(My column in Mint Lounge, December 01 2018)

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In the winter of 1935, the celebrated American activist, Margaret Sanger, arrived in India to spread the message of birth control. She hoped to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to give her his endorsement which would, she wrote, “be of tremendous value” to her cause. When they met, Gandhi was welcoming of Sanger but not her ideas: abstinence from sex, he argued, and not birth control, was the way forward for India and its families. Sanger was dejected: “He can never accept sex as anything good, clean or wholesome”, she complained. Unhappy, but undefeated, she carried on with her travels, journeying to 18 cities, delivering 64 addresses, and meeting everyone from Rabindranath Tagore to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ironically, among those who stepped forward as Sanger’s champions at this juncture was the junior maharani of Travancore—a woman who would win the Mahatma’s appreciation for her role in throwing open Hindu temples to Dalits. Late in December 1935, the maharani invited Sanger to Thiruvananthapuram, her son’s capital, to deliver a lecture. It was a sensation. After all, this was one of south India’s great seats of orthodoxy, in a principality described by a previous ruler as hopelessly “priest-ridden”. It was a temple town, and the royal family lived a cloistered life of Brahminical ritual and piety—and here was the ruler’s mother organizing a discussion on such scandalous themes as intercourse.

While Sanger was delighted, this was merely one of many unconventional things the maharani accomplished in her life. Sethu Parvathi Bayi was an interesting, complicated woman, who combined phenomenal confidence with an unapologetic quest for power. Born in 1896 into the lineage of the Kolathiri rajas of Malabar, she was adopted aged 4 into Travancore’s ruling house. Under the matrilineal system, it was her sister, the senior maharani, who occupied the formal limelight, and early on Sethu Parvathi Bayi realized she would have to stand out to be noticed—even if this meant breaching tradition. As her son remembered, she “never blindly follow(ed) custom” but “would respect (it) where it was desirable.” And, of course, the judge of where it was desirable was the maharani herself.

Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s personality was tremendous. As a child she learnt to play the veena, later cultivating a formidable reputation as a patron of Carnatic music—Mutthiah Bhagvathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer both sang her praises. As a pregnant woman in her teens, when custom recommended rest and worship, she insisted on her daily round of golf and French lessons. In her 20s, she was the toast of south Indian society, struggling, however, with a conservative husband who sat with lemons at banquets to disperse any caste pollution. Years later, John Paton Davies Jr, an American diplomat was startled as he watched a temple procession with the maharani—while her son piously led the deity for a ceremonial bath, she served her companions scotch whisky.

Inner resolve the maharani possessed in immense quantities—in the early 1930s, she dismissed every Brahminical argument against crossing the kala-pani and became the first in her family to venture abroad. She met European royalty and collected art, also giving the Pope’s officials a dressing down when they tried to lecture her on how much make-up was appropriate. Her conversational skills were legendary: Paton Davies also noted the ease with which she moved from discussing a visit to Bali to “modernistic” furniture to finally contemplating the emotional range of elephants. As for food, a great-grandson recalls that when old and bedridden, she still kept a stove in her bedroom where she personally prepared small delights for her family.

In politics, however, Sethu Parvathi Bayi occupies a darker space. When her sister (and rival) was in power, the maharani had no compunction in backing various moves to destabilize her government, with the British recording everything from fake news campaigns to black magic. When her son gained power, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was perceived as a Hindu consolidationist, their subsequent policies sparking discontent among minorities. “She is arrogant, uncharitable, egotistical, bad-tempered, insular and vindictive,” noted one report, and was “cordially hated” by ordinary people. Her son himself, it was recorded, was powerless: Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s “usurpation sub rosa of ruling functions” meant that as late as the eve of independence, the viceroy, Lord Wavell, could diarize that while the maharajah was “not altogether a fool”, he was “entirely overshadowed by his mother”.

The maharani’s greatest misadventure, however, came towards the end of princely rule. Mass agitation throughout her son’s reign led to a Communist uprising in the region—it was brutally dealt with in 1946, leading to the killing of hundreds. In 1947, it was declared that when the British departed, Travancore would become “an independent country”—a misguided decision taken, to quote historian Sreedhara Menon, by “Their Royal Highnesses…the son and the mother.” Of course, an assassination attempt against their minister put paid to these plans, and with the integration of the princely states into the Indian union, Sethu Parvathi Bayi lost power. Hereafter, she was merely a titular maharani, diverting herself from the exercise of authority to full-time patronage of the arts.

By the time she died in 1983, the maharani was wheelchair bound. It is not known if she had any regrets—her sister, for instance, grew so fed up with royal life during the junior maharani’s heyday that soon after independence, she abandoned the palace and moved away forever. And even if she did, it would be impossible to know today. What can be said, however, was that Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a remarkable woman—one with disquieting proclivities in politics, but also a fascinating appetite for life—a combination that saw her championing birth control one day, dining with colonialists the next, and condoning violent action when it came to preserving the power of her state: power which she could deploy with furious effect.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 24 2018)


On 1 November 1858, Queen Victoria formally extinguished the fires of the great rebellion of the preceding year with a historic proclamation. Two pages of grandiloquent text was all it took to inaugurate a new chapter after the “mutiny”, and possession of India was transferred from the bloodied hands of the East India Company to the custody of the British Crown. Everything was infused with the moral legitimacy of a maternal sovereign, her words offering a world of guarantees, from territorial integrity for princely states to freedom of religion for the masses. Writers on all sides descended into ecstasies about this “Magna Carta of Indian Liberties”, though bureaucrats in actual command prevented too liberal an interpretation by the queen’s new subjects. But for all that, the proclamation generated a sweep of goodwill across the board—a clean slate for colonial officers, and hope for India’s earliest generation of nationalists. And in the meantime, Queen Victoria was also transformed, becoming India’s own Victoria Maharani.

The process was a fascinating one, despite its unequal politics. From the very start, the queen had shown interest in matters Indian, often revealing a broadness of mind that horrified the men who really operated her government. As Miles Taylor argues in his excellent new book, The English Maharani, if the queen was magnanimous it “always came from belonging to the winning side”. But even as she collected baubles and gems from the subcontinent, there was an awkward sincerity to her politics. The proclamation itself was a document with which she was not satisfied: she wanted a firm statement that Indians would be “placed on an equality with (all other) subjects of the British Crown”, a proposal Parliament watered down to a vague line on her “obligations of Duty” towards India. Elsewhere, she won—while an earlier draft loosely committed to the “relief of poverty”, Victoria revised this to promise Indians “peaceful Industry”, “Works of Public Utility”, and a government “for the benefit of all Our Subjects” whose prosperity, contentment, and gratitude were tests of its success.

Of course, what followed was revealing. To successive viceroys appointed in India at the head of an extractive state, the queen’s proclamation of 1858 was held up as a mirror of shame. As late as the 1890s, Dadabhai Naoroji’s campaigns in Britain cited the promise of 1858, while in 1908 Mahatma Gandhi was referring to the proclamation to demand rights in South Africa. The proclamation became the standard against which the Raj could be judged, and everyone, from dethroned princelings to people fighting property disputes, appealed to Victoria’s words—and often directly to her—to live up to its meaning. Even the introduction of income tax was lambasted as flouting guarantees in the proclamation. So the men in charge found a typically British solution to play things down: a protocol was evolved to determine which petitions actually reached Victoria’s desk and, as Taylor records, soon “the Government of India (was) transformed from postman to the sovereign to censor of the royal mail.”

It is politics at the highest levels of state that Taylor highlights, but the picture he paints is vivid without being uncritical. For Victoria, India opened up something new on a deeply personal level: renewed relevance. “Denied a political role at home” by constitutional convention, he argues, “she found it instead in her Indian dominion”. From the 1840s, for instance, she corresponded privately with viceroys, and while this still offered a lopsided picture, it eliminated some filters installed by officialdom in London. While reports of atrocities against British women during the 1857 rebellion appalled her, she soon suspected sensationalism in the press, asking for evidence. And she revelled in the adulation that came from India’s elites—whose nationalism at this stage did not sit in opposition to loyalty to the queen—as they composed poems comparing her to Hindu goddesses. Her affection for her Hindi munshi is, of course, well known, and even from afar India came to mean something special for her in a way it did not for others in her establishment.

Naturally, Victoria also grew defensive of her position. During the celebrated 1875-76 tour of the country by her son and heir, Edward VII, she was determined to ensure that the masses did not mistake him for their sovereign. Much to his irritation, she made it clear that he was the Viceroy’s guest and not her representative. “She even,” notes Taylor, “refused to countenance the prince conveying a message from her to the people of India.” In fact, when the tour became a success, the queen chose to orchestrate a grand event of her own to surpass it: the assumption of the title “Empress of India”. It was another matter that the innovation was received with borderline hostility in Britain itself, for powerful sections in the House of Commons were appalled by this gaudy claim of imperial status. The queen was furious, but the episode also highlighted the utility India held personally for her—her daughter, married to the German crown prince, was set to one day become an empress, and Victoria could not imagine being outranked by her offspring. Her son meanwhile used the occasion to pay his mother in her own coin: he famously wrote to the prime minister that he had no desire to be styled His Imperial Highness.

In the end, as Taylor argues, Victoria represented something for everybody in connection with India, becoming a bridge between competing ideologies and identities. To the British, she could be used to contain the earliest stirrings of Indian nationalism; to Indian nationalists, her proclamation allowed for calls for reform to be issued, couched in a language of loyalism. For Victoria herself, meanwhile, India offered both an empire and queenly purpose, carving out an unparalleled position that no British monarch after her was quite able to emulate—or imitate.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 16 2018)


In 1543, when the first Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda was stabbed to death, one of his sons fled to Vijayanagar to save himself from his parricide brother. For seven years, he lived in exile at this Hindu court, before coming home after the death of his murderous sibling. What followed was a phenomenal reign: the new Qutb Shah Teluguized his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama, patronized poetry on the Mahabharat, produced 30 children of his own (two of whom he put to death for plotting against him, fearing his father’s fate), and inaugurated an era of prosperity and splendour (despite, that is, the general violence of his age). Golconda’s ports attracted merchants from the world over, while its mines threw up diamonds in heaps, and by the time Ibrahim went to the grave in 1580, he was lord of one of the richest realms in India.

But the Qutb Shah—who once also compared the moustaches of his enemies to the pubic hair of “public women”—was never fully pleased with life in his old fort. He tried first to build an unwalled city towards the west. But when want of water aborted the enterprise, he constructed a bridge over the Musi river and looked instead to the east. His death meant that it was his heir, Muhammad Quli, who actually realized Ibrahim’s dream, founding what is today the city of Hyderabad—the latest place to attract the zeal of that special kind of politician anxious to rename great cities of the past instead of confronting challenges in the present. Hyderabad, either way, was only one of many feathers in Muhammad Quli’s cap. As a patron of the arts too he was substantial, authoring a celebrated collection of works called Kulliyat that covers everything from kabbadi to the festival of Basant Panchami.

Hyderabad, however, was an ambitious project and from early on seems to have attracted the envy of the Qutb Shah’s rivals. Fourteen thousand shops and public buildings were envisioned in the new city, with the magnificent Char Minar built over its central crossroads. The palace was a sensation, said to exceed any contemporary Mughal building—seven or eight floors high, with interiors studded with gems and gold. “A citie that for sweetnesse of ayre, conveniencie of water, and fertility of soyle, is accounted the best situated in India,” is how the English merchant William Methwold described it, while the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier thought the bridge “scarcely less beautiful than Pont Neuf at Paris”. Indeed, what the Qutb Shah envisioned in Hyderabad was not only a city unparalleled by rival capitals, but a “replica of paradise” itself.

The founding romance of Hyderabad is a story repeated by every tour guide in the vicinity. One day, we are told, when Muhammad Quli was out riding, he encountered a woman of exceptional beauty. Her name was Bhagmati, and having married her, he decided to name his new urban project Bhagnagar. Later, when she was styled Hyder Mahal, the city became Hyderabad. The story is certainly old—we have the contemporary Mughal poet Faizi writing to Akbar that the place commemorates “a hardened whore”—but it is unlikely that it reflects fact. Hyderabad celebrates Ali (also called Hyder, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin), who was venerated by the Shia Qutb Shahs (whose Shiism was also lambasted by Faizi), and while coins record both Hyderabad and Golconda, no mention occurs of Bhagnagar. Indeed, Muhammad Quli, who catalogued the names of his 17 beloved ladies, himself evidently makes no mention of Bhagmati, and in the Kulliyat, the city he founded is always referred to as Hyderabad.

What is more likely, as the historian H.K. Sherwani noted, is that Mughal antagonism towards the Deccan sultanates—which they would annex after generations of strife—meant everything impressive about them had to be disparaged. Just as the Qutb Shahs were never acknowledged as independent rulers by the Mughal emperor, it is likely that this grand new city had to be dismissed as nothing but a vanity project that flattered “an old mistress”. Such a tale, in fact, may well have found an audience even in the other Deccan sultanates, which oscillated between friendship and war with the Qutb Shahs on account of their own ever-changing dynamics. So, in the end, as Sherwani concludes, what was a “sneering sentence” from a Mughal officer grew “into a paragraph, the paragraph into a section, and the section into chapters”, repeated often enough to imitate the truth.

The weight of historical evidence does seem to lie with Sherwani, but Bhagnagar continues to live in popular imagination. European travellers in the 17th century used the name, for instance. Indeed, proponents of the Bhagmati story argue that if the lady does not exist in local records, it is because she was proactively wiped out—the idea that the new capital was named after a courtesan appalled enough people for this to be expunged. Such an erasure is possible—Ferishta, who wrote in the Deccan in the lifetime of Muhammad Quli, notes that Bhagnagar was named after a “prostitute” called Bhagmati, but that the Qutb Shah felt “ashamed of his amour” and renamed the city. But the fact that Muhammad Quli could name over a dozen of his mistresses, including his five favourites in a work spanning 1,800 pages, and not mention Bhagmati at all renders the matter open to debate.

In any case, for the politician seeking to rename Hyderabad Bhagyanagar—a Sanskritized version of Bhagnagar—it may come as news that the last laugh will still be had by the ghost of the Qutb Shah. If he was forced to erase Bhagmati’s name, this might be justice done for a Hindu woman who loved a Muslim king; if she never existed at all, the Qutb Shah’s memory still triumphs. After all, he built a city that still endures, while the men seeking to wipe this out have only a pretended glory that begins and ends with waging war on the past.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 10 2018)


In 1812 the fortunes—quite literally—of heaps of temples in southern Kerala found themselves in the hands of a man who was born in faraway Scotland. It was one of those strange ironies of colonial rule in India, for Colonel Munro had originally come to princely Travancore as the East India Company’s representative. Quickly, however, he was also elevated as minister by the ruling princess, a formula designed to give the British the power they desired while skipping actual annexation. Munro’s goal, with his split loyalties, was to balance the government’s books and ensure the company received regular tribute. And as part of his campaign to augment revenues, he took over 348 significant temples and 1,171 smaller shrines across the land, so that 62,000 gardens and 63,500 acres of cultivable land became state property overnight. Hereafter, sums were disbursed to the temples for their upkeep, but so valuable was the real estate seized that it still produced an enormous balance—an amount that could be used for other purposes, including to service political obligations to the company.

It was an act that birthed repercussions felt to this day, for some of Kerala’s celebrated shrines—including Sabarimala, for example—remain under government control, provoking persistent questions about what business precisely the state has in institutions of faith. To be fair, Munro’s action was not unilateral—temples, with unregulated funds and powerful trustees, were a political threat to the emerging modern state on the one hand, while on the other, there were complaints that revenues were being embezzled; in some instances, trustees decided to steal even the idols of their deities. In neighbouring Tamil provinces, too, the story was similar: the collector of Thanjavur, John Wallace, noted that temple custodians in his jurisdiction had piled up debt to the tune of ₹2 lakh (a colossal figure at the time). Like in princely Travancore, in British territories, too, the company was embroiled without delay in the business of religion. And here, too, profits followed: in 1846, after all expenses were deducted, the Madras Presidency found itself with Rs 8 lakh in surplus from temples, a figure promptly diverted to the “general education fund”, while another lakh was “expressly devoted” to a highway project between cotton-producing Tirunelveli and the port of Thoothukudi.

To be clear, as political sovereigns, the company did possess certain prerogatives where these establishments were concerned. Hindu rulers reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of shrines should the need arise, and in 18th century Madras, the Christian British often continued traditions instituted by previous powers, intervening when necessary. So, for instance, in 1789, when quarrels arose in the Thiruvallur temple and officials discovered that the Brahmins in charge “had mortgaged part of the property for their own private use”—the company saw to it that the men were made “answerable for the few things missing”. Devotees also, without means to stand up to influential local trustees, approached the company, inviting the latter to proactively intervene in temple affairs. This led, in 1817, to the earliest official legislation (in Madras presidency) on the subject to ensure incomes from temple endowments were disbursed “according to real intent and will of the granter” and not frittered away by untrustworthy trustees. It was a good step in theory, though in about two decades, the company found itself involved in as many as 7,600 temples—a state of affairs it had not quite expected when it set out to uphold tradition.

As it happened, despite financial gains, this was an uncomfortable position for the company. Missionary propagandists, for instance, lambasted British officials for promoting “idolatry”: by protecting temples, organizing festivals, supervising repairs, and settling disputes, the company had become primary trustee for assorted Hindu deities. As one reverend complained in 1831, “When we point out to (the Hindus) that idolatry is not the worship of God…they ask, ‘How can you say so? Who keeps our pagodas in repair?…Do you not do it yourself? If you do these things, where is the reasonableness and propriety of saying idolatry is sinful?’” In fits and starts and under growing pressure, then, the British attempted to extricate themselves from this knot. While in Travancore the Hindu ruler clung on to the temples, in Thanjavur over 2,000 shrines were returned to locals, and bigger temples were placed in the hands of committees, panchayats and sometimes “influential” individuals. This, predictably, led to its own politics, featuring caste competition, sectarian rivalries, and much confusion, made worse by flawed legal interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the end, what the colonial regime began, secular India inherited, and this peculiar mix-up of government with temples continues to this day. For the British, the issue eventually became one of several complications to negotiate in the subcontinent—from the start, the company ruled through bureaucracy and centralization, essential instruments for a foreign power in an alien land. One-size-fits-all rules were put in place despite contradictions, which, however, in independent India raise valid questions that the colonial power wasn’t earlier obliged to answer. In Sabarimala, for example, this is one of the arguments posed by critics of the recent Supreme Court judgement—that different temples have different features which cannot be guided by a single principle. Certainly, there is room for a new framework to preserve the individuality of India’s countless shrines—a new vision with an accommodative mechanism—though some overarching principles must still prevail. After all, even before the days of Colonel Munro and the British, Indian sovereigns intervened in temple affairs. Now, the Constitution is supreme, and while diversity should be respected, this paramount document must necessarily be obeyed.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 03 2018)


In 1565, after what is popularly called the Battle of Talikota, Husain Nizam Shah returned victorious from Vijayanagar to his court in Ahmednagar. There had been horrific bloodshed—ending with the enemy’s head on a spear—and much gold and silver had been gained. But Husain seemed not destined to savour his victory: That very year, he would die, and while some held alcoholic excess to be the cause of his end, at least one Portuguese chronicler decided it was poison, not drink, that took the Nizam Shah to his grave. Deccan politics was dangerous to begin with, and in this instance, it was the ruler’s own wife blamed for his death. She was a Devadasi turned begum, wrote the European historian, and to plant her own son on the throne, instead of a rival’s, she decided to take the life of the man who made her his queen.

Khunza Humayun was a remarkable woman, and while she was never a Devadasi, she was in every sense extraordinary. Aftabi’s Tarif-i Husain Shah Padshah-i Dakan, a eulogy commissioned around the time of the king’s death, is full of praise for his queen. Indeed, alongside beautiful paintings (including one where she appears in her husband’s lap), this unusual text describes vividly Khunza’s loveliness and physical voluptuousness. Other sources present her actual ancestry—she was descended from a ruler of Baghdad, though a fall from power meant scions like her father joined hordes of other Persians seeking employment and a future in India. Here he joined the court of the Nizam Shah—a Muslim king with Brahmin forbears—and before long Khunza was married to Husain.

Few women appear in retellings of the history of the Deccan, and if there is a queen who shines, it is usually Khunza’s daughter, Chand Bibi. At the end of the 16th century she bravely resisted the Mughals, and her tragic assassination enshrined her as a romantic heroine. Khunza, however, did not die at the end of a sword: her power was thwarted and restrained, and death in prison years later did not quite attract glamorous poems. And so she was forgotten, even her form and face crudely painted over in many of those miniature paintings. If Chand Bibi was celebrated even by the Mughals for her valour, Khunza came to be resented by her own son and many others. There was no place for an inconvenient woman like her, and what survives is in bits and pieces, her fall from influence obscuring her fame forever.

Even in her husband’s day, Khunza appears to have had some say in politics. One poem, in fact, ascribes an insult to her as the provocation for Husain’s war against Vijayanagar. Of course, the battle in 1565 followed generations of strife and had various causes, but it is telling that the Fath Nama-i Nizam Shah cites, in the words of scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “a potentially sexually loaded” reference to the queen as rousing the fury of her husband. The sultans of the Deccan often traded insults with Vijayanagar, but in this instance a line was crossed: in an inflammatory letter demanding tribute from Husain, the ruler of Vijayanagar, listed, besides diamonds and rubies, the anklets of the begum. Disgusted and furious, Husain the “lion” was roused against the “pig” to whom he delivered death.

In any case, leaving literary bombast aside, the death of Husain in 1565 enthroned Khunza’s son in Ahmednagar. The boy was fated for instability and eventual murder, but for the next six years power was in the hands of his mother. She governed with the aid of trusted men—there was a eunuch and there were her brothers. She sat in court and gave orders, proving strong enough to ensure her commands were obeyed. She even went into battle—including against Chand Bibi’s husband who ruled a principality next door—and showed herself generally unafraid. It wasn’t like the men around her saw this as admirable: a coup was thwarted in 1567. Her own son was involved, but chickening out in the last minute, he told his mother about the plot. For the time being, Khunza prevailed.

Powerful women like her, however, always had to tread with care. In the 13th century, the empress of Delhi, Razia Sultan, was murdered by men of her own court, and Khunza’s daughter too was betrayed by those she thought she could trust—though war with the Mughals raged, Chand Bibi’s assassin was not an invader but an insider. Khunza too, therefore, had to be on her guard, but after half a decade at the helm when the nobility decided to terminate her “petticoat government”, her downfall was confirmed. Khunza’s foreign policy had proved a disaster—alliances were destabilized by impetuous demands, and those inclined to support her left her side in disapproval. Then there was the internal politics of the realm: there was an African faction, a Persian faction, and a local faction, all of them perpetually at loggerheads.

By 1571 the Nizam Shah was ostensibly liberated from the hold of his mother so that he could start making mistakes of his own (which include trying to kill his son in due course) and earn the epithet deewana, or madman. Khunza, abandoned by the men she had raised to power and wealth, was imprisoned and spent the rest of her days in oblivion. Such an unhappy fate her relations elsewhere too endured—the Mughal emperor Akbar’s regent, Bairam Khan, was a family member, though assassination meant that he too was remembered with some poetic regret. Khunza, however, wasted away with time, written out of history, disfigured in works of art her husband lovingly had made. Only a few fragments remain of her tale, and like so many women in the past, she finally went to the grave while history continued to be written for—and by—unforgiving men.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 27 2018)


If ever there was a Mughal ruler who lived the good life, that man was emperor Jahangir, in whose veins flowed Persian, Turkic, and Rajput blood—besides double-distilled spirits and a whole lot of wine. Jahangir, who died on 28 October 1627, was the least militarily inclined of the great Mughals, and though he once led a half-baked rebellion against his illustrious father, he preferred having other men fight the battles that mattered. In an age of violence this was something of a character defect, but Jahangir’s indulgence was a mark of stability in the empire he inherited. Far from the heat and fury of conflict, deep in the embrace of art and aesthetics, he quickly came to represent both self-assured power and the height of Mughal imperial splendour.

