Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Two Darjeeling horsemen: one Hindi mystery

Amongst a small treasure trove of old photos my grandfather left is one blurry picture which holds a small mystery.

It took me a little time to work out exactly what was in front of me, but a few things are certain – and a few things are not.

One of the horsemen in the picture is my grandfather Frederick George Marsh and the second person is the visitor who sent the picture to him.

Fred was born in South Australia in 1891 and made his way to Darjeeling in 1912. He began working for tea planting pioneer Claud Bald in January 1913 and in 1917 married Margaret, Claud’s eldest daughter. After serving his apprenticeship as assistant manager under Claud’s guidance he became manager of Phoobsering Tea Estate – one of the oldest in the area – in April 1919.

The picture was taken in front of the old house at Phoobsering. Another clearer picture of the house and Fred confirm this.

The first picture is too unclear to recognise Fred’s face, though he is probably the one on the right. The fellow the left seems to have a more prominent jaw than Fred. In addition, the horse on the right looks more like Fred’s horse Dumarsingh which he had about this time. Here is Fred on Dumarsingh.

There is a note on the back of the blurry photo which reads as follows:

“your homestead

yourself and a visitor”

This confirms what we’ve been able to work out. But then follows two ‘squiggles’ which at first I thought were the undecipherable signature of the person who sent the picture to Fred. 

On taking a second look, I thought the writing may be Hindi. So, I asked a former colleague, Dr Peter Friedlander, who teaches Hindi what he thought of the two markings.  He responded quickly to say that they do look like Hindi, “the first is perhaps ‘ma’ and the second is I am sure a ‘ra’.” 

But what do they mean? 

Apparently, nothing. But they must have meant something to the two fellows in the picture! The tea planters were fluent in the local languages so this part is no mystery. The other fellow is probably also a tea planter but could have been another professional or a minister. So, what are the options?  I can only think of the following:

  • The words signified something about the writer. Perhaps it’s a rough approximation of the pronunciation of the writer’s name – O’Mara or at a stretch Meagher?
  • They represented something in common between the two. Perhaps a war-cry of the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles to which they were both obliged to belong? This is more of a stretch as there is nothing to suggest that the unit had a war cry and. In any case, a war cry usually had a meaning and these two characters together seem to have no meaning.

At the moment the mystery remains. There is nothing else in the little treasure box which includes written Hindi and no other pictures which resemble the dapper visitor.

Let me know if you have any ideas.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Jesus: the most significant person in history?

In 2013 computer scientist Steven Skiena and the Google engineer Charles Ward published Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank. The book ranks historical figures in order of significance.

Skiena and Ward compared all English language Wikipedia articles against five criteria. The idea was that to measure the current fame of each subject. The results were then modified to compensate for a skewing of data toward more recent subjects, arriving at true likely historical significance.

The aim was to be purely quantitative. This sounds admirable but could it be verified? The writers compared their results to various other rankings and do a good job of showing that their more dispassionate approach has advantages. 

The main limitation is that results are skewed towards the English-writing world.

So, who comes out on top? 

Remember, 'significance' is not the same as 'admirable' – or even ‘great’. The top five entries on the list are:
  • Jesus,
  • Napoleon,
  • Mohammed,
  • William Shakespeare, and
  • Abraham Lincoln.

Many of these same five turn up in other lists as well.

Passover / Easter season is a good time to consider the significance of the person at the top of the list: Jesus of Nazareth.

More books have been written about Jesus than anyone else in history. 184 are listed on goodreads Listopia ‘Books about Jesus. But this list is really only currently available books. 

Hundreds more have been written over the centuries. Is it possible that there is now nothing more to say on the subject? I doubt it.

Every generation will reinterpret any historical figure, and this is more so for a person whose name evokes controversy. Each age has its own special interests and 'lenses' through which sees the past. New events will also often colour a reassessment of the past. 

So – the past is here to stay.

Skiena and Ward point out that Jesus is the only person for whom they have no birth and death date. 

We may never have these questions settled for sure but it is always possible that new archaeological and historical research will have more to say on the subject.

Most people now accept that Jesus could not have been born on 25 December in any year. For one thing, no wise shepherd would be outside in the winter's cold and for another the date was chosen centuries after the event. 

There are a couple of plausible theories on Jesus actual birth date, late September seeming most likely.

As for his death, commemorated at this time of year, there are apparently good reasons for believing that it was a Thursday, some even postulate a Wednesday. The year of his death seems to be either 33 or 30. At the moment 4 April 30 AD looks most plausible.

Dr James D. Tabor has a series of posts that look at the week leading up to Jesus death, touching on many of the mysteries this convergence of Jewish and Christian traditions and memories of Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem have stirred. 

Dr Tabor was Professor of ancient Judaism and early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, where he has taught since 1989. His work on early Christianity has been a life-long passion and he offers a number of fresh and thoughtful perspectives.

Three of his six books are relevant to the topic; The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (2006); The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (with Simcha Jacobovici) (2012), and most recently Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (2012).

Interestingly, Tabor himself doesn’t rank Jesus as the most significant person in western history.

Who is his nomination? Paul. Because it was Paul who ‘invented’ Jesus as we tend to know him today. 

