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.

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:

Saadat Hasan Manto and Partition’s children

Posted in Uncategorized on May 19, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint, May 20 2017)


In his poignant Partition story Khol Do (1948), Saadat Hasan Manto presents a traumatically widowed father desperately seeking his missing daughter. He describes her features to a group of boys and prays for their success in finding her. They locate the girl, but the old man only sees his daughter many days later, on a hospital stretcher, having been retrieved from a railway track. The doctor in charge asks him to open the windows—khol do—but response to the command comes from the half-conscious girl. Instinctively, her hands undo the knot of her trousers, and she pushes them down to her thighs, spreading her legs. The father rejoices—the girl is alive. But the doctor breaks into a sweat. Partition wasn’t only about drawing boundaries.

It was with this story that Manto arrived in Pakistan, and for his pains he was promptly slapped with a lawsuit for obscenity. In the end, he had to pay Rs300 for the mirror he had held up, but this was, by 1950, a familiar exercise—he had already battled charges of vulgarity thrice before in colonial India and would face it once again in postcolonial Pakistan. As always, fuelled also by alcohol and cycles of depression, he remained defiant. “How,” he asked, “could I bare a culture, civilization and society that is already naked?” People could call him “black-penned, but I don’t write on the blackboard with black chalk; I use white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.” Understandably, the man upset many.

Manto was born in May 1912 and grew up in Amritsar. On the side of his father, a stiffly starched judge, he was descended from Kashmiri traders, while his mother, a neglected second wife, was Pathan. All his father’s sons from the first wife were samples of upper-class correctness, educated abroad to become barristers and engineers. Manto alone was an embarrassment, a “slacker, gambler, drinker…and inveterate prankster…an entirely unworthy son of an honourable and respected man”. He once roused Amritsar into a nationalistic frenzy by manufacturing a rumour that the British had sold the Taj Mahal to the Americans, but more scandalously he kept in his bedroom, alongside his father’s photograph, posters of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich (whose legs he apparently admired).

Energetic, mischievous and headstrong, it took him three attempts to get through school (where he failed Urdu, the language that would deliver him to fame), while at university in Aligarh he barely lasted a year. But the dropout was sensitive, talented, and married his keen interest for the marginalized with unyielding scorn for hypocrisy. Part of this came from his family’s second-class treatment in his father’s home, and the rest from resenting discipline of any kind. Critics said he was influenced by Freud and Marx and Chekhov and Tolstoy, but as his biographer and grand-niece Ayesha Jalal writes, Manto himself viewed “his proclivity for storytelling as quite simply a product of the tensions generated by the clashing influences of a stern father and a gentle-hearted mother”.

“A man remains a man,” he once observed, “no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore.” His was not sympathy as much as a genuine understanding of experiences common to women and the powerless. When lambasted for highlighting unvarnished characters from the peripheries of society, he asked: “If one could talk about temples and mosques, then why could one not talk about whorehouses from where many people went to temples and mosques?” There was greater sincerity, he felt, in the life of the prostitute than in that of a mahatma, and his stories were wedded to reality, eschewing romance and all idealism except that of humanity.

Manto began in the early 1930s as a film critic, quite by accident, and then became a translator. By 1934, he had published his story, Tamasha, and two years later, produced his first collection even as he left Amritsar for Lahore and, then, what was Bombay (Mumbai). By 1940, he was in Delhi, married to Safia, whose influence enriched his work, and whose parents gave him a roof, for he was still no richer in the pocket. He had a job with All India Radio, and it was now that Manto became a household name, producing in two years over a hundred plays to air. In his usual uncompromising style, he also managed to provoke many at his workplace, storming out eventually with his typewriter when they attempted to revise his works.

Between 1942-46, Manto lived in Bombay again, writing film scripts and making some money, afflicted, however, by a feeling of inadequacy. “I have started drinking a lot, not so that I can write… but actually to find something within me that I have to do.” Whatever he had achieved so far, he felt, was “a mere travesty”, but really it was powerful writing. “It is a rule in every respectable country…that the dead, even if one’s enemies, are spoken of in positive terms…. I damn such a respectable world and society where as a rule the character of the dead is sent to a laundry for a wash…. In my reformatory there is no support, no shampoo, no hair-curling machine…I am not a make-up artist…all the angels in my book have their heads shaved, and I have performed that ritual with great finesse.”

Partition for Manto was not about politics. “I think only of (raped women’s) bloated bellies—what will happen to those bellies?” Would the offspring “belong” to Pakistan or India? When he moved to Lahore, many in India felt betrayed. But Manto, despite the 127 stellar stories he would produce there, wasn’t particularly cheerful about his new passport either, lapsing again into alcoholism. The bottle killed him in 1955, and he left behind Safia and three daughters. Honour was heaped on him in death, but it was precisely the kind of honour he despised, warning in advance that he would take it as “a great insult” to be garlanded by a “fickle-minded” state. Yet garlands were what he received, for after all, as one critic wrote, he had left behind “pearls of truth”, albeit with the warning that if “we find the truth bitter, it is not Manto who is to blame”.

The bald man and his wife

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13, 2017 by Manu

(My essay in The Hindu, May 14 2017)


Perhaps it was because she still bleeds. Or perhaps, as they said, it was because a woman could “hardly” appear in the ironic nakedness of a loincloth. Either way, mother wasn’t permitted to set fire to her father. It was all a curious unfolding—the cremation saw no logs of wood; it was coconut husks they piled up.

Grandfather was frozen after his night in the glass box. When we lifted him, his feet in my hands, I wondered if he might crack. He didn’t, and we put him on his bed of husks. He was supposed to be washed but how can you wash ice? So someone dabbed his face with a wet cloth. We were meant to dress him in new clothes. It was laid on him instead. A fine shawl was added for pretensions of dignity. Local politicians came bearing shawls of nylon. Only the corpse looked mournful.

Mother was the firstborn of his two daughters. For reasons of sex, they said she wasn’t eligible to burn her father. They looked to me instead, the eldest male of his line. I had seen Mother wash grandfather some years before. The nurse was fired and the old man needed cleaning. She parked him on a stool and began with his toes. The father chatted weakly, and the daughter hummed an old tune. In the end he emerged, still decrepit but with the happy smell of Pears soap. Nobody had called mother ineligible to wash the man who birthed her, incapacitated with age and naked in her gaze. Burning him too was her right, I sentimentalised, declining what was pronounced my duty. In the end it was the son of the secondborn who wore the loincloth. It was he who brought fire to the ice.

The workers came before with the husks. Coconut burns faster, they explained between drags of the beedi. When grandfather arrived, horizontal under ugly shawls, they heaped sugar on him, and other commodities too. Then their palms produced dung. Cow dung, they said, seals heat. It is also auspicious, they cried, protesting my bewilderment. And grandfather was sandwiched between husk and dung. It looked like a large, grey rectangular cake, six feet in length, and oddly, without smell. But really, it was an oven, fire breathing below. Don’t look back, ordered the priest, and we obeyed, dragging away the ritual flame. We defied his command afterwards to return; there were plastic bags everywhere and beedi stubs to remove. The priest was gone, and grandfather burned in silence.

When the skull cracked, the noise travelled a universe. The visitors could at last leave. And then, when we were alone, the widow sat down for tea.


The deceased was born into what was less a family and more a model of correctness. They lived by a river in a neat house built by an ancient grandfather—a blind tyrant of strange tastes. He liked bananas, and so bananas were hung from the roof of his bed. He liked to soak, so a tub of rock was carved for him. He set his grandchildren tasks of endurance to amuse himself. Sometimes he thundered in discontent. But nobody resented the invalid: the mother of the children was exact in her deference. The father was docile and invisible which also was a form of deference. Together, they were a pattern of undemonstrative propriety. Nobody laughed, and nobody cried. Nobody even spoke. The boys were studious and the girls were married.

Grandfather was the eldest. He pored over textbooks, and he helped in the kitchen. He put his brothers through college and paid for his sisters’ weddings. One successful brother lived in a big house with a bathtub of enamel. But he went first. When grandfather died, the less successful brother came, and all the sisters too. The man who survives is tall and straight. He has no teeth but was statuesque in sorrow. The sisters were bent. One, with an anguished face, sought food. While others paid homage to the corpse, the diabetic stole a meal from the dead man’s kitchen. Still, they had been taught well. For while there was grief, there was not a tear.

When he first met the widow as a bride, grandfather arrived into a family unlike any he knew. This was no temple of decorum and civilised restraint—it was a house of impetuous, violent souls given to tantrums and forbidding arrogance. The women brooked no husbandly intervention, and the men squandered money and pampered mistresses. When grandmother, with the authority of her line, beheld this suitor of middle class dignity, she sniffed. Not enough hair, she observed, but perhaps amenable to control. Always marry a little beneath you, she once advised, for that gives you the upper hand. Grandfather only knew household saints like his mother. Here was a woman who thought marriage politics.

Their firstborn gave them great trouble—10 days of labour and a decided headache for doctors. When at last the offspring appeared, grandmother declared her intention to never inflict again the inconvenience of pregnancy on her stately person. Grandfather shrugged. It was her decision to make, he said, and she thought him strange. Marriage was to battle but nothing provoked the man—she wanted to prevail but where was the contest?

Seven years passed before he asked for the secondborn—the firstborn would do well with company, he said. It was a gentle remark, and grandmother sat to contemplate. Soon, she agreed. Not because she savoured the production of life, but because her husband expected something of her, at last.

The birth of the secondborn was easy. Illness, however, arrived. Grandfather cared for his laid up wife; he made her mutton soup and smuggled her brandy. The elders were horrified—his, about the brandy and mutton, hers, about the mutton only. Then they built a charming house and the elders were kept at bay. Years went by, and most of it they spent apart—she, in the house she owned; he, in distant parts, working on unknown projects. They exchanged many letters. “My dear madam,” began all of his, and “Dear husband,” wrote his wife. When he retired, they carried on in formal comfort. He had diaries and books. She had maids to steer. They threw out the letters and married the daughters.

On the eve of his death, grandmother invited him to dine. I don’t feel like eating, he said, craving instead something sweet. She took to his bedside a piece of chocolate, which he swallowed whole. He wanted more, but she of vast and powerful build quibbled that an excess of chocolate is something to avoid.

They lay in bed, as they did each night, and stared at the clock. At a certain time, he died. From faraway places, the first and secondborn arrived. I went too and sat beside grandmother. Gazing at the glass box in which the bald man froze, she sniffed again after a lifetime. He rarely ever asked for anything, said the widow. I wish I’d given him more chocolate.


We went to a holy place with ashes that were actually bone. When the cake of dung and husk collapsed, the secondborn’s son drew them from the earth: pieces of skull, rib, and leg. They were placed in a pot, and the pot was placed in a box. The firstborn held this to her breast. A priest was found—a fat man with a quivering lip—and the rites began. He kept a golden phone in his underpants, where also he secured money. Business was good—many were those lined up with remains of their dead. Name, he demanded. R.K., said grandmother. Mother’s name, he scratched. K., she offered, remembering her own mother. Nobody cleared the confusion. The priest chanted mantras. Nearby, a goat squashed a fruit and put its tongue in the dirt.

The priest in the black underpants told the secondborn’s son to throw the bones in the sea. The pot too must be left there, he said, to dissolve and disappear. It was vaguely philosophical, but the morning was hot. The sea was blue in the distance, but where we stood, it was grey. There were rotting flowers and splashing children. Those with the dead cringed, but only a little.

The secondborn’s son went deep into the sea where at last he found a spot. Suddenly, without warning, the firstborn also waded in. Swiftly, she who bleeds and cannot wear the loincloth reached the chosen spot. And there, together, they emptied grandfather into the sea. All who saw the sight were moved. All the bones were gone.

From a distance watched the widow, tearless and firm. When I die, she said, use the garden pond.

Mishkal Mosque: An ode to pluralism

Posted in Uncategorized on May 5, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 6 2017)


When Nakhuda Mithqal, a Yemeni merchant trading with China and Persia, built what is today called the Mishkal Mosque in Kozhikode, little did he envision the significance this structure would assume over 600 years later as a testament to India’s pluralism. For while the going fallacy presents the subcontinent’s inaugural encounter with Islam as a resounding clash featuring blood and war, Mishkal is a reminder that the Prophet’s religion arrived in our land through peaceful embassies of commerce. Indeed, not only was Islam welcomed and embraced in the south, but the first mosque was consecrated on Indian shores in 629 AD, during the very lifetime of Muhammad, nearly a century before invaders forced their way into Sindh and opened a different kind of history in the north.

That ancient mosque still stands in Kodungallur, but it was in Kozhikode that Nakhuda chose to build his monument. By the 13th century, this Kerala port had emerged as one of the world’s great trading cities, and its Hindu rulers—the Zamorins—persuaded every fisherman to raise one son as a Muslim to sail in the eastern seas—Hindus lost caste if they ventured too far into the ocean. The Zamorin’s allies included the sultan of Egypt, the Ottoman Turks and the Deccani Shahs, whom he implored in the 16th century to declare jihad against the Portuguese reign of terror in international waters. Nakhuda was a celebrated merchant in the Zamorin’s capital and the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of his tremendous wealth in his famous travelogue in the 1300s. Mishkal, and a Jami mosque, remain even today two of the city’s most important places of worship.

Kozhikode was reputed for absorbing all kinds of people and cultures. As late as the 17th century, “merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations”, lived there by “reason of the liberty and security accorded to them” and in “free exercise” of their faiths. While Arabs enjoyed overwhelming influence here, Jews controlled much of the commerce in Kochi, while further south in Kollam, Christians were in charge. And they all built sites of worship that were not only embodiments of devotion, but also ideals of cultural cross-pollination. The old Syrian Christian church in Chengannur, for instance, resembles the Hindu temples of its time, and the rites and rituals of all religions were influenced by those of their counterparts with whom they were in constant conversation.

Mishkal, for instance, is firm in its commitment to Islam—there has been a qazi here since 1343—but so, too, is it firm in its union with the land where it stands. Painted in turquoise blue, the structure has no dome and no minarets but multi-tiered gables and the tiled roof typical of Kerala buildings. Its 47 doors and 24 carved pillars display the workmanship of the same guilds that constructed the Zamorin palaces, and the exquisite motifs on the minbar from where the message of god is preached bears a direct affinity to the carvings adorning Hindu temples. The structure is set on a base of stone and steps run around the building where up to 1,000 faithful have gathered at a time for centuries and bowed to distant Mecca. Kerala, after all, had greater intercourse with Arabia than it did with even parts of India.

It was the Portuguese who introduced conflict into this universe. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Kozhikode in 1498, an Arab exclaimed, “The devil take thee! What brings you here?” It was a quest for Christians and spices that motivated the Portuguese, besides their economic ambition to displace Arabs from control of capital and the seas. The Zamorin refused to expel Muslims from his city as was presumptuously demanded, so the Portuguese disrupted trade. A ship full of Muslim pilgrims was burnt (after it was plundered, of course), and a Brahmin envoy was sent back with a dog’s ears sewed on. The Portuguese had no stake in peace.

Mishkal features significantly in a 1510 confrontation between the Portuguese and Kozhikode. The Zamorin and his forces were engaged elsewhere and the Portuguese arrived with 1,800 men to sack his capital. One commander, it is recorded, “forced his way with impetuous valour through the streets…and reached the royal residence”. But while he proceeded to ransack the palace, leaving not even two bejewelled doors in their frame, a (possibly exaggerated) force of 30,000 men descended upon the city for its defence. The enemy made to retreat, but locals occupied the roofs and “poured upon (them) a continued shower of darts; while (the invaders) entangled in narrow lanes and avenues, could neither advance nor recede”. By the time the white men reached the beach, hundreds were dead, including the over-bold commander.

The Zamorin, on his return, was furious. The Portuguese had set fire to the city and destroyed Mishkal. The ruler didn’t forget the insult. In 1570, generations after this episode, his heirs succeeded in demolishing completely a fort the Portuguese raised in Chaliyam, “leaving,” a contemporary recorded, “not one stone upon another”. All these stones and the wood from Chaliyam were carried into Kozhikode and placed in the yard at Mishkal for the mosque—the structure we see today, over five centuries later, still bears marks from the assault of 1510, but also features walls and doors made from material seized from the Portuguese who assaulted it in the first place.

Today, amid talk about consecrating a Hindu temple upon the ruins of a violently destroyed mosque, perhaps it would be worth reflecting on Mishkal, where a Hindu king reconstructed a Muslim place of worship, and avenged those who were not followers of his faith but were still his people. The Portuguese brought blood and hate into their world, but together this Hindu king and his Muslim subjects chose a greater ideal, preserving in Mishkal both a house of god as well as a timeless principle.

William Jones, India’s bridge to the west

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 29 2017)


Not many in India today remember William Jones, though at the time of his death in April 1794, he enjoyed what a biographer calls “one of the most phenomenal reputations of all time”. To some he was Persian Jones, the translator of the Tariq-i-Nadiri, while others, after he founded the Asiatic Society in today’s Kolkata, called him, predictably, Asiatic Jones. To one not entirely enraptured crowd, he was Republican Jones, what with his “seditious, treasonable, and diabolical” ideas about popular education and universal (male) suffrage. But as far as India was concerned, it was in his avatar as Oriental Jones that he became one of the sincerest interpreters of our land in the West.

To be sure, Jones was not devoid of imperial prejudice. “I shall certainly not preach democracy to the Indians, who must and will,” he argued, “be governed by absolute power.” As a British judge, he scoffed at any political conception of Indianness; it was India’s historical accomplishments he thought profoundly admirable. “I never was unhappy in England,” he once wrote, “but I never was happy till I settled in India.” Part of it, admittedly, had to do with the splendid £6,000 salary that had attracted him here in the first place—Jones calculated that a decade in India promised stately retirement when finally, unencumbered by financial distress, he could pursue assorted intellectual interests.

Jones was born in 1746 to the daughter of a cabinetmaker and a 71-year-old mathematician, whose peers included Isaac Newton. His father died but the cabinetmaker’s daughter gave him a good education—a worthwhile investment, given his prodigious appetite for learning. By 13, Jones had written his first poem, and by the time of his death knew a grand total of 28 languages. A desire to read the Bible in the original drew him to Hebrew, and an interest in Confucius led him to Chinese. He thought Greek poetry “sublime” but when he “tasted Arabic and Persian poetry”, his enthusiasm for Greek “began to dry up”. The only language he never learnt was his native Welsh.

By his mid-20s, Jones had authored several books and was recognized as an authority on the East. But while accolades and a knighthood arrived, the want of a steady income brought inescapable pressures. “I was surrounded by friends, acquaintances and relatives who encouraged me to expel from my way of life…poetry and Asian literature.” They wanted him to “become a barrister and be devoted to ambition”. He agreed, but managed to orient his legal interests also towards the East, producing the forbiddingly named Mahomedan Law Of Succession To The Property Of Intestates. Naturally, his political ambitions floundered.

It was in 1783, when not yet 37, that he came to India. But, in his typical fashion, he connected his pursuit of money with a pursuit of intellectual stimulation. He drew up a list of 16 subjects, ranging from the Mughal and Maratha political systems to the “Music of the Eastern Nations” and “Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians”, to investigate. And it took him only a year-long glance at India’s cultural riches, to constitute the Asiatic Society—the body that, among other things, reminded Indians of a figure we ourselves had forgotten: emperor Ashoka.

But what struck Jones most was language. “Sanskrit,” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “fascinated him…. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasures of Sanskrit literature.” It began with professional demands—Jones could interpret Islamic law without translators, but Hindu codes evaded him. To rectify this, a pandit was hired on a princely retainer to give him lessons, and soon Jones built up a vocabulary of 10,000 words. When Brahmins in Benares refused to translate the Manusmriti for him, he simply produced his own: The Ordinances Of Manu.

Soon he felt a deeper affection for Sanskrit poetry. “By rising before the sun,” wrote Jones, “I allot an hour every day…and am charmed with knowing so beautiful a sister of Latin and Greek.” It was the first time a familial bond was established between Sanskrit and the classical languages of European antiquity. And there were other dots of history that Jones joined. The Palibothra of the Greeks he connected to Pataliputra. Sadracottus, he discovered, was none other than Chandragupta. India’s past came alive in a wider context, with its own philosophers and emperors, but what gripped our polymath was Kalidasa and his Shakuntala. And through him, Europe was transfixed.

Translated in 1789, Jones’ Sacontalá: The Fatal Ring inspired Goethe to declare: “I should like to live in India myself…Sakontala, Nala, they have to be kissed.” Interestingly, Jones did not only translate—there was censorship, given the moral predispositions of the West. Where Kalidasa spoke of Shakuntala’s “breasts no longer firm”, Jones accepted his remarks on ageing cheeks and shoulders but omitted the breasts completely. In a way Jones modelled a new Shakuntala—a prototype of European virtue, as opposed to the sensuous Shakuntala Kalidasa described; an Indian woman born of Western idealism. Indians too embraced this paragon of chastity over her erotically charged predecessor, much like so many Western slants came to be accepted as unquestionably (and “purely”) Indian.

By 1794, Jones declared a new mission. His incomplete desiderata featured Panini’s grammar, the Vedas, the Puranas, and more. It was a tragic twist that within the year he was dead—the climate never agreed with him—and a grave was built for him in India. “The best monument that can be erected to a man of literary talents,” he once said, “is a good edition of his works.” His widow published a collection, enshrining in it his legacy as the decipherer of India for the West. The West itself, sadly though, dismissed Jones, going down a path of racism and control in a few years. Virtuous or not, Shakuntala became altogether preposterous. And India, they decided, was not only never great, but never could be; the India Jones saw was a myth, all his work a fallacy. And soon, the Raj became our reality.

Meenakshi, the original warrior

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 22 2017)


To visit the great temple in Madurai today is to navigate a dozen streets and discover an army of beggars besieging the 700-year-old structure. Some beggars are old, but many are young and quick. There are beggars with bowls, and beggars with babies. But they all have a peculiar confidence when seeking donations. The temple, after all, welcomes about 15,000 visitors on a routine day, and collections from even a fraction of this host are enough to sustain their economy on the streets. The solicitation of money is made with an almost defiant sweetness—if you don’t drop coins, there are others who will.

For all its known history, Madurai has been dominated by this temple, with its 33,000 sculptures and magnificent towers of monumental height. The Greeks traded here and as early as 21 BC, a Tamil embassy was welcomed in Rome. The eunuch general from Delhi, Malik Kafur, came uninvited to relieve the city of its burdensome riches in the early 14th century, and some generations later, Roberto de Nobili showed up seeking flocks of Christians. The Italian convinced local priests that he was from a line of ancient, lost Roman Brahmins, flaunting a sacred thread, and by 1610 teaching the gospel in fluent Tamil and Telugu.

The story of the Meenakshi temple, though, is the tale of a woman—a fearsome warrior queen transformed into a lovable goddess; a formidable mortal tranquillized into divine immortality. The Story Of The Sacred Games (also called Tiruvilaiyadal puranam), a 13th century poem in 64 rich chapters, begins with a melancholy Pandyan king. “I was without a son,” he remembers, “and I performed great sacrifices for a long time. (And when that failed) I performed the sacrifice that was supposed to produce a son.” Soon he received a child, but the three-year-old that emerged from the flames was a girl. “But God!” cried the king, “even though this girl has come with a face that shines like the moon, she has three breasts!”

So it was that Meenakshi—she with fish eyes, a political superlative since the fish was the totem of the Pandyas—made her appearance on earth. Her father worried that her three nipples “will make even enemies laugh”, and languished in “depression and unhappiness”. He had sought a child but what he got was a freak. But a voice from the heavens reassured him and the three-nippled girl was raised as a boy, dissolving boundaries of gender and sex. When (s)he came of age, her parents said it was time to marry. (S)he, however, decided it was time to conquer the world.

With a furious army, Meenakshi set out from Madurai. Indra, Lord of the Heavens, fled at the very sight of his foe—and nobody laughed any more at the third nipple. Soon the conqueror climbed the Himalayas to battle Shiva. But when the fish-eyed one gazed upon him, the third breast disappeared and she became a regular woman. Or as the poem tells it, she “became bashful, passive, and fearful. She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its blossoms. Her heavy dark hair fell on her neck. She looked downward, toward her feet… And there she stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with her toes.”

Soon they were married, and the rest of the poem shows Shiva as its hero, pulling the strings where once his wife had led. It is suspicious how Sacred Games seeks to establish his power, almost as if to compensate for the reality that was the superiority of his wife—to this day, it is Meenakshi who is worshipped first, not Shiva. They share eight festivals, but she has four dedicated only to her while her husband has none. Shiva too, in practice, was Pandyanized. His animal skins were discarded for silk, the serpents he wore replaced by bejewelled ornaments. He is Shiva in name but a different kind of Shiva.

Inside the temple, there are sculptures still of others who, like Meenakshi, were born different. There is a representation of her in stone, all three breasts intact, before her union with god made her more “normal”. There is Arjuna not only as the feared warrior of the Mahabharat but also as Arjuni, in female form, and as Brihannala, in the third gender—he has the face of a man, with a drooping moustache and a long beard, but the body of a woman, with full breasts. Besides transgenders, there is also room in the tube-lit temple premises for autosexuals—the halls feature self-fellating lions, under some of whom sit pilgrims, children, and ticket vendors.

Was there really once an androgynous queen with three nipples whose exploits inspired Sacred Games? Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to India, refers to the legend of a princess wedded to a god, but seeking history in song is a self-defeating exercise. What matters is the devotion Meenakshi inspired then and still inspires today. Some view her marriage with Shiva as the absorption, at last, of a resilient local goddess into the wider Hindu framework, where her independent power was surrendered in favour of a greater cause and more correct femininity. But the pilgrims who come to Madurai to pay obeisance to Meenakshi—not her husband—keep alive the flame of the original triple-breasted warrior.

