Though India achieved political independence in 1947, it missed the liberalization bus of Asian Tigers and had to wait till 1991 to obtain some comparable economic independence. Gurcharan Das captures this economic journey in this autobiographical narrative, through his life and that of people around him. But in that ambitious effort, I found him to be doing more of a personal unbounding than that of India as a whole.
According to Das, the economic timeline of India went through a series of crests and troughs. And after the episode of disasters by ‘British Raj’, Independent India adopted a more inward looking import substituting anti foreign(mostly west) economic strategy. Gandhi distrusted technology, though not businessmen and wanted smaller companies over bigger corporations; Nehru on the other hand distrusted businessmen, not technology, and preferred public firms over private establishments. And they both were in full favour of local make over foreign. But in these efforts for embracing an egalitarian socialist slanted mixed economy, Indian was actually chaining her Industrial revolution to neo-colonialisation by its ill managed bureaucracy- ‘License Raj’. Das is both critical and optimistic in his political scrutiny, he respects our forefather’s wisdom of age, in regards with the events happening around the world. In fact, he compares it with the responses of neighbouring Asian Tigers(Taiwan, Korea, Singapore etc.) after global nationalism tide, and tries to defend the then unique Indian stand, which unlike the rest of East, had Democracy before Capitalism.
Book works both as a memoir and a critical social investigation through variegated business narratives. A greater chunk of the first part is dedicated for exposure of India’s monopolistic public sector which seriously lacked autonomy of working. Industries Act of 1951 made it punishable by law to produce beyond granted capacity, and this over regulation of private enterprises further went into debarring of expansion via Indira’s MRTP of 1969. There was even an entry restriction up to 60 lakhs in Rupees, for certain selected small scale sectors, which did the ill effect of reducing incentives for technology and competition. These legislations pampered organized labour and discouraged foreign investment, there by effectively shutting down the ancient Indian prosperity tradition of export supplementation. Though unapologetic and critical, Das does acknowledges(with numbers) Second five year plan, Green revolution, White revolution and improvement in Indian savings and investments. And remote efforts for liberalization by Desai, Rajaji and Rajiv-Pitroda are also accounted with romantic reverence. But the ‘wage model’ economic slant, according to Das, was always overshadowed by political appeasements, which never followed the rule of demand and supply.
Balance of Payment crisis of 1991 by short term commercial borrowings of 1985 government, oil crisis, and many other complimenting reasons forced Narasimha Rao’s stop gap government to approach Bretton Woods for financial aid. This is where Das starts to actually breathe in the book, like he was personally strangulated by Fabian socialism and license raj till then. What follows is a celebration of Foreign Investment through statistics in dollars and numbers – reduced bank reserve ratios, reduced inflation, reduced duties, de-materialization of stocks, increased foreign deposit and borrowings and stuff. But these Rao-Manmohan-Verma reforms remained ‘soft’, for ‘ Inspection Raj’ still thrived and public sector bleeding, and lay offs followed the same old pattern. Das connects this Cabinet cripple-ment to ‘Elite to masses’ roots of Indian democracy, which will always has its vested interests in old legacies (Nehruvian-Gandhian socialism here).
The narrative is more gleeful towards the end, where he discusses the recent events through Sen’s take on ‘Identity’ and argumentative traditions. ‘Profit’ is no more a dirty word and ‘poverty’ isn’t divine either. The rise of consuming middle class is changing the mainland and diaspora, yet rising concerns are there in clashes of ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’. Though Author tries well not to be explicit, his right slant dominates his political scrutiny. And a general anxiety is visible on the the Hindutva movement gaining moment, which could bring back ‘License Raj’ under the pretense of so called ‘Nationalism’. At the start of the book, he argues that Brahmins of India love to chant in Sanskrit and rant in English, showing the class bias and theoretical preference over practical studies. Funny enough, it goes well with the later narrative of IT success, which could be and somehow is the flagship product of country. Anyway, he argues that the important change by this liberalization, privatization and globalisation(LPG) was people relying more on individualism than the hope on government to solve their problem.
