Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Scintillating Discourse on Gandhi and King

No summary can do justice to the fascinating lecture we heard at the
KIC yesterday by Prof..Michael Warren Sonnleitner, a Fulbright Fellow
from Portland, Oregon on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The
audience was thin as the notice was short and hence this note to give
you a flavour of the talk.

Prof. Sonnenleitner surprised us by saying that King had only a very
low understanding of Gandhi and that there were fundamental
differences between the approaches of King and Gandhi. King had read
only one book on Gandhi and one collection of Gandhi's writings and
listened to two lectures on him. But in answer to a question as to
whether King reached the Gandhian path independently of Gandhi, he
said that King was greatly influenced by Gandhi.

The fundamental difference between the two men was that while Gandhi
believed in the immortality of the soul, King was convinced that a man
had only one life to live and he would be remembered only if if he had
followers. For Gandhi, death was just a transition, but for King, it
was the end. King said that if people did not believe in Jesus, Jesus
would die. Jesus would live on as long as Christians followed him.
Since King knew that death was the end, he could be considered more
courageous than Gandhi. He was fearless, even though he knew he had
only one life to live.

King had the courage not only to face the local authorities, but also
the KKK and even the formidable Hoover, the head of the FBI, who had
secret files on all important people, including Presidents and
Congressmen. When Hoover threatened to reveal his secret life, King
dared him to reveal all after making a confession to his wife about
his indiscretions. He refused to be silent and continued his fight for

King believed in coerceive non-violence. He often quoted the Sermon on
the Mount to propagate the idea. He fought for social justice and
demanded a guaranteed annual income, not only for African Ameicans,
but also for the poor. He wanted national health care and education
for all, not to speak of ending racism in America. As a democratic
socialist, he was considered a national security threat. Many people,
including Coretta King, believed that the FBI killed him. His
"assassin", who had confessed to his killing as a plea bargain to
escape the gallows, stated later that he had not done it.

King's speeches were often quite inflammable. "I have a dream" speech
was not typical of his style. He condemned the state in the name of
God. He shook American society to the core.

In a telling illustration, Prof. Sonnleitner described how Gandhi and
King would treat the story of Daniel in the lion's den. Gandhi would
believe that Daniel could win over the lion with the power of his
soul. But King would want to cage the lion first and then try to tame

Gandhi encouraged the growth of other leaders and when he went to
jail, he left the movement to the others. But King did not have a
second tier leadership. His closest associates could not stand each
other without King's presence.

The lively discussion following the lecture was equally stimulating.
The Prof concluded by saying that America had not changed despite
King's thoughts and actions. There was nobody of the stature of King
to bring about social change. But he was glad that there were several
"small Kings", still active and effective, trying for change in their
own ways. He did not consider President Obama as one of them. Obama,
he said, was not a true African American. Obama is an African, an
American, an Asian, a white and a black at the same time and the
change he is seeking is not the one that King had sought.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The text of my presentation on HH's autobigraphy at the
book release by HE Dr. Abdul kalam on Jan 5, 2010

Your Excellency Dr. Abdul Kalam,
Your Highness Sree Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma Maharaja,
Members of the royal family,
Mr. B.R.Shetty,
Mrs. Uma Maheswari,
Mr. K.P.R.Nair,
Distinguished guests,

This is a moment of fulfillment for all of us. For His Highness, this
is a moment of fulfillment of his duty to history, having chronicled
his life and times for posterity; for His Excellency Dr. Abdul Kalam,
an icon of modern India, a moment to pay a tribute to what he calls,
“the oneness of the Maharaja, the State and the temple-forming an
integrated soul”; for Mr. B.R.Shetty, the prominent businessman from
the Gulf, a moment to savour his special links with Kerala and the
Maharaja; for Mrs. Uma Maheswari, the fulfillment of having completed
a labour of love successfully, for Mr. K.P.R.Nair, the eminent
publisher, the fulfillment of his grand vision to create a volume
worthy of its subject, and for me the joy of having been entrusted by
His Highness to welcome you and to introduce his book to you. I am
sure that you too will have a sense of fulfillment at the end of this
event, having been witness to the making of history. May I welcome you
all, on behalf of His Highness and the royal family?

The book being released today, H.H.Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma’s
‘Travancore-the Footprints of Destiny, My Life and Times Under the
Grace of Lord Padmanabha’ as told to Uma Maheswari’, (that is the
title of the book) published by Konark is no ordinary book either in
appearance or in substance. The quality of production, the choice of
paper, the value of the photographs, the quaint charm of the drawings
by young Sharath Sunder and the elegance of styling make the volume
worthy of any coffee table or library. In substance, it is history
written by one of its major actors, the hero and the author combining
to create a masterpiece.