Even today, reading the Jahangir Nama is a fascinating exercise. For the figure that emerges is at once pampered prince, curious dilettante, ruthless emperor, and sentimental man. The first-born of Akbar and the so-called Jodha Bai, Shaikhu Baba, as Jahangir was lovingly known, was one upon whom luck bestowed an early blessing. By 18 he was falling in love with his goblet; luckily for him, his brothers were worse. Not even royal commands could move him if he didn’t wish it: once when his father sought to appoint him leader of a campaign, the prince simply absented himself from court. One of those ill-fated brothers accepted the charge, before winning a few battles and losing himself forever to drink. Akbar, meanwhile, turned his hopes toward Jahangir’s son, provoking a hundred intrigues and yet more tragedy.

Shaikhu Baba, however, was too shrewd to drown in wine and die. As Parvati Sharma notes in her sparkling new biography, Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait, he understood quickly what was at stake and where to draw his lines—no son of his could be emperor before he had had his time. So while he continued to drink—pretending after his accession that he only indulged “to promote digestion”—he toned down the quantities. He even presented himself to the orthodox faction as a more pious Muslim than Akbar, to win them over before his favoured son. Of course, having become emperor, he dabbled in more than one religion, till rumours floated that he was a Christian, and he commissioned art in which he appeared cross-legged and shirtless—more Hindu deity than a Muslim sovereign.

Even before his reign, Jahangir was a man of curiosity. All his life, Sharma shows, he went about measuring things—the size of a peach, the weight of a melon, the dimensions of a cave opening—just as he recorded strange and peculiar sights. So while his generals took fire and steel into enemy lands, Jahangir took delight in watching pet cranes mate. He thundered from afar at those enemies (the Marathas he dismissed as “a people of unlimited stupidity”) while investing in a menagerie at home. To please him was to bring him animals: the English gifted him mastiffs, for whom the emperor arranged palanquins. On another occasion he was introduced to a lion that lived with a goat, while his travels threw up everything from a snake swallowing a rabbit to a spider that strangled a snake.

Art flourished under Jahangir. Europeans were delighted with his affection for the Madonna, while Hindus noticed symbols from their own traditions. Then there were images prepared of the oddities that caught the emperor’s eye. Sharma notes the story of an emaciated courtier, thin beyond belief, who asked for leave from court. Jahangir agreed to let him depart—but only after he had his likeness made. A dervish from Sri Lanka, similarly, brought him a slender loris—“really horrible looking”—which the emperor also got painted. Few living beings were left alone: if there was anything that revolted the sovereign of Hindustan, it was worms crawling out of the corpses of animals he’d shot.

Jahangir’s relationship with Nur Jahan, is well recorded, but he was also close to other women. There was a sister to whom he was so attached that his father made him drink her breast-milk so she “may be like a mother to you”. When his wet-nurse died, he carried on his own shoulder one end of her funeral bier. And in the Jahangir Nama are multiple expressions of grief on the death of various imperial women, including, for instance, a Rajput wife, who chose suicide. There is vulnerability to this Jahangir, though another side shows also cruelty, one where interrupting a hunt could cost a servant his life, and a gardener who cut down beloved trees found himself missing a few fingers. Even the elite faced the emperor’s wrath: when a rebellious nobleman was presented, “Were it not for what people would think,” Jahangir fumed, “I would have throttled him with my own hands.”

Of all the Mughal emperors, Jahangir led the most comfortable life, free from problems that afflicted those who ruled before or after him. He packed his 22 years on the throne with the most diverse interests, less focused than Akbar or Dara Shukoh, but rich in its sheer detail. He showed himself a remarkable man, one who could marvel at the gems sent him in tribute, just as he could stun an ambassador by gleefully driving a bullock cart. The future emperor Shahjahan’s propaganda cast Jahangir as a henpecked debauchee. But, as Sharma beautifully shows, and the Jahangir Nama attests, the man was a little bit more: an endearing eccentric but every inch an emperor worth remembering.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 20 2018)


In 1934, a committee of men investigating temple entry for Dalits in Travancore summarized the religious constraints impeding this demand. Various “Mantras and Tantras”, it noted, were needed to consecrate in any image the “Divine spirit”. This being done, “care has to be taken that the power is not dissipated”, a process that required Brahminical rituals but also protection from an assortment of “adverse influences”. These influences included, besides defilement by vultures, dogs, donkeys, and other animals and reptiles, “the entry of certain classes of people into the temple premises”. In other words, “judged by the Sastras and by the usage relating to temples… (Dalits) cannot be said to have a right to be admitted” to Hindu shrines. Moreover, the committee added, citing a 1914 Madras high court judgement, courts too could not intervene in religion; the princely ruler, it emphasized, could not challenge “the principles of the Smritis and the express rules of the Agamas”; and while a “compromise” featuring partial access might be tolerable to prevent the “heavy landslide” of Dalits from Hinduism to rival faiths, no “sweeping change” was advisable.

And yet two years later, the maharaja of Travancore stunned Malayali society by going ahead with “sweeping change”. On his birthday in 1936, the ruler, alarmed by threats of a mass exodus of Dalits from Hinduism, proclaimed temple entry for all castes. While within his state sheer determination held the peace, retaliation from the orthodoxy in wider Kerala was furious. The maharaja of Cochin banned Travancore priests from serving in his lands, going “to the extent of declaring the whole people of Travancore as untouchables”. The Zamorin in British-ruled Malabar expressed his censure, refusing to yield even as late as 1942. Indeed, in Travancore itself, the maharaja’s own aunt ceased visiting their principal shrine where Dalits now had open access. But having taken his decision—albeit to consolidate the Hindu community—the ruler was immovable. When in the temple town of Suchindram, for instance, locals refused to participate in a chariot festival due to low-caste presence, his chief minister, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, a Brahmin, lent his own hands to the chariot, making a clear statement.

