(My column in Mint Lounge, August 05 2017)


It took several decades and as many lifetimes for India to win independence in 1947. But the journey was all the more exacting for having to marshal Indians together for a common cause, above multiple identities and layers of difference. Despite romantic memories of civilizational unity expressed in our ancient epics, the stark historical reality was that Delhi had more in common with Kabul than it did with the south, and that Kerala was more familiar with Arabia than it was with fellow “Indians” in Karnataka. Brahmins, who learnt Sanskrit and venerated the same texts, knitted some common threads throughout the subcontinent, but in Varanasi alone there were dozens of varieties of this class, and their everyday practices mutated from region to region—while most Tamil Brahmins grew their tuft of hair at the back, the Malayali Brahmin wore it in the front; where Iyengar women saw white as the colour of widowhood, the Namboothiri bride wore nothing but white to her wedding pavilion.

What arguably united such stark diversities of people was the common enemy they all confronted in the British and the unambiguous damage inflicted on India by the Raj. As someone once remarked, “It is not so much sympathy with one’s fellows as much as hostility towards the outsider that makes for nationalism.” And so, over a period of time, we evolved a sense of common feeling rooted in a fight against prejudice and for political autonomy. We were able to rise above difference (avoiding, however, as B.R. Ambedkar lamented, painful but necessary internal reform) and focus on expelling the colonizer. And when the process inspired positive moral confidence, it became compelling enough for V.D. Savarkar to even claim that a sentiment of brotherhood had always run “like a vital spinal cord” through the land, making “the Nayars of Malabar weep over the sufferings of the Brahmins of Kashmir”—when in all likelihood the Nairs had little knowledge of where precisely Kashmir was or what its Brahmins were doing.

The departure of the British, however, withdrew the enemy from our horizon—we now sought renewed vision to sustain national feeling against smaller, but more convenient, local options. Jawaharlal Nehru plastered the slogan “Unity in Diversity” on walls and in textbooks, and brought into force a Constitution that respects, and indeed celebrates, difference. The principle was that we could all continue to embrace our various identities—Gujarati or Santhal, Muslim or Zoroastrian—while staying wedded to the national consensus that is India. “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians,” a 19th century European statesman had remarked, but in 20th century South Asia, Indians arrived in all shapes, colours and languages, united, not divided, by pluralism. Of course, this was always the ideal, and from the starting moment various forces chipped away at it, sometimes even employing instruments of state power. Pluralism too was often a romantic smokescreen for bleak realities.

The real challenge to pluralism, however, has come from those who promote a more orthodox vision of nationalism, though, ironically, they had little to do with the battles for freedom. “Such identity,” historian Romila Thapar notes, “tends to iron out diversity and insists on conformity”—in other words, pluralism is weakness. In this new vision, there must be one paramount “Indian” nationalism—us or them, not us and them—and this is offered in that all-too-familiar shape of Hindu majoritarianism. In 1881, the census declared Hindus “a Socio-Political classification” that included “the whole of the people who recognize caste”. For neo-nationalists, however, the formula to cement strength is a particularly reactionary perversion of Hinduism. A tradition that is a fascinating “mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas” (including contradictory ideas) is being regimented to address contemporary needs, and nationalism must follow this pattern of one definition, one form, and one loyalty.

Naturally, this calls for a new structure and a new vocabulary of Hindu identity, featuring certain sacred books, fewer gods, and a standardization of practice that sometimes goes against India’s own manifest heritage in its quest to service an overarching, recently invented cause. So we must all be Hindus who do not eat beef (though several castes happily did in the past) and should avoid meat in general (though a number of Brahmin communities too are non-vegetarian). Our nationalism must have a fixed language—Sanskrit is ideal but in the interim, Hindi will do. And then dress codes, social behaviour, and much else must also fall in line, creating more a sharp machine to negotiate aspirations (and nurse insecurities) born of modernity than an organic people who live, breathe and prosper. The former offers efficiency, the latter is slow and chaotic—we are told we must choose, or we must go.

One-size-fits-all rules, however, have an endearing tendency to backfire in India. And 70 years of officially promoting diversity means that attempting to reverse the flow and manufacture a narrow brand of nationalism will provoke challenges if not long-term disaster—where, for instance, Hindi nationalism is force-fed from Delhi, the powers in Karnataka respond with a Kannada-oriented sub-nationalism that would even like its own flag. If the idea is to create an “us or them” with the “majority” on one side, and the minority as the enemy within, the architects of this scheme will discover too many “thems” sown into the fabric of the majority itself.

The historical lesson is clear—there was a reason why in 1947 we prevented nationalism from distorting into an ugly political beast, and envisioned it as a more malleable reflection of our multiple realities. Now to re-engineer this mature, long-standing policy in black and white will only prove calamitous, showing that far from making in India, what we will end up doing is breaking India.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 29 2017)


India has a long tradition of bright minds poking holes in some distinctly un-bright ideas. And one such mind lived over eight centuries ago in the south, blowing a hole so large through that disastrous institution called caste that a flood of people—about 6.5 million today—escaped the old order, arriving at an identity of their own. Of course, this identity, when formalized, invited its own peculiarities and contradictions, but now, as a section of the Lingayat community seeks legal recognition as a faith outside all-subsuming Hinduism, custodians of the majoritarian cause are gripped by understandable anxiety. And this despite the feelings that Basava, the 12th century intellectual preceptor of the Lingayats, expressed about such self-appointed custodians in his own day. “Loaded with the burden of the Vedas,” he pithily remarked, “the Brahmin is a veritable donkey.”

