Kazi Nazrul Islam and Havelok the Dane

Reading William Darymple’s book on the East India Company makes me aware that I don’t know the difference between a howrah and a palanquin. A palanquin is a covered litter for one passenger consisting of a large box carried on two horizonal poles by four or six bearers, a howdah is a throne-like saddle for an elephant, If discretion, shielding the traveller from the inquisitive eyes of the hoi polloi is the name of the game then a palanquin is the one to go for. If, on the other hand, Curzonian ostentation is what you’re after then it’s a howdah.

The symbol of the strong elephant bearing a load was popular in the late middle ages, I’ve read that it was a symbol for Christ and the redemption but I’m not sure how that hangs together, There’s the Elephant and Castle pub in London, even district now, which Wiki tells us Shakespeare mentions in 12th night but according to London encyclopaedia, this pub was converted from a smithy in the eighteenth century. Perhaps there were lots of elephant and castle pubs or maybe it was the sign for the smithy. There doesn’t seem to be an Indian connection though the motive was popular in heraldry,

My other Indian discovery is the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangla Desh.

 (1899-1976). He wrote a poem called Bidrohi, meaning “the rebel” in Bengali earning him the title of the Bidrohi Kobi (rebel poet), According to Wiki he was an orthodox Sunni muslim but heavily influenced by syncretism and critical of bigotry and the oppression of women. He is celebrated in West Bengal too, at least he has a Kolkata metro station named after him. Not exactly an ideological blood brother to yours truly but it’s an interesting thread to pull to discover more about Bengal East and West.

Another Indian discovery is Powis Castle near Welshpool, home of the Clive family, which apparently has a huge collection of Indian items brought home by Clive. I have too many images from Kolkata  in my mind’s eye for easy enjoyment of  the beauty of India in my home environment. The shanties press in on my attention, another “they are here, because we were there” moment like the precious baubles. I shall probably pop in next time I’m in Welshpool…

Closer to home, I have become interested in Havelok the Dane. I’ve wondered for a long time about the absence of written sources about the period of the Danelaw when half of England (east of Watling St, the Roman road, I think) was ruled by the Danes and even the whole of England had a Danish King Canute for some  years. There’s a great number of place names and words of Scandinavian origin, especially in the dialects and the influence gets stronger the further north you go where the dialects are loaded with words of Scandinavian origin, culminating in Shetland where the dialect is populated by the ghosts of Norn.

But somehow the Scandinavian is scattered, not fully integrated into our story about ourselves, which runs from plucky Alfred burning his cakes, founding the navy and resisting the Danes through William the Conqueror where things get distinctly ambivalent, and finally the resurgence of English with Chaucer and the Tudors, and the well trodden path leading to David Kendall at junior school in the early 1950s struggling with mauvais foi as his red crayon hovered over the outline of the Republic of Ireland and Burma with all the other far flung imperial bits and bobs.  

I’ve discovered the story of Havelok the Dane, which is an old story in several versions, the Middle English being best known. And I realised how important the study of Middle English was to understand how we got from Old English, pretty much a foreign language, to modern English.

I even had several hardly used books on Middle English on my out-of-control bookshelf which is becoming more Narnia-like by the day.

There were also some words. I now know what an epigraph is, a word I recognised but never introduced myself properly to. It’s a written message on a building or a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter intended to express its theme, which I found filled a useful gap and will probably be pressed into service in the not too distant. And a commonplace book, which are notebooks people like me use to jot down bits of knowledge, a repository of thoughts.

And fustian which as I thought was coarse clothing but apparently also means a pompous or pretentious speech, And the etymology of famine which was straightforward from the Latin fames hunger, thus related to “famished”.

I’ve also learnt what ceps are, a type of edible fungi, porcino (little pig) in Italian, steinpilz in German and cepe in French. I haven’t budged an inch from my English prejudices about edible fungi despite my half century in Sweden but I like to know the name of things,

There were some other words too but I have mislaid them. My commonplace books are many and swirl around my flat like an asteroid belt.

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