Friday, October 11, 2019

Trees are from Eden

Liberalization of morality notwithstanding, the heroism of surrender and sacrifice is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

With the characters sticking on our minds and the songs staying in our hearts, Bollywood has turned repetitive scripts into a sub-culture of obsessive cinema from which there has been little escape. More by design than default, songs convey what the script cannot, in reflecting the overt and covert anxieties and aspirations of both the characters and the viewers. The combined effect of these two parallel strands created the cinematic possibilities of carrying forward the moral overtone of post-independence reconstruction of the society on the Gandhian principles of simplicity and celibacy. 

In his frame by frame decadal analysis of most popular films, Sanjay Suri sets out to establish that the dominant idiom of the films gets reinforced through moral obligations of the hero, reflected in his retreat from wealth and desire. In this intriguing analysis, cinema emerges as the creative paradox that triggers desire in the guise of austerity.    

A Gandhian Affair is as much exhilarating as entertaining in revealing a contrived method of film-making that cinematically projects the cultural necessity of rejecting desire. As viewers continue to identify with it, storytellers churn out much of the same stuff again and again. With slight deviation, however, desire in song and surrender in script makes our cinema stand out in its texture. Suri’s contention is that it couldn’t have been any other way, and there are any number of examples – from Mother India to Naya Daur and from Ram aur Shyam to Lage Raho Munna Bhai – to show how cinema defined its boundaries for and in a conservative society. 

Yet, the linear juxtaposition is not without its share of ambiguity! While the heroine resting her head in the lap of a man she was close to had outraged audiences to seek change in the ending of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, the most sexual song Aaj sajan mohe and laga re, janam safal ho jaye (Take my body to yours, my life will be fulfilled) was curiously accepted by both viewers and listeners. 

The glaring disconnect between prose and poetry provides a discordant note on the art of film making. That songs are a departure from the scripted values on which the film rests draws attention to the inherent contradictions in the society. Only cinema give audiences an opportunity to unleash suppressed sexuality through songs that it identifies with, and lives on. Suri asserts that while the hero’s conduct has been largely Gandhian, sex has continued to dominate cinema in a curious hide-and-seek game. The question remains whether or not the portrayal of sex should be taken as a cinematic reflection of battle to gain inner control over human desire? 

Much has changed in the millennium decades though, but Gandhi has not yet been totally unsighted. Unless all of India becomes at least middle class, argues Suri, an idea of Gandhi will continue to resonate in the mainstream cinema. Liberalization of morality notwithstanding, the heroism of surrender and sacrifice is unlikely to fade anytime soon.  

Bollywood has attracted serious writings in recent years. Sanjay Suri makes a significant addition to growing literature on the subject by helping us understand cinema the way it may not have been viewed. A Gandhian Affair with cinema is engaging and entertaining. 

A Gandhian Affair
by Sanjay Suri
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 247, Price: Rs 499.

First published in weekly Outlook, week ending Oct 21, 2019.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The surrender of intelligence

While there is no denying that algorithms have eased life by managing the information explosion, that it does so at the cost of reducing rich diversity into a world of niches has often gone unnoticed? 

Google does what confidantes used to, lending advice for resolving personal and professional matters. Seeking out friends for addressing life’s travesties are seemingly passé as algorithms powered machine intelligence offers a staggering number of options. Think of a question, and Google has an answer. Smart gadgets have eased life by conducting mundane tasks of picking the best on offer, be it a piece of clothing or a restaurant of choice, and have thus made a vast majority believe that algorithms are all set to turn the tables on human intelligence, and run every aspect of our lives henceforth. 

The jury is still out on whether machine intelligence will make the cut in mimicking human brain. While there is no denying that algorithms have eased life by managing the information explosion, that it does so at the cost of reducing rich diversity into a world of niches has often gone unnoticed? What it does with a vast array of large data-sets and how it manipulates the same to generate preferences smacks of dystopian possibilities! Not without reasons issues related to data security and the privacy of citizens are proving contentious. Machine-driven artificial intelligence has its share of both intended and unintended consequences, warns Kartik Hosanagar. Drawing upon his experience of designing algorithms, the Wharton Professor brings on the table the potential risks of being blindfold to the ramifications of algorithmic decision making. 

By design, algorithm is a simple step by step method of resolving any problem by acting on available data-sets to draw recommendations on our behalf. As the users interact with algorithmic suggestions, the next generation of data is generated for it to work on, and so on. In the process, biases creep into algorithmic systems that intentionally narrows down the list of available choices leading to unintended consequence of creating digital echo chambers that have the potential to influence or control human behavior. Should algorithms be limited to serving our desires or allowed to stake control on human behavior?  

