Where We Came From – A Review of “Early Indians” by Tony Joseph

20190325_142751Indians are a people who are always a bit confused about their identity as “Indians” – maybe because the nation itself is a relatively recent construct (not ignoring the mythical “Bharata”) and the regional and caste identities are more strongly embedded. Ever since the West discovered the mystic East, there have been attempts to create an Indian past which is wholly spiritual – based on the mythical, Vedic “Aryan” – by the proponents of the enlightenment. In colonial times, this “Aryan” became an invading race who destroyed the mature Harappan civilisation; the same figure was taken to be the epitome of race purity and became the basis of the toxic Nazi doctrine. And later on, in a reversal of the myth, the invading Aryan became the villain who destroyed the peaceful Dravidian civilisation in the Dalit version of history.

All these are now discounted by serious historians. The widely accepted theory about Indian prehistory is that the Harappan civilisation perished because of a severe drought, and the Indo-Aryan speakers migrated to the Indian subcontinent later on from Central Asia and mixed with the indigenous population. There is, however, a vociferous fringe who staunchly oppose this: they are adamant that there have been no migrations to India at all, and that the Vedic people are the direct descendants of the Harappans. All arguments to the contrary are taken to be part of a “colonialist conspiracy” to undermine Indian culture.

So far, the (hotly disputed!) evidence for the migrations have been mostly archaeological and linguistic. But now, a new tool is available with the scientific community for the analysis of the origin, development, and spread of homo sapiens across the globe: genetics.

Tony Joseph has been writing regularly about how the recent advances in DNA research have been impacting the research into prehistory. Now, he has arranged all his arguments in the form of this highly readable book.

In the introduction, he writes:

There is a reason why this book could have been written only now, and not earlier. It is because our understanding of deep history has changed dramatically in the last five years or so. Large stretches of our prehistory are being rewritten as we speak, based on analysis of DNA extracted from individuals who lived thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Many ‘facts’ that we took for granted have been proved wrong, and many questions left dangling in the air as historians, archaeologists and anthropologists argued it out among themselves have been given convincing new answers — thanks to the recently acquired ability of genetic scientists to successfully extract DNA from ancient fossils and then sequence it to understand all that bound people together, or distinguished them from each other. If technology had not matured to the level it has, scientists would not have been able to make the discoveries they are making today. And if it were not for their latest findings, our prehistory would have remained as vague and contentious as earlier and this book would not have been written.

So how exactly does DNA put paid to the debate? Well, without going into the technicalities (it is all detailed in the book), let me try to explain in plain terms how this whole thing works.

All the genetic code that makes us what we are are packed into twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that we all carry in the nuclei of our cells, plus the mitochondrial DNA or the mtDNA that stays outside. This is called a person’s genome. In the twenty-three pairs, one of each pair inherited from each parent, exactly one pair – the sex chromosomes – will differ. If the type is XX, the person will be female, and if the type is XY, the person will be male. The Y-chromosome is passed relatively unchanged from male parent to male progeny, while the mtDNA is passed on without change from the female parent to both male and female progeny: but it gets further transmitted only through the female line. Thus, the mapping of these two over the human population spread across the globe helps us to get a genetic map of the world’s population. And since there are minor mutations to both the Y-chromosome and mtDNA that get accumulated over time, it provides us with the genetic history of the changes over time, too – combined with the DNA analysis of skeletal remains.

(This is super-condensation, and hence, a bit simplistic. Detailed and reliable info is available in many places, especially on the net.)

Aided with this technology of DNA analysis, the following is the timeline of India’s population during prehistoric times.

  1. 70,000 years ago – Homo Sapiens starts move out of Africa, where they originated.
  2. 65,000 years ago – The “Out of Africa” (OoA) contingent reach the Indian subcontinent, where they meet other archaic human species, whom they must have subdued and subsumed in their spread all the way across South Asia to Australia.
  3. 45,000 to 20,000 years ago – The First Indians, descendants of the OoA group, start using Microlithic technology and spread across India.
  4. 7000 to 3000 BCE – Migration of Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region to South Asia leads to their mixing with the descendants of the First Indians. These people create the Harappan civilisation which exists from 5500 to 1300 BCE, through the Early, Mature and Late Harappan Eras, until it dies off most probably due to a massive drought. The Harappans migrate towards the south.
  5. 2100 to 1000 BCE – Pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe, the famed “Aryans” of legend, migrate into the Indian subcontinent, mixing with the Harappans. Thus we have two main DNA mixes that is found in India today: those of the Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians, called the Ancient South Indian (ASI) group; and Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians + the Central Asian Pastoralists, called the Ancient North Indian (ANI) group. They were called Dravidians and Aryans in the past.

(There was some migration from China as well, especially in the North East.)

Now the million-dollar question: how does one say that the migration happened in one direction, that is, towards India? Why can’t it be the other way round, as the Out of India adherents claim? The author presents the following arguments against this:

  1. The Indo-Aryan languages which spread across most of Europe and Asia could conceivably have gone from India. However, if such a thing happened, the genetic footprints of the First Indians – the people who came originally out of Africa and settled in the subcontinent 65,000 years ago – should be seen across the populations of Europe. This is conspicuous by its absence.
  2. The horse, which is the prime animal in the Vedic religion, is absent in the Harappan culture – which is strange if the Vedic culture directly follows from it. Also, there are no vestiges of the Vedic deities anywhere in Harappa. (There are a multitude of other factors that the author points out – I am only highlighting a few prominent ones.)
  3. The Dravidian languages, the roots of which are markedly different from the Indo-Aryan ones, has strong connections to Elamite, the language of the Iranian agriculturists, at its roots. It has borrowings from Sanskrit too and vice versa – this points to the intermixing of language at later stages.

    (Once again, I am over-simplifying for brevity. There are a lot many other arguments quoted by the author, many of them raised by more than one historian/ archaeologist/ linguist from across the world. “Out of India” theory holds sway, it seems, with very few reputed scholars.)
    In conclusion, the author says:

The best way we can define ourselves is as a multi-source civilization, not a single-source one, drawing its cultural impulses, its traditions and its practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories. The Out of Africa migrants, the fearless pioneering explorers who reached this land around sixty-five millennia ago and whose lineages still form the bedrock of our population; those who arrived from west Asia and contributed to the agricultural revolution and the building of the Harappan Civilization which then became the crucible for new practices, concepts and the Dravidian languages that enrich much of our culture today; those who came from east Asia, bringing with them new languages and plants and farming techniques; and those who migrated here from central Asia, carrying an early version of what would become a great language, Sanskrit, and all its associated beliefs and practices that have reshaped our society in fundamental ways; and those who came even later seeking refuge or for conquest or for trade, and then chose to stay — all have mingled and contributed to this civilization we call Indian. We are all Indians. And we are all migrants.

This, I like.

This is an extremely readable book on a fascinating subject, and will whet your appetite for more research.

A Review of “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History” by V. D. Savarkar

sixVinayak Damodar Savarkar is the philosophical fountainhead of Hindu ‘nationalism’ (I would call it fundamentalism or even fascism) and his works are supposed to be founts of wisdom, at least for the right-wingers: even among the general Indian populace, he has the sheen of a freedom fighter who has been unfairly blacked out for his ‘politically incorrect’ views. So even though I stand diametrically opposite to his philosophy, I decided that I had to read him, because criticism without knowledge is the failing of many an intelligent person.

I accordingly read his seminal ‘Hindutva’ – the guiding philosophy of the Hindu Right – and my impressions are already provided in my review, available on these fora. This is my second attempt, and it has prompted me to say “NEVER AGAIN!”

In the beginning itself, Savarkar says that this is not a book of Indian history but a critique of it, based on his own viewpoints on certain parts of it. I would say it is not a critique, but the selective distortion of history to promote one’s own agenda.

The six glorious epochs, according to the author are:

1. The reign of Chandragupta Maurya, ably assisted by Chanakya (and the Maurya dynasty in general up to Asoka, who is excluded for reasons we shall come to later);
2. The reign of Pushyamitra Sunga;
3. The reign of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya;
4. The reign of Yahodharma who fought against the Huns;
5. The age of the magnificent Marathas (who else?) who rid India of Muslim domination; and
6. The freedom struggle (only those who fought against the British using violent means, mind)

savarkarThe moment one gets into the book, one understands the author’s intent: to extol the valour of the ‘Hindu’ nation and denigrate everyone else. For this he uses clever twisting of words (for example, Alexander letting Porus go is not magnanimity, but cunningness; while Porus accepting the terms of surrender is clever strategy of biding his time), half-truths (Pushyamitra Sunga killing Brihadratha Maurya in a coup is described as a sort of revolution desired by the population in general) and outright lies (Buddhists being traitors and promoting casteism). Thus this so-called ‘historical’ book is utter drivel: however, it would have remained harmless drivel had it only been an attempt to create a historical fantasy. But Savarkar’s real agenda, which shines through in the chapters on the fifth glorious epoch (the longest in the book) makes it extremely toxic drivel.

For the agenda of the author is to enhance the otherness of all religions other than Hinduism, and to positively demonise Islam and Christianity – and to advocate the annihilation of Muslims and the rape of Muslim women.

I will let Savarkar’s words speak for him:

An effective way of liquidating the Muslim religious authority could easily have been availed of by the Hindus of those times, if they had but done what the Muslims had been doing in their hundreds of offensives against Hindu states. The Muslims went on slaughtering wholesale the Hindu population. Similarly whenever the Hindus gained an upper hand, they could have retaliated by massacring Muslim population and making the region Muslim-less ! Devoid of Muslims ! Even their ban on re-purification would not have prevented them from doing this. For in doing this there was no question involved of eating or drinking or of having any dealings with the Muslims! But—! But if not the ban on re-purification, the suicidal Hindu creed of religious tolerance was certainly a major obstacle! From the very ancient times, the Hindus had been boasting of their high ideals of religious tolerance, of the equal status they conceded to all the religions of the world, of preaching the sameness of Ram and Rahim, of allowing everyone to follow his own faith! This they considered to be the height of their religion!

Instead of massacring en masse the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who from time to time fell in their hands completely vanquished and utterly helpless, in order to avenge the untold wrongs and humiliation heaped by them on Hindus, the Hindus in their turn refrained themselves from doing the Muslims even the slightest harm because they were in minority, and belonged to another religion. On the contrary, the Muslins were allowed to enhance the glory and scope of their own religion without the least possible hindrance. Not only like the Hindu citizens, but even more leniently and with more facilities were the Muslims allowed, by Hindu states of those days, to enjoy the legal rights—a fact which is borne out by pages after pages of Indian history.

Is it necessary to add that these ‘cow-faced’ followers of Hinduism, proud of their utmost tolerance of other religions were not (in the least) likely to hit back the tiger-faced Muslims on religious grounds?

Religious tolerance! A virtue! Yes, It can be a virtue only where the other religion is tolerant of our own! But to tolerate the Muslim religion, the followers of which right from the Sultans like Mahmud of Ghazni and Ghori and others to the various Shahs and Badshahs thought it their religious obligation to massacre the Kafiir Hindus to celebrate their accession to the throne and had been carrying on horrible religious persecution of the Hindus for nearly a thousand years, was tantamount to cut the throat of one’s own religion! It was not tolerance towards other religions, it was tolerance of irreligion! It was not even tolerance, it was impotence! But this truth never dawned upon the Hindu society of those days even after the horrible experience of a thousand years or so. They on their own part went on tolerating even such a hideous religion as the Islam and considered it a glorious virtue of their own—a special ornament in the crown of the Hindu community!

O thou Hindu society! Of all the sins and weaknesses, which have brought about thy fall, the greatest and most potent are thy virtues themselves.

So ‘tolerance’ is the cardinal vice of Hindus – whole sale murder of Muslims is advocated.

And what about the women?

Savarakar keeps on ranting about ‘beautiful Hindu women’ being abducted and ‘living hellish life’ in the ‘prison-like homes’ of the Muslims – at the same time he laments about the ‘beautiful Muslim girls’ walking free. This is repeated again and again, ad nauseum, on page after page that I got a feeling that the author was harbouring serious rape fantasies. Especially when he writes:

Even now we proudly refer to the noble acts of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Chimaji Appa, when they honourably sent back the daughter-in-law of the Muslim Governor of Kalyan and the wife of the Portuguese governor of Bassein respectively. But is it not strange that, when they did so, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa should ever remember, the atrocities and the rapes and the molestation, perpetrated by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Alla-ud-din Khilji and others, on thousands of Hindu ladies and girls like the princesses of Dahir, Kamaldevi, the wife of Karnaraj of Karnawati and her extremely beautiful daughter, Devaldevi. Did not the plaintive screams and pitiful lamentations of the millions of molested Hindu women, which reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country, reach the ears of Shivaji Maharaj and Chimaji Appa?

The souls of those millions of aggrieved women might have perhaps said, ‘Do not forget, O, your Majesty, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and O! Your Excellency, Chimaji Appa, the unutterable atrocities and oppression and outrage committed on us by the Sultans and Muslim noblemen and thousands of others, big and small. Let those Sultans and their peers take a fright that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women. Once they are haunted with this dreadful apprehension, that the Muslim women, too, stand in the same predicament in case the Hindus win, the future Muslim conquerors will never dare to think of such molestation of Hindu women.’

But because of the then prevalent perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa could do such wrongs to the Muslim women.

It was the suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry to women which saved the Muslim women (simply because they were women) from the heavy punishments of committing indescribable sins and crimes against the Hindu women. Their womanhood became their shield quite sufficient to protect them.

If one has any further doubt that political rape is being advocated here, the following passages may remove it.

The same law of nature is instinctively obeyed by the animal world. If in the cattle-herds the number of oxen grows in excess of the cows, the herds do not grow numerically in a rapid manner. But on the other hand, the number of animals in the herds, with the excess of cows over the oxen, grows in mathematical progression. The same is true of man, for at the core man is essentially an animal. Even in the pre-historic times the so-called wild tribes of the forest-dwellers knew this law quite well. The African wild tribes of to-day kill only the males from amongst their enemies, whenever there are tribal wars, but not the females, who are eventually distributed by the victor tribes among themselves. To obtain from them future progeny to increase their numbers is considered by these tribes to be their sacred duty!

Kill the men, capture the women to use as baby-making machines. According to Savarkar, it’s the natural law.


Savarkar’s view of Indian history is that of a continuous struggle of Hindiusm (by which he means the Vedic religion, ignoring all the diversity) which he considers the only legitimate religion of India against the demonic outsiders: the Mlechcha Greeks, the Christians, and the Muslims. A struggle which has to be through the use of arms with blood and gore aplenty – he denigrates the concept of ahimsa in the vilest terms. The emperor Asoka is seen by him as the root cause of the ‘decline’ of India, by enervating the populace through the Buddhist principle of non-violence.

There is no good Muslim. Being a Muslim is equivalent to being a fanatic. Even when Muslims do benign acts towards Hindus, it is seen as an act of low cunning: even Akbar is described as a fanatic! The exact opposite applies to the Hindu (means basically a Brahmin or a Kshatriya) – they are all the epitomes of chivalry and valour, and the atrocities committed by them arise out anger at continued oppression even in the face of extreme forbearance (ring a bell?)

In conclusion: a hate-mongering, lie-spreading, abomination of a book, which is extremely badly written to boot. Read it only to understand the venom of a racist mind.

A Different Viewpoint on a Much-Maligned Monarch

Aurangzeb book coverAurangzeb has been cast as an unmitigated villain by the British, a myth which has been enthusiastically adopted by Hindutva apologists to further their agenda of projecting Muslims as cruel bigots and ruthless killers. The truth, as usual, is much more nuanced.

