What the newsroom taught me: Part II — Intellectual commensalism

Ladies and gentlemen, our next exhibit in the newsroom menagerie is the Echeneidae, a family of fish better known as the remora. An interesting fish it is, and I warmly recommend you to study it in some detail. The remora comes with suckers atop its head, by which it latches on to bigger organisms and derives sustenance from them. This sort of relationship is called commensalism in zoology. The larger organism derives neither benefit nor harm from the remora.

The average newsroom tends to have a large number of people with artistic, academic or intellectual inclinations. Several have genuine academic heft, and produce, sometimes in arcane fields, admirable scholarly works. Others write non-fiction, some very well-researched, either on current events or on subjects that bridge the newsroom-academia divide. Both types, as I have seen from personal experience, try their best to reconcile the everyday demands of the newsroom with their respective interests and pursuits. I am very fond of them, but they are rare, and tend to vanish from the newsroom quickly and go somewhere else.

The remora in the newsroom does not belong to these two categories. You will find him usually towards the top of the pecking order. Unlike the snark, you can’t ‘threaten his life with a railway-share’, because he has done well, financially, thank you very much. The remora considers himself an intellectual by virtue of having done well in the newsroom. It is a matter of ticking boxes for him. Top of the pecking order — check. Therefore, scholarship — check. Therefore, books — check.

The remora, you see, makes the error of equating an interest in words with an ability to write books, or even tell stories. The error of equating professional success with artistic merit, or proof of latent creative ability. A harmless inference, you may say. Print journalism is mainly toRemora do with words, after all. But there is a considerable difference in the contexts in which words are used. We know so many who are very well-read and have a remarkable vocabulary. Their minds are inclined towards the nature and combinations of letters and words. You can’t beat them at Scrabble any day of the week. But they may not be very good writers.

Yet others may have a considerable amount of independently-derived ideas, or gleanings from several afternoons with Messieurs Camus and Foucault. But they might not be good storytellers. These are disciplines which require different kinds of skill-sets and temperaments. An accountant and an applied mathematician both deal in numbers, but we can’t confuse one for the other. Nor can every competent graphic designer be an abstract artist.

The remora, however, does not make this connection, perhaps because it has not occurred to him, which in turn indicates a somewhat defective capacity for reasoning. Or perhaps the argument I mentioned above is incorrect, and the remora is right in believing he has merit. So he writes his book, and this is where the commensalism bit comes in. With the accumulated power of the newsroom, he can now get the book published, because people know him well. Successful man, must be creative too. He thus channelizes the power of the organization, and his place in the pecking order, to tick another box. This is classic commensalism.

Let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I write a small book of my own, perhaps a humble novel. Very kicked about it, I then hawk the MS around town, perhaps standing in line at a publisher or two, perhaps hoping somebody would find some merit in the work, and give me a chance. Scores of people live in hope this way. Some get a chance, others, perhaps not. But the remora, he goes straight to the top, and his book comes out. Once again commensalism kicks in, and there is no end of gushing admirers to vindicate his view about the merit of the book. Perhaps the book does have merit. But the playing field, for the people lined up outside the publisher’s, is not equal. So here we have commensalism and class working very well together.

Now, armed with the book, and the vindication, the remora is in a comfortable place indeed, to sit in judgment of others, perhaps even in the newsroom. Now his vindication of others’ tastes or ideas matters. It has always mattered, within the newsroom, but now he has the book to back him up. Now it becomes necessary to seek his intellectual approval, and perhaps engage in intellectual discussions with him. And thus the newsroom carries on.

‘Remora’ in Latin means ‘delay’, because the fish is supposed to act as a hindrance to large vessels. In the world outside the newsroom, the remora is mainly used by fishermen to lure tortoises. So I suppose that is what the remora is, in the larger scheme of things.


And by observing him, one learns a lot about the world and the ways of humans.

Klatchian coffee is highly recommended

Among the many delights of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is Klatch, the Disc’s cognate of our world’s Arabia. And one of Klatch’s best-known exports is their coffee.

Klatchian coffee is usually recommended to sober up the extremely drunk, and even then it is to be had in small doses. If imbibed by the sober, its effects can be catastrophic. Because the coffee is so strong that it sobers you up in an existential sense.

In the ordinary run of things, even a person who stays away from alcohol or narcotics nurtures some, shall we say, ‘existential stimulants’. Your spouse loves you just as much today as the first day you met. Your parents still find joy in your presence just as they did when they held your newborn form in their hands. Your children consider you with awe and affection. Your job matters. You make a difference to people’s lives.

Or stimulants bigger in magnitude. Cosmic stimulants. There is a point to looking forward to tomorrow, because you can hope for something better. Your life has meaning beyond the mundane concerns of animal survival. There is an invisible fellow with a personal interest in your existence. Or there is an invisible fellow (perhaps the same fellow?) with a stake in theCoffee continuation of the universe, for good or bad.

Or the ideological stimulants. All people are, or should be, equal (with you perhaps getting slightly more preferential treatment). What goes around comes around. The everyday absurdities are part of a larger pattern that will someday make sense to you, failing which some fellow wiser than you may parse it for you.

Klatchian coffee, if imbibed when sober, wipes out the effects of these existential stimulants, and shows the true bleakness of this world. And unlike the implied humour in finally understanding the nature of an absurd world, a human with even a small amount of this coffee sees the starkness that lies beyond the absurd.

This condition, Pratchett tells us, is being knurd, the point where you finally face the world without your preferred stimulants. It is said to be a very painful experience, and for the unprepared creates an immediate urge to be drunk, or stoned, as quickly as possible. In Men At Arms, Sam Vimes, a policeman who is already dour and cynical to begin with, is given a small sip of Klatchian coffee, and becomes instantly knurd, causing him to howl in despair. What he sees is not described, and is left to the imagination. Knurd, as you will observe, is ‘drunk’ spelt backward.

On the Disc, several noted philosophers are recorded to have belted out works of excruciating unbearability after substantial doses of Klatchian coffee.

On our more mundane Roundworld, to arrive at an equivalent state of knurdness, one will have to take the longer route, beginning with stripping oneself of the comforts of organized religion, and then the next convenient philosophy that claims to explain your situation, and the next (because they come in waves).

What one does after discovering one is finally knurd is, of course, a matter of individual choice.

The importance of the orphan

It is remarkable how many memorable fictional characters are orphans, and how integral the idea of orphanhood, or absence of parents from the stage, is to fiction.

We need not even consider the Dickens universe, populated as it is almost wholly with orphans. Here the idea of orphanhood is a plot device, as in the case of Oliver Twist and Pip. Great Expectations, let us not forget, is about not just one or two, but three alternatives to traditional parental figures, if I may put it that way: Joe Gargery, the parent one wishes for; Magwitch, the benefactor as parent, and Miss Havisham, the parent as imagined, or alternately, the parent as instigator of worldly ambition.

The whole of 19th century British literature, from Jane Eyre to Jude to Eppie, is a long line of Hewey Dewey Louieorphans. And there is Ishmael across the Atlantic, who caps the bleakness of Moby-Dick’s denouement with this: ‘On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.’

One may say the idea of absence of parental figures extends to an absence of the establishment too, particularly in espionage fiction. James Bond, as establishment a character as the Cold War produced, is an orphan, his parents’ deaths specifically mentioned. This may be held as a parallel to his former career in the Navy, another notable establishment for Fleming’s generation. George Smiley’s antecedents are wholly vague, and his family ties deliberately nebulous. But le Carre’s early characters as a whole are orphans too, orphans of empire. As Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor says, (and I paraphrase): ‘Brought up to inherit empire, only to have it taken away.’

The entire Disney universe is populated with orphans, making it necessary for Huey, Dewey and Louie to go live with Uncle Donald, and eventually with granduncle Scrooge. Walt Disney took for his last film the ultimate orphan, Mowgli himself, not to mention Cinderella, and Snow White and all the entries in the Aarne-Thompson list. And Bambi. Only 101 Dalmatians does not feature orphans in the lead, but it comes close, with the plot based on a search to complete a family. But one also finds the incorrigible Beagle Boys, and guess what they have, in addition to a bunch of nefarious plans? A mother.

A paragraph for superheroes, too, because almost all of them are orphans, with the act of orphanhood being sometimes a founding principle, such as for Batman, or twice-orphaned (as in some canonical works) Clark Kent.

