(My column in Mint Lounge, February 25 2017)

I spent last weekend in Germany, surveying some hugely interesting people. I ran into a beaming David Miliband in the elevator, and relished Boris Johnson being told off for saying, predictably, something silly. While John McCain rushed past, there was at least one distressed Royal Highness looking for a seat. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine delivered a deliciously devastating punch on his counterpart in Russia, while US vice-president Mike Pence reassured his nervous European allies that America will not seek a divorce from their doddering transatlantic union—unconvincing, of course, given the drivel that pours out from @realDonaldTrump battering this marriage. When the Chinese foreign minister championed renewed commitment in the globalized world order, irony retreated behind those protectionist walls that architects of this very order now chaotically scramble to build.

The scene was the Munich Security Conference, where droves of powerful men in dull suits have gathered for 53 years to protect, essentially, Western pre-eminence in the world—a pre-eminence sliding slowly down the wrong side. Nowadays, refreshing numbers of powerful women also come, ranging from Anne Applebaum, who brought with her Pulitzer-quality Twitter commentary, to, of course, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who delivered an unglamorous, sensible speech. There were, however, four women whom I met with a small cohort, all of them remarkable not only because of their mandates, but also because of what they represent—if only there are more women doing the talking, the world might come up with those urgent innovations of thought and method that it so desperately needs.

There are in Europe today over half-a-dozen female defence ministers. I met the charismatic Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, a slight figure surrounded by uniformed generals with formidable noses. Chatham House rules preclude recording what we discussed, but I think I will be excused for repeating her advice for women in international relations—be a woman, think like a woman, and don’t turn into a man. Von der Leyen knows what she’s talking about, because she inhabits a critical ministry in a country that is central to Europe’s destiny, a country that has painfully reconciled to its own dark history, and is uniquely poised to remind us of what is at stake if the world excuses the aggressive hyper-masculine rhetoric erupting everywhere. She is a senior political leader in the world—and her experience as a woman is central to her vision.

Female political perspectives differ from those of their male interlocutors’, who, broadly speaking, rarely see things except from one privileged side. This is not to say that the male view lacks value or is unlayered—it is, however, so pervasive that it can suffocate with tedium and homogeneity. Men, if they can look past their noses, will agree that women bring much needed originality to the way things are done—perhaps men should sometimes think like women. There was in Von der Leyen’s style, for instance, something visibly easy and direct in comparison with the intelligent but stiffly starched men sitting by her. Not only was there palpable admiration for her mind, there was also respect for her refusal to “be a man” in the way she discharges her duties. Her femininity informs her work, and in a stagnating male-dominated universe, this is energizing.

Norway too, with its celebrated model that combines welfare with wealth creation and human rights, has a woman at the helm of its defence. Ine Marie Søreide is just on the other side of 40 and came without generals—I imagine demonstration of power through retinue is an affliction she has escaped, and she discarded protocol and got straight to business. After discussing Nato, security strategy and the future of the European Union, I saw her afterwards, sipping coffee in the lobby, giggling with some other women. Stiffly starched men could also learn to giggle now and then. So too came the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court focused on her mission, and who brings to her office not only education, ability and legal brilliance, but also her experience as a black woman in a society designed for (white) men. If a new world order is to be built, people like her must be among its architects.

Just before our meeting with the chairwoman of the Chinese foreign affairs committee, my own prejudice made an appearance, mixing mulishness with other embarrassing predispositions. China, after all, is not a country India is comfortable with. I had, at some level, decided that the engagement would be boring, and that this lady would parrot something un-enlightening. When Madame Fu Ying began to speak, however, it was to me the first time that Chinese foreign policy was articulated with large doses of what can (somewhat problematically) be called grace—and it was articulated strikingly well. I didn’t buy the substance of many answers, but we wanted to listen to this spokesperson for the People’s Republic. And that is the mark of any spokesperson’s success in presenting her country’s position to the world. It was a sentiment shared by others around that table, like me reinvigorated by this leader who came with no chips on her shoulder.

I encountered very many interesting people in Munich over the weekend but left with my mind fixated on the untapped promise of women in corridors of international power—to talk, to participate, and to lead. Powerful men in dull suits must urgently make room. For it is already too late and we have many crises to deal with, including one called Donald.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 18 2017)


Sasikala V.K., understandably, was condemned for years as a sinister influence around the late lamented Jayalalithaa, and efforts to park her in Amma’s hallowed post in Tamil Nadu have come, at last, to naught—the Supreme Court has identified a less gratifying location for the lady, famous mainly for possessing endless reserves of nephews, stout with rowdy power and stockpiles of oddly acquired wealth. Tamil Nadu, always a most fascinating political landscape, is now going through yet another interesting (and, I daresay, entertaining) phase, and O. Panneerselvam, a dutiful cipher if ever there was one, appears determined to carry the day. For whom is, of course, another matter.

The weight of her “disproportionate assets” has finally sunk Sasikala for the predictable future but while drama plays out on the east coast of India, I am reminded of happenings on the west coast many decades before, also featuring shadowy figures haunting the corridors of power. A century ago in Kochi, for instance, a raja succeeded to power. He was an intelligent man but age had blunted his previously sharp capacities. Within a few years into his reign, he grew ill and unable to exercise the power and judgement his position demanded. Some say he was more interested in the art of conversing with lizards, but more considered documents tell us that as the ruler retreated into fits of giggles and incoherence, his “consort” picked up the sign manual.

