Thursday 28 October 2021

I knew that was going to happen… The truth about premonitions

 Uncanny and creepy, premonitions that turn out to be authentic can feel profound. But is there science to explain them?

Around seven years ago, Garrett, was in a local Pizza Hut with his friends, having a day so ordinary that it is cumbersome to describe. He was 16 – or thereabouts – and had been told by teachers to go around nearby businesses and ask for gift vouchers that the school could use as prizes in a raffle. There were five other teenagers with Garrett, and they’d just finished speaking to the restaurant manager when suddenly, out of nowhere, Garrett’s his body was flooded with shock. He felt cold and clammy and had an “overwhelming sense that something had happened”. He desperately tried to stop himself crying in front of his peers.

“It was like I’d just been told something terrible,” the now 23-year-old from the southwest of England says (his name has been changed on his request). “I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but I just knew something had happened.” Garrett returned home and tried to distract himself from a feeling he describes as grief. The phone rang. His mum answered it. A few hours earlier – around the time Garrett was in the restaurant – his grandfather had died from a sudden heart attack while on a cruise.

Although there’s no way of knowing how many people worldwide feel that they “sensed” a loved one’s death before being told, it’s a phenomenon that’s been explored in everything from Star Wars to Downtown Abbey to Kung Fu Panda 2. Perhaps one of your own relatives has a story similar to Garrett’s – perhaps you dismissed it, perhaps you treat it as family lore. Is there any evidence to suggest this phenomenon is real – that humans can sense one another’s passing from a distance, that Garrett’s emotional afternoon was anything more than a coincidence? In a word, no. Meanwhile, it is well documented that the human mind is a bundle of bias: false memories, grief hallucinations and confirmation bias can easily explain these experiences. Besides which, for every person who feels a shiver when their loved one dies, there are hundreds more who were quietly eating pizza or happily riding a rollercoaster or bored doing maths homework completely unaware of their loss.

Ripple effects: ‘There are many accounts of crisis telepathy.’ Illustration: Eva Bee/The Observer

But are these dismissals too quick? Too easy? Some scientists claim that the complex world of quantum physics could be used to explain the paranormal (other scientists say they’re unbelievably wrong.) What can stories like Garrett’s tell us about what we do and don’t know? What we are and aren’t willing to believe? About the disconnect between what some claim to experience and others claim is impossible?

Brian Josephson is your prototypical professor. With tufts of white hair atop his head, a knitted vest and a glasses chain keeping his specs safe, he says via Zoom that, “The academic community is a kind of club. You’re supposed to believe certain things and you run into problems you disagree with.” In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on superconductivity. Later, during his time as a professor at the University of Cambridge, he began using quantum mechanics to explore consciousness and the paranormal.

Quantum entanglement – nicknamed “spooky action at a distance” by Albert Einstein – describes the (proven) phenomenon of two spatially separated particles influencing each other, even over large distances. While the phenomenon is subatomic, academics such as Josephson have theorised that quantum entanglement could explain phenomena like telepathy and psychokinesis.

“There are many accounts of crisis telepathy,” says Dean Radin, a parapsychologist and author of Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. “Does entanglement explain these effects? No, in the sense that entanglement as observed today in the physics lab, between pairs of photons, is extremely fragile and typically lasts only minuscule fractions of a second. But also, yes, in that we are at the earliest stages of understanding entanglement.”

Radin says studies in quantum biology show that entanglement-type effects are present in living systems (academics from Oxford have successfully entangled bacteria) and he believes the human brain could in turn have quantum properties. “If that is subsequently demonstrated – I think it’s just a matter of time – then that would go a long way towards providing a physical mechanism for telepathy,” he says.

Put down your pen, scrunch up your letter to the editor. You only need an explanation for telepathy if you believe in telepathy in the first place, and experiments purporting its existence have been widely debunked. Josephson and Radin are regularly criticised by peers. In 2001, when Royal Mail released a set of stamps to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, there was outrage when Josephson wrote in an accompanying booklet that quantum physics may lead to an explanation for telepathy. In this very newspaper, academics branded the claim “utter rubbish” and “complete nonsense”.

When reviewing Entangled Minds for The Skeptic’s Dictionary, philosophy professor and professional sceptic Robert Carroll wrote that Radin’s book was “aimed at non-scientists who are likely to be impressed by references to quantum physics”.

Garrett has no idea what happened to him on the day his grandad died, but he is certain that it happened. He believes in some kind of “interconnectedness” between people. “I think if it’s happened to you, then there’s an underlying accepting of it,” he says.

This is a sentiment shared by the self-described “naturally sceptical” Cassius Griesbach, a 24-year-old from Wisconsin who lost his grandfather in 2012. Griesbach says that he “shot awake” on the night his grandad passed and began to sob uncontrollably. “It felt like something just rocked me, physically,” he says. When his dad called moments later to say his grandad had died, a teenaged Griesbach replied: “I know.”

Griesbach doesn’t blame anyone for being sceptical of his story. “The further you get away from it, the more I would like to write it off as a coincidence,” he says, “But every time I sit down and think about it, it feels like it’s something else.” Griesbach is “not super religious” and doesn’t believe in ghosts. “ If it is something to do with actual science, I would think that would be science that we are nowhere near yet, you know?”

Many would disagree, arguing that the answer lies in the social sciences. In 2014, Michael Shermer married Jennifer, who had moved from Köln to California and brought with her a 1978 radio belonging to her late grandfather. Shermer tried in vain to fix it before tossing it in a drawer, where it lay silent until the couple said their wedding vows at home months later. Just as Jennifer was keenly feeling the absence of her grandfather, the radio began to play a romantic song. It continued all night before it stopped working for good the next day.

“It’s just one of those anomalous experiences,” says Shermer, a science historian, professional sceptic and author of The Believing Brain: from Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions. How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. “Randomness and chance play a big role in life and in the world, and our brains are designed to see patterns not randomness.” Shermer argues that experiences like Garrett’s and Griesbach’s are statistically more likely than we think.

“You have billions of people worldwide having dozens of dreams [each] at night,” he says. “The odds are pretty good that on any given night, somebody’s going to have a dream about somebody dying who actually dies. That’s inevitable.” At the same time, he argues, we ignore all the times we suddenly sob or shudder and it turns out that no one’s died – or the times when someone does die and we don’t feel anything at all.

There are other prosaic explanations. While Garrett’s grandfather’s death was sudden and unexpected, Griesbach’s grandfather was hospitalised the week before he died, when he shot awake in the middle of the night, Griesbach’s first thought was, “It happened” – he knew his grandfather had passed. But is that surprising when he’d spent a week by his bedside?