I was expecting this book to go dense into economy, with real statistics and comparisons. But the read felt a bit blunt in that realm, though it had its appeasing traits. Also, by later portions of the book, in his looking over a whole generation narrative, author was unknowingly painting himself as an Omnipotent outside panel ‘Watcher’ like figure. I found this nonchalant stance, off putting and suggestive of fictitious embellishments, as opposed to the more sincere personal takes I adored at the start. Another uncomforting detail, or absence of detail, was the lack of demographic analysis, for India is very different in parts and any homogeneous analysis without considering the heterogeneity poses threats of absurd results.
This is a soft book on Indian economy that you can sit back and enjoy. And the best part about the conviction of his numbers are the treatment of reality through dreams and lives of people from partition to 21st century. Though Das has done his best to sound catholic, underlying narrative is still an ode to Capitalism.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This often debated and allegedly misattributed quote says a great deal about modern schools of free speech and tolerance. In this collection of essays, Nobel winning Economist Amartya Sen celebrates the long history of argumentative tradition in Indian subcontinent, and its contemporary relevance in often neglected modern cultural discussions.
Paraphrasing Sen himself, a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive; and opening of the book is a research into the mentation of univocal messages of century old epics and history, by broader argumentative wisdom. Independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution, though drawing heavily on what it had learned from institutional experiences in Europe and America, a great deal was drawn from its own tradition of public arguments and intellectual heterodoxy. Which according to Sen has kept democracy and coexistence of different political ideologies in check, unlike many other countries where democracy has intermittently made cameo appearances. The essay narrative is not trying to impart some sort of uniqueness in Indian history or to side-line democracy as a Western gift, but argues that the it becomes easier to impart and preserve democratic principles where traditions of public discussions exists, West and East alike. Sen then looks back into this tradition in ancient India, from, ‘Buddhist councils’ of Asoka in 3rd century BCE to Akbar’s 14th century ‘pursuit of reason’ and other royal sponsorships for practise of public reasoning. This historical analysis then goes into an unavoidable cliché that every book on India tends to overdo, celebration of subcontinent’s secularism- like how it has been home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zorastrians, Bahas etc, inter cultural art, literature and music, traditions of Bhakti and Sufi, yada yada yada (no disrespect intended, just casual irritation out of repetition). But interestingly, Sen’s defence for this tolerance of diversity were ancient historical arguments in favour of richness of variation, need for interaction and mutual respect through dialogue.
This epistemological departure from orthodoxy provided a catholicity of approach in cultivation of observational science, allowing an interactive openness to Indian work involving both give and take, Sen argues. Though Indian texts majorly involve elaborate religious expositions, there are protracted defences in agnostic or atheistic writings as well. I absolutely adored and enjoyed author’s take on works by Aryabhatta and others in Astronomy and Mathematics, through writings of Iranian astronomer Alberuni and outsiders of the like, thus acknowledging global interactions as opposed to the extreme nationalistic view of indigenous sufficiency.
To celebrate India’s argumentative tradition it is important to distinguish popular philosophies of Hinduism from the fairly crude unique assertion of ‘Hindutva’, which is currently on political offer. The statistical argument of seeing India as a pre-eminent Hindu country (colonial narrative), according to author is a conceptual confusion, for our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. The Hindutva political propaganda thrives on ‘historical guilt of Muslim conquerors’, by arbitrarily highlighting special chosen anecdotes, often as per convenience, of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, aimed at generating desired anti-Muslim sentiment; and it undermines by far Indian secularism in broad current of social cultural or intellectual history. History of India, like every other part of world, does contain nightmarish elements, but it also involves people of dissimilar convictions coexisting peacefully in creative activities of literature, music, painting, jurisprudence etc. Sen argues, with much conviction, that India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India. He then destroys early BJP government’s ill efforts in rewriting history on NCERT text books and other similar propagandas in creating pseudo history that suites political motives, with well referenced research and scholarship; and compares this exclusive narrowness within the country as cultivated ignorance of a kupamanduka (well-frog).
