IndiQuest

Michael Wood: The Story of India

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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.

Salim Ali, Maa, Salim Ali!

 Mobor Beach by The Leela Goa, Cavelosim, Goa

A little girl came down the narrow wooden bridge across the slim lagoon that snakes between the villas at The Leela Goa.

“Salim Ali, Maa. Salim Ali! You don’t know Salim Ali?”

Her maa was silent, but I heard her embarrassment as I passed them. As regards myself, I’ve heard of that ornithologist, but I haven’t read him, and I don’t know more than a half-dozen bird types.

Anyway, for this entire short stay at The Leela Goa, I’ve been sighting mainly crows. Last evening, I’d been sitting in a corner at the Susegado, the beachside restaurant the hotel. Beneath me the stone floor ended and the flour-thin sand of the beach began its long smooth run to the sea. I was reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, and sweating in 32º heat like it was 40º. There wasn’t any breeze, just the somnolent beauty of the Mobor Beach by which sprawls The Leela. A fisherman’s boat was moored on the higher sands, small, charcoal black, weatherbeaten. The fisherman appeared now and then, pulled something from his vessel, righted something, and went, and returned. A few guests played on the fringes of the water, all of them Indian, all fully clothed — the season for foreigners starts October.

Above the sparse action sat the lifeguard on a yellow perch, by a red flag that he’d raised to honor the choppy sea. The state has banned fishing for two months in anticipation of the monsoons; the lifeguard in his turn had forbidden swimming in the moment.

Round me and running as far as I could see, were castrated coconut palms — the nuts hacked to keep the guests safe — should one fall on a head. Being at the end of the shore, close to densely wooded headlands that jut into the sea and stop the run of sand, the beach before the Leela is private, and, during the lean season in June, quiet.

After a time I became aware of the crows, of their insistent cawing, and their large number. I put down my book and gazed at the sea, favoring the crows back of me with only my ear. Just then one of their number shot into view, flying high and seaward, flapping its wings like the crow and sailing now and then in the manner of the eagle. How far over the sea can the crow travel and return safely? It flew and flew and after a long while it fell — a free fall, actually, the wind-currents revealing themselves the times the bird faltered in its fall. It touched down, and soon it rose, gained height and, just as I thought it was coming back, flew toward the white horizon. In time the lone flier became a speck, a flickering dot, and vanished.

The following morning during my walk I caught sight of a bird sitting tall at the lotus pond in the golf course on the property. Its lush, tan body reminded me of the golden retriever. Its neck and breast were white. It dipped its beak into the pond — for water? Was it this — and not the crow — that I’d seen the evening before, taking off on a lofty flight over the Arabian? A sea hawk? The osprey? Is the sea hawk nocturnal? I suppose not. What was its mission then? At six in the evening? And why had this golden thing appeared so black?

At breakfast at the imaginatively named The Restaurant in the resort, I leaned back in my chair and looked out. The teeny couple hopping about on the branches of a distant plumeria were woodpeckers, I figured, after first guessing them as the kingfisher. Their colors glittered in the morning sun, and the jutting peaking on the head leaned backward and high. But I’m not so sure now as I put this post together: I’ve spent the last few minutes on the Internet, trying to extract the image of the bird, and its name, querying for a small bird with brilliant colors, predominantly blue, and a prominent peaking on top.

I could ask that girl who was outraged at her mother’s ignorance of Salim Ali. She should be here, somewhere among the abundance in this luxurious watering hole where all guests must arrive for the lazy resort-breakfast. She’s not in this South Indian section where I am sitting, relishing idli and dosé with red, white, green, and yellow chutney. She’s not in the North Indian bay from where I fetched cut-fruit and coffee. I’ll try in the large Asian n’ Continental hall at the far end.

I’ll also check with the kid if the snow-white birds that that Sujaya spotted among the pure-pink villas here are the crane. Cranes as I know are long in the neck and leg and beak. These ones are medium-large overall, but short and thick in their parts. Are they the stork? I’ll ask. What’s the difference between a crane and a stork?

The child will not be kind to me.

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)


A Khaas Durbar at The Taj Falaknuma, Hyderabad

At the bookstore in the departures area of Bangalore airport, almost the entire oeuvre of William Dalrymple was displayed in front, on a shelf given over to him. What does it mean if Indians, who haven't cared to write their history until recently, are fed Dalrymple on this scale? How are we turning out, suddenly consuming history for main course, and varied recent fiction drawn from Hindu myth? A nourishing diet, perhaps, I don't know, I can't really tell. I wished to browse the Dalrymple shelf, they seemed like nice new editions, but I couldn't pause there, because our flight was announced and we had to run. I thought of Shashi Tharoor as we hurried. His most recent book is a 360-page dish on colonial India — the nationalist would find it to his taste, even if Tharoor didn't cook it for him.

We were flying IndiGo to Hyderabad. Their code is 6E. The crew, all of them very young women, say 6E in a way that sounds as sexy. Unintentional, I bet. IndiGo is well run, and Indian women, young or old, would surely hit back at a boss who asks them to say sexy for 6E.


On board I read How to Travel Without Seeing. The more visible words on its cover are How to Travel. I hid the cover all the time with my hand.


The long-running arcade at Hyderabad airport is a kind gift with which to cope with the Andhra sun. I trailed the cabdriver as he dragged my suitcase, my eyes glued to it, wary that he'd pull it over a pothole and ruin the castors on that suitcase that I bought in Japan in 2009, and which survives in fine shape with me.

We sped on the PVN Expressway for a good time and distance, and just as I began to exclaim that Hyderabad has better traffic than Bangalore we descended into the incredible Indian mess and started to crawl.


Three narrow-fronted reception tables greeted us at Taj Vivanta. The one closest the door was manned by a very pretty young lady, but the free attendant was at the second desk. He was nice too. I asked him for a room on back, and on a high floor, so as to be as far from the noise of the street. As he worked on it an older young man stepped in to help. They took some minutes.

"We've upgraded you, sir," the older young man said. "To our highest floor. Your room is on the corner. Gimme just two minutes to get it ready. Some coffee-tea until then?"

"Two minutes?" I kidded him. "Tell me ten if you need ten!"

"I told you what housekeeping told me sir," he said, shrugging, opening wide his eyes, taking us to the restaurant, to a table by the window.

We asked for coffee-tea as we took our seats. Just as the waitress left us the younger attendant from reception came over and gave us two keys to our room. Ready in two minutes.


Our meeting was at the Taj Falaknuma, a palace hotel on a hill, 45 minutes from the Vivanta. The air rarefied even as we turned toward the hill from the main street. At the gate the guards checked our names and struck it off a list they held in hand. At the next gate, an arched regal entrance, we stepped out of the car and got in a buggy and climbed higher, deeper toward the palace. There was nobody in front when we arrived there, but after we'd climbed the stairs and entered the hall in front young men came running up, asking, "B meeting sir? B meeting?"

The place was rich all over, with not a blemish on floor, wall, or ceiling. It appeared tastefully done, and when we inquired my suspicion was confirmed that the hand of a woman was involved in the restoration — Princess Esra, who lives now in London.

The meeting was in the Durbar Hall. It was long and narrow with the customary paintings on walls and deep drapes and a slippery floor and there was cashew before us and boat-shaped China on which were arranged frightful pastries with icing like wings on the head of Asterix the Gaul. It was dim in the hall. It was dim everywhere in the palace. It was five in the afternoon and out the windows under the sun the world was white and blazing.

But in that lofty place on a hill the waiters and waitresses were as waiters and waitresses anywhere. Thank goodness.


Next morning we were in the airport by six. The lounge was a longish vestibule with ravaged one-armed seats and breakfast in which curries and chutneys were sweetened. (In Andhra!) But I'm being harsh. It was a quite pleasant trip into and out of all that heat.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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“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.

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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?

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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.

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I wonder what Sister Alphonse might say to that.