Thursday 14 March 2019

The Ides of March !

Dear Friends, Election fever has gripped India. There is much chest thumping from Hindu nationalists about how strong India is as a country and its undoubted position as the greatest democracy in the world and the natural leader of Asia. So here is a story for them and you:

Vikram, the Tiger, and Dr. Yang

Vikram’s village was the most beautiful in the world – at least that’s what they thought of it in his village. People were always laughing and happy, celebrating festivals every day of the week. It didn’t matter sometimes that there was little to eat. Or, when some child died suddenly, everyone would be silent for a moment, tears as large as pearls would fall from their eyes, and then someone would remember that it was a very special day of the year, because of some saint’s miracles; or because something good had happened long ago; or a great man had been born that very day.

The people of the village were very proud of their long, colourful history; so many wonderful things had happened long ago, that most had been forgotten, or reinvented as stories everyone could understand. Those long-forgotten events must have been wonderful, for through the wilderness all round rose great, ancient, crumbly, ruined walls of granite, where birds nested among the sculptures.

So, they had many stories to tell each other, and feel happy about, no matter what was happening to them right then. They might be desperately poor, but they were proud, and happy to be proud. They sang in the mornings, they danced in the evenings, and during the drowsy afternoons, they told stories they had heard, or made up then and there. But they were also happy about the large herds of goats they had, which fed them when the fields were empty of corn, and the streams were dry.

But in all that festivity, there was one creature that hid in the dark forests, which would pounce and ruin everything till they cheered up once again. This was a tiger, which would leap out with a loud growl and snatch away a couple of their goats from their kitchen, right from under their noses. No one liked this. They hated the tiger. Vikram most of all.

Vikram was a very strong, handsome man. His mother said so. Every week she oiled his bulging muscles so that he could admire his reflection in the stream that ran through the village, that is, when there was water in it. While no girl openly admired him like his mother, Vikram was sure from their sidelong glances that they liked him secretly as well. If he was the most handsomest man in the village, clearly it was his duty to drive away that thieving tiger.

Vikram gathered all the young men in the village, and they made up rude songs about the tiger, how he was a cowardly tiger, afraid to face the brave men of the village, how ugly he looked, how uncultured he was, without songs, or dancing, or festivities. They sang these songs, and danced on the streets, till everybody laughed, and the men were tired, and all the mothers came out and fed them great platefuls of spicy food. They ate so much that there was nothing left for the little girls, but no one minded that because the men were so brave.

They sang these songs every week to frighten away the tiger, till one morning it pounced with a low growl into the village clearing, tearing Vikram’s silk shirt, that his mother had so proudly stitched for him, and ran away into the jungle carrying two goats. Imagine such effrontery! The men were livid with rage. Vikram’s face went from brown to pink to red, till his mother consoled him by promising to stitch him another silk shirt, with the money she sometimes earned by working in the fields.

But the incident rankled with Vikram. He brooded. Then he cheered up, for he knew what he had to do. This time a few girls made up a cloth effigy of the tiger. All the men beat a drum and danced round the effigy, beating it about, spitting on it, and kicking it with their feet. Then they burnt it ceremoniously in the middle of the village square. That would be the end of the tiger.

But the tiger which had no culture anyway didn’t seem to care one bit what they all thought about it. Next time they were celebrating the monthly ‘Hate Tiger Day,’ it pounced in their midst, scattering the men in all directions, went up to the goat pen as bold as brass, seized a couple of the goats and calmly made off with its booty.

Such arrogance was not to be put up with. The men screamed slogans against the tiger, they tied black scarves round their heads and called themselves the Tiger Death Watch; they held solemn meetings, they drew maps, they argued over plans. The women waited on them hand and foot while they deliberated, and at night were very quiet when the men came home tired from the meetings. While the men were discussing how to oppose the tiger, disputes and disagreements cropped up amongst them; the men split into two, then three, and then into four camps, with hardly a polite word said to each other.

Vikram called a big meeting of all the groups, and harangued them from a big dais that had been built for the purpose.

“Brothers in Arms! All Men of the Village who Hate the Tiger! Welcome!” he roared. “We are all gathered in Unity today, because We are as One, against the Hated Tiger. Let the Tiger beware! This time there is no escape for him! This time since we are all united, he shall perish – He the Greedy One! He the One without Culture! He the one without a Village! He against whom we have declared War!”

All the men happily shouted “War! War! War!” till you couldn’t hear a word said over the din. Suddenly, despite the noise, they heard the roar of the tiger. The men sprang apart. The tiger leapt through the opening in their ranks, on to the dais, and once again tearing Vikram’s new silk shirt it made off into the jungle carrying two more goats.

Once the tiger had disappeared, everyone gathered round Vikram and congratulated him on his courage, and loudly and solemnly vowed to avenge this fresh attack by the tiger. Vikram’s mother noticed that in tearing his shirt, the tiger’s claws had also left three red stripes on his arm, out of which blood was slowly starting to drip. Hastily she washed the wound with water from the village well, and bound it up with cloth torn from the edge of her sari.
Vikram, though badly shaken, strutted about the village streets, conspicuously showing off his bandaged arm for all to admire. The men were glad they hadn’t been wounded, and started to envy him a little for all the attention he was getting from the girls. In the evenings, as the days wore on, Vikram began to elaborate little by little the incident when he was hurt by the tiger, till he and his listeners began to believe that it had been a long life and death struggle, from which the tiger had emerged badly injured, at death’s door actually, and had slunk off into the jungle to die, at least never to return.