Skiena and Ward rank Paul as the 34th most significant person in history – still pretty important of course.

In Christianity Before Paul Tabor points out that Paul never met Jesus. It was not until seven years after Jesus’ death, that Paul reports his vision of ‘Christ’ whom he identifies with Jesus raised from the dead.

It was another three years later that Paul met the apostles Peter and James then leader of the ‘Jesus movement’. Paul operated independently of the original apostles, teaching his ‘Gospel’, in Turkey for another 10 years before making a return trip to Jerusalem around 50 AD.

As the result of Paul, it was the way Jesus came into the world, and how he left — Christmas and Easter — that came to re-define Christianity.

For James, Jesus brother, the Christian message was not the person of Jesus but the message that Jesus proclaimed. What is preserved in the Book of James is a reflection of the original apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus: the ‘Gospel of the kingdom of God’ with its political and social implications.

Model of the Jerusalem Temple complex at the time of Jesus and Paul

Thursday, 6 April 2017

‘You’ve always been a bit oversensitive’

One of the tools for self-understanding is to consider what people said of you when you were a child. 

While I was tagged as sensitive from time to time, I suppressed that idea until recently. So, I went to Dr Google, and saw several mentions of the book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine N. Aron.

Aron was the first to identify the trait as such though she credits earlier observation of the trait to Carl Jung and seems also attracted to his methods of becoming aware of the trait in yourself.

It isn't the answer to everything, but I did learn something about myself. The trait is not uncommon and it’s not an illness. Great! 

Aron opens her book with the following quote which highlights her tone: supportive and optimistic.

“I believe in aristocracy, though -- if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.”  E.M. ForsterTwo Cheers for Democracy

Are you one?

Aron’s book offers a series of questions to help to discover if this may be your trait. For example:

  •         Do you have a keen imagination and vivid dreams? 
  •         Is time alone each day as essential? 
  •         Are you ‘too sensitive’ according to others? 
  •         Do noise and confusion quickly overwhelm you? 
  •         Do you take a long time to make a decision?

Most people feel overstimulated every once in a while, but for the HSP, it can be a way of life. Aron is a psychotherapist and highly sensitive person herself and her book shows how to identify this trait and make the most of it in everyday situations.

Aron wants us to know that:
  • The trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population.
  • It is innate. It reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting.
  • HSPs are more aware than others of subtleties.
  • Without the stimulation, HSPs are bored.
  • But with too much, we are also more easily overwhelmed.
  • This trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood.

Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy’. But shyness says Aron, is learned, not innate. In fact, she says, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion.

She also points out that sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told ‘don’t be so sensitive’ so that they feel abnormal. Her overly simple description of different cultures was disappointing, but the book is general in nature and comparative cultures is not her main focus. A deeper study of this application of the idea may be illuminating, however.

It is also be a useful concept for historians, and biographers, to have in mind. It may be a forgotten element for understanding why some people behave the way they do.

But Aron’s focus is to provide advice to the individual and also to parents and employers (and slightly less convincingly to GPs). 

A review of past situations can often confirm that reactions and behaviours are/were ‘informed’ (actually misinformed) by being an HSP.

Strategies for living
Aron suggests that HSPs can gain confident self-awareness by reframing some of their life experiences to take account of the HSP status.

One more positive note came to mind. Early in my administrative career, I had a supervisor who worked through some now forgotten issue with me. At the conclusion of the discussion about how I could deal with situations more effectively in the future, he concluded with ‘I don’t mind if you make mistakes, just make new ones.’ It was both humorous and empowering and reflected his own inner confidence and understanding of people.

The strategies Aron suggested which I have found useful are:
  •          Take a break to reframe and digest. Breathe deeply, rest or walk.
  •          Identify my abilities and talk about them.
  •          Avoid indecision by acknowledging that I can’t do everything but do need to do something.
  •          Forget the idea of ‘failure’, life is a learning process.
  •          Do a monthly review of achievements.
  •          Don’t be a perfectionist.
  •          Vocation is a balance of personal ‘bliss’ with wider community need.
  •          Reframe childhood and career events in light of this information especially those previously seen as ‘failures’.

Aron also suggests the intriguing idea of ‘re-parenting’ oneself. Aron’s suggestion here is how you ‘talk’ to yourself. The ideas can help with self-management and will be useful for people managers and teachers/rabbis. 

They are actually not new ideas, but they are easy forgotten:
  •          Maintain a consistent system of values and a happy, healthy home
  •          Allow enough time.
  •          Don’t stifle curiosity.
  •          Intellectually stimulate.
  •          Encourage friendships and discover hobbies.
  •          Avoid discouraging unusual questions or attitudes.
  •          Don’t over-schedule.
  •          Respect their knowledge.


E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970) was an English novelist, essayist, and social and literary critic - and pretty clearly an HSP.  A Passage to India (1924) is considered one of his finest works. The novel examines racism and colonialism as well as the theme of the need to maintain both ties to the earth and a cerebral life of the imagination. 

Forster declined to make a list of people who shared what he saw as an admirable characteristic, but I have drawn one up in my mind already and short biographies of some of them will appear in future posts.