John Bedard, a 36-year-old in Los Angeles, woke suddenly on the night his parents died. He was 10 and sleeping at a friend’s house when he awoke, “just knowing something was wrong”. He called his brother, sobbing. When his brother picked him up, he told Bedard their parents had died in a motorcycle accident.

And yet, there were clues that “something was wrong” much earlier. The sleepover wasn’t planned – Bedard had gone to friends to play when “it started getting later and later” and nobody came to pick him up. It was a Sunday night – an unusual night to have a sleepover. Bedard was uneasy when he went to bed.

Despite these answers, explanations continue to be toyed with. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and parapsychologist who conceived of “morphic resonance”, the idea that interconnections exist between organisms. He believes the human mind has fields that stretch beyond the brain, much like electromagnetic fields. This, he says, explains why we can seemingly tell when someone behind us is staring at us, or why we sometimes think of someone right before they call. (Sheldrake’s work has been called “heresy” in the journal Nature.)

“I’m not talking about the supernatural; I think these things are totally natural. I think they’re normal, not paranormal,” he says. When it comes to experiences like Garrett’s, he says empirical studies are impossible. “You can’t ask somebody to die at a randomly selected time to see if their nearest and dearest respond… So unfortunately, the evidence for cases to do with death has to be circumstantial.”

Shermer is not a Sheldrake fan. “The idea that a biologist like Rupert Sheldrake is going to uncover some new force of nature that somehow Einstein and everybody else has missed… is just so unlikely to have happened, that almost any explanation like the ones I’ve been giving you are way more likely.” Josephson’s rebuke of such criticisms: “People say that [science is] always subject to revision and yet they’re secretly convinced that certain things can’t happen.”

What can and can’t happen doesn’t change what many feel has happened – Garrett, Griesbach and Bedard all believe something strange and unexplainable occurred when they lost their loved ones. At the very least, these stories undeniably offer comfort.

“As far as looking into it, I don’t even know what there is to look into,” Griesbach says – after all, the phenomenon doesn’t even have a name. “I think the best thing that we could do for people is validate how they feel and let them grieve. Because whenever people have that happen, they’re also grieving. That is one of the most important times to just be a kind human to somebody.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Monday 25 October 2021

Owners offload dogs bought in lockdown by pretending they are strays

 Rescue centres say they are seeing more and more pets their owners are now too busy to look after.

People are pretending that dogs they acquired during lockdown are strays so that rescue centres take them in, after failing to sell them online, animal rescue charities and shelters have warned.

Figures from March revealed that more than 3.2m pets were bought by UK households during lockdown. Since Covid restrictions were lifted and people have started to return to the office, charities have reported a growing trend of people abandoning their pandemic pets as they no longer have as much time for them.

Many of these pets were bought online and their true origins and medical issues were not disclosed. They often have a higher incidence of behavioural and health problems and are thus more difficult to rehome.

Charities say owners are turning up with their dogs after failing to sell them, claiming they are strays. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shelters and charities are reporting that owners who no longer want their pets are attempting to sell them online via websites such as Gumtree and Pets4Homes in an attempt to recoup what they paid for the dog.

Ira Moss, the founder of the charity All Dogs Matter, told the Independent: “We have noticed in the past couple of weeks an increase in dogs coming in, and we believe that 90% of the time people have been pressured to sell the dogs first rather than bring them into the charities.

“Dog wardens have been getting calls from vets who say a member of the public has said they found a stray, but often it’s by people who can’t be bothered to wait for rescue charities to help or are embarrassed about handing the dog in.

“When a dog warden takes a dog, they will scan a microchip and the person registered on the chip can claim the dog back. But sometimes you call them and they say they sold the dog some time back, or the number doesn’t work.”

Moss said a lot of people failed to think through buying a lockdown puppy and are now struggling to keep up financially or experiencing behavioural problems due to a lack of training and socialisation.

And, as dogs tend to lose their value the older they get, many have been sold online multiple times before arriving at the charity’s door, leading to a range of issues including separation anxiety and confusion, Moss warned.

Hope Rescue, an animal charity based in Rhondda Cynon Taf, told the BBC the number of dogs being dropped off at its rescue centre in Pontyclun was the highest in its 15-year history.

The charity said it too had found that some dog owners had called a dog warden and pretended their own pet was a stray, or taken the dogs directly to a rescue centre claiming they had found them abandoned.

Sara Rosser, head of welfare, said that in the past week alone, five dogs had come into the centre that they knew were fake strays, but the number “could be much higher”. It has meant that “fake” stray dogs are jumping the queue ahead of dogs that are genuinely abandoned, she added.

Moss urged people to look to charities for help with rehoming their unwanted dogs. “They are not just a car you’re selling online. A lot of people think they’re just going to go into a kennel, but they are better off going to a kennel with professionals for a week or so than being passed around homes.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Friday 22 October 2021

Instagram has largely replaced TikTok in India, and erased working-class creators

 “TikTok was a canteen; Instagram is a café. But the canteen has better food, and the café serves costly coffee that not everyone drinks.”

Savitri and Sanatan Mahto were unlikely influencers. Sister and brother, they live on the edge of Nipania, a village in the Indian state of Jharkhand. It is remote from any city: if the siblings feel like eating at a restaurant, it entails half a day’s walk down a 15-mile-long dirt road, dotted with swamps. 

While India’s Instagram elite presented a polished facade of overseas vacations and perfectly groomed cats, the Mahtos shot to fame dancing on TikTok, singing indigenous rhymes as floodwaters clogged their mud house. Over three years, their unvarnished, but joyful, depictions of village life amassed them 2.7 million followers on the short-form video platform.

When the Mahtos started using TikTok in 2018, they found they could earn decent money, and a certain level of celebrity. If they went to a restaurant, the owner would barely register their presence. Waiters, though, would approach to snap a selfie. In a gleaming motorcycle showroom last year in Dhanbad, their nearest town, the manager ignored Sanatan when he asked for a test ride — but a regular mechanic came up to congratulate him, requesting a shoutout.

At its peak in 2020, TikTok had 200 million users in India. What made it remarkable was the opportunity it offered for creators like the Mahtos, economically downtrodden and from marginalized caste backgrounds, who were otherwise invisible on the Indian internet. It allowed them to become bona fide pieces of the nation’s digital culture, and to build a career online. 

“I’m not able to connect with the songs in the trends on Instagram,” said Sanatan Mahto. Courtesy of Sanatan Mahto

That was taken from them when, in June 2020, the Indian government banned the platform, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, in retaliation for the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in a border clash.

What was a gutting blow for Indian creators has transpired to be a gift for Facebook, whose Instagram Reels, a competing short-form video platform, has grown swiftly to fill the vacuum. But Facebook’s expansion strategy involved courting upper-class and caste influencers, who set the tone for a very different online space. Critics say that Reels has replaced the textured, complex, and often inclusive creator community on TikTok with bland, aspirational content: an advertisement for a middle-class lifestyle unobtainable for Indians from marginalized communities, like the Mahtos. 

