Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Aryabhata Clan: The Background

The Aryabhata Clan is set against the backdrop of the Islamic State spreading its tentacles in India, penetrating stealthily into the country’s academia, media and politics. The mastermind is Shamsur Ali, a physicist from Bangladesh. He wants to create a sort of apocalypse, to destabilize India.

In a brazen attempt at legitimizing the demolition of one of the most prominent historical structures in India, someone – unbelievably, it could be both Hiranyagarbha Bharata, a radical Hindu outfit, and the Islamic State – resorts to a big deceit. Afsar Fareedi, a linguistic paleontologist, catches the fraud. In the melee, there are three gruesome murders, including that of her father, perhaps to eliminate all traces of a carpet which, Afsar discovers, has a lot hidden in its mysterious motifs. The motifs, Afsar learns, happen to be a few millennia old. Incidentally, Afsar’s father was associated with the making of the carpets with those mysterious motifs. Unknown to Afsar herself, her family seems to have preserved the carpet-motifs for generations, for thousands of years, but with a heavy price.

Spanning across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the story involves deciphering more than 1,000-year-old manuscripts written in the Prakrit languages of the time, innumerable cryptic symbols, motifs and ancient scripts, using digital epigraphy, paleography and linguistic paleontology. At the center is a verse composed by the maverick mathematician, Aryabhata.
The Aryabhata Clan is also the poignant tale of the 20-year-old Kubha, who does everything humanly possible, to save her country from a big disaster and protect a beautiful monument, while enduring the most inhuman ordeal of her life. It’s the story of her courage, intelligence and fortitude.

Dealing deftly with the “good” and “bad” religion, the story also subtly delves deep into the origin of the Indian peoples, apparently divided by languages, religions, castes and politics, but at one level, united by a unique ancestry, creating the Great Indian Race.
That’s the synopsis of The Aryabhata Clan. The four main threads in the book are: the Islamic State penetrating into India; a carpet with its mysterious motifs; an interesting take on the history of the Indian peoples, languages and cultures; and finally, Aryabhata, the mathematician himself.

The seed idea of this book came from an article written by Thomas Cole, a private dealer who specializes in the art historical and ethnographic significance of the tribal weavings and textiles from Central Asia (http://www.tcoletribalrugs.comzarticles.html).
That the apparently simple but beautiful patterns in the Persian or Turkmen rugs could hide behind them such treasure trove of art and history was a revelation to me. The initial fascination and adoration for the topic soon turned into a full-fledged enquiry, which finally resulted into the present book.

While reading about the Persian carpets I suddenly chanced upon a trivia that a popular motif very widely used in many carpets from Central Asia till date derives from the ground plan of the four thousand years old temples discovered from norther Afghanistan, near a place called Dashly. The temples belong to what in the academic circle is known as the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex, commonly referred to as BMAC. It’s an ancient civilization that thrived in northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan – between the present-day Balkh (ancient Bactria) province of Afghanistan and World Heritage site of the ancient city Merv (ancient Margiana) near the present-day Mary in Turkmenistan – four thousand years ago.

No one knew about the BMAC civilization for thousands of years till recently, few decades ago, when it was discovered after years of painstaking excavations. What amazed me is the realization that for many many years, when the BMAC civilization was buried under the soil, long forgotten by anyone on the earth, the only vestige of it – the ground plans of its temples – still existed in the carpet motifs.

History has unique ways of preserving itself, even if it’s not chronicled. The carpet motifs have preserved history for many millennia, unknown to anyone. Indians have been traditionally bad chroniclers of history – the reason why not much can be vouched for about India’s ancient history. But humanity finds their own unique ways to keep their mark on the soil they had trod many many years ago. A real seeker would leave no stone un-turned to look for these unique and unusual “carriers” of history, culture and tradition. Perhaps one of the main inspirations for me to write this book was to talk about some of these unusual ways and media which play a big role in informally chronicling the history of our country.

Like the carpets I talked about, a lot of history is also preserved in the names of the places, local traditions, rituals and languages, all of which play critical roles, in some way or other, in the book.

