Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Happy Birthday bloggy dear! Shalom, Mr. Segal...

You must be wondering... 'what an unusual topic'... right?? Well, let me explain... but before I do that, let me apologise for being somewhat regularly irregular (or should I say irregularly regular?) on my blog as well as on those that grace my bloglist. Don't blame me, blame my health. But rest assured... I'll read all of your posts... the ones I have missed that is, by and by.

Now the "Happy Birthday" bit is for my blog. My bloggy is now a one year old toddler... and learning to crawl. Actually one year and 4 days today... having been 'born' on 16th Jan., 2009... with the post titled "My First Blog with my Green Thumb!" (link). That was the day... I was finally able to get the better of procrastination and wrote my first post.

Since then my bloggy baby has grown into a healthy toddler... with readers spread over 111 countries (and growing), and an Alexa Traffic Rank of 278,709 (the lower the better). There is an eclectic mix of posts... which suits me fine... and I hope it suits you as well. The IndiRank has taken a tumble from 82 to 76... all because I wrote a post some 9 days later *sad face* Hopefully... it will travel northward soon *cheering up*

The requiem is for Erich Segal... the Ivy League classics professor whose first novel "Love Story" (written in 1970) - became a pop-culture phenomenon, selling more than 20 million copies in three dozen languages and spawning an iconic catchphrase of the 1970s. Erich Segal died at his home in London on Sunday (17th Jan., 2010) at the age of 72. According to his daughter Francesca Segal... he had Parkinson's disease and died of a heart attack. She said he had suffered from Parkinson's disease - a neurological condition that affects movement - for 25 years. His funeral was held in London on Tuesday (19th Jan., 2010).

"What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?" Segal wrote in the first line of the 1970 novel about star-crossed lovers, played in the blockbuster 1970 movie by Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. Followed by: "That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me." Those two lines, summarizes this best-selling novel. There is also the memorable line: "Love means never having to say you're sorry". Spoken twice in the novel and the film; once by Jennifer aka Jenny (McGraw's character) when Oliver (O'Neal's character) is about to apologise to her for his anger. The second time, by Oliver... to his father when Mr. Barrett (his father) says, "I'm sorry" after hearing of Jennifer's death... at the hospital.

The sentimental romance provoked tidal waves of tears and turned its author into a sensation practically overnight. His success unleashed "egotism bordering on megalomania," as Segal said of himself, that helped set off a backlash: He was denied tenure at Yale and "Love Story" was ignominiously bounced from the nomination slate of the National Book Awards after the fiction jury threatened to resign.

"It is a banal book which simply doesn't qualify as literature," said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and fiction jurist William Styron. The National Book Award for fiction that year went to Saul Bellow for "Mr. Sammler's Planet." Needless to say... yours truly has never heard of William Styron. Saul Bellow. Who??

Segal nonetheless continued to write, operating on two planes. He produced eight more works of popular fiction, including "Oliver's Story" (1977), "Man, Woman and Child (1983)", "The Class" (1985) and "Doctors" (1987). He also wrote the academic tomes "Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus" (1987) and "The Death of Comedy" (2001).

He taught at Princeton University, Dartmouth College and Brown University and was a visiting fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford University. The US-born writer was a classics professor at Yale University when he wrote the book "Love Story". Its movie version... directed by Arthur Hiller, with a plaintive, Henry Mancini-composed theme song that wouldn't quit, "Love Story" gained seven Oscar nominations - including one for Segal for writing the screenplay, as well as for best picture, best director and best actor and actress. It won one Oscar, for best music.

The son of a rabbi, Segal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 16, 1937.

According to a 2008 essay by his daughter in Granta magazine, his early childhood was somewhat lonely: For the first six years of his life, he lived with his ailing grandmother and grandfather because his parents' apartment building did not allow children. Left in the care of nannies, he wrote and performed his own plays, which, Francesca Segal wrote, "served the dual purpose of creating a cast of characters he cared about, and making the cast of his own life care more about him." His father wanted him to become a rabbi, but Segal had other plans. He went to Harvard and graduated in 1958 with the dual honors of class poet and Latin salutatory orator. While completing his doctorate at Harvard, he became a lecturer at Yale in 1964, earned his doctorate in 1965 and by 1968 had risen to associate professor of classics and comparative literature.

