(My column in Mint Lounge, January 14 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 06 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 31 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 24 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 17 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 10 2016)

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Amrita Sher-Gil was not a likeable person, furnishing sharp opinions at a time when women in respectable society produced only sweet expressions and blinked. But then, she never aspired to join the ranks of respectable women, moulded instead by her own heady individuality. She could be vain (“Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me,” she once declared), just as she could be horribly rude (“What an ugly little boy!” she said of Khushwant Singh’s toddler). And, as Malcolm Muggeridge, her one-time lover remembered, she was also rather “self-consciously arty”, demanding recognition on precisely the terms she defined, damaging her own cause with unrestrained impetuosity.

Sher-Gil was the firstborn of a Sikh nobleman prone to melancholy ruminations, whose other claim to fame was that Princess Bamba Duleep Singh had once pursued him. He fortified himself against her royal charms and married instead her companion, a Hungarian whose music career was distinguished largely by its absence, before she went on to shoot herself. Sher-Gil was raised by her very clever and depressed parents in Hungary, where they were stranded during the Great War, and then in India, where schooling at a convent was terminated after she pooh-poohed Catholic rituals. There was also a stint in Florence while her mother attended to a romance, but it was in Paris in the late 1920s that the painter the world remembers flourished.

“Towards the end of 1933,” she wrote, “I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.” And return she did, at first producing works with names like Mother India and The Beggars, partially succumbing to that magnified sentimentalism found today in the NRI brand of nostalgia. But she evolved quickly a singular style that stood aside from all prevailing “schools” of art. She frowned upon the condition of modernism in Indian painting: Raja Ravi Varma’s works in oil were an Indianization of colonial styles, and the Bengal School had, in its anti-colonialism, itself lapsed into an establishment with all the attendant inflexibilities.

Sher-Gil set out by herself, with a conviction that she would succeed in improving this “provincial artistic milieu” where others had failed. She created art for art’s sake and not to entertain or flatter constituencies. She was unsubtle in her personal conduct and missed diplomacy—not essential for the exercise of artistic ability but indispensable for sales—by miles. In Hyderabad, for instance, she told off one of its biggest art collectors for his bad taste which made her “sick”. The nawab in turn asked her to peddle her “Cubist pictures” elsewhere. Naturally, in her lifetime, Sher-Gil saw only modest commercial success, often descending into frustration about where she was headed.

Where she was headed was in the direction of untimely death (the result of the final of the several abortions she had in her 28 years). But in the interim, Sher-Gil produced some remarkable works, discovering forgotten artistic brilliance in her Indian roots while eschewing mindless romanticism. When she saw erotic frescoes in Fort Kochi, featuring “great fat women in the act of giving birth” she was struck by their “utmost candour”, commenting that she had “seldom seen such powerful drawing”. After viewing paintings at Ajanta, millennia old, she declared that a single fresco there was “worth more than the whole Renaissance”.

These were not the words of a nationalist invigorated by ancient glories—she spoke in terms of the art alone, which she found startlingly original and full of vitality, unlike copycat painting that made for a supply of pretty pictures and many pretensions.

After she died in Lahore in 1941, Sher-Gil acquired a cult following. Her dalliances with women, mixed parentage, unwanted pregnancies—including, one from a wealthy suitor her mother identified and another from a Reutersjournalist on the eve of her wedding—not to speak of her tremendous personality, all carved out for her a unique, fascinating niche. Her art was unprecedented in style and substance, but the artist too was unforgettable. She was aware of this self-image and the effect she had on people, though personally she thought she was “like an apple, all red from outside but rotten inside”.

Most importantly, perhaps, she once declared that the “artist has every right to reject or accept public estimates of her work. When the public makes a mistake regarding a picture, it is the business of the artist by some gesture to show that the public is un-informed and dull.” Only she could have said it. In other words, she would not play to the gallery, because she was convinced that the gallery must see the wisdom of her more sophisticated view since that is what was correct.