The casual reader and scholar alike, however, should be wary of what constitutes historical evidence and a legitimate historical claim. Individuals that claim to present ‘evidence’ of Aurangzeb’s supposed barbarism couched in the suspiciously modern terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict often trade in falsehoods, including fabricated documents and blatantly wrong translations. Many who condemn Aurangzeb have no training in the discipline of history and lack even basic skills in reading premodern Persian. Be sceptical of communal visions that flood the popular sphere. This biography aims to deepen our remarkably thin knowledge about the historical man and king, Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Thus concludes Audrey Truschke the book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, and we would do well to heed her words. So much of what we have been taught as history have been infected by politics: originally by the designs of our colonial masters, then by the political outlook of the “brown sahibs” who took over our country from them, and lastly by the strident (if illogical) claims of our aggressive Hindu right. Unfortunately, all three found it expedient to demonise Aurangzeb – the British to create the myth of centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict, the Congress to prove their historical role in solving that conflict and the BJP to to sustain the myth of the marauding Muslim and the tolerant and long-suffering Hindu. This is the myth that most of us grew up with, and this is the myth which still proves remarkably resilient.

No person is uni-dimensional (other than comic book heroes and villains). This is why narratives which run counter to the popular one are important; why articles describing Gandhi’s racism and Mother Theresa’s religious fundamentalism need to be read (though not necessarily agreed with). Only when we try to look at historical personages in all their complexity shall we be able to see the past in all its multi-hued glory – which in turn, will illuminate the present.

Audrey Truschke has produced a very readable book (though rather short on substance) on the Emperor which does a laudable job of debunking the myth. Though one expects a more detailed analysis, this book should serve as a starting point for any interested reader on the controversial sovereign.

Equestrian_Portrait_of_Aurangzeb.The charges levied against Aurangzeb are mainly two: (1) he was a bloodthirsty monster who treated his enemies savagely and murdered his kin to gain the throne and (2) he was a religious bigot who relentlessly persecuted Hindus and destroyed temples. The author shows that both of these charges are rooted in half-truths which are more dangerous than lies, because they can so easily fool the gullible.

As to the first charge: yes, Aurangzeb did that – but it was no more than any other Mughal prince would do. Wars of succession for a vacant throne was the norm in the dynasty. There was no primogeniture – the popular saying was ya takht ya tabut (either the throne or the grave). Although Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son has been treated very kindly by history, in the matter of squabbling for the throne, he was as good (or as bad) as the other three; Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. All four wanted the kingship and were willing to do away with their brothers. Aurangzeb was the one who won out.

There have been many recorded instances of Aurangzeb treating his enemies cruelly (Shivaji’s son Sambaji is the example which immediately comes to mind) – but then, there are other instances when he proved lenient. Again, there is no evidence to prove that he was more savage than any average medieval king.

Now the biggest charge – that of the religious bigot who systematically tried to wipe out Hinduism – has to be examined. Ms. Truschke provides convincing evidence to illustrate that he was no bigot: only a strict and pious ruler, obsessed with an idea of justice. Obviously he would have considered Islam the true religion and all others as false, but it is clear that politics trumped faith on most occasions. The author quotes Richard Eaton, the leading authority on the subject, to establish that the number of confirmed temple destructions is just over a dozen . And many of those acts had political roots. (We must bear in mind that even Hindu kings sacked and pillaged the temples in rival’s domain – the Shaiva/ Vaishnava conflicts are obvious examples.)

F1996.1There are also ample examples of the emperor continuing the Mughal system of patronage of Hindu and Jain communities. Also, Aurangzeb had a number of Hindu officials under him, some of whom enjoyed very high ranks. Hardly to be expected of a fanatic Hindu-hater! However, it is clear that he was no Akbar, as he reimposed the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) even though it is very doubtful whether the order was implemented in practice.

(Here I must say that I do not accept what the author says without a pinch of salt. I have read other believable sources, notably the Malayalam author Anand, who claim that Aurangzeb was more fanatical than most. Instead of swinging to one or other end of the pendulum, we must weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves.)

Ultimately, Aurangzeb was a strong king who ruled for more than five decades and who expanded the Mughal kingdom across a major part of the subcontinent. Instead of a cartoon villain, he was a complex character who was composed in parts of the good, the bad and the indifferent, much like all of us.

