The Wrath of Khan


The global impact of forest re-growth in even the long-lasting events [such as Black Death] was diminished by the continued clearing of forests elsewhere in the world. But in the case of the Mongol invasions […] re-growth on depopulated lands stockpiled nearly 700 million tons of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. This is equivalent to the world’s total annual demand for gasoline today. [Source]


What If

What if Vallabhbhai Patel, not Nehru, had been India’s first Prime Minister?

Here is a cursory yet plausible answer from historian Ramachandra Guha:

“[T]he Congress would have become more right-wing (and pro-Hindu), with Nehru leaving to start an opposition party which, with his charisma (which far exceeded Patel’s), would have swept to power in the first general elections. So, I fear, this most remarkable and simultaneously most reviled of modern Indians would have become prime minister after all.”

nehru gandhi sardar

[Pic courtesy: Rediff]

The Outlawed Letters

k atatürk

“There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.” [More here]

Apparently, the 85 year-old ban on W, Q, and X may end soon. Also read my old post on linguistic nationalism.

Gandhi’s Rendezvous with Movies

I thought Ram Rajya (1943) was the first and only movie that Gandhi had ever seen. So I was quite surprised when I found out that it was not the only movie that he had watched. Moreover, it appears that it was not even his first one!

According to this website he watched Ram Rajya in 1945:

‘Ram Rajya’ was shown to Mahatma Gandhi in 1945, when he was convalescing at Juhu. His secretary, Smt. Sushila Nayar, had given Vijay Bhatt only 40 minutes for “Bapu” to see the film. But the movie so engrossed him, that Mahatma Gandhi saw it for over 90 minutes, uninterrupted. Since it was a ‘moun’ [silence] day for him, he gave Bhatt a pat on the back at the end, to show his appreciation.

Ram Rajya, by the way, was a very successful film which ran for 100 weeks in a theatre in Bombay. The director and producer of the movie, Vijay Bhatt, went on to make another classic in 1952: Baiju Bawra.

In Gandhi: The Man, His People and the Empire Rajmohan Gandhi writes about the other movie that Gandhi had seen [Chapter 14: Rejected, Page 497]:

Twenty years earlier, released from Yerawada jail after an attack of appendicitis, Gandhi – a son of Porbandar – had gone to convalesce by the sea at Juhu in North Bombay. In May 1944 he turned once more to the Juhu beach, where he was again entertained by the Morarji family. On 21 May he was persuaded to watch Mission to Moscow, a Hollywood movie made to popularize America’s alliance with the Soviet Union, possibly the first talkie he had ever seen. It did not attract him to Stalin or Communism. [Emphasis is mine.]

So there. Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow (1943) was the first movie that the Mahatma had watched. And that makes Ram Rajya the first Indian movie to have been seen by Gandhi.

[Hat Tip: At the Edge]

Divine Justice?

The idiotic claims from televangelist Pat Robertson — that the earthquake in Haiti may be a blessing in disguise and is a result of the pact the Haitians made long time ago with Satan to help them against French imperialists (video link) — reminds me of a similar speech made by Gandhi in 1934 to the victims of earthquake in rural Bihar.

On 15th January 1934, a colossal earthquake hit Bihar […] The death toll was estimated at twenty thousand. Gandhi visited Bihar in March and spoke to the bereaved, destitute and homeless people. The earthquake, he told them, “is a chastisement of your sins.” And the particular sin that he had in mind was the enforcement of untouchability.

Even Gandhi’s closest supporters were horrified. The victims of the earthquake had included poor as well as rich […] But Gandhi was explicitly blaming the victims, appropriating a terrible disaster to promote his own religious ideas. Nehru, who had been helping the relief efforts in Bihar, read Gandhi’s remarks “with a great shock”. But the most effective refutation came from Rabindranath Tagore, long one of the Mahatma’s greatest advocates. Tagore argued caustically that this supposedly “divine” justice, if such it was, constituted the least just form of punishment imaginable. [From Indian Summer, Tunzelmann]

Behind these types of – possibly noble yet misleading and plain wrong – claims lie the fundamental tenets of religion(s) that demand and propagate the need for a greater (divine) purpose of life and events. Once you give in to the belief that our existence in this world (and the existence of this universe) has a purpose; and explanation that is anything other than natural and rational, you’re in for a whole lot of nonsensical, unscientific, and dogmatic convictions (like God punishes you for your sins etc.) Here’s a passage from an article on Slate by Hitchen:

Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations?

Indeed, where would they be?

