(My column in Mint Lounge, April 08 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 01 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 25 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 18 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 11 2017)


The Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa, dwelling on the perpetual reproductive deficit vexing her endangered Parsi community, once chuckled: “Half the Parsi men are homosexual and the other half are statues in Bombay.” Last week saw the 178th birth anniversary of one of the more celebrated of these statues, a man who not only contributed to the Parsi cause by fathering two brilliant sons—like him, knighted by a king enthroned in a faraway island—but who also made some of the most enduring contributions to the material reinvigoration of India after its industries were systematically smashed in the name of that very king in times before.

Jamsetji came from a line of priests 25 generations old in Navsari in Gujarat, though it was after 11 generations of ministrations there that they took on the surname “Tata”, destined for glory in the 20th century—and perhaps an awkward display of corporate discord lately in the 21st. Jamsetji would have become a priest had he not studied in what is now Mumbai, a city to which he made very many contributions, and where he elected to turn his decidedly astute head towards business, not god. He was a clever man and accumulated vast riches, most of which were invested in regenerating this growing fortune and distributing its yields generously.

He was also a man of vision. As one biographer noted, when Jamsetji was born in 1839, the world was still in the grasp of a generation that belonged to the 1700s. It was a time when bullock carts transported merchandise and stage coaches lugged human beings. In his lifetime, he witnessed the historic upheaval of 1857 as well as the arrival of motorcars and the railways. Sometimes with camels and donkeys as his mode of transportation, he travelled in countries as alien as Egypt and Russia and to places as distant as Shanghai and South Carolina. Everywhere, he absorbed ideas and innovations, proceeding to painstakingly incarnate them in his own land.

This, for instance, is what made him the first in Bombay to fit rubber around his carriage wheels, stunning masses of people with the stately quietness of his vehicular progress. It is what inspired him to pursue with vigour, and against all odds, the establishment of Tata Steel (when bureaucrats scoffed that they would eat every ounce of steel an Indian could produce) and the endowment, at considerable personal expense, of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), now ranked the eighth leading small university in the world. By 1924, one in five Indian civil service officers of “native” origin had had his training sponsored by Tata, and it was Jamsetji who first instituted pension funds and accident compensation, and installed humidifiers and anti-fire sprinklers, for the welfare of his factory workers.

It was this same spirit that led to the establishment of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, mocked instantly as “Tata’s White Elephant”, but which has become an iconic symbol of the city of Mumbai and of India itself. Jamsetji exasperated legions of imperial worthies with his untiring missions—Lord Curzon once irritably remarked that he was “endeavouring to save Tata’s scheme from the shipwreck which (are) his ambitions”. Indians, on the other hand, admired him for precisely such ambition. Years later, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked that Jamsetji “formed himself into some kind of a planning commission”, not with a Five-year Plan “but a much bigger plan”, for posterity itself.

There was dignified patriotism too in Jamsetji, who was present at the 1885 inauguration of the Indian National Congress and who once alarmed his fellow rich by suggesting a then unheard of income-tax rate of 20% on their kind. Once, when lambasted for disloyalty by a prominent colonial mouthpiece after he questioned British policy, Jamsetji responded by admitting that while the Parsis had indeed “benefited more than any other class by English rule” (and the opium trade) and would demonstrate gratitude “in due proportion to the advantage derived”, “it must not be forgotten that as much is due…to the people of this country which gave (this community fleeing Iran) shelter for centuries before” the advent of the Raj.

This was not to suggest that the Parsis lived on anybody’s charity in India. This, he knew, was a land of diversity, and even his sense of aesthetics (while abhorring “abominable yellows and reds as much as possible” in household furnishing) reflected this. When plans were formulated for what would become Jamshedpur, the man wrote to his heir: “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey, and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.” Everything—from secular spaces to religious establishments—and everyone had a place in his conception of a modern Indian city.

When Jamsetji died in 1904, most of his pet projects were still in the making—it would be eight more years before the Taj Mahal Palace ceased to be a white elephant and stood on its own feet, and seven before the IISc began its remarkable journey. It was four years after his death that the construction of Jamshedpur began, with those avenues, parks and places of worship that he recommended. Jamsetji himself couldn’t behold the fruits of his labour and the outcome of his vision. But it doesn’t seem to have mattered to him.

In addition to his big statue in Mumbai, there is one in Jamshedpur, marked with a plaque bearing famous words borrowed from the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect: “If you seek a monument, look around.”

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 04 2017)


Some days ago, Emperor Aurangzeb—recently toppled from the towering heights of a Delhi signpost—found his way to the more untroubled comforts of my bookshelf. The woman behind this restoration is Audrey Truschke who, when not exploring the place of Sanskrit at the Mughal court, is evidently part of a cabal of “soul vultures”, according to one furious local website. They have reason to dislike her. After all, Aurangzeb—Muslim tyrant, persecutor of Hindus, stitcher of skull caps, etc., etc.—deserves no honour. And writing a book called Aurangzeb: The Man And The Myth concedes too much dignity to a despot who deserves only contempt. Or so we are told.

In itself, this very contested setting makes the prospect of reading Truschke attractive, but if one is looking for overblown sympathy that projects Aurangzeb as a tragic hero (currently a place reserved for his slaughtered brother, Dara Shukoh), this isn’t the book. On the contrary, what we receive is a sequence of sober, unvarnished sentences that demolish political propaganda and show Aurangzeb as a man who certainly made many mistakes, but not the ones for which he is blindly condemned. To begin with, he was not the destroyer of “thousands” of temples—in his 49 years on the Peacock Throne, the number of shrines demolished was perhaps half that figure.

“Aurangzeb was an emperor,” Truschke writes, “and as such he needed no special justification for seeking to enlarge his empire.” I confess to liking this otherwise dry statement, for in one stroke it puts the man in the correct perspective—he was a despot, but he lived in an age of despots, answering to the demands of his own situation and not to the retrospective needs of ours. Dara Shukoh, his more amiable, philosophically inclined brother, would have been relatively heterodox perhaps, but even he admitted that had he won the war of succession, Aurangzeb would have been neatly chopped up and put on display in Delhi. “Either the throne or the grave” was the reality of the Mughals, and the most excellent of them lived by this dictum.

Truschke agrees that Aurangzeb was a a clever strategist but a bad ruler—he stretched the empire to unsustainable limits and on his deathbed was preoccupied with the inevitable unravelling of his house. His unnecessary imposition of the jizya tax on Hindus (from which Rajput and Maratha officials as well as Brahmin dignitaries were exempt) only lined pockets in the decaying bureaucracy. For years he patronized temples as far away as Guwahati and later rescinded such orders when his princely mood turned. He allied with mullahs where it served his purposes, and discarded them when it didn’t. Leading clerics, for instance, opposed his usurpation of the throne. Aurangzeb simply had them replaced.

Understandably, it was insecurity that guided his strange actions. When he took the title Alamgir, the Shah of Iran sniggered that “Seizer of the World” was somewhat exaggerated when the only thing Aurangzeb had seized was his own father. As Truschke states, “Being branded an illegitimate Muslim monarch likely prompted Aurangzeb to become more devout…. Here, Aurangzeb’s religiosity did not shape state policy so much as his kingly experiences inspired changes in his religious life.” He appropriated religion to invent legitimacy—a technique not unfamiliar to rulers from other faiths—but if conflict arose between Islamic ideals and imperial business, it was the latter that prevailed. When the mullahs objected to his war against Muslim sultans in the Deccan, Aurangzeb ignored them.

Truschke also insists that we must not hold Aurangzeb up to Akbar since “in such comparisons we also commit the classic error of assuming that everything in Indian history, especially the Indo-Muslim past, was about religion”, where Akbar becomes the “good” Muslim whom Hindus respected, and Aurangzeb the “bad” one everyone resented. Aurangzeb was generally austere—he restricted Holi celebrations, but also festivities around Muharram and Eid. The love of his life was a Christian, and for a man who didn’t permit music in his presence, his companion towards the end was a musician wife. His daughter was a poet and his uncle, Shaista Khan (a villain for the Marathas), composed in Sanskrit. If we must compare him with Akbar, it is instructive that Hindus comprised 22.5% of all the nobility under the former, while during Aurangzeb’s time the number reached an unprecedented 31.6%.

It is a deathless travesty that political interests today draw nourishment for current interests from decontextualizing history, without actually going through the effort of learning enough of it. Aurangzeb occupied a complex world with competing interests and changing personalities—the scheming prince who took the throne in 1658 was not the emperor who died in 1707, fearing the advent of ruin. He probably realized he had failed, retiring to an unmarked grave, hoping possibly to be forgotten. But those who came after him are unwilling to let him go—from 300 years ago, Aurangzeb is dragged into the battles of the present, waged in school textbooks, and in the naming of roads. That, perhaps, is the fate of all emperors but thanks to a “soul vulture” called Audrey, we can at least now view the man in his own context and in the terms of his time.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 25 2017)

I spent last weekend in Germany, surveying some hugely interesting people. I ran into a beaming David Miliband in the elevator, and relished Boris Johnson being told off for saying, predictably, something silly. While John McCain rushed past, there was at least one distressed Royal Highness looking for a seat. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine delivered a deliciously devastating punch on his counterpart in Russia, while US vice-president Mike Pence reassured his nervous European allies that America will not seek a divorce from their doddering transatlantic union—unconvincing, of course, given the drivel that pours out from @realDonaldTrump battering this marriage. When the Chinese foreign minister championed renewed commitment in the globalized world order, irony retreated behind those protectionist walls that architects of this very order now chaotically scramble to build.

The scene was the Munich Security Conference, where droves of powerful men in dull suits have gathered for 53 years to protect, essentially, Western pre-eminence in the world—a pre-eminence sliding slowly down the wrong side. Nowadays, refreshing numbers of powerful women also come, ranging from Anne Applebaum, who brought with her Pulitzer-quality Twitter commentary, to, of course, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who delivered an unglamorous, sensible speech. There were, however, four women whom I met with a small cohort, all of them remarkable not only because of their mandates, but also because of what they represent—if only there are more women doing the talking, the world might come up with those urgent innovations of thought and method that it so desperately needs.

There are in Europe today over half-a-dozen female defence ministers. I met the charismatic Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, a slight figure surrounded by uniformed generals with formidable noses. Chatham House rules preclude recording what we discussed, but I think I will be excused for repeating her advice for women in international relations—be a woman, think like a woman, and don’t turn into a man. Von der Leyen knows what she’s talking about, because she inhabits a critical ministry in a country that is central to Europe’s destiny, a country that has painfully reconciled to its own dark history, and is uniquely poised to remind us of what is at stake if the world excuses the aggressive hyper-masculine rhetoric erupting everywhere. She is a senior political leader in the world—and her experience as a woman is central to her vision.

Female political perspectives differ from those of their male interlocutors’, who, broadly speaking, rarely see things except from one privileged side. This is not to say that the male view lacks value or is unlayered—it is, however, so pervasive that it can suffocate with tedium and homogeneity. Men, if they can look past their noses, will agree that women bring much needed originality to the way things are done—perhaps men should sometimes think like women. There was in Von der Leyen’s style, for instance, something visibly easy and direct in comparison with the intelligent but stiffly starched men sitting by her. Not only was there palpable admiration for her mind, there was also respect for her refusal to “be a man” in the way she discharges her duties. Her femininity informs her work, and in a stagnating male-dominated universe, this is energizing.

Norway too, with its celebrated model that combines welfare with wealth creation and human rights, has a woman at the helm of its defence. Ine Marie Søreide is just on the other side of 40 and came without generals—I imagine demonstration of power through retinue is an affliction she has escaped, and she discarded protocol and got straight to business. After discussing Nato, security strategy and the future of the European Union, I saw her afterwards, sipping coffee in the lobby, giggling with some other women. Stiffly starched men could also learn to giggle now and then. So too came the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court focused on her mission, and who brings to her office not only education, ability and legal brilliance, but also her experience as a black woman in a society designed for (white) men. If a new world order is to be built, people like her must be among its architects.

Just before our meeting with the chairwoman of the Chinese foreign affairs committee, my own prejudice made an appearance, mixing mulishness with other embarrassing predispositions. China, after all, is not a country India is comfortable with. I had, at some level, decided that the engagement would be boring, and that this lady would parrot something un-enlightening. When Madame Fu Ying began to speak, however, it was to me the first time that Chinese foreign policy was articulated with large doses of what can (somewhat problematically) be called grace—and it was articulated strikingly well. I didn’t buy the substance of many answers, but we wanted to listen to this spokesperson for the People’s Republic. And that is the mark of any spokesperson’s success in presenting her country’s position to the world. It was a sentiment shared by others around that table, like me reinvigorated by this leader who came with no chips on her shoulder.

I encountered very many interesting people in Munich over the weekend but left with my mind fixated on the untapped promise of women in corridors of international power—to talk, to participate, and to lead. Powerful men in dull suits must urgently make room. For it is already too late and we have many crises to deal with, including one called Donald.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 18 2017)


Sasikala V.K., understandably, was condemned for years as a sinister influence around the late lamented Jayalalithaa, and efforts to park her in Amma’s hallowed post in Tamil Nadu have come, at last, to naught—the Supreme Court has identified a less gratifying location for the lady, famous mainly for possessing endless reserves of nephews, stout with rowdy power and stockpiles of oddly acquired wealth. Tamil Nadu, always a most fascinating political landscape, is now going through yet another interesting (and, I daresay, entertaining) phase, and O. Panneerselvam, a dutiful cipher if ever there was one, appears determined to carry the day. For whom is, of course, another matter.

The weight of her “disproportionate assets” has finally sunk Sasikala for the predictable future but while drama plays out on the east coast of India, I am reminded of happenings on the west coast many decades before, also featuring shadowy figures haunting the corridors of power. A century ago in Kochi, for instance, a raja succeeded to power. He was an intelligent man but age had blunted his previously sharp capacities. Within a few years into his reign, he grew ill and unable to exercise the power and judgement his position demanded. Some say he was more interested in the art of conversing with lizards, but more considered documents tell us that as the ruler retreated into fits of giggles and incoherence, his “consort” picked up the sign manual.

In matrilineal Kerala, the raja’s wife was not his queen—she was only the consort, who could live in conditions of borrowed glory during the lifetime of her exalted spouse but had to retire to her original circumstances after his death. It was the raja’s sisters and their children who succeeded him in the royal line, his own issue treated only as ordinary subjects. If a ruler were wise, he would make arrangements for his lady to carry on in comfort, if not opulence, and find his sons respectable vocations as contractors or doctors or lawyers. Either way, the wife and her household were the king’s private affair, and they had no business or stake in matters of state and policy that concerned the matrilineal ruling dynasty.

This particular consort, however, rose to fame as the real power in Kochi between 1914 and 1932, by which time her husband was practically senile. Parukutty V.K. wasn’t a bad administrator, but brooked, evidently, no opposition to her “ruling passion”, which was “the acquisition of wealth for her already wealthy family”, in the words of the watchful British Resident at court. The land her husband “gifted” her, for example, was sold back at a premium, after which it was “leased” on a discount by the lady. None of this was strictly illegal but it was deemed singularly inappropriate. The ruler’s ministers objected, not to speak of the royal nephews, but the consort and a loyal palace manager controlled access to the decrepit raja and, in this fashion, retained their grip over the decisions he took and the orders he signed.

This was hardly unprecedented. Further south in Thiruvananthapuram, the local prince had fallen in love with a very married commoner. Her husband, a low-level palace employee, relinquished her to his sovereign, compensated in return with the loftiest title in the land and permanent influence for decades. It didn’t matter that he was publicly embarrassed in stiffly starched society as the “former husband of the maharaja’s present wife”. After all, he had also been installed as palace manager, which supplied a healthy consolation of bribes. It also didn’t trouble him that local courts and newspapers excoriated his corruption—as a pillar of the ruler’s awkward domestic arrangements, his position was unassailable.

Of course, when the rulers died, things changed. Parukutty in Kochi, for instance, had no chance of clinging to power since a royal nephew now succeeded as ruler—a nephew with a consort of his own to promote. But she spent the remainder of her days in style, holidaying in Europe and supervising her land holdings, tea factory, and other numerous possessions. In Thiruvananthapuram, too, the “scoundrel favourite” (as a royal relative called him) withdrew the moment his patron departed, focusing on enjoying the vast fortune he had amassed, and even dispensing scholarships and aid to needy students from his caste.

Perhaps Sasikala could have taken a leaf out of these Malayali books and quietly faded into the sunset (with all its material comforts) instead of seeking to seize so pointedly power to which she has no legitimate claim. Or, to be fairer, the least legitimate claim. It is, of course, another matter that wives and relations of monarchs could get away with a lot back in the day—that, after all, was the feature of the age in which they lived. Today, illicit hoarding from a lucrative career with a different kind of monarch can sink ships many years afterwards—that, incidentally, is the point of what is called justice in a democracy. And Sasikala’s greatest contribution may well be that she will go down as an example of this.

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 11 2017)


Alauddin Khilji, who died 701 years ago, was ruthless. He inaugurated his career by murdering his predecessor before proceeding to also murder very many Mongols when they decided to raid India. He then appointed himself chief raider, penetrated the south, scattered its kings, and couriered much treasure north. Under him, the sultanate towered over India and, naturally, he was eulogized by his own, despised by enemies, but inevitably commemorated in song and lore.

Last September, film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali received an atrociously worded letter for making a movie out of one such song, featuring the sultan with a fabled queen. “We have come to know through various reliable sources that you are portraying an imaginary character (sic)…of Rani Padmavati of Chittor who is a famous historical ICON (sic) of Rajputs’ age-old culture, valour & tradition…. Hence, we wish to make it very clear that your proposed film should be based purely on authentic historical facts and not in any allegorical manner. Hence, we forewarn you well in advance that there should be no deviation or distortion of History in projection of the iconic character of Rani Padmavati…”

Rumours circulated that Bhansali had sacrificed history at the altar of deviant distortion—in one “dream sequence”, he had the rani in an embrace with Alauddin, they said—and so a herd of self-appointed custodians of Rajput prestige descended on Bhansali’s set and demonstrated that courage and honour are counted today by the number of items smashed.

The “history” they sought to protect is a 1540 Avadhi work of fiction by Malik Muhammad Jayasi titled The Padmavat, which features a parrot that talks of a Sri Lankan princess’ beauty to the raja of Chittor. Dark-skinned Padmini (aka Padmavati) accepts Chittor’s proposal and becomes queen in the desert. A sorcerer, following in the footsteps of the parrot, sings praises of Padmini’s face in Delhi, prompting Alauddin to desire her. He besieges Chittor and, in a tedious compromise, the rani shows herself in a mirror to the sultan. In the end her husband is killed, and Chittor defeated. But instead of surrendering to the invader’s lust, Padmini jumps into a blaze.

“Awful sacrifice,” wrote James Tod (of The Annals And Antiquities of Rajasthan), followed “in that horrible rite of ‘jauhar’ where the females are immolated to preserve them from pollution or captivity…and the defenders of Chittor beheld…the queens, their own wives and daughters to the number of several thousands. The fair Padmini closed the throng and they were conveyed to the cavern…leaving them to find security from dishonour in the devouring fire…. The Tatar conqueror took possession of an inanimate capital, strewed with brave defenders, the smoke issuing from the recesses where lay consumed the once fair object of his desire.”

There is at least one instance of Alauddin seizing another’s wife (Kamala of Gujarat), but Jayasi’s literary cocktail, inspired two centuries after the siege of Chittor in 1303, had little to do with reality, notwithstanding all the nourishment the Rajput self-image has derived from it. Padmini became emblematic of (patriarchal) honour, Jayasi’s tale embellished numerous times over. Till the colonial age, these were romanticizations of Rajput valour in standing up to a mighty conqueror, and their preference for self-destruction over public ignominy.

The 19th century, however, saw Padmini upgraded from poetry to “fact”. Colonial writers manufactured the enduring impression of Indian history as a confrontation between Muslims and Hindus—which justified British rule to keep the peace in a land of competing antagonisms. The tale of Padmini was now a communal affair and a sample of Hindu suffering under Islamic tyranny, a perversion that has had enthusiastic takers in certain obvious quarters.

Even Indians who didn’t buy this invented historical conflict were willing to play up the “fact” of Padmini’s sacrifice to fuel the nationalist cause. As Sarojini Naidu said in an address to the Indian National Congress in 1917, “Womanhood of India stands by you today…as holders of your banner, sustainers of your strength. And if you die, remember that the spirit of Padmini of Chittor is enshrined with the manhood of India.” Padminifound herself a transfixed patriotic audience, and by the early 20th century versions were in circulation in influential Bengali circles also.

Historian Romila Thapar wrote, “An event occurs, and it slowly becomes encrusted with narratives about what happened.” The monumental irony with the Padmini episode is that narratives have been draped elaborately around a non-event drawn from the fertile mind of a Sufi. Meanwhile, Bhansali has ceased shooting in Jaipur, preferring to carry on in safer quarters where reinterpreting old poems does not invite hordes of self-righteous men who know little history but are determined to “punish” those who offend their over-sensitive sensibilities.

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 28 2017)


I spent Republic Day engrossed in a new biography of the man who extolled the virtues of the Constitution of our republic while also, as prime minister, submitting that “even in the mightiest fort one has to repair the parapet from time to time”. One cannot have an argument against reviewing constitutional provisions, if not its fundamental freedoms, periodically in a democratic system of our scale, size and diversity. But concerns that this proposal emerged from a protégé of M.S. Golwalkar’s (who famously lamented that our “cumbersome” Constitution was poorer for absorbing “absolutely nothing” from the Manusmriti) caused one former occupant of 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg), to warn that this shouldn’t become a case of “tenants (going) for rebuilding in the name of repairs”.

