When Vengeance Walks the Town – A Review of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Recently, a group of students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and the political and religious conservatives in India went virtually mad. Soon, any criticism of India was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. The JNU, a leftist stronghold and a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu Right-Wing government at the centre, was termed a positive hotbed of crime and vice and a recruiting ground for terrorists. Many a Muslim, unless he wore his love of India on his sleeve for all to see, was branded a Pakistani agent – the refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) resulted in intimidation and even physical abuse in many places.

What is interesting about this phenomena is that it is not only an orchestrated move from the right-wingers: many Indians are genuinely frightened that Pakistanis are in our midst, bent on destroying the country with the support of the leftists. There is a paranoia that is being exploited by the political vultures.

I am frightened by how much this resembles McCarthyism – the madness that gripped America from 1950 to 56 and destroyed many lives and careers. Wikipedia says

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

It seems that human beings don’t learn anything from history, and therefore keep on repeating it.

But then, according to Arthur Miller, the Red Scare of the fifties was a repeat of a much darker event from the seventeenth century – the Salem Witch Trails. He wrote this play in 1953 to remind fellow citizens on how mass hysteria can engulf a society and demolish civilisation.

in 1692, a group of children in Salem were afflicted by diseases which showed classical symptoms of hysteria, but were soon diagnosed as demonic possession by the church authorities based partly on the children’s own confused utterings. Soon, people were being denounced left and right as witches and executed. Malicious people with revenge and other material interests (such as grabbing a condemned person’s property) seems to have contributed enthusiastically to the madness. As John Proctor, an accused, says in the play:

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

These words are chillingly applicable to both McCarthyism and the events I quoted at the beginning: common vengeance is writing the law. Anybody can be accused – proof is not required, accusation is proof enough. Any kind of fair dealing and neutrality would be seen as potential collaboration, so the safest thing is to side with the accusers. Verily, the term “witch hunt” has entered the English language with strong credentials.

A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud – God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!

We will. We, the conformists who let the madness continue to save our own islands of comfort in this burning sea of paranoid anger.


From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

1.1 A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new

It is evident that Arthur Miller put a lot of thought into the naming of his play. He wanted to emphasise the heat and the fire, the hatred and the horror: at the same time, he also wanted to point out that after the melting process, a refined product would come out. Times of extreme tribulations in society are usually followed by a period of rejuvenation.

The playwright takes a lot of liberty with history to make his point. This is nothing new: Shakespeare regularly did this, it seems. So in the play, the historical 11-year-old Abigail Williams, the niece of the puritan minister Reverend Parris of Salem is transformed into an oversexed teen. She has seduced John Proctor in whose house she was working as a servant, and has apparently tried out some black magic to kill his wife. During such a magic session in the woods with Tituba and other kids, the Parris’s Caribbean servant, they are surprised by the minister. Betty, the minister’s young daughter, falls into a dead faint and cannot be cured by the doctor. Abigail immediately shouts witchcraft, and others join in; and soon the subterfuge becomes mass hysteria.

Miller has chosen John Proctor to be tragic hero of this play; haunted by guilt at his infidelity (even more so because his wife forgives it), he seeks punishment for himself, at least inside his soul. His torment is further compounded as his wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by Abigail. To make matters worse, there is the cunning Thomas Putnam, abetting the hysteria to settle scores against old opponents and grab their lands. As the roller-coaster of paranoia rolls on towards its destructive end, Proctor himself is sentenced to hang for witchcraft but Elizabeth ironically escapes as she is pregnant.

At the insistence of friends and a few sane people who want to stop the madness, John Proctor confesses at the last moment: however, he immediately sees the falsehood and cowardice in it and immediately withdraws it.

HALE: Man, you will hang! You cannot!

PROCTOR [his eyes full of tears]: I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.

Yes indeed: the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right is ultimately the refined product that comes out of the crucible.


The character who impressed me most in the story was Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to confess or refute when faced with charges of witchcraft. He was subjected to a horrendous form of torture called “pressing” (thankfully it occurs offstage in the play) where more and more rocks were piled on his chest in an effort to make him speak. Giles endured this for a whole two days before he died – his last words, reportedly, were “more weight”. There’s guts for you!

In Search of the Druids

I think the first time I heard about the druids was when I first encountered the Stonehenge in one of the Reader’s Digest books.

Stonehenge_DistanceAs is usual with Reader’s Digest, the article was filled with all kinds of pseudo-scientific balderdash that is the trademark of that group of publications: but my gullible preteen self swallowed it whole – about strange rituals and esoteric ceremonies conducted during the equinoxes and solstices, and the group of mysterious individuals who presided over them. The article hinted that these pagans knew secrets about the universe which we were not privy to, and I was thrilled – because it was similar to what many Indians believed about our ancient sages called rishis.

The first druid I encountered in person was Getafix, the venerable old gentleman who inhabits the village of Asterix and Obelix in Gaul. He cuts mistletoe at the time of the full moon with a golden sickle to use in his potions and has regular meetings with fellow druids in the Forest of the Carnutes. He brews a magic potion which gives superhuman strength to the Gauls – and thus, is a thorn in the side of Julius Caesar who is trying to subdue the whole of Gaul.

Well, most of the things mentioned above (except for the bit about the magic potion) is true, it seems. However, things are not as clear cut as one would think when it comes to druids. Quite a lot is lost in the mists of antiquity.


In Druids: A Very Short Introduction, Barry Cunliffe gives us a very brief tour through the realm of the druids, in time and space. The actual historical data available is very meagre: They have left behind no written records, and the only two people who have written about them, who we can assume with reasonable certainty had personal contact, are the stoic philosopher Posidonius and of course, Julius Caesar. Posidonius’s works are now lost, and we know him only at second hand now – but being a stoic, it is quite possible that he romanticised the druids as “noble savages”. By the same logic, Caesar may have purposefully demonised them, as savages with “altars steeped in human blood”, to be brought under the civilised control of Rome.

Getafix_brewingFrom archaeological evidence, we can know of the pagan Celts as a people who inhabited Western Europe and the British Isles. It seems that they worshipped the sky, the earth and water, as evidenced by the various burial mounds containing sacred objects – as well as some sacrificial victims consigned to bogs and water bodies. Corpses were both cremated and buried, and the head has been “singled out for special treatment”, as the skulls ritually preserved in many instances eloquently demonstrate. It seems that they were experts in gauging the seasons and time, and the lunar calendar played a special role in their rituals. Since they left behind no narrative art (except possibly for the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, most of what we envision about pagans is educated conjecture.

So we have to fall back on the tales of the people who encountered the druids to piece together their picture. There are three traditions which mention them:

  1. The Greek Tradition
  2. The Late Republican Tradition
  3. The Imperial Tradition

The Greeks’ interaction with the barbarian tribes of Western Europe was by and large prompted by trade and largely peaceful. It seems that the Greeks had real respect for the druids – our popular image of white-bearded wise men stem most probably from the Greek accounts, according to which they were wise philosophers who believed in the transference of the soul, and studied astronomy and nature.


An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit” – aquatint by S. R. Meyrick and C. H. Smith which popularised the image of the druid

The Late Republican Tradition (to which Posidonius belongs), as we saw earlier, was rather partial towards the druids: but his Histories, quoted by other writers such as Strabo, gives us a detailed insight into Celtic society. Strabo says there are three classes of men comprising the elite: the Bards (singers and poets), the Vates (interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers) and the Druids (the moral philosophers).

(I feel that the Vates were the pagan equivalent of ordinary Brahmin priests in India, while the Druids were the equivalent of the ascetic rishis. However, it’s a personal interpretation.)

Julius Caesar, who opined that druids were originally from the British Isles, does not divide the class of wise men into functional categories – for him, there are only two privileged classes in Celtic society, the Knights and the Druids (again, roughly corresponding to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Vedic society). He acknowledges the power of the druids, who can excommunicate whole communities and make it impossible for them to live; it seems that they kept education to themselves, initiating only the select few into their ranks. His main concern, however, is that the druids are a pan-national brotherhood ruled by an Archdruid who has control cutting across tribal boundaries.

