Arts & Culture

Book Markets of Baghdad and Kolkata



Name the book you’re looking for and it’s said that you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this fa­mous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad. For many Iraqis, this street — named after Abu al-Tayyib Al-Mu­tanabbi, a 10th century poet from the Abbasid Caliphate period, who was regarded as one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language — of­fers a glimpse of hope that Iraq is still home to the Arab intellect.

This ancient street is referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community as it has been a refuge for writers of all faiths since at least the 10th century. The national library is about a mile away from Mutanabbi Street. Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbaasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops. There is an old Arab saying:

Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.


Poets, writ­ers, intellectuals, painters and musicians converge on Mutanabbi Street’s smoke-filled traditional cof­fee shops to display their assets. Street is full of books and behind this counters is shops — with stationery, books, stuffs for office, dried fruits and also cafes.

Mutanabbi Street has always been a hotbed of dissent. Under the long leadership of Saddam Hussein, anti-government cells published and sold illegal copies of their tracts here under fake names. After Hussein’s fall more than a decade ago, dissidents gathered in Mutanabbi Street as successive administrations rose and fell.



College Street is an eminent center of Kolkata’s literary crowd. Its name derives from the presence of many colleges and educational institutions, including Presidency University (established in 1817), University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824).


The College Street is most famous for its small and big bookstores, which gives it the nickname বই পাড়া (Boi Para) or “Neighbourhood of Books”. The street is also dotted with countless very small book kiosks which sell new and old books. An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street as:

…a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England.

According to Wikipedia, it is the largest second-hand book market in the world and largest book market in India and collectively boasts of a collection of almost any title ever sold at Kolkata.

Kolkata Boi Para

In 2007, College Street featured among the famous landmarks of India which have made it to Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list. The magazine has mentioned:

Thriving beside the rusted tram tracks of College Street in north Kolkata is the boi para, or “neighborhood of books,” offering the largest mass of secondhand volumes in Asia. Generations of Kolkata’s famous writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos.


The Indian Coffee House, popularly known as Coffee House, on the College Street is a favourite hang-out places among the students, youth, scholars, editors, artists and writers. It has been the rendezvous place of many illustrious and notable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen, and the list goes on. Many talented geniuses have penned down pieces of lyrics, poems, story scripts or exchanged brimming ideas related to the world of art and culture in this cafeteria.


In 1883, the first session of the Indian National Conference was held at the prestigious Albert Hall of College Street that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. College Street has been the hub of Political meetings since 1930’s and is witness to many historical political congregations led by iconic Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal.

Although far apart, Mutanabbi Street and College Street have striking similarities!

History & Heritage

The world’s oldest paycheck was cashed in beer


The world’s oldest paycheck has apparently been discovered and it is claimed that it was spent on booze. New Scientist has a great article about a recent archaeology finding that shows the world’s oldest known paycheck — written in a picture language known as cuneiform — was cashed in beer! Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history of ancient Iraq and ancient Egypt.

Cuneiform is a system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia c. 3500-3000 BCE. It is considered the most significant among the many cultural contributions of the Sumerians and the greatest among those of the Sumerian city of Uruk which advanced the writing of cuneiform c. 3200 BCE. The name comes from the Latin word cuneus for ‘wedge’ owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing. In cuneiform, a carefully cut writing implement known as a stylus is pressed into soft clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or ‘word-concepts’ (closer to a modern-day understanding of a ‘word’). All of the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform (the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians, Hurrians and others) until it was abandoned in favour of the alphabetic script at some point after 100 BCE.

Beer o’clock, 3000 BCE (Image: New Scientist, Source: British Museum)

One tablet, excavated from the city of Uruk in modern-day Iraq, includes the symbols for “ration” (a human head eating from a bowl) and “beer” (a conical vessel): “Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker. It’s the world’s oldest known paycheck, implying that the concept of worker and employer was familiar five millennia ago.”

Archeologists link rise of civilisation and beer’s invention. Their argument is that Stone Age farmers were domesticating cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to lighten their heads, by turning the grains into beer.

It seems that some things really don’t ever change.

Business & Finance

£110 million in ONE trade!


A sensible prediction on a seemingly obvious outcome on how the markets would react following the British referendum on European Union membership by 36-year-old hedge fund manager James Hanbury has resulted in a vast win of £110 million ($148 million), the Daily Mail reports.

The paper says that despite commissioning a private poll before the referendum which showed a Remain vote winning, Hanbury, who manages £1.1 billion for Odey Asset Management, decided to gamble on a Leave vote anyway — reasoning that there was a lot to gain and little to lose.

The vote to leave, a so-called Brexit, raised the prospect of sustained anxiety in the global economy as investors struggle to surmise what is happening. He guessed that Britain might shock the world by voting to Leave — and that the value of sterling would plunge as a result.


Brexit hit the financial world hard, with the pound dropping to a 31 year low and billions disappearing from the FTSE after the result. His latest coup will go down in hedge fund history and is comparable to a similar move by legendary investor George Soros ahead of Black Wednesday (16 September 1992).

Soros is widely known as the man who “broke” the Bank of England in 1992, when he bet against the pound and made a reported £1.5 billion. He short-sold more than £7.6 billion in the currency — meaning he would make money if its value fell. So when the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the pound collapsed, Soros pocketed a windfall.

Nature & Environment, Science & Technology

Solstice & Strawberry Moon tonight


Today, the summer solstice and full moon coincide — a rare event, indeed, that hasn’t happened in nearly 70 years, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. It’s a once-in-a-generation pairing: the start of astronomical summer and emergence of the full “Strawberry Moon.” June’s full Strawberry Moon got its name because the native American Algonquin tribes knew it as a signal to gather ripening strawberry fruit.

Depending on your local time zone, the full moon rises tonight on the same day as the June solstice for the first time since 1948. Together the two heavenly bodies will shower Mother Earth with a full 24 hours of light.

According to National Geographic, the June solstice officially kicks off tonight at 22:34 UTC, the precise time when the sun attains its northernmost position in our sky. The moon entered its full phase at 11:02 UTC today, so the two events are separated by about 12 hours. The last time the solstice and the full moon were about 12 hours apart was back in 1986.

The solstice and the full moon were separated by just a few hours but were on different days for some time zones in 1967. We have to go back much further for the last time that both events were aligned nearly simultaneously: They were less than an hour apart on 21 June 1948.

The term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Some prefer the more teutonic term ‘sunturn’ to descibe the event. Astrologers say the sun seems to ‘stand still’ at the point on the horizon where it appears to rise and set, before moving off in the reverse direction.

It appears as if the full moon and June solstice won’t fall on the same calendar date again until 21 June 2062.

Event & Festival, Food & Drink

Jamai Shashthi and Ilish


Jamai ShoshthiThe flavor of family bonding is expressed through social customs. We Indians have so many customs which makes the expression of family bonding even more prominent. Such is a custom of Bengalis in which they celebrate the son-in-law day. Yes, there is a day, which is dedicated to the son-in-law and it is called Jamai Shashthi. The son-in-law is called Jamai and Shashthi means sixth, since the festival is observed on sixth day of shukla paksha (waxing moon) in Jyestha month of traditional Bengali calendar (May-June).

The traditional festival of Jamai Shashthi originated ages ago as a part of a women’s socio-religious duty. It displays beautiful bonding of son-in-law with his in-laws. All the sons-in-law get a treat from his in-laws or শ্বশুর বাড়ী (Shoshur bari). A party is organized by the in-laws for their daughter and her husband. Sons-in-law are the center of everybody’s attention on the day. He thoroughly enjoys and loves the attention he is getting from his in-laws. I heard of a somewhat similar tradition in China. Married daughters visit their parents with their husbands on the second day of the Chinese New Year.


Ilish (Tenualosa ilisha) is popular food among the Bengalis. It is the national fish of Bangladesh. Ilish is a fish that can make Bengalis break their pockets. It is integral to our Bengali culture. In many Bengali families a pair of Ilish (জোড়া ইলিশ  or Joda Ilish) are bought on auspicious days. In Bengal, Ilish is also used during wedding as Tatwo gift. Tatwo (তত্ব) is an array of gifts that are exchanged between both families. The key feature of these gifts, are enormous and impressive sculptures made entirely of sandesh (a Bengali dessert created with milk or chhena and sugar), as well as fish dressed as bride and groom.

Fish dressed as bride and groom in tatwo (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

As Bengalis were pampering their sons-in-law yesterday on Jamai Shashthi with the choicest delicacies in keeping with traditions, it was a four-kilo shinning Ilish from faraway Myanmar that stole all the limelight. The fish fetched a whopping Rs 22,000 ($328) price at a wholesale market in Kolkata, a price no Ilish had ever been sold for. This means Rs 5,500 ($82) per kilogram, wow! that’s amazing!

