*A Loss too Great to Behold:  The Passing of S. M. Mohamed Idris (1926-2019)

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S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago.  He was the last of his kind:  kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared.  Oh, yes, there was something else about him:  it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.

Though born in India, Idris spent by far the greater portion of his nearly 93 years in Malaysia, most of them in Penang.  He arrived in the Straits Settlement in 1938, but, as far as I can recall from our conversations, he did not finish his education owing to the turmoil induced by World War II.  We did not speak very much about his past; in fact, he cared to speak little about himself, not only viewing that as a form of self-indulgence but as something that distracted from the urgency of the moment.  I first met him in February 2002 when he hosted a meeting in Penang, organized both at his initiative and at the behest of our mutual friend Claude Alvares, of a group that came to be known as Multiversity.  His sponsorship and mentorship of Multiversity tells us a good deal about him:  though Idris was not a man of strictly academic disposition, and was (some would say) impatient for results, he was not at all among those activists who had disdain for the academic world.  Multiversity may be described as an intellectual endeavor aimed at both the decolonization of the modern university and liberation from the intellectual dominance of the modern West.  Through a series of meetings in Penang, the last of which I attended in 2011, Idris continued to retain a vibrant interest in Multiversity and the projects that grew out of it.

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However, to Penang and the rest of Malaysia, Idris was the supreme builder of institutions who gave birth to the consumer rights’ movement in the country and whose name also became synonymous with struggles intended to provide the common people of Penang, and Malaysia more widely, with clean air and water, sensible mass transportation systems, and accurate information on the toxins that people are increasingly putting into their bodies, the perils of climate change, the problems of soil erosion, the desirability of forest cover, and so on.  The organization with which his name was indelibly linked for nearly five decades, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), was founded by Idris and some friends and soulmates in 1970 and it became renowned throughout the world among consumer rights’ advocates.  However, it is critical to understand that CAP was never merely a successful “consumer’s association” in the narrow sense of the term, advocating for the rights of the public as consumers and ensuring that corporations and manufacturers abide by the highest standards and state regulations in the matter of consumer goods.  To be sure, if CAP determined that a product was defective and deserved to be recalled, the organization made known the facts to the public and prevailed upon corporations to do their bit.  But Idris was, as all right thinking people are, inherently suspicious of corporations and I doubt he was ever deceived into thinking that these behemoths could shed their intrinsic nature to be engaged in the unchecked pursuit of profit.  He might have thought that “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) was a shade better than corporations acting with total disregard of their responsibilities to communities, but Idris knew of course that CSR is nothing but a cover which permits corporations to gain credibility and win wider markets.

Since there was nothing by way of a consumer movement in the rest of southeast Asia, CAP’s mandate grew as well.  In its initial years, as I have already suggested, it appears to have worked on entirely local issues, rendering advise to the public on consumer-related matters, and drafting public policy documents on land redistribution and tenant rights.  This continued to be the most laborious aspect of its work, and consumers were given assistance on how complaints could be filed about faulty goods or services.  CAP’s work spread through the rest of Malaysia and into other parts of Southeast Asia.    But Idris then took CAP on to another plane of existence, and by the mid-1980s he brought CAP into conversation with other international NGOs, especially with a view to enhancing South-South cooperation; he also sought a platform to make known CAP’s views on such global issues as human rights, sustainable development, global warning, foreign aid, GATT [later superseded by WTO], alternative medicine, South-North relations, and so on.

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At a conference on “The Third World: Development or Crisis?” hosted by Idris and CAP in Penang in 1984 attended by over 100 participants from 21 countries, the Third World Network (TWN) was brought into existence with the intention of furnishing southeast Asian countries, in particular, with a forum for addressing the aforementioned issues.  Though closely associated with CAP, the Third World Network, with an international secretariat in Penang and offices in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and researchers based in Jakarta, Manila, Delhi, Montevideo, Accra, and elsewhere, had from the outset an independent existence and an extraordinarily wide-ranging publication program.  Its main organ, Third World Resurgence, is published monthly in English and Spanish, and has an international reputation; Third World Economics is a fortnightly economics magazine, also published in English and Spanish versions.  In addition, TWN furnishes articles to the media every week, and its Geneva offices publish a daily South-North Development Monitor, the SUNS Bulletin.

