Archive for July, 2017

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)

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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.

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“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”.

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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?”

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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)

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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.

Decoding RSS ideologue M.S. Golwalkar’s nationalism

Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 15 2017)


Jumping to conclusions, admittedly, is a very naughty predilection. And so when the Indian Council of Philosophical Research convenes a seminar to discuss, “in a holistic way”, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue M.S. Golwalkar’s “much misunderstood and maligned” views on nationalism, we must welcome the intention instead of succumbing to outrage on autopilot. Indeed, in the run-up to this seminar—papers had to be submitted by 27 June—we must make every effort to study Golwalkar’s writings in order to enlighten ourselves in the “proper context”, opening our minds to his idea of dharmocracy and to the possibility that we might learn something new. Where else, then, to begin but with Golwalkar’s Bunch Of Thoughts, which this columnist revisited with unashamed enthusiasm for this very purpose.

Since nationalism is the issue under debate, let us start there. Territorial nationalism is, to Golwalkar, the worst by-product of modernity. “It is like attempting to create a novel animal by joining the head of a monkey and the legs of a bullock to the trunk of an elephant!” Such “unnatural, unscientific” efforts to mechanically unite territories can only result in a “hideous corpse”. And the sole resultant activity, he adds colourfully, is that of “germs and bacteria breeding in (a) decomposing” polity. Instead, we must acknowledge that a nation is “not a mere bundle of political and economic rights”—it entails culture as well. And in India, this culture is “ancient and sublime” Hinduism, full of love and “free from any spirit of reaction”. In other words, instead of acting like bacteria in that dead body called a pluralistic democracy, our salvation lies in embracing Hindu dharmocracy.

While this is all decidedly thought-provoking, Golwalkar could spark a great deal of geopolitical anguish too. After all, from his perspective, India is an expansive concept. “Afghanistan,” he says, “was our ancient Upaganasthan.” Even “Iran was originally Aryan…guided more by Aryanism than by Islam.” But what of Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia? The Zend-Avesta, Golwalkar dismisses, “is mostly Rig Veda”, so that settles the matter. Meanwhile, Burma (now Myanmar) must be recognized as “our ancient Brahmadesha”, and altogether the splendid picture we form is of a “motherland with the Himalayas dipping its arms in the two seas, at Aryan (Iran) in the West and at Sringapur (Singapore) in the East, with Lanka (Ceylon) as a lotus petal offered at her sacred feet”. Leaving aside Sri Lankan sentiments on being declared an offering at India’s feet, this all-encompassing entity does not appear to Golwalkar as a contradictory monkey-headed bullock state—because Hinduism pervades it.

But if Hinduism is integral to nationalism, what of that embarrassing detail we call caste? To Golwalkar, the argument that caste weakened India is unadulterated nonsense. On the contrary, it was the absence of caste that invited calamity. “We know as a matter of history,” he states, “that our north-western and north-eastern areas, where the influence of Buddhism had disrupted the caste system, fell an easy prey to the onslaught of Muslims…. But the areas of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, which were considered to be very orthodox and rigid in caste restrictions, remained predominantly Hindu even after remaining the very citadels of Muslim power and fanaticism.” So Uttar Pradesh must be our model for national reinvigoration, as it is proof that “the so-called ‘caste-ridden’ Hindu Society has remained undying and inconquerable…(while) casteless societies crumbled to dust”. And caste, which presumably B.R. Ambedkar got completely wrong, must be restored to its rightful dignity as an instrument of modern nation-building.

This, of course, brings us to the Muslim question—people who came, according to Golwalkar, as bloodthirsty invaders (when in fact they came as peaceful traders) and vilifying whom is entirely justified: “We, in the Sangh, are Hindus to the core. That’s why we have respect for all faiths and religious beliefs…. But the question before us now is, what is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam or Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful towards this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” In other words, Golwalkar appears to believe in asking pressing questions of Indian Muslims—and then answering them himself.

The antipathy of the Muslim to Hindu India, in fact, is so pronounced that sweeping generalizations are also fully justified: “Whatever we believed in, the Muslim was wholly hostile to it. If we worship in the temple, he would desecrate it. If we carry on bhajans and car festivals, that would irritate him. If we worship cow, he would like to eat it. If we glorify woman as a symbol of sacred motherhood, he would like to molest her.” This being the case, there is only one form of redemption. “It is our duty,” Golwalkar offers, “to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home. As honest freedom-loving men, let them overthrow all signs of slavery and domination and follow the ancestral ways of devotion and national life”. In other words, there is nothing a quiet ghar wapsi cannot solve when it comes to the building of a good dharmocracy.

