4/5

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

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In an old house in England…

This is my review of the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.

I was led to this play via a mention of the grouse population problem in another work of fiction. A Google search told me that this is a modern play that has mathematical references. Since I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi, I had to give it a shot.

The last play that I read was the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve read film scripts before too, out of sheer laziness. What I’ve realized is that scripts are, by necessity, a very crude medium for storytelling. Yes, spells can be cast non-verbally and very destructive spells do exist. But it is far more visually appealing to have duellers dodging blasts of colourful light. On film or stage, visual effects are necessary, even at the expense of a plot hole or two. For more obvious reasons, you also cannot have any trains of thought, or flashbacks, or any other crutches to help a dull audience member understand a character’s motivations.

I tried very hard to keep all these constraints in mind while reading Arcadia, because a lot of the subtler plot points are given away by casting and set design commentary, and a reader loses out on the experience of piecing the clues together on their own.

The first scene shows us a young man with then improbable name ‘Septimus Hodge’ tutoring the young Thomasina. It’s the early nineteenth century, and tutor and tutee(?) engage in some Oscar Wilde-worthy banter. It’s clear that Septimus and Thomasina are both extremely intelligent. The first few scenes are a delight, both for the wordplay and the way that anachronistic science and mathematics is discussed from a perspective that is very different from today.

In the present day, a scholar is studying the architectural style of the house; a scientist plays with data he finds in old hunting records; and a historian tries to uncover the story behind an eccentric genius who lived in the house nearly two centuries before.

These two storylines are interleaved with each other, with many visual parallels- the old house, lookalike characters. It’s set up as a mysterious collision with some revelations at the end. Unfortunately it’s not quite subtle enough on paper, and one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the set design.

I would recommend this play, but only if you really take the time to sit down and visualize how the story pans out- don’t just follow the (overly simplistic) storyline like I did!

4/5. I’m not great at visualizing narrative, but if you are you’ll probably enjoy this one!

 

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written by Arundhati Roy, who is famous for being the winner of the Man Booker Prize Award for her previous work of fiction, The God of Small Things (and is famous still for eliciting vile hatred among the gatekeepers of Indian Nationalism and Patriotism).

Anything to do with Roy becomes political, as might be the case with this review. Even though I’ve tried to be apolitical, how can I seem to objectively review this book? Roy is, after all, a woman who stokes the deepest fears in people who admire her, detest her, or, who try to be indifferent to her. I’m aware of the political speak that the review of this book can seem to exude, just as the book itself did. After all, as Roy says, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Before the book was released, commentators commented on the political undertones of the novel. I was intrigued. When I purchased the book, I mulled over the meaning of the poem on the book jacket for a long time.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody.
No. By slowly becoming everything."

What does the poem mean? Are people shattered in the course of their lives? Are the shattered people reduced to things? Are the people reduced to things after being shattered? Will knowing the stories of shattered people’s lives leave me shattered too? Can’t I tell a shattered story without being affected? Should I be stoic and unreasonably tree-like in my attempt to tell the shattered story of the dehumanised shattered people? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. Such angst is a hallmark of Roy’s works, especially now, when she’s weaving metaphors through every sentence.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I figure, is the place that the (shattered?) people of the periphery congregate to; and if it had to be a physical location, it would be the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, an ascetic Sufi saint who was executed by the Mughal King, Aurangzeb, for the crime of blasphemy, being naked, and mostly for being a nuisance. The enigma of the saint shines through in all the protagonists – eccentric people from the fringes who live their ludicrous lives with aplomb.

One of our protagonists, Aftab or Anjum, a transgender person, or a Hijra, as she likes to be called, was introduced to the Sufi saint by her grief-ridden mother (for having given birth to a Hijra). After many years, during which time Anjum discovers her sexuality, moves out of her house, into Khwabgah (a place where Hijras stayed, and which literally translates to “a house of dreams”), attains fame, etc., she finds her daughter at the Shrine. Anjum’s life changes as tragedy strikes soon afterward, and she goes off to live in a grave yard.

Saddam Hussein, a security guard who rides a pony, is another such eccentric character. He, too, ends up living with Anjum in Jannat, the palace in the grave yard.

Another main protagonist, Tilotamma, is an architect who is possibly modeled after Roy herself. In her life, everything is a metaphor. As a young graduate student in Delhi, she falls in love with a passionate and handsome man, who goes on to become a Kashmiri militant fighting for Azaadi, and who calls her Babajaan. She is also romanced by a idealistic hardcore investigative journalist who is soon absorbed into the State’s news mill. She loves him for a brief period, but then falls out of love gradually. She’s also the love of a man who joins the Intelligence Bureau; a true patriot who thinks they can never really be together, for reasons ranging from her being “rootless” while he belonged to an “upper caste”, him being married to a woman of his parents’ choice, to her being as aloof as she is, etc. And towards the end of the book, or somewhere in the middle (it’s hard to say when), she also adopts an abandoned child born to a raped Maoist militant. Tilo’s story, or multitude of stories, was my hook.

Endearing characters apart, the book traces some of the most seminal moments in Indian history, like the partition, the emergency, the 1984 sikh riots, Godra 2002, Kashmir 2010 and 2016, Maoist movements in Andhra Pradesh, the India Against Corruption movement 2010, to name a few. But these events are scattered across the book like bread crumbs, in a jumbled up time-line, which only a keen reader can keep track of.

When the reader turns the last page, though, she wonders why this is no more than a work of fiction. Is it not an argument made through fiction? Argument or not, the very obvious references to the Indian leadership and polity can make the book more of a political memorandum than a piece of literature.

In an interview, Roy was asked why she resorted to fiction when the reality, or Duniya, is so starkly fantastic and mildly dystopian. She said, “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves”. That declaration pretty much sums up this book: an attempt to make sense of the world – of the dance of the world – by threading together the shattered tales of a shattered people.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, happiness is redefined and is free of the crutches of social norms and facts. It’s written with a luxuriant flow of words and with the ragged edge of a penmanship that seeks to speak directly to the reader. If you read the book as a work of contemporary fiction, it may be a 4/5 experience. If not, I can’t say.

No Child’s Play

There is something exquisite about children’s books. There’s joy and wonder in the discovery of new things. There’s unbounded love. Most importantly, there’s the tremendous responsibility of nurturing and molding young minds. Shouldn’t that make reading children’s books a great learning experience?

This post is a review of a famous children’s book, Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H Porter, and a book of compiled letters to Indira Nehru, Letters from a Father to His Daughter, by the inimitable Jawaharlal Nehru.

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The ever so happy Pollyanna

Pollyanna is a book about the little child, Pollyanna, who is glad about everything under the sun. She is the person behind the adjective Pollyanna or pollyanaish. If she finds nothing to be glad about, under the sun, then she just digs deeper till she hits the goldmine of gladness. She’s a delight. She’s a great person to introduce to children, especially in times such as this (cue dramatic music), because she is an embodiment of hope and joy, and possesses the power to transform even the grumpiest of people.

However, since I am, I think, an adult, I didn’t find Pollyanna to be enlightening or even cute. In fact, I felt intensely sorry for her. What would ever happen to her when she grew up and saw the purple flowers, like Celie did far into her adulthood? I would definitely not want to witness her bubble bursting. Of course, when reading a children’s book, one is supposed to wear one’s most childish pajamas. But, try as I might, I couldn’t pretend not to be an adult when I read this book. Besides, it also didn’t help that I am biased towards books that are based on plausible dystopias rather than books that are desperately trying to be about a utopia.

Apart from the main selling point of the book, I also disliked the way it is written. I had always thought that writers before the mid 20th century were very conscious of their grammar and punctuation. But, it turns out, I’m wrong. Porter has unfortunately used big shouty letters to emphasise words, rather than effectively use simple words.

If you’re a child under 10, or know a child that young, gift him or her this book. It will act as a balm when he or she ever feels let down by their worlds. I’d root for Black Beauty and Heidi though, instead. Anyway, if you’re an adult, it’s a 2/5.

