Indian Culture

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

This is a review of the book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, by Manu S. Pillai.

The book is a compilation of 60 diverse essays from Indian History. Almost all the essays have mostly quirky trivia as a common thread between them. They’re broadly arranged as “Before the Raj” and “Stories from the Raj” (maybe because the stories have little else in common?). The essays begin by reminding the reader of the conventional views held on the topic, Manu S. Pillai then goes on to alter that view, and finally ends with a shrewd comment or dry observation.

His observations, though, are outrightly critical of the school of thought subscribed by the right wing junta of India today. He does not make any apologetic disclaimer to that effect. For example, the afterword reads as an opinion piece in a newspaper, cautioning against a majoritarian dispensation. In addition to this risky enterprise, his essays on the women whose roles have been blatantly ignored by our textbooks stand out for quietly trying to supplement, and change, the story of India’s past. That said, the essays are not prejudiced as far as yours truly could tell, and have more than a hint of scholarship throughout.

My favorite essays were the ones on the mistakenly aggrandised historical figures. For example, there’s the story of Nangeli, who cut off her breasts in anger against the tax collectors, in a rebellion against caste and feudalism that suppressed those at the underbelly of society. But today she’s seen as a virtuous goddess who stood for “womanly honor”. Such heroes, Pillai clarifies, were ordinary people whose messages and ideas have been distorted to suit the narrative of the historians of the day.

That said, I thought the essays could have been better edited. For one, the writing style differs across the essays. Some are written colloquially, and some others as if for the District Gazette. It’s distracting when binge reading! Also, why were the essays sequenced the way they were? Chronology? Dramatic effect? Themes? I don’t know.

The illustrations in the book are excellent! No less. Every one of them is exquisite, and perfectly fits the essay. If I may say so, it was the better part of some essays! The featured image for this review is an illustration from the book (credits due to Priya Kuriyan).

While the book kind of wavers and stumbles here and there, by being a collection of unmoored stories, it has its positives, aplenty, ranging from the sheer research put into the essays and the effort it must have taken to compress the grand stories into such short and crisp essays.

Most significantly, the book excels by being a bold contrarian point of view on many historical figures and happenings. And, as the writer himself doesn’t miss an opportunity to say, that’s important in this age and space.

With that hope, I hope more such offbeat history books come forth. Mind you, not fictionalized poor stories or propaganda garbed as a history lessons. We need to discuss our history more, in order to not let any single narrative lead the way. And Manu S Pillai’s book is a step in that direction.

3.5/5, maybe more!

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The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.

Between the epic and the everyday

The book, Theatres of Democracy, by Shiv Visvanathan, edited by Chandan Gowda, is an anthology of the best articles written by the giant among sociologists in India today. Shiv Visvanathan is a much sought after writer for Dailies and Magazines, commenting on sparrows, protest marches and what not. His penmanship is well known, what with his observations of the mundane and stellar evoking reaction from intellectuals, politicians, common citizens alike.

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The genius of the essays lay not in the essays themselves, but in the wholesome tapestry they make, of the world, and India in particular. Most of his essays mock at our realities, subtly, definitely, but without sting. For instance –

A stray dog running across the Republic Day parade seemed more symbolic of freedom than all the panoply of tanks and soldiers. (The Red For Ritual)

But, as a sociologist, he does not refrain from speaking the truth without dressing it up either. For instance –

Jayalalitha is the most Hobbesian figure in Indian politics, the sovereign as empress, the politician as a cult figure… As the cult of Jayalalitha engulfs Tamil Nadu, she exudes a power, contemptuous of citizenship. She reveals the way in which democracy as a cult becomes… dangerous. (The Cult of Jayalalitha)

..Political theory in India has lost its moorings and become utterly flat-footed vis-a-vis globalization… The real challenge before us is to invent a new lifeworld for politics to understand riots, disasters, droughts, waste, genocide and hospitality. (The Failure of Political Theory)

The essays are political, but unburdened by any need to be partisan. They border on the prophetic, but are bound by the limits set by the intellectual, researcher, and teacher.

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The range of subjects that the 91 essays touch is vast; individuals, political parties, public policy, our constitution, the federal system, dissent, nationalism, science, sports, media, are some of the stars that dot the galaxy of his essays, which provide one with an additional ray of light to capture the beauty and madness of contemporary times with.

But, the brilliance and wit are sometimes too short and too strong when he talks about the past, leaving the reader to fall back on false nostalgia, such as when he describes the Middle Class, currently abundantly corruptible. Surely he’s being overly romantic? Also, some of the essays did not look the reader in the eye, when they abandoned reasoned argument by subsiding instead under the weight of emotion (like when discussing Modi, who he has not forgotten or forgiven for whatever transpired in Gujarat, and whose ‘cult’ he finds inimical to democracy). Where did the academic go?

In a post-truth society, his academic and friendly voice is a salve to understand and analyze the dialectics of the world we live in. I had said in the beginning of the review that it’s not the essays themselves that make the book powerful, it is in the way they are bound together; for us to ultimately piece together the fact that we live in a mindless and ritualistic world that blossoms with life nevertheless.

Read it recklessly, as it may please you, leafing through the essays that you fancy. Or read it methodically, page to page, with a pencil to underline what fascinates and engages you. To a person who enjoys analyzing contemporary times with nuance, this book is a gift from a commentator par excellence.

3/5

Subversion of the right to freedom of speech

Indians, anyone will tell you, are talkative people. They can talk about mustard oil and about United Nations Law of the Seas, about what the Char Log will think and about IQ scores, about Barack Obama and about Putin, about Modi’s suit and about the half naked Fakir. Indians can talk tirelessly. They can do so eloquently, and with zest and purpose. Few, though, can claim to have given their life or life’s work to the Right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression.

The Right to Freedom of Speech and expression is a fundamental right, that is available to every citizen of India, and is protected dearly by the judiciary. The judiciary, in India, is said to be the second most trusted institution of the country, closely following the Election Commission.

In the Keshavnanda Bharti case, the Supreme Court of India held that the parliament cannot amend the constitution in such a manner that the basic structure is in any way affected. What is the basic structure? Suffice it to know, for now, that it includes all the fundamental rights in the constitution. The Supreme Court thus drew a line that the legislature had to toe, when it came to the right of the citizens to their freedom of speech.

The executive’s overtures with respect to their attempts to subvert our freedom of speech has also been checked by the judiciary, or sometimes by the sheer volume of the speech itself. Censuring free speech on the internet? The SC quashed the Section 66A of the IT Act, that allowed the police to arrest people on arbitrary grounds for whatever they’d written on the internet. Porn ban? Joke; it simply can’t be done. Digital blocks imposed by the union, that too on an entire industry, are but a joke.

The only time when the legislature or executive can make a law or take action against speech is when the speech seeks to adversely affect interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

So, if you want to carve out a country in your backyard (like a maoist), you could be arrested. And, if you say that all politicians loot people and bleed people of their sanity and dignity, you can be penalized. If you write a book that makes a case for creating a new country out of India, you can well be thrown into jail. If you propound lies about someone or something, be it in academic papers or through the media, you can be penalized.

Sadly, and factually, there’s another class of people who have been shut up, literally, by the people they tried to talk to, for speaking the truth. Imagine being gagged and strangulated for observing casually in a crowd of people that the earth is revolving around the sun. You were gagged because the people you were surrounded by disagreed with you. They would really like the earth to revolve around a cupcake. You were forsaken because you spoke of the sun. The sun does not exist, they say. The sun is an illusion you have created to corrupt minds and dirty the history of the people of the cupcake. The glowing blurb in the sky is the caramel oozing out of the cupcake, they say. How dare you say things like Hydrogen and Helium. Be gone! Off with your head!

Thus begot what happened to men like Kalburgi, Dhabolkar, Pansare and, I might add, Perumal Murugan too. Kalburgi, Dhabolkar and Pansare were killed by people who disagreed with them because they were rationalists, that is, they spoke sense. Perumal Murugan was gagged out of his village for writing a fictional story based on true events of a century ago, about a custom which the locals would rather not be reminded.

Here, the exercise of curtailment or restriction on free speech and expression was assumed by the proletariat, not the legislature or executive.The proletariat was given the rights to freedom of speech and expression, not the right to take it away! There’s a right to freedom of speech. There is NO corollary to it, and there is NO right to be offended.

What has the state done, in response, though? It was shocked at the reactions of the public to these men, and it hasn’t recovered from the shock yet, more than a year since these incidents began occurring.

Does the state, the protector of our rights, need a jolt to be woken up from its pretend-slumber? For, I find it hard to believe that they could be oblivious to the need to address such subversion of fundamental rights. There are more than enough men among them who have been able to amass wealth enough to make a Somalian mafia don blush. Such acumen need only be expressed in its very minimal amount to find the perpetrators of crimes against the basic structure of our constitution. The will needed, of course, has to be dug up from the reserves that lie deep in their minds which is mostly dominated by vote-bank calculations and efficiency methods in amassing more wealth.

If the state is going to continue its hibernation and ostrich-like behaviour, maybe it’s time the rare utterances of brave ideas and stories should be made more common.

Maybe it’s time that the rationalists unite, to say loud and clear, that eliminating those awe inspiring men was futile. That the intellectual and creative fire in our bellies cannot be extinguished by the most lowly and disgusting expressions of disagreement, even through gun powder and violent picketing.

So, here I am. I dare you, to say people like me are wrong to stand by the men whose lives have been wasted because of you.

I dare you, I double dare you, to fight me with words, with ideas, with an instrument known as debate, or discussion. If this is war, I can tell you that you’re going down, for I’d rather be dead that live a life looking over my shoulder! I’m willing to fight, tooth and nail, sir. My right to freedom of speech is sacrosanct, more so than the infinite inane beliefs you hold.

Indians sure can talk, but now, I don’t see them voicing enough concern about the butchering of the intellect in their national fabric. The silence is loud, and is driving lunatics to suppress the few with a voice. This should not be, it must not be, it shall not be. This is my minuscule contribution towards ending the silence of the masses. My shout out to the miscreants who have killed and maimed free speech in India: please, stop.


I’d written this a long time back. However, most of it is true today too. I was inspired to post this (with some edits) after an argument I had with an otherwise sensible friend, on the need to respect everyone’s rights (specifically, the fundamental rights of freedoms). He said ‘your freedom to carry an umbrella ends at the edge of my nose’ – apparently, expressing views that contradict the majority’s views should be done with “sensitivity”, or not be done at all (the latter is preferred). I thought that was a lot of cow refuse. Majoritarianism (be it religious or cultural) is being given greater preference over constitutional correctness, and that is absolutely reprehensible. It is time, I thought, rational and liberal voices also speak up, and refute the apparent justifications given by narrow minded men. Hence, the post.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book that has to be chewed slowly.

It’s wonderfully written.

It will, at points, shock you with its little quirky insights on “being Indian”; actually, even “being Indian”, in the abstract, is questioned and argued about in the book.

Irrespective of what you want this book to be, it will turn into that book that you want to read because it allows you the luxury of self perception, into the society (and maybe yourself).

It’s an enriching book, in that it makes you look at your countrymen with more empathy for their steadfastly held (always steadfast, never slack..) beliefs. It’s, however, not a book you want to discuss details of with your devout and orthodox relatives who argue endlessly, one-way (some will be maddened into thinking you’re turning into a deviant rebel if you do talk to them with the rationality that might stick when you read this book). It broadens your mind, undoubtedly.

A friend said, after he read this book, he looked at people, and India, differently. That sounded very cliche. But he was right. This one gives you a rather grey tinted looking glass. It makes you conciliate with the anomalies of your society, it helps you make peace with all kinds of gobar too. (But it didn’t really help me make peace with whatever it is that the “nation wants to know!”*)

As for the title, it’s not misleading. The essays in the book reflect on the argumentative nature of Indians, and help you realize that being argumentative is a powerful tool you can have; not to be mistaken with being loud and thick. This book, for example, is soft spoken (if I may), but is compelling. The essays are about the different hues of deliberation, discussion and debate that conversation and practices lead one to; it, at no points, mistakes lambasting and being crass for being argumentative.

As for the writer himself, what can I say that a Nobel** cannot? Salut to you sir. Thumbs up on the choice of the book cover. So gorgeous!

 


*reference made to an unpopular Indian TV anchor who lives in his little deep well, like the green frog did.

**the Nobel was admittedly not for his work on culture, history or polity (which this book is about), but was in the field of economics. Nevertheless, it’s a great measure of one’s greatness, at least in the annals of bloggesh. *tips hat at imagined audience