“Instagram has been the place for a … fantasy of a better life; of fashion and better aesthetics,” said Divya Kandukuri, a 24-year-old anti-caste activist from Andhra Pradesh. “TikTok was a more democratic space, more acceptable to change.”

As social media spread in India, it replicated the class lines that divided wider society. TikTok launched in India in 2017 and soon became wildly popular, particularly among users — and creators — from outside the middle classes, who themselves congregated on YouTube and Instagram. 

Among TikTok’s library of songs, which run in the background of its videos, were exuberant, regional Indian hits. It was a feature that users loved and couldn’t find on other platforms, which were built around mainstream U.S. and Bollywood cultural references. That, together with TikTok’s intuitive UX design and short, 15-second upload length, which lent itself to showing snatches of daily life, endeared the platform to rural users.

At the same time, TikTok users in India became accustomed to online harassment. In an infamous tussle with a YouTuber community in 2020, casteist remarks were directed at TikTokkers by the popular creator CarryMinati, calling them “cringey” and talentless.

But the huge audiences coming to the platform soon attracted advertisers. Leading brands, including fast-moving consumer goods suppliers like PepsiCo, adopted TikTok strategies to reach the youth market across India, looking to access the vast rural market. Creators benefited.

“[TikTok] democratized the creator economy and brought money to marginalized groups,” Sahil Shah, managing partner at WatConsult, a leading Indian digital agency, told Rest of World. Someone like Mahto could make $2,000 per month from brand partnerships, said Shah, compared to around $130 as a farm laborer.

Before the ban, India had four of the top 15 paid TikTokers around the world, according to HypeAuditor, an influencer analytics company. The firm located 7.7% of the total TikTok influencers in India. Top influencers could make around $25,000 per partnered post.

Then, in late June 2020, came the ban. Instagram Reels appeared almost instantly, in early July. 

There was no question that Reels wanted to fill the vacuum left by TikTok. But rather than court the same creators who had driven the Chinese company’s success, Facebook, Reels’ owner, kick-started its launch campaign by courting a set of influencers from upper-class backgrounds, including Komal Pandey, Kusha Kapila, and Ammy Virk: “A catalog of aspiring lifestyle [examples] for middle-class and upper-middle-class Indians,” was how Dr. Rahul Advani, a research fellow at the University College London, described the launch to Rest of World. 

Advani has studied the ways that the poorer strata of Indian society engage with the internet, particularly methods of self-expression, like selfies. There is a clear difference between Reels and TikTok, he said: Reels is for curators, not creators, which makes it a more upmarket space.

“The aesthetics of curation were defined very early on by people [with resources],” Advani said. That is, that first round of influencer recruits established the tone for future content.

To keep its curated look and feel, Reels has stricter requirements on quality. In its latest guidelines, Instagram announced a change in its algorithm, stating that it wouldn’t recommend videos that are blurry, bear a watermark or logo, or have a border around them. This raises the barrier to entry for users. Instagram did not respond to request for comment from Rest of World

To achieve stardom on TikTok, Sanatan Mahto had only to access a low-end smartphone and a limited data connection. “My smartphone was so slow that I couldn’t upload a YouTube video on that. A 15-second was easy,” Sanatan said. He taught himself to use the TikTok app by playing around with the buttons, and never gave too much thought to the image he was presenting of himself.

“We never realized that [the elements in our] frame would make a difference. I never placed a plough or the cow dung in the frame,” Savitri, his sister, added. “This is my life.” 

Divya Kandukuri, the anti-caste activist, was a devoted TikTok user who migrated to Reels after the ban. Describing the difference between platforms, she drew parallels to her first day at a privileged government-run college in New Delhi in 2014, when her classmates admonished her. Where they were eating was not a “canteen,” they said, but a “café.” 

“TikTok was a canteen; Instagram is a café,” said Kankaduri. “But the canteen has better food, and the café serves costly coffee that not everyone drinks.”

WatConsult’s Shah said that the changes have effectively shut people like the Mahtos out of the creator economy.

“Tier three and tier four [creators] have lost, again,” he said. “On Instagram, to get 30 million followers, you have to be a Deepika Padukone,” referring to India’s highest-paid actress.

Reels has grown dramatically since it launched in India. Instagram itself has 210 million active users there, who are uploading 6 million short videos daily. Several desi, or local, alternatives of TikTok, have also launched. The largest of those is ShareChat’s Moj, with 2.5 million videos uploaded per day. 

The short-video boom has helped boost the overall influencer economy. Rahul Vengalil, managing partner at agency Isobar India, told Rest of World that the share of marketing budget his clients devote to digital advertising has risen from 5% to 25%. Reels, unsurprisingly, is the home of premium brands like high-end skin care and accessories, Vengalil said — a break from TikTok, which would commonly feature ads for instant loans and cheap homewares.

But the India now reflected back in Reels — and, by extension, the majority of India’s short-video market — is unrecognizable to former TikTok stars and to many of the now-banned platform’s users. 

A year after the ban, Sanatan Mahto remembers going to the restaurant nearest his home. The waiter came to him, he said, and asked in a curious whisper: “Where are you hiding these days? Where are the videos, brother?”

“Instagram,” Sanatan replied, with a grin. “And what’s that?” the waiter responded.

Instagram’s dominance in the short-video market isn’t yet assured. The landscape continues to shift, with a reported re-emergence of Snapchat, and a rise in the popularity of YouTube.

In their village, the Mahto siblings are still visited by fans. A YouTube vlogger duo — who arrived dressed in tight jeans and neat shirts — drove 62 miles to meet them, unannounced, in August, when Rest of World visited. To produce a quick Reel, the duo asked if Sanatan would like to perform an “Alors on Danse” trend; Sanatan wasn’t sure what they meant. 

“I’m not able to connect with the songs in the trends on Instagram,” he later said, loitering on his pebbled porch, barefoot. “Samaj hi nahi aata hai.” (I cannot understand it.) 

The Mahtos have found some success on Instagram, with Sanatan collecting around 482,000 followers and Savitri 137,000. They upload vlogs to YouTube. Comments praise the “rawness” of their content. But when well-meaning followers suggest that Sanatan smarten up his appearance to better suit the new platforms, he objects. 

“I wanted to alter the idea that you are more than the [aesthetics]; you are what you do,” Sanatan said, rubbing his hands nervously. “But I think that’s not true.”

(Source: Rest of World)

Thursday 21 October 2021

Sex worker-turned-author basks in glory of Kerala film award

 Noting that experience makes a person strong and bold, she said it was plenty of her experiences-whether good or bad, that made her capable to fight all odds and reach this stage of life.

It has been over 15 years since Nalini Jameela shocked the conventional mindsets of the society and upset the patriarchy by penning a path-breaking autobiography on her daring and frightful life as a sex worker.

Since then, she has been enjoying several identities in life raging from a best selling author and activist to gender expert and social relationship counsellor and now at the age of 69, she is a recipient of the prestigious Kerala State Film Awards. Jameela adjudged the special jury mention for costume-design in the movie “Bharathapuzha”, directed by Manilal, when the state government awards were announced here on Saturday.

For Jameela, it was yet another unexpected twist which the life had in store for her and she was bold enough to say that the lessons she had drawn from her early life as a sex worker was her base for any new achievement. “The state award was really unexpected…It was for the first time in my life that I did costume designing for a movie. I cherish this honour as one of the greatest achievements in my life,” Jameela told PTI.

Asked whether she would like to build a career in costume designing, she said she was not sure whether any mainstream film makers or production houses would give her an opportunity and if anything comes her way, she would definitely give it a shot. (Express photo by Janak Rathod)

Noting that experience makes a person strong and bold, she said it was plenty of her experiences-whether good or bad, that made her capable to fight all odds and reach this stage of life. “Bharathapuzha revolves around the story of Sugandhi, a sex worker in her mid thirties, hailing from central Kerala district of Thrissur.

Actress Siji Pradeep played the central character in the woman-centric film, which deals with several gender issues.
“While chosing costumes for the character, I actually saw myself in her… me as a sex worker during my young age. I never used costly sarees or ornaments in life and I do not even like to wear a bindi. I tried to reflect those characteristics in the heroine’s physical persona,” she said.

Jameela also said while designing outfits for the heroine and helping her with the mannerisms and body language of a young sex worker, the dreadful memories of the grim past came flooding back.

“I spent days with the film crew, especially the heroine, to provide all support they needed. There were scenes in the film which I could relate with that of my life…,” the activist explained. It was her long-drawn friendship with Manilal, the director, that brought her to the tinsel world.

When he had discussed the project with her, Jameela never imagined that she would be entrusted with costume designing. But, she made up her mind to take up the new challenge and managed to complete the work as per the expectations of the filmmaker. “I worked according to my own perspectives. But, the happiest part was that the director was convinced about what i was trying to say.. He had given me the liberty to follow my mind while designing and selecting costumes,” the elderly woman added.

A third standard drop out, Jameela was forced into prostitution at a very tender age following the death of her husband who had succumbed to cancer. While running from pillar to post to look after her family and raise her two daughters, she had no option but to take up sex work as a profession- which the conventional society viewed as immoral and unethical. The years-long life as a sex worker, police brutality, attack by goons and endless physical tortures inflicted by “clients”, has only given Jameela an added energy to fight the hardships and shatter the taboo attached to sex workers.

Before turning a sex worker and started loitering in bus terminus and railway stations soliciting ‘customers’, she had worked in brick kilns and domestic help to earn daily bread for her near ones. When she published the ‘Autobiography of a Sex Worker” in the year 2005 after retiring from sex work, it fast turned out to be one of the best sellers of Malayalam besides kicking up a widespread debate on the plight of the hapless community.

After the first book had been translated into several languages including English, she came up with another one “Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker”, a memoir which revolves around the relationships she developed with the ‘clients’, in 2018. Besides being a member of several NGOs, she has also been working as a gender and social relationship counsellor and taking classes in colleges and universities on the subject.

Asked whether she would like to build a career in costume designing, she said she was not sure whether any mainstream film makers or production houses would give her an opportunity and if anything comes her way, she would definitely give it a shot.

She said the changed perspective and empathetic approach of the new generation towards sex workers and the LGBT people is a great solace for the community members. The 69-year-old woman also cherished a dream of bringing out the cinematic adaptation of her autobiography and setting up a care centre for elderly people. “Those who came from streets, worked in mud kilns and toiled in someone’s backyard as a domestic help will surely have a great strength and courage to fight the odds and shatter the taboos of this patriarchal society,” Jameela concluded.

(Source: Indian Express)

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Was the Ramayana actually set in and around today’s Afghanistan?

 An examination of a book by physicist Rajesh Kochhar debunks the notion that the events of the epic took place in modern-day India.

History is said to be the original discipline in the faculties today known as humanities. This is owing to the fact that every discipline in knowledge discourse has a history – even abstract disciplines like mathematics or astronomy – and every piece of history has a geophysical contextuality.

Ever since Herodotus (484 BC - 425 BC, Greek-occupied Turkey) started the discipline, he recorded events during the reign of four Persian kings and chronicled life and society in their times. These were times of conflict between Greece and Persia and had a geographical contextuality.

Herodotus also speaks of “India”, where he saw the Himalayan marmot bathing in gold dust. Much later, deconstructing his text led to the conclusion that the great father of historical praxis must have passed through the North West Frontier province and reached the base of Hindu Kush.

This posed a question, which Herodotus did not ask himself: if he had indeed travelled to “India”, which “India” was this? For that matter, if he was “Greek”, which “Greece” did he live in? Similarly. if Ram of the epic poem Ramayana was an “Indian”, where was this “India” situated?

Wikimedia Commons

The so-called Ram Setu
A ship that wishes to sail from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal has to pass through the Indian Ocean to the south of Sri Lanka. The voyage would have been 30 hours shorter if it could have travelled along the Gulf Of Mannar, which separates India and Sri Lanka, but this isn’t possible. For there are thousands of small submerged rocks beneath its surface, stretching like a bridge across 47 km between the two countries. As a result, the sea is between one and 30 metre deep here, which isn’t favourable for sailing.

The British government of colonised India as well the government of independent India had often planned to dredge the channel to make it suitable for sailing; but the plans have remained elusive for various reasons. At present, for instance, Hindutva followers believe that this is the bridge built by an army of monkeys, as described in the Ramayana, which Ram and Lakshaman crossed to conquer Sri Lanka.

Their demand is that, far from dredging, let the Archaeological Survey of India declare this bridge a national monument. Not that the colonisers were any less fundamentalist. In 1804 a certain British cartographer named the structure Adam’s Bridge – according to him this was the bridge described in the Bible which Adam crossed to scale a mountain peak, where he meditated for 1,000 years while standing on one leg.

Even before this, we have seen Marco Polo describe the structure as a bridge, as did Al-Biruni in the book he wrote in 1030 CE. In other words, it has long been held that this row of rocks beneath the surface of the water is a bridge.

Not exactly a bridge
According to geologists this structure is actually a limestone shoal, the outcome of natural processes. Between 300 and 30 million years ago, a portion of the Indian subcontinent is believed to have broken off because of continental drift to form the island of Sri Lanka. The debris that this fragment of land left behind at birth in the water as it drifted away led to the creation of this so-called bridge.