As a release from the academic grind, he co-wrote with Joe Raposo a musical comedy called "Sing, Muse!" which ran off-Broadway for 39 performances. The reviews brought Segal to the attention of an agent, who helped him secure film work. Segal co-wrote the screenplay for the Beatles' movie "Yellow Submarine" (1968), which fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a Hollywood writer. Segal found himself flying back and forth to London and hobnobbing with the Beatles' legend John Lennon. Simultaneously he published works on Greek tragedy, Latin poetry and ancient athletics.

He wrote "Love Story" as a screenplay but was persuaded by his agent to turn it into a novel... since the latter was convinced it would ruin Segal's reputation as a writer of macho action screenplays. "Love Story" went through 21 hardcover printings in the first 12 months, and the first paperback run of 4.3 million copies was said to be the largest initial print order in publishing history. To quote Francesca, his daughter: "But it had poured from him in what felt like a single sitting and, although he could not have known to what extent, he knew it was worth fighting for." "The two monoliths that dominated my father's identity - the peak and the trough of his life - were 'Love Story' and Parkinson's disease," she added.

A slender 212 pages, this romantic, funny yet tragic "Love Story" is the story of 2 young college grads, whose love was stronger then any of the tests life threw at them. Oliver Barrett IV: a Harvard jock and a (very) rich scion or heir to the Barrett fortune and legacy. Jennifer Cavilleri: a working-class, quick-witted daughter of a Cranston, Rhode Island baker, with not much money, but lots of love. Oliver (Ollie) was expected to follow in his father's huge footsteps, while Jennifer (Jenny), a music major studying at Radcliffe College was to go on and study in Paris. Both come from very different worlds. But when they met, the sparks flew, and we get involved with them as their love grows deep and strong. The story of Jenny and Ollie is a realistic story of two young people who come from two separate worlds and are joined together in the most unlikely of ways. Jenny ultimately dies of a mysterious disease. (While this is not stated explicitly, Jenny appears to be suffering from leukemia).

It struck a chord that critics had difficulty deciphering. Nora Ephron, writing in Esquire, said the book's overwhelming popularity was "something of a mystery." But the chaste romance (it had no overt sex scenes) apparently had wide appeal in a culture that had lost its moorings in the wake of student protests, civil rights marches, assassinations, sexual revolutions and drug experimentation. Segal himself may have offered the best explanation of its success. In a 1970 Time magazine interview, he said: "It's awfully short. It's unabashedly sentimental. But before the end I cried and cried and cried - for 45 minutes. Then I washed my face and finished the book."

Segal would later say that Oliver was based in part on a couple of Harvard undergrad roommates (he knew while teaching at Harvard) who later became quite well known: Former US Vice President Al Gore and Hollywood actor-director Tommy Lee Jones (of The Fugitive, Batman Forever, Men in Black and No Country for Old Men fame). Segal disputed reports that Jenny was based on Gore's future wife, Tipper. Incidentally, in 1970, Jones landed his first film role, appropriately playing a Harvard student in "Love Story". At the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he presented the nominating speech for his college roommate, Al Gore, as the Democratic Party's nominee for the President of the United States.

The author became the darling of talk shows. He appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" four times in four weeks. He happily answered the clamor for interviews, offering statements that came back to bite him. He bragged about his popularity with his students, calling himself "kind of a folk hero at Yale." He compared himself to Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His "never having to say you're sorry" line was so readily absorbed at the lower reaches of the culture that it inspired takeoffs, such as the Santa Barbara dry cleaner that advertised its services on a sign that said "Bringing your clothes to us means never having to say you're soily."

Even O'Neal, whose star had risen with the "Love Story" movie, mocked it in the 1972 comedy "What's Up, Doc?" with Barbra Streisand. At the end of the film, when Barbra Streisand's character coos "Love means never having to say you're sorry" while batting her eyelashes, O'Neal's character deadpans: "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard." John Lennon countered that "Love means having to say you're sorry every 15 minutes."

One of Segal's few defenders was novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who told a Harvard audience that bashing "Love Story" was like "criticizing a chocolate eclair." After he was denied tenure at Yale, Segal moved to Europe. He married an English book editor, Karen James, in 1975. She survives him along with two daughters... Francesca, 29 and Miranda, 20.

Segal grew more cautious of celebrity, choosing to live in London for most of the last three decades. His famous first novel, he told The Times some years ago, "shot me out of the box. Totally ruined me. ... "But I'm not going to say I'm sorry."

At his funeral, his daughter Francesca spoke of the knowledge that had been destroyed by Parkinson's disease. "In (Tom) Stoppard's Arcadia, Thomasina mourns the burning of the library of Alexandria and the losses of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides - all of Aristotle's own library destroyed. And the image has for years made me think of my father, all his erudition and knowledge and wit and puns and stuff consumed in the flames of neurological disease," she said in a eulogy she delivered at his funeral and later e-mailed to the AP.

Paying tribute to her father's tenacity, she added: "That he fought to breathe, fought to live, every second of the last 30 years of illness with such mind-blowing obduracy, is a testament to the core of who he was - a blind obsessionality that saw him pursue his teaching, his writing, his running and my mother, with just the same tenacity. He was the most dogged man any of us will ever know."

"Love Story" has not lost its power to move its readers. Forty years ago it had an entire generation in love and in tears... and still do. All I want to say is... Thank you Mr. Segal for those memorable and era-defining novels. Every book of yours has been and still remains a delightful read.

My sincere condolences to the family of a wonderful writer.

Author's Note: My post on the "Love Story" can be read: HERE.

The one on "Man, Woman and Child" can be read: HERE.

Note: Some info gathered courtesy Wikipedia.

Shalom: The Hebrew word SHALOM is understood around the world to mean peace. But peace is only one small part of the meaning of the word SHALOM. Here in Israel, even though we don't have much in the way of peace, we use the word SHALOM on a daily basis. We use it to greet people with, and we use it to bid farewell to people. However, SHALOM means much more than peace, hello or goodbye.

U.S. President Bill Clinton ended his eulogy for the assassinated (1995) Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin with the words "Shalom, chaver" (Goodbye, friend).


Erich Segal, seen here in 1980, was a classics professor at Yale University. (Maja Langsdorff/Associated Press).

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Culture Vulture" - A Micro Fiction.

Well, a while back I wrote a post (flash fiction) that introduced the protagonist. For those who need to refresh their memories (since its quite foggy and chilly these days *wink*) or require an introduction... click HERE.

Now... before you proceed to read any further, I advice you to read the earlier story (link given above) so as to get the drift... and avoid any disconnect.

He was mighty pleased at the simple yet effective way the 'solution' presented itself... and above all worked. It was quite innovative too. All Thanks to his senior colleague. He was beginning to feel at home... at ease with all the sudden changes that he had to encounter over the last month and half. Those of culture, tradition, language, gastronomic and climatic challenges, et al. Afterall, he had sailed half-way round the world to arrive here... on the shores of Bengal. He has managed quite well until now... managed to survive the transition between the known world and the unknown. He felt adventurous... maybe he need not learn the alien language afterall. He was a part of the Raj... at the end of the day. Or so he thought.

It was a weekend and the weather was pleasant. A perfect day for venturing out and exploring the area... on his own. In the evening there was a garden party... the khansamas (head cooks), khitmatgars (waiters), malis (gardeners) and the other servants would be busy with the arrangements already. There was an awful lot of servants he noted, people had far fewer servants back in England... except for the inhabitants of the Buckingham Palace of course. He checked the British made Smiths Empire contraption in his pocket... it was nearly breakfast time. He continued to read the newspaper. Rather pretended to read it... his mind was elsewhere. He thought about the things he had seen and heard in the last 6 weeks or so... in this British dominion.

Memsahib (the Governor General and Viceroy of India aka the Laat Sahib's better half) had taught the Khansamas about cutlery. The Bawarchis (cooks) were taught to make puddings, pies and pastries using local ingredients. Memsahib did not consider Indian food fit for the civilized masses (meaning the 'Goras'). They hated the smell of Indian foods being cooked. The Goras (Whites) had become self-absorbed and refrained themselves from learning anything about Indian Cuisine. While the Indians did not accept British food beyond the tea and the Ketchup. The tea was modified to 'Garam Chai' (Chai Hot tea Latte), and Ketchup was spiced up to Curry Ketchup... to suit the Indian palate. The Anglo-Indians (children from mixed marriages between the locals and the British) accepted the 'Western bread loaf' (Double Roti), cakes and cookies. In 1887, the British had opened a bakery in Delhi... which was doing decent business (this later became the giant known as the 'Britannia Biscuits Company'.)

