(My column in Mint Lounge, June 9 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 2 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 26 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 19 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 12 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 05 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 28 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 21 2018)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 14 2018)


In 1870, the British representative in Travancore reported a peculiar problem that afflicted the dispensing of justice in that princely state. Sometimes, it so happened, witnesses came from low-caste groups, which made recording testimony somewhat complicated—they had no access to courtrooms where they might “defile” their savarna superiors. As a result, since “the witness cannot go to the court”, wrote the Englishman, “the court must go to the witnesses”. It could not, however, “go too near him”, lest the high-caste judge lose his purity. Instead, the dispensers of justice stood at a distance, their questions shouted out by a goomastah to a peon placed midway from the witness. This peon, whose purity was presumably of lesser consequence, would then proceed to yell those questions to the avarna at the other end. Naturally, more often than not, it was not the words spoken by the hapless witness that finally made their way to the judge. But it didn’t matter—the avarna went back to his gloomy life, while the judge patted himself for another day spent in the service of “justice”.

Strangely comical as it might seem, this was merely one facet of the dark, marginalized world into which Ayyan and Mala brought their son, Ayyankali, in 1863. They were Pulayas, a word derived from pula (pollution), living in Venganoor, near Thiruvananthapuram. The Pulayas were an agrestic slave caste, and, till slavery was abolished a decade before, could be bought and sold for bags of rupees. Ritual pollution barred them from public spaces, and even language was proscribed: A Pulaya could never use the word “I” but only adiyan (your slave). When a Pulaya died, the body might have to be buried in his own hovel, for there was no other land available for the purpose. Samuel Mateer, a missionary, recorded the nightmare that was life for most Pulayas. They resided, he observed, “in miserable huts” by the fields they didn’t own, their principal vocation “digging and manuring, transplanting the young rice, repairing the banks, and performing other labours in the rice-fields, sometime standing for hours in the water”, which left them susceptible to disease. Wages were paid in kind, and these were minimal; any questions could lead to eviction and immediate destitution.

Ayyan and Mala, however, were unusual in having a sympathetic master—in a time without toilets, when even finding a spot for defecating required the landowner’s permission, their overlord had granted them several acres of property. Here they raised Ayyankali, providing him a better life than was open to most of their caste-men. Their first-born appears to have been aware that this marginal privilege was not something to be squandered—confident, and with a mind of his own, he gathered around him other Pulaya boys, emerging as something of a group leader. In his youth, his life was confined to Venganoor: He laboured in the fields, married, and began a family. But then, at 30, something changed within this illiterate man, who would go on to earn such titles as Mahatma and Gurudevan. For, in 1893, he decided to issue the first of his many challenges to the rotten world around him, setting out to claim for his people that crucial thing they had lacked for centuries: equality.

The event is part of popular lore. Public roads, at the time, were barred to avarnas. Indeed, such was the exactness with which this practice was upheld, that a fabulously wealthy man, the sole owner of a motor car outside the royal court, often had to disembark on certain roads and take a side route on foot. His high-caste driver, meanwhile, would bring around the vehicle to wherever the low-caste owner could finally alight. Ayyankali, of course, had no car but what he did was unthinkable. He purchased a bullock cart, already an act of defiance; and then, with great fanfare, a turban wound around his head, he proceeded to make open use of a road where people of his caste were strictly prohibited. A band of Nairs with lordly pretensions came out for a fight, but Ayyankali gave as good as he got—dagger in hand, he with his friends put the savarnas to flight.

The next five decades were busy. Education was his principal priority—a school he started in 1904 was burnt down, but he achieved small victories over time. It was not easy, though: Even Ramakrishna Pillai, an enlightened journalist, dismissed Ayyankali’s demands on the grounds that those “cultivating land” could not seek parity with those who had been “cultivating intelligence” for generations—it was like yoking together a horse and a buffalo. But Ayyankali persevered, till a few years later, following another violent attempt to deny Pulayas access to schools, he called for Kerala’s first labour strike. Unnerved, the government agreed at last to his demands, throwing open large numbers of schools to Dalits across the board. In 1907, meanwhile, a formal body—the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham—was founded to represent the interests of the community. And in 1912, Ayyankali was nominated to one of the state’s formal assemblies, giving a voice to the Pulayas at the highest levels of power.

What led to the erosion of Ayyankali’s influence, however, was precisely this willingness to work with the government, which on its part, fearing a mass exodus from Hinduism, periodically conceded demands even as it prevented other Dalit castes from making common cause with the Pulayas. By the 1930s, factionalism and a generational gap saw authority slip out of Ayyankali’s hands, and, early in the next decade, the attractions of communism rang the death knell of what was already a dismembered organization. By the time Ayyankali died in 1941, the world was an altogether different place, and not many—including his son-in-law—were prepared to follow him. But for all that, ordinary men and women continued to behold in him a hero. For, after all, were it not for this crusader on a bullock cart, taking head-on the mighty and powerful in 1893, generations might have passed before the Pulayas decided, at last, that it was time for them to rise up, standing together to fight.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 07 2018)


