Record straight

Forgotten Indian history: The brutal Maratha invasions of Bengal

For medieval India history, incidents that don't fit into an overarching Hindu versus Muslim narrative tend to be removed from popular discourse. The 1741 Maratha invasion of Bengal is one such example.

Road names often have a story to tell. In Calcutta, given its long continuous history, even more so.  One of those is the curiously named Marhatta Ditch Lane in Baghbazar in North Calcutta.

The lane refers to an actual ditch built in the 1740s along what was then the northern extremity of Calcutta. Its purpose? To stop the marauding bands of Maratha cavalry who were pillaging Bengal at the time.

In 1741, the cavalry of Raghoji Bhosle, the Maratha ruler of Nagpur, started to pillage western Bengal under the command of Bhaskar Pandit. Bengalis called these Marathas “Bargis” which is a corruption of the Marathi word, "bargir" (etymology: Persian) which means “light cavalry”. Malik Ambar, the celebrated Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, had instituted the Deccan practice of guerrilla warfare, which at that time took the name bargir-giri. These swift hit-and-run guerrilla tactics became a part of the military heritage of the Deccan, being used to great effect by Shivaji and, eventually, by the Marathas against the hapless residents of Bengal.

Bargir-giri

In the 1740s, the bargir-giri of Bhosle’s army confounded the forces of Nawab Alivardi Khan, the ruler of Bengal. While the Bengali army tried its best and even defeated the Marathas in the few times they fought head-to-head, most of the time, the Maratha cavalry would simply skirt the Khan’s slow-moving infantry, being interested only in looting.

In the 10 years that they plundered Bengal, their effect was devastating, causing great human hardship as well as economic privation. Contemporary Dutch sources believed that the Bargis killed 4 lakh Bengalis and a great many merchants in western Bengal, writes historian PJ Marshal, "were permanently crippled by losses and extractions".

In the Maharashtra Purana, a poem in Bengali written by Gangaram, the poet describes the destruction caused by the raiders in great detail:
This time none escaped,
Brahmanas, and Vaisnavas, Sannyasis, and householders,
all had the same fate, and cows were massacred along with men.

So great was the terror of the Bargi that, in a Gabbar-esque twist, lullabies were composed in which mothers would use the fear of a Maratha raid to get their children to go to sleep. These poems are popular amongst Bengalis even today. One of them went something like this:
Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe 
Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?
Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi 

A very inelegant translation:

When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our country
Birds have eaten the grain, how shall I pay the tax (to the Bargi)?
All our food and drink is over, how shall I pay the tax?
Wait for a few days, I have sown garlic.

The ditchers of Calcutta

Not only did the Bargis loot the countryside, but in a sign of their effectiveness, managed to raid the capital of Bengal, Murshidabad and even sack the house of one of the richest Indians at the time, the Marwari banker, Jagat Seth.

In spite of this, the Marathas never did attack Calcutta, in all probability being paid off by the British. The ditch, though, did serve to provide citizens with a nickname: ditchers, i.e everyone who lived south of the ditch, in "proper" Calcutta. Eventually the ditch was filled up and was made into what is now Upper Circular Road.

After a decade of pillage, the Marathas eventually stopped their raids after the harried Nawab, accepting defeat, handed over Orissa to Raghoji Bhosle.

Past through the lens of the present

Of course, as Aakar Patel points out in his column, this history of the Marathas is usually never given popular currency. The Marathas are often portrayed as a proto-national force, acting as agents of either India or Hindu nationalism. This is a common tendency and modern nations often construct myths where they extend themselves back into time. Many Pakistanis imagine that its Islamic nationalism existed during the time of Qutb-ud-din Aibak and many Indians think that a Hindu nationalism was furthered by the Marathas looking to set up a – to use Vinayak Savarkar's term – "Hindu Pad Padshahi".

Ironically, the very phrase "Hindu Pad Padshahi" is taken entirely from the Persian language, showing how seamless the transition was from the so-called Muslim Deccan sultanates and the Mughals to the so-called Hindu Marathas. And, of course, such a simplistic view of history must also leave out pillaging bands of Marathas attacking a predominantly "Hindu" West Bengal even as a "Muslim" Nawab struggles to push them out. Today's India is so caught up with the binaries of "Hindu" and "Muslim" that it tends to see the past in those terms as well. But the past is a different country.

Note: an earlier version of this article referred to the existence of semaphore towers in Bengal being connected to the Bargi raids. This is incorrect and has been removed.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.