Books

First Draft: Witness To The Making Of Modern India

B.G. Verghese

BG Verghese’ “First Draft” is part memoir, part history and covers many decades in its wide sweep. From the description of the Times on the day of his birth (21/06/1927) until his assessment of the challenges facing the nation in 2010, the book is his perspective on the events he has witnessed and many a time, been part of. Sometimes it is tinged with nostalgia – his description of the Doon School for instance, and at other times, it is an objective view of the various decisions and circumstances that have shaped India.

From national milestones like the first elections (described so we get an idea of the herculean task it was in an era that didn’t have the communication infrastructure we see now) and the construction of the steel plants and dams and IITs,IIMs we see around now, to humanity’s collective achievements such as Neil Armstrong on the moon (even as a villager adamantly states that it is just impossible) we get a first hand view of things we now acknowledge as history and landmarks. Relationships with the US, USSR as well as neighbouring countries and the wars fought with the latter, including an analysis of the things we did right/wrong all appear, mostly in chronological order. Also adding texture to the narrative are anecdotes of Prime Ministers, most significantly Indira Gandhi. The formation of AIR and Doordarshan, nuclear tests, the political battles within the Congress, formation of other parties, JP’s work, the rise of Naxalism, Operation Bluestar, Sanjay Gandhi’s bizarre schemes, the Emergency, the death of Mrs.Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s baby steps into politics and the paradigm shifts he kickstarted, communal riots, the formation of LTTE, the Bhopal tragedy, VP Singh and Mandal and Bofors, BJP and Ramjanmabhoomi, the chronic Kashmir issue all gives one a feel of time travel.

There is massive ground covered – nuclear policy, social-economics, geo-political relationships, the functioning of media houses etc in addition to his views on public service broadcasting, policies for the North East, industrialisation, water and so on. As an editor and someone who has worked with the government, and as part of external agencies, fact finding committees and so on, the author is well placed to deliver an incisive view of history as it was being made and with the advantage of hindsight. (now) Barring a meagre few pats on the back and digressions, he does provide a decent and objective look. It is quite a humbling feeling to ‘watch’ as generations of politicians and institutions almost flash by and one finds some pattern in the fuzziness seen around – the reason for the way we are, as a country. It is also heartening to see that patriotism aside, the author feels that we are on an ascendant. Despite some patches that are specific in nature (towards the last 100 pages) and tend to be discourses, this is a great read for anyone interested in modern history.

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Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Devdutt Pattanaik 

I consider myself more well-versed with the Mahabharata than the average person, because of my interest in Hindu mythology and the amount of reading I’ve done on the subject. But I’m really glad I read this, not just because of the small details I learned about (I counted 6 things I hadn’t known about – Sahadeva’s precognition gained by eating Pandu’s flesh, Draupadi cursing dogs to copulate in public for stealing Yudhishtira’s slippers, Vibhishana being present at Draupadi’s swayamwar, a couple of stories on why Krishna stepped in to protect Draupadi when Dusshasana tried to disrobe her, why Shakuni did his best to ensure the destruction of the Kuru clan, Draupadi’s regret over Karna and at least a couple more interesting tidbits) but because of the wonderful lessons it provides. The author also mentions several variations of the tale, regional renditions and folk variations adding layers to the original story. Even as one feels the familiarity thanks to the places (which still exist) mentioned and can identify with the experiences and tribulations of the mortal characters, there is also an awe created by the elements of divinity.

The excellent illustrations and the simple yet elegant and evocative storytelling took me back to a time when I first started hearing these stories – childhood. So vivid is the prose that one can easily create visualisations of the events. The explanation of events are done on many planes – rational, metaphysical, spiritual, bringing a lot of clarity to the complex tale. The concepts of dharma and justice are explained beautifully and even as the Pandavas grow their perspective during their exile and their pride, anger etc get tempered before and after the war, there is tremendous learning for the reader too. It is easy to understand why this is indeed considered the greatest story ever told, and continues to be relevant through ages. The original tale is epic, and so is this narration. Very highly recommended.

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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India

William Dalrymple 

In the eighteenth century, when the East India company was not yet the force it would one day be, there existed a few Englishmen (and other Europeans) who took up the ways of the fading Mughal culture. These were the White Mughals and among them was James Achilles Kirkpatrick, who arrived in India a soldier and soon rose to be the Resident of Hyderabad, mostly thanks to the influence of his older brother William.

Friend of the Nizam, and an ardent lover of the Indian culture he came in contact with, he was willing to sacrifice everything to marry Khair un Nissa, a Hyderabadi noblewoman, who was already engaged to be married. Although the core of the book is their love story, and its aftermath, Dalrymple does take a while to get to it. He first gives us the prevalent scenario and glimpses of the other White Mughals like Hindoo Stuart, David Ochterlony etc to set the context. Even after James is fully in the picture, he focuses on the Nizam’s court, its players and its intrigues in which James is heavily involved, Hyderabad’s strained relationship with the Marathas and the charged political atmosphere which the Company was trying to profit from. But this also gives us an elaborate view of Hyderabad, its people, its art and culture and finally James’ relationship with Khair. In this broad canvas, we can also see the various Governor Generals and their varied stance on relationships with India and Indians. The images allow us to visualise the life and the times.

<spoiler> After the death of James, the book follows the life of Khair as the story moves from Hyderabad to Calcutta to Masulipatnam (and tangentially Chennai) giving us tiny glimpses of the social milieu there, even as Khair pines for her children who have been taken away from her. Dalrymple provides a touching description of the very young children shedding their Muslim identity and donning a Christian one as they board the ship to England. In fact, the painting of the children with Sahib Begum’s (soon to be Kitty Kirkpatrick) teary face is extremely poignant.

Khair’s only consolation is the presence of her mother, the correspondence with her grandmother and her (ultimately) tragic relationship with another Englishman. Except for the well being of Kitty Kirkpatrick, James’ and Khair’s daughter, the lives involved all have tragic endings, many of which cause lump-in-the-throat moments. Khair’s mother dies in penury and her son dies an invalid at a young age. Though Kitty corresponds with her grandmother, they never get to meet each other. As the author says, the death of Kitty in 1889 was the end of an era, of a world where cultures and people mixed freely without the biases and clashes that came later. A wonderful read for those interested in history.

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The Storyteller of Marrakesh

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya 

The book begins with the proposition that there is no truth, and only opinion. This is a fundamental premise of the book and important from the perspective of its narration. Hassan, the primary narrator begins his story at the Jemaa el Fna, surrounded by his listeners, the motive behind the narration supposedly to prove the innocence of his brother Mustafa, who is in jail for a crime he seemingly did not commit. It involves the disappearance of an exceedingly beautiful woman who tantalised all the square’s inhabitants and visitors, when she made an appearance along with her male companion.

Though Hassan starts the narration, some of his listeners add their versions of what happened on the night of the event, some contradictory, some corroborative. There are arguments, and debates of what actually happened and truth being an opinion is brought out many a time.

The narrative shifts gears all the while, as speakers delve deep into their pasts for explanations, and Hassan himself highlights events of his past to give the listeners an insight into his and Mustafa’s lives and behaviour. The prose is elaborate, and vivid enough to be almost considered poetry as the author describes people, places and events in all their textures and facets. It is by no means a racy read nor is it gripping in narrative pace. As Hassan himself says, if that’s the kind of entertainment you want, you’re better off at a cinema. It’s not an easy style to get used to, but no harm in giving it a shot!

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ASURA: Tale Of The Vanquished

Anand Neelakantan

Asura is partly a Ravana perspective on where his life intersects with that of Rama, (and thus Ramayana) and partly a social commentary of his life and times. (how society treats women, the caste system etc) The tale is narrated by Bhadra, an asura who fought under Mahabali and several others before becoming a recurring (and key) figure in Ravana’s life from the time he led a ragged army against Kubera. The narrative begins with Ravana’s last moments, as he lay dying on the battlefield.

Predictably, the book shows Ravana in a good light, whose only fault was that he defied the prevalent societal norms and lived life on his own terms, as opposed to Rama, who was deified by the higher castes and made into an ideal image. For all we know, this is probably true, since history is after all, written by victors.

