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Posts from the ‘Hindu’ Category

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!

SD

Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

And In September….

September is here, which means, October and by that extension, Fall is around the corner and atleast for next couple of months, Winter, lovely Winter is in season!! Yay!! Another Summer gone and another year is coming round! Time does fly , but I honestly cannot say that I want to go back to January 2017 and would much rather move to December 2017! But there are still some months to go and some more books to read!

As I have repeated time and time again, this is has been an overworked year where work pressure and studying for a certain certification has taken away a number of reading hours from me and therefore once again my reading plans are limited and I am leaving options to read basis my mood and level of tiredness, to make some real time reading plans. Having said that there are some books, that I am already in the middle of or read alongs that need to be completed and at the very least those, I can list down to make some sort of sketchy plans!

To begin with, there is the marvelous The Pickwick Paper Read Along hosted by O, heading for its conclusion soon! When I had first read this wonderful novel by Charles Dickens, I had not liked it much; but this re-read, maybe because of the timing or whatever, I really really loved and now look forward to the last few chapters! I also continue with Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at Work  – A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Just to make things a bit more interesting, I have decided to pair it with The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara. I also recently stated reading the much appreciated and  applauded history of mankind, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and am finding it a very interesting read,with some very interesting and unique hypothesis. Finally, Jane as usual got me interested in some little known works and I have downloaded Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith and The Rector by the brilliant Margaret Oliphant. That is all I have mapped out as reading plans for the month.

This is the month of many Hindu festivals, so I am hoping for a little more of time off and a little more reading progress than what the previous months have shown, but knowing how things go, I am keeping this optimistic prognosis as a prognosis and we will see how things pan out as they pan out. I the meanwhile, I leave you with some shots of monsoon in India, specifically, of the grey skies and the blue black ocean, along the western coast of India, where I spent glorious, 10 days road tripping through last week!

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The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along

Hello! Hello! Its been some time since I last posted, but as many of you already know I was traveling all over the western coast of the country and once I came back, which was only Monday, it took some time to settle in to the everyday! Anyhow I am back and I now share my long overdue post on the one of my most favorite books of all time, The Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye!

A year back I remember reading this novel as I always do as a ritual in the month of May and having a discussion with Cleo, hard-selling the book to her as a must read! A year later, May was again round the corner, I popped in to check with her if she was still interested in a Read Along and Cleo, being the awesome enthusiast she is, agreed, with the only stipulation that we begin in June as she had way too much to do in the month of May. Very soon the word got around and Helen and Yvonne also joined in the for the Read Along and we were all set to go back in time to 1857 India.

The novel is set in the events leading upto the Indian Revolt of 1857 against the British. Winter de Ballesteros, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman Marcos de Ballesteros and Sabrina, the granddaughter of Earl of Ware, is born in the house of her aunt, Juanita, the sister of Marcos who had married a Indian nobleman, the son one of the oldest friends of her father, who had settled in Oudh, the North Eastern royal state of India, as an adviser to the Nawab or the ruler of the state. Sabrina on a visit to India with her aunt and uncle had fallen in love with the dashing Marcos and married him against the wish of her doting grandfather. Sabrina however dies post giving birth to her daughter, named Winter after the winter season in her beloved Ware, and a grieving Marcos, after handing over the affairs to his sister and Winter’s uncle sets off for the ill fated Afghan campaign and is one of the many casualties. Juanita grieving for her dead brother sets about sending letters to the now very old Earl of Ware who was appointed guardian to little Winter by both her parents.  The death of his beloved granddaughter had softened the Earl and he sends for his little great granddaughter from India, but letters across oceans take time and Winter spends her formative years in India, in Gulab Mahal, Juanita’s house and only reaches the shores of England as a child of 7. Homesick and lonely, she pines for the home she ever knew, and the unkind treatment she receives from everybody except her Grandfather retreat more and more into the world she thought she truly belongs to. When she is 11, she meets Conway Barton, a distant relation who is one is way to India to take up a position in the Commissioner of Lunjore.  Conway Barton, is a unprincipled man who seeks to make his fortune in any way possible. Realizing that Winter was an heiress, he sets about trying to be pleasant to her, speaking of India, a country he detests, in the most colorful way. He approaches the now very old Earl seeking a betrothal with Winter, followed by marriage when she is older. The Earl worried about having no one to care for Winter after him and impressed by the display of affection showed by Barton, consents to the engagement. Conway Barton thus leaves for India secure in his knowledge of early wealth and Winter passes her years hoping the years would fly until she could be married to the kind man who would take her back to her true home. The years did pass, but Conway now fat, debauched drunkard feels unable to face his fiance and her august relations, for the fear that they may break of the engagement after looking at him, instead sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, to fetch Winter to India, so that he could coerce her into marrying him, in the absence of her friends and relations. Captain Alex Randall, a man of immense talent and integrity has very little respect for the commissioner whom he considers a fool and is irritated to be saddled with the task during his furlong. He arrives at Ware to realize that the Earl is dead and Winter’s relatives do not care for the kind of man she is marrying as long as she is out of their way. Winter herself seemed to have a glorified image of Conway Barton and refuses to listen to any description of the kind of man he truly is , that Ale wants to convey. They set off for India and thus start of a chain of events, unexpected by both, especially as the cloud of rebellion gathers on the horizon of the Indian plains, long held together by John Company.

