(My column in Mint Lounge, January 20 2018)


It is tempting to wonder if Swami Vivekananda might have achieved his enduring appeal had he chosen to remain a “Vividishinanda”, or even a “Sachchidananda”, at the time of his defining visit to the US. These were, after all, names he preferred at various points, before finally confirming, in 1893, the label by which the world remembers him.

“Vivekananda” certainly rolls better off the tongue than the other options, but significantly, it is also the name by which this peerless Bengali monk has been appropriated by practically every political camp in contemporary India, to deploy in support of even antithetical motives. To those whose blood is not red but saffron, he was a champion of Hindu pride. Those, on the other hand, who abhor majoritarian impulses, also point to the very same man, in whose preachings may be found endorsements of a liberal nature. Veritably, this iconic thinker-saint, whose birth anniversary it was on 12 January, has emerged as everybody’s favourite, precisely because he can be different things to different people.

Vivekananda’s story is well established: born as Narendranath into a bhadralok (genteel) family in Kolkata, a promising academic career, his encounter with the spiritual master Ramakrishna, and his transformation thereon as not only an architect of modern Hindu thought but also as a messenger for India itself. What firmly confirmed him as a force, however, was his famous address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As his Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, remarked, “it may be said that when he began to speak” at that 1893 gathering, “it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus”. By the time he had finished his monumental address, “Hinduism had been created”.

This modern rendition of ancient traditions entitled him to honour, but some offer fantastical tales that heralded much earlier the certainty of distinction. He was Shiva incarnate because, as a child, the only way to calm his mischief was to pour “cold water on his head and simultaneously (chant) the name of Shiva”. When a snake slithered into Narendranath’s room while he meditated, so admiring was the reptile that it sat still, utterly transfixed. These stories served their purpose in romanticizing Vivekananda’s work with magical, god-ordained destiny, but we can safely conclude that they are entirely apocryphal.

The philosophy he upheld was a refashioned Advaita Vedanta. But esoteric concerns aside, what electrified minds was his blending of religious reawakening with national reinvigoration. After generations of inferiority complex fed by a colonial state—that India was rotten and devoid of civilizational value—Vivekananda refused to argue on conventional terms. “Let others,” he declared, “talk of politics…of the immense wealth poured in by trade, of the power and spread of commercialism, of the glorious fountain of physical liberty.” The “Hindu mind” did not care—India’s mission was not to count coins, focused as it was on “the evolution of spiritual humanity”.

This formula emphasizing spirituality was not original, but where Vivekananda differed from previous reformers—who too sought to restore confidence but whose message circulated within the elite—was in his conviction that the masses needed awakening, and that religion was the medium for it. “Before flooding India with socialistic or political ideas,” he argued, “first deluge the land with spiritual ideas.” That he travelled the length of this vast country, and to places as distant as Nagasaki and New York, further energized his cause.

His spiritual ideas were derived from Sanskrit philosophy, even though its dissemination was not to remain in the language of philosophers. “It is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics,” he observed. Things would have to be simplified, translated into vernaculars, and “fiery” missionaries enlisted to transport this message. Old movements such as the Bhakti of popular worship had to be discarded. While in Chicago he highlighted divine love, in India he saw Bhakti as making the nation “a race of women!” Odisha, for example, was “a land of cowards; and Bengal,” he admonished, “has almost lost all sense of manliness”.

While not violent, Vivekananda envisioned Hinduism as a proactive faith and not one that remained complacent in disorganized variety. Such a reinvention of Hinduism, he affirmed, was the key to “awaken the national consciousness”. Internal differences had to be weeded out, because “the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, (and) coordination of wills”.

Reformers from below, for instance, were not to show aggression against orthodox Brahminism. An example Vivekananda cited was the American blacks. “Before the abolition, these poor negroes were the property of somebody, and…(were) looked after…Today they are the property of nobody. Their lives are of no value.” So, too, in India, despite injustices of caste, it was unwise to attempt to push the elite out of the way, crippling unity. Besides, “To the non-Brahmin castes I say…you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning?…Why do you fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck..than you?” Despite problematic pronouncements as this one in 1897, to his global audience, Vivekananda’s voice was refreshingly open. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true”—a message highlighted by liberal Hindus to challenge the often physical violence unleashed against minorities in India today.

There were in Vivekananda’s message contradictions, and indeed he may have had more than one message. In his own time, however, these did not seem like contradictions at all. He simply spoke to different people in different ways. To Indians battling caste, speaking multiple languages, and with regional identities, his purpose was to engender national unity by reinventing Hinduism. To those abroad, his mission was to present Hinduism not as that tangled jungle of superstition the British saw, but as a mature, magnificent faith. Consistency wasn’t perhaps Vivekananda’s strong point, but, in the end, it was also precisely his inconsistency that made him such an appealing figure to such large numbers of people in India as well as abroad.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 13 2018)


She lies buried amidst sepulchres that house the remains of many who are still famous. There is Jim Morrison on the premises, the American rock legend whom trains of tourists come to pay homage, like pilgrims bearing flowers. Edith Piaf, the waif who sang her way to greatness, finds her peace nearby, as does Frederic Chopin, the composer whose pickled heart is in Warsaw but whose body dissolves in the French capital. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson rests here, and in the vicinity there is a man believed to have been sired by Napoleon. Oscar Wilde’s sculpted grave competes with Marcel Proust’s neat bed of stone, and many more still are the artists, writers, and persons of esteem who crowd the hillside cemetery that is Père Lachaise in Paris. And yet, between them all, under a platform of rugged rock, lies this tragic Indian woman. Her name and cause have been largely forgotten, but since 1858, she has been here, longer than many of her revered neighbours. Tourists walk by with cameras, oblivious to her unmarked square existence. But every now and then there is a stray visitor who arrives on a quest: to locate the final resting place of that remarkable woman, the last queen of Awadh.

I was that visitor a few days ago, when I trekked up Paris’ most famous graveyard to look for this forgotten tomb. The lady appears in yellowed old books by several names. She was to some Malika Kishwar, while others knew her as Janab-i Aliyah, Her Sublime Excellency, mother to the ruler of “Oude”, Wajid Ali Shah. In 1856, when the British deposed this nawab from his ancestral seat in Lucknow, his family departed for colonial Calcutta, with all the money they could gather and what dignity they had left. But while the son (a “crazy imbecile” in the eyes of his sneering oppressors) prepared to fade quietly into history, the mother was determined to win back that which was her family’s by right. That very year, this woman who knew little beyond her sequestered palace, set foot on a ship, determined to sail to England so she might speak—woman to woman—to the English queen in person. After all, declared the middle-aged begum, Victoria was “also a mother”; she would recognize the despair her people had unleashed, and restore to the House of Awadh territory, titles, and its rightful honour. And so proceeded Malika Kishwar, her health already in decline, braving cold winds in a foreign land, to plead the cause of royal justice.

