Light under a bushel?

November 28, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)


Murali Ranganathan is among the most interesting of the many people who have come into my life through book releases and readings. I met him at the Mumbai release of River of Smoke, on June 21 this year. Our conversation was necessarily very brief but he told me that he knew of some 19th century travel accounts of China, written in Gujarati by Parsi merchants. I had no inkling of the existence of such accounts and did not quite know what to make of this. I must admit I was a little sceptical, but sure enough a few days later Murali sent me a list of the books he had mentioned (see my post of July 19) .

I was both disappointed and hugely impressed. The first because it was terribly frustrating to know of the existence of these books without being able to read them; the second because I knew from experience that to dig out sources like these takes real persistence and archival skill. The people who have these abilities are almost always attached to universities. But Murali has no such affiliation – indeed one of the striking things about him is that despite his great learning he does not seem in the least bit professorial. I soon learnt that Murali is a scholar in a much older mould, of a breed that is increasingly rare in today’s highly compartmentalized world: he is largely self-taught, an autodidact who has developed his formidable linguistic and archival skills on his own. He works on texts in Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi and, no doubt, many other, languages. He possesses a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of 19th century India and what is more, his scholarly work is driven not by a desire for advancement but by a genuine passion for history. If the world were a more discerning place Murali would be a celebrated scholar, notable not only for his work but also for the fact that he has chosen to be free of institutions. But Murali prefers to hide his light under a bowl (or ‘bushel’ as they used to be called in early translations of the Bible).

The extent of Murali’s erudtion will be evident from an email he recently sent me: ‘I first read about the destruction of Port Canning in the 1860s in one of your blog posts; the second instance has materialized rather quickly; I guess a mere coincidence (the subject of that very post) … but perhaps this might interest you. ‘Afflicted, as I am, by the deadly malaise of consuming 19th century autobiographies in Indian languages, I happened to reach for the autobiography of Abd-al Ghafur <<Nassakh>> (1834-1889). He was a middling judicial official in the British machinery and a native Bengali from Calcutta. The narrative itself is not very gripping except for his early life and his fascination and deep involvement in geomancy, numerology, alchemy, legerdemain and such like. His job took him all over Bengal and the text is peppered with mention of Barisal, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Dhaka and Calcutta, all exotic locales to a West Indian like me. Well connected and highly educated, one can glimpse into a life well-lived in 19th century Bengal. ‘During that fateful storm, he was literally caught in the middle of the Padma river and escaped by the skin of his teeth. There is a three page account of the ordeal and he ends by saying that the English term for such toofans is “cyclone”. ‘Incidentally, he was a major literary figure during his lifetime. An Urdu poet of the first order and seems to have published close to ten books during his lifetime. The autobiography was published finally in 1986 by the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, edited by Abdus Subhan.’


I recently ordered Murali’s 2009 book, Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863 (Anthem Press, London). It is a translation (with an excellent biographical sketch and bibliography) of Mumbaiche Varnan, a Marathi account of 19th century Bombay written by Govind Narayan, a major literary figure of the time. From the evidence of this book (and it is a tribute to Murali’s skill as a translator that a very distinctive voice emerges from it) Govind Narayan was a man of keen intelligence and unusual ability. A sense of humour was not, unfortunately, among his many gifts: something about his voice reminds me of the frowning, finger-wagging schoolteachers of my childhood – one of those master-moshais who would rap your knuckles with the thin edge of a ruler if ever your handwriting strayed off the lines of your exercise book. But such men are often very good observers of the world around them and that was certainly true of Govind Narayan.


[Bombay Green, 1862]



Govind Narayan’s portrait of 19th century Bombay is richly detailed and, in parts, wonderfully vivid. Here are some snippets: “If one turns towards the East at Mumbadevi square one comes across the counting-houses of the big moneylenders. They sit on pristine white cushions and recline on huge bolsters, while their servants bustle about in the front of the shop. There are over fifty such shops. Just a little ahead are the opium traders, mainly Marwadi and other kinds of Gujars, who conduct their noisy and boisterous trade on the streets. Just behind the Mumbadevi temple is a line of shops selling shawls. There are shawls hanging everywhere. If a bundle is opened, one can see priceless Amritsari and Kashmiri shawls various colours and silken borders. One is amazed at their beauty! A little ahead are bright shops selling pearls, diamonds, and rubies. A few more steps and one comes across shops selling copperware. Numerous varieties of newly forged utensils are arranged from top to bottom in these shops. Here and there are also shops selling broadcloth, goldsmiths, and gold assayers. Leaving them behind, a few steps will bring you to the sweetmeat vendors! Rows and rows of benches with red, yellow, and green-coloured sweets neatly arranged in baskets – one gets satisfaction by just looking at them. Adjacent to them are the Gandhis, with extracts from flowers and other medicinal plants, and many of them making small packets of these extracts. At various points, one will come across Gujarati Brahmins dressed in a dhoti and rags selling plates and cups made of leaves. In this small area, you will find a number of these Gujarati Brahmins packed in all corners. Further are the shops of the grain-dealers. Various types of grains are filled in baskets and tins and the Marwadi proprietors eagerly await their customers in the fashion of Bakasura” (p. 122-3).


[Churchgate station]


“[A] statue of General Wellesley has been installed at Churchgate. This famous warrior had convincingly defeated the Marathas in 1803. This battle was fought at Assaye where the English suffered major losses; however this Sardar courageously led them to victory…. This famed fighter occupied the post of Governor General in 1798 and was known for his foresight. He was very sympathetic to the needs of the natives, and trade multiplied during his tenure; consequently the businessmen of Mumbai contributed towards the installation of a statue in 1814 which was ordered from England. The statue has been sculpted very artistically – Wellesley Sahib is sitting on a throne with a purse in his hands; a Maratha pahelwan stands in frcrnt of him  and Wellesley Sahib’s hands are poised to gift him the purse. Next to him is the statue of a lady. On her left hand is a plaque on which are inscribed the words – ‘Wisdorn. Energy, Integrity.’ … The people of Mumbai refer to it as the pahelwan’s statue… When this statue was installed, many of the Maratha simpletons of Mumbai were very delighted as they felt that the Company Sarkar had very kindly imported an English god for their worship. And what ensued? There was no limit to their happiness and they started worshipping this starue. For many years thereafter, they would offer coconuts to the idol, conduct pooja, and take vows. When the sarkar realized that this was inappropriate, they put an end to this practice. An iron fence has been constructed and entry has been prohibited. If somebody tries to worship the statue, the watchman appointed by government restricts him.” (p. 129-30).

Everyone who is interested in the history of Indian cities should order this book at once!

3 Responses to “Light under a bushel?”

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  1. Comment by Sameer — December 23, 2011 at 1:41 am   Reply

    Knowing Murali, I am not surprised at all with all that he has achieved! Just glad that an old friend is getting wider recognition

  2. Comment by harmendra — December 30, 2011 at 5:31 am   Reply

    very impressive and we wish Murali good luck and wider recognition

  3. Comment by Harish Trivedi — January 20, 2012 at 9:25 am   Reply

    Murali is one of a kind. At the risk of being blamed for the cliche let me say out front, loud and clear, ‘They don’t make these kind of humble and unassuming scholars any more.’ It was indeed a thrill and joy to have met Murali during my recent visit to Mumbai. I wish I had more time.

    What a wonderful, charming young man! Youth indeed that challenges, no proves wrong the Oscar Wilde’s dictum Youth is wasted on the young or some such phrase… Good luck my friend, you have many more productive years ahead of you!

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