THE LAST NIZAMby John Zubrzycki. Picador India, Delhi, 2006.
WHEN the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdul Mejid II, was leaving Constantinople in 1924 after being deposed by Kamal Ataturk, the only person to see him off at the railway station was the Jewish stationmaster who said he was there because ‘your people were good to mine.’ Abdul Mejid settled down in Paris and went on to earn renown as a painter. His self-portrait can still be seen at the Istanbul Modern. Abdul Mejid married several times and was father of Princess Durushehvar who was married to Prince Azam Jah, whose eldest son was the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mukarram Jah, His Exalted Highness, the Rustam of the Age, the Aristotle of the Times, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, the Conqueror of Dominions, the Regulator of the Realm, Nawab Mir Barkat Ali Khan Bahadur, the Victor in Battles, the Leader of Armies, the last Nizam. Except for being the last Nizam, Mir Barkat Ali Khan was none of these and the sorry trajectory of his life and the sorry history he was heir to leaves one wondering if there will be anyone to see him off even if it is just because ‘your people were good to mine.’
In fact Barkat Ali Khan was not even the last Nizam. That place in history belongs to his grandfather, Mir Osman Ali Khan whose rule over Hyderabad was terminated by Operation Polo of the Indian Army commanded by Major General (later COAS) J.N. Chaudhry. This makes Barkat Ali Khan the grandson of two last rulers. His father Azam Jah, the last Prince of Berar, was considered such a dissolute and waster that his father, Osman Ali Khan, ensured that he did not even succeed him to an empty title. Reading John Zubrzycki’s The Last Nizam, one wonders whether the old man made a better judgment when he preferred the grandson? Barkat Ali Khan’s story is a sad tale of the heir to the world’s one-time richest man (Time cover story, February 1937) becoming a near bankrupt whose last inheritance is now being pounced upon by other claimants and will remain mired in India’s legal system long after he is no more.
Unlike Azam Jah who enjoyed the good things of life and maintained a fabled harem in his palace ‘the Bella Vista’, which now houses the Administrative Staff College of India, Barkat Ali Khan despite his three marriages led a fairly reclusive life more notable for its rectitude than anything else. His first wife was Esra Birgin, a Turkish beauty who was training to become an architect in London. They were secretly married in London in 1959. She later designed the Chiran Palace on Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, the 360-acre ground which has now become the Kasu Brahmananda Reddy National Park.
Jawaharlal Nehru saw in him, like he saw in Karan Singh, a future diplomat, if not statesman, and for a time took him under his wing, appointing him to the protocol department of the Government of India. He was earmarked for better things. The high point of his short career in government was when he was seated next to Chou-en-lai at an official dinner and so charmed the Chinese prime minister who promptly invited him to Beijing. At another time he managed to prop up the slipping lungi of the visiting Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, with a pin without being noticed – a notable achievement considering that U Nu was standing and speaking at an official reception.
Barkat Ali Khan’s second wife was a former Australian secretary, Helen Gibbons, who died of HIV related ailments after a troubled marriage spent mostly in Murchison Station, a half a million acre large sheep farm that further mired him in debt, not without some Aussie help. Incidentally his home during much of this marriage, Havelock House near Perth in Western Australia, is now a clinic for the mentally ill. The third wife, Manolya Onu, also Turkish and now estranged, is fighting a two-pronged battle to save what is left of the Asaf Jah estate from other claimants and predators, as well as from the persisting weakness of Barkat Ali to make wrong investments, both in people and ventures.
The first part of Zubrzycki’s book takes us through the not so illustrious history of the Asaf Jah’s and then down to the wire with Barkat Ali Khan’s story. Hyderabad was treacherous to both Tipu Sultan as well as the Marathas despite having alliances with them to fend off the English. Like Gwalior, Patiala and other princely states, Hyderabad survived 1857 by siding with the British. The Last Nizam is a well-researched and documented book and does not hold back on anything. We in India are now witnessing the final days of many great business empires. Not one of the top ten business houses of the 1970s, except for one Birla branch, survives in the top ten of today. The successors have dissipated their great wealth and taken to eccentric ways. This book should be a lesson to the many page 3 princelings who have inherited great names and estates as to how quickly these evaporate and how deadly a blow changing times can strike. A good, interesting and easy read.
