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Posts Tagged ‘India’

Kings Have Adorned Her

November 7, 2013 | by

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah), and Sassoon David.

A fortune teller greeted David Sassoon on his way home from synagogue one night in Baghdad and told him to leave at once for India. He would be blessed with immense riches, she said. He was the son of Sheikh Sassoon, chief banker for the Ottoman pasha and nasi, or leader, of Baghdad’s Jewish community. Fleeing the despotic Daud Pasha, who had it out for the wealthy merchant, Sassoon settled in Bombay in 1833, eager to trade under British protection.

Back in the 1830s, Bombay was a port city of seven islands, a relative backwater, but a place where Sassoon could live and conduct business in peace, thanks to the East India Company and in large part to its president, Gerald Aungier. Back in 1668, England, eager to pawn off the Portuguese territory, rented the company the worthless, swampy islands for £10 of gold a year. Aungier saw promise. He moved the company’s Surat operation 165 miles south to Bombay, established courts and added judges, guaranteed religious freedom and individual rights (and loans) to traders and artisans, encouraged racial and religious communities to have spokesmen, and built causeways, docks, and a mint. Aungier created the ethic of equal opportunity that Bombayites would cherish for centuries by urging justice to all “without fear or favor,” says Naresh Fernandes in his smart new biography of Bombay, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay.

November is the fifth anniversary of the bombings at the Taj and Oberoi, two luxury hotels in South Bombay. The much-loved Taj was built by the industrialist Jamshed Tata in 1903, after another hotel turned him away because of his skin color. It’s a hotel that well-off locals grew up in, wandering the halls to admire its magnificent art collection, and lunching at the Sea Lounge, which overlooks the Gateway of India. (It was famously a watering hole for gambler and derbyman Victor Sassoon, David’s great-grandson, who lived at a suite at the Taj in the 1920s and 1940s.)

The targeted murders of Chabad Jews at Nariman House during the 2008 attacks were an odd turn of events. New Jews, known by few, they were not a part of Bombay’s historic landscape. They existed largely to house Israeli travelers, famously fond of long Indian sojourns. (Goa and the Himalayas are Israeli hubs.) The murders signaled not the arrival of anti-Semitism in India proper as much as it underscored the truth that anyone and everyone has always been welcome in Bombay. Though targeting Jews is no fluke anywhere, the real story is the story of Bombay’s Jews, which for all purposes started with David Sassoon. Read More »

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Barbarian at the Gates

July 1, 2013 | by

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“Going native” is usually the preserve of white travelers. In literature, it’s a genre study, one mastered by the British: Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris wrote more than just potboiler anthropology in distant colonial latitudes. England’s fascination with other cultures led to a certain occupational hazard. For two hundred years, from William Hawkins, the East India Company’s first representative to the Mughal court of Jahangir, to the Indologists William Jones or Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, British men often forgot about conquest and commerce, preferring to sink into the warm bath of India’s manifold charms. In the mid-nineteenth century, the crown took over from the EIC, or John Company, and discouraged social intercourse precisely because it was bad for business. Evangelicals and mortified memsahibs petitioned the authorities and warned that past its jungles, where one could always nab tiger skins or indulge in the shade of the crocodile bark, India was a strange land of disfigured heathens. For some Englishmen, transformation was irreversible.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the international spy, ethnographer, and professed “amateur barbarian,” came to Bombay with high expectations in 1842. At twenty-one, he’d been kicked out of Oxford, reduced to begging his father for a pricey commission in the Indian Army, which was granted under the condition that he go to any lengths to see combat. Burton spent four months at sea sparring with his boorish compatriots, a bunch of “yahoos” whose idea of fun amounted to firing their pistols into the black tide, until he detected that “faint spicy odor crossed with the aroma of drugs” that signaled Bombay. Read More »

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Typewriter, Tip, Tip, Tip, and Other News

June 18, 2013 | by

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  • Behold the typewriters of famous authors.
  • Speaking of: if you have $60,000–$80,000 handy, you can buy Hemingway’s.
  • MESSAGES SENT WITHIN THE U.S. NAVY NO LONGER HAVE TO BE WRITTEN OUT IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
  • In other cultural upheaval news, brace yourselves for the latest OED changes.
  • The strange, amazing world of Game of Thrones fan fic.
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    Letter from Jaipur

    February 7, 2013 | by

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    Last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was exciting and boring at the same time—a death threat is exciting, but thirty death threats are boring; as Dostoevsky wrote, “Man is a creature who can get used to anything.” Salman Rushdie was scheduled to attend: Islamic groups agitated to deny him a visa, which he does not need in order to enter India, but never mind. It was suggested that instead Rushdie might address the festival via video conference: the government itself advised against this. Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar, and Ruchir Joshi read aloud in protest from The Satanic Verses, still banned in India, but, after the gravity of their collective transgression had been brought home to them, they left the festival.

    We know what comedy is: life is increased. Think of Rodney Dangerfield addressing the crowd at the end of Caddyshack: “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!” And we know what tragedy is: isolation increases. I used to think that life was about winning everything, Mike Tyson once said, but now I know that life is about losing everything.

    But what is India, with its boundless affirmation of life in general that befouls so many lives in the particular, with its joyous proliferation unto overcrowding, need, and misery? I did my small part, during my brief month there, to maintain those inequalities: Give me your shoes, I know you have other pair, you not need these, give them me, said a man as he tried to pull my sneakers off while a second man tried to pin my arms; and what he said was true, somewhere on the other side of the world I did have another pair of shoes, four shoes and only two feet; all the same, unhand me, my little friend, before I pick you up and throw you like a javelin.

    I attended the 2013 JLF. It began in the same way. Read More »

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    Letter from India: The Haunting

    September 6, 2012 | by

    “I think this hotel is haunted,” I told my traveling companion, Clancy.

    I have never said anything quite like that before. Now, I have unconventional beliefs. I believe when others tell me they have seen a ghost, particularly if they have details—say, a long nose and a tuxedo, or a suggestion from an old lady that we “touch now, dearie.” But it still sounds like crazy talk. I am aware of that.

    “You’re right,” he said.

    “Really?”

    Then we were both afraid to turn out the light. We were in the Rajmata Suite, where the woman who lived in the hotel used to sleep, back when it was a home. Actually, the correct word is palace. When you turned out the light it was pitch black in the room. In that darkness, I felt—briefly—a unique dread. It was not a menace. Just a funny intimation. To put it into words is to coarsen what was fine: an intimation that one day I would die.

    Read More »

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    Letter from India: The Permit, Part 3

    August 22, 2012 | by

    The story so far: Clancy and Amie continue to struggle to obtain the elusive permit that will allow them to find accommodation in a remote mountain area.

    We stayed one night in McLeod Gange. It might be called the woo-woo capital of the world. Woo-woos everywhere—frustrated, blissed out, on drugs—unwashed woo-woo land, with lots of coffee shops.

    In the morning, we passed a black street dog with white paws. He limped on a hind leg.
    Clancy said, “Hey, White Socks, how’s it going?”Read More »

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