India’s first Renaissance Man and his verse (Column: Bookends XCIX)


Much before the term “Renaissance Man” came into vogue, he was one in what eventually became India. A prolific poet, historian and writer, he also introduced two music forms – ghazal and qawwali – popular to this day, is credited with developing two styles of classical music – khayal and tarana – as well as the tabla and sitar. But his most notable feat was using a local vernacular so adroitly that seven centuries hence it is the most commonly-used language across the South Asian subcontinent.

And Ab’ul Hasan Yamin ud-Din Khusrow (c. 1253-1325) or Amir Khusro, as we usually know him, seemed to epitomise the assimilative nature of India.

The son of a Turkic Hazara noble, forced to leave his homeland near Samarkand by Genghis Khan’s invasion and found shelter at the court of Sultan Iltutmish, and an Indian mother from a Rajput tribe, he was born in what is now Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district. Beginning imperial service as a soldier, he became court poet to Sultan Balban’s nephew in 1271 and soon enjoyed royal favour, serving seven monarchs of Delhi spanning the Mamluk or Slave Dynasty, the Khaljis and the Tughlaqs.

Besides his diwans – “Tuhfa-tus-Sighr (Offering of a Minor)”, “Wastul-Hayat (The Middle of Life)”, “Ghurratul-Kamaal (The Prime of Perfection)”, “Baquia-Naquia (The Rest/The Miscellaneous)” and “Nihayatul-Kamaal (The Height of Wonders)”, finished a few days before his death, other notable works include “Mathnavi Duval Rani-Khizr Khan”, a hauntingly beautiful but tragic poem about the love between Gujarat’s princess and Sultan Alauddin’s son, “Mathnavi Noh Sepehr (Mathnavi of the Nine Skies)” on his perceptions of India, a collection of five classical romances including of Shireen-Khusrau, and Layla-Majnun, as well as prose and histories.

But it is his poetry , both Persian and then Hindvi (“Khusro darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar/Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar”) that holds centrestage – even when he combines both as in this oft-quoted example, and glides between them within a line.

“Zehal-e miskin makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan/Ki taab-e hijran nadaram ay jaan, na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan/Shaban-e hijran daraz chun zulf wa roz-e waslat cho umr kotah, Sakhi piya ko jo main na dekhun to kaise kaatun andheri ratiyan…”

And his Persian poetry is as grand. Take either this ghazal (will be familiar as a qawwali for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan fans): “Nami danam chi manzil bood shab jaay ki man boodam/Baharsu raqs-e bismil bood shab jaay ki man boodam (I don’t know which place I was at last night/Flailing were half-slain tormented victims (of love) around me where I was last night)”.

Or this one (also rendered as a qawwali): “Khabaram raseed imshab ki nigaar khvahi aamad/Sar-e man fida-e raah-e ki sawaar khvahi aamad! (There came news tonight that you, oh beloved, would come/Be my head sacrificed to the road along which you will come riding)”, “Kashish ki ishq daarad naguzaradat badinsaa/Ba-janazah gar nayai ba-mazaar khvahi aamad (Love’s attraction will not leave you unmoved/ If you don’t join my funeral prayer, you will definitely turn up at my grave)” and ending: “Baya aamadan raboodi, dil-o-deen sab chu Khusro/Che shavad agar badinsaa, do se baar khvahi aamad (The first time you came, you took away Khusro’s heart and faith/What will you happen if you come again?)”.

It is dedicated to his spiritual master – Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya as are these qawwalis in a more familiar language but a very different cultural idiom: “Chhap tilak sab cheeni ray mosay naina milaike/Prem bhatee ka madhva pilaike…. Khusrau Nijaam kay bal bal jayyiye/Mohe suhaagan keeni ray mosay naina milaike”, “Main to piya say naina lada aayi rae.. Khusrau Nijaam kay bal bal jayyiye/Main to anmol cheli kaha aayi rae…”, and “Aaj rang hai hey maan rung hai ri/More mehboob kay ghar rang hai ri… Mohe pir paayo Nijamudin Auliya/Nijamudin Auliyaa mohay pir paayo.”
His inventiveness never stopped – there were his clever riddles, some containing their own answers: “Saawan bhaadon bahut chalat hai/Maagh paus mein thodi/Amir Khusro yun kahay/Tu boojh paheli mori” and dual ones with one answer: “Ghar kyun andhiyaara? Faqeer kyun barhbarhaya? Diya na tha” and “Pundit kyun na nahaya? Dhoban kyun maari gayi? Dhoti na thi.”

And then who can forget the lament of generations of brides: “Kaahe ko biyahi bides, re, lakhi Baabul moray…”

There have been studies innumerable on Khusro, but unlike many of his counterparts – eg. Shakespeare, Dante, Schiller, Baudelaire and so on, he (or for that matter, several of his regional successors like Tagore or Iqbal) have yet to get the ultimate literary accolade – appearances in fiction. Anybody out there interested?

