(My column in Mint Lounge, November 19 2016)


The victory last week of Donald Trump in America petrified masses of people who happen to not be men or white or Christian or straight in that country. But it also petrified this columnist, who suddenly felt immense amounts of pressure to reflect on the decline of The World As We Know It and the rise of a wild strongman to the throne in Washington. Then, however, comments emerged from a strongwoman (of the subcontinental variety) on another matter altogether, and suddenly my column was saved. With much relief, I cast aside Trump and the prospect of contributing a furious denunciation and chewed with gratitude on column fodder supplied, instead, by a distant associate of his in the universe of the political right.

“There is nothing called marital rape,” was the opening insight supplied by the general secretary of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (a women’s body, which, like its guiding organization, becomes “RSS” in acronym). No marks for originality to the general secretary, though—after all, she and I live in a country where successive governments have defended this line of policy with nervous pronouncements about “Indian culture” and “the institution of marriage”, both of which are apparently so fragile that an acknowledgment of violence would invite catastrophe. There is nothing called marital rape in our law books, and to that extent the general secretary is not wrong. But law books can, she should know, reside in the Stone Age—I happen to be named after a character who supposedly authored, in 2,684 verses, one such prototype called the Manusmriti. Fortunately, it was so bad that most people had the good sense to ignore it.

“Marriage is a sacred bond,” came next in the RSS secretary’s comments, which my venerable ancestors in Kerala would have dismissed—no offence—as balderdash. They were matrilineal Nairs, among whom it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred; husbands and wives were dispensable. My great-great-grandmother’s first husband was not up to the mark and was dismissed, despite his many tears, from her presence in 1883. She then married my great-great-grandfather, who in turn had dissolved one previous marriage. They then went on to produce a man who successively espoused three women in the 1910s, before confirming the fourth. All of these people were pious, orthodox, “good” Hindus, but in their cultural context, marriage was most definitely not “sacred”. It was an arrangement, which could last a lifetime in cases, but was by no means binding on either party.

All that was needed for the wedding ceremony was an oil-lamp and the exchange of a piece of white cloth. If the lady accepted, the sambandham(relationship) had commenced. Indeed, so effortless was the process that when a governor of Madras in the 19th century, after a conversation on textiles with a Nair lady, offered to “send her a cloth” as “a specimen of the handiwork executed there”, the woman coyly replied that while she was “much obliged”, she was “quite satisfied with her present husband”. And all that was needed for divorce was for the cloth in question to be torn (or if one wanted to be direct, for the husband’s things to be left by the door—Malayalees were thrifty with time).

It was morality imported by Bible-wielding missionaries that converted marriage into a “sacred” affair, encouraging Nair women to forfeit sexual independence in return for patriarchal conformity as “good” wives. “Women, instead of fighting for rights, should focus on their duties, on how they can hold the society together, impart patriotism to their children and family members,” the RSS general secretary had declared in August. Apart from an unnecessary “the”, this line would comfortably gel into the propaganda unleashed in Kerala in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to persuade women to accept marriage as “sacred”, by men who reacted to Western criticism of their customs by ingesting that criticism.

I must confess I am not optimistic that this lesson in history will persuade the general secretary to change her mind because according to her, “social evils in our society are due to (foreign) invasion of 1,000 years. It will take time for society to come out of it.” In other words, if strange customs existed to demonstrate that a number of Indians did not treat marriage as sacred, they must have been perverted by influences from elsewhere (and I am tempted here to tell her the tale of the Kerala princesses who surprised an Italian in the early 17th century by showing up topless at court—he wondered why these women had such an abbreviated sense of dress, and they were puzzled, in return, by the layers of fabric with which he was encumbered—but I shall leave this story for another occasion).

Now, we turn to the final segment of the general secretary’s remarks: “Coexistence should lead to bliss. If we are able to understand the concept of this bliss, then everything runs smooth.” With this I have no disagreement, absolutely, for who does not want things to run smooth. In fact, it is my sincere hope that the good lady will forward this sentiment to president-elect Trump, who most certainly would benefit from lessons in the bliss of coexistence now that he can stick his thumb on nuclear buttons. Some good, then, may come out of the sum of her otherwise unevolved statements on marriage and marital rape.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 12 2016)


I must admit I feel a mischievous delight in being able to compare our “hon’ble minister” for information and broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, in his spotless white shirt and mundu, to Chairman Mao of China, who must have been somewhat less spotless after not bothering to shower for 27 years (he preferred sponge-baths). But it is not lightly that I make this observation, for the substance of the pious wisdom that has emerged from the minister in recent times is to me, as a historian, reminiscent of a number of ominous statements an unwashed Mao made some years before his rise to titanic tyranny in China—a China where people were buried alive so Mao could prevail.

It is not my intention to suggest that Naidu has anything else in common with a bona-fide dictator like Mao—his duties in information and broadcasting can hardly be compared to the terror of a man whose regime invented hundreds of ways of torture, with names like “sitting in a pleasure chair” and “monkeys holding a rope”. However, the similarity of tone in a number of recent utterances is difficult to miss, and favours intellectual positions that empower illiberalism and the centralization of power at the cost of freedom. Take, for instance, Mao’s “ideals are important, but reality is even more important”. To this, Naidu’s own “art has no boundaries, but countries (do) have boundaries” sounds like an affirmation that the mind must work within frontiers. And gatekeepers of these frontiers become the policemen of thought.

But this too is not a particularly original line of regressive thinking—any urban, middle-aged, middle- class, upper-caste male “outraged” by the “appeasement” of minorities, by reservations for “lazy” Dalits, by “sickulars” on Twitter, and by women in trousers could arguably have said all this without being suspected of wanting to follow in Mao’s bloody footsteps. So what really lends itself to comparison (after this lengthy preamble to try and ensure I am not sued) are the remarks our minister reportedly made about his view of an ideal press environment in India—that is, ideal for rulers and quite the opposite for those of us at the other end of the arrangement—and certain infamous, corresponding declarations Mao issued in 1942 at Yan’an, setting terms for freedom in the China he went on to scar forever.

Naidu’s latest recommendation, in defence of the suspension for a day of NDTV India for “compromising national security”, is that news broadcasters must “keep in mind interests of society and nation first”, and that “news should not cause harm to the nation’s interests”. A party colleague added that “we are a democracy and we believe in the freedom of the press, but the nation comes first”. The problem here is not even that the government has installed itself as the competent authority to define “the nation” but that to its spokespersons, freedom can be divorced from nationalism. The ruling dispensation, and not the Constitution, is the custodian of such nationalism.

The risk, behind smokescreens of patriotism, of surrendering such prerogatives to the government, is that the Constitution is reduced to a lovely work of calligraphy that everyone formally venerates while cordially violating in spirit. This has happened in the past too, which is why we have today little Maos who invade kitchens and bedrooms to protect “the nation”. Big Mao didn’t brook challengers, which meant he didn’t like people who could think. In his vindictive quest for authority, anybody who questioned him was branded “anti-people” or “anti-socialism”. “If our writers and artists …want their works to be well-received by the masses,” he announced, “they must change and remould their thinking and their feelings.” Or else they were welcome in the pleasure chair referred to above.

That was in 1942, and soon Mao went on to preside over human tragedy of colossal proportions and the wholesale massacre of everything that freedom entails. Today, we live in times when “anti-nationalism” is the hysteria of choice on this side of the Himalayas to cast people in black and white (and five paragraphs down, I imagine this column is firmly in the black). And when the argument is made that freedom is all good but that “the nation” must come first, the subtext is that the government acts in our best interests, and we must not be petulant by asking questions. “Media plays an important role in empowering people with information necessary to benefit from the government’s schemes and policies,” Naidu said. But when it does not exercise its freedom “judiciously” (i.e. when the press refuses to serve as a mouthpiece for the state), “necessary interventions” are justified.

Mercifully, the minister added that he is “not thinking of any new restrictions” on the press, which may be due to the fact that many in that business are already profitably kowtowing to power. Perhaps this should be no surprise—Mao may have sinned, but the China he left behind is booming (at least for its authoritarian masters) in that impersonal language of economic numbers. Since India has plans to rival China this century, perhaps patriots are willing to excuse a little authoritarianism. And if one suggests that they might be misguided in acquiescing in a path paved for tyrants, one must be among those who, as Naidu said, “are critical of whatever the government does in the best interests of the country”. Anti-national, like Mao’s anti-people challengers.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 05 2016)


Last Monday, large numbers of people in India remembered the life and legacy of Indira Gandhi on the 31st anniversary of her death. Some celebrated the memory of our slain prime minister, while others debated the ways, good and bad, in which she refashioned this country. Some recalled her triumph in the 1971 war, while others lambasted her for the socialism that romanticized poverty instead of embracing the idea of prosperity (then, of course, there were the trolls on Twitter who rejoiced that they had one more occasion to employ ghastly neologisms like “sickular”). Either way, Indira Gandhi loomed large this last day of last month, and so this column will reverse the date to the 13th of October, travel back over eight centuries, and remember, instead, another remarkable lady who ruled Delhi—and who too was murdered, closing her tale in tragedy.

