Archive for May, 2013

Countdown Interviews – Asma Jahangir: 3

May 31, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)



Shortly before August 29, 1998, when I interviewed Asma Jahangir


Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

in Lahore, a Constitutional Amendment was introduced in Pakistan’s Parliament, the Majlis-e-Shoora, proposing the establishment of sharia’a law in Pakistan. Over several days, there were protests by lawyers and other related groups. I asked Asma Jahangir what she thought of the proposed amendment.











Asma Jahangir: “If consitutional amendments are to be carried out, according to this amendment, it will be by a simple majority – in other words, twenty-seven members of the National Assembly could actually carry out a consitutional amendment. This is a mockery of law-making. So you could get up in the morning and hear that a constitutional amendment has been carried out that has an impact on me as a citizen, as a woman, as a lawyer.”

AG: “What will it mean for women?”

Asma Jahangir: “It will mean that our lives will be in the hands of the federal government, which does not make me very happy.”

AG: “One of the things that intrigues me about this amendment is what sort of Islamic legal system is going to be put into place? Is it to be Maliki law or Hanafi law…?”

Asma Jahangir: “Absolutely. It says that every sect can interpret it for themselves, which really means also planting sectarianism. How are they going to do it? If I am a Maliki and I’m married to someone who is Shafi’I? Then what personal law will apply? Mine or his? Or if I have a contract? If I’m a Sunni and I have a contract with a Shi’a? It’ll be pure confusion – it’ll be a free-for-all; it’ll create havoc for the legal system.

AG:“From what you’re saying, it sounds as though the legal system will collapse.”

Asma Jahangir:“It will collapse. The legal system will collapse, the judiciary will collapse. [We will be left] to the dictates of a handful of people.”

AG:“Would you say that what has happened in Pakistan is the result of having a very small ruling class?”

Asma Jahangir: “Countries which have a ruling elite that is devoid of all values, which gives leadership only to the agenda that everybody is for themselves – that is the disaster of Pakistan. If you look at the ruling classes of Pakistan and compare them to the ruling classes of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, you will find very few people who are actually worried, who are actually taking an interest, who actually interact with the people of this country. They live like foreigners here. And that is I think the unfortunate part. Most of the ruling classes of Pakistan  have always sided with the establishment. The few exceptions are freaks really. Even Mr Bhutto was from the establishment. Benazir is the first removed in one way. If you look at it that way, it’s pathetic.”

AG: “What could be the future of the Mohajir movement?”

Asma Jahangir: “Let me say this – and there have been reports of the Human Rights Commission saying the same thing – every ethnic group has the right to make demands. You may disagree with them and say that they want more than their fair share. But disagreement has to be intellectual and it has to be through dialogue. The fact that we resist a movement to start with and begin with the lowest kind of attack on their integrity, tends to harden the situation. I or you may believe that this movement was put up; we may believe that this was a terrorist movement, but the responsibility of the government is to engage in dialogue, not to start dubbing them one thing or another. In every movement there are all kinds of people, and you want to bring a dialogue forward in order to encourage those people who want a peaceful settlement. I think there has not been enough reaching out. You can’t kill a movement through state terrorism, if I may use that word, because then you’re really strengthening the movement.”



Countdown Interviews – Asma Jahangir: 2

May 29, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)





[This is part 2 of an interview with the Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, Asma Jahangir. It was conducted in Lahore on August 29, 1998, f0r my essay Countdown, which was published as a book by my Indian publisher, Ravi Dayal, in 1999.]









AG: “What would you say needs to change in Pakistan?”


Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir: “First of all, the intrusion of religion and religious orthodoxy into the politics of Pakistan. This has never been resolved; there were always strange compromises. Secondly, the whole question of provincial autonomy (needs to be addressed).











This has hounded Pakistan’s politics, even to the extent of having lost one part of Pakistan because of the majority-empowered province’s mentality of trying to push their decisions on others. Previously these issues were sort of muffled, or they had not come to the surface because there was always a dictatorship and the smaller provinces were threatened with being called traitors if they said anything against the federation or the power of the federation. With the democratic process – and I must give credit to the Press particularly – people have begun to speak up and a debate has been generated.

“The added problem that we have is that Pakistan’s foreign policy was central to the Cold War. We have still not mentally reconciled ourselves, as a nation, to the post-Cold War scenario. We cannot think that we’ll make mistakes and somebody will come to our rescue. These rescue operations have finished, and that is something we have still not comprehended fairly and squarely. We always want to use some card or the other and it becomes a matter of habit. After this we will use the card of the Taliban and the Afghan situation; we will use the card of being an Islamic country which can go either way. But there comes a time when the world focuses on changes and people begin to leave you to your own devices.”


AG: “Meeting people here in Pakistan, I get the sense that there is a very powerful groundswell of anti-American sentiment. Yet Pakistan was one of America’s closest allies for much of the last half-century. How does one account for this?”

Asma Jahangir: “The Americans supported Zia ul-Haq, who was one of the most ruthless dictators in our part of the world. They supported his Islamisation process until the American people woke up to what he was doing to women. When Zia ul-Haq came to power he was completely backed by the Americans to back the jihad in Afghanistan. The American centre used to send scholars to lecture us on this. To the extent that we’ve heard lectures there where scholars have told us how great Saudi Arabian society was, and that women could operate within their own sphere of life. After a while people said, well, if it is such a great and romantic system, perhaps the United States needs to import it themselves.

At that time we did not have that violent a society where kalashnikovs were easily available and we did not have this rampant a drug culture in our country. This all started with the Afghan war and the jihad. And this so-called jihad did create a very strong network of orthodoxy in our country and we are still suffering under that. So even liberals are a little bitter at the fact that these problems were created by the West. I’m not saying that one can rest on the premise that it’s the West that creates problems, and that it’s the West that can do away with our problems. We are to blame for our own follies. Except that in the case of Zia ul-Haq, it was not as though people here weren’t struggling against him. Several people got flogged, including lawyers. Several people got executed – even boys as old as fifteen. People went to jail. I do not recall any of my colleagues in the Human Rights Commission who did not go to jail at that time.

People like us are not happy with West-bashing. The Islamists are very militant against the West because they feel that the U.S. picked them up, they made them into the custodians of the country and now they’re backing off. So they feel let down on another level. They continue West-bashing to the point where they dub people like myself as Western agents, having conveniently forgotten that then years ago they were the ones who were the direct beneficiaries of the jihad policy of the West.”




