Marcellus: The Heroes we Forget Hold a Mirror to Our Souls

Published on: 8 March, 2019

Our mind sees & remembers the world in stylised & stereotypical terms. If a story doesn’t fit our stereotype, we don’t remember it and hence don’t celebrate it. The lives of three forgotten heroes – Malik Ambar, Dara Shukoh and VO Chidambaram Pillai – exemplify this point.  

“A nation that forgets its heroes will soon itself be forgotten.”Calvin Coolidge (US President from 1923-29)

Our selective recall of our past

Most nations like to make a great show of how they celebrate the men and women who have shaped the nation’s history. India is no different in that regard. However, the Indian public’s recollection of its historical heroes is somewhat selective. Leaving aside for a minute the reasons for this selective recall, here are three heroes whose names are rarely celebrated in Indian history inspite of the pioneering steps taken by each of them.

Malik Ambar (1548 – 1626): Malik Ambar lived one of the most extraordinary lives you will ever come across. Born in Ethiopia, Ambar was sold as a slave by his parents well before he was ten years old. His first owner was a businessman in Baghdad and he taught Ambar Arabic and finance and administration. Upon this death of his master, Ambar’s ownership changed hands several times over until in his late teens he found himself in the service Chengiz Khan, the chief minister of the Nizam Shahi dynasty (headquartered in Hyderabad). Chengiz was himself a former African slave and allowed Ambar to be his apprentice. When Chengiz died in 1575, Ambar became a mercenary and set upon building an army of crack troops which would at its peak number 50,000 and which would remain unbeaten by the Mughals (then at the peak of their powers under Akbar and subsequently Jahangir). Malik Ambar would go on to effectively become the master of the Deccan with the formidable fortress at Daulatabad (near Aurangadad) serving as his HQ. [It is worth visiting this remarkable citadel on top of a vertical incline to understand why this was one of the hardest fortresses in India to conquer; it was conquered only thrice in the 1000 years that it served as fortress.]

During his conquests, Ambar pioneered the guerrilla warfare tactics which Shivaji would copy and use equally effectively against the same enemy, the Mughals. Interestingly, the Marathas too were never able to beat Malik Ambar who died a peaceful death, away from the battlefield, at the ripe old age of 78.

Dara Shukoh (1615 – 1659): Dara was Shah Jahan’s eldest son, his blue eyed boy and his publicly stated heir apparent. Thanks to the fortune that his doting father lavished upon him, Dara launched himself into a set of intellectual adventures which are without equal in the history of Mughal royalty. Dara learnt Sanskrit, had the Upanishads and the Old and the New Testament translated into Persian and composed a major work of his own called Majma-al-bahrayn (The Meeting Place of the Two Oceans). Thanks to Dara’s efforts the Europeans were for the first time able to access the Upanishads. More generally, Dara’s works were one of the first intellectual links between classical Indian texts and Western philosophers. The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, was introduced to Sanskrit philosophy courtesy Dara’s works and help spread Sanskrit’s influence in Western thought.
Unfortunately for Dara, his younger brother Aurangzeb was watching with growing interest the Muslim clergy’s concern regarding Dara’s intellectual adventures. In 1657, Shah Jahan fell seriously ill and Aurangzeb moved in for the kill with a group of battle hardened troops. Dara was captured near Agra, paraded half naked in front of the public in Delhi and then shot dead in front of his terrified son.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872 – 1936): In the early twentieth century there was nothing called an independence movement in southern India. VO Chidambaram Pillai, a practicing lawyer in Tuticorin, regarded the radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak as his political mentor. Before the Congress launched the Swadeshi movement in 1906 and a full decade before Mahatma Gandhi entered the Indian stage, Pillai kicked off the Swadeshi movement in south India in remarkable style. Shipping in Tuticorin was dominated by the powerful British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). Pillai created a joint stock company – funded by a broad based group of investors from Bombay, Calcutta and Colombo – and launched a rival shipping line in 1906. Soon, The Hindu, still south India’s leading newspaper, reported keen competition between Pillai’s company – Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company – and BI. In the years to come, BI, with the help of the British administration, derailed Swadeshi Steam but not before the Swadeshi flag – green, yellow and red horizontal stripes with the words “Vande Mataram” inscribed in the middle – was hoisted on these ships. In 1908 the British arrested Pillai for sedition and sentenced him to two life terms in prison. The arrest sparked violence and arson – the Tuticorin courts and Police HQ were set on fire – and the freedom movement was underway in the south. Chidambaram Pillai did hard labour in Cannanore Jail in Malabar making jute and pressing oil for the Crown. In modern day Tuticorin you will be lucky to find anyone who has heard of him.

Why do we forget some heroes and remember others?
Our minds, built as they are for understanding the world rather than remembering it, are especially weak at remembering things which don’t fit into conventional & convenient narratives (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/defining-memories/201706/why-we-forget). Malik Ambar’s story does not fit into an stereotypical narrative. As Sunil Khilnani puts it in his outstanding book “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” (2016): “…in the Indian nationalist story…Shivaji was the great resister against the Muslim invaders. Yet with Malik Ambar we have evidence of someone even earlier who took on the Mughals – and whom they could not defeat. He’s not a Hindu. He’s not a native defender some ancient motherland. He’s an Ethiopian opportunist and power-entrepreneur…He doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative silos of Indian history – Hindu, Muslim and European.” Similarly, Dara Shukoh neither fits into our stereotype of Mughal royalty nor into the standard narrative we build around our intellectuals.
In other words, our mind sees/remembers the world in stylised & stereotypical terms. If a story doesn’t fit our stereotype, we don’t remember it and hence don’t celebrate it. This has obvious implications for the world of investing. Our mind struggles to process a real estate developer whose books are clean and whose capital allocation is sensible (even though there are such firms). Equally, our mind also struggles to comprehend a large cap Pharma company whose books are cooked and whose capital allocation is an excuse to pilfer cash. Outsized profits await those who are able to see world without stereotyped lenses.

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Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.      

Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.

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