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.