Basava could get away with saying outrageous things because he himself was a Brahmin. But he was a Brahmin repulsed by Brahminism, and the intellectual and material debilitations wreaked on society by caste. “False, utterly false,” he declared, “are the stories of divine birth. The higher type of man is the man who knows himself.” His was a kind of humanism that rejected man-made inequalities justified in the name of the divine, wedded though it was to the worship of Shiva. “On the same earth stands,” one of his vachanas goes, “the outcaste’s hovel, and the deity’s temple. Whether for ritual or rinsing, is not the water same?” So too, just like the outcaste Chandala, the Brahmin too was born from a human womb. Or “is there anybody in the world,” asked Basava, “delivered through the ear?” Those who were meant to supply the answer stewed instead in anger.

Basava, son of Madiraja and Madalambike, was born around 1105 in Bagewadi. Poets subsequently embellished his tale with typical apocryphal excess—that his arrival was a boon from Shiva, or that the baby only opened his eyes when an image of the deity was dangled before him. But myth-making aside, the boy was sharp—at 16, he discarded the Brahminical thread, and by 28 he was clear in his vision of a society without caste. In the fashion of his day, the vocabulary of his reform was also religious. And so Basava sought to break the monopoly temples and priests had over god by popularizing the portable Ishtalinga, a symbol of Shiva worn around the neck. From his centre in Kudalasangama, the idea of the temple was diluted, as was the popularity of polytheism. “Gods here, gods there, with no space for our feet!” Basava exclaimed. Shiva alone was, he felt, a truly divine force in an ocean of pointless divinities, and Shiva became to Basava what Krishna would be to Meera.

But then Basava, who had simultaneously been a career bureaucrat since 1132, having advanced from royal accountant to chief minister at the tumultuous, fractious court in Kalyan, went one step too far. Already, his Hall of Experience (Anubhava Mantapa) attracted men and women from all castes to meet freely and to express radical new thought with even greater liberty. Then he proceeded to eat meals with untouchables, flouting age-old law. What could have been written off essentially as a new, somewhat irritating Shiva cult now began to shake the very pillars on which powerful social hierarchies were perched. “Today he dines with (the lowborn). Tomorrow he will encourage mixed marriages,” vented the orthodox, fearing “caste mix-up” and the “utter ruination” of the status quo. Their fears were, as it happens, valid, for Basava did proceed to intermarriage. The king was prevailed upon to warn his minister to behave—and the king was politely disobeyed.

The event was seminal—and not just because it was happening in 1167 in a country where inter-caste unions still provoke violence and murder in the 21st century. The daughter of a Brahmin called Madhuvarasa was wedded to the son of Haralayya, an untouchable. The monarch and the establishment were apoplectic—the respective fathers, it is said, had their eyes gouged out, after which they were thrown under elephants to painfully meet their maker, casteless in death. Basava himself survived the calamity, but the whole of the kingdom descended into political chaos (chaos which was building also on account of other factors—after all, Basava was a political figure too, and politically motivated charges of corruption, for instance, had been used to topple his reform movement earlier). The last thing the king wanted on his hands at a time of turmoil was social disorder. Basava’s career ended, and he returned from Kalyan to Kudalasangama, to the riverside where he had first declared his love for Shiva.

The man did not live for long afterwards, however, and for over two centuries after his death in 1168, his sharanas (followers) kept the movement alive but quiet. It was only in the 15th century that the Lingayat identity reasserted itself after one of their own became minister to the Vijayanagara king. By now Basava’s vachanas had been compiled, and the movement invested with a structure of its own. In order to survive, however, a certain accommodation with the Brahminical order was arrived at, essentially turning the Lingayats into one of the very many other castes that existed in Indian society. To Basava himself, such an ironic compromise might have seemed unfortunate, but he had long departed and those left behind had to be pragmatic in the face of hostility. Now, several centuries later, as they seek a second divorce from the Hindu fold, it is the latter who must find an accommodation, seeking to retain Basava’s children within their order, not so much due to a difference of vision as much as due to the plain demands of numbers and the everyday expediencies of calculated politics.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 22 2017)


In 1903, one of Kerala’s earliest advocates of the freedom of the press, K. Ramakrishna Pillai, issued a lamentation that suggests he was not necessarily as convinced an advocate for feminist thought. “Oh…the predicament you have reached!” he cried, with reference to his coastal homeland. “You who were governed by noble ministers with high ideals…what sin have you done to be trapped under the misgovernment of a wicked minister taken in by female charms!” His intention was to sharpen his attack on the local maharaja’s controversial chief minister, but it was also an attack on an attractive woman—a public performer—who had evidently ensnared the old man with her treacherous charms. His proof? Her visit to Thiruvananthapuram drew in sensational crowds, and the delighted minister had presented her a gold chain—by publicly placing it around her neck.

Pillai ascribed to the lady in question, the scholar Udaya Kumar notes, a “destructive, seductive spell” that combined “the perilous allure of theatrical exposure…manipulative charms and sexual promiscuity” to “capture in her net the very authorities who (were) meant to protect the public” from everything she represented—female individuality, sexual autonomy, and the stage. As with all women performers of her time, scandal was firmly entangled with her appeal—an appeal that saw special trains organized to convey admirers to her shows. And it was not the first time she had provoked suspicion: The maharaja himself was “much pleased with her” (which was interpreted as nocturnal pleasure), and so, as Rupika Chawla records, when she sought to commission the court painter Ravi Varma for a portrait, his brother displayed “intense disapproval”, fearing it would affect the artist’s own reputation and dignity.

But such pronounced scandal surrounding Balamani of Kumbakonam eclipsed much of what she represented, and the rich, tragic accumulation of experience that is her story—a story that has found at last a masterly storyteller in Veejay Sai and his delightful Drama Queens. Scholarly in his scope, Sai presents Balamani at the forefront of his 10 profiles, as the first of many remarkable women who challenged “heteropatriarchy”—and who, for their pains, often received, in return, ignominy and obscurity. Even though Balamani was, as Sai writes, “fortressed amongst a thousand anecdotes”, it “is almost impossible to believe a character like her lived in the remote south”, where today she is largely forgotten. But this was a talented woman who could leave fans ecstatic across the peninsula, even as she pursued an intellectual mission to reinvent on the modern stage, as she remarked to a contemporary, “the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays”.

