Manu S Pillai, the acclaimed author of a monumental historical study, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (2015), presents himself here in a somewhat lighter vein, with a series of essays on interesting personalities, known and unknown, from Indian history both before and during British rule.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, as it’s usually titled by scholars and translators, may in fact not be an epic at all. It’s not even a single poem, but “a confusion of stories”, a number of reassembled fragments and tablets in more than one ancient language plus an “edition” assembled and organised out of scattered bits by one Sin-leqi-unninni, who between 1300 and 1000 BCE made what we would now call a “standardized text” out of it, adding, as Schmidt tells us, “prefatory lines … and a reprise that echoes the opening but in a darker tone.”
What exactly is a tourist? Briefly, it means someone who travels not for a particular purpose such as exploration, pilgrimage, missionary work or archaeology, but a person who does it for fun. Tourists may have specific places in mind or specific things they want to see, but the overall “purpose” of their travels is pleasure. John van Wyhe claims that the first female tourist was the Austrian housewife Ida Pfeiffer, whose name may be known by students of travel-writing but certainly not as well-known as she should be, but this biography should set the record straight.
Two famous Englishmen, two hundred years or so apart, tried to emigrate to America and failed. One was Oliver Cromwell, who in 1634 found himself in so much debt that he sold up much of his property and decided to sail off to Connecticut for a life in the New World. Unfortunately, he was denied permission to leave England, and never got on the boat, leaving historians to wonder what would have happened (or wouldn’t have) had he been issued a passport. The other was Rudyard Kipling, who fared rather better.
Hagiography. What a fascinating word; at one time I thought the “hag” implied the study of witches! The word, which of course literally means “writings on [the lives of] saints”, has also taken on a pejorative meaning, in the sense that since saints are supposedly exceptionally good people, even considered “perfectly-formed at birth” as Alexander Gardner puts it, admiringly servile biographies which flatter exceptionally bad people or even mediocrities must also be hagiographies, because they make those people look like saints.
Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”
On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.