To the displeasure of the Memsahib and other aristocratic Memsahibs, some British fell in love with Indian Cuisine and created their own versions: Mulligatawny soup, Jalfrezi, and Worcestershire Sauce. The British coined the term 'Bombay Duck' to describe a lizard like fish found under the piers of the Bombay dock. George V, had 'curry' for lunch almost everyday. In 1884, a group of nuns set up a factory in Meerut to manufacture 'Macaroni', 'Spaghetti', and 'Vermicelli'. (The Vermicelli has been well fused into Indian Cuisine as Sevian Kheer.)

What a strange name - 'Jalfrezi' - he had wondered, while a colleague had volunteered to enlighten him. The British created this method of reheating left-overs and the credit went to the then Governor General for the state of Bengal, Lord Marcus Sandys... who enjoyed spicy Indian foods. He is also credited with converting Tamarind/Jaggery Chutney into Worcestershire Sauce. In Bengali, 'Jhal' means 'spicy hot'. 'Jhal' led to 'Jal'. While 'Frezi' is thought to have been derived from the Urdu word 'Parhezi'... meaning 'a person with discriminating taste'. Some believe it is just a slang for 'Fried, zee!'; where, 'zee' is the Urdu word to emphasize on the instruction to fry.

'Mulligatawny Soup' was quite a tongue-twister for him... and his tongue had still not won the battle. But he found the history attached to it very interesting indeed. Indian cooks (during the British Raj) served a soup course to their rulers... who actually christened it thus. The name is derived from two words... from the Tamil language. 'Millagu' means 'pepper' and 'Thanni' means 'water'. So, the name 'Mulligatawny Soup' or 'Pepper water' was born. He smiled at the memory of his first encounter with this 'red-blooded' soup. He had almost called the fire brigade!

His mind now drifted to the 'Worcestershire Sauce'. In 1835, Lord Marcus Sandys, an ex-Governor of Bengal, approached chemists John Lea and William Perrins, whose prospering business in Broad Street, Worcester, handled pharmaceuticals and toiletries as well as groceries. He asked them to make up a sauce from a recipe which he brought back from India. While his lordship was apparently satisfied with the results, Messrs Lea and Perrins considered it to be an "unpalatable, red-hot fire-water" and consigned the quantity they had made for themselves to the cellars. During the stocktaking/spring clean the following year, they came across the barrel and decided to taste it before discarding it. To their amazement, the mixture had mellowed into an aromatic, piquant and appetizing liquid. They hastily purchased the recipe from Lord Sandys and, in 1838, the Anglo-Indian Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was launched commercially.

One of the myriad 19th-century pungent English sauces based on oriental ingredients, it had many imitators sporting pretentious names such as "British Lion" and "Empress of India". Its exact recipe remains a secret. All that is known is that it includes vinegar, sugar, soya sauce, molasses, tamarind, shallots, anchovies, ginger, chili, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. He has yet to taste it though... the very mention of the word 'chili'... sets off alarm bells in his head.

Words can be deceptive. The 'Bombay Duck' taught him this lesson... without a shred of doubt. Expecting a well-cooked and delicious dish consisting of a member of the feathered species... he was instead greeted with a scaly inhabitant from the salty waters. He had been so overwhelmed by its 'fragrance' that he had choked and nearly fainted... and had to be carried away to safer environs. Later... yet another colleague tutored him.

'Bombay Duck' is not a 'Duck'. 'Duck' is a slang for the Hindi word 'Dak'. 'Dak' in Hindi stands for 'mail'. 'Bombay Duck' is a small fish normally called as 'Bumla'... found near the piers of Bombay (Mumbai). The fish is scaled, cleaned, filleted as strips, salted and dried. After it is dried, it has a very strong and distinct fishy odour. In an air tight jar, it can be stored indefinitely. The British could not say 'Bumla', so they called it 'Bombay Dak', referring to the smell of the 'Bombay Mail'. The fish was not transported by train... but the mail was. And the mail would gather/catch the strong fishy odour from the area where it was loaded. He was also told that fresh fish is used to make 'fish fry'. His GK has been constantly traveling northward... ever since his arrival.

