(My column in Mint Lounge, April 14 2018)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 10 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 24 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 17 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 10 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 03 2018)

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

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

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

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

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