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Chinese workers in the snow constructing the first American transcontinental railways

In the 1860s, roughly 20,000 Chinese from the Guangdong province were shipped to America to labour at building the transcontinental railways. They came for the lure of gold. However, few of them moved outside their camp or learnt English. They faced a lot of hardships, breaking rocks and living for a pittance. What drove them there? What did they face? 

Author Gordon H. Chang  has uncovered the plight of these workers in his latest book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. Chang is Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University. He has written a number of books on Asian-American history and US–East Asian interactions. 

Washington Independent Review of Books says Chang “ has dedicated himself to speaking for a group that cannot speak for itself, even in absentia. He’s dubbed them the ‘ghosts’ of his title because, while the work they did was about as tangible as it gets, their individual identities have evaporated.

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Reviewed by Mir Arif

A Feminist Foremother

Title: A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Edited by: Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan Pvt Ltd.
Pages: 312 (Hardcover)
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In an essay entitled “Griha” [Home] Rokeya Skhawat Hossain (1880-1932) says that Indian women are treated worse than animals since even animals have homes, but Indian women have none: they must always be dependent on a man for shelter. It was in such an unfavourable time that Rokeya emerged as a crusader for the emancipation of Indian women and dedicated her life to building a gender-just society. A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Orient Blackswan, 2017), takes a critical look into Rokeya’s struggle and becoming one of India’s most ‘courageous feminists’. Seen within the socio-cultural and historical context of her times, the book also examines her literary works and social reform activities to better appreciate the challenges she faced as a Bengali Muslim woman.

The book contains 13 essays by reputed academics and critics. It is co-edited by Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and Adjunct Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia; and Md. Mahmudul Hasan, Associate Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). They both have decades-long research on early feminist movement in the Indian subcontinent, especially in undivided Bengal. Professor Quayum has previously edited and translated The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain 1880-1932 (Brill, 2013). Dr. Hasan has a Ph.D in comparative study of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Attia Hosain and Monica Ali.

The first essay, “Rokeya Skhawat Hossain: A Biographical Essay,” by Mohammad A. Quayum provides a comprehensive discussion on Rokeya’s life and works. Professor Quayum highlights how Rokeya—overcoming all kinds of hurdles coming both from her family and society—continued to learn Bengali and English from her elder sister Karimunnesa and elder brother Ibrahim Saber, who contributed immensely to her early literary growth. Her father Abu Ali Saber—whose ancestors migrated to India from Tabriz, Iran in the sixteenth century and settled in Pairaband in 1583—did not want her to learn Bengali or English. For one thing, the Ashraf migrant community and its members, such as Rokeya’s father, looked down upon Bengali as it was spoken by ‘low-born Ajlaf Muslims’. It also deemed Arab and Persian traditions to be ‘authentic Islamic culture’ and detested English as it was the language of a new colonial power. The essay critically evaluates Rokeya’s literary endeavour and social reform initiatives and argues that ‘both her school and her literary works have survived the test of time; both serve as enduring testimonies to Rokeya’s genius and vision as a writer, educationist and social activist.’

Paradise at War

The Siege of Hazratbal

In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.

The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Daughterrs of the Sun

Title: Daughters of the Sun
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)

Babur’s defeat of Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat, 1526, marked the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. Nurtured by his several illustrious descendents, this infant empire, which grew from strength to strength, united a large part of the subcontinent for two centuries and left an indelible impression on Indian history and culture. To this date the history of this empire has been largely studied from the point of view of its political conquests and the socio-economic and cultural developments of its emperors. With a few notable exceptions, women are conspicuously absent in these accounts, despite the fact that Babur owed his success in no small measure to the efforts of the women in his life.

Academic research on Mughal history has so far showcased prominently the characters of Noorjahan, wife of Jehangir, and Jahanara, the favourite daughter of Shahjahan. Books published in the area dating from 1960 onwards, such as Rekha Misra’s Women in Mughal India 1526-1748 A.D. (1967), Renuka Nath’s Notable Mughal and Hindu Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries A.D (1990), Soma Mukherjee’s Royal Mughal Ladies and their Contribution (2001) cover the domestic arena of the Mughal empire in a limited manner.  Written in a prosaic style, these encyclopaedic accounts do not analyse the ramifications of the contribution of Mughal women, much less the sources on which their books are based. This dominant trend was challenged by Ellison Banks Findly’s book Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India (1993), which concentrated on how Muslim and Hindu women negotiated power inside the harem, and later in 2005, by Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World.  Spanning the period from 1487 to1605, the latter highlights the influence of the familial world, especially the role of women, upon the first three Mughal rulers: Babur, Humayun and Akbar. Along with her research papers on the same subject, this book stands out as a remarkable exception to all others written on Mughal women thus far.

Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun endorses and carries forward Lal’s school of thought. An enthralling sociological piece, it covers a bigger time frame, giving us an unusual peep into the private lives of Mughals from the times of Babur to those of Aurangzeb as well as the attempts to drive out the banal images of the harem as a sexualised space, created largely by European accounts. Her nuanced narrative gives voice to fifteen influential but otherwise disappeared Mughal women while throwing light on their complex and changing socio-political status, economic and personal ambitions and the boundaries of their domestic arena.

Reviewed by Sujata Raye

The Hippie Trail

Title: The Hippie Trail – A History
Authors: Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland
Publisher: Aleph

The Hippie Trail is a long awaited book about the history of an era that still evokes fascination. While the ‘hippies’ who made the journey from the west to the east were ordinary people, to the people of the countries they passed through, they were not. They had fixed ideas about white women, formed from images in magazines and in films, and, sometimes, looked upon these visitors as intruders, ‘people looking for drugs and sex’; but that was not the truth, as the 57-58 interviews in the book tells the reader. By the time they finished their journey and returned home, the travellers themselves did not remain ordinary any longer. There were those who were fascinated by the Eastern religion, more specifically the development of Western Buddhism and Hinduism, and by practices like yoga, meditation and alternative medicine. Many looked at their journey as an inner journey; they were simply not interested in drugs.

Ultimate Grandmother Hacks

Chapter 13

Where’s Your Milk Moustache?

There has never been any doubt about the great love that we Indians have for all things dairy, from milk to all the products that milk can churn out—yoghurt, buttermilk, butter, cottage cheese, you name it. Perhaps this has always been so because of the abundance of buffaloes and even cow milk here. There never was any doubt about its importance in our diet, and the goodness it bestows on our body, for both children and adults alike.

However today, like all good things, milk and its need is also being questioned. Why do you think this milky white elixir is tainted all of a sudden? There are no easy answers here. Perhaps, it just succumbed to unnecessary research and even more unnecessary shunning of fat that has gone on an overdrive over the last few decades. When you scrutinize a food too much, you are bound to find something amiss, or rather construct an anomaly using half-baked evidence. That is probably what must have happened with milk as well. Suddenly, it is being associated with weight gain, high cholesterol and multiple other ills in spite of the fact that there is no ‘clear’ reason for it.

No, you are never too old for a milk moustache!

Ultimate Grandmother's Hacks - illustration
Illustrator: Ritabrata Joardar

 

There is no one who is unaware of the benefits of milk. It is the first source of nutrition for humans and continues to be an important food all through their lives. However, it is wrong to think that milk is unnecessary or maybe even harmful for them, and that they can do away with it. It is a healthy snack, a fulfilling appetizer and a perfect breakfast drink. Nothing else can compare to a wholesome glass of milk. Our elders knew and followed this, and we should be smart enough to go back to this school of thought as soon as possible.

Reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Karno's Daughter

Title: Karno’s Daughter
Author: Rimli Sengupta
Pages: (Hardcover) 172
Publisher: Context (2018)
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Remember Baby Haldar’s gritty dark memoir of a domestic servant in Delhi, A Life Less Ordinary? If Baby narrated her dark journey from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur to Delhi, here is ‘Buttermilk’ in Kolkata making a daily commute on the 5.40 a.m. local from Subhashgram to ‘the city’. She goes round on foot then to Tollygunge and to Ballygunge to do kitchen, laundry and cleaning services at half a dozen homes. Why is she called Buttermilk? You get to know when it’s just six more pages to wrap up the book.

Buttermilk hails from a village in Sunderbans, from a farming family. She has a non-maid life back home where Karno Haldar, (yes, another Haldar by pure coincidence) her father, Bashona, her mother, and Buttermilk’s six siblings and her paternal grandparents lived. The village of her marital home, a joint family where agrarian duties are divided, comes later. Karno migrated to the city to pay off a loss of 150 kilos of rice; that’s how the family came to live at Ponchanontola, a Kolkata slum – all because of a crab, a huge crab, that Buttermilk had caught and brought home. This is the story that opens Rimli Sengupta’s debut book, Karno’s Daughter.

The opening chapter, suitably titled “Crab”, gives an impression of an opening in fiction. However, Karno’s Daughter is anything but fiction. It’s one of the best in narrative non-fiction that has been published in recent days in India. The story deals with the rough life of a people who have always lived in correlation to the earth, cultivating their own food.  In a world where hardly one percent of the urban population has an idea of what constitutes our agrarian crisis, Rimli Sengupta chooses an interesting vehicle to impart information on how small-holding rice farmers in rural Bengal subsist.