(04.01.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )

‘Perchance to dream..’: Creating literary masterpieces from dreams (Column: Bookends XCVIII)


Do you recall where you went or what happened to you while sleeping last night? Did you see fondest wishes come true, or something you dread? Were you among friends or strangers and in a normal and ordinary millieu or one surrealistic and bizarre? You may not recall much of your dreams once awake, save some confused fragments that mystified, enraptured or disturbed you, but these visions have inspired or form the basis of some of the most famous literary works ever.

Dreams, most simply, are a progression of images, ideas, and emotions occurring involuntarily in certain phases of sleep, but their content and purpose has not been understood to any level of certainty, despite best efforts of thinkers from the fields of science, philosophy and religion down the ages. For those interested, see Sigmund Freud’s seminal “Interpretation of Dreams” or his former disciple Carl Gustav Jung’s “The Practical Use of Dream-analysis” (in “The Practice of Psychotherapy”) or “Dreams”.

In literature, dreams as inspirations, settings or plot devices are wide-ranging, right down to J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

Among the oldest is Roman philosopher-politician Cicero’s Socratic dialogue on contemporary politics, “De re publica” (54-51 B.C.). Its sixth and final book “Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream)” has legendary soldier Scipio Africanus Minor thus told his future by his late illustrious grandfather, Scipio Africanus.

Medieval English literature like William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (late 14th century) freely made use of dreams to advance plot, and in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (c.1595), dreams are what the two pairs of lovers and poor Nick Bottom – whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey – imagine their adventures to be after awaking from enchanted sleep.

But at the finale, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow/Puck tells the audience: “If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear./And this weak and idle theme,/No more yielding, but a dream..”

Mary Shelley is said to have dreamt the idea for “Frankenstein” (1818), while a nightmare about a “vampire king” rising from his grave, caused by a too-indulgent dinner of mayonnaise-covered crab or lobster inspired Bram Stoker to write “Dracula” (1897) – though he had been researching vampire folklore for seven years.

Robert Louis Stevenson tried to find story ideas and material from his dreams and it was one of them that inspired “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886). As a story goes, his wife, seeing that he was having a nightmare, woke him but got no thanks – for ending it as things were getting interesting. Stephenie Meyer has admitted the idea for “Twilight” (2005), the first of her vampire romances, came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003 about a human girl and a vampire who was in love with her but also thirsted for her blood.

But the most famous work with dreams is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson alias Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871), which, unlike many of their ilk, follow the ‘logic’ of actual dreams, with flexible transitions and causality.

Visions, of both the past and the future, are significant in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s chronicles of Middle Earth and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where they can also reveal the truth (if our boy wizard had remembered a dream in Book One, it would have gone easier on him).
Some most imaginative use of dreams are in three separate works of engineer-turned-master storyteller Nevil Shute.

“An Old Captivity” (1940) has pilot Donald Ross, on an air survey mission of Greenland for an Oxford don, go into a coma where he dreams he and Alix (the don’s daughter who has come along) were once slaves aboard Viking chief Leif Ericson’s sailing expedition and had travelled up to North America where they left a stone, with their names carved on it. Later, they find it too!

Set in the Australian outback, “In The Wet” (1953) has ill Anglican priest Roger Hargreaves tending to an aged dying ex-pilot Stevie in 1953 when he dreams of a situation three decades hence where Stevie is a decorated Royal Australian Air Force pilot, who aids Queen Elizabeth II deal with anti-monarchial sentiment in Britain. In the end, the narrative shifts back, Stevie is dead and an exhausted Hargreaves tries to make sense, a task more difficult when the child who will become the future pilot is brought to him for christening.

Also set in Australia, “The Rainbow and the Rose” (1958) has pilot Ronnie Clarke, trying to save retired senior Johnnie Pascoe who has crashed on a medical evacuation mission and is seriously injured, dream about the latter’s chequered life while resting overnight in Pascoe’s house after his first attempt to land a doctor there fails.

So if you have literary ambitions, remember your dreams, or wish they get more colourful!

(28.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )

2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 72,000 times in 2015. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 3 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The world’s most popular festival – and the writers who revived it (Column: Bookends XCVII)


It is the world’s most well-known religious and cultural festival, celebrated worldwide – including even by those who are not adherents of the faith. Many sentiments and customs attached to it have become common worldwide – even where there is no snow, evergreen conifers to hang lights and decorations on, or a chimney for a nocturnal gift-giver to enter. But Christmas celebrations, as we know them today, are quite recent developments – and it is some 19th century authors who were responsible.