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It was as a consequence of CAP’s efforts and its wide-ranging work in the public sphere that the Malaysian government finally, sometime in the late 1970s, set up a Department of Environment. Idris led Sahabat Alam Malaysia, or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, for 40 years:  this organization, founded to combat environmental deterioration, was ahead of most similar organizations in the rest of the world, and Idris himself was attentive to the problem of climate change well before it became a commonplace in certain circles to start referencing it as the gravest challenge to humankind. Throughout, with the various NGOs that Idris had founded, Idris sought to insert itself into the debates raging around intellectual property rights, globalization, the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other facets of the imperial architecture of global trade and finance, the alleviation of poverty in the South, and growing disparities in wealth in, and among, nations.  But these grand issues were not the only ones to which he diverted his energy.  He was just as passionate, and perhaps more so, about “mundane” issues–alerting the public, for instance, to the growing resistance to antibiotics and our ominous love affair with sugar—or, what has for many become the same thing, death.  I don’t think I ever saw him with any drink in his hand except a plain glass of water:  in comparatively alcohol-free Malaysia, with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, Idris was mercifully free of the cola addiction.

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S. M. Mohamed Idris on World Diabetes Day.

Idris played as well a key role in the civic and political life of Penang, serving as city councilman and ombudsman.  It is no wonder that the “Who’s Who” of Penang turned up at his Georgetown residence after Idris’s passing to offer their respects.  One might go in this vein and continue to enumerate the remarkable achievements of S. M. Mohamed Idris.  He was a person of indefatigable energy:  though his last several months were difficult and he was in and out of the hospital, CAP officer and his long-time assistant, Ms. Uma Ramaswamy, told me during our phone conversation a few days before Idris passed that he was at his office desk the moment that his health permitted him and that, from his hospital bed, he continued to dictate letters and conduct the affairs of CAP.  To those who knew him, however extraordinary his achievements, it is his personal qualities that marked out him as a person of absolutely unimpeachable moral probity. He never made any demands on others that he did not first impose on himself and it is entirely characteristic of his utterly self-effacing nature that he rejected nearly all awards.  The sickening self-aggrandizement and vulgar performativity of celebrity seekers was entirely foreign to him.  He had little use for Twitter and Facebook:  the ordinary phone was enough for him.

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Paying their Respects to S. M. Mohamed Idris, 6 December 1926 – 17 May 2019.

But even all this cannot capture the peerless character of Uncle Idris. Four images of him resonate with me and will stay with me whenever my thoughts turn to him.  He had the most wonderful smile—as guileless as one can imagine.  Secondly, I never saw him in anything but his trademark white kurta and sarong, topped off by the songkok:  as he aged, the black kopiah and his generous white beard offer a luminous contrast.  Then there is the remark he once made to me, after one of the Multiversity meetings:  “We want the West off our backs.”  Idris fought the foul air and the stench of colonialism and neo-colonialism with equal vigor.  And, finally, the image that is indelibly etched into my memory:  invited to his home on numerous occasions for dinner, I was positively humbled by the fact that Idris always washed his own plate after the meal. Each member of his family did so.   The democratic spirit has to be inculcated at home before we dare to carry it abroad.

Earth, receive an honoured guest.

The Grand Old Man of Penang is laid to rest.

Let the Malaysian skies pour

As Idris travels to another shore

(after Auden, in memory of Yeats)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.

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The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.

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The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.

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PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”

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An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.

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Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)

 

 

 

 

 

*The Prison Cell and the Education of James M. Lawson

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:

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Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…

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VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.

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Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.

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VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.

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The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)

 

*The Philosophy of Racquet Abuse:  Serena Williams at the US Open Women’s Final

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The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future.   Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea.  Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals:  the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.  At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element.  The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.

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Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted.  Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands.  Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating.  Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”.  It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating.  Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video.  She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches:  one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon.  Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar.  And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point.  For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game.  Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.

We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary.  The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”.  The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool.  The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:

Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule.  (Note:  I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.)  But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all?  It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent.  Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property:  here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her.  But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases.  There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them.  If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace.  Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars:  more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.

The answer to the question is obvious:  racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship.  This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel.  We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies.  (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn.   Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say:  “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet.  She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.”  The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss.  Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition:  he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him.  He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.

Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process.  Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason.  I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized.  Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate.  There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.

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A garlanded tool at Vishwakarma Puja, Delhi.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Iy3vUwSrmw [video footage]

That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools.  Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship.  Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods.  In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them.  This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.

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Vishwarkarma Puja, Amrtisar, 2012.  Source:  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vishwakarma-day-keeps-all-markets-closed-today-121403-2012-11-14

It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”.  My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos.  But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.

 

*The Death of a Cab Driver: The Medallion in an Uberized Economy

On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.

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Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.

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Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.

 

*A Political History of the Taj Mahal: A Few Thoughts for ‘Researchers’

Part V of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

Most histories of the Taj Mahal that have ventured into politics advert either to Aurangzeb’s intolerance for what he took to be idolatry or to Hindutva accounts of the Taj as narrated in the first three parts of this article.  Shah Jahan watched as his sons competed to succeed him on the throne, with Aurangzeb eventually emerging triumphant.  The war of succession was brutal, as such wars are—everywhere.  It is said that Aurangzeb had his father imprisoned:  as narrated to me by my father decades ago, the pitiful old man was put behind bars in a room from where he could view the Taj.  The commonly accepted account is that Shah Jahan was confined to the Agra Fort, where his daughter Jahanara tended to his needs for eight years before he passed away in 1666.  One of the more moving compositions of the great artist Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath and the younger brother of the celebrated Gagendranath, is called “The Passing of Shah Jahan.”  The Emperor’s last thoughts were evidently on the Taj. He reposes in bed with Jahanara at its foot; his head is turned towards his greatest creation.  The longing in his eyes is palpable, but the object of his attentions is ever so far away.  Jahanara’s own tomb, though elegant, was to be very simple by comparison: it is open to the sky and part of the famous Nizamuddin complex in Delhi.

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‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1902), a painting by Abanindranath Tagore.  At the foot of the bed is Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan; the Taj Mahal is in the background.

jahanara-begum-s-tomb

The cenotaph of Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, in Nizamuddin, Delhi.

The political history of the Taj, for the present, thus appears to be bookended by Aurangzeb at one hand and the Hindutva nationalists, whose loathing for Aurangzeb is unqualified, at the other end.  There are a few numbers which appear in nearly every history of the Taj that is more than a paragraph long:  20,000 workers are said to have labored over a period of 22 years.  There would seem to be something in this for the historian of the working class.  The craftsmen appear to have come from as far as Baghdad and Constantinople.  But just exactly how were ‘workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ distinguished?  We can imagine that those who inscribed the verses from the Koran, wove the jewels into the stone, or carved out the most delicate windows from the stone were all “craftsmen”. The dome of the Taj is nearly 20 stories high; it required a ramp one mile in length to take the workers to the top.

But, moving beyond the construction of the Taj, why is it that we hear so little about the Taj in the colonial period?  In the mid-19th century, apparently, the Taj was little more than a honeymooning site and a pleasure resort.  The histories tell us that at this degenerate point, when neither the Indians nor the British cared much for the Taj—the Indians because they were supremely indifferent to their own cultural achievements, the British because they were indubitably certain of their own superiority—the intrepid and far-sighted British hero came along. That hero was none other than Nathaniel George Curzon, later Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who commenced his Viceroyalty at the close of the 19th century and served until 1905.  A popular Balliol College rhyme on Curzon summed it up neatly:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim [the ancestral home of Churchill] twice a week.
George_Curzon

George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India. Source:  Wikimedia.

Curzon had the Taj Mahal restored and the canals repaired and filled with water; the gardens, which had fallen into decline, were likewise spruced up though Curzon did not entirely follow the original design. The Taj was finally becoming a candidate for admission into the modern age.  It is around this time that Jamsetji Tata opened the first luxury hotel owned by an Indian and named it, perhaps not coincidentally, the Taj Mahal Palace, which since 1903 has remained one of the most iconic landmarks of Bombay.

It took something like 250 years for the Taj Mahal to become part of the traveler’s itinerary, another fifty years before it became part of the tourist trail, and another two to three decades before it would become an item of consumption.  The Taj’s history would henceforth be inextricably linked up with the ugly trinity of modernity in India:  banality, corruption, and terrorism. First, the banality: one imagines that this is easily explained.  The Taj is unlike any other building in the world: a visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, the White House, or the Forbidden City counts for something, but nothing mesmerizes like the Taj. A visit to the Taj without having oneself photographed in front of it is nearly inconceivable; the photograph is a rite of passage, almost. We may think of something like the selfie before “the selfie” was invented.  But that is only the most predictable source of the banality behind a visit to the Taj.  I was astounded to learn that, on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, the Greek musician Yanni was allowed the rare honor of giving a live concert at the Taj Mahal.  Those who have even the remotest kind of familiarity with Yanni’s music will recognize it as something like a slightly superior kind of ‘elevator music’. To suppose that the Government of India could find no more elevated specimen of a musician, and that in a country like India, to perform live at the Taj is staggering to the imagination.  Yanni has his fans, and they will take umbrage at my verdict, but the fact that the Government of India associated the sentimental hogwash around Yanni’s music with the Taj tells us something about the kind of Mills & Boon romanticism in which the Taj is drenched.

The banality offends or one may just shrug one’s shoulders.  One may also view the decision of the Government of India to permit a live concert at the Taj as a challenge to the terrorists, though it would not explain the choice of Yanni.  Last year, terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State appear to have issued a threat against the Taj, but terrorist threats to blow up the Taj have a much longer history.  The most palpable of these threats emanated from Sikh secessionists in the mid-1980s, who were enraged when the government of then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, in an attempt to weed out militants who had holed up in the shrine and amassed a large arsenal of firearms and bombs. They promised to blow up the Taj Mahal in retaliation, and I recall days in the mid-1980s when the Taj was shut down.  Viewings of the Taj by moonlight were halted.  The militant secessionists had for some years been targeting not only Hindus but ‘moderate’ Sikhs, those who—like men shorn of beards—refused to keep the symbols of the faith, but in issuing threats to blow up the Taj they may have, quite unknowingly perhaps, been triggering off a new chapter in the history of Sikh-Muslim animosity.  Two of the Sikh Gurus had been martyred at the hands of Mughal Emperors, one at the hands of Aurangzeb and another by the command of his grandfather, Jahangir. If the Sikh militants thought they were sending a message to the Government of India and their Hindu persecutors in issuing a threat against the Taj, the message was quite possibly being read and interpreted by Indian Muslims as an assault on their history and cultural memory.  A political history of the Taj revolving around semiotics and what I would characterize as ‘message panics’ is yet to be attempted.

