Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Company and its Loot

Four soldiers in four different uniforms. Look closely and you may find that it is the same soldier, standing ramrod erect, is serving as a model for different sets of coats, caps and trousers. In all probability he was from a village in present day Tamil Nadu, Telengana or Kerala, who was drilled and trained in Madras, and sent to fight battles at Plassey, Buxar, Pathargarh or Assey.

What did he do with all the money he earned from the British East India Company (EIC)? What stories did he tell his grandchildren of his long marches and battles across north India? Of cavalry charges blown to smithereens, of cities raped and plundered for his EIC officers? We may never get to know stories of the men who actually transformed India but William Dalrymple's latest book will certainly change the way you've understood Indian history from school textbooks and Amar Chitra Kathas.

The Anarchy is about the "Relentless Rise of the East India Company". It is also about bursting myths  and stereotypes; looking at the larger picture on the chessboard of Indian political economy, and reminding ourselves about the price we paid for our insular stupidity and internecine conflicts for  about two centuries.

The numbers are staggering. In 1500s India had a population of just 150 million (less than that of just Uttar Pradesh today!) - a fifth of the world's total -- and it was an industrial powerhouse, a world leader in manufactured textiles. In the early 1600s India was creating 22.5% of world GDP. England then had just 5% of India's population and was producing just under 3% of world's manufactured goods. Between 1586 and 1605, European silver flowed into the Mughal heartland at the rate of 18 metric tons a year!

And then wealth - gold, silver, youth, talent - started flowing in the opposite direction, gradually increasing pace over a century until the whole county had been reduced to a basket-case by 1947.

We may never get to know about the life and times of the farmers, weavers and foot-soldiers on whose backs the British looted India, but life of the 16th Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II gives us an idea of the chaos and turmoil that transformed the country into a basket case -
"He was now in his seventy-seventh year. As a boy he had seen Nader Shah ride into Delhi, and leave carrying away the Peacock Throne, into which was embedded the great Koh-i-Noor diamond. He had escaped Imad-ul-Mulk's attempt to assassinate him and survived repeated battles with Clive. He had fought the Company at Patna and Buxar, awarded the Diwani to Robert Clive at Allahabad and defied the Company with his cross-country trek back to Delhi. There, with Mirza Najaf Khan, against all the odds he had nearly succeeded in rebuilding the empire of this ancestors; only to see it vanish like a mirage after the premature death of the last great Mughal general. Finally, at his lowest point, the Emperor had been assaulted and blinded by his psychotic former favourite, Ghulam Qadir (Rohilla)."
While this book takes us through the changing fortunes of individuals and nations, I found a few things really remarkable -

* Maratha Resilience: The fighting units created by Shivaji perhaps stood the best chance of taking over the mantle of the Mughals - especially after having quickly dominated much of North and East India. Despite the terrible defeat at the Third Battle of Panipat (~36,000 dead in one day!) they bounced back to defeat the Jats, Rajputs and Rohillas, and yet , when it really mattered, the Peshwas, Holkars and Scindia's kept squabbling amongst themselves and failed to unite against a common enemy.

* Forts and Battles: Many of the key battles were won by a whisker - especially the historic ones at Plassey and Buxar. But there were many others that barely find mention in our history books, especially -
  • The Battle of Udhwa Nala (1763) where Mir Qasim tried to take a stand against EIC, and the capture of a PoW from a raiding party led to a surprise counter-attack...and the slaughter of over 15,000 defenders.
  • The Battle of Pathargarh (1772): 10 years after the Rohillas ditched the Marathas and sided with the Afghan invader, Admed Shah Abdali at the Third Battle of Panipat, the Marathas took their revenge at the Pathargarh Fort. Its amazing to know that among the captives at this fort were Maratha women captured a decade later at Panipat!
  • Battle of Talegaon (1779) - EICs first major defeat against the Marathas which led to the humiliating Treaty of Wadgaon.
  • Seige of Aligarh (1803) - EIC against Marathas and Rajputs who had been sold out by their own mercenary French commanders.
  • Battle of Assaye (1803) - The last of the great decisive battles between the Marathas and the EIC

* Naga Ascetic Warriors: It is surprising to know that more than 6000 naked Naga ascetics fought for the Nawab of Avadh as shock troopers!

* Mercenaries: There were scores of French mercenaries who helped modernise rival armies in India, from Tipu's Mysore to Madhaji Scindia's Marathas, but the most ruthless of them all was perhaps the Germany mercenary, Walter Reinhardt Sombre, the general who deftly shifted loyalties to the highest bidders. His widow, Begum Sumru, too carried on the game of switching loyalties from Mir Qasim to Shah Alam, from Marathas to the British.

* Moneylenders: If it were not for the Marwari moneylenders, and their networks, led by the Jagat Seths the Company simply would not have been in a position to afford the wars. With each small victory in the battlefield and the display of European armament technology and discipline, the Seths abandoned the local kings for the foreign merchants who had a better repayment record.

Ultimately its money that did the talking!


* ToI (2011) on Pathargarh Fort -

* Shejwalkar, TJ (1946): PANIPAT, 1761 -

* Najib Ud-Daula - The Rohilla chieftan who allied with Ahmed Shah Abdali to defeat the Marathas at Panipat (1761) -

Friday, May 08, 2020

The Green Energy Scam

"Green energy is not what it's made out to be."

In his latest documentary, Michael Moore holds out a mirror for us. For all the talk about GEF, Climate Change and Carbon Footprints it turns out that a lot of it is just hogwash, or even worse - a massive PR exercise by the very same conglomerates that are destroying our natural resources.

The whole video is still out there, free and accessible for all those want to get try and extricate their heads that are still buried in the sand. This post is just a collection of screenshots that I felt demolished conventional wisdom about "green" energy.

Much of non-conventional energy is useful only when it can be stored, and the global capacity for such storage is still very, very small.

The so-called pioneer of green energy - Germany - is just like the fabled Emperor Without Clothes. Beyond Germany, it seems the global renewable energy scenario looks like this -

Solar and wind energy is dwarfed by Biomass, which seems like a renewable resource and a lot better than coal and  petroleum -- until you get to know that most of the biomass energy plants feed on wood chips which again is extracted from forests that are being cut down in developing countries!

Meanwhile there has been a sharp drop in global marine fish production as well as a steady decline in the availability of agricultural land..

And all this can be attributed to a single factor -- the steep rise in human population over the past 200 years. 

Unless we focus our attention on this cliff nothing is going to come from any amount of money being thrown at "Green Energy".

The full documentary -

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Think Ink

Do we really need to consume so much? 
Can we reduce out trips to the market? 
How can we reduce wastage?

Over the past two months of the Covid-19 lockdown, we have all been asking ourselves questions. Among the many things that have been dusted out from storage and rescued from a careless toss into the garbage bin are these little 60 ml bottles of ink.

Apart from saving us a few hundred rupees in the new fangled use-and-throw gel pens, these ink bottles also tell us about changing company fortunes, inflation, shelf-life and even consistency in product design.

I had purchased the 60ml bottle of 'Permanent Black' Camel black ink (yellow pack) in 2005 for INR 12.00. Fifteen years later, I got a similar bottle of 'Royal Blue' ink for INR 20.00. At a time when disposable gel pens costing about INR 10.00 get jammed if you don't use them for a few months it is quite amazing to see how you can just refill and start using a fountain pen with ink purchased more than a decade ago!

The smell of fountain pen ink is bound to revive old memories -  of stained hands, spilled bottles and frayed nibs; Of that flick of the wrist which would send a lovely arc of droplets across a wall or a school uniform, and, for folks from Trivandrum, a tiny shop called the "Pen Hospital" which specialised in repairing fountain pens.

On the face of it you might also think that the ink bottle has remained more or less unchanged over the years, but look closer and you see subtle differences: "Camel" has changed to "Camlin". The tiny camel that was walking towards the lettering is now going in the opposite direction. Ink which was packed in a heavy glass bottle with a metal cap now comes in a light, cheap, all plastic bottle. The company too has been taken over (2012) by a Japanese conglomerate and is now called Kokuyo Camlin Ltd.

At a time when all the stationery shops are closed, it is quite amazing to think of the number of ballpoint, gel and roller refills we use every year, and to realise just how many of these can be replaced by a simple, 60ml bottle of fountain pen ink!


* (2013) -
* About Ink Refills -
* Difference between ballpoint, gel and roller-point -

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Birdsong for Tunnel-rats

"Letting a canary go free in a tunnel is an automatic court-martial"

This is perhaps the only reference to a bird in the much acclaimed book, Birdsong by Sabastien Faulks.

The book is a love story woven into the horrors of tunnel and trench warfare in central France during World War-I. It takes you to places that sound distant and vaguely familiar - Amiens, Vimy, Messines and Ypres. Distant frontlines in a distant war which claimed more than 62,000 Indian lives. There is, of course, no reference to Indian fighting units in this book, or of Expeditionary Force A on the Ypres salient. It is mostly about British miners who had been brought in to support the infantry units by building trenches and tunnels, and to set off explosions which aimed to push back the Germans.

Along the way you learn about the Camouflet - "an artificial tavern created underground by an was originally used by a fort's defenders to prevent undermining of a fortress wall during a siege". In a cat-and-mouse game taking place some thirty feet underground, defenders would dig a tunnel under the attackers' tunnel. An explosive charge would be detonated to create a camouflet that would collapse the attackers' tunnel. The fate of those unlucky enough to survive such explosions in narrow tunnels, can only be imagined.

With so many human lives at stake you are left wondering why on earth were soldiers getting court-martialled for losing canaries in such tunnels?

References & Links

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Hava Hava, Sucu Sucu

Catchy tunes have a way of traveling around the world.

Recently I was quite amazed to know that the famous Hindi song, "Hava Hava" was actually a copy of a copy! The original was a 1970s song from Iran which was copied by a Pakistani Singer, and then by Bollywood.

Havar Havar (Persian original) - Kouroush Yaghmei, 1978

Hava Hava (Pakistani copy) - Hassan Jehangir -
Hava Hava (Coke Studio Pakistan re-make) - 2018 -

Hava Hava (Hindi copy) - Movie "Mubarakan" (2017)

Then there is a Spanish song "Suku Suku" by the Bolivian singer, Tarateño Rojas in the 1960s. This particular tune went on to be adapted or copied into no less than 19 languages, including a Japanese version, Furimukanaide - Sucu Sucu (The Peanuts, 1960s) 

Suku Suku (Spanish) - Original by Tarateño Rojas

Bollywood was quick to copy this number and make it part of the Hindi movie "Junglee" in 1961. The film went on to be a big hit.

Suku Suku (Hindi) - Movie "Junglee" (1961)

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Watching Trees Grow

The world may have come to a standstill because of the Covid-19 virus but life goes on.

On 23 March 2020, a day after the "Janata Curfew" and a day before the nationwide "Total Lockdown" enforced by the government, I had gone to buy vegetables from the local Mother Dairy F&V Outlet. It was a bright beautiful day but the parks we already beginning to look eerily empty - there were no children playing on the swings, the usually raucous volleyball court was empty and so was the open-air gym.

Yet there was something beautiful about the silence, the rustle of fallen leaves underfoot, and the sharp calls of the ashy prinia's hiding in the bushes. As I cut across the park and walked towards the booth, I noticed something unusual.

An elderly couple stood under a pilkhan tree (Ficus virens)giving directions to a little boy perched in the barren branches. He was plucking and tossing down the bright pink shoots which were being diligently piled under the tree.

What was this for? 

The old man, a villager from Bihar, was not very forthcoming but his wife cheerily said that you could sauté these shoots turn them into a delicious dish.  Cooking shoots of the pilkan tree just like the bamboo shoots? I had never heard of such a thing before! 

Ten days later, when I went to replenish our stock of veggies the street looks so different. The pilkhan trees that had been bright green on one side of the road had all turned pink from the thousands of new shoots, while the one that one tree which had been the early bird in once sense had now turned completely green with a fresh set of leaves.

Clearly the little boy has plenty of new trees to climb and at least one family needs to buy fewer vegetables from the vendors during this lockdown.


* It seem pilkhan leaves have long been a popular ingredient for the Thai curry phak lueat -

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


Q: What is this kid so angry about? At whom is he grimacing, hurling stones and abuses?
A: His favourite teacher, Don Gregorio.

In between this question and its unlikely answer lies a story that has been poignantly told in Spanish movie "La lengua de las mariposas". Directed by José Luis Cuerda this 1999 movie is about a shy, asthmatic child named Moncho, growing up in a Gallician town in the 1930s.

This is a little town like any other, closely knit and insular and yet full of people with divergent political opinions. Moncho's own family is represents these different views - his mother is deeply religious and conservative while the father, a tailor, has leftist leanings. In the normal course this would have been just fine but these are fraught times, Spain is in turmoil and the country is about to plunge into a bloody civil war.

Moncho hates going to school. He hates being taunted for his clunky breathing apparatus, he is unable to make friends and prefers being alone. On his first day at school he gets upset about being called a 'sparrow' by his teacher, Don Gergorio, and runs away to the woods.

Gradually he warms up to the elderly Don's gentle humorous ways, his love for nature and learning. Even as young Moncho is learning about far away places in Australia, and of butterflies extract nectar from flowers with their spring-like proboscis - the espiritrompa.  Political disagreements are turning into something nastier.

The Republicans are on the ascendant and they have decided to get rid of the Nationalists. People are being hauled out of homes in the middle of the night, and Moncho's mother have come to realise that the only way to survive and hold the family together is to put up a display of support for the Republicans, even if it means that they have to betray friends.

As things come to a head the whole town assembles to condemn the Nationalists as they are being arrested and taken away. Don Gregorio is among them. The mother joins the chorus of abusers and urges her husband and children too to join the mob. The last scene has Moncho running after the truck carrying the prisoners, hurling stones and expletives - "Traitors! Communists! Espiritrompa!"

This film makes you wonder how many times such dilemmas would have played out in history - in Catholic Europe, amongst Zoroastrians in Persia conquered by the Arabs, in Nazi Germany, behind the Iron Curtain, and in pre-partition India...


* Preview -
* Wiki -