Vikram waited impatiently for the day when he could remove the bandage and show off the wicked claw marks on his arm, but the wound refused to heal, became puffed up, and started to seep pus, causing him real pain. No one knew whether it was the dirty water of the village or the dirty cloth that had caused the wound to become septic, but the wise woman in the village was sure after the tenth day that it needed looking at by an experienced doctor.

Now Vikram’s village was a remote one, and the only reliable doctor was to be found over the large hill to the north, in a valley his people rarely visited, though they had heard much about their distant neighbours. There was no other way but for Vikram to make a long journey over the high hill and visit the doctor on the other side. So his mother made up nice things for him to eat on the way; and all the people turned up to see him off, with many a starry-eyed girl weeping inconsolably when they at last lost sight of him over the brow of the hill.

It was a long, though not unpleasant walk over the high hill. Vikram would have enjoyed it quite a lot, for it was a fine day, but for his arm aching like the dickens. He moaned a little every now and then, but cheered up at lunch time, and made quite a nice meal of the many goodies his mother had made especially for him. He particularly relished the sweets she had packed at the bottom of the basket. As the shades of evening drew long, he  climbed down the steep slope on the other side of the hill, holding on to shrubs and stunted trees that grew along the way to keep himself from sliding and getting hurt some more. Finally, after gingerly making his way round a very large smooth boulder, he dropped the last ten feet to the ground, almost to his great surprise by the open door of a shiny ambulance, with a revolving blue light, and a banner painted in red, which said: “Welcome to Neighbour Hero Vikram!”

He was quite astonished at this, but the smiling nurses who ushered him into the ambulance just nodded and said nothing in reply to his questions. They wiped his face with a hot towel, gave him a tall glass of very refreshing lemon juice, and took his temperature, after making him comfortable on a nice clean soft bed inside the ambulance, which sped along its siren wailing. Vikram looked out of the window with interest, as he lay stretched out, tired but comfortable. This neighbouring place was nothing like the village he had left behind. For one thing, it seemed to be very large, with busy streets lined with well-lit shops, restaurants, and theatres. The streets were also full of well-dressed people, getting in and out of shops and into taxis, buses, and trams. Well, it was all very impressive, but it wasn’t like home.

In fact, Vikram felt he didn’t quite like the place. He couldn’t put his finger on what he disapproved of, perhaps, it was the busy orderliness of the place, yes, that was it, it was all like some clockwork, not at all comfy. For one thing, all he could smell was antiseptic, and nowhere he could see mounds of garbage rotting, with flies humming all round, or rats jumping out. And the people – well, they all seemed to come out of a mould, rather flashy and well-fed, but nothing more. Even all the kids were round, there wasn’t one skinny kid running bare-assed to poke fun at. But the way the nurses looked after him, they were kind, he would give them that.

The ambulance at last stopped outside a white hospital, and the door was opened by an old man in a white coat, who looked like a doctor.

“Welcome! Welcome! Neighbour Hero Vikram!” he said smiling, and bowing, his hands folded one into the other in front. “I am Doctor Yang. Nie-Houu?”

“How are my knees? Perfectly well, thank you, though that beastly hill took a lot out of them, I can tell you,” said Vikram a little irritably, at the formal politeness of the doctor. “It’s this arm I am worried about.” And he held out his swollen bandaged arm to the doctor.

Dr. Yang looked very serious, and drew in his breath sharply after peering at the arm through his thick glasses. Then he hurried Vikram into the cool hospital, and refused to answer any questions while he made Vikram swallow a large white pill, and a red-and- green capsule. Vikram had to take two gulps of water before they would go down his throat. Again he started to ask questions, but the doctor shushed him, helped the nurses take off most of his clothes, down to his underpants, and then swathed him in a nice white fluffy cotton dressing gown. Vikram was forced gently into a large white bed, and while a nurse adjusted the pillows, Dr. Yang took out a needle and syringe from a drawer near the bed.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” said Dr. Yang smiling, while he cleared out a tiny stream of liquid from the needle tip. “It is good for you to take this injection. If you like, you can look the other way.”

Vikram turned his head away, for honestly he didn’t want to see the needle poking into his arm. Biting his lip, he waited for the sting of the needle, but he didn’t feel a thing.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it,” said Dr. Yang, with his fixed smile, as he threw the needle into a waste-basket. “We will now dress your wound.” Very carefully, he and a nurse unwrapped the bandage, which had got quite dirty by then. It did hurt a bit when the doctor gingerly swabbed the wound clean, but Vikram was beginning to feel better already as the doctor fixed a new bandage on his arm.

“Thank you, doctor, for your help,” said Vikram politely. “I am sure now you have looked at it, it will heal quickly. I better get back to my village, though frankly I don’t look forward to the climb at night.”
The doctor continued to smile and bow, but he drew in his breath sharply.

“I am afraid that it not possible. You must rest now, you are very tired. Tomorrow morning, we will examine the wound again and then decide when you may be able to go home. But I think you may have to stay here at least for a couple of days, before I am sure it is healing.”

