(My column in Mint Lounge, July 08 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 01 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 24 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 17 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 03 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 27 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 20 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 06 2017)


When Nakhuda Mithqal, a Yemeni merchant trading with China and Persia, built what is today called the Mishkal Mosque in Kozhikode, little did he envision the significance this structure would assume over 600 years later as a testament to India’s pluralism. For while the going fallacy presents the subcontinent’s inaugural encounter with Islam as a resounding clash featuring blood and war, Mishkal is a reminder that the Prophet’s religion arrived in our land through peaceful embassies of commerce. Indeed, not only was Islam welcomed and embraced in the south, but the first mosque was consecrated on Indian shores in 629 AD, during the very lifetime of Muhammad, nearly a century before invaders forced their way into Sindh and opened a different kind of history in the north.

That ancient mosque still stands in Kodungallur, but it was in Kozhikode that Nakhuda chose to build his monument. By the 13th century, this Kerala port had emerged as one of the world’s great trading cities, and its Hindu rulers—the Zamorins—persuaded every fisherman to raise one son as a Muslim to sail in the eastern seas—Hindus lost caste if they ventured too far into the ocean. The Zamorin’s allies included the sultan of Egypt, the Ottoman Turks and the Deccani Shahs, whom he implored in the 16th century to declare jihad against the Portuguese reign of terror in international waters. Nakhuda was a celebrated merchant in the Zamorin’s capital and the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of his tremendous wealth in his famous travelogue in the 1300s. Mishkal, and a Jami mosque, remain even today two of the city’s most important places of worship.

Kozhikode was reputed for absorbing all kinds of people and cultures. As late as the 17th century, “merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations”, lived there by “reason of the liberty and security accorded to them” and in “free exercise” of their faiths. While Arabs enjoyed overwhelming influence here, Jews controlled much of the commerce in Kochi, while further south in Kollam, Christians were in charge. And they all built sites of worship that were not only embodiments of devotion, but also ideals of cultural cross-pollination. The old Syrian Christian church in Chengannur, for instance, resembles the Hindu temples of its time, and the rites and rituals of all religions were influenced by those of their counterparts with whom they were in constant conversation.

Mishkal, for instance, is firm in its commitment to Islam—there has been a qazi here since 1343—but so, too, is it firm in its union with the land where it stands. Painted in turquoise blue, the structure has no dome and no minarets but multi-tiered gables and the tiled roof typical of Kerala buildings. Its 47 doors and 24 carved pillars display the workmanship of the same guilds that constructed the Zamorin palaces, and the exquisite motifs on the minbar from where the message of god is preached bears a direct affinity to the carvings adorning Hindu temples. The structure is set on a base of stone and steps run around the building where up to 1,000 faithful have gathered at a time for centuries and bowed to distant Mecca. Kerala, after all, had greater intercourse with Arabia than it did with even parts of India.

It was the Portuguese who introduced conflict into this universe. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Kozhikode in 1498, an Arab exclaimed, “The devil take thee! What brings you here?” It was a quest for Christians and spices that motivated the Portuguese, besides their economic ambition to displace Arabs from control of capital and the seas. The Zamorin refused to expel Muslims from his city as was presumptuously demanded, so the Portuguese disrupted trade. A ship full of Muslim pilgrims was burnt (after it was plundered, of course), and a Brahmin envoy was sent back with a dog’s ears sewed on. The Portuguese had no stake in peace.

Mishkal features significantly in a 1510 confrontation between the Portuguese and Kozhikode. The Zamorin and his forces were engaged elsewhere and the Portuguese arrived with 1,800 men to sack his capital. One commander, it is recorded, “forced his way with impetuous valour through the streets…and reached the royal residence”. But while he proceeded to ransack the palace, leaving not even two bejewelled doors in their frame, a (possibly exaggerated) force of 30,000 men descended upon the city for its defence. The enemy made to retreat, but locals occupied the roofs and “poured upon (them) a continued shower of darts; while (the invaders) entangled in narrow lanes and avenues, could neither advance nor recede”. By the time the white men reached the beach, hundreds were dead, including the over-bold commander.

The Zamorin, on his return, was furious. The Portuguese had set fire to the city and destroyed Mishkal. The ruler didn’t forget the insult. In 1570, generations after this episode, his heirs succeeded in demolishing completely a fort the Portuguese raised in Chaliyam, “leaving,” a contemporary recorded, “not one stone upon another”. All these stones and the wood from Chaliyam were carried into Kozhikode and placed in the yard at Mishkal for the mosque—the structure we see today, over five centuries later, still bears marks from the assault of 1510, but also features walls and doors made from material seized from the Portuguese who assaulted it in the first place.

Today, amid talk about consecrating a Hindu temple upon the ruins of a violently destroyed mosque, perhaps it would be worth reflecting on Mishkal, where a Hindu king reconstructed a Muslim place of worship, and avenged those who were not followers of his faith but were still his people. The Portuguese brought blood and hate into their world, but together this Hindu king and his Muslim subjects chose a greater ideal, preserving in Mishkal both a house of god as well as a timeless principle.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2017)


Not many in India today remember William Jones, though at the time of his death in April 1794, he enjoyed what a biographer calls “one of the most phenomenal reputations of all time”. To some he was Persian Jones, the translator of the Tariq-i-Nadiri, while others, after he founded the Asiatic Society in today’s Kolkata, called him, predictably, Asiatic Jones. To one not entirely enraptured crowd, he was Republican Jones, what with his “seditious, treasonable, and diabolical” ideas about popular education and universal (male) suffrage. But as far as India was concerned, it was in his avatar as Oriental Jones that he became one of the sincerest interpreters of our land in the West.

To be sure, Jones was not devoid of imperial prejudice. “I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will,” he argued, “be governed by absolute power.” As a British judge, he scoffed at any political conception of Indianness; it was India’s historical accomplishments he thought profoundly admirable. “I never was unhappy in England,” he once wrote, “but I never was happy till I settled in India.” Part of it, admittedly, had to do with the splendid £6,000 salary that had attracted him here in the first place—Jones calculated that a decade in India promised stately retirement when finally, unencumbered by financial distress, he could pursue assorted intellectual interests.

Jones was born in 1746 to the daughter of a cabinetmaker and a 71-year-old mathematician, whose peers included Isaac Newton. His father died but the cabinetmaker’s daughter gave him a good education—a worthwhile investment, given his prodigious appetite for learning. By 13, Jones had written his first poem, and by the time of his death knew a grand total of 28 languages. A desire to read the Bible in the original drew him to Hebrew, and an interest in Confucius led him to Chinese. He thought Greek poetry “sublime” but when he “tasted Arabic and Persian poetry”, his enthusiasm for Greek “began to dry up”. The only language he never learnt was his native Welsh.

By his mid-20s, Jones had authored several books and was recognized as an authority on the East. But while accolades and a knighthood arrived, the want of a steady income brought inescapable pressures. “I was surrounded by friends, acquaintances and relatives who encouraged me to expel from my way of life…poetry and Asian literature.” They wanted him to “become a barrister and be devoted to ambition”. He agreed, but managed to orient his legal interests also towards the East, producing the forbiddingly named Mahomedan Law Of Succession To The Property Of Intestates. Naturally, his political ambitions floundered.

It was in 1783, when not yet 37, that he came to India. But, in his typical fashion, he connected his pursuit of money with a pursuit of intellectual stimulation. He drew up a list of 16 subjects, ranging from the Mughal and Maratha political systems to the “Music of the Eastern Nations” and “Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians”, to investigate. And it took him only a year-long glance at India’s cultural riches, to constitute the Asiatic Society—the body that, among other things, reminded Indians of a figure we ourselves had forgotten: emperor Ashoka.

But what struck Jones most was language. “Sanskrit,” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “fascinated him…. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasures of Sanskrit literature.” It began with professional demands—Jones could interpret Islamic law without translators, but Hindu codes evaded him. To rectify this, a pandit was hired on a princely retainer to give him lessons, and soon Jones built up a vocabulary of 10,000 words. When Brahmins in Benares refused to translate the Manusmriti for him, he simply produced his own: The Ordinances Of Manu.

Soon he felt a deeper affection for Sanskrit poetry. “By rising before the sun,” wrote Jones, “I allot an hour every day…and am charmed with knowing so beautiful a sister of Latin and Greek.” It was the first time a familial bond was established between Sanskrit and the classical languages of European antiquity. And there were other dots of history that Jones joined. The Palibothra of the Greeks he connected to Pataliputra. Sadracottus, he discovered, was none other than Chandragupta. India’s past came alive in a wider context, with its own philosophers and emperors, but what gripped our polymath was Kalidasa and his Shakuntala. And through him, Europe was transfixed.

Translated in 1789, Jones’ Sacontalá: The Fatal Ring inspired Goethe to declare: “I should like to live in India myself…Sakontala, Nala, they have to be kissed.” Interestingly, Jones did not only translate—there was censorship, given the moral predispositions of the West. Where Kalidasa spoke of Shakuntala’s “breasts no longer firm”, Jones accepted his remarks on ageing cheeks and shoulders but omitted the breasts completely. In a way Jones modelled a new Shakuntala—a prototype of European virtue, as opposed to the sensuous Shakuntala Kalidasa described; an Indian woman born of Western idealism. Indians too embraced this paragon of chastity over her erotically charged predecessor, much like so many Western slants came to be accepted as unquestionably (and “purely”) Indian.

