Month of Anniversaries
Itihaas May, 17th, 1998 Akhilesh Mithal
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May is a month full of anniversaries. The second coming of the European adventurer. The first was Alexander III of Macedonia who wanted to “conquer the world.” He set a very bad example of mass murder, loot and arson which, alas, many people followed in later years and centuries.

The one who came 500 years ago, on May 23, 1498, was a Portuguese seaman in a boat copied from an Indian craft and piloted by a Gujarati. He had nothing to offer except perhaps, the fortified wine called “port” and there were not many takers for that in 1498!

In exchange, he wanted Indian spices and textiles which were then like currency in many parts of the world. Fortunately for him and other European adventurers, the metallurgy of Europe had made great strides in the design and manufacture of firearms.

Unlike bows and arrows, swords and spears, firearms make Army numbers without similar fire power innocuous and irrelevant. The next many centuries were a period when third class European armies could make mincemeat of any Asian Army of any quality. The result was disastrous for India and Asia.

The question may well be asked: “Did not the Europeans have any feeling for fellow human beings?” The answer has to be “No.” Even now the Russian attitude to the Chechens and the Israeli point of view towards the Palestinian Arab shows no trace of humanitarian feeling.

In the end of the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church was suffering from a great turmoil and survival was the only motivating force which brings us to the second anniversary of May. The date, May 23, 1498, saw a monk, Girolamo Savonarola, burnt at the stake.

Burnt alive after great torture. What was his crime? Savonarola wanted the Church to return to “pristine” purity. The regular clergy, popes, archbishops, cardinals quite enjoyed living off the fat of the land and indulging all the pleasures of the flesh.

The monk took to preaching against lasciviousness and arraigned the increasingly “pin up” quality of the paintings. The passion in his speech canbe judged from the effect it had on the artists. Botticelli, Bartolomeo and Lorenzo de Credi pulled out all the nudes they had drawn and painted from their ateliers and burnt them.

Bartolomeo made a vow that if spared he would take the orders and devote the rest of his life to the Church.Pope Alexander VI could not allow Savoranola to undermine the authority of the clergy. He excommunicated Savoranola.

With his life on the line Savoranola took sanctuary and hoped that that this would enable him to survive. It was not to be. After all attempts to make him surrender and recant had failed, the monastery was stormed, the sanctuary violated and Savonarola captured.

Thus the process of the torture and the trial specially dreamt up by the Ghoulish Inquisition had full play from April 8 when Savonarola was captured until May 23, 1498, when he was tied to a stake and burnt alive in full public view.

This incident should provide an insight into the European mindset at the time of their second coming to India.In brief, the Church bred a monoculture in which everyone not totally subservient to its will was a heretic and meant as food for hell fires.

The heathen was no better than a heretic. Any suffering inflicted upon them was “for their own good.” The Portuguese territories in India had to suffer all the tortures of the Inquisition. The third of the anniversaries is the most interesting of all.

It is the celebration of the birth of a great poet Mirza Asadulla Beg “Ghalib.”

He was born in December, 1797 and the great celebration should have taken place in winter and not when temperatures are 45C! But we are always late and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Independence in the 51st year.

So, what is special about the Mirza? Perhaps the speciality is that the greatest living poet of Urdu, Ahmad Faraz, has postponed important engagements in the US and Indonesia in order to attend the festivities and make his offering. In the US he had to see the surgeon who performed an emergency angioplasty to clear total blockage.

The Jakarta visit is to get paper for books. Faraz runs the Book Trust of Pakistan.Perhaps, this is the right time to retail the Faraz story about Ghalib. In the US while speaking on Ghalib, Faraz made a very daring remark. He said that Ghalib was unique and special as he had a verse for any occasion and every situation.

This was in a public lecture. A couple of days later, at a private dinner, a lady accosted him. She said, “You claimed that Ghalib has a verse for any occasion and every situation. I will now tell you a story. You would be hard put to fit a verse of anyone, including Ghalib, which will suit the situation.

Her story was, “A man was visiting a zoo when El Nino (the unpredictable weather factor) played up. All hell broke loose. The electricity failed. The telephone lines went down and the roads became impassable because of the downpour and the flooding.

The man tried to call home or neighbours or anyone who would convey news of his predicament to his wife. All attempts failed. The night was cold and there was no shelter available anywhere. It looked as if he would freeze to death. As he looked around he saw that the door to the lion’s cage was ajar because the cage bars had been twisted by the storm.

The straw and the heater and the animals made the place warm. The animals were even more frightened than himself and were cowering in a corner huddled against each other for warmth and comfort. Our hero crept into the lion’s cage and lay down in the straw and fell asleep.

The wife had also tried her best to get news of her husband. As soon as it was first light she drove to the zoo and started searching for her mate. When she found him snoring in the lion’s cage she entered it, woke him up with a prod of the toe of her shoe.”

“You coward!” she said, “you miserable lily livered yellow punk! You are hiding here instead of facing the music at home for being late!” Faraz and even more Mirza Asadulla Beg Ghalib measured equal to the situation.

The memory of Faraz brought up the gem which we quote in Roman to allow readers to savour its roll on the tongue and, if spoken aloud, its sussuration to the ear: Duhaaney sher mein jaa baitthiyoa muggur aiy dil! Neh khuday hoiyoa khoubaaney dil aazaar kay saath! (O my (poor) heart take my advise and go and sit even in the very jaws of a lion.

Do not on any account frequent the beauties for they will torture and agonise you mercilessly.)A Mushaira in a city where there are no longer any aficionados, lovers or enthusiasts of Urdu may be a sham and tokenism but so what?Ghalib was Ghalib.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1998. All rights reserved.
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