- Chapter 1. Maharaja Agrasen and Agrawal Re-birth 2. Marshall McLuhan
Maharaja Agrasen and His Vaish Agrawals
Wealthmakers and Winner Caste of India
Jitendra Kumar Sharma
My Maternal Grandmother Dropdi Devi
Affectionately called Bebe Bhopi
By the Narwana Baniya Community
Who respected and sought her advice
As their Leader
And Protector of Their Rights
Chapter 1. Maharaja Agrasen and Agrawal Re-birth
>When the Vaish and Agrawals found their Maharaja, it was due to extraneous reasons and not because of their own curiosity or efforts to discover their own past.
Maharaja Agrasen of Agroha, glorious and powerful like a true king, was discovered in the last nine years of the British rule in India. The late arrival of their Hero in Indian history and belated knowledge about his life and works has imparted to the Vaish, especially the Agrawals or Aggarwals who claim superiority as a Vaish sub-caste, an extraordinary and unexpected social impetus. For the first time they feel inflated with pride as a caste who is capable of attaining political power. They are no longer shy but strident about making and piling up wealth and regarding it as a source of social and political power rather than mere ‘grime of the palm’, conventional Hindu view of wealth and money.
Maharaja Agrasen has goaded them to overcome the social inertia of ages, go for the kill and emerge as the winner caste of modern India.
Whereas Brahmins have lost their knowledge and the highest rank and authority over other castes and also their prestige in the Hindu caste hierarchy, whereas the Kashtriye have been reduced to a non-descript caste and lost their privileges and position as rulers and warriors, whereas Shudras have abjured the very word and adopted Dalit as their new identity to claim reservation and affirmative action from the Indian state, the Vaish caste, on the other hand, are extending their traditional socio-economic horizons by dint of their inherent business acumen and new-found elitist caste status. They are gearing up the engines of growth to rebuild their community, increase its power and unravel its intrinsic stamina, without looking up to the state for help or other props. They appear to be reclaiming their caste with pride. They are using their Baniya gotras [surnames] and family names with a self-conscious sense of renewed caste identity.
The Baniya today has been pushing himself and the rest of Hindu society into new directions and adding extra dimensions to modern Indian social dynamics while setting up unprecedented benchmarks for achieving heights of wealth and power, collectively and individually.
At the time of writing, Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s unrivaled steel tycoon, recently lost $3.5 billion (around Rs 13,700 crore) due to the global stock market crash. But, perhaps, the Non-Resident Indian , Lakshmi Mittal, still remains Great Britain’s richest man. Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani (28 December 1932 – 6 July 2002), Indian business entrepreneur, founder of Reliance Industries, has been among the select Forbes billionaires. He had also figured in the Sunday Times list of top 50 businessmen in Asia. His life was a true “rags to riches” story. His two sons, Mukesh and Anil, are top businessmen of India and billionaires in their own right even after the family and business split. All these men do the Vaish community proud and help renew their tradition as wealth-makers of Hindu society and Indian nation.
Agrasen, who ruled over Agroha, had some unique qualities as a ruler and progenitor of the Agrawals. He may rightly be described as a Socialist King. Just as Christ is supposed to have washed the sins of all Christians, Maharaja Agrasen’s memory, as a just and progressive if not a revolutionary ruler, appears to have washed away the Baniyas’ guilt about usury and exploitative money lending they had been practicing from times immemorial. The sacred memory of Maharaja Agrasen, their original ancestor, has wiped out and helped them forget their anti-social stigma of ages in a jiffy.
Their own guilt and other castes’ condemnation of their methods of making money from money, keeping their debtors, farmers and poor members of the society in their perpetual bondage, appear to have been forgotten suddenly. They are no longer hesitant, timid or shy of displaying their wealth, wearing fashionable clothes and mixing and mingling with other castes and openly competing for power and wealth.
Discovery of Agroha and emergence of Maharaja Agrasen as the Vaish Emperor of Agroha, have incontestably contributed to the modern Baniya renascence. In the midst of drastically changing times Baniyas once again find themselves in the role of super wealth -makers. Resurfacing of a royal past from the deeper recesses of their collective memory has recharged them with an atavistic urge to relive as Rajas and Maharajas, a privilege denied to them for centuries. They are emerging not only as a community of enterprising leaders of the booming Indian economy but setting new trends in styles of living. They are living in palatial houses and rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of the world. They are grabbing multinational corporations abroad and furiously setting up intercontinental industrial empires. They are the dreamers and protagonists of an advancing India that is currently smitten with desires and dreams of becoming a super-rich world power.
