A Review of “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

A long time back, when I first became active on the fora of the Joseph Campbell Forum website, I downloaded a list of books which the renowned mythologist had given his students as required reading at Sarah Lawrence College. I found this book among them. But it was out of print at that time, and I could source a copy only now – with Rupa Publishers reprinting it.

Coomaraswamy’s metaphor of the cosmic dance of Shiva is well known to many, even to those who don’t know him: I first came across it during the late seventies, in Fritjof Capra’s seminal book on New Age science, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. At that time, to my teenage brain filled with grand ideas of the ultimate merger of Indian mysticism with higher physics, this was a revolutionary concept worth tripping on; you just close your eyes and meditate on all those atoms, protons, neutrons, quasars, planets, galaxies and whatnot dancing around the space-time continuum and – bingo! Niravana.

Well, I have been disabused of such naive imaginings as I grew older, and learnt more about Indian history and culture – and that it was not the one mystical love-fest the New Agers and the hippies made it out to be. True, India had a lot of great philosophical thought; a beautiful and colourful mythical heritage; and perhaps the world’s greatest epic literature. But the societal system, built on the strict hierarchy of caste, was horrendous: with the top layer existing parasitically on labours of the downtrodden bottom one. Which is why when I finally got around to reading Coomaraswamy, I was sorely disappointed.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

This book was first published in 1918 – and sadly, it shows. This was the time when the Indian pride was on the upswing as a reaction against foreign domination and its consequent westernisation. For the apologists, anything Indian was divinely sublime. It was not a question of accepting her, warts and all; but exhorting those same warts as the epitome of beauty.
This blind admiration of Indian culture runs as one of the main themes of this book – the other being the ‘divine’ nature of Indian art, where there is no separation of devotion, myth, and the artistic insight. While I largely concur with the second (Campbell’s argument that the artist is the myth-maker in modern society resonates with me), the ‘superiority’ of Indian (or Eastern) culture to that of the West is highly debatable.

The book comprises fourteen essays. Of these, seven deal in totality and one partially with Indian art; four are paeans to Indian culture; and one each is in homage to Shakespeare and Nietzsche respectively. The essays are of varying quality – from extremely well-expressed to boringly repetitive. Let me start with the key one, ‘The Dance of Shiva’.

Shiva needs no introduction to the well-read person. He is the God who dances. When he is happy, he does the ‘Ananda Thandava’, the dance of happiness – and in anger, he dances the ‘Samhara Thandava’, destroying the universe in totality. He is full of esoteric symbolism: he wears the moon and the river Ganges in his matted hair locks; wears serpents as garlands; wears cloths made out of tiger and elephant skins; and his body is covered with the ash from funeral pyres. In his avatar as Nataraja (‘The Lord of Dance’), he dances within a circle of fire, trampling on the demon Muyalaka with his right foot, the left one raised, drum in his right hand fire in his left. He is the patron god of dance.

Commaraswamy does a detailed analysis of the five types of dance Shiva does, with extensive and fascinating quotes from mythical literature. This fact itself makes it worth reading. However, it is when he comes to the metaphoric analysis of this dance that we understand how this essay has stood the test of time and influenced a number of people over the years.

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

Coomaraswamy sees it essentially as the interplay of the feminine Prakriti, matter, nature, symbolised by the fire circle – the dancing God, touching it at four points with his head, arms and foot, is Purusha, the masculine omnipresent spirit animating it. He writes:

The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

(For those of us who have had our tryst with mysticism in the post-Fritjof Capra era, this may be old hat. Shiva’s cosmic dance has been done to death across a lot of platforms – literary, religious and mystic. But it is when we realise the Coomaraswamy’s vision is from a century ago, that we begin to appreciate its originality.)

He gushes on:

How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

… In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.

Yes indeed. As a connoisseur of art, dance and literature, I will emphatically say that this image is worth tripping on!


Now, coming to the essays on Indian art and music: it would be tempting to analyse each one in detail, but the exigencies of time and space compel one to economise. So I would just elaborate upon the common thread running across them, so as to emphasise the author’s intentions.

One must bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this book, India was an area of darkness to the majority in the West: it was all “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” stuff. So Coomaraswamy is at pains to justify the beauty of Indian art, mostly abstract and non-representational, to a largely unsympathetic European audience (it is amusing in some cases, as in the essay ‘Indian Images with Many Arms’, where he is at pains to point out that these are metaphorical and not meant to represent reality: elementary school stuff nowadays, in the age of ‘Guernica’). Similarly, he points out the difference between Indian and Western music; the former is purely melodic while the latter is harmonic.

Similarly, Indian art is non-representational. There is no perspective, no attempt to render ‘reality’ as such; and ultimately, there is no individuality to the work of art, or the artist. This total self-effacement of the creator is peculiar to Eastern art because the artist is not important. He does not create, but just renders what is divinely inspired in him through meditation. He is just a conduit for the art to flow through; the source is the Brahman, the essential Godhead that exists within one and all.

Religion and art thus names for one and the same experience—an intuition of reality and of identity.

…When every ascetic and every soldier has become an artist there will be no more need for works of art: in the meanwhile ethical selection of some kind is allowable and necessary. But in this selection we must clearly understand what we are doing, if we would avoid any infinity of error, culminating in that type of sentimentality which regards the useful, the stimulating and the moral elements in works of art as the essential.

Coomaraswamy’s insights on the concept of beauty in art, linking with the rasa concept of Indian aesthetics, is also enlightening.

Only when we judge a work of art aesthetically we may speak of the presence or absence of beauty, we may call the work rasavant or otherwise; but when we judge it from the standpoint of activity, practical or ethical, we ought to use a corresponding terminology, calling the picture, song or actor “lovely” that is to say lovable, or otherwise, the action “noble,” the colour “brilliant,” the gesture “graceful,” or otherwise, and so forth, and it will be seen that in doing this we are not really judging the work of art as such, but only the material and the separate parts of which it is made, the activities they represent, or the feelings they express.