What can I say about this wonderful book that I have not said before? Being biased, I always found the plot to be tight, with deep insights into Indian culture and traditions which is woven well with the suspenseful unfolding of the drama of the rebellion. The history is constantly and subtly interlaced with the story to give the reader an understanding of the events that led to the rebellion. The characters drawn by Kaye are very life like and real. Again being biased and having been  in love with Captain Alex Randall, since I was introduced to him at the age of 15 and all these almost 14 years, he remains to be one of the most enduring fictional heroes of all times. I love the complexity of his character, his ability to look at both sides of the arguments as well the way he was torn by what was his duty and what was his abiding love. His character showed off the very best of British India administrators, men who loved the country wholly with all her faults and worked hard to improve the condition of her people. I used to like Winter a lot more at the age of 15 than at 34, and now see her a little obsessed -India,  Conway , Alex; but she is still an insightful and gracious character and is a good predecessor to Anjuli Bai, the heroine of Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. As always, I love the supporting cast of Kaye’s books, for the complete and utter devotion of Niaz to the torn loyalties of Ameera, the daughter of Juanita, cousin to Winter and daughter of two worlds, to the fast living Lou Cotter who lives through harshest of conditions and fights off bravely, for the love of a child, not her own, by birth, but by heart! But the greatest of all characters is the character of India. MM Kaye, born and brought up in this land, brings all her knowledge understanding and love for the land into her book and India comes live in the pages as we are taken through the crowded and colorful bazaars of Lunjore, the never ending plains and jungles of North India and the glamorous balls of Calcutta,the imperial capital of British India. The country comes alive from the pages of the book and dances in all her majesty for the reader to soak in a time long gone by!

Needless to say, I LOVE this book! Several re-reading and much abused paperback has not diminished by joy of once again revisiting the people and times of Lunjore in 1857. However, the Read Along introduced me to a whole new appreciation of the book as I tried to provide some insight into the actual history of the country for my reading buddies to find references and better understanding of things, which I, an Indian, take for granted. I had some wonderful discussions along the way, which opened me to prospective I was not aware off and if possible, made the experience of reading this book even richer.  A big hearty thank you to Cleo, Helen and Yvonne for not only coming with me on a leap of faith for a ride down uncertain premises but also for bearing through not one but two of boring history lessons and the joining in for a fantastic and brilliant discussion. You read there review, here and here!

The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along – The Landscape Of The Mutiny

I know this post is kind of late, but let me just say that work, which I really wish to keep at minimal and as an alternate, often become main stream; way more often than I like. Anyhow, in my previous essay I had shared some insights into what were the key triggers of the revolt. Today, I want to give an overview of how it spread, the key actors and how it was finally brought to an end, so that you are able to follow the landscape of the novel more easily.