The narrator, the hero, often recedes into the background and gives
pride of place in the narrative to Lord Padmanabha, the deity on whose
behalf the dynasty has ruled Travancore since AD 1750 and to his elder
brother and mentor, Sree Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma. Many have
faith in Lord Padmanabha, many have adored Sree Chthira Tirunal, but
no one else has felt the divine presence more intensely, no one else
has known Sree Chthira Tirunal more closely. The book, therefore,
presents the most intimate portrait of Sree Chthira Tirunal and the
divine hand that guided him.

The author summarizes the reforms and measures of Sree Chthira Tirunal
in one sentence: “The Temple Entry Proclamation, the abolition of
capital punishment, adult franchise, free and compulsory primary
education, mid –day meals, the establishment of the Travancore
University, procuring food grain to prevent famine, nationalization of
road transport, development of an airport, the establishment of the
Pallivassal hydro-electric project, the victory of the Mullaperiyar
case, the establishment of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy and the
Sree Chitra Art Gallery and rapid industrialization were some of the
reforms, measures and projects.” For a monarch, who assumed power at
the time when the State was “in the grip of an economic depression of
unprecedented severity,” these were no mean achievements. But the
abiding image that emerges of Sree Chithira Tirunal is as “the epitome
of utter gentleness, humility and nobility.”

As personal memoirs of the Elaya Raja and later the inheritor of a
hoary heritage, the book is a model autobiography, as it is devoid of
self-congratulation or glorification. Throughout, there is an effort
to demystify himself in the narration, performing a secondary and
supportive role to the Maharaja, sometimes even as a foil to him.
Instances of his own human weaknesses are narrated to contrast with
the superhuman tolerance and nobility of his elder brother. The way
how, at the age of ten, the Elaya Raja beat up a servant and he was
made to apologise to the servant publicly, how he retaliated to Sir
C.P.Ramaswami Iyer for flinging a file at the Maharaja in the tennis
court and how he confronted an editor, who published unwarranted
allegations against the palace are in contrast to the Maharaja, who
was the paragon of perfection.

The author’s sense of humour is matched only by his compassion with
which he describes everyone around him. For the erudite and learned
person that he is today, his first encounter with his British teacher
was disastrous. “Do you like to study?’ was the first question. “No”
he said emphatically. “How about reading?” “Not at all” he replied
promptly. “Hmm. I hope you like playing?” The answer was an equally
emphatic “Yes” The teacher pulled out a ping-pong ball from his pocket
and said “Come, Let us play” The young prince was delighted. Since
there was no racquet anywhere around, the teacher suggested that they
should use the hard cover of the books that he brought along. After a
delightful game of ping pong in which the prince defeated the teacher,
the teacher said: “Look, if the mere cover of this book is so strong,
imagine what the power and the strength of its contents would be?”
That revelation turned the playful prince into an avid reader. His
love for horses, watches, cameras and cars is described with similar
anecdotes. It is amusing to read that the celebrated dentist, Dr.
G.O.Pal (actually Dr. Gopalan) used to drive from Statue Junction to
East Fort in reverse gear just for the thrill of it. I was reminded of
a story in Moscow that the Egyptians used to order their tanks with
four reverse gears to run away from the Israelis. When they once asked
for a single forward gear, the Soviets were happy that they had
finally decided to fight. But the Egyptian General clarified: “Suppose
they come from behind?”

The pen portraits of the royal family, celebrities and others, drawn
with deep understanding, compassion and affection are an attraction of
the book. Amma Maharani, Regent Maharani, the author’s father, Sri
Ravi Varma Kochu Koil Thampuran, his sister, Karthika Tirunal, Sir
C.P.Ramaswami Iyer, Colonel Goda Varma Raja and others come alive in
the book. It is heartening to read how these great personalities
shaped and reshaped the mind of the author as he assumed different
roles in the family and the State. The most sensitive and tender
portrait is of his own consort, Shrimati Radha Devi, starting from the
moment he saw her arresting face in a wedding album to her demise in
2005. “There were four distinct phases in those years,
namely—attraction, attention, adoration and abandonment”, he writes.
His description of her justifies his cryptic remark: “Radha Devi was
an ideal partner” In a touching farewell, he says, “The grief is
strong, I am unable to come to terms with the reality—that unavoidable
and inescapable part of life.’ The book also contains affectionate
references to the Mahraja’s talented children, nieces, their husbands
and children.

His Highness’ encounters with the celebrities of the world are another
attractive feature of the book. Agatha Chritie, Lord Mountbatten,
Dr.Radhakrishnan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Uday Shankar, Jacqueline Kennedy,
R. Venkataraman, Nizam of Hyderabad, Swami Sivananda, Sringeri
Madadipathi, Bhagawan Satya Sai Baba, Maa Ananda Mayi, Swami
Chinmayananda, the Dalai Lama, JRD Tata and many others find a place
in the book. The most amusing one is the anecdote about Eleanor
Roosevelt. After a visit to Kaudiar Palace, she wrote in the Life
magazine, “I went to Travancore, where I met Chithira Thirunal, the
Maharaja. He introduced me to the Maharani, who was not his wife, but
his mother, and the heir apparent, who was not his son, but his
brother…I have not understood the system. But I am glad that the power
is vested with the women.”

