Monday 25 August 2014

Book review: Princesses Behaving Badly

My latest book review of  Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie published in today's Kannada Prabha. Here's the link: 

Thursday 10 July 2014

How History Was Unmade At Nalanda!

Response published in Kafila by DN Jha to Arun Shourie's How history was made up at Nalanda:
Ruins of Nalanda University
I was amused to read  ‘How History was Made up at Nalanda’ by Arun Shourie who has dished out to readers his ignorance masquerading as knowledge –  reason enough to have pity on him and sympathy for his readers! Since he has referred to me by name and has  charged  me with fudging evidence to distort the historical narrative of the destruction of  the ancient Nalandamahavihar,  I consider it necessary to rebut his allegations and set the record straight instead of ignoring his balderdash.

My presentation at the Indian History Congress in 2006 (and not 2004 as stated by Shourie), to which he refers, was not devoted to the destruction of ancient Nalanda per se – his account misleads  readers and pulls wool over their eyes.  It was in fact focused on the antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists  for which I drew on different kinds of evidence including myths and traditions. In this context I cited the tradition recorded in the 18th century Tibetan  text, Pag-sam-jon-zang by Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor,mentioned by B N S Yadava in his Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century (p.346) with due acknowledgement, though in his pettiness, Shourie is quick to discover plagiarism on my part! I may add that “Hindu fanatics” are not my words but  Yadav’s which is why they are in quotes. How sad that one has to point this out to a Magsaysay awardee journalist!

In his conceit Shourie is disdainful and dismissive of the Tibetan tradition which, has certain elements of miracle in it, as recorded in the text. Here is the relevant extract from Sumpa’s work cited by Shourie : “While a religious  sermon was being delivered in the temple that he [Kakut Siddha] had erected at Nalanda, a few young monks threw washing water at two Tirthika beggars. (The Buddhists used to designate the Hindus by the term Tirthika). The beggars being angry, set fire on the three shrines of Dharmaganja, the Buddhist University of Nalanda, viz.— Ratna Sagara, Ratna Ranjaka including the nine-storeyed temple called Ratnodadhi which contained the library of sacred books” (p.92). Shourie questions how the two beggars could go from building to building to “burn down the entire, huge, scattered complex.” Look at another  passage (abridged by me in the following paragraph) from the History of Buddhism in India written by another Tibetan monk and scholar Taranatha in the 17th century:

During the consecration of the  temple built by Kakutsiddha at Nalendra [Nalanda] “the young naughty sramanas threw slops at the two tirthika beggars andkept them pressed inside door panels and set ferocious dogs on them”. Angered by this, one of them went on arranging for their livelihood and the other sat in a deep pit and “engaged himself in surya sadhana” [solar worship] , first for nine years and then for three more years and having thus “acquired mantrasiddhi” he “performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around” which   “immediately resulted in a miraculously produced fire”, consuming  all the eighty four temples and the scriptures some of which, however, were saved by water flowing from an upper floor of the nine storey Ratnodadhi temple. (History of Buddhism in India, English tr. Lama Chimpa & Alka Chattopadhyaya, summary of pp.141-42).

If we look at the two narratives closely, they are similar. The role of the Tirthikas and their miraculous fire causing a conflagration are common to both. Admittedly one does not have to take the miracles literally but it is not justified to ignore  their importance as part of  traditions which gain in strength over time and become part of collective memory of the community. Nor is it desirable or defensible   to disregard the element of long standing antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists which may have given rise to the Tibetan tradition and nurtured it till as late as the 18th century or even later.  It is in the context of this Buddhist-Tirthika  animosity that the account of Sumpa assumes importance; it also makes sense because it jibes with Taranatha’s evidence. Further, neither Sumpa, nor  Taranatha,  ever came to India. This should mean that the idea of Brahminical hostility to the religion of the Buddha  traveled to Tibet fairly early and became part of its Buddhist tradition, and found expression in the 17th-18th  century Tibetan writings.  Acceptance or rejection of this kind of source-criticism is welcome if it comes from a professional historian and but not  from someone who flirts with history as Shourie does.

Of the two Tibetan traditions, the one  referred to by me  has been given credence not only by Yadava (whom Shourie, in his ignorance,  dubs a Marxist!) but a number of other Indian scholars like R K Mookerji (Education in Ancient India), Sukumar Dutt (Buddhist Monks and Monsteries of India), Buddha Prakash (Aspects of Indian History and Civilization),  and S C Vidyabhushana who interprets the text to say that it refers to an actual “scuffle between the Buddhsit and Brahmanical mendicants and the latter, being infuriated, propitiated the Sun god for twelve years, performed a fire- sacrifice and threw the living embers and ashes from the sacrificial pit into the Buddhist temples which eventually destroyed the great library at Nalanda called Ratnodadhi”  (History of Indian Logic, p516 as cited by D R Patil, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, p.327). Scholars named above were all polymaths of unimpeachable academic honesty and integrity. They had nothing to do, even remotely, with Marxism: which is, to Shourie in his bull avatar, a red rag.

Now juxtapose the Tibetan tradition with  the contemporary account in the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-i -Siraj, which Shourie not only misinterprets but also blows out of proportion. Although its testimony has no bearing on my argument about Brahmanical intolerance, a word needs to be said about it so as to expose his “false knowledge”, which as G B Shaw said, is “more dangerous than ignorance.” The famous passage from this text reads  exactly as follows:

“He [ Bakhtiyar Khalji] used to carry his depredations into those parts and that country until he organized an attack upon the fortified city of Bihar. Trustworthy persons have related on this wise, that he advanced to the gateway of  the fortress of Bihar with two hundred horsemen in defensive armour, and suddenly attacked the place. There were two brothers of Farghanah, men of learning,  one Nizamu-ud-Din, the other Samsam-ud-Din (by name) in the service of Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar ; and the author of this book [ Minhaj] met with at Lakhnawati in the year 641 H., and this account is from him. These two wise brothers were soldiers among that band of holy warriors when they reached the gateway of the fortress and began the attack, at which time Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty. The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the  observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a  number of Hindus  that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus were killed. On becoming acquainted (with the contents of the books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and  city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar” (Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, English tr. H G Raverty, pp.551-52).

The above account mentions the fortress of Bihar as the target of Bakhtiyar’s attack. The fortified monastery which Bakhtiyar  captured  was, “known as Audand-Bihar or Odandapura-vihara” (Odantapuri in Biharsharif then known simply as Bihar). This is the view of many historians but, most importantly, of Jadunath Sarkar, the high priest of communal historiography in India (History of Begal, vol. 2,  pp.3-4). Minhaj does not refer to Nalanda at all: he  merely speaks of the ransacking of the “fortress of Bihar” (hisar-i-Bihar). But how can Shourie be satisfied unless Bakhtiyar is shown to have sacked Nalanda? Since Bakhtiyar was leading plundering expeditions in the region of Magadha, Shourie thinks that  Nalanda must have been destroyed by him – and, magically, he finds ‘evidence’ in an account which does not even speak of the place. Thus an important historical testimony becomes the victim of his anti-Muslim prejudice. In his zeal, he  fudges and concocts  historical evidence and ignores the fact that Bakhtiyar did not go to Nalanda; it “escaped the main fury of the Muslim conquest because it lay not on the main route from Delhi to Bengal but needed a separate expedition” (A S Altekar in Introduction to Roerich’s Biography of Dharmasvamin).  Also, a few years after Bakhtiyar’s sack of Odantapuri, when the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin visited Nalanda in 1234, he “found some buildings unscathed” in which some pandits and monks resided and received  instruction from Mahapandita Rahulshribhadra. In fact, Bakhtiyar seems to have proceeded from Biharshrif  to Nadia in Bengal through the hills and jungles of the region of Jharkhand, which, incidentally, finds first mention in an inscription of 1295 AD (Comprehensive History of India, vol IV, pt. I, p.601).  I may add that his whole book, Eminent Historians, from which the article under reference is excerpted, abounds in instances of cavalier attitude to historical evidence and peddles a perverse perception of the Indian past.

It is neither possible nor necessary to deny that the Islamic invaders conquered parts of Bihar and Bengal and destroyed the famous universities in the region. But Shourie’s laboured effort to associate Bakhtiyar Khalji with the destruction and burning of the university of Nalanda is a glaring example of the wilful distortion of history. Certainly week-end historians like Shourie and others of his ilk are always free to falsify historical data but this only reveals the lack of any serious historical training.

