independent' women. I am only mildly amused at branding that suggests that independent minds prefer to be led by the auto-suggestion of independence via nice fabric and photography. Anyway, to save Facebook the trouble, I thought I'd help it make some ad choices for me. Try showing me a brand that isn't trying very hard. 

P.S: about those 'luxe' ads, I can't make out whether they're for the dishes or the food arranged on the dishes. Not buying. Just saying.

Tweets by @anniezaidi