The Memsahibs brought and planted new fruits: Apricots, Peaches, Pears, and Plums in the Nilgiri Hills. The British improved the local strawberry (Fragaria indica) in Mahabaleshwar. From England, they brought new vegetables and planted here: Cauliflower (Gobhi), Cabbage (Bund Gobhi), and Kohlrabi. The Memsahibs brought in flowers to decorate their homes, and planted: Carnations, Dahlia, Daisies, Gladiolas, Impatience, Lilies, Pansies, Petunias, Poinsettias (red), and some varieties of roses.

He was deep in thought... the punkah-wallah was at his job. Suddenly... the door was flung open and two servants rushed in. They spoke excitedly... simultaneously. It was a strange cacophony... he was baffled.

The Gowala (cow attendant) was saying, "I go up" over and over again... pointing to his right eye.

The other, a Coolie was saying, "We go down"... breathlessly.

He did not understand what they were trying to convey... even though the words were english sounding. His senior had indicated that the servants here spoke a kind of pidgin english. But he couldn't comprehend anything at all.

He sat there... stunned. Then with a wave of his hand... asked them to leave.

Still no sign of the breakfast...

He decided to skip it and explore the area instead. He could even have it at a restaurant... if he wanted to. He stood up... put on his hat and coat. His Chopdar (silver stick bearer)... an old man... handed him his walking stick. He set off...

It was quite pleasant outside... with a nip in the air. Few people or transport... on the road. He walked on...

He came across a few flower-sellers... on the pavement. The flowers looked fresh and he was struck by all the myriad kinds in a variety of colours. He stopped... to admire them. One the flower-sellers... an old woman... kept saying "bouni, bouni". He shook his head... and kept on looking at the flowers. Now, two others joined the old woman in chanting "bouni, bouni". Confused, he walked away.

Another seller... a younger woman... approached him. She had a young boy with her. They came beside him, with a bunch of flowers, "Take take, no take no take, ekbar toh see!"

At this he shook his head even more vigorously and quicked his pace.

Feeling quite hungry now... he looked at the shops... searching for a restaurant. He found a signboard proclaiming... "Mr. Beef Seafood Restaurant". There were some Chinese characters following it. He stood for a while with raised eyebrows... on the pavement across the road.

Moving on... he came across a few more signs. "Brain Disease Curing Set", "Oil Gates", "An Excellent Winding Smoke" and a small signboard which stated, "The slippery are very crafty".

He walked on... his mind still absorbing all of this... the newly acquired 'knowledge-cum-cultural orientation' that is.

After a while he came across another restaurant offering "Mixed Chow with Garlic Mud". By now he was quite famished... and decided to try out this one. But before he could push the door open, a Chinese man appeared before him, blocking the way... and respectfully said "No go". He tried to reason with him... but the man merely repeated those two words... each time.

He shrugged his shoulders and moved on... and after a while came across a bilingual signboard: "Bengal Famous Oil-Fried Shop".

He walked on and found himself staring at "Copulation Accessories"... with "No can do" written underneath.

He retraced his steps...


A British couple at the dining table attended to by the khidmatgars... during the British Raj. Pic courtesy: link.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tales of 'Dakats'... 'Ron-paa'/'Bojra'/'Panshi'... and 'Honour among thieves'... errr 'Dakats'!

This is my first post in 2010. Before I begin... let me wish you all a very Happy and Fabulous New Year! In this post, I intend to continue with my series on the dacoits... rather the Bengal dakats.

Author's Note: To read "Tales of Dacoits and one unique story... dating back three centuries!" click HERE. The story "Girl as Kali-Ma" can be read in this post.

"Life and times of the 'Bengal Dakats'... (Part - I)" can be read HERE. The equipments used and the unique mode of communication (including the 'gupto bhasha') followed by the dakats of yore can be read here.

"Tales of 'Dakats' and 'Dakate Kali'" is HERE. In this post you'll find the link leading to a compilation of 20 stories, "Bengal Dacoits and Tigers" (1916) by the Maharanee Sunity Devee, C.I. of Cooch Behar. An incident based on a true story involving the spine-chilling ritual/practice of 'nara bali' can also be found here. Read on...

Writers down the ages have been seduced by the literary possibilities of what can be termed the "outlaw" genre. Muscled bandits, eyes glowing through a lot of facial hair, with or without a heart of gold, riding hell for leather on powerful stallions, to raid houses in remote villages. Remember Sholay? Indian bandits - with the exciting backdrop of impenetrable jungles, wild animals and wilder exploits - have been storytellers' favourites for a long time now. Whether it was Daku Man Singh, the original bandit queen Putlibai or the more recent Phoolan Devi and Veerappan - who can resist the romance and danger inherent in their lives?

The Bengal dakats were not the usual horse riding kind. Their means of communication and transportation were truly unique... that cannot be found anywhere else. In those days, Bengal was undivided, meaning... there was no Bangladesh/East Pakistan. The entire area covering current West Bengal and Bangladesh (erstwhile East Bengal) was referred to as 'Bengal'. In the western part of Bengal (i.e., current West Bengal) people usually commuted on land, but in a riverine area like East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh)... people traveled via the waterways.

For commuting via these waterways, the dakats did not depend on conventional forms of travel... like boats (both passenger and fishing), steamers, launchs, ships, etc. They made some unique 'inventions'... which truly reflect their ingenuity and genius. More so... since they were usually uneducated fellows. But then, who said that 'education' or 'knowledge' is gained only within the four walls of the classroom in schools and colleges or by entering the hallowed portals of exalted universities/institutions... ??? 'Experience' is the greatest teacher and 'necessity is the mother of invention'... right... ??? Right!

The dakats invented the 'panshi' and the 'bojra' (country ship)... which were essentially 'slim long boats'. These were narrow boats with a paddle capacity/space of 20-30. Having many oars, these lightweight crafts could bear many people... and moved swiftly. Yes, that is the keyword... 'swiftly'. Infact, these panshis and bojras were very fast. The 'pirates' (jala dashshus) were in a class of their own. However, some of the bands of dakats who committed dacoity/dakaty on land... too availed of the 'panshi' and the 'bojra'. Deprived of good roads and transport to commute from one rural location to another - one had to remain alert for the attack of dacoits on the lonely stretches, during the night-travels on a bullock cart or a 'palki' (palanquin).

The present day 'pirates' or 'jala dashshus' ('Jala' is water and 'dashshu' is brigand/dacoit... in Bangla) usually commit dacoity... by traveling/using passenger boats on large rivers. On seeing any passenger boat/launch nearby, these dacoits request those passengers for a little fire: "Please spare us a little fire." Thereafter, on the pretext of 'borrowing' fire they bring their craft alongside their targetted boat/launch and proceed to attack. In this region, a class of cruel and wicked pirates named 'Bijanaa' commit dacoity on the river Padma in this typical fashion even today. Due to this, the boatmen engaged by the traders or jewelers and passenger crafts ought to never stop their boats out of compassion for lending fire or tobacco. Rather, the moment they hear a request, "a little fire please", "a little water ('mitha pani' i.e., 'drinking water') please", or "a little tobacco please"... they should not stop or slow down, rather increase their spead and move their craft far away. Among these criminal-natured pirates, the 'Sandaar' and 'Goaynaa' bands were/are notorious. These pirates roam about in boats and live on the fish they catch. Portuguese pirates (called 'bombete'), salt smugglers and dacoits operated in the Sundarbans... in the 17th century.

In the past many kings, Nawabs and Zamindars (landlords) used to take the help of these pirates quite often... during a war or to take possession of some land. After the fall of these landlords and princely houses/states, for some time these riverine bandits were forced to eke out their livelihoods only by means of dacoity. Like these pirates, the land dacoits were also extremely powerful in this region in the past. At places, their leaders have received honours equivalent to kings. In the past, landlords were even forced to pay them annual taxes. During the first part of the British rule in India, their power and influence was quite substantial. It is even said that the ancestors of some of the famous Zamindar families of today were dacoits.