It may have jutted out of the water at some point in history, in which case it might have been used as a bridge. But there is considerable doubt whether the users belonged to the age of the Ramayana. This is because the inhabitants of Sri Lanka went directly from the Stone Age to the Iron Age; the use of copper was not very prevalent here. On the other hand, the Ramayana is a tale from an advanced Copper Age – an epic in verse from a period two or three thousand years before the Iron Age.

Where was Ramayana set?
Let us drop the preamble and get to the point now. If the Lanka mentioned in the Ramayana was not the Sri Lanka of today, where was it located? Where did Ram belong, for that matter? Wherever he may have lived, he was certainly not an inhabitant of what is the Ganges valley today, or of “Ramjanmabhoomi” Ayodhya. For, civilised man did not live in the forest-infested Ganges valley before the Iron Age, since there were no axes with which to clear the vegetation before iron was discovered. There were no swords either, which proves that the Ramayana, unlike the Mahabaharata, is not an epic of the Ganges valley. It makes no mention of swords – the bow and arrow are the primary weapons in it.

The primary objective of this essay is to point to the geographical location of the Ramayana. It is not the writer who has arrived at the answer, nor an Indologist like Max Mueller or even a historian or archaeologist. The person in question is Rajesh Kochhar, a physicist with an inclination for history, who has broken through the traditional techniques of history in his work The Vedic People – Their History and Geography.

How the Ramayana is different from the Mahabharata
The primary difficulty of discussing the ancient history of India lies in the necessity of first demolishing several well-established inaccuracies, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory, for instance. Spun by white men and broadcast by colonial historians, this old wives’ tale is still taught in schools and colleges, with half of any written work – measured in terms of paper, ink and effort - being expended on it. We shall not entertain it. We will only examine whatever can be determined through the social and geographical pointers available in the Ramayana.

There are two other fundamental differences between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – in the rivers and in the divine pantheon. In the Mahabharata the Ganga and the Yamuna are almost ubiquitous, but they’re completely missing from the Ramayana. In the Mahabharata we see the powerful presence of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar – but they’re absent from the Ramayana. We do not find these two rivers and these three gods together in the Rig Veda.

However, the rivers and gods that are to be found in the Rig Veda are also to be found in the Ramayana – the rivers Saraswati and Sarayu, and the original trinity of Agni, Varun and Pavan. From this it is easy to surmise that the Ramayana is a Rig Vedic epic. Which period was this? It would not be correct to estimate this using our current calendar: it would probably not be possible either. An approximation can be made from the sequence of events.

The somras clue
Vedic nomads travelled from the Eastern Europe to Bactria (present day Afghanistan). From here they went to Persia (today’s Iran). During their migration to Persia there was probably a battle for power amongst the gods, which led to the birth of the Avestan religion. As a result, Indra, the king of gods, became an inferior figure in the Avesta, while Yama, the god of death, turned into the finest of the gods. Worshipping Agni is a prominent practice within the Parsi community, but Hindus do not worship this ancient god. This indicates that the Rig Vedic age predated Persia. Kochhar has provided clues to whether this was the Afghan branch of the Vedic journey.

The first such clue that Kochhar alludes to is the Vedic drink somras. It was so important in ancient Vedic life that an entire mandala or chapter of the Rig Veda has been devoted to it. The importance of soma is evident in the Avestan Zend scripture – it is referred to as haoma in Persia. It is seen that the closer the Vedic nomads get to the Indian peninsula, the more they seek continuously new alternatives to the soma plant; that was how important somras was.

But the original soma plant was to be found only in what is modern day Afghanistan and Persia or Iran. In 1951 the German historian Karl Friedrich Geldner proved that the ephedra plant was what was described as soma in the Rig Veda. Ephedrin or somras is not alcohol – this intoxicant is an alkaloid. Kochhar’s investigations led to the discovery of four varieties of ephedra, found in Afghanistan, Iran, the northern Himalayas, and the Hindu Kush.

What we learn from summer solstice
There are 49 cosmic hymns in the Rig and the Yajur Vedas whose meanings have not been explained. But one particular hymn from Vedanga Jyotish informs us that the longest day of the year, or summer solstice, comprised 18 periods of daylight and 12 of night. Day and night are of equal length on the Equator; in the higher latitudes, summer days are longer than nights.

The latitude at which the proportion of daylight and darkness is 3:2 is 34 degrees North. It is worth noting that the cities to be found around this latitude today are Herat and Kabul in Afghanistan. In other words, the place and time of the composition of the Vedanga Jyotish is the same as that of Vedic Afghanistan and Iran. This second piece of evidence offered by Rajesh Kochhar further strengthens the perception of the location and time of the Rig Veda.

In search of the rivers
Kochhar has deconstructed the Rig Veda in search of the Saraswati and the Sarayu, the two rivers also mentioned in the Ramayana. Here too our current history has come in the way.

There is a tiny river named the Sarayu in Uttar Pradesh, which flows into the Ghaghara, which in turn merges with the Ganga. Many people consider the rainwater-fed Saraswati in the Aravallis, flowing along the Ghaggar (not to be confused with the Ghaghara) basin the mythical Saraswati. On viewing the scans of North-Western India made by the Russian Landsat satellite between 1972 and ’79, it is natural to assume that the Ghaggar was a wide river. It flows into the Rann of Kutch.

The scan reveals the basin of a dried up older river, which is up to 8 km broad in some places. It was this that led to the hasty conclusion of this basin’s belonging to the original Saraswati.

From Neil Roberts’s The Holocene it is clear that the basin of this river widened to the north of the Rann of Kutch because of the accelerated movement of a glacier during the previous Ice Age. But deconstructing the Rig Veda doesn’t suggest any of this. The Saraswati has been referred to as non-perennial towards the end of the Veda. The original stream of the Ghaggar enters India from present-day Pakistan, drying up in the Thar desert. Kochhar believes this is the non-perennial Saraswati.

However, the Saraswati of the Rig Veda is extremely powerful, grinding rocks with sheer force. Its roar subsumes all other sounds. And the Sarayu of the Rig Veda is immensely wide and deep, the mother river. None of these descriptions matches the actual rivers in present-day India with those names.

Hymn No. 5 | 53 | 9 of the Rig Veda says, “May the Rasa, Krumu, Anitabh, Kuva or Sindhu not be able to stop you; let the deep Sarayu not be an obstacle.” The order of the rivers clearly moves from east to west. So the Sarayu undoubtedly flows to the west of the Indus.

Kochhar believes it is the 650-km river known as the Hari-Rud in Afghanistan, whose source is in the Hindu Kush mountains. It flows past the city of Herat and then for 100 km along the Iran-Afghanistan border before disappearing in the Karakom desert of Central Asia.