Meanwhile, in science fiction, you have the orphan as standard trope (Ender in Ender’s Game comes immediately to mind), while Theodore Sturgeon’s characters, male and female, are deliberately positioned outside social structures, most with no explained antecedents, nor do Moby-Dickhis plots require the necessity of such structures. These are orphans by idea, dexterously positioned to, as Sturgeon says ‘ask the next question’. Because antecedents are about asking the previous question, not the next.

And this might explain part of the enduring appeal of orphanhood in fiction. It leaves the character free to carry the plot forward either of her own volition, or by the author’s design, without the necessity of negotiating an additional set of restrictions. To put it in a different way, we wouldn’t have a Jungle Book if Mowgli was living in a village. He would have to go toil in a field the whole day.

It is not about deriving sympathy from the reader as an additional hook. Only a poor writer would angle for sympathy alone to make her character worthy of engaging with. It is about creating a certain structural vacuum around the character, thus creating several scenarios to further the plot. The orphan might need a family in the denouement, for one. Or the plot may have nothing to do with the necessity of a family, making orphanhood incidental to the plot. At the end of Moby-Dick, do we wish to see Ishmael safely at home on land, perhaps married with a child or two, in a regurgitation of the ‘new family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope? Hardly. We were there for the whale. And what about Moby-Dick himself? What do we know about his parents?

Incidentally, the ‘family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope can be elegantly (if I may use the word) turned out in a different kind of plot, such as in White Fang, another favourite. You want Fang to come home, and in just the way he finally does. That is good writing.

So, not to belabour the point, but why orphans? Perhaps because they are, in every sense of the word, free. Outside of fiction, imagine the character standing not at the end of a tree which may, or may not, be densely foliated. Instead, imagine the character standing at the beginning of a new story arc, left to her own devices, neither steered by the author (because this is the real world) nor by the birth-based compulsions of other humans. So this is the orphan as negotiator of her own future. This is her, contemplating eternity.

For the final word, I defer to Ishmael once again: ‘Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.’

The many wonders in Ivan Bilibin


Most of my childhood was illustrated by two persons. One was Arthur Rackham. The other was Ivan Bilibin.

Red Rider

The Red Rider

If Baba Yaga (and her chicken-legged hut) as you imagine her looks just that way, and no other, it is because of Bilibin. If Ilya of Murom in your head will always have a red shield and scabbard, it is because of Bilibin. The magical wolf that helps Prince Ivan in The Firebird, the firebird itself, Vasilisa the Fair, a long line of princes and princesses, the Three Riders, not to mention Koschei the Deathless. Every single memorable character in Slavic folktales becomes engraved in the reader’s eye because of Bilibin.

Ilya of Murom is among my favourite folktale characters, and many years after I first read of him, I was overjoyed to discover he could have been based on a real person. In Ilya’s first adventure, when he comes across Solovei the Whistler-Robber (such names they had!), the fearsome bandit asks: ‘Are you a boyar?’ and Ilya says: ‘Not a boyar. I am a bogatyr.’

Long before I understood the contextual difference between a boyar (nobleman) and a bogatyr (a knight-errant, but the term can’t be accurately translated, I am told) and long before I read anything about class struggle, Ilya became a man after my own heart. Not a boyar. A bogatyr. And Bilibin’s illustration of that fateful encounter was equally responsible for this.

His art is distinctive in its line-work, and the use of primary colours, attention to detail in architecture and clothing, even weapons. You only need to see the Red Rider bursting out of the trees: the vividness of his armour, the glow of his horse, contrasting with the leaves on the trees. Here is an artist telling a story of the human form, of an animal in motion, and of a landscape simultaneously. And scenes set indoors capture furniture, and fabric, and items of everyday use. Nobody quite drew thrones like Bilibin did, for instance. One of the reasons I like him is also why I like Herge: the distinctness of the shapes, the loyalty to form and structure, even though Bilibin’s is not ligne claire.

Maria morevna

The Wedding of Maria Morevna

A lot of his illustrations have a unique touch — borders with geometrical patterns and recurring shapes, or landscapes and architectural forms. Bilibin travelled extensively in the region west of the Urals, and studied traditional Slavic peasant architecture, particularly in the deep north, forms which even in his time were dying. These styles and forms would become a part of the signature Bilibin style. A lot of Alexander Afanasyev’s excellent folktale collection, for instance, is accompanied by Bilibin’s art. Homage to him usually involves art with these borders, such as in Bill Willingham’s Return to the Homelands story arc in Fables, where the part of the adventure in the fable version of Rus takes place entirely in panels drawn after Bilibin.

