Sunday, 20 September 2020

Guns Germs and Steel - 3 - Ten books that influenced me

I bought this book in 1999, based on Bill Gates' incredibly concise and informative review, and ironically finished it between jobs.

This book changed my perspective on history, and provoked a curiosity for understanding linguistics, history, prehistory, agriculture, the evolution of technology, the cultures of tribes, etc. all of which have still not abated. Criticism that the book is very repetitive is not justified in my opinion, because Diamond packs so much information into it.

The book is an answer to a question by a Yali, an aboriginal native of Papua New Guinea, as to why different cultures and countries are so unequal, if there are no basic biological differences between the races. Jared Diamond's hypothesis is that it is geography, nor race, that determined the fates of human societies. He distinguishes between proximate causes (like steel weapons, immunity to diseases, organized armies) and ultimate causes (like domesticable plants and animals, coastlines, topography) which led to the undeniable differences among cultures or nations.

He lays out the situation on various continents - not just the prehistory of Mankind, but that of the flora and fauna on various continents, in the first chapter. Not just the major clashes - Europe versus Inca - but even the minor but illuminating ones - Maori versus Moriori - are discussed, with telling effect.

Then Diamond develops his thesis in the next six chapters, quite elaborately. His last five chapters, a tour de force of Africa, China, Polynesia etc are marvelous summations of their histories, and the forces that shaped them. I suggest searching for and reading Bill Gates' review to get a grasp on this book. And strongly recommend this book.

Tamil summary / preview of this book

My essays on Literature

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Noddy - 2 - Ten books that influenced me

Garuda was the first comic book I read. Noddy is the first book I read, (or remember reading), that was not a comic book and not a school book. I first read it in the sixth class at PS Senior Secondary school. We had a library period, where a bunch of books were brought from the school library and kept on the teacher's desk; each student would go up and pick up a book, in alphabetical order as per attendance register. My name starting with G, I was seventh or eighth.

I happened to pick a Noddy one week, and loved the story and the illustrations so much, and the characters, and his little adventures, that every subsequent week I picked a Noddy story I hadn't read earlier. There were about forty of these Noddy books, and I remembered and loved each one. Today I dont remember a single Noddy story, but I remember how much I loved Noddy that year. There are much younger kids today who read much more complex and sophisticated books at those younger age, so I was perhaps immature for that age. Some of my classmates would discuss somebody called William (schoolboy stories by Richmal Crompton). These William stories were ten times as long, and I realized my level was Noddy, or comic books and I was quite happy. Sometimes I would bring the Noddy I took home the very next day, so I could exchange with some other student's Noddy book.

School was a sideshow to my Noddy reading life and career.

After a couple of months, some of my classmates got ticked off at my Noddy obsession. Some student suggested that alphabetical order should be reveresed, because the same students were getting the first picks every week. The teacher agreed. One guy yelled out "Let us all pick Noddy books so Gopu doesnt get one." I dont remember who it was but quite a few others laughed, evilly... more evil than Voldemort or PS Veerappa. It was a conspiracy. I would be denied my daily bread, my Tasmac bottle, my voters biriyani, my Art 19(1)sub a-c, my oxygen, my Facebook  ID, my... you get the idea. I waited in Abu Ghraib bench at this Dotheboys hall of a school, while the Noddy monopolizers cruelly snatched one desirable book after another.... until it was my turn... and stoically, like Socrates and Veerapandia Kattabomman, I walked up to the teacher's desk, my head held high, my eyes bravely fighting tears... only to find several Noddys still left. I smiled like the Man with No Name, like Virendra Sehwag facing the first ball, like Tripurantaka when he lifted his bow, like Uncle Fred in the springtime...and picked up one of the unread Noddys and walked backed to my desk not even glancing at Darth Noddymort.

By that year I had finished almost all the Noddys, and I doubt that Enid Blyton was about to write any new ones, so aftera couple of weeks of Noddy revisions, I moved on to other longer books by Enid Blyton, the greatest children's book writer in the history of the universe. The Five Find Outers. The Famous Five. Mallory Towers and other school books. I felt very jealous of England and English kids and their marvelous schools - I mean they had delicious things like marmalade and scones, while all we poor Indians had was paruppusili and vattal kuzhambu and poori kizhangu and such mundane stuff.....I suppose I was jealous until the age of thirty when I first tried marmalade, and never complained about Indian food ever again. 

Noddy and Enid Blyton, were my alternates to the comic books that was really my ardent passion. Less visual, more imaginative, less spectacular, more relatable, longer, and longer, and developing my vocabulary better than all the unbelievably dull Tamil stories I was exposed to.....

In the eighth standard, I read the William stories of Richamal Crompton..and loved them too. And also stumbled upon a series called Alfted Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, first written by Robert Arthur, and then by other authors, fantastic adventure stories set in sunny California...not just adventures, mysteries, too. Solved by my first favorite detective Jupiter Jones, a schoolboy like me. 

Because I was reading much longer books than Noddy now, I also accidentally read a book called The Gold Bat, a schoolboy adventure written by an author with a really weird name- Pelham Grenvile Wodehouse. And one of the short stories in my class text was called the Blue Carbuncle, and featured an older more famous detective than Jupiter Jones...

But my reading really started with Noddy.

My essays on Literature

Monday, 31 August 2020

Garuda - 1 - Ten books that influenced me

Recently, two friends tagged me in Facebook, asking me to list ten books that are favorites. I chose to list ten books that influenced me quite a bit. In some cases they just happened to be books I read at a particular age. Hence, very influential; life changing perhaps. These are not necessarily the ten best books I have read or ten favorites, or ten I recommend to anyone. Just ten books that were landmarks in some way. A vast number of them are recent. It is quite possible, that I would have chosen ten different books ten years ago, and ten different books ten years from now. 

