(My column in Mint Lounge, June 23 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 16 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 9 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 2 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 26 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 19 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 12 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 05 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 28 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 21 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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