Shobhaa De, on all the occasions I’ve heard her, has never been short of an answer to a question from the audience. But the other evening, when she presented her latest novel, Sethji, to a Madras Book Club audience, she was brought up short by a part comment-part question posed by a soft-spoken, rather mild-looking man seated in one of the front rows.

After listening to what a horrible creature the Sethji of the novel, a rather slimy politician wallowing in a heap of muck that’s his life, was, the comment-question was about how defamatory the title of the book and the name of the unsavoury principal character was to the Sethjis of the world, Seths being what the money-lenders of India - particularly from one or two communities - are called. And these Seths are honourable men, ethical in their profession and contribute significantly from their earnings to numerous charities, the member of the audience pointed out; her Sethji was a slur on their good name. Shouldn’t she in this context think of changing the title of the book - and the name of her character - to something that would not make readers associate the character with the Seths of India? Shobhaa De could only hem and haw and murmur that yes, the Seths were very charitable people. But I wonder whether the point made gave her food for thought.

Seths, like the Chetties, Shettys, the Hettys in Sri Lanka and even the Muslim Saits, are traders and financiers and derive their descriptive name from the Sanskrit Shreshti, which loosely translates as an honourable member of a merchant guild. As money-lenders and middlemen in financial transactions, they have played a significant role in the economy of not only India but of South and Southeast Asia as well. They may not be the most popular businessmen in the view of borrowers, but no one would equate them by any stretch of imagination with Shobhaa De’s Sethji.


Rajaji and the painting

Much as I wanted to get away from Rajaji for a few weeks, I couldn’t refuse a request from sculptor S. Nandagopal of Cholamandal Artists’ Village to record a letter his father, famed artist K.C.S. Paniker, had received from Rajaji about a painting that now hangs in Raj Bhavan.

Writing in January 1956, soon after he had inaugurated an exhibition of the work of Cholamandal artists, Rajaji told Paniker he liked the exhibition and congratulated “you and your young men.” Then he went on to write,

“Your big picture is a great piece. I wish you would clothe the private parts of the nude figures with some rags. I am referring to the two or three figures below Gandhiji. It would then be more satisfactory and not lose its lesson. The whole piece could be called ‘Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti’ or ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers,’ as you called it.”

When Governor Ram Mohan Rao showed me the picture, to which he had given pride of place in the main drawing room of Raj Bhavan, he called it ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers.’ I wonder how many of them readers can spot in today’s reproduction.

Now that I’ve got started on Rajaji again, let me add one more contribution on the subject of Rajaji and the taxman. Reader T.M. Sundararaman sends me this tale from Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of his grandfather.

When Rajaji became the first Indian Governor General of the country, his salary was fixed at Rs. 20,000 a month. Many in Congress felt this was excessive. Nehru pointed out that of the salary, Rs.13,000 would go in taxes and that, in fact, Rajaji would only get Rs.7000 a month. Rajaji, however, informed the Government that he would be willing to accept a lower salary and Government responded by fixing it at Rs.5000 a month, tax-free, from January 1949. When it came to filing his returns for 1948-49, Rajaji realised that the net income would be taxable for half a year and was tax-free for the other half. Whereupon, he insisted that tax should be calculated on it for the entire year and deducted.

On this question of Rajaji and taxation, several readers were quite struck by Rajaji’s advice to follow Dharmic principles (Miscellany, April 8) and urged that this advice be propagated more widely. By whom and where?


When the postman knocked…

Reader R.K. Natarajan has sent me a letter about the Chola copper plates in Leiden (Miscellany, April 1) and I’ve had a time of it trying to decipher his minute handwriting. In relating what he has to say, I hope I have, in consequence, got it right. He writes that archaeologists refer to a Larger Leiden Grant (aka Anaimangalam Chappedu) and a Smaller Leiden Grant (of Kulothunga I) being with Leiden University. The larger, Dr. Natarajan says, comprises 21 plates, each 14 inches long and 5 inches wide. They were written on both sides, in Sanskrit on one side and Tamil on the other, using 11th Century Grantham script. There are 111 lines scribed on five plates and 332 lines on the other 16 plates. Pandit Natesa Sastri and Burgess “edited” (does my correspondent mean ‘interpreted’/ ‘translated’) them in 1886 and found they referred to the grant of Anaimangalam to Mannar Vijaya Varman, son of Soolamani Varman, to build and maintain a vihara (a Buddhist temple) named for his father. Reader Natarajan, however, feels that I was confusing the issue by referring in the item to Dr. John Leyden. I was only referring to the similarity of the names and the subject of interest of both. Dr. Leyden’s collection has no copper plates in it, as far as I know, but did have inscribed olas.

Reader P.R. Krishna Narayanan has sent me a long list of names and suggests that I write about them. I certainly would, if only I knew anything about them. But let me see. Meanwhile, one suggestion of his intrigued me and it was that I should do a piece on Ceylonese I.C.S. officers, and he mentions two names, a Cooray and a G.A.S. Peres (Peiris or Perera?). I’ve never heard of them in connection with the Madras Presidency. Perhaps an old-time Civilian could help out with some information. The only Ceylonese I.C.S. officers I have heard about are Elmar E. Mack (whom I wrote about in Miscellany, July 9, 2012) and T.C.S. Jeyaratnam-Cooke, who served as Chief Secretary in Nagpur. Cooke's daughter Jahanara married the Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh who went to Oxford, was named captain of India's first hockey team to take part in the Olympics, and was the Adivasi representative in the Constituent Assembly. Jahanara Jaipal Singh was a Deputy Minister in the Indira Gandhi era. There were a couple of other Ceylonese who served in Madras Government service, one being Dr H S. Hensman and the other a van Geyzel. Let's see where I'll be able to go with these names.

Responding to my question last week on how much of Bharati’s work is in print and how well they do in the market, reader N. Sreedharan sends me a report on three books he’s written on Bharati. His Bharatiyin Parasakthi was printed in 1982 and the thousand copies sold out over a period of time, Government libraries helping with a purchase of 300 copies. The book was reprinted in 2010 and much of the 600 copies remain in stock. Another Bharati book Dr. Sreedharan wrote in 1982, Bharatiyar Manimozhigal was sold out in a few years, Government libraries helping by buying 300 of the 1000 copies printed. A reprint of 600 copies in 2002 also sold out, thanks to Government libraries buying half of them. A third reprint of 600 copies in 2007 remains to a great extent in stock. And the third title, published in 2007 for Bharati’s 125th birthday, Bharatiyarum Bhagavadgithaiyum has the bulk of its 1000-copy print order lying in stock. This was a title that was rejected by the committee choosing books for the Government libraries. The books are priced between Rs.30 and Rs.70 each - yet the buyers are few. Who today cares about Bharati, is the question you are tempted to ask, looking at these statistics.


The lawyer as a writerMay 5, 2013

An album of memoriesMay 12, 2013