Balamani was a woman of ambition and resolve, determined to transport the art she had inherited as a devadasi to wider audiences in imaginative forms. Breaking out of the temple, she became among the earliest to establish a formal enterprise: the Balamani Drama Company. She was the first, Sai says, to introduce Petromax lighting onstage, just as she was the earliest to allot ladies-only spaces at her ticketed performances. Her entire venture was a female-run organization, and while others like the Kannamani and Danivambal companies of the same late 19th century period also followed this pattern, what distinguished Balamani was her preference for destitute women, who had been disenfranchised by anti-devadasilegislation. Her company, it has been noted, was in fact “almost an asylum for women who needed shelter and security”. Of course, none of this alleviated the stigma that came with being “the dancing girl” of Kumbakonam, but Balamani flourished as a businesswoman, a patron of the arts, and an individual of singular personality.

As an artist too, she was inventive. She was, Sai points out, a pioneer in taking up “social themes in Tamil theatre” and moving beyond mythology into fresher genres—a detective play she performed was later adapted for film. Infatuated poets and musicians composed pieces extolling her beauty and one such javali was later sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi for the gramophone. Instead of seeking approval from the orthodox by shoring up pious “respectability”, Balamani was what is pejoratively termed “bold” and could cleverly execute a nude scene in a play—naturally, the play was later banned for this very reason by thin-skinned men of less “bold” persuasions. Success also brought in its wake much wealth—Balamani drove in silver carriages and presided over a mansion staffed by 50 servitors (again, rehabilitated women).

But it also wove through Balamani’s life debates on censorship, the social challenge from the Brahminization of the arts, and of course the anomaly of a successful working woman who had the capacity to claim that prized patriarchal prize: a legacy.

Patriarchy, however, wouldn’t be patriarchy if it allowed a challenge like that absolute success. “History and fate turned cruel to Balamani,” Sai says, though her solitude in a world designed for men did its own damage. The years passed, and she aged. Her sense of charity, which included getting young girls married and settling them with handsome dowries, led to financial calamity. She, who lived in gardens surrounded by peacocks and deer, moved impoverished to overcrowded Madurai—when Balamani died in 1935, it took an old, loyal associate to collect money from well-wishers to pay for her cremation.

But somewhere, the flame was kept alive. As the French novelist Pierre Loti recorded in her heyday, “The poor know the road to her house well enough.” And it was among those poor that Balamani’s name survived, awaiting its resurrection in a lovely book housing memories of nine more women, with nine more tales, all marked by many triumphs but also great tragedy.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 15 2017)


Jumping to conclusions, admittedly, is a very naughty predilection. And so when the Indian Council of Philosophical Research convenes a seminar to discuss, “in a holistic way”, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue M.S. Golwalkar’s “much misunderstood and maligned” views on nationalism, we must welcome the intention instead of succumbing to outrage on autopilot. Indeed, in the run-up to this seminar—papers had to be submitted by 27 June—we must make every effort to study Golwalkar’s writings in order to enlighten ourselves in the “proper context”, opening our minds to his idea of dharmocracy and to the possibility that we might learn something new. Where else, then, to begin but with Golwalkar’s Bunch Of Thoughts, which this columnist revisited with unashamed enthusiasm for this very purpose.

Since nationalism is the issue under debate, let us start there. Territorial nationalism is, to Golwalkar, the worst by-product of modernity. “It is like attempting to create a novel animal by joining the head of a monkey and the legs of a bullock to the trunk of an elephant!” Such “unnatural, unscientific” efforts to mechanically unite territories can only result in a “hideous corpse”. And the sole resultant activity, he adds colourfully, is that of “germs and bacteria breeding in (a) decomposing” polity. Instead, we must acknowledge that a nation is “not a mere bundle of political and economic rights”—it entails culture as well. And in India, this culture is “ancient and sublime” Hinduism, full of love and “free from any spirit of reaction”. In other words, instead of acting like bacteria in that dead body called a pluralistic democracy, our salvation lies in embracing Hindu dharmocracy.

While this is all decidedly thought-provoking, Golwalkar could spark a great deal of geopolitical anguish too. After all, from his perspective, India is an expansive concept. “Afghanistan,” he says, “was our ancient Upaganasthan.” Even “Iran was originally Aryan…guided more by Aryanism than by Islam.” But what of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia? The Zend-Avesta, Golwalkar dismisses, “is mostly Rig Veda”, so that settles the matter. Meanwhile, Burma (now Myanmar) must be recognized as “our ancient Brahmadesha”, and altogether the splendid picture we form is of a “motherland with the Himalayas dipping its arms in the two seas, at Aryan (Iran) in the West and at Sringapur (Singapore) in the East, with Lanka (Ceylon) as a lotus petal offered at her sacred feet”. Leaving aside Sri Lankan sentiments on being declared an offering at India’s feet, this all-encompassing entity does not appear to Golwalkar as a contradictory monkey-headed bullock state—because Hinduism pervades it.

But if Hinduism is integral to nationalism, what of that embarrassing detail we call caste? To Golwalkar, the argument that caste weakened India is unadulterated nonsense. On the contrary, it was the absence of caste that invited calamity. “We know as a matter of history,” he states, “that our north-western and north-eastern areas, where the influence of Buddhism had disrupted the caste system, fell an easy prey to the onslaught of Muslims…. But the areas of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, which were considered to be very orthodox and rigid in caste restrictions, remained predominantly Hindu even after remaining the very citadels of Muslim power and fanaticism.” So Uttar Pradesh must be our model for national reinvigoration, as it is proof that “the so-called ‘caste-ridden’ Hindu Society has remained undying and inconquerable…(while) casteless societies crumbled to dust”. And caste, which presumably B.R. Ambedkar got completely wrong, must be restored to its rightful dignity as an instrument of modern nation-building.

