Category Archives: India

Pakistan: From Haven to Citadel

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 112-113:

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, born out of the partition of India, but it was also a home for many minorities. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, was a secular Shia who nominated other Shias and an Ahmadi Muslim to his cabinet. His first law minister was a Hindu, to make clear that laws were to be written by secular jurists, not clerics and theologians. In his first presidential address marking the birth of the nation, at midnight on August 11, 1947, Jinnah told his new compatriots “you are free to go to your temples, free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or case or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Jinnah had spelled out a vision for religious pluralism in a secular Muslim-majority democracy, where Muslims and non-Muslims were equal citizens. He did not speak of an Islamic state, not even of an Islamic republic. But his vision for tolerant diversity was never fulfilled. He died a year later, and though his successors tried to uphold this nuanced narrative, they soon fell back on the more straightforward raison d’être of the country: Islam.

Pakistan was born amid horrendous violence and indescribable dislocation—around 6.5 million Muslims moved from India to Pakistan, while 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Activist, revivalist Islam had grown in British India in part as a reaction to colonial rule, but also in opposition to Hindus, the majority. The name Pakistan was an acronym combining the first letters of the different provinces that made up the new country. But in Urdu, the language of the new nation, it also means “the land of the pure,” and there were many who wanted to purify it further. In 1956, Pakistan’s constitution declared the country an Islamic republic and prohibited non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state. In the 1960s, military dictators used religion as a rallying cry against India, feeding further intolerance against Hindus and appeasing Islamists. Social and cultural life continued unperturbed, but some now brandished Pakistan as a citadel of Islam.

The architect of that citadel would be Abu A’la al-Mawdudi, the man who had inspired Qutb in Egypt and Khomeini in Iran. Mawdudi had not always been a religious fundamentalist. Born in 1903 in British India, he was a journalist, a poet, and newspaper editor whose intellectual, mystical, theological journey made him the twentieth century’s greatest revivalist Islamic thinker.

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Mughal Legacies Erased

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), pp. 478-479, 484:

The autocratic political structures of Mughal rule received a devastating death blow. Only ninety years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947. But while memories of British atrocities in 1857 may have assisted in the birth of Indian nationalism, as did the growing separation and mutual suspicion of rulers and ruled that followed the Uprising, it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were in any way responsible for India’s march to independence. Instead, the Indian freedom movement was led by the new Anglicised and educated Colonial Service class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by and large used modern Western democratic structures and methods—political parties, strikes and protest marches—to gain their freedom.

Even after independence, the arts that were cultivated by the Mughals—the miniature-painting tradition, the ghazal, the delicate forms of Mughal architecture—never really regained their full vitality or artistic prestige, and remained—at least in some quarters—as discredited as the emperors who patronised them.

Today, if you visit the old Mughal city of Agra, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal, the supreme architectural achievement of Mughal rule, note how the roundabouts are full of statues of the Rani of Jhansi, Shivaji and even Subhas Chandra Bose; but not one image of any Mughal Emperor has been erected anywhere in the city since independence. Although a Bahadur Shah Zafar road still survives in Delhi, as indeed do roads named after all the other Great Mughals, for many Indians today, rightly or wrongly, the Mughals are perceived as it suited the British to portray them in the imperial propaganda that they taught in Indian schools after 1857: as sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders—something that was forcefully and depressingly demonstrated by the whole episode of the demolition of the Baburi Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilisation championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal Emperors has only a limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India. Many of these are now deeply ambivalent about the achievements of the Mughals, even if they will still happily eat a Mughal meal, or flock to the cinema to watch a Bollywood Mughal epic, or indeed head to the Red Fort to hear their Prime Minister give the annual Independence Day speech from the battlements in front of the Lahore Gate.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed. But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths. The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two. As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

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1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men and women who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, “for those who have come to die have no need for food.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

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Afghan National Budget Sources

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 311-312:

Despite Afghanistan’s well-deserved reputation for independence, no government there was ever stable without access to foreign sources of revenue. While such income took many different forms, obtaining it remained a high priority for every Afghan regime. Ahmad Shah Durrani mounted raids on India and took tribute from there in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century rulers made peace deals with the British raj in exchange for substantial subsidies and access to modern weapons. The Musahiban rulers of Afghanistan exploited the cold war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States to modernize Afghanistan’s military and develop its economy. The PDPA was entirely dependent on resources from the Soviet Union to keep it afloat. The Karzai government was equally dependent on the United States and other Western countries.

The problem for Afghan rulers was that under ordinary circumstances, there was little incentive for foreign governments to provide the assistance that was vital for their regimes’ survival. The only way to overcome this obstacle was to make Afghanistan seem important (or dangerous) enough to justify these payments. But here Afghan rulers were faced with a difficult task. They were acutely aware that they lived in a world where their country’s primary interests were always at the bottom of someone else’s agenda. Even taking the country seriously earned the rebuke of critics in nineteenth-century Britain; they coined the term “Afghanistanism” for those who exaggerated the significance of events in distant and obscure places. Yet time and time again, Afghanistan returned to the world stage with an importance that always belied this gloss and generated the revenue it was seeking. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan’s successful resistance against the British gave it a central place as the frontier of the raj—negatively as a potential threat to India’s NWFP, and positively as a barrier to Russian expansion. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the United States each feared “losing Afghanistan” to the other. This gave a country with no developed resources or vital strategic location a remarkably crucial significance until the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It recovered that position when Islamic terrorism became a new world security issue and keeping Afghanistan free of it an international priority.

The U.S. invasion that expelled the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan created an odd circumstance in its wake. The usual priority among the Afghans of expelling foreign invaders was replaced by a tacit strategy of keeping them there to guarantee security and finance the development of the country. This was because the Afghan population was looking for stability after decades of war and protection against predation by factions within Afghanistan as well as from neighbors seeking to exploit its weaknesses. But accepting such assistance needed to be carefully balanced: a Kabul government that was dependent on it could be labeled a puppet regime unless it proved itself independent enough to protect Afghan interests and values. It was also dangerous to assume that the initial willingness of the Afghan people to accept foreign intervention had no expiration date. To be successful, foreign military assistance to the Afghan state needed to be self-liquidating, and foreign economic assistance needed to improve ordinary lives.

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Chief Operating Officer to Explorers

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle locs. ~400, ~2000:

Among their caravan was a hard-working young African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whom Burton referred to as “the gem of the group.” Bombay was a member of the Yao tribe who had been captured by Arab slave traders at the age of twelve, then sold in the Zanzibar slave market to an Arab merchant. When that Arab moved to the city of Bombay shortly after, his young slave came along. After his owner’s death, the slave was given his freedom and the adopted name of his new hometown. Upon returning to Africa sometime in his early thirties, Sidi Mubarak Bombay joined the Sultan of Zanzibar’s army as a soldier, and was posted to a garrison in Chokwe. That outpost seven miles from the Indian Ocean coastline was where Burton and Speke met up with the industrious, grinning former slave. By arrangement with the garrison commander, Bombay and five other soldiers were hired to accompany the British caravan. Bombay’s work ethic and linguistic skills soon made him invaluable to Burton and Speke. Unbeknownst to Bombay, his soldiering career was at an end, replaced by a new line of work.

Bombay spoke fluent Hindustani, as did Speke, so Bombay served as Speke’s gun bearer and translator. “He works on principal and works like a horse,” Burton wrote of the short ugly man with filed-down teeth and an aversion to bathing, “candidly declaring that not love of us but duty to his belly makes him work. With a sprained ankle and a load quite disproportionate to his puny body, he insists on carrying two guns. He attends us everywhere, manages our purchases, carries all our messages, and when not employed by us is at every man’s beck and call.” Bombay would go on to become the talisman of African exploration, an essential roster member on any serious expedition for decades to come.

The legendary Sidi Mubarak Bombay—“the honestest of black men who served with Burton, and subsequently with Speke”—came on board as leader of Stanley‘s protective militia. In time, Bombay would serve as unofficial caravan leader, and liaison between Stanley and the pagazis [porters].

Thirteen years had passed since a young Bombay had dazzled Burton and Speke with his easy humor and insatiable work ethic. But he was still able to walk thirty miles at a brisk pace, had worked with the most expeditions of any man, and knew the interior by rote. Bombay, however, had also passed into middle age. He was bald and the young pagazis didn’t respect him. As the rare man in history to follow the Nile from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, Bombay thought himself a celebrity. He had an ego, as Stanley knew from reading the works of Burton and Speke, and could be outspoken, prone to drinking and chasing women, and a procrastinator. So there were liabilities incumbent with Bombay’s hiring. All in all, however, the exploration veteran was vital.

Stanley trusted Bombay so much he let the former slave hire his own soldiers. Bombay handpicked twenty men.

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Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.

