(My column in Mint Lounge, September 15 2018)


Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was a thin man with a big head. He had a long, sharp nose, surpassed by an even sharper intellect. The offspring of a Telugu Brahmin family, he was born on 15 September 1861 in a Karnataka village called Muddenahalli. His parents were of modest means but learnt quickly that English education was a passport to social mobility. Their second-born did not fail them—a diligent student, Visvesvaraya grew into an unsentimental man of action, leaving for greener academic pastures in Bengaluru soon after the untimely death of his father. He did have to earn his keep: while an uncle gave him breakfast and meals, board and college fees came from a wealthy local family. It was in service of this household that our future Bharat Ratna launched his career, giving private tuition to prosperous children long before he won his knighthood and came to be called India’s Father of Economic Planning.

The almost 101 years “Sir MV” lived were full of work and unceasing activity. He wrote books and gave countless speeches. He worshipped fact alone, caring little for oratorical wit or the charms of rhetoric. The keystone of his existence was routine and grinding discipline—the story went that he wore a three-piece suit (plus turban) even for a walk in his garden. When he spoke, his words came pregnant with substance, and he travelled the world—from America to Japan—commenting on everything from urban drainage to women’s employment. He loved statistics with a passion: when he published Reconstructing India in 1920, he peppered it with facts and figures so diverse, that it remains an encyclopedia that tells us, among other things, how India a century ago had 19,410 post offices.

Such rigour served Visvesvaraya well. Soon after he acquired his bachelor of arts degree, he went to Pune to qualify as an engineer. He worked in the Deccan and served in the Sindh, developing irrigation channels and building filtering systems. By his late 30s, he had superseded as many as 18 seniors in the jealous ranks of officialdom, retiring in 1908 when he realized he would never be made, on account of the colour of his skin, that special thing: chief engineer of an entire British province. While touring Italy later that year, he received an invitation from the nizam of Hyderabad. And so Visvesvaraya commenced the next part of his career, designing infrastructure in that prince’s capital before transferring his services to the maharajah of his native state of Mysore.

At first, Visvesvaraya was chief engineer in India’s most advanced princely realm, till in 1912 his ruler elevated him to the dignity of dewan (chief minister). Some muttered that handing the administration to an engineer was akin to placing a woodcutter at the helm of government, but the technocrat shook the place up, marching the state ahead by systematic leaps and bounds. He set up Mysore University, and pumped money into the Krishna Raja Sagara dam; he established the Bank of Mysore and set in motion what would become the iron and steel works in Bhadravati. From developing the sandalwood soap industry to promoting silks from Mysore’s looms, Visvesvaraya soon proved himself the force behind a thriving state, resigning only after six years, following a quarrel with the maharajah on the issue of reservations.

By now Visvesvaraya, who among other things was a MICE (Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers), was ready for even bigger things. He had views not only on economics and governance, but also on social policy and national enlightenment. In Reconstructing India, in fact, are ideas that even today resonate. “If bureaucracy prevails,” he warned, for instance, “industries will not prosper.” Without modern industry—which meant progressive education, social reform, and women’s empowerment—the nation itself would not prosper. The state had to guide the process but know its limits: the “people require help and backing,” he argued, “not control and direction.” Page after page presented a vision for India, one in which caste retreated before “a saner social system” and nationalism meant love for the country as much as everyday civic awareness.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Visvesvaraya was already an elder with a voice that mattered. He sat on the board of the Tata Iron and Steel Co. and served as president of the Indian Science Congress. He lambasted the British for their economic exploitation, even as he lectured his countrymen against making fatalistic philosophical excuses. In 1934, he argued even with Gandhi—the Mahatma did not share Visvesvaraya’s faith in large-scale industry, noting that “we hold perhaps diametrically opposite views” on which path would deliver the country to its destiny. “I could never persuade myself to take up a hostile attitude toward…one with your brilliant achievements,” wrote the south Indian to the Gujarati sincerely. But he still believed that alongside the village and its cottage industries, India needed steel plants and factories, to transform itself and rise in the 20th century.

Though they respected each other, Visvesvaraya had disagreements with Jawaharlal Nehru too. On one occasion, he admonished the prime minister publicly. He was also a strong advocate of meaningful federalism, where the centre’s “intervention in provincial affairs (is) reduced to the lowest possible minimum”. Nehru meanwhile empowered the capital and could not grant the states real autonomy. But between them emerged a constructive engagement, and the old man’s letters were always welcome at the prime minister’s desk. Visvesvaraya, by now, had risen from legendary mind into an object of sheer wonder. Nearing his 100th birthday, when asked about the secret of his longevity, he remarked matter-of-factly: “Death called on me long ago but found me not at home and went away.” It returned on 12 April 1962, and this time the bachelor from Muddenahalli was ready, having made his mark in the world, and having said everything that needed to be said.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 08 2018)


In September 1921, Lord Reading, the British viceroy of India, received from an army general a most urgent telegram. “The situation,” warned the military man, “is now clearly actual war, and famine, widespread devastation and prolonged rebellion can only be avoided by prompt measures”. He was referring to the horrific communal uprising in Malabar, known as the Mappila Rebellion, so intimidating in its scale and fury that it took six months for the authorities to prevail and restore order. In the end, 2,339 rebels were killed, nearly 6,000 captured, and over 39,000 persuaded to surrender. Much blood had flowed through parts of northern Kerala, featuring “guerilla warfare, plunder, terrorization” and worse, by Mappilas against the colonial state as well as local grandees, in an outburst of economic and religious hostility.

The economic angle is clearest and, for many, more comfortable to acknowledge. In 1915, it was found, for instance, that one-fifth of the land revenue in Malabar came from 86 landlords, 84 of whom were Hindus. Muslim Mappilas were often tenants-at-will, easily turned out from the land they tilled, by superiors who, even in the best of times, could charge anywhere from 59-77% of the produce as rent. All legal clauses privileged the owner—even when the landlord, such as the Zamorin in Kozhikode, wasn’t fully certain where his land began or ended. This, naturally, left cultivators in a perpetually precarious position. The colonial establishment, meanwhile, had no desire for reform. Even in 1917, the British were convinced that legislation to prevent arbitrary eviction of cultivators would be a “grave political mistake”.

Resentment had built up over many years among the Mappilas and through the 19th century there had been dozens of “outrages”, predominantly in south Malabar. Each time it was quashed, but the figures could be disturbing. In 1849, for example, 64 Mappilas were shot dead, most of them under the age of 24 and impoverished. However, some of the responses from those captured alive were revealing. It was “impossible”, said one rebel in 1843, “for people to live quietly while the Atheekarees (officials) and Jenmies (landlords)…treat us in this way”. Eight years later, during another outbreak, a Mappila leader declared: “What is the loss to the Nairs and Namboories (the Hindu elites) if a piece of ground…be allotted for the construction of a Mosque? Let those hogs (soldiers) come here, we are resolved to die.”

This, then, highlights the religious element, which also animated a good section of the rebels in 1921: economic marginalization channelled into jihad. The Mappilas had, to begin with, seen happier days. There had been warriors among them, and wealth in their trading community before the dawn of colonialism. Kerala’s connections to Arabia meant that Islam came here shortly after its birth, with one legend placing a Malayali king as witness to the Prophet splitting the moon. By 849 AD, Muslims were witnessing royal grants, and till the advent of the Europeans, Mappilas held senior positions at the Zamorin’s court, joining in the 12-yearly Mamankam celebrations. Muslim nerchchas even resembled Hindu poorams (festivals), and there were multiple bonds between these diverse communities, cemented by economic interests.

What the Mappilas lost first was political clout—as Europeans ejected Muslims from the spice trade, Hindu elites aligned their interests with these new lords of the seas. To quote the scholar Roland E. Miller, “The Mappilas in the main (slowly) became a community of poor labourers, fishermen, shopkeepers and religious figures. Deep poverty became the general pattern,” as they forfeited former positions of influence. The invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan injected short-lived confidence into the community, but by the end of the 18th century, it was British power in the ascendant, aided by the Hindu aristocracy; an aristocracy that now suspected Mappilas for their flirtation with the fearsome, violent Tipu, who had caused them only pain.

Religious animosity swelled on both sides during the 19th century. In 1851, a Nair landlord was killed after he forced a Mappila to replace the call to prayer with a “summons to eat swine’s flesh”. Meanwhile, in 1844, a British official had already noted that, encouraged by overzealous religious men, some Mappilas had started to believe that the “murder of a heretic is a passport to heaven”. As late as 1896, when a Mappila was captured after a temple attack, he confirmed his suicidal convictions: “We came to the temple intending to fight…and die. That is what we meant to do when we started.” And what would come after death? As testimony from an earlier survivor went, “I had heard that there was a reward in heaven for those who got shot.” Indeed in 1898, one Mappila even pointed out that his biggest fear was that he would get shot in the legs and live: only a fatal shot opened the gates of paradise.

Without economic resources, pushed to the corners, and radicalized by an extremist minority, the men who sparked the outrages exemplified a combination of factors that birthed violence. To this was added the trigger of the Khilafat Movement in 1921, with protests against the post-World War I unseating of the Ottoman Caliph. Unprecedented savagery was unleashed that year. Hindu and Christian homes were targeted, and, as a declaration by the Zamorin claimed, cows were killed in temples, with assailants “putting their entrails on the holy image and hanging skulls on the walls and the roofs”. It was a horrifying display of fanaticism but came at the end of a long history of alienation: the stake Mappilas had in society had been watered down, till it was felt that the order itself must be toppled if they were to find purpose. The result was pain—for all of Malabar society—but from it was born introspective wisdom. For it was understood that if there was to be peace between the communities, each one of them had to feel that important thing: a sense of common belonging.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 1 2018)


In the summer of 2004, when Kamala Markandaya died in London, she brought to close a life of impressive literary output married to an old-fashioned tendency towards self-effacement. Intensely private and studiously evasive of the press, her last two-and-a-half decades saw this recluse retreat even further into a cocoon, so that whole generations of readers failed to encounter her work at all. Some of it was illness, but another cause for her undeclared retirement was that she seemed to have lost her audience. In fact, after 1982, Markandaya had trouble publishing her work and her final novel appeared posthumously in 2008, 20 years after it was written. The general consensus is that she had grown “outdated”, and that in the reorientation which followed Salman Rushdie’s sensational Midnight’s Children (1981), all who came before were inevitably eclipsed. As one observer put it, “Whether ahead or behind literary trends,” by the time her name appeared in the obituaries, “Markandaya’s work was almost forgotten.”

There is truth to this gloomy remark, made stark by the irony that only 27 years before Midnight’s Children, it was Markandaya who had made a sensational global debut with Nectar In A Sieve. In 1954, at the age of 30, this Kannadiga, who called herself “Hindu-Brahmin in religion” and “anti-imperialist in politics”, produced a 189-page best-seller, earning not only critical acclaim but as much as $100,000 in prize money. In the US—where she shared a publisher with Jawaharlal Nehru—her novel was absorbed into school curricula: She was celebrated as one who offered, in polished English, an “authentic” picture of changing Indian social dynamics. It did not matter that the author did not see herself as a spokesperson for India, for her readers abroad thought that was precisely what she was. This also explained why she won more admiration overseas than at home. As the poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel scoffed in a 1979 review, “An Indian writer living permanently abroad can always be trusted to write knowingly about life in an Indian village.”

Markandaya had not always lived abroad. Born Kamala Purnaiya in 1924 in princely Mysore, as a student in 1940s Chennai she was briefly also a journalist. At some point, she decided to spend 18 months in a village “out of curiosity”. This inspired the setting of her first novel, centred on Rukmani and her farmer husband, who negotiate not only nature’s cruel whimsies but also change in the disruptive form of a modern tannery. The theme may sound predictable—rural forbearance in the face of industrialization—but the novel did not succumb to cliché. On the contrary, the protagonist’s “voice” can sometimes seem a little too cosmopolitan to fit into her context. Markandaya, of course, rejected criticism that her characters were not fully “there”: “The fundamental mistake,” she argued, “is to think that a peasant thinks differently from you.” Yet, the novel has its peculiarities, when villagers talk of “fried pancakes” and “rice cakes” to avoid words like pakoras and idlis. She won adulation for presenting India to the world, but to many Indians this came at the cost of genuine “Indianness”.