Amartya Sen illustrates the argumentative tradition in modern day using Gandhi and Tagore, who had a relationship of great respect for each other while sharing completely contradicting viewpoints towards nationalism, education, economy and many more. Tagore called for appraisement of Western civilization in an open minded way, for he never saw India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from Western influence. Author greatly discusses Tagore and ‘sovergnity of reasoning’ in a very delightful manner, and further compliments the same with later discussions on India’s aggregation of heterogeneity, using something this reader least expected- films of Satyajit Ray.
In lines with Said’s ‘Orientalism’, Sen classifies Occident approaches for understanding the Orient, especially India, into three distinct categories – exoticist, magisterial and curatorial. Greater chunk is the romantic narrative of first category, whose major focus is on the wondrous and strange aspects of the country. The ‘magisterial’ approach assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian-hood to its narrative, and wants to view the country as ‘a great scene of British action’. The third category, Sen argues to be relatively free of preconceptions, as it doesn’t rely on the exhibit value (exoticist) nor is weighted down by ruler’s priorities. He illustrates this catholic approach using Alberuni’s ‘Tariq-al-hind’ of early seventh century and the writings of later Chinese travellers, and the more modern works by dedicated scholars like William Jones. Author in fact uses these curatorial works to expose the fallacy of magisterial readings like the ones by James Mill, who wrote voluminous demeaning work without even visiting India for once. Consequences of ‘exotic’ approach are the hallowed position’ mysticism’ and ‘exoticism’ enjoys in Western understanding of India over the traditions in mathematics, science, logic, medicine etc. (specialists in the streams are an obvious exception here). Immediate response of this exotic admiration is the tendency of Indian writers to exaggerate the non-material and arcane aspects (spiritual), often disregarding the more rationalistic and analytic elements (material), thus selectively alienating India from a very substantial part of its past.
Contemporary anthropological obsession is to classify world population into civilizations on religious grounds. Sen, dissects this phenomenon using historical closeness of India and China. Though Buddhism could be attributed as the initiator and catalyst for the ‘balance of trades’, the intercultural interactions in trigonometry, creative arts and linguistics weren’t always religion centric. The research provided in this realm is a fascinating read in history and extends to present day economics.
What follows then is a survey on Indian economics in retrospection with Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Though India has successfully avoided famines and abuse of coercive power in relative comparison, the ‘integrational’ and ‘institutional’ issues of class is a pertaining concern. Though data suggests handicaps in both ‘agency’ and ‘well-being’ in India and its neighbours, they collectively excel West in certain areas of woman participation like female heads of governments. Though no particular effort is being done in the book to explain this, the final concluding remark is a correlation between social achievements and greater voice of woman in that society. Observations are really interesting and contradictory to popular notions, since our general leaning is to connect everything with better access to education. Sen argues that, Fertility rate reduction in certain states like Kerala through consequential efforts of woman agency is often under looked, as we are eager to credit the coercive and brutal measures of China in the field.
The essay that follows (India and the Bomb) discusses geopolitics of India and its relationship between China and Pakistan in relation with existing Nuclear Policy. It is a critique on the asymmetry created by overestimation of persuasive power of the bomb; which crippled India’s massive superiority in conventional forces against Pakistan (as seen during Kargil war) and elevated the role of China as a regional status quo power (US-China joint non-proliferation efforts of 1998).
Much of Sen’s discussions on reasoning as a strong source of hope and confidence, went over my head like an early morning lecture, thanks to the high philosophies by intellectuals whose name I am bound to mispronounce. The undisputed Western dominance of the world today has created a tendency to identify and define other cultures by their contrasts with contemporary Western culture. Common notion is to attribute the origin of values like ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ with West and that of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’ with East. There is often a dialectic of conferring identity by contrast, which though ideally should not, may sometime have a dampening effect on assimilation of values elsewhere than its area of confinement. Sen tries to break this culture specific aspect using historic examples from Asia and Africa. He offers words by Ashoka, Akbar and the likes in defence of India’s judicially guaranteed multiculturalism and constitutional secularism, with role of reasoning. I would like to quote Akbar criticizing Indian sages who preach ‘good deeds’ for favourable after death outcomes- “To me, it seems that in pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practise simply because it is good”. When criticized for embracing the practise of smoking tobacco, as it is a European custom, Akbar ignored it on the ground that “we must not reject a thing that has been adopted by people of the world, merely because we cannot find it in our books; or how shall we progress?”
The final essays are more of an effort to understand the unique nature of ‘Secularism’ in India, with the arguments that are against it. Scepticism about Indian secularism is often argued in lines of non-existence of the same in ‘Hindu’ India, ‘pseudo-secularism’ by Muslim favouritism, absence of homogeneous identity criticism, rather dangerous Muslim sectarianism argument, Anti modernist argument like those who criticized Akbar and prevailing ‘Hindu country’ narrative. Sen compares the Indian status quo with those of its neighbours in terms of constitutional laws to counter argue these rhetorics, thereby illustrating the dangers of each. To explain the argument of secularism being a folly of modernism, he takes readers through the connection between calendars and culture, for functioning and utilization of calendars involve cultural sophistication and urbanity. Indian subcontinent can boast co-existence of at least six calendars in systematic use as per Whitaker Almanak; and all of them suggests distinct elements of basic structure, interconnections and constancies suggesting the existence of definitive identity despite heterodoxy. The concluding remarks in this book celebrates the basic idea of plurality in modern India, and ends with the complex subject of one’s identity, which often calls for ‘homogenization to hegemonize’. Identity is quintessentially a plural concept in India, If I may quote Sen himself, ‘While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either’.
Unlike contemporary books on India, which takes the matter casually, Sen’s writing is a bit high on the scholarly side with passing references and detailed footnotes. And I believe, this research is the fundamental difference between his optimistic take and Naipaul’s pessimistic vision of India, former looking the past for enlightenment and learning, while latter seeing it as a source and excuse for present to blame on. Also the essays in this compilation seems to have been formed over different time, occasions and narrative intentions, thus making some core substances slightly repetitive.
I would like to enhance the opening quote of this review with another stolen one as an end note, one undisputed this time, by 19th century Bengali reformist Ram Mohan Roy.
“just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.
Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”
In the forward, Naipaul identifies himself to be of the New World, having been raised in a far more homogeneous Indian community in Trinidad, than the isolated countrymen Gandhi met in South Africa in 1983. He also admits to have been washed clean off many religious attitudes, which according to him, are essential in understanding the civilization. This book is a collection of 8 essays in 3 parts, on his experiences and observations about the mainland, during Internal Emergency*(1975-1977).
With this knowledge at one’s disposal, though rude and harsh from an average Indian perspective, these essays offer good critique on life during Emergency period and Indian democracy in general. In the introductory essay he aligns his first Indian visit with what he had learned about the country from RK Narayan‘s 1949 novel ‘Mr. Sampath‘. His Indian experience becomes less accessible and overwhelming, as he finds everyone politically nonchalant like the titular character of book. He then associates his observation with the repeated conquests of land in past and its tendency to respond by retreating to archaism, which provides no substitute for modernities like like Press, Parliament or Courts. He further effeminates ‘Non-violence’ as a means of securing undisturbed calm and reduces it to an excuse for non-doing, noninterference and social indifference. Also contradictingly, he is somehow unable to appreciate any effort for individual and collective(abolition of privy purses and titles, a female prime minister addressing the nation about living in the present without sweeping away the past) advancement, and write them off as mock aggressiveness and mock desperation. Still, in Naipaul’s denial of Hindu response to the world, in its comedy and irony, this reader found a mysterious reverence towards something he couldn’t comprehend.
