Books

India In Slow Motion

 Mark Tully, Gillian Wright

A book written a decade back, and yet, it is still relevant because as the cliche goes ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. India has changed in many ways, and yet remains the same in many other ways, and that’s exactly the theme of this book too. Mark Tully and Gillian Wright have tried to study the various forces that keep India ticking at its unique speed – forces that accelerate and forces that pull it back. Through 10 unique scenarios they have attempted to not just unravel the fundamentals, but even taken a shot at the nuances that define the ‘Indian experience’.

The book begins on a day that has left an indelible mark on modern India’s psyche and society – 6th December 1992 – the Babri Masjid demolition. The first chapter is about the rise of Hindutva, the role of the BJP, VHP, RSS etc and perspectives of the common people who reside in Ayodhya and the nuances in their approach to religion and gods. The second chapter shifts the premise to carpet making, child labour, and the machinations of organisations, including NGOs to achieve the moral high ground even at the cost of truth.

The next chapter brings in to focus another key episode in India’s recent political timeline – the Tehelka tapes against the BJP government, and perspectives right from the horse’ mouth – the man who actually carried out the sting operation. From there, the scene shifts to Goa. I enjoyed this as it gave me a lot of information about Goa’s history especially in the context of its religion – its origins and influence on society. Chapter 5 is about the revamping of Hyderabad as per Chandrababu Naidu’s plan, and while the author does cite him in the conclusion for his focus on governance, on hindsight, the politics didn’t really work out. This is a stark look at how the bureaucracy can really play spoilsport.

Sufism is always an interesting subject and this chapter takes a look at the Tablighis, Hazrat Nizamuddin and old Delhi and the wise insights of Maulana Wahiduddin. Another favourite this one was. The next chapter is about a chronic problem in recent times – farmer suicides. The authors do a good job of studying the problem from various angles and citing the good work done by a few people in Karnataka.

‘A Tale of Two Brothers’ would have to be my favourite – featuring VP Singh and his relatively less famous brother Sant Bux Singh. This one also has a personal connection with the authors as the latter was a friend. This is as much a story of politics as it is about human relationships, and covers a larger timeframe in terms of narrative. Gujarat – Saurashtra specifically – is the scene for the next chapter and deals with water scarcity and the efforts made by ingenious local minds and the mostly non-efforts by the government.
What story of India can be complete without Kashmir? This is another excellent job done in giving a full array of perspectives from various concerned parties (excluding the militants of course) and providing great insight on why Kashmir is in its current state.
In their conclusion, the authors have suggested solutions too, but it’s probably in India’s nature to solve its problems in its own unique way! A great read because of the relatively objective view that is not prescriptive or condemning but mostly empathetic.

India in Slow Motion

Urban Shots : Bright Lights

Paritosh Uttam

29 stories by 21 authors, held together by the premise of urban India. Each story is only about 4-5 pages long, so the chances of boredom are fairly slim. But most of the stories do revisit well trodden paths, and do not really offer a refreshing take. The twists are fairly predictable except in a couple of cases. It really could’ve done with better editing – not just in terms of basic grammar and punctuation but also with the ordering and flow of stories.

My favourites were ‘The Bengal Tigress’ by Malathi Jaikumar, (for the tender nuances) Saurbh Katiyal’s ‘The Wall’ (mostly because of a setting I could relate to) Paisley Printed Memories by Sneh Thakur (for the superbly poignant portrayal of a terrible human affliction) and ‘Heaven and Hell’ by Shachi Kaul for its empathy and Rashmi Sahi’s ‘The Raincoat’ for a well written, meaningful tale.

Some stories attempted humour, others were more sober, some were poignant, and many were interesting, and all were indeed interesting to some degree. But what I hoped for and did not find were slices of life that would narrate the human condition that connects all of us. Dissing Chetan Bhagat’s brand of ‘Rs.95 + hint of love in the title’ does not count! :)

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The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer

One of my favourite authors writing about a human being who has intrigued me from the time I read Siddhartha. It didn’t disappoint at all!

