(My column in Mint Lounge, November 05 2016)


Last Monday, large numbers of people in India remembered the life and legacy of Indira Gandhi on the 31st anniversary of her death. Some celebrated the memory of our slain prime minister, while others debated the ways, good and bad, in which she refashioned this country. Some recalled her triumph in the 1971 war, while others lambasted her for the socialism that romanticized poverty instead of embracing the idea of prosperity (then, of course, there were the trolls on Twitter who rejoiced that they had one more occasion to employ ghastly neologisms like “sickular”). Either way, Indira Gandhi loomed large this last day of last month, and so this column will reverse the date to the 13th of October, travel back over eight centuries, and remember, instead, another remarkable lady who ruled Delhi—and who too was murdered, closing her tale in tragedy.

If Gandhi was the first woman to lead democratic India, Sultan Raziya was the only woman to have occupied Delhi’s throne during the days of the Slave Dynasty. Like Gandhi, Raziya was first noticed as the daughter of a very important man, emperor Iltutmish. He must have been an unusual character in the 13th century, because he seems to have preferred his daughter over profligate sons, recommending her as his heir. There was precedent, his partisans claimed—Khosrow’s daughter Pourandokht had ruled Persia some centuries before in her own right. But the 40 nobles at court would have none of it—in poetry and verse they threatened to defy the imperial decree, and lamented loudly that beloved Raziya was not the emperor’s son. In other words, Raziya was all a monarch ought to be—except she had the wrong genitals. So when the old man died in 1236, they parked on the throne her half-brother.

This heir had the correct genitals, but all the wrong ideas about being king. He squandered his time in the harem, and made the mistake of keeping the chief among his 40 nobles waiting while he made merry with a favourite dancing girl. Six months into his reign, his courtiers reciprocated the sentiment, with the consequence that he was left somewhat diminished above the neck.

Raziya’s star rose and she was installed on the throne in place of her dead brother. Unlike him, she disdained the harem (and the veil) and rode elephants and horses around the city. When someone nudged her towards gentle, submissive femininity, she told them that as sultan she was not a woman but the guardian of her people. The veil never appeared, and she retained her horses, elephants, and “manly” conduct.

Gandhi too was created by her father’s men. But she informed the syndicate she wouldn’t be their cipher, toppled them, split the Congress party, and went on to prevail till slogans like “Indira is India, India is Indira” sounded like a good idea.

Raziya, on the other hand, never managed to survive her noblemen—perhaps she tried to do too much too soon. She abolished unjust taxes, established schools, welcomed the marginalized into the halls of power, and patronized poets and intellectuals, much to the horror of the Turkish elite. So they eventually hit her below the belt. There was a Lord of the Stables who became the sultan’s favourite. Rumour went around that the queen was having an affair with her stable boy, and a scandal was manufactured and transmitted across the empire. It also didn’t help that the protagonist in this love affair, an Abyssinian called Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, was black.

Eventually in 1240 the nobles instigated a childhood associate of Raziya’s, who was governor of Bhatinda (hopefully a handsomer city in those days) and who had his own designs on Delhi, to rebel against his sultan. Raziya set out atop her elephant and led her armies to contain him. Sadly for her, she lost the battle and found herself under house arrest. But she did manage to turn the tide—by proposing marriage. There are, apparently, songs about their fabled love, though, of course, for both there were more pragmatic considerations to bear in mind than romance—a prisoner queen doesn’t have very many options, while her captor could claim the throne of Delhi by legitimately planting himself in her bedchamber. Having celebrated their wedding (the hated Abyssinian favourite had died sometime earlier), the couple marched on the capital, where the scheming nobles were ready for them.

This battle too Raziya lost, and while she fled, a band of Jats robbed her and her husband and killed them both. Her brother succeeded as emperor—till the nobles decided his head too looked better on a spike. Raziya lies today somewhere in the old city in an unremarkable tomb, surrounded by illegal constructions and tailor shops, though of course some feel she is buried elsewhere and this is not her tomb at all. Her resting place is essentially a little mound, with another next to it housing the remains of a sister (nobody of historical significance). Some locals know the story of the woman, but the yard where Raziya lies is primarily home to a board installed by the Archaeological Survey of India, and to itinerant beggars.