Till the tenants lasted a full lease, there were few fears of this happening. I was six years old when Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled India for 13 days, 8 when he returned for 13 months, and then from 1999 he remained Prime Minister till 2004. Among schoolboys of my time he inspired little heroic appeal, what with his vast person, capacious dhotis, artificial knees, and tendency to break into Hindi poetry about birds and peace. But our assorted fathers were quite charged by Vajpayee, who displayed might in nuclear avatar and prevailed over our ancestral enemy in Kargil. His everyday sobriety seemed to them an asset—and a relief—and there was genuine conviction that he would change India for the better. In many ways, he did. And thankfully this didn’t involve touching too many “parapets” of our constitutional fort.

Vajpayee, now laid up for years with age and illness, is a more interesting figure than he has been given credit for, and reading Ullekh N.P.’s The Untold Vajpayee, I was struck by how easy it was, in my youthful mind, to write off his grandfatherly style as uninspiring. This was a man who, in a party dedicated to the idea of the gau mata, had no qualms digesting a near cousin in the equation—Vajpayee loved buffalo meat. Bhang and alcohol were not taboo, but he was not a rebel-child, merely, instead, leading a life that embraced experience in all its variety. Endearingly, he welcomed his father’s desire to attend law school with him, the two Vajpayees sharing a hostel room, the son cooking his father’s vegetarian food. He never married, but for 50 years Mrs Kaul lived with him with her husband and children, and ran his household. When she died, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi paid Vajpayee a condolence call.

In the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), this made Vajpayee an unusual figure, and more orthodox members lost no opportunity in maligning him for a lifestyle that was miles away from the pious guidelines the rest of them toed. As Ullekh writes, “Vajpayee alone could defy the RSS and get away with it.” One leading rival, Balraj Madhok (who charitably announced that “if Congress is malaria, Communists are the plague”), resented Vajpayee for a lifetime for his breezy successes in flouting dozens of rules while retaining full commitment from the RSS. Vajpayee’s ability to best better or at least more correct men with his charm, oratory, quiet shrewdness, and, most importantly his reputation for moderation, was hated by many but also became indispensable to the growth of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Vajpayee was certainly diplomatic but he could also pose as a liberal when it was opportune to seem one, and act as quite something else when it wasn’t. Whether one defines this as political pragmatism or insincerity depends on one’s own principles, but since politics is an exacting beast, we can only pass judgement in a certain context. Certainly, the BJP wouldn’t have risen in quite the way it did without Vajpayee—if a hard-boiled RSS egg like Madhok had wrested control from Vajpayee in 1968, this faction would have remained true to their basic principles but never won the respectability and wide acceptance that Vajpayee’s method invited from people who would otherwise have found those basic principles abhorrent.

Vajpayee himself seems to have known this. In the mid-1990s, when he won an award in Parliament, he said: “I am aware of my limitations and I recognize my faults. The adjudicators must have ignored my limitations and mistakes to select me. This is a wonderful, unique nation. You can even worship a stone by putting vermillion on it.” He meant it in another context, but Vajpayee, when situations demanded it, wore the vermillion and said strange things, and when it suited him, posed as a less threatening stone.

This is perhaps why the opposition, while willing to parley with him, remained suspicious that Vajpayee’s poetry and moderation were a mask to further his own ambitions in an arrangement that also furthered an odious agenda shaped by other forces—forces he could not entirely control. Some years after the destruction in Babri, Ullekh points out, a video emerged that has Vajpayee, on the eve of the tragedy, joking that the “earth has to be levelled” for any ceremony to be performed. He may not have known what was about to happen, but he was quite willing to add fuel to the fire with which others lit a blaze. This was also the prime minister who described the demand for a temple as “an expression of national sentiment which is yet to be fulfilled”. The only defence here is that other prime ministers too have played with fire, and regretted it.

Vajpayee did, for most part however, play the statesman and earn respect, though his power was incomplete. More impatient, more aggressive elements in his own party worked to push him aside—it was almost as if having come to power on the back of his appeal, they felt it was now time for real business. The constitutional review and its 1,979-page report went nowhere, though—while his party rebutted the Congress’ criticism with a document titled Let Facts Speak For Themselves, pointing out that party’s attempts to “thoroughly re-examine” the Constitution years before, the din was too loud. And in 2004, the BJP lost power, and Vajpayee dissolved into retirement and illness. Today the BJP is under a different leadership—what plans, if any, are proposed for the Constitution need to be seen.