Tea without sympathy – An Era of Darkness.

dsc08186History belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present. So Dr Shashi Tharoor proves in his latest book, An Era of Darkness, The British Empire in India.

Tharoor takes up the task of dispelling any illusions one might have had about the British Raj in India. In this he succeeds very well. Unlike many of my fellow Macaulayputras, as Tharoor refers to us (and himself), and in spite of my Catholic schooling, I always knew the British were not the ‘enlightened despots’ that our textbooks would have us believe.

Over the years, my own informal research into the subject made me realise how brutal and exploitative the Raj actually was.

Even so, An Era of Darkness is an eye-opener. Tharoor brings to light several nasty facts about the Raj that I never knew, and by his own admission, he did not know himself. Consider India’s caste system. Like many other Indians, Tharoor included, I too thought that the rigidity of our caste system and its consequent evils, predated the British.

However, “the idea of the four-fold caste order stretching across all of India…was only developed…under the peculiar circumstances of British colonial rule“.

As also the Hindu-Muslim divide, which haunts India till this day. “Religion“, states Tharoor, “became a useful means of divide and rule“. The Hindu-Muslim divide, we now learn, was a deliberate British strategy.

It comes as an unpleasant surprise that much of what we were taught about India’s pre-Raj history, and still are being taught, is essentially of British construction.

As exemplified by India’s most notorious Anglophile, the “cringe-worthy” Nirad Chaudhuri, as Tharoor aptly describes him, “colonialism misappropriated and reshaped” how we saw our own history and cultural self-definition.

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The good Doctor endorses my copy of his book.

Thus, page by page, Tharoor’s book unapologetically and systematically lays bare the reality of the Raj. The scientist in me demands hard evidence, and Tharoor does not disappoint. The book is thoroughly researched, with an exhaustive list of references at the end. One expects nothing less from a scholar who holds multiple doctoral degrees.

What I admire about the man is his lack of hesitation in pointing out the wrong-doings and mistakes committed by Indian leaders of the day, that served the British cause well.

Take for example his explanation of why Nehru’s decision to order his colleagues to resign from all provincial ministries in 1939, was “a monumental blunder“. As also Tharoor’s unflattering and accurate analysis of the Quit India movement of 1942.

Notwithstanding their errors of judgement, he does acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as the great leaders and statesmen they really were.

Tharoor is especially harsh though, and very deservedly so, on Winston Churchill. The truth about this alleged “apostle of freedom” is described in considerable detail in the book.

Thankfully, Tharoor firmly dispels any apprehensions about my favorite English author, PG Wodehouse. There were times when I would feel a bit guilty about enjoying Wodehouse so much, on the belief that he was a colonialist. Tharoor assures me that I am wrong, to my considerable relief.

Frightening, enlightening, educational, spine-chilling, profound and made immensely readable by the author’s characteristic style of writing, An Era of Darkness is a volume that one would recommend to serious students of Indian history and to connoisseurs of the English language alike. Tharoor is the only English author for whom I need a dictionary (or Google) by my side.

One reading of the book will not suffice, I must tell you. You will need to read the volume two or three times to understand its import, that “sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror“…

… and that one does not need to espouse right-wing values in order to be a true nationalist.

Cheers … Srini.

The silent renaissance of Samskritam

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Who says Samskritam is a dead language? Far from it.

The usage of Samskrit declined dramatically after the British annexed India. Historically, we blame the British for the near-demise of Samskrit and that blame is well deserved. The Mughals, in their 600-year rule over India, did what they could to subdue Samskrit, but I believe the British did a far better job of it.

That the British were extremely efficient in destroying India’s economy, culture, educational system and language is historical fact. To quote Shashi Tharoor, “In Power, the British were, in a word, ruthless”.

But that is history. To quote Tharoor again, “History is neither for excuses, nor for revenge”.

It is time we stopped blaming our former rulers for the plight of Samskrit, time we moved on, time we accepted the responsibility of preserving our own culture and language.

Thus, I took it upon myself to learn Samskritam. Since I am quite fluent in both Hindi and Marathi, and can read Devanagari script easily, I found it reasonably simple to learn the basics of Samskrit. In the past six months, I have picked up sufficient Samskrit to be able to appreciate some of its nuances, and to be able to dispel the myths associated with it.

First of all, it’s not pronounced Saanskrit or Senskrit. It’s Samskritham or Samskrit, if you will. Pronounced as “Sum-skri-tham”.

The very word means “refined speech“. That indeed was the defining characteristic of those who used Samskrit through our country’s history – they were refined in their manner, refined in their culture, refined in their philosophy.

Myth 1: Samskritam is a very difficult language to learn.

Have you ever heard of an ‘easy’ language? Each language has its own syntax, rules and structure. Each language poses its own challenges to novices. Try learning Mandarin or Japanese. Then you’ll know.

For most Indians, Samskrit comes with a built-in advantage. If you know any Indian language, and it is likely that you know more than one, then you already know several Samskrit words and are already familiar with the basics of Samskrit grammar. Over the past thirty centuries, Samskrit has contributed directly to the evolution of almost every Indian language currently in use.

Try listening to the Samskrit news on Doordarshan and All India Radio. You’ll be surprised at how much of it you can understand, even if you have never formally learned Samskrit.

So don’t you worry about how difficult you think it will be to learn Sanskrit. You are already using Samskrit without knowing it. You do not need to know Devanagari script, although it is preferable that you do. Samskrit speakers use Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and just about any Indian script they are comfortable with. Remember, Samskrit has always been a phonetic language, with much more emphasis on correct pronunciation than on the script used.

And, it’s not as if you are expected to study Samskrit for decades and become a Vedic scholar, though you can if you wish to. For most of us, even a working knowledge of Samskrit is enough to enjoy the richness of the language, for which just a few months of study will suffice. Since you know one or more Indian languages, you already have a head start.

Myth 2: Samskrit is meant for certain castes only.

Bullshit.

Myth 3: Samskrit is a boring, ancient language and is only about old scriptures and mumbo-jumbo.

Once again, bullshit. That’s like saying that English is only about Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales. There is no shortage of modern Samskrit literature, scientific publications, articles, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. No matter what your field of interest is, you will find a modern Samskrit publication in that field.

Myth 4: I’m not a Hindu. Samskrit is not my language.

So what if you’re not a Hindu? You’re still an Indian, aren’t you? Samskrit is not a “Hindu” language. It’s an Indian language. In fact, it is the Indian language, the progenitor of all other Indian languages. If you speak any Indian language, including Urdu, you are using Samskrit without knowing it, no matter what your religion is. So what’s the big deal about learning it formally?

I haven’t come across any Samskrit institution that turns away anyone who wishes to learn.

Myth 5: There is no practical use of learning Samskrit. What do I gain from it anyway?

Ah. The million-dollar question. What’s the point, what’s the use, what’s the benefit?

For starters, one does not learn a language solely in order to make money out of it. Not necessarily.

That said, even if you want to learn Samskrit merely for personal gain, you will not be disappointed. No matter what troubles you – business, finance, management, science, philosophy, work, personal life, health – you will find the answers you seek in the Samskrit works of India.

So don’t bother about the material benefits of learning Samskrit. They are already available to you.

Myth 6: There are very few institutions that teach proper Samskrit.

Now that is so not true. There are many institutions that can teach you Samskrit, on-line and otherwise. From a basic working knowledge of Samskrit to PhD programs, you will find top-quality institutions across India, and in some countries outside it.

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My Samskrit class, in session

My new friends in Samskrita Bharati have been teaching Samskrit to all sections of society since 1970. Check out their website here, and choose whatever course suits you. You will be taken aback at the absurdly low fees they charge. Samskrita Bharati regularly conducts 10-day courses in conversational Samskrit, utterly free of cost. That would be a good starting point for your journey into the world of Samskrit.

Across India, a silent renaissance is going on, in case you haven’t noticed. Thousands of Indians have committed themselves to the learning and propagation of Samskritam. And that includes Yours Truly.

I could not see any viable reason to not learn the language of the Gods – and several reasons why I should.

So stop making pathetic excuses and get off your backside, will you?

Pathatu Samskritham. Vadhatu Samskritham.

Cheers … Srini.

Namma Bengaluru – the Red Garden.

lal-1-4If you visit Lalbagh on any evening, and you come across a tall, well-built, grumpy man laden with photographic gear, assiduously clicking pictures, that grumpy man would be Yours Truly.

Although it has deteriorated over the years due to encroachment, poor management and unrelenting abuse by the visiting public, Lalbagh remains my go-to place for photography, birds, fresh air and a good walk.

glasshouse5So named because of its red roses that bloom through the year, Lalbagh Botanical Garden was first established about 250 years ago by Hyder Ali and completed by his son Tipu Sultan in 1760. After Tipu’s death in 1799, the British took over the garden. Lalbagh’s centerpiece, the Glass House was built by the British, on the lines of the Crystal Palace in London. The original Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, but the Glass House at Lalbagh remains.

In a literal sense, Labagh is redolent with history. Tipu Sultan and the British imported hundreds of rare flowers and trees from all over the world. If you’re an aspiring botanist or a lover of flora as I am, Lalbagh is the one place you must be in.

And, if you’re a birder as I am, Lalbagh will not disappoint you. Once, there were about a hundred species of birds, but those days are gone. It’s still worth your visit.

Spot-billed pelican at the lake.
Spot-billed pelican at the lake.

What’s good about Lalbagh: Fresh air and greenery. Rare species of trees and flowers, Several species of birds, especially in and around the lake.

The lake.
The lake.

What’s bad about Lalbagh: Too many hawkers, feral dogs, loafers, pesky photographers (the ones who charge money, not Yours Truly!), illegal fishing and worst of all, lovey-dovey couples in various stages of foreplay and vulgar displays of public affection.

I’ve had my share of youthful tomfoolery with various girlfriends in my younger days – but what is vulgar is vulgar.

That said, Lalbagh definitely merits your visit, at least once.

lal-1Make it a point to see:

The Glass House, the lake, the Kempegowda Tower and the 3 billion year old rock on which it is built, the bonsai garden, the floral clock, the fossilised tree trunk and the 200-year old silk cotton tree.

Make it a point to avoid: The pesky photographers at the Glass House, the feral dogs all over the place (don’t you dare feed them!), and the hawkers.

Disregard: Above-mentioned lovey-dovey couples in various stages of foreplay. Or if you are so inclined and if you are built like Schwarzenegger, glare at them pointedly.

Fossilised trunk. 20 million years old.
Fossilised trunk. 20 million years old.

How to get there: Easy. Every bus route towards south Bangalore will pass through Lalbagh. There are three separate gates of entry to Lalbagh, and there will be a bus to reach any one of them. Check out BMTC’s helpful website.

You can take an autorickshaw to the place. But avoid taking an autorickshaw at the gate when you leave. They will rip you off, the traffic constables notwithstanding. Walk a few yards away from the gate, and hail a passing autorickshaw. That’s a better option.

There is car parking inside Lalbagh, but best avoided, especially during weekends. Public transport is better. You will save yourself a lot of time and the enormous hassle of looking for parking space. That time can be better spent inside Lalbagh.

Purple moorhen.
Purple moorhen.

Lalbagh is open on all days, including Sundays, from 6.00 am to 7.00 pm.

There is a nominal entry fee. However, entry is free from 6.00 to 9.00 am, and 6.00 pm to 7.00 pm, for walkers only.

If you have a camera, fork out an additional Rs.50/- (Grrr!).

Bottom-line: A must-see place if you’re visiting Bangalore. And a must-save place if you’re a Bangalorean.

Cheers … Srini.