Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Globe-trotter’s take on History in the Making

Conversations with Henry Brownrigg--part 3  

HENRY LOVED to travel and also to tell tales about his travels. In Malabar, a long stretch of coastline on the south western India where I was  born and spent most of my life, he could talk about people and places as if he had lived here for decades.

He once wrote to me about the old part of the city of Calicut, where Arab Muslims had set up their businesses and lived in palatial tharavadu homes for many centuries. His great knowledge of the culture and traditions of Malabar Mappila Muslim community and their global links came through in this note:

“Mappila castes interest me. Am I right in thinking that the Kuttichira Mappilas are an endogamous community? I would like to understand more about the traders and shipowners living in the area between the railway line and the sea in Calicut, as well as the rather similar people in the bandar area of Mangalore and no doubt in other Malabar ports. In Malaysia and Singapore the word Tamil normally applies to low-caste plantation workers, but it also includes descendants of the merchant-seafaring community with used to handle the trade between South-East Asia and the Coromandel coast. They too are an endogamous community. In Penang and in Singapore there are mosques which have soil brought from the shrine at Nagore and believed to embody the barakat of the Nagore saint.”

Henry had spent much time and effort to visit and photograph the churches, mosques and temples in the south and south-eastern parts of Asia. Towards the end, he was thinking of how to preserve his work for posterity, as much of this great cultural heritage happens to be on the verge of being erased.

“I have a lot of photos, many of them old fashioned slides, of mosques which may well no longer exist as the Salafists are keen to replace traditional Kerala buildings with concrete domed structures which look as if they have been transported from Jeddah. So my photos are a valuable record of Kerala's unique Muslim architecture. I don't know what to do with them...I plan to leave them either to the British Library or the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University. It would really be better to give them to a museum or library in Kerala, but I am worried that they will not be properly looked after...

“I have also made extensive photographs of traditional wood mosques in Indonesia, Malaysia and South Thailand, as I was trying to see if there was a cultural link to Kerala mosques. The Kerala mosques are very interesting. If you ask someone what is a typical Indian mosque they will think of maybe the Jama Masjid in Delhi. But this is essentially a Mughal propaganda exercise intended to overawe the population with the grandeur of the dynasty and of its religion. Stylistically these big domed mosques have Persian and Central Asian antecedents. But the Kerala mosques were built in or soon after the Prophet's lifetime since the Arabs were trading in Malabar before they were Muslims. They were not built to impress people because the Muslims, like the Christians and Jews, lived at the mercy of local Hindu rulers who imposed strict rules on the size and adornment of buildings. So in elevation the mosque was a typical vernacular building. But their ground plan, unlike North Indian and Deccani mosques, was the same as the ground plan of very early mosques in the Hadramaut which were built in imitation of the Prophet's house in Medina. So there is a paradox in that these Salafi guys are destroying buildings which are witnesses to the first century of the hijira and replacing them with big mosques with domes, minarets and a courtyard which are much later and are essentially Persian rather than Arab.”

Henry felt at home in every part of the world.  Once we were discussing Pablo Neruda’s poem, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, and he had memories of his visits to Peru and the encounter with an absurd poet:

“I have twice visited Peru...One weekend I hired a car from Avis and drove into the Andes, but I only got to Tarma which is less than half way to Cuzco. It was the most terrifying drive of my life. The road twisted like a snake, and not only did the car´s brakes not work but nor did the windscreen wipers (a disaster since the road was muddy and the windscreen frequently quite opaque). I arrived back in Lima in a furious rage and burst into the Avis manager's office screaming abuse about the fact that he had nearly killed me.  "Oh you poor man", he said, "What a dreadful experience. You must allow me to buy you lunch as a very small compensation." We had a rather expensive lunch over which he explained that he was not by training or inclination cut out to manage a car hire company. He was actually Bolivia´s leading poet. But his family had been exiled by President Banzer, and his uncle insisted that he take this job to pay for his livelihood. He was an absurd person, but actually we became quite good friends, and I was invited home to meet his wife. Meanwhile the mortality rate among people hiring Avis cars does not bear thinking about.”