The Facebook list were in no particular order. This list on my blog is chronological - from the first book I remember to the most recent book I read.

Anyway; here they are. 

Garuda was the first comic book I read. I had visited my uncle and aunt in Pune for the summer vacation, and I was boarding the return train from Pune to Madras, for a looong journey. I was to be accompanied by my uncle's friends. But they were strangers to me, I wasnt sure how the nearly one and half day travel would go.

I must have looked or browsed at one of the comic books at a book stall on the platform, and my uncle Narasimhan (we always called him Babu periappa) bought me the Amar Chithra Katha comic - Garuda.

It was the first comic book I ever read. Until then I only knew of Garuda as the vaahana of Vishnu - from grandmothers' tales. I didnt know he was a hero on his own terms and a mighty one at that. I didnt even know he had a story.

And what a story it was!

I was riveted. Enchanted. Mesmerized. I must have read that comic book fifteen times on that trip. Kashyapa and Vinita came alive; the deception that led to his mother's enslavement, Garuda's outrage when he understood the backstory, his attempt to win back freedom for his mother more than himself, his attempt to retrieve Amrita, casual defeat of Indra's defenses and his hyperbolic listing of his own strength to an astounded Indra, all made a deep impression. The counter trick he plays on Nagas felt unfair, but on the whole seemed fitting karma for their own deception in the first place. His encounter with Vishnu, and the lesson he learns in humility sank in a lot later.

After that I read quite a few Amar Chitra Kathas (my father never bought me any comic book, unlike my uncle - he deemed it "bad for my studies"). A long and abiding passion for comic books was kindled by reading Garuda. ACK taught me a lot of Hindu mythology I would never have encountered otherwise, as grandmothers tales became fewer and fewer even in Mylapore. My mother told me some socialist stories, of farm worker duped or exploited by zamindars. Even though she was devoutly religious, I dont remember her telling me any puranic or mythological stories.

Amar Chitra Katha soon led to Indrajal Comics, the banner under with the stories of the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician were published by Bennett Coleman. For the next three years, I would borrow a friend's comic book, About a year or two later, I joined a larger school where we could comic books in our school library. By seventh standard I had discovered Tintin and later Asterix, and shortly after that Superman and Batman, published by DC Comics. Then came Archie, Richie Rich, and the universe of comics around these characters. As delighted as I was by the ACK stories, the imagination, plotting, science, humor, ingenuity, art, future vision, ethics, and some of the detective skills displayed by Tintin or Batman never ceased to amaze me. All the great stories of India seemed to be in the long distant past, while America and the west were churning out absolute marvels of imagination, narration, and art.

My father rewarded me with a year's subscription of Indrajal comics, in eighth or ninth standard, as reward for coming first in class in mathematics. The year's subscription was Rs.64 (buying a year's books in stores would have cost Rs.96). 

Indrajal, DC, Archie etc were stocked in local lending libraries (there was a famous Eswari library in Gopalapuram). Asterix and Tintin were rare finds - until one day, I got a rich friend who had the entire collection of both!

This was a stage in my life when my only other interest was cricket and street sports - I didn't like films, and never watched them until the tenth standard. I got a reputation as a good, studious boy among the elders, and a comic-book dork among kids my age. But that didn't bother me. I loved the comic books. I still read them. In the last few years of course, I have diversified my reading.

But my life long reading habit started with Garuda.

My essays on Literature

My mother Pushpa, aunt Alamelu, uncle Narasimhan - in 1980.
This uncle bought me Garuda

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Seven thousand wonders of India

I am writing a series of essays about temples in Swarajya magazine, titled Seven Thousand Wonders of India.

The links to the essays are here. I will update this page, as and when new essays are published

  1. shilpam nayanaabhiraama - Sculptures
  2. svasti shree - Inscriptions
  3. prajanaam ishta siddhyartham - Architecture
  4. atimaanam - Rajasimha Pallaveshvaram
  5. ramyam Lokamahadevishvaram - Pattadakkal Virupaksha
  6. adviteeya - Ellora Kailasanaatha

Related Links

My series in Swarajya on Indian astronomy and mathematics 

Art Blogs

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

A Texas table tennis story

In my childhood, I lived on the same street as Ramanathan “Tennis” Krishnan, and his son Ramesh Krishnan, in CIT Colony. He was the big national celebrity of the colony. The sports I played as a kid were Hide and Seek, its variation Ice Boys, spinning tops, seven stones, and of course street cricket with worn out tennis balls. We had a large open ground across our house, which has since become a park, and we played cricket there in the evenings. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play.  Our highest ambition then was to one day play cricket with a fresh tennis ball, rather than a ball which was no longer fit for tennis.

Television had recently arrived. My neighbors bought a black and white TV, and for some months I watched cricket, whose rules I knew, and suddenly one day, tennis! Something called Wimbledon and somebody called Bjorn Borg of Sweden played John McEnroe of USA. For the first time, I watched two entire sets played, not just a three second glance of Tennis Krishnan’s court as we passed by in a bus. When we caught Wimbledon fever, my neighbor Sridhar and I marked our cement courtyard with a brick, and played tennis with our bare palms.

One day I found there was another sport which was almost as much a rich man’s game – table tennis. Instead of a lawn, you needed a table, and used very small rackets and a really tiny ball. This too I saw on television. Nobody I knew had a table, and we didn’t have one at school, and cricket kept me happy, so I didn’t think much of table tennis, except that I probably wont be very good at it. After al, I was less than mediocre at cricket, even though I loved playing.