After 1917, Bilibin was not quite happy with the direction revolutionary Russia had taken, so he went into exile, returning in the mid-1930s. He died at 66 during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942.

Illustrating folktales is not just a matter of creating memorable physical representations of characters which have survived for long in the popular imagination. It is also about understanding the nature of the people who created these stories. As Jack Haney writes in his excellent The Russian Folk Tale: ‘I am convinced that he (the Russian peasant) found deep moral significance in them, something that goes deeper than the mere surface meaning attributed to him by scholars who have never experienced the totality of peasant life’.

Bilibin gets it. His ethnographic, architecture and folklore studies were part of trying to devise a visual language to explain this ‘totality’, and it comes out in each of his works, even drawings of those nameless extras that populate folktales — the maids in waiting or men-at-arms who appear and vanish in the whirl of heroic events. Consider The Wedding of Maria Morevna, and examine the spearmen and ladies in attendance. In many ways, Bilibin’s art is truer to Russian tradition than, say, his contemporaries like Viktor Vasnetsov. They both drew Ilya of Murom, for instance. Vasnetsov drew the three great bogatyrs of Slavic folklore together in fact, and what a heroic image it is: Ilya of Murom, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich, surveying the landscape, possibly looking out for the next great quest.

But Bilibin’s Ilya is just more… Russian.

The ‘I am a Hindu, but…’ argument is flawed

We live in a time when religion is increasingly being debated in the public sphere. Till some years ago, it was hoped by many (I among them) that discussions on faith would be largely relegated to the purely academic sphere, where I for one was perfectly willing to participate. That this has not, and that the discourse on faith in the public sphere would actually become more political in tone, should have occurred to us. Why this has happened, globally, is an interesting question, and will be dealt with separately.

But it has happened, across religions. Faith-based political ideologies now occupy a considerable part of the general discourse. Proponents run the usual gamut, from true believers to the mean of spirit which faith-based systems seem to attract in all historical periods, because there is a good deal of exclusivism attached. The joys of belonging to a select club, let’s say.

It is the opponents of such ideologies that I want to talk about here, specifically a certain type of opponent that I have been wary of, for a while. In India, this is the kind that feels the necessity to preface a critique of Hindutva and its adherents with: ‘I am a Hindu, but…’

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, syntactically this phrase is problematic for Hinduism, because we will first need to define what Hinduism is, and my blog will become a multi-volume book which will end with me admitting the answer could be anything at all. Doctrinally, being a Hindu could mean any of a wide number of sometimes contradictory positions. Legally, the Supreme Court has very kindly laid down about half-a-dozen qualifiers. We are on no firmer ground in terms of practice, considering the diversity of the practiced faith. Of course, a Hindutva proponent would have a one-line definition of what being a Hindu means, and this is one of the principal flaws with that ideology: the intellectual dishonesty of the simplistic.

Let us just say that when someone writes ‘I am a Hindu, but…’, two possible thoughts are occurring simultaneously to the person. First, being a Hindu is whatever the person thinks it is. In other words, she might be talking about a specific practice, such as not eating cow meat (itself a common practice for others self-identifying, or being identified by the upper castes, as Hindus). Or, she might be referring to being a Hindu from the point of view of refuting a specific argument made by Hindutva proponents. Such as, Hindutva proponents say a good Hindu, or the true kind of Hindu, does not eat beef. The critic might be saying, ‘I am a Hindu in every way, but I eat beef.’ In this case, the prefacing phrase is being used to argue against a specific definition in Hindutva.

My main discomfort with the phrase is that it is not, essentially, an intellectual argument. That is, it seeks greater legitimacy for whatever argument the anti-Hindutva critic might be making by pointing out that she, too, is Hindu. This leads to the corollary: that an argument against Hindutva is more legitimate, or should be seen as such, if it is made by a Hindu.

This leads us to the compulsion of agreeing that only those arguments made by people within a faith are truly legitimate. That is, ‘I am a Muslim or Christian, and here are the problems I have against Hindutva’ becomes a less significant critique. This in turn runs the risk of compartmentalising the discourse into faith-based positions.

One may say my objection to the phrase is common sense, but if one takes a look around, one finds a large number of people arguing from this essentially emotional ground. As I was informed recently, a certain senior journalist, who is known not to be a practicing Hindu, has made it a point to preface his remarks on Hindutva by clarifying that he is, actually, a regular temple-goer. His internal reasoning might be that this somehow increases the legitimacy of his voice.

