Saturday, November 11, 2023

Economic Diplomacy of the English Ambassador Thomas Roe

“Courting India: England, Mughal India and the origins of empire” by Nandini Das (published in May 2023) is a fascinating read for those interested in the history of the British entry into India. 

As a former diplomat, I enjoyed reading about the experience of Sir Thomas Roe, the first British ambassador to India to the Mughal court of Emperor Jahangir. His mission is a case study for Economic Diplomacy.


When East India company started exploring India for business in India in the late sixteenth century, they needed approvals and favours from Emperor Jahangir. They sent to the Mughal court some merchants but they were not taken seriously. So the British decided to send an ambassador to reach out to the emperor. They nominated Sir Thomas Roe, a 35-year old,  as ambassador of King James I. His diplomatic Instructions clarified that while he represented his king’s ‘honour and dignity’, he had to use all means possible ‘to advance the trade of the East India Company’. Roe’s salary was paid by the East India company. He got 600 pounds as annual salary. He took some advance from which he spent over one hundred pounds to buy dress for himself and livery for his servants. 
Roe set out on his voyage on 2 February 1615 and reached Surat after six months of voyage. He had brought fifteen people in his retinue which included a chaplain, a doctor, cook, secretary and even a couple of musicians. 
His first challenge was to establish his authority as ambassador and get special privileges and protocol respect. He had to fight for these starting with the landing in Surat. When he reached Surat on 25 december 1615, they made an announcement to the local authorities about the arrival of an ambassador. But the locals laughed at the title and did not take it seriously. The customs authorities wanted to search his luggage. Roe put his foot down and refused to allow the search claiming special privilege as ambassador. He wrote to Zulfiqar Khan, the governor of the Surat area. Khan replied that customs search was standard procedure but he would make an exception in recognition of Roe’s status
The ambassador set foot for the first time on Indian soil, welcomed by a volley of shots from the cavalry. But there was another diplomatic tussle. The thirty cavalry men who were to lead the procession to his place of stay were sitting under an open tent and did not rise to greet him. Roe said he would not go until they stood up and did the honours. 
The governor invited Roe to pay him a visit. But Roe declined the invitation saying that according to protocol ambassadors could not visit a foreign official first before presenting themselves to the King. Then the governor wanted to meet the commander of the English ship. Roe wrote to commander Keeling, forbidding him from receiving the governor. Finally, Zulfiqar Khan visited Roe at the latter’s residence.
On 30 October 1615, Roe received Emperor Jahangir’s farmān acknowledging him as ambassador and inviting him to the court as well as commanding Mughal governors on the route to offer all assistance to the ambassador. On the way, Roe stopped in Burhanpur ruled by Parvez, the second son of Jehangir.  When he went to see him, the courtiers asked him to bow and offer the customary kurnish (ritual salute) or sijda (full ceremonial prostration).  Roe refused. Then they asked him to stand but he demanded a chair to sit. The courtiers then told him politely that ‘as a courtesy’, the prince granted him permission to lean against a nearby pillar.
Roe's biggest challenge was that the powerful, large and wealthy Mughal emperor and his court did not take England, the English King and his ambassador seriously. Emperor Jahangir was far more broadminded and progressive in his outlook in comparison to the protestant ambassador who was belittling the catholic Portuguese. 

Roe had brought gifts for the Emperor and the Mughal dignitaries. But these were looked down as insignificant and poor in comparison. Jahangir’s own ambassador to Shah Abbas, the ruler of Persia, had given gifts of elephants, gold and silver. The Persian ambassador gave gifts of horses and camels besides precious stones to Emperor Jahangir. Roe’s only gifts Emperor Jahangir and his son Prince Khurram (later..Shajahan) enjoyed were the wines.

During his posting for three years as ambassador, Roe had managed to get some trade concessions from the Mughals for East India company. Roe had attended Jehangir’s court regularly and cultivated some senior advisors and family members of the Emperor. He tried hard to advance the English interests at the expense of Portuguese and Dutch but the Mughals were ahead in the game. They made the Europeans to compete with each other for favours. 
Roe wrote about his daily activities, success and failures in his diaries as well as in his letters to the Company and to his friends. Some of these, reproduced in the book, are interesting.

