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.

India and Modernity: The Bad Socks of History

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 8 2017)


At a recent academic conclave in Ettumanoor, not too far from the stunning frescoes in the local temple, the Kerala-based thinker M.N. Karassery delivered a brilliant oration on modernity and its peculiarities in our time. Though his wider argument has been well studied, the story he told to illustrate his point was an interesting one, featuring that bane of the right wing in India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister, this apocryphal yarn goes, had a colleague who worked very closely with him in his office. But every time he came into the room, he brought along a most obnoxious odour, till Nehru was compelled to ask what the source of this nasty smell was. Socks, came the resigned answer: The errant colleague was a miser who didn’t mind leaving a stink if it saved him a few coins.

The next morning, on his way to work, Nehru picked up new socks for the man, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. And yet somehow, when the colleague moved around, that unbearable smell continued to waft down the corridors, sparing not even the prime minister’s esteemed nose. No longer intending to be delicate about the matter, Nehru demanded an explanation from his malodorous subordinate. “Are you not wearing the new pair I bought you?” he asked. Yes, of course, came the wounded reply. Frowning, Nehru wondered what had happened to the old, threadbare pair. “Oh those,” replied the eccentric, brightening up, his hands going to his pockets. “Those are right here with me!”

As Karassery pointed out, India’s negotiation of modernity, much like the man with the smelly socks, has largely been a case of embracing wonderful new ideas while retaining many bad ones for sentimental reasons or possible future use. There is history to the tradition. Lord Macaulay, for instance, famously pictured that class “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He succeeded as far as taste was concerned, but for large numbers of this class, it was a simple matter of acting English (and speaking it) in the public sphere, while sustaining old ways in the private domain. Exposure to modernity’s rationalism did not, for instance, provoke a divorce from religiosity. On the contrary, religion was refashioned to rise to modernity’s challenge, with characteristic Indian lack of irony.

The railways, an exploitative cash cow for the British, were presented as a manifestation of the iron progress of science and reason in India. And indeed a number of orthodox parties viewed it with trepidation. In the 1880s, Brahmins in Thiruvananthapuram persuaded the local maharaja to prevent the fire carriage from defiling their temple town, but Brahmins in Puri were canny: The journey from Kolkata to their shrine was reduced overnight from 26 days to 12 hours, bringing far more pilgrims, more money, and amplified devotion atop screaming engines. Sweep across a century and a half, and savvy stargazers transmit their latest astrological recommendations to globe-trotting believers over WhatsApp, while havans and pujas are performed via Skype, their blessings touching the devout through a medium as invisible as the hand of god itself: the internet.

More significantly, it was modern methods such as the census that created in India new identities that could masquerade convincingly as ancient. Numbers determined who constituted the “majority” and who were in the “minority”, enabling also the aggregation of diverse practices into what historian Romila Thapar calls “syndicated Hinduism”. Political consciousness followed, a product of modern impulses in a cloak of timeless tradition. Studies on the emergence of cow protection have shown how censuses opened up new battlefields to wage wars in the names of history, masses rallying around sensational calls that used instruments of modernity to service un-modern propensities. Violence, of course, followed everywhere.

By no means was this a predilection that afflicted the “majority” only. One “minority” now called “the Muslims”, despite massive internal diversities of their own, witnessed attempts to recreate a puritanism that never actually existed in this land—in the south where Asia’s oldest mosque stands, minarets and domes replaced gabled roofs and woodwork. The burqa, never before known here, suddenly won appeal, with the prosperous leading the way. Prosperity, in fact, spawned innovative, unexpected expressions of religion—an affluent, post-liberalization middle class today fuels demand for the dozens of rock-star swamis and gurus hovering about, who promise spiritual salvation even as they transform into corporate enterprises chasing solidly material rewards. Faith always featured such calculations, of course: Modernity merely raised the stakes and gave it spectacular scale.

Some years ago, the scholar Meera Nanda noted that India had 2.5 million places of worship but only 1.5 million schools, and that governments across the political divide were increasingly sponsoring religious causes. For her it was globalization and the paradoxical hyper-religiosity of its beneficiaries that had led to this state of affairs—to the forming of a state-temple-corporate complex. Others, like Vinay Lal and Amrita Basu, have argued that in attempting to divorce religious feeling from our constitutional self-image and aspirations, our founding fathers ignored ground realities. The result was that these realities took an aggressive, unexpected turn, now visible in your nearest city in its current manifestation of cow-raksha (protection).

The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle—that religion in India may never be fully divorced from public life and what we can aim to do is limit the degree to which it can pervert everyday business. But perhaps this was a debate that should have begun long ago, not now when the stench of the bad socks of history is overwhelming, no longer down the corridor as with Nehru, but very much closer, right under our collective noses.

Gauhar Jaan, the gramophone queen of India

Posted in Uncategorized on July 2, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 1 2017)


The celebration of Eid on Monday happened to coincide with the birth anniversary of a remarkable Muslim woman. She wasn’t actually born Muslim—this lady of decidedly imperious mien was in fact the daughter of an Armenian, whose wife was half Hindu, half British Christian. Her mother was known as Victoria Hemmings, and the girl Eileen Angelina Yeoward. But when she was still a child, her identity was transformed forever after Victoria embraced Islam and became “Badi” Malka Jaan. Her daughter followed suit and took the name Gauhar Jaan, a name that would deliver her to greatness not only as the “first dancing girl of Calcutta” and India’s earliest recording sensation, but indeed as the foremost of this country’s musical divas.

Gauhar and her mother were performers, both of them talented, impetuous women whose lives featured disappointing men or, at any rate, disappointments caused by men. Malka Jaan’s marriage with her ice-factory-engineer husband ended when Gauhar was less than six years old. They moved from Azamgarh to Benares (now Varanasi) with Malka’s paramour, and here the mother achieved a certain celebrity as a dancer and courtesan. By 1883, when Gauhar was 10, they settled in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called, and grew accustomed to a life of some luxury and success, even as Gauhar was trained in Kathak, to sing, and to acquire a rich grasp of languages: Between 1902 and 1920, Gauhar would sing for around 600 gramophone records in tongues as diverse as Persian, Gujarati and Pashto.

Following in her mother’s artistic footsteps, Gauhar’s first public performance came in her teens at the court of the raja of Darbhanga in 1887. Though recognized immediately for her talent, she was not satisfied as a court musician in a second-grade principality, returning to bustling Calcutta to make her name instead. And indeed it was here that she began to attract the high and mighty, their wealth and riches collecting in proverbial mountains beside her. Gauhar soon became something of a legend: the woman who drove around in splendid carriages and cars, the lady who disappeared to Bombay (now Mumbai) now and then for the races, the tawaif (courtesan) who demanded a whole train from a royal patron to convey her entourage to his capital and, most famously, as an eccentric who spent the then extravagant sum of Rs20,000 on a party to celebrate the birth of her beloved cat’s kittens.

But what distinguished Gauhar was the gramophone. In November 1902 at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, Gauhar arrived with her retinue to sing for Frederick Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company. Prolonged negotiations had preceded this meeting, and Gauhar was paid a princely Rs3,000 for singing into a contraption rumoured to be the devil’s own, something that could irreversibly seize her voice. She was undaunted, though perhaps somewhat irritated, by having to sing into the massive brass recording horn that was placed near her face. She had 3 minutes—and indeed, would master the technique of delivering an entire song in that duration—at the end of which she spoke into the device and signed off in what became her trademark: “My name is Gauhar Jaan.”

Over the next two decades, and through her hundreds of recordings, Gauhar changed the way music was practised in India, and amplified its reach. Her voice travelled not only to faraway places in India but also abroad, and as her biographer Vikram Sampath discovered, her unibrowed face appearing on picture postcards in Europe and even on matchboxes. Gaisberg knew he had a figure of great glamour here, noting that he never saw her repeat either her clothes or her jewellery, both of which she possessed in inexhaustible quantities, while rumour placed the price of a pass to her salon at anywhere between Rs1,000-3,000. Less than a decade after she first announced her name into that brass horn, Gauhar was at the height of her fame, performing at the famous Delhi Durbar before the newly crowned British king and his consort.

But while professional successes were many, personal tragedy too wove its way into Gauhar’s life through unfortunate romances. She fell in love with a famous stage actor and lived several happy years with him. When her mother died, it was he who consoled her and became a pillar of strength. His death by a sudden illness, however, terminated that relationship. What followed was a disastrous affair with her secretary, a man 10 years her junior, who in the end proved to harbour more affection for Gauhar’s possessions than Gauhar herself. Court cases had to be fought and at one time she was compelled to prove her paternity to a judge, pleading before her long-lost father to acknowledge her as his, humiliated in public.

The ostentation that was as much a part of Gauhar’s life as was her talent, would, in the end, dissolve her life and career. Accustomed to a life of glitter and style, she made predictable mistakes where her finances were concerned. By the 1920s, Gauhar had passed her prime, her legal battles and other woes taking a toll on her bank balance. She moved, eventually, far away from the Calcutta where she once towered over her peers, and settled in Mysore, where the local maharaja granted her a modest pension. And here, in a cottage in the south of India, she who was born Eileen, knew fame as Gauhar, and whose voice thrilled a million admirers, died a forgotten woman in 1930.

Lessons from the Emergency

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 24 2017)


In a thunderous 1974 address to striking railway workers, George Fernandes called upon them to “realize the strength which you possess. Seven days’ strike of the Indian Railways,” he declared, and “every thermal station in the country would close down. A 10 days’ strike…and the industries…would come to a halt…. A 15 days’ strike…and the country will starve.” He may or may not have been exaggerating, but crisis was brewing in India.

The economy was in a shambles, the opposition thirsting for a fight. Constitutional means, Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided, were but a cover for “evil designs”, so “war” would need to be “fought in the streets”. The Communists, E.M.S. Namboodiripad confirmed, “do not accept the position that every issue must be solved only through constitutional means”. Students agitated, Jayaprakash Narayan lent moral legitimacy and leadership to the movement, and there was what the prime minister would describe as dangerous “indiscipline” in the air, graduating to sedition when the army and police were incited to disobey her orders.

These, among others, were the reasons deployed to justify Indira Gandhi’s disastrous decision to impose internal Emergency in India, inaugurating two years of government by decree that inflicted one terrible decision after another on a horrified people. As her confidant P.N. Dhar would later explain, before 25 June 1975, Mrs Gandhi complained she didn’t have enough power to implement her ideas. “But when she did acquire all the power she needed…she did not know what to do with it.” While her obsequious cabinet crawled, policy and its execution was directed by her over-complicated son, Sanjay. The prime minister refused to countenance reports on the excesses of an already exacting state machinery, now sharpened by open oppression. A hundred thousand people languished in prison, but Mrs Gandhi insisted that there was no one “less authoritarian than I am”—this in an interview to an American correspondent, of course, since the Indian press was reduced to filling censored newspaper space with recipes for onion raita instead of political news.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the man who assembled India’s democratic institutions and painstakingly reinforced them throughout his career, should have fathered the woman who blackened all the values he held supreme. Mrs Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter but failed to evolve anything that could be described as towering vision. She understood power and exercised it in large volumes, but failed to grasp the principle that power is the means to an end, not a purpose in its own right. Two years before the Emergency, the Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee wondered if she preferred the presidential form of government. “Unlike her father, who rejoiced in Parliament,” he remarked, “Mrs Gandhi has an allergy to it.” She certainly didn’t think too highly of the will of the people, writing as early as 1963 that the “price we pay for democracy” is that “the mediocre person” and “the most vocal” are suddenly empowered, even when “they may lack knowledge and understanding”. She was more pragmatic matriarch than outstanding democrat, convinced that without her, India’s childlike masses would only get into unnecessary trouble.

