Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Velu Pillai's Mesopotamia

Me-so-po-ta-mia. A country that almost sounded like the notes of a song. It had a certain ring to it.

As a schoolboy from Hyderabad visiting his grandparents in Kerala during the summer holidays, one got to hear about a number of countries. Across the paddy fields there lived a grand-aunt who had spent much of her life in Malaysia. Many in the neighbourhood were working in the Gulf states - Saudi, Dubai, or Oman. Our chavadi - the airiest hall in the ancestral home -  had large almirah's stuffed with musty, moth-eaten National Geographic's and Readers Digest's from USA, and old textbooks published in Great Britain.

In the western room (Kizhakke-muri) an old, sepia tinted photo adorned one of the walls. It was of a bespectacled man in uniform with a medal pinned to his chest. "That is your valiya-appoopan (great-grandfather)", I was told, "He served the British Indian Army in Mesopotamia during the first World War".

Mesopotamia. In my imagination a country with such a name had to be a grand place. Yet there were no books from Mesopotamia. The country no longer existed in the school atlas either - it was now called Iraq.

I learnt later that the man in the sepia print was my grandmother's father, Velu Pillai. Details of his life were sketchy. He had served in the Army Postal Corps. My grandmother was four years old when her parents left her with relatives in Kerala and went to Mesopotamia. They had returned to India in 1927 with an infant who was born in Baghdad. This little boy would grow up to fight the next World War, serve in the swampy airfields of Burma and retire as a Wing Commander in independent India.

I had always wondered about the life and times of Velu Pillai. How did he travel with his young wife, Karthiyayani Amma across the Arabian Sea to that ancient land between two great rivers? What did he think of the people from other foreign lands to fight somebody else's war. Did he see himself as a cat's paw?

Last week I came across a book that gave me a glimpse of India's role in the First World War: George Morton-Jack's "THE INDIAN EMPIRE AT WAR - from Jihad to Victory - the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War".

The big picture turned out to be quite dismal. Countless Indians had suffered for the white man's greed, his squabble for colonies across the world. 1.5 million Indian servicemen had served in the war - a number equivalent of the empire's military forces from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, South Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore put together -- a sixth of all the empire's servicemen. No less than 34,000 of them died in some of the most brutal battles of the western front, Gallipoli, East Africa, Iraq and Palestine.

Velu Pillai would have been a part of the Indian Expeditionary Force D which faced the Ottomans in Mesopotamia. They had seized Basra in Nov-1914 and started pushing up the Euphrates and Tigris where they had  repulsed attack by 7000 Turks in Apr-1915 leaving 3000 of them dead in Shu'ayba, some 15 miles west of Basra.

Then the tables had turned. Pushed hard by an ambitious, and stingy, governor-general of India who wanted to retire as the 'Pasha of Baghdad', Force D found itself short of food and ammunition at Kut, by the banks of the Tigris. The besieged 6th Indian Division at Kut dug 30 miles of trenches, suffered 2200 casualties in keeping the Turks out, until they surrendered on 29 April 1916.

Whatever remained of Force D's 6th Division - 10,500 Indian and 2600 British prisoners-of-war - were then sent on a 600-mile death march from Kut through the Iraqi desert, to labour camps in Ottoman Syria outside Aleppo and in the nearby Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges. Only a few had survived the ordeal.

Revenge and retribution came a year later. From mid-December 1916 to March 1917, a completely revamped Force D was let loose by London to avenge the fall of Kut and to steamroll the Turkish Army for 200 miles up the Tigris to Baghdad. Another year of fighting in Europe and the war was over, on terms that were so humiliating for the vanquished that it took another horrific war 26 years later before things settled down.

What happened to the million Indians who returned home after the war? What we do know for certain is that the British continued to play one ethnic group against another most of whom remained loyal foot-soldiers for the British colonial apparatus:
  • In 1919, men of the 54th Sikh, 59th Scinde Rifles and 9th Gurkhas carried out the massacre at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April. 1650 bullets were fired in 10 minutes to kill some 500 Punjabis and wound 1200 more...some of the casualties were their own colleagues - Indian Army veterans, Sikhs and Hindu Jats who had themselves served the British Indian Army in France and Iraq.
  • India's Commander-in-Chief Charles Monro massed 340,000 men on the Indo-Afghan border for the Third Afghan War, initiated as a jihad by the new Emir Amanullah following the assassination of this father Habibullah, and ending in his swift defeat.
  • In 1921-22 seven Indian battalions with artillery and armoured cars 'suppressed' the rural Moplah Rebellion by Muslim villagers armed with swords; they killed 2400 Moplahs and wounded 1650.
What did Velu Pillai think of all this? How did his experiences change him after he returned home, to serve the maharaja of Travancore as a Dy.Tehsildar? Unfortunately none of his notes or letters survived in the damp and humidity of the chavadi with fungus and termites for company.


* The book -

* Kipling's poem "Mesopotamia" -

* Word War I Records -

Monday, April 29, 2019

Pralayam - Kerala after the Deluge

Houseboats waiting to go at 11:30AM

Last year the monsoons were disastrous for Kerala. For the first time since 1924 the state saw all its rivers in spate, most of its agricultural land submerged and thousands huddled in relief camps across the state. 

There had been talk of how it would take years to rebuild and recover from the "Pralayam" - not a mere flooding ("vellapokkam") but a calamity of epic proportions for which a more potent word had been drawn from Sanskrit epics.

Seven months after the floods there is little trace of the disaster that killed over 400 people, displaced 5 million and caused economic losses of over USD 5 billion.

At Kainakary the houseboat business is booming again. These boats are usually allowed into the backwaters only after 11:30 when the fishermen have returned with their catch. Only the larger, double-deck boats have to wait longer because the quays could not be dredged last year due to a funds crunch. The locals are upbeat - this year there has been no shortage of tourists either at the Ayurvedic spas that line the Vembanad lagoon, or the toddy shops or ice-cream vendors on boats.

Not far from the banks of the Pamba river at Othera, recovery is said to have taken place within weeks of the water receding. In the words of a resident relative, "Our house, along with about 200 others, was an island for 10 days. No electricity, no tele-connectivity, or access to supply of clean water. Helicopters hovered around dropping provisions which were piled up at local shrines...and often distributed amongst those who were less than deserving."

I had expected many of the houses to be in bad shape. While on a morning walk along some of the worst affected areas, from Othera to the railway bridge over the Pamba I came across only one houses that had not been repaired. Interestingly, the low-lying areas that had been home to the erstwhile low caste agricultural labourers is now populated by groups of migrant labourers from Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Assam. Tiny old houses along Parayanthodukuzhi with its fallow paddies and broken boundary walls is now alive with the costumes and languages of the Gangetic plains.

An irrigation project too is underway to bring 33,000 KL of Pamba water, pumped across the undulating terrain, through canals and aqueducts to the fields of Pathanamthitta district.

Will the politics of flood relief have an impact on the ongoing Lok Sabha elections? Quite unlikely say the locals. 

However, one thing is for sure - it is a great time to be in the hardware and paints and waterproofing business in Kerala! 

Toddy Shop at Kainakary duly endorsed by an aspiring MP

Preparing the paddies at Kuttanad


Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of Africa - into Europe

This was an eye-opener, and a reminder about how little I know about Africa.

Having studied with a group of Africans I also find it surprising that even as a part of academic discussions at Tsukuba University on this very topic, there were no fiery discussions on the three key events mentioned by Dr. Arikana:

  • Berlin conference of 1884-85 for amicable division of Africa into European colonies - a meeting of 14 colonial powers for drawing of arbitrary boundaries, creation of countries that exist today.
  • The French government arm twisting its colonies to sign, during 1958-61,  a pact for the Continuation of Colonisation - "The Colonial Debt
  • 1963 - Addis Ababa conference that lead to the creation of Organisation of African Unity (OAU) by just seven states - Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Some of the numbers presented are truly cringe-worthy. As a repayment for "civilising" the Africans, for teaching them how to 'eat with fork and spoon', 14 French colonies were were required to deposit 80% (now down to 60%) of their bank reserves with the French Ministry of Finance. This self-serving arrangement enables France to extract no less than USD 500 billion from these 14 countries every year!

Since these 'Francophone' depended almost entirely on their former colonial master for marketing their minerals (first right of refusal), their military hardware, for their printed currencies, and for the education of their elite, the dependencies are almost hardwired. Countries that try to come out of the Colonial Debt are rewarded with coups (no less than 60 so far), assassinations and 'engineered chaos'.

On the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwalla Massacre, it does seem like a miracle that we Indians managed to get independence with just the partition of the subcontinent!

* The French African Connection -
* The Berlin Conference of 1884 -

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cactus Combos

A yellow blob of thorny fractals?

This eye-catching cactus caught my attention at an IFFCO Kisan outlet selling indoor plants. It sat on a shelf with other succulents but combination seemed rather unusual. The lower green part looked as though it had been shorn of its thorns while the bright yellow or pink portion did not look as though it had emerged from a flower.

Sure enough it turns out that this is grafted combo of two different species of cactus - the yellow portion belongs to  Gymnocalycium mihanovichii while the lower, green one belongs Hylocerus, a family better known for producing edible pitayas, aka "Dragon-fruit".

The interesting bit is that Gymnocalycium completely lacks chlorophyll. It was originally found in Paraguay growing under bushes with little exposure to sunlight. Somewhere along along the way it got to grafted to other cactus species that does have chlorophyll creating a novel variety which is now being marketed as 'Moon Cactus'!


IFFCO Kisan Urban Garden -

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Ribosomes - Making Sense of Blobology

This is not a book I would ever pick on an impulse. The cover itself  is quite intimidating - a confusing, colorful blob of tangled ribbons. On first glance it looks like a tome for the lab nerds, for those seeped in structural biology, the followers of specialized science journals, and certainly not the general reader.

I picked this book only because on the dark cover, I noticed blurps from three writers I admire - Siddharth Mukherjee, Richard Dawkins and Bill Bryson. The stock comment ' I could not put this book down' from one of them pointed towards the possibility the book could be read - and understood - by folks like me, those who are not specialists but merely curious.

I was not at all disappointed.  The author,Venki Ramakrishnan is the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and his book, "Gene Machine" is a personal story of a physicist turned biologist who helped decipher the secrets of the Ribosome.  Even if the topic sounds esoteric, the book is a down-to-earth narrative of a boy from Baroda who made it big.

Yet it is not the typical story of a south Indian vegetarian in USA. You get the impression of a adventurous, outgoing guy riding a series of lucky breaks. Perhaps the first of these came through a HoD at Baroda-U who got a letter from Ohio University seeking prospective students. Nineteen year old Venki is then offered a graduate scholarship without the usual GRE scores. He lands up in the America in the midst of the anti-war protests of 1971, and immediately after graduation, gets married to Vera Rosenberry, a talented illustrator of children's books, and a single mother.

In the initial chapters, Venki has a nice way of explaining his work with analogies. In the late 70s everybody knew that the ribosomes were responsible for protein synthesis, but nobody knew how -

"Imagine you are a Martian peering at the earth from above. You observe tiny objects on the surface that move mainly in straight lines, ocassionally turning at right could tell tht they consume hydrocarbons and emit carbon dioxide along with some pollutants and some heat. But you have absolutely no idea what these objects are, let alone how they work. Only by knowing the detailed construction of the object would you be able to see that it is made of hundreds of components that work together and that it has an engine connected to a crankshaft that make the wheels turn..."

Venki's search takes him from the university to his first job with the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee and then to Brookhaven on the East Coast. Along the way, X-ray crystallography becomes the main tool for deciphering the structure of the various complicated components of the ribosome at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK.

The book also helps you catch a glimpse into the petty politics of those engaged in cutting edge science, of the walled garden that is open only to those from 'elite' institutions, and the manner in which the race for a Nobel Prize brings out the worst in many scientists.



Good Reads - Gene Machine -

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


This is an old print advertisement from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). On the bottom corner of this haunting image of people reacing out to the last crumbs on the plate, the fine print simply says, "A little from you can mean a lot. Make a contribution."

I do not know if people actually noticed the illustrations on the rim of this plate, or if the message got them to make a contribution, but I was reminded of this last sunday.

One of our neighbors had set up a shamiana to celebrate Basant Panchami and Saraswati Puja, a festival that marks the arrival of spring. As is the norm, a community kitchen was set up and hot food (puri's, kichri, curries and chutney) was being served as "prasaad", a holy offering.

I had just finished eating the food on my plate when I noticed a Jain neighbor sitting next to me. He was carefully picking out each an every crumb from his plate, leaving it absolutely clean.

Feeling a bit ashamed I started cleaning up my plate too, and asked him what prompted him to eat so carefully. He laughed at the very idea that I found it unusual and said, "According to Jain tradition, wastage of food is considered one of the worst for us, the first rule is to take only the quantity of food we really need, and then to remember that the holiest prasaad is the last sprinking of water used to clean-up our used plates...even the water used to clean a plate is not be wasted"!

Now that is something to think about...which are the other cultural habits or religious traditions that encourage people from wasting food?

A little from each of us can certainly mean a lot.


Why to Jains have strict food habits? --

Jainism -

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Prime Lens - Back to Basics

A kit lens makes you lazy. This is the first thing you learn when you step out of your comfort zone in photography.

I have been photographing with an 18-105mm lens for more than 10 years now and thanks to the convenience of zooming in and out, I had all but forgotten the basics of photography. I knew I needed to get back to the basics, to detox, to relearn, and a fixed-focus 'prime lens' seemed the best way forward.

The ones I could afford were shortlisted to the Nikkor 50mm 1.8 lenses which came in two types 'D' and 'G'.  The 'D' was a older version without an inbuilt focusing motor, and it came for less than half the price of the 'G'. Since I was using a camera body that already had a motor the former seemed better value for money - especially when it came at an an extra discount during the recent Amazon Sale.

So last month, I set aside my kit lens for the first time, and twisted into its place a brand new 50mm 1.8D. The Nikon D90 now felt like a strange new animal - lighter, faster and sharper than ever before, and yet completely unfamiliar. Despite clocking nearly 50,000 'shutter actuations' on the D90, I realised that  knew very little about the nuts and bolts, the basics of photography: focal lengths, F-stops and apertures.

They say the 50mm lens shows you the world the way your eyes see it, by "rendering images that closely match the true perspective of the human eye". Sounds nice... but when you look through the 50mm lens for the first time you feel like a horse with blinkers plodding through a tunnel. The world shrinks. Instead of just zooming you now need to use your feet and composition becomes a bit of a struggle.

The 50mm lens is also a bit puzzling with all its numbers and dials packed into a tiny ring. So here is a collection of links that has helped me re-learn photography -

Understanding Exposure and F-Stops:
  • Expert Photography -

And just in case you too are weighing the pros and cons of a prime lens, these might help -

Friday, February 08, 2019

Black Sheep and Deccan History

I love the way history is being re-examined and re-written by a new band of writers. Until a few years ago I only knew of William Darlymple as a somebody who could tranform meticulous research into narratives that appealed to a wider audience. I often wished we had Indians writers who could go beyond the colonial period and breathe some life into it.

In this context I was glad to see Sanjeev Sanyal's "Land of Seven Rivers", and Manu Pillai's "Ivory Throne".

My first book this year was the much acclaimed second book by Manu Pillai -  "Rebel Sultans". This one chronicles the deep linkages South India once had with what is now called the Middle East - especially Iran, Iraq and Arabia.

Despite the fact that I grew up in Hyderabad, I knew practically nothing about Deccan history. I was aware of a few names and places,  of the fabulous collections at the Salar Jung Museum, vaguely remembered visiting the Golkonda Fort a couple of times, and often noticed the Falaknuma Palace from the school playgrounds.  But until I read this book I never knew that Nizams who built all this -  the Quli dynasty -  traced its origins to a family that once ruled the Levant - the House of Black Sheep, also known as the Black Sheep Turkmans.

Who were the Black Sheep Turkmans?  It was aparently a title - "Kara Koyunlu" - of a monarchy that ruled over vast areas of present-day Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1394 to 1498. After more than a century of rule this ruling family was ousted by a rival clan known as the House of the White Sheep. Ousting a royal family in the Middle Ages usually meant only two things - death or blinding of all the male heirs. A young boy from the House of Black Sheep ran away to India to escape this fate. He first enlisted as a mercenary in the Deccan Bahmani Sultanate, and then went on to set up his own feifdom at Golkonda in present-day Hyderabad.

The "Rebel Sultans" is also a window into the colorful history of the rest of the Deccan. It tells you how Aurangabad was originally the city of Khirki by an Ethiopian-born military leader named Malik Ambar. It tells you that contrary to popular narratives, the Battle of Talikota was not a war between a Hindu kingdom and a coalition of perfidious Muslim warlords. The kingdom of Vijayanagara which was utterly destroyed after this war had its own share of double-dealings, political miscalculations and hubris.

The book also has many tantalising threads that need to be knitted together. It leaves me with a wish to know more about Timur the Lame, the Turkman raider who later inspired his clansman Babur, to raid India for its riches after having been beaten out of Samarkand. I want to know more about the Kakathiyas who were perhaps the most egalitarian rulers in medieval India, and I need to  have a better understanding of philosophy and preachings of Eknath, who, like Kabir, bridged differences across castes and religions.


- Amazon - "Rebel Sultans"

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I just finished watching "City of Ghosts", a film about RBSS - a group titled "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" - that has been resisting the occupation of the Syrian city by the the Islamic State.

Unlike Hollywood war movies, this is not about something that happened in the distant past, coloured in shades of American bravado and machismo. It is the here and now of the situation in Syria. It is the story of how ordinary citizens of Raqqa, a city in Syria rose up in revolt in 2013 against Assad, a leader who they considered a tyrant for 40 years, until the radical Islamic State swiftly came in to fill the power vacuum.

The narrative follows a small group of nervous war refugees - teachers, journalists, students - fleeing from IS and the Syrian government. Seeing the rest of the world disconnected with the harsh reality back home they decide to set up a social network - a website, FaceBook page, Twitter -  to send updates from friends back home on the way in which ISIS was enforcing its vision of the Islamic Caliphate in Raqqa. Summary executions, beheadings, mutilation and rape, all in the name of Allah.

Once the counter-narrative begins to bite, ISIS responds to RBSS by hunting down nd executing its citizen correspondents in Syria, and by trying to assassinate it leaders in Turkey and Germany.

In 2017 the Assad Government finally managed to crush IS in Raqqa after a prolonged battle that reduced much of the city into rubble.

It has no been an entirely happy liberation. RBSS now has to contend with the "old" tyrant whom its founders perhaps opposed in the first place. So it now keep track of the shortcomings of the reconstruction effort, of insufficient funds coming in for rebuilding a city and of disease outbreaks in refugee camps. The devil may be gone but the deep blue sea remains.

This is the sort of film that makes your wonder about the Middle East and the so called "Arab Spring".

Was it really worthwhile to oppose the Assad regime that provided relative security and prosperity to a country for four decades? Has anything been achieved by the countries that encouraged "democratic movements"?  Or has it merely filled their own homes with unwanted refugees from countries they wanted to democratize?