This, of course, brings us to the Muslim question—people who came, according to Golwalkar, as bloodthirsty invaders (when in fact they came as peaceful traders) and vilifying whom is entirely justified: “We, in the Sangh, are Hindus to the core. That’s why we have respect for all faiths and religious beliefs…. But the question before us now is, what is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam or Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful towards this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” In other words, Golwalkar appears to believe in asking pressing questions of Indian Muslims—and then answering them himself.

The antipathy of the Muslim to Hindu India, in fact, is so pronounced that sweeping generalizations are also fully justified: “Whatever we believed in, the Muslim was wholly hostile to it. If we worship in the temple, he would desecrate it. If we carry on bhajans and car festivals, that would irritate him. If we worship cow, he would like to eat it. If we glorify woman as a symbol of sacred motherhood, he would like to molest her.” This being the case, there is only one form of redemption. “It is our duty,” Golwalkar offers, “to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home. As honest freedom-loving men, let them overthrow all signs of slavery and domination and follow the ancestral ways of devotion and national life”. In other words, there is nothing a quiet ghar wapsi cannot solve when it comes to the building of a good dharmocracy.

In sum, as you prepare for the forthcoming seminar on Golwalkar’s nationalism, picture a land of homogenized Hindus, united not by a celebration of pluralism but, of course, by endearing practices of caste and cow-love, spread across charming geographies from Tehran to Singapore. And if you don’t accept this constructive world view, all that your polity constitutes, sadly, is a “bundle” of decomposing rights, in a nation without a soul—and without a worthwhile future in this strange, strange time that we call the 21st century.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 08 2017)


At a recent academic conclave in Ettumanoor, not too far from the stunning frescoes in the local temple, the Kerala-based thinker M.N. Karassery delivered a brilliant oration on modernity and its peculiarities in our time. Though his wider argument has been well studied, the story he told to illustrate his point was an interesting one, featuring that bane of the right wing in India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister, this apocryphal yarn goes, had a colleague who worked very closely with him in his office. But every time he came into the room, he brought along a most obnoxious odour, till Nehru was compelled to ask what the source of this nasty smell was. Socks, came the resigned answer: The errant colleague was a miser who didn’t mind leaving a stink if it saved him a few coins.

The next morning, on his way to work, Nehru picked up new socks for the man, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. And yet somehow, when the colleague moved around, that unbearable smell continued to waft down the corridors, sparing not even the prime minister’s esteemed nose. No longer intending to be delicate about the matter, Nehru demanded an explanation from his malodorous subordinate. “Are you not wearing the new pair I bought you?” he asked. Yes, of course, came the wounded reply. Frowning, Nehru wondered what had happened to the old, threadbare pair. “Oh those,” replied the eccentric, brightening up, his hands going to his pockets. “Those are right here with me!”

As Karassery pointed out, India’s negotiation of modernity, much like the man with the smelly socks, has largely been a case of embracing wonderful new ideas while retaining many bad ones for sentimental reasons or possible future use. There is history to the tradition. Lord Macaulay, for instance, famously pictured that class “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He succeeded as far as taste was concerned, but for large numbers of this class, it was a simple matter of acting English (and speaking it) in the public sphere, while sustaining old ways in the private domain. Exposure to modernity’s rationalism did not, for instance, provoke a divorce from religiosity. On the contrary, religion was refashioned to rise to modernity’s challenge, with characteristic Indian lack of irony.

The railways, an exploitative cash cow for the British, were presented as a manifestation of the iron progress of science and reason in India. And indeed a number of orthodox parties viewed it with trepidation. In the 1880s, Brahmins in Thiruvananthapuram persuaded the local maharaja to prevent the fire carriage from defiling their temple town, but Brahmins in Puri were canny: The journey from Kolkata to their shrine was reduced overnight from 26 days to 12 hours, bringing far more pilgrims, more money, and amplified devotion atop screaming engines. Sweep across a century and a half, and savvy stargazers transmit their latest astrological recommendations to globe-trotting believers over WhatsApp, while havans and pujas are performed via Skype, their blessings touching the devout through a medium as invisible as the hand of god itself: the internet.

More significantly, it was modern methods such as the census that created in India new identities that could masquerade convincingly as ancient. Numbers determined who constituted the “majority” and who were in the “minority”, enabling also the aggregation of diverse practices into what historian Romila Thapar calls “syndicated Hinduism”. Political consciousness followed, a product of modern impulses in a cloak of timeless tradition. Studies on the emergence of cow protection have shown how censuses opened up new battlefields to wage wars in the names of history, masses rallying around sensational calls that used instruments of modernity to service un-modern propensities. Violence, of course, followed everywhere.

By no means was this a predilection that afflicted the “majority” only. One “minority” now called “the Muslims”, despite massive internal diversities of their own, witnessed attempts to recreate a puritanism that never actually existed in this land—in the south where Asia’s oldest mosque stands, minarets and domes replaced gabled roofs and woodwork. The burqa, never before known here, suddenly won appeal, with the prosperous leading the way. Prosperity, in fact, spawned innovative, unexpected expressions of religion—an affluent, post-liberalization middle class today fuels demand for the dozens of rock-star swamis and gurus hovering about, who promise spiritual salvation even as they transform into corporate enterprises chasing solidly material rewards. Faith always featured such calculations, of course: Modernity merely raised the stakes and gave it spectacular scale.

Some years ago, the scholar Meera Nanda noted that India had 2.5 million places of worship but only 1.5 million schools, and that governments across the political divide were increasingly sponsoring religious causes. For her it was globalization and the paradoxical hyper-religiosity of its beneficiaries that had led to this state of affairs—to the forming of a state-temple-corporate complex. Others, like Vinay Lal and Amrita Basu, have argued that in attempting to divorce religious feeling from our constitutional self-image and aspirations, our founding fathers ignored ground realities. The result was that these realities took an aggressive, unexpected turn, now visible in your nearest city in its current manifestation of cow-raksha (protection).

