The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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 ying yang 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 Animal Farm, 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.

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India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

indiaaftergandhiText 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.

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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.

2013_Little_India_Riots,_SingaporeGuha 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.

bollywood-boom_759Author 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.

Lajja by Taslima Nasreen

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.

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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.

79578631-they-can-destroy-babri-masjid..-but-they-cant-destroy-our-imaanAuthor 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.

Folklore of Kerala by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

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 Vadakkan Pattukal, 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.

Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A.K. Ramanujan

In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Ram is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39).

ramanujan-ramRamayana and Mahabharata are easily identified as the two great Indian epics, though the word “epic” is a weak translation for ‘ithihasa’, popular Sanskrit narrative genre they belong to. In this well researched scholarly article, AK Ramanujan takes readers through the influence of Ramayana in particular, on Indian diaspora and the various tellings of the same basic story structure in South East, Peninsular and Central Asia over past twenty five hundred years.

Author starts by efforts to de-orientalize readers, by differentiating ‘katha’ and ‘kavya’, using ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘sentence’ and ‘speech act’, and finally explains the subtle yet important differences between Ramakatha(Story of Ram) and Ramayana. He uses Ahalya story excerpt from Valmiki Ramyana and Kampan’s Iramavataram to hyphenates the variations in narratives, the increasing God character of Ram in the later, which accordingly was written with knowledge of pre-telling, arguably of the former. Ramanujan carefully compares Thai, Malaysian and South East Asian tellings of Ramayana on the basis of linguistic studies and geopolitical routes over which the ithihasa reached orally, and the culture it got assimilated into. Not to mention the exponential number of variants hosted by Indian vernacular languages in classical and folk traditions.

ravana-3It was fascinating to learn about the Jain traditional tellings which consider Ravana as a noble Shaivite king who met his end by falling for material desires, instead of the classical text book villain figure we are used to (a good place to refer Asura book). There are even traditions where Lakshmana and Ravana are considered as ‘yin-yang’ stye ‘good-evil’ force pair destined to fight time and again, and in this version Lord Ram is venerated as the righteous elevated soul abstaint to violence, which is very understandable once read alongside Jain ideologies. It doesn’t end there, author moves through separate narratives where Sita is Ravana’s daughter, Hanuman is depicted as a ladies man, versions where Vanaras are celstial beings than monkeys, Dashamukha tradition that doesn’t literally considers Ravana’s notorious ten heads and even the variation where Hanuman is credited as the writer of Ramayana who scattered it across the world from Himalayan mountain tops, of which Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment.

Ramanujan calls for a Ship of Theseus style philosophy and open mindedness to rejoice the similarities, and cherish the differences. He ends the essay with a funny folktale about the power of Ramayana, where the listener is entranced and caught up in the action, who is compelled to enter the world of the epic rather than being a mere by stander, thus erasing the line between fiction and reality.

Few years before, this essay was a hot topic of controversy, over ABVP objecting its inclusion in Delhi University syllabus, under the argument that there is/was only one version of Ramayana. Though Supreme Court ruled out the radical’s arguments, University decided not to include them in syllabus over obvious reactionary discords.

Unlike the Abrahmic faiths, Hinduism has always been a highly decentralized religion, like sages say, Hinduism is different for everybody. While West has Jerusalem or Mecca for pilgrimage, East relish in multiple holy sites; When Semitic religions depend on a single religious founder, Hinduism seem to be little interested in historisizing their religion, not until recently; and while West tend to base their theology on single religious text, East has got multiple religious texts to base it from. All these vast differences had always caused huge discrepancies for Said’s Orientalists in understanding the culture and religion of West.

There is a Vedic philosophy which roughly goes like this – ‘You are limiting God by giving him/her/it human attributes’. My personal view is that, (I could definitely be wrong over educated arguments) In efforts to semitize the religion, like Orientalists, radical nationalists are confining Hinduism to Abrahmic religion lines, than the way of life, which it has always been over centuries; not just for people who identify as Hindus, but for people of different faith and ethnicity over the Peninsular region.

 

 

Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

discoveryofindiaNever thought I would say these, but I wish I had read this book sooner, atleast for the beauty of Nehru’s writing, if not for the history and this by far is one of the best book I have ever read. It is astounding how someone be this catholic in his views, scholastic about the world, stylist of the English prose, and still remain a politician.

Nehru’s main intention behind writing this book was to rekindle the lost nationalism among people of India, which was then divided into British Raj and nearly 556 Princely States. I found it quite extra ordinary of him, trying to evoke that feeling, without the strands of hegemony or aristocracy, which could have easily been established from India’s celebrated past; in fact he was more interested and invested in acknowledging India’a pluralistic society and the heritage of it’s neighbors which she influenced and learned from over centuries. What adds colour to this is the fact that he wrote this book while serving jail time at Ahmednagar Fort, without any notes, in a state of being emotionally torn off, by his wife’s recent death. Unlike average contemporary accords, Nehru’s discussions are not limited to the mainland India or peninsular region alone; commendable share is given to the history, art and cultural exchanges with Middle East, Central Asia and the South East Asia, on which the Indian diaspora extended it’s influence over. He was keen in accepting the cosmopolitan nature of Indian society against modern communal arguments, which assimilated even it’s enemies, irrespective or religion or ethnicity, the fuzzy nature of which, organized West had huge trouble in understanding.

ahmednagarfort.jpgThis might have moulded his foreign policy, though economically debatable, that was based on mutual respect and peace, and equal growth opportunity for all nation States; all of which helped India achieve a benign undertone to it’s growth globally. There were downsides as well, like the failure in foreseeing a threat from the divine land -China, whom he counted as an everlasting ally (India China bhai bhai- India China brothers), based on the glorious past of both countries; or the matter of linguistic based division of state. Anyhow, there was one major element that this book has been missing, for which I was more than glad about – Orientalism.

“The day today religion of orthodox Hindu is more concerned with what to eat and what not to eat, who to eat with and from whom to keep away, than with spiritual values. The rules and regulations of kitchen dominate his social life.”

Pandit Nehru wrote this is in 1942, before Independence, and with the recent ‘beef’ fiascos, I say, we are not so far away from colonial mindset. He never, consciously or unconsciously, let the mega narrative of India create an asymmetry in relations with her near neighbors, which could lead them into suspecting predominance in every call for co-operation, even from reader sides. He kept great admiration towards other Asian civilizations and envisaged that international co-operation has to be between equals and comrades, which obviously meant equal growth opportunities, mutual respect between strong neighborhoods; a policy India still holds dear to, however debatable it is. His world view wasn’t limited to the East alone, he constantly looked towards America and Russia, and seemed to be genuinely troubled by the developments in Europe and Africa; and to his Independence of India was paramount not only for her people, but for the rest of the world under Imperialism and development of humanity as a whole. He displayed class even during criticizing someone, which often went like a very honest effort to understand their complex stand, which included an acknowledgement for all the things he admired about them as well.

Discovery of India, starts and ends in Ahmednagar Fort prison, with Nehru reminiscing the pleasant memories of his election campaign across the length and breadth of undivided India, often with marvel on it’s incredibly diverse culture and perseverance. He then tries to define mainland India from the far ancient period, from Indus Valley civilization, with the limited information unearthed then. Then follows Hinduism, Vedas, Buddhism, Jainism and their philosophy, concept of monism against the monotheistic and polytheistic outlook Indian religions now associate with. The narrative moves through the political history of India, from Mauryas, Gupta dynasty to Delhi Sultanate and Mughals and eventually to the British, and the often neglected South is given due credit for its empires and colonies in South East Asia. The most fascinating part is, having the chance to read this book now, with clear accords of Nehru and his India at our disposal, and India further ahead,  and I must say, he adhered to his ideas without pretexts, and even by modern standards his outlook was very progressive.

My lousy reading is non professional to such extends that the only historical quote I remember of, is by Captain America(probably not originally by him even) – Those who ignore the past are bound to repeat the same mistakes in future. The point is, this seemingly political history book, had me(the local yokel here) baffled, with amusement and admiration, towards it’s concise and polished prose, excellent research and humility in presentation.

I don’t see a reason why anyone should keep them aloof this book because of issues with Nehru as a political figure or ideologies of Congress, for Discovery of India is essentially and solely about India and her history and geopolitics, transcending from ancient times to far near future in common era. And there is something youth of India can learn and mature about here, to take pride in one’s history,culture and religion without being a dick to other’s.

“It was in India’s ways in past to welcome and absorb other cultures. That is much more necessary today, for we march to the one world of tomorrow where national cultures will be intermingled with the international culture of human race. We shall therefore seek wisdom and friendship and comradeship wherever we can find them and co-operate with others in common tasks, but we are no suppliants for other’s favours and patronage. Thus we shall remain true Indians and Asiatics, and become at the same time good internationalists and world citizens.”