Galileo's Salute - and Other Fragments
An entry in the Guinness book of perhaps the late 1970's (as quoted by a Desi Year Book that I encountered in the early 1980s):
The greatest serial killer - To propitiate the goddess Kali, Behram, an Indian murderer, sacrificed 931 people. He carried out his murders in the state of Oudh in the early 19th century.
I recall, the shock of the number was amplified by the acute embarassment of Behram being Indian. One could easily visualize the fellow as a scarlet-robed, corpulent priest wielding a broad-bladed scimitar, about to chop off yet another victim's head under the malignant glare of a colossal Kali idol (the Amar Chitra Katha volume 'Kapala Kundala' has an evil Kapalik). But therein was just a bit of serious fishiness - his name. For I knew, thanks again to another Amar volume that Muslim 'slave' empress Razia was overthrown by a half-brother of hers called Behram (*). So, Behram was a Muslim name. How could a Muslim be such a fanatical Kali-worshipper? Then one reasoned: "The Brits would have misspelt the Hindu name 'Bhairav'/'Bhairaon' as Behram; after all, they coined Indian names like 'Mahomet Singh' - one of the villains in the 'Sign of Four'"
Just last week, I happened to read a bit on the phenomenon of thuggee - the terrible secret society of Indian killers called 'thugs' and about the man most responsible to stamping them out - William Sleeman (the source: 'Thug' by Mike Dash).
Thugs killed by strangling (with a team of 3 or more operators attacking each victim). They also robbed their victims but only *after* the kill; they would take no hostages and wouldn't spare anyone. Thugs hunted in packs and communicated among themselves in a secret sign language; they were a near-countrywide secret society, with thousands of initiates. Membership in this fraternity was often hereditary and in many families, a proud tradition. And a very healthy fraction of the thug community had Muslim names.
In Dash's book, I re-encountered Behram and was surprised to know he was a thug from Oudh. And then, I saw that even Wiki has an article on Behram - he certainly was no 'Bhairav-Shairav' but plain Behram. After capture, he claimed to have been present at 931 murders (a claim downgraded to 125 in some versions of his story; anyways, if he were a proper thug, all his murders must have been 'achieved' by teamwork and of course, he would not have decapitated anyone). An alleged portrait of his available online shows a smart young man dressed in the secular fashion of those days (nothing whatever like a tantrik) - although when the Company caught and hanged him, he was said to be 75 years old. And he is also said to have had a son named Ali.
Now, where is Kali in all this? Kali was the tutelery diety of the 'profession' of Thuggee (just as Vishwakarma still is for many artisans); ergo, Behram and co's murders were to appease Kali (only) to the extent that a Desi goldsmith's day-to-day work is a puja to Vishwakarma.
Rather than quote Behram as an example to show Hinduism as intrinsically evil (the old Guinness entry certainly is in perfect sync with such a 'Temple of Doom' picture) or vehemently assert: "no, no, he was a Muslim!", one had better recall Amartya Sen's professorial remark: "Indians of any background should have reason enough to celebrate their historical and cultural association with [for example] Nagarjuna's penetrating philosophical arguments, Harsa's philanthropic leadership, Maitreyi's or Gargi's searching questions, Carvaka's reasoned scepticism, Aryabhata's astronomical and mathematical departures, Kalidasa's dazzling poetry, Sudraka's subversive drama, Abul Fazl's astounding scholarship, Shah Jahan's aesthetic vision, Ramanujan's mathematics, or Ravi Shankar's and Ali Akbar Khan's music, without first having to check the religious background of each." and then, with reference to the other end of the spectrum, add: "Indians of any background should have reason enough to hang their heads in utter shame over [for example] Manu's bigotry, Aurangzeb's fanaticism, .... (some more usual suspects), Behram and the Thugs' murderous frenzy,..., without having to check the religious background of each." Note: IMO, Amartya Sen's selection reveals some interesting biases, but this is not the place to get into that.
