(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.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 22 2018)

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In September 1914, an unplanned encounter with a dog led to the death of a Sanskrit scholar. The man was in a car on the outskirts of a town in Kerala called Kayamkulam when the canine jumped on the road. As the driver tried to avoid running over the animal, the car skid, turning turtle as it fell into a ditch. For some time, the 69-year-old languished by the roadside, till finally a palanquin arrived, carrying him off for medical attention. It was all in vain, though, and two days later the man was dead. “O! Land of Kerala, thy light has gone!” lamented the poet Kumaran Asan: “Thou art engulfed in darkness!”

The dead man’s name was Kerala Varma, and before he was snatched by tragedy, he had led a life as colourful as it was rewarding. The world knew him in many ways. To some he was consort to the senior rani of Travancore, a position that brought little power but much prestige. To others it was his academic achievements that shone: he was a fellow of Madras University, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and chairman of a committee that revolutionized primary education in princely Travancore. In the 1890s, Kerala Varma had even received from the British empress a shiny decoration, partly, one suspects, as a reward for his eulogy to her, the Sanskrit poem Victoria Charitra Sangraha.

Kerala Varma might have lived and died in obscurity had it not been for marriage. Born in 1845 into a line that supplied consorts to the matrilineal Travancore royal family, his selection as partner to the senior rani was largely on account of the influence of a dying uncle (who in turn was married to a previous holder of that title). While as late as the 1910s, a consort was only entitled to ₹200 per month “with meals from the palace and the use of a brougham”, the talented Kerala Varma utilized his newfound position for a creative evolution. He acquired the best Sanskrit masters, and learnt to play the veena, sarangi, and fiddle. He established a cricket club in Thiruvananthapuram, besides learning to ride and shoot. Most importantly, in a time when consorts were expendable, he won the devotion of his royal wife, quickly becoming comptroller of all her affairs.

But while he was popular in the early years, presenting poems and staging Kathakali dramas, by the 1870s, overconfidence turned his head somewhat. He developed something of a temper—years later, when a newspaper published a less-than-glowing review of one of his compositions, he was vindictive enough to terminate its circulation in Travancore. In the mid-1870s, however, what nearly dug a proverbial grave for the 30-year-old Kerala Varma was a misguided attempt to partake in court intrigue. In the events that followed, this “Symbol of Renaissance in Malayalam Literature” (for he was gifted not only in Sanskrit), ended up in prison, losing his title, and very nearly forfeiting even his initial claim to fame—his royal wife.

The sanitized version of the event presents Kerala Varma as a wronged hero, suffering the wrath of a vengeful monarch. The reigning maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal was a wicked man, for standing up to whom our poet-scholar was punished. The facts, however, are a little more complex, for while the ruler had flaws by the dozen, the consort was not blameless either. In 1875, after failing to persuade the British resident at court to potentially protect him against the maharajah, with whom he had fallen out, Kerala Varma wrote a letter to the chief minister, signed Peter III. “In the other day’s Privy Council,” it warned, “there was a hint of trying to dispose of you by other means than asking you to resign…take care of your cook & men about you.”

The suggestion that the maharajah was trying to poison his minister was scandalous, and while Kerala Varma denied charges, handwriting experts confirmed the opposite. As his wife wept and screamed—even chasing the police carriage down the capital’s streets—he was divested of his rank, becoming “Kerala Varmah, State Prisoner”. Conditions in jail were horrifying. In an 1877 plea to the ruler, he was desperate enough to promise to vanish into the “snowy regions of the Himalayas” if released, referring to himself constantly as a “Slave”. He also confessed to a catalogue of “treasonous acts”: He had authored the infamous letter, of course, but was also guilty of “an inclination to Christianity”, the “vice of drinking”, a craving for “stronger narcotics”, and, interestingly, “corresponding unnecessarily to some newspapers”.

The maharajah was unmoved, and a miserable Kerala Varma sent him an appeal in Sanskrit poetry, which too was cast aside. But the severity of his sentence was reduced—from prison, he was moved to house arrest. Here the man, who was once the toast of Kerala society, spent his days teaching children alphabet and verse, till finally in 1880 news arrived: the maharajah was dead. Immediately he was released and reunited with his wife, who, in turn, had resisted every order to discard Kerala Varma and take another consort. When she died in 1901, her husband’s distress was profound. “My angel, my life, my darling, my all and all, my pride, my idol, my sweetheart—alas! and what not,” Kerala Varma sorrowfully wrote in English, “expired quietly at 8PM.”

The complicated events of the 1870s were quietly expunged now, however, and Kerala Varma eschewed politics. He focused on literature, winning encomiums, and became guardian to his wife’s heirs. His concerns were domestic, and though he could be peevish (as when he objected vehemently to his brother-in-law, the painter Ravi Varma, being styled “Raja”), he reinstated himself in the eyes of society as a venerable elder. By the time of that fateful encounter with the dog, the man who once liked bhang and schemed against a monarch, was forgotten, and what went down in the obituaries was the other, pious Kerala Varma: poet, scholar, and the patrician venerated to this day as the Kalidas of Kerala.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 15 2018)


Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was a thin man with a big head. He had a long, sharp nose, surpassed by an even sharper intellect. The offspring of a Telugu Brahmin family, he was born on 15 September 1861 in a Karnataka village called Muddenahalli. His parents were of modest means but learnt quickly that English education was a passport to social mobility. Their second-born did not fail them—a diligent student, Visvesvaraya grew into an unsentimental man of action, leaving for greener academic pastures in Bengaluru soon after the untimely death of his father. He did have to earn his keep: while an uncle gave him breakfast and meals, board and college fees came from a wealthy local family. It was in service of this household that our future Bharat Ratna launched his career, giving private tuition to prosperous children long before he won his knighthood and came to be called India’s Father of Economic Planning.

