History

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.’”

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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.

Heroes in Habits

This is my review of Call the Midwife, a memoir by Jennifer Worth.

Not too long ago, when I was on my BBC bender, Netflix suggested a British television series named Call the Midwife. At first glance, I assumed it was a clever parody of other hospital dramas. After all, it’s about a group of nuns who deliver babies in the mid-twentieth century; and as we know, typical hospital series today basically involve a lot of sex in on-call rooms. But it’s a serious drama, and could not be more different from ER or Grey’s Anatomy. While I don’t particularly enjoy dramas without a tight plotline, some historical issues they brought up were interesting from a historical perspective. For instance, the thalidomide tragedy. So I looked up the memoir on which the series was based, hoping for some poignant anecdotes.

 

Jennifer Worth decided to take up midwifery, with all the idealism of youth. She joined a nursing group run by a Catholic organization and staffed mainly by nuns. They worked in London’s East End, a run-down, poverty-stricken area. From domestic abuse to poor hygiene to fatal ignorance, several events had the naive Jennifer questioning her decisions. But her ever-cheerful coworkers and the patient nuns inspired her to plough on through all-nighters and tragic losses.

I was a bit disappointed with this book. There were several anecdotes, as promised, but most of the challenges faced in the East End were sociological and not medical. It is, however, a stark reminder of how far we have come in terms of scientific progress and medical technology. At the time, anaesthetics were just being introduced; I cannot imagine how painful childbirth must have been back then.

Read this book if you’re looking for a historical memoir of a different kind. 3.5/5

Anglophilia

I haven’t been reading much at all, but I still have the compulsive need to express opinions. Sorry.

I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of British TV. It went something like this: “Netflix wants me to watch Broadchurch. Machine learning? Please, it’s clearly a marketing strategy. Mustn’t let them get to me. Oops, finger twitched. Might as well watch. Hey this is pretty good! …. (Several days later) Welp, back to work. Those actors are pretty good, wonder what else they’ve done? Oh, Amazon wants me to watch Doctor Who. Not falling for those tricks again. Hmm, but I have that hugely important exam tomorrow! How else will I procrastinate?”

Rinse and repeat.

The results of my inefficiency, for your consideration:

  • Doctor Who

This is definitely one of the most popular series from the BBC. It has an interesting history as well- it started out in the 60s and was immensely popular, but got cancelled for a decade or two before being revived in 2005 or thereabouts. It’s BBC label means that it must be clean and family friendly (and low budget). Given that I grew up watching the weekly Mahabharatha on DD1, this show is very impressive.

I started out with the 2005 episodes, because NewWho is more readily available for streaming.

Doctor Who is essentially a Sci-Fi/Fantasy show with standalone episodes (more or less, some character development happens over time). The Doctor is a Time Lord who navigates space and time and fights baddies. His low-budget equipment of choice is a time machine, the TARDIS, that looks suspiciously like a phone booth, and  a nondescript LED torch, the Sonic Screwdriver.

Since the show has been running for SO long, it has seen quite a few showrunners (basically writer/producer) in its time. Oh, the Doctor also has the ability to regenerate, thus allowing the actor, and his overall persona, to change periodically. This lets the BBC experiment a bit and keep the stories modern. It’s also an interesting reflection of viewer demographics and culture- while the older Doctors were middle-aged white men, the 9th-11th Doctors have been much younger and more energetic. The 13th Doctor is tipped to be female or black. I’m excited to see what direction they’re taking the show, because there’s a new showrunner next season as well!

Recommended for the young at heart.

  • Broadchurch

Broadchurch is another series by the BBC. It’s primarily a crime-suspense-whodunnit, and I really liked it for the lonely scenery and the amazing acting performances. Olivia Colman is brilliant.

There are 2 completed series- one deals with the murder of a young boy, and the second is a follow-up of the court case. The third series is currently airing in the UK. The murder mystery plot was excellently done. The only gripe I had was that there wasn’t nearly enough foreshadowing before the culprit was revealed- but there were red herrings and unresolved threads galore. They sacrificed the smoothness of the plot for shock value.

I would still recommend this to anyone who likes suspense and mysteries.

  • Bletchley Circle

This was another unexpectedly good show, albeit short. It’s about a group of women codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. What happens to them after? Well, they’ve been sworn to secrecy, but still have apparently superhuman mathematical skills. Which they use to… solve mysteries? I’ll take it.

The first series has a very likeable main character who balances pragmatism with the stereotypical ‘genius’ impracticality. Unfortunately, the subsequent series have a much more Nancy Drew feel to them. I’d have liked to see more than 9 episodes though!

Recommended for anyone who likes historical drama and feminism.

  • Black Mirror

This show has become very well-known in the past year, and its popularity is well deserved. Each episode is a standalone dystopian thriller. While I love this genre, these are dark dark stories. Binge watching is impossible, because of the shock value- it makes sure you have food for thought. Which is a good thing!

The sci-fi hits very close to home- I can imagine some of these issues coming up in the next decade or two. Social media for keeping tabs on people’s behaviour?  Already exists. Crazy murderous drones? Possible. VR hell for people convicted of crimes? Why not?

Watch this if you don’t shy away from serious television.

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.

Will the Adivasi dance?

‘Adivasi’ is how most tribes in India identify themselves, at least as far as names go. Adivasis or Tribes have long confused the Indian State and her non-tribal people. Indeed, the diversity among tribal groups is astounding. While the Nagas tribes were notorious for head hunting, and the Andaman Sentinel tribes are brutally protectionist about their territory, the Nagas are also a political compact of people who aspire to political autonomy from/within the state, and the Dhongria Khond people are one of the most notable nature conservationists.

The non-tribal people (non scheduled tribes (ST), that is) can attribute their knowledge about tribes mostly to films that depict a colonial viewpoint of tribal people, as brutish, terrible, and uncivilized. On the other hand, the State knows just how powerless these groups are, and in far too many cases, exploits them due to it. For instance, in P Sainath’s book, we saw a tribe was asked to move out of their land and were subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ four or five times in a single generation; for such is the authority that the state commands with eminent domain (right to acquire private land for public use).

In the spectrum of perspectives that one may have on tribal groups in India, there are two that have been made into books recently – one, in the form of short stories, speaking of the lives of some tribal people, and the other, a book on the history of a violent struggle waged by many tribes against the State. This is a review of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and Hello, Bastar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015, for his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories set in the mineral-rich Jharkhand. The book includes stories about a young man who migrates to Gujarat only to find that eating meat is subject to heavy social sanction, a young girl who is moving to West Bengal in search of work who has to sleep with a policeman at the price of two soggy bread pakoras, a Troupe-Master who is beaten up because he refuses to dance for the President of India, a prostitute who falls in love etc.

These stories are written with a sardonic tone of a man who seems to have seen it all; the raw human desire, the vulgar display of power, the chill of fear, the gnawing hunger for wealth, love, power, status. His stories are not meant to entertain as much as they are meant to help you introspect, such as when you read of a young woman being thrown into prostitution as a way of life, you wonder why there is no alternative for her. But his stories are also slightly over-dramatic in their style. It might just be my personal preference talking, when I say that too many of the women in the stories exclaim and over-react altogether too often,  making the narrative seem like it’s meant for a play rather than a poignant story book. The best part about this book, however, is the diversity of issues Hansda brings out, ranging from religion, tradition to persecution, patriarchy, and what not. They mostly feel like a collation of stories out of a newspaper, and hence must be read that way, with some piping hot chai or coffee in the garden. 2/5

Hello, Bastar, written by Rahul Pandita, on the other hand is a whole different ball game, while still being on the subject of tribes; but this time, it’s the tribes of Bastar, in Chattisgarh. The book steers away from the topic of tribes and traces the history and life of one of India’s biggest security threats. The essays (or stories?) in the book describe the beginning and acceleration of the “Maoist” movement, the crackdown on the movement in Andhra Pradesh, the infamous Salwa Judum, the capture of the (in)famous leaders of the movement etc. More importantly, while doing so, the book also allows us to pore over the motivations and simple ambitions of the armed men and women.

Rahul Pandita travels and lives with the “Maoists”, and provides us this chilling tale of their lives. The offhanded tone and the apparent normalcy of the movement makes the essays all the more disturbing. The repression of the state and the ideology of the Maoists is described in the book to give us a perspective other than that obtained in the mainstream media, and that’s reason enough to read it, in my opinion. What the media doesn’t always tell us, but which Pandita covers eloquently, is that the movement is a mixture of ideology, repression and revenge, unattended peoples, lacunae of the state, and army-fatigue clad Naxals who fill that void. While one might hear people say that there should be no sympathy for such “Naxal movements”, I don’t think not listening to them will solve this security threat either. Understanding what troubles them, their motivation, and their wishes, is an important part of our democracy. To that end, this book serves one well. 3.5/5

The Adivasi Will Not Dance may seem like a cute book on the lives of faraway people, and Hello, Bastar, may seem like a war-memoir. The beauty of both the books is that they have a subtext that is intensely human and pleading with us for attention. The exploitation and treatment of Adivasis, as if they’re meant to be in zoos, must give way for a decent and “good life” for them as well. An emerging economy like India cannot afford to continue to watch her Adivasi children die of malnutrition related ailments (death by starvation, some call it) or wither due to lack of education; and she cannot shell and persecute her people in the name of internal security, without incurring heavy damage to her democratic psyche. We, as a people who choose our politicians, have a moral duty to understand the Adivasi’s dreams, persuade the state to guarantee her the right to life with dignity, negotiate with her if she’s upset, and not wait long enough that she takes to army-fatigues and gunfire.

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.

Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

More than a work of fiction, this felt like a work of history. The Igbo Pogrom (or genocide, if you’re not being fussy about words) of the 1966 and the politics of Nigeria in the 60s has been captured in these pages through the eyes of Ugwu, a young man who goes to the city to cook for Odenigbo, a college Professor.

During this period, about 40000 – 60000 people were killed, by bullet or through starvation. Through it all, there remained people who survived, mentally and physically, and built the country after the Pogrom. This novel is a fictional account of one such family.

Odenigbo introduces the city life to Ugwu, through his liberal friends, and by his own eccentricities. As Ugwu settles into his “Sah’s” house, he learns to cook, tend, and looks after Odenigbo very well. Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna, comes down as well. For a while, things seem normal; great, in fact. Olanna and Odenigbo adopt a child (whose biological father is Odenigbo, but mother is.. well, not Olanna; you’ll have to read the book to know more about the descent of the baby girl). Still the houseboy, Ugwu joins school, and hopes to become a professor like Odenigbo one day.

But soon, the Igbo Pogrom breaks out. The tribes in the north of Nigeria (Hausas) kill Igbo tribes, including Olanna and Odenigbo’s families and friends.

Through the novel, Odenigbo is chockfull with disbelief at what is happening. During the most peaceful and hopeful times, he and his colleagues (all liberal professors) publish journals, demanding a more democratic government from the short lived Republic of Biafra. The Republic of Biafra was established in a coup that has since been infamously known as the precursor to the Pogrom; due to its brashness in supporting the Southern Nigerean people, Igbos, over the Northern ones. The feeling of humiliation felt by the Northerners is said to have sparked off the anger that the Hausas took out against the Igbos.

When the civil war (the Pogrom) breaks out, he, Olanna and their baby move to his mother’s place, at the very last minute, away from the violence. Soon the Hausa tribes come close to finding them there as well. Then, with no choice left, they move to the refugee camps, where life hits a low. Olanna and Odenigbo suffer through blows, as they are unable to feed or clothe their child, never mind themselves. Ugwu remains loyal and supports them throughout. The way they flee from the refugee camp when the Hausas descend on them there as well, is a tale in itself.

As in this review, the book is deeply attached to the chilling history of Nigeria. The characters have not been compromised in the bargain, though. Their descriptions are rich; they’re likable and still very flawed. I’ve come to think that this is Adichie’s hallmark (despite my admittedly limited exposure to her work) – characters that one can like, but characters that are not Mary Sues. The development of each character, Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, is memorable; not perfect, but so well done that I still remember little details about them. Like Ugwu’s anger at some of Odenigbo’s friends because he felt they were disrespectful towards his Master; Olanna’s wit and sharpness as a writer, and then a mother; Odenigbo’s spirited debates with his colleagues every evening in his house, etc. There are other characters, too, that are cunning, crazy or incredibly principled, who evoke certain distaste or respect from me even after months of reading the book.

Adichie sparkles in every page of this page turner. The human spirit and the bloody politics of Nigeria is so remarkably interwoven that you cannot see one without the other. If only one could study all of history this way!

4/5

Holocaust writing

This is my review of Night by Elie Wiesel. Or not. It seems wrong somehow to review this book. How can you give a rating to something as terrible as the Holocaust?

Night is a memoir of Weisel and his father’s experiences in Nazi camps, one of which was the infamous Auschwitz. It’s a slim but powerful book- under a hundred pages, packed with terror and emotion. Wiesel was a spiritual teenager when the war began, and interestingly was interested in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah (I thought that was a 90s craze!) When his family was evacuated to the Nazi camps, he was separated from his mother and sisters, but managed to stick with his father for several months, through manual labour, starvation and ‘selections’.

The memories are disconnected at times, but the most horrifying incidents are described in excruciating detail. You get to watch as the spiritual, idealistic youth loses his faith and becomes cynical. His father dies towards the end of the war, but Weisel survives and is reunited with his mother and one of his sisters. He went on to win a Nobel peace prize for his activism.

Not too long ago, I reviewed Maus, another memoir of life in the concentration camps. The two books are very, very different, and it’s not just because Maus is a graphic novel. Night was written several years after World War II ended (Weisel was initially unwilling to write about his experiences), and focuses on feelings and impressions, as opposed to the factual account presented in Maus.

Read this book because it presents a historic event in a way you could never imagine it.