Countdown Interviews – Asma Jahangir: 1

May 27, 2013 in Countdown Interviews | Comments (0)




My essay Countdown,  was written against the background of  the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of  May 1998. It appeared in The New Yorker  of October 19, 1998.



In 1999 my Indian publisher Ravi Dayal issued an expanded version as a short book, under the same title (Countdown, Ravi Dayal, New Delhi, 1999).

It was also included in my essay collection Incendiary Circumstances (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).






In the course of writing Countdown I travelled to many places – Kathmandu, Lahore, Islamabad, New Delhi, Bombay, Pokhran, Leh and the Siachen Glacier – and interviewed a great many people: activists, journalists, soldiers, generals, strategic thinkers, diplomats, experts, politicians, physicists and of course, many bystanders and ordinary citizens. For most of these interviews I took notes; only a few were recorded and later transcribed. As is so often the case only small fragments of these interviews made their way into Countdown. Re-reading these interviews now it seems to me that there is much in them that is still relevant so they will appear on this site as an extended series of posts.



Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998

Asma Jahangir, Lahore 1998




Asma Jahangir is to my mind one of the most admirable figures of our time.  As far as I am concerned if anyone deserves the Nobel Prize for Peace it is Asma Jahangir.

I met Asma when I traveled to Lahore in August 1998. Before the meeting, a friend said: “If you put Asma on one side and a million men on the other, there would still be no doubt about who would win.” This led me to expect someone larger than life, but Asma Jahangir proved to be a slight, diminutive woman with the wiry intensity of a high-tension cable.

Asma is the daughter of an opposition politician who was one of the most vocal critics of the Pakistan army’s operations in what is now Bangladesh. She spent her teenage years consulting with lawyers on behalf of her frequently-imprisoned father. “When my father was called to court was when we, his children, used to see him,” she told me. “For me the court was a place where justice was given and where you met your father.”

For her defence of the rights of religious minorities, Asma has received many death threats. Members of her family have been attacked and taken hostage, her home has been broken into. As we spoke, a unit of black-uniformed bodyguards stood outside, drowsing beside their kalashnikovs.

My interview with Asma was recorded on August 29, 1998; she was then 46.

AG: “Travelling around Pakistan the last few days, I’ve got a sense of impending crisis, really deep crisis. Do you think I’m wrong?”

Asma Jahangir: “Well, I cannot recall any one month when Pakistan has not gone from crisis to crisis – and I mean from way back, from the 1960s up to now. But at that time (in the 1960s) the crisis was more related to domestic politics and it didn’t seem as though it was going to be insurmountable. Over the years I think people are getting the feeling that we have looked away from a lot of problems and we have got ourselves into a situation where it is becoming impossible for our leaders to take stock of things and to reconcile themselves to the fact that we have to change everything around for the country to survive at a comfortable level.”

to be continued…



Agha Shahid Ali Journals – ‘Bearer of Arms’

May 24, 2013 in Agha Shahid Ali Journals | Comments (7)



[This is an excerpt from the journal on which my essay on Agha Shahid Ali is based. Shahid was under treatment for cancer at the time when it was written.]













May 5, 2001

Strange irony that Shahid only recently got his United States citizenship – just a couple of months ago. He was excited when they asked him the standard question: ‘Would you be willing to bear arms against your former country?’

It delighted him that they could not see the absurdity of asking this of a man with a malignant brain tumour. He clapped his hands and cried: ‘Yes, of course, I would!’

He was hugely entertained by the thought of himself as a bearer-of-arms.





[Shahid succumbed to his cancer on December 8, 2001. He is buried in Northampton Massachusetts.]













A Laskari Lexicon – 2

May 21, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)





Lascars and European Officers of the steamship Oolobaria; 1890 (Memorial University Maritime History Archive [MHA])

There are several striking differences between the Laskari dictionary of Lt Thomas Roebuck[i] and Anthony Vaz’s Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms[ii]. The most important perhaps is that Roebuck was attempting to make the case that ‘Laskari’ was, if not a language, then certainly a dialect in its own right, created out of the merging of many different languages – Arabic, Portuguese, English, Bengali, Malay, Malayalam, Tamil, Kachhi and so on (although a few Marathi words figure in his dictionary I cannot remember any specifically Konkani terms). But Vaz does not anywhere acknowledge or use the term ‘Laskari’ –  the very word ‘lascar’ does not figure in his book. This is probably because this word had, by the late nineteenth century, acquired pejorative racial connotations: as a seaman himself Vaz would have been acutely aware of these overtones. Such indeed was the stigma attached to the word ‘lascar’ that it more or less fell out of usage after the Second World War.

Throughout his dictionary Vaz insists that the language of Indian seamen is Hindustani, except for the ‘technical names’ which, he asserts ‘are all Arabic in their origin’. In this he was mistaken: many of the words for the rigging, masts, sails etc. came from other languages, especially Portuguese. For example, the Laskari word for ‘mizzen-sail’ was trikat which comes from the Portuguese traquete. Similarly, taliyamar, the Laskari word for ‘cutwater’ came directly from the Portuguese talhamar. There are innumerable such examples.[iii]

Vaz was not an etymologist of course, but even then it remains something of a puzzle that he should have been unaware of the Portuguese influences on the nautical vocabulary of the Indian subcontinent.

Unlike Roebuck, Vaz was in the first instance, a seaman and one interesting aspect of his dictionary is that its organization is dictated by practical, rather than lexical considerations. In effect the book is a compendium of the commands that are necessary to the operation of a sailship, and they are divided according to certain tasks: for example ‘Launching of the Ship’, ‘Making Sails When Fine Daylight’; ‘Bracing Yards in Calm When Wind Not Steady’, ‘Setting and Taking Studding Sails When Fine Steady Breeze.’

The reader may be interested here to look at some of the commands and their glosses. Here are a few:

From ‘Launching of the Ship’:

– All Hands clean clothes on board – sab admee saf kupray payno

– Cock well the anchor                                    – lungur cock well karo

– Take in the ballast                             – leelum layo


From ‘Setting Trying Sails and Spreading the Awnings’:

– Clew up the royal, gallant sail and top sails, fore and aft – stringee tubber, subber gabee agul pitchel

– All your clewline, buntline and leechline close up – chop stringee buntline seesee door cheekar


From ‘Bracing Yards About in Calm When Wind Not Steady’

– Square the main yard – Yam burra purwan

– Haul out the spanker – tan bar ghoosee


From ‘Setting and Taking in Studding Sails When Fine Steady Breeze’

– Topmen aloft – Panjrawala oopur jao

– Set the fore top gallant studding sail – hankar trinket subber dustoor


Today the English commands are no more comprehensible than their translations. This is of course because every sailship was, in a sense, a vast, floating dictionary, with thousands of named parts – every rope, gasket, leech and pin had its own name. With the vanishing of wind-powered merchant vessels, this entire apparatus (of words as well of things) has more or less disappeared from the face of the earth.