Several years later, I went to college. The hostelites demanded a table tennis, and the management bought one and few bats and balls too! It was kept in the mess, half of which had dining tables, the other mostly open, except for the TT table and a television set. Our batch was the first in the hostel, and about ninety students and six or seven teachers stayed at the hostel. I suspect two thirds of us had never played. We had plenty of opportunity and I learnt to play. Several times a week I played with several classmates, and occasionally a teacher (I remember Mr Ravichandran, our chemistry teacher as the one who played most often). By the time I finished college, I was perhaps in the top ten percent among hostelites. I developed quite a few shots, learnt to spin and drop, and was moderately good at returning serves. The tendency for glorious smashes and spectacular spins was my weakness, which better players would beat. Several years later, the SQL Server team I worked in also got a TT table. I could never beat two guys, Amrish Kumar  and Sam Hakim, a Lebanese colleague, but I beat everyone else at least in one game upto 21 points. I was evenly matched with several guys, sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. I played only for pleasure, and as a break during work, so I was fine with that.

I haven't played TT in nearly twenty years now.

A photo from my days in College station, Texas

In between Krishnankovil and Seattle, I lived three years in Texas. In a small college town – twin towns actually, called Bryan and College Station. One of our neighbors was an Indian family, and the father, Michael invited me and any interested friends to a recreation room in a church that he attended, for games of table tennis and billiards or snooker, in the evenings. He taught me snooker and billiards, and we played a few games.  Some university students from China also frequented the place, and we occasionally played with them also. Most of them were at my level, though one or two were really good. Having seen Chinese guys on television play utterly awesome TT in Asiad games and the Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised that some were only at my level.

I casually mentioned this church recreation room to a friend from Coimbatore, Ramesh – we both attended an AI class the first semester; and he said he would love to come. So we went together a few times. And I played against him. The rallies were simple. The strange thing was that unlike every other player, he never tried anything fancy. No spectacular smashes or brilliant drop shots, or complicated spins on the ball. I guessed he too had learnt to play in college, but was conservative. After a few rallies we played some games. With no spectacular moves at all he took every set, never allowing me to cross fifteen points, before he got to twenty one. I didn’t think much of it; just some bad shots I played – I gave him his victories. And anyway it was all for fun.

Then we went there a couple of days later, and this time a couple of Chinese guys showed up. We mixed and matched and played, and while the rest of us won and lost a few games, Ramesh seemed to never lose a game. I was impressed. His conservative strategy really paid off. Next time I should try that.

Which I did. And he won again. By this time, he got under my skin, and I really wanted to win against him. So I decided to focus, concentrate and avoid rash shots. I could feel my game getting far better; I didn’t try silly or complex serves, and I didn’t gave away easy points but he still won. More confident, this time I tried some aggressive shots; and he returned several of them, impassively, unfluttered. The better I got, the more normal he stayed and still kept beating me. The only thing he ever tried was to put the ball on my side. No gimmicks. He returned even my excellent shots and brilliant spins.

Maybe he didn’t learn to play in college.

“Wow! You are excellent,” I said in admiration. “Utterly unflappable. Were you on your college team or something?” I asked. He gave a nonchalant shrug and a neutral smile. “Were you?” I persisted. He kind of gently nodded. “Wow! You played for college. No wonder I cant beat you. Did you play any tournaments against other colleges?” He gave another nonchalant shrug. “Come on, did you?” He nodded. “Did you win?” Another neutral smile. “Wow, awesome! How good were you?” He was now really being shy. I waited for an answer. “Did you make the university team?” I asked, suddenly wondering if he was that good. There were several dozen universities affiliated to Bharatiyar University, Coimbatore, including engineering colleges, besides arts and science colleges. It was one of the five big universities in Tamilnadu, each of which had more than a hundred colleges affiliated. Madurai Kamaraj University, to which my college AKCE was affiliated then, had nearly 180 affiliated colleges – which I knew because most of them competed in the Cultural Competitions every year, and I had participated in several of those. A university table tennis team would have five to ten players picked from among thousands of students from one of those colleges.

He finally dropped his mask. “I was captain,” he said. “Captain of what?”

“Captain of the university team.”

Boy, did I feel silly. How kind he was to let me get to fifteen points once in a while.

A few weeks later, we ran into a couple of new Chinese guys along with the regulars. And naturally played with them too. One of them really good, spectacular in fact, and he beat everyone of his Chinese friends comfortably.

Then I played against him.

Six points.

This was humiliation. Twenty one to six.

Wait, was this guy that good? I was not happy.

Next it was Ramesh’s turn, and I grinned to myself. Maybe this Chinese guy was a University player or something. Ramesh pretty much could beat every other Chinese player, so here was a fascinating contest. None of the others knew Ramesh was a former University captain, did they?

It was a nice contest, but Ramesh barely crossed ten points.  A couple of the Chinese guys grinned then went back to neutral expressions. I was impressed. But maybe it was a stroke of luck. But it was my turn again, against the new guy. I tried to bring full concentration, nothing silly, but quickly he was leading something like fifteen to three. Abandoning all caution, I tried a few spectacular shots. He just returned them casually, some even quite acrobatically. In fact, I too got in some spectacular returns because his placement were fantastic. A couple of the Chinese guys applauded my shots and returns too.

21 to 4.

Yeah four. Not even six points. Four.

This time I was too shocked to be humiliated. I don’t remember, but I think Ramesh played him again, and got beat again too. He just kept shaking his head in admiration after that.

I told Ramesh, maybe he is a university captain like you too. One of the Chinese guys overheard. He told us, “Don’t feel so bad.  He is a province champ.”

“What does that mean I asked? Province champ?”

“Henan province, in China. He won the state championship.”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and couldn’t help laughing. Wow, no wonder he was that good.

The Chinese guy nodded sagely. Then unleashed the final shot : “Just missed out making the Olympic team.”


I once played table-tennis with an Olympic guy from China and scored six points against him. Cool, huh? 

(PS: It may not have been Henan province, but some other province of China. Still...)