CITY OF FEAR by Robin David. Penguin India, Delhi, 2007.
FOR Gujarat, the western state of India, the new millennium began on the wrong note as two consecutive calamities, one natural and the other man-made, shook the state in succession. The former was the devastating earthquake in 2001, followed a year later by the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent alleged pogrom. Much has been written about both. Yet, Gujarat-based journalist Robin David’s first book, City of Fear, set in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, turns out to be a strikingly different addition to existing literature, primarily on two counts: First, it is perhaps the only account of the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Gujarat narrated by an Indian Jew, a characteristic that enables the author to look at both worlds simultaneously, and nearly objectively. Second, the autobiographical account in the book that navigates across three decades (1970s-2000s), lends an interesting perspective to a society currently undergoing a rapid and rather bumpy transition from a traditional, norms-led way of life to a reflexively modern one.
David belongs to the community of the Bene Israel Jews – a minority among the minorities of India. His ancestors are known to have migrated from the Konkan coast of western India in the 19th century to places like Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Today there are about 300 Bene Israelis in Gujarat, a state with a population of 50 million. It’s interesting, therefore, that in this context the author’s ethnicity becomes an issue of concern and discussion for a society that has been forced into looking at – and refuses to look beyond – a Hindu-Muslim identity. The poignant narrative of a liberal Jewish journalist trying to retain his sanity in a proudly illiberal society turns out to be a highly readable case study in ethnocentrism and the defence of a society that perceives itself to be under threat from alien cultures and religions. Although the book does not solely rest in the backdrop of the Gujarat riots, this remains its most appealing aspect.
Initially, David traces the struggles of his life as a hemiplegic child raised in his famous grandfather Reuben David’s zoo in Ahmedabad in the late 1970s and, later, his adolescent years battling an identity crisis in Israel along with his rebellious writer-artist mother, Esther. The angst precipitates during his professional years of playing the proud ‘liberal’ journalist (as David says he thinks he was) or the ‘pseudo-secularist’ (as others saw him to be) covering the riots in 2002. Indeed, a family that never quite felt at home in a society and its restrictive norms then, ironically finds itself faced with a worse sense of insecurity decades later, in a now transformed individualistic or reflexively modernised Ahmedabad.
The author steers clear of journalistic informative reports of who died, was there sexual violence, what were the measures of rehabilitation and so on. Instead, in a self-deprecating autobiographical account, he focuses on the seemingly simple task of searching for a new house in Ahmedabad when the earthquake and then how the riots force him and his high-strung mother to move out of their ancestral house in the communally volatile area of Guptanagar. Finding a new house turns out to be an ordeal for the meat-eating mother and son in a largely vegetarian, Hindu-dominated city. It also turns out to be a discovery for the author to come upon the prevalent feeling of an identity crisis in the now globetrotting Gujarati population, trying to find anchorage in its traditions. On the one hand, the author strives, usually futilely, to explain to people who a ‘Yahudi’ (Jew) is. On the other, his religious identity is unwittingly thrust onto him on account of the anatomical commonality he shares with Muslims – a circumcised penis – which almost brings him on the verge of being lynched by a mob at the peak of the post-Godhra riots.1
In essence, the book captures the illusion of denial in an economically fast-progressing city and the absurdity of the refrain ‘everything is normal’ when nothing is.2 In one chapter, the author narrates his frequent conversations at a roadside tea stall with his voluble Muslim-hating friend Jayendrasinh Sisodia, who explains with collective calm why the pogrom was justified. The book’s title can be perceived in two ways: the obvious is the fear within the minorities of Gujarat (Ahmedabad in particular) against aggressive nationalist forces, but it could also mean a perceived fear within the majority Hindu population of Ahmedabad, as it struggles to hold onto its past in an increasingly NRI-ised society.
