The Ivory Throne

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by Manu

The Ivory Throne_cover copy 2

The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins) is my first book of non-fiction, released in December 2015.

The Ivory Throne was the winner of the Tata Lit Live Prize for best first book (non-fiction 2016) and was short-listed for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Crossword Prize, as well as the BLF-Atta Galatta Prize. In June 2017 it won the Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puraskar (English).

Excerpts, reviews, interviews and other information is up here.

The Ivory Throne is available for online orders (India) here, (UK) here, and (US) here.

Here’s a Malayalam interview I did with Aby Tharakan of Asianet:


‘I’m a Naga first, a Naga second, and a Naga last’

Posted in Uncategorized on August 19, 2017 by Manu

(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.

Sir Arthur Cotton, the engineer and his rice bowl

Posted in Uncategorized on August 11, 2017 by Manu

(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.

Perils of a one-size-fits-all nationalism

Posted in Uncategorized on August 4, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, August 5 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.

Basava and the emergence of Lingayat identity

Posted in Uncategorized on July 28, 2017 by Manu

(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.

Obituary: Indira of Travancore

Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2017 by Manu

(My essay on Indira Varma in The Hindu, July 22 2017)

Indira Varma Indira Bayi Travancore.jpeg

The world into which Indira Varma was born in 1926 was a very different place. Her advent was heralded by a company of soldiers, ready to fire a 21-gun-salute when the baby arrived. Newspaper correspondents waited nearby, and when, soon after 1.57 am, the booms were heard, telegrams were issued. “A wave of public rejoicing” broke out across southern Kerala — then known as Travancore State — reported the Madras Mail, and large crowds descended on Satelmond Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. The gates were thrown open and hours later the father of the newborn appeared on a balcony, his royal daughter raised in his arms. The baby’s cousin, the young Maharajah of Travancore, drove in state to welcome her into the family — she was presented to him wrapped in silks, placed on a silver tray. In due course, proclamations were issued, a state holiday declared: nothing but the highest honours for Indira of Travancore.

“The event is memorable for its uniqueness,” The Microcosm noted, “in as much as a sovereign of the State giving birth to a child has not taken place during the last hundred years.” Indira’s mother, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, was at that time ruler of Travancore, and had, even as she went into labour, signed into law a “major agrarian reform” for thousands of farmers in her state. Indira, always hesitant to think of herself as special, did admit that her mother was certainly remarkable. The Maharani was gentle, she would note, “but she was not meek. She was spirited in her own way and always refused to yield to injustice.” Growing up, Indira was in awe of her — surrounded by dozens of secretaries and officials, heaps of guards in splendid uniforms, dealing with persons ranging from Mussolini’s daughter to Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Indira was the Maharani’s beloved younger child, for whom the former always had a soft corner.

The 1930s were an elaborate unfolding of formality, religiosity and the performance of duty. Ritual and custom governed every aspect of Indira’s life — when she woke up, what she ate, who she met. A walk in the afternoon was a procession with a dozen servitors, a silk parasol held high over her head. A birthday meant cutting a cake but not before she was carried around Thiruvananthapuram Fort in a palanquin, drums beating, elephants trumpeting, and all the town out to pay obeisance to their princess. But it was also a beautiful, happy childhood — one of privilege and comfort, broadly.

9bfc0b8f-9630-4eec-8e01-a02c28946440_mp4 (2).jpg

“My parents seemed to specialise in finding unknown but beautiful spots,” she would later write. And for a good part of the year, the family escaped the rigidity of the capital, retiring to a lakeside house in the country, or a towered “castle” by the sea. Local fishermen took Indira out on boat rides and every morning the princess paid a visit to a cowshed on their estate. Sometimes she acted in plays for her parents and asked her maid Kochu Paru to sing.

Indira’s first taste of unhappiness came after her marriage in 1944: a wedding reported on radio, her bridegroom coming to her in a golden howdah atop a magnificent beast. But he was unwell. Five years later he died of cancer, leaving her a widow at 23. Indira, shy and reserved from the start, retreated into a shell, emerging only when she had to — when Lord Mountbatten came to see her mother to ease Travancore’s integration into India, or when her sister’s children insisted their aunt join them for a picnic. Slowly she broke into her own. She became the first member of her family to go to college, arriving in a classroom full of girls who, till yesterday, were her subjects. “I used to go to class barefoot for some reason,” she once laughed, mystifying the others, dressed impeccably down to their toes.

In 1952, after marrying a man with socialist leanings but who became one of Madras’s big industrialists, Indira moved to what we now call Chennai. She travelled occasionally — to places like Kabul and Moscow — but her life was still a private affair. She played tennis with Mary Clubwala and attended meetings of the Literary Society, but remained “painfully shy”.

12IndiraFamily-2 (2).jpg

The most glamorous thing she did was to join Kamala Das as a jury member for the Filmfare Awards in the 1980s. She read, she pondered, and sometimes she wrote — an essay on her ancestor Raja Ravi Varma in the Illustrated Weekly, perhaps, or a short story for circulation within the family. From a mansion on Nungambakkam High Road, and then a house on St Mary’s Road, Indira watched as the country around her changed — the palaces were gone, the 300 servants had retired, and the Maharani herself spent her days now in a small room with large windows, cutting comic strips for her grandchildren and distributing toffee when they visited.

Indira accepted change as much as a woman born a princess could. “I was born in a cage,” she remembered. “A golden cage, but a cage nevertheless.” The travails of ordinary life in a democratic socialist republic was also her freedom — from royalty in Travancore she became an individual in bustling Chennai. Life brought with it many challenges — her husband’s businesses invited losses, for they trusted unscrupulous men with much money. Her mother died far away from the kingdom she once ruled. And her children grew up — her daughter, a lawyer, her son, a writer — while Indira grew old.

In 2001 her only granddaughter died tragically. “Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh,”grieved the old lady, “Beat of my pulse, song of my heart; Did I love you too much dear one? Did jealous fate resent the gift, Of so much love to a single soul, And take you, leaving me bereft?”

IndiraBayiwithSLB copy 2

When her husband departed, Indira aged further still. She lived in Neelankarai, in a new house with old furniture, her son and daughter near her. Portraits of her ancestors stared down from the walls as she played Snakes & Ladders with her attendants, or tried to read a book. On the evening before her death — 90 years after her arrival — she watched television and coughed a little. And at 3.20 am, the baby born to a queen, died of natural causes, concluding a life of experience, of change, and of pain. The story came to its close — the tale of a woman who had yet unexplored depths to her mind, and who in a different lifetime, in a different place was revered by millions as Indira of Travancore.

(Indira Varma was born October 23, 1926 and died July 20, 2017)

The Resurrection of Balamani

Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 22 2017)

Balamoni in Kerala .jpg

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.

Book Review: Cultural Exorcism

Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2017 by Manu

(My review in Open Magazine dated July 21 2017 of Arvind Sharma’s The Ruler’s Gaze)


THAT THE BRITISH in India, once their motivations graduated from commerce to empire, went out of their way to denigrate the country is well known. This, after all, was integral to the construction and projection of their power; to convince themselves (and their subjects) that the prospects of the Subcontinent were hopeless without British intervention. Governor General Hastings thought the Hindu had ‘no higher intellect than a dog, and an elephant, or a monkey’, and so imperial rule was really a godsend. James Mill, who compiled damaging volumes on Indian history without condescending to actually visit the country, thought that ‘the Hindu, like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave’. Lord Macaulay declared India a ‘decomposed society’, and even a sympathetic interlocutor like William Jones felt that Asia, on the whole, could at best serve as a ‘handmaid’ to the ‘sovereign princess’ that was Europe.

What Arvind Sharma sets out to do in The Ruler’s Gaze is to test Edward Said’s seminal thesis in Orientalism (1978) against this Indian backdrop, and to expose the broader agenda that propelled colonial claims. And in doing so, he has given us a work of great significance, arguing in a dense, heavily annotated text, how India’s own understanding of itself was ‘filtered through that of another’ power, which often held ‘different and even hostile beliefs’. Though his language and style is typically academic, there is passion in the case he makes as he attempts to ‘exorcize the ghost [of Orientalism]’ so that ‘the spirit of India’s culture can speak for itself’. It is a lofty goal, and for the most part Sharma succeeds in laying bare the business of empire, the invention of narratives to justify that business, and the plain, endless repetition of such narratives till they became ‘real’ even to the most discerning of Indians, from Rammohun Roy to Mahatma Gandhi.

The broad argument Sharma makes is that the British perception of India, when their power was still nascent, was generally favourable. But the moment they became a territory-grabbing force, everything changed—as it did, he suggests, with Muslim rulers before them. The arrival of Christian missionaries was central to the reversal of attitudes: the Government gathered data in order to understand the land they now ruled, while missionaries infused this data with pronounced prejudice, producing broad narratives of timeless Indian depravity that needed imperial correction and a moral reorientation. So ‘while British power was finding its feet in India, Indology tended to take a generally positive view of its subjects… once it became dominant around 1818 [after the fall of the Marathas], it developed an anti- Hindu position, absorbing… evangelical critique’. Simply speaking, cultivating contempt for India helped justify British appropriation of Indian resources.

Together, officialdom and the missionary enterprise became a factory for mythmaking, cloaking an exacting machine of extraction with lectures about ‘civilizing’ a barbaric people. The Thugs, for instance, who really functioned only in certain regions of the Subcontinent, were now exaggerated into a major threat and as proof of the chaos that was India. Other scholars like Jon Wilson, however, have showed that in fact it was the British who dismantled existing Indian systems of law and order to impose their rule, only to then justify this rule (and attendant violence) as necessary to control anarchy—an anarchy that was of their own design. So too, Sharma highlights Sati to show how the British took what was essentially a regional practice among certain groups, and used it to paint Hinduism as a monstrous assortment of horrible customs.

There are, however, certain infirmities with some of Sharma’s arguments. The concept of Hinduism as defined by the Vedas, Upanishads, and other philosophical works, was itself, others have argued, an invention of Orientalists—so when Sharma claims that the British maligned Hinduism, he does not fully address the claim that this Hinduism was also a creation of Orientalist minds who, coming from Abrahamic religions defined by textual sources, decided that the faith of the Hindus must be that contained in the Vedas and other written material. In reality, most ‘Hindus’ had little to do with these texts. So when Sharma suggests that ‘the Hindus’ were victimised, he bypasses the debate on whether such a ‘Hindu’ identity even existed at the time.

Similarly, in discussing caste, we again encounter several weaknesses. Certainly, the British solidified and worsened differences, but at one point Sharma appears to brush aside the inequalities promoted by the Manusmriti by pointing out that these did not find sanction in the Rig Veda. But did either the Rig Veda or the Manusmriti actually have any real bearing on the lives of ordinary people, who lived by local practices that were not codified in books? Is the Hinduism that the British painted black also to a considerable extent a creation of their own, just as they invented or exaggerated other notions we now take as intrinsic to Indian society? The texts Sharma reaches out to while making his case, the ones pooh-poohed by the British, were understood only by a Brahmin elite, so in exposing Orientalism, does Sharma fall into an Orientalist trap himself, taking the customs of a dominant Indian minority as reflective of Indian realities that were vastly more diverse?

Sharma is a scholar of philosophical Hinduism, which might explain his interest in the relevant texts, but in deploying them to make a political case, we encounter trouble. At one point, the claim that modern Hinduism is essentially Brahminism is denied by arguing that surely this cannot be true because ‘the two leading representatives’ of such Hinduism—Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi—were not Brahmins: a tenuous line of reasoning. So too Sharma is on shaky ground when he investigates the British demolition of India’s education system. British authorities in the 1830s down till the 1850s found that there were hundreds of thousands of schools in India. Given, however, the destruction they wreaked on our education system, leaving us with a fraction of the original literacy rates, they eventually discredited their own surveys instead of addressing the issue. In making this wider point, Sharma is strong.

However, when he attempts to show that traditional schools were accessible even to low-caste groups, the evidence produced is inadequate. The numbers certainly show that ‘Soodras’ were often the overwhelming majority in Indian schools. And if we consider the varna system, Soodras are the lowest class, by which logic the lowest in Indian society would appear to have had access to education. The only problem here is that often those who were deemed ‘Soodras’ were in fact privileged castes. In Malabar, for example, Soodras were 54 per cent of the student population. But this ignores the fact that in Malabar, it was the high-caste Nair, second only to the Brahmin, who was classed as a Soodra. In the Deccan, it was the land- owning Marathas who were considered Soodras, and so on in several other regions. So though the term may suggest lowliness, in actual fact it was dominant castes that were bracketed as ‘Soodras’ who went to these schools.

On the whole, Sharma’s argument that the ‘gulf between the ruler and the ruled had to be exaggerated to justify that rule’ is indeed correct, and the wider argument he makes in the book about colonial rule is a powerful one. After all, for the West to appear enlightened after the Enlightenment, someone else had to be painted as a mirror opposite.

The British utilised India not only to cast Indians as backward to justify their seizure of the country and its systematic, sustained destruction, but also to build their own national identity and a superior self-image back home. In making this case, Sharma is sharp, thought provoking, and correct. But on further scrutiny, the reader is left a little less happy. Perhaps, the subject being what it is, no single book can fully grasp it in 400 odd pages.

Still, The Ruler’s Gaze is an effective effort. And Sharma succeeds in providing us several answers, but also prompting many more questions.