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What to Do about Squatters in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2595-2615:

Slowly, I realised something about the squatters. Unlike the millions who lived in slums, these were people who had not been organised by any political party. No one had arranged their birth certificates or ration cards. No one had got them voter cards. The census-takers did not come to their door. Along the canal, on the Maniktala side, the squatters were Hindu. On the Rajabazar side they were Muslim. But otherwise they were precariously the same. No one knew how many people were going to be evicted because no one had bothered to count how many people lived there in the first place. They were people unaccounted for, people who were not people at all.

The settlements along the canal stretched several miles. Taken together, they were as many as 50,000 people. If they had lived in one dense patch and formed a great slum, some leader would surely have come along and got them fake birth certificates and arranged their voter cards, turned them into a constituency and championed their cause. But they were stretched thin across several city wards, and so they did not count as a voting bloc, and hence did not count at all.

All the politicians I called, the ministers, municipality officials and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said something had to be done, of course. A local MLA met me at Flury’s, the gaudy bakery on Park Street, to discuss his grand vision for the canal. Over pastries and tea, he showed me plans that looked like a fantasy from a children’s colouring book. In his plan, an elevated highway would rise above what was now a row of toilets upon a river of shit. In the drawings, there were of course no shacks nor workshops, and no plans for the people who lived and worked there. They had been wiped out of the picture.

What I saw was this: a democratically elected Communist government was following a colonial law that denied its people a basic foothold in the city. The Communists had even stopped working with the World Bank, because it had a policy of providing resettlement to all affected squatters on its projects while the government did not. In my Princeton days, I had supported the anti-globalisation protests, which targeted the World Bank as the very symbol of capitalist exploitation in the Third World. Now ‘capitalism’ and ‘Communism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ all seemed like terms whose meanings had been unmoored from their original forms. They were just empty words used by politicians with which we filled the pages of our newspapers and stuffed our brains.

What mattered was power, the power of having bodies you could put in the street to block traffic and votes you could stuff in a ballot box. Who got what was determined by who could make the most noise, who could block the most roads, who could show the most power. Each would be compensated according to their nuisance value. The meek would lose their hearths.

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Religious Segregation in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2495-2525:

Imran lived in Kidderpur, a vast Muslim area around the port. His coordinates in the city were thoroughly different from mine, and that difference was coded by religion. Hindus lived among Hindus. Muslims lived with Muslims. Calcutta was a segregated city, and at least the Hindu side, the side that ruled, had long ago decided not to see this fact. One in four people in the state of Bengal was Muslim. At least one in five people in the city was Muslim. But you rarely found Muslims in newspapers, on television channels, on university faculties or even in government offices. A generation of Communist rule had stopped the riots and killings that happened elsewhere in India. The Hindu right couldn’t spew its ideology here. It was considered odious ‘cowbelt politics’, the madness of people from the North, with their backward, fanatical ways. When Bengali Hindus, whether Congress or Communist, spoke, they sounded like Frenchmen, parroting abstract universals. But like Frenchmen, they protected their bounded society with wordless codes.

The Statesman staff was full of Muslims. They worked in the kitchen, delivered tea, ran the presses. There were no Muslims in the newsroom until Imran arrived. There were no Americans either, until I did. But somehow I could slide back uneasily into a former self, Bengali, Hindu, bhodrolok. Imran had no such fallback. Our friendship, in turn, was often suspect. Was I a CIA agent sent by the Americans to uncover terrorist plots, recruiting a young Muslim to help me penetrate clandestine worlds? Such were the divisions in Calcutta that this sort of theorising seemed more plausible than the friendship of young reporters. The city to which I returned as a reporter was caught in a conspiracy of silence. The lines drawn by Partition went right through the city, pulling some people in and cutting others out. But everyone pretended not to see those lines at all. In the paper, there was no coverage of the Muslim parts of the city, unless there was a ‘communal’ issue, meaning when Muslims complained that their religion had been offended and took to the loudspeakers and the streets. What was the need? Everyone knew all there was to know.

One’s name and one’s neighbourhood are the dead giveaways. I was read as Bengali and Hindu. Doors opened and closed based on those two signifiers. Trust was given and taken away based on them. There were many times when a man would begin talking and then change his tune once he had found out your name and your neighbourhood. When I reported on problems at the Calcutta madrasa, Muslim students would complain about Hindus until they discovered I was not Muslim, at which point the mask would come on. They would mouth the rhetoric learned from political speeches and schoolbooks about how all of us were brothers.