Related links

The Sehwag difference

The art and  Aesthetic of Driving

Rabbit roars

Personal stories

Thursday, 16 July 2020

India doesn't want to know

This essay is a continuation of this previous essay.

“Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities”

Ironically, Jones translated Manu Smriti into English. After this, British courts ruled Hindus according to it, and Muslims according to Sharia which he also translated. The British for the most part, did not mess around with Hindu law, on marriage (including polygamy and child marriage), caste, food habits, property rights, temple administration, festivals, rituals, etc. They siezed whole kingdoms from kings, they killed Indian shipping, they indulged in the slave trade etc, but this was par for the course. The greatest change they implemented was the abolition of sati, which was a practice limited to royalty, and a few very very rich Indians, with pretensions of royalty. 

If both the Anglicists and the Orientalists agreed on the “need to codify the laws of Indian communities,” they did very little about it. People like John Shore, the head of the East India Company, who later became Lord Teignmouth, and wrote a biography of William Jones, were passionately Christian, and wrote reams of paper hoping to turn India into a Christian country (Jones himself also wrote letters professing deep Christian belief, and wishing the benevolence of Christianity upon this poor pagan nation, once glorious, now decayed), but one wonders if they were playing to the gallery in London; especially to morally opprobious critics of the like of Edmund Burke. Jones may have been defending himself of the grave charge of turning Hindu himself, like Charles Stuart before him.

What Indians miss, especially Hindus, is how dramatically England and Europe transformed – socially, economically, politically – during this Orientalist phase. Far far far more than India. The industrial revolution, Adam Smith’s economics, the defeat of four Napoleons, the terrifying possibility of the French revolution repeating elsewhere, exposure to very different and strange countries and cultures, the astounding heritage of these cultures, rediscovered by Orientalists, increasing literacy in Europe, increasing living standards, all had a transformative effect – very much like the transformation China has undergone in the last forty years, since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Discoveries in biology, like fossils and dinosaurs, microbes and inoculation, drastically reduced the power of the Church, and increased the influence of intellectuals and scientists. The overthrow of the four elements theory by Lavoisier was as significant as the discoveries of Newton and Galileo, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it doesn’t get even a fraction of the attention. Different denominations of churches spurted out in England, especially, and a vast army of curates and vicars and bishops and clergy, deeply delved into science – remember Gregor Mendel was a monk; and Darwin almost became a priest.

Joseph Priestley, who discovered carbon dioxide, that plants and animals breathed differently, and produced “different airs”, started his own church, which was burnt down, and he escaped England into the welcoming arms of Thomas Jefferson’s America.

India did not become more English during this era. England became less English.

The single biggest legal social and political reform in India was the abolition of slavery, in 1843. They sepoy mutiny, the abolition of sati, the abolition of untouchability(yes, even that), raising the age of marriage, abolition of princely kingdoms, abolition of the devadasi system, transformation from monarchy to democracy, the unification of 540 kingdoms and zamindari territories, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan – the two world wars, the famines(yes, even famines), the plagues – all of these pale into comparison, when you consider the abolition of slavery. It is the elephant in the room of history that nobody talks about.

Neither the Anglicists nor the Orientalists in the 1780s even imagined that particular reform. Slavery was still in vogue in Europe. They didn’t imagine the French revolution or the steam engine either. Slavery was abolished in India, not because there were raging social movements or national hunger strikes or threat of revolution by Indian soldiers in the British or other armed forces, but because, in my opinion, technology made it possible to live in a human society without slavery. This is my opinion, I may be totally wrong. Who imagined that the USA would elect a half-black President in 2008, that he would invade Libya, destroy it - and bring back slave markets?! Or that it would be completely not worthy of news or discussion, at all? Well 1843 seems to be a good precursor to this.

Are there any monuments, statues, memorial buildings, celebratory festivals, durbars, even nautch performances celebrating the abolition of slavery in India? Too inconvenient. It is simply not in the collective conscience of the country.

Almost every single Indian pretends that colonial rule itself was a form of slavery, while Indians owning, selling, buying other Indians was nothing significant or egregious. One explanation is that colonial powers merely replaced it with indentured labor, which was “practically the same as slavery”, so they should not get any credit whatsover. Indentured labour was terrible, but it wasn’t slavery. But it may easier to expain algebra to a snail, than convince anyone of this.

We seem to believe that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the USA, and the rest of the world magically eradicated it too. Except slavery ended in India, twenty years BEFORE Lincoln ended it in the USA.

We love to pretend that 1947 was the end of real slavery.

Also we simply don’t study the history of law in India. I think most people believe law is something the British gave us. If we don’t, we secretly believe British law was far better than Hindu law, but we don’t want to be caught praising them.

Back to the Indian Constitution.

Only in 1947 did we decide that none of our ancient Smritis is relevant. The Constituent Assembly created a Constitution, guided by those of the USA, France, USSR, Ireland etc with long history in Roman law. We chose a unitary over a federal constitution, parliamentary versus presidential form of government, universal adult franchise, abolition of untouchability.

This replaced the Hindu legal system. Notice that I say Hindu  legal system, not Hindu law. Hindu law has a long history of reform, including under British rule. We learn nothing about Hindu law in schools, in society, in art, in literature, in public entertainment, or even in social discourse.  It is all about how the Gandhi led Congress was heroically fighting the British.  One of these days, we will have a history book that tells us General Manekshaw liberated Bangladesh by going on a salt satyagraha in Dhaka and a hunger strike in Chittagong. It will be a two mark question in a history exam, and by God, two marks in a test are more important than actual history.