Caesar goes on to demonise the druids with the description of their horrific sacrifices, including the notorious wicker man, where sacrificial victims are placed into a huge wicker effigy and burnt en masse.

Caesar was victorious in crushing all pagan revolts and bringing the whole of Gaul under his control – but the Celts survived in Ireland, until they were assimilated into Christianity through a slow process, spanning centuries.



Famous illustration of “The Wicker Man” by Aylet Sammes

Pagan religion has had its renaissance in Britain and mainland Europe since the Seventeenth Century onward, with romantics seeing it as the “natural” heritage of Europe (in contrast to Christianity which is a foreign import). Based on this, a lot of romantic ideas have sprung about the druids which, according to the author, is more fit for the realm of fairy tale than history. After its heyday in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, Druidical Religion seems to have faded into the background as just another faith. However, its innate earthiness and strong ties to nature may be just what the doctor ordered for a planet which is moving inexorably towards ecological disaster – provided it also does not pick up the aggression of many of today’s main belief systems.

This book is a very concise introduction to a vast subject. It is highly readable (as most of the books in this series are) and manages to hold the reader’s interest. But if you are looking for an in-depth study of the druidical religion, this may not be the place to come to. This is only a springboard.

A Differing Viewpoint on Kerala History

Ever since my interest in history was piqued during my late teens, I have been fascinated by a lack of it as regards my home state of Kerala. Unlike India, which has a rich and continuous history spanning centuries, Kerala civilisation seems to have sprung into being overnight – my father-in-law, a historian, once told me that we missed the agrarian phase while transforming from tribal hunters to city dwellers. Our language, even though well-developed with a rich modern literature, is the youngest of the Dravidian languages and among the youngest in India. Kerala does not have huge temples, palaces or monuments like other Indian states: maybe because our tropical climate (high humidity and torrential rain) does not augur well for colossal structures – or maybe because our “kings” did not progress much beyond the tribal chieftain stage.

Kerala had a long history of trade with Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians and Romans: ironically, much before it had contacts with the rest of the Indian subcontinent, from which it was separated by the (in those days) impenetrable Western Ghats. So most of the region’s early history depends on accounts by foreign seafarers – mostly related to trade. The earliest knowledge we have of any kind of political organisation we have is that of the Chera dynasty, which is supposed to have ruled Kerala from the first to the fourth century C.E, and again from 825 C.E to 11102 C.E.

The (Fictitious?) Chera Dynasty

Map_of_Chera_KingdomThe official history of Kerala talks of the first Chera dynasty as having ruled during the first to fourth century C.E, according to knowledge gained mostly from Sangam Literature, with its capital at Muziris (modern day Kodungalloor). This kingdom declined due to invasion from neighbouring states. The second Chera dynasty also ruled from the same capital, now called Mahodayapuram. The Chera dynasty declined and vanished after a “hundred years’ war” with the Cholas.

This is common knowledge – in fact, so common that it is never critically questioned. In the book ജാതിവ്യവസ്ഥിതിയും കേരളചരിത്രവും (“Caste System and Kerala History”) P. K. Balakrishnan makes the bold contention that this whole history is nothing short of fiction – invented by the distinguished historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai.

Balakrishnan is a historian in his own right, and such controversial statements are not made without impressive backup from a variety of sources. He cites numerous passages from foreign sources to show that the spices which were traded were just collected off the forest vines and trees – there was no organised agriculture. Kerala was mostly a society of hunter-gatherers at that time, and the kings who are mentioned are little more than tribal chieftains.

Balakrishnan does not dismiss the Chera Empire as fabrication in toto. Definitely a kingdom existed – but it covered little more than the southern and northern tips of Kerala. The central part of the state, in those days, comprised mostly mud-flats and was largely unliveable. Kerala was built up by sea sedimentation over the years, as the writer makes amply clear through his examination of geological records.

Cheraman Parambu

The Memorial at Cheraman Parambu, the place commonly acknowledged as the site of the palace of the Chera kings (Photo courtesy: The Hindu)

But it is when he tackles the Second Chera Dynasty, and the 100 Years’ War with the Cholas, that Balakrishnan is scathing on the scholarship exhibited by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He calls Pillai’s method of historiography a “historical three-card trick”. His reason for discarding the officially accepted version is as follows:

  • Most of the royal proclamations usually mention the construction of temples, grants to temples or Brahmins or stories of royal victories. In the handful of such proclamations unearthed from Kerala, no king or royalty is mentioned.
  • The proclamations available from Tamil Nadu are notoriously unclear as to the geographical details of Cheranadu (“The Land of the Cheras”). There is no logical basis for ascertaining it contained the whole of today’s Kerala, which as we saw earlier, consisted of mostly uninhabitable regions.
  • Kulasekhara Varma who is considered as the founding father of the dynasty exists on the most tenuous of evidence. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai has read more into history than what is warranted.

(P. K. Balakrishnan’s destruction, here, of an accepted historical theory is somewhat alarming. Being no historian myself, I cannot vouch for its authenticity. But the way the evidence is presented is very impressive.)

It is when he presents social and economic evidence for his theories that the author is most impressive. Quoting from a number of foreign sources, whose traders made direct contact with the locals; as well as district gazettes and census reports from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Balakrishnan presents a picture of Kerala society which is aeons away from the magnificent kingdom in popular imagination.

It is a place where most of the population (including the “kings”) lived in abject poverty. All land belonged to Kerala Brahmins called Namputhiris. The people who tilled the soil, the Pulayas, lived in hovels akin to doghouses near the fields; the Ezhavas, who also worked the paddy fields could barely make ends meet. The Nairs, the so-called “upper caste” of Kerala were not much better: even though they were trained in the martial arts and were part of armies, mostly subsisted whatever they could eke out through the lands which they were tenants on, and through doing menial labour for Namputhiris – who, even though they were at the top of the social pecking order, were mostly poor.

IMG_8768With an impressive array of evidence, Balakrishnan establishes that the cultivation of paddy and coconut which are the lifeblood of Kerala agriculture was a relatively recent phenomenon. The coconut palm, which originated in Malaysia and reached the east coast of India by the beginning of the Common Era, did not become a crop in Kerala until the seventeenth century when it was cultivated by the Dutch! Even the cultivation of paddy never progressed beyond subsistence agriculture till the nineteenth century. Animal husbandry was unknown. As far as civic amenities were concerned, there were no proper roads or modes of transport – people walked.

It has already been mentioned that the kings were not much better than tribal chieftains. The so-called “war” between the kingdoms consisted of groups of soldiers facing each other off on an open field. As soon as a handful of soldiers fell on one side, the battle was stopped! Similarly, there was no police force and the civil justice was carried out by the Tharakkoottams (Citizen Forums), with different concepts of justice for different castes.


Nair soldiers with the King of Cochin atop an elephant – painting by a Portuguese artist

All in all, a bleak society of impoverished tribes in a fertile land. No wonder all the seafaring Western powers made a beeline for the Malabar Coast!

The Caste System of Kerala

In the second part of the book, Balakrishnan describes how Kerala’s caste system (more stringent than anywhere else in India) evolved – and how it was responsible in part for the above society.

Swami Vivekananda called Kerala a “madhouse” – and with good reason. This small strip of land which does not have any of the traditional four varnas of Hinduism, nevertheless boasts of such a convoluted system of caste restrictions that outsiders can be overwhelmed. It is the only place where a person of higher caste can get “polluted” by coming within a certain distance of a person from one of the “untouchable” classes – in other places, only touching is forbidden. Also, Kerala is the only place where untouchability exists within the higher castes themselves (Namputhiri Brahmins get polluted by touching Nairs, for example) and also among the lower castes (Ezhavas cannot touch Pulayas without getting polluted)! To cap this all, Namputhiri men can have legitimate sexual liaisons with Nair women, but get polluted if they touch their progeny!

Balakrishnan posits this caste system is a natural outgrowth of the historical development of Kerala: a history which he delineates in detail, in opposition to the official version currently accepted.


Namputhiri in traditional attire (Photo courtesy: http://www.namboothiri.com)

The author bases his analysis on the unique Brahmins called Namputhiris, who are indigenous to Kerala and who do not follow the majority of the Brahmin customs elsewhere in India. (They consider even other Brahmins substandard – the Tamil Brahmins who have been settled in Kerala for generations are derogatorily called “Pattars” and not allowed to offer priestly duties in the majority of the temples in the state.)   Balakrishnan analyses an impressive array of historical records and memoirs by prominent Namputhiris to describe the salient aspects of this unique system, followed until recently.

In a Namputhiri family, only the eldest son was allowed to marry: the remaining sons had to make do with alliances in Nair families (which were called “sambandham”). These children, even though legitimate, were not recognised by the father’s family – not a problem since Nairs were matrilineal. The Namputhiri women were kept under virtual lock-and-key – their collective nomenclature as “antharjanam” (the people inside) bears witness to this fact – and any sexual transgression on their side was treated as a heinous crime and the woman was subjected untold torture and misery. Balakrishnan says that this custom may have evolved to prevent proliferation of Namputhiris so that their numbers remained within control and wealth undiminished: we can only speculate.

All the land in Kerala originally belonged to the Namputhiris (this is established from land records and may be one of the reasons why we do not find evidence of land grants to Brahmins in Kerala by the kings). However, they never worked on this land, only enjoyed the bounty of others’ labour. There was no kingship as in other parts of India – in fact, according to Balakrishnan, there were no Kshatriyas (the ruler caste) as such – only Nairs elevated to the role of local rulers by Namputhiris. This is also quite logical, as Kerala Kshatriyas follow the same matrilineal social system of the Nairs.

Did this unique Brahmin caste exercise their brutal authority on the remaining parts of the populace through physical might? Oddly enough, no. Namputhiris were the least militant of Brahmins: it seems that their superiority was accepted as a part of life by everybody. The reason for this, Balakrishnan says, is the historical development of Kerala society.


A traditional Namputhiri Illam (domicile) [Photo courtesy: The Hindu]

It is widely accepted that Namputhiris came to Kerala from southern Karnataka. It is logical to assume that they were trained in the arts of agriculture and animal husbandry, as most Brahmins were: however, they encountered a tribal society basically of hunter-gatherers. This society followed tribal customs of untouchability within themselves: as with most primitive tribes, they had no concept of a nuclear family. Indiscriminate sex, polyandry and polygamy were common. There was no concept of wealth or land-ownership.

The Namputhiri with his knowledge of the seasons, agriculture and house construction must have impressed these “natives” as some kind of godman (similar to what European settlers did in many parts of the world). Slowly, he established himself as their overlord: raised the status of some of the Nair chieftains to that of kings: modulated their tribal customs to suit his system of the four castes: laid claim to all the land and wealth of the state. The social pecking order established by the Namputhiris in Kerala, where a multitude of big fish survived by eating the smaller fish beneath them on the ladder, proved a surprisingly stable system.

(It is interesting to note that Balakrishnan attributes the formation of the Malayalam language to the mixing of Sanskrit with local tribal dialects, and not from Tamil as is commonly accepted. According to him, language itself was feudal, Namputhiris speaking mostly Sanskritised Malayalam while the lower castes were allowed to use only a version which signified their status. The relatively late development of Malayalam as a literary language is quoted as evidence of this. This chapter is fascinating.)

However, the Namputhiris’ rigid caste laws ultimately proved their downfall. The family system described above produced a male of the species with no familial ties who lived only for pleasures of the flesh. Even though the abundant leisure allowed to them made them forerunners in the field of literature and the arts, they proved ill-adapted to the change brought about under British rule. With the advent of a democratic government, Nairs proved adept at government service and shot ahead in economic and social status, leaving the impoverished Namputhiri behind. Balakrishnan calls them “the self-made martyrs of Kerala caste system”.


As said earlier, I do not know how far Balakrishnan’s historiography is correct. But I agree one hundred percent with his sociological analysis of Kerala caste system. Being born in 1963 of a Kshatriya father and a Nair mother, I have seen its idiosyncracies at first-hand. No wonder most progressive Namputhiri youth became communists – and the 1957 communist government of Kerala (the first elected communist government in the world) was headed by a Namputhiri.

A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.


Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.


People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.


The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.


In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.


I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!

Laughing in the Face of Death – A Review of “Dead Funny” by Rudolph Herzog

I came across this book serendipitously. A few months back, there was a debate raging on GR (even now going on with reduced decibel levels) that whether anyone should be allowed to satirise Hitler. This was triggered by the publication of Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. One member, without even reading the book, effectively cursed all the people who would read this book and post a positive review about it.

I was intrigued. Being a person who finds humour in everything, I was surprised that someone could take such an extreme view. Then I found that she was not alone in her views; for many people, the Holocaust was a tragedy which cannot be compared to anything which came before and after, and Hitler was an evil beyond description, which should not be analysed or interpreted, just condemned. As far as I was concerned, this was pure poppycock. Hitler was a dictator who committed genocide to a previously unprecedented level, and I would not choose him as a dinner companion – but he was human, just like you and me.

So I embarked on a journey to discover Hitler and the Third Reich in general, and came across a reference to this book in one of the discussions. Immediately, I decided that it was a must-read. Thankfully, I could find a copy online.


This is not just a history of humour in the Reich, though it is that too. Herzog traces the evolution of political humour and satire in Germany during Hitler’s ascent, reign, decline and demise: and in the process, asks some relevant questions.

IS IT PERMISSIBLE to laugh at Hitler? This is a question that is often debated in Germany, where, seeing the magnitude of the horrors the Third Reich committed in their name, many citizens still have difficulty taking a satirical look at it. And when others dare to do precisely that, they are accused of trivializing the Holocaust. Nonetheless, German humorists are always trying to tackle this most sensitive of topics, and jokes at the expense of the Nazis are at their most powerful and revealing when they are spoken in the economical, matter-of-course tone of the satirist.

Is it legitimate to approach Auschwitz using techniques of satire, or would doing so downplay crimes so monstrous that they can hardly be put into words? Whatever one’s answer to this question, the fact is that Germans have always laughed at Hitler, even during the twelve years of his terrifying reign.

Yes, the Germans have always laughed.


Political humour existed in Germany for a long time. The first German adventure novel, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, follows the exploits of a simple shepherd in the devastated and lawless landscape of Europe after the Thirty Years’ War. The horrors that Simplicius sees, Herzog writes, is described in language that is “cheerful and disarmingly ironic”. To quote from the book:

At first glance a novel featuring a rogue hero but really about a decades long bloodbath may itself seem like a bizarre idea. Why didn’t Grimmelshausen just write a chronicle of events? The message of Simplicissimus is that fear and terror are only half as bad when one can laugh in their face.
Ironically, the tradition of the German novel begins with the sort of humor that still occasions controversy today, when people try to treat Hitler comically. Yet the truth is that terrible events seem to call for humor. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, humor often appears as the only effective antidote against lingering horror. One could cite dozens of examples of how the deepest human abysses make people laugh.

Herzog says the same black humour can be found in Jewish jokes, who may have found the strength to tolerate their unbearable situation by laughing at it.

A Swiss visiting a Jewish friend in the Third Reich asks him: “So how do you feel under the Nazis?” He answers: “Like a tapeworm. Every day, I wriggle my way through a mass of brown stuff and wait to be excreted.”

Two Jews are waiting to face a firing squad, when the news arrives that they are to be hanged instead. One turns to the other and says: “You see—they’ve run out of ammunition!”

The second joke, when Germany had its back to the wall during the war and Hitler was trying to finish off all the Jews as quickly as possible, made me laugh out loud and brought tears to my eyes at the same time.