Shourie had raised a huge controversy by publishing his scandalous and slanderous Eminent Historians in 1998 during the NDA regime and now, after sixteen years, he has issued its second edition. He appears and reappears in the historian’s avatar when the BJP comes to power, tries to please his masters and keeps waiting for crumbs to fall from their table. His view of the past is no different from that of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and their numerous outfits consisting of riffraff and goons who burn books that do not endorse their view, vandalize art objects which they consider blasphemous, present a distorted view of Indian history, and nurture a culture of intolerance. These elements demanded my arrest when my work on beef eating was published, and censured  James Laine when his book on Shivaji came out. It is not unlikely that Shourie functions in perfect harmony with them and persons like Dina Nath Batra  who targeted  A  K Ramanujan’s essay emphasizing the diversity of the Ramayana tradition; Wendy Doniger’s writings, which  provided an alternative view of Hinduism; Megha Kumar’s work on communalism and sexual violence in Ahmedabad since 1969;  and Sekhar Bandopadhyaya’s textbook on modern India which does not eulogize the RSS.

Arun Shourie seems to have inaugurated a fresh round of battle by reproducing in a second edition his faked, falsified and fabricated historical evidence, thus providing grist to the reactionary mill of Batras and their ilk.

D N Jha is Former Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Delhi. His important publications include Early India and The Myth of the Holy Cow.

How history was made up at Nalanda

An interesting Opinion by Arun Shourie in The Indian Express:

“The mine of learning, honoured Nalanda” — that is how the 16th-17th century Tibetan historian, Taranath, referred to the university at Nalanda. At the time I-tsing was at the university, there were 3,700 monks. The total complex had around 10,000 residents. The structures housing the university were as splendid and as extensive as the learning they housed. When excavations began, the principal mound alone was about 1,400 feet by 400 feet. Hieun Tsang recounts at least seven monasteries and eight halls. The monasteries were of several storeys, and there was a library complex of three buildings, one of them nine storeys high.

As the Islamic invaders advanced through Afghanistan and northwestern India, they exterminated Buddhist clergy, they pillaged and pulverised every Buddhist structure — the very word “but”, the idols they so feverishly destroyed, was derived from “Buddha”. Nalanda escaped their attention for a while — in part because it was not on the main routes. But soon enough, the marauders arrived, and struck the fatal blow. The ransacking is described in the contemporary Tabakat-i-Nasiri by Maulana Minhaj-ud-din.

Minhaj-ud-din rose and came to the notice of the rulers of the time — Qutb-ud-din Aibak and others — because of his raids and depredations, and because of the enormous booty he gathered, booty sufficient for him to set himself up as a plunderer in his own right. “His reputation reached Sultan (Malik) Qutb-ud-din, who despatched a robe of distinction to him, and showed him honour,” the historian writes. With its high wall, its large buildings, Nalanda seemed like a well-endowed fortress to Ikhtiyar-ud-din and his force. He advanced upon it with two hundred horsemen “and suddenly attacked the place”. Minhaj-ud-din continues,
“The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven, and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On being acquainted (with the contents of the books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindu tongue, they call a college, Bihar [vihara].”

“When that victory was effected,” Minhaj-ud-din reports, “Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar returned with great booty, and came to the presence of the beneficent sultan, Qutb-ud-din I-bak, and received great honour and distinction…” — so much so that other nobles at the court became jealous. All this happened around the year 1197 AD.

And now the Marxist account of the destruction of this jewel of knowledge. In 2004, D.N. Jha was the president of the Indian History Congress. In the presidential address he delivered — one to which we shall turn as an example of Marxist “scholarship” — this is the account he gives of the destruction of Buddhist viharas, and of Nalanda in particular:

“A Tibetan tradition has it that the Kalacuri King Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha, and the Tibetan text  Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

“Hindu fanatics”? The expression struck me as odd. A Tibetan text of the 18th century using so current an expression as “Hindu fanatics”? Especially so because, on Jha’s own reckoning, Hinduism is an invention of the British in the late 19th century? So, what is this “Tibetan text”? What does it say? Had Jha looked it up?
Pag Sam Jon Zang was written by Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor. The author lived in 1704-88: that is, 500 years after the destruction of Nalanda.

That is the first thing that strikes one: our historian disregards the contemporaneous account, Tabakat-i-Nasiri, and opts for a text written 500 years after the event. But had he read the text at all? Could a self-respecting Marxist have at all believed what is written in it?

This is how Sarat Chandra Das, the translator and editor of Pag Sam Jon Zang, sets out the account of the destruction of Nalanda as given in this text:

“While a religious sermon was being delivered in the temple that he (Kakuta Sidha, a minister of a king of Magadha) had erected at Nalanda, a few young monks threw washing water at two Tirthika beggars. The beggars being angry, set fire on the three shrines of dharma ganja, the Buddhist university of Nalanda — that is, Ratna Sagara, Ratna Ranjaka including the nine-storey building called Ratnadadhi which contained the library of sacred books” (pg 92).

Two beggars could go from building to building of that huge campus and, with all the monks present, burn down the entire, huge, scattered complex?

And, the account of the relevant passage reproduced above is the one set out by Sarat Chandra Das in his Index. That is, it is just a summary of the actual passage — in an index, it scarcely could be more. What does the relevant section, and in particular the passage about the burning down of the library, say?

The author is giving an account of how Dharma has survived three rounds of destructive attempts. One round was occasioned by the fluctuating relations between Khunimamasta, a king of Taksig (Turkistan?), and Dharma Chandra, a king of Nyi-og in the east. The latter sends gifts. The former thinks these are part of black magic. He, therefore, swoops down from “dhurukha” and destroys “the three bases” of Magadha — monasteries, scriptures and stupas. Khunimamasta drives out and exiles the monks. Dharma Chandra’s uncle sends many scholars to China to spread the teaching. He receives gold as thanksgiving. He uses this and other gifts to appease rulers of smaller kingdoms to join the fight against the king of Taksig (Turkistan?). The uncle thereafter revives “the three bases”. Almost all the shrines are restored and 84 new ones are built. And so, the dharma survives.

In the next round, “the teacher who taught prajnaparamita for 20 years is assassinated by burglars from dhurukha. His blood turned into milk and many flowers emerged from his body. (Thus) he flew into the sky.”
We now come to the crucial passage, the one that Jha has ostensibly invoked. I reproduce the translation of it by Geshe Dorji Damdul in full:

“Again at that time, there was a scholar by the name Mutita Bhadra, who was greatly involved in renovating and building stupas. Eventually he had a vision of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. He flew to Liyul by holding the garment (of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra) and there he made great contributions to the welfare of sentient beings and the Dharma. Reviving the Dharma that way, the Dharma flourished for 40 years in the Central Land (Magadha?). At that time, during the celebration over the construction of a shrine in Nalanda by Kakutasita, a minister of the king, some naughty novice monks splashed (dish) washing water on two non-Buddhist beggars and also pressed (the two) in-between the door and (the door frame.) Angry over these gestures, one (beggar) served as the attendant to the other who sat in a deep pit for 12 years to gain the sidhi of the sun. Having achieved the sidhi, they threw ashes of a fire puja (havan) they did, on 84 Buddhist shrines. They were all burned. Particularly, when the three dharma ganja of Nalanda — the shrines which sheltered the scriptures — as well got consumed in fire, streams of water ran down from the scriptures of Guhyasamaja and Prajnaparamita, which were housed in the ninth storey of the Ratnadhati shrine. This saved many scriptures. Later, fearing penalty from the king, the two (beggars) escaped to Hasama in the north. However, the two died due to immolation, which happened on its own.”

Surely, no self-respecting Marxist could have made his account rest on not just one miracle — acquiring sidhis and raining fire on to the structures — but two, for we also have the streams of water running down from the scriptures.

But we strain unnecessarily. There is a clue in Jha’s lecture itself. He doesn’t cite the Tibetan text, he does what Marxists do: he cites another Marxist citing the Tibetan text! To see what he does, you must read the lines carefully. This is what we saw Jha saying:

“A Tibetan tradition has it that the Kalacuri King Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha, and the Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

As his authority, Jha cites a book by B.N.S. Yadava, Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century. What did Yadava himself write? Here it is: “Further, the Tibetan tradition informs us that Kalacuri Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha.”

Jha has clearly lifted what Yadava wrote word for word — at least he has been faithful to his source. But in the very next sentence, Yadava had gone on to say: “It is very difficult to say anything as to how far this account may be correct.”

Words that Jha conveniently left out!

Yadava had continued, “However, we get some other references to persecution.”

He cited two inscriptions and a Puranic reference. And then came to the Tibetan text. Recall what Jha wrote about this text: “…and the Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

And now turn to what Yadava wrote about this very text: “The Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang contains a [I am leaving out a word] tradition of the burning of the library of Nalanda by some Hindu fanatics.”

Close enough to pass for plagiarism? But wait, there is originality! Notice, first, that two Hindu beggars have become “Hindu fanatics”. Notice, next, that the words “Hindu fanatics” that Jha had put in quotation marks as if they were the words that the author of the Tibetan text had used to describe the arsonists, were actually the words of his fellow Marxist, Yadava. But the best clue is the word that I omitted from what Yadava had actually written. Yadava’s full sentence was as follows: “The Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang contains a doubtful tradition of the burning of the library of Nalanda by some Hindu fanatics.”

Just as he had left out the words, “It is very difficult to say anything as to how far this account may be correct,” Jha now leaves out the word “doubtful”. And all this in the presidential address to the Indian History Congress.

In a word, l There is a Tibetan text written five hundred years after the destruction of Nalanda l Sarat Chandra Das annotates it, and includes in his Index a summary in English of a passage in the text
— the summary naturally leaves out telling components of the original passage
l Yadava looks only at the summary in the Index — “non-Buddhist beggars” becomes “Hindu fanatics”
l Yadava notes that the account is based on a “doubtful tradition”
l Jha omits the word “doubtful”
l And we have a presidential address to the Indian History Congress!

Given what we have seen of Marxist historians even in this brief book, the brazen-faced distortions — to the point of falsehood — do not surprise me.

What does surprise me is that no one looked up either the source that Jha had cited or the text.

Indeed, in concluding his section, Yadava had stated:

“A great blow to Buddhism was, no doubt, rendered by the Turkish invasions, leading to the destruction and desertion of the celebrated Buddhist monasteries of Magadha and Bengal. Many Buddhist scholars fled to Tibet and Nepal.”

The writer, a former Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP, was Union minister for communications, information technology and disinvestment. This article has been excerpted from his book, ‘Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud’, published by HarperCollins India.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Nayantara Sahgal’s battle with Indira Gandhi

Nayantara Sahgal (born 1927) belongs to India’s best-known political family, the Nehrus, and is a journalist, political commentator, essayist, biographer and novelist. She is perhaps the only Indian writer in English to have consistently reflected the political life of the country in her novels. Sahgal grew up with her cousin Indira Gandhi in Anand Bhawan, the family home in Allahabad, at a time when both girls’ parents were frequently away or in jail, and the two went to boarding school together. As a young woman, Nayantara idealised her mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered a father figure after her own father passed away when she was seventeen. Her political outlook was strongly shaped by Nehruvian ideas, and her columns from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s consistently criticised the dismantling of his legacy by his daughter, Indira, first as a leader of the Congress and then as prime minister. This outspokenness, especially in the face of Indira’s growing authoritarianism in the lead-up to her declaration of emergency in 1975, earned Sahgal the extreme displeasure of India’s most powerful woman at the time, and brought her perilously close to becoming a political prisoner. She remained undeterred, however, refusing to be censored by those in power. The following essay is adapted from Ritu Menon’s Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal, forthcoming this month from HarperCollins India.
As perhaps the first female political columnist in the country, Sahgal wrote
for the Sunday Standard for almost fourteen years.
BY A CURIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE OF HISTORY, both personal and political, Nayantara Sahgal relocated to Delhi in 1967, at the same time that her cousin, Indira Gandhi, embarked on recasting the Congress party in her own mould. And, by the same curious circumstance, this was also when Nayantara began writing the political columns that would reconfigure her relationship with Indira unalterably and permanently.

Nayantara Sahgal was probably the first woman political columnist in the country; she was not, however, a columnist by choice. Financial constraints following her divorce in 1967, and the expense of managing on her own, in a way, forced her hand. Then as now, a writer couldn’t hope to live off her royalties, and so, for a good many years, her fiction and journalism proceeded more or less in tandem, albeit with considerable difficulty; this meant snatching time away from her other preoccupations, from householding and parenting. Nayantara wrote a regular political column for close to fourteen years for the Sunday Standard (part of The Express Group, which also published the Indian Express), as well as reporting on the political activist Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in Bihar before the Emergency of 1975 for his paper Everyman’s Weekly, edited by the well-known Delhi journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea. On occasion, she also contributed to The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the London Times and The Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

What connected her fiction and non-fiction was, quite simply, politics; and politics is what triggered her imagination. To write politically was the only way for her to proceed. “I approach fiction that way,” she told me in 2008. “To write a sort of apolitical novel wouldn’t have come naturally to me. The thing is, whether I wrote fiction or non-fiction, my connection with politics was my emotional mainspring, not an event happening out there. I have been profoundly affected by it, one’s laughter and tears, everything was connected with it, and there was no getting away from the emotional element in politics … I’ve never grown a hard shell about that.”

Her emotional engagement apart, Delhi provided the kind of grist for a political mill that entailed continuous appraisal and analysis. From 1969 onwards, events unfolded in such an unexpected manner, and at such speed, that Nayantara was soon in the thick of it. Early in the year, she noted in one of her columns that the national mood was at a low ebb, and that the ruling Congress, a party once committed to austerity, had been reduced to horse-trading and self-aggrandisement, while the country’s most militant and organised outfit, the Jan Sangh, had adopted the dangerous slogan of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.” In February 1969, mid-term elections in five states indicated a downhill slide for the Congress at the national level; within the party, meanwhile, signs of an imminent rupture between the old guard and a new, dominant faction led by Mrs Gandhi could no longer be wished away.

As the year wore on, Mrs Gandhi’s grip on the party and on government policy became more secure, and she revived two key provisions of her earlier 1967 Ten Point Programme—bank nationalisation, and the abolition of the purses guaranteed to the rulers of the former princely states since the time of Independence. Nayantara’s columns on both the Congress and on her cousin’s policies and tactics became increasingly critical and unequivocal. The stronger faction within the party, she wrote, exhibited “unparalleled crudity,” their only consideration being power and its maintenance. The winning side’s victory was unprincipled, and cultivating realpolitik a dangerous strategy. In her view, the mass rallies that Mrs Gandhi had taken to organising outside her house were reminiscent of the Nazi and fascist propaganda of Hitler and Mussolini, and did not befit an elected representative. The leadership, she wrote in the Sunday Standard, had “unleashed a violent atmosphere in which those without scruples can take charge.” The nationalisation of banks was a populist initiative with little substance, and the lack of rural credit a complex problem that could not be solved simply through loans to small entrepreneurs. She saw these trends, political and economic, as signalling the end of the Nehruvian era, the end of the liberal values he stood for.

Nayantara was not alone in her denunciation; commentators such as Frank Moraes, the editor of the Indian Express, and Nandan Kagal, the editor of the Sunday Standard, deplored Mrs Gandhi’s ends-justify-the-means rationalisations, as well as her lack of responsibility towards her party and her colleagues in parliament. In November 1969, Nayantara’s criticism became even more strident, blaming the Congress directly for the deterioration of standards in politics. “The government,” she wrote, “has put up a performance worthy of the best gangster tradition in politics.” The party provided no space for criticism, assiduously cultivated personality rule, and eschewed any kind of accountability. A party that didn’t respect its own constitution could hardly be relied on to uphold the Indian constitution or abide by its principles.

By the time the Congress split in December, Nayantara’s pessimism was near-total. The breakaway Congress, her cousin’s faction, had nothing new to offer; the majority in the party were go-getters, what service could they perform for the country? She charged the party with instigating anarchy in Bengal and communal frenzy in Gujarat, both “signposts of calculated disorder.” This was a mockery of revolution: “It looks very much as if deception, disguised as revolutionary fervour, is being practiced on the Indian people.”

“As a political writer I was up against the establishment,” she told me. “I was not writing political commentary at a time when all was well in the country. It was a period when the government, the prime minister, was seeking authoritarian powers. This was over a period of time before the Emergency, leading up to it … so all of this I was recording, and coming up against authority in a very shattering way.”

She was warned repeatedly that if she didn’t fall in line, all would not be well. When she tried to get accreditation as a journalist, to which she was entitled, she was told not to bother. This meant she couldn’t belong to a professional fraternity or seek protection from a journalists’ union. “I was always alone, always on my own,” she said.

THROUGHOUT THE EARLY 1970S, Nayantara took up those issues that impinged most directly on the country’s economic and political life. In a March 1970 column on the budget, she slammed the proposal to jointly tax the income of married couples, saying it would deal a body blow to women seeking employment. It was “an error on the government’s part not to treat women as independent financial entities in their own right,” as well as deny them the legitimate right to keep a portion of what they earned. A recurring theme throughout this time was her concern about the erosion of democratic principles and the suppression of all dissent. The country was witnessing a growth of authoritarianism, so much so that “it is not a matter of conjecture what the situation will be a few years hence. Whatever it will be is already happening.” She deplored the inability of the Indian intelligentsia to organise against this trend, to resist the encroachment of the powers-that-be on their fundamental rights. Educated Indians, she maintained, played no role in influencing the direction India took—in order for this to happen, a more engaged, deliberative and active public was called for.

Her misgivings were shared by others, too; a couple of months earlier the Economic & Political Weekly commented that:

It is maintained that Indira Gandhi’s colleagues, fearful of taking positions contrary to the PM, have gradually and almost gratefully fallen into the habit of referring matters to the boss … Questions are being asked whether this method of functioning is at all healthy and whether it doesn’t lead to a durbari atmosphere.

The Congress won a landslide electoral victory in 1971, trumping the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, among other parties, even before the Mrs Gandhi-led triumph in the Bangladeshi war of liberation. Nayantara wrote in April of that year that any party with a two-thirds majority deserved to lead, and that Mrs Gandhi’s singular accomplishment in the election had been to convince the electorate that:

she has nothing to do with the past, that she stood for something different … Perhaps Mrs Gandhi will be India’s answer to Mao, the alternative she herself believes she is, who will be able to combine progress with a commitment to democracy.

But Nayantara was unwavering in her skepticism regarding socialism, going so far as to think that Nehru’s faithful adherence to Fabian socialism was “economic emotionalism,” quite impractical for India. Of the Indian brand, Nayantara believed that as long as the essential needs of the people—health, food, shelter and education—were unmet, it would remain mere tokenism. The government was not interested in working towards real socialism; even the Left parties, she wrote, were more concerned with a more radical-than-thou rhetoric rather than with socialism on the ground.

Looking back at 1972 in December of that year, Nayantara wrote that the victory in Bangladesh and Mrs Gandhi’s mature foreign policy, indicating to both the Americans and the Chinese that she was confident in her dealings with her immediate neighbours, were the two achievements of that period. On the negative side, class warfare had intensified, there was growing sympathy with the Naxal movement, and politically the country had seen a shift towards centralisation and a weakening of the federal structure. The government’s call to end disparities sounded hollow, because, in fact, disparities between the ruling class and ordinary citizens had never been greater. She called politicians, well taken care of by the state, “nationalized individuals,” who had no idea of the difficulties faced by the common man.
Indira Gandhi at Nayantara Pandit’s wedding to her first husband,
Gautam Sahgal, in Allahabad in 1949. 
By the mid 1970s, Nayantara was openly comparing the promise and potential of the Gandhi–Nehru era with what she called the degraded political culture of the new Congress. Notwithstanding the Indian National Congress’s many shortcomings, its romance with the masses was genuine. That romance was now over, and in its place was a “shady affair in which there is not the compassion of Gandhi, the vision of Nehru, or the realism of Patel.” The Congress president, she wrote, blamed the corrupt bureaucracy for preventing the implementation of policies, a strange complaint given the corruption within the Congress itself. Accusing the party of “double-speak and double-think,” she said Nehruvianism was now in full retreat, with the Congress in the hands of a ruthless clique. “Far from being ‘democratized’ after the split,” she wrote in May 1973, “the party functions under a single line of command, where every chief minister, every person in the top hierarchy, knows that they owe their position to the PM and hold it at her pleasure.” Nothing, she said, could be farther from this state of affairs than governance under Nehru, when opinions were expressed, debate was welcome, and even his own son-in-law was free to expose corruption and venal politicking.

It is hardly surprising that Mrs Gandhi was displeased.

Unlike Nayantara, and for better or for worse, she had entered the political fray, and for a decade or more had weathered the rough and tumble of Indian politics. She also had tried to set in motion certain reforms that were in line with her centre-left politics, reforms that she had argued for even while Nehru was alive. “It must be made clear that the persons who do not see eye to eye with the objectives of the Congress and its economic programme,” she declared in 1959, “and are not in a mood to keep pace with the progressive section, who are determined to work for the establishment of democratic socialism, should have no place in the organisation.” And later, after Nehru’s death in 1964, she said, “The task of building up a powerful cooperative movement must be taken in hand immediately.”

Nayantara recalled to me in an interview that when, after Nehru’s death, she asked Indira why she had resigned as Congress president after just one year, her cousin replied that it was because she couldn’t do what she wanted to. Having proven her mettle now and wrested control of the party from the old guard, and having, moreover, won the elections by a huge majority, Mrs Gandhi would have felt justified in purging the party of those vested interests that were an obstacle in her path. This was anathema to Nayantara. “I spoke out against my cousin because she was my cousin—how could she, of all people, betray the freedom and democratic ideals we had fought for … I was defending my uncle’s values, it was inconceivable to me that India could betray her tryst with destiny.”

Over thirty years later, as we spoke in her home in Dehradun, Nayantara said she would write her columns differently now, that her emphasis would change. On abolishing the princes’ privy purses, for instance, she said that while she did not wish to endorse their feudal privileges, she nevertheless believed, like her uncle, that “a government doesn’t break its word,” that it was important for it to stick to its covenant. On bank nationalisation, she acknowledged that she didn’t know too much about it herself, but according to former prime minister Morarji Desai, nationalisation of the Imperial Bank meant social control had already been attempted in the rural areas by extending credit to those in need; taking over the other banks now didn’t necessarily further the desired objective. Naively, perhaps, she believed, in retrospect, that Indira Gandhi “did the wrong thing for the right reason.” Breaking away from the Syndicate, the powerful group of senior Congress leaders against whom Indira struggled to gain control over the party, was a sound move because, according to Nayantara, Indira didn’t want her father’s socialist legacy destroyed. Even when, after Nehru’s death, the Congress leader Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister for nineteen months, Nayantara said, “I think she felt this was beginning to happen. But she went about it the wrong way, she could have achieved the same thing without these gimmicks. I didn’t have the maturity then, and what I did with my political writing was that I destroyed myself.” “I went all out,” she said, “went hell for leather when I saw what was an authoritarian trend taking over.”

Her columns had a huge impact and gained her a large following, but all this came at considerable personal cost. The break with Indira was a great loss for Nayantara, especially as they had been so close at one time; even politically, she thought that she could have been less judgemental. “I should have kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t,” she said. “I thought leaning towards the Soviet Union was a betrayal of non-alignment, but in hindsight, how else could we have kept our distance from America? How would I have dealt with it? And I saw how the signing of the treaty with the Soviet Union was greeted, the enormous popular impact it had … so I was mistaken.”

AMONG THE FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES that Nayantara and her partner—the civil servant EN Mangat Rai, or Nirmal—had in Delhi was the cultural counsellor at the US Embassy, Margaret Clapp (formerly president of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, where Nayantara had studied), at whose home they met Tom Arpe, then the head of the English department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Would she consider spending some time as a writer-in-residence at SMU, Tom asked Nayantara. To say that she was taken completely by surprise would be an understatement—the whole idea of being a writer-in-residence was a novelty. As someone who had never considered herself a Writer with a capital ‘W,’ she wondered what she would do as one in residence at a university. Dallas, moreover, she associated with Kennedy’s assassination, and could hardly bring herself to think about going there. But then, here she was in Delhi where Gandhi had been shot dead, and surely that was much closer home. And so, in the autumn of 1973, Nayantara and Nirmal left for Dallas, where they stayed till the summer of 1974. It was a wonderful break. Away from the dailiness of life in Delhi, in an academic environment of teachers and students and with just a light teaching load, the whole sojourn was relaxed.

The 1970s in the United States were a time of great literary and creative churning in theatre, the visual arts, dance; yet, despite all the opportunities offered to her to meet writers and other literary personalities, especially in New York and Cambridge, Nayantara was curiously unadventurous in this regard. She visited museums, saw plays, met people like the economist and former ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, and old friends like the writer and photographer Dorothy Norman and the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi, but she didn’t seek out the writers of the time—never wanted to, she told me, unless she was particularly taken with their work. At SMU she embarked on a serious reading of the Southern writers—Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams—which she found enormously rewarding, but it remained just an individual journey of discovery.

In 1974, it was Nirmal’s turn to be invited by his old friend, William Morris-Jones, now director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, to spend some months at the Institute writing a book. The subject was administration, and Nirmal, having served under the British before Independence, and later in the Indian government, was well placed to write about the two systems of governance. Nayantara and Nirmal lived in a small flat in Mecklenburgh Square, by London University, but as soon as they arrived Nirmal was hospitalised with pneumonia. London was bitterly cold, the flat was inadequately heated and cramped, and Nayantara was plunged into housekeeping and coping on her own, in addition to making daily trips to the University College Hospital to be with Nirmal. The contrast between London in winter and Texas, with its vast expanses, sunny weather and the comfort of the SMU campus, couldn’t have been greater. It was also a huge change from Nayantara’s earlier visits to London when her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was High Commissioner, and Nayantara lived in the luxury of 9, Kensington Palace Gardens, and was wined and dined by a succession of socially and politically prominent people, meeting the most interesting minds of the time.

Their stint in the city now was much more modest, with England itself in some turmoil. The miners’ strike meant coal shortages in an already severe season; students, among them Nayantara’s younger daughter Gita, were protesting the construction of nuclear power stations, and she worried that Gita might be picked up by the police. It was not altogether a happy trip. Of course, both Nirmal and Nayantara had their books to write. A Situation in New Delhi, the novel Nayantara had begun at the SMU, she now worked on at the small dining table in their flat, and more or less completed while in London.

By the time the couple returned to India in August 1974, the country was heaving.

It is always difficult to say, afterwards, when and how a flashpoint is reached or when the sparks ignite, and so it was with what came to be known as the JP movement. Within the space of six months, between July and December 1974, what had begun as a trickle of protest by students in Bihar against a corrupt university system became a flood of opposition—initially to the Congress chief minister of Bihar, Abdul Ghafoor, and very quickly thereafter to Mrs Gandhi’s government itself.

Jayaprakash Narayan, fondly called JP, was then a frail seventy-two-year-old, not in very good health, and recently bereaved of his beloved wife, Prabhavati. An old Congressman, he was a fellow traveller with Nehru as well as with Nayantara’s parents, and also, naturally, Gandhi. As early as 1934, however, differences between the more radical members of the Congress—the socialists—and the others, as well as the calling off of the civil disobedience movement in May that year, led to the socialists breaking away and forming the Congress Socialist Party; this included JP, Acharya Narendra Dev, Asoka Mehta, Achyut Patwardhan, NN Goray, Minoo Masani and ML Dantwala.

As far as JP was concerned, this initial split was the beginning of his formal break with party politics. The gap between what was professed and practiced, between the perceptions and policies of those in power and the ground realities, was too great for this man of conscience to accept. In 1952, three weeks after he underwent a self-purificatory fast in Poona, he gave up organised politics altogether.

Yet his engagement with the country’s political, economic and social life remained deep and abiding. JP became the natural magnet for the agitating students of Bihar—frustrated, angry but without a real focus to their agitation. Like Indira, as a young girl Nayantara had seen JP in and out of Anand Bhawan, in Allahabad, and in and out of jail with her parents, whom he addressed as Bhai and Didda. Direct contact had more or less ceased after Independence, but when in September or October 1974 JP sent her a message (via their mutual friend, Rashid Shervani of Allahabad) saying he would like her help, she agreed immediately. That November, Nayantara visited Bihar at JP’s request to see for herself what his movement was about and how it was being dealt with by the government. From October 1974 to May 1975 Nayantara contributed seventeen articles to Everyman’s, the paper started by JP. “Some words recur in the history of suffering,” she wrote in her very first column, “and one of them is Bihar.”

In June 1975, Nayantara’s son, Ranjit, married Franca Dal Bianco in Padua, Italy; she travelled there with her mother, Mrs Pandit, to attend the wedding. Afterwards Nayantara and Mrs Pandit left Italy for London, where they stayed at the Indian Students’ Hostel wing of the YMCA. The following morning, as Mrs Pandit waited in line at the cafeteria for her breakfast, a young man standing next to her asked if she had heard that an emergency had been declared in India. She was astounded. A posse of journalists had collected outside to interview Mrs Pandit, but as she knew nothing about the circumstances that had led to it she declined to comment.

Later that day, she and Nayantara went to the Indian High Commission, where they learnt that JP, Morarji Desai and dozens of others had been detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA); and so, although she and Nayantara had planned to spend a few weeks in England, they decided to cut short their visit and return immediately to India. Soon after they landed, Ajit Bhattacharjea called Nayantara to tell her that the police had raided the offices of Everyman’s and shredded its last issue.

At a party in 1975 where he met Nayantara’s sister, Rita Dar, Siddharth Shankar Ray—Mrs Gandhi’s hatchet man for the Emergency—told her that Nayantara could be picked up “any day under MISA.” The fear in the family was that even though Indira Gandhi might refrain from arresting her, the same could not be said for Sanjay Gandhi.

With censorship in full swing, Nayantara’s column in the Sunday Standard came to a virtual halt; the editor at the time, S Mulgaokar, told her she was welcome to write on any subject bar the political, which was tantamount to being silenced.

THE CONGRESS SPLIT OF 1969, Nayantara wrote later, transformed the political atmosphere in the country. Nehru and Shastri, inheritors of Gandhi’s principled approach to politics, had “personally practised and upheld a meticulous standard of political behaviour”; Mrs Gandhi had perfected the politics of manipulation and intrigue.

She represented something ruthless and new. She had astonished people with her flair for cold assessment, shrewd timing and the telling theatrical gesture; above all with her capacity for a fight to the finish, even to bringing the eighty-four-year-old party of liberation to rupture.

Nayantara’s sustained and detailed assessment of her cousin’s political style was the subject of her next book, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Style, written while she was a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in 1976. Writing it had a symbolic and poignant importance for her; she saw it at the time as “a duty to the voices the Emergency had silenced, and as an act of commitment to the values of the free society Jawaharlal Nehru had built during his seventeen years in power.”

With Mrs Gandhi’s electoral defeat in 1977 and the lifting of censorship, a slew of post-Emergency books were published, intended for a readership that had been deprived of news and analysis for two years. Among them was the first edition of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Style, published in 1979 by Vikas, which had earlier declined to take it up since it was too risky. It was subsequently updated, revised and reissued in 1983 by Macdonald & Co in the UK, under the title Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power, and was dedicated to John Kenneth Galbraith. By this time, Mrs Gandhi was back in power.

As account and analysis, the book takes its cue from Nayantara’s columns and, as such, shares their outrage as well as their conclusions—which, she acknowledged in retrospect, might have been hasty and immature. Commentators before and since have noted how little the erstwhile Congress did to break the hold of big business and big farmers over the economy; how reluctant Nehru was to dislodge vested interests and how corruption and power politics grew under his watch; how unfree large sections of the population actually were. But with Indira, the difference was qualitative; after Sanjay came into politics in the seventies, Nayantara said, crony capitalism blossomed and prospered. “Indi,” she told me, “was fed up with Rajiv and Sonia, who were most disinterested. Sanjay brought dynamism into the system—he soothed the capitalists and she soothed the communists. This was her brilliant politics.”

Although Nayantara’s book is about Indira Gandhi and the India she sought to create in her image, and about the challenge to her realpolitik by the principled and moral force of JP’s satyagraha, the hidden referent in it—the towering absent presence—is her uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru. Mrs Gandhi’s tryst with power is counterpoised with Nehru’s tryst with destiny; in dismantling her cousin’s house built on weak and unsound foundations, Nayantara was at the same time writing a requiem for everything her uncle stood for and strove towards. It was at once a cry from the heart and an elegy; with it, her explicitly political writing came to an end. “I made a deliberate decision not to do so any more,” she said. “I wanted to withdraw from that scene of combat. I would have to get to the bone and marrow of politics and I didn’t want that degree of involvement any longer.”

Their political estrangement completely destroyed Nayantara’s relationship with Mrs Gandhi. “Indi was an either-or person,” Nayantara told me, “no grey areas. She wasn’t like her father, who had a lot of the tentative in him—his personality was full of nuance. She just felt her kith and kin should support her—so it was a great loss for me because we had been very close. She had been fond of me … and, politically, inside, I saw where I could have been different.”

But she didn’t try to seek out her cousin, to talk about their differences, for by now the rupture was too deep.

(Source: Caravan)

Monday 23 June 2014

Words we all overuse

As of right now, there are over 250,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some of them are new. Some of them are old. Some of them graced the front page of the New York Times once, gained entry by default, and were never used again. And yet, despite this seemingly endless supply of words, many people continue to fall back on the same handful of adjectives to describe their neighbor’s new puppy or their best friend’s wedding announcement. While I’d usually be the first person to point out the other 249,995 available terms, I can also understand the value of typically “overused” words.

1) Amazing
It’s been used to describe everything from talent show acts to Michelle Obama’s arms, but the word “amazing” has fallen out of popularity with some English geeks over the years. However, one writer from The Measure defends the term, claiming that it possesses the perfect balance of banality and enthusiasm. It’s the porridge of the adjective world, not too sophisticated but not too ordinary. Not to mention it’s steeped in history: it’s been used as far back as Shakespeare’s time. (Any word good enough for William is good enough for me. Yes, that includes swagger.)

2) Ridiculous
Ever since Darrell from Mad TV told a stranger that the back of her head was ridiculous, I’ve been hooked on this overused term. While yes, the popularity of this term has moved the definition away from “worthy of ridicule,” it shouldn’t be banished from the English language just yet, especially considering how useful it is for sarcastic remarks. “Go for a walk on this perfectly sunny day instead of binge-watch Orange is the New Black? That’s ridiculous.”

3) Awesome
Think about this for a second. If we eliminated “awesome” from the English language, we could not sing along to “Everything Is Awesome.” Anyone who disagrees has obviously not heard it.

4) Well
I use “well” so much, that I regress back to high school English editing habits whenever I finish a paper, peppering it carelessly throughout my paper and deleting them all at the end, along with all the “I think”s and “really”s and “I wish this assignment would wander into a sinkhole AND DISAPPEAR FOREVER”s.

5) Actually
As long as you’re not using it in a snarky way, “actually” is a fine word, and not just because it’s half of Love, Actually. Just be careful not to slip it into sentences where it doesn’t belong, like “Your show was actually pretty good!” or “Your baby is actually pretty cute!” It suggests that you didn’t expect whatever it was to be good going in, which could lead to some awkward conversations.

