India Today - - BY WORD -

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.

SAU­RABH Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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