Indian Summer

I just ordered Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire written by Alex Tunzelmann. Below is the first paragraph from the book:

In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

And then, after two hundred years of British imperialism, the author argues, the situation was completely reversed! (The “beginning” she’s referring to is 1577, when the Mughal empire was at its peak under the great emperor Akbar, in case you’re wondering.)

It’s difficult to imagine a country as diverse as India to be “culturally unified” as the author suggests, but even after adjusting for the exaggeration, the shift in opposite direction is as conspicuous as it is interesting. It shows what imperialism often does to the ruled, and to the ruler.

indian summer

Due to some early mixed reviews and the gimmicky subtitle (The Secret History of the End of an Empire) the book didn’t make it to my bookshelf in spite of its tempting subject. But now someone is making a movie based on this book with primary focus on Nehru and Edwina’s “clandestine and intense” relationship and my curiosity skyrocketed. And why not, after all one of the cover designs of this book features the infamous picture (the image on the right) that inspired me to write a post that’s very close to my heart: Love to Hate Nehru.

Unfortunately, but expectantly, the production of Indian Summer has been halted. The Indian government officials are evaluating the salacity of the script. “It was a relationship of great friendship between individuals of the opposite sex but at what point that relationship becomes more is between them. The desire to guard a reputation is institutional,” said Nehru’s biographer M J Akbar.

Blaming Nehru

Here we go again. Nehru-bashing has been quite a popular fad nowadays (especially among the rightists) and so far he had been blamed for myriad things. But this recent assault, has a new edge.

jinnahI was quite excited when I heard about this new book on Jinnah written by Jaswant Singh: Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence. But then I read this interview between Mr. Singh and Karan Thapar, and found out that the BJP politician is actually blaming Nehru for the partition of India.

Now there are many things (said by Mr. Singh) in this interview that are plainly incorrect – like how Jinnah was born poor and was a self-made man, or how British offered India a dominion status in the 20’s; wrong and baseless, respectively – but this ‘demonization’ of Nehru proves yet again how lenient and eloquent we Indians are when it comes to criticizing Nehru (and often, Gandhi). [See my earlier post: Love to Hate Nehru.]

In response to Thapar’s question “How seriously has India misunderstood Jinnah?” he explains how we needed to create a demon for one of the most dreadful events of the 20th century in South Asia, and Jinnah ended up being our scapegoat – the villain of partition. How ironic! Because I think Mr. Singh himself needed a demon to ‘un-demonize’ Jinnah in his book, and he found a scapegoat in Nehru!

What do I think about this novel allegation (that Nehru, along with Jinnah, was responsible for partition)? I think it’s quite preposterous, if not outright ludicrous. I don’t have any problem with a new perspective on Jinnah. May be we (Indians) did misunderstand Jinnah to some extent. I would love to see a different point of view on one of the most influential figures in Indian history. But belittling Jinnah’s contemporaries with a hope that the fabricated contrast would help in elevating his personality is not a very honest approach.


The great-great-granddaughter of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Madhu, is illiterate, and makes a living by running a tea-stall with her mother in the slums of Calcutta.

Thanks to an initiative by a journalist to rescue her from penury, the Ministry of Coal has decided to employ her to run errands in Coal India’s offices.


Does she deserve any special treatment (like a job in a government office) just because she has royal blood running through her veins? May be not. But it is quite heart-breaking to see this royal descendant — whose forefathers include emperors like Zafar, Akbar, Babur and Gengiz Khan — in such poor conditions.

This reminds of that great ghazal (supposedly) written by Bahadur Shah Zafar himself.

na kisii kii aa.Nkh kaa nuur huu.N
na kisii ke dil kaa qaraar huu.N
jo kisii ke kaam na aa sakaa
mai.n vo ek musht-e-gubaar huu.N

jo chaman fizaa.n me.n uja.D gayaa
mai.n usii kii fasl-e-bahaar huu.N

The semblance is agonizing.

Also, see my earlier post where I reviewed a wonderful book about Zafar: The Last Mughal.

[Picture Courtesy: BBC]

P.S. Musht-e-gubaar means ‘a handful of dust’.

Repurcussions of Uncertainty

In a brief interview with the Economist magazine, Farzana Shaikh, the author of Making Sense of Pakistan, talks about the root causes of current problems in Pakistan. According to her, while the proximate cause of the current mess is the process of State Islamization, emphasized by Zia ul Haq in the 80’s, the ultimate cause lies in the early 1900’s, when there was a widespread feeling among Muslims to somehow purge the South Asian Islam of its local influences — an emphasis to bring out its pristine qualities that were judged to have been corrupt. This mentality left deep marks on the idea and state of Pakistan, as it has been, rather unsuccessfully, trying to project the “legalistic” interpretation of Islam since its birth in 1947.