The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle—that religion in India may never be fully divorced from public life and what we can aim to do is limit the degree to which it can pervert everyday business. But perhaps this was a debate that should have begun long ago, not now when the stench of the bad socks of history is overwhelming, no longer down the corridor as with Nehru, but very much closer, right under our collective noses.

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 01 2017)


The celebration of Eid on Monday happened to coincide with the birth anniversary of a remarkable Muslim woman. She wasn’t actually born Muslim—this lady of decidedly imperious mien was in fact the daughter of an Armenian, whose wife was half Hindu, half British Christian. Her mother was known as Victoria Hemmings, and the girl Eileen Angelina Yeoward. But when she was still a child, her identity was transformed forever after Victoria embraced Islam and became “Badi” Malka Jaan. Her daughter followed suit and took the name Gauhar Jaan, a name that would deliver her to greatness not only as the “first dancing girl of Calcutta” and India’s earliest recording sensation, but indeed as the foremost of this country’s musical divas.

Gauhar and her mother were performers, both of them talented, impetuous women whose lives featured disappointing men or, at any rate, disappointments caused by men. Malka Jaan’s marriage with her ice-factory-engineer husband ended when Gauhar was less than six years old. They moved from Azamgarh to Benares (now Varanasi) with Malka’s paramour, and here the mother achieved a certain celebrity as a dancer and courtesan. By 1883, when Gauhar was 10, they settled in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called, and grew accustomed to a life of some luxury and success, even as Gauhar was trained in Kathak, to sing, and to acquire a rich grasp of languages: Between 1902 and 1920, Gauhar would sing for around 600 gramophone records in tongues as diverse as Persian, Gujarati and Pashto.

Following in her mother’s artistic footsteps, Gauhar’s first public performance came in her teens at the court of the raja of Darbhanga in 1887. Though recognized immediately for her talent, she was not satisfied as a court musician in a second-grade principality, returning to bustling Calcutta to make her name instead. And indeed it was here that she began to attract the high and mighty, their wealth and riches collecting in proverbial mountains beside her. Gauhar soon became something of a legend: the woman who drove around in splendid carriages and cars, the lady who disappeared to Bombay (now Mumbai) now and then for the races, the tawaif (courtesan) who demanded a whole train from a royal patron to convey her entourage to his capital and, most famously, as an eccentric who spent the then extravagant sum of Rs20,000 on a party to celebrate the birth of her beloved cat’s kittens.

But what distinguished Gauhar was the gramophone. In November 1902 at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, Gauhar arrived with her retinue to sing for Frederick Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. Prolonged negotiations had preceded this meeting, and Gauhar was paid a princely Rs3,000 for singing into a contraption rumoured to be the devil’s own, something that could irreversibly seize her voice. She was undaunted, though perhaps somewhat irritated, by having to sing into the massive brass recording horn that was placed near her face. She had 3 minutes—and indeed, would master the technique of delivering an entire song in that duration—at the end of which she spoke into the device and signed off in what became her trademark: “My name is Gauhar Jaan.”

Over the next two decades, and through her hundreds of recordings, Gauhar changed the way music was practised in India, and amplified its reach. Her voice travelled not only to faraway places in India but also abroad, and as her biographer Vikram Sampath discovered, her unibrowed face appearing on picture postcards in Europe and even on matchboxes. Gaisberg knew he had a figure of great glamour here, noting that he never saw her repeat either her clothes or her jewellery, both of which she possessed in inexhaustible quantities, while rumour placed the price of a pass to her salon at anywhere between Rs1,000-3,000. Less than a decade after she first announced her name into that brass horn, Gauhar was at the height of her fame, performing at the famous Delhi Durbar before the newly crowned British king and his consort.

But while professional successes were many, personal tragedy too wove its way into Gauhar’s life through unfortunate romances. She fell in love with a famous stage actor and lived several happy years with him. When her mother died, it was he who consoled her and became a pillar of strength. His death by a sudden illness, however, terminated that relationship. What followed was a disastrous affair with her secretary, a man 10 years her junior, who in the end proved to harbour more affection for Gauhar’s possessions than Gauhar herself. Court cases had to be fought and at one time she was compelled to prove her paternity to a judge, pleading before her long-lost father to acknowledge her as his, humiliated in public.

The ostentation that was as much a part of Gauhar’s life as was her talent, would, in the end, dissolve her life and career. Accustomed to a life of glitter and style, she made predictable mistakes where her finances were concerned. By the 1920s, Gauhar had passed her prime, her legal battles and other woes taking a toll on her bank balance. She moved, eventually, far away from the Calcutta where she once towered over her peers, and settled in Mysore, where the local maharaja granted her a modest pension. And here, in a cottage in the south of India, she who was born Eileen, knew fame as Gauhar, and whose voice thrilled a million admirers, died a forgotten woman in 1930.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 24 2017)


In a thunderous 1974 address to striking railway workers, George Fernandes called upon them to “realize the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways,” he declared, and “every thermal station in the country would close down. A 10 days’ strike…and the industries…would come to a halt…. A 15 days’ strike…and the country will starve.” He may or may not have been exaggerating, but crisis was brewing in India.

The economy was in a shambles, the opposition thirsting for a fight. Constitutional means, Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided, were but a cover for “evil designs”, so “war” would need to be “fought in the streets”. The Communists, E.M.S. Namboodiripad confirmed, “do not accept the position that every issue must be solved only through constitutional means”. Students agitated, Jayaprakash Narayan lent moral legitimacy and leadership to the movement, and there was what the prime minister would describe as dangerous “indiscipline” in the air, graduating to sedition when the army and police were incited to disobey her orders.