In 1623, a venerated sanyasi arrived at the court of the poligar (governor) of Sendamangalam, now in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, he was like other divines of his time: One acolyte held up a parasol, while another carried the tiger skin on which the holy man reposed. Yet another cradled his books and a fourth a vessel with sacred water to be sprinkled wherever the party made a halt. Ramachandra Nayaka, lord of Sendamangalam, received them warmly, washing the guru’s feet in reverence. In the conversation that followed, a grant of land and other favours were discussed so that the holy man might establish a branch of his mission at this important urban centre. After spending some time in the area, the visitors carried on with their travels, going to Salem, where too the provincial administrator received the old man with deference. He was assigned lodgings in “the finest quarter of the town”, receiving also a promise of that useful thing: the governor’s sincere friendship.

When Roberto de Nobili was born in Montepulciano, Italy, in 1577, nobody in his family could have guessed that the boy would spend most of his life oceans away, in the dusty plains of the Indian peninsula, dressed as a sanyasi. The Nobilis were a military set—they claimed descent from the Holy Roman emperor Otto III, and were related to cardinals, saints, and even a pope or two. As the eldest son of his house, Roberto was expected to carry on the line, but by his adolescence had already quarrelled with his parents, announcing his desire to serve the Catholic church. He fled in disguise to Naples and obtained a theological education, before setting sail, in 1604, for India. The journey was not smooth—the Sao Jacinto was shipwrecked and months were lost in Mozambique. But at last de Nobili arrived in Goa, quickly thereafter moving to Kochi. And then, to get even further away from the Portuguese colonial government, the Italian Jesuit orchestrated a transfer to the mission in Madurai—a mission that in 15 years had made a grand total of zero conversions.

As a missionary, de Nobili’s objectives were clear. “I long most keenly,” he declared, “to travel about these vast spaces, staff in hand, and to win their innumerable peoples for Christ Our Lord.” But what made the man stand out was the manner in which he went about his business. Soon after he arrived in Madurai in 1606, de Nobili grasped what his colleague, a Portuguese soldier-turned-Jesuit, 36 years his senior, had failed to see. European missionaries were dismissed as unclean parangis (a variant of firangi) who ate beef, kept no caste distinctions, and reaped most of their converts from “polluted” communities. Their message, then, was tainted as one for the inferior orders. The older man had no qualms about dealing with the low, given his own working-class origins; de Nobili, however, with his exalted family credentials, his sophisticated education, and a desire to make the Gospel attractive to more than the peasantry, decided on a new way going forward. As he announced to a superior, “I will become a Hindu to save the Hindus.”

What followed was a fascinating experiment. De Nobili acquired not only a staggering knowledge of Tamil, but also Telugu and Sanskrit—a Brahmin convert even gave him access to the Vedas, though prejudice prevented him from seeing in them anything beyond “ridiculous legends and stories”. Soon, de Nobili began to live like a “native”: The Jesuit’s cassock was discarded for the garb of a sanyasi, and only food cooked by Brahmins was served to de Nobili on his leaf. He began to keep a distance from his colleague, establishing a veritable caste system between them—indeed, in 1619, when summoned by angry seniors to Goa, de Nobili refused even to eat with them. A new church was constructed (a coconut ceremoniously smashed at its founding) and there, seating was on the basis of status, so that low-born converts had to wait by the threshold while the high-born sat in the front. De Nobili preached the Bible, meanwhile, as a kind of lost Veda, all the time also building up connections with the high and mighty of the land.

Shrewd as this adaptive strategy was, it was also successful. Many Brahmins converted, as did a brother of Ramachandra Nayaka of Sendamangalam. In 1610, the Madurai mission had 60 converts, but, by the time he died, de Nobili’s flock numbered 4,000. The process was not altogether devoid of problems though. The Italian’s high-handedness provoked complaints from his colleague, and in Goa he was firmly told to suspend his controversial methods. Not only did de Nobili not listen, he made more enemies by going behind Goa’s back, leveraging connections in Rome and getting, in 1623, the Pope himself to declare support for the Madurai mission. In Madurai, meanwhile, Brahmins were not ignorant of de Nobili’s strategy, and while he was treated well in general by local rulers, a conservative backlash meant there were also times when he had to bear the brunt of their wrath, as in 1640, when he was thrown in prison.

De Nobili’s style provoked a debate about how Eastern peoples ought to be converted. He claimed that the tuft on the head (kudumi) and the sacred thread were merely social symbols, and converts could continue wearing them. His opponents, however, argued that conversion meant conversion into a European frame, in spirit as well as its outer manifestations. In the end, as it happened, they were the ones who succeeded, and de Nobili’s aristocratic overconfidence led to his downfall: In 1646, he was transferred out of Madurai, dying blind and upset 10 years later in Mylapore. It was a lonely end for a clever man with an insatiable zeal, and though his successes lingered for some decades, soon enough the taint he had tried so hard to expel came back to haunt the missionaries: They were parangis, defiled folk, and theirs was a faith only for the poor and weak.