The political history of the Taj, however, can be written in other idioms as well. I have briefly alluded to ‘corruption’ and others will have in mind the ‘pollution’ that has at times disfigured the Taj and remains an ever-present threat.  Agra, for all the great monument that characterize the city, a city which was the capital—an exceedingly short-lived one—of the Mughals and even of Sikandar Lodi before the Lodis were sent packing by Babur, has long been in shambles; the state of Uttar Pradesh is nearly rock-bottom in India with respect to most of the important markers of economic and social progress.  Small-scale industries—highly polluting, largely unregulated—have over the decades sprung up around the Taj, in both very close and medium proximity.  The Taj, by the late 1980s, was beginning to look dirty, disfigured, decrepit; soot had formed around the minarets and domes; even the marble in the interior was losing its sheen.  Intellectuals, ‘concerned citizens’, environmentalists, the various keepers of India’s heritage:  these were among the groups that agitated for government action to save India’s most famous monument from irreparable harm.  Others sought the same outcome for the more practical reason that the Taj was then, as it is today, a principal revenue earner for a state government that is not only strapped for cash but is corrupt to the core. The Supreme Court ordered these unregulated industries around the Taj shut down: however, in India, as in other countries where there is a separation of powers, the Court can command change but cannot execute it.  Moreover, in India the stories of ‘pollution’ and ‘corruption’ are intertwined.  Far too many local and state-level politicians were invested in the industries; some only received bribes from the businessmen who owned these interpreters, others were themselves owners.  Most of these industries would eventually be shuttered:  when it comes to the question of the Taj, the country’s reputation is at stake.  Whatever else the Taj may be good for, it is also likely to exercise something of a restraining effect on those who only act because they long that India should look good before the world.

(concluded)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

*Towards another History of the Taj Mahal:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part IV of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

I recall hearing a number of stories about the Taj Mahal, which I first visited around the summer of 1987, through my teens and into my twenties.  Some Greek philosopher or savant—it may have been Heraclitus, Parmenides, or perhaps Homer, but not Socrates—said that you cannot go anywhere without running into a story.  Human civilization can do without history, anthropology, indeed all the academic disciplines that in their own bloated fashion think of themselves as indispensable, but it cannot do without stories.  The fire around which primeval men and women huddled was meant not only to keep away wild animals, provide warmth, and cook raw meat:  so long as the fire kept burning, the stories kept flowing. Civilizations are known by the kind of stories they tell:  the fact that social scientists, about whom I know a thing or two, have so little interest in stories, and even less a capacity to narrate them, tells us something about the state of civilization. The most egregious offenders in this respect, as in most others, are the economists:  one pathetic specimen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whom I met several years ago in the lion’s den, that is at a gathering of professional economists that I visited out of anthropological curiosity, assured me that he could “model love” and do economic regressions to establish the best conditions for suitors, consensual fornication, and pure lust.  But even professional historians, a tribe that I know well, generally disavow stories in favor of a rank positivism—a positivism that is rarely admitted as such and is now disguised by work that purports to be global, interdisciplinary, mindful of ‘networks of exchange’, etcetera.

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Source:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/eight-secrets-taj-mahal-180962168/  The article also discusses what it calls the greatest “myths” about the Taj.

 

The dazzling and venerable “magic” of the Taj itself owes everything to the story of the love that Shah Jahan, ‘Emperor of the World’, apparently had for Arjumand Banu, upon whom the Emperor conferred the title, ‘Exalted One of the Palace’.  When she died bearing his 14th child, his grief was as deep as the ocean; and so he resolved to build her a mausoleum that would be worthy of this love.  Six of their children died before reaching the age of four, another at the age of seven—and that is perhaps why Shah Jahan kept subjecting Mumtaz Mahal to pregnancy.  However, except for her first-born, the five children that followed all survived—and among them were Aurangzeb, Shah Shuja, Dara Shikoh, and the Emperor’s two famous daughters, Jahanara Begum and Roshnara Begum. One might quite easily put Mumtaz’s constant state of pregnancy down to “the times”: in predominantly agricultural societies, and certainly in pre-modern societies, it seems to have been common for women to bear a very large number of children.  One could also say that not enough was known about the perils of repeated pregnancy for women.  But considering that the first half of her flock survived infancy and early adolescence, and that three of Mumtaz’s children, before her last pregnancy, were to die in infancy, we must ask what kind of love Shah Jahan bore for Mumtaz. It may be that one conception of love for a woman demands of her that she be a child-producing machine, but whatever one’s opinion of the matter the received view of Shah Jahan’s unmatched love for Mumtaz requires some deliberation and reconsideration.