The mission was doomed from the start. Advisers were many and much was the money they sought for the privilege of their counsel. The results, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found. As historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones records, Kishwar discovered quickly enough that Queen Victoria, in her “circular dress”, had little power to bestow anything more than polite conversation on her and her Awadhi line—when an audience was granted, they spoke about boats and English mansions, not about imperial treacheries and the unjust business in Lucknow. In the British parliament, things got worse. A prayer at long last prepared was dismissed on spurious bureaucratic grounds: the begum was to submit a “humble petition”, words that she failed to use in the document laid before the House. While her son accepted British imperium, the mother was obstinate in battle. So, when she wished to travel, they sought to dragoon her into acknowledging their suzerainty—if Malika Kishwar and her ménage wanted passports, she would have to declare herself a “British subject”. The begum refused to do anything of the sort, prepared, at best, to be under “British protection”, but never anybody’s “subject”. And legal quibbles aside, the Great Rebellion of 1857 compounded matters—there was now no prospect of relinquishing even a fragment of British power when the hour called for a demonstration of obdurate strength alone. Awadh was lost forever.

The tide having turned, in 1858, the begum decided to return at last, defeated and unhappy in the extreme. But in Paris she fell ill and died on 24 January. The funeral was simple, but there was yet some dignity and state—representatives of the Turkish and Persian sultans gave this Indian queen the regard the British denied her and her line. A cenotaph was constructed by the grave, but it has long since fallen to pieces—when decades later the authorities at Père Lachaise sought funds to repair the tomb, her exiled son decided from Calcutta that it was simply not worth his pension, while the colonial state was even less inclined to honour a difficult woman lying several feet underground in an alien European country. And so, since that time, in a graveyard full of magnificent memorials, the queen of Awadh has remained, a shell of broken stone sheltering her from the weeds and overgrowth that alone have made a claim upon her and the story that she tells.

Others of her suite also suffered. A younger son had come with her, Sikandar Hashmat by name. He died in England, and was carried to join his mother in her unmarked grave. A grandson’s infant child was also buried within, turning the tally in Paris to three. But it was in London that one more of the delegation fell, this one a baby princess, born to Sikandar Hashmat from his Rajput wife on British shores. I walked around a dull little place called Kilburn to look for this grave. And there, in a cemetery, after an hour between tombs set in the soggy English ground, I found a memorial to the child: Princess Omdutel Aurau Begum, “who died 14th April 1858”, months after her grandmother who was once a queen. But Omdutel, all of 18 months, had a minor triumph where her royal grandmother had none—lying by a pathway in that cemetery in Kilburn, her grave at least bears her name. The begum, on the other hand, has become to the passing tourist at Père Lachaise in Paris a plinth on which to rest, smoking a cigarette and looking on to a horizon full of the dead, till a stranger might appear to tell how they have under them pieces of a fascinating woman, and the remains of one of Indian history’s most unhappy tales.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 6 2018)


In 1757, on the eve of the historic Battle of Plassey, a merchant called Amir Chand threw in an alarming demand at Robert Clive’s table. “Omichund”, as the English knew him, had served the East India Company, assisting in their shaky relationship with the nawab of Bengal. Now, however, as war looked inevitable, he also made himself indispensable, helping hatch that infamous plot by which the nawab’s commander, Mir Jafar, was to betray his sovereign and join ranks with the Company. At the last minute, however, Omichund put forth an ominous clause—he wanted Rs30 lakh for his services, failing which he would (regretfully) divulge the scheme to the nawab himself. Colonel Clive was upset. But he was also shrewd: two copies of the pact with Mir Jafar were prepared. The counterfeit carried Omichund’s clause, while the actual agreement said nothing about his reward. And when everything was over and the English had prevailed, the old merchant was summoned and simply told: “Omichund, the red paper is a trick, you are to have nothing!”

It is said that Omichund died a broken man. Two of his sons left colonial Calcutta to do business in Varanasi instead, where prosperity came to them soon enough. But it would be some generations before one of their line could redeem the reputation of their perfidious ancestor. To be sure, this great-grandson, Harishchandra, often referred to as Bharatendu (Moon of India), was not a vengeful nationalist—before he died this day in 1885, many were the occasions when he hosted gatherings to demonstrate affection for the Raj that betrayed his forebear. But even as he sang of “the Western rays of civilization” and the “progressive policy of the British nation”, Harishchandra’s contributions to the development of Hindi carved for him a place in the eyes of posterity. He might have composed panegyrics when births and weddings took place in Queen Victoria’s household, but it was also his pen that helped propel a movement to transform a neglected language of mixed origins into a mass cultural campaign that culminated in that famous cry, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”.

Harishchandra began life in 1850 in a combination of tragedy and grandiosity. He lost his parents young but grew up so rich that all his life his greatest difficulty was how not to mismanage more of his money. He founded and edited one of India’s first women’s journals, Balabodhini, but to his own wife all he offered was neglect. If an object caught his eye—a camera perhaps, or new perfume—he required it at once. “This money,” he laughed, “has eaten my ancestors; now I am going to eat it.” But even as he reduced life into an oscillation between debt and extravagance, he also left behind a mark that endures to this day. His Kavivachansudha (founded 1868) and Harishchandrachandrika (founded 1873) emerged as iconic platforms for literary exchange in northern India. Featuring Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory as well as news from the local Dharma Sabha, it was through these publications that Harishchandra, as the scholar Vasudha Dalmia notes, “veritably created literary Hindi” even as he gently voiced his support for Hindu consolidation. He became a catalyst for a vernacular nationalism that would achieve full force in the following century, rising simultaneously as the “Father of Modern Hindi Literature and Hindi Theatre”.

If modern Hindi is today well entrenched, where it comes from is an issue that still provokes debate. As Prof. Harish Trivedi writes, “Hindi was commonly perceived to be an underdeveloped and underprivileged language, fragmented into several competing dialects, backward and dusty by association with its largely rural constituency”. The British recognized Urdu as the north’s language of government. Since it was spoken primarily by elite Muslims, however, this stirred resentment among others who competed for jobs but did not know Urdu. As Harishchandra argued, thanks to this official bias, Muslims enjoyed “a sort of monopoly” where employment was concerned, which was not only “injustice” but also “a cause of annoyance and inconvenience” to masses of Hindi speakers who also happened largely to be Hindus. The matter was not black and white, but the message carried resonance. Both languages were cousins derived from the same roots—one was truer to Sanskrit, while the other had gained much from Arabic and Persian. Now they became rivals.

But this time also coincided with an urge to make new literature—something modern and fitted to emerging feelings of cultural and political nationalism. Much of the poetry in Hindi was in the Brajbhasha and Avadhi dialects, traditionally considered prestigious but thought to be encumbered by an excess of devotion and piety. Khariboli, the dialect spoken around Delhi and present-day Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, was an open vessel for literary innovation. “The progress of one’s own language is the root of all progress,” Harishchandra argued, and page after page in his magazine was devoted to plays, poetry, satire and essays, all of which combined to create a new corpus for speakers of an increasingly standardized Hindi. Khariboli was swiftly invested with pride and disseminated widely through Harishchandra’s energy and enthusiasm. Only he could have pulled it off—wealthy, flamboyant, and with personal networks stretching from British officials to Bengal’s reformers, he was noticed in the right circles. That he also centred his activities in Varanasi, a city of special significance for Hindus in a time of political consolidation, further legitimized his ventures.

In 1885, not yet 35, Harischandra died, by now less convinced of the Raj and its goodness for India. But what he had helped launch assumed a life of its own, becoming the Standard Modern Hindi of today in the course of a few decades. By 1893, a Nagari Pracharini Sabha emerged to lobby for official recognition of Hindi and Devanagari—the request was granted in 1900. By 1910, a Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was born, of which Gandhi remained a member longer than he was of the Congress. Poets and writers raised to think of Urdu as the language of culture, invested increasingly in Hindi. As Premchand wrote in 1915, “Urdu will no longer do. Has any Hindu ever made a success of writing in Urdu, that I will?” This “Hindi Renaissance” was infused with nationalism and some even drew links to 1857—seeds of a standardized Hindi were sown when speakers of various dialects united for the “First War of Independence” and recognized themselves as one people. Harishchandra, however, did not live to see the fruits of his work—but for many, by helping Hindi rise to its feet, he had more than paid off his ancestor’s debt. Omichund may have erred by siding with the British, but by creating a vehicle for cultural and national aspirations, Harishchandra had earned only honour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 30 2017)


In December 1982, The Illustrated Weekly Of India carried a story on an Indian painter and her latest series, inspired by classical mythology. The feature included a number of photographs, and had followed exhibitions at the Jehangir and Taj art galleries in Mumbai. While Society magazine described a “minor stampede” at the venues, part of this was also because many were interested in the women who appeared in these canvases. After all, the artist had been true to descriptions in the epics: Where the Mahabharat relates how Vishwamitra saw Menaka “nude” after her skirt went “off with the wind”, and “lusted to lie with her”, the painter of these works had indeed created a sage with a face that weighed his options, beholding an apsara (celestial nymph) who wore jewels but had truly lost her clothes. The reviews were not kind—emphasis was placed on the word “nude”. But even as the painter K.H. Ara told her to ignore critics, what upset the artist were the threats that followed. As a letter to the Illustrated Weekly warned, while “Hindus are less communal…it is not advisable to misuse their generosity. You should desist from baring their gods and goddesses.”

Rukmini Varma would grow tired of this—the critic who disapproved of her traditional choice of subject (“God save us from our gods and goddesses!” commented S.V. Vasudev) as much as he did of her preference for realism. And a right wing that was apoplectic about the unabashed manner in which mythological figures were approached. The tilt towards realism was perhaps natural, given her circumstances. Arriving with a gun salute into Kerala’s premier royal family in 1940, her early life was spent in a palace, surrounded by court painters who elevated realism to the heights of worship. That she was descended from Raja Ravi Varma carried its influence too. Varma’s style was for much of the 20th century discredited as being too colonial, as India moved through phases dominated by the nationalistic Bengal School, followed by the modernism of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Progressive Artists of Bombay.

But, for Rukmini, realism retains merit. When, in an interview, she was asked if she wanted to be introduced as “a dethroned princess on a nostalgic trip” or “as an artist carrying on the tradition of an illustrious ancestor”, her response was: “Neither.” Try instead, she suggested, to present a “woman with a mission” centred on “preserving realistic art”. To her, realism is “timeless”. And if the suggestion is made that such work is anachronistic, her response is simply: “I disagree.”

Her mission has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s, Rukmini saw tremendous success. Her exhibitions in India were opened by governors and presidents, while, in London, Lord Mountbatten sang her praises. Her social position—had the old order continued, she would today have held the title of maharani—allowed her private tours of the Vatican’s collection, and she sat with Svetoslav Roerich on the advisory board of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru, where she lives.

This was also the phase in which she experimented a great deal—her palette-knife paintings from this decade are among the finest works produced by this self-taught artist in a 50-year career. While she too dabbled in modernism, and expresses admiration for Sher-Gil’s originality, Rukmini always found herself drawn back to realism. Even as she resurrected her ancestor’s style, there were elements she introduced of her own. “During the Victorian era,” for instance, “painters muted the colours. Nobody did a bright painting, and everything was mixed with a neutral colour…(so) the outcome would be soft…But my palette is not like that…I give each shade its own prominence. And the canvas becomes vivid.” So too she separates herself from the classical and academic schools—hers is a realism that relies solely on pictures formed in her mind—“visions” where characters appear fully formed, jewels and all—so that models are rarely required for reference.

Rukmini’s paintings, which abound with buxom women and muscular men, do indeed have shades of purple and blue. But what marks out these canvases is that most of her characters, while covered in gems and jewels, are not draped. “My point has always been to bring out the innumerable shades in flesh, for there is nothing…that has more varieties of shades than this,” she once explained. “I am fascinated by the interplay of shades (and light)… If it is an arm, of course, there will be no comment. But if there is a bust, or hips, or thighs, immediately comes in this word, ‘nude’. Which is ridiculous.” In another interview, when asked why she “filled” her canvas with “nude women in erotic postures”, quick came the response: “If my work is characterized as ‘erotic’ by you, then how would you describe the frescoes in…Ajanta?” As a one-time dancer (having learnt Kathak from Maya Rao and Bharatanatyam from U.S. Krishna Rao), and as a student of Sanskrit classics, Rukmini seeks an idealized conception of beauty. When asked why her characters, despite her realism, are so unlike real human beings, she laughs, “It is always an exaggeratedly beautiful anatomy that I see. Perhaps I’m inventing a beauty that simply doesn’t exist? Perhaps reality as I see it is so overpowering that this is my form of escape?”