Eighty-two years have passed since the events of 1936, but history repeats itself this week in Sabarimala where masses of people have gathered to “protect” its celibate deity from the calamity fertile women bring. The argument is much like the one made by the temple entry committee in the 1930s. Ayyappan of Sabarimala is consecrated a brahmachari; the advent of women will diminish His sanctity and breach age-old custom. Where before 1936 Dalits were believed to threaten the sanctity of all gods in all temples, today we have a single shrine where another group marginalized in history must work around tradition and its claims of immutability. The cry to preserve Sabarimala, as it is, is shrill, and while religion evokes emotions, the claim that custom is untouchable is, actually, unhistorical. Ayyappan atop Sabarimala hill is consecrated in a way that disallows women, they say; well, till 1936, every single god was consecrated in a way that disallowed Dalits. That custom changed—with the executive enforcing a view their own advisers abhorred—and decades later, few would argue that the arrival of Dalits in temples has demolished the integrity of the deities before whom they today worship.

In a few years from now, when women go routinely to Sabarimala and Ayyappan remains as resplendent as before, we may laugh at today’s protests. Just as Kerala shakes its head at those who objected to temple entry in the name of tradition all those years ago, we may wonder why in 2018 there was such rigid objection. But while discomfort is understandable, it may be worth remembering that history is full of evolution and change. For if it had been otherwise, Malayali society would look very different today. In the 1860s it was conceded at last that perhaps dipping one’s hand in boiling ghee was not the most foolproof method to determine guilt; but there were men who disagreed in the name of custom. In the 1920s, the maharani of Travancore flouted old traditions when she terminated animal sacrifice—no more bloodshed, she declared, providing ancient temples cucumbers in place of cocks and goats to kill. Again, many objected and highlighted custom. When a Brahmin woman wore a blouse in Kerala she was excommunicated for her innovation—custodians of tradition preferred traditional toplessness, and even men wearing shirts were seen as rebels. But (leaving the patriarchal politics of this aside) would the most orthodox Brahmin today suggest his female relations return to that ancient custom where the piety of a woman depends on the bareness of her breasts?

The temple entry committee of the early 1930s justified these specific changes by noting that the original practice was, to begin with, never sanctioned by sastras—the entry of Dalits, on the other hand, was expressly prohibited by the great books in Sanskrit. For their pains they were cordially ignored, and the ruler proceeded to introduce a new morality, in view of the politics and callings of his own time and mind. Today again we have a leap to be made, where a custom stands before the morality of our national Constitution—one will have to bow before the other, and both cannot together prevail. The past offers us a guidebook by which to reconcile to change. It may at first be upsetting, and it may look unholy. But think of 80 years from today, and perhaps then those protesting in Sabarimala might recognize which side of history they wish to serve. Ayyappan did not go away when custom was broken to bring Dalits before his gaze; it is hardly likely He will cease to be celibate because women behold him, after years of being kept away.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 13 2018)


In 1964, when Jawaharlal Nehru died at the end of a long and historic career, The New York Times carried an editorial asking famously, “After Nehru—What?” The op-ed was in several respects alarmist, pointing out that India was “so heavily dependent” on this one “towering” figure that “there is no way of predicting what will now happen”. Would the Congress party stay united? Would India remain committed to pluralism and democracy, values that were the cornerstone of Nehruvian policy? And most importantly, what did the passing of this giant mean not only for the “internal peace of India, but the peace of Asia and perhaps of the world”? The air was full of uncertainty, and a lot depended on the man appointed to fill Nehru’s shoes—a man the NYT had earlier described as a “colorless politician”, “an architect of compromise, a conciliator of factions” and a “faithful follower” of the prime minister who had now gone to the grave.

Lal Bahadur Shastri, to whom rich tributes were paid on his birth anniversary on 2 October, was the original accidental prime minister of India, and it was precisely the qualities the American newspaper highlighted that first made him palatable to leaders of the Congress party. Born in 1904, Shastri had accumulated nearly a decade of prison time during the freedom struggle, and after independence, quietly served under Nehru in various ministerial capacities. At 60, he enjoyed an inverted popularity, born out of his singular ability to provoke no enmities in a party full of internecine rivalries. His principal gift seemed to be that while he inspired not even a shadow of euphoria, nobody minded him either: the socialists might come to terms with Shastri, just as the right wing within the Congress could be prevailed upon to accept this candidate who successfully stayed out of everybody’s hair.

Nehru never anointed Shastri his heir, but he did hint at his approval of the man: when various senior leaders resigned from the cabinet (with Nehru’s concurrence) under the famous “Kamaraj Plan” to reinvigorate the party in 1963, Shastri was the only one reinducted a few months later. The whole enterprise was one of balancing interests: Morarji Desai, for instance, was senior most and, therefore, Nehru’s presumed natural successor. Since this was a horrifying prospect for others, to whom Desai’s trademark obstinacy was unappealing, the Kamaraj Plan unseated him and a number of powerful leaders so as to reset the terms on which the future leadership would be decided. As Michael Brecher notes in his supremely interesting Succession In India (1966), Congress president K. Kamaraj and his allies intended to “support the man who was least likely to divide and most likely to unite the party”. And the best match for this job profile, it turned out, was good old Shastri.