In sum, as you prepare for the forthcoming seminar on Golwalkar’s nationalism, picture a land of homogenized Hindus, united not by a celebration of pluralism but, of course, by endearing practices of caste and cow-love, spread across charming geographies from Tehran to Singapore. And if you don’t accept this constructive world view, all that your polity constitutes, sadly, is a “bundle” of decomposing rights, in a nation without a soul—and without a worthwhile future in this strange, strange time that we call the 21st century.

Book Review: The Original Mrs G

Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2017 by Manu

(Published in Open Magazine, July 14 2017)


WITH AN ESTIMATED 150 biographies already surveying Indira Gandhi and her legacy, the first question we must ask of the latest addition to the list is if it inspires any fresh reflection. Or is it merely a readable rehash of dated material to ‘cash in’, perhaps, on a centennial year and a vast crowd of young readers unlikely to pick up denser, heavier volumes? Sagarika Ghose’s new ‘journalistic portrait’, with a brilliant Raghu Rai cover photograph and a significantly less brilliant subtitle, passes the test. And it passes, not so much because it brings to the fore groundbreaking new material (despite her interview with Priyanka Gandhi) as much as because it reveals the makings of a well-meaning but insecure, embattled, and often bitter mind, doing so with empathy while eschewing melodrama.

Ghose certainly is in awe of her subject, but it is a reasonable kind of awe that does not preclude asking questions of Mrs Gandhi’s ‘combative brand of politics’. While the outlines of the tale are well known enough to be tedious— the splendour of the Nehrus, the charisma of Jawaharlal, the ‘bewildered misery’ of Kamala, and the rise and fall of Indira—Ghose is at her strongest when scrutinising how Mrs Gandhi became the person nobody thought she would be. They wanted a son, but got ‘Indu-boy’ instead. Her father, who recommended frocks over saris, sent her to Oxford, where she was a ‘mousy, shy’ failure. Her imperious aunt called her ‘ugly and stupid’ and Indira, in turn, nursed a lifelong grudge. Her only real affection was for the people of India; affection that ironically became a recipe for disaster: a ‘near-conviction that she alone knew what was best for India’.

Ghose does a compelling job of building her narrative and weaves in many charming quotes and anecdotes. There is also sharp analysis, especially in reaching the conclusion that while ‘secular India had been her life’s stated mission’, secular India was also Mrs Gandhi’s ‘greatest failure’. The book, unusually, contains letters written by the author, from her perspective in 2017, to ‘interrogate the ghost’ of her subject. Although the intention of these letters—which are rather flowery at times—is evidently to set the tone for the reader, in actuality they often provoke a temptation to skip some pages altogether. Structurally, otherwise, the book is solid, and has certainly benefited from the work of a clear-headed editor (unlike Bertil Falk’s biography of Feroze Gandhi, which is rich in information and could be read alongside Ghose’s Indira, but meanders a great deal).

Ghose’s storytelling is also appealing. We meet a Mrs Gandhi who insisted Ronald Reagan wore make-up before his TV appearances, and who bluntly called out Gandhian ‘hypocrisies’, not least because immediately after blessing her doomed marriage, the Mahatma proceeded to lecture her on the importance of marital celibacy. The Indira who comes alive in this book is neither a saint, nor the kind of person who had any patience for saints. She is, on the contrary, a conflicted mortal, somewhat uncomfortable in her own skin, constantly seeking purpose in order to obtain validation. On the one hand, she had to work twice over to win the adulation-by-birthright that her father could command, largely due to the accident of sex. But on the other, her own political success came from a ‘subtle synthesis of aristocracy and populism’, which guaranteed for her more mass worship than even her father.

On the whole Ghose has produced an engaging critique of Mrs Gandhi, not just as formidable leader and Machiavellian politician, but also as a woman and an individual. And when you turn the final page, the person you remember is one who wished to do good, but couldn’t fully rise above the ghosts haunting her conscience. For every decision she took and every lapse she permitted, it was an entire people who paid the price. And the price Indira paid, in return, was that of her life—a life convincingly captured in a creditable book.