Painting did become an escape by the end of the 1980s. After she lost her son in an accident, Rukmini became a recluse, disappearing from the world of art, where, in any case, she had never been “in” with the times. It took over three decades, till this year, for her to put up a show again, where the principal work on display was a 9ft-tall painting of the Hoysala emperor Vishnuvardhan with his dancer wife Shantala, both of them wearing jewels for clothes and depicted on the basis of Rukmini’s “vision” of the couple. At 77, painting such tremendous canvases is not an easy exercise—in the verandah of her colonial-era house, two teapoys are put together with a table on top, and Rukmini is hoisted up in an armchair so she can work. But paint she must—and while the world may move from one style to the next, and from one experimental form to another, this descendant of India’s painter prince remains committed to her style. “Art has no expiry date, and no geographical boundaries,” she smiles, “and we can always learn from the old masters.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 23 2017)


In 1791, when German poet-playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first encountered the story of Shakuntala, he was moved enough to declare that if heaven and earth combined in one name, that name would be hers. His passion for Kalidas’ epic heroine lasted a lifetime, and even on the eve of his death, he referred to Shakuntala as “a star that makes the night more agreeable than the day”. Goethe was not alone in his fascination for Kalidas’ Abhijñānaśākuntalam, which captured Europe’s imagination after William “Orientalist” Jones produced his translation Sacontala, or The Fatal Ring(1789). Since then, this heroine has emerged as one of India’s most memorable mythological characters, featuring in Raja Ravi Varma’s canvases as well as on the movie screen, not to speak of endless literary works. Indeed, as the historian Romila Thapar notes, Shakuntala was crowned the ideal of Indian womanhood, her integrity and blamelessness going down as virtues to be emulated by every good daughter and wife.

The celebrated Shakuntala created by Kalidas, however, is markedly different from the original template in the Mahabharat. In this earlier avatar, Shakuntala is a remarkably direct and confident figure. When Dushyanta, who has killed “thousands of deer” in the course of his royal hunt, arrives at her adoptive father’s hermitage, he calls out, “Who is here?” Shakuntala appears and after welcoming him, asks how she may be of service. With the father away, Dushyanta notices her “beautiful hips”, “lustrous appearance” and “charming smile”. After she explains her half-celestial origins, the king is moved to declare, “Be my wife, buxom woman!” and suggests to this “girl of the lovely thighs” that they ought to marry right away, in the gandharva style where passion makes up for lack of ceremony. Shakuntala initially asks him to wait, but is eventually persuaded that this is indeed a legitimate form of marriage. But first she seeks a promise: Her son from this union must be the king’s heir. “If it is to be thus, Duhsanta, you may lie with me.” The lady in the Mahabharat is sensible, in other words, and able to command from the king a significant pledge.

The Shakuntala Kalidas’ exquisite poetry breathed into life, however, was not, as the scholar Kanchana Mahadevan writes, “the assertive woman of the epic”. Unlike in the Mahabharat, she barely even talks to him directly—she is too innocent and sweet. Indeed, as a companion explains, she is “as delicate as a jasmine”. She falls in love with the king, who is tempted by this “flower that no one has smelled”. Either way, their mutual attraction results in a consummation, and in what might have been inspired by a Buddhist tale, the king departs after handing over to Shakuntala his ring. While she is lost in romantic dreams one day, a sage with a legendary temper appears. And not finding her up to the mark in his service, he issues a curse that her lover will forget her. Following entreaties by others, he subsequently allows a caveat that when the king sees the ring, he will remember Shakuntala. And so, in this version, matters are taken beyond human control to the realm of fate that serves, in essence, to absolve our male lead of his subsequent betrayal.

The ring and the curse are interesting additions by Kalidas. In the Mahabharat, our heroine, after a three-year pregnancy, appears at Dushyanta’s court with their son to remind the king of his word. “Remember,” she says, “the promise you made long ago when we lay together, man of fortune, in Kanva’s hermitage!” Dushyanta, however, quite deliberately chooses not to recognize her. “I do not know that this is my son…Women are liars—who will trust your word?” A strong exchange follows, and while Shakuntala is angry, she remains full of furious power. “Even without you, Duhsanta, my son shall reign over the four-cornered earth,” she declares. “My birth is higher than yours, Duhsanta! You walk on earth, great king, but I fly the skies.” Eventually, a magical voice confirms that the boy is the king’s son, upon which Dushyanta announces that he had known Shakuntala was telling the truth all along. As Wendy Doniger translates: “I knew…that he was my own son. But if I had accepted him…just from her words, there would have been doubt among the people.” The king, for reasons of public approval, had been telling an untruth. And without irony, he then proceeds to forgive Shakuntala for her harsh words!

The same episode is transformed by Kalidas. In his version, Shakuntala is pregnant, and accompanied by others who speak for her in court. The king does not recognize her and suggests that she is trying to pass off another man’s seed as his own. “Don’t cuckoos let other birds nurture/Their eggs and teach the chicks to fly?” he asks. But through the device of the curse—which means the king has genuinely forgotten Shakuntala—Kalidas exonerates him, where, in the Mahabharat, Dushyanta is guilty. The fact that Shakuntala has lost the all-important ring complicates matters. But unlike, to quote Thapar again, “the spirited woman who argues her right” in the epic, Shakuntala in Kalidas’ retelling sheds pious tears till her mother, the celestial nymph Menaka, comes to her rescue. Eventually, after the ring reaches the king through the means of a dead fish, he remembers everything, and sets out to reunite with his wife and child. Nobody is to blame here—Shakuntala is pure, the king’s rudeness was the result of a curse, and what really determined matters was a tragic twist of fate.

Kalidas’ was a tremendously popular version (in a 19th century Urdu translation, Shakuntala is so chaste that she even acquires a veil) given that hero and heroine were both romantic victims. But the play also encapsulates a moment when the powerful woman of the epic makes way for a new ideal—an ideal that was embraced by Western audiences in Goethe’s day, and which Indians too have accepted, forgetting the more remarkable woman who first appears in the epic, one who does not conform to notions of patriarchal correctness, but stands proud, instead, as a challenge to the world of men.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 16 2017)


When Jane Austen was born this day in 1775, novel-writing was still seen as a wholly undignified obsession. Old men feared the romantic nonsense it fed young women, who now, it was argued, entertained dangerously subversive tendencies such as following the heart instead of obeying their husbands. Some females too were alarmed. Hannah More, the playwright, saw in novel-reading “all the symptoms of decay” while Mary Berry, the writer, declared fiction “the great evil of all young women”. Even as Austen started Lady Susan in 1793, The Evangelical Magazine was denouncing novels as “instruments of abomination and ruin”.

In fact, a sinister connection was even made between reading fiction and such unseemly habits as masturbation. As the French doctor J.D.T. de Bienville argued in his Nymphomania, published in the year of Austen’s birth, “venomous” novels stoked the imagination, which in turn pushed women into the abyss of fantasy. They became “monsters in human shape”, prone to impious activities like self-pleasuring. Art too aided this view—works like Emmanuel de Ghendt’s Midday Heat were among several featuring a woman with her hands in the wrong place, a half-read novel lying open by her side.

And yet the young Austen was allowed to read. The daughter of a reverend, she had the unusual luxury in her formative years of enjoying uncensored access to her father’s personal library. The family had literary inclinations—one brother wrote poems, and another, sermons. Sometimes, little sketches were put up, and as a niece later recalled, Austen “read aloud remarkably well” from her own writings. She read as widely as the times permitted—and in 1813, this included such titles as Essay On The Military Police And The Institutions Of The British Empire, which she found “highly entertaining”.

Her own family had no prejudice against novels. When, in her 20s, a library owner invited them to subscribe, reassuring them that her collection held more than just novels, Austen was not pleased. “She might have spared this pretension to our family,” she wrote, “who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.” With the explosion of print, the rise of a middle class, and a growing appetite for books of all kinds, the novel was here to stay, even if for another century it would retain, in varying degrees, some stigma—Samuel Coleridge, in 1815, considered reading fiction about as productive as “spitting over a bridge” and “snuff-taking”.

Austen’s own books reflected the social reservations attached to the novel. When, for instance, in Pride And Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is sarcastically accused of being “a great reader”, she is quick to respond: “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many (other) things.” For decades, however, there had also been some lampooning of high-class disdain for novels. In Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, there is a scene where a character has visitors and commands her maid to conceal all her novels. “Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick! Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty Of Man—thrust Lord Ainsworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man Of Feeling into your pocket—so, so, now lay Mrs Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce’s Sermons open on the table.”

One of the reasons, given the context then, that Austen was writing the first drafts of her novels as early as the 1790s was that she did not begin with an intention to publish. Writing was a personal pursuit, and perhaps to be circulated and read aloud in family circles. That was that, and so public concerns about how appropriate an activity this was for a reverend’s daughter never arose.

When a desire to publish did come, it was, in what is familiar to writers even today, a painfully slow process. In 1797, in her early 20s, the book that would become Pride And Prejudice was rejected by a publisher. In 1803, the novel that the world knows as Northanger Abbey was acquired for £10, but did not see the light of day for years. It was 1811 by the time Sense And Sensibilityappeared, its success allowing for other works accumulated from over a decade ago to also manifest in print—indeed, critics have noted that Austen’s early works, written largely in the final decade of the 18th century and rooted in the privileged lives of the gentry, differ from her last works, which reflect a greater awareness of a changing world in their cast of characters, approach to class and the professions, and other attributes.

She herself was pleased with the reception of her books, even if it only brought her about £700 in her own lifetime. As the Edinburgh Magazine noted some years later, “We have no hesitation in saying, that (Austen)…will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point to the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing it upon her.” Alongside Frances Burney, Austen too thus has a place in making the novel respectable.

Curiously enough, it was only after her death that her name actually appeared as the writer of these novels, which have since sold millions around the world in dozens of languages. When Sense And Sensibility was published, the title page simply said, “By a Lady”. As other novels made their mark, their writer became known as “The Author of ‘Sense And Sensibility’”. In 1814, Austen’s identity became known in some circles due to her brother’s determination to advertise the fact, but none of the four books published before her death in 1817 carried her name—it was in the obituary that the connection was officially made.

As the Courier recorded, “Miss Jane Austen” was the “Authoress of ‘Emma’, ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Pride And Prejudice’, and ‘Sense And Sensibility’. Her manners,” it added, “were most gentle; her affections ardent; her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.” And so it was, as has been the case with many writers before and after her, that the world woke up posthumously to the full richness of Austen’s writing, heaping recognition upon a talent that produced some of history’s most remarkable works of fiction.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 9 2017)


On 6 December 1992, when a mob tore down the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, an entire nation watched in horror as governments of the day stood by, pleading helplessness. Twenty-five years have elapsed since that event, and many more may pass before anything close to a real—and sensible—resolution is reached to what is essentially a festering wound. But if in living memory Ayodhya has gone down as a symbol of the worst manifestation of communal politics in India, there is an episode in its past that could be construed as the inaugural chapter of this ugly narrative, pitting Hindu against Muslim, man against man. And unlike recent times, when a mosque became the scene of violent confrontations, many years ago it was a temple that attracted the attentions of a fanatic crowd, whose actions became linked in several ways to the larger discussion around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.

The story goes back to the mid-19th century. The nawabs of Awadh, who seized sovereignty in the region, never actually enjoyed absolute power in their princely domains. As was the case with Muslim rulers across the subcontinent, authority was, in fact, exercised in cooperation with Hindu elites. In pre-Mughal Deccan, for instance, its sultans utilized Brahmins and Marathas as their intermediaries with the masses, while in Awadh the nawabswere served by Kayasthas in the running of their administration, and by legions of Hindu warrior ascetics (or nagas) in waging war against their enemies. As the splendour of the nawabs grew, so too did the wealth and influence of these classes—the frenetic building of temples in Ayodhya in the 18th century, for example, had a great deal to do with the wave of prosperity enjoyed by the Hindu aristocracy under a thriving nawabi court, which also patronized pilgrim activity that, in turn, revitalized the cult of Ram.