Up until the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were not seen as the dangers to society they were, and consequently the butt of many political jokes, albeit in a good-natured way. Hitler’s over-the-top rhetoric and shameless posturing was especially suited for satire.

Some of the Hitler jokes (one of which was popular even in my schooldays) show an extremely irreverent approach:

Hitler visits a lunatic asylum, where the patients all dutifully perform the German salute. Suddenly, Hitler sees one man whose arm is not raised. “Why don’t you greet me the same way as everyone else,” he hisses. The man answers: “My Führer, I’m an orderly, not a madman!”

Tünnes and Schäl are walking across a cow pasture, when Tünnes steps in a mound of cowshit and almost falls down. Immediately he raises his right arm and yells, “Heil Hitler!” “Are you crazy?” asks Schäl. “What are you doing? There’s no one else around here.” “I’m following regulations,” Tünnes answers. “Whenever you step into anywhere, you’re supposed to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ”

A drunkard passes a vendor on the street who is crying, “Heilkräuter!”(“Medicinal herbs!”). “Heil Kräuter?” he ponders. “We must have a new government.”

It seems that the Nazi leadership did not crack down on the jokers in the initial phases of the consolidation of power. In fact, they even promoted it to a certain extent, to make a show of the liberal nature of the government. One interesting case in point is the publication of a book of anti-Hitler caricatures, edited by Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the Nazi responsible for dealing with the foreign press. Hanfstaengl published the cartoons with explanatory notes to show how the foreign press was “maligning” the beloved Fuhrer.

One has to understand there was an even more ludicrous entity to be made fun of in Germany – the ineffective Weimar democracy. Many people saw Hitler’s assumption of power as a good thing, something to bring the broken nation back to its feet. And jokes at the expense of the Weimar government were welcome to the Nazis.

There were many artists and intellectuals who were fans of the Nazi government. The Munich cabaret performer and early Nazi sympathizer Weiß Ferdl, for example, wrote a song praising Nazification and comparing it to the Nazi campaigns against jazz and other forms of “nigger music.” He wrote a song, in all seriousness, about how Hitler has brought all supposedly degenerate elements “into line”. (Sadly, we can see this attitude among many people in modern democracies too: people don’t understand how valuable freedom is until they lose it.)

Nazis also used humour to their advantage by encouraging the creation of slapstick without any satirical content, and by encouraging offensive and tasteless anti-Jew jokes which nobody would find funny today (to be frank, I find many similarities among these jokes and present-day political jokes targeting Muslims). People, in their need to vent off frustration, must have laughed at these – it must have helped satisfy their hidden anti-Semitic urges also.

However, those comedians who refused to toe the Party line soon fell out of favour. The creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture which was affiliated to Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, which required any artist, writer or actor who wanted to work in Germany to join it effectively killed all creative protest, by ensuring that they would get no work. Also, acts of active persecution like book burnings, the jailing of artists and writers etc. started in right earnest, supported by intellectuals like Ferdl.

The German cabaret, however, decided not to sit idle – and it is this entity which has the longest comic (and tragic!) history under the Reich.


The cabaret had a long history of satirical humour, and they lampooned everybody mercilessly, including the Nazis. The story of Werner Finck is a case in point. This courageous comedian kept on lampooning the Nazis under their very own noses, and was tolerated for a surprisingly long time. Herzog quotes the following verses, built on Nazi slogans but cleverly putting them on their head:

                         Werner Finck

A fresh wind is blowing
We want to laugh again
Humor, awaken!
We’ll give you free rein.

While the lion is crowned
And Mars rules the hour
Good cheer, which we all love,
Is slowly turning sour.

Let’s not allow the devil
Or any other powers
To rob us of the fun
That is rightfully ours.

Let the power of words
Vibrate the eardrums
And if anyone objects, he can
Kiss us on our bums.

Finck was ultimately arrested and sent to a concentration camp. However, his relative popularity helped spare him the guards’ brutality. Finck managed to keep his humour alive even within the camp, and Herzog quotes the following lines from an evening’s entertainment he managed to put up there:

Comrades, we are going to try to cheer you up, and our sense of humor will help us in this endeavor, although the phrase gallows humor has never seemed so logical and appropriate. The external circumstances are exactly in our favor. We need only to take a look at the barbed wire fences, so high and full of electricity. Just like your expectations.

And then there are the watchtowers that monitor our every move. The guards have machine guns. But machine guns won’t intimidate us, comrades. They just have barrels of guns, whereas we are going to have barrels of laughs.

You may be surprised at how upbeat and cheerful we are. Well, comrades, there are good reasons for this. It’s been a long time since we were in Berlin. But every time we appeared there, we felt very uneasy. We were afraid we’d get sent to the concentration camps. Now that fear is gone. We’re already here.

(I find this equivalent to the story of the Jester who was sentenced to be hanged for making puns. Reprieved at the last minute on the condition that he will pun no more, he cannot pass up the chance to say “No noose is good news!” and is immediately hanged. You can’t keep the wisecrackers down!)

Many of the cabaret performers migrated to Austria, among them Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. Their cabaret house, known as the “Pepper Mill”, subjected the Nazi regime to scathing criticism, using the medium of metaphors and allusions. The following lines from Erika, which are transparently about Hitler, illustrate the point:

I am the prince of the land of lies
I can lie to shake the trees
Good lord, am I a skillful liar!
No one lies so brilliantly.

I lie so inventively
That the blue falls from the sky
See lies flying through the air
That lying gale’s source am I.

Now summer is a-comin’ in
And the trees are all in bud
The field are full of violets
And war does not shed blood.

Ha, ha. You fell for it.
In your faces I can read it.
Although it was completely false,
Every one of you believed it.

Lying is nice
Lying is fine
Lying brings luck
Lying bucks you up.
Lying has lovely long legs.
Lies make you rich
Lies are well-stitched
Seem like they’re true
Wash sin from you
And follow on a leash like dogs.

Back in my home, the land of lies,
The truth must remain unspoken.
A colorful web of lying strands
Keeps our great Empire unbroken.

We have it good, we have it nice
We kill all our enemies
And award ourselves the highest device
Of honor for our false glories.

Once a liar, nevermore trusted;
Always a liar, always believed!
That he speaks anything but truth
Is an utterly intolerable idea.

Lying is easy
Everything’s grand
If you can do it,
False means to our end.
To the land of lies
Lying brings fame
Lies are colorful and elegant
While gray truth looks always the same.

In order to protect my land
I mix the poison and set the fires
If you doubt me, I’ll shut you up,
I, the prince of the land of lies.

                             Kurt Gerron

This is only an example: there were many others who were equally vitriolic. However, as Hitler increased his geographic spread, there was nowhere for the satirists to run to, and criticism within the Reich stopped.

The most tragic fate befell the Jewish comedians, who could not even escape by toeing the Nazi line. The case of Kurt Gerron is illustrative. Gerron tried to escape the horror by emigrating; but he was ultimately captured and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic. The Nazis used to use this ghetto to fool the Danish Red Cross workers into thinking that the Jews were getting humane treatment. So, immediately ahead of a visit from them, the camp commandants would ship off large numbers of inmates to Auschwitz, set up temporary facades of coffee-shops and theatres, and the prisoners would be ordered to stage operas.

Gerron was forced to form a cabaret inside the ghetto with fellow Jewish performers waiting for deportation to the gas chambers, and perform for the benefit of fellow inmates and camp officers – not only when the Red Cross visited, but whenever the sadistic Nazis were in mood for entertainment. (He was once even forced to perform in an area in which dead corpses had been piled up. Gerron took the help of blind inmates who could not see the bodies to pass them from hand to hand and clear the area before the performance.) He was even forced to direct a propaganda film.

Ultimately, just a couple of days before Auschwitz was closed down, Kurt Gerron met his end in the gas chambers there – a tragic end to a life dedicated to laughter.


In the last chapter of the book, Herzog asks the pertinent question: are we allowed to laugh at Hitler?

