Kayasth culture

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Anoothi Vishal at the book launch in Chennai. Photo: K. Pichumani

Swaroop Rani Mathur, or Mrs L.C.

G.C. SAXENA. A Kayasth, he learnt his Persian from his grandmother. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The book describes the richness of Kayasth culture with verve.

THIS engaging and beautifully written book’s narrative revolves around the author’s grandmother Swaroop Rani Mathur, wife of Lakshmi Chandra Mathur. To the author, Anoothi Vishal, the imperious Mrs L.C. was Barima. The book is about food, but more so about the rich culture of the Kayasths in which food, music, poetry, wine and good conversation played a large role. It has recipes for 20 classic Kayasth dishes.

The Kayasths have been devout Hindus and are a liberal and tolerant lot. Mr and Mrs L.C. did not eat meat. The rest of the family did. “Cooking meat was, in fact, almost elevated to an art form. Whenever dining table conversations turned to the merits or demerits of the kofte or kaliya, both traditionally made from lamb meat and staples of the clan, my grandmother would enthusiastically join in, pronouncing her verdict. She, who had never tasted these dishes in her life, felt competent to weigh in on such matters. This did not seem exceptional or even worthy of comment to any of us because, as with most Kayasth women of her time, not eating meat did not stop my grandmother from cooking it. She could cook perfectly without tasting- and this almost instinctive knowledge—or rather, talent—made her an expert alright. Mrs LC’s shami kebabs were legendary.”

Kayasths wrote and spoke excellent Urdu. I remember speaking to Foreign Secretary Rajeshwar Dayal in 1968 and his query: “Why does not Sheikh Abdullah take up the cause which is dear to me, protection of Urdu?” He was the very epitome of Kayasth virtues.

Ganga-Jamuni heritage

The author is a proud, if rebellious, Kayasth. She chafes at rigidities and strict rules. The Kayasths symbolised a precious composite culture that Partition cruelly damaged. “I don’t know if others in the community realise that Kayasths, even families like mine that always sought to reiterate the homogeneity of their culture, may actually be the first examples of the subcontinent’s syncretic Ganga-Jamuni heritage: a way of life spawned by the coming together of different cultural strands. No firm records of their origins, history and culture exist—as is common in India where, throughout our history, the oral tradition has been stronger than the written one. …

“They seem to have emerged on their own as a culturally distinct community in medieval India, around the time of the early Mughals. Courtiers to the Mughal emperors, the Kayasths started out as record-keepers, literate in Persian, the language of the rulers. Proximity with Mughal culture meant that the customs, language, attire, speech, lifestyle and, of course, cuisine of the courtly way of life seeped into the local Hindu cultures of Delhi, Braj and Avadh (in U.P.), and other parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain.” The Kayasths’ weapons: impeccable manners.

They embraced the English language as enthusiastically, climbing high in the services (“the ever-assimilating cultural fabric of the Kayasths”). She writes that it is difficult to imagine any Kayasth khana (meal) without peena (drink) or shami kebab without an accompanying peg of Scotch. The Kayasth effortlessly became a Brown Sahib. For all the blending of “Indo-Islamic influences”, so evident in the speech, style of dressing customs, tehzeeb and tameez (manners) and cuisine, religion remained an unsurmountable barrier.

Always nursing a soft corner for Kayasths, I was saddened when my late friend, P.N. Dhar, who lived in Civil Lines in Old Delhi, told me early in this century that communal bitterness had not spared his Kayasth neighbours though their rahen-sahen (style of living) was no different from that of Muslims. Indeed, as the author notes: “Thanks to the proximity of the community to Muslim mobility, the preference for red meat became as much a part of Kayasth lifestyle and home-cooking as in Muslim homes. So firmly was non-vegetarianism embedded in the food habits of the community that most affluent families had at least one meat dish on the table for dinner—very different from the custom of other ‘upper-caste’ Hindu communities of the time.”

One must cast that bitterness aside and cherish and value the richness of Kayasth culture, which the book describes with verve. Grandfather LC would write out a verse from the Ramayana in Urdu, the language he was educated in and intensely passionate about. The late G.C. (Gary) Saxena, head of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), told me that he had learnt Persian on the lap of his grandmother. Truly, the worst enemies of Urdu and the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb were the Muslim League and their leader, M.A. Jinnah, who was ignorant of both.

On the other side, some Hindi speakers studiously refuse to pronounce Urdu words in the traditional manner. Among the Kayasths, however, “Consonants like ‘g’, ‘kh’ and ‘k’ in Hindi were pronounced in their Urdu way as ‘gh’, ‘x’ and ‘q’ – ‘gharib’, instead of ‘garib’ in Hindi; ‘xud’, the guttural sound, instead of ‘khud’ in Hindi, and ‘qalam’, instead of ‘kalam’. Similarly, ‘v’ or ‘w’ after a long vowel was always rounded off to ‘o’ in the Urdu way of speaking.”

A noted and wilful offender is one of the tallest figures of Bollywood who makes it a point consciously, consistently to pronounce Urdu words in the Hindi way; thus revealing a lot of himself. The author has scorn for “the shudh Hindi, one being taught in schools, used in the bookish phrases propagated in the newsrooms and officers in independent India, and enunciated by TV newsreaders. The element that definitively marked out a rustic style of speech from a refined one in the minds of my grandparents (and hence mine) was the ‘z’/’j’ barrier.

In U.P., non-Kayasth families from more rural backgrounds would say ‘subji’ (not ‘subzi’) and ‘Jameen’ (not ‘zameen’), and such speech was deeply scorned by the LCs. Growing up in their company, I was equally disdainful,” she candidly admits—as she does of her resentment at being forced to take music lessons.

Without meaning to write one, Anoothi Vishal has ended up with an elegant mini classic.

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