Friday, June 02, 2023

My life as a comrade - Malayali Marxist Shilaja’s book

During my Latin America lectures in the Kerala University in Trivandrum in recent months, I found the students knowledgeable about the Pink Tide, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Gabriel Boric. It is not surprising given the Marxist roots in the state, which had made history by electing the first Marxist government in the world in 1957. Since then, the state has elected Marxists to power many times including in the last elections in 2021. During interactions with the students, I realized that Marxism in Kerala is more than a political ideology. It has become a way of life, good or bad. This is confirmed by Shilaja’s book, “My life as a comrade: The Story of an Extraordinary Politician and the World That Shaped Her”. Shailaja became famous as the health minister of the state who managed the covid crisis successfully setting an example for other states. 

Shailaja says, “I was – and still am – definitely an idealist, extremely interested in the theory of politics. I’ve always been curious about the systems that brought our society to where it is. I had skated over the principles of Marx but I thought I needed to understand those better. He spoke about dialectic materialism, where the pursuit of material wants causes conflict between opposing forces of nature. He believed we need to be catalysts for good. Marx said we must struggle for rights; it was right to do so”.
She asserts, “the spiritual guidance for my work, and indeed my life, has been provided by communist ideology. It has helped me work through doubt and indecision repeatedly during more than thirty years of public service. Having a philosophy or a belief that is larger than us helps us deal with the minute disappointments that pepper our lives.
In 2018, on my very first trip to London, I was asked what I wanted to see. The answer was simple: Karl Marx’s cemetery in Highgate Park. It had been a long-held dream, and the experience was perfect”.
To start with, she was dragged into politics because of her family. She says, “ I come from a family in politics but not a family of politicians. My life story is built on the history of many people, including my grandmother and my uncles. I stand on their legacy. It is they who taught me about politics – what it means, why it’s important”.
She says, “My journey into politics was made possible because of the socio-political milieu I was part of. I come from a family of people who get involved in problems, in struggles, who believe in working for change. But we had no clout, no connections, except for those forged on public battlefields. However, the structure of the communist Party, which has been our mainstay for generations, was rise of a dedicated Party worker, one rank at a time. Along the way, opportunities and encouragement from others, coupled with my tenacity and a belief that we can make a difference, have pushed me forward. This is my story. But it is also the story of the Malabar, and the growth of communism in Kerala.
She took to politics seriously after her family members and friends were subjected to harassment and suffering during the Emergency period.  She says, “Watching the injustice of many intellectuals, writers, politicians and others being incarcerated, the attack on India’s democratic and federalist ideals, made me aware of how fragile our system was. Observing the events of that year, especially my uncle’s ordeal during that time, and becoming more aware of the inequity of power and resources around me, communism and Marxian thought started to make even more sense. The unfairness of it hit hard. Deciding at that moment that politics was going to be my way forward, I became a member of the Madathil CPI(M) branch in 1977”.
She started from the bottom, working her way up through the disciplined hierarchy of the CPI(M). She started with organization of women’s groups in her area. It was a challenging assignment to get the women out of their patriarchal houses and educate and empower them. 
Shailaja extends her personal conviction to her state itself with a bold statement, “most Malayalis are socialists at heart and that is what makes Kerala exemplary. Socialism has made its way into our collective psyche through popular culture and literature”.
However, she admits, “I am not a scholar, and I don’t have high educational qualifications. I have a basic degree, and I am a schoolteacher, that is all. I studied Marxist philosophy and accepted it deeply, and that is what has impacted my life”.

Her husband, also a comrade, was a generous soul who took a back seat and let the wife shine.
Shailaja was dropped from the new cabinet formed after the 2021 elections by Chief Minister Pinayari Vijayan who saw her as a rival for his chair, especially after the popularity she had earned in India and the world during covid.

