Sunday, July 13, 2014

The threat of learning

Seth Godin writes, brilliantly, as usual on Literacy and unguided reading:

Unguided reading is a real threat, because unguided reading leads to uncomfortable questions.
Teach someone to read and you guarantee that they will be able to learn forever. Teach an entire culture to read and connections and innovations go through the roof.

Yes, and this is the precise reason there are cultures that prevent the spread of education by censoring books, websites and deciding what their population should read or know. (And yes, India does have a sorry record here). And then there are comunties that deny education to women (mostly). Because once a woman is educated, she will teach her offspring - and that is a danger to those who want to keep their population in ignorance.

Show me a culture that discourages the education of women (the Taliban for example) and I will show you deep rooted ignorance, bigotry and superstition and then some.

Homo unius libri...

Learning is a threat for many. If they learn to fish, they may not be dependent on the master, the provider, the benevolent mai-baap sarkaar. They may fly away if you gave them wings. So, they keep them hobbled, dependent and unlearnt..

Slightly incoherent post, but well...this was a Seths post of yore. Inspired in one sentence...Unguided reading is a real threat

Making money out of paper

And now for something totally different. Once upon a time, I used to be a business blogger. But then a few things happened along the way and I wrote mostly about the country, politics and related things. So, this is a post that is more like the old days.

A few days ago, someone gifted us this.

Nothing much. Just a box of chocolates, masquerading as a gift box of chocolates - there are no pretensions here - the box is truthful and says what it contains and all that. And these are not those fancy gilt wrapped or home made chocolates, they are just normal, usual Cadburys chocolates hiding under the box. Which is a bit of a letdown really because these are not gilt wrapped in colourful foil with fancy names for flavours and fancy shapes, but when one opens this box, all one gets are usual Cadburys chocolates in their usual wrappers. There is no duplicity here - what they say is what you get. (For lazy gifters I say - please pickup a box of authentic mithai, not boxed chocolate - even Haldiram Soan Papdi is beter. But that is another rant for another day.)

And the better half picked up this and read through and found this at the back. Interestingly, she observed, this box is priced at Rupees 150, MRP and contains this.
The individual units add up to an MRP of Rs. 115 only. Which means, the customer is paying 150 for chocolates worth only 115. And that means that the company is making money on packaging. 

Let me explain. Leaving margins, aside, selling 115 MRP of chocolates as they are will get them 115.  But putting 115 rupees MRP of chocolates in another layer of plastic and cardboard, get them 35 rupees more - without selling a single gram of chocolate extra! How cool is that. The company which makes chocolate, makes money off paper as well.

And you dear customer are the idiot. 

(If you chose to buy such things that are the epitome of these days. Mediocrity giftwrapped in exotica. You can find it everywhere. Fancy names, fancy locations and very often fancy prices. And instead of gifting somebody something thoughtful, you walk into the nearest store and buy chocolate masquerading as a gift box of mithai. Yes, surely you care about the person you gift it to - they will 'appreciate'. Unless, of course, you intend it that way. And yes, this is also another rant for another day)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Maratha role in Indian history

If there is one book of Indian history of be written, then it is the story of the role of Marathas in Indian history. Most of it would actually trace back to one man and the inspirational leadership he left behind that practically resurrected India for a period of about 200 years after him.

The man, of course, was Shivaji, but apart from the fact that he led a resurrection of a Hindu kingdom at a time when the most brutal of Mughals was ruling - Aurangzeb - a little known and even lesser celebrated is the lineage of rulers and warriors he left behind.

The two books I have read in the recent past seem to reinforce what my friend has been saying for a while now.

In one of the final chapters of Aavarna, SL Bhyrappa details out the role of Marathas in reclaiming Kashi from its ravaged state. How they tried to get back Kashi and re-build the Kashi Vishwanath temple many a time through wars and pacts and other means - but never got around to rebuilding the temple to its original glory. The original structure was razed to the ground and a mosque built over it - by Aurangzeb. It was news to me that the present structure at Kashi Vishwanath temple - a smallish structure was built by Ahilyabai Holkar. Indeed much of the ghats at Varanasi by the Ganga were also built by various Maratha kings and queens over the years - and all this was because they were practically rebuilding the place from the time it was ravaged by the Islamic invasions.

And they played a stellar role in recapturing much of the coastline from Diu to Goa from the Portuguese - most of it in present day Maharashtra.

And then course, their role from Tamil Nadu to the Mysore kingdom to Madhya Pradesh to Rajasthan...a great story to be told indeed...