The almost 101 years “Sir MV” lived were full of work and unceasing activity. He wrote books and gave countless speeches. He worshipped fact alone, caring little for oratorical wit or the charms of rhetoric. The keystone of his existence was routine and grinding discipline—the story went that he wore a three-piece suit (plus turban) even for a walk in his garden. When he spoke, his words came pregnant with substance, and he travelled the world—from America to Japan—commenting on everything from urban drainage to women’s employment. He loved statistics with a passion: when he published Reconstructing India in 1920, he peppered it with facts and figures so diverse, that it remains an encyclopedia that tells us, among other things, how India a century ago had 19,410 post offices.

Such rigour served Visvesvaraya well. Soon after he acquired his bachelor of arts degree, he went to Pune to qualify as an engineer. He worked in the Deccan and served in the Sindh, developing irrigation channels and building filtering systems. By his late 30s, he had superseded as many as 18 seniors in the jealous ranks of officialdom, retiring in 1908 when he realized he would never be made, on account of the colour of his skin, that special thing: chief engineer of an entire British province. While touring Italy later that year, he received an invitation from the nizam of Hyderabad. And so Visvesvaraya commenced the next part of his career, designing infrastructure in that prince’s capital before transferring his services to the maharajah of his native state of Mysore.

At first, Visvesvaraya was chief engineer in India’s most advanced princely realm, till in 1912 his ruler elevated him to the dignity of dewan (chief minister). Some muttered that handing the administration to an engineer was akin to placing a woodcutter at the helm of government, but the technocrat shook the place up, marching the state ahead by systematic leaps and bounds. He set up Mysore University, and pumped money into the Krishna Raja Sagara dam; he established the Bank of Mysore and set in motion what would become the iron and steel works in Bhadravati. From developing the sandalwood soap industry to promoting silks from Mysore’s looms, Visvesvaraya soon proved himself the force behind a thriving state, resigning only after six years, following a quarrel with the maharajah on the issue of reservations.

By now Visvesvaraya, who among other things was a MICE (Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers), was ready for even bigger things. He had views not only on economics and governance, but also on social policy and national enlightenment. In Reconstructing India, in fact, are ideas that even today resonate. “If bureaucracy prevails,” he warned, for instance, “industries will not prosper.” Without modern industry—which meant progressive education, social reform, and women’s empowerment—the nation itself would not prosper. The state had to guide the process but know its limits: the “people require help and backing,” he argued, “not control and direction.” Page after page presented a vision for India, one in which caste retreated before “a saner social system” and nationalism meant love for the country as much as everyday civic awareness.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Visvesvaraya was already an elder with a voice that mattered. He sat on the board of the Tata Iron and Steel Co. and served as president of the Indian Science Congress. He lambasted the British for their economic exploitation, even as he lectured his countrymen against making fatalistic philosophical excuses. In 1934, he argued even with Gandhi—the Mahatma did not share Visvesvaraya’s faith in large-scale industry, noting that “we hold perhaps diametrically opposite views” on which path would deliver the country to its destiny. “I could never persuade myself to take up a hostile attitude toward…one with your brilliant achievements,” wrote the south Indian to the Gujarati sincerely. But he still believed that alongside the village and its cottage industries, India needed steel plants and factories, to transform itself and rise in the 20th century.

Though they respected each other, Visvesvaraya had disagreements with Jawaharlal Nehru too. On one occasion, he admonished the prime minister publicly. He was also a strong advocate of meaningful federalism, where the centre’s “intervention in provincial affairs (is) reduced to the lowest possible minimum”. Nehru meanwhile empowered the capital and could not grant the states real autonomy. But between them emerged a constructive engagement, and the old man’s letters were always welcome at the prime minister’s desk. Visvesvaraya, by now, had risen from legendary mind into an object of sheer wonder. Nearing his 100th birthday, when asked about the secret of his longevity, he remarked matter-of-factly: “Death called on me long ago but found me not at home and went away.” It returned on 12 April 1962, and this time the bachelor from Muddenahalli was ready, having made his mark in the world, and having said everything that needed to be said.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 08 2018)


In September 1921, Lord Reading, the British viceroy of India, received from an army general a most urgent telegram. “The situation,” warned the military man, “is now clearly actual war, and famine, widespread devastation and prolonged rebellion can only be avoided by prompt measures”. He was referring to the horrific communal uprising in Malabar, known as the Mappila Rebellion, so intimidating in its scale and fury that it took six months for the authorities to prevail and restore order. In the end, 2,339 rebels were killed, nearly 6,000 captured, and over 39,000 persuaded to surrender. Much blood had flowed through parts of northern Kerala, featuring “guerilla warfare, plunder, terrorization” and worse, by Mappilas against the colonial state as well as local grandees, in an outburst of economic and religious hostility.

The economic angle is clearest and, for many, more comfortable to acknowledge. In 1915, it was found, for instance, that one-fifth of the land revenue in Malabar came from 86 landlords, 84 of whom were Hindus. Muslim Mappilas were often tenants-at-will, easily turned out from the land they tilled, by superiors who, even in the best of times, could charge anywhere from 59-77% of the produce as rent. All legal clauses privileged the owner—even when the landlord, such as the Zamorin in Kozhikode, wasn’t fully certain where his land began or ended. This, naturally, left cultivators in a perpetually precarious position. The colonial establishment, meanwhile, had no desire for reform. Even in 1917, the British were convinced that legislation to prevent arbitrary eviction of cultivators would be a “grave political mistake”.

