Saturday, 24 October 2020

Buddha and the Sahebs - 8 - Ten books that influenced me


I picked up Charles Allen’s The Buddha and the Sahebs at the Eluru Library in Boag Road, Thyagaraya Nagar. It opened up a facet of Indian history that I was almost totally unaware of until then – the European contributions to the rediscovery of India’s past and its enormous role in shaping India’s present and future.

It was as shocking and eye-opening as The Lexus and the OliveTree which made me understand how unaware I was of current affairs, or Sivakamiyin Sabatham, which made me aware of my ignorance of Indian history and Tamil culture. The history I learnt in school, PS Senior Secondary school in Mylapore, was basically half about some aspects of India’s past, and half about British colonialism and India’s independence movement.

A common complaint among Indians nowadays, especially those who take up learning about Indian history in their twenties or later, not from academia but from reading books, tweets, blogs and attending lectures, is that there is too much stress on Guptas and Mughals and almost complete neglect of every other aspect of Indian history. Tamils feel the pang that Cholas and Pandyas are left out, Kannadigas about Hoysalas and Chalukyas, Telugus about Kakatiyas and Satavahanas and so on. Another complaint is that Leftists took over academia, obliterating the noble and glorious accomplishments of not just these dynasties but of poets, scientists, artists, philosophers of that period. While there is some truth to such allegations and angst, reading this made me aware of how widely, deeply, passionately and dispassionately, European scholars, primarily English, and some Indian collaborators had researched vast swathes of India’s buried past; and how much Indians owe an enormous debt to such scholarship. Allen and the geniuses in his book –William Jones, James Prinsep, Alexander Cunningham and others – almost turned me into an Anglophile.

Allen’s book is perhaps the most perfect and scholarly riposte that I have read, to Edward Said’s critique of colonial scholarship – “Orientalism”.

I found Said’s book practically unreadable; Allen’s book is unputdownable.

I later discovered that Allen followed in the footsteps of John Keay, several of whose books I have also enjoyed reading. I think that Indian academics have tossed out the baby of Orientalist scholarship along with the bathwater of European colonial exploitation, at least as far as school textbooks are concerned.

I read this book around 2009 or 2010 I think. I had read some other history books on India before this – Nilakanta Sastri’s History of South India, Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus (where I first read about Ajivakas), AL Basham’s The Wonder that was India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, al Beruni’s Indica, Travels of ibn Batuta; and several others I don’t remember.

The Buddha and the Sahebs starts with the discovery, in the late eighteenth century, of several isolated pillars in some major cities lke Delhi and Prayagraj (Allahabad); and remote places like Vaishali, Lauriya Nandangarh and Sanchi in India. Some of them, like that in Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi and the Allahabad pillar, had inscriptions, not only in Persian in the Arabic script but also others in an archaic Nagari script and a then unknown script which no living Indian could read or recognize. Curious and adventurous Englishmen kept stumbling upon mounds, temples, buried and destroyed monuments, broken idols, abandoned cities, coins, and all kinds of objects, whose existence was a surprise and whose history was a closed book to the most learned Indians of that time. The bureaucrats and scholars brought over from England by the East India Company, to help the businessmen make money, collect taxes and administer society, found endless wonders wherever they looked – if they looked. The formal establishment of a society to study Indian history, geography, culture, literature, law, economy, music, science, medicine, religion etc organized the information they collected across the length and breadth of the land. The very act of organizing, discussing and theorizing produced a wealth of information that astounded eager audiences in Europe, who only had vague notions of what India was from Arabian tales, ancient Greek and Roman travelogues, and the chaotic, disjointed, and sometimes fanciful accounts of sailors and merchants.

The company’s adventurers not only explored India, but also all its surrounding territories – Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Ceylon. The recent field of archaeology was yielding rich treasures in Europe itself, about ancient Rome and Greece; and newly conquered old civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Some of the Indian pundits who were first skeptical and cautious about the English sahebs, later recognized that some of them were truly curious and eager scholars, and began to both help them and learn all the new fields of knowledge that the European Enlightenment, Renaissance and the  Industrial Revolution had to offer.

