This Too Shall Pass

Published / by Jehangir

Zaffar Ahmed Khan, my maternal uncle, was the most erudite Kashmiri I have met in my life. A self-confessed anglophile, he looked the part of the perfect gentleman in his natty tweed blazers.

I owe my love of books and nature to Zaffar Saheb. An insatiable appetite for reading was stimulated by our conversations and sustained by his extensive library. Zaffar Saheb would take us kids (Hero, Riju, Javid, and me) for rambling walks, long drives for the sake of driving and not just to get from one place to another, and clambers up hillsides to experience and observe nature. The fact that my ‘nanihal’ on the Boulevard was a stone’s throw from both a lake and a hill meant that one could and did experience these impromptu outings at whim.

Solving the Times crossword puzzle was our pastime of choice and occasionally I would let myself get carried away by my youthful enthusiasm. Once when I was being particularly boastful he put forth an unusual challenge. I had to seek out a single Persian word that expressed the adage ‘This too shall pass.’ Having studied Hindi in school, it was an almost impossible task and anyway by that time I was drifting towards the ‘husn-e-farang ki bahaar‘ forbidden by Iqbal and so the challenge passed gently into the depths of my memory.

That is until a life-changing era dawned – the Age of Information. The superpowers of Google combined with the digitization of even the most obscure bits of human knowledge into instantly searchable databases has given ordinary folks possession of the power of Jamshed’s fabled chalice. The provenance of ‘This too shall pass‘ lies revealed by these weapons of ‘mass dissemination’.

The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of medieval Persian Sufi poets, and was often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by the simple words. The Sufi master Attar of Nishapur added the detail that ‘This too shall pass‘ was inscribed on a ring, which had the ability to make the happy man sad and the sad man happy.

In ‘Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances‘ published in 1852, the English poet Edward Fitzgerald describes a sultan requesting of King Solomon a sentence that would always be true in good times or bad; Solomon responds, ‘This too will pass away‘.

The story became popular and in 1859, Abraham Lincoln presented the expression in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

Now that Google had helped me to establish the etymology, I moved on to the single (Persian) word substitution challenge. Another Google session revealed that A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings by James Hinton Knowles could provide some answers. But I was supposed to seek out a Persian word, wasn’t I? Apparently well-to-do Kashmiris could read, write and converse in Persian in bygone times.

Flashback: In later years of the past century, the proprietor of the erstwhile Raina’s Book Store would roll his eyes at the approach of a civil engineer and a schoolboy. The duo would clamber up the rickety stairs to his dusty storeroom and spend hours rummaging through the oldest titles in the collection.

The schoolboy would pop down like clockwork to pester the owner with a single endlessly repeated question ‘Do you have so-and-so edition of so-and-so book?’ ‘Whatever I have is already upstairs‘ he would reply with infinite patience and the cycle would go on and on.

One one of these jaunts we picked up a copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ which Zaffar Saheb presented to me.

Looking back it was probably a typically understated clue-cum-reproach for my waning interest in the world of books. I failed to pick up the clue and the book remained unread (but for a few cursory page flips), till the 2014 flood wiped away my library.

But, hey, never say die. One of the greatest treasures of the internet is undoubtedly which has millions of scanned machine-readable copies of rare and antique books. So rather belatedly I tracked down a digital copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ and present to you the entry for ‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro.’

‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro’
‘that day also passed, O Nasar’

A quotation from a list of conversation between Sheikh Nur-ud-din and his favourite disciple Nasar. Conversation between these two saints often took the form of poetry according as they were inspired. Here is the piece of poetry : –

maidán wawas tsakuj nani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro.
tun wugarah tah seni pani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
nishi rani tah wurani khani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
wurah batah tah gádah gani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,

when the back was bare upon the bleak plains ; that day also passed, O Nasar,
when we had wet rice and dry vegetables only to eat ; that day too, has gone, O Nasar,
when the wife was near one and warm clothing covered the body ; that day, too, went by, O Nasar,
when boiled rice and sliced fish were provided for us ; that day also passed, O Nasar.

