Narasimha Rao and the story of 1991

Son         : ‘Appa, when can I get married?’

Dad        : ‘Let me think about it, and get back to you after few years’

That was an oft-repeated joke (!?) about PV Narasimha Rao during my high-school days. So why was this a ‘joke’? Well, the guy who brought up the topic of marriage is Rao’s son, already in his 50s, and with little hopes of getting married. And Rao, the procrastinator had managed to evade yet another personal crisis, by deferring the decision. Growing up in the 1990s, this was my first impression of Narasimha Rao – unimaginative, indecisive, uncharismatic PM of India.

In 1991, India was a nation on the cusp of a major breakdown. On the political front, the previous two Governments led by VP Singh and Chandrasekhar had lasted only a year each. Insurgent movements in Punjab, Assam and Kashmir threatened to blow up the nation. In May-1991, the country’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber. On the economic front, India was faced with multiple problems. In June-1991, India’s foreign reserves were barely adequate to pay for more than 2 weeks of imports. The Gulf War had added to India’s economic woes. Oil (that India imported) price had trebled. Indians living abroad sent lesser remittances, but had withdrawn 900 million dollars’ worth of deposits from Indian banks, thereby further dwindling India’s reserves.  And India’s short-term loans were already due for repayment, thanks to reckless borrowing during Rajiv Gandhi’s period. Decades of Indian-style socialism and populist policies had paralyzed the economy. Return on investment was meager, industrial growth was poor, inflation was high, and exports were low. In short, India’s credibility was rock bottom.

On the international front, things were changing too. The end of the Cold War and collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 had brought in a new world order. China, long seen as an inward-looking country had started to become more open and dynamic. East Asian countries were on the rise, while the West of Asia was torn in conflict.

pv3It was under such tumultuous circumstances that PV Narasimha Rao came into power in 1991. In his first few months, Rao’s Government made several tough decisions, unprecedented in the history of independent India. First, it had to execute a painful decision made by the previous Chandrasekhar government – to mortgage gold reserves to avoid default of its outstanding IMF loan. Second, it had to make another courageous decision to devalue the rupee by around 18%. The opposition was up in arms, and even some Congressmen themselves were uneasy.

But Rao was a man on a roll. With the rupee now closer to its true value after depreciation, Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh decided to abolish export subsidies – a sop that was originally given to exporters to compensate for all the inefficiencies of the Indian system that made exports globally non-competitive. The abolition of subsidies sent exporters panicking. To placate them, the Government announced a mechanism by which exporters could earn exim scrips and trade them to pay for imports. Within 2 weeks of assuming power, a minority Government, led by someone outside the Nehru-Gandhi family had taken some momentous decisions. This also set the stage for Manmohan Singh’s landmark July-1991 budget that reduced fiscal deficit, disbanded the license-permit system, opened the Indian economy to private players and made several reforms that brought the economy back on track.

halflionVinay Sitapati, in his book Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India takes us through an intriguing story that weaves economics and politics, and comes up with a blockbuster. The book gives us a closer look in to the workings of Rao’s mind, his political career, personal life, events that shaped his ideology etc. The book has been translated into Tamil by my friend J.Ramki.

So what were Rao’s failures ? Rao was Home Minister when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. Indira’s assassination was followed by anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, where the police directly reported to the Home Minister. But Rao, perhaps wilting under pressure from Rajiv Gandhi, decided to act indifferent to the situation. He allowed himself to be a mute witness to the riots, and let the Prime Minister’s office call the shots. Later in 1992 during the Babri Masjid demolition, Rao’s failure to act decisively is said to have cost the nation dearly, and change the narrative of Indian politics. But Sitapati vehemently argues in defense of Narasimha Rao in the Babri Masjid episode. One may agree or disagree with his views, but this is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating chapters in the book. Rao was also allegedly involved in several other corruption scandals – Harshad Mehta scam, Lakhubhai Pathak case etc.

Being a non-Nehru-Gandhi leader in the Congress is no mean task (Ask Manmohan Singh). Therefore it is hardly surprising that Rao was constantly at crossroads with Congressmen who owed their very existence to the Gandhi family. Rao was challenged by Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, Sharad Pawar and their coterie who were constantly bickering about him to Sonia Gandhi, and trying to undermine Rao’s position.  But Rao the shrewd politician alternated between playing fox, lion and mouse as the situation demanded. Sitapati argues that Rao tried to keep Sonia Gandhi in good humor – updating her on key policy issues, paying obeisance to her slain husband, and often extending courtesy.

tothebrinkBut why, and how did Rao fall out of favour with the Gandhi family? What were the forces that worked against him? It is the absence of such critical assessments that appear to be seriously lacking in Jairam Ramesh’s book To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story. Jairam Ramesh (Congress MP in 2004) was then on a special assignment in the Prime Minister’s Office during the first few months of the Rao Government. He is credited to have drafted several policy speeches to the PMO, and privy to discussions and events that unfolded inside power circles. To be fair, his book provides some insights into the decisions and dilemma in 1991.

Although India has a long way to become a developed nation, it has made giant strides in the last 25 years. Once admonished for its “Hindu rate of growth” – cliché for low rate of economic growth – post-reforms, India remained the second fastest growing economy in the world, behind China until 2015. From a position of scarcity in 1991, India’s foreign reserves have grown from $5.8 billion in 1991 to $361B in 2016.