6) Thing
Okay, here’s the thing about “thing.” It’s a vague, overly general term, but it’s also the ultimate time-saver. I’m not advising you to slip it into your academic papers, but you don’t need to take the time to say “I was at a press conference event for that actor that was in The Big Bang Theory that one time, but he wasn’t like an original character or anything” if it’s not relevant to the rest of the story. It’s really okay to say thing. “I was at a thing.”

7) JustIn my opinion, “just is the less pretentious version of “simply.” “I simply can’t stand it!” (instead of “I just can’t stand it!”) automatically makes you sound like a wealthy housewife from the 1960s discussing the mischievous habits of your 16-year-old daughter who wants to listen to Elvis and attend a Civil Rights rally, among other ridiculous things. In my head, the woman is played by Maggie Smith, but feel free to choose some other actress.

8) Definitely
For me, “definitely” adds a personal touch to otherwise bland statements. “I’d like to go to that event,” for example, becomes much more enthusiastic when you add “definitely” into the mix. “I’d definitely like to go to that event.” But perhaps I’m biased. Most of my emails contain enough exclamation points to make people question my sanity, so my appreciation for enthusiasm might be a bit higher than normal.

9) Fail
Fail is really two words in one. You can have a regular fail (i.e. you get your coworker’s name wrong) or an epic fail (i.e. you get your coworker’s name wrong while introducing them at a company event celebrating their 50th anniversary at your company). Life is filled with both types, so it’s applicable enough to remain in my vocabulary.

10) Anyway
I mean, what else would you use as a transitory word? “And that’s how I domesticated a camel. Anyways, when do you want to get lunch?” “In other news” sounds too much like you’re about to start an evening broadcast and “moving on” sounds like you’re working your way through a class syllabus.

So remember: sometimes, the perfect word is the one that your English teacher hates. Just because you can describe your nephew as “winsome” and “jocular” doesn’t mean you should, so don’t be afraid to throw a few “nice”s out there if you need.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Who invented the zero?

A new collection of essays examines the most popular stories Indians tell each other about the nation's history. 

Excerpts from The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the Truths Behind the Zero and Other Glories by Sidin Vadukut. Published by Rupa Publications.

One day, in March 2010, the editor of the newspaper I worked for summoned me to his room.

‘What do you know about Swiss watches?' he asked me out of the corner of his mouth as he typed away on his laptop, no doubt ripping some poor reporter somewhere.

‘My father used to collect some of the cheaper brands once upon a time. And I thought he was nuts for wasting his time and money on them.’

‘But you’ve heard of Omega and Rolex and TAG Heuer and all that?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Great. You’re going to Basel this year...’

A few days later, I was on a plane from Delhi to Zurich to cover Basel World, the world’s largest and most important annual watch and jewellery fair. Since then, watches have become something of a personal obsession. Each year, I travel to Switzerland at least half a dozen times to attend fairs, visit factories and interview watchmakers. And, on average, I publish approximately 200 pages worth of watch editorial each year.

I have also started behaving exactly like my father. I can spend hours outside a watch store, just looking through the display window and whimpering softly. I’ve even accumulated something of a fledgling collection. But none of them is particularly expensive or rare, though there is one HMT automatic, an NASL-03, that I am particularly proud of.

During one of these trips to Switzerland, I once interviewed a master watchmaker who actually had his brand named after himself. This, by itself, is not all that rare in the Swiss watch business; in fact, it is the norm. Almost every watch brand, barring a few such as Rolex, is named after the original founder. The Swiss are quite proud of this, and try to flaunt the age of their brands as widely as possible. But a successful watch brand named after a watchmaker who is still alive? That is pretty rare. Most Swiss brands are named after founders who died centuries ago.

The industry tends to be full of either grim, inscrutable automatons or flamboyant showmen who lie through their teeth. This fellow, one of the greatest watchmakers alive right now, was neither. In fact, he seemed something of a romantic and an amateur philosopher. ‘I love your country,’ he said. ‘You Indian guys are so intelligent, so smart. You discovered so many mathematical things.’ For the next thirty minutes or so, he spoke about the Fibonacci series, the golden ratio and other such mathematical curiosities. In the end, he returned to the subject of India: ‘But all this was made possible only because of you Indians. You guys invented the zero! Without the zero...’ He threw up his arms, shrugged and exhaled loudly. Nothing, he seemed to say. Without the zero, there would be nothing.

A few days later, I spotted him having lunch in a restaurant, surrounded by a bevy of Asian women. I was still in a daze after our glorious interview, so I quickly Googled up the French Wikipedia page for the ‘inventor of the zero’ – Aryabhatta, of course – and handed my phone over to him. I admit I was hoping to impress him with ‘Indian heritage’.

When I looked over a few minutes later, the phone was just lying on the table in front of the watchmaker; he was busy snacking on a woman’s ear while she giggled appreciatively. They did not notice when I gingerly walked over and retrieved my phone, with the Aryabhatta page untouched.

India’s claim to the invention of the zero is perhaps the most widely used – and abused – ‘India fact’. It appears on every single list of facts I have gathered in the course of my research. It is so popular that it has graduated from fact to dogma and then all the way to the butt of jokes. It is also one of those rare facts that is repeated with complete credulity in both Indian and international literature. A December 2012 news article on the Scientific American website about the 125th anniversary of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, was subtitled: ‘India, home of the number zero, ends a year-long math party in unique fashion’.

Everyone, everywhere, it seems, is in broad agreement that the zero was invented in India.

Or was it? The Sceptical Patriot is not one to be fazed by national and international repetition. We must find the true story.

And what an intriguing story it proves to be.


In Gwalior, there is a fort commonly known as Gwalior Fort. Next to the fort is the small Chaturbuja temple. Inside the temple is a statue with four arms but no face. It did once have a face, but it has since been vandalised. There are two inscriptions in this temple. One is engraved over the main door. The other is inscribed into an indentation, roughly square in shape, on the left wall of the sanctum sanctorum as you enter it, to Lord Vishnu's right. 

The temple had fallen into ruin long before the first archaeologists began studying it in the late 19th century. The inscription over the main door lay unnoticed even after initial excavations. It was first noticed, copied down and translated into English in 1883 by our old friend and expert Indologist, Eugen Julius Theodor Hultzsch. The second one inside the sanctum sanctorum had been transcribed before, but Hultzsch copied it down again anyway.

Hultzsch seems surprised at the quality of the prose in the inscription over the door:

The first inscription consists of 27 Sanskrit verses and must have been composed by an ingenious pandit, who was well versed in alamkara. His extravagant hyperboles will appear startling and amusing even to one accustomed to the usual kavya style.

The second inscription from the tablet next to Vishnu is not so great. It is written, Hultzsch says, in ‘incorrect Sanskrit prose’.

But then, history and discovery are eccentric muses. Sometimes they care not for art and aesthetics. The first inscription that impressed Hultzsch has passed into the annals without emitting even a low whimper. Nice, but meh.

The second, shoddy inscription, on the other hand, is one of the most important records in the history of mathematics. If there is any record in all of India that is fully deserving of generating and maintaining its own cannon of India facts, this is it. There should be entire museums complete with multimedia displays and gift shops dedicated to this inscription.

So what does this piece of inscription say? Does it reveal the name of a mysterious king? Give a concrete date for a historical episode that experts had argued over for decades? Does it tell the future, then, in some Nostradamic way?

Bewareth thee the phone that is all touch but no buttons. For children will buyeth expensive apps...

No. It is merely an inscription informing one of a donation that has been made to this temple. It goes like this:

Om! Adoration to Vishnu! In the year 933, on the second day of the bright half of Magha...the whole town gave to the temple of the nine Durgas...a piece of land belonging to the village of Chudapallika...270 royal hastas in length, and 187 hastas in breadth, a flower-garden, on an auspicious day...

Then, a little later, the transcription says:

And on this same day, the town gave to these same two temples a perpetual endowment to the effect...for the requirements of worship, 50 garlands of such market flowers as available at the particular season.

There is more to this second Gwalior inscription. But these lines are the relevant bits.

So, what is so groundbreaking about these lines?

Simple. The numbers in them. Especially the two measures in hastas and the number of flower garlands. Inscribed in 876 CE, this inscription is the oldest text anywhere in India in which the zero is used in exactly the way we use it today. (The inscription itself refers to year 933 in the Saka calendar. In case you’re wondering.) And not just because the zero in 270 hastas or 50 garlands looks like the modern zero -- it does; it looks like a small circle. But also because it is used in the way it is, both as a placeholder for no value and a number in its own right.

There is broad agreement amongst researchers that the inscription at the Chaturbuja Temple in Gwalior is one of the earliest records anywhere of the modern zero. In February 2007, Bill Casselman, a professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a brief essay titled ‘All for Nought’ for the website of the American Mathematical Society. In the essay, he talks of a journey he made to Gwalior to have a look at the inscriptions. He wrote:

What is surprising about these numbers is that they are so similar to what modern civilization uses currently. The more you learn about how our current number symbols developed – transmitted from the Hindus to the Persians, then to Mediterranean Islam, and differently in East and West – the more remarkable this appears...