… Beauty can never thus be measured, for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika who enters into his experience.

There are no degrees of beauty; the most complex and the simplest expression remind us of one and the same state. The sonata cannot be more beautiful than the simplest lyric, nor the painting than the drawing, merely because of their greater elaboration. Civilized art is not more beautiful than the savage art, merely because of its possibly more attractive ethos. A mathematical analogy is found if we consider large and small circles; these differ only in their content, not in their circularity.

Another essay which was interesting was on the concept of ‘Sahaja’ – amorous love that transcends the physical, typically represented by Radha’s love for Krishna in Indian mythology. In his lectures, Campbell also talks at great length on this, albeit in a different context – the love of the troubadour for his lady. In the field of poesy, we can see this in the concept of the muse, exemplified by Dante’s obsession with Beatrice.

Radha and Krishna


Well, now for the negatives. Even with all these superb, pioneering insights into Indian art and aesthetics, I cannot love this book for its unabashed endorsement of the Indian caste system and the subservient role of women. The author sees the stratified Indian society as the epitome of social engineering, with the Brahmins at the top the equivalent of the philosopher kings envisaged by Plato. He feels that the Indian woman, whose career comprises solely of her husband and family, is the ‘ideal’ to strive for: for him, the emancipated western woman is an aberration. He considers the obnoxious ‘Laws of Manu’ as the absolute gospel. I will let Coomaraswamy speak for himself:

On the caste system:

The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others—it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi—but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.

…We must not judge of Indian society, especially Indian society in its present moment of decay, as if it actually realized the Brahmanical social ideas; yet even with all its imperfections Hindu society as it survives will appear to many to be superior to any form of social organization attained on a large scale anywhere else, and infinitely superior to the social order which we know as “modern civilization.”

…it can hardly be denied that the Brahmanical caste system is the nearest approach that has yet been made towards a society where there shall be no attempt to realise a competitive quality, but where all interests are regarded as identical. To those who admit the variety of age in human souls, this must appear to be the only true communism.

On the status of Indian women:

The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been perfectly comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite, and which is still very little removed from that of Roman or Greek Christianity, is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities—regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self. The industrial mind is primarily sentimental, and therefore cannot reason clearly upon love and marriage; but the Asiatic analysis is philosophic, religious and practical.

… It is sometimes asked, what opportunities are open to the Oriental woman? How can she express herself? The answer is that life is so designed that she is given the opportunity to be a woman—in other words, to realize, rather than to express herself.

…The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, but certainly an universal type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type. Nobility in women does not depend upon race, but upon ideals; it is the outcome of a certain view of life.

And as if this was not enough, he justifies arranged marriage, and even ‘Sati’ – where the wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband!

The industrial revolution in India is of external and very recent origin; there is no lack of men, and it is the sacred duty of parents to arrange a marriage for every daughter: there is no divergence of what is spiritual and what is sensuous: Indian women do not deform their bodies in the interests of fashion: they are more concerned about service than rights: they consider barrenness the greatest possible misfortune, after widowhood. In a word, it has never happened in India that women have been judged by or have accepted purely male standards. What possible service then, except in a few externals, can the Western world render to Eastern women? Though it may be able to teach us much of the means of life, it has everything yet to relearn about life itself. And what we still remember there, we would not forget before we must.

… The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertion of rights. Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism, therefore, leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest or a merely utilitarian demonstration of futility. We do not object to dying for an idea as ‘suttees’ and patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.


A depiction of ‘Sati’

I can now hear people saying: “Come on! You can’t judge an early twentieth century text by today’s sensibilities! Coomaraswamy was a man of his time, and we have to cut him some historical slack.”

Uh-huh. Nothing doing. This sugar-coating of the dark underbelly of India’s so-called ‘Arsha’ culture over a period of time – this refusal to call a spade a spade – has resulted in where my country is standing today, with atrocities against Dalits and women so commonplace that they are most of the time relegated to footnotes in the newspaper. Sorry, Mr. Coomaraswamy, I put you in the dock with other apologists for traditional Indian society. You don’t get even judicial mercy in my court!


Alone of All Her Sex

You are my light; my life’s illumination: you are my refuge, O mother!
Please don’t forsake me, Virgin Mary, you abode of kindness…

So runs one of the popular film songs from my youth – and it pretty much symbolises what the Virgin means to me.


The Lourdes’ Cathedral, Thrissur

Kerala, unlike other states of India, contain a sizeable Christian population who trace their pedigree back to Saint Thomas, who is purported to have come to the state in A.C.E 52. So Christianity as a religion is as common for us Keralites as Hinduism or Islam. And in the districts where the Christians are mainly Catholics – like the town of Thrissur, where I reside – the Virgin Mary is as important an icon as Jesus Christ. Many a time I had gazed at her smiling visage, beaming down upon all human beings in unadulterated benevolence from her pedestal: for a mother’s boy like me, she was infinitely preferable to the frightening image of the crucified Christ. Also, as a Hindu, the Mother Goddess was part and parcel of my mythical orientation. It was only natural that I would identify the Virgin with her, as one of her avatars.

It was only later that I came to know that the Virgin Mary is not part of Christianity as a whole, but particular to Catholicism – that in fact, Protestants actually frown upon her worship! This was a shocker; but then I also came to know that she was worshipped even greater fervour in many other countries, like Latin America and Ireland. This whetted my appetite to learn more about her cult, especially after I discovered Joseph Campbell and the field of comparative mythology. So this book by Marina Warner was a godsend.


Ms. Warner, in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, gives an exhaustive historical analysis of the cult of the Virgin Mary – how it started, spread, was opposed, fought the opposition and triumphed. What it lacks is the mythological perspective, except for tracing the connections between Osiris, Isis and Horus to the Virgin and the child and for the casual references to Jung’s concept the divine feminine (which she actually debunks). For Marina, Mary is the conscious creation of the Church to sublimate the feminine into the fold of patriarchal religion.

