The Startup Star

June 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

41puRJbtwkL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Zero to One (Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future) (Thiel, Peter with Masters, Blake)

What can I say about Peter Thiel that the internet doesn’t know already? He founded PayPal, sold it to eBay, founded Palantir, invested in Facebook, funded SpaceX and LinkedIn, helped Hulk Hogan sue Gawker; he is the lawyer who emerged victorious from the ashes of the Dot Com Bust and showed us all – techies, investment bankers, media pundits, management gurus and lay public – how to run a successful tech start up, or to spot an idea that can eventually become successful. Here he is, giving us the benefit of his wisdom in this book: How to Make Millions from your Start Up in Seven Easy Steps, or words to that effect.

Thiel generally makes sense, and writes well. He even has some really epigrammatic lines in there: ‘All Rhodes scholars had a great future in their past,’ being the most memorable. He has many good suggestions, heuristics and useful thumb rules:  start with a good team that gels together, plan well, have something unique that can be defended, focus on a small market to dominate before moving on to bigger things, and a few others. He also quotes from or refers to Anna Karenina, Francis Bacon, Jose Casablanca, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Engels, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Lady Gaga, Georg Hegel, Oedipus, Vilfredo Pareto, John Rawls, and the Unabomber: erudite man. So, a very readable book, all told.

Trouble is, Thiel’s conception of success, as is evident from his title, is binary. Facebook, Paypal, Apple, Google, Tesla: these are his success stories. And of course they are. But if success in business – particularly that kind of success, in conceiving an innovative, differentiated, paradigm-changing, industry-creating idea and executing it to commercial success – were as easy as following a few steps from a book, we would all be billionaires. As Thiel’s Preface begins, ‘Every moment in business happens only once…if you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.’ Should we learn from Thiel, then?


Sliding to success in a start up! (Courtesy:


Everything Before Us

June 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

HobsbawmThe Age of Revolution (1789-1848) (Hobsbawm, E. J.)

Eric Hobsbawm was an eminent British historian whose career spanned from 1948 to 2011. He is discredited these days, specially in conservative circles, as a ‘Marxist’, which is shorthand (in those circles) for ‘la-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you-la-la-la-la-la’. The serious charges leveled against him include being ‘Stalin’s cheerleader’, and of peddling propaganda in the guise of history, but Niall Ferguson, not by any stretch of imagination a bleeding heart pinko, had this to say about the man:

“That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable…His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.”

All I know is, I read Hobsbawm’s ‘On History’ many years ago, and much of it made sense to me, particularly his definition of history, not as a set of reference points or even a duration, but as the process by which the past became the present. (He also quotes Fustel de Coulanges as saying, ‘History is not an accumulation of events of all kinds  which occurred in the past. It is the science of human society’) It is in light of these statements that one must study Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution.

While the period under discussion (1789-1848) was indeed eventful in European history – the fall of the Bastille, the coronation of Napoleon, Trafalgar, Waterloo, etc. – it is not the events themselves that Hobsbawm is mainly concerned with, but the consequences of the two main events of the age: the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution, and how society, politics, economics, and art changed as a result of these events. Language, ever a faithful barometer for society’s priorities and preoccupations, changed as well, and a selection of the new words that were coined in this period tells Hobsbawm’s social transformation story succinctly: ‘industry’, ‘industrialist’, ‘factory’, ‘middle class’. ‘working class’, ‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘aristocracy’, ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘nationalism’, ‘engineer’, ‘crisis’, ‘statistics’, ‘journalism’, ‘ideology’ and ‘strike’. If you can imagine a world without these words, you would be thinking of a pre-1789 timeframe.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Liberty leading the people, Eugene Delacroix


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The Other Mothers

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

yoginisThe Sixty-Four Yoginis: Cult, Icons and Goddesses (Roy, Anamika)

Hinduism has three hundred and thirty million divinities, or so the cliché goes. I do not believe anyone has actually counted and confirmed this number, but if they did, I am confident that at least half the total would turn out to be female. We Hindus may not all be feminists, but we certainly are Equal Opportunity worshippers.

There are two kinds of goddesses in Hindu tradition, as AK Ramanujam has pointed out (“Two Realms of Kannada Folklore”): “breast” mothers and “tooth” mothers. The former are married to other gods and subservient to their spouses, are largely benevolent and invoked for blessings at auspicious times, worshipped with offerings of incense, flowers and fruits, in temples built in their honor inside towns and villages, with well-crafted idols with beautiful smiling faces. The mothers of the tooth variety are diametrically different: they are not subservient to any males, and indeed are often fatal to any males associated with them. They are deities of dread invoked at times of crisis, like plagues or famine, and the devotees don’t pray for blessings, they plead for mercy. They are propitiated with blood sacrifices, not floral tributes. Their temples are typically situated outside the village, and the idols are usually either faceless or terrible to behold. These temples can be spotted by the wayside all over rural India, especially outside the Gangetic heartlands, but they are not the subject of either mainstream mythology or popular worship. We in the cities have forgotten them, even though our cities have now expanded so much that these temples, once outside village limits, now languish unnoticed at the curbs of busy thoroughfares.

In the book under review, Anamika Roy documents temples to such mysterious ‘tantric’ goddesses in the tribal belts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps eerily and perhaps naturally, they follow the identical patterns described by DD Kosambi in Maharashtra and Ramanujam in South India. They are called Sitala, Jogubai, Tulaja, Mhalsa in Maharashtra, Bhagawati or Pattini in Kerala, Kuravai, Ananku, or Tunankai in Tamil Nadu. The Yoginis described by Roy have equally fearsome names:  Kankalini Mata, Sat Bahinia, Danteswari, Raksasi, Hunkari, Vadavamukhi, Mahakrura, Krodhana, Tarala, Meghanada, Pisaci, Vikrta, Durjaya, Bhayankari, Pralaya, Vakranasa, Yamajihva, Pretaksi, Putana, Nisacari, Durmukhi, VIsalanguli, Yamaduti, Asura, Vikatalocana, Lalajihva, Kapalahasta, Pracanda, Sisughni, Rudhirapayini, Garbha-bhaksa, Sava-hasta, Antra-malini, Sosani-drsti, Kataputana, Attahasa. They have beautiful bodies but fierce faces: most have protruding eyes and teeth, or an extra eye, or their tongue out, others have the face of an animal, others still have no face at all. Some of them stand on corpses or brandish severed heads in their hands. Admittedly, one of them is pictured holding a baby (awww!) but then she looks fierce and holds a sword in her other hand, so we can’t be sure what exactly is going on.

V0045118 Kali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Kali by Raja Ravi Verma (courtesy Wikipedia): the best known of the Other Mothers

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Summer of Sixty Nine

May 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

TacitusTacitus: The Histories (translated by Kenneth Wellesley)

The year 69 AD was a particularly turbulent year in the history of the Roman empire. Few of the people who lived under its aegis would have counted that year among the best days of their lives, as armies crisscrossed the land with fire and sword in an orgy of violence, and civil war rent the fragile fabric of the Pax Romana. No fewer than four men declared themselves Imperator that year; no fewer than three of them met grievous and gory ends before the year was done.

Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had committed suicide in June 68 AD. Fiddler or not (opinions vary) he had provided the empire with a stable central authority, and his sudden death sent shock waves in all directions. The dour septuagenarian Servius Galba, military governor of the Hispanic province, moved quickly into the void, but made no attempts to win over the army and aristocracy, and by the 15th of January, he was dead, murdered as part of a palace coup, and an old Nero favorite, Otho, seized the reins of empire. But Aulus Vitellius, commander of the powerful German legions, had already begun mobilizing, and Flavius Vespasian, master of the rich Roman possessions in the East, lay in wait with designs of his own. Vitellius’ battle-seasoned troops crossed the Alps and met the imperial armies at Cremona, where after a spirited engagement, the Vitellian Fifth and Twenty-first legions put the Othonian First and Thirteenth to flight. Two days later, on 16 April, Emperor Otho bid an affectionate farewell to his staff, destroyed a few documents, spoke calmly and softly to his brother’s son, had a good night’s sleep, woke up at dawn, presumably said oh well, let’s get this over with, then, and fell on his own dagger.


First Battle of Cremona (Courtesy Obrazy Klio, Pinterest)


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Pococke’s Poppycock

April 29, 2016 § 1 Comment

PoppycockIndia in Greece, Or Truth in Mythology (Pococke, Edward)

In today’s India, politics is the answer to every puzzle.
Take the Aryan migration conundrum. Did the Aryans originate in Eastern Europe or Central Asia, and fan out into Western Europe and India 4000 years ago? Did they smash their way across Mohenjodaro and Harappa, killing many of the original settlers of India and driving the rest into the southern jungles? Was the Rg Veda composed in Helmand, Afghanistan?
It is tiresome to repeat the arguments and evidence for and against these propositions. There are linguistic, archaeological and mythological arguments in their favor; there are archaeological, DNA-based and scriptural arguments that point to an indigenous birth for Hindu civilization.
Why is this suddenly such a hot topic of national debate? The answer, as always, is politics. The debates tend to degenerate into ad hominems where one side is accused of being communists, or of being brainwashed by western propaganda, while the other side is accused of being unscientific fascists or religious nutjobs.
I read one unsatisfactory book that argued in favor of an external (Persian) origin for Indian civilization a few weeks ago; I have now balanced it out by reading an utterly ridiculous book that argues in favor of Buddhists emanating from India and colonizing Greece, Italy, Egypt, Great Britain and even Peru.
Mind you, Pococke’s premise isn’t a bad one at first glance: the Greek language does not explain the meanings of the names of the mountains, rivers and towns of Greece. Therefore, Pococke conjectures, those names must have been given them by people of another nation, speaking a different language. Using this premise, and almost nothing else, the author constructs a bewilderingly elaborate theory that would be admirable for its ambitious reach if it weren’t so patently unhistorical and  wrong. According to this theory, there was a great war in India, between the Brahmanical and Buddhistic faiths, and the losers (the Buddhists) were driven to take refuge beyond the reach of their oppressors, thus founding several civilizations around the world.
Names are Pococke’s premise, and names are the only evidence he needs. Vaguely similar sounding derivations of names from broken Sanskrit are the weapon of his choice. Thus, he derives Makedonian from ‘Magadhan’, Corinthus from ‘Kori Indus’, Persia from ‘Parasoo’ (of Parasu-rama fame), Babylon from ‘Bopalan’ (or the people of Bhopal), Scandinavian from Scanda-Nabhi (or ‘Skanda Chiefs’), Autochthons from Attac-thans (or the people of Attock), Philippos of Macedon from Bhili-pos (or ‘Bhil prince’), Argolis from ‘Argh-walas’, Saxons from ‘Saca-soono’ (or ‘sons of Sakas’), Centaurs from Kandahar, Hyperboreans from ‘Khyber-purians’, Cassiopaei from Kashyapa, Thesprotians from ‘Des-Bharatians’, the race of Inachus from the Incas of Peru, Etruscan from Turushka, Syria from Surya, Palestine from ‘Pali-stan’, the Jews or tribes of Juda/Yuda from Yadu, Argonauts from ‘argha-nath’, Dalmatia from Dalai Lama, Cronos from Karna, Triptolemos from ‘Sri-Buddha-Lamas’, Lacadaemon from ‘Ladakhi-men’, and Pythagoras from ‘Buddha-Guru’. These are all far-fetched contrivances, every one of them; just because a word in Greek can be made out of one or more similar sounding words in a different language does not imply an etymological connection, let alone an historical one. I might as well say that the word Po-cocke is derived from the Tamil term ‘Po-Kakkoos’ which broadly means, ‘Go to the toilet’. Which, as it happens, is apt advice for what ought to be done with the book, but I cannot, with a straight face, claim from this that Pococke was a severely constipated Tamilian.
  1. Sonmans, Wilhelm, d.1708; Edward Pococke (1604-1691)

    Edward Pococke (1604-1691); Bodleian Libraries; attributed to Wilhelm Sonmans: What’s in a Name?


    The only non-etymological ‘proofs’ offered by Pococke are the following:

    The Greek language is a derivative of Sanskrit, therefore Sanskrit-speaking people must have dwelt in Greece before later tribes corrupted the language
    The first act of a German on rising, was ablution (according to Tacitus). They also tied their loose braided hair with a top-knot. So Germans came from India.
    Colonel Tod says that Rajputs worship daggers. But the sword was worshipped in Athens by Attila the Hun. Hence the Rajputs were in Athens
    The grottos of Salsette, Elephantina and Ellora remind us strongly of the excavations in Egypt and Nubia, of the royal tombs at Thebes and the monument at Ipsambul; therefore they must have been built by the same people
    The story of Ullyses’ men getting imprisoned by Circe is very similar to that of Prince Vijaya’s men getting imprisoned by Kuveni; clearly, Ullyses was Buddhist.
    Celibacy, fasting, prayers for the dead, enshrined relics, holy water, incense, candles in broad day, bead rosaries for prayers, worship of saints, processions and a monastic habit – are all common to the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Church.

The first five are trivial. Resemblances in language, social behavior, hair styles, articles of worship, temple architecture, and mythical themes can be explained in fifty different ways, and do not imply a common historical origin. Some Rajput clans are related to the Huns who invaded India (but not to the Athenians who were attacked by the Huns).

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The Delayed Dowry of King Charles

April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

It is not my usual practice to post twice about the same book, specially not a book as underwhelming as Jose Gerson da Cunha’s The Origin of Bombay. However, the otherwise bigoted book had a section that recounted a well-researched, amusing and not very well-known anecdote, and I just had to retell it in my own words. This is a super-long post, but I am paraphrasing about 40 pages of da Cunha’s book, so I hope you will bear with me.

The historical background isn’t difficult to recount. Portugal had been a pioneer in maritime commerce from the time Bartholomew Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, but other countries caught up eventually, and by the mid-17th century, Portugal was already a fading power, its ships constantly harassed by those of the English, the Spanish and the Dutch. The Braganca king Joao IV was a worried man; his best bet to gain a strong partner against the Spanish and the Dutch was by means of a strategic matrimonial alliance for his sister Catherine. Initially, he flirted with the idea of pairing her off with Don Juan of Austria, the bastard son of Charles V who hammered the Turks at Lepanto and was, centuries later, the subject of a rapturous poem by GK Chesterton (‘Don John of Austria is going to the war!’), but that fell through. He next sent his best negotiators to France, asking for the hand of the Bourbon Louis XIV; but the wily French First Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, outwitted the Portuguese and got the Roi Soleil married off to the Spanish Infanta instead; and so the fair Catherine had to settle for her third choice, the Stuart King Charles II of England and Scotland. These negotiations were successful – Catherine’s dowry included the island of  Bombay on the Western coast of India, a Portuguese possession since 1534, and the Stuart king promised protection for Portuguese ships on the open seas, in return.

The fact that Bombay became British property as part of Catherine’s dowry is reasonably well-known. It is what happened next that isn’t.

The treaty of marriage was signed on 23 June 1661, and the wedding itself took place almost a year later, on 31 May 1662.

Even before that (since affairs of state cannot wait for frivolous things like weddings) a fleet of five men o’ war was dispatched from England in March 1662, under the command of the Earl of Marlborough. It contained 500 troops, headed by Sir Abraham Shipman, who was tasked with taking over Bombay from the Portuguese. So far so good.

A few days later, on 9 April 1662, the King of Portugal wrote to Antonio de Mello de Castro,  a man so obscure that history has forgotten him and not even bothered to put up a Wikipedia page in his name, but a hero, nevertheless, as the following episode will confirm.

The King said this, in substance: ‘Dude, there is this treaty; you are to proceed to Bombay with some Brits, take control of our Indian possessions as my new Viceroy of India,  review the warrant that the Brits give you, and if everything is satisfactory, deliver Bombay to them. Keep the rest.

It wasn’t complex. Yet.

Two days later, accordingly, de Mello casts to sea, meets up with Marlborough en route and proceeds towards Bombay.

It takes nearly six months for the flotilla to reach Bombay, which they finally do on 18 September 1662. Six months on board the same ship is a very long time: enough time for de Mello to develop a cordial and brisk dislike for Marlborough in particular and the English in general.

On arriving, Marlborough demands that the entire island system of Salsette (of which the islands of Bombay are a part) be handed over as promised; de Mello is only too happy to decline. He then proceeds to Goa, which is the main Portuguese possession in India, to take over his Viceregal post.

Marlborough cools his heels, thinks things through, then says, OK fine, then give me only Bombay, damn it.

De Mello says, I’m glad we settled that, but hang on – it says here that I am supposed to deliver Bombay to a certain Mr. Abraham Shipman: where is he? Since you are not the aforementioned Mr. Shipman, I am not authorized to give you anything.

Meanwhile, Shipman arrives (I am a little unclear how he managed to start off with  Marlborough’s fleet but arrive a month later, but stay with me on this, please) and produces the much awaited Letters Patent given him by King Charles. Thank you, says de Mello, I will now review these letters and get back to you. When will he be done? He will be done with his review when he is done; not a moment sooner. There is a process and it cannot be hurried.

Marlborough, meanwhile, is getting restless. His brief had been to transport Shipman, and this had been executed. He has things to do, places to be, and so forth. Shipman asks the British East India Company (at Surat) for permission to park his 500 troops there temporarily until the review process got over. Sir Oxendon of the Company says, um, sorry, mate, no can do, I’m being watched by the Mughals, and if they saw troops here, I’m a dead man.

So Marlborough dumps Shipman and crew on a deserted, inhospitable island called Angedive, and pushes off to Europe, his part in this story done.

Meanwhile, de Mello has been busy. On 28 December 1662, he pens a letter for his King. The Brits are a nasty, arrogant lot, he complains. And Shipman had produced a letter, not a warrant as he had been told to expect. Even worse, the letter that Shipman produced had the royal seal, but not the signature of the English kingIsn’t that a breach of protocol? Do kings of England sign their letters or don’t they? Finally this: Sire, this is a really bad idea. Don’t give Bombay to these guys: it’s our best port in India, and they are jerks. Just pay them some money instead and keep Bombay with you.

And because email hasn’t been invented yet, and more pertinently because Portuguese ships weren’t safe on the Indian ocean any more, he sends the message through a Jesuit priest who embarks on a convoluted overland route to Lisbon.

Meanwhile Charles II gets wind of the delay, and so he summons the Portuguese ambassador to his court, gives him a good, old-fashioned bollocking, and demands that the island be ceded forthwith and a penalty of  100,000 pounds be paid England as compensation for expenses.

It is now 16 August 1663 – over two years since the treaty was signed – and the Portuguese king sends de Mello a stinker. “We hear from our esteemed brother the King of England that you haven’t delivered Bombay yet. Are you kidding us? YOU HAD ONE JOB. Do this at once.

The Jesuit priest finally reaches Lisbon on 25 October 1663. The contents of de Mello’s letter are perused; the embassies in Portugal and England spring to life and matters of protocol are discussed.

On 23 November 1663, King Charles sends a new commission in favour of Sir Abraham Shipman. This time he signs it. History unfortunately does not record what he mutters while doing so.

On 8 February 1664, the King of Portugal replies to de Mello: “We read your long whiny letter. We SIMPLY DON’T CARE. You are causing a MAJOR international incident with THE ONLY FRIENDS WE’VE GOT. Who also happen to be IN-LAWS. Just do as we say, and deliver the damn place to them AT ONCE, you PATHETIC old fart.  We trust we are PERFECTLY CLEAR on this point.”

On 5 April 1664, Shipman, still languishing on the godforsaken island of Angediva, receives King Charles’ new commission. He sends a copy to de Mello in Goa, who hasn’t received his Master’s word yet, and so he says, ah, I see this is a copy, of course I need it endorsed as a true copy. And then I will review it. And we shall see.

But then, in September 1664, the King of Portugal’s stinker arrives. De Mello jumps up like a nervous rabbit, and tries to reach Shipman to begin transfer proceedings, finally.

The luckless Shipman has died by this time, along with many of his men. (There is a reason you don’t hear of Angediva as a popular tourist destination).

De Mello is not a quick thinker on the best of days, but this development completely flummoxes him. He has been authorized to deliver the island immediately by his sovereign, and he has received papers – signed and duly attested papers – favouring a Mr. Abraham Shipman, but this gentleman is dead; so what does due process suggest he do now?

On 3 November 1664, he refers the matter to the Portuguese Supreme Court at Goa. They respond promptly. Who does the dead man’s will name as beneficiary, it asks. Just give Bombay to that person. Luckily, Shipman had not died intestate. Even luckier, his chief beneficiary, a Humphrey Cooke, is at hand in Angediva.

On 5 November 1664, Humphrey Cooke’s commission is translated into Portuguese and forwarded to Goa, with an endorsement signed by five Englishmen and one Portuguese priest (to confirm that the translation was conformable); de Mello then requires and gets another Portuguese clerk to attest to the genuineness and handwriting of the first Portuguese man. And this is done.

Yet de Mello demurs. What in heaven’s name can be the problem now, everyone asks in unison. The translation mentions an “Inofre Coque”, he says, sulkily. The will mentions “Humphrey Cooke”; is Inofre the appropriate translation of Humphrey or not?

At this point everyone – Portuguese, English, Kings, priests, clerks and judges – is pretty much at the end of their tether, so finally de Mello delivers the island to the English on 26 December 1664, three and a half years after the transaction was agreed upon.

Antonio de Mello de Castro is a true unsung hero. Let it never be said that the Portuguese empire subsided without a trace. Not Vasco da Gama, not Affonso de Albuquerque, not St. Francis Xavier – in the centuries to come, their contributions may be forgotten; it is de Mello who will have had the longest lasting influence. In him, Portugal bequeathed to both the European Union and India a patron saint for bureaucrats, one who has watched over them lovingly for centuries and guided their every slow, ponderous step.

The Origin of Poor History

April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

Bombay OriginThe Origin of Bombay (da Cunha, Jose Gerson)

Jose Gerson da Cunha was a renowned Goan doctor, numismatist, linguist and “orientalist” in the late 19th century. Curiously, he was an “oriental” himself, tracing his lineage to a 16th century Saraswat Brahmin called Balkrishna Shenoy who converted to Christianity and adopted the surname Cunha.

I got this biographical detail, not from the book under review, but from da Cunha’s Wikipedia page. If you read the book without this knowledge, you would assume that da Cunha was European born and bred, and you would find several parts tremendously condescending to Indians.

port bomb

Portuguese Bombay (courtesy Wikipedia)


You would have been mildly annoyed right at the beginning, where da Cunha, after a brief and sweeping survey of Indian history, declares

The true history of India, however, begins with the arrival of the Portuguese in India. Castanheda, Gaspar Correa, Jose de Barros, Diogo do Couto, Antonio Bocarro and a few others… are the best historians India ever had up to the end of the 16th century. From that time history has emerged from the stage of mere personal narratives and anecdotal tales. In showing their sympathy with virtue and abhorrence with vice, unlike their irreconcilable enemies the Moors, they for the first time in India set an example worthy of being imitated by those to whom Sir H Elliot applies the Ciceronian remark of ‘non exornatores rerum, sed tantum – modo narrators fuerent’ (but embellish their facts they did not – they only narrated them, MY TRANSLATION)

Of course, da Cunha then proceeds to tell us about how the inimitable historian Gaspar Correa describes in two chapters the “great expeditionary force” that Nuno da Cunha collected in Goa to fight Bahadur Shah, referring to it as “the largest army ever seen in India”.

No embellishment there! No sir, just the facts, Cicero style!

Remember this was an army collected in Goa by a Portuguese pirate to fight a provincial warlord (who was later swatted like an errant fly by a weak Mughal army en route to getting its own backside kicked by Sher Shah Suri).

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