Vikram was not accustomed to all this fuss. The doctor was no better than his own mother. He started to remonstrate, but the nurses had already brought in dinner, in a great steaming tray. It smelled delicious, and after a few more polite objections, and thank-yous, Vikram settled down to enjoy a meal of clear egg-drop soup, lemon fish on a bed of soft noodles surrounded by crisply-cooked almonds, baby corn, and mushrooms. At the end of his meal, they gave him a pill along with his ice-cream, which made him fall into a painless, dreamless sleep.

The next morning, Dr. Yang bustled in with another doctor who looked exactly like him, at least to Vikram, who had just finished a wholesome breakfast of steamed dumplings.

“Ah! I see your appetite has come back. That is very good sign,” said Dr. Yang jovially. “Here is Dr. Chung. I want him to have a look at your arm. He is a specialist in these matters of infection caused by animal attacks.”

Dr. Chung looked long at the wound, which already was beginning to look less angry. Then he asked one of the nurses to prepare some slides of the droplets of pus that could still be seen. Then he gave Vikram a big smile.

“This afternoon the lab reports will come in, and then we will know what course of treatment we must follow.” Then bowing deeply to Dr. Yang, who also bowed deeply in return, the specialist doctor bustled out. Vikram gave up trying to argue with Dr. Yang, and settled back in his bed to watch a programme on the TV set that the nurses had rigged up over his bed. Time passed easily. He looked out of the window at the neatly swept lawns of the hospital, on which a couple of birds were hopping about picking up any worms they could find. Well, these people were all right, thought Vikram, except they didn’t seem to have any fun. They just worked, and that wasn’t life was it, now?

The sumptuous lunch was just as delicious as the dinner of the night before, and in the gentle warmth of the afternoon, he closed his eyes to take a little siesta. Dr. Yang and Dr. Chung came in with the tea. Perched on either side of his bed, and helping themselves to an occasional biscuit, they explained his case to him. And though they kept smiling cheerfully all the time, he learnt that it was not a simple infection, but something caused by a very long word that seemed to end in ‘coccus,’ whatever that was, and so he should stay in hospital for a few more days, till it was all cleared away. Vikram said he didn’t feel any pain any more, and the doctors nodded and said that was a very good sign, but he had to stay, and that was that.

Vikram was a little anxious that his mother might be worried over his absence, but then said a nurse, who surprisingly broke into speech, she would rather have him back all well and clean than sick with a bad infection, wouldn’t she? Vikram had to agree. He also thought his absence would be talked about in the village by everyone, including the girls, and great would be the welcome when he went back home. So he lay back to enjoy his stay in the hospital, imagining the welcoming party the village would give in his honour.

The days passed swiftly. The nurses who were always in and out of his room were beginning to talk a little more, and he learned a lot about his neighbours through their conversation. They were very fair, if only the girls from his village could be that fair! But he didn’t think any of the nurses were beautiful, not with those slinky eyes, he couldn’t. The two doctors were both short and round, with thick glasses, not at all handsome like his village men. They hardly said anything to his questions; they just smiled, or nodded, or gave him an injection, or made him swallow a pill.

Finally on the fourth morning, the nurses brought in his clothes all neatly washed and ironed, and signaled to him to wear them once again. Vikram was very happy to do so, and was admiring himself in the mirror on the wall when Dr. Yang came in with a thick wad of papers, which he said were his latest ‘reports.’

“The infection, honoured guest, is cleared,” said Dr. Yang with a deep bow. “You can depart at any time. You are well.” He smiled and bowed again. “Mr. Sun from the Ministry is here with a few small gifts for your village.”

Mr. Sun looked exactly like Dr. Yang and Dr. Chung, he was short and round and wore thick glasses, and smiled a lot. He bustled forward with brightly packaged gifts tied up with blue ribbons. “Some silks for the ladies, and some special sweets for men. We know you like sweets much – a lot!”

He burst out into embarrassed laughter, and Dr. Yang joined in, almost hysterically, thought Vikram. All the nurses were now lined up along the wall of his room, and were smiling and bowing.

As Vikram prepared to leave with his gifts strapped to his back, he turned to his hosts and asked: “Tell me, does the tiger not steal your goats? How do you manage to keep him out?”

Mr. Sun and Dr. Yang giggled. “Goats in pens in agricultural farms,” said Mr. Sun at last. “Tiger can’t get in without password. We not give him – Password!” Mr. Sun bowed and giggled some more.

Vikram was baffled to say the least. “Tell me, how did you do all this?” he asked with a vague wave of his arm all round, indicating the whole place, and much more. “Why is everything so different here?” he blurted out, a little conscious that he might have said something impolite.

Mr. Sun sat down in a chair and goggled at him through inky thick glasses.

“We were the same, like you, like everyone else. We were worse. Our people came to you to learn.” He bowed deeply towards Vikram.  “We had nothing, no food, no arms to defend. No friends, even. Then we work together; we build, slowly – we make many mistakes.” He nodded once again deeply, and everyone was very serious all of a sudden, and Dr. Yang took in his breath with a hiss. “But now we are better. We modernize; we have hospitals, schools, granaries, theatres, shops, everything, even democlacy! Now Tiger can’t hurt us!”