In the Avesta we find the Saraswati as the Harahaiti – the similarity in sound is noticeable – which enters Iran along the combined basin of the river Arghandar on the Afghan-Iran border and the river Helmand. According to Kochhar, it is this Helmand that is the Vedic Saraswati river.

The source of the Helmand is in the Koh-i-Baba mountain range. Flowing for 1,300 miles through the heart of Afghanistan, the Vedic Saraswati joins the Vedic Drijadbati or Arghandar. The Avesta identifies this wide river as the Hetumanta (or, in varations, as Setumanta). In Iran the Saraswati is named the Harahaiti, which flows into the inland lake Hamun-e-Sabari in the Saistan area of northern Iran.

The conclusion
The political map of the ancient world, of the Copper Age, provides an extraordinary realisation. The kingdoms of the two main political powers – the Persians and the Greeks – all lie between and around the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. None of these is a coastal civilisation, however.

This raises a question. What did ancient man refer to as a sea? The Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Campian Sea are all saltwater lakes, and not seas in the way we understand them today. This make us wonder: perhaps the Lanka of the Ramayana was an island in the Hamun-e-Sabri.

The one thing that’s obvious: wherever it was that Ram and Lakshman went from Afghanistan, it could not have been to present-day Sri Lanka, for that would have meant crossing the Indian peninsula. And since Ravana, the lord of Lanka, was also partial to somras, it is unlikely that he went very far from the land of soma after abducting Sita.

Although it is not possible to prove archaeologically, there is considerable reason to assume that the lineage of Dasarath (and of Ram), the Ikshvakus, were from western Afghanistan. For the Puranas say that King Kubalasa slayed a demon on the shore of the Sabari. Vishwamitra received his second birth where the Saraswati met the sea. And Valmiki discovered Sita on the shore of the Sarayu. This is why there is little room for doubt that today’s Hamun-e-Sabri is the sea mentioned in the Ramayana, one of the islands in which was the kingdom ruled by Ravana, lord of the rakshases.

The focus of attention for those studying the lost history of India is the contentious issue raised by Hindutva historians, who have repeatedly asserted that western historians have been unable to identify the roots of ancient India. We find these assertions in the writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, as well as in those of certain lesser-known right-wing historians. It is surprising how easily conclusions unsupported by the array of Vedic texts can be arrived at because of mindless adherence to a popular brand of politics.

The rock formation between India and Sri Lanka could well be preserved, but not as Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge. Let it be protected as a geological feature. For no matter how far one looks, no relationship is evident between this Lanka and the Lanka of the Ramayana.

(Source: Scroll)

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Kerala spends Rs 5.4 crore yearly to give pension to royal family members

 No system in place to check their economic status and eligibility now, says govt official

The social security pensions doled out by the state government are not only meant for the marginalised poor in the state, but also for members of the erstwhile royal families though there is no mechanism to check whether they are eligible for these anymore. On average, the state government spends around Rs 5.4 crore annually to give allowances and pensions for the members of the erstwhile royal families in Kerala. 

During the 2020-21 fiscal, the state distributed Rs 5.40 crore as family and political pensions to members of the families belonging to 37 royal families in the state, including Travancore, Kochi, and Kozhikode Zamorin. The general administration department data tabled in the assembly reveals that since 2013, 876 members of Kozhikode Zamorin royal family received a total of Rs 19.51 crore in family and political pensions. This is apart from the pension titled Malikhan being provided to the members of royal families of former princely states of Malabar (part of British India) by the Centre.  

Image used for representational purpose only

“Even when the state government has been going ahead with the proposal to hold a socio-economic survey among the forward communities to assess the weaker sections among them, there is no system in place to assess the actual economic position of the members of the royal families or check whether they are eligible to draw the pension now like other sections of society,” said a senior officer. The worst part is that even those who are financially well off in the royal families are getting these pensions.

Though the pension or allowance of a member of Zamorin royal family is Rs 2,500 per month, the government, in 2017, increased it to Rs 3,000 for all members of the Travancore and Kochi royal families, who were eligible for the pension as on July 1, 1949 (as per the revenue department’s order on August 29, 1969). The royal family members are granted pension on the basis of the criteria in the 1969 order. Similarly, the amount of allowance or pension for different royal families varies on the basis of certain parameters.

PTA Rahim, who raised the issue in the assembly through a question, told TNIE, “There has been a campaign among some Muslim radical organisations that the LDF government has been giving away pension and perks to members of royal families in Kerala, especially Zamorin royal family. But the fact is that the previous UDF government had issued an order in 2013 that the members belonging to the Zamorin royal family, who wilfully handed over their properties to the government after the formation of the state, should be granted family and political pensions.”

Pension/allowances given to royal families in 2020-21

Kozhikode Zamorin family: Rs 2,46,25,000
Allowances for Travancore royal family: Rs 40,23,120
Allowances for families of ex-rulers (pension): Rs 2,36,40,999
Pension for palace pensioners of former Maharaja of Cochin: Rs 15,96,534
Allowances for ruling family of Cochin (pensioners): Rs 1,17,000
Total: Rs 5,40,02,653

(Source: TNIE)

Monday 18 October 2021

‘No one person gets to limit what it means to be Indian’: Namit Arora, author of ‘Indians’

To write his book, Arora travelled to the seats of the different civilisations of India.

An alumnus of IIT, Kharagpur, Namit Arora spent almost two decades in Silicon Valley as an Internet technology professional. In 2013, he quit his job and returned to India and, almost for two years, he volunteered with the Delhi government to find innovative solutions to civic problems; he led the drafting of Delhi’s solar energy policy and a task force on air pollution. In between, he published two books, The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, a non-fiction, and Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley, a novel set in Silicon Valley.

Arora’s third book is about Indian civilization, titled Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization. He spoke to about his journey from tech professional to author, his latest book, and how he looks at the idea of Indianness. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us something about your journey from a career in internet technology to becoming a published author of two non-fiction books and a novel. What inspired Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization?
I was herded into the “safe” engineering profession by the great forces of the Indian middle-class. Not that I desired something else in my teens. It was actually good for me in many ways. It took me from IIT Kharagpur to California. Earnings from my career funded my wanderlust and evening education in the humanities. But I did see it mostly as a day job that paid the bills.

In the early years, as with most aspiring writers, I too faced my share of rejections in the publishing world, but I lived and learned, and built a nest egg. In due course, I quit the job, returned to India, and persevered until, fortunately, things worked out. Ironically, it was my unloved tech career that financed my new life of full-time reading, writing, travelling and the sporadic volunteer project like drafting the solar energy policy for Delhi – not to mention my labour of love, Indians.

