Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Surprises from a book of oracles

March 19, 2010

… it gives us a rare glimpse – as Jerry Toner stresses in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome – into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For (never mind the publicity yarn about Alexander the Great) this is not elite literature, or certainly not literature aimed exclusively at the elite; in fact, the question about “being sold” implies that slaves were among the intended clientele. Here we have a long list of the kinds of problems that made ordinary Roman men (and they do seem to be exclusively male questions) anxious enough to resort to fortune-tellers. Some of these are the perennial issues of sex, illness and success (“Will I split up from my girlfriend?” “Will the one who is sick survive?” “Will I be prosperous?”). But other questions reflect much more specifically Graeco-Roman concerns about life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Alongside worries about the wife’s pregnancy, we find questions about whether or not to rear the expected offspring: a vivid reminder that infanticide was one orthodox method of family planning in the ancient world, as well as being a convenient way of disposing of those who emerged from the womb weak, sickly or deformed. Debt and inheritance also bulk large among the topics of concern, accounting for at least twelve of the ninety-two questions (“Will I pay back what I owe?” “Will I inherit from a friend?”). So do the dangers of travel (“Will I sail safely?”) and the potential menace of the legal system (“Am I safe from prosecution?” “Will I be safe if informed against?”). Even illness may be thought to be the result of crime or malevolence, as the question “Have I been poisoned?” shows.

Toner is excellent at squeezing the social and cultural implications out of this material. As well as reflecting on the perilous, debtridden, short and painful human lives that the oracle book reveals, he notes some surprising absences. There is nothing here (poisoning apart) to suggest a fear of violent crime, despite the fact that we often imagine that the Roman Empire was full of highwaymen, pirates and muggers. Nor is there anything on the institution of patronage. Modern historians have written volumes on the dependence of the poor on their elite patrons – for everything from jobs, to loans or food. Toner speculates that the intended users of these oracles were so far down the Roman social hierarchy that they were below the reach of the patronage system (which only extended so far as “the respectable poor”). Maybe. Or maybe the whole system of patronage was far less important in the life of the non-elite, than the Roman elite writers, on whom we mostly rely, liked to imagine. Or, at least, maybe it was far less important in whatever corner of the Roman Empire this strange little book originated.

Pushing the evidence a little further, Toner suggests that we might see in these oracles a rudimentary system of risk-assessment.

From this must-read review by Mary Beard at TLS; link via Jenny.

The woman who dared twice

March 2, 2010

Sriram Venkatkrishnan tells the story!

Gandhi: an appraisal

January 16, 2010

From Ram Guha:

The challenge that confronted Gandhi on his return was to convert a campaign of urban elites into a mass movement. Till then, it was easy for the British to dismiss the Congress as a front for lawyers and other English-speaking professionals seeking the loaves and fishes of office. Gandhi felt this criticism keenly, and sought to refute it. First, he encouraged the Congress to function in the vernacular, building up provincial committees that operated in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Oriya and in other languages of the people. Next, he brought in peasants and women, two groups that had previously been excluded from the proceedings. Third, he campaigned to abolish untouchability and to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony, seeking to answer the charge that the Congress was a party of banias and Brahmins. Fourth, he worked to nurture a second rung of political leadership that would work with him in deepening the social base of the Congress and make it truly representative of the nation-in-the-making.

In the short-and-medium term, Gandhi was successful in all but the third ambition.

A nice one!

In search of Ashe and his assassin

January 12, 2010

A R Venkatachalapathy goes in search of “Ash Durai” who

was the first and, as subsequent history showed, the last British official to be assassinated during the course of the freedom struggle in south India

and his assassin, “Veera Vanchi” who

killed himself after shooting Ashe is a patriotic martyr in Tamil Nadu

and writes about it in the latest issue of EPW (somehow I am not able to get the link for the article — which is a pity):

It has been almost a century since Robert William D’Escourt Ashe, acting collector of Tirunelveli, Madras Presidency, was killed by R Vanchi Aiyar, an ex-forest guard on 17 June 1911. In 1908 Ashe was stationed in Tuticorin where the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company led by V O Chidambaram Pillai was giving its British rival a run for its money. Workers, merchants and the middle class enthusiastically supported the swadeshis. Ashe was seen as playing a leading part in the government’s repression of the swadeshi company and the uprising that followed made national headlines. Vanchi Aiyar who killed himself after shooting Ashe is a patriotic martyr in Tamil Nadu and many radical characters in Tamil fiction and cinema have been named after him.

And, there are some really interesting bits in the piece:

I began rummaging into the papers consisting of hundreds of letters that Mary had written to Ashe and the numerous, possibly even a thousand, condolence messages that Mary received on her husband’s death. Amidst this somewhat humdrum correspondence I was fortunate to spot some real nuggets. As I pored over the manuscripts we talked – I reconstructed the background to the assassination and Robert provided the family information. By the end of my trip he was contemplating a novel based on his family’s fateful course. As the day progressed a genuine friendship formed between us. It is extraordinary how time can erase historical bitterness if only people allow it to. When we opened
a bottle of wine that evening and raised a toast to Ashe’s memory, Robert movingly raised one to Vanchi as well, for had he not died the same day, barely minutes after his grandfather’s killing? (When later I sent Robert a picture of Vanchi, he wrote, “What a lovely young face he has! Have just been reading a novel in our book club – Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – in which the young revolutionaries all seemed to look like that and all got shot by the government soldiers in the end. He, on the other hand, took his own life: to protect his comrades? or to become a  martyr?)”

Take a look!

PS: EPW also notes that

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Frontline. The Tamil version was published in Kalachuvadu.

The romance of the train journey

January 4, 2010

Is nicely captured in this must-read piece of Malavika Karlekar:

As one would expect, children, particularly those who travelled in the first class, were immune to such grown-up fears; for them, there was little to rival a train ride. Colonial memoirs recount many such journeys, some more exciting than others. Jon and Rumer Godden in Two Under the Indian Sky write of long train journeys to north Indian hill stations. As high-spirited children, they swung from the upper berths, visited the lavatory endlessly — assiduously disinfected with Lysol by their mother — and waited for entertainment at the next station.

Ample food lay safe in tiffin baskets, “large oblong Japanese cane baskets with leather strappings to hold enamel plates and mugs.” Bottled water was carried from home and though during the journey, “bread went dry, butter melted, shells off the hard-boiled eggs got into the buttoned upholstery of the bunk seats… we thought the meal ambrosial”. An accompanying servant would come to wash up, squatting on the floor of the lavatory shower room that led off from the compartment. In the blazing hot summer when travelling in what were basically metal boxes on wheels could be unbearable, a zinc stand with a deep tray beneath it was set up in the middle of the compartment “and every morning with shoutings and staggerings, coolies would carry in a huge block of ice and unwrap it from its sacking”. A fan often circulated the cooled air and telegrams used to be sent down the line for replacements of ice during the day.

As dusk came about the countryside, “a curious sadness would fall on us” and the compartment suddenly seemed small, “the train infinitesimal as it travelled over the vast Indian plain”. And then finally, out came the bedding from those “invaluable roly-poly pieces of luggage rightly called holdalls into which anything and everything would go”. Those irreplaceable holdalls may be difficult to come by today, and ice blocks have given way to fitful air conditioning; yet which train passenger can deny an inexplicable sense of wonderment — or maybe even melancholy — as night falls, a few lights twinkle on the horizon and the edges of India fade away beneath the criss-cross of railway tracks?

Take a look!

Peace Nobel Laureate!

October 9, 2009


An interesting review and an interesting book

September 15, 2009

Looks like this might be an interesting read; and, this review is also very, very interesting.

Which Neumann?

June 21, 2009

The Neumann of Neumann’s principle, or, principle of symmetry is this one and not this (as I thought).

IISc: give thyself a gift

April 26, 2009

Ram Guha in his second piece on IISc:

As I noted in my last column, the Indian Institute of Science has consistently maintained high academic standards since its inception. It has been a model and inspiration for later initiatives in scientific research and teaching, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. But if one is to make a criticism of this outstanding institution, it would be that its pursuit of knowledge has not been holistic enough. It has done excellent work in all branches of science and technology. At the same time, it has neglected the study of the social sciences and the humanities. In this respect it has been unlike its Western counterparts, such as Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example. These institutions are also known for their contributions to scientific and technical research, yet they have also had high-quality departments of economics, political science, anthropology, and history.

… To establish and make active a proper centre of humanistic studies would, in this centenary year, be the Indian Institute of Science’s most appropriate gift to itself.

By the way, while I wrote about Geddes’ connections to Raja Rao and Nivedita, I did not know that he had some suggestions for IISc also — which should be added to the list of Geddes’ gifts to us — albeit one that we failed to accept!

River water harvest in 1812 in Carnatic

March 22, 2009

Raj at Plus Ultra has a must read post with plenty of quotes:

I came across a publication dated 1812, that suggests a system of water storage to benefit the poor peasant of India.

Lieutenant H. Harriott, 36th Rcgt. M. N. I., writing in the Madras Journal of Science and Literature, (pages 113-114)in the year 1812, offers hints for establishing a new system of supplying tanks with water, adapted particularly for the Carnatic, to enable the cultivation of rice and agriculture in general, to be carried to an indefinite extent without being dependent on the fall of rain in any particular district for a supply of water.

Take a look!