In a previous chapter, he had cited the instance of two great comedies from Hollywood, one a huge hit (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) and the other a failure (To Be or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch). According to Herzog, Chaplin’s movie was a success because it was released before the USA entered the war: the events of Europe were still far away. In the case of To Be or Not To Be, Americans were fighting on the front when the movie came out, the scale of Nazi atrocities were more clearly understood, and people felt that it was no laughing matter –so the film was universally panned.

In a way, this informs the critique of the whole question of laughing at Hitler. American Holocaust scholar Terence Des Pres has summed up three conventions regarding representations of the Holocaust, which has been added to by cultural historians Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert to form five rules in all:

1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.

2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason—artistic reasons included.

3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

4. The province for depictions of the Holocaust is “high culture.” Popular cultural productions are automatically considered suspect and more superficial. Comedies appeal mostly to an audience that isn’t necessarily well educated. Therefore, it’s more difficult for comedies to be taken seriously as high culture.

5. The artist needs to have the correct attitude and motivation: altruism, good intentions, the proper moral and didactic aims. Even when a piece of culture is comic, the artist has to display appropriate seriousness.

                                    A Scene from “The Producers”

However, in 1968, Mel Brooks (a Jew himself) broke all conventions with The Producers, and followed it up with his remake of To Be or Not To Be in 1983. Roberto Benigni of Italy came up with Life is Beautiful in 1997, a fairy tale story of heartbreak and survival in a concentration camp – an “almost-fantasy”. There was a British TV comedy in 1990 titled Heil, Honey, I’m Home depicting Hitler as a suburban twit which was criticised widely; and most provocatively, the German cartoonist Walter Moers’ comic series Adolf, the Nazi Sow in which Hitler has survived the war and is living in suburban Germany along with Goering, who is working as a transvestite prostitute.

And of course, the book which I mentioned in the beginning, which started me on this trail.

Clearly, taboos are melting.


I think I will end this review with a final quote from Herzog.

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

(Emphasis mine)

Yes, that is indeed the pertinent question – and one that we should be asking ourselves in the current political scenario, when xenophobia is on the rise worldwide. There may be potential Hitlers waiting in the wings, waiting to ride to power on our prejudices.

The Father of Malayalam Language

Thunchath Ezhutthachan.

The name is a hallowed one. Very few languages have recorded ancestry – and very few people can claim to have created languages. The gentleman mentioned above is widely recognised by us Malayalis (the people of Kerala) as the father of our language, Malayalam.

I had studied about Ezhutthachan (which itself means “Father of Writing”) in school. It is generally agreed that he created the modern Malayalam script; adapted letters from Sanskrit and Tamil to provide for all the spoken sounds in Malayalam, thus removing the discrepancy between the spoken and the written language. He also composed Malayalam versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. His Hari Nama Keerthanam (“Prayers in praise of the Lord’s Name”) is one of the most popular prayer songs even today.

According to popular legend, Ezhutthachan was a man of one of the low castes; a man who drank and ate fish (possibly also tapped toddy from coconut palms). In present day Kerala, the Ezhutthachans are ranked as OBC (Other Backward Caste). However, this caste name was adopted relatively recently (only in 1921). Before that anyone who taught children were known as “Ezhutthachan” (it may also have been “Ezhutthaasaan” – “Master of Letters”).

As it happens with most things in Kerala, the exact caste of Ezhutthachan has led to a caste dispute; both the Nair community (who belong to forward castes) and the Ezhutthachan community claiming him. With the status of historical records of Kerala being what they are, it is not likely that this issue will be resolved anytime soon, if ever. The problem is also compounded by the fact that all castes in Kerala from Nair downwards are officially Sudras according to the ancient system of the four Varnas (castes) of Vedic Brahmanism. The Brahmins who came to Kerala relatively late in history seem to have elevated some of the local ruling families to a higher caste and dumped the rest under the umbrella of Sudras – so Ezhutthachan may have been any non-Brahmin who taught children.

So much for official history. The renowned Malayalam novelist C. Radhakrishnan has a different story to tell – one which he has dug up from family legends.

A Personal Story

As a very young boy, as the author was reading a lesson on Ezhutthachan in his schoolbook, his grandmother astonished him by saying that it is about his ancestor, who preceded him by fourteen generations. That night and the nights afterward, she told Radhakrishnan the family story – how Ezhutthachan was persecuted by the Samoothiri (the Zamorin Raja of Calicut) for belonging to a family who traditionally opposed him: how his school was destroyed, his uncle and elder brother murdered: and how he himself was demoted to the condition of a “Temple Slave”, forbidden to teach and write, forced to manually operate a “Chakku” (a mill used to extract oil from copra and gingelly, usually pulled by bullocks or buffaloes) to earn a living for himself and his family: and finally when even these measures failed to kill the poet and philosopher within him, he was deported never to return on pain of death. The story cleared up the mysteries behind a family ritual, where the karanavar (eldest male member of a matrilineal family) annually buried and later unearthed a bunch of ancient texts – to recreate an event which actually happened when the soldiers of the Zamorin invaded Ezhutthachan’s home. It also gave the background of the family admonishment to naughty children, “I will make you push the chakku!”

Armed with this knowledge, Radhakrishnan went forward to write the story of his long-dead ancestor. The author confesses it was no easy task. He had to expend Herculean efforts to dig up facts from a past mired in myth and legend; running from pillar to post, consulting many authorities and resolving contradictions. He also had to face the ire of people who saw behind this a nefarious plot by the Nair community to “appropriate” the great man of letters. But Radhakrishnan persevered, and the result is the extraordinarily brilliant and poetic novel, Theekkadal Kadanju Thirumadhuram (“Divine Sweetness from the Churning of the Ocean of Fire”).

The Historical Background

The time period in which Ezhutthachan lived was a turbulent one. The Samoothiri, having seized power in the kingdom of Calicut, was in the phase of bringing the smaller kingdoms to heel. In this, he is abetted by certain Brahmin families who had their own agenda to carry out – make learning, which has become democratic in the wake of the Buddhist reforms, once again the monopoly of Brahmins and put all the uppity “lower” castes in their place.

There was a strange custom in place at this time. The Valluvakkonathiri who originally ruled the place called Valluvanad to the south of Calicut, was the patron of a festival called Mamankam at Thirunavaya, conducted on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river once every 12 years. The Samoothiri captured this town and usurped the patronage, which was not accepted by the Valluvakkonathiri. So the families loyal to him used to form a squad of 18 soldiers called a Chaver Pada (“Suicide Squad”), and attempt to kill the Samoothiri as he stood on a stage called the “Nilapadu Thara”. Of course, death was certain, but the custom was enacted without fail on every occasion: such was the depth of hatred.

The Story

Ezhutthachan had the misfortune to be born into double jeopardy in these turbulent times. His mother’s family (and according to matrilineal system of the Nairs, his family) were traditionally teachers, and therefore distrusted and hated by the hidebound Brahmins who feared that they will take away the knowledge of the Vedas and distribute it to all and sundry. His father belonged to a family of traditional Chaver soldiers, who had deep-rooted enmity with the Samoothiri.

Krishnan (as Ezhutthachan is named in the novel) never saw his father – he was treacherously killed days before he was born. However, the family lives on in relative peace at Thanniyur, patronised by the king of Vettathunad, one of the vassal states of Calicut. There is the elderly uncle, blind from cataract; his mother, slowly moving towards madness after the death of her husband; his eldest brother, Kuttan, who is charge of the teaching; and two older sisters – Seetha, mature and motherly and Cheeru, flighty and cheerful.

Seetha marries Unni, her father’s nephew, in time-honoured tradition. However, the tranquillity of the family is shattered when Unni decides to become a Chaver soldier. After his futile battle and death, one of the renegade armies of the Samoothiri destroys the Kalari (school) of the Ezhutthachan family. His uncle gives his life to save the ancient texts by dumping them in the well. The family has to move on: find a new place to put up a Kalari at Thiruvur, in a place called Thunchan Parambu (“Thunchan’s Compound”) which is rumoured to be inhabited by the ghost of an unfortunate toddy tapper and family who were murdered by an employee of one of the local Nampoothiri families.