A critique of Hindutva should actually be done on purely intellectual grounds. As a former Hindu, I have as much legitimacy in the arguments I make against Hindutva provided my arguments are based on facts, on doctrine, on practices, on the scientific method of understanding history, in this case political history. My critique of Hindutva should be based on an understanding of what their ideologues say, in addition to a proper understanding of both Hindu doctrine and practice. This takes time, and some degree of reading, and a great degree of interaction with believers, but in the end, for any discourse about faith, it is the only intellectually honest one.

To qualify any discourse on faith by seeking legitimacy as a believer is a fatal weakness, and does not stand up to unbiased scrutiny.

What the newsroom taught me: Part I — Class

This month, I celebrated (observed, really) 25 years of writing for newspapers, of which 14 years have been spent full-time in the newsroom. I have had the privilege of being in the field and handling some beats where, at least back then, some meaningful reportage could be done. I have also been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors (therefore the meaningful reportage).

In these years, I have seen the nature, the essence, of the newsroom change. I cannot speak for other countries, but journalism in India is no longer a profession I am comfortable advising young people to join. In these years, too, I have seen systemic faults become more entrenched, more insidious. It is possible these faults exist in other industries too. In journalism, however, they have had a direct impact on the quality of professionals I see around me today.

A former colleague recently informed me that, on being interviewed by HR for a newspaper, she was asked questions about her family. Specifically, what her parents and siblings did. The colleague told me she was assigned points based on her answers. Most big media houses have these algorithms in place to rate the employability of a ‘prospect’. The emergence of these algorithms, incidentally, has paralleled a very suspicious reluctance by senior editors to read resumes thoroughly. Taken together, this means what your family is may actually help you get a job more effectively than your resume.

I have always believed in not talking about my family or background with colleagues or the public. (One may say I make up for this by talking only about my family with my friends, for which, my long overdue apology). I have believed, and was told by my editors at the beginning of my career, about the importance of individual reputation.

Now, picture this. What if I applied to a newspaper or magazine, with my resume (unread) and the HR person, with senior editors present, asks me about personal details. What if my answers were: “My father is a farmer from Chhattisgarh, my mother was a housewife, now deceased, my sister is married to a railway clerk in Kanker (do you know where it is?). I am a Dalit, and it takes generations of high achievers in a family for Dalits to reach a position of equivalent privilege as the upper castes in urban India, so there isn’t anyone from my family in a good job in a big city. I have always topped, and studied on scholarship money. I love words, and I can tell stories. That is me.” The algorithm, you see, will not have much space for me.

Add that to the fact that print publications, and the new media, do not pay much to freshers. So you have to be willing to starve on big-city expense rates till such time as you master newsroom politics, by when you will have forgotten such things as ‘love for words’ and ‘telling stories’ and will be using words like ‘synergy’ and ‘optimisation’. Or you will break and quit. The people who can survive the algorithm and the low wages, obviously, are those for who beginners’ salaries are “pocket money”, as several young people have told me lately.

Therefore what we are left with are generations of people on starvation rations (and thus on the make) or people coming from privilege. There is, inherently, no crime in coming from privilege, if you can walk out of it. Without that freedom, you can’t chronicle the world.

Repeatedly, at every turn, class rears its head in the newsroom. There are phrases such as ‘people like us’, an oxymoron, because there are, actually, no people like us because there is no ‘us’. Ironically, the people ‘not like us’ are those who still read print publications. But not in English, perhaps, so they do not exist.

In the newsroom, presence is important. So guess who has an immediate and identifiable presence regardless of level of seniority — the hypothetical girl from Chhattisgarh with the weird accent but sterling resume (unread), or the girl whose daddy everyone remembers talking to, or who went to your college, or that senior editor’s school?

The class problem is quite apart from the usual nepotism that besets every Indian industry, and there is no need for me to speak about it here, it being axiomatic. Meanwhile, each succeeding generation in the newsroom is increasingly populated by people coming from enormous privilege, either from the national or regional elites. They are systematically groomed and encouraged into positions of authority, and given identifiable voices, and active mentoring.

