Blasphemy: The Incident

Azam Gill’s latest novel

The first English novel written by a Punjabi Christian about the Christians of Pakistan.


Little Muthkar Masih’s life is in mortal danger, caught in Pakistan’s lethal combination of class and communal conflict, inequality, intolerance, fundamentalism and jihad overridden by the blasphemy law. This is the epic saga of lovers trapped in the dangerous world of the fallout from the Afghan Jihad in Pakistan. Louisa Skimmer is a lecturer in English literature. An urban, middle class daughter of a distinguished police officer, she studies at Lahore’s most prestigious ladies’ college. Piaro Masih learns trade craft at his father’s feet. He inherits his rural family’s role as a bandit and smuggler in the Punjab’s heartland. Can their love survive in the conflict between Islam and Christianity, caste and social class, East and West, theocracy and secularism? Testing their limits, considering the condition of women in Pakistani society and the excesses of orthodoxy and fundamentalism, events race to a tragic and blasphemous conclusion. The only witness is a child who must be protected.

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The Indo-Pakistani Caste System: multi-hued Smarties!

Transcript of Dr. Ramaswamy’s radio interview on Caste in South Asia

Hello, Claire Herringstone for the weekly Asia Today.

Our guest on tonight’s program is Dr. Ramaswamy, social anthropologist from Madras University, whom we’ll be interviewing for our viewers on the subject of untouchables within the South Asian caste system.

“Dr. Ramaswamy, good evening and thank you for joining us.”

“Good evening, and thank you for inviting me.”

Hen-henh. The first question is — how did a country with such fine philosophical roots end up with something like the caste system?”

“Caste is an old, established institution, almost as old as history. Gautam Buddha opened temples to all castes, so even before Christ, it was well entrenched in India. It’s hard to say whether the migrant Caucasian tribes brought caste with them, or whether the social structure of the Aryans of the Saraswati was already based on caste. According to the Rg Veda, Purush, the primal man, destroyed himself to create a human society. The Brahmin priests sprang from his head, the warrior Kshatriyas from his hands, the land-tilling Sudras from his thighs, and the untouchables from his feet.”

“Indeed, but surely there must be something more than history and religious mythology to enforce it?”

“Yes. Manu’s Laws as they are commonly referred to in the West greatly reinforced the caste system.”

“When was that?”

“About two thousand years ago. Even then, Indian craftsmanship was highly valued beyond its borders. India was renowned as an exporter of the highest quality weapons steel at that time.”

“Could you tell our listeners a little more about that?”

“What the West today calls Damascus steel, and is unable to duplicate.  The ingots of this exceptional steel were exported to Persia and the Middle East, where sword-smiths fashioned blades whose cleaving power and flexibility held the Crusaders in awe. Sir Walter Scott’s description of the cutting power of Saladin’s sword in The Talisman is a good illustration. In fact, the pre-Islamic Arab word for sword was Muhannad, meaning from Hind. Thus, at that time, the skills of India’s craftsmen had placed the Indian economy in a unique position in the world. So the Indian leadership was keen to ensure the continuity of these techniques. It was considered that skills were best passed on from father to son. Encouragement soon became edict. A caste-based society further reinforced this institution by adding scriptural and scholarly justification, further empowering the ruling class.”

“Most illuminating, Doctor. In India, there’s been this name change. Mahatma Gandhi called untouchables Harijans, and they call themselves Dalits. Why is that?”

“I myself am a Dalit, and we prefer it to Harijan which we consider to have been condescending, and untouchable, or backward, which is an insult.”

“Are Dalits, then, a separate race?”

“Yes and no.”

“How’s that? Sounds like a typically Indian response!”

“I object to that. It’s an anthropologist’s informal way of saying ‘to a certain extent yes’. Indian academics prefer not to speak pompously with laypersons! Anyway, Dr Ambedkar’s research proved genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes in Maharashtra State.”

“So how do you account for the genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes?”

“Victors have always raped the subjugated, and India’s states and chiefdoms were forever fighting each other — that’s one reason. Then there were concubines, and love matches. Over the centuries, India’s myriad states of varying sizes saw periods in which they came under a central empire and times when they receded from its grasp. Thrones regularly changed occupants while dynasties waxed and waned. The losers either vanished into mendicant yogi orders, or disappeared into the impure bastis of the untouchables. Thus it is that among the chuhras, lowest on the rung, there are those who talk of royal lineage. The oldest of these are descendants of royal families who escaped conquering blades that sought to eliminate dynastic lines. They are the Chuhra Choudhry leaders of today, and over the centuries, have been inter-marrying with other chuhras.”

“So caste does have something to do with wealth and fortune!”

“Although caste may appear to be almost genetically fixed, it can be won, lost and reinstated by force and fortune. It is also an overlap of geography, race, profession and politico-military power. In Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Jatt farmers were considered Sudras. However, the British historian, Colonel Todd attributed Rajput origins to them.  This places them in the Kshatrya warrior caste. Up until the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Jatts were lower than Rajputs. With the evolution of Sikhism as a militant force, their status rose. In the eighteenth century, as a result of Banda Bahadur’s revolt against the Mughals, Punjabi Jatts assumed the status of Kshatryas, for the simple reason that they exchanged their ploughshares for swords. Tribes that had jealously claimed loftier origins were content to pass themselves off as Jatts rather than Rajputs. Conversely, at the height of Muslim power in India, tribal bards invented fantastic Arab and Central Asian origins for their chiefs. Muslim Arains claimed to be from Iran, whereas as Hindus, they were Kumbhos and claimed Rajput origin which society in general denied them anyway. If, by some freak accident of history, a region had come under Chuhra rule, these very tribes would have started claiming Chuhra origin. Maybe that is why India has this proverb “the buffalo belongs to him who wields the staff.”

 “But the Sikhs and Muslims have no caste!”

“Their religions don’t recognize it, but their communities practice it. Despite calling itself an Islamic Republic, Pakistan practices caste! So do the Christians, especially the ones in the South.”

“And why’s that, Doctor?”

“Because, it is India’s curse, with which we are all tainted. On the other hand, as Deepa Kandaswamy says, the West suffers from race and class.”

“Indeed. Could you tell our listeners a little more?”

“Chuhras converted to Sikhism are called Mazhabis, full fledged members of the warrior brotherhood that served the British and now serve India in its armed forces. Chuhra converts to Muslims who remained serfs are called Mussalies, and often with a change in fortune, assume the tribal names of their former masters. Those that managed to leave serfdom took the titles Sheikh and Khwaja, which were the titles of the highborn Muslim missionaries from the Middle East or Central Asia who converted them. Chuhras converting to Christianity took the family name of the British missionary who converted them. Thus it is that in India and Pakistan are found Sheiks who would scandalize an Arab, Smiths and Johnsons who would shock an Anglo-Saxon— we are indeed, a multi-hued nation, like a packet of smarties!”;

First Indian Warrior to receive the Victoria Cross in France, World War I

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest military award for conspicuous battlefield gallantry.November 23, 1914, Battle of Festubert, France.Undeterred by bullets and grenades ripping the night sky, twice wounded in the head and once in the arm, the Indian army Naik (Corporal) steadily moved forward with tactical perfection as part of the first trench raid of World War II. As written in Philip Mason’s authoritative A Matter of Honour, the blood drenched Naik single-handedly bayoneted five Germans and survived to become the first Indian warrior to receive the Victoria Cross on French soil.

The Germans died for their fatherland in a cold, hostile land at the hands of a diminutive fighter from a faraway land.The Hindu Kshatriya hereditary warrior followed the dharma of his caste.

He was from the northeast Indian region of Garwhal, whose clans are as renowned for their battlefield ferocity as for being law-abiding.

Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles served with honor and conspicuous gallantry..
While receiving the Victoria Cross on December 5, 1914, he was asked if he wished for something.
He asked for a school in his district, Chamoli.
The request was granted.
Negi served until 1924, obtaining the rank of Subedar (Warrant Officer), when he took premature retirement, devoting his time to uplift his underdeveloped district in a backward region. He helped war widows, opened a school in his village and got the authorities to provide road and rail links to his village.
On 24 June 1950, he died peacefully of natural causes, in Kafarteer Village, Uttar Pradesh, India.