But the Laskari language has not vanished without trace. On subcontinental ships – and I mean naval vessels as well as cargo ships – words like ‘serang’ and ‘tindal’ are still very much in use. For all I know the words may still be in use in other parts of the Indian Ocean – for example, east Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, in Goa, I had the good fortune to meet a man who had actually used the Laskari language:


Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world in a sailboat.







Sir Robin began his sailing career in a merchant shipping company in pre-Independence India: he told me that he remembered using Laskari terms like agil/agul  (fore) and peechil/pitchel (aft). He confirmed to me that those words were pronounced exactly as they are transcribed in Laskari dictionaries (I had wondered whether they might be mis-spellings of agey and peechhey – I suppose they are variants, borrowed perhaps from a Kachhi dialect).

Sir Robin also confirmed that the kasab of Laskari dictionaries referred to ‘a lamplighter’, which was an important function on the ships of his youth. I asked him about the word bhandari which I had thought meant ‘storekeeper’, but he told me that it actually referred to a ship’s cook.

Another Laskari word that I had puzzled over was topaz. Sir Robin confirmed to me that it meant ‘sweeper’ – a strange fate for a word that once referred to Portuguese-Goan artillerymen, who were greatly valued by the subcontinental armies of the 18th century.[iii]





[i] Roebuck, Capt. Thomas: A Laskari Dictionary Or Anglo-Indian Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms And Phrases In English And Hindustani, revised and corrected by George Small, W.H.Allen & Co., London, 1882.

[ii] The Marine Officer’s Hindustani Interpreter Containing A Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms, Directions For Masting, Rigging And Working Ship At Sea, (Bombay Gazette Steam Press, Bombay, 1879).

[iii] Cf. Soares, Anthony Xavier.: Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages from the Portuguese Original of M.S.R. Dalgado (translated into English with Notes, Additions and Comments), Asian Educational Services, New Delhi & Madras, 1988, pp. 350 & 340.


A Laskari Lexicon – 1

May 17, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



[This is a slightly extended version of a piece I wrotein 2010 for the anthology Inside/Out: New Writing from Goa.][i]



Lascars at the East India Docks London

Lascars at the East India Docks London



I have long been fascinated by nautical dictionaries, especially those that relate to Asian seafarers (or ‘lascars’ as they were once known). Elsewhere I have written at some length about  Thomas Roebuck’s magisterial lexicon of the Laskari language (An English And Hindostanee Naval Dictionary), which was first published in Calcutta in 1811: “Born in 1781, Roebuck was a skilled linguist, who had served a rigorous apprenticeship under the famous John Borthwick Gilchrist, author of the first major Hindi-English dictionary. From 1806 to 1809 Roebuck was in Edinburgh assisting Gilchrist to prepare his lexicon. After that, while traveling to Calcutta on the Hon’ble Company Ship Larkins, Roebuck passed his time by compiling his Naval Dictionary … Roebuck did not long survive the publication of his dictionary, dying of a fever in Calcutta at the age of 38. But he did live to see the proof of his work’s usefulness, for in 1813, two years after its first publication, his Dictionary was reprinted by the East India Company’s booksellers in London. In 1882 it was revised and reissued by a missionary called George Small, under the title A Laskari Dictionary Or Anglo-Indian Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms And Phrases In English And Hindustani.[ii] Under that name it continued to circulate well into the 20th century.”[iii]

Roebuck’s was not the only dictionary of this kind to be in circulation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were a few others, including one by a Goan (or possibly East Indian) seaman called Antony Vaz.

Vaz was by profession a master sailmaker (‘silmagoor’ in Laskari), employed in the government dockyard in Bombay in the 1870s. But he was also, evidently, a dedicated wordsmith for in 1879 he published a fine compendium called: The Marine Officer’s Hindustani Interpreter Containing A Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms, Directions For Masting, Rigging And Working Ship At Sea, (Bombay Gazette Steam Press, Bombay, 1879).

The preface to this booklet is interesting enough to quote at some length. Vaz writes: ‘Under the favourable auspices of commerce the number of ships visiting the several seaports of India has of late years greatly increased and shipowners, who confine their operations chiefly to this part of the world, have found it profitable to employ Indian crews on their vessels. Against the advantages offered by the employment of these men have to be weighed some petty inconveniences, one of which is felt in conveying orders in the native language with which ships officers are, in a majority of cases, unacquainted. This Book is an humble effort to help those who have not acquired a sufficient knowledge of the vernaculars, in giving the various orders to the seamen, incidental on board a ship…. In getting up the work I have drawn entirely upon my own resources, depending of the knowledge of seamanship acquired by rote during fourteen years service at sea and have therefore to crave the indulgence of the public for any shortcomings they may find therein.

‘Hindustani is the language into which the sentences have been rendered – not literally, but as the natives are accustomed to hear the orders shouted out, in most cases in a contracted form, and the spelling is adopted on the same principle without regard to the Jonesian or any other system. The rendering into the vernacular is not Oordoo or the critical style spoken by the Mahomedans of Delhi or the Deccan Hyderabad, as such translation would be quite out of place on board a ship, from the inability of the men generally to comprehend that style. The technical names of Spars, Yards, the standing and running Rigging, Gears, Sails and words that relate to the manoeuvering and working of ships at sea are all Arabic in their origin.’

[i] My thanks to Cecil Pinto, at whose behest the piece was written.

[ii] Thomas Roebuck: A Laskari Dictionary Or Anglo-Indian Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms And Phrases In English And Hindustani, revised and corrected by George Small, W.H.Allen & Co., London, 1882.

[iii] This excerpt is from ‘Of Fanas and Forecastles’.



My review of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel of Zanzibar

May 14, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This review was published in Kirkus Reviews, 2002] 


By The Sea begins with a prospective refugee presenting his passport to an officer at an immigration counter in a British airport.



At desks such as these, every day, thousands of supplicants discover whether or not the stories of their lives match the exacting standards of victimhood and oppression that qualify people for the status of refugee. Familiar though this situation is, it is all-too-rarely written about. In Gurnah’s superb rendering the scene is presented in all its bright, terrifying sterility, accurate in all its nuances and details.



This scene sets in motion an examination of two intertwined lives, both rooted in Zanzibar, the island off the East African coast that was once one of the world’s great entrepots. Saleh Omar is in his sixties and has spent most of his life in Zanzibar, earning a living as a shopkeeper and antique dealer.  Latif Mahmud is a much younger relative who left Africa for Europe at the age of eighteen: he is a poet and teacher, who has made a sort of life for himself in London. Years before, in Zanzibar, Saleh Omar had been instrumental in dispossessing Latif Mahmud and his family of their home. Now, their positions are reversed: it is Saleh Omar who is dispossessed. Meeting in England, the two men discover that they are both implicated in creating the circumstances that have pushed the other into exile; circumstances that are the result of a complex intermeshing of family conflicts, politics and history. Nothing is unambiguous in this story; there are no easy accountings of guilt, blame and responsibility.

By the Sea is also an extended meditation on history, on a lost world of interoceanic cosmpolitanism, on colonialism and the furies that it unleashed. In this it recalls one of the great classics of modern Arabic literature: the Sudanese writer, Tayyib al-Salih’s novel, Season of Migration to the North.

By the Sea is a rich, poignant, truthful novel and it establishes Abdulrazak Gurnah as one of the most important voices of our time.




Real and Fictional characters: The case of Neel Rattan Halder

May 9, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (7)



In my post of Nov 12, 2012, I wrote about a letter that revealed to me that Benjam Burnham, a character in Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, had a real life counterpart (the letter was actually from one of his descendants). Even stranger, I later found out that my wife had been taught by a member of this family, and that my son had been to school with another. Synchronicity is a mysterious thing…


On April 21, this year I received a message about another character in the Ibis Trilogy– Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali and originator of the Ibis Chrestomathy. This message prompted the correspondence that is posted below.


Dear Amitav Sir,

It is refreshing, as is always for a regular reader of your blog, to know about your encounter with Mr Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi. What strikes me most profoundly in your article is the fact that the content of Mr Mohammadi’s writings mostly highlight the daily lives of Afghan society, something beyond the widely held stereotype of the country surrounding its wars. It actually reminds me of a lecture by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, titled ‘the danger of a single story’  that I listened online in Youtube. That talk also addressed the futility and limitations imposed by literary or artistic stereotypes. I am not fortunate enough so far to have read one of Mr Mohammdi’s writings but I will definitely make an effort to do so in future.

I wish to mention to you about one more thing. Our last and only communication before this was in October 2011. I am currently pursuing Pediatric residency training in Flushing Hospital, Queens, New York. I came across one article written in Bengali by our family physician and local historian, Shri (Dr) Akshay Kumar Adhaya, which explores the connection between Prankrishna Halder (Neel’s real life shadow) and my hometown,


'A View of Chinsurah, the Dutch Settlement in Bengal' (Wikimedia)

‘A View of Chinsurah, the Dutch Settlement in Bengal’ (Wikimedia)

Chinsura on the river Hooghly, which also serves as a source of Neel’s finest cotton dhotis in Sea of Poppies.









The article even traces Prankrishna’s connection to Hooghly Collegiate School, where I studied for a decade. I thought the article might interest you. Unfortunately, the article comes only as a hard copy. If you can please tell me how to send you a copy (I could try to scan it if you find it appropriate)  of that article, I shall be extremely grateful.

Naboborsher pronam.




April 23

Dear Suhas

Thanks very much for the link which I will listen to when possible.

What you say about Dr Adhya’s article is very interesting. It would be wonderful if you could scan the article for me – I am traveling now so a hard copy would not reach me anyway.

Thanks and all best

Amitav Ghosh



April 29

Dear Amitav Sir,

I apologize for the delay in my response. I took some time in scanning Dr Adhya’s article as I got caught up with my On Call schedule. Attached are the pages of the article.

I found it an interesting coincidence that Prankrishna Halder did have a real life nephew named Neel Ratan Halder, who was known to be an exponent of music, contemporary literature and a lover of art.




My Alma mater, Hooghly Collegiate School, was also probably part of Prankrishna’s real estate in Chinsurah.






According to unproven local legend, fake currency notes used to be printed in a room that went on to become the classroom for class six.

 Please let me know if you have any inconvenience in viewing the article.

 Thank you so much for your time and your encouragement to write to you.

 much regards,




This letter was accompanied by a scan of eight pages from Dr. Akshaykumar Adhya’s book Hooghly Chuchurar Nana Katha (Various Facts about Hooghly Chinsurah) volume-1, pages: 128-134 (publisher: Hooghly Sambad, Dr Prasad Das Mallick Road, Hooghly-712103, third reprint; November 2010).



Portrait of a Bengali Gentleman (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.)


The pages tell the story of one Babu Prankrishna Haldar a rich Bengali who acquired a very large house in the town of Chinsurah (Chuchura) near Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1805 C.E..














The house was built by General Perron, military advisor to Madhoji Scindia, who was returning to Europe. The mansion, which now houses the Hooghly Collegiate School, became famous because of Prankrishna Haldar’s family temple, which was located in the compound. For many years Prankrishna Haldar celebrated Durga Puja in this temple at great expense: these events were advertised in Bengali papers and in the Calcutta Gazette.

In 1827 Samachar Darpan (which is considered by some to be the first printed journal in an Indian language) published an article about Prankrishna Haldar’s generosity, mentioning particularly his donations of medicine to the poor. But Prankrishna Haldar’s liberality was to prove his undoing for his philanthropic ambitions forced him to resort to fraud and forgery. He began to print counterfeit notes in a secret corner of the mansion. Through these means he amassed 60 lakh rupees.

The crime was discovered in 1829 and Prankrishna Haldar was sentenced to imprisonment. He was released in 1836 and died the year after. After his death, the writer Durgacharan Ray observed: ‘Prankrishna enjoyed all the rewards that life offered;  all the sorrows that a man could suffer also fell to his lot.’

Also sentenced with Prankrishna Haldar was an associate and relative, Babu Nilmoni Haldar, who had assisted in the forgery. Babu Nilmoni Halder was a cultivated man and a supporter of learning, who had set up a press at a time when Bengali printing was in its infancy. He died in 1837.

Babu Nilmoni Haldar had a son by the name of Neelratan Haldar who became a noted literary figure.


He was described by Rajnarayan Bose, the eminent 19th century writer and philosopher, as a man of impressive physical presence who knew many languages and was a conoisseur of classical music.










Neelratan Haldar probably acquired his love of learning from his father, and went on to publish several books on diverse subjects. But he was best known as the editor and publisher of the journal Bangadoot, the first issue of which was published on May 10, 1829. He died in 1855.


