Friday, July 25, 2008

Excerpt Of The Day

This is from Barrington Moore's canonical Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. The relevant passage (pp. 350-51) deals with Indian customs that "deeply offended British consciences."
One of the latter was sati (also spelled suttee), the term for the custom of burning or otherwise killing a widow as soon as her husband died. It revolted many British. In Bengal generally a widow "was usually tied to the corpse, often already putrid; men stood by with poles to push her back in case the bonds should burn through and the victim, scorched and maimed, should struggle free." In the vast majority of cases, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the woman went to the flames in fear and horror. Many people know the remark of one famous British officer in the 1840s, in reply to Brahmans who argued that sati was a national custom: "My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them...Let us all act according to national customs."

Of course the English also used to hang women for being witches as recently as a hundred years before this exchange, but who wants to let facts get in the way of a great line like that?

Anyway, speaking of widows, did you guys know that the word "raand" (which is either the origin of, or the technical term for, "randi" [whore]) means "widow"? As I told NB the other day in an email (for some reason, we were discussing the same thing) "examine for yourself the cultural connotations of associating one whose husband has died, with one who places her body on the open market for the sexual gratification of others. A woman is simply assumed to - nay, damned to - be of little virtue and possess no moral compass whatsoever in the absence of a Man to make sure the woman is Good."


Rabia said...

The famous British officer was none other Sir Charles Napier aka the patron saint of Napier House at kgs

Anonymous said...

what about "houri" and "whore"?

Ahsan said...


Hahaha thank you for that. That is very useful, and ultimately very ironic, information.


What about it? I have no idea what "houri" is.

Farooq said...

Aren't "hoors" what they say a Muslim man is entitled to in the afterlife. Those 8 hoors or something? I really hope you get to choose what they look like. If i receive confirmation that their physical features are totally dependent on the man's choice, I'll make sure i memorize a Victoria's Secrets catalogue before on my death bed.

Ahsan said...

Won't that make burying you, uh, kind of awkward?

Fatima said...

*cracks up* (at victoria secret comment)

on a side note that is actually very interesting. how did you discover that word?

ali said...

have you guys seen 'the wicker man'? the old school version, not nicholas cage shage...

Ahsan said...


Are you asking about "houri" or "raand"?


I had no idea that there was such a thing as "the wicker man", much less that there was an old school version of it.

ali said...


watch the wicker man

Fatima said...

i was asking about the word raand.

Ahsan said...


Instead of typing it all again, I will copy and paste the relevant portions of my email to NB on the same topic a few days ago.

"I think Nikhil used it quite a bit, but we were roommates in college four years ago, and he doesn't use it all that much anymore, if at all. I suppose one can only conclude that cultural osmosis takes time, yes?


Second, you will note that I only know the preceding fact - the Hindustani "widow" bit - because I took a class in my first year at U of C called "The Hindu-Urdu Language Controversy" which traversed the social and political implications of the duel between the respective languages in British India during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. One of the regular assignments for that class was to translate a short primary source passage into English from either Hindi or Urdu. This was normally a group assignment, but only one person would actually read it out loud for the class (obviously).

We were on one occasion given an assignment (in Hindi, as I recall) which contained the word "raand". I, having recently roomed with Nikhil, told the room that it means "whore". This was duly noted by the poor girl who was supposed to translate it the next morning. Which she sure enough did.

When she got to the relevant portion of the passage, she paused momentarily before pronouncing the word "whore". The class was a little stunned but not overly so, because such language while not altogether common was hardly unheard of in some of the more virulent passages we read (among other items, we read letters written by Hindu nationalist leaders from the 19th century decrying the use of Faarsi in the courts). The professor, quite naturally, chose to interrupt to inform her that she was incorrect, and the word actually meant "widow". It was then that I drew the obvious connection - that our present day usage of the term is a vile, patriarchal, and judgmental derivative of a quite innocuous word.

There were a number of red faces."

Nikhil said...

just so you know that i didn't make it up:

And how come no one has brought up the (potential) connection to the english word, "randy," i.e., waqas was feeling quite randy yesterday.

Ahsan said...

I think you meant to post:

Also, poor Waqas. Luckily for him, I don't think he reads the blog, Farooq's consistent efforts notwithstanding.