These, among others, were the reasons deployed to justify Indira Gandhi’s disastrous decision to impose internal Emergency in India, inaugurating two years of government by decree that inflicted one terrible decision after another on a horrified people. As her confidant P.N. Dhar would later explain, before 25 June 1975, Mrs Gandhi complained she didn’t have enough power to implement her ideas. “But when she did acquire all the power she needed…she did not know what to do with it.” While her obsequious cabinet crawled, policy and its execution was directed by her over-complicated son, Sanjay. The prime minister refused to countenance reports on the excesses of an already exacting state machinery, now sharpened by open oppression. A hundred thousand people languished in prison, but Mrs Gandhi insisted that there was no one “less authoritarian than I am”—this in an interview to an American correspondent, of course, since the Indian press was reduced to filling censored newspaper space with recipes for onion raita instead of political news.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the man who assembled India’s democratic institutions and painstakingly reinforced them throughout his career, should have fathered the woman who blackened all the values he held supreme. Mrs Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter but failed to evolve anything that could be described as towering vision. She understood power and exercised it in large volumes, but failed to grasp the principle that power is the means to an end, not a purpose in its own right. Two years before the Emergency, the Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee wondered if she preferred the presidential form of government. “Unlike her father, who rejoiced in Parliament,” he remarked, “Mrs Gandhi has an allergy to it.” She certainly didn’t think too highly of the will of the people, writing as early as 1963 that the “price we pay for democracy” is that “the mediocre person” and “the most vocal” are suddenly empowered, even when “they may lack knowledge and understanding”. She was more pragmatic matriarch than outstanding democrat, convinced that without her, India’s childlike masses would only get into unnecessary trouble.

To be fair, as the scholar S. Irfan Habib recently pointed out on Twitter, Indira Gandhi wasn’t the sum of Emergency-era excesses alone. This was a woman who could stand up to American bullying tactics to end genocide and liberate a people in 1971, returning to 10 million refugees their homes. She was a committed environmentalist who could quote from the Atharva Veda on the need for ecological preservation even while pointing out that one could hardly lecture “those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans…clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source”. And as a sharp forthcoming biography by Sagarika Ghose highlights, the battles she fought as a woman in a world of men, and her negotiation of her own insecurities, offer insights, even if the conclusions Mrs Gandhi drew were not always propitious, her actions often devoid of the superior understanding that came so readily to her father.

“I had always believed,” Jayaprakash Narayan wrote from prison, “that Mrs Gandhi had no faith in democracy, that she was by inclination and conviction a dictator. This belief has tragically turned out to be true.” In the end, it was such criticism, much of which emanated from abroad, that stung her. It has also been argued that following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, his fall from heroic greatness to violent destruction in such a short span, Mrs Gandhi grew worried about her own fate, seeing shadows everywhere. Either way she committed the “horrible mistake” her son warned against: In 1977, she called a national election and decided to face the justice of the ballot box. Understandably, she was routed. But it seemed to have restored a certain moral confidence in her. “I imposed the Emergency and (when the crisis had passed) I revoked it,” she declared in a defiant interview, adding that if her intention were to remain prime minister for life, she could have disposed of elections altogether.

But most importantly, as her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar noted, “She began to dream.” She “awoke to her father’s voice resonant within her”—somewhere in the darkness that was the Emergency, there was still her conscience, or perhaps a feeling of guilt that she had betrayed all that Nehru cherished; that she had sacrificed the interests of a people in the interests of political survival. Survive she did, in the end anyway—by 1980, she was again a tremendous political force soaring above a massively frustrated, comical government. Indira Gandhi came back to rule as prime minister of India, winning also a certain forgiveness from the masses for her greatest, most misguided lapse.

Forty-two years have passed since the day she made that mistake. But the lessons of that episode retain their pertinence, now more than ever, as we witness a different kind of change in our society, not imposed overnight but creeping up slowly, forming a stranglehold even as we watch.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 17 2017)


Whether her appearance was as striking as her conduct is not known. But she who is remembered as Táhirih—the Pure One—provoked a collective gasp from society when she threw off the veil. One man was so befuddled by her unpredicted defiance that he slit his throat in shock and ran bleeding from the “apparition”. Táhirih herself was composed, confidently preaching before a secret congress “her appeal with eloquence and fervour”. The 80 men themselves remained conflicted—some were sympathetic to her cause while others frowned at her ambition. But for this sole woman in their midst, there was no going back. The die was cast.

The year was 1848 and the scene was the historic Conference of Badasht, where Iran’s leading Bábí leaders convened in a distant garden to chart the future of their resistance—to try and reconcile with Táhirih’s claim that Islamic practice as interpreted in the Sharia by fallible mortals might not, after all, be compatible with divine wisdom and the voice of god. In other words, they sought a new enlightenment, after old methods failed to answer unsettling questions born of modernity. Their leader, the Báb, was already in prison and would soon be shot for upsetting the mullahs. After all, the latter derived status precisely from those old ways, and were not particularly anxious to brook challenges from a maverick making messianic claims.

The Bábís, if we view them without Western prejudice, were modernizers. But, like the society that inspired their movement, their modernity was also expressed in the vocabulary of faith. Religion was of essence in Iran and, in what is still a familiar concept, the power of leading mullahs was not inferior to that of the reigning executive. As the only Shia state in the world, religious identity was infused through the region’s institutions, and “the clerical establishment”, historian Christopher de Bellaigue writes, “was too diffuse and autonomous for the monarch to bend”. Naturally, they weren’t going to bend to the Báb either when he proclaimed himself “that person whom you have been expecting for more than a millennium” and proceeded to promote radical ideas.

There had been other efforts to modernize Iran to face up to social and political threats emanating from the West—Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), the heir who never reigned, and the well-meaning son of a father who sired 259 children, attempted reform in the military and government. But his success even in these relatively less controversial areas was limited. That he lost wars and surrendered treasures only convinced the old guard that their time-honoured, familiar methods were better than dangerous experiments inspired by foreign ideas. A powerful minister, Amir Kabir, too tried his hand at reform—the son of a cook who also became brother-in-law to the shah, he departed in a puddle of blood, murdered in a bathhouse for his modernizing zeal.

