Of Dice and Men

I have now discovered Do not get angry, Dude in Germany along w/ a commemorative stamp. It was invented by the clerk Josef Friedrich Schmidt (1871-1948) for his three children and then commercialized in 1914.

[originally published Aug 30, 2005 @ 9:03]
This falls squarely in the well-established tradition, here at CM, of wasting time. Raven’s post on Ludo [which you should also go read] made me really curious about the history of this board game most Americans know as Parcheesi.

The game has many names: Pachisi or Chaupar being the ancient Indian/ medieval Mughal names [there is some difference in the rules for the two], and Parcheesi or Ludo being the American/colonial ones. Essentially it is a dice game, with cogs for players, five safety points [traditionally arranged with four points of the compass and the center of the earth], with the objective being to reach the safety points while taking out the cogs of your competitors. The origin of the game is a tad mystical. It is Duryodhana’s deception at this dice game, which emulates the realm of earth as its board, that sets up the epic war of Mahabharata. I will allow Mughal historian and chronicler Abu’l Fazl to set the stage:

Duryodhana was beside himself at the sight of their sovereign splendour, and the pangs of envy drove him more distraught. With deceptive intent, he held a festival and invited the Pandavas and proposed a game of chaupar, playing himself, with cogged dice. By this means he won all they possessed. The last stake was made on the condition that if the Pandavas won, they should recover all that they had lost, but if otherwise, they were to quit the royal dominions and wander in the wilds for twelve years in the garb of mendicants after which they might return to civilised life for a year, and so conduct themselves that none should know them. If this last particular were infringed, they would have to pass a similar period of twelve years in the forests. Unsuspecting foul play, their uprightness brought them to ruin.

Let’s go from the realm of gods to those of men. Herodotus claimed that Lydians invented dice while Socrates thinks the Egyptians did. Both are obviously wrong because dice, as you may or may not know, was invented by one of our common ancestors named Javihm who found some knuckle bones lying outside the cave while he was recuperating from a nasty case of poison ivy. More interesting is the case of the “board game”. Leslie Kurke in Ancient Greek Board Games and How to Play Them mentions two games which I found interesting, polis and pente grammai – both involving a lined board, throwing dices, moving pieces and capturing pieces. In the case of polis, Kurke maintains that the board resembled the layout of the city. The pachisi board, like I said, takes the idea of the polis but to the global scale.

In terms of archeological evidence, we have the ancient game of Pa‚àö¬±ca[game of five], found in Tamil, with a board with five safe spots, player tokens that moved across the board after the roll of dice. However, the board here could be of any shape [and was often in any shape]. It is conjectured that this earlier board travelled all the way to Egypt to become the Dogs and Jackals Game, as well as Snakes and Ladder, which, in turn, gave us the Game of Goose and Chutes and Ladder. The board with the four points of the compass symmetry of Pacisi spread to Ceylon [panca], Korea [nyout], Vietnam etc. There is some controversy around E. B. Tylor’s claim that the ancient Aztec game of Patolli is also related.

Anyways, back to Pachisi, Chaupar and to the medieval/early modern era. Akbar, the Great Mogal King [as I like to call him], was a big fan of Chaupar. In his capital at Fatehpur Sikri was a courtyard which doubled as a Chaupar board and on which the life-sized game was played in the King’s attendance [those fetching kaneezis being the gotis]. Here and here are a couple of contemporary pictures. Just as Akbar was a big fan of the game [or maybe because Akbar was a big fan of the game], there was wide popularity for the game [I love that painting]. In folklores of Sindh and Punjab are many tales of the game being played amongst wily and cunning opponents. The hardcore players kept the cloth board rolled up in their pagris and hats. The pieces [got] were often carved out of wood [or ivory for the fancy folks] and dyed in red, green, yellow or black colors. I’d imagine that this was a great source of entertainment for travellers, and wayfarers. It also caught the fancy of the colonials. Here is a photograph taken by William Chapin in the early part of the twentieth century. India, being timeless and all, I am sure that their medieval counterparts behaved much in the same way.