The rise and fall of the house of Medici

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2017 by Manu

(My essay in Mint Lounge, July 8 2017)


In the year 1740, residents of Florence welcomed a memorably named character called Lady Pomfret. It was a time of economic and cultural depression in the capital of Tuscany—an autonomous state, with the Italian unification a century away—and what was once a great city where the House of Medici patronized Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, now confronted spectacular decline. The Florentine army was an assemblage of 3,000 decrepit men, its rolls reconciled to such gloomy observations as “has lost his sight” and “walks with a stick”. The great Florentine navy employed a grand total of 198 equally rickety sailors manning three prehistoric galleys. Florence, where the Renaissance birthed fabled works of art in monumental halls, now cradled heaps of beggars in streets that stank.

Like great lands before it, and in a lesson to societies even now, Florence was led to its decay by the downfall of vision, its pain alleviated only by wistful memories from happier times. There were many compelling figures who led it. But with the passage of time, their journey appeared to go backwards rather than forward. Many of the early Medici looked to the future, took leaps of imagination, and shaped great destinies. But by the end of the saga, there were those who looked dangerously to the past, favouring prejudice over wisdom, fearful of the uncertainties of progress. Tangled in a web of parochialism, they destroyed a magnificent legacy. By the time Lady Pomfret arrived, these later Medici had brought Florence to a perilous crossroads, glory fading as darkness loomed.

With the death of the last Medici grand dukes in the 1730s, a uniformly despised Austrian offshoot of that house inherited Tuscany. These new masters had little patience for the creative valuables accumulated by their predecessors, more interested as they were in gold to finance wars in their faraway homeland. “How great a pity it is,” fumed Lady Pomfret, “that a wretch should possess (the Medici inheritance) who only watches for an opportunity to destroy it!…. What the Medici aspired to by virtue, obtained by guilt, kept by fortune, and transmitted from generation to generation” had fallen into the hands of a line hated by its subjects. “The Tuscans,” another observer sniffed, “would give two-thirds of their property to have the Medici back, and the other third to get rid of the (Austrians).” They thought the Medici terrible, only to encounter worse.

Yet there was a strange kind of hope ahead: In only three generations, the foreigners would flee, never to return. And they left intact most of the Medici treasures. It was not out of generosity that they took nothing—they had no option. For unlike other dukedoms, it had long been settled that if there were no Medici in Florence, all that the Medici created would vest in the people of Florence. And in this, at last, a small triumph was seized from an ocean of bitterness, allowing a once-great city to remain at least a majestic reminder of a fascinating past, silent tales told by every building and each Medici portrait.


The saviour of Florence and its art was a haughty widow in black. Sensible and strong, she drove in carriages drawn by eight horses, receiving visitors in apartments furnished in silver. There is a stately portrait of her, rivers of black lace flowing, as she points to a painting of her decidedly dead husband. They had enjoyed a happy marriage, despite his syphilis, but when he died, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, his childless spouse, returned to the wilting city of her birth. She did not then imagine that it would also fall upon her to serve as custodian of her family’s legacy; that it would be her duty to ensure something more than an uncertain future for all that her ancestors had enshrined in Florence.

The origin of the Medici depends on whom you ask. Once they achieved celebrity, mythology was fabricated: It was claimed that they were descendants of a giant-slaying knight whose issue were destined for greatness. Others scoffed that the early Medici sold vegetables. The Medici were men of commerce, either way, and early ventures into more glamorous public offices did not serve them well—one 14th century prototype was a military failure, while another flopped in a civilian role. In the fashion of their times, both lost their heads. At various moments the family was exiled from Florence, but eventually came to dominate the city, and indeed to shape it in their image—with courage, innovation, and mountains of gold.

The first of the great Medici was a 15th century banker who knew when to keep his head low, given the headlessness that was the fate of his ancestors, but who quietly embraced ideas without irony. Conscious that usury was prohibited in the Bible, Cosimo de Medici managed to build up a great financial empire nonetheless, mollifying god by constructing churches: The Duomo in Florence owes its magnificent dome to Cosimo’s perseverance. His advice to his family was pragmatic: “Be inoffensive to the rich and strong, while being consistently charitable to the poor and weak.” Even as he protected Donatello, who produced a provocative homoerotic sculpture of David, Cosimo bowed to the ancienrégime: When the nobles mounted horses, he rode a mule. Not all fell for the charade, however—as Pope Pius II summarized with a hint of envy, “He is king in everything but name.”


Over time, the gout-ridden Medici, many of whom were also breathtakingly ugly, rose in power, violently disregarding their sage ancestor’s counsels, but continuing his tradition of artistic patronage. Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo pulverized the nobility—one grandee who conspired against them in 1478 had his head hammered on to the door of his own home as a knocker. Another conspirator, an archbishop, was hanged, in full public view, though he escaped castration. An apoplectic Vatican, which owed the Medici colossal sums in debt, declared Lorenzo “the child of iniquity and the suckling of perdition”. Lorenzo himself carried on with sumptuous indifference, buying power with one coin, and sponsoring Botticelli and Michelangelo with the other. The businessman was now a prince.

Conscious that the religious types could impede their ascent, by 1513 the Medici installed one of their own as pope—money determined such matters, and Rome itself was a hotbed of transactional intrigue. Giovanni de Medici, as Pope Leo X, was the kind of pontiff who enjoyed hunting more than ministering to the faithful. He also preferred boots, which made the matter of kissing His Holiness’ feet somewhat awkward, and merrily distributed cardinals’ hats to relatives when he wasn’t legitimizing the illegitimate and gathering favours in return. He kept a pet elephant, Hanno, and was enraged when he discovered a plot to poison the bandages he applied to treat an anal condition. “Since god has given us the papacy,” he declared, despite such travails, “let us enjoy it.”

He had a point. By now, the Medici were shaping not just Florence, but the destinies of Europe itself. Leo despised Martin Luther and would go down as the pope who watched while the Protestant breakaway spiralled out of hand—his bull of censure was burnt publicly by Luther in 1521 and the history of the West changed course forever. But for his family, Leo proved a tremendous politician—the Medici, who had again been exiled from Florence, were restored to honour. After one short-lived placeholder, a nephew succeeded as the second of the Medici popes. It was Giuliu de Medici, as Pope Clement VII, who refused to grant Henry VIII of England the famous divorce he sought, inadvertently putting that monarch on his career-defining path that featured five more failed marriages, several beheadings, and the advent of the English Reformation. Though not in the intended manner, the hand of the Medici had reached even into London.

With the English breaking away from Catholicism, Clement embraced the French, couriering his cousin into the arms of their heir apparent in Paris. Catherine de Medici would come to acquire a pronounced reputation for genocidal ruthlessness, her Florentine instincts carving into the destinies of France. She was a detached sort of woman: When her daughter had an affair, she suggested to her irate son-in-law that the lover’s head be also detached in the presence of the girl. But at the time of her union with the French dauphin, Catherine was a hapless teen, whose 10 immediate years of childlessness reduced her to drinking mule’s urine and placing dung on her “source of life” to rectify matters. And this after being made to consummate her marriage under the nose of her royal father-in-law, who reported that both she and the prince had “shown valour in the joust”.

In the end Catherine produced several sons, and by 1560 found herself presiding as regent over a country split by civil war, her inner Medici rising to the occasion, brushing aside even her offspring. The first of her three boys died with the words “oh, my mother” on his lips, and the second was a cipher. But the last refused to do her bidding. Appalled, she inflicted on him a 6-hour lecture. She was, in the words of a foreign envoy, “an indefatigable princess, born to tame and govern a people as unruly as the French”.

In the end, Catherine died unhappy, but less unhappy than another cousin of hers—Marie de Medici—who too became queen of France, in 1610, her husband murdered a day after his succession. After a series of misadventures, this woman died in a pool of vindictive sadness, banished by her own son, accumulating hatred for the Medici with each of her misguided actions.

While these Medici relations built (and destroyed) strategic bridges with scions of royal houses, in Florence the principal line too attracted high-born wives. The results were catastrophic—the decline of the house had begun. In 1661, Cosimo III was married to a cousin of Louis XIV of France, but the bride was a headstrong woman repulsed by all things Italian. From her first night in Florence, she conspired to escape, making life difficult for her husband till he could no longer bear the headache. She attempted to smuggle out Medici jewels, and enjoyed massively embarrassing “pillow fights” with a male cook. She feuded with her mother-in-law, and the family palace in Florence, it was recorded, became “the devil’s own abode”. Where music once echoed in its corridors, now “from morn till midnight only the noise of wrangling and abuse could be heard”.

Having produced three children, the French Marguerite was permitted to depart, on the condition that she park herself in a convent outside Paris and maintain decorum. Instead, the lady harassed her husband for quantities of his fortune, and decided to commence affairs with a variety of men. Such were the scandals surrounding Marguerite that the head of the convent advised “a conspiracy of silence (as) the sole antidote to (her) depravity and excesses”. She was then relocated to another convent (a “spiritual brothel”, she called it dryly) where she occupied her time by telling on the cross-dressing Mother Superior, before the Mother Superior could tell on her. In the end, she too died in debt and sadness, a fate that would visit her children also in the fullness of time.