The author’s ethnicity and his profession together make his first book a stirring and sensible piece of work, even if at times a little languorous. His self-portrait as a hemiplegic gives a larger dimension to the alienation phenomenon which Ahmedabad typifies today. It is also an important book in that it first forces you to be the ‘outsider’ and then calmly tells you that the only way to deal with increasing prejudice is perhaps how the Jews did at the time of the Holocaust: satirically. Ominously, the book foretold the future of a state which has chosen Hitler’s fascism over the non-violence of the son of its soil, Mahatma Gandhi, in just over 30 years. Indeed, eight months after the book was released, Gujarat voted the Hindu nationalist BJP led by Narendra Modi, back to power.
1. As was widely reported during the Gujarat riots, Hindu nationalist mobs forced men on the streets to remove their trousers to identify Muslim men from the rest.
2. Studies by noted political scientist Ashutosh Varshney report the highest per capita rate of deaths in communal incidents for Gujarat, around 117 per million of urban population. Ahmedabad together with its neighbour Vadodara has accounted for some 75 per cent of total deaths in communal violence between 1950 and 1995. Ahmedabad is also a city which is commercially and residentially polarised on Hindu-Muslim lines; it is home to Asia’s largest known Muslim ghetto.
BOMBAY CINEMA: An Archive of the City by Ranjani Mazumdar. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007.
THE ‘Aati Kya Khandala’ song picturized on Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee in Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Ghulam’ features the now celebrated question ‘Kya Bolti Tu?’ (What say you?), which has gone down in contemporary South Asian folklore as the most profound seductive challenge, invitation and question that a ‘tapori’ (urban vagabond) can offer the object of his affections.
The spiralling responses to this invitation/challenge/question present us with the possibility of the three essential ingredients of the good life – khana, peena and aish (feasting, drinking and luxury). If for a moment, for the purposes of an allegory or a thought experiment, we consider the tapori to be the engaged viewer, and the heroine to be cinema, then the song itself, which asks of cinema what she wants to say (‘Kya Bolti Tu?’) is the best that Film Studies can be. (After all, practice is the answer to the question posed by theory, and theory is the answer to the questions posed by practice). If the answers (following the content of the song) point in the direction of a feast, an intoxication and an entertainment as rich as cinema itself, then Film Studies is a discipline with a real future. For this to be true the film theorist, like the tapori, has to endow his/her enquiry with a performative elan and a narrative energy that makes it transcend the mere asking of theoretically significant questions. Each question has to beget more.
Ranjani Mazumdar, a film theorist and film maker (whose theoretical excursions have the performative elan that qualifies her endeavour as worthy of any true ‘taporan’) offers us a feast and an intoxication of images and ideas when she asks her ‘kya bolti tu’ question to the object on which she showers her attention – the Bombay Cinema. The Bombay Cinema responds to her insistent, yet affectionate enquiry with a revelatory array that constitutes a cinematic archive of the city. Spaces, personae, situations, interiors and interiorities of different kinds, some dark, some lethal, some blase, some energetically optimistic, all come tumbling out to answer Mazumdar’s ‘Kya Bolti Tu?’
Ranjani Mazumdar’s first book, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City recently published by Permanent Black in India (and by the University of Minnesota Press in the United States) is in many ways as hybrid an object as the phenomenon it seeks to examine. If Bombay Cinema, which addresses its audience in a ‘bombayya’ patois that distils many languages, registers and forms of speech, then Mazumdar’s eponymous book addresses its reader with an equally complex array of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary moves. Ranjani Mazumdar situates her book at the crossroads of film theory, history and cultural studies, urban studies, architecture and politics. Her close readings of films as diverse as ‘Deewar’, ‘Rangeela’, ‘Ghulam’, ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ – makes us look at Bombay Cinema anew, as a set of cultural artefacts committed to the interpretation of the South Asian city. The result adds depth, grit and texture to the field of film studies in India.
Here, at last, is a book-length study on Cinema in India that does not get locked into a dance of hermetic closure between what transpires on screen and a set of stock off-screen textual and cultural references, but more importantly, walks the streets where the films are set, looks at shop windows, publicity material, costumes, fashion, architecture, telecommunications and the concrete materiality that surrounds the film object. This enables it to consider Bombay cinema’s embedded presence within the sprawl and intricate mesh of affects and dispositions that is South Asian modernity today. All this is done with a deliberate emphasis on the practice of film and the film practitioner, which no doubt stems from Mazumdar’s understanding of herself as a practitioner who also does theory. Thus discussions with set designers such as Sharmishta Roy, or script writer-directors such as Anurag Kashyap are as central to Mazumdar’s work as her informed and erudite take on critical theory, film history, literary hermeneutics, architecture and urban studies.
Crucial to Mazumdar’s method and argument is the unhinging of the Bombay cinema from its hitherto largely unquestioned ‘national’ frame within which it had been placed by a previous generation of film critics, who by trying to identify what was ‘Indian’ in the Cinema that came out of Bombay, neglected to engage with the city that the films themselves unfailingly addressed.
Instead of seeing cinema as the allegory of the nation, Mazumdar restores to our understanding of the Bombay cinema an adequate measure of recognition of the messy and complex urbanity that it inhabits. Through figures such as the street rebel ‘tapori’, or the amoral pathology of the inheritors of the legacy of the ‘angry young man’ of ’70s Hindi cinema, and the new assertively sexual young female protagonist who supplants the ‘Sati-Savitri’ trope of earlier years, Mazumdar details an array of emerging possibilities of being and living in the city and in cinema that can no longer be contained within the one-size-fits-all category of the ‘national’. Bombay cinema’s city, which moves from the blur of the street to the incandescent mall to the dark shadows of the criminal underworld, is both more intensely local in that it speaks to the concreteness of neighbourhoods and streets, and also definitely global, in that it sees these spaces as enmeshed within a circuit of global flows of new affects and a global economy of desires. Indeed, a close reading of Mazumdar’s take on the cinema of the ’90s makes it possible for us to ask her kind of questions to the cinema of the 1950s. Such an exercise, though speculative, could yield an archive of the 1950s that may be seen, in retrospect, as being as unyielding to the respectable taxonomic regularity of the national-cultural as the cinema of the nineties proves to be in this book. Then we could see the likes of Dev Anand, Johnnie Walker, Raj Kapur and even the occasional Guru Dutt begin to acquire shades of incipient taporihood.
Mazumdar’s challenge, her ‘kya bolti tu’, needs an adequately complex response from within the developing discipline of film studies in India. Perhaps the history of cinema in India needs to be written afresh, not as the history of Indian cinema, but as the history of cinema in Indian cities, or the history of Indian cities in cinema. This book, like any book worth its name, demands the writing of many more. Film and film theory, both will be the richer for it.
MY COUNTRY, MY LIFE by L.K. Advani. Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 2008.
ALL autobiographies are essentially exercises in self-justification. If one probes deeper, even such celebrated, no-holds-barred, accounts as the Mahatma’s My Experiments With Truth or Rousseau’s Confessions may not escape this description. However, this does not mean that autobiographies per se are unreliable, only that they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Here is an autobiography, penned by one of the most influential contemporary political leaders, that compels the reader to rush to the nearest grocery shop to buy several sacks of salt. If the publication of this book is meant to mark the launch of the writer’s prime ministerial campaign, it is surely not a very good beginning.