Vaish have become economically the most dynamic caste in Independent India. Maharaja Agrasen has given them a new birth as a dvija [twice–born or born again] caste of the Hindus.
Maharaja Agrasen, mythic or historical, has turned the Vaish Agrawals into the front-runner champions of Business and Industry.
Up to the end of the British Raj [August 15, 1947] Vaish observed equality to a greater extent within their own caste than other Hindu castes. They also obeyed laws and social customs more strictly than other castes. Mutual consent rather than compulsion prevailed among the Vaish or Baniyas as a community. In spite of their wealth and means, they lived very frugally and maintained low standards of living and wore indigenous dress or dhoti-kurta during the British rule when other castes had fallen for the British ways and imitations. They, more than other castes, lived within the caste discipline or confines of sub-castes they were born into and meekly stuck to the station in life the Hindu caste system had ordained for them.
They avoided quarrels and conflicts with other castes. In fact, the Baniya during the British rule got stereotyped as a miser, cowardly weakling who consumed dal [pulses] and passed wind fouling the air in his shop as a sedentary doormat. Yet, the traditional Baniya had inherent capacity to bear losses, grit and tenacity to bounce back to a thriving business again and again. A Baniya would take financial risks quietly and stoically. Making money was his dharma and he would go anywhere to make money. There are stories of a Multani Mal who left his village in Narnaul [Haryana] with only a lutiya [small round brass mug] and became the richest man of Patiala. He became richer than the Maharaja and lent money to the profligate Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala. He established the famous industrial house of the Modis.
That the Baniyas, irrespective of the stereotype, were capable of daring to go where others would fear to tread provided it was for making money is a fact of history. They would travel far and wide in search of fortune, live away from their families in strenuous circumstances, face risks and dangers in hostile territories to increase their wealth or regain their lost fortune.
I recall an incident. In 1947, my maternal uncle was posted as District Magistrate at a town called Bassi Pathana [ in Patiala state, near Sirhind, Punjab], temporarily co-opted from his judicial post as a sub-judge to meet the exigencies of the pre-partition Muslim-Hindu riots. As the name suggests, Bassi Pathan was a dominantly Muslim Pathan town. It had 13000 Muslims, 3000 Hindus. In June 1947, after the partition of India became imminent, Muslims started leaving for West Punjab, would-be Pakistan. In order to avoid possibility of violence and foul play, my uncle imposed curfew and martial law on the outskirts of the town where the Muslims were accommodated in a transit camp prior to their departure to Pakistan in a caravan. No unauthorized person was allowed to go near the Muslim Transit Camp. District Administration had clamped shoot- at- sight orders in the prohibited area.
One night my maternal uncle, Pandit Om Prakash Sharma, went on a surprise inspection of the camp site. From his military jeep, he spotted three shadows lurking on the fence along the camp. The army men trained their guns but my uncle stopped them from shooting and straight headed toward the shadows with jeep lights blazing on them. Shadows changed into three dhoti-clad, round black-capped Baniya Sethjis of the town known to my uncle. He asked them what had brought them to the danger zone and said the army constable was about to shoot them. They confessed that they had come in the hope of striking a profitable bargain with the departing rich Muslim families who would be willing to sell their jewelry cheap. The gold dealers reckoned that the departing refugee Muslims would prefer keeping a few rupees in their pockets to carrying their women’s ornaments as that would help them meet the needs of the long journey and expenses they were bound to incur on reaching their unknown destination in their yet to come about homeland, the so-called Pakistan.
“That was foolhardy”, said my uncle and sent them back to town under police escort. I recall this incident to prove that Baniya stereotypes are only stereotypes and do not tell the truth about the Baniya’s daring and venturesome bargaining spirit. The Baniya is made of a sterner stuff and capable of risking life and facing dangers if that promises to bring him money. Increasing his money and fortune is a Vaish’s dharma.
