Archive for December, 2008

As the title suggests, Dirk A. H. Kolff`s minor classic of a book is quite heavy at times, and not for the faint of heart or for those who don`t want to read about military recruitment and Rajput poetry. It`s a rather unique book as well, as its focus is really on the cultural and labour history of certain military service groups in northern India, ones with close connections to the peasantry and made up at first of nebulous `castes` whose identity only became solid by the middle of the seventeenth century.

It isn`t an easy book to summarise, because Kolff really has collected here a series of related articles to draw a picture of the history of the Indian sepoy and the labour market that supplied them to ruler after ruler. The thread that runs between these articles is tenuous, and some of the chapters are better than others (or rather, some are more interesting to me), as is usual for a scholarly book of this sort. Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy does surprise the reader with a sense of the flexibility and mobility of pre-modern British society.


The peasantry of India were heavily armed. Kolff cites Peter Mundy`s reminiscences of travelling through India in 1632, in the present-day Kanpur district, where Mundy saw: “labourers with their guns, swords and bucklers leying by them while they ploughed the ground”. Another example from 1650 describes the Rajputs of the Agra area:

“They are a numerous, industrious and brave race. Every village has a small fort. They never pay revenue to the hakim (tax-collector) without a fight. The peasants (riàya) who drive the plough keep a musket (bandug) slung over their neck and a powder-pouch at the waist. The relief-loan (taqavi) they get from the hakim is in the form of lead and gunpowder.”

As Kolff notes, the monopoly of arms we assume to be a feature of the modern state was impossible in pre-Mughal and Mughal India. The peasantry was so well armed and numerous that it could be considered less the subjects then the rivals of the state. Tax collectors and recruiters could be assaulted and killed, and were likely to enter an area well protected, as were caravans that hired hundreds of guards (many of them mobile peasants as well); troops were driven out or robbed on the march. The problem of rules, Kolff writes, “was how to deal with the peasantry at large, how to subject to some manner of control and collect revenue from these almost ungovernable tens of millions of people protected by mud forts, ravines, jungles… and the weapons they were so familiar with” (9). This difficulty of rule meant that the Mughals were never as absolute or despotic as we imagine, and that on the local, provincial or regional level rule meant negotiation, loan relief, tax exemption, the waving of debts and the toleration of continued armament.

This `freedom’ of the peasantry was dearly bought: villages too recalcitrant, or too well organized, or supporting the forces of bandits and rulers hostile to the Mughals, would be razed. Whole towns would be sold into slavery as the ultimate punitive measure, if the inhabitants simply weren`t massacred. Mundy, again in 1632, travelling between Agra and Patna in Bihar, “saw, during four days of passage…200 minars or pillars on which a total of 70,000 heads were fixed with mortar.” According to Mundy, this was the work of Abdullah Khan, a powerful Mughal general, whose force of 30,000 “destroyed all their [the peasants] townes, tooke all their goods, their wives and children for slaves, and the chieftest of their men, causing their heads to be cut off and to be immotered” The result was constant low level warfare, that might not be unfamiliar from early seventeenth century France or nineteenth century Russia. Only by about 1818 was the British East India Company able to disarm and pacify much of the countryside in its grasp, but only then as part of a general trend to fix peasants to their home, deprive them of many forms of redress and confiscating their means of resistance, the ubiquitous matchlock musket.


The ‘unsettled’ centuries of pre-British India were ones of opportunity for soldiers, some of whom came to be known as `rajputs`. The term is generally ethnic now, but was much less specific in early modern India. As the title of the book suggests, rajput was just another appellation like naukar or sepoy, generic and vague enough to encompass a wide variety of peoples and groups, and even organizations, even if the `proper` Rajput clans did exist at that time. Kolff describes this process:

“Rajput soldiers of the seventeenth century must have been of the most diverse origins. True, with a large number of them, memories of their precise social backgrounds were gradually obscured by vague territorial identities or claims of ksatriya status. But in ancient times, recruitment…had not taken social origins into account. Instead, it overlaid old identities with a new…’rajput’ veneer. (155).

Certain castes considered themselves `pure` Rajput, and monopolized certain ‘regal’ names and territories, but the evidence that Kolff musters suggests that many otherwise unremarkable peasant groups were able to assume the mantle of glorious (and lucrative) rajput even if they were not considered of the ‘right’ caste.


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The New Iraq

Laura Bush on Iraqi TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi, throwing the other shoe at her dear husband:

“But I know that if Saddam Hussein had been there, the man wouldn’t have been released. And he probably … you know, would have been executed,” she said. “As bad as the incident is, in my view, it is a sign that Iraqis feel a lot freer to express themselves.”

The Times Online and its strange opinion about this brutal assault with heavy duty leather patent shoes:

The Arab world has a new hero. Muntazer al-Zaidi, a young Iraqi journalist, shot to fame when he hurled his shoes at President Bush. The US leader nimbly ducked the flying footwear but his assailant has secured his brief moment in history.

A poem has been written on an Islamist website praising his action. Demonstrators have taken to the streets of Baghdad demanding al-Zaidi’s release. Many Arabs believe that the insult hurled at Mr Bush, who was branded a “dog”, is a fitting end to his troubled history in the region.

It is easy to sympathise with Iraqis who feel angry, betrayed and frustrated at the US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But in his act of defiance al-Zaidi has also demonstrated how far Iraq has come. Not long ago, a young Iraqi man with a grudge against America would have vented his anger by using a grenade or a roadside bomb against US troops. It is also worth reflecting that, had a protester hurled shoes and shouted insults at Saddam Hussein during the visit of a world leader, the perpetrator and all his family would probably have been put to death.

A reply from Yasmeen in Iraq in the Comments box:

One and a half million iraqis killed after the Occution is a hugely high price for enjoying “FREEDOME OF EXPRESSION”. Would you accept this situatuin to prevail in the states?

An early BBC report on the arrest and beating of this reporter, who has apparentely been arrested by the US Army several times and kidnapped by insurgents:

Muntadar al-Zaidi has allegedly suffered a broken arm, broken ribs and internal bleeding, his older brother, Dargham, told the BBC.

A later report from Al-Jazeera, using the testimony of his lawyer:

Al-Zaidi was allowed to see his lawyer on Sunday afternoon, who confirmed initial reports that he had been beaten and that his medical condition “was very bad”.

“There are visible signs of torture on his body, as a result of being beaten by metal instruments,” al-Sa’adi said.

“Medical reports have shown that the beating he was subjected to has led to him losing one of his teeth as well as injuries to his jaw and ears.

“He has internal bleeding in his left eye, as well as bruises over his face and stomach. Almost none of his body was spared.”


The shoe thrower incident has had repercussions across Iraq:

Iraqis on the street continue to show support for Zaidi, who disrupted a news conference Sunday in Baghdad by Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

University students rallied for Zaidi in Fallujah on Wednesday, drawing the attention of U.S. forces.

Students raised their shoes and threw rocks at American soldiers, who reportedly opened fire above the crowd. Protesters said that indirect fire wounded one student, Zaid Salih. U.S. forces haven’t confirmed the account.

“We demonstrated to express our support for Muntathar al Zaidi, but we were surprised with the entrance of the U.S. military,” said Ahmed Ismail, one of the protesters. “Unconsciously, we raised our shoes expressing our support for al Zaidi, but they attacked us.”

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I don’t know him
           but thought somebody else did,
for everyone was friendly in that bar
           except this guy in the red checkered shirt:
he was aggressive and pro-Canadian,
stubbing a Players outside the ashtray,
swaying in his chair and gulping beer
like water
             drunk and getting drunker – –
“Best beer in the world,” he said.
“Bout the only thing left that’s really Canadian.”
                                   And glared at us.
“Did you know 60 % of Canadian industry
                                   is American owned?”
They callem American shubshidyaries – – “
Everyone laughed when he stumbled over the word,
and he slapped his hand hard on the table,
“Don’ laugh!” he said.
“Okay, I been drinking, I like to drink,
But don’t laugh when you see the country
                         just sort of casually
like an afterthought, like a burp after dinner – – “
                  “So what?” somebody said.
“Everybody here knows we’ll belong to the States
                   in another ten years…”
The guy swelled up like a sneering bullfrog,
“And guys like you deserve to be taken over.
But when you are you’ll be 2nd class Americans
like Negroes in the south, like Indians here – –
You’ll be 2nd class Americans because
you never were 1st class Canadians in the first place – -“
Everybody stiffened.
                                    “Okay,” he said,
“I’ll buy the beer and shut up.”
But after a few seconds he couldn’t keep quiet.
“Anybody ever hear of the San Juan Islands?
No, I guess not. Well, Canada got gypped there.
Anybody know about the Alaska Panhandle deal,
or remember the Herbert Norman case, by any chance?
Well, I’m tellin’ you, this country is being taken
like a glass of beer.  It’s  a matter of economics.
And none of you guys really give a damn,
just slop your beer and wait to be taken
by some big bellied American in Washington.
And I’m tellin you, they’re all greedy bastards –!”
“I like Americans,” someone said mildly,
and seemed just by chance his arm lifted,
meeting checked shirt’s arm in the middle of the table.
That was all that it needed:
“Okay, loud mouth, let’s see you put me down!”
They call it “arm wrestling” some places:
and the yellow beer jiggled as clasped hands
pushed on elbow fulcrum – everyone watching.
The guy in the checked shirt was drunk,
and the other guy more or less sober,
so it shouldn’t have been much of a contest.
Their arms strained like two-thirds of a tripod,
and checked put on pressure,
“I’m telling you they’re bastards – – !”
The other guy was big, but he collapsed quick,
\knocking over a glass of beer and the salt shaker.
“Just shows you,” checked shirt said,
looking around the table.  He started to go.
“I gotta be getting back.  Be seeing ya – – “
“You been huntin?” somebody asked.
“That’s right, up near Bancroft.  Takin back a nice buck.”
“Where you from?”
Checked shirt grinned.
“New York,” he said.

                                                 – Alfred Purdy

from The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse, Chiefly By Canadian Writers. Revised and Enlarged.  Selected and Arranged by F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith. (Toronto: Macmillan Company, 1957)

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Before me on the dancestand
A god’s vomit or damned by his decrees
The exciting twitching couples shook and
wriggled like giant parentheses.

A pallid Canadienne
Raised a finger and wetted her lip,
And echoing the nickelodeon
“Chip” she breathed drowsily, “Chip, chip.”

Aroused, her slavish partner
Smiled, showed his dentures through soda-pop gas,
And “chip” he said right back to her
And “chip, chip” she said and shook her ass.

Denture to denture, “pas mal”
They whispered and were glad, jerked to and fro;
Their distorted bodies like bits of steel
Controlled by that throbbing dynamo.

They stomped, flung out their arms, groaned;
And in a flash I saw the cosmos end
And last of all the black night cover this:
“Chip, chip” and a shake of the ass.

                                                 – Irving Layton

from The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse, Chiefly By Canadian Writers. Revised and Enlarged.  Selected and Arranged by F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith. (Toronto: Macmillan Company, 1957)

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The Status of Canadian Geology

A graduate, magna cum lava,
Of Ottawa’s College of Mines,
He died while at work in Ungava
By failing to read the French signs.

His friend from Quebec on the survey,
refusing to eat English food,
Succumbed to pellagra and scurvy –
The ore they’re interred in is crude.

                                       – Nathan Fast

A Church Seen in Canada

O country doubly split! One way
tugged eastward; one to USA:
One way tugged deep toward silver Rome;
One way scotched stubborn here at home;
What panacea for your ills?
(Le Sacré Coeur de Crabtree Mills).

                                      – Theodore Spencer

from The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse, Chiefly By Canadian Writers. Revised and Enlarged.  Selected and Arranged by F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith. (Toronto: Macmillan Company, 1957)

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The gold roof of Parliament

covered with fingerprints and scratches.

And here are the elected, hunchbacked

from climbing up each other’s heads.


The most precious secret has been leaked:

There is no Opposition!


Over-zealous hacks hoist the P. M.

through the ceiling. He fools

an entire sled-load of Miss Canada losers

by acting like a gargoyle.


Some fool (how did he get in) who

wants jobs for everyone and says

so in french is quickly interred

under a choice piece of the cornice


and likes it. (STAG PARTY LAUGHTER)

When are they going to show the dirty movie?


Don’t cry, Miss Canada,

it’s not as though the country’s

in their hands.

And next year we’re piping in

Congressional proceedings

direct from Washington –

all they’ll have to do

is make divorces.

– Leonard Cohen

from The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse, Chiefly By Canadian Writers. Revised and Enlarged. Selected and Arranged by F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith. (Toronto: Macmillan Company, 1957)

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You remember the big Gaston, for whom everyone


a bad end? –

Gaston, the neighbour’s gossip and his mother’s cross?

You remember him vaurien, always out of a job,

with just enough clinking coinage

for pool, bright neckties, and blondeds, – –

the scented Gaston in the poolroom lolling

in meadows of green baize?

In clover now.  Through politics.  Monsieur Gaston.

They say the minister of a certain department does

not move

without him; and they say, to make it innocent, – –


But everyone understands.  Why, wherever our

Gaston smiles

a nightclub rises and the neon flashes.

To his slightest whisper

the bottled rye, like a fawning pet-dog, gurgles.

The burlesque queen will not undress

unless Monsieur Gaston says yes.

And the Madame will shake her head behind the


unless he nods.

A changed man, Gaston;  almost a civil servant,

keeps records, appointments, women; speaks tough


is very much respected.

You should hear with what greetings his distinguished

approach is greeted;

you should see the gifts he gets,

with compliments for his season.

– A. M. Klein

from The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse, Chiefly By Canadian Writers. Revised and Enlarged.  Selected and Arranged by F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith. (Toronto: Macmillan Company, 1957)

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