In matrilineal Kerala, the raja’s wife was not his queen—she was only the consort, who could live in conditions of borrowed glory during the lifetime of her exalted spouse but had to retire to her original circumstances after his death. It was the raja’s sisters and their children who succeeded him in the royal line, his own issue treated only as ordinary subjects. If a ruler were wise, he would make arrangements for his lady to carry on in comfort, if not opulence, and find his sons respectable vocations as contractors or doctors or lawyers. Either way, the wife and her household were the king’s private affair, and they had no business or stake in matters of state and policy that concerned the matrilineal ruling dynasty.

This particular consort, however, rose to fame as the real power in Kochi between 1914 and 1932, by which time her husband was practically senile. Parukutty V.K. wasn’t a bad administrator, but brooked, evidently, no opposition to her “ruling passion”, which was “the acquisition of wealth for her already wealthy family”, in the words of the watchful British Resident at court. The land her husband “gifted” her, for example, was sold back at a premium, after which it was “leased” on a discount by the lady. None of this was strictly illegal but it was deemed singularly inappropriate. The ruler’s ministers objected, not to speak of the royal nephews, but the consort and a loyal palace manager controlled access to the decrepit raja and, in this fashion, retained their grip over the decisions he took and the orders he signed.

This was hardly unprecedented. Further south in Thiruvananthapuram, the local prince had fallen in love with a very married commoner. Her husband, a low-level palace employee, relinquished her to his sovereign, compensated in return with the loftiest title in the land and permanent influence for decades. It didn’t matter that he was publicly embarrassed in stiffly starched society as the “former husband of the maharaja’s present wife”. After all, he had also been installed as palace manager, which supplied a healthy consolation of bribes. It also didn’t trouble him that local courts and newspapers excoriated his corruption—as a pillar of the ruler’s awkward domestic arrangements, his position was unassailable.

Of course, when the rulers died, things changed. Parukutty in Kochi, for instance, had no chance of clinging to power since a royal nephew now succeeded as ruler—a nephew with a consort of his own to promote. But she spent the remainder of her days in style, holidaying in Europe and supervising her land holdings, tea factory, and other numerous possessions. In Thiruvananthapuram, too, the “scoundrel favourite” (as a royal relative called him) withdrew the moment his patron departed, focusing on enjoying the vast fortune he had amassed, and even dispensing scholarships and aid to needy students from his caste.

Perhaps Sasikala could have taken a leaf out of these Malayali books and quietly faded into the sunset (with all its material comforts) instead of seeking to seize so pointedly power to which she has no legitimate claim. Or, to be fairer, the least legitimate claim. It is, of course, another matter that wives and relations of monarchs could get away with a lot back in the day—that, after all, was the feature of the age in which they lived. Today, illicit hoarding from a lucrative career with a different kind of monarch can sink ships many years afterwards—that, incidentally, is the point of what is called justice in a democracy. And Sasikala’s greatest contribution may well be that she will go down as an example of this.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 11 2017)


Alauddin Khilji, who died 701 years ago, was ruthless. He inaugurated his career by murdering his predecessor before proceeding to also murder very many Mongols when they decided to raid India. He then appointed himself chief raider, penetrated the south, scattered its kings, and couriered much treasure north. Under him, the sultanate towered over India and, naturally, he was eulogized by his own, despised by enemies, but inevitably commemorated in song and lore.

Last September, film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali received an atrociously worded letter for making a movie out of one such song, featuring the sultan with a fabled queen. “We have come to know through various reliable sources that you are portraying an imaginary character (sic)…of Rani Padmavati of Chittor who is a famous historical ICON (sic) of Rajputs’ age-old culture, valour & tradition…. Hence, we wish to make it very clear that your proposed film should be based purely on authentic historical facts and not in any allegorical manner. Hence, we forewarn you well in advance that there should be no deviation or distortion of History in projection of the iconic character of Rani Padmavati…”

Rumours circulated that Bhansali had sacrificed history at the altar of deviant distortion—in one “dream sequence”, he had the rani in an embrace with Alauddin, they said—and so a herd of self-appointed custodians of Rajput prestige descended on Bhansali’s set and demonstrated that courage and honour are counted today by the number of items smashed.

The “history” they sought to protect is a 1540 Avadhi work of fiction by Malik Muhammad Jayasi titled The Padmavat, which features a parrot that talks of a Sri Lankan princess’ beauty to the raja of Chittor. Dark-skinned Padmini (aka Padmavati) accepts Chittor’s proposal and becomes queen in the desert. A sorcerer, following in the footsteps of the parrot, sings praises of Padmini’s face in Delhi, prompting Alauddin to desire her. He besieges Chittor and, in a tedious compromise, the rani shows herself in a mirror to the sultan. In the end her husband is killed, and Chittor defeated. But instead of surrendering to the invader’s lust, Padmini jumps into a blaze.

“Awful sacrifice,” wrote James Tod (of The Annals And Antiquities of Rajasthan), followed “in that horrible rite of ‘jauhar’ where the females are immolated to preserve them from pollution or captivity…and the defenders of Chittor beheld…the queens, their own wives and daughters to the number of several thousands. The fair Padmini closed the throng and they were conveyed to the cavern…leaving them to find security from dishonour in the devouring fire…. The Tatar conqueror took possession of an inanimate capital, strewed with brave defenders, the smoke issuing from the recesses where lay consumed the once fair object of his desire.”

There is at least one instance of Alauddin seizing another’s wife (Kamala of Gujarat), but Jayasi’s literary cocktail, inspired two centuries after the siege of Chittor in 1303, had little to do with reality, notwithstanding all the nourishment the Rajput self-image has derived from it. Padmini became emblematic of (patriarchal) honour, Jayasi’s tale embellished numerous times over. Till the colonial age, these were romanticizations of Rajput valour in standing up to a mighty conqueror, and their preference for self-destruction over public ignominy.