In the second essay, he brings our attention to another novel by Narayan– ‘The Vendor of Sweets’. Here I found myself aligning with the author, in his complaint of using elated visions of eternity as cheap escapism from ones duties, a concept highly misrepresented in Hesse‘s ‘Siddhartha’. I was ‘hear,hear’ with his viewpoints, in blind acceptance of suffering as ‘karma’ for what one has done in past lives, though he was using it for emphasizing the elegiac fixation of India in its past. Our newfound romance soon found its grave, when he started hyphenating ‘Karma’ as the classical Hindu retreat, who got nothing to offer, when his world shatters. Still, under the light of then deified poverty with Gandhian-ism, it wasn’t difficult to agree with existence and acceptance of antique violence and caste system, justified by the twisted philosophy of past life redemption.
The third essay – ‘The Skycrapers and the Chawls’, is Naipaul‘s ‘Maximum City’. His experiences in Bombay had made him render the city in an image of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but with a crowd that never truly dispersed. Unable to understand the prevailing street culture, he then goes back to the mistake of relating individual Identity with set of beliefs, and concludes that people are burdened with a nationalism, which, after years of subjection, badly demanded an Idea of India. This underlying narrative prevailed in the essay that followed where his definition of Naxalism is an intellectual tragedy of middle class, incapable of generating ideas of its own, borrowing someone else’s idea of revolution. His next essay, ‘A Defect of Vision’ tries to define Gandhian philosophy as a negative way of perceiving the external world. Naipaul argues Gandhi’s experiments and discoveries and vows as means for answering his own needs as a Hindu, for defining ‘the self’ in the midst of hostility, and not of universal application. He then puts forward an amazing review for U.R. Anantamurti’s novel, ‘Samskara’ to substantiate this fierce inward concentration of ‘hindu nationalism’. Gist of both could be better summed up in Sudhir Karkar’s words – “We Indians use the outside reality to preserve the continuity of the self amidst an ever changing flux of outer events and things”. I wish I could prove Naipaul wrong after what is almost half a century, but Indian Politics still remain narrow, and based on caste and religion as he accuses it to be, back then.
Remaining portions of book are more or less variegated accounts of Emergency Period, from freedom of Press to Poverty, with the underlying idea of ‘modernity’ or ‘Indian-ness’ being a facade. But he offered a brilliant perspective on Indian political programme being clamour and religious excitation. Gandhian-ism in modern day is reduced to Mahatmahood: religious ecstasy and self-display, and escape from constructive thought and political burdens. Like a solace for conquered people, alienated by the state, he argues. I thoroughly enjoyed his well researched last essay, where he criticized Bhave for overdoing everything and making Gandhi a figure like ‘Merlin’. Yet, by the end of the day, to Naipaul, India is without an ideology, locked in by fantasies of Ramraj(Rule of Ram: an Indian utopia), spirituality and return to village, where everyone is paralyzed with obedience as demanded by ‘dharma’.
The communal accord of history moves along the lines of identifying India primarily by her religious identities, and is uprooted on the colonial assumption of them being fundamentally in conflict. And there are historians who produce voluminous reports in this line, using the century old Colonial pretext of Imperial powers being the anointed benign saving medium. I remember reading an essay associating Naipaul’s acceptance in the New World over Desani, for his West appeasing narrative, and though far fetched, this book inclines me to buy that argument. No matter what he had experienced over the visit, the good, the bad and the ugly of a young nation in its worst period of democratic history, Naipaul was hell bent on finding a way back to his personal clincher – title of the book.
In the first essay, Naipaul mentions about a middle class rich girl he got to meet during a Delhi dinner party, who is married to a foreigner and living abroad. To him, she was in a state of despair and confusion, of having lost her place in the world, not having a caste or a community. And he was amazed by her calmness on return to India during the chaotic Emergency, like its world’s deepest order, where everything is fixed, sanctified and secure. If I may go off the reservation and be a condescending critic as this book was, I found Naipaul jealous of above trait and rather frustrated in his inability to understand the civilization he draws bloodline from, and yet, utterly helpless in being drawn towards it time and again.
This maybe his coping mechanism.
