Sunday, December 31, 2006

Yearend Jottings

This column was written before the break for Id and before news of Saddam Hussein’s death by victor’s justice was known. A piece on Saddam Hussein will appear in this space next week.

Some odds and ends from a jumble of books picked up during a year’s rummage of bookshops. Opening thought: can any piece of information be totally useless? The emphatic answer is no.

First dip: 1215, the year of Magna Carta. A thirteenth century British monk, Jocelin of Brakelond, worried about his abbey’s debts, answered, tangentially, a minor query. He recorded: "There is an English tradition by which every year on the day of Our Lord’s Circumcision, 1 January, the abbot, as lord, is presented with gifts by a great many people." The Jewish circumcision is on the seventh day after birth. When and why did the Church stop the Abrahamic practice of circumcision, possibly to create a different identity for the new faith? That answer will come, hopefully, from next year’s reading list.

There isn’t that much difference between Plato’s ideal society and the Hindu caste system. In both, a rigid hierarchy keeps society stable and every man in his place. The four Greek divisions are sage, warrior, trader and menial, a precise mirror of brahman, kshatriya, vaisya and dalit. In Plato, property does not change hands; a class of wealth, rooted in land has been the norm rather than the exception till Marx smashed the class ceiling. The fatal flaw in perfectionist Plato is the ban on anything new, even in poetry and music. Old is romantic; new is growth rate.
Which city was the real capital of the British Raj? There was no confusion in the East India Company days: Calcutta. But once the north came under Sahib sway, the government spent seven months in cool Simla and only five in Calcutta. The choice of Delhi, far closer to Simla, was announced in 1911 during the visit of King George V and Queen Mary; the new capital would be a symbol of imperial power and British superiority, another Constantinople or Rome, designed in the "Grand Manner". A debate arose over whether the look should be "Indo-Saracenic", Mughal, Rajput or Renaissance classic. The much-vaunted Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens dismissed Indian architecture as "cumbersome, poorly coordinated and tiresome"; Hindu architecture was "veneered jointry" and the domes of Delhi’s mosques were mere turnips.
The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, thought such sentiments a bit thick, given that the bill
for British grandeur was paid by India.

Herbert Baker, Lutyens’ less famous colleague, touched up New Delhi’s pillars with lotuses, cobras, elephants, bulls and bells.

A useful thought from Kipling for both my fellow journalists and our honourable readers:

Men who spar with Government need to back their blows

With something more than ordinary journalistic prose.

Durru Shehvar, Princess of Berar, daughter of Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman Caliph, was born in 1912, married to the heir of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and died in February this year in London. Her legal adviser, Walter Monckton, commented, "I learnt from her what any person must learn who has English friends — how unnecessary it is to talk just for the sake of talking, and that there is no unfriendliness and there would be no awkwardness or embarrassment in silence." She called it a Muslim way of life.

A return to that old favourite, Philip Woodruff’s The Guardians, resurrected a few gems:

* "Human nature changes when the Sind border meets Punjab, on a line east of Kandahar."
*After victory in 1857, the British Army decided that all gunners would be British.
* Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of Punjab during the uprising, thought John Lawrence, victor of Delhi, was an old woman because Lawrence had not razed the Jama Masjid to the ground.
*Sir Alfred Lyall, one of Montgomery’s successors in Punjab, noted, ruefully, "One thing is sure; the natives all discuss our rule as a transitory state."
*Shiva cannot be defeated because he is god of destruction as well as the phallus.

Charles Goodyear, impoverished and manic, created vulcanised rubber by accident when, after years of experiments, he dropped sulphur on India rubber. So did he become a tycoon overnight? No. His patent was stolen by better, if unscrupulous, businessmen. Goodyear never owned any part of the company that still bears his name. Tycoon, by the way, is an American word of Japanese origin, from taikun, or military chief.

Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the American National Security Council and senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on 25 January 2006: "During its five years in office, the (Bush) administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out." Which are they? After 9/11 Iran offered help against the Taliban, but Bush decided to include Iran in the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002. In the spring of 2003, Tehran sent a proposal through the Swiss for comprehensive negotiations, acknowledging that it would have to discuss its weapons programme and support for anti-Israel groups. The Bush administration snubbed the Swiss diplomats. In October 2003 Iran suspended enrichment of uranium to pursue talks, but Bush refused to join the European initiative for a dialogue. In the same month Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, noted archly that a nuclear strike against Iran would probably kill as many Palestinians as Israelis, and if it missed destroy some Arab nation. Blaming Israel for starting the nuclear race in the region, he suggested a nuclear-free gulf, followed by a nuclear-free region.

Note: by the end of the year Egypt had signed a deal with China for nuclear reactors — for peaceful purposes, of course. Saudi Arabia was also beginning to see the merits of "peaceful" nuclear energy.

Do you agree with this old Arab proverb: In every head there is some wisdom? Prince Charles, patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, quoted the proverb in a lecture on "Islam and the West" at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 27 October 1993, a copy of which was given to me thirteen years after the event by Dr Farhan Nizami, who chairs the Centre and is nurturing it into a wonderful institution. The Prince, of course, was being modest, British, self-deprecatory. But is the subject, theme of a million seminars long before 9/11 (Remember 1993? The whole Muslim world had lined up alongside America against Saddam just after it had cooperated with America to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), all that wise? Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How much dexterity do you need to compare apples and oranges?

The Titanic and Olympic were identical sister ships, both higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. The former began life in 1911, hit an iceberg and became immortal. The Olympic went to sea a year earlier, in 1910, and sailed peacefully till 1937. No one remembers a success story.
King George, I am reliably informed by A.N. Wilson, in After the Victorians, did not bring his real crown when he came to India for the durbar of 1911. He wore a lighter version in Delhi, made by Garrard’s of London at a cost of 60,000 pounds. Guess who picked up the bill. Right. The Indian taxpayer.

Patrick French has an illustrative story about Colonel Francis Younghusband’s Tibetan expedition of 1904 in his latest book. "When the British officers marched to the Tsuglakhang and other places, the inhabitants of Lhasa were displeased. They shouted and chanted to bring down rain, and made clapping noises to repulse them. In the foreigners’ custom these were seen as signs of welcome, so they took off their hats and said thank you."

The World Health Organisation announced an important discovery, after years of research, in December. Circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection by half, so the Prophet Abraham, who started it all, was right. What was the name of the Belgian doctor who gave the world such good news? Dr Kevin De Cock.

No comments: