The Chain in the Tree

The small town of Bagamoyo sits up the coast from Dar-es-Salaam, and across the channel from Zanzibar. It has remained unassuming since its birth in the late 18th century. The locals are mostly of Omani stock, who have preferred to marry across the channel rather than meld with the locals. They have their mosque, white as the sands the muezzin looks out to every morning, and live simply.


Naturally though, the main draw is not the Omani cha or the mosque, but the Mission Hospital. Also detergent white, but with poorer woodwork now, it is a more imposing building. A small church rests behind the Mission, where an African padre leads the flock in Kiswahili, as and when the mood suits him. More often, he can be found closer to the shore, poring over manuscripts in the small museum. The museum has large bay windows, and it is the habit of the priest to always carry his Bible with him, hugged tightly to his chest, as he walks from the church, past the tree, to the museum. He says he is trying to separate the wheat from the chaff – underspeak for trying to identify which bastard in his flock has some Omani blood in him. But really, he is only trying to forget the tree.


When the tourists arrive, and more often now, as the winds have turned to the dry, they do not see the town. They see picture postcard snaps of tropical delights; they see a quiet populace trying hard to catch up with each bus load. They even smell the Hard Pear trees when in full bloom. The tour guide shoos the urchins away, hating to have his tip-ridden spiel interrupted by these wretched curs. But he curses at them quietly, because even he, with two wives and seven children, knows the beauty of Bagamoyo is just an illusion. Slowly, the group winds its way past the Mission, past the church, past the tree, until they reach the open courtyard behind the museum. And there, along with the priest at the window, they gaze at the posts and chains that still mark Bagamoyo – once the slave trade capital of the world.


A knowledge reinforced with unintended bureaucratic understatement, by the small blue sign on the wall of the museum entrance: “This building was once the headquarters of the slave traders during the 19th century”. Read the sign on the wall, turn around, and you face a hardwood tree. Walk up to the tree, step across the white stone markers, bend down, and you will see two links of a stout iron chain jutting out of the trunk. This is the story of the chain in that tree.




The young Englishman was glad to see the Indian Ocean again. Standing about a furlong south of the traders’ courtyard, he was far away enough to not hear the pitiful bleats of the slaves as they were whipped and then chained onto their posts. He had spent a year hearing those cries, as he led a thousand Chagga eastwards from the slopes of Kilimanjaro to the coast. They had battled malaria, typhus, and malaria again, the Chagga of course in chains, as the unwieldy, sickening mass clinked and clanked its way to Bagamoyo. One fierce black fellow had been particularly truculent, even biting off the ear of an Indian handler, and the young man, son of a Surrey tea trader, had been forced to beat the slave into submission.


Man? His ruddy jowls quivered in mirth at the thought. He was only 22. He had been too young to be one of Bentinck’s pages, the honour going to his elder brother, and had instead been sent off to apprentice with an uncle on his mother’s side. Someone, they said, who was something in the other trade. The uncle saw purpose in the teenager’s eyes, and shipped him off to Zanzibar. By the time the traders’ tavern had hoisted its first round to the new virgin queen, he had already done one tour into the hinterland.


Now, standing at the beach, he was a veteran of four slave marches. This one had been the worst, the veteran decided, and spat into the sand in disgust. That wretched black brute had cost him not just his best handler, but a minor mutiny amongst the other handlers, which he had had to put down with promises of cotton bales upon arrival at the coast. Uncle would not be pleased.


The lulling rhythm of the waves had calmed him enough to think of his mother, and he was contemplating a pile of tobacco into his left hand, when he saw the youngest Indian handler racing down the beach towards him.


“Sahib! Come fast. The brute has bitten someone again”. The scion of Surrey cursed roundly, and ran towards the courtyard, the tobacco falling onto the sand. He raced in and saw four men – two large Abyssinians – holding down the fierce Chagga. The late afternoon light sculpted the angular black face into even more severe features. Both men faced each other for a moment, until the Englishman drew a short staff and went to work. The purpose his uncle had seen in the young man’s eyes had long been replaced by a dull gleam, and now those eyes threw fire with every blow. By the fourth blow to the torso, the Chagga was in too much pain to moan; by the seventh, he was not even able to grit his teeth in defense. The large lips sagged slightly open, and a bright pink tongue peeped out with every fall of the staff, a small clucking sound an echo as the African drew a sharp breath each time. And then the staff began to fall higher – the arms, chest, shoulders – until with one mighty thwack, the rod descended onto the bridge of the nose. The Chagga passed out, his already blunt nose twisted to one side. The Englishman threw the staff down with a grunt and the Abyssinians hauled up the broken lad.


“Sale is too good for him”, the young slave trader remarked, “Chain him to the tree”. And there the young tribal lay, without food or water. And every morning, as the young trader passed the tree to his work in the trading building, their eyes would meet. The dull gleam would only see a slightly-dazed look coming out of still-hooded eyes, and those pitch black eyes in turn would meet a hurried stare.


In a few weeks, the Englishman settled his accounts in Bagamoyo, and sailed for Bombay. Uncle had decided that with slavery not being the flavor of Victoria’s court presently, his investments were better served by supporting Viscount Melbourne’s desire to refit the Army in the wake of Cabool. Well, timber and guns were better than slaves, the young man thought from the high seas – at least they didn’t bite.


He would have taken a commission with Nicholson, but for a chance encounter with a young lady in Bombay. Marriage came faster than courtship, and he found himself six months later, bound for Lourenco Marques, the proud landlord of hectare upon hectare of sugarcane. Dreary details, best forgotten now, would advice us that the young lady in question was one of the De Santos daughters; Portuguese by birth and fashion only, but with equally large holdings in both southern India and Mozambique.


For a full fifty years the Englishman from Surrey used his slave-tending skills to great and profitable advantage. Enslavement without slavery, he’d roar at the planters’ bar, drawing loud guffaws from others of his ilk. And with each toast, he would try to think less of the young Chagga tribal he had left chained to the tree. Justifications, explanations, absolution – he had it all. Sunday prayers surely saw to that. Why else would he pause just a moment longer than others at the Vestry, for a quiet word with the clergyman from Tavira? Good men become better with the word, he was told; and the young become good with age, he told himself. After all, we only lived in this world as taught. Thank you Uncle.




Never having left the antipodes since he first arrived, the man from Surrey decided that with his wife’s recent death, he wanted to breathe his last in the confines of his childhood home. So the whole paraphernalia of departure was set in motion, and the old man set sail up the coast with most of his family on board. A new canal had opened, they said, and he was looking forward to crossing the waters of Nelson’s first victory.


