Skip to main content



Mukul Kesavan
by the inimitable     
Mukul  Kesavan

One day, in about 1981, looking in his pigeonhole at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was an M.Phil. student, Mukul Kesavan found a card from his supervisor Chris Bayly which included the line: ‘Cambridge isnt yet a holiday resort!’ The implication was that Kesavan better move it a bit on things academic. Later, Bayly presciently wondered if a career in journalism might not suit Kesavan well. A year or so later, while granting him his M.Phil., Kesavan’s external examiner Francis Robinson felt that with a little more effort the M.Phil. could be worked up into a Ph.D. Kesavan, thanking his stars for not having the money to work further at the wretched thesis, fled that corner of his foreign field happily clutching the M.Phil. Over the subsequent years he went back to Cambridge often, but mostly for the pleasure of punting on the Cam. Trapped as a student within a location bristling with libraries, he saw earlier than most the importance of enjoying Cambridge as the prettiest possible holiday resort.  

The directions of Kesavans early university years point to his later professional trajectory, which has been to combine everyday journalism with the higher learning. Taken to its highest form in Indian newspapers and journals, this is distinctively the art of Mukul Kesavan. A writer of the most witty, scintillating, excoriating, iconoclastic, and classical English prose—which in a quasi-Rushdiean way he has polished into an altogether superior idiom by layering it with sophisticated desi expression—Kesavan dodges classification. Neither fish nor fowl, a cat among the pigeons, he teaches history for a living and is formally a pedagogue, but virtually everything he writes seems implicitly to impale university prose so satisfyingly that, reading him, you can almost see the shaft travelling up the academic underbelly. Living within his tribe, he unsettles it as no one else merely by writing in the way he does. Or, to give it properly academic phrasing, he problematizes his profession. He complicates his colleagues. He liminalizes liminality.

Perhaps three-fourths of the essays and books that Indian social scientists produce are duller than ditchwater, the ditchwater very likely being deeply insulted by the comparison. The wealth of this variety of tripe, so conspicuous in India, may not be as apparent in other countries because, not being as rich in dysfunctional universities as us, they have fewer PhDs and conference-hoppers churning out hifalutin bilge, and therefore a smaller corpus of literature that can be immediately recognized as something that should never have come within sniffing range of a book, never mind becoming one. Of the remaining quarter, the bulk is perhaps passable, while a pretty tiny top-end shows up as imaginative, invigorating, analytic, and everything that academic prose of an international level ought to be. 

Had he put his heart into the academic profession, Kesavan would very likely have written the sort of attractive prose that Indian academics such as (for example) Sunil Khilnani, Arvind Mehrotra, Partha Chatterjee, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Sudipta Kaviraj have shown they can write. But as a writer Mukul Kesavan doesn’t really partake of this fine pinnacle either. Having climbed it, he has sidestepped it. The reason is that he does not desire to complicate or problematize or liminalize; he wants his writing to be accessible also within the university, not only within it. Consequently his forte has been the intelligent man's op-ed, the entertaining and thought-provoking analysis in a journal or weekly. 

The problem is that, all too frequently in India, the genres of writing that appear in such fora are seen as ephemeral and transitory, forgotten the day after they have been consumed, dismissed in a general way as the work of hacks. One answer to this difficulty is to collect the best columns and essays of the best journalists into a book, for whereas the single column vanishes from view within hours, a book of such pieces provides coherence and body, it enables the material to appear as a set of ideas, a worldview, a distinctive authorial viewpoint. You get a very different sense of the person writing if you can read 75,000 words by her through the pages of a book over four or five consecutive days instead of 1200 words piecemeal seen by chance over several years. 

  Columns by Indian journalists do sometimes get gathered into books, but the books they become bear little resemblance to the collections by, say, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, Auberon Waugh and Clive James, where journalism-of-the-moment is so memorably shaped that it reads like art. (In our context the things nearest this are the essay collections of writers like Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guha, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Amit Chaudhuri, and William Dalrymple.) Until the recent appearance of Caravan magazine, and some might say Open magazine now and then, there hasn't since the demise of Modern Review and then Encounter and then the infrequently alive Civil Lines been space for the literary essay and strong narrative journalism. We've been short of a LRB, a NYRB. The result has been that high quality journalism, the pungent short essay, and the exquisite long one have been scarce, and these forms havent attracted anything like the sort of writers, money, and adulation that fiction has. Kai Frieze, Ruchir Joshi, and Pankaj Mishra come to mind as exceptional writer-journalists who may as a consequence have had shorter shrift in India than they might if our media and publishing cultures had been more supportive towards their genres. Additionally, because winning prizes is now The Big Thing, a gravitation towards the writing of literary fiction rather than literary journalism may have starved this variety of non-fictional prose. 

For all these larger reasons, and because Mukul Kesavan tends to spend more time talking than writing (his tongue may be the most exercised tongue in the country), it seems not to have been adequately noticed by the public at large that Mukul Kesavan is the finest living writer of Indian English non-fiction. We offer this opinion with provocation but without reservation, and with every expectation of hearing the whistle of hurled slippers. Absurd? Over the top? Maybe. But the assertion is a calculated exaggeration, made because there is no doubt in our minds that the prose offered up by Mukul Kesavan over the past decade or so is utterly exceptional, wholly international, and worth preserving for eternity. 

Sudipta Kaviraj narrates an incident which uncovers one aspect of our local university ethos that has generated vast reams of dreadful writing in the social sciences. At the end of one of his papers during a conference, Kaviraj says, he was approached by an eminent woman academic who said to him with no trace of doubt: ‘Your argument was so aesthetically expressed that I can’t take it seriously. I hope you will write a proper paper for the conference volume.’

Mukul Kesavan once wrote a paper for a conference volume. (He may have written more than one, but the wonder is that he even got to One.) It is titled ‘Urdu, Avadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema’, and it is reproduced in Kesavan’s earlier Permanent Black collection of essays, THE UGLINESS OF THE INDIAN MALE AND OTHER PROPOSITIONS. Alongside his Cambridge M.Phil. thesis, which he was typically too lazy to rework into a monograph (a loss to Permanent Black; the offer to publish it remains open), this essay has one leg in academia and the other in the world of fine writing. It reveals, as do almost all his essays, that Kesavan is (pace the late Bernard Cohn) An Essayist Among the Historians. Kesavan’s new collection, below,

is, if anything, even more brilliant and wonderfully readable than that earlier one. What the blurb says is the bare truth:

‘Homeless’ in the title of this book means ‘cosmopolitan’. Mukul Kesavan, considered by many to be India’s most articulate and sophisticated scholar-journalist in English, covers a huge range of political and cultural subjects, local and international, in this collection of opinion pieces. These include Hollywood and Bollywood, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, Steve Jobs and Julian Assange, Sri Lanka and Israel, wildlife at the Kruger National Park and beachlife in Goa.
Kesavan’s viewpoints can veer from being scrupulously rational to extravagantly funny. Regardless of the tone he adopts, his observations are acute, his analysis of what he notices Orwellian. The perspective and worldview that emerges is that of a truly global intellectual who is both admirably idiosyncratic and secular to the point of being hidebound, a combination which makes this essay collection quite exceptional.
Identifiably Indian in its location, this book is written with such uncommon flair and intellectual passion, and in an idiomatic English of such polish and perfection, that it transcends the local. Journalism was never meant to be this good, and in India it has never been. The newspapers and newsmagazines in which this stuff first appeared just got lucky—this quality of writing should have originated in a book and been enshrined there forever.
Well, better late than never: buy it quick.

On hill stations: ‘Hill stations should come fitted with a thermostat. This way they’re just primitive forms of refrigeration.’

On wildlife: ‘Human populations shouldn’t be herded. Animal populations should—what are zoos for?’

On Nature: ‘I agree completely with Kingsley Amis who said “Nature is most pleasant when seen through the eyes of a character.”’

On Books: ‘I recommend magpie knowledge. Selective reading can be made to seem profoundly well informed.’

On Walking in Mountains: ‘There’s no option except to pretend we’re happy striding through this deranged topography.’

On Seeing a Hill Cow: ‘The cow is a creature of the most supreme stupidity. No wonder the Hindus warm towards it. Donkeys have some semblance of an impulse to spontaneity. Cows are only distinguishable from plants because they move.’

On Seeing a Wheatfield: ‘I must say, it requires a leap of faith to imagine the end product of something green and vertical as a chapati. From something long and thin and vertical and green into something flat and white and round. Vegetarianism has clearly stolen an aesthetic march over non-vegetarianism. It doesn’t require half as much imagination to see cooked meat as the end product of an animal.’

Inside five minutes of entering the [Kruger National] park, we saw our first substantial animal (I’m not counting deer which are to wildlife sanctuaries what weeds are to gardens), a rhino. After a quarter of a century of bourgeois travelling, I’ve arrived at a convergence theory of national parks, which is that all national parks are the same national park. Whether you’re at B.R. Hills near Mysore or in Sariska near Alwar or Kruger, there’s a road in the middle and scrubby wilderness on either side. The difference in Kruger was that there was visible wildlife as well, made evident by the rhino. It must have been all of twenty feet from the car and it was being stared at by a Land Rover full of safari-ing tourists. …
By the time we got to our lodge we had seen several giraffes. Giraffes aren’t native to Kruger. They are intelligent extraterrestrial life forms masquerading as earthly animals. I saw it at once in their lofty indifference to everything around them. We also saw two elephants, a big one and a little one which could have been its child, but we couldn’t tell what sex they were partly because it was dusk but mainly because we didn’t know exactly where to look on an elephant. Specially the African elephant, which is enormous. Ours seemed puny in comparison. I felt a pulse of elephant patriotism. This lot were large good-for-nothings. They couldn’t be taught or tamed or trained to do anything.  They just hung around in profile, staying still so people could take pictures. They made great silhouettes, though. They were so big that driving past one was a bit like driving by India Gate.
… the vehicle [stopped] so we could watch two white rhinos. One of them was defecating and he produced what can only be described as perfect, cylindrical shells that were expelled with such force that the crap was a kind of cannonade. After the rhinos left (both male, young: [the guide] Lazarus could always tell the girls and boys apart, even in the dark) he drove us down to their lavatory, which he called  a midden.
I have a very bad video of him standing outside the Land Rover surrounded by rhino turds, explaining that a midden wasn’t just a place to shit for the rhino, it was also a place for acquiring information, the rhino equivalent of a cyber-café. The midden told the rhino if there were any willing rhino maidens about, it told him if there were any pushy male rhinos horning in on his territory. Lazarus stopped to pick up an old rhino turd and crumbled it. You could tell from the turds, he said, if they had been produced by a black or a white rhino. The colour was different as was the content because the one grazed (ate grass) while the other browsed (ate twigs). It was fascinating but some part of me kept wanting him to wash his hands afterwards.

Hardback / 314pp / Rs 595.00 / World rights / mid October 2013


Popular posts from this blog


Indians have been writing prose for 200 years, and yet when we think of literary prose we think of the novel. The “essay”   brings only the school essay to mind. Those of us who read and write English in India might find it hard to name an essay even by someone like R.K. Narayan as easily as we would one of his novels, say Swami and Friends or The Guide . Our inability to recall essays is largely due to the strange paradox that while the form itself remains invisible, it is everywhere present. The paradox becomes even more strange when we realise that some of our finest writers of English prose  did not write novels at all, they wrote essays. The anthology is an attempt at making what has always been present also permanently visible. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra   • A collection of the finest essays written in English by Indians over the past two hundred years. • The Book of Indian Essays is a wide-ranging historical anthology of the Indian essay in English – the f


BUY THE PAPERBACK       FROM THE REVIEWS   Review in SOCIAL HISTORY, USA by Benjamin Siegel The Great Agrarian Conquest represents a massive intervention into the contemporary historiography of South Asia, elaborating upon some conventional wisdom but upending a great deal more of it. Readers might well place this book in conversation with works like Ranajit Guha ’ s A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohn ’ s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya o ff ers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism . . .   Few volumes in South Asian history have been more awaited than this monograph, Neeladri Bhattacharya ’ s fi rst. One of the most celebrated mentors and researchers at New Delhi ’ s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bhattacharya retired in 2017 after a decades-long career. His formal scholarly output, limited to sev


"While the Covid-19 pandemic was still raging in the autumn of 2020, I found, one evening, placed outside the door of my home in Kolkata, a sealed packet. Apparently, it had been left there sometime during the day. It did not come by post or any of the courier services that usually deliver mail because, if it had, someone would have rung the bell and I was home all day. In fact, the parcel did not bear any seal or inscription except my name and address written in English script in a confident cursive style rarely seen these days. My curiosity was aroused because the package did not look like a piece of junk mail. The thought that it might contain something more sinister did strike my mind – after all, the times were not exactly normal. But something in the look of the packet persuaded me that it should be examined. After dutifully spraying the packet with a disinfectant, I unwrapped it and found, within cardboard covers and neatly tied in red string, what looked like a manuscript