Speaking of the power of women, one must say a word about Uma
Maheswari, the woman behind this book. Like Boswell to Dr. Johnson and
Lytton Strachey to Queen Victoria, Uma has rendered a great service to
His Highness by taking notes diligently and putting them together into
a cohesive, readable and interesting account of a remarkable life and
its times.

Shri KPR Nair, the publisher also deserves a word of appreciation for
creating a volume worthy of its contents.

The book that His Excellency will release today is just not history.
It will make history. The readers of the book, however much they may
believe in democracy and equality of men, will realize that there is
something in what is called “blue blood”, which sets apart the rajas
from the prajas. It is not pomp and grandeur, but humility, dedication
and commitment to the people.

Thank you,

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year Wishes and Thoughts 2010


The end of a year, particularly the end of a decade, is a time for
reflection as well as anticipation. The last year brought much
excitement and much joy to my family, friends and me, but not without
moments of gloom and despondency. Considering that every year is a
blessing, particularly after a certain age, we have much to be
grateful about the year that has just vanished into history.

We had our share of losses of dear and near ones in 2009. The most
painful of them was the unexpected and untimely passing away of Kala
Kaarthikeyan, who had a special place in our lives. The thought that
she and the others, who passed away, will not be there in the New Year
and in the years to come, detracts from the joy of anticipation. May
peace prevail on them.

The biggest event of the year for us was the wedding of Sreekanth,
Mishu, as we call him, to Sharu towards the end of the year on a
lovely beach in Goa. As they celebrate their honeymoon in Alexandria
at the dawn of the New Year, we wish them well. The excitement of
their short courtship, engagement and the splendid wedding dominated
the year. We also welcomed to our family fold Naimish and Gauri
Choksi, Sharu’s marvelous parents, who are ushering in the New Year in
Cambodia. The best thing about the wedding was that the entire family,
except two of Shree’s cousins, came to Goa and Trivandrum to
participate in the festivities. Many of our friends in different
countries came all the way to add luster to our delight. Others
showered felicitations and gifts on us from far and near. Thank you
all for your thoughts and prayers. We should also offer an
unconditional apology to some of you, who did not receive invitations
to the wedding.

The wedding, in a way, was linked to the other excitement of the year,
the election of Shashi Tharoor from Trivandrum. All of us were part of
his campaign and it was when Shree was engaged in door to door
campaign for Shashi, when he met Sharu, who had come to Trivandrum to
cover the campaign for Headlines Today. Shashi characterized their
wedding as an outstanding outcome of his political campaign. The
election results were good for India as it ensured continuity of the
Manmohan Singh Government, which has done much good for the country.
We are disappointed that the promise of Shashi Tharoor as a Minister
has diminished on account of his belief that he needs to communicate
his views directly to the people through a social network even as a
Minister. Hope he will have better luck in the New Year. Modern means
of communications should not undermine established traditions of

I have been taking on additional responsibilities in 2009, making
“retired life” busier than the days in the Foreign Service. The
membership of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which
entails frequent travel to Delhi and more reading and writing, the
work of the Kerala International Centre (KIC), which has become an
active body of foreign affairs enthusiasts, my weekly programme on
Asianet and endless invitations to speak and write and my
responsibilities in Vayalarji’s Ministry have made life extremely
interesting and hectic. Towards the end of the year, I also assumed
some of the responsibilities that Shashi Tharoor had in the Dubai
based company, AFRAS. I also managed to spend two months as a Visiting
Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, doing some work on
a book on nuclear matters, which should see the light of day next
year. Even under the constant threat of being destroyed by the Kerala
Government, the Trivandrum Golf Club offered the much needed
distraction from work.

Lekha remained focused on her charity work even in the midst of the
wedding excitement and her dancing and painting bouts. She won two
awards during the year for her work with Karuna, which is now a
multinational charity establishment.

The social life in Trivandrum is not too hectic, but we must have
attended a hundred weddings in the year, ranging from simple affairs
to legendary lavish bashes. Government sponsored and other
celebrations and cultural festivals appear endless. The waste of power
on illuminations at the drop of a hat and thoughtless destruction of
trees and plants are distressing, not to speak of the crisis in the
administration on account of squabbles within and outside the ruling
coalition. Kerala deserves a break from all this in the New Year.

I know mailboxes are clogged with messages and no one has the time or
patience to read long New Year messages. On behalf of all the
Sreenivasans, Lekha, Sreenath, Roopa, Sreekanth, Sharu, Durga and
Krishna, let me reciprocate the sentiments in the hundreds of
messages, cards and phone calls we have received for 2010. Hope all
your dreams will come true in the years to come, if not in the New
Year itself. We are grateful for your continued friendship, affection
and consideration, which will illumine our lives in the years to come.


January 1, 2010