Selchow & Righter, the American board-game company, trademarked Pachisi as Parcheesi and started marketing it as a children’s game in 1868 or so. It had reached England a few years earlier but by the 1920s, it was marketed as Ludo [latin for “to play, sport /imitate, banter /delude, deceive”]. Ludo was the version I grew up with.

So, there you have it. A game of chance played on a board of the world. Wasting my time….

Future of the Textbook

WBA Bob Stein was kind enough to invite me to a conversation with the historians (Stephen Brier, Joshua Brown, Ellen Noonan, Penee Bender) who wrote and maintain Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History. The first edition of that text was accompanied by a CD-ROM which was designed by Bob Stein’s company (with the world’s first crossword, no less). That CD-ROM was built using Hypercard and Quicktime, and sadly is no-longer functional (at least the Hypercard bits but probably the QT codecs as well).

The question: How can we re-think that textbook, now in its third edition, along with its interactive/multimedia components, now?

More than anything, I was amazed by, and greatly admired, the intellectual honesty and willingness to re-think central assumptions at display in the meeting. The little bits and pieces of the oral history of the project that I picked up, made me realize how incredibly “safe” my generation of historians has become. These graduate students who wrote the first edition were also the editorial board of Radical History Review – intent on re-telling the history of America, from the perspective of the ordinary Americans. Their emphasis on multimedia was precisely to enable wider dissemination of history beyond the traditional classroom.

In a sense, the vision of teaching history through multimedia, to spread it outside of the classroom, is now a reality. The archives of Google, Flickr, Youtube are crammed with amazing historical artifacts. More importantly, a highly synthetic account of history (of whatever kind) exists within easy grasp at Wikipedia. Given this landscape, what next?

To really re-think the textbook, one has to be able to jettison the very model of a unitary text. The textbook should be constantly evolving, socially networked, modular entity that can easily transport across various media and delivery devices, from print to web to ipod/iphone etc. It should allow various points of entry, the ability to restructure one’s own narrative, to compile and comment modules as desired. In essence, it should be truly interactive.

My only contribution to the conversation was to insist that a XML encoded, micro-formatted and tagged base-structure will allow not only future-proofing the product but its ability to take on different forms. Along the same lines, is the imperative to stay away from other “closed” or “silo” systems of delivery. But what of the need to have the product look good? How does one provide a working structure that can handle everything from a scanned pdf to a youtube video? Consider that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – one of the best examples of expertly produced on-line compendiums – is severely limited in its aesthetic appeal. Perhaps intentionally so.

This textbook has have visual appeal, it must render text in a clear and legible (and readable) format, and it has to incorporate digital, visual media seamlessly. The web, for all its wonder, is horribly unsuitable to delivering even “good looking” print. Hence, the need for controlled environments like the PDF or Flash or QuickTime etc. My suggestion would be to do both – have a nice looking text built in, say Sophie, but also a vanilla Media-wiki incarnation.

Easier said than done, of course.

The conversation spurred me to think back on the dream of having a South Asia Sourcebook – a collection of primary materials for teachers of South Asia. Now that I have more time (theoretically), I want to really focus on cranking it out.

I am eager to listen in, and watch, the conversations about WBH, as they develop. Hopefully, they will have me back.

Guha’s Burden

At Madison, Ram Guha gave a thoroughly entertaining talk on contemporary history. It was filled with nice anecdotes, pointed criticisms of “establishment” histories and historians, and a genuinely felt call for new directions in history writing. It was also overly broad, had outdated generalizations, mis-characterized historiographical developments and seemed a bit too caustic. I didn’t take any notes during the talk – eager to simply enjoy the spectacle. So, I didn’t comment on it here. I don’t want to misquote the man.

Thankfully, I learned from Rohit that he had published an article, The Challenge of Contemporary History,” Economic & Political Weekly, June 28, 2008, which seems to contain the full text of his remarks at Madison. It allows me to make the one point that occurred to me during his talk.

He writes (and said)

The overwhelming importance in the academy of that single date, August 15, 1947, has led to a paradox – namely, that while India is the most interesting country in the world, we know very little about its modern history. And what we do know about independent India is chiefly the work of sociologists, economists, political scientists, and journalists – not historians. In fact, the works of history, properly so-called, on any aspect of India since 1947 are so few that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or, at most, two.

