10 May 2018

What I was thinking about a year ago

5 June 2017 - It is Monday, the day after the day after. I am alone in a gallery in the British Museum with the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II. It is late afternoon and rain is battering the glass panels in the ceiling. The fine weather of the past week is already a distant memory, but that’s how summer works in England. The cuneiform inscription around the king reads, among other things “I am important; I am magnificent” before describing how brutally he used to kill his enemies. He has the best brutality, everybody says so.

Before coming to the museum, I had spent the day up the road at the British Library reading eighteenth-century manuscripts. On Saturday night, three terrorists had driven a van into pedestrians at London Bridge and attacked people with knives at the nearby Borough Market. As I went about my day, reading in the library and meeting with colleagues also going about their day, I followed the thread updating on The Guardian’s website, learning more details as the authorities released them. Mostly though I was concerned with honing an argument about whether comical poetry written in Delhi three hundred years ago was a social critique or just harmless fun. Armed police had shot the terrorists dead in eight minutes. I am not a callow, out of touch academic. I am fighting back.

24 January 2016

Eighteenth-century Hindi sayings

In a post on the British Library's Asian and African Studies blog, I discussed a Persian dictionary by the eighteenth-century bureaucrat and connoisseur Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ. The dictionary, Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (ʻMirror of Expressionsʼ) completed in 1158/1745, is a strange work because it's less a dictionary and more a miscellany describing people and things that interested its author. At the end of each chapter, it gives some Persian sayings [muḥāwārāt] sometimes with Hindi equivalents. 

I quoted one of my favourites, dar jang ḥalvā bakhsh nimīkunand [During war they don't hand out sweets], which is rendered in Hindi as laṛāʾī meṁ koʾī laḍḍū nahīṁ baṭte. It's a charming example in part because Persianate halwa has been replaced by Indian laddus. People asked for more examples of Hindi sayings quoted in the text, so here are few:

22 January 2016

Persian food words

I was featured in a NPR food piece by Nina Martyris, "From Candy To Juleps, Persians Left Imprint On Many Edible Delights". A lot of common English names for foods have a Persian or an Indo-Persian connection.

17 February 2015

My Delhi book is out

Delhi Pages from a Forgotten History cover
My new book, Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History, is out from Hay House India:
The megacity that is today’s Delhi is built upon thick layers of history. For a millennium, Delhi has been at the crossroads of trade, culture, and politics. The stories of its buildings and great historical personalities have been told many times, but this book approaches the past of India’s capital through its literary culture. By focusing on writers and thinkers, we meet a colourful cast of characters only glancingly mentioned in political histories.

Many Delhiites are surprised to learn that the language of their city’s cultural heyday was Persian. Despite first being brought to India by invaders, it eventually became an authentically Indian language used in both administration and literature. Although it was cultivated by an elite, it was also a widely available language of aspiration and opportunity, like English today. It connected India to the wider world, and the Indian Subcontinent, particularly Delhi, was once a place where talented poets and scholars from the whole Persian cultural world – from Turkey to eastern China – came to make their fortunes. Its traces remain everywhere but Persian is effectively a dead language in India today.
Scroll.in ran an excerpt from chapter two on same-sex love in Persian literature.

Purchase information:

The publisher's page for the book is here. It is for sale on Amazon.in and Flipkart.com, and in some bookshops. It is not unfortunately yet available outside of India. You can now get it shipped outside of India at Abebooks.com or Abebooks.co.uk, or from DK Agencies.

09 January 2015

"This light and darkness in our chaos join'd"

I re-read Alexander Pope's longish poem An Essay on Man after a decade and a half. I know the world hasn't stopped long enough for us to give poetry its due (murdered cartoonists in particular are weighing on my mind though I could choose from half a dozen other world events that make sitting down with a poem feel wrong). But let me quote the second section, which begins:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great
They don't write like that anymore. The critic Harold Bloom hated An Essay on Man (calling it "a poetic disaster"), which is probably in itself a good reason to have a read. Various other great thinkers through the centuries have either adored or hated the poem.

Didactic poetry, whether the underlying philosophy is solidly formed or shaky, is a genre I have always loved. Pope's expressive power is at its peak ("darkly wise" and "rudely great" are phenomenal turns of phrase), and yet he is presuming to think through the meaning of being human. We haven't solved that one yet, but would someone dare to write a poem of that scope today with such a direct engagement with philosophy? Literary fashions have changed, of course, but the reason is deeper: Our thought is too compartmentalized. 

08 January 2015

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-44), code-name Madeleine

The BBC has a radio documentary on my favourite spy, Noor Inayat Khan. She's probably the only spy who was also a harpist and a Sufi. (Her father was the Sufi teacher Inayat Khan and her mother was his American wife who had taken the name Ameena Begum.)

She spent her tragically brief career working for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in occupied France, relaying information to and from London and aiding the French resistance. She kept her cool after the collapse of the SOE's network in Paris but was betrayed, tortured, and eventually shot in Dachau.

On nice days, I visit Noor in Bloomsbury. In 2012, a bust of her was installed in Gordon Square. As it happens, I've also spent a lot of time at her father's dargah in Nizamuddin in Delhi.


The recent BBC documentary on the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra was also great.

06 June 2012

Things that Only Happen to Other People

The evening we came back to Berlin from Poland, there was a new lock on the door, a no-frills standard-issue lever that no one would have chosen if given a choice. A notice from the police did its best to be warm and friendly (signed, “Ihre Berliner Polizei”—Your Berlin Police), but the fingerprinting dust smeared all over the door suggested otherwise. We walked into the apartment tracking more of the sooty dust down the hallway into the other hallway and into our room. My friend held back because while it was a given that my computer, which I had left sitting on the desk, would be gone, she could only guess at the fate of her viola. (She had taken all of her valuables—camera, computer and iPod—to Poland with her.)