Note: Mike Dash's book is quite remarkable for descriptive passages that recreate the harsh, pathless land that was the Indian 'mofussil' during most of the Nation's history.
AN ODE TO A BUILDER OF DAMS:
When I was a primary schooler, there was panic that the Mullaperiyar dam might break any day and that a quarter of Kerala would be washed away; the hubbub lasted a few weeks and then petered out. A generation later, things flared up again in 2011. Politicians in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu (helped by very hyper visual media on both sides) fanned it into a major inter-people crisis. The tension persisted for a few months. Then, as if everyone concerned had gotten bored, things went into remission again.
And then, the other day, I saw an essay: 'An Ode to an Engineer' by Anand Pandian in the anthology 'Waterlines' edited by Amita Baviskar. I quote a bit (with some heavy editing):
"In December 2001, a few young men from the bustling town of Cumbum (it lies in the formerly barren rainshadow of the Western Ghats in the far west of Tamil Nadu) circulated invitations to an opening gala for the new internet cafe they had just established. ... The invitations proudly stated that their 'Green Valley Internet Browsing Center' was dedicated to the memory of 'Respected Benny Quick, the Founder of Cumbum Green Valley'.. ... The browsing cente was in the name of Colonel John Pennycuick, the colonial hydraulic engineer, almost universally credited with having brought a prerennial stream of river water into the Cumbum valley and the arid plains of Madurai.
In recent times, statues of Pennycuick have proliferated throughout the region. ... He is celebrated today for leading the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam which channelled the voluminous monsoon flow of Malabar's great Periyar river into the watershed of Vaigai.... (in a) magnificent engineering feat....The figure of Pennycuick dominates contemporary popular memories of the dam..."
The article quotes in translation an Tamil ode to the firangi engineer by a certain early 20th century poet named Anthony Muthu Pillai - Pennycuick "drove off burning hunger and crippling drought... he gave food, he gave Life, and spread a green silk brocade in this Cumbum valley" and the ode asserts: "his glorious memory shall live forever in our grateful hearts!"
Pandian sums up: "the dam channelled not just Water but Compassion!"
Must say, the eulogies remind me of how the legendary hydraulics expert Yu is remembered in China (he tamed the Yellow river). But I have known Yu for decades and had never even heard of Pennycuick till a few days back! Indeed, it is shocking that few in Kerala know about Penny, the object of such profound veneration just beyond the hills, and of the real impact his work has had on generations of denizens of that part of our country. Whatever, before the controversy erupts again (its present sleep may last decades but it will rear its head again for sure), I appeal to at least my Mal readers to read at least Pandian's essay; at the very least, it reveals how high the stakes are on 'the other side'.
Saw the French film classic 'Le Grande Illusion' by Renoir. Wonder if the look of the sad, stiff, monocled snob, Capt. von Rauffenstein inspired Herge's Colonel Sponsz!
After what happened in the sea off Kollam recently, there are many Mallus who think (with some reason) Italians are devious folk - shooting down unarmed strangers like turkeys, then resorting to cultural and religious sentimentalism, International holier-than-thou homilies and plain bribery to save from merited punishment the backsides of the perpetrators of such a mindless act.
But whatever be the truth behind the sad maritime drama, I remain an admirer of Italy for its crazy creativity. Italians' heyday as a people smarter than anybody else might be long gone but they still have not given up *trying to be smarter than they themselves are* - and that is the one Human quality that appeals to me most. For instance, where else would one see such a thing as this:
From the Wiki article on the 'Museo Galileo' in Florence:
"Among the more famous of its collections is the middle finger from Galileo Galilei's right hand, which was removed when Galileo's remains were transported to a new burial spot on April 12, 1737."
Elsewhere online, one sees photos of the hallowed digit as it sits in splendid isolation in a glass bubble, saluting the visitor and the World its one time possessor had helped decipher.