Justice: What’s the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel, in his Harvard lecture series on Justice, and in the book that goes by the same name, discusses what the right thing to do is, with the help of Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and others. He does it with the responsibility of a lecturer who understands that his readers/students are not philosophy majors, sociologists or readers of Prince, or On Liberty. There is no name dropping that you wouldn’t follow, if you’ve read the book in sequence. And there’s a seamless flow to the lectures.

Be it questions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, tax, civil rights, human rights, Michael Sandel has you peeling these questions to get to their core, and then he makes you fold them back, so that you can analyse it with new perspectives. A common theme running through the lectures is the juxtaposition of pressing issues, compelling reasoning, and critical thinking. It enriches the once humdrum issues, or the once evocative issues; they become more nuanced.

Does something have to be fair to be right? Sandel gives you scenarios, and also gives you values by which to analyse them. Take, for instance, the question of refinancing banks for bad loans. Is it right to use tax payers’ money to undo the (apparent) wrongs of bankers who didn’t do their job (apparently)? There’s no single answer to this question, as there are multiple and complex factors associated with it. The concept of black and white greys.

By the end of the book (or the lectures, if you choose to watch instead of read), you will be overwhelmed by his concluding remarks (and also slightly worried that it’s getting over, after having unloaded heavy moral and ethical questions on your shoulders). It’s not a book that you can read just once, and it’s not a light read even though it might seem that way (it’s written in a simple and appealing style). You can finish it at one go, but that would be such a loss.

I thrive on books that alter my world view. They tend to subtly change yours truly, for the better, I hope. Word of caution: It’s the kind of change that alienates you, too.

Throughout the book, I realised, he had not said a word about what the right thing to do is. But, like me, even you’d know. What’s right to me, though, may not be right to you. That’s the beauty of the book, it’s open to interpretation. And it opens up your mind, to ideas that you may not have considered before. This, I admit, has left me feeling alienated from the usual discourses that are characterised by people being outraged, offended, vengeful and what not. Principles, morals, values, are words that are usually thrown lightly (or/and noisily), without due regard. Not any more, not after you read this book.


Everybody loves a good drought

Everybody loves a good drought – P. Sainath

Have you ever been stunned by luck, good or bad? I was moved by this wretched book that has gone and done it for me. I only wanted a book of essays to read in my free time, instead I picked this book up, which threw an egg blender in the way I looked at.. life.

P. Sainath is a journalist who has travelled through, and stayed in, the most backward districts in the country to recount to us what the poorest of the poor have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. In a display of some superb journalism, he narrates the most morbid of tales, from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, of bad luck, of terribly screwed up interventions by the government, of horrible money lenders, of bonded labourers, of not a whiff of education, of beautiful lands being pillaged and beautiful people being cheated of their living and life, and in the same stories he leaves us with a feeling of hope, ad reminds us that there is still some humanism that prevails, which seeps through the administration and NGOs. On reading each of the essays, I thought, wow, this one ought to have kicked up a storm.

Sainath’s essays in Everybody loves a good drought were published in 1996, in Times of India. Back then, (usually) the articles had the effect that he intended them to have – government intervention. But, often, this intervention was so miscalculated and misjudged that one simply can’t believe how hapless the people must feel. But here’s the clincher: the oppressed, downtrodden, don’t feel sorry for themselves. Of course we knew that. This belief is firmly entrenched in me, after reading anecdotes in the essays, such as the one about Paharia women of Godda, Bihar, carrying 40-50kg firewood over their heads, and walking through two or three hillocks, covering 40 km, to reach the haat, the market place for firewood, all for 8 or 9 rupees. 40-50kg on their heads, for 40km of climbing up and down hillocks, for 8 or 9 rupees.

The biggest takeaway from the book, for me, was the same spirit that many of the people in the book displayed. That of “all is not lost”, of hope, of a deep-seated want to change their fortunes, to enable them to live decent lives.

Schools are converted into cowsheds, health care centres act as private clinics for quacks, landless labourers are converted to bonded labourers (bonded labour is banned in India, but still thrives, because of a lack of choice in employment), illicit liquor (arrack) is brewed using battery cells for a living, girls are sold to make ends meet, people are indiscriminately sent off (to their deaths) from their lands by the government, districts that are supposed to be under schemes for drought prevention are not while districts that have a decent amount of rainfall are, making a mockery of the system in place.

The book tells us that we need to proactively and affirmatively deal with the pain and suffering, illiteracy and loss, poverty and drought, and all those other ‘day-to-day’ things of the poor. Everybody loves a good drought also states the obvious – that a drought can be loved by the powerful or is hated by the affected, but is often ignored. Droughts are always covered as though the land has been tonsured – desertified, brown, with cracked ground. Fact is, there is the kind of drought that occurs even in the more green places with tall trees and green bushes, simply owing to the fact that they are grossly unprepared for seasons short of rainfall, year after year.

In 2015, some woodcutters who were robbing red sanders trees from Seshachalam forests were gunned down by the police. It doesn’t take too much extrapolation from what is known to say that those woodcutters, most of them tribals, were pushed into the whims of the timber-mafia, that they were, in all probability, tied to, with little choice. A little digging will tell you that they came from acute poverty and illiteracy. The demons were created by the system; one of them has been admonished, but all of them remain, and they will continue to haunt us until we address the reasons behind poverty, behind criminal action.

Sainath feels that focussing on events such as droughts, farmer suicides, crop failure, famine is a superficial and the lamest form of understanding a phenomena. Indeed, any event is a side-effect of the underlying factors which are duly ignored, because, well, maybe if we ignore it, it will go away? Bah. Who wants to listen to these stories that are so hard to digest anyway?


Pulping non-fiction: “I dare you, I double dare you!”


Here’s a book that has not been read, for reasons that you will know and probably fail to understand, like I did. This is us, here, voicing our problem with banning scholarly books. The book we are discussing here is The Hindus – An Alternative History.

Wendy Doniger, an American Indologist (someone who studies India), is a Professor of History of Religions since 1978 in the University of Chicago. Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History was published in 2009 by Viking/Penguin. It was received well, in India as well as America, by topping the bestseller list in the non-fiction category in the week of October 15th, 2009 in the Hindustan Times [1].

Doniger’s work, like every other work that challenges the religious fabric of India, was soon met with ‘crusaders’ of the religion who filed a lawsuit in a dingy Indian district court. The Indian Penal Code outlaws acts that “intend to outrage religious beliefs.” This was the premise for filing the case. The plaintiff is one Mr. Dinanath Batra (a retired school teacher at the helm of Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti [2], he is an RSS pracharak – a member of the Hindu fundamentalist group).

The Ban Man, as he is known, Dinanath Batra, has at his disposal the cadre of RSS. This very force of people have allegedly threatened books into being pulped and are responsible for reducing the space for well-informed debate on culture, tradition, Hinduism. Upon his decree – he sends out legal notices to publishing houses to inform them of the ‘hurtful’ books that they are publishing – books deemed unfit for an Indian audience are taken off shelves. It speaks volumes about the disturbing reluctance of the said publishing house and the supposed guardians of Hinduism (who want to inculcate its values into young children via, hold your breath, books. Books penned down by the all-knowing scholar Batra himself. I can’t wait to review one of them) to admit anything in a religion that was meant to espouse, well, everything.

The anger towards publishing the book came out in the sagely belief of being the custodians of the faith. Their authority is not questioned by anyone seeking to have a debate that goes beyond vandalism and the threat of having one’s publishing house suffer from physical damage. Writers and publishers have been here, seen this, and have chosen to withdraw their efforts to stimulate intellectual debate and to truly appreciate freedom of expression as promised by the Land. India is the land in which they have seen freedom being taken away more often than being practiced.

Doniger’s work looks at India’s tryst with Hinduism and she tells this tale by looking at the ‘alternate’ practitioners and beings of the faith, namely, women, untouchables and animals. The Hindu reviewed it when it was released, and it was one that appreciated the scholarly work that has gone into writing it, although it does criticise it for being a little over-indulgent when it came to anecdotes and for being a tad bit too American. [3]

The lawsuit was settled out of court and the case never saw the light of day; in effect, it did not give the writer an opportunity to defend her work. She knew she’d face trouble with, in getting published in India, due to which she even changed some of the text in the book. The out of court settlement also did not give an opportunity to the knowledge and opinion starved folk (the mighty guardians of the faith, indeed) to learn something more than a prayer song or two, or a dozen nationalist (not to mention, loosely worded and offensive) slogans.

Here is an excerpt from the book, one which you and I cannot read, because alas, it is blasphemous work (gasp!) in the pure ether of India. The excerpt acts as the scholar’s closing statement quite well.

To the accusation that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu “had never heard of,” my reply is: Yes!, and it’s my intention to go on doing just that. The parts of his own tradition that he objected to are embraced by many other Hindus and are, in any case, historically part of the record.

The  Hindus – An Alternative History is available online. It is educative, provocative and most importantly, it gives you a different perspective of the Hindu faith. This charade of asking for it to be banned garnered a bigger audience to the book, much to the fundamentalist group’s chief’s chagrin, I hope. Readers in India were curious, and rightly so, when this book was deemed NSFIndianAudience. Don’t we have the ability to read, understand and debate? Don’t we have the right to do so? If only the penguin had more spine and didn’t have cold feet, it needn’t have gone south.


[1] The Hindustan Times


[3] The Hindu Centre