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Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan:  A contemporary painting (2010) in the Mughal ‘miniature’ style.

However, it is not this kind of story that I have in mind when I advert to the rumors and legends that swirled around the Taj.  My father was the source of some of these stories about the Taj; but I also heard them from family friends, acquaintances, and others whose views I sought in my endeavor to be something of an ethnographer of Taj legends.  Two such stories I heard frequently. Shah Jahan, I was told, had apparently planned on having another Taj built for himself from across the white-domed splendor on the banks of the Yamuna, except that his mausoleum was going to be in black marble.  It had to be black, of course, or how else would one have a radiant symphony in black & white.  I didn’t ask where the black marble would have been mined:  the white marble in the Taj is quarried from Makrana in Rajasthan’s Nagour District.  But Aurangzeb, who waged an eventually successful battle to eliminate his brothers (and thus, some have said, almost certainly rewrote history) in the struggle over succession, had other plans for his father in his own quest for the Mughal throne.  And how common is black marble, anyhow? Common enough to build a Taj?

Another widely circulating story has Shah Jahan ordering the amputation of both arms of the architect of the Taj Mahal so that the building would never be replicated.  Often the same person who told me the first story would tell me the second story!  So, either Shah Jahan would have the Taj in black or no one else would have it:  such are the prerogatives of Emperors, something akin to the tantrums of children.  But surely Shah Jahan would have known that once you replicate the Taj, it is no longer the Taj.  Moreover, an armchair architect, as it were, could easily have presided over the construction of a second Taj, guiding junior architects and supervising the workers.  Accordingly, this story survives in variants:  one version has Shah Jahan directing that the architect be killed, while another version points to a more draconian expedient, the only one calculated to ensure that the rays of the sun would never fall upon another Taj Mahal:  all the 20,000 workers were, on completion of the Taj, blinded, maimed, or put to death.

Luckily, there is no archive contemporary to Shah Jahan to tell us the story of the Taj. Historians may lament this omission, but storytellers should rejoice.  Lovers should celebrate that we know little in concrete; if we knew more, it is not impossible that we might have the most pedestrian explanation for the Taj’s existence.  Who is to say that Shah Jahan might not have been a pre-modern Donald Trump:  the latter, in any case, has not been reticent in appropriating the legacy of the Taj, as we know from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.  The architectural plans do not survive; almost nothing has been recorded about its construction. There is some discussion that the architect may have been European in origin: just as P N Oak held it impossible that any Muslim could have built anything so beautiful as the Taj Mahal, there are Europeans who have long held that it is inconceivable that any Indian could have built something so majestic. A Venetian architect has been mentioned in this connection.  Florentine influence has been detected in the pietra dura gemstones.

Whoever the architect, every visitor has been most impressed by the symmetry that the building and the complex presents to the naked eye; and some would perhaps have thought of these lines from Blake: “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Yet the story is not complete. Shah Jahan had placed the marble cenotaph beneath which Mumtaz’s body rests in the dead center, in open view from the outside; however, Aurangzeb, who otherwise left the Taj, placed the body of Shah Jahan next to that of his wife. Was Aurangzeb being the dutiful son, rendering homage to the father whose death he precipitated, by placing Shah Jahan alongside his dearly beloved wife? Or did he wish to ruin the perfect symmetry and trouble his father’s soul? Was this perhaps the most expeditious way that he could leave his mark on a wretched but ever so beautiful building? Or should we perhaps pay some credence to the “Hindu Brahmin” guide who told the New York Times reporter, Amy Waldman, that in Islam symmetry is reserved only for God and that Aurangzeb, “a fanatic Muslim”, was only doing his duty?

CenotaphOfMumtazMahal

The Cenotpah of Mumtaz Mahal at the Taj Mahal.

(To be continued)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers