Books

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.

The Betelnut Killers

Manisha Lakhe

The story of a typical mild mannered Gujarati businessman in Oregon – henpecked, confused about how his two children were growing up in America and focused on growing his business, only distracted by the thought of his first love whom he had to give up. Chimanbhai Shah’s life turns nasty when his business plans are dealt almost a death blow by Supriya, who opens a shop very near to his and lures his customers away. The rest of the book is about the plan that Chimanbhai, along with his wife Radhika, and children Maya and Suraj, hatches to get rid of Supriya. They are also helped by Neeraj, a distant relative.

An ad for ‘betel nut workers’ (supari) backfires when the Employment office gives them a duo – Dean and Elmore, whose only skills are small time crimes. They decide to call in a supari killer from Mumbai – Osmanbhai, to literally finish off the competition. Osmanbhai’s activities to get a US visa at any cost is a sub plot.

It’s dark humour all the way, and the plot is tight enough to hold your attention, though you do know how it’s all going to end, because the narrative is in flashback mode. The book won’t change your life, but the author manages to capture the existential crises of a Gujarati family in the US well. It’s a breezy, light read, probably just right for a flight.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire

Arundhati Roy 

Arundhati Roy continues right from where she left off (actually she never has) in The Algebra of Infinite Justice. This time, contexts and facts get repeated in essays, and that might put you off, but that should not take away from the messages.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, published in 2004, a couple of years after the other book, consists of 14 articles written between June 2002 and November 2004. The theme of the book is the working of the Empire, not the traditional imperial one built on a smattering of trade and an all powerful military, but the more modern, relatively more subtle one with many simultaneous strategies – ‘neoliberal capitalism’ aided by the IMF, World Bank etc, corporate globalization spearheaded by multinational corporations, and finally a healthy dose of good old state sponsored military might. As Roy writes, add oil and mix. Not to forget the media that makes the entire effort come out smelling of roses. “In this era of crisis reportage, if you don’t have a crisis to call your own, you’re not in the news. And if you’re not in the news, you don’t exist. It’s as though the virtual world constructed in the media has become more real than the real world.”

A lot of the conversation is around Iraq, where the latest version of the above drama is being played out, but in many essays there are historical references of how the US has honed its ‘process’ through various wars it has fought. Creating, funding and then making a huge hue and cry over eliminating armies/heads of state who step out of line. Saddam being the latest. A series of acts that had spawned and now fuels a global threat – terrorism. Two opposing camps feeding off each other. “Al Qaida vs Al Fayda”.

But the story is global, from the police in Kerala displaying the tribals’ bows and arrows as dangerous ammunition to encounter killings from Mumbai to Kashmir to Andhra Pradesh and indiscriminate and illegal uses of POTA to state sponsored terrorism in Gujarat and hunting down Maoists in Jharkand. The story is also of how democracy is just a process of ‘cyclical manipulation” We really have no choice.

It gets scary when she writes how “Modern democracies have been around for long enough\ for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy-the “independent” judiciary, the “free” press, the parliament-and moulding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.”

And somewhere in all this, is the thread of the slow attrition of the concept of justice, especially for the poor and the powerless. “… for most people in the world, peace is war – a daily battle against hunger, thirst, and the violation of their dignity.” The saddest one is about the man in Hasud, a town that was supposed to be ‘relocated’ entirely, courtesy a dam. The man was given a cheque of Rs.25000 as compensation for demolishing his hut. Thrice he went to the town in a bus to cash it. Then his money ran out, and he walked, miles and miles, on his wooden leg. “The bank sent him away and asked him to come after three days.”

Roy has her critics, and she might have many faults, but it is when she brings out such incidents that I feel she is doing justice to the written word and her skill with it. For this reason, do take time to read it.

Ruler of the World (Empire of the Moghul, #3)

Alex Rutherford 

The third in Alex Rutherford’s ‘Empire of the Moghul’, and the one that focuses on the greatest Mughal of them all – Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar. The first Mughal to be born in Hindustan (technically Pakistan now) and crowned emperor at the age of 13 on the death of his father Humayun.

