The Unknown Indians: People Who Quietly Changed Our World

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REVIEW

The Unknown Indians: People Who Quietly Changed Our World

By : Anil Menon  /  2017

The Unknown Indians: People Who Quietly Changed Our World

The Unknown Indians.jpg
The Unknown Indians: People Who Quietly Changed Our World
Author:
Subhadra Sengupta
Illustrator:
Tapas Guha
64 pages
English
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-8129137593
Tags : 
Craft,
Food,
History,
India,
Literature,
Poetry,
Overall Rating : 
8
Story/Content : 
4
Illustration : 
3
Language : 
4
Design : 
3

In the Ramayana, there is the story of the squirrel who sought to help in the building of the bridge to Lanka, one small pebble at a time. The vanar-sena make fun of the helpful creature, but Lord Rama intervenes and blesses the squirrel with a stroke of his hand, thus marking its tail with three stripes. The story says, of course, that no sincere effort can ever be so small that it is insignificant. And when such small efforts are multiplied a million-fold, then vast bridges can spring into being, unjust traditions can be changed, and entire civilisations renewed. Sen Gupta's wonderful and much-needed book is about many such humble squirrels of Indian history. Specifically, it is about the “quiet Indians” who helped our civilisation change with the times. These quiet Indians include our weavers, potters, ironsmiths and carvers; farmers and cooks; poets and rebels; and, of course, our countless storytellers and mythmakers. The young reader lucky enough to encounter this book will find it hard to recognise in its lively and interesting stories that dreary and yawn-inducing subject taught in their classrooms as “history”.

Sen Gupta covers a lot of material in 62 pages. The introduction explains that what we call Indian civilisation has not only adapted to new circumstances, but also thrived because of this willingness to change. Distinguishing real achievements of ancient India from the fake ones, Sen Gupta warns her young readers that there is no use being nostalgic for some non-existent golden age.

The remaining chapters describe various kinds of contributors. She starts with the storytellers and minstrels, describing how the smritis, “people's literature” as she calls it, were composed by many minds, many of them now forgotten or unknown. Much of this chapter is taken up with the factual and mythic history of the Mahabharata, and though interesting, it would have been useful to get a better sense of the contributions of other groups. What stories did the Syrian Christians tell each other? Did the Greeks bring any stories? What about our many tribal groups? There's also a superficial dismissal of the shrutis, which is unfortunate. It lends credence to Hindutva claims that for Indian liberals there is never any virtue to be seen in Hindu sacred texts.

I learned lots of fascinating nuggets in the chapter on weavers and the contributions of other craftspeople. I hadn't known the English “chintz” came from the Hindi “cheent”, or that textile blocks printed in Gujarat have turned up in excavations in Cairo, or that the Buddhist Jataka tales lists 18 craft guilds.

But for me, the next chapter on farmers and cooks was the real shocker. Bernard Shaw remarks somewhere that all learning is accompanied with a sense of loss. If that’s the case, then I learned a lot. I had no idea the samosa was an Arabic import. Ditto for jalebis. In one of my stories I’d described a character as being as authentically Indian as a chikoo. Well, chikoos are from South America. Ditto for rajmah, papaya, cashew nut, potatoes, green chillies—look friend, roll up the flag, just sit back and enjoy your rasgulla (the Portuguese gave us cheese). This was a lovely chapter and left me wanting more.

The book ends with a chapter on poets, those viruses of rebellion. Sen Gupta discusses Bhakti poets, their varied backgrounds—often humble—and what they critiqued. About Kabir, she remarks that “his voice seems to get stronger with every decade”. These men and women weren’t quiet, nor are they unknown today. But in their time, the hegemony, though severely irritated, mustn’t have too perturbed. Let the squirrels ferry their pebbles.

The story of Lord Rama and the squirrel isn’t in the Valmiki Ramayan. Devdutt Patnaik explains how it first appeared in the Bhakti poet Balaram Das’s 15-century Odiya work, the Dandi Ramayan. Clearly, Balaram Das worked the story in because he knew he lived in a world where far too many had been told far too long that they were too unimportant in the scheme of things. I have no doubt that Subhadra Sen Gupta’s quiet little book will serve to inspire the next generation of Indian readers.

Anil Menon started out wanting to be an accountant, took a long detour through computer science and ended up a fiction writer. He’s the author of The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Young Zubaan, 2010) and Half Of What I Say (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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