Sociology

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.

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