My interest in history really began after leaving India, when life in the US raised for me various questions of culture and identity. In my mid-twenties, backpacking through Mexico in the early 1990s, I was blown away by the ruins of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations. That got me hooked on “lost cities”, or historical sites that were entirely lost to living memory and were dug out by archaeologists. I’ve since visited scores of lost cities around the world.

In the mid-2000s, my partner and I took a break from work to travel in India for two years. That was an amazing experience. We visited over a hundred sites in 20 states, including all of the lost cities I write about in Indians. Each of them raised new questions for me whose answers I could not easily find.

Namit Arora at the site of Nalanda University.

For instance, I wondered what life was like in the city of Dholavira, and what of the Harappan ethos is still with us. What urban milieu produced a great thinker like Nagarjuna? What was a day in the life of a student at Nalanda? What religious worldview promoted erotica on Khajuraho’s temple walls, and why did it disappear? How did the city of Vijayanagar become so rich? Can scoundrels also gain moksha after death in Varanasi? Questions like these.

So I started digging for answers, from which emerged the idea for a book like Indians. I read early travellers and literary-philosophical works, academic histories and monographs, Bahujan and feminist scholars, and Hindu nationalists. I visited site museums and read archaeologists’ reports. I wrote book reviews, essays and travelogues. As I connected the dots, the scope of the project evolved.

What was the transition to the history of Indian civilisation after writing a novel, Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley?
It wasn’t difficult. Though the novel and the history book were published within eighteen months of each other, both books had gestated for over a decade. They proceeded in parallel and became two different modes through which I explored questions of culture and identity, with the hope of gaining a better understanding of my world and my place in it.

The dust jacket of your new book says ‘Indian civilisation is an idea, a reality, an enigma.’ Can you elaborate on this statement?
I think the statement tries to capture the varied, mutating quality of Indian civilisation. Its reality is, of course, borne out by any academic definition of “civilisation”, even as its form and content have never been stagnant or singular. 

Indeed, Indian civilisation has been a journey of profound and continuous change – from the Harappans who built the first cities with indoor toilets and the most egalitarian civilisation of the ancient world, through the dramatic reshaping of the subcontinent’s culture by the Aryan migrants with new languages, religious ideas and the varna system, the rise and fall of Buddhism and Tantrism, the advent of feudalism and Bhakti, and the Turko-Persians bringing Islam and giving rise to a new syncretic culture, to India’s momentous encounter with European colonialism and western modernity.

Not surprisingly, then, Indian civilisation has been different things to different people. For instance, there is no historical evidence that Brahmins and outcastes, or urbanites and Adivasis, or priests and Carvakas, or sultans and peasants, or Tamils and Mizos, took pride in a common idea of Indian civilisation – and is there a good reason to privilege one over the other? Can it not contain many such ideas? With so many coexisting social realities, Indian civilisation is also an enigma that has produced various, often conflicting, appraisals of its central features and qualities. People joke that India frequently confounds academic social science. To adapt Whitman, Indian civilisation is large, it contains multitudes. So it’s all of these at once: idea, reality, enigma.

Different sets of people describe and define ‘Indianness’ in different ways. How do you look at the idea of Indian identity? What according to you are the basic qualifications for being an Indian?
As I see it, anyone who considers herself an Indian is Indian. Period. There should be no further litmus tests, no additional qualifications. “Indianness”, or “Indian identity”, which transcends the citizenship of the modern state, ought to be expansive enough to accommodate all those who consider themselves Indian in whatever ways they see fit, wherever they live. No one person or group gets to limit what it means to be Indian, at least not without a fight. As the poet Rahat Indori memorably said, “Kisi Ke Baap Ka Hindustan Thodi Hai”.

Many books have been written about the history of Indian civilisation by Indians as well as foreigners. How is your book different from them?
I think each reader will see my book as different (or not) in her own way. That said, let me offer a few provisional thoughts of my own. I’d say that Indians is rare in combining narrative history with archaeological travel writing. It’s a non-traditional history. It aims for an engaging, human portrait of our lost cities, in which the traveller (me) is part of the narrative.

It also draws new insights from early travellers’ accounts that speak to our 21st century concerns and sensibilities. In short, it tries to bring alive our forgotten pasts in rich and evocative detail, combining quirky stories with the big picture of Indian civilisation and its evolution. It strives to include non-elite perspectives – the view from below – rare in histories written by non-Indians and upper-caste Indians. Nor do I shrink from controversial topics or avoid calling a spade a spade. It also incorporates significant new research from archaeology and genetics.

According to American historian Hayden White, ‘history is no less a form of fiction than the novel is a form of historical representation’. How do you interpret this statement?
What I hear White saying is that, as narrative forms, history and fiction have more in common than meets the eye. This is a compelling view, though it can be easily misunderstood. I mean, one might object and point out that the historical narrative is built on facts and verifiable events, while the fictional narrative requires nothing more than subjective human experience and imagination, and so these are two very different kinds of endeavours.

But facts are one thing, their interpretation another. Facts alone do not necessarily make the narrative of history more truthful than the narrative of fiction. Indeed, fiction can often reveal our past and present more truthfully and vividly than what facts alone can convey. This is because both types of narratives must also employ significant interpretation – ie, subjective moral and aesthetic choices and judgments – which is what makes them similar forms.

A corollary is that a great historian has much in common with a literary master. Both must attempt to enter the society they reference, to see the world as its members saw it, and understand, to the extent possible, what it was like to live in it. Both require ample sensitivity, imagination, depth of perception, the right distance, and the ability to synthesise vast bits of social knowledge. Both must examine the psychology, morals, aspirations, and assumptions of ordinary people. Neither can claim to be an impartial or omniscient narrator, and so both history and fiction are subjective, value-laden enterprises sharing a family resemblance.

You present insights in your book from the accounts of the Persian traveller, Alberuni, and the French traveller, François Bernier. Both spent more than a decade in India and wrote extensively about their experiences. How do you compare their views about India?
Alberuni visited India between 1017 and 1030, when Mahmud of Ghazni was raiding wealthy temples. Bernier stayed from 1658-69, during Aurangzeb’s first decade as emperor in Delhi. They are two of the most fascinating and perceptive observers of medieval north Indian society. Both espoused a scientific temper and a humanistic ethos. 

Both admired many things Indian but also criticised other things. They each wrote near the eve of a major incursion from outside the subcontinent – Turko-Persian and European, respectively. Like any observer, they too had their biases and blind spots (which I discuss), but they’re still very informative about two different moments in Indian society.

Alberuni, a veritable polymath, had emerged from a great flowering of science and cosmopolitan culture centred in Persia. He despised Mahmud and condemned his raids. He learned Sanskrit in India, studied the major Indian religious, philosophical and scientific texts, translated some into Arabic, and sought out learned Brahmins to clarify his doubts. He praised earlier Indian achievements in mathematics and science, but noted the dismal state of science in contemporary India (for instance, unlike Aryabhata half a millennium earlier, leading Indian astronomers now held that the earth did not rotate on its axis but was at rest).