A Human Guide to Machine Intelligence weighs opportunities and challenges posed by modern algorithms to give the reader a nuanced understanding on how far it can go to serve us. There are safety-critical areas like health care and entertainment where machine intelligence does have a role to play, in behavior-centric domains like recruitment and therapies machine intelligence has the potential to go rogue. The case of Microsoft’s chatbot 'Tay' turning sexist and racist on the social media is a case in point, and so are the episodes of much-hyped self-driving cars meeting their fatal crash. Despite all this, machine intelligence is here to stay with its promises and pitfalls. ‘To discard them now would be like Stone Age humans deciding to reject the use of fire because it can be tricky to control.’  

As algorithms are fast transiting from their decision support role to becoming autonomous decision makers, the question of human’s leaving life entirely in the hands of a computer has refueled man-machine debate. Though an anathema to our craving for control, there are many significant instances where we have let the machine control our life. Auto pilots have been in existence for long, and so are button-controlled elevators. Research has shown that more than control, it is the trust in algorithms that is central to its acceptance. Since algorithms are seen as robotic and emotionless, the challenge before researchers is to develop trust-inducing interfaces for mistrust, hostility, and fear to melt away.  

Backed by latest developments on the subject, Hosanagar argues that transparency is the major factor in fostering trust in algorithms. Unless the tangled vines of transparency and trust are unfurled, people will continue to view machines for their limited ability to mimic our patterns of thoughts and conclusions. It is for this reason the electronic voting machines have yet to increase public confidence in the sanctity of the ballot. Electronic voting system is perfect example to lay bare the challenge of harnessing the power of transparency to induce greater trust in algorithms as more difficult than one might assume. The world is yet far from a robust, tested protocol for algorithmic transparency, which remains the biggest stumbling block on its progress. 

In the post-truth era, algorithms have greater challenge to win trust of its users. The problem, as Hosanagar elaborates, lies in the fact that most of the algorithms are created and managed by for-profit companies who protect it as highly valuable forms of intellectual property. If the companies were to let their algorithm source code known to the public, the chances of the systems being manipulated to serve vested-interests can be endless. If Google were to let its source code be known, internet companies can trick the search engine into ranking their websites higher, without concurrent improvements in their contents/services. Resolving the predictability-resilience paradox is next on the agenda to increase algorithms’ social acceptability. 

Seized of the fact that algorithms are heading towards reaching human-level intelligence in processing data and the scale of their impact touching billions of people, Hosanagar advocates developing a set of rights, responsibilities, and regulations to negotiate the unintended consequences of algorithms, including their failures and the steps required to correct them. Without doubt, such an initiative calls for cooperative efforts between the industry and government watchdogs. Because, the role of algorithms is not to accentuate human biases but to curtail them. It is in this regard, Hosanagar’s proposal for an Algorithmic Bill of Rights is timely at defining the boundaries of a responsible machine intelligence behavior. Because unlike chess, for algorithms the game continues even after checkmate.

A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence
by Kartik Hosnagar
Penguin Portfolio, New Delhi
Extent: 262, Price: Rs 599.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, issue dated September 16, 2019.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It's time to clear the air

Over years, an ecosystem of ignorance and denial has transformed air pollution from a meek cat into an assertive tiger. 

In a country where corruption continues to coexist with progress, indifference to pollution as a fatal fallout of development is bound to remain at the periphery of any meaningful social discourse. Four decades since the enactment of the legislative provision to control and prevent air pollution, and an estimated million people being consumed annually by air pollution, there are not many who yet acknowledge it as a serious scourge in India. And why would they when the government has continued to deny any direct correlation of death exclusively due to air pollution. Over years, an ecosystem of ignorance and denial has transformed air pollution from a meek cat into an assertive tiger. 

Dean Spears confronts this tiger head-on in his socio-anthropological analysis of air pollution as it registers its presence from sprawling urban jungles to degrading rural landscapes to conclude that India’s air pollution is not one problem, but a multi-layered manifestation of governance and market failure. Since air pollution does not respect the rural-urban divide, it poses formidable public policy challenge to fix it. Impact of stubble burning in rural fields on ambient air quality across urban centres has clearly shown that one cannot buy one’s own private escape. It is a collective problem that needs a policy directive on structural reforms to address it.   

It is no denying that air pollution comes from several sources, many of which are non-descript in an informal economy, and keeping a tab on its nature and extent is as challenging as designing incentives to put a cap on it. In the absence of credible data, the book takes the health route to correlate and raise concerns about air pollution. Through carefully curated data, Spears provides evidence on how exposure to air pollution not only results in babies born with low height but shockingly hold a positive correlation with infant mortality rates across the country. Such a piece of statistics points to the grim reality, leaving many wondering if buying homemade filter systems can provide the great escape from worsening air pollution. It should be more than clear therefore that the polluter can hardly keep a safe distance from the impact of pollution, and hence should play a proactive role in nipping the evil in the bud. 

