Shashi Warrier | Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the most civilized of 'em all?
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Shashi Warrier
A neighbour, an amateur historian, happens to believe that all good things come from India. The other day he dropped in, waving a small book. "Look what I got!" he said. "It’s the Lekhapaddhati!"
"What’s that?" I asked.
"It’s a set of model documents and letters from more than a millennium ago," he said. "It tells you how they wrote charters and mortgage deeds and passports and other legal papers in those days. It’s probably the first-ever manual on writing official documents, and it proves just how civilised India was!"
"India?" I asked. "As best I know, there was no India a millennium ago, just several hundred kingdoms in the area is that now India."
"Well, mostly Gujarat and bits of Rajasthan and bits of Madhya Pradesh," he said, making an effort to keep calm. "The areas ruled by the Chaulukyas. Around Pattan, in modern Gujarat. Not the Chalukyas of the Deccan."
"Ah!" I said. "And what do these papers show?"
"You can tell a lot from them," he replied. "They tell you about the organisation of government, crops, harvests, things like that."
"Harvests?" I asked.
"Of course," he replied as if I were mildly challenged. "Taxes came after harvests. They had a fiscal year, but tax collection was flexible to account for variations in weather. And there’s lots more. The documents cover the social hierarchy, and even family ties!"
"Family ties?" I asked, mystified.
"Yes!" he replied. "See? This tells you how to write a letter to your son or your son-in-law. It tells you how a loving husband wrote to his wife, or an angry one!" He pointed out an entry in the table of contents that said, "A Letter of the Displeased Husband to His Wife."
"Does it tell an angry wife how to write her husband?" I asked.
He paused. "Of course!" he said after he had taken time out to look through the contents. "There was gender equality even in those days." He pointed out an entry that said, "A Letter of an Angry Wife to Her Husband." He handed me the book. "Here you are," he said. "See for yourself!"
I took the book and flipped through the pages more or less at random, moving back and forth. There were two examples of documents about female slaves, one regarding a slave who had been captured and the other regarding a voluntary slave. "What’s this about slavery?" I asked.
"It was the norm for those days," he said, shrugging.
I found it hard to swallow the idea of a widespread norm because, as I remembered it, there wasn’t much contact between faraway kingdoms.
"Norm where?" I asked.
"Over most of the world," he said. "Europe. England of those days. Most of what we call the Americas now was far behind, as was Africa."
"Ah!" I said. "You said something about gender equality… How come there’s mention only of female slaves?"
"Well, they captured only women in raids," he said. "The men were all killed."
"What about boys?" I asked. "Male children?"
"We don’t really know," he said.
"That seems fairly barbarous to me," I said.
"But that was how it was in those days!" he said, getting a little heated.
I didn’t want to anger him so I let it slide and asked, instead, "What’s this about voluntary female slaves?"
"It’s actually a form of social security," he replied. "If bad weather or a natural disaster or a war or something left a woman with no assets, she always had the option of becoming a slave, with her owner being responsible for her well-being."
"And was there some way of ensuring that slaves were treated reasonably?" I asked.
"Two things," he said. "In the first place, we don’t know. Second, it went on all over the place in those days. You see, slavery was probably better than begging or dying, which were the only two alternatives available."
I kept flipping the pages, and stopped when another interesting title caught my eye. "Letter to a Servant", it went. I couldn’t help saying, "Well, if they taught their servants to read and write they must have been very civilised indeed!"
"Don’t be silly!" he said. Apparently he knew what I was talking about. "The title of that letter is misleading. The servant is not a house servant but an employee in someone’s business. It’s not as if they taught their housemaids to read."
I checked. Sure enough, the letter was to a man who ran a part of the business, telling him not to do anything that would harm the business or let rascals into the premises. I said, "So they thought of office employees as personal servants. That doesn’t seem very civilised!"
"Well," he said, shrugging, "it was the norm..."
Then, flipping more pages, I found a chapter heading that went, "Ordeals as Usual". I looked it up and discovered matter-of-fact comments on ordeals to be used in the absence of evidence. After I read some bits about having people hold hot ploughshares in their hands I couldn’t read any further so I handed it to him to read, which he did. When he was done, he looked up and said, "Well, it was what they did," he said, irritated. "Not just in those days but even today, when they put you in jail for sedition."
"But that’s not fair, is it?" I asked.
He seemed to take umbrage, for he put the book in his bag and rose to leave, muttering something about spoilsports and traitors, and as I closed the gate behind him I wondered why I ended up more confused each time he came visiting.