What the Gwalior tablet shows is that by 876 CE our current place-value system with a base of 10 had become part of popular culture in at least one region of India.

So, are we done with this chapter, then? Pats on back all around, 10/10 for this ‘India fact’? Also, what is all that confusing talk of placeholders and numbers and usages?

Alas, that is the problem with the history of the zero. It is much more complicated than a little circle that stands for nothing.

And this is why establishing India’s ownership of the zero will take a little more sceptical enquiry, one that will take us far, far away from that little abandoned temple in Gwalior.

William Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone was one of the greatest politicians in British history. He became prime minister not once or twice but four times. And he left the British government with a legacy of liberal thinking that continues to influence it in direct and indirect ways to this day.

Gladstone was also a Homer fanatic. He read, reread and re- reread works by the great Greek epic poet, first as a student of the classics, and then just for the pure awesome heck of it.

Then, suddenly, during yet another reading of the Greek epics, Gladstone noticed something strange. In all of Homer’s work, not once was there a reference to the colour blue. Not once. Never. Despite several mentions of seas and skies and other things we would normally associate with the blue colour, Homer never actually used the word ‘blue’ in his work.

Gladstone came to the conclusion that this was because Homer and most other Greeks of his period were colour-blind. Their eyes simply didn’t register the colour blue.

Since then, other researchers have disproved this theory and come up with many of their own. The German philosopher Lazarus Geiger took Gladstone’s analysis and extended it further, across several other great epic poems and religious texts of many other religions around the world. Geiger made a stunning discovery: Blue scarcely made an appearance anywhere.

He wrote in his 1880 book History and Development of the Human Race:

If we consider the nature of the books to which this observation applies, the idea of chance must here be excluded. Let me first mention the wonderful, youthfully fresh hymns of the Rigveda, the discovery of which amidst the mass of Indian literature seems destined to become as important to the present century in awakening a sense of genuine antiquity as the revival of Greek antiquity at the threshold of modern times was to that period in arousing the sense of beauty and artistic taste. These hymns, consisting of more than 10,000 lines, are nearly all filled with descriptions of the sky. Scarcely any other subject is more frequently mentioned; the variety of hues which the sun and dawn daily display in it, day and night, clouds and lightning, the atmosphere and the ether, all these are with inexhaustible abundance exhibited to us again and again in all their magnificence; only the fact that the sky is blue could never have been gathered from these poems by anyone who did not already know it himself.

Which is Geiger’s roundabout way of saying that while the Rigveda refers to the sky several times, it never actually calls it ‘blue’.

I first came across all this analysis by Gladstone and Geiger on an episode of Radiolab, my favourite radio show/podcast in the whole world. Produced by a New York public radio station, Radiolab explores one topic each episode through the medium of fascinating stories. The whole Gladstone bit came up during an episode called ‘Colours’.

Now if you’re wondering what all this has to do with the concept of zero...well, it doesn’t have anything to do with it directly. But indirectly, I wanted to bring up the complicated notion of identity.

Let us assume, for a moment, that the Greeks actually didn’t have a real word for the colour blue. Does this mean that they never saw the sky or noticed its colour? Absolutely not. Unless the Greeks didn’t have a sky, or had one but in purple. This seems unlikely. Awesome, but unlikely.

So did someone have to invent blue for them? Think about it. (I am trying to.) Blue was all around them all the time. They just didn’t have a name for it. Or find the need to. Until one day somebody decided that the colour of the sky deserved a name. And that name would be: blue. Or whatever was the local language equivalent for blue.

But would it make any sense to call this bright individual the inventor of blue? After all, it is not like the stuff wasn’t around till he/she came along and decided to call it something. It was there all along. All our inventor managed to do was to give it a name and an identity.

When we talk about the ‘invention’ of zero, we’re faced with a similar problem. How do you invent a number?

Now, the term ‘zero’ itself can mean many things. But for the purposes of this enquiry, just two or three of them should suffice.

First of all, zero stands for nothing. A void. Nothingness. An absence of anything. So if ‘one’ represents a single instance of something, ‘zero’ represents no instances of that thing. But, like blue, this is not really something you would expect someone to have invented.

Mrs Caveman: How many mastodon kebabs did I cook?
Mr Caveman: Three?
Mrs Caveman: How many did you eat?
Mr Caveman: Three?
Mrs Caveman: How many do I have left for myself now, you greedy pig?
Mr Caveman: I cannot answer that question because I am yet to develop a sense of nothingness or a term for this sense.
Mrs Caveman: Damn! Every single time...

And even if someone did invent the idea of nothingness and a term for it, it seems ludicrous to try to fix a time or place for it. Also, chances are that this sense of ‘nothing’ developed in many places simultaneously.

So let’s skip that definition of zero.

There are two more.

One of the best, most concise histories of the zero I’ve read anywhere is an online essay titled, would you believe it, ‘A History of Zero’, written by two professors of mathematics at the University of St Andrews.

Professors JJ O’Connor and EF Robertson write about the other two uses of zero:

One use is as an empty place indicator in our place-value number system. Hence, in a number like 2106 the zero is used so that the positions of the 2 and 1 are correct. Clearly 216 means something quite different. The second use of zero is as a number itself in the form we use it as 0. There are also different aspects of zero within these two uses, namely the concept, the notation, and the name.

To me, both of these ideas are somewhat less abstract than the notion of nothing. And therefore, in a sense, more ‘inventable’. Alas, in the very next paragraph the good professors write:

‘Neither of the above uses has an easily described history.’ Ugh.

So let us start, then, at one of the earliest systems of writing in the world: the Babylonian cuneiform. Did they have a sophisticated understanding of mathematics? And if so, how and when did they start representing zeroes in their texts?

Babylonian Clay Tablet, with annotations

By 3000 BCE, more or less around the time the Indus Valley civilization was establishing itself, the Babylonians had developed a system of positional numbering very similar to the number system we use today. This means that they wrote long numbers with digits in the ‘one’s place’, then ‘ten’s place’, and so on. Except that while we use a base-10 system, the Babylonians used base-60. We have 10 digits in our number system, the Babylonians had 60. (Well 59 actually. They didn’t have a zero for a long time.)

The easiest way to explain the difference between base-10 and base-60 without making you want to throw this book against a wall/spouse in frustration is to ask you to look at your clock or watch. Credit the Babylonians and history’s propensity for memory, but to this day we still measure time on a base-60 system like the Babylonians. So, if I told you to add 1 hour and 34 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes, you’d effortlessly carry out a base-60 addition and tell me 4 hours and 14 minutes.

So how did the Babylonians indicate numbers like, say, 602? In the beginning, they did this by just leaving an empty space between the symbols for 2 and 600 to indicate that there was nothing in the ‘ten’s place’. After hundreds of years of doing this, sometime around 700 BCE (but perhaps earlier), the Babylonians started indicating these empty spaces with a special symbol to indicate positions with no numbers.


No! No! No! [Slap across the face.] Calm down.

This symbol – often two wedges but sometimes one or three – only indicated a zero as far as the first of the definitions that Professors O’Connor and Robertson outlined above: as an empty place indicator. The Babylonians still didn’t think of the zero as a digit by itself.

In fact, if you were to go back in time and ask a Babylonian to multiply the ‘wedge symbol by 10’, he’d probably laugh at your ignorance and then behead you just to be safe.

The wedge symbol was something of a half-zero. But not a zero in the modern sense.

Now, one popular embellishment of the ‘India invented zero’ fact is that without the zero it would have been impossible for mankind to accomplish complicated mathematics. One version even says: ‘If Indians had not invented the zero, man would have never walked on the moon.’


So did that mean that Babylonian mathematicians fumbled about like little children, crippled with zero-lessness, cursed to spend their whole lives adding and subtracting and struggling to make a career out of it?

Not at all. The Babylonians, it turns out, were kickass at math. (Just like everybody in your class, right? I know the pain.)

They could do all kinds of cool things with fractions and binomial equations and even quadratic equations. But nothing, perhaps, indicates their mathematical ability more than a small round tablet that is part of Yale University’s Babylonian Collection. Around eight centimetres in diameter, the tablet is commonly referred to as object number YBC 7289, and has a calculation inscribed into it in the Babylonian cuneiform script.

According to this tablet, dated between 1800 and 1600 BCE, the Babylonians calculated the square root of 2 as 1.41421296. I just punched in square root of 2 on my laptop’s calculator and I got 1.41421356. Almost 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians could calculate the square root of 2 to within five decimal places of modern computers! The accuracy would remain unmatched for thousands of years. So they got along quite swimmingly without the modern notion of zero.

Over time, the Babylonian tendency to use a symbol to denote an empty placeholder would spread east and westwards. The Greeks, great mathematicians themselves, perhaps took one small step for zero-kind: Some records suggest that they used a circular symbol as a placeholder. However, we are still centuries away from zero being used as an actual number.