Aurangzeb nonetheless defies easy summarization. He was a man of studied contrasts and perplexing features. Aurangzeb was preoccupied with order – even fretting over the safety of the roads – but found no alternative to imprisoning his father, an action decried across much of Asia. He did not hesitate to slaughter family members, or rip apart enemies, literally, as was the case with Sambhaji. He also sewed prayer caps by hand and professed a desire to lead a pious life. he was angered by bad administrators, rotten mangoes, and unworthy sons. He was a connoisseur of music and even fell in love with the musician Hirabai, but, beginning in midlife, deprived himself of the pleasure of the musical arts. Nonetheless, he passed his later years in the company of another musician, Udaipuri. He built the largest mosque in the world but chose to be buried in an unmarked grave. He died having expanded the Mughal kingdom to its greatest extent in history and yet feared utter failure.

A complex character indeed – and one worthy of more attention than that which has been given.

What the Third Reich Can Teach Us

“I had no feelings in carrying out these things because I had received an order to kill the eighty inmates in the way I had already told you.

That, by the way, was the way I was trained.

– S. S. Captain Josef Kramer, about the gassing of eighty Jews at Auschwitz; as quoted in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer


A Muslim teenager was lynched on a train India on 23rd June.  Apparently, a group of people attacked four Muslims, accusing them of being beef eaters, and mercilessly beat them up.  Later on, sixteen-year-old Junaid died of his injuries.  News reports say that the amount of blood in the train shows the enormity of the gruesome violence.

While I was distressed by the news (my son sixteen, dammit!), I must sadly say that I was not surprised or shocked.  Gratuitous violence towards Muslims has become the new normal in India.  One glances at the headlines, registers the fact, and moves ahead – and another death becomes a statistic (except for the family of the person murdered, that is).

Why is it so?  How can people accept (if not condone) such atrocities as part of the daily grind?

Maybe, the answer can be found in Hitler’s short-lived Third Reich – its ‘philosophy’ and application.

Over a period of six months from December 2016 to May 2017, I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer’s definitive account of the Third Reich under the evil and mad genius, the warlord Hitler. Hitler expected that the Reich will last for a thousand years – in reality, it lasted just over 12 years. In those twelve, the Fuehrer managed to create hell on earth for the people whom he ruled over as well as in those areas which he conquered; the war he initiated managed to destroy 50 to 80 million people all over the world.

Nowadays we wonder – how did such a lunatic from the fringe enter mainstream politics, and even without any sort of a proper majority, manage to take over the country and win the support of the majority of the German populace for his unspeakably evil schemes?  Do we have to accept there is some basic flaw in the German character that makes them susceptible to this sort of brainwashing?  Or is it historic, something to do with the virulent anti-Semitism of the West?  Was it a unique phenomenon which, after having happened once in history, will never happen again?

To the first two questions, I would agree partially: to the last, however, I would have to say no to the last.  It can happen again, and in fact, is happening all over the world.

Humanity in general, and not only Germans, is always susceptible to projection. A race proud of its antecedents, lately fallen on bad times in their own estimation, looks for a scapegoat to apportion blame.  In Weimar Germany, the victim the inheritors of the mythical Aryan race found was, not unsurprisingly, the Jew: the killers of Christ, the legendary hawkish money-lender, Fagin who inducts young children into a life of crime…

If we study how anti-Semitism developed side-by-side along with the legend of the Aryan race who colonised and “civilised” the known world, we will definitely find the race superiority complex of the European masquerading as “philosophy” and “history”.  The Jew has been cast in the role of the villain who apparently spoilt the purity of the European race, descendants of the Aryans who had a pristinely pure monotheistic religion.  This theory, which gained traction during enlightenment, was further developed into the concept of the ubermensch by Nietzsche and later developed into Nazism (as explained by Dorothy M. Figueira in her fascinating book Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity).

India, taking nourishment from the same mythical root, found a different enemy to blame for their fall from grace – the Muslim.  The myth of the Middle Eastern marauder, running amok over the temples and ashrams of India, killing Hindu priests and kidnapping and raping Hindu girls slowly became an accepted fact in the Hindu cultural milieu, half-truth though it was; the British who wanted to divide the country along religious lines also promoted this myth so that a permanent fault line (which created the partition in 1947) was created.  This fault line has been growing wider ever since, and now we are seeing a country on the verge of fracture.

As the resentment grows, so does the intolerance – and the indifference to violence against the minorities.  It does not happen on one fine day (as they are fond of saying, it did not start with the gas chambers). It requires years of patient propaganda, the feeding of the latent hatred by a dedicated ideological group.


Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-2406-01 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Shirer writes:

No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a cafe, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.


(Shirer is writing here about Nazi Germany – but as far as I can see in democratic India in the 21st Century, the same applies for any right-winger: and I suspect that it may be applicable globally. They have come to a stage where they cannot differentiate between fact and fantasy. They live in a fantasy world created in their minds, where facts are what they want them to be. So in a way, Kellyanne Conway is right; there are “alternative facts”, even though us ordinary mortals cannot see them.)

Thus, we move towards the practice of evil as a daily affair – an incredibly banal one, as Hannah Arendt would say.  Hence the quote at the beginning of this post – just a soldier doing his job.

I believe – in fact, I am terrified – that India has progressed on this path to fascism at a frightening speed in the past three years.  Modi and the BJP government are certainly to blame, but they are only the symptoms.  The cancer goes much deeper.  Sadly, we see the same happening in many democracies – USA, Turkey etc.  Unless we identify the root of the evil in our own mind and cast it out, we may end up with another Hitlerian era, which will be much more dangerous in the current world.

In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.

Yes, indeed.

A Whimsical Review of “At Home” by Bill Bryson

“If you had to summarise it in one sentence, the history of domestic life is the history of getting comfortable slowly.”

Whew… Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent an exhausting yet exhilarating ten days with Bill Bryson at his Norfolk home. When he invited me to take a look at this former Church of England rectory, I hardly expected spend more than an afternoon there – a spot of tea, maybe a couple of beers in the evening, along with the promised tour of the house. But I got much more than I bargained for.

Initially, Bill took me up to the attic (we had to clamber up a stepladder and wiggle through a ceiling hatch – an extremely uncomfortable exercise, mind you) to show me a small door which opened out into a curious rooftop space, which afforded a view of the countryside which was breathtaking and panoramic. As I stood entranced, drinking it up, Bill asked me whether I would like to chat with him about domestic life – and I agreed.

What followed was an expedition through the house, starting with the hall and ending, once again, in the attic. But I must confess I had little time to notice the features of the domicile in particular, as Bill was filling my head with an absolute avalanche of trivia connected with domestic life in Britain and the United States of America.

After giving me a general background on the era on which he was going to hang his exposition of domesticity (the Victorian Age, with the 1851 Great Exhibition as its pivot) and the development of English clergy in general, Bill Bryson properly got going on how the British forgot all about the civilised Roman Era and started from scratch once they left England. In the hall, he told me that most homes were just that – a big hall – until the 1500’s, when the fireplace was invented and people could think of building upstairs; till then, the people all lived together communally and slept, ate and copulated around a roaring fire in the middle of the room. He gave so many fascinating details (though some of them were definitely unsavoury) that my head was hopelessly spinning by the time he pulled me into the kitchen and started to talk about how eating habits developed and changed. The things he told me! I am extremely glad that I did not have to visit England prior to the advent of ice in 1844, let me tell you (though being something of a trencherman, I would have been perfectly at home in the eighteenth century – if I was able to ignore the quality of meat an fish on the table, that is).

Going now into the scullery and ladder, the discussion turned to the subject of domestic servants – how great a workforce was required, and how they had to be punishingly overworked, to keep the gentry in comfort. I was so blown away by the account that I asked him why there hadn’t been a revolution. Bill then told me that even though life was tough for a servant, most country houses were lived in only a two to three months a year, so they had a relatively calm life for the rest of the year: and considering the circumstances, they made good money.

Under the fusebox, Bill waxed lyrical about electricity, and how it changed domestic life for ever – about how unsafe it was initially, but how ultimately this elemental force was tamed by mankind. Happily here I could contribute something to the conversation, as I work in the field of safety and am aware of how the concept of electrical safety is improving day by day.

Now he took me down to the cellar. I was expecting to be treated to some vintage wine, but no: Bill started on giving me a lecture on the building of the Erie Canal! It was quite some time before I caught his gist – he was talking about house construction in general, and about bricks in particular. The exposition was so interesting that I forgot the damp and mustiness, I must tell you.