(Footnote: These works are cited at appropriate places in this essay. I speak here only on books in English – as it happens, scholars writing in Marathi have written important works of contemporary history, that is, on Maharashtrian society and politics since 1947. Notably, these scholars – among them Dhananjay Keer, Kumar Ketkar, and Y D Phadke – have worked for the most part outside the academy.)

He didn’t read that footnote in his talk. “… [O]nly on books in English” rankled me, as it did the peanut gallery in which I sat. It is no small point to ignore the production of history in Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali etc. etc. Especially, if one’s entire argument is on contemporary history. Pakistan, for example, can be cited as a case-study of doing only contemporary history – for reasons entirely political. There are scores upon scores of Urdu histories – some even by prominent academic historians such as Mubarak Ali, Muhammad Aslam, K. K. Aziz etc. And if we really want to just stick with English, go check out GC University Lahore’s history faculty. Their bi-annual research magazine, Khaldunia seems to have 2 out of 5 essays devoted to post- 1947 history (3, if you count the Hussain’s article). He also bemoans the lack of modern regional histories. Again, if there is one abundance in Urdu/Sindhi/Pushtu, it is of regional histories, be they of Sindh, Punjab, Swat etc. The majority focusing specifically on the modern period. I would venture a guess that the same is true, if we check a bookstore in Mysore.

Next, Guha points out the dearth of biography. But again, only if we (for unknown reasons) stick to English. In his talk he mentions Fatima Jinnah as one individual ignored by historians. He cites that in Ayesha Jalal’s book on Jinnah, there is no entry in the index on Fatima. But, here is the deal, Guha ji. Fatima Jinnah has had numerous, numerous, histories and biographies written in Urdu. One on my desk, right now, is Shakir Husain Shakir’s “محترمه فاطمه جناح :‏ ‏حيات و فكر” (Respected Fatima Jinnah: Life and Thought), published in 2003 and a hefty 250 pages. WorldCat lists another twelve titles – all in Urdu, as early as 1963 and as late as 2007. Let’s just ignore Ayesha Jalal on this one.

It is “academic fashion” which propels the anglophile US-based historian, according to Guha, to write solely on the colonial period. I won’t necessarily quarrel with that. I have said as much regarding the medieval periods. However, one gets the feeling that it is also “academic fashion” which propels Guha’s criticism. The site of the contrarian is a privileged site; especially, if one gets to define the terrain. The reality, however, is that the historiography of South Asia is larger than the Bengal-centric Subaltern Studies collective, and it is larger still than the US-based academics. Guha seems more interested in straw men, sacred cows and paper tigers, than the contours of current scholarship – whether in vernacular or in English.

My one point aside, EPW also carried a pointed critique of Guha’s essay by Nivedita Menon, The Historian and ‘His’ Others: A Response to Ramachandra Guha [pdf]. It is an excellent read and Menon takes Guha to task not only on his treatment of feminist historians and history but also on his engagement with history, itself. Less pointed engagements come from Sasheej Hegde, The Demands of Contemporary History: A Comment [pdf], and Nonica Datta, A ‘Samvad’ with Ramachandra Guha [pdf link]. All worth your time, if you go for such things. Finally, I want to draw your attention to Rohit’s Ramachandra Guha’s peculiar conservatism which deals more broadly with Guha’s intellectual burdens in the recent past.

Rohit’s post made me realize that Guha is, in broad circles, the historian du jour – combatively staking out a space distinct from the US-based academics. One is also reminded of his spat with William Dalrymple – which was particularly snarky. There is a certain air of “outsider-ness” that he projects – in his writings, and then, in his talk – from the “in-crowd”. Rhetorically, he turns the tables and argues that it is the “other” (Dipesh Chakrabarty or William Dalrymple) who are out of the club while he is with the people. For all I know, it might all be true. Guha may indeed know the soil of India better than those others. He may indeed have the goodness of history in his heart. The only thing I ask, as a historian, is that he present a forthright case without making swift generalizations and side snipes. It is a heavy burden to bear – speaking about the general state of history and history-writing for a complex nation-state and people. But he is the one who chose to do so, not me.