& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Games of the Marathas

Major RM Betham, 101st Grenadiers Recruiting Staff Officer for Marathas and Dekhani Musalmans, compiled Handbook for the Indian Army on Marathas and Dekhani Musalmans under the orders of the Government of India. The handbook was first published in 1908.

The Handbook is divided into six chapters. The first chapter is on the history and origins of the Marathas, and it encapsulates within 40 pages all the main historical occurrences of the Marathas – right from the arrival of the Aryans from Oxus in Central Asia up to the advent of the British in India.

A slim volume lists not just the history, but also the different castes, the customs, the festivals, and the day-to-day routine of the Marathas. The handbook is to guide recruiting officers to understand the new recruits into the British Indian army.

A trademark of British administrators in India is their detached assessment of India’s history and its people. About Shivaji, Betham says with utter nonchalance: “Shivaji was a born leader of men. All can recognise his wonderful genius and admire his undaunted perseverance. But the world cannot endorse the verdict of his nation, who speak of him as an incarnation of the deity, setting an example of wisdom, fortitude and piety. His ruling passion was love of money. War to him meant plunder, and on his death he left several million sterling.”

In the chapter on Characteristics of the Marathas, Betham describes them thus: “Dekhani Marathas are hardworking, temperate, hospitable, fond of their children and kind to strangers. Although there are schools in most of the larger villages, as a class, they are illiterate, not many being able to read or write. Though not particularly sharp, they are minutely informed of everything relating to their calling; they are fond of talk and many have a fair knowledge of their country. They are better informed and more orderly than many other agricultural classes. They are mild-tempered, forgiving, seldom violent or cruel except in revenge. They are indulgent to their women and most attached to their children. They are frugal, inclining to parsimony except at marriages, when they are lavish and profuse. As far as poverty allows, they are hospitable. Among them, no mannerly stranger will want a meal…in dealing with each other, they are honest, just and straightforward but they are unscrupulous in overreaching outsiders and government…their timidity makes them prefer stratagem to force.”  

One section is devoted to the different games that Maratha boys play. It makes for fascinating reading. Take a look:

The games indulged in by children are enumerated as below:

1. Ghoda Ghoda, playing horses.

2. Andhali Koshimbir, very similar to Blind Man’s Buff.

3. Vitti Dandu or Gilli Dandu: a game played with two sticks. The ‘vitti’ or ‘gili’ is a bit of wood about four inches long, which is struck with the ‘dandu’, a piece of stick of about an arm’s length. It’s played by sides and is governed by certain complicated rules.

4. Chendu Lagorya: The ‘chendu’ is hempen ball and the ‘lagori’ a pile of pieces of tiles or broken chattiers. Sides are taken. The idea is for one side, players, to throw down the pile with the ball. When this occurs the other side, fielders, endeavour to collect the ball and hit one of the players. The players are allowed to kick the ball to prevent this. While this is going on some of the players try to build up the pile (lagori). I they succeed, before one of them is struck by the ball, they win; otherwise they lose.

5. Bada-Badi: In this game the object is to hit one another with a soft ball. There are no rules. The object is to obtain possession of the ball and then throw it at the nearest boy.

6. Gotya: Marbles played in a similar way as English boys play.

7. Asu-Masu or Koya Pani: Very similar to the game of ‘Hop Scotch’.

8. Kho-Kho seems to be an elaborate form of the English game known as ‘Bundles.’

9. Atya-Patya is a very favourite game with boys. It is played by two teams, usually eleven aside. A court, 100 feet in length by 22 feet wide, divided into ten courts, each 10 feet by 22 feet, down the centre of which a cross line is drawn, sub-dividing these into 20 courts, is marked on the ground. One side holds these courts, a player being allotted to each court, but only allowed to move along the base line of such. There is a Captain, known as ‘sur’ or ‘murdung’, who directs each side and has more liberty than the rest. The object of the ‘out’ side is to try and force their way through this network by avoiding the custodian of each line. If touched a player is imprisoned. If six of the ‘out’ side are imprisoned, they lose, but if they can get through without losing that number, they win.

10. Flying kites is practised much the same as by English boys.

11. Wrestling is a very favourite pastime with Marathas of Dekhan. In a very large number of villages, there are house regularly built and set apart for wrestling where boys and men perform. At Annual Fairs and on holidays and great occasions wrestling is indulged in, matches are arranged and prizes offered. The whole country side flock to these entertainments and evince great interest in them. A man is not defeated till his opponent forces him over on to his back and his shoulders touch the ground.

12. Another form of amusement is the ‘Malkhamb’. A pole is set in the ground, on which they climb and perform various evolutions.

13. Dekhanis are very fond of lifting heavy weights and rolling big stone balls about. All this physical exercise stands them in good stead when they join their corps. They take readily to gymnastics, hockey, etc.

14. In the Konkan, Marathas are not so addicted to physical exercise, which places them at a disadvantage when enlisted, but they are very fond of organizing fights between bull buffaloes. Bulls of equal strength are matched against each other, when lengthy combats ensue. The victor usually chases the loser off the field. Very often the combatants are badly damaged. These fights draw large crowd.

The Portuguese in India

My fascination for the Portuguese continues, and I’m reading Ahsan Jan Qaisar’s The Indian Response to European Technology and Culture (1498-1707) to know more about, and understand better, the Portuguese influence on India. 

Qaisar (1929-2011) was a historian at the Aligarh Muslim University. The book was published in 1982 by Oxford University Press, and a paperback edition was published in 1998.

Vasco Da Gama’s accidental discovery of a new route to India in 1498 is well known and well analyzed. It was the beginning of colonialism that brought with it European dominance of the world for the next four centuries.

It must be remembered that the Portuguese came to India even before the Mughal dynasty began its three century rule over large parts of the Indian subcontinent. 

In the 16th and the 17th centuries, a substantial number Europeans (Portuguese, French, English and Dutch) came and settled in India, mostly in seaport towns initially along the western and later along the eastern shorelines, congregating in large numbers in Bengal.

The Portuguese were infamous - at least initially - for their brutalities. Qaisar notes, “One of the results of the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese was the introduction of the element of force in the foreign commerce of India. When the Portuguese realized the Western coast, they found merchants, both Hindus and Muslims, plying their vocation cordially and peacefully, i.e. if we ignore the occasional acts of piracy. The Portuguese realized that since their financial resources were meagre they would fare very badly in peaceful competition with Indian and other Asian merchants. They could make a breakthrough only with brute force by taking advantage of their naval superiority. This they proceeded to do with a ruthlessness unprecedented in the history of Asian commerce.”

This violent behaviour gave rise to an impression amongst Indians that Europeans were a stronger race. This is best illustrated by a ‘proverbe’ current in India during the early decades of the seventeenth century that ‘one Portuguese will beate three of them [Indians].’

This policy of terrorization infected other European nations too in varying degrees. Not surprisingly, when some European nations approached Olpad in 1615 – a port-town in Gujarat near Surat – we are told that ‘the people were very fearfull of us and were readye to run all way out of the towne at the first sight of us’. (Quoted from The East India Company Journals of Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615-1617).

A minor digression: Olpad, incidentally, is where the Deshastha Brahmins from Kolhapur regions immigrated to, following the Gaekwads’ control over Vadodara. Legend has it that the Gaekwads, being of lower castes, could not find local Brahmins in Vadodara, who would anoint them as rulers. They had to cajole the Marathi-speaking Brahmins to perform this task, and in return, these Brahmins – known as known as Motalas – were given land in three villages – Olpad, Saras and Mota (all in close proximity to Surat).

Portuguese language held sway throughout the 16th and the 17th centuries in comparison to other European languages. One of the reasons was that Portuguese had the first entrant’s advantage, and had enjoyed close contacts with Indians for nearly a century before other Europeans reached India and began trade relations.

Proselytizing was an important factor in the spread of Portuguese culture, but the clergy operating in the west coastline of India was keen to develop religious literature in local dialects (notably in Marathi and Konkani). 

Qaisar explains, "Conversions took place through force, inducement, and, occasionally also by voluntary change of faith. It might not be true that the Portuguese policy of religious persecution of Hindus was not attempted outside Goa, yet it could be said that, except the Portuguese, none of the European nations appear to have employed violence of similar magnitude."

Given the arduous sea journey from Europe to India, not many European women came to India; and as a natural consequence, Europeans, and especially the Portuguese men, married Indian women. The Church allowed this for the fear of diminution of Christians in India. 

In relation to places under Portuguese jurisdiction, three terms came to be used to distinguish the three main social elements of Christian settlements. 

  • First, Reinos, those born in Portugal; 
  • secondly, Casticos, those born in Asia of Portuguese parents; 
  • and thirdly, mesticos, the offspring of mixed marriages. 

The latter group was derisively called kala firangi (black foreigner) by local Indians.

For many Indians, sweets are synonymous with Bengal. As Qaisar notes, “It may surprise many of us to be told that the present traditional excellence of and fondness for sweetmeats in Bengal is actually a contribution of the Portuguese.”  

The book contains fascinating vignettes from that period of Indian history, and quotes from European travellers such as Fray Sebastien Manrique's travelogue (Travels of Fray Sebastien - 1629-1643) and Niccolao Manucci's Storia do Mogor 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The angst of not belonging

Rawi Hage
In many and different ways those who immigrate experience alienation in their new home. Actually, the new home is not quite home; it never becomes home, it cannot become a home. At best, it's a house; and no more than an adjustment that takes its toll repeatedly and unsparingly.

This is especially true for a writer who is generally an exile often from her own life. A immigrant writer attempts to cope with this perennial transition by inventing a world – often, several worlds – that is a mix of the past and the present. These worlds are incomplete, messy, depressing and put together by the writer to fill real and imaginary chasms between the mercilessly reality of the adopted new world and a nostalgia for a world abandoned. The length of time the writer lives in the adopted home doesn't usually change the feel of angst of not belonging. In fact, in most cases, it gets accentuated. 

In this context, Bhiku Parekh, the renowned political theorist who defined multiculturalism (Rethinking Multiculturalism – Cultural Diversity and Political Theory), has said, “Although equal citizenship is essential to fostering a common sense of belonging, it is not enough. Citizenship is about status and rights; belonging is about acceptance, feeling welcome, a sense of identification. The two do not necessarily coincide. One might enjoy all the rights of citizenship but feel that one does not quite belong to the community and is a relative outsider…(quoted from Seminar)”

Rawi Hage, the Canadian-Lebanese author, is among the many Canadian authors from a diverse background who have crafted a world to which they cannot belong, and cannot leave. His second novel Cockroach is an unrelenting rendition of how inhospitable a new home in an alien place (Montreal) can become for an exile.

Hage immigrated to North America in 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War. He lived and worked in New York initially before going to Montreal to study photography. He turned to writing fiction in English (which is his third language after Arabic and French) and attained global recognition when his manuscript was plucked out of the slush pile at Anansi.

The Montreal-based Hage was in Toronto to participate in an informal chat titled Beirut, Montreal, the World. The conversation was mostly about his work, but it was also peppered with some insightful anecdotes. He spoke about the rich tradition of literature in Arabic ("30 % of Arabic literature is about wine and sex..."), as showed his familiarity with the latest trends in contemporary Arabic literature.

Hage was forced to learn English while in New York because he didn’t have any source for either Arabic or French books. His work in a photo studio egged him on to go to Montreal to study photography, and his work at ledgering his work turned him into a writer.

Hage was uncomfortable when a member of the audience compared to Khalil Gibran, and narrated an episode from his childhood when he accompanied his atheist father to a program celebrating Gibran in Beirut, where a priest couldn’t stop praising the author of Broken Wings. After a while Hage Senior got so worked up that he shouted at the priest, “He (Gibran) was against all that you stand for.”  

Hage said he is disappointed at the absence of a translation tradition in North America, unlike in Europe, where translations proliferate and are immensely popular. Revealing a deeply felt humanism and universalism in the context of cultural identity and how it impinges creativity, Hage said isolation is impossible. Arab creativity has been enriched by European influences as much as European civilization has been enriched by Arab influences.

Commenting on the rise of conservatism across the world, Hage said in the ultimate analysis, the battle, as postulated by Edward Said, is between secularism and religion. Conservatism gains acceptance because it provides certitude to people.

Hage engaged in a dialog with the audience for nearly two hours, and for that period we forgot the brutal weather and other minor inconveniences. The Arab Canadian Cultural Association, the Toronto Arabic Studies Colloquium and The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations of the University of Toronto organized the conversation. 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Living Multiculturalism

Last year when my friends Kumar Ketkar and Sharada Sathe came to visit us in Toronto, I invited a few friends to meet them. Among them were Tahir Gora and Haleema Sadia, the power behind TAG TV, a venture that has transformed television by taking it out of the narrow confines of broadcast channels, and taking it to the internet.

As important as this technological move is the platform that they have created for the proliferation of talent in the multicultural space in the Greater Toronto Area. This talent was largely ignored by the mainstream media outlets, or were given a token representation.  TAG TV has opened the floodgates for local talent to showcase and contribute to the ongoing multicultural dialog that is shaping Canada’s new identity.

During the evening among friends, Tahir suggested that I should do a show for TAG TV. It was one of those things that friends say to each other and then get busy with their lives. However, I was keen to explore the offer to possible create an avenue for authors, musicians and painters to be able to reach out to  a growing audience that is genuinely interested in knowing about the creative spirit of those who have made Canada their home, but who carry with them a rich heritage of their former homeland.

We met at a Tim Horton’s in Brampton and Tahir came up with the title of the show that he wanted me to do – Living Multiculturalism. I proposed to interview authors from diverse backgrounds. We started in late September 2015, with shooting a promo.

And then, we started talking to authors. The show will be telecast once every two weeks.  I wish you find time to watch it. I will be periodically updating it on the blog as well as on social media.

I also welcome your comments.

Here’s the first three interviews with Diana Tso, a playwright and a theatre person; Dawn Promislow, author, poet; Danila Botha Vernon, novelist.