(My column in Mint Lounge, September 23 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 16 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 09 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, September 02 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 26 2017)


It is that time of the year when we indulge our national predilection for taking offence, banning books and hounding writers. We have Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, for example, whose collection, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, is deemed “pornographic” for portraying an impoverished tribal woman who, for 50 rupees and a pakoda, transacts sex with a policeman. That Shekhar reflects the reality of many marginalized women is irrelevant—the real danger to women’s honour in 2017 still lies in the refractory pages of a book, and the only recourse is to order an immediate, uncompromising ban.

When in 1955 independent India first decided to outlaw an English novel, its author was only a little anguished. As he remarked later, with an indifference designed to inflame the sanctimonious, “Efforts should be made to lift all bans on all books.” But those efforts wouldn’t come from him: “My job in life,” he declared, “is to write books, not chew the cud over them.” Aubrey Menen lived in Italy and while Indians were deprived of his Rama Retold, the book became a sensation abroad. Success allowed him to parade his disdain for incensed elders at home, though in private he did ask Jawaharlal Nehru why in a democracy any book should be banned at all. The prime minister was, it is said, apologetic, but felt that certain creative leaps in Menen’s tale came “a little too early for its time.”

“He was afraid of being criticized,” Menen recalled, and the book’s opening indicates why. “This is the story of Rama,” begins the Irish-Malayalee’s retelling, “a prince of India who lived his life according to the best advice. He reverenced his intellectual betters…and did what they told him to do. He took his morals from the best moralists, and his politics from the most experienced politicians. As a result he was ruined, exiled, and disinherited: his wife was stolen from him and when he got her back, he very nearly had to burn her alive from the highest of motives. In the teeth of the soundest and most reliable guidance from his moral and mental superiors, he finally recovered his country, his throne, and his common sense. He lived more than two thousand five hundred years ago but everybody will recognize his experiences.” Wry, revealing, and pointed, Menen’s pen knew no sacred cows.

Menen’s pronounced irreverence often invited trouble, but in 1955 the charge against him was of tarnishing a legendary woman’s equally legendary honour. For he had created a Sita who takes unorthodox decisions in the interests of survival. She is, like in traditional versions, dedicated to Ram, though sometimes she does suffer a little fatigue from all the devotion. “It seems that we are going to renounce the world,” she informs Laxman on being told of their exile. “When?” he asks. “Tomorrow morning,” she responds distractedly. On encountering Valmiki (whose idea of saying grace is to seek good pumpkins from the Almighty), she is told that he is a poet. “Very well,” says Sita, “if he starts talking poetry I shall get up and leave the room”—a wise policy for all women who endure the verbal flatulence typical of males of our species.

What was scandalous about Menen’s Sita, however, was her attitude towards Ravan. They meet, and he falls in love with her. While Ram is preoccupied with contemplating “tremendous questions about life” as Sita cooks and cleans, Ravan is a simpler, oddly refreshing contrast who actually talks to her. Though she is flattered by Ravan’s attention, she is not interested. But when the Lankan king attacks them after a brawl with Laxman, and it is clear that they cannot win, Sita walks up and agrees to go with Ravan if he ceases hostilities. It is against honour, but she saves everyone’s lives. All this, predictably, shocked Nehru’s generation—a Sita who remembers Ravan as “gentle with women”. Naturally, more correct Ramayan scholars like C. Rajagopalachari dismissed Menen’s audacity as “pure nonsense”, while others demanded a ban.

Menen reconciled the matter of Sita’s chastity with her uncomfortably long stay near Ravan by simply not bothering to reconcile it. Other Ramayan poets have struggled somewhat. Tulsidas addresses the issue by introducing gods who carry the “real” Sita away, replacing her with an illusion before Ravan abducts her—that way, Sita’s chastity is never under question at all. In another version, Ravan suffers from a curse that prevents him from coercing an unwilling woman, indirectly protecting Sita in captivity. In any case, the public had to be convinced, and Menen stayed true to the story of trial by fire—except that his fire was a magician’s trick (“Egyptian Fire”) orchestrated with Ram’s connivance. And soon, Sita appears unscathed, having completed the charade. “I hope you were not frightened,” asks Ram. “There was more smoke than I expected,” confesses Sita. All this while they are sipping sherbet in what was once Ravan’s palace.

There is much in Rama Retold that is provocative, just as there is much food for thought—the choice would have been the reader’s if one were actually allowed to read it. At the end of the day, Menen’s intention was to tap into India’s long-standing tradition of scepticism, eschewing overblown moralizing. A fine point if it didn’t today entail more bans, burning effigies, and mobs of internet warriors who uphold antiquated fallacies with furious clicks of the mouse—at least for those writers who can’t go abroad and must continue in this ancient land of timeless glory, where Ram is always infallible, Sita the emblem of monochrome virtue, and our elders gatekeepers of what is and is not in the interests of true honour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 19 2017)


On 12 June 1960, puzzled immigration officials in London detained a traveller who had landed up without bothering with that small thing called a passport. His face was partially paralysed but his tongue was defiant. “When the British came to my country,” he declared, “they did not bring any passport with them. Why should I now carry one to Britain?” It was a startling riposte but the visitor’s identity clarified matters. Angami Zapu Phizo, one time insurance salesman and proprietor of Gwiz Products, which offered a range of face creams and balms, was a dangerous separatist, sentenced to death by the Indian Union—a union 70 years old now but which is yet to fully reconcile with the people Phizo represented, and whose cause delivered him to his tragic destiny: exile and death in a foreign land.

The Nagas, descended from Mongoloid tribes, occupied a vast hilly tract for much of known history. Then, in 1832, an East India Company captain with 700 soldiers, 800 “coolies”—and no passport—decided to gun his way through their lands. Held loosely by rival clans, the advent of the British produced the tribes’ first common enemy, transforming also into a catalyst for unity. For the captain, however, the motive was clear—the company had brought Manipur under its control and now sought a direct route into Assam; a route that could only be had by bulldozing through this “savage tract lying in the midst of our settled districts”. A few patronizing lines about “civilizing the hillmen” were also thrown in, and Naga territory was justified as theirs to take.

Despite the hysterical onslaught of propaganda about headhunting, the Nagas were not convinced of their so-called inferiority. “We are all equal,” Phizo proudly noted. “We have no caste distinctions, no high class or low class. There is no minority problem and we believe in that form of democratic government which permits the rule of the people as a whole. We talk freely, we live freely, and we often fight freely too. We have few inhibitions. Wild? Yes, but free. There is order in this chaos, law in this freedom.” It was not what the West defined as “civilized” but it held all the other cultural ingredients for nationhood. The Nagas were alarmed to learn that an accident of history—and the construction of a highway—had made them “Indians” overnight.

Phizo, however, was an unlikely voice for Naga nationalism. Born in 1904, his was a family of converted Christians that was still tribal enough to baptize him at the late age of 18. Selling insurance for a Canadian company in the bigger towns of the region, and the Bible in its villages, the man travelled extensively. And, over time, he developed a sense of nationalism inspired by the past as well as by his peers. The time, though, was not ripe: He married and eventually moved to Burma (now Myanmar), never, however, relinquishing his vision for a sovereign Nagaland. “I am a Naga first, a Naga second, and a Naga last,” he announced, even as the British thought him “as thoroughly a nasty piece of work as ever there was one.”

It was World War II that allowed Phizo an opportunity to realize his vision. And this did not merely entail terminating British domination but also aimed to challenge any Indian claims over Naga territory—he did not intend to watch a “black government” replace the white. When in the 1940s Subhas Chandra Bose and the Japanese took Burma, Phizo cooperated more readily with the latter than with Bose, even though the campaign to invade India was ultimately defeated. The British locked him up in jail for his pains. “I was condemned a traitor,” he remembered. “But I was certainly not a traitor to my own conscience.”

In 1946, Phizo came home to lead the Naga National Council. His opening sentiment was disappointment. In Burma, he “had witnessed what patriotism could achieve”. In Nagaland, there “was nothing—no unity, no ideas”. He decided to plant these ideas, meeting Mahatma Gandhi to negotiate a space outside India for his people. “I will come to the Naga Hills,” Gandhi promised when the possibility of military coercion was raised, and “I will ask them to shoot me before one Naga is shot.” But Jawaharlal Nehru after 1947 would not brook any talk of tribal autonomy—India was already in shock after Partition, and the borders that remained were not negotiable.

Phizo, who “gave the impression of carrying, single-handed, in his little briefcase, the destiny of the entire Naga people”, was prepared to fight. And when events turned violent under his direction, Nehru’s determination was matched by the march of Indian troops. Phizo had no option but to live with the consequences. Travelling via Pakistan on a fake El Salvadoran passport to Switzerland first, Phizo went into exile. He made every effort to gather international support for his cause, but there was nothing anybody could offer. After all, Nehru, despite his blood-curdling policy in Nagaland, was a towering post-colonial figure; Phizo, as London’s newspapers announced, only a famous “headhunter”.

By the time he died in 1990, 30 years later, Phizo was resigned to his fate. “I made a mistake in over-estimating the will of those I had left behind in Nagaland to resist the pressures put on them,” he remarked gloomily to a journalist. “I made another mistake in believing that in the West truth would conquer. That was not so. Having come here, I could see the world is too distracted, too divided. I thought of myself as a student of history, but I have discovered I have a lot to learn.” He had a dream that seduced his people. What he learnt painfully was that it was destined to remain just that: a dream.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 12 2017)


In 1877, at the height of the Great Famine that devastated the south, a distinguished Englishman, recently knighted for services rendered to the British empire, yet again took a vociferous stand against the policies of his queen’s government in India. For years he had railed against imperial overzeal for the railways—a sophisticated scam that funnelled out Indian resources while delivering unconscionable profits to faraway investors—and now he was vindicated. For “we have before our eyes,” he noted, “the sad and humiliating scene of magnificent (rail) Works that have cost poor India 160 millions, which are so utterly worthless in the respect of the first want of India, that millions are dying by the side of them.” The railways certainly brought grain to starving masses, but the costs were so disproportionately high that nobody could afford to buy them—official profiteering perverted even the delivery of famine relief.

Sir Arthur Cotton had made a career of crossing the line where India was concerned, taking stands that irritated his superiors even as they earned him much local admiration—two districts of Andhra Pradesh hold an estimated 3,000 statues of the man. He was, of course, as much an imperialist as his peers, but it was not a desire to bring glory to Great Britain that motivated him. Instead, this 10th son of the 10th son of a regrettably named Sir Lynch Cotton had experienced a religious awakening as a young man in 1826. Thereafter, he felt his mission was to work “for the glory of God…and the benefit of men”, and with familiar racial condescension, he decided that the men in question were poor brown Indians. His self-righteousness, however, was wedded to sincerity—having taken up the Indian cause, Sir Arthur never gave up, describing himself as “a man with one idea” that could make a difference in India: irrigation.

Sir Arthur was a military engineer who caused his colleagues great consternation by refusing to be awed by steel and steam. He had no dispute with the railways but it made no sense to him that extortionate technology should be imposed on a landscape where the basics had been entirely neglected. But then he was also somewhat naive—he once argued against the term “collector” since it suggested that revenue officials’ sole interest lay in extracting money, when surely they were also responsible for that other thing called development. The architects of the Raj, of course, were under no such delusions—the collector was there precisely to collect, and Sir Arthur’s lifelong mistake lay in hoping that India’s wants would also somehow feature in those exploitative calculations masquerading as government policy. Naturally, he was thwarted by “administrative jealousy”, and many were those who called him a “wild enthusiast” with “water in his head”.

Still, Sir Arthur was tireless. In 1827, after inspecting the second century Kallanai dam near Tanjore, he regretted that “this work, which had a population of perhaps one hundred thousand and a revenue of £40,000 dependant upon it, had not been allowed £500 to keep it in repair.” He personally rode out to persuade his superiors to correct this, only to be rebuffed. “Government,” he was told, “could not squander such sums as this upon the wild demands of an Engineer.” “Is it surprising,” he asked in dismay, that “the natives thought us savages?” Nevertheless, he kept up his interest in irrigation—learning from furloughs in Australia, as well as travels in lands as diverse as Egypt and Syria—till finally he was able to leave a real imprint along the eastern coast of India; something his daughter called “The Redemption of the Godavari District” through, as his brother chuckled, “The Cheap School of Engineering”—also known today by that Indian word, jugaad.

The British, Sir Arthur thought, brought “disgrace to (their own) civilized country” by their “grievous neglect” of India. He decided to make amends. When the Godavari project was sanctioned in 1847, Sir Arthur asked for six engineers, eight juniors and 2,000 masons. Instead, he was allotted one “young hand”, two surveyors, and a few odd men. Yet he persevered. “To save on masonry work,” Jon Wilson writes, “he copied the method of construction” used by the Cholas. “Cotton created a loose pile of mud and stone on the riverbed, which he then covered in lime and plastered with concrete, instead of building up entirely with stone.” The whole project was finished at a third of the cost initially estimated, till 370 miles of canals (339 of which were navigable) irrigated some 364,000 acres of land, transforming a dry expanse into the “rice bowl” of Andhra Pradesh. And waterways, the Englishman demonstrated, were a doubly rewarding alternative to rail transport, simultaneously nourishing the farmlands of rural Indians.

In the end, however, Sir Arthur couldn’t prevail over the railway lobby. Between 1885-87, the railways cost £2.84 million while the irrigation budget stagnated at a measly £6,130. As late as 1898, the year before his death, it was stated that rail absorbed “so large a measure of Government attention, (that) irrigation canals, which are far more protective against famine…are allowed only one-thirteenth of the amount spent on railways each year.” It was easier, Sir Arthur sniffed, to propose a £4 million railway project over a £40,000 irrigation scheme. He had no dearth of ideas, however, offering a pan-India river-linking project, and bombarding his bosses with notes and suggestions till they finally established, almost out of sheer exhaustion, a public works department—the ubiquitous “PWD” of today. And after collecting his shiny knighthood, he continued to cheerfully lambast the Raj for its neglect of India, receiving a more profound honour instead from ordinary peasants, who, to this day, remember Sir Arthur less as a representative of the Raj and more as a local saviour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 05 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 29 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 22 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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