Indira Gandhi’s memorial, on the other hand, is well-maintained, though this year, because of a bird flu crisis, she too had few visitors.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 29 2016)


Some days ago I arrived at the not necessarily original conclusion that charisma is, in essence, the capacity to deliver a fair amount of drivel—and to make an engaging spectacle of the process. I was in the presence of yet another flamboyant baba, Swami Ramdev, who demonstrated that evening a flair for entertaining his audience even if the substance of what he had to say didn’t really make that compelling marriage of logic and exactness that one would ordinarily define as brilliant insight.

Nothing about the baba is ordinary, and he made up with much laughter, stroking of the beard, and sensational wiggling of the stomach (twice) what he lacked in other respects. One could see why, in an age when “popular sentiment” reigns supreme, he has conquered television with pop-yoga and pop-gurudom.

“His Holiness”, as one distinguished attendee proclaimed him, arrived in great style, which is to say that he arrived with Z-category security—many guns, half-a-dozen stern protectors of his saffron person, and much fuss involving the press.

Pakistan was a significant topic of discussion that evening, but before I venture into that, I must confess that what held my attention most were the high-platform wooden padukas the baba had on. I am conscious that to be studying the sartorial preferences of a “yog-rishi” is perhaps a shallow enterprise, but this and the business “empire” the man is building are probably the most interesting things about him (after the question of what really goes into his cosmetic products).

That Pakistan loomed large at the gathering was no surprise, given how much our neighbour has captured televised middle-class enthusiasm in recent times and created for us renewed opportunities to assert national virility and masculine patriotism (we now have another favourite expression to deploy for the season—“surgical strikes”). There is no objection to art and artists from that country, Ramdev announced at one point, but how can we permit them to make money here and transmit it to a place that propagates acts of terror against India? One would think there are more complex components to this debate, but the general mood these days is not tolerant of complexity, which gets in the way of chest-thumping or, as was recently stated, the “reality” that while art has no borders, countries do. Complexity, in these circumstances, is anti-national.

In due course, we were also informed that destroying evil is very much within the ambit of ahimsa, and so, to contemplate the annihilation of an inconvenient neighbour doesn’t reflect badly on India and our exalted traditions. Many people clapped, including the cameramen from various news outlets at the back, and a large number of middle-aged men who have always been a prime constituency for this sort of Kautilya-with-nukes fantasy. One imagines that they will probably also applaud the latest contribution to public life and nation-building that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has made in Mumbai—to extort a “donation” to the Armed Forces from film-maker Karan Johar for patronizing talent from that hated place across the border. But that is another matter.

Charisma is also, apparently, a gift for avoiding pointed answers to pointed questions, and to beat around the bush while saying a lot and nothing, all at once. No wonder Ramdev was asked what happened to his plans to constitute a political party, for he would make a very good politician. When talking about Pakistan, it was easy to remain charismatic—an enemy state (or “terror state Pakistan”, as one news channel now calls it, showing that in terms of evolution and maturity, our TV fraternity has not graduated kindergarten) can be denounced in vague and populist expressions that are in consonance with “national pride”. But when asked, after he broke into song once or twice, if he was happy about the government’s performance, the charisma grew uncomfortable. He said that yogis are neither happy nor sad about anything in life. If only our TV anchors would also take a break and sit on the fence for some time, we might yet be saved another dose of hysteria.

Then there was the matter of the baba’s lack of warmth for globalization and the presence of foreign companies in India. For instance, he urged standing up to the “videshi kabza” (foreign conquest) of our industries. Amul may sell milk in India, but why Nestlé? Is it not a matter of shame that in Gandhi’s land, Fabindia should be the leading brand for Khadi? Someone asked him if it is fair to reject globalization and the market when his own brand benefits from platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the resources that Google, for instance, offers, none of which are Indian. The baba answered the question by not answering it. He declared that his ambition is to enable the rise of an Indian Google and Facebook. So too was the response to another question about why he was importing bull-semen from Brazil for Indian cows. I wonder: Do gau rakshaks know what our beloved cows are enduring? Perhaps they approve, because apparently the ancestors of these bulls emigrated from India, so that makes this a happy case of ghar wapsi.

When everything ended, the baba and his retinue departed. Everyone else ventured towards the bar. Awaiting us was vegetarian finger-food and fruit juice—Ramdev’s crew had made it clear that there should be no meat and alcohol. The middle-aged men who, minutes ago, were cheering nationalist sentiments and enjoying their holier-than-thou (or at least holier-than-Pakistan) moments, grumbled. And then everyone went home to make up for the disappointment by switching on the news and feeling strong and patriotic again, drunk only on yet more drivel.