He had observed Latin American politics very closely. So when some of us in Kerala were excited about the rise of left politics in that far-away continent, he cautioned: “Those on the left have a very two-dimensional understanding of South America. They see its history as an unbroken anti-imperialist, anti-US struggle: Bolivar-Zapata-Pancho Villa -Fidel- Che- Allende- Chavez.  Of course this is one factor in the continent's history, but, when one goes there one realizes that it is just as complicated and multi-faceted as any other part of the world. When I was young the villains were pear-shaped colonels in dark glasses. But these days they are just as likely to be ideology-driven leftists who think that winning an election gives them an irreversible right to power however incompetently they exercise it. As somebody said, People's Democracy is to democracy what National Socialism is to socialism.”

Travel offers experiences; some of them funny, some traumatic and some surreal. The troubles he faced enjoying a prawn masala with a bottle of beer in a Kerala hotel: “For the foreigner who drinks in moderation Kerala presents a problem. I adore Malayali food, but because it is spicy I adore it more when accompanied by a bottle of beer. I remember one of my first visits where I was staying in a hotel in Thrissur. I ordered chemmeen masala and a bottle of Kingfisher. But alcohol was only available in the 'foreign liquor' bar, which was a dark, gloomy, noisy place full of men. The bar did not serve food. So what to do? Does one have a mouthful of masala in the restaurant and then run to the bar to take a gulp of beer? Or does one merely book one's next holiday for Sri Lanka?”

Then his encounter with Indologist Asko Parpola in the same city. It was surreal: “I once met him by accident over breakfast at a hotel in Thrissur, where he was accompanied by a Japanese Professor of Epigraphy. At the time it seemed a bit surreal for a Brit, a Finn and a Japanese to be all eating idli while discussing temple inscriptions. I then changed the subject to beekeeping, and Asko explained with great learning why the beekeeping techniques of the Toda are very similar to those used at monasteries in medieval Russia.”

Henry was a caring person, always considerate of others. Henry was  “ever loyal even to people whose behaviour he found distasteful,” according to a close friend. He liked helping others in distress. He told me this story about an English girl imprisoned in Kerala as she was found in possession of a little cannabis: “When Nayanar was First Minister I was involved in getting a pardon for a British girl called Samantha Slater who had been sentenced to ten years for possessing a couple of ounces of cannabis...The British high Commission was applying outside pressure for her release, which was totally counter-productive. I got Rubin's help in spreading Samantha's story in left-wing circles. She got support from the women's movement, and in due course Nayanar recommended her release...She was a nice and innocent girl, though not very clever. Her mother was a 'lollipop lady', i.e. she carried a lollipop-shaped sign outside a primary school telling the traffic to slow down to let the kid's cross the road. One cannot imagine a more proletarian job.”  

As usual Henry had anecdotes to tell about cannabis and his own encounters with the stuff: “When I was a student I was a fairly infrequent dope smoker, and I have bought cannabis from one of the hotels at Periyar...Kerala used to be pretty tolerant about it, since after all bhang is freely available in many temple towns, Then, like many South-East Asians countries, it went to the other extreme and introduced draconian penalties.”  

Talking about Kerala and its newly acquired puritanism with regard to various types of intoxicants, he asked a very pertinent question: “Sri Lanka produces double-distilled arrack, which is an expensive middle-class drink comparable to whisky or rum. But Kerala, despite having exactly the same toddy palms as Sri Lanka, does not produce this and must lose employment and tax revenue as a result. This is one of the mysteries of the Indian liquor trade, such as why is feni unobtainable outside Goa.”

