Naya Sadak, Cuttack

A major road in the middle of Cuttack, formerly the capital of Odisha, named in Hindi? Naya Sadak may have been new in the 19th century, but must have certainly been renamed more than a century later. We wandered along the road, The Family looking at the jewellery shops and silver filigree that the town is famous for. I kept an eye on the big houses lining the street. The decorative facades with a medley of themes, dragons, peacocks, zig-zag lines, rippling curves, picked out in mortar, marked them as mid to late 19th century constructions. These would have been the homes of the upper crust, the merchants and jewellers. The first support for political self-determination, within the legal framework of the British empire, would have come from here.

The dilapidated state of the two houses that were the most grand told me that the family that built them probably sold the properties piecemeal, perhaps first the shops on the ground floor, and then, one by one, the flats that the upper floors would have been converted into as the joint family disintegrated. In the shadowed verandahs of an upper floor I could see a row of pillars with wonderful segmental arches between them. Some of the arches contained riotous decorations in mortar and plaster, echoing the ornamentation of the capitals of the pillars. Others had large fanlights. It looked like the whole building had changed function; it seemed unlikely that anyone lived there.

I wondered what these rich merchants thought when the political movements they supported turned against the empire and started demanding independence. The fieriest opponent of the empire was born five lanes away, in an area where the lawyers and doctors had made their (less) grand mansions. Subhash Chandra Bose was a divisive figure who disagreed with the tool of non-violence and raised an army to fight the empire. From the mass of documents from that time, diaries, letters, government dispatches, and memoirs, it is clear that the merchant families were divided. On one extreme, some retreated even from their earlier timid demands, and some at the other extreme, covertly supporting the armed movement.

Another grand mansion stood across the road. I had a little difficulty taking its photos because I was shooting against the light. Where did the dragon finials come from? They could be saying that this family’s money, now clearly vanished, came from the opium trade with China. It was quite as devastating for India as it was for China, since rice and wheat farmers were forced to grow opium by the agents of the East India Company. Famines and mass addiction followed, but merchants who dealt in the drug grew rich. It is quite remarkable how much moral ambiguity can be discovered in the wrack line of the world left as the tide of the first capitalist empires ebbed.

Darjeeling is a town

Perched on a steep ridge below the Kanchenjunga (8586 m), from a distance the town of Darjeeling looks like something out of a fairytale. About two centuries ago the grand panjandrums of the East India Company scouted the hills north of Bengal and decided that this 2000 m high ridge could be a pleasant place to spend summers. The region had been politically volatile for half a century before that, since the Gurkha kingdom of Nepal expanded west to the current borders of Bhutan. Then it was annexed by the Chogyal of Sikkim. The EIC entered this dispute in the sheepskin of an honest broker, awarded the holding to the weaker kingdom of Sikkim, from whom it rented the crescent of the ridge for a while before declaring that it should rightfully be part of their domain in Bengal. From there it passed on to the British Raj and later to India. By the time the Sikkimese parliament initiated its merger with India, the question of who it belonged to had already become academic.

On our drive up to the town we’d seen it spread out below Kanchenjunga. What was not apparent from those distant views is how steeply the town falls away from the ridge. You can get a sense of this from the way roads turn back on themselves as you approach the town. The view from our hotel window, above, gave a sense of the slope. Most of our walks would be confined to around the ridge. But the walk to the botanical garden would take us far down the ridge, and back up again. For the locals it is part of their lives. Still, seeing a young lady overtake us in stiletto heels, The Family let out a sigh.

Kanchenjunga looms over the town; that’s its special charm. From turns in roads and balconies you get sudden breathtaking views of the peak. It was long regarded as the highest peak in the world (it was only during the Great Trigonometric Survey that Radhanath Sikdar found that Chomolungma was higher). When the British empire ebbed, it left high water marks in the hills of India in the form of “hill stations” like this. The town of Darjeeling now has a majority population of Nepali speaking Gurkhas and Lepchas, a significant number of Sikkimese Lepchas and Bhutias, and many Tibetans, Bengalis, Biharis, and Marwaris. The crowded bazaars of the town are a wonderful mixture of the many people who first came here to work, and then made their home in the steep slopes of Darjeeling.

The resistible rise of the office building

Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.

By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.

So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?

A curiosity shop

Four of us climbed off the Clan Bus and meandered into an incredible shop in Shillong. From outside it was not clear what the shop contained. The Family peered at the window, which was full of blankets and little figurines. The clay figures piqued her interest, so we walked into the shop. Very little light filtered into the place, but the little that came in lit up a trove of marvels: tribal clothes, metal and glass chains, arrows!

There are three major tribes in Megahalaya: the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo. The tribes had maintained independence from the Ahom kingdom, and lay on the periphery of the sultanate of Sylhet. With the fall of Bengal in 1757 CE, the Jaintia and Khasi tribes expanded into parts of the plains of Assam and Bengal. By the end of the 18th century CE, British interest in the limestone quarries of modern-day Meghalaya drew them into this region. Following the discovery of wild tea in Assam in 1821, and the British-Burma war of 1824, the British East India Company entered in force into this region. The city of Shillong, in the middle of a plateau raised over the north-eastern shield of India, was a creation of the British administration. It needed an administrative capital for the north-eastern frontier, which it then called Assam, and created this town in 1829, making it a municipality in 1878. In 1972, when Assam and Meghalaya were separated, it became the capital of Meghalaya.

A young man came out of the house behind the shop and sat down at a counter full of feathers and began chatting with us as he worked on a head-dress of feathers. I asked him which tribe would use the things he had. This was the best question I asked, because he gave me a complete run down on the differences between the headgear, clothes, and arrows of the three tribes of Megahalaya. A quick and limited reply is that the headgear is nearly the same; the length of the feathers is the main difference between the usage of the different tribes. We pottered around the enchanting shop. Christian symbols have been incorporated into tribal life today, since the proselytising British rule. However, more ancient tribal customs, like matrilineal inheritance, remain intact. The man was working in his mother’s shop, and would eventually leave when he got married.