A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

Decline and fall

In the last three months I’ve spent hours daydreaming as I shell peas. The pods are fruit, and the peas are seeds. “Is it only in legumes that we throw away the fruit and eat only the seed?” I asked The Family in March. I got a severely blank look in answer. Pinterest threw up a slew of recipes for using the heaps of succulent pods, but warned that the garden pea pods that I had in front of me were not very good to eat. In April the pods looked withered and dry. Now in the middle of June the pods are definitely sick, and sometimes the peas too. “Is the world breaking down? Has agriculture collapsed?” I asked The Family. She looked at me and said “Peas are grown only in winter.” I persisted, “Why are they moldy? The world outside must be decaying into chaos.” Practical as ever, she said “Our bhajiwala is turning a profit, selling us the worst preserved peas at inflated prices. I’m sure Colaba market has better peas.”

I pushed away the dry, desiccated, sickly heap of pods in front of me to make space for my laptop. Escape into history is easy at such times. Peas (Pisum sativum) still grow wild around the Fertile Crescent where the first domesticated varieties have been found in archaeological digs dated to 11,500 years ago. In eight thousand years peas spread across Asia and the edge of the Mediterranean. I wonder about those distant human ancestors of ours. Did they know what they were doing? Did they reason like us, observe and think, talk to others, share their findings? We still live in the shadows of their revolution, domestication of plants, agriculture, whatever you call it. A room or two in our modern houses are given over to the lifestyles they developed: storage of agricultural produce, bowls and cups and plates, the hearth for cooking. How different were they?

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.

The end of another lockdown

It was a Wednesday night and we didn’t have much food at home. Although we talked about going out to eat, we were too tired. Eventually we scraped a dinner together and sat down to see the post-prime time news. That’s when we saw the first confusing shots of what would later be known as the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.

It wasn’t for another hour that we realized how lucky we were that we stayed home. The curfew lasted only three days, but it was a month before I walked about Colaba aimlessly again. On Christmas day, The Family and I found that we were tourists in our own backyard, so to say. We walked past small restaurants which were suddenly infamous, past a familiar vegetable market into lanes which had appeared as blurry shots on TV screens across the world. Looking back at that now, I realize that lockdowns and curfews do not end when restrictions are lifted; it takes time for you to come back to normal.

The little lanes were still full of press photographers. Usually I like to talk to them; they are not in an easy profession. But that day they had no time off to chat. When I look back at my archives, I have more than twenty shots of the crowd of photographers jockeying for position without jostling. Today when I look at the photos I see professional rivalry, as well as the courtesy to let someone else rest a heavy lens on your shoulder to steady a shot. A very different world from the savage days that we had gone through. That walk bled some darkness out of us.

Walking through Trento

Looking at some of my earliest digital photos, I dredged up memories of a week in a part of the world I’d known very little about. This was the South Tyrol, where Austria shades into Italy. A night train had taken me to Innsbruck, where I changed to a local which crossed from Austria to Italy, and deposited me in the charming town of Trento. A short walk through the town can tell you much about its history. My walks would start at the piazza in front of the cathedral (featured photo) with its fountain of Neptune. The photo includes the statue of Nepture, the 16th century CE frescoes on the facade of Casa Balduini, and the dome on top of the bell tower of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

That was the church where the counter-reformation solidified with the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century. The importance of the resurgent catholic church is visible through much of the center of the town. Somewhere in one of the lanes around the square I passed this rococo sculpture of the Annunciation outside a second floor window. The deep colour of the painted wood emphasizes the beautiful pastel shades of the sculptural group.

Walking through that maze of streets I stopped to take a photo of this typical South Tyrol wall. The wooden protective casements over windows are typically Alpine, and the colours of the walls are a mix of Alpine and the southern hues which are visible all the way from here to nearby Venice. After the Imperial Recess of 1803, which ended the Holy Roman Empire, and with it, the rule of the Bishops of Trento, the district passed to Austria.

The first door I ever photographed with a digital camera belonged to the house of the local patriot Enrico Conci, who supported Trentino autonomy while a member of the Vienna House of Deputies, and was jailed and put on trial during the First World War. After the war, when Trento became a province of Italy, he was elected to the Imperial Senate. His daughter, Elsa Conci, was a member of the Constituent Assembly of Italy after the war. The plaque above the door memorializes both of them.

The Alps around Trento are beautiful, full of the high sunny meadows of the Tyrol, and wonderful mountain paths to walk along. It drew me out of the town very quickly. But that is another story.

Blue city doors

The Family and I started talking about our walks through the blue city of Jodhpur in the December of 2017. The narrows streets were lined with old houses, each closed off by a grand ceremonial door. But these doors were seldom used any more. They had inset doors for daily use which stood open.

Through these open doors we could see that the grand houses had been cut up into little apartments; some perhaps even hold the impoverished descendants of the pater familias who build the original mansion. The citadel of Jodhpur dates from 1459 CE, and the early years were full of wars. So this part that we walked through, just outside the ramparts, must date from the early modern era. It is quite likely that the oldest structures here date from the 17th century.

The blue city is no longer a middle class enclave. You can judge that by the importance of the ration shops (featured photo) and the poorly stocked grocery stores. In this relative poverty, all houses are dilapidated, and look ancient. We peered through an open door into a calm and sunny interior courtyard, shaded by trees (photo above). From the bricks that were visible, I would guess that the house was built in the second half of the 19th century. But the residents of the blue city will consider anything that existed before their childhood to be ancient, and it is not unusual to be told that something is a thousand years old.