By 1948, Markandaya had moved to London and married an Englishman. Her later life informed the inter-racial, East-West dynamics that animate her novels. Some Inner Fury (1957) features an Indian woman during the Quit India Movement whose nationalism is juxtaposed against her romance with an Englishman, while Possession (1963) presents a talented goatherd “discovered” by a calculating Western aristocrat, who launches him as an exotic artist in London. Then, of course, disillusioned, he returns to the spiritual embrace of India. There are parties, there is sex, there is a swami, but this is also where Markandaya first succumbs to the allure of cliché she so skilfully avoided in her first novel.

After memorable works that reflect on faith and reason, hope, frustration and more in urban India, when Markandaya tried to break away from what was expected of her, she did not find support forthcoming. In The Nowhere Man(1972), she turned the gaze away from Indian settings to the challenges faced by an immigrant in Western society. The book, however, was met with “thunderous silence”. As long as she played the role charted for her as a storyteller of India, it seemed, she was welcome, but a commentary on the West would not be easily digested. Perhaps owing to this pressure, her next novel, Two Virgins (1973), returned to the village, sinking irrecoverably into stereotypes. It begins promisingly, but soon one character is seduced and damaged by the Big Bad City, yearning for stardom and freedom, while her sister tediously romanticizes all that is rural. The village, for example, was where “You knew each grove, each acre, each homestead…every pathway…. You knew who you were.” The reader, then, can agree with the critic who said that it is “with relief that one drops” this book.

This, then, became the tragedy of Markandaya. She was gifted, and possessed both skill and perspective, but over time there was “a slow decline in her reputation as a writer that finally dwindled to silence”. The West, where she won the principal share of her appreciation, moved on in the 1980s to a new generation with new approaches, while her motherland in the East thought her de-Indianized and out of touch. Her characters were, as Ezekiel put it, mere “puppets, manufactured for those who know nothing about India”. How Markandaya the woman negotiated this crisis is not known—she rarely gave interviews, left no autobiography, saw few people, and for all practical purposes, disappeared from the horizon. But for all that, one hopes, perhaps she had some consolation in knowing that at least for a brief period, she had been at the forefront; that it was she who told India’s tales to the world beyond, and brought a young, new nation into the global literary conversation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 25 2018)


By this time in August 1659, everyone in the imperial court knew that Dara Shukoh would soon find himself minus his head. Emperor Shahjahan’s eldest and favourite son, beloved of mystics and poets, had lost the war of succession, outsmarted by the shrewder Aurangzeb. Plundered by his own soldiers, abandoned by old retainers, his wife dead (possibly by suicide), and betrayed by a man he thought loyal, Dara seemed conscious of his impending doom. He wrote to his royal captor from his place of confinement, promising to spend the rest of his days praying for the new emperor’s welfare. But his pleas were rejected—to the victorious Aurangzeb, hatred for Dara had accumulated over decades, and in the sham “trial” that followed, the elder brother was accused of everything, from perverting imperial judgement to scandalous heresy, till the younger confirmed, self-righteously, the sentence of death.

The life Dara had led before was full of splendour and privilege. He sat on a golden chair in his father’s court, and was styled, in happier days, Prince of Lofty Fortune. Before both chair and fortune were abruptly toppled, he had enjoyed 2 crore silver rupees a year in income. He was his father’s closest adviser, provoking envy from more than one of his several siblings. Dara’s personality was fascinating, and while he wrote sentimental verses on renunciation, he was no stranger to the notion of self-interest. When Aurangzeb, for instance, cornered the Shia sultanates of the Deccan, it was to Dara that their rulers sent their appeals. The senior prince, the sultans knew, had the ear of the emperor—and since Dara had no desire to see ambitious Aurangzeb swell in power, he prevailed on their father and had his brother’s designs thwarted.

He did have natural defects in character. “He entertained,” wrote François Bernier, who was Dara’s personal physician for a brief period, “too exalted an opinion of himself (and) believed he could accomplish everything by the powers of his own mind…He spoke disdainfully of those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers”. Added to this fatal over-confidence, born of soaring intellectual talents, was disdain for proud men with narrow minds. “Paradise,” he proclaimed, “is where no mullah exists”—naturally even sympathetic mullahs turned away from Dara. And so, for all the love and regard his father fed him, the man assembled enemies, with resentments as sharp as Aurangzeb’s. His chief military campaign, moreover, was a flop, and he lacked with ordinary troops that bond which brought success to his brothers—where they picked the sword, Dara collected Sufi saints.

But the Mughal prince’s weaknesses were only of the kind that one might find in any human being. His mind, on the other hand, surpassed his contemporaries. At 25, he authored his first book, and two years before his execution, he was still composing lines of pure delight. “He was constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis,” complained a poet employed by Aurangzeb, till he regarded “these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom.” He composed the Majma-al-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans), seeking, like his ancestor Akbar, to unite faiths to fashion a new vision for society. So, too, it was Dara who translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian, which a century later allowed Voltaire in France to immerse himself in Indian wisdom. These were, Shahjahan’s ill-destined son wrote, “without doubt of suspicion, the first of all heavenly books”—lines that would one day be used against him as a direct challenge to the Quran.

But the times were violent and while Dara scaled the heights of intellectual attainment, he failed in claiming the power of arms that sustained kingship in that complex age. When Shahjahan fell ill, his son made tactical mistakes. He yet had chances of success, with the royal forces and treasure vaults at his disposal, but on the battlefield Aurangzeb was the real warrior, Dara only a poet in armour. He was defeated and fled Agra while his father wept, wandering from province to province, till Aurangzeb’s men defeated him once again. He should have fled to Persia when he had a chance—perhaps he might have returned like Akbar’s father to fight another day—but bad judgement and betrayal by that treacherous friend delivered Dara his warrant of death.

When Dara came shackled to Delhi, the people shed tears in sincere regret. “From every quarter,” noted Bernier, “I have heard piercing and distressing shrieks…men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves.” Aurangzeb had, then, to eliminate this popular rival, and men were sent to do the deed on 30 August. His younger son died with him, while the older was captured and poisoned slowly to death. For these brutal political events, of course, a religious vindication was expertly prepared. As Aurangzeb’s chronicler wrote, with his obsession with the Vedas and his attention devoted to “the contents of these wretched books”, Dara was an apostate. “It became manifest that if Dara Shukoh obtained the throne…the foundations of faith would be in danger and the precepts of Islam would be changed for the rant of infidelity and Judaism.” The murder of brother by brother, then, was both imperial justice and god’s fury in direct play.

It is tempting to imagine how Mughal history might have been shaped had Dara reigned and not Aurangzeb. Would he have saved the empire by becoming the Akbar of his age? Might he have embraced the Marathas as Akbar embraced the Rajputs? It is impossible to say, though as a historian once wrote, Dara Shukoh was perhaps destined to fail either way. He had many flaws and he had his strengths, but what really marked him out as a man of tragedy and dismay was one peculiar detail: he was far too civilized for his age.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 18 2018)


Sometime in the last decade—when I was still in school and the world was less hysterical—I happened to meet a “sun yogi”. He was a fascinating man, swathed in white, with a long beard and an enviable figure. His face beamed, more or less on a permanent basis, and he endured cheerfully my stabs at polite conversation. Mr Uma Sankar, I was eventually told, meditated daily, staring straight at the sun. And from the sun, “like plants and trees”, he absorbed energy in such adequate doses that since 1996, he had neither eaten, nor slept, nor tasted a drop of water. To be clear, I wasn’t prepared to digest such claims upfront, but the unwisdom of picking a public quarrel with a yogiwas manifest—and so, having made mixed sounds in response, I excused myself to return to people of my own nutritional preferences.

Earlier this week, however, this odd little episode resurfaced in my memory as I read John Zubrzycki’s riveting Jadoowallahs, Jugglers And Jinns (Pan Macmillan India). For, in its pages, I was thrilled to find the words of a traveller called Abu Zayd al-Sirafi who, 1,000 years before my own encounter with the sun yogi, had come across another such consumer of extraterrestrial rays. He described seeing men who “stand upright all day facing the sun”, one of whom he met after 16 years, still going strong, till the Persian wondered “how his eyes had not melted from the heat of the sun”. There was, in consonance with my own sentiments, a degree of incredulity in his account, but what is fascinating is that a whole millennium after Abu Zayd’s contemporary was at it, there is still a yogi doing precisely the same thing, living up (apparently) to the very same sunny tradition.

Zubrzycki’s book (of which the British title, Empire Of Enchantment, is more appealing) is officially a history of Indian magic. But it is in some ways also a history of the subcontinent itself. The Harappans make an appearance, as do the Vedas, for instance. We meet P.C. Sorcar, and more than one Mughal emperor. And it isn’t only my personal memory that finds an echo in antiquity through Zubrzycki’s writing—in the 1940s, hearing that the British resident in princely Hyderabad had witnessed a fakir “slit his stomach open and spread his bowels on a tray”, a comment was made that this was hardly “an appetising number” at a cocktail party. Emperor Gaozong in seventh-century China might have agreed, for he, too, once during “an evening feast”, was horrified to find Brahmins cutting themselves open in an effort to entertain him.

Magic, for Zubrzycki, lies clustered around religion, ritual, science and performance. He does not investigate this idea itself as much as he ought to have, perhaps, but what he does present is a rich, meticulous assortment of tales, travellers’ accounts, and fascinating archival treasures that tell, in parts, the stories of marginalized (and sometimes criminalized groups), the global exchange of magical skills, and sometimes obscure anecdotes sharp with hilarious detail. So, despite the occasional slip (Abu Zayd, for instance, is placed in the ninth century, when he was in fact a 10th century figure), the book remains engaging. And though, towards the end, it moves towards a decided focus on the West’s embrace of Indian magic, Zubrzycki retains steam and continues to hold attention by the sheer wealth of information unearthed from multiple continents.

Some of these are pure gems. For instance, while there is reading on the Rig Veda and Indra as the master of magic (indrajal), there is also charming material on the Atharva Veda and its recommendations for penis enlargement and body hair removal. The Nujum al-Ulum, a 16th century text from Bijapur (with cow-headed angels, Tantric deities, and everything from horses to halwa), also makes a cameo, as does the concept of maya in Adi Sankara’s advaita philosophy. One of the best stories, traced through official paperwork, relates to Motilal Nehru’s desire to send “performers, musicians, acrobats and artizans” to the Paris Exhibition in 1900. While the protector of emigrants in Mumbai felt they should be categorized as manual labourers going abroad, the commissioner of customs disagreed. In the end, the viceroy, Lord Curzon, was left to determine the burning question of whether magic “executed by sleight of hand” counted as manual labour.

Matters of race, and other imperial anxieties, also feature in Zubrzycki’s pages. When, for instance, a “pure European child” was discovered with a group of jugglers in Hingoli in 1858, a minor panic was unleashed that whites were being abducted by itinerant natives. Such mobile groups had another sinister role to play as well—Zubrzycki notes Kautilya’s recommendation that magicians and fortune-tellers be used as spies, which reminds one of how, indeed, in the 18th century, puppeteers, sadhus and others often served as intelligence agents for Indian regimes. The role, for instance, of fakirs who descended on British cantonments on the eve of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, prophesizing the imminent fall of colonial rule, is telling.

In sum, Zubrzycki’s book, featuring judicial apes in Orissa, goats that could tear down wild boars, emperors obsessed with necromancy, and Sufis and Buddhists, makes for a terrific read. There are some themes the author could have explored in greater depth, but this is a task he consciously leaves to scholars in the future. His chief lament, however, is one that rings true—the communities that practised magic on our streets are disappearing, and dying with them is a tremendous chunk of our cultural history. Whether this can be reversed is not clear, but by compiling so many of their tales, and doing it in such delectable style, Zubrzycki not only paints a vivid picture of their wonderful universe, but also makes his own contribution to help preserve their memory.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 11 2018)


In 1885, when the Indian National Congress met for its inaugural session in Mumbai, the scene was striking for more reasons than one. Not only was this the first pan-Indian gathering of upwardly mobile men of political convictions, the picture their combined presence painted was captivating even in a visual sense. As the Bombay Gazette noted (throwing political correctness to the wind), there were delegates from the south “the blackness of whose complexion seemed to be made blacker by spotless white turbans”. By their side stood “bearded, bulky and large-limbed” Pathans, along with “Banyas from Gujarat” and “Sindhees from Kurrachee”. Then there were Bengalis dressed like Englishmen, just as there were others with feet uninhibited by shoes. Turbans competed for attention, the Maharashtrian pagdi against the Parsi’s ancestral headdress. In all, “these men assembled in the same hall”, concluded the Gazette, “presented such a variety of costumes and complexions, that a similar scene can scarcely be witnessed anywhere”. Except, perhaps, “at a fancy (dress) ball”.

The half-condescending gaze of the Gazette might be forgiven, for in 1885 these men did seem less like representatives of one nation and more like exhibits from bewilderingly different cultures. There was, however, one invigorating sentiment that united them all, closely wedded to which was a common skill set. The sentiment, of course, was the prototype of Indian nationalism, and the circular announcing the Congress consciously described it as a “Conference of the Indian National Union”. The skill set, however, was not something that sat comfortably with national pride, for it was entirely of foreign make, soaked in Western cultural influences. As that circular also announced, “The Conference will be composed of Delegates…from all parts of (India)”, but these attendees needed to be “well acquainted with the English language”. In other words, to create a new mood of Indianness, what was sought was not only a shared patriotism, but also one of the most potent instruments of imperial rule: the colonizer’s grammar book.

Only the historically blind would deny the role English inadvertently played in the story of India. It is true that nationalism in this phase was about securing a greater share of the pie of official employment and lobbying for influence in the corridors of power—nobody had designs to unseat the British in 1885. Nor, as The Bengalee put it a little later, was this about the masses. “Who,” it snorted, “has ever asked that the peasantry should participate in the government…? Not even the most dreamy of our politicians have ever sought…this outrage upon common sense.” But despite its narrow objectives, what emerged from our anglicized elite’s grievances kick-started something vastly bigger. They gave speeches, published op-eds, and submitted memorandums, and soon this heterogeneous top layer of colonial society was welded close together, their resentments and aspirations voiced in a single language. The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi opened doors and transformed nationalism into a mass affair, but without an English prologue, no subsequent chapter would have made much sense—not to linguistically diverse Indians, nor to the British against whom they now openly railed.

It was in the language of the king-emperor that the Gujarati Mahatma mentored an Allahabadi called Jawaharlal Nehru, quarrelled with a Bengali named Subhas Chandra Bose, and won the allegiance of a Tamilian called Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Indeed, it was in English, to a great extent, that Gandhi communicated his own message, through letters and publications. It was in this alien tongue that he debated India’s economy with the Telugu technocrat Sir M. Visvesvaraya, and it was also this language that enabled him to negotiate social concessions with a maharani in Thiruvananthapuram. A firebrand like Bal Gangadhar Tilak earlier recognized this value of English—though his nationalism was inflected with Hindu pride, when he set up an institution in Pune in 1880, it was the New English School and not a Vedic gurukul. Indeed, even V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar published in English, without which large sections of their target audience would have been oblivious to their very existence.

Lord Macaulay, a notorious advocate of Western education in India, had hoped in 1835 to manufacture a class of English-speaking clerks to help sustain the Raj. What he had not quite anticipated, however, was that these agents would turn around and demand (in English) rights that Macaulay’s peers had little intention of bestowing. They included, to be clear, those who had concerns above government jobs and power—it was English schooling that first enabled Jyotirao Phule to smash the shackles of caste with such breathtaking effect. It was in English that he read Thomas Paine, whose work inspired his own writings like Gulamgiri, which he dedicated to the people of the US. In an earlier period, it was through English, among other Western languages, that the Maratha raja Serfoji imported modern science to Thanjavur—this he vernacularized for his subjects, but English served as a vehicle for new knowledge, through which he hoped to fashion an Indian modernity.

The irony that a foreign language helped “make” modern India was not lost on our leaders. “So far as English is concerned,” declared Nehru, “I am all in favour of (its) study…being continued…. But it seems to me rather humiliating for us to adopt a foreign language as the official all-Indian language.” The conundrum Nehru faced has not yet been resolved, and replacing a language uniformly alien to everybody (English) with a language that privileges some parts over others (Hindi) has little appeal. But whatever the future may hold, one thing must be acknowledged—English helped mould India as we know it. And mould us it did, not in the servile image Maucaulay or his heirs had envisioned, but in quite a different style, with flaws, strengths and endless other contradictions, cemented, however, by a boisterous, singular sense of resilience.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 4 2018)


In 1966, months after she was installed as prime minister, Indira Gandhi found herself locking horns with frenzied devotees of the holy cow. While that extremist passion to dismember other human beings in the name of bovine honour had not reached today’s horrific heights, the first year of Mrs Gandhi’s reign went down as a particularly trying period, Parliament itself coming under siege from defenders of the four-legged mother. Where initially the prime minister assumed a firm position, telling a newspaper that she would never “cow down to cow savers”, the alarming scale of the protests that rocked Delhi on 7 November persuaded her soon enough to come to terms with the sentiment. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi, back in the day, had declared cow protection a worthy cause—“one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution”—leaving little to interpretation when he added that “so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow”, the religion would endure.

While the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrine a commitment to cow protection, it was an open secret that Jawaharlal Nehru had stern feelings on the subject. Nehru was against any legislation to ban cow slaughter, even as the “big tent” that was the Congress party held an abundance of leaders with a confirmed allegiance to the cow. While he was able to keep things more or less under control for years, Nehru’s death in 1964 allowed the subject to re-emerge, and in 1965 plans were afoot for large-scale protests to press the government into embracing the gau mata. Three Sankaracharyas gave the movement their blessings, bringing together the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and assorted groups to launch an agitation in the summer of 1966, featuring everything from protest marches to hunger strikes.

On 7 November 1966, a massive crowd assembled near Parliament in Delhi—The Hindu reported between 300,000 and 700,000 people, though the actual figure was in the vicinity of 100,000. The lower number was not particularly reassuring though, for as the scholar Ian Copland notes in a 2014 paper, “it was, to that point in time, the biggest political gathering Delhi had ever witnessed”. Indira Gandhi was understandably rattled, and her fears were proved right when, that afternoon, violence reared its head. One speaker ignited the match—Swami Rameshwaranand, a BJS parliamentarian who had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for indecorous conduct, turned to his audience of trident-wielding sadhus and saffron-clad gau rakshaks and demanded, as The Guardian reported: “What are you doing here? They have turned me out of the House. Go in and teach them a lesson.”

A large, furious mob dutifully made its way to Parliament but finding the compound sealed off by armed guards, decided to do the next best thing—they smashed glass, damaged public property, toppled 250 cars, and set the Congress patriarch K. Kamaraj’s house on fire. Curfew was imposed, and policemen appeared with tear gas and guns, till eight people were dead and under 50 seriously injured (one right-wing website has inflated this event into a “Hindu Massacre”, alleging a preposterous 5,000 dead, buried in unmarked graves). It also didn’t help that the prime minister suspected the fidelity of her own home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, who was in charge of the police—he was a patron of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj, which was linked to the protests. The next day, Mrs Gandhi demanded and accepted the resignation of Nanda, once caretaker prime minister himself.

Even as hundreds were thrown into prison, the movement did not succumb. On 20 November, the Sankaracharya of Puri launched his hunger strike with due ceremony. “As the day dawned,” writes Copland, “a number of cows were brought out, fed…and decorated with vegetable-dye motifs of green and vermillion…Selected sadhus then worshipped the cows by walking around them seven times, halting periodically to sprinkle water on their hooves; after which (the Sankaracharya) rounded off proceedings with a prayer in Sanskrit that contained the moving appeal, ‘let cows be all around me’.” His fast—apparently even longer than the Mahatma’s longest—sustained energy for the movement and by early 1967, not less than 1,000-odd people had to be put behind bars.

These numbers convinced Mrs Gandhi, then, to urgently arrive at something resembling a compromise with the cow-protectors. She formally reminded state governments of the directive principles and banned cow slaughter in the Union territories. A committee was appointed to look into an all-India ban, on to which she successfully invited prominent leaders of the right such as M.S. Golwalkar, the Puri Sankaracharya (who had by now broken his fast), and various experts and officials. While on the face of it the committee was a peace offering, it was essentially designed to do nothing—within a year, a number of cow-worshipping members resigned in bitterness. And though the committee carried on listlessly for years, sources differ on whether even a report was submitted. If it was, however, it is clear that it was done quietly and “without much fanfare”.

The cow-protectors retreated for the time being but extracted dividends for their backers. The BJS, which as early as 1954 defined the cow as “our point of honour”, more than doubled its seats in Parliament, from 14 in 1962 to 35 in the 1967 election—an election it fought promising to “amend the Constitution and impose a legal ban on the slaughter of the cow”. Contrarian views also were asserted. The All India Vaishnava Mahasamiti, for example, announced a beef festival, at Kaladi, the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, no less—then, as today, Kerala revelled in its penchant for provocative comebacks. In the end, though, the issue was not settled, and political calculations (or timidity) allowed the problem of the cow to bubble dangerously, mutating into a handle for wanton bloodshed and the murder of innocents in our own day—52 years after Indira Gandhi first grappled with devastation unleashed in the name of the sacred cow.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 28 2018)


A little after 6.30am on 8 July 1910, V.D. Savarkar made more than a ripple in history when he plunged from The Morea into the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, on the way east with this high-profile prisoner, had docked at Marseilles when Savarkar expressed a desire to use the toilet. Two “native constables” stood guard outside, but before they knew it, their charge shot the door-bolt, deciding to seek personal liberty via the porthole. Even as Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague took after him—choosing the land route for sensible reasons—Savarkar swam to the quay and climbed into Marseilles harbour. He was quickly apprehended, of course, and this sensational attempt at escape soon became part of the Savarkar legend. But what he inadvertently provoked in the process was also a diplomatic headache for Britain and France, Savarkar’s brief, wet moments on French territory opening up a can of legal worms.

Though The Morea and its precious cargo set sail from Marseilles the very next day, by 18 July the affair was being discussed at the highest levels of state. The French envoy in London set forth his government’s view that “As the prisoner had reached French soil…questions of international law were involved.” In other words, the moment Savarkar set foot, it was argued, on the sovereign territory of France, his British-Indian keepers no longer enjoyed legal rights over him—and certainly not the right to apprehend, seize, and cart him back to a foreign vessel. Since Savarkar was already out of hand, the request of the French government was simple: until the matter was settled as per law between the two nations, the prisoner should not be tried for the charges that had provoked his arrest in London in the first place.

The British authorities were puzzled by the French claim, and, by 29 July, the home office, India office, and foreign office were all involved in this bureaucratic nightmare. Among those in the loop, interestingly, was a certain Winston Churchill, then home secretary, whose note emphasized that “Great Britain should maintain an attitude of dignity and of dispassionate submission to the law of nations (i.e. international law). The petty annoyance,” he added, “of a criminal escaping may have to be borne.” Curious as it is to picture Churchill inadvertently promoting the cause of “Veer” Savarkar, he was stoutly resisted by the India office. Unlike their colleagues, the India hands insisted that while a pious commitment to international law was admirable, it was “of the utmost importance from a political point of view” that Savarkar should be tried.

