Behind the Shadows - A Review by Anchita Ghatak

November 7th, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Women No Comments »

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Do you roll your eyes in horror every time you speak to a call centre executive? Emmanuel Sigauke in his story entitled Call Centre takes us into the world of these frontline soldiers of the twenty first century globalised market economy. In a call centre in California, a Zimbabwean is mocked by a customer for his accent and abused as an Indian, a terrorist and then bin Laden. Borders dissolve and identities collide as the call centre employee tries to deal with arrogance and ignorance.

Behind the Shadows is an anthology of African and Asian short stories in English, born out of a meeting between writers, Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner. In March 2011, Chowdhury and Wanner, with the objective of bringing together the two continents of Africa and Asia, sent out a call for stories with the theme outcast, to be interpreted by the writers as they pleased. The writers could be from Africa or Asia, or in the Diaspora, but it was necessary that their stories deal with the theme as experienced by Africans and/or Asians. The result is a collection of twenty one compelling stories from the two continents. The stories are all originally written in English. At present, this anthology is only available as an e-book.

Nandini Lal writes of the melting pot that is the United States of America – where people of different nations and races live together. But does a change of location result in greater acceptance or tolerance? Maybe it does. However, prejudice and ignorance can live side by side with acceptance, protectiveness and understanding. Stereoptypical notions of child-adult dynamics, child-adult relationships and man-woman interactions result in a terrible wrong. Lal’s story is an exploration of the fact that ignorance and prejudice are not just part of the psyche of the majority. Minorities – immigrants in this story - also distrust immigrants from a community or race other than their own.

Behind the Shadows pulls out things not often talked about. Philip Begho writes of tribal conventions that can’t dissolve in urban anonymity. Several stories in the collection deal with traditional ideas about life, health, disease and death and their interaction with modernity. In Maroko Outcast, we see how a self declared progressive man, who has himself railed against the caste system, becomes a prey to deeply ingrained prejudice. In Cape Farm No 432, Jayne Bauling writes of the Leprosy Repression Act of 1892( South Africa), where state intervention in leprosy created a situation where people with the disease were treated like criminals instead of getting the care and compassion they deserved. Himanjali Sankar, on the other hand, weaves an amusing tale about the interactions amongst the world of the dead and that of the living in Granny’s Parapsychological Services.

Tasneem Basha’s story gives the collection its name and talks about wife beating in an Indian South African family. Maryam is battered mercilessly by her husband Yusuf and also treated with contempt by his mother and other relatives. However, Maryam finally decides to put an end to her life as a punching bag and become a person instead. 

Cast Out by Sucharita Dutta Asane focuses on prejudice that is intrinsic to India. She writes of a village that can be accessed by mobile phones and television cameras, yet is fiercely misogynist. Girl babies are routinely killed and buried in the village but neither the villagers nor the television journalists, who occasionally turn up in the village, seem to think that this killing of baby girls should be discussed and something done to stop it. A menstruating woman polluting the temple seems a matter of much greater concern. In a story focused on menstrual taboos, it was disconcerting to see the phrase ‘menstrual cycle’ used to mean ‘menstrual period’. Surely better attention could have been paid to terminology?

The Last Rhino in Mutare looks at the tumultuous politics of Zimbabwe through a little girl’s eyes. Delia wonders about the white women who never gave a thought to the true name of things. Child she might be but she has an astute view of racism. Many events play in the background and Delia makes her own world with Ronald, Gift and Ichabod. Who is the outcast here - a child in search of harmony or the adults who are overturning her world?

The collection introduces the writers in a delightfully lighthearted way. Behind the Shadows doesn’t make any claims of being representative. The use of the terms, African and Asian, nonetheless, raises expectations. From Africa, we have stories from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. It is disappointing that Asia is represented largely by India and there are two (one and a half?) stories from Singapore.

This is an anthology that should be read widely. I am not sure how accessible e-books and especially Kindle editions are to readers in Africa and Asia. The unique collective of editors and writers that has put this book together will have to find ways to overcome technological barriers and work to ensure that the book reaches an eager, international readership.

Anchita Ghatak is a development professional who works on issues of poverty and rights. She has also translated Dayamoyeer Katha into English (A Life Long Ago).

 

Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors: Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99

On amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080606&sr=8-4&keywords=zukiswa+wanner

For UK readers:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080680&sr=8-4

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A Special Friendship …and a Special Book

October 1st, 2012 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Africa, Books, India, Short Stories, Women No Comments »

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They say that love happens when we least expect it. Well, that is true of friendship too. It was on the 28th of March, 2010, that I first wrote to South African writer Zukiswa Wanner. I didn’t know anything about her except what the British Council had told me when they asked if I would ‘buddy’ her during the London Book Fair that April. They had ‘matched’ us together  – according to our ‘literary accomplishments’. As it turned out, the match was a match of minds, and one which has turned into one of the most enriching friendships of my life.

We met first at Zukiswa’s hotel, and then she came home for a meal. I don’t remember what I had cooked or what we ate – but I do remember that we talked. And talked. And talked. And have been talking ever since. We talk books and children, men and marriage, love and life.  We’ve seen each other through good times and bad, we’ve laughed and cried together, and picked each other up when we were down. She has become a part of the fabric of my life, my sister from across the seas.