It was the second nawab, Safdarjung, who, in return for their military services, gave the Ramanandi nagas money for the construction of a shrine to Hanuman at a spot about 700 metres from the Babri Masjid. In due course, a Hindu nobleman enabled the expansion of this structure into what is today the Hanumangarhi, described as a temple-fortress, and which in the 19th century possessed gifts from the crown that brought it Rs50,000 in revenue. Scholars like Hans Bakker and Peter van der Veer note that Babri itself is believed to stand on the site of an 11th century Hindu shrine that was demolished and converted into a mosque by a Mughal general. Van der Veer notes, furthermore, that some pillars from an old temple were said to have survived, unwittingly also becoming pillars for the cause of “restoring” the premises to its original use. In any case, the irony was that far from splitting communities into irreconcilable foes, till the mid-19th century, Hindus as well as Muslims worshipped at Babri in peace and harmony, albeit in different parts of the compound.

The first communal conflict that Ayodhya witnessed occurred in the mid-1850s. On the face of it, this was a Hindu-Muslim feud. As we learn from The Anatomy Of A Confrontation, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Sarvepalli Gopal, and other sources, Shah Ghulam Husain, a Muslim firebrand, claimed that Hanumangarhi stood, in fact, on the ashes of a mosque that dated back to emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. His call to “reclaim” the temple was answered by enough men to result in a violent clash soon afterwards. The Muslims were not just repulsed, however; we read how the Hindus took the skirmish into Babri next door, which Husain’s fighters had used as a base. In the course of events, 70 men were killed on the Muslim side. An attack on Muslim civilians, and plunder of their property, followed, with reprisals after some Hindus decided to make a grand display of slaughtering pigs on the day the 70 fallen Muslims were buried. It was, simply put, provocations galore and blood and violence everywhere.

While this was superficially a Hindu-Muslim conflict, in reality matters were somewhat complicated. Muslims in Awadh comprised 12% of the population; the vast majority was Sunni. The nawab, however, was of Shia persuasion, and the cream of courtly patronage was distilled in favour of the Shia minority. That the reigning nawab, the colourful Wajid Ali Shah, was also an admirer of Hindu traditions, in addition to the court’s general collaboration with Hindu elites, provoked Ghulam Husain, described as an “arch villain”, and his “vile”, “disreputable” followers to plot their attack on Hanumangarhi. This was, in other words, not only a move against the Hindus but also a Sunni rebellion against the unorthodox Shia nawab. In any case, while Husain’s plot was a failure, his place was soon taken by another zealot, the maulvi Amir Ali. And this man went as far as declaring a jihad to occupy Hanumangarhi and re-establish the mosque that was supposed to have existed within.

Interestingly, the claim that there was a Muslim place of worship in Hanumangarhi may not have been incorrect, even if it was inaccurate in the vocabulary of its expression. While a committee constituted by the nawabfound that there was never a mosque within the fort, it is likely that the Muslims were building on an earlier tradition when they enjoyed access to the shrine. Before the Ramanandi nagas turned it into their military seat, the deity in the temple was worshipped by Hindus as Hanuman and by Muslims as Hathile, one of the five saints (panch pir) of Sufism. It was not a full-blown masjid as such, but by closing access to the shrine to Muslims, those in charge of Hanumangarhi allowed grievances to mount. This, in turn, culminated in the imagined memory of a “mosque” that required reclaiming, even if this meant shedding blood and sacrificing lives—an example of how extreme piety can quickly transform a shadow from the past into incontrovertible “fact”.

In any case, when Amir Ali refused to accept the decision of the committee, the stage was set for battle. Armed with fatwas from Shia as well as Sunni clerics that declared Ali’s jihad illegal, the nawab’s forces under British command intercepted him on his way to Ayodhya. A few hundred rebels lost their lives, and their obstinate leader too fell on the battlefield. Hanumangarhi was retained by the Hindus, while in Babri the British erected fences to separate the mosque from the platform where Hindus offered worship. What is curious, however, as detailed in Sarvepalli Gopal’s collection, is that some date the first claim that the masjid sat on the spot of Ram’s birth to the mid-1850s—when the Muslims claimed Hanumangarhi as “originally” a mosque, the Hindus, as a counter-claim, reminded them of the temple upon which Babri was supposed to have been built.

The matter may never be satisfactorily resolved. So perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the last time a mob went to destroy a place of worship in Ayodhya, before the tragedy of 1992, is that at least on that occasion, those in power did not stand by idly; that, instead, they did their duty and protected the temple from destruction, something that cannot be said of those who watched quietly as a mosque was razed more than a hundred years later.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 02 2017)


One of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s chief habits, upon hearing something he did not like, was to shake his head in disapproval, point a bony finger at whoever had made the grave mistake of disagreeing with him and, having fixed his gaze through a monocle, serve the binding comment: “My dear fellow, you do not understand.” In a tragic reflection on the country he founded 70 years ago, events unfolding now in Pakistan are such that perhaps this time, it would be poor Jinnah who might not understand. Religious extremists took to the streets in Islamabad after a minister blasphemed by not demonstrating sufficient commitment to the finality of the Prophet as the messenger of god—people have died and the government has, predictably, capitulated. Blending religion with politics was always, of course, an invitation to disaster, but one does wonder how these protesters might have treated the exalted father of their Islamic republic himself, given his views on certain touchy matters—after all, it was Jinnah who, in contravention of everything the Prophet said, once declared his fondness for “the best Scotch I can find, a vintage wine, (and) my cigarettes.”

While there is never a dull moment where India and Pakistan are concerned, given the unrest of our times, reading former high commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door makes for a tremendously rewarding exercise. With anecdotes richly woven through the “hard facts” of the case, one discovers much to think about in the book, not only in terms of Pakistan’s tribulations, but also certain slippery slopes that we in India seem bent on unnecessarily negotiating these days. After their defeat on the battlefield in 1965, for example, our neighbours decided to nurse wounded pride by unleashing hyper-nationalism of a kind that saw the banning of Bollywood films and the raising of hysterical rhetoric. As the poet Fahmida Riaz regretted, Urdu literature, for instance, “suffered a patriotism so imbecile, so sloppy and so infantile” that intellectual merit drowned in a pool of nationalistic mediocrity. Whether it was able to recover and rise beyond the expediencies of politics is not known, but what is known is that even without a bruising military misadventure, there are plenty in our parts today who prefer for all pursuits to first and foremost pledge themselves to the cause of Mother India. It does not matter that we might be copying a blunder our neighbours made decades before and have regretted ever since—so long as it is done in the spirit of national pride, we can err with self-righteous confidence.

One of the particularly interesting sections in Raghavan’s book reveals how, from the earliest phase of India-Pakistan relations, both countries had to deliberately steer clear of rabble-rousers in the press. Those across the border, for instance, objected when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser described their government as “murderous”, while New Delhi was most upset when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was styled the “Greatest Primitive” by Pakistan’s iconic newspaper, Dawn. Efforts were made to persuade editors to temper their vengeful pronouncements so that serious bilateral business might not be handicapped by hyperbole in print. One “communalist” rag, Raghavan records, refused to brook advisories from the government, and asked the authorities “to mind your own business”. In another case, India asked Pakistan to be less thin-skinned. The Organiser, it chuckled, was after all only “a minor weekly of a political party having hardly any influence in the country”, and need scarcely be taken seriously. Little, perhaps, did Nehru expect that a few decades later, the party in question would ride an unprecedented wave to power in the Capital. Or that in place of assorted newspapers spewing venom, we would confront an epidemic on television, featuring men and women in dignified costumes making singularly undignified remarks.

Raghavan’s book, between instructive pages on the diplomacy behind the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 or the context of the wars India and Pakistan have fought, also recounts fascinating stories that may have receded from public memory. We meet, for instance, the famous Choudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the word “Pakistan” but went on to become such a thorn in the new state’s side that he was expelled from that country—he died years later, sneering bitterly that the Quaid-i-Azam was actually the Quisling-i-Azam. Then there is Z.A. Bhutto, who in 1964 was convinced that Nehru’s death meant the end of India. “How long,” he asked, “will the memory of a dead Nehru inspire his country and keep alive a…vast land of mysterious and mighty contradictions, darned together with the finest threads?” The “key to Indian unity and greatness,” he argued, “has been burned away with Nehru’s dead body.” In the flopped military effort that followed, a pilot was shot down by the Pakistanis. Field Marshal Ayub Khan wrote to the man’s father, the legendary General K.M. Cariappa, that the captive would be treated well, only to receive a curt reply that all prisoners of war were the general’s sons and that no “special treatment” need be arranged for the pilot—a touching story that this columnist was able to confirm with the prisoner in question, the future Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa.

Raghavan’s is a book that is enjoyable in its style, reliable in its facts, and informed in its tone and substance. But beyond offering a terrific account of the evolution of India-Pakistan relations, the book, almost subconsciously, serves as a reminder of some of the elements that have made India different from Pakistan. The history of the relationship between our two countries is also, after all, a sequence of warning signs—a reminder that if we were to confront our worst nightmare, we need only look at the chaos next door. By now, it should be easy to recognize where Pakistan went wrong and draw lessons in wisdom. But the irony is that some Indians are tempted to go out of their way to land us in the very same traps, with stirring slogans and a sense of conviction to boot. As the late lamented Jinnah might perhaps have asked, do they really not understand?

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 25 2017)


At the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last weekend, on the occasion of Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, I asked former Union minister P. Chidambaram what her 1980 electoral victory revealed about democracy in India. What, after all, did it say of us that less than three years after the catastrophe that was the Emergency, voters were more than happy to bring back a prime minister who had subverted the Constitution in the interests of naked political survival? Some of the answers are well known: that the Janata Party coalition, which ruled between 1977 and 1980, proved to be the very embodiment of shambolic government, carrying on an Emergency in all but name, thereby inviting public anger. Or that Mrs Gandhi, through her tireless energy (including that historic elephant ride to Belchi village in Bihar after a horrific massacre of Dalits) and by asking forgiveness for her regime’s excesses, reclaimed public respect.

My discussant, however, pointed to a simple fact—the poor beheld in Mrs Gandhi someone who recognized their plight and not only spoke directly to them but also served as their voice. And so, after having punished her for the gravest error of her career, they were prepared to trust her again with their future.

Democracy itself and the brutal smashing of national ideals were not an electoral issue even in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. To begin with, while the north voted Mrs Gandhi out of power, she won overwhelmingly in the south. As Shoaib Daniyal noted in Scroll.in some time ago, in percentage terms “more people voted for Indira Gandhi in 1977 than (Narendra) Modi in 2014”. The Hindi belt too was less concerned with the battering of the Constitution than with more directly suffered campaigns (nasbandi, or male sterilization, being particularly notorious), for which retribution through the ballot box was Mrs Gandhi’s reward. Indeed, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Subramanian Swamy recalled 17 years ago in The Hindu, in the 1977 elections, some opponents even feared she might actually come back to power since it was assumed that “the illiterate masses would not be moved by the issue of democracy, and thus the polls (if she were so returned) would legitimize the Emergency”.

That did not happen, but it can be safely stated that undermining the Constitution was not what brought Indira Gandhi down. Nor, in fact, was contrite, belated affection for democratic values the force behind her restoration—if she regretted her authoritarianism, in 1980 she would not have, in a single day, dismissed nine opposition state governments in a flourish of vindictiveness, weeks after returning to office.

The Shah Commission’s report—which Mrs Gandhi suppressed—in addition to serving as a catalogue of the worst of the Emergency, also warned that the ease with which these were carried out exposed the weaknesses of our institutions and officialdom’s uncertain commitment to democratic ethics. “Commandments of good conduct, good behaviour and morality got muted,” it notes, “when self-preservation was at stake.” When unlawful orders were issued, they were executed “mechanically” by the state’s machinery, even when blatantly against every constitutional principle or legal provision.

The reality, then, was that for all our rapturous public professions about democracy in India, it was not a commodity that held assured endurance—to quote Daniyal again, “the actual suspension of democracy might have made no difference at all with voters” in 1977 were it not for terribly designed and disastrously implemented campaigns that accompanied the Emergency. The very fact that 70 years after independence, India still upholds draconian colonial-era laws that belong in the dustbin of history is proof that while we are a democracy, democracy here is an endeavour that is defined by degree more than by uncompromising exactness.

