Chapati vs the Poori
On March 7, 1857, the Urdu weekly Ashraf-al-Akhbar (Lucknow) carried a small item on its last page under the heading, ‘A Strange Incident’. Apparently, a few days earlier, village chowkidars in that region had received pooris from their counterparts in other villages, with the instruction: “Keep them. The ruler would ask for them later. Meanwhile, make five fresh pooris and distribute them in other villages in a similar manner.” The rulers, according to the report, were greatly perturbed at this strange development and had ordered the thanedars to trace down the original instigator. “The chain, however, seems endless across the region, and no success appears possible.”
It seems that the ‘Chapati Conspiracy’ of 1857 was in fact a ‘Poori Plot’. Pooris do make better strategic sense. Fried in oil, they may become rancid but would survive longer than any chapati, which would turn dry and crumble to bits in a few days.
I came upon the newspaper in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, in the private papers of Dr Aloys Sprenger, who was an employee of the East India Company for many years in the mid-19th century. Now mostly remembered for his invaluable catalogue of the royal libraries of Oudh, Sprenger had also served as principal at the government madrassas in Delhi and Calcutta. While in Delhi, he initiated an Urdu weekly, Qiran-al-Sa’dain, which published articles on scientific subjects and social issues along with political news and some poetry. One of its thirty-four issues preserved at Berlin contained another surprise, this time concerning Ghalib.
Urdu scholars presently agree that Ghalib was born on December 27, 1797, corresponding to the month of Rajab, 1212 AH. That would have made him only 49 in January 1847 (1263 AH). However, an effusive note on him in the Qiran-al-Sa’dain of January 18, 1847, contains one startling sentence: “He has traversed fifty-three stages in his journey of life, but in talent and achievement he has progressed beyond many thousand stages.” The article is unsigned, as was the practice in the journal, but the confident exactitude of the described age—fifty-three—must give us pause. They were, of course, Hijri years, for that was then the established practice in Urdu. In other words, Ghalib was 53 in 1263 AH, and must have been born in 1210 AH (July 18, 1795-July 7, 1796), perhaps on December 27, 1795.
The article must have reached Ghalib the same day, if not courtesy of the author, then surely through the noted mathematician, Master Ramchandar, a beloved teacher at the madrassa and a much-cherished friend of Ghalib’s. The subsequent issue of the journal contains no correction.
Dr Sprenger must have been a strong-willed taskmaster. He certainly kicked a hornet’s nest at Calcutta when he became the principal of the Madrassa Aliya, the venerable school started by Warren Hastings. The Berlin collection contains a single tattered issue of a Persian journal, Gulshan-i-Naubahar (Calcutta), dated April 12, 1851. It carries a nasty screed, four pages long, detailing all the “awful” things the learned doctor had done at the madrassa, causing much grief to its students and teachers. The principal had “brutally scolded” students if they arrived late, and suspended them if it happened on three consecutive days—“letting them back in only after fining them two rupees”. He also did not allow anyone, including the teachers, “to eat or drink during the school hours (from ten to two), not even permitting them to puff on a huqqah or chew a paan!”
But the worst crime in the eyes of the budding scholars and their teachers was the principal’s attempt to make changes in the syllabus. He was dumbing it down, they bitterly complained, by discontinuing time-tested Persian and Arabic books on medieval scholastics, replacing them with books on such subjects as geography, history and mathematics that were—heaven forbid!—“written in Urdu”. The students claimed that they already spoke the language, and had no desire to read books in it. When they went on a strike, the principal had the gates of the school locked and the students ejected from its premises. “The principal went crazy with anger, and beat his servants. Perhaps he got drunk on his way home, as it often happens with Sahibs.”
The writer ends with these thundering remarks: “If things do not change in a few months, and the administration is not replaced, the Muslims of Calcutta—nay, of every district and region—shall gird their loins to protect the madrassa, this pinnacle of Islam’s glory, and set afire this ‘world of hardships’. A battle shall then follow, reminiscent of the battles of Kabul, Qandahar and Chilianwala. People cannot fight their rulers, but fight they will if made desperate.”
The desperation of someone deprived of huqqah and paan and made to read history and geography in Urdu is not hard to imagine, but cooler heads must have prevailed. There is no record of any bloodbath at the madrassa. Aloys Sprenger died peaceably at Heidelberg in 1893.