(My column in Mint Lounge, May 27 2017)

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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.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 20 2017)

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In his poignant Partition story Khol Do (1948), Saadat Hasan Manto presents a traumatically widowed father desperately seeking his missing daughter. He describes her features to a group of boys and prays for their success in finding her. They locate the girl, but the old man only sees his daughter many days later, on a hospital stretcher, having been retrieved from a railway track. The doctor in charge asks him to open the windows—khol do—but response to the command comes from the half-conscious girl. Instinctively, her hands undo the knot of her trousers, and she pushes them down to her thighs, spreading her legs. The father rejoices—the girl is alive. But the doctor breaks into a sweat. Partition wasn’t only about drawing boundaries.

It was with this story that Manto arrived in Pakistan, and for his pains he was promptly slapped with a lawsuit for obscenity. In the end, he had to pay Rs300 for the mirror he had held up, but this was, by 1950, a familiar exercise—he had already battled charges of vulgarity thrice before in colonial India and would face it once again in postcolonial Pakistan. As always, fuelled also by alcohol and cycles of depression, he remained defiant. “How,” he asked, “could I bare a culture, civilization and society that is already naked?” People could call him “black-penned, but I don’t write on the blackboard with black chalk; I use white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.” Understandably, the man upset many.

Manto was born in May 1912 and grew up in Amritsar. On the side of his father, a stiffly starched judge, he was descended from Kashmiri traders, while his mother, a neglected second wife, was Pathan. All his father’s sons from the first wife were samples of upper-class correctness, educated abroad to become barristers and engineers. Manto alone was an embarrassment, a “slacker, gambler, drinker…and inveterate prankster…an entirely unworthy son of an honourable and respected man”. He once roused Amritsar into a nationalistic frenzy by manufacturing a rumour that the British had sold the Taj Mahal to the Americans, but more scandalously he kept in his bedroom, alongside his father’s photograph, posters of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich (whose legs he apparently admired).

Energetic, mischievous and headstrong, it took him three attempts to get through school (where he failed Urdu, the language that would deliver him to fame), while at university in Aligarh he barely lasted a year. But the dropout was sensitive, talented, and married his keen interest for the marginalized with unyielding scorn for hypocrisy. Part of this came from his family’s second-class treatment in his father’s home, and the rest from resenting discipline of any kind. Critics said he was influenced by Freud and Marx and Chekhov and Tolstoy, but as his biographer and grand-niece Ayesha Jalal writes, Manto himself viewed “his proclivity for storytelling as quite simply a product of the tensions generated by the clashing influences of a stern father and a gentle-hearted mother”.

“A man remains a man,” he once observed, “no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore.” His was not sympathy as much as a genuine understanding of experiences common to women and the powerless. When lambasted for highlighting unvarnished characters from the peripheries of society, he asked: “If one could talk about temples and mosques, then why could one not talk about whorehouses from where many people went to temples and mosques?” There was greater sincerity, he felt, in the life of the prostitute than in that of a mahatma, and his stories were wedded to reality, eschewing romance and all idealism except that of humanity.

Manto began in the early 1930s as a film critic, quite by accident, and then became a translator. By 1934, he had published his story, Tamasha, and two years later, produced his first collection even as he left Amritsar for Lahore and, then, what was Bombay (Mumbai). By 1940, he was in Delhi, married to Safia, whose influence enriched his work, and whose parents gave him a roof, for he was still no richer in the pocket. He had a job with All India Radio, and it was now that Manto became a household name, producing in two years over a hundred plays to air. In his usual uncompromising style, he also managed to provoke many at his workplace, storming out eventually with his typewriter when they attempted to revise his works.

Between 1942-46, Manto lived in Bombay again, writing film scripts and making some money, afflicted, however, by a feeling of inadequacy. “I have started drinking a lot, not so that I can write… but actually to find something within me that I have to do.” Whatever he had achieved so far, he felt, was “a mere travesty”, but really it was powerful writing. “It is a rule in every respectable country…that the dead, even if one’s enemies, are spoken of in positive terms…. I damn such a respectable world and society where as a rule the character of the dead is sent to a laundry for a wash…. In my reformatory there is no support, no shampoo, no hair-curling machine…I am not a make-up artist…all the angels in my book have their heads shaved, and I have performed that ritual with great finesse.”

Partition for Manto was not about politics. “I think only of (raped women’s) bloated bellies—what will happen to those bellies?” Would the offspring “belong” to Pakistan or India? When he moved to Lahore, many in India felt betrayed. But Manto, despite the 127 stellar stories he would produce there, wasn’t particularly cheerful about his new passport either, lapsing again into alcoholism. The bottle killed him in 1955, and he left behind Safia and three daughters. Honour was heaped on him in death, but it was precisely the kind of honour he despised, warning in advance that he would take it as “a great insult” to be garlanded by a “fickle-minded” state. Yet garlands were what he received, for after all, as one critic wrote, he had left behind “pearls of truth”, albeit with the warning that if “we find the truth bitter, it is not Manto who is to blame”.

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 06 2017)

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When Nakhuda Mithqal, a Yemeni merchant trading with China and Persia, built what is today called the Mishkal Mosque in Kozhikode, little did he envision the significance this structure would assume over 600 years later as a testament to India’s pluralism. For while the going fallacy presents the subcontinent’s inaugural encounter with Islam as a resounding clash featuring blood and war, Mishkal is a reminder that the Prophet’s religion arrived in our land through peaceful embassies of commerce. Indeed, not only was Islam welcomed and embraced in the south, but the first mosque was consecrated on Indian shores in 629 AD, during the very lifetime of Muhammad, nearly a century before invaders forced their way into Sindh and opened a different kind of history in the north.

That ancient mosque still stands in Kodungallur, but it was in Kozhikode that Nakhuda chose to build his monument. By the 13th century, this Kerala port had emerged as one of the world’s great trading cities, and its Hindu rulers—the Zamorins—persuaded every fisherman to raise one son as a Muslim to sail in the eastern seas—Hindus lost caste if they ventured too far into the ocean. The Zamorin’s allies included the sultan of Egypt, the Ottoman Turks and the Deccani Shahs, whom he implored in the 16th century to declare jihad against the Portuguese reign of terror in international waters. Nakhuda was a celebrated merchant in the Zamorin’s capital and the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of his tremendous wealth in his famous travelogue in the 1300s. Mishkal, and a Jami mosque, remain even today two of the city’s most important places of worship.

Kozhikode was reputed for absorbing all kinds of people and cultures. As late as the 17th century, “merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations”, lived there by “reason of the liberty and security accorded to them” and in “free exercise” of their faiths. While Arabs enjoyed overwhelming influence here, Jews controlled much of the commerce in Kochi, while further south in Kollam, Christians were in charge. And they all built sites of worship that were not only embodiments of devotion, but also ideals of cultural cross-pollination. The old Syrian Christian church in Chengannur, for instance, resembles the Hindu temples of its time, and the rites and rituals of all religions were influenced by those of their counterparts with whom they were in constant conversation.

Mishkal, for instance, is firm in its commitment to Islam—there has been a qazi here since 1343—but so, too, is it firm in its union with the land where it stands. Painted in turquoise blue, the structure has no dome and no minarets but multi-tiered gables and the tiled roof typical of Kerala buildings. Its 47 doors and 24 carved pillars display the workmanship of the same guilds that constructed the Zamorin palaces, and the exquisite motifs on the minbar from where the message of god is preached bears a direct affinity to the carvings adorning Hindu temples. The structure is set on a base of stone and steps run around the building where up to 1,000 faithful have gathered at a time for centuries and bowed to distant Mecca. Kerala, after all, had greater intercourse with Arabia than it did with even parts of India.

It was the Portuguese who introduced conflict into this universe. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Kozhikode in 1498, an Arab exclaimed, “The devil take thee! What brings you here?” It was a quest for Christians and spices that motivated the Portuguese, besides their economic ambition to displace Arabs from control of capital and the seas. The Zamorin refused to expel Muslims from his city as was presumptuously demanded, so the Portuguese disrupted trade. A ship full of Muslim pilgrims was burnt (after it was plundered, of course), and a Brahmin envoy was sent back with a dog’s ears sewed on. The Portuguese had no stake in peace.

Mishkal features significantly in a 1510 confrontation between the Portuguese and Kozhikode. The Zamorin and his forces were engaged elsewhere and the Portuguese arrived with 1,800 men to sack his capital. One commander, it is recorded, “forced his way with impetuous valour through the streets…and reached the royal residence”. But while he proceeded to ransack the palace, leaving not even two bejewelled doors in their frame, a (possibly exaggerated) force of 30,000 men descended upon the city for its defence. The enemy made to retreat, but locals occupied the roofs and “poured upon (them) a continued shower of darts; while (the invaders) entangled in narrow lanes and avenues, could neither advance nor recede”. By the time the white men reached the beach, hundreds were dead, including the over-bold commander.

The Zamorin, on his return, was furious. The Portuguese had set fire to the city and destroyed Mishkal. The ruler didn’t forget the insult. In 1570, generations after this episode, his heirs succeeded in demolishing completely a fort the Portuguese raised in Chaliyam, “leaving,” a contemporary recorded, “not one stone upon another”. All these stones and the wood from Chaliyam were carried into Kozhikode and placed in the yard at Mishkal for the mosque—the structure we see today, over five centuries later, still bears marks from the assault of 1510, but also features walls and doors made from material seized from the Portuguese who assaulted it in the first place.

Today, amid talk about consecrating a Hindu temple upon the ruins of a violently destroyed mosque, perhaps it would be worth reflecting on Mishkal, where a Hindu king reconstructed a Muslim place of worship, and avenged those who were not followers of his faith but were still his people. The Portuguese brought blood and hate into their world, but together this Hindu king and his Muslim subjects chose a greater ideal, preserving in Mishkal both a house of god as well as a timeless principle.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2017)

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Not many in India today remember William Jones, though at the time of his death in April 1794, he enjoyed what a biographer calls “one of the most phenomenal reputations of all time”. To some he was Persian Jones, the translator of the Tariq-i-Nadiri, while others, after he founded the Asiatic Society in today’s Kolkata, called him, predictably, Asiatic Jones. To one not entirely enraptured crowd, he was Republican Jones, what with his “seditious, treasonable, and diabolical” ideas about popular education and universal (male) suffrage. But as far as India was concerned, it was in his avatar as Oriental Jones that he became one of the sincerest interpreters of our land in the West.

To be sure, Jones was not devoid of imperial prejudice. “I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will,” he argued, “be governed by absolute power.” As a British judge, he scoffed at any political conception of Indianness; it was India’s historical accomplishments he thought profoundly admirable. “I never was unhappy in England,” he once wrote, “but I never was happy till I settled in India.” Part of it, admittedly, had to do with the splendid £6,000 salary that had attracted him here in the first place—Jones calculated that a decade in India promised stately retirement when finally, unencumbered by financial distress, he could pursue assorted intellectual interests.

Jones was born in 1746 to the daughter of a cabinetmaker and a 71-year-old mathematician, whose peers included Isaac Newton. His father died but the cabinetmaker’s daughter gave him a good education—a worthwhile investment, given his prodigious appetite for learning. By 13, Jones had written his first poem, and by the time of his death knew a grand total of 28 languages. A desire to read the Bible in the original drew him to Hebrew, and an interest in Confucius led him to Chinese. He thought Greek poetry “sublime” but when he “tasted Arabic and Persian poetry”, his enthusiasm for Greek “began to dry up”. The only language he never learnt was his native Welsh.

By his mid-20s, Jones had authored several books and was recognized as an authority on the East. But while accolades and a knighthood arrived, the want of a steady income brought inescapable pressures. “I was surrounded by friends, acquaintances and relatives who encouraged me to expel from my way of life…poetry and Asian literature.” They wanted him to “become a barrister and be devoted to ambition”. He agreed, but managed to orient his legal interests also towards the East, producing the forbiddingly named Mahomedan Law Of Succession To The Property Of Intestates. Naturally, his political ambitions floundered.

It was in 1783, when not yet 37, that he came to India. But, in his typical fashion, he connected his pursuit of money with a pursuit of intellectual stimulation. He drew up a list of 16 subjects, ranging from the Mughal and Maratha political systems to the “Music of the Eastern Nations” and “Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians”, to investigate. And it took him only a year-long glance at India’s cultural riches, to constitute the Asiatic Society—the body that, among other things, reminded Indians of a figure we ourselves had forgotten: emperor Ashoka.

But what struck Jones most was language. “Sanskrit,” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “fascinated him…. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasures of Sanskrit literature.” It began with professional demands—Jones could interpret Islamic law without translators, but Hindu codes evaded him. To rectify this, a pandit was hired on a princely retainer to give him lessons, and soon Jones built up a vocabulary of 10,000 words. When Brahmins in Benares refused to translate the Manusmriti for him, he simply produced his own: The Ordinances Of Manu.

Soon he felt a deeper affection for Sanskrit poetry. “By rising before the sun,” wrote Jones, “I allot an hour every day…and am charmed with knowing so beautiful a sister of Latin and Greek.” It was the first time a familial bond was established between Sanskrit and the classical languages of European antiquity. And there were other dots of history that Jones joined. The Palibothra of the Greeks he connected to Pataliputra. Sadracottus, he discovered, was none other than Chandragupta. India’s past came alive in a wider context, with its own philosophers and emperors, but what gripped our polymath was Kalidasa and his Shakuntala. And through him, Europe was transfixed.

Translated in 1789, Jones’ Sacontalá: The Fatal Ring inspired Goethe to declare: “I should like to live in India myself…Sakontala, Nala, they have to be kissed.” Interestingly, Jones did not only translate—there was censorship, given the moral predispositions of the West. Where Kalidasa spoke of Shakuntala’s “breasts no longer firm”, Jones accepted his remarks on ageing cheeks and shoulders but omitted the breasts completely. In a way Jones modelled a new Shakuntala—a prototype of European virtue, as opposed to the sensuous Shakuntala Kalidasa described; an Indian woman born of Western idealism. Indians too embraced this paragon of chastity over her erotically charged predecessor, much like so many Western slants came to be accepted as unquestionably (and “purely”) Indian.

By 1794, Jones declared a new mission. His incomplete desiderata featured Panini’s grammar, the Vedas, the Puranas, and more. It was a tragic twist that within the year he was dead—the climate never agreed with him—and a grave was built for him in India. “The best monument that can be erected to a man of literary talents,” he once said, “is a good edition of his works.” His widow published a collection, enshrining in it his legacy as the decipherer of India for the West. The West itself, sadly though, dismissed Jones, going down a path of racism and control in a few years. Virtuous or not, Shakuntala became altogether preposterous. And India, they decided, was not only never great, but never could be; the India Jones saw was a myth, all his work a fallacy. And soon, the Raj became our reality.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 22 2017)

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To visit the great temple in Madurai today is to navigate a dozen streets and discover an army of beggars besieging the 700-year-old structure. Some beggars are old, but many are young and quick. There are beggars with bowls, and beggars with babies. But they all have a peculiar confidence when seeking donations. The temple, after all, welcomes about 15,000 visitors on a routine day, and collections from even a fraction of this host are enough to sustain their economy on the streets. The solicitation of money is made with an almost defiant sweetness—if you don’t drop coins, there are others who will.

For all its known history, Madurai has been dominated by this temple, with its 33,000 sculptures and magnificent towers of monumental height. The Greeks traded here and as early as 21 BC, a Tamil embassy was welcomed in Rome. The eunuch general from Delhi, Malik Kafur, came uninvited to relieve the city of its burdensome riches in the early 14th century, and some generations later, Roberto de Nobili showed up seeking flocks of Christians. The Italian convinced local priests that he was from a line of ancient, lost Roman Brahmins, flaunting a sacred thread, and by 1610 teaching the gospel in fluent Tamil and Telugu.

The story of the Meenakshi temple, though, is the tale of a woman—a fearsome warrior queen transformed into a lovable goddess; a formidable mortal tranquillized into divine immortality. The Story Of The Sacred Games (also called Tiruvilaiyadal puranam), a 13th century poem in 64 rich chapters, begins with a melancholy Pandyan king. “I was without a son,” he remembers, “and I performed great sacrifices for a long time. (And when that failed) I performed the sacrifice that was supposed to produce a son.” Soon he received a child, but the three-year-old that emerged from the flames was a girl. “But God!” cried the king, “even though this girl has come with a face that shines like the moon, she has three breasts!”

So it was that Meenakshi—she with fish eyes, a political superlative since the fish was the totem of the Pandyas—made her appearance on earth. Her father worried that her three nipples “will make even enemies laugh”, and languished in “depression and unhappiness”. He had sought a child but what he got was a freak. But a voice from the heavens reassured him and the three-nippled girl was raised as a boy, dissolving boundaries of gender and sex. When (s)he came of age, her parents said it was time to marry. (S)he, however, decided it was time to conquer the world.

With a furious army, Meenakshi set out from Madurai. Indra, Lord of the Heavens, fled at the very sight of his foe—and nobody laughed any more at the third nipple. Soon the conqueror climbed the Himalayas to battle Shiva. But when the fish-eyed one gazed upon him, the third breast disappeared and she became a regular woman. Or as the poem tells it, she “became bashful, passive, and fearful. She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its blossoms. Her heavy dark hair fell on her neck. She looked downward, toward her feet… And there she stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with her toes.”

Soon they were married, and the rest of the poem shows Shiva as its hero, pulling the strings where once his wife had led. It is suspicious how Sacred Games seeks to establish his power, almost as if to compensate for the reality that was the superiority of his wife—to this day, it is Meenakshi who is worshipped first, not Shiva. They share eight festivals, but she has four dedicated only to her while her husband has none. Shiva too, in practice, was Pandyanized. His animal skins were discarded for silk, the serpents he wore replaced by bejewelled ornaments. He is Shiva in name but a different kind of Shiva.

Inside the temple, there are sculptures still of others who, like Meenakshi, were born different. There is a representation of her in stone, all three breasts intact, before her union with god made her more “normal”. There is Arjuna not only as the feared warrior of the Mahabharat but also as Arjuni, in female form, and as Brihannala, in the third gender—he has the face of a man, with a drooping moustache and a long beard, but the body of a woman, with full breasts. Besides transgenders, there is also room in the tube-lit temple premises for autosexuals—the halls feature self-fellating lions, under some of whom sit pilgrims, children, and ticket vendors.

Was there really once an androgynous queen with three nipples whose exploits inspired Sacred Games? Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to India, refers to the legend of a princess wedded to a god, but seeking history in song is a self-defeating exercise. What matters is the devotion Meenakshi inspired then and still inspires today. Some view her marriage with Shiva as the absorption, at last, of a resilient local goddess into the wider Hindu framework, where her independent power was surrendered in favour of a greater cause and more correct femininity. But the pilgrims who come to Madurai to pay obeisance to Meenakshi—not her husband—keep alive the flame of the original triple-breasted warrior.

And like the politely defiant beggars outside, every pillar and stone defies the story woven in Sacred Games in celebration of a memory from long, long before, when the abnormal resisted the normal, and when a princess reigned before she was turned into a goddess.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 15 2017)

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If you go to Florence with the twisted desire to behold Galileo Galilei’s remains, there are two places to visit. If your interest lies in withered, physical fragments of genius, you must walk to the Museum of Science where a glass egg holds his middle finger—something he once raised in constructive opposition to the Catholic church—with two other digits and one tooth for company. The balance of Galileo’s body, enclosed in the integrity of a magnificent tomb, lies in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where his shriveled companions range from Machiavelli to Michelangelo (whose corpse “admirers” smuggled from Rome—evidently stealing the dead was acceptable conduct in those days).

The basilica is a spectacular structure in a spectacular city and for 600 years someone or the other was still building it—it was only in 1863 that the marble façade was fixed. I parked myself on a bench outside and read about the great man buried inside, acting with self-conscious decorum before locals sitting on the steps, drinking beer by the evening light. Galileo, at any rate, would not have objected to the alcohol—when, in contravention of sacred, irrational traditions, he wrote The Assayer (1623), a foundational work for modern physics and methods of science, one orthodox critic suggested that perhaps Galileo was suffering from an overdose of wine.

Born in 1564, Galileo was the son of a musician. After a boyhood in Florence, he went to university in Pisa, affronting its masters by demonstrating uncommon intelligence. Acquiring considerable numerical knowledge, he declared that the “book of Nature is written in mathematical language. Its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures” without which “one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth” of religious ignorance. Naturally, with outrageous ideas like this, he returned to Florence broke and without prospects. His popularity with students, however, rescued him—Pisa hired him as a lecturer, where he impressed pupils with his contrarian charisma, composing such memorable lines as, “Only wear gowns/if you’re a dimwit who frowns.”

Over the years, Galileo moved about a great deal, struggling to earn a living and to support his mistress. The Medici grand dukes of Florence, whose imprint remains visible across the city, patronized him and, later, extended protection. In 1605 he tutored a Medici and in 1609 he annoyed this Medici’s mother—oblivious to the difference between an astronomer and an astrologer, she commissioned him to produce her dying husband’s horoscope. A debt-ridden Galileo, without irony, accepted, prophesizing a delightfully extended future for the ailing duke, guaranteed by the heavens. As it happened, the man died within the week.

Galileo’s greatest successes did, however, come from the stars. The telescope, invented in 1609, allowed, as R. Hooke wrote, a “transmigration into heaven, even whil’st we remain here upon earth in the flesh”. Galileo developed a model 30 times more powerful than the Dutch prototype to investigate the skies. Soon he showed that the moon was not a smooth, divine orb, but a place with mountains and craters—all the imperfections of Earth afflicted heaven too. He discovered Jupiter’s moons and the phases of Venus, concluding in 1612 that Earth was not the centre of the universe, as certified by the Bible, but that it revolved around the sun with infinite space beyond, of which we were but a tiny fragment.