While Shailaja sees the world through Marxism, she is pragmatic and realistic. She respects the democratic rules and the opponents. She believes in working with civil servants and the existing system to get the best for the society.
She ends the book saying, “So, my life as a comrade continues”. future chief minister, for sure..

I guess, Shailaja’s story is typical of the life stories of millions of Malayalis who have embraced Marxism as a way of life.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Victory City – novel by Salman Rushdie

Victory City is the latest novel of Salman Rushdie. He jumps straight into ‘magical realism’ with the opening line itself: “On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kam-pana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga and buried it in a clay pot sealed with wax in the heart of the ruined Royal Enclosure, as a message to the future. Four and a half centuries later we found that pot and read for the first time the immortal masterpiece named the Jayaparajaya, meaning ‘Victory and Defeat’, written in the Sanskrit language, as long as the Ramayana, made up of twenty-four thousand verses, and we learned the secrets of the empire she had concealed from history for more than one hundred and sixty thousand days”.

Rushdie takes the reader on an eventful journey through the three hundred years (1336-1646) history of Vijayanagara empire in which he has woven magic imaginatively and entertainingly. Kampana, the protoganist, throws seeds which become the Vijaynagara (Bisnaga) empire with cities, palaces, walls and markets. She then whispers into the ears of the rulers and the people who come alive in the new empire. At the end, when she is blinded by emperor Krishnadevaraya and the empire is ending, the descendants of the original inhabitants start whispering their lives into her ears helping her to complete the writing of history. Things go into reverse, as if rivers had started flowing upstream. 
Rushdie revels in magical realism with passages like this: “In the city of Zerelda, time flies. Every day the citizens, who know that life is short, rush about with large nets trying to capture the minutes and hours that float around just above their heads like brightly coloured butterflies. The lucky ones who capture a little time and gulp it down – it’s easily edible, and quite delicious – have their lives elongated. But time is elusive, and many fail”.
Rushdie teases the readers saying, “This is that story, retold in plainer language by the present author, who is neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns, and who offers this version for the simple entertainment and possible edification of today’s readers, the old and the young, the educated and the not so educated, those in search of wisdom and those amused by folly, northerners and southerners, followers of different gods and of no gods, the broad-minded and the narrow-minded, men and women and members of the genders beyond and in between, scions of the nobility and rank commoners, good people and rogues, charlatans and foreigners, humble sages, and egotistical fools”.
Rushdie pronounces and provokes on contemporary political and social issues of India. While describing the conflicts between the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar and the Muslim sultanates he dives into religious intolerance, puritanism and fanaticism. He has made references to the stories of Mahabharath and Ramayana. But after having learnt his lesson from the reaction to Satanic Verses, Rushdie has avoided danger this time by his subtle narratives and subdued language.   
Throughout the novel, he has thrown pearls of wisdom thrown here and there:
-History is the consequence not only of people’s actions, but also of their forgetfulness.’
-The miraculous and the everyday are two halves of a single whole, and that we ourselves are the gods we seek to worship, and capable of mighty deeds.
-The truth of the world is that people act according to their natures, and that is what will happen.
Here is the memorable ending of the novel...
She was two hundred and forty-seven years old. These were her last words. 
I, Pampa Kampana, am the author of this book. I have lived to see an empire rise and fall. How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens? They exist now only in words. While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both. Now they are neither. Words are the only victors. What they did, or thought, or felt, no longer exists. Only these words describing those things remain. They will be remembered in the way I have chosen to remember them. Their deeds will only be known in the way they have been set down. They will mean what I wish them to mean. I myself am nothing now. All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.
I enjoyed this book in the way as I did in the case of most of his other novels. I admire Rushdie’s extraordinary talents as a writer and story-teller. I believe he deserves Nobel Prize. 

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Thiyagaraja Aradhana, a unique musical experience...

Yesterday I went to the annual Thiyagaraja Aradhana (worship)  Music Festival at Thiruvaiyaru, 25 kms from my village. 

I had been to this festival in 2019. But this time it is bigger with 294 concerts (242 last time) packed into six days from 6 to 11 January. This is the 176th year of organisation of the festival

Every day, the festival starts off in the morning and ends in the night with Nadhaswaram concerts. In the 2023 edition, there are a total of 80 Nadhaswaram concerts. This is interesting in view of the fact that Nadhaswaram and the accompanying drum instrument Thavil are not considered as part of classical Carnatic Music. But no marriage is conducted or temple procession held without the accompaniment of the auspicious music of Nadhaswaram. 

There are some Veena, and Violin concerts too although most are vocal performances.  

This festival should be one of the most efficiently organised events in India with strict adherence to punctuality. Each artiste is given slot of 20 or 15 or 10 minutes. 

This is a typical page from the program booklet..

But a few minutes before the end of each performance, the next group has to sit on the second stage and be ready to start in time. This is how 60 concerts are organised each day from 9 am to 1020 pm. 

The artistes perform not for money but as payment of tribute to Thiyagaraja, the most famous composer of Carnatic music who lived from 1767 to 1847. The stage faces on the other side the samadhi (tomb) of Thiyagaraja where his body was cremated.

Although the audience is very small in the mornings and afternoon, the crowd increases in the evening when the famous artistes like Sudha Ragunathan perform. The audience has to sit on the sand floor and enjoy the breeze coming from the Cauvery river on one side and the aroma of the filter coffee made on the other side of the venue.

The residents of Thiruvaiyaru can listen to the music from the loud speakers put up in the main streets of the town.

The festival is open to the public free of cost. There are no tickets. 

There are people who travel from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to watch this concert. Many compositions of the composer Thiyagaraja are in Telugu language.

Here is a colorful member of the audience enjoying himself while putting up a show of his own..

Here is a blog I wrote on the 2019 Aradhana with the title Carnatic music flowing into Cauvery river

The Thiyagaraja Aradhana is certainly one of the largest, most unusual and interesting classical music festivals in the world. It is a unique and memorable musical experience

Thursday, March 17, 2022

“Karunanidhi: A Life” – book by A S Panneerselvan

 “Karunanidhi: A Life” – book by A S Panneerselvan
I bought the book instinctively when I saw a quote of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (one of my favourite Latin American writers) in the author’s introduction, “ I told Karunanidhi I was using Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a model. I shared with him what Marquez told the biographer: ‘Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life. What Márquez meant to Martin is what Karunanidhi means to me”.

As a journalist, Panneerselvan had interacted with Karunanidhi and those close to him from the family and party. He had worked on the book off and on for about twenty years.
The book gives a glimpse of the life and achievements of Karunanidhi whose talents and achievements are admirable. He is a rare combination of a creative writer with extraordinary oratorical talents, visionary leadership, political instincts, organizational skills and administrative competence. It is even more amazing in the light of the fact that he did not complete school education after having failed repeatedly in the final year school examination. 
Karunanidhi was a prolific writer. He has written scripts for 67 films starting with “ Rajakumari” in 2011 and “Ponnar Sankar” in 2011. He has authored 46 short stories, 13 plays, 10 novels, 2 novellas and 7000 letters he wrote daily in Murasoli newspaper. He also wrote literary pieces and lyrics for some film songs. He had even acted in some of the plays. His autobiography nenjikku needhi ( justice to the Conscience) runs into several volumes. He edited newspapers and magazines. An early riser, he used to finish most of his writing before breakfast and before the arrival of party cadres. The combination of prodigious talent, strict discipline and a work ethic was the secret of Karunanidhi’s prolific output as a writer. 
He was a mesmerizing orator with a unique style of poetic expressions, inimitable humour, witty word play and inspiring ideas. I remember how I was moved to cry while listening to his eulogy in radio when Annadurai died in 1969.There is no other Tamil political leader who could match Karunanidhi’s speeches.
Karunanidhi was chief minister of Tamil Nadu for five terms and leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for over five decades. He has a record of victory in all the 13 times he stood for elections. He was a star campaigner and strategist for DMK party. He got more ministerial posts in the coalition governments in Delhi and got more than the due share of the state from the central governments through skillful negotiations. 
The author has put Karunanidhi’s life’s events in the context of the larger political developments in the state, the country and in the world. One such larger issue was the anti-Brahmin movement in the state and Karunanidhi’s promotion of Tamil language and non-Brahmins.  The author cites an incident in one of the Thiagaraja Aradhana music festivals in Thiruvaiyaru. The musicians who participated in the festival used to sing only in Sanskrit and Telugu and not in Tamil. The reason for this was the fact that the Trinity of Composers of Carnatic music comprising  Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri had composed only in Telugu and Sanskrit. Many of the Brahmin singers and composers looked down on Tamil considering it as a language of the lower castes. For them, Sanskrit was the divine language. During an annual festival, one of the singers rendered a Tamil song at the end of his performance in honour of Tyagaraja. The next singer refused to sing till the place was ‘purified’ as it had been polluted with a Tamil song. The organizers immediately called for priests to perform a special puja to purify the place; they cleaned the concert stage with holy water and then invited the next singer to perform. Reacting to this Karunanidhi had said, “‘My music classes were in reality my first political class. I learnt about the subjugation of human beings based on their caste; I could witness the glee with which some people could humiliate others as well as the self-righteousness of others in practising their customs without even realizing that they are ill-treating a vast majority of the people”.
While the author has covered the achievements of Karunanidhi, he has not gone into the failures, mistakes, electoral defeats of the party, corruption allegations and dynastic politics. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Saraswati, the goddess of learning

Yesterday was Saraswati Poojai. I do not believe in poojas and gods. I am an atheist, typical of the generation which was influenced and shaped by the Dravidian social reformist movements in Tamilnadu. 
Beyond my atheistic mindset, there is a secret image of Saraswati in my heart.  I remember fondly the Saraswati Poojas in my childhood. The image of Saraswati  as the goddess of learning, wisdom and arts had fascinated and inspired me as a child and has been etched strongly in my memory. I liked the picture of the goddess sitting on the white lotus flower with a book in the hand. 

As a kid, I was fond of books and tried to read whatever I could get hold of and whenever I could. But my illiterate uncle, who brought me up did not believe in Saraswati. He worshipped Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. He believed that pursuit of agriculture was the best way to invite Lakshmi into the home. Unknowingly my illiterate uncle believed in the Thirukkural..  
உழுதுண்டு வாழ்வாரே வாழ்வார்மற் றெல்லாம்
தொழுதுண்டு பின்செல் பவர்.
(Life with a plow is the real life
The rest are those who follow behind)
My uncle would scold me if he saw me with a book in hand outside the school days. So I would hide the book behind my back while walking around the fields. 
I had access only to the school text books. No one bought non-text books in the village. There were no books at home in the house of my illiterate uncle and aunt. Neither my elementary school in Raramuthiraikottai nor my high school in Mariammankovil had libraries. Fortunately the village Panchayat Board building had some books including epics such as Ponniyin Selvan and Sivakamiyin Sabadam. But they had only some parts of the several volumes. So I would go to other village panchayat boards to get the missing parts. Poondi Pushpam college where I went after school had a large library. I was thrilled to read so many books and magazines outside my chemistry subject. I read so many Tamil poems... And I got carried away..I wanted to become a poet. In fact, I had applied for MA Tamil Literature in Pachaiyappa’s College, Madras. But my Tamil professor in Poondi college advised me against that and persuaded me to study MSc chemistry which would have more job opportunities. 
While working as a junior lecturer in Pachaiyappas College, I used to carry non-chemistry books to the staff room for reading to prepare for the civil service examination. Some of my senior colleagues would laugh behind my back and thought that I was delusional. So I had to hide the general knowledge books from the colleagues.
I was lucky that my reading resulted in the selection to the Indian Foreign Service. During the whole career of thirty five years I had to constantly keep up reading every day to update my knowledge of international affairs. Posting in different countries every three years meant that I had to study and learn about different cultures, markets and political systems. 
Since my retirement in 2012, I follow the advice of Bharathiar… 
காலை எழுந்தவுடன் படிப்பு - பின்பு
கனிவு கொடுக்கும் நல்ல பாட்டு
மாலை முழுதும் விளையாட்டு - என்று
வழக்கப் படுத்திக்கொள்ளு பாப்பா.
(Reading in the morning 
Listening to music later
Playing in the evening
Make this as the habit)
I read in the morning, play golf in the afternoon and listen to music in the evening with a drink, which Bharathi missed out mentioning..
I keep a little bronze idol of Saraswati on my desk which reminds me every day the importance and joy of reading and learning. But the more I read, the more I realise the wisdom of the Tamil poet Avvaiyar.. 
கற்றது கை மண் அளவு.  கல்லாதது உலகளவு.
(what one has learnt is just handful of sand..what is more to learn is vast like the earth)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Ved Mehta: From a blind child to a celebrity writer

