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If you have even a passing acquaintance with South Asian history (and historians), you know that Calcutta, Bengal (and Bengalis) can be ignored only at your own peril. Capital of British India, hub of the Indian national movement, and now,
nerve-centre of postcolonial navel gazing one of the major cities and regions that recent historiography on modern South Asia has examined exhaustively. Every semester, at least one student asks me – Hey Professor, why do we read so much Bengal stuff? Every semester, I come up with a bland answer instead of the one that I would really like to give. Of course, Bengal-bashing by those of us who work on other South Asian regions is as much fun as any other rehearsal of academic loyalties and pet peeves. Still, it is an idle question to ponder on an idle summer afternoon – not that I’ve been having many of those, mind – what would a modern South Asia syllabus without Bengal look like?
On a recent trip to Calcutta (or Kolkata as it’s now called), a visiting historian friend and I decided to abandon such subversive thoughts and instead plunge into the rich delights the city offers. It was a lot of fun to actually comb it with a colleague. Lots of old buildings, some majestic, others crumbling, dot central and north Calcutta. My father-in-law, who’s a regular local patriot and an inveterate urban hiker, will suddenly point out an (usually decrepit) old structure where Ronald Ross did malaria experiments, or William Makepeace Thackeray was born, or Subhash Bose or Rabindranath Tagore lived. This ‘Crumbling Calcutta’ image is, of course, a cliche, done to death in the popular international media, but the joys of suddenly physically coming upon places associated with past events and personalities that I read and teach and write about never fails to delight and surprise me every time I visit this city. Since my camera played truant this trip and a lot of my monument pictures didn’t come out well, above are a few snapshots. First is the massive marble paean to British imperialism from the early 20th century, Victoria Memorial.
We took a boat on the Hooghly (as the Ganga is known here), gazing at the many old British warehouses alongside the riverbank, recalling way too many details about East India Company trade and colonial policy regarding textiles and opium. (The red and yellow building in the third picture is a very typical Calcutta colonial structure).
Buildings aside, Calcutta, as has been argued recently, is also famously a site of informal sociality. Its ‘adda’s (friends getting together for long and wide-ranging chats about life, the universe and everything over chai) are legendary. Alas, once again due to my wretched camera, just a couple snapshots of the many different addas I spotted across the city (the bottom picture is of a famous tea-joint that is practically mobbed at teatime). They are almost certainly discussing the spectacularly bad display, yet again, by the Indian cricket team at Lord’s against England in the recently concluded test match. The guys in the second picture, on the other hand, are happier with their own carrom game, which they play on the roadside near my house with a makeshift bulb after dinner for a couple of hours.
One of the fun things all last month in Pune was being part of a knitting circle – entirely of family members. Not all of them beaming aunts with their fingers flying and tongues wagging either. Here’s my mum with my niece Gargi, a very poised, ladylike and adorable eleven-year-old. The little sofa by the window was their regular afternoon knitting corner:
All the women of my mother’s generation, and indeed, any knitters that I know in India, have never followed patterns. There are set weights of wool, set needles that go with them, there are kids’, adults’ and babies’ sizes and you either eyeball it by looking at the person’s torso, or go with a generic. There are of course horror stories of how the sweater fit the younger nephew instead, but none more dramatic than the gauge disasters we read of on blogs. How many stitches to increase? Row gauge? What kind of decrease? Negative ease? She doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Over the years, she has regarded my reliance on specific instructions with the same bemusement that I have her hunting-knife-and-wit approach.
This time, though, my mother wanted me to teach her how to do socks on DPNs with specific instructions for sizes, etc. She had only ever made booties on straights for babies; nobody really makes handmade socks for adults here, I don’t think, and anyway, in the hot climate it’s neither cost-effective nor a necessity. But she was curious about it after seeing me catch the bug.
She made a pair of toe-up short-row socks (which I *forgot* to photograph), and the whole experience taught me a lot about knitting vocabulary and styles. Teaching someone to knit might be easy, but teaching advanced techniques is difficult! (History is a breeze by comparison.) That too, teaching someone in a language (Marathi) that I don’t normally use for knitting, and what’s more, someone who has never really "read" a pattern while knitting. The sock was nearly abandoned many times, but finally, I think, my mum got the hang of short-rows. Should I have picked an easier method? I figured this was simpler than heel-down. After several hilarious attempts to translate "wrap and turn, purl to one stitch before end, wrap and turn, knit to two stitches before end…" I made notes with the grand intention of maybe writing up some patterns in Marathi someday.
Gargi liked some Knitpicks elastic sock yarn I’d taken with me, and my mum started her on a garter stitch hairband. It’s amazing what variegation in colour can do to the boredom of garter stitch, especially when the shades are pink and the knitter is a tween. She switched to single rib at both ends to draw it in behind the ears, and was most delighted when it was actually done.
The third knitter was my nephew Tushar, the son of another cousin, who excitedly learnt how to knit from my mum last summer, and ambitiously declared that he wanted to knit his own sweater. Alas, somewhere along the line he decided that knitting is for girls, and now wants nothing to do with it. I’m a cricketer, he told me firmly and solemnly. I had to struggle to get the blushing fellow to even pose for me with his creation!
