Thursday, April 24, 2014 6 comments


So, here it is – the 24th of April, polling day for the state of  Tamil Nadu!!  This will be the second time in my forty odd years that I will be exercising my franchise. Before you wonder, let me clarify the doubt- I had not voted earlier because my name was not on any voter’s list until the year 2009!! 

The daughter left early for a poll booth.  As a student reporter in a neighborhood newspaper, she has been given  an assignment to  observe poll booths, speak to residents and do a small write up. I could not help feeling a little nervous as this sixteen year old pedaled away on her bicycle armed with a notepad and pen.  The reason for my nervousness is difficult to explain.  As a middle class Indian my image of election s, campaigning and polling are not very pleasant.  I think a lot of this has to do with my mental image of people in politics!! 

“Don’t worry, it is not assembly elections. She  will be okay” reassures her grandfather over the phone.  Why?  “Are candidates contesting Lok Sabha elections  “safer” to be around with? “  I wonder.  At this point  a cartoon in the Tamil magazine “Ananda Vikatan” comes to mind.  Appa had pointed it out to me ages ago when I was in school. It showed two  disreputable looking chaps sharing a dais as two citizens were in conversation in the audience. One of them was asking the other “ Which one of the two on the dais is the MP and which one the MLA?”. The other chaps  responded saying “ The fellow who looks like a rowdy is the MLA and the chap who looks like a pickpocket is the MP”!! So, I guess there are levels of dishonesty with certain levels being perceived as being more dangerous than others!

As a citizen, one of the facts that troubles me is the lack of what I consider “decent” people in politics. When I say decent I do not mean the English speaking variety who give out good bytes in their TV interviews ( though that does have its own appeal). I mean an average person who lives in his/ her constituency, is  doing something for people there, attends the house sessions raising issues and is overall an honest person.  Unfortunately there seem to be very few such  people!! The party politics system of our democracy prevents citizens from voting for individuals. We ultimately end  up voting for a party!!!  And often in a bid to vote ( or not vote) for a party whose ideology is something that we may or may not agree with , we end up voting for the wrong person!!!

I do not know how parties decide on selection of candidate or constituencies. They seem to be courting people who are famous,  whose public image will draw in voters or it is sometimes the reverse where hardened criminals try to develop a shade of respectability by courting political parties for tickets!! Either way it is either money or fame that decides who would be the candidates.  And the choice today seems to be limited between supporting corruption or communalism. As one of my former colleagues says “ I would rather pay some bribe to a TTE while travelling on a train rather than have the train blown up by a bomb”!!!

I am sure there are many who are in a dilemma like me. There are those who seriously believe that some parties would usher in prosperity like Lakshmi  floating on a lotus while  others believe that some  parties would be able to clean up the mess like a  broom. Whatever, one thing  is clear- there is going to be no clear majority. It would be a case of coalition with each supporter putting in  their agenda.  And the person who leads the government  should have the ability to deal with these demands in a balanced manner.  I doubt if the parties whose PM candidates have been announced would be able to manage this. It would probably be an unstable government that totters along for a couple of years before it falls or this might be the last election that the world’s largest democracy might have! If we look at history we can see numerous examples that supports my prophecy. Hitler was supposedly a great administrator and ensured that Germany came out of the post 1st World war slump. But we  know what Hitler was all about…!!

They say that India is a maturing democracy – I wonder what it means…!! But whichever government it is that comes to power, I would say we probably deserve it!! In an election it is not the candidate’s capacities that matter but the perception of the electorate about the candidate. So I guess, ultimately it would be either fear or finance that would be used to coax the large millions who do not watch TV or read newspapers to vote. In the end, it is their vote that counts!! 
( Images from the internet)

Sunday, April 6, 2014 12 comments

About Men and Eunuchs - the struggle for power and the will to survive

 ( Book Review Series: "Gods , Kings and Slaves- The Siege of Madurai" by R. Venkatesh)

Two men defining the destinies of two kingdoms, two brothers fighting for the throne, a royal bastard and a eunuch, harem intrigues, heroism and cowardice- we have all of that in R. Venkatesh’s  “ Gods, Kings and Slaves- the Siege of Madurai”. 

Set in the prosperous city of Madurai it describes the glorious days of the Pandya kingdom- a period when  the  Pandya kings had become complacent , concentrating  more on administration than on defence, thereby making  the city vulnerable to the attack of the Turkish army led by Malik Kafur. 
Gods, Kings & Slaves: The Siege of MaduraiThe novel follows the style of a parallel narrative describing the  lives of  the two protagonists- in Madurai  develops the story of Veera Pandyan  son of  Tara, the concubine of King Kulasekara Pandyan   and  in Western India , through the gulf of Khambat and later in the Delhi Sultanate is traced out the life of   Malik Kafur a eunuch slave. Veera is a brave and intelligent boy, his father’s pride and his half brother Sundara Pandyan’s rival in everything  starting from the race for the royal throne  to the affections  of the Chola princess Sunanda who as Sundar’s cousin is betrothed to him but loves Veera.  Both boys are groomed by the King’s brother Vikrama Pandyan who they hold in high esteem. 

Malik on the other hand has his life defined by humiliation and pain as he is sold in the slave market to an Arab. By his sheer cunning and strategy he moves up from being a mere harem guard  to being his master's business adviser. Sold once again to the Turks he finds himself in the palace of the mighty Allauddin Khilji where the same brains make him rise to the rank of a general.  
Those of you who have read Kalki’s  Ponniyin Selvan” will find its echoes here especially in the section that deals with the Pandya side of the story. There are characters who appear to be modeled along the lines of those in  Kalki’s novel. Veera is almost like Arul Mozhi Verman in the earlier part of the story especially in the Lanka invasion section. We can also  see traces of Kundavi in Meenakshi, the daughter of Vikrama Pandyan. The character of Akshyan starts out following the outlines of Vandiya Thevan but somewhere along the way the author cuts it short. But it would be unfair to say that it is a copy. While Arul of Kalki’s novel seems divine as we go through “Ponniyin Selvan”, Veera is very much the human. He has vulnerabilities that we do not see in Prince Arul. We can sense the insecurity and pain in his lament         “ My sons call other men their fathers, my father does not acknowledge my mother as his wife, all my women share another man’s bed. What is actually mine then? ”

However the story about Malik is free from these shadows. It seems more original and in Malik's  characterization, I would say that the author has worked harder . A negative character, Malik Kafur has always been portrayed in history as a plunderer and destroyer. But as Venkatesh says “ History is written by the victorious” . It is only when you go through Malik’s life that you begin to understand and even grudgingly appreciate him. 

While the story follows historical events, some parts of it seem a little unnecessary. For e.g Veera’s meeting with Marco Polo. One is not sure how it helps in the development of the plot. The part where Malik meets the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya is another example. Other than defining and setting the period which the story depicts there is little else that these characters do.
Though one can explain the reasons why some characters are thrown in by the author as garnishing to the plot, what baffles me is why certain strong characters like that of Vikrama Pandyan just flit in and out of the story! As a reader I am also not very convinced about the reasons behind his revolt and subsequent exile. He is presented to the readers as a valiant man who is bound by ethics and so the reason for him to suddenly decide to revolt seem puzzling. This feeling is further strengthened when we see him make a comeback as the leader who  deals with the crisis that Madurai faces. When you start accepting the fact that may be the writer has decided to bring him out from cold storage and make a hero out him after all,  we again see him go missing, only to reappear as the commander of the forces of his grandson, Ravivarman,  the Chera king. 

Among the female characters that the author has etched well is that of Veera’s wife Radhika. A practical woman , she scores over her royal counterparts through sheer common sense that comes as part of her peasant ancestry!  Sunanda on the other hand seems like a drooping flower once the romance part of the novel is over. This is a bit unfair on a character who gives up her love for a man so that he could ascend the throne. And then there is Meenakshi or Meena who is Veera’s cousin , the Chera queen. She starts out as a strong girl full of leadership qualities in her childhood but somehow fades into insignificance as the plot develops. Her only contribution to the story in her adult phase is the role she plays in trying to negotiate Veera’s alliance with Sunanda. 

While the Pandya side of the novel is full of prominent female characters there are almost none in the story around Malik’s life other than Chaula. What we have are a bunch of harem women. I am not sure if it was an oversight or whether the fact that Malik was a eunuch made female characters seem unnecessary to that side of the plot. 

However one must not assume that the above are short comings in terms of the readability or credibility of the novel. It is one of the most interesting and thrilling novels that I have read in recent times! As  I am not a student of history I cannot comment of the historical authenticity of every event. But the little history that I have studied in school and the reading I have done thereafter seems to confirm that the facts are more or less accurate. I particularly liked the descriptive style of the author. One could almost feel that one was inside the Meenakshi temple witnessing the coronation of the prince and later on its desolation. Similar were the descriptions of the Siri Fort, the war with the Mongols and the siege on the fort of Warrangal. The harem management details were also quite interesting. 

It is not just the description that holds you but the emotions of the characters also bind the reader. I had tears in my eyes when I read the section where a disguised Veera goes back to the Meenakshi temple which  is left desolate and in ruins.  His conversation with a seemingly mad man who keeps the lamp burning in the sanctum sanctorum makes your hair stand on end. 

At a time when most English novels in India are targeting the yuppie culture, this one reaches out to a different audience. It reaches out to all who are fond of history irrespective of age. But I would not categorize it as just a narration of historical events. It is also a romance novel in parts  with emotions that are all pervading.  While it celebrates valor on one hand, it also brings out the importance of survival strategies and shrewdness as the weapon of the weak on the other. 

In a story that ran the danger of taking on communal overtones, one must commend the author in his ability to maintain that fine balance. Despite his love for Madurai which is very evident in every word that he writes , his pen remains non judgmental!  

As a person who traces her ancestry to the Chola kingdom of Thanjavur I was brought up to believe by my grandfather that nothing and no one South of the Vidhyas could be as glorious as the Chola rulers. “Gods, Kings and Slaves” has broken this myth in my mind by its effective narration of the two powers both north and south of the Vindhyas!