And like the politely defiant beggars outside, every pillar and stone defies the story woven in Sacred Games in celebration of a memory from long, long before, when the abnormal resisted the normal, and when a princess reigned before she was turned into a goddess.


Book Review: Track Record

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2017 by Manu

(Published in Open Magazine, April 28 2017)

Trackrecord1.jpgTHE ADVENT OF the railways in India, like the advent of new technology everywhere, inspired opportunity while also provoking subversion. There were pioneers who envisioned a network to weld the country together as never before, while others, like Gandhi, perceived such welding as a means for “bad men [to] fulfill their evil designs with greater rapidity”. “There may be no diamonds at Golconda,” one commercially motivated baddie declared, “but there is the worth of a ship-load of diamonds in the cotton fields of the Deccan.” A few defeated souls also saw promise in the railway track. On his way to exile in Burma after 1857, the fallen badshah of Delhi beheld from his bullock cart the construction of railway lines, recalling perhaps his own proclamation promising merchants subsidised access to ‘steam-vessels and steam-carriages’ if the Mughal imperium were restored. The British thwarted such restoration, realising in the process that in an alien land, the railways also held military potential in putting down mutinous emperors with mutinous designs.


The railways in India animated diverse minds, from Rudyard Kipling and Florence Nightingale to Tagore and RK Narayan. The debate on its introduction in the Subcontinent began in the 1830s, and the concerns raised were many. Would, for instance, ‘the Hindoos’, with their caste and religious paranoia, embrace rail travel and contribute to its economic viability? As it happened, they did: The journey from Calcutta to the Puri temple was marvellously shrunk from 26 days to 12 hours. Others thought the fire carriage a wasteful enterprise altogether— India’s destiny lay in developing waterways, argued its most committed promoter, Sir Arthur Cotton, whose 3,000 statues stand testament to his efforts in this direction in the Godavari belt. And there were yet others who welcomed rail for its political possibilities. ‘If India is to become a homogenous nation,’ argued Sir T Madhava Rao, ‘it must be by means of the Railways [and]…the English language.’

Naturally, the historical evolution of rail in India, today the fourth largest network in the world with billions of passengers and 1.3 million employees, opens up more than a linear set of discussions on its diverse and often contradictory implications. And these themes have been approached by not one but two books in 2017, neither of which, mercifully, falls into the trap of romanticising its protagonist excessively. The first of these, Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry, is a joint effort by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi, covering the dawn of the project till Independence in 1947. ‘The railways,’ its back cover states, ‘brought modernity to India’, and the book is an ‘engagingly written, anecdotally told history’ of an institution that ‘still weaves the nation together.’ It is an appealing blurb, and the credentials of the authors, who were colleagues on an official railway committee, are impressive.

The book they have jointly produced, however, is not the book the cover advertises—perhaps it is a case of too many cooks (there is also a foreword by Gurcharan Das), or perhaps the concept of what an engaging text looks like has grown more orthodox. While Indian Railways offers remarkable information, it is held together by prose that is uninspiring. Not enough effort has been devoted to turning what often reads like a first draft into a polished, memorable volume that can appeal to readers outside academia or government. There are moments when the book shines, but it cannot be said that this quality pervades the text—a disappointing conclusion to reach when the original ingredients are most amenable to excellent narration: Elements such as the 1854 book on railways written in Marathi, or that thrilling 1857 episode involving 15 Englishmen and women stranded on a water tank surrounded by 3,000 baying rebels. There is the saga of the rivalry between two railway companies, and the newspaper vehemence of the anonymous ‘C’ and ‘P’ on the viability of rail in India. The stories are certainly present in Indian Railways. It is the storytelling that is absent.

Debroy, Chadha and Krishnamurthi are fascinated by their subject, but in writing a book on a topic so full of potential, a little more narrative effort—or editorial investment—could have vastly altered their offering for the better. So pages 97- 107 with a table on ‘Evolution of Policies and Committees, 1850-1947’ is a valuable repository of information, but does little to enliven the manner in which these policies came to be, the human actors involved, and the competing vested interests that decided the course of the railways in our land. For a book subtitled The Weaving of a National Tapestry, the text is preoccupied with the institution itself, meting out, at best, step-motherly treatment to wider, evolving trajectories that were often led by the railways themselves, or of the social forces at play, at different times in different contexts. As an encapsulation of essential information, Indian Railways wins. As something that promises a greater adventure, the book leaves one disappointed.


IT IS HERE that Arup K Chatterjee’s The Purveyors of Destiny serves as a more satisfying read, touching deftly on the economics and politics of the railways without neglecting the rich social landscape they traversed. The book is not merely a more readable account of the chronology of the railways, but also about what they came to symbolise at different times; of the purpose they served in the hands of different actors with different intentions. Chatterjee declares, perhaps a little ominously, that ‘an excess of probity, proof or empirical data’ has been avoided in the book, which still, nevertheless, holds over 600 citations, and points the academically inclined towards more extensive resources and material of interest. Narrative appeal, in his book, has not been sacrificed at the altar of textbook exactness, and he succeeds in striking a healthy, confident balance.