The 19th century, however, saw Padmini upgraded from poetry to “fact”. Colonial writers manufactured the enduring impression of Indian history as a confrontation between Muslims and Hindus—which justified British rule to keep the peace in a land of competing antagonisms. The tale of Padmini was now a communal affair and a sample of Hindu suffering under Islamic tyranny, a perversion that has had enthusiastic takers in certain obvious quarters.

Even Indians who didn’t buy this invented historical conflict were willing to play up the “fact” of Padmini’s sacrifice to fuel the nationalist cause. As Sarojini Naidu said in an address to the Indian National Congress in 1917, “Womanhood of India stands by you today…as holders of your banner, sustainers of your strength. And if you die, remember that the spirit of Padmini of Chittor is enshrined with the manhood of India.” Padminifound herself a transfixed patriotic audience, and by the early 20th century versions were in circulation in influential Bengali circles also.

Historian Romila Thapar wrote, “An event occurs, and it slowly becomes encrusted with narratives about what happened.” The monumental irony with the Padmini episode is that narratives have been draped elaborately around a non-event drawn from the fertile mind of a Sufi. Meanwhile, Bhansali has ceased shooting in Jaipur, preferring to carry on in safer quarters where reinterpreting old poems does not invite hordes of self-righteous men who know little history but are determined to “punish” those who offend their over-sensitive sensibilities.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 28 2017)


I spent Republic Day engrossed in a new biography of the man who extolled the virtues of the Constitution of our republic while also, as prime minister, submitting that “even in the mightiest fort one has to repair the parapet from time to time”. One cannot have an argument against reviewing constitutional provisions, if not its fundamental freedoms, periodically in a democratic system of our scale, size and diversity. But concerns that this proposal emerged from a protégé of M.S. Golwalkar’s (who famously lamented that our “cumbersome” Constitution was poorer for absorbing “absolutely nothing” from the Manusmriti) caused one former occupant of 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg), to warn that this shouldn’t become a case of “tenants (going) for rebuilding in the name of repairs”.

Till the tenants lasted a full lease, there were few fears of this happening. I was six years old when Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled India for 13 days, 8 when he returned for 13 months, and then from 1999 he remained Prime Minister till 2004. Among schoolboys of my time he inspired little heroic appeal, what with his vast person, capacious dhotis, artificial knees, and tendency to break into Hindi poetry about birds and peace. But our assorted fathers were quite charged by Vajpayee, who displayed might in nuclear avatar and prevailed over our ancestral enemy in Kargil. His everyday sobriety seemed to them an asset—and a relief—and there was genuine conviction that he would change India for the better. In many ways, he did. And thankfully this didn’t involve touching too many “parapets” of our constitutional fort.

Vajpayee, now laid up for years with age and illness, is a more interesting figure than he has been given credit for, and reading Ullekh N.P.’s The Untold Vajpayee, I was struck by how easy it was, in my youthful mind, to write off his grandfatherly style as uninspiring. This was a man who, in a party dedicated to the idea of the gau mata, had no qualms digesting a near cousin in the equation—Vajpayee loved buffalo meat. Bhang and alcohol were not taboo, but he was not a rebel-child, merely, instead, leading a life that embraced experience in all its variety. Endearingly, he welcomed his father’s desire to attend law school with him, the two Vajpayees sharing a hostel room, the son cooking his father’s vegetarian food. He never married, but for 50 years Mrs Kaul lived with him with her husband and children, and ran his household. When she died, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi paid Vajpayee a condolence call.

In the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), this made Vajpayee an unusual figure, and more orthodox members lost no opportunity in maligning him for a lifestyle that was miles away from the pious guidelines the rest of them toed. As Ullekh writes, “Vajpayee alone could defy the RSS and get away with it.” One leading rival, Balraj Madhok (who charitably announced that “if Congress is malaria, Communists are the plague”), resented Vajpayee for a lifetime for his breezy successes in flouting dozens of rules while retaining full commitment from the RSS. Vajpayee’s ability to best better or at least more correct men with his charm, oratory, quiet shrewdness, and, most importantly his reputation for moderation, was hated by many but also became indispensable to the growth of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Vajpayee was certainly diplomatic but he could also pose as a liberal when it was opportune to seem one, and act as quite something else when it wasn’t. Whether one defines this as political pragmatism or insincerity depends on one’s own principles, but since politics is an exacting beast, we can only pass judgement in a certain context. Certainly, the BJP wouldn’t have risen in quite the way it did without Vajpayee—if a hard-boiled RSS egg like Madhok had wrested control from Vajpayee in 1968, this faction would have remained true to their basic principles but never won the respectability and wide acceptance that Vajpayee’s method invited from people who would otherwise have found those basic principles abhorrent.

Vajpayee himself seems to have known this. In the mid-1990s, when he won an award in Parliament, he said: “I am aware of my limitations and I recognize my faults. The adjudicators must have ignored my limitations and mistakes to select me. This is a wonderful, unique nation. You can even worship a stone by putting vermillion on it.” He meant it in another context, but Vajpayee, when situations demanded it, wore the vermillion and said strange things, and when it suited him, posed as a less threatening stone.

This is perhaps why the opposition, while willing to parley with him, remained suspicious that Vajpayee’s poetry and moderation were a mask to further his own ambitions in an arrangement that also furthered an odious agenda shaped by other forces—forces he could not entirely control. Some years after the destruction in Babri, Ullekh points out, a video emerged that has Vajpayee, on the eve of the tragedy, joking that the “earth has to be levelled” for any ceremony to be performed. He may not have known what was about to happen, but he was quite willing to add fuel to the fire with which others lit a blaze. This was also the prime minister who described the demand for a temple as “an expression of national sentiment which is yet to be fulfilled”. The only defence here is that other prime ministers too have played with fire, and regretted it.