If Gandhi was the first woman to lead democratic India, Sultan Raziya was the only woman to have occupied Delhi’s throne during the days of the Slave Dynasty. Like Gandhi, Raziya was first noticed as the daughter of a very important man, emperor Iltutmish. He must have been an unusual character in the 13th century, because he seems to have preferred his daughter over profligate sons, recommending her as his heir. There was precedent, his partisans claimed—Khosrow’s daughter Pourandokht had ruled Persia some centuries before in her own right. But the 40 nobles at court would have none of it—in poetry and verse they threatened to defy the imperial decree, and lamented loudly that beloved Raziya was not the emperor’s son. In other words, Raziya was all a monarch ought to be—except she had the wrong genitals. So when the old man died in 1236, they parked on the throne her half-brother.

This heir had the correct genitals, but all the wrong ideas about being king. He squandered his time in the harem, and made the mistake of keeping the chief among his 40 nobles waiting while he made merry with a favourite dancing girl. Six months into his reign, his courtiers reciprocated the sentiment, with the consequence that he was left somewhat diminished above the neck.

Raziya’s star rose and she was installed on the throne in place of her dead brother. Unlike him, she disdained the harem (and the veil) and rode elephants and horses around the city. When someone nudged her towards gentle, submissive femininity, she told them that as sultan she was not a woman but the guardian of her people. The veil never appeared, and she retained her horses, elephants, and “manly” conduct.

Gandhi too was created by her father’s men. But she informed the syndicate she wouldn’t be their cipher, toppled them, split the Congress party, and went on to prevail till slogans like “Indira is India, India is Indira” sounded like a good idea.

Raziya, on the other hand, never managed to survive her noblemen—perhaps she tried to do too much too soon. She abolished unjust taxes, established schools, welcomed the marginalized into the halls of power, and patronized poets and intellectuals, much to the horror of the Turkish elite. So they eventually hit her below the belt. There was a Lord of the Stables who became the sultan’s favourite. Rumour went around that the queen was having an affair with her stable boy, and a scandal was manufactured and transmitted across the empire. It also didn’t help that the protagonist in this love affair, an Abyssinian called Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, was black.

Eventually in 1240 the nobles instigated a childhood associate of Raziya’s, who was governor of Bhatinda (hopefully a handsomer city in those days) and who had his own designs on Delhi, to rebel against his sultan. Raziya set out atop her elephant and led her armies to contain him. Sadly for her, she lost the battle and found herself under house arrest. But she did manage to turn the tide—by proposing marriage. There are, apparently, songs about their fabled love, though, of course, for both there were more pragmatic considerations to bear in mind than romance—a prisoner queen doesn’t have very many options, while her captor could claim the throne of Delhi by legitimately planting himself in her bedchamber. Having celebrated their wedding (the hated Abyssinian favourite had died sometime earlier), the couple marched on the capital, where the scheming nobles were ready for them.

This battle too Raziya lost, and while she fled, a band of Jats robbed her and her husband and killed them both. Her brother succeeded as emperor—till the nobles decided his head too looked better on a spike. Raziya lies today somewhere in the old city in an unremarkable tomb, surrounded by illegal constructions and tailor shops, though of course some feel she is buried elsewhere and this is not her tomb at all. Her resting place is essentially a little mound, with another next to it housing the remains of a sister (nobody of historical significance). Some locals know the story of the woman, but the yard where Raziya lies is primarily home to a board installed by the Archaeological Survey of India, and to itinerant beggars.

Indira Gandhi’s memorial, on the other hand, is well-maintained, though this year, because of a bird flu crisis, she too had few visitors.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 29 2016)


Some days ago I arrived at the not necessarily original conclusion that charisma is, in essence, the capacity to deliver a fair amount of drivel—and to make an engaging spectacle of the process. I was in the presence of yet another flamboyant baba, Swami Ramdev, who demonstrated that evening a flair for entertaining his audience even if the substance of what he had to say didn’t really make that compelling marriage of logic and exactness that one would ordinarily define as brilliant insight.