The result is that Chatterjee’s book feels like a more complete approach to the story of the railways, going beyond institutional development into its numerous roles. The railways at one time could be, as he quotes, ‘clandestine spaces for experimentation’, where ‘vegetarian looking businessmen’ tasted mutton and beef. To upper-class Indians before nationalism took root, the railways supplied ‘aristocracy in proxy’ and gave Englishmen in India—and those Indians seeking to be English—‘a nominal provincial Europe’ on wheels. Then there is the nostalgia with which everyone tends to approach the railways. So one commentator, in whose day trains served table-top meals with service by waiters in white, laments the ‘soggy cardboard box’ in which the ‘amlet’ and ‘toas’ came to be served, oblivious that to later generations (including my own) it was precisely those soggy cardboard-box meals that made the prospect of a railway journey exciting. So too there is horror—in 1947, the railways became bringers of death, photographs revealing their bloody service to the cause that was Partition.

The railways that took so many avatars—Chatterjee tells in a style that for most part comfortably moves from lucid to philosophical to occasionally academic—‘were built with the ideology of ‘intermeshing’ the economies of Britain and India, or more practically of India into Britain’s’ and by the 1890s had ‘reduced the subcontinent to a twentieth of its temporal expanse’. With majestic stations like Victoria Terminus and Howrah, the railways manifested the intimidating grandeur of the Raj, reinforcing imperial supremacy. Yet, as the railways transported not just people but also aspirations of unity, masterful leaders like Gandhi Indianised these symbols. ‘The railways were used for truly secular purposes by Gandhi. He had no qualms about seeking donations, aboard them, or on platforms for the Satyagraha movement,’ and every station became a platform for the nationalist cause. Revolutionaries disrupted railway lines, and ticketless travelling and chain-pulling became acts of civil disobedience. In a generation, the railways went from exemplifying the civilising mission of the English to transporting Indian resistance and embodying national resilience.

Chatterjee’s book, which has aspects in common with the better parts of Indian Railways, brings the story down to current times, towards the end focusing heavily, and perhaps somewhat jarringly, on cinema and its changing conception of the railways. Through much of the text, the reader feels every motivation to turn the pages, without tedium, given the variety of scenes across time and context through which we are transported— there is splendour as well as shock, elegance as well as embarrassment, the past as well as our present. Chatterjee promises a cultural biography of the railways, but what he delivers is something more, and his book will rank high among all those that have made compelling efforts to bring alive the many worlds of the Indian railways, worlds in which its carriages and engines have served as both witnesses and participants.

Shivaji is an Icon Claimed By Many

Posted in Uncategorized on April 19, 2017 by Manu

(Originally published in August 2015 in The Wire.)


When a force as refractory and ungovernable as Maharashtra’s Sambhaji Brigade sets itself against a nonagenarian scholar, more than just the scholar in question need to be concerned. This, after all, is one of our worst prototypes in the business of cultural surveillance and censorship. Notoriety came to the Brigade in 2004 after they destroyed 18,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. The provocation was a few lines on Shivaji’s parentage in a book by a till-then obscure western scholar, James Laine. And what proceeded involved vandalism, the blackening of faces, and yet another concession of intellectual space to those able to make threats of violence and to carry them into action.

But Babasaheb Purandare, the latest target of this group, is probably aware that the origins of their grievances are hardly contemporary. Purandare is considered one of the foremost historians of Shivaji’s life and work, to the extent that his romanticised renditions have earned him the popular title, Shiv Shahir (‘Shivaji’s bard’). His critics, though, find in his work a heavy pro-Brahmin (and equally contentious anti-Muslim) tilt. This is why the award to him of the Maharashtra Bhushan for his research on the 17th century king has come under fire now.

This heavily contested symbolism of Shivaji has been a battle entrenched enough to directly affect Maharashtra politics—Purandare is simply the most recent excuse for an ominous public display. Within basic parameters of reverence, Shivaji is a plastic concept that is to different people different things. The real issue, then, is about which groups can ‘claim’ his memory with the greatest authority. In this context, the writing of history decides what ironies of the past may be celebrated and what are denied. All so that political contingencies today can be aligned into a linear trajectory of ‘tradition’ and meaning.

With Shivaji, as is the case with all historical Indians of distinction, the ironies are many. So too is the potential for political exploitation.

In 1674, towards the conclusion of his illustrious career, Shivaji sought the one thing he needed to clinch his accomplishments—ritual legitimacy. He had acquired fame and territory, as well as not inconsiderable wealth. But what would he represent for posterity?

As late as 1672, the English knew him as ‘Sevagee the Rebel’. The Shah of Persia sniggered that the Mughals could not contain a mere ‘zamindar like Shiva’, while Aurangzeb’s court chroniclers referred to him as ‘the wild animal’ and ‘that mountain rat’: when he died, they wiped their brows and remarked, ‘The infidel went to hell.’ Warlord, sacker of cities, infidel: Shivaji had achieved much, but he sought an enduring place in history that surpassed these unflattering descriptions, while going beyond mere passing applause as a local rebel hero.

And for this, the warrior leader of the masses turned, ironically, to religion and to the instruments of official piety supplied in India’s social market by Brahmins.

Amalgamating various traditions, Shivaji created a genealogy that exalted his grandfather (a village headman) into a scion of the Sisodias. Overnight, he could trace unbroken lineage to ancient Rajputs. 50,000 Brahmins were feted and honoured. One of these grandees, Gaga Bhat was prevailed upon to declare (with seductive financial incentives) that Shivaji was a purebred Kshatriya.