By 1794, Jones declared a new mission. His incomplete desiderata featured Panini’s grammar, the Vedas, the Puranas, and more. It was a tragic twist that within the year he was dead—the climate never agreed with him—and a grave was built for him in India. “The best monument that can be erected to a man of literary talents,” he once said, “is a good edition of his works.” His widow published a collection, enshrining in it his legacy as the decipherer of India for the West. The West itself, sadly though, dismissed Jones, going down a path of racism and control in a few years. Virtuous or not, Shakuntala became altogether preposterous. And India, they decided, was not only never great, but never could be; the India Jones saw was a myth, all his work a fallacy. And soon, the Raj became our reality.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 22 2017)


To visit the great temple in Madurai today is to navigate a dozen streets and discover an army of beggars besieging the 700-year-old structure. Some beggars are old, but many are young and quick. There are beggars with bowls, and beggars with babies. But they all have a peculiar confidence when seeking donations. The temple, after all, welcomes about 15,000 visitors on a routine day, and collections from even a fraction of this host are enough to sustain their economy on the streets. The solicitation of money is made with an almost defiant sweetness—if you don’t drop coins, there are others who will.

For all its known history, Madurai has been dominated by this temple, with its 33,000 sculptures and magnificent towers of monumental height. The Greeks traded here and as early as 21 BC, a Tamil embassy was welcomed in Rome. The eunuch general from Delhi, Malik Kafur, came uninvited to relieve the city of its burdensome riches in the early 14th century, and some generations later, Roberto de Nobili showed up seeking flocks of Christians. The Italian convinced local priests that he was from a line of ancient, lost Roman Brahmins, flaunting a sacred thread, and by 1610 teaching the gospel in fluent Tamil and Telugu.

The story of the Meenakshi temple, though, is the tale of a woman—a fearsome warrior queen transformed into a lovable goddess; a formidable mortal tranquillized into divine immortality. The Story Of The Sacred Games (also called Tiruvilaiyadal puranam), a 13th century poem in 64 rich chapters, begins with a melancholy Pandyan king. “I was without a son,” he remembers, “and I performed great sacrifices for a long time. (And when that failed) I performed the sacrifice that was supposed to produce a son.” Soon he received a child, but the three-year-old that emerged from the flames was a girl. “But God!” cried the king, “even though this girl has come with a face that shines like the moon, she has three breasts!”

So it was that Meenakshi—she with fish eyes, a political superlative since the fish was the totem of the Pandyas—made her appearance on earth. Her father worried that her three nipples “will make even enemies laugh”, and languished in “depression and unhappiness”. He had sought a child but what he got was a freak. But a voice from the heavens reassured him and the three-nippled girl was raised as a boy, dissolving boundaries of gender and sex. When (s)he came of age, her parents said it was time to marry. (S)he, however, decided it was time to conquer the world.

With a furious army, Meenakshi set out from Madurai. Indra, Lord of the Heavens, fled at the very sight of his foe—and nobody laughed any more at the third nipple. Soon the conqueror climbed the Himalayas to battle Shiva. But when the fish-eyed one gazed upon him, the third breast disappeared and she became a regular woman. Or as the poem tells it, she “became bashful, passive, and fearful. She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its blossoms. Her heavy dark hair fell on her neck. She looked downward, toward her feet… And there she stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with her toes.”

Soon they were married, and the rest of the poem shows Shiva as its hero, pulling the strings where once his wife had led. It is suspicious how Sacred Games seeks to establish his power, almost as if to compensate for the reality that was the superiority of his wife—to this day, it is Meenakshi who is worshipped first, not Shiva. They share eight festivals, but she has four dedicated only to her while her husband has none. Shiva too, in practice, was Pandyanized. His animal skins were discarded for silk, the serpents he wore replaced by bejewelled ornaments. He is Shiva in name but a different kind of Shiva.

Inside the temple, there are sculptures still of others who, like Meenakshi, were born different. There is a representation of her in stone, all three breasts intact, before her union with god made her more “normal”. There is Arjuna not only as the feared warrior of the Mahabharat but also as Arjuni, in female form, and as Brihannala, in the third gender—he has the face of a man, with a drooping moustache and a long beard, but the body of a woman, with full breasts. Besides transgenders, there is also room in the tube-lit temple premises for autosexuals—the halls feature self-fellating lions, under some of whom sit pilgrims, children, and ticket vendors.

Was there really once an androgynous queen with three nipples whose exploits inspired Sacred Games? Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to India, refers to the legend of a princess wedded to a god, but seeking history in song is a self-defeating exercise. What matters is the devotion Meenakshi inspired then and still inspires today. Some view her marriage with Shiva as the absorption, at last, of a resilient local goddess into the wider Hindu framework, where her independent power was surrendered in favour of a greater cause and more correct femininity. But the pilgrims who come to Madurai to pay obeisance to Meenakshi—not her husband—keep alive the flame of the original triple-breasted warrior.

And like the politely defiant beggars outside, every pillar and stone defies the story woven in Sacred Games in celebration of a memory from long, long before, when the abnormal resisted the normal, and when a princess reigned before she was turned into a goddess.