(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.