‘Punthanam and Melpattur – Two measures of Faith’ – Vijay Nambisan

 

The history of Malayalam literature is built on two renaissances: the first took place in the 16th century, and was intensely devotional in nature. Three giants emerged, great poets all and contemporaries of one another, who established two traditions which are still followed: rules for writing literary Malayalam, and the use of Sanskrit to such an inordinate degree as cannot be seen in any other Indian tongue. They were: Ezhuthachan, who translated the Ramayana into Malayalam; Punthanam, who wrote the deeply philosophical Jnana-Paana – in Malayalam; and Melpattur, whose Narayaneeyam is revered as ‘the last great hurrah of Sanskrit poetry’.  The second renaissance occurred in the early part of the 20th century, and was led by Vallathol, Asan and Ulloor. This one was distinctly nationalistic in nature, with strong foundations in philosophy and social activism.

 

In his slim volume ‘Punthanam and Melpattur – Two measures of Faith’, poet Vijay Nambisan seeks to link these two literary movements by serving us translations of Punthanam and Melpattur’s signature works, along with one by Vallathol. It is a unique attempt, which Nambisan appears to have conducted successfully. Just as importantly, he sets the stage with a superbly-written introductory essay – in part to provide background, and in part, to predicate his interesting thesis.

 

The background is simple: Punthanam wrote the Jnana-Paana in Malayalam, to overcome the agony of a terrible personal tragedy – his infant child was accidentally smothered to death when a heap of clothes was placed on the crib. Melpattur, on the other hand, was the doyen of the Sanskrit world, who pooh-poohed efforts at writing sublime poetry in the vernacular; for him there was only the sacred tongue, and nothing else. For this arrogance – and, because he appeared too conscious of his own, considerable talents – the Gods cursed him with Arthritis; or so the story goes, and that, from this pain of body rose a poem seeking forgiveness of Lord Krishna. Five hundred years later, Vallathol sought to bring these two contemporaries together in a fictional meeting constructed by verse, and submit his judgment on that ancient debate: who is better – Punthanam or Melpattur?

 

Nambisan readily admits that he has no serious Malayalam, and that the translations are based largely on inputs from his father. He is also touchingly open about his political leanings – hard to the left, and uses them to paint a picture of elitism against the subaltern; where Punthanam, writing in the people’s tongue is David, and Melpattur, master of Sanskrit, is a benign Goliath. He brings out numerous interesting points, like for example Puntanam’s gentle scorn for his own priestly class: ‘Brahmins consider themselves greater than the gods’. Nambisan concludes by appearing to side with Vallathol, whose poem on the apocryphal meeting ends with these lines:

 

‘To learning indeed [Melpattur] has a claim;

[But] The burning faith of Punthanam is dearer far’

 

For a Malayalee like myself, who has grown up with both the Jnana-Paana and the Narayaneeyam ringing constantly in his ears, the best part of this slender volume must necessarily then be Nambisan’s long, introductory essay; the man writes effortlessly, and with panache and wit. After all, why would I want to read either poem in an English translation, when I knew them both by rote as a youngster, in Malayalam?

 

And yet, I found myself running my eyes over the translated lines, and spotting a few delightful gems. In the poem by Vallathol: ‘The bells hang silent in the nave outside, beneath a spell of holiness, till searching fingers find their smooth, round mouths’. Superb, and so vividly familiar to those who frequent temples. Also: ‘…and when at last he wins to this near side of sleep’ – this line so touchingly conveys an image of Melpattur’s painful battle with Arthritis.

 

One small mistake in the Jnana-paana: Nambisan translates ‘fruit fly’ as ‘mouse’. I don’t know why, nor whether this is intentional, but rather than criticize, I have decided to use this line as symptomatic of the greater burdens of translation. To clarify: I suppose Nambisan’s biggest hurdle in translating the three poems was the strain of needing to retain idiom without losing a sense of what the pieces intended to convey; or, conversely, on losing idiom, then being forced to try and introduce idiomatic equivalence in English. It does not work.

 

My own take on this vexing problem which has confounded translators ever since man discovered high thought, is that translation is commentary. You cannot translate Marquez from Spanish to English and not lose a significant portion of the original’s beauty; or, you must have the gift of a Tagore to be a bilingual genius. Failing that, the effort of trying to hold on to both the sense and tenor of the original will sadly show – as it does here. Readers must kindly note that this is not meant as a criticism – in many ways, a great translation is a mightier literary feat than the source, but these happen only rarely. An example is Fitzgerald’s translation of the ‘Rubaiat’ from Persian; it stands out shining, and alone, if one looks back two centuries. Another example is the Holy Bible; and a third, Tulsidas’s epic conversion of the Ramayana into Awadhi in the 16th century. Agree or disagree, the third gave the world a Ram-Lila to complement the pre-existing Raasa-Leela, and made Valmiki’s original a poor shadow left to be read only by the truly learned.

 

With that in mind, I say that Nambisan’s effort may be taken as a reminder that there are no rules: if the message and sentiments of the original may be conveyed unsullied into a new tongue, with as much poetic fervor and flourish, then there is nothing to complain about. Literary licenses exist principally for such purposes, and we must use them with increasing frequency, courageously, if the world is to evolve into a truly global village. Translation is commentary, and we must recognize that.

 

And finally, what is the verdict on this great debate engendered into legend and immortalized by Vallathol – who wins in this contest of devotion and erudition? Is it Punthanam with his vernacular, or Melpattur with his Sanskrit? My own take is that Vallathol got it wrong. This was not a contest in any classical sense, between two different approaches to god; both contestants were unabashed advocates of Bhakti, of Krishna in particular, and merely sought to express their love for the same divine form in different tongues. Yet, the debate lingers, five hundred years after that era, after two literary renaissances have touched Parashurama’s land. I suppose there is no right answer to us, the axe-born; the best poem is the one you like, and to me, it is a tie. Punthanam’s down-to-earth pragmatism is without poetic parallel, while Melpattur’s masterpiece is undoubtedly, the last great Sanskrit poem written anywhere in India. Still, just to be on the safe side, I thought I’d run the contest past someone who has loved and sung both poems for nearly nine decades – my mother.

 

She shook her head to feign innocence and tried to brush the question aside, but relented with a sly grin when I persisted. “Puthanam talks about life like no one else has” She drawled, wrinkled fingers inching mischievously towards another chocolate brownie, “But Melpattur is something else – in a class of his own”. I smiled and snatched the last piece off the plate, even as the clear, high-pitched voice of P. Leela came back to me in a tumble of memories. But problem is, I couldn’t figure out which song she was singing – the Jnana-paana, or the Narayaneeyam! Maybe that is how it was meant to be, faith and erudition lying as two sides of one coin, and may it always be so – I like the world better that way. Amen.

 

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The Nilgai of Thaltej

Any way you look at it, Ahmedabad is certainly one of the most livable cities in India – successive governments since the 1990’s have ensured that the roads are wide and well-divided, there is next to no crime, urban expansion is astutely planned in advance, the Narmada canal provides more than enough water, power cuts are a rarity, and unemployment is negligible. Within the city, the best part is undoubtedly the relatively new western suburb of Thaltej, where I live.

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(Red Naped Ibis)

Until recently, my rigorous evening walk of ten kilometers daily, took me past such wonderful delights that I could have fooled myself into thinking I was on a nature walk: peacocks by the dozen unfolding their stately plumes, as they transited in cocky arrogance from the Physical Research Laboratory quarters to near St. Jude’s Church; floppy brown rabbits with bright, suspicious eyes, who hopped away at my approaching tread; flocks of Red-snaped Ibis birds, with their characteristic red markings on the back of their heads, and long beaks, who move lazily from thorny bush to bush; jackals – at night – who scurry across your path with the furtiveness of a burglar, as they race about their nocturnal ways; rat snakes, green snakes, and cobras; wild pigs who snort with the contempt I, an intruder in their eyes, rightly deserve; and, germane to this story, a herd of majestic Nilgai.

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(Nilgai crossing from PRL quarters to behind St. Jude’s Church, Thaltej)

The Thaltej branch of this last species had until lately remained a shy and cautious bunch, who showed themselves to me only in rare, fleeting glimpses. Their home was a large patch of undeveloped land, a few hundred meters from where I live. It had a dip – probably the remnant of an excavation left unfinished by the hand of poor commerce – which provided them water all year round, and was shielded from the eye of man by dense, thorny scrub. Only once in a while would they reveal their handsome features, at which point, I would stop and take in the scene: the males, bluish-black with short horns, and sharp, muscular features; their impedimenta, tawny, with slightly more flesh around the hips. But if I stared too long, they’d gallop away. At that, I would smile and wish them well, as I continued my solitary peregrination.

Then the JCB’s arrived last year, to begin clearing the Nilgai’s home, as Ahmedabad danced to the merry tune of progress. It took me a while to notice the shift in behavioral patterns, and it is only after the 2016 monsoon, when construction work in Thaltej recommenced with full force, that the true nature of the situation became apparent to me. Until then, I had foolishly – even childishly – attributed the now-frequent appearance of these Blue Bulls during my walk along the un-tarred stretches of Thaltej, to some silly serendipity; it didn’t strike me early enough, that the Nilgai were now being forced to forage further from their home, because the scrub jungle they had lived in till then, was slowly and irreversibly, being given over to the mighty hand of development.

Through Diwali I watched the handsome gents and statuesque ladies trot from scrub to scrub, and I wondered what would become of them. Perhaps, I hoped, they would migrate further west across Sardar Patel ring road to Sanand Oil Field, where hundreds of oil wells offer undisturbed habitat to the Thaltej Nilgai’s country cousins. But that didn’t happen. Instead, as the land dried into winter, and the last of the seasonal monsoon vegetation parched into dust, I found the Nilgai being forced to forage exactly where they shouldn’t – at garbage heaps. And last week, my heart stopped as I watched a fetching member of the herd tug at a pile of plastic bags filled with discarded food. This is the wedding season, and Thaltej abounds with ‘party plots’, and where else would those who run such places dispose of wedding feasts than by the roadside? At that moment, I decided that something had to be done.

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In the larger context, I suppose a dozen Nilgai don’t count for much, but our valuing of their worth probably counts for a great deal in how we value ourselves as a society. Also, I have very little respect for Luddite activists of the Medha Patkar or Arundhati Roy variety, who in my book, are frankly nothing more than useless anarchist nuisances we can do gladly without. So by this piece, I set a test of how an administration is meant to function – humanely, with sensitivity: can this small herd of Nilgai, trapped without escape in Thaltej, Ahmedabad, be safely relocated across the ring road to Shilaj, where they may live a noble life as deemed by God, without having to suffer the ignominy of eating rancid food packed in plastic bags? Answer: I don’t know.

Yet, I am an optimist, and as both witness to, and beneficiary of, the excellent governance provided by the Government of Gujarat, I am confident that this task will be taken up at the soonest, with little fuss. It is what any honest citizen would expect of a morally-honest government. If that doesn’t happen, the Nilgai of Thaltej will die ugly deaths, and we will have forgotten a cardinal principle: those who forget their inherent links with Mother Nature, are condemned in turn to by forgotten by her. And we wouldn’t wish that upon ourselves, would we?

01st January 2017

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Indore

Indore was twice the capital of the Holkars – once, when the governorate of the Malwa plateau was granted to Malhar Rao Holkar by the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rai the First, in 1733; and again, when the British sought to subvert the anti-imperialist sentiments of the merchants of Ujjain, by re-establishing a fresh commercial centre as counterpoise. In between, it shifted temporarily to Kampel, Bagh, and under Queen Ahilya Bai, to Maheshwar on the Narmada. I liked the city. It was well laid-out, with broad roads, bus transit lanes, and much greenery, even if the traffic was depressing as usual. That evening, fresh from our conquest of the Mahakaleshwar Shrine at Ujjain, and bolstered by a bracer, I decided to set out for a stroll while my boss paid his mandatory respects to his mother-in-law.

 

Where, I asked the hotel security guard, could one find the best Shahi gajak – the famous local delicacy made of jaggery and crushed sesame seeds? It is best described as a cross between a biscuit and flaky Danish, not too sweet, and probably has its origins as either war food or pilgrimage food. In response, half a dozen rickshaw drivers waiting by the exit pounced on me! ‘Chappan Bazaar!’, my attackers said. This was Indore’s food street – the place to go, they said, but very, very far away. Un hunh. Well how far? There was a bit of a debate: if you took a left, then three or four kilometers, and if you took a right by cutting across a short one-way stretch and jumped the lights, then slightly less. “That’s it?” I exclaimed, “Think I’ll walk it then”. So, leaving a group of stunned rickshaw drivers to comfort one another over the loss of a fare, I commenced my stroll.

 

All the big brands were in attendance on MG Road – and then some. The shop windows were tastefully arranged; litter was surprisingly scarce. It was not long after Diwali – the festival of lights, but shoppers still lined counters in droves. There was a buzz and bustle to Indore which I liked. As I walked, I thought of my virgin foray onto the Malwa plateau. I’d spent a lifetime discovering the world until 2010, when I took a conscious decision to turn my sights to India; since then, I’d scavenged rare corners of this ancient land seeking immense satisfaction in visiting places most people didn’t know existed. But Central India had remained a no-fly zone until now. A crying shame indeed, to have put this trip off for so long.

 

I thought of Ujjain, and ran the basics of my ‘discovery’ by myself once more. The town, and its famous Shiva shrine, was centered on the largest magnetic anomaly of the Malwa Plateau. Aero-magnetic surveys of the early 1950’s produced what we in the industry call Bouguer Anomaly maps – simple measurements of magnetic fields which when mapped, reveal the broad regional disposition of strata. It is a tool often employed in the oil patch to identify the presence of sedimentary basins; basic physics relating gravitational attraction to the density of the object, where denser means harder rocks, and thus lower chances of hydrocarbon accumulations. As the surveys showed, there were no such basins of note in this area – from a petroliferous point of view, but I was tickled to find that the Mahakaleshwar shrine’s location coincided with the epicenter of what Obi Wan Kenobi would call, ‘a disturbance in the force’. Was this merely coincidence, or the practicality of establishing a temple by a river along a principal trade route, or, did the ancients know something we didn’t? The pragmatist in me laughed the last thought away and yet, the romantic in me would like to think so, thereby invoking a sense of something mystical, something magical, about the place.

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(Chappan Bazar, Indore)

I watched as a smart young traffic policeman whistled the evening traffic to a halt, and very grandly let us pedestrians cross a busy side street feeding into MG Road. The traffic lights appeared superfluous! As they probably were, because where the physical presence of khakhi was lacking, commuters sought to cut long queues by driving their two-wheelers even over the sidewalks. I silently invoked one of Venu’s laws: In India, adherence to rules is based upon the principle of line-of-sight, by which, if a copper isn’t in sight, the rules cease to exist!

 

Chappan Bazaar – or in Hindi, ‘the market of 56 shops’ – is broad, and ostensibly for pedestrians only. If so, I wondered, then why was I repeatedly forced to pull myself out of the path of an oncoming cargo rickshaw? ‘The rule of sight’, I guessed – with a sigh, and took in the place. It is garishly lit, with neon signs and back-lit signboards adding color. Families clustered around paani-puri vendors munching and slurping noisily, while somber men wearing plastic gloves dipped masala-filled balls into urns with spicy liquids. The paani-puri is such a popular street food item, that even chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent was moved to add it to his menu. Naturally, the genius presents it in his own inimitable style as ‘Five waters’: masala-couscous-filled spheres with a liquid centre! Sadly, I’ve never been a great fan of street food, averring that it was questionable taste for a price, with jaundice, typhoid or cholera for free. My opinion thus unchanged, I picked a store at random and asked after the majestic Gajak.

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(Five Waters, Indian Accent, New Delhi)

“Try one”, the kindly saleswoman said. I took a bite; it was divine. Two kilos, I said, and that was that.

 

Walking back, I watched the evening crowd drift and dart across the city. Like in Ahmedabad, people here loved to eat out – either before dinner, or after. Young damsels of Indore moved in noisy broods, chirruping and chattering nineteen to the dozen, with a vitality only the young possess. Invariably, they were dressed casually in denims and t-shirts; short, rather fair and slender, their straight, shiny hair pinned backwards, with a bouncy, jaunty coiffure on top. Perhaps it added a few inches to their stature, and was very stylish. I liked this new, young India – carefree, increasingly prosperous, with no visible moral policing, while extremely focused on career goals – and hoped the less-fortunate parts would play catch-up with a vengeance before long. A bit of philosophy came to me from something I’d written elsewhere: we rarely get the kingdoms we deserve – only the ones we’re bequeathed. But that ingrained defeatism was changing, and I liked that too. I liked that very much. Jai ho!

 

“Tapotap” – The road to Ujjain

The Malwa plateau lies over much of Central India, its rich, fertile blackness of soil marking a time many million years ago, when molten lava oozed across the sub-continent in heated, relentless surges. It was the age after the dinosaurs, when the Indian plate wrenched itself away from Mother Africa, and commenced a long and solitary voyage across the Tethys Sea. Madagascar, forlorn upon India’s departure, sought to give chase, but soon tired, failed, and gave up, leaving its neighbor to undertake a migration the likes of which the Earth has rarely seen. It was a tumultuous journey lasting approximately a hundred million years, during which nature repeatedly revolted against her own dispensations, and sought to instill new ones afresh; old mountain ranges eroded into hills; new rivers were born – and died, leaving behind their paleo-channels to be filled by the continuous products of a constant weathering; in one aborted revolution, the sub-continent nearly split with shattering intensity to form the Narmada geo-fracture, which even today, divides the north from the south. And then came the age of man, and a curiosity, to which my boss and I succumbed the first cool week of this winter.

We’d worked the sails, manned the oars, and battened the hatches against a furious onslaught of projects, so that our tiny ship of mighty enterprise might sail steadily through the waters of profit; but not all the nautical metaphors in the world can describe our relief when I signed the last invoice, and walked into Mr. Shah’s room – almost as out of breath as when the Indian plate ground into its Eurasian destination – with a plan. “What are you doing tomorrow?” I asked, placing fat copies of numerous reports on his table – products of the team having spent simply too many hours in front of our workstations over the preceding six months.

My boss is large any way you look at him – in girth, in heart, and in spirit; in his seventies, the ruddy complexion of his animated face, and large, round eyes, tell you what he’s thinking without ambiguity; and now, he took his time to pointedly make a face at the reports before shaking his large head; with me, there was always the worry that I’d ask for a sit down to review projects even after they are done and dusted – a tiresome habit born of building redundancies into systems, which I am yet to shake. “Beer!” he snapped, “Don’t talk to me about anything else”

“Your wish is granted” I said with a straight face.

“What…?” Curiosity. Wariness. The cock of one brow in roguish fashion.

“Please be ready at 4 AM precisely. We’re leaving on a road trip”

“Where?” The persistence of age and seniority tried hard to outshine a patently-evident curiosity, but it was a wasted effort since the master had tutored the disciple too well.

I shook my head. “Ujjain. Indore. The Narmada Valley. That’s all you get to know”

On cue followed the full-frontal assault, as expected: Where exactly? Why? Which route do we take? Not the Jhabua road, surely? And the pick of them all, in a worried tone: If I have to stay with my mother-in-law in Indore, then the evenings will be a washout!

“I’ve booked us into the Lemon Tree at Indore” I said, still grim, “You can tell them it is a business trip”

By the time I left his room, the man was already poring over his geological maps and Google Earth, a rakish grin planted firmly on his face.

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We took the best route east out of Ahmedabad: to Balasinor along a spanking new highway. We almost stopped to visit the fossil park where dinosaur eggs are perfectly preserved in granite, but greater wonders awaited us, so we pushed on. We turned left at Limbkheda past the last, southern vestiges of the Aravalli range, onto Thandla where the Vindhyan range turns nearly due north until Chittorgarh; and then cut across the Malwa plateau to Ujjain.

Sipping coffee outside Balasinor, we watched the sun cast its first light on a field of broad-leafed tobacco plants. For some reason, I thought of the legendary Lou Rawls and his marvelous take on that ancient classic, ‘Tobacco Road’. Dangerously over laden trucks groaned up the bypass rise, some loaded with bales of cotton or cloth to twice the stipulated height. Surely, the road transport authorities would have some say in these matters?

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At Thandla, cellular coverage died on us, and we were forced to ask for directions. The town was a mess of morning traffic, but the gent we hailed looked cheerful enough, with a rosy complexion and a broad, generous moustache gone white. Ujjain? Oh, first left, then right, then follow your nose to Badnawar and ask again. We thanked him and inquired after the condition of the roads. “Oh, Tapotap!” He cried, raising his eyebrows and throwing a regal wave to the air, “Tapotap, Sirs!” As the wheels of my SUV exited bumpy town streets onto a near-tarmac quality road, the strange phrase’s etymology came to me with the epiphany of a Macaulay-putra: that’s how they say ‘tip-top’ in Thandla!

This was old Afghan territory before it became the Central Provinces, around whose fringe the Raj set up a number of new crowns; Tonk and Bhopal amongst others, who no sooner than they’d settled into the penury of a put-up seat, began to send funds to a seminary in the Swat valley. But that, I told myself, was another story. As if to remind me, a large wooden signpost came into view: ‘Pathan farm’. Yes, like most other parts of this quilt-work land, multiple legacies and identities lay over one another in shadowed somnolence; you had to lift to see. The signpost pointed to an Afghan identity; ‘Tapotap’ to the Raj; then a tapering, tall, cylindrical lamp-tower signaling the former presence and predominance of Maratha powers that had once been – the Holkars. And just to keep the list open, we passed a marching band trudging wearily along the road to play at a wedding; white hats with red stripes, red, full-sleeved dress uniforms with yellow piping, and black shoes, so reminiscent of Company Bahadur days!

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The roads were quiet and we drove with the windows down, savoring the crisp morning air. An hour later, we stopped to take in the Mahi River flowing in the wrong direction – due north from the Vindhyan range, into the fag end of the Aravalli’s, and then an about-turn to follow its silt-laden course into Gujarat and the Gulf of Cambay. A fluorescent-orange temple of indistinct denomination nestled in a grove, and as I watched with astonishment, a holy man in fluorescent yellow robes zipped past on a motorcycle. It was the snap of the trip for me! The boss-man and I argued about the river: Was it really the Mahi? A cluster of jobless youngsters watched us in amusement, and when I asked them, nodded vigorously. Yes, she was the Mahi, they tooted in unison, thrilled at the attention of passers-by. But we were oilmen; we had to check the map to re-confirm, and as a result, didn’t converse until the deep, mutual embarrassment died down; we should have known!

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Beyond the Mahi, we crossed onto the Malwa plateau proper: sloping plains covered by black soil, which dipped into dry, creek beds. Low hillocks lay blanketed with the gold of drying grass. Under a cloudless sun, large pools of water left over from the monsoon burnt radiant blue. Then the impatience of our welcoming committee at Ujjain overcame Mr. Shah’s phone, and the silence was broken.

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According to the Shiva Purana, a religious text nebulously dated to the 11th century of this, our common era, there are twelve temples in the subcontinent housing particularly sacred Shiva lingas. Devotees of this fearsome God are encouraged to proceed on pilgrimage to all twelve sites if their souls are to find salvation. Naturally, like with everything else desi, there is some confusion on the list. Debate is not advised! Rather, the pious may pick twelve of their choosing, per a tradition of their preference.

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The most common dozen is: Kedarnath in the lesser Himalayas, not far from Shiva’s permanent residence at Mount Kailas; Rameshwaram in the deep South, from where Lord Rama built his bridge of floating stones to Sri Lanka; Somnath near Diu, on the southern tip of the Saurashtra peninsula; the Nageshwar at Dwaraka on that peninsula’s westernmost tip; Srisailam at the northern end of the Nallamalai Hills in Andhra Pradesh; Bhimashankar near Khed in Maharashtra, on the Bhima River; four along the course of the Godavari as it cuts across the Deccan from north west to south east – Trimbakeshwar near Nasik, the Grishneshwar beside the magnificent temples of Ellora, the Naganath at Aundha, and the Vijayanath at Parli; the Mamaleshwar at Omkareshwar, on Mandhata Island in the Narmada River; and at Ujjain, the Mahakaleshwar – which is where we were headed.

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Ujjain town lies on the right bank of the sacred Shipra, which flows into the larger Chambal. Believe it or not, the mythological origins of this river lie in one god having shown another the finger! Keeping divine obscenities politely aside for the moment, the two pilgrims crossed to behind the Mahakaleshwar temple with nothing but piety, and the unshakeable worry of stampedes in temple towns, on their minds. As luck would have it, though, there was no crowd! I took in the sight of the ghats – a long series of steps leading down from the banks to the curving river. Each ghat belonged to a minor shrine, and everything was spick and span, courtesy the Kumbha Mela of earlier this year – the ‘Grand Gathering’, an incredible spectacle of administratively staggering proportions which takes place here once every twelve years, when millions of devotees flock for prayer. The numbers were mind-boggling, and if this was grand, I wondered how much grander the ‘Greater Gathering’ would be? In 2013, an estimated 120 million pilgrims travelled to Allahabad at the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna, for the Maha Kumbha Mela which takes place every 144 years! Amazing!