Mr. Sun beamed, and everyone smiled as well. Vikram didn’t know what to say, so he smiled and bowed in turn. At least he was better in one respect, he thought to himself. He knew how to say ‘democracy.’ After waving goodbye many times and bowing to return their interminable bows, Vikram set off home. From the top of the hill, he looked down at the place he had left behind, which stretched away into the distance. It was bustling and busy all right, but somehow soulless. He thought of what Mr. Sun had said. It would take a very long time and a lot of work to build all those schools, and hospitals, and granaries and shops and things. He would be exhausted by the time it was all done, and so would every man be in his village, if they all had to work like women. It would be pointless to do all that work just to keep a stupid tiger away from taking an occasional goat. He would have to think of a better way. In fact he had already. When he got back he would organize a Protest March against the tiger; they would all shout slogans, and wave flags, and have a very grand time, and see themselves in the evening news later. Yes, this way was far better than that of stupid Mr. Sun, and Dr. Yang, and Dr. Chung. He marched down to his village with a song on his lips.


Sunday 26 August 2018


‘You still enjoying your bucolic life up in the Nilgiris hills?’
‘Of course! Very much.’
‘And is your small homestay still giving you an affordable income? I believe life up in the hills is expensive.’
‘Oh, tourists love to stay with families rather than in impersonal hotels. So far I have just about managed to pay expenses, but now it is going to be very difficult. Several other homestay owners are closing down, but I persevere.’
‘Why? What is the problem?’
‘No problem, really... It’s just that the government, with very good intentions, mind you, wants everybody to re-register their properties. People are lazy, getting scared of all the paperwork, and would rather close down.’
‘What! Close down just because of a little paperwork!’
‘Well... more than a little, actually, but I am accustomed to it, since all my people have always worked for the Indian Government. Others don’t know. They say they would rather close down because they cannot afford the bribes.’
‘But bribes are just plain wrong, right?’
‘Not if you know what pressures government servants are under. A bribe is a tip. You know –TIP – To Insure Promptness. If you don’t get papers back from offices in your lifetime, you leave a huge headache for your children.’
‘But – but – but why should there be so much paperwork?’
‘Look at it this way. India is a poor country, and everyone wants a secure government job that gives you a pension at the end of your life. Naturally once you are in, your department wants to keep growing, so everyone knows it is important and indispensible. So government departments recruit more public servants, and they have to do something, so they produce more forms for people to fill in. It is logical, right?’
‘Yes...maybe...but it doesn’t sound very efficient, somehow?’
‘On the contrary, India will fall apart if not for the paperwork. You see, most people are very poor, and there are very many jobless youths, people can’t get proper medical treatment without paying huge sums to private hospitals, they cannot get their children into good schools, without paying huge fees. What does all this add up to? Frustration! Which is dangerous, can lead to revolt. But paperwork keeps everyone very, very busy, no time to think of their grievances. So the kindly government produces more forms to fill in on a regular basis.’
‘My God! And how many forms have you to fill in to have your homestay in the Nilgiris hills?’
‘Not very many, really, knowing government as I do. Let me see now... Yes the usual signed certificates from the Thasildar and the Collector of the District, from the Land Records office, the Town Planning Department, certificates from the Roads and Buildings, from Water Works, from Forest, Agriculture, Mining and Geology departments – yes also from the Railways and Civil Aviation that the house does not pose an obstruction, and, yes, a new one that the Archaeological Survey of India should certify that the house is not on top of a historical site that might be found later. All very simple.’
‘How on earth are you going to get all those certificates?’
‘Well, that’s where the timely tip comes in.’
‘And you put up with it?’
‘Yes, everybody does in India. In fact, the government in its hurry has left out many other vitally needed certificates you should have to get your house approved. I mean, there should be a certificate from the Animal Welfare Board that no animal has been injured on the property, another from the Human Rights Commission that no atrocity has been committed, a similar one from Women’s Welfare Board about no work-place harassment, an important one from the Central Bureau of Investigation that the house is not being used for terrorist activity; and yes, one from the Coast Guard as well.’
‘The Coast Guard? You are up six-thousand feet on the hills, man!’
‘In these days of global warming you can never tell from one day to the next how high the sea will rise. And oh, yes, above all, a personally signed certificate from The President of the Republic that the house is in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution and its Directive Principles.’   

Monday 20 August 2018

Today, in The Wire, Prof. Truschke has written about how scholarly voices are being silenced in India. She came under the criticism of some rightwing Hindu fanatics for writing a history about the  Emperor Aurangzeb, which showed him in a better light than popular belief. I give below my own take on the Great Moghul, allowing humour to triumph over history.


Cast of Characters

THE EMPEROR SHAHJEHAN:                   A handsome man, with an imperial beard, beautifully dressed, as you have seen in pictures

PRINCESS JAHANARA:                               Very beautiful, a bit like Aiswarya Rai, dressed in salwar kameez

PRINCESS ROSHANARA:                           A younger version of her older sister

CROWN PRINCE DARA SHIKOH:             A handsome young man of 22, informally dressed in kurta pyjamas

PRINCE AURANGAZEB:                             Slim and handsome, similarly dressed

PRINCE MURAD:                                         Still a boy, rather tubby, similarly dressed


The royal rose gardens in Agra


One evening, early spring, 1637

THE SETTING:          [It is the royal rose garden of Akbarabad in the 17th century... A magnificent low table laden with fruits, and a hundred dishes, on a wide beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully dressed serving maids flutter about arranging things, and leave. THE EMPEROR SHAHJEHAN enters, followed by his sons, DARA SHIKOH, MURAD, and AURANGAZEB, and his daughters, JAHANARA and ROSHANARA, chatting. They seat themselves on low cushions, and start to help themselves generously. After a little clatter, SHAHJEHAN speaks]

SHAHJEHAN:            I want to discuss something important, that’s why I have sent away the servants. All our advisors have their own axes to grind,  they are such clever bastards they have me confused. But I know I can trust your judgement.

AURANGAZEB:        [concerned] What’s up Dad? I should have been more attentive at
Court, I know, but I have been travelling through the villages in the  Ganga basin. I came back to report that most of our poor Hindu farmers have had a disastrous year. There isn’t enough food to go around, and frankly I find all this opulence disgusting.

SHAHJEHAN:            Zebby, that’s precisely what I am concerned about. We must do something quickly, but what?

DARA SHIKOH:        Excuse me, we are an Islamic empire, are we not? Zebby is always so solicitous about these benighted kafirs. Why don’t they convert to Islam?

ROSHANARA:           Dar! You are such a Muslim fundamentalist! Maybe it comes of being Crown Prince, or something. Don’t let anyone outside the palace hear you talk like that, or the Rajputs will be up in revolt.
SHAHJEHAN:            Dar, that’s right, you are Crown Prince, and you’ve got to be a lot more diplomatic. Remember the way grandfather Akbar got round everybody? Marrying into their royal family, bringing Hindu pandits to Court. For one thing, they were excellent accountants.

DARA SHIKOH:        Dad, I’m very careful, but to be honest, I can’t stomach most of their customs – I mean, take Sati, women being butchered because their aged dotard husbands have died! And dedicating young girls to their filthy temples and making them devadasis. Disgusting!

AURANGAZEB :       Dar! I won’t have you speak of customs you don’t understand. Why don’t you read some of the books on Hinduism in the old Humanyun Library for a change? Sex is not something filthy – how do you think you were born? – it is the force of Nature that produces eternal rebirth.

JAHANARA:              Dad, please stop them arguing about religion. Zebby will always be a Hindu, and Dar an old-fashioned Arab maulvi. I am sick and tired of such arguments, not at tea time in any case. Mumu, don’t you agree?
[Murad nods in agreement but keeps on eating and drinking]

SHAHJEHAN:            Listen, we have something more important to think about than Islam or Hinduism. The people are on the verge of starvation, and I am determined to prevent a famine at all cost. I have a vague plan I want to check out with you first. The rains have failed in the Doab, but the Deccan has had a good harvest. Our Hindu merchants could bring up the grain very quickly by forced marches, but, here is the problem, the poor have no purchasing power. Remember Dar when your time comes, never get offside of your Hindu merchants. They will save the empire for you, if you keep your Islamic fundamentalism in check. So, what’s to be done?

ROSHANARA:           Dad, I can’t bear to see our Hindu subjects in such a pitiable plight. Buy the grain, Dad, empty the treasury if you must, but buy and distribute free.

SHAHJEHAN:            Rosy, you are such a soft-hearted girl it gets in the way of your good sense. You know what will happen? Our merchants will corner all the wheat, and people will still starve. Our Hindus are pious and efficient, but for them the laws of commerce are the laws of God.

MURAD:                     [suddenly breaking silence] Dad, throw a great party for a month. Let everyone be invited, let everyone eat.

SHAHJEHAN:            Mumu, I don’t want to feed our fat soldiers and our lazy court officials one more morsel. No, public works are the only way out. Like building roads, buildings, that sort of thing. We must give work to people, and put money in their hands. It has to be a large public work that can go on for a number of years, and build up people’s incomes, and yet be non-controversial, nothing anyone can object to.Something way out, it should blow their minds.

AURANGAZEB:        [leaping up] I know just what it should be! Dad! Build a tomb!

SHAHJEHAN:            Zebby, don’t be crazy! What do you mean, a tomb?

AURANGAZEB:        [resuming his seat] Not any old tomb, Dad! But the greatest, the loveliest, the most extraordinary Tomb ever built. Build it for poor Mom. Every wretched Persian hanger-on in Court is a poet, or fancies himself a poet. It will be accepted Dad. Totally, non-controversial!

JAHANARA:              History will call you a great wastrel, Dad!

SHAHJEHAN:            I don’t care a Banjara’s curse what history says of me. I think Zebby has got something here. Let me think about it. But we’ve got to act very quickly.

AURANGAZEB:        I will call all the architects round tomorrow morning to the Diwan-I-Khas. A thousand trades will be vitalized. We will have fifty thousand men breaking ground across the Jamuna in a week! People in Rajasthan are in poor shape as well. We will order marble from there; get all the quarries going! All the artisans as far east as Lucknow will be called up! Just think, Dad! What will they do with their wages? They are all from farming families, they will put it into land, into water works. We will banish food scarcity forever!

DARA SHIKOH:        Dad, I give in right away. Zebby should be the next Emperor!

AURANGAZEB:        [very seriously] Dar! This is no joking matter. I don’t like the ramshackle way we Moguls have run this great land for so long. We must respect the institutions we build. The right of primogeniture must be scrupulously respected. Like it or not, Dar, you must be Emperor, when Dad passes away a thousand years from now, and I will support you, just give me the Finance portfolio.

DARA SHIKOH:        And what will you do with it, Zebs?

AURANGAZEB:        We must get rid of all this meaningless extravagance. We must have a ‘lean and mean’ administration, and invest tax money usefully. Everyone must become a ‘nationalist.’

