It’s that time of the month again when I’m at my dullest and most predictable. This is because most of the functioning parts of my brain are focussed upon not focussing on the pain in my lower abdominal area.
I hate PMS.
What? I said I was at my most predictable at this time.
This is probably not a good time blog since in my current state, I doubt I can make anything sound interesting. But whatever. Here I am, and blog I shall.
The Mumbai neighbourhood of Kala Ghoda is always haunted by Parsis (most of the grand buildings in the area exist because of Parsi philanthropists). At present, however, Kala Ghoda is doubly haunted, by which I mean in addition to the ghosts, there are two wonderful exhibitions on South Asian Zoroastrians at the Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
If you’ve read Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, a lot of the history in NGMA’s No Parsi is an Island will seem familiar. The exhibition has all sorts of fabulous stuff on display, including a Chinese loom, old photographs, vintage furniture and some gorgeous Parsi blouses, lace and embroidery.
I really want those blouses. They’d go so well with so many of my saris. Anyway.
Accompanying No Parsi is an Island are poetry readings, film screenings, talks etc. The only one I’ve attended (so far) was the talk/lecture in which Amar Farooqui (professor of history, Delhi University) and Ranjit Hoskote (critic, curator, poet) spoke about commerce and culture from Canton to Bombay. Three questions kept popping up in the conversation that followed their presentations. Why was it that the Parsis alone entered this business of trade with China? How is it that the Parsis were the only ones to make so much money? Why did the Parsis who made their money courtesy the opium trade become such philanthropists?
While chatting with Ranjit, Amar Farooqui said he didn’t buy the usual explanation that Parsis are basically more industrious and therefore took on the challenge of trading with China. Yet, Farooqui also said he didn’t have a credible, alternate explanation for the fact that most of the Bombay traders at that time were Parsi. He found only four Muslim names to break the pattern. Perhaps it was the conservative Hindu fear of crossing the ocean and losing one’s caste that led to this imbalance, Farooqui suggested.
(He didn’t sound entirely convinced, which makes sense because let’s not forget, this is also the time when Indians were signing up by the shipload to go to work in the Caribbean as indentured labour. Of course, most had no idea what they were signing up for and were mostly far lower in the social order than those who became traders. In case of the coolies, even the exceptions were desperate. If you’re interested, please read Gaiutra Bahadur’s superb book Coolie Woman, about her great grandmother who was a Brahmin woman, 27 years old and 4 months pregnant when she signed up to go Guiana as indentured labour. But I digress. The point is, when desperate and/or unwilling to accept their fate, Hindus did get on ships and travel across oceans.)
Ranjit made a very valid observation which answered the question of why the Parsis were the ones in western India who became traders: those who took up this risky business were invariably on the fringes of mainstream society in one way or the other. They may not have been destitute or of low caste, but they certainly weren’t an integral part of the social fabric. Ranjit also offered the example of Dwarkanath Tagore, who being Brahmo didn’t quite belong to proper Bengali society, and got into the business of trade with the British. Tagore’s company was a failure but the fact that he hung out with the British, was wealthy and a philanthropist earned him the nickname of Prince. For all this, however, the Tagore struggled to find “good” families to marry into and almost always married the sons to girls from very modest/ poor Brahmin families.
If people feel misfit and sidelined in their immediate society, it makes sense that they would be open to trying something new, especially when it’s risky. (Greater the risk, lesser the competition and greater the possibilities of profit.) I’m no historian, but I’m guessing Parsis were very aware of their minority status and the limitations that arose as a result of it. The Brahmos of Bengal, like the Parsis in Western India, were kept at arm’s length by mainstream society. Although both Brahmos and Parsis would later play important roles in creating the sense of a modern Indian identity, in the 19th century both communities were very happy to associate themselves with the British. This would have been the easiest way to feel less marginalised. The British enjoyed a significant degree of political and economic power in the 19th century. To be able to access even a fraction of that would have seemed like the best way to deal with the lack of social standing.
Someone in the audience pointed out that at the height of the opium trade, the money spent on philanthropy by the traders was also at its zenith. Farooqui added another point: it was only in the 20th century that the anti-opium lobby became influential. I’ve no idea why the Parsis made as much money they did, but the reason why they became philanthropists seems pretty obvious — it was an attempt at raising their personal profiles, making a name for themselves and establishing themselves as a new Indian elite.
(Well, not Indian, since the notion of ‘India’ was very nascent then. Let’s say, elites of their region.)
It’s the same for the Brahmo community in Bengal. These were all people who were at the fringes of Indian society because of their faith; men who were ambitious and wanted to be well-known and well-respected.
I don’t think the Parsis traders gave money to charities or became patrons of culture because they were trying to cover up any shame they may have felt about selling opium. I think these projects were a strategy to craft a new identity for themselves. An identity that was associated with power, refinement and other such lofty things.
They adopted etiquette that was more inclined to the increasingly-powerful British, which was prescient but also, they had no chance of being able to fulfil the criteria set out by the local elite Hindu society. They created their own coat of arms. They promoted art and classical music; they put money into hospitals and libraries that would have plaques with their names, and establish as great samaritans to history, as opposed to fringe elements who worked in a dodgy trade.
Philanthropy wasn’t just about reinvention, but it also showed the philanthropists as people who were investing in the country and in its people. It established a sense of belonging, which would probably be a great motivator for someone from a community that has been marginalised. Forget the marginalised, philanthropy is traditionally the way rulers who ascended their thrones in unstable situations established their positions.
By the time we roll into the 20th century, opium trade is being criminalised and philanthropy is shrinking. Because the old trading families have established themselves as the new elite. They’ve got the money and the profile by this time, partly because they’d backed the right political horse and because the money spent in the 19th century had found its target. The Parsi traders had bought their way into posh society with their charity projects and now, their wealth could hold its own against old money.
Looking at what the millionaires of the past did with their money and what the present gilded set do, everyone despairs. We all bemoan how little real philanthropy is done by companies and people raking in the moolah in India. We complain that people are callous, corrupt and just generally more reprehensible in the 21st century. Maybe they are. Maybe we don’t have a culture of philanthropy.
(I’m not sure about this, but I can’t help wondering if our love for hierarchy is responsible for philanthropy not de rigeur among India’s rich. Charity is highly regarded by all the religions that have found a home in India. But I suspect philanthropy feels hopeless in society that’s so rigidly hierarchical. It neither holds out the promise of reinvention to the one being charitable and neither does it offer any real change for the one receiving the charity. Maybe the CSR initiatives that companies are legally required to support these days will change attitudes in coming decades. Because god knows, a little philanthropy could go a loooong way in this country.)
Maybe our aesthetics and yardsticks have changed, making us esteem someone who flaunts their wealth with an Aston Martin more than the person who flaunts their wealth by funding a library. But there is also a critical difference between the rich in the two eras: today, they’re socially secure. They don’t need to create stature for themselves because they begin with a certain degree of respect and standing — for being middle class, for being Hindu, for belonging to a rich and/or respectable family.
And that’s when you have to think about the systems and policies that are in place now.