Yet, Shastri’s elevation was not instant, and in the six days following Nehru’s demise, many hats were thrown into the ring. Brecher’s book, featuring interviews with the lead actors in the drama, offers a fascinating view of the negotiations that gripped Delhi while Nehru’s corpse lay in state. Gulzarilal Nanda, who was sworn in as caretaker prime minister (much to the annoyance of V.K. Krishna Menon, who called it “unconstitutional”) seemed to harbour a desire to be confirmed in that position: when he sat in what was Nehru’s seat in Parliament, there were gasps. Desai, of course, arrived at the dead prime minister’s residence and tried to direct the funeral proceedings, provoking an angry remark from health minister Sushila Nayyar: “Who are you to give orders?” Indeed, a day after Nehru’s death, Desai openly declared himself a candidate—a tactless move which allowed his rivals to decry his apparent thirst for power, even as a Maharashtrian faction made it clear that they could not support this Gujarati.

There was, however, enough maturity on display alongside the anxious lobbying. The defence minister Yashwantrao Chavan was in the US when Nehru died, and realized, Brecher notes, that not only The New York Times but the world itself was watching India: instead of chaos, “we must do everything possible,” he said, “to reach a consensus, to achieve unanimity.” Nanda too understood this. While he expressed his ambitions, he was also “conscious that the world’s eyes were upon us, and we did not want to display too open a fight.” Even as powers around the globe feared Nehru’s obituary was an obituary for united India as well, the Congress leadership knew they had to manage differences alongside the good of the country. There were personal designs; there was regionalism and caste competition; and there was Desai’s legitimate but decidedly unpopular claim of seniority. But then, there was also India’s national interest.

Since none of the others had enough heft, the issue boiled down quickly to Desai versus an alternative. And so, Shastri, who had maintained a studious silence and shrewdly made no claims himself, was confirmed by an orchestrated consensus. “He was not,” Brecher notes, “as forceful and decisive as Morarji, but that was an asset in a country as large and complex as India”. Kamaraj, who, as I.K. Gujral claims in his memoirs, chose to become kingmaker rather than the puppet king, set the wheels in motion. He “consulted” hundreds of parliamentarians—who were to formally elect their leader—to take a “poll” of sorts, an exercise that was part strategic, part comical. “I like Shastri; whom do you like?” he would ask individual MPs, and as Krishna Menon later laughed, “when the Congress president calls you, unless you are a fool like me, you more or less express his opinion.” Shastri officially became the “party’s choice”, before whom even Desai had to retreat. And so it was that India found not only its second prime minister—a man who in 18 months made a mark not as a puppet, but a leader worthy of respect and admiration—but also the answer to that dreaded question, “After Nehru—What?”

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 06 2018)


At the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, there hangs, in a collection featuring everyone from Caravaggio to Picasso, a striking painting that depicts British life in colonial India. Centred on Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of the East India Company’s supreme court in Kolkata, it portrays his family enjoying a musical performance by an Indian troupe. There is an ayah holding one of the Impey children, while a second son watches from behind Lady Impey’s shoulder. In the middle, meanwhile, is the oldest of the boys, dressed in Indian robes, dancing to “native” tunes. The scene all at once attempts to encapsulate imperial domesticity in the Orient, while also presenting a gloss of exoticism—that special ingredient that coloured, for generations, Western impressions of the remote and (allegedly) unfathomable East.

The man who painted this canvas in the 1780s was Johan Zoffany. An artist of German origin, he had sailed to India after his fortunes, like his artistic reputation, took a plunge in Britain. He was not unusual in seeking to resurrect his career in Company territories—a whole century later, there were still Western painters for whom failure in Europe’s capitals did not erase hopes of success with Indian patrons. Zoffany, in any case, stayed for about six years, promptly sailing home as soon as his bank balance had improved and his debts were paid. In the process he left behind a local mistress and an assortment of children and, following the wrecking of his ship, joined fellow survivors in eating human flesh. And so the painter of the Impeys went down, to quote William Dalrymple, as “the first and last Royal Academician to become a cannibal”.

While we cannot be sure of how many more cannibals sought India’s embrace, Zoffany was merely one of countless others whose motivations were more complicated than black and white critiques of the Raj acknowledge. On the whole, of course, the British built a machine that extracted Indian resources to enrich their distant island, and the violence of colonial rule has had enduring repercussions not only on Indian society but also on the Indian mind. But the men and women who actually operated this rapacious apparatus often had other compulsions than blindly serving king and country in the name of British imperium. As David Gilmour argues in his new book, The British In India, much of the colonizers’ impact, “especially at a personal and popular level, was accidental.” “Most British people,” he notes, “did not go to India to conquer it, govern it, or amass a fortune there.” They came for other, less ambitious reasons.

Who, then, were these people, and why did they sail East? Often, Gilmour shows, they might be criminals on the run from the law: it was easy to assume a new name and wipe the slate clean on the ship to Bengal. Or they could be royal bastards, such as the sons of William IV, one of whom rose to become a senior commander in the British Indian army. Commercially minded people too found hope in India—long before Union minister for communication and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad divined the idea, a Scotsman established a venture that “sold water from the Ganges to pilgrims who could not reach Benares.” Great old declining families too sent son after son to earn salaries here, and more than one viceroy originally chose to serve the Raj to prevent his family from being swallowed by debt. Indeed, among the wider pool of Europeans interested in an Indian career was a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who as late as 1795, expressed a desire to become a “nabob”, not so much for personal aggrandizement as much as to arrange respectable dowries for his sisters.

While the British state systematically crippled India—a point Gilmour does not quite address—the cogs in the machine were not always tuned into this larger imperial purpose. So where local princes might be awed by the Company’s military drills, soldiers on the British side were complaining about the pointlessness of their daily routines, choosing to drink themselves to death instead at the earliest available opportunity. Grand military titles concealed lifetimes spent without any real military action, and often the arrival of well- born ladies in India cloaked scandalous pasts that threatened their reputations at home. Then, of course, there were the usual bureaucratic rivalries: a civil servant, the product of a half-baked training system, with millions of brown people under his charge, might look down on a political officer stationed in a maharajah’s court. Work for the latter, it appeared, was a sequence of banquets and shikars, though occasionally a discreet British resident could be relied upon to help a maharani smuggle out her illegitimate offspring.

