India

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.

My Post: Follow the News, Follow the Money

Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images

“Follow the news,” he said, bringing to my mind Deep Throat) and All the President’s Men. “You’ll see where the government is spending money. Just now they bought a huge number of rockets. The Israeli Spike missile contract is brought back. Ammunition! They’re stocking ammunition in large quantities. Suddenly. Why? Why do they need so many rockets so urgently?”

I listened, my eyes locked to his. The man before me was a brilliant businessman, quite young and rising fast, and, more importantly, a key customer with top-class global exposure.

“Our borders are getting hotter,” I ventured. “China has all but acquired Pakistan …”

“Pakistan is nothing,” he interrupted. “Nothing. Okay they have nukes. Maybe they can bomb one Indian city. Max. But when India responds, Pakistan, so small it is, it will be blown off the map. The Chinese are the real threat. Every day they are coming one kilometer into Arunachal, sometimes three four kilometers, walking in when they want, walking back. Someday somebody will lose his head. Some ego will explode. Then?”

I wondered about his geography while he took a moment to rearrange himself in his seat. We were sitting poolside in the hotel he was staying at, the temperature had fallen and a chill had enveloped the area, as it had the entire city — the chill was creeping up and down beneath my jacket and trouser and shirt, and my socks even, seeking skin, teasing out an occasional shiver.

“I don’t believe in these things, Shashi, but I must tell you something. There’s a 37 year-old guy. In my city. He’s done his PhD in astrology. He doesn’t accept money for his services, because he believes he’d lose his powers if he did that. That fellow is saying, and people are quoting him, that right now the stars are steadily moving toward their same positions when Kargil happened. I don’t believe in this prediction business, Shashi, but give it six months. In six months we will have a war. With China. Not a long war. About three months, maybe.” He swayed his torso side to side to measure out in mime the possible duration.

“Three months,” I cried. “That’s long!”

“Yes,” he began to nod after a pause, giving each nod generous time, and then he took his arms behind his chair, clasped his hands there and stretched. “There will be a big recession. The economy will take a hit for two years, maybe three. We will all suffer.”

“The entire world will take a hit,” I said. “We’re not a small economy anymore.”

He thought a bit, and went back to nodding, even slower this time. “But there’s one thing,” he said. “There’s one thing Modi has done. He has really gone out and got India some powerful allies. So we should see.”

It was my turn to nod thoughtfully, slower even than him, gazing at the beer on the table now, gelid and golden, tempting as hell. You could tell its temperature by sight, from the even, thin, drop-free frost over the entire mug. Nice squat mug with no handle, with Kingfisher Ultra in it.

“Right,” I said, marveling at how every Indian businessman that I know adores Modi.

“Some of us will have good business if there’s a war. But I hope it won’t happen,” he said. “But you must follow the news, Shashi,” he said. “You must follow the news. Read what the generals are saying. You will see how things are shaping up.”

I nodded again, and my eyes clouded, and turned inward, and caught Deep Throat by a column amid blue vapors in an underground parking lot. “Follow the money,” Deep Throat urged in his thick voice, sticking to his line after all these years. In a moment I snapped back to the moment, and found my customer still with me, and we got down to the business that we’d met for.

This morning, I found myself recalling the conversation, which happened last night. I was nodding to the recollections. I was still nodding after breakfast, and again in the car on my way to work, which made me think I must write about it, and thereby clear out my head and steady it.

Also, I decided to rent All the President’s Men this weekend. The news should wait, I figured, in these times of Fake News. And because my life is better when there’s no news in it.

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)


Indian Christmas

   Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

 Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

I’m at a hotel in Nashik. It’s all decked up for Christmas. A plum cake was delivered to my room with Merry Christmas sketched out in chocolate on the plate. The hotel is sold out, but I can tell easily that most guests are not Christian. Some are Sikh. Most are Hindu. In the small world I move around in, Hindus appear to have appropriated Christmas.

Merry Christmas! And, because I’m entering a Buddhist retreat on Wednesday, and will observe complete silence for ten days with all my digital devices surrendered, I wish all you wonderful people right now: Happy New Year!

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I wrote this little thing after reading this Guardian story.

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