(My column in Mint Lounge, November 4 2017)


Some days ago, members of parliament at Westminster in London organized a special meeting to honour the memory of the first Indian to have been elected to the House of Commons. It was not an open event, yet the queue outside wound around the building long enough for a café owner to step out and enquire what it was that had attracted so much enthusiasm. When I explained, he looked terribly interested himself in the proceedings and asked, “Oh, is the MP upstairs?” Alas, I had to tell him, the man we were celebrating had died 100 years before, which meant he fell in a very different category of “upstairs”. And he had died not in London, where he once represented his voters, but far away in Mumbai, in one of the seven houses that lend the suburb of Saat Bangla in Versova its picturesque name. The café manager looked vaguely sheepish while the rest of us made our way into the building, walking past V.R. Rao’s portrait of the man we were there to commemorate: Dadabhai Naoroji.

Naoroji was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress but he was also convinced that it was “in Parliament (in Britain) that our chief battle has to be fought”. And so, in 1886, he presented himself as a candidate in the general election. Despite endorsements from the likes of Florence Nightingale, he was demolished. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, declared that the English were not prepared to have a “black man” as their representative, only to regret those words. For the consequence was that his statement was published in newspapers around the country and Naoroji became an object of massive interest overnight—including in discussions around precisely how “black” this pale-skinned man exactly was. By 1892, he had a real shot at winning, and the people of Finsbury Central did not disappoint—he carried the day with a dazzling majority of three. When his un-black rival demanded a recount, the tally went up; Naoroji had actually won not by three but by a margin of five votes. Delighted either way, he served not only as the voice of Finsbury Central in parliament but also as president of the local football club. And both in the House of Commons and outside, he lent his energies to causes as diverse as the women’s suffrage movement and, of course, Indian self-rule.

A number of people frowned. Some called him Dadabhai Narrow-Majority, which was only marginally better than “Mr Nowraggie”. But the old man didn’t mind. On the contrary, his shattering of the glass ceiling was conclusive enough for two more Indians to also enter the House of Commons in the coming years. He himself lost the next election in 1895, but made up for it by conveying his message in his seminal Poverty And UnBritish Rule In India, lambasting the Raj for its unashamed leeching of Indian wealth for British aggrandizement. The book was a milestone, and remains his most memorable intellectual contribution to the freedom struggle. And it did not surprise too many people that he had earned himself this distinction: When still in his teens at Elphinstone College (then, Institution) in Mumbai, Naoroji was labelled by a professor, a little sentimentally, “The Promise of India”. Personally, though, he didn’t let such things go to his head. “Prosperity has not elated me and I hope adversity will not (depress) me,” he wrote to a friend, “so long as I can feel I am living a life of duty.”

Naoroji was born in British Bombay in 1825 in modest circumstances. He was a bright student, and an 1845 effort to go to university in England was only thwarted because one of his sponsors feared this prodigy might be tempted to become a Christian. So Naoroji began to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Elphinstone College, till in 1855 he became the first Indian to be appointed a professor at that institution. It was a short-lived career, for by now he had decided to go into commerce—he moved to England and eventually set up a cotton import business. Just to cement one foot firmly in the intellectual space in any case, he also accepted a professorship at University College London. His subject: Gujarati. In the course of time he would set up the still-thriving Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, as well as the East India Association (which later merged with the Congress party), and emerge as one of the most distinguished ambassadors for India in the seat of empire.

Naoroji was also a most sympathetic interlocutor for Indians lost in this alien country. Many were the students who wrote to him for advice, and many too were the parents who frantically sought his assistance in preventing their beloved male offspring from getting ensnared by the fearsome, emancipated women of the West. In 1888, one young man wrote to him asking for guidance on life in England, “which shall be received as from a father to his child”. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and many years later he would remember Naoroji as “the G.O.M.” (Grand Old Man) who made life easier for so many Indians with his sheer warmth and friendship. Indeed, Naoroji deserves much credit for going out of his way for others: Among the 30,000 documents that comprise his private papers, between notes sent by his plumber and an 1894 eye-glass prescription, are numerous letters in Gujarati, Marathi, even Persian and French, to strangers seeking his esteemed attention. That is, assuming everyone understood what he was saying, for, as a friend wrote with a hint of annoyance, “your handwriting is rather hard to read”.

By the time Naoroji died, aged 93, he had enjoyed a most fascinating career. This included a stint as chief minister to a maharaja of Baroda who was accused of trying to murder the British resident at court with arsenic and crushed diamonds; luckily, Naoroji had already resigned by the time of the scandal. He had run newspapers, participated in great public debates on India’s future, and, significantly, set on its eventful course the Congress party that would serve as the vehicle of Indian nationalism in the years to come. And so it was that when he died, among the richly deserved tributes paid was one reminding everybody that while the man himself had departed, the idea he stood for would be enshrined forever in the destiny of the country he loved.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 28 2017.)


If ever there was a man who was attentive to the tribulations of kings, that man was Kautilya. While there might have been several minds invested, across spans of time, in the composition of his Arthashastra, Kautilya’s manual of statecraft was a model of exactness to guide the hands of power. Thus, for instance, for relatively more ordinary varieties of criminal offence, the punishment suggested is “tearing apart by bullocks”, but for the singular error of romancing the monarch’s wife, things could only end with the seducer “cooking in a big jar”. Torture, in general, was to be perfectly timed, with meals in between for the torturer and the subject of his attention, though exceptions of format could be made if the criminal in question were a Brahmin—so while a regular sinner might discover parts of his body set on fire, one with the sacred thread wasn’t permanently charred, keeping his life, but losing his eyes.

Kautilya’s treatise is one of the many sources from ancient times that Upinder Singh studies in her authoritative new book, Political Violence In Ancient India (Harvard University Press). It is an unembellished title and the language of the book follows this pattern, offering a 1,000-year overview of how violence and its philosophical corollary, non-violence, were treated and reconciled by thinkers many centuries ago. So while some hagiographies might show Ashoka roasting his brother and rival for the Mauryan throne and slaughtering 18,000 Ajivikas before his evolution into a crusader for peace, the fact is that we don’t really have reliable statistics for how (or how many) people died in political settings all those ages ago. The book, therefore, is necessarily “a history of ideas”, which studies intellectual responses to violence, from sources such as the Vedas to the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, alluding to Harappan remains as well as to the times of the Guptas.

Singh sets out, in a very balanced fashion, to challenge a basic principle many of us have, over years of schooling and nation-building, systematically absorbed: that India has been an eternal beacon of non-violence and harmony. The truth, as the author demonstrates, is as complex as the other truths of life. For what we see is the emergence of non-violence as an ideal mainly among Buddhists and Jains, subsequently adopted by Hindu sources as well, but always with a parallel understanding that in the practical universe of economics and politics, involving masses of people, non-violence is a principle that cannot always be upheld. So we find even Ashoka struggling to persuade his palace establishment to accept a fully vegetarian kitchen, as much as we encounter Eastern oligarchies, sites evidently of greater political confrontation than the monarchical West, welcoming Buddha’s doctrine of peace and offering patronage without irony.

The basic formula all sources seek to conceptualize is how much violence is justifiable and judicious for the maintenance of order. So while “the Buddha taught a doctrine of detachment, Buddhism was never detached from the political sphere”, and understood this conundrum. The Mahabharata, similarly, “is pervaded by relentless violence”, as is the Vedic world, and they are all aware that non-violence, for all its splendid dignity and significance, cannot meet eye to eye with the realities of the world. So when Yudhishthira, predictably, grapples with morality and what is correct and honourable, Bhishma tells him how “nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion” besides turning oneself into “a compassionate and righteous eunuch”. “While the Mahabharata,” Singh writes, “from time to time lauds non-violence as a didactic principle, the main story…. (leaves) no doubt that the king must not, cannot, practice non-violence.”

One of the most enjoyable sections in the book is Singh’s discussion of violence as it appears in the Panchatantra tales, which seem to contemplate the issue not from the perspective of kings but from several levels below. “In the Panchatantra,” we learn, “the denunciation of kings is much stronger than their praise…. Like that of a prostitute, his behavior takes many forms…. The bottom line is: Kings are violent and dangerous.” So too, it is shown, that violence is “central to most of the Panchatantra stories” which, more than the morals they seemingly convey, also implicitly transfer insights on pragmatism and common sense. Thus, for example, we have the tale of the ass in leopard’s skin who thinks a farmer in a grey blanket is a she-ass. The supposed she-ass runs, fearing it is a leopard, but the moment the ass reveals its true (weak) identity through an apparently seductive bray, the she-ass turns around and shoots an arrow into its heart. The lesson for ordinary souls: Always be on your guard, and don’t ever think like an ass. The most enduring human quality, after all, is our breathtaking stupidity.

At almost 600 pages, Singh’s is a work of scholarship that will take some time to fully digest. We return to Buddhist and Jain works, as much as to Hindu sources and epics with every theme under investigation, and on the whole most of the textual authorities of Indian antiquity have been covered without prejudice. What is missing, however, is a greater share of south Indian material, which is a weakness the author acknowledges. With the addition of authorities from the south, the book might perhaps have been several dozen pages longer, but it would have been richer still. That said, at the end of the day, what Singh offers is a thought-provoking intellectual history of our dealings with violence, demonstrating that 2,000 years ago, Indians were as full of questions as they are today, and that we would only be letting down our best traditions if now we were to suddenly stop asking them.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 21 2017)


As Dalits in Gujarat stand up for their right to wear the moustache, it is more than a little ironic that Kerala, where moustaches were once methodically taxed by caste, should be admitting Dalits as priests in its temples. Though temple entry in the region was first granted to untouchables in 1936, the sanctum sanctorum is generally off limits for those who cannot, by birth, claim the dignity of the sacred thread. This custom is now broken—the thread belongs not to those who claim divinely exalted bloodlines, but to those who proactively seek the responsibilities attendant upon temple service.

The 14th century Bhakti saint Chokhamela might have rejoiced. Enthralled by the deity in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, his Mahar status, despite the fervour of his faith, had barred him access to his lord. He was resigned to his fate, but appealed poignantly to Brahmin gatekeepers of the shrine: “The cane is crooked, but its juice isn’t crooked…Chokha is ugly, but his feelings aren’t ugly. Why be fooled by outward appearance?”

Chokhamela is the only untouchable among Maharashtra’s (male) Bhakti thinkers, and spent most of his life doing the peculiarly menial work Mahars were mandated to do. His fellow saints in the Bhakti pantheon, in comparison, came from relative privilege, though few could be reckoned as part of the elite—Tukaram was a failed shopkeeper, Namdev a god-fearing tailor. Yet, the fact that while they were low, they were not from the lowest, permitted certain liberties to these men whose verses could, therefore, take the risk of packing a punch. Jnandev, son of an ostracized Brahmin, is said to have mocked the old guard by causing a buffalo to produce sounds that seemed worryingly close to Vedic verses, while Tukaram was relieved that he was “no wretched pandit splitting Vedantic hairs”. They could all, to some degree, get away with their radicalism in a deeply hierarchical social order, but Chokhamela had no such option.

Instead, he couched his devotion in terms of his social conditioning as a Mahar. Addressing the deity as he might an upper caste, he says: “I am the Mahar of your Mahars, I am so hungry; I have come for your leavings, I am full of hope.” In another verse, he brings a “bowl for your leftover food”—with no access to the shrine and its blessed occupant, perhaps he could satisfy his devotion by serving the deity as a lowborn serves his overlord, eating his scraps and offering complete submission. “O God, my caste is low; how can I serve you? Everyone tells me to go away; how can I see you? When I touch anyone, they take offense…Chokha wants your mercy.” However, while there is anguish, he does not blame those who designed his shackles and marked him from birth as undeserving of anything better. Indeed, he goes as far as to flagellate himself, blaming karma for his terrible plight. In a previous birth, he explains dejectedly, he must have disrespected god; “this (present) impurity is the fruit of our past.”

While there were moments when Chokhamela seems on the verge of standing up to those in power (“The earth and the Ganga are common to all, irrespective of caste and religion”), it was his son from his wife Soyarabai who was more blunt in his criticism of the way things were. Karmamela, as the boy was known, spoke thus to the deity: “Are we happy when we’re with you? … The low place is our lot; the low place is our lot; the low place is our lot, King of Gods! … It’s a shameful life here for us. It’s a festival of bliss for you and misery written on our faces.” Therefore, it isn’t surprising, as the late historian Eleanor Zelliot noted, that Karmamela, with his sharper critique, finds fewer devotees singing his verses during the annual pilgrimages to Pandharpur today. Chokhamela, in contrast, has been elevated as the product of a divine birth: God met his mother once and bit into a mango she offered him. When he left and she looked at the half-eaten fruit, there lay in its place the baby Chokhamela.

Part of this promotion may also have been due to his own efforts—borrowing the sociologist’s expression—to Sanskritize. He spoke out against animal sacrifice not only because “you will be inflicting cruelty on another life and destroying it”, but also because, one suspects, this was more in consonance with ritual “purity”. He railed against alcohol, which in many parts of India was associated with certain “low” forms of worship; this too seems to have helped his posthumous social upgrade. God appeared to him in several forms: One version has Chokhamela struggling to drag away a dead cow, another duty that fell upon the Mahar, and the deity, manifesting as a young man, lent him a hand. But most critically, after he was rejected at the temple’s gates, the lord came to him instead, offering him commiseration as much as he did company, the two of them sitting by the riverside.

At the end of the day, Chokhamela was devoted but did not transgress lines drawn by society and its privileged elders. He died in an accident, it is said, when labouring on a construction site, and even his bones were found to be chanting the name of god. These bones were carried to the temple and buried at a spot that still receives visitors. Even in death, Chokhamela had no access to the sacred premises. Bones are impure, but since he was also impure in life, his memorial stands at the foot of the temple’s steps, outside those very walls where he once beseeched the shrine’s guardians for one glance, for one opportunity to satisfy his desire to behold the deity. Unlike those Dalit priests in Kerala who have now entered the heart of the sanctum six centuries later, old Chokhamela had to settle precisely for the place which, in his own lifetime, he was told was where he really belonged: the door.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 14 2017)


A number of Diwalis ago, as a boy of 12, I went to Nashik for some inconsequential purpose. And though it could not, at least back then, be argued that the city held much potential to animate the mind of an adolescent, I returned struck by three memorable scenes. The man in charge of entertaining us shepherded us first to a lovely stretch of the Godavari river, and then to the magnificent 18th century Trimbakeshwar temple. Dark and built from richly carved stone, the shrine once held the Nassak diamond, seized by the British in 1818 and, as of 1970, in the custody of an American trucking magnate (whose other claim to fame was that he was once husband to tennis star Gussie Moran). But what was most interesting about Nashik was not the striking temple, or tales about the legendary diamond. It was a far simpler, but very popular, site nearby, which happened, it is said, to be the scene of a pivotal episode that altered the very course of the Ramayan.

Stories about Diwali vary from place to place, but the most popular in our all-important Hindi heartland is that it commemorates Ram’s victory over Ravan, and his triumphant return to Ayodhya. Panchavati in Nashik, however, appears not on Ram’s journey back but during his years in exile. It is said to be the spot where that singular event that would pitch Ravan against Ram unfolded. And indeed, more than the great battle the heroes would fight later, it was what transpired here that highlighted their personal qualities as much as their codes of conduct. To this day, there is a cave in Panchavati where Ram, Sita, and Laxman are supposed to have dwelt. From outside it looks like a nondescript house, with doors and windows. But once one enters, as I did all those years ago, there is a flight of steps that goes underground, so narrow that one must descend squatting, its smallness causing adults of more than a certain size great inconvenience, though all visitors stand united in the inelegance of their posture.

It was from Panchavati that Ravan abducted Sita, and I was quite impressed by the image of a heroine secured in this underground vault. What my mother pointed out, though, was that this is also precisely where Surpanakha was mutilated. It was here that Ravan’s sister lost her nose (and, according to some versions, breasts and ears), and it was to avenge her honour that the Lankan king would seize Sita. The story, of course, is well established—the hero triumphs over the villain, and with his wife, whose virtue has been confirmed by fire, returns to a capital illuminated with lights. The person who seems to vanish from this happy narrative, however, is Surpanakha, whose fate, even in the most orthodox retellings of the Ramayan, seems to signify that Ram’s conduct had its moments of imperfection. After all, when the woman professed love for him at Panchavati, it was he who sought to amuse himself by sending her to his brother instead. Laxman then sent her back—till, finally furious, Surpanakha decided (not particularly rationally) to devour Sita. Sita survived, but Surpanakha lost her body part(s)—and her dignity.

In Valmiki’s Ramayan, Surpanakha is evil incarnate and has no claims to dignity to begin with. Where Ram’s “face was beautiful, hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-coloured. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well-spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent”. Surpanakha was a shameless ogress who openly expressed lust, unlike Sita, who is single-minded in devotion and brimming with wifely sacrifice. Surpanakha, in contrast, “at the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son,” tells the Ramcharitmanas, would grow “excited” and fail to “restrain her passion”. The undertone seems to be that given her unedifying conduct, Surpanakha, “foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent”, had it coming. Her honour was irrelevant.

While most poets stuck to this narrative, not all ignored the inconsistency that Ram—who is meant to be proper in all ways—should amuse himself at the expense of a besotted lady, whatever her deportment. She may still have reacted violently if they had simply rejected her, but the insulting provocation of turning her into a joke first reflects poorly on Sita’s protectors. Kampan’s Tamil Ramayan, as the late scholar Kathleen M. Erndl notes, “not only describes Surpanakha’s appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight”. When she saw Ram, “the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean” and she made him a proposition—that a powerful woman like her could protect Ram was one of the points she advanced in her favour. In this version, Ram chats with her, and it is the next day, when she attempts to abduct Sita to imitate her form, that Laxman disfigures Surpanakha in his sister-in-law’s defence. This, perhaps, offers an explanation for the violence without blemishing Ram’s honour, though here too he does consciously entertain himself at Surpanakha’s expense.