It was B.R. Ambedkar who declared that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Constitutional morality,” he added, “is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it.” Democracy, he concluded, was “a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

Poverty, the endurance of caste, gaps in mass education, alongside a whole inventory of other problems, not least of which is political avarice and sections of the press prone to crawling, all dilute democracy as was theoretically envisioned. Without commitment to the values that underpin it, democratic exercises become a matter of going through elaborate forms without achieving the actual substance. And when less and less people in power care about that substance, the whole enterprise becomes a sophisticated fiction which we all blindly trumpet, against growing evidence to the contrary. The press, for instance, is thriving, but when much of it functions as cheerleaders for those in power, it serves something quite different than the cause of democracy.

Parliamentary records quote a Lok Sabha legislator from Assam in 1996 declaring: “Prime Minister (A.B. Vajpayee) and many leaders of the BJP have been trying to explain the growth of the BJP from two members, to become the major opposition party and now to become the largest single party and the formation of the government. They have explained it as growth. But very humbly I want to say to the hon. Prime Minister that all growths are not healthy, some growth are called cancer.” While this is not to target the BJP, the point is that shoring up numbers democratically without also shoring up the basic virtues that sustain the ideal intent of democracy is a nation-defeating exercise.

Democracy, in India, is still, after all, a journey more than a destination, and while as a people we will be able to absorb pauses and, indeed, even reverses in that journey such as the Emergency, we must always be alert to the inhospitable combination of forces, across party lines and social conditions, that is ever looming. As someone once said of liberty, eternal vigilance alone is the guarantee of democracy. And where many people cannot afford such vigilance or even demonstrate wilful disinterest in doing so, those who possess even a fragment of hope for the future of this country have a duty to step in, asking the questions that must be asked, and doing all that must be done. In that alone lies a way out, and the promise of finally reaching the destination that our founding fathers envisioned and in which lies India’s salvation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 18 2017)


Alauddin Khilji, the 14th century Muslim king of Delhi, had a fearsome mother-in-law. The conqueror—soon arriving at your nearest cinema as the very picture of unwashed ferocity, complete with sinister, surma-lined eyes, an insatiable appetite for gore and gold, and much lust for virtuous Hindu princesses—does not seem to have enjoyed any domestic tranquillity during his very eventful life. His first wife and her mother, described variously as “fool of fools” and “silliest of the silly”, were supremely dominating, so much so that some of his early campaigns were also partly an excuse to place as much distance as possible between himself and them. Things got a little more complicated after he seized the wife of a Gujarati king—the lady missed her young daughter, so another round of battles had to be fought to seize that object of her motherly affections. Then he had in his harem a slave girl who was sent out to do battle and died in the process. Finally, he also fell in love with Malik Kafur, the eunuch general, who cheerfully exploited this sentiment till he found his way abruptly to a forgotten grave.

Alauddin was the nephew and son-in-law of the first of the Khilji sultans, a man who killed his predecessor and then belatedly found himself consumed by guilt. This uncle wouldn’t sit on the throne, for instance, because he was convinced he was unworthy. While older nobles at court were sufficiently moved, those of a more aggressive temperament thought this all sentimental nonsense. They began to plot to replace the mild-mannered monarch with a more manly substitute. When news of one of these intrigues reached the ruler, he summoned its participants to his august presence. And there, instead of relieving them of their seditious heads, he proceeded to lecture them on alcohol and the importance of not getting carried away into making strange plans while under its influence. The young men nodded and begged forgiveness, but among those who realized that the sultan was a little bit of a softie was Alauddin. In 1296, after he raided Devagiri without permission and returned with phenomenal quantities of plunder, he sought his royal uncle’s pardon and invited him to come in person to collect the treasure. Trusting and naïve, the old sultan went where he was told, and very quickly found himself in more than one piece.

“While the head of the murdered sovereign was yet dripping with blood,” writes the chronicler Ziauddin Barani, “the ferocious conspirators brought the royal canopy and elevated it over the head of Alauddin. Casting aside all shame, the perfidious and graceless wretches caused him to be proclaimed king by men who rode about on elephants.” The new king was touched. After he put his uncle’s sons to flight and eventually imprisoned his infuriating mother-in-law, the men who helped raise him to the throne were also rewarded with death—that is, leaving aside two who were already destroyed by leprosy or madness. The loot from Devagiri was put to good use, for, after all, gold could erase all traces of a less than conventional succession to the throne, buying loyalties that could not be immediately inspired. In subsequent policy, Alauddin was firm. “I issue such orders as I conceive to be for the good of the State, and the benefit of the people,” he declared. “Men are heedless, disrespectful, and disobey my commands: I am then compelled to be severe to bring them into obedience.” An elaborate network of spies was also formed, so that if anything stern was said against the sultan, His Majesty was perhaps also among the first to hear it.

Alauddin’s career was not easy, though. Having murdered his uncle, he could hardly point fingers at his own nephews for seeking to follow in his illustrious footsteps. One tried to shower him with arrows, and for this his head appeared on a spear. Two sons of a sister decided the time was right for rebellion, so they were both blinded. In due course, however, it was clear that the sultan meant business, and the court fell in line. Times were such that to hold power, one also needed periodic violent demonstrations of its use. Alauddin became an empire builder. Land after land in northern India fell to him, while his trusted commander Malik Kafur acquired mountains of gold in the south. When hordes of Mongols invaded India soon after the sultan’s ascent to power, they were defeated. In 1303, however, when Alauddin was away, the Mongols destroyed Delhi. The king returned and locked himself up in a fort, unable to do much on this occasion, though he put to good use the lessons he learnt from the experience. For the rest of his reign, he never once allowed the Mongols a victory.

Interestingly, the sack of Delhi in 1303 occurred because Alauddin was at the time in Chittor, doing battle. Padmavat, an Awadhi poem that has since been embraced as historical fact, offers a most imaginative motive to the sultan here. A parrot told the already married ruler of Chittor about a dark-skinned Ceylonese beauty. After many adventures, this beauty became queen in the desert, from where a wicked sorcerer was expelled by her Rajput husband. This character told Alauddin all about her, and so it was that the Muslim king marched his men and demanded the princess’ enlistment in his harem. To cut a long story short, battles were fought, masses of people died, and the lady jumped into a fire. Alauddin himself never knew this story, for it first appeared two centuries after his death. It would hardly have mattered though, for his was an end that was not very happy, even without women perishing in flames and hideous on-screen make-up. Illness depleted him, and he spent his time fearing his own sons, lapsing more and more into the hands of Malik Kafur, who may even have had something to do with his death. Either way, Alauddin died, and a fresh cycle of intrigues and violence began, ending with the fall of his dynasty and the inevitable advent of a new one.