A Persian (edit – now we are getting somewhere!) saying from another unknown source is frequently quoted by the Persian-speaking Kashmiri : –

Shab e samur guzashto ;
Shab e tanur guzasht.

That night, when we had fur to cover us, has gone ;
That night, when we had fire to warm us, has gone.

There is something similar to this in Persian, but who is the author of it, or where it is to be found, is not known :

Munam ki kabáb mekhorad :
War báda i náb mekhorad ;
Daryozah ha kashkol i gadái nán rá,
Tar kardah ba áb mekhorad;

The wealthy man eats roasted flesh :
Passing away.
Should he drink pure wine ;
Passing away.
The beggar eats the alms-bread,
After having soaked it in water ;
Passing away.

These lines were probably known in the days of Akbar, for when that monarch asked his favourite minister Birbal to do something for him, which would be a source of happiness to him in time of adversity as well in the time of prosperity, Birbal replied by sending to the emperor a few days afterwards a beautiful ringstone upon which he had caused to be engraved in Persian character the word ‘Meguzrad’ ; he also sent a nice letter with it advising the king to look upon the ring whenever he was tempted to be over-elated by prosperity, or over-depressed by misfortune.

So finally, one word to rule them all: Meguzrad!
(Migozarad may be a more contemporary spelling)

P.S: The commonly used phrases to express the thought behind ‘This too shall pass‘ in Persian and Arabic are:
Persian: In niz bogzarad
Arabic: La shay’ yadum (lit. Nothing lasts)

Of Leaders and Politicians

Published / by Jehangir

I often wonder why highly successful people who are acknowledged leaders in their chosen field barter their hard-won respect to become bit-players in the political landscape. Please spare me the ‘social service’ spiel. Even beauty pageant contestants pledge to use their fake smiles and silicone-enhanced assets to usher in ‘world peace’.

The most obvious attractions are financial gain and the fake glamour of our ‘VIP culture’. Money no one can argue with. Rewards vs Respect is a personal decision. Getting saluted at airports and escorted into airplanes out of turn – not so much – because your flight also takes off and lands at the same time for the poor fellow who had the door slammed in his face by the security guy who salaamed you.

In an article titled ‘The Allure of Politics’ Kenneth Francis offers another insight. Talking about an ‘ex-politician quite unpopular with the public‘ he voices his realisation that ‘perhaps his status induced respect and some kind of sex appeal in private company, especially around a certain type of person, who cunningly seek social gain by ‘rubbing shoulders’ with ‘one’s betters’ on the gravy-train networking ladder‘. Does that sound familiar. A flamboyant Kashmiri politician and his less-endowed imitators spring to mind. Dissoluteness seems to be the third attraction of politics.

So are all politicians unworthy of our respect. Not all. There can be politics with a difference. Let us consider the New Zealand Premier, Jacinda Ardern, and her trademark ‘politics of kindness‘.

Image courtesy: Wikipedia*

In contrast to our politicians who stoke religious frenzies for votes, Jacinda Ardern left her church because it conflicted with her personal views on gay rights. She has described taking action on climate change as ‘my generation’s nuclear-free moment‘. And, horror of horrors, in a statement that must have caused all modern imperialists to choke on their champagne, she actually used the term ‘blatant failure’ while talking about capitalism.

In a world where most western leaders follow the policy of demonising Islam so the international arms trade can flourish, Ardern has voiced support for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and condemned the deaths of Palestinians during protests at the Gaza border. She has raised the issue of Xinjiang re-education camps and human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in China, and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

On 15 March 2019, 51 people were fatally shot and 49 injured in two mosques in Christchurch. Arden described it as a well-planned ‘terrorist attack’. Western leaders usually reserve the term ‘terrorist‘ for Muslim perpetrators while the rest are described as ‘shooting incidents‘. Announcing a period of national mourning, Ardern was the first signatory of a national condolence book and a photograph of her hugging a member of the Christchurch Muslim community with the word ‘peace’ was projected onto the Burj Khalifa.