A somewhat topsy-turvy solution suggested, then, was to have Savarkar tried as scheduled, to suspend the sentence when delivered, hand him over to the French thereafter, and finally have him extradited to India to serve that sentence—all this involving Savarkar being given a two-way ticket to sail overseas and back simply to satisfy legal requirements. But the charges against him being what they were—“Waging and abetting the waging of war against the King”, “Collecting arms with intent to wage war against the King”, “sedition”, “abetment to murder”, and more—it was decided to explore all possibilities to retain him in India while the matter was resolved. Churchill might have wanted to preserve British dignity in the face of French legal incandescence, but, for the colonial authorities in India, Savarkar was the “head of a widespread conspiracy, the threads of which it was essential to unravel” through trial.

As both the French and the British got into the matter, there appeared two versions of what had transpired in Marseilles. The French asserted that once Savarkar appeared on the docks, it was a gendarme who caught him—he claimed to have chased him “about 400 metres” before catching up. He then walked 10m with Savarkar in his physical custody before the Indian policemen showed up. Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague, however, said that while the gendarme’s action was crucial, he had appeared from the left while they were closing in on Savarkar, and that they arrived moments after the Frenchman had the prisoner by the arm. Savarkar himself may have been aware of a legal opportunity to obtain asylum, for he appealed to the officer to take him to a local magistrate. Instead, he was marched back to the ship.

Pressed immediately after by the French press, which raised issues of law and national pride, the authorities in Paris came to regret the actions of the otherwise efficient gendarme. In London, the claim that the French had any kind of right over Savarkar was, meanwhile, rejected. The French, it was accurately argued, were informed in advance of Savarkar’s presence on the ship, and the gendarme had been posted precisely to prevent his escape—that he succeeded in doing what he was meant to do merely confirmed Savarkar’s position as British prisoner and could not be construed as creating a right of asylum. “His Majesty’s Government,” it was communicated by September, “are therefore unable to admit that they are under any obligation to restore Savarkar to French territory.”

The matter did not end there, however. In October 1910, it was decided to take the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in February the next year ruled in favour of Britain—while there was an “irregularity” in Savarkar’s arrest, London’s logic made sense. Perhaps, if the gendarme had handed over Savarkar to his superiors instead of taking him back to the ship, the story might have been different. But in the circumstances as they were, the British prevailed. And so—even as the press erupted in righteous protest—the matter finally came to an end, and the 50 years Savarkar was sentenced to serve began. Fifty years, that is, till he composed his infamous mercy petitions, which, of course, is another story.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 20 2018)


On 17 July 1806, British authorities in colonial Madras rescinded a four-month-old order that had bathed the countryside in a monsoon of blood. A week earlier, soon after the moon rose on the night of 9 July, serving sepoys had mutinied in nearby Vellore. Over a hundred British officers were put to death—the commander, as he emerged in his bedclothes—and the few Westerners who survived did so either by playing dead or hiding in a gatehouse. Even as a lone officer raced to Arcot for reinforcements, the mutineers forgot their principal purpose and succumbed to the attractions of plunder: When the Arcot troops arrived at 8 o’clock, they discovered that the rebels of this so-called first war of independence had forgotten to even lock the gates of the fort they had only hours before triumphantly “taken”.

Retribution was swift—of the 1,500 Indian troops present, about 400 were killed immediately, some of them blown out of cannons, presumably to send the message far and wide. But the British themselves were terrified. Power in India was tenuously held to begin with, and if even their own troops could not be counted on, the Raj was on less than solid foundations. By the time news of the mutiny reached England, months had passed, and the horror of the Madras authorities was matched by dread in London at this “disastrous event”. A commission of enquiry had already been constituted. As one officer later said, “The natives of Hindostan are meek and submissive beyond any other example in national character.” What then caused these spineless men to stand up to the white master? The answer, the officer offered, lay in an old saying: “If you prick them, they will bleed; if you insult them, they will revenge.”

But the provocation was, on the face of it, bewildering—it was a simple matter of uniform. In March that year, the Madras authorities had issued new dress regulations for consistency. Beards were banned, and moustaches standardized. A new turban was designed, with a feather, a leather cockade, and a flat top. Superficially, these were simple innovations, but, as the British discovered, in India costume had much to do with custom, and dress was not merely an issue of dressing up. Appearance signified caste, and in a veritable whirlpool of identities, sartorial conventions were a matter of honour. As the enquiry concluded, “Nothing could appear more trivial to the public interests than the length of the hair on the upper lip of a sepoy.” But to the sepoy himself, “the shape and fashion of the whisker is a badge of his caste, and an article of his religion.”

This ought not to have been a surprise. As soon as the new turban (which was especially resented for resembling European hats) was introduced, soldiers had raised objections. For their pains, they were rewarded with 500-900 lashes. Some sensible commanding officers on the ground knew the risks—in Hyderabad, where rumour already presented Christians as requiring the heads of 100 natives to consecrate churches, the officer in charge refused to execute the dress regulations. In Vellore, however, the orders were firmly enforced. The result was a conspiracy so outlandish in its initial rumblings that even when alerted on multiple occasions, the British pooh-poohed it instead of allaying the concerns that led, at last, to tragedy.

As London put it, 1806 became, then, the first example of “the Native troops rising upon the European, barbarously attacking them when defenceless and asleep, and massacreing (sic) them in cold blood”. Of course, admitting that this bloodbath was due to a misunderstanding about moustaches and turbans felt a little awkward, so a number of other instigations were paraded—there were arrears of pay, so there must have been resentment. Though there were no Christian missions nearby, missionary polemics must surely have provoked the sepoys, it was added. But most important of all, the real conspirators—despite lack of real evidence—were the family of the dead, fearsome ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan (reign 1782-99), housed in Vellore fort.