Celebrated from the third century A.D. onwards, the festival was however banned in Britain in the mid-17th century after the advent of the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell (the closest the country came to be being ruled by Taliban/an Ayotallah, as John O’Farell notes in his irreverent history of England). Though celebrations revived after a generation, it was not the same.

In US too, Puritans banned Christmas, and after the 13 colonies won independence, fell out of favour as a “British custom”.

So how did the idea of Christmas time as a holiday season, the home celebrations and feast, the gift-giving and exchanges, the idea of a “Christmas spirit” – exemplifying forgiveness, charity, generosity and redemption, Santa Claus and all come?

Three authors – two Americans and one British – had quite a part to play.

The first was American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859), known mostly for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow, but also an essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat.

The two tales alluded to appear in his “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” (1820), a collection of nearly three dozen essays and short stories, of which just half a dozen relate to America.

Among the others are several about ‘Crayon’, Irving’s lightly-disguised literary alter ego, in Britain where he also attends the traditional warm-hearted Christmas celebrations.

These are “Christmas” , where Crayon reflects on the festival’s meaning and its celebration, “The Stage-Coach”, about travelling to a country manor, Bracebridge Hall, and being invited to stay for Christmas, “Christmas Eve”, on celebrations at Squire Bracebridge’s home, “Christmas Day”, having the ‘old, traditional’ festivities continue at Bracebridge Hall, and finally, “Christmas Dinner”, where Crayon enjoys old-fashioned hospitality at the Bracebridge Christmas dinner table.

The book, originally published in serial form in 1819-20, was immensely popular and slowly led to revival of Americans’ interest in Christmas.

It was also helped when the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, by an anonymous author, was published in 1822.

Better known by its first line: “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, it sees a man, wakened by noises while his wife and children sleep on on Christmas Eve, looking out and seeing St. Nicholas’ eight reindeer-pulled flying sleigh land on his roof. Nicholas enters through the chimney with a sack of toys, and the father sees him filling the children’s Christmas stockings, and they share a conspiratorial moment before the saint bounds up the chimney again, after wishing everyone: “Happy Christmas”.

This poem helped to create a standard image of Santa Claus, including his appearance (“dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot”, “His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,/His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry” and “He had a broad face, and a little round belly/That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”), the night he visits, his method of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer (“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,/On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen”); and that he brings toys to children.

The author was Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a professor of oriental and Greek literature, as well as divinity and Biblical learning at a leading Protestant seminary in New York, who in 1837, acknowledged he was the author and had written it for his children.

But the author who is most closely associated with the Christmas spirit is Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-70), who did the most to create it, especially through his novella “A Christmas Carol”, published on this day in 1843.

The story of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge (“Bah! Humbug!”) and his transformation into a gentler, kindlier man after being visited by the ghosts of his former business partner and of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, it was written in a bid to deal with his mounting debts and not only became a resounding success but made Christmas what it is today. (Read Les Standiford’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirit”, 2008).

But Dickens had more writings on Christmas – “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” in “The Pickwick Papers”, “The Chimes”, “The Cricket on the Hearth”, “The Battle of Life” and various stories in journals “Household Words” and “A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire”.

Now you know whom to thank when you wake up on Christmas and find your sock filled!

(20.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )

Bookworms’ colourful exploits, in and out of books (Column: Bookends XCVI)


Bookworm is a common, mildly pejorative, term for avid readers with tacit implication that they are unlikely to do well in practical, physical situations (contemporary, more colourful, vocabulary would say geeks, nerds or wimps). But as there are no organisms like bookworms (the various insects attacking books are actually two species of beetles – a louse and a moth), people so labelled, whether real or fictional, are scarcely inert or passive figures they are usually depicted or perceived as.

The reason may be unfathomable, but giving lie to the perception is a wide spectrum of active and courageous ‘bookworms’. From popular culture across various media, there is a studious student witch, a globe-trotting archaeologist, a wizard sent to Middle-Earth to help defeat a tyrant, a historian who foils assassination of the Prince and Princess of Wales, arranges a Soviet nuclear submarine’s defection, and eventually becomes US president , an academician-cum-‘vampire hunter’, a small-town bespectacled lawyer who exhibits great moral strength among others.

But if Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” series, Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr., Gandalf from the “Lord of Rings”, Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s techo-thrillers, Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – disregard the older draft published this year – can be dismissed as imaginary, then what about real life cases?

How about a US president who read at least a book a day (usually before breakfast) and wrote many himself, hunted, boxed; a septuagenarian philosopher who stood up to Mike Tyson to save a woman from rape; the children’s author who at a day’s notice managed to round up all enemy nationals in an African town when World War-II began, became a flying ace and helped invent a medical device that helped countless children; the archaeologist who sparked off a successful revolt; the college professor who may have changed a key American Civil War battle’s outcome, and a Marxist theorist who also proved to be a skilled military organiser and commander.