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Young Indira Nehru

Pollyanna doesn’t make for a great present to a 10 year old, but Letters from a Father to His Daughter does! The book is a compilation of letters that were written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter, Indira Nehru, who would go on to become the first female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The letters were written with love and devotion, and published with the hope that “such of them as read these letters may gradually begin to think of this world of ours as a large family of nations“.

The letters cover the creation of the earth, evolution of life and man through civilisations, stratifications based on race, gender, caste, class, creation of social institutions, and their relevance today*. The simple language and the breadth of information compressed is wonderful. It made me appreciate the exceptional talent every parent must possess to answer their children’s infinite queries.

What stood out in the letters was the lack of sermons. Nehru treats little Indira as an intelligent person. There’s the glow of constant engagement between father and daughter; as if her education never ceases and as if she was always thirsty for more. Nehru emphasizes, in the first letter in the compilation, that to truly understand the world, it is important for Indira to step out of her comfort zone. “If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born,” he wrote. We also see Indira being groomed as a world leader, a humanist. Nehru’s words are timeless. He wrote, “As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

As an adult (clears throat), I had a good time reading the book. The book gave me an idea or two on how to smother my little nephew with love and be an overbearing aunt at the same time. I thought the book could have packed in more illustrations, though, seeing as the ones that made the cut into the book are as pretty as they are. Also, in some parts of the book, I had an undesirable urge to argue with Nehru on some of his ideas. But, even so, the letters don’t truly belong to any school of thought, per se, and the book is an enjoyable and age-appropriate read throughout.

If you’re a young child of 8-12, this book can be rated 5/5. For a person older than that, however, the book comes close to 4/5, for its simplicity, its power through knowledge and, also, by being the book that possibly shaped the life of one of the most prominent leaders of the world’s largest democracy.

Children’s books are a thing of beauty, and I have realised through the act of critiquing them, that they’re tricky and a joy to read. Nevertheless, I figure, children’s books are no child’s play.


Feature image: Aaron Shikler’s painting of a young JFK.

The art of translation

Translations have the ability to ruin or enrich a piece of literature. In this review, I look at two books that were translated to English. Chemmeen, written in Malayalam by T. S. Pillai, was translated by Anita Nair, and One Part Woman, written in Tamil by Perumal Murugan, was translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.

The problems of translation are many, and I don’t pretend to know all of them. But, even to a novice, many of those problems become evident when it’s a translation of a nuanced story. Likewise, the beauty of a good translation is evident when a reader is moved by the literature, an artwork by itself, despite the translation. To be able to accomplish the latter requires responsible and dedicated translation, which, I’m afraid, is rare to find.

One Part Woman was written in Tamil under the title Maathorubagan. The book kicked up a storm when it was published. A section of the society demanded that it be banned. But fortunately, in an unfortunately flawed judgment, the courts allowed the book to be published.

The book, One Part Woman, is about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love with each other. The tenderness in their relationship is touchingly written; allowing me to forget that this is a translation! Their attempts at conceiving a child go in vain, and they are hounded by the social sanction of being childless. But then there comes relief – a chariot festival, where consensual sex between any man and woman, married or unmarried, is allowed; all for the benefit of the barren women. According to this tradition, the acts committed on the occasion of the festival are sacred and fully sanctioned by God. But will it push Kali and Ponna’s relationship too far if she participates in it?

The tale is harrowing because of how human it is. It examines, with nuance and lyricism, the ways in which society manipulates our choices, emotions, relationships. By the end of the thin book, I was exhausted and moved. The story is exceptional, goosebumps-worthy. It made me wonder how exquisite the Tamil version would be. But thankfully, the translation is excellent in that simple English is used to tell the tale without any jarring pitstops.

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The Tamil book, Maathorubagan

And then there is Chemmeen, an epic story, and a regrettable translation. Chemmeen is more famous as one of the best Malayalam movies, than it is as a Malayalam book. The story is gold! However, the intricately woven themes and the strong characters have to be rescued by the reader against the tide of the grammatical errors that steal the treasure – the story. The flat tone used, with a mechanical translation, was highly off putting.