In the gospels, the mother of Jesus is practically nonexistent. Marian knowledge is concentrated only in the two gospels of Matthew and Luke – later additions in the opinion of most scholars. Matthew crafts the story of Jesus to closely resemble the tale of the great prophet of the Old Testament, Moses: however in his gospel, Mary does not play centre stage. For that, we have to look to Luke: as the author says, “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin; the only time she is in the heart of the drama in the Bible is in Luke’s beautiful verses.” Historical information (to the extent that we can call the Bible history) regarding Mary is meagre.

The Virgin

The cult of the Virgin was enhanced in the west was the apocryphal Book of James, “the Lord’s brother”. It is this book which sets forth the story of the mother of Jesus in romantic detail, adding flesh to all the bare bones of suggestion in the principal gospels: it is also the one which gave rise to the enduring myth of Mary’s intact virginity.
The virgin birth of heroes is actually adapted from the Hellenistic world: Pythagoras, Plato and Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit (one can see this pattern also in the birth of the Buddha). While the pre-Christian faiths were happy with the metaphorical nature of this belief, Christianity had to concretise it, to contend that Mary was a virgin both before and after childbirth. While a virgin begetting a child was an acceptable belief in the ancient days (when the male contribution to conception was not well understood), a woman remaining a virgin after giving birth was problematic. This dichotomy is still rampant within Catholicism.


Why this insistence on virginity? Well, it’s all due to Eve.

According to the Church, sexuality and desire were the fatal flaws which lead to sin, the gateway to hell – and these entered human destiny when the first woman enticed the first man to eat the forbidden fruit. The Fathers are quick to assert that sex is not sinful in itself; rather, concupiscence which leads to lust and the “tendency to sin” is. This is the original sin not remitted in baptism, and Eve was responsible for it. (This leads to the curious conclusion that sex is OK as long as you don’t enjoy it.)

In the Christian world as well as the Roman Empire before it, the evils of sex were particularly identified with the female. As childbirth was woman’s function, and the pangs of the same God’s special punishment after the fall, the womb was evil and any child born of it was tainted with original sin. Therefore, to prevent the Son of God from being tainted by it, the Church hit upon the brilliant solution of removing the taint of sex from his mother.

Thus the elevation of Mary to purity was not due to any victory of the divine feminine: rather, it was to invest Jesus with purity not accorded to the rest of mankind, especially in the face of Gnostic threats which claimed that Jesus was just another human being.


The obsession of the church with the “sins of the flesh” was so severe that it virtually revelled in abnegation and self-torture. There is no other faith which has revelled so much in the distress of its followers. Marina writes

In Christian hagiography, the sadomasochistic content of the paeans to male and female martyrs is startling, from the early documents like the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity into the high middle ages. But the particular focus on women’s torn and broken flesh reveals the psychological obsession of the religion with sexual sin, and the tortures that pile up one upon the other with pornographic repetitiousness underline the identification of the female with the perils of sexual contact.

So the solution for normal women, if not to attain the status of the virgin, was at least to forgo the main failing of the human race – sex, for which she was held responsible – in the hope of bliss in the hereafter. Hence – the institution of the nunnery.

Thus the nun’s state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. It is, in this regard, a mirror image of the Virgin Mary herself, the sublime model of the virginal life, the inventrix virginitatis, according to Hroswitha, and the patroness of countless orders of monks and nuns. She is a preeminent and sublime example of woman, who excites love and awe.

Thus, the myth of the Fall and the need for redemption from the same are the main drivers of the creation of the myth of the Virgin.

The arguments operating on the idea of virginity control the entire structure of the myth of the Virgin Mary. For after the Fall, God did not only curse womankind to suffer childbirth in sorrow; he also sentenced all mankind to corruption in the grave. Since Adam and Eve’s sin, sex is tainted by concupiscence, and death disfigured by mortal decay. As a symptom of sin, putrefaction is concupiscence’s twin; and a woman who conquered one penalty of the Fall could overcome the other.

The Assumption

Another crucial pillar to the myth Mary, in addition to her perennial virginity, is the belief that she ascended to heaven bodily. As with all things concerning the virgin, this is also mostly apocryphal. Yet over the years, the Catholic Church enthusiastically adopted it – and it is not difficult to see why. Death and its accompanying putrefaction of the physical body is one of the worst nightmares of the devout Christian. The final judgement, during which all the dead bodies will be made whole again, is an article of faith. So it is unthinkable that the Mother of God, who is without sin, will be subject to the same indignity.

In a precise and literal way, the Virgin embodies the Christian ideals of homogeneity and independence. Through her virginity and Assumption, she expresses the particular interpretation of wholeness of the Catholic Church, and reflects two of its most characteristic aspects: its historical fear of contamination by outside influence, and its repugnance to change. In Buddhism created things at their highest point of fulfilment merge and flow back into nothingness, where all form is obliterated. This is one view of wholeness. The Catholic world’s view could not be more opposite. It longs for the formal, immutable, invincible, constant, unchanging perfection of each resurrected individual. For its most sublime example, it looks to the assumed Virgin.

So the Virgin, whose tomb is still practically untraceable, is said to have been resurrected after her death by Jesus himself, in a sequence of events closely resembling his own resurrection. There she reigns as queen beside her son.


‘The Assumption’ by Titian

This royalty was conferred on Mary due to strictly utilitarian needs of the Catholic Church, according to the author. During the Middle Ages, the clergy was facing many threats from a variety of sources such as the iconoclast heresy. To enshrine its place on earth as God’s mouthpiece, it identified itself symbolically with the Virgin, placed her on a throne in heaven, and started pulling their theological weight. However, this policy backfired.

Secular imagery was used to depict the Virgin Mary in Rome by the popes in order to advance the hegemony of the Holy See; and her cult was encouraged because she was in a profound manner identified with the figure of the Church itself. But this triumphalism fostered by the Church was turned on its head in the later middle ages, when temporal kings and queens took back the borrowed symbolism of earthly power to enhance their own prestige and give themselves a sacred character. The use of the emblems of earthly power for the Mother of God did not empty them of their temporal content: rather, when kings and queens wore the sceptre and the crown they acquired an aura of divinity.

