(My column in Mint Lounge, June 22 2019)


In 1857, when the Great Rebellion unleashed fire and fury against British rule in India, the subcontinent’s princes for the most part elected to stay loyal to the East India Company. From the Scindias of Gwalior and the maharaja of Jaipur in the north, down to the nizam of Hyderabad and the ruler of Kochi in the peninsula, public declarations of support were followed up with generous offers of material assistance. The princely states became, as a relieved viceroy put it, “breakwaters in the storm which would have swept (the British away) in one great wave”—for while the colonial state was smashing rebellion, the princes kept the peace in vast swathes of the country. Their states became pillars of the Raj hereafter, cementing the edifice of empire and helping establish for the British crown a moral authority in India.

But by the dawn of the 20th century, when peace was the new normal and military stability achieved, a new constituency emerged in the subcontinent: the English-educated Indian. While in the early stages their nationalism did not directly challenge the legitimacy of the Raj, over time the colonial establishment conceded that some stake would need to be fashioned for them too in the system if alien rule in India were to be sustained. As the British wooed influential, moderate Indians, small slices of power were devolved over time, even if their substance left much to be desired. But then, unexpectedly, armchair politics was overshadowed by Mahatma Gandhi’s formidable mass mobilization. Instead of being seduced by the colonial carrot, this new crop of nationalists was willing to risk an encounter with the stick.

But India’s imperial masters had other tricks too. Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement, launched in 1930, culminated in the Round Table Conferences in London, and ultimately led to the Government of India Act of 1935. Under its provisions, India was to be governed by a new constitution, inviting nationalists to join the administration. So, for instance, in the provinces, elected governments were proposed, headed by Indian ministers. It was an effort to attract the Congress into constitutional offices, and hopefully blunt, with enticements of power and position, its agitational propensities. Of course, British governors would enjoy overriding powers to thwart any inconvenient legislation, but the promise of 1935 was certainly one to reckon with—a rather ripe carrot once again on the national table.

Naturally, within the vast, often conflicted (sometimes even confused) Congress machine, the idea was received with a mix of paranoia and eagerness. As the governor of Madras reported, “The bulk of the Congress down here are panting to take office,” but senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru were against it: In 1936, the latter got through a resolution announcing how the whole project was “designed to facilitate and perpetuate the domination and exploitation of the people of India”, albeit in a less obvious manner. While in the end, with Gandhi’s blessings, it was decided to participate in the elections after all, the question of whether the Congress should form governments if it won was deferred. As G.D. Birla, the celebrated industrialist who had the Mahatma’s ear, wrote, “Jawaharlalji’s speech in a way was thrown into the waste paper basket.”

By 1937, the Congress formally agreed to form provincial governments, and winning eight out of 11 of these, went ahead and did precisely that: In Gandhi’s secretary’s words, by not obstructing the move, “Jawahar and his friends of course behaved splendidly”. Being in power brought both advantages and problems, many of which still afflict our political system. On the one hand, it gave Congressmen active experience of running governments, a skill that would prove useful after 1947, when a seamless transition was made possible from British to Indian hands. But on the other, it also gave expression to some less-than-inspiring impulses : A taste of power, after all, could also translate into an appetite for corruption.

Even more interestingly, the Congress now found itself locked between the rock of its own heady aspirations and the hard place of practicalities. Until it landed in office, it represented a pan-Indian movement—a romantic idea that could shake mountains. Now, however, they had to confront such sobering concepts as the economy and budgets. In its election manifesto, the Congress had made grand promises of a pro-labour nature, even while the high command of the party nurtured remunerative bonds with powerful capitalists. Now both groups expected dividends, and it was left for the new Indian governments to strike a balance.

Balance was certainly attempted, but if it could not be found, the British happily offered laws to negotiate such situations. In September 1938, for example, the Congress government in Bombay passed an Industrial Disputes Act, largely in favour of businessmen. Labour protests broke out against this “black act” (an expression hitherto used by the Congress against British policies), and the authorities mobilized the police, killing two and injuring dozens. In the United Provinces, on the other hand, the Congress ministry was seen as too conciliatory towards labour, so leading businessmen decided to browbeat the party by donating to its rivals, including the Hindu Mahasabha, and, somewhat surprisingly—given that most of these donors were Hindus—to the Muslim League.

Either way, with their new experience in running government machinery, Congress politicians grasped fresh nuances in the art of politics. V.V. Giri, once a trade union leader, for instance, served as labour minister in Madras. And being in power sparked revealing changes. “I have always believed,” the once uncompromising ex-firebrand now sagely declared, “in the spirit of negotiations between employers and workers”. For, as politicians even today realize, grand declarations on the street were one thing; being in power another. In the end, though, all this faded into the background—by the winter of 1939, Congress governments across the country would resign from power. The British had dragged India into World War II without even pretending to consult its leaders. And so, the Congress withdrew—the courtship was over, and, in the storm that lay ahead, its leaders refused to serve as breakwaters.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 15 2019)


In 1948, when the Linguistic Provinces Commission presented its report to the constituent assembly, it was packed with ominous words against organizing states on the rationale of a common language. It was true, certainly, that the Congress constituted its regional units on a linguistic basis and had as recently as 1946 endorsed this principle. But with independence achieved, the impact of Partition suffered, and the nation in precarious infancy, it was wiser, the commission felt, to promote stability over regional aspirations. India’s tryst with destiny was a moment of hope, but there was still, beneath everything, that “centuries-old India of narrow loyalties, petty jealousies and ignorant prejudices”, so much so that they were “horrified to see how thin was the ice” upon which the new nation was skating.

“Some of the ablest men in the country came before us,” the report further noted, “and confidently… stated that language in this country stood for and represented culture, tradition, race, history, individuality, and finally, a sub-nation”. If sub-nations were given political expression, would that not jeopardize the vision for a united India? Was this not a recipe for disintegration? The “formation of provinces on exclusively or even mainly linguistic considerations,” the commission concluded, “is not in the larger interests of the Indian nation”. The need of the hour was to find a way to invest in unity, and to create a framework that would bring together the Nagas of the North-East with the Gujarati ex-subjects of Baroda’s maharaja; the Malabar Muslim with the Kashmiri Pandit.

One of the recommendations of the commission to achieve this was the adoption of a national language. It was a proposition vociferously debated in the constituent assembly. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, agreed that “English had done us a lot of good” and helped bring together nationalists from across divides. But “no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language”. Allowing English to dominate, he felt, would create an elite class and separate them from “a large mass of our people not knowing English”. It was a point well received: As another member argued, preserving English would only please “the ghost” of Lord Macaulay. And as Mahatma Gandhi himself stated in 1946, “only the language which the people of a country will themselves adopt can become national”. This language was Hindi.

Like many others, B.R. Ambedkar too favoured Hindi. “Since Indians wish to unite and develop a common culture,” he would write, “it is the bounden duty of all Indians to own up Hindi as their language.” Without this, we would be left “a 100 per cent Maharashtrian, a 100 per cent Tamil or a 100 per cent Gujarati” but never truly Indian. But then compromises would have to be made by everyone: The Hindi-heartland states were intimidating behemoths, which would have to consent to being divided into smaller units (something that did eventually, and reluctantly, happen decades later). And while linguistic states could be formed, their official language should not be the state’s dominant language. The price of linguistic self-expression was accepting the union’s common language.

All this, of course, was easier said than done. Opposition, especially from the south, was sharp, with the result that Hindi was made India’s official, but not national, language. English was to linger for 15 years, during which time a complete transition to Hindi was envisioned—which, of course, did not happen. Indeed, contrary to the Linguistic Provinces Commission’s recommendations, language-based states did take form within a decade, reinforcing (entirely legitimate) regional identities. And where Hindi was concerned, resistance to giving up English was so determined that a mere list of books on the topic published in 1965 is revealing: Our Language Problem, Problem Of Hindi, India’s Language Crisis: A Study and (the sparklingly original) Language Problem.

Debates, of course, continued. K.M. Munshi, for instance, argued that “only Hindi is capable of becoming the single national language of India, because it…bears close similarity with Sanskrit”. Others, like T.A. Ramalingam Chettiar, disagreed: “You cannot use the word national language,” he said in Parliament, “because Hindi is no more national to us than English…. We have got our own languages which are national languages.” Another interesting factor that motivated the anti-Hindi argument was the seeming lack of prestige in the language. While in the last century, Hindi literature had grown, it was nowhere as ancient as Tamil, or as rich as Telugu, for example. As C. Rajagopalachari, who in the 1930s famously promoted Hindi in Madras Presidency schools, now remarked cuttingly, “The new Hindi…is not a language but a burlesque.”

In the end, given that the country had no shortage of challenges to confront, common sense prevailed, and things were left alone. After all, even the Union cabinet was split: The prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was in favour of the transition from English to Hindi, as was his home minister G.L. Nanda, while others, like Sanjeeva Reddy, C. Subramaniam, and O.V. Alagesan, were staunchly against it—the last two even put in their resignations, withdrawing them only when assured that English would not be jettisoned or Hindi imposed. And so, the status quo continued, and the three-language policy we know today was introduced, officially giving regional languages their space, while not compromising on either English or Hindi’s positions. How sincerely it was implemented, of course, is another matter.

All elite languages face periods of rise and decline, and, like Persian declined, English will too one day perhaps. Whether it will be replaced by Hindi will need to be seen, but Hindi’s inroads have been strong even without rabble-rousing or official acceleration: Bollywood and migration have achieved much more than state policy. But for the stability of India, with all its diverse languages and identities, Nehru’s warning to the constituent assembly may well be recalled even today. In “some speeches I have listened (to) here,” he said, “there is very much a tone of the Hindi speaking area being the centre of things in India, the centre of gravity, and others being just the fringes of India.” This was what India had to guard against, he warned, and, over 70 years later, it is precisely this tendency that we must again protest.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 08 2019)

Ali_Adil_Shah_I copy.jpg

Sometime in 1561, a Portuguese Jesuit found himself in the city of Bijapur, grumbling about its diverse inadequacies. Certainly, he conceded, this capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty was larger than Goa, but size could hardly compensate for its glaring weaknesses. Not only were Muslims here “as numerous as insects” in his sharply prejudiced view, but the town did not have “ten houses that are worthwhile, nor good streets nor planning” to be able to handle a swelling population. Despite being the seat of a powerful prince, most people lived in ugly tents, with the result that there was little of even architectural merit in Bijapur to commend itself to a regular visitor, let alone one as judgemental as this particular specimen.

But while the Jesuit left disappointed, these were still early days in the reign of Ali Adil Shah, the sultan, and by the end of his rule nearly two decades later, Bijapur would be well on its way to transformation: outer walls, mansions, mosques, parks, even underground water supply. More importantly, beyond everyday routines, Ali would successfully also attract an intellectual class to his court. He personally made it a habit, including when out on campaigns, to cart his books along, for instance, and created a library employing 60 hands—in 1567, the grandfather of the celebrated Marathi poet Vaman Pandit was entrusted with its supervision on a princely salary of 1,000 hons.

Ali’s would become a time of cultural efflorescence in Bijapur. The beginnings of the Bijapuri style of painting are traced to his reign, for example, so much so that scholars George Michell and Mark Zebrowski note how “absolutely no painting can be ascribed to Bijapur” before this period. After the defeat of Vijayanagar, artists from there too were absorbed, so that in addition to Persianate and Islamicate ideas, south Indian Hindu concepts and techniques also made their way into local art and literature. None of this was surprising as such, for as Ali’s contemporary Rafi al din Shirazi noted, he was “generous…unrestrained, and unceremonious”, attracting both Hindu and Muslim thinkers, from whom he derived intellectual nourishment.

Perhaps the most striking production of Ali’s eventful reign in Bijapur, however, is the 1570-71 Nujum al-Ulum (Stars Of The Sciences). For a long time, the provenance of this manuscript was doubted: As one scholar argued in 1958, the link with Bijapur was “based solely on a note by a former owner, who remarks that the book was once the property” of Ali’s heir, and questions were raised about its date too. But over time, not only did the style of illustration and richness of material used clarify a Bijapur origin and royal patronage, but, by 2011, it became clear Ali himself was its author. As Emma Flatt discovered, the text (in a somewhat peculiar place) itself records how “the writer of these traditions…and stories…is named Ali, known as Adil Shah”.

The Nujum was never fully completed—perhaps on account of the sultan’s endless military campaigns—but Ali’s (or his ghost-writer’s) intention to present 53 topics is recorded. It is a bewildering mix of all that appears to have interested the man. Chapter 15 was to discuss Indian and Persian styles of wrestling, while the following section was to classify men and women on the basis of their “modes of sitting”. Chapter 41 was to delve into arithmetic, and chapter 50 to study sherbets and halwas. Even in the 10 chapters that do survive in the Nujum’s 348 folios, we find expositions on horses, elephants, weapons, exercise, astrology (including a translation of an obscure Sanskrit text), and a fascinating descriptive catalogue of tantric goddesses, called ruhanis.

Citing everyone from Plato to Al-Sakkaki, the Hindu influence in the Nujum is, in fact, striking. As art historian Deborah Hutton records, where Persian works usually depict the planet Mars as a warrior, in Ali’s treatise we see Mars resemble a Hindu deity with four arms. Sanskrit words are interspersed with Persian, and, at one point, the influence of the Markandeya Puranam becomes clear. Venus appears with her Islamic name Zuhra, but is unironically presented, Flatt similarly points out, as the daughter of Bhar Gua (or Bhrigu of Hindu mythology, who is the father of Shukra, from whom comes the Sanskrit name of Venus).

The illustrations themselves, some rich, others crude, are striking—the tantric goddesses, for instance, are almost entirely south Indian in appearance, with disc-like earrings, enormous eyes, and attributes such as tridents which link them to deities like Kali and Shiva. These ruhanis represent different things and are depicted accordingly: Ali introduces a two-headed goddess bearing flames, while elsewhere we encounter another flinging men by their hair. One fanged ruhani wears a Maharashtrian sari, while another holds serpents in her hands. Yet another is the owner of 32 arms, while the ruhani Ariv has a corpse in her mouth. There are dark-skinned goddesses, and those who are red—one is black and white both, on each side of her body, while another has clawed feet. And yet we also have gentle Subhapgi, who nurses a baby, attended to by servants who fan her.

Ali’s own intention in the Nujum was evidently to compile a manual to guide kings. As Hutton writes, his “main thesis” was that “all worldly affairs are governed by supernatural forces…(and) if the sultan is able to understand the cosmos and the various supernatural powers at work, he can exert proper control over worldly affairs”. With his patronage of artists, musicians, scholars and philosophers, and with his apparent knowledge of diverse astrological traditions to herald greatness, Ali ought, by his own logic, to have taken Bijapur into a golden age. He certainly did set the ball rolling, but, by 1580, he would, alas, be in the grave. For all his knowledge of astrology and tantric secrets, the king and author of the Nujum could not foresee his own assassination—not by magical hands, but by very human ones of those plotting around him.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 01 2019)


In the summer of 1944, a white man showed up in the coastal town of Ratnagiri to explore the former residence of a political personage. The “two-storey building of local laterite and lava rock,” John LeRoy Christian noted, was easily “the finest building” in town—a tiled structure befitting the rank of the man who once lived there. He then made his way to the home of the late occupant’s daughter, discovering here, however, a “simple Indian stone house with…only the most essential furniture”. To the old lady within, her visitor presented a bottle of lemon drops, and she reciprocated, as was appropriate, with an offering of her own. And so it was that this stranger from overseas received from the exiled princess of Burma a right royal present of two Ratnagiri mangoes.

When King Thibaw of Ava beheld his first daughter in 1880, there was no indication that this “Exalted Senior Mistress of the Head Group of Goddesses” would die impoverished and alone 67 years later, by the shores of western India. But then Thibaw himself had little inkling of what awaited him. He came to power through palace intrigue and lost it a few years later after a hopeless war against the British. His father, King Mindon, was an icon, and had other plans for the succession—Thibaw, his 41st son, was not the most appealing of heirs. But Mindon’s queen locked up most of Thibaw’s rivals and ensured the 19-year-old took the Lion Throne. A three-day-long massacre followed, and Thibaw’s relations were slaughtered, in keeping with a bloody tradition. Of course, to prevent the cries of the royal victims from offending his ears, loud dramas were staged, drowning out the sound of death.

It was a world of obsequious splendour over which the king now presided (he had 100 slipper-bearers and 60 “bearers of the royal betel box”) but it was not a world he would enjoy for long. In 1826, soon after the First Anglo-Burmese War, several provinces had been ceded to the ascendant British, besides the port of Rangoon. The Second Anglo-Burmese War in the 1850s led to the loss of more territory, so that Lower Burma became a British colony, the royal family controlling the rest from their capital in Mandalay. The massacre of the king’s relatives now supplied moral outrage to annex even Upper Burma and between 1879-85 relations between the court and colonial authorities cooled steadily. Even without murder, they had other reasons to depose the king—he flirted with the French, for instance, and could thwart what the British imagined were their rightful commercial prerogatives.

In 1885, the British issued an ultimatum, acceptance of which would have meant foreign rule in all but name. Thibaw’s principal wife and half-sister —Supayalat, daughter of the regicidal queen mentioned above, and the real force behind his throne—insisted they fight. After all, even if defeat was certain, at least there was honour in losing a war. The result was the rout of royal forces, and, by November 1885, British troops were in the capital. Thibaw and Supayalat received them in state, trying to maintain the one thing they had left: a stoic dignity. Even as his servants and townspeople ransacked his palaces, the king was informed he would be shipped abroad. And, just as decades earlier the British had parcelled the Mughal emperor from Delhi to Burma, the last king of Ava was put on a bullock cart and packed off to India.

The next 30 years of Thibaw’s life are captured with great empathy by Sudha Shah in her meticulously researched The King In Exile (2016). It presents yet another case of a ruler divested of power and fighting for shreds of respect against a largely obdurate colonial establishment. At first, Thibaw and his family were parked in Madras (now Chennai), where the ex-king (demoted from “His Majesty” to “His Highness”) had his third daughter. And then, on a pension of 3,000, the family was settled in Ratnagiri, chosen because it was “well off the beaten track…(and) lacked any railway connection” that would make visits of sympathizers easier. Thibaw hated the place but there was no question of going back—while periodic raises were granted, the British saw him as a potential icon for nationalists at home. Indeed, even when in 1894 a transfer to Madras was proposed, the chief commissioner in Rangoon, opposed the idea, arguing this would cause “trouble in Burma”.

And so Thibaw wasted away in Ratnagiri, “a very unpleasant place to live in”, he wrote, full of “snakes and scorpions”. His expenses—much of it religious—led to endless debt, even as he petitioned the British for the return of valuables he had entrusted to them when surrendering his former capital (including a celebrated ruby, never seen since). His wife was initially resolute: She smelt conspiracy everywhere, Shah notes, and taught her daughters to cook, certain that they would be poisoned otherwise. But, by 1900, bogged down by their fall, she was in the grip of depression. Denied regular social contact, and policed and watched, their daughters too grew up lonely—the princess who in 1944 gave mangoes to her visitor began an affair with their Maharashtrian gatekeeper, her love child later marrying the family’s dog-walker. This granddaughter of the last king of Burma would one day transform herself from TuTu to Baisubai, selling paper decorations in the local market.

For Thibaw himself, there were many indignities to confront, chief of which was death in exile. At the end of 1916, the ex-king died soon after his second daughter eloped with a secretary. Not even his remains were allowed in the country where he was once sovereign. So it was in Ratnagiri that he was entombed, the only immediate consolation being a notice his youngest put out on the gate: “The Great King of Righteousness,” she announced, “has wearied of the world of men and ascended (therefore) to rule among the Gods.” And then, a few years later, the family was at last permitted to leave, going back to the land where their ancestors were once kings—that is, till the princess who loved the gatekeeper returned, destined to spend the rest of her days in a tiny cottage, alone and forgotten, near the grave of her broken father.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 25 2019)


On 12 May 1666, the Maratha hero Shivaji came face to face with his nemesis, Aurangzeb. Mughal armies had for generations been embroiled in the Deccan, and what Akbar launched, his great-grandson was determined to bring to a conclusion. But such turmoil also opened avenues for new political ideas—something Shivaji, for instance, described as his swarajya. Battles were fought between the Mughals and the Marathas, each party celebrating victories and suffering defeat, though compromise and diplomacy remained in play. Where the Marathas embarrassed the emperor by attacking his uncle in his own camp in 1663, for instance, by 1665 the tables had turned—the Mughals cornered Shivaji, forcing him to the negotiating table.

So it was that Shivaji arrived in Agra the next summer to pay homage to the emperor. While the Marathas would become Aurangzeb’s most formidable challenge, the two sides did not at this time meet as equals. For the Mughals, Shivaji was one of numerous political representatives present—indeed, as Audrey Truschke suggests, in a long-established and ceremonious court where well-ensconced Rajputs painted Marathas as upstarts, it is hardly surprising that Shivaji was not treated with exceptional regard. As the Deccan’s foremost power, however, he took umbrage at this, added to which may have been awkwardness in an unfamiliar environment. Some say he stormed out, while others claim his protests provoked the emperor to expel him. Either way, Mughal efforts to co-opt the Marathas came to naught, and Shivaji was imprisoned.

In hindsight, and in the romance that often weaves its way through history’s tales, it is tempting to view the conflict between Aurangzeb and Shivaji as merely a clash of titans. But each side estimated the other differently, deploying contempt as well as grudging awe, depending on the context. For Aurangzeb, the Maratha warrior was a “mountain rat”—a parvenu creating chaos and lacking legitimacy. Indeed, in 1666, after the events at the durbar, several were the voices that advised a swift, murderous solution to the Maratha headache. The emperor, however, prevaricated, and Shivaji escaped. The war resumed and cost life and money both, but it would be decades before the Marathas were acknowledged by the Mughals as worthy of serious respect.

For Shivaji, however, with absorption into the Mughal system having failed, there was no way ahead but to dig in his heels. By the 1670s, as he retrieved territories seized by the emperor’s men, the Maratha champion also grew keen on legitimacy. This was intended to address Mughal contempt as well as local disdain. After all, among Marathas too, many denied Shivaji’s claims of primacy and his project to found a new state and identity. Early on, as scholar Prachi Deshpande shows, the Mores of Jawali questioned his ambition and highlighted their superiority, invoking a deity as well as service under a local sultanate. The Ghorpades of Mudhol too cast Shivaji in their chronicles as an adventurer upsetting all that was established. At best, the young Maratha was an equal—why should they rally behind his cause and declare him their leader?

Shivaji’s response to this crisis of legitimacy was twofold. To triumph over local discord and cement his position, he summoned the power of Sanskrit texts and ideals of Kshatriya dharma. Against ritual odds and objections, he had himself crowned with grand old ceremonies in 1674, acquiring a superior caste as well as a sacred thread. Then he commissioned an elaborate Sanskrit epic, eulogizing his deeds but also articulating his vision—the Sivabharata elevates the new king beyond provincial feuds, transforming him into dharma’s sword against adharma. He is Vishnu reborn to rid the world of mleccha i.e. Islamic rule, justifying his efforts to claim leadership of the Marathas. “Even a single ant,” it is declared, “can kill an elephant, by crawling into its trunk.” If anyone thought Shivaji insignificant, it was at their own peril.

As it happened, after his death the state descended into chaos, Shivaji’s heirs struggling with internecine rivalries and trying to hold on to tenuous loyalties. Here again, though, texts were deployed alongside efforts on the ground. In the 1690s, when his son Rajaram was exiled in the south and hounded by the Mughals, the SabhasadBakhar (a chronicle by Sabhasad) was composed, lending moral force to the Maratha struggle. Shivaji’s deeds were recalled, and his valour celebrated. Indeed, at a time when imperial attacks were at their worst and the state confronted an existential crisis, history was married to song to shore up urgently needed confidence and sustain hard-won validity for this troubled enterprise. As the imperial court shrewdly flirted with assorted Maratha warlords, an emotional reminder of a once-shining goal could help prevent utter disintegration.

So while, in reality, Aurangzeb viewed the Marathas with disdain, in the Bakhar, words of awe are ascribed to him. After hearing, for instance, of the Marathas’ attack on his uncle, we have the emperor express uncharacteristic horror. Even when Shivaji is about to attend the Mughal durbar, the emperor cries: “He isn’t an ordinary man.” After all, he vanquished great generals, and if “just like that he flies on to my throne and betrays me, what will I do then?” In the Bakhar, the Mughals remain redoubtable foes and the emperor very powerful, but there is respect for Shivaji. In fact, in the end Aurangzeb declares: “I sent lakhs and lakhs of horsemen; all returned subdued and harassed…I might just gird up my loins and go myself, but….While Shivaji is alive, (it is) better not to leave Delhi.”

These words were composed when the Maratha effort was desperate to stay afloat and the imperial army was at its most aggressive. But recalling Shivaji—and borrowing from his own techniques of wedding textual projection to lived action—the idea behind swarajya retained a vitality. The result was that, in the end, the Maratha kingdom survived, even as Aurangzeb went to the grave with regrets. “The greatest pillar of a government,” he ruminated, “is the keeping of information about everything…while even a minute’s negligence results in shame for long years. See how the flight of that wretch Shiva, which was due to carelessness, has involved me in all these distracting campaigns to the end of my days.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 18 2019)


In 1509, when Krishna Raya of Vijayanagar ascended the empire’s throne, it was with a debt of gratitude to a murdered goat. Legend has it that the prince’s half-brother and predecessor had no desire to see Krishna Raya inherit power—determined to safeguard the prospects of his own offspring, he commanded his minister to blind their rival and bring him his eyes. The minister nodded assent but acted treacherously. Sending Krishna Raya into hiding, he deceived the dying monarch with a pair of goat’s eyes. And when the man heaved a sigh of relief and took his final breath, the prince was cheerfully retrieved, returning from the political wilderness to be enthroned in Vijayanagar.

The empire under Krishna Raya—popularly known as Krishnadeva Raya—would scale great heights, the population in its capital region surpassing every city in the world save Beijing. But for all his achievements, Krishna Raya was never, it is said, expected to reign at all. He was the son of his father from an inferior wife: Nagamba or Nagi, some believe, was a lamp-cleaner. One day, the Raya’s father witnessed something dramatic in the skies—a shooting star, it is suggested. He consulted his astrologers and was instructed to lie with his lady at once. He looked for his wife, the story continues, but could not find her. So it was Nagi who went to her lord’s bedchamber. It was the lamp-cleaner who birthed a son blessed by celestial forces.

Many such apocryphal tales envelop Krishna Raya, marrying heady romance to cold reality. But even without a legitimizing preamble, what he achieved was phenomenal. Vijayanagar was not in a state of health when the prince seized its throne, so that for years he was preoccupied with stability. He fought foreign enemies even as he overawed rebellious feudatories. Swords were raised in Kanchipuram, as they were in Ikkeri, and in the field the emperor was magnificent and ruthless. He “crushed the skulls of Khurasani warriors”, for instance, and with the head of a sultan “built a gruesome effigy”. Such violence was not unusual, for spilling blood was an inevitable corollary to power—decades later, another figure would meet a similar fate, though this time it was a sultan doing the honours, while Krishna Raya’s son-in-law supplied the head.

Travellers’ accounts paint Krishna Raya as a man of tremendous physical vigour. “The king,” recorded one, “is of medium height and good figure, rather fat than thin,” with a pockmarked face. Every morning, he “anoints himself all over with…oil; he covers his loins with a small cloth and takes in his arms great weights made of earthenware”. He rode, wrestled and fenced. But equally, once exercise was out of the way, he negotiated administrative minutiae. Impressively, between everything, the emperor also found time to compose poetry—works in Sanskrit and a great kavya in Telugu. With regard to the latter, it did not matter that he was a Tuluva from coastal Karnataka: He celebrated Telugu, not only due to admiration for the language but also to cement his place in a Teluguized imperial order.

Meanwhile, as his power grew, so did Krishna Raya’s confidence. Sometimes, in fact, it could manifest in peculiar exchanges of courtly insults. In 1520, for instance, the emperor seized Raichur from the Adil Shah of Bijapur after a spectacular battle featuring not only horses and soldiers but also hundreds of guns. When the sultan’s envoy asked for the return of this territory subsequently, Krishna Raya set one condition—the Adil Shah would have to come and kiss the emperor’s foot. It is hardly surprising that the defeated enemy made excuses to avoid embarrassment, but Krishna Raya was determined. He “led a stampede of ferocious elephants against the Yavana” king, and, when the latter fled, sacked Bijapur before returning victorious (and amused) to his own capital.

Subsequent chronicles often cast Krishna Raya as a unidimensional protector of Hindu pride battling Islamic perfidy. But his policy was not quite guided by religion even if it was articulated in the language of faith—just as he lambasted “yavanas” who ruled Deccani sultanates, so too did he rail against Odisha’s Hindu Gajapatis. Certainly, his world view was inspired by Sanskritic and south Indian traditions, but that did not preclude the absorption of Islamicate influence—in a bronze image he gifted to the temple in Tirupati, for example, he flaunts a Turkish fez. Even as he lambasted Muslim opponents, he also crowned the scion of a sultanate, thereafter assuming the title Yavana Rajya Sthapanacharya: the (Hindu) king who resurrected a Muslim state.

With time, Krishna Raya developed advice, too, for princes and aspiring sovereigns. “If the enemy has a powerful army,” he proposes in his Amuktamalyada, translated beautifully by Srinivas Reddy, “it is wise to treat him with gifts and respect.” But if “reports of spies reveal that the enemy is weak”, he was to be demolished right away. Great fortresses need not cause despair, he felt, for “there are mechanized weapons of various designs to penetrate rampart walls”. Similarly, it was important to keep a close eye on foreigners and trade. Merchants were to be treated “with prestige” and given towns in which to reside. “Purchase their goods at a high price,” suggested Krishna Raya shrewdly, “and ensure that your enemies are deprived of such resources.”

A warrior king, an emperor unsurpassed, a patron and poet, Krishna Raya was a pragmatist too, encapsulating in his 20-year reign all that made for a triumphant 16th century monarch. But his story too suffered, ultimately, an unhappy end. Two of his sons died as children while the third was too young when the emperor began to fade. And so, as happened with his predecessor in 1509, his own successor was not his son but a half-brother, hitherto locked away. Indeed, even that unfortunate goat returned to haunt the Raya’s legacy: In the 1520s, a story goes, he fell out with his minister. And in a fit of fury, Krishna Raya sentenced him to a particularly sadistic punishment—the man who once saved the emperor with goat’s eyes had his own gouged out.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 11 2019)


In 1877, when Queen Victoria assumed the title “Empress of India”, at the special durbar was a 10-year-old prince. Mahboob Ali Khan was the nizam of Hyderabad and came to Delhi with his regent, the formidable Sir Salar Jung. It was the latter who wielded actual power, and while there were rumours that he meant to keep the boy forever under his thumb, the man was also a genuine champion of the state’s interests. Indeed, when the viceroy pointed to Hyderabad’s “loyal allegiance” to the empire at the assembly, Salar Jung quietly translated it as “friendship” and “alliance” instead—to him, Hyderabad was not a vassal, it was “equal in sovereignty” to the British. But the viceroy would have none of it—he “corrected the intentional mistranslation” at once and made it clear to the little nizam that what he meant was unequivocal “obedience and fidelity”.

The nizams had come to Hyderabad as agents of the Mughals but quickly established their autonomy. Certainly, until 1857, they paid ceremonial homage to the badshah in Delhi, resisting British advice to declare themselves independent. Either way, by mid-19th century, it was the white man who became Hyderabad’s master, so that not only was the nizam saddled with a British army (to pay for which he was coerced to mortgage prized territory), but also debt on conditions that favoured English bankers. “Poor Nizzy pays for all,” mocked a newspaper, but successive rulers had no option but to accept such unfair terms. Resistance, when it occurred, was often through inventive non-military means. Once, for instance, when the queen sent Mahboob Ali Khan’s father a medal bearing her likeness, the nizam grabbed it before it could be pinned to his chest, and, placing it on his throne, took a seat on Her Majesty’s face.

But for all this, Hyderabad retained its importance, and though it came close to being annexed, in the end it survived imperial aggrandizement. Mahboob Ali Khan was 3 when he came to the gaddi, and such periods of minority rule in Indian states usually opened avenues for the British to widen their influence—they would appoint tutors to give lessons in loyalty to young princes and “improve” the administration in ways that dismantled old systems in favour of an anglicized bureaucracy. Salar Jung, however, prevented too many innovations—indeed, so resistant was he to British interference that as late as 1876, colonial agents lamented their lack of control—moral and academic—over the nizam. Instead, they reported that while Western education was imparted, Salar Jung had effectively turned the boy into a prisoner in his own palace, where “he is waited upon by 25 young women trained to debauch him”.

Whether or not this was an exaggeration, Salar Jung died in 1883 and the nizam came of age the next year and commenced his reign. His subjects were Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, and Urdu speakers, a large majority of them Hindu. The railways had already reached the state, as had electricity. The stage was set for great developments, and now there was also a young ruler whose generosity was proverbial. One story, for instance, relates how a stranger wrote to the nizam asking 500 for his daughter’s wedding. When Mahboob Ali Khan sanctioned 5,000, his secretary wondered if he had made a mistake. Scribbling on the file, the nizam returned it, this time with the note: “15,000 is sanctioned.” His horrified aide learnt never to ask questions again of his imperious royal master.

While several public reforms received attention in Hyderabad, the culture at court continued in a state of ceremoniousness. It was not entirely surprising—with real power clipped by the British, court protocol offered a strange consolation. Arriving in Delhi once, the nizam discovered that he was expected to walk from his train to the exit to mount his elephant. Declining to do anything half as ordinary, he simply refused to leave the coach—instead he “had his meals…played cards” and generally whiled away precious time. Two days passed, and as other trains jammed behind him, pressure mounted on Lord Curzon (whose already poor opinion of Indian princes is not likely to have improved) to allow an elephant inside the station. Mounting the animal triumphantly now, Mahboob Ali Khan went to meet this very viceroy, before whom he almost mockingly swore allegiance to the British crown.

But this luxurious format of resistance could also quickly transform into a slippery slope to excess. Against advice, for instance, the nizam purchased what is called the Jacob Diamond—it was offered for twice the actual price, and he paid half in advance before deciding he didn’t want the item after all. The seller sued Mahboob Ali Khan, causing an irate nizam to throw the diamond into a sock and store it in a shoe. It was years before his heir rediscovered it, and this time it was put to better use—as a paperweight. So, too, the nizam never repeated his clothes, with the result that not only did he end up with a wardrobe 77m long, but rumours circulated that his valet was selling him back his own old clothes, earning an illicit profit. On another occasion, Mahboob Ali Khan so liked a fabric that he had five years’ supply purchased in advance so that nobody else might wear the same material—to him, the world consisted of things he liked, and things he didn’t.

In 1911, however, this life of extravagance wound to a close. The nizam was surrounded by intrigue, with one wife reportedly placing pressure on him to declare her son heir to the throne. Storming out of the palace, Mahboob Ali Khan decided to binge on alcohol for three whole days, till he was comatose. And that is how, in his mid-40s, the man who was once described as “not wanting in ability” should he choose “to apply himself to public business” went to the grave—a legend where princely splendour was concerned but a tale of tragedy if his full productive potential was the measure.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 04 2019)


In 1629-30, a terrible famine struck what is present-day Maharashtra. As one account put it, “Life was offered for a loaf, but none would buy; rank was to be sold for a cake, but none cared for it.” Indeed, so desperate were things that “the flesh of a son” came to be “preferred to his love”. The cream of society could, as usual, survive these privations. But so bad were conditions even a step or two below them that in the middle ranks too there was utter despair. Add to this political turmoil, and the year went down quickly as one of dreadful public misery.

There lived in Dehu during this troubled time a grocer and merchant called Tukaram. Only in his early 20s, he had already lost his parents, and now watched in horror as his senior wife died amid cries of “give me food”. Shortly after her, his eldest son Santoba also followed. Where once his family was well-off, now his business folded. “I was so troubled,” the future saint wrote later, “that I lost all interest in my household.” Turning his attention “to an old broken-down temple” in his village, he began, instead, to give “musical discourses on the eleventh day of every month”.

Tukaram—now one of the most holy names in the varkaritradition of Maharashtra’s Bhakti movement —was not made for business. But before he surrendered himself to spiritual pursuits, he tried his best to succeed at his family trade. In Mahipati’s 18th century hagiography, we hear how he “carried bags of grain on bullock backs” and “paid no attention to cold or heat”. He borrowed money to resurrect his business, only to go bankrupt. Future devotees would blame his essential goodness: Even when he knew he was being cheated, he did not object. It was another matter that his family had to endure the consequences. “My husband has gone crazy,” cried his younger wife. “He carries on his trade but meets with no success.”

This failure as a householder, in fact, marked Tukaram’s life. Later chroniclers embellished his memory with tales of miracles—of God paying his debts in human form, of idols drinking from his hand—but failure and depression afflicted him throughout. His answer at first was to immerse himself in “the good sayings of saints” and to repeat them for public benefit. But one day, after the 14th century saint Namdev spoke to him in a dream, Tukaram also began to compose verses of his own. It was a moment of transformation, and, by the end of his career, the ex-grocer would leave thousands of abhangas to be recited generations down the line.

Tukaram was a Shudra and did not directly challenge caste. But the sheer act of one of his rank preaching religion upset the establishment. One Brahmin is said to have personally assaulted him (although this was partly provoked by Tukaram’s buffalo making a meal of the former’s plants). Another filed an official complaint that so tormented our poet that the latter went up to the Brahmin’s village and apologized. “You are a Sudra by caste,” announced this antagonist in return, one who had no right to discuss God. Asked what Tukaram should do with his existing writings then, the man ordered him to throw the whole collection into the Indrayani river.

Tukaram obeyed, and then went on a fast. But 13 days later, his books reappeared magically on the river “as a gourd floats on water”. The news spread and, chastened, the Brahmin set out to apologize. Receiving a premonition of this, the saint met the man halfway, accepting his regret but also himself reiterating his “low caste” and position as “a sinner”. Indeed, Tukaram did not question the concept of the Brahmin itself. “The she-ass may give ample milk,” he declared, “but that does not make her a cow.” So, too, a monkey “bathed and daubed in sandal” could not become a Brahmin—that was a birthright and even “if the Brahmin is a fallen one…he is (still) great in (all) three worlds”.

What Tukaram did challenge, however, was the claim that onlythe Brahmin might realize God. Or that scriptural excess compensated for sincere devotion. “By cramming a lot,” he declared, “they accumulate ego; their knowledge is little, (but) their pride, great.” Such hypocrites, he added, “should be beaten in the face”. On the contrary, to him, there were many examples of those who knew little of the great texts but whose love of God was unparalleled: “Gora the potter, Rohidasa the shoemaker, Kabira the Muslim, Sena the barber, Kanhopatra the concubine…Janabai the maid.” So, while the Brahmin deserved respect, the lowest too could seek the divine—that was Tukaram’s message.

In some ways, Tukaram’s thought seems contradictory, but, in another perspective, it reflects evolution too—as the years elapsed, many were the trials he endured and numerous were the lessons he learnt. At one point, he openly suggests devotion as a superior alternative to ritual and philosophy. “As long as you are attached to the hair tuft and the sacred thread, you are a slave of the Book,” he wrote. “If you break any law…you will fall and be doomed.” But if one forgot the books altogether and pursued plain, honest love without the shackles of ceremony, “you will have no restrictions”. This way too, he argued, “you can really reach Brahmanhood”.

In the end, ironically, Tukaram was weighed down by fame. By the 1640s, his name had spread, and many came to pay him their respects. He had written once that to the true devotee of God, riches and poverty were equally inconsequential. Now that he was saddled with worldly honour and affection, the saint thought all this an encumbrance. Hagiographers said he ascended a chariot and rose skyward in a blaze of heavenly light. But all we know for sure is that in 1649, the man called Tukaram disappeared, leaving behind a memory that is still alive.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2019)


When Rajaram, younger son of Shivaji, died spitting blood in 1700, the news was received at the Mughal court with considerable delight. The emperor, we learn, “ordered the drums of rejoicing to be beaten” while “the soldiers congratulated each other” that yet another of their antagonists had met his maker. Aurangzeb had already executed Rajaram’s brother Sambhaji in 1689 and held the latter’s widow and son captive for years. All that remained on the Maratha side were Rajaram’s wives and their children. How difficult could it be to overpower and demolish, at last, the Maratha swaraj?

As it turned out, very difficult. The Mughals, a chronicler noted, “thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless”. But what they did not factor in was that both of Rajaram’s widows were formidable women. Unlike a third co-wife, these two had not committed sati. And now Tarabai, whose ancestors once served the Deccan’s vanquished sultans, seized control of the Maratha state. Restraining the person and ambitions of her rival, Rajasbai, and despite the claim of Sambhaji’s son living in Mughal captivity, she crowned her own boy king of the Marathas. And promptly, in his name, the 25-year-old began to exercise authority.

Power consumed much of Tarabai’s energy, and for years she remained a player in the Marathas’ game of thrones, now prominent, later in the shadows. Born in 1675, she had wed Rajaram at 8. When her brother-in-law was killed by the Mughals, she fled to Panhala fort with her husband. The air was thick with threats, and, as Mughal onslaughts continued, Rajaram fled south. For years, Tarabai was separated from him before she too embarked on this dangerous journey. And it was in Gingee, deep in Tamil country, that the Maratha queen gave Rajaram his son and heir.

From 1700-07, Tarabai remained firmly at the helm. She made overtures to the Mughals, only to attack them with pointed resolve. In her own enemies’ words, she “showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased”. But she could also be audacious. Her husband had first sent out troops beyond the Deccan, right into imperial territory—now Tarabai too despatched men to attack provinces in the north. They “penetrated into the old territories”, “plundering and destroying wherever they went… Their daring,” we are told, surpassing “all bounds”.

But Tarabai was not destined to enjoy unrestrained power. When Aurangzeb took Sambhaji’s wife and son, he kept them alive in his camp. They were treated well, the boy enjoying titles and an income. Indeed, in the emperor’s court, he learnt Persian and the nuances of imperial court culture, Aurangzeb even choosing his brides. In 1703, the emperor briefly considered releasing Shahu back on to the Maratha chessboard, only to change his mind. But when the old badshah died four years later, his son went ahead and gave Shahu his freedom, transforming him at once into Tarabai’s rival.

The arrival of her nephew damaged the queen’s designs. She declared him a pretender, but others at court vouched for his identity—one of them even ate off the same plate as Shahu to confirm his status. Then Tarabai argued that after 18 years with the Mughals, the man could hardly be trusted: He held honours from the hated Aurangzeb and might return the Marathas to vassalage under Hindustan’s emperors. The charges were not incorrect, for Mughal life had left a stamp on Shahu’s style and deportment. Indeed, he acknowledged openly the supremacy of his one-time captors. But he had his reasons, for though he himself had been released, the enemy still held his mother.

Inevitably, there was war between Tarabai and Shahu. The latter prevailed and the former fled. Two states emerged—in Kolhapur under Tarabai and in Satara under Shahu—each claiming the loyalties of the Marathas. But then there was, yet again, a twist: The co-wife whom Tarabai had locked away orchestrated a revolt. In 1714, Rajasbai enthroned her own son in Kolhapur and it was Tarabai who was confined. For more than a decade and a half, the queen disappeared, watching her son die while under arrest. She reappeared briefly in 1731: Shahu had triumphed over Rajasbai’s son, and, afterwards took Tarabai with him to Satara.

But Tarabai had another 18-year wait before resurrection, languishing till then in the background. Only when Shahu was nearing death and lamenting the lack of an heir did she see opportunity again. Before her son died, she now declared, he had left his wife pregnant. And the baby that was born had been hidden away by her adherents. The boy was “found” and brought to court. When Shahu’s wife scoffed at the affair, Tarabai, it is said, had her neutralized: After the king died in 1749, his widow was allegedly coerced to burn herself on his pyre. All that was left now was for Tarabai and her nominee.

But the world of the Marathas had changed, and the 74-year-old queen found that power had shifted from the ruler to the hands of the Peshwa, his minister. Tarabai met her match in this Brahmin, while even her “grandson” now assumed grandiose airs. She promptly disowned him: The claim that he was her blood, she announced, was a lie. He was merely a gondhali, a bard, who belonged on the streets. But the Peshwa didn’t mind an heir of dubious legitimacy—it suited his own accumulation of power and contained the influence of Tarabai.

Battles were fought, and a compromise arrived at between the Peshwa and the queen—he kept power in Pune, while she was left to her devices in Satara. And so it was that Tarabai assumed a strange, subdued importance again in the Marathas’ tale. When, in 1761, the year of her death, the Peshwa lost the all-important Third Battle of Panipat, it is said she expressed regret. But as Richard Eaton writes, public regret may have concealed immense internal glee. She was, after all, Tarabai. And where this commanding woman was concerned, nothing was what it seemed.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 20 2019)


Around 1881, a prince of Cochin called Rama Varma got into a relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He had lost his wife and the new connection was with the stepdaughter of one of his uncles (who, like him, would one day sit on the throne). The girl, Rama Varma wrote, “had a regular husband and I proposed to become paramour to her”. And as “the husband raised no objection…it was done so. This kind of things (sic),” he added, “was not considered improper at the time.” In fact, on the contrary, his mother was thrilled, though rivals did complain he only entered the alliance to butter up the girl’s father. After all, as Rama Varma admitted unkindly, she “could not boast of anything which may be called beauty and…had nothing which might be considered accomplishment”. It was not surprising, then, that some in the family viewed his interest with suspicion.

As it happened, the relationship did not last, and soon Rama Varma was involved with a third lady, with whom he shared a lasting union, the previous lady presumably continuing with her first husband. But what made entering and exiting relationships a matter of ease was the nature of the marital tie itself in 19th century Kerala. For non-Brahmin matrilineal groups, it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred, not that of husband and wife. The sexual tie was called sambandham—relationship—and designed with much flexibility. Rama Varma’s mother, for instance, was a princess of Cochin, and, in keeping with the traditions of her own dynasty, had formed a sambandham with a Brahmin. Such Brahmins were junior sons of big houses. But they had no inheritance, which made the prospect of alliances with aristocratic ladies and royal women most attractive—and often remunerative.

At its core, sambandhams allowed the elites to join in mutually beneficial unions. For Brahmin families, it gave younger sons wives of lower caste who made no claim on their patrimony—if these wives were well-born, it was better still, for they could pay the Brahmins a maintenance. For matrilineal castes, meanwhile, power and wealth vested in the female line—the husband was, in essence, an instrument of procreation. If he came from a higher caste, he “infused” their veins with the prestige of twice-born blood. The dynamics within this broader framework were, however, determined by economics. As Matampu Kunhukuttan’s classic novel Outcaste portrays, Brahmins with royal sambandhams often lived in fear that their wives might discard them and opt for new sambandhams; elsewhere, if it was the man who held power, he could access even married women, as we saw with Rama Varma, leaving the female at a disadvantage.

It was not unknown for men and women to have multiple sambandhams—a fact that recently got politician and writer Shashi Tharoor in trouble when a line from his novel was cast as an “insult” to Nair women. The examples are numerous. The Nair wife of the maharaja of Travancore who ruled between 1860-80, was first married to a Kathakali actor—arriving in Thiruvananthapuram, she met the ruler, and soon the actor was jettisoned. Their daughter was in a sambandham with the maharaja’s nephew—when she died in 1882, the latter lamented his “irreparable” loss. It was 17 years before he entered into his next sambandham, this time with the wife of a palace employee. As in the case of his uncle’s partner, this lady too relinquished her previous alliance to become the ruler’s consort. The author C.V. Raman Pillai, meanwhile, married his late wife’s sister, whose past featured threesambandhams—two terminated by death (including with the painter Ravi Varma’s brother) and one by separation.

By the late 19th century, however, sambandhams were increasingly frowned upon, and the question of whether this was even marriage came under scrutiny. Missionaries saw the system as “very revolting” and the absorption of Victorian morality upset old ways of life. From Madras, newspapers piled criticism on this “obnoxious system of promiscuous marriage”, and, as the scholar K. Saradamoni writes, “Sambandham was equated to concubinage and the women to mistresses and the children called bastards.” It was an awkward moment, for this way even maharajas were illegitimate, while the autonomy women enjoyed was translated as licentiousness. As early as 1875, in fact, the non-Malayali writer of a census report was most apologetic about the “looseness of the prevailing morals and the unbinding nature of the marriage tie, which possesses such fascination for the majority of our population”.

Scholars like J. Devika have shown how the onus fell on women: They had to be “virtuous”, which meant divorcing or keeping multiple husbands was no longer “respectable”. Inter-caste unions between Brahmins, royalty and Nairs ceased to be acceptable, and “reform” movements sprang up in each community to restrict women’s choice of spouses. Widowhood, a non-existent concept for matrilineal groups, became a mark of wifely honour. And with this came the policing of women’s bodies and the injection, through education, of a patriarchal mindset, where daughters were raised to be “good wives” and husbands vested with power over them and their children. Sambandhams became the vestige of an ugly past, remembered with embarrassment—and, sometimes, denial.

Sambandhams certainly could be abused. But, in their day, they served a purpose and defined marriage for the people involved. They could also feature great love stories—this columnist’s great-great-grandmother had a sambandham with a Brahmin in the 1880s. When she had a stillbirth, however, the alliance was terminated: The baby was a girl, and the death of a female child was inauspicious in her matrilineage. The Brahmin wept and protested but was never allowed near his ex-wife again. Decades later, the story goes, his steward showed up at the door: The man was dying, and he wished to see his former wife one last time. But the lady did not go. Not because she did not wish to, but because the year was 1915. The world had changed and she had no power—she had married again, and it was her husband who now called the shots.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 13 2019)


When Reginald Dyer was a young boy, he went out one day to shoot. His family lived in Shimla, and going into the jungle nearby, the chota sahib took aim at a bird. But no sooner had he pulled the trigger than young Rex heard a squeal—he had accidentally injured a monkey. “Tears streamed down her cheeks,” his biographer wrote, and she looked at her assailant “so reproachfully that her eyes haunted his dreams for months”. He lost all his appetite for killing animals, we are informed, with one exception. The “tender-hearted boy” could not stand snakes. Where snakes were concerned, he would “seek them out and kill them with a cane”. With snakes, there could be no benevolence.

Given what Dyer is notorious for—the murder of hundreds at Jallianwala Bagh this day 100 years ago—one wonders whether he saw that gathering as a nest to be destroyed. He was a servant of the imperial state, after all, and to him Amritsar was in rebellion, which meant only firmness was feasible. Trouble had begun on 10 April when two nationalist leaders were arrested. A mass of people sought to meet the deputy commissioner and register their protest, but their sheer size provoked such panic that shots were fired and many killed. In retaliation, violence broke out and several Englishmen were lynched and one woman horribly beaten. The white names were recorded; those of the Indians were not. They were simply “the mob”.

As is well known, curfew orders were issued, while official paranoia swelled. They were prepared to deploy bombs and aeroplanes, convinced that there was a treacherous conspiracy at work in Punjab, one of its chief objectives being to spark mutiny in the army. The appearance of posters—“fight with bravery against the English monkeys”—did not help, and neither side comprehended the other. The British authorities saw all political activity as yet another step in the execution of this seditious plot; the Indians, meanwhile, did not understand, as scholar Kim Wagner notes, how “their mass protests sent the authorities into paroxysms of panic”.

Given his actions, Dyer is today the confirmed “villain” of Amritsar. He was emblematic of the worst impulses of the Raj certainly, but the Raj, in turn, writer Kishwar Desai notes, “washed its hands” off its own culpability, presenting this “black sheep” as an aberration. There were, however, larger dynamics at play, and more complex causes behind Amristar. Wagner notes in his masterful Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making of The Amritsar Massacre, for example, how much the Great Rebellion of 1857 haunted the British. The merest expression of discontent was viewed as the launch of the next “mutiny”, and in Amritsar in 1919, this played constantly on British minds. When they saw Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs unite, old ghosts loomed ominously again. As the deputy commissioner argued, communal amicability was a great thing “if one did not fear that the underlying motive had a sinister purpose”.

Desai’s Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The Real Story also alludes to this paranoia. There was among British officers a genuine fear that a danda fauj was about to eject them by force. In the circumstances, therefore, the gathering on that fateful day was seen as a stroke of luck—once it was known that thousands had converged in Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer saw an opportunity to make one decisive, bloody statement. As his biographer puts it, “this unexpected gift of fortune, this unhoped for defiance, this concentration of the rebels in an open space” placed them all “within reach of his sword”. In the “narrow streets, among the high houses and mazy lanes and courtyards of the city the rebels had the advantage of position”—here they were cornered. And so, Dyer went, and he fired. It was another matter that one of the “rebels” was six weeks old.

That the gathering was unarmed was irrelevant. As one grandee declared in the House of Lords later, they may not have been “ostensibly armed with bludgeons”. But Indian crowds, he claimed, tended to have “a very large supply of bludgeons somewhere or other near”, which meant that “the mob that faced General Dyer was undoubtedly dangerous”. Better they were pre-emptively struck than allowing the risk of Dyer’s men being “overwhelmed and cudgeled to death”. There was no evidence of a conspiracy, there were no arms, and there was a peaceful gathering, yet the British were convinced of “rebellion”—a strange, murderous logic that perhaps excuses Desai’s passionate pronouncements as she calls Dyer “psychotic” and asks whether the British were “Fascist, Racist or Both?”

Though there was a commission of enquiry, and official censure, there was little remorse. Days after the tragedy, the deputy commissioner put out a notice: “The government,” he said, “is sorry that some innocent people were forced by wicked people to go there and got killed.” But what transpired was ultimately due to Indian disobedience. The lieutenant governor of Punjab wrote that at least the episode had thwarted the “conspiracy”: “The Amritsar business cleared the air and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere…it was best at Amritsar”, which “paralysed the movement before it had time to spread”. British excesses were, meanwhile, played down: When two women complained they were stripped and sticks inserted in their vaginas, they were called “low class prostitutes”. When reports suggested British soldiers were defecating in wells, the viceroy declared that “it is impossible to believe that any British soldier purposely defiled wells”.

In the end, Dyer, the poster-boy of British atrocity in Amritsar, retired to England. His health failed and he became a recluse. Initially, he did not repent: “I shot to save the British Raj…doing my duty—my horrible, dirty duty.” But in the end, doubt seems to have gnawed at his mind. As he said to a family member before he died in 1927, “I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.” Of course, regardless of God’s views on the matter, a century later we can recognize Amritsar for what it truly was: a massacre where an insecure, paranoid empire unleashed unspeakable horror.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 06 2019)


Sultan Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur was a man who lived a rich and eventful life. A devout Muslim, he was also the adoptive son of the Hindu ruler of Vijayanagara, though this did not preclude war between their forces in 1565. A patron of the arts, it was in his reign that Bijapur produced the Nujum al-Ulum—an illustrated Persian manuscript featuring everything from cow-headed angels to scholarly expositions on halwas and sherbet. He commanded 80,000 cavalrymen, but never forgot to also carry along his books when leading them into battle. Hundreds of ships sailed the seas bearing his flag, meanwhile, and poets in faraway ports had heard enough about the sultan to sing his praises. Endearingly, Ali also had specific tastes when it came to his diet—he consumed, it is reported, at least 12 eggs a day for breakfast.

Around 1580, Ali met his maker, albeit in circumstances that matched his colourful life. There were two “handsome eunuchs who had for a long time excited his perverse attention”. One evening, when the sultan made them a proposition, they returned his advances by drawing their daggers. While it is likely that a political assassination was later rewritten to embarrass Ali as a “sodomite”, the result was that Bijapur was left in the doldrums. Ali had no son, so it was his young nephew who came to the throne. For the next many years, power slid from one grandee to the next—two of whom met predictably violent ends—before stability returned after the heir came of age. But, in this time of chaos, there was also a woman who rose to prominence, one who would electrify not only the Deccan but also the Mughals in faraway Agra.

It was on the eve of that 1565 battle against Vijayanagara that Chand Bibi was given in marriage to Ali by her father, Hussain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar. Barely in her teens, she was at best an instrument of politics at this juncture. But her family circumstances—where her father allowed her mother considerable influence—had shaped her personality, and Chand Bibi would never be relegated to the background. Notwithstanding her husband’s rumoured glances at eunuchs, her relationship with him was rewarding. She joined him on his campaigns, and was entrusted with matters of state when the couple sat in durbar. A sitar player who also enjoyed outdoor sports, she and Ali met as intellectual equals—she spoke, for instance, about five languages.

With Ali murdered, however, Chand Bibi was pushed more fully into the limelight. She remained at first in Bijapur, navigating endless intrigue to protect the interests of her husband’s heir. She ousted one nobleman who seized power, but the next outsmarted her and threw her in prison. From jail, the resourceful Chand Bibi conspired with another faction, whose leader soon rode to her rescue. But for all this, she had no future in Bijapur—the heir was not her son, and, with Ali dead, she became an outsider. Rivalries with her own paternal kingdom of Ahmednagar resumed, and Chand Bibi’s loyalties were questioned on more than one occasion. So when a Bijapur princess was given in marriage to Ahmednagar as part of a tenuous political alliance, the begum “escorted” the bride to her homeland. And there she spent her future, till she was enshrined as one of the Deccan’s tragic heroines.

Ahmednagar in the 1580s was a political nightmare. Chand Bibi’s brother had imprisoned their mother, later trying to murder his son by setting the boy’s bedroom on fire. His courtiers called him deewana (madman), frowning at his affection for a slave. A third sibling rebelled and fled to the Mughal court—by 1591, he would succeed in his designs and install himself as sultan in Ahmednagar. But he came across as ungrateful to Emperor Akbar for the latter’s generosity when he was in exile, and, by refusing to recognize the Great Mughal as his suzerain, gave Agra an excuse to turn its attention to the conquest of the Deccan. As a Mughal account puts it, Chand Bibi’s brother “should have increased his devotion and gratitude”. But the “wine of success robbed him of his senses”, and for this he would have to be punished.

As it happened, the Mughals were only able to come to Ahmednagar in 1595, by which time the man was dead, the court was in turmoil, and Chand Bibi was again in the fray. Balancing factions with one hand, she raised the other to defend her city. When the Mughals placed mines and breached the fort, Chand Bibi, “clad in armor…with a drawn sword in her hand, dashed forward” with her men. The Mughals were repulsed. When negotiating the subsequent truce, they formally honoured her with the regnal title “Chand Sultan”, but their generals were not entirely pleased with this formidable princess. “You, like a eunuch, are keeping a woman in the fort,” they admonished her nobles, while their own leader was “the son of His Majesty the Emperor…Do you imagine that the crows and kites of the Deccan…can cope with the descendant of Timur?”

In the end, they could not. Chand Bibi tried and failed repeatedly to push the Mughals out of the Deccan. In 1599, when the enemy returned to Ahmednagar, various vested interests within the fort lunged at each other’s throats. Fighting battles within and without, the begum decided to sue for peace. And, for this, she was murdered—not by the invader, but by insiders. “The excitable and turbulent soldiers of Ahmednagar, forgetting all the noble devotion which Queen Chand had always shown,” rushed into her palace. Breaking into her private chambers, they left her in a pool of blood. And so died, as one historian put it, “Chand Bibi, one of the noblest characters in the History of India.”

But while she went down in tragedy, there was still some justice in the end for the begum. When the Mughals took Ahmednagar soon after Chand Bibi’s death, one of their first acts was to hang the men who had assassinated this princess: daughter of the Nizam Shah, widow of the Adil Shah, but, in the end, remembered and celebrated in her own right as “Her Highness the Bilqis of the Age”.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 30 2019)


At the dawn of the 20th century, a scandal of horrific proportions reared its head before Kerala’s Brahminical elite. The year was 1905 and the setting was princely Cochin. Home to prominent Namboodiri families, this was also one of India’s principal seats of orthodoxy. The Namboodiris were fond of rules and ritual, perched though all of this was atop extraordinary social privilege. As E.M.S. Namboodiripad put it, these Brahmins “occupied the highest position among all other communities…collected fabulous amounts as rent, enjoyed undisputed supremacy over the tillers of the soil, and maintained intimacy with the ruling monarchs”. The immortal Parasurama, they claimed, had bestowed Kerala upon them, this being the fount of their legitimacy. Every other group was to serve, the Namboodiris apportioning caste status and privilege to those who subscribed to this world view. As late as 1875, the Brahmin was officially cast as the common folk’s “royal liege and benefactor, their suzerain master, their household deity”, and indeed, “their very God on earth”.

While colonialism began to chip away at this cocoon of ritual and luxury, one of the earliest cracks in the order appeared not outside, but within—in the quarters of a woman. Namboodiri women, after all, saw little of the privilege so routine for their men. The only Malayali women in purdah, they had no freedom of movement, no ownership of property, and little education. Or, as one of them put it, the antharjanam (literally, “indoor person”) was “a jailed creature”. She was “born crying, lives her life in tears, and dies weeping”. It was not an exaggeration. Even marriage—the only prospect for women in a patriarchal set-up—was denied to many of them. Among Namboodiris, there was no rule decreeing early marriage for girls, while only the eldest male was permitted to take a Brahmin wife. The result was that younger sons married non-Brahmin women, while legions of Namboodiri females lived in sequestered spinsterhood. And if they did find husbands, it was often already married men, who used the opportunity to exchange their own sisters and daughters as though this were a transaction for chattel.

In 1905, however, the world of the elite was shattered by our protagonist, since enshrined in Malayali imagination as a pratikara devata, goddess of revenge. Her name was Savitri, and she lived in the Kuriyedathu house in Thrissur district. Married at 18 to a man whose brother had sexually abused her at 10, she took it upon herself, it is said, to unleash fury upon her caste and its leaders. While Namboodiri men took wives and mistresses, the antharjanam was to be chaste and docile: It was this presumption that Savitri would demolish. As Malayali social critic V.T. Bhattathiripad put it, she challenged male sexual entitlement “with the same weapon”—she slept with men other than her husband. There were high-caste men, and there were lower-caste men; there was her brother-in-law, as there were other relations; there were Tamil Brahmins and Nair aristocrats. There was even a Kathakali star, not to speak of an epileptic. By the time her deeds were revealed, occurring in her chamber as much as the temple grounds, Savitri, then 23, had been with no less than 65 men.

It was a scandal unparalleled, because it was the first such disseminated widely through the newspaper press. There was a traditional round of interrogation by her caste men, but the furore caused the local maharaja to order a second round in his palace. Various theories circulated: As scholar J. Devika records, one of these placed Savitri as the pivot of a cunning plot hatched by the ruler. She was apprehended for fewer lovers, but prevailed upon to name many more, to get rid of an emerging class of Namboodiri modernizers challenging the orthodox old guard. But what shocked all involved—and the public witnessing—was her reported coolness. Or, as the Malayala Manorama put it, “She replied like a barrister.” For she had evidence of her trysts. She knew what marks her partners had on their persons, or if there was a wart on their genitals. She remembered dates on the basis of festivals and events, and one by one she named them—great exemplars of contemporary society, all guilty of fornicating with a Brahmin wife.

Cast as a victim seeking vengeance, Savitri has been reincarnated in fiction as well as film. Lalithambika Antharjanam retold her tale, and Matampu Kunhukuttan—whose Outcaste has been just reissued in Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan’s translation from Aleph Book Company—too describes this heroine who paid patriarchy in its worst coin. But there are others who seek nuance. She was certainly a victim, many of her “affairs” occurring when she was only an adolescent. But the emphasis on a calculated quest for revenge was perhaps an exaggeration by voices championing reform, the scholar Rajeev Kumaramkandath suggests, seeking to use these events to force change. Savitri herself had more complex experiences, as her testimony reveals. A mahout, for instance, had a bottle of rosewater she wanted: He had heard of her relations with another mahout, and offered her the bottle if she would sleep with him too. Savitri agreed. Elsewhere, she slept with a man fearing he would divulge her involvement with a third person—it was fear of blackmail that motivated her here, not necessarily a desire to ensnare more men in a web of revenge.

Still, there is in her meticulous recollection of each tryst something formidable. So too in the fact that when she was excommunicated, she took 65 men with her. All of Kerala seemed to savour the blow she dealt her community, while champions of change rejoiced at the exposure. “It is indeed a sight to watch the indomitability on their face when (the men named) go to question the woman,” it was reported, “and the grief-stricken expression when they come back.” In the years that followed, Namboodiri women began to reject their seclusion; men began to breach custom. Savitri herself disappeared into Tamil country, never to be seen again. But, in her wake, she left horror and admiration both, casting the first stone at the house of orthodoxy. No longer was the Brahmin a veritable god on earth—he had been tainted, his pretensions dismantled by a woman who was beyond shame and fear.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 23 2019)


In the summer of 1871, something thoroughly unusual transpired in princely Baroda. Its ruler had died the previous year, leaving behind a pregnant widow and an ambitious brother. The latter, whose ill-repute preceded him, had much to lose if the maharani produced a male heir. Naturally, the air was ripe with intrigue, and the brother questioned both the pregnancy of the widow as well as its legitimacy. She, meanwhile, revealed a determination far superior to what might be expected of a 17-year-old—fearing poison, the maharani refused to eat anything that was not cooked before her watchful eyes. And then, shocking everyone, she moved into the establishment of the local British representative, delivering her baby under the nose of this English military man.

Unfortunately for Jamnabai, her child was female. Triumphant, her rival now took power while she exiled herself with her infant. But it was not the end, for the man stepped straight into the bad books of the colonial state—in 1875, he was deposed, ostensibly for misgovernment, but also because of a (not convincingly proved) attempt to poison the British agent with crushed diamonds and arsenic. There were half a dozen potential heirs to choose from now, but these were all grown men—the British sought “someone of malleable age…who might be shaped according to the right ideas” (by which they meant less poison, more fidelity). Of course, it was awkward for them to openly select a new ruler, so Jamnabai entered the scene again. It was she who would adopt the man to occupy Baroda’s princely gaddi

Years later, when Sayajirao Gaekwad III, whose birth anniversary fell on 11 March, was firmly established as one of India’s great princes, a story became popular that explained his rise to prominence and splendour. He was an illiterate farmhand of 12 in 1875 when summons arrived for the Gaekwad relations to present candidates for Jamnabai’s consideration. Arriving at the palace, his brothers and he were asked why they were there. The oldest and the youngest mumbled in confusion, but the middle child declared with just the right quantity of confidence, “I have come to become king.” Jamnabai was impressed, and the boy was installed quickly as sovereign. Another version has the brothers at a feast with the maharani—the winner’s siblings acted like country bumpkins, but the future Sayajirao carefully observed Jamnabai, and lifted food to mouth like a prince.

Charming as these stories are, with a currency even today, they are also apocryphal. It certainly was the case that the man who would rule Baroda for 64 years was a nonentity at first, but his family had set its sights on power as soon as it became clear the previous maharaja would fall. In a petition to the viceroy, they disingenuously expressed hope that a deposition would not occur. But “if after the close investigation directed by your Excellency, it should be found necessary to depose His Highness”, they added, they would be humbled if a successor were chosen from among themselves. That is how our protagonist arrived in Baroda, and behind his transformation into a prince lay British designs, as much as the favour of maharani Jamnabai.

By the time of his death in 1939, Sayajirao would become an icon. Under him, Baroda became a “model state” as he launched reform after reform. He abolished infant marriage but allowed the remarriage of widows; he established the Bank of Baroda, just as he founded what would become an iconic university. By 1907, primary schooling was declared free, and he sponsored B.R. Ambedkar’s education abroad, while, years earlier, he had sent financial aid to Jyotirao Phule. Over the years, he devolved power from Marathi elites from the Gaekwads’ homeland, to a bureaucracy dominated by native Gujaratis. And he dismissed criticism from Bal Gangadhar Tilak for his unorthodoxy, even as he openly praised that other nationalist, Mahatma Gandhi.

“Sayajirao was not an original thinker,” the scholar David Hardiman has written, “but he was extremely receptive to the original thought of others.” Where his princely pride needed to be asserted, he was capable of doing so; just as when men with good ideas sought free rein, he was happy to enable this. But if the British expected him to become a textbook case in “malleable” servility, he was anxious to prove them wrong. Indeed, successive viceroys found his attitude dangerous enough to have him tailed by British intelligence. In 1911, he was lambasted for breaching protocol at the famous Delhi durbar to honour George V and his consort. Where one set of princes held the folds of their ceremonial gowns, Sayajirao was accused of deliberately turning his back in the royal presence, the English press melting into screams of sedition.

To be clear, Sayajirao was not a flawless hero. His trips abroad (one lasting as long as 13 months) caused much dismay at home, and for all his scorn for the orthodoxy, he performed expiatory rituals on his return from foreign shores. He is famous for abolishing polygamy in his state, but this did not preclude his trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter with an already married prince. His wife, Chimnabai II, was a spirited woman—one who discarded purdah and moved about her palace on roller skates—but in the 1920s, there was trouble between them after the maharaja evidently formed a fondness for his European secretary. He was also more ruler than father, lamenting belatedly the tragic, avoidable loss of three of his male offspring.

But for all that Sayajirao’s was a remarkable tale. As the scholar Manu Bhagavan notes, he was good at “combining reform with resistance through the act of reclamation”. Reclamation, that is, of Western ideas for Indian use. When he was only 13, Queen Victoria had styled him “Our Favoured Son of the British Empire”—by the time he died, the empire itself was in terminal decline. He was bombarded as a young man with Western lessons in government: 23 on the principles of administration; 27 on revenue matters; 18 on law; and so on. All these were designed to showcase him as an experiment: of British success on an Indian mind. But Sayajirao lived and died in the end as his own man—he was certainly no imperial exhibit.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 16 2019)

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Uthram Tirunal Martanda Varma was a man with fascinating interests and a sunny disposition. Raja of Travancore from 1846-60, this prince was perhaps the first Malayali to appear in Western costume, sitting for a portrait in “European dress”. A lover of Kathakali, he was also an amateur actor. Thwarted by courtiers who decreed it unbecoming for a ruler to perform on stage, Martanda Varma satisfied his thespian yearnings before his bedroom mirror. He dabbled in medicine and was fascinated by anatomy. And when Brahmins shook their heads and pronounced bones impure, the raja merrily assembled a skeleton made of carved ivory. A man of infinite curiosity, as a ruler, though, Martanda Varma was not as much of a success. When, for instance, he spent lakhs of rupees on weighing himself in gold and conducting festivals (also simultaneously pleading lack of funds to pay tribute to the East India Company, his suzerains), the colonial establishment was apoplectic.

Martanda Varma was, however, a man of charm and diplomacy. The rulers of his house sat upon an ivory throne, the prestige of which had been elevated considerably during the reigns of his mother and brother. In 1849, the raja was in the process of constructing a new seat for himself when news arrived about what would become the Great Exhibition in London of 1851. It was an event designed by Queen Victoria’s husband to showcase the arts and industrial output of the empire, and Martanda Varma was also called upon to contribute to this exercise in imperial propaganda. “A very satisfactory collection consisting of all the raw products and manufactures of Travancore was made,” an officer under the raja recorded, and the latter decided to add his new throne as well. This was, after all, “a fit specimen of Travancore workmanship”. The queen was impressed—decades later, when she was proclaimed empress of India in 1877, her official photograph showed her enthroned in this very “magnificent chair”.

At one level, the throne (or “chair”, depending on who was looking at it) was simply an object of beauty: a “native” masterpiece representing “native” accomplishment. With diamonds, emeralds and rubies, it married Indian motifs to European designs. Its feet were shaped like lions’ paws, and the armrests ended with lions’ heads. “The back,” we are told, “is in the form of a shell supported by elephants, rampant.” Along with such recognizable Kerala elements, the throne also featured the unicorn and the dragon, borrowed from the royal coat of arms of the UK. The seat was made of elephant teeth and the chair “has a gold and silver tissue draper around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments”. The cushion, in green velvet, was embroidered with gold and silver, so that, all in all, it was no wonder that the throne attracted, as the TheIllustrated London News put it, “much notice” in London.

But Martanda Varma’s present to the British sovereign was also a political act at a time when the East India Company was breathing down Travancore’s neck. A few years earlier, when his brother was in power, for example, the latter was nearly driven to abdicate, and Martanda Varma too confronted difficult dynamics with his overlords. As real power slipped out of the hands of his family and company representatives began behaving increasingly like schoolyard bullies, the throne became, as scholar Deepthi Murali notes, a means for the raja to reach out directly to their faraway queen. In the letter Martanda Varma sent her, he hoped that “Your Majesty will graciously condescend to receive this friendly, but humble tribute”, carefully emphasizing their unequal relationship. But he also reminded the queen that he, “like every one of his predecessors”, was a “faithful ally and dependent of the British Government”, hoping to uphold “a relation which I humbly trust will continue to the end of time”.

There is a strange irony in the whole exchange, which revealed the status of India’s princely states in general—the fact that a throne designed for Travancore’s ruler was shipped abroad for Victoria’s amusement is telling of where power resided. When the queen responded to Martanda Varma in 1851 with a letter under her sign-manual, he was, therefore, thrilled. “As this was the first event of the kind in Travancore, nay, in any native court of India,” a court chronicler recalled, “His Highness considered it no ordinary honor.” A durbar was organized and every house in town was ordered to have its gates decorated with flowers (and, interestingly, get its compound walls whitewashed). The grandest elephant available was commandeered to carry the queen’s kharita, accompanied by a large procession. When the letter was actually handed over to Martanda Varma, he held it up and touched it to his forehead, “while his eyes were filled with tears of joy”.

These were all efforts at winning imperial favour, but our charismatic prince only belatedly realized that such attempts did not compensate entirely for lack of support from local company authorities. Only a few years later, for instance, mounting expenses, missionary complaints about “abuses” suffered by low-castes, and more, delivered a “most dreadful” communique from Company to palace. Annexation was threatened, and the raja had to subscribe to colonial notions of “progress” and modern government. New officers, who enjoyed British approval, were appointed, and debts had to be cleared before the threat was withdrawn. But the dance of protocol continued regardless, ostentatious ceremony making up for the absence of real autonomy.

So when Victoria sent Martanda Varma a present (a belt) in 1860, another grand durbar was organized where the raja declared himself “the most fortunate among all the Princes in India”. And then, when the celebrations were over, he quietly went to the side of his ailing wife, who died that very night. A few months later, Martanda Varma too was dead. And his heir now took his seat on the old, less ornate throne of Travancore, while the “splendid chair” of Victoria’s grand public spectacle was added to the royal collection, sitting to this day in Windsor Castle.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 09 2019)


In 1899, when Lord Curzon sailed to India as viceroy, he lugged along not only his famously imperious temper but also a catalogue of administrative proposals. “The government of India,” he sniffed disdainfully, “is a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing”—and so everything, from railway networks to telegraph rates, found itself on his corrective desiderata. A committed votary of Britain’s “civilizing mission”, the man was certainly determined to leave his mark. But what made Curzon unusual even by his own overzealous standards was his concern for a subject otherwise low on the imperial programme. “In the past we have scandalously neglected this (particular) duty,” complained the viceroy, “and are now only tardily awaking to it.” And so, he would take a personal interest in the matter and ensure that this state of affairs was promptly rectified.

It was the state of India’s monuments that so vexed Curzon, and he allocated not only money and physical resources to their repair but also much of his viceregal energy. Indeed, admiration for his tenacity emerged from unlikely quarters. “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten,” Jawaharlal Nehru declared, for instance, “Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.” Curzon stood out even among his fellow Englishmen, though it was not always approval that he received from the latter. But the viceroy’s resolve was firm. “If there be anyone who says to me that there is no duty devolving upon a Christian Government to preserve the monuments of a pagan art or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I cannot pause to argue with such a man,” he announced. To Curzon, art and architecture were “independent of creeds”. They were marks of human genius and born of the “common religion of all mankind”. That alone was enough to justify his actions.

While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), till then desperately starved of funds, was at last provided a respectable place in the official scheme of business, there was one particular monument that captured Curzon’s fullest attention: the Taj Mahal. To be fair, he was not the first British governor general to be seduced by Shahjahan’s creation. As early as 1834, Lord Bentinck had devoted attention to this structure, noting how “in a country where we have erected no monuments, it is a satisfaction to see that the Taj is at least cared for”. Curzon himself beheld the Taj long before he was installed as viceroy. Visiting Agra at the end of the 1880s, he was transfixed. He studied the mausoleum at dawn and gazed upon it in moonlight. “The Taj,” he wrote ecstatically thereafter, was “the most beautiful building raised by human hands in the world”. When he looked upon this “entrancing spectacle”, it overwhelmed him so much that he had to “shut my eyes” and take some moments to compose himself.

In general, Curzon could get violently furious when he saw the condition of some of India’s monuments. One contemporary recorded his “untiring activities, in spite of sun and heat”, and “long climbs among the ruins”. One day, they came across “one of the most beautiful Moslem buildings”, somewhere in the north. In it they found, of all things, a post office, and “the Viceroy in his indignation ordered the whole staff to quit on the spot”. But despite such episodes, nothing received the budgetary largesse Curzon allocated for Agra—about £50,000, which was nearly half the total earmarked for the subcontinent as a whole. Some of his “reforms” could even be eccentric. In the Taj, for instance, he had all the attendants dress up in “Mogul” uniform, and even as he was on his way back to Britain (in relative disgrace after the fiasco that was the partition of Bengal), he stopped in Cairo to commission an ornate lamp to hang over the grave of Mumtaz Mahal.

But Curzon was also all about order and efficiency; a certain geometric exactness that was as rigid as the steel girdle that kept his damaged back straight. The British never possessed riches that would allow them to construct in India anything surpassing the Taj—instead, they left their mark on the existing structure by stamping as many changes as were possible. For Curzon, this came in the form of redesigning the gardens. From his palatial residence in Kolkata, he barked orders at the local authorities. “I think the removal of the flowers and the substitution of simple grass in the plots bordering the water-channel…is an improvement; but I think the cypresses are planted too thickly.” The British had already removed the traditional fruit trees and started replacing them with plants of botanical and aesthetic appeal. But Curzon went further so that even in the 1930s there were complaints about his innovations. Indeed, the viceroy was so possessive that Sir Herbert Baker couldn’t make up his mind whether Curzon cared for the Taj as a “lover or a child”.

In general though, as Eugenia W. Herbert notes, the viceroy’s principle was simply: “When in doubt, plant grassy lawns, then decide whether shrubs or flowers should be added.” He did seek a certain continuity with Mughal styles (of which, incidentally, he knew little) and at one time had a number of “garish English flowers” removed. But, all the same, he transformed the Indian gardens around the Taj—with its large apple, guava and other trees, whose produce was sold in local markets—into a park that was more in consonance with European tastes. In this, he was guided entirely by his own conviction, and the fact that he did not trust local hands: “I have supervised and given orders upon every single detail myself,” he noted on one occasion. Local talent was “destitute of the faintest artistic perception; and if left to themselves, will perform horrors that make one alternately laugh and weep.”

Thanks to Curzon, many of India’s monuments received a new lease of life. But while it won the villain of Bengal unlikely adulation from nationalists, he himself saw only the Taj as his beloved. Even “if I had never done anything else in India,” he recorded in 1905, “I have written my name here (in Agra)”—a quite literal claim since the Cairo lamp was inscribed with his name. And these letters, he finished, were to him “a living joy”.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 02 2019)


There was once a little girl called Bahina, whose calf had a coat as dark as coal. And wherever the little girl went, the calf was certain to follow. It drank only if Bahina poured it water and ate only the grass she held up before its nose. So close was their bond that the calf would not seek even milk unless the little girl led it by the neck to its mother. It slept by Bahina’s mat, and she loved it like none other. A wise man declared theirs a spiritual connection: “The calf is her guru; the calf is her means of salvation.” Others believed the animal to hold within it a pious soul, a bhakta reborn in bovine form. To Bahina, either way, the calf was an extension of herself—when they were separated, her anguish was unparalleled. Bahina wept, and the calf eventually died. And with it, something inside Bahina also perished.

This is one of many tales left behind in the autobiography of the 17th century Maharashtrian Bhakti saint, Bahina Bai. While much about it can be discounted as creative excess—the calf, for instance, unexpectedly recites a shloka (verse)—the episode is the first in a sequence of many that shook this poetess to the core. When she was born in 1628, ironically, astrologers made grand announcements of promise and success. “She will be one to possess good fortune. The cord of her life shows great strength.” Strength Bahina Bai certainly cultivated, but “fortune” for her had little to do with its conventional manifestations. Where others saw wealth and power as marks of fortune, for Bahina, this would come through the pursuit of salvation for the spirit.

The pantheon of female Bhakti poets is dominated largely by women who questioned the status quo, their voices challenging norms designed by men. The 12th Lingayat saint Akka Mahadevi, for instance, rejected even clothes, while Meera opposed what was expected of her as a Rajput widow. Bahina Bai too faced moments of frustration. “The Vedas cry, the Puranas shout,” she lamented, “that no good can come of a woman. I was born with a woman’s body—how am I to attain the Goal?” “I may not say ‘Om’, I may not hear mantras’ names,” she cries elsewhere. How, then, would this Brahmin’s wife find the almighty? Yet, unlike Mahadevi and Meera, who walked out of their homes, Bahina Bai made her peace with the world. “A woman’s body is a body controlled by somebody else,” she concluded. How, then, could she dream of finding her own way?

Bahina Bai was only 3 when she was married to a man of 30. Her father, a bureaucrat, found himself facing prison when she was about 7—bailed out by his son-in-law, “a man of very angry disposition”, the family left its home. They settled eventually in Kolhapur, often begging their way through. Before long, little Bahina was showing an inclination for the teachings of Bhakti saints, attending a discourse once with her calf in tow. The guruthere, in the course of events, blessed both by placing his hand on their heads—an action that upset Bahina Bai’s husband. “He seized me by (my) braids…and beat me to his heart’s content.” Her parents watched, and the girl later asked, “In what duty to my husband had I failed?” It was now that she was forcibly separated from her calf, soon losing it forever to death.

In her grief, Bahina Bai had a vision of her contemporary Tukaram, already a famous man. Deeming herself his disciple, the adolescent was quickly absorbed in bhakti. Her husband, predictably, did not approve. He thundered, “Who is this Sudra Tuka, who appears in a dream?” As an orthodox Brahmin, he could venerate the Vedas but not voices of Bhakti, which often bent tradition. More injurious to his pride was witnessing Bahina Bai win admirers. “People will bow to her. To her I’ll seem like a piece of straw,” he feared. “Look at the people come asking for her…. Who cares about me with her there?” When she was pregnant, therefore, the man decided to discard her. An illness—and Bahina Bai’s dedication while nursing him back to vitality—led to a change of mind, and the husband too prostrated before Tukaram.

But for Bahina Bai this opened up a larger question: how to reconcile the expectations placed on her sex by the shastraswith her individual spiritual yearnings? Her answer, after she passed through a suicidal phase, was to combine the two and eschew radicalism. “My husband’s the soul,” she wrote, and “I’m the body…. My husband’s the water; I’m a fish in it.” Why would she think of domestic, conjugal life as a barrier if this became her attitude? She, who first questioned shastricinjunctions against women, became more accepting of the scriptures. Indeed, if someone rejected the Vedas and assorted texts, “know him to be impure within and without”, she declared.

Bahina Bai did, however, try to gently question caste without upsetting the apple cart. Birth, she argued in a style still fashionable, could not make a Brahmin—wisdom alone did. Mere learning too did not mark anyone as special. “All castes,” she felt, “are able to explain words and sentences and even poetry…. Even Muhammadans exhibit learning. But who regards these as truly Brahmins?” So, while she accepted rules laid out for her after a period of crisis, Bahina Bai attempted a quiet compromise. It does not make her a powerful example for our standards today, but, as Anne Feldhaus notes, “Bahina Bai realized a powerful Hindu ideal.” By the time she died in 1700, she had “achieved something not achieved either by the many dutiful wives who did not become saints, or by the saints who were not good wives.” She became, instead, that voice of Bhakti who espoused the middle path—one that upset nobody even as it delivered her the thing she craved: oneness with god.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 23 2019)


By the mid-18th century, the city of Pune was in the ascendant on the political map of India. As the seat of the Peshwas, hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, this riverside town of little previous significance grew into a prominent centre of commerce and diplomacy, attracting large numbers of traders, artisans, courtesans and mercenaries. A massive season of construction was launched as the Peshwas—descendants of a clerk risen to greatness—left their enduring stamp on the city. They renamed areas that honoured previous Islamic rulers and introduced new temples and festivals into the lives of various castes and people. There was a massive population explosion too: One estimate suggests that Pune rose from being home to 25,000 residents in 1700 to 100,000 at the dawn of the next century, making it “equal to Copenhagen, bigger than New York, a little smaller than Marseilles”—but either way a major urban node in pre-colonial India.

Pune during the Peshwa period, however, is also an interesting study in the management of life under indigenous governments before the Raj. Certainly, the Peshwa-era elite, like their counterparts elsewhere, lived in considerable style. Persianate clothes were worn, fabric for these imported from Bengal and Multan. The scholar Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, in fact, notes a contemporary record that refers to “pants made of elk-skin and another to a shirt made of rat-skin”, suggesting that some people, at any rate, had the time and wherewithal to make interesting decisions vis-à-vis their wardrobes. Tobacco was available easily, and there was also demand for Chinese tea, while fruits were imported from faraway places to cater to the appetites of the aristocracy. In the early 19th century, with British influence growing, there was even vaccination from smallpox available, administered to as many as 12,000 people by an English doctor.

But how did such a city manage itself at a larger level? As Brahmins, the Peshwas were orthodox in matters of caste, but there was a dispassionate bureaucratic machine that operated their capital on an everyday basis. N.K. Wagle’s study of police documents in Pune between 1767-91 offers a fascinating view of contemporary life, and of the issues the authorities had to arbitrate. “By far,” he notes, “the most numerous offences in the Kotwal’s Papers punishable by fines are the cases of sexual misdemeanor,” and this included adultery, “male and female homosexual activities”, as well as “bestiality”. One woman called Rakhmi was assaulted by her father-in-law, who defended himself by insisting it was an accident—he was on his way out to urinate, and somehow “I stumbled and my hands fell on Rakhmi’s breasts”. The police found the man guilty. “Even in a husband-wife relationship,” notes Wagle, “sex without consent constituted rape.” Lakshmi, wife of Jugraj Pardesi, for instance, complained that the latter forced himself on her, and for this he was slapped with “a hefty fine”. So, too, if a customer beat up a prostitute, she had the right to report the matter and see him punished.

The Kotwal’s role, however, didn’t begin and end at keeping the peace and upholding the law. One occupant of this position, who sat in the seat for half a century, had a salary of over 600 a year. A Brahmin from Kannauj, his duties, writes Gokhale, also involved the “supervision of markets, enforcement of the use of approved weights…control of singers, barbers and prostitutes, sanitation, streets, safety of buildings, drainage, care of visiting dignitaries, registration of documents of sale and contract…and the taking of censuses”. He was assisted by three clerks, 10 officers, and 118 policemen, spread over six stations. For the Pune police, there was never a dull day: One man reported that his wife beat him when he was “on his way to the washroom”. In another case, a woman was arrested after she was found guilty of murdering her husband “by administering poison in sweet potatoes”. Yet another would-be murderess mixed powdered glass into a lump of dough and tried to feed her other half the treacherous bread that emerged.

Justice was often dispensed in a systematic fashion, though matters of custom were determined through the most conservative texts—the Peshwas took it upon themselves to demote castes and upgrade others on the basis of various codes. In everyday affairs, the courts were swift. One celebrated judge called Ramshastri Prabhune served for 25 years, deciding a little under 1,400 cases, his reputation so tall that even disputes from outside the Peshwa’s dominions were argued before him. Indeed, Prabhune is best known for passing the death sentence on Peshwa Raghunathrao for the crime of having murdered his predecessor. It was another matter that the sentence was never carried out, but the prestige attached to the judge only multiplied, as did faith in the system. It was, however, still not an ideal universe and things could go horribly out of hand—that very Kotwal who served for 50 illustrious years was at the end of his career lynched by a mob of angry men after a case of mass custodial death.

At the end of the day, however, Pune was run by a Brahmin elite that dominated all avenues of power. Many of them were bankers with networks across the country, and in their time over 200 temples were constructed in the city. Pune also offered a rare occasion for the orthodoxy to exercise direct political power. The fall of the Peshwas in 1818 put an end to this chapter as British imperium replaced the reign of the Brahmins, and power slipped to centres elsewhere. Elite resentment grew but the ferment also birthed a churn from below—the work of Jotirao Phule, for instance, against caste and its injustices. These dynamics sparked the birth of west-Indian nationalism and brought to the fore firebrands like B.G. Tilak and others. But even as they thundered for swaraj (self-governance), these leaders also recalled the days when the Peshwas were strong and Pune was proud—when an Indian elite reigned, before they were displaced by white men from afar and the challenge of those once deemed low.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 16 2019)


In 1352, Bukka Raya, one of the five brothers who founded what would become the empire of Vijayanagar, flaunted a most extraordinary title in a royal inscription. Along with such typically flamboyant styles as “punisher of enemy kings”, “vanquisher of kings who break their word” and “auspicious hero”, this son of Sangama introduced something unusual, used previously in India only by his brother: He assumed the title of “Hinduraya Suratrana”, or sultan among Hindu kings. It was a remarkable claim to make, adopting all at once the nomenclature of “Hindu”—hitherto applied by foreigners to describe Indians in general—while also transcribing into the Sanskritic vocabulary and imagination the concept of “sultan”, a potent new form of kingship which resounded across the land as Islamic dynasties entrenched themselves in the north, and took fire and steel into the south.

As part of imperial bombast, “Hinduraya Suratrana” was essentially employed in Vijayanagar, though a stray reference evidently appears also in a 1439 inscription in Sadri, Rajasthan. But the Sanskrit translation of sultan as suratrana itself was not a Vijayanagar innovation. In 1323, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq appears as Suratrana Gayasadina, and, three years before Bukka, we find the term in Nepal—after his invasion in 1349, Shamsuddin of Bengal was remembered there as Suratrana Samasdina. The term was in vogue even in the 17th century, used to describe the Mughals. And yet some deny any connection between this Sanskrit term and its Arabic root. Suratrana, to them, comes from sura (god) and trana (protector), which would mean that Bukka Raya saw himself as a protector of Hindu deities, and was not borrowing an Islamic title. The etymology could be entertained, but the fact is that in practice the words were certainly used synonymously: where the Delhi Sultanate’s coins used the Arabic sultan on one side, the reverse was inscribed in Sanskrit with suritana. So too when literary works referred to the Suratrana of Yoginipura (Delhi), it is unlikely they were flattering Muslim kings as guardians of Hindu gods.

In the larger picture of the interaction Islam had with India’s diversity of traditions and cultures, this indigenization of a foreign title is hardly surprising. The dominance Muslim rulers enjoyed for centuries saw the import of Persian culture into the subcontinent, and much from Farsi and Arabic blended with Indian tongues. Persian’s place as the language of diplomacy, for instance, meant that as late as the 1810s, communication between a Malayali queen (whose minister was her dewan) and the English East India Company were conducted in that language. In some Indian languages, in fact, Persian and Arabic left imprints that are indelible, marking their nature as much as their cultural and literary identities. Marathi, for instance, borrowed a great many words from these foreign bhashas so that, as the scholar V.K. Rajwade noted, “old Marathi documents are as unintelligible to a non Persian-knowing Maratha, as to a foreigner”. The 19th century Maharashtrian thinker Vishnushastri Chiplunkar too had no qualms admitting that the “roots of our language” lay as much in Persian and Arabic as in Sanskrit. And just as the emperors of Vijayanagar projected themselves as Hindu sultans, the Deccani hero Shivaji was described in the Sabhasadbakhar (a kind of Marathi historical chronicle, derived, evidently, from the Persian akhbar) as a Maratha padshah.

While suratrana and padshah were titles related to dynasts and kings, foreign influences made their presence felt even at lower levels, travelling down to our own time. Scribes who worked for Muslim kings and wrote their Farsi letters were called Parsnavis, from which emerged today’s surname of Parasnis, just as the Maharashtrian name Daftardar is descended from an official bureaucratic title. Fard-Navis, or secretary/note-taker, is what birthed Fadnavis, the last name of the present Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Maharashtra. The bharud drama-poems and poetry of Eknath, the celebrated Bhakti saint, meanwhile, are replete with words of Persian origin, while even personal names used by Marathas sometimes had a foreign provenance: names like Sahebrao, Serfoji, Rustamrao, and so on. Shivaji’s own father and uncle were named Shahaji and Sharifji to celebrate a Muslim pir called Shah Sharif his grandparents admired.

Shivaji, it is true, made a pointed effort to erase Persian influences and concepts from Marathi, even commissioning a dictionary to help discard yavana (foreign) words and replace them with Sanskrit alternatives. But as the power of the Marathas spread across large parts of the country, Persian’s status as a link language made its resurrection inevitable. The Peshwas, a dynasty of hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, were orthodox; but even their title was Persian. In a 1775 letter the prominent Maratha figure Nana Fadnavis sent on behalf of the Peshwa to the British monarch, the scholar Sumit Guha actually highlights words that are of Perso-Arabic origin (daulatbiradarbahutmahzabat, and so on), noting that though not as extensively as before, these were back in circulation. Such Islamicate influence was not, to be fair, limited to language, administrative jargon and titles alone: The Marathas also adopted Persian sartorial fashions and styles of architecture, so much so that the samadhi of Shivaji’s grandfather has been mistaken for a tomb owing to its striking resemblance to Islamic mausoleums.

Considering the plurality of influences that as a rule makes up Indian culture—a civilization with no single origin—none of this ought to surprise anyone. By the 19th century, however, efforts were already under way to “purify” languages and give them a classical pretence by overcompensating with Sanskrit words and trying to divert everything Persian and Arabic along religious lines to a specific class of people. In many respects, the project is still ongoing, and there is among certain sections of people even today a quest to find the “true” essence or purest version of the past. The irony, of course, as history shows, is that such a past does not exist, and what exists is not “pure” but rich and layered and splendidly complex—a past where there are Hindu sultans and Maratha padshahs; where forebears of a Hindu king could name their sons after a Muslim pir.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 09 2019)


In December 1971, Indira Gandhi famously abolished India’s princely order, terminating the privileges enjoyed by retired maharajas and nawabs since the integration of their states in 1949. To uphold titles, “customary rights, special privileges and privy purses without any relatable functions and responsibilities” was, in her mind, “incompatible” with “the spirit of the times”. Debate on this had begun well before, in fact, and, by 1967, there was considerable sparring in Parliament. The Bengali Communist leader, Bhupesh Gupta, for instance, described privy purses as “blood money” to feed a “parasitic class”, thundering that the Indian state was not an instrument to subsidize royal harems. Others, like Dahyabhai Patel of Gujarat, argued that reneging on a constitutional guarantee was not becoming of our nation. Would the government, he asked, “repudiate one by one all the agreement(s) that it has made, all the covenants it has entered into”? What authority would the state’s word possess in sensitive cases such as Kashmir, then?

Beyond contentious privileges—ranging from reserved pastures for their horses to immunity from legal prosecution—many were the constitutional issues involved in dissolving official recognition of India’s maharajas. In fact, Mrs Gandhi’s initial attempt had failed after the Supreme Court intervened, following which it was decided to amend the Constitution and discard the provisions standing in her way. And so it was that in the winter of 1971, the princes were relegated to the margins of history. Indeed, in one of her speeches in Parliament, Mrs Gandhi encouraged umbrageous maharajas to actually supporther—which, she averred, would leave them looking “considerably enhanced” in public estimation—instead of aching for gun salutes and vanities in a country so poor. The princes, predictably, were not pleased with her unsolicited advice, but it was too late: Mrs Gandhi carried the day, and with that the President ceased to recognize any more “rulers”.

Of course, India would not be India if broad legal positions translated immediately into lived reality. For there are still princes around the country who continue to be “recognized” and enjoy special rights despite Mrs Gandhi’s triumph in 1971. Indeed, even princely lines which were derecognized boast of public prestige and political power: Of the Scindias of Gwalior, the last maharani was a stalwart of the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, while her son and grandson went on to become leading politicians in Mrs Gandhi’s own party. In Mysore, a man was adopted in 2015 to “succeed” to what is strictly a non-existent title, essentially because the position retains religious and social significance. So too in Jaipur, the princely state whose maharani was at the receiving end of unusual hostility during Mrs Gandhi’s emergency rule, there is a 20-year-old titular maharaja, who holds in trust palaces and an extraordinary art collection, commanding considerable local reverence.

But if these are instances of princely descendants possessing respect for reasons of faith, custom or wealth, in Chennai resides a personage who is still recognized officially by the President. “His Highness the Prince of Arcot” is, even in 2019, a legal entity, with the perks of a Tamil Nadu cabinet minister. “Other special privileges,” a 1991 India Today feature noted, “include a full police escort, a state funeral” and some exemptions of income and motor vehicle tax. The arrangement may seem at odds with 1971, but Arcot was never affected by Mrs Gandhi’s zeal to begin with: That was aimed at princes who entered into agreements with the Indian union in 1949. Arcot’s status, as it happens, was decided well before. When, in 1855, the nawab of the Carnatic died, the East India Company annexed his territories under the notorious Doctrine of Lapse. The dead ruler’s uncle, who claimed succession under Islamic law, protested. And so, in 1871, a compromise was designed by which the uncle was created “Prince of Arcot”, with an allowance and specific prerogatives. The state’s obligations to his heirs were passed on by the British to independent India, the result of which is that the “prince” still enjoys legal sanctity in our anomalous democracy.

Kerala too is full of petty royalty with de facto recognition. For instance, while the privy purse of the Travancore maharaja was abolished in 1971, individual allowances settled on his family members by V.P. Menon, the civil servant who assisted Sardar Patel, are still disbursed: A niece of the maharaja, for instance, was aged 9 when the state merged with the Union. She was granted 833 per month then; today, at nearly 79, she still receives a stipend, raised to 3,250 in 2009. In north Kerala, meanwhile, treaties executed by the East India Company guide official obligations. When taking over Malabar, the Company had agreed to pay its princes certain sums in perpetuity. The Company disappeared after the rebellion of 1857, but its commitments were inherited by its successors: first, the British Crown and then the Indian Republic. So, even today, there is a “Zamorin of Calicut” entitled to about 5,000 per month according to an 1806 agreement; eight other title-holders in his 826-person family also receive pensions. As each incumbent dies, another succeeds and the state dutifully pays its legal dues to the newest arrival in this titular royal court.

The case of these surviving princes in our socialist republic is, in some ways, reflective of the countless ironies that make up Indian democracy. India remains, in many ways, a marriage of awkward histories and feudal legacies with the idealism of liberal thought and constitutional values. They do not sit easily with each other always, and sometimes jostle with force to make their presence felt. And yet the enterprise moves forward, one way or another: which perhaps explains why, even as we celebrate a Dalit president, newspapers descend into a frenzy at the advent of babies to freshly adopted maharajas; how even as a “chaiwallah” rises against the odds to become prime minister, there are princes and rajas to whom his government still owes a royal pension.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 02 2019)


When Kabir, the poet-saint, died five centuries ago, he could not have predicted he would be reimagined over and over again, to allay the anxieties of every succeeding generation. To most, of course, this icon of Bhakti is a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, his Arabic name sitting cheerfully alongside the chant of Ram. Indeed, soon after his death, Abul Fazl, emperor Akbar’s chronicler, described him as “the asserter of the unity of God”, one who “discarded the effete doctrines” of his time, “revered by both Hindu and Muhammadan for his catholicity of doctrine and the illumination of his mind”. Sikhs too looked upon him with respect, dedicating to his work whole passages in their Adi Granth. And in the 19th century, European missionaries laid claim to the weaver-saint of Varanasi, delighting in his barbs against caste, finding in his sayings a reflection of such thought which could only, they were convinced, be Christian in origin.

“Kabir appears to modern India,” Charlotte Vaudeville pointed out, “to be the true symbol of non-conformity.” And yet everything about him is immersed in myth and awe. He was the poor son of Muslim weavers, though the vocabulary of his devotion led early on to Hindu claims upon him. Some invented for him a miraculous birth—he was the conception of a Brahmin widow, delivered through her palm. Abandoned, he was raised Muslim. Others said he descended enveloped in lotus leaves and light from the heavens, floating upon a lake where he was discovered by his Julaha father. He certainly did celebrate Hindu imagery over Muslim theology, evidently also enjoying the tutelage of the guru, Ramananda. But by most accounts he was definitely a Muslim, with a wife and children, coming to mean so much to Hindus that stories were invented to drag him, as Wendy Doniger records, “over the line from Muslim to Hindu”.

While he lived, ironically, there was enough in Kabir’s message to upset Hindu and Muslim elites alike. To Brahmins he asked whether they were born with a caste-mark on the forehead, or whether their mothers delivered them through a special canal. “And if you say you’re Turk,” added Kabir, “why weren’t you circumcised before birth?” So, too, he sneered, it was “dumb” if people sought salvation in ritual. “If going naked brought liberation, the deer of the forest would attain it first. If a shaven head was a sign of piety, ewes would be pious too.” That low-castes and kafirs were doomed to their fate by the accident of birth was nonsense. Only those “who don’t have Ram on their lips” were ignorant; they alone were the low-born of the earth. “Those who read the Vedas call themselves Pandits, those who read the Quran call themselves Maulana; they give themselves different names…(but they) are all,” announced Kabir, “in their own delusions, not one of them knows the Lord.”

Like many in the Bhakti tradition, Kabir too knew persecution, therefore. Many are the tales that place him at the receiving end of the ire of Sikander Lodi, sultan of Delhi. Punishment was ordered, and suffering inflicted, but here again Kabir laughed at the irony. Giggling, it is said, in the presence of the emperor himself, the weaver is said to have declared, “All my life I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and Muslims that God is one.” He had tried to build a bridge between different paths, only to be ridiculed: “How could a Brahmin demean himself by joining hands with a low-caste weaver? How could a maulvi degrade himself by allying with a kafir?” They did not listen to words of wisdom, but hate achieved what Kabir had failed to bring about: “They could never bear to stand together in the court of (God) the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a (mortal) king.” And this because the custodians of the faiths universally disliked Kabir and his message.

It was his large following—those like him, illiterate, weak, and devoid of books—that made him an asset to wardens of the great traditions after he went to the grave. Indeed, they fought over his remains when he died, till, legend claims, only flowers remained under the funeral sheet: Some were buried, the rest cremated, and both sides got to claim a share of Kabir’s legacy. He might have chuckled at the feud over rites and ownership. “His death in Benares,” he once sang, “won’t save the assassin from certain hell,” just as “a dip in the Ganges won’t send frogs—or you—to paradise.” Matters of ritual were futile: mere instruments to enthral the susceptible, shrouding true wisdom from the masses. But no sooner had he died than Kabir too became an instrument. “I say the world is mad,” he had laughed. “If I tell the truth, they rush to beat me; if I lie, they trust me.” Now that he was dead, owning him trounced his message—and for this, things he eschewed became now truly imperative.

Of course, Kabir was no perfect man. His message resonated with the masses, and with quiet confidence he stood up to the power of those who held the keys to heaven. But he too had prejudices. “Woman,” he declared once, “is the refuse of the world” so that “noble men will put her aside, only the vile will enjoy her.” Elsewhere, he compared the female to a 20-hooded serpent, and “if she stings one,” he warned, “there is no chance to survive”. We can try and console ourselves that perhaps this streak of misogyny was a reflection of his age; that he never himself claimed to be a perfect man, or the one true soul in whose words lay answers for all. He was merely Kabir the weaver—a mortal made of flesh and blood—and he cared for Ram alone, not for the world and its numerous other battles.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 26 2019)


In the summer of 1795, soldiers attached to a Mughal jagir in present-day Uttar Pradesh rose up in mutiny and chained their commander-in-chief to a gun carriage. It was the nadir of their ultimately foiled enterprise, but the whole episode was packed with extraordinary drama. To begin with, the commander-in-chief—who languished for a whole week in the heat—was a woman. She had launched her career as a dancing girl, rising not only to become the begum of Sardhana, but also to win the affection of the emperor in Delhi who styled her Zeb-un-Nissa (“Jewel among Women”), Farzand-i-Azizi (“Beloved Daughter”) and Umdat-al-Arakin (“Pillar of the State”). She had spent her youth by the side of a much older German lover, inheriting his fortune, and later joined a Frenchman in a doomed marriage. Now, as she lay shackled and humiliated in public, riding heroically to her rescue was a former Irish paramour, one who would title himself the “Rajah from Tipperary”, becoming famous for his own military exploits.

Begum Samru, as our protagonist is best known, was born in the 1750s to the junior wife (or mistress) of a petty Mughal nobleman. The early death of her father saw both mother and child turned out on to the streets, and by the time she was in her teens the part-Kashmiri girl, who would one day take the name Joanna Nobilis, was a courtesan in Delhi. It was at this time that she encountered Walter Reinhardt. A serial deserter turned mercenary, he had upset everyone, including the French and the British, the latter placing a bounty on his head after he presided over the massacre of dozens of Englishmen in Patna. Known also as Sombre, a French corruption of Somers (a name he assumed while attempting a cunning reincarnation), he readily added the dancing girl to his entourage. And before long, despite the existence already of an Indian bibi, this young girl had become his partner, living with him for over a decade, sharing in his numerous adventures.

This period with Reinhardt, in fact, transformed the begum. Accompanying her “husband” on military campaigns, she also became his right hand in managing his jagir. After Reinhardt’s death in 1778, she played her cards with uncommon shrewdness, having Delhi recognize her, and not her husband’s hopeless son, as heir to his estate and all its appurtenances. Even though her dead spouse’s reputation as the “butcher of Patna” continued to plague her for years, she won admirers across the board; all of them noted her determination, charm and store of wisdom. Indeed, successive commentators recorded her “masculine” gifts, which, in that patriarchal age, as Julia Keay wrote, was their highest compliment. The begum too encouraged such an image: She sported, unusually, a turban, also appearing unveiled in paintings, with a hookah pipe in her hand. Essentially, she was making, as Alka Hingorani argues, “subtle alterations of traditionally masculine prerogatives”.

In 1781, Begum Samru took the unusual step of converting to Catholicism, an act as much of religious conviction as of political imagination. Though she shared no tongue with the priest who baptized her, and despite disapproval for having retained an Islamic appearance even after her conversion, the begum spent lakhs of rupees on Christian institutions (besides exchanges with the pope), constructing also what is considered north India’s largest church. All the same, becoming a Christian seemed a suitable strategy for a woman unhappy with Islamic restraints on her sex: Catholicism gave her the freedom she required to rule Sardhana while creating a legitimate (and distinct) space in contemporary Hindustani politics. Some, in fact, claim that she foresaw British dominion and wished to curry favour with India’s future masters by accepting the Christian faith—a claim not borne out by evidence, even if it lends itself to heady speculation.

As a military commander, Begum Samru showed all the qualities that marked leadership in her tumultuous age. When it was necessary, she could be ruthless: Two maidservants who set fire to her buildings were buried alive at her orders. When the Mughal emperor was imperilled, it was she who rode more than once not only for the defence of his imperial person but also of his capital. All the same, the begum also had to balance factions within her own armed forces. A motley crew of European adventurers and assorted Indian sepoys, they had their own politics, the worst of which the begum suffered after she married an unpopular French gun-founder, provoking that mutiny which saw her tied up and left to die in scorching heat. She survived the debacle and was restored to power, but never again permitted her heart to reign over her head.

By the early 19th century, the middle-aged begum (“a bejeweled vision of delight”) became a British ally. Instead of military engagements, it was her soirées that now attracted Europeans for whom she was also an object of curiosity. As late as 1834, when she was “bent in two” and “shriveled like dried raisins”, her energy didn’t cease to dazzle. In fact, writes Brijraj Singh, she actively “preferred European people and things to their Indian counterparts”—a potential adjustment to altered political realities after the emperor and his dynasty went into terminal decline and British supremacy became India’s new normal. Of course, though they admired her, Company officials never saw her as an equal. But it didn’t matter to her, either, in the big picture: She had begun life in poverty and crisis and worked in a public house. Now, by the eve of her demise, she not only enjoyed military salutes, but was also one of India’s richest women. As her memorial in Sardhana records, then, when “Her Highness Joanna Zeb-ul-Nissa” died on 27 January 1836, she was “revered and lamented by thousands of her devoted subjects”—not a predictable ending for someone who was once a courtesan, and whose successes so bewildered the world that rumour insisted she was actually a witch.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 19 2019)


Manubai Tambe was a woman of formidable spirit, long before she was lost to a nationalistic fog of myth and legend. Arriving soon at your nearest movie theatre with her more elaborate name, Manikarnika, she was, for instance, a sharp judge of horses. She wrote official letters in Persian and during the rebellion of 1857 famously led men—and women—into battle. Round of face, she was taller than most of her peers, and is said to have favoured simplicity, unlike the bejewelled depiction chosen by today’s film directors. “She bore,” an Englishman later recorded, “all the outward signs of a powerful intellect and an unconquerable resolution.” But if there was one thing that ruined the impression she left, it was her voice: as her legal adviser bemoaned, when the Rani of Jhansi began to speak, substance of great intelligence was conveyed in a sound that could only be described as “something between a whine and a croak”.

Lakshmibai, a name bestowed after her marriage (and one which she would make famous), was not born royal. Her father, Moropant, was a retainer of the Peshwas of Pune, serving the latter even after they were deposed by the British. It was in Varanasi that the future rani was born to this Brahmin, though the auspiciousness of the setting was dulled somewhat by the loss of her mother. But Moropant gave her both affection and the confidence born of education: she read, she rode, she fenced, and saw to it that her male playmates treated her as an equal. Many are the tales woven around her fascinating personality: once, it is said in a story that survives in multiple iterations, the Peshwa’s adopted son refused to take her along on his elephant. Years later, when she was granted three wishes on her wedding, she expended one of them to courier to this old friend the present of a particularly mighty elephant.

It was as a child-bride that the heroine of 1857 first arrived in Jhansi. The Newalkar family in power here were minor royalty of recent vintage. A late 18th century creation of the Peshwas, their loyalties were ceded in the early 19th century to the East India Company. “Maharajadhiraj Fidvi Badshah Jamjah Inglistan” (Devoted Servant of the Glorious King of England) was a title Lord Bentinck bestowed upon them in 1832, transforming this line from subedars to maharajas. And it was when Lord Dalhousie withdrew favour in 1853 that their fortunes were reversed. In 1851, meanwhile, young Manubai had given her husband an heir, but the baby did not survive. Two years later when the raja followed his child to the grave, there was nobody to occupy his place. With that the stage was set for the drama that now cements Lakshmibai’s memory: as the “Jezebel of India” in unkind Victorian eyes and as a patriot in the Indian imagination.

The annexation of Jhansi, as is well known, was opposed by the rani. It so happened that from his deathbed, her husband—a bibliophile whose love of drama sometimes saw him also appear personally on stage, according to scholar Joyce Lebra-Chapman—had adopted a relation as his heir. The British, of course, decided there was no compelling reason to recognize any of these proceedings: they had upgraded provincial officers into princelings, and they reserved the right to demote them now. Interestingly, this was despite popular sentiment: their own local representative had expressed confidence in the young widow (she was “highly respected and esteemed” and “fully capable” of ruling in her husband’s place), while another argued that since adoption had been recognized in a neighbouring state, there was no reason to deny the privilege to the Newalkars as well. The rani herself, meanwhile, petitioned the governor-general, arguing her case logically, highlighting portions from assorted treaties to show the latest British decision to be what it truly was: an injustice.

In an April 1854 letter, Lakshmibai appealed to Dalhousie to remember “How loyal the Rajas of Jhansi have ever been; how loyal are their representatives; how strong are the inducements that they should continue to be loyal in the future.” Her husband had not, she pointed out, any warlike characteristics, and Jhansi’s military capabilities were limited to “five thousand rusty swords worn by people called the army”. “Helpless and prostrate,” she ended, “I once more entreat Your Lordship to grant me a hearing.” Of course, she was exaggerating her helplessness and the impotence of her armies, but at this stage she was willing to plead with Dalhousie—if only he had relented, in 1857, she might even have stayed loyal, like other princes, to the British. Instead, however, the governor-general dug his heels in, leaving Lakshmibai to protest the “gross violation” of previous understandings, warning that this would cause “great disquietude” among India’s nobility, with lasting repercussions on the future of the Company and its designs.

Dispossessed, at first the rani declined the British offer of ₹60,000 per annum but was soon persuaded to accept the settlement. In the years that followed, however, there was much bickering and haggling—over the late raja’s debts, which were deducted from her allowance; over the continuation of the pension to Lakshmibai’s adopted son, which the British were against; over a temple; and even such issues as cow slaughter. When the rebellion broke out, at first the rani was undecided—in a letter dated June 1857, she hoped the rebels would go “straight to hell”. Even months later, by which time the local British presence was destroyed through a massacre, Lakshmibai was uncertain. It was only early in 1858, when many of her old friends, including the aforementioned Peshwa’s adopted son, became confirmed leaders of the rebellion and she herself was being viewed with suspicion, that she made her final choice: a choice that saw her ride out bravely on horseback towards tragedy, and enshrined her in India’s national history.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 12 2019)


In 1857, when the great rebellion swept much of north India into a storm of gunpowder and rage, one of the consolations the embattled British possessed was the loyalty of numerous Indian princes. Even as maharajas issued proclamations of fidelity, a number of them mobilized actual armies in service of the East India Company. Thus, for instance, leading princes of Punjab stood with the British, just as the reigning Scindia in Gwalior “strove hard to keep his…subjects faithful to his liege lords.” In Rajputana, similarly, support came despite public sympathy for the rebels. “At every town through which we passed,” an officer wrote of Jaipur, “the inhabitants cursed and abused us.” But the local ruler pitched his flag with the British, lending them troops who not only served the Company gloriously but even punished those “refractory villages” for flirting with mutiny.

From his position, it was a shrewd stand to take, for had it been otherwise, Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur himself might have been deposed and banished to the footnotes of history. Described as “a ruler of singular intelligence and enlightenment”, Ram Singh was only 22 at the time of the rebellion, and it was after some hesitation that he decided to endorse the cause of the British. He had spent his formative years under the guardianship of a regency council, which was really a coterie of noblemen. When in 1851 he succeeded to full powers, he had to balance several interests—in order to actually exercise his authority, he proactively sought the “active official support” of the British. But all the same, his courtiers remained influential, so when they showed sympathy for the rebels in 1857, it took some time for Ram Singh to make up his mind—on whether he should raise swords in the name of the mutineers, or fight for a foreign power which buttressed his own princely authority.

Ram Singh was one of the 19th century’s more remarkable Indians. That he was interesting was clear early on. When prince Alexei Dmitrievich Saltykov of Russia met him in the mid-1840s, the “plain-looking” adolescent left on his visitor a sparkling impression. He wanted to know, for instance, “where Russia is located and how long it would take to go there from Jaipur”. As an adult, the maharaja carved for himself an even more striking reputation as a modernizer. In 1867, he set up the first girls’ school in his capital despite “popular prejudice” against such ideas in a feudal environment. He set up the Maharaja College, where English and Sanskrit were taught side by side, even as he established a school of art, a public library, and a hospital. Gas lights were installed along thoroughfares in his capital, while other projects ranged from waterworks to a postal network. Changes in administration were also made, launching modern governance in the state. Meanwhile, fluent in English as well as Western thought, Ram Singh became a bridge between two worlds, tuned into evolving times, but also married firmly to his roots and to Indian tradition.

What really distinguished him, though, was a royal pastime that graduated into an enduring passion. When Louis Rousselet, the traveller, met Ram Singh in 1866, he was surprised that the maharaja’s “dress was handsome, but showed an indifference to ornament”; instead of jewels and a sword, there was “an immense revolver thrust into his belt”. But more interesting even than the ruler’s appearance, the Frenchman recalled, was their conversation on photography—Ram Singh, he realized, was not only “an admirer of this art, but is himself a skilled photographer”. In fact, for about a decade, the maharaja had been a member of the Bengal Photographic Society, long before he acquired his first camera in 1862. And while princes across India developed a fondness for photography, few mastered it in the way he did—or created a collection that encapsulates a world in which the Victorian and the Indian met both constructively as well as to do ideological battle.

It was portraiture that caught the maharaja’s attention. In 1870, for instance, he photographed Queen Victoria’s son just as he did his palace doctor. But what are more stunning are the portraits he made of women in his harem. There were Hindus and Muslims; senior concubines (pardayats) and junior mistresses (paswans). But, as scholar Laura Weinstein notes, to photograph women in purdah was “completely without precedent”. While Ram Singh never made portraits of his senior wives, by bringing his establishment into view through the camera, he dispelled multiple stereotypes about the harem. Where the British painted the zenana as a sinister place, lacking in fresh air and guarded by scheming eunuchs, the women who appear in Ram Singh’s photographs are powerful, dignified and far from Victorian cliché. “The zenana portraits,” tells Weinstein, “reveal no sickness or dirt, depraved or deviant faces, exposed bodies or sexually suggestive poses.” What they show is a world where there is no pressing demand for Western “light”—where there is nobody crying to be “rescued” from despotic oriental hands.

It is tempting to think that Ram Singh was making a conscious statement as he Indianized the gaze of the Western camera. By turning his lens towards the harem, he struck at norms that concealed royal women; and by photographing the zenana’s inmates in confidence, he was challenging colonial tropes about Indian women and royal depravity. Indeed, for all the things he achieved in his remarkable life, this is one of the most memorable. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, even as he carried out his programme of administrative reform in Jaipur, the maharaja honed his skill with the camera. And by the time he went to the grave in 1880, Ram Singh had journeyed through a world of experience: from the young prince of 1857, who gambled in favour of the British, to the photographer-maharaja who claimed for himself the right to depict Indianness and reject hackneyed images perpetuated by the Raj.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 05 2019)


When Vijayanagar was defeated at the Battle of Talikota in January 1565, what fell with it was the last formidable empire to tower over the Indian peninsula. To be clear, the old kingdom continued to exist for many more decades in a truncated form, but Talikota marked the end of all glories for a power that once boasted of such monarchs as Krishnadeva Raya. Weakened and emasculated, its rulers watched as their authority dissolved, and regional dynasts emerged, inaugurating the so-called Nayaka period in the south. In the northern Deccan, meanwhile, Vijayanagar’s traditional enemies—the sultans who emerged victorious at Talikota—ruled for a century more, till the Mughals swallowed their independence during the reigns of Shah Jahan and his son. With the fall of Golconda in 1687, even their tale was concluded—the next chapter pivoted around the feud between Shivaji the Maratha and Aurangzeb, the last Great Mughal.

What, however, would have been the course of history, had Vijayanagar survived? What if, instead of having his severed head impaled on a spear, Rama Raya, the de-facto emperor, had triumphed at Talikota? He did reign, after all, over one of the wealthiest empires of his day, lacking neither in men nor money; it was better artillery and fortifications that generally helped his rivals to the north. Had he defeated them, would he have annexed their lands or merely demanded tribute? The Qutb Shah of Golconda, in fact, was once a friend, whose years of exile as a youth were spent in Rama Raya’s court. The Adil Shah of Bijapur, another of Talikota’s triumphant sultans, was Rama Raya’s adopted son. It is likely that Vijayanagar would have allowed these Islamic states to continue as vassals, just as the sultans did not comprehensively attach Vijayanagar’s lands after victory in 1565. But their independence would have been limited, great riches transferred from their vanquished capitals to be heaped before the victorious Raya.

But what would this have meant for the Mughals? The picture is a fascinating one: to visualize Akbar presiding over an ambitious, growing empire from Agra, while the south remained the sphere of influence of Vijayanagar’s Rayas. The Deccan’s Sultans might have formed buffer states between these two great empires—one moment seeking friendship in Vijayanagar, the next trying to persuade the Mughals to help unshackle themselves from the southern yoke. They were also close to the Shah in Persia: would he have played politics through his Deccani allies to balance Vijayanagar and the Mughals? Or would he have allied firmly with the Hindu dynasty that dominated the peninsula—one which was more actively part of international networks of trade—than the Mughals who were his rivals in the wider world of Islam? And where would the Portuguese fit into this? After all, trade in the Arabian Sea was falling into their European hands, and overtures had been made from Vijayanagar for special understanding and friendship. Would the Portuguese have had to choose between the Mughal and the Raya?

To think of India divided between two dominant powers allows for a grand (even if entirely imaginary) picture: the Mughals with their influence stretched across the Gangetic belt, and from Afghanistan to Bengal, while all that lay south of the Narmada became the dominion of the heirs of Krishnadeva Raya. At some point the two would certainly have clashed—Mughal ambitions and the ballooning of their empire could only lead them towards the frontier of the southern emperor, just as the latter’s ancestral conflict with Orissa’s monarchs would have mobilized Vijayanagar’s armies towards the north. So, instead of the sensational confrontation that the 17th century saw between the Marathas and the Mughals, would Aurangzeb have found himself battling the might of an imperial equal? Whose arms would have triumphed? The Mughals, after all, drew talent from across the Islamic world—warriors, administrators, artillerymen, and others—while Vijayanagar, even in its rivalry with regional sultans, was often unable to source the latest technology, or even the best horses. Would, perhaps, the Portuguese have filled the gap and become Vijayanagar’s agents and arms dealers?

Then there is the matter of culture. Persian sartorial tastes and much else from the Islamicate world touched life in Vijayanagar—its temple sculptures, architecture, and even the famous bronze of Krishnadeva Raya and his wives in the Tirupati temple, stand testament to this. A Vijayanagar princess was given once in marriage to a sultan, while another emperor is believed to have toyed with the idea of seeking a bride from Catholic Portugal. Could an alliance with Akbar have ended with a matrimonial bond between the two empires, perhaps after a military confrontation? Or would Akbar have had to concede victory to the Raya, ceding territory and becoming the lesser of India’s two great emperors? It would most likely have been difficult for either to completely overpower the other—but the constant balancing of power between north and south might have birthed interesting dynamics, even as these two major courts patronized a fascinating universe of ideas and culture, poets and scholars, artists and artisans.

If Vijayanagar had survived, India might have entered the modern age looking a great deal different. Its experience with the European trading companies that sought to colonize this land could have taken a different shape—a powerful emperor in the peninsula might have been able to contain Portuguese, Dutch, and English influence. Many later heroes—from Shivaji down to Tipu—might not have emerged at all, had Vijayanagar’s imperial order held. But fantasy is perhaps best tempered with the evidence left by reality: great empires often fell not because of external enemies but due to internal contradictions; because of the misguided policies of proud rulers than the arms of a terrible invader. So, for all we know, if Vijayanagar had survived after Talikota, it may yet have collapsed a few generations later, limited minds and incapable men bringing about what the Deccan’s sultans achieved in 1565 by force of arms.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 22 2018)


When Raja Ravi Varma died in 1906, what departed with him was a life not only of artistic success but also of immense personal glamour. Indeed, much of the painter’s triumph came from his innate skill as much as the advantage of high birth and social cultivation. Deftly navigating between the studio and the colonial ballroom, doors opened before him as he mixed with politicians and statesmen, intellectuals and maharajas. It was diabetes that seized him in the end, and much of the criticism of his style only came afterwards, allowing this “painter-prince” a career in which he was a celebrity as much as an artist. Indeed, well before these words were understood as we do today, Ravi Varma emerged as a man of network, to whom concepts such as publicity and promotion were not remotely alien.

Decades after Ravi Varma, there lived in India another man of art, with more than one parallel with the life of this painter of the Raj. Like him, the younger artist had a most exciting story surrounding his birth: where Ravi Varma’s pregnant mother was “possessed” by a spirit prophesying greatness, the other man’s birth was presided over by officials of the Indian state. While an infant Ravi Varma drew on palace walls and caught the eye of a creative uncle, it was the walls of the younger man’s village house that first won him the attention of scouts looking for talent and imagination. And where the 19th century nobleman gave new form to gods of the Sanskritic pantheon, our late 20th century tribal was captivated by his own gods, depicting Thahi Dev, Khairagadhia Dev and Bara Dev for the first time on paper and canvas.

But there end the parallels between Ravi Varma and Jangarh Singh Shyam—so named after he was born quite literally in the middle of a janaganana(census) of his people. For unlike the former, whose privilege equipped him to not only paint but also master life itself, the latter was lost when it came to things beyond art. He emerged from a village and when he moved in with shehri (urban) artists, bewilderment and competition were his companions. What he walked into was, we are told, a “ruthless global marketplace of art, whose pressures he was not equipped to cope with”. And when he hanged himself in 2001, aged 40, his life folded in tragedy. As his newest biographer writes, he did not lose himself because his art went nowhere, or because success shunned him. He was, instead, “trapped in the crossing,” lost between two worlds.

Jangarh Singh has found a resurrection in A Conjurer’s Archive, a splendid volume produced by the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru. Written by Jyotindra Jain, the art critic who was also his friend, the pages of the book are glossy, and the images stunning. But this well-designed volume evokes also the trouble Jangarh Singh had in applying to himself the gloss that “sold” in the art market, just as he struggled with the demands of a bureaucracy and its paladins. He was an alien in a world where his work fetched high prices—and so he followed advice that did not always make him happy. As Jain notes, a gallery in Delhi once wanted him in its brochure. But because the man in jeans and a shirt did not look “authentic” enough for a master of (erroneously named) Gond art, Jangarh Singh had to strip and pose in a loincloth.

Jangarh Singh was a Pardhan, a tribal group inaccurately classified with the Gonds. In 1981, aged 20, he was working in the field when associates of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal appeared out of the blue. Impressed by the paintings he had done on his walls, they persuaded him to join them, and for the rest of his career he stayed with the institution. Officially, he was first an “attendant” in the graphics department—which resulted in demands that he bring people tea and coffee—but very quickly it became clear that Jangarh Singh was an artist with a vision of his own, cultivating a technique nourished by the art of his ancestors, even as it drew influences from the world he observed, both urban and rural.

Jain, for instance, highlights his Pandawani work, which, despite its name, tells tales not only from the Mahabharat but also the Ramayan. His community were bards, and he too told tales in paint of their legends, heroes and chieftains. “What is noteworthy,” writes Jain, “is that the characters…are shown sporting modern clothing such as shirts and half pants”. There are aircraft and other motifs from modernity, in works that the market insisted had to be branded “tribal”. Some pushed for him to stick to the rustic, taking it upon themselves to decide what was “authentic” tribal art and how much its painter could experiment. Jangarh Singh was naturally frustrated and often upset, but he did what he did anyway, exploring new media and becoming a master even of serigraphy.

His death in 2001 is mired in controversy. For ₹12,000 a month, he was deputed to an art gallery in Japan for a quarter of a year. Shy and a misfit, he grew lonelier still, writing pained letters home. When the gallery unilaterally extended his stay, it crushed a man already, perhaps, in the grips of depression. And so, as an official of the museum wrote, “he lost the balance and connection between the reality and…cut all the connection with life, wife, children and friend and he took the path of death.” It is condescending to suggest that pressures of the market alone killed him—perhaps there were other factors too. Either way, after a sparkling career of 20 years, the artist decided he’d had enough—unlike Ravi Varma, who knew both art and the ways of the world, Jangarh Singh knew only to paint and couldn’t quite navigate the rest.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 15 2018)


In 1857, soon after the sepoys rose against the East India Company in a burst of volcanic fury, the Delhi Gazette carried a proclamation issued in the name of the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Popularly called the Azamgarh Proclamation, this was authored most likely by a junior member of the imperial household, though its contents are not remotely less fascinating on this account. Besides predictable denouncements of the “tyranny and oppression of the treacherous” English, the document was also a manifesto that sought to win support from influential quarters, offering—like political manifestos today—a cascade of promises. Thus, for instance, the rights of zamindars were guaranteed, just as attractive pay was guaranteed to soldiers. More interestingly, among promises made to the commercial classes was one that speaks much of the age in which the mutiny took place. For it was pledged to men of trade that when the badshahi regime was restored, they would enjoy “gratis” the use of “government steam-vessels and steam carriages for the conveyance” of their all-important merchandise.

As it happened, the rebels scattered and the Mughal emperor fell. But on his journey to Burma (now Myanmar) in a bullock cart, Bahadur Shah Zafar did witness the construction of railway lines on which would ply the “steam carriages” that only yesterday were offered free in his name. While rebel leaders discerned advantages in this new mode of transport for purposes of trade, they were hardly alone: 10 years earlier, The Times in London had claimed that while “there may be no diamonds (left) at Golconda”, there was “the worth of a ship-load of diamonds in the cotton fields of the Deccan.” All that was needed to exploit this plentiful land was a reliable network. Then, of course, the mutiny confirmed for the British the military advantage that the railways offered, as loyal armies could in future make their way at record speed and contain any threat of rebellion. This, perhaps, was among the reasons that agitated Gandhi when he beheld the welding of India’s geography with steel and steam, declaring ominously that this was all for “bad men (to) fulfil their evil designs with greater rapidity”.

Leaving the Mahatma’s suspicions aside, the railways in India roused many, from Rudyard Kipling to Rabindranath Tagore, Florence Nightingale to R.K. Narayan. Talk of its introduction in the subcontinent began in the 1830s and, ironically, endless concerns were raised. One question was of viability: would “the Hindoos”, with their caste and religious taboos, embrace the railways, or would they boycott it resolutely? In the event, “the Hindoos” nodded approval: pilgrimages that took weeks could now be covered in days, even if by means of the devil’s contraption. Others argued that the fire carriage was at best a vanity project—India’s destiny lay in waterways, insisted Sir Arthur Cotton, whose thousands of statues stand testament to his efforts in this direction in the Godavari belt. Meanwhile another set of people welcomed the steam engine for its political potential. “If India is to become a homogenous nation,” wrote Sir T. Madhava Rao, the 19th century statesman, “it must be by means of the Railways [and]…the English language.” (Good for him that he lived then, for today he would be labelled anti-national.)

The dawn of our railways (now fourth largest in the world, transporting billions and with over a million employees), like new technology in general, inspired opportunity while also birthing subversion. As scholar Arup K. Chatterjee writes, the railways could become “clandestine spaces for experimentation” where “vegetarian looking businessmen” tasted chicken and mutton: removed physically from their everyday universes, days and hours spent on the track offered a window into something new, something that was usually taboo. To Europeans in India, meanwhile, the way the railways functioned offered a “nominal provincial Europe” on wheels, where the food, cutlery, décor, and everything else reminded them of home. And then, all the same, there could also be disease and horror—to quote Ira Klein, “plague (too) rode the rails”. In 1947, similarly, the railways conveyed death across the border, as photographs recorded their role in the tragedy of Partition.

The British, of course, presented the railways as proof of their civilizing mission—this when it was an elaborate commercial enterprise delivering obscene profits to English investors at the expense of the Indian peasant. Then the railways also allowed for architectural experiments: buildings like the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai projected colonial splendour, visually stamping India with the presence (and threat) of British imperium. To the dismay of the architects of empire, however, the railways also ended up transporting that inconvenient thing called nationalism. Soon, even the Mahatma was able to Indianize the railways, using it, as Chatterjee notes, to collect donations just as much as to launch forth on swaraj, every station and every third-class carriage a platform for his invigorating politics. Revolutionaries, meanwhile, could disrupt rail lines, and even such small things as travelling ticket-free or pulling the chain became acts of civil disobedience. What began as a (lucrative) civilizing mission, then, ended up embodying Indian resistance.

In the end, the story of the railways in India is one of splendour as well as shock, elegance as well as embarrassment, opening up many worlds in which its carriages and engines have served as both witnesses and participants. In its early avatar, it was a symbol of colonial oppression. But like with foreign ideas that were seized by Indians for their own domestic purposes and intentions, the railways quickly won our imagination, becoming integral to the shaping of our national character. The Father of the Nation might well have continued to suspect the railways even as he used it, but there is no doubt that its steel frame occupies a place of importance in our tale as a people: one that bridged far and diverse provinces, even as it connected everyone from Bahadur Shah Zafar to the Mahatma himself.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 8 2018)


In 1683, a little before the Mughals completed their final conquest of the Deccan, a Brahmin subordinate of the Qutb Shah of Golconda made a fascinating remark to a friendly Dutchman. Akkanna, whose brother was minister to the sultan, was talking to Michiel Janszoon of the Dutch East India Company. And in the course of their discussion, the Brahmin said to the European: “You yourself can imagine which government serves the king best, ours or that of the Moors (i.e. Muslims)”. He and his associates were “not people who have or seek other countries” and, in consequence, were “fullheartedly devoted to the welfare of (this) country”. The “Moors”, on the other hand, came to the Deccan with the chief intention of “becoming rich and then to leave for those places which they consider to be either their fatherland or holy”. In other words, their sole interest was self-aggrandizement, all at the cost of the country that enriched them in the first place.

It is a remarkable statement for its time, almost Savarkaresque with its talk of fatherlands, holy lands, and the alleged illegitimacy of some groups on account of their foreignness or lack of religious commitment to India. Equally interesting is that this statement appears soon after the celebrated Maratha warrior, Shivaji, articulated his own dharmic vision of power and kingship. Was this, then, the beginning of the crystallization of religious identities, if not in India as a whole, at least in the Deccan? Was it the start of the creation of a modern sense of being Hindu, defined against “the Moors” and their faith? And what does it say of scholarship that suggests that Hindu-Muslim relations in India were largely syncretic, poisoned by communal acrimony only as a consequence of colonial divide and rule? The answers, as it happens, are about as complex as the questions.

Notions of “us” and “them” among elites did exist but these sat alongside everyday syncretism—Akkanna’s brother was a sponsor of elaborate Muharram observations in Hyderabad, just as he fed numerous Brahmins during Hindu festivals. The Qutb Shahs were patrons of the Telugu language, admirers of the Sanskrit epics, husbands to Hindu women, and well integrated into the land where their forbears were immigrants. But when it came to articulating their power, it was Islamic ideals they upheld, imitating Persian customs and seeking approval from the Shah of Iran. In other words, where formal definitions of power were concerned, it was Islamicate ideas that held primacy, even if actual, lived politics was a different matter. In Hindu royal houses, too, things were not different: the kings of Vijayanagar formally expressed their identity in Sanskritic terms even as they employed Muslims, respected the Quran, adopted Persian sartorial tastes and called themselves “Hindu Sultans”. One emperor evidently even suggested a marital alliance with Catholic Portugal. But despite multiple exchanges on the ground, the formal self-image of Hindu and Muslim houses could be different.

Bigotry existed too: temples were demolished during war, usually to flatten the legitimacy of enemy kings. But sometimes wanton acts of violence were also possible on account of individual fanaticism—Afzal Khan’s desecration of the great shrine in Pandharpur on his way to battle Shivaji is a case in point, an incident that deeply offended even those Marathas loyal to the Muslim general. For the most part, however, just as religion lent itself as a gloss to power, it was also deployed for purposes that had less to do with the gods than claimed. As the Mughals made gains in the Deccan, for example, restrictions were placed by its Sunni emperors on Shia practices at the Qutb Shah’s court—and this despite the fact that Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb were married to Shia women, and many of their own generals were also “heretics”. It did not matter so long as they were loyal to the Mughals: but when Shiism was the enemy’s religion, it supplied a “legitimate” excuse to mask the age-old impulses that governed politics—avarice, a quest for power, and more—and commence conquest in the name of a formal ideology.

So Shivaji was described as an “infidel” even as Aurangzeb despatched precisely another “infidel”, the famous Rajput general Jai Singh, to fight him; a man addressed in one firman (imperial edict) as “faithful and obedient to Islam”. Bukka Raya, who founded Vijayanagar, might call himself Krishna-incarnate to rid the world of mlechhas even as he sought an alliance with Delhi’s mlechha (foreigner) sultan. Signs of religious sympathy exist too: Aurangzeb’s final siege of Golconda in 1687 saw his Shia nobles betray concern for the Shia enemy, just as Jai Singh looked away during Shivaji’s famous escape from Agra. All this being the case, what exactly was Akkanna talking about in 1683 when he expressed hostility towards the “Moors” in the name of his homeland?

The Qutb Shahi court was a balance of factions: there was a Persian Shia faction, a Sunni party of Indian Muslims, groups of Hindu warlords, and eventually a powerful Brahmin bureaucratic establishment. Different groups held disproportionate influence at different times, and in Akkanna’s day the Brahmin network acquired more power than ever before. Akkanna, for instance, was even granted a senior military rank—and this when he never went near a single battle. When he referred to “the Moors”, the idea was to stand up to the Persian immigrants and not all Muslims as a blanket category, and to increase the power of the Brahmin faction, under whom the state was run with a certain vision—one where the wealth of the kingdom stayed in the kingdom. In the end, in 1685, Akkanna and his brother were murdered at the behest of two begums by their African slave (yes, there was an African faction too). But when they were gone, did Brahmin influence end? No—for the two years of Mughal-free independence the state had left, the Qutb Shah granted his favour to other Brahmins, including Vessanna, another brother of the dead Akkanna.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 01 2018)

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In the winter of 1935, the celebrated American activist, Margaret Sanger, arrived in India to spread the message of birth control. She hoped to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to give her his endorsement which would, she wrote, “be of tremendous value” to her cause. When they met, Gandhi was welcoming of Sanger but not her ideas: abstinence from sex, he argued, and not birth control, was the way forward for India and its families. Sanger was dejected: “He can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome”, she complained. Unhappy, but undefeated, she carried on with her travels, journeying to 18 cities, delivering 64 addresses, and meeting everyone from Rabindranath Tagore to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ironically, among those who stepped forward as Sanger’s champions at this juncture was the junior maharani of Travancore—a woman who would win the Mahatma’s appreciation for her role in throwing open Hindu temples to Dalits. Late in December 1935, the maharani invited Sanger to Thiruvananthapuram, her son’s capital, to deliver a lecture. It was a sensation. After all, this was one of south India’s great seats of orthodoxy, in a principality described by a previous ruler as hopelessly “priest-ridden”. It was a temple town, and the royal family lived a cloistered life of Brahminical ritual and piety—and here was the ruler’s mother organizing a discussion on such scandalous themes as intercourse.

While Sanger was delighted, this was merely one of many unconventional things the maharani accomplished in her life. Sethu Parvathi Bayi was an interesting, complicated woman, who combined phenomenal confidence with an unapologetic quest for power. Born in 1896 into the lineage of the Kolathiri rajas of Malabar, she was adopted aged 4 into Travancore’s ruling house. Under the matrilineal system, it was her sister, the senior maharani, who occupied the formal limelight, and early on Sethu Parvathi Bayi realized she would have to stand out to be noticed—even if this meant breaching tradition. As her son remembered, she “never blindly follow(ed) custom” but “would respect (it) where it was desirable.” And, of course, the judge of where it was desirable was the maharani herself.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s personality was tremendous. As a child she learnt to play the veena, later cultivating a formidable reputation as a patron of Carnatic music—Mutthiah Bhagvathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer both sang her praises. As a pregnant woman in her teens, when custom recommended rest and worship, she insisted on her daily round of golf and French lessons. In her 20s, she was the toast of south Indian society, struggling, however, with a conservative husband who sat with lemons at banquets to disperse any caste pollution. Years later, John Paton Davies Jr, an American diplomat was startled as he watched a temple procession with the maharani—while her son piously led the deity for a ceremonial bath, she served her companions scotch whisky.

Inner resolve the maharani possessed in immense quantities—in the early 1930s, she dismissed every Brahminical argument against crossing the kala-pani and became the first in her family to venture abroad. She met European royalty and collected art, also giving the Pope’s officials a dressing down when they tried to lecture her on how much make-up was appropriate. Her conversational skills were legendary: Paton Davies also noted the ease with which she moved from discussing a visit to Bali to “modernistic” furniture to finally contemplating the emotional range of elephants. As for food, a great-grandson recalls that when old and bedridden, she still kept a stove in her bedroom where she personally prepared small delights for her family.

In politics, however, Sethu Parvathi Bayi occupies a darker space. When her sister (and rival) was in power, the maharani had no compunction in backing various moves to destabilize her government, with the British recording everything from fake news campaigns to black magic. When her son gained power, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was perceived as a Hindu consolidationist, their subsequent policies sparking discontent among minorities. “She is arrogant, uncharitable, egotistical, bad-tempered, insular and vindictive,” noted one report, and was “cordially hated” by ordinary people. Her son himself, it was recorded, was powerless: Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s “usurpation sub rosa of ruling functions” meant that as late as the eve of independence, the viceroy, Lord Wavell, could diarize that while the maharajah was “not altogether a fool”, he was “entirely overshadowed by his mother”.

The maharani’s greatest misadventure, however, came towards the end of princely rule. Mass agitation throughout her son’s reign led to a Communist uprising in the region—it was brutally dealt with in 1946, leading to the killing of hundreds. In 1947, it was declared that when the British departed, Travancore would become “an independent country”—a misguided decision taken, to quote historian Sreedhara Menon, by “Their Royal Highnesses…the son and the mother.” Of course, an assassination attempt against their minister put paid to these plans, and with the integration of the princely states into the Indian union, Sethu Parvathi Bayi lost power. Hereafter, she was merely a titular maharani, diverting herself from the exercise of authority to full-time patronage of the arts.

By the time she died in 1983, the maharani was wheelchair bound. It is not known if she had any regrets—her sister, for instance, grew so fed up with royal life during the junior maharani’s heyday that soon after independence, she abandoned the palace and moved away forever. And even if she did, it would be impossible to know today. What can be said, however, was that Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a remarkable woman—one with disquieting proclivities in politics, but also a fascinating appetite for life—a combination that saw her championing birth control one day, dining with colonialists the next, and condoning violent action when it came to preserving the power of her state: power which she could deploy with furious effect.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 24 2018)


On 1 November 1858, Queen Victoria formally extinguished the fires of the great rebellion of the preceding year with a historic proclamation. Two pages of grandiloquent text was all it took to inaugurate a new chapter after the “mutiny”, and possession of India was transferred from the bloodied hands of the East India Company to the custody of the British Crown. Everything was infused with the moral legitimacy of a maternal sovereign, her words offering a world of guarantees, from territorial integrity for princely states to freedom of religion for the masses. Writers on all sides descended into ecstasies about this “Magna Carta of Indian Liberties”, though bureaucrats in actual command prevented too liberal an interpretation by the queen’s new subjects. But for all that, the proclamation generated a sweep of goodwill across the board—a clean slate for colonial officers, and hope for India’s earliest generation of nationalists. And in the meantime, Queen Victoria was also transformed, becoming India’s own Victoria Maharani.

The process was a fascinating one, despite its unequal politics. From the very start, the queen had shown interest in matters Indian, often revealing a broadness of mind that horrified the men who really operated her government. As Miles Taylor argues in his excellent new book, The English Maharani, if the queen was magnanimous it “always came from belonging to the winning side”. But even as she collected baubles and gems from the subcontinent, there was an awkward sincerity to her politics. The proclamation itself was a document with which she was not satisfied: she wanted a firm statement that Indians would be “placed on an equality with (all other) subjects of the British Crown”, a proposal Parliament watered down to a vague line on her “obligations of Duty” towards India. Elsewhere, she won—while an earlier draft loosely committed to the “relief of poverty”, Victoria revised this to promise Indians “peaceful Industry”, “Works of Public Utility”, and a government “for the benefit of all Our Subjects” whose prosperity, contentment, and gratitude were tests of its success.

Of course, what followed was revealing. To successive viceroys appointed in India at the head of an extractive state, the queen’s proclamation of 1858 was held up as a mirror of shame. As late as the 1890s, Dadabhai Naoroji’s campaigns in Britain cited the promise of 1858, while in 1908 Mahatma Gandhi was referring to the proclamation to demand rights in South Africa. The proclamation became the standard against which the Raj could be judged, and everyone, from dethroned princelings to people fighting property disputes, appealed to Victoria’s words—and often directly to her—to live up to its meaning. Even the introduction of income tax was lambasted as flouting guarantees in the proclamation. So the men in charge found a typically British solution to play things down: a protocol was evolved to determine which petitions actually reached Victoria’s desk and, as Taylor records, soon “the Government of India (was) transformed from postman to the sovereign to censor of the royal mail.”

It is politics at the highest levels of state that Taylor highlights, but the picture he paints is vivid without being uncritical. For Victoria, India opened up something new on a deeply personal level: renewed relevance. “Denied a political role at home” by constitutional convention, he argues, “she found it instead in her Indian dominion”. From the 1840s, for instance, she corresponded privately with viceroys, and while this still offered a lopsided picture, it eliminated some filters installed by officialdom in London. While reports of atrocities against British women during the 1857 rebellion appalled her, she soon suspected sensationalism in the press, asking for evidence. And she revelled in the adulation that came from India’s elites—whose nationalism at this stage did not sit in opposition to loyalty to the queen—as they composed poems comparing her to Hindu goddesses. Her affection for her Hindi munshi is, of course, well known, and even from afar India came to mean something special for her in a way it did not for others in her establishment.

Naturally, Victoria also grew defensive of her position. During the celebrated 1875-76 tour of the country by her son and heir, Edward VII, she was determined to ensure that the masses did not mistake him for their sovereign. Much to his irritation, she made it clear that he was the Viceroy’s guest and not her representative. “She even,” notes Taylor, “refused to countenance the prince conveying a message from her to the people of India.” In fact, when the tour became a success, the queen chose to orchestrate a grand event of her own to surpass it: the assumption of the title “Empress of India”. It was another matter that the innovation was received with borderline hostility in Britain itself, for powerful sections in the House of Commons were appalled by this gaudy claim of imperial status. The queen was furious, but the episode also highlighted the utility India held personally for her—her daughter, married to the German crown prince, was set to one day become an empress, and Victoria could not imagine being outranked by her offspring. Her son meanwhile used the occasion to pay his mother in her own coin: he famously wrote to the prime minister that he had no desire to be styled His Imperial Highness.

In the end, as Taylor argues, Victoria represented something for everybody in connection with India, becoming a bridge between competing ideologies and identities. To the British, she could be used to contain the earliest stirrings of Indian nationalism; to Indian nationalists, her proclamation allowed for calls for reform to be issued, couched in a language of loyalism. For Victoria herself, meanwhile, India offered both an empire and queenly purpose, carving out an unparalleled position that no British monarch after her was quite able to emulate—or imitate.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 16 2018)


In 1543, when the first Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda was stabbed to death, one of his sons fled to Vijayanagar to save himself from his parricide brother. For seven years, he lived in exile at this Hindu court, before coming home after the death of his murderous sibling. What followed was a phenomenal reign: the new Qutb Shah Teluguized his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama, patronized poetry on the Mahabharat, produced 30 children of his own (two of whom he put to death for plotting against him, fearing his father’s fate), and inaugurated an era of prosperity and splendour (despite, that is, the general violence of his age). Golconda’s ports attracted merchants from the world over, while its mines threw up diamonds in heaps, and by the time Ibrahim went to the grave in 1580, he was lord of one of the richest realms in India.

But the Qutb Shah—who once also compared the moustaches of his enemies to the pubic hair of “public women”—was never fully pleased with life in his old fort. He tried first to build an unwalled city towards the west. But when want of water aborted the enterprise, he constructed a bridge over the Musi river and looked instead to the east. His death meant that it was his heir, Muhammad Quli, who actually realized Ibrahim’s dream, founding what is today the city of Hyderabad—the latest place to attract the zeal of that special kind of politician anxious to rename great cities of the past instead of confronting challenges in the present. Hyderabad, either way, was only one of many feathers in Muhammad Quli’s cap. As a patron of the arts too he was substantial, authoring a celebrated collection of works called Kulliyat that covers everything from kabbadi to the festival of Basant Panchami.

Hyderabad, however, was an ambitious project and from early on seems to have attracted the envy of the Qutb Shah’s rivals. Fourteen thousand shops and public buildings were envisioned in the new city, with the magnificent Char Minar built over its central crossroads. The palace was a sensation, said to exceed any contemporary Mughal building—seven or eight floors high, with interiors studded with gems and gold. “A citie that for sweetnesse of ayre, conveniencie of water, and fertility of soyle, is accounted the best situated in India,” is how the English merchant William Methwold described it, while the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier thought the bridge “scarcely less beautiful than Pont Neuf at Paris”. Indeed, what the Qutb Shah envisioned in Hyderabad was not only a city unparalleled by rival capitals, but a “replica of paradise” itself.

The founding romance of Hyderabad is a story repeated by every tour guide in the vicinity. One day, we are told, when Muhammad Quli was out riding, he encountered a woman of exceptional beauty. Her name was Bhagmati, and having married her, he decided to name his new urban project Bhagnagar. Later, when she was styled Hyder Mahal, the city became Hyderabad. The story is certainly old—we have the contemporary Mughal poet Faizi writing to Akbar that the place commemorates “a hardened whore”—but it is unlikely that it reflects fact. Hyderabad celebrates Ali (also called Hyder, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin), who was venerated by the Shia Qutb Shahs (whose Shiism was also lambasted by Faizi), and while coins record both Hyderabad and Golconda, no mention occurs of Bhagnagar. Indeed, Muhammad Quli, who catalogued the names of his 17 beloved ladies, himself evidently makes no mention of Bhagmati, and in the Kulliyat, the city he founded is always referred to as Hyderabad.

What is more likely, as the historian H.K. Sherwani noted, is that Mughal antagonism towards the Deccan sultanates—which they would annex after generations of strife—meant everything impressive about them had to be disparaged. Just as the Qutb Shahs were never acknowledged as independent rulers by the Mughal emperor, it is likely that this grand new city had to be dismissed as nothing but a vanity project that flattered “an old mistress”. Such a tale, in fact, may well have found an audience even in the other Deccan sultanates, which oscillated between friendship and war with the Qutb Shahs on account of their own ever-changing dynamics. So, in the end, as Sherwani concludes, what was a “sneering sentence” from a Mughal officer grew “into a paragraph, the paragraph into a section, and the section into chapters”, repeated often enough to imitate the truth.

The weight of historical evidence does seem to lie with Sherwani, but Bhagnagar continues to live in popular imagination. European travellers in the 17th century used the name, for instance. Indeed, proponents of the Bhagmati story argue that if the lady does not exist in local records, it is because she was proactively wiped out—the idea that the new capital was named after a courtesan appalled enough people for this to be expunged. Such an erasure is possible—Ferishta, who wrote in the Deccan in the lifetime of Muhammad Quli, notes that Bhagnagar was named after a “prostitute” called Bhagmati, but that the Qutb Shah felt “ashamed of his amour” and renamed the city. But the fact that Muhammad Quli could name over a dozen of his mistresses, including his five favourites in a work spanning 1,800 pages, and not mention Bhagmati at all renders the matter open to debate.

In any case, for the politician seeking to rename Hyderabad Bhagyanagar—a Sanskritized version of Bhagnagar—it may come as news that the last laugh will still be had by the ghost of the Qutb Shah. If he was forced to erase Bhagmati’s name, this might be justice done for a Hindu woman who loved a Muslim king; if she never existed at all, the Qutb Shah’s memory still triumphs. After all, he built a city that still endures, while the men seeking to wipe this out have only a pretended glory that begins and ends with waging war on the past.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 10 2018)


In 1812 the fortunes—quite literally—of heaps of temples in southern Kerala found themselves in the hands of a man who was born in faraway Scotland. It was one of those strange ironies of colonial rule in India, for Colonel Munro had originally come to princely Travancore as the East India Company’s representative. Quickly, however, he was also elevated as minister by the ruling princess, a formula designed to give the British the power they desired while skipping actual annexation. Munro’s goal, with his split loyalties, was to balance the government’s books and ensure the company received regular tribute. And as part of his campaign to augment revenues, he took over 348 significant temples and 1,171 smaller shrines across the land, so that 62,000 gardens and 63,500 acres of cultivable land became state property overnight. Hereafter, sums were disbursed to the temples for their upkeep, but so valuable was the real estate seized that it still produced an enormous balance—an amount that could be used for other purposes, including to service political obligations to the company.

It was an act that birthed repercussions felt to this day, for some of Kerala’s celebrated shrines—including Sabarimala, for example—remain under government control, provoking persistent questions about what business precisely the state has in institutions of faith. To be fair, Munro’s action was not unilateral—temples, with unregulated funds and powerful trustees, were a political threat to the emerging modern state on the one hand, while on the other, there were complaints that revenues were being embezzled; in some instances, trustees decided to steal even the idols of their deities. In neighbouring Tamil provinces, too, the story was similar: the collector of Thanjavur, John Wallace, noted that temple custodians in his jurisdiction had piled up debt to the tune of ₹2 lakh (a colossal figure at the time). Like in princely Travancore, in British territories, too, the company was embroiled without delay in the business of religion. And here, too, profits followed: in 1846, after all expenses were deducted, the Madras Presidency found itself with Rs 8 lakh in surplus from temples, a figure promptly diverted to the “general education fund”, while another lakh was “expressly devoted” to a highway project between cotton-producing Tirunelveli and the port of Thoothukudi.

To be clear, as political sovereigns, the company did possess certain prerogatives where these establishments were concerned. Hindu rulers reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of shrines should the need arise, and in 18th century Madras, the Christian British often continued traditions instituted by previous powers, intervening when necessary. So, for instance, in 1789, when quarrels arose in the Thiruvallur temple and officials discovered that the Brahmins in charge “had mortgaged part of the property for their own private use”—the company saw to it that the men were made “answerable for the few things missing”. Devotees also, without means to stand up to influential local trustees, approached the company, inviting the latter to proactively intervene in temple affairs. This led, in 1817, to the earliest official legislation (in Madras presidency) on the subject to ensure incomes from temple endowments were disbursed “according to real intent and will of the granter” and not frittered away by untrustworthy trustees. It was a good step in theory, though in about two decades, the company found itself involved in as many as 7,600 temples—a state of affairs it had not quite expected when it set out to uphold tradition.

As it happened, despite financial gains, this was an uncomfortable position for the company. Missionary propagandists, for instance, lambasted British officials for promoting “idolatry”: by protecting temples, organizing festivals, supervising repairs, and settling disputes, the company had become primary trustee for assorted Hindu deities. As one reverend complained in 1831, “When we point out to (the Hindus) that idolatry is not the worship of God…they ask, ‘How can you say so? Who keeps our pagodas in repair?…Do you not do it yourself? If you do these things, where is the reasonableness and propriety of saying idolatry is sinful?’” In fits and starts and under growing pressure, then, the British attempted to extricate themselves from this knot. While in Travancore the Hindu ruler clung on to the temples, in Thanjavur over 2,000 shrines were returned to locals, and bigger temples were placed in the hands of committees, panchayats and sometimes “influential” individuals. This, predictably, led to its own politics, featuring caste competition, sectarian rivalries, and much confusion, made worse by flawed legal interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the end, what the colonial regime began, secular India inherited, and this peculiar mix-up of government with temples continues to this day. For the British, the issue eventually became one of several complications to negotiate in the subcontinent—from the start, the company ruled through bureaucracy and centralization, essential instruments for a foreign power in an alien land. One-size-fits-all rules were put in place despite contradictions, which, however, in independent India raise valid questions that the colonial power wasn’t earlier obliged to answer. In Sabarimala, for example, this is one of the arguments posed by critics of the recent Supreme Court judgement—that different temples have different features which cannot be guided by a single principle. Certainly, there is room for a new framework to preserve the individuality of India’s countless shrines—a new vision with an accommodative mechanism—though some overarching principles must still prevail. After all, even before the days of Colonel Munro and the British, Indian sovereigns intervened in temple affairs. Now, the Constitution is supreme, and while diversity should be respected, this paramount document must necessarily be obeyed.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 03 2018)


In 1565, after what is popularly called the Battle of Talikota, Husain Nizam Shah returned victorious from Vijayanagar to his court in Ahmednagar. There had been horrific bloodshed—ending with the enemy’s head on a spear—and much gold and silver had been gained. But Husain seemed not destined to savour his victory: That very year, he would die, and while some held alcoholic excess to be the cause of his end, at least one Portuguese chronicler decided it was poison, not drink, that took the Nizam Shah to his grave. Deccan politics was dangerous to begin with, and in this instance, it was the ruler’s own wife blamed for his death. She was a Devadasi turned begum, wrote the European historian, and to plant her own son on the throne, instead of a rival’s, she decided to take the life of the man who made her his queen.

Khunza Humayun was a remarkable woman, and while she was never a Devadasi, she was in every sense extraordinary. Aftabi’s Tarif-i Husain Shah Padshah-i Dakan, a eulogy commissioned around the time of the king’s death, is full of praise for his queen. Indeed, alongside beautiful paintings (including one where she appears in her husband’s lap), this unusual text describes vividly Khunza’s loveliness and physical voluptuousness. Other sources present her actual ancestry—she was descended from a ruler of Baghdad, though a fall from power meant scions like her father joined hordes of other Persians seeking employment and a future in India. Here he joined the court of the Nizam Shah—a Muslim king with Brahmin forbears—and before long Khunza was married to Husain.

Few women appear in retellings of the history of the Deccan, and if there is a queen who shines, it is usually Khunza’s daughter, Chand Bibi. At the end of the 16th century she bravely resisted the Mughals, and her tragic assassination enshrined her as a romantic heroine. Khunza, however, did not die at the end of a sword: her power was thwarted and restrained, and death in prison years later did not quite attract glamorous poems. And so she was forgotten, even her form and face crudely painted over in many of those miniature paintings. If Chand Bibi was celebrated even by the Mughals for her valour, Khunza came to be resented by her own son and many others. There was no place for an inconvenient woman like her, and what survives is in bits and pieces, her fall from influence obscuring her fame forever.

Even in her husband’s day, Khunza appears to have had some say in politics. One poem, in fact, ascribes an insult to her as the provocation for Husain’s war against Vijayanagar. Of course, the battle in 1565 followed generations of strife and had various causes, but it is telling that the Fath Nama-i Nizam Shah cites, in the words of scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “a potentially sexually loaded” reference to the queen as rousing the fury of her husband. The sultans of the Deccan often traded insults with Vijayanagar, but in this instance a line was crossed: in an inflammatory letter demanding tribute from Husain, the ruler of Vijayanagar, listed, besides diamonds and rubies, the anklets of the begum. Disgusted and furious, Husain the “lion” was roused against the “pig” to whom he delivered death.

In any case, leaving literary bombast aside, the death of Husain in 1565 enthroned Khunza’s son in Ahmednagar. The boy was fated for instability and eventual murder, but for the next six years power was in the hands of his mother. She governed with the aid of trusted men—there was a eunuch and there were her brothers. She sat in court and gave orders, proving strong enough to ensure her commands were obeyed. She even went into battle—including against Chand Bibi’s husband who ruled a principality next door—and showed herself generally unafraid. It wasn’t like the men around her saw this as admirable: a coup was thwarted in 1567. Her own son was involved, but chickening out in the last minute, he told his mother about the plot. For the time being, Khunza prevailed.

Powerful women like her, however, always had to tread with care. In the 13th century, the empress of Delhi, Razia Sultan, was murdered by men of her own court, and Khunza’s daughter too was betrayed by those she thought she could trust—though war with the Mughals raged, Chand Bibi’s assassin was not an invader but an insider. Khunza too, therefore, had to be on her guard, but after half a decade at the helm when the nobility decided to terminate her “petticoat government”, her downfall was confirmed. Khunza’s foreign policy had proved a disaster—alliances were destabilized by impetuous demands, and those inclined to support her left her side in disapproval. Then there was the internal politics of the realm: there was an African faction, a Persian faction, and a local faction, all of them perpetually at loggerheads.

By 1571 the Nizam Shah was ostensibly liberated from the hold of his mother so that he could start making mistakes of his own (which include trying to kill his son in due course) and earn the epithet deewana, or madman. Khunza, abandoned by the men she had raised to power and wealth, was imprisoned and spent the rest of her days in oblivion. Such an unhappy fate her relations elsewhere too endured—the Mughal emperor Akbar’s regent, Bairam Khan, was a family member, though assassination meant that he too was remembered with some poetic regret. Khunza, however, wasted away with time, written out of history, disfigured in works of art her husband lovingly had made. Only a few fragments remain of her tale, and like so many women in the past, she finally went to the grave while history continued to be written for—and by—unforgiving men.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 27 2018)


If ever there was a Mughal ruler who lived the good life, that man was emperor Jahangir, in whose veins flowed Persian, Turkic, and Rajput blood—besides double-distilled spirits and a whole lot of wine. Jahangir, who died on 28 October 1627, was the least militarily inclined of the great Mughals, and though he once led a half-baked rebellion against his illustrious father, he preferred having other men fight the battles that mattered. In an age of violence this was something of a character defect, but Jahangir’s indulgence was a mark of stability in the empire he inherited. Far from the heat and fury of conflict, deep in the embrace of art and aesthetics, he quickly came to represent both self-assured power and the height of Mughal imperial splendour.

Even today, reading the Jahangir Nama is a fascinating exercise. For the figure that emerges is at once pampered prince, curious dilettante, ruthless emperor, and sentimental man. The first-born of Akbar and the so-called Jodha Bai, Shaikhu Baba, as Jahangir was lovingly known, was one upon whom luck bestowed an early blessing. By 18 he was falling in love with his goblet; luckily for him, his brothers were worse. Not even royal commands could move him if he didn’t wish it: once when his father sought to appoint him leader of a campaign, the prince simply absented himself from court. One of those ill-fated brothers accepted the charge, before winning a few battles and losing himself forever to drink. Akbar, meanwhile, turned his hopes toward Jahangir’s son, provoking a hundred intrigues and yet more tragedy.

Shaikhu Baba, however, was too shrewd to drown in wine and die. As Parvati Sharma notes in her sparkling new biography, Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait, he understood quickly what was at stake and where to draw his lines—no son of his could be emperor before he had had his time. So while he continued to drink—pretending after his accession that he only indulged “to promote digestion”—he toned down the quantities. He even presented himself to the orthodox faction as a more pious Muslim than Akbar, to win them over before his favoured son. Of course, having become emperor, he dabbled in more than one religion, till rumours floated that he was a Christian, and he commissioned art in which he appeared cross-legged and shirtless—more Hindu deity than a Muslim sovereign.

Even before his reign, Jahangir was a man of curiosity. All his life, Sharma shows, he went about measuring things—the size of a peach, the weight of a melon, the dimensions of a cave opening—just as he recorded strange and peculiar sights. So while his generals took fire and steel into enemy lands, Jahangir took delight in watching pet cranes mate. He thundered from afar at those enemies (the Marathas he dismissed as “a people of unlimited stupidity”) while investing in a menagerie at home. To please him was to bring him animals: the English gifted him mastiffs, for whom the emperor arranged palanquins. On another occasion he was introduced to a lion that lived with a goat, while his travels threw up everything from a snake swallowing a rabbit to a spider that strangled a snake.

Art flourished under Jahangir. Europeans were delighted with his affection for the Madonna, while Hindus noticed symbols from their own traditions. Then there were images prepared of the oddities that caught the emperor’s eye. Sharma notes the story of an emaciated courtier, thin beyond belief, who asked for leave from court. Jahangir agreed to let him depart—but only after he had his likeness made. A dervish from Sri Lanka, similarly, brought him a slender loris—“really horrible looking”—which the emperor also got painted. Few living beings were left alone: if there was anything that revolted the sovereign of Hindustan, it was worms crawling out of the corpses of animals he’d shot.

Jahangir’s relationship with Nur Jahan, is well recorded, but he was also close to other women. There was a sister to whom he was so attached that his father made him drink her breast-milk so she “may be like a mother to you”. When his wet-nurse died, he carried on his own shoulder one end of her funeral bier. And in the Jahangir Nama are multiple expressions of grief on the death of various imperial women, including, for instance, a Rajput wife, who chose suicide. There is vulnerability to this Jahangir, though another side shows also cruelty, one where interrupting a hunt could cost a servant his life, and a gardener who cut down beloved trees found himself missing a few fingers. Even the elite faced the emperor’s wrath: when a rebellious nobleman was presented, “Were it not for what people would think,” Jahangir fumed, “I would have throttled him with my own hands.”

Of all the Mughal emperors, Jahangir led the most comfortable life, free from problems that afflicted those who ruled before or after him. He packed his 22 years on the throne with the most diverse interests, less focused than Akbar or Dara Shukoh, but rich in its sheer detail. He showed himself a remarkable man, one who could marvel at the gems sent him in tribute, just as he could stun an ambassador by gleefully driving a bullock cart. The future emperor Shahjahan’s propaganda cast Jahangir as a henpecked debauchee. But, as Sharma beautifully shows, and the Jahangir Nama attests, the man was a little bit more: an endearing eccentric but every inch an emperor worth remembering.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 20 2018)


In 1934, a committee of men investigating temple entry for Dalits in Travancore summarized the religious constraints impeding this demand. Various “Mantras and Tantras”, it noted, were needed to consecrate in any image the “Divine spirit”. This being done, “care has to be taken that the power is not dissipated”, a process that required Brahminical rituals but also protection from an assortment of “adverse influences”. These influences included, besides defilement by vultures, dogs, donkeys, and other animals and reptiles, “the entry of certain classes of people into the temple premises”. In other words, “judged by the Sastras and by the usage relating to temples… (Dalits) cannot be said to have a right to be admitted” to Hindu shrines. Moreover, the committee added, citing a 1914 Madras high court judgement, courts too could not intervene in religion; the princely ruler, it emphasized, could not challenge “the principles of the Smritis and the express rules of the Agamas”; and while a “compromise” featuring partial access might be tolerable to prevent the “heavy landslide” of Dalits from Hinduism to rival faiths, no “sweeping change” was advisable.

And yet two years later, the maharaja of Travancore stunned Malayali society by going ahead with “sweeping change”. On his birthday in 1936, the ruler, alarmed by threats of a mass exodus of Dalits from Hinduism, proclaimed temple entry for all castes. While within his state sheer determination held the peace, retaliation from the orthodoxy in wider Kerala was furious. The maharaja of Cochin banned Travancore priests from serving in his lands, going “to the extent of declaring the whole people of Travancore as untouchables”. The Zamorin in British-ruled Malabar expressed his censure, refusing to yield even as late as 1942. Indeed, in Travancore itself, the maharaja’s own aunt ceased visiting their principal shrine where Dalits now had open access. But having taken his decision—albeit to consolidate the Hindu community—the ruler was immovable. When in the temple town of Suchindram, for instance, locals refused to participate in a chariot festival due to low-caste presence, his chief minister, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, a Brahmin, lent his own hands to the chariot, making a clear statement.

Eighty-two years have passed since the events of 1936, but history repeats itself this week in Sabarimala where masses of people have gathered to “protect” its celibate deity from the calamity fertile women bring. The argument is much like the one made by the temple entry committee in the 1930s. Ayyappan of Sabarimala is consecrated a brahmachari; the advent of women will diminish His sanctity and breach age-old custom. Where before 1936 Dalits were believed to threaten the sanctity of all gods in all temples, today we have a single shrine where another group marginalized in history must work around tradition and its claims of immutability. The cry to preserve Sabarimala, as it is, is shrill, and while religion evokes emotions, the claim that custom is untouchable is, actually, unhistorical. Ayyappan atop Sabarimala hill is consecrated in a way that disallows women, they say; well, till 1936, every single god was consecrated in a way that disallowed Dalits. That custom changed—with the executive enforcing a view their own advisers abhorred—and decades later, few would argue that the arrival of Dalits in temples has demolished the integrity of the deities before whom they today worship.

In a few years from now, when women go routinely to Sabarimala and Ayyappan remains as resplendent as before, we may laugh at today’s protests. Just as Kerala shakes its head at those who objected to temple entry in the name of tradition all those years ago, we may wonder why in 2018 there was such rigid objection. But while discomfort is understandable, it may be worth remembering that history is full of evolution and change. For if it had been otherwise, Malayali society would look very different today. In the 1860s it was conceded at last that perhaps dipping one’s hand in boiling ghee was not the most foolproof method to determine guilt; but there were men who disagreed in the name of custom. In the 1920s, the maharani of Travancore flouted old traditions when she terminated animal sacrifice—no more bloodshed, she declared, providing ancient temples cucumbers in place of cocks and goats to kill. Again, many objected and highlighted custom. When a Brahmin woman wore a blouse in Kerala she was excommunicated for her innovation—custodians of tradition preferred traditional toplessness, and even men wearing shirts were seen as rebels. But (leaving the patriarchal politics of this aside) would the most orthodox Brahmin today suggest his female relations return to that ancient custom where the piety of a woman depends on the bareness of her breasts?

The temple entry committee of the early 1930s justified these specific changes by noting that the original practice was, to begin with, never sanctioned by sastras—the entry of Dalits, on the other hand, was expressly prohibited by the great books in Sanskrit. For their pains they were cordially ignored, and the ruler proceeded to introduce a new morality, in view of the politics and callings of his own time and mind. Today again we have a leap to be made, where a custom stands before the morality of our national Constitution—one will have to bow before the other, and both cannot together prevail. The past offers us a guidebook by which to reconcile to change. It may at first be upsetting, and it may look unholy. But think of 80 years from today, and perhaps then those protesting in Sabarimala might recognize which side of history they wish to serve. Ayyappan did not go away when custom was broken to bring Dalits before his gaze; it is hardly likely He will cease to be celibate because women behold him, after years of being kept away.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 13 2018)


In 1964, when Jawaharlal Nehru died at the end of a long and historic career, The New York Times carried an editorial asking famously, “After Nehru—What?” The op-ed was in several respects alarmist, pointing out that India was “so heavily dependent” on this one “towering” figure that “there is no way of predicting what will now happen”. Would the Congress party stay united? Would India remain committed to pluralism and democracy, values that were the cornerstone of Nehruvian policy? And most importantly, what did the passing of this giant mean not only for the “internal peace of India, but the peace of Asia and perhaps of the world”? The air was full of uncertainty, and a lot depended on the man appointed to fill Nehru’s shoes—a man the NYT had earlier described as a “colorless politician”, “an architect of compromise, a conciliator of factions” and a “faithful follower” of the prime minister who had now gone to the grave.

Lal Bahadur Shastri, to whom rich tributes were paid on his birth anniversary on 2 October, was the original accidental prime minister of India, and it was precisely the qualities the American newspaper highlighted that first made him palatable to leaders of the Congress party. Born in 1904, Shastri had accumulated nearly a decade of prison time during the freedom struggle, and after independence, quietly served under Nehru in various ministerial capacities. At 60, he enjoyed an inverted popularity, born out of his singular ability to provoke no enmities in a party full of internecine rivalries. His principal gift seemed to be that while he inspired not even a shadow of euphoria, nobody minded him either: the socialists might come to terms with Shastri, just as the right wing within the Congress could be prevailed upon to accept this candidate who successfully stayed out of everybody’s hair.

Nehru never anointed Shastri his heir, but he did hint at his approval of the man: when various senior leaders resigned from the cabinet (with Nehru’s concurrence) under the famous “Kamaraj Plan” to reinvigorate the party in 1963, Shastri was the only one reinducted a few months later. The whole enterprise was one of balancing interests: Morarji Desai, for instance, was senior most and, therefore, Nehru’s presumed natural successor. Since this was a horrifying prospect for others, to whom Desai’s trademark obstinacy was unappealing, the Kamaraj Plan unseated him and a number of powerful leaders so as to reset the terms on which the future leadership would be decided. As Michael Brecher notes in his supremely interesting Succession In India (1966), Congress president K. Kamaraj and his allies intended to “support the man who was least likely to divide and most likely to unite the party”. And the best match for this job profile, it turned out, was good old Shastri.

Yet, Shastri’s elevation was not instant, and in the six days following Nehru’s demise, many hats were thrown into the ring. Brecher’s book, featuring interviews with the lead actors in the drama, offers a fascinating view of the negotiations that gripped Delhi while Nehru’s corpse lay in state. Gulzarilal Nanda, who was sworn in as caretaker prime minister (much to the annoyance of V.K. Krishna Menon, who called it “unconstitutional”) seemed to harbour a desire to be confirmed in that position: when he sat in what was Nehru’s seat in Parliament, there were gasps. Desai, of course, arrived at the dead prime minister’s residence and tried to direct the funeral proceedings, provoking an angry remark from health minister Sushila Nayyar: “Who are you to give orders?” Indeed, a day after Nehru’s death, Desai openly declared himself a candidate—a tactless move which allowed his rivals to decry his apparent thirst for power, even as a Maharashtrian faction made it clear that they could not support this Gujarati.

There was, however, enough maturity on display alongside the anxious lobbying. The defence minister Yashwantrao Chavan was in the US when Nehru died, and realized, Brecher notes, that not only The New York Times but the world itself was watching India: instead of chaos, “we must do everything possible,” he said, “to reach a consensus, to achieve unanimity.” Nanda too understood this. While he expressed his ambitions, he was also “conscious that the world’s eyes were upon us, and we did not want to display too open a fight.” Even as powers around the globe feared Nehru’s obituary was an obituary for united India as well, the Congress leadership knew they had to manage differences alongside the good of the country. There were personal designs; there was regionalism and caste competition; and there was Desai’s legitimate but decidedly unpopular claim of seniority. But then, there was also India’s national interest.

Since none of the others had enough heft, the issue boiled down quickly to Desai versus an alternative. And so, Shastri, who had maintained a studious silence and shrewdly made no claims himself, was confirmed by an orchestrated consensus. “He was not,” Brecher notes, “as forceful and decisive as Morarji, but that was an asset in a country as large and complex as India”. Kamaraj, who, as I.K. Gujral claims in his memoirs, chose to become kingmaker rather than the puppet king, set the wheels in motion. He “consulted” hundreds of parliamentarians—who were to formally elect their leader—to take a “poll” of sorts, an exercise that was part strategic, part comical. “I like Shastri; whom do you like?” he would ask individual MPs, and as Krishna Menon later laughed, “when the Congress president calls you, unless you are a fool like me, you more or less express his opinion.” Shastri officially became the “party’s choice”, before whom even Desai had to retreat. And so it was that India found not only its second prime minister—a man who in 18 months made a mark not as a puppet, but a leader worthy of respect and admiration—but also the answer to that dreaded question, “After Nehru—What?”

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 06 2018)


At the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, there hangs, in a collection featuring everyone from Caravaggio to Picasso, a striking painting that depicts British life in colonial India. Centred on Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of the East India Company’s supreme court in Kolkata, it portrays his family enjoying a musical performance by an Indian troupe. There is an ayah holding one of the Impey children, while a second son watches from behind Lady Impey’s shoulder. In the middle, meanwhile, is the oldest of the boys, dressed in Indian robes, dancing to “native” tunes. The scene all at once attempts to encapsulate imperial domesticity in the Orient, while also presenting a gloss of exoticism—that special ingredient that coloured, for generations, Western impressions of the remote and (allegedly) unfathomable East.

The man who painted this canvas in the 1780s was Johan Zoffany. An artist of German origin, he had sailed to India after his fortunes, like his artistic reputation, took a plunge in Britain. He was not unusual in seeking to resurrect his career in Company territories—a whole century later, there were still Western painters for whom failure in Europe’s capitals did not erase hopes of success with Indian patrons. Zoffany, in any case, stayed for about six years, promptly sailing home as soon as his bank balance had improved and his debts were paid. In the process he left behind a local mistress and an assortment of children and, following the wrecking of his ship, joined fellow survivors in eating human flesh. And so the painter of the Impeys went down, to quote William Dalrymple, as “the first and last Royal Academician to become a cannibal”.

While we cannot be sure of how many more cannibals sought India’s embrace, Zoffany was merely one of countless others whose motivations were more complicated than black and white critiques of the Raj acknowledge. On the whole, of course, the British built a machine that extracted Indian resources to enrich their distant island, and the violence of colonial rule has had enduring repercussions not only on Indian society but also on the Indian mind. But the men and women who actually operated this rapacious apparatus often had other compulsions than blindly serving king and country in the name of British imperium. As David Gilmour argues in his new book, The British In India, much of the colonizers’ impact, “especially at a personal and popular level, was accidental.” “Most British people,” he notes, “did not go to India to conquer it, govern it, or amass a fortune there.” They came for other, less ambitious reasons.

Who, then, were these people, and why did they sail East? Often, Gilmour shows, they might be criminals on the run from the law: it was easy to assume a new name and wipe the slate clean on the ship to Bengal. Or they could be royal bastards, such as the sons of William IV, one of whom rose to become a senior commander in the British Indian army. Commercially minded people too found hope in India—long before Union minister for communication and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad divined the idea, a Scotsman established a venture that “sold water from the Ganges to pilgrims who could not reach Benares.” Great old declining families too sent son after son to earn salaries here, and more than one viceroy originally chose to serve the Raj to prevent his family from being swallowed by debt. Indeed, among the wider pool of Europeans interested in an Indian career was a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who as late as 1795, expressed a desire to become a “nabob”, not so much for personal aggrandizement as much as to arrange respectable dowries for his sisters.

While the British state systematically crippled India—a point Gilmour does not quite address—the cogs in the machine were not always tuned into this larger imperial purpose. So where local princes might be awed by the Company’s military drills, soldiers on the British side were complaining about the pointlessness of their daily routines, choosing to drink themselves to death instead at the earliest available opportunity. Grand military titles concealed lifetimes spent without any real military action, and often the arrival of well- born ladies in India cloaked scandalous pasts that threatened their reputations at home. Then, of course, there were the usual bureaucratic rivalries: a civil servant, the product of a half-baked training system, with millions of brown people under his charge, might look down on a political officer stationed in a maharajah’s court. Work for the latter, it appeared, was a sequence of banquets and shikars, though occasionally a discreet British resident could be relied upon to help a maharani smuggle out her illegitimate offspring.

It is this human enterprise and experience behind the formal edifice of the Raj that interests Gilmour, and with characters even more memorable than our man-eating painter (who himself barely appears), this is a book that makes for fascinating reading. Gilmour presents a dazzling variety of stories and reminds us that besides villains and tyrants, British rule also featured men and women whose interests in India could range from a love of hunting to investments in the brothel business. “Some readers,” he agrees, “may feel that I have given too much space to spearers of boar and pursuers of jackal, but pig-stickers, like prostitutes, are a part of history.” It is a sensible remark and one can see his point, but while tremendously interesting in its own right, the question must still be asked whether viewing individual experiences without quite acknowledging the plunderous context that enabled these experiences in the first place is appropriate.

There can be no argument about the need to understand the role of ordinary Britons in the making of empire—in that sense, Gilmour’s is an enriching, encyclopedic offering. But in skirting the political and the unpleasant, what we have in the end is something like that Zoffany painting: an exceedingly attractive but ultimately incomplete picture of the British and their time in India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 29 2018)


In 1934, when M.F. Husain first sold a painting, the roadside transaction added a grand total of ₹10 to his tattered pockets. At 17, with a bicycle his most glamorous possession, he was still just a creatively inclined grandson of a tinsmith from Pandharpur, Maharashtra, without any conception of the kind of celebrity—and notoriety—that awaited him in the years to come. In his 90s, he would be hounded out of his own home by howling mobs and hooligans, forced, in the end, to seek sanctuary in a foreign land. In 1934, though, there was little inkling of the trauma that lay ahead—instead, the rupees in Husain’s hands were his first ever earnings, and as an old man he would remember the absolute thrill they brought him, in addition to a much-needed boost of confidence. While it was no fortune, at a time when everything from a cup of tea to a roof for the night cost only a few paise, ₹10 was the buyer’s way of telling him that he was good; that perhaps Maqbool, son of Fida, had it in him to become that remarkable thing: an artist.

Husain, whose (formal) birth anniversary it was last week, always had a love of flamboyance, whether it was in the way he painted (sometimes before mesmerized audiences), behaved (his discarding of footwear on a permanent basis is famous), and even remembered the past. His very birthday, for instance, was chosen arbitrarily because nobody remembered the actual date of his arrival: “because I (liked) the sound of September,” he laughed, “I decided I was born on 17 September, 1917. However, the alliterative sound of the three ‘S’s…made me change the year to 1915!” Then there was the loss of his mother, which Husain often related with a tragic flourish. Before he was 2, he was taken unwell. His mother, Zainab, decided to sacrifice herself to god if her son were spared. “She laid Maqbool on the bed in the quivering light of the lamp,” a biographer wrote, “covered her uncombed hair with a black sheet, lifted her hands in prayer and went around the bed seven times.” That night Zainab was dead, while Husain became the boy who lived.

Husain certainly had a sense of his own destiny, which fuelled a determination that resisted all pressures to settle into conventional life. After a short-lived apprenticeship with a tailor led nowhere, his father acquired a camera for him, in the hope that the boy’s obsession with light, form, and image could be channelled into a reliable trade. Husain, of course, had other plans—while he used the camera, including to take a photograph of himself in the nude, his love of the brush clung to his fingers. What began with him tracing a pencil on magazine pages, evolved into a passion, to which was added a powerful sense of observation. His stepmother feeding her baby filled him with a wondrous realization about the female form; rituals in the temple and the company of a Brahmin boy who thrilled him with tales from the Hindu epics; and a thriving market and its bustling crowds birthed a lifelong interest in people, their faces, and, most importantly, their singular stories.

In Indore, where his father moved for work, Husain absorbed cultural influences that stayed with him for life. He played Hanuman during festivals, and observed Muharram processions; years later, he went to Varanasi where he claimed to have found “the essence of India”. After he won a medal in a local competition, his father came around and spent a princely sum to bring Husain oil paints and new brushes. The son even made plans to study at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, but when Fida was laid off work, hopes of acquiring formal training crumbled. Instead, barely 20 years old, Husain moved to Mumbai, painting billboards for money and, to the initial alarm of the lady who supplied him his meals, falling in love with her daughter. But these years were integral. “Frankly,” he is quoted as saying in Rashda Siddiqui’s 2001 book, In Conversation With Husain Paintings, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget my yesterdays. I know how it is to work hard on a hoarding that is put up for only a couple of weeks and then destroyed.”

Husain had plenty of ambition, and from the start groomed himself well, whether, as his biographer Ila Pal wrote, it was his George V beard or his conscious decision to master the English language. In fact, F.N. Souza, who founded the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, once declared that the secret of Husain’s success was “40% your beard, 30% your personality, 20% your friends, and 10% maybe your talent!” Husain too credited talent as only one part of the equation for success: “An individual,” he said, “only requires 5% of creative capacity. The rest is sheer hard work.” He would know—through the 1940s, he painted commercially, designed furniture, took up projects on the side, and even briefly worked in a textile mill in Warangal. A stable income released him from financial pressure, and this liberated his imagination, expressed on increasingly saleable canvases.

Such commitment paid off, and by the 1950s, Husain’s reputation was on the ascendant. While a 1948 show in Kolkata saw his work dismissed as “a betrayal of Jamini Roy”, Husain enjoyed greater success in Delhi. He was sent on a delegation to China, and by the middle of the decade, was honoured by the Lalit Kala Akademi. He toured Europe and picked up friends and contacts by the dozen, and in the 1960s was not only earning several thousand rupees apiece for his work, but could also afford a car and other luxuries. The teenager who was thrilled with ₹10 once grew into a celebrated painter, one of India’s most prominent faces in the international avant garde. He would go on to sit in Parliament, and travel the world, making friends, chasing lovers, and living a life as vivid and rich as his canvases. In the end, gloom did cast its shadow on him, when self-appointed custodians of culture took umbrage at a Muslim’s brush depicting Hindu divinities in ways beyond their creative comprehension. But by then the boy from Pandharpur was already a legend: he had nothing to prove anymore, and if at all a loss was incurred, it was not by him but by an entire nation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 22 2018)

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In September 1914, an unplanned encounter with a dog led to the death of a Sanskrit scholar. The man was in a car on the outskirts of a town in Kerala called Kayamkulam when the canine jumped on the road. As the driver tried to avoid running over the animal, the car skid, turning turtle as it fell into a ditch. For some time, the 69-year-old languished by the roadside, till finally a palanquin arrived, carrying him off for medical attention. It was all in vain, though, and two days later the man was dead. “O! Land of Kerala, thy light has gone!” lamented the poet Kumaran Asan: “Thou art engulfed in darkness!”

The dead man’s name was Kerala Varma, and before he was snatched by tragedy, he had led a life as colourful as it was rewarding. The world knew him in many ways. To some he was consort to the senior rani of Travancore, a position that brought little power but much prestige. To others it was his academic achievements that shone: he was a fellow of Madras University, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and chairman of a committee that revolutionized primary education in princely Travancore. In the 1890s, Kerala Varma had even received from the British empress a shiny decoration, partly, one suspects, as a reward for his eulogy to her, the Sanskrit poem Victoria Charitra Sangraha.

Kerala Varma might have lived and died in obscurity had it not been for marriage. Born in 1845 into a line that supplied consorts to the matrilineal Travancore royal family, his selection as partner to the senior rani was largely on account of the influence of a dying uncle (who in turn was married to a previous holder of that title). While as late as the 1910s, a consort was only entitled to ₹200 per month “with meals from the palace and the use of a brougham”, the talented Kerala Varma utilized his newfound position for a creative evolution. He acquired the best Sanskrit masters, and learnt to play the veena, sarangi, and fiddle. He established a cricket club in Thiruvananthapuram, besides learning to ride and shoot. Most importantly, in a time when consorts were expendable, he won the devotion of his royal wife, quickly becoming comptroller of all her affairs.

But while he was popular in the early years, presenting poems and staging Kathakali dramas, by the 1870s, overconfidence turned his head somewhat. He developed something of a temper—years later, when a newspaper published a less-than-glowing review of one of his compositions, he was vindictive enough to terminate its circulation in Travancore. In the mid-1870s, however, what nearly dug a proverbial grave for the 30-year-old Kerala Varma was a misguided attempt to partake in court intrigue. In the events that followed, this “Symbol of Renaissance in Malayalam Literature” (for he was gifted not only in Sanskrit), ended up in prison, losing his title, and very nearly forfeiting even his initial claim to fame—his royal wife.

The sanitized version of the event presents Kerala Varma as a wronged hero, suffering the wrath of a vengeful monarch. The reigning maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal was a wicked man, for standing up to whom our poet-scholar was punished. The facts, however, are a little more complex, for while the ruler had flaws by the dozen, the consort was not blameless either. In 1875, after failing to persuade the British resident at court to potentially protect him against the maharajah, with whom he had fallen out, Kerala Varma wrote a letter to the chief minister, signed Peter III. “In the other day’s Privy Council,” it warned, “there was a hint of trying to dispose of you by other means than asking you to resign…take care of your cook & men about you.”

The suggestion that the maharajah was trying to poison his minister was scandalous, and while Kerala Varma denied charges, handwriting experts confirmed the opposite. As his wife wept and screamed—even chasing the police carriage down the capital’s streets—he was divested of his rank, becoming “Kerala Varmah, State Prisoner”. Conditions in jail were horrifying. In an 1877 plea to the ruler, he was desperate enough to promise to vanish into the “snowy regions of the Himalayas” if released, referring to himself constantly as a “Slave”. He also confessed to a catalogue of “treasonous acts”: He had authored the infamous letter, of course, but was also guilty of “an inclination to Christianity”, the “vice of drinking”, a craving for “stronger narcotics”, and, interestingly, “corresponding unnecessarily to some newspapers”.

The maharajah was unmoved, and a miserable Kerala Varma sent him an appeal in Sanskrit poetry, which too was cast aside. But the severity of his sentence was reduced—from prison, he was moved to house arrest. Here the man, who was once the toast of Kerala society, spent his days teaching children alphabet and verse, till finally in 1880 news arrived: the maharajah was dead. Immediately he was released and reunited with his wife, who, in turn, had resisted every order to discard Kerala Varma and take another consort. When she died in 1901, her husband’s distress was profound. “My angel, my life, my darling, my all and all, my pride, my idol, my sweetheart—alas! and what not,” Kerala Varma sorrowfully wrote in English, “expired quietly at 8PM.”

The complicated events of the 1870s were quietly expunged now, however, and Kerala Varma eschewed politics. He focused on literature, winning encomiums, and became guardian to his wife’s heirs. His concerns were domestic, and though he could be peevish (as when he objected vehemently to his brother-in-law, the painter Ravi Varma, being styled “Raja”), he reinstated himself in the eyes of society as a venerable elder. By the time of that fateful encounter with the dog, the man who once liked bhang and schemed against a monarch, was forgotten, and what went down in the obituaries was the other, pious Kerala Varma: poet, scholar, and the patrician venerated to this day as the Kalidas of Kerala.

(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.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 07 2018)


In 1902, when the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma arrived in Hyderabad, he did not quite visualize himself queuing like a supplicant in a private house, hoping to win the attention of the reigning nizam. He had come at the invitation of another illustrious figure of his day, the photographer Raja Deen Dayal, expecting the standard of reception he had grown accustomed to—state carriages, palatial apartments, and a demonstrative overload of honour. The nizam, however, had other preoccupations, and not only did he ignore Varma, when the artist’s works were eventually shown, he refused to buy them; a portrait was sold on the market months later for a few hundred rupees, at a time when Varma commanded several thousand apiece. The episode proved an embarrassment to our glamorous gentleman-artist, and, even before he left Hyderabad, he had broken with Deen Dayal, who, he complained, had not made enough of an effort to help his cause. As his brother diarized, “Deen Dayal and his son…seem to be jealous of us. They feared they won’t get any more orders.”

Raja Deen Dayal—whose death anniversary fell on 5 July—was in some ways a rival to Ravi Varma. As Rupika Chawla writes, this Jain from Sardhana “brought to photography what Ravi Varma brought to paintings—the pomp and grandeur of kings… with the documentation of places and events.” Both had formidable, comparable reputations, even though they worked with different mediums. But while there might have been some competitiveness on account of a common clientele, it was unlikely Deen Dayal had any reason to sabotage Varma’s efforts in Hyderabad. He was secure in his position, had acquired much wealth and fame, and worked with fascinating new technology that had captured the imagination not only of India’s princely set but also the middle classes. More likely, then, as Chawla notes, it was Varma and his brother who felt somewhat insecure, added to which was bewilderment that their reputation had failed to make the slightest dent in India’s proudest royal court.

Interestingly, while the painter came from aristocratic privilege, Deen Dayal was of humbler origins. He was born in 1844, and became a student of engineering. At 22—when Ravi Varma already had a royal patron—Deen Dayal was a public works department employee in Indore. It was in 1874 that he ventured into photography “as an amateur”, supported by the local British resident. He travelled with him, “photographing views, native chiefs, etc, etc”, forming a bond that was maintained by subsequent colonial agents as well—in 1876, he was allowed to turn his lens on the Prince of Wales, and, in 1887, Deen Dayal was granted a royal warrant, becoming “Photographer to Her Majesty the Queen”. Like Ravi Varma, his ascent too was aided by friends in high places, talent, ambition, and perseverance justifying such support. “Having found that the public greatly appreciated my views (i.e. photographs),” he wrote, then, “…I took a furlough for two years in order to complete my series.” It helped, of course, that the ruler of Indore had granted him landed estates—with an assured income, Deen Dayal could focus on his craft.

The two years he spent travelling, photographing grand buildings and grand personages with equal vigour, convinced Deen Dayal that he could become a full-time lensman. It launched him on a career that saw the man and his studios produce an estimated 30,000 photographs, earning him such titles as “Bold Warrior of Photography” from the nizam (which also required him, formally, to keep a cavalry of 2000). It was, in fact, in 1885 that he first came to Hyderabad, a letter of introduction from the British viceroy in his hands. The nizam was enthusiastic, and, before long, Deen Dayal established himself in the cantonment in Secunderabad. It was risky business, for there were several European photographers active there already, but his ability to think outside the box and excel at what he did meant that soon Deen Dayal’s became a fashionable enterprise, employing nearly 50 men (and a woman), and offering visitors a fascinating guide on how to pose called Hints to Sitters.

So, for, instance we have this wisdom on toddlers and their unstately conduct before the camera: “Babies and children,” we learn, “are subjects that require patience, care and attention to obtain a photograph…. Although (they) often occasion much trouble…we make no extra charge.” This was, of course, not generosity born of a sense of commitment to the photography of babies—Deen Dayal’s business was flourishing, and the branch in Bombay was described in 1896 by The Times Of India as “the most splendidly equipped photographic salon in the East”. As Clark Worswick writes, “By the end of the nineteenth century Governors, princes, touring statesmen, all flocked to his Bombay studio to be ‘done’.”

It was much the same with Ravi Varma, whose portraits too were a necessary acquisition for the glamorous—but, like the artist, whose lithographs business quickly folded, by the end of his life Deen Dayal too faced trouble sustaining his empire of black and white pictures. Deen Dayal died in 1905, a year before the artist with whom he had fallen out. His son, Gyan Chand, tried to keep the flame burning, but rising competition and the erosion of royal warmth made matters difficult. When the latter died, thousands of glass-plate negatives were sold as “scrapped, used glass in the local market” in Hyderabad, and it seemed that doom had descended on the house of Deen Dayal & Sons. But despite the unhappy end to their tale, Deen Dayal had made his mark—today there are dozens of studios still thriving in Hyderabad, all of them claiming for themselves the legacy of the old man from Sardhana who first brought a “native” touch to photography in India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 30 2018)

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In the late 1970s, the erstwhile royal family of Cochin decided to formally carry out something its princely peers had been doing for years in secret: a sale of its jewels and prized possessions. It wasn’t greed as much as need that drove the proposed auction, for the family had hundreds of members, many of them reduced to a dignified but strained existence. Already by 1949 this dynasty had a total of 223 princes and 231 princesses, and the state was small, without enough funds for royal stipends. When V.P. Menon, who helped Sardar Patel integrate the states, went to Cochin, he was, in fact, alarmed by what he saw. “As I talked with (the family),” he wrote, “I was reminded of an aviary…which possessed a rare collection of birds.” After independence, the “birds” were liberated in the name of “ahimsa”, and “soon devoured by other birds and beasts of prey”. This, he feared, would be the fate of Cochin’s royal denizens, hitherto cocooned from the world, and, as a special consideration therefore, every member of the family then alive was granted a modest pension—one that is still regularly paid.

The sale of family heirlooms, however, was an act of desperation. Times were such that in 1964 even the official residence of the former rulers was shut because the family could not afford to maintain it. Landed estates were divided, and the story goes that even Indira Gandhi, who abolished privy purses in 1971, decided not to interfere with individual allowances after she met a delegation of impoverished royal descendants. But when it came to the sale of dynastic treasures, official attitudes were less generous. A 1975 public auction of furniture saw the authorities swoop in with claims. Where, for instance, a carved wooden elephant had a market price of ₹3 lakh, the state carted it off for ₹7,500. When the turn came to sell the family’s ancestral jewels, therefore, the elders worked with bureaucrats to obtain the necessary approvals. With the sole condition that nothing be carried abroad, permission was granted. And 584 items from the palace treasury, featuring all kinds of riches, were announced by Messrs Murray & Co. in Chennai as available to well-heeled buyers.

In what was indicative of their financial crisis, even the crown of the maharajas of Cochin was put up for sale. With 69 emeralds, 95 diamonds, and 244 rubies set in gold, its story is an encapsulation of the story of Cochin itself. The principality was subject to the Zamorins of Calicut—popular tradition has it that when the Portuguese sailed into the Arabian Sea at the dawn of the 16th century, the Zamorin would not allow Cochin’s rulers to even tile their palace: The princes sat under thatched roofs. But Cochin’s ruler was shrewd. After the Portuguese broke with the Zamorin, he invited them to his territory, and gave them permission to trade, in return for armed protection. The men from the West frequently let his heirs down, but, for the rest of its long existence, Cochin was essentially a European protectorate. After the Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, it was the latter who assumed real power in Cochin, followed eventually by the English, who brought the state under the umbrella of the Raj, recognizing its good governance by giving it a respectable gun salute.

The crown itself, however, was a present from the Dutch. As such, the kings of Cochin did not wear crowns. Legend has it that after the Zamorin annexed their ancestral seat, the rulers vowed they would keep their heads bare till they reclaimed it; and since they never succeeded in doing that, there was no use for a crown. When the Dutch entered the picture, however, they decided to grant Cochin ritual sovereignty to compete with the Zamorin. An expensive crown was manufactured—with the Dutch East India Company’s emblem engraved, lest the maharajas forget who was really in control—and presented ceremoniously in 1663 to the then ruler. It was accepted with gratitude but still failed to make it to any royal head: Since the maharajas felt obliged to respect their ancestors’ vow, they would not wear it, though, out of deference to their patrons, this heirloom was carried in the lap on state occasions and during elaborate royal processions.

Now, at the end of the 1970s, on the eve of the auction, the government set its eyes on the crown and all else listed with it. In principle the action was justified—valuable antiques could hardly be sold like ordinary goods to the highest bidder. In actual fact, however, the authorities had granted permission till newspaper outrage forced them to sing a new song. When India Today interviewed the head of the family in 1981, he had resignation to offer. “We won’t forsake our basic honour. We would be lowering our dignity if we fought with (the government) over this issue.” It was already bad enough that they had been reduced to putting a price tag on their heritage, and their hope was to do so with a degree of dignity. So dignity is what they got—and a fraction of the actual value of the goods they now lost forever. In that very palace where their ancestors once ruled as kings, the state established a museum, assembling the crown and much else for general edification. And when at a public ceremony the famous crown was formally handed over to a minister, the latter lifted this magnificent object that had never known a princely wearer, and, amidst gasps of royal horror, placed it on his democratically elected head.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 23 2018)


When, on this day 261 years ago, Robert Clive prevailed at the Battle of Plassey, he secured for himself a place as one of the great villains of Indian history. The wheels were set in motion for what would become British imperium in the East, and, for all its cruel rapacity, even years later Clive saw no reason to regret what he had unleashed. Defending his actions in 1773 in the British parliament, he uttered words which have since become notorious. “Am I not deserving of praise for the moderation which marked my proceedings?” he demanded. “Consider the situation in which victory at Plassey had placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy…I walked through vaults…piled…with gold and jewels!” exclaimed Clive. “Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”

One might have sympathized with the man’s stream of thinking had his “moderation” not cost Bengal rivers of gold and silver already. An estimated 75-100 boats were deployed to carry the loot from Murshidabad to Calcutta, and Clive alone was granted not only a substantial cash reward by his freshly-planted puppet nawab, but also a jagir that yielded £27,000 (a hundred times that sum in today’s money) every year for the remainder of his lifetime. It was an extraordinary achievement for this Shropshire boy who began life as “Bob”, and whose career, in the words of a biographer, first saw him serve as a “glorified apprentice shopkeeper”. For here was a character who was a typical specimen of 18th century English middle-classdom, packed by boat to India in his teens, reduced to complaining about the weather, and plodding along on an annual £5 salary.

Clive was the son of an undistinguished lawyer, raised briefly by an aunt and her husband. When he was 6, his uncle recorded that the boy was “out of measure addicted to fighting”, with such “imperiousness” of temper that nobody seemed able to tame his rowdy behaviour. Insolence travelled with him to India, and he often got into petty quarrels with his superiors—on one occasion, he disagreed with a man of the church and decided to give him a colossal whack in the middle of the street. He chewed paan and smoked the hookah, though the only wine he could afford was the kind that was mixed with plenty of water. “I have not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native country,” he complained between days of clerical drudgery. His only consolation was writing, a practice, he reflected gloomily, “invented for the comfort of such solitary wretches as myself”.

Change came to his monotonous career during the Battle of Madras in 1746, when this British settlement fell to French forces. Clive, all of 21, managed to escape from under the noses of his captors, face darkened, and dressed in the clothes of his “native” servant. Moving from civilian service, he now elected to become a soldier, finding at last his calling. In a subsequent skirmish, he acquitted himself with courage so that his superiors wrote to London: “Mr Robert Clive, Writer in the Service, being of a Martial Disposition” was granted “an Ensign’s Commission”. Of course, he didn’t shed his trademark impetuosity, though this was perhaps less dangerous than the other thing he acquired in the course of his military adventures in India: gonorrhoea.

As the years passed, Clive achieved distinction. He was embroiled in the politics of the Carnatic, just as he was involved in the training of Indian troops for Western-style military practice. He cultivated spies, including an ill-fated prostitute, and began, at last, to earn an income that allowed him to indulge his love for an elaborate wardrobe. Marriage to a woman above his station followed, one who enjoyed being carried in palanquins and playing the harpsichord when she wasn’t pregnant. When he returned to India in 1756 after a brief stint at home, he was senior enough to enjoy a gun salute, victory at Plassey only confirming his importance in the order of precedence the Company established in India.

Laurels won here were not, however, the ones Clive wanted—India could be milked for cash, which he hoped, then, to employ in the pursuit of ambitions at home. By the time he went back in 1760, he had become enough of a personality to receive an audience with the king, and purchase more than one mansion for his use. But the hero of Plassey, despite his celebrity, was seen as a mere upstart. As Horace Walpole sniggered, “General Clive is arrived, all over estates and diamonds. If a beggar asks charity, he says, ‘Friend, I have no small brilliants about me.’” It didn’t help, of course, that Clive won few friends when he addressed, for instance, the chairman of the Company as “this mushroom of a man”, and, in any case, he soon disappeared for a third stint in India, his reputation slowly on the decline.

The 1773 trial of Clive—provoked by parliamentary horror at the Company’s depredations, of which Clive was the principal mascot—saw the man defend himself vigorously. He “was never guilty of any acts of violence or oppression…such an idea never entered into my mind”, he declared. And, as it happened, he was cleared soon enough. Peace and true respectability evaded Clive, however: In 1774, a year after these embarrassing proceedings in Parliament, he died suddenly, rumoured to have stuck a knife down his throat, though it may well have been an opium overdose. It was suicide, either way. In great secrecy, then, the man who inaugurated the Raj in India was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, his name associated forever since with greed, tragedy, and scandal.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 16 2018)


In 1684, a 12-year-old Maratha boy was installed as ruler in Tamil Thanjavur, not long after the region’s older Nayaka dynasty came to an end. The event was emblematic of India in this bustling age, with Tamil Nadu alone attracting Afghan horsemen, Bundela Rajputs, Telugu warriors, and diverse other groups of adventurers. Our adolescent prince, Shahuji Bhonsle, however, came from a family that was of especial significance for the country. Ten years earlier, his half-uncle, the celebrated Shivaji, had crowned himself king of the Marathas, and theirs was a clan that would seek power over distant reaches of the subcontinent. Shahuji too was a king worth his elaborate titles, but even as he tackled matters of state, he cultivated a reputation as a patron of the arts. Going out of his way to attract as many as 46 men of letters to his court, he conferred on them an endowed agraharam (settlement), named (with typical princely modesty) after himself.

Interestingly, Shahuji, who reigned till 1712, was also a poet—his Panchabhasha Vilasa Natakam reflects the plurality of influences around him, featuring Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Sanskrit, and even Hindi verses. He was obsessed with Shiva of the Thiruvarur temple, and many were the plays and songs composed with his blessings eulogizing this deity. Some credit him as the composer of the Thyagesa Kuravanji dance drama, centred on the adoration of the lord by a woman. The theme and story is more or less conventional here and fits into the larger tradition of Bhakti literature. What is perhaps more remarkable—and has been described by scholars as “a work of extreme, deliberately outrageous provocation”—is another play from his time: the Sati Dana Suramu (Take My Wife). While some suggest it might have been composed by one of his poets, the text itself names Shahuji its creator, adding casually that he composed it “to outlast the sun, moon, and stars”.

The Sati Dana Suramu is a hugely entertaining parody of social conventions. The setting is the Vishnu temple in Mannargudi, where a Brahmin (“Morobhatlu the Magnificent”) arrives with his disciple for a festival. What upsets this pilgrimage—and, by extension, the correct order of things—is the Brahmin’s infatuation with a woman he unexpectedly encounters. Not only is his pupil scandalized (“My teacher has gone crazy”), but the woman comes from the other end of society—she is an untouchable. When the student warns his guru to protect his reputation, the teacher retorts that greater men had succumbed to lust and survived. When the disciple reminds him that the female is a demon, the older man responds, “She’s no demon, she’s a woman.” Frustrated, when the pupil appeals that he focus on the “Vedas and Puranas and Sastras” which promise eternal bliss, the Brahmin sniffs that he has “no use for insipid, eternal bliss”.

Soon, the Brahmin approaches the woman, declaring, “Your charm has reduced me to ashes.” The lady is polite but reminds him of the rules of caste and tradition. “We eat beef, we drink liquor…. Don’t talk to me.” Morobhatlu does not care. “We drink cow’s milk,” he replies, “but you eat the whole cow. You must be more pure,” he exclaims. Clearly startled, the lady decides to lecture him on the impermanence of desire, the permanence of dharma and other pious philosophical principles, hoping this would make him go away. She also warns Morobhatlu that she is married, and that it would be best for everyone involved if he stopped “this incoherent prattle”. But the man remains immovable. “We Brahmins have made up all the rules, and invented religion. There is no better dharma than satisfying a Brahmin’s need,” he giggles. Perhaps, he adds, she could look upon the act as simple charity. “Give me your loins,” he coyly suggests, “like offering (a Brahmin) land.”

In the end, the woman’s husband arrives, and, after an initial attempt to beat up his wife’s high-born stalker, he demands, “Haven’t you read the Sastras?” Irony, in fact, is writ across the entire composition, where the low-born out-Brahmin the Brahmin—and so is great comic effect. When the woman’s husband reminds Morobhatlu about the godly path, the Brahmin responds: “Final freedom is that state of no pain, no pleasure, no qualities, nothing—or so some idiot said. But when a ravishing young woman…is free from her clothes—that’s freedom for me.” At long last, then, the husband agrees to present his wife to the Brahmin, only for the latter to belatedly heed his pupil’s voice (“Have a little detachment; think of the subtle meaning of Vedic words”). In the course of events that follow, the husband is upset, the wife is bewildered, and finally Shiva arrives and liberates everybody from this hilarious, singular quandary.

The Sati Dana Suramu is, on the face of it, a simple parody. But viewed in its context, Shahuji, we find, was making a comment on society itself. As the scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam notes, “the play was written…for public performance” at a major festival, which meant its irreverence was consumed by large numbers of pilgrims and locals. Not only does it combine on one stage Brahmins and untouchables, it also cleverly exalts Shiva (Shahuji’s preferred deity), who swoops in to save the day at a site associated with Vishnu. Questions are raised on ethics and morality, on lust and the role of women. But the larger point Shahuji wished to make—and make with much mirth and laughter—was that asking questions and turning some tables was not such a bad idea. As this Maratha prince in Tamil country asks us at the end of this Sanskrit-Telugu production: “You, who have seen this play, decide for yourselves and tell us: Who, among these four, is the best?”

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 9 2018)


In 1314, the mayor of London issued a proclamation banning a particularly rowdy sport that had captured the imagination of large numbers of the city’s residents. There was, he announced, “great noise” in town caused by this “hustling over large balls”, and so, “on pain of imprisonment”, the game was outlawed in the name of King Edward II—and of course God. The whole business concerned what we recognize today by the more innocent name of football, but at the time it was considered a monstrous affair, as men kicked about an inflated pig’s bladder from one village to another. No rules existed, and the upper classes sneered at this disorderly pastime of their inferiors, oblivious that centuries down the line, “ffooteball” fever would infect the entire world, birthing an industry so profitable that even God might be forgiven for reconsidering his position.

As with the English language, when the British transported football to India, they didn’t quite expect the “natives” to match them at it. Records suggest that it was in 1721, in Gujarat, that western traders first began to play cricket, while the earliest extant report of football appears over a century later in an 1854 newspaper. This second sport, however, was inaugurated on India’s eastern flank, in Bengal, when the (white) “Gentlemen of Barrackpore” played against the (white) “Calcutta Club of Civilians”. Football, by now, was acquiring a distinct shape and structure, with formal rules and codes. That these rules varied from place to place did not matter—the Victorians had realized that this was a “masculine” exercise for boys as they grew into men, besides serving as an outlet for dangerous hormonal energies. Controlled aggression in an authorized environment, besides, appeared to impart lessons in discipline, obedience, honourable victories, and dignified defeats. And so, slowly, football became respectable.

It was another matter, of course, that the British were not particularly dignified in the manner in which the sport was passed on to Indians. They had their exclusive clubs in various cities, besides the teams of army regiments. But even after the 1880s, when Indians formed their own clubs in Bengal—Shobhabazar, Aryans, and so on—the establishment thought little of locals and their sporting capabilities. “By his legs you shall know a Bengali,” declared one journalist in 1899, asserting that the typical Calcutta male’s legs were either hopelessly thin, or else “very fat and globular…with round thighs like a woman’s.” “The Bengali’s leg,” simply put, was “the leg of a slave”. And this at the end of a decade when Bengali clubs had already started to win small victories against British teams, and just before Mahatma Gandhi was inspired to establish in South Africa his “Passive Resisters Soccer Club”.

What really announced India’s arrival on the football scene, however, was the contest between the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club and the East Yorkshire regiment for the legendary Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield in 1911. The team was representative of emerging middle-class Indian aspirations—one member, writer Ronojoy Sen records, was a clerk, while another was an employee of the public works department. A third was a veterinary inspector, but all of them were products of the English education system, with a growing consciousness of their identity as Indians. They played barefoot, partly because a pair of boots in the early 1900s didn’t cost less than Rs7—an average schoolteacher’s monthly salary. It was no surprise, then, that when Mohun Bagan made it to the finals, against all odds, the football maidan attracted some 100,000 visitors, including from Bihar, Odisha and Assam.

As it happened, the Indians won both the trophy and much prestige. “May God bless the Immortal Eleven of Mohan Bagan for raising their nation in the estimation of the Western people,” rhapsodized the Amrita Bazar Patrika, noting that this victory demolished the old jibe about Bengalis being “lamentably deficient” in physical prowess. Besides reasserting the Indian male’s masculinity, the victory of a barefoot team against a privileged English set also rang resoundingly of nationalism—as historian Partha Chatterjee notes, the win in 1911 came at a time when Bengal was electrified by armed resistance against the Raj, not to speak of agitation challenging the partition of the province by Lord Curzon six years earlier. If sport had helped discipline Englishmen to conquer the world in the Victorian era, now football shattered imperial arrogance as Indians reclaimed their pride at the close of the Edwardian age.

Of course, hopes of football sparking a righteous nationalist fire did not pan out quite so romantically. As with cricket in Bombay, where Parsis played against Hindus who played against Muslims, in football too, difference reared its head. In 1911, the Mohammedan Sporting Club enthusiastically celebrated the victory of their “Hindu brethren” against the British, but by the 1930s the mood had chilled. There was this leading “Muslim club” and then there were “Hindu clubs”. Among the Hindus, there emerged an additional problem of regionalism—the East Bengal Club was formed mainly on account of a grievance that west Bengalis looked down on easterners. In other words, where two decades earlier nationalism had electrified the sports arena, football was afflicted now by the poison of communalism.

It might have spelt wholescale disaster, but, luckily, a change in political winds transformed the horizon. With World War II and the advent of independence, sport for the love of sport—and not as a vehicle of nationalism or communal pride—slowly began to become possible. And in 1947, with those very legs once written off as resembling slaves’, Indians turned around and gave the British a proverbial kick off the field they had for so long tried to dominate. New problems emerged—of poor infrastructure and state indifference. But by then Indians had already embraced football, doing their bit in transforming an old game that once featured a pig’s bladder into an enduring obsession of their own.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 2 2018)


Sometime during the Emergency, soon after she threw democratic sobriety to the winds and assumed unprecedented powers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended to the relatively minor matter of banning a book. It was a biography of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, authored by the British historian Michael Edwardes. But like much else about the Emergency, this too was an overreaction—the book, Nehru: A Political Biography (1971), had already been slammed by critics across the world, and the ban merely did it the favour of undeserved publicity. It was, one scholar noted, guilty of the “worst sort of reductionism”. Another found it full of “questionable statements”, while a third challenged the writer’s claim that it was based on 25 years of research. A more confident daughter, then, would have simply scoffed at Edwardes and his ill-received production, but something triggered Mrs Gandhi to go out of her way to demolish Nehru and, thereby, award it eternal life.

I picked up Edwardes’ book last Sunday—27 May, Nehru’s death anniversary—and found that while it deserved its terrible reviews, it was by no means a candidate for a ban. A peculiar union of dry wit and hot air, the message here is that India’s first prime minister was a man who rose on the shoulders of others, and, when there was nobody to help him, collapsed into a heap of contradictions. Nehru had no redeeming qualities—a line that has endeared Edwardes to a particularly shrill political lobby today—and his life was a swirling puddle of badly-thought-out emotional responses. Indeed, “emotional” is a word that appears a great deal in this biography. His flirtation with theosophy was emotional; his sense of identification with India’s peasants was emotional; his desire for the unity of the Congress party was emotional; his socialism was emotional; elections were “an emotional release after the drama of independence”; and even his five-year plans were emotional. In sum, Nehru was nothing but overrated emotion.

In theory, this is interesting—after all, we still have politicians prone to sentimental displays—but there is enough in the book to make many uncomfortable. On the one hand, there are casual, sweeping claims, such as the suggestion that the first post-1947 election “was essentially a travesty of democracy”, or that the massacre by General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh was because he “panicked”. On the other, there are also elements which punch holes into the grand narrative we have built for the nation. It is quite true, for instance, that in our anxiety to deify leaders, we obscure their human limitations. So, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose—a charismatic, revolutionary figure—is left looking plain rude when we learn that he dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as “an old, useless piece of furniture”. Indeed, Gandhi himself is startlingly presented as an “unofficial ally” of the British—the colonial authorities apparently engineered arrests in a way that ensured he remained in charge of the Congress, because they preferred his verbose non-violence to the dangerous radicalism of others. In other words, the British deserve some credit for the Mahatma’s success.

The most interesting discussion, however, is where Edwardes approaches the internal dynamics of the Congress—the constant tussle between left, centre and right, every faction conscious about maintaining unity but determined to assert its policies. In this context, Nehru is presented in an intriguing fashion. He was, we are told, a man with grand rhetorical abilities but confused ideological commitments. Gandhi, the author claims, permitted Nehru to give many speeches while keeping him on a “leash” when it came to genuine political decisions. His “emotional” socialism also served as an instrument for Congress bosses to keep real socialists away from seats of influence. Meanwhile, Sardar Patel and the right wing cemented actual control of the organization. When Nehru did object on the rare occasion, “Gandhian blackmail” reined him in. In all, the dynamics are interesting, and Edwardes’ charges are many—the book would have benefited if only he had made the effort to also prove them.

But the book’s greatest flaw in painting Nehru as a witless shuttlecock between an “essentially communal” Gandhi and a Patel-led capitalist lobby is that Nehru’s own urbane, progressive vision is eclipsed deliberately. Edwardes admits that after independence, when the Congress had no shortage of parochial leaders, Nehru’s unmatched appeal meant they could never eject him and implement “obscurantist” ideas. While Patel is correctly lauded as the “true founder of the Indian state”, Edwardes forgets that Nehru was the founder of modern Indian democracy—India’s dawn depended on both. He plays down, for instance, Nehru’s 1931 Karachi resolution as a sop to his ideals—in fact, this document on “Fundamental Rights and Economic and Social Changes” asserted principles enshrined now in our Constitution. Nehru was not enough of a politician, Edwardes complains, perhaps oblivious that it was precisely this quality that made him special to millions of people.

To Edwardes, Nehru was an accident of history—the wrong man at the right place—rather than someone who earned his stripes. The author arrived at this conclusion and produced over 300 pages detailing it, without access to even one of Nehru’s vast collection of private and official papers. Nehru himself might merely have laughed at the provocation. After all, in 1937, he wrote an anonymous article criticizing himself to encourage his people to hold their leaders accountable. Questions, he knew, must be asked of all tall leaders, but perhaps out of personal affection, or on account of a thin skin, Nehru’s daughter does not seem to have agreed with this principle. So, she banned what was a poorly argued book, denying it its natural demise, and granting it a place of honour among those who resented Nehru then and fear his memory even today.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 26 2018)


In November 1940, V.D. Savarkar—whose birth anniversary is on 28 May—presented a most fascinating proposition in a newspaper called the Khyber Mail. Authored under his usual pseudonym of “A Mahratta”, the architect of Hindutva went beyond his familiar arguments about “Hinduness” and nationalism here, highlighting instead a political framework in which these concepts could achieve fruition. Ostensibly, this was a rejoinder to a “spineless” statement by Mahatma Gandhi that the nizam of Hyderabad was a potential candidate for emperor of India. But Savarkar’s “virile antidote” to Gandhi’s “inferiority complex” is not any less puzzling. The thrust of his argument painted India’s rajas (“defenders of Hindu faith and honour…the reserve forces of Hindudom”) and not the nizam as the road to the future. And if, he argued, Hindus in British territory and the princes joined forces, they could offer a sparkling alternative vision for India, establishing a nation that was a veritable “racial dream”.

Like much of Savarkar’s writing, this too features a good deal of anti-Muslim polemics. The “academical” view offered was that if it came to civil war, Hindu military camps would spring up in the princely states, from Udaipur and Gwalior in the north to Mysore and Travancore in the south. “There will not be left a trace of Muslim rule from the Seas in the South to the Jamuna in the North,” while in the Punjab Sikhs would keep at bay the Muslim tribes of the west. Independent Nepal would emerge “as the Defender of the Hindu Faith and the commander of Hindu forces”, mobilizing “Hindu rifles” to “spit fire and vengeance in defence of Hindu Honour”. Indeed, Nepal might even make “a bid for the Imperial throne of Hindusthan”. Its march into India would be reinforced, of course, by Hindus, and at the end of the day they would all together consecrate a Hindu rashtra with its own suzerain, ready to inherit “the Sceptre of Indian Empire” as it fell from colonial hands.

The Hindutva family of organizations understandably perceived a community of interests with the princely states. The latter were, as the scholar Manu Bhagavan observes, viewed as “portals to a pure, ancient past”, “sites of India’s imagined past of purity”, and “the foundation on which the future nation” could be launched. In 1944, in a letter to the ruler of Jaipur, in fact, Savarkar openly declared the Hindu Mahasabha’s policy of “standing by the Hindu states and defending their prestige, stability and power against the Congressites, the Communists, (and) the Moslems”. “Hindu states,” he concluded, “are centres of Hindu power” and naturally, therefore, would become instrumental in the realization of Hindu nationhood. Meanwhile, if not spirited support, the princes certainly provided a degree of encouragement—several Mahasabha meets were hosted in the states, including in highly advanced Mysore and Baroda, and the organization found ample support among the orthodox in princely territory.

What, however, were the chances of the princes uniting around Savarkar’s vision? They certainly did possess networks of blood and kinship that could, in theory, link them. Travancore in Kerala “belonged” to Lord Padmanabhaswamy—a deity whose idol was made of salagram stones from Nepal. The Maratha dynasty in Baroda shared political roots not only with the rulers of Indore and Gwalior in the centre and north but also with the descendants of Shivaji who survived in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. Mysore, meanwhile, was ruled by Kannadigas, who eagerly sought Rajput brides. To this combination could also be added senior Indian statesmen of the time who thought the Congress vision of India a disaster, and were equally willing, therefore, to consider an alternative plan. As late as July 1947, for instance, the redoubtable Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer (who considered Gandhi a “dangerous sex maniac” and Jawaharlal Nehru “unstable”) was convinced that if power went to the Congress, “civil war…within six months” was inevitable, culminating in the division of India between “half a dozen principalities”—and Sir C.P. was considered “one of the cleverest men in India”.

In reality though, most Indian rajas were more interested in sustaining their decadent lifestyles and reaffirming loyalty to the Raj than in plotting grand designs for India’s future. Many of them were known not for their virile nationalism but for their boudoir passions. They certainly owned 40% of Indian territory, but over 454 of the 565-odd states were made of less than 1,000 sq. miles; only a few dozen had revenue over Rs10 lakh, and even fewer owned armies that truly deserved the name. The greatest of the states, Hyderabad, was inconveniently Islamic, while Kashmir, held by Dogra Rajputs, was majority-Muslim. Add to this mass agitations within the states, encouraged by the Congress, and the heady picture of brave princes rising to inaugurate an Age of Hindutva looked hopelessly remote.

In the end, history didn’t quite play out in the way Savarkar and his confederates theorized. Nehru proved perfectly stable, the Hindutva cause was damaged after Gandhi’s murder, and Sardar Patel integrated most principalities with the carrot of money and status. Despite obituaries and shrill prophecies of danger, India became a secular democracy, and not a Hindu rashtra. And, in perhaps what might have caused the father of Hindutva to recoil in horror, it was not the Nepali dynasty of Savarkar’s “academical” premise that soared to power in New Delhi. Instead, another family emerged to play a formidable role in shaping India’s destiny: one bearing those very names—Nehru and Gandhi—that he viewed with such intense antipathy. What Savarkar envisioned in 1940, then, was a “Future Emperor of India”; what India got in a decade instead was a people’s Constitution, defended by men and women who brooked no kings and shunned all empires.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 19 2018)


In the days of the British Raj, the “hot weather” season presented an annual excuse for India’s princely elite to seek a leave of absence from the privileged drudgery that was life in their capitals. Palaces were shut for the summer, and elaborate entourages would set out for one or another of the area’s chief British-controlled hill stations. Shimla was, of course, where the viceroy planted himself, while the governor of the Madras Presidency moved to Ooty in befitting state and ceremony. Nobody, however, could really let their hair down—the rule books determined which grandee could call on the governor when, and whether the individual was significant enough to deserve a return visit. Indeed, not everyone was permitted to own property in these places, and long negotiations preceded the grant of permission for a prince to enjoy the honour of owning hilly real estate next to the local representative of His Britannic Majesty.

Much to the consternation of the officers of the Raj, however, as time passed, India’s princes began to seek more glamorous vacations, far from the watchful eyes of their colonial overlords. More often than not, it was a maharaja’s “health” that demanded the urgent consumption of European air (preferably from multiple cities), though care had to be taken to mollify orthodox concerns about crossing the accursed kalapani. Some, like the maharaja of Jaipur in 1902, travelled with thousands of litres drawn from the Ganga so that they could be purified daily with the most sacred of river waters. Others, like the Pudukkottai raja, raised by the British to be a perfect blend of East and West, scandalized his creators by acquiring a new rani called Molly on an Australian holiday in 1915. Foreseeing only calamity in unregulated intercourse between Indian princes and the West, as early as 1901 Lord Curzon made attempts to limit foreign travel—if they were anxious to sail for reasons of health, the viceroy needed a doctor’s certificate. It was no surprise, then, that when the headmasterly Curzon left, his principal antagonist—and great traveller—the Gaekwar of Baroda, sent him a telegram that read: “Bon voyage, may India never see the like of you again.”

Some rajas used their holidays for education. A junior prince of Travancore went on an all-India tour in 1894, an account of which survives with vivid attempts at anthropological generalizations: Tirunelveli was home to “a peculiar class of people who are peaceable citizens by day and robbers by night”. In Bombay, sitting between two judges of the high court, he watched them decide a case of obscenity, while in Ahmedabad he met a “pretty Mahomedan beggar girl” from whom he bought flowers. A visit to Akbar’s tomb led to speculation on whether the theory that he was a Hindu in his last birth was true, while in Lucknow his tour guide was “a large cadaverous looking fellow” who wanted Rs2 per day for his services. The route to Darjeeling is straight out of an Orientalist novel, for the prince saw “trees festooned with creepers and vines, exhibiting through their wealth of leaves, flowers of the most gorgeous colours and forms, throwing a deep gloom over an undergrowth of rank jungle grass, in which (lay) hid wild beasts and venomous snakes”.

By the 1920s, Indian princes had become a familiar sight abroad during the holiday season. The maharani of Cooch Behar (pictured), for instance, loved Europe, even as the British frowned that “the disadvantages of a tour of foreign hotels and casinos for a boy of 13 (her son and heir)” should be obvious. In London, “her gambling, and her drinking propensities” brought down strict orders that she should stay in her principality for at least one year before her next excursion. Others, like the maharaja of Kapurthala, were given greater leeway. In 1929, he published My Tour Of The World, describing his latest round of travels. He expressed discontent that his New York hotel was full of dentists, while the relative simplicity of the president’s life in the White House (“no police or military guard…[only] a few black and white employees”) seemed surprising. In Japan, he called on the emperor (“resembles a Nepalese in physiognomy”) while in Hawaii he was surprised that “although dark”, its people were “strangely…considered to be a white race”.

India’s princes on holiday presented, to borrow from Rudyard Kipling, a spectacle to the world—the Cooch Behar maharani, when she gambled, fascinated her companions not only with her chiffon saris, but also because she kept a jewel-studded turtle with her for luck. The maharaja of Indore, in the late 1930s, fell in love with an ex-stewardess in California and constructed a massive retreat there, impressing local society with his love of art deco.

World War II, then, was what brought this fabulous universe of rajas and nawabs crashing down—foreign travel was restricted, and the most flamboyant of princes were compelled to stay in India, forced to deal with their subjects, whom they could otherwise cheerfully avoid. The British disapproval of extravagant vacationing, meanwhile, was inherited by Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt they ought to be more responsible. Indian princes, he argued, “spent months (abroad) without bringing any credit to our country” and he saw “no reason why we should give any foreign exchange to help in these frivolous pursuits”. He didn’t really go out of his way to burst their bubble, though—that was left to Indira Gandhi, who, in 1971, ended their privy purses and privileges, and finally drove the message home: Summer was over, and the sun had set.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 12 2018)


In an interview earlier this month, the chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, repeated a mantra he has for some time pointedly articulated. “I am not anti-Hindi,” he declared, “but I will push for the supremacy of Kannada.” Hindi is a welcome guest, of course, but “the Centre,” he stressed, “cannot impose Hindi.” This widely publicized stand is not altogether surprising coming from the south—with the uncompromising emphasis placed on one imperious brand of nationalism by the ruling powers in Delhi, it is only a matter of time before more resistance of this variety appears in a country as diverse as ours. Where national pride in one format, one language, and by one definition alone is hammered from above, from below must necessarily emerge stirrings of sub-nationalism that evoke local histories, linguistic identities, and an eclectic, heterogeneous heritage. Add to this imminent elections, and the potential dividends from the clash of a Kannadiga David against the Hindi Goliath should be patent at once.

The rise of Hindi as a self-proclaimed “national language” is well documented. In the late 19th century, stalwarts like Bharatendu Harishchandra and Raja Sivaprasad in Varanasi were among many who bombarded the colonial state with petitions and press propaganda to replace elite Urdu (which evidently privileged Muslims) with Hindi (the language of the larger mass of people) as the lingua franca of the courts and in government. Official patronage of a language determined which communities could claim influence, converting the whole debate into a sharp political contest between Urdu and its rival. The campaign for Hindi eventually triumphed, and the transformation of this family of north Indian dialects into an instrument of northern nationalism was soon complete. This being accomplished, Hindi turned south, opening a new (and now revived) conflict with languages of the peninsula. Indeed, even Mahatma Gandhi lent his weight to Hindi, advising that the “Dravidians being in a minority… they should learn the common language of the rest of India”—a patronizing remark that inspired C.N. Annadurai to quip that by this logic of numbers, the best candidate for national bird was not the minority peacock but the majority crow.

Interestingly, the very arguments that proponents of Hindi once directed against Urdu can today be deployed by defenders of the south against the seemingly all-consuming appetite of the north. Consider, for instance, linguist and writer Raja Sivaprasad’s famous 1868 memorandum, Court Characters In The Upper Provinces Of India, which opens up a veritable arsenal of arguments for reuse in our 21st century context. For instance, the raja states, while railing against Urdu, “To read (the Persian script of Urdu) is to become Persianized, all our ideas become corrupt…our nationality is lost. Cursed be the day which saw the Muhammadans cross the Indus.” By the same yardstick, then, to insist on Hindi and Devanagari in states where it is as alien as Swahili could legitimately lead to complaints of an “invasion” to undermine local culture and pride. “The Muhammadans did not force their countrymen…to pass in the Vernaculars; they forced the Hindus to learn their language,” complained Sivaprasad. By that very logic, why should the children of the south, it can be asked, be compelled to digest Hindi, when they have their own native languages to cherish and safeguard?

Besides, added the raja, if at all a commoner must endure “foreign” Urdu, he might as well invest in English—at least it guaranteed a remunerative job. Here again, Indians of non-Hindi cultures can borrow from Sivaprasad: Far from earning rewards from the over-ambitious vernacular of the north, the prospects of a brighter future lie in acquiring that language which opens doors to the world at large. By replacing Urdu’s script with Devanagari, Sivaprasad also said, “Court papers will no longer remain hieroglyphics and sealed books to the masses.” One only need recall here the case of that Odisha parliamentarian who, on receiving a letter in Hindi from a minister, returned it, asking his sender to use a language he could understand. Many, in other words, might harbour the most intense passion for Hindi, but masses of Indians feel as much connection to Devanagari as they might to the “hieroglyphics” that so exercised Sivaprasad’s furious mind.

The great irony, of course, is that in several parts where it has no past, Hindi had made quiet and steady progress through the 20th century, till a recent, overmastering desire to copyright nationalism led those in power to issue lectures on culture and sermons on Indianness. Old ghosts laid to rest were resurrected, and schisms that didn’t exist were suddenly invented. India is, after all, a mosaic of hues and cultures, and to turn it into a single shade and one tedious colour is not only misguided, it is tragic. In Sivaprasad’s day, he championed Hindi so the “whole of India north of the Krishna (could be)…united by one common bond of language.” Now, in 2018, the formula has been inverted, so that those Indians south of the Krishna find their own common cause, not in a love for Hindi but in a determination to celebrate that other special thing: the right of every citizen and people to retain their claim to glorious difference. This, then, has served as a political plank upon which a Siddaramaiah can pitch his flag, and this has become a rousing call to fight what, from the south, looks suspiciously like cultural arrogance too easily manifest among some in the north. Whether or not Karnataka becomes the scene of David’s triumph will, of course, become clear soon enough. But as everyone who knows the story can tell, sooner or later Goliath must fall.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 05 2018)


Setting out for London in 1924, V.K. Krishna Menon found himself in the awkward position of being the son of a very rich father with very empty pockets. “I telegraphed you yesterday that I wanted money,” he wrote to his sister, weeks later, hoping again “to get 100 pounds from Father”. The old man, of course, had no intention of subsidizing his son’s journey towards self-destruction. For at 28, Krishna Menon looked every inch a disappointment. He was sent to Madras (now Chennai) to qualify as a lawyer but returned to Calicut (now Kozhikode), instead, a bedazzled theosophist. He was raised to take over his father’s legal enterprise, but all he talked about was Annie Besant and the earth-shattering advent of a supposed “World Teacher”. Now, to add to his erratic peregrinations, he was off to London for a diploma in education, planning to become, of all things, a humble schoolteacher.

Krishna Menon’s was a family that thought modesty overrated. His father was a legal luminary in British Malabar and the son of a local raja. They paraded elephants (Sanku, Sankaran and Gopalan were favourites) and saw Queen Victoria’s passing as tragedy unparalleled. His mother was the daughter of Koodali Nair, master of tens of thousands of acres, and played chess when she wasn’t enjoying her ample inheritance. Of the eight children born to this proud and handsome couple, Kunjikrishna, as our protagonist was originally named, was from the start considered somewhat limited. Where a sister pursued French and Latin and upheld her family’s imperious standards by discarding a husband, young Krishna was busy being sensitive and gentle, insisting on feeding his pony milk and oats from the breakfast table.

The unworthy heir who left India’s shores in 1924, however, was not the domineering, vain man who returned in 1952 cloaked in Cold War suspicions. The British saw in Menon Jawaharlal Nehru’s “evil genius”, while the Americans were more colourful when they branded him a “poisonous bastard”. In the 1950s, Menon was difficult to miss on the world stage: even a US president noted this “boor” who thought himself so superior. Much of this reputation was accumulated from the 1930s. A decade into his stay in London, British intelligence was already tapping Menon’s phone and reading his letters. In the 1940s, they feared he was both a prescription drug addict and a closet Communist, warning Nehru that plans to appoint him high commissioner would not be “well received” in their quarter.

Menon’s journey from aspiring schoolmaster to the 1962 cover of Time magazine as an international mischief-maker is fascinating. Soon after he arrived in London, he upped his ambitions and acquired a string of qualifications. He studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and wrote a thesis on psychology at University College London. On the eve of his father’s death in 1934, he at last even became a lawyer. Breaking from his theosophist mentors, he was the face of the India League, and chief lobbyist for Indian independence in Britain’s political circles. He cultivated links with the Labour Party, and, in the midst of all this, helped launch Penguin, the publishing house, only to quarrel and withdraw forever. In the late 1930s, the prospect of a parliament seat too appeared, but his “double loyalty” meant plans for a political career in Britain were ill-fated from the onset.

In 1935, the collapse of a romance left Menon suicidal and he became more dependent than ever on astrology and medication. Still, when Nehru came that year to Britain, it was this complicated Malayali who was anointed local spokesman of the Congress. Nehru later dismissed views that his friend held great sway over him, but what is certain is that Menon’s meteoric ascent after India’s independence owed much to his access to the prime minister. It was no wonder, then, that from the start the man made enemies in the Congress—when they were parked in jail during the freedom struggle, Menon served the London borough of St Pancras for 14 cushy years as councillor.

His stint till 1952 as high commissioner was controversial. His arrogance, a defence mechanism to conceal lifelong insecurities, left him unapproachable. Worse, British intelligence saw in him (mistakenly) a Soviet pawn who might slip secrets through a mysterious mistress. When the Indian Army sought jeeps for Kashmir, Menon embarrassed Nehru too by delivering second-hand goods that were unserviceable. The prime minister tried to cajole him into leaving London—he was offered a vice-chancellorship, the embassy in Moscow, even a cabinet position—but Menon refused. At last he was persuaded to represent India at the UN, where, while advocating non-alignment (a word he took credit for and a concept he claimed to have co-authored), he drove paranoid Americans wild with suspicion.

Menon was abrasive, but got India noticed. He punched above his weight and strode the world stage with regal confidence. By 1956, this “thoroughly dangerous man” was in the Union cabinet, but his role as defence minister culminated six years later with the China debacle. He spent the rest of his years giving lectures, arguing cases in the Supreme Court, and quarrelling with a niece’s husband over his traditional “right” to name her children. “Krishna Menon was essentially an extremely lonely man,” wrote a relation, and his was a life that married emotional instability to political petulance. But for all that, the dangers of his influence were overrated. As he himself said in an interview, “I was neither a buffoon nor a Rasputin.” He was merely Krishna Menon, who did some good but invited plenty of trouble.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 28 2018)


Sometime during World War II, an American soldier walking down Bakul Bagan Road in Kolkata stopped in his tracks when he heard someone playing Beethoven in the neighbourhood. The tune was unmistakable, and our soldier followed the music till he arrived at its source. The connoisseur he encountered near the gramophone was anything but the stereotypical Indian male he was given to imagine. For, there stood a towering young man, 6ft, 4 inches tall, with a clipped English accent and a voice that was pure gravel. As Bidyut Sarkar’s The World Of Satyajit Ray puts it, the American expressed surprise that a Bengali should seek delight in Beethoven, before bidding his interlocutor farewell. What happened to him in the course of the war is not known, but the lover of Western music he met went on to surprise an entire generation, breaking stereotypes and earning universal acclaim in a life that remains, to this day, unparalleled.

Satyajit Ray—whose death anniversary it was this week—was heir to two different worlds. His father came from a stable of aristocrats who brushed aside palanquins and elephants in the pursuit of more modern intellectual and business concerns. He founded the Nonsense Club at Presidency College, studied in England, wrote prolifically, but died young. Ray’s mother, compelled to settle her husband’s debts, was the daughter of a less lordly household. Moving in with her brother, she taught sewing and embroidery, and earned her own income. “I was cut off from everything intellectual,” Ray remembered, but not with any resentment, though perhaps there was a little exaggeration. At first, he studied economics at his father’s alma mater, but when the Rays’ friend, Rabindranath Tagore, invited him to Santiniketan, he thought he might train there to become an illustrator.

By now, the future icon had cultivated a taste for cinema. But the pressures of his circumstances consigned all artistic aspirations to the background. After two years in Santiniketan, Ray returned to Kolkata and took up an advertising job for Rs80 a month. He worked hard, moving into a house of his own with his mother. Amidst much frowning and shaking of heads, he married an older woman, his maternal half-uncle’s daughter. Work, meanwhile, progressed and he was promoted as the firm’s art director. In 1945, two years into his time there, a 1920s book landed on his table to redesign and illustrate. Its name was Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, and now, as he completed the assignment, Ray began to think of incarnating it on screen. His love for cinema graduated to an obsession—when, in 1950, his bosses sent him to England, his wife and he skipped meals so they could save and watch 99 of the best available films.

Pather Panchali launched Ray onto a career that saw him sweep awards by the dozen. But the five years he toiled on his first venture were a sobering experience. Funding was invisible, and nobody trusted him. Cinema was to park a camera in front of a set as actors sang and danced, and when he suggested otherwise, he was told to stay quiet. In fits and starts, between a job and running a household, Ray began to shoot, in 1952. Gold was pawned, and savings spent. For three years, Ray and his fellow amateurs were men possessed, worrying also that their actors might not survive delays: What if the boy’s voice broke? Or worse, what if the old lady died? At last money arrived from the state—Pather Panchali was, in English, titled Song Of The Little Road, and there was some cash to spare, it turned out, in the “Road Improvement Fund”. It was a double-edged sword, though, for while the movie made its director a legend, all its profits were scooped up by a government, which secretly thought Ray’s work “dull and slow moving”.

The success of Pather Panchali allowed Ray to give up his job and become a full-time film-maker, though he still had loans to repay. There was much success ahead, but also an abundance of criticism. Senior politicians preferred parading exotic India on the world stage instead of the realities of life in India—he was accused of denigrating the motherland with too honest a portrayal of its people. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, came to Ray’s rescue. “What is wrong about showing India’s poverty?” he demanded. “Everyone knows we are a poor country. The question is: Are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?” With Ray, Nehru declared, there was the most profound sensitivity. Some, meanwhile, were uncomfortable for other reasons. As one critic noted, in his conception of women, Ray “demystifies the revered Hindu ideals…of mothers and wives”, while, in painting men, “he reveals to us their cowardice…as they take shelter in male-dominated social institutions”. Naturally, he attracted his share of conservative detractors.

But it is precisely for this that Ray should today be remembered, at a time when art must pay homage to the nation, and creativity skirt the mores of those who exercise power. Pressures such as these existed in Ray’s day too, but he found an honest way of dealing with them. When Indira Gandhi attempted to woo him, to make a film on “social welfare”, or a biopic lauding Nehru, the director’s response was clear. Once, when talking of overblown Bollywood films, he declared he was “bored of villains” and wanted to make something different. Now, to the most powerful woman in the country, this Bengali director simply said, “No, because I’m not interested.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 21 2018)


In the Chennai suburb of Triplicane, there once lived a seamstress called Janaki. Respectfully addressed as Janaki Ammal, to her came many with saris to mend and blouses to stitch. But there was more to the old lady than tailoring. She was, for one, a pious Brahmin who chanted mantras and went often to the temple. She gave to charity and educated a number of grateful children. Though in her youth she was cheated of a prodigious sum, she acquired skill enough to run a chit fund for the housewives of her neighbourhood. Upstairs, she lived in a little place, and downstairs, she conducted business. But for all the decades of her self-supporting life, she kept with her also a tin trunk, full of crumbling papers that concealed the most poignant memories. For in a different time and a different space, Janaki of Triplicane was married to a “somebody”. And long before she became a seamstress, she had been wife to a man who scaled the very heights of cerebral greatness.

It is not known what, as a 10-year-old, Janaki made of Srinivasa Ramanujan, who arrived in her Tiruchirapalli village to wed her in the summer of 1909. His train had been delayed and her father was furious. Yet, once tempers were soothed and insults forgotten, the mathematical prodigy and this young girl from the country were married. To look at, the bridegroom was uninspiring: Smallpox had devastated his face, and a classmate described him as “fair and plumpy”, built like “a woman”. At 21, there was little, furthermore, to commend him to the top league of prospective husbands: Five years ago, he had dropped out of college, and a second attempt at university had also ended in depressive disaster. His energy was electric, though, and his mathematical abilities astounding. But he had no patience for other subjects and spent his days doing accounts and failing hopelessly at becoming a tuition teacher.

Raised by a masterful mother, and awkward around his disapproving father, Ramanujan took some years to find his bearings. In 1912, employed as a clerk at the Madras Port Trust, he finally crawled out of poverty, renting a house where he was joined by Janaki. While he solved sums on discarded packaging paper, and engaged with the city’s mathematics professors, the young girl watched from the side and learnt what it meant to be a Brahmin wife. He was a sensitive man, full of fears of rejection but bursting with godly devotion. “An equation for me,” he declared, “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Of course, little of this was discussed with his teenage wife—he never saw her alone, and, when she slept, it was with her watchful mother-in-law. Janaki cooked, and Janaki cleaned. And then, one day, she heard that her husband had been invited to that alien country people called Great Britain.

The decision was not easy: Ramanujan had been corresponding with the legendary G.H. Hardy and in Cambridge he was already a sensation. But what sensible Brahmin boy with a government job could toss aside everything to scramble after an abstract world of numbers? So the gods were consulted—the family went on pilgrimage, and divine sanction was received in a dream. Janaki, all of 15, asked to sail with Ramanujan, but this was dismissed as outrageous—he was going to achieve great things, and she would only distract him from his God-mandated purpose. And so it was that a week before he departed, Ramanujan said goodbye to his family, packing them off before he cut off his tuft of hair and wore for the first time the garb of a Western gentleman. When a photograph arrived showing her son like this, it took his mother some time to recognize him.

For five years, Janaki didn’t see her husband. At first, she served her mother-in-law, but soon there was mutiny in the kitchen. Letters addressed to her were intercepted by the older woman, and young Mrs Ramanujan built up the courage to ask direct questions. Our genius himself, while making history, was living a life of personal misery—there was tuberculosis, social awkwardness, a suicide attempt, and all the inconveniences of World War I afflicting life in Britain. In 1919, his health in pieces but with much distinction under his belt, Ramanujan returned at last to India. He asked for Janaki to come and greet him, but his mother “forgot” to let her daughter-in-law know: It was from newspapers that the wife of this freshly-minted fellow of The Royal Society discovered that her husband had finally come home.

Ramanujan did not live long, but the year he and Janaki spent together had its moments of tender affection. She cared for him, and he told his mother to retreat—if only, he regretted, he had taken Janaki along, he might not have felt so lost on foreign shores. Their marriage, hitherto unconsummated, was at last given a semblance of emotional substance. He remained orthodox—they moved from a house called Crynant because “cry” was inauspicious, while Ramanujan approved of Gometra because it could be read, in Sanskrit, as “friend of cows”. His tuberculosis, of course, cared little for auspicious addresses, and his mother blamed Janaki’s stars for bringing upon her son the terrible eye of Saturn. When Ramanujan died on 26 April 1920, he took with him whatever trace of warmth survived between the two women feuding by his bedside.

A widow at barely 22, Janaki spent most of the following decade in British Bombay with her brother, learning English and acquiring the skills of a seamstress. In 1931, she returned to Chennai, beginning a new life, working to supplement her meagre pension, and eventually adopting a little boy, who cared for her till her end, six decades later. Occasionally, great scholars from abroad came to see Janaki, seeking answers to questions left behind by her legendary husband. But she only had memories and gentle words to offer. As this seamstress of Triplicane said to one of them, the chief thing she remembered about her beloved Ramanujan was that he was always surrounded by sums and problems.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 14 2018)


In 1870, the British representative in Travancore reported a peculiar problem that afflicted the dispensing of justice in that princely state. Sometimes, it so happened, witnesses came from low-caste groups, which made recording testimony somewhat complicated—they had no access to courtrooms where they might “defile” their savarna superiors. As a result, since “the witness cannot go to the court”, wrote the Englishman, “the court must go to the witnesses”. It could not, however, “go too near him”, lest the high-caste judge lose his purity. Instead, the dispensers of justice stood at a distance, their questions shouted out by a goomastah to a peon placed midway from the witness. This peon, whose purity was presumably of lesser consequence, would then proceed to yell those questions to the avarna at the other end. Naturally, more often than not, it was not the words spoken by the hapless witness that finally made their way to the judge. But it didn’t matter—the avarna went back to his gloomy life, while the judge patted himself for another day spent in the service of “justice”.

Strangely comical as it might seem, this was merely one facet of the dark, marginalized world into which Ayyan and Mala brought their son, Ayyankali, in 1863. They were Pulayas, a word derived from pula (pollution), living in Venganoor, near Thiruvananthapuram. The Pulayas were an agrestic slave caste, and, till slavery was abolished a decade before, could be bought and sold for bags of rupees. Ritual pollution barred them from public spaces, and even language was proscribed: A Pulaya could never use the word “I” but only adiyan (your slave). When a Pulaya died, the body might have to be buried in his own hovel, for there was no other land available for the purpose. Samuel Mateer, a missionary, recorded the nightmare that was life for most Pulayas. They resided, he observed, “in miserable huts” by the fields they didn’t own, their principal vocation “digging and manuring, transplanting the young rice, repairing the banks, and performing other labours in the rice-fields, sometime standing for hours in the water”, which left them susceptible to disease. Wages were paid in kind, and these were minimal; any questions could lead to eviction and immediate destitution.

Ayyan and Mala, however, were unusual in having a sympathetic master—in a time without toilets, when even finding a spot for defecating required the landowner’s permission, their overlord had granted them several acres of property. Here they raised Ayyankali, providing him a better life than was open to most of their caste-men. Their first-born appears to have been aware that this marginal privilege was not something to be squandered—confident, and with a mind of his own, he gathered around him other Pulaya boys, emerging as something of a group leader. In his youth, his life was confined to Venganoor: He laboured in the fields, married, and began a family. But then, at 30, something changed within this illiterate man, who would go on to earn such titles as Mahatma and Gurudevan. For, in 1893, he decided to issue the first of his many challenges to the rotten world around him, setting out to claim for his people that crucial thing they had lacked for centuries: equality.

The event is part of popular lore. Public roads, at the time, were barred to avarnas. Indeed, such was the exactness with which this practice was upheld, that a fabulously wealthy man, the sole owner of a motor car outside the royal court, often had to disembark on certain roads and take a side route on foot. His high-caste driver, meanwhile, would bring around the vehicle to wherever the low-caste owner could finally alight. Ayyankali, of course, had no car but what he did was unthinkable. He purchased a bullock cart, already an act of defiance; and then, with great fanfare, a turban wound around his head, he proceeded to make open use of a road where people of his caste were strictly prohibited. A band of Nairs with lordly pretensions came out for a fight, but Ayyankali gave as good as he got—dagger in hand, he with his friends put the savarnas to flight.

The next five decades were busy. Education was his principal priority—a school he started in 1904 was burnt down, but he achieved small victories over time. It was not easy, though: Even Ramakrishna Pillai, an enlightened journalist, dismissed Ayyankali’s demands on the grounds that those “cultivating land” could not seek parity with those who had been “cultivating intelligence” for generations—it was like yoking together a horse and a buffalo. But Ayyankali persevered, till a few years later, following another violent attempt to deny Pulayas access to schools, he called for Kerala’s first labour strike. Unnerved, the government agreed at last to his demands, throwing open large numbers of schools to Dalits across the board. In 1907, meanwhile, a formal body—the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham—was founded to represent the interests of the community. And in 1912, Ayyankali was nominated to one of the state’s formal assemblies, giving a voice to the Pulayas at the highest levels of power.

What led to the erosion of Ayyankali’s influence, however, was precisely this willingness to work with the government, which on its part, fearing a mass exodus from Hinduism, periodically conceded demands even as it prevented other Dalit castes from making common cause with the Pulayas. By the 1930s, factionalism and a generational gap saw authority slip out of Ayyankali’s hands, and, early in the next decade, the attractions of communism rang the death knell of what was already a dismembered organization. By the time Ayyankali died in 1941, the world was an altogether different place, and not many—including his son-in-law—were prepared to follow him. But for all that, ordinary men and women continued to behold in him a hero. For, after all, were it not for this crusader on a bullock cart, taking head-on the mighty and powerful in 1893, generations might have passed before the Pulayas decided, at last, that it was time for them to rise up, standing together to fight.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 07 2018)


In 1623, a venerated sanyasi arrived at the court of the poligar (governor) of Sendamangalam, now in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, he was like other divines of his time: One acolyte held up a parasol, while another carried the tiger skin on which the holy man reposed. Yet another cradled his books and a fourth a vessel with sacred water to be sprinkled wherever the party made a halt. Ramachandra Nayaka, lord of Sendamangalam, received them warmly, washing the guru’s feet in reverence. In the conversation that followed, a grant of land and other favours were discussed so that the holy man might establish a branch of his mission at this important urban centre. After spending some time in the area, the visitors carried on with their travels, going to Salem, where too the provincial administrator received the old man with deference. He was assigned lodgings in “the finest quarter of the town”, receiving also a promise of that useful thing: the governor’s sincere friendship.

When Roberto de Nobili was born in Montepulciano, Italy, in 1577, nobody in his family could have guessed that the boy would spend most of his life oceans away, in the dusty plains of the Indian peninsula, dressed as a sanyasi. The Nobilis were a military set—they claimed descent from the Holy Roman emperor Otto III, and were related to cardinals, saints, and even a pope or two. As the eldest son of his house, Roberto was expected to carry on the line, but by his adolescence had already quarrelled with his parents, announcing his desire to serve the Catholic church. He fled in disguise to Naples and obtained a theological education, before setting sail, in 1604, for India. The journey was not smooth—the Sao Jacinto was shipwrecked and months were lost in Mozambique. But at last de Nobili arrived in Goa, quickly thereafter moving to Kochi. And then, to get even further away from the Portuguese colonial government, the Italian Jesuit orchestrated a transfer to the mission in Madurai—a mission that in 15 years had made a grand total of zero conversions.

As a missionary, de Nobili’s objectives were clear. “I long most keenly,” he declared, “to travel about these vast spaces, staff in hand, and to win their innumerable peoples for Christ Our Lord.” But what made the man stand out was the manner in which he went about his business. Soon after he arrived in Madurai in 1606, de Nobili grasped what his colleague, a Portuguese soldier-turned-Jesuit, 36 years his senior, had failed to see. European missionaries were dismissed as unclean parangis (a variant of firangi) who ate beef, kept no caste distinctions, and reaped most of their converts from “polluted” communities. Their message, then, was tainted as one for the inferior orders. The older man had no qualms about dealing with the low, given his own working-class origins; de Nobili, however, with his exalted family credentials, his sophisticated education, and a desire to make the Gospel attractive to more than the peasantry, decided on a new way going forward. As he announced to a superior, “I will become a Hindu to save the Hindus.”

What followed was a fascinating experiment. De Nobili acquired not only a staggering knowledge of Tamil, but also Telugu and Sanskrit—a Brahmin convert even gave him access to the Vedas, though prejudice prevented him from seeing in them anything beyond “ridiculous legends and stories”. Soon, de Nobili began to live like a “native”: The Jesuit’s cassock was discarded for the garb of a sanyasi, and only food cooked by Brahmins was served to de Nobili on his leaf. He began to keep a distance from his colleague, establishing a veritable caste system between them—indeed, in 1619, when summoned by angry seniors to Goa, de Nobili refused even to eat with them. A new church was constructed (a coconut ceremoniously smashed at its founding) and there, seating was on the basis of status, so that low-born converts had to wait by the threshold while the high-born sat in the front. De Nobili preached the Bible, meanwhile, as a kind of lost Veda, all the time also building up connections with the high and mighty of the land.

Shrewd as this adaptive strategy was, it was also successful. Many Brahmins converted, as did a brother of Ramachandra Nayaka of Sendamangalam. In 1610, the Madurai mission had 60 converts, but, by the time he died, de Nobili’s flock numbered 4,000. The process was not altogether devoid of problems though. The Italian’s high-handedness provoked complaints from his colleague, and in Goa he was firmly told to suspend his controversial methods. Not only did de Nobili not listen, he made more enemies by going behind Goa’s back, leveraging connections in Rome and getting, in 1623, the Pope himself to declare support for the Madurai mission. In Madurai, meanwhile, Brahmins were not ignorant of de Nobili’s strategy, and while he was treated well in general by local rulers, a conservative backlash meant there were also times when he had to bear the brunt of their wrath, as in 1640, when he was thrown in prison.

De Nobili’s style provoked a debate about how Eastern peoples ought to be converted. He claimed that the tuft on the head (kudumi) and the sacred thread were merely social symbols, and converts could continue wearing them. His opponents, however, argued that conversion meant conversion into a European frame, in spirit as well as its outer manifestations. In the end, as it happened, they were the ones who succeeded, and de Nobili’s aristocratic overconfidence led to his downfall: In 1646, he was transferred out of Madurai, dying blind and upset 10 years later in Mylapore. It was a lonely end for a clever man with an insatiable zeal, and though his successes lingered for some decades, soon enough the taint he had tried so hard to expel came back to haunt the missionaries: They were parangis, defiled folk, and theirs was a faith only for the poor and weak.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 31 2018)


India is a mosaic of many curious tales. But very often, seemingly incongruous elements that reside in the realm of fable and myth end up lending an ironic congruence to the concrete world of men. Throughout Indian history, whenever politics has found itself at an awkward crossroads, a generous fabrication of mythology has helped ease the process. One prominent example is Shivaji’s—the Maratha warrior had emerged as a powerful force in the late 17th century, with armies, treasure, and swathes of territory at his command. But rivals painted him merely as an over-strong rebel, so that in addition to power, what he needed was legitimacy too. The answer to Shivaji’s woes came in 1674, when he decided to crown himself king, with classical ritual in full and extravagant display. A genealogy was invented connecting him to an ancient royal line, and retrospective rituals permitted him to take his place as a “pure” Kshatriya, when so far Brahmins had deemed him inferior in caste. It was a masterstroke: Shivaji now towered over other Maratha clans in status, while simultaneously alerting his Mughal enemies that he was no longer a “mountain rat”—he was an anointed, lawful monarch.

As a society too, India has been capable of negotiating disruptive changes through the invention of tradition. Reading scholar Richard H. Davis’ work recently reminded me of the bizarre, clever and typically Indian ways in which this was achieved. When Muslim might arrived in India in the form of invaders, a new chapter was inaugurated in the story of our subcontinent. The old order fell, and a different structure was fashioned. One way in which the elites on both sides tried to rationalize, in their respective world views, these painful changes is through what historian Aziz Ahmad called epics of conquest and resistance. Thus, for instance, we have Muslim accounts that exaggerated the “destruction of infidels”, when, in reality, even the terrifying Muhammad of Ghor’s coins prominently featured the “infidel” goddess Lakshmi, countered by Hindus with their own stories, the case of Padmavati preferring fire to the embrace of a Muslim being one such. Rhetoric was amplified on both sides, legends and tales competing for narrative dominance to come to grips with changes under way on the ground.

One such fascinating story from the 14th century features a Muslim woman recalled to this day by Hindus as Thulukka Nachiyar (literally, “Tughluq Princess”), who is said to have fallen in love with a Hindu god. The outline of the story is as follows: When Muslim troops from Delhi plundered temples in southern India, on their list was the great Vaishnava shrine at Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. Temple chronicles show that indeed idols were seized, and, in this story, the processional image of the deity is taken to Delhi. The reigning sultan consigns the idol to a storeroom, while a local Tamil woman, who had followed the troops, returns to Srirangam and informs the temple authorities of the precise whereabouts of their deity. Dozens of priests now make their way to court, where, after entertaining the sultan with a series of performances, they request the return of their lost idol. The cheerful Tughluq king is happy to grant them this, commanding his men to go to the storeroom and fetch Srirangam’s deity. Everyone is, at this point, rather pleased with the turn of events, and we have every hope of a happy ending.

This is where the twist occurs. It so happens that the sultan’s daughter had long before gone into the storeroom and collected the idol, taking it to her apartments and there playing with the deity as a doll. The implication, however, is that by dressing “him”, feeding him and garlanding him, as is done to deities in Hindu rituals, the princess was essentially worshipping the image, winning divine affection. When the appeal from the Srirangam party is heard, the deity puts her to sleep and agrees to return south, only for the Tughluq princess to wake up distraught—she hastens to catch up with the Brahmins, who meanwhile have split, one group hiding the idol in Tirupati. Arriving in Srirangam but not finding the deity even there, the princess perishes in the pangs of viraha (separation). Her sacrifice is not for nothing, though. When eventually the deity comes home, He commands the priests to recognize his Muslim consort, commemorated ever since in a painting within the temple. On his processional tour of the premises, to this day, the deity is offered north Indian food at this spot (including chapatis).

The story is a remarkable one, with an exact parallel in the Melkote Thirunarayanapuram temple in Karnataka, where, in fact, she has been enshrined as a veiled idol. Though it seems unlikely that a Tughluq princess actually came to the south head over heels in love with a deity, could it have been that there was a Muslim woman instrumental in having idols released from Delhi? Or is it, as Davis suggests, a “counter-epic” where the roles are reversed: Instead of a Muslim king chasing after Hindu princesses, we have a Muslim princess besotted with the Hindu divine. By accepting the concept of the Thulukka Nachiyar, within the temple, was a space created to locate the newcomer Muslim within the world of the orthodox Hindu? The truth might lie in a combination of these possibilities, but we can be sure that it is a colourful, revealing narrative with a splendid cast, telling us once again that while there were moments of crisis between India’s faiths, legend and myth allowed them to see eye to eye and move on to fresh ground—a lesson we would be wise to remember in our own contentious times.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 24 2018)


It might be sacrilege to make a declaration such as this but visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican last week, I was more than a little underwhelmed by the mood of the place. The famous ceiling of this famous building is, no doubt, exquisite, what with Michelangelo reluctantly giving up his sculptor’s tools to paint its frescoes, neck craned for a full four years to achieve this 16th century feat. But the overall climate of the building today is disappointing. Part of the blame rests with my guide who, two hours earlier, had started to fan anticipation, dinning endless rules into my head—we could not speak inside the chapel, no questions could be asked, and the only sentiment permitted was unsmiling solemnity, textured with reverence and awe. As it happened, the chapel was all crowd, sweat, and refractory chatter, not helped by guards on loudspeakers shepherding people down the aisles. There was no room to stand, and before my stipulated time had elapsed, I decided to decamp, choosing fresh air and the sun over Michelangelo’s monumental art.

The crowds I saw during my visit to Rome did leave me thinking, however, about the deep enchantment Italy sustains for the world at large, droves of tourists digging deep in their pockets for the pleasure of consuming its cultural heritage (mass perspiration notwithstanding). At about a tenth the size of India, Italy is home to five times as many museums, and hosts five times more tourists than we do in our own, more extensive portion of the world. And that is the puzzling part—we have the Taj Mahal and we have Hampi; there is culture and there is cuisine; there are forts and palaces; and there are jewels and infinite objects to enthrall. Most importantly, there are fascinating stories. The ingredients are there, in other words, and yet we fail—to succumb to a vulgar word—to “showcase” the best of our national inheritance. Where are India’s museums, I wondered, and why are there no crowds thronging ancient buildings in such large numbers that guides must hiss and fume when someone prefers the air over awe? Why, if the overcrowded Louvre can draw nine million visitors in a year, do our museums attract less than 100,000 visitors?

It is estimated that India is home to 800-1,000 museums, a minor figure when even our former colonizers in Britain own more than twice that number, while our current rival, China, has proactively established 4,000. Italy has a museum for every 13,000 citizens; India has perhaps one for every 1.3 million. It is another matter that most would not complain about this shortfall given the dreary experience that a visit to our museums involves—besides lines of restless schoolchildren compelled to tour dusty halls and look interested, we have a problem in the way we run institutions of art and culture. Some of it is bureaucracy—the Union ministry of culture oversees a large number of museums, but there are many under other ministries, not to speak of dozens run by local authorities. Budgetary allocations are abysmal—this year, the culture minister has Rs2,843 crore to disburse (about the same as the cost of an extravagant statue planned in Mumbai), of which museums will receive an even smaller slice after allocations to archives, the archaeological survey and other departments are made. In comparison, Italy earned €200 million (around Rs1,600 crore) through sales of entry tickets alone.

Ticketing is a complicated subject. On the one hand is the argument that art and heritage must remain accessible—Rs20, in a poor country, may already seem like a lot. But if there is no revenue of significance from tickets, and if funding from “above” is inadequate, we can at best watch and sigh as our cultural resources crumble into dust—two years ago, it was discovered that 24 monuments had gone “missing” altogether. Occasionally, of course, there are bursts of energy, as when hundreds of crores were invested for the “state of the art” Bihar Museum, or after a generous allocation was made for the Indian Museum in Kolkata in 2014 (where, ironically, millennia-old objects were damaged by inexpert handling only a year later). And then there are private museums, though how accessible these will be to modestly heeled audiences is uncertain. The question is, do we allow cheaper access while the institutions themselves collapse, when smarter ticketing, and the superior quality this ensures, might actually increase the number of visitors? Surely museum passes could be priced at least at par with the average movie ticket, or will the piety associated with cheap entry survive as a smokescreen for our collective failure to do a better job?

There have been encouraging sounds about “rescuing” India’s museums through public-private partnerships, though attempts at pulling these off have not succeeded. One group in Bengaluru, which was to develop the iconic Venkatappa Art Gallery, backed by the city’s leading philanthropists, eventually pulled out two years ago after protests that their intention was to turn the decrepit institution into a “wine and cheese” place. The project fell through, while under leaky roofs with peeling plaster, a set of people certainly felt they had gained a moral victory, oblivious perhaps to a greater loss. That, then, is the sad reality of India’s squandered cultural resources and undersold historical inheritance—in the Sistine Chapel or at the Louvre, it is the want of room that spurs an urge to walk out. In India, home to the most phenomenal of wonders, the question, given the state of our museums, is whether, in the first place, most of us would even consider walking in.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 17 2018)


Between 1816-20, when the British officers Benjamin Ward and Peter Conner conducted their geographical survey of southern Kerala, they found 15,000 groves in the region dedicated to local gods and conserved in the name of the divine. Known as kavus, these sacred sites varied in size but served essentially as patches of hallowed forest amidst swathes of territory exploited and tamed forever by man. The kavu in Mannarasala, for example, still covers 16 acres of land, preserving in its shade not only numerous species of plant and bird, but also thousands of venerated serpent idols. Elsewhere, a grove might be simply two-three trees, a few square feet cordoned off around it, pale remnants of what were originally more glorious spaces. That these groves are disappearing is old news—outside Kerala, in Coorg, for instance, the extent of devara kadus (Gods’ forests) came down to less than half in the last century, from 15,506 acres in 1905 to just under 6,300 acres in 1985. This has been the fate too of groves elsewhere in the subcontinent, from the saranas (“sanctuaries”) of Madhya Pradesh to the protected woods that the first inspector general of forests found in the Khasi Hills in 1897.

What sparked my interest in these “hot spots of biodiversity”, as some describe them, was ancient lore. For Malayalis, the grove is a familiar concept. Legend has it that after the mythical hero Parasurama reclaimed Kerala from the sea, the Brahmins he settled along the coast were challenged by serpent-worshipping Naga tribes. Eventually, after a great deal of violence put the immigrants to flight, a compromise was effected by the warrior sage: The Brahmins and Nagas would live together, provided, as one authority put it, the “colonists” set aside “a corner of every occupied compound to the abode of the serpent gods”. And so it was that kavus were first established, “left untouched by the knife or the spade, thus enabling the underwood and creepers to grow luxuriantly therein” ever since. So too, goes the story, the Namboodiris and Nairs, descendants of the two parties, began to dwell in peace, united in their protection of these groves and in the worship of the serpent gods believed to reside within. Over time, it became a mark of respectability and exalted lineage to come from a household with its own kavu, groves appearing, meanwhile, also beside temples and shrines.

Without romanticizing the motive behind these groves—some see them as purely environmental concerns, proof of wise ancestors seeking a balance with nature—it is clear that kavus in Kerala did play a role in maintaining the ecological health of the countryside. One official in pre-independence Travancore came across a kavu (“an interesting oasis in the open maidan”) in which he counted “129 trees of 17 different kinds”, from the jack and mango to the poison nut and bitter melon. Decades later, in the early 1990s, Madhav Gadgil and Subash Chandran, in the course of their research, also discovered threatened species that had survived in obscure Kerala groves. Religion and associated taboos were essential in preserving these sites, though. The 19th century botanist, Francis Buchanan, whom one would expect to have rejoiced at the sight of such “oases”, scoffed in Karnataka that they were merely religious “contrivances” locals invented to prevent the state from claiming public land. In Kerala today, serpent gods can be moved with mantras from their kavus and established elsewhere, on cement platforms in namesake groves, clearing the way for the axe to finally go where it was forbidden.

This, tragically, is what happened in my own ancestral place. There were half-a-dozen kavus on the estate. A great one, more than an acre in size, also housed an immense pond, water collecting during the rains and serving nearby fields well in times of terrible heat. Half a century ago, when a biscuit factory—of all things—was proposed there, my ancestors feared their gods enough to decline the offer. Some years ago, however, the priests conveniently moved the serpent deities into the principal family shrine, a few bushes hastily planted as a makeshift kavu. The original place, where legend said our goddess went to bathe, had no divine protectors now, no deity to secretly swing on its vines. Where mighty trees once stood, there were now saplings of rubber, the skies visible from the ground when all we could see looking up, not long ago, was an impenetrable blanket of green, rich and wild. There was, then, an ecological intention behind the groves perhaps, but it was fear of divine wrath that fortified the kavu against the avarice of men—with Parasurama’s deities gone, it was the god of profit who came to reign.

But instead of sentimentally lamenting the loss of kavus, we can learn from the past and build new groves for the present, this time seeking to protect them without halos provided by any gods. In the piece of the ancestral estate that my mother inherited, dozens are the trees my parents have planted, throwing out the ruinous rubber that had replaced towering old jacks and teaks. Birds, whose sounds we had forgotten, are making their way back, and while there are no serpents from grandmother’s tales, there are plants with flowers and trees with fruit. It is not a garden in the conventional sense but a chaotic patch of foliage and growth, an attempt at reviving what was foolishly destroyed. That, perhaps, is what we should seek to do in our own little ways—have corners of green in every maidan and every plot, in villages as well as the urban compound, growing free and seeking again to shroud the skies in the splendour of leaf.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 10 2018)


Pliny the Elder, who lived 2,000 years ago, was a man with an interesting mind and very many admirable gifts. It could, however, be argued that on certain topics, an overmastering desire to sound singularly authoritative caused even this venerable philosopher to spout what must necessarily be described as balderdash. Menstruation—a topic as alien to free and sensible discussion then as it is today—was one such subject. For, according to Pliny, this flow of blood constantly threatened to unleash grave, terrible catastrophe upon the world. If, by some horrific accident, menstrual blood touched earth, “seeds in gardens are dried up”, “the fruit of trees falls off”, and whole fields could turn forever barren. Beehives were instantly destroyed, and if dogs went anywhere near menstrual blood, it could drive them mad, infecting their bites with “an incurable poison”. A reflection in the mirror was adequate for the mirror itself to lose its shine forever, and such, reported Pliny in his Natural History, was the calamitous power of the menstruating female that “hailstorms…whirlwinds, and lightning even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly courses are upon her”.

Pliny was not alone in the ancient world for sincerely believing all kinds of nonsense where the female body was concerned. The physician Hippocrates declared that men didn’t menstruate because they could flush out impurities through sweat; women, as inferior beings, had less efficient bodies, and were compelled, therefore, to bleed. Aristotle, meanwhile, was certain that the ideal human body was male—what was not male was a deformity, and the female was one such deformity whose body had altogether peculiar functions. In China, the seventh century doctor Sun Simiao was somewhat more intelligent in approaching the subject from a medical perspective, though some of his treatments for menstrual ailments do not necessarily inspire confidence—featuring the consumption of beetles, horse-flies and wingless cockroaches, with a dash of ginger and pepper, presumably to help it all go down. Not to be left behind, our ancestors in ancient India found their own logic to understand menstruation: The king of gods, Indra, needed to distribute his accumulation of sin, and while part of it was deposited with the earth, the seas, and trees, one portion was accepted by women, fated ever since to bleed. The only pearl of wisdom, perhaps, in this tale is that yet again, for the doings of a man, it was the woman who had to pay the price.

It took a long time for the world to make up its mind on what precisely menstruation was all about. Not too many centuries ago, the red taint was married to ethnic prejudice to serve other purposes—it was commonly believed in medieval Europe that Jewish men tended to menstruate. As late as the 19th century, menstruation was considered a “disease” by the most serious of doctors, with the potential to escalate into comprehensive madness. In societies across the world—from villages in Turkey to hamlets in Nepal’s hills to little towns in Spain, where bleeding women may not cure pork—menstruation was perceived as a “dirty” function, a polluting reminder of human infirmity, dealt with by secluding women and enveloping them in rules and endless regulations. They could not enter kitchens, touch certain items, look at the moon, look at themselves—and so the list continues, turning women into outcasts, though formally they were “getting rest” . It was, of course, the genius of some that they succeeded in defying this worst of traditions in their own small ways—a Namboodiri Brahmin woman in Kerala wrote in her memoirs that while books were prohibited in their life of strict purdah in the early 20th century, their periods were the only time when, hidden from the gaze of men, they could finally devour those magazines and political pamphlets bearing electrifying news from a changing world.

But where there was a culture of spouting nonsense in the not-too-recent past, today we are still fighting what is a culture of silence. One study last year found that only 55% of women in India understood menstruation as a wholly natural process, while only 48% had any knowledge of it before menarche. Last August, a teenager in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, killed herself after she bled in class, and statistics on girls dropping out of school for want of toilets are all too familiar in the subcontinent. One needs only to look around oneself—a year ago, this columnist’s aunt would not enter the room where her father’s body lay before cremation because she was menstruating. In school, the lack of sex education meant that we boys thought sanitary pads were a variant of the diaper—because girls were not just silly but also incontinent. Clearly, it was still possible to continue in that tradition of Pliny and Hippocrates as recently as the last decade, and my own ignorance as a 13-year-old was demolished only with a smack (and then a talk) when I tried to shame my older sister by asking about her “diaper”.

There is, of course, a slow decline in squeamishness about menstruation, but there is also irony in rich measure: Where a movie about a man who makes sanitary napkins gets tax exemption in a state, the actual product itself is deemed a “luxury item”. While there is a goddess who periodically bleeds—and whose menstrual cloth is every devotee’s dream possession—there are millions of girls who must hide away when their “time of the month” arrives. The only reassurance, then, is that barriers have been broken in the past and we can count on women again to stand up where society is hesitant and afraid (or full of foolish characters, like I once was). What men could seek, in the meantime perhaps, is to rise beyond parroting aimless lines about the glories of motherhood and the divinity of the female, and learn about things that involve flesh and blood—things like the spot that appears every month on the menstrual cloth, which once threw even Pliny the Elder off the mark.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 24 2018)


Rukmini Devi Arundale was nine years old when she met her future husband at a gathering in Madras (now Chennai). The year was 1913 and George Arundale had been, till recently, a college principal in Varanasi, a position he vacated to serve the Theosophical Society on a permanent basis. Already in his mid-30s at the time of their maiden encounter, the Englishman could not have expected that in only seven years’ time he would provoke a colossal uproar in quiet, respectable Madras. For, in 1920, the Theosophist proposed marriage to the Brahmin girl he knew as a child. For two and a half decades, they were together, both of them celebrated figures of their time. But by the eve of his demise in 1945, it was already patent to many that between husband and wife, it was the former Miss Shastri whose legacy was destined to endure and shine. Theosophy brought them together, but Rukmini Devi’s work had evolved well beyond that universe, taking form in an institution celebrated to this day in a name synonymous with all Indian arts deemed “classical”: Kalakshetra.

Rukmini Devi, whose death anniversary it is today, could have led a very different life. Had it not been for her father’s intellectual leanings, she might have married a fellow Brahmin and settled into a life featuring not theosophy but domesticity. Had she not, after her marriage, met the ballerina Anna Pavlova on a boat to Australia, she might never have received the advice that motivated her to step on to the dance stage back in India. The Theosophists, meanwhile, imagined her as their “World Mother”, the female counterpart to the role envisioned for Jiddu Krishnamurti. Later in life, prime minister Morarji Desai offered her a chance to serve as president, an opportunity she politely declined. Her life revolved, instead, around dance, and of her commitment to revitalizing India’s artistic heritage there can be no doubt. There remain, however, concerns about the shape in which old traditions were reincarnated, though, for every critic of her cause, there are also those who believe Rukmini Devi “rescued” a portion of our heritage just before it was fully destroyed.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of transformation for traditional dance in the south, and what we today call Bharatanatyam, with its “classical” connotations, was the inherited legacy of the Devadasis and their matrilineal communities. Victorian officials described them as nautch girls, and the collapse of patronage at courts such as Tanjore (annexed by the British) plunged many of these women into the very depths of poverty. Some descended into prostitution, their stigma tarnishing the community as a whole, as well as its creative pursuits. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the daughter of a Devadasi, exemplified one kind of reform—she obtained a modern education, a “proper” marriage, and, becoming a legislator, argued that art “at the expense of good morals and health of the race” was pointless: The Devadasi order had to be abolished. Others, like E. Krishna Iyer, were more sympathetic. “Should the art be penalized for a defect of society?” he asked. “Is it really the arts that lead to concubinage?” The Devadasis themselves made an effort to articulate their interests in one voice. But it was too late—their dance had to be “saved”. From them.

Rukmini Devi played the leading role here. She was not insensitive to the Devadasis (“The corruption that killed them was…of society in general,” she said) but also felt that sadir, as the dance was known, thirsted for reinvention. As one authority put it, “She was not delinking a tradition or sounding its death-knell, but merely taking on an existing tradition and moving it into a more public domain.” This meant innovation—the melam ensemble that accompanied the performance was parked on the side, preserving the limelight solely for the dancer. The costumes (“very untidy” with “poor” colours) were modified, the stage itself lit up in modern light, with props, backgrounds, and, most interestingly, the image of Nataraja, till then never propitiated in this fashion. The “bad associations” Rukmini Devi saw were expunged—sensuousness was prohibited, bhakti or devotion taking its place to cement dance with respectability. Where there was once sadir with its “fallen” Devadasis, there was now Bharatanatyam, bursting with Sanskritic purity.

In 1935, despite objections from her guru that one year of learning was inadequate, Rukmini Devi performed on stage, becoming one of the first non-Devadasis to dance in public. As one critic notes, “Once Rukmini Devi demonstrated that the emerging middle class was willing to accept her…the field was open…. The legitimacy that she claimed was based on her level of social acceptance.” In 1936, she founded what would become Kalakshetra, recognized now as an “institution of national importance” in India. The venture suffered trials of its own—after her husband died, she had to vacate the Theosophical Society premises and, as decades passed, Kalakshetra saw its own politics and feuds. There also remained voices that criticized the institutionalization of a dance form and the standardization it engendered. But for all this, Kalakshetra became the pre-eminent nursery of “revived” Bharatanatyam, students arriving from all over the world to embrace this “ancient” Indian dance as well as the woman who had helped give it its contemporary form.

When Rukmini Devi died in 1986, many were the glowing obituaries that followed, but there was also an evaluation of all that she had achieved. As the editor of the influential Sruti magazine argued, “Her unique contribution was to destroy what was crude and vulgar in the inherited traditions of dance and to replace them with sophisticated and refined taste.” In this, the dance form received a new lease of life, going on to earn international approval, even if the dancers who had preserved it for centuries were left by the wayside, their sustained devotion reduced to words like “vulgar”. There was injustice in all this, and yet Rukmini Devi was important—as someone once said, it was thanks to her that sadir could live on as Bharatanatyam. If, in the 1930s, there had been nobody to pick up the pieces as they fell, would the dance have survived at all?

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 17 2018)


In 1575, authorities in the port of Surat prevented a woman called Gulbadan Begum from embarking on her pilgrimage to Mecca for an entire year. Negotiations dragged on, and eventually, she had to bribe with the entire city of Valsad in order to board her boat. It was no surprise that the begum paid in town, not coin—Gulbadan was, after all, the daughter of emperor Babur and aunt to mighty Akbar, then sovereign of all of upper India. It was, however, revealing that even a senior representative of the imperial harem found herself applying for leave to sail, for the truth was that the Mughal emperor’s power met its limit at the beach. It was, instead, the writ of the king of Portugal that prevailed in the Arabian Sea, and without Portuguese permission, no princess, of whatever consequence, could depart India’s shores. Even as Akbar dismissed the Portuguese as “chickens”, Mughal ships quietly paid to carry on their business—the Europeans might have been overpowered were they on land, but on international waters their mastery of naval warfare ensured that even the imperial family gnashed its teeth but, ultimately, fell in line.

In 1613, during Jahangir’s reign, however, the Portuguese, already imperilled by the arrival of the Dutch and English, went a step too far, hastening their decline in India. The emperor, to be sure, was a friendly, curious man—when the English presented him two mastiffs, he was so thrilled he had the dogs carried around in palanquins—and he might have allowed things to carry on as before. But that September, Portuguese provocation was so brazen that only firm action could restore Mughal prestige. The underlying issues were many. Politically, the ignominy of seeking licences was a demonstration of the limits of Mughal power, always somewhat embarrassing when the emperor was officially “Conqueror of the World”. Then there were religious concerns: The Portuguese were such fervent Christians that each cartaz (licence) carried images of Jesus and Mary—a troubling detail for Muslims compelled to buy these documents in order to do the haj. In 1613, a Hindu lady also got embroiled in these Mughal-Portuguese dynamics, her wrath bringing down the full force of the empire, ringing the death knell of the latter’s long-standing power at sea.

The lady in question was Mariam uz-Zamani, though she is often popularly called Jodhabai, the Rajput princess who was Akbar’s wife and Jahangir’s mother. While conventional depictions are somewhat limited—she is beautiful and regal in a tedious, overblown sense—in actual fact, the dowager was a formidable woman. Described by a contemporary as “a great adventurer”, she towered over phenomenal business enterprises even while sequestered in the Mughal harem. At court, as scholar Ellison B. Findly notes, she was one of four seniormost figures and the only woman to hold a military rank of 12,000 cavalry, entitling her to the right to issue firmans of her own. She was also the proprietor of the Rahimi, believed to be the largest Indian vessel trading in the Red Sea, displacing 1,500 tonnes, its mast some 44 yards high. In addition to goods worth millions, the dowager empress regularly conveyed Muslim pilgrims to Mecca on her ship—this, when she wasn’t actually funding the construction of mosques, even while she remained herself a practising Hindu.

In 1613, however, the Portuguese decided it was a clever idea to seize and subsequently burn the Rahimi. The action was unprecedented, and, given who the owner of the vessel was, the insult landed straight on the otherwise cheerful, opium-loving Jahangir. The whole affair was meant to gain leverage at a time when the Portuguese were threatened by competition from other European companies. But as it happened, the move backfired. As one observer noted, Jahangir immediately had Daman besieged, blocked all Portuguese trade in Surat, and “hath likewise taken order for the seizing of all Portingals (sic) and their goods within his kingdoms”. Furthermore, the emperor “sealed up their church doors and hath given order that they shall no more use the exercise of their religion in these parts”.

Rattled, the Portuguese made amends by offering Rs3 lakh as compensation, but on the condition that the Mughals expel the English from Agra. Jahangir refused to blink, however, calling the Portuguese bluff, and welcoming soon afterwards in 1615 Sir Thomas Roe, the famous English ambassador. “The Portuguese folly in the capture of the Rahimi, then,” writes Findly, “tipped the scales in favour of the English.”

But it was not as if the newcomers were granted a red-carpet reception—on the contrary, the playing field was merely levelled somewhat. Mariam uz-Zamani herself wasn’t sympathetic to the English: In 1611, after an Englishman outbid her at the indigo market in Bayana, she exerted enough pressure on her son to ensure that Roe’s unofficial predecessor, William Hawkins—the “English Khan” who till then was friendly with Jahangir—had to pack his bags and leave for good. In any case, if there was any doubt that the emperor’s mother was a force to reckon with, the affair around the Rahimi dispelled such thinking. And in 1623, when Mariam uz-Zamani died—still immensely rich and powerful—due honour was given to her by burying her in a mausoleum close to that equally redoubtable man to whom she was once married: emperor Akbar.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 10 2018)


In 1883, when the Kamasutra first made its appearance in English, European readers of Vatsyayana’s treatise hadn’t the faintest idea that its publisher—the Hindoo Kama Shastra Society—was, in fact, an entirely non-existent body. Ostensibly headquartered in Varanasi, with links to London and New York, the “Society” was actually a work of fiction, born from the minds of a couple of British officials and their associates in faraway India. That the translation, despite its infirmities, was indeed of Vatsyayana’s 1,600-year-old disquisition was not doubted. But even as the Kamasutra made its way into the great libraries of the West, the true identity of its translator remained shrouded for years behind this fictitious organization.

There were several reasons why Sir Richard Francis Burton was paranoid about advertising his name with the book—British laws on obscenity were so draconian that printing anything even vaguely sexual could show writers the doors to prison. For the Kamasutra, then, it took some creative thinking to evade Victorian prudery. The Sanskrit word yoni, for instance, was used in the English text for the vagina, even when Vatsyayana himself never used that word in the actual Sanskrit original. But the gamble paid off—in time, the bogus Kama Shastra Society’s translation would become, as one scholar notes, “one of the most pirated books in the English language”, registered across the world as the oldest and foremost classical text on all matters pertaining to love and human sexuality. This, even when it wasn’t exactly sincere to Vatsyayana’s moral outlook from centuries before.

The loosely held opinion that the Kamasutra is a catalogue for boudoir gymnastics also owes much to this context: The pronounced disapproval with which topics around sexuality were viewed meant that its most colourful components acquired, ironically, a life of their own, feelings of taboo fuelling a mischievous appetite for the text. In actual fact, though, the Kamasutra is more than a manual for love-making—of the seven books that constitute its body, only the second is strictly concerned with methods of human congress. Burton, bent as he was on “the sexual liberation of Victorian society”, seems to have highlighted these while watering down other elements. But despite such interventions, even in that first 1883 translation, of 175-odd pages, Burton could devote only 40 to this theme. The remainder of the Kamasutra, in fact, offers a much wider series of discussions for the benefit of its wealthy and primarily male audience, covering not only sex but also matters of aesthetics and more.

Book 5, for example, concerns itself with extramarital affairs and how one ought to go about getting in bed with another’s spouse, while another section in the same book investigates, tantalizingly but ultimately disappointingly, “Why Women Get Turned Off”. In Book 1, we learn that if men of culture want to remain men of culture, they must allocate time every five-10 days to the removal of all their body hair. Married women are generally not to be seduced, we are taught, but if it helps to gain influence over a powerful husband or even perhaps to erase him from the world and acquire his wealth, it is acceptable to bed the wife as a weapon for one’s personal ambitions and avarice. In these sections, then, the Kamasutra might well have been inspired by cold, calculating Chanakya and his utterly pragmatic Arthashastra.

The writer Hanif Kureishi once similarly noted that the Kamasutra is less like Lord Byron’s heady romances and closer to P.G. Wodehouse’s wit in much of its tone. “One can wager on kisses,” argues Vatsyayana, for “whichever of the partners first gets to the other’s lower lip wins.” In order to seduce a woman, a man must be prepared to go flower-picking with her, to play in her doll house, and, perhaps most essentially, cultivate her closest friend, who, in an ideal society, is her wet-nurse’s daughter. Where courtesans are concerned, Vatsyayana advises them to avoid by all means patrons with worms in their stool—or whose breath “smells of crows”. They must also, he warns, never surrender reason, feeling free to manipulate men for money and goods. And if a patron were no longer capable, of providing said money and goods, he was to be discarded. One suggested route was to alienate him with markedly unpleasant behaviour: “Curling the lip in a sneer” and “stamping on the ground” promised success, evidently. “Ignoring him” was also an option.

There are, however, parts of the Kamasutra that make for highly uncomfortable reading, especially in this time when #MeToo has sparked such troubled introspection; sections that, as scholar Wendy Doniger notes, seem to justify the seduction-by-sexual-assault school of thinking. So while one can laugh at the Kamasutra’s assertion that the male “instrument” (ideally pierced) smeared with honey, powdered thornapple and black pepper provides divine ecstasies to the female, one cannot quite digest that a man can confidently proceed with intercourse with a woman when “her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes”. Where at one point he is clear that “a girl who is asleep, weeping or absent” cannot be a bride, Vatsyayana still allows a wedding technique that involves getting the lady drunk, and taking her “maidenhead” while she is unconscious. Of course, given its age and context, it is not surprising that the Kamasutra speaks in a male voice with erroneous male preconceptions. Compared to contemporaneous texts like the Manusmriti, however, the Kamasutra is replete with commentaries by women—and it recognizes the right to pleasure for the female too.

Vatsyayana’s approach to the third gender, on homosexuality and bisexuality, also makes for gripping reading (and interpretation), so that in the overall analysis of the work—a very good recent translation being A.N.D. Haksar’s—one feels partly surprised, partly amused, but always certainly interested. For all its sometimes outlandish views on life, marriage and intimacy, the Kamasutra remains a thoroughly fascinating work of art and cultural heritage, one we must read for more than a mere list of bedroom positions. That, in the end, is the secret of its enduring appeal.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 03 2018)


Perhaps if Meerabai of Mewar had jumped into a fire, she too might have had armies of 21st century men prepared to smash glass and destroy public property in the name of protecting her honour. After all, nothing rouses patriarchal masculine pride more than illusions of stoic sacrifice by unreal beauties, who, between managing their heavy jewels and rich skirts, spout tedious lines about valour and fortitude. So where (the possibly fictional) Padmavati, by dying the way she is supposed to have, went down as the right kind of tragic heroine, the definitely real Meerabai presents a minor problem by refusing to bow out in the correct fashion. On the contrary, far from yearning to kill herself after her husband succumbed on the battlefield, Meerabai declared firmly, “I will not be a sati.” She chose, awkwardly instead, to live for decades more, singing praises of her favourite deity, Krishna, while rejecting pressures from the muscular guardians of Rajput society. While patriarchy accommodated her as an icon of feminine, god-loving devotion, in her own verses, we find also a lady with a mind of her own; one who stood up to all established norms of honour, and to the authority of every mortal man around her.

Meerabai was born at the dawn of the 16th century in Merta in Rajasthan. According to hagiographies composed by her earliest admirers, this motherless child was raised in her grandfather’s household, and from a tender age showed great affection for Krishna. Around 1516, when in her late teens, she married Bhojraj, son of the legendary Rana Sangha of Mewar. Their complicated union did not last, however, for in the next decade, Meerabai lost her husband and her footing in his royal household. Her refusal to commit sati might have added to the erosion of status that came automatically with widowhood, but she did not care about being perceived as an inconvenient woman. As one of her verses, addressed, evidently, to her husband’s heir, declares: “Rana, to me this slander is sweet…Mira’s lord is (Krishna): let the wicked burn in a furnace.” There is no doubt that Meerabai was passionate in her love for God—some of her greatest works are those expressing deep sorrow at her “separation” from her divine beloved. But there is also no doubt that hers was a voice that challenged the world, refusing the control her husband’s relations sought to exercise in the name of their own prestige and her patent lack of aristocratic reserve.

Some of this resistance is encapsulated in Nabhadas’ Bhaktamal, composed soon after Meerabai’s time. “Modesty in public, the chains of family life/Mira shed both for the Lifter of Mountains,” the saint writes, for instance. So too she had “no inhibitions” and was “totally fearless”. “She cringed before none, she beat love’s drum.” In other words, far from leading an unobtrusive life in widow’s garb or fitting into the role of a pativrata (devoted wife), as Padmavati is supposed to have done, Meerabai engaged freely with other devotees and moved in spaces not ordinarily permitted to women. Her interlocutors, furthermore, included a diverse cast of men, from backgrounds that did not make them ideal companions for a Rajput widow. Where custom demanded social invisibility of her, Meerabai chose the opposite, further enraging her family. Still, she did not care—“I don’t like your strange world, Rana,” she records. “A world where there are no holy men, and all the people are trash.” Indeed, in the face of her resolve, there was even an attempt to poison her, but our poet was uncowed: “Rana,” she announced, “nobody can prevent me from going to the saints. I don’t care what the people say.”

Eventually, Meerabai was cast out and became even more determined in her ways. “Fools sit on thrones,” she sang, while “Wise men beg for a little bread.”Elsewhere she proclaims: “If Rana is angry, he can keep his kingdom/But if God is offended…I will wither,” making clear where her loyalties resided. “She danced,” writes Bhakta Dhruvadas, “with anklebells on her feet and with castanets in her hands. In the purity of her heart, she met the devotees of God, and realized the pettiness of the world.” Much had to be given up, but she did so readily in the pursuit of her calling. “What I paid,” writes Meerabai, “was my social body, my town body, my family body, and all my inherited jewels.” With Krishna as her focus, however, she was able to survive every loss and become one with the people. She would sing his songs and, through him, be also her own person.

In due course, Meerabai became a travelling saint, an outcast where she was once a princess. Her satsangs were attended by many, but the path was riddled with privations and tests—there are even those within the Bhakti tradition who challenged her or sought to take advantage of this woman on her own. But she survived, dying on her own terms in Dwarka by the middle of the century (and not in a blazing flame). Her story has since found several takers—Mahatma Gandhi saw an exemplar of non-violent resistance, while Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi highlighted Meerabai’s religiosity at the cinema. But just as importantly, in what is often forgotten, Meerabai also “disowned, defied and subverted the…values associated with powerful and entrenched institutions—family, marriage, caste, clan, royalty and even the realm of bhakti.” She threw off the weight of expectations from every quarter, and painstakingly embraced only that which brought her closer to God. Passion, flaws, rejection and greatness were all woven into this mortal one, remembered to this day by that fascinating, immortal name, Meerabai of Mewar. And so she went down as the woman she truly was, refusing to become another Padmavati, that paragon of monochrome glory.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 20 2018)


It is tempting to wonder if Swami Vivekananda might have achieved his enduring appeal had he chosen to remain a “Vividishinanda”, or even a “Sachchidananda”, at the time of his defining visit to the US. These were, after all, names he preferred at various points, before finally confirming, in 1893, the label by which the world remembers him.

“Vivekananda” certainly rolls better off the tongue than the other options, but significantly, it is also the name by which this peerless Bengali monk has been appropriated by practically every political camp in contemporary India, to deploy in support of even antithetical motives. To those whose blood is not red but saffron, he was a champion of Hindu pride. Those, on the other hand, who abhor majoritarian impulses, also point to the very same man, in whose preachings may be found endorsements of a liberal nature. Veritably, this iconic thinker-saint, whose birth anniversary it was on 12 January, has emerged as everybody’s favourite, precisely because he can be different things to different people.

Vivekananda’s story is well established: born as Narendranath into a bhadralok (genteel) family in Kolkata, a promising academic career, his encounter with the spiritual master Ramakrishna, and his transformation thereon as not only an architect of modern Hindu thought but also as a messenger for India itself. What firmly confirmed him as a force, however, was his famous address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As his Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, remarked, “it may be said that when he began to speak” at that 1893 gathering, “it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus”. By the time he had finished his monumental address, “Hinduism had been created”.

This modern rendition of ancient traditions entitled him to honour, but some offer fantastical tales that heralded much earlier the certainty of distinction. He was Shiva incarnate because, as a child, the only way to calm his mischief was to pour “cold water on his head and simultaneously (chant) the name of Shiva”. When a snake slithered into Narendranath’s room while he meditated, so admiring was the reptile that it sat still, utterly transfixed. These stories served their purpose in romanticizing Vivekananda’s work with magical, god-ordained destiny, but we can safely conclude that they are entirely apocryphal.

The philosophy he upheld was a refashioned Advaita Vedanta. But esoteric concerns aside, what electrified minds was his blending of religious reawakening with national reinvigoration. After generations of inferiority complex fed by a colonial state—that India was rotten and devoid of civilizational value—Vivekananda refused to argue on conventional terms. “Let others,” he declared, “talk of politics…of the immense wealth poured in by trade, of the power and spread of commercialism, of the glorious fountain of physical liberty.” The “Hindu mind” did not care—India’s mission was not to count coins, focused as it was on “the evolution of spiritual humanity”.

This formula emphasizing spirituality was not original, but where Vivekananda differed from previous reformers—who too sought to restore confidence but whose message circulated within the elite—was in his conviction that the masses needed awakening, and that religion was the medium for it. “Before flooding India with socialistic or political ideas,” he argued, “first deluge the land with spiritual ideas.” That he travelled the length of this vast country, and to places as distant as Nagasaki and New York, further energized his cause.

His spiritual ideas were derived from Sanskrit philosophy, even though its dissemination was not to remain in the language of philosophers. “It is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics,” he observed. Things would have to be simplified, translated into vernaculars, and “fiery” missionaries enlisted to transport this message. Old movements such as the Bhakti of popular worship had to be discarded. While in Chicago he highlighted divine love, in India he saw Bhakti as making the nation “a race of women!” Odisha, for example, was “a land of cowards; and Bengal,” he admonished, “has almost lost all sense of manliness”.

While not violent, Vivekananda envisioned Hinduism as a proactive faith and not one that remained complacent in disorganized variety. Such a reinvention of Hinduism, he affirmed, was the key to “awaken the national consciousness”. Internal differences had to be weeded out, because “the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, (and) coordination of wills”.

Reformers from below, for instance, were not to show aggression against orthodox Brahminism. An example Vivekananda cited was the American blacks. “Before the abolition, these poor negroes were the property of somebody, and…(were) looked after…Today they are the property of nobody. Their lives are of no value.” So, too, in India, despite injustices of caste, it was unwise to attempt to push the elite out of the way, crippling unity. Besides, “To the non-Brahmin castes I say…you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning?…Why do you fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck..than you?” Despite problematic pronouncements as this one in 1897, to his global audience, Vivekananda’s voice was refreshingly open. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true”—a message highlighted by liberal Hindus to challenge the often physical violence unleashed against minorities in India today.

There were in Vivekananda’s message contradictions, and indeed he may have had more than one message. In his own time, however, these did not seem like contradictions at all. He simply spoke to different people in different ways. To Indians battling caste, speaking multiple languages, and with regional identities, his purpose was to engender national unity by reinventing Hinduism. To those abroad, his mission was to present Hinduism not as that tangled jungle of superstition the British saw, but as a mature, magnificent faith. Consistency wasn’t perhaps Vivekananda’s strong point, but, in the end, it was also precisely his inconsistency that made him such an appealing figure to such large numbers of people in India as well as abroad.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 13 2018)


She lies buried amidst sepulchres that house the remains of many who are still famous. There is Jim Morrison on the premises, the American rock legend whom trains of tourists come to pay homage, like pilgrims bearing flowers. Edith Piaf, the waif who sang her way to greatness, finds her peace nearby, as does Frederic Chopin, the composer whose pickled heart is in Warsaw but whose body dissolves in the French capital. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson rests here, and in the vicinity there is a man believed to have been sired by Napoleon. Oscar Wilde’s sculpted grave competes with Marcel Proust’s neat bed of stone, and many more still are the artists, writers, and persons of esteem who crowd the hillside cemetery that is Père Lachaise in Paris. And yet, between them all, under a platform of rugged rock, lies this tragic Indian woman. Her name and cause have been largely forgotten, but since 1858, she has been here, longer than many of her revered neighbours. Tourists walk by with cameras, oblivious to her unmarked square existence. But every now and then there is a stray visitor who arrives on a quest: to locate the final resting place of that remarkable woman, the last queen of Awadh.

I was that visitor a few days ago, when I trekked up Paris’ most famous graveyard to look for this forgotten tomb. The lady appears in yellowed old books by several names. She was to some Malika Kishwar, while others knew her as Janab-i Aliyah, Her Sublime Excellency, mother to the ruler of “Oude”, Wajid Ali Shah. In 1856, when the British deposed this nawab from his ancestral seat in Lucknow, his family departed for colonial Calcutta, with all the money they could gather and what dignity they had left. But while the son (a “crazy imbecile” in the eyes of his sneering oppressors) prepared to fade quietly into history, the mother was determined to win back that which was her family’s by right. That very year, this woman who knew little beyond her sequestered palace, set foot on a ship, determined to sail to England so she might speak—woman to woman—to the English queen in person. After all, declared the middle-aged begum, Victoria was “also a mother”; she would recognize the despair her people had unleashed, and restore to the House of Awadh territory, titles, and its rightful honour. And so proceeded Malika Kishwar, her health already in decline, braving cold winds in a foreign land, to plead the cause of royal justice.

The mission was doomed from the start. Advisers were many and much was the money they sought for the privilege of their counsel. The results, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found. As historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones records, Kishwar discovered quickly enough that Queen Victoria, in her “circular dress”, had little power to bestow anything more than polite conversation on her and her Awadhi line—when an audience was granted, they spoke about boats and English mansions, not about imperial treacheries and the unjust business in Lucknow. In the British parliament, things got worse. A prayer at long last prepared was dismissed on spurious bureaucratic grounds: the begum was to submit a “humble petition”, words that she failed to use in the document laid before the House. While her son accepted British imperium, the mother was obstinate in battle. So, when she wished to travel, they sought to dragoon her into acknowledging their suzerainty—if Malika Kishwar and her ménage wanted passports, she would have to declare herself a “British subject”. The begum refused to do anything of the sort, prepared, at best, to be under “British protection”, but never anybody’s “subject”. And legal quibbles aside, the Great Rebellion of 1857 compounded matters—there was now no prospect of relinquishing even a fragment of British power when the hour called for a demonstration of obdurate strength alone. Awadh was lost forever.

The tide having turned, in 1858, the begum decided to return at last, defeated and unhappy in the extreme. But in Paris she fell ill and died on 24 January. The funeral was simple, but there was yet some dignity and state—representatives of the Turkish and Persian sultans gave this Indian queen the regard the British denied her and her line. A cenotaph was constructed by the grave, but it has long since fallen to pieces—when decades later the authorities at Père Lachaise sought funds to repair the tomb, her exiled son decided from Calcutta that it was simply not worth his pension, while the colonial state was even less inclined to honour a difficult woman lying several feet underground in an alien European country. And so, since that time, in a graveyard full of magnificent memorials, the queen of Awadh has remained, a shell of broken stone sheltering her from the weeds and overgrowth that alone have made a claim upon her and the story that she tells.

Others of her suite also suffered. A younger son had come with her, Sikandar Hashmat by name. He died in England, and was carried to join his mother in her unmarked grave. A grandson’s infant child was also buried within, turning the tally in Paris to three. But it was in London that one more of the delegation fell, this one a baby princess, born to Sikandar Hashmat from his Rajput wife on British shores. I walked around a dull little place called Kilburn to look for this grave. And there, in a cemetery, after an hour between tombs set in the soggy English ground, I found a memorial to the child: Princess Omdutel Aurau Begum, “who died 14th April 1858”, months after her grandmother who was once a queen. But Omdutel, all of 18 months, had a minor triumph where her royal grandmother had none—lying by a pathway in that cemetery in Kilburn, her grave at least bears her name. The begum, on the other hand, has become to the passing tourist at Père Lachaise in Paris a plinth on which to rest, smoking a cigarette and looking on to a horizon full of the dead, till a stranger might appear to tell how they have under them pieces of a fascinating woman, and the remains of one of Indian history’s most unhappy tales.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 6 2018)


In 1757, on the eve of the historic Battle of Plassey, a merchant called Amir Chand threw in an alarming demand at Robert Clive’s table. “Omichund”, as the English knew him, had served the East India Company, assisting in their shaky relationship with the nawab of Bengal. Now, however, as war looked inevitable, he also made himself indispensable, helping hatch that infamous plot by which the nawab’s commander, Mir Jafar, was to betray his sovereign and join ranks with the Company. At the last minute, however, Omichund put forth an ominous clause—he wanted Rs30 lakh for his services, failing which he would (regretfully) divulge the scheme to the nawab himself. Colonel Clive was upset. But he was also shrewd: two copies of the pact with Mir Jafar were prepared. The counterfeit carried Omichund’s clause, while the actual agreement said nothing about his reward. And when everything was over and the English had prevailed, the old merchant was summoned and simply told: “Omichund, the red paper is a trick, you are to have nothing!”

It is said that Omichund died a broken man. Two of his sons left colonial Calcutta to do business in Varanasi instead, where prosperity came to them soon enough. But it would be some generations before one of their line could redeem the reputation of their perfidious ancestor. To be sure, this great-grandson, Harishchandra, often referred to as Bharatendu (Moon of India), was not a vengeful nationalist—before he died this day in 1885, many were the occasions when he hosted gatherings to demonstrate affection for the Raj that betrayed his forebear. But even as he sang of “the Western rays of civilization” and the “progressive policy of the British nation”, Harishchandra’s contributions to the development of Hindi carved for him a place in the eyes of posterity. He might have composed panegyrics when births and weddings took place in Queen Victoria’s household, but it was also his pen that helped propel a movement to transform a neglected language of mixed origins into a mass cultural campaign that culminated in that famous cry, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”.

Harishchandra began life in 1850 in a combination of tragedy and grandiosity. He lost his parents young but grew up so rich that all his life his greatest difficulty was how not to mismanage more of his money. He founded and edited one of India’s first women’s journals, Balabodhini, but to his own wife all he offered was neglect. If an object caught his eye—a camera perhaps, or new perfume—he required it at once. “This money,” he laughed, “has eaten my ancestors; now I am going to eat it.” But even as he reduced life into an oscillation between debt and extravagance, he also left behind a mark that endures to this day. His Kavivachansudha (founded 1868) and Harishchandrachandrika (founded 1873) emerged as iconic platforms for literary exchange in northern India. Featuring Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory as well as news from the local Dharma Sabha, it was through these publications that Harishchandra, as the scholar Vasudha Dalmia notes, “veritably created literary Hindi” even as he gently voiced his support for Hindu consolidation. He became a catalyst for a vernacular nationalism that would achieve full force in the following century, rising simultaneously as the “Father of Modern Hindi Literature and Hindi Theatre”.

If modern Hindi is today well entrenched, where it comes from is an issue that still provokes debate. As Prof. Harish Trivedi writes, “Hindi was commonly perceived to be an underdeveloped and underprivileged language, fragmented into several competing dialects, backward and dusty by association with its largely rural constituency”. The British recognized Urdu as the north’s language of government. Since it was spoken primarily by elite Muslims, however, this stirred resentment among others who competed for jobs but did not know Urdu. As Harishchandra argued, thanks to this official bias, Muslims enjoyed “a sort of monopoly” where employment was concerned, which was not only “injustice” but also “a cause of annoyance and inconvenience” to masses of Hindi speakers who also happened largely to be Hindus. The matter was not black and white, but the message carried resonance. Both languages were cousins derived from the same roots—one was truer to Sanskrit, while the other had gained much from Arabic and Persian. Now they became rivals.

But this time also coincided with an urge to make new literature—something modern and fitted to emerging feelings of cultural and political nationalism. Much of the poetry in Hindi was in the Brajbhasha and Avadhi dialects, traditionally considered prestigious but thought to be encumbered by an excess of devotion and piety. Khariboli, the dialect spoken around Delhi and present-day Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, was an open vessel for literary innovation. “The progress of one’s own language is the root of all progress,” Harishchandra argued, and page after page in his magazine was devoted to plays, poetry, satire and essays, all of which combined to create a new corpus for speakers of an increasingly standardized Hindi. Khariboli was swiftly invested with pride and disseminated widely through Harishchandra’s energy and enthusiasm. Only he could have pulled it off—wealthy, flamboyant, and with personal networks stretching from British officials to Bengal’s reformers, he was noticed in the right circles. That he also centred his activities in Varanasi, a city of special significance for Hindus in a time of political consolidation, further legitimized his ventures.

In 1885, not yet 35, Harischandra died, by now less convinced of the Raj and its goodness for India. But what he had helped launch assumed a life of its own, becoming the Standard Modern Hindi of today in the course of a few decades. By 1893, a Nagari Pracharini Sabha emerged to lobby for official recognition of Hindi and Devanagari—the request was granted in 1900. By 1910, a Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was born, of which Gandhi remained a member longer than he was of the Congress. Poets and writers raised to think of Urdu as the language of culture, invested increasingly in Hindi. As Premchand wrote in 1915, “Urdu will no longer do. Has any Hindu ever made a success of writing in Urdu, that I will?” This “Hindi Renaissance” was infused with nationalism and some even drew links to 1857—seeds of a standardized Hindi were sown when speakers of various dialects united for the “First War of Independence” and recognized themselves as one people. Harishchandra, however, did not live to see the fruits of his work—but for many, by helping Hindi rise to its feet, he had more than paid off his ancestor’s debt. Omichund may have erred by siding with the British, but by creating a vehicle for cultural and national aspirations, Harishchandra had earned only honour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 30 2017)


In December 1982, The Illustrated Weekly Of India carried a story on an Indian painter and her latest series, inspired by classical mythology. The feature included a number of photographs, and had followed exhibitions at the Jehangir and Taj art galleries in Mumbai. While Society magazine described a “minor stampede” at the venues, part of this was also because many were interested in the women who appeared in these canvases. After all, the artist had been true to descriptions in the epics: Where the Mahabharat relates how Vishwamitra saw Menaka “nude” after her skirt went “off with the wind”, and “lusted to lie with her”, the painter of these works had indeed created a sage with a face that weighed his options, beholding an apsara (celestial nymph) who wore jewels but had truly lost her clothes. The reviews were not kind—emphasis was placed on the word “nude”. But even as the painter K.H. Ara told her to ignore critics, what upset the artist were the threats that followed. As a letter to the Illustrated Weekly warned, while “Hindus are less communal…it is not advisable to misuse their generosity. You should desist from baring their gods and goddesses.”

Rukmini Varma would grow tired of this—the critic who disapproved of her traditional choice of subject (“God save us from our gods and goddesses!” commented S.V. Vasudev) as much as he did of her preference for realism. And a right wing that was apoplectic about the unabashed manner in which mythological figures were approached. The tilt towards realism was perhaps natural, given her circumstances. Arriving with a gun salute into Kerala’s premier royal family in 1940, her early life was spent in a palace, surrounded by court painters who elevated realism to the heights of worship. That she was descended from Raja Ravi Varma carried its influence too. Varma’s style was for much of the 20th century discredited as being too colonial, as India moved through phases dominated by the nationalistic Bengal School, followed by the modernism of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Progressive Artists of Bombay.

But, for Rukmini, realism retains merit. When, in an interview, she was asked if she wanted to be introduced as “a dethroned princess on a nostalgic trip” or “as an artist carrying on the tradition of an illustrious ancestor”, her response was: “Neither.” Try instead, she suggested, to present a “woman with a mission” centred on “preserving realistic art”. To her, realism is “timeless”. And if the suggestion is made that such work is anachronistic, her response is simply: “I disagree.”

Her mission has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s, Rukmini saw tremendous success. Her exhibitions in India were opened by governors and presidents, while, in London, Lord Mountbatten sang her praises. Her social position—had the old order continued, she would today have held the title of maharani—allowed her private tours of the Vatican’s collection, and she sat with Svetoslav Roerich on the advisory board of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru, where she lives.

This was also the phase in which she experimented a great deal—her palette-knife paintings from this decade are among the finest works produced by this self-taught artist in a 50-year career. While she too dabbled in modernism, and expresses admiration for Sher-Gil’s originality, Rukmini always found herself drawn back to realism. Even as she resurrected her ancestor’s style, there were elements she introduced of her own. “During the Victorian era,” for instance, “painters muted the colours. Nobody did a bright painting, and everything was mixed with a neutral colour…(so) the outcome would be soft…But my palette is not like that…I give each shade its own prominence. And the canvas becomes vivid.” So too she separates herself from the classical and academic schools—hers is a realism that relies solely on pictures formed in her mind—“visions” where characters appear fully formed, jewels and all—so that models are rarely required for reference.

Rukmini’s paintings, which abound with buxom women and muscular men, do indeed have shades of purple and blue. But what marks out these canvases is that most of her characters, while covered in gems and jewels, are not draped. “My point has always been to bring out the innumerable shades in flesh, for there is nothing…that has more varieties of shades than this,” she once explained. “I am fascinated by the interplay of shades (and light)… If it is an arm, of course, there will be no comment. But if there is a bust, or hips, or thighs, immediately comes in this word, ‘nude’. Which is ridiculous.” In another interview, when asked why she “filled” her canvas with “nude women in erotic postures”, quick came the response: “If my work is characterized as ‘erotic’ by you, then how would you describe the frescoes in…Ajanta?” As a one-time dancer (having learnt Kathak from Maya Rao and Bharatanatyam from U.S. Krishna Rao), and as a student of Sanskrit classics, Rukmini seeks an idealized conception of beauty. When asked why her characters, despite her realism, are so unlike real human beings, she laughs, “It is always an exaggeratedly beautiful anatomy that I see. Perhaps I’m inventing a beauty that simply doesn’t exist? Perhaps reality as I see it is so overpowering that this is my form of escape?”

Painting did become an escape by the end of the 1980s. After she lost her son in an accident, Rukmini became a recluse, disappearing from the world of art, where, in any case, she had never been “in” with the times. It took over three decades, till this year, for her to put up a show again, where the principal work on display was a 9ft-tall painting of the Hoysala emperor Vishnuvardhan with his dancer wife Shantala, both of them wearing jewels for clothes and depicted on the basis of Rukmini’s “vision” of the couple. At 77, painting such tremendous canvases is not an easy exercise—in the verandah of her colonial-era house, two teapoys are put together with a table on top, and Rukmini is hoisted up in an armchair so she can work. But paint she must—and while the world may move from one style to the next, and from one experimental form to another, this descendant of India’s painter prince remains committed to her style. “Art has no expiry date, and no geographical boundaries,” she smiles, “and we can always learn from the old masters.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 23 2017)


In 1791, when German poet-playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first encountered the story of Shakuntala, he was moved enough to declare that if heaven and earth combined in one name, that name would be hers. His passion for Kalidas’ epic heroine lasted a lifetime, and even on the eve of his death, he referred to Shakuntala as “a star that makes the night more agreeable than the day”. Goethe was not alone in his fascination for Kalidas’ Abhijñānaśākuntalam, which captured Europe’s imagination after William “Orientalist” Jones produced his translation Sacontala, or The Fatal Ring(1789). Since then, this heroine has emerged as one of India’s most memorable mythological characters, featuring in Raja Ravi Varma’s canvases as well as on the movie screen, not to speak of endless literary works. Indeed, as the historian Romila Thapar notes, Shakuntala was crowned the ideal of Indian womanhood, her integrity and blamelessness going down as virtues to be emulated by every good daughter and wife.

The celebrated Shakuntala created by Kalidas, however, is markedly different from the original template in the Mahabharat. In this earlier avatar, Shakuntala is a remarkably direct and confident figure. When Dushyanta, who has killed “thousands of deer” in the course of his royal hunt, arrives at her adoptive father’s hermitage, he calls out, “Who is here?” Shakuntala appears and after welcoming him, asks how she may be of service. With the father away, Dushyanta notices her “beautiful hips”, “lustrous appearance” and “charming smile”. After she explains her half-celestial origins, the king is moved to declare, “Be my wife, buxom woman!” and suggests to this “girl of the lovely thighs” that they ought to marry right away, in the gandharva style where passion makes up for lack of ceremony. Shakuntala initially asks him to wait, but is eventually persuaded that this is indeed a legitimate form of marriage. But first she seeks a promise: Her son from this union must be the king’s heir. “If it is to be thus, Duhsanta, you may lie with me.” The lady in the Mahabharat is sensible, in other words, and able to command from the king a significant pledge.

The Shakuntala Kalidas’ exquisite poetry breathed into life, however, was not, as the scholar Kanchana Mahadevan writes, “the assertive woman of the epic”. Unlike in the Mahabharat, she barely even talks to him directly—she is too innocent and sweet. Indeed, as a companion explains, she is “as delicate as a jasmine”. She falls in love with the king, who is tempted by this “flower that no one has smelled”. Either way, their mutual attraction results in a consummation, and in what might have been inspired by a Buddhist tale, the king departs after handing over to Shakuntala his ring. While she is lost in romantic dreams one day, a sage with a legendary temper appears. And not finding her up to the mark in his service, he issues a curse that her lover will forget her. Following entreaties by others, he subsequently allows a caveat that when the king sees the ring, he will remember Shakuntala. And so, in this version, matters are taken beyond human control to the realm of fate that serves, in essence, to absolve our male lead of his subsequent betrayal.

The ring and the curse are interesting additions by Kalidas. In the Mahabharat, our heroine, after a three-year pregnancy, appears at Dushyanta’s court with their son to remind the king of his word. “Remember,” she says, “the promise you made long ago when we lay together, man of fortune, in Kanva’s hermitage!” Dushyanta, however, quite deliberately chooses not to recognize her. “I do not know that this is my son…Women are liars—who will trust your word?” A strong exchange follows, and while Shakuntala is angry, she remains full of furious power. “Even without you, Duhsanta, my son shall reign over the four-cornered earth,” she declares. “My birth is higher than yours, Duhsanta! You walk on earth, great king, but I fly the skies.” Eventually, a magical voice confirms that the boy is the king’s son, upon which Dushyanta announces that he had known Shakuntala was telling the truth all along. As Wendy Doniger translates: “I knew…that he was my own son. But if I had accepted him…just from her words, there would have been doubt among the people.” The king, for reasons of public approval, had been telling an untruth. And without irony, he then proceeds to forgive Shakuntala for her harsh words!

The same episode is transformed by Kalidas. In his version, Shakuntala is pregnant, and accompanied by others who speak for her in court. The king does not recognize her and suggests that she is trying to pass off another man’s seed as his own. “Don’t cuckoos let other birds nurture/Their eggs and teach the chicks to fly?” he asks. But through the device of the curse—which means the king has genuinely forgotten Shakuntala—Kalidas exonerates him, where, in the Mahabharat, Dushyanta is guilty. The fact that Shakuntala has lost the all-important ring complicates matters. But unlike, to quote Thapar again, “the spirited woman who argues her right” in the epic, Shakuntala in Kalidas’ retelling sheds pious tears till her mother, the celestial nymph Menaka, comes to her rescue. Eventually, after the ring reaches the king through the means of a dead fish, he remembers everything, and sets out to reunite with his wife and child. Nobody is to blame here—Shakuntala is pure, the king’s rudeness was the result of a curse, and what really determined matters was a tragic twist of fate.

Kalidas’ was a tremendously popular version (in a 19th century Urdu translation, Shakuntala is so chaste that she even acquires a veil) given that hero and heroine were both romantic victims. But the play also encapsulates a moment when the powerful woman of the epic makes way for a new ideal—an ideal that was embraced by Western audiences in Goethe’s day, and which Indians too have accepted, forgetting the more remarkable woman who first appears in the epic, one who does not conform to notions of patriarchal correctness, but stands proud, instead, as a challenge to the world of men.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 16 2017)


When Jane Austen was born this day in 1775, novel-writing was still seen as a wholly undignified obsession. Old men feared the romantic nonsense it fed young women, who now, it was argued, entertained dangerously subversive tendencies such as following the heart instead of obeying their husbands. Some females too were alarmed. Hannah More, the playwright, saw in novel-reading “all the symptoms of decay” while Mary Berry, the writer, declared fiction “the great evil of all young women”. Even as Austen started Lady Susan in 1793, The Evangelical Magazine was denouncing novels as “instruments of abomination and ruin”.

In fact, a sinister connection was even made between reading fiction and such unseemly habits as masturbation. As the French doctor J.D.T. de Bienville argued in his Nymphomania, published in the year of Austen’s birth, “venomous” novels stoked the imagination, which in turn pushed women into the abyss of fantasy. They became “monsters in human shape”, prone to impious activities like self-pleasuring. Art too aided this view—works like Emmanuel de Ghendt’s Midday Heat were among several featuring a woman with her hands in the wrong place, a half-read novel lying open by her side.

And yet the young Austen was allowed to read. The daughter of a reverend, she had the unusual luxury in her formative years of enjoying uncensored access to her father’s personal library. The family had literary inclinations—one brother wrote poems, and another, sermons. Sometimes, little sketches were put up, and as a niece later recalled, Austen “read aloud remarkably well” from her own writings. She read as widely as the times permitted—and in 1813, this included such titles as Essay On The Military Police And The Institutions Of The British Empire, which she found “highly entertaining”.

Her own family had no prejudice against novels. When, in her 20s, a library owner invited them to subscribe, reassuring them that her collection held more than just novels, Austen was not pleased. “She might have spared this pretension to our family,” she wrote, “who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.” With the explosion of print, the rise of a middle class, and a growing appetite for books of all kinds, the novel was here to stay, even if for another century it would retain, in varying degrees, some stigma—Samuel Coleridge, in 1815, considered reading fiction about as productive as “spitting over a bridge” and “snuff-taking”.

Austen’s own books reflected the social reservations attached to the novel. When, for instance, in Pride And Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is sarcastically accused of being “a great reader”, she is quick to respond: “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many (other) things.” For decades, however, there had also been some lampooning of high-class disdain for novels. In Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, there is a scene where a character has visitors and commands her maid to conceal all her novels. “Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick! Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty Of Man—thrust Lord Ainsworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man Of Feeling into your pocket—so, so, now lay Mrs Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce’s Sermons open on the table.”

One of the reasons, given the context then, that Austen was writing the first drafts of her novels as early as the 1790s was that she did not begin with an intention to publish. Writing was a personal pursuit, and perhaps to be circulated and read aloud in family circles. That was that, and so public concerns about how appropriate an activity this was for a reverend’s daughter never arose.

When a desire to publish did come, it was, in what is familiar to writers even today, a painfully slow process. In 1797, in her early 20s, the book that would become Pride And Prejudice was rejected by a publisher. In 1803, the novel that the world knows as Northanger Abbey was acquired for £10, but did not see the light of day for years. It was 1811 by the time Sense And Sensibilityappeared, its success allowing for other works accumulated from over a decade ago to also manifest in print—indeed, critics have noted that Austen’s early works, written largely in the final decade of the 18th century and rooted in the privileged lives of the gentry, differ from her last works, which reflect a greater awareness of a changing world in their cast of characters, approach to class and the professions, and other attributes.

She herself was pleased with the reception of her books, even if it only brought her about £700 in her own lifetime. As the Edinburgh Magazine noted some years later, “We have no hesitation in saying, that (Austen)…will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point to the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing it upon her.” Alongside Frances Burney, Austen too thus has a place in making the novel respectable.

Curiously enough, it was only after her death that her name actually appeared as the writer of these novels, which have since sold millions around the world in dozens of languages. When Sense And Sensibility was published, the title page simply said, “By a Lady”. As other novels made their mark, their writer became known as “The Author of ‘Sense And Sensibility’”. In 1814, Austen’s identity became known in some circles due to her brother’s determination to advertise the fact, but none of the four books published before her death in 1817 carried her name—it was in the obituary that the connection was officially made.

As the Courier recorded, “Miss Jane Austen” was the “Authoress of ‘Emma’, ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Pride And Prejudice’, and ‘Sense And Sensibility’. Her manners,” it added, “were most gentle; her affections ardent; her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.” And so it was, as has been the case with many writers before and after her, that the world woke up posthumously to the full richness of Austen’s writing, heaping recognition upon a talent that produced some of history’s most remarkable works of fiction.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 9 2017)


On 6 December 1992, when a mob tore down the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, an entire nation watched in horror as governments of the day stood by, pleading helplessness. Twenty-five years have elapsed since that event, and many more may pass before anything close to a real—and sensible—resolution is reached to what is essentially a festering wound. But if in living memory Ayodhya has gone down as a symbol of the worst manifestation of communal politics in India, there is an episode in its past that could be construed as the inaugural chapter of this ugly narrative, pitting Hindu against Muslim, man against man. And unlike recent times, when a mosque became the scene of violent confrontations, many years ago it was a temple that attracted the attentions of a fanatic crowd, whose actions became linked in several ways to the larger discussion around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.

The story goes back to the mid-19th century. The nawabs of Awadh, who seized sovereignty in the region, never actually enjoyed absolute power in their princely domains. As was the case with Muslim rulers across the subcontinent, authority was, in fact, exercised in cooperation with Hindu elites. In pre-Mughal Deccan, for instance, its sultans utilized Brahmins and Marathas as their intermediaries with the masses, while in Awadh the nawabswere served by Kayasthas in the running of their administration, and by legions of Hindu warrior ascetics (or nagas) in waging war against their enemies. As the splendour of the nawabs grew, so too did the wealth and influence of these classes—the frenetic building of temples in Ayodhya in the 18th century, for example, had a great deal to do with the wave of prosperity enjoyed by the Hindu aristocracy under a thriving nawabi court, which also patronized pilgrim activity that, in turn, revitalized the cult of Ram.

It was the second nawab, Safdarjung, who, in return for their military services, gave the Ramanandi nagas money for the construction of a shrine to Hanuman at a spot about 700 metres from the Babri Masjid. In due course, a Hindu nobleman enabled the expansion of this structure into what is today the Hanumangarhi, described as a temple-fortress, and which in the 19th century possessed gifts from the crown that brought it Rs50,000 in revenue. Scholars like Hans Bakker and Peter van der Veer note that Babri itself is believed to stand on the site of an 11th century Hindu shrine that was demolished and converted into a mosque by a Mughal general. Van der Veer notes, furthermore, that some pillars from an old temple were said to have survived, unwittingly also becoming pillars for the cause of “restoring” the premises to its original use. In any case, the irony was that far from splitting communities into irreconcilable foes, till the mid-19th century, Hindus as well as Muslims worshipped at Babri in peace and harmony, albeit in different parts of the compound.

The first communal conflict that Ayodhya witnessed occurred in the mid-1850s. On the face of it, this was a Hindu-Muslim feud. As we learn from The Anatomy Of A Confrontation, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Sarvepalli Gopal, and other sources, Shah Ghulam Husain, a Muslim firebrand, claimed that Hanumangarhi stood, in fact, on the ashes of a mosque that dated back to emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. His call to “reclaim” the temple was answered by enough men to result in a violent clash soon afterwards. The Muslims were not just repulsed, however; we read how the Hindus took the skirmish into Babri next door, which Husain’s fighters had used as a base. In the course of events, 70 men were killed on the Muslim side. An attack on Muslim civilians, and plunder of their property, followed, with reprisals after some Hindus decided to make a grand display of slaughtering pigs on the day the 70 fallen Muslims were buried. It was, simply put, provocations galore and blood and violence everywhere.

While this was superficially a Hindu-Muslim conflict, in reality matters were somewhat complicated. Muslims in Awadh comprised 12% of the population; the vast majority was Sunni. The nawab, however, was of Shia persuasion, and the cream of courtly patronage was distilled in favour of the Shia minority. That the reigning nawab, the colourful Wajid Ali Shah, was also an admirer of Hindu traditions, in addition to the court’s general collaboration with Hindu elites, provoked Ghulam Husain, described as an “arch villain”, and his “vile”, “disreputable” followers to plot their attack on Hanumangarhi. This was, in other words, not only a move against the Hindus but also a Sunni rebellion against the unorthodox Shia nawab. In any case, while Husain’s plot was a failure, his place was soon taken by another zealot, the maulvi Amir Ali. And this man went as far as declaring a jihad to occupy Hanumangarhi and re-establish the mosque that was supposed to have existed within.

Interestingly, the claim that there was a Muslim place of worship in Hanumangarhi may not have been incorrect, even if it was inaccurate in the vocabulary of its expression. While a committee constituted by the nawabfound that there was never a mosque within the fort, it is likely that the Muslims were building on an earlier tradition when they enjoyed access to the shrine. Before the Ramanandi nagas turned it into their military seat, the deity in the temple was worshipped by Hindus as Hanuman and by Muslims as Hathile, one of the five saints (panch pir) of Sufism. It was not a full-blown masjid as such, but by closing access to the shrine to Muslims, those in charge of Hanumangarhi allowed grievances to mount. This, in turn, culminated in the imagined memory of a “mosque” that required reclaiming, even if this meant shedding blood and sacrificing lives—an example of how extreme piety can quickly transform a shadow from the past into incontrovertible “fact”.

In any case, when Amir Ali refused to accept the decision of the committee, the stage was set for battle. Armed with fatwas from Shia as well as Sunni clerics that declared Ali’s jihad illegal, the nawab’s forces under British command intercepted him on his way to Ayodhya. A few hundred rebels lost their lives, and their obstinate leader too fell on the battlefield. Hanumangarhi was retained by the Hindus, while in Babri the British erected fences to separate the mosque from the platform where Hindus offered worship. What is curious, however, as detailed in Sarvepalli Gopal’s collection, is that some date the first claim that the masjid sat on the spot of Ram’s birth to the mid-1850s—when the Muslims claimed Hanumangarhi as “originally” a mosque, the Hindus, as a counter-claim, reminded them of the temple upon which Babri was supposed to have been built.

The matter may never be satisfactorily resolved. So perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the last time a mob went to destroy a place of worship in Ayodhya, before the tragedy of 1992, is that at least on that occasion, those in power did not stand by idly; that, instead, they did their duty and protected the temple from destruction, something that cannot be said of those who watched quietly as a mosque was razed more than a hundred years later.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 02 2017)


One of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s chief habits, upon hearing something he did not like, was to shake his head in disapproval, point a bony finger at whoever had made the grave mistake of disagreeing with him and, having fixed his gaze through a monocle, serve the binding comment: “My dear fellow, you do not understand.” In a tragic reflection on the country he founded 70 years ago, events unfolding now in Pakistan are such that perhaps this time, it would be poor Jinnah who might not understand. Religious extremists took to the streets in Islamabad after a minister blasphemed by not demonstrating sufficient commitment to the finality of the Prophet as the messenger of god—people have died and the government has, predictably, capitulated. Blending religion with politics was always, of course, an invitation to disaster, but one does wonder how these protesters might have treated the exalted father of their Islamic republic himself, given his views on certain touchy matters—after all, it was Jinnah who, in contravention of everything the Prophet said, once declared his fondness for “the best Scotch I can find, a vintage wine, (and) my cigarettes.”

While there is never a dull moment where India and Pakistan are concerned, given the unrest of our times, reading former high commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door makes for a tremendously rewarding exercise. With anecdotes richly woven through the “hard facts” of the case, one discovers much to think about in the book, not only in terms of Pakistan’s tribulations, but also certain slippery slopes that we in India seem bent on unnecessarily negotiating these days. After their defeat on the battlefield in 1965, for example, our neighbours decided to nurse wounded pride by unleashing hyper-nationalism of a kind that saw the banning of Bollywood films and the raising of hysterical rhetoric. As the poet Fahmida Riaz regretted, Urdu literature, for instance, “suffered a patriotism so imbecile, so sloppy and so infantile” that intellectual merit drowned in a pool of nationalistic mediocrity. Whether it was able to recover and rise beyond the expediencies of politics is not known, but what is known is that even without a bruising military misadventure, there are plenty in our parts today who prefer for all pursuits to first and foremost pledge themselves to the cause of Mother India. It does not matter that we might be copying a blunder our neighbours made decades before and have regretted ever since—so long as it is done in the spirit of national pride, we can err with self-righteous confidence.

One of the particularly interesting sections in Raghavan’s book reveals how, from the earliest phase of India-Pakistan relations, both countries had to deliberately steer clear of rabble-rousers in the press. Those across the border, for instance, objected when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser described their government as “murderous”, while New Delhi was most upset when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was styled the “Greatest Primitive” by Pakistan’s iconic newspaper, Dawn. Efforts were made to persuade editors to temper their vengeful pronouncements so that serious bilateral business might not be handicapped by hyperbole in print. One “communalist” rag, Raghavan records, refused to brook advisories from the government, and asked the authorities “to mind your own business”. In another case, India asked Pakistan to be less thin-skinned. The Organiser, it chuckled, was after all only “a minor weekly of a political party having hardly any influence in the country”, and need scarcely be taken seriously. Little, perhaps, did Nehru expect that a few decades later, the party in question would ride an unprecedented wave to power in the Capital. Or that in place of assorted newspapers spewing venom, we would confront an epidemic on television, featuring men and women in dignified costumes making singularly undignified remarks.

Raghavan’s book, between instructive pages on the diplomacy behind the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 or the context of the wars India and Pakistan have fought, also recounts fascinating stories that may have receded from public memory. We meet, for instance, the famous Choudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the word “Pakistan” but went on to become such a thorn in the new state’s side that he was expelled from that country—he died years later, sneering bitterly that the Quaid-i-Azam was actually the Quisling-i-Azam. Then there is Z.A. Bhutto, who in 1964 was convinced that Nehru’s death meant the end of India. “How long,” he asked, “will the memory of a dead Nehru inspire his country and keep alive a…vast land of mysterious and mighty contradictions, darned together with the finest threads?” The “key to Indian unity and greatness,” he argued, “has been burned away with Nehru’s dead body.” In the flopped military effort that followed, a pilot was shot down by the Pakistanis. Field Marshal Ayub Khan wrote to the man’s father, the legendary General K.M. Cariappa, that the captive would be treated well, only to receive a curt reply that all prisoners of war were the general’s sons and that no “special treatment” need be arranged for the pilot—a touching story that this columnist was able to confirm with the prisoner in question, the future Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa.

Raghavan’s is a book that is enjoyable in its style, reliable in its facts, and informed in its tone and substance. But beyond offering a terrific account of the evolution of India-Pakistan relations, the book, almost subconsciously, serves as a reminder of some of the elements that have made India different from Pakistan. The history of the relationship between our two countries is also, after all, a sequence of warning signs—a reminder that if we were to confront our worst nightmare, we need only look at the chaos next door. By now, it should be easy to recognize where Pakistan went wrong and draw lessons in wisdom. But the irony is that some Indians are tempted to go out of their way to land us in the very same traps, with stirring slogans and a sense of conviction to boot. As the late lamented Jinnah might perhaps have asked, do they really not understand?

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 25 2017)


At the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last weekend, on the occasion of Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, I asked former Union minister P. Chidambaram what her 1980 electoral victory revealed about democracy in India. What, after all, did it say of us that less than three years after the catastrophe that was the Emergency, voters were more than happy to bring back a prime minister who had subverted the Constitution in the interests of naked political survival? Some of the answers are well known: that the Janata Party coalition, which ruled between 1977 and 1980, proved to be the very embodiment of shambolic government, carrying on an Emergency in all but name, thereby inviting public anger. Or that Mrs Gandhi, through her tireless energy (including that historic elephant ride to Belchi village in Bihar after a horrific massacre of Dalits) and by asking forgiveness for her regime’s excesses, reclaimed public respect.

My discussant, however, pointed to a simple fact—the poor beheld in Mrs Gandhi someone who recognized their plight and not only spoke directly to them but also served as their voice. And so, after having punished her for the gravest error of her career, they were prepared to trust her again with their future.

Democracy itself and the brutal smashing of national ideals were not an electoral issue even in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. To begin with, while the north voted Mrs Gandhi out of power, she won overwhelmingly in the south. As Shoaib Daniyal noted in Scroll.in some time ago, in percentage terms “more people voted for Indira Gandhi in 1977 than (Narendra) Modi in 2014”. The Hindi belt too was less concerned with the battering of the Constitution than with more directly suffered campaigns (nasbandi, or male sterilization, being particularly notorious), for which retribution through the ballot box was Mrs Gandhi’s reward. Indeed, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Subramanian Swamy recalled 17 years ago in The Hindu, in the 1977 elections, some opponents even feared she might actually come back to power since it was assumed that “the illiterate masses would not be moved by the issue of democracy, and thus the polls (if she were so returned) would legitimize the Emergency”.

That did not happen, but it can be safely stated that undermining the Constitution was not what brought Indira Gandhi down. Nor, in fact, was contrite, belated affection for democratic values the force behind her restoration—if she regretted her authoritarianism, in 1980 she would not have, in a single day, dismissed nine opposition state governments in a flourish of vindictiveness, weeks after returning to office.

The Shah Commission’s report—which Mrs Gandhi suppressed—in addition to serving as a catalogue of the worst of the Emergency, also warned that the ease with which these were carried out exposed the weaknesses of our institutions and officialdom’s uncertain commitment to democratic ethics. “Commandments of good conduct, good behaviour and morality got muted,” it notes, “when self-preservation was at stake.” When unlawful orders were issued, they were executed “mechanically” by the state’s machinery, even when blatantly against every constitutional principle or legal provision.

The reality, then, was that for all our rapturous public professions about democracy in India, it was not a commodity that held assured endurance—to quote Daniyal again, “the actual suspension of democracy might have made no difference at all with voters” in 1977 were it not for terribly designed and disastrously implemented campaigns that accompanied the Emergency. The very fact that 70 years after independence, India still upholds draconian colonial-era laws that belong in the dustbin of history is proof that while we are a democracy, democracy here is an endeavour that is defined by degree more than by uncompromising exactness.

It was B.R. Ambedkar who declared that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Constitutional morality,” he added, “is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it.” Democracy, he concluded, was “a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

Poverty, the endurance of caste, gaps in mass education, alongside a whole inventory of other problems, not least of which is political avarice and sections of the press prone to crawling, all dilute democracy as was theoretically envisioned. Without commitment to the values that underpin it, democratic exercises become a matter of going through elaborate forms without achieving the actual substance. And when less and less people in power care about that substance, the whole enterprise becomes a sophisticated fiction which we all blindly trumpet, against growing evidence to the contrary. The press, for instance, is thriving, but when much of it functions as cheerleaders for those in power, it serves something quite different than the cause of democracy.

Parliamentary records quote a Lok Sabha legislator from Assam in 1996 declaring: “Prime Minister (A.B. Vajpayee) and many leaders of the BJP have been trying to explain the growth of the BJP from two members, to become the major opposition party and now to become the largest single party and the formation of the government. They have explained it as growth. But very humbly I want to say to the hon. Prime Minister that all growths are not healthy, some growth are called cancer.” While this is not to target the BJP, the point is that shoring up numbers democratically without also shoring up the basic virtues that sustain the ideal intent of democracy is a nation-defeating exercise.

Democracy, in India, is still, after all, a journey more than a destination, and while as a people we will be able to absorb pauses and, indeed, even reverses in that journey such as the Emergency, we must always be alert to the inhospitable combination of forces, across party lines and social conditions, that is ever looming. As someone once said of liberty, eternal vigilance alone is the guarantee of democracy. And where many people cannot afford such vigilance or even demonstrate wilful disinterest in doing so, those who possess even a fragment of hope for the future of this country have a duty to step in, asking the questions that must be asked, and doing all that must be done. In that alone lies a way out, and the promise of finally reaching the destination that our founding fathers envisioned and in which lies India’s salvation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 18 2017)


Alauddin Khilji, the 14th century Muslim king of Delhi, had a fearsome mother-in-law. The conqueror—soon arriving at your nearest cinema as the very picture of unwashed ferocity, complete with sinister, surma-lined eyes, an insatiable appetite for gore and gold, and much lust for virtuous Hindu princesses—does not seem to have enjoyed any domestic tranquillity during his very eventful life. His first wife and her mother, described variously as “fool of fools” and “silliest of the silly”, were supremely dominating, so much so that some of his early campaigns were also partly an excuse to place as much distance as possible between himself and them. Things got a little more complicated after he seized the wife of a Gujarati king—the lady missed her young daughter, so another round of battles had to be fought to seize that object of her motherly affections. Then he had in his harem a slave girl who was sent out to do battle and died in the process. Finally, he also fell in love with Malik Kafur, the eunuch general, who cheerfully exploited this sentiment till he found his way abruptly to a forgotten grave.

Alauddin was the nephew and son-in-law of the first of the Khilji sultans, a man who killed his predecessor and then belatedly found himself consumed by guilt. This uncle wouldn’t sit on the throne, for instance, because he was convinced he was unworthy. While older nobles at court were sufficiently moved, those of a more aggressive temperament thought this all sentimental nonsense. They began to plot to replace the mild-mannered monarch with a more manly substitute. When news of one of these intrigues reached the ruler, he summoned its participants to his august presence. And there, instead of relieving them of their seditious heads, he proceeded to lecture them on alcohol and the importance of not getting carried away into making strange plans while under its influence. The young men nodded and begged forgiveness, but among those who realized that the sultan was a little bit of a softie was Alauddin. In 1296, after he raided Devagiri without permission and returned with phenomenal quantities of plunder, he sought his royal uncle’s pardon and invited him to come in person to collect the treasure. Trusting and naïve, the old sultan went where he was told, and very quickly found himself in more than one piece.

“While the head of the murdered sovereign was yet dripping with blood,” writes the chronicler Ziauddin Barani, “the ferocious conspirators brought the royal canopy and elevated it over the head of Alauddin. Casting aside all shame, the perfidious and graceless wretches caused him to be proclaimed king by men who rode about on elephants.” The new king was touched. After he put his uncle’s sons to flight and eventually imprisoned his infuriating mother-in-law, the men who helped raise him to the throne were also rewarded with death—that is, leaving aside two who were already destroyed by leprosy or madness. The loot from Devagiri was put to good use, for, after all, gold could erase all traces of a less than conventional succession to the throne, buying loyalties that could not be immediately inspired. In subsequent policy, Alauddin was firm. “I issue such orders as I conceive to be for the good of the State, and the benefit of the people,” he declared. “Men are heedless, disrespectful, and disobey my commands: I am then compelled to be severe to bring them into obedience.” An elaborate network of spies was also formed, so that if anything stern was said against the sultan, His Majesty was perhaps also among the first to hear it.

Alauddin’s career was not easy, though. Having murdered his uncle, he could hardly point fingers at his own nephews for seeking to follow in his illustrious footsteps. One tried to shower him with arrows, and for this his head appeared on a spear. Two sons of a sister decided the time was right for rebellion, so they were both blinded. In due course, however, it was clear that the sultan meant business, and the court fell in line. Times were such that to hold power, one also needed periodic violent demonstrations of its use. Alauddin became an empire builder. Land after land in northern India fell to him, while his trusted commander Malik Kafur acquired mountains of gold in the south. When hordes of Mongols invaded India soon after the sultan’s ascent to power, they were defeated. In 1303, however, when Alauddin was away, the Mongols destroyed Delhi. The king returned and locked himself up in a fort, unable to do much on this occasion, though he put to good use the lessons he learnt from the experience. For the rest of his reign, he never once allowed the Mongols a victory.

Interestingly, the sack of Delhi in 1303 occurred because Alauddin was at the time in Chittor, doing battle. Padmavat, an Awadhi poem that has since been embraced as historical fact, offers a most imaginative motive to the sultan here. A parrot told the already married ruler of Chittor about a dark-skinned Ceylonese beauty. After many adventures, this beauty became queen in the desert, from where a wicked sorcerer was expelled by her Rajput husband. This character told Alauddin all about her, and so it was that the Muslim king marched his men and demanded the princess’ enlistment in his harem. To cut a long story short, battles were fought, masses of people died, and the lady jumped into a fire. Alauddin himself never knew this story, for it first appeared two centuries after his death. It would hardly have mattered though, for his was an end that was not very happy, even without women perishing in flames and hideous on-screen make-up. Illness depleted him, and he spent his time fearing his own sons, lapsing more and more into the hands of Malik Kafur, who may even have had something to do with his death. Either way, Alauddin died, and a fresh cycle of intrigues and violence began, ending with the fall of his dynasty and the inevitable advent of a new one.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 11 2017)


In 1781, finding herself in a tricky spot with the English East India Company, an Indian woman sent a courier to the Ottoman sultan bearing a plea for assistance. Abdul Hamid I was inclined to help and, summoning the English ambassador in Istanbul, expressed hope that “the Beebi Sultan, the Queen of Malabar” would be treated sympathetically by his countrymen. It was a generous gesture, certainly, but like most gestures did not translate into any tangible advantage for his supplicant. In 1783, on the contrary, since she had allied with the wrong side during the Company’s war against Tipu Sultan, her fort in Cannanore (now Kannur) in Kerala was invaded, and her palace plundered. Plunder, that is, in addition to the Rs2.6 lakh she was compelled to pay as indemnity, of which a lakh, she discovered, was off the books to satisfy the personal (and secret) avarice of certain officers. A treaty was signed with both sides promising, somewhat ambitiously, to uphold it “as long as the sun and moon shall last”. Six years later, these exalted celestial bodies were brushed aside abruptly as the two parties went to war once again; and this time, the lady lost her fort forever.

The woman in question, Junumabe II, belonged to the Arakkal family of Cannanore that controlled the Lakshadweep islands from at least the 16th century, though of course no ruler ever actually condescended to visit their little kingdom, parked as they were across the water on the Indian coast. The origins of the house are obscure. One tale connects them with a legendary Malayali monarch who converted to Islam and sailed for Mecca—an eternal flame was maintained in Arakkal Palace in memory of this “uncle”. Another story features a Hindu princess who, the Dutch said, “was made pregnant by a prominent Moor or Arab”, spawning a Muslim royal line that followed Hindu matrilineal succession. The firstborn ruled regardless of sex as the Ali Raja; if it was a girl, she had the additional honorific of “Bibi”. Yet another origin myth shows their ancestress in chaster light—she was drowning when a Muslim youth dived in to her rescue, but having been touched by a stranger in a compromising watery situation, she took him and his faith as her own. A final story erases all royal links and simply points to a noble family that transferred its allegiance to Islam many centuries ago, and over time rose to princely status.

Either way, a local raja from the mainland granted this Muslim line the sovereignty of Lakshadweep in return for tribute. “In its palmy days,” one scholar notes, “the House administered its own laws, maintained its own currency and exercised powers of inflicting capital punishment over its subjects.” These subjects are believed to have gone in boats from Kerala to populate the islands a long time ago, some claiming descent from high-caste Hindu clans. At a certain point, a saint revered locally as Munbe Muliyaka sailed in and persuaded them to embrace Islam, though the religion actually practised was a blend of Quranic principle and Hindu custom. It was the Portuguese who first disturbed the independence of the islands, and in the resultant bloodshed, the islanders sought the protection of a Hindu raja—the very ruler who would transfer the suzerainty he thus gained to the progeny of the drowning woman. This new royal family grew wealthy by cultivating commercial networks as far away as Arabia and Persia, and their approach to the islands now in their possession was also driven by calculations of profit and loss—a policy that led to great discontent in Lakshadweep.

It appears that the islands were viewed, from the comforts of the palace in Kerala, more as a cash cow than as a community to which its rulers also had certain obligations. In the 1760s, for instance, the Ali Raja introduced a coir monopoly under which islanders were prohibited from selling their goods to outsiders. The prices approved by the Arakkal treasury for coir, however, were vastly lower than the market rates. There were other rules too, some of them ridiculous enough to infect the air with a mood of rebellion. “Except jaggery,” we are told, “all the minor products of the islands” (including tortoise shells!) were monopolized. Cowries, for instance, were purchased dirt cheap from Lakshadweep and sold at a 400% profit by its absentee princes in markets elsewhere. With tobacco, the arrangement was “particularly scandalous”, the Bibi reaping profits of up to 1,000%. Agents of her government stationed on the island made things worse—their measly annual salaries meant they too were anxious for cuts. If a bovine were killed, the agent was entitled to a quarter of its meat. If a new boat was to be launched, the Bibi’s men could seize it if they were denied their fee.

In the 1780s, the cluster known as the Amindive islands revolted and pledged itself to Tipu Sultan. And when that ruler was defeated, control of these islands passed to the English as spoils of war. The Bibi, though, retained Minicoy and the Laccadive cluster, paying tribute to the Company now—during negotiations, she claimed her revenue from these was only Rs20,000, while a British investigation revealed that she drew nearly six times that figure in actual income. Her tribute was settled grudgingly at Rs15,000 a year. The islanders, however, continued to clash with their overseas royal government, and, by the middle of the 19th century, several years of tribute was in arrears—in 1869, it was discovered that Arakkal had, in fact, lost control over most of the islands and had no revenue to begin with. A “phantom sovereignty” remained in force, while the British took matters into their own hands. If Arakkal wanted the islands back, the Bibi was informed, she would have to improve her style of government—and, of course, settle the pending payments. Neither of these, everyone knew, was actually feasible.

Decades passed in this fashion, till in 1908 the impasse was broken. Imbichi Ali Raja, the then Bibi, agreed to surrender sovereignty over Laccadive and Minicoy in return for an annual malikhana (pension) of Rs23,000—an amount that is still paid to the family, which a few years ago petitioned for a raise. A seven-gun salute appears to have been granted, along with British recognition of the title “sultan” for heads of the dynasty. As for the islanders, these events generated hope of a better, or at least fairer, regime. And to a certain extent, conditions were created, if not of prosperity, of fewer exactions. After all, in shaking off the autocracy of a princess in Kerala, the islands were only placing themselves under the very different variety of tyranny that came with becoming subjects of the British empire. And any real promise of progress would have to wait for some more decades till the colonial government withdrew, and a democratic state handed over the destinies of Lakshadweep, at last, to its own people.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 4 2017)


Some days ago, members of parliament at Westminster in London organized a special meeting to honour the memory of the first Indian to have been elected to the House of Commons. It was not an open event, yet the queue outside wound around the building long enough for a café owner to step out and enquire what it was that had attracted so much enthusiasm. When I explained, he looked terribly interested himself in the proceedings and asked, “Oh, is the MP upstairs?” Alas, I had to tell him, the man we were celebrating had died 100 years before, which meant he fell in a very different category of “upstairs”. And he had died not in London, where he once represented his voters, but far away in Mumbai, in one of the seven houses that lend the suburb of Saat Bangla in Versova its picturesque name. The café manager looked vaguely sheepish while the rest of us made our way into the building, walking past V.R. Rao’s portrait of the man we were there to commemorate: Dadabhai Naoroji.

Naoroji was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress but he was also convinced that it was “in Parliament (in Britain) that our chief battle has to be fought”. And so, in 1886, he presented himself as a candidate in the general election. Despite endorsements from the likes of Florence Nightingale, he was demolished. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, declared that the English were not prepared to have a “black man” as their representative, only to regret those words. For the consequence was that his statement was published in newspapers around the country and Naoroji became an object of massive interest overnight—including in discussions around precisely how “black” this pale-skinned man exactly was. By 1892, he had a real shot at winning, and the people of Finsbury Central did not disappoint—he carried the day with a dazzling majority of three. When his un-black rival demanded a recount, the tally went up; Naoroji had actually won not by three but by a margin of five votes. Delighted either way, he served not only as the voice of Finsbury Central in parliament but also as president of the local football club. And both in the House of Commons and outside, he lent his energies to causes as diverse as the women’s suffrage movement and, of course, Indian self-rule.

A number of people frowned. Some called him Dadabhai Narrow-Majority, which was only marginally better than “Mr Nowraggie”. But the old man didn’t mind. On the contrary, his shattering of the glass ceiling was conclusive enough for two more Indians to also enter the House of Commons in the coming years. He himself lost the next election in 1895, but made up for it by conveying his message in his seminal Poverty And UnBritish Rule In India, lambasting the Raj for its unashamed leeching of Indian wealth for British aggrandizement. The book was a milestone, and remains his most memorable intellectual contribution to the freedom struggle. And it did not surprise too many people that he had earned himself this distinction: When still in his teens at Elphinstone College (then, Institution) in Mumbai, Naoroji was labelled by a professor, a little sentimentally, “The Promise of India”. Personally, though, he didn’t let such things go to his head. “Prosperity has not elated me and I hope adversity will not (depress) me,” he wrote to a friend, “so long as I can feel I am living a life of duty.”

Naoroji was born in British Bombay in 1825 in modest circumstances. He was a bright student, and an 1845 effort to go to university in England was only thwarted because one of his sponsors feared this prodigy might be tempted to become a Christian. So Naoroji began to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Elphinstone College, till in 1855 he became the first Indian to be appointed a professor at that institution. It was a short-lived career, for by now he had decided to go into commerce—he moved to England and eventually set up a cotton import business. Just to cement one foot firmly in the intellectual space in any case, he also accepted a professorship at University College London. His subject: Gujarati. In the course of time he would set up the still-thriving Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, as well as the East India Association (which later merged with the Congress party), and emerge as one of the most distinguished ambassadors for India in the seat of empire.

Naoroji was also a most sympathetic interlocutor for Indians lost in this alien country. Many were the students who wrote to him for advice, and many too were the parents who frantically sought his assistance in preventing their beloved male offspring from getting ensnared by the fearsome, emancipated women of the West. In 1888, one young man wrote to him asking for guidance on life in England, “which shall be received as from a father to his child”. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and many years later he would remember Naoroji as “the G.O.M.” (Grand Old Man) who made life easier for so many Indians with his sheer warmth and friendship. Indeed, Naoroji deserves much credit for going out of his way for others: Among the 30,000 documents that comprise his private papers, between notes sent by his plumber and an 1894 eye-glass prescription, are numerous letters in Gujarati, Marathi, even Persian and French, to strangers seeking his esteemed attention. That is, assuming everyone understood what he was saying, for, as a friend wrote with a hint of annoyance, “your handwriting is rather hard to read”.

By the time Naoroji died, aged 93, he had enjoyed a most fascinating career. This included a stint as chief minister to a maharaja of Baroda who was accused of trying to murder the British resident at court with arsenic and crushed diamonds; luckily, Naoroji had already resigned by the time of the scandal. He had run newspapers, participated in great public debates on India’s future, and, significantly, set on its eventful course the Congress party that would serve as the vehicle of Indian nationalism in the years to come. And so it was that when he died, among the richly deserved tributes paid was one reminding everybody that while the man himself had departed, the idea he stood for would be enshrined forever in the destiny of the country he loved.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 28 2017.)


If ever there was a man who was attentive to the tribulations of kings, that man was Kautilya. While there might have been several minds invested, across spans of time, in the composition of his Arthashastra, Kautilya’s manual of statecraft was a model of exactness to guide the hands of power. Thus, for instance, for relatively more ordinary varieties of criminal offence, the punishment suggested is “tearing apart by bullocks”, but for the singular error of romancing the monarch’s wife, things could only end with the seducer “cooking in a big jar”. Torture, in general, was to be perfectly timed, with meals in between for the torturer and the subject of his attention, though exceptions of format could be made if the criminal in question were a Brahmin—so while a regular sinner might discover parts of his body set on fire, one with the sacred thread wasn’t permanently charred, keeping his life, but losing his eyes.

Kautilya’s treatise is one of the many sources from ancient times that Upinder Singh studies in her authoritative new book, Political Violence In Ancient India (Harvard University Press). It is an unembellished title and the language of the book follows this pattern, offering a 1,000-year overview of how violence and its philosophical corollary, non-violence, were treated and reconciled by thinkers many centuries ago. So while some hagiographies might show Ashoka roasting his brother and rival for the Mauryan throne and slaughtering 18,000 Ajivikas before his evolution into a crusader for peace, the fact is that we don’t really have reliable statistics for how (or how many) people died in political settings all those ages ago. The book, therefore, is necessarily “a history of ideas”, which studies intellectual responses to violence, from sources such as the Vedas to the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, alluding to Harappan remains as well as to the times of the Guptas.

Singh sets out, in a very balanced fashion, to challenge a basic principle many of us have, over years of schooling and nation-building, systematically absorbed: that India has been an eternal beacon of non-violence and harmony. The truth, as the author demonstrates, is as complex as the other truths of life. For what we see is the emergence of non-violence as an ideal mainly among Buddhists and Jains, subsequently adopted by Hindu sources as well, but always with a parallel understanding that in the practical universe of economics and politics, involving masses of people, non-violence is a principle that cannot always be upheld. So we find even Ashoka struggling to persuade his palace establishment to accept a fully vegetarian kitchen, as much as we encounter Eastern oligarchies, sites evidently of greater political confrontation than the monarchical West, welcoming Buddha’s doctrine of peace and offering patronage without irony.

The basic formula all sources seek to conceptualize is how much violence is justifiable and judicious for the maintenance of order. So while “the Buddha taught a doctrine of detachment, Buddhism was never detached from the political sphere”, and understood this conundrum. The Mahabharata, similarly, “is pervaded by relentless violence”, as is the Vedic world, and they are all aware that non-violence, for all its splendid dignity and significance, cannot meet eye to eye with the realities of the world. So when Yudhishthira, predictably, grapples with morality and what is correct and honourable, Bhishma tells him how “nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion” besides turning oneself into “a compassionate and righteous eunuch”. “While the Mahabharata,” Singh writes, “from time to time lauds non-violence as a didactic principle, the main story…. (leaves) no doubt that the king must not, cannot, practice non-violence.”

One of the most enjoyable sections in the book is Singh’s discussion of violence as it appears in the Panchatantra tales, which seem to contemplate the issue not from the perspective of kings but from several levels below. “In the Panchatantra,” we learn, “the denunciation of kings is much stronger than their praise…. Like that of a prostitute, his behavior takes many forms…. The bottom line is: Kings are violent and dangerous.” So too, it is shown, that violence is “central to most of the Panchatantra stories” which, more than the morals they seemingly convey, also implicitly transfer insights on pragmatism and common sense. Thus, for example, we have the tale of the ass in leopard’s skin who thinks a farmer in a grey blanket is a she-ass. The supposed she-ass runs, fearing it is a leopard, but the moment the ass reveals its true (weak) identity through an apparently seductive bray, the she-ass turns around and shoots an arrow into its heart. The lesson for ordinary souls: Always be on your guard, and don’t ever think like an ass. The most enduring human quality, after all, is our breathtaking stupidity.

At almost 600 pages, Singh’s is a work of scholarship that will take some time to fully digest. We return to Buddhist and Jain works, as much as to Hindu sources and epics with every theme under investigation, and on the whole most of the textual authorities of Indian antiquity have been covered without prejudice. What is missing, however, is a greater share of south Indian material, which is a weakness the author acknowledges. With the addition of authorities from the south, the book might perhaps have been several dozen pages longer, but it would have been richer still. That said, at the end of the day, what Singh offers is a thought-provoking intellectual history of our dealings with violence, demonstrating that 2,000 years ago, Indians were as full of questions as they are today, and that we would only be letting down our best traditions if now we were to suddenly stop asking them.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 21 2017)


As Dalits in Gujarat stand up for their right to wear the moustache, it is more than a little ironic that Kerala, where moustaches were once methodically taxed by caste, should be admitting Dalits as priests in its temples. Though temple entry in the region was first granted to untouchables in 1936, the sanctum sanctorum is generally off limits for those who cannot, by birth, claim the dignity of the sacred thread. This custom is now broken—the thread belongs not to those who claim divinely exalted bloodlines, but to those who proactively seek the responsibilities attendant upon temple service.

The 14th century Bhakti saint Chokhamela might have rejoiced. Enthralled by the deity in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, his Mahar status, despite the fervour of his faith, had barred him access to his lord. He was resigned to his fate, but appealed poignantly to Brahmin gatekeepers of the shrine: “The cane is crooked, but its juice isn’t crooked…Chokha is ugly, but his feelings aren’t ugly. Why be fooled by outward appearance?”

Chokhamela is the only untouchable among Maharashtra’s (male) Bhakti thinkers, and spent most of his life doing the peculiarly menial work Mahars were mandated to do. His fellow saints in the Bhakti pantheon, in comparison, came from relative privilege, though few could be reckoned as part of the elite—Tukaram was a failed shopkeeper, Namdev a god-fearing tailor. Yet, the fact that while they were low, they were not from the lowest, permitted certain liberties to these men whose verses could, therefore, take the risk of packing a punch. Jnandev, son of an ostracized Brahmin, is said to have mocked the old guard by causing a buffalo to produce sounds that seemed worryingly close to Vedic verses, while Tukaram was relieved that he was “no wretched pandit splitting Vedantic hairs”. They could all, to some degree, get away with their radicalism in a deeply hierarchical social order, but Chokhamela had no such option.

Instead, he couched his devotion in terms of his social conditioning as a Mahar. Addressing the deity as he might an upper caste, he says: “I am the Mahar of your Mahars, I am so hungry; I have come for your leavings, I am full of hope.” In another verse, he brings a “bowl for your leftover food”—with no access to the shrine and its blessed occupant, perhaps he could satisfy his devotion by serving the deity as a lowborn serves his overlord, eating his scraps and offering complete submission. “O God, my caste is low; how can I serve you? Everyone tells me to go away; how can I see you? When I touch anyone, they take offense…Chokha wants your mercy.” However, while there is anguish, he does not blame those who designed his shackles and marked him from birth as undeserving of anything better. Indeed, he goes as far as to flagellate himself, blaming karma for his terrible plight. In a previous birth, he explains dejectedly, he must have disrespected god; “this (present) impurity is the fruit of our past.”

While there were moments when Chokhamela seems on the verge of standing up to those in power (“The earth and the Ganga are common to all, irrespective of caste and religion”), it was his son from his wife Soyarabai who was more blunt in his criticism of the way things were. Karmamela, as the boy was known, spoke thus to the deity: “Are we happy when we’re with you? … The low place is our lot; the low place is our lot; the low place is our lot, King of Gods! … It’s a shameful life here for us. It’s a festival of bliss for you and misery written on our faces.” Therefore, it isn’t surprising, as the late historian Eleanor Zelliot noted, that Karmamela, with his sharper critique, finds fewer devotees singing his verses during the annual pilgrimages to Pandharpur today. Chokhamela, in contrast, has been elevated as the product of a divine birth: God met his mother once and bit into a mango she offered him. When he left and she looked at the half-eaten fruit, there lay in its place the baby Chokhamela.

Part of this promotion may also have been due to his own efforts—borrowing the sociologist’s expression—to Sanskritize. He spoke out against animal sacrifice not only because “you will be inflicting cruelty on another life and destroying it”, but also because, one suspects, this was more in consonance with ritual “purity”. He railed against alcohol, which in many parts of India was associated with certain “low” forms of worship; this too seems to have helped his posthumous social upgrade. God appeared to him in several forms: One version has Chokhamela struggling to drag away a dead cow, another duty that fell upon the Mahar, and the deity, manifesting as a young man, lent him a hand. But most critically, after he was rejected at the temple’s gates, the lord came to him instead, offering him commiseration as much as he did company, the two of them sitting by the riverside.

At the end of the day, Chokhamela was devoted but did not transgress lines drawn by society and its privileged elders. He died in an accident, it is said, when labouring on a construction site, and even his bones were found to be chanting the name of god. These bones were carried to the temple and buried at a spot that still receives visitors. Even in death, Chokhamela had no access to the sacred premises. Bones are impure, but since he was also impure in life, his memorial stands at the foot of the temple’s steps, outside those very walls where he once beseeched the shrine’s guardians for one glance, for one opportunity to satisfy his desire to behold the deity. Unlike those Dalit priests in Kerala who have now entered the heart of the sanctum six centuries later, old Chokhamela had to settle precisely for the place which, in his own lifetime, he was told was where he really belonged: the door.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 14 2017)


A number of Diwalis ago, as a boy of 12, I went to Nashik for some inconsequential purpose. And though it could not, at least back then, be argued that the city held much potential to animate the mind of an adolescent, I returned struck by three memorable scenes. The man in charge of entertaining us shepherded us first to a lovely stretch of the Godavari river, and then to the magnificent 18th century Trimbakeshwar temple. Dark and built from richly carved stone, the shrine once held the Nassak diamond, seized by the British in 1818 and, as of 1970, in the custody of an American trucking magnate (whose other claim to fame was that he was once husband to tennis star Gussie Moran). But what was most interesting about Nashik was not the striking temple, or tales about the legendary diamond. It was a far simpler, but very popular, site nearby, which happened, it is said, to be the scene of a pivotal episode that altered the very course of the Ramayan.

Stories about Diwali vary from place to place, but the most popular in our all-important Hindi heartland is that it commemorates Ram’s victory over Ravan, and his triumphant return to Ayodhya. Panchavati in Nashik, however, appears not on Ram’s journey back but during his years in exile. It is said to be the spot where that singular event that would pitch Ravan against Ram unfolded. And indeed, more than the great battle the heroes would fight later, it was what transpired here that highlighted their personal qualities as much as their codes of conduct. To this day, there is a cave in Panchavati where Ram, Sita, and Laxman are supposed to have dwelt. From outside it looks like a nondescript house, with doors and windows. But once one enters, as I did all those years ago, there is a flight of steps that goes underground, so narrow that one must descend squatting, its smallness causing adults of more than a certain size great inconvenience, though all visitors stand united in the inelegance of their posture.

It was from Panchavati that Ravan abducted Sita, and I was quite impressed by the image of a heroine secured in this underground vault. What my mother pointed out, though, was that this is also precisely where Surpanakha was mutilated. It was here that Ravan’s sister lost her nose (and, according to some versions, breasts and ears), and it was to avenge her honour that the Lankan king would seize Sita. The story, of course, is well established—the hero triumphs over the villain, and with his wife, whose virtue has been confirmed by fire, returns to a capital illuminated with lights. The person who seems to vanish from this happy narrative, however, is Surpanakha, whose fate, even in the most orthodox retellings of the Ramayan, seems to signify that Ram’s conduct had its moments of imperfection. After all, when the woman professed love for him at Panchavati, it was he who sought to amuse himself by sending her to his brother instead. Laxman then sent her back—till, finally furious, Surpanakha decided (not particularly rationally) to devour Sita. Sita survived, but Surpanakha lost her body part(s)—and her dignity.

In Valmiki’s Ramayan, Surpanakha is evil incarnate and has no claims to dignity to begin with. Where Ram’s “face was beautiful, hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-coloured. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well-spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent”. Surpanakha was a shameless ogress who openly expressed lust, unlike Sita, who is single-minded in devotion and brimming with wifely sacrifice. Surpanakha, in contrast, “at the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son,” tells the Ramcharitmanas, would grow “excited” and fail to “restrain her passion”. The undertone seems to be that given her unedifying conduct, Surpanakha, “foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent”, had it coming. Her honour was irrelevant.

While most poets stuck to this narrative, not all ignored the inconsistency that Ram—who is meant to be proper in all ways—should amuse himself at the expense of a besotted lady, whatever her deportment. She may still have reacted violently if they had simply rejected her, but the insulting provocation of turning her into a joke first reflects poorly on Sita’s protectors. Kampan’s Tamil Ramayan, as the late scholar Kathleen M. Erndl notes, “not only describes Surpanakha’s appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight”. When she saw Ram, “the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean” and she made him a proposition—that a powerful woman like her could protect Ram was one of the points she advanced in her favour. In this version, Ram chats with her, and it is the next day, when she attempts to abduct Sita to imitate her form, that Laxman disfigures Surpanakha in his sister-in-law’s defence. This, perhaps, offers an explanation for the violence without blemishing Ram’s honour, though here too he does consciously entertain himself at Surpanakha’s expense.

For a boy of 12, it was a revelation to come out of a temple to Sita—that paragon of goodness—and be reminded of the dishonouring of Surpanakha—a gallant “demoness” with power and authority but who failed the test of chastity. Panchavati then went down in my mind, all those Diwalis ago, not merely as the scene where an evil king kidnapped another’s wife, but also as one where great heroes showed heroism to also be fallible, prejudice denting forever tales and songs of their valour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 7 2017)


When Annie Besant arrived in India in 1893, she had already accumulated enough notoriety for a lifetime. This was a woman who had separated from her clergyman husband, losing custody of both her children. And given her “wayward” conduct, his Victorian peers justified the raising of his hand against her, including, it appears, for her reluctance to share his bed. Her son was handed over to the father during the divorce, but she lost her daughter only after the man discovered the girl had forgotten her prayers—her mother had confidently told her there was nobody listening at the other end. Distraught though she was on losing her child, Besant remained defiant. “It’s a pity there isn’t a God,” she declared as she exited the courtroom. “It would do one so much good to hate him.”

The irony was that this Irishwoman who eventually found her way to India began her life immersed in religiosity. She was born on 1 October 1847—a day and 22 years before Mahatma Gandhi, whose ascent would mark her eclipse. Her widowed mother enrolled her in an unconventional school where Besant obtained a good education, and where the boys too were made to sew. But it was a deeply Christian setting, and unquestioning service was the cornerstone of her existence. At 18, she met Frank Besant and accepted his proposal, hoping it would bring her closer to God—in reality, she found herself discussing laundry with other pious wives. Her restless mind, fear of domesticity, and a waning belief in Christ resulted in a meeting with a theologian to get closer to the “truth”. “It is not your duty to ascertain the truth,” he said sharply, nearly accusing her of blasphemy.

After her marriage collapsed in 1873, Besant joined the National Secular Society. Alongside Charles Bradlaugh, leader of the Freethought movement, she wrote on science and economics, becoming also a public advocate for women’s rights. While her ex-husband appointed a detective to see if she was sleeping with Bradlaugh, Besant embraced atheism. “Atheist is one of the grandest titles (one) can wear,” she explained in her autobiography. “It was howled over the grave of Copernicus…it was yelled…at Voltaire…(so that) where the cry of ‘Atheist’ is raised…we (may) be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption of humanity.” And if all this were not adequately scandalous, in 1877 Besant confirmed her status as a rebel by republishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits Of Philosophy, an innocently titled work that was actually a forbidden handbook on birth control.

Besant and her colleagues were charged with obscenity. “I risk my name, I risk my liberty; and it is not without deep and earnest thought that I have entered this struggle,” she stated, but the book was banned to protect “public morals”. For Besant, what followed was public persecution. She had certificates from London University qualifying her to teach chemistry, botany and mathematics, but when she sought access to the Botanical Gardens, her request was denied—the curator’s daughters went for their walks there, and the last thing he wanted to expose them to was this refractory divorcee. Others called her a deranged female, but Besant remained steely. “The moment a man uses a woman’s sex to discredit her arguments,” she pointed out, we know “that he is unable to answer (her) arguments”.

Bernard Shaw thought her a “born actress” who was “successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist Bible-smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian Socialist, a Strike Leader, and finally a Theosophist”. And indeed, Besant changed her political stands every decade—when she became a Theosophist after encountering the controversial Madame Blavatsky, she withdrew support for the Knowlton pamphlet she once defended with such passion. But at the end of the day, it was theosophy that brought her to India. On her very first trip, she gave 121 lectures, visited temples, began Sanskrit lessons, and understood that far from “civilizing” Indians, what the British presided over was an elaborate system of enslavement.

Besant won admiration from Indian thinkers for her appreciation of our culture. “Hindu polity is built up on its religion,” she argued somewhat romantically. “You have not only the Vedas and the Upanishads showing a mighty intellect…. You find the very foundation of modern science laid down as part of the Hindu philosophy.” More problematically, while caste had to go, she felt it had had “a glorious past”. Her strongest message, however, was that while “the jewels of Western learning” must come to India, “the diamonds of the Eastern faith” must also be given their due.

Besant was also, incidentally, one of the founders of the Banaras Hindu University—the scene of a women’s agitation today—her intention being to create an institution “not to enable a man to earn forty or sixty rupees a month, but to raise (his) intellect”. In 1914, she joined the Congress party, and exactly a century ago was elected its president. Her nationalism became a headache for the colonial authorities (who called her a “great nuisance”) and her home rule movement was deemed positively seditious. With World War I raging, and Besant ceaseless in her newspaper activism and speeches, she was arrested and parked in Ooty for some time. The Indian public, however, saw in her a hero, her eventual release received with great jubilation.

In the end, Gandhi’s rise coincided with Besant’s exit from the limelight, for suddenly politics moved from the anglicized Indian’s drawing room into the hands of the masses. Besant spoke no Indian languages, and could no longer lend initiative in the way the Mahatma could. “All these forty years my white body has been an asset,” she wrote. “It is no longer so.” Somewhat disappointed, she spent the rest of her years focused on the Theosophical Society’s future, in Madras (now Chennai). By the time she died in 1933, she was respected as a kind of grand dame but was no longer necessarily relevant to India’s political future.

For all that, however, nobody could deny, as biographer Rosemary Dinnage noted, that this was a lady with a “powerful will” whose “energy and courage were of an extraordinary order”—a woman whose life was a series of battles, and who faced them with fortitude as much as she did with unbending conviction.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 30 2017)


In 1296, when the fearsome Alauddin Khilji—slayer of his royal predecessor, coveter of other men’s wives, and paramour of the warrior eunuch, Malik Kafur—first invaded the Deccan, it was to Devagiri that he marched. He came seeking gold, and indeed there was much treasure he would haul back to Delhi after the success of his campaign: The battle was cleverly won, riches heaped before him. But it was before the principal clash, on the way to wealthy Devagiri, that the sultan confronted real resistance. And it came at a place called Lasur where the local commander had by his side two unusually spirited warriors—two formidable Maratha women who fought, a chronicler would write, “like lionesses”. Their names have dissolved into history since, but their bravery, which impressed even the invader, survived the generations.

Many centuries later, another Maratha lady, descended it is said from Devagiri’s royal house, gave birth to the man who would rewrite the destiny of his people. Shivaji—to celebrate whom yet another statue at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus has been commissioned in Mumbai, besides the colossus by the sea—would embark upon a fascinating career, though like most Indian historical figures, he too has largely been painted in politically motivated colours to propel various interests. In his own day, he was known by many (not always complimentary) names. The English called him “Sevagee the Rebel” who sacked Surat, while the shah of Iran needled Aurangzeb for failing to contain a mere “zamindar like Shiva”. The Mughals snarled that Shivaji was a “wild animal” and a “mountain rat”, and when he eventually died (of natural causes, and not at the end of a Mughal sword), the imperial records issued a sour obituary: “The infidel went to hell.”

The gripping 17th century conflict between Shivaji and the Mughals was a complicated one. But by 1840, British writers like J.W. Massie would state with conviction that it was “a kind of holy war”. This played nicely into the colonial narrative that “Hindu India” and “Muslim India” were perpetually at daggers till the West fired its muskets and shone its light, and it has since played also into the hands of Indian parties that seek historical legitimacy for their own antipathy towards certain citizens of our country. Either way, Shivaji, despite solid statues of bronze and iron, has been transformed into a plastic substance in the hands of motivated interests. He certainly had many remarkable aspects to his life and personality. What is unfortunate is that his actions in various contexts are cleaved wholly out of those contexts to lend force to present-day compulsions—a formula that has been in vogue for quite some time.

Jyotirao Phule, who espoused a radical reinvention of society in India, for instance, saw Shivaji as not only the warrior who stood up to a faraway tyrant but also to the tyranny within Hindu society, exemplified by caste. Phule exhorted his 19th century followers to emulate Shivaji and to resist oppression in all its forms—from the white foreigner to the caste-superior next door. When Phule developed a play in 1869 eulogizing this avatar of Shivaji, it was quickly dismissed by the elite of that time. “The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji,” sniffs a review (in Vividhadnyan Vistar, a literary journal). “A copy of this has come to us. The author is some Mr Jotirao Govindrao Phule or other. When we read this work we thought that to accept it would bring sheer disgrace upon the great and courageous Shivaji, and upon all Hindu people. We have no idea of the author’s address, so we…are unable to send it back to him.”

While Phule’s revolutionary Shivaji was swiftly retired from public circulation, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s incarnation received a cheerful embrace, for this version of the king focused solely on the enemy outside, not on reform within. As Maria Misra, a scholar, writes, Tilak’s Shivaji was “an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…(suggesting) that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.” The reformer M.G. Ranade, meanwhile, impressed with the West’s intellectual advances, sought in his Shivaji a humanist and statesman, a man anxious to reform and who inspired the birth of nationalism in the region. Put together, by the early 20th century, Shivaji was a repository for each man’s ideology and every politician’s ambition.

By the early 1920s, maharaja Shahu of Kolhapur invoked the memory of his illustrous ancestor for his own anti-Brahmin cause. Even as this ruler, among the more enlightened in India, reserved positions for non-Brahmins in his government and opened up education to the masses, he combined rival views on Shivaji, casting him not only as a protector of peasants but also of the non-Brahmin Maratha aristocracy. The Brahmins, who preferred Shivaji as a champion of orthodoxy, retaliated by refusing to perform rituals for the ruler, denying him status as a legitimate Kshatriya.

After independence, feuds between the Brahmin interpreters of Shivaji’s legacy and custodians of his Maratha glory have carried on, all the way down to our own times. The only common feature has been undiluted reverence either way, marked also by a proliferation of statues across Mumbai.

At the end of the day, it is the dramatic, fascinating complexity of the man that is the casualty. Painted in broad strokes in limited colours by all dispensations, the rich details of his life receive only secondary attention—the statue towering over the street and its contemporary battles has become the focus, and the actual man who changed his world subsumed behind obeisance and homage but never the complete, non-partisan analysis that his remarkable legacy deserves.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 23 2017)


Perhaps the most revealing test of the sincerity of any drive for reform lies in how welcoming it is of the voices of women. When Basava sparked the 12th century movement that we now recognize as Lingayatism, many were those of dazzling intellect who joined him. Tired of social shackles and determined to chart an alternative course, they found in Basava’s anti-caste, egalitarian crusade a resonance that has survived the ages, down, indeed, to our times. Gauri Lankesh, the slain journalist, for instance, lent her voice to the Lingayat cause, and there is today an entire political class that seeks to reaffirm the principles Basava upheld, prominent among which is a commitment to the autonomy of women.

Indeed, of the 210 saints associated with Basava, as many as 35 were female, 14 of them unmarried. These were women of uncommon brilliance who, in addition to their battles against caste and inequality, also challenged patriarchy’s grip over their bodies and thought. As with many in the Bhakti tradition, their ideas were expressed in the language of devotion, evoking, as the scholar Vijaya Ramaswamy tells, “very strong sexual imagery” that was “erotic in style and metaphor”. Thus, for instance, we have the saint Remmavve of the weaver caste who sang ecstatically of her union not with a mortal consort, but with the patron deity of the Lingayats, Shiva himself: All husbands have seeds/My husband has no seeds/All husbands are above/My husband below, I am above him!

Like elsewhere, women in medieval Karnataka ordinarily found their lives cemented in patriarchal norms: father, husband, son and family was their universe. Those seeking freedom from this prescribed existence received sanctuary in Basava’s reform movement, also insulating themselves from social reaction through a pronounced commitment to god. The celebrated Akka Mahadevi left her royal husband’s palace behind, wandering naked and singing praises of Shiva. “You shall be doomed if you touch the woman married to (the lord)”, she warned, but even then the road was not always safe. In a version of the Shunyasampadane that holds the Lingayat vachanas, there is an honoured figure who attempts to violate Mahadevi. “She is not,” we are informed, however, “desecrated”. Leaving aside mythmaking, the point was simply that even with their voice couched in terms of spirituality, women thinkers—then, as now—were not always safe and had more battles to fight than their male counterparts could know or imagine.

Basava, cognizant of this, went out of his way to promote equality between the sexes as much as he fought for equality among the castes. Menstruation, for instance, entailed ritual pollution for women ordinarily, but Basava rejected this—women could continue to worship Shiva regardless of whether or not there was blood.

When Mahadevi’s nudity became a point of discussion, he came to her defence and asked: “Does the one who has loved the sky-clad one, have need of a girdle cloth?” So too he raised questions of institutions built around gender. “Look here, dear fellow,” goes one of his vachanas. “I wear these men’s clothes only for you. Sometimes I am man, sometimes I am woman.” The singular Mahadevi, meanwhile, argued the opposite. “A woman though in name, I am, if you consider well, the male principle.” Clothed in Shiva’s “light”, she was not bound by shame. “Where is the need for cover and jewel” when she was under the benevolent gaze of the divine? It was all about devotion but within it lay also an assertion of who Mahadevi was.

If these were more personal expressions of individuality in a time when community reigned supreme, Basava and the Lingayats had questions for society too. Their age was one of Brahmin ascendancy, and the orthodox did not welcome Basava’s call for a society unrestricted by caste, open to introspection and embracing of women. The Lingayats were dismissed as contrarian for the sake of it, their female saints simply branded strange. Strange, in fact, even the men must have looked in any case—a fellowship of rebels from diverse backgrounds. Basava was born Brahmin; Allama Prabhu a drummer; Siddharama a cowherd; Maccayya a washerman; and Kakkaya, a skinner of dead cows. What was infuriating, however, was their pointed criticism of conservative Brahminical hypocrisy. As Basava put it, They say: Pour, pour the milk/When they see a snake image in stone/But they cry: Kill, kill!/When they meet a snake for real. The old scriptures were all, in theory, open to new ideas and thought. But custodians of these books were, in practise, merely custodians of their own privilege.

Basava’s movement was, in the end, violently crushed after the Lingayats dealt patriarchy and caste a combined blow by getting a Brahmin’s daughter married to an untouchable’s son. And in the centuries that followed, though Lingayatism retained its identity, it reached an accommodation with the power of the Brahmins. What was an “expressly anti-Brahmanical and anti-caste” movement transformed itself into a caste in a few centuries. “Defiance,” after all, as scholar A.K. Ramanujan said, “is not discontinuity.” Like Protestants in Europe, who sought a less corrupted version of the Christian faith, the Lingayats were a group that challenged tyranny and gave a voice to the marginalized. They may have resisted the Brahmin, but they are part of the same all-encompassing Hindu order that embraces everyone from the tree-worshipper to the atheist.

Today, however, the Lingayats question this classification. Are they, who celebrate Basava’s heterodox teachings, who uphold the vachanas of many remarkable women, who bury their dead and go to no temples, really Hindus? Proponents of Hindutva insist they are—where majoritarianism is the goal, one can hardly allow the dilution of the majority. In the medieval past, after Basava and his saints were gone, it was not easy to resist those with the power to insist and enforce. But armed with the freedoms of modernity—ideas that in the 12th century animated the minds of Lingayat thinkers—voices from within have been raised to assert precisely this claim of difference. M.M. Kalburgi said it, and Gauri Lankesh said it: the Lingayats are not Hindus. They are their own. The tragedy of course lies not in whether this is the right answer or whether it is wrong. It lies in the fact that both raised questions, and both are now dead.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 16 2017)


In 1874, The New York Times despatched a correspondent to India to survey the life of a fabulously wealthy man. Once he had been an even wealthier monarch, but by the time the journalist arrived, he had already spent decades in vastly reduced conditions, having lost his territories and squandered much of his money. From a kingdom the size of Scotland, Wajid Ali Shah now reigned over only an estate in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The sheer number of followers cramped into his premises, however, gave some impression of pomp—the grounds hosted over 7,000 people, including prostitutes, household guards, and dozens of disgruntled begums, not to speak of a menagerie of monkeys, bears, and 18,000 pigeons. “The Ex-King of Oude’s mimic kingdom,” the NYT called the establishment, and that is precisely what it was: a pale imitation of faded glories.

Wajid Ali Shah was a creative, difficult and interesting man. Born in 1822, he wore his hair in ringlets and dressed in robes that coyly exposed his left nipple. His early years were unremarkable but for his interest in music, dance and poetry—and for the ample proportions of his royal person. By the time he succeeded to the throne of Awadh in 1847, a state carved out of the crumbling Mughal empire, he had already produced works such as the Darya-yi-Ta’ashshuq (The River Of Love) and the Bahr-e ‘Ishq (The Ocean Of Affection). His plays were sensational productions that took months to put together, and every now and then the Shah threw grand parties—the Yogi Mela of 1853 saw his gardens opened to the masses, with everyone instructed to dress in saffron. In 1843, he directed a play on the deity Krishna, with four of his wives playing milkmaids and prancing around the stage.

Predictably, the heavily starched, completely avaricious British were displeased. “The Heir Apparent’s character holds no promise of good,” it was noted. His “temper is capricious and fickle, his days and nights are passed in the female apartments and he appears to have resigned himself to debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits”. This, of course, made for a wonderful excuse for annexation, so that even when the Shah made efforts to govern his kingdom well, producing an administrative manual called the Dastur-i-Wajidi, the British preferred to dismiss him as an imbecile. Less than a decade after his succession, when he was told in 1856 that his kingdom would be absorbed into British territory, the Shah cried, “Why have I deserved this? What (crime) have I committed?” There was no clear answer, but one hint lies in the fact that the East India Company owed him large amounts in debt. Why bother repaying a loan when liquidating your moneylender was a more comfortable option?

Some of the blame did lie with the Shah. He loved gun salutes from the British, but when it came to actually protecting his honour by fighting the annexation of his kingdom, it was his elderly mother who made more of a real (if abortive) effort by travelling to London. While the old lady died in an alien country, her son agreed to become a pensioner of the East India Company. Once Wajid Ali Shah commanded 60,000 men, but now he was reduced to a life of domestic frustration and chauvinistic rage. There was a time when he saw himself as a modern-day Krishna, a hero whose brilliance attracted women by the hundreds. But as his biographer Rosie Llewellyn-Jones notes, “For all his passionate love poetry, Wajid Ali Shah may have been one of those men who enjoy the pursuit and capture, but do not actually like women very much.”

Perhaps this stemmed from when he was sexually abused by a nanny at the age of 8or perhaps there were other reasons. About one wife he wrote: “Day and night I would loiter around her like one possessed.” But in 1849 he was dismayed to learn that what he got in return from her was gonorrhoea. He liked dark women, and an African wife was cheerfully named Ajaib Khanum (Strange Lady). Another consort, a descendant of a Mughal prince from his Anglo Indian wife, Sally Begum, was five years his senior, while of the eight women he divorced at his mother’s insistence, one, the redoubtable Begum Hazrat Mahal stayed on in Lucknow and waged war against the British in 1857; this lady too had more spirit than her ex-husband.

Having settled in Calcutta, Wajid Ali Shah got down to practical matters. In the next two decades, he divorced 50 of his remaining wives, but in 1878 when he tried to get rid of 27 more in one shot, the British were embarrassed—he could not simply shed begums, he was informed. The man responded with exasperation: “But the women are old and ugly!” When asked who should care for them, quick came his reply: “The Government.” By 1880, the principal queen was “living in adultery” with someone else, possibly due to sheer desperation—the king was a miser and saw a monthly allowance of Rs90 to his oldest son as perfectly generous when his own income was Rs12 lakh every year. The British, in turn, hadn’t quite counted on the man living so long and costing them grand amounts in pension.

When in September 1887, the Shah finally died, there was general relief not only among the authorities but also in his camp. “His ladies were nearly as numerous as his animals,” the governor-general’s wife recorded. “They (depart) at the rate of seven or eight a day…the slaves of an hard-hearted old man who cared more for his cobras and his wild beasts than he did for them.”

The Shah had once been heir to a kingdom and to a large fortune—a decade after Awadh’s annexation it was found that the British still owed the ex-king £2 million. He had reigned in style and patronized the arts. He was an inheritor who, were he not entrapped by prejudice and by colonial machinations, would have gone down as the creator of an even greater legacy. His downfall, however, turned him into an unhappy tyrant bent on preserving a miniature copy of his past—a past that came at the cost of depressing those who stood by him when calamity struck, and who only too late learnt that Wajid Ali, the Shah, had long predeceased Wajid Ali the embittered pensioner.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 09 2017)


When M.K. Gandhi arrived in Madras (now Chennai) in 1915, among those seeking a private audience with him was a man called V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. Gandhi, already a hero after his South Africa days, had several demands on his time and suggested, therefore, a quick meeting. His correspondent was not pleased. “I am afraid,” he replied, “that my conversation…will take more than the allotted ‘a few minutes’.” Apologizing sourly for “having intruded upon your precious time”, Pillai withdrew his request. Gandhi was puzzled. He now insisted on seeing the man, making equally sarcastic amends by requesting his time at 6am. “I cannot reach your place before 6.30am,” Pillai said, but finally, they did meet: the champion of Tuticorin and the Mahatma-in-waiting.

What ensued was a somewhat frustrating exchange between the two leaders—one whose political career was on the ascendant and another who not only found his best years behind him, but was also broke. Gandhi offered to help Pillai with money, and the latter readily accepted. But the amount was a long time coming. “Don’t you know at least approximately the total amount given…by your friend?” asked Pillai. “If you know it, can you not send me that amount or a major portion of it…so that it may be useful to me in my present difficult circumstances?” “Not yet,” snapped the Mahatma abruptly. In the end it took a year, but Gandhi did succeed in arranging Rs347 for Pillai, who was not only pleased by this satisfactory end to their exchange but also somewhat lighter of debt.

Pillai, who seemed to almost harass Gandhi with letters in 1915, was unrecognizable from the man who once handled lakhs of rupees and was a celebrated shipping magnate. Born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, he had followed his lawyer father’s instructions and become a pleader in 1894. But if Pillai Sr was pleased, his joys were short-lived—father and son soon found themselves on opposite sides of a case, and the latter demolished in court not only his esteemed parent’s arguments but also his father’s pride. It was decided that Pillai should move, so, in 1900, he parked himself in Tuticorin. Influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, he embraced swadeshiactivities, but it was in 1906 that the cause which would define his life came to him, putting him on a path that would bring pain as much as it would achievement, accumulating honour but also inviting an unhappy fate.

At the time, Tuticorin was an established centre for shipping, with thousands using its harbour. But the entire industry was in the hands of British companies who were in bed with the colonial government. So when in October 1906 Pillai opened the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, there was first a great deal of condescension, followed by an equal measure of anger. Pillai’s ambitions were high—though services were restricted to Tuticorin and Colombo, Swadeshi aimed to “popularize the art of Navigation” among “Nations of the East”, to employ “Asiatics”, to open dockyards, and do whatever it could to revitalize India’s maritime traditions.

Many prominent Indians invested in Pillai’s venture, while local merchants were persuaded to ply goods on his hired steamer, the Shah Allum. “This,” reported a newspaper, “has naturally aroused the jealousy of the British Indian Steam Navigation Company…. The competition…is very keen…. The authorities have not always been impartial. The impression that the white Civilian is likely to favour the white trader is gaining ground.” The owner of Shah Allum was prevailed upon to withdraw his vessel, for instance.

Undeterred, Pillai not only acquired ships from abroad but also sailed into Tuticorin flying flags emblazoned with Vande Mataram. The British authorities threw all they could his way, but Pillai’s energy saw him through—that is, till two years later, his politics produced an excuse to destroy his commercial enterprise as well.

In 1908, a magistrate ordered Pillai, who was planning a procession to celebrate the release from prison of Bipin Chandra Pal, to leave the city. He refused and was arrested. On 13 March, things got out of hand—mobs set fire to public buildings, made bonfires of state records, and for days Tuticorin witnessed riots, with four people losing their lives. Pillai was given 20 years in prison—the judge held him “morally responsible” for the deaths.

Eventually, the Madras high court reduced the sentence to four years. But while Pillai languished under a particularly sadistic jailor, his company collapsed, his family was bankrupted, and all his friends disappeared. By the time he emerged in 1912, he was not only poor but also forgotten. Moving to Madras, he set up a shop there, earning also by tutoring college students. Though a judge called Wallace restored his legal licence (to thank whom Pillai named his son Wallacewaran), the man’s career was essentially over.

In 1949, Pillai was brushed up and restored to public memory. Governor general C. Rajagopalachari came to Tuticorin after independence and flagged off a shipping service to Colombo—the first vessel was named the SS VO Chidambaram. Statues of the forgotten hero were installed and flowers and garlands were heaped to honour his legacy. It was a decade too late though—in 1936, Pillai had died in penury, surviving his last days by selling his law books and ruminating on all that he had once been. As he had remarked many years before, all someone in his position could do was trust in god, “who is any day a surer master of destiny” than a once famous lawyer and businessman drowning in an ocean of disappointment and sorrow.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 02 2017)


Legend has it that in 52 AD, when St Thomas the Apostle landed on the shores of Kerala, the first person he encountered was a flute-playing Jewish girl. This sliver of India’s coast, where Onam festivities are underway this week, has long embraced people of all kinds and of all faiths. St Thomas himself, it is said, traversed the land, establishing seven churches so that long before Christianity touched even the outskirts of Europe, there were already Christians in India—a little detail that confounded the Portuguese who arrived 1,500 years later and “discovered” brown “natives” wedded already to the word of Christ. The Christians of Kerala, however, looked to the Patriarch of Antioch in modern-day Turkey as their leader. And so, when white men presumed to claim their ancient churches for the pope, quick came the retort: “Who is the Pope?” The Portuguese responded with instant persecution, but some of it was also sheer bewilderment—bewilderment of the variety shared by Indians of a certain persuasion today as they propagate a regrettable political cause.

Kerala, presently at the receiving end of hysteria that frames it as a “killing field” of Hindus, welcomed Christians and absorbed them into its social and cultural fabric, as it did with all who preceded them (such as the Jews) and all who came afterwards (for instance, the Muslims). In the 16th century, the raja of Kochi maintained thousands of Christians in his armies, while Christian merchants controlled trade in the port of Kollam. One traveller recorded that “there is no distinction either in their habits, or in their hair (style), or in anything else betwixt the Christians of this diocese and the heathen” Hindus, and there was tolerance of intermarriage too till the end of the 1500s. In the Krishna temple in Ambalappuzha, an image representing St Thomas used to be carried in procession alongside those of Hindu divinities on festive occasions, while in Chengannur, a Brahmin prince gifted a half-built temple to his Christian subjects, today home to the oldest church in that town. Even more revealingly, across the coast, there were Hindu shrines where only oil “purified” by the touch of a Christian could serve to light lamps and sacred fires.

The legends of Kerala too reflect this seamless pluralism. St Thomas, for instance, is supposed to have parleyed with the goddess Bhagavathy at the harbour in Pallippuram. They commenced a discussion on their respective faiths, till, many hours having passed, the goddess grew weary, and decided to return to her sanctum in Kodungallur. “St Thomas,” Francis Day tells, “not to be outdone, rapidly gave chase, and just as Bhagavathy got inside the door post, prevented its closing.” As Susan Bayly, the anthropologist, explains, both Bhagavathy and St Thomas are perceived as equally divine in this story, their chase tinged with a hint of romance. And while the Apostle did not gain access to Bhagavathy’s shrine and followers, he secured a “significant foothold” in the region. So too there are other shrines featuring heroes from religions that certain groups vehemently insist are antithetical to all that is Hindu—to this day, devotees visiting the Sabarimala temple pay obeisance first to the deity’s Muslim friend Vavaraswami aka Vavar, a name that sounds (painfully, to some) like Babur.

Embracing difference naturally birthed prosperity—in Kozhikode, Arabs collaborated with the Hindu Zamorin, transforming his capital into one of the great cities of the medieval world. Specific families too profited from welcoming those who were not like them—the Aithihyamaala (Legends Of Kerala) narrates the tale of Pandanparambath Namboodiri, a Brahmin who escaped poverty through his friendship with a Chinese merchant. While there are gripping stories in Kerala’s regional mythology of Hindu priests exorcising spirits, there are also Christian padres who sapped the power of evil. In the Kali temple in Parumala there is a yakshi defeated by a Christian—a Kathanar—who transformed her into a minor deity. Parvathi in the great temple of Chengannur menstruates, and locals tell of the donation made in the 1810s by the British Resident for her ceremonial bath. Kerala’s only Muslim dynasty was matrilineal, like Hindu royalty, and daughters had an equal claim with sons when it came to sitting on the throne—if a girl preceded a boy, she reigned as the Arakkal Beevi; if a boy came first, he was the Ali Raja. And the Beevis kept no purdah with the Hindu princes of nearby Kannur.

Then there is the matter of caste. Kerala was a veritable “lunatic asylum” of caste oppression, but it also became the land where some of India’s oldest reform movements appeared—Sri Narayana Guru, who lent spiritual force to the rise of the Ezhava community from poverty to power; Ayyankali, who wrested from high-caste Hindus the right for Dalits to walk on the road, and much more. And there is legend too that wryly points at the common origins of all these diverse castes. The sage Vararuchi, son of Sankaracharya’s preceptor, married a pariah woman, and fathered 12 children with her. One became a Brahmin, another a carpenter, and one was even a Muslim. Yet another sibling, when they all met for a feast, brought to the table food that he enjoyed: the udder of a cow, or beef if you will. Of course the story goes on to transform the meat into a plant that everyone then consumed, but the lesson is simply that though they were different in what they did and what they ate, they were all born of the same parents, and children of the same land.

And so it is, as Kerala celebrates its state festival—Hindus, Christians, Muslims all together, as always—that we must recall how its past was shaped, and where its future is going. For, after all, this is the age when alien ideologies shroud history in dark agendas of the present, seeking to transform a vibrant landscape into a universe of black and white, reducing a fascinating historical record into a narrow, tragic journey of us versus them.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 26 2017)


It is that time of the year when we indulge our national predilection for taking offence, banning books and hounding writers. We have Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, for example, whose collection, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, is deemed “pornographic” for portraying an impoverished tribal woman who, for 50 rupees and a pakoda, transacts sex with a policeman. That Shekhar reflects the reality of many marginalized women is irrelevant—the real danger to women’s honour in 2017 still lies in the refractory pages of a book, and the only recourse is to order an immediate, uncompromising ban.

When in 1955 independent India first decided to outlaw an English novel, its author was only a little anguished. As he remarked later, with an indifference designed to inflame the sanctimonious, “Efforts should be made to lift all bans on all books.” But those efforts wouldn’t come from him: “My job in life,” he declared, “is to write books, not chew the cud over them.” Aubrey Menen lived in Italy and while Indians were deprived of his Rama Retold, the book became a sensation abroad. Success allowed him to parade his disdain for incensed elders at home, though in private he did ask Jawaharlal Nehru why in a democracy any book should be banned at all. The prime minister was, it is said, apologetic, but felt that certain creative leaps in Menen’s tale came “a little too early for its time.”

“He was afraid of being criticized,” Menen recalled, and the book’s opening indicates why. “This is the story of Rama,” begins the Irish-Malayalee’s retelling, “a prince of India who lived his life according to the best advice. He reverenced his intellectual betters…and did what they told him to do. He took his morals from the best moralists, and his politics from the most experienced politicians. As a result he was ruined, exiled, and disinherited: his wife was stolen from him and when he got her back, he very nearly had to burn her alive from the highest of motives. In the teeth of the soundest and most reliable guidance from his moral and mental superiors, he finally recovered his country, his throne, and his common sense. He lived more than two thousand five hundred years ago but everybody will recognize his experiences.” Wry, revealing, and pointed, Menen’s pen knew no sacred cows.

Menen’s pronounced irreverence often invited trouble, but in 1955 the charge against him was of tarnishing a legendary woman’s equally legendary honour. For he had created a Sita who takes unorthodox decisions in the interests of survival. She is, like in traditional versions, dedicated to Ram, though sometimes she does suffer a little fatigue from all the devotion. “It seems that we are going to renounce the world,” she informs Laxman on being told of their exile. “When?” he asks. “Tomorrow morning,” she responds distractedly. On encountering Valmiki (whose idea of saying grace is to seek good pumpkins from the Almighty), she is told that he is a poet. “Very well,” says Sita, “if he starts talking poetry I shall get up and leave the room”—a wise policy for all women who endure the verbal flatulence typical of males of our species.

What was scandalous about Menen’s Sita, however, was her attitude towards Ravan. They meet, and he falls in love with her. While Ram is preoccupied with contemplating “tremendous questions about life” as Sita cooks and cleans, Ravan is a simpler, oddly refreshing contrast who actually talks to her. Though she is flattered by Ravan’s attention, she is not interested. But when the Lankan king attacks them after a brawl with Laxman, and it is clear that they cannot win, Sita walks up and agrees to go with Ravan if he ceases hostilities. It is against honour, but she saves everyone’s lives. All this, predictably, shocked Nehru’s generation—a Sita who remembers Ravan as “gentle with women”. Naturally, more correct Ramayan scholars like C. Rajagopalachari dismissed Menen’s audacity as “pure nonsense”, while others demanded a ban.

Menen reconciled the matter of Sita’s chastity with her uncomfortably long stay near Ravan by simply not bothering to reconcile it. Other Ramayan poets have struggled somewhat. Tulsidas addresses the issue by introducing gods who carry the “real” Sita away, replacing her with an illusion before Ravan abducts her—that way, Sita’s chastity is never under question at all. In another version, Ravan suffers from a curse that prevents him from coercing an unwilling woman, indirectly protecting Sita in captivity. In any case, the public had to be convinced, and Menen stayed true to the story of trial by fire—except that his fire was a magician’s trick (“Egyptian Fire”) orchestrated with Ram’s connivance. And soon, Sita appears unscathed, having completed the charade. “I hope you were not frightened,” asks Ram. “There was more smoke than I expected,” confesses Sita. All this while they are sipping sherbet in what was once Ravan’s palace.

There is much in Rama Retold that is provocative, just as there is much food for thought—the choice would have been the reader’s if one were actually allowed to read it. At the end of the day, Menen’s intention was to tap into India’s long-standing tradition of scepticism, eschewing overblown moralizing. A fine point if it didn’t today entail more bans, burning effigies, and mobs of internet warriors who uphold antiquated fallacies with furious clicks of the mouse—at least for those writers who can’t go abroad and must continue in this ancient land of timeless glory, where Ram is always infallible, Sita the emblem of monochrome virtue, and our elders gatekeepers of what is and is not in the interests of true honour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 19 2017)


On 12 June 1960, puzzled immigration officials in London detained a traveller who had landed up without bothering with that small thing called a passport. His face was partially paralysed but his tongue was defiant. “When the British came to my country,” he declared, “they did not bring any passport with them. Why should I now carry one to Britain?” It was a startling riposte but the visitor’s identity clarified matters. Angami Zapu Phizo, one time insurance salesman and proprietor of Gwiz Products, which offered a range of face creams and balms, was a dangerous separatist, sentenced to death by the Indian Union—a union 70 years old now but which is yet to fully reconcile with the people Phizo represented, and whose cause delivered him to his tragic destiny: exile and death in a foreign land.

The Nagas, descended from Mongoloid tribes, occupied a vast hilly tract for much of known history. Then, in 1832, an East India Company captain with 700 soldiers, 800 “coolies”—and no passport—decided to gun his way through their lands. Held loosely by rival clans, the advent of the British produced the tribes’ first common enemy, transforming also into a catalyst for unity. For the captain, however, the motive was clear—the company had brought Manipur under its control and now sought a direct route into Assam; a route that could only be had by bulldozing through this “savage tract lying in the midst of our settled districts”. A few patronizing lines about “civilizing the hillmen” were also thrown in, and Naga territory was justified as theirs to take.

Despite the hysterical onslaught of propaganda about headhunting, the Nagas were not convinced of their so-called inferiority. “We are all equal,” Phizo proudly noted. “We have no caste distinctions, no high class or low class. There is no minority problem and we believe in that form of democratic government which permits the rule of the people as a whole. We talk freely, we live freely, and we often fight freely too. We have few inhibitions. Wild? Yes, but free. There is order in this chaos, law in this freedom.” It was not what the West defined as “civilized” but it held all the other cultural ingredients for nationhood. The Nagas were alarmed to learn that an accident of history—and the construction of a highway—had made them “Indians” overnight.

Phizo, however, was an unlikely voice for Naga nationalism. Born in 1904, his was a family of converted Christians that was still tribal enough to baptize him at the late age of 18. Selling insurance for a Canadian company in the bigger towns of the region, and the Bible in its villages, the man travelled extensively. And, over time, he developed a sense of nationalism inspired by the past as well as by his peers. The time, though, was not ripe: He married and eventually moved to Burma (now Myanmar), never, however, relinquishing his vision for a sovereign Nagaland. “I am a Naga first, a Naga second, and a Naga last,” he announced, even as the British thought him “as thoroughly a nasty piece of work as ever there was one.”

It was World War II that allowed Phizo an opportunity to realize his vision. And this did not merely entail terminating British domination but also aimed to challenge any Indian claims over Naga territory—he did not intend to watch a “black government” replace the white. When in the 1940s Subhas Chandra Bose and the Japanese took Burma, Phizo cooperated more readily with the latter than with Bose, even though the campaign to invade India was ultimately defeated. The British locked him up in jail for his pains. “I was condemned a traitor,” he remembered. “But I was certainly not a traitor to my own conscience.”

In 1946, Phizo came home to lead the Naga National Council. His opening sentiment was disappointment. In Burma, he “had witnessed what patriotism could achieve”. In Nagaland, there “was nothing—no unity, no ideas”. He decided to plant these ideas, meeting Mahatma Gandhi to negotiate a space outside India for his people. “I will come to the Naga Hills,” Gandhi promised when the possibility of military coercion was raised, and “I will ask them to shoot me before one Naga is shot.” But Jawaharlal Nehru after 1947 would not brook any talk of tribal autonomy—India was already in shock after Partition, and the borders that remained were not negotiable.

Phizo, who “gave the impression of carrying, single-handed, in his little briefcase, the destiny of the entire Naga people”, was prepared to fight. And when events turned violent under his direction, Nehru’s determination was matched by the march of Indian troops. Phizo had no option but to live with the consequences. Travelling via Pakistan on a fake El Salvadoran passport to Switzerland first, Phizo went into exile. He made every effort to gather international support for his cause, but there was nothing anybody could offer. After all, Nehru, despite his blood-curdling policy in Nagaland, was a towering post-colonial figure; Phizo, as London’s newspapers announced, only a famous “headhunter”.

By the time he died in 1990, 30 years later, Phizo was resigned to his fate. “I made a mistake in over-estimating the will of those I had left behind in Nagaland to resist the pressures put on them,” he remarked gloomily to a journalist. “I made another mistake in believing that in the West truth would conquer. That was not so. Having come here, I could see the world is too distracted, too divided. I thought of myself as a student of history, but I have discovered I have a lot to learn.” He had a dream that seduced his people. What he learnt painfully was that it was destined to remain just that: a dream.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 12 2017)


In 1877, at the height of the Great Famine that devastated the south, a distinguished Englishman, recently knighted for services rendered to the British empire, yet again took a vociferous stand against the policies of his queen’s government in India. For years he had railed against imperial overzeal for the railways—a sophisticated scam that funnelled out Indian resources while delivering unconscionable profits to faraway investors—and now he was vindicated. For “we have before our eyes,” he noted, “the sad and humiliating scene of magnificent (rail) Works that have cost poor India 160 millions, which are so utterly worthless in the respect of the first want of India, that millions are dying by the side of them.” The railways certainly brought grain to starving masses, but the costs were so disproportionately high that nobody could afford to buy them—official profiteering perverted even the delivery of famine relief.

Sir Arthur Cotton had made a career of crossing the line where India was concerned, taking stands that irritated his superiors even as they earned him much local admiration—two districts of Andhra Pradesh hold an estimated 3,000 statues of the man. He was, of course, as much an imperialist as his peers, but it was not a desire to bring glory to Great Britain that motivated him. Instead, this 10th son of the 10th son of a regrettably named Sir Lynch Cotton had experienced a religious awakening as a young man in 1826. Thereafter, he felt his mission was to work “for the glory of God…and the benefit of men”, and with familiar racial condescension, he decided that the men in question were poor brown Indians. His self-righteousness, however, was wedded to sincerity—having taken up the Indian cause, Sir Arthur never gave up, describing himself as “a man with one idea” that could make a difference in India: irrigation.

Sir Arthur was a military engineer who caused his colleagues great consternation by refusing to be awed by steel and steam. He had no dispute with the railways but it made no sense to him that extortionate technology should be imposed on a landscape where the basics had been entirely neglected. But then he was also somewhat naive—he once argued against the term “collector” since it suggested that revenue officials’ sole interest lay in extracting money, when surely they were also responsible for that other thing called development. The architects of the Raj, of course, were under no such delusions—the collector was there precisely to collect, and Sir Arthur’s lifelong mistake lay in hoping that India’s wants would also somehow feature in those exploitative calculations masquerading as government policy. Naturally, he was thwarted by “administrative jealousy”, and many were those who called him a “wild enthusiast” with “water in his head”.

Still, Sir Arthur was tireless. In 1827, after inspecting the second century Kallanai dam near Tanjore, he regretted that “this work, which had a population of perhaps one hundred thousand and a revenue of £40,000 dependant upon it, had not been allowed £500 to keep it in repair.” He personally rode out to persuade his superiors to correct this, only to be rebuffed. “Government,” he was told, “could not squander such sums as this upon the wild demands of an Engineer.” “Is it surprising,” he asked in dismay, that “the natives thought us savages?” Nevertheless, he kept up his interest in irrigation—learning from furloughs in Australia, as well as travels in lands as diverse as Egypt and Syria—till finally he was able to leave a real imprint along the eastern coast of India; something his daughter called “The Redemption of the Godavari District” through, as his brother chuckled, “The Cheap School of Engineering”—also known today by that Indian word, jugaad.

The British, Sir Arthur thought, brought “disgrace to (their own) civilized country” by their “grievous neglect” of India. He decided to make amends. When the Godavari project was sanctioned in 1847, Sir Arthur asked for six engineers, eight juniors and 2,000 masons. Instead, he was allotted one “young hand”, two surveyors, and a few odd men. Yet he persevered. “To save on masonry work,” Jon Wilson writes, “he copied the method of construction” used by the Cholas. “Cotton created a loose pile of mud and stone on the riverbed, which he then covered in lime and plastered with concrete, instead of building up entirely with stone.” The whole project was finished at a third of the cost initially estimated, till 370 miles of canals (339 of which were navigable) irrigated some 364,000 acres of land, transforming a dry expanse into the “rice bowl” of Andhra Pradesh. And waterways, the Englishman demonstrated, were a doubly rewarding alternative to rail transport, simultaneously nourishing the farmlands of rural Indians.

In the end, however, Sir Arthur couldn’t prevail over the railway lobby. Between 1885-87, the railways cost £2.84 million while the irrigation budget stagnated at a measly £6,130. As late as 1898, the year before his death, it was stated that rail absorbed “so large a measure of Government attention, (that) irrigation canals, which are far more protective against famine…are allowed only one-thirteenth of the amount spent on railways each year.” It was easier, Sir Arthur sniffed, to propose a £4 million railway project over a £40,000 irrigation scheme. He had no dearth of ideas, however, offering a pan-India river-linking project, and bombarding his bosses with notes and suggestions till they finally established, almost out of sheer exhaustion, a public works department—the ubiquitous “PWD” of today. And after collecting his shiny knighthood, he continued to cheerfully lambast the Raj for its neglect of India, receiving a more profound honour instead from ordinary peasants, who, to this day, remember Sir Arthur less as a representative of the Raj and more as a local saviour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 05 2017)


It took several decades and as many lifetimes for India to win independence in 1947. But the journey was all the more exacting for having to marshal Indians together for a common cause, above multiple identities and layers of difference. Despite romantic memories of civilizational unity expressed in our ancient epics, the stark historical reality was that Delhi had more in common with Kabul than it did with the south, and that Kerala was more familiar with Arabia than it was with fellow “Indians” in Karnataka. Brahmins, who learnt Sanskrit and venerated the same texts, knitted some common threads throughout the subcontinent, but in Varanasi alone there were dozens of varieties of this class, and their everyday practices mutated from region to region—while most Tamil Brahmins grew their tuft of hair at the back, the Malayali Brahmin wore it in the front; where Iyengar women saw white as the colour of widowhood, the Namboothiri bride wore nothing but white to her wedding pavilion.

What arguably united such stark diversities of people was the common enemy they all confronted in the British and the unambiguous damage inflicted on India by the Raj. As someone once remarked, “It is not so much sympathy with one’s fellows as much as hostility towards the outsider that makes for nationalism.” And so, over a period of time, we evolved a sense of common feeling rooted in a fight against prejudice and for political autonomy. We were able to rise above difference (avoiding, however, as B.R. Ambedkar lamented, painful but necessary internal reform) and focus on expelling the colonizer. And when the process inspired positive moral confidence, it became compelling enough for V.D. Savarkar to even claim that a sentiment of brotherhood had always run “like a vital spinal cord” through the land, making “the Nayars of Malabar weep over the sufferings of the Brahmins of Kashmir”—when in all likelihood the Nairs had little knowledge of where precisely Kashmir was or what its Brahmins were doing.

The departure of the British, however, withdrew the enemy from our horizon—we now sought renewed vision to sustain national feeling against smaller, but more convenient, local options. Jawaharlal Nehru plastered the slogan “Unity in Diversity” on walls and in textbooks, and brought into force a Constitution that respects, and indeed celebrates, difference. The principle was that we could all continue to embrace our various identities—Gujarati or Santhal, Muslim or Zoroastrian—while staying wedded to the national consensus that is India. “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians,” a 19th century European statesman had remarked, but in 20th century South Asia, Indians arrived in all shapes, colours and languages, united, not divided, by pluralism. Of course, this was always the ideal, and from the starting moment various forces chipped away at it, sometimes even employing instruments of state power. Pluralism too was often a romantic smokescreen for bleak realities.

The real challenge to pluralism, however, has come from those who promote a more orthodox vision of nationalism, though, ironically, they had little to do with the battles for freedom. “Such identity,” historian Romila Thapar notes, “tends to iron out diversity and insists on conformity”—in other words, pluralism is weakness. In this new vision, there must be one paramount “Indian” nationalism—us or them, not us and them—and this is offered in that all-too-familiar shape of Hindu majoritarianism. In 1881, the census declared Hindus “a Socio-Political classification” that included “the whole of the people who recognize caste”. For neo-nationalists, however, the formula to cement strength is a particularly reactionary perversion of Hinduism. A tradition that is a fascinating “mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas” (including contradictory ideas) is being regimented to address contemporary needs, and nationalism must follow this pattern of one definition, one form, and one loyalty.

Naturally, this calls for a new structure and a new vocabulary of Hindu identity, featuring certain sacred books, fewer gods, and a standardization of practice that sometimes goes against India’s own manifest heritage in its quest to service an overarching, recently invented cause. So we must all be Hindus who do not eat beef (though several castes happily did in the past) and should avoid meat in general (though a number of Brahmin communities too are non-vegetarian). Our nationalism must have a fixed language—Sanskrit is ideal but in the interim, Hindi will do. And then dress codes, social behaviour, and much else must also fall in line, creating more a sharp machine to negotiate aspirations (and nurse insecurities) born of modernity than an organic people who live, breathe and prosper. The former offers efficiency, the latter is slow and chaotic—we are told we must choose, or we must go.

One-size-fits-all rules, however, have an endearing tendency to backfire in India. And 70 years of officially promoting diversity means that attempting to reverse the flow and manufacture a narrow brand of nationalism will provoke challenges if not long-term disaster—where, for instance, Hindi nationalism is force-fed from Delhi, the powers in Karnataka respond with a Kannada-oriented sub-nationalism that would even like its own flag. If the idea is to create an “us or them” with the “majority” on one side, and the minority as the enemy within, the architects of this scheme will discover too many “thems” sown into the fabric of the majority itself.

The historical lesson is clear—there was a reason why in 1947 we prevented nationalism from distorting into an ugly political beast, and envisioned it as a more malleable reflection of our multiple realities. Now to re-engineer this mature, long-standing policy in black and white will only prove calamitous, showing that far from making in India, what we will end up doing is breaking India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 29 2017)


India has a long tradition of bright minds poking holes in some distinctly un-bright ideas. And one such mind lived over eight centuries ago in the south, blowing a hole so large through that disastrous institution called caste that a flood of people—about 6.5 million today—escaped the old order, arriving at an identity of their own. Of course, this identity, when formalized, invited its own peculiarities and contradictions, but now, as a section of the Lingayat community seeks legal recognition as a faith outside all-subsuming Hinduism, custodians of the majoritarian cause are gripped by understandable anxiety. And this despite the feelings that Basava, the 12th century intellectual preceptor of the Lingayats, expressed about such self-appointed custodians in his own day. “Loaded with the burden of the Vedas,” he pithily remarked, “the Brahmin is a veritable donkey.”

Basava could get away with saying outrageous things because he himself was a Brahmin. But he was a Brahmin repulsed by Brahminism, and the intellectual and material debilitations wreaked on society by caste. “False, utterly false,” he declared, “are the stories of divine birth. The higher type of man is the man who knows himself.” His was a kind of humanism that rejected man-made inequalities justified in the name of the divine, wedded though it was to the worship of Shiva. “On the same earth stands,” one of his vachanas goes, “the outcaste’s hovel, and the deity’s temple. Whether for ritual or rinsing, is not the water same?” So too, just like the outcaste Chandala, the Brahmin too was born from a human womb. Or “is there anybody in the world,” asked Basava, “delivered through the ear?” Those who were meant to supply the answer stewed instead in anger.

Basava, son of Madiraja and Madalambike, was born around 1105 in Bagewadi. Poets subsequently embellished his tale with typical apocryphal excess—that his arrival was a boon from Shiva, or that the baby only opened his eyes when an image of the deity was dangled before him. But myth-making aside, the boy was sharp—at 16, he discarded the Brahminical thread, and by 28 he was clear in his vision of a society without caste. In the fashion of his day, the vocabulary of his reform was also religious. And so Basava sought to break the monopoly temples and priests had over god by popularizing the portable Ishtalinga, a symbol of Shiva worn around the neck. From his centre in Kudalasangama, the idea of the temple was diluted, as was the popularity of polytheism. “Gods here, gods there, with no space for our feet!” Basava exclaimed. Shiva alone was, he felt, a truly divine force in an ocean of pointless divinities, and Shiva became to Basava what Krishna would be to Meera.

But then Basava, who had simultaneously been a career bureaucrat since 1132, having advanced from royal accountant to chief minister at the tumultuous, fractious court in Kalyan, went one step too far. Already, his Hall of Experience (Anubhava Mantapa) attracted men and women from all castes to meet freely and to express radical new thought with even greater liberty. Then he proceeded to eat meals with untouchables, flouting age-old law. What could have been written off essentially as a new, somewhat irritating Shiva cult now began to shake the very pillars on which powerful social hierarchies were perched. “Today he dines with (the lowborn). Tomorrow he will encourage mixed marriages,” vented the orthodox, fearing “caste mix-up” and the “utter ruination” of the status quo. Their fears were, as it happens, valid, for Basava did proceed to intermarriage. The king was prevailed upon to warn his minister to behave—and the king was politely disobeyed.

The event was seminal—and not just because it was happening in 1167 in a country where inter-caste unions still provoke violence and murder in the 21st century. The daughter of a Brahmin called Madhuvarasa was wedded to the son of Haralayya, an untouchable. The monarch and the establishment were apoplectic—the respective fathers, it is said, had their eyes gouged out, after which they were thrown under elephants to painfully meet their maker, casteless in death. Basava himself survived the calamity, but the whole of the kingdom descended into political chaos (chaos which was building also on account of other factors—after all, Basava was a political figure too, and politically motivated charges of corruption, for instance, had been used to topple his reform movement earlier). The last thing the king wanted on his hands at a time of turmoil was social disorder. Basava’s career ended, and he returned from Kalyan to Kudalasangama, to the riverside where he had first declared his love for Shiva.

The man did not live for long afterwards, however, and for over two centuries after his death in 1168, his sharanas (followers) kept the movement alive but quiet. It was only in the 15th century that the Lingayat identity reasserted itself after one of their own became minister to the Vijayanagara king. By now Basava’s vachanas had been compiled, and the movement invested with a structure of its own. In order to survive, however, a certain accommodation with the Brahminical order was arrived at, essentially turning the Lingayats into one of the very many other castes that existed in Indian society. To Basava himself, such an ironic compromise might have seemed unfortunate, but he had long departed and those left behind had to be pragmatic in the face of hostility. Now, several centuries later, as they seek a second divorce from the Hindu fold, it is the latter who must find an accommodation, seeking to retain Basava’s children within their order, not so much due to a difference of vision as much as due to the plain demands of numbers and the everyday expediencies of calculated politics.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 22 2017)


In 1903, one of Kerala’s earliest advocates of the freedom of the press, K. Ramakrishna Pillai, issued a lamentation that suggests he was not necessarily as convinced an advocate for feminist thought. “Oh…the predicament you have reached!” he cried, with reference to his coastal homeland. “You who were governed by noble ministers with high ideals…what sin have you done to be trapped under the misgovernment of a wicked minister taken in by female charms!” His intention was to sharpen his attack on the local maharaja’s controversial chief minister, but it was also an attack on an attractive woman—a public performer—who had evidently ensnared the old man with her treacherous charms. His proof? Her visit to Thiruvananthapuram drew in sensational crowds, and the delighted minister had presented her a gold chain—by publicly placing it around her neck.

Pillai ascribed to the lady in question, the scholar Udaya Kumar notes, a “destructive, seductive spell” that combined “the perilous allure of theatrical exposure…manipulative charms and sexual promiscuity” to “capture in her net the very authorities who (were) meant to protect the public” from everything she represented—female individuality, sexual autonomy, and the stage. As with all women performers of her time, scandal was firmly entangled with her appeal—an appeal that saw special trains organized to convey admirers to her shows. And it was not the first time she had provoked suspicion: The maharaja himself was “much pleased with her” (which was interpreted as nocturnal pleasure), and so, as Rupika Chawla records, when she sought to commission the court painter Ravi Varma for a portrait, his brother displayed “intense disapproval”, fearing it would affect the artist’s own reputation and dignity.

But such pronounced scandal surrounding Balamani of Kumbakonam eclipsed much of what she represented, and the rich, tragic accumulation of experience that is her story—a story that has found at last a masterly storyteller in Veejay Sai and his delightful Drama Queens. Scholarly in his scope, Sai presents Balamani at the forefront of his 10 profiles, as the first of many remarkable women who challenged “heteropatriarchy”—and who, for their pains, often received, in return, ignominy and obscurity. Even though Balamani was, as Sai writes, “fortressed amongst a thousand anecdotes”, it “is almost impossible to believe a character like her lived in the remote south”, where today she is largely forgotten. But this was a talented woman who could leave fans ecstatic across the peninsula, even as she pursued an intellectual mission to reinvent on the modern stage, as she remarked to a contemporary, “the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays”.

Balamani was a woman of ambition and resolve, determined to transport the art she had inherited as a devadasi to wider audiences in imaginative forms. Breaking out of the temple, she became among the earliest to establish a formal enterprise: the Balamani Drama Company. She was the first, Sai says, to introduce Petromax lighting onstage, just as she was the earliest to allot ladies-only spaces at her ticketed performances. Her entire venture was a female-run organization, and while others like the Kannamani and Danivambal companies of the same late 19th century period also followed this pattern, what distinguished Balamani was her preference for destitute women, who had been disenfranchised by anti-devadasilegislation. Her company, it has been noted, was in fact “almost an asylum for women who needed shelter and security”. Of course, none of this alleviated the stigma that came with being “the dancing girl” of Kumbakonam, but Balamani flourished as a businesswoman, a patron of the arts, and an individual of singular personality.

As an artist too, she was inventive. She was, Sai points out, a pioneer in taking up “social themes in Tamil theatre” and moving beyond mythology into fresher genres—a detective play she performed was later adapted for film. Infatuated poets and musicians composed pieces extolling her beauty and one such javali was later sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi for the gramophone. Instead of seeking approval from the orthodox by shoring up pious “respectability”, Balamani was what is pejoratively termed “bold” and could cleverly execute a nude scene in a play—naturally, the play was later banned for this very reason by thin-skinned men of less “bold” persuasions. Success also brought in its wake much wealth—Balamani drove in silver carriages and presided over a mansion staffed by 50 servitors (again, rehabilitated women).

But it also wove through Balamani’s life debates on censorship, the social challenge from the Brahminization of the arts, and of course the anomaly of a successful working woman who had the capacity to claim that prized patriarchal prize: a legacy.

Patriarchy, however, wouldn’t be patriarchy if it allowed a challenge like that absolute success. “History and fate turned cruel to Balamani,” Sai says, though her solitude in a world designed for men did its own damage. The years passed, and she aged. Her sense of charity, which included getting young girls married and settling them with handsome dowries, led to financial calamity. She, who lived in gardens surrounded by peacocks and deer, moved impoverished to overcrowded Madurai—when Balamani died in 1935, it took an old, loyal associate to collect money from well-wishers to pay for her cremation.

But somewhere, the flame was kept alive. As the French novelist Pierre Loti recorded in her heyday, “The poor know the road to her house well enough.” And it was among those poor that Balamani’s name survived, awaiting its resurrection in a lovely book housing memories of nine more women, with nine more tales, all marked by many triumphs but also great tragedy.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 15 2017)


Jumping to conclusions, admittedly, is a very naughty predilection. And so when the Indian Council of Philosophical Research convenes a seminar to discuss, “in a holistic way”, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue M.S. Golwalkar’s “much misunderstood and maligned” views on nationalism, we must welcome the intention instead of succumbing to outrage on autopilot. Indeed, in the run-up to this seminar—papers had to be submitted by 27 June—we must make every effort to study Golwalkar’s writings in order to enlighten ourselves in the “proper context”, opening our minds to his idea of dharmocracy and to the possibility that we might learn something new. Where else, then, to begin but with Golwalkar’s Bunch Of Thoughts, which this columnist revisited with unashamed enthusiasm for this very purpose.

Since nationalism is the issue under debate, let us start there. Territorial nationalism is, to Golwalkar, the worst by-product of modernity. “It is like attempting to create a novel animal by joining the head of a monkey and the legs of a bullock to the trunk of an elephant!” Such “unnatural, unscientific” efforts to mechanically unite territories can only result in a “hideous corpse”. And the sole resultant activity, he adds colourfully, is that of “germs and bacteria breeding in (a) decomposing” polity. Instead, we must acknowledge that a nation is “not a mere bundle of political and economic rights”—it entails culture as well. And in India, this culture is “ancient and sublime” Hinduism, full of love and “free from any spirit of reaction”. In other words, instead of acting like bacteria in that dead body called a pluralistic democracy, our salvation lies in embracing Hindu dharmocracy.

While this is all decidedly thought-provoking, Golwalkar could spark a great deal of geopolitical anguish too. After all, from his perspective, India is an expansive concept. “Afghanistan,” he says, “was our ancient Upaganasthan.” Even “Iran was originally Aryan…guided more by Aryanism than by Islam.” But what of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia? The Zend-Avesta, Golwalkar dismisses, “is mostly Rig Veda”, so that settles the matter. Meanwhile, Burma (now Myanmar) must be recognized as “our ancient Brahmadesha”, and altogether the splendid picture we form is of a “motherland with the Himalayas dipping its arms in the two seas, at Aryan (Iran) in the West and at Sringapur (Singapore) in the East, with Lanka (Ceylon) as a lotus petal offered at her sacred feet”. Leaving aside Sri Lankan sentiments on being declared an offering at India’s feet, this all-encompassing entity does not appear to Golwalkar as a contradictory monkey-headed bullock state—because Hinduism pervades it.

But if Hinduism is integral to nationalism, what of that embarrassing detail we call caste? To Golwalkar, the argument that caste weakened India is unadulterated nonsense. On the contrary, it was the absence of caste that invited calamity. “We know as a matter of history,” he states, “that our north-western and north-eastern areas, where the influence of Buddhism had disrupted the caste system, fell an easy prey to the onslaught of Muslims…. But the areas of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, which were considered to be very orthodox and rigid in caste restrictions, remained predominantly Hindu even after remaining the very citadels of Muslim power and fanaticism.” So Uttar Pradesh must be our model for national reinvigoration, as it is proof that “the so-called ‘caste-ridden’ Hindu Society has remained undying and inconquerable…(while) casteless societies crumbled to dust”. And caste, which presumably B.R. Ambedkar got completely wrong, must be restored to its rightful dignity as an instrument of modern nation-building.

This, of course, brings us to the Muslim question—people who came, according to Golwalkar, as bloodthirsty invaders (when in fact they came as peaceful traders) and vilifying whom is entirely justified: “We, in the Sangh, are Hindus to the core. That’s why we have respect for all faiths and religious beliefs…. But the question before us now is, what is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam or Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful towards this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” In other words, Golwalkar appears to believe in asking pressing questions of Indian Muslims—and then answering them himself.

The antipathy of the Muslim to Hindu India, in fact, is so pronounced that sweeping generalizations are also fully justified: “Whatever we believed in, the Muslim was wholly hostile to it. If we worship in the temple, he would desecrate it. If we carry on bhajans and car festivals, that would irritate him. If we worship cow, he would like to eat it. If we glorify woman as a symbol of sacred motherhood, he would like to molest her.” This being the case, there is only one form of redemption. “It is our duty,” Golwalkar offers, “to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home. As honest freedom-loving men, let them overthrow all signs of slavery and domination and follow the ancestral ways of devotion and national life”. In other words, there is nothing a quiet ghar wapsi cannot solve when it comes to the building of a good dharmocracy.

In sum, as you prepare for the forthcoming seminar on Golwalkar’s nationalism, picture a land of homogenized Hindus, united not by a celebration of pluralism but, of course, by endearing practices of caste and cow-love, spread across charming geographies from Tehran to Singapore. And if you don’t accept this constructive world view, all that your polity constitutes, sadly, is a “bundle” of decomposing rights, in a nation without a soul—and without a worthwhile future in this strange, strange time that we call the 21st century.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 08 2017)


At a recent academic conclave in Ettumanoor, not too far from the stunning frescoes in the local temple, the Kerala-based thinker M.N. Karassery delivered a brilliant oration on modernity and its peculiarities in our time. Though his wider argument has been well studied, the story he told to illustrate his point was an interesting one, featuring that bane of the right wing in India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister, this apocryphal yarn goes, had a colleague who worked very closely with him in his office. But every time he came into the room, he brought along a most obnoxious odour, till Nehru was compelled to ask what the source of this nasty smell was. Socks, came the resigned answer: The errant colleague was a miser who didn’t mind leaving a stink if it saved him a few coins.

The next morning, on his way to work, Nehru picked up new socks for the man, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. And yet somehow, when the colleague moved around, that unbearable smell continued to waft down the corridors, sparing not even the prime minister’s esteemed nose. No longer intending to be delicate about the matter, Nehru demanded an explanation from his malodorous subordinate. “Are you not wearing the new pair I bought you?” he asked. Yes, of course, came the wounded reply. Frowning, Nehru wondered what had happened to the old, threadbare pair. “Oh those,” replied the eccentric, brightening up, his hands going to his pockets. “Those are right here with me!”

As Karassery pointed out, India’s negotiation of modernity, much like the man with the smelly socks, has largely been a case of embracing wonderful new ideas while retaining many bad ones for sentimental reasons or possible future use. There is history to the tradition. Lord Macaulay, for instance, famously pictured that class “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He succeeded as far as taste was concerned, but for large numbers of this class, it was a simple matter of acting English (and speaking it) in the public sphere, while sustaining old ways in the private domain. Exposure to modernity’s rationalism did not, for instance, provoke a divorce from religiosity. On the contrary, religion was refashioned to rise to modernity’s challenge, with characteristic Indian lack of irony.

The railways, an exploitative cash cow for the British, were presented as a manifestation of the iron progress of science and reason in India. And indeed a number of orthodox parties viewed it with trepidation. In the 1880s, Brahmins in Thiruvananthapuram persuaded the local maharaja to prevent the fire carriage from defiling their temple town, but Brahmins in Puri were canny: The journey from Kolkata to their shrine was reduced overnight from 26 days to 12 hours, bringing far more pilgrims, more money, and amplified devotion atop screaming engines. Sweep across a century and a half, and savvy stargazers transmit their latest astrological recommendations to globe-trotting believers over WhatsApp, while havans and pujas are performed via Skype, their blessings touching the devout through a medium as invisible as the hand of god itself: the internet.

More significantly, it was modern methods such as the census that created in India new identities that could masquerade convincingly as ancient. Numbers determined who constituted the “majority” and who were in the “minority”, enabling also the aggregation of diverse practices into what historian Romila Thapar calls “syndicated Hinduism”. Political consciousness followed, a product of modern impulses in a cloak of timeless tradition. Studies on the emergence of cow protection have shown how censuses opened up new battlefields to wage wars in the names of history, masses rallying around sensational calls that used instruments of modernity to service un-modern propensities. Violence, of course, followed everywhere.

By no means was this a predilection that afflicted the “majority” only. One “minority” now called “the Muslims”, despite massive internal diversities of their own, witnessed attempts to recreate a puritanism that never actually existed in this land—in the south where Asia’s oldest mosque stands, minarets and domes replaced gabled roofs and woodwork. The burqa, never before known here, suddenly won appeal, with the prosperous leading the way. Prosperity, in fact, spawned innovative, unexpected expressions of religion—an affluent, post-liberalization middle class today fuels demand for the dozens of rock-star swamis and gurus hovering about, who promise spiritual salvation even as they transform into corporate enterprises chasing solidly material rewards. Faith always featured such calculations, of course: Modernity merely raised the stakes and gave it spectacular scale.

Some years ago, the scholar Meera Nanda noted that India had 2.5 million places of worship but only 1.5 million schools, and that governments across the political divide were increasingly sponsoring religious causes. For her it was globalization and the paradoxical hyper-religiosity of its beneficiaries that had led to this state of affairs—to the forming of a state-temple-corporate complex. Others, like Vinay Lal and Amrita Basu, have argued that in attempting to divorce religious feeling from our constitutional self-image and aspirations, our founding fathers ignored ground realities. The result was that these realities took an aggressive, unexpected turn, now visible in your nearest city in its current manifestation of cow-raksha (protection).

The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle—that religion in India may never be fully divorced from public life and what we can aim to do is limit the degree to which it can pervert everyday business. But perhaps this was a debate that should have begun long ago, not now when the stench of the bad socks of history is overwhelming, no longer down the corridor as with Nehru, but very much closer, right under our collective noses.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 01 2017)


The celebration of Eid on Monday happened to coincide with the birth anniversary of a remarkable Muslim woman. She wasn’t actually born Muslim—this lady of decidedly imperious mien was in fact the daughter of an Armenian, whose wife was half Hindu, half British Christian. Her mother was known as Victoria Hemmings, and the girl Eileen Angelina Yeoward. But when she was still a child, her identity was transformed forever after Victoria embraced Islam and became “Badi” Malka Jaan. Her daughter followed suit and took the name Gauhar Jaan, a name that would deliver her to greatness not only as the “first dancing girl of Calcutta” and India’s earliest recording sensation, but indeed as the foremost of this country’s musical divas.

Gauhar and her mother were performers, both of them talented, impetuous women whose lives featured disappointing men or, at any rate, disappointments caused by men. Malka Jaan’s marriage with her ice-factory-engineer husband ended when Gauhar was less than six years old. They moved from Azamgarh to Benares (now Varanasi) with Malka’s paramour, and here the mother achieved a certain celebrity as a dancer and courtesan. By 1883, when Gauhar was 10, they settled in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called, and grew accustomed to a life of some luxury and success, even as Gauhar was trained in Kathak, to sing, and to acquire a rich grasp of languages: Between 1902 and 1920, Gauhar would sing for around 600 gramophone records in tongues as diverse as Persian, Gujarati and Pashto.

Following in her mother’s artistic footsteps, Gauhar’s first public performance came in her teens at the court of the raja of Darbhanga in 1887. Though recognized immediately for her talent, she was not satisfied as a court musician in a second-grade principality, returning to bustling Calcutta to make her name instead. And indeed it was here that she began to attract the high and mighty, their wealth and riches collecting in proverbial mountains beside her. Gauhar soon became something of a legend: the woman who drove around in splendid carriages and cars, the lady who disappeared to Bombay (now Mumbai) now and then for the races, the tawaif (courtesan) who demanded a whole train from a royal patron to convey her entourage to his capital and, most famously, as an eccentric who spent the then extravagant sum of Rs20,000 on a party to celebrate the birth of her beloved cat’s kittens.

But what distinguished Gauhar was the gramophone. In November 1902 at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, Gauhar arrived with her retinue to sing for Frederick Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. Prolonged negotiations had preceded this meeting, and Gauhar was paid a princely Rs3,000 for singing into a contraption rumoured to be the devil’s own, something that could irreversibly seize her voice. She was undaunted, though perhaps somewhat irritated, by having to sing into the massive brass recording horn that was placed near her face. She had 3 minutes—and indeed, would master the technique of delivering an entire song in that duration—at the end of which she spoke into the device and signed off in what became her trademark: “My name is Gauhar Jaan.”

Over the next two decades, and through her hundreds of recordings, Gauhar changed the way music was practised in India, and amplified its reach. Her voice travelled not only to faraway places in India but also abroad, and as her biographer Vikram Sampath discovered, her unibrowed face appearing on picture postcards in Europe and even on matchboxes. Gaisberg knew he had a figure of great glamour here, noting that he never saw her repeat either her clothes or her jewellery, both of which she possessed in inexhaustible quantities, while rumour placed the price of a pass to her salon at anywhere between Rs1,000-3,000. Less than a decade after she first announced her name into that brass horn, Gauhar was at the height of her fame, performing at the famous Delhi Durbar before the newly crowned British king and his consort.

But while professional successes were many, personal tragedy too wove its way into Gauhar’s life through unfortunate romances. She fell in love with a famous stage actor and lived several happy years with him. When her mother died, it was he who consoled her and became a pillar of strength. His death by a sudden illness, however, terminated that relationship. What followed was a disastrous affair with her secretary, a man 10 years her junior, who in the end proved to harbour more affection for Gauhar’s possessions than Gauhar herself. Court cases had to be fought and at one time she was compelled to prove her paternity to a judge, pleading before her long-lost father to acknowledge her as his, humiliated in public.

The ostentation that was as much a part of Gauhar’s life as was her talent, would, in the end, dissolve her life and career. Accustomed to a life of glitter and style, she made predictable mistakes where her finances were concerned. By the 1920s, Gauhar had passed her prime, her legal battles and other woes taking a toll on her bank balance. She moved, eventually, far away from the Calcutta where she once towered over her peers, and settled in Mysore, where the local maharaja granted her a modest pension. And here, in a cottage in the south of India, she who was born Eileen, knew fame as Gauhar, and whose voice thrilled a million admirers, died a forgotten woman in 1930.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 24 2017)


In a thunderous 1974 address to striking railway workers, George Fernandes called upon them to “realize the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways,” he declared, and “every thermal station in the country would close down. A 10 days’ strike…and the industries…would come to a halt…. A 15 days’ strike…and the country will starve.” He may or may not have been exaggerating, but crisis was brewing in India.

The economy was in a shambles, the opposition thirsting for a fight. Constitutional means, Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided, were but a cover for “evil designs”, so “war” would need to be “fought in the streets”. The Communists, E.M.S. Namboodiripad confirmed, “do not accept the position that every issue must be solved only through constitutional means”. Students agitated, Jayaprakash Narayan lent moral legitimacy and leadership to the movement, and there was what the prime minister would describe as dangerous “indiscipline” in the air, graduating to sedition when the army and police were incited to disobey her orders.

These, among others, were the reasons deployed to justify Indira Gandhi’s disastrous decision to impose internal Emergency in India, inaugurating two years of government by decree that inflicted one terrible decision after another on a horrified people. As her confidant P.N. Dhar would later explain, before 25 June 1975, Mrs Gandhi complained she didn’t have enough power to implement her ideas. “But when she did acquire all the power she needed…she did not know what to do with it.” While her obsequious cabinet crawled, policy and its execution was directed by her over-complicated son, Sanjay. The prime minister refused to countenance reports on the excesses of an already exacting state machinery, now sharpened by open oppression. A hundred thousand people languished in prison, but Mrs Gandhi insisted that there was no one “less authoritarian than I am”—this in an interview to an American correspondent, of course, since the Indian press was reduced to filling censored newspaper space with recipes for onion raita instead of political news.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the man who assembled India’s democratic institutions and painstakingly reinforced them throughout his career, should have fathered the woman who blackened all the values he held supreme. Mrs Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter but failed to evolve anything that could be described as towering vision. She understood power and exercised it in large volumes, but failed to grasp the principle that power is the means to an end, not a purpose in its own right. Two years before the Emergency, the Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee wondered if she preferred the presidential form of government. “Unlike her father, who rejoiced in Parliament,” he remarked, “Mrs Gandhi has an allergy to it.” She certainly didn’t think too highly of the will of the people, writing as early as 1963 that the “price we pay for democracy” is that “the mediocre person” and “the most vocal” are suddenly empowered, even when “they may lack knowledge and understanding”. She was more pragmatic matriarch than outstanding democrat, convinced that without her, India’s childlike masses would only get into unnecessary trouble.

To be fair, as the scholar S. Irfan Habib recently pointed out on Twitter, Indira Gandhi wasn’t the sum of Emergency-era excesses alone. This was a woman who could stand up to American bullying tactics to end genocide and liberate a people in 1971, returning to 10 million refugees their homes. She was a committed environmentalist who could quote from the Atharva Veda on the need for ecological preservation even while pointing out that one could hardly lecture “those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans…clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source”. And as a sharp forthcoming biography by Sagarika Ghose highlights, the battles she fought as a woman in a world of men, and her negotiation of her own insecurities, offer insights, even if the conclusions Mrs Gandhi drew were not always propitious, her actions often devoid of the superior understanding that came so readily to her father.

“I had always believed,” Jayaprakash Narayan wrote from prison, “that Mrs Gandhi had no faith in democracy, that she was by inclination and conviction a dictator. This belief has tragically turned out to be true.” In the end, it was such criticism, much of which emanated from abroad, that stung her. It has also been argued that following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, his fall from heroic greatness to violent destruction in such a short span, Mrs Gandhi grew worried about her own fate, seeing shadows everywhere. Either way she committed the “horrible mistake” her son warned against: In 1977, she called a national election and decided to face the justice of the ballot box. Understandably, she was routed. But it seemed to have restored a certain moral confidence in her. “I imposed the Emergency and (when the crisis had passed) I revoked it,” she declared in a defiant interview, adding that if her intention were to remain prime minister for life, she could have disposed of elections altogether.

But most importantly, as her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar noted, “She began to dream.” She “awoke to her father’s voice resonant within her”—somewhere in the darkness that was the Emergency, there was still her conscience, or perhaps a feeling of guilt that she had betrayed all that Nehru cherished; that she had sacrificed the interests of a people in the interests of political survival. Survive she did, in the end anyway—by 1980, she was again a tremendous political force soaring above a massively frustrated, comical government. Indira Gandhi came back to rule as prime minister of India, winning also a certain forgiveness from the masses for her greatest, most misguided lapse.

Forty-two years have passed since the day she made that mistake. But the lessons of that episode retain their pertinence, now more than ever, as we witness a different kind of change in our society, not imposed overnight but creeping up slowly, forming a stranglehold even as we watch.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 17 2017)


Whether her appearance was as striking as her conduct is not known. But she who is remembered as Táhirih—the Pure One—provoked a collective gasp from society when she threw off the veil. One man was so befuddled by her unpredicted defiance that he slit his throat in shock and ran bleeding from the “apparition”. Táhirih herself was composed, confidently preaching before a secret congress “her appeal with eloquence and fervour”. The 80 men themselves remained conflicted—some were sympathetic to her cause while others frowned at her ambition. But for this sole woman in their midst, there was no going back. The die was cast.

The year was 1848 and the scene was the historic Conference of Badasht, where Iran’s leading Bábí leaders convened in a distant garden to chart the future of their resistance—to try and reconcile with Táhirih’s claim that Islamic practice as interpreted in the Sharia by fallible mortals might not, after all, be compatible with divine wisdom and the voice of god. In other words, they sought a new enlightenment, after old methods failed to answer unsettling questions born of modernity. Their leader, the Báb, was already in prison and would soon be shot for upsetting the mullahs. After all, the latter derived status precisely from those old ways, and were not particularly anxious to brook challenges from a maverick making messianic claims.

The Bábís, if we view them without Western prejudice, were modernizers. But, like the society that inspired their movement, their modernity was also expressed in the vocabulary of faith. Religion was of essence in Iran and, in what is still a familiar concept, the power of leading mullahs was not inferior to that of the reigning executive. As the only Shia state in the world, religious identity was infused through the region’s institutions, and “the clerical establishment”, historian Christopher de Bellaigue writes, “was too diffuse and autonomous for the monarch to bend”. Naturally, they weren’t going to bend to the Báb either when he proclaimed himself “that person whom you have been expecting for more than a millennium” and proceeded to promote radical ideas.

There had been other efforts to modernize Iran to face up to social and political threats emanating from the West—Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), the heir who never reigned, and the well-meaning son of a father who sired 259 children, attempted reform in the military and government. But his success even in these relatively less controversial areas was limited. That he lost wars and surrendered treasures only convinced the old guard that their time-honoured, familiar methods were better than dangerous experiments inspired by foreign ideas. A powerful minister, Amir Kabir, too tried his hand at reform—the son of a cook who also became brother-in-law to the shah, he departed in a puddle of blood, murdered in a bathhouse for his modernizing zeal.

Hence it was that the Bábís sought to transcend Islamic law and support forces of change by producing a reinterpretation of the Quran. In a land where faith mattered, they sought to reinvent faith to address the issues of their time. Táhirih was one of the most significant of this group, not only because of her fervour but also because she was the lone female voice in their persecuted ranks. She was “both feminist icon and medieval saint…her life a chain of clairvoyant images, snapshots of a society that, while riddled with superstition, also teetered on the edge of modernity”. She was also in favour of armed rebellion and was even suspected of having had something to do with the murder of her orthodox father-in-law. And it was under the influence of her vociferous faction that the Bábís, in the end, broke away altogether from Islam.

Táhirih was born Fatemeh, the daughter of a scholar who gave her an education unlike most fathers of that time. Whether he regretted it is not known, but her father-in-law certainly resented the girl’s enthusiasm. Irrepressible, she abandoned her husband and children and joined, after a long correspondence with various thinkers, the Bábís. Quickly, in her 30s, she built up a following: When she spoke, a witness noted, “they listened with great astonishment in their hearts and were moved by her speeches”. Though divided by time and context, she emerged as Iran’s Meerabai, speaking directly to God: “How long,” she asked, “must your lovers endure this anguish from behind the curtain? At least bestow upon them a glimpse of your beauty.”

Officialdom and the establishment painted Táhirih and her group as a wild, subversive lot given to orgies and un-Islamic conduct but it was when she appeared unveiled in the garden, without warning, that she really became a target. “Suddenly,” it was recorded, “the figure of Táhirih, adorned and unveiled, appeared before the eyes of the assembled companions. Consternation immediately seized the entire gathering…To behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was…improper.” But she was convinced that in the new order the Bábís would herald, in the age after the end of the Sharia, women would join men in shaping the world—no veil could keep them from this destiny.

Progressing unveiled hereafter, in 1852 Táhirih was apprehended and sentenced to death for her heresy. She approached her execution with grace, dressed well and perfumed. But there was no romance to her end—the officer supervising the process simply had her strangled with her own handkerchief. Her body was lowered into a well, honoured by a heap of stones and rubble. Iran’s uneasy negotiation of modernity continued. Táhirih came to be remembered, celebrated by some as Islam’s Mary Magdalene, and even at the time of her death lamented by The Times as the “fair prophetess of Qazvin”. For she had an idea and a mission, but had come perhaps too soon into a society led by men, not yet ready to welcome the counsels of a woman.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 03 2017)


When Raja Rammohun Roy landed in England in April 1831, among those who disembarked with him were his servants, an adopted son rumoured to be his bastard from a Muslim woman, a Brahmin cook and a milch cow. The cow and cook were essential to the enterprise—Roy had already been written off in Bengal for defying rules of caste and custom, and needed to demonstrate some degree of ritual conformity to support his venture across forbidden seas. But while adversaries at home resented him, in England he became a celebrity, received to cheers of “Long Live Tippoo Saheb”, with the police being summoned in Manchester to moderate public enthusiasm. The Timeshailed him as a poster child of the West’s civilizing mission, calling him “a harbinger of those fruits which must result from the dissemination of European knowledge” in the exotic darkness that was the East.

There was good reason for such romanticization. On the one hand, Roy came on a mission from Akbar II, who sought a more generous pension from the East India Company. But on the other, Roy, whose works on Indian philosophy earned him a reputation as Hinduism’s Luther, also wished to acquaint the British with his homeland. As he remarked, “One of my objects in visiting this country has been to lay before the British public a statement, however brief, of my views regarding the past conditions and future prospects of India.” He was the Mughal emperor’s envoy, but he saw himself also as an ambassador for India itself, and indeed as the urbane face of a reforming society that would soon rise to find its destiny (though of course this did not stop him from telling Victor Jacquemont that India needed “many more years of English domination” to get there).

It was this presumption that made him enemies, including in his household. Roy was born to the junior wife of a junior son, into a Brahmin line that had served the Mughal state. His father, with whom he disagreed uncompromisingly, had brought upon the family the ignominy of going to prison by failing to honour his debts. His formidable mother was even less pleased with Roy, when at “about the age of sixteen, I composed a manuscript calling in question the validity of the idolatrous system of the Hindoos”. He went away from home very young, and in Patna upset Muslim leaders with his observations on their faith, while his The Precepts Of Jesus rubbed Christian missionaries the wrong way. Some called him a lapsed Hindu and threw bones and garbage into his yard, while others created obstacles at work during the years he served the Company government.

Roy, famous mainly for his campaign against widow-burning and for founding what would become the Brahmo Samaj, was educated in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, and is said to have ventured as far as Tibet in his quest for learning. He was suave and polished but acutely conscious that his recommendations on reform were seen as the toyings of a dilettante. As one biographer notes, “Rammohan was an anomaly to many of his Bengali contemporaries. In his…English language skills and European tastes, he was the image of the prosperous nineteenth century Calcutta babu. Yet in private he hankered for distinction as a shastric scholar.” His Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift To Deists) was seen as an effort to flaunt his Persian, while his first Vedantic essay in 1815 invited scorn from traditionalists as far away as Madras.

But local disdain did not mean unpopularity. Roy owned several newspapers and stood up to the colonial state when censorship was attempted, while explaining Hindu scriptural concepts in English to the very same Western audiences. He persuaded them of the value India’s past held even if its present had been corrupted by foolish custom. There was conviction here—he refused to participate in his father’s funeral rites because he thought them meaningless. He produced such texts as Questions And Answers On The Judicial System Of India even as he expounded A Tract On Religious Toleration. He had a curious mind, vision and clarity of expression, all united in a desire to be the spokesperson for a more pristine Hinduism in a reinvigorated India.

In this he succeeded—a fascinating intellectual movement was born through his and his contemporaries’ efforts in Bengal, while his two years in England saw him impress individuals from King William IV down to Benjamin Disraeli. Lord Macaulay waited hours one evening hoping to introduce himself to Roy, while Jeremy Bentham began a campaign to elect him to parliament. There was also a christening where the infant was named Thomas Rammohun Roy, and stories floated of a romance in Bristol. There was no doubt that Roy was immensely popular in English society, for he was also on the side of introducing Western education in India—Sanskrit schooling, he argued, “would be best calculated to keep (India) in darkness”. Reform was the need of the hour, and the language of such reform did not matter to him, even if it threatened orthodox elements who preferred the security of tradition.

The Brahmin had no place in Roy’s Hinduism—“If in doubt,” he recommended, “consult your conscience,” not your priest. He rejected Brahmin domination, calling them “self interested guides, who, in defiance of the law as well as of common sense, have succeeded…in conducting (ordinary people) to the temple of idolatry”, hiding “the true substance of morality”. Roy, whose birth anniversary it was two weekends ago, would have had even more to express had he not died in 1833. It took 120 days for the news to reach India but his message had already taken root: that Indians “are capable of better things” and “worthy of a better destiny”. Indeed as one obituary put it, despite the “extreme interruption and inconvenience” his views caused him, Roy remained true to his convictions and that which he believed was right for the good of India and his fellow Indians. And for this alone he deserves to be remembered.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 27 2017)


In 1973, when the first International Netaji Seminar was convened in Kolkata to celebrate the life and work of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of its distinguished participants was an intriguing character going by the name Bhagat Ram Talwar. Small, grey and physically unprepossessing, he spoke in broken English but wielded an appealingly titled paper called My Fifty-Five Days With Netaji. His appearance at the conference was, historically speaking, a sensational moment and, in keeping with the mood of the gathering, he too expressed loyalty and admiration for the tragic leader of the Azad Hind movement. Barely anyone in the audience, however, would have guessed that Talwar was, in actuality, a little more slippery than his elderly frame suggested and that while he did deliver valuable services to Bose, more than a fair deal of disservice too was part of Talwar’s contributions to the making of history.

This is the principal focus of Mihir Bose’s recently-released The Indian Spy, which weaves Talwar’s tale through a fascinating, mountainous battlefield featuring the great powers of World War II and their gripping underground contests. It was, in fact, on the edge of this landscape, near Peshawar, that our morally agnostic protagonist was born in 1908, into a family of Punjabi descent. His father was a one-time friend of the local British authorities, but after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, turned against the colonial state—Talwar’s brother was hanged a little over a decade later for attempting to assassinate the governor of Punjab. The idea of killing British grandees also attracted Talwar, who, influenced by Bhagat Singh, set out with a dagger to murder a deputy commissioner. Unfortunately, to their “great disappointment”, his comrades and he found the man’s bed empty—their target had cheerfully gone “out of station”.

A clever, resourceful man, Talwar made no more attempts to stab representatives of the Raj but after flirtations with the Congress, pledged allegiance to a faction of the Communist movement called the Kirti Kisan Party. In 1941, he was tasked with aiding the escape of a certain individual from India to Moscow. And so it was, while smuggling his charge out of British territory, that Talwar first set eyes on Subhas Chandra Bose, pretending that Bose was a deaf and dumb pilgrim travelling through tribal lands. Bose grew a beard and moved on foot and sometimes, when his legs cramped, by mule. When informed that they had crossed the frontier, the Bengali fugitive, otherwise very becoming in his conduct, conjured up a sufficient quantity of saliva and having splattered the ground, declared, “Here I spit on the face of the viceroy!” He was actually spitting on a snowy hillside, but it was, of course, the sentiment that counted.

A series of adventures followed—including interrupting a newly-wed Afghan’s first night with his bride (who found herself unexpectedly cooking for visitors) and encountering an intimidating man who recommended hot water and alum to “treat” Bose’s ostensibly benumbed tongue. An attempt to contact the Russian ambassador was rebuffed, unsurprisingly, when they knocked on his windscreen at a traffic junction in Kabul. But the Italians opened their doors to Talwar, now masquerading as Bose’s “secretary” Rahmat Khan, even as Bose himself dealt with an attack of dysentery. In the end, since Moscow wouldn’t embrace Bose, he proceeded to Berlin and into the arms of Hitler (The Indian Spy has some very interesting photographs of Bose in Germany). Meanwhile, Talwar had a moment of self-realization when he discovered his own fairly ravenous appetite for sinister games and secret service.

Mihir Bose’s research shows that to a great extent this appetite was satisfied during World War II. He calls Talwar the only “quintuple” spy of the wartime era: he first established links with the Italians, and then collaborated with the Nazis, who had grand schemes to provoke revolt in India’s North-West Frontier Province with the assistance of a charismatic (and demanding) Pashtun called the Faqir of Ipi. Talwar, who could “invent almost any lie with impunity”, managed to get away with a fair deal (even if he was endearingly embarrassed about small things such as wanting to go to the toilet). The Germans, for instance, taught him sabotage methods and ways to make explosives. He repaid them with elaborate falsehoods, and conveyed their designs and codes to the Russians. When the Russians eventually decided to “share” Talwar with the British, the spy found himself not only under the direction of Peter Fleming (whose brother Ian created James Bond) but also with a new code name: Silver.

Over the next few years, Talwar fed large portions of British-manufactured balderdash to the Germans in Kabul, in the process betraying Bose and his plans for wresting independence for India. He would later present this betrayal as a necessary sacrifice to be made to win the greater battle against the Nazis and their Fascist allies, but how sincere this was—or, for that matter, much of what Talwar did—is open to question. Even at the 1973 conference, where he emerged unexpectedly after several decades, there was at least one figure who hinted that Talwar’s love for Bose was not all he made it out to be. Either way, in his various incarnations and in selling his loyalties to different flags (for amounts that would run into millions by today’s value), Talwar emerges as a singularly shadowy figure, whose deliciously engaging story has at last been told in equally delicious style in The Indian Spy.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 20 2017)


In his poignant Partition story Khol Do (1948), Saadat Hasan Manto presents a traumatically widowed father desperately seeking his missing daughter. He describes her features to a group of boys and prays for their success in finding her. They locate the girl, but the old man only sees his daughter many days later, on a hospital stretcher, having been retrieved from a railway track. The doctor in charge asks him to open the windows—khol do—but response to the command comes from the half-conscious girl. Instinctively, her hands undo the knot of her trousers, and she pushes them down to her thighs, spreading her legs. The father rejoices—the girl is alive. But the doctor breaks into a sweat. Partition wasn’t only about drawing boundaries.

It was with this story that Manto arrived in Pakistan, and for his pains he was promptly slapped with a lawsuit for obscenity. In the end, he had to pay Rs300 for the mirror he had held up, but this was, by 1950, a familiar exercise—he had already battled charges of vulgarity thrice before in colonial India and would face it once again in postcolonial Pakistan. As always, fuelled also by alcohol and cycles of depression, he remained defiant. “How,” he asked, “could I bare a culture, civilization and society that is already naked?” People could call him “black-penned, but I don’t write on the blackboard with black chalk; I use white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.” Understandably, the man upset many.

Manto was born in May 1912 and grew up in Amritsar. On the side of his father, a stiffly starched judge, he was descended from Kashmiri traders, while his mother, a neglected second wife, was Pathan. All his father’s sons from the first wife were samples of upper-class correctness, educated abroad to become barristers and engineers. Manto alone was an embarrassment, a “slacker, gambler, drinker…and inveterate prankster…an entirely unworthy son of an honourable and respected man”. He once roused Amritsar into a nationalistic frenzy by manufacturing a rumour that the British had sold the Taj Mahal to the Americans, but more scandalously he kept in his bedroom, alongside his father’s photograph, posters of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich (whose legs he apparently admired).

Energetic, mischievous and headstrong, it took him three attempts to get through school (where he failed Urdu, the language that would deliver him to fame), while at university in Aligarh he barely lasted a year. But the dropout was sensitive, talented, and married his keen interest for the marginalized with unyielding scorn for hypocrisy. Part of this came from his family’s second-class treatment in his father’s home, and the rest from resenting discipline of any kind. Critics said he was influenced by Freud and Marx and Chekhov and Tolstoy, but as his biographer and grand-niece Ayesha Jalal writes, Manto himself viewed “his proclivity for storytelling as quite simply a product of the tensions generated by the clashing influences of a stern father and a gentle-hearted mother”.

“A man remains a man,” he once observed, “no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore.” His was not sympathy as much as a genuine understanding of experiences common to women and the powerless. When lambasted for highlighting unvarnished characters from the peripheries of society, he asked: “If one could talk about temples and mosques, then why could one not talk about whorehouses from where many people went to temples and mosques?” There was greater sincerity, he felt, in the life of the prostitute than in that of a mahatma, and his stories were wedded to reality, eschewing romance and all idealism except that of humanity.

Manto began in the early 1930s as a film critic, quite by accident, and then became a translator. By 1934, he had published his story, Tamasha, and two years later, produced his first collection even as he left Amritsar for Lahore and, then, what was Bombay (Mumbai). By 1940, he was in Delhi, married to Safia, whose influence enriched his work, and whose parents gave him a roof, for he was still no richer in the pocket. He had a job with All India Radio, and it was now that Manto became a household name, producing in two years over a hundred plays to air. In his usual uncompromising style, he also managed to provoke many at his workplace, storming out eventually with his typewriter when they attempted to revise his works.

Between 1942-46, Manto lived in Bombay again, writing film scripts and making some money, afflicted, however, by a feeling of inadequacy. “I have started drinking a lot, not so that I can write… but actually to find something within me that I have to do.” Whatever he had achieved so far, he felt, was “a mere travesty”, but really it was powerful writing. “It is a rule in every respectable country…that the dead, even if one’s enemies, are spoken of in positive terms…. I damn such a respectable world and society where as a rule the character of the dead is sent to a laundry for a wash…. In my reformatory there is no support, no shampoo, no hair-curling machine…I am not a make-up artist…all the angels in my book have their heads shaved, and I have performed that ritual with great finesse.”

Partition for Manto was not about politics. “I think only of (raped women’s) bloated bellies—what will happen to those bellies?” Would the offspring “belong” to Pakistan or India? When he moved to Lahore, many in India felt betrayed. But Manto, despite the 127 stellar stories he would produce there, wasn’t particularly cheerful about his new passport either, lapsing again into alcoholism. The bottle killed him in 1955, and he left behind Safia and three daughters. Honour was heaped on him in death, but it was precisely the kind of honour he despised, warning in advance that he would take it as “a great insult” to be garlanded by a “fickle-minded” state. Yet garlands were what he received, for after all, as one critic wrote, he had left behind “pearls of truth”, albeit with the warning that if “we find the truth bitter, it is not Manto who is to blame”.