Tony Shaw remembers how Henry found a way to get him out of the country when he got into trouble with some top guns in Pakistan. He successfully played the strings making use of his contacts with old Oxford friends in the Pakistani establishment. At the time Tony had a building contract work at Sehwan Shariff. “I met  [prime minister Benazir] Bhutto a couple of times and clashed with her husband Zardari who threatened to have me arrested. Henry and Samir [Iraq’s ambassador to the US in the post-Saddam days] worked through their contacts to have me leave the country without Zardari knowing...I phoned the minister of housing from the plane to Dubai. He was flabbergasted that I had managed to leave the country.”

There is so much to write, but these memoirs have already run into three parts. So I would leave out all those interesting things he said about his immediate family, his friends, his pet likes and dislikes... But I think I cannot bring this to an end without quoting from the series of notes he wrote to me just a few weeks ahead of his death, which I consider as his testament on history of our times and the future of our civilization. He wrote those  notes, in response to a few chapters  I had sent him of my book A Topsy Turvy World, dealing with the issues in the  21st century global politics and economy. At that very moment, he was also laying down meticulous instructions for his own farewell. He soon died, on December 22, 2016. The invitation of his memorial service, held at St. James Church, Piccadilly, on Thursday 23 March 2017, says: “Henry selected the hymns, readings and music for today’s service and requested a good send off “with the flambeaux flaming and good wine flowing.” All those who have attended his memorial service at the church as well as the reception at the Travellers Club, Pall Mall, testify his wishes had been dutifully carried out.

Now to his fnal letters. In the first of these, dated 28 September, Henry wrote:

“I think that a good approach would be to imagine how a historian would answer this if say it was an exam question set in fifty years time. Will the things which seem obvious today still seem obvious? To look at it from the other end, anyone of our generation has preconceptions formed by our C20th upbringing. Firstly, we assume the existence of a US-centric world, unavoidable whether you love it or hate it. Secondly, anyone from the global south has been formed by the anti-colonial struggle which is still relatively recent. Thirdly, until the late C20th the most influential political theory was Marxism, which is a belief rooted in us-versus-them dualism - cops vs robbers, cowboys vs Indians, poor vs rich, proletarians vs. capitalists, socialists vs. conservatives. Will all this still seem so central in 2050, or will the US just be one player among many in a complex multi-faceted world?

“Let us take the fall of the Berlin Wall as symbolising the end of the C20th and start of the C21st (give or take eleven years). What does one read into it? At one level it was just a rejection of Soviet colonialism not greatly different from the global south's rejection of Western colonialism a few decades earlier. In part it was an ideological reaction, but there was also a strong element of old fashioned nationalism. As with the global south the departure of the colonial masters left a vacuum. In some cases this was filled by genuinely democratic institutions, but in many places democracy failed to take root and instead there was a variety of authoritarian and in some cases repressive regimes.

“Optimistic Americans saw the fall of the wall as ushering in an age of international harmony, rising economic growth, and (normally understated) Western hegemony. Agencies like the IMF and the World Bank had always been intended to establish a framework for global development and to avoid a repeat of the disastrous mistakes which followed the First World War. The agencies were the velvet glove, though right-wing Americans made little secret that there was an iron fist inside it. However, in practice this blend of liberal democracy and market economics lacked emotional appeal for many people, even those living in places where living standards were improving. The need to fill this emotional vacuum probably helps to explain a sudden explosion of fundamentalist religion, particularly in the Islamic world but also in India, Israel, Russia and even in the USA itself.