Nothing about the baba is ordinary, and he made up with much laughter, stroking of the beard, and sensational wiggling of the stomach (twice) what he lacked in other respects. One could see why, in an age when “popular sentiment” reigns supreme, he has conquered television with pop-yoga and pop-gurudom.

“His Holiness”, as one distinguished attendee proclaimed him, arrived in great style, which is to say that he arrived with Z-category security—many guns, half-a-dozen stern protectors of his saffron person, and much fuss involving the press.

Pakistan was a significant topic of discussion that evening, but before I venture into that, I must confess that what held my attention most were the high-platform wooden padukas the baba had on. I am conscious that to be studying the sartorial preferences of a “yog-rishi” is perhaps a shallow enterprise, but this and the business “empire” the man is building are probably the most interesting things about him (after the question of what really goes into his cosmetic products).

That Pakistan loomed large at the gathering was no surprise, given how much our neighbour has captured televised middle-class enthusiasm in recent times and created for us renewed opportunities to assert national virility and masculine patriotism (we now have another favourite expression to deploy for the season—“surgical strikes”). There is no objection to art and artists from that country, Ramdev announced at one point, but how can we permit them to make money here and transmit it to a place that propagates acts of terror against India? One would think there are more complex components to this debate, but the general mood these days is not tolerant of complexity, which gets in the way of chest-thumping or, as was recently stated, the “reality” that while art has no borders, countries do. Complexity, in these circumstances, is anti-national.

In due course, we were also informed that destroying evil is very much within the ambit of ahimsa, and so, to contemplate the annihilation of an inconvenient neighbour doesn’t reflect badly on India and our exalted traditions. Many people clapped, including the cameramen from various news outlets at the back, and a large number of middle-aged men who have always been a prime constituency for this sort of Kautilya-with-nukes fantasy. One imagines that they will probably also applaud the latest contribution to public life and nation-building that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has made in Mumbai—to extort a “donation” to the Armed Forces from film-maker Karan Johar for patronizing talent from that hated place across the border. But that is another matter.

Charisma is also, apparently, a gift for avoiding pointed answers to pointed questions, and to beat around the bush while saying a lot and nothing, all at once. No wonder Ramdev was asked what happened to his plans to constitute a political party, for he would make a very good politician. When talking about Pakistan, it was easy to remain charismatic—an enemy state (or “terror state Pakistan”, as one news channel now calls it, showing that in terms of evolution and maturity, our TV fraternity has not graduated kindergarten) can be denounced in vague and populist expressions that are in consonance with “national pride”. But when asked, after he broke into song once or twice, if he was happy about the government’s performance, the charisma grew uncomfortable. He said that yogis are neither happy nor sad about anything in life. If only our TV anchors would also take a break and sit on the fence for some time, we might yet be saved another dose of hysteria.

Then there was the matter of the baba’s lack of warmth for globalization and the presence of foreign companies in India. For instance, he urged standing up to the “videshi kabza” (foreign conquest) of our industries. Amul may sell milk in India, but why Nestlé? Is it not a matter of shame that in Gandhi’s land, Fabindia should be the leading brand for Khadi? Someone asked him if it is fair to reject globalization and the market when his own brand benefits from platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the resources that Google, for instance, offers, none of which are Indian. The baba answered the question by not answering it. He declared that his ambition is to enable the rise of an Indian Google and Facebook. So too was the response to another question about why he was importing bull-semen from Brazil for Indian cows. I wonder: Do gau rakshaks know what our beloved cows are enduring? Perhaps they approve, because apparently the ancestors of these bulls emigrated from India, so that makes this a happy case of ghar wapsi.

When everything ended, the baba and his retinue departed. Everyone else ventured towards the bar. Awaiting us was vegetarian finger-food and fruit juice—Ramdev’s crew had made it clear that there should be no meat and alcohol. The middle-aged men who, minutes ago, were cheering nationalist sentiments and enjoying their holier-than-thou (or at least holier-than-Pakistan) moments, grumbled. And then everyone went home to make up for the disappointment by switching on the news and feeling strong and patriotic again, drunk only on yet more drivel.