Still, one cannot categorize this book as an archaic critique on antique mindsets, without ignoring the relevance of harsh truths, however little and offending they might be. Especially in our present day ‘triggered’ generation, filled with internal anxieties about food eaten, places of worship, sexual preferences, and intolerance towards everything they can’t agree with. But marginalizing a whole civilization solely on their basis and laxity towards everything otherwise, is where author and this reader part ways.
*Internal Emergency : In India, “the Emergency” refers to a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally had a state of emergency declared across the country. Officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352(1) of the Constitution because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”, the Emergency was in effect from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977.( source:wiki)
White Tiger is what Taxi Driver would have been, If Scorcesse had made that in India. Or is it the Nightcrawler?
India is two countries in one: an India in light, and an India in darkness. The Ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near Ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India – the black river.
I find the overuse of Flowers of Algernon Charlie style narrative, in general, a cheap pretext to escape the nuances of language, and a cheat code to obtain unlimited writers license. The letter format, though justiciable with character’s pesrsona, didn’t work with me either. But it would be huge injustice If I don’t acknowledge how well the two(or many) sides of India was(were) captured, subsiding to the arguement of the country being in multiple timelines at the same time or being the land of contradictions.
The brilliance of Adiga, in my opinion was protagonist’s Ishmael(the concsious gorilla) outsider look on upper middle class from the lowest strata. Munna, comes from a caste of Halwai(sweetmaker), one of the working class laborers, in a village reminiscent of old movies. The inadequacies of wealth, entitlements, gender equality, educational system are well captured in the narrative and could be used to analyze the conditions of rural India. One illustration would be this scene where, for school records part, Munna’s (boy in hindi) name gets changed to ‘Balram’ by the registering official, and how it immediately becomes his official name at home n village, with virtually zero fuss. Or, the plight of school where the teacher is on a gandhian strike withhelding his lectures against non payment of wages, while occasionally compensating his plight by selling off the subcidiced school supplies.
There are three main diseases in the country : typhoid, cholera and election fever. The last one is the worst; it makes people talk and talk about things they have no say in.
The most obvious metaphor for reader would be the Genesis old light and darkness, in the yingyang treatment of characters. It also offers a critique to the democracy, with his letters adressing to the Supreme Leader of China, ocassional mentions of the great socialist and spectre of gandhi through out. Balram climbs up the ladder, slowly, using debatable morale and becomes a self sufficient entrepreneur in the city of Bangalore, from his humble beginnings in his village near Dhanbad. The uneducated Balram seems to have understood the idea of globalization, better than his foreign learned Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam. Another possible metaphor that I noticed was the usage of animal names for characters, like in AnimalFarm, quite serving its purpose too, if read carefully.
In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes : Men with big bellies, and men with small bellies.
And only two destinies : eat or get eaten up.
Adiga’s narrative does a valid take on complexities of class and caste in Indian society, and how narrow an escape from same would be in a village and how easy the escape is in a big city that can offer anonymity. Only western equilent, though highly innacurate, would be Industrial capitalists and labouring poor of 19th centuries from Dickens novels. The darkness and light analogy prevails again in the suburbs of Delhi, Gurgaon which are designed to look and feel more like first world countries, so that the rich will feel home, despite the slum and dirt nearby. Even though my first sentiment was to tag this book as the work of India bashing elite, written for the kind of elite, whose idea and inclined outlook on India is Slumdog Millionaire; the complex analysis this novel can offer on multiple subject baffles me, with the temptation of extending the same at the expense of more words.
Even with all these analysis, the ones that are still in scope and afterthoughts, my feelings about the book remains the same. I didn’t enjoy it.
Text book history of India often and for most people including me, reaches a clincher by the midnight of 15th August 1947, the day of Independence. What followed then after, for more than a half a century is, usually, the privilege of intellectuals who read editorial articles and of quasi historians who are eager to pick a fight on social media under the slightest provocation. It is like those Marvel movie after credit scenes that we all pretend to understand, and then silently google afterwards.
Though my reasons for reading were, availability of a fresh copy in library and unavailability of the books I wanted to rent, this seemingly boring political book, for me, was an emotional and intellectual roller coaster ride, through the gripping history that shaped worlds largest democracy into what it is today. Guha’s approach, though a bit verbose and fat for scholarly, prep purposes; felt more like a follow up to Nehru’s Discovery of India, and in a way, to be imitating the latter’s elegant prose in process. It was an absolute delight to read with the insightful research filled with verbatims, references and conflicting viewpoints, news excerpts from inside and outside the sub-contintent, foreign correspondent views, and notes from International relations. And for the contents, the course of events start from political assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and after effects of partition, India’s very first and World’s largest general election with universal adult franchise to the events till the year 2008. He keeps the linear narrative in check with its socio-cultural-economic impacts inside and outside the country. From Nehru’s decentralized and austere cabinet, who considered Indian Independence as part of a wider Asian insurgence to Indira and centralized nepotism that followed, From patriotic opposition movements of JP to vote and religion based modern nationalism, From the various secessionist movements and foreign prediction of balkanization to the force of unity in diversity, From the displaced disposed underprivileged to the growing ‘body shopped’ upper middle class; Guha takes readers through the mights, ignominies and challenges that rocked World’s largest multi-ethnic democracy.
With India’s sheer monstrosity in size, population and prevailing political ideologies, Its extremely difficult to consolidate the information in a presentable manner, not to mention the much needed escape from the moral bias towards the winning side. And there is always some information that have to be omitted, either by ruling it out as futile to the general course or to slice down the pages. For every event he has tried to get the multi-facets of the issue, from seemingly protagonist to the seemingly antagonist and finally a third person with neutral sentiment, in and outside the country. Guha uses foreign correspondents, political scientists, national and international press who covered the incidents to give the most non biased account possible.
Guha shifts from history to historically informed journalism towards the recent years of Indian history, which is still unfolding; yet, his search to find the first domino that set the contraption of events into motion, prevails the narrative. My feelings while reading, If recorded would give a sine wave with crest and troughs of intersecting pride and shame. India has the worlds most progressive democracy and constitution, and though mostly on paper, it protects and keep the nation in check more or less(more more I must say) within the founding principles. I cannot imagine how our nation would have been built or on what principles, If it was in remote antiquity than the progressive past it actually been framed. Things and leaders seem to be going more backward and internally disturbed as time advances, giving a temporal anomaly in terms of the direction of growth- a term reduced into infrastructures and currency these days. As much as it made me happy and proud while reading through the birth of nation, war victories, scientific progresses, goodwill will with neighbors and world ; It pained me to read through history of Kashmir, Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots and the likes. I had to occasionally put the book down and take time off, and even have some casual talks with friends for obaining a sense of present, and to process the things I used ignore casually. And that is something this reader least expected from a history book.
Author talks about an unsung capacity of Nehru, the very quality I admired every way through my read of Discovery of India – viewing both sides of question, seeing the imperfection of process even while being committed to it. I can undoubtedly verify the same sentiments in Guha’s research, which not only compliments reader’s knowledge but also questions it. And it badly needs to be challenged considering the sources where we obtain the infos from, from photoshoped fb wall posts to comments in youtube, reddit, quora and various news posts.
In a world of demagogues and blind followers too eager to hagiography their leaders in approbation, it is essential to have some predisposition towards actual history. And in this work of majestic proportion, Ramachandra Guha has found the perfect balance between Said’s in famous ‘Orientalism’ and ‘nationalistic bias’ that readers would suspect from authors identity.
Babri Masjid demolition, under whatever justifications, is undoubtedly the single greatest failure of our democracy and secularism. While it spiked communal unrest in India, immediate butterfly effect was visible somewhere else, someplace that shares the same secular values, at Bangladesh.
Nasreen claims to have written this novel over a week of religious unrest, which escalated into demolition of century old temples and violence against minority Hindus, in retaliation to what happenings in India. Like every other riot in the history, religious hatred and violent oppression were inflicted by and towards friends and colleagues who were, dear ones till yesterday. Lajja tells the story of a Hindu family, torn between their love towards lush green motherland they and their ancestors fought Independence for, and the choice of escape to India for the safety of their lives. Protagonist himself isn’t a practicing Hindu, in-fact he is shown as someone who identifies himself more in the company of his muslim friends. But the circumstances, silent State comply on violence, second status in his own country on grounds of an ideology he doesn’t necessarily upheld, gradually contaminate his rational thoughts with anger, frustration and eventual hatred towards muslims, which he almost succumbs to.
Author craft-fully establishes the intricate differences between religion and culture, for one find him or herself comfortable around people from same language and practices than the single ideology of religion, which in-turn paid a great deal in liberation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh in 1971. But secularism in the new found nation was a grey line, or it became one over time, with the declaration of Islam as state religion and rapid islamisization of institutions. Through the thoughts and words of the hero, she subtly addressees the politics of language, how the streets and institutions were renamed, and how the ones that retained their old hindu names were reduced to acronyms.
Nasreen uses the characters as reader’s surrogates for understanding the minority population decline and migration to India, on grounds of secularism. Those who left the country to escape prosecution found their properties acquired by State under the pretext of ‘Enemy Property Act’. She subtly references through human relationships, oppression of weak, nepotism, religious fascism and much more with statistical figures, discussion of which would be rendition with spoilers. It is easy to understand this book getting banned, for her active criticisms against Awami League, BJP, RSS and other communal political coalitions on their vote mongering hate politics, is very visible.
Lajja wasn’t an easy read, all of this, but it offered a great deal about human consciousness and how easily are we blinded by religion. I don’t think she was writing against Islam, but against the usage of religion as a sorry excuse for masking morality, peace and love, all of which every religion essentially stands for.
And the scariest part is, the relevance this book still holds, even after a decade of pogrom, in a world we proudly call modern.
The element of fascination this book can offer depends greatly on the reader and what he or she is looking for; for the writing is mostly scholarly, and devoid of any gimmicks intended to act as incentives.
KN Panicker captures the coastal beauty of present State of Kerala, from her historical and cultural roots. Starting from the geographical location, mythologies associated with Western Ghats and mentions of the land in ithihasas like Mahabharata to the works of ancient Chinese, Arabic, Babylonian texts. This book gives a pretty good account of the diaspora and its cultural interbreeding via international trade and non violent advent of abrahmic religions, as early as their inception. From there on, Panikkar uses these infos as preface for explaining the land’s myth, mythology and traditions that extends to present day. This approach, in my opinion really help readers to understand the present day religious socio-economic state of land better.
As an illustration, I would like to mention book’s take on Kalaripayattu, ancient martial arts form ingenious to the land in origin and practice. It is very rational to have this explained using skirmishes, wars and competitions. But, he links its faculty of postures and style of movements with Kathakali, a complex temple art form that demands extreme discipline of mind and body to perform( to watch also, atleast for me ). He in turn uses Kalari to elucidate Kerala’s oral literature through VadakkanPattukal, ever fascinating warrior stories. And further encores in social system by explaining the practice of same by every communities as opposed to the orthodox martial reservation with Kshatriyas.
What it suffers from, is the modulation losses in translation of nouns, phrases, parables and literature from vernaculars. It felt really weird to read about ‘Krishnagatha‘ or ‘Chavitunatakam‘ or even the melodious ‘Omana Thinkal Kidavo‘ in English. If you are from Kerala or are interested in its religions, customs, festivals, oral literature, music and theater; this book acts as a wonderful introduction.
Paraphrasing Panikkar himself, to those who entertain a nostalgic love for bygone folk culture, amidst rapid urbanization, India can offer a long and continuous living tradition with a sense of balance between down to earth materialism and high spiritualism. And this book, even in its text-book-y narratives, does a good job in capturing the South Western strip of the peninsula in all its might.