“During the C20th most Muslim countries were led by people who were essentially secularist, the most notable examples being Ataturk, Jinnah and Nasser. Religion played second fiddle to nationalism or socialism. Islam itself was divided not just between Sunni and Shi'a but also by all sorts of traditional leaderships, of which the strictest was, paradoxically, the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. Politically many of these leaderships had reasonable working relationships with the West. However, the early C21st saw the emergence of a much more hardline Islam manifested in quranic fundamentalism, salafism and, most critically, jihadism. All this had genuine roots in historic Islam, but it also meshed with anti-Western attitudes left over from colonial times. The extremists had varied success in destabilising existing Muslim governments, and, in addition to the West and Israel, their targets also embraced countries as diverse as Russia, India, China, Thailand and the Philippines. Attempts to establish a viable centralised political structure under al-Qaeda or the I.S.'s kalifat were not very successful, but their ideology had wide influence. The result has been not just actual wars such as those in Syria and Iraq, but a variety of semi-independent terrorist events perpetrated by informal militias such as Boko Haram or by jihadi individuals with a wide range of political and religious motivation. Although Western public opinion is shocked by this it has so far resisted the temptation to react in a violent way which would clearly be counter-productive.

“The USA is nothing if not hypocritical. It wraps itself in the language of democracy and human rights and expressed support for the so-called Arab Spring, but it simultaneously supports thoroughly undemocratic governments such as the Saudis and the Sisi regime in Egypt. However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq both had special circumstances. The USA was understandably traumatised by the events of 9/11. Osama bin Laden's base was near the Afghan-Pakistan border, and America's nightmare was the thought that he might drive through the streets of Kabul to the rapturous cheers of his supporters. The US foolishly decided to preempt this by sending troops to support Karzai, ignoring the historic experience of Britain and the Soviet Union that foreigners who invade Afghanistan always live to regret it.

“In Iraq the USA had supported Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran, preferring a brutal secularist thug to a charismatic anti-Western leader such as Khomeini. But the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam's known fascination with advanced weapons, and provocations such as Baghdad's main hotel having a mat with President Bush's face on it which everyone had to tread on, caused the Americans to worry that he would place his forces at the service of al-Qaeda. This ignored the fact that his secularism was at the other extreme from their fundamentalism. The final outcome was that the West won the war but lost the peace, partly because the wholesale ousting of Baathists from the army and the civil service weakened the new government and strengthened its opponents.

“Throughout much of the world the first decades of the turn of the century saw a decline of trust in existing governments. In the Islamic world there was the Arab Spring, in the former Soviet bloc countries the 'velvet', 'orange' and other revolutions, in the USA a rejection of government from the old Washington elite, and similarly in Europe a rejection of the traditional polarity between Christian democrats and social democrats. Authoritarian governments such as Russia, China and Turkey, where the media and the political process were tightly controlled, were mainly able to outface their critics and hold on to effective power.

“In Europe the early C21st saw the unravelling of the main institution, the European Union. Originally a core of six like-minded democratic countries, this expanded into a much looser association of twenty-eight members. For reasons which were essentially geopolitical the EU absorbed most of the ex-Soviet countries of eastern Europe as well as Poland and the Baltic republics. Many of these countries were intensely nationalistic, some had little in the way of a democratic tradition, and many had economic problems, so both their interests and their instincts were very different from the original six founding nations. At its best the EU redistributed resources from its wealthier members such as Germany to poorer ones in the east and the south (so-called 'Club Med'). In practice not all these investments were well considered. The 'Club Med' countries tended to overspend, often on projects which had a political rather than an economic rationale. When things went wrong they expected the Germans in particular to pick up the bill, and this caused a predictably negative reaction from German public opinion. Greece was a case in point. Greek governmental overspending can partly be blamed on German and other banks, but other factors included bad planning and a culture of tax avoidance. To oversimplify, the tax-avoiding elite was able to load their assets onto their yachts and sail away, but the poor, and particularly public sector employees, were left in a situation of grinding poverty. The left-wing party Syriza started with a rather simplistic 'blame-the-banks' agenda, but under its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras it reinvented itself as a more pragmatic party which has mended its fences with the Germans, the EU and the IMF, and is quite successfully making the best of an immensely difficult situation.