Rs 22000 ilish.jpg

This reminds me of an iconic dialogue from Dwijendralal Roy’s historical Bengali play Chandragupta where Alexander the Great tells his trusted general Seleucus Nicanor: “সত্য সেলুকাস, কি বিচিত্র এই দেশ …” (satya Seleucus, ki bichitro ei desh ), while standing on the bank of the Indus river and staring at the expanse before him that he plans to conquer. The Bengali dialogue means in English: “really Seleucus, what an amazing country is this …” Well, the country is truly amazing even now!🙂

On Jamai Shashthi, neither laws of inflation nor demand and supply theories work on the markets in Bengal. Price of possibly every edible item skyrocket for a day because the sellers know that families buy the best they can afford. Well, this is one of the three times of the year when Bengalis are prone to reckless spending, the other two being Durga Puja and Poila Boisakh (Bengali New Year day).

It was obvious that at least some sons-in-law, if not a single lucky one, had the opportunity to taste it. I am still wondering who was the lucky son-in-law and how big was the Ilish piece on his plate! Am I envious? Maybe, yes.🙂

সুতৃপ্তি! भोजनं स्वादिष्टमस्तु! Bon appétit!

Event & Festival, History & Heritage, Nature & Environment

Ecology is permanent economy


Today is World Environment Day. This day is observed every year on the 5th June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). On the World Environment Day, here’s looking back at two of the crucial tree conservation movements in India.


In the 1970s, an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and came to be known as the Chipko movement. The name of the movement comes from the word “embrace”, as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors’ from felling them. The word “chipko” refers “to stick” or “to hug”. Chipko movement was a grass-root level movement, which started in response to the needs of the people of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh).

The first Chipko action took place spontaneously in April 1973 in the village of Mandal in the upper Alakananda valley and over the next five years spread to many districts of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. It was sparked off by the government’s decision to allot a plot of forest area in the Alaknanda valley to a sports goods company. Most of the leaders of the Chipko Movement were village women and men who strove to save their means of subsistence and their communities. Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a renowned Gandhian, with a group of volunteers and women started the non-violent protest by clinging to the trees to save them from felling. With encouragement from a local NGO (non-governmental organization), DGSS (Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh), the women of the area, under the leadership of an activist, Mr. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, went into the forest and formed a circle around the trees preventing the men from cutting them down.


Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna appealed to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, which resulted in the green-felling ban. Mr Bahuguna coined the Chipko slogan: “ecology is permanent economy”.


Not many people know that over the last few centuries many communities in India have helped save nature. One such is the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. The original “Chipko movement” was started in the early part of the 18th century in Rajasthan by this community.

There is a legend about a Bishnoi woman, Amrita Devi, who died trying to protect the trees that surrounded her village. The story recounts a time when the local Maharaja’s tree cutters arrived to cut the villager’s trees for wood for his new fortress. This incident is the first event of Chipko Movement in the recorded history.

It was Tuesday, the 10th day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhaadra (as per Indian lunar calendar) or the month of September, in 1730. Amrita Devi a mother of three daughters — Asu, Ratni and Bhagu was at home with her daughters. Suddenly, she came to know that many people had descended in their otherwise sleepy village of Khejarli.

It was a party of Giridhar Bhandari, a minister with Maharaja Abhay Singh, Ruler of Marwar (Jodhpur) state who wanted to fell the sacred green Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees to burn lime for the construction of his new palace. Since there was a lot of greenery in the Bishnoi villages even in the middle of Thar Desert, the king ordered his men to get the woods from Khejri trees. Amrita Devi protested against the tree-felling because such acts were prohibited by the Bishnoi’s faith. Amrita Devi along with other Bishnoi men, women and children jumped in front of the trees and hugged them. The royal party said that they would only cease if she paid them a bribe, which she refused to do because she saw that as ignominious and an insult to her faith. She said:

सर सान्टे रूख रहे तो भी सस्तो जाण

In English, it means:

If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.

Amrita Devi

Saying these, she offered her head. The axes, which were brought to cut the trees, severed her head from her trunk. The three young girls Asu, Ratni and Bhagu were not daunted, and offered their heads too. The news spread like wildfire.

News of the deaths spread and summons to a meeting were sent to 83 Bishnoi villages. The meeting determined that one Bishnoi volunteer would sacrifice their life for every tree that was cut down. Older people began hugging the trees that were intended to be cut and many were killed. These efforts failed to have the desired impact and Bhandari claimed that the Bishnois were sacrificing ageing people whom they no longer saw as useful to society. In response to this, young men, women and children began to follow the example of the old. The development shocked the tree-felling party. The group left for Jodhpur with their mission unfulfilled. 363 Bishnois died in the incident.

When Maharaja learned about the carnage, he was repentant and forbade any killing of animals and cutting of trees in the Bishnois territories. This legislation still exists today in the region. It’s no wonder that the Bishnois are considered as among the earliest conservationists in the world.

Today there are conservation movements throughout the country that integrate waste management, preservation of wildlife, cleaning of lakes and rivers, and tree planting. On the World Environment Day, I remember a poem written by Mr Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet, describing the method of embracing the trees to save them from felling:

“Embrace the trees and
Save them from being felled;
The property of our hills,
Save them from being looted.”

Views & Opinion

An unsavoury fact: 45 million people in servitude!


The 2016 Global Slavery Index, published by Perth-based Walk Free Foundation, estimates that 45.8 million people are subject to some form of modern slavery in the world today. This number is 10 million more than the last survey in 2014! The Index presents a ranking of 167 countries based on the proportion of the population that is estimated to be in modern slavery. Due to the ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function, ratings for Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen are not included.


Modern slavery includes inter-generational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into non-state armed groups and forced marriage. Vulnerability to modern slavery is affected by a complex interaction of factors related to the presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security, access to the necessities of life such as food, water and health care, and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict.

The Global Slavery Index for 2016 discovered that up to 4% of the population in some countries is in bondage of some kind. Asia is the worst offender, the study found, with up to 4.37% of people in North Korea and 3.97% of the population in Uzbekistan enslaved. Those countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. The countries with the lowest estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population are Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Belgium, the United States and Canada, and Australia and New Zealand.

The survey data suggest that there are more than 18 million people or 1.4 percent of the total population, who are living in conditions of modern slavery in India. Fiona David, head of global research at Walk Free, said to Reuters while estimates of slavery had risen by 15 percent in India from the previous figure due to better data collection, government efforts to curb such exploitation had also improved. Quantification of modern slavery in any country is difficult, but is doubly so in a country as large and complex as India.

Anne Gallagher rightly said that by failing to challenge or even gently interrogate the underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, the index embodies and perpetuates a comforting belief that slavery is all about bad individuals doing bad things to good people. At the root of this belief is an unshakable faith in us being able to eliminate slavery without fundamentally changing how our societies and economies are organised; without a radical shift in the distribution and exercise of political and economic power, including a global economy that depends on the exploitation of poor people’s labour to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability.

In the words of Peter Buffet, this is not much more than “philanthropic colonialism”, the advocacy and giving that just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.

Some raise doubts on the tools and methodology used by Walk Free to determine the index. Even while we collectively obsesses over numbers and data points, we should also consider dismantling the structures that preserve and nourish a world built solidly on the foundations of human exploitation. We all need to act collectively as well as individually.

Business & Finance, Science & Technology

Entering era of national digital currencies


Imagine a world where all money is digital. Instead of carrying coins and notes in your purse, you’re keeping digital currency units in electronic wallets on phones, watches or other electronic devices. Paying at the farmer’s market, giving the kids pocket-money for lunch, settling the tab at a restaurant — all of this could happen digitally the way cash is handed over today: in real-time, irreversibly, with no additional fees, using legal tender fully backed by the faith and credit of the national treasury.

Around the world, central banks from England to China have publicly floated the notion of issuing their own national digital currencies. Conceptually, they like the idea of harnessing the upside of the digital revolution—mobile payments, in particular—while preserving the existing legal and regulatory set up. Practically, they expect significant cost savings, a reduction of operational and fraud risks in the current payments systems, and a strengthened ability to execute monetary policy.

From a consumer’s perspective, the prospect of a digital British Pound Sterling or Renminbi is still mind-boggling. Which means, of course, societies would not go completely digital overnight. Instead, central banks could start issuing digital currency units alongside notes and coins as base money and adjust the mix over time, according to uptake. Once critical usage levels are reached and network effects kick in, universal adoption could happen very quickly.

The key requirement for central banks to feel comfortable with issuing their own digital currency, and for consumers to embrace it, is ironclad integrity and security of the underlying technology. There are efforts to separate the blockchain technology from the libertarian concept of a private currency, e.g. Bitcoin, that central banks are unlikely to embrace. Such efforts to trace the exchange of digital money via a public ledger could be combined with the counterintuitive concept of creating cryptographically protected digital currency units offline and injecting them into current payments systems, much like central banks distribute notes and coins to retail financial intermediaries today.


Blockchain would accelerate the settlement of transactions, and thereby improve the capital efficiency of making a transaction. It’s also more transparent, because any user has immediate access to all transactions on a blockchain. And it’s more efficient because it eliminates the need for intermediaries. It has the potential to redefine transactions and can change everything.

In most emerging markets and developing countries, financial inclusion is a major concern. The current formal financial system doesn’t cover the majority of working-age adult population. Smallholder farmers, self-employed households, and micro-entrepreneurs have to rely on the age-old informal financial mechanisms such as rotating savings clubs, moneylenders, and pawnbrokers. These mechanisms can be unreliable and very expensive.

For policymakers from the global south, the digitization of retail payment systems and financial services has become an important economic development priority. It offers the prospect of reaching far more people at far lower costs with the broader range of financial services they need to build resilience and capture opportunities. Wall Street is also obsessed with blockchain. JPMorgan last month announced it was launching a trial project with a blockchain startup.

The idea of a central bank-issued digital currency might well be the type of “soft infrastructure” investment that brings direct and immediate efficiency gains. But perhaps more importantly, it would also accelerate and help scale a wave of service innovations that help advance financial inclusion, stimulate economic growth, and ultimately spur social progress.

HT: Tilman Erbeck / WEF

Miscellaneous & Offbeat

Chance encounter with MS Dhoni


Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the current captain of the Indian national cricket team in limited-over formats. An attacking right-handed middle-order batsman and wicket-keeper, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest finishers in limited-overs cricket. He holds numerous captaincy records such as most wins by an Indian captain in Tests and One Day Internationals (ODI), and most back-to-back wins by an Indian captain in ODIs. Dhoni is born and brought up in Ranchi. We all are proud of him. He is an icon.

I was today returning home from my institute via Delhi.  When I was going to board the Indigo flight in the evening, I was surprised to see Dhoni on our bus! He was also returning to his home in Ranchi. I went to him and asked for his autograph. He immediately signed on the back of my boarding pass.

Autograph of MS Dhoni
Autograph of Mahendra Singh Dhoni on the reverse of my flight boarding pass

Dhoni is a nice, warm and friendly person. We had some chat while the bus was moving towards the plane. He happily obliged me and two other co-passengers, when we asked for a picture with him. In fact, he himself took the selfie!

Selfie with Dhoni
Selfie with Mahendra Singh Dhoni inside the bus from airport terminal to the airplane

It’s a great memorable moment in my life and I am really excited. Six years ago, I met another all-time great ODI player, the Sri Lankan all-rounder, Sanath Jayasuriya, on our flight. We were travelling from Colombo to Bangalore.

Miscellaneous & Offbeat



Today is Friday the 13th. Most people believe “Friday the 13th” as an ominous day. It’s a bizarre thing, but apparently true, that a substantial number of us would confess to feeling slightly anxious when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday. There is in fact a name for this phenomenon — and get ready because it’s rather a mouthful — paraskevidekatriaphobia.

ar128170187975501No-one is quite certain why people associate Friday the 13th with bad luck. While folklore historians say it’s tough to pinpoint exactly how the taboo came to be, many believe it originates from the Last Supper, and the 13 guests who sat at the table on the day before the Friday on which Lord Jesus was crucified.

But there are many other theories of how the ominous day came to be considered the harbinger of bad luck. The number 13 also holds some cultural, religious and mythical significance in history, which hints that it is a bad day.

The term paraskevidekatriaphobia was first coined in the early nineties by Dr. Donald E. Dossey, an American psychotherapist specialising in phobias and stress management, who reputedly claimed that that “when you learn to pronounce it, you’re cured!” The term is based on the Greek words paraskevi (Friday) and dekatria (thirteen) with -phobia as a suffix to indicate ‘fear’. So say it all together:  para-skev-EE-dek-a-tri-a-pho-bia.🙂

Not all cultures, however, believe Friday the 13th is unlucky. In Greek and Hispanic cultures, Tuesday the 13th is considered far more ominous. In Italy, Friday the 17th is spookier than the 13th.

Any month that starts with a Sunday will contain a Friday the 13th, and there can be as many as three of them a year. For what it’s worth to believers, there is only one Friday the 13th this year and it occurs today. So whatever you are doing today, do it safely and remember the best thing about Friday the 13th – is that it’s the weekend in the Middle East and the day after is Saturday, the weekend elsewhere! Enjoy the weekend!