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Merchants of avarice

In Othello, Shakespeare refers to a base Indian who threw away a pearl worth more than his tribe. Through rampant mining today, we are doing exactly that.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2011 22:46 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

India in Shakespeare?

Sounds far-fetched but no, India had snuggled neatly into the edges of the playwright's consciousness, giving him delicious turns of phrase and flashes of imagery. Until recently only Shakespeare pundits would have been able to tell us exactly how many times India figures in Shakespeare's plays, and how he handles 'Ind' or the East Indies.

Today, Google makes a Shakespeare search frightfully easy. But rummaging my daughter's shelves the other day I landed on a fresh edition of the 19th century masterpiece, the Shakespeare Lexicon by Alexander Schmidt revised in 1901 by Gregor Sarrazin. It helped me find India in Shakespeare faster than I could say A Midsummer Night's Dream. Well, almost.

Intrigued by the line in which Puck talks of: 'A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king…' I probed the entries in Schmidt and Sarrazin to find 'India' occurs in six of Shakespeare's plays, 'Indian' in six as well, 'Indies' in five, 'Ind' or 'Inde' in three.

When Shakespeare was at the crest of his creative genius, the East India Company (EIC) was getting shiploads of spices and spiced-up stories from the land of the pearl-pendanted Akbar and, later, the diamond-dripping Jehangir. Part-fact and part-fiction, these accounts were exotic enough to stun listeners and stir creative minds like Shakespeare's to make new meaning out of them. Stealing, and plain venal thuggery, was practised by early travellers who two-timed their opportunity to not just dupe Indian hosts but cheat the EIC too. So it would have been no surprise if one like Captain William Hawkins or John Mildenhall (on whose dramatic life a feature film waits to be made) had witnessed 'a lovely boy stolen from an Indian king' to be brought to England as a showpiece, like some rough diamond or pearl of incredible shape.

Does that mean Shakespeare knew 'his' India? No. It means he was aware of it. He had a dewey sense of India as a place with a mystique that preceded news of its physicality, reports of its social puzzles, accounts of its political riddles.

But it's remarkable how vital merchandising, minerals and mining are to his vision of Ind. And, of course gems, pearls in particular.

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio asks :

'But is it true, Salerio? Have all his ventures fail'd? What, not one hit?

From Tripolis, from Mexico and England,

From Lisbon, Barbary and India?'

A venture capitalist or looker-out of foreign direct investments in India today would say 'There! India was bang on the trade maps of even Elizabethan and Jacobean England along with the great ports of call in Europe'.

But - no prizes for guessing this - Shakespeare cared a 'doit' for trade, British, Indian or otherwise. Indian gems, Indian gold and Indian boys, stolen or sold, were for him perceived, howsoever dimly, as transactions of the large business of life, India included, where fortunes are made or squandered.

That India had led to new maps being drawn in the 16th and 17th centuries, new sea-routes inked, can be imagined. Shakespeare tells us that through the words of Maria in Twelfth Night.

'Maria: He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map

with the augmentation of the Indies:

you have not seen such a thing as 'tis.'

In Henry IV comes the memorable lines:

In faith, he is a worthy gentleman;

Exceedingly well-read, and profited

In strange concealments; valiant as a lion,

And wondrous affable, and as bountiful

As the mines of India.

Only a self-absorbed Indian metallurgist or a PR agent of the Bellary brothers would crow over this quote to say 'See! Shakespeare himself has acknowledged the limitlessness of our minerals, has equated India with mining'.

But the fact remains that Shakespeare's India was one where precious metals, rare objects, pearls growing to rounded purity in their oyster-clasps, were to be found at every step, stumble or dive.

In Troilus and Cressida, comes the gleaming line in brine: 'Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl…'

I am surprised the line has not been used and re-used by jewellers in India to sell the white wonder.

But the pearl figures very differently in Othello.

In the climactic bed-chamber scene, Othello says:

'Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought

Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…'

What had Shakespeare heard, which legend or fable, what epic passage, what ballad, in which an Indian, base of nature or debased in action had thrown what 'pearl' away that was worth more than all his tribe? I doubt if we will ever know.

No Akbar in pendants of pearl rules India now, no Jehangir dripping diamonds. But we do have our Mildenhalls, dripping avarice.

In his speech at the Central Hall of Parliament on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of our Republic, President KR Narayanan quoted this line from Othello. There was much talk then of reviewing the Constitution of India. Asking us not to throw the pearl away, he famously posed the question: 'Has the Constitution failed us or have we have failed the Constitution?'

Today, when 'the mines of India' (to use Shakespeare's phrase), are under serious discussion and forests are seen as obstructions to progress, a question that needs to be asked is: Has the environment failed us or are we failing the environment? We should be aware of certain recommendations made to the Group of Ministers set up to resolve the vexed issue of coal mining in forests. One reported recommendation is that coal mining projects should be given automatic clearance, with exceptions made for 'dense' areas. Who will decide what is 'dense'? Certainly not the trees, not the tribals living in it, least of all their wild life. Another recommendation is that powers to give forest clearances be withdrawn from official agencies and vested in the project proponent.

Are forests holding up coal mining? The Centre for Science and Environment tells us coal mines have accounted for more than half of the forestland diverted for mining and industrial purposes in the last five years. If we continue to do so we will be throwing that away which is richer than all that coal can fire.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.