Allen explains the travels, discoveries, missteps, surprises, of these Orientalists, who published them under the auspices of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The tales are as riveting as are their adventures. Their ignorance was sweeping in its scale; what amazed me was how much Indians too were ignorant of their own past, and substituted myth and legend and hearsay for actual history, with no sense of the scale of the eras or the volume and dimension of the events of their past. All of this is presented in school text books in bland and dull prose, as though Indians always knew all this history.

I had a chance to present this exciting story of the rediscovery of India’s past a few times; once at the Indianoil, Patna branch, thanks to a friend, Ganesh, who helped me travel and enjoy several places in Bihar. A second time for INTACH, at the New College in Royapettah, Chennai. And afterwards for THT and Ethiraj college.

The first reading of The Buddha and the Sahebs effected a substantial transformation in my understanding of history. And of the political social and cultural motives that inspired people and institutions to ignore and obfuscate it.

Literature essays in my blog

History essays in my blog

The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's past

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Brhat Samhita - 7 - Ten books that influenced me

I stumbled upon Indian astronomy. And Varahamihira.

In 2004, I attended a series of weekend talks conducted by Dr Devadoss, an astronomer of Chennai, at the Birla Planetarium, Kotturpuram. It was about astronomy in general, but he mentioned the twenty seven stars in the Indian almanac and enumerated their English and Latin names. For the first time, the idea that India had a long and hoary history in astronomy that I was completely unaware of, struck me. But I didn't pursue it then.

At a series of talks by Dr Chitra Madhavan, on Indian history, at the Musiri house, I encountered Prof Swaminathan, who later gave a series of talks on the Oral Traditions of Sanskrit. This was a eye-opening, mind blowing, paradigm altering experience, as profound and as transformative as reading Sivakamiyin Sabatham or visiting Ellora.

Later I came to know that Prof Swaminathan and others were conducting a series of talks under the banner of Tamil Heritage Trust. He invited me to participate in a discussion about what other programs we could conduct. While others suggested Indian art, sculpture, painting, with such themes as Ajanta, Hampi, Tanjavur etc. I suggested Indian science, particularly astronomy.

"Wonderful", said Prof Swaminathan. "You give a talk on Indian astronomy". And he gave me a book titled Facets of Indian Astronomy by KV Sarma. Around this time, the mathematician and polymath N Balasubramanian (known to aficionados of tamil fiction as short story writer Nagupoliyan) announced he would start teaching Sanskrit. He had also attended Swaminathan's Oral Traditions lecture series at Badri Seshadri's invitation.

My father got suddenly ill and died around that time, on October 5, 2010. My astronomy lecture was scheduled for November 2010.

Preparing for the talk on Indian astronomy helped occupy my mind. Eerily, my father himself had to go to court regularly following my mother's death in 1981, and I suspect work helped abate the grief. For me also, preparing for this lecture, was a way to help dull the grief of my father's passing.

I searched for and stumbled upon several websites about the astronomy and mathematics of other ancient cultures during this time. My plan was to have a ten minute preamble about the Astronomy of Ancient cultures but I learnt a ton of stuff. Prof Swaminathan suggested that I turn it into two lectures, the first on ancient astronomy of other civilizations; the second on Indian astronomy. Which I did.

My first talk on Astronomy of Ancient Cultures went fine, if somewhat long, to a limited but attentive audience, with Deepavali fireworks exploding all around us. The second talk was postponed twice, to February, to accommodate Kathie Brobeck and Blake Wentworth, American speakers who were visiting India at that time.

In the meanwhile, my friend VSS Iyer gave me the soft copies (PDF files) of translations of ancient Sanskrit texts including Aryabhata's Aryabhatiyam, VarahaMihira's Brhat Samhita and Pancha Siddhantika, Bhaskara's Siddhanta Sironmani; and Surya Siddhanta. The Sanskrit classes of Balu sir were going along, and I visited the KV Sarma Library a couple of times with him. Balu sir, as a Sanskrit scholar and mathematician, had a deep interest in and knowledge of mathematics and astronomy in Sanskrit. He also personally knew KV Sarma and had interacted with him over the decades. He was well known among the Sanskrit/mathematics circle, especially by Dr Mamata Dash and Dr Sinirudhdha Dash, who were shishyas of KV Sarma, and then and now run the KV Sarma library and foundation.