For a boy of 12, it was a revelation to come out of a temple to Sita—that paragon of goodness—and be reminded of the dishonouring of Surpanakha—a gallant “demoness” with power and authority but who failed the test of chastity. Panchavati then went down in my mind, all those Diwalis ago, not merely as the scene where an evil king kidnapped another’s wife, but also as one where great heroes showed heroism to also be fallible, prejudice denting forever tales and songs of their valour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 7 2017)


When Annie Besant arrived in India in 1893, she had already accumulated enough notoriety for a lifetime. This was a woman who had separated from her clergyman husband, losing custody of both her children. And given her “wayward” conduct, his Victorian peers justified the raising of his hand against her, including, it appears, for her reluctance to share his bed. Her son was handed over to the father during the divorce, but she lost her daughter only after the man discovered the girl had forgotten her prayers—her mother had confidently told her there was nobody listening at the other end. Distraught though she was on losing her child, Besant remained defiant. “It’s a pity there isn’t a God,” she declared as she exited the courtroom. “It would do one so much good to hate him.”

The irony was that this Irishwoman who eventually found her way to India began her life immersed in religiosity. She was born on 1 October 1847—a day and 22 years before Mahatma Gandhi, whose ascent would mark her eclipse. Her widowed mother enrolled her in an unconventional school where Besant obtained a good education, and where the boys too were made to sew. But it was a deeply Christian setting, and unquestioning service was the cornerstone of her existence. At 18, she met Frank Besant and accepted his proposal, hoping it would bring her closer to God—in reality, she found herself discussing laundry with other pious wives. Her restless mind, fear of domesticity, and a waning belief in Christ resulted in a meeting with a theologian to get closer to the “truth”. “It is not your duty to ascertain the truth,” he said sharply, nearly accusing her of blasphemy.

After her marriage collapsed in 1873, Besant joined the National Secular Society. Alongside Charles Bradlaugh, leader of the Freethought movement, she wrote on science and economics, becoming also a public advocate for women’s rights. While her ex-husband appointed a detective to see if she was sleeping with Bradlaugh, Besant embraced atheism. “Atheist is one of the grandest titles (one) can wear,” she explained in her autobiography. “It was howled over the grave of Copernicus…it was yelled…at Voltaire…(so that) where the cry of ‘Atheist’ is raised…we (may) be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption of humanity.” And if all this were not adequately scandalous, in 1877 Besant confirmed her status as a rebel by republishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits Of Philosophy, an innocently titled work that was actually a forbidden handbook on birth control.

Besant and her colleagues were charged with obscenity. “I risk my name, I risk my liberty; and it is not without deep and earnest thought that I have entered this struggle,” she stated, but the book was banned to protect “public morals”. For Besant, what followed was public persecution. She had certificates from London University qualifying her to teach chemistry, botany and mathematics, but when she sought access to the Botanical Gardens, her request was denied—the curator’s daughters went for their walks there, and the last thing he wanted to expose them to was this refractory divorcee. Others called her a deranged female, but Besant remained steely. “The moment a man uses a woman’s sex to discredit her arguments,” she pointed out, we know “that he is unable to answer (her) arguments”.

Bernard Shaw thought her a “born actress” who was “successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist Bible-smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian Socialist, a Strike Leader, and finally a Theosophist”. And indeed, Besant changed her political stands every decade—when she became a Theosophist after encountering the controversial Madame Blavatsky, she withdrew support for the Knowlton pamphlet she once defended with such passion. But at the end of the day, it was theosophy that brought her to India. On her very first trip, she gave 121 lectures, visited temples, began Sanskrit lessons, and understood that far from “civilizing” Indians, what the British presided over was an elaborate system of enslavement.

Besant won admiration from Indian thinkers for her appreciation of our culture. “Hindu polity is built up on its religion,” she argued somewhat romantically. “You have not only the Vedas and the Upanishads showing a mighty intellect…. You find the very foundation of modern science laid down as part of the Hindu philosophy.” More problematically, while caste had to go, she felt it had had “a glorious past”. Her strongest message, however, was that while “the jewels of Western learning” must come to India, “the diamonds of the Eastern faith” must also be given their due.

Besant was also, incidentally, one of the founders of the Banaras Hindu University—the scene of a women’s agitation today—her intention being to create an institution “not to enable a man to earn forty or sixty rupees a month, but to raise (his) intellect”. In 1914, she joined the Congress party, and exactly a century ago was elected its president. Her nationalism became a headache for the colonial authorities (who called her a “great nuisance”) and her home rule movement was deemed positively seditious. With World War I raging, and Besant ceaseless in her newspaper activism and speeches, she was arrested and parked in Ooty for some time. The Indian public, however, saw in her a hero, her eventual release received with great jubilation.

In the end, Gandhi’s rise coincided with Besant’s exit from the limelight, for suddenly politics moved from the anglicized Indian’s drawing room into the hands of the masses. Besant spoke no Indian languages, and could no longer lend initiative in the way the Mahatma could. “All these forty years my white body has been an asset,” she wrote. “It is no longer so.” Somewhat disappointed, she spent the rest of her years focused on the Theosophical Society’s future, in Madras (now Chennai). By the time she died in 1933, she was respected as a kind of grand dame but was no longer necessarily relevant to India’s political future.

For all that, however, nobody could deny, as biographer Rosemary Dinnage noted, that this was a lady with a “powerful will” whose “energy and courage were of an extraordinary order”—a woman whose life was a series of battles, and who faced them with fortitude as much as she did with unbending conviction.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 30 2017)


In 1296, when the fearsome Alauddin Khilji—slayer of his royal predecessor, coveter of other men’s wives, and paramour of the warrior eunuch, Malik Kafur—first invaded the Deccan, it was to Devagiri that he marched. He came seeking gold, and indeed there was much treasure he would haul back to Delhi after the success of his campaign: The battle was cleverly won, riches heaped before him. But it was before the principal clash, on the way to wealthy Devagiri, that the sultan confronted real resistance. And it came at a place called Lasur where the local commander had by his side two unusually spirited warriors—two formidable Maratha women who fought, a chronicler would write, “like lionesses”. Their names have dissolved into history since, but their bravery, which impressed even the invader, survived the generations.