It is this human enterprise and experience behind the formal edifice of the Raj that interests Gilmour, and with characters even more memorable than our man-eating painter (who himself barely appears), this is a book that makes for fascinating reading. Gilmour presents a dazzling variety of stories and reminds us that besides villains and tyrants, British rule also featured men and women whose interests in India could range from a love of hunting to investments in the brothel business. “Some readers,” he agrees, “may feel that I have given too much space to spearers of boar and pursuers of jackal, but pig-stickers, like prostitutes, are a part of history.” It is a sensible remark and one can see his point, but while tremendously interesting in its own right, the question must still be asked whether viewing individual experiences without quite acknowledging the plunderous context that enabled these experiences in the first place is appropriate.

There can be no argument about the need to understand the role of ordinary Britons in the making of empire—in that sense, Gilmour’s is an enriching, encyclopedic offering. But in skirting the political and the unpleasant, what we have in the end is something like that Zoffany painting: an exceedingly attractive but ultimately incomplete picture of the British and their time in India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 29 2018)


In 1934, when M.F. Husain first sold a painting, the roadside transaction added a grand total of ₹10 to his tattered pockets. At 17, with a bicycle his most glamorous possession, he was still just a creatively inclined grandson of a tinsmith from Pandharpur, Maharashtra, without any conception of the kind of celebrity—and notoriety—that awaited him in the years to come. In his 90s, he would be hounded out of his own home by howling mobs and hooligans, forced, in the end, to seek sanctuary in a foreign land. In 1934, though, there was little inkling of the trauma that lay ahead—instead, the rupees in Husain’s hands were his first ever earnings, and as an old man he would remember the absolute thrill they brought him, in addition to a much-needed boost of confidence. While it was no fortune, at a time when everything from a cup of tea to a roof for the night cost only a few paise, ₹10 was the buyer’s way of telling him that he was good; that perhaps Maqbool, son of Fida, had it in him to become that remarkable thing: an artist.

Husain, whose (formal) birth anniversary it was last week, always had a love of flamboyance, whether it was in the way he painted (sometimes before mesmerized audiences), behaved (his discarding of footwear on a permanent basis is famous), and even remembered the past. His very birthday, for instance, was chosen arbitrarily because nobody remembered the actual date of his arrival: “because I (liked) the sound of September,” he laughed, “I decided I was born on 17 September, 1917. However, the alliterative sound of the three ‘S’s…made me change the year to 1915!” Then there was the loss of his mother, which Husain often related with a tragic flourish. Before he was 2, he was taken unwell. His mother, Zainab, decided to sacrifice herself to god if her son were spared. “She laid Maqbool on the bed in the quivering light of the lamp,” a biographer wrote, “covered her uncombed hair with a black sheet, lifted her hands in prayer and went around the bed seven times.” That night Zainab was dead, while Husain became the boy who lived.

Husain certainly had a sense of his own destiny, which fuelled a determination that resisted all pressures to settle into conventional life. After a short-lived apprenticeship with a tailor led nowhere, his father acquired a camera for him, in the hope that the boy’s obsession with light, form, and image could be channelled into a reliable trade. Husain, of course, had other plans—while he used the camera, including to take a photograph of himself in the nude, his love of the brush clung to his fingers. What began with him tracing a pencil on magazine pages, evolved into a passion, to which was added a powerful sense of observation. His stepmother feeding her baby filled him with a wondrous realization about the female form; rituals in the temple and the company of a Brahmin boy who thrilled him with tales from the Hindu epics; and a thriving market and its bustling crowds birthed a lifelong interest in people, their faces, and, most importantly, their singular stories.

In Indore, where his father moved for work, Husain absorbed cultural influences that stayed with him for life. He played Hanuman during festivals, and observed Muharram processions; years later, he went to Varanasi where he claimed to have found “the essence of India”. After he won a medal in a local competition, his father came around and spent a princely sum to bring Husain oil paints and new brushes. The son even made plans to study at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, but when Fida was laid off work, hopes of acquiring formal training crumbled. Instead, barely 20 years old, Husain moved to Mumbai, painting billboards for money and, to the initial alarm of the lady who supplied him his meals, falling in love with her daughter. But these years were integral. “Frankly,” he is quoted as saying in Rashda Siddiqui’s 2001 book, In Conversation With Husain Paintings, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget my yesterdays. I know how it is to work hard on a hoarding that is put up for only a couple of weeks and then destroyed.”

Husain had plenty of ambition, and from the start groomed himself well, whether, as his biographer Ila Pal wrote, it was his George V beard or his conscious decision to master the English language. In fact, F.N. Souza, who founded the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, once declared that the secret of Husain’s success was “40% your beard, 30% your personality, 20% your friends, and 10% maybe your talent!” Husain too credited talent as only one part of the equation for success: “An individual,” he said, “only requires 5% of creative capacity. The rest is sheer hard work.” He would know—through the 1940s, he painted commercially, designed furniture, took up projects on the side, and even briefly worked in a textile mill in Warangal. A stable income released him from financial pressure, and this liberated his imagination, expressed on increasingly saleable canvases.

Such commitment paid off, and by the 1950s, Husain’s reputation was on the ascendant. While a 1948 show in Kolkata saw his work dismissed as “a betrayal of Jamini Roy”, Husain enjoyed greater success in Delhi. He was sent on a delegation to China, and by the middle of the decade, was honoured by the Lalit Kala Akademi. He toured Europe and picked up friends and contacts by the dozen, and in the 1960s was not only earning several thousand rupees apiece for his work, but could also afford a car and other luxuries. The teenager who was thrilled with ₹10 once grew into a celebrated painter, one of India’s most prominent faces in the international avant garde. He would go on to sit in Parliament, and travel the world, making friends, chasing lovers, and living a life as vivid and rich as his canvases. In the end, gloom did cast its shadow on him, when self-appointed custodians of culture took umbrage at a Muslim’s brush depicting Hindu divinities in ways beyond their creative comprehension. But by then the boy from Pandharpur was already a legend: he had nothing to prove anymore, and if at all a loss was incurred, it was not by him but by an entire nation.