The middle of the 19th century was the beginning of nearly a century of recurrent epidemics of plague which swept across the world. Before the invention of antibiotics, they were quite as deadly as today’s viral epidemic. The narrow streets of the blue city would have been devastated. I guess that is the time when the richer inhabitants left this part of the town for the new town, with its wider roads and better zoning, on the other side of the citadel.

Papaya

Green papaya was often used in a curry when I was a child. I would always mistake it for a piece of potato, and find it shockingly soft when I bit into it. It has an interestingly different flavour. Given its wide prevalence in India (after all, India rivals Brazil as the top producer of papaya) it is interesting that there is no Sanskrit word for the plant or fruit. Our word for it comes from an unknown native American word, which was corrupted to ababai after Spaniards introduced it into Haiti and San Domingo in 1521 CE. There are records of a very early modern introduction of the fruit into the Malaya archipelago (where ababai was further corrupted into papaya), and from there to India. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten wrote in 1593 CE about finding papaya in the Philippines, Malaya, and India, and traced the route of the tree to these three places in this order. His book was apparently considered a state secret in the Netherlands for several years! This tells us a lot about the financial markets of early modern Europe.

But before that? Wide deforestation prevents complete tracing of the wild ancestors of papaya, but evidence points to its native range being somewhere in Mexico. From genomic studies of the plant it can be inferred that the hermaphroditic variety which is widely used in cultivation, and the recessive gene which gives the red colour to the ripe flesh, rose about 4000 years ago. This coincides with the rise of the Maya. So, despite the absence of archaeological remnants of the early seeds and pollen, the consensus of current opinion is that the early Maya began the domestication of papaya, New evidence can always changes opinion, so I accept this now as a working hypothesis while I get ready to carve up the fruit which you see in the featured photo.

A forgotten walk

A really long time back I had to make a quick trip to Bordeaux for a meeting. I’d forgotten that my colleague and I traveled to Bordeaux the day before and took a walk through the old part of the city near the river Garonne. I just discovered the very few two-decades old photos that remained in a forgotten folder.

Mysteriously, many of the photos were of an unknown building in the city. I had a vague memory of ducking into a side road between two major sights on a whim and coming across this facade. It now looks like a renaissance facade to me. Could it be from the 15th century? Perhaps even from the time of Charles VII? Not very likely, I think, most of this quarter would have been built in the century after his time, when trade began to boom. The time of Montaigne then?

Forgetting the romantic speculation, my colleague pointed me to the differences between the walls of the two buildings which stood cheek-to-jowl around this little open courtyard. The older was the one we’d been looking at, as the peeling mortar showed. The bicycle presented a nice way to take this photo. Strangely, it wasn’t locked up. Are bikes safe in Bordeaux then? That would make it an unusual European city.

Bananas

As the weekend approaches, my thoughts turn towards food. During this crisis the supply chain seemed to have broken down and reformed in different ways, so we are getting different varieties of vegetables. I keep hoping that green jackfruit and plantain appear one day. These staples of old times have disappeared from our plates. I was surprised to find, a few years back, a lady on a busy street in Chennai selling banana flowers (the red pods in the right hand corner) and stem (the white cylinders sticking out of the blue tray).

After rediscovering this photo, I tried to look up the history of banana cultivation. When we think of bananas, we believe that they are a benign product of nature. Not so. Bananas, like rice, wheat, and maize, are technology so ancient that we have forgotten the thousands of years of work that went into refining their ancient ancestors to the point that we can eat them. Bananas (mainly Musa acuminata) began to be domesticated more than 11,000 years ago. For a long time, it was cultivated and shaped in the islands of Southern Asia and Melanesia. A different species, Musa balbisiana may have been used in north-east India, Burma, and south China. Their mixing can be followed by matching genetics with linguistics. The words for this fruit differ in southern and northern India, indicating cultural exchanges with different parts of south-eastern Asia in prehistoric times. It is hard to imagine the wealth of deep history hidden in widely eaten foods. It is amazing how full of details the world is!

Bougainvillea and Baret

The Bougainvillea on our balcony has begun to flower. The west-facing balcony makes it very hard to photograph the delicately textured white bracts which surround the tiny flowers. In the morning the back-light presents a terrible contrast, and in the evening the setting sun glares into the lens. But I have time, so eventually I’ll find a way to solve this problem. While reading about Bougainvillea, one of the first interesting things I found was that it was initially described, as I expected, during Bougainvillea’s circumnavigation of the world which started in 1766 CE. What I had not known was the interesting story of the two botanists on board: Philibert Commerson, Royal botanist, and his long time assistant, Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

Baret disguised herself as a man, since women were forbidden on French navy ships of that time by a royal ordinance. It is believed that the first samples of this thorny flowering vine were collected by her when the ships docked in Rio de Janeiro. Baret’s circumnavigation of the earth was interrupted after reaching Tahiti, when she was discovered to be a woman. Baret and Commerson were forced to disembark in Mauritius, where they lived until his death. Eventually Baret married and moved back to France in 1775, completing the circling of the globe. Commerson had, in the mean time, written about her as the first woman voyager around the world. On her return to France she was tried by a naval court, and, under the influence of Bougainvillea, was acquitted with honor, being described as `femme extraordinare’ and granted a pension of 200 livres a year.

An article by Londa Schiebinger in Endeavour and a book by Glynis Ridley have details of Jeanne Baret’s story.