Manu was not the only smriti of India, it was one of eighteen, but definitely the most popular and widely used. There were several overlapping concepts among these smritis, and as inscriptions of kings through several centuries attest, a scholar need only know one of these to be a royal official, minister, judge etc. I consider these smritis as akin to the aadhara shruti of a Carnatic singer or traditional singer vs the standardized frequencies in western music, which I think are akin to the unitary Constitutions of almost every democracy. In fact, we see this dominant unitary global standard in European thought - the SI units, universal human rights, Generally Accepted Accounting Practices(GAAP), patent law, architecture standards, road standards, uniform sizes of shipping containers, banking standards, internet protocols, 110V/240V, etc.

  • Different agamas for different temples
  • Choice of astronomy texts - Surya Siddhanta or Pitamaha siddhanta or another, and hence the calendar, almanac or panchangam
  • Choice of silpa sastras for temple, house, and town planning
  • a variety of religious philosphies
  • Local autonomy for administration and certain forms of taxation
  • Variations in property rights, including community trusteeship, like public land, pasture land, forests, water sources
  • Autonomy of merchant guilds to govern themselves, and even set tax and lending rates; and even build mercantile forts (which is why Fort St George, Fort St William etc were allowed - as mercantile forts).

 Whereas in India, in every aspect of art and technology the artist or artisan had freedom to innovate.     

I will stop here. I just think historians, especially Indian historians, do a very poor job of understanding or analysing all of this. And society, for the most part, is happy with this. The white supremacist colonial narrative drowns out the hard facts of far superior technology, military, finance/trade and administrative marvels that the English discovered or invented to transform themselves, while Indians were practically stagnating.

Related Links 

Should April 7 be India's real independence day

History essays

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Four Napoleons and the Steam Engine


Dr VS Ramachandran sent me this clipping and photo by email a few days ago. It is a memorial  to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, at the University College chapel in Oxford university. Ramachandran is a huge fan of Jones and his scholarship, and the founding of Indology (one branch of Orientalism). He believes that the Tamil Heritage Trust can continue where the British Indologists left off, and we can do this best by forming a new Indology society.

The sculpture shows Jones seated at a table, taking notes from Hindu pandits (Sanskrit scholars). This is an artist’s interpretation. One line in the website of Prof Faisal Devji, says He was of the 'Orientalist' party, opposed by the 'Anglicists' who thought Indian knowledge and traditions worthless.”

For this essay, I use this line as a launching pad for my thoughts about this period.

I think this a very poorly studied period, except from the view of colonialism. Before the arrival of Jones and the discoveries of the Asiatic Society, Europeans had an extremely poor understanding of India. They were completely unaware of Sanskrit, its riches, Hinduism, Buddhism, Indian architecture: in fact all the sixteen items listed in Jones' list of things to study, on the ship to India.

But equally, India was almost completely unaware of the amazing progress in Europe since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In science, in economics, in military techniques, in seafaring, in conquest. These filtered through to large sections of society, especially Hindu society, only via the Industrial revolution and English education.

Also, there is a reason the Anglicists gained the upper hand by 1840 or so - before that Europeans may have considered themselves superior, but between 1770 and 1840 they had indisputable proof that they were superior, in several fields – science, technology, military ability, seafaring, economics, management. They were not superior to Indians in music, agriculture, medicine, art, architecture, law and order, judiciary, dispute resolution, taxation, water management, etc.

But let us look at some technological and military achievements of the British (not just Europeans)

1740s-1760s The Cotton Revolution, the first Industrial revolution in England

1746: The Battle of Adayar, France captures Madras under Governor la Bourdannais

1747: Major Stringer Lawrence creates the The Madras Regiment, the mother regiment of the Indian Army

1749: France returns Madras to England

1757 : Clive gains an empire, Madras and Bengal

1774 : Lavoisier / Priestley discover modern chemistry

1775 : James Watt patents steam engine

1776 : Adam Smith publishes Wealth of Nations

This is all very inconvenient to the political historians. We have at least three isolated islands of history, one of military conquest and colonialism, one of technological and scientific leaps and a third of the massive collection of information about India and its civilization, the project of the Asiatic Society and similar organizations. We get these as separate streams of discourse, because for each group the other two are quite inconvenient. 

At the start of this period 1770, Imperial France was a mighty rival to England in politics, finance and military strength, perhaps considered superior culturally. The Netherlands was a business equal to England. Germany equal in science and technology, but not quite unified, or even Germany. Spain and Portugal had a larger political base, but far behind in science, technology, trade.

1789: French Revolution, effective American independence

This saw French decline in the colonies, especially their rivalry in India, but Napoleon soon became a major challenge in Europe, and threatened to even make England a French colony. In India there were three Napoleons who were a threat to England : Hyder Ali / Tipu Sultan, the Mahrattas and the Sikhs. These are insignificant names outside India, but the victories over the first two were among the most torrid and coming within such a short time, of very great significance.

But between 1799 and 1840 England saw amazing and significant military conquests in India. Lord Cornwallis who had lost to George Washington in the Revolutionary War that led to the formation of the USA, held off Tipu Sultan in one of the Mysore Wars in 1793. Tipu Sultan was completely routed and killed in 1799. Arthur Wellesley, who served first under Cornwallis, and was Governor of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat, later defeated the Mahrattas at Assaye, in 1803, and used this experience to beat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Wellesley later became the Duke of Wellington. He himself said, that while his defeat of Napoleon was more significant, the battle against the Mahrattas was the fiercest he fought in his life.

And after the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh kingdom also fell to England. Only the weak Mughals in Delhi were left to conquer in 1857. In about forty years they conquered as much of India as Muslims did in nearly 700 years (but still less the either Chandragupta Maurya or Samudragupta did). And they were discovering things about India, Egypt, Sumeria, Persia, etc all old civilizations in steep decline, and barely aware of their own past greatness

This was also the period 1799-1840 when England discovered electricity via Faraday and others, improved the steam engine and built the railways, massively exploited mines and discovered minerals and new elements, explored the world, and went far ahead of others in the Industrial revolution.