On March 29 1857 at Barrackpore, a military cantonment in East India, a sepoy or solder called Mangal Pandey, angry at the inability of his commanders to resolve the issue of greased cartridges, declared he is revolting and open fired at his Sargent Major, who on being informed of Pandey’s behavior, went to speak to him. He tried to incite his fellow soldiers to rebel and though, the latter did not join him, they also did not try and restrain him when their General ordered them to do the same. On failing to recruit the support of his comrades, he tried to take his own life with his own rifle. He failed, was brought down, arrested and sentenced to be hanged. The soldiers who had refused the General’s order were also hanged. The regiment was disbanded and stripped of its uniforms because the senior officials felt that this would serve as a lesson for those regiments, like this one that they felt harbored ill-feelings towards its superiors. Sepoys in the other regiment felt this was harsh and watched their fellow comrades being stripped of their dignity and became even more disgruntled with the English officers.

Several unrest, following this broke out in the cities of Agra, Allahabad and Ambala, the latter a large military cantonment; not of military revolt but rather cases of civilian arson attacks. Finally, on April 24th, in Meerut, another large military cantonment in North East India, of the unsympathetic and prejudiced Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael- Smith ordered his men to parade and perform the firing drill, that would require the sepoys to tear of the cartridge, smeared with fat from cows or pigs, unacceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.  All except five of the men on parade refused to accept their cartridges of the total of 90 and all of the 85 were court martialled by 9th May and most were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. The entire garrison was paraded and watched as the condemned men were stripped of their uniforms and placed in shackles. As they were marched off to jail, the condemned soldiers berated their comrades for failing to support them. The next day was a Sunday and some of the off duty Indian Sepoys warned the sympathetic junior English officers that there will be an attempt to free the condemned 85; however the senior officials took no notice or action. There was trouble in the city of Meerut as well, where the civilians berated the other sepoys for not supporting their comrades and some buildings were set on fire. By evening, the Indian troops, led by the 3rd Cavalry, broke into revolt and freed the 85 held in prison. European officers who attempted to quell the first outbreaks were killed by the rebels. Both military and civilians’ quarters were attacked, and four civilian men, eight women and eight children were killed. Crowds in the bazaar attacked the off-duty soldiers there. About 50 Indian civilians, some officers’ servants who tried to defend or conceal their employers, were also killed by the sepoys.

Thereafter, some of the revolting sepoys made for Delhi, the honorary capital of Mughal India, where at the age of 82, the once brilliant Bahadur Shah Zafar II ruled under the honorary title as the Emperor of India, but really nothing but a puppet in the hands of the East India Company, whose goodwill and beneficence, allowed this once brilliant court to still sustain in some form, but still revered and loved by all subjects, both Hindu and Muslims. The sepoys reached Delhi on May 11th and standing below the windows of the apartment of Bahadur Shah Zafar, they acknowledged him as their Emperor and asked him to join their cause. The 82 year old Emperor at this point took no action, but the sepoys within the Red Fort, where he resided soon joined the revolt and Delhi was soon under the siege of the Sepoys. Several Europeans were killed and the Delhi Arsenal, that held one of the largest arms dumps for East India Company was blown up rather than letting it fall in the hands of the rebels.The surviving Europeans made their way to the Ridge Forest, hoping for a rescue battalion from Meerut, but after two days of starvation and scorching heat, it became apparent, that no relief was coming from Meerut and slowly made their way to Karnal, further north. Some were helped on by the local populace while others killed. On May 16th, the Emperor held his first court in decades and though uncomfortable with the ruthlessness of the speoys, he nevertheless agreed to support the rebellion.