Vajpayee did, for most part however, play the statesman and earn respect, though his power was incomplete. More impatient, more aggressive elements in his own party worked to push him aside—it was almost as if having come to power on the back of his appeal, they felt it was now time for real business. The constitutional review and its 1,979-page report went nowhere, though—while his party rebutted the Congress’ criticism with a document titled Let Facts Speak For Themselves, pointing out that party’s attempts to “thoroughly re-examine” the Constitution years before, the din was too loud. And in 2004, the BJP lost power, and Vajpayee dissolved into retirement and illness. Today the BJP is under a different leadership—what plans, if any, are proposed for the Constitution need to be seen.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 21 2017)


There is a goddess in Kerala who menstruates. The temple in Chengannur is officially dedicated to her consort, Mahadeva, but it is the bleeding image of the female deity that attracts masses of the faithful to the shrine. Every now and then a red spot “manifests” on the white cloth wrapped around the idol. The cloth is presented to females of an old Brahmin family who inspect it to verify whether or not the “blood” is divine discharge. If it is indeed what it is believed to be, fanfare commences—the deity is escorted to the riverside for a ritual wash before returning to her sanctum until the next spot necessitates her next bath.

Interestingly, the very Brahmin household that celebrates this menstruating goddess also supplies priests to another important temple in the state. But unlike the fecund goddess of Chengannur, the deity installed atop the Sabarimala hill is a bachelor who reportedly entertains reservations about receiving female worshippers if they happen to fall into the fertile age bracket. In other words, if you bleed, you cannot enjoy the privilege of an appointment with Ayyappan who, last weekend, watched over hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for the annual makara vilakku festival.

The legends of Ayyappan of Sabarimala form a fascinating, eclectic tradition, involving a romance between Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini), a Muslim associate who is commemorated in a nearby mosque, and an aspiring bride who awaits Ayyappan in her own temple. Then there is the “celestial flame”—the makara vilakku mentioned earlier—that appears every year in the far distance on a densely forested hill. The celestials lighting the fire turned out to be officials of the government, but the revelation hasn’t dulled Ayyappan’s massive appeal.

The custodians of his shrine, however, are determined about the rule concerning women. One particular woman called Trupti Desai is decidedly unwelcome. Some defend the custom by stressing Ayyappan’s bachelorhood—a weak argument since other Ayyappan shrines embrace all women, including those whose bodies perform certain periodic natural functions. Then there is the argument that it is not safe for women to go into the forest, which might have worked if we were still living in an age when roads and transport and the police were yet to be invented.

The principal argument, however, is that this particular Ayyappan does not receive women—each pratishtha or consecration of any deity has a sankalpa or founding belief specific to it, and for Sabarimala’s Ayyappan, unlike assorted Ayyappans in other districts, fertile women are taboo. Since keeping such women at bay is integral to the deity, it is the prerogative of his priests to uphold such integrity, they say. Priests can be forgiven for an exaggerated emphasis on tradition—that, after all, is their trade—but change in some form must prevail, if history is any lesson.

There were, after all, other temples in Kerala that prohibited certain groups. Kshatriyas were not permitted in Kumaranallur and Thrikkariyoor, while women (and for some reason, elephants) were barred from the temple in Thiruvalla—apparently one woman jumped into the garbha griha some time in prehistory and “merged” with the god. The priests banned women, possibly because they couldn’t brook such insolent short cuts to salvation. In 1968, however, astrologers decided that it was safe for the deity to be around women again and the ban was lifted. The case of the elephants is not known at this time. The case of Sabarimala, on the other hand, lies in the Supreme Court, where this conflict between something as amorphous as faith, and the law, which must be guided by reason to uphold fundamental rights, is being argued out. That will take its time but there have, interestingly, been comparable situations in the past where too custom was believed to be immutable, and any modern intervention deemed an improper assault on religious autonomy—but drastic intervention was made, and in hindsight has been accepted even by one-time detractors as essential.

In 1932, the maharaja of Travancore, alarmed by marginalized groups transferring their allegiance to non-Hindu religions, appointed a committee to consider granting them the dignity of access to temples. The committee’s report in 1934 was wishy-washy. “Exclusion from temples,” it claimed disingenuously, was “not always the result of the excluded class being considered inferior to others. It is based on a belief that the approach of certain people is likely to derogate from the spiritual atmosphere surrounding the pratishtha, the deity installed in the temple.”

In 1934, they meant low-castes in general entering all high-caste temples would have an impact on the founding principle of these temples; today in Sabarimala we believe that the approach of women will affect the religious foundations of that temple. “A large body of (high-caste folk) believe,” the report also added, “on the basis of the (scriptures), that the entry of the (low) into (their) temples would cause defilement of the temples…and there will be no efficacy in the worship or rites performed in them.” The report ended with a recommendation that the low should be provided “greater facilities” but care must also be taken that the orthodox were not hurt—the maharaja was to decide how far he wanted to go in making a concession.

As it happened, the maharaja went quite far. In 1936, he threw open public temples in Travancore (which covered parts of Tamil Nadu and all of southern Kerala) to Hindus of all castes, allowing the “low” to enter temples and pray before the gods. The Hindu religion did not crumble into defiled dust. Though its intention was to check conversions to rival faiths, the Temple Entry Proclamation was hailed as a historic reform, from Mahatma Gandhi to C. Rajagopalachari. Ambedkar, of course, could see that this had little to do with reform and more with political calculations, but that is another matter. At the end of the day, there is precedent for the executive intervening in religious affairs in Kerala and issuing reforms that the conservative priesthood would never have allowed. The big irony in Sabarimala with its priests is, of course, that they will accept a menstruating goddess but stand in the way of menstruating humans. Someone must show them the way.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 14 2017)


When Jyotirao Phule embarked with his partner, Savitribai, on their journey to promote radical reform, he had already smashed the social shackles that came with being the son of a greengrocer and the grandson of a gardener in orthodox Pune. This was a boy who received a rudimentary education in Marathi, found himself married before 13 to a bride of 8, and who then resumed his education in a Christian mission school at the insistence of a Muslim neighbour. While “correct” behaviour would have been to quietly keep stock of pulses and vegetables, he digested Thomas Paine’s The Age Of Reason and charted a course of his own, asking all those inconvenient questions that reason sparks in sensible people.

Jyotirao must have been an unusual man at the time for transmitting the ideas he absorbed to his wife. They were just on either side of 20 when they set up an institution for girls in 1848, dismissing conservative melodrama against female education as “idiotic beliefs”. That was revolutionary enough, but this thinker who drew inspiration from George Washington and dedicated his most important book—Gulamgiri (1873)—to “the good people of the United States” for eliminating slavery, then went on to establish a school for “untouchables”. This in a city where, till recently, the Peshwas had commanded the “lowborn” to move around with brooms tied to their waists so that the ritual defilement they brought into town could also be brushed away after every polluting step.

The Peshwas—hereditary ministers—had woven a great deal of princely myth around their high-born persons at the cost of their original middle-caste royal patrons, the descendants of the Maratha king Shivaji. Jyotirao dusted up in the dialect of the poor (which was thought crude) the tales of Shivaji’s valour, casting him as a protector of peasants and upholder of the rights of the weak. His irate respondents reacted with the more enduring construction of Shivaji as a protector of sacred cows. Jyotirao didn’t care. When the Brahmins claimed that they were high because they were born from Brahma’s mouth, Jyotirao asked if the creator also menstruated from that general area, before deploying Darwin to demolish his scandalized interlocutors. Because Jyotirao was a man, and a fairly influential man with access to the British, it was Savitribai who often faced physical retaliation for their work. This came in the form of being pelted with dung while she walked to their controversial schools, for example. She remained undaunted. In a village outside Pune, an untouchable girl got pregnant with her upper-caste lover. Lynching was proposed—the boy for disgracing his family’s honour and the girl for being disgrace itself—when Savitribai appeared. “I came to know about their murderous plan,” she wrote to her husband, “(and) rushed to the spot and scared (the mob) away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under the British law.”

Naturally, many grumbled that with his tributes to the West, Jyotirao was an unpatriotic lackey. As it happened, he cheerfully exasperated the British too. In 1888 they extended to Jyotirao the honour of an invitation to dine with the Duke of Connaught. Jyotirao accepted, only to horrify his Victorian friends by arriving in peasant’s garb, with a torn shawl his chief accessory. He proceeded to lecture Queen Victoria’s grandson that he must not mistake his dinner companions as representative of India—it was the voiceless poor who were the soul of the land. On another occasion, when the Poona municipality sought to demonstrate loyalty to the governor of Bombay through a 1,000-rupee present, Jyotirao alone among 32 members opposed the idea, insisting that the money be spent on something more worthwhile than fanning the already inflated vanity of an Englishman: education.

He was upset with the colonial tendency to privilege Indian elites even in Western schooling. What “contribution”, he asked, “have these (elites) made to the great work of regenerating their fellowmen? How have they begun to act upon the masses? Have any of them formed classes at their own homes or elsewhere, for the instruction of their less fortunate or less wise countrymen? Or have they kept their knowledge to themselves, as a personal gift, not to be soiled by contact with the ignorant vulgar? Have they in any way shown themselves anxious to advance the general interests and repay the philanthropy with patriotism? Upon what grounds is it asserted that the best way to advance the moral and intellectual welfare of the people is to raise the standard of instruction among the higher classes? A glorious argument this for aristocracy, were it only tenable!”

When Jyotirao died, many thought the nuisance had finally withdrawn to the grave. Savitribai, however, continued to irritate the elders, breaching convention yet again by not only appearing at her dead husband’s cremation, but by also lighting the pyre. She died seven years later in the great plague of 1897, but many remembered her across western India and beyond on her birth anniversary last week through the rousing anthem she left: May all our sorrows and plight disappear/Let the Brahmin not come in our way/With this war cry, awaken!/Strive for education/Overthrow the slavery of tradition/Arise to get education.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 06 2017)


Shortly before the New Year, passed the death anniversary of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), the imperialist Indians of most political shades love to hate. Only infrequently is he remembered in the land of his birth, but in India, even the Internet generation has heard of Macaulay—once lampooned by the Tory press as a “shapeless little dumpling”—thanks to a quote widely ascribed to him. And like most controversies widely ascribed in the Internet age to historical figures, this one too is a fabrication, intended to outrage thin-skinned sensibilities while reinforcing right-wing resurrections of lost glories.

“I have travelled across the length and breadth of India,” Macaulay apparently declared, “and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and therefore I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture, and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

Like most humans, Macaulay was a man who said and did a number of contradictory things, some of which were wholly unpleasant in historical retrospect. And while he did institute a new (enduring) education system in India and introduce the language in which we transact national business—English—we can be sure that he would never have endorsed the backhanded compliments featuring in that spurious quote. On the contrary, he despised all things Indian and spent a career admonishing Orientalists enamoured of Sanskrit and other subcontinental charms for wasting their time on “a people who have much in common with children” (and therefore begged for imperial supervision).

Indian music, for instance, Macaulay dismissed as “deplorably bad”—the only unresolved question was whether it was vocal or instrumental music that was worse. All the Hindu gods were “hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble”—Ganapati was “a fat man with a paunch”. Even the better variety of Indian lacked sophistication—a glance at the furniture in the Mysore maharaja’s drawing room horrified Macaulay into comparing His Highness to “a rich, vulgar Cockney cheesemonger”. But most preposterous of all was his hatred of tropical fruits—the mango, for example, was as appetizing as “honey and turpentine”.

Macaulay was a creation of his times, both in terms of his racism and his conviction that Britain “ruled only to bless”. But before he became the scheming imperialist of Indian contestations, Macaulay was that young parliamentarian who campaigned for Jews to be able to sit in the House of Commons. He was that parvenu idealist who penetrated the aristocracy and fought to abolish slavery. Ruin, he warned, was the fate of those “who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age”. And after he left India, he became a prolific writer, whose History Of Englandbecame a best-seller in America even as it upset Marx (who thought Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history”) in England itself.

Macaulay came to India with prejudice in his mind, condescension in his pen—and because he was offered a salary 10 times what London provided, with many servants. He championed unpopular changes: The Indian Penal Code was the result of his labours, and remains the backbone of our legal system, despite its many unIndian provisions. The Indian Civil Service too, from which are descended today’s bureaucrats, was designed by Macaulay. But it was his Minute On Education (1835) that cast his name in stone.

Till Macaulay’s arrival, the East India Company supported what it deemed traditional Indian education in Sanskrit and Persian (i.e. education for an Indian elite, around whom other Indians had no chance). Activists in Bengal, including the likes of Rammohan Roy, were already clamouring for access to Western schooling, and Macaulay was a godsend. “Does it matter in what grammar a man talks nonsense?” he thundered. “With what purity of diction he tells us that the world is surrounded by a sea of butter?” It was not the business of government to watch students “waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat”.

Instead, Macaulay decided, Indians must learn mathematics, geography, science—and they would learn it in English. Far from singing praises of Indian culture, he saw it as British destiny to bring modernity to India. “It may be,” he announced with patronizing sincerity, “that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having been instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions.” And whenever that time came, “it will be the proudest day in English history”.

Macaulay succeeded in replacing Brahminical education with Western institutions, throwing open schools to all Indians. They could recite the Vedas at home, but at school, children would absorb the fruit of European modernity. Nativists resented Macaulay but there were others in India who embraced his presumptions—after all, a Jyotirao Phule, son of a gardener, could never have entered a Sanskrit school, but he was welcome in an English institution. He had no compunctions about being a Macaulayputra when the alternative was demeaning drudgery in the gardens of the upper caste, who only looked less haughty than Englishmen because they were brown.

India was merely one remunerative chapter in Macaulay’s life as a writer, parliamentarian, and public intellectual in England. And for all the debate his legacy provokes here among those who feel he manufactured a deracinated new elite, and those who owe their escape from the clutches of oppression to him, Macaulay himself would never concede he made a mistake. In the end, he died before his 60th birthday, very possibly sexually repressed, and concerned not about his disputed bequest to India but dreading impending separation from the person he most adored, his sister Hannah. She then came to Madras as the wife of another controversial English grandee. But that is another story.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 31 2016)

Sometime ago I went to watch an atrocious Hindi movie called Mirzya, perhaps the worst specimen Bollywood produced in the last 12 months when it wasn’t being dragooned into seeking the “blessings” of local brutes for undisturbed releases. It took a while, though, for the audience to accept that the film was unfolding disaster, mainly because, at first glance, it was breathtaking. Each frame was visual delight, much like viewing exquisite landscapes through amplified Instagram filters. Halfway in, however, it became clear that despite the splendid settings, all hopes of a story emerging were futile, for the whole project dozed lazily on the back of its impressive cinematography. And on the charms of its actors pouting and posing in appealing fashions. When the movie began, the cinema hall was plump with hope; by the middle, it was clear that the ordeal was winding towards an eminently deserved flop.

Looking back at 2016, the tale of the government of India follows a corresponding line—much posing and grandstanding, but lacking that small thing we call a plot. Given this regime’s predictable propensities, the first defence tossed up is that if a plot is nowhere to be found, the blame lies with the depredations of the Congress for 60 years. And after much mournful head-shaking about the sins of a wicked dynasty, we are pointed towards the latest good intentions announced by our noble Prime Minister, who also wins in the department of being able to conjure up diverse emotions in stunning succession—defiant laughter when demonetization was received with obvious alarm, for example, and tears when this “surgical strike on black money” commenced its own inevitable spiral towards a tragic flop.

Demonetisation was probably expected to provide one of those mythical “big bang reforms” to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s clamouring constituencies, crowning also the government’s high-decibel, minimum-result quest against illicit wealth. Given the vacuum that is the intellectual reserve of the ultra-right in India, it is a given that the “next big idea” will not soar majestically out of their stables. But with all the overworked economic jargon in recent years, one would have expected at least one or two fully-baked financial proposals. Instead, what we have as 2016 inches to a shaky conclusion is a farce. And the government knows this—what was ostensibly a “war on black money” has been hastily reassembled as a vision to “make India digital”. After all what is the point of having a face if one can’t save it.

The authorities remain undefeated in inventing slogans too, but I wonder if Modi’s endeavour is to retire in history as the BJP’s reaction to Jawaharlal Nehru (with the enthusiastic, even if confused, emphasis on foreign policy) or Indira Gandhi (with all the centralization of power). Or perhaps it is P.V. Narasimha Rao he seeks to emulate, though if 8 November is any evidence, he isn’t going down as an economic mastermind after wiping out 86% of the national cash and forgetting about the little matter of replacing it. The best that can be done this New Year’s eve, given the circumstances, is to grin and bear it and join the government in twiddling our thumbs, chanting the word “progress” in the hope that progress actually makes up its mind to follow.

The irony is that in 2014 Modi took power promising Indians the moon that the Congress unjustly eclipsed for six decades. Nobody, though, warned us that after 10 quiet years with Manmohan Singh we would have a leader anxious to speak on radio, on TV, at live concerts, through mobile phone apps, and on other assorted forums except, of course, in Parliament. There he prefers to rest his voice—a clever strategy that once again this year exposed a fragmented opposition while Modi cornered stoic dignity for the cameras. In the meantime, we aren’t anywhere closer to the moon. And while the government lobbies obstinate ratings agencies to grant its lethargic performance a higher grade, there are methods to erase from public discourse all talk of the sputtering India story by replacing past promises with 24×7 distractions.

For instance, the aggressive tests of who is and isn’t with “the nation”—the latter were informed through the usual TV channels that they might find Pakistan more hospitable and should consider emigration. University students found themselves at the receiving end of new lessons in character building—it was the old way to believe that academic spaces were open to debate and dissent, where outrageous ideas are defeated by better thinking. Tall flags are being installed on campuses to impart to students the significance of loyalty to tangible establishments like the state, as opposed to refractory illusions of free thought. Free expression didn’t take Rohith Vemula far, after all, and Najeeb Ahmed is still missing—better to become uncomplaining bricklayers for “the nation” envisioned by the “pradhan sewak”.

This preference for compliance, which was pushed a little more this year and will continue making inroads in the next (through the systematic crippling, for example, of NGOs), comes, like all things in the BJP, from tradition. This was highlighted by the estimable M.S. Golwalkar, second “supreme leader” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who wrote at length on how democracy is actually a dreadful, horrid idea. It would, he believed, “poison the peace and tranquillity of the human mind” and “disrupt the mutual harmony of individuals in society”. Leaders must be worshipped and supported, not questioned. Golwalkar, in fact, celebrated monarchy as “a highly beneficial institution…showering peace and prosperity on the whole of our people”.

We can look forward in 2017 to more “tranquillity” and “mutual harmony” in the way of monarchs, and as with that awful movie mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister will be there to strike poses and give us sentimental speeches while his cheerleaders desperately scout for that elusive thing: an actual plot.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 24 2016)


“There is no god. There is no god at all. He who created god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian.” I was reminded of this refreshingly blunt mantra of Periyar’s last weekend at a discussion on “contrarian views” at the Bangalore Literature Festival, not because the idea of god was under investigation, but because we live in times when scrutiny of even powerful mortals is deemed “contrarian” when really it is just an application of common sense. As an apoplectic member of the audience told one of the panellists off for daring to present a dissenting opinion “while soldiers are dying on the border” etc., I wondered what Periyar, born E.V. Ramasamy Naicker in 1879, would have said if someone asked him to swallow his voice because it was the fashion of the day to obey like good children and to think inside the box.

Today is the anniversary of Periyar’s death in 1973, and one can’t help but imagine him leading the ranks of raging “anti-nationals”. He had come close enough already in the age of the Mahatma, against whom he maintained a catalogue of disagreements, declaring that Independence Day was really “a day of mourning”. On another occasion, he thought the Constitution deserved all the honour that came from being burnt.

Anti-national was not the favourite term for those who refused to follow the herd in Periyar’s time, but he was something perhaps even more unusual: He was the anti-Gandhi. Those who were privileged could stomach Gandhi, while Periyar gave them a severe case of indigestion. And yet many Indians of his day embraced him and millions celebrated his rationality instead of falling in line with what venerable elders chastely decided was “proper”.

Where Gandhi was the embodiment of saintly piety, Periyar exemplified rebellion. Where Gandhi romanticized rural contentment, Periyar envisioned an ambitious age of aircrafts and heavy machinery. While Gandhi renounced sex in his 30s, Periyar married a 30-year-old in his 70s. When Gandhi’s satyagrahis in white stood up to British tyrants, Periyar excoriated the very Indian tyranny of caste by leading his Self-Respect Movement in black. Where the Mahatma’s nationalism was immersed in Hindu morality, Periyar was an atheist who wrote op-eds titled “Honeymoon In The Hindu Zoo”. Gandhi spent a lifetime seeking to tame the flesh while Periyar flaunted it (and had himself photographed) among like-minded nudists abroad. And where Gandhi was cremated like a good Hindu, Periyar was buried, flouting every dictum issued by his forefathers, who were not beyond reproach.

Gandhi celebrated Sita as the embodiment of Indian womanhood with all her purity and self-sacrifice, while Periyar declared the Ramayan to be full of “absurdities”, with quite a different sequence of superlatives for its heroine. Gandhi painted visions of ideal women, while Periyar warned ordinary women to beware of deification. “Have cats ever freed rats? Have foxes ever liberated goats or chickens?” he asked. “Have whites ever enriched Indians? Have Brahmins ever given non-Brahmins justice? We can be confident that women will never be emancipated by men.” Gandhi thought motherhood was divine and spiritual; Periyar saw pregnancy and childbirth as “impediments to liberty and independence”, promoting birth control even if it came at the expense of womanly salvation. Against Gandhi’s sage-like pronouncements, Periyar was branded immoral. “Morality,” he wryly remarked, “cannot be one-way traffic.”

So too with nationalism—now available in your nearest movie theatre—was Periyar irreverent. He viewed it as finely woven, brilliantly designed deception, diverting masses of people from the real state of affairs, sometimes through emotional blackmail and sometimes through the intoxications of pride, and keeping them from checking the book of democratic accounts. He was suspicious of saints, arguing that Gandhi, with his “religious guise, god-related discourse, constant mention of truth, non-violence, satyagraha, purifying of the heart, the power of the spirit, sacrifice and penance on the one hand, and the propaganda of his followers…who in the name of politics and the nation consider him to be a rishi, a sage, Christ, the Prophet, a Mahatma…and an avatar of Vishnu”, had become “a political dictator”.

Gandhi, to him, sought freedom from the British but feared social upheaval at home even if it offered greater justice—he preferred order over equality. “A bhangi does for society what a mother does for a baby,” claimed Gandhi patronizingly, seeking “the beauty of compromise” in social dynamics between the low, who had answers to seek, and the high, who had much to lose. Periyar ached for radical action, once recommending that “if you have to choose between killing a Brahmin or a snake, spare the snake”. Gandhi thought “life without religion is a life without principle” and that education must never lose sight of its moral responsibilities. Periyar believed that the “worship of god, practice of religion, propitiation of rulers, which are all calculated to keep men in mental slavery, should never (even) enter the portals of education”.

Periyar was the enfant terrible of his time, puncturing with unafraid focus holy narratives of India’s destiny at a time when the Mahatma was convinced of this destiny. He was a contrarian, and was branded worse, but Indians of his time absorbed his thought just as they embraced Gandhi’s vision. He was handicapped, perhaps, by language and, besides, political incorrectness hardly makes for a great career. But sitting in Bengaluru listening to even the most elementary expressions of common sense provoke admonishments, I wished we had a Periyar here again, not to set the cat among the mice but to hold up a mirror and to remind us that there is always another way, and that we must sometimes stop following and start thinking.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 17 2016)


I was 11 years old when, in accordance with astrological counsel, chief minister Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu became chief minister Jayalalithaa in that very land where Periyar once acidly denounced peddlers of such counsel as “arch exploiters” and “parasites”. Of course, changing one’s name can be defended as an entirely private concern, and in any case Jayalalithaa really entered my personal universe not on account of her reported enthusiasm for numerology, but when, that same year in 2001, she imprisoned the antagonist of her political universe, M. Karunanidhi, in one of the more infamous episodes in their long-running vendetta.

It was my then best friend Venkatesh R. who transported the news from his Tamil household in a mood of great agitation, which was difficult to take seriously from a classmate who otherwise only demonstrated such feelings when dealing with fractions and the decimal system. I carried my observations on his odd behaviour to my not-too-politically-inclined mother, who informed me that the lady in question owned 750 pairs of shoes (one wonders if her long-time aide and that one-time video-renting entrepreneur Sasikala will fill all the shoes in question if she does succeed in gripping the AIADMK party by the horns.)

I was older by the time I discovered that Jayalalithaa was more than the sum of her shoes and numerological beliefs, and that this pale woman of ample proportions who animated an entire state and its people for decades had, like all human beings, layers to her personality—leaving out the rumoured bullet-proof vest—and facets that were fascinating, inspiring, frequently disturbing, but marked with that complicated quality known as determination. Of course, given that even the world’s great villains have volumes of determination, this is no exoneration of the imperiousness, that tendency to bully the press, and those instances of blinding ostentation that deserved the electoral disasters they showered upon Jayalalithaa on more than one occasion.

She was a film star once, I learnt, who ran around trees and batted her eyelashes while actors lifetimes older lip-synced songs about the ecstasy of youth. She wasn’t naturally inclined towards such graceful prancing, having shown early on as a child an inclination towards a more studious professional future. But compulsions facing her mother and the need for money meant that plans for university were discarded and the trees and colourful sets of Tamil cinema became the backdrop for the early period of her career. She became a (heavily made-up) star on screen, translating thereafter, like her predecessor at the helm of the party, MGR, the hero worship this inspires into astonishing political success (minus the make-up).

She had to win battles, like everyone in public life, but as a woman in a world structured for men, her battles were doubly challenging. She didn’t emerge kinder for the experience, though, welding armour instead around her battle-scarred person, and behaving largely like those very men who resented her. She manifested arrogance, about which one could be sympathetic by viewing it as a reaction to the trauma she faced in the defining years of her political career. But she wasn’t the type who sought sympathy either, seeking to be worshipped but also feared, more an empress than an accountable democrat. She cared for her people, but as a grand matriarch would for subjects and not as an elected official with a time-bound mandate.

That Jayalalithaa had tremendous intelligence and ruled well—and I don’t think populism is an entirely misguided concept—in great measure is certain. That, however, she demanded unquestioning obedience suggests that instead of creating institutions, she installed herself as the premier institution in sight. Many who venture political opinions called her a venal tyrant, rejecting her narrative of the lone warrior prevailing against odds that appeared in male (and legal) avatars. Middle-class frustration was vocal as she cornered the limelight that power invites, but only made choreographed appearances under it. She revelled in her status as puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader), and tolerated nothing that challenged her role as the goddess of millions who made good policy while also dispensing reliable mixer-grinders.

Strong women are good for societies such as ours which still privilege a very male vocabulary of power. And I grew to admire Jayalalithaa and the personal story, with all those ingredients of grit and resolve, of the woman who rose to these heights, inspiring others to also fight their battles undaunted. But it is Jayalalithaa’s political legacy that must now stand scrutiny. For she did much good as an administrator but could not rise beyond herself and create something that could outlive her—she was a phenomenon and with her passing dies also the ideology that energized her followers for years: an ideology contained within the numerologically sound 12 alphabets that constituted her name.

Much has been written of men who rotated at Jayalalithaa’s feet, but not enough has been said about how few were the women she brought into positions of power. She carved out for herself an indelible niche, but didn’t create an enduring space so that others could reach where she did, less bitterly and with fewer battles on the way. If a woman does find her way to a niche somewhere close in terms of power even if not immediate appeal, that would be through the transformation of chinamma Sasikala into general secretary Sasikala of the AIADMK, a production currently underway, the prospects of which we must wait to watch.