The founding father of Pakistan, Jinnah, was uncertain about how the state should embody Islam. At times he believed that Pakistan should be secular and open to all religions, while on other he reverted back to the idea of  the “land of the Islam”. In Farzana Shaikh’s own words:

Unlike Nehru, who realized very early on, that religion was a retrograde force, Jinnah was always extremely reluctant to accept that, and even said that Islam is not a religion it is a nation.

The confusion over Islam’s role in the newly formed state, and especially about which version of Islam should be followed, accelerated further after Jinnah’s death in 1948 – as Pakistan struggled with the void of strong leadership (See my earlier post: The Importance of Second-tier Leadership.)

Farzana has an optimistic outlook for the future of Pakistan. Pointing out some positive signs like free and powerful media, active human rights groups and organizations, she goes on further and talks about how getting some inspirations from the east can help Pakistan ( paraphrased):

We have an increasing sense that [Pakistan] is not exclusive to the region [of South Asia], it is a part of the region. And to that extent, it must look to find commonalities with its neighbors – including its greatest foe, India. I would go so far as to say, that perhaps, you might find that kind of hope in the expressions of Indian Islam, which made its peace with local non-Islamic cultures. And I think that a return to these sources – away from those “Arabized” versions of Islam – may be one of the ways we can break through this terrible situation that we find ourselves in today. [Emphases are mine.]

[Hat Tip: 3 Quarks Daily]

Working with Available Light

In the introductory chapter of the book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, Doniger cites the Sufi parable of Mulla Nasrudin — the one in which after having lost his key inside his home during a night, Nasrudin was searching for it outside under a lamp post, because there was more light there than in his house — to remind us that there’s a shortage of “available light” when it comes to the history of the Hindus. She warns the reader that (as it might well be true for any other history book) this is a history, not the history of the Hindus.

As a preamble to the upcoming chapters, Doniger lays out some ground rules and provides a laundry list of concepts that are necessary to grasp if one wants to understand Hinduism. This list is probably more useful for an “outsider” (a non-Hindu, or a non-Indian), but I learned few interesting facts and perspectives as well.

Tolerance: By citing some examples – like how Hindus have no problem worshiping Kabir (the great Indian poet who publicly denounced both Hinduism and Islam) and Satya Pir (or Satya Narayana, a Sufi pir) – Doniger briefly talks about the ingrained tolerance (both inter-religious and intra-religious) of the Hindu philosophy.

Pluralism: “Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively closed. A pivotal example of such individual pluralism can be found in the law text of Manu, which argues, within a single chapter, passionately against, and then firmly for, the eating of meat.”

Myth and Symbolism: It’s good to see the author recognizing the importance of myth and symbolism in understanding the history of Hinduism. These are not the sources of “hard” history (as compared to scriptures that has more solid records historical events and ethics etc., for instance) but they are precious to apprehend the history of ideas rather than principles, sentiments rather than events, motivations rather than movements.

Diversity, and the polycentric nature of Hinduism: Because of the vast spectrum of beliefs and practices, it’s hard to define Hinduism in the way other (especially, the Abrahamic) religions are defined. The fact that there’s no Hindu cannon surely makes it more difficult to spell out what all Hindus believe or do. In the words of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (president of India from 1962 to 1967) Hinduism can be defined as a belief that: “a truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express.”

Women & dalits: These two groups are referred to as marginalized Hindus in this book. According to the author, most Brahminic scriptures and texts tend to avoid delving too much into the lives and conditions in which women and dalits lived, so one has to really read between the lines to squeeze out some insights about how the society treated (or rather, mistreated) them. I am not quite sure if I agree with the author’s remark about the “ironic” presence of women in Mahabharata though (“perhaps beyond earshot, but definitely heard”).

I already found myself at odds over some of her interpretations or remarks, but given the vastness and all-inclusiveness of Hinduism, disagreements are inevitable. Her despise for the Hindu fundamentalists becomes quite apparent from the first few pages of the book, and I am noticing that she has already started getting into some controversial areas – akin to the one that led to that egg-hurling incident back in 2003. (“He missed his aim. In every way.” remarks Doniger.) But overall, I am enjoying reading this “outsider’s view” of Hinduism and Hindus so far, for Doniger is quite witty, observant and knowledgeable about the Hindu scriptures, the history and the people.

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