“Another major problem for the EU is the defection of Britain. Britain does not compare with say Germany as an industrial power, but the City of London is far and away the biggest European player in global finance. Britain's departure weakens the EU, and in particular Germany which shared its hard line on the EU's lax economic management and on the profligate spending of 'Club Med'. There is also the worry that Britain's departure will be seen as a precedent by other EU members. Enthusiasts for the EU have always taken the view that a bicycle stays upright so long as it keeps moving forwards but will fall over as soon as it begins to wobble.

“All over the world there has been a reaction against existing governments. One factor is the existence of widespread corruption, kleptomania, where politicians and their cronies milk the economy for personal gain. For instance President Xi Jinping of China claims to be cracking down on corruption within the Communist Party. But the leaked 'Panama Papers' revealed that Xi's own brother-in-law controls secret offshore companies said to have assets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Government censorship has effectively prevented any of this being publicly discussed in China. Transparency International publishes an annual table grading 168 countries by their perceived level of corruption. Of the 168 Pakistan ranks 154, Russia 117, China 83, India 76, South Korea 37, France 23, Japan and Hong Kong 18, Britain and Germany 10 and Singapore 8. The least corrupt country is Denmark, followed by Finland and Sweden.

“Latin America is seen as something of a special case. Founded in the anti-colonial struggle of Bolivar and San Martin it has a tradition of rebellion which can be traced through the careers of Zapata, Pancho Villa, Castro, Che and Allende. This is the image of the continent held by many outside observers, and it has been assiduously fostered by local politicians such as Hugo Chavez. In fact Latin America is much more multi-faceted, but the early C21st saw a surge of governments with a socialist and anti-American rhetoric. These governments met with mixed success, and in some cases it proved easier to elect them than to get rid of them once their democratic term had expired.

“Chavez/Maduro in Venezuela and Kerchner in Argentina were almost unbelievably inept and succeeded only in reducing potentially rich countries to a condition of abject poverty. This did not stop them continuing to find apologists among those to whom being anti-American is the only thing which matters. Morales in Bolivia has been successful in giving effective power to indigenous people who had been marginalised by previous white-dominated governments. In Brazil the Lula government seemed for a time to have achieved economic lift-off, but this has foundered among mutual accusations of ill-considered investment and rampant corruption. Perhaps the most successful country has been Colombia which negotiated an end to its long-running conflict with the leftist guerillas FARC, and which has successfully expanded its economy despite the damage inflicted by a low oil price. But Colombia is not anti-American, so its achievements are rather under-acknowledged.

“As a former Mexican president put it, 'Poor Mexico. So far from God; so close to the United States'.”

In a later mail, Henry was critical of my line of thinking which he thought was fixated in the past: “Your analysis of the post-Bretton Woods system does not stoop to understatement:- 'immoral system of modern day colonialism', 'global loan shark', 'serves the West and Wall Street', 'flawed development model', 'institutionalised global inequality'....  Is this what a historian in 2066 will be saying? It is far too early to tell, but I think that you should make some attempt to give the IMF/World Bank's side of the argument.”

 And then a final word of advice to a younger person trying to figure out the world:   

“To sum up, you should ask the questions I suggested at outset. Am I being as forensic and dispassionate as if I was writing a dissertation on physics? And how will this read to a historian in 2066? To be frank, I think that you are still too rooted in the age in which we happen to be living and are too inclined to see capitalism and its supporting institutions as the big bad wolf. But who knows? Perhaps our 2066 historian will be saying that the global economy only really achieved fairly distributed growth when the age of American hegemony gave way to the age of Chinese hegemony.”

These were the last words in a long mail I received from Henry, dated October 19, two months ahead of his death. I know I will not be around at the mid-century point where he envisions his new world. But two years after these conversations, I think it is evident which way the wind blows, with a trade war already on between the two super- powers with China digging its heels to face it. And America taking blind swipes at its more agile adversary.

So rest in peace Henry, it was a pleasure to have known you for all these years. Good Bye.

(Concluded. Photo courtesy the Brownrigg family, UK.)