Air, with its long title, provides a nuanced understanding on air pollution and the country’s deep vulnerability to it in future climate change. Since the policymakers have not invested in monitoring pollution and neither have experts developed tools to curb it, the book is directed at those enlightened voters who are concerned about the health of the society. In a country where life expectancy has caught up with rest of the developed world, there is no reason for it to remain home to one-quarter of the world’s neonatal deaths. More than a development challenge, there are clear social and economic reasons to fight air pollution. 

Without doubt, the state has an obligation towards its people. There is no other political choice. If a not-so-free electoral democracy in China can cut down its particle pollution in Beijing as a popular step towards remaining in charge, India has seemingly better democratic credentials to tackle pollution both in urban and rural areas. Spears wonders if the government will pursue a carrot and stick policy of right incentives and punitive punishment to run concurrent in inculcating a responsive behavior among municipal managers and law enforcers. Isn’t it time that a free democracy like India enhance its institutional capacities to serve its vulnerable public? 

It is a handy and easy-to-read book on getting a social science perspective on the political-economy of development (read pollution). It doesn’t tell which boiler can reduce pollution from a coal-based power plant but stays firm that coal is not the energy future for the country. It adds more dangerous particles in the air than any other source. Cutting down on coal as a source of energy offers double-win solution: the co-benefits of reducing air pollution add up to reducing carbon emissions. For a country that is somewhat limited in its resolve and capacity to curb pollution, this is a case that should merit serious attention. The book leaves the reader with a set of open-ended recommendations to deliberate on further.  

Having been living in India for a while, Spears is privy to socio-cultural aspects of both rural and urban life which lends desired credence to his writings. Politics is a difficult way to improve policies, the book asserts, but independent citizens can contribute to democratic accountability by influencing politics. Air pollution is too important an issue not to be tracked by informed citizens to influence the state to act. 

Air: Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice between Policy and Pretence
by Dean Spears
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 258, Price: Rs 250.

First published in Hindustan Times, issue dated Sept 7, 2019.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Beginnings Without End

Early through the novel one learns a rather strange practice of women giving birth while ‘standing like a mare’, priding themselves that nobody other than the midwives witness the child birth.

An award-winning novel raises multiple expectations, not only on its substance and style but on its linguistic strength in connecting reader with the imagined world of possible realities. At the end, what counts are the lingering thoughts the prose leaves the readers to continue grapple with in solitude. Celestial Bodies, first Omani novel to win the coveted Man Booker prize, ticks all the boxes on being imaginative, alluring and irresistible at the same time. First published as Sayyidat al-qamar, the novel by academic Jokha Alharthi traces an Omani family journey over three generations, through the twists and travails in a country that emerged as an oil-rich Gulf state in the 1960s but was the last to abolish slavery in 1970. Carefully crafted on a historical canvas, it prisms lived experience of three sisters as they swim through changing times that opens life in an Omani village to the world. 

For American historian Marilyn Booth, who translated the book and shared the prize, there were surprises throughout. What attracted her to translate Alharthi was the absence of stereotypes in her analysis of gender, race, and social distinction. “Through the different tentacles of people’s lives and loves and losses we come to learn about this society – all its degrees, from the very poorest of the slave families working there to those making money through the advent of a new wealth in Oman and Muscat.” Alharthi weaves individual stories through a distinct but intricate and engaging narrative; while the third-person account deals with the person(s) on whom the chapter is named, the first-person reflections are by only one character, Abdallah – the lone voice in a man’s world who happens to be the husband of the eldest of the three sisters.

Celestial Bodies is set in the Omani village of al-Awafi and follows the stories of three sisters: Mayya, who lay immersed in her sewing machine but marries into a rich family after a heartbreak; Asma, who was at peace with her books and marries for duty; and Khawla, who spent better part of life with her mirror and waited to marry a man who had emigrated to Canada. Undoubtedly fallible but individualistic nonetheless, each has a share in the complicated inter-generational relationships in a domestic drama that connects ‘past’ with ‘future’ through a transitional ‘present’.  It is subtle artistry of the author that allows its characters to retain their individuality, but not without being part of a home that has externalities of influences at work all the time which sheds light on travesties of life in Oman.  

What makes Celestial Bodies distinct is its proclivity for details captured through varied voices and tones about cultural norms, social customs, and entrenched taboos. What comes out clear is that there is a silent quest amongst women to break free from the shackles of traditions, reflecting inner strength and a resolve to play different. Else, Mayya would not have dared to name her daughter ‘London’ despite sustained criticism on naming the little angel for a city in the land of the Christians. There is defying silence in her response to all-pervasive whisper around the issue, using silence as an act of perfection to guard herself. By creating a bubble of silence around her, Mayya found that nothing could cause her any pain. Alharthi allows her characters to evolve on their own, gaining distinct identity and drawing strength from their well thought-out actions. 