A very senior journalist once told me about how new entrants are assigned responsibilities. “If someone is good at grammar and such, we assign her to the desk. If someone can write well, we make her a features writer. Those who can run around, we make reporters.” This is the exact quote. So if you take a look around, most reporters will be of two kinds. The small-town ‘dispensable’ willing to run around at low wages, or the big-city upper class youngster, probably related to a senior journalist or bureaucrat, whose connections open doors, at least at the beginning. And for some beats, it is very difficult for young reporters to open doors unless they are well-greased by power equations.

In the newsroom, class has always existed. It is just that now, it has become overtly malignant.

‘Shwaya, shwaya’: Gabriel Allon, Toynbee and Islam

As I have mentioned earlier, there have been very few espionage novels after the Cold War that can match the narrative scale or philosophical depth of what came before them. A promising exception could be Daniel Silva, who has been writing for a while. His creation, the art restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon, debuted in 2000 with ‘The Kill Artist’. A product of Israel’s 1970s Munich reprisals, Allon and the world he inhabits has evolved perceptibly in scale. In the past few years, the series has directly referred to events in the Middle-East and Europe.

In ‘The Black Widow’ (2016), a terror attack in Paris causes Allon, reluctantly in line to head the Mossad, to launch an operation. He recruits Natalie Mizrahi, a doctor born to French Jewish emigres, to masquerade as a French Muslim, Leila Hadawi, and get recruited by the Islamic State. Silva does what we have fruitlessly expected authors to do for a while, and takes the story to Raqqa, Syria, with a notable stopover at Molenbeek in Belgium, familiar to us after the attacks of 2015.

Silva falters occasionally, such as with the nom de guerre of the terror mastermind, a certain ‘Saladin’. I suppose I could write a separate post on the Silva the black widowfamiliarity of the 12th century Ayyubid general to the European consciousness. Saladin recurs as a name for Middle-Eastern characters in thrillers, notably in Stephen Hunter’s ‘The Second Saladin’ (1982). In ‘The Black Widow’, however, it strikes a false note. It is unlikely that a senior Islamic State functionary, trusted by ‘the Leader’ to boot, would go to war with the West under the name of a medieval Kurd.

Much before the scene shifts to Syria, however, while talking about the need for Israeli intervention in that country, Allon asks Natalie if she is familiar with Arnold Toynbee’s theory about history’s two pivot points — the Central Asian Oxus-Jaxartes basin, and the Syria-Palestine axis. Silva’s unsaid inference, to which I agree, is the IS, and now the post-IS Middle-East require intervention by world powers and neighbours. The degree of intervention needs, of course, to be individually determined. For Allon it is a single directed anti-terror op.

Apart from the welcome attempt at a theoretical underpinning to contemporary espionage, Silva’s choice of Toynbee, and quoted by a Mossad man, is interesting. In his multi-volume ‘A Study of History’, Toynbee examines 19 ‘major’ civilisations (incidentally, dividing Indian civilisations into ‘Indic’ and ‘Hindu’), four ‘abortive’ and an equal number of ‘arrested’ civilisations. But he also refers to ‘fossil’ societies, born of religious discrimination, classifying Judaic culture as one of them, a part of the abortive Syriac civilization. Considering the re-appraisal of Syriac culture in the intervening decades, there might be some substance to this, but in the 1950s Toynbee was suspected of anti-semitism over this classification, and it remains problematic.

But Toynbee also examined the nature of Islamic society’s reaction to the West in his time, from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In his essay, ‘Islam, the West and the Future’, published in ‘Civilisation on Trial’ (1948), he writes:

“Whenever one civilized society finds itself in this dangerous situation vis-a-vis another, there are two alternative ways open to it of responding to the challenge; and we can see obvious examples of both these types of response in the reaction of Islam to Western pressure today.”

Drawing a parallel between Jewish reaction to Roman imperialism and Islamic response to the West, Toynbee continues: “The ‘Zealot’ is the man who takes refuge from the unknown in the familiar; and when he joins battle with a stranger who practises superior tactics and employs formidable newfangled weapons, and finds himself getting the worst of the encounter, he responds by practising his own traditional art of war with abnormally scrupulous exactitude.”

