Michael Wood: The Story of India


He has a limp and an honest smile. He reaches out to children with love and engages with Indian men and women with natural warmth and affection. His home is congenial Britain but he is just as comfortable in a grimy mosquito-ridden guesthouse in Harappa, on the commoner’s coach of an Indian train, in any filthy Indian lane and bylane — his fatigue shows in the heat and the dust, but his smile and his love of place (and its past) never fades. He accepts without hesitation cake and coffee such as sold on our trains, and without any fear, he drinks tea served in clay-cups, and meals at any street-side hawker’s. “Delicious!” he exclaims, over a South Indian meal at the modest home of his hosts in Tamil Nadu, squatting on the floor with them.

It seems Wood carries the light traveller’s single change of clothes, no more. To perhaps soothe his sweating neck he wears a lot a blue-linen stole. In sum this man is an adorable host of his BBC program and the perfect guest in India, brimming with respect and curiosity toward her people. He doesn't pull back from pinching his olden-day countrymen for their misdeeds in India, and now and then he subtly submits a good or two that possibly came out of their time on the subcontinent.

So, watching his 360-minute India on DVD over four days was a pleasure and a terrific learning experience.

So much so, I bought his book as well. It read like an expansive version of the screenplay for the documentary, very well written, of course, but I put the book away after I’d gone in a few pages. The book proved too much a panegyric on my nation, and each time Wood exults in wonderment for India I squirm — my own love for my motherland is cased in a crust of anger, and my high hopes for it are smothered under terrible angst. India has had a great past, and she is poised for another round of greatness, of this I am as sure as Wood, or as any other, but I have to reconcile yet to the present, to my own life in this squalid, festering, incorrigible peninsula. I am committed to working in it, but I cannot help my everyday exasperation with it.

I’ve pulled John Keay from my shelf instead, his 600-page tome, India: A History. I'll come back to Wood’s book another time — no doubt I will — and I’ll watch his documentary a couple of times again.

Some Questions Before Aurangzeb’s Tomb

 Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 ( Wikipedia )

Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 (Wikipedia)

His tomb is a simple affair even if Lord Curzon upgraded it with marble during his viceregal tenure in India. How much simpler was it at the time Aurangzeb was interred? On Wikipedia I found a sketch of it as it must’ve looked in the 1850s, before Curzon got to it.

Aurangzeb died in 1707.

Why did the Englishman Curzon go against the Mughal emperor‘s wishes, and improve the tomb? There would be a good answer, but in this moment I have only the question.

 The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 ( Wikipedia )

The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 (Wikipedia)

These days attendants at Aurangzeb’s grave eke out some earnings telling briefly the final events in Aurangzeb’s life: his death in nearby Ahmednagar from natural causes (natural causes, the attendant stresses); his desire to be buried near his teacher Chisti’s tomb; his express command that his tomb be simple and to the tiny budget he’d stipulated – fourteen rupees and twelve annas. The attendant at the grave telling me all this was blind. And nice. “I am blind,” he said, humble in a dirty white tunic, a stick limp in his hand. “And I am poor.” He held out a hand. I put money in it, which he took and pointed a finger to a box by his feet, a wooden public hundi with the slit on top. I put the same sum in it as I’d given him and looked up.

“Where was his palace (in this part of his empire)?” I asked him. I wanted to know if Aurangzeb’s royal residence had been in the fabulous Daulatabad fort. Or Ahmednagar. But the fellow was done with me. There was another tourist at the door, and the blind man had heard him arrive.

The young Aurangzeb spent his energies in the outer reaches of the empire, in the west, the northwest, and in the south in the Deccan. His father Shah Jahan kept him challenged in the Deccan, demanding higher revenues from a poorly performing agrarian region. Aurangzeb decided to annexe the Bahmani kingdoms further south to augment income, but his father decided on his behalf to sign a truce with them, exasperating Aurangzeb, stoking suspicion in him regarding his father’s intentions toward him. Such a down-spiraling relationship caused the emotional chasm between father and son to grow to equal their geographic separation, driving Aurangzeb to wrest the empire through treason and treachery and terrible fratricide.

He is argued by many to have ruled well, extending the empire to the largest the Mughals ever ruled, increasing its wealth to surpass the other great monarchies in the world at the time — but also depleting it towards the end.

The last decades of his fifty-year rule were spent in taking the Deccan, at great cost to his treasury and, as regards his fighting men, he lost in that period over two million of them at the rate of a hundred thousand heads a year, it is said.

As for Aurangzeb himself, to die asking to be buried so far south from Delhi, from the seat of his empire — how did it feel? Where lay his heart? In Delhi? In the Deccan, where he’d honed and proved himself when young?

Far from the graves of his forebears his remains rest. The first great Mughal is buried in the northwestern reaches of the empire. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal, is buried in the empire’s deep south. The other four greats lie in Delhi and Agra. There are many descriptions of this Mughal after whom the empire began its decline: valiant, despotic, cruel, and also syncretic. As many people revere him as despise him. Standing before his grave I wasn’t sure where I should lean, but I can tell you I was moved for a moment by the asceticism of this man who ruled for so long over so vast an empire.

 The tomb as it appears now … ( Wikipedia )

The tomb as it appears now … (Wikipedia)

Was Tipu a Freedom Fighter?

Bangalore Fort

It was the end of the walk. A lady asked: "Can you call Tipu Sultan a martyr?"

We were a group of about fifteen, water in hand and backpacks over most backsides. We'd done the city-hike with a local heritage-preservation team, a three-hour stretch titled "The 1791 War Walk." Its purpose was to tell us about the siege and fall of Bangalore in 1791. The siege had lasted six weeks, but after the storming the main fort was taken in less than two hours.

"Was he a freedom fighter?" a second lady asked. She was middle-aged, and was blessed with an agile neck, using which she executed perfect rounds with her head both while speaking and listening.

"No," a third lady answered, an artistic type in an elegant rough-kurta who spoke at a slow, measured pace, using the time to insert just-the-right-word in her sentences. "We were not taken yet. It wasn't time for a freedom struggle."

The walk had begun at the Yelahanka gate of the Pete fort which the British took first and settled there their siege cannons to soften the main fort. The Pete fort and the main fort were as conjoined twins. The Pete fort housed the markets and all commerce and the residences of the merchants, and the main fort secured the king's defences and administration. In Bangalore Tipu was deeply invested, he made his armaments here, and, besides standard ordnance, his quite-successful Tipu rocket.

We were standing where the fort had been breached during the battle. The breach is patched now and a plaque in the place commemorates the fateful night, and tour guides halt before it to name the valiant vanquished who fought on the site.

"But there's no doubt he was an intelligent man," the first lady said. On the night the British stormed the fort, Tipu was camped some distance from it, some kilometres away, and when his general begged for a command to go aid the defenders, Tipu dithered. And decided to turn back and take the battle to his capital at Srirangapattana.

"He was brilliant," the third lady said. "He had a great library." Everybody nodded to that, everybody seemed to know about Tipu's collection of Persian tomes which in the end went to England.

I was tempted to say he was an intellectual, but I checked my tongue which is anyway leaden with inertia in these settings.

"He is guilty of conversions. He did that. That he did, that he did," the second lady, she with the agile neck, chanted.

The leader of the group was also a lady, a learned one. With eyes focused on the ground and gesticulating with all of herself, she delivered final words. "That's the problem," she said. "People gloss over the good things Tipu did and they gloss over the bad things Tipu did."

Several of us in the group were men. We listened, but for some reason none of us participated in this final exchange regarding this brave man who was ever in battle to extend and save his kingdom, and who died on his feet, fighting, having never considered to retire from war and surrender to the luxuries of the British vassal's life.

This piece was cross-posted on Churumuri, on April 3, 2017.

Sister Alphonse

 Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive  meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey

Sister Alphonse was very pretty. I can tell you that, although I never saw her hair. I knew her in Bellary during the years 1970 and 1971, a time when a woman wasn’t much thereabouts if her tresses didn’t knock about her knees.


“This book is rubbish,” Sister Alphonse said and collected from the class the government-prescribed history textbook we had bought, and for a little extra, she placed an order for a replacement on our behalf. “Here’s a proper account of Lord Bentinck,” she said. “He abolished sati.” She spent a whole class describing the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Muslim King Sirajuddaula, and seared a deep dark idea of the man into my twelve-year-old brain. She soaked the burning shame I felt in the balmy story of brave Robert Clive.


I went to Calcutta the first time December last. I spent a few minutes before the obelisk that is the British-built monument to preserve the memory of the British dead in the Black Hole of Calcutta. The men had been crammed into an enclosure the night after Sirajuddaula ordered eviction of the British from their fort in Calcutta. A good number of the imprisoned died by morning; estimates vary from 43 to a peak claim of 123. Whatever the number, the redcoats managed to whip up support in Britain for military operations on land that they’d come to do trade in.


Sister Alphonse was Scottish. Bellary used to have a British military cantonment, so it followed that the town had sprawling Christian schools. I went first to St. Philomena’s, where Sister Alphonse taught history, and some art and craft. Then I went to St. John’s.


The Black Hole monument is no more upon the Black Hole, which hole was a mere guardroom that the British razed along with the fort it was in. They built an elaborate new defence and called it Fort William, and moved the monument around even in their time. It rests now in the quiet compound of St. John’s Church, the construction of which church began in 1784 under Governor-General Hastings. It was opened for Service in 1787 by Lord Cornwallis, the general who had earlier surrendered to George Washington in America. In India, Cornwallis would vanquish “tiger” Tipu Sultan and nearly complete the colonisation of the subcontinent.


After they killed Tipu they installed a boy king in his place, and gave him Education and Culture and Revenue Collection for responsibility. They allowed him a harem.


