about Chapati Mystery

Chapatis Explained

Sirajuddin Khan-i Arzu (1687 – 1756), the lexicographer, in his Navadir al-Alfaz (Rare Words):1)

چپاتی : در غرائب اللغات “نان تنک که بر تابه از دست پزند.” در اصل چاپاتی لفظ فارسی است ، چپات در فارسی طپانچه است و چون آن را به ضرب کف پزند چپاتی گویند. لیکن در کتب معتبره فارسی چپاتی نان فطیر که به چپات یعنی دست پهن کرده پزند و بعضی گویند الف برای ضرورت شعر است. و در اصل چاپاتی است و اغلب که بدین معنی نوشته غیر چپاتی است چنانکه شهرت دارد

Chapati : In [Abdul Hansvi's] Gharaib al-lughat : ‘thin bread cooked on a pan with the hand’. Originally a Persian word; chapaat in Persian is a blow/slap and since it is cooked with palm blows, they call it chapaati. However, in reliable Persian texts ‘chapaati’ means unleavened bread that is cooked with ‘chapaat’ or spread hands. Some say the ‘alef’ fulfills a prosodic requirement but it is originally chapaati and most usages in the latter sense refer to something other than to chapaati in the familiar meaning.

– My thanks to Parshant K. for the reference.

1857: The Year of the Chapatis

In late 1856, rumors swept across northern India about a new rifle being used by the East India Company – the Lee-Enfield Rifle. The rifle’s ammunition was carried in a paper-wrapped cartridge with the powder and ball. The paper was greased to be water-proof. For a single-hand load, the soldier would tear the cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder down the muzzle, put the ball in the muzzle, shove it with the ramrod, aim and fire. For demonstration, watch Barry Lyndon or go to your local Civil War Re-Enactement. Yes, the Lee-Enfield was the gun used during the Civil War.

The cartridges were produced in Fort Williams, Calcutta and supplied to the depots where instructions were handed out in their usage. One depot in Calcutta, Dum Dum [later giving its name to the bullet developed there], was the source in early 1857 of rumors that the grease used to water-proof the paper was made up of a mixture of cow and pig fat. The Commanding officers immediately tried to spread the word that it was mutton-fat and wax, but the news was spreading out across the land that biting the cartridge wrapper would desecrate both the Brahmin Hindus and the Muslim sepoys in the East India Company army.

The British feared that this news was spreading and the sepoys were mobilizing for a revolt. But how? They suspected that villages across India were using chapatis (flat, round indian bread) to hand-delivered from village to village – especially in Awadh and Bengal – to organize themselves. The secret paper messages were baked inside the chapati, they imagined.

In any case, the result was the Uprising of 1857.

Postcolonial authors have tried to discern the meaning behind the chapatis, as well – though they remain mysterious to this day.

Sepoy Explained

* Sephai = sepoy. [ad. (prob. through Pg. sipae) Urdu = Pers. sipahi, horseman, soldier, f. sipah army. Cf. F. cipaye. A native of India employed as a soldier under European, esp. British, discipline. (OED)

Chapati Mystery Explained

This blog takes its motto, cheekily, from Homi Bhabha’s essay, “In a Spirit of Calm Violence”, in Gyan Prakash (ed), After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements. Princeton University Press, 2001. pp. 332-336:

It is at the point of the omen’s obscurity, not in the order of the symbol but in the temporal break of the sign that the interrogative che vuoi of agency emerges: What is the vertiginous chapati saying to me? The “indeterminate” circulation of meaning as rumor or conspiracy, with its perverse, psychic affects of panic constitutes the intersubjective realm of revolt and resistance. What kind of agency is constituted in the circulation of the chapati?

It is at the enunciative level that the humble chapati circulates both a panic of knowledge and power. The great spreading fear, more dangerous than anger, is equivocal, circulating wildly on both sides. It spreads beyond the knowledge of ethnic or cultural binarisms and becomes a new, hybrid space of cultural difference in the negotiation of colonial power-relations. Beyond the barracks and the bungalow opens up an antagonistic, ambiguous area of engagement that provides, in a perverse way, a common battleground that gives the Siphai* a tactical advantage.

Reader’s Report:

Chapati Mystery is one of my favorite blogs; there is always something to stretch the mind. Anon.

The best thing about your blog is just showing up there, like the local-chai-shop-extended-into-manan’s-living-room, ordering some chai and then listening in on whatever adda is going on. PD

Naw, CM is all chicken, all the way. RG

Chapati Mystery (est. 2004), a “quaint” publication, started out wondering what T. E. Lawrence and Bhagat Singh would talk about, over dinner. It kinda went downhill from there. Over the last eight years, you would have read examples of ‘Cool History’ from South Asia ['cool' being a subjective term, here], wrong analysis of US domestic politics [I thought Kerry would win], many, many rants against journalists and historians who write about Islam, Middle East or South Asia, some sober assessments on Pakistan’s political and religious scene, a few ruminations about public intellectuals and digital history and finally enough snark to overcome a room full of Wicker Park hipsters. Do be aware that CM’s only qualified expertise is in medieval South Asian history. You should take our guided tour.

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  1. His ‘corrections’ and explication of Abdul Hansvi’s late seventeenth century work, Gharaib al-Lughat (Unusual Words []

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