Indians go to US for higher education, jobs and some of them to settle down in the Promised Land.  But Ved Mehta who became blind at the age of three went to US for a different reason in 1949 when he was fifteen. In his own words, “I constantly dreamed of and worked on getting out of India and making my way to the West, where my disability would not be perceived as a barrier to education”. He got admission in a school for the blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. He went to Harvard and Oxford universities for higher studies. He settled in New York and became an American citizen in 1975. He was a staff writer for New Yorker from 1960 to 1993. Besides writing, he taught in Yale and New York universities.

He started writing for New Yorker magazine, when was a college student. He published his first book, an autobiography, when he was 23. He says that he wrote it out of a feeling that he could partly alleviate a life of deprivation, by writing about it. He was proud that he had earned his livelihood with his pen, since his 20s. His chosen method for improvement of his writing was to read and reread works of masters such as Shakespeare and Milton.

Mehta is the author of 27 books of fiction and non-fiction covering a variety of themes such as  Indian politics, Oxford Dons and American education. He has written a monumental autobiography “Continents of Exile”, in twelve installments between 1972 and 2004. He calls it as a cross- cultural story of India, England and US.  

Mehta became blind at the age of four due to meningitis. Since then, his life was about overcoming the disability. He says,” I had to prove every day to everyone that I was able to do things that they thought I could not do. Whenever people tried to help or protect me, they jarred my self- confidence and dulled my senses”.  To prove to others, he drove cycle in his childhood and car in his youth to impress his date, much to the consternation of others.

Every day of his life was struggle for him, as he admits, “ There was hardly a day that I did not feel defeated, condenscended to and humiliated- when I did not long to be spared the incessant indignities that assailed me”. Reliance on his own will to overcome his disability made him feel lonely and the pain of loneliness was unrelenting.


He compares himself to those blessed with eye sight saying,  “I was in the grip of the fantasy that I could see. Even then I maintained the habit of checking external reality. I never accidentally walked off a cliff, for instance. Without such continual checking, I could not have survived in the sighted world. But the sighted can think what they like about the blind without feeling the need to check the reality of the blind. Every moment, I instinctively translated into images any and all information received by my sharpened senses. I was creating my own reality, seeing things in my own way- only imagining that what I saw was identical to what other people saw”.


He sought romantic relationship during his college years but found that girls were prepared to be friends with him but generally spurned any romantic overtures. It was only after he started writing and publishing that girls took romantic interest in him. He has written about his romance and muses in the book “ All for love”. 


Mehta died on 9 January 2021. 

In his website, he says, " Deprivation often makes a writer". 

I am inspired by his life story and achievements. As I struggle with my own amateurish occasional writings, I am encouraged by his statement,"Some forty years after I published my first book I am struggling with words and sentences, drafts and alterations. I was constantly tempted to put off writing, a process which is turbulent and involves a lot of angst."