The South Asian Equalizer

Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, died in 1862. Eleven years after his death, the M1873 .45 single action Army SAA Mod P revolver ensured his posterity. It was known as the Peacemaker, and the Equalizer that won the West, even though history records an unequal contest. Had Samuel Colt been an Indian, he would have been called Samir Kalloo and his Equalizer a katori bowl of mouth-watering, belch-inducing lamb trotters, or payas as rightfully known.

Kala Hotel in Yakki Gate, run by the famous Kala Pehelwan following his retirement from kushti wrestling was known to Lahore’s select foodies.

Kala Hotel had a long, narrow dining hall of bare, smooth cement. There were tables for four at each side, covered with tacked down plastic. The walls had pictures of the Holy Ka’aba, a few saints’ shrines, and bulging-eyed, bare-chested and mustachioed wrestlers from Kala Pehelwan’s family holding decorated gurze maces . Some of the pictures were draped with tinsel garlands. Punjabi music played to the kahrewa beat of dholak, mirdhang and k’tara /iktara.

At the entrance to the dining hall, facing the street, were the huge deg pots and para’at trays of lamb payas, siri-payas or lamb’s head and trotters, liver and kidney, heart-liver-lungs and superb free range chicken chargha!

The meat was personally selected by the pehelwan every day, and the cooking was also supervised by him. It was said that all the cooks and waiters remained in a state of pre-prayer ritual wash known as vuzoo —ensured by the Pehelwan. When they smiled, you could see the stain of the walnut bark dandasa with which they had cleaned their teeth. Their clothes looked fresh, and they smelled of soap. Discreet incense sticks were lit in the corners. Underneath every table was an empty kerosene oil tin. Every table had a notice: PATRONS ARE REQUESTED TO THROW THEIR BONES IN THE TINS BELOW THE TABLE AND NOT ON THE FLOOR.

The discriminating clientele ranged from lawyers acocuntants and police officers to haard-core gangsters and day labourers of all castes and religions living in Lahore.

The classless impact of payas could be felt to the bone.

Yet, there was a wide gap between the street and the household. For cooking payas took at least twelve hours, if not more. In some homes they were cooked regularly, in others, a takeaway dish. There was a choice of being dependent or independent at the high price of twelve hours labour!

Then in 1964, Sheikh Abdul Razzak, of Sialkote’s, Majestic  company took pity on the households which neither had an army of servants nor a surplus of women. The Majestic pressure cooker, by uniting the street and the home with a single, classless dish, took democratization a step further. Households could buy raw payas in the morning and pressure cook them for lunch in as much time as it took to prepare a simple meat and veg curry. If they wanted the traditional taste of slow cooking, they could always buy payas.

Choice, after all, is a component of liberty.

The democratizing effect of payas can be traced to the end of the 18th century. During the beginning of the Mughal empire’s decline, Urdu flourished and the aristocracy, after a night of poetry and dance spectacles, enjoyed paya / nihari in the early hours of the morning and then slept off their hangovers! Payas, throwaway hoofs which the poor retrieved to nourish themselves had, by dint of talented hard work, become a gourmet delicacy that made it to the tables of the aristocracy. In their consumption, sensory pleasure superseded class.

In Lahore of the seventies karigars from Old Lahore moved to establishments in the suburbs, or opened their own, further narrowing the gap between social class and availability.

The final democratization came through press freedom.

Competing TV stations broadcast programs in which mediagenic chefs brought their skills into living rooms from which the kitchen was only short, dedicated step away. And there it rests, except that although the elephant has gone through the gate, its tail is stuck.

Like meteorology, democratization being an ongoing and imprecise process in the developing world, the taste of payas slow cooked by a karigar or a dedicated home-maker remains unmatched as an Equalizer. A lesson for politicians tripping over each other in dedicated power-grabs.