No wonder the Anglicists felt superior, and triumphed over the Orientalists. No wonder Macaulay and Mill became the guiding lights who would bless and improve India with the benevolence of British knowledge and wisdom.

This was helped by the fact that Indians themselves wanted all the new marvels that the English brought along (long before the steam engine). Paper, printing, clocks, telescopes, a hundred tiny engineering marvels. A number of liberal and progressive Hindus also used the English to reform Hindu law and a number of customs.

Which set the stage for the next quote. Which I will write about in a separate essay. 

“Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities”


New Asiatic Society needed – Times of India report

THT program video - VS Ramachandran announces a new Asiatic society

William Jones and the Asiatic Society

Antoine Lavoisier - The Discovery of Modern Chemistry 

Macaulay, Sanskrit and English

History blogs

Thursday, 4 June 2020

I am black, I am not oppressed, I am free

I saw this video on Twitter, today (June 4, 2020) This is at one of the protests against George Floyd's death. This picture below is from one of the comments following this tweet. I think that there are black conservatives might come as a surprise to some people.

This is my transcript. If you see any mistakes, please let me know. If significant, I will correct them.

My transcript of the conversation  

Black lady: When black people kill black people they (social justice protestors) dont come and do this crap (protest, riot, etc). You only do this when white people kill black people. They are the racists.

It is wrong for white cops to kill a black person, that is for sure. But if it matters, it should matter at all times.

White Lady: What are you fighting for? You are not here to fight injustice...

Black Lady: This is about violence, this is not about blacks
White Lady: It is about a uniform world

Black Lady: You think blacks are oppressed. I am black, I am not oppressed. I am free
White Lady: Good for you, you are an individual person This is a systemic issue.

Black Lady: Where? I am black lady, this is  a country where you can can do what you want,  you do it. Stop forcing on people that they are oppressed. I am not oppressed. I am black.

Stop forcing people into accepting that they are oppressed. You are forcing a rhetoric into their minds, which is not true. Violence is wrong, period. It is not about blacks. You see white people kill white people too, right? Have you ever seen anyone complain that white lives matter? No! Violence is wrong.

White Lady: (something indistinct)

Black Lady: Blacks kill blacks in black neighbourhoods every single day. I have never seen Black Lives Matter in those neighbourhoods. When a black person kills a black person, do you know what they say : "When the police come say Snitches get stitches." (waves her hands in exasperation) Snitches get stitches. But when a white person kills black people, Black Lives Matter. 

Stop the hypocrisy. 

If it matters, it should matter in black neighborhoods. Stop killing at home.

White Lady: So why dont you start? why dont you start?

Black Lady: I dont need to be told black lives matter. I know I matter. You guys are wasting everybody's time.

End of transcript and video

Corrected July 1, 2020: The twitter link was flawed, I have corrected it, you can see the video

Related Blogs

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Labour Statues of Mamallapuram

மாமல்லபுரத்து உழைப்பாளர் சிலை (Tamil version of this essay)

There is a statue called Triumph of Labour, opposite to the Senate Building of the Madras university and adjacent to the MGR and Jayalalitha graves at the Marina beach in Madras. This was designed by Roy Chowdhry, a former Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore. The college is only  a couple of miles away from the statue.

It depicts four people straining their sinews in hard physical labour, trying to move a large boulder with a long rod. It was not only art, but a political statement, a celebration of Marxism and democracy. a tribute to the Labour movement of the early twentieth century.

Labour Statue, Marina beach, Madras

There are several other statues in the Marina beach, mostly commissioned and installed to mark the World Tamil Conference held in 1968. The previous year 1967, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won elections and formed the government. These statues are celebration of Tamil literature, culture and the Dravidian movement, an alternate to the Congress and the Communist parties that were popular until then in Tamilnadu. Hence there are statues to ancient poets Tiruvalluvar, Ilango  and Avvaiyar, modern poets Subramania Bharati and Bhaaratidaasan, and Kannagi, the heroine of the Ilango’s great epic Silappadikaaram. A statue for the medieval Tamil poet Kamban was added in 1971. 

Three foreigners who enriched Tamil literature were also  honored with statues. They are : Italian priest Constantine Beschi (who called himself Veeramaamunivar in Tamil and wrote the story of Jesus Christ as the Tamil epic Tembaavani,), English Bishop Robert Caldwell, then considered the discoverer of the Dravidian language family, and GU Pope, who translated Tirukkural and Tiruvaasagam into English.

Before the era of British rule in India, statues in public were rare. There are no mentions of such statues in literature and no archaeological evidence. After India became independent, Indians adopted the British custom and festooned the country with statues of politicians in practically every street. In Madras, there are also statues to poets, authors and cinema actors.

While most of these other statues in Chennai may not excite connoisseurs or critics of art, the Labour statue is quite noteworthy. But rarely do visitors come to see this statue for its artistic merit. It is simply something else to on their way to the beach. People who visit Madras to see sculptures visit either the Egmore museum or Mamallapuram.

Art Galleries

Temples are the galleries of art of India, for painting sculpture or architecture. They are the monuments which are renovated least and hence offer the best snapshots of the past. Parthasarathy temple in Tiruvallikkeni is perhaps the temple in Chennai with oldest sculptures, of the Vijayanagar period.

Art historians consider Mamallapuram the cradle of Dravidian architecture and sculpture. (Here Dravidian refers to a style of sculpture as per the Hindu shilpa shaastras, not the language family or the political movement). Some of Mahendra Pallava’s caves precede Mamallapuram, but have few sculptures, all of Gods or dvarapalakas. Few people visit them. From the Pallava era, and even earlier, till now, temples are the primary art galleries of not just Tamil country, but also India. Several historians and scholars, primarily Marxists but also quite a few others, inject political and social perspectives to temples and sculptures, but the fundamental intention of temples continues to be religion. The art serves the religion. 

In the centuries that followed Mamallapuram, when temples in granite proliferated the Tamil country, the sculptures of the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas or their feudatories, all depicted episodes from the itihaasas Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puranas or the episodes from the lives of the Alwaars or Naayanmaars. Only from the Vijayanagar era, ordinary people, kuravan kuratti, scenes of daily life etc started to proliferate.

But Mamallapuram is an exception.

The Worker Sculptures of Mamallapuram

The Great Penance panel in Mamallapuram or Mallai, depicts either Arjuna or Bhagiratha in penance, as Siva appears to grant his book. Devas, Gandharvas, Rishis, Vidyadharas, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, flock to see this marvelous sight. A number of birds and animals are also featured in the magnificent spectacle. Among these are four hunters, or kiraatas. Kiraataarjuniyam was a great Sanskrit epic, composed by Bharavi around this time. Siva disguised as a kiraata arrives to test Arjuna : the test turns into a war first of words, then arrows, then hand to hand combat. The Penance panel doesn’t feature Siva as a kiraata, but the four kiraatas in the sculpture may indicate this episode. They all carry tall bows, but none bears the carcass of a hunted animal. One carries a jackfruit.

Great Penance panel - Mamallapuram

They are not gods, or royalty or landed gentry, but daily toilers. They are not shown lifting or moving something heavy, straining their muscles, suffering from the heat of the midday sun, or sweating profusely. They are working for themselves, not being exploited by a moneyed class. Nothing for a Marxist to criticize, an union leader to organize, a writer or artist to lament, or a social justice warrior to exploit. There maybe some scope for an anthropologist or an art critic, but they generally seem to have ignored such sculptures.

Kiratas in the Great Penance

A curious aspect is their neutral expression – there is none of the vismaya of the celestials, the languidness of the animals at rest, or the delight of the elephants charging towards the water.

A stone’s throw from the Penance panel is the Govardhana Panel. Krishna lifts the mountain with his hand, with Balarama Subhadra and a host of the Yadavas and their cattle all taking refuge under it. The most remarkable aspect here is the utter normality of village life while a storm rages all around. Here a cowherd milks a cow, a lady vends her buttermilk, another carries a pile of straw on her head, a man plays the flute, his wife warns him that it is disturbing the sleeping baby, and so on. All people at work; but the primary intent of the sculptor is show the Grand Deed of Krishna, not the toil of the workers.

center: Krishna lifting Govardha
right : Lady carrying pots with buttermilk

right: Yaadava milking cow
left: Lady carrying straw

The Dharamaraja ratha, tallest of the Five Rathas, features several marvelous sculptures in the second and third floor, mostly of Siva and some of Vishnu, and their devotees. Among these are five temple workers – a priest (archaka), an attendant with a bell in his hand (parichaaraka), a cook (svayampaka), a water bearer (a lady with a pot) and a musician (oduvaar). Four of these are on the eastern wall, the lady with the pot is in the western wall. 

As temples became bigger, they acquired a larger band of workers, but none of the later Pallava or Chola temples ever depicts a single such worker.

In some temples of the Nayak era, sculptures of kings, queens, ministers, generals and donors are etched on some pillars. But in the ancient and medieval era, not a single poet, administrator, artist, architect, businessman, scientist, scholar, were apparently considered fit to commemorate with statues in temples. We have no idea what Kamaban Tiruvalluvar Ilango Avvaiyaar and others looked like. We don’t even know the names of the sthapathis and silpis of most of the temples, leave alone portrait sculptures. Perhaps some were featured in paintings in palaces or palm leaf manuscripts or other forms of painting, now lost.

In this respect, the statues of the workers, commoners as depicted in Mamallapuram remain unique.

If you liked this essay, check out other such essays by me 

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Moral Numbers

Once upon a time, the world only had numbers, but creative and brilliant mathematicians then discovered several types of numbers, each with its own distinct and remarkable name. So we have irrational numbers, negative numbers, and imaginary numbers, and their counterparts. At some point mathematicians realized that fractions are also numbers, so non fractions were named whole numbers. While all these numbers exist in nature, animals and plants and fungi ignore them, and mathematicians have to make special efforts to persuade people to take notice of them. And share their joy with those swimming in apathy about theoretical classes of numbers. So they named the numbers people use as Natural Numbers, and flooded textbooks in schools and colleges with the delights and joys of unnatural numbers, all in the name of education.

In Europe several of these people who taught mathematics early were Christian priests or their trainees. In India, higher mathematics were the field of jyotishas or ganakas, technically astronomers but usually astrologers, substantially a large number of whom were brahmins. Indian jyotishas either cruelly and haughtily withheld the mathematics of unnatural numbers from the teeming masses or were so kind that they spared them horrors of sums and homeworks and entrance exams, until the benevolent British decided that all children should suffer equally, a principle they borrowed either from the Prussian inventors of elementary schools or the American inventors of equality.

To  add to the merry confusion, around the seventeenth century, non religious Europeans, still often funded by various churches, started learning mathematics with a vengeance, and formed societies where they shared their discoveries. They invented new categories of numbers like transcendental numbers (without the advantage of Vedanta! Before Osho! Horrors!), sets, fields, quarternions, boolean numbers, and so on. They also discovered friendly numbers and perfect numbers. Shockingly they never bothered to invent moral numbers. Whether this is a failure of Christianity, of atheism or sadists, it is not clear. What is astounding is that Indian mathematicians or philosophers didn’t 
discover moral numbers either.