A week into the journey, they dropped anchor at a cove for re-victualling. The old man, leaning against the boards, froze as he recognized the building on the shore. It was in ruins, the roof caved in, and empty posts pottering the vast courtyard. From the ship he could see that most of the Mission building was shrouded by a huge tree. That tree? Could it be? Perhaps….African hardwoods are known to grow fastest in both height and girth in their teens. And it was now a half century.


Lips pursed together, he negotiated himself into a row boat he had called for and was brought to shore. Dozens of his entourage followed him in long boats, parasols and dainty frillwork all. He had not spoken a word since they reached the cove, and now, as he walked up the sand, friends and family members kept a slight distance. The planter’s fury was known to have no limits, they had heard. But such an affable chap at the bar; well, duty first and all that, what?


He walked towards the tree. Four men could not have linked hands around its trunk. He began to stoop as he reached its base, groaning slightly at the exertion. Left hand holding silk kerchief to quivering mouth, right hand splayed out for balance, he looked at the three links in a chain that seemed to grow out of the tree trunk. He dropped to his knees, and the renewed balance allowed him to look around. An African in white robe, cummerbund and keffiyeh was seated a few feet away. He was old too, and was quietly rolling his worry beads, lips moving in rhythm, with most of his face covered by the tail of the head dress.


The Englishman, still on his knees, barked in the guttural Bantu he had learnt on his marches: “What happened to the chain?”


The old African barely moved, but he brought his eyes into contact, and quietly replied, in an equally guttural fashion: “The tree ate it, and him”.


For a moment the man on his knees turned to look at the chain links, and then, with a sharp intake of breath, fell dead on his face. As the entourage pranced and shrieked, in fear and disbelief, some darting towards the fallen man, some away, the old African quietly rose and walked towards the ruins. Worry beads still under count, he stepped into the glare of the sun, paused, and turned back to look at the fallen man. With a slight shake of his head, he wrinkled his broken nose and sighed: “Why do they never learn that Bagamoyo means – Lay down your heart”.




For those of you who think this is a tall tale, make the trip to Bagamoyo. Look for the tree in front of the museum, look at the base of the tree, and tell me what you see.



The illusion of conflict

The illusion of conflict – an analysis of the present Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam


Most educated Indians have heard of Rezang La and Thag La – made famous and infamous by army actions during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Yet, few would be able to identify the locations on a map with any satisfactory precision, leaving fingers to circle vaguely over Ladakh, while eyes well up with tears for the valorous sacrifices made by Indian troops against overwhelming odds at the Battle of Rezang La. Similarly, the Thag La ridge, over which the Chinese burst through, towards the plains of the Brahmaputra Valley, is ‘somewhere in the North East’. The situation appears to be no different half a century later, when a curious confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops appears to be developing at Doklam in the Chumbi Valley – a sliver of Tibet which protrudes southwards from the Himalayas, bordered to the west and south by Sikkim, and to the east by Bhutan. As usual, India’s voluble press has grasped the subject but not the point, forcing readers and viewers to accept sound bites for data, and debates as analysis. Tendencies swing between extremes of alarmism and denial; headlines are filled with stories of the Sino-Indian standoff. India’s principal opposition party, the Congress, is seeking to raise the issue in parliament, bemoaning the abrupt decline in Sino-Indian relations; and, to use that to further demonstrate the illogicality of Prime Minister Modi’s efforts. And more; when the Chinese press saucily advised India to ‘remember 1962’ before embarking on adventures, it took the sobriety of Union Minister Arun Jaitley to remind everyone – and China – that this was not the India of 1962.

Minister Jaitley is right: this is not the India of 1962, and how times have changed! For one thing, the present political leadership has not sought, in contrast to Pandit Nehru, to pursue two opposing policies with China simultaneously. Also, if in 1965, the threat of Delhi falling was real enough for citizens to grow wary, today, internet wags humbly submit that foreign occupation of Delhi is most welcome – if only the invaders would promise to get rid of Mr. Kejriwal. Similarly, when the Chinese press injudiciously printed a story in January 2017, that it would take Chinese troops only 48 hours to reach Delhi, Twitter erupted in unsolicited advice, ranging from ‘yes, 48 hours to Delhi, and then 48 more to get to Connaught Place!’, to ‘don’t take Moolchand during rush hour’, and my personal favorite: ‘Let them come. Kohli dauda-daudake marega’ – a cheeky reference to Indian Test Cricket Captain Virat Kohli, who scored four double-centuries in four consecutive series.

Thankfully, foreign policy formulations are not undertaken on Twitter or in TV studios, since diplomacy works best in the dark. India appears to have finally learnt this. So to analyze the present situation, we must first ask ourselves an oblique question: When is a standoff not a standoff? Answer: when it is about something else.  And in that answer lies a glimpse of Prime Minister Modi’s approach to geopolitics, and China’s response.

chumbi valley doklam

Doklam area circled in red

The story begins with a visit Mr. Modi made to China as Chief Minister of Gujarat, in 2011. Addressing a select audience in Beijing, he asked them rhetorically: if China is a friend to Pakistan, and if Pakistan is not one to India, what does that make China to India? He answered his own question during his inauguration in 2014, when he invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the Prime Ministerial swearing-in ceremony; and then, hosting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at Modi’s own Ahmedabad during a state visit in September that same year. At that time, the CPEC – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – was only rarely mentioned in public. Note: the CPEC is an ambitious, 50 billion dollar Chinese road-rail project aiming to connect western China with the Pakistani port of Gwadar – thereby entirely circumventing the maritime trade vicissitudes of the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean. This is much like the Chinese efforts in the 1950’s to develop a Trans-Tibetan link road from Yunnan Province in the east to Xingiang Province in the west, which passed through Aksai Chin, and provided China secure, strategic east-west access in the shelter of the Himalayas. Just as the Aksai Chin road gave China a vital westward link at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was peaking in the late 1950’s, the CPEC too, is designed to provide China with an uninterruptable trade route westwards, irrespective of any designs America may have on containing a growing dragon.

The initial courting notwithstanding, a clear correlation has now however emerged over the past three years: the more that Indian efforts to engineer an Indo-Pak rapprochement failed, the more CPEC began to be mentioned in reports – to the extent that by late 2016, analysts in China themselves began to admit, that the CPEC had little chance of ever being operationalized without India’s blessings. This was Modi reminding China of his 2011 query, asking China to choose between Pakistan and India. Denuded of ‘diplomatese’, it is a simple political objective: to force or entice Pakistan’s patrons to give up their support to that state, so that India may force the hand of peace more deftly – and with greater effect. To this end, the present Indian government has devised a process of intense diplomatic engagement, which culminated in a particularly hectic June 2017, and an unexpected, if somewhat surreal standoff in the Eastern Himalayas.

Modi began his first travels of the year only in May 2017, with a visit to Sri Lanka. This was followed by a four-leg European tour where, surprisingly, he spent two full days in Russia [sandwiched between Germany, Spain and France]. A week after spending time with Russian President Putin, the two met again at Astana in Kazakhstan, where India along with Pakistan were formally granted full membership into the SCO – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. For years, China had worried that India would be an American Trojan horse, in this very Asian grouping originally conceived as a foil to NATO; by this fear, India’s accession to the SCO was delayed for a year. However, Montenegro’s decision to join NATO this year [formalized on 5th June], and its resultant impact on proposed Russian gas pipelines into Europe via the Balkans, forced pragmatism to rule over fears – making Indian’s formal membership of the SCO a fait accompli. A fortnight after his return from Astana, Modi left for Washington DC where, symbolically, Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin was designated as a global terrorist by the Trump administration. With the Kashmir valley on the boil since mid-2016, surgical strikes by Indian troops into Pak-occupied Kashmir, a grand electoral victory for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, and increasing political irrelevance of the Congress Party, Modi’s busy, busy travels looked like they just might isolate Pakistan internationally – to the extent necessary for India to force a peace. India, Modi appeared to be saying at every given opportunity, had the right to pursue her national interests, and secure her borders and citizenry against threats by all available means. This included, vitally, the employment of diplomacy as a principal tool for achieving state policy. In Beijing, it must have seemed like a throwback to 2011, and Modi’s query on China’s choices.

But for China, this is not a choice that can be made easily, since they know that an India finally unshackled from the millstone of Pakistan would be a painfully important world power, with the economic and military clout to tilt the global balance.  Thus, what is interesting is that the first reports of China building a road in the Doklam area, appeared in the press not a week after the SCO summit concluded in Astana. On the face of it, the situation makes no sense: why would China behave in a provocative manner and reopen a border story which had been closed for decades now? And why act thus, so soon after China acceded to India’s full membership to the SCO? There are reasons:

If India acts against Pakistan, the hardest hit would ironically be China; without positive control of the CPEC running through Pak-occupied Kashmir, China would be forced to depend on control of the seas to ensure the security of the bulk of its trade – for the foreseeable future; or worse, depend upon the sufferance of Indian goodwill to let goods flow unhampered across the Karakoram Range. The first, and most direct result of that, would be a revival of American opportunity to put naval pressure on China – at any one of a hundred choke points along thousands of kilometers of international waters. The second would be the cost factor; transporting goods by rail is far cheaper than by ship. And third, it would render infructuous, their 50 billion dollar investment on the CPEC. Meaning that in one fell swoop, the tremendous strategic value of the CPEC to China’s long-term economic security, would amount to nil. This is a terrible position for the world’s largest economy to be in – and Modi knows that.

There exists an alternative, of course, for China – of dumping Pakistan and choosing India as a strategic trading partner. But in Beijing’s eyes, that would be too great a risk. An Indian General who today confidently asserts that the forces are prepared for a two-an-a-half front war, would tomorrow have at his disposal a million-man army for what is effectively a half-front of potential conflict. And no, this is not an over-simplification; the cold truth is that India and China are not just separated by the highest, longest chain of mountains in the world, and the impassable Tibetan plateau, but by a weather window as well. The Himalayan winter, and the two monsoons [both of which lash the North East] leave less than five months of freedom for operations in a year. Worse, in the absence of any material threat from Pakistan, the entire Indian Navy would in that eventuality, be available for concentration in the Indian Ocean – or elsewhere.

Thus, for Beijing, the Doklam standoff is a last-ditch effort to try and force Modi to reduce the pressures he has been mounting on Pakistan – moral, political, economic, diplomatic and, operational.  Moral, by demonstrating the injustice of Pakistan using state-sponsored terrorism as a tool of national policy; political, by highlighting the true power of the Pakistani Army, and the fiction of civilian governance in Islamabad; economic, by raising the cost of war and seeking to cut aid to Pakistan; diplomatic, by endeavoring to isolate the state; and operational, by pushing the fight against terrorism onto Pakistan-occupied soil, with an increased, now-visible lethality.

The Chinese have no illusions; they know that this is the first government in Delhi, in living memory, which has openly begun to demand the return of Pak-occupied Kashmir to India. They know that this government is led by a party which, not recognizing differences between races or caste or religion, seeks at a civilizational level to overturn partition – or at least the ills of it. They also know that the weakening of Pakistan – or indeed, the off-chance of India reclaiming Pak-occupied Kashmir in fuller measure – is an eventuality that would be to China’s detriment. They know that the political opposition in too incompetent to put Modi on the back foot – as evidenced by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s recent, absurdly-managed meeting with the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi. They also know that Modi has hit back hard, by encouraging J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to state in public that China is now meddling in Kashmir. Hence a standoff at the other end of the Himalayas, and frankly hollow protestations on the invalidity of Sikkim’s membership in the Indian Union.

Therefore in conclusion, this Sino-Indian standoff in Doklam has actually very little to do with existing Sino-Indian border issues, and is instead emblematic of Chinese efforts to prevent the Indian government from raising the stakes with Pakistan. It is this writer’s forecast then, that the present standoff, this present illusion of conflict,  will peter out in shape, size, form and intensity as the months pass, and, as the process of Sino-Indian engagement recommences more meaningfully – initially, with NSA Ajit Doval’s proposed trip to Beijing later this month. But it will not go away fully either, for it is in China’s interest to try and force pressure on their border with India, as a tool to ease mounting of pressure on Pakistan. Perhaps a new issue will be created at some other border section – like at Demchok, on the Himachal-Tibet border, or the disputed tri-junction between Tibet, Uttarakhand and Nepal immediately south of Mount Kailas. We cannot say. What we can say however, with a fair degree of confidence, is that this new border dispute will probably not be settled by a re-drawing of the McMahon line, but by that of the LOC or the Radcliffe line instead! How that happens will be an interesting story to follow or predict – more interesting than the diversionary illusions of conflict being presented to us today at Doklam.


Venu Gopal Narayanan

16th July 2017


“Europe’s India” by Sanjay Subrahmanyam – A review


Sanjay Subrahmanyam is easily one of the finest historians in the world today. A trained economist who specializes in the trade and commerce of the early modern period, his pedigree was established with his PhD thesis on politics and commerce in Southern India during the 16th to 17th centuries; one of those rare dissertations which became stand-alone texts. Off hand, the only other Indian example I can think of is the Reservoir Engineer Ram Agarwal, whose 1967 work on mass and energy transfer in gas reservoirs comprehensively rewrote this aspect of fluid dynamics. And like Agarwal, Subrahmanyam too, has not been one to rest on clichéd laurels. He is a seeker, a gluttonous polymath devouring subjects, and thereby integrating every last bit of arcane information into a still-miasmic, but now more comprehensible whole – for that is the study of history: detective work with painfully few clues of events lost to time.


Famously, he once learnt a European language in three weeks just so that he could decipher a rare text himself! The effort showed splendidly in his first major work – a history of the Portuguese Empire in Asia; since its publication in 1993, this book has remained the standard text of reference on the subject. His phylogenetic pedigree is no less, being son of the late, renowned strategic affairs expert K. Subrahmanyam, and younger brother of current Foreign Secretary S. Jaishanker. He has style, he has class, writes with wit – to the point, leaving no latitude for platitudes, or vague, plonking statements, and I have been a big fan for many years now. His brothers-in-arms on the bloody battlefields of both historical analysis and historiography vouch for his talents; two men with whom Subrahmanyam collaborates routinely. The first is Velcheru Narayana Rao, an expert in Telugu linguistics and folk history, whose landmark translations of medieval Andhra texts put to paid numerous, convenient interpretations which had persisted since long for sadly ideological reasons. The second is David Shulman, an expert on Tamil studies, whose adorably titled ‘Biography of Tamil’ I have just procured, and on which I intend to write a review in due course. Together, this talented trio have taken obscure periods of history to a general audience with great success, while training up two generations of students.


With that, you would fain appreciate my own glee, when I got Subrahmanyam’s latest work: “Europe’s India” [HUP, 2017]. Over a Jamun Martini at the Rajputana [yes, you read that correctly – no beer! But we digress], I read the first forty pages in one sitting, remaining engrossed until my Khasta Roti and Barrah Kebab arrived. For some strange reason, I was in the mood for Tabak Maaz, but Chor Bizarre was too far away, and again, we’re digressing!


Subrahmanyam demonstrates with remarkable élan that the impact of India’s richness, her art and architecture, was far greater than we conventionally believe. Captains of commerce in Germany, France, the Low Countries, England and of course, the Mediterranean states, paid hefty premiums for pieces of art to create magnificent collections, and then commissioned local artists to replicate these. The most famous example of course, is the Rhinoceros Woodcut by Albrecht Durer, though Subrahmanyam convincingly demonstrates that such efforts were usually the norm – rather than exceptions. As a historian, he naturally focusses on the dynamics of causality, rather than the effect [in various cases: paintings, objets d’art or sculptures], by combing 16th or 17th century letters for long forgotten in European archives.

durer rhino

European perceptions of Indian religions and social groupings [caste], the merits of the Iberian chronicling tradition [a solid body of work spanning a century, and running to multiple volumes], and periodic assessments of Indian politics and their impact on trade are all brought to light using epigraphic evidence. So you have persecuted Frenchmen in Gujarat appealing to the Portuguese governor for help, and in turn advising the sons of da Gama, on which faction of which court was currently on the ascendant, and which on the wane. Subrahmanyam seeks to show that the bland, simplistic image of the capricious, whimsical ‘Oriental Despot’ concretized much later, and that the men of the early modern period understood that a king was never more than a process – a system which one learnt to work to one’s advantage, and profit.


Most importantly, the author stresses on a key aspect we usually tend to overlook: that the texts of the 16th and 17th centuries were written by men trying to understand a strange land, with the information, talent and politico-commercial needs at hand. To thus try and judge a writer from an earlier era using sensibilities of present times, Subrahmanyam says, is to be foolishly judgmental – and ignorant! Typical Tam-Bram arrogance, no doubt, and I like it! And he even informs me that the derogatory Tanzanian term for an Indian – ‘banyani’, from ‘bania’, was originally a simple, descriptive Portuguese term before it was adopted by the Swahili tongue in derision.


As a scholarly text it breaks new ground, but as a book meant for us, the general audience, it is a tedious affair. The reader gets lost in a maze of abrupt references too often to allow a paced, linear read, leaving one to suspect that this book could have been a good 100 pages shorter, and the explanations more pronounced. Why? Because lay readers are simple souls, Dr. Subrahmanyam, and as much as they may have both the desire and ability to appreciate erudite scholarship, taking 300-plus pages to make one’s point spells only one thing: boredom. Consequently, and with a deep sigh of regret, this work, which would have been better furnished as a purely-technical piece of research, with the gist supplied as an essay, gets a ‘don’t-buy’ recommendation. Unless one has a deep, specific interest in the topic of course.


So, am I disappointed? Answer: yes, slightly, but I will continue to read everything Dr. Subrahmanyam writes.


The Cemetery by The Sea

This year marks a century of the withdrawal of Indian troops from the East African campaign during World War One. Two hundred thousand of our sons took part, fought bravely in hellish conditions, and yet, no one sees fit to remember their contribution any more. So, a sad caveat: A nation which forgets its past soon forgets itself.


1957 was a trying year for Mr. Achuthan. The Greek secretary in the office had decided that paisley tops ending just above the knees didn’t merit trousers as an accompaniment. The Gujarati clerk in finance still referred to him as a Madrassi. The old Chaga janitor still hissed at him as he entered the office every morning. And he had a new boss – an Armenian – who had taken the concept of mutual dislike to astral heights. The Armenian saw life in only commercial terms, whereas Achuthan preferred to believe it included re-reading works of The Triumvirate at least every week. There was something about the lyricism of Kumaran Asan [his favourite] that transcended the sale of a car. But the fat Armenian was the boss-man who tried to cover his profligate handling of the showroom’s expense account by increasing Achuthan’s monthly targets, and those demands trod heartlessly over any love a man had for Modern Romanticism. It didn’t help that sales targets, naturally, had risen, while sales had fallen. Hadn’t they heard of the Suez crisis in Armenia? Where was Armenia?

Nevertheless, he had met every target thrown his way. He had cleared both the Ford Skyliners – sold to a pair of Bohra brothers who ran a jewellery shop on Zanaki Street. The month before, he had blessed the French attaché with a Thunderbird solely on a wry grin and a weary look. The extra pink stripes down the middle had been the clincher, managed deftly with an after-hours call to his cousin Rajan at the Patel Motors garage. But this month he had drawn a blank.  What could be worse, he wondered, as he munched on the crisps in his brown paper bag? Being castigated by your boss for not doing an impossible job, or becoming more unpopular with your co-workers because they had lagged behind on targets?

A lot, he decided with a sigh, quite a lot. He could admit that he hated this land. There was something venomous, he decided, in the name Tanganyika. Black hearts, black skins, black moods; and the daily taunt of the coconut trees, bobbing their frizzy green tops down at him as he walked to work, reminding him of his Cochin state. The town too was named wrong, he told himself, munching down some more crisps. Haven of Peace? No, he hadn’t felt that particular sentiment since he got off the boat three years ago. All he had felt then was the baleful stare of his cousin Rajan, piercing thru two weeks of steaming, at the bright blue cotton shirt he had worn on disembarking – over a flashing white mundu. Now what was wrong with a cotton shirt that it could not be worn with a mundu? No, Rajan had patiently explained again after the third peg; no, you did not wear a mundu off a steamer. So it would have to be the damn trousers day after day, chafing away at the very areas his mundu would have ventilated so luxuriously. Abrasive clothes, abrasive colleagues……….

The bag of crisps ran empty, and served to break Achuthan’s morose train of thought. He sighed again, took a deep breath, and decided to get back to work. There was the inquiry from the Dutchman who ran the library, which he had to work on. But to get to his desk, he would have to navigate the vile looks the Greek woman gave him every time she caught him looking at her. Kanji the Kutchi would surely be sitting in the adjoining desk leering at her, keener to chat and gossip with anyone who cared to waste some time, than to drum up inquiries. And the Armenian would also be back by now, from one of his business lunches, fuelled by a string of Margheritas to keep the office open till well after 8 pm.

Damn, he thought. Damn. Damn. Damn. Crumpling up the little paper bag in a jerk of controlled fury, he chucked it away and turned to leave.

“Hey”, a loud voice barked, “Have you no respect for the dead?” Achuthan turned to look at an old white man leaning heavily on his cane. Perplexed at the query, and not even sure if he had understood it right, Achuthan paused in mid-stride.

“Pick the damn thing up you fool”, the old man barked. There was an unmistakable military demeanor in the old man that seemed to brook no dispute, so Achuthan quietly went to a white stone where the crumpled bag had fallen. As he stooped to pick up the paper ball, he made out the faint markings on the stone:

“Major George Clarke Denton

Killed in Action 9th October 1916

12th Indian Pioneers”

He had been coming to this park in front of his place of work – The International Motor Mart – every day since he joined. It was situated at the junction of Azikiwe Street and the road that ran inland along the west bank of the Kivukoni inlet. He had always meandered thru the white slabs, searching for a quiet tree under which to rest his mind; had always known these upright slabs served as remembrances for the dead. But he had never thought that there would be an Indian connection in “his” park. The excitement gave him a boldness he could never have conjured up outside of the showroom, when conversing with a white man. But now, Major Denton of the Indian Pioneers spurred him to walk squarely up to the old man and ask: “May I be asking what it is that you would be doing in this botanical park?”

The old man grunted, his eyes squinting to condense and digest Achuthan’s long-winded query. For a moment the young Malayalee feared the cane would be transformed into a deadly weapon, and he took a step back, his mouth slightly open in nervous anticipation. Still, the old man stared silently, and for a full minute, both men faced off one another. A loud blare rumbled over them [signaling the departure of the daily afternoon schooner to Lindi], and the old man lifted himself off his cane to his full height. He was over six feet, with a white moustache, and stood at least a head over Achuthan. A second blare, closer now, rumbled around them again, and in the intense quiet that followed, the old white man softly spoke: “I have come to see my father”.

“I am not following, Sir,” Achuthan replied. To which the old man merely raised his cane and pointed to a white slab by them. It read:

“Capt. Philip Norman Gurdon

Killed in Action 9th October 1916

14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs”

“He was Indian Army, like his father and grandfather before him……..” the old man seemed to lose the thread here, and the cane flinched with emotion ever so slightly, before he continued, “And so am I”. Here, Achuthan’s naïveté saved the day:

“But this is not India. Was he lost?” The Englishman looked up from under his Solar Topee, his eyes blinked rapidly before they wrinkled into a maze of Crow’s Feet, and then unbelievably, he burst out laughing. Kanji, walking back to the showroom after some postprandial Konyagi, was shocked to see the sight. Within the next quarter hour, he had sequestered both Vipul-bhai of Finance and the Greek goddess [or so he thought of her, for those were the days when a little cellulite was still deemed to be a mark of both health and beauty] at his own desk, and informed them of the shameful goings-on. Imagine that! Courting a client in a cemetery! And laughing? Shameful indeed. The Armenian would have to be told.

The old man took some while to control his mirth; Achuthan waited patiently and silently, a hundred questions racing thru his mind. In the end, the old man merely became somber again, and looked away towards the waters. The afternoon lull had set in, and the flow of people out of the post office had reduced to a trickle. The Kinondoni ferry had no vehicles to load, and rolled gently with the incoming tide. A haven for ships, at peace.

“He broke from van Deventer’s 2nd before they took Kilosa, to join Hoskins’ 1st. He should have stayed on to take Morogoro, but pushed east to Dar for the main landing. Still, he died of his wounds happy with the knowledge that Vorbeck was south of the Rufiji”. Achuthan heard the words without understanding them. Only the word Rufiji was familiar, a river probably – Rajan had spoken of an island at its mouth, with a lone road, and a lone car.

“No,” the old man continued, “He wasn’t lost, and neither were his Sikhs”, and with a nod, walked away. Achuthan, crumpled paper bag still in hand, too turned and walked back to the showroom. The icy glares sent his way found no mark. He was lost in thought. That evening, crossing all known limits of bravery, he closed his desk at 5 pm, and walked back home. Up Azikiwe Street till the pharmacy, after which it was left onto Jamhuri Street, and his little one bedroom attic apartment rented from the Vazifdars below.

That night he foreswore his poetry without a second thought. Instead, he sat at the tiny balcony, a rare self-poured brandy soda in hand. Mrs. Vazifdar’s dhansak [she knew it was his favorite, and regularly put an extra helping into his dinner container] lay uneaten on the poker table. Even the last bells of the Hindu temple on Kisutu Street, usually a signal for him to turn in, rang unheard tonight.

So, he mused, an old man had undertaken a long journey to pay his respect to his dead father. One soldier had traveled across half the world to pay homage to another. Forty years were made to seem like no more than a fleeting interregnum, as the memory of the one who had served and passed before was brought back to the fore; brought back to life, in fact, by the simple expedient of standing before a white tablet with a name chiseled into it. No pyre, no immersing, no wake. Truly, Achuthan marveled, the English honored their dead very well.

As the brandy slowly took effect, and the night moved West, Achuthan fell into a doze. It was a vexed sleep, so no sleep at all, and a single phrase streamed thru his mind, like the chants he had been taught as a youth: “The ones who came before”. He woke up fresh, the chant still churning him, but now additionally, mixed with the faint memories of a story he had heard as a boy. Of a man who went insane…or was it of a man who chose to go insane? Slowly, as the day draped its humid blanket of routine upon him, Achuthan smiled for the first time since he had landed in Tanganyika. Could it be? Well, between the buxom Greek beyond his reach, and the misery he called life, he now had a plan – a plan to travel without moving. Grinning broadly now, he reached for his shaving mug, and surprised himself by whistling while he shaved. Oh, he definitely had a plan.

The first victim of Achuthan’s charm was the Dutch librarian. A pre-order for a Skyliner, with delivery promised within two months, was wrung out by Achuthan – on the weight of a copy of de Vries’ lusciously illustrated pamphlet on Vermeer. The Armenian cursed roundly for a week, but was forced to have a cousin on his mother’s side, residing in The Hague, mail out a copy of the recently-released pamphlet. Next for shaving was the British chargé, who allowed the young man’s letters to the CWGC to be slipped into the weekly diplomatic bag for London; such “slippage” being contrived by a radio added free of cost to the chargé’s new Fairlane. The fact that the British colony of Tanganyika had but a single radio station broadcasting no more than four hours each day [when the transmitter was not under repair], was no deterrent to the chargé, as he wheeled his prize into the Gymkhana with much pomp. And finally, the battle-hardened commandant of the local British Army garrison [ex-Grenadier Guards, ex-KAR, ex-Anzio, Africa Star, Italy Star, DSO, and on and on], succumbed to multiple injuries without a fight. For a reduced value annual service and maintenance contract, for personal vehicles of the garrison personnel, and offset against a non-compete clause with Chevrolet on future purchases, Achuthan procured glowing letters of introduction for initiation of correspondence with both the India Office and the War Office.

In the first instance, he ransacked the surprisingly well-stocked library. The Dutchman, impressed with the Indian’s zeal, ordered in more titles on the subject from Salisbury and Nairobi. These volumes Achuthan devoured at a rapid pace. Much to the chagrin of Rajan, his cousin had become a recluse, and along with the handful of other malayalees in Dar es Salaam, decided the poor man had gone quite fey.

The next part took much longer, but when the visiting senior functionary of the FCO asked the Governor, Sir Edward, to have Achuthan on the list, Kanji surprised the showroom by having an uncle stitch Achuthan a suit within a day. At the gala dinner, he was introduced to the blue haired lady from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by none other than the Governor himself. The next day, the Armenian allowed him to borrow a fresh piece from the stock yard to drive the lady around. They visited the park near the post office, and spent an entire day noting down the details on the white stones. From the Motor Mart entrance, many pairs of eyes glared across the road to the park. The Greek secretary announced that all this new-found attention was nothing more than the result of some well-cast Indian voodoo. “I should know,” she declared loftily, and left the rest of her words testily unstated.

The third act was the longest, taking more than a year, and even had embarrassing ramifications across the waters. He had to endure some hard questions from his uncles in 1959, when he went home to get married. Instead of getting answers on why Travancore and Cochin had been clubbed with Malabar into a single state, he was in turn asked leading questions on his life in Tanganyika. It took a frank solitary chat with his mother’s youngest brother [himself preparing to board a ship the next month for Dar, to take up a teaching position in a school in a place called Arusha] to get to the nub of it. There had been a Subedar of the Madras Regiment it seemed, a local, who had been sent to check the district records for a list of names. As his inquiries led to queries, and local officialdom reeled under the weight of the orders he bandied about, tea shops found a new topic of conversation. They were recruiting for the Malabar Special police, some said. No, others countered, for the hush-hush brigade. Those supposedly in the know said it was an anti-Communist push, the first step before the draconian police state swung into action. Bits and pieces even made the local rags. Until finally, the District Magistrate was forced to douse the fires one evening at the club: “Some chap named Achuthan. Yes, yes, a Pisharody from Mulagunnathukavu. Seems to have lit a fire somewhere about missing persons. Know him, do you? Rum chap?”

Pressed for more details, the administrator shrouded his ignorance in official secrecy. “Sorry, can’t say too much more. You know the form, right?” But in private, he too was at a loss to figure out why Delhi needed to know the whereabouts of these men, many of whom would be ninety if alive today. For once ignorance was not bliss. One wonders how he would have reacted, if he had known that other Subedars had fanned out into at least half a dozen other districts of Kerala – all with the same imposing sheaf of letters of authority, and all with the same line of inquiry. As the Subedars retreated to their cantonments, and the District Magistrate to his languid pace of work, Achuthan set sail back to Dar, though this time not alone.


Over the years, Achuthan rose to become a leading luminary of the ever-growing Malayalee community in Dar es Salaam. With his wife Seeta, their home in Jamhuri Street became the first stop for bewildered Keralites disembarking in a strange land. The Vazifdars had shifted to the cement factory that had come up at Wazo Hill, and the Achuthans descended to ground level. The attic room went first to the Thilakans, then the Koshy’s, and then the Oommen’s before we lost track. The Armenian was forced out by a management change, and because of his skills, it was Achuthan who was selected by the new Ismaili owners to head the showroom. And Seeta slowly came to stop questioning her ever-cheerful husband about the contents of very-official-looking envelopes that would often arrive in the post.

In 1968, Achuthan was invited by the Commonwealth Office to attend a function in London. Together with his wife and two young daughters, they boarded a BOAC jetliner for London. The British Library, whose guests they were, put them up very well indeed. He spent three days with the researchers going thru all his old letters, and cross-checking their responses with the list. The only downside was when he failed to recognize the Duke of Kent, but no one mentioned it again. The Duke was secretly amused at the mortification of the researchers, and went off to a do with one hell of a story to tell.

The function itself was a very grand affair, and when it was over, the British Army officer to whom he had made his request, escorted Achuthan to a stately-looking car. The trip to Kent was uneventful, and the local constabulary having been informed of his arrival, had a Panda waiting to escort the visitors to the right cemetery. There, Achuthan walked up to the small stone and paused, reading the inscription with a slight tilt to port:

“Major General Edward Temple Leigh Gurdon

1st Btn, Black Watch


Son of

Capt. Philip Norman Gurdon

14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs

d. 9th Oct. 1916, Dar es Salaam”

A hint of a sigh came back to haunt him, but it was quickly stifled by a gust of bitterly cold wind. Wrapping his scarf tighter, Achuthan bent down and placed an open piece of paper under a stone. It read:

“We too honor those who came before us. From the 1968 conclave of the CWGC, and possibly the first Malayalee in East Africa:

Gopalan, Son of Kittunni Nair, Varkala, Travancore

Sapper [Service Number 722]

2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers and Miners

d. 9th Oct. 1916, Dar es Salaam”


This short story was written in 2012, and is based on names listed in the war cemetery at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The Unctuous Epigone

(An ancient fable retold)


An Indian summer is an unbearable thing. The torrid heat blows fine sand grains into your nostrils, along with weather-beaten notes of last year’s rains – a monsoon so cooling, so calming, so vitally necessary for life to flourish, that all you can do is wipe your nose, stem a sneeze, and pray for its early onset. It is this solitary prayer which keeps you sane, as the suburban train pushes the stench of your co-passengers’ sweat onto your heat-dulled mind, while it clatters from Mira Road to Marine Lines. And the same prayer keeps you company, along with a thousand others, crushed into finite space, as you take the 1840 Fast Local back to your pigsty of an outhouse the landlord lets you call home – for nine hundred rupees a month. Dinner is taken standing at a roadside eatery – a pushcart or ‘laari’ with ‘Shakti Sagar’ painted in gaudy pink on its sides, where you can get puri-shaak for eighteen rupees a plate, and a chance to catch up on the news of the world with other regulars; all forced-bachelors like yourself, of course. Then, once in a rare summer while, you let old Kamat from the Electrical department at Mazagon Docks walk you through your protestations and prayers, for a stiff, chilled, brandy-soda with ice – before falling into a torpid sleep infested with nightmares of your children growing up wrong in your absence, lines of sweat dripping into your ear, and again, a prayer that life be made more bearable, if the Gods are listening. Then the 4 AM alarm goes, you stop dreaming, and it is time to wake up.


Now, would I have been further disheartened in my dreary life-struggle, if Lord Shiva himself had appeared in my eight-by-ten that sticky night, to admit that the Gods were in fact not listening? I think not, for how much worse can it get? I have a clerical job in a shipping concern which fetches me eleven thousand rupees a month. There exist nil avenues for promotion, though last year for Diwali, they gave me a watch along with the usual box of sweets. I see my wife once in four or five months, when I stitch together an invaluable CL – ‘casual leave’, which I am allowed to avail of twelve times in a year – with a long weekend, to head for my home in Village Tikhi, near the military town of Ahmednagar. My parents are old and decrepit, my mother hunched forward by the twin burdens of age and osteal misery; my father still retains a bit of his old Havildar’’ trimness, but I see how he purses his lips as the coughs take hold every few hours. My children are busy with their studies, and treat me like a stranger until it is time for me to leave, when one by one, they hug me tight, and beg me to take them to Bombay. Our fields are frugally ploughed, and father depends on his pension those years when the rains dally coyly with our fate. In the midst of all that, I wonder if I would have found the time or patience to adequately recognize Shiva’s surreal manifestation in my stinking darkness, or bothered to interrogate him on why my fervent, constant prayers weren’t being answered.


But a smile might have made its way to my broad lips if I had somehow come to know the reason for their present, divine deafness, for as someone wise once said, our heavens are nothing but representations of our own mortal sphere. As our world, so our Gods, and there is no greater truth than that; yes, perhaps a shy smile, because, the spiteful summer which ravages my India presently, was causing mayhem elsewhere too. And how!




The Goddess Laxmi was in a foul mood. Nothing had gone right today: her new sarees were yet to arrive from the tailor’s after their edges were stitched; her application for additional funds for the wives’ association gala ball was still stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire of Lord Kubera’s choosing; and worst, the weather was stiflingly hot. She scowled, suspecting strongly that the brakes on her application were applied because she’d slighted the demi-god’s wife Riddhi, at that awfully-organized celebration when ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ won eight Oscars. But what to do? It was a rickety stage capable of handling two or three persons at best, and the First Lord of the Treasury’s consort wasn’t exactly thin; all Laxmi had suggested – politely, mind you, from the front row – was that Riddhi take her voluble protests at Frieda Pinto not being nominated for Best Actress, away from the creaking stage to the space by the Banyan Tree – that’s all! But the lady took it badly and there was bad blood between them ever since. Blowing through pouted lips, as many people uselessly do when the heat rises, she considered requesting Lord Varuna for a spot of rain. But the man was away on one of his hunting expeditions, so scowling again, she stomped through long corridors of their palace in search of her husband.


At this time of the afternoon, the place was empty. Potter, pensioner, mouse and man all slunk away to find a spot of shade and cool, where head might be lain, and eyes closed, to savor the siesta of a heavy lunch. This year, they’d chosen Indo-Saracenic because that was the fad, so it was all trabeate, with posts and lintels and domed ceilings, where corridors ran away from one another past corners which rarely met; a maze. There were rooms and rooms and rooms, allowing her husband to indulge in his latest fetish, of each afternoon, finding a fresh room which was the coolest, and enjoying his ziz in welcome solitude. Infuriating man! Close to tears, Laxmi finally closed her eyes and conjured his location: left corner, west wing, first floor, blanketed by the shade of a jacaranda tree in perpetual bloom.


She hurried her steps up a flight and along more corridors, eager to lodge her complaint. In her haste, she skipped the usual practice of pausing to gaze at the magnificent Sea of Milk. In technical terms, this is of course utter twaddle, sadly caused when the excessively devout take the metaphorical for the real. Let me clarify: the ‘sea of milk’ bit was a literary creation of one of Poet Kalidasa’s disciples, who upon arrival here, was fascinated by the constancy of frothy waves lashing against the coral reefs and rocks which ring the palaces’ northern shores. No tides, he was heard to whisper in a marvel-filled voice. Silly fellow! Who ever heard of tides in heaven? But never mind, for she had by then made it to the room in the west wing, and stormed inside in a wave of celestial fury.


The sheets were crisp and white with pink floral prints – from Bombay Dyeing because they were supporting ‘Make in India’ this month, and her husband lay sprawled on the left side in splendid repose. “I think you should haul up the Lord of the Treasury and have it out with him” Laxmi snapped, pausing by an Edwardian wardrobe to remove pins from her long, lustrous hair, “Goddess of Wealth, they call me, but I can’t even get a piffling appropriation passed without her trying to trip me up. This has to stop, Vishnu, I mean it! Oh, are you even listening?”


But no, the protector of the worlds was fast asleep. Angry now, she flopped noisily onto the bed, hoping by the act to jolt him out of his diurnal somnolence. She breathed hard through pouted lips once more, using the back of her hand to wipe her brow. “The whole world has central air conditioning, but we are supposed to live like medieval peasants still? Why?”


In answer she received a long, rumbling snore. Turning away onto her side, she lay twirling her plaits, muttering under her breath. “What is this world coming to? Look at that chap Modi? Goes and gets rid of my currency without so much as a by-your-leave – my currency! Do you know how many hours I spent breathing good fortune into those notes?”