The land dacoits used a type of bamboo staff called the 'Ron-paa' (stilt) for traveling. 'Ron' here signifies 'battle' and 'paa' is 'leg'. 'Ron-paa' is made of two pieces of slim bamboo. In the centre of these bamboo staffs... there is a knot. Placing their feet on these knots and thereby gaining in height or rather rising far up (from the ground)... these dacoits could travel at a speed of twelve miles an hour on these "battle-legs". With the help of these "battle-legs" they were able as a team... to cross through and across canals, tanks, fields, plains and undergrowth very swiftly. When these dacoits traveled on these "battle-legs", they would appear like 'massive giants striding on huge legs'. The use of these "Ron-paa" or "battle legs" demands great practice. Perhaps, just as none have been able to master the art of skiing on snow as well as the Finns... none but the Bengalis (and foremost among them were the 'Bengal dakats') have been able to use this "Ron-paa" so skillfully. The dacoits - expert in using it - can be compared with modern 'mechanized troops'. During the rule of the Bengali kings... soldiers used this "ron-paa" for speedy travel and because of this... these "artificial legs" were also referred to as the "battle-legs".

The Roman troops had several signature maneuvers in the battlefield... you must be familiar with them... they have been lampooned at in the Asterix series! Similarly, in ancient India too the ritual of battle was somewhat thus: in the first line, like the huge tanks of today, armoured elephants would crash through all obstacles and dangers with their huge bodies and behind these 'living tank-columns' would rush the chariots and cavalry, much like the motorized columns of today. But though this battle technique was effective on the hard ground and hilly terrain of North and South India, it was absolutely useless in Bengal... which was bereft of land routes and was full of marshy land. Therefore, in this region, kings and chieftains had to resort to fishing boats for traveling swiftly over the water bodies and to this "Ron-paa" for travel on land. In a way, the "Ron-paa" is an indigenous invention of the Bengali warrior. Needless to say, after the fall of the large royal families it was their scattered and disbanded soldiers who built up these dacoit bands in the past. The word "Ron-paa" and its near monopoly use by the dacoit gangs is a sure proof of this. From irregular acts of looting during famine/festivals etc... they graduated to indulging in the organised armed activities of professional dacoits.

When these dacoits came to eat at any zamindar's place - they would of course "self-invite" themselves - they refused to take salt. i.e., they used to have salt-less food, for they knew that good relations might not continue forever with these zamindars. Also 'salt' has a different connotation in our culture... it is equated with 'loyalty'. There is a saying: "namak khaya hai" (meaning: 'have taken salt'... which binds the person[s] to remain forever loyal to the one who has given/provided them the namak [salt]). One who breaks this hallowed/sacred bond/duty is taunted as a "namak haram" (meaning: disloyal/cheat/dishonourable). Even dakats would not want to be labelled thus! Talk about 'Honour among thieves'... errr dakats... !!!

Hunting for hidden treasure, they have even tied men to wooden posts and scorched them with 'kolkey' (clay pipes used for smoking tobacco). As for the women, let alone touch them, they have never even tried to take a single ornament off their bodies. They were true gentlemen indeed! What?? But this cannot be said about the dacoits of today. These modern dacoits at times perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on women and men... even on children and babies... indiscriminately.

Many of the dakat/dacoit gangs that came into being at the beginning of the British rule were 'sepoys' (foot soldiers) and 'lathials' (private army) dismissed by the zamindars. During the Pathan rule, these zamindars were fully autonomous with respect to internal government. Therefore, they had to establish these 'sepoys' and 'lathials' in the areas governed by them... in most cases, for generations... by gifting them land. So, by family tradition, their very profession became: 'fighting for the zamindars'. Even though under the Mughals the autonomy of the zamindars was slightly abridged, they went on sustaining these fighters for a long time for their personal requirements.

Under the English too, the responsibility for maintaining law and order was vested in these zamindars... for a while that is. Thereafter, on establishment of the police force (usually referred to as the 'lal pagdi' or the 'red-turbuned'... due to the red coloured 'turban' or 'head gear' they wore) and the judiciary, the zamindars had no longer any need for them. Many of these dismissed 'lathials' began to serve with the dacoit leaders of those times for their livelihood. Hence, at that time in every district of Bengal, several dacoit gangs had sprung up. It can be declared with surety that some dacoits of today (belonging to or categorized under the 'criminal tribes') are the unworthy descendants of these very warriors (sepoys/lathials). What a pity!

The dakats/dacoits of yore used to worship Ma Kali before embarking on any 'mission'. Hence, the form of Ma Kali worshipped by them was called 'dakatay kali'. Some even offered 'soma ras' or pure wine as a 'bhog' (offering of food) to appease the goddess... apart from 'nara bali' of course. With the passage of time... this custom changed and rams (male goats), sheep or buffaloes were sacrificed instead. It is said that Krishnananda Agamvagish (c. 15th-16th century) introduced the worship of *Daksinkalika in Bengal. During the time of Maharaja Krishnachandra Roy of Nadia (1710-1783, reign: 1728-1782), the worship of Ma Kali was well established in Bengal. Bengal also went through a phase of huge cultural revolution during his reign. His navaratna (nine jewels) sabha still plays a significant role in the cultural development of Bengal.

Legend says that Lord Shiva appeared before Maharaja Krishnachandra (the king of Nadia) in his dream, and told him that he was shifting his base from Kasi to his capital. So, in order to please the Lord... the Maharaja set up his new capital at Shivniwas, and constructed 108 (although historians have doubted this figure) temples in his honour. But historians have come up with a more rational explanation. They say that in the middle of the 18th century Maharaja Krishnachandra in order to save his capital Krishnanagar from the invading Maratha dacoits (Borgis) shifted it to Shivniwas, which was surrounded on three sides by the Churni River, thus providing a natural protection from the invading borgis. After shifting his capital the Maharaja christened it Shivniwas, probably after Lord Shiva. However, some historians claim that it was named after his son... Shiva Chandra.

It is generally thought that Durga Puja was not prevalent anywhere in Bengal before the 15th century. In the folk songs of the Bauls (wandering minstrels of the North and Western part of Bengal), the arrival of Gouri (another name for goddess Durga) in Autumn, has been sung.

The historical evidence of Durga Puja can be traced to the time of Hossain Shah Sultan of Bengal. It was (supposedly) the Golden Age of Bengal, the end of the fifteenth century. Political power was in the hands of the zamindars. The zamindars of North Bengal were all powerful. There was great rivalry between the zamindars of Dinajpur and Malda... for social supremacy. The zamindar of Dinajpur initiated Durga Puja... 'Akal Bodhan', on the day when Lord Shri Ram was supposed to have worshipped Ma Durga. He spent Rs. 9 lakhs. There was great pomp and pageantry and the climate was excellent as it was 'Ashwin' (Autumn... referred to as 'Shôrot' in Bengali and 'Sharad' in Hindi).

The zamindar of Malda... in order to out-beat his rival performed 'Basanti Puja' according to Puranic tradition during 'Chaitra' ('Chaitro' in Bengali, this month is associated with the coming of Spring) and spent Rs. 9.5 lakhs. From the following year onwards, both conducted Durga Puja in Autumn.

Later, the centre of Muslim rule shifted from Gaur (Gour) to Dhaka. The zamindars flourshed in East Bengal. They vied with each other and Durga Puja was performed by most. In the 18th century, it spread to other parts of Bengal. It is difficult to pinpoint the date but Radhakanto Deb and Kalikrishna Thakur brought the festival to Calcutta (Kolkata).
The Maratha dacoits/Marhatta raiders or the 'Borgis' (Bargis) would annually invade Bengal for about 10 years (1741–1751). They adopted Durga Puja and carried it westward with them.

Today, however, the dakats have become atheists and do not worship Ma Kali or Ma Durga any more...

(More later...)

Note: Some info gathered, courtesy: Wikipedia.

As Daksinakalika, Kali appears in her most fearsome aspect and is the most widely worshipped. In this aspect, she is shown as dark, four-armed and wearing a string of human heads with blood still dripping from them. She is three-eyed, with one eye in the centre of her forehead. She stands on the chest of Shiva and is encircled by his worshippers.


The picture of a bojra (country ship). Pic courtesy: link.