A Mystery

How could Punyabhumi, Jambudvipa, the mother of history and the grandmother of religion, as Mark Twain described her, with such a long history of mathematics (and morality), not have discovered, or at least invented, Moral Numbers? We put morality in everything. Our panchatantras effused the animal kingdom with morality. Our philosophers moralized the living daylights out of everything from death to drinking, to brushing teeth and revering palm leaves. Today Indian intellectuals are compensating for some of these absurd traditions, by disrespecting almost everything that our ancestors venerated. Never mind.  Varahamihira wrote half a book simply on the morals to be observed about combs and couches, while the planets and stars oversaw their fortunes. And thanks to the printing press, high taxes, a socialist constitution, a massive population, and a desperate desire to get certificates that we are at least as educated as the next person, everyone is taught all kinds of mathematics! So many types of numbers – except Moral numbers.

An objection may be raised. Why do we need morality in numbers? We have them in our laws, judgments, customs, in habits, food, drink, dress, entertainment, sports, cinema, music, literature, application forms, other forms, tax policies, goods and services, loans, write offs, grants, donations, fees, fines, in construction, inauguration, economics, economic opinions, in newspaper editorials, social media essays and tweets, public speeches, private speeches, outrage, occasionally even in religion. The sciences we learn or teach are free of morals, at least they are amoral, rather than immoral, but we compensate by loading our scientific institutions with morals. So much so, that we value their moral standing and probity more than any scientific output. Only our mathematics, sadly lacks morals, and that I think because we havent invented moral numbers. We can forgive Aryabhata and Bhaskara for this lapse, but our future generations will not forgive us if we don’t create a new system of morality among numbers, and propagate them for the benefit of Mankind.

After all if some numbers can be perfect, some irrational, and some even imaginary, surely some numbers can be moral?

But how do can we separate numbers into moral and immoral (and perhaps some amoral or doubtfully moral). What if some numbers prefer to be moral in public and immoral in private? We will then have a whole class of hypocritical numbers. A property so far confined to people and words. But since we have had centuries of experience with these, we can perhaps deal with numbers which are hypocritical too. But we may be jumping the gun.


Isnt morality subjective? Like truth, justice, fairness, even honesty etc which are all subjective. Unless of course you believe in particular set of truths and consider everyone who doesn’t accept these as immoral by choice? Eureka! Why would this principle not apply to numbers also? And consider the possibilities of academic research in mathematics, which so far has been unfairly confined to people who are excellent in mathematics! How exclusionary – to leave our journalists, politicians, preachers, philosophers, writers, artists, who all usually avoid any mathematics that isnt financial?

That is the beauty of it, a beauty GH Hardy and Paul Dirac and S Chandrasekhar would have appreciated. The case for moral numbers is that they will not only help us understand morality, they will help humanity achieve equality. We live in a terribly unequal world, where rewards frequently go to competent or hard working people. This must be rectified as soon as  possible. Why confine equality to equations?

But how would a mathematician discover which numbers are moral? Is there something inherently moral about some numbers, but not others (a dangerous possibility of inequality, which is immoral, but we must theoretically consider this)? We must also consider that the morality of numbers may be independent of the mathematicians who investigate them or even the areas of mathematics where they could prove to be useful (or useless). We may discover that morality is not binary – or discrete as mathematicians like to call them – but has many shades of grey. There may a Fuzzy Arithmetic, a counterpart of Fuzzy Logic, just waiting to be discovered. Fuzzy Logic was first propounded by an Aryan called Lofti Zadeh, and it would be fitting if Fuzzy Arithmetic came from our beloved Dravidian land. It would be so poetic, if our beloved Madras aka Chennai which gave the world three language families, could also give the world several new number families. And even our omnipresent Malthusians and Ehrlichians wouldn’t object on the grounds that this doesn’t come under family planning.

I have drowned you, dear reader, in words, in an essay purporting to be about numbers. Wrong, I know. But I am merely trying to drench my ankles as I wade into a sea that may not even exist, and I will only know if the sea is watery when my ankles become wet. Sadly, until now, my ankles like this essay, are dry. Now, Tamilnadu is hardly a dry state – but so many of our fellow citizens have parched throats in this never ending Corona Virus Lockdown.


The Lockdown, similar to what Isaac Newton suffered in his early twenties, has inspired this flow of thought. Unlike I Newton, owing perhaps to a lack of apple trees in Madras, I have not discovered a single law of physics in these forty days. I thought I must at least explore the possibilities of mathematics. A notable Indian author wrote a famous book called the Algebra of Infinite Justice, which was sadly lacking in algebra, but compensated by being finite. Is it not our duty then to explore such other topics as the Calculus of Limited Economics, the Geometry of Tangential Discussions, the Statistics of Sesquipedalian Solipsistic Sophomoric Soliloquies, the Probability of Profoundly Perfidious Perspicacity, the Differential Equations of Indifferent Inequalities, and so on? Some mute inglorious Milton in Meenambakkam, some Cromwell in Coimbatore, surely is working on these. Will moral numbers help them or the current mathematics suffice?

So moral numbers may not be merely theoretical mathematics, but applied to. This would have disappointed Hardy and Dirac. But the word application is music to the ears of lawyers, bureaucrats, and software developers, so let us not worry too much. In fact there may be some basic Pythagorean theorem of morality, whereby the happiness of some people may be equal to the sum of the discontent of the neighbors on two sides of their houses. It may be quantifiable as a number. Happiness and discontent are currently not measured with numbers but only by vague notions, but once we assign numbers to them, we can compute them, develop a quantitative economics about them, securitize and monetize them, tax them, collect distribute them based on other principles, and so on. Surely this will lead to greater happiness and contentment. What a marvelous similarity this would be to the world’s central banks, which simply print more currency notes whenever economies start floundering, and thus increase the world’s overall wealth. One of these days we will all be billionaires. Perhaps, Happionaires too.

I will wait for reader’s suggestions before revealing some of my other ideas on moral numbers. I have visualized a small set of operations, equivalent to arithmetic operations, but I still haven't figured out how to determine which numbers are moral and which aren't.

If you liked this essay, check out other such essays by me -