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Our reception committee consisted of Mr. Shah’s embarrassingly courteous relatives, a young local priest, and our guide. This last was a puny one, thin as a drumstick, dark as night, bearded, and dressed in designer-faded denims with glitzy buttons. He stood too close for comfort, but that is their style in these parts, and spoke in a local slang which was essentially incomprehensible. I asked him his name since it was the form, and he mumbled a proper noun ending in –esh; his eyes never caught mine once – in my book, a shifty cross between a pickpocket and a Georgian fixer! But he knew the way, and led us, with great show of formality through the approach stairwell. It led down, and was completed in marble. Steel railings divided the entry queue from the exit route, but since there was no rush, people ignored the signs. I was dressed in black, and we made slow progress on our descent; Mr. Shah has a bad knee. Every few turns, police officers stood on duty with their constables, and they clicked to attention to cut us sharp salutes as we passed. VIP’s! I hated the moment since we were nothing of the kind.

Like most other Jyothirlingas, Mahakaleshwar too, seeks to replicate the atmosphere of a cave – home of the ascetic God with matted locks and ash-marked body. So the sanctum sanctorum is near river level, with the linga housed in a small room barely capable of hosting a dozen people at a time. I stepped inside and stood to my full height, and closed my eyes to pray: for my loved ones, and those who are with us no more. Then I felt a tap on my elbow. It was a friendly lady constable with a heck of a smile, asking me to stand in that corner if I wished to pray a little longer in peace. But I don’t appreciate being treated like a VIP, so I thanked her and commenced on my short circumambulation. The linga was encased in a huge silver sheath. Three priests sat beside it, and one caught my eye. He motioned me forward and took the basket of flowers off me, all the while chanting his hymns without pause. Done, I passed him a C-note; he seemed pleased, and sprinkled holy water on my head. Someone rang a bell, and in this confined space, the sound was deafening. Someone else drew a mark on my forehead with orange sandalwood paste, and then the lady constable was gently suggesting to the sanctum that pilgrims should keep moving. We left.

Late that evening, we sat sipping our drinks and thanking our stars, for the ease with which we had managed a prayer at Mahakaleshwar. We discussed – laptops open – how in the span of six hours, we had crossed from the alluvium of Gujarat, to the granitic margins of the state, to far, far older rocks of the Vindhyan range, before once again reaching the lava of the Malwa plateau. So many different shades of brown that it was impossible to count – even if we tried, and such an easy drive. All in all a great day, right, we asked one another? Oh Yes, the answer arrived instantly – from Thandla, “Tapotap, Oh Sirs, Tapotap!”

Tapotap indeed. 

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The Magistrate’s Canal

St. Mary’s church on Cannanore Road, is a squat, elegant edifice lost in the urban sprawl of Nadakkavu – a busy, leafy district of Calicut city. Hidden behind a clump of trees, and fringed by towering coconut palms, the building is over two hundred years old; chunky, with four massive pillars forming an arched entrance porch with sloping roofs, and built in the faux-Gothic style that was so fashionable then, it is completed in sparkling white lime-wash. On working days, the sounds of traffic are depressingly sharp, for the adjoining road also serves as a poor excuse for a national highway connecting central Kerala with the north. So yes, there is a bypass some miles inland, where sky-rise apartment blocks and a solitary mall serve to absorb the habitational needs of this surprisingly vibrant tropical city; but since NH 17 feeds more easily across the Kallai River onto Cannanore Road, and because the link roads to the bypass have the width of human hair – at best, St Mary’s stands as witness day and night, to the misery of the urban commute. To one side of the church is a small cemetery, with a small, stand-alone chapel for Sunday prayers, beside a collection of tombstones. Some are tacky, and hence recent; others worn from sunshine and rain. Surely each has a story to tell – of a life lived well enough within the bosom of true Christian ethics, to have found place in this noisy corner of an unruly world. But perhaps, no tombstone has a more startling tale underneath, than that of one Henry Valentine Conolly – Collector and Magistrate of Malabar district under the East India Company, and euphemistically recorded on the headstone as having ‘departed this life’ on 11th September 1855. The irony of another 9/11, a century and a half before its more infamous successor, marking an old death in a quiet corner of the world, will become apparent only as the story unfolds – as will the links with those who flew jetliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001.

 

But who was this man, and why rake up his story nearly two centuries after his death? The simple answer is that the reasons behind his passing belong to the same strand of faith, which plunged those planes – and our world – into a new dimension of conflict: Wahhabism. For, on that fateful 9/11 in 1855, HV Conolly did not so much pass into the embrace of God, as lose his life to the hand of assassins, who despised his duty to uphold the law, his ethics, and his faith; and this is as much their story, as that of the hapless Magistrate.

 

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In 1791, Shaktan Thampuran, the ruler of Cochin State, signed his allegiance to the Company; it was a wise move filled with foresight, and bought him the protection of the British from the ravaging advances of Tipu Sultan – the Tiger of Mysore. His neighbor to the north, the Zamorin of Calicut, chose on the other hand to sustain the delusion of valiant independence for slightly longer, thereby subjecting his people to the savage hand of Mysore. This misery the Malabaris had to endure until Tipu was defeated at Seringapatam in 1799, by Harris, Baird, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and a certain Colonel Arthur Wellesley [later raised as the Duke of Wellington, following a slightly more protracted engagement with an equally recalcitrant foe a continent away]. With that, the region of Malabar too, came under the Company. Then in 1805, the Pazhassi Raja was killed – a dispossessed ruler of the North Malabar clans, who waged a series of wars against Tipu first, and then the British; with his death, it became vital for Fort St. George – the seat of the Company in the south, at Madras, to bring peace to this region. As always, their twin weapons of choice were the threat of brutal force, and an army of civilian administrators. Naturally, bureaucracy triumphed – pioneered by legends such as Logan, whose Malabar gazette is still studied for the copious information it provides for that period, and before him, one luckless HV Conolly.

 

Conolly arrived in Calicut in 1841. In the coming year, his three brothers were to die in Afghanistan, in service of the Company; one, a famous spy who went by the name of Khan Ali – a play on the family name. What portents he foresaw in his new posting we cannot tell, but Conolly took to his job with flair, ‘going native’ with a vengeance. He ordered the setting up of vast teak plantations, the most famous one of which, on the outskirts of Nilambur, still bears his name: “Conolly’s Farm”. He ordered the digging of a canal to link the Kora River to the north of Calicut, with the Kallai to the south, thereby adding one more route for water-bound timber trade. Today, this canal is a filthy stretch of effluent and brackish water, in which giant logs of the finest teak are still floated for curing and sawing to the shipyards of Beypore. Sadly, in part out of a natural proclivity to modify alien names to suit local ears, and in part because we care largely for the present, and rarely the past, the founder of the canal lends his good name to this bleary strip of stagnant water with a twist: locals know it only as the Canoli canal, and efforts to correct them, or remind them of the term’s actual etymology, are received either with disbelief, or a dirty look! Still, the Irishman from London, via Rugby School, and early tenure as a writer in the Carnatic, was popular enough to have upon his assassination, a tombstone raised by ‘his European and native friends in Malabar’ to ‘his eminent worth and Christian character’. Such admiration begs the inevitable question: Why then was he killed?

 

At this point in the mid 19th century, Kerala’s highly profitable trade in spices, ivory and timber was controlled by jenmis – rich landlords of the upper castes, who worked their profits with the oppressive instincts of a Pharaoh; in Malabar, their peasant-serfs were primarily the casteless, and Muslims. As the powers of the local rulers of Kerala waned, conversions to Islam proliferated exponentially in the 18th and 19th centuries, primarily under the preaching of a Sayyid Alavi Mouladaveel AlHussainy Thangal – an Islamic scholar, priest and mystic from the Hadramawt region of Yemen, who lived between 1752 and 1845.

 

The Thangals then, are derived ethnically from Yemeni stock, and until Conolly’s tenure, spiritually, from the Sufi traditions founded by the 11th century Hanbali-Sunni preacher Abdul-Qadir Gilani of Baghdad [founder of the Qadriyya order – a puritanical school which sought to reconcile Sufi mysticism with the original, undiluted strictures of the Koran]. As Sayyids, they traced their lineage from the Prophet Muhammad himself, and have maintained a position of unshakeable supremacy in the Malabar region into the present. Their political party, the Indian Union Muslim League – a constituent of the Congress-led UDF coalition, is led currently by Panakkad Thangal, a lineal descendant of the original Yemeni preacher who arrived in Kerala over two centuries ago, whose influence is to the extent that IUML’s representatives are rarely forced to actually campaign during elections, being routinely returned from the Malabar region to the Kerala Legislative assembly and the Lower House of Parliament, with thumping majorities. Such is the sway they continue to hold over the Muslims of Malabar. [An aberration was 2004, when the Communists won more seats than expected, but that is another story.]

 

But the migrant from Yemen died in 1845, and was succeeded by his son Pookoya Thangal, who left for Mecca upon his father’s death – ostensibly for higher studies, to gain the further requisite knowledge to fill his father’s giant shoes; yes, giant indeed, because the original Thangal was so revered during his lifetime that upon his death, his tomb at Tirur soon became both mosque and pilgrimage site. This status, the Mambaram Mosque retains even today.

 

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Where the son precisely went, whom he studied with – such details are lost to time with irritating paucity; all we know is that he returned from Arabia in 1848, brimming with theological fire, and stoked a series of violent incidents which eventually led to the murder of a magistrate. Pointedly, a Company official named W. Robinson writes in a letter to his superior, that the son Thangal – Pookoya – “maintains even in Arabia a marked pre-eminence as a fanatical ostentatious Wahabee of considerable influence”. The rest of the pieces now place themselves in order, following this first reference to a puritanical strain of Islam; a strain which had grown so powerful over the 18th century, that it became not just the ideology of preference for the House of Saud, but the only form of Islam taught at the seminaries of Arabia in that period as well.

 

The rise and consolidation of Wahhabi ideology is too well documented elsewhere – best, in my opinion, by Charles Allen in his ‘God’s terrorists’ – for a rehash here. But what is of significance to this story, and a cracked tombstone still standing in St. Mary’s church, is that seen in light of such details, the murder of HV Conolly can no longer be viewed as a purely isolated incident. The reasons are many, and are frankly confusing, but the central thread holds across the centuries:

 

In the early 18th century, a man by the name of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab declared himself as learned enough, to reject the dilutions that he felt had entered Islam, following the decline of the Ottoman Empire. His teachings gained great attraction in Arabia and, by the felicitous arrangement of a marriage of his daughter to the House of Saud, church and state merged into a solitary bloodline. With royal patronage, the ideology flourished strongly enough to attract adherents from the subcontinent – principally in the first instance from Bihar and Bengal [where naturally, peasant oppression under the heavy hand of landlordism was at its worst]. By the 1830’s the movement had grown so stout, that a home-grown proponent of the Wahhabi ideology even established a sanctuary of the righteous in the Swat valley; this was Syed Ahmed, and his redoubt was the Mahabun mountain above the Indus, from where he launched raids against the expansionism of the Sikh King Ranjit Singh. While Syed Ahmed’s efforts ended in fatal disaster, his teachings survived, flourishing in secret until they found resurgence in the 1990’s – as the Taliban.

 

At the other end of the sub-continent, a certain Titu Mir rose in revolt against his oppressors in Bengal. For a while he waged holy war – jihad kabeer – until the Company grew impatient, and served him the same fate as Ranjit Singh did to Syed Ahmed. So too in Malabar, where upon his return from Mecca in 1848, Pookoya Thangal chose to aggressively raise the cause of Muslim peasantry. Like in the Punjab and Bengal, here too, administrators were slow to grasp the true nature of these clashes until the strength of the religious undertones surfaced. Conolly, obsessed with his teak plantations and canal, did not take the Thangal’s activities politely, and when the violence got out of hand on too many occasions, he decided to have the spiritual leader deported. This decision quickly found its way to the winds, and to prevent such an awful eventuality, some of his supporters entered the collector’s residence at West Hill, in Calicut, on that fateful 9/11 in 1855, and killed the magistrate.

 

The fallout was a round of severe repression, followed by the Thangal relocating to Arabia. From there he went to Yemen, then back to Mecca where he stayed for 18 years, and then finally to Istanbul, where he died in 1901. He tried on numerous occasions to return to his beloved Malabar, but never succeeded. It is only after his death that Pookoya Thangal’s family returned to Kerala – a gap of almost half a century, where they were received with an adulation that would make onlookers wonder whether the bloodline had indeed been away for so long at all; and they flourished, as they still do today.

 

The common link is that all these men, and their successors, were adherents to the Wahhabi thought, had studied in Arabia, and possessed with the belief that they could overthrow the existing socio-political dispositions by violent rebellion. This is made all the more relevant by the high praise awarded to the son Thangal by a scholar of Arabia: “…from his life in Makka Sayyid Fazl Pookkoya Thangal got the strong application of Islamic theories in all fields of life and in this matter he was highly influenced by the thoughts of Muhammed bin Abdul Wahab”.

 

There is no disrespect meant to anyone in this piece, not least the Thangal descendants who control the political space of Malabar through their electoral vehicle the IUML, as strongly as they command the spiritual loyalty of Malabari Muslim hearts. Rather, the point then, is to not view the murder of Mr. Conolly as an isolated one-off event, but to recognize that it was a product of a new thinking disseminated actively by the seminaries of Arabia. Such work continues today, and with greater success – over 1.5 million Malayalees are presently employed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; what impact this will have on a pluralistic society, eager to find permanent salve for the wounds of partition, is a burning question political analysts and academicians should try and answer. For that, they must read, link the dots, and recognize that the underlying philosophy, and goal, of the Thangals and their IUML, is to convert their geography of residence – Malabar – as far as possible, into a Dar-ul-Islam: an abode of peace and monotheism, where Sharia law prevails.

 

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Today, the collector’s residence at West Hill in Calicut has been converted into an Army barracks. It is a pilgrimage site of a different sort, routinely attracting retired ex-servicemen, who arrive to buy their monthly quota of liquor. Perhaps they pass St. Mary’s Church en-route to the monthly re-stocking, or cross the ‘Canoli’ canal, knowing only that there was once an Englishman who did something adequate to have a timber-laden strip of sludge named after him. Few know of the cracked tombstone in that cemetery, and lesser still, of Pookoya Thangal, and the trans-oceanic inspirations which engineered a murder to prevent him from being deported. A rare few might tell you that there was once a peasant uprising which resulted in the death of an Englishman; but they were the Raj, and they subjugated us without heart, so who cares! Such is life.

 

But there is always a thread of inspiration which courses through time with undying vigor – that is the strength of faith; and in the present case, one which surfaced in the late 19th century in a stunted Moplah uprising, and then again more forcefully in the 1920’s, on the back of the Khilafat movement. The results were epochal: the rise of communism, and the dispossessing of the hereditary, traditional landlords. Three centuries ago, a fear of religious desolation, catalyzed by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, sparked a revivalism marked by the natural desperation for institutional survival. In Kerala, the Congress party was to the IUML, what the crown of Istanbul had been to the Ulema; but with this century-old national party now in precipitous decline, who knows what the IUML will do, when it finds itself without a Congress to form a UDF government in Kerala. This is the question to be asked, because in its answer, lies the peace of our future.

References:

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M Balamuralikrishna – Legendary Carnatic Vocalist

A doyen of the Carnatic classical music tradition, peerless vocalist M Balamuralikrishna passed away in Madras earlier today. He leaves behind a void that may never be filled. Receiver of countless accolades and awards, this perfectionist served the world of music for over eight decades. I have written the following tale as a tribute to his greatness

 

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The southern Indian city of Madras has always been a matchless centre for the performing arts, and a high point each year, is the annual music season, held over the months of December and January. It is a time when the city is lashed by wave after wave of cyclones, brought ashore by furious winds of the North East monsoon. Road become rivers, train tracks disappear under water, and subways turn into paddling pools. Yet, the resilient Madras music lover braves these hurdles and more, as he – or she – cuts a path to auditoria in T. Nagar, Mylapore and Triplicane – the traditional Brahmin quarters, to sit for an hour or two, enthralled by the finest the classical music world has to offer. For that month, every self-respecting Madrasi becomes a full-blooded critic, comparing a Jesudas take on the ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ with a similar offering made by Aruna Sayeeram the previous year; or the Bombay Sisters versus the Hyderabad Brothers. Not infrequently, opinions collide, and it is amusing to watch large, voluble mami’s – Brahmin ladies – glower at carriers of opinions contrary to their own, as the curtain rises, and the concert begins.

 

For my parents, it was an annual event they looked forward to with some heterogeneity: my mother, brought up on classical music couldn’t wait for December to arrive; my father, blessed with a tin ear, couldn’t wait for January to end. It didn’t help that the music season clashed – in his mind – with the cricketing season on three continents! Still, as a devoted husband, he would organize tickets and drive her to venues of her choice, sitting patiently by her side and pretending to enjoy the performances. Sometimes, the devil in me would perk up, and calling home, I’d ask him how the concert was. The gruff response without fail would be: “Talk to your mother”.

 

And then one season, they managed free tickets to a Balamuralikrishna concert, courtesy the old boys’ network. My mother was ecstatic; front row seats, she gushed, when I called. So they went, driving through the rain. It was during the drive that my mother casually remarked to father, a bit of tattle she’d picked up from a friend. It seemed, ahem, ahem, that the revered Sri Balamuralikrishna was inclined to more than the odd tot. Artistes, she philosophized, what can you say? Still, local rumors had it that when the great man was under the influence, his singing raised itself to sublime levels, so why complain?

 

The concert was at the Madras Music Academy’s Auditorium, where even the great Duke Ellington once performed many years ago. Everyone settled in – the white mundu of men contrasted by the dazzling silks of the ladies. The artiste and his orchestra arrived on stage to thundering applause. Smiling benignly, the maestro launched into something simple – a palate cleanser, so to speak; then a few more, raising the bar as he drew the enchanted crowd into his world. And then, a pause as he wet his throat with a sip of jeera water. Captivated by the sheer luxury of the moment, the crowd fell silent, waiting and wondering what delectable composition the man would interpret, as only he could, next. That is when my father, trying hard to demonstrate to his wife just how much he had gotten into the spirit of things, exclaimed very loudly: “Oh look, he’s drinking whiskey! Get ready my dear, the next number is going to be a cracker!”

 

I don’t think I have it in me to describe what happened next, save to say that the glares of warring mamis were put thoroughly to shame. Whether the doyen of Carnatic music heard my father or not remains unknown, but my mother never took him with her to another concert again!

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The demonization of demonetization, and plain truths from the ground

The demonization of demonetization, and of its chief architect Narendra Modi, along with that, has been the shrill, key refrain of opposition parties in India since last Tuesday. Few have cared to speak on the manifold positives of this bold move, preferring instead to harp on the inconveniences caused to lay citizens. Certain sections of the press, especially the TV, shamefully joined in, with anchors who should have been more responsible, repeatedly stressing on the death of a Mumbai man while waiting in queue at his bank. Others reported problems faced by people in private hospitals, and horror of horrors, a wedding which had to be postponed because of lack of cash. The buzzword was ‘chaos’, even if the cameras showed people waiting patiently in queue – an amazing phenomenon in itself because in my beloved country, no one – just no one, cares to wait his turn. Small wiry men sidle past you with the surreptitiousness of spies, inching their boarding passes past yours, to the ground staff at the departure gate; and when snubbed, they demonstrate no remorse and instead chastise the rebuke with a tsk! Large women shoulder you aside with a ferocity that would have done the All Blacks proud, as they hand over their selection of vegetables to the vendor by his cart; in response to which, you stand quietly by, shaking your head. But not on the TV screens, I noticed, flipping channels; so yes, there was some pushing and shoving at the head of the queue, but other than that, long, long tails stood at peace.

How many intrepid reporters did we see, who turned these human-interest stories on their heads, to publicly recognize and demonstrate, instead, the true extent to which India had become a split economy – a large, progressing economy with a significant portion of transactions taking place in shades of black? How many stories did we read about the beneficial, dampening effect this move would have on inflation? Or, that since the new currency ban came into effect, not a single stone has been thrown at security forces in the valley; or, that Odisha and Andhra Pradesh police are watching all the routes leading into the forests of the eastern Ghats, where Maoists had stored crores and crores of their war funds in now-useless 500 and 1000 rupee notes?

Still, to humor those who will not see good in an act, even when its paramountcy is patently evident in every appeal made by serious analysts over the past half-a century, I decided today to visit my bank and withdraw some money.

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We planned the operation with military precision. Shankar Lal, our General Manager [Chai], was instructed to fortify the combatants with tea – green without sugar for me as usual, and a Wagh Bakri blend for the others. Arun, who runs our office, stood intently by the Xerox machine, preparing photocopies of my identity proofs. His face seemed to darken under the strain of impending action, but I’ve trained him well, and the man held his post resolutely. By the window, Jignesh had point, and in the best traditions of the Ladakh Scouts, my data base manager was on his ultra-expensive smart phone, speaking to his network across the city of Ahmedabad, taking a straw poll of how things were out there. Gurmeet, our lead wireline operator, and currently recovering from a bout of Chikungunia, called in from Chand Kheda: tell Venu Sir to proceed, he barked, it’s the lull before lunch hour. Jignesh turned and nodded gravely at me. The moment had arrived. The show was on.

On the streets, I moved swiftly like a jungle cat, covering the hundred yards to my bank in under two minutes. As I approached past cars parked in no-parking zones, and bicycles where the pavement ought to be, my target came into view. This branch of my bank is on the first floor, above a line of saree shops, and is blessed with a long, wide balcony: I lifted my gaze to see that it was filled with people. My heart sank. But reliable Shankar Lal, the best Sergeant Major any army never had, urged me on. Then we were at the steps, and a burly security guard looked me over. “Queue starts at the end of the balcony”, he growled, scratching his chin like Mac Mohan from the movies.

I wasn’t inclined to doubt him and took the steps. At its head was the bank entrance, a glass double door with ugly stickers pasted on, and offering a quarter percent more on deposits if you gave the bank your money before April of five years ago. So much for maintenance! I looked longingly through the glass, and watched a lady count crisp new two-thousand rupee notes. How long before I would, I wondered, counting heads. It looked like two hundred before me, and at two minutes per person, with five counters operational, that meant a good hour and a half at least. I should have brought a book. Then a keen, young voice sounded in my ear: “Deposit, exchange or withdrawal?”

It was the assistant branch manager, with smile, oily hair and a horizontal dab of ash on his broad, dark forehead. When I blinked, he repeated the question, adding a ‘Saar’ for free, and thereby confirming his provenance as south of the Godavari River. “Withdrawal”, I whispered hoarsely. This is because, in combat, warriors always experience the first chilling moments with a drying of their throats.

“Ah then go in, Saar! These people are for exchange” He smiled merrily and waved me inside. Shankar Lal breezed in too, in my wake and took up position rear, to starboard. What a wingman!

Inside, more polite bank staff were on hand to direct me to a counter; it was about ten deep. Ahead of me in queue stood three youngsters with punk cuts. And then it began, the mayhem the press had been reporting since Wednesday: mutterings and grumblings from the trio, echoed by others standing further in front. “Shame, a real shame” one college student said. “Stuff it” replied his mate, “Lack of preparation, lack of a plan, and nothing incisive – that’s what hurts” So this was it, I thought – the disgruntlement of a civilian populace being voiced inside the bank. I wondered when the fists would start flying. Then a third voice piped up, a tinny voice belonging to a bald head. “It’s the curse of the English” The English? I wondered if the old man was right. Perhaps. But before I could process the anatomy of a mass movement against demonetization, that looked set to turn violent, the third collegian remarked sulkily, “Did you expect anything better from him? You know Ashwin has an awful record against the Angrez. What did he do in 2014? Nothing, I tell you, nothing! He’s not in the team for his batting, or doesn’t he know it?”

In my worry of impending apocalypse, of streets becoming littered with bleeding bodies as the revolution took hold, I’d quite forgotten how India eked out a humiliating draw against the visiting English at Rajkot the evening before. Imagine that – me not having cricket on my mind! I grinned.

Then the queue moved, people busied themselves with their papers, and before I knew it, I was presenting a ‘self’ cheque to a young lady seated in front of a computer monitor. Her head was buried in banking instruments strewn over her desk, and she flipped her fingers without looking up. I passed the cheque into her hand. There was a lot of tapping on the keyboard after which, she finally lifted her head for visual scrutiny. “Is this you?” she asked, and I leaned over to stare at a picture of me from twenty years ago. “Uh yes” I replied, swallowing the hurt, as an image of a young man with a full head of hair smiled at me from the screen.

“It’s old” She snapped, counting out my notes, “Should get it changed”

I don’t know if she caught my embarrassed nod, but as I turned to leave with two bundles of crisp, new banknotes, the man behind me chuckled, “Oh madam, it is only the photo which is old…not the man!”

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Total time spent in bank: ten minutes

Total cash withdrawn: Twenty thousand rupees

Embarrassment suffered: immeasurable

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Sunil Khilnani – ‘Incarnations – India in 50 lives’: A review

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Mr. Khilnani’s principal claim to fame is a slim work from 1997, captivatingly entitled ‘The Idea of India’. It was very well received internationally, with the title becoming a common catchphrase, and covers the past two centuries of this subcontinent. Now, he returns with 50 biographies of Indians who, he says, have been forgotten by our present age, the book being an outcome of a radio series the author conducted for BBC’s Radio 4.

As the accompanying text of a radio series, one should not expect any great deal of insight; yet, this is Mr. Khilanani after all, doyen of our intelligentsia, so for that he merits a detailed review. First, the list: Not one of the selected 50 can be put in the ‘forgotten’ category by any means, save perhaps the painter Nainsukh – but even that is probably a reflection of my ignorance, of matters pertaining to the late-medieval Pahari School of miniature painting, more than anything else. But the others: Ashoka, Akbar, Phule, Vivekananda, Ambani, for example; forgotten? I think not.

Next: the writing. It is fluid and without breaks, passionate without becoming perfervid, casting the author in the light of a born communicator. Khilnani takes the individual and clothes his or her achievements in rich detail; his flow of thought is the finesse of weave, and the nuggets of background information he provides, the embroidery. But as the loom of the text shuttles to a close, the vision presented becomes despairingly prêt, rather than the bespoke silhouettes one expects of the man.

Take the 16th c. Vijayanagara emperor Krishna Deva Raya, for example: The author styles the monarch as a man of letters, wry, endearingly self-deprecatory at times, with not too great a sense of self; a good king, a wise king, who recognized a life beyond his court. Yet, Mr. Khilnani looks too strongly and needlessly at even this icon, through the narrow lens of religion, spending an inordinate amount of space writing more about how, faux authors have tried to vainly position this Raya as the last bulwark before a menacing Muslim advent into the south, rather than attempting to paint an objective picture of that age. For Mr. Khilnani, what matters more is his continued inability to digest the angst VS Naipaul felt, when he first fixed gaze upon the vast ruins of Hampi – the Vijayanagar capital.

This is a pedestrian approach, unworthy of adoption by someone purporting to be a serious historian. As a professional academician, he more than most should know, that the manifestations of faith systems in any society, is a function of prevailing dynamics. But for Mr. Khilnani, what is more important is the fact that the Vijayanagara Raya’s adopted Persian customs in courtly practice; or, that they employed Muslim warriors in their armies; highlighted with a view to demonstrate that a Hindu of the 21st century isn’t one of the 16th. This overuse of the ‘secular’ lens is what tends to mark the book as the work of a sadly tendentious pamphleteer.

Too often, Mr. Khilnani quotes at length from Wendy Doniger – a professor of matters Indological, with a woeful penchant for dumbing down concepts till they resemble anything but the original – an issue repeatedly encountered in her book, ‘The Hindus’, which received so many scathing reviews that the publishers were forced to pull it from the shelves and offer a public apology. Why he does so becomes apparent only at the end. On Shankara, he invokes Professor Doniger’s views to position the philosopher-logician-saint as anti-Dalit, by speciously arguing that ‘maya’ enfeebled instincts to combat social prejudices. This is not a dangerous oversimplification, but an error, since many thinkers believe on the contrary, that it was Shankara’s concept of ‘all-is-one’, which led in turn to devotion-led social justice movements by later saints such as Basava or Kabir.

The great 12th century reformer and founder of the Veerasaiva sect, Basava, is positioned as an anarchist fighting orthodoxy, who went too far. Girish Karnad offers the necessary quotes, and the piece ends with the sense that Basava faded into obscurity on the back of a stringent reactionary response. The truth is very different; Basava’s children form the largest community in Karnataka today, and his poetry has inspired millions, including a certain MK Gandhi.

The acknowledgments list reads almost like a who’s-who of the erstwhile Congress durbar, including a former foreign secretary who leapfrogged over sixteen seniors to take that post, and brushed the debacle of Sharm-el-Sheik blithely away as a mere drafting error; a large number of Marxist historians; and left-liberal peaceniks running NGO’s. This is a dead giveaway of Mr. Khilnani’s ideological leanings, and aids in putting his theses in proper light. A pity, since he writes well and unearths numerous tidbits not widely known. Unfortunately, a solitary idea of India is an atheist construct, born of a desperation following partition, with little basis in reality, and lesser utility. Mr. Khilnani does even less in his latest work, to either redeem himself for his earlier folly, or to disavow the absurdity of such an artificial construct. The work is thus a tepid collection of re-hashes, with little originality, and gratuitous oversimplifications which take away from the true merits of individuals covered.

Perhaps some radio series are best left as such, and not milked for further profit by transmutation into book.

Venugopal Narayanan

07th November 2016

‘A feast of vultures’ – by Josy Joseph: A review

josy joseph

When a seasoned journalist writes a book exposing corruption in high places, you buy it immediately without a second thought. I did precisely that with ‘A feast of vultures’ – by Josy Joseph, National Security Editor of ‘The Hindu’. Published by Harper Collins, the title is catchy and the cover photo well-chosen, showing the melancholic inside of a mud hut, against a backdrop of Mumbai’s skyscrapers merging into smog. It sets the tone for the book, by invoking a sense of Piketty, and thereby furthering the sentiment, that a significant part of global income disparity centers around the snowballing of unfair, ill-gotten gains.

 

Mr. Joseph writes well, and very crisply, maintaining a taut narration as he tells us just how crooked many large business dealings are, in India. It is an old and sordid tale, our infamous politician-businessman nexus, and the author’s revulsion is self-evident in this fresh retelling, where he encapsulates the past in light of his own investigative experiences. So no surprise then, that the early chapters touch on RK Dhawan – Indira Gandhi’s typist who, by sheer dint of loyalty, rose to become one of the most powerful men in the land. Yes, we are deeply ashamed when the Prime Minister’s office is neatly portrayed as little more than a going concern; but that is how matters were back then. Institutions and systems were methodically deconstructed for pelf.

 

Pushing through the decades, time passes, but nefarious machinations don’t, and the best chapter of the book covers the story of ‘Taki’ – East West’s late Thakiyuddin Wahid: a wonderfully enterprising man who had the vision to start India’s first private airline in many decades, but who was finally murdered in the 90’s because he grew too big too fast. Mr. Joseph hints that this was also possibly because he rubbed the politician-underworld nexus the wrong way, leaving business ethics to flounder in this eternal land of the endless payoff. Elsewhere, we are surprised when Nafisa Ali’s husband – the ex-Armyman and polo player, ‘Pickle’ Sodhi, finds mention in a paragraph alongside middlemen who flourished under a Congress sun. Then, there is the mandatory chapter on the Naval Nanda’s, which the author calls reflective of, the ‘all-on-sale ethics of Indian society’! And much more.

 

It is a short book, and in the last of three sections, the author spreads his wings to touch a triad of ‘vultures’ – Vijay Mallya, the Jindals and the Ambani’s. While the first two are dealt with precisely the severity they deserve, the third is a muddled treatment. Standing on the sidewalk outside ‘Antilia’, Mukesh Ambani’s skyscraper home in Mumbai, Mr. Joseph succumbs to emotion; the chapter is more angst than exposé. To some extent, I can empathize; yes, the senselessness of such expenditure is in painfully stark contrast, to the reality of the street corner from which he surveys the edifice. Yet from this point on, the book meanders, and I ask: what is it to us, what sort of home a man builds for himself? If a man’s got both the money and the lack of class, to build himself a tasteless monstrosity, why castigate him for it; or, view such a construction as representative of an entire generation’s avarice? Leave him be, says I. There will always be more Josy Joseph’s than Ambani’s, and the world will be a better place for that!

 

The misstep is then compounded by a glaring factual error: Reliance Industries Limited are not, have never been, and aren’t expected to ever become, India’s largest gas producer. That pride rests still, with ‘The Commission’. Following that, and more wistful staring at ‘Antilia’, the text’s linearity erodes, as the author pounces on his pet peeve: Narendra Damodardas Modi. His hatred for our Prime Minister appears to cloud his writing needlessly; it is a jarring, racing-gear change, introducing the man into what is largely, a story about different times. For example, while writing about India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, Joseph abruptly shifts track to fire pot shots at another billionaire with alleged close links to our PM – Gautam Adani. But the author reveals little, and his otherwise-strong voice softens into a whine. In the process, the narrative gets diluted, the crispness is lost, and you are tempted to say, ‘Stay on topic, boss’. Eventually, the reader is left with a sense of incompleteness, both on the Ambani and Adani stories; rather like having selected a wine for perfect pairing with a gusty “à table!”, but then finding oneself with no menu card to order from, and the kitchen closed!

 

I suppose it is an existential issue: A senior journalist should be able to write, and write well enough, to invoke a sense of pathos in the reader, but without letting his or her own emotions creep into the text. This book fails that test. Besides, Mr. Joseph is of an age enough to know, that opulence has always been a spectator sport – played by the haves, watched by the have-not’s, and cheered on softly from the shadows by éminence grises. Why get unnecessarily worked up over that reality? Perhaps the answer lies in the book’s cover photograph, which is the singularly-lasting, lingering memory we are left with as the final page is turned – of an India that could have done so much more in the past seven decades of independence, but for a variety of reasons instead, allowed herself to become shackled to the post of an ugly, home-grown Raj. For that principal reason alone, I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in understanding how our nation functions [or doesn’t]. Read it carefully; there is much to be learnt.

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An India of ideas

“The contest between Left and Right is only just beginning…”

 

That may sound like a tagline for the next X-men movie, yet in some ways, the current situation is just as surreal. For, come the monsoon, and our airwaves are filled with a fresh theme of protest. Last year it was ‘intolerance’; this year, it is the devilish ‘anti-Dalit cow brigade’. These voices are uniform in being restricted to privileged urban circles, which pick on issues that are decidedly provincial. The plot is always the same: a sad incident with intensely-local causes takes place in a neglected corner of the land. Swiftly, it is taken on as headline, breaking news, and even before the preliminary facts are established, loud calls rise against the evil designs of the Sangh Parivar, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi being sought to be held personally culpable. Extended, scathing criticisms authored by distinguished academicians appear on op-ed pages, brimming with fine, post-modern literary skills; talking heads appear on televised debates in droves, seething with scarcely-controllable anger at the injustice perpetrated; and surprisingly of late, even senior journalists find themselves forced to take a stand against others of their flock. But in their rush to pin the blame on Mr. Modi, few care to mention that in India, law and order is a state subject; nor, more tellingly, do they differentiate the fringe from the main. Indeed, those that do, endeavor to use such aspects as useful levers, to somehow further the sense of blame they heap upon the central government. In effect, objectivity becomes road kill.

 

There is nothing that may be done to reduce the volume – freedom of speech is both paramount and sacrosanct. Besides, it is not action which is needed. What is required is an objective assessment of the underlying dynamics, and linkages, of the nature of such protests, since, if we do not first understand and define a situation, how then may we interpret it astutely? This perhaps, is best achieved by using an example: of Dr. Romila Thapar – one of India’s most feted historians, an intellectual powerhouse, and the darling of the Left.

 

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I was first introduced to Romila Thapar by my father nearly thirty years ago, not long after I had exited my teens. On a weekend trip to Stavanger to do my laundry, he handed over his dog-eared copy of Thapar’s seminal work on Ancient India, along with Percival Spear’s companion volume on the medieval and modern periods. Over the next fortnight, I read both volumes with hardly a pause. I was hooked! When I went home a month later for Easter break, he handed me Basham’s equally magnificent ‘Wonder that was India’. “Read it for balance”, he said, somewhat enigmatically. It was a delightful lesson which sank in only later in my twenties, but one which has stayed with me ever since; a lesson which I employed as I re-read Dr. Thapar’s most recent work, “The Past as Present” [Aleph Book Co., 2014], in the shadow of a Burhan Wani cloud. Verdict: I must say I am woefully depressed.

 

For the ‘Why?”, we must differentiate between Romila Thapar the historian, and Romila Thapar the Marxist historian. The differentiation is nuanced, but both definite and visceral. In her first avatar, she holds claim to having written the most readable book on Ancient India in the past century; it is objective, the prose is delicious, and she makes no foray into the politics of historiography [the study of historical research]. She tells it as it is, and where sources are inadequate, or interpretations fraught with limitations, she states so – clearly and purposefully. This was an approach which she had already demonstrated successfully in her earlier marvel – an analysis of Emperor Ashoka, his life, his edicts, and the decline of the Mauryas. It was a time in her life [1950’s to late 1970’s] when she was doing original research, when the source material took greater prominence over their dissemination by others; meaning, she held to her views with the force of logic, and since she was better than most in constructing cogent arguments, the rest fell by the wayside. She was a detective solving the mysteries of time.

 

After the 1980’s though, she was presented with that most awful of situations – of being forced to choose; but choose what? No great thinker should ever be forced to choose between the truth and her beliefs – it cuts to the bone of everything she stands for. Sadly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a genuine Right wing in India, she chose ideology over logic. Ever since, fuelled perhaps by a deep hatred or fear for that opposite cause, she chose to remodel her platform from one of research, to one of countering – in her mind – pernicious ideas that sought to disrobe her land of a fabric draped by the freedom struggle. Sad indeed, for an historian to forget history and place faith over logic.

 

As time passed, into the new millennium, she grew increasingly tetchy – I can find no other word to convey the tone of her works, churning out book after book countering what she believed was a depraved ideology. And when the Babri Masjid was brought down, it was war. What she didn’t realize was that she had unwittingly become caught up, in that very process she had devoted a lifetime to deciphering: change. But we, her devotees, nodded to one another in solemn understanding, and continued to chase her publications hot off the press. Like “Somanatha”, for example, where she went out of her way to prove that the great Shiva temple of Saurashtra – perhaps the richest of its era – was plundered by the Ghaznavid invaders solely for economic reasons; the religious angle of crushing idolatry, she says, is ill-defined, or incidental at best. Look at how the Hindu Kashmiri kings looted temples in the Valley ‘left-and-right’? Well, one might ask what lapse of sanity forced her to ignore innumerable firmans that demanded an institutional cleansing? Could it be that she fears further flaring of evil passions if she walks further down this path; or of contradicting herself? Or, holds she fears of modern India to be so intellectually stymied, that we – the unwashed we – will not differentiate between that age and ours, instead rising on these disclosures in a barbaric tide of sectarian violence? Or, worse, has she by this argument of differentiating between economic and religious plunder, slipped into the politician’s trap of ‘big-rape-vs-small-rape’? Can her devotees not then ask what her views on the medieval inquisition in Goa are?

 

But then, just when we feared the worst, she returned to her roots with “The Past Before Us” [HUP, 2013] – a dense, sweeping tome that sought to survey how ancient Indians presented their own history to themselves. Suddenly, it was the good Doctor at her best again, showing thru page after memorable page, how the very tenets of historical consciousness vary from civilization to civilization. I should have been on my guard as I waded through the pages; perhaps I should have known better – especially when her central thesis appeared to have been structured in counter to that old claim, that Indians have no sense of history. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in her amazingly logical, if maddeningly convoluted arguments, to note their incipient tendentiousness. Too late, I caught what I missed only in her 2014 publication

 

What notes she collected in the course of writing “The Past Before Us”, she furthered into a set of essays with a far more simplistic aim, which her ideologue-in-arms David Davidar was only too happy to publish as “The Past as Present”. The stated aim was to show up low-brow over-generalizations, and to prevent such shallow, revisionist themes from making their way into text books. Yes, a noble aim indeed, and most necessary, but I was unable to shake the feeling that this was someone else – some left-liberal clique – using Dr. Thapar’s name to make a few points heard. After all, I have struck work since noon today to write this piece, haven’t I?

 

Can it then be laid at her door that her fury stems from having attempted to perceive the post-independence process in purely Nehruvian-Westphalian terms, and that somewhere, deep down in a corner of that remarkable mind, she knows she may have gone too far? Perhaps, for in the process, it appears that she has overlooked a simple fact – that nationalist movements cannot be countered by argument; they can only be contained by compromise. If the majority wish is for a ban on cow slaughter, then that is the will of the people, that is democracy, and we have to accept it. There cannot be two definitions on the utility of public wish. And what of the ultimate irony? Ah, it is that, the true counter to the half-baked loony-tunes she attacks with such vigor, will actually be made by those of us who adopt her logic, yet reject her aims. Go figure!

 

So, the next time you watch a programme by Barkha Dutt, or one with Shiv Viswanathan or Aakar Patel in it, or read an article by a doyen of the Left, don’t get confused, angry or react emotionally – and don’t debase yourself by trolling them on social media platforms! These individuals merely represent those vocal few unable to accept a fundamental reality: that the essence of the transformation on hand, is one of a solitary idea, which had held sway for seventy-odd years, finally making way for a temporarily-suppressed older one which has always been the hallmark of this ancient land. A recent, jejune, exclusivist ‘idea of India’ is being replaced by an India of ideas. Now that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

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