Resentment had built up over many years among the Mappilas and through the 19th century there had been dozens of “outrages”, predominantly in south Malabar. Each time it was quashed, but the figures could be disturbing. In 1849, for example, 64 Mappilas were shot dead, most of them under the age of 24 and impoverished. However, some of the responses from those captured alive were revealing. It was “impossible”, said one rebel in 1843, “for people to live quietly while the Atheekarees (officials) and Jenmies (landlords)…treat us in this way”. Eight years later, during another outbreak, a Mappila leader declared: “What is the loss to the Nairs and Namboories (the Hindu elites) if a piece of ground…be allotted for the construction of a Mosque? Let those hogs (soldiers) come here, we are resolved to die.”

This, then, highlights the religious element, which also animated a good section of the rebels in 1921: economic marginalization channelled into jihad. The Mappilas had, to begin with, seen happier days. There had been warriors among them, and wealth in their trading community before the dawn of colonialism. Kerala’s connections to Arabia meant that Islam came here shortly after its birth, with one legend placing a Malayali king as witness to the Prophet splitting the moon. By 849 AD, Muslims were witnessing royal grants, and till the advent of the Europeans, Mappilas held senior positions at the Zamorin’s court, joining in the 12-yearly Mamankam celebrations. Muslim nerchchas even resembled Hindu poorams (festivals), and there were multiple bonds between these diverse communities, cemented by economic interests.

What the Mappilas lost first was political clout—as Europeans ejected Muslims from the spice trade, Hindu elites aligned their interests with these new lords of the seas. To quote the scholar Roland E. Miller, “The Mappilas in the main (slowly) became a community of poor labourers, fishermen, shopkeepers and religious figures. Deep poverty became the general pattern,” as they forfeited former positions of influence. The invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan injected short-lived confidence into the community, but by the end of the 18th century, it was British power in the ascendant, aided by the Hindu aristocracy; an aristocracy that now suspected Mappilas for their flirtation with the fearsome, violent Tipu, who had caused them only pain.

Religious animosity swelled on both sides during the 19th century. In 1851, a Nair landlord was killed after he forced a Mappila to replace the call to prayer with a “summons to eat swine’s flesh”. Meanwhile, in 1844, a British official had already noted that, encouraged by overzealous religious men, some Mappilas had started to believe that the “murder of a heretic is a passport to heaven”. As late as 1896, when a Mappila was captured after a temple attack, he confirmed his suicidal convictions: “We came to the temple intending to fight…and die. That is what we meant to do when we started.” And what would come after death? As testimony from an earlier survivor went, “I had heard that there was a reward in heaven for those who got shot.” Indeed in 1898, one Mappila even pointed out that his biggest fear was that he would get shot in the legs and live: only a fatal shot opened the gates of paradise.

Without economic resources, pushed to the corners, and radicalized by an extremist minority, the men who sparked the outrages exemplified a combination of factors that birthed violence. To this was added the trigger of the Khilafat Movement in 1921, with protests against the post-World War I unseating of the Ottoman Caliph. Unprecedented savagery was unleashed that year. Hindu and Christian homes were targeted, and, as a declaration by the Zamorin claimed, cows were killed in temples, with assailants “putting their entrails on the holy image and hanging skulls on the walls and the roofs”. It was a horrifying display of fanaticism but came at the end of a long history of alienation: the stake Mappilas had in society had been watered down, till it was felt that the order itself must be toppled if they were to find purpose. The result was pain—for all of Malabar society—but from it was born introspective wisdom. For it was understood that if there was to be peace between the communities, each one of them had to feel that important thing: a sense of common belonging.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 1 2018)


In the summer of 2004, when Kamala Markandaya died in London, she brought to close a life of impressive literary output married to an old-fashioned tendency towards self-effacement. Intensely private and studiously evasive of the press, her last two-and-a-half decades saw this recluse retreat even further into a cocoon, so that whole generations of readers failed to encounter her work at all. Some of it was illness, but another cause for her undeclared retirement was that she seemed to have lost her audience. In fact, after 1982, Markandaya had trouble publishing her work and her final novel appeared posthumously in 2008, 20 years after it was written. The general consensus is that she had grown “outdated”, and that in the reorientation which followed Salman Rushdie’s sensational Midnight’s Children (1981), all who came before were inevitably eclipsed. As one observer put it, “Whether ahead or behind literary trends,” by the time her name appeared in the obituaries, “Markandaya’s work was almost forgotten.”

There is truth to this gloomy remark, made stark by the irony that only 27 years before Midnight’s Children, it was Markandaya who had made a sensational global debut with Nectar In A Sieve. In 1954, at the age of 30, this Kannadiga, who called herself “Hindu-Brahmin in religion” and “anti-imperialist in politics”, produced a 189-page best-seller, earning not only critical acclaim but as much as $100,000 in prize money. In the US—where she shared a publisher with Jawaharlal Nehru—her novel was absorbed into school curricula: She was celebrated as one who offered, in polished English, an “authentic” picture of changing Indian social dynamics. It did not matter that the author did not see herself as a spokesperson for India, for her readers abroad thought that was precisely what she was. This also explained why she won more admiration overseas than at home. As the poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel scoffed in a 1979 review, “An Indian writer living permanently abroad can always be trusted to write knowingly about life in an Indian village.”

Markandaya had not always lived abroad. Born Kamala Purnaiya in 1924 in princely Mysore, as a student in 1940s Chennai she was briefly also a journalist. At some point, she decided to spend 18 months in a village “out of curiosity”. This inspired the setting of her first novel, centred on Rukmani and her farmer husband, who negotiate not only nature’s cruel whimsies but also change in the disruptive form of a modern tannery. The theme may sound predictable—rural forbearance in the face of industrialization—but the novel did not succumb to cliché. On the contrary, the protagonist’s “voice” can sometimes seem a little too cosmopolitan to fit into her context. Markandaya, of course, rejected criticism that her characters were not fully “there”: “The fundamental mistake,” she argued, “is to think that a peasant thinks differently from you.” Yet, the novel has its peculiarities, when villagers talk of “fried pancakes” and “rice cakes” to avoid words like pakoras and idlis. She won adulation for presenting India to the world, but to many Indians this came at the cost of genuine “Indianness”.

By 1948, Markandaya had moved to London and married an Englishman. Her later life informed the inter-racial, East-West dynamics that animate her novels. Some Inner Fury (1957) features an Indian woman during the Quit India Movement whose nationalism is juxtaposed against her romance with an Englishman, while Possession (1963) presents a talented goatherd “discovered” by a calculating Western aristocrat, who launches him as an exotic artist in London. Then, of course, disillusioned, he returns to the spiritual embrace of India. There are parties, there is sex, there is a swami, but this is also where Markandaya first succumbs to the allure of cliché she so skilfully avoided in her first novel.

After memorable works that reflect on faith and reason, hope, frustration and more in urban India, when Markandaya tried to break away from what was expected of her, she did not find support forthcoming. In The Nowhere Man(1972), she turned the gaze away from Indian settings to the challenges faced by an immigrant in Western society. The book, however, was met with “thunderous silence”. As long as she played the role charted for her as a storyteller of India, it seemed, she was welcome, but a commentary on the West would not be easily digested. Perhaps owing to this pressure, her next novel, Two Virgins (1973), returned to the village, sinking irrecoverably into stereotypes. It begins promisingly, but soon one character is seduced and damaged by the Big Bad City, yearning for stardom and freedom, while her sister tediously romanticizes all that is rural. The village, for example, was where “You knew each grove, each acre, each homestead…every pathway…. You knew who you were.” The reader, then, can agree with the critic who said that it is “with relief that one drops” this book.

This, then, became the tragedy of Markandaya. She was gifted, and possessed both skill and perspective, but over time there was “a slow decline in her reputation as a writer that finally dwindled to silence”. The West, where she won the principal share of her appreciation, moved on in the 1980s to a new generation with new approaches, while her motherland in the East thought her de-Indianized and out of touch. Her characters were, as Ezekiel put it, mere “puppets, manufactured for those who know nothing about India”. How Markandaya the woman negotiated this crisis is not known—she rarely gave interviews, left no autobiography, saw few people, and for all practical purposes, disappeared from the horizon. But for all that, one hopes, perhaps she had some consolation in knowing that at least for a brief period, she had been at the forefront; that it was she who told India’s tales to the world beyond, and brought a young, new nation into the global literary conversation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 25 2018)


By this time in August 1659, everyone in the imperial court knew that Dara Shukoh would soon find himself minus his head. Emperor Shahjahan’s eldest and favourite son, beloved of mystics and poets, had lost the war of succession, outsmarted by the shrewder Aurangzeb. Plundered by his own soldiers, abandoned by old retainers, his wife dead (possibly by suicide), and betrayed by a man he thought loyal, Dara seemed conscious of his impending doom. He wrote to his royal captor from his place of confinement, promising to spend the rest of his days praying for the new emperor’s welfare. But his pleas were rejected—to the victorious Aurangzeb, hatred for Dara had accumulated over decades, and in the sham “trial” that followed, the elder brother was accused of everything, from perverting imperial judgement to scandalous heresy, till the younger confirmed, self-righteously, the sentence of death.

The life Dara had led before was full of splendour and privilege. He sat on a golden chair in his father’s court, and was styled, in happier days, Prince of Lofty Fortune. Before both chair and fortune were abruptly toppled, he had enjoyed 2 crore silver rupees a year in income. He was his father’s closest adviser, provoking envy from more than one of his several siblings. Dara’s personality was fascinating, and while he wrote sentimental verses on renunciation, he was no stranger to the notion of self-interest. When Aurangzeb, for instance, cornered the Shia sultanates of the Deccan, it was to Dara that their rulers sent their appeals. The senior prince, the sultans knew, had the ear of the emperor—and since Dara had no desire to see ambitious Aurangzeb swell in power, he prevailed on their father and had his brother’s designs thwarted.

He did have natural defects in character. “He entertained,” wrote François Bernier, who was Dara’s personal physician for a brief period, “too exalted an opinion of himself (and) believed he could accomplish everything by the powers of his own mind…He spoke disdainfully of those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers”. Added to this fatal over-confidence, born of soaring intellectual talents, was disdain for proud men with narrow minds. “Paradise,” he proclaimed, “is where no mullah exists”—naturally even sympathetic mullahs turned away from Dara. And so, for all the love and regard his father fed him, the man assembled enemies, with resentments as sharp as Aurangzeb’s. His chief military campaign, moreover, was a flop, and he lacked with ordinary troops that bond which brought success to his brothers—where they picked the sword, Dara collected Sufi saints.

But the Mughal prince’s weaknesses were only of the kind that one might find in any human being. His mind, on the other hand, surpassed his contemporaries. At 25, he authored his first book, and two years before his execution, he was still composing lines of pure delight. “He was constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis,” complained a poet employed by Aurangzeb, till he regarded “these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom.” He composed the Majma-al-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans), seeking, like his ancestor Akbar, to unite faiths to fashion a new vision for society. So, too, it was Dara who translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian, which a century later allowed Voltaire in France to immerse himself in Indian wisdom. These were, Shahjahan’s ill-destined son wrote, “without doubt of suspicion, the first of all heavenly books”—lines that would one day be used against him as a direct challenge to the Quran.

But the times were violent and while Dara scaled the heights of intellectual attainment, he failed in claiming the power of arms that sustained kingship in that complex age. When Shahjahan fell ill, his son made tactical mistakes. He yet had chances of success, with the royal forces and treasure vaults at his disposal, but on the battlefield Aurangzeb was the real warrior, Dara only a poet in armour. He was defeated and fled Agra while his father wept, wandering from province to province, till Aurangzeb’s men defeated him once again. He should have fled to Persia when he had a chance—perhaps he might have returned like Akbar’s father to fight another day—but bad judgement and betrayal by that treacherous friend delivered Dara his warrant of death.

When Dara came shackled to Delhi, the people shed tears in sincere regret. “From every quarter,” noted Bernier, “I have heard piercing and distressing shrieks…men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves.” Aurangzeb had, then, to eliminate this popular rival, and men were sent to do the deed on 30 August. His younger son died with him, while the older was captured and poisoned slowly to death. For these brutal political events, of course, a religious vindication was expertly prepared. As Aurangzeb’s chronicler wrote, with his obsession with the Vedas and his attention devoted to “the contents of these wretched books”, Dara was an apostate. “It became manifest that if Dara Shukoh obtained the throne…the foundations of faith would be in danger and the precepts of Islam would be changed for the rant of infidelity and Judaism.” The murder of brother by brother, then, was both imperial justice and god’s fury in direct play.

It is tempting to imagine how Mughal history might have been shaped had Dara reigned and not Aurangzeb. Would he have saved the empire by becoming the Akbar of his age? Might he have embraced the Marathas as Akbar embraced the Rajputs? It is impossible to say, though as a historian once wrote, Dara Shukoh was perhaps destined to fail either way. He had many flaws and he had his strengths, but what really marked him out as a man of tragedy and dismay was one peculiar detail: he was far too civilized for his age.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 18 2018)


Sometime in the last decade—when I was still in school and the world was less hysterical—I happened to meet a “sun yogi”. He was a fascinating man, swathed in white, with a long beard and an enviable figure. His face beamed, more or less on a permanent basis, and he endured cheerfully my stabs at polite conversation. Mr Uma Sankar, I was eventually told, meditated daily, staring straight at the sun. And from the sun, “like plants and trees”, he absorbed energy in such adequate doses that since 1996, he had neither eaten, nor slept, nor tasted a drop of water. To be clear, I wasn’t prepared to digest such claims upfront, but the unwisdom of picking a public quarrel with a yogiwas manifest—and so, having made mixed sounds in response, I excused myself to return to people of my own nutritional preferences.

Earlier this week, however, this odd little episode resurfaced in my memory as I read John Zubrzycki’s riveting Jadoowallahs, Jugglers And Jinns (Pan Macmillan India). For, in its pages, I was thrilled to find the words of a traveller called Abu Zayd al-Sirafi who, 1,000 years before my own encounter with the sun yogi, had come across another such consumer of extraterrestrial rays. He described seeing men who “stand upright all day facing the sun”, one of whom he met after 16 years, still going strong, till the Persian wondered “how his eyes had not melted from the heat of the sun”. There was, in consonance with my own sentiments, a degree of incredulity in his account, but what is fascinating is that a whole millennium after Abu Zayd’s contemporary was at it, there is still a yogi doing precisely the same thing, living up (apparently) to the very same sunny tradition.

Zubrzycki’s book (of which the British title, Empire Of Enchantment, is more appealing) is officially a history of Indian magic. But it is in some ways also a history of the subcontinent itself. The Harappans make an appearance, as do the Vedas, for instance. We meet P.C. Sorcar, and more than one Mughal emperor. And it isn’t only my personal memory that finds an echo in antiquity through Zubrzycki’s writing—in the 1940s, hearing that the British resident in princely Hyderabad had witnessed a fakir “slit his stomach open and spread his bowels on a tray”, a comment was made that this was hardly “an appetising number” at a cocktail party. Emperor Gaozong in seventh-century China might have agreed, for he, too, once during “an evening feast”, was horrified to find Brahmins cutting themselves open in an effort to entertain him.

Magic, for Zubrzycki, lies clustered around religion, ritual, science and performance. He does not investigate this idea itself as much as he ought to have, perhaps, but what he does present is a rich, meticulous assortment of tales, travellers’ accounts, and fascinating archival treasures that tell, in parts, the stories of marginalized (and sometimes criminalized groups), the global exchange of magical skills, and sometimes obscure anecdotes sharp with hilarious detail. So, despite the occasional slip (Abu Zayd, for instance, is placed in the ninth century, when he was in fact a 10th century figure), the book remains engaging. And though, towards the end, it moves towards a decided focus on the West’s embrace of Indian magic, Zubrzycki retains steam and continues to hold attention by the sheer wealth of information unearthed from multiple continents.

Some of these are pure gems. For instance, while there is reading on the Rig Veda and Indra as the master of magic (indrajal), there is also charming material on the Atharva Veda and its recommendations for penis enlargement and body hair removal. The Nujum al-Ulum, a 16th century text from Bijapur (with cow-headed angels, Tantric deities, and everything from horses to halwa), also makes a cameo, as does the concept of maya in Adi Sankara’s advaita philosophy. One of the best stories, traced through official paperwork, relates to Motilal Nehru’s desire to send “performers, musicians, acrobats and artizans” to the Paris Exhibition in 1900. While the protector of emigrants in Mumbai felt they should be categorized as manual labourers going abroad, the commissioner of customs disagreed. In the end, the viceroy, Lord Curzon, was left to determine the burning question of whether magic “executed by sleight of hand” counted as manual labour.

Matters of race, and other imperial anxieties, also feature in Zubrzycki’s pages. When, for instance, a “pure European child” was discovered with a group of jugglers in Hingoli in 1858, a minor panic was unleashed that whites were being abducted by itinerant natives. Such mobile groups had another sinister role to play as well—Zubrzycki notes Kautilya’s recommendation that magicians and fortune-tellers be used as spies, which reminds one of how, indeed, in the 18th century, puppeteers, sadhus and others often served as intelligence agents for Indian regimes. The role, for instance, of fakirs who descended on British cantonments on the eve of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, prophesizing the imminent fall of colonial rule, is telling.

In sum, Zubrzycki’s book, featuring judicial apes in Orissa, goats that could tear down wild boars, emperors obsessed with necromancy, and Sufis and Buddhists, makes for a terrific read. There are some themes the author could have explored in greater depth, but this is a task he consciously leaves to scholars in the future. His chief lament, however, is one that rings true—the communities that practised magic on our streets are disappearing, and dying with them is a tremendous chunk of our cultural history. Whether this can be reversed is not clear, but by compiling so many of their tales, and doing it in such delectable style, Zubrzycki not only paints a vivid picture of their wonderful universe, but also makes his own contribution to help preserve their memory.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 11 2018)


In 1885, when the Indian National Congress met for its inaugural session in Mumbai, the scene was striking for more reasons than one. Not only was this the first pan-Indian gathering of upwardly mobile men of political convictions, the picture their combined presence painted was captivating even in a visual sense. As the Bombay Gazette noted (throwing political correctness to the wind), there were delegates from the south “the blackness of whose complexion seemed to be made blacker by spotless white turbans”. By their side stood “bearded, bulky and large-limbed” Pathans, along with “Banyas from Gujarat” and “Sindhees from Kurrachee”. Then there were Bengalis dressed like Englishmen, just as there were others with feet uninhibited by shoes. Turbans competed for attention, the Maharashtrian pagdi against the Parsi’s ancestral headdress. In all, “these men assembled in the same hall”, concluded the Gazette, “presented such a variety of costumes and complexions, that a similar scene can scarcely be witnessed anywhere”. Except, perhaps, “at a fancy (dress) ball”.

The half-condescending gaze of the Gazette might be forgiven, for in 1885 these men did seem less like representatives of one nation and more like exhibits from bewilderingly different cultures. There was, however, one invigorating sentiment that united them all, closely wedded to which was a common skill set. The sentiment, of course, was the prototype of Indian nationalism, and the circular announcing the Congress consciously described it as a “Conference of the Indian National Union”. The skill set, however, was not something that sat comfortably with national pride, for it was entirely of foreign make, soaked in Western cultural influences. As that circular also announced, “The Conference will be composed of Delegates…from all parts of (India)”, but these attendees needed to be “well acquainted with the English language”. In other words, to create a new mood of Indianness, what was sought was not only a shared patriotism, but also one of the most potent instruments of imperial rule: the colonizer’s grammar book.

Only the historically blind would deny the role English inadvertently played in the story of India. It is true that nationalism in this phase was about securing a greater share of the pie of official employment and lobbying for influence in the corridors of power—nobody had designs to unseat the British in 1885. Nor, as The Bengalee put it a little later, was this about the masses. “Who,” it snorted, “has ever asked that the peasantry should participate in the government…? Not even the most dreamy of our politicians have ever sought…this outrage upon common sense.” But despite its narrow objectives, what emerged from our anglicized elite’s grievances kick-started something vastly bigger. They gave speeches, published op-eds, and submitted memorandums, and soon this heterogeneous top layer of colonial society was welded close together, their resentments and aspirations voiced in a single language. The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi opened doors and transformed nationalism into a mass affair, but without an English prologue, no subsequent chapter would have made much sense—not to linguistically diverse Indians, nor to the British against whom they now openly railed.

It was in the language of the king-emperor that the Gujarati Mahatma mentored an Allahabadi called Jawaharlal Nehru, quarrelled with a Bengali named Subhas Chandra Bose, and won the allegiance of a Tamilian called Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Indeed, it was in English, to a great extent, that Gandhi communicated his own message, through letters and publications. It was in this alien tongue that he debated India’s economy with the Telugu technocrat Sir M. Visvesvaraya, and it was also this language that enabled him to negotiate social concessions with a maharani in Thiruvananthapuram. A firebrand like Bal Gangadhar Tilak earlier recognized this value of English—though his nationalism was inflected with Hindu pride, when he set up an institution in Pune in 1880, it was the New English School and not a Vedic gurukul. Indeed, even V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar published in English, without which large sections of their target audience would have been oblivious to their very existence.

Lord Macaulay, a notorious advocate of Western education in India, had hoped in 1835 to manufacture a class of English-speaking clerks to help sustain the Raj. What he had not quite anticipated, however, was that these agents would turn around and demand (in English) rights that Macaulay’s peers had little intention of bestowing. They included, to be clear, those who had concerns above government jobs and power—it was English schooling that first enabled Jyotirao Phule to smash the shackles of caste with such breathtaking effect. It was in English that he read Thomas Paine, whose work inspired his own writings like Gulamgiri, which he dedicated to the people of the US. In an earlier period, it was through English, among other Western languages, that the Maratha raja Serfoji imported modern science to Thanjavur—this he vernacularized for his subjects, but English served as a vehicle for new knowledge, through which he hoped to fashion an Indian modernity.

The irony that a foreign language helped “make” modern India was not lost on our leaders. “So far as English is concerned,” declared Nehru, “I am all in favour of (its) study…being continued…. But it seems to me rather humiliating for us to adopt a foreign language as the official all-Indian language.” The conundrum Nehru faced has not yet been resolved, and replacing a language uniformly alien to everybody (English) with a language that privileges some parts over others (Hindi) has little appeal. But whatever the future may hold, one thing must be acknowledged—English helped mould India as we know it. And mould us it did, not in the servile image Maucaulay or his heirs had envisioned, but in quite a different style, with flaws, strengths and endless other contradictions, cemented, however, by a boisterous, singular sense of resilience.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 4 2018)


In 1966, months after she was installed as prime minister, Indira Gandhi found herself locking horns with frenzied devotees of the holy cow. While that extremist passion to dismember other human beings in the name of bovine honour had not reached today’s horrific heights, the first year of Mrs Gandhi’s reign went down as a particularly trying period, Parliament itself coming under siege from defenders of the four-legged mother. Where initially the prime minister assumed a firm position, telling a newspaper that she would never “cow down to cow savers”, the alarming scale of the protests that rocked Delhi on 7 November persuaded her soon enough to come to terms with the sentiment. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi, back in the day, had declared cow protection a worthy cause—“one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution”—leaving little to interpretation when he added that “so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow”, the religion would endure.

While the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrine a commitment to cow protection, it was an open secret that Jawaharlal Nehru had stern feelings on the subject. Nehru was against any legislation to ban cow slaughter, even as the “big tent” that was the Congress party held an abundance of leaders with a confirmed allegiance to the cow. While he was able to keep things more or less under control for years, Nehru’s death in 1964 allowed the subject to re-emerge, and in 1965 plans were afoot for large-scale protests to press the government into embracing the gau mata. Three Sankaracharyas gave the movement their blessings, bringing together the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and assorted groups to launch an agitation in the summer of 1966, featuring everything from protest marches to hunger strikes.

On 7 November 1966, a massive crowd assembled near Parliament in Delhi—The Hindu reported between 300,000 and 700,000 people, though the actual figure was in the vicinity of 100,000. The lower number was not particularly reassuring though, for as the scholar Ian Copland notes in a 2014 paper, “it was, to that point in time, the biggest political gathering Delhi had ever witnessed”. Indira Gandhi was understandably rattled, and her fears were proved right when, that afternoon, violence reared its head. One speaker ignited the match—Swami Rameshwaranand, a BJS parliamentarian who had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for indecorous conduct, turned to his audience of trident-wielding sadhus and saffron-clad gau rakshaks and demanded, as The Guardian reported: “What are you doing here? They have turned me out of the House. Go in and teach them a lesson.”

A large, furious mob dutifully made its way to Parliament but finding the compound sealed off by armed guards, decided to do the next best thing—they smashed glass, damaged public property, toppled 250 cars, and set the Congress patriarch K. Kamaraj’s house on fire. Curfew was imposed, and policemen appeared with tear gas and guns, till eight people were dead and under 50 seriously injured (one right-wing website has inflated this event into a “Hindu Massacre”, alleging a preposterous 5,000 dead, buried in unmarked graves). It also didn’t help that the prime minister suspected the fidelity of her own home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, who was in charge of the police—he was a patron of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj, which was linked to the protests. The next day, Mrs Gandhi demanded and accepted the resignation of Nanda, once caretaker prime minister himself.

Even as hundreds were thrown into prison, the movement did not succumb. On 20 November, the Sankaracharya of Puri launched his hunger strike with due ceremony. “As the day dawned,” writes Copland, “a number of cows were brought out, fed…and decorated with vegetable-dye motifs of green and vermillion…Selected sadhus then worshipped the cows by walking around them seven times, halting periodically to sprinkle water on their hooves; after which (the Sankaracharya) rounded off proceedings with a prayer in Sanskrit that contained the moving appeal, ‘let cows be all around me’.” His fast—apparently even longer than the Mahatma’s longest—sustained energy for the movement and by early 1967, not less than 1,000-odd people had to be put behind bars.

These numbers convinced Mrs Gandhi, then, to urgently arrive at something resembling a compromise with the cow-protectors. She formally reminded state governments of the directive principles and banned cow slaughter in the Union territories. A committee was appointed to look into an all-India ban, on to which she successfully invited prominent leaders of the right such as M.S. Golwalkar, the Puri Sankaracharya (who had by now broken his fast), and various experts and officials. While on the face of it the committee was a peace offering, it was essentially designed to do nothing—within a year, a number of cow-worshipping members resigned in bitterness. And though the committee carried on listlessly for years, sources differ on whether even a report was submitted. If it was, however, it is clear that it was done quietly and “without much fanfare”.

The cow-protectors retreated for the time being but extracted dividends for their backers. The BJS, which as early as 1954 defined the cow as “our point of honour”, more than doubled its seats in Parliament, from 14 in 1962 to 35 in the 1967 election—an election it fought promising to “amend the Constitution and impose a legal ban on the slaughter of the cow”. Contrarian views also were asserted. The All India Vaishnava Mahasamiti, for example, announced a beef festival, at Kaladi, the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, no less—then, as today, Kerala revelled in its penchant for provocative comebacks. In the end, though, the issue was not settled, and political calculations (or timidity) allowed the problem of the cow to bubble dangerously, mutating into a handle for wanton bloodshed and the murder of innocents in our own day—52 years after Indira Gandhi first grappled with devastation unleashed in the name of the sacred cow.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 28 2018)


A little after 6.30am on 8 July 1910, V.D. Savarkar made more than a ripple in history when he plunged from The Morea into the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, on the way east with this high-profile prisoner, had docked at Marseilles when Savarkar expressed a desire to use the toilet. Two “native constables” stood guard outside, but before they knew it, their charge shot the door-bolt, deciding to seek personal liberty via the porthole. Even as Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague took after him—choosing the land route for sensible reasons—Savarkar swam to the quay and climbed into Marseilles harbour. He was quickly apprehended, of course, and this sensational attempt at escape soon became part of the Savarkar legend. But what he inadvertently provoked in the process was also a diplomatic headache for Britain and France, Savarkar’s brief, wet moments on French territory opening up a can of legal worms.

Though The Morea and its precious cargo set sail from Marseilles the very next day, by 18 July the affair was being discussed at the highest levels of state. The French envoy in London set forth his government’s view that “As the prisoner had reached French soil…questions of international law were involved.” In other words, the moment Savarkar set foot, it was argued, on the sovereign territory of France, his British-Indian keepers no longer enjoyed legal rights over him—and certainly not the right to apprehend, seize, and cart him back to a foreign vessel. Since Savarkar was already out of hand, the request of the French government was simple: until the matter was settled as per law between the two nations, the prisoner should not be tried for the charges that had provoked his arrest in London in the first place.

The British authorities were puzzled by the French claim, and, by 29 July, the home office, India office, and foreign office were all involved in this bureaucratic nightmare. Among those in the loop, interestingly, was a certain Winston Churchill, then home secretary, whose note emphasized that “Great Britain should maintain an attitude of dignity and of dispassionate submission to the law of nations (i.e. international law). The petty annoyance,” he added, “of a criminal escaping may have to be borne.” Curious as it is to picture Churchill inadvertently promoting the cause of “Veer” Savarkar, he was stoutly resisted by the India office. Unlike their colleagues, the India hands insisted that while a pious commitment to international law was admirable, it was “of the utmost importance from a political point of view” that Savarkar should be tried.

A somewhat topsy-turvy solution suggested, then, was to have Savarkar tried as scheduled, to suspend the sentence when delivered, hand him over to the French thereafter, and finally have him extradited to India to serve that sentence—all this involving Savarkar being given a two-way ticket to sail overseas and back simply to satisfy legal requirements. But the charges against him being what they were—“Waging and abetting the waging of war against the King”, “Collecting arms with intent to wage war against the King”, “sedition”, “abetment to murder”, and more—it was decided to explore all possibilities to retain him in India while the matter was resolved. Churchill might have wanted to preserve British dignity in the face of French legal incandescence, but, for the colonial authorities in India, Savarkar was the “head of a widespread conspiracy, the threads of which it was essential to unravel” through trial.

As both the French and the British got into the matter, there appeared two versions of what had transpired in Marseilles. The French asserted that once Savarkar appeared on the docks, it was a gendarme who caught him—he claimed to have chased him “about 400 metres” before catching up. He then walked 10m with Savarkar in his physical custody before the Indian policemen showed up. Constable “Amarsing” and his colleague, however, said that while the gendarme’s action was crucial, he had appeared from the left while they were closing in on Savarkar, and that they arrived moments after the Frenchman had the prisoner by the arm. Savarkar himself may have been aware of a legal opportunity to obtain asylum, for he appealed to the officer to take him to a local magistrate. Instead, he was marched back to the ship.

Pressed immediately after by the French press, which raised issues of law and national pride, the authorities in Paris came to regret the actions of the otherwise efficient gendarme. In London, the claim that the French had any kind of right over Savarkar was, meanwhile, rejected. The French, it was accurately argued, were informed in advance of Savarkar’s presence on the ship, and the gendarme had been posted precisely to prevent his escape—that he succeeded in doing what he was meant to do merely confirmed Savarkar’s position as British prisoner and could not be construed as creating a right of asylum. “His Majesty’s Government,” it was communicated by September, “are therefore unable to admit that they are under any obligation to restore Savarkar to French territory.”

The matter did not end there, however. In October 1910, it was decided to take the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in February the next year ruled in favour of Britain—while there was an “irregularity” in Savarkar’s arrest, London’s logic made sense. Perhaps, if the gendarme had handed over Savarkar to his superiors instead of taking him back to the ship, the story might have been different. But in the circumstances as they were, the British prevailed. And so—even as the press erupted in righteous protest—the matter finally came to an end, and the 50 years Savarkar was sentenced to serve began. Fifty years, that is, till he composed his infamous mercy petitions, which, of course, is another story.