This Kalari also progresses well. Cheeru marries Unni’s younger brother Gopi and Kuttan marries their sister Ammini. Krishnan Ezhutthachan in the meantime travels to Tamil Nadu, to an “Adheenam” – a centre of learning which makes no caste distinctions in teaching. When he returns after almost a decade as a young man, his nephews and nieces are grown up. Krishnan also marries and has a daughter in due course; but almost as a forerunner of the great tragedies about shadow his life, his wife dies in childbirth. During this time, his literary genius takes wings, however; he composes a devotional poem Hari Nama Keerthanam, and more importantly, modernises the Malayalam alphabet.

Meanwhile things have gone from bad to worse politically. The malice of a local Nampoothiri family, the Munayoor Illam, is unrelenting. The Portuguese have arrived, and having fallen out with the Samoothiri have joined forces with the Raja of Cochin. In the subsequent internecine war, the king of Vettathunad and the Samoothiri have a falling out, as the former refuses treat Cochin as an enemy. Samoothiri’s marauding army attack the Vettathu Palace where the Ezhuttachan family has taken refuge, and kill the young king of Vettath and Kuttan, Krishnan’s elder brother, in treachery. They also condemn Ezhutthachan to death for teaching Vedas to non-Brahmins and for arguing that enlightenment was possible for anybody, regardless of caste, in the Hari Nama Keerthanam (actually a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy).

However, there is a last-minute reprieve: the Mooppil Nair (local leader of the upper-caste Nairs) decrees that the low-caste infidel who blasphemed the Brahmins should be condemned to a fate “worse than death” – namely, making a living for himself and his family from the pittance earned by manually operating a chakku. Actually, the Mooppil Nair is covertly saving Krishnan from certain death, in return for education he received. However, it is indeed a cruel fate – the Ezhutthachan family (including all the widowed women and orphaned children) is transported to Sabara Kottam, designated as slaves of the temple to stay in a hovel in the virtual wilderness and earn their livelihood through the backbreaking labour of one member of the family.

However, you can’t silence the voice of poetry for long. Along with the song of the chakku as it rotates along the axis, the poet also sings – translating the Adhyatma Ramayana into Malayalam, giving the language it first epic poem. He soon does the same for the Mahabharata and Bhagavata. Obviously he cannot teach anybody or write these poems down – but they spread like wildfire, travelling from mouth to mouth, actively assisted by lovers of learning, both Brahmin and non-Brahmin, who care a hoot for caste distinctions.

The conservatives are incensed. They want to enforce the death sentence. However, deliverance comes in the form of Azhvanchery Thamprakkal, the spiritual head of all Nampoothiri families in Kerala, and a patron of literature and arts. He commutes Ezhutthachan’s death sentence to deportation. He is forced to leave his loved ones; and after once again travelling to his old Adheenam and a long stint as teacher there, he comes back and sets up a scholastic centre at Chittur in Palakkad, in the kingdom of Cochin.

The novel ends with Ezhuttachan in his last phase of life, still sorrowing for his estranged family – but looking forward to a peaceful death, and hoping for a peaceful future for mankind.

One feels that his soul is now smiling down from above, seeing his homeland attaining 100 per cent literacy and removing all barriers to learning imposed by caste.

Memorial to Ezhutthachan at his birthplace


Churning the Ocean of Fire

“Churning the ocean” is a concept closely related to the Indian psyche. According to Hindu myth, the Devas (celestials) and Asuras (demons or anti-gods), churned the celestial Ocean of Milk using the mount Manthara as the churn and the snake Vasuki as the rope, to get Amrutha, the divine nectar of immortality. This is interpreted psychologically as the refinement of the psyche, using both the positive emotions (symbolised by the Devas) and the negative ones (represented by the Asuras) so that immortality (oneness with God or the Brahman) is ultimately realised. Radhakrishnan uses this concept, as Ezhutthachan goes round and round the chakku. While doing this
backbreaking labour, the mind of the great man is busy composing the Adhyatma Ramanayanam. As he churns the sea of fire his life has become, his poetic psyche gets even more refined, and able to produce the divine sweetness of the song of Lord Rama.

The novel is written in first person; which is usually a limitation, but in this case once you finish reading it, you feel this is the only way it could be. The great man’s viewpoint is presented throughout – which is one of pacifism and peaceful acceptance of life and all that it brings. This is not fatalism, because the flame of optimism is never extinguished. This is the thought at the pinnacle of Indian philosophy – as Joseph Campbell put it, the “joyful acceptance of life’s sorrows”. As we are ground up mercilessly by fate like copra and gingelly seeds by the chakku, we get refined, and the essence of souls pours out like the oil.

Radhakrishnan’s language is poetic and his grasp of Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy exemplary. Also an enormous amounts of historical research has gone into the book. The author writes with passion – as his ancestor, it is obvious that he feels Ezhutthachan’s pain. However, this is not an easy novel to read. One should take one’s time to understand the history and savour the philosophy.

I am not going into the controversies here: obviously, when one tries to recreate history from so little documentation, there are bound to be many conflicting viewpoints. However, as a work of art, this novel stands alone. Radhakrishnan’s fictionalised history deserves to be the truth, we feel.

Like the fellow said, if it ain’t true, it oughtta be!


“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!

History through Objects

I visited the British Museum last year. Due to the shortage of time, I decided to take the one-hour tour suggested by the brochure: a visit to ten objects separated across various galleries, spanning historical space and time. Even though it was a good introduction, and gave me a taste of the museum as a whole, I was strangely dissatisfied: it was rather like cramming for an exam where you end up with a lot of bits of disjointed knowledge.

As we were leaving the museum, I asked my brother-in-law (who is settled in England) what book I should buy from the museum, and he suggested A History of the World through 100 Objects by Neil McGregor. He had listened to the original BBC radio series and liked it very much. Well, I have to thank him, because this book opened up a whole new vista on how we should view objects in a museum, and why my whirlwind tour left me disappointed.

By a very fortunate coincidence, the “Hundred Objects” mentioned in the book – well, most of them, as some cannot be removed from the museum – are doing a world tour, and they are currently in Abu Dhabi. So I was able to make a tour of the collection once again, and with the experience of reading the book in mind, I was able to go back in time and look at the precious items behind glass and imagine human beings like myself handling them. Also, I could think of the everyday objects of today being enshrined as history in the future, long after I’m gone.

It gives a sense of both mortality and immortality.

How does one look at objects in a museum? I must confess that I had not given much thought to this subject until I read A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. When I enter a museum, I usually wander around just gawking at the display and reading the info on the more interesting ones. Or, if I know about something specific that the museum is famous for (like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum or the Narmer Palette in the Cairo Museum), I make a beeline for the object and spend some time gazing in reverential awe at it. After I spend what I consider a sufficient amount of time in the building, I come out, smugly satisfied at having “done” the museum properly.

Neil MacGregor has taught me that I have been doing it all wrong. A museum is a history book (although a taciturn one) and once you have learnt the language of objects, a really fascinating one. Because unlike history written by humans, which can be true, embellished or outright lies, the history told by objects can never be false. But we have to tease it out of them: the effort has to be there on our part. Otherwise, any trip to the museum becomes just a sightseeing tour.

This book is the written from of a series of talks given by the author, Director of the British Museum, on the BBC. In the preface and introduction, the author talks about the many challenges: the main one (absent from the book!) being the medium of the radio, where visual imagery is impossible. But then, he realised that this is also one of the strengths-because the listener is forced to use his imagination, not only for the object, but also for the story behind it.

That is what one has to do while reading this book. Let the imagination roam free across space and time: as MacGregor describes the object, puts it in its historical context, and pulls in experts from various fields like art, literature, history etc. to give their opinions on it, the mind of the reader is engaged in a continuous dialogue with history. As we trace mankind’s origins from the Olduvai gorge in Africa to the interconnected modern world, the sense of linear time slowly disappears history starts looking like a geography of time.

The book is written in small chapters of 5-6 pages each, five chapters (one working week of five days) forming a common theme. This structure is easily accessible, even to the miniscule attention spans engendered by TV shows and the internet. The book can be read through in one sitting, or savoured as small tidbits over a long period. However one does it, it does not lose its efficacy.

MacGregor starts with one of the most popular objects in the museum – the mummy of Hornedjitef –as a curtain raiser. The remaining 99 chapters are largely chronological, spanning countries and continents over defined time bands the author has selected as historical themes. In the earlier chapters, these time bands are large, spanning millenniums: then they narrow down to centuries and finally to decades as history becomes more crowded and compressed. And we see mankind, which has been existing as isolated pockets of civilisation, slowly expand and get connected.

For me, the most fascinating thing about this book was not the stories told by the objects, but what they left unsaid: I found myself musing about the people, long dead and gone, who must have handled these objects, many a time little knowing they would they would be enshrined and viewed by millions. For example, look at the Kilwa pot sherds (Chapter 60) from Tanzania: the housewife or maid who handled them- what might have they been like? What were they thinking as they washed, dried and cooked in these utensils? What would have gone through their minds when they finally threw them away? And (most importantly) the ordinary objects we throw away now – will they carry a similar message in a museum in, say, the year 2500?

Or let’s look at objects from relatively unknown cultures, like the Moche Warrior Pot (Chapter 48) from Peru or the Taino Ritual Seat (Chapter 65) from the Dominican Republic. It is obvious that these are important objects, religiously and culturally; yet the culture remains a mystery to us. Once again, we can only recreate in our mind the ceremonies which might have been conducted with these objects holding positions of importance.

Moche Warrior Pot

Taino Ritual Seat

There are also “famous” objects in these pages, like the Rosetta Stone (Chapter 33), the Parthenon Sculptures (Chapter 27) and India’s own Indus Seal (Chapter 13). Even though these objects are known to any educated person, MacGregor puts them in a new context and new light so that one learns to look at them anew.

The Rosetta Stone

Indus Seal

In the Introduction the author says that this book could have been as well called A History of Objects Through Many Different Worlds. I agree. Each object sings a solitary tune: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and sometimes even creepy. Put together, they create a beautiful symphony – the song of humanity, separated by time and space, over a million different worlds. This book opened my ears to that music.

Museum visits shall never be the same again!

A Review of “Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, though fascinating, was a chore to get through – so it was with some misgivings that I picked up this book, the sequel; I was resigned to getting bored, but too entranced with Tudor England and Henry VIII’s court to leave the story. However, I was pleasantly surprised… no, that’s too mild a term, I was floored! Bring up the Bodies is one humdinger of a read. While Wolf Hall was ponderous, the sequel is breezy, without losing any of the beauty of the language. In cricketing parlance, Ms. Mantel is like a test batsman who, having negotiated a treacherous pitch, has got her eye in and is stroking beautifully.

Wolf Hall described the fall of Catholic England and the meteoric rise of Anne Boleyn. Bring up the Bodies describes her equally swift and frightening destruction. Having successfully persuaded the King into marrying her, Anne had bulldozed all her opponents mercilessly. Henry’s original queen, Katherine and her daughter Mary are separately under house arrest, living in fear that any day, they may fall prey to Anne’s machinations. All the clergymen who opposed the King’s marriage have been either executed (many in gruesome ways) or forced to recant. Anne is riding high, and one may excuse her for thinking that she is beyond any law; however, her enemies are watching, and they sense the opportunity when she cannot give a male heir to Henry, the carrot she lured him with. And accompanying the King is the Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, arch-plotter and kingmaker.

Cromwell has not forgiven Anne or her family for the treatment meted out to Thomas Wolsey (one-time Lord Chancellor and his mentor) for his downfall from grace and subsequent miserable death. However, he knows to bide his time and is well aware that it is the King who has to be pampered. So he has attached himself to Henry, bearing the slights of the “noble” hangers-on to the humble blacksmith’s son with fortitude. His patience is rewarded when the King falls for the plain and demure Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to the present Queen (ironically, once coveted by Cromwell himself). From then onwards, events proceed at breakneck speed. Cromwell, with the aid of the Seymour family, succeeds in casting Anne in the role of adulteress; worse, an incestuous adulteress. Both Anne and her brother George, along with four others, meet the swift “justice” of the executioner’s axe. Now Henry is free to marry the woman of his choice: and Master Secretary is now Baron Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel’s characterisation is terrific. Thomas Cromwell, who emerged as an enigma in Wolf Hall, is more clearly drawn here: his manipulator’s mind which the author inhabits most of the time, reminds one of Shakuni. The congealed ire and hatred, burning like cold fire at the bottom of his psyche which ultimately consumes Henry Norris, William Brereton, George Boleyn and Francis Weston, is at once frightening and fascinating, as he counts them off one by one in true “Count of Monte Cristo” fashion, for plotting the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and exulting in it.

‘I must take your mind back. I do not ask you to remember the manifold favours you received at the cardinal’s hands. I only ask you to recall an entertainment, a certain interlude played at court. It was a play in which the late cardinal was set upon by demons and carried down to hell.’

He sees Norris’s eyes move, as the scene rises before him: the firelight, the heat, the baying spectators. Himself and Boleyn grasping the victim’s hands, Brereton and Weston laying hold of him by his feet. The four of them tossing the scarlet figure, tumbling and kicking him. Four men, who for a joke turned the cardinal into a beast; who took away his wit, his kindness and his grace, and made him a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.

It was not truly the cardinal, of course. It was the jester Sexton in a scarlet robe. But the audience catcalled as if it had been real, they yelled and shook their fists, they swore and mocked. Behind a screen the four devils pulled off their masks and their hairy jerkins, cursing and laughing. They saw Thomas Cromwell leaning against the paneling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.

Yes, Thomas Cromwell, dressed in black like death personified. The possibility of this scene (which is originally from Wolf Hall) having taken place in reality is anybody’s guess: but the author uses it to great effect to delineate the man Cromwell in frightening clarity – a tribute to Hilary Mantel’s consummate skills as a writer.

Henry VIII comes off more and more as a petulant kid, a kid who can shrewdly manipulate his parents; ultimately believing in the lies he has made up to absolve himself from blame. It is Cromwell’s skill to manage him like an indulgent parent while at the same time enacting the role of the loyal servant that enables him to keep on the right side of royalty at all times. He manages this tightrope walk, at the same time besting his better endowed enemies one by one. A certain nonchalance and detachment seems to mark all his dealings, even when they are life and death. It seems he has taken the advice on how to joust which an old Portuguese knight once casually gave him very seriously.

You have to keep your helmet on tightly so that you have a good line of sight. You keep your body square-on, and when you are about to strike, then and only then turn your head so that you have a full view of your opposer, and watch the iron tip of your lance straight on to your target. Some people veer away in the second before the clash. It is natural, but forget what is natural. Practise till you break your instinct. Given a chance you will always swerve. Your body wants to preserve itself and your instinct will try to avoid crashing your armoured warhorse and your armoured self into another man and horse coming full gallop the other way. Some men don’t swerve, but they close their eyes at the moment of impact. These men are of two kinds: the ones who know they do it and can’t help it, and the ones who don’t know they do it. Be neither of these kinds of men.

So how shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed? These were his instructions: you must sit easily in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air. Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected. In the combat a plaisance, with its fluttering flags, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill. In the combat a l’outrance, kill as if it were a sport. Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him: he tightens his muscles, he pulls his lance arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off the mark; if you avoid one fault, avoid that. Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on the target. But remember this above all: defeat your instinct. Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all? Why not be a smith, a brewer, a wool merchant? Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die?

Why indeed?