Who knows, he might discover the joys of k2, p2 again later in life? Another cousin, Sudha, is also an avid knitter, but we hardly got any time together to chat and gossip this time, let alone knit. Next time!
It is difficult to know exactly what to marvel at the most when visiting Ajanta and Ellora, two large, old, ambitious rock-cut cave temples / monasteries.
There are many such cave temple / monastery clusters across the Deccan plateau in India dating from roughly the 3rd-2nd centuries BC to the 7th-9th centuries AD. Some, like at Ajanta or Elephanta (near Bombay) are exclusively Buddhist or Hindu; others, like at Ellora or Badami, further south, have Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples in the same cluster. The carvings and representations of deities – Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu, Mahavira – in these clusters are superb windows into the way these faiths have co-evolved, commingled and debated over the centuries, in theology, mythology and in daily social and cultural practice.
The frescoes at Ajanta, although badly damaged over the centuries, have held their colours remarkably well, are the main attraction at Ajanta. But the stone sculptures at both places and the stunning, quiet landscape, not to mention just thinking of the monks and artisans who created these structures, took my breath away.
As happens often, sites of tourist interest near where you grow up are the ones you never visit. As also happens often when you end up living and working halfway across the world, you’re a tourist in places very close to where you grew up. I am no exception. I have to say, though, that being a blogger somehow takes the edge of carrying a camera in such familiar, or ought-to-be-familiar places. I’ve been overcoming the weirdness of such taking ordinary snapshots of my hometown Pune (and the cynically raised eyebrows of everready cultural critics of such touristy behaviour). I’ll post them here sometime. The next few posts beginning with this one, however, are about a short trip I took to Ajanta and Ellora, an ancient complex of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples, and Daulatabad, an old medieval fortress that once brought a grand imperial dreamer a lot of grief. A mere five hours away from where I spent many years of my life, I managed to visit them last week.
Daulatabad first. Wikipedia will give you the facts here. Plus there are lots of nice b/w pictures here. I managed to take a few myself; the grey clouds hung low, a cool, misty breeze blew the whole afternoon, and fort rose dizzily from the plateau, allowing you to see green for miles on end in all directions.
It was no doubt this heady fresh scent of the monsoon that made me look favourably on the guide who offered his services as I paid the entry fee. Well, that, and the fact that I have spent the last few years thinking and writing about how historical memories take shape, how ‘popular’ memories of the past interact with scholarly, professional ones, and what sort of cultural and political ideas and aspirations they are linked to. Discarding both my finely honed broad suspicion of charlatans of all kinds, as well as the specialist’s discomfort at dilettantes in my domain, I embraced the guide (not literally).
‘Defence strategy’ is the most popular formula story all tourists to this fortress seem to flock to hear. Friends had prepped me to expect bloodthirsty tales of boiling oil,
hatchets and severed heads, and he told them with relish: by the end of it I knew all the minute ways in which I would have been skewered, flayed and quartered if I’d so much as glanced at the fort with an army.
But I was nevertheless unprepared for the extent to which larger narratives of modernity and nation seemed to impinge on his story. Science, secularism (I got the distinct feeling that he sized us up and decided – correctly – that we wouldn’t enjoy stories of any one religious group triumphing over another), anthropology, evolution, gender-equality, astronomy, military precision: every stone carving, every arch, every turret, it would seem, had been planned and executed with the intention of proving the country’s knowledge of these markers of modernity from ancient times. Is that all these famed guides, who could make these forts come alive with their stories, have been reduced to?
In my defence, I had not expected his story to be a pristine, local memory that would give me a completely different picture from the
political chronology of dynasties, sieges and battles in which Daulatabad usually figures. My pet argument, as some readers will recognize, is that a search for such pristine pasts is futile, as local memories too are influenced by larger narratives of nation, region or community. So I was prepared to be led to the ledge where the local, unsung shepherd led the defence against this important siege, or the well where the local milkmaid preferred death to dishonour during that major battle. I was disappointed that these had almost entirely given way to the seemingly more urgent task of proving India’s Greatness in All Walks of Life Since Ancient Times. This task was at work at Ajanta and Ellora too; indeed, it is in its service that the guides seemed to to be expending much of their creative energy.
Hey, don’t ask me the obvious questions: is there a proper way to tell the story of a historical site? Who decides how local or national or indeed global it should be? Is there a way that scholars can help preserve (or indeed generate!) intermediate historical memories of individual sites that combine both local colour and national chronology? Does this affect the way Indians (or insert any other nationality) remember ‘their’ past? Can it help explain how or why we scribble graffiti on age-old monuments? Or can we safely rely on fleeting tourist memories and relax, knowing that all this matters very little? The most important of them all, asked by my non-historian companion on this trip: is it possible to travel to a historical monument with a professional historian and not want to jump off it in sheer exasperation (just think of how I feel, I retorted!)?