Early through the novel one learns a rather strange practice of women giving birth while ‘standing like a mare’, priding themselves that nobody other than the crowding midwives witness the child birth. ‘There is no longer any shame in the world as women have their babies lying flat on their backs, and the men can hear their screams from the other end of the hospital.’ Having herself been born through such a tradition, and cajoled by none other than her own mother about its virtues, Mayya had her baby slide out right into the hands of the Christians in a missionary hospital in Muscat. Symbolic as it may seem, the generational swing towards modernity has its virtues but that do not make life any less turbulent in the long run. Yet, change remains the essential denominator for defying the inherited values in a traditional society.

How change works out across generations is an altogether different subject? Although upholding the banner of ‘change’, Mayya found it hard to reconcile the fact that London was in love.  Why would she lock up her daughter and smash her phone? Having not had his share of love as Mayya remained glued to her sewing machine, Abdallah thought she never knew love and so did not know how to deal with her lovelorn daughter. Popping up as some sort of an interlocutor in Celestial Bodies, Abdallah doesn’t assert any authority but shares his vulnerabilities and accepts lack of control over things shaping around him. One begins to empathize with Abdallah who laments: ‘everything remained in its place even if I had no place.’ There is subtle artistry in Alharthi’s writing that lends a mix of psychology and philosophy to the novel.

Celestial Bodies has multiple beginnings, but no end. It is mosaic of complicated human relationships, where one begins to discover oneself by breaking the cocoon of myths and beliefs. Early in her marriage, Asma discovered that marriage was not the coming together of unmade halves (as she had long perceived) who find their other halves and miraculously become whole. Far from being each other’s halves, each one is a celestial sphere complete unto itself, orbiting only along its already defined path. It is through patience and self-examination that one learns that there is an inherent gain in creating enough space in relationships for each to orbit freely. Asma made peace with her better half after realizing that humans are but celestial bodies with a defined course of its own. Any collision or fusion is an act of temporary disruption, one must adjust into and move on. 

There is some kind of intuitive creativity with which individual characters emerge from their fallible existence to lend strength to the narrative. Alharthi lets them be, an embodiment of strengths, follies and eccentricities of life. Khawla’s long wait was over following the return of Nasir from Canada. Once she was settled in Oman with her husband and two children, she sought divorce from the one she had only waited to share her life with. Celestial Bodies is a multi-generational saga full of surprises, which also tells the story of a country that is evolving out of its past traditions. Alharthi captures multiple situations in presenting a nuanced understanding of the coming-of-age of a society in transition. A doctorate in Classical Arabic Poetry and author of three collections of stories, Alharthi has the makings of a literary giant that readers will only begin to wait for her next. 

Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 243, Price: Rs. 499.

First published in The Book Review, issue dated Sept, 2019

Friday, September 6, 2019

They used the good book

Whether the apex court which upholds constitutional obligations of the state has transformed to become the ‘Supreme Court of Indians’ is still open to interpretation.

In dispensing justice to a mason Moti Ram in 1978, whom the lower court had granted bail against a surety of ten thousand rupees to be realized within the same district, Justice Krishna Iyer had expressed shock at the manner of seeking such high surety from a poor man and reminded the errant magistrate that ‘our Constitution, enacted by ‘We the People of India’ is meant for the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker – shall we add the bonded laborer and the pavement dweller.’ It was a conscious reference to a statement by Justice Vivian Bose in 1956 who, while expressing anguish at procedural delays in getting relief for a petitioner had explicitly stated that the Constitution was not only for the exclusive benefits of the highly placed but as much for the poor and the humble.  

These and many such cases not only project the glory of our Constitution but demonstrate how marginal citizens operating in an informal economy have continued to use the constitutional provisions as an instrument to trigger public debates on state’s obligation towards individual freedom and social justice. Created by an elite consensus, it is interesting how the Constitution and constitutional remedies have been sought by individuals on the margins who take recourse through the Supreme Court to produce an alternative narrative on citizenship. Whether the apex court which upholds constitutional obligations of the state has transformed to become the ‘Supreme Court of Indians’ is still open to interpretation.

In claiming that the constitutional provisions have indeed transformed everyday life in the country, A Peoples’ Constitution argues that for a wide range of groups it acted as a powerful way to check on executive powers in framing and claiming their legitimate rights. The book examines four important cases that set legal precedents: a Parsi journalist’s contestation of new alcohol prohibition laws; Marwari petty traders’ challenge to the system of commodity control; Muslim butchers’ petition against cow protection laws; and sex workers’ plea to protect their right to practice prostitution. What emerges is not a story of simple resistance to state authority but a process of civic engagement with the state to reshape the society and its economy.