But the biggest impact story in the last 25 years has been the contribution of India’s private sector. From being a country where it took 3 years to get a fixed line phone connection, India has mobile penetration in almost every corner of the country. India’s progress in telecom, information technology, entertainment and other fields have all been due to opening up of the private economy. I find it laughable when many Indians, working in plush air-conditioned offices and drawing 6-digit salaries, post messages on Facebook using their iPhone (both products of free market economy), and talk about how industries have ruined India. I hope that they spend some time reading about Narasimha Rao or the reforms of 1991.

1991How does one evaluate Rao’s performance as PM ? Sanjaya Baru in his book 1991: How P. V. Narasimha Rao Made History thinks that one should compare the state of affairs of the nation that the person inherits the day he takes charge with the day one demits office. By that yardstick, Nehru was a great PM at the end of his first decade in office, but his image had dented in his last 5 years, particularly after the war with China in 1962. Indira Gandhi stormed into office after liberating Bangladesh in 1971, but her management of economy was patchy. Her populist positioning did nothing to improve the economy. Rajiv Gandhi, albeit with a massive mandate, squandered it with poor political will and courage to push major reforms. Sanjaya Baru’s book has a separate chapter that talks about attempts made during the Chandrasekhar regime (an eye-opener for me).

So what if Rao had not become PM in 1991? Hard to answer that question. Perhaps the answer lies in Manmohan Singh’s famous line in the 1991 budget speech when he quoted ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’. Rao’s time as PM had come, and he steered the country through a period of political uncertainty, economic crisis and shift in global balance of power.

For a man who was credited with such reforms, Rao continues to be a pariah within his own party. When Rao died in 2004, his party denied him a burial in New Delhi. His party office refused to open its gates during Rao’s funeral. Instead, the party cast him as a usurper to the Nehru-Gandhi throne, and virtually castigated him as a conspirator in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Alas, Rao continues to be the tragic hero !

Links to the books :

  1. Half Lion : How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India – Vinay Sitapati :
  2. To the Brink and Back : India’s 1991 Story – Jairam Ramesh :
  3. 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History – Sanjaya Baru :

ஹைப்பர்லூப்: வேகம் தடை இல்லை

வளர்ந்து வரும் தொழில்நுட்பங்களை தெரிந்துகொள்வதில் எனக்கும் (பலரைப் போல) ஆர்வம் உள்ளது. அந்த தொழில்நுட்பம் என்னென்ன சிக்கல்களை சந்திக்கிறது, எப்பேற்பட்ட சவால்களைக் கடந்து வரவிருக்கிறது, சமூக மற்றும் தனிமனித உளவியல் ரீதியாக என்னென்ன மாற்றங்களை கொண்டுவரவிருக்கிறது என்று பல கோணங்களில் பார்ப்பதில் ஒரு வியப்பு இருக்கிறது.

அப்படிப்பட்ட ஒரு தொழில்நுட்பம் தான் இந்த ஹைப்பர்லூப். உலகின் போக்குவரத்துத் துறையை மாற்றி அமைக்கக் கூடிய ஆற்றல் கொண்டது. ஆனால் வடிவமைப்பு, செயலாக்கம் ஆகியவற்றில் கடந்து வந்த, வரவேண்டிய சவால்கள் பல இருக்கின்றன. அதைப் பற்றி ஒரு கட்டுரை எழுதியிருந்தேன். சொல்வனம் இணைய இதழில் அந்தக் கட்டுரை இடம்பெற்றுள்ளது. நன்றி சொல்வனம்

சுட்டி :

My talk on Gita Govinda

I had given a talk on Gita Govinda on 18-December-2016 at V-Excel Educational Trust, RA Puram, Chennai. This was one of the preparatory talks, organized by Tamil Heritage Trust for the upcoming site seminar to Orissa. I’m posting a summary of my talk, for those who had wanted to know more about it. A concise version of this should appear in the site seminar’s source book.

Gita Govinda: Jayadeva’s epic love poem

Gita Govinda is a dramatic lyrical poem written about the love between Krishna and the cowherdess Radha. It is believed to have been composed by the 12th century poet Jayadeva. Gita Govinda is considered a unique work in Indian literature and source of inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaishnavism. Gita Govinda is also an integral part of culture in Odisha, with several sources claiming that the literary work originated in Odisha.


According to some legends, Jayadeva was a wandering poet who would not rest under one tree for more than a night for fear that attachment to the place would violate his vow. His ascetic live ended when he met Padmavati, daughter of a Bramhan in Puri, and got married to her.

king_lakshma_asena_with_his_five_jewelsPopular legend is that once day, Jayadeva got disillusioned with writing love poems that the king had ordered him to. He lamented about it to Padmavati, and suggested that they consider leaving Puri. His wife insisted that he write love poems about Krishna, instead of writing for mortals. Next day, Jayadeva was thrilled when the king ordered him to write about Krishna’s rasaleela. Jayadeva agreed to it, and at once, got on with the job. As he composed, Padmavati danced – thus the Gitagovinda. In this fashion, Jayadeva completed writing 18 poems. In the 19th poem, Jayadeva had conceived the climax of Krishna’s love episode with Radha. And he wrote about Krishna pleading forgiveness to Radha, and asking to place her foot on his head in a symbolic gesture of victory. The poem is as follows:

स्मर गरल खण्डनम् मम शिरसि मण्डनम् देहि पदपल्लवम्  उदारम्

ज्वलति मयि दारुणो मदन कदनानलो हरतु तदुपाहित विकारम्

smara garaLa khaNDanam mama shirasi maNDanam dEhi pada pallavam udAram
jvalati mayi dAruNO madana kadanAnalO haratu tadupAhita vikAram

Meaning: Place your tender feet on my head as an ornament to refute Cupid’s poison. Cupid’s destructive fire burns intensely in me, let your feet take away that disquietude caused by that fire.

Filled with remorse about the story that he had conceived – of Radha placing her foot on the Lord’s head, Jayadeva paused writing and went to the river to bathe. In his absence, Krishna appeared in his guise to complete the poem; then Krishna ate the food that Padmavati had prepared for Jayadeva, and left. When Jayadeva returned, he realized that he had received divine grace in exalting Krishna’s relation to Radha.

Love Poems in literature:

Love isn’t a theme that is new to Indian literature. Several Tamil poems from the Sangam period (4th century B.C – 2nd century A.D) spoke about love – in forms such as இற்செறித்தல், மடலேறுதல், விரைவுகடாதல், விரகம், தூது. The love theme was also in vogue during the Bhakti period (650 – 950 A.D), by poets like Andal, Thirunavukkarasar, Manickavasagar and Tirumangai Azhwar.

So what makes Gita Govinda special? Is it due to its radical departure from the regular theme of Krishna and Gopis? Or is it by virtue of being the popular literary representation of Radha? Or is it Jayadeva’s placement of Krishna – not on a pedestal, but on the same plane as Radha, and the celebration of his playfulness?

Barbara Stoler Miller, in her book “The Gita Govinda: Love Poems of the Dark Lord” says:

“In the Gita Govinda, Radha is neither a wife nor a worshipping rustic playmate. She is an intense, solitary, proud female who complements and reflects the mood of Krishna’s passion. She is Krishna’s partner in a secret and exclusive love, contrasted in the poem with circular rasa dance Krishna performs with the entire group of cowherdesses”

“Krishna disappears after this dance, deserting the cowherdesses but he stays with Radha to admire and ornament her. Her relationship with Krishna culminates in the union and mutual victory (jaya) over each other. In Jayadeva’s view, the profound intimacy of Krishna’s concentration on Radha, in contrast with the diffusion of erotic energy in his play with the cowherdesses, is the perfection of Krishna’s nature”

Radha in literature

radha_krishna_in_moonlit_light_hf39It is impossible to think of Krishna without thinking of Radha. But what was the earliest reference to Radha in literature?

The most sacred book of Krishna, Bhagavata Purana, compiled around 10th century in South India, does not mention Radha. In the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna disappears when the milkmaids become possessive and seek exclusive attention. The idea that God (Krishna) loves all with equal intensity was visually expressed by making the women dance in a circle, each one equidistant from Krishna who stood playing the flute in the centre. But yet there is no Radha!

The Tamil epic Silapadikaram, refers to one Nal-Pinnai (நப்பின்னை) who was the beloved of Krishna. The name நப்பின்னை also finds a mention in Tiruppavai (நந்தகோபாலன் மருமகளே, நப்பின்னாய்) and Naalayira Dhivya Prabandham (நப்பின்னை காணிற் சிரிக்கும் மாணிக்கமே என் மணியே). While some scholars believe that she represents an early form of Radha, the theory didn’t get acceptance by many others. The Azhwar’s works never had a direct reference to Radha.

The earliest known reference to Radha was in the 2nd century AD work Gatha Saptasathi, written by Hala, a Satavahana king. Here Krishna removes a dust particle, kicked up by cows, from Radha’s eye thus declaring her exalted position in his heart and humbling the other women. In these songs Krishna is not divine; he is a simple cowherd, a hero of the village folk. The songs lack sensual passion and religious ecstasy. Radha is never wife, and the dominant emotion is one of longing following separation, an emotion that eventually characterizes Radha-Krishna relationship.

So what drew Jayadeva to the legend of Radha? Whether he stumbled upon the Gatha Saptasathi or other literary works still remains a mystery.

Historical evidence of Gita Govinda

Jayadeva’s birthplace: Although no historical references to Jayadeva’s life exist, his place of birth remains a topic of debate, with both Odisha and Bengal claiming to be the poet’s birthplace.

Traditional accounts record that Ramanuja, the apostle of Sri Vaishnava cult visited Puri in the early part of 12th century and established a school there. It is claimed that he met and influenced the King of Puri and worked to introduce the ritual of Srivaishnavism into the Jagannath temple, against the strong opposition of resident Saivite priests. The king who he met was probably Anantavarman Chodagangadeva, the Ganga king who ruled in Orsissa about 1078-1147 A.D. Records suggest that Chodagangadeva initiated major construction work of the Jagannath temple, that was completed by his grandson Anangabhimadeva in the late 12th century. Scholars in Odisha claim that Jayadeva who was born in Kindubilva reached Puri around this time.

Bengal’s stake to claiming Jayadeva’s birthplace originates from literary inscriptions and temple inscriptions. Saduktikarnamrita, a work by Sridharadasa in 1205 A.D was compiled at the end of the reign of Lakshmanasena, the Sena king who ruled Bengal from 1178-1205 A.D. The work has 2 verses that are in the critical text of Gita Govinda. Temple inscriptions of Lakshmanasena open with a invocation to Vishnu, and describe him a devout Vaishnava. This confirms the shift in sectarian allegiance towards Vaishnavism. Scholars used these records to conclude that Jayadeva must have been born in Bengal, but reached Puri in due course of time. Whether Jayadeva was a court poet of Lakshmanasena remains unknown, but it is at least clear that he must have lived somewhere around Lakshmanasena’s period.

bada-shrugara-beshaOpposition to Gita Govinda : In the 13th century, Gita Govinda came under severe criticism from purists in the Jagannath temple for representing Krishna as a freelance. As a result, Jayadeva’s work was rejected in the Puri temple in the beginning phase. This tone of the rejection has also been written by Sarala Das in his Mahabharata. According to Madalapanji Gita Govinda was sung in front of the deity Jagannatha in the post-Narasimha period. By that time Gita Govinda had spread to other parts of India, and also Jagannatha was totally identified with Krishna. What were the reasons that prompted the revival of Gita Govinda ? How did it become so popular? How did it become acceptable amongst the purist SriVaishnavites ? Such questions remains unanswered.

Inscriptions about Gita Govinda:

earliest_representation_of_gita_govindaThe earliest evidence of Gita Govinda was known in Anahillapatan, Gujarat. A stone inscription dated 1291 A.D of king Sarangadeva Vaghela opens with Jayadeva’s invocation to Krishna in his ten incarnate forms. The inscription records the levying of revised tax towards expense of temple offerings to Krishna. How the Gita Govinda spread to Gujarat, when it was still opposed in Puri remains a mystery.

Another inscription dated 1499 A.D located on the left side of the Jayavijaya doorway in Jagannath temple talks about the Gita Govinda. By this time, it appears that the Gita Govinda was sufficiently popular in Puri. The inscription translates as below :

“On Wednesday, the tenth lunar year of Kakada, bright half in the 9th mark of the warrior, the elephant-lord, the mighty Prataparudradeva Maharaja, king over Garuda and the 90 millions of Karnata and Kalabaraga, orders as follows : “Dancing will be performed thus at the time of food offerings (bhoga) to the Elder Lord (Balarama) and the Lord of the Gita Govinda (Jagannatha). This dancing will continue from the end of the deities’ evening meal to their bedtime meal. The dancing group of the elder lord, the female dancers of Lord Kapilesvara, and the ancient dancing group of Telangana will all learn no song other than the Gita Govinda and the elder Lord. Aum. They will sing no other song. No other dance should be performed before the great God. In addition to the dancing, there will be four singers who will sing only the Gita Govinda. Those who are not well versed in singing the Gita Govinda will follow in chorus – they should learn no other song. Any temple official who knowingly allows any other song or dance to be performed is hostile to Jagannath”

Poetic structure

radha_krishna_in_a_garden_pavilionEach song in Gita Govinda has 8 couplets known as pada-s. Because of this, Gita Govinda is also called Ashtapadi (8 padas). At the end of each pada is a dhruvapada, a fixed unit that is repeated after each pada.

Gita Govinda was a unique literary work in the sense that, it does not conform to the then exiting poetic structure.

If you observe a pada, it consists of a definite, fixed number of syllabic instants i.e. maatra-s. Keeping in mind the erotic mood of the poems, Jayadeva skilfully chose to use very little ‘long’ syllables, as they might look out of place in a love song. However when the long syllables are used, they are restricted either to the beginning or end of each line.

Let us take the example of the 4th poem Chandanacharchitha Neela Kalebhara. In this poem, the sakhi (Radha’s girl-friend) describes to Radha about Krishna’s joyful moments with the women of Brindavan.

चंदनचर्चित नीलकलेबर पीतवसन वनमाली |

केलिचलन्मणि कुंडल मंडित कन्दयुग स्मिथचाली ||

If you take a long syllable as 2 instants and short syllable as 1 instant, and add up the numbers, you will observe that each line in the stanza has a fixed number of 28 syllabic instants.

Jayadeva also employs repetitious sound patterns of alliteration, assonance, consonance and word play throughout all his poems.

Representation in various art forms

The Gita Govinda has been represented in various art forms. It is sung in different musical versions in Odisha, Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Nepal. Because of the role of the songs in Jagannath temple, the Gita Govinda is sung and venerated throughout Odisha. Their performance is an essential aspect of Odissi dance. In Bengal, the singing of Gita Govinda is prominent at an annual spring fair of Kenduli. In Nepal, the Gita Govinda is sung during the spring celebration in honour of goddess Sarasvati. In much of South India, the poem is sung according to the Carnatic system of music. In the Bhajana Sampradaya of Tamil Nadu, Gita Govinda is a must-have in Radha Kalyanam, a ceremonial wedding involving Krishna and Radha. The 24 Ashtapadis are sung before the wedding rituals are performed. It is also sung during Kathakali performances, but the style of singing is different from that of the Bhajana Sampradaya tradition.

Videos played during the talk

  1. MS Subbulakshmi singing Pralaya Payothijale :
  2. Kelucharan Mohapatra’s Odissi dance – Rathi Sukha Saare :
  3. Thanjavur Thyagarajan singing Chandana Charchitha :
  4. Bhakta Jayadeva (Telugu) movie – Priye Chaarusheele :


  1. The Gita Govinda of Jayadeva : Love Song of the Dark Lord – Barbara Stoler Miller (Motilal Banarsidass Publications)
  2. கீத கோவிந்தம் – இலந்தை ராமசாமி (கிழக்கு பதிப்பகம்)
  3. Sound of Sanskrit – S. Swaminathan and Uma Swaminathan
  4. Gita Govinda of Jayadeva and the Temple of Purushottama Kshetra – Research Paper by Kailash Chandra Das
  5. Photos :,

10 stories from the Adyar

Yesterday’s monthly talk organized by Tamil Heritage Trust had Venkatesh Ramakrishnan talking about the ‘History of the Adyar River’.

Venkatesh is historian and bilingual author, who has written Tamil books like Kaaviri Maindhan, Thillaiyil Oru Kollaikaaran. His book Gods Kings and Slaves, a non-fiction about Malik Khafur’s invasion of Madurai was a top-seller. Venkatesh runs a group of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ enthusiasts, and has led several walks to areas covered in the novel. Few years back, he and a group of friends did a cultural mapping of the Cooum river. Although I wan’t active on the group, I had the opportunity to accompany them on couple of small trips around the Cooum. At first, I was amused that he was studying a river like Cooum, that has become a cesspool. But his stance was quite clear – ‘If we understand it better, perhaps we will treat it better’. Last year, Venkatesh made several talks around the city to improve awareness about the Cooum. And after the 2015 floods in Chennai that witnessed an overflowing Adyar river, Venkatesh and his team started mapping the Adyar.


Venkatesh began his talk saying that most civilizations have developed around banks of rivers. Buddha used the Ganges as an example in his teachings. Chola architecture, Carnatic music grew around Cauvery. Culture was always related to perennial rivers. Rain was in abundance, and hence the patronage for arts, culture etc. But what about rivers that have turned into urban sewers ? What civilization can they claim to have developed ?

Studying the history of a river is like a slice of a cake. You get to enjoy a cross-section of various layers. If the Cooum was about the imperialism of the British, Adyar was about the aspirations of people who came to Madras from elsewhere.

The Adyar river doesn’t really join the Bay of Bengal. The opening near the sea is only for the tidal water to come in. This can be seen near the broken bridge. In terms of water quality, Adyar is much better than Cooum due to the tidal waters. It would be unfair to treat it just as a cesspool. In fact Cooum and Adyar came close to each other near the Mambalam tank, where T.Nagar is now located. That leads to the question : Did water from the 2 rivers crisscross many years ago ?

Venkatesh’s talk was so full of facts and anecdotes, that writing down his entire talk would be a mammoth effort. I will try to write 10 very short stories (or episodes) from his talk.

10 stories about the History of Adyar :

(1) The oldest known discovery on the Adyar river was Pallavaram Axe. This was discovered by Bruce Foot (ASI) in the 1800s when he went for walk in Pallavaram Parade Grounds. He was stunned with this discovery that he didn’t mention about it for 1 year. The axe is said to be 1.5 Million years old, which predates the homo-sapiens.

(2) Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ is believed to have visited Madras in the 4th century. Almost all places – Little Mount, St. Thomas Mount, Santhome where Thomas is believed to have lived in Madras are around the Adyar. The first clear evidence about Thomas is from Marco Polo who visits India around 1300. Among other places, he visited Mylapore. He talks about an area where Nestorian Christmas lived, and that Thomas was buried. Legend has it that the river near Santhome once got jammed because of a wooden log, and caused flooding in the town. And Thomas took out his girdle and removed the log.

(3) If the legend of Thomas is interesting, then a similar legend on Thirumangai Azhwar for the same river in Thiruneermalai makes it more interesting. Thiruneermalai is the only padal petra sthaam on Adyar. It is believed that Thiruneermalai gets it name because the river (Adyar) got flooded for around 6 months ! Thiruneermalai also has a connection with Carnatic music. Sonti Venkatramaniah, the Guru of Tyagarajar stayed in Tiruneermalai, sang songs in praise of the Zamindar before he started teaching music. Tiruneermalai is also famous for its secretive weddings. Many celebrities have got married at this temple. It is here that MS Subbulakshmi (who lived near the Adyar river in Kotturpuram towards the later part of her life) got married to Sadasivam.

(4) Several institutes were found along the Adyar. The Trigonometric Society of India which measured and mapped India was started in St.Thomas Mount. The first location to be mapped was the Race Course, which is also on the banks of Adyar. The measurement was started by Lambton and completed by a person named Everest, after whom Mount Everest is named. Lambton’s statue can be found at the St.Thomas Mount. The King Institute of Preventive Medicine in Guindy is along the Adyar. King Institute’s biggest success is from the fact that the medicines produced by this institute were instrumental in eradicating small pox in India. The first Agricultural College in India was at Saidapet when wheat was grown in Mount Road ! The college was later shifted to Coimbatore, and the building in Saidapet now functions as the Teachers’ Training college

(5) Three Bharat Ratnas have lived or studied near the Adyar. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan studied at the Saidapet Agricultural College, MS Subbulakshmi lived at Kotturpuram, MG Ramachandran lived in Gandhi Nagar. Interestingly, there is a movie where 2 Bharat Ratnas – MS and MGR acted together. The movie is ‘Meera’ where MS played the lead, and MGR played a small role as Minister. It is hard to imagine if there will be another movie that will have 2 Bharat Ratnas on its star cast!

(6) The Battle of Adyar River took place in 1746. The battle involved 200 men of the French army, that had captured Madras from the British, and large force of 10,000 men belonging to Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan, the Nawab of the Carnatic, who sought to take Madras from the French. In the battle, which took place near the banks of the Adyar River, the French defeated the Nawab’s forces, and handed over a jolt to the British. The war was significant, as it taught the British the importance of organized armed forces. Few days after the war, Robert Clive would go on to form the Madras regiment, the precursor to Indian army.

(7) There’s some movie history too ! When the Talkies started in 1930s, Meenakshi Movie Tone (the place that later became Sathya Studios, and now MGR Janaki College) where the first talkie was shot. The studio did not have a roof, so the shooting had to be done in sunlight. When sunlight was inadequate, the crew would go eat lunch, and throw excess food on the banks of Adyar. Food attracted crows from the other end of the river (Theosophical Society). And when the crows made noise, it meant that shooting was disturbed. So they hired a person (Joe ?) to shoot the crows. This person’s name was mentioned in the credits of ‘Pavalakkodi’ that had MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, Tamil cinema’s first superstar in the lead role. The movie also has another Adyar connection. Papanasam Sivan, who wrote 30 songs for Pavalakkodi, also wrote songs on the other side of the banks of Adyar. This was ‘Devi Vasanthe’, penned about Annie Besant in Vasantha Ragam.

(8) Venkatesh was quite vocal in his criticism for Annamalai Chettiar, the founder of Annamalai University. A political animal, Annamalai Chettiar was perhaps one of the most powerful Indians with deep pockets. His wielded tremendous influence on Lord Willingdon, the Governor General of India. He told Willingdon that Madras needed a Mayor, and convinced him to conduct a Mayor Election, that his own son (Raja Muthiah) contests. When it was found that his son was under age by 6 months, he postponed the elections by 6 months ! Later when his son became the Mayor, he becomes the owner of 100 acres of land on Marshall’s road in Egmore that houses the Air India Building – a property still owned by their family ! Albeit never a king, Annamalai Chettiar also gets the title of ‘Raja’ from British. The Chettinad bungalow today is a palatial house on Santhome High Road.

(9) The Theosophical Society is perhaps one of the biggest establishments along the Adyar. Olcott and Balavtsky started secret society Cairo, New York and India. Olcott school has the earliest mid-day meal schemes, which even Kamarajar acknowledges. Maria Montessori taught at TS, and being an Italian, she was arrested in India during WW2. Margaret Cousins who set the Jana Gana Mana to tune spent her last days in Theosophical Society, and was cremated in Adyar. The Indian National Congress had its genesis under the Banyan Tree. One of the 3 meetings held under the Banyan tree led to the formation of INC. Another famous personality – Jiddu Krishnamurthy is discovered on the banks of the Adyar.


(10) In his magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, Kalki wrote several lines praising the river Cauvery. Kalki wrote his novel sitting at his residence in Gandhi Nagar on the banks of the river Adyar. He even says that the Ponni river got its name from the pon (golden) color of the water. One can see glimpses of that in Adyar river while while driving across Kottur bridges during sunrise.

Video of the talk available at :

(Photos Courtesy : Facebook)

A forgotten hero

“Do you know what a challenging life our generation lived ? When we were born, India had just got Independence. And in our prime age in the 1970s, there was severe unemployment, poverty…. and then there was the Emergency !”

If you haven’t heard a statement like this while talking to people from your father’s generation, then you must have lived a good life 🙂 But wait.. that’s not the point here. What is that Emergency thing ? Growing up, why did that topic always remain elusive to me ?  Oh  yes,  I wasn’t even born then !

Today a Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton gets few million tweets even before the debate gets over. The first-day-first-show of Rajnikanth’s Kabali saw fans provide live updates of every scene on Twitter. Even a dreary Test series between India and New Zealand got 1 million people talking about it on Facebook. Living in the era of Twitter, Facebook and instant news, it is hard to imagine times when media was censored, and had no freedom to publish/broadcast news of their choice.

Pic courtesy :

MG Devasahayam’s book JP Movement Emergency and India’s Second Freedom is a first hand account of the emergency days in India during 1975-77. MG Devasahayam was the collector of Chandigarh when Jayaprakash Narayan was arrested and sent to Chandigarh jail during the Emergency. He was personally in-charge of Jayaprakash Narayan during his days in jail.


Last month I read the Tamil version of the book titled ஜே.பி.யின் ஜெயில் வாசம், and translated by J.Ramki.

History can be cruel many times. Winners are celebrated, and their victories are written in text books. Their stories become part of folklore, and what they say is etched deep in public memory. On the other hand there are people who fought hard against odds, and often ended up in a losing cause. Such heroes often find themselves neglected and forgotten.

If India were to make a list of forgotten heroes, Jayaprakash Narayan’s name would find a place there.

The 1970s was a time of great political and social changes in India. Indira Gandhi, piggybacking on her slogan Garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) had won the 1971 elections. Before the year ended, she had won an emphatic victory in the battlefield against Pakistan. Indira Gandhi grew from strength to strength, and reached a status that even her father Nehru had not enjoyed.

But the war was followed by a period of crisis. The economy was strained by the aftermath of the war, and the U.S had stopped financial aid. The oil crisis of 1973 made a dent on the economy. Corruption was rampant. Unemployment, inflation and poverty were high. Several political unrest movements across the country had begun against Indira Gandhi Government. In Gujarat the incumbent Congress Government was dissolved and President’s rule was imposed. Later when state elections were held in Gujarat, Congress was defeated.

It was during this time that 73-year old Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) gave up his social work and re-entered political life. He joined the youth of his native Bihar in restoring, to public life, the values of the national movement. Led by JP, Bihar witnessed a series of strikes and protests, demanding the resignation of Indira Gandhi. The movement was backed by students and some opposition parties. In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court found Indira Gandhi guilty of misusing government machinery for her election campaign. The court annulled her election, unseated her from her Lok Sabha seat, and banned her from contesting elections for 6 years. The Allahabad verdict was a shot in the arm for the anti-Indira movement. The war cry for her resignation got louder.

And so India plunged into what is perhaps its darkest hour since Independence. Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency citing internal disturbances. In the 20 months that followed, basic rights and freedom of speech were curbed, press was censored. Any perceived act of dissent or opposition was met with severely. Opponents were imprisoned, and violence was unleashed. An entire country was made to toe the line of one woman’s

Interestingly, India’s economy grew at a healthy rate during the Emergency !

Pic Courtesy : India Today

JP was arrested and brought to Chandigarh jail. He was disillusioned with India’s state of affairs, and lamented the death of democracy. But he hoped that the courts would intervene. He tried to understand the situation by reading newspapers, but soon lost interest with what is being published. Meanwhile JP’s health soon became a topic of debate. He was already suffering from blood pressure and diabetes. A clandestine plan was made to decide what to do in the event of JP’s death in jail. The book beautifully captures the power equation between various departments of the Government in this episode !

But JP soon regained his self, and started writing letters to several people. In light of his ailing health, JP requested that his personal assistant be with him. He also requested that his family members be able to visit him in the jail. But his initial letters were intercepted. He started writing to Indira. He appealed for parole, so that he can perform relief work in the flood hit regions of Bihar. In a series of letters to Indira, JP promised to withdraw his agitation. In one of his letters, he even promised to withdraw from active politics. But Indira refused to budge. This disappointed JP, and he started wondering what went on in Indira’s mind. Why did she appear so insecure ? Clearly she wasn’t trusting her own partymen like Babu Jagjivan Ram and YP Chavan. So whose orders was she following ? What role did Sanjay Gandhi and his aides play ? Or was she acting as a puppet of the Soviet ? Several questions went on in JP’s mind, as he tried to work out a compromise formula.

Meanwhile JP’s health deteriorated further, but doctors failed to attend to his medical condition. Whether this was done intentionally or unintentionally remains anybody’s guess. But this worked out in JP’s favour, and he was shifted to a hospital in Mumbai. As JP left for Mumbai, he quietly vowed to work for restoration of democracy in India.

Lok Sabha elections were held in 1977. The Congress was handed its first ever electoral defeat. The chief opposition Janata Party & allies supported by JP, captured 345 out of 542 seats, while Congress finished at a distant 154 seats. In North India, Congress managed to win a meager 2 seats. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost their respective seats. Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India. The Emergency was called off.

It is hard to fathom what would have happened if Indira Gandhi had won the 1977 elections. It would have been a verdict in favor of her unpredictable ways, and perhaps signaled a direction change in Indian politics.

But alas, the Janata Party-led coalition Government didn’t last long. Elections were conducted again in 1980, and the Indira-led Congress staged a strong comeback to capture power. JP also died in 1978.

The book is an excellent record of JP’s days as a prisoner. His conversations with the author are emotional, and documented very well. My only complaint about the book is its chronicle-styled narration, that makes it look too detailed at some places.

The translation by Ramki is flawless. Although I know nothing about Tamil translation, I must admit that it didn’t feel like reading a translated book. The language flows effortlessly.

Returning to Gandhi

In 2008, a reader commented about Gandhi’s simplicity in an internet forum. He said that Gandhi’s decision to travel in 3rd Class train cost India more than a 1st Class Fare. Tamil writer Jeyamohan responded to the comment, and published the reply on his website. The response stirred a hornet’s nest, and soon Jeyamohan found himself in the middle of a debate with his readers. And so he started writing a series of articles on Gandhi, some on his own, and some as responses to readers’ questions. One article led to another, and soon Jeyamohan created a wealth of information on Gandhi.

Forward to 2013. My friend Prabhu Sunderaraman encouraged me to read Jeyamohan and his articles on Gandhi. Soon I landed on Jeyamohan’s website. Later when he told me that the articles were compiled as a book இன்றைய காந்தி, I also borrowed the book from him.

இன்றைய காந்தி was my first attempt at understanding Gandhi. Until then, my knowledge of Gandhi was limited to what I had acquired from text books, television, hearsay, forwarded e-mails and Facebook. But Jeyamohan’s book opened my mind to the psyche of Gandhi, to the workings of his inner mind. The book also made me laugh at my own ignorance about Gandhi.

jemoAnd so when I heard that Jeyamohan was speaking about Gandhi on Gandhi Jayanthi, it was compelling reason for me to attend. Actually, I wouldn’t have attend the talk, if not for the motivation from a few friends. But hey… I showed up ! The topic that Jeyamohan chose for this talk was an interesting one. It is ‘காந்தியம் தோற்கும் இடங்கள்’ (roughly translated as ‘Where does Gandhian thought get defeated ?‘).

Jeyamohan started his speech saying that there are 2 ways to understanding history. One is through myths and eulogies, that are provided to instill moral values. The other is through critical thinking – where one dissects and analyzes facts objectively without emotions. Modern literature belongs to the latter category. As an example, he quoted the ‘அருட்பா – மருட்பா’ controversy. Popular belief is that Yaazhppaanam Arumuga Navalar, a Tamil Hindu leader filed a case against Ramalinga Valallar under the pretext that, the latter’s poems should be classified as மருட்பா and not அருட்பா. When Vallalar came to court for the hearing, Navalar apparently stood up. When asked why he stood up, Navalar replied that he was doing so in respect to the head of his sect. Hearing this, the judge defers the hearing. But what happened in reality ? Court records clearly state that the case was not about மருட்பா vs அருட்பா, but a defamation case that was fought at the Manjakuppam court. Myth and history are clearly different from each other !

Back to Gandhi.. In 1946, Hindu-Muslim riots had broken out in many parts of India. One of the worst hit areas, Noakhali in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) had lost 1,00,000 lives due to the riots. 76-year old Gandhi walked barefooted village after village in Noakhali district, that had over 80% Muslim population. Gandhi is given a hostile reception in Noakhali. The locals made it difficult for Gandhi to walk, by filling up the streets with excreta and thorns. But Gandhi was unfazed, and he cleaned up the streets by himself. Gandhi spoke to Muslims and Hindus, and appealed with folded hands to stop killing each other. Dominique Lapierre wrote that Gandhi’s yatra brought peace to Noakhali – a feat that even the British army couldn’t do.

But how long did peace last ? Not much ! 6 years later, several Dalits were massacred at Naokhali during riots engineered by Gholam Sarwar Husseini . The region that venerated Gandhi had found a new hero in Gholam Sarwar. Today Gholam Sarwar is revered in Bangladesh, while Gandhi is almost forgotten.

So, is this a defeat for Gandhi ? Why has it become fashionable to be a Gandhi-basher ? Why do we easily point accusations at Gandhi, while conveniently ignoring our own inadequacies ? Why do expect these ideals from Gandhi, and not from religious leaders, politicians and others ?

The answer is simple – Gandhi poses uncomfortable questions that are against man’s natural instincts ! What are man’s natural instincts ?

1) Group mentality : The human mind has a tendency to categorize people into groups. These groups often create an “Us vs. Them” mentality towards people who may be different from us in some way, whether it’s race, nationality, culture, religion etc. Throughout history, man has constantly formed groups, identified enemies, fought wars, looted wealth and strengthened one’s own group. Groupism has allowed us to develop misplaced pride about ourselves, and a condescending attitude towards others. And so we extend this parochial mindset to Gandhi, and ask ‘What has Gandhi done for us ?’, ‘Does Gandhi represent my group ?’  and so on.

It is this basic nature of man that Gandhi opposes. In contrast, Gandhi was a leader for even those people who he stood against. When Gandhi went to London in 1931 to attend the 2nd Round Table Conference, he was given a rousing welcome by Britishers in Lancashire. They saw Gandhi as one of their own. Mind you, these were textile mill workers whose jobs were under threat, due to Gandhi’s swadeshi movement that boycotted foreign goods.

Gandhi’s stature clearly surpasses all ‘groups’. Whose fault is that ?

2) Consumerism is one of the strongest forces affecting our lives in the modern world. But crass consumerism is also having a major impact on environment. Forests are destroyed, natural resources are depleted. To meet the world’s needs, countries are competing to have access to natural resources in Africa. Countries like Somalia and Zambia are used as dumping grounds for developed economies. India is no exception either, with Tuticorin port getting dumped with toxic waste from the U.S.

It is this crass consumerism that Gandhi challenged. Gandhi spoke about reuse and recycling 50 years before others did. Gandhi feared that crass consumerism would lead to mass production, use of excessive energy, and creation of huge wastage. He saw a direct correlation of lust-materialism-production-consumption-exploitation-war. He felt that the problem should be tackled at a personal level, and that man should consume responsibly.

(Personally as a supporter of capitalism, I struggle to imagine a world without mass production, and economies of scale, and hence I have trouble agreeing with Gandhi here. But responsible consumption, I agree)

Gandhian Economics as a topic has been researched by scholars like JC Kumarappa. Gandhi’s economics and Kumarappa’s work inspired EF Schumacher, a European economist and author of the book Small is beautiful, to come to T.Kallupatti (a town near Madurai) and research on the subject. Not many in India seem to have taken Kumarappa’s work forward.

Gandhi loses 0-2 !?

3) Centralization : Human mind has a tendency to approach everything through its ‘central philosophy’. Man believes that anything – philosophy, concept, thought etc, can be fully understood only by knowing its core. Perhaps that’s why we see people explaining ‘the essence of the Bhagavad Gita in 3 lines’ or asking ‘What is the central point of this book ?’

Gandhi’s view of truth was very different. In his autobiography, he writes “…. the human mind is not the same for all, it follows that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another…”. Gandhi believed that truth was not one, but had many dimensions, and one needs to clearly understand its multitude. உண்மையின் பன்முகத்தன்மை (the diversity of truth) – a word I fell in love with while reading இன்றைய காந்தி.

Gandhi extrapolated this view to nations and organizations. He advocated for decentralization of power, and wanted every village to be self-sufficient without relying excessively on a central organization like the Government. He felt that centralization of political power in few hands would negate the very concept of democracy.

Does Gandhi’s vision look like utopia, work in progress, or a distant dream ?

Photo courtesy : Vijaysagar

In conclusion, Jeyamohan argued that Gandhi’s defeat is due to our inability to see and appreciate Gandhi. If we look back at Gandhi with a modern world perspective, it would appear that he has been defeated. But there will be a tipping point, when the world will be forced to make a U-Turn. And that could well be our return to Gandhi.


Video of the talk can be found here :

Saar.. Post

On this day, the 1st of October 2016, I, Kishore Mahadevan aged about 37 years, son of Mahadevan and Meenakshi, husband of Ishwarya, father of Vishnuram, citizen of India and resident of Chennai, undertook the task of starting a personal blog, and (hopefully) maintaining it too !