JAHANARA:              What do you mean by that?

AURANGAZEB:        [impatiently] Just the same as loyalty to the Emperor, only it is deeper, it is loyalty to themselves as a people of one land. India must become a strong unitary State, allright, under an Islamic Empire, come by in a fit of absence of mind. Come to think of it, I am going to put on a new ‘persona.’

ROSHANARA:           Dad, it is painful to have an intellectual in the family! What is a ‘persona’?

AURANGAZEB:        A word, I thought up – something like a mask, only you can never take it off. You will be glad to hear, Dar, I am going to become a very pious Muslim.

DARA SHIKOH:        [interested] Really, has the good Maulvi got through to you at last?

AURANGAZEB :       Listen, the trouble with Hinduism is that the beliefs are too liberal, they are not for this age, maybe for some other future period. Right now we need strong unified belief, as in Islam, to build a strong unified State, to bring people together. If we demand loyalty from people, we must be equally loyal to them. I shall never let any personal consideration come in the way of ensuring the people’s welfare. 

DARA SHIKOH:        Zebby, you can go build one unified State for yourself. I don’t agree with you, seriously. All this talk of unity is very dangerous. Akbar would have lost Agra if he had tried to impose uniformity over this great land. He adopted a federal structure, and that’s the only one that will work. I will follow your example, Zebby, and put on, what did you call it? – a new ‘persona’. I will act out the liberal Prince. Rosy, get me some of these Hindu sacred books, will you? I will have someone translate one of them in my name into Persian. You see, if we let everyone do his thing, they will all come to us here in Agra, to the Royal Court, to mediate between their differing interests. And Freedom, not Unity, will get the ‘economy’ going.

JAHANARA:              Now, what in heaven’s name is that?

DARA SHIKOH:        Well, I can coin terms just as well as Zebby here. I don’t just mean commerce, or trade, or agriculture, but the sum total of work, how each work activity supports and depends on another work activity. That inter-relationship is what makes the gross product of all work grow, and that growth is dependent on local freedom of action, not on Zebby’s idea of a strong centralized State.

SHAHJEHAN:            I love to see my children argue.

MURAD:                     All this is nonsense, Dad. You don’t have to do extraordinary things to get people going. Build your tomb if you like. I am all for art, and extravagance. You should hear Father Pius go on about how art and architecture brought wealth to poor cities like Firenze, Venezia, Milano, of his country. Dad, people don’t want to do great things like Zebby, they just want to have a good time. Have we any idea how many people were employed to produce this single bottle of wine? Or these dishes? They all represent work, money, incomes. And dancing girls mean jewellery, costumes, weaves of cotton and silk of a thousand hues. This great land lives on its textiles. A rich life for us means a good life for everyone in Hindustan!

JAHANARA:              I don’t understand any of this intellectual cut and thrust. No one in court understands any of you either, I know. I am sure even in the future, learned historians will never understand any of you. Anyway, these ideas have given me a headache. Mumu, let’s go away, and plan a great party.

MURAD:                     Right on!
[Jahanara and Murad leave]

ROSHANARA:           We are such a close-knit family. I hope all these stupid ideas never come between us, and we always stay together.

SHAHJEHAN:            Don’t worry, Rosy, love. We will always stay together.

[AURANGAZEB grips his father’s hand, while DARA SHIKOH looks on fondly. ]



Sunday 19 August 2018

What Price the Bard?


Scene:          A STAGE. Working Lights. Chairs strewn all over the place, empty coffee cups. Director and cast enter in ordinary day clothes.
CAST: Director; Weedy Young Man; Serious Young Man; Old Headmaster; Portly Jovial Man – Prim Tightlipped Lady, Cross Young Marxist lady; Old Lady in her Eighties; Stern Lady Lecturer, Brahmin Lady

Director:  Okay, everybody! We are starting on a mission where none of our groups have gone before! We are going to do Shakespeare!
Cast[all]: Ooh! [some clapping]
Director: Yes, it’s going to be tough. And I am going to be mercilessly professional! Got that! You will be made to weep! But at the end of the day, you will be doing Shakespeare!
More clapping from Cast.
Someone: We are with you!
Others:         All the Way with Boss-man’s Say!
Director: Good. For our first play I am picking the most difficult, and also the most theatrical. We are going to do Richard the Third!
More Oohs and Ahhs.
Prim Tightlipped Middleaged Lady[uncertainly]: I’m not very sure [pause] I’m not at all sure we should do that.[in a rush] At least I am not going to be part of it if you insist!
Director[confused]: Why?... Why, what’s the matter?
PTM Lady: Well, the main character, Richard the Third, he is differently abled. Shakespeare keeps on about his deformity, makes me sick. My husband lost a leg defending our country in 1971. God only knows what I went through during rehab! And it was heartbreaking to see how people – even your good friends – were callous. My husband deserved the respect of the nation, not pity!
Director [mumbling]: I am so sorry... what you must have suffered...
PTM Lady: Humiliating. Not just me, my poor brave husband!
Director [brightly]: Shakespeare wrote 39 plays! More if you ask me, but that’s the official tally. Let’s start with something funny! Midsummer Night’s Dream! I have been laughing at Bottom and his group since I was six!
Cross Young Marxist Woman: I am sure You have. It sickens me to think how the bourgeois middleclass think poor people are idiots. They are not! Who do you think puts food on the table? The poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed! Have any of you spent a day in a village? Anyone? I have. A celebration in a village is far more sophisticated than any show I have seen in Covent Garden or Carnegie Hall!
Director [quickly to cut discussion short]: You are right, you are right. Let’s all put our heads together. Come on people! Community Effort!
Weedy Young Man who fancies himself as an Actor: I say! I have an idea. Let’s do Henry the Fifth! I ... was Henry in our school play.
CYM Woman: In our first production we will show ourselves to be unashamed colonials! For the Brits, Agincourt was a romantic victory; for the French a disaster. The Brits raped France for a hundred years then turned on India!  
WY Man shrinks back out of the light, as some nod doubtfully.
Director[trying to regain control]: Let’s stick to Comedy, shall we? Which one gets the most votes?
Mischievous Portly Man: I vote for Taming of the Shrew!
Stern Lady Lecturer: If I didn’t know you, I would hit you over the head with my bag. You know, it’s not funny! Not funny at all! How long must we tolerate male chauvinism? You think it is a joke, but it is only a pathetic admission of your own adolescence!
Director: People! People! Let’s not quarrel! A dramatic cast should be knit closer than any family. Madam, you know we would not do that play. I have serious reservations myself. Okay, [uncertainly]shall we try Twelfth Night?
Old Headmaster: It is vulgar. We did the play once at my old school. All the boys – I mean the bad mischievous ones – got on to the double meanings, and kept shouting ‘and so she makes her Pees’ during ‘Founders Day.’  I was embarrassed. Our richest patron withdrew her support. I still shiver at the thought.
Serious Young Man[lifting his head from a book by Foucault]: We should do something really meaningful, if we do anything at all. Let’s do King Lear.
Old Lady in her Eighties: Poor old well-meaning man. There is no respect for old people. I suppose there never was. I am not complaining, my servants are reliable, of course they pilfer, but who doesn’t? But don’t you think it’s a shame, the way the old are treated? Even architects and designers, who should know better. Slippery floors, narrow stairs, uncomfortable chairs. Will the play help people see things in a different light? I am afraid not. They will say, a foolish old man, confirming stereotypes.
Portly Man: I say! Let’s do something romantic. That will bring in an audience. We should try and get a few more than the usual dozen family and friends type. Let’s do Romeo and Juliet. It’s a crowd puller if ever there was one.
Brahmin Lady [sharply]: No thank you! The cinemas and TV give us enough of all this romantic love nonsense. Children start to believe that they must fall in love, and that too with the most unsuitable person! I live in dread everyday thinking of my daughter in college. I will not breathe easy till she is safely married off to some good wellplaced boy from our community. I am not prejudiced, don’t get me wrong, not at all. But marriages with Muslims and Dalits do not work. It’s all this wrong notion of love. Marriage means having a family like your ancestors with their way of life.
Dead silence for a bit.
Weedy Young Man re-emerging: We need strong theatre. Something that gives us actors good parts. Like Macbeth! Good roles for men and women!
Stern Lady lecturer: Witches! And Bad Women! Yes, let’s perpetuate patriarchal prejudices. Every year idiots burn poor old women as witches!
WY Man slinks back into darkness.
Old lady: Shakespeare always meant magic to me. Taking us out of our present world. Tempest is magical. My daughter played Miranda when she was in sixth class. She wore a blue dress and she danced so beautifully.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: It’s very good of you to bring it up, Madam. The East India Company was given its commission in Shakespeare’s heyday. And the Tempest is prescient it how mercantile-capitalism was going to invade other countries and enslave oppressed people!
Old lady [bewildered]: Enslave? Enslave who? I mean whom?
Director[quickly]: Yes, yes, Madam, there is this new version, making Caliban a slave and all that. Played out if you ask me. Any other ideas?
PTM Lady: I do not hold with all these newly-worked political versions. Now someone will tell me Othello was all about racism!
CYM Woman: Yes, it was!
PTM Lady: How was it? Go ahead tell me!
CYM Woman: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Black anti-hero!
PTM Lady: He was a Hero! A great military leader! He loves Desdemona deeply. Read the play, he was misled by a traitor, Iago.
CYM Woman: Read the subtext. A black man, however normal on the outside, however great a man, is deeply flawed in character! It’s as plain as the nose on your face.
PTM Lady: I beg your pardon! If we are to make personal remarks...
CYM Woman[hastily]: I meant idiomatically, I mean.
PTM Lady: Well, watch what you say!
Brahmin lady[firmly]: That marriage was doomed because it was unsuitable. That’s the point.
Portly Man [butting in good-naturedly]: Why don’t we think of something, which both a serious play and also a comedy. Let’s do The Merchant of Venice. It has a good court scene and that is always a crowd-puller. And a very good role for Portia! Hey, ladies?
Stern lady lecturer: I do not support Israel after what they have done to the Arabs. But I am also not a Holocaust denier. Europeans victimised Jews, and Jews victimise Arabs. We should not make fun of anybody because of their race or looks, or impairments [looking kindly at PTM Lady] 
Director [taking a grip on himself and the situation]: Hamlet! The master play! We are doing Hamlet! It’s my decision and I am sticking to it!
Oohs and Ahhs and an uncertain pause.
Old Headmaster: There has been an ongoing debate ever since I can remember whether Shakespeare, the Modern Humanist, had any political agenda. Remember, the English Revolution, the first of many, was already in the making. Was the Bard making a point in Hamlet?
Stern lady Lecturer: Most probably, that women shouldn’t remarry!
Serious Young Man: The role of violence in maintaining State Power.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: Why did Hamlet put on an air of madness? Why?
Serious Young Man: Ah! What is called madness is dictated by the State! Hamlet was withdrawing himself from the structures of State Rule.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: Wrong! He was waiting for the Popular Will to manifest itself. Neither the aristocracy, with which he identified, nor the bourgeoisie, with whom he studied in Wittenberg, could bring about revolution. Shakespeare antedates Winstanley!
Old lady in her eighties: Who, my dear? Stanley who?
Director [getting up]: Look, I have to run along now, and tell the sponsors that we are agreed on a play. Shall we do Karna confronting Kunti? We have done that before, and the sponsors will support any dharmic play.
Everyone nods. Light dim out.   