This theory conveniently suited an old British prejudice that the “main instrument of mischief were Mahomedans”—a point that would be made even more forcefully decades down the line, after the sensational events of 1857. Behind the smokescreen of offensive uniform, the Muslim sepoys had wanted, the authorities claimed, to restore Tipu’s line to power. As in 1857, when the rebels would resurrect the emaciated Mughal emperor, in 1806, too, during the few hours Vellore was in their control, the soldiers had named Tipu’s son their leader. The wedding of Tipu’s daughter, Noor-al-Nissa, the previous day had allowed them to set the rebellion in motion behind the general noise and activity. An old flag of the Lion of Mysore (purchased, incidentally, from a Parsi merchant in the local market) was also unfurled that fateful night—all this was construed as “proof” that the Mysore royals were involved in the uprising.

As it happened, the Mysore party might have had a role to play in so far as stoking the fire in 1806 went—attendants in service with the princes had goaded already upset sepoys by calling them unmanly “topiwallas” who sacrificed their honour for firangi coins. The result was a combination of caste and religious pride, political vendetta, and accumulated resentment against British haughtiness, culminating in spectacular slaughter. Just deserts awaited: The Mysore family was packed into 12 ships and exported to Bengal. Punishments were handed out to those mutineers who had not already been chopped to pieces. But even as the facade of control returned, the monsoon of 1806 in Vellore sent the first major jolt to the founders of the Raj that they were not, ultimately, welcome in India—and that what would become the jewel in the empire’s crown came soaked in blood and ferocious anger.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 14 2018)


In June 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru received an unusual petition signed by 13,000 housewives in Delhi warning him of a creeping public calamity. There was, the aggrieved ladies argued, a grave threat to the “moral health of the country”, one that had become a “major factor in incitement to crime and general unsettlement of society”. The children of India, they explained, were finding themselves susceptible to all kinds of absurd notions, not least of which was the kind of sexual awakening that still makes many an Indian mother restless. Something had to be done to curb such naked evil, and the prime minister was the only man who could assuage their fears. It was to him, then, that they looked to rein in the medium responsible for this imminent disaster, and he would, they hoped, be the voice of moral correctness in this age of immorality. As for the enemy medium—it was that odious, dangerous thing shrouded in an innocent name: cinema.

Cinema, like most new things in a society suspicious of all new things, had had a long, troubled existence in this land where piety often cloaks hypocrisy. It was in July 1896 that the Lumiere Brothers first brought this “miracle of the century” to Mumbai, introducing to Indian audiences the motion picture. Feature films arrived soon after, with Raja Harishchandra (1913) marking the birth of our film industry. By the time the 13,000 Delhi housewives knocked on Nehru’s door, India was already the second largest global producer of films, making two-thirds the number of movies as the US, twice as many as Japan and five times more than Italy—Britain had been left far behind as early as 1925. By then, India had over 2,000 screens, selling 250 million tickets annually, and while Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime bothered to watch only one film, Nehru was a little more encouraging about cinema and its place in modern India.

This was not, however, a free pass for film-makers to do as they pleased. Like the bureaucracy, the English language, cricket and tea, independent India also inherited from the British a great fondness for censorship—the only difference being that the latter were more honest about why they imposed it. Before laws were passed in 1918 and 1920, establishing regional censor boards, films fell under the purview of a variety of rules. When electric lights were used for projection, for instance, the state insisted on the right to regulate the business under the Indian Electricity Act of 1910. But once the censor boards were constituted, the process of preserving imperial interests became a little more streamlined. Anything that came out of America, talking such subversion as democracy, was suspect; everything that came from the Soviet Union, talking communism, was banned; and the faintest whiff of nationalist sentiment provoked earthquakes of governmental horror.

Of course, this did not stop Indians from trying. The 1921 film Bhakta Vidurtried to pass itself off as an innocent story about a character from the Mahabharat. It did not take censors long to notice the resemblance to a certain South Africa-returned Indian: He wore the Gandhi cap, had a charkha, and told peasants they needn’t feel awkward about denying taxes to the state. Understandably, Bhakta Vidur was banned. Then there was another British preoccupation in preventing the screening of Western films in India which might, as the chairman of a 1927 committee noted, “lower the prestige of the Westerner in the East”. After all, how could the white man civilize the barbaric Asiatic, if the Asiatic saw on the movie screen that whites were also mere mortals?

With independence in 1947, however, Indians now ruled over Indians—and having acquired power, giving up its instruments was not a particularly appealing proposition. Speeches were delivered on free expression and assorted principles, but the appetite to censor grew. In the five years before 1948, censors in Mumbai had ordered cuts in a total of 705 films; now, in the first half of 1949 alone, they demanded changes in 242 cases. The Bengal authorities were proudly puritanical, rejecting films as “repulsive” or “distasteful”—a more moralistic tone compared to 1931, when the British banned a film calling it, more bluntly, “stupid”. The government of independent India also decided to create a central board of censors, and by 1960 there were more rules to guide Indian cinema away from touchy areas.

“No picture shall be certified for public exhibition,” the information and broadcasting ministry commanded that year, “which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Films that lowered “the sacredness of the institution of marriage” were disallowed, and characters with “indecorous or sensuous posture” could also invite a ban. In keeping with the sarkari love for detail, anything affecting “the confidence of a child in its parents” was also liable for censorship. Then there was a whole category of films whose fate was decided on the basis of agitation. The Loves Of Carmen (1948), for instance, was banned because its star, Rita Hayworth, had married the son of the Aga Khan—some self-consciously pious characters thundered that the daughter-in-law of a Muslim grandee could never be allowed to entertain hordes of strange people in the audience.

Squashed between bureaucratic pomposity and public melodrama, meanwhile, cinema itself suffered. As the film historian Theodore Bhaskaran writes, “hemmed in on all sides by sensitive areas of endless variety”, cinema often got stuck in a time warp. And since anything interesting brought down the wrath, either of the state or howling mobs or both, many film-makers fell back on a song-and-dance formula that upset nobody—a tradition still in vogue, depicting not so much reality as much as an “escape” from it, helping also its producers to minimize the snipping of the self-righteous censor.