The arrival of the British affected fluidity of the caste system but the Baniya felt comfortable under the British rule and British laws. He could carry on his not so socially respectable or elevating vocation of lending money on exploitative terms safely under the British dispensation. This aspect of Baniya’s making money from money further lowered him as a caste in the eyes of reformers and progressive elements of Indian society,including Gandhi though himself a “Baniya or Bania”, during the times of freedom struggle.
The great story writer Munshi Premchand, a Kayasth by caste, has written profusely about the degradation and dehumanization the money lending regime as practiced by the village Baniya and the zamindar inflicted on the poor and hapless Indian villagers.
Prem Chand has portrayed the degrading impact of money lending in such stories as Sava Ser Gehoon, Kafan, Posh ki ek Raat which tell the tragic and pathetic tales of the poor villagers of India who borrow small amounts of money that pile up into astronomical sums of money because of exorbitant and arbitrary rates of interest. The poor borrowers lose their freedom, dignity and humanity and get reduced to bonded labor generation after generation because of the inherited burden of unpaid debt. In the story Kafan [Shroud], a poor villager borrows money on the pretext of buying a shroud and pay funeral expenses of his dead wife but actually he and his son go on a drinking and meat-eating spree as the dead body rots. Mehboob Khan’s 1957 film Mother India, too depicts the village Baniya or money-lender in a villainous role.
Coincidentally, Prem Chand was writing about the corrosive social effects of money lending at the very time as H.H. Srivastava, another Kayasth and archaeologist, was carrying out archaeological excavations at Agroha, a village in the then district Hissar of British Punjab,, now Hisar to bring to light the reality about Maharaja Agrasen and the remains of his Janpad or ‘republican domain’ or kingdom.
The British had ordered archaeological digging of Agroha which is now in Haryana near Hisar in late 1930s. This is how and where the Agrawals, the most advanced sub-caste among the Vaish, found their lost King and his kingdom. The archaeological finds at Agroha have had a revolutionary significance for the Agrawals. The British abandoned the excavations, allegedly, because of the World War Two. The Indian government has not thought it fit to resume the excavation of Agroha nor have the Baniyas and Agrawals sought further digging at Agroha with much zest. The Haryana State government made a half-hearted effort in 1976 to dig up the ruined city that lies buried under a mound near the town of Agroha but it was inchoate.
Even the inchoate archaeological excavation at Agroha has done wonders for the Baniya as caste. They now have a Maharaja who beckons them from a hidden and mysterious past. After the independence of India in 1947, Maharaja Agrasen of Agroha seems to have delivered to the Vaish or Baniya Agrawals of modern India a magic wand that has been delivering wealth and power and glory to this not so elevated a caste of the Hindus till recently.
The British were quick to grasp the divisive potential of India’s caste system and use it for perpetuating their imperial rule. During the initial days of the British East India Company’s rule, caste differences and customs were accepted, if not encouraged. The British law courts, however, disagreed with the discrimination against the lower castes. British policies of divide and rule as well as enumeration of the population into rigid categories every ten- year census contributed towards the hardening of caste identities. The Baniya caste felt comfortable under the British dispensation. They enjoyed the protection of the British laws. They could ply their trade and practice exploitative and usurious money lending unmindful of the protests of socialists and social reformists.
Against this bleak and depressing Baniya caste scenario, it was perhaps not so ironical that the British rather than the Vaish Agrawals themselves discovered their Proto Progenitor Agrasen, a Socialist Maharaja, who ruled over Agroha like a Kashtriye king.
In free India, the Vaish caste needs no protection or patronage of the state. They have learnt the art of manipulating or buying the powers that be for gains in business. Their Maharaja Agrasen presiding over them, they need no Presidents and Prime Ministers for their vertical rise as a caste of wealth makers and prime movers of the Indian society.