Sevagee the Rebel now became Shivaji the champion of Hinduism and all things that would justify his upgrade in caste. And herein lay a big paradox. In building up the Maratha state, he had elevated merit over birth, and ability over caste. Yet, at the climax of his career, Shivaji had needed caste rituals to cement the endeavours of his lifetime. This is what would come to assume the political proportions that last to this day.

Six years after his coronation, Shivaji died. But the memory of his remarkable life, for the sheer audacity of its ambition and for the scale of his accomplishments, riveted Marathi society through ballads and songs that made him a folk hero and confirmed his position as the region’s foremost cultural symbol.

What this symbol meant beyond local inspirations was always open to question. British Indologists placed him in history primarily as a Hindu standing up to an Islamic potentate. By 1840 travellers like JW Massie stated with conviction that Shivaji’s was ‘a kind of holy war’ against Islam. But these were largely theoretical explorations. Indeed, it would take an Indian to realise the full power and potential of Shivaji to move the Marathi masses. Shivaji could be (and is still) deployed as Maharashtra’s greatest cultural force.

Jyotirao Phule, a gardener by caste who was fascinated by the founding principles of the United States, espoused a radical view of social change. Shivaji, to him, stood up not only to the tyranny of Aurangzeb that emanated from Agra, but also to the tyranny within Hindu society of its hereditary elite. Phule wanted the ordinary peasant to emulate Shivaji and stand up against every variety of oppression, domestic as well as foreign.

Naturally, Phule’s view was lambasted by the elite, who were by now not only more often than not Brahmin in origin but also English educated. A typical review of his work on Shivaji was blunt in its disapproval: ‘The ballad of Raja Chattrapati Shivaji. A copy of this has come to us. The author is some Mr Jotirao Govindrao Phule or other. When we read this work we thought that to accept it would bring sheer disgrace upon the great and courageous Shivaji, and upon all Hindu people. We have no idea of the author’s address, so we are afraid we are unable to send it back to him.’

While Phule’s Shivaji was dismissed, Tilak’s was readily embraced by the end of that century since it focussed largely on an outside enemy and did not upset any internal balances. As Maria Misra states, Tilak saw Shivaji as ‘an avenging angel of revivalist Hindu militancy whose politics was the prototype of Tilak’s: culturally aggressive and Brahmin-led…[which] suggested that the great general’s main purpose in life had been the protection of cows.’ If Tilak was the more aggressive Brahmin claimant, Ranade was inspired by the values of the West. He sought in his Shivaji a humanist and a statesman, anxious to reform and who allowed for a nascent sense of nationality to emerge in the region. Shivaji had become a repository for each man’s ideology.

In the early twentieth century, the Maharajah of Kolhapur mixed up some of these rival views to support his own reformism. He looked upon his ancestor as a liberator of not only the peasant but also of Maratha elites from the debilitating shackles of orthodoxy. He even reserved positions in his administration for non-Brahmins (while another Maratha ruler, the Gaekwad of Baroda funded the education of a Dalit called Ambedkar). The Brahmins pettily started performing ceremonies of purification after their audiences with the Maharajah. The message was clear: if in 1674 they ascribed ‘twice born’ status to Shivaji, two centuries later they still had the power to revoke the privilege.

The idea that Brahmins could determine social prestige by sheer virtue of birth, even while the toiling castes and classes enjoyed no such prerogative was frustrating. As one popular song in 1924, went:

Shivaji our king, Marathi our pride
Shivaji protected dharma, defeated our enemies
Saved the life of Hindu dharma, saved the life of the motherland
We worshipped at the feet of Brahmins, and have become slaves
Remember the honour of Shivaji; see the shame of his people
Live your life with honour, cherish your honour. 

After independence, the rise of elements such as the Shiv Sena, with their spectacular nativism and anti-Islamic tendencies, meant that Shivaji’s anti-Mughal character received prominence in the national narrative. But within Maharashtra, the Brahmin faction, the Maratha faction, and other factors continue to fight out what is an endless (and increasingly violent) conflict, one which is playing out currently in the episode of Purandare and his Maharashtra Bhushan award. The Sambhaji Brigade evidently has the support of the NCP. Udayanraje Bhosle, a descendant of Shivaji’s, is a party member. The BJP under Devendra Fadnavis continues to stand by Purandare, and finds his version of history most representative of Shivaji’s legacy—for their agenda, at least.

But while this contest continues, the basic rules are clear to all concerned: Shivaji is sacred. Even Purandare cannot be accused by his worst critics of being anything less than in complete awe of Shivaji. In fact AR Antulay, the only Muslim to have become Chief Minister of Maharashtra, too had to demonstrate his reverence. When he went on Haj to Mecca, he reportedly added a visit to London to his programme to make a claim on a sword there that belonged to Shivaji. Antulay could take no chances when it came to ‘proving’ his commitment to the idea of Shivaji.

So Purandare might be a Brahmin writing about Shivaji in a perspective that favours the Brahmin narrative and incenses the Marathas. But he’s no James Laine, for he doesn’t question the basic sanctity of Shivaji. He might have erred, but he has not committed sacrilege.