To be fair, as the scholar S. Irfan Habib recently pointed out on Twitter, Indira Gandhi wasn’t the sum of Emergency-era excesses alone. This was a woman who could stand up to American bullying tactics to end genocide and liberate a people in 1971, returning to 10 million refugees their homes. She was a committed environmentalist who could quote from the Atharva Veda on the need for ecological preservation even while pointing out that one could hardly lecture “those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans…clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source”. And as a sharp forthcoming biography by Sagarika Ghose highlights, the battles she fought as a woman in a world of men, and her negotiation of her own insecurities, offer insights, even if the conclusions Mrs Gandhi drew were not always propitious, her actions often devoid of the superior understanding that came so readily to her father.

“I had always believed,” Jayaprakash Narayan wrote from prison, “that Mrs Gandhi had no faith in democracy, that she was by inclination and conviction a dictator. This belief has tragically turned out to be true.” In the end, it was such criticism, much of which emanated from abroad, that stung her. It has also been argued that following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, his fall from heroic greatness to violent destruction in such a short span, Mrs Gandhi grew worried about her own fate, seeing shadows everywhere. Either way she committed the “horrible mistake” her son warned against: In 1977, she called a national election and decided to face the justice of the ballot box. Understandably, she was routed. But it seemed to have restored a certain moral confidence in her. “I imposed the Emergency and (when the crisis had passed) I revoked it,” she declared in a defiant interview, adding that if her intention were to remain prime minister for life, she could have disposed of elections altogether.

But most importantly, as her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar noted, “She began to dream.” She “awoke to her father’s voice resonant within her”—somewhere in the darkness that was the Emergency, there was still her conscience, or perhaps a feeling of guilt that she had betrayed all that Nehru cherished; that she had sacrificed the interests of a people in the interests of political survival. Survive she did, in the end anyway—by 1980, she was again a tremendous political force soaring above a massively frustrated, comical government. Indira Gandhi came back to rule as prime minister of India, winning also a certain forgiveness from the masses for her greatest, most misguided lapse.

Forty-two years have passed since the day she made that mistake. But the lessons of that episode retain their pertinence, now more than ever, as we witness a different kind of change in our society, not imposed overnight but creeping up slowly, forming a stranglehold even as we watch.

Táhirih, Iran’s Mary Magdalene

Posted in Uncategorized on June 17, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 17 2017)

The-Shrine-of-the-Bab-and-Terraces1.jpgWhether her appearance was as striking as her conduct is not known. But she who is remembered as Táhirih—the Pure One—provoked a collective gasp from society when she threw off the veil. One man was so befuddled by her unpredicted defiance that he slit his throat in shock and ran bleeding from the “apparition”. Táhirih herself was composed, confidently preaching before a secret congress “her appeal with eloquence and fervour”. The 80 men themselves remained conflicted—some were sympathetic to her cause while others frowned at her ambition. But for this sole woman in their midst, there was no going back. The die was cast.

The year was 1848 and the scene was the historic Conference of Badasht, where Iran’s leading Bábí leaders convened in a distant garden to chart the future of their resistance—to try and reconcile with Táhirih’s claim that Islamic practice as interpreted in the Sharia by fallible mortals might not, after all, be compatible with divine wisdom and the voice of god. In other words, they sought a new enlightenment, after old methods failed to answer unsettling questions born of modernity. Their leader, the Báb, was already in prison and would soon be shot for upsetting the mullahs. After all, the latter derived status precisely from those old ways, and were not particularly anxious to brook challenges from a maverick making messianic claims.

The Bábís, if we view them without Western prejudice, were modernizers. But, like the society that inspired their movement, their modernity was also expressed in the vocabulary of faith. Religion was of essence in Iran and, in what is still a familiar concept, the power of leading mullahs was not inferior to that of the reigning executive. As the only Shia state in the world, religious identity was infused through the region’s institutions, and “the clerical establishment”, historian Christopher de Bellaigue writes, “was too diffuse and autonomous for the monarch to bend”. Naturally, they weren’t going to bend to the Báb either when he proclaimed himself “that person whom you have been expecting for more than a millennium” and proceeded to promote radical ideas.

There had been other efforts to modernize Iran to face up to social and political threats emanating from the West—Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), the heir who never reigned, and the well-meaning son of a father who sired 259 children, attempted reform in the military and government. But his success even in these relatively less controversial areas was limited. That he lost wars and surrendered treasures only convinced the old guard that their time-honoured, familiar methods were better than dangerous experiments inspired by foreign ideas. A powerful minister, Amir Kabir, too tried his hand at reform—the son of a cook who also became brother-in-law to the shah, he departed in a puddle of blood, murdered in a bathhouse for his modernizing zeal.

Hence it was that the Bábís sought to transcend Islamic law and support forces of change by producing a reinterpretation of the Quran. In a land where faith mattered, they sought to reinvent faith to address the issues of their time. Táhirih was one of the most significant of this group, not only because of her fervour but also because she was the lone female voice in their persecuted ranks. She was “both feminist icon and medieval saint…her life a chain of clairvoyant images, snapshots of a society that, while riddled with superstition, also teetered on the edge of modernity”. She was also in favour of armed rebellion and was even suspected of having had something to do with the murder of her orthodox father-in-law. And it was under the influence of her vociferous faction that the Bábís, in the end, broke away altogether from Islam.

Táhirih was born Fatemeh, the daughter of a scholar who gave her an education unlike most fathers of that time. Whether he regretted it is not known, but her father-in-law certainly resented the girl’s enthusiasm. Irrepressible, she abandoned her husband and children and joined, after a long correspondence with various thinkers, the Bábís. Quickly, in her 30s, she built up a following: When she spoke, a witness noted, “they listened with great astonishment in their hearts and were moved by her speeches”. Though divided by time and context, she emerged as Iran’s Meerabai, speaking directly to God: “How long,” she asked, “must your lovers endure this anguish from behind the curtain? At least bestow upon them a glimpse of your beauty.”

Officialdom and the establishment painted Táhirih and her group as a wild, subversive lot given to orgies and un-Islamic conduct but it was when she appeared unveiled in the garden, without warning, that she really became a target. “Suddenly,” it was recorded, “the figure of Táhirih, adorned and unveiled, appeared before the eyes of the assembled companions. Consternation immediately seized the entire gathering…To behold her face unveiled was to them inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was…improper.” But she was convinced that in the new order the Bábís would herald, in the age after the end of the Sharia, women would join men in shaping the world—no veil could keep them from this destiny.

Progressing unveiled hereafter, in 1852 Táhirih was apprehended and sentenced to death for her heresy. She approached her execution with grace, dressed well and perfumed. But there was no romance to her end—the officer supervising the process simply had her strangled with her own handkerchief. Her body was lowered into a well, honoured by a heap of stones and rubble. Iran’s uneasy negotiation of modernity continued. Táhirih came to be remembered, celebrated by some as Islam’s Mary Magdalene, and even at the time of her death lamented by The Times as the “fair prophetess of Qazvin”. For she had an idea and a mission, but had come perhaps too soon into a society led by men, not yet ready to welcome the counsels of a woman.


Raja Rammohun Roy: India’s gentleman reformer

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2017 by Manu

(My column in Mint, June 3 2017)


When Raja Rammohun Roy landed in England in April 1831, among those who disembarked with him were his servants, an adopted son rumoured to be his bastard from a Muslim woman, a Brahmin cook and a milch cow. The cow and cook were essential to the enterprise—Roy had already been written off in Bengal for defying rules of caste and custom, and needed to demonstrate some degree of ritual conformity to support his venture across forbidden seas. But while adversaries at home resented him, in England he became a celebrity, received to cheers of “Long Live Tippoo Saheb”, with the police being summoned in Manchester to moderate public enthusiasm. The Times hailed him as a poster child of the West’s civilizing mission, calling him “a harbinger of those fruits which must result from the dissemination of European knowledge” in the exotic darkness that was the East.

There was good reason for such romanticization. On the one hand, Roy came on a mission from Akbar II, who sought a more generous pension from the East India Company. But on the other, Roy, whose works on Indian philosophy earned him a reputation as Hinduism’s Luther, also wished to acquaint the British with his homeland. As he remarked, “One of my objects in visiting this country has been to lay before the British public a statement, however brief, of my views regarding the past conditions and future prospects of India.” He was the Mughal emperor’s envoy, but he saw himself also as an ambassador for India itself, and indeed as the urbane face of a reforming society that would soon rise to find its destiny (though of course this did not stop him from telling Victor Jacquemont that India needed “many more years of English domination” to get there).

It was this presumption that made him enemies, including in his household. Roy was born to the junior wife of a junior son, into a Brahmin line that had served the Mughal state. His father, with whom he disagreed uncompromisingly, had brought upon the family the ignominy of going to prison by failing to honour his debts. His formidable mother was even less pleased with Roy, when at “about the age of sixteen, I composed a manuscript calling in question the validity of the idolatrous system of the Hindoos”. He went away from home very young, and in Patna upset Muslim leaders with his observations on their faith, while his The Precepts Of Jesus rubbed Christian missionaries the wrong way. Some called him a lapsed Hindu and threw bones and garbage into his yard, while others created obstacles at work during the years he served the Company government.

Roy, famous mainly for his campaign against widow-burning and for founding what would become the Brahmo Samaj, was educated in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, and is said to have ventured as far as Tibet in his quest for learning. He was suave and polished but acutely conscious that his recommendations on reform were seen as the toyings of a dilettante. As one biographer notes, “Rammohan was an anomaly to many of his Bengali contemporaries. In his…English language skills and European tastes, he was the image of the prosperous nineteenth century Calcutta babu. Yet in private he hankered for distinction as a shastric scholar.” His Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A Gift To Deists) was seen as an effort to flaunt his Persian, while his first Vedantic essay in 1815 invited scorn from traditionalists as far away as Madras.

But local disdain did not mean unpopularity. Roy owned several newspapers and stood up to the colonial state when censorship was attempted, while explaining Hindu scriptural concepts in English to the very same Western audiences. He persuaded them of the value India’s past held even if its present had been corrupted by foolish custom. There was conviction here—he refused to participate in his father’s funeral rites because he thought them meaningless. He produced such texts as Questions And Answers On The Judicial System Of India even as he expounded A Tract On Religious Toleration. He had a curious mind, vision and clarity of expression, all united in a desire to be the spokesperson for a more pristine Hinduism in a reinvigorated India.

In this he succeeded—a fascinating intellectual movement was born through his and his contemporaries’ efforts in Bengal, while his two years in England saw him impress individuals from King William IV down to Benjamin Disraeli. Lord Macaulay waited hours one evening hoping to introduce himself to Roy, while Jeremy Bentham began a campaign to elect him to parliament. There was also a christening where the infant was named Thomas Rammohun Roy, and stories floated of a romance in Bristol. There was no doubt that Roy was immensely popular in English society, for he was also on the side of introducing Western education in India—Sanskrit schooling, he argued, “would be best calculated to keep (India) in darkness”. Reform was the need of the hour, and the language of such reform did not matter to him, even if it threatened orthodox elements who preferred the security of tradition.

The Brahmin had no place in Roy’s Hinduism—“If in doubt,” he recommended, “consult your conscience,” not your priest. He rejected Brahmin domination, calling them “self interested guides, who, in defiance of the law as well as of common sense, have succeeded…in conducting (ordinary people) to the temple of idolatry”, hiding “the true substance of morality”. Roy, whose birth anniversary it was two weekends ago, would have had even more to express had he not died in 1833. It took 120 days for the news to reach India but his message had already taken root: that Indians “are capable of better things” and “worthy of a better destiny”. Indeed as one obituary put it, despite the “extreme interruption and inconvenience” his views caused him, Roy remained true to his convictions and that which he believed was right for the good of India and his fellow Indians. And for this alone he deserves to be remembered.