And through the weave of our friendship runs a magic thread – our common passion for writing. Words are the music of our lives, and writing our joy, our salvation and yes, even our livelihood! It didn’t take us long to recognize this passion in each other, and very soon we both knew we wanted to work with each other. We liked the way the other spoke, we liked the way the other wrote, and most of all, we liked the way the other THOUGHT!

So began our discussions on creating a piece of work together. We talked about a novel – each writing separate bits to make up a whole; we talked about a collection of tales, some by Zukiswa, some by me, that we could weave into a collection – and then one day we had it! Why limit ourselves to us when the whole world lay out there, waiting to be included? And so we thought of an anthology of stories, written by writers across the world, selected and edited by us; a collection that would bring together our two continents of Africa and Asia, with their shared history and shared humanity. The theme  – ‘outcast’– presented itself quite naturally to us: with apartheid in South Africa, and caste in India, and discrimination against women practised in both cultures.

And when we sent out the call for short stories, we were overwhelmed by the response. Clearly, the theme resonated with many  - not just across Africa and Asia, but across the world.  More than two hundred writers responded to our call from  Hongkong and Singapore to India, Egypt and the USA.  More than a hundred and fifty sent in their stories. Zukiswa and I spent several months reading and re-reading the stories and making our selection. Then came the sometimes tedious, but always fulfilling task of editing, of the stories flying back and forth between us and the writers for tweaks and cleaning up. And at long last, the manuscript was ready.

The twenty-one stories that we have chosen are the ones that touched us most. They deal with love and hope, despair and darkness, and despite the sombre theme, some of them even made us laugh.

 

Behind the Shadows, Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia

Available to buy and download as an e-book on Amazon ‘s Kindle store:

Behind the Shadows
Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia
Editors:  Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner

US$ 4.99

The title, Behind the Shadows, is from one of the short stories in the collection by writer Tasneem Basha. The collection also includes Penguin-shortlisted author Isabella Morris; Caine Prize-shortlisted writer Lauri Kubuitsile; renowned Singaporean Young Artist Award recipient, author and poet, Felix Cheong; and emerging Indian writers Rumjhum Biswas, Monideepa Sahu, and Sucharita Dutta-Asane.

On amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080606&sr=8-4&keywords=zukiswa+wanner

For UK readers:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1349080680&sr=8-4

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A Visit to Mughal India

January 20th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Agra, Delhi, India, The Mughals 1 Comment »

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The story of the Mughals of India is a story so exciting that it is difficult to know how to tell it. How should I begin? Should I begin with Babur’s invasion, the two great battles that he fought and won against all odds and which led to the establishment of one of the greatest empires in history? Or should I begin with Babur himself, soldier, statesman, conqueror, emperor, and, in the words of the historian Percival Spear, ‘a poet and man of letters, of sensibility and taste and humour as well.’

The Mughal period in India is characterised by superlative achievement in all fields of human endeavour - in empire-building, in statesmanship, politics and administration, in trade and commerce, in art and music and architecture, in literature and poetry. It is a period that is made even more fascinating by the richness of its personalities - the emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar; the queens and princesses, Hamida Banu, Maryam, Nur Jahan, Jahanara, who held their own with the emperors even in that age of seclusion and purdah; the courtiers, ministers, poets, musicians, Birbal, Todar Mal, Abul Fazl, Tansen, whose stories are told to children even today.

Interestingly, the term ‘Mughal’ is a term the emperors would have shuddered to have applied to them. The Persian term, pronounced ‘Mughul’ in Persia and ‘Mughal’ in India, referred broadly to people of Central Asia who spoke the Mongol languages. Babur never considered himself to be one of ‘the Mughal (Mongol) hordes’, whom he looked upon as barbarians. He traced his descent from Timur on his father’s side, and Chingiz Khan on his mother’s, and in Uzbekistan, Babur’s home, the dynasty called themselves Chaghtai, descended from Chaghta, the son of Chingiz - which made them the elite among the Mongols. Though the term was in use to describe the dynasty from as early as the sixteenth century, it was made popular only with the advent of the Europeans, who felt no great need to be aware of the nuances of the term or the sensibilities of the emperors.

It is impossible to tell the full story of Mughal India here. Instead, let me take you on the journey I took through Delhi and Agra this winter with my family, visiting the landmarks of Mughal history. I will attempt to tell it in order - that is, not in the order in which we visited the tombs and gardens of the great Mughals, but in the order in which these great monuments were built by the emperors and their queens.

Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, though the architect who laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in India, did not leave behind any remarkable architectural creation, except for the many Persian gardens that he commissioned around the country. (He is also said to have commissioned the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which was destroyed in 1992 in one of the most shameful acts of sectarian violence in India).

So let me begin with Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, the second Mughal emperor of India, whose magnificent tomb stands in spreading, sunlit gardens, which form a quiet oasis amidst hustle and noise of crowded Delhi.

Humayun was a tragic king. Twenty-three years old at the time of his father’s death, he faced hostility on all fronts - within his family, in the court, in the army. Kind-hearted, tolerant, intellectual and cultured, he was ill suited to rule a fledgeling empire, and, in 1540, lost his throne to the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. Humayun somehow escaped to Persia where he sought, and was given, asylum by Shah Ismail. It was during this period of exile, in 1542, that his son Akbar was born.

With Humayun’s defeat, it seemed that the days of the Mughals in India were over. Sher Shah Suri was not only a brilliant general, but also a talented ruler. He gave the empire an efficient administrative sytem, established a strong and vigorous centre, and embarked upon a reassessment of land-tax. Unfortunately for Afghan rule, and luckily for Humayun, Sher Shah was killed in 1545, during an attack on the Rajput fortress of Kalanjar. He lies buried at Sasaram in Bihar, in a three-storeyed octagonal tomb, once richly decorated.

Sher Shah’s tomb is considered to be the finest example of Afghan Pathan architecture in existence today. Though we could not visit Sher Shah’s tomb in Bihar on this trip, we did see another example of Pathan architecture: within the garden complex of Humayun’s tomb, in a little enclosure of its own to the left of the main entrance, stands the tomb of Isa Khan, one of the nobles in Sher Shah Suri’s court.

The tomb of Isa Khan in Delhi, within the garden complex of Humayun's tomb
Isa Khan’s tomb, Delhi

We walk up the steps and through the sandstone doorway that leads to the tomb and its surrounding sward of green. The tomb is a small, octagonal building, characteristically Afghan in design, perfectly proportioned, elegant and beautiful. Built in 1547, it was once richly decorated, its dome covered with blue tiles, all of which have now fallen off. Bare and unadorned today, it nevertheless holds me spellbound.

Coming back to Humayun. After Sher Shah’s untimely death, his second son Jalal Khan was proclaimed king under the title of Sultan Islam Shah. He held the empire together, mainatined the efficiency of the army and kept in place his father’s reforms. But he died in 1554 and disorder followed his death. His maternal uncle seized the throne and assumed the title of Muhammad Adil Shah. Adil Shah proved to be a lazy and inefficient ruler. His Prime Minister Himu tried to manage the affairs of the kingdom, but was frustrated by the foolishness of the king, whose authority was also challenged by two nephews of Sher Shah.

The resultant chaos encouraged Humayun to make a bid to recover his throne, some fifteen years after he had lost it. This time luck was on Humayun’s side: in February 1555, he succeeded in capturing Lahore and then, in July of the same year, Delhi and Agra. But Humayun did not live long enough to enjoy the throne he had reclaimed - he died in January 1556 as the result of a fall down the staircase of his library in Delhi. The building that is said to have housed the library  - an octagonal sandstone building, built by Sher Shah Suri and known as Sher Mandal - still stands in the Purana Kila (Old Fort) in Delhi.

Humayun lies buried in a red sandstone and marble mausoleum not very far from the Purana Kila.

Humayun's tomb, front view, Delhi
Humayun’s tomb, Delhi

A sign outside the tomb explains that Hamida Banu Begum, his queen and widow, built the Emperor’s mausoleum between 1565 and 1572. The sign continues: ‘Precursor to the Taj Mahal, it [Humayun’s tomb] stands on a platform of 12000 sq m and reaches a height of 47 m. The earliest example of Persian influence in Indian architecture, the tomb has within it over 100 graves, earning it the name, ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’. Built of rubble masonry, the structure is the first to use red sandstone and white marble in such quantities. The small canopies on the terrace were originally covered in glazed blue tiles, and the brass finial over the white marble dome is itself 6m high.’

Green lawns stretch in all directions from the tomb. We walk in the surrounding gardens, the immense bulk of the mausoleum behind us. Emerald green parakeets fly screeching across the pale winter sky to perch upon the domes of the smaller tombs and mosques in the complex. Delhi, with its chaotic, swirling traffic, recedes into the background, and I am transported to an age that was quieter, slower, yet majestic and glorious, where men and women lived their lives on a scale larger than most of us can imagine today.

From the serene glory of Humayun’s tomb, let me take you to Agra, the capital city of Akbar, Humayun’s son and successor, and the greatest of the Mughal emperors of India.

We leave for Agra on a cold, foggy morning. The fog is so dense that we cannot see more than a few metres ahead as we drive to New Delhi Railway Station. Hazard lights flashing, we somehow make it through the fog and reach the station with five minutes to spare. Surprisingly, our train has not been cancelled despite the almost impenetrable fog and it leaves on time.

We crawl towards Agra at little more than walking pace. No one knows what time the train will get there - the fog is unpredictable, and visibility is just a few metres. I gaze out of the window - suddenly a tree, bare and stark, looms out of the fog, and disappears just as quickly. I can see nothing else, not even the tracks running alongside. The two-hour journey seems set to become much longer.

After almost five hours of this slow and excruciating crawl, the fog lifted and a pale, watery sun began to shine. I saw that we had reached Mathura. Mathura is small, congested, a mess, definitely not my favourite place on earth. But it is the birthplace of Krishna, and therefore an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. I think of the stories of Krishna’s birth and childhood, the grand palaces of Mathura, the leafy glades of Brindavan, and I find it hard to reconcile those with the busy squalor of Mathura today.

Our train is now moving at the ‘superfast’ speed that it was meant to, and in minutes we have left Mathura behind. Within the hour the train draws in to Agra Cantt. - our stop.

We are in a hurry to make up lost time, and stopping only to deposit our bags in our room, we leave to see ‘the sights’.

Let us stop first at the massive and majestic Agra Fort, from where Akbar ruled an empire that extended, at the time of his death, from Kashmir in the north to the Deccan in the south, from Baluchistan and Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east. Akbar was, without doubt, the greatest of the Great Mughals, and one of the greatest kings that India had seen in her long history.

A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen through the haze.
A view of a section of the wall of Agra fort. In the distance, the Taj Mahal can be seen.

Akbar, only thirteen at the time, was away in Punjab under the charge of his guardian Bairam Khan when news came of his father, Humayun’s death. He was formally proclaimed king on February 11, 1556.

Despite the fact that Humayun had managed to win back his throne, Akbar’s position as emperor was far from secure: a terrible famine raged in the land; independent kingdoms in different parts of India warred with each other for power and control; and the Surs were still in occupation of the major part of Sher Shah’s empire. Fortunately for Akbar, Bairam Khan his guardian proved to be loyal, and capable. Acting as Regent for the young king, Bairam Khan proceeded to deal ably with the crises that faced the kingdom.

Four years later, Akbar summarily dismissed Bairam Khan, and took control of the now more stable kingdom into his own hands. Akbar was a confirmed imperialist; through a series of conquests he proceeded to increase his kingdom till it became the vast empire he left behind upon his death.

But Akbar was not just an imperialist. He was also an enlightened ruler, known for his wisdom, his religious tolerance, his patronage of the arts, his political sagacity and administrative ability.

Akbar’s fort at Agra has all the strength and majesty that one associates with Akbar. It is huge - more a walled city than a fort. Built of red sandstone, the walls of the fort rise 70 m above the banks of the Yamuna. We enter from the Lahore gate (the imperial entrance, the Delhi gate, is closed to the public) and walk through what were once the public areas of the fort (a market place, a garden) and see before us the red sandstone façade of the Jahangiri Mahal.

The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort
The Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort.
Outside the Jahangiri Mahal lies a huge stone basin - this, says a sign, was the bath used by the Emperor Jahangir. The basin is as deep as a man, with stone steps along the outside and inside to climb into and out of it. The bath was carried along for the Emperor wherever he went. I wonder how many elephants were required to pull or carry that massive burden!!

Peter Mundy, a clerk with the East India Company, spent some time in Agra during the years 1631-32, when Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, ruled as Emperor. In an account of his travels, Mundy describes the main sights of Agra. Of the Agra Fort (which he calls ‘the Castle’) he writes:

The Castle stands on the river side, built of square hewen redd stone. That [part which] sides towards the water lyes straight upon a lyne about a quarter of a mile, and soe come[s] rounding into the Cittie. Heere is its best prospects, which is loftie and stately, garnished with handsome Compleat battlements on the wall; about it appearinge divers of the Kings places of residence some of whose upper Coveringe are overlaid with gold. The inside of the Castle lyes levell with the Topp [of the hill on which it is built], but the outside [appears to be] of an exceedinge height [from the river]. In the Corners on the outside, great round Towers with galleries above; on the Topp sundry Turretts, Cupolaes, etts., which much beautifie it.

Of the five hundred or so palaces built during Akbar’s time, only a few remain - some were demolished by his succesors to make way for their own palaces; most were destroyed by the British in the nineteenth century to put up barracks.

In startling contrast to Akbar’s red sandstone palaces are the white marble palaces built by his grandson Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Along the riverfront lies the Khas Mahal, the private apartments of the royal ladies, and the delicate fairy pavilions of the princesses Jahanara and Roshanara. Mundy mentions the Sheesh Mahal  (Palace of Mirrors) its ‘floors, roofe and sides of marble, inlayd with lookinge Glasses made into severall workes’. The Sheesh Mahal was closed for restoration work when we visited.

Here are some images of the Diwan-i-Aam, or Hall of Common Audience, where the king met the common people and listened to their pleas and petitions, and where the fabled Peacock Throne once stood.  The Diwan-i-Aam overlooks a large courtyard and garden where shady trees are home to dozens of raucous, screeching parakeets. It is peaceful there, outside the Diwan-i-Aam.

Diwan-i-Aam, front 

The Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort

Akbar was a man of many parts - empire-builder, architect, idealist, philosopher, reformer, diplomat, and politician. I like to think that while the Agra Fort reflects the pragmatic man of campaigns and conquests, Fatehpur Sikri is the creation of the dreamer and idealist. Located 37 kms west of Agra, Akbar built this city in 1571 in honour of the Sufi saint and mystic Salim Chisti. It remained the capital of his empire till 1585. Akbar built the city of his favourite red sandstone, quarried from the ridge upon which the city stands. Its many and varied architectural styles, combined harmoniously together, reflect his philosophy of tolerance and assimilation.

We enter through a gateway that takes us straight into the Haram Sara, the imperial Harem complex. The largest of the palaces here is Jodh Bai’s palace. This was the residence of the Emperor’s principal wives, not just Jodh Bai, as is sometimes claimed.

A suite of rooms, Jodh Bai Palace, overlooking the courtyard. fatehpur Sikri 
A suite of rooms in Jodh Bai Palace, opening out into the central courtyard. We wander through the apartments, and imagine the floors covered with luxurious rugs, the walls hung with rich tapestries and silken curtains, the rooms warmed in winter with braziers of burning coals, cooled in summer by fans and fountains.