Hence it was that the Bábís sought to transcend Islamic law and support forces of change by producing a reinterpretation of the Quran. In a land where faith mattered, they sought to reinvent faith to address the issues of their time. Táhirih was one of the most significant of this group, not only because of her fervour but also because she was the lone female voice in their persecuted ranks. She was “both feminist icon and medieval saint…her life a chain of clairvoyant images, snapshots of a society that, while riddled with superstition, also teetered on the edge of modernity”. She was also in favour of armed rebellion and was even suspected of having had something to do with the murder of her orthodox father-in-law. And it was under the influence of her vociferous faction that the Bábís, in the end, broke away altogether from Islam.

Táhirih was born Fatemeh, the daughter of a scholar who gave her an education unlike most fathers of that time. Whether he regretted it is not known, but her father-in-law certainly resented the girl’s enthusiasm. Irrepressible, she abandoned her husband and children and joined, after a long correspondence with various thinkers, the Bábís. Quickly, in her 30s, she built up a following: When she spoke, a witness noted, “they listened with great astonishment in their hearts and were moved by her speeches”. Though divided by time and context, she emerged as Iran’s Meerabai, speaking directly to God: “How long,” she asked, “must your lovers endure this anguish from behind the curtain? At least bestow upon them a glimpse of your beauty.”

Officialdom and the establishment painted Táhirih and her group as a wild, subversive lot given to orgies and un-Islamic conduct but it was when she appeared unveiled in the garden, without warning, that she really became a target. “Suddenly,” it was recorded, “the figure of Táhirih, adorned and unveiled, appeared before the eyes of the assembled companions. Consternation immediately seized the entire gathering…To behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was…improper.” But she was convinced that in the new order the Bábís would herald, in the age after the end of the Sharia, women would join men in shaping the world—no veil could keep them from this destiny.

Progressing unveiled hereafter, in 1852 Táhirih was apprehended and sentenced to death for her heresy. She approached her execution with grace, dressed well and perfumed. But there was no romance to her end—the officer supervising the process simply had her strangled with her own handkerchief. Her body was lowered into a well, honoured by a heap of stones and rubble. Iran’s uneasy negotiation of modernity continued. Táhirih came to be remembered, celebrated by some as Islam’s Mary Magdalene, and even at the time of her death lamented by The Times as the “fair prophetess of Qazvin”. For she had an idea and a mission, but had come perhaps too soon into a society led by men, not yet ready to welcome the counsels of a woman.

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 03 2017)


When Raja Rammohun Roy landed in England in April 1831, among those who disembarked with him were his servants, an adopted son rumoured to be his bastard from a Muslim woman, a Brahmin cook and a milch cow. The cow and cook were essential to the enterprise—Roy had already been written off in Bengal for defying rules of caste and custom, and needed to demonstrate some degree of ritual conformity to support his venture across forbidden seas. But while adversaries at home resented him, in England he became a celebrity, received to cheers of “Long Live Tippoo Saheb”, with the police being summoned in Manchester to moderate public enthusiasm. The Timeshailed him as a poster child of the West’s civilizing mission, calling him “a harbinger of those fruits which must result from the dissemination of European knowledge” in the exotic darkness that was the East.

There was good reason for such romanticization. On the one hand, Roy came on a mission from Akbar II, who sought a more generous pension from the East India Company. But on the other, Roy, whose works on Indian philosophy earned him a reputation as Hinduism’s Luther, also wished to acquaint the British with his homeland. As he remarked, “One of my objects in visiting this country has been to lay before the British public a statement, however brief, of my views regarding the past conditions and future prospects of India.” He was the Mughal emperor’s envoy, but he saw himself also as an ambassador for India itself, and indeed as the urbane face of a reforming society that would soon rise to find its destiny (though of course this did not stop him from telling Victor Jacquemont that India needed “many more years of English domination” to get there).

It was this presumption that made him enemies, including in his household. Roy was born to the junior wife of a junior son, into a Brahmin line that had served the Mughal state. His father, with whom he disagreed uncompromisingly, had brought upon the family the ignominy of going to prison by failing to honour his debts. His formidable mother was even less pleased with Roy, when at “about the age of sixteen, I composed a manuscript calling in question the validity of the idolatrous system of the Hindoos”. He went away from home very young, and in Patna upset Muslim leaders with his observations on their faith, while his The Precepts Of Jesus rubbed Christian missionaries the wrong way. Some called him a lapsed Hindu and threw bones and garbage into his yard, while others created obstacles at work during the years he served the Company government.

Roy, famous mainly for his campaign against widow-burning and for founding what would become the Brahmo Samaj, was educated in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, and is said to have ventured as far as Tibet in his quest for learning. He was suave and polished but acutely conscious that his recommendations on reform were seen as the toyings of a dilettante. As one biographer notes, “Rammohan was an anomaly to many of his Bengali contemporaries. In his…English language skills and European tastes, he was the image of the prosperous nineteenth century Calcutta babu. Yet in private he hankered for distinction as a shastric scholar.” His Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift To Deists) was seen as an effort to flaunt his Persian, while his first Vedantic essay in 1815 invited scorn from traditionalists as far away as Madras.

But local disdain did not mean unpopularity. Roy owned several newspapers and stood up to the colonial state when censorship was attempted, while explaining Hindu scriptural concepts in English to the very same Western audiences. He persuaded them of the value India’s past held even if its present had been corrupted by foolish custom. There was conviction here—he refused to participate in his father’s funeral rites because he thought them meaningless. He produced such texts as Questions And Answers On The Judicial System Of India even as he expounded A Tract On Religious Toleration. He had a curious mind, vision and clarity of expression, all united in a desire to be the spokesperson for a more pristine Hinduism in a reinvigorated India.