Any of them familiar?

The US president was Theodore Roosevelt of whom it will suffice to say he managed to combine six adventurous lifetimes in his six decades, the philosopher was Sir Alfred Jules (or A.J.) Ayer, the author was Roald Dahl, known among others for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964), the archaeologist was T.E. Lawrence who detailed his adventures in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (1922), the professor was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the Communist Lev Davidovich Bronstein or Leo Trotsky (one oblique representation was Snowball in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”). Marxist poster icon Che Guevara was also quite a prolific literary and philosophical commentator.

It is the case of Ayer that warrants sharing as it may not be that well-known.

“At a party that same year (1987) held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: ‘Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,’ to which Ayer replied: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.” (in “A.J. Ayer: A Life”, 1999, by Ben Rogers). Ayer had also served as a secret agent in the Second World War.

Men of science were no less active. Leading theoretical physicist and Nobel winner Niels Bohr was a keen footballer and known for always taking two stairs at once even in old age. Though he appears in science fiction writer Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions”, he is actually the model for the real hero – a big burly football-playing Danish university graduate, who is thrown across dimensions into the medieval age in a parallel Earth, and uses his scientific skills to know how to kill dragons.

Elsewhere in fiction, several iconic characters are bookworms – detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, who seems an effete aristocrat but is extremely knowledgeable, a decorated war veteran, and judo expert, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, who becomes a great sailor by his maths and research skills, Aramis from “The Three Musketeers”, who hankers to be a priest and begins a thesis on the hand positions used for ritual church blessings – despite being a womaniser and elite soldier.

Then CIA researcher Ronald Malcolm beats trained agents at their game in James Grady’s “Six Days of the Condor” (Joe Turner in film adaptation “Three Days of the Condor”), and Rafale Sabatini’s “Scaramouche” is French Revolution-era lawyer Andre-Louis Moreau who becomes an expert swordsman from studying fencing theory in books.

So next time you see someone buried in a book, resist making a snide remark!

(13.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )

Life as a painful predicament, and Urdu’s gloomy poet (Column: Bookends XCV)


“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence…” observes a character in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. This sentiment was already known to Urdu ‘shayars’ right from Mir, with their poetry bearing discernible undercurrents of melancholy and despondency till it reached an epitome with this 20th century practitioner whose entire corpus is unvarnished pessimism at a transient but painful existence, and the closest you can find existential nihilism in this poetic tradition.

“Ik muamma hai samajhne ka na samjhane ka/Zindagi kahe ko hai, khwaab hai deewaane ka” goes one of his best-known couplets. This actually begins a ghazal, which then goes: “Zindagi bhi to pasheman hai yahan laake mujhe/Dhoondti koi heela mere mar jaane ka” and ends: “Har nafs umr-e-guzashta ki hai maiyyat, ‘Fani’/Zindagi naam hai mar mar ke jiye jaane ka”. Another in this vein is: “Na-muraadi hadd se guzri haal-e ‘Fani’ kuch na pooch/Har nafs hai ek janazah aah-e-betaseer ka”.

Searching for gleanings of positivity in the oeuvre of Shaukat Ali Khan ‘Fani Badayuni’ (1879-1941) would be in vain, for he was fittingly known as “Mayusi ka shayar” and “Sahaab-e-gham”. Influenced by both Mir and Ghalib, he however seemed to have assumed all the pathos they often but not overwhelmingly depicted as his sole outlook, but in his own distinct style. Perhaps his unfortunate life might be the reason.

Born in Badaun district in a zamindar’s family reduced in circumstances after property confiscations in the aftermath of the 1857 Revolt, Fani started writing poetry – despite strong parental disapproval – when quite young, briefly using his own given name as his ‘takhallus’ before plumping for ‘Fani’.

Having done law from the Aligarh Muslim University, he tried to practise in Bareilly, Lucknow, Aligarh and Agra, but he had a poet’s heart and he couldn’t make much headway in the legal profession. He started an Urdu magazine but he was no better in business too, and had to close it down after losses. Embroiled in property disputes and having to sell his inheritance at a fraction of its value, and abandoned by ‘friends’, Fani moved to Nizam’s Hyderabad in 1932.

His patron there was one of India’s most helpful friend of litterateurs but one whose contribution has largely been forgotten- Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad (1864-1940), twice prime minister of Hyderabad State (1901-1912; 1926-1937), extolled as Yamin us-Sultanat (right hand of the realm) and a poet himself. Fani was offered a judge’s position but declined as it would have meant leaving the city and instead took a job as a school headmaster. He was not temperamentally inclined to courtly life, and late nights at the court of the Nizam’s son Moazzam Jah took a toll on him, affecting his job from which he was eventually removed.