Close to Jodh Bai’s palace lies a small and elegant house, the Sunehra Makan, or Golden House, so called because of the murals and golden paintings which once adorned it. Remnants of these decorations can still be seen. This was probably the residence of Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum.

A building known as Birbal’s house lies towards the northern end of the Haram Sara.  Despite Birbal’s standing with the Emperor, it is unlikely that he would have been given a house in the middle of the imperial harem, and it is likely that in reality this was the residence of Akbar’s two senior queens, Ruqayya Begum and Salima Sultan Begum.  The palace, a medley of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles, is stunningly beautiful.

We walk through the columned halls of the Panch Mahal, or ‘Five-storeyed palace’ and out of the imperial harem into the courtyard known as the Pachisi Courtyard because of the life-size pachisi board in its centre. According to legend, the Emperor used to play pachisi here with slavegirls as counters!!

The kiosk known as the Astrolger's seat, with its craved serpentine brackets, Fatehpur Sikri
The Astrologer’s Seat, with its carved serpentine brackets

We wander round the official area - the mysterious building with its strange and elaborately carved central column, variously identified as the Diwan-i-Khas, the Jewel House, or the Ibadat Khana; the misnamed Ankh Michauli, which was not the place where Akbar played blind man’s biff with his wives as legend claims, but a part of the Imperial Treasury; the carved stone kiosk called the Astrologer’s Seat, but which was in truth the Emperor’s seat, where he would sit to watch the distribution of copper coins among the poor, or as payment among his troops.

The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, fatehpur SikriThe carved pillar in the Diwan-i-Khas, Fatehpur Sikri
The building often called the Diwan-i-Khas, and the carved stone pillar at its centre.

The Diwan Khana-i-Khass and the Khwabgah (‘Dream Chamber’) were Akbar’s private rooms. The walls of the lower chamber are hollow, with sliding stone slabs, the spaces used for storing books which Akbar was fond of having read out to him.

We walk out through the colonnaded courtyard of the Diwan-i-Am, and out of the impressive Agra gate.

A little way away from the Imperial Palace complex, to our right, rises the Badshahi Darwaza, the entrance to the Jama Masjid and the dargah of Salim Chisti. The Jama Masjid is the largest, most impressive building of Fatehpur Sikri.  The great mosque took five years to build and was completed in 1571-72. Salim Chisti’s tomb, a poem in white marble, stands in the centre of the mosque’s vast courtyard.

I had first visited the mosque and the dargah in 1977, more than thirty years ago. I remembered these as the high point of my visit to Fatehpur Sikri, the courtyard of the mosque the most beautiful and serene spot in that magical deep red city. This time though I was disappointed - gone was the peace and serenity. Instead, the courtyard was noisy and crowded, and so filthy that I hesitated to walk across it in my bare feet. It is said that Akbar himself would often sweep the floor of the mosque and call the azan. His spirit must be sorely troubled then, to see the mess and chaos today.

I turn away from the mosque towards the Bulund Darwaza, the monumental gateway that rises 40 m above the courtyard of the mosque. Akbar built this gateway in 1573, to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. This gateway is often regarded as Akbar’s most arrogant assertion of imperial power. But today, this mighty gateway is hung with huge wasps’ nests. I turn away with a shudder. Why this neglect of one of the most incredible structures of medieval India? Does anybody have any answers?

In 1585, only fourteen years after it was built, Akbar and his court left Fatehpur Sikri for Lahore, most probably because of the needs of government and empire. Akbar’s departure took the life from Fatehpur Sikri; it became a ghost city, the residence of djinns and peris.

Our final stop for Akbar is at his tomb which lies on the outskirts of Agra in a small, crowded village called Sikandra. The tomb stands amidst vast manicured gardens where herds of deer graze languidly on the lawns, and langurs run riot amongst the trees.

The magnificient gateway to Akbar's tomb
The magnificient gateway to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra

The doorway to the tomb, of red sandstone with a huge central arch, is a monument in its own right. The four graceful minarets at the corners, themselves inspired by the Char Minar of Hyderabad, are considered to be the inspiration for the minarets of the Taj Mahal. 

The tomb itself, a four-storeyed structure, is very different from the conventional domed tombs of the Mughals. It is a relatively simple building, though richly adorned inside.

Peter Mundy describes Akbar’s tomb in some detail in his travel journal:

Kinge Ecbar’s [Akbar’s] Tombe is at Shecundra [Sikandra], two miles from Agra, standing in a Garden with four great gates, whereof one principall excellinge all others that I have seene in India for hight, curious Invention in buildinge, paintinge etts., having two extarordinarie high spires…from whence in a long walke you goe to the monument itselfe whose outward farme resembleth the mauseolo pictured among the 7 wonders, fower square, lesseninge towards the topp, havinge severall galleries round about, adorned with Cupolaes of which the lower galleries conteyne the more, the borders on the outside etts’, of redd stone through Cutt [perforated] with curious workes, theis galleries ascending one from another to the Topp, on which is a square litle Court, the pavement chequered with white and a reddish marble, the midle of which is over the midle of the whole, where stands a Tombestone in forme of a herse of one entire peece of marble, curiosuly wrought and engraven with letters and flowers etts. This hath 4 turretts with Copulaes, att each Corner one; from one side to another are galleries alofte and under foote marble, the sides alsoe, which are artificially Cutt through as afore mentioned.