“It was bone-chillingly damp. Then one morning the sun rose in a clear sky. The boats were launched. There was a good catch. The boats came back to shore and brisk trade happened.”

“A few days later a huge quarrel erupted on the shore. All the fisherwomen who sold their fish in the east ganged up against Karuthamma and abused her.”

Lines that may have sounded poetic in Malayalam lay diminished in this translation.

Apart from my grievance about the translation, the story is beautiful. It’s a classic. It examines the lives of a community of fisherfolk in Kerala, their interpersonal relationships based on status, class and religion. It is essentially a love story, though. All the characters are built expertly, except Pareekutty, who remains slightly mysterious and romantic till the end. The protagonists of the love story, Karuthamma, Pareekutty and Palani, are honorable, loving, flawed, passionate people. Even though Karuthamma loves Pareekutty, she marries Palani. She does so because, among other myriad reasons, Pareekutty is not from her religion, because her father asks her to do so, because that’s her duty to the community, as a fisherwoman. As you can see, from this very short snippet of the story, multiple themes are intertwined in the story. And the story itself has many twists and turns. What happens to Palani, Karuthamma and Pareekutty? Do Palani and Karuthamma live as a happily married couple? Or do Karuthamma and Pareekutty get together? The richness of the story merits every high praise. But, as for the translation, the lesser said the better.

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A still from the 1965 Malayalam movie, Chemmeen


Chemmeen and One Part Woman share some similar themes, but Chemmeen, I’d say, is more layered and complex, and is a better drama; a classic! One Part Woman, though, has won me over with its simple, yet nuanced, story.

TS Pillai’s Chemmeen deserves a 4.5/5 for being such an epic story, but I’d rate it at 3/5 due to (despite) the disappointing translation by Anita Nair. Don’t read it if you cannot stand a beautiful story being lost due to the ineptitude of the literature.

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman fully deserves a 4/5, for its story and the translation that does it justice. Read it if you enjoy heartwarming lyrical love stories.

A Machiavellian holocaust

This is a review of An Era of Darkness, by Shashi Tharoor. The book was written as an extension of Tharoor’s speech at Oxford Union, where the role of the British in the colonies was debated.

Tharoor does not hold the distinction of being a staunch nationalist, but is rather admired for his rational thought and an exhibition of vast knowledge about his country, India. His previous books which have gained plaudits from historians include Pax Indica, India Shastra, among others.

An Era of Darkness begins by effectively demonstrating the agenda behind the construction of Indian history of the pre-colonial times by James Mill and others. While writers like Mill claimed that the Indian rulers before the British were brutish, Tharoor makes the case against the British for claiming to be the altruistic moral force that she wants to be seen as. He also refutes the ideas that pre-British times were the ‘Dark Ages’ of India. The “White man’s burden” (India), Tharoor writes, could have lived and thrived were it not for the British, who extinguish just about everything going well for India when they set up their very first factory (a storage unit) here.

Colonial apologists are often caught praising the British for the wondrous contributions that they made, without which India may not be the giant that she is today. Tharoor argues that neither was the stated intention of the British to rule well, nor was it anything but exploitation of the land, resources and people. Besides, even if the intentions were as charitable as they are made out to be, nothing can justify the cruel truths of British colonialism.

The book describes, among other facets of the colonial rule, the looting of resources and treasures, killing off of indigent industries, racism, policies of divide and rule that rankle our present with communal conflicts, misgovernance for economic interests of the British, the gag on the press, the dysfunctional administration that killed millions in famines. He also examines the apparent advantages of the Raj. He scoffs at suggestions that the Raj has been ‘good’. The utility or aesthetics of the railways, English education, tea, cricket, etc., he says, are a result not of British intention, but despite their intentions.

The bulk of his arguments against the colonial rule is solid. Where he falters, if at all, is in his somewhat repeated resort to a hypothetical rule of the land by Indian rulers. Even in doing so, though, he’s maintained a scholarly rigor in comparing India with other states, and in sticking with hard facts for the most part. Also, the chapter on reparations and return of stolen antiquities is an exercise that might well be futile, although well intended. Despite the fervour with which Tharoor and other writers speak of it, the fact is that the cost of colonialism is impossible to determine, and the antiquities will not be returned any time soon (because, in the words of UK’s former Prime Minister, “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British museum would be empty.”).

Tharoor’s wit and lyrical writing makes this a very entertaining read. And a necessary one, when you realise how far reaching the effects of the colonial rule are. That the British don’t even acknowledge their horrible deeds done in their colonies, through their education system, or through official channels (as Germany does, for instance), is saddening; and if you go by Tharoor, it’s also expected of them, since, after all, their forefathers were comfortable with seeming to be a moral force rather than actually being one, when they ruled over India.

4/5

That the loot, pillage and killings of such magnitude has been brushed under the carpet, and that the British are instead lauded for being the harbingers of modernity and democracy in the colonies they occupied, makes for a holocaust that only Machiavelli could have outdone.

Fortunately, the bluff on the British rule has been called.

Bhagat Singh, the atheist

This is a comment on the essay, Why I am an Atheist, originally written by Bhagat Singh in Gurmukhi. It was translated to Urdu/Persian script by Maqsood Sadiq, and from Urdu to English by Hasan. It can be read at marxists.org.

Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary socialist* in British India, was the man that Bose said was the symbol of the new awakening among the youth. He was a luminaire extraordinaire in the freedom struggle, and he was all of 24 years old when he gave his life to his muse, liberty.

In his book/essay, Why I am an Atheist, he argues that he’s not an atheist because he’s vain or proud, because he thinks he’s superior or equivalent to God, no. “I need no opiate to meet my end. I am a realistic man. I want to overpower this tendency in me with the help of Reason.” He believed and wrote, thus, that a mere belief in God must be tempered with reason or suffer criticism. Furthermore, he argues, as a Marxian, that religion is the opium of the masses, hope of the hopeless. He sees religion as a curse to the freedom struggle. He calls scriptures fairy tales and expresses irritation that they are considered sacred and factual. He concludes by saying that religion is a creation of the powerful, to continue to control and exploit a section of the society, for generations.

He was often told that as a proud and vain man, he will submit himself before the Almighty when his time comes to a close. Yet, in defiance of the naysayers and to once and for all argue against them, he wrote the essay while he was in jail, awaiting the noose (having been convicted and punished to death for the assassination of a British officer), for his country, with conviction that his life was well lived and with fervent desire to leave behind as much of the spirit of the struggle as he could.

He pours his anger and annoyance into the essay, bemused and simultaneously mad at the inexplicable acceptance and resignation of the Indian people in the face of exploitation, from other Indians and from the British. The urgency of his tone is palpable as he exhorts his countrymen to rise and claim what is rightfully theirs.

I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it. Not that they are keeping us under subjugation with the consent of God, but it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing? Is He getting a diseased pleasure out of it? A Nero! A Genghis Khan! Down with Him!

The essay is relevant today and will remain so forever. Criticise, question, analyse, he said. (Today, if you don’t agree quickly enough, you’re slaughtered by self styled ‘nationalists’.)

You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, Ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.

This is a read that may be best enjoyed by the unprejudiced mind, one that is curious about the thoughts of the men that created the ground for debate and discourse in our polity. Try not to look for a confrontation with his arguments, and try not to profusely agree with him, and you might come away with something worthwhile. Reason.

Are we all the same in our differences?

This is my review of Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. SD already reviewed this one here, and clearly she did a brilliant job of selling it.

I chose to review it again because I saw it in a very different way (a view from the other side, maybe?). Anyway, I’ll keep this short.

This is the story of Ifemelu, a college student in Nigeria. Her peers, and society at large, is quite obsessed with emigration. They apply for visas, travel abroad, and immerse themselves in Western culture. But as the daughter of a middle-class family, Ifemelu has no opportunity to travel and feels left out. When her education is disrupted once too many times due to administrative troubles, she applies to college in the USA.

The rest of the book is about Ifemelu leaving her family and boyfriend Obinze in Nigeria to move West in search of a ‘better life’. Obinze himself moves to the UK a couple of years later. They have very different experiences, and grow closer (and apart) as a result.

To me, this was not a romance at all. Most of the story focuses on how Ifemelu builds a life for herself in the USA, beginning with illegal employment. Eventually, she becomes a true ‘Americanah’. She writes a blog, a snarky account of the cultural differences between Africans, African-Americans, and white Americans.

Many parts of the story were relatable; maybe some aspects of foreignness are shared by anyone outside their home country. The panic and frustration when someone (Uber drivers, doctors, your landlord) cannot understand your accent. The realization that your skin colour will always be the main-sometimes only- talking point between you and Them. The infinite small differences that those sitcoms and novels never mentioned. The fragility of your connections with friends and family back home- so easily snapped when things get hard.

My only issue with this book is that it is pretentious. Everyone in the book is vaguely self absorbed, and Ifemelu is convinced of her superiority both in America and Nigeria. Despite all her independence and resourcefulness, she does need (and gets!) help from friends and family, but does not seem to acknowledge that. The emotions I listed in the previous paragraphs aren’t unique to those overseas, they can, and are, experienced by any adult in a heterogeneous society.

In conclusion, I (also) give this book a 4/5.

The Sellout, a sell out

This is a review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

The novel is a political satire that can come off as a disturbing and disparaging reflection of the society. It’s about a black man, identified only as ‘Me’ or ‘The Sellout’, who is amused and angry with the American society for pretending not to be racist, and for forcing integration that many apparently would rather not be a part of. It hence provides a sharp reflection of the American society that has failed to become a society of equals.

His father, who home schooled him through unorthodox sociological and psychological conditioning methods, is killed in a police shootout. Soon after, his city, Dickens, is struck out of maps and left unidentified. Aghast, he tries to reclaim the identity of the city and figure his own identity out in the process. So, first, he goes about painting a rough boundary across the region to mark his city. Also, Hominy, a friend and a former side actor in TV shows, surrenders himself to Me as a slave (because “true freedom includes the right to be a slave”)! The Sellout then segregates his girlfriend’s bus, with a “whites only” sign. When he does it, the number of fights and complaints, typical to the bus, falls drastically. And what’s more, people try to reproduce such segregation in other parts of the ‘city’. Crime rates drop and people are nicer. Even the city’s elementary school is segregated with the help of Me and Hominy the Slave, leading to better performance of the students.

Eventually the State catches on, and a case is filed against Me. The case is escalated to the Supreme Court, where the Judge asks, finally, “whether a violation of civil rights law that results in the very same achievement these heretofore mentioned statutes were meant to promote, yet have failed to achieve, is in fact a breach of said civil rights.” This is the crux of the book. Is forced integration, which is mostly pointless and often debases a man, the right thing to do? Is it not better to not enforce integration if that’s what the people concerned want? Or as Hominy asks, “are we missing the forest for the trees”?

This review may make The Sellout seem like it’s a serious and highly political novel. But it’s also hilarious. At many instances, you’ll find yourself smiling at the genius. And you’ll be astounded by what is happening too. Beatty continuously disturbs, offends and jokes, through passages imbued with too much meaning to be called merely comedy.

My only real and major grouse with the book is that I didn’t follow some of the American popular culture references. The novel doesn’t really have a plot, but rides along just fine with the help of the biting humor. It also rolls like a speeding truck, from one crack of dry sarcasm to another, so it gives you little time to breathe between the lines.

Beatty incessantly pokes fun at literature, movies, etc., for selling out to the majoritarian views of the society. That made me wonder, now that The Sellout is as world famous and is being sold out at bookstores due to its apparent conformity to the majority of the buyers’ views, does that make this book a sellout too?

The final verdict: The Sellout is meant to be re-read till one is tired by the irony of the world one lives in.

4/5.

Here’s an excerpt (that I thought needs to be written in bold, underlined and italicized):

“What does that mean, I’m offended?”… “It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel?”… “If I ever were to be offended, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I’m sad, I cry. If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m offended, what do I do, state in a clear and sober voice that I’m offended, then walk away in a huff so I can write a letter to the mayor?”