Many centuries later, another Maratha lady, descended it is said from Devagiri’s royal house, gave birth to the man who would rewrite the destiny of his people. Shivaji—to celebrate whom yet another statue at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus has been commissioned in Mumbai, besides the colossus by the sea—would embark upon a fascinating career, though like most Indian historical figures, he too has largely been painted in politically motivated colours to propel various interests. In his own day, he was known by many (not always complimentary) names. The English called him “Sevagee the Rebel” who sacked Surat, while the shah of Iran needled Aurangzeb for failing to contain a mere “zamindar like Shiva”. The Mughals snarled that Shivaji was a “wild animal” and a “mountain rat”, and when he eventually died (of natural causes, and not at the end of a Mughal sword), the imperial records issued a sour obituary: “The infidel went to hell.”

The gripping 17th century conflict between Shivaji and the Mughals was a complicated one. But by 1840, British writers like J.W. Massie would state with conviction that it was “a kind of holy war”. This played nicely into the colonial narrative that “Hindu India” and “Muslim India” were perpetually at daggers till the West fired its muskets and shone its light, and it has since played also into the hands of Indian parties that seek historical legitimacy for their own antipathy towards certain citizens of our country. Either way, Shivaji, despite solid statues of bronze and iron, has been transformed into a plastic substance in the hands of motivated interests. He certainly had many remarkable aspects to his life and personality. What is unfortunate is that his actions in various contexts are cleaved wholly out of those contexts to lend force to present-day compulsions—a formula that has been in vogue for quite some time.

Jyotirao Phule, who espoused a radical reinvention of society in India, for instance, saw Shivaji as not only the warrior who stood up to a faraway tyrant but also to the tyranny within Hindu society, exemplified by caste. Phule exhorted his 19th century followers to emulate Shivaji and to resist oppression in all its forms—from the white foreigner to the caste-superior next door. When Phule developed a play in 1869 eulogizing this avatar of Shivaji, it was quickly dismissed by the elite of that time. “The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji,” sniffs a review (in Vividhadnyan Vistar, a literary journal). “A copy of this has come to us. The author is some Mr Jotirao Govindrao Phule or other. When we read this work we thought that to accept it would bring sheer disgrace upon the great and courageous Shivaji, and upon all Hindu people. We have no idea of the author’s address, so we…are unable to send it back to him.”

While Phule’s revolutionary Shivaji was swiftly retired from public circulation, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s incarnation received a cheerful embrace, for this version of the king focused solely on the enemy outside, not on reform within. As Maria Misra, a scholar, writes, Tilak’s Shivaji was “an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…(suggesting) that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.” The reformer M.G. Ranade, meanwhile, impressed with the West’s intellectual advances, sought in his Shivaji a humanist and statesman, a man anxious to reform and who inspired the birth of nationalism in the region. Put together, by the early 20th century, Shivaji was a repository for each man’s ideology and every politician’s ambition.

By the early 1920s, maharaja Shahu of Kolhapur invoked the memory of his illustrous ancestor for his own anti-Brahmin cause. Even as this ruler, among the more enlightened in India, reserved positions for non-Brahmins in his government and opened up education to the masses, he combined rival views on Shivaji, casting him not only as a protector of peasants but also of the non-Brahmin Maratha aristocracy. The Brahmins, who preferred Shivaji as a champion of orthodoxy, retaliated by refusing to perform rituals for the ruler, denying him status as a legitimate Kshatriya.

After independence, feuds between the Brahmin interpreters of Shivaji’s legacy and custodians of his Maratha glory have carried on, all the way down to our own times. The only common feature has been undiluted reverence either way, marked also by a proliferation of statues across Mumbai.

At the end of the day, it is the dramatic, fascinating complexity of the man that is the casualty. Painted in broad strokes in limited colours by all dispensations, the rich details of his life receive only secondary attention—the statue towering over the street and its contemporary battles has become the focus, and the actual man who changed his world subsumed behind obeisance and homage but never the complete, non-partisan analysis that his remarkable legacy deserves.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 23 2017)


Perhaps the most revealing test of the sincerity of any drive for reform lies in how welcoming it is of the voices of women. When Basava sparked the 12th century movement that we now recognize as Lingayatism, many were those of dazzling intellect who joined him. Tired of social shackles and determined to chart an alternative course, they found in Basava’s anti-caste, egalitarian crusade a resonance that has survived the ages, down, indeed, to our times. Gauri Lankesh, the slain journalist, for instance, lent her voice to the Lingayat cause, and there is today an entire political class that seeks to reaffirm the principles Basava upheld, prominent among which is a commitment to the autonomy of women.

Indeed, of the 210 saints associated with Basava, as many as 35 were female, 14 of them unmarried. These were women of uncommon brilliance who, in addition to their battles against caste and inequality, also challenged patriarchy’s grip over their bodies and thought. As with many in the Bhakti tradition, their ideas were expressed in the language of devotion, evoking, as the scholar Vijaya Ramaswamy tells, “very strong sexual imagery” that was “erotic in style and metaphor”. Thus, for instance, we have the saint Remmavve of the weaver caste who sang ecstatically of her union not with a mortal consort, but with the patron deity of the Lingayats, Shiva himself: All husbands have seeds/My husband has no seeds/All husbands are above/My husband below, I am above him!

Like elsewhere, women in medieval Karnataka ordinarily found their lives cemented in patriarchal norms: father, husband, son and family was their universe. Those seeking freedom from this prescribed existence received sanctuary in Basava’s reform movement, also insulating themselves from social reaction through a pronounced commitment to god. The celebrated Akka Mahadevi left her royal husband’s palace behind, wandering naked and singing praises of Shiva. “You shall be doomed if you touch the woman married to (the lord)”, she warned, but even then the road was not always safe. In a version of the Shunyasampadane that holds the Lingayat vachanas, there is an honoured figure who attempts to violate Mahadevi. “She is not,” we are informed, however, “desecrated”. Leaving aside mythmaking, the point was simply that even with their voice couched in terms of spirituality, women thinkers—then, as now—were not always safe and had more battles to fight than their male counterparts could know or imagine.