Through the study of these landmark cases, Rohit De, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, shows how a claim to cultural autonomy alongside a choice of economic activity had not only generated democratic behavior but contributed to strengthening democracy too. That ordinary citizens have been in the forefront of rational legal battles with the state from the earlier days lay to rest the dominant assumption that judicial activism gained currency only in the 1980s. In effect, the legacy of forward-looking posture by the court had invoked touching faith and confidence among the underprivileged to seek recourse of law for their rights. All said, the Supreme Court is still an elitist institution, not for the faint-hearted without adequate resources.   

De’s insightful analysis leads the reader away from the judgement-driven narrative on ‘who won the case’ to a more nuanced understanding on the contingency and the contestation that make up the process of litigation. The anxieties of the legal process outside the court premises are at times more important than the actual outcome of the case. Despite the sex workers’ minimal success in the courts, the litigation succeeded in challenging the arbitrary powers of a local magistrate to evict any woman from the neighborhood. Similarly, in the prohibition cases expanded police powers came under judicial ire. The afterlife of a court case is critical, not only as a legal precedent for lower courts but also for its impact on executive practices.

Despite such incisive analysis, A Peoples’ Constitution limits itself to a celebratory note and as a consequence omits addressing the structural shortcomings in the system. Although it is the constitutional mandate to keep judiciary separate from the executive, in majority of the states the district magistrates are still drawn from the civil service. The book remains silent on the Supreme Court’s failure to address this malaise, as also on the abysmal state of the lower judiciary. Till both these aspects are tackled upfront, full realization of constitutional provisions will remain a work in progress. With constitutional consciousness growing among citizens, the judicial process needs to be made responsive to the everyday life of its people. 

A Peoples’ Constitution
by Rohit De
Princeton University Press, Princeton
Extent: 296, Price: Rs 435

First published in weekly Outlook, issue for the week ending Sept 16, 2019.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The soul of water

Spiritualism can redeem our dying rivers.

The Ganga’s sacredness doesn’t guarantee its purity, as devotees draw a distinction between material cleanliness and ritual purity. Paradox! Exploiting the very source of life for economic and political gains has reduced our individual and collective relationship with water. With the intrinsic value of water being ignored in its sheer assessment as a resource worthy of appropriation, an uncertain water future threatens humanity like never before. Drawing insights from her passion for understanding water and reflections from her study of religious worldviews, Elizabeth McAnally in Loving Water Across Religions advocates the need to reinvent our relationship with water by developing an integral water ethic. There is much to learn from religious practices in developing an integral approach to understand and preserve water.

Nothing less than cultivating an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with water can help circumvent the global water crises, stresses McAnally. Integrating her personal experiences with practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, she constructs an integral ethic that brings the study of religion into dialogue with natural and social sciences, with an aim at transforming the current objective assessment of water to include the subjective perspectives on this finite resource. “Seeing the physical world as a manifestation of the divine has the potential to lead religions to a more respectful relationship with the world.”

There is inherent value in what is being said, but how to reconcile religions that have already lost out to science? Despite religious practice being laced with compassion, respect and reverence for nature, the material world in contrast is a manifestation of indifference, scorn and contempt towards it.

Seized of the contrasting realities, McAnally argues for the need to integrate knowledge from as many different perspectives to address the complexity and urgency of the impending water crises. The world may have run the whole distance to manage water as objectively as it could; but there is still scope to make a fresh start by imagining it through an integral lens. Loving Water Across Religions is a clarion call for developing a deep love for water by acknowledging that water has interiority, an intrinsic value over and above its instrumental value. It seeks consciousness to realize it, and a conscience undertaking for enhancing relations between humans and water for overcoming our current destructive attitudes. It may be important to pay attention to such a proposition, but the author doesn’t offer empirical evidences to backstop it.

While invoking love and service as a crucial component of an integral water ethic, McAnally observes the state of the revered Yamuna with disdain, as one of India’s most sacred rivers has remained one of the worst polluted. Should the case of Yamuna belittle the significance of listening to water as a source of inspiration?

The challenge is to convert individual love and compassion for water into collective consciousness for preserving our rivers. The author’s hope that by combining individual efforts something much larger can be achieved is already a reality in Punjab. Efforts by Sikh Saint Balbir Singh Seechewal have restored Kali Bein, the 160-km long tributary of river Beas, to its pristine glory. The rivulet has also been cleaned some dozen times in the last two decades.

It remains an isolated case of empathy and compassion, to which McAnally’s philosophical basis can be the replicating catalyst.

Loving Water Across Religions
by Elizabeth McAnally
Orbis Books, New York
Extent: 180, Price: US$ 26.

First published in BusinessLine dated August 12, 2019. A shorter version was  published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReviews on July 23, 2019. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Of goat sacrifice, cow love, and monkey hooliganism

The stories of goat sacrifice, cow love, monkey hooliganism, and bear sex are grounded in the recognition that each needs the other to survive and even thrive.

It is quite unlikely if anybody would value pigeon as a pet, since the ubiquitous bird has already attained the undisputed title of a despised pest. This widespread notion can easily change if one gets to hear about the experiments which are now engaging pigeons to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public - a despised pest being transformed into a veritable messenger. Gathering new data to imagine fresh engagement with the feathered critters may eventually help afresh strained relationship to address complexities of life. Such possibilities are worth exploring for building new sensitivities with fellow species as a means of fostering enhanced response-ability.

Based on extensive ethnographic research in the mountain villages, Radhika Govindrajan explores multiple aspects of interspecies co-existence for assigning new meanings to intimacies with domestic and wild animals. Animal Intimacies captures the recursive play between life and death of six species – goat, dog, cow, pig and bear – which has violence at the heart of inevitable relatedness with the mountain households. The stories of goat sacrifice, cow love, monkey hooliganism, and bear sex are grounded in the recognition that each needs the other to survive and even thrive. Even in the otherness of the species there is a moral and ethical underpinning that defines interspecies care and reciprocity, which extends the narrow domain of such interactions beyond the conventional man-animal conflict.  

Relatedness is the key that holds stories in Animal Intimacies from the perspective of sustaining kinship. Drawing heavily from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, Govindrajan frames interspecies relations as kin‐like, which provides distinctive ways of defining intensity of such relationships in the mountains. Even the queer narrative of bear engaging women in sex is not without a sense of kinship, where they relate to one another by their shared desire of pleasure. Bear becomes the metaphor to critique the denial of legitimacy to female sexuality, as also highlights their social subjectivity and marginality. 

Animal Intimacies provides lively reportage on the everydayness of existence in the mountain villages, where interaction with domesticated cattle and encounters with wild animals constitute a better part of daily existence. Within the knotty nature of multispecies relatedness Govindrajan discovers the common experience of inequality and exploitation that has contributed to a distinct fellowship between humans and animals. Is the shared history of neglect and exclusion the cause for of goat sacrifice, cow love kinship in the mountains? Each story provides insights on how people perceive and relate to different animals, building a unique interspecies social equilibrium. 

However, in recent years two notable externalities - the right-wing political project on cow protection and translocation of monkeys from the plains to the mountains – have disrupted interspecies equilibrium which the local population finds hard to negotiate. The consequent flux of stray cattle and the growing monkey hooliganism have made the potential of participation in the life of the other impermeable. As hordes of people abandon land and migrate in search of better pastures, the everyday form of relatedness has taken a serious beating. It is an incredible loss, both to humans as a body and animals as an agency.

Through stories of interspecies interconnections, based on empathy and love, Govindrajan constructs the fleeting possibility of another world.  She doesn’t render animals as a symbolic foil but as subjects whose agency, intention, and capacity for emotion is critical in shaping the relationships that has the potential to dilute the impact of humans as a geological force. In this period of the Anthropocene, when places for people and other critters are being destroyed, the urgency of making kin with other species was never more compelling. 

The stories in Animal Intimacies lend credence to the notion that despite both animals and humans representing the world differently; it is in creative imagination of their relatedness lies the possibility of creating refuges for the humans and the non humans. Written with style and scholarship, Animal Intricacies provides fresh insights on the variety of human‐non human interactions that has the potential to take the urgency of making kin, with other critters, to an imaginative high. 

An assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Radhika Govindrajan has put together her research into an interesting and immensely readable book. 

Animal Intimacies
by Radhika Govindrajan 
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 327, Price: Rs 599.

First published in the Hindustan Times, dated July 20, 2019

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Bullet with Manasa's Name

Ghosh deploys myth and history to focus on the scary maw of a violated nature and the digitally-aided transfer of people. And we carry on, in denial.

Amitav Ghosh’s anxiety on the subject of climate change had come out clearly in The Great Derangement (2016), wherein his conjecture on our collective inability to fathom lurking dangers of climate change was united with an absence of serious literature on the subject. The world has changed too much, too fast and so profoundly that not much sense can be made of it in non-fiction. Therefore, the conventional cause-effect narrative on the emerging environmental catastrophe rarely engages a large section of the affected and elicits a collective response.

It is only through stories that the universe can speak to us, contends Ghosh, and our failure to listen may invite punishment. It makes sense as we are the only species gifted with the faculty of storytelling that helps us capture the inward mysteries of our existence. Gun Island provides the mythical backdrop that connects the past with the present in Dinanath or Deen’s journey in tracing the footsteps of the gun merchant who had supposedly traversed the world in search of a safe haven to evade the wrath of the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. Deen’s travels from the marshes of the Sundar­bans to the gradually sinking Venice via fire-ravaged California is intermeshed with flights of imagination over dots of reality in building a compulsive story of contemporary relevance.