Once again, the response was an endless drumroll. Laxmi wrinkled her nose. This was another problem – his snoring. They’d have to have a sit down about that. So loud the earth shook, and so incessant it was driving her slowly insane. People said it was because Arnab was not on TV temporarily, on account of which the protector of the world had taken to retiring early, fine tuning the art of the perfect snore. A real Kharate-master, if you get the joke; if you don’t, forgive the blessed pedantry of my longueur, and pun the word for snores in Hindi – ‘Kharate’ – with its near-homonym for a far-eastern martial arts technique. Laxmi closed her eyes, willing the heat away, and she would have fallen asleep instantly if an ungodly tumult hadn’t erupted in the courtyard below.


For a while she listened, until the curses and abuses grew into execrations of Satanic standing. What on earth was going on? “Vishnu!” She poked him in the ribs, “Oh get up, won’t you?”


The lord took his time waking: he stretched, he groaned, he moaned, he yawned, and then he sighed before blinking his eyes open to look at his wife. “Hello beautiful. How’s the Kuchipudi coming along?” He drawled, wondering sleepily if another woman could look more beautiful.


“You have the intellectual rigor of a dead goat!” It was a loud, male voice which pierced the fiery afternoon stillness.


Both husband and wife looked at one another for a moment before the God got out of bed. There was a large bay window strewn with Jacaranda petals, and he leaned over the railing to look into the courtyard. There were approximately fifty men, all angry, and it looked like fists were set to fly. In the middle stood the portly sage Narada, with hands on hips, and as Vishnu watched, the comment about the cognitive capacity of horned Bovids with horizontal pupils was repeated. “Oi!” The Lord shouted down, “This is not Newshour. Some people are trying to sleep, you know?”


The apologies were louder than the argument, and even before Vishnu could cast a deathly spell, the entire lot rushed upstairs and collected outside their master’s bedroom. He cast a baleful eye over them. “What’s going on?” He growled.


Narada fell at his Lord’s feet with a wail. “Heresy, Sire! These pusillanimous wretches are trying to cover their own unworthiness by questioning my devotion to you”


“What?” He barely managed to cover a yawn and a foul oath. Where was Varuna when you needed him? The weather was unbearable!


“I, Sire, I… your greatest devotee!” Narada rose, the width of his aggrieved eyes matching his bulk, “These curs say I am not such a one”


In this heat? Vishnu rolled his eyes. Still, out of politeness, he inquired “Ah… and who is?”


“Hanuman!” Narada pointed at the Monkey God.


“Thought he was someone else’s first mate” Vishnu sighed, wondering where he might find a glass of cold buttermilk. Standing by her husband’s side, Laxmi frowned at the needless nautical reference; another irritating habit which manifested itself not long after the Kookaburra III won the America’s Cup.


“Avatar-shavatar!” Narada snorted, “Same difference, Sire. I can take this as no less than a grave, personal affront. He must recant or face the consequences”


“Er, yes, well, we might look into it in the evening, eh?”


“Noo…” Narada’s face crumpled in shock, “IPL starts tonight. We have to decide now


Vishnu bit a lower lip. Left to themselves, this silliness would descend into a fight, and who knew how long they would take to pick up Narada’s pieces once Hanuman swung his mace? He put a palm to his head. “Fine, fine! You!” he pointed at Narada, “Come with me now!” And the God snapped his fingers making both disappear.




The long, fine notes of David Gilmour’s Stratocaster sounded in the background as both men flew from cloud to cloud. In the sky, Surya the sun god danced with a fury that would have pleased Shiva. And speak of the devil, they passed Mount Kailas just then, but the brother-god’s sacred ice pedestal was empty. Off on tour again, Vishnu thought; never rests, never complains, and when things get miserable after spring, he and his wife Parvati take a long break at Kedarnath. He knew how to live, how to stay calm – the cool God, and Vishnu envied Shiva for that. The outer Himalayas would be magnificent this time of year, and who wouldn’t want to be there to watch the snows melt? Everyone except yours truly, who was stuck with having to smooth the ruffled feathers of a bulky peacock. Yes, Narada was disciple number one, but insufferably so; perhaps it was time to teach the conceited fellow a lesson. Perhaps indeed…


“There” Vishnu pointed downwards as they finally floated south across the Godavari.


“Ahmednagar, Sire?” Narada looked puzzled, “Nothing there but the Armoured Corps”


They came to a hover above a small hillock south of town. The fields around it were burnt to brown and the trees covered in dust. A lone farmer toiled in the sun, holding the tip of his plough as a buffalo pulled a furrow through the earth. “Listen” Vishnu said.


The man sang of Krishna – another avatar; a Marathi devotional hymn, pure of prayer and crisp of melody, extolling the virtues of the Blue God.


“What’s it got to do with me?” Narada asked rather stuffily.


The God glared at his devotee. “See that pot of oil by the tree?” When Narada nodded, Vishnu continued, “I want you to go down there, place the pot on your head, and walk around the hillock without spilling a drop of oil. Do that successfully and I’ll concede to your claim”


“Narayana, Narayana…” The chubby sage giggled with a twinkle in his eye, and flew to earth to commence his task. There would be no more claimants to his position after today, and the Monkey God’s tail would be set on fire with more gleeful finality than Ravana could ever have hoped for. My Lord be praised!




By the time Narada finished his circumambulation of the hillock it was five in the evening, and the sage was ready to lapidate the Sun God for his scorching beams. The man was covered with sweat and grime, and his cotton robes clung to his skin as if for dear life. A few birds chased one another lazily in the sky, and a herd of antelopes sheltered under a mango tree. Other than that, there was only the farmer, work now done, gathering his belongings at the end of another long day, while he sang his song to Krishna.


Panting equally from exertion and anticipation, Narada collapsed onto the fluffy cloud beside his beloved God. “There, done it! Can I have it now?”


Vishnu lay on his back chewing on a Neem twig. “Spill any oil?”


“No Sire”


“Use any magical powers?”


No Sire! Wouldn’t dream of it”


“Then tell me, great Sage, how many times did you take my name, or think of me, while circling the hillock?”


Narada gasped. “Nuts or what? Think of you? The oil was filled to the brim! Wanted me to spill it or something? Hah!”


Vishnu grinned. “Ah, good. I was just wondering though… that farmer. He spent all day doing his work – hard work, difficult work, needing all the concentration he can command. And yet, not once did he pause in the singing of his hymns. Think about that the next time you preen, won’t you? Cheerio”


And with a snap of his fingers, the God vanished.


‘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.



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.


(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.


(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.


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




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.


(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.


(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.



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?



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!


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!


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.



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.


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.


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!


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. 


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.




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.





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.




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.