Basava, cognizant of this, went out of his way to promote equality between the sexes as much as he fought for equality among the castes. Menstruation, for instance, entailed ritual pollution for women ordinarily, but Basava rejected this—women could continue to worship Shiva regardless of whether or not there was blood.

When Mahadevi’s nudity became a point of discussion, he came to her defence and asked: “Does the one who has loved the sky-clad one, have need of a girdle cloth?” So too he raised questions of institutions built around gender. “Look here, dear fellow,” goes one of his vachanas. “I wear these men’s clothes only for you. Sometimes I am man, sometimes I am woman.” The singular Mahadevi, meanwhile, argued the opposite. “A woman though in name, I am, if you consider well, the male principle.” Clothed in Shiva’s “light”, she was not bound by shame. “Where is the need for cover and jewel” when she was under the benevolent gaze of the divine? It was all about devotion but within it lay also an assertion of who Mahadevi was.

If these were more personal expressions of individuality in a time when community reigned supreme, Basava and the Lingayats had questions for society too. Their age was one of Brahmin ascendancy, and the orthodox did not welcome Basava’s call for a society unrestricted by caste, open to introspection and embracing of women. The Lingayats were dismissed as contrarian for the sake of it, their female saints simply branded strange. Strange, in fact, even the men must have looked in any case—a fellowship of rebels from diverse backgrounds. Basava was born Brahmin; Allama Prabhu a drummer; Siddharama a cowherd; Maccayya a washerman; and Kakkaya, a skinner of dead cows. What was infuriating, however, was their pointed criticism of conservative Brahminical hypocrisy. As Basava put it, They say: Pour, pour the milk/When they see a snake image in stone/But they cry: Kill, kill!/When they meet a snake for real. The old scriptures were all, in theory, open to new ideas and thought. But custodians of these books were, in practise, merely custodians of their own privilege.

Basava’s movement was, in the end, violently crushed after the Lingayats dealt patriarchy and caste a combined blow by getting a Brahmin’s daughter married to an untouchable’s son. And in the centuries that followed, though Lingayatism retained its identity, it reached an accommodation with the power of the Brahmins. What was an “expressly anti-Brahmanical and anti-caste” movement transformed itself into a caste in a few centuries. “Defiance,” after all, as scholar A.K. Ramanujan said, “is not discontinuity.” Like Protestants in Europe, who sought a less corrupted version of the Christian faith, the Lingayats were a group that challenged tyranny and gave a voice to the marginalized. They may have resisted the Brahmin, but they are part of the same all-encompassing Hindu order that embraces everyone from the tree-worshipper to the atheist.

Today, however, the Lingayats question this classification. Are they, who celebrate Basava’s heterodox teachings, who uphold the vachanas of many remarkable women, who bury their dead and go to no temples, really Hindus? Proponents of Hindutva insist they are—where majoritarianism is the goal, one can hardly allow the dilution of the majority. In the medieval past, after Basava and his saints were gone, it was not easy to resist those with the power to insist and enforce. But armed with the freedoms of modernity—ideas that in the 12th century animated the minds of Lingayat thinkers—voices from within have been raised to assert precisely this claim of difference. M.M. Kalburgi said it, and Gauri Lankesh said it: the Lingayats are not Hindus. They are their own. The tragedy of course lies not in whether this is the right answer or whether it is wrong. It lies in the fact that both raised questions, and both are now dead.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 16 2017)


In 1874, The New York Times despatched a correspondent to India to survey the life of a fabulously wealthy man. Once he had been an even wealthier monarch, but by the time the journalist arrived, he had already spent decades in vastly reduced conditions, having lost his territories and squandered much of his money. From a kingdom the size of Scotland, Wajid Ali Shah now reigned over only an estate in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The sheer number of followers cramped into his premises, however, gave some impression of pomp—the grounds hosted over 7,000 people, including prostitutes, household guards, and dozens of disgruntled begums, not to speak of a menagerie of monkeys, bears, and 18,000 pigeons. “The Ex-King of Oude’s mimic kingdom,” the NYT called the establishment, and that is precisely what it was: a pale imitation of faded glories.

Wajid Ali Shah was a creative, difficult and interesting man. Born in 1822, he wore his hair in ringlets and dressed in robes that coyly exposed his left nipple. His early years were unremarkable but for his interest in music, dance and poetry—and for the ample proportions of his royal person. By the time he succeeded to the throne of Awadh in 1847, a state carved out of the crumbling Mughal empire, he had already produced works such as the Darya-yi-Ta’ashshuq (The River Of Love) and the Bahr-e ‘Ishq (The Ocean Of Affection). His plays were sensational productions that took months to put together, and every now and then the Shah threw grand parties—the Yogi Mela of 1853 saw his gardens opened to the masses, with everyone instructed to dress in saffron. In 1843, he directed a play on the deity Krishna, with four of his wives playing milkmaids and prancing around the stage.

Predictably, the heavily starched, completely avaricious British were displeased. “The Heir Apparent’s character holds no promise of good,” it was noted. His “temper is capricious and fickle, his days and nights are passed in the female apartments and he appears to have resigned himself to debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits”. This, of course, made for a wonderful excuse for annexation, so that even when the Shah made efforts to govern his kingdom well, producing an administrative manual called the Dastur-i-Wajidi, the British preferred to dismiss him as an imbecile. Less than a decade after his succession, when he was told in 1856 that his kingdom would be absorbed into British territory, the Shah cried, “Why have I deserved this? What (crime) have I committed?” There was no clear answer, but one hint lies in the fact that the East India Company owed him large amounts in debt. Why bother repaying a loan when liquidating your moneylender was a more comfortable option?

Some of the blame did lie with the Shah. He loved gun salutes from the British, but when it came to actually protecting his honour by fighting the annexation of his kingdom, it was his elderly mother who made more of a real (if abortive) effort by travelling to London. While the old lady died in an alien country, her son agreed to become a pensioner of the East India Company. Once Wajid Ali Shah commanded 60,000 men, but now he was reduced to a life of domestic frustration and chauvinistic rage. There was a time when he saw himself as a modern-day Krishna, a hero whose brilliance attracted women by the hundreds. But as his biographer Rosie Llewellyn-Jones notes, “For all his passionate love poetry, Wajid Ali Shah may have been one of those men who enjoy the pursuit and capture, but do not actually like women very much.”