In this he succeeded—a fascinating intellectual movement was born through his and his contemporaries’ efforts in Bengal, while his two years in England saw him impress individuals from King William IV down to Benjamin Disraeli. Lord Macaulay waited hours one evening hoping to introduce himself to Roy, while Jeremy Bentham began a campaign to elect him to parliament. There was also a christening where the infant was named Thomas Rammohun Roy, and stories floated of a romance in Bristol. There was no doubt that Roy was immensely popular in English society, for he was also on the side of introducing Western education in India—Sanskrit schooling, he argued, “would be best calculated to keep (India) in darkness”. Reform was the need of the hour, and the language of such reform did not matter to him, even if it threatened orthodox elements who preferred the security of tradition.

The Brahmin had no place in Roy’s Hinduism—“If in doubt,” he recommended, “consult your conscience,” not your priest. He rejected Brahmin domination, calling them “self interested guides, who, in defiance of the law as well as of common sense, have succeeded…in conducting (ordinary people) to the temple of idolatry”, hiding “the true substance of morality”. Roy, whose birth anniversary it was two weekends ago, would have had even more to express had he not died in 1833. It took 120 days for the news to reach India but his message had already taken root: that Indians “are capable of better things” and “worthy of a better destiny”. Indeed as one obituary put it, despite the “extreme interruption and inconvenience” his views caused him, Roy remained true to his convictions and that which he believed was right for the good of India and his fellow Indians. And for this alone he deserves to be remembered.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 27 2017)


In 1973, when the first International Netaji Seminar was convened in Kolkata to celebrate the life and work of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of its distinguished participants was an intriguing character going by the name Bhagat Ram Talwar. Small, grey and physically unprepossessing, he spoke in broken English but wielded an appealingly titled paper called My Fifty-Five Days With Netaji. His appearance at the conference was, historically speaking, a sensational moment and, in keeping with the mood of the gathering, he too expressed loyalty and admiration for the tragic leader of the Azad Hind movement. Barely anyone in the audience, however, would have guessed that Talwar was, in actuality, a little more slippery than his elderly frame suggested and that while he did deliver valuable services to Bose, more than a fair deal of disservice too was part of Talwar’s contributions to the making of history.

This is the principal focus of Mihir Bose’s recently-released The Indian Spy, which weaves Talwar’s tale through a fascinating, mountainous battlefield featuring the great powers of World War II and their gripping underground contests. It was, in fact, on the edge of this landscape, near Peshawar, that our morally agnostic protagonist was born in 1908, into a family of Punjabi descent. His father was a one-time friend of the local British authorities, but after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, turned against the colonial state—Talwar’s brother was hanged a little over a decade later for attempting to assassinate the governor of Punjab. The idea of killing British grandees also attracted Talwar, who, influenced by Bhagat Singh, set out with a dagger to murder a deputy commissioner. Unfortunately, to their “great disappointment”, his comrades and he found the man’s bed empty—their target had cheerfully gone “out of station”.

A clever, resourceful man, Talwar made no more attempts to stab representatives of the Raj but after flirtations with the Congress, pledged allegiance to a faction of the Communist movement called the Kirti Kisan Party. In 1941, he was tasked with aiding the escape of a certain individual from India to Moscow. And so it was, while smuggling his charge out of British territory, that Talwar first set eyes on Subhas Chandra Bose, pretending that Bose was a deaf and dumb pilgrim travelling through tribal lands. Bose grew a beard and moved on foot and sometimes, when his legs cramped, by mule. When informed that they had crossed the frontier, the Bengali fugitive, otherwise very becoming in his conduct, conjured up a sufficient quantity of saliva and having splattered the ground, declared, “Here I spit on the face of the viceroy!” He was actually spitting on a snowy hillside, but it was, of course, the sentiment that counted.

A series of adventures followed—including interrupting a newly-wed Afghan’s first night with his bride (who found herself unexpectedly cooking for visitors) and encountering an intimidating man who recommended hot water and alum to “treat” Bose’s ostensibly benumbed tongue. An attempt to contact the Russian ambassador was rebuffed, unsurprisingly, when they knocked on his windscreen at a traffic junction in Kabul. But the Italians opened their doors to Talwar, now masquerading as Bose’s “secretary” Rahmat Khan, even as Bose himself dealt with an attack of dysentery. In the end, since Moscow wouldn’t embrace Bose, he proceeded to Berlin and into the arms of Hitler (The Indian Spy has some very interesting photographs of Bose in Germany). Meanwhile, Talwar had a moment of self-realization when he discovered his own fairly ravenous appetite for sinister games and secret service.

Mihir Bose’s research shows that to a great extent this appetite was satisfied during World War II. He calls Talwar the only “quintuple” spy of the wartime era: he first established links with the Italians, and then collaborated with the Nazis, who had grand schemes to provoke revolt in India’s North-West Frontier Province with the assistance of a charismatic (and demanding) Pashtun called the Faqir of Ipi. Talwar, who could “invent almost any lie with impunity”, managed to get away with a fair deal (even if he was endearingly embarrassed about small things such as wanting to go to the toilet). The Germans, for instance, taught him sabotage methods and ways to make explosives. He repaid them with elaborate falsehoods, and conveyed their designs and codes to the Russians. When the Russians eventually decided to “share” Talwar with the British, the spy found himself not only under the direction of Peter Fleming (whose brother Ian created James Bond) but also with a new code name: Silver.

Over the next few years, Talwar fed large portions of British-manufactured balderdash to the Germans in Kabul, in the process betraying Bose and his plans for wresting independence for India. He would later present this betrayal as a necessary sacrifice to be made to win the greater battle against the Nazis and their Fascist allies, but how sincere this was—or, for that matter, much of what Talwar did—is open to question. Even at the 1973 conference, where he emerged unexpectedly after several decades, there was at least one figure who hinted that Talwar’s love for Bose was not all he made it out to be. Either way, in his various incarnations and in selling his loyalties to different flags (for amounts that would run into millions by today’s value), Talwar emerges as a singularly shadowy figure, whose deliciously engaging story has at last been told in equally delicious style in The Indian Spy.