Time, in fact, had already enveloped Florence in gloom. Cosimo III, who carried the name of his illustrious ancestor but none of his virtues, was a resentful fanatic. He opened an Office of Public Decency in a city where his forebears once championed the freedom of artistic expression. Masterpieces carved nude were removed from public view because they were, he decided, an “incitement to fornication”. Christian prostitutes were whipped if they took Jewish customers, and Jewish tradesmen were persecuted into leaving. With commerce on the decline, revenues at an all-time low, and the political star of the Medici eclipsed by greater houses in a changing European landscape, Florence began its descent into oblivion. “There is no town,” the philosopher Montesquieu remarked sardonically, “where men live with less luxury.”


Intellectual inquiry also died its own death as the Medici, unable to reconcile to uncontrollable change, found comfort in regression—as with societies everywhere at certain junctures, stern orthodoxy and a return to puritanical pasts offered solace when true salvation was nowhere to be found, progressive energy completely drained. “His Highness,” it was announced, “will allow no professor…to read or teach, in public or private, by writing or by voice, the philosophy of Democritus, or of atoms, or of any saving Aristotle.” And this when it was a Medici who first supported Galileo, enabling him to discover the realities of outer space. All it took for Florence to go back in time was a little bit of time itself and the wrong Medici at the helm.

Cosimo’s sons were marginally better. The first, in a faint reflection of the splendid patronage once extended by the family to geniuses, sponsored the inventor of the piano, but whiled away most of his energy in affairs with musicians. After he died, Cosimo’s second son, a botanist unhappily married to a woman who talked to horses, succeeded to the dukedom. He surrounded himself with handsome grooms, and got so fabulously drunk that at a banquet he vomited into his napkin and wiped his mouth with his wig. Soon he too died, and with the burial of its last male heir, the sun began to set in depraved tragedy on the House of Medici. And in that final moment returned the last of the many strong women the Medici had produced, making an effort to shroud decline with a semblance of dignity.


Cosimo III knew his sons were no good (that is, they were homosexual), and for this reason he had tried hard to amend the rules of succession to allow his third-born—the syphilitic Anna Maria Luisa—to inherit Tuscany. The effort failed, for the Medici no longer had influence. When her last drunken brother died in 1734, Anna Maria Luisa had to concede the Austrian succession. But this woman who “never so far lost her dignity as even to smile” had large stores of that one quality that had evaded her father and brothers: basic common sense. Within a month of the succession, Anna Maria Luisa drew up an agreement known as the Patto di Famiglia—the Family Pact, a historic instrument that would save all that the Medici had inspired and created in better days for the sake of posterity.

“The Most Serene Electress (Anna Maria Luisa),” went the document, “cedes, gives, and transfers to His Royal (Austrian) Highness at the present moment, for him and for successive Grand Dukes, all the furniture, effects, and rarities from the succession of her brother, the Most Serene Grand Duke, such as Galleries, Paintings, Statues, Libraries, Jewels, and other precious things…so that His Royal Highness commits himself to preserve them with the express condition that nothing which is for the ornament of the State, for the use of the public and to attract the curiosity of foreigners will be transported or taken away from the Capital and State of the Grand Duchy.”

In other words, while accepting the foreign succession, Anna Maria Luisa ensured that they would not remove from Florence the treasures which alone could retain for a fading city some respectability in a shaky world. Everything contained today in the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Palatine Library, the Laurenziana Library, and a large portion of the Bargello, not to speak of smaller buildings scattered around Florence, owes its presence and preservation to Anna Maria Luisa’s bequest to the people of Tuscany. It took only 16 years after her death for the Medici palaces to be thrown open, bringing in Florence’s first batch of tourists—tourists who to this day sustain the local economy and cultural flavour of Tuscany itself.

The Medici remain in Florence, in a manner of speaking, their name claimed by dozens of cafés and even the odd launderette. But Anna Maria Luisa remains special, elevated to legend in a style different from the other Medici. The Family Pact made her semi-divine. As the British ambassador in Florence reported after her death in 1743, “The common people are convinced she went off in a hurricane of wind…. All the town is in tears…for the loss of her.” The last of the Medici had departed, but she had ensured that the stamp of her house would remain forever in the city they built; a stamp that was also a lesson in how all it takes for rot to imperil greatness is a few wrong steps, a return to conservatism, and the running out of that small thing we call luck.