Perhaps this stemmed from when he was sexually abused by a nanny at the age of 8or perhaps there were other reasons. About one wife he wrote: “Day and night I would loiter around her like one possessed.” But in 1849 he was dismayed to learn that what he got in return from her was gonorrhoea. He liked dark women, and an African wife was cheerfully named Ajaib Khanum (Strange Lady). Another consort, a descendant of a Mughal prince from his Anglo Indian wife, Sally Begum, was five years his senior, while of the eight women he divorced at his mother’s insistence, one, the redoubtable Begum Hazrat Mahal stayed on in Lucknow and waged war against the British in 1857; this lady too had more spirit than her ex-husband.

Having settled in Calcutta, Wajid Ali Shah got down to practical matters. In the next two decades, he divorced 50 of his remaining wives, but in 1878 when he tried to get rid of 27 more in one shot, the British were embarrassed—he could not simply shed begums, he was informed. The man responded with exasperation: “But the women are old and ugly!” When asked who should care for them, quick came his reply: “The Government.” By 1880, the principal queen was “living in adultery” with someone else, possibly due to sheer desperation—the king was a miser and saw a monthly allowance of Rs90 to his oldest son as perfectly generous when his own income was Rs12 lakh every year. The British, in turn, hadn’t quite counted on the man living so long and costing them grand amounts in pension.

When in September 1887, the Shah finally died, there was general relief not only among the authorities but also in his camp. “His ladies were nearly as numerous as his animals,” the governor-general’s wife recorded. “They (depart) at the rate of seven or eight a day…the slaves of an hard-hearted old man who cared more for his cobras and his wild beasts than he did for them.”

The Shah had once been heir to a kingdom and to a large fortune—a decade after Awadh’s annexation it was found that the British still owed the ex-king £2 million. He had reigned in style and patronized the arts. He was an inheritor who, were he not entrapped by prejudice and by colonial machinations, would have gone down as the creator of an even greater legacy. His downfall, however, turned him into an unhappy tyrant bent on preserving a miniature copy of his past—a past that came at the cost of depressing those who stood by him when calamity struck, and who only too late learnt that Wajid Ali, the Shah, had long predeceased Wajid Ali the embittered pensioner.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 09 2017)


When M.K. Gandhi arrived in Madras (now Chennai) in 1915, among those seeking a private audience with him was a man called V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. Gandhi, already a hero after his South Africa days, had several demands on his time and suggested, therefore, a quick meeting. His correspondent was not pleased. “I am afraid,” he replied, “that my conversation…will take more than the allotted ‘a few minutes’.” Apologizing sourly for “having intruded upon your precious time”, Pillai withdrew his request. Gandhi was puzzled. He now insisted on seeing the man, making equally sarcastic amends by requesting his time at 6am. “I cannot reach your place before 6.30am,” Pillai said, but finally, they did meet: the champion of Tuticorin and the Mahatma-in-waiting.

What ensued was a somewhat frustrating exchange between the two leaders—one whose political career was on the ascendant and another who not only found his best years behind him, but was also broke. Gandhi offered to help Pillai with money, and the latter readily accepted. But the amount was a long time coming. “Don’t you know at least approximately the total amount given…by your friend?” asked Pillai. “If you know it, can you not send me that amount or a major portion of it…so that it may be useful to me in my present difficult circumstances?” “Not yet,” snapped the Mahatma abruptly. In the end it took a year, but Gandhi did succeed in arranging Rs347 for Pillai, who was not only pleased by this satisfactory end to their exchange but also somewhat lighter of debt.

Pillai, who seemed to almost harass Gandhi with letters in 1915, was unrecognizable from the man who once handled lakhs of rupees and was a celebrated shipping magnate. Born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, he had followed his lawyer father’s instructions and become a pleader in 1894. But if Pillai Sr was pleased, his joys were short-lived—father and son soon found themselves on opposite sides of a case, and the latter demolished in court not only his esteemed parent’s arguments but also his father’s pride. It was decided that Pillai should move, so, in 1900, he parked himself in Tuticorin. Influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, he embraced swadeshiactivities, but it was in 1906 that the cause which would define his life came to him, putting him on a path that would bring pain as much as it would achievement, accumulating honour but also inviting an unhappy fate.

At the time, Tuticorin was an established centre for shipping, with thousands using its harbour. But the entire industry was in the hands of British companies who were in bed with the colonial government. So when in October 1906 Pillai opened the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, there was first a great deal of condescension, followed by an equal measure of anger. Pillai’s ambitions were high—though services were restricted to Tuticorin and Colombo, Swadeshi aimed to “popularize the art of Navigation” among “Nations of the East”, to employ “Asiatics”, to open dockyards, and do whatever it could to revitalize India’s maritime traditions.

Many prominent Indians invested in Pillai’s venture, while local merchants were persuaded to ply goods on his hired steamer, the Shah Allum. “This,” reported a newspaper, “has naturally aroused the jealousy of the British Indian Steam Navigation Company…. The competition…is very keen…. The authorities have not always been impartial. The impression that the white Civilian is likely to favour the white trader is gaining ground.” The owner of Shah Allum was prevailed upon to withdraw his vessel, for instance.

Undeterred, Pillai not only acquired ships from abroad but also sailed into Tuticorin flying flags emblazoned with Vande Mataram. The British authorities threw all they could his way, but Pillai’s energy saw him through—that is, till two years later, his politics produced an excuse to destroy his commercial enterprise as well.

In 1908, a magistrate ordered Pillai, who was planning a procession to celebrate the release from prison of Bipin Chandra Pal, to leave the city. He refused and was arrested. On 13 March, things got out of hand—mobs set fire to public buildings, made bonfires of state records, and for days Tuticorin witnessed riots, with four people losing their lives. Pillai was given 20 years in prison—the judge held him “morally responsible” for the deaths.