The book is short on facts and long on insipid, boring and contestable details of the political history of post-Independence India. Already, former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah has called Advani a ‘liar’ and his book ‘worth nothing’ in a television interview, former U.S. Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill has denied an episode involving him by pointing out that he was not posted to India at that time, and his former cabinet colleague George Fernandes, who continues to be convenor of the National Democratic Alliance, has rebutted his assertion that he was not kept in the loop when the decision to send Jaswant Singh to Kandahar for the terrorists-for-hostages swap was taken. Moreover, news reports that appeared in the Indian as well as foreign media about the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 point to the regrettable reality that Advani’s account of the event is nothing but a clever fabrication. Clearly, the book does no credit to its author.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Advani persists with the pretence that there were no organisational linkages between the RSS and the Jan Sangh in the past, or that there are any between the RSS and the BJP now. His account of how the Jan Sangh was founded is meant to convince the reader that it was Syama Prasad Mookerjee who wanted to form a political party and the RSS and its chief M.S. Golwalkar took considerable time to very reluctantly come around to the idea because the RSS was essentially non-political in nature. Here one is reminded of Myron Weiner’s comment about the RSS: ‘It was non-political only in one sense: it did not take part in elections nor was it organised for electoral purposes.’ It is a fact of history that the 6 September 1949 issue of Organiser that published the text of the RSS’ newly formulated Constitution also carried an article by Balraj Madhok strongly advocating the organisation’s entry into politics. While Golwalkar personally was not enamoured of politics, he later himself admitted that ‘I chose some of my colleagues, staunch and tried workers, who could selflessly and unflinchingly shoulder the burden of founding the new party.’ It was a marriage of convenience between a leader without a party (Mookerjee) and a party without a leader (RSS). It is also not without significance that K.R. Malkani, a devoted RSS member and editor of its organ Organiser, wrote a seminal note on the principles of party formation, much before the Jan Sangh was actually founded.
It is public knowledge that the RSS has always exercised decisive organisational control over the erstwhile Jan Sangh and now on the BJP. Advani is the best person to enlighten the reader about the mechanics of this phenomenon as he has played a prominent role both in the Jan Sangh and the BJP. But the book sheds hardly any light on the symbiotic relationship.
In the aftermath of the Jinnah controversy, Advani had to make an ignominious exit as BJP president. This is how he describes the momentous event: ‘One day, in the middle of 2005, I was told that I should step down from presidentship of the BJP by the year-end after the conclusion of the party’s ongoing silver jubilee commemoration.’ The reader is kept in the dark about the identity of the person, or group of persons who told (or ordered?) Advani to resign. One feels sorry for Advani because he was merely trying to evaluate Jinnah in the same way as he had earlier done in the case of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, hailed by him and the Sangh clan as a great nationalist and revolutionary. Like Jinnah, Savarkar was in the initial phase of his life a great champion of Hindu-Muslim unity and engaged in revolutionary activity. During his imprisonment, his views underwent a fundamental change and he came up with the concept of political Hindutva. Even before Jinnah, he had propounded the two-nation theory. So, it was in the fitness of things for Advani, a great admirer of Savarkar, to say only good things about Jinnah’s ‘secular vision’.
If the reader expects to know Advani-the-Man better after reading more than one thousand pages of this tome, he is in for a great disappointment. Did he ever fall in love? Did he ever doubt his beliefs? Did he ever experience ontological angst? Who are his personal friends? How does he view life in general, and what is his spiritual quest, if any? We don’t get a clue to the real L.K. Advani. The so-called autobiography, replete with lengthy quotations from Jan Sangh and BJP resolutions and writings of K.M. Munshi and others of his ilk, offers no glimpse into the inner world of the author. The way Advani obliquely justifies the gruesome murder of Graham Staines and his sons by making a pointed reference to Staines’ missionary activity to convert Hindus into Christians is as horrific as his stout defence of Narendra Modi and his role in the post-Godhra anti-Muslim carnage. It is difficult to suppress laughter when one reads those sections of the book where Advani waxes lyrical about the syncretic traditions of Sindh and tells the reader as to how he and his entire family are influenced by the ideals of Sufism.
There is another myth that the book tries to reinforce, though the internal evidence militates against it. This is the myth of the Ram-Lakshman duo in the form of Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani team. How much trust Vajpayee placed in Advani can be inferred from his own admission: that he did not know about Jaswant Singh escorting the terrorists to Kandahar as the clearance for it must have come from Vajpayee himself. People have not forgotten that Vajpayee did not delegate his authority to Advani even when he was undergoing the knee-replacement surgery under the influence of general anaesthesia. Vajpayee’s Foreword to Advani’s book takes great pains to underline the role Advani always played – that of Vajpayee’s assistant!