=====End of Chapter1 Maharaja Agrasen and Agrawal Re-birth=====
*Remembering the Guru
Herbert Marshall McLuhan
Jitendra Kumar Sharma
It was a sunny bright afternoon on a day in September 1962 – just the day for a stranger to get acquainted with city streets. Walking through the Park, I crossed over to the other side of the university campus and stopped to look out for someone to ask where I stood exactly on the map of Toronto. Presently, I saw a tall man, his hair slightly curly and wavy, his trousers hanging casually on old-fashioned suspenders, apparently sunning himself but somewhat occupied with inner thoughts. I advanced a few steps. As he looked towards me I exchanged a stranger’s smile. Then I do not recall how we got started on a conversation that lasted nearly three hours. Mostly we talked about T. S. Eliot, the great American-born English poet. A man with a triangle-shaped beard introduced as Harley Parker [Canadian Painter who has co-authored books with Marshall McLuhan] came over. Our conversation eventually ended. But I had already ‘clicked’ with Marshall McLuhan, totally oblivious of his name and fame.
From the front lawn we moved into his book-laden office at St. Michael’s College where McLuhan solemnly announced to Harley Parker that I was an “Eliot Man”. A little later Father Morin entered McLuhan’s office carrying his English translation of a French poem by T.S. Eliot. “Show it to him”, said McLuhan turning to me: “He is the Eliot Man.” And he continued: “You got it made”. “Are you familiar with this expression?” McLuhan, as I found later, was always keen to know how men of one culture use and respond to the clichés and archetypes of another culture. “You can write a Ph.D. dissertation on T.S. Eliot”. McLuhan translated “You got it made” for me.
I was a young man smitten with wanderlust. But I had come under McLuhan’s spell. A few days later I enrolled myself in the Graduate School at the University of Toronto. I was to make Canada my home for the entire decade and McLuhan my teacher, friend and philosopher.
Only toward the end of our first meeting did I come to know that McLuhan had just completed the manuscript of Gutenberg Galaxy, the book that was soon to launch him as the Philosopher of the Electronic Age. In later years, I had occasion to watch McLuhan on TV, listen to him on the radio and read his books. But, I am confirmed in my belief that neither television, nor radio, nor the printed word were his true media. Conversation was the medium to communicate with McLuhan, the medium for understanding McLuhan. For he thought and talked at the same time. It was an exciting experience to view the instant verbalization of his thought-process. While communicating with McLuhan, walking went better with talking. On TV or in a panel discussion on the radio he was likely to be defensively aggressive.Talking with him long hours was like being on a trip of exploration in the invisible world of thought.
McLuhan was generous to me with his time. There were days when we would converse for seven or eight hours. He often invited me to his home. On Christmas Day, if in town, I was always present at the exclusively family dinner at the McLuhans’. Besides in his house, his office, while going for lunch, at the cafeteria, on sidewalks, right along the curb in a busy street or on the patch of grass in front of his office, mornings, evenings, afternoons I always managed to draw him into long talks. Later, when the grapevine said that McLuhan’s consultancy fee was three thousand dollars per hour, at the end of a long conversation once I said: “Professor McLuhan, you lost twenty four thousand dollars today”. He responded with utter humility: “I always learn from you, Jitendra!”
Marshall McLuhan did not suffer from pride of knowledge, the first infirmity of a scholarly mind. This was proved to me on several occasions. One afternoon I got a phone call from a McLuhan fan, Dr. Hugo McPherson, later to become Chairman of Film Board of Canada. An excited Hugo said: “Did you listen to Marshall’s broadcast on Eliot?” McLuhan had just finished a CBC obituary talk on Eliot in which he had quoted me at length. I was no authority on Eliot but only a graduate student at the university! One day an American lady knocked at my suite in the Daniel Wilson Residence, U of T and with a look of curiosity murmured to me: “Are you the fellow McLuhan quoted in his lecture at Philadelphia?” Puzzled, I could only say “I don’t know”.
Cartooning for Priestley
Perhaps McLuhan had more confidence in my understanding of Eliot than I myself had. So, instead of proceeding directly for Ph.D. I had decided to do my Master’s first. Since I had very little money and had not been exposed to the North American custom of dating, I had to spend most of my time in studies. As a result, within seven months, even before the academic year was over, I fulfilled all requirements, including the dissertation, for the Master’s degree. Ruefully, I discovered that I had committed a great academic heresy. The accepted period of completion for Master’s in English was two years. The Department Chairman, Professor Woodhouse let it be known that my credentials as a Master’s candidate were dubious. Also Dr. Marshall McLuhan’s role as director of my dissertation was suspect in departmental eyes. A minor intra-departmental battle ensued.
The greatest opposition to my being examined within the academic year came from Professor F.E.L. Priestley. Heavy scholarship permanently enthroned in his thick spectacles scared students away from his sight. In the final round, however, Priestley lost in committee vote three to one. The compromise arrived at was that I could be called for oral examination but only after the close of the academic session though before the end of summer vacation. Another point yielded to Professor Priestley was that the Examination would be held in his office instead of Professor McLuhan’s office. On the appointed day, Professor Priestley was late in reaching his office by five minutes. The venue was shifted to a neutral territory in the meantime. In Professor Frank Watt’s room the Examination began. As expected, Priestley was giving me hard time. He was determined to inflict the heaviest punishment for my academic aberration. Professors McLuhan, Watt and Ross sat in silent sympathy unable to come to my rescue.
Just as I was about to fail, perspiring, I asked for a piece of chalk and blackboard. There was none in the room. Instead, I was allowed the aid of a pencil and piece of paper. I started to explain my concept of time with the help of diagrams. Every half-a-minute or so I would make a drawing, stop and say to Professor Priestley, “ Is it clear, Sir?” Each time Priestley responded with a most unsmiling “yes”. After five or six “Priestley yeses” I suddenly decided not to take a further risk on Priestley yeses. I clinched the entire explanation then and there. With a sweep of my hand I declared to all present: “Sir, this is all I had been saying all the time”. Professor Priestley caught through my trick but an instant late. For a stupid stare crossed his impressive, scholarly countenance. I had performed an exercise-lesson fit for a primary school child and here was Priestley saying “Yes, yes” all the time. Professors Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Ross and Frank Watt avoided exchanging looks with me, lest they burst out laughing. Silence fell on all of us. The examination ended abruptly. Nodding scholarly heads indicated I should exit the scene.
I had hardly entered my room at College Street that the phone rang. It was Marshall McLuhan. He was laughing and saying: “Never forget that trick…. That bit of cartooning you did for Priestley, Jitendra…..”. “Have I passed?” I asked. “Priestley is supposed to announce your result”. McLuhan had a few more laughs and invited me to meet him the following afternoon.
A valuable advice I received from my Guru a long time ago often comes back to me. In my early days in Canada, like any other immigrant, I was beset with pressures and problems of a new socio-cultural environment. McLuhan, finding me depressed at times, would say: “Respond, do not despond”. And when I had become a member of the university teaching faculty and was drawn into minor conflicts with the Establishment, Marshall would say: “Do not react, only act”. Often, he would recall the strife-ridden life of his friend and colleague, the late Professor Harold Innis, author of Bias Of Communications. At times his eyes were bedimmed while warmly remembering Harold Innis who, according to McLuhan, suffered enormous discouragements by the Establishment yet continued his work. His own interest in communications, he said, he surely owed to Harold Innis. “Act, do not react”, is a piece of advice I have often found difficult to practise but most rewarding whenever I did practise it.
Marshall McLuhan, Philosopher of the Electronic Age, explorer of speed and movement, seer of the Global Village, futuristic perceiver of anti-environments, himself would rather opt for a world that had already gone out. He always preferred walking to driving. Often, I would offer him a ride in my car but he would say with a chuckle “No, I shall use the ‘public conveniences’.” In 1969 he returned to Canada after a stint at Fordham University, U.S.A. He had to undergo an operation for tumor of the brain during his stay in New York. One evening, I happened to meet him just as he was leaving his office. Again he preferred to use ‘public conveniences’ rather than ride with me. So we walked and talked till we reached the Bloor Street sub-way station. Suddenly I asked: “How is the family?” McLuhan put his hand on my shoulder and with brimming emotion said: “You know when we went to New York we were nine. Now we are only two.” And he ran downstairs to catch the train.