Eventually, the Madras high court reduced the sentence to four years. But while Pillai languished under a particularly sadistic jailor, his company collapsed, his family was bankrupted, and all his friends disappeared. By the time he emerged in 1912, he was not only poor but also forgotten. Moving to Madras, he set up a shop there, earning also by tutoring college students. Though a judge called Wallace restored his legal licence (to thank whom Pillai named his son Wallacewaran), the man’s career was essentially over.

In 1949, Pillai was brushed up and restored to public memory. Governor general C. Rajagopalachari came to Tuticorin after independence and flagged off a shipping service to Colombo—the first vessel was named the SS VO Chidambaram. Statues of the forgotten hero were installed and flowers and garlands were heaped to honour his legacy. It was a decade too late though—in 1936, Pillai had died in penury, surviving his last days by selling his law books and ruminating on all that he had once been. As he had remarked many years before, all someone in his position could do was trust in god, “who is any day a surer master of destiny” than a once famous lawyer and businessman drowning in an ocean of disappointment and sorrow.

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 02 2017)


Legend has it that in 52 AD, when St Thomas the Apostle landed on the shores of Kerala, the first person he encountered was a flute-playing Jewish girl. This sliver of India’s coast, where Onam festivities are underway this week, has long embraced people of all kinds and of all faiths. St Thomas himself, it is said, traversed the land, establishing seven churches so that long before Christianity touched even the outskirts of Europe, there were already Christians in India—a little detail that confounded the Portuguese who arrived 1,500 years later and “discovered” brown “natives” wedded already to the word of Christ. The Christians of Kerala, however, looked to the Patriarch of Antioch in modern-day Turkey as their leader. And so, when white men presumed to claim their ancient churches for the pope, quick came the retort: “Who is the Pope?” The Portuguese responded with instant persecution, but some of it was also sheer bewilderment—bewilderment of the variety shared by Indians of a certain persuasion today as they propagate a regrettable political cause.

Kerala, presently at the receiving end of hysteria that frames it as a “killing field” of Hindus, welcomed Christians and absorbed them into its social and cultural fabric, as it did with all who preceded them (such as the Jews) and all who came afterwards (for instance, the Muslims). In the 16th century, the raja of Kochi maintained thousands of Christians in his armies, while Christian merchants controlled trade in the port of Kollam. One traveller recorded that “there is no distinction either in their habits, or in their hair (style), or in anything else betwixt the Christians of this diocese and the heathen” Hindus, and there was tolerance of intermarriage too till the end of the 1500s. In the Krishna temple in Ambalappuzha, an image representing St Thomas used to be carried in procession alongside those of Hindu divinities on festive occasions, while in Chengannur, a Brahmin prince gifted a half-built temple to his Christian subjects, today home to the oldest church in that town. Even more revealingly, across the coast, there were Hindu shrines where only oil “purified” by the touch of a Christian could serve to light lamps and sacred fires.

The legends of Kerala too reflect this seamless pluralism. St Thomas, for instance, is supposed to have parleyed with the goddess Bhagavathy at the harbour in Pallippuram. They commenced a discussion on their respective faiths, till, many hours having passed, the goddess grew weary, and decided to return to her sanctum in Kodungallur. “St Thomas,” Francis Day tells, “not to be outdone, rapidly gave chase, and just as Bhagavathy got inside the door post, prevented its closing.” As Susan Bayly, the anthropologist, explains, both Bhagavathy and St Thomas are perceived as equally divine in this story, their chase tinged with a hint of romance. And while the Apostle did not gain access to Bhagavathy’s shrine and followers, he secured a “significant foothold” in the region. So too there are other shrines featuring heroes from religions that certain groups vehemently insist are antithetical to all that is Hindu—to this day, devotees visiting the Sabarimala temple pay obeisance first to the deity’s Muslim friend Vavaraswami aka Vavar, a name that sounds (painfully, to some) like Babur.

Embracing difference naturally birthed prosperity—in Kozhikode, Arabs collaborated with the Hindu Zamorin, transforming his capital into one of the great cities of the medieval world. Specific families too profited from welcoming those who were not like them—the Aithihyamaala (Legends Of Kerala) narrates the tale of Pandanparambath Namboodiri, a Brahmin who escaped poverty through his friendship with a Chinese merchant. While there are gripping stories in Kerala’s regional mythology of Hindu priests exorcising spirits, there are also Christian padres who sapped the power of evil. In the Kali temple in Parumala there is a yakshi defeated by a Christian—a Kathanar—who transformed her into a minor deity. Parvathi in the great temple of Chengannur menstruates, and locals tell of the donation made in the 1810s by the British Resident for her ceremonial bath. Kerala’s only Muslim dynasty was matrilineal, like Hindu royalty, and daughters had an equal claim with sons when it came to sitting on the throne—if a girl preceded a boy, she reigned as the Arakkal Beevi; if a boy came first, he was the Ali Raja. And the Beevis kept no purdah with the Hindu princes of nearby Kannur.

Then there is the matter of caste. Kerala was a veritable “lunatic asylum” of caste oppression, but it also became the land where some of India’s oldest reform movements appeared—Sri Narayana Guru, who lent spiritual force to the rise of the Ezhava community from poverty to power; Ayyankali, who wrested from high-caste Hindus the right for Dalits to walk on the road, and much more. And there is legend too that wryly points at the common origins of all these diverse castes. The sage Vararuchi, son of Sankaracharya’s preceptor, married a pariah woman, and fathered 12 children with her. One became a Brahmin, another a carpenter, and one was even a Muslim. Yet another sibling, when they all met for a feast, brought to the table food that he enjoyed: the udder of a cow, or beef if you will. Of course the story goes on to transform the meat into a plant that everyone then consumed, but the lesson is simply that though they were different in what they did and what they ate, they were all born of the same parents, and children of the same land.

And so it is, as Kerala celebrates its state festival—Hindus, Christians, Muslims all together, as always—that we must recall how its past was shaped, and where its future is going. For, after all, this is the age when alien ideologies shroud history in dark agendas of the present, seeking to transform a vibrant landscape into a universe of black and white, reducing a fascinating historical record into a narrow, tragic journey of us versus them.