By Reginald Massey
Glass Scissors by Bobby Nayyar
When one reports about diasporic writing one always expects screeds about how lovely things were ‘back home’ in warmer climes and how there are painful periods of readjustment in cold, grey and unwelcoming Britain. However, Bobby Nayyar’s collection of poems Glass Scissors (Limehousebooks.co.uk: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a refreshing change. In this, his first collection of poems, there is hardly a reference to South Asia from where Nayyar’s family originates. Hence I can state that though of Asian descent he is a completely European poet. He has essayed an entirely new direction for diasporic poets.
Born in Birmingham he read French and Italian at Cambridge and then interned with Faber and Faber in London. As most poets know Eliot was the man who made Faber a leading imprint in poetry publishing. My Faber book though was not a collection of poems but a book about Indian classical dance. However, let me confess that from my time in India as both student and university teacher I took TS Eliot as my Guru in poetry, literary criticism and prose. My students and fellow academics dubbed me ‘India’s T.S. Eliot’. The Punjabi students in particular called me ‘Tirlochan Singh Eliot’. Till today I am greatly under the influence of TSE, the Boston Brahmin of no mean distinction.
The amazing fact about Nayyar’s verses is that there is not a trace or echo of Eliot. Although he does quote a well-known line from Corneille’s Médée, he like Eliot has trawled European literature. His poems, like Caesar’s Gaul, are in three parts: Love and Thunder, The Theatre of Unrest, and Into the Blue Forest. A pity that British public schools no longer take Latin seriously but I have to insert a reference to Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Nayyar’s poems pulse towards a crescendo and are a journey that “starts with the heart but ends with the mind, because when all is said and done, the actions resultant from our thoughts are what will endure”. Having experienced two financial crises, Nayyar has endured periods of severe mental depression. His poems distil and transmute the trauma and the result is the purest cognac. He hesitates to label himself a poet but let me assure him that he certainly is a member of the charmed circle.
Zamorins by V.V. Haridas
The publishers Orient Blackswan (email@example.com) is an Indian company which was once the British-owned Orient Longmans. They have expanded their booklists and their latest publication is Zamorins and the Political Culture of Medieval Kerala by the historian V.V. Haridas. Kerala has a fascinating history and culture where the Zamorins, the rulers of Calicut now called Kozhikode, held sway for about six centuries. The thriving port of Calicut (which gave Europe the word ‘calico’ on account of its popular cotton weaves) welcomed Arab traders from the Gulf sheikhdoms. Many Arabs married local women and thus began the Mopla Muslim community. Temples and mosques were protected by the Hindu rulers of the Nair caste. In fact Syrian Christians thrived in Kerala as did the Jews. Even today the Syrian Christians are an educated and influential component of Kerala society.
History however changed in 1498 when the Portuguese admiral Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and docked in Calicut. This gave the Portuguese an immense advantage over all the other European powers since they did not have to buy spices via Arabs and Ottomans. The Zamorin welcomed Da Gama but the Arab merchants did not. The Arabs knew that these white men had come not only to buy spices, cottons, silks, peacocks and perfumes but were also filled with zeal to spread their brand of aggressive Christianity.
The Arabs knew all about the Inquisition and the surrender of Granada in 1492 when the humiliated Sultan Muhammad XII handed over the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. As was the custom in those times the victorious Ferdinand selected one of the Sultan’s daughters as his concubine from whom he produced a son. News had spread all over the Muslim world about the brutal expulsion of Muslims and Jews by the Catholic Inquisition. Vasco da Gama and the other Portuguese admirals who followed him despised all Muslims and called them ‘Moors’. Many of these ‘Christian explorers’ indulged in wholesale piracy by looting and burning Arab merchant ships. They did not even spare ships carrying Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. All empires are irrigated by the blood of martyrs and innocents.
However, it has to be said that the Portuguese who started their depredations in India well before Babur, the Mughal, took Delhi in 1526 could not have succeeded if there were not deep internal fissures and divisions in India. In Kerala itself there were many kingdoms and chiefdoms that were at war, or in uneasy peace, with each other. The firanghi, the foreigner, played one against the other. For example, Goa, the chief Portuguese colony in India, was acquired by Afonso De Albuquerque in 1510 only because Thimayya, an admiral and agent of the Hindu Vijayanagara kingdom, assisted Albuquerque to defeat the Muslim Sultan of Bijapur. Thus Goa, a part of India, became a colony and then a province of Portugal. Later, Vasco da Gama came back to India as Portugal’s ‘Viceroy of India’. Few know that the Portuguese empire in India outlasted the Mughals, the Mahrattas and even the British.
In 1961 India invaded the ill-equipped and poorly defended Portuguese Goa and comfortably took over the territory. It was only in 1974 that India and Portugal established diplomatic relations and Portugal finally accepted Goa as being a part of India.
But back to the Zamorins. The highest caste in Kerala is the Namboodri clan, the equivalent of the Brahmin caste. The Nairs, the warrior caste, were the chiefs and the rulers. However, their advisors and acharyas were always learned Namboodris. The Zamorins were largely respected by their subjects since they were just and even handed. There were however suicide squads known as ‘cavers’ who were fanatically loyal to their masters. Centuries ago the Portuguese attempted to burn down a Mopla mosque and the Nairs joined the Muslims to fight the Portuguese. Yet how many know about the Zamorins? The Zamorin lineage still exists but only on paper. They have no real power but the family is even today respected by all Keralites. The new state of Kerala strives on as a fit successor to the Zamorins. The literacy rate is a hundred percent, the highest in India, and the health care system for the common man is first class. Nevertheless corruption cases such as the current ‘Solar Scam’ continue to capture the headlines.
Over the decades I have visited Kerala many times because of my interest in Kathakali, Kalari-attam and the enchanting Mohini-attam. The caste system there is very complicated and differs from the caste system in other parts of India, but this is not the place for me to dilate on the subject.
Professor Haridas’s timely text is laid out in ten well researched chapters which despite its emphasis on the Zamorins provides an overall picture of Kerala. This book must be on the recommended list for students of Indian history in Indian and foreign universities.
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