What was unsayable politically was enacted everywhere else. In Hindu paras [= neighborhoods], a Muslim couldn’t rent a house. In many Hindu firms, a Muslim couldn’t get a job any more. In many Hindu homes, a Muslim couldn’t even work as a cook or a driver without taking on a fake Hindu name. There were no Muslim quotas for government jobs or college admission as there were for lower-caste Hindus, and little legal recourse for the daily discrimination, which was quite straightforward.

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Keeping the Poor Nearby in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2165-2185:

When I worked at the Statesman, I had visited the palace grounds with Sumitro during Rath, when the gardens and aviary were opened to the public and turned into a fairground. The para’s rickshaw-pullers and street vendors milled about with their families, bought wind-up toys, rode ferris wheels and took aim with BB guns at balloons. As in the villages, a big man’s power counted in feudal and not capitalist terms. Money was not the main measure. When traders and landlords moved from villages to Calcutta to form the Bengali elite, they had brought with them entire entourages of servants, guards, punkah-pullers, cooks, nurses, weavers, potters, shoemakers, jewellers, and so on. The retainers settled around the big man’s house, in mini urban villages which today we call ‘slums’. The more people you had around at your behest, the more servants, peons and underlings, the more prosperous you were considered to be. Power was defined by the capricious use of kindness and cruelty upon the many.

How different it was from Paris or Versailles, where the Marble Palace would otherwise not be out of place. Rajendralal’s wondrous collection may have seemed a shameless exercise in mimicry of Europe. Yet this motherlode of all things European resembled no place in Europe. It was a phenomenon possible only in nineteenth-century Calcutta. When Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris in the mid nineteenth century, and in so doing producing the template of the modern city, he widened the boulevards and opened up vistas to the grand monuments, and moved the slums to the urban fringe, out of sight. To create a picturesque city, the rich were sifted from the poor, the filth removed from the gates of mansions. In Paris, even today, the housing projects on its urban fringe are full of immigrants from the former colonies, unseen and unvisited by other Parisians unless they riot and appear on television screens.

For Calcutta’s rich, the poor were an asset, not a problem. The aristocrats needed to live among their gophers, underlings and retinues of servants. Mullick’s Patronage was the basis of the big man’s bigness, as it still is today for the political bosses in Calcutta’s paras [= neighborhoods]. The city’s design follows a logic entirely at odds with what we expect modern cities to be. All those forces and peoples that other cities have struggled to segregate and sequester have been here together from the start.

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Examination Hell in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1635-1655:

When I was a student at Calcutta Boys’ School, our academic year was marked by three term exams. The tests would be in at least a dozen subjects. Preparations would take over a month of mugging up. During exam time, a hush settled over Calcutta’s families, as mothers fretted, cajoled and provided warm glasses of milk, while the little one prepared for his term exams. The SATs were a breeze compared to my Calcutta first-grade final exams. No test I would take in the US – not even the field exams in graduate school – ever required the amount of mindless memorisation, or produced as much competitiveness and anxiety, as those grade-school exams.

After each term exam we would be ranked among our peers. The status of the kid who topped the rankings, the ‘First Boy’, can be compared only to that of an American high-school quarterback. He was typically bespectacled, oily haired and a bit of a bore, but students revered him, teachers granted him the equivalent of diplomatic immunity, and other kids’ mothers wanted to copy notes from his ma. Perhaps I have neglected to mention that each day, mothers lined up along the schoolyards during lunchtime with hot fish curry and rice tiffins to spoon-feed their progeny. Since my mother worked as a scientist for much of my childhood, my tiffins were cold butter sandwiches carried from home, and I was spared this maternal attention.

All those years of spoon-feeding and exams led up to the standardised tests in tenth, and then twelfth grade. Six hundred thousand tenth graders took the state’s final exam in 2009. The boy who ranked first was featured on the front page of the newspaper, just under the article on the national parliamentary elections. On the inside pages each year are stories of kids hanging themselves because of a poor exam result. The preferred mode of suicide for spurned lovers is drinking acid. The preferred mode for exam victims is hanging.

The target of every Bengali family is to produce a doctor or an engineer. Both fields have rigorous entrance exams at the end of twelfth grade, known in Bengal as the joint entrance exam. By the time you reach twelfth grade, exams have provided the entire drama of your existence. These results are the measure of your self-worth. Each year, with each new report of suicide, there is talk of easing the stress, perhaps doing away with some tests altogether. Nothing much changes except that more shortcuts appear – more reference books, more coaching centres, more compilations of old exam papers – and more people pass.

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