My memory wandered back to early days of my acquaintance with McLuhan and days and evenings spent at his modest Wells Hill house, full of children basking in the ambience of parental affection. Mrs. Corinne McLuhan, the very ideal of a mother and wife and handsome McLuhan children all flitted across my memory screen. I had become quite fond of the youngest two, Elizabeth and Michael [twins]. I did not myself realize that all the McLuhan children had now overgrown the need and care of their parents and were discovering the world on their own, away from the family home. A deeper glimpse into Marshall’s fatherly heart was provided two days later when I visited McLuhans’ new house at Wychwood. It was a part of an excluded estate, though right in the city of Toronto. It was large and certainly graceful an abode. But, inside it was empty, and curiously I recognized the old drapes I had seen at their old Wells Hill house. Marshall put on a record and went inside to get me drink. Mrs. McLuhan looked at the drapes and whispered to me:“Marshall can’t get used to new things. I can’t change these old drapes.” McLuhan children had gone away but the old drapes remained to give him the feeling of family togetherness, I thought to myself.
McLuhan took me on a tour of his new locality. It had more than eighty Spanish style villas and bungalows on a beautifully landscaped piece of land with sinuous walkways and a narrow stream flowing. We walked up and down and talked as we went along. Suddenly, McLuhan stopped. He drew my attention to the house we were passing by and asked me to regard the house carefully. Then he said: “Do you find this house any different from other houses here?” I replied: “Yes, this house is a variation on the modern, matchbox style.” McLuhan hummed a little tune and said: “Is it not funny?” The only couple seeking divorce in this neighbourhood live in this house.” Well, sense or nonsense but the form of space we live in does affect our social, cultural and family behaviour.
The only time I saw Marshall McLuhan drive a car turned out for me an occasion to remember. I had gone to his Centre for Culture and Technology and was much surprised to see him seated in the driver’s seat outside the building. The only other occupant in the front seat was Barrington Nevitt, the Canadian Civil Servant with whom Marshall was co-authoring their book The Executive Drop-Out. I hopped into the back seat without knowing where we were going. We had hardly hit the road when McLuhan raised a question: “Of all the Asian countries, why Japan alone took to rapid industrialization?” Thoughtlessly, I happened to say: “Because the Japanese have to import food”. McLuhan jammed the brakes and brought the car to a halt. He looked back to me and said: “You have solved an eighteen year old problem for me”. Then he reversed the car, called Mrs. Margaret Steward, his Secretary, and got my remark noted to her.
McLuhan was a philosopher of insights rather than of ideas. Consciousness and not merely knowledge was the field of his perception. He found poetry and art more dependable sources of environmental understanding. McLuhan’s response to human sensibility was not merely conceptual or bookish as I discovered one cold January morning- the day I had to defend my thesis on T.S. Eliot. The university had invited Professor Rajan, an Indian, to be on the Board of Examiners. As arranged between us, I reached McLuhan’s office from where we were to proceed to the Examination Room together. I found McLuhan waiting for me shivering in a terylene suit I had never seen him wear before. He did not even put on his overcoat and started to walk with me. Surprised, I stopped and said: “What happened to your tweeds?” Tweeds were his habitual winter wear. The shivering McLuhan replied: “I didn’t want to hurt Professor Rajan’s tropical sensibility”. We ran to the other side of the campus and sought shelter in the heated building of the Graduate School. McLuhan went in and I awaited to be called for examination.
As I entered the room, I looked at the august representation of scholarship collectively and individually. I looked at Professor Rajan and immediately turned to McLuhan. He concealed a smile from me. In the solemn atmosphere of high academic stance I could also only suppress my laughter. Professor Rajan had turned out in heavy tweeds, in spite of his “tropical sensibility”.
One day I asked McLuhan to lunch at Daniel Wilson Residence, University College where I was a Don. The University College had several anti-McLuhanites. McLuhan’s Understanding Media was then creating “history and hysteria”. After lunching at the High Table we went to the Senior Common Room for coffee. The hour passed by quietly. As soon as McLuhan left the scene, some of my colleagues joined me and started talking about my guest of the afternoon. One of them said; “McLuhan ought to have PRs”, to make him acceptable to the academe. Another said: “I thought he already had PR’s working for him or else how could he have the few friends that he has….”
Oscar Wilde, himself a celebrity once remarked: “A worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about.” I reflected on this observation. How lucky I was to have known McLuhan before he became a celebrity. Surely, understanding McLuhan has been more enriching for me than understanding Media.
===========The End—–Dr. Jitendra Kumar Sharma======