The Maratha empire

So, why is this story not being told to us or why does our history not glorify it. One version of course is that this resurrection of Hindu kingdoms kind of came in the way of the British reinforcing their dominion over India - they used to justify it saying that they were just one in a series of invasions of India - starting from the Aryans (now discredited) to the Mongols to Turks to whatever and then the British/French/Dutch/Portuguese. The later version is of course is a left wing driven academic agenda that prevents glorification of anything India and one version of the justification I have heard is, Yes, there was a Maratha empire, but it was never an empire, but a loose confederacy and they never really were in control - which can almost be applied to all earlier invasions as well.

But whatever the reason, it is a story worth telling...

The story of Chimaji Appa

Chimmaji Appa wont ring a bell in your mind. Neither did he ring a bell in my mind. But a whole lot of real bells that ring in Maharashtra temples, ring because of Chimmaji Appa. And thereiin lies a story. I read Guardian of the Dawn about the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa - which again, is a chapter omitted in whatever history I have learnt. I learnt about it on the internet. And then I asked my friend from Goa about it and one thing led to another and I found myself reading about Chimmaji Appa.

Here is what the wiki entry says:

While Portuguese naval supremacy had been weakened by the British, French and Dutch Navies, they still maintained a strong presence on the western coast of India, from the Gujarat coast, through the Konkan, down to northern Malabar. They maintained well defended fortresses all along the coast located in islands and harbour mouths. From their headquarters in Goa they ran a theological Christian state all along the western coastal region from Daman and Diu down to Mangalore. To further the spread of Christianity, Inquisition was promulgated throughout the Portuguese possessions in India, and a program to annihilate Hindus through conversion or massacre commenced. Hindus were subjected to torture frequently surpassing even the barbarity of contemporary Islamic rulers.


It was in this milieu that the Marathas arose, ignited by the call of swaraj given by Shivaji, to restore the land of India to the sons of the soil. While Bajirao was waging war against the Mughal empire, Chimnaji Appa concentrated his energies towards the Western Ghats. Vasai (formerly known as Bassein) was the ultimate objective of the war, as this was the capital of the provincial government of Portugal's northern Indian possessions.

Now this campaign is all around the Mumbai area - Vasai, Belapur, Mahim, Vajreshwari - and guess what,  having lived in Mumbai for a long long time I had no clue that there is so much history in each of these places. As per my knowledgeable friend, there is but one statue of Chimaji Appa in Vasai, near Mumbai . And no history book in Maharashtra covers this - atleast did not through the time I studied.

And coming to bells, Chimaji Appa, after his victorious campaigns, gifted bells from the Portuguese forts to 5 temples - which can be seen there even today.

A unique bell (Roman style) can be seen in front of the temple which was presented by Chimaji Appa (Brother of Bajirao Peshwa I and uncle of Nanasaheb Peshwa). Chimaji Appa collected five large bells after he won in war against the Portuguese from Vasai Fort. He offered one here at Bhimashankar and the others at Menovali near Wai in front of a Shiva Temple on the banks of the Krishna river, Banshanker temple( Pune), Omkareshwar Temple( Pune) and Ramlinga temple ( Shirur) [Link]

What a story!

Aavarna - book review

I finally got around to buying SL Bhyrappas Aavarna translated by Sandeep Balakrishna. The book is a tough read - not because of the writer or the translator, but because it does not hold anything back. The book is all about the history of India and it pulls no punches. And when I say, pulls no punches, it really does not pull any punches and you feel that when you read the book. The book hits you as you read it.

The brutality of the Islamic invasions, presented to us in our history books and movies in its sterilised glory, is an open wound here, bare and bloody and rotten and stinking. The author relies on historical sources (which is given in the end) and also points the hyporcisy in the left wing circles through caricatures and nearly realistic presentations.

The translator has also done a great job - since the book genuinely makes the reader 'feel'.

All in all, we have been fed a Hello Kitty version of our history - as if we as a population cannot handle the truth.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

History we are not taught

At the time of Indian independence, the outgoing English government (if we can call them so) was replaced by an Indian government. Very little changed. Instead of white masters, we had brown masters. The bureaucracy continued. The framework continued. The exact system of government that the English instituted to exploit the natives was passed onto the natives themselves who now continued to do the same thing that the English did.And the natives did worse. They moved onto so called socialistic principles which has left the country languishing at the bottom of the pile on almost all developmental parameters. Part of this faux socialism demands that the population be taken care of by a gargantuan and benevolent government that is supposed to know what is best for the populace.

