Back in the 1990s, I had the occasion of spending time with Obaidullah Baig (1936-2012), once doing a journalism workshop in a forest rest house near Faisalabad and again at the Quetta PTV station talking about documentaries on his show. Why he thought I could be any use still escapes me, but I am grateful I could be together with him.
I loved the way he spoke Urdu. I was greatly affected by his courtesy although he kept referring to his Mughal extraction and the decadence attached to it — which, if the Muslims get their minds off war, is pure culture. He fitted into my memory album of friends from Rampur. He could transfix you with his knowledge about Pakistan — from its wildlife to its people — because he had wandered the length and breadth of it, shooting film.
I also participated in his quiz show with another great personality, Quraishpur. Both did me the honour of allowing me to spend time with them chatting at the Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. I remember the personality I quizzed them with was Max Muller. I don’t recall if it was guessed right.
Baig constantly talked about the origins of words. He passed the disease on to me. He was awarded the Pride of Performance (2008) — rather late, I thought. I remember writing a profile of him in The Friday Times under the title “Endangered Species”.
Baig is the name-ending of the Mughals. You also write it as ‘Beg’. The masculine form is reserved for Mughal men but its feminine form ‘begum’ is attached to all female names Mughal or non-Mughal without a surname. Traditionally, girls were not given the name, their status and name being subject to change after marriage.
‘Baig’ is supposed to be a Turkic word denoting ‘honour’. Since honour radiated only from military rank, ‘Baig’ or its mutated form ‘Bey’ meant ‘an army general’. The baigs are supposed to belong to the Mughal tribe of Barlas, at times attached to names to indicate noble origin. In India, they were also called Mirza which is a shortened version of ‘amir-zada’ (of noble birth). Mirza Aslam Beg is thus a true-blue military aristocrat.
The Ottomans ruled the area around the Black Sea. One Georgian who became associated with the revival of Sindhi letters was Mirza Kalich Beg of whom Obaidullah Baig used to talk often. But the origin of ‘Baig’ or ‘Bey’ was not originally Turkish, just as the Turkish word ‘effendi’ was derived from the Greek word ‘authentic’. Greeks pronounced ‘th’ as ‘f’, which converted ‘authentic’ to ‘effendi’. Slavs also pronounce it like that: ‘Theodor’ is ‘Feodor’.
But ‘Baig’ stands for ‘god’, too. I stumbled upon this connection in Ancient Persia by Josef Wieshofer (IB Tauris 2001, p.165):
“The fact that the king referred to himself as god (Middle Persian ‘bay’) shows that the subjects were to consider their ruler not only as some kind of overlord, but as a king with divine qualities. Greek uses the word theos for both king and god.
Here the king is given the epithet bay (Old Persian baga). For the Iranians of the Sassanian period, there were accordingly two kinds of gods: First the great king and his royal father, no matter whether alive or dead, as god-men and consequently material beings. Secondly, however, the remote ancestors, gods in the real sense, who are to be conceived as spiritual beings”.
In Russian, ‘god’ is ‘bog’ which they pronounce ‘bokh’. ‘Bagh’ in Baghdad is the Aryan god that became ‘bhag’ in Rigved and is today familiar to us as ‘bhagwan’. I hear the word ‘Afghan’ is also derived from it. We will discuss that later.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2012.