What is it like to live, practice, preach a faith while facing oppression from one of the most powerful countries in the world? Even as Tibet becomes more of a Chinese province day by day – the Potala Palace is treated as just another tourist attraction and the streets of Lhasa are filled with entertainment and shopping options – and several Tibetans question the wisdom of his approach, he is respected across the globe as a spiritual leader for the universal truths he espouses.

And yet, he underplays the role of religion, and stresses his own humanity while creating a future for Tibetans that is less dependent on him. He has brought Tibet to the world – a culture that was as hidden as a treasure and also gave the world a brand of Buddhism that is universal in appeal. Pico puts Tibet well in the context of a world that has moved from too little info about itself to too much in a few years.

Pico also writes well about how even with all the respect, people probably see his images and messages through the ‘keyhole of their own priorities’. He once mentions an instance when the Dalai Lama cried- he was asked ‘what is the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to attain enlightenment’.

While much of the book deals with His Holiness’ thoughts and perspectives, there are also mentions of his family, his early days including the time he was forced to flee from Tibet, and quite a few pages devoted to Dharmasala. Dharamsala – where foreigners come seeking wisdom, antiquity and mysticism from every Tibetan they see, and some Tibetans play the part to understand and probably even reach the lands of ‘abundance and freedom’. Pico Iyer writes about the confusion faced by young Tibetans – on whether to stay on in Dharmasala or go back to Tibet to either change or be changed. Dharmasala – also the place to which Tibetans flock, braving persecution by the Chinese, just for a glimpse of their leader and their belief that at some point in time, he will solve their problems.
In addition to all of this, the wonderful quotes, the additional sources of information on the subject, and various perspectives all offer us some thoughts on ‘joyful participation in a world of sorrows’.

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Overwinter

Ratika Kapur

‘Mature’ is probably the first word I’d associate with the book. True, it does fall under the general existential angst category, but I felt that it does go beyond the stereotype – in the characters, the way they are handled, and the way situations flow. The story spans only a few months, though the narrative does go back in time to provide contexts and many events unfolding in the story do have a connection with the past.

I felt that the only truly complex person in the book was Ketaki, the protagonist. I could pretty much relate to everyone else very easily, but her way of dealing with situations and people was the little unpredictability that made the book ‘different’. ‘Overwinter’ means spending winter or waiting for it to pass, and that is pretty much what Ketaki seems to be doing. The novel starts with a rather dysfunctional scene involving her and her uncle, but that’s not really a good indication of the story.

Ratika Kapur shows tremendous skill in narrating day to day events (a trip from Delhi to Gurgaon, for instance) such that they completely step out of the mundane. This is also true of her excellent descriptions of human emotions. There is a sense of reality in the book – for instance, the conversations around the Nano or T20 cricket or Nadal vs Tsonga – that happens between characters. It’s as though I stepped into a living room and happened to hear these conversations.

The other word I’d associate with the book is ‘intelligent’. The prose is assured, the narrative measured, and though you may not get a sense of closure that books often give you, this is a wonderful read.

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The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

Paul Theroux 

Whenever I take a vacation, I arrive as a tourist and like to think that I leave at least partly converted into a traveler. I am forever envious of travelers, many of whose journeys serve as a purpose in itself. This book is an excellent little guide to what the author mentions in the preface – paraphrasing the Buddha – “You cannot travel the path before you become the path itself”, and how travel is also a way of living, and thinking.

In addition to excerpts from various works by different travel writers and adventurers, classified by unique and amazing themes from Railways, time spent in travel to Murphy’s laws, to imaginary journeys, how places are different from what they sound like and so on, the book is peppered with Travel Wisdom from various authors.

There are gems hidden in the pages – little quotes that somehow tell you that the spirit within each wanderer is essentially the same. The description of places and times by masters are splendid enough to transport you to locales across to world from Alaska to Africa and Russia to South America….And it’s not just the places, but the people who live there, the way they think, and one can sense the cord that invisibly connects humanity.

In 275 pages, the author manages to indeed provide a Tao of Travel across time and space. Must read.

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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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