Last weekend was the anniversary of Sher-Gil’s death and I was reminded of her in the context of something Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna—a rebel of sorts in his own field—said in a lecture some weeks before in Thiruvananthapuram. Referring to political contestations in the cultural space, he informed his audience that the role of the artist is to make interventions when the public acquiesces in a state of affairs that is less than ideal and to stand up to the pressures of the herd. Sher-Gil was not concerned with issues of public interest, but her commitment to art as something intrinsically superior to popular forces is well worth remembering today, 75 years after her death.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 03 2016)

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As Delhi celebrated Pride last weekend, I was reminded of Siddharth Dube’s memoir, No One Else, which recounts the stigma suffered by his generation of men who were born homosexual. Dube grew up in affluence in the 1970s, studied at the Doon School, and went to university abroad. But the defining attribute of his existence, particularly as he worked in public health and confronted prejudice and ignorance on sexual issues that has had catastrophic policy implications, is one that cuts across class. Section 377 means he, like “disgraced” Aligarh professor Ramchandra Siras or the latter’s rickshaw-puller lover, is a second-class citizen in our country. The accident of birth into the upper class allowed Dube insulation; Siras, in his mid-60s, died tragically after strangers breached the privacy of his bedroom and filmed him with his lover in 2010. The rickshaw-puller too made an attempt to kill himself, but had to go back to pulling rickshaws because his children needed to eat.

Section 377 is not so much about intercourse as much as permitting instruments of the state a handle to persecute a section of its citizens. Blackmail, extortion, and intimidation by the police as well as by outsiders, who threaten to turn in flouters of this archaic law, are the sum of what Section 377 has achieved ever since the Victorians inflicted it upon our ancestors in 1860 in their quest to “civilize” us. Same-sex love, which was perfectly acceptable in Hindu society in previous times, was slapped in our face as yet another confirmation of our backwardness, justifying the need for imperial intervention in India. Our elite, embarrassed by the West, embraced their regressions, and let it stay on our law books after 1947. Meanwhile, back in Britain where these ideas were originally designed, they were thrown into the dustbin—without a colonized people to “civilize”, such tools of oppression served no purpose.

It is natural, then, that the generations that have followed Dube’s are today, in 2016, growing more and more impatient with this colonial travesty that masquerades as considered legislation. The reversal of that historic 2009 Delhi high court judgement, which struck down Section 377 as unconstitutional, by the Supreme Court four years later was a setback of calamitous proportions. The court reasoned that Section 377 was rarely exercised (with only 200 cases brought before it in all the history of the law), and that in any case all this concerns only a “minuscule fraction” of our population. The judges added that “those who indulge in carnal intercourse in the ordinary course and those who indulge in carnal intercourse against the order of nature constitute different classes; and the people falling in the latter category cannot claim that Section 377 suffers from the vice of arbitrariness and irrational classification.”

Leila Seth, the mother of a distinguished gay son, remarked that the argument that “justice based on fundamental rights can only be granted if a large number of people are affected is constitutionally immoral and inhumane”. The judges however transferred the onus of resolving this conundrum to Parliament. The Congress party has publicly declared support for decriminalization, but has not followed up vociferously enough—Shashi Tharoor was thwarted twice when attempting to introduce a Bill against 377 in Parliament, but his party benches were largely empty (disclaimer: I work for Tharoor). The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Rajnath Singh, on the other hand, at once welcomed the Supreme Court strike-down, since to him homosexuality is an “unnatural act”. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has expressed views in favour of decriminalization. The essence is, however, that political consensus will take more time to construct. Moreover, since the “minuscule fraction” is not a political constituency, there is no electoral advantage in investing in their fundamental rights. Add to this that the current government is massively indebted to conservative factions, and a near-term resolution seems more and more distant.

That said, the fact is that the march of time means Indian courts and the state will inevitably have to face reality and those ideals we call justice and equality. Dube’s generation fought its battles at a time when they had few resources and practically no information about wider struggles around the world. Today men and women are less inhibited and more empowered in the Internet age, and the fight for fundamental freedoms will continue. As for claims that homosexuality is against Indian culture, there is plenty to show that this was hardly the case, besides which the Internet has allowed for the successful pursuit of same-sex relationships without the nose of the state getting in the way. Of course the irony is that while the BJP has taken a position against permitting gay citizens the right to live their lives in all its natural fullness, during the 2014 election, ads soliciting votes for Narendra Modi appeared on the gay dating app, Grindr.