Plotted over a span of three centuries, from the little ice age to the current phase of global warming, the story remains alive to the unfolding ecological crises. The alarming decline of Irrawa­ddy dolphins in the Sundarbans and the invasion of venomous brown recluse spider in Venice provide evidence of shocking things happening around us. Ghosh brings to life non-human, silent, characters in the story—essentially a heady cocktail of myths, folklore and legends. “The primary literary challenge of our time is to give voice to the non-human”. Gun Island succeeds in integrating the non-human into an abs­orbing, partly thrilling, novel that blurs the lines between the real and the imaginary. Kneading past with present, connecting the human with the non-­human, and coupling myth with rea­lity emerge as its most striking feature, an essential prelude to looking beyond the obvious in making a sense of the pervasive crisis looming over us all.

Resting on the undercurrents of migration, a theme that has engaged the aut­hor since the Ibis trilogy, Gun Island provides astute observations on migration—posited here as function of pove­rty as well as a quest for connectedness. One of the most urgent and fraught themes that our political structures have sought to evade has fueled tales of escape from destitution and persecution. But Ghosh’s essential point is that the theory of deprivation is insufficient to explain the advent of the ‘people-moving industry’—one the world’s biggest and still growing enterprises. More than freak cyclones, smartphones and computers are stoking the desire for connecting with a perceived world of opportunities elsewhere. Does this notion of interconnection, while exp­anding small worlds, not play back on the abandoned rivers and fields?

The exceptionally gifted Ghosh crea­tes an imagery we may not have sensed bef­ore. Rising temperatures and shifting habitats are inextricably linked to our past, things humans have lost control over. It follows that we do not recognise the problems created by our way of life. As every individual is ince­ntivised to imp­rove his/her sta­ndard of living, with states driven by the capitalist model of growth, what will drive us to exit the comfort zone of this ‘new normal’ remains a vexed question.

Gun Island has all that which draws attention to the symptoms of demo­nic possession that the world of today presents. Towards the end of the novel, the glamorous Italian historian lets Deen get a sense of her predicament: “everybody knows what must be done if the world is to continue to be a livable place…and yet we are powerless, even the most powerful among us. We go about our daily business through habit, as though we are in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will; we see shocking and monstrous things happening around us and we avert our eyes; we surrender ourselves willingly to whatever it is that has us in power.”

As public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of widespread denial and overt activism—which is also under surveillance by the military-industrial complex—fiction has the power to knock society free of the shackles of cultural cognition and motivated reasoning. Ghosh argues that there can be no compelling period in human history to recognise the urg­ency for such an engagement.

Gun Island
by Amitav Ghosh 
Penguin RandomHouse, New Delhi
Extent: 286, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in Outlook, issue dated July 10, 2019.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Simple answers to complex problems

Life is about growing up amidst situations with multiple shades of grey leading to a foregone conclusion that life’s template is a work in progress.

What will a book be like if it claims to be as much for the happily married as otherwise; if it is directed to those in love as also to those who aren’t into it yet; and if it will interest those without children as well as those who have plans to rear kids? Essentially a memoir of lived experiences, Immortal for a Moment lets the reader realize that life is all about growing up amidst such determinate situations which are invariably filled with multiple shades of grey leading to a rather foregone conclusion that life’s template is still a work in progress. Each fleeting moment holds new reflections on what life could be like. 

Natasha Badhwar extends her search for a deeper meaning in the daily rigmarole of life, beyond the experience of parenting three daughters in her debut book. She lets her thoughts take a deep dive into the obvious, reflecting on events and happenings that are often taken for granted. There are elements of intrigue in her expressions as she recognizes those inhibitions which are better left aside as useless baggage. Deeply personal but honest nonetheless, the stories of everyday living reflect significant life truths which readers can easily relate to. 

The author seems to suggest, and for good reasons, that nothing should remain unsaid that can help explore many different shades of one’s own life. Come to think of it, nothing is sacrosanct but a life lived equitably and responsibly. Simple realization that marriage can be lonesome will help one avoid it from becoming a pile of resentments. The more you take it as a sport, the more you begin to play it to your capacity. Indifference and disagreements are essential aspects of any marriage; it only begins to work when one gives up on it. 

Natasha’s prose is lucid and reflective, comforting those who lack courage to override entrenched notions and internalized beliefs. These are deceptions and by overcoming them can one access hitherto unexplored parts of oneself. ‘Anyone’s life can be a situational comedy provided one is willing to explore joy in unexpected places’, she argues. Immortal for a Moment is an invitation to preserve every fleeting moment because the more one holds onto them, the more meaningful life becomes. The task is to break the world of silences that we have created around us, allowing these silences to break free in words that explore our strengths while deploring vulnerabilities. 

Collection of columns written over several months, each of some fifty short essays in the book help the reader reclaim parts that one is reluctant to include in life’s narrative. Much of what she writes can help expand possibilities, create new frames of references, and protect social boundaries. One can relate to each of the episode or life experience either as an insider or an outsider, on both accounts it can shake the reader out of slumber.