And therein lies history.

We are taught a very doctored version of history in our schools. If I had read only my school history books, and made a movie out of it, this is what it would look like. The movie would have two heroes - Nehru and Gandhi with a few bit actors coming in and going out and most likely clowning around. None of the side actors would add any value to the story and at best, they would provide nuisance value coming in the way of great warriors Nehru and Gandhi. It took me many years until I read India, a history by John Keay and Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and then again other books like Tamas by Bhisham Sahni and Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh to read more of the reality and the horrors of English rule. There is surely more and I gathered more tidbits from Amitav Ghosh Opium series and so on. And I am sure I have not got the whole story yet.

The Mughal rule was presented to us as some sort of a benign foreign rule where they levied a teddy bear tax known as jaziya which made the rulers want to hug the locals by leving a friendly tax. Of course, they accidentally demolished some hundreds of temples which were mostly weather beaten. They also took great care of the population beating them up when the weather did not. They accidentally converted a few temples into mosques and a few million people as well. Of course, they were benign rulers and they developed India into a superpower. But a Narasimha Rao book gives a quickish idea of the latter part of their rule in the Hyderabad state. And of course, Mughal court chronicles give a great picture of the rule - which our historians prefer to ignore. And then again, the rise of Shivaji and his own documentation of the brutality of Mughals (and exhibited in how they treated his own family). Also how they treated Guru Gobind Singh are all dismissed as some of sort of footnotes in anotherwise peaceful takever of the Indian subcontintent. The truth is probably the reverse.

And in these big stories - Mughals and the English and their atrocities hides the very little known Portuguese rule in Goa. And the last post refers to a novel set in that era. Till then apart from stray articles on the internet (Thanks rediff - this is a must read), we had no idea that this happened. The Wiki page is here.

Kanchan Gupta writes:

And this silence is not because there exists no evidence: There exist, in full text, orders issued by the Portuguese viceroy and the governor. There exist, in written records and travelogues, penned not by the persecuted but by the persecutors, full details of the horrors perpetrated in the name of Christ. Yet this silence has been maintained -- a silence willed by secular historians and politicians; an illegitimate silence legitimised by the popular belief that missionaries and their patrons were, and remain, a benign lot who could never hurt a fly.

All in all, the story of Indian history in a nutshell, is how two foreign powers and religions committed atrocities on Hindus. Exploited them. Exploited the resources. Looted, plundered and killed. And how the Indian kings fought back. And by the way they also left no stone unturned in spreading their religion through various campaigns of hate, destruction and violence - apart from peaceful means of offering money or forgiveness. Both these intruding civilizations thought that there offering deliverance or civilizing them - this ignorant Hindu population. This, is the big story. There are footnotes of goodness, of secularism, of large hearts and so on, but the big picture is the bad story. This, then is the story - it is not the reverse as it is often painted in our history books in school.

Should we hide behind the layer of falsification or tell the truth to our citizens or have successive governments thought that we are immature to understand the true history of our country?

South Africa created the Truth and Reconciliation commission to bring the truth in front of their population. Can we?

Guardian of the Dawn

Guardian of the Dawn is a book by Ricardo Zimler which I chanced upon after this interview by the author which I later realized was a 2005 interview.

The book is a delightful read. The author skilfully depicts Goa set in the 1600s as he takes us through the travails of a Jewish family living under Portuguese rule. (Goa was under the Portuguese, remember?) As he tells us this story, one gets an idea of an India then. And then the Inquisition begins - which is a sordid tale in itself (but hey guess what, our history books forgot to teach us that - a post on this coming up soon) and this family gets caught in the Inquisition.

What is the inquisition? The wikipedia has a chapter on it. Goa Inquisition.

In this process, he meets other prisoners and they narrate their story (based on the authors research of Inquisition documentation). And it is indeed a sordid tale.

The rest of the story is then how the protagonist comes out of the inquisition and get back his life - and that part is quite a page turner with some surprises at the end.

All in all, I liked the book. One, for bringing alive a chapter of Indian history which has all been buried from Indians. Second, for interweaving a story within it that brings it alive in all its forms rather than a boring historical chapter. Third - the details. The book feels like an Amitav Ghosh novel where the history, fact and fiction interplay in a glorious tapestry.

This is a must read book for anybody who wants to know the story of the Portuguese story in Goa which often escapes attention because they were a smallish occupant of India as opposed to the English, but in many ways, more brutal. And then again, they are given a free pass because they are 'Western' but that is another topic for another day.