May 3

Dear Suhas

Thank you very much indeed for this article. It is very interesting.

Would you mind if I posted our correspondence on my blog, along with a few translated excerpts of the article? Please do let me know.

With my best wishes




May 3

Dear Amitav Sir,

I am very happy to know that the article interests you. I am extremely thrilled at the possibility of our correspondence finding its way to your prestigious blog along with the translated excerpts.

Incidentally, I had a conversation with Dr Akshay Adhya over phone this evening, when I mentioned to him about our correspondence. He has expressed that he is excited about your interest in his article.

joyous regards,




May 7

Dear Suhas

Could you please send me the exact references of the journal where the article was published so that I can include it in my post?



May 8

Dear Amitav Sir,

I am enclosing the cover of the book with my mail.

Interestingly, the cover picture




features a notable landmark in the outskirts of the town-Susanna Anna Marie tomb, or ‘Saat Saheber Bibir Ghor’. It is a memorial of a lady who is said to have had seven husbands, all of whom had died before her. Her chronicle inspired a short story (later made into a novel) called ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’ by Ruskin Bond and was adapted for a major Hindi Commercial Motion Picture ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’ by Vishal Bharadwaj.









I apologize for my delay,

Thanks for your patience and time once again.

Much regards,





Dear Suhas

Thanks for your message. I will post the piece today.

Unfortunately the scan was very blurred and I had trouble reading it. However, I have tried to convey the gist of it. I would be glad to post a more detailed translation if you could send me one.

I also could not find a nice image of Prankrishna Haldar’s mansion but I have included a picture of the gate.

Thanks once again for this interesting exchange.

With my best wishes



[A Google search for ‘Prawn Kissin Halder’ (the 19th century anglice of ‘Prankrishna Haldar’) led me to an interesting paper by Rashmila Maity ‘From Kidderpore to The Sea of Poppies: A short history of some localities in the novel.’ A search for ‘Prankrishna Haldar’ led to this charming clip on You Tube.]


Painted an Elephant Blue

May 6, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



In my research I’ve come across many stories that have led me to wonder what really happened. This one is about the crew of a German steamer, Barenfels S.S. (which would  be torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine on April 14th, 1944, at Takseraag, Norway, thirty-eight years after the events described below).

This story was published in The Washington Post of May 2, 1906


Painted An Elephant Blue

Then the Sacred Brute Died and Lascars were Scared

Besides this Tale, the Steamer Barenfels Brought Snakes and Another Yarn of Sailor and Python


New York, May 1, 1906

Fear of a terrible punishment because they covered a sacred white elephant with paint has stirred the fifty-three Lascars in the crew of the steamer Barenfels, which arrived here today. The animal that was the victim of a prank died at sea, as did two other elephants aboard, but it was exposure to cold weather that killed them.



Steamer 'Barenfels' (from

Steamer ‘Barenfels’ (from

The Barenfels took aboard the three elephants at Calcutta on March 10.









Each elephant was over six feet high. Bill and Alice were white. The third was called Joe. He was of the ordinary variety.

One afternoon while coming through the Indian Ocean one of the Lascars got a pot of blue paint and went into the forehold, where the elephants were. He beckoned to another Lascar, and this one beckoned to a third. Presently all the Lascars in the ship surrounded the two white elephants salaaming.


Lascars onboard 'Dunera' (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Lascars onboard ‘Dunera’ (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

On the left quarter of one of the elephants the Lascar who led the way painted a rising sun in blue. Then the others fell to and dashed off artistic symbols of a religious nature. The Lascars do not know why they did it.











When the man in charge of the elephants found the sacred beast outrageously painted he drove the Lascars away and got soapsuds to wash the paint off. Three days later Alice died. Bill followed the next day. Then the Lascars went almost insane with sorrow, and their prayers were loud and fervent.

They laid it to the paint, but it was only a cold draught and pneumonia. The third elephant proved as delicate as the white ones and died the day after Bill did. All three were dropped into the sea.

The Barenfels brought 500 snakes. According to shore talk, one of them, a python, of course, got loose, and, of course this python coiled around a sailor, and just as naturally, the rest of the crew had an awful time killing the python without killing the sailor.

The sailor had his ribs crushed, so the yarn goes, and was put ashore at Port Said. He didn’t leave his card for the officers of the Barenfels to pass over to the marine reporters when the ship got here. Hence his name is unknown.



Correspondence with István Perczel on History, Hellenism and the idea of ‘Civilization’

May 2, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



I’ve written about the work of Dr István Perczel, the Hungarian scholar several times on this blog. I posted this before I’d met István, and this shortly after I met him in Goa last year.

István is Professor in the Department of Medieval Studies, Central European University, Budapest. He studies the Christian East from many angles, that of the history of philosophy and theology, of social and political history, and  of Greek and Syriac literacy and of manuscript studies. He has worked extensively on the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus, on Sergius of Reshayna’s Syriac translation thereof, pagan and Christian Neoplatonism, Byzantine heresy, Symeon the New Theologian and Syriac Christianity in India. He has also worked on archives preservation, both digital and material, in India.

István is editor of The Nomocanon of Metropolitan Abdisho of Nisibis: A Facsimile Edition of MS 64 from the Collection of the Church of the East in Thrissur (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Scriptorium, 2005, 2009) and is just in the process of completing a monograph entitled «Origénistes» ou «théosophes»? Histoire doctrinale et politique d’un mouvement des Ve-VIe siècles (Origenists’ or ‘Theosophers’? Doctrinal and Political History of a Movement of the 5th-6th Centuries).


On April 15 this year István sent me a link to a video in which he and Dr. Vasco La Salvia, a former student of his, present a very interesting paper on the trans-Arabian Sea trade and the cultural connections that grew out of it.

Some of the ideas István expresses in the video are summarized in a note that was appended to one of his messages:


Toward the concept of an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene

It seems to me that the concept of an “Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene” would be quite an appropriate framework to study the historical religious formations of Eurasia and North Africa. This conceptual tool means a kind of structured trans-area studies to understand religious and cultural history, also relevant for understanding the present-day conflict-ridden situation.

