India, invaded by various races – Mongols, Afghans, Turks, Iranians and the British – to name a few, was always able to absorb and enrich not just itself but also the occupying forces over the centuries through an assimilation of each others cultures, cuisines, languages and customs.
For instance, the profound influence of Persian poet and Sufi mystic Amir Khusro on music in the subcontinent. He is said to be the inventor of musical instruments like the sitar and tabla; created ragas like Yaman and Zeelaf and evolved the musical forms of qaul, qalbana, khayaal, taraanaa and qawwali etc.
One cannot even begin to list the culinary specialities including a wide range of exquisite biryanis, kababs, “sherbets” (sorbets) and desserts that reflect the confluence of varied territorial tastes. Along with other riches and the Kohinoor diamond, Britain took away curries, Mulligatawny Soup (“spicy water” in Tamil, I believe) and the Vindaloo from India. Much later, chicken tikka masala and baalti (bucket) chicken became so popular that some claimed these to be Britain’s National dishes!
Rekhta evolved out of Hindi / Hindavi (itself, a mixture of Brajbhasha, Khari boli, Haryanvi and Rajasthani) and Farsi; it is considered to be the precursor to Urdu. Famous Farsi and Urdu poet, the vainglorious Mirza Ghalib paid tribute to another senior poet Mir Taqi Mir, widely acknowledged as the “Khudaa-e-sukhan” (God of Poetry) in this manner:
“Rekhte ke tum hi ustaad naheen ho Ghalib, kehte hain aghle zamaane me koi Mir bhi thaa”
[You are not the only one Ghalib, who is the master of (poetry in) Rekhta; it is said there was one Mir too, in the past!]
The use of Macaulayism during the British Raj to promote English and colonize the education system in India. It is amusing to come across the stilted use of English even today especially in official communications and legal documentation, even as Indians have evolved their own version of “Hinglish” for instance, “I passed out of college”, “Let’s prepone the meeting” and “Do the needful” etc.
I just finished reading a wonderful book Dozakhnama (Conversations in Hell). It recounts a fictional account of the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib’s (1797 – 1869) dialogue with the Urdu author Saadat Hassan Manto (1912 – 1955) while resting in their respective graves. Interestingly, their conversation suggests that “while the British focus on history, we in the East, promote “daastaan” (oral stories/tales)”. “Daastaangos” (story tellers/narrators) were known to completely immerse and lose themselves in their narrative “Daastaangoi”, the oral form of storytelling in Persian/Urdu.
The litterateur declare that “Our existence was a sheet woven with the threads of stories; one cannot unweave these knots to decipher which thread is history and which a narrative. How many people know how to write or to narrate? Anyone can write history; one just has to have the intelligence. But, to produce a story, one has to know how to dream. Without imagination, could the Laila Majnu tale have been produced? Would anyone have believed the story of Yousuf-Zulekha without believing in fantasy? Does it become a lie just because it is a story? Such tales have been alive and lived for centuries. And, what about Alexander, the Great? Where is his realm now? History turns to dust in time, my friend, but fables remain alive forever.”
At the recent 2018 Cundill History Prize event jointly hosted by Massey College and McGill University, world famous Canadian historian and professor at the University of Oxford, Margaret McMillan spoke on “Why History Matters – rethinking global history”. It was refreshing to participate in a “discussion” on instead of an “argument” about historic perspectives and the impact of revisionist views promoted these days. In a tete-a-tete with Ms. McMillan, I offered that it is perhaps disingenuous to review and pass judgment on history by employing the prism of our present-day life experiences. What is served by removing a statue, be it that of Cecil Rhodes, John McDonald, Akbar, Aurangzeb or any other? Does the renaming of a city change its past or shape its future in any way? Does it remold its very essence? Banaras was renamed Varanasi, but we still talk only about the Banarasi paan, Banarasi sari and Banarasi thumri.
We are a product of the continuum of history. We have been shaped by our own parents and their parents, as also the circumstances and people that influenced them. This process is continuing through our own interactions. It is not possible to select, take out and discard a slice of history considered unpalatable, or black out personalities no longer liked by us.
On November 22, a dear friend’s greeting on the occasion of Thanksgiving read, “Having grown up in India, my first Thanksgiving was conceptually thrilling, how wonderful to celebrate gratitude to God; Nature; Family; Friends; Pets; the Harvest; and everything in the world that is Good and Enlightening! After three decades, I still honour my initial understanding!”
I would add that this spirit helps us develop a mindset to be mindful of “remaining” in a state of gratitude at all times, not just keeping aside one day to give thanks. We are able to express gratitude for what we have today as a result of all that has happened in the past.
In spite of small-minded interlopers. Just as the famed poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote in his poem:
“Tārīḳh jāntī hai zamāna gavāh hai
kuchh kor-bātinoñ kī nazar tañg hī sahī”
[History knows, the world is witness
notwithstanding the shortsighted vision of a few ignoramuses]