The Jewish (not to mention Samaritan) response to Rome has been extensively documented, and its connection to the rise of Islam is being researched as we speak. A large part of the Western understanding of Islamic fundamentalism also revolves around the reaction theory. This, in my view, is a trifle simplistic, because it does not take into account the nature of a culture which reacts in just such a manner to the Other, and not in a different way. That is, why are some cultures more, shall we say, designed to take the zealotry option? How did Japanese society, to cite an example, accommodate its still-thriving xenophobia and ultra-nationalism with capitalism and Western dominance? These questions apart, Toynbee’s theories, a lot of which have still not been completely discarded, are a useful entrepot to understanding Islamic societies’ response to the West.

That an espionage fiction writer has made the effort to include this politico-historiographical tidbit is commendable. I expect Silva to theorise further on contemporary politics in forthcoming Allon books, of which the sequel to ‘The Black Widow’, titled ‘House of Spies’ was released this year.

Awesome portmanteaus

Featuring a unicorn, pshrinks, dinosaurs and Scientologists.

Aristotalitarian: Someone who insists Plato’s disciple’s teachings must be implemented completely, in everything. (Aristotle + totalitarian)

Pseudo-scientologist: Member of a cult that says an ancient alien supervillain is responsible for human mental problems, and hates pshrinks, but is sketchy about the details. (Pseudo-science + Scientology)

Dilettenterhooks: The feeling a fake expert in a subject gets just before being exposed. (Dilettante + tenterhooks)

Demonocrat: A supporter of equal voting rights for all demons, regardless of which level of Hell they live in, or nature of their job. (Demon + democrat)

Reunicorn: That one unicorn that keeps saying, “It’s been such a long time. Where is everyone? We should meet.” (Reunion + unicorn)

Troglodiet: A crash weight-loss programme by an exceptionally ignorant person. (Troglodyte + diet)

Doreuphoria: The intense joy that only a critic can feel after being pedantic, and getting away with it. (Doryphore + euphoria)

Diplomatodocus: That one long-necked dinosaur that always says, “Now, calm down, you guys. I am sure we can talk about this.” (Diplodocus + diplomat)

Bicyclotron: A low-tech particle accelerator powered by a bunch of physicists pedaling rapidly. (Bicycle + cyclotron)

Underminotaur: Mythical monster that lives in a labyrinth and keeps passing comments to depress people and make them give up. (Undermine + Minotaur)

Mughals in miniature: The perils of medieval reinforcements for contemporary debates

(Medieval Indian history is not my area of specialization. The only connection Mughal history has to anything I have researched in is the very tenuous Mongol heritage. What follows is not me speaking as a historian, but mainly as a political commentator)

The Mughals are back in the news, after the earlier fracas about Maharana Pratap versus Akbar. While the Right tries to erase the Mughals from history, Left-liberals have sprung to the defence of Babur’s line. I’m happy to see Audrey Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb being mentioned. A re-appraisal of Aurangzeb, and a demolition of some dearly-held myths, was long overdue, and I hope those on the Right do us the courtesy of reading it.

I am not a big admirer of the Mughals, or the way the early Mughals viewed themselves: as inheritors of Chinggis, an unfounded claim. This is not personal. The Assam campaigns of the 17th century, between us, have also been conveniently re-interpreted by the Right as a defensive war by Hindus against Muslim invaders. That the general of the Mughal land army was the Rajput Ram Singh is ignored. That the admiral (who met with a sticky end) was Munawwar Khan, quite possibly an Afghan, is doubly ignored. That among the indigenous armies who fought them were animist Nagas, too, is ignored.

Because not ignoring them would compel one to take into account the complexities of politics in the Middle Ages. The idea that the Mughals’ wars of expansion were not religious conflicts does not go too well with the Right’s version of history. It ignores the Hindus who worked very well with the Mughals. It ignores the subaltern allies of the Mughals’ opponents too, like the Bhils who supplied such excellent weapons to Maharana Pratap. We are all familiar with the dearly-held generalisations not based on actual evidence.

Mughal contribution to Indian society was immense, beginning with the administrative structure. This too, has been mentioned elsewhere. However, I am uncomfortable with the way in which the current debate is shaping up, where, to defend the Mughals from unfounded charges from the Right, we might be building them up into something they are not. Whitewashing is something both sides of the divide have been guilty of, and this time appears no different.

To begin with, Babur never intended to set himself up here, and Samarkand never lost its emotional primacy for him. Second, the true period of Mughal dominance, I believe, needs revision. The Mughal era truly begins with Akbar, and ends with the death of Aurangzeb, a total of 151 years. Of the four Great Mughals within this period, Jahangir benefited greatly from the momentum of Akbar’s reign. If he had been in a situation like Humayun, Jahangir’s career would have doubtless been different. So the contributions of Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were what make the dynasty significant. Again, Mughal collapse after Aurangzeb was due to economic and administrative over-reach, not some great religious reprisal, which has been covered very well by late medieval specialists.

Now, if you leave apart the great architecture (a lot of which owes its influence to Central Asian forms), and paintings (derived from existing folk traditions), it is the Mughal administrative machinery that recommends this period for any student of history. This system was not created out of whole cloth by Akbar, but gradually evolved, borrowing a lot from their contemporary Iranians, and incorporating existing systems of the Turks and Afghans. So if one recommends that Mughal history be studied by school children, and it should be, these connections must also be adequately explained. No empire creates systems and structures in isolation. So while trying to defend Akbar from the Right, we are in danger of turning him and his descendants into some kind of medieval superheroes. This, too, is just as unfair as the claims of the Right.

The Mughals carved a place for themselves with technological supremacy. They were fortunate to have someone like Akbar, who realized that the only way to run a large empire in the subcontinent was to be inclusive. They lost their way because such lessons can’t be inherited, they can only be understood and internalized at an individual level.

But, overall, the Mughals were just like any other medieval dynasty, and must be studied as they were. We can’t afford to bring them in as reinforcements for a contemporary political debate. What we should be defending today are democracy (based on ideology, not birth-based majorities), freedom of speech, gender and caste equality, secularism (that is, the excising of religion from the public sphere), freedom of economic mobility, scientific temper, primacy of law and an equivalent freedom to change laws to reflect changing societies. None of these were started by the Mughals, and have nothing to do with medieval societies. We must, repeatedly, mention this. This country as it exists owes itself to a different intellectual and humanist tradition.

The Mughals must not be removed from school or college textbooks. Neither should the small nations that fought them. Nor should the Lodhis, Tughlaqs or Sayyids. Personally speaking, I would be delighted if the books also mentioned the Bhils, or, introduced, to north Indian children, the Cholas. Any move by the Right to ‘sanitise’ history must be opposed. But let us not make the Mughals into something admirable. They were absolute monarchs ruling a bountiful land, and successful at it. But they passed. I am glad they did. The society we are trying to defend, a far better one, needs other kinds of reinforcements.

The Coupe remembers

(This is the first of the Mobile Tales series. I have a small collection of miniature classic cars and aircraft, and these are their stories, written on MS Word on my phone. I have tried to preserve a sense of time and geography in the words, sentence structures and slang used in each tale.)

It was a heck of a time, as the 1933 Ford Coupe keeps reminding everyone, all the young fellows with their shiny chrome and wingtips and whatnot, and the posh Europeans with their sleek sophistication. They don’t really ever have the heart to stop the salty old-timer in his cups.

Yes, a heck of a time, between the two wars. The Coupe was the meanest, toughest thing out on the road, and could roar on, from county to town, hours over hours. The cops loved him, and in time the bad guys did too.

Oh, and there were so many of them back then, the wrong ‘uns, the old-timey gunboys, the Tommy gunners and bank robbers, the liquor smugglers on the old cross-border run to Chicago. The desperadoes on the lam. What a time!1933 Ford Coupe

There was Baby-Face Nelson, and Dillinger, and Ma Barker and her kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and hoo, boy! Ain’t never seen their likes again, says the Coupe.

And there was the Mob, too. The wiseguys, mafia you youngsters call them now. Al Capone himself, and all them guys who made money during the Prohibition.

And the broads. Every one of them like the girls in Hollywood. The broads were something, too.

The Coupe worked for some Chicago cops for a while, and saw a lot of chases. Even got dinged in the hood by a Tommy gunner once. Then was sold to some guys who ran a crew for Capone near the Exchequer restaurant. Saw Big Al himself, and gave a lift to Machine Gun Kelly once.

By and by, getting on in years, the Coupe was sold down south and became a sheriff’s car. Enforced the law in that there county, the Coupe did. Not a criminal could get away. The great Melvin Purvis hisself sat in the back once. A great man. A great one.

So the Coupe remembers, and there isn’t a one among the youngsters as salty and as full of life. Anyone who survived the Depression can take anything any other decade can throw at it.