Saturday 19 December 2015


Climate Change! Starving World! Nuclear Weapons!
What do they care? You will get a Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
Stunted Children! Oppressed Women! Vanished Wildlife!
What do they care? You will get a Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
You won’t get food, you won’t get jobs, you will get a Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
You been there long. What did you get? A Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
Don’t you know what they will do? A Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
Grow up now! Don’t look for a Ta-ma-sha!
Ta-ma-sha! A Ta-ma-sha!
Take charge now! To hell with a Ta-ma-sha!
To hell with Ta-ma-shas!

Wednesday 11 November 2015


Leader Cow: ‘That was brutal but had to be done. I’m glad I helped gore that heifer to death!’

New Cow: ‘Oh! What had she done?’

‘She ate holy alfalfa! That’s what she did! Deserved death!’

‘Isn’t that extremist…fundamentalist? Maybe you could have explained…’

‘No! It can only be death for eating holy alfalfa!’

‘But we eat napier grass, and even roadside flowers, so…’

‘I relish napier grass, elephant grass, flowers, plants, everything! But alfalfa is sacred, never forget!’

‘Horses eat alfalfa?’

‘Horses! Don’t talk to me about them! One day we will gore all of them to death!’

‘Leader Cow Ma’am, you got trounced in the farmyard elections.’

‘Nonsense! Pigs voted for pigs, chicks for chicks, goats for goats. Next time they will vote for me!’

‘If there’s a next time. Ma’am, our cows voted against you! You want them all to be black-and-white. Look around, they are all shapes and colours!’

‘Pure cows are black-and-white like me! If not, they have no place here! I’m pure Holstein-Friesian.’

‘No Ma’am, you’re cross-bred… that too by Westerners. Really, you’re foreign to the farmyard!’

‘You’ve got a big mouth. I’ll shut you up for good!’

‘I’m so happy Leader Cow Ma’am is here! All these Angus bulls, Devon heifers, Galloway calves were treating us like nobodies! Now they know we are real cows!’

‘Yes, by Jove! I’m building a cow temple in Kensington and getting real cow-dung to make it holy!’

‘Hey, but you cows are nowhere like Leader Cow. Your mothers were Kangayan, you’re not black-and-white!’

‘I’m black-and-white if I say so! Girs and Red Sindhis have now become black-and-white! Our black-and-white identity makes us proud!’

‘But back home the mood is changing…’

‘Shut up! Heil Fuhrerin! Heil Fuhrerin!’

‘Ducessa! Ducessa! Ducessa!’

Friday 16 October 2015

ISIS-ization of Hinduism in Three Days


‘Why are all of you in my house?’

‘We have made a list of 1742 unauthorized books in your library.’

‘Unauthorized by whom?’

‘By us, the Pure Hindu Sena.’

‘But they are all great books of world literature!’

‘Just Western rubbish! Why don’t you have the Ramayana?’

‘I do have commentaries somewhere…’

‘Not English rubbish! Ramayana in Sanskrit!’

‘I can’t read Sanskrit.’

‘And you call yourself learned? Burn all these books. Let it be a lesson to everyone!’

‘Can you read Sanskrit, you who will destroy my library?’

‘I’m Sena Chief, I don’t need to. Burn the books!’


‘Yesterday we cleaned out your neighhbour’s library. We come to you because of the noise you are making.’

‘What noise, Sir?’

‘That noise.’

‘Famous piece of classical music, Sir. Bach’s cantata “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

‘So you are a Christian?’

‘No, Sir, I am a Brahmin!’

‘Shame on you! Why don’t you listen to Tyagaraja?’

‘I do Sir, here is ‘Manasa Sadinchene.’ Shall I play it?’

‘Think you are fooling me? Boys, destroy all this Western muck! We will write ‘Purified by Hindu Sena’ on your gate! Thank your Brahmin parents we are not purifying your body – as yet!’


‘This street is troublesome. We had to correct two of your neighbours.’

‘Sir, I don’t listen to western music. I don’t read books.’

‘You are a Brahmin?’

‘Yes, Sir.’


‘Of course, Sir.’

‘My advice is, don’t eat western vegetables, cabbage, cauliflower – even potatoes. Ayurveda says they are all bad. A Brahmin should follow ancient ways.’

‘Yes, Sir, from now on.’

‘Good. And, yes, you have two growing daughters? They shouldn’t go out in the evenings. When they go out, they should be fully covered, and you should be with them. Otherwise who is to blame if something happens?’

                                                      ISIS-ization completed