There are two songs to this post. The first is Sharafat Parwani’s Jodai - an adaptation to Qawwali-style singing of a poem by Tabrizi originally written in his Indian style. Parwani is an Afghan, recently evacuated from Kabul to the United States.
The second is Kacha Badam, a ridiculously catchy jingle from a folk singer/peanut seller in rural Bengal. His jingle was so popular that kids started recording him and putting him up on TikTok. And of course, dancing to it. Bhuban, the peanut seller, naturally felt upset that his stuff was stolen and he wasn’t making money off of it. This was remedied by making the video I linked at the beginning of this paragraph. This man managed to grab the attention of millions with his song. I cannot imagine how this would be possible without modern social media technology.
In a previous post, I played around with the idea of a Heihe-Tengchong line for India but there are other interesting lines to be drawn as well within the subcontinent. There was a restaurant in Singapore that I used to frequent with my cousin’s family - Mustard. It drew a line from landlocked Punjab to coastal Bengal - the cuisine reflecting the geography and history of each place.
Tagore’s Kabuliwala goes a little further - written in 1892, he imagined a dry fruits seller from Kabul who comes down every year to Kolkata to sell his fruits and heads back up. The story is meant to talk about the universal human emotions, the common social fabric that ties us all together - like the love a father has for his daughter.
It wasn’t unusual before 1947 to think of India’s social fabric as stretching all the way to Afghanistan. The “Frontier Gandhi” Abdul Ghaffar Khan - an Indian independence leader was buried in Afghanistan. He was so respected within that country that when he passed, both sides of the Afghan civil war - Soviet and Mujahideen - declared a truce to mourn.
It doesn’t take much digging to see Bengal’s role within Indian independence. If you would like a fictionalized version with some incredible music, I recommend Chittagong which covers the Tebhaga rebellion - an attempt to bring British taxation down from 50% to 33%.
I ate a lot of facts when I was younger and the mind being what it is wants to compress those facts into something more useful and coherent - a narrative. All these lines we draw connecting and dividing different regions are to create narratives - clean ones. The subcontinent is lacking clean narratives. The ideas of what India or Pakistan or Bangladesh is are all stories and lines fractured by exceptions, jitter. Someone’s hand shook as they drew those.
But there’s something going through my mind a lot lately - not peanuts, partition or even mustard - but close. It’s another black seed, a bit smaller, with faith much larger.
Both Afghanistan and Bengal have a storied history with poppies. Humanity as a whole has a storied history with the plant, which Michael Pollan covers in this lovely essay.
100 years ago, Singapore’s economy ran on a steady import of Bengal poppies for refinement and shipping to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Today, Kabul seems to be running heroin into Russia, the Punjab and everywhere else as a way to recover its economy.
The water which provides for Afghanistan’s poppies come from a dam that America helped the king of Afghanistan build in the 50s.
Poppies explained a lot to me about the world - about human desperation, cruelty and our slowly deepening understanding of the human condition.
Silver for monsters, steal from humans
Poppies and opium triggered one of the bloodiest chapters of China’s history - the Taiping Rebellion. As America was dealing with its own civil war, China was riven by a Southern opium aficionado. Hong Xiuquan didn’t just smoke opium - he had a dream that he was the half-brother of Jesus and destined to oust the sclerotic Qing dynasty.
The opium that was making its way to China at that time was an intentional ploy by the British to correct the horrible trade balance. British treasuries were running out of silver as British citizens consumed Chinese products - as well as Indian opium. This was a time when the dangers of the drug were little known - European companies were making profits off of their own population as much as they were off of the Chinese. Exacerbating the trade balance problem, the Chinese were loathe to buy anything that Britain had to offer. It took only a decade or so for British drugs to find their way into the blood of Chinese peasants, especially in the South. Corresponding silver left China and took up residence in London. This didn’t escape the notice of Chinese elites who, bloody after successfully defeating Hong Xiuquan’s rebellion, were completely unready for the Boxer rebellion or the subsequent brutal multi-national alliance that crushed it. The Boxers themselves were less than ideal heroes of any story - they were xenophobic and hidebound in their own way. Not everyone is a heroic rebel.
Digital, Spiritual Opium
An ex Google UX designer, Tristan Harris, runs a podcast about the nature of attention in our digital economy. He argues, with others, that the way we have built our tech products is tantamount to drugs. He uses the comparison of big tobacco occasionally, but the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t pull any punches. In a press release, the CCP has firmly stated that they consider one of the most profitable Chinese mobile gaming companies - Tencent - to be making little more than ‘spiritual opium’.
This is a bold and harsh claim in a country where the Century of Humiliation is still the undergirding justification for much of government policy.
China has very interestingly not chosen to ban Tencent from shipping its spiritual opium to other countries.
Wounding an elephant
America is currently flooded with fentanyl - the most powerful opioid ever synthesized. There is probably more than enough fentanyl in America to kill every adult a few times over. This powerful opiate is mostly manufactured in China and if one believes in the malicious intent of the CCP, it is a weapon intentionally aimed at destabilizing America from within.
But America has already been through a few opioid crises of its own - the early 1900s were an incredibly heroin-heavy time. In fact, heroin was seen as a savior from the depredations of opium. Heroin was a more ‘scientific’ and ‘pure’ form of the drug which would rid America of the opium den. Instead, it gave way to something even more horrifying.
It wasn’t just America either, nearly every industrialized nation in the early 1900s experimented heavily with drugs - and learned hard lessons about them. Even the famously anti-drug Nazis actually dosed their soldiers with meth. Part of what made the Blitzkrieg possible was lightning-in-a-bottle: amphetamines.
Once it became clear that selling drugs to your own populace is incredibly dangerous and has to be regulated - since it would lead to criminality and rebellion - countries turned to selling drugs to their neighbors instead. The CIA supposedly dabbled in it for some time. Nowadays, in southeast Asia, the blame likely lies with the Burmese government.
Oxford to Moulmein
In my first few years in Singapore, I lived on Oxford Road - in a lovely little set of apartments called Kentish Lodge. I was quite fond of durian - the bleu cheese of fruit - and some of the best stalls were just a short walk north on Moulmein road. I only knew about Moulmein - a city in Burma - because of Orwell’s story Shooting an elephant.
Orwell’s writing on imperialism is lovely and human. Although the story can come off as a bit of an apology for imperialism, I don’t find it to be offensively so. It is a meditation on power and how easily it dehumanizes everyone who comes in contact with it - wielder and target.
It is hard to imagine good things coming out of British colonialism in India, but Orwell is one of them - born in India and serving in the empire for a significant portion of his youth. He was the Bartoleme de las Casas of his era.
Understanding modernity is one of my lifelong missions. How different are we really from people 200 years ago? I thought I could understand it by tracing it back a bit and finding the pre-modern time - say the 1920s - and read all about it. I used to believe that modernity was characterized by the remix. Our ability to combine influences in music as if they were spices in a market gave rise to the music of our generation. Surely, that idea of remixing freely, was modern?
It wasn’t quite so - as you can see Tabrizi was a Persian-speaking poet who created an “Indian style”, remixing things he saw in the court of the Mughals. You can trace musical style similarly throughout the past millenium.
Now my answer is a bit different - modernity is humanity discovering power over its own taste. As I blogged before, I weirdly love far-right music, and some would argue that it is OK for me to enjoy it since I am divorcing it from its ideology by doing so. By enjoying it purely as an aesthetic, I strip it of its power over my true soul, while letting it play with my emotions. Modernity is this - our ability to detach emotion from an experience and perform both emotion and experience separately.