The faith which took off from the ideas of the seer who was against all forms of authority and money power had been appropriated by the followers of the people who sent him to the cross.

It would be difficult to concoct a greater perversion of the Sermon on the Mount than the sovereignty of Mary and its cult, which has been used over the centuries by different princes to stake out their spheres of influence in the temporal realm, to fly a flag for their ambitions like any Maoist poster or party political broadcast; and equally difficult to imagine a greater distortion of Christ’s idealism than this identification of the rich and powerful with the good.


The Virgin as Bride

The sacred marriage of the Goddess and her lover was a staple of pagan, pre-Christian Europe. The tale of the king of the sacred grove, married to the Goddess for a year after which he was sacrificed is familiar to everyone through Fraser’s The Golden Bough. By the Middle Ages, the Virgin was also transformed into the Bride of God. However, the church cleverly inverted this metaphor, following the methodology followed by the Jews.

Thus marriage was the pivotal symbol on which turned the cosmology of most of the religions that pressed on Jewish society, jeopardizing its unique monotheism. It is a symptom of their struggle to maintain their distinctiveness that the Jews, while absorbing this pagan symbol, reversed the ranks of the celestial pair to make the bride God’s servant and possession, from whom he ferociously exacts absolute submission.

Even the courtly love of the troubadours, explicitly sexual and ribald initially, transformed into the chaste love an unattainable ideal woman in the Middle Ages: this ideal slowly shaped itself into that of the Madonna, and the Virgin had yet another avatar. However, according to Ms. Warner, this transforming of earthly love into heavenly adoration was just another deception of the church, like the transformation of the virgin into the queen.

The icon of Mary and Christ side by side is one of the Christian Church’s most polished deceptions: it is the very image and hope of earthly consummated love used to give that kind of love the lie. Its undeniable power and beauty do not heal: rather, the human sore is chafed and exposed.

The Immaculate Conception



La Purísima Inmaculada Concepción
by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

One of the biggest pillars of the cult of Mary, along with her virginity and the assumption, is the Immaculate Conception – that is, the virgin too was born without the taint of sex like Jesus Christ. From the viewpoint of a literal believer in the Bible, a woman born with the taint of sex can hardly give birth to an untainted son of God, so this transformation is reasonable. However, this became dogma only in the nineteenth century.

First originating in the apocryphal Book of James, which exalts St. Anne, the concept of the Immaculate Conception was brought to the west from the east. Jesuits took it up vehemently in their arguments with Dominicans. If one follows the history which has been fascinatingly set forth by Marina, this was one concept where myth became dogma through sheer political pressure!


Ms. Warner examines many more aspects of the Virgin as mother, the one who provides milk and tears, who wears the sun and the moon for garments, and who intercedes with Jesus and God on the behalf of sinners… in fact, each chapter of this book can be reviewed separately! The author’s comparison of the virgin with the whore, Mary Magdalene, is extremely intriguing:

Together, the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s idea of woman. There is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore.

However, since I need to close this review at some point, I am stopping here. Hopefully I have whetted future readers’ appetite for this seminal work.


Marina Warner is not a fan of the cult of the Virgin. As I said before, she does not see Jung’s archetype of the Great Mother in Mary.

Under the influence of contemporary psychology—particularly Jungian—many people accept unquestioningly that the Virgin is an inevitable expression of the archetype of the Great Mother. Thus psychologists collude with and continue the Church’s operations on the mind. While the Vatican proclaims that the Virgin Mother of God always existed, the Jungian determines that all men want a virgin mother, at least in symbolic form, and that the symbol is so powerful it has a dynamic and irrepressible life of its own.

But unlike the myth of the incarnate God, the myth of the Virgin Mother is translated into moral exhortation. Mary establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfil this destiny. Thus the very purpose of women established by the myth with one hand is slighted with the other. The Catholic religion therefore binds its female followers in particular on a double wheel, to be pulled one way and then the other, like Catherine of Alexandria during her martyrdom.

The Virgin Mary is not the innate archetype of female nature, the dream incarnate; she is the instrument of a dynamic argument from the Catholic Church about the structure of society, presented as a God-given code.

She sees the myth of the Virgin enduring in the years to come, but slowly losing its symbolic power.


This book was written in the seventies. The Catholic Church, and Christianity, has come a lot of way since then. Even though there is still the lunatic fringe of Bible literalists vociferously present in the religious arena, metaphorical readings of the Gospels have gained popularity. Maybe this is why Ms. Warner says in her foreword to the new edition:

It’s a long time ago that I lost my faith in Mary, a long time since she was the fulcrum of the scheme of salvation I then believed in, alongside Jesus the chief redeemer. But I find that the symbolism of mercy and love which her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated and now shapes secular imagery and events; Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolize it or control its significance.

As a Hindu child who stared absorbedly at her smiling countenance, or felt his heart wrench at the site of the weeping mother holding the body of her crucified son in her lap, I can identify with that. Totally.


Michelangelo’s Pieta

A Review of “In Search of Fatima”

May 1book cover5, 1948. The world (at large) knows of it as the Israeli Independence Day. But the Palestinians call it by another name: Yawm-an Nakba (“Day of Catastrophe”) – for what name is more fitting for a day when daylight robbery was legitimised?

It is true that history is always written by the victors. So the “heroes” always win, and the “villains” always get defeated. This is the story we hear. But what about the narrative of the defeated? Who are the heroes and villains in that tale?

The formation of Israel is one of the most romanticised historic events, more so in the West. The tale of a homeless people, wandering around for centuries, endlessly persecuted, ultimately almost wiped out in the most horrific incident of planned and scientific genocide known in history; finally returning back to their mythic homeland and carving out a nation for themselves in the midst of hostile neighbours is the stuff of mythical sagas. What is sad is, the other side of this story, the tale of a people uprooted from their homeland and thrown out to become the flotsam of the modern world is largely unknown on misunderstood.

Yes, I am talking about the Palestinians. Those crazed terrorists as depicted in Western media, who take pleasure in killing women and angelic Israeli children. A race which has been so marginalised and demonised that they have lost all common decency accorded to human beings, and are on the way to becoming a footnote people in history.

It is in this context that I believe books like In Search of Fatima by Dr. Ghada Karmi becomes relevant. Because she gives a face to these “terrorist demons”. And we find with a shock that it is a human face, not very different from ours.


Palestinian_refugeesThe country called “Palestine” has never existed as a sovereign state (but then, never has Israel). “Palestine” is more a name of an area than a country. The birthplace of three of the world’s biggest religions, the area has been claimed exclusively by all three (although Christianity has relinquished its exclusive rights recently, I think). And it has resulted in contests and counter-conquests to capture the holiest of all holy cities – Jerusalem.

Palestine and the nearby areas had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the early sixteenth century: a rule which was to end only after the First World War, when the Ottomans picked the losing horse. Britain, getting control of all of the Middle East with the help of Arabs by promising them a Pan-Arabic state, did their usual job betrayal after the war was won. Palestine came under the British mandate in 1922.

Jews, who had been displaced from their homeland in prehistoric times, had been meanwhile returning since the late nineteenth century. Even though mistrust existed between them and the Arabs in the region, both religions managed to exist side-by-side in relative harmony. Of course, there were uprisings against the British, and also in-fighting between various Arab groups (some things don’t change in the Middle East, it seems). However, as the years went by, Jewish immigration to the area became alarming, and the immigrants became more and more aggressive. In the period of 1936 to 1939, there was general uprising against Britain, which was suppressed: however, Britain was forced to go back from its intent to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

After the Second World War, the immigration of European Jews to Palestine increased tremendously in numbers, and the Zionist lobby grew in power all over the Western world. Britain tried to restrict these numbers, but by then the Zionist lobby was physically and financially strong. Right-wing Zionist groups like the Irgun openly warring against the occupiers. So the British Empire went back to its time-tested formula: leave a colony which had become a losing proposition. Accordingly, the English withdrew, and the immigrants settled down clinically to the task of driving the Palestinians out. The Arabs were too disunited and lacked the will- and muscle-power to fight them. Ultimately, on 29th November 1947, the UN General Council passed a resolution legitimising the formation of independent Arab and Jewish states. And on 15th of May the following year, the state of Israel came into being.

The Book

The book is divided into three parts: Palestine, England and In Search of Fatima. In the first part, the author describes her early childhood in a relatively peaceful country ending with the ultimate violent uprooting; in the second, her coming of age in England and the realisation that she is an unfortunate hybrid, English in upbringing and Arab in spirit, belonging neither here nor there; and in the third, her return to Palestine to find her roots, symbolised by her childhood nurse, Fatima.

Ghada Karmi was born (possibly -because in those days, Arabs did not keep any note of birthdays) on the 19th of November, 1939, into a world at war and a country passing through the final stages of a violent uprising. She says her mother never wanted to have her, because it was no world to bring a child into. However, soon after Ghada’s birth, the country entered a stage of peace between the Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. Her childhood memories are peaceful, almost idyllic.

Ghada’s mother was from Damascus and her father was from the small village of Tulkarm. They were typical upper middle class people, and Mr. Karmi was a literate man with a collection of books. Ghada’s mother was relatively advanced in her views and socialised extensively. The children were more or less left to the nurse-cum-housekeeper, Fatima, a peasant woman whom little Ghada idolised. They lived in the prosperous neighbourhood of Qatamon in Jerusalem. One could say that little Ghada had a fortunate life in turbulent times.

However, all that was to change as the Zionist lobby gained strength, and the fights between Jews and Muslims escalated. But the author’s family, it seems, lived in the fools’ paradise that most of us live in (“This cannot happen in MY country!”) and did not see the writing on the wall until it was too late, even when their neighbourhood was rocked by extreme violence. Even if they had foreseen their eviction from their homeland, it is doubtful whether they could have done anything, because the hopelessly divided Arab lobby was anything but capable of standing up to Zionist power. So finally, in April 1948, they had to evacuate to Syria, to the house Ghada’s maternal grandparents.

Ghada’s mother, unable to accept permanent exile and always maintaining until the end of her life that they would return to Palestine one day, gave the key of her house to Fatima for “safekeeping”. They moved away in a rickety taxi to the music of exploding bombs. It is at this point, when the author realised that she had to leave her dog Rex behind, the force of loss struck her in its enormity for the first time. This is captured poignantly in the book’s prologue:

Another explosion. The taxi, which had seen better days, revved loudly and started to move off. But through the back window, a terrible sight which only she could see. Rex had somehow got out, was standing in the middle of the road. He was still and silent, staring after their retreating car, his tail stiff, his ears pointing forward.

With utter clarity, the little girl saw in that moment that he knew what she knew, that they would never meet again.

This is the first wake-up call which signifies the death of childhood for ever – the harsh reality of permanent loss.

They stayed for a year in Syria, but by the time Ghada’s father had realised that there was no future for him there; and he was realistic enough to accept that an immediate return to Palestine was out of the question. Post-war England beckoned. Against his wife’s protests, he took a job in the Arabic service of the BBC and moved to London. He ultimately succeeded in coaxing his reluctant wife to join him, along with her children. So at nine years of age, Ghada set foot on English soil for the first time, the country which was to be her adoptive motherland.

Little Ghada was not at all unhappy to leave the house of her grandparents in Damascus, which was crowded with members of the joint family. The situation was further exacerbated due to the influx of more and more refugee members. Also, the country and the household was fairly traditional, more so than the relatively cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Girls were supposed to be subordinate, women had to cover their hair and one had to pray five times a day. So it must have been something of a relief to relocate to city like London.

However, Mrs. Karmi refused to accept it as home. In their small apartment in Golders Green, she “created a little Palestine” (in Ghada’s words). Their house became a centre for all displaced Arabic people. Ghada’s mother staunchly refused to learn English and to go out and socialise with the locals. She built a cocoon around herself and became totally insular. The author says this embittered her and from her expression in the photographs in the book, one would tend to agree with her.

Ghada’s elder sister, Siham, was marked out to be a doctor: however, due to the subtle racial prejudice prevalent in British society, she could not get admission and ultimately chose chemistry as her vocation. Her brother Ziyad chose engineering, so Ghada was instructed to become a doctor by her father, even though her talent was more in literature and the humanities. But in an Arab family, you did not argue with the father – so a doctor she had to be.

Ghada talks of her school years in England as pleasant enough: racism, even though present, was basically an undercurrent. In fact, among the Arab Muslim and the Jew, the inherent racist bias was more against the latter. However, Egyptian president Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 changed all that. Overnight, Arabs became barbarian aggressors in the minds of the British.

In school, Ghada began to be isolated more and more. One incident of outright bullying by a Jewish classmate, Zoe Steiner, almost ended in an incident of physical violence. Incidentally, it succeeded in sowing the seed of a crucial existential question in the author’s mind: was she Arab or English?

This dilemma persisted throughout her teens and twenties. On the one side, she was enjoying the freedom of a liberated woman, unthinkable in the Middle East: on the other, Arab nationalism and pride were being ground into dust by Israel and her Western allies. Ghada says that at this time, the existence of a country such as Palestine was unknown in England, and she had to lie about her nationality when questioned to avoid confusion.

At this time, a Pan-Arab movement was taking shape under the charismatic leadership of Nasser, watched warily by Israel. But Ghada had no time for politics because of two important events in her life – she graduated from medical school, and married a classmate (an Englishman) against her family’s wishes.

The marriage was doomed from the start. Ghada’s family (especially her mother) was unvaryingly hostile to John, her husband – all placatory efforts from his side proved futile. And Ghada’s slowly emerging nationalism as an Arab distanced them even more. But what brought things to a head was the six-day war of 1967 between Egypt and Israel which Israel won with ridiculous ease. This foreshadowed the shape of things to come in the area – unlimited expansion of Israeli borders with impunity. Naturally, Ghada was outraged but her husband was on the side of “plucky” Israel who won against enormous odds. She felt totally betrayed, and the rickety marriage collapsed a year later.

Now, in the final part of the book, we see a new Ghada Karmi: a proud Palestinian who has embraced her identity. After the collapse of her marriage, she continued working as a doctor, feeling more and more isolated from fellow Britons when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entered the scene, under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat. Their tactics of hijacking, bombing and isolated acts of violence against Israelites helped to bring international attention to the plight of Palestinians – it also dubbed them forever as terrorists. And being unabashedly Palestinian, Ghada was automatically stamped with the label.

After a frightening encounter with a group of Jewish doctors in 1971, Ghada decided to embrace the Palestinian Cause – and the PLO – fully. She established “Palestine Action” in England with a group of sympathisers and began to travel all over the Arab world, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and meeting leaders of the PLO. She also participated in protests and political action in England. Ghada describes the magical moment when she met Yasser Arafat, the legend, face-to-face. It seemed as though she had finally found herself.

However, by 1978, the PLO had been recognised by the world at large, and Arafat was seen as the leader in exile of the Palestinian nation. Ghada says she saw no need of continuing her organisation, as it had become redundant. She felt, like many other Palestinians, that the birth of a legitimate Palestine was only a matter of time.

But Israel had other ideas: it invaded Lebanon in 1978 and forced the PLO out of its Beirut headquarters. From then on, the organisation was always on its back foot, pressurised time and again by Israel until Arafat was forced to sign the Oslo Agreements of 1993 – in the eyes of Palestinians, a shameful capitulation. On the personal front, Ghada found it difficult to adjust to Arab society, especially women’s role in it – she says that as a divorcee, she was seen as fair game by men. The most she could hope for was to be a second wife to somebody, or secret liaisons with married men. By the 1980’s Ghada began to see that

…in effect, I had no natural social home in England or any other place. Did we all feel the same?…. When and where was their (her siblings’ and hers) real home?

To get to the root of the question, she had to

…go to the source, the origin, the very place, shunned fearfully for years, where it all began…

…that is, Israel.

The book concludes with Ghada’s 14 day visit to Israel in August 1991 (something denied to most Palestinians), which she could do because of her British passport. She was helped by her Israeli friends. Ghada was shocked at what she saw in “her” country: in her opinion, nothing short of apartheid practised by Jews on Arabs, a minority without voice in what had once been their country. Even though Ghada ultimately located her house (now occupied by strangers), it was “dead, like Fatima, like poor Rex, like us.”

The book ends on a positive note, however, as Ghada lies on her hotel bed in Jerusalem. Suddenly the call to prayer comes floating in through the window. The author says:

I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all – not for them, at least, the people who lived there, though they were herded into reservations of a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.

Ghada feels however that her personal exile is “undefined by space and time”, from where “there would be no return.”


Is this a great book? I cannot honestly answer in the affirmative. Ghada Karmi’s style is rambling, and one feels the book would have benefited from the services of a good editor. The author rushes off on tangents many a time without returning to where she started from.

The memoirs are so steeped in her feeling for Palestine and the outrage that they have suffered that the human touch is missing in many areas (especially where she is discussing relationships). Sometimes, one feels that she has to pigeonhole people (“my Jew friend”, “my Catholic colleague”) racially just to put things in perspective. Even her relationship with her husband and subsequent breakup is only superficially treated, other than as confirmation of her growing Arab identity and its incompatibility with the normal English milieu.

Most importantly, the metaphor of Fatima, as a symbol for the lost Palestine, never takes hold in the mind of the reader.

Still, this is a book which deserves to be read.


In 1969, Golda Meir said: “It was not as though there were a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” This was the fate of the Palestinians before the PLO entered the scene with their isolated acts of terrorism – total oblivion. The PLO made them crazed terrorists in the Western mind, which was better – at least they existed!

Of late, with the increasing demonisation of Islam and Muslims in general in the West, the Palestinians have been added to those evil beings like the Al Queida who deserve to exterminated, to make the world safe for democracy. One almost feels that the crusades never ended.

Well, my friends, Palestinians are neither mythical beings nor devils in human guise. They are a people who have been unjustly expelled from their home country to wander the earth as waifs, much like the Jews in previous centuries. They are human beings like you and me, who laugh, cry, eat, drink, love, hate, live and die. They do not get the justice they deserve: let them at least have a voice.

Ghada Karmi provides that voice. Listen to it. Even if it evokes a single tear from you for the suffering of fellow human beings, she would not have spoken in vain.

“The Hindus – An Alternative History” – Controversy and Truth

The Controversy

In 2011, Mr. Dinanath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samithi (“Committee for the Struggle to Save Education”) in India brought a case against the book The Hindus – An Alternative History by the American Indologist and scholar Wendy Doniger. The lawsuit was filed under Section 295A of Indian Penal Code (a leftover of the colonial era) which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community. The case went to litigation in February 2014. Rather than fight it out, Penguin decided to withdraw the book from publication in a phased manner in six months and pulp the remaining copies.

There was widespread outrage from freethinkers and intellectuals: concerns were raised that free speech was under threat in India. While this is hardly a unique incident – any book, play or movie which was likely to “wound religious sentiments” gets an immediate ban in India: The Satanic Verses is the most prominent example – the fact that it happened to a book by a recognised scholar justified the misgivings to a certain extent. If the trend caught on, any kind of interpretation of myth, history or literature than the officially sanctioned version would become impossible. From this to theocracy is only a small step.

Of course, with all the hullabaloo, I simply had to read the book! (I suspect many others also felt the same. According to reports, the book was being sold clandestinely in many places in India. And it is available on the net. On the whole, Mr. Batra seems to have acted as Ms. Doniger’s publicist, unwittingly.) Fortunately people have uploaded PDF copies all over the web, and locating one was not very difficult.

A Parallel History

Wendy Doniger is a scholar – but her book is not scholarly. It is aimed at the general reader. The style is chatty with a lot of sarcastic humour (actually a drawback – we will get to it later). The author has not proceeded like a conventional historian, rather her attempt has been to “set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha).” That is, she concentrates on the religious and social narrative within the framework of history, rather than the “hard and true” facts which have been proved by archaeology.

And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).

Ms. Doniger uses two metaphors for the way she has interpreted the history of Hinduism. The first is a common optical illusion, reproduced below:

With a little effort, one can see both the rabbit and the bird. This is a common property of optical illusions – our eyes pick up a pattern of markings and impose an image on them. According to Wendy, this is equally true in the case the craters on the moon, which Westerners have interpreted as the face of a man, and Indians, as a rabbit. She says:

The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Whatever we currently accept as part of “Hinduism” (a problematic concept in itself) has been garnered from the “official” versions, the Sanskrit texts written down by the persons who had the power and the privilege. However, this forms only a very small part of the culture of India. Most of the narrative of Hinduism is spread along a multitude of people belonging to various castes and regions: the tales of the so-called “subaltern” groups who have had no voice in the major part of the history of this great subcontinent. The author analyses these submerged histories along with the well-known ones so a kind of double-vision is also required on part of the reader – now seeing the rabbit, now seeing the bird.

Available Light

The second metaphor is a Sufi parable about Mulla Nasrudin.

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”

One could take this as just a funny story or a profound vignette on searching for the truth in the correct (or incorrect) place. Wendy Doniger adapts it to the analysis of Indian history in the following manner:

This Sufi parable could stand as a cautionary tale for anyone searching for the keys (let alone the one key) to the history of the Hindus. It suggests that we may look for our own keys, our own understandings, outside our own houses, our own cultures, beyond the light of the familiar sources.

That is, we may be searching entirely in the wrong place, for the wrong key: even if we find it, it may be different for each person, depending upon his or her background. Also, one can only search where light is available – and many areas of Indian history are still shrouded in darkness.

A Detailed Analysis of Indian History and Culture

Ms. Doniger analyses the Indian civilisation by dividing it into recognisable periods. Starting with the Indus Valley Civilisation, it moves down in time through the nomadic Aryans and their Vedas; as the Aryans get civilised, the Vedas give rise to the more philosophical Upanishads – religion moves away from ritual to introspection. Then as the cities rise up and urbanisation kicks in, the beliefs get codified into “Dharma Shastras” (as exemplified by the code of Manu), and religion becomes more organised and rigid – the four “Varnas” (colours) or castes are born and a large group of people are marginalised as being outside the system (at the same times, money and love also get their own shastras!). Buddhism rises and declines and Hinduism resurges in the South under the Bhakti movement. In some parts of India, an esoteric discipline called “Tantra” is born.

It was into this dynamic civilisation that Islam entered: first as the so-called “Slave” dynasty of Muhammad Ghori and later, as the Mughal dynasty established by Babur. However, far from the Islamisation of India, Hindus and Muslims traded cultural elements across religious boundaries which enriched both religions. Then the Western powers came as traders and established themselves as colonialists, Britain winning out over the others in India. Yet even though their main aim was the assimilation of lucre, India changed them also – and Hinduism also underwent yet another transformation, absorbing modern values and adapting to the changing world, which has been its strength all through history.

I will not undertake a detailed analysis of Ms. Doniger’s book here. It will be a Herculean task (or in the current context, a “Bhageeratha Prayatna“), and I doubt whether I have the time and expertise. Rather, I will record here what I liked (and disliked) about the book.