It was a fascinating time. In 1610, Galileo had published his Starry Messenger (immodestly hinting that his consequence to history was greater than could be commemorated by any memorial now). Thinkers across Europe were animated by the possibilities this opened up. Space travel appeared in Francis Godwin’s The Man In The Moone (1628) and within a decade it was suggested that one day humans would indeed venture beyond Earth. Other works of fiction like The States & Empires Of The Moon (1657)—featuring four-legged aliens and rockets—explored the theory that there might be other habitable worlds out there. This was more than just creative writing: Fiction offered a safer avenue to articulate controversial ideas in the teeth of papal opposition without fearing charges of heresy.

Galileo, however, was hardly the diplomatic type. He began his damning Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems (1632) on an understanding with the pope that he could articulate his view but must concede that Christian traditions were paramount. Galileo did the exact opposite, and soon found himself tried by powerful men with small minds, contemplating techniques for his liquidation. In the end he was prevailed upon to state that he “abjured, cursed, and detested” his theory of Earth’s revolution around the sun, muttering “but it still moves” defiantly under his breath. Partly because there were sympathetic factions within the church, it was decided that the man would not be roasted. He was to spend the rest of his days under house arrest.

When old, blind Galileo died in 1642, the Medici sought to bury him inside Santa Croce beside other great sons of Florence—the pope objected and it would take 95 years of persuasion before the remains were installed inside the basilica. My own visit to Santa Croce ended in disappointment, though—the doors were shut and I couldn’t enter to view the spot where Galileo lies. I had to satisfy myself through a picture pamphlet instead. Rising from the bench outside and from the gaze of the beer drinkers, I performed a perambulation of the building; a consolatory revolution of my own around the resting place of the man who revealed to us science’s great truths, toppling, in the process, God and God’s voice on Earth.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 08 2017)

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By the time of his demise in 1906, critics were convinced that Ravi Varma would feature right on top of the “rubbish heap” of Indian art. To Aurobindo, he was “the grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture”, a “superstition” that “received its quietus” at last in death. To Ananda Coomaraswamy, who allegedly based his denunciations on Varma’s prints rather than actual oils, his “fatal flaws” were “theatrical conceptions, want of imagination, and lack of Indian feeling”. The gods Varma painted were “in a very common mould”, aggravated by the “unsavoury” singers and prostitutes on whom they were modelled. Sister Nivedita found Shakuntala profoundly “ill-bred”, fuming that thanks to Varma, “every home contains a picture of a fat young woman lying full length on the floor writing a letter on a lotus leaf”. His paintings were indecorous, imitative, and simply not real art—they belonged on the cheap calendars where Varma himself apparently doomed them forever.

While price tags aren’t a dignified vindication of the value of any creative work, the auction of Varma’s Damayanti in New York recently for $1.6 million (around Rs11 crore) is a plausible indicator that a century after diabetes rested his brush, the artist retains appeal among more than just connoisseurs of calendars. His romantic Indian themes, immersed in mythology, were one reason for his immense popularity but “the appeal of his heroines”, Partha Mitter wrote, “lay in the fact that they were not iconographic types, but palpable, desirable human beings”. Then there was the historical period during which he crafted his reputation—nascent nationalism made his oleographs of Shivaji a rage in Maharashtra. Brahmins visited his studio to “gaze in wonder” at his splendid canvases, and poorer homes acquired prints of gods they worshipped but could never visualize—not at affordable prices anyway.

Interestingly, as Vidya Dehejia noted, Varma was “the progenitor of fair skin as an ideal of feminine beauty in Indian popular visual art”, an innovation favourably received in colonial times, penetrating masses of minds through Varma’s lithographs. He was, in this respect, influenced by un-ancient yardsticks. On the one hand, it was his aristocratic roots that steeped him in Sanskrit tales of Draupadi and Radha. But, on the other, when he portrayed these protagonists on canvas, attributes were altered to fit conventions of the day. Unlike old sculptures, they could no longer be scantily clad, and so appeared exquisite drapery. And unlike ancient poetry—from Kalidasa to the Kamasutra—they could no longer be dark-skinned, since that ideal had made way for the model of fairness. So it was that his Damayanti and Shakuntala were paler than their literary ancestors—dark strokes were reserved for lower-class women.

My own favourite Ravi Varma, however, is an obscure canvas that features a decidedly upper-caste woman of redoubtable bearing, confident in her darkness and the authority with which she occupies the frame. Glaring at the viewer (or perhaps the painter who presumed to deem fairness a requisite for beauty), this is a formidable woman who towers over the pale faces populating Varma’s better-known paintings. The difference is that this is a portrait, but while Varma ordinarily flattered his patrons by enhancing their attractive features, this one is marked by originality—he daren’t take liberties with a single characteristic of his uncompromising subject.

Her name was Mahaprabha, daughter of Chamunda. Married to an uncle of Varma’s, she was a descendant of kings, and mother of queens. But for our purposes Mahaprabha can be identified primarily as Varma’s mother-in-law—the woman with whose daughter he had a troubled marriage (which forms a significant narrative component in an awful biographical film that countered Varma’s heights of feminine beauty by depicting him as a muscular flirt with a shaved chest). Mahaprabha was, in family circles, believed to be precisely the kind of woman her painting shows her to be. “All were in awe of her and she was feared and respected,” remarked a descendant to me, and “her opinions were never refuted as none dared contradict her views”. Varma painted her as she was, without softening her piercing gaze and pronounced features.

Lambasted by J. Swaminathan for his “vulgar naturalism”, Varma was actually not from a world of fair women in silk saris writing letters and awaiting lovers—his mother was dark, regal, and an accomplished poet. His wife and her royal sisters were not fair, but were attractive women of personality (with the capacity to flout rules—Varma’s wife acquired an “addiction to drink” despite orthodox settings). Yet the growing preference for fairness took root among them too, hastened by his brush. His older daughter modelled for him thanks to her fine features and complexion (though he toned down the authority writ across her face to produce a delicate air), while a dark-skinned second daughter was destined to live in her sibling’s shadow, considered less beautiful, though not less headstrong and powerful.

There is splendour and beauty in Varma’s mythological creations like Damayanti, and these played a role in the modern re-conception of our pre-modern past, shaping nationalism and cultural confidence in a colonial age. But the portrait of Mahaprabha represents the reality of the world that created the painter—a world with a different aesthetic, not suited for pan-Indian appeal, but singularly striking. While Varma’s work is dismissed as kitsch, this is a painting that stands against his own idealizations—the woman here is not coy; she is firm in her gaze. She is not dainty, but full of force. She is real and not amenable to artistic manipulations of form and colour—it is the background he made pale, not the woman’s skin. And this very manifestation of her reality makes her, to me, more magnificent than Varma’s breathtaking mythological canvases.

If one day Mahaprabha appears at auction, I wonder what value they would assign her. For she goes back to the time before Varma gave us the cultural imagery for which he is celebrated, to a time when he had no freedom to represent truth with romance, and had to paint in oil reality as reality was, big nose, dark skin and more.

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 01 2017)

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The appearance recently of a series of books on India and the Raj shows that the history of empire is once again in fashion. There is Jon Wilson’s magisterial India Conquered, which investigates the manufacturing of British power in India, and Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears Of The Rajas, which explores its traumatic corollary. Shashi Tharoor delivers a withering review of colonial exploitation in An Era Of Darkness, while Walter Reid, in Keeping The Jewel In The Crown, exposes British perfidy in the closing chapter of Pax Britannica. Most of these books succumb, however, to sometimes painting history in black and white—Curzon, as this column has argued before, earned points as a villain for partitioning Bengal, but it was also he who restored India’s monuments and preserved our historical heritage.

It’s a slippery proposition, but what character might India have developed had the British never prevailed? Would the south have existed as an autonomous unit, possibly under French influence? After all, by the mid-18th century the French had booted the English even out of Madras, and established a robust peninsular presence. The chief of Pondicherry was dignified by the Mughal emperor as a nawab and managed to keep the Marathas at bay (apparently by plying the commander’s lady with alcohol). Tipu Sultan was a friend of the French, and had it not been for revolutionary convulsions in the 1790s that preoccupied his allies overseas, he might have received the assistance he needed to vanquish the British. More endearingly, Tipu entertained plans to educate his sons in France, and given his interest in engineering, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution may well have found their way to Srirangapatna via Paris. As it happened, the French enterprise collapsed, and the English claimed supremacy.

It was the entrenchment of British power that made racism state policy; this could, perhaps, have been averted had Indians retained power, dealing with Europeans from positions of strength, confidently commissioning Western talent for indigenous purposes—it was a German who commanded the Marathas at Assaye, and in Kerala it was a Dutchman who modernized Travancore’s armies. The nautch girl turned begum of Sardhana had tragic romances with a Frenchman and an Irishman. Such exchanges were a two-way street—in the early 19th century, Tamil devadasis performed in Europe and Kalidas won Western admiration when his Shakuntalam was staged in London as Sacontala. Racism reversed this, but if the politics behind racism had itself been avoided, things might have been happier.

Not everything, of course, would have emerged perfect even under Indian rule—caste, for instance, would have remained a deep-rooted obstacle to the dawn of any sense of nationalism. Politically, by the late 18th century, the Marathas dominated north India, from Lahore in the west to Bengal in the east, and a line of Shivaji’s family ruled in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. But while the Marathas might have united much of India, had the last Anglo-Maratha War in 1818 not culminated in defeat, they would have had a long way to go before they could claim the loyalty of India’s diverse peoples. After all, it was raiding rather than governing that animated them, and as the Maharashtra Purana noted in the context of Bengal, “When they demanded money and it was not given to them, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed”—hardly a promising formula to inspire brotherhood and patriotism.

The irony, contested as it is, is also that it was a common hatred of the English that energized feelings of Indian unity. And that it was a foreign language that allowed a Mohandas Gandhi from Gujarat to mentor a Jawaharlal Nehru from Allahabad, collaborate with Tamil-speaking C. Rajagopalachari, and debate with the Bengali Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed language would have been another interesting twist if the British had never reigned. English was imposed officially in 1837, before which it was Persian, now dead here, that served as the lingua franca of officialdom across much of the subcontinent. As one 1858 report noted, Persian was “for 600 years the language of justice…the language of the Court…(and indeed) it was much better known even than the English language is at present”. It was used in Nepal and fragments of it were employed as far south as Kerala. If English had never picked up, India’s elite may still have been speaking to one another, across divides of region, religion and language, in an equally foreign tongue born in faraway Iran.

So instead of the succession of East India Company rule by the Raj under maharani Victoria, India might have come into the 20th century with a figurehead Mughal badshah, presiding over a Persian-speaking bureaucracy, supervised by the Marathas, with diplomatic dealings with a French-influenced south. Like foreigners before them—from the Arabs and Jews to the Turks and Central Asians—the British, Germans and French would have been absorbed into local society, through inducements of marriage and employment. Indian philosophy would have proudly travelled beyond its frontiers, and ideas from the rest of the world would have received a welcome in India too.

All this, of course, is one grand hypothetical proposition, fraught with perils. But while we increasingly investigate the impact of the Raj in shaping modern India, one hopes to be forgiven for wondering what the land might have looked like had the English never claimed dominion, and demeaned India as the jewel in a foreign monarch’s crown.

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 25 2017)

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The world into which Sankaran Namboodiripad arrived in 1909 was flooded with gods. There were important gods for men and less important gods for women, all stationed inside the house. There was a friendly goddess who lived above the portico, and a terrifying goddess restrained on the first floor of the outhouse. Their daily fare included “blown rice, then cooked rice and, in the end, milk porridge” and, now and then, the gods possessed an oracle to make their views heard. Even distant gods in faraway temples deserved acknowledgment—first everyone prostrated for all the grand gods; then they fell flat on the floor in the name of the household gods; and in case some god or other was accidentally omitted, a “compensatory prostration” followed to ward off divine wrath.

As a Brahmin man in Kerala, Sankaran could expect to live in near opulence. Cushioned by their deities, the Namboodiris “occupied the highest position among all other communities and castes, collected fabulous amounts as rent, enjoyed undisputed supremacy over the tillers of the soil, and maintained intimacy with the ruling monarchs”. There were processions of parasol-wielding servants but modernity meant that there was also a motorcar at Elamkulam Mana, Sankaran’s ancestral home. Every time it was used, though, a dip in the pond was warranted to wash away the ritual pollution that invariably accompanied Western inventions. Sankaran could also have acquired a series of wives—his father had two, and four of his sisters were married to men who were not single. One cousin had two ladies, and after the wedding of his daughters, this specimen proceeded to espouse a third.

It was the Moplah Rebellion of 1921 that changed everything—Sankaran’s family retreated from their rural cocoon to the sanctuary of an urbanizing locality, exposed for the first time to Western-educated crowds, children playing football, people sipping tea, and Brahmin men in English shirts (the first Brahmin woman to wear a blouse in Kerala was ostracized because, surely, only a harlot would feel an impulse to cover her breasts in a land where toplessness was uniform). “An ambition rose in my mind,” Sankaran later wrote, “that one day I should also go to school…and imbibe the modern refinements which were an adjunct of school education.” He did go and became a fine student, failing only in art. “But then, the marks of drawing were not counted in the final examination, and as such it did not worry me.”

School and college allowed Sankaran to involve himself in the reformation of his caste, initially through such curious articles as “French Revolution And The Namboodiri Community”. More seriously, he began to argue for the rights of Brahmin women. They, including his mother, were antharjanam (literally, indoor-people), the only women in Kerala who lived in purdah. Soon, in his own scattered way, he was protesting Bhagat Singh’s death sentence and championing Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement, and in 1932 he was arrested for the first time. To a Namboodiri, this meant irretrievable loss of status, but Sankaran, already written off as a rotten egg, was surveying other characteristics of the experience. Prison, he pithily wrote, “could compare well with…a hostel except that there was no freedom to go out of the jail compound”.

By the mid-1930s, Sankaran had veered towards the socialist camp within the Congress, and despite a stint with the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee and election to the Madras legislature, he wasn’t convinced by Gandhi—the Mahatma might achieve political freedom, but what about social liberation and freedom from the bondage of class? “The tortuous path which took me from the original moorings of the feudal family into which I was born, and from the old-fashioned education to modern education and the organized movement of social reform, and ultimately to nationalism with its leaning towards the left…at last culminated in my membership” of the Communist Party of India. The year was 1940, and Sankaran emerged as the E.M.S. Namboodiripad the world would remember.

His Brahmin heritage became a thing of the past—EMS began to work with Dalits, fishermen and labourers, becoming “the adopted son of the working class”. Romance aside, in 1947 he put his money where his mouth was, selling personal property to resurrect a party mouthpiece. Ten years later, after independence and a sustained political movement, he was sworn in as the first chief minister of Kerala, in 1957. Jawaharlal Nehru was not immediately alarmed at the prospect of a Commie in power, noting that EMS had, for all his stammering rhetoric, put on “the most proper and decorous constitutional clothing”. But behind it all, EMS’ intentions were fixed in red—it took one week for him to promulgate Kerala’s historic land reforms, arguably his most significant achievement.

Predictable opposition followed, and in the next two years, a law and order crisis overwhelmed Kerala—or was manufactured to justify the imposition in 1959 of President’s rule. “Everything looks yellow to a jaundiced eye,” EMS ruminated after the dismissal of his government, adding wryly: “It is not violation of ‘democracy’ and ‘free enterprise’ for the landlords to own several thousands of acres of land in the very village in which there are hundreds of families with no land at all…. But it is a violation of ‘democracy’ and ‘free enterprise’ if the Government enacts a law according to which these thousands of acres of land…are taken over and distributed among the landless.” He refused to be cowed, and 10 years later, during his second stint in power, land reform became a reality.

His fellow Brahmins were horrified—many of them were impoverished overnight. It was harsh and much went awry, but for masses of people, it was the correction of a historic wrong. The Namboodiris justified their grip over land in Kerala through the myth of Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, who is said to have reclaimed the coast from the seas and presented it to Brahmins for eternity. There was poetic justice that, centuries later, it was a Brahmin who handed land back to those who tilled it—those who evidently had no place in Parasurama’s scheme but were taught to view the Brahmin as “their royal liege and benefactor, their suzerain master, their household deity, their very God on earth”. To EMS himself, whose death anniversary Kerala observed last weekend, there was little irony in all this when life itself was one elaborate irony.