Sirajuddaula was a hot-headed 22 at the time of the Black Hole. He’d been incensed at the fortifications the British had been raising in his realm, in which his forebears had allowed them mere warehousing, with requisite guard. He ordered them to stop but they kept up the works and Sirajuddaula attacked. This was in 1756, and the British launched a reprisal in 1757. It didn’t matter that they’d commandeered only a 3000-man force against Sirajuddaula’s 50,000. The Indian generals were easily purchased and the king humiliated in an eleven-hour encounter in the Battle of Plassey. Later, Sirajuddaula was executed. Assassinated, it is also argued.

“India was colonised not by Britain,” William Dalrymple has begun to insist with increasing intensity. His book that argues the case will be out this year, but excerpts from it have been circulating in print media: India was colonised by a corporation, The East India Company. And, along with British businessmen and aristocrats, Indian Marwaris were eager shareholders in the company.


Dalrymple is a Scot. Beneath a picture shot by him and posted on Instagram, of a place in Bengal, he says female Hindu blood has entered his bloodline at a point. Dalrymple is big, robust. Hair that’s thinned on top is rich on cheek and chin and the colour of wisdom has erupted in thick lines along its length. He has the accent, and the scholarship, and, man, how he lets loose his grin! How he looks like Sean Connery!


My father was nineteen when India became free. In Kollegal where he was raised, a forest town in thick jungle country, there used to be stationed a lone white man, a Forest Officer. “That man saw an ox once,” my father told me several times. “He asked for its tongue. They killed the whole handsome ox for it.” It’s only so much that my father experienced the English, and only in the ears. An aloof guy, he didn’t belong with the nationalists; and he was never neither with those arguing that British times were the best times. The government department he worked in retains the name given it in colonial times: The Department of Public Instruction. He retired as its top man.


I was born in Mysore, not far from where “tiger” Tipu died.


In 1999, some folks tried to organise the two-hundredth-year commemoration of Tipu’s fall. It didn’t happen. Tipu was Muslim. Also, there was an attempt a year before to mark the five-hundred-year-old landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in South India. That event didn’t materialize either. It was the Portuguese explorer’s discovery of the sea route that commenced colonisation in these parts. Not many feel grateful for that, history and heritage be damned.


Every astrologer who has seen my horoscope has cautioned me to steer clear of water. No journeys by boat, but it’s okay to fly over the ocean.


The admiral who took Robert Clive from Chennai to Calcutta to mount a reprisal against Sirajuddaula died four months after the mission was accomplished. Clive lived to loot rich Bengal which in those days fed the depleting treasury of the Mughal empire. Oudh fell next, and afterward the Mughal himself. Clive got very rich, but he killed himself in the end. He never got to be glamorous among his folks back home, though later they installed mighty statues of him. I have felt very small the times I’ve looked high at the one that looks to St. James Park.


Sister Alphonse came from a well-off family, I think. I bumped into her once at the district maidan, where she was roaming with a compact video camera, the olden type that recorded on a reel of film. She was a radiant presence in the haze, crisp and fresh, in her ever-spotless ever-creaseless habit.

“Step back, Shashi. Step back. Now walk toward me,” she kept saying, until she had me walking as she wanted. Then she filmed me.


My mother was ever unhappy because she could never afford a drawing room like in the Woman & Home magazine that came from England, which she borrowed every month from a lending library.


The other day, I attended “Dinner with Dalrymple” in Bangalore.

“And for whom must I sign this?” Dalrymple asked me when I took a copy of his Kohinoor up to him. I’d been seventh in line.

He wrote my name in a flourish on top of the page, and signed himself across the diagonal of it. The lines are blue and thick, rather like brush strokes.


It is said of Clive, that when he marched, he used to have only a small contingent with him. Bystanders en route would outnumber his force in multiples, and they could’ve done in the firangi army on any of those occasions. But then, imagine on those plains a white man wearing red colours with gold trims on a great horse.


There’s a question that never came up in class, nor does the question appear in any Dalrymple I’ve read. Or in the other books. At what point in history did we get so filthy? How came we to surround ourselves with this omnipresent squalor, and stink?


“Why, Shashi has done something nice for a change!” Sister Alphonse exclaimed one morning in class. I’d drawn a pattern with felt pens, in red and blue. It must’ve looked good from her distance on stage, but the given task was to work with brushes. I don’t remember the punishment, but she got really cross with me that day.


Calcutta was built in the fashion of London. It was the city of palaces, rich in architecture, rich in culture Indian and European.

I walked round Dalhousie Square, taking in the enormous decayed cable-ridden Victorian, Edwardian buildings from which India was ruled. Afternoon, I walked to Park Street, went down it to the landmark Flurys, for tea and toilet. The toilet stank.

Flurys was established in 1927. For twenty years of its lifetime it has seen English rule and highbrow English custom. Did the toilet stink so back then? Was the tearoom as pink then as now?


If only there were jobs in Calcutta the educated Calcuttan would never leave the city. That is the claim, and it is untested for a long time because Calcutta has had no jobs on offer for decades now and her children are flourishing in other places. But I, I want no more a job, and I have decided to spend a few days every month for a year or two in Calcutta. I want to feel English rule from out there. I wish to add a few more words to the rich fact and the fiction that already exist.


I wonder what Sister Alphonse might say to that.