First, the positives:

  1. Doniger’s scholarship. The sheer amount of books which have been read (and analysed) by this lady is breath-taking. It does not involve Sanskrit texts alone, but many narratives in the vernacular across the length and breadth of India.
  2. The impartiality of her analysis. Across these 700 – odd pages, the author has been at pains to present both sides of the question. For example, she does not present the Muslim conqueror as a fanatical religious marauder, neither does she picture him as a benign ruler – rather, he is in search of loot when he pillages temples. Similarly, the British rulers are shown as mainly interested in making money: governance is only incidental. Also, she does not picture the upper-caste Hindu as an epitome of evil out to destroy Buddhists and harass Pariahs, but rather as a pluralist who is however, not without his prejudice.
  3. Doniger has analysed the epics and myths of India in detail, pulling no punches. Kudos to her for recognising that The Mahabharata is, in its heart of hearts, an anti-war document: also for mentioning the many Ramayanas which are scattered across India (contesting the Hindu Right’s picturisation of Rama as the “Maryada Purushottama” which is derived from Tulsidas’s interpretation and not from Valmiki). Some of her contentions, like the undercurrent of sexual attraction between Lakshmana and Sita may disturb traditional Hindus, but she always provides documentary evidence for her conclusions.
  4. The largely marginalised status of women and the Dalits are forcefully etched out by the author, at the same time highlighting that all was not darkness. Like much else to do with Hinduism, here also a multitude of narratives intermingle and intersect.

The negatives (I could find only one – but that, I believe, have contributed seriously to the book’s controversial status):

  1. The author’s tone. The snarky humour she pokes at everything must have done a lot, I am sure, to put people off. It is not always edifying to be made fun of, especially about something which one considers sacred.

It is easy to see why “The Hindus – An Alternative History” angers conservative Hindus. Of late, they have been at pains to present Hinduism as a monolithic religion: the Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Law”, going against the teeth of all evidence. Indian literature talks of four methods of coercion: Sama (peaceful verbal coercion), Dana (bribery), Bheda (threats) and Danda (physical abuse). All four have been tried against the intellectuals and academics who have disputed this view. In his complaint against the book, Mr. Dinanath Batra has said that it is “riddled with heresies”. This is the height of tragic irony, as there is nothing in Hinduism called heresy – its very strength is its pluralism, the ability to assimilate anything into its fold.

America calls its culture the “Melting Pot”, where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the “Salad Bowl” – where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity.

In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called “Avial“. It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata’s palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste – but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables.

Hinduism is the world’s Avial.

Enjoy it!

A Review of “Daughters of Britannia” by Katie Hickman

In the Indian epic Ramayana, there is a poignant scene: Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is forced to renounce his kingdom and go to the forest for fourteen years.  His young wife Sita insists on accompanying him, against his better counsel.  As they step out of the palace, Sita asks: “How much further to the forest?”  It is said that at this, Rama’s eyes moistened for the first time.

I think most of the the so-called “Diplomatic Wives” mentioned in Katie Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia would have sympathised with both Sita and Rama.

England, as the pioneering marine and trading power, must have been the first country to understand the need for diplomats.  Even before the country started sending official envoys, the East India Company was posting its employees at strategic points around the globe to safeguard and further their commercial interests.  These postings were isolated, difficult and many a time downright dangerous – according to the maxim of those days, “no place for a woman”. However, the wives of these diplomats had little choice – they were forced to follow their husbands into the wilderness, because “it was a wife’s duty to be at the side of her husband”.

It would have been bad enough if these poor souls were forced move out of a sane, civilised country to savage barbarian lands (in their viewpoints, at least) – they were also expected to fulfill an unpaid official function: that of the diplomat’s wife.  It was an exacting task, emotionally and physically draining, especially a couple of centuries back when the world was not the known and familiar space it is now.  These ladies had to make official visits to Sultans’ harems, host diplomatic dinners for hundreds of people and sometimes attend official functions along with their husbands without making a faux pas in a totally alien culture.  And most of the junior diplomats’ wives had to put up with cranky, eccentric “ambassadresses” (the ambassadors’ wives) who treated them little better than slaves in a rigidly enforced social hierarchy.

There were also the physical dangers.  Before the aeroplane was invented, the journey to the “posting” comprised terrifying treks across inhospitable mountains and death-defying voyages across stormy seas.  Most of the host countries (especially the tropics) were home to a number of diseases which were potentially deadly to the English physique.  There were even scourges like the plague to be encountered!  And this is apart from the very real dangers of captivity, rape, torture and death which were always present in the turbulent climes these ladies inhabited.

Yet most of them bore it all with true British fortitude (stiff upper lip, Jeeves!) and many wrote poignant and amusing memoirs, full of underplayed English humour.  Katie Hickman, herself a “diplomatic daughter”, has researched these extensively and produced a fascinating book, drawing upon her mother’s reminiscences and her own childhood memories too in the process.

These diplomatic wives span across the years from 1661 to the present.  Forty-six of them are credited as “principal women”; however, a number of others are mentioned in passing so I suspect the number may exceed a hundred.  Sixty-two books have been credited in the bibliography, apart from various magazines (the main ones being various issues of BDSA [British Diplomatic Spouses Association] and DSWA [Diplomatic Service Wives’ Association]  house journals).  The amount of research is extensive and exhaustive.

The organisation of the book is also excellent: instead of presenting the stories chronologically or sequentially, Hickman has chosen to divide the book into chapters which explore the various facets of the diplomatic life.  Thus we have chapters on “Public Life”, “Social Life”, “Hardships” etc.  to name a few.  In each of these chapters, the author explores the experiences of her protagonists separated across time and space, emphasising the similarities and differences alike – so what the reader gets is a continuous narrative, a feeling of solidarity among these poor daughters of a colonial power, forced to bear the standard of their country in hostile atmospheres – mainly out of necessity, not out of choice – yet doing it in grand fashion, most of the time.

Some of the wives stand out as special characters.  Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Burton, following him willfully into the jungles of Brazil; the swashbuckling Ann Fanshawe; Victoria Sackville-West, whose stain of illegitimacy is washed away in the diplomatic arena; Emma Hamilton, who climbed the ladder all the way from prostitute to princess (well, metaphorically)… and many more.  As I read this book, I was filled with admiration for these daughters of the empire – all the more so, because as an expatriate, I know the cultural shock of adjustment even in these modern times.

A very worthwhile read.