Talking about history, I’ve realized that the lacuna of chronicling our own history over the years is not that big a problem, in seeking the truth, as compared to the recent narratives, since the independence, which were one-sidedly dominated by the leftist ideology for many years and then bombarded with rightist counter narratives more recently. In the melee, the scattered truth, which somehow managed to stay put for millennia, suddenly got squeezed between the two extreme narratives, both of which, after a point, appear like cacophony. The former has the tendency to undermine anything glorious in the past, and the latter don’t even stop from propagating glorified but unrealistic myths about ancient India having airplanes and plastic surgery. The latter narrative is rather a late reaction to a prolonged abuse of the power by the former. But in all this the loser is the real seeker of truth, who doesn’t have any agenda either to propagate or conceal.

My second inspiration to write this novel is perhaps to make a humble attempt at retelling history as authentically as possible, without being driven by any agenda, either the leftist or rightist.

Let me cite an example each from both the sides – the leftist and the rightist – to show how irritating and misleading both could be.

The story of India is not just about the wars and the fights – son killing his father, brother killing his brother, invaders plundering temples and ravaging villages, as we generally read in our history books. Rabindranath had expressed his shock over this type of history which gives but a crooked and narrow idea of a civilization which has been existing for more than 5000 years. In Discovery of India Jawaharlal Nehru says – “India has had many distressful periods in the course of her long history, when she was ravaged by fire and sword or by famine, and internal order collapsed. Yet a broad survey of this history appears to indicate that she had a far more peaceful and orderly existence for long periods of time at a stretch than Europe has had”.

Having said that, it doesn’t make sense to make an agenda to selectively conceal some “distressful periods ravaged by sword” just to paint a picture more orderly and peaceful than it has been. The leftist narrative of India tends to do exactly that. For example, in order not to undermine the contribution of the Mughal Age in India’s culture and tradition, they have consistently concealed many facts which don’t fall in line with their narrative.

Something relevant here is what Irfan Habib said in a lecture in Aligarh Muslin University on October 7, 2015. “In the Mughal period,” he said, “patriotism turned into a more insistent assertion particularly with Akbar and Abul Fazl. They argued that India is a special country, India has a large number of religious communities, and so there must be tolerance, under the umbrella of Sulh-i-Kul i.e. absolute peace. It was argued that the King, like God, must favor all without discrimination. It was not only Akbar and Abul Fazl who made this assertion but even Aurangzeb (when a prince), in 1658.”

Such narrative of exemplary tolerance, peace and religious harmony during the Mughal Age is not restricted to Irfan Habib, but to many other historians from the same stable. These are facts, no doubt. But this is also a fact that Abdul Hamid Lahori’s Badshahnama, a biography of Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar and the creator of the Taj, says, “His Majesty [Shah Jahan], the defender of the faith, gave orders that at Benares, and throughout all his dominions in every place, all temples that had been begun should be cast down. It was now reported from the province of Allahabad that seventy-six temples had been destroyed in the district of Benares.”

You would rarely get any reference to this in any of Irfan Habib’s lectures. This tendency to hide things or present facts selectively raises suspicion about the intention of the historians.

On the other side, the rightist narrative is also equally parochial. The entire propaganda against beef eating, in the tailor-made context that the Hindus never ate beef, is as absurd as the unblemished record of tolerance and harmony of the Mughals, as claimed by the likes of Irfan Habib. There are enough evidences in various forms to assert that the ancient Indians – the Hindus in modern parlance – did consume beef very liberally. Here too, presenting facts with a predefined agenda poses a serious problem to the real seeker of truth.

This novel is an attempt at presenting a counter narrative to the either sides – the left and the right. The right claims that there is a very powerful, sustained and unrelenting cultural and intellectual attack on Hinduism everywhere. Writers such as Wendy Doniger, they point out, liken the ancient Hindus to the cowboys who had destroyed the Native Americans, and even to the Nazis who had persecuted the Jews in the Second World War. Hindus are being called prudes, nasty, militants and fundamentals, they fume, but the Muslims are always the victims. Their anger and frustration is catalyzed by the leftist narrative, where the Islamic State is always seen as the outcome of the US aggression in Iraq and the 26/11 Bombay massacre by Pakistani militants a mere reaction to things like India’s policy on Kashmir, the rise in Hindu extremism and the appalling state of poverty among the Muslims in India.

Rot creeps into every religion over the years. Irreligious things often become more important. The most logical solution to this is to have a system where some people (you may call them prophets) should be allowed to cleanse the religion of its rot, from time to time. India has always believed in such a system which has been sort of formalized through the famous verses – yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharatah… Buddha, Mahavira, Nanak, Chaitanya and most recently perhaps Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna have attempted, over the past two millennia, to cleanse various aspects of the prevailing religious practices and beliefs of the times.

There’s no doubt that certain ways of interpreting Islam and the Quran are, by construction, the root causes of lot of intolerance in the world. But the secularist and the leftist brigade somehow always try to dodge this aspect of Islam. They bit around the bush whenever the topic of Islamic intolerance pops up and what they do in turn is very ridiculous. They try to paint all other religions with a rude brush of intolerance, as though, saying someone is bad too absolves me of my being bad.

Writing this book has been an effort at presenting a brutally neutral narrative of the good and bad elements of religions with as much authentic facts and figures as possible, without sounding preachy and making the book seem like a documentary.

Ancient Indian history has been always very fascinating to me and when it comes to ancient India, it’s always the undivided Indian subcontinent, comprising not only the present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also Sri Lanka, which too is culturally and traditionally as much associated and connected to India as are Pakistan and Bangladesh. It’s only when we consider this entire region together, that we get a real and continuous history of the peoples, languages, and cultures over the past few millennia. It’s perhaps not a mere coincidence or the need of the plot, that my story spans across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in a way that connects the entire region with an uninterrupted cultural and social heritage stretching few millennia in the past. The revelation that the Sri Lankans and the Tamils and the Bengalis have many things in common led to some very interesting and exciting findings, which eventually became a big motivation to include them in the overall narrative of the book.

Given the fact that the Rig Veda, the earliest book written by humanity and the most sacred scripture of the present-day Hindus, is more Pakistani in origin than anything else – it was composed entirely in the present-day Punjab part of Pakistan by sages whose successors are perhaps all Muslim now – it’s a serious dichotomy for the present-day India. Some parts of Pakistan could be the real Bethlehem and Jerusalem of the Hindus. They could be very well the golden Embryo, the Hiranya Garbha, from where originated the crux of ancient Indian wisdom, crystallized in the form of the Vedas, and the illustrious Indian way of life, more commonly known as the Hinduism. Pakistan is sprinkled with uncountable number of Hindu and Buddhist memorabilia, since times immemorial. It’s not surprising that Pakistan, given their identity rooted into Islam, has never attempted at highlighting its glorious pre-Islamic heritage and culture. I felt someone should write about that too. And, hence, Pakistan, not the one though we know of generally, plays a very big role in the book, perhaps as big as any other character.

Finally, I really wanted to write about Aryabhata, the enigmatic mathematician, whose entire life is shrouded in mystery. We don’t even know for sure when and where he was born. Few fragmented evidences point to his being a contemporary to Kalidasa, another enigmatic personality from the medieval India. In many ways Aryabhata is perhaps one of the earliest and greatest Indian exports to the world, in such a mammoth scale, in the global sense, per se. It may be matter of conjecture what would have become of mathematics and science in the world without him, and of course without his formalization of the Indian numerals – commonly known as the Hindu-Arabic Numerals – and the place value system. Without either of these, the modern science wouldn’t be the same. It can be argued that had it not been for him, someone else would have been born and done the same. But then, it’s like saying, without Newton, we might have still had the Laws of Gravitation.

The overall importance and influence of Aryabhata is best summed by the French Mathematician Laplace, when he said:
It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by the means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position, as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit, but its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions, and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest minds produced by antiquity

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