The party was evidently embarrassed. The lesson, though, is that while such embarrassments are momentary, one day, when justice has prevailed, many will be left struggling to reconcile their past objections with what is right, and to answer for defending antiquated fallacies. Upholding an oppressive tool of colonial vintage against sections of society who have a right to lead complete lives without fear of persecution and stigma is what the debate on Section 377 boils down to; and to all who can see the bigger picture, the side they must pick should be clear.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 26 2016)

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When patricians of the Congress party installed Indira Gandhi as their preferred gungi gudiya(dumb doll) in 1966, she wasn’t supposed to have a spine or a mind. She horrified them by wielding both, and soon the elders disappeared into historical cold storage while Mrs Gandhi transformed into what is called a “towering leader” and a memorable prime minister whose birth centenary year celebrations commenced last week. Facing an erosion of support for the Congress, her politics in the late 1960s tilted left, and after she prevailed over Pakistan in 1971 (and stood up to White House bullies) emerged her famous slogan of garibi hatao (banish poverty) when someone proposed that it was time to banish Indira.

Leaders in democracies, however, must simultaneously sustain power and stay in charge of the public narrative, all the while maintaining stability and the capacity to deliver. Mrs Gandhi’s socialism was embraced by a deeply impoverished electorate, but soon after her triumph in 1971 (on a “wave” that surpassed Narendra Modi’s in 2014), narrative alone ceased to be adequate. Poverty refused to depart, and crises piled up, from labour unrest and railway strikes to student agitation followed by Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. Oil prices multiplied, and aid from the US was suspended. A cornered Mrs Gandhi imposed the Emergency, but returning to power in 1980, she quietly discarded socialism and began to reinvent herself, favouring new solutions to old problems.

But the point here is that narratives can purchase time for governments ruling in challenging circumstances and persuade the electorate to remain patient with the system and its plodding. And the most effective narratives are not always those that are logical but which have ingredients that appeal. Economic trouble, for instance, had already begun in the 1960s but garibi hatao was a compelling promise and the Congress was given a powerful mandate. Expectations were not fully met—and the opposition got its turn in power, therefore—but there were dramatic segments that bolstered the government and prolonged its rule. Mrs Gandhi’s determination in abolishing the privy purses granted to India’s former princes is one example of this.

At the time of independence, this order controlled a third of the subcontinent and one in five Indians was a subject not of the Central government, but of a princely specimen. In return for relinquishing territory in what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel called “a bloodless revolution”, assorted rajas and nawabs were given the carrot of allowances and certain vanities, politely called “marks of prestige”. The princes were often vulgarly feudal, but the amounts disbursed to them, while generous, were not handicapping the economy. However, in keeping with the plot of garibi hatao and the “egalitarian social order” it envisioned (and because many princes challenged the Congress), Mrs Gandhi toppled these ex-rulers.

It was a hugely popular move, and it satisfied public appetite for “visible action”. The people who lost were a privileged minority (though there are still Indians who receive government allowances as royalty—the nawab of Arcot appears on the Warrant of Precedence with the perks of a cabinet minister). And “the masses”, watching princely pretensions cut to size, endorsed the prime minister and gave her their patience, even if beyond the consolations of narrative, this did not particularly empower them.

I was reminded of this when Prime Minister Modi made his dramatic announcement demonetizing high-denomination currency notes to vanquish the hydra that is black money. As a candidate for election in 2014, he had promised an electorate (convinced that everyone in the previous government was sleeping on mattresses of notes) Rs15 lakh each of the illicit cash he recovered. As prime minister, rhetoric has obviously not evolved into action. Something else that is “visible” and dramatic could shore up support in the face of impatience, even if it makes no difference to the problem itself—a Mumbai jeweller described to me how many in that business are back-dating bills to cater to cash-rich customers streaming in since 8 November.

Whether this is about herding people from a massively cash-driven economy into formal banking and executing a structural reform is not clear. The government should have been better prepared if this were a grand “plan”, though this would hardly be the first time a major exercise began and ended in chaos in this country. For now, though, despite queues, alleged deaths, and confusion, large numbers of people seem willing to tolerate the situation. The sheer audacity of the move has suggested that perhaps the Prime Minister knows what he is doing. Either way, for Modi, who rose to power with the 21st century “aspirational” equivalent of what garibi hatao proposed in 1971, this could buy time.

The difference, however, is that while abolishing privy purses was also dramatic in effect and in terms of the political dividends it yielded, its casualties were an obscenely wealthy minority, in whose decline the voter saw justice. Today it is not Bollywood-style villains with suitcases of cash who face the repercussions of demonetization but also rural men and women and the urban poor who are suddenly cast adrift. And when they find out that actual villains have real estate and gold and other parking spots for black money and that none of them sweat in queues, as the Prime Minister claims, they might be somewhat less supportive of being taken for a ride. One hopes Prime Minister Modi does have a plan.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 19 2016)

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The victory last week of Donald Trump in America petrified masses of people who happen to not be men or white or Christian or straight in that country. But it also petrified this columnist, who suddenly felt immense amounts of pressure to reflect on the decline of The World As We Know It and the rise of a wild strongman to the throne in Washington. Then, however, comments emerged from a strongwoman (of the subcontinental variety) on another matter altogether, and suddenly my column was saved. With much relief, I cast aside Trump and the prospect of contributing a furious denunciation and chewed with gratitude on column fodder supplied, instead, by a distant associate of his in the universe of the political right.

“There is nothing called marital rape,” was the opening insight supplied by the general secretary of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (a women’s body, which, like its guiding organization, becomes “RSS” in acronym). No marks for originality to the general secretary, though—after all, she and I live in a country where successive governments have defended this line of policy with nervous pronouncements about “Indian culture” and “the institution of marriage”, both of which are apparently so fragile that an acknowledgment of violence would invite catastrophe. There is nothing called marital rape in our law books, and to that extent the general secretary is not wrong. But law books can, she should know, reside in the Stone Age—I happen to be named after a character who supposedly authored, in 2,684 verses, one such prototype called the Manusmriti. Fortunately, it was so bad that most people had the good sense to ignore it.

“Marriage is a sacred bond,” came next in the RSS secretary’s comments, which my venerable ancestors in Kerala would have dismissed—no offence—as balderdash. They were matrilineal Nairs, among whom it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred; husbands and wives were dispensable. My great-great-grandmother’s first husband was not up to the mark and was dismissed, despite his many tears, from her presence in 1883. She then married my great-great-grandfather, who in turn had dissolved one previous marriage. They then went on to produce a man who successively espoused three women in the 1910s, before confirming the fourth. All of these people were pious, orthodox, “good” Hindus, but in their cultural context, marriage was most definitely not “sacred”. It was an arrangement, which could last a lifetime in cases, but was by no means binding on either party.

All that was needed for the wedding ceremony was an oil-lamp and the exchange of a piece of white cloth. If the lady accepted, the sambandham(relationship) had commenced. Indeed, so effortless was the process that when a governor of Madras in the 19th century, after a conversation on textiles with a Nair lady, offered to “send her a cloth” as “a specimen of the handiwork executed there”, the woman coyly replied that while she was “much obliged”, she was “quite satisfied with her present husband”. And all that was needed for divorce was for the cloth in question to be torn (or if one wanted to be direct, for the husband’s things to be left by the door—Malayalees were thrifty with time).

It was morality imported by Bible-wielding missionaries that converted marriage into a “sacred” affair, encouraging Nair women to forfeit sexual independence in return for patriarchal conformity as “good” wives. “Women, instead of fighting for rights, should focus on their duties, on how they can hold the society together, impart patriotism to their children and family members,” the RSS general secretary had declared in August. Apart from an unnecessary “the”, this line would comfortably gel into the propaganda unleashed in Kerala in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to persuade women to accept marriage as “sacred”, by men who reacted to Western criticism of their customs by ingesting that criticism.

I must confess I am not optimistic that this lesson in history will persuade the general secretary to change her mind because according to her, “social evils in our society are due to (foreign) invasion of 1,000 years. It will take time for society to come out of it.” In other words, if strange customs existed to demonstrate that a number of Indians did not treat marriage as sacred, they must have been perverted by influences from elsewhere (and I am tempted here to tell her the tale of the Kerala princesses who surprised an Italian in the early 17th century by showing up topless at court—he wondered why these women had such an abbreviated sense of dress, and they were puzzled, in return, by the layers of fabric with which he was encumbered—but I shall leave this story for another occasion).

Now, we turn to the final segment of the general secretary’s remarks: “Coexistence should lead to bliss. If we are able to understand the concept of this bliss, then everything runs smooth.” With this I have no disagreement, absolutely, for who does not want things to run smooth. In fact, it is my sincere hope that the good lady will forward this sentiment to president-elect Trump, who most certainly would benefit from lessons in the bliss of coexistence now that he can stick his thumb on nuclear buttons. Some good, then, may come out of the sum of her otherwise unevolved statements on marriage and marital rape.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 12 2016)

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I must admit I feel a mischievous delight in being able to compare our “hon’ble minister” for information and broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, in his spotless white shirt and mundu, to Chairman Mao of China, who must have been somewhat less spotless after not bothering to shower for 27 years (he preferred sponge-baths). But it is not lightly that I make this observation, for the substance of the pious wisdom that has emerged from the minister in recent times is to me, as a historian, reminiscent of a number of ominous statements an unwashed Mao made some years before his rise to titanic tyranny in China—a China where people were buried alive so Mao could prevail.

It is not my intention to suggest that Naidu has anything else in common with a bona-fide dictator like Mao—his duties in information and broadcasting can hardly be compared to the terror of a man whose regime invented hundreds of ways of torture, with names like “sitting in a pleasure chair” and “monkeys holding a rope”. However, the similarity of tone in a number of recent utterances is difficult to miss, and favours intellectual positions that empower illiberalism and the centralization of power at the cost of freedom. Take, for instance, Mao’s “ideals are important, but reality is even more important”. To this, Naidu’s own “art has no boundaries, but countries (do) have boundaries” sounds like an affirmation that the mind must work within frontiers. And gatekeepers of these frontiers become the policemen of thought.

But this too is not a particularly original line of regressive thinking—any urban, middle-aged, middle- class, upper-caste male “outraged” by the “appeasement” of minorities, by reservations for “lazy” Dalits, by “sickulars” on Twitter, and by women in trousers could arguably have said all this without being suspected of wanting to follow in Mao’s bloody footsteps. So what really lends itself to comparison (after this lengthy preamble to try and ensure I am not sued) are the remarks our minister reportedly made about his view of an ideal press environment in India—that is, ideal for rulers and quite the opposite for those of us at the other end of the arrangement—and certain infamous, corresponding declarations Mao issued in 1942 at Yan’an, setting terms for freedom in the China he went on to scar forever.

Naidu’s latest recommendation, in defence of the suspension for a day of NDTV India for “compromising national security”, is that news broadcasters must “keep in mind interests of society and nation first”, and that “news should not cause harm to the nation’s interests”. A party colleague added that “we are a democracy and we believe in the freedom of the press, but the nation comes first”. The problem here is not even that the government has installed itself as the competent authority to define “the nation” but that to its spokespersons, freedom can be divorced from nationalism. The ruling dispensation, and not the Constitution, is the custodian of such nationalism.

The risk, behind smokescreens of patriotism, of surrendering such prerogatives to the government, is that the Constitution is reduced to a lovely work of calligraphy that everyone formally venerates while cordially violating in spirit. This has happened in the past too, which is why we have today little Maos who invade kitchens and bedrooms to protect “the nation”. Big Mao didn’t brook challengers, which meant he didn’t like people who could think. In his vindictive quest for authority, anybody who questioned him was branded “anti-people” or “anti-socialism”. “If our writers and artists …want their works to be well-received by the masses,” he announced, “they must change and remould their thinking and their feelings.” Or else they were welcome in the pleasure chair referred to above.

That was in 1942, and soon Mao went on to preside over human tragedy of colossal proportions and the wholesale massacre of everything that freedom entails. Today, we live in times when “anti-nationalism” is the hysteria of choice on this side of the Himalayas to cast people in black and white (and five paragraphs down, I imagine this column is firmly in the black). And when the argument is made that freedom is all good but that “the nation” must come first, the subtext is that the government acts in our best interests, and we must not be petulant by asking questions. “Media plays an important role in empowering people with information necessary to benefit from the government’s schemes and policies,” Naidu said. But when it does not exercise its freedom “judiciously” (i.e. when the press refuses to serve as a mouthpiece for the state), “necessary interventions” are justified.

Mercifully, the minister added that he is “not thinking of any new restrictions” on the press, which may be due to the fact that many in that business are already profitably kowtowing to power. Perhaps this should be no surprise—Mao may have sinned, but the China he left behind is booming (at least for its authoritarian masters) in that impersonal language of economic numbers. Since India has plans to rival China this century, perhaps patriots are willing to excuse a little authoritarianism. And if one suggests that they might be misguided in acquiescing in a path paved for tyrants, one must be among those who, as Naidu said, “are critical of whatever the government does in the best interests of the country”. Anti-national, like Mao’s anti-people challengers.