While most of the story is essentially known, the author deserves credit for demystifying the myth – from the big picture details of which region was ruled by which king to smaller details like Pushpak as a flying machine prototype and Jatayu becoming a bird that got caught in its rotors. This does require that he has to gloss over some of the events, but that’s easily something we could forgive because the author largely keeps it true to the original tale. Varuna as a pirate, Kubera as the merchant king, Yama as the drug lord, various Indras, are all superb renditions of familiar mythological characters. There’s some intelligent use of Bhadra in the final events, and the author leaves ample clues for the reader to predict it. The author tries to show that in many ways, things have remained unchanged – the generation gap between Bali/Angada and Ravana/Meghanada is a classic example, and this is something that gives the narrative a lot of credibility. (+5 points for the Jabali mention)

But I did feel that it could have been edited better. Bhadra’s character, though used well to show how the life of a common man changed, or remained unchanged as the ruling class switched, is prone to long winded discourses which slackens the pace. The working of Ravana’s mind too becomes preachy once in a while, but thankfully not too often. If I had to nitpick, I’d say that mistaking navel for naval while describing a woman’s anatomy is not a sign of good proofreading. (-5 points for not connecting Chandrahasa to Shiva and relegating it to a blacksmith origin)

But in essence, it is a fresh take, and was good enough for me to visualise how it really must have been – as something that really happened, and not just a myth.

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The Forest of Stories

Ashok Banker

Book 1 of Ashok Banker’s Mahabharata, MBA if you will. It is an exact rendition of the saga written by Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa. The narrative begins in Naimisha-sharanya, where Ugrasrava, son of Lomarsana and better known as Sauti, arrives to convey the news of Vyasa’s transcendence to the next life, and to narrate the grandest tale ever created.

The tale begins long before the descendants of Kuru faced each other on the battlefield at Kurukshetra. Kurukshetra, famous long before as Samantapanchaka where Parasurama created five lakes of blood from the decimation of kshatriyas, and famous long after as the venue for the sarpa satra conducted by Janamajaya, descendant of the Pandavas.

Sauti explains how Jaya, the original tale swelled from 8800 slokas to 24000, named Bharata and then over several narrations, to Mahabharata, made of one hundred thousand slokas. A narration that Sauti himself was the recipient of, from Vaisampayana, as well as Vyasa himself, at the satra.

The narrative is anything but linear, like a tree with a multitude of branches, and does stick to Vyasa’s original work. It flits from story to story, occasionally coming back to what can be loosely described as central narrative, in this case, a sort of index built by questions being asked to Sauti during his narration. Thanks to this, from creation of the world and the origin of different species to the reason for the Mahabharata war and the stories of many antecedents of the Pandavas and Kauravas, there are stories and stories. This book ends with the introduction to Bharata – the emperor, son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, after whom the country is named.

As someone deeply interested in mythology, this is a very interesting read, despite the elaborate prose, but what you will get from it completely depends on your level of interest in the epic.

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The Sins of the Father

Jeffrey Archer

The second part of The Clifton Chronicles. Harry’s plan to erase his past and start a different life in America has unfortunate side effects, as the last page of the first volume indicated. Emma, the mother of his son, meanwhile, refuses to believe that he is dead, and sets out to find him. Giles, after some hesitation, joins the army and fights the Germans in World War 2. The book also follows a few other characters from ‘Only Time Will Tell’ like Hugo Barrington, Maisie Clifton, and thanks to Emma’s trip to America, and Harry’s own adventures, introduces a few interesting new characters as well. The different-people narrative approach has been used effectively to zoom in/out in this book too.

The pace, as usual, is perfect, and that’s a skill I always admire Archer for. He now reminds me of Sachin Tendulkar actually. :) Once upon a time, Sachin was known for his aggressive mauling of bowlers, but as he aged, he made changes to his technique. He was still a master, but in a different way. In another era, Archer was famous for those amazing twists in the tale/tail. But after a while, they became predictable. In the last few books, I’ve seen a distinct change in his style. The wit is still there, but more subtle, as are the twists. A different kind of story telling mastery, and I, for one, am enjoying it.

Archer has captured the WWII life in Britain very well. There are interesting references to real life events and people – for instance Harold Macmillan. The US/British differences are also touched upon in a very humorous way. All these are little nuggets which add flavours to the story.

There is an old world charm to the characters, it’s probably because of the time in which the story is set. But Archer does like it this way, as I’ve noticed in other books. They also have everything falling into place for them, ahem, but things aren’t so bad that I can’t ignore. They are clearly good or evil, and there are practically no gray shades. I am curious to see how Archer will carry this on in the later parts, specially when he has characters in the contemporary era. I wonder if he will retain this clear division, and if he does, how he will get us to relate to it. :)

I enjoyed the book, and massively crossed the self imposed limits of pages/day – that’s a testament to the hooking capability of Archer’s narrative.

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River

Alice Albinia 

I am showing signs of travelogue addiction, and this is the kind of book that creates it! It’s not just the content of the book, which is marvelous and makes for a treasure trove of information, but the sheer tenacity and guts the author displays, that has made me a fan. Spanning four countries, this book is the story of the river Indus, from its source to its destination, though not in a linear way. What it succeeds in doing, like the best travelogues do, is to also allow us to travel through time, in this case, even to the time before man existed. From Hindu mythology to the Harappa civilisation to Partition and the Kargil conflict and China’s occupation of Tibet, the book is not just the story, but the history of a subcontinent (at least a part of it) and the civilisations that rose and fell.

The preface gives us an idea of the expanse of the river through its various names, given across lands and by everyone from Greek soldiers to Sufi saints.

There are nuggets everywhere right from the beginning – the comparison of the arrangements of the Quran and the Rig Veda, the integrity shown by a citizen in the early days of Pakistan’s formation, a modern day citizen blaming Jinnah for the country’s authoritarian culture, a nation’s search for identity, and the vision of its founder, who was only human. The first chapter ‘Ramzan in Karachi’ is a book in itself, and this can be said of all the chapters! ‘Conquering the classic river’ is a slice of the Company’s India exploits, ‘Ethiopia’s first fruit’ shows the amazing ‘presence’ of Africa in the subcontinent’s history and present, and the facets of their absorption into the mainstream. ‘River Saints’ is about Sufism and its modern day remnants who are not beyond politics, religious conflicts and feudalism.

‘Up the Khyber’ is about the exploits of Mahmud of Ghazni, the sexual preferences in the frontier province, and the beginning of the author’s more difficult challenges as she zigs and zags through Taliban and smuggler territory. ‘Buddha on the Silk Road’ is an awesome chapter on the meeting of 3 great religions – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and how they influence each other in the area, down to the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan statues more recently. In ‘Alexander at the outer ocean’, the author stubbornly walks, despite very serious hardships, the route that the Sikunder-e-azam took. ‘Indra’s Beverage’ takes us back to Rig Veda times, the Aryans and ancient Stonehenge like relics that survive to this day, along with the Kalash tribe, which follows a religion that goes back beyond Hinduism. Some areas, as the vivid prose describes them, seem to exist the same way they did in Rig Vedic times. The incredibly advanced Harappa civilisation is showcased in ‘Alluvial Cities’, though the reason for their fall is still contested. Kashmir’s archaeological treasures are the focus in ‘Huntress of the lithic’ and it’s interesting to see how the same ‘painting’ has been reinterpreted across time by various people to suit their needs. In the final chapter, the author captures the startling contrast of man’s attempts to conquer nature and at the other end of the scale, his ever decreasing ability to live in harmony. This chapter is also a testament to her commitment to the book, and the mentions of Kailash and the possibilities of Meru were extremely interesting to someone like me, who is interested in Hindu mythology. The book’s final words, which makes us wonder how long the river which spawned civilisations will be around, is a melancholic gaze into the future.

At 300 odd pages, every page of this book is packed, and there is no respite. But it’s completely worth it!

The Fiction Collection 2 (Penguin)

This book was a little ‘Inception’ of time travel. It’s been 6.5 years since it was published and commemorates 20 years of Penguin in India. It consists of excerpts from the many works the publishing house has brought out, many of them from several years back. There were a few from books I had already read, a few by authors whose other works I was familiar with, and then there were authors and works I had never even heard of – and that’s why reading this was a wonderful experience – like rediscovering a few old friends and making new ones. :)

In a few of them, I did miss the larger context, but those were a rare few. There are a few translated works too, and I was surprised by the justice they seemed to do to the original work – ‘after the hanging’ by OV Vijayan being a perfect example. The other interesting part was reading a different rendition of something I had read earlier – Indu Sundaresan’s ‘the twentieth wife’ on Mehrunnisa and Salim (the early part of which I could associate thanks to Alex Rutherford’s “Empire of the Moghul”) or Khushwant Singh’s ‘delhi’ (‘nihal singh’ is set during the first war of independence and some of the events I remember from William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal”)

My other favourites included works that gave a glimpse of places as they once were – Bombay in Eunice de Souza’s “dangerlok”, (a wonderful piece of work) Delhi in Navtej Sarna’s “We weren’t lovers like that” and more tragic ones like Punjab in Neel Kamal Puri’s ‘death toll’ and Kerala in Jaishree Misra’s ‘from ancient promises’.

The best part is that with more than 50 different works, you are practically guaranteed to find many glimpses that you’d like and might make you want to explore the canvas further. It also took me to a different era of story telling – before IITs, IIMs, call centres, urban angst with corporate backgrounds and cliched marital ‘crises’, packaged mythology and such. For all of these reasons, a must read.

No Full Stops in India

Mark Tully

A book published in 1991, and so the best part about it is that it involves a fair amount of time travel. It’s a collection of 10 essays with an introduction and epilogue that could pass off as mini essays too! While all of the essays are commentaries, what adds that little flavour is the author’s own involvement in it, which he somehow manages to balance with a near objective view. The first essay, for instance, involves the marriage of his cook’s daughter, and his experience at the village. But it also is about how communities in villages have been solving their own problems even better than the land’s relatively new legal system. It thus serves as an example of how we, the ‘educated elite’ make a clamour for egalitarianism without understanding the positives of the caste system.

Cultural imperialism is the theme of the next essay and is brought out through the carvings at Mahabalipuram, and the interaction and friction between British artists (sculptors) and their Indian counterparts, whom they rate slightly lesser- as craftsmen. The essay also touches upon Dalit Christians and how they are discriminated against even within the Church.

The Kumbh Mela is what the third essay is about and is a vivid telling of the massive festival. The author spends time with VP Singh’s brother, and meets the various people who ply their trade in this enormous festival – the pandas and later, the akharas who look to recruit people or get donations. In this, there is a note of sarcasm that creeps in occasionally, but Tully still manages to capture the faith driven fervour superbly. He has also correctly predicted the potential rise of communal parties towards the end of the essay.

One of the most interesting essays is the fourth one, especially for my generation which grew up watching Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan! The author reminded me of the impact of this mega serial long before we had reality TV and TRPs – taxi drivers who knocked on the author’s door asking for permission to watch it in his house, cabinet swearing in postponed so everyone could watch it, and so on. He spends 2 days with the Sagars while they’re shooting the Uttararamayan section (owing to public demand) and there Ramanand Sagar tells him how he has handled feminists and also the story of his own life. There is an amusing part about the filming of a scene – Lakshman having biscuits between takes, reusing marigolds for extra takes, and so on.

Operation Black Thunder is a more serious essay which involves covering the whole event live. This was an era before live TV and omnipresent crews and the author tries to delve deeper into how a section of the Sikhs and the Central and State governments reached this point, with interviews of civil servants and military, police personnel.

Colonialism in Calcutta is probably my favourite essay as Tully takes us through the city where Marxism, industries and religion co-exist side by side amidst bare remnants of an earlier era. In between are interesting anecdotes like the Oberoi Hotel’s origins. This happens to be the author’s birthplace and the affection does really come through.

The next one was a surprise since it dealt with a modern day case of Sati and it has never been proved whether it was suicide or murder. The author gets the varying perspectives of the villagers, politicians, civil servants, activists, the extended family, and it does bring out how laws at the end of day, should be made understanding the minds of the people they are made for.

Typhoon in Ahmedabad also surprised me but apparently that’s the name they use for riots! This is an era before Narendra Modi left his indelible mark and does show that riots existed long before him. The poor – both Hindu and Muslim, seem the most affected in the politically motivated result of a nexus between politicians and the underworld. SEWA’s activities also get some space as does Ahmedabad as a city.

A journey into Madhya Pradesh in what was the national vehicle of the time – the Ambassador, makes up the next essay. The destination is the village of an artist who has made it (relatively) big in Bhopal with the help of a government program. Jabalpur, the inconspicuous geographical centre of India, represents eminently the feel of a tier 3 city in the mid-late 80s. This essay also covers ground on tribals, their belief systems and I also found what could be the precursor to Arundhati Roy’s essays about the Narmada.

The last essay is about Digvijay Narain Singh, the politician from Bihar who also happens to be the author’s close friend. He belongs to an era when politicians had a conscience, and while you could say that the author is biased, much of the perspective is reportage – opinions from others. The politician’s relationships with Nehru, Indira Gandhi are well chronicled and throws light on the kind of politician who took the responsibility of being a public servant seriously.

The epilogue is a note on Rajiv Gandhi, and through this, the state of India as a nation. It ends with the news of Rajiv’s death and the author’s perspective on what this means for a nation.

In essence, a wonderful read that gave me insights about a time when I was too young to dwell on things happening around me and events that ultimately affected the present I live in.