And so I had a little more time to read the Sanskrit books and their translations at leisure. The mathematics and astronomy were in Aryabhata were delightful, if cryptic and confounding even for Balu sir. But the polymath Varahamihira is the one who struck a chord.

Especially his mangum opus Brhat Samhita

This was more about astrology than astronomy; but it really seemed to be about everything that Varahamihira could see or feel, on earth, not just in the sky. There were chapters on various planets. 

No surprise, right? But also a chapter on Comets. Oddly, no other classical Indian astronomer discussed them. A chapter on planetary conjunctions. Rain. The star Canopus (Agastya). The consellation Ursa Major (Sapta Rishi).

Then it got freaky. A chapter on Diamonds, pearls, rubies. Chapters on Cots; Seats; umbrellas. Perfumes. Pimples. Temples.

Cows, dogs, turles, horses, elephants. Rainbows, dust storms, thunderbolts. Commodities and their prices.

Who else in the world could discuss pimples, temples, thunderbolts and planetary conjunctions in one single book?!? Not even Isaac Asimov. No wonder al-Beruni was flummoxed by Varahamihira, in a way no other he was not by any other Indian jyotisha.

The chapter on Agastya is the one that pulled me in hook line and sinker. Ten beautiful poems, extolling and adoring Agastya in marvelous metaphors and imagery, not distinguishing between the rishi and the star.

The crowning touch was a chapter whose English title is "On the praise of Women" (Stree prashamsa). It may drive any modern feminist into a wordless fury, and probably drove Vatsyayana to jealous sighs. One suspects that Chidambaram Iyer, the translator was very tentative in the translation of this chapter, especially the last shloka about the actions of Shiva, when the apsara Tilottamma came to worship Shiva and Parvati.

Another interesting aspect was his eclipse proof, in a chapter titled Rahu-chaara, which I have explained in this essay

While the astronomy and mathematics in other Sanskrit books enthrall and delight with me their knowledge of and explanation of science and mathematics, it is the polymath spirit of Varahamihira and his unabashed delight in life and exposition as a rasika in Brihat Samhita, that captured my heart. And taught me, along with Richard Feynman and Alfred Russel Wallace, not to look at science drily and in detachment, but with delight and pleasure.

Related Links

Literature essays in my blog

Astronomy essays

KV Sarma Library and Foundation

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection - 6 - Ten books that influenced me


For almost  every biologist, Charles Darwin is the supreme scientist, the pitamaha of the field. Alfred Russel Wallace is almost always mentioned as an afterthought, the also ran. And invariably only as someone who also discovered Natural Selection. The story is more complex and I have written elsewhere about him.

Wallace not only lived longer, explored more places and animals, observed uniquely, imagine wider and wrote better. Not only did he write better than Darwin, he wrote better than almost any other scientist in any other field. And he wrote so well and so lucidly, unabashed in his firmness of thought and felicity of expression.

This collection of essays is one such wonderful example. I found it in the Anna Centennial Library, started reading an essay or two, and was struck with wonder. I didnt know whether to marvel at the English, at the flow of thought, the breadth and depth of observations and inferences, their significance to biology, or how almost nothing I had read in scientific literature is so simple or elegant.

After reading this I started reading other original sources in English. I discovered that JBS Haldane, Thomas Huxley, Stephen Jay Gould, Nick Lane and Matt Ridley are other authors who I could read and understand at first go. Strangely the other books and essays of Wallace are not so easy to come by. No bookstore stocks them, only some are in Amazon. I particularly took a liking to his essay titled the Philosophy of the Birds' Nests; even the topic should astonish and provoke curiosity.

The obscurity of Wallace and his neglect by the scientific community were governed primarily by atheists, and to some extent Marxists, capturing scientific laboratories, journals, academia, media, entertainment etc. Religion has been more successfully attacked, mocked and derided in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. Wallace's experiments with spirituality, and his speculation that the unique evolution of the Human race could not have come along by natural selection alone, were an existential threat to the atheistic dogma that governs science nowadays. But that is a pity, because he was truly a marvelous writer.

I hope you read and enjoy this book.

Alfred Russel Wallace - my essay in the Indian Express series 

சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள் (my Tamil essay on Wallace)

Literature essays in my blog

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Sivakamyin Sabatham 5 - Ten books that influenced me

Until this one, I listed English books. Sivakamiyin Sabatham was the perhaps the most influential Tamil book that I have ever read. Even more so than, Ponniyin Selvan, also written by Kalki. The latter is rated a far better books by most avid fans of Kalki, especially so by avid fans of Tamil historical novels. 

Until 1999, I used to think of India as a language of great literature and religion, but not of science and technology. This book totally changed my mind. So did some other books I read after I returned to India, and lectures I attended on various aspects of Indian culture, tradition, technology, thought, music. Almost all of these were missing from my school and college education. This transformed my concept of the world, of India, of education, of culture, and so many other things.

I also had a low opinion of monarchy and a high regard for democracy, until I read this book. One of the three heroes of this book, Mahendra Varma Pallava, was an extraordinary king, a polymath, a VichitraChitta. The Phantom and Tintin and Sherlock Holmes and such fictional heroes excited me in my childhood. Mahendra Varma and Alfred Russel Wallace and Brahmagupta and such others excited me in the last couple of decades.

This book also made me understand why India and other cultures had kings, advisors, sabhas, royally commissioned art and literature, and so on. Kalki in this story captured the spirit of the era in a way, not even a library of history books could do.

It is hard to state in a few paragraphs how much I learnt from this book, how much it inspired me to things in front of my eyes that I hadn't even noticed, how ignorant I had been of my own culture and language and art and science, how much it motivated me to reexamine all of these. I was fortunate to know enough Tamil to read and enjoy it. No other novel except Ponniyin Selvan has been as delightful a read in Tamil either. Kalki, the author, combined in his Tamil idiom and style, the humour of Wodehouse, the historical flourish of Walter Scott, the adventure of Alistair Maclean and Robert Louis Stevenson, the poetic feeling evoked by Wordsworth and Byron and the Brownings, and an emotional connection to art which no English writer I had read ever evoked about western art.

There is an English translation of this book by Pavithra Srinivasan, for those who cannot read Tamil. Venkatesh Ramakrishnan wrote a sequel in Tamil to Sivakamiyin Sabatham, titled Kanchi Taaragai.

Tamil essay on Sivakamiyin Sabatham

My essays on Literature

Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Lexus and the Olive Tree - 4 - Ten books that influenced me

I bought and read this book in 1999. I was stunned. It related a set of major and historical events in the 1980s and 1990s of which I was unaware, either totally, or tangentially. I was an avid reader of newspapers and a somewhat less avid consumer of television news : or so I thought.

Apparently I was reading the wrong news : mostly politics, sports, entertainment or science. Business, economics, finance etc didn't excite me in those days. It is just making money, I thought, simple arithmetic, accounting etc. What could possibly be complicated about it? 

This book, and The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner, which my cousin Deepa recommended, transformed my thinking on these subjects. (Or at least, made me aware that I was utterly ignorant of these matters, and was ignorant of my ignorance). I have since realized that almost every educated person suffers from this prejudice and ignorance - they don't think economics or finance is complex enough to read books about.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree is held in utter contempt by almost everyone who was educated in finance, economics or business, or involved in these fields professionally. It probably outsold all books written by experts in those fields COMBINED, the year it came out. Few of those experts can write for the general public. It is like complaining that Justin Bieber outsold Beethoven or that a railway timetable is not as sophisticated as the Theory of Relativity.

But for someone ignorant of the stock market, currency rates, the impact of the internet, of television, the sharp economic divide between capitalist and communist countries, the subtle variations between the philosophies of France and Italy or Boston and San Francisco or Indonesia and Bangladesh - in fact, the vast majority of the general public, Friedman's book was an excellent, brilliant, pacy, readable, eyeopener.

The book captured the difference between 

  • those who adopted cutting edge technology and those who didn't
  • the transition from the world of the Cold War to one of globalization
  • the power of markets of various kinds
  • the stunning effect of new kinds of securitization
  • the limits of diplomacy
  • the futility of some wars and a general cluelessness about different cultures

Very few people in the 1990s other than the foreign affairs correspondent of one the world's richest media organizations, could experience these, let alone understand or explain them.

Since then I have learnt some degree of economics and economic history from other books, but this one was a path breaker, a delightful read, and an eye opener.

What is "news?"

My essays on Economics

My essays on Literature

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