His early years were lived in the shadow of his trusted advisor Bairam Khan, who as time went on, Akbar began to resent. This was probably the first of Akbar’s failed close relationships – a theme that comes out in the book quite clearly. Except for his mother, and his aunt, Akbar’s relationships – be it with his milk mother and brother, sons, wives were cordial at best. His early experiences made it difficult for him to trust people, but that did not deter him from creating an empire that stood the test of time, and gaining the respect and admiration of his subjects. The only exception to this mistrust was Abul Fazl, who though has been shown in a slightly negative light himself, should be thanked for elaborately chronicling the details of everything that happened in Akbar’s life. This assumes greater importance because it was an important period in India’s history, in terms of trade, relations with neighbours, Christian missionaries arriving in India and so on.

Indeed, it was probably due to Abul Fazl that Akbar’s relationship with his eldest son Salim became as strained as it did. The book explores this relationship between father and son quite well. Feuds between brothers had been common in Mughal succession, but in this case, Salim felt his father was blocking him from inheriting what was rightfully his. It was only thanks to his grandmother Hamida – Akbar’s mother – that things were always settled amicably.

Though displaying several vices, Salim is shown to rise above them, many a time thanks to Suleiman Beg, his close friend, but forever feels let down by his father – a mutual feeling. This would probably prove to be a hereditary curse as the end of the book shows a strained relationship between Jahangir (the name Salim adopts) and his son Khusrau.

The book focuses as much on Salim as Akbar himself. In fact, the military, political, administrative and other contributions that Akbar made have been underplayed a bit. Towards the end, Salim’s frustrations and Akbar’s mismanagement of his son cause many more fissures – the Anarkali episode, rebellion etc.

It also captures Akbar as a person – his failings as a father, a hint of megalomania especially when he goes on to start his own faith, his illiteracy, in addition to his sense of justice and fairness, his readiness to work alongside labourers, his love for his grandsons and so on.

I liked this book more than its predecessors, because though it probably doesn’t do justice to the greatness of Akbar as much as I’d have liked it to, (the author does note that he has omitted events and timescales) the narrative is gripping and never falters.

The Collected Stories: Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

For a while now, I’ve been stuck inside my cocoon of Indian writing and travelogues, except for occasional forays. My biggest peeve was that I couldn’t identify with international fiction. And Paul Theroux, with this book, just laughed. :)
The book has 5 parts, the last 2 with an obvious connection, but the remaining stories spans geographies, contexts and webs that humans create with their emotions and relationships. The first three have troubled marriages, stagnant relationships, death, deception, love and separation, set everywhere from Russia to Africa to Asia. Some of them poignant, and some of them seemingly mundane. There’s even a story that seems to be set in the future – Warm Dogs, quite chilling, actually. My favourite from all these sections is ‘Algebra’, a wonderfully simplistic study in human relationships. The characters are people who I could easily identify with, not just because of the ways in which they have been etched, but also the excellent prose that made me ‘feel’ the settings they were in. Places and events are so well described that it’s easy to imagine the foreign locales that one has never seen. There are subtle twists, ones which require you to pay attention – ones that ‘reward’ you for it. :)
The next two sections are based on the postings of a fictional Foreign Service office, first in Ayer Hitam, a boondocks in Malaysia and then in London. The characters overlap in stories, even as new ones are brought to the fore and stories written about them. The Ayer Hitam section felt like a mashup of English August and Malgudi Days, if you can somehow imagine that. :) Over stories, the characters become familiar to you, and it’s almost as though you were there in the offices, the bungalows and houses and at the parties – a fly on the wall.
London, though more ‘civilised’, and full of potential, paled a bit in comparison (for me) to the earlier section. However, the office politics and the constant realignment of relationships (including the narrator’s own) kept me engaged right till the very end. In a way, the first and last stories are about coming full circle.
I like an author’s story collections, because it gives me a feel of the author – the breadth and depth, and I’m immensely happy to have discovered one, whom I feel will be a favourite. Someone who reminded me that in the end, a good story is essentially all about the human condition. The book goes straight into my favourites. :)

Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha

Thích Nhất Hạnh

The story of the Buddha, through a couple of narratives – one that of the cowherd turned monk Svasti, and the other, probably that of Buddha himself, which moves back and forth to also tell us about Siddhartha’s early life, before and during his enlightenment. The book also lays a lot of stress on the teaching of the Tathagata, while also documenting the political and socio-cultural milieu that existed across the 80 years that the Buddha lived.

The book, drawn from over 24 sources across multiple languages, also has a lot to offer beyond the teachings themselves. The Buddha’s own experiments on attaining enlightenment, based on the prevalent practices, followed by his own thinking that took him beyond them, his relationships with the kings of his time, and the influence of his teachings over them and how they ruled their kingdom, the way that the sangha was politicised even during his own lifetime, how religion slowly crept into the path, though the Buddha stressed that the community was only for supporting those who were trying to attain enlightenment, and how the religion tried to influence the politics of the time. It seems as though things haven’t changed at all in this part of the world.

The simplicity of language while explaining the teachings, is worth a mention here, though quite obviously, it is easier read than done. Despite the changes the world has seen in the centuries that have passed, I could instinctively feel that just as the Buddha had said – enlightenment was within every person, and the teachings can at best serve as a raft – “the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” The next time I see the monks, across the multiple sects, I will wonder how many follow the eight fold path and the 200+ precepts that their spiritual teacher had pointed out. The book paints a picture of a human, who through his own efforts and practice, showed others how to attain enlightenment. Not a doctrine, but a life lived.The last chapter, when Svastti recollects how it all began and understands that the true way to respect the Buddha is to implement his teachings in daily life, is probably the best summary of the book, and the most moving, as well.

Himalaya

Michael Palin, Basil Pao (Photographer) 

Michael Palin’s amazing journey across the whole length of the Himalayas, beginning in Pakistan and ending in what was once known as East Pakistan, and covering on the way India, Nepal, Tibet, a small part of China, and Bhutan. What really comes through is the range of perspectives the author gains and shares with us through the journey itself, but more importantly, through the people he meets.
Isolated tribes beyond Peshawar who would seem to be living in a different era altogether, the dangerous sports they indulge in, probably a minor sport compared to the inherent dangers of their frontier life, the second highest mountain in the world that intimidates by its sheer presence, the first glimpse of a river that spawned a civilisation, the fading yet glorious remnants of Mughal architecture in Lahore, the current power that resides in Rawalpindi, the modern planned fusion architecture in Islamabad and meeting with Imran Khan all give us a peek into what makes Pakistan.
The influence of Tibet and Buddhism in Mcleodganj, a meeting with the pragmatic spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama, the beauty of Dal Lake where an aging houseboat owner tries to keep everything afloat (literally too), a sense of peace that the beauty of the place provides even while being a hotbed of violence, Ladakh, the famous roadsigns (Better Mr.Late than Late Mr.) and Thikse monastery – before he leaves for Nepal.
The chill of being present when a person is abducted by the dreaded Maoists in Nepal, spending time with a man who has scaled Everest twice! (the second time napping on the summit while his team caught up with him), a chopper ride that offers a glimpse of how civilisations have grown, realising the cultural difference in viewing death, on the banks of a river and on to Tibet.
The Everest base camp and hearing the stories of Mallory for the first time, the slow conversion of Lhasa into a state sponsored tourist attraction, while simultaneously encouraging the dominance of Chinese culture. Into China proper – a matrilineal society in Yunnan, with the face being an ex-model who found fame across the globe, Naxi music and a touch of the supernatural in Lijiang, an earthquake prone area which is trying to balance modernity and old ways of life, packaged minorities (with imported faux actors) and a village where you can keep one leg in Burma and one in China.
Nagas comfortably living as Christians. A duo traveling on a train in Digboi – one, the offspring of a sahib and a teaplanter and the other, the granddaughter of the sahib’s sister. A celibate sect devoted to Vishnu with an all male Ramlila cast.
Bhutan and its unique Gross National Happiness index, where a king tries to pace the steps towards modernity in a country which is still in ‘unison with the earth’.
The ship breaking industry at Chittagong that’s on a slow decline, the pragmatic acceptance of bribes, the crowded Dhaka and its secular brand of Islam, a steamer ride towards the Sunderbans and a final adventure as part of filming a sunset.
These are a few of the many instances and places in a book that spans 125 days of travel. Sometimes the author comes across scenarios – places and cultures that have remained unchanged for centuries, even as the world outside moves at a dizzy pace. The diary style of writing gives you a feel of traveling with the author, the photographs helping us visualise the people and the places, and the musings helping us go beyond the actual chronicling. A very good read!

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857

William Dalrymple

Once, during a trip to Delhi, seeing the way history seemed to come ‘alive’ in the old city at various corners, I asked my friend whether anyone had tracked what had happened to the descendants of the Mughals, and how they saw their legacy . In this book, William Dalrymple does shed some light on it, though a sad one. More than the last Mughal emperor, the book belongs to the First War of Indian Independence to which he was unwittingly bound. Bahadur Shah 2 or Bahadur Shah Zafar as we were taught in history classes, born in 1775, whose pen name meant ‘Victory’, and was depicted as the face of the revolution that almost threw out the British. A hapless man who was pulled by a desire to ensure that he did justice to his legacy, when all he wanted to do was write his poetry and live in the company of like-minded souls. A spiritual man who was even considered a sufi saint, and still is, at his grave in Rangoon.

It is now history, but at some point it was the life lived by people like us. 1857 seems like tangible history, an era that can still be felt by its influence, even if minimal. Using records from all kinds of people – common men and chroniclers across Indian and British nationalities, the author creates a vivid portrait of Delhi, before, during, and after the uprising. Characters such as Ghalib sometimes add philosophical layers to this narration, and help us understand the cultural high point that was regained in Zafar’s court. It also shows Zafar as a normal human being of his era – with his own superstitions and insecurities, a subject of court intrigue courtesy his wife Zinat Mahal, his son Mirza Mughaal, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, General Bakht Khan and others, despite being hailed as Padshah, the Lord of the World.

The book also makes a point to showcase the relationship between religious communities before the event, and as the author reinforces many a time, Zafar deserves quite some credit in understanding the fabric that held his city together and maintaining the harmony there. He also points out that the real reason for the uprising was not political, but religious. What started as a fight between Hindu sepoys and the British ended as a fight between a rebel force that was made mostly of Muslim jehadis and British mercenaries made of Sikh, Muslim Punjabi, and Pathans. And it was a war that could have gone wither way.

Late in the book, there is also a mention of a royal survivor – Zafar Sultan, Zafar’s brother’s son, who refused government pension, and made his living with a brick cart. Once, many years later, in his old age, he was abused and beaten up by a businessman. After quietly taking the first few blows, he hit the businessman hard enough to break his nose. He told the court that sixty years earlier, the man’s forefathers would have been his slaves and that he had not forgotten his lineage. Dressed in dirty suits, made to get up and salaam the British (when he used to consider it an insult for anyone to sit in his presence), and verbally abused regularly, Zafar himself was the recipient of several injustices at the hands of the British, who did not even give any consideration for his old age after they ‘captured’ him.

What remains with me, and this is something I went back to, almost every time I picked up the book to continue, is the photo of Zafar, lying with his face to the camera – the face of a broken old man who through his life saw the dominion of his ancestors taken away from him until all he had was his city and an empty title, who had just been made to undergo a trial and many humiliations before it, eyes expressing melancholy, and resigned to his destiny.