(My column in Mint Lounge, April 20 2019)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.