 Apparently, a restrictive concept of Hellenism[i] had distorted our view on the influence of Hellenic civilization and this error goes hand in hand with a restrictive conscience of the Eurasian, even North-African, Aramaic heritage. So, just as the concept of the Jewish-Christian heritage is engraved in the minds of people as a concept linked to “Western civilization”, so also its complementary concept, called the “Greco-Roman heritage”, is conceived of as being only another constituent of the mediaeval and modern West. Yet Hellenism, itself being a blend of Oriental and Western elements, is a far more extensive concept than that of the “Roman heritage”. Due to the early constitution of this blend, Hellenism was already a Eurasian phenomenon with a North African constituent when Alexander the Great united the major part of this cultural space into one empire and it remained present in this vast area spreading from the Western Mediterranean to India, and even beyond, until an astonishingly recent age.

The extension of Hellenism almost precisely coincided with the area inhabited by those peoples that had adopted for their writing systems alphabets based on the early Aramaic alphabet (ranging from Latin in the West, through Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic to Ethiopic in the South and, in the East, the Indian Brahmi script, from which all the local Indian alphabets were derived). So we may speak about an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene (ca. 500 BCE-to early modern times). This particular role of the Aramaic  is due to the fact that, from ca. 700 BCE it gradually became the lingua franca of the Middle East, including the ancient Persian Achaimenid Empire. Thus, this framework also includes most organically the emerging concepts of a “Persianate Culture”,[ii] or of Central Asia as a central area for the cultural evolution of humanity.[iii]

It was in the cultural space of the Oikumene that Judaism was spreading as a minority diaspora even before the destruction of the Second Temple, and nascent Christianity followed the same paths. Even after the “Constantinian turn” that had transformed the Mediterranean into a Christian Roman Empire, the wider Oikumene persisted with the enduring presence of a strong, active and influential Christian minority, which was instrumental in transmitting not only Christian but also Hellenic lore (including philosophy and science) to its neighbours. In this way, the concept of the Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene also challenges recent visions of linguistically or religiously based “cosmopolises”, those of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit, or Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc.,[iv] relativizing these as constituting overlapping and entangled parts of one overarching multilingual and multireligious “cosmopolis”, that of the Oikumene, with a hitherto unrecognized mobility of people and ideas. The concept has not only a geographic but also a cross-disciplinary meaning. It is within the complex fabric of a large cultural space, understood as a wide sphere for trade, migration, mission, the transmission of material and cultural goods and for the mobility of persons and communities that we have to set the religious phenomena characteristic of this area and, especially, the one that is now being called the triad of the “Abrahamic religions”.



I found the video fascinating for many reasons (and the fact that István refers to the concept of a ‘Ghosh-ian Utopia’, in relation to In An Antique Land,is by no means the most important of them). After viewing the video I wrote the following response to István.


April 17, 2013


Dear István

Thanks so much for this! The lecture was truly fascinating – and thank you very much for your kind references to me! I was very touched.

In general I am completely in agreement with your perspective, particularly your critique of the ‘civilizational’ view. In the long run, I think it will come to be recognized that the development of the discipline of  ‘history’ in the 19th century European academy profoundly distorted the nature of the relations betweeen Europe and Asia.

However there are a couple of things I’d like to point out.

– You refer to an underlying ‘Hellenistic’ stratum that facilitated Alexander’s advance. I think that this stratum should actually be called ‘Perso-Hellenistic’ because these two culture-areas evolved so closely together. Indeed, it was their mutual interaction/antagonism that constituted the ancient Eurasian world.

– In the same vein, I think Zoroastrianism too is the underlying substratum that ties the Eurasian world together; this too, deserves a larger part in your story – both in terms of culture and religion. I increasingly feel that Zoroastrianism is the key to understanding the cultural exchanges of the ancient world (and of course it very directly underlies the evolution of scripts, which you refer to). In a religious sense too, it contributed so much of what we now think of as the Abrahamic tradition.

– one question: you refer to the word ‘paraya’. I could not quite follow the etymology you suggested. This is a very interesting word in many ways, so I would be grateful if you could tell me a little more about it.

Thanks again for the lecture. I hope all is well with you.




This led to the following correspondence.


April 17, 2013


Dear Amitav,

Thanks so much! I could not agree more with you on all the points that you have raised.

1. Yes, the civilisational theory seems to be a typical nineteenth-century product of the colonial nation states. We are using it “candidly”, without realising how much it distorts reality on the one hand and how harmful this theory had been, and is still, in furnishing  the ideological underpinning for colonialism and neocolonialism. So I think that if we want to go beyond this and want to “decolonialise knowledge”, we have to get rid of the civilisational theories and offer something more relevant and more equitable than this. For this, among others, we have to understand that Europe had never been a self-sufficient entity, it was part of a world economy and of a world culture much before colonialism and globalisation. The Oikumene, in whatever words we are to describe it, is just a saliant structural entity within this world economy and culture, with some specific features. Definitively, In an Antique Land is the programmatic book for understanding this relationship and its ending with the first Gulf War could not be more symbolical than it is.

2. Perso-Hellenism: I am avoiding this expression because it is tautological. Hellenism itself is not separate from Persianate culture but is largely overlapping with it. What is nowadays called Persianate culture, perhaps the central element in this structural unit, is, in principle, comprehended  in the term Aramaeo-Hellenistic. In the attachment I am sending a short note that I recently wrote about this issue, where I have touched – although quite insufficiently – the question of a “Persianate culture”. Still you may be right that this Persian element should be further emphasised and also that even the concept of “Abrahamic religions” is very distorting from the perspective of cultural history. When we speak about the “transformation of the Classical heritage” in the monotheistic traditions and understand under “Classical” only “Greco-Roman”, excluding Zoroastrian and also Indian, we are, once again, operating a great deformation. I am perfectly aware of the fact that there is much to be clarified here and would be most grateful to you for any further suggestion for a good formulation of this nascent idea.

3. As I told in the lecture, I am suspicious of some obvious etymologising possibilities. Yet, the nature of the Malayalam language is so that it incorporates words borrowed from the trading communities that had ever had business at the Malabar Coast. So, in principle, we should not be surprised to find Greek loanwords in Malayalam (and, incidentally, Tamil). Pazhaya reminds me of the Greek palaios, -a, -on, with identical meaning: “old”, “ancient”. The zha is, in fact, a kind of l sound. Yet, there are only two words whose Greek origin seems to me obvious: pagrep, “copy”, from the Greek apographe, and parasyam, “openness”, “publicity”, even “advertisement”, from the Greek parrhesia, “openness”, “publicity”.

Thanks so much for this conversation!

Warmest regards,




April 21, 2013

Dear István

Thanks very much for this. I am particularly struck by this passage: ‘the civilisational theory seems to be a typical nineteenth-century product of the colonial nation states. We are using it “candidly”, without realising how much it distorts reality on the one hand and how harmful this theory had been, and is still, in furnishing  the ideological underpinning for colonialism and neocolonialism. So I think that if we want to go beyond this and want to “decolonialise knowledge”, we have to get rid of the civilisational theories and offer something more relevant and more equitable than this.’

Your note on the Arameo-Hellenistic Oikumene certainly clarifies your position and I am completely in agreement with you where you say: ‘Yet Hellenism, itself being a blend of Oriental and Western elements, is a far more extensive concept than that of the “Roman heritage”.

However, I do think that to use the term ‘Hellenism’ without reference to its Persian/Asian dimensions only reiterates the ‘civilizational’ misconceptions that underlie it. To me Arameo-Hellenism also seems like a limiting term in that it doesn’t reference the wider Asian context. Surely there must be a better term for this Oikumene?

Thank you for this exchange. I think it might be of interest to others, so I wonder if it would be okay with you if I posted it on my blog (along with your note on the Oikumene)? Let me know (and no problem at all if you prefer not to).

Very best




April 23, 2013

Dear Amitav,

Thank you for your prompt reactions! First of all, it is a great honour for me if our conversation becomes public through your blog. There is nothing definitive in my ideas about the Oikumene  – except for the idea that, by all means, we have to think about this subject – so every critical remark is most welcome. Your blog may trigger such remarks, which might be helpful for an eventual reformulation of the idea.

However, please allow me to defend the idea and my formulation thereof as long as it is defendable. Were it to prove undefendable, I would gladly abandon it.

My idea of an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene is born, as it should be clear, from a revolt against what I would call the nationalism of the West, which loves to recognise itself as the heir of the Greeks and the Romans, so to say, the unique heir to the Greco-Roman civilisation, so-called, which marked the beginning of a development that was going to be superior to all the other “civilisations”, not to speak about the “uncivilised” peoples who were just awaiting to become “civilised” by the West (and allowing themselves to be exploited in exchange). Against this view I claim that:

1. the Roman empire, uniting the Mediterranean, was part of a world economy of material and cultural goods. Without being part of this economy it could not have survived. Changes that affected the Roman empire were global changes, which led to similar effects elsewhere as well in this world economy.

2. It is useful to distinguish, within this world economy, more or less united structural elements but these elements are to be discerned on the basis of longue durée structures, compared to which the existence of the political states, be they long-lasting empires as the Roman or the Chinese empires, is ephemeral. Such an entity is the Oikumene, named by a Greek term meaning “inhabited land”. This is a space uniting almost all Europe and a good part of Asia as well as North- and East-Africa, where there was a strong presence of the “Hellenic heritage”, far beyond the limits of the Roman empire. This is observable in trade relations, the transmission of literature, culture, philosophy, science etc. So in this space we can speak about a Hellenic heritage.

3. However, this Greek culture could exert such a fascination on Asian and African peoples only because it was neither a Western, nor a European phenomenon. Itself was a syncretistic culture from the very outset and such authors as Plato were explicitly claiming that all the Greek lore was coming from the Orient. The Greeks were so successful in inspiring other peoples only because their culture was so receptive and open toward the Orient.

4. Hellenism is a restricted term used in European historiography. It denotes the political and cultural space created by Alexander’s conquests. So the Hellenistic period starts in 323 BC, with the death of Alexander the Great, and ends in 31 BC, when in the battle of Actium Octavius conquered Antonius who was acting as the last Hellenistic ruler of Egypt with his consort Cleopatra, the Ptolemaid queen, who committed suicide in the year 30. However, all this is seen uniquely from the point of view of a linear western periodisation, which uses Hellenism as denoting a politico-historical era, only to prepare the Roman period. It is being claimed that during this period a Hellenistic culture, being a blend of Greek and Oriental cultures was formed. So even what we traditionally call Hellenism is conceived as a blend of Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Syrian, Indian etc. cultures.

5. Contrary to this I would claim that behind the striking success of Alexander’s campaigns there was a structural and cultural unity of the entire space that he occupied. Macedonia was just the strongest military power within this united space. So Alexander’s phalanxes were moving on known land inhabited by peoples with whom they were able to communicate. After his conquest Alexander ordered the intermarriage of his soldiers with Persian women and was keen on establishing a blended ruling elite in the conquered lands, thus recognising an inherent structural and cultural unity. In this sense Hellenism was not a new blend in which hitherto isolated “cultures” merged but had been for long the essence of the cultural space that gained an ephemeral political unity under Alexander. He did not initiate anything radically new, he just gave a pregnant historical expression to something that had been there and that was to remain there even after the collapse of his empire.  So Hellenism is just as Persian and Egyptian, and even Indian, in its origin as it is Greek, it is just as Asian and African as it is European. However, if we have a better term for this than Hellenism, let us use this better term.

6. Much before Alexander’s campaigns, even much before any Greek influence in the Middle East, this space was delineated by the adoption of syllabic/phonetic alphabets, all based on the ancient Aramaic script, Aramaic being used as lingua franca, administrative and diplomatic language, in subsequent empires, including the Babylonian and the Achaimenid Persian empires. This type of script is clearly distinguishable from ideogrammatic scripts used in ancient Egypt, in the Harappa cultures and in the cultures dominated by the Chinese model. I think it is important to observe this fact but I do not know what precisely this means for our studies. We have to think much on the translatability effects such a common use of a scriptic structure is capable to trigger. My feeling is that it was easy to translate trade agreements but also philosophy, historiography, science etc. from one language using this kind of script to another. It would be interesting to compare this work of translation to the one that was going on between cultures of such a script, such as India, and those of the ideogrammatic structure, such as China.

7. However, these are just nascent thoughts and any correction, refutation etc. is most welcome.

Warm regards,



April 26, 2013

Dear Istvan

Thanks very much for spelling out your ideas in this illuminating way. Your arguments are of enormous importance, and deserve to reach a wide audience, not just of specialists but also others.

But I would like to underline this passage: ‘Hellenism is just as Persian and Egyptian, and even Indian, in its origin as it is Greek, it is just as Asian and African as it is European. However, if we have a better term for this than Hellenism, let us use this better term.’

In my view it is really important to think of a ‘better term’ for what you are trying to get at. I hate to keep harping on what is essentially a problem of nomenclature – yet I do think that it matters a great deal, especially where it concerns pedagogy.

I am attaching a draft of the post – do have a look, and please feel free to change and add!

I feel privileged to have participated (a little) in this exchange!

Warmest best



April 26, 2013

Dear Amitav,

How could I object to this text? It is just a faithful rendering of our conversation. As I told you, I am honoured that you are interested in these ideas and all your challenges are well taken.

I also must admit that I see a certain privileged role in what is Hellenic/Hellenistic, while I would like to go beyond the “Greco-Roman heritage”. After all, nobody else than Alexander united much of this space ephemerally and left an indelible trace on the entire area, being remembered by so many peoples in so many languages. It was late antique Greek philosophy (most probably quite extensively influenced by the Upanishads and Buddhist philosophy), which spread through all the cultural milieus. Perhaps it would be good to speak only about an Oikumene. However, this would be distorting. Oikumene means “inhabited land” – this concept is wider than the entity we are speaking about. It has a Syriac equivalent: ‘amarta, meaning the entire inhabited earth and I am sure that its equivalents can be found in all the languages.

If we continue thinking about this, perhaps we would find a better term…

Warm regards,



April 28, 2013

Dear István

I can understand why you see a privileged role for Hellenism in the ecumene given the present state of knowledge. But I think we have to remember that this knowledge was largely produced within the European/Western academy and it systematically privileges certain elements of the past over the other. There is an interesting example of this in your last message, when you say: ‘After all, nobody else than Alexander united much of this space ephemerally and left an indelible trace on the entire area, being remembered by so many peoples in so many languages.’ But the conquests of Cyrus the Great were just as extensive as Alexander’s and he united an even larger swathe of territory. Similarly Darius did succeed in conquering Thrace and Macedonia, and Xerxes did seize most of Greece. Even if these victories were ephemeral, it is still true that the Persians’ sway over Greece lasted longer than Alexander’s hold over Asia. The fact that we privilege Alexander’s role over that of the Persians is in my view a remnant of the way that historical knowledge was constructed at a certain time. Even in terms of philosophical and cultural influence there is a systematic devaluation of the role of the Persians – many of their ideas were eventually absorbed by the Abrahamic religions, which then suppressed, as it were, the genealogy of those ideas.

The Greeks were fortunate in that they had very powerful heirs to celebrate their role in history; the Persians were not equally fortunate in this regard – and this, I think, is what has shaped the world’s view of their relationship with each other.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the history of the writing of history has profoundly skewed our understanding of the past. Now as we move away from the earlier assumptions a very different picture is emerging – your own research is part of this corrective process, which is what makes it so exciting. Where the processes will lead we do not know, but just consider that even a decade ago your idea of a Graeco-Persian ecumene would have been dismissed out of hand (for example E.R. Dodds’ in his ‘Greeks and the Irrational’ assumed that the non-western was by definition ‘irrational’).

In that sense I feel that the very logic of your own argument will eventually push you towards finding some other, broader rubric for this ecumene – this is why I feel you must  leave yourself open to other possibilities.

Thanks again for this exchange.

Very best




April 29, 2013

Dear Amitav,

Thank you for this and I am very happy to continue this discussion. I am sure something important would come out of it.

I would be happy to say “Greco-Persian” if this were to contribute to clarification. However, then, what about the Egyptian, the Nubian, the Ethiopic, the Sogdian, the Indian constituents of this economico-cultural world? Persian is a very important element, which is even more lasting than it seems to be. Under Islam, the Umayyads and the Abbassids represented two very different cultural trends. As the Umayyads were based in Damascus and their great achievement was the conquest of Byzantine territories besides the conquest of Mesopotamia and Iran, they continued – to an astonishing degree – a Roman heritage, while the Abbassids, based in Baghdad and revolting against the Umayyads, continued an eminently Persian tradition. Recently, I had to write an essay for a volume entitled Medieval Narrative Sources, on the Eastern Christian narrative/historiographic literature. While doing the research for this, I noticed with no little surprise that those Syrian and Arabic Christian chroniclers who lived in the former Roman territory are sympathetic to the Umayyads and hostile to the Abbassids. while those who lived in former Persian territory are the opposite: sympathetic – in a discerning way according to personal acts – to the Abbassids but rather hostile in a general manner to the Umayyads.

Be this as it may, we are speaking about a huge area linked together by two major arteries: the Silk Road on the north and the Trans-Arabian Sea-Indian Ocean-Gulf of Bengal sailing route, which could be called the Southern Silk Road and which also links in Africa. It is within this larger ecumene that I am trying to distinguish a non-insulated, non-self relying, non independent structural unit, which I try to call the Hellenistic Oikumene. In the last analysis this might prove futile, too, because China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia are just as parts of this system as is Central Asia or India.

Empires there were. There were also the subsequent nomadic empires, the Huns, the Avars, the Turkic empires preceding the Mongolians. This is also an integral part of the Oikumene. I may be illusioned attributing a symbolic importance to Alexander’s empire and, then, the Diadochus states, which lasted until quite late, something like 300 years in Egypt for example. However, they are vividly remembered. The Syrian Christians dated their manucripts according to the era of “the blessed Greeks” starting in 311 BC. When Alexander Csoma de Körös, the Hungarian traveler who made the first Tibetan-English dictionary (1784-1842) entered Ladakh and was asked who he was, he responded that he was Iskender bey, from the Rum country and the Tibetans understood, because they knew the name Iskender and they knew where Rum was in the West. 

All this is not to say that we could not find a better word than “Hellenistic”, but just to say that Greco-Persian is too restrictive. It reminds me of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Serbs, Ruthens and other nations felt oppressed while the Hungarians were celebrating their revolution of 1848-49 and their subsequent emancipation. It was to a great extent their refusal of sharing the rights they had obtained, which had finally led to the dismantling of the Monarchy.

That much for now and I am awaiting your reply!

Warm regards,



April 29, 2013

Dear István

Thanks once again for your reply. I am in complete agreement with you – I think both ‘Hellenistic’ and ‘Graeco-Persian’ are too restrictive. Indeed they derive from exactly that ‘civilizational’ perspective that you rightly question. Let us hope that a better terminology will soon be found.

It’s been a great pleasure to have this exchange with you – thank you for so generously sharing your enormous erudition. I am so looking forward to reading more of your work!

With my warmest good wishes



[i] Here we are using the concepts “Hellenism” and “Hellenistic” in a non-standard sense, whose definition is given in the text itself.

[ii] See the advertisement of the Journal of Persianate Studies: “The journal publishes articles on the culture and civilization of the geographical area where Persian has historically been the dominant language or a major cultural force, encompassing Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and parts of the former Ottoman Empire“ (

[iii] See Christopher Beckwith, Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[iv] Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).



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