Caste made a powerful impression on Alberuni. He saw that such birth-based inequalities and segregated living, sustained by both religious scriptures and temporal laws, prevented social solidarity and a sense of common cause. He called it the chief difference between Indians and his own people. He hated the caste mindset of the elites. It bothered him that learned Indians did not mingle with foreigners like him – refusing to sit, eat, and drink with him – for fear of being “polluted”. He saw this as a kind of “fanaticism”, and called them more “narrow-minded” than their ancestors.

Alberuni’s extensive account confirms that on the eve of the Turko-Persian invasions, Indian society wasn’t exactly the picture of intellectual and moral vigour that many now fondly imagine it to have been. India’s intellectual culture had declined in the preceding centuries; it had fallen behind in science. Buddhism and Tantrism were in terminal decline, Bhakti and Brahminical orthodoxy were ascendant. Indians had grown more insular, conservative, superstitious, caste-bound, puritanical and patriarchal (I explore this change and its causes in the book).

Such “is the state of things in India”, Alberuni lamented, that Brahmins attempt to combine ideas of purity and pollution with the pursuit of science. He also described and analysed Indian texts, marital and funerary customs, taxation and inheritance, laws and punishments, etc – which frequently differed based on one’s varna status. His portrait of north India is so thoughtful and persuasive that he deserves to be called the “first Indologist”.

As for Bernier, he was a physician-philosopher who identified with the emerging Enlightenment thought in Europe. He greatly admired the fine architecture of Delhi and Agra. Employed by one of Aurangzeb’s noblemen, he observed the pomp and glitter of the Mughal court, “the base and disgusting adulation which is invariably witnessed there” and “the vice of flattery [that] pervades all ranks”.

He derided harmful superstitions, the practice of Sati fuelled by “merciless Brahmens” but discouraged by Mughal governors, and noted the primitive state of Indian medicine. Indians “understand nothing of anatomy,” he wrote. “They never open the body either of man or beast,” so do not know of the circulation of blood (working with bodily fluids was “polluting”). According to Bernier, Hindu scholastic education in its customary guru-shishya format, which he observed in Varanasi, was limited to mostly Brahmin men of “an indolent disposition”. He proclaimed that ‘”profound and universal ignorance is the natural consequence of such a state of society”.

Bernier’s account reveals a powerful, extractive bureaucracy concentrating riches at the top, funding a huge army and the luxuries of Indian aristocrats and the seraglio. This malady went beyond the Mughal realm. He reports extreme disparities and that “most towns in Hindoustan are made up of earth, mud, and other wretched materials”, and are poorer “than those of many other parts of the globe” (then too, India’s per capita GDP was below the global average).

Bernier analysed the causes of the dismal economic state of common folk in pre-colonial India – worse than in Europe, and a far cry from popular history’s boosterish metaphor, sone ki chidiya. As in Alberuni’s time, Bernier’s account shows Indians, especially Hindus, as creatively weak, ritualistic, mired in regressive cultural habits – and, in hindsight, entirely ill-equipped to resist the next big incursion too: a European imperialism powered by modernity, joint-stock mercantilism, the nation-state, science and scholarship (which would also lead them to discover, through the coloniser’s eyes, their own forgotten antiquity).

In his recent book, Early Indians, Tony Joseph, whose work you also quote in your book, argues, ‘We are all migrants. We are all mixed.’ What is your take on this statement?
Tony’s claim is spot on, not only in terms of physical migration and the mixing of genes; it’s also true with the migration and mixing of culture. Whatever the means, cultural diffusion across regions, ethnicities, languages, religions, traders, etc has been a prominent feature of Indian life. Think of what the Aryans from Central Asia added to Indian languages, the Greeks to art, the Persians to architecture, the Sufis to music, the British to politics, and so on.

The Hindu pantheon grew out of extreme cultural appropriation and assimilation of non-Vedic folk deities. Look at how mixed our art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music, dance, cuisine, sports, dress, painting, and crafts are today. And Indians gave much to others too. The depth and complexity of such mixing becomes even more vivid in the long view of history that I take in my book.

Can you talk to us about your visits to Dholavira? How has it contributed to the understanding of Harappan civilisation?
Dholavira (2600-1900 BCE) is the best excavated Harappan city in India. It is a lovely site to wander through, with gateways, streets and homes laid out on a grid-like plan. Astonishingly, one can still find on the ground shards of their painted pottery, bits of stone bangles, and semi-precious stones used to make jewellery. One can see greenish copper slag from the smelting process for purifying the ore, as well as the tiny bones of some of the animals Dholavirans ate: cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, wild pigs, wild asses, deer, fish, rabbit and chicken.

The onsite museum has evocative game boards carved on stone, children’s toys, figurines, seals, pottery, and more. The village of Dholavira, after which the Harappan city is named, is a short walk away, and the landscape around the island is starkly picturesque.

All Harappan sites have much in common but they spanned a large geography and are also diverse. Unlike the four larger Harappan cities we know of, riverine and rain-blessed, Dholavira was on an arid island in the Arabian Sea (it’s now amidst a salt marsh, the Great Rann of Kutch). Because of this, its inhabitants focused a lot more on capturing water.

They built amazing water harvesting systems, city-wide storm-water drains, and sixteen giant reservoirs, one of which is nine times larger than an Olympic sized swimming pool and a hundred times larger than the Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro. They surrounded the city centre with reservoirs, which must have made a visually appealing sight.

Most of Dholavira’s structures were built not in mud-brick, the Harappan norm, but in stone, including beautiful multihued stones from a nearby quarry that I visited. Dholavira has turned up what may be the world’s first stadium, with a stand of three rows. Its trade and material culture were more maritime than riverine, and it was likely a leader in Harappan seafaring innovations. Its funerary structures also differ from other Harappan cities in largely being cenotaphs, devoid of human remains, suggesting different cultural beliefs.

Dholavirans had other distinctive cultural attributes, but their major legacy seems to me their incredible creativity, resolve and engineering acumen ,through which they managed their scarce water resources for many centuries. They waged an epic struggle against the elements. Will we, their descendants, be inspired by them and rouse ourselves to tackle climate change?

Are you planning a follow-up to Indians?
No concrete plans yet. I’m just making my way through a pile of books that had built up while I was working on Indians. I also lost my father to Covid this year during the second wave, which has been very unsettling. Perhaps a new book project, for which I have at least a couple of candidates, will emerge in due course.

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic and banker. His debut novel Patna Blues has been translated into eight languages. 

(Source: Scroll)