Archive for May, 2017

Silver: The man who betrayed Subhas Chandra Bose

Posted in Uncategorized on May 26, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint, May 27 2017)


In 1973, when the first International Netaji Seminar was convened in Kolkata to celebrate the life and work of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of its distinguished participants was an intriguing character going by the name Bhagat Ram Talwar. Small, grey and physically unprepossessing, he spoke in broken English but wielded an appealingly titled paper called My Fifty-Five Days With Netaji. His appearance at the conference was, historically speaking, a sensational moment and, in keeping with the mood of the gathering, he too expressed loyalty and admiration for the tragic leader of the Azad Hind movement. Barely anyone in the audience, however, would have guessed that Talwar was, in actuality, a little more slippery than his elderly frame suggested and that while he did deliver valuable services to Bose, more than a fair deal of disservice too was part of Talwar’s contributions to the making of history.

This is the principal focus of Mihir Bose’s recently-released The Indian Spy, which weaves Talwar’s tale through a fascinating, mountainous battlefield featuring the great powers of World War II and their gripping underground contests. It was, in fact, on the edge of this landscape, near Peshawar, that our morally agnostic protagonist was born in 1908, into a family of Punjabi descent. His father was a one-time friend of the local British authorities, but after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, turned against the colonial state—Talwar’s brother was hanged a little over a decade later for attempting to assassinate the governor of Punjab. The idea of killing British grandees also attracted Talwar, who, influenced by Bhagat Singh, set out with a dagger to murder a deputy commissioner. Unfortunately, to their “great disappointment”, his comrades and he found the man’s bed empty—their target had cheerfully gone “out of station”.

A clever, resourceful man, Talwar made no more attempts to stab representatives of the Raj but after flirtations with the Congress, pledged allegiance to a faction of the Communist movement called the Kirti Kisan Party. In 1941, he was tasked with aiding the escape of a certain individual from India to Moscow. And so it was, while smuggling his charge out of British territory, that Talwar first set eyes on Subhas Chandra Bose, pretending that Bose was a deaf and dumb pilgrim travelling through tribal lands. Bose grew a beard and moved on foot and sometimes, when his legs cramped, by mule. When informed that they had crossed the frontier, the Bengali fugitive, otherwise very becoming in his conduct, conjured up a sufficient quantity of saliva and having splattered the ground, declared, “Here I spit on the face of the viceroy!” He was actually spitting on a snowy hillside, but it was, of course, the sentiment that counted.

A series of adventures followed—including interrupting a newly-wed Afghan’s first night with his bride (who found herself unexpectedly cooking for visitors) and encountering an intimidating man who recommended hot water and alum to “treat” Bose’s ostensibly benumbed tongue. An attempt to contact the Russian ambassador was rebuffed, unsurprisingly, when they knocked on his windscreen at a traffic junction in Kabul. But the Italians opened their doors to Talwar, now masquerading as Bose’s “secretary” Rahmat Khan, even as Bose himself dealt with an attack of dysentery. In the end, since Moscow wouldn’t embrace Bose, he proceeded to Berlin and into the arms of Hitler (The Indian Spy has some very interesting photographs of Bose in Germany). Meanwhile, Talwar had a moment of self-realization when he discovered his own fairly ravenous appetite for sinister games and secret service.

Mihir Bose’s research shows that to a great extent this appetite was satisfied during World War II. He calls Talwar the only “quintuple” spy of the wartime era: he first established links with the Italians, and then collaborated with the Nazis, who had grand schemes to provoke revolt in India’s North-West Frontier Province with the assistance of a charismatic (and demanding) Pashtun called the Faqir of Ipi. Talwar, who could “invent almost any lie with impunity”, managed to get away with a fair deal (even if he was endearingly embarrassed about small things such as wanting to go to the toilet). The Germans, for instance, taught him sabotage methods and ways to make explosives. He repaid them with elaborate falsehoods, and conveyed their designs and codes to the Russians. When the Russians eventually decided to “share” Talwar with the British, the spy found himself not only under the direction of Peter Fleming (whose brother Ian created James Bond) but also with a new code name: Silver.

Over the next few years, Talwar fed large portions of British-manufactured balderdash to the Germans in Kabul, in the process betraying Bose and his plans for wresting independence for India. He would later present this betrayal as a necessary sacrifice to be made to win the greater battle against the Nazis and their Fascist allies, but how sincere this was—or, for that matter, much of what Talwar did—is open to question. Even at the 1973 conference, where he emerged unexpectedly after several decades, there was at least one figure who hinted that Talwar’s love for Bose was not all he made it out to be. Either way, in his various incarnations and in selling his loyalties to different flags (for amounts that would run into millions by today’s value), Talwar emerges as a singularly shadowy figure, whose deliciously engaging story has at last been told in equally delicious style in The Indian Spy.

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.