"Wading neck deep in a swamp, your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it" Mary H. Kingsley (1897)


Road Mending


The sound of loud chatter assailed me just latterly – noise that had come from outside.

To wit this disturbance – a certain perturbance –  my manservant also espied.

Shaji ran in from the yard’s lofty gate,

He spoke like a prophet or seer:

“Sir, please. Come quickly. No time to be sickly!

Road-roller and workers are here, they’re here – they’re here!

Road-roller and workers are here.”



Fort Cochin’s new mayor is aware of the prayers that voters have made for their streets.

Casual labour’s been summoned. My dream is they’ll come and create a road fit for aesthetes.

At present it’s pot-holed and traversed by fissures.

Driving’s a challenging feat.

It’s quite hard to ensure, in taxi or rickshaw, one’s bottom remains on the seat, the seat – the seat!

One’s bottom remains on the seat.



While tarmac is pouring, and neighbours adoring the new mayor’s fair-square policy.

I can’t help but notice this finishing coat is effectively foundation-free.

Beneath the thin layer of asphalt and concrete

Lies soft earth and loose sand combined.

At the monsoon’s returning, we’ll soon be re-learning

If dreams remain merely moonshine, moonshine – moonshine!

If dreams remain merely moonshine.


With apologies to Edward Lear



Power And Priorities

How Churchill ‘starved’ India

by Soutik Biswas

Victims of the famine in Bengal, 1943 

It is 1943, the peak of the Second World War. The place is London. The British War Cabinet is holding meetings on a famine sweeping its troubled colony, India. Millions of natives mainly in eastern Bengal, are starving. Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, soon to be appointed the new viceroy of India, are deliberating how to ship more food to the colony. But the irascible Prime Minister Winston Churchill is coming in their way.
“Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country,” writes Sir Wavell in his account of the meetings. Mr Amery is more direct. “Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country,” he writes.

Some three million Indians died in the famine of 1943. The majority of the deaths were in Bengal. In a shocking new book, Churchill’s Secret War, journalist Madhusree Mukherjee blames Mr Churchill’s policies for being largely responsible for one of the worst famines in India’s history. It is a gripping and scholarly investigation into what must count as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the Empire.

The scarcity, Mukherjee writes, was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain – India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships – this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy – which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy – in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.

Mukherjee tracks down some of the survivors of the famine and paints a chilling tale of the effects of hunger and deprivation. Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones. “No one had the strength to perform rites,” a survivor tells Mukherjee. Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages. The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. “Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,” writes Mukherjee.

Winston Churchill during the Second War 

The famine ended at the end of the year when survivors harvested their rice crop. The first shipments of barley and wheat reached those in need only in November, by which time tens of thousands had already perished. Throughout the autumn of 1943, the United Kingdom’s food and raw materials stockpile for its 47 million people – 14 million fewer than that of Bengal – swelled to 18.5m tonnes.

In the end, Mukherjee writes eloquently, it was “not so much racism as the imbalance of power inherent in the social Darwinian pyramid that explains why famine could be tolerated in India while bread rationing was regarded as an intolerable deprivation in wartime Britain”. For colonial apologists, the book is essential reading. It is a terrifying account of how colonial rule is direly exploitative and, in this case, made worse by a man who made no bones of his contempt for India and its people.

This article is taken from BBC News



Despite the many acts of courage and fortitude which forge great empires, countless lives are sacrificed in the process.

Motives are often less than honourable, callous disregard for subject people almost inevitable. It is then that patriotism becomes the last refuge of the scoundrel.


New Dawns?


This morning Cochin’s sun rose on a marginally different world.


During October millions of Indians will vote in local government elections and yesterday was polling day for Cochin..

A new dawn will bring victories, defeats and a certain degree of indifference.


Politicians here promise dedication, devotion and diligence – for a price:




Whatever the result, little is likely to change.


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A Life Less Ordinary

The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre by Michael H Fisher


William Dalrymple marvels at the tragic and extraordinary life of Britain’s first Anglo-Indian MP

From: The Observer, Sunday 1 August 2010


David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, painted by Charles Brocky.

At around 4am on 21 September 1843, a man recently certified as a lunatic escaped from his Liverpool confinement, gave his keepers the slip and disappeared into the night. Undetected, he managed to catch an early-morning express train from Lime Street to London. There he jumped on to another express to Southampton, where he made his way on an overnight steam packet to Le Havre. Within 48 hours of his escape from Liverpool he reached Paris, and checked into one of the best hotels in town. Shortly afterwards, he began collecting doctors’ certificates to show he was of completely sound mind. With these secured, he began legal proceedings to recover the vast fortune that had been sequestered from him when he was declared non compos mentis, or, in the popular parlance of the time, a “nincompoop”.

The supposed lunatic was Colonel David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, a multilingual and culture-crossing young Indian prince – or “half-caste Croesus”, according to the London Daily News – who had already suffered the indignity of having his rich kingdom north of Delhi confiscated on the most dubious grounds by the East India Company. His life was a compendium of contradictions: he was raised by a former Muslim courtesan but became a pious Roman Catholic; he ended his days as both a Knight Templar and a Knight of the Pontifical Order of Christ. Exiled to London, he was blackballed from gentlemen’s clubs and reviled in the streets as “a black bugger”, but succeeded in marrying a prominent viscount’s daughter, and became the first Asian, and only the second non-white, to be elected to the mother of parliaments.

Yet just as it seemed he had succeeded in breaking through the ceiling of high Victorian racial prejudice, Dyce Sombre’s election was annulled for corruption, his marriage fell apart and his wife’s family had him declared insane and took control of his fortune. He never succeeded in regaining most of it, despite alleging, from his exile in Paris, that his unfaithful wife had bribed the doctors to have him locked up so that she could seize his money; he also published a 591-page book, Mr Dyce Sombre’s Refutation of the Charge of Lunacy, which he circulated to anyone he thought could help.

He continued to litigate unsuccessfully for a further eight years in an attempt to get his fortune back, though his case was not helped by his increasingly eccentric and immoral behaviour, with a succession of prostitutes and a charge of exposing himself in public. He eventually died, dejected and alone, in a cheap hotel in London, having returned to the scene of his humiliations to try one last time to salvage his lost reputation. It was only after his death that Dyce Sombre’s lawyers won a series of cases proving that he had indeed been unjustly treated, and restored to his executors much of his fortune.

Now, with The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre, Michael Fisher has managed to bring back from oblivion a tragic but extraordinary life that once inspired fiction by Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as bearing an intriguing resemblance to the main plotline of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

Dyce Sombre was the great-grandson-in-law and adopted heir of the enigmatic Begum Sumru of Sardhana, who presided over one of the most fascinatingly hybrid courts in Asia. The begum was originally said to have been a Delhi or Kashmiri dancing girl named Farzana Zeb un-Nissa, born in 1751, whose rapid rise to fortune began when she became the bibi (mistress) of German mercenary Walter Reinhardt, known as “Sombre” (Indianised to “Sumru”) after his severe expression. When the Mughal emperor gave Reinhardt a large estate in the Doab north of Delhi, his begum went with him and turned the village of Sardhana into their capital, with a ruling class drawn from both Mughal noblemen and a ragged bunch of more than 200 ne’er-do-well French and central European mercenaries of mixed Jewish and Catholic extraction, many of whom apparently converted to Islam.

After Sombre’s death, his begum ruled in his stead, partly from Sardhana and partly from her large Delhi palace on the Chandni Chowk. Contrary to the professions of faith made by her officers, she chose to convert from Islam to Catholicism and appealed directly to the Pope to send a chaplain for her court. By the time the intriguingly named Father Julius Caesar turned up in Sardhana from Rome, the begum had already begun to build the largest cathedral in northern India, in a style that promiscuously mixed baroque and Mughal motifs, with a great classical dome rising from Mughal squinches decorated with honeycombed Persian murqanas.

On the death of the begum in 1836, the British seized the kingdom of Sardhana when the East India Company refused to recognise Dyce Sombre as the legitimate heir. Like many other disinherited Indian princes before him, he had no option but to sail to England to seek justice from the courts or, failing that, parliament.

Dyce Sombre’s tragedy was that the fabulous fluidity of culture and practices, and the plurality of beliefs that was possible in late Mughal India, was completely impossible in the hierarchy-obsessed world of early-Victorian London, with its firm social certainties and increasingly rigid racial and religious boundaries. Stateless, multicultural, multilingual and ethnically mixed, he found it hard to fit in anywhere outside the strange kingdom where he was raised. Many of the ideas for which Dyce Sombre was locked up would have appeared relatively unremarkable in India: his insistence on trying to keep his aristocratic English wife in virtual purdah; his strong conviction that good and evil djinns and spirits were battling over his soul; and his tendency to demand the right to duel the huge the number of people who he suspected of sleeping with his wife (these included the Duke of Wellington, Lord Cardigan – of the Charge of the Light Brigade fame – and his father-in-law, as well as various “waiters, servants, doctors and tradesmen”). At least some of what people took to be his madness came from cultural misunderstanding rather than insanity.

Michael H Fisher has long been fascinated by the flow of people and cultures between Britain and India; his masterly Counterflows to Colonialism was a groundbreaking history of the reverse journeys of thousands of 18th- and 19th-century Indians to the colonial west. This book, however, rediscovers and brings back to life one of the strangest, saddest and most unlikely stories of the entire British-India encounter, and throws a fascinating light on the degree of hybridity and cross-cultural contact possible during the period, as well as the limits that Victorian England eventually imposed on such cultural crossings.

William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury) has just been awarded the first Asia House prize for literature

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Empire Lines


“In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organised and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth.   The other was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.”

So begins “Indian Summer: The secret history of the end of an empire”.

This book by Alex Von Tunzelmann, which charts the independence and partition of India, continues as compellingly as it starts.



It’s gripping reading: I may be gone some time…





Hartal Haiku


Bandh: streets lie empty.

Monsoon sickness entraps me.

My camera sleeps.


Powerless, lights dim.

Rain drenched cables fall silent.

Now, soliloquy.








Come the Revolution

Kerala has its own style of politics.

The Communist Party and Congress Party tend to alternate in power.

Trades Unions are vocal. Daily life is punctuated by strikes, hartals and bandhs.

Some political parties enjoy strong support

Others have had their day

Or long since lost their appeal

But as a child, my revolutionary inspiration was this: