A WORD ABOUT HISTORY
Arare October snowstorm along the edge of the Atlantic can be the best of times and the worst of times. The trees along the highway between Philadelphia and New York put on their winter make-up of white-bright talcum while the low sky broods with grey intensity. The snowflakes are deceptive. They fall like tossed cotton but carry the power of heavy metal when bound into ice. One icepack fell on the roof of our sedan from a girder of a bridge with the clang of a rock, startling the driver whose principal virtue so far had been an unblemished Punjab-origin optimism. The snowstorm stretched a two-hour drive to a disconcerting four.
A book is a good companion for bad weather. It helps split the personality. Half of me was engrossed in the anxious beauty of the storm while the other half flirted with facts about the first millennium in a splendid tome called Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.
History roams on many routes to the past, but a pretty good way to navigate is through the story of words. The next time you are bahadur enough to ask your naukarchakar to buy subzi at inflationary prices from the bazaar, and then give it to the bawarchi to cook, remember that each of the italicised words came to India from the silken route between China, Central Asia and Persia in the 13th and 14th centuries. Time, however, has altered the inflexion of meaning, and not for the better. During the supposedly stratified age of Mongol emperors and hordes, noker and chakar were warriors of the finest professional pedigree, and part of the protective ring around the ruler. It was a military aristocracy based on ability not birth; the chakar was a symbol of courage who looked upon “death as returning home”. In our allegedly democratic times, naukarchakar have been reduced to menial whipping boys.
Chingiz Khan’s nokers were close enough to be considered friends, and formed the core of his imperial bodyguard known as kesig. This team took responsibility for all aspects of his security, including protection from poison. The ba-urchi was the steward with special responsibility for the kitchen, one of the select braves or baaturs. The current incarnation of these terms, bawarchi and bahadur, is less than heroic, conjuring images of a chap wearing a lungi in Calcutta or a puny doorman in Mumbai. Khubilai Khan, the grandest of the Mongol- Chinese emperors, had 12,000 such bodyguards. Marco Polo reports that the Khan had gifted each one with 13 robes in different colours, and estimated that the lot would have needed over a million yards of silk.
Evolution is rarely in a hurry; the meaning took its time to change in India. As horseback conquerors settled down to become a comfortable ruling class, their court acquired the flab of sedentary power, and the ethics of older class and caste systems. Work had once lifted your status, now status became graded into cemented categories. Anyone in the ruler’s service became, well, a servant. The British added a contemptuous dimension to inherited hierarchies. They allotted the Mughal imperial court dress to cooks and attendants, and imposed their three-piece suits and neckties on the compradors that they co-opted into the second and third tiers of their Raj. Go to any Brown Sahib club in Delhi for confirmatory evidence. The Indian middle class, which has become the new ruling community in our postindependence democracy, has adopted the superiorit-ycomplex of feudal and coloniser without the former’s generosity or the latter’s efficiency.
American boys 50 years ago would dream of becoming cops who chased and killed robbers. There are no cops in America today. They are all police officers. It stands to reason. If you sit in an office, you are an officer. Train drivers are called engineers, and when American politicians talk of their middle class they mean precisely those who were yesterday’s blue collars. Language is a gauge of social esteem, and respect begins with self-respect. India is too large and complex to fit into any single dimension, but one senses that our country is being jolted out of traditional mental shackles which defined a place for the poor on the outskirts of both the geographical and mental space by the young who will not accept shibboleths or assumptions of the past. The unprecedented uproar over the Rs 32-a-day poverty line is evidence. Economists were surprised because they had not changed their societal calculators in five decades. This quiet revolution is not led by those below the poverty line, but by those who will not accept a minimalist definition of poverty. The new Indian demands more accurate mirrors and more ambitious horizons. Dalit replaced the previous term for those who had once been outcast. In 10 years naukar will either rise back to its Mongol meaning, or disappear from those Indian languages which use the word.
Chingiz Khan’s nokers were close enough to be considered friends, and formed the core of his imperial bodyguard
known as kesig.