Towards the end, when the novel becomes abysmally dark in its depiction of court-sanctioned mass murder and the helpless Anne (a fine contrast from the haughty enchantress of Wolf Hall) spending her last days in the Tower, we see the Master Secretary grown somewhat muted and philosophical.

He thinks, strive as I might, one day I will be gone and as this world goes it may not be long: what though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do for me or my friends. When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me – let us say it is Rafe, let us say it is Wriothesley, let us say it is Riche – they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

Isn’t this what happens to all of us?


In the afterword, Hilary Mantel says that the book is not about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but Thomas Cromwell. According to her “Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.” One wishes her all the best in her endeavours – the saga is by no means over. And I, for one, can’t wait for the next installment.


A Review of “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

The English are a people, I’ve found, who are obsessed with kings and kingship, whether positively or negatively (one has only to look at the media hype surrounding the birth of the royal baby and the jokes on twitter about the same). Englishmen love their kings and queens, but are also extremely critical of them – most of which is expressed as underplayed sardonic British humour. This is why, I think, writers keep on dipping into British history and coming up with erudite historical tomes, steamy potboilers and seriously written novels which shine new light on hitherto unexplored areas. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning effort, Wolf Hall, belongs to the last category.

If one wants to choose an era in British history which is guaranteed to pull readers in, what other period than the Tudor age? The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain has this to say:

The age of the Tudors has left its impact on Anglo-American minds as a watershed in British history. Hallowed tradition, native patriotism, and post-imperial gloom have united to swell our appreciation of the period as a true golden age. Names alone evoke a phoenix-glow – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Stuart among the sovereigns of England and Scotland; Wolsey, William Cecil, and Leicester among the politicians; Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hilliard, and Byrd among the creative artists. The splendours of the court of Henry VIII, the fortitude of Sir Thomas More, the making of the English Bible, Prayer Book, and Anglican Church, the development of Parliament, the defeat of the Armada, the Shakespearian moment, and the legacy of Tudor domestic architecture – these are the undoubted climaxes of a simplified orthodoxy in which genius, romance, and tragedy are superabundant.

It is this “genius, romance and tragedy” which draw chroniclers again and again into the court of Henry VIII, inhabited by a lecherous king, a scheming queen, ladies of flexible virtue and gentlemen with ulterior motives. We are all familiar with Henry and his desperate attempt to produce a male heir; the clever and scheming yet ultimately ill-fated Ann Boleyn; Sir Thomas More, man of letters and spiritual leader; the voluptuous Mary Boleyn, an “easy armful” (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words); Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s right-hand man till his fall from grace. A writer just has to dip his/ her hand in and draw out any of these characters, and the story would be already half-written, one feels.

However, Hilary Mantel does not take this easy path. She draws out a shadowy character, enters into his mind, and shows us the Tudor court through a totally unfamiliar pair of eyes. The character is Thomas Cromwell, assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A commoner without any aristocratic pedigree. The son of a blacksmith whose only strength are the bulldog tenacity of the survivor and a native cunning, honed to perfection during the period he wandered from country to country as a teenaged exile, on the run from his murderous father.

The story of Henry VIII is common knowledge to anybody with a moderate understanding of history. A lothario of sorts, this much-married gentleman went through six wives in the desperate effort to produce a male heir, to make the kingdom safe from usurpers. Out of the six marriages, the one to Anne Boleyn produced such a schism that the church was fragmented – the Church of England, with the King as its head, split off from the Pope. Almost overnight, Catholicism was dead in England.

However, the careful student of history will notice that this was only one of the many pretexts – the world was already pissed off with Popery, who appropriated the Bible as the sole property of the Church, to be read and interpreted by the clergy only. The worship of God was only possible through the mediation of these men of cloth, many of whom engaged in acts of extreme debauchery, kept mistresses, and sired bastards all over the place. The time for a change was nigh, and it was sparked off through Martin Luther’s fiery rhetoric in Germany. Henry’s personal rebellion was only a part of the big picture.


By early 16th Century, Martin Luther had set the Protestant Reformation in motion in Germany. He claimed that the Bible was the only true repository of divine wisdom, accessible to all; the priesthood had no role. Salvation was possible only through belief in Christ as the redeemer, and not through paying money to the clergy. Protestantism swept Europe. The Catholic Church was shaking in its foundations, when Henry decided that he wanted his marriage (a marriage of convenience) to his elder brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, annulled on the basis that it was illegal in the first place. But everybody knew the real reason: Henry wanted a male heir, which was impossible for the Queen who was now past child-bearing age, and also because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was head over heels in love.

The Church was not very amenable to the King’s demand. The pope cannot support a man who wants to cast away his lawful wife to marry his mistress! Moreover, the Spanish Emperor’s wrath was also to be considered. Archbishop Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, who was also the Papal legate, tried and failed – leading to his fall from grace and death in disgrace. Thomas More who followed him as Lord Chancellor was loath to entertain the temporal ruler’s demands over the dictates of the spiritual realm. Henry finally realised that to have his way, he would have to take control of his kingdom as no king has done before.

Enter Thomas Cromwell…

This relative nobody shot to prominence as King Henry’s right-hand man in this troubled times. All over England, heretics were being tortured and burned by the Church: in Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were going at it with hammer and tongs. Deriving the king’s power from the mythical Lucius I of England, Cromwell and the Parliament passed a series of statutes which effectively made the ruler supreme sovereign of both spiritual and temporal activities in England. It was now treason not to accept the Crown’s supremacy; those who were the persecutors in the name of God, found themselves persecuted for treason. The boot was on the other foot.


Wolf Hall narrates the events described in the above paragraphs, while trying to inhabit the mind of Thomas Cromwell. I say “trying to” purposefully, because I do not think Hilary Mantel has been wholly successful in her endeavor. At the end of the novel, one is still left with a doubt as to what makes this man tick – a huge minus in a narrative which is primarily stream-of-consciousness. Cromwell’s overarching ambition and manipulative capabilities are well-etched, but the man himself remains a mystery (other than his contempt of the official church and his minions, which may be a possible motive for his actions).

However, other than the protagonist, there are some fine character sketches. Henry VIII himself, pompous, idiosyncratic, sentimental yet ruthless; Sir Thomas More, cruel in his obsession with religion; the various dukes and noblemen and other royal hangers-on, intent only on self-advancement; Mary Boleyn, willing to use her feminine charms without inhibition for self-advancement; and last but not least, the seductive Anne Boleyn with her single-minded ambition to become Queen. As the novel progresses, these characters grow and obsess us, which is a sign of good writing.

But Hilary Mantel’s style is difficult. There is a pudding in our part of the world which is very tasty but sticks to the palate, so eating it is a chore: the author’s prose reminded me of it. Most of the time, Cromwell is mentioned simply as “he”, which made it difficult to recognise who was referred to, especially while a group conversation was being described. However, the stream-of –consciousness method has an advantage that reveries can be inserted at any time, and the author can speak through her protagonist. Even though not essential to the tale at hand, some such interior monologues are very beautiful. I cannot resist quoting one.

In the forest you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger. You may find a woman asleep in a bower of leaves. For a moment, before you don’t recognise her, you will think she’s someone you know.

This is the world Thomas Cromwell (and I suspect, many of our modern politicians) inhabit.


Even though Ms. Mantel does not do anything to redeem the image of Anne Boleyn, some words she speaks are suggestive.

Anne says, ‘I am Jezebel. You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.’ Her eyes are alight. ‘As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the Devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me…’

This passage left me wondering about the numerous political scandals in the modern world where beautiful women have played a part, and kind of attention media lavished on them, stripping and raping them through words and unspoken innuendos. No, the world has not changed that much, as far as men’s thinking is concerned.


P.S. While I was reading the book, the British Royal Baby came into the world at the same time as Elizabeth was born in the story. Coincidence? Maybe…

At least, the modern-day prince will not have to fear the assassin with his hidden knife – only the paparazzi with his hidden camera. Thank God for small favours.