He was born in a household where the gods reigned, eating rice and milk. He ended it as a rationalist, with no gods for company and quite a different kind of menu. A journalist, following a meeting with Nehru, asked EMS what the prime minister had served for lunch. “Exactly what a good Kashmiri Brahmin should offer a good Namboodiri Brahmin from Kerala,” laughed the Commie—“fish, meat and chicken!”

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 18 2017)

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Narendra Modi, who looms larger than ever in fashioning a Congress-muktBharat, might be interested to learn that the last person to envision such a universe was a staid white man from an island called Britain. While for Modi it is dramatic electoral victories that pave the way, it was the factional feud between the moderates and extremists in 1900 that the viceroy, Lord Curzon, hoped would extinguish the Congress in his time. He didn’t make Modi-style speeches but, writing to superiors in London, expounded his “belief that Congress is tottering to its fall”, adding how “one of my great ambitions while in India is to assist it to a peaceful demise”. He spent six years investing precisely in this ambition, only to withdraw frustrated—the Congress took a deep breath and resurrected the freedom struggle. Today, deep inhalations won’t suffice. And thanks to Modi, the drowning gasps of the Congress may well be offering dear old Curzon belated graveyard consolations.

Like our resolute Prime Minister, Curzon too ruled India with self-appointed purpose. That it was the wrong purpose altogether is another matter, but his conviction was unparalleled. He always had a sense of his importance, and made every effort to flaunt it. At Oxford, his peers came up with the doggerel: My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/I am a most superior person/My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek/I dine at Blenheim (Palace) once a week. It didn’t help that he also had that disagreeable habit of passing judgement everywhere he went. On a trip to Canada, he sniffed how there were few well-bred passengers on board, and the “social status of the remainder is indicated by the aristocratic names they bear—Tulk, Tottle, and Thistle”. As it happened, he married a blacksmith’s descendant called Leiter, a match not too repulsive after the little matter of a not-too-little dowry was discussed.

It was India, though, that made Curzon—and unexpectedly so. “From nobodies,” his American wife exclaimed, “we have jumped into grandeur.” Only 39 when he was propelled into his “civilizing” viceregal mission, Curzon couldn’t stand the demands of the “native” elite for a share of power and a fraction of respect. The princes he dismissed as “a set of unruly and ignorant and rather undisciplined schoolboys”, while the Congress was a “microscopic minority” of jobless lawyers, completely divorced from reality—a sentiment with which many might relate today. “You can as little judge of the feelings…of the people of India from the plans and proposals of the Congress party as you can judge of the physical configuration of a country which is wrapped in the mists of early morning, but a few of whose topmost peaks have been touched by the rising sun.” This Curzon declared before he ever set eyes on a Congressman.

He did, however, show empathy for ordinary people, partly because in those days, ordinary people didn’t ask inconvenient questions. When British soldiers raped a Burmese woman, he was horrified by the conspiracy to protect them—the entire regiment was expelled to Aden, “the worst spot I could find”. When a planter flogged his Indian servant to death and escaped a harsh sentence, Curzon appealed for real punishment. “I will not,” he wrote, “be party to any scandalous hushings up of bad cases…or to the theory that a white man may kick or batter a black man to death with impunity because he is only ‘a damned nigger’”. The English, he argued, must set an example in India by their “superior standards of honour and virtue”. While he personally went about setting examples, other Englishmen continued to kick Indians, calling Curzon a “nigger-lover”.

Good intentions aside, Curzon was also the kind of man who centralized power and reigned over mountains of paper. “The Government of India,” he mourned familiarly, “is a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing.” His solution, though, was not to empower Indians, but to pile up more on his own imperial plate—on one occasion, the viceroy himself set out to catch a chicken-thief when accounts did not add up in the stately kitchens of what is now Rashtrapati Bhavan. He couldn’t quite understand why the Indian education system—of his own people’s design—was so focused on manufacturing a “rush of immature striplings” interested “not to learn but to earn”. He made attempts to develop a research-oriented university system and emphasize technical education, though in implementing these wonderful ideas he again forgot to involve those brown people for whose benefit they were intended in the first place.

What most offended everybody, however, was Curzon’s notorious partition of Bengal. He had already carved the North-West Frontier Province out of Punjab, and had plans for Berar, Orissa, and other provinces as well. As the cradle of Indian nationalism, however, Bengal was unique. Despite mastering the principle of divide et impera, London warned Curzon not to proceed because “the severance of old and historic ties and the breaking up of racial unity” would backfire on the Raj. But he went ahead anyway—and lived to regret it. The partition, to begin with, settled the internal doldrums of the Congress, rallying all factions against this single cause. Curzon, who in 1904 began a second term, was recalled within 12 months into a future with no more spectacular prospects. By the time of his death this month 92 years ago, he was reduced to complaining how not enough people were visiting to check on his welfare. “I must be entirely forgotten,” he lamented, “or have no friends left.” Both were partially true.

There is, however, one thing for which Curzon deserves lasting credit: his genuine interest in preserving India’s monuments, a responsibility “scandalously neglected” till then. When some complained that he was protecting “pagan” structures, he reminded them that as sheer manifestations of human genius, to him “the rock temple of the Brahmin stands precisely on the same footing as the Buddhist Vihara and the Mohammedan Masjid as the Christian Cathedral”. Personally touring swathes of land, climbing up hills and down ruins, Curzon ensured that the Archaeological Survey of India began to do its job. And for all his prejudices, this one contribution was enough for Nehru, no great admirer of friendless, resentful Curzon, to later remark: “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.” That, one hopes, would give Curzon some more gratification than reports of the Congress’ imminent demise.