Mundy goes on to write that he was not permitted to enter the chamber where Akbar lies buried, ‘by reason the Kinge[Shah Jahan] keepes the key of the doore which is alsoe sealed with his signett.’ At the time that Mundy wrote his account, he says, ‘the garden and other gates were not yett finished.’

Leaving Akbar to his rest, we return to Agra, to the east bank of the Yamuna river and the small and elegant jewel-like tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. ‘Itimad-ud Daulah’ was the title given to Mirza Ghiyas Beg, Lord Treasurer to Jahangir, Akbar’s son and successor, and the father of Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s favourite queen.

Exterior decoration on Itimad ud Daulah's tomb, Agra
Exterior decoration on Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb in Agra

Jahangir himself was not much of a builder. It was Nur Jahan who took the initiative in such matters and helped lay out Persian gardens all over the empire. It was she who designed and commissioned her father’s tomb, which was begun in 1622 and took six years to complete. It is of white marble, and decorated with a combination of coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. In many ways it is a memorial more personal, more intimate than the Taj Mahal, and one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture. It marks the transition from the sturdy red sandstone structures of Akbar’s reign to the ethereal marble creations of his grandson, Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan’s greatest creation, and the zenith of Mughal architectural achievement, is of course, the Taj Mahal. This is my third visit to the Taj Mahal, but once again I am struck by its beauty. It rises, delicate, graceful, almost fragile in its symmetrical perfection. The winter haze lends it an other-worldly quality, and I understand once again the magic of this monument to Love.

The Taj Mahal, Agra
The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son and successor, built this fairy edifice in memory of his beloved wife and queen Arjumand Banu Begum. She married Shah Jahan in 1612, and was known as Mumtaz Mahal, ‘Pride of the Palace’, and Taj Mahal, ‘Crown of the Palace’. She accompanied Shah Jahan in his Deccan campaign, and died in Burhanpur in 1631, during the birth of her fourteenth child. Her body was temporarily buried in a garden on the banks of the river Tapti, and, the following December, was brought to Agra where it was placed in a garden on the right bank of the Yamuna during the construction of her mausoleum. It is said that Mumtaz was the love of Shah Jahan’s life and that his other marriages were purely political alliances.

Mundy, who witnessed the construction of the Taj Mahal during his stay in Agra, writes:

This Kinge [Shah Jahan] is now buildinge a sepulchre for his late deceased Queene Tage Moholl [Taj Mahal] (as much to say att the brightnes of the Moholl), whom he dearely affected… He intendes it shall excell all other… There is alreadye about her Tombe a raile of gold. The buildinge is begun and goes on with excessive labour and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence, Gold and silver esteemed comon Metall, and Marble but as ordinarie stones. Hee intends, as some thinck, to remove all the Cittie hither, cawseinge hills to be made levell because they might not hinder the prospect of it, places appoynted for streets, shopps, etts., dwellings commaunding Marchants, shoppkeepers, Artificers to Inhabit [it] where they begin to repaire and called by her name Tage Gunge [Taj Ganj].

The gold railing, studded with gems, that Mundy mentioned, was removed in 1642, and replaced by a marble lattice palisade, which is what we see today. The area around the Taj Mahal is indeed called Taj Ganj. It is a busy area, full of shops and houses. The reason to found a suburb and a market near the Taj Mahal was to provide revenue for the maintenance and upkeep of the building.

Across the river, one can see the foundations of another edifice, a mausoleum in black marble that Shah Jahan was planning for himself. He could not complete that dream - in 1658, his son Aurangzeb, fought and killed his three brothers and seized the throne. Aurangzeb placed Shah Jahan under strict confinement in Agra Fort. He was treated like an ordinary prisoner and denied even the most basic conveniences. He spent the last years of his life in prayer, and, it is said, in gazing upon the Taj Mahal, which is clearly visible from the riverside terraces and pavilions of the Fort.

Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal, alongside his beloved Mumtaz. His grave is the only asymmetrical feature in the building.

Thus ends - for now - our tour of Mughal India.

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The Great Banyan Tree

January 10th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, India 2 Comments »

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I love December in Calcutta. It is a cool, pleasant month that I associate with childhood memories of picnics, and visits to the horticultural gardens or the zoo without fear of broiling in the hot, tropical sun.

It had been many years since I had spent a winter in Calcutta; in fact, ever since the children can remember we have always visited Calcutta in the hot, humid monsoon months of July or August, or during the beginning heat of April, seasons when outdoor activity is limited by the sun. Our visit this last December to Calcutta seemed like a bonus, a chance to show my husband and my children facets of my beloved city that they had never seen before.

Bamboo grove, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaSo, one morning, we piled into the car and drove off to the Botanics, as the Gardens are locally called.

The Gardens are quiet and well maintained; herons and kingfishers flash white and blue along lily-covered ponds and pukurs, and groves of palms and bamboo line the long, straight paths. We walk along the river path - a wire fence separates the Gardens from the river.

The Hooghly here is very wide, deep and placid; a soft haze blurs the harsh lines of the factories and warehouses on its far bank.

We stop to photograph a cormorant sunning itself on a dead branch in the middle of a pond, but our camera is not powerful enough to capture the bird in its full glory.

Giant Amazon lily, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

We walk on and stop in amazement at the sight of the giant Amazonian lilies - the lily pads cover the pond like giant trays and seem big enough and strong enough to support Vipasha, though, of course, we discourage her from all such experimentation!

We keep walking - the sun is high in the sky now, and the children are beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable.

We haven’t yet seen the glory of the Gardens, its most famous sight, the Great Banyan Tree. 

We follow the signs for the banyan tree, and get hopelessly lost. At last, after more walking, and clever deciphering of some rather confusing and complicated signage, we see the Great Banyan Tree ahead of us.

the Great Banyan Tree, viewed from a distance,  Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The first sight of the tree is impressive, a sight not to be forgotten. From a distance, it looks like a small forest, and it is hard to believe that what we are looking at could be a single tree.

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The children are sceptical and disbelieving;  but as we come closer we see the aerial roots, the hundreds of trunks, and the intertwining branches of the great tree.

We walk with reverence into that strange forest of roots and trunks.  I understand now why banyan trees are said to be the favoured haunts of ghosts and goblins, of vetaal and pishach.

A sign gives the following information about the tree in English, Hindi and Bengali:

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaThe Great Banyan Tree draws more visitors to the garden than its exotic collection of plants from five continents, the plant houses, or the special gardens of bamboos, palms, succulents etc. Botanically known as  Ficus Benghalensis L., and belonging to the family Moraceae, the tree is a native of India. The fruit is like a small fig but is not edible and is red when ripe. This tree is over 250 years old and in spread it is the largest known in India, perhaps in Asia. There is no clear history of the tree as to the time of planting etc but it is mentioned in some travel books of the nineteenth century. It was damaged by two great cyclones, 1864 and 1867, when some of its main branches were broken exposing it to the attack of a hard fungus. With its large number of aerial roots which grow from the branches and run vertically to the ground and look like so many trunks, the Great Banyan looks more like a forest than an individual tree. Interestingly enough, the tree now lives in perfect vigour without its main trunk, which decayed and had to be removed in 1925. The circumference of the original trunk at 1.7 m from the ground was 15.7 m. The area occupied by the tree is about 14428.44 sq.m. The present crown of the tree has a circumference of 450m. and the highest branch rises to 24.5 m. It has at present 2880 aerial roots reaching down to the ground.

The sign is dated 21.02. 2005.

It is difficult to find the words to describe the Great Banyan adequately. So let me not write any more, but hope instead that all those who read this will one day be able to see this marvellous tree for themselves.

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‘Knives to grind…’

June 23rd, 2008 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Children's Literature, India, London, Mumbai No Comments »

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Memory, how it works, and  why it works the way it does, is a mystery that no one has solved yet. Why do we remember some people and not others? How is it that we can recall some events with complete clarity and some events not at all? Colours, textures, even the smells of certain moments stay with us forever -  consciously, so that we can recall them at will, or subconsciously, so that a sudden trigger brings flooding into our minds, people, places and events we thought we had forgotten.

This morning, as I pottered around the house, fixing breakfast for the children, hanging out the washing, making a cup of tea for myself, I thought, suddenly and for no apparent reason at all, of the old guava-seller who used to be a regular feature of my winter holidays.

The old man would turn up on our doorstep, a basket of green and yellow guavas balanced on his head. To my seven-year-old eyes, he looked really really old, though perhaps he wasn’t much older than sixty at the time. He would be dressed in a dusty, white dhoti and kurta; he had wispy grey hair and untidy whiskers, and wore a pair of round spectacles with lenses so thick that they seemed opaque. He would cut the fruit into quarters, and sprinkle it with a black masala that gave off a sharp, pungent, but oh! such a delicious smell. If it turned out that the guava was a deep pink inside, and sweet, I would be delighted - for that was my favourite kind of guava. If the guava turned out to be ordinary, boring white inside, then my mother would admonish him, and insist that next time, he must bring the pink ones.

Steam-of-consciousness style, this memory triggered off thoughts and more memories of the other, itinerant pedlars who would come to our door or call their wares on the streets of my childhood. There was the potter, balancing an amazing number of earthern pots on his head, pots that would keep our drinking water cool in the hot summer months and flavour it with the taste and smell of clay. There was the knife-grinder, who would carry off all the kitchen knives to be sharpened, and return them an hour later, their edges gleaming. And the balloonwala, with his bright yellow, pink, blue and orange balloons bobbing along behind him. He would call to the children, Pied-Piper fashion, by blowing on a shrill, squeaky whistle, and when enough of us had gathered round, delight us with the strange four-legged beasts he fashioned out of thin, tube-like balloons that he bent and twisted as he pleased without them popping.

But my favourite was the kalaiwala, the man who came to ‘galvanise’ the kitchen pots and karahis. With a puff of his bellows and a sizzle and a hiss, he would turn the old, beaten, copper vessels, into shining silver ones. It was the closest thing to alchemy that I have seen.

Though I no longer see the kalaiwala, or hear the whirring of the knifegrinder’s wheel that often, I know that should I need them, I will still be able to find them, in a corner of some busy market, or down a narrow lane or gully in the older parts of India’s megacities where the past continues to exist quite regardless of the present.

Some vendors and their trades continue to flourish even into the modern way of life. The vegetable-vendor, the flower-seller, the milkman, the bread-wala, and the green coconut-seller continued to be regular visitors to my flat in Mumbai many years later. With a small child and a household to run, I was deeply grateful for the service and convenience these vendors provided.

When I moved to London, I moved fully prepared to face a life quite empty of such luxuries. ‘You’ll miss this service in London,’ friends had warned. ‘Nobody brings anything to your front door there.’

They were wrong - I get fresh milk delivered to my doorstep every day, and groceries as often as I like.

And, along with the convenient, I also get the exotic - the knifegrinder (yes, here too!) who asks ‘Need anything sharpened, luv?’; the fishmonger who offers me fresh fish and goes away shaking his head at my incomprehensible, vegetarian ways; and strangest of all, a few weeks ago, a smartly-dressed, middle-aged woman selling - manure!

Yes, manure. For my garden. At £2.50 a bag, knocked down from £6.50, an offer I should not refuse. When I do refuse, she points out that it will help to break up the clay in my garden, and ‘besides, all your neighbours ‘ave bought some.’ When I still hesitate, she hands me her business card. ‘A’right then,’ she says, ‘that’s me number there. Ring me if yer change yer mind. Anyway, I’ll be back in the autumn.’

Of course, such exotic visitors are few and far between.

Street vendors and itinerant pedlars had once livened the streets of London much as they had enlivened the streets of my childhood. They disappeared with the coming of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, in London too, the past continues to exist into the present - though in a different format. If one searches for them, the street vendors of London can still be found preserved in miniature books that consist of pictures of the various street-sellers with their cries printed beneath, and a verse describing them. The criers call out such wares as muffins, hot chestnuts, fresh herrings, eels, strawberries, cherries, primroses, matches, and newly-printed ballads. There are also pictures of knifegrinders, milkmaids, and chimney sweeps with their boys.

These books came to be known as the Cries of London. Most of these books were published between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and many of them were for children.

London Cries are also mentioned in the fifteenth century poem, ‘London Lickpenny’(written perhaps by John Lydgate):

Hot pescodes, one began to cry,
Straberry ripe, and cherryes in the ryse;
One bad me come here and buy some spyce.

The Cries of London are available today - as prints, and posters, online on ebay or with specialist websites, and with rare books sellers.

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‘Tis the night before Christmas

December 24th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Christmas, India No Comments »

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…and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even Alfie, the school hamster, on his annual visit to us over the Christmas holidays. It is very still and very quiet; the only sound is that of the tapping of the keys on my keyboard, and an occasional grunt from the central heating. Outside my window, the streetlamp shines yellow through the thickening fog. There is not a soul in sight, not a man, not a woman, not a child. Not even a cat, not even a fox, not even a bat. Perhaps, if I stay very quiet, I’ll hear the bells on Santa’s reindeer - the thought comes unbidden to my mind, and I have to stop myself from peering hopefully up into the sky.

I don’t celebrate Christmas any more, not since I grew up, not since I moved to London. I do not like the cold and the damp dark of winter, the sunless days, the foggy nights. The frenetic activity that accompanies the ‘silly season’ wears me out, and all I want to do is snuggle into a burrow of blankets and hibernate the winter away, till sun and warmth return once more.

So, why am I checking the sky for Santa, I ask myself?

Because my children do, even though they’re ‘all growed up’? Because I love the sound of sleigh bells? Because I like the idea of an old man in a red suit and white beard flying through the night, with a sackful of toys for the world’s children? Or because I’ve always waited for Santa, ever since I was a child myself, and some things do not change?

Christmas for me was not always so dull. I grew up in Calcutta, a city that celebrates all festivals with great enthusiasm and good cheer. Christmas, I remember, was no exception. The city would break out into a glad frenzy of music and dance and theatre, of late nights and good food, and chocolates and cakes and presents wrapped in pretty red paper. The central circle in New Market would be full of fake Christmas trees of all sizes, covered with tinsel and cottonwool snow. Tiny cottonwool Santas with long beards and floppy red hats would be on sale, to be bought individually or by the box.

The Midnight Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral, or even in my school chapel, would be thronged not only by members of the Christian community, but by Calcuttans belonging to all religious communities. We’d wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same joy that we wished each other ‘Shubho Bijoya’ or ‘Id Mubarak.’

The last time I spent Christmas in Calcutta was twenty years ago. I don’t know if those fake trees and cottonwool Santas are still being sold in New Market, and whether Park Street is still lit up the way it used to be when I was small. I hear though, that the Calcutta spirit is still alive, and that Calcuttans of all shapes, sizes and religious hues still wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same glad happiness of my childhood. In a world that is becoming more and more divided by religion every day, it is reassuring to know that the spirit of secularism has not died out entirely.

I know that there is no Santa, no reindeers flying through a starlit sky, and that if I look out of my window again, I will see only swirling fog. But I do know that good wishes there are in plenty - for peace on earth and good will to all.

So - Merry Christmas, everyone!

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