Then we came up to the passage. Here also, the subject was only tenuously connected to the room: we talked about the Eiffel Tower (of all things!), the development of architecture and civil engineering (a subject which interested me), concrete and the invention of the telephone, based on an instrument of this particular family sitting quietly in an alcove in a corner. We moved on to the study then, a dark and dingy room, which was never used for the purpose it was named for – or so Bill said. Here, he began to expound at length on mice, rats, bats, locusts, microbes and myriad other pests until I was on tenterhooks, expecting a rat to take a bite at my ankle at any moment!

By this time, I wanted a breath of fresh air very badly, so Bill took me out into the garden. He told that my apprehensions were quite understandable: it was the same obsession that Britons had for fresh air (and the rather mistaken belief that all maladies were the product of bad odours) that led to so many of the beautiful gardens and parks we see in England. He then gave me such a fascinating history of parks and gardens in England and America that left me spellbound. This was undoubtedly the most pleasurable part of the tour.

After a while, we went in again, and visited the “Plum Room”. Bill confessed that he did not know what it was used for – they called it that because the walls were painted that colour. He hazarded a guess that the original rector, Mr. Marsham may have used it as a library. It was built in great architectural style: and the mere mention of the fact sent Bill into the history of ornate architecture. It was originally conceived by an Italian stonemason named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola – better known as Palladio – in the sixteenth century, and copied by stately homes in England and America in later centuries. The most famous examples are Monticello in Virginia built by Thomas Jefferson and Mount Vernon in Colombia built by George Washington.

We climbed up to the bedroom now; and on the way, Bill explained to me the dangers of staircase climbing (the main safety hazard in any home) and the history of paint, through an extremely toxic past to the relatively safe present. But in the bedroom (one my favourite places in my house), Bill treated me to such stories of horror that I was almost sick. Beginning with the extremely uncomfortable nature of old-time mattresses, he proceeded to sex and how it was seen as a lamentable necessity; the horrific devices employed to stop “self abuse”; the travails suffered by women because doctors knew nothing about their anatomy; the ravages of syphilis; and finally about surgery without anesthesia, the disposal of dead bodies… well, you get the point, I guess.

But these were nothing compared to the stories of squalor he related in the bathroom. It seems that up until the eighteenth century when Dr. Richard Russell popularised his water cures, Britons were strongly opposed to exposing themselves to water. (There was the story of a lady who had not bathed for 28 years, and the Marquis d’Argens, who wore the same undershirt for so many years that when it was removed finally, pieces of his skin came along with it.) As if this was not enough, Bill started talking about toilets, and… no, better hear that yourself; just the memory of that scatological exposition makes me sick.

When we entered the dressing room next, however, Bill came off this morbid thought stream and started discussing about fashions – about how Victorians made dressing a sort of torture with the men’s wigs, women’s tall hairdos, and impossible dress items such as the corset and the crinoline. He also educated me on the history of cotton – a fascinating subject.

Then we came to the nursery. I thought this would be one of the areas for discussing the pleasantest subjects – but guess what? Bill took me to streets of Victorian London: the filth, the squalor, and the inhumanity. This was the world of Oliver Twist and the chimney sweeps, where poor children could hope to survive for a maximum of twelve years with backbreaking labour. Even though not life-threatening, however, life was no cakewalk for well-to-do children also: they lived in a loveless world of strictures and duty, with frightening stories and the ever present cane to keep them in line.

I thought then that the tour was over. But no: Bill hauled me up to the attic again, and gave a scholarly lecture on Charles Darwin and Sir John Lubbock, the man responsible for the preservation of most of Britain’s archaeological heritage and also the creator of the secular public holiday. He also talked wistfully about the stately homes which disappeared due to the agricultural crisis of 1870.

As we were climbing down, he said:

“Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet’s other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand to have what we have, and to get it as easily as we got it, and that will require more resources that this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield.”

Sobering thought, that.


Well, Bill, I really enjoyed my visit with you. But pardon me if I do not make another visit in the near future. I need some time to digest all these information that you have poured into my head!

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.