O’Connor and Robertson write:

The scene now moves to India where it is fair to say the numerals and number system was born which have evolved into the highly sophisticated ones we use today. Of course that is not to say that the Indian system did not owe something to earlier systems and many historians of mathematics believe that the Indian use of zero evolved from its use by Greek astronomers. As well as some historians who seem to want to play down the contribution of the Indians in a most unreasonable way, there are also those who make claims about the Indian invention of zero which seem to go far too far.

These are the biases and tendencies that make nailing down ‘India facts’ such as this one so difficult. So many commentators are driven not by a need to reveal the truth but to drive home a point. Swirl in some patriotism, racism or cultural chauvinism – and you have the perfect environment that breeds unsubstantiated cultural legend.

Indian: India invented the zero! And you know what Gandhi said when they asked him about Western civilization?
Non-Indian: Blah blah. You guys didn’t invent anything. And you killed Gandhi...
Indian: HOW DARE YOU!!!

Etcetera, etcetera.

Thankfully, amongst all this biased nonsense, there are always a few historians going about their job in a comparatively honest and ‘truthful’ way. (I say ‘comparative’ because no one is ever truly bias-free.)

And, at this point, we shall stop pontificating and leap onto their robust shoulders for the rest of this enquiry.

Perhaps the first celebrity mathematician in Indian history was Aryabhatta. Nobody really knows where he was born. Suggestions for his birthplace range from Kodungallur in Kerala to Dhaka in Bangladesh. In fact, much of what we know about the life of Aryabhatta has been pieced together over the last century and a half, like a messy jigsaw puzzle. For centuries, it was believed that there were two Aryabhattas. This was only sorted out as recently as the 1920s. There is greater agreement about the fact that he spent at least some of his time as a mathematician and astronomer working in or around modern-day Patna, then called Kusumapura. And it is in Kusumapura that Aryabhatta is believed to have written his most famous work: the mathematical and astronomical handbook Aryabhatiya.

Several translations of the Aryabhatiya were prepared in the early years of the twentieth century. One popular translation, published by Walter Eugene Clark, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, opens with an engrossing monologue. The monologue starts as follows:

In 1874 Kern published at Leiden a text called the Aryabhatiya which claims to be the work of Aryabhata, and which gives... the date of the birth of the author as 476 CE. If these claims can be substantiated, and if the whole work is genuine, the text is the earliest preserved Indian mathematical and astronomical text bearing the name of an individual author, the earliest Indian text to deal specifically with mathematics, and the earliest preserved astronomical text from the third or scientific period of Indian astronomy.

Clark does sound a tiny bit sceptical, doesn’t he? That is only because this was a period when forgeries of ancient manuscripts were rampant. Not because the forgers wanted to rewrite history but because they wanted to make money.

Of course, there is little doubt now that the Aryabhatiya was an authentic work that was widely quoted and criticised through the ages, perhaps even in Aryabhatta’s own lifetime. Today the work is lionised and put up on a pedestal; but other ancient Indian scholars seem to have treated it with much less veneration. Indeed, one great source of verification for the Arybhatiya’s authenticity and age is widespread reference to it in other treatises and writings.

Aryabhatta appears to have been something of a prodigy. In verse 10 of the third section – a section titled ‘Kalakriya’, the reckoning of time – he writes:

When three yugappdas and sixty times sixty years had elapsed (from the beginning of the yuga) then twenty-three years of my life had passed.

Twenty-three seems to be a young age, in any era, for a work of this historical importance. In fact, it seems a pity that the Aryabhatiya isn’t more widely read, not so much for its didactic value but for the sake of curiosity and enjoyment. It is a remarkably short work. Clark’s extremely accessible translation is around eighty-two pages long, and anyone with a decent school education in mathematics should be able to make most of their way through it.

According to the Internet, the Aryabhatiya has been credited with everything from modern mathematics to commerce, business and even quantum mechanics. Which may be over-chickening the biryani a little bit, as my grandmother used to say.

The Aryabhatiya is, however, at least partly responsible for the global use of the base-10 system. Developed to a certain fullness in India, the system was later taken by the Arabs, along with Indian numerals, and propagated throughout the world. One of the Aryabhatiya’s most frequently quoted verses is the second verse from the ‘Ganitapada’, or mathematics, section. Clark translates it thus:

The numbers eka [one], dasa [ten], sata [hundred], sahasra [thousand], ayuta [ten thousand], niyuta [hundred thousand], prayuta [million], koti [ten million], arbuda [hundred million], and vrnda [thousand million] are from place to place each ten times the preceding.

Boom. The decimal system outlined in a single verse. Five hundred years later, the great Persian mathematician and polymath Abu Rayhan Al Biruni would repeat the content of this verse almost word for word in his Indica, a compendium of Indian religion and philosophy.

But does the Aryabhatiya refer to a zero? At all?

Kind of. Like the Babylonians, Aryabhatta also suggests using a placeholder, called kha, whenever there is no digit in a certain place in a number. So Aryabhatta would write 2,106 as two-one-kha-six. But he still didn’t use kha as a number itself.

Early researchers tended to call the kha Aryabhatta’s version of the zero numeral. But this view seems to have changed since then. Instead, credit for pushing the idea of zero even further than Aryabhatta is given to another ancient Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta, who lived around a century later.


Around 630 CE, Brahmagupta wrote the Brahma-Sphuta- Siddhanta. One thing is immediately clear from this book: something had changed drastically in the way ancient Indian mathematicians dealt with the zero. It had gone from simply being a place-value holder or a null-value indicator in Aryabhatta’s time, to becoming a proper numeral in its own right.

Almost. Brahmagupta writes:

The sum of zero and a negative number is negative, the sum of a positive number and zero is positive, the sum of zero and zero is zero.


A negative number subtracted from zero is positive, a positive number subtracted from zero is negative, zero subtracted from a negative number is negative, zero subtracted from a positive number is positive, zero subtracted from zero is zero.

So far so good. But then he begins to waver.

A positive or negative number when divided by zero is a fraction with the zero as denominator. Zero divided by a negative or positive number is either zero or is expressed as a fraction with zero as numerator and the finite quantity as denominator. Zero divided by zero is zero.

This makes little sense. But Brahmagupta’s leap of thinking, which has him operating with the zero as a numeral, and not just an indicator of nothing or a placeholder, is phenomenal. As Connor and Robertson write: ‘ is a brilliant attempt from the first person that we know who tried to extend arithmetic to negative numbers and zero.’

Given that Brahmagupta had already started thinking in these terms, the Gwalior inscription can be seen as the sign of a society at large slowly adopting cutting-edge mathematical ideas. Three centuries after Aryabhatta, and two after Brahmagupta, badly written temple donation inscriptions were using the zero not just as a null placeholder but exactly as we would use it today.

Now, if we put all these pieces together, a fairly unambiguous narrative begins to emerge.

India was certainly not unique in using a rudimentary form of the zero as a placeholder or as an indicator of null-value. Aryabhatta certainly did outline the decimal system in his work, and incorporated a kha into the decimal system. But he still didn’t really think of it as a numeral by itself. This had changed by the time of Brahmagupta, who was doing all kinds of nifty business with a zero. And then there is the Gwalior business. Surely India can then stake a claim for outstanding innovation in, if not invention of, applied and theoretical zero sciences?

Except for one more inscription. (I swear, no more in this chapter.) And here we need to bring back another one of our old friends: George Coedes of Sri Vijaya fame.

Right up until 1931, the Gwalior inscription wasn’t just the oldest instance of a zero numeral used in the modern sense in India, but in the whole world. In that year, Coedes published a paper in which he talked about an inscription in a ruined temple in Sambor in Cambodia. The inscribed tablet, that Coedes called K-127, said this in Old Khmer: ‘Chaka parigraha 605 pankami roc...’ which stands for: ‘The Chaka era has reached 605 on the fifth day of the waning moon...’ And it used a dot for the zero.

The date of this inscription? 683 CE.

Sure, it is not a little circular loop. But there is now widespread agreement that this is perhaps the oldest existing zero anywhere in the world, predating the Gwalior inscription by around two centuries.

So close. So close. If Gwalior had maintained its primacy, this chapter could have ended on a slightly more satisfying note.

Still, it is pleasing to know that this ‘India fact’ is not without substance. It is, in fact, quite agreeably watertight if one is willing to loosen the definitions of ‘invention’ just a little bit. Also who is to say that the Cambodians didn’t get their idea of the zero numeral from India? Entirely possible, given the huge sphere of influence Indian culture, religion and scholarship had in Southeast Asia around the time K-127 was carved.

But I also think that the story of the zero shows how invention in the ancient world was hardly a matter of eureka moments or light bulbs going off. Those guys sat and thought about things for a long time. They shared their ideas widely. They published widely. They criticised each other. It was as if they cared for the knowledge itself, and not the credit associated with discovering things.

How bizarre.