Dying barely a year after his benefactor, Fani summed up the last phase of his life in bitter terms – in a ghazal beginning “Shauq se nakaami ki badaulat, kuchae dil hi chooth gaya/Saari umeeden toot gayein, dil baith gaya, ji chooth gaya” and ending “Fani ham to jeete ji voh maiyyat hai be-gor-o-kafan/Ghurbat jis ko raas na aayi, aur vatan bhi chooth gaya”.

As per his poetry at least, he didn’t set much store from life or existence. One of his celebrated ghazals begins: “Duniya meri bala jaane, mehengi hain ya sasti hain/Muft mile to maut na loon, Hasti ki kya hasti hain”.

‘Hasti’, or say, a consciousness of existence, was a motif, like some contemporaries, but his treatment was different. While Syed Ali Mohammad ‘Shad Azimabadi’ said: “Suni hikayat-e-hasti to darmiyan se suni/Na ibtida ki khabar hai na inteha maloom”, and Asghar Hussain ‘Asghar Gondvi’: “Sunta hoon bade ghaur se afsaana-e-hasti/Kuch khvab hai kuch asal kuch andaz-e-bayan hai”, Fani went: “Na ibtida ki khabar hai nan inteha maaloom/Raha yeh vahm ke ham hain so voh bhi kya maloom”.

His poetry, collected in two modest-sized volumes “Baqiyat-e-Fani” and “Irfaniyat-e-Fani”, could be quite trenchantly bleak: “Fani davay-e-dard-e-jigar zahhar to nahi/Kyun haath kaanpta hai mere charah-saaz ka” or “Dam bhi Fani kisi ke gham tak hai/Dam na hoga agar yeh gham na hoga”, or “Hashr ka din bhi dhal gaya Fani/Dil ki rudaad mukhtsar na hui”. Even love received short shrift: “Aap ne anjaam dekha ishq ka/Aapne Fani ki turbat dekh li” or “Dil hi nahi hai jis mein na ho dard ishq ka/Voh dard hi nahi hai jo har dam siva na ho”.

Despite his gloom, Fani is most readable, for he does not take himself too seriously. One ghazal ends: “Yaad hai Fani tujhe koi kahani aur bhi/Khatam kar afsana gham, dil pareshan ho gaya”.

It could be his own exit cue too!

(06.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Defeating crime, invasions and dinosaurs – the most powerful politician (Column: Bookends XCIV)


The most powerful man in the world is possibly the president of the United States of America, but does he hold the same status in fiction? There are a host of works, across all media, featuring holders of office, both actual or imaginary, in plots reflecting or mirroring history (with a bit of creative licence) or stemming totally from the creator’s fancy but most portrayals are not very positive. There are however a few exceptions – especially one real-life example with and in his own incredible stories.

Leave aside those created by Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jeffrey Archer and Tom Clancy, on TV in “The West Wing” or “Commander in Chief”, or in films like “Deep Impact”, “Salt”, or “Air Force One”, and a range of improbable incumbents ranging from Al Capone to Churchill to Stalin (after his parents immigrated in the 1870s), almost all 43 actual presidents had figured fictionally in some media.

However, only a few – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, maybe Andrew Jackson and U.S .Grant – are portrayed heroically. Among them is one whose adventures – crime-solving (including with Sherlock Holmes), fighting Martians or vampires, defeating German invaders, fighting Nazis and hunting a surviving Tyrannosaurus Rex – never seem incongruously fantastic given his colourful life, before, during and after his two-term presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who overcame asthma to even box, was a rancher, hunter, New York’s police commissioner and politician, raised and led a volunteer cavalry regiment in the Spanish-American war and wrote 35 books – several deemed the last word on the subject. Made vice president by the party to remove him as New York governor, he became the youngest president – at 42 – after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901.

A progressive aristocrat who battled corruption and sought equality for women, blacks and Jews, he took on business monopolies, encouraged nature conservation, initiated the Panama Canal’s construction, made his country a global power and won a Nobel Peace Prize. He still had time for tennis, jujitsu, a book (or more) a day, and walks where no obstacle could be avoided but had to be gone over, under or through.

Demitting office, he went big-game hunting in East Africa. Back home, he decided his successor was not doing well and decided to run again in 1912 – even after being denied his party nomination. During the campaign, he was shot in an assassination bid but went on to deliver a 90-minute speech before seeking medical aid. Besting the party nominee but losing to his rival, he went exploring in Brazil, campaigned for the US to fight in the First World War, and was dismayed when his request to personally participate was denied. He wanted to run again for president in 1920 and could have won – but was broken after his youngest son’s death in the war.

His exploits can be read in his own words, or in several splendid accounts. Edmund Morris’ three-volume biography (“The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”, 1979; “Theodore Rex”, 2001; “Colonel Roosevelt”, 2010) is a good overview and many more deal with specific periods or activities like Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” (2005) about his South American expedition.

Fictionally, prolific author Noel B.Gerson’s “T.R.” (1970) is a biography but others are period-wise. Dealing with Roosevelt at the dawn of his public life is H. Paul Jeffers’ “The Stalwart Companions” (2010) where he teams up with Holmes to foil the then US president’s assassination.

An account of his eventful ranching days in Dakota is Brian Garfield’s “Manifest Destiny” (1989), while Lawrence Alexander’s trilogy – “The Big Stick” (1986), “Speak Softly” (1987), and “The Strenuous Life” (1992) – have him solve complicated mysteries as New York police commissioner.

Also of this period are Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” (1994) and Mary Kruger’s “Masterpiece of Murder” (1997) where he supports the investigators.

Will Henry’s “San Juan Hill” deals with his stint as the Rough Riders’ commander, and in Mark Schorr’s “Bully!” (1985), he, ensnared in a plot by powerful industrialists to discredit his administration, pursues the criminals himself, aided by a loyal buddy from his cowboy days.

Among the more speculative is Mike Resnick’s “The Other Teddy Roosevelts” (2008) where he takes on aliens, vampires and Jack the Ripper, and “The Doctor and the Rough Rider” where he joins Doc Holliday (of OK Corral fame) to ensure America’s continental expansion, Mark Paul Jacobs’ “How Teddy Roosevelt Slew the last Mighty T-Rex” (2013), Harry Turtledove’s ‘Southern Victory’ alternate history series where he leads the Union that lost the Civil War to eventual victory, and Robert Conroy’s “1901” where he has to contend with a German invasion.

Giving his rationale, Resnick says he found TR so fascinating and bigger than life that he decided the only field accommodating a man with those virtues was science fiction, for finding some challenges truly worthy of his talents.

As these examples show, Theodore Roosevelt’s influence in imagination is no less than in reality!

(29.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Havens, menaces or challenges: Forests in literary imagination (Column: Bookends XCIII)


From Snow White to Tarzan, Robin Hood to Alice, Lord Rama to the Pandavas, Ali Baba to Winnie the Pooh, Dorothy (of Oz) to Harry Potter, from works of Shakespeare to Henry David Thoreau, Rudyard Kipling to Bill Bryson and Enid Blyton to Cheryl Strayed, there is one common thread, wholly or partly, to some of our most remembered and favourite literature – forests as a setting for key action.

Earth’s dominant terrestrial ecosystem, forests are commonly taken to mean a large area with trees or other woody vegetation though there isn’t any common global definition – 800 definitions are available around the world! What is however more acceptable and indisputable is their role in human imagination and culture, be it folklore, fantastic or legendary, and modern literature, whether children or adult. They can represent a place of refuge or menace, of succour or challenge, of restful contemplation or exciting adventure, a metaphor for nature at its most basic and untrammeled by human civilising, and a source of sustenance – or danger.

But best-served are those who take some benefit from their sojourn in the woods. As a Shakespearean character ruminates: “And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

This was the Senior Duke, perfectly content in his exile in the Forest or Arden in “As You Like It” (Act II, Scene 1) but forests are not always that welcoming and instructive for the Bard’s other creations. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some unwelcome changes afflict various characters, especially poor Nick Bottom in the forest (though everything gets amicably and amenably solved in the end), while in another, the appearance of the Dunsinane forest (or a branch of it, excuse the pun) before Macbeth’s castle spells his doom!

In ancient Hindu epics, Lord Rama and his brother Lakshman first exhibit their mettle by ridding some forests of demons before their eventful exile to the forest, as do the Pandavas who raise their capital after clearing a notorious forest and then spend part of their own exile in forests.

But some of the most memorable and universally-known stories set in the woods – Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel and many more of brave young princes and fair maidens, both equally unfortunate (till the end) – owe their survival to a pair of brothers in 19th century Germany who specialized in collecting and publishing folklore of their country. Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) – or the Brothers Grimm as they came to be known – introduced these tales to generations of avid young readers who found more magic in the no less magic pursuit of reading.

Seven editions of “Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales)” came out between 1812 and 1857 with stories added and subtracted, till the final edition set the number to 211, of which at least, three-fourths were set in wooded environs.

Alice encounters forests in both Wonderland and the land entered “Through the Looking Glass”, while Dorothy finds two of her friends – the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion – in one.

Another beloved childhood story – of honey-loving, teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in the Hundred-Acre Wood – came out in 1926. Continuing the fantasy tradition was British author Enid Blyton with her Faraway Tree series – “The Enchanted Wood” (1939), “The Magic Faraway Tree” (1943), “The Folk of the Faraway Tree” (1946) and “Up the Faraway Tree” (1951). The series today represent the dictates of changing times with the original names of a more innocent generation – Jo, Bessie, Fannie and Dick – now Joe, Beth, Frannie and Rick, while Dame Slap who used physical chastisement on her students now Dame Snap, who just yells at them.

Harry Potter is what is termed an urban fantasy but a major part of his adventures and tribulations take place in the Forbidden Forest next to Hogwarts.

Set in real life but no less fantastic in their own way are the ballad-derived tales of the Lincoln-Green clad English outlaw Robin Hood, who robs the rich to give to the poor, and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Forests’ colonial cousins, the jungles of Africa and Asia, host the likes of John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke or Tarzan, who was raised in the African jungles by great apes and rejected civilization to return to the wild; Mowgli, the wolf-raised, animal-taught child in Central India’s jungles and the crime-fighter Phantom or “The Ghost Who Walks”. These were the creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling and Lee Falk and debuted in 1914, 1893-4 and 1936.

In travelogues, two of the best rambles through jungles are American Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” (1998), and Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (2012), which take care of both seaboards, have been made into movies and are the best accounts of human’s attempts to survive in the wild (or away from city comforts) after acquiring the needed skills.
As environment suffers from a consumerist culture’s dictates, these works are all the more important to warn us of what we stand to lose.

(22.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Existentialism’s genesis in 19th century Urdu poetry (Column: Bookends XCII)


Debates on man’s purpose in life have been as old as his existence and, at some phase, call in question the role of the world – is it friendly, hostile or supremely indifferent? Taking the last position was a school of thought, predominantly European, where the individual’s start is marked by “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless, absurd world. But do the angst-ridden quartet of writers and philosophers – Kierkegaard (Dane), Dostoyevsky (Russian), Nietzsche (German) and Sartre (French) – who are acknowledged as Existentialism’s pioneers deserve all the credit or should we look closer to home?

A consistent but concise definition of Existentialism has been difficult to frame, but Sartre came the closest in describing it as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”. Also among its key features is the notion of the Absurd, which is not the dictionary definition but rather that there is no meaning in the world beyond what humans give it.

It is not very difficult to trace these sentiments expressed in the 19th and 20th century Europe, earlier in time and space to Asia – 12th century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in one of his quatrains, translated and popularised by Edward Fitzgerald, says: “Into this Universe, and why not knowing,/Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,/I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.”

And on the inexorable, mechanistic workings of destiny and the futility of imploring divine intercession, the Sage of Naishapur says: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it” and “And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,/Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,/Lift not thy hands to IT for help–for It/Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”

But there was a poet from the Indian subcontinent itself who excelled in transmuting the mysterious absurdity of life and the human condition into verse – verse which is still popular and heard, though most of the hearers may not know anything of its antecedents.

His most famous couplet is on the ineffable paradox of life – and death: “Ab to ghabra ke ye kahte hai ke mar jaayenge/Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidhar jaayenge”, while another famous ghazal, immortalised by both K.L. Saigal and Begum Akhtar, is the one beginning: “Layi hayat aaye qaza le chali chale/ Na apni khushi aaye na apni khushi chale” – and what could be a more poetic expression of Existentialism.

These are among the few surviving examples of the corpus of Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’ (1789-1854), the most popular poet in an era which boasted Ghalib, Momin, Shefta, Azurda and the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ himself among many others.

The son of an ordinary soldier who educated himself to rise to poet laureate at the imperial court when just a teenager, the poetic preceptor to the emperor himself and was titled “Khaqani-e-Hind” after the fabled 12th century Persian poet, ‘Zauq’s fame has unfortunately dissipated after him. But circumstances were against him – as the emperor’s Ustad meant he never had enough time for his own work, of which a major segment was anyway lost in turmoil Delhi went through in 1857. Contemporary accounts also played a part – while film “Mirza Ghalib” was ambivalent, the TV serial on Urdu poetry’s most recognised poet was slightly more partisan in favour of its hero, who is shown thinking aloud in one scene, that poetry should not merely be esteemed on the basis of usage of wordplay, polished language and skilled rhyming, but on content and style – as exemplified in his own oeuvre!

But even if only the second of his ghazals cited above had survived, it would have been enough to cement his reputation. Succeeding couplets, including those not featured in Saigal and the Begum’s renditions, go: “Behtar to hai yehi ke na duniya se dil lage/Par kya karen jo kaam na bedillagi chale”, “Ho umr-e-Khizr bhi to kahenge ba vaqt-e-marg/Ham kya rahe yahaan abhi aaye abhi chale”, and “Naazaan na ho khirad pe jo hona hai vo hi ho/Daanish teri na kuchh meri daanishvari chale”.

Most superlative are the last two deeply imbued in a pessimistic resignation: “Duniya ne kis ka raah-e-fanaa mein diya hai saath/Tum bhi chale chalo yun hi jab tak chali chale” and “Jati havaa-e-shauq mein hai is chaman se ‘Zauq’/Apni bala se baad-e-saba kahi chale”.

The ghazal seems a primer for a contemplative soul – and we can only bemoan other gems lost in ‘Zauq’s unpublished work!

(15.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Bagpipes at dawn and other challenges for Scottish soldiers (Column: Bookends XCI)


Can a story about soldiers in peacetime be of any interest for an ordinary reader? What attraction could a fairly predictable routine of a regimented life, with repetitive tasks and drills under stern discipline, have for civillians? But remember “Humour in Uniform” in “Reader’s Digest”?

Soldiers too can find themselves facing situations for which no training or manual can prepare them – this young officer is tasked to manage a football team, change a baby’s nappies, guard a haunted fort, defend regimental honour in a general knowledge quiz, and have the dirtiest soldier in the world under him.

All this – and much more – was the lot of author George MacDonald Fraser, who was commissioned as an officer towards close of the Second World War (after serving in the ranks during the Burma campaign). And luckily for us, he thought it would make for some good stories.

Even as the first installments of his eventually most famous work were appearing – the Flashman series about a cowardly, lecherous anti-hero in various trouble spots throughout the 19th century – Fraser also penned a collection of “fictionalised” stories of life in a Highland regiment.

“The General Danced at Dawn” (1970) has many unforgettable characters – the apparently easy-going but perceptive colonel, the effervescent adjutant, the pessimistic padre, the meticulous sergeant-major, and so on. Fraser appears as Dand McNeill (a play on regimental motto “Bydand” or standfast in Gaelic), while others also appear under different names.

“Monsoon Selection Board” details his torturous route to officerhood and efforts to fit in his new regiment, posted in Libya, in “Silence in the Ranks” – which also introduces the dirtiest soldier – Pvt. J. McAuslan: ” … he lurched into my office (even in his best tunic and tartan he looked like a fugitive from Culloden who had been hiding in a peat bog) …”

Among the funniest are “Play Up, Play Up and Get Tore In” where MacNeill, shepherding the battalion football team around the Mediterranean, has to deal with a naval officer gambling heavily on the team including with official funds, “The General Danced at Dawn”, where a general on inspection likes their Highland dancing, joins in and attempts to set a record – for which, by dawn, are drawn in the neighbouring Fusiliers, military policemen, an Italian cafe proprietor, a few Senussi tribesmen, and three German prisoners of war, “Night Run to Palestine” about commanding an overnight troop train to strife-hit Jerusalem, and not only having to look out for Zionist saboteurs but also interfering seniors, women auxilliaries, a chaplain worried about morals, an army wife with twins and an Arab Legion soldier who locks himself in the toilet (as MacNeill learns on coming across a small group singing “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be?” outside) and “McAuslan’s Court-Martial” – a study in inspired, clever advocacy – while the presiding officer finds the abuses very interesting!

“McAuslan in the Rough” (1974) has, among others, “Bo Geesty” where MacNeill’s platoon manning a fort on Sahara’s edge, finds strange things happening when they try to drill a well, “Johnnie Cope in the Morning” about being woken every Friday by the band going full blast outside but also about a new recruit (a Negro) wanting to join the band and the complicated discussions – one of the funniest passages in English – it entails (he is eventually allowed), “General Knowledge, Private Information” about the quiz contest where McAuslan saves the day, “Parfit Gentil Knight, But” about McAuslan falling in love, and “McAuslan in the Rough”, where the battalion back in Britain, gets drawn into a golf challenge – and the slovenly McAuslan is the caddy for the impeccable regimental sergeant major.

“The Sheikh and the Dustbin” (1988) has among others “Captain Errol” where a new officer is so nicknamed since he resembles actor Errol Flynn, and has the same casual, reckless approach – until a crisis pops up, “The Constipation of O’Brien” where a night exercise descends into farce, the title story about the battalion saddled with an Arab rebel from contiguous French territory till he can be shipped back to the Devil’s Island, and “The Gordon Women”, a superbly comic tale involving poachers and illicit distillers set in Scotland. Finally, Fraser writes about meeting the colonel, now an octogenarian, and both reminiscing how some of the most improbable stories are the most true and the colonel (identified as R.G. Lees – who was second in command at the Japanese POW camp whose story inspired the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) stumping him by correctly identifying all the characters.

A valuable picture of the postwar world as the British empire was in retreat and a whole way of life was changing, the books are an engaging account of an army that fought throughout WWII and emerged victorious. They are also among the funniest.

(08.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at )