The revolt now spread to other parts of India and Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the Emperor of the whole of India, though most Historians agree that he was coerced by the sepoys, his advisers and especially his chief wife Zeenat Mahal who wanted to see her son ascend the Delhi Throne.  Revered by all subjects pan India, across religion, caste and creed, the popularity of the Emperor shook the British to the core, who had long ago dismissed the Mughal Emperors as anything but an expensive annoyance. Mufti Nizamuddin, a renowned Muslim cleric and scholar of Lahore, issued a Fatwa against the British forces and called upon the local population to support the forces of the Hindu leader Rao Tula Ram. In Kanpur, again, north eastern India, one of most vicious battles began to play out. In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. Wheeler was not only a veteran and respected soldier but also married to a high-caste Indian lady. He had relied on his own prestige, and his cordial relations with the Nana Sahib to thwart rebellion, and took comparatively few measures to prepare fortifications and lay in supplies and ammunition. However Nana Sahib the mild mannered and cultured, adopted son of the Peshwa was not recognized as the ruler under Dalhousies’s Doctrine of Lapse and he found himself beggared, exempted by what was rightfully his own, violating the traditions of his culture by a band of merchants. Nana Saheb was now part of the rebel forces and his actions would smear the good name of gentle Indians forever. On 25 June Nana Sahib made an offer of safe passage to the Europeans to Allahabad. With barely three days’ food rations remaining, the British agreed provided they could keep their small arms and that the evacuation should take place in daylight on the morning of the 27th. However once near the boats, which were supposed to carry them to safety, the men were mercilessly hacked to death and then the women and children taken hostage to a small bunglow called the Bibigarh, where in a few weeks they too would be butchered to death though, the Sepoys refused to kill them, and couple of mercernaries were hired to complete the vicious act. This action led a lot of Indians and pro Indians Europeans to abandon the cause; no Indian could justify such an act of violence and many voluntarily withdrew from the rebellion. The English became even more brutal; instances include Lieutenant Colonel James George Smith Neill, ordered all villages beside the Grand Trunk Road to be burned and their inhabitants to be killed by hanging. When the British retook Cawnpore, the soldiers took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibighar and forced them to lick the bloodstains from the walls and floor and were then either hanged to death or “blew from the cannon”, the traditional Mughal punishment for mutiny, though they not taken any part in the Bibigarh massacre

Awadh was another center of brutal warfare. Annexed by under the Docterine of Lapse again, the Awadh nobility as well as the sepoys had several causes of anger against the English, with whom they had always acted with fairness and loyalty. However with the disposal of the beloved ruler Wajid Ali, the city of Lucknow, capital of Awadh became a hotbed of dissent and anger and even the Residency of the great Henry Lawrence could not contain the city’s wrath. The British Commissioner resident at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. The Company forces numbered some 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels’ assaults were unsuccessful, and so they began a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties and would die as a result of that. The siege of the residency continued for 4 months, before relief came with Sir Henry Havelock who fought their way from Kanpur to Lucknow, defeating the rebels in both the cities.

The final and key theater of war was Jhansi; yet another victim of the Doctrine of Lapse. The East India Company refused the Queen of Jhansi’s request to recognize her adopted son as the ruler, whom she had adopted after the death of natural born son, followed by her husband. Jhansi like Awadh had been a loyal state, supporting the British and this was a sever blow to the warrior queen’s faith in them. Under the influence of Nana Saheb, her childhood playmate and best friend, she and her people gave themselves upto the cause of driving the European’s out of India.  In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defense of Jhansi against the invading armies of the neighboring rajas of Datia and Orchha, both allies of English as well the British forces themselves. It was only in March of 1858 Sir Hugh Rose was able to lay siege on Jhansi and finally capture it. The Queen died in the battle near Gwalior fighting of the British till the very end.

The other states remained relatively calm; Punjab though recently annexed had been well managed in the brilliant hands of Henry Lawrence before he moved to Lucknow. Those who tried to rebel were instantly captured and punished by the legendry John Nicolson. Bengal and specifically Calcutta,  the very capital of British East India, in eastern India,  to the relief of English also remained relatively calm, as did the large state of Bihar, though there were isolated incidents of rebellion in both states, they were of nothing like the scale in Awadh or Delhi. Gujrat, in west India also remained in control and the Peshwa (ruler) of the largest principality of Gujrat, Baroda, infact joined the British forces to drive out all rebels from his state.

The hostilities were finally and officially came to an end in July 1859. The brutalities by both sides were significant. Several reports circulated of the killing of European woman, but hardly any documented the rape and violence the Indian women sustained in the hands of British soldiers. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma, after watching his beloved son’s brutally killed infront of his very eyes and Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India. With this change, the governance of India passed from East India Company to the British Parliament. The states were assured that their local customs will not be violated and it was the kind and gentlemanly had of Lord Canning, the then Governor General of India that tried to control brutalities and vicious acts against Indians. The biggest lesson that the British took away besides strengthen their military presence, was to ensure that as long as they ruled, they should keep the Indian populace divided under the guise of religion because when a cause united Hindus and Muslims, the country became unstoppable. Acting on this principle, such dissent will be sown, that when India finally became independent, she paid it with her blood and a price of her disobedience more than 90 years ago, a large part of her territory and populace was divided to create a Muslim homeland for Indian Muslims – Pakistan.

As always, while I have not cited any specific source, all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

 

The Shadow of Moon Read Along – A Brief History of the “Company Raj”

The Indian History as I had mentioned in my The Home and the World Read Along Historical Overview is vast and it’s simply not possible to summarize all that has happened over 5000 years in 5 paragraphs.  However since I always chose to host books with historical significance, it behooves me to ensure that my friends who come along for the ride, get a better understanding of the complex dynamics at play, to better understand the nuances of the novel that we are reading! Hence I present to you, a snapshot of India in 1857.

To get a more detailed understanding of what happened to India before the British came, I would refer you to the post highlighted above from last year! If you are interested in more details, please reach out to me and I will be happy to share more information.  Now, to 18th century India.

The British company, The East India Company, got its charter or “firman” to trade in India,  after several rejections at the court of the Mughal Emperors, when a fluke chance enabled the East India Company Doctor to cure the then Emperor Jahangir’s son from a long suffering illness. As a mark of gratitude, Emperor Jahangir, granted the company the right to start a factory in Surat, in the Western coastland of India. This was the beginning of British presence in the country! The company soon acquired more rights and established factories in Madras (modern day Chennai) and Bombay, which was a Portuguese colony and was gifted to England as part of dowry for Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II and finally, Calcutta on the eastern banks of Ganga in Eastern India. At this, point, several companies, including the Dutch, French and Portuguese were all competition with the English to gain supremacy over trading rights in India and the British began to realize that they would have to quickly up their game to survive the trading rights.

Enter Robert Clive, an 18 year old clerk who had a vision which saw England triumph over all her peers. In 1757, through guile and much bribery, he defeated Nawab of Bengal, Sirj-ud-Dula in the infamous Battle of Plassey. Sirj-ud-Dula was an independent minded ruler who was unhappy with the East India Companies free for all trading rules and wanted to Company to pay taxes for its presence in Calcutta, Bengal. Using this as an opportunity to turn a financial enterprise into a military campaign to gain complete land control of East India, Clive bribed some of the Nawab’s closest aids to turn traitor and became the Governor of Bengal, giving Britain an absolute control, economic and political over one of the most economically rich areas of India. He soon followed it up with Battle of Buxar (1864), forcing the then Mughal Emperor to appoint East India Company as Diwan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A Diwan is a powerful position; the official revenue collector of the Mughal Court and by this means became the de facto rulers over the populous and rich areas of Easter Gangetic Plains. The Regulating Act further asserted the power of the company by making it the official representative of the British Crown in India. The act also set foundation of making Calcutta the capital of British India by asserting the supremacy  of the Presidency of Fort William in Calcutta (Bengal) over those of Fort St. George (Madras) and Bombay and made the then Governor-General (Warren Hastings)of Bengal, the Governor  General of all Company lands in India.

Over the next 70 odd years, the East India Company would use guile, wars, pretended mis-rule of the local ruler or blatant disregard of Indian customs to annex practically whole of India. The Anglo Mysore and Anglo Maratha Wars saw subjugation of Western and Southern India. Post this came, the outright and blatant annexation of centuries old kingdoms of Rohilakhand, Assam and eventually Punjab. The company also entered into alliances with other Princely states, under which the Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy; however this treaty was often negated and terms violated per the convenience of the British Company, as was the case in Jhansi and Satara.

The Company rule was a mixed bag, which tilted more towards negative than positive! The revenue system which had been in disarray because of the broken leadership across India for about a 100 years was systematized and put in order under the Permanent Settlement Act. It introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with Zamindars, the landed Gentry, who were placed in charge of the lands and had the right to extract taxes from the peasants and after keeping a share of it for themselves, turn the remaining over to the Company. If the Zamindars failed to pay the revenue on time, the Zamaindari right would be taken from them and because it was called permanent, as in the right of the land would exist with the Zamindar and his family for perpetuity, the taxes were fixed at a much higher rate, burdening the Zamindar and most importantly the poor landless peasant who had to starve to pay the gentry those taxes.  The modernization of the Indian Army also began under Warren Hastings, and began recruiting across Northern and Eastern India; most of these recruits were from the Hindu High Caste as well Muslims, and the Army adapted itself to ensure that the Hindu and Muslim practices and customs were not violated during their service! Soon the Sepoys, as in the Indian solider outnumbered the British officers by 10 to 1, the idea being one British solider could take on 10 Indian Sepoys. The Civil service was also reorganized on modern lines and various departments were created to manage affairs of customs, taxes, justice and general civic administration. It was under this new administration, that India was introduced to the modern marvels of Telegraph, Railways and most importantly education. Soon after taking over the administration of India, the British realized that they needed a body of clerks who albeit being Indians, would be educated in the English education system to support the growing multitudes of requirements of the Company Raj. This saw the founding of English style schools and then the universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).This was a significant move as it suddenly opened Indians to a world of Western education and Science and the works of Locke and Bentham as well as re-discovering their own Vedic philosophy that began to resonate with the middle class Indians. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance leading to abolition of such medieval practices like Sati (burning of widows on the pyre of the dead husband) and child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows.

While all this good was happening, there were other effects of this colonization. India was ravaged with famine after famines, with no support coming from the company to alleviate the conditions of the masses. If there were no famines, the heavy land-revenue assessment in some areas by the British resulted in many landowning families either losing their land or going into great debt to money lenders. Furthermore, fertile lands which were earlier used to grow crops to feed the families were forced to cultivate Indigo, which kills the soil and makes it unsuitable for growth of any food crop. Thousands and thousands of peasants were forced to abandon their farms where they had existed for generations and search for living in the big cities, barely eking out an existence. The indigenous industries were slowly being destroyed through competition from the Manchester Mills. For instance raw cotton was no longer plucked and woven in the guilds of Indian fabric merchant, but sent to Manchester to made into cloth, which was the sold at cheap rates back to Indians, who already on pecuniary existence , could no longer afford to buy the relatively more expensive indigenous guild products. With the coming of the English Memsahibs, the close bonding that existed between the English and Indians disappeared.  The improvement in ship enabled travels, led to many English women to traveling to India. They brought with them their English social mores and suddenly the ‘darkies’  were not fit companions anymore and were only good to be subjugated to a servant class. English men, who had married high born Indian women, suddenly became socially outcasts as were their children. Marrying an Indian was a taboo that not even the strictest Brahmin standards could compete with. Added to this was the missionary efforts of the various sections of the Churches – suddenly the Hindus and Muslims were being told that they were heathens and unless they convert, their afterlife would be spent in the fires of hell! Then came aggrandizing policies of Governor Generals who followed Warren Hastings; with an exception of William Bentinck, none understood India nor its people or its culture. The worst was Lord Dalhousie, who enacted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse that would directly contribute to the 1857 rebellion. Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family. In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. Under this law, the much loved and respected monarchs of Oudh and Jhansi among others were deprived of their kingdoms. Finally came the grievances of the Army, the long pampered and loyal arm of the Company Raj! First, the Army was asked to cross the seas to fight wars for the British Empire; for the Hindus, the crossing of the sea was a grave religious sin that cannot be rescinded in any way or form. There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. Further more, the European officers were given precedence making promotion slow for the Indians who either never reached a commissioned rank or were too old to be effective. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, Sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. The stage was thus beautifully set by the British  for the 1857 rebellion and the spark was ignited by a solider called Mangal Pandey, who refused to bite the bullet and was hanged infront of his peers under the judgement of the Army Court. The Rebellion had begun!

It was in this backdrop that the narrative of Shadow of the Moon evolves. Next week, I will share a high level road map of how the Mutiny happened, the lands that were impacted and its closure.  As always, while I have not cited any specific source, but all my knowledge stems from the following – Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, The Last Mughal by William Darlymple, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

Cleo, Helen and Yvonne thank you for not only joining the Read Along but also reading through this 1700 word essay. As Cleo, knows, I do go overboard when it comes to History! But now that Cleo has the book, I think, we can officially commence the Read Along!!!

The Shadow of The Moon Read Along….

Anyone who has been reading my blogs for sometime now, knows that among my all time favorites, of Austen, Pratchett, Lee, Steinbeck, Tagore and Rowling, is yet another, perhaps lesser known Author, who went by the name of MM Kaye! Many know of her magnum opus, The Far Pavilion, but do not know that she was a prolific writer who wrote many other works including mysteries and non fiction and more importantly, more than 18 years before the publication of The Far Pavilions, she wrote her first historical novel, The Shadow of the Moon – the story of a Spanish heiress, Winter De Ballesteros and the English Captain Alex Randall, in the tumultuous backdrop of 1857 mutiny in India.

I read this novel for the first time from the school library 18 years ago and somehow my reading of English in India would never be the same. I discovered an English author, who could describe India as an Indian and write about one of violent and most horrific episodes of Indian history, with balance and empathy and a deep understanding of Anglo-Indian relations. The novel, like many others, has been incorrectly termed as a romance, but it is not. It is history, politics and a narrative of the uneasy relationship between two strong, albeit different nations! Ms. Kaye who had spent many years in India and came back to the country, leaving England and her family behind, as she reached adulthood, beautifully captures the identity of those Europeans who were by birth, Europeans, but lived and drew their very identity and roots from a land, far away from their own motherland!

I can keep waxing eloquently about her works, but to get to the point, every May I usually revisit, The Shadow of the Moon, because it’s main action is set the blazing heat of Summers and somehow gives the book an authentic feel as the heat comes bounding inside my house. Furthermore, May seems like an apt month, since the Mutiny or the War of Independence, depending of which version of history one reads, kick started in May, May 10th to be exact, and the book is a fitting tribute to both the Indians and the British to lived and died bravely for the land and their beliefs!

Shadow of the Moon

As always, I knew that  my partner in all kinds of reading adventures, Cleo was interested in reading this novel and with a little bit of temptation, she is on board. Helen from She Reads Novels is also joining the event and I hope some of you would also come along for the ride. We plan to start in June and continue through July if need be, taking it slow and steady. As always, I will be providing a historical overview in a couple of days time to give a context to the dynamics at play during this time.

So without further ado, lets start our journey back in time, 160 years back in time, to the princely states of Oudh and Jhansi as the then India comes alive through the narrative of Ms. Kaye!

Revolution in 19th Century Bengal

As many of you are aware that for this month, I hosted the The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore Read Along to celebrate the 100 years of publication of this great novel as well celebrate India’s 69th “new” independence from British Raj. I had the greatest pleasure and honor in reading the novel with Stefanie, Jane, Cleo and Brona and as we close this month, it seemed the time was appropriate to share some of my thoughts and ideas about this timeless classic.

Tagore wrote this novel in the back drop of partition of Bengal (for more information, you can refer to the details here) which led to the rise of “Swadeshi Movement”  –  a nationalist movement that demanded freedom from British rule and was a precursor to Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which would yield much more significant results. The novel opens with Bimala the lady of the house giving us a background of the house and family she has married into and more importantly the character of her husband. The family is a rich aristocratic family settled for generations in Eastern India. Nikhil, Bimala’s husband is the scion of the house, running his business and family to the best of his abilities in modern and enlightened lines. He is kind to his poor tenants and genuinely tries to improve their condition and the state of the country by trying out new agricultural techniques, indigenous factories to produce such daily needs like soaps and pens and deploy modern economics like banks. His schemes are not always successful but his kindness and moral standards have earned him the respect of one and all. He has tried to educate his wife Bimala and has had a British lady come and teach her and he hopes to bring her out as an individual, independent of her identity as his wife. The household also consists of his two widowed sister-in-laws, wives of his older brothers who had died young after a life of debauchery and profligacy, leaving these women without any resources and dependent on Nikhil. Bimla is often involved in petty arguments with her two sister-in-laws in domestic matters, while Nikhil teaches her patience and tolerance for creatures like them who have been deprived of practically all basic human joys through choices that were never theirs. Such are the conditions, when the “Swadeshi Movement” sweeps the country. Nikhil is wary of such frantic nationalism, though he continues to fund finances for Sandeep, his friend who is a leader of the movement. Bimala thinks of him as a selfish creature and does not approve of her husband’s financial support to Sandeep. Soon nationalism comes to their county and Sandeep comes to their house as a guest and his oratory inspires Bimala to step outside the inner sanctums and purdah and meet him. This unleashes a series of events which neither Bimla or Nikhil who always encouraged Bimala to come out of the purdah, foresaw with significant results!

Tagore’s literary masterpiece spoke of 3 important elements at once, through the interweaving of the first person narratives of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandeep. First, it acts as an allegory for the nationalist struggle that had spread across India and Bengal, that presents two opposing forces, that is fighting for the future of Bengal and India. Nikhil is the enlightened humanist who asserts that truth cannot be imposed; freedom is necessary for choice, and is critical to individual growth and fulfillment. Sandeep represents himself as a realist, one who brutally confronts the world.He presents all that is passionate and violent, believing that the end justifies the means and that if something is not given to him amicably, he will snatch it if need be. Secondly, it deals with the question of gender when it proposes the figure of the woman as the representative of the nation. Tagore brings out his woman – the central character of the novel and makes her cross the literal and metaphorical threshold between the world of the anter- mahal or the inner chambers, the private inhabited by women in traditional Indian families, and the world of politics, the public. Finally, the novel raises philosophical questions and brings in Tagore’s ever curious questioning of metaphysical conception of truth and see the world as a constantly attempting to ignore truth and believe illusions to be the truths, which cannot be self sustaining. There are some shortcomings in the novel for sure – too much of rhetoric and some very uni-dimensional characters, especially Sandeep, whose brilliance is overshadowed in portraying him as a complete villain. Amulaya’s character is another example of unilateral creation where his goodness belies everything! However despite these shortcomings, I am still in awe of the brilliance that Tagore displayed not only in the narrative but also in the way he could fortell the future and his understanding as visionary which he translated into words for the common man to understand. Well before the rise of Nazi Germany, well before the Serbian or Rawandan civil wars, Tagore could see the utter and complete destructive powers of the “nationalist sentiment” . He wrote extensively against blind patriotism and spoke strenuously from desisting from violence as means to an end. A humanitarian to the very core, the idea of hurting anyone, Hindu, Muslim or British was appalling to him and he was convinced any results achieved on such principles would not stand the test of time – a key of Tagore’s belief system. Sustainable things and not things of the a moment, were the ingredients for success in any endevour. His foresight was telling when he brought forth the unrest among the Muslim populace of Nikhil and other feudal lord’s territories. This unrest and discontentment would fester leading finally to the partition of Indian in 1947 on religious lines, leading to the creation of Pakistan. His humanism demanded that we treat Muslims no different from Hindus, and religion should be the last condition for understanding the value of an individual – a lesson valid now more than ever.His celebration of humanism and individuality is powerfully brought out in the character of Nikhil – the man who believes that true freedom does not restrict but liberate and who honors those principals even when his wife decides to make choices, contrary to him and his belief system. Finally in Bimala he beautifully depicts the confusion of the Indian woman, who is slowly stepping out in the world to try and take her place again after centuries of oppression and purdah. She is confused and dazzeled by the heading feeling of doing some important work in the arena of men. She is awe of the power, all the men around her seem to attribute to her and she thinks she is finally making a difference to her country. Her assertion of character first surprises Nikhil who, despite being hurt, allows her to follow her own path and later Sandeep who tries to dominate her, finally showing her, his true colors. Bimala is representative of many woman, including many woman of today, who come from a strongly male dominated arena and for the first time discover a world of their own. They lose a bit of ground initially, but are soon able to assert their strength. Bimala in fact constantly reminded me of many of my sorority sisters in college. Thanks to the struggles of my great grand mother and grand mother, the former a contemporary of Bimala , in the same age and same socio-economic background, by the time I was born, my family was liberated, educated and got confused when someone said a girl child was a burden. However many families to this day and age believe in restricting the freedoms of their daughters in this country for the sake of honor or some such imagined masculine pride. These girls, for the first time sent to college away from the domination of parents would lose all control, until their innate sense asserted themselves and some of them went on to become lawyers, lecturers and even politicians. Tagore in writing Bimala seemed to fortell the story of all these girls.

I have read The Home and The World several times before and each time, I find something new to delve into and think about. If this does not define a classic, I am not sure what will.

To end, I would like to thank you all who participated in this read along and stuck around through my tedious history posts and found time to read this wonderful book. Thank you for your time and constant encouragement. No way could I have pulled off this event, if you all were not standing around cheering me on!

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