Maybe I did her a disservice by calling her a politician. An inspirational leader would have been a better choice of words. Whatever ups-and-downs may follow in her political career, these speeches have made her premiership immortal.

More power to you Ms Arden!

I have removed references to two local personalities who figured in the earlier version of this post. I now feel that I had no right to be judgmental as every person has his own cross to bear. It was just that I felt that they had greater potential for positive change beyond politics.

*Jacinda Ardern visits members of the Muslim community at the Phillipstown Community Centre, 16 March 2019. Captured through a glass window, the photo was widely shared at the time and described by The Guardian as “an image of hope”.

Radio Blues

Published / by Jehangir

Over the years cellphones have committed virtual genocide.

A snap list of victims would include (alphabetically) address books, airline tickets, alarm clocks, barcode scanners, board games, books, business cards, cable tv, calculators, calendars, camcorders, cameras, compasses, credit cards, ebook readers, flashlights, GPS devices, landline phones, laptops, measurement devices (light meters, measuring tapes, thermostats, timers), movie theatres, newspapers, notepads, paper money, photo albums, physical maps, portable gaming devices, portable music and video players, radios, remote controllers, scanners, sketchpads, snail mail, usb thumbdrives, voice recorders, walkie talkies, webcams, wired internet and wristwatches.

Most of these may die unsung but I feel a twinge of sadness for radio.

I’d sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
… Radio, what’s new?
Radio, someone still loves you

~ Queen – Radio Ga Ga

I read somewhere that the first radio available to the public in Kashmir was a Sky Champion set manufactured by the Hallicrafters Company in Chicago, USA and marketed by Lyra & Co in Lal Chowk.

I was unable to confirm that these radios were actually war surplus receivers with the transmitter removed but the original advertisement is quite suggestive.

Apparently in those days a licence was needed to own a radio set with annual stamps required from the post office!

In the seventies I grew up listening to a relentless barrage of Hindi songs on a leather-covered Philips Commander transistor belonging to the retainer/dastango mentioned in an earlier post. Even today I try to impress my kids (as if !) by identifying old Hindi hits just from the song intro.

In the eighties I managed to get my hands on a Trans-Oceanic transistor radio that had belonged to my father. The superbly-crafted Zenith Trans-Oceanic Royal 1000 has been described as the ‘royalty of radios.’ IMHO, the ‘Rolls Royce of radios‘ would be an equally apt description.

On turning a knob the whole dial cylinder would cycle between bands with a soul-satisfying thunk – the effect was akin to James Bond revolving the number plates on his Aston-Martin. The superb reception and separation of channels in the Trans-Oceanic opened up the joys of shortwave surfing. I became a DXer tuning into the BBC World Service, Radio Deutsche Welle, Voice of America (Billboard charts!) et al while keeping my connection to Hindi oldies alive with Chaya Geet and Binaca/Cibaca Geet Mala on Radio Ceylon.

Radio almost faded to extinction in the nineties and the naughts till the FM revival. I did attempt sporadic shortwave surfing on the ubiquitous Sony digital radios (de rigueur for any one with a relative in the middle east) but the experience was never the same. I exchanged mine for an iPod which was swiftly rendered obsolete by the iPhone 🙁

Radio/Transistor sets may be history but fortunately FM (and USB drives) saved one gadget from oblivion – the car FM radio. In Kashmir thousands are tuning into the plethora of new FM Radio channels (and annoying RJ’s) on their morning drives. Future generations are thankfully no longer in danger of missing out on the joy of a favourite song playing unexpectedly on the radio – as opposed to the ho-hum availability of the MP3 on one’s hard drive.

You had your time, you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour