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'Kayasth, An Encyclopedia of Untold Stories' tracks history as well as mythology to map the story of a community

September 19, 2021 / 06:34 PM IST

Listen carefully when former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Uday Sahay talks of maps, migration and forgotten footprints. Maps codify the magic of existence, but Sahay is no cartographer contouring mountains and rivers on blank pages. He doesn't even talk of the established present. He goes back 2,500 years to unearth the forgotten past of the Kayasth community and narrates it over 382 glossy pages of Kayasth, An Encyclopedia of Untold Stories.

Maps don’t talk. History does. And in this one-of-its-kind book, history borrows the tenor of Sahay who, for 27 months, trudged through 21 Indian states, poured over dog-eared books and sepia documents in libraries, sieved facts, pieced fragmentary entries, posed questions, posited theories, had long conversations with scholars and historians to string together an ethnographic (he calls it illustrative, not exhaustive) tale of the Kayasth community, who, mythology tells us, are descendants of Shri Chitragupta, the heaven’s record-keeper of virtues and sins.

Even before one thumbs the first page of the hardback, faces on the cover hold the readers’ gaze. A few known and oft-repeated in conversations, others unremembered and left behind on memory’s sidewalk. Swami Vivekananda, Munshi Premchand, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Paramhans Yogananda, Raja Todar Mal, Mahadevi Verma, Satyajit Ray, Suchitra Sen, Manna Dey, Firaq Gorakhpuri, among several other faces, adorn the book’s cover.

Sahay’s narrative, however, is not limited to the luminous faces on the cover. He brings in Alexander the Great, Chandragupta Maurya, Chanakya, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, emperors and nawabs to trace the migratory footprints of the community that is now scattered across 21 Indian states and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Wars, temples, trade, intellect turn into the dramatis personae of the long saga that Sahay co-authored with Poonam Bala, former visiting professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently Visiting Scholar at Cleveland State University (USA).

Available both in English and Hindi, the encyclopedia is neatly divided into chapters each delineating one aspect of the ethnic-cultural diversity of the community. The Grand Narrative discusses the mythological origin of Kayasths, especially in India’s nine Hindi-speaking states in North/Central India and four southern states. The chapter on temples details the temples dedicated to Chitragupta, the mythological ancestor of the community as well as Sun temples built by great Kayasth rulers.

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There are chapters on inter-state migration, linear evolution of the writer class, nuances of the Kayasth culture, the Kaithi script, the identity symbols of Kayasths, cuisine, among others. Infographics trace the migration routes of Kayasths to various parts of the country as well as Sri Lanka.

Kayasth cuisine

“Bhuna (slow-roasting), dum (steam-cooking), and dhungar (smoke-cooking) are three common cooking techniques of Kayasthas applied equally to vegetarian and non-vegetarian Kayasth cooking. Judicious usage of Garam Masala however plays the referee’s role in the final reckoning,” the book reveals.

According to the book, Kayasth women (several of them are vegetarians) can cook and present vegetarian dishes to resemble non-vegetarian ones. For example: dal kaleji, dal keema matar, bhuna kathal (jack fruit), kathal kabab, bhuna zimikand (elephant foot), potato Ishtu, black gram shami kabab, and vegetables like bitter, round, wax bottle gourd, and okra which can rival the finest non-vegetarian dishes.

The list of sweetmeats is pure temptation: kheer, halwas, barfis, malpua, shahi tukda, rabri, jalebis, pista and almond lauz, khurchan, firni, parwal-ki-mithai, and double-ka-meetha. The book makes a special mention of the celebrated daulat-ki-chaat (also called nimish) in which thickened milk is mixed with sugar, rose water, and saffron, and left uncovered or covered with a fine muslin cloth, out in the cold winter night to infuse the dew. In the morning, it is repeatedly churned and the foam collected in shakoras (small earthen bowls).

Kayasth, An Encyclopedia of Untold Stories is Sahay’s eighth book and has so far sold 1,200+ copies. He is not basking in its glory, though. He is hunched again on his writing desk with abstracts of two more books brewing in his mind - one on religious conversion in India; the other on Sujata, the milkmaid, who is said to have fed Gautam Buddha a bowl of kheer (milk-rice pudding) ending his six years of asceticism. He wants to turn the Buddha-Saujata allegory into a story rife with intense emotions.

Sahay, now a communication consultant, details all the miles he walked, all the notes that he pencilled for the book but he refuses to calculate the inevitable sweat on the brow that a project this herculean brings about. “It cannot be merely labelled ‘effort’, maybe it is a past-life karmic debt that I have to repay to the Kayasth community that I was born into. It was a long walk but I had to trace the footprints of my progenitors,” Sahay says impassively.

The former IPS officer has repaid his debt to the community. Now it is the turn of the Kayasth community to be indebted to Uday Sahay and Poonam Bala for telling untold stories.

Kayasth, An Encyclopedia of Untold Stories, available in Hindi and English, is priced at USA: US $ 85 + courier charges; UK: £ 60 + courier charges; India: INR 3,000 (no courier charges)
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.

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