The response to the self-righteous judgement by an unsuspecting woman who, perhaps distressed by the sight of the author’s three little girls, sought a reconfirmation to her preconceived notion that ‘these three because you wanted a boy’ is worth retelling for clarity and a sense of purpose. How do you deal with those who are lurking around with quick-stick labels for everyone?  The best way, and perhaps the only way, is to shut out ignorant voices by speaking louder than them. The query ‘what was in them that she hated so much’ had shut her up for good. 

Immortal for a Moment holds the message that while we may have sorted our external selves, our inner selves are yet not free from biases and prejudices. The external façade is what hides our true self, and that is how our society is indeed structured. Far from addressing the intricate web of oppression and disparity, we often participate in perpetuating different forms of inequalities. Should we let our lives be betrayed or rebel against what we realize is absurd?

Natasha explores complex issues of everyday existence with the maturity of a serious thinker. It is not difficult to align with her line of thinking that seeks simple answers to complex questions. In her raw and honest writing, the author puts her heart out there. In doing so, the book invokes a Natasha in each one of us because each one has the power to change lives. But to be able to do so, we have to travel into the depths of our own consciousness. It is Natasha’s small world that opens windows of possibilities for unlearning and relearning to change the world around us.       

It is not a self-help book but its words are soothing and comforting nonetheless. After all, hanging on monkey bars of material desire is not what life is all about. 

Immortal for the Moment
by Natasha Badhwar
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 233, Price: Rs 350.

First published in the Hindustan Times, issue dated June 1, 2019,

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Fairies are fake. So what?

The compelling reason for belief in fairies has to do with the Homo sapiens being a storytelling animal, which thinks in stories rather than hard facts.

Not long ago, one day in 2009, the Irish story collector Eddie Lenihan was chided by a woman for broadcasting his beliefs about fairies, and thereby perpetuating stereotypes of the Irish as mystically backward or irrational. Lenihan had responded by pointing at the nearby cathedral and saying that everyone believed in God although no one had ever seen him. Whomsoever one might align with, the fact is that fairies, and their less favored cousins, witches and ghosts have lived through times, with as many claiming to have seen them as believing in their contested existence. Curiously, these entities continue to attract wide attention. That the famed images of ‘Cottingley Fairies’, the fake photographs that shook the world in 1917, could fetch £ 20,000 a century later in 2018 is testimony to their unceasing popularity among general public, in literature and in arts.       

Shot in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, the picture shows a teenage girl looking at the camera as dancing fairies with butterfly wings appear in the foreground. Claiming to have found the winged creatures gamboling near their home, Elsie Wright, 16, and her 9-year old cousin Frances Griffiths could convince the world, including the great rationalist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with indelible proof of the existence of the supernatural beings. Although the fairies in the pictures looked anything but fake, with serious doubts being expressed even then, it took some sixty years before the myth was finally busted. Yet, these images remain so famous and potent that it is hard to imagine them never having existed. 

Fairies is an intriguing inquiry into a subject that is widely considered the stuff of fancy, whimsy, and childhood. After reading several accounts of fairy sightings, Richard Sugg meanders through the fairy narratives in arts, literature, and media to draw fresh perspectives on the cultural meanings of the unceasing fairy-belief. If Sir Doyle created the literary myth named Sherlock Holmes, Elsie and Francis complemented it with their unforgettable icon, the Cottingley Fairies. It may seem a strange coincidence but the desire to be taken in by faith of some kind during a war-ravaged period could have been the innate cultural compulsion.    

But why would such a notion persist in the present times? One would imagine that the technological revolution across the hundred years between 1917 and 2017 would have buried the numinous otherness of the fairies for good. That is not yet the case if Sugg’s entertaining but thoughtful narration on the fairyland and the fairy-faith is anything to go by. Give any child a pair of crayons and ask to draw fairies, winged creatures in different hues will erupt on the drawing sheet. Fairies seem omniscient and omnipresent!   

To think that fairies exist only in English, Scottish, or Irish imagination may not be correct, fairies stories are part of folklore literally across every continent in the world. Every culture has their stories of fairies or nature spirits, from Ireland to China, South Africa to India, and Canada to Australia. Not only stories, designated elf habitats and no-go zones have been part of the folklore. Most cultures believe that they are not actually on our plane of existence, but another plane overlapping ours. Whatever be it, why do fairies stories abound across cultures?

Having authored eight books on weird subjects covering Ghosts, Mummies and Vampires, Sugg sought to explore and bring to surface a subject that is buried deep in the caves of our childhood. It becomes clear that the compelling reason for belief in fairies has to do with the Homo sapiens being a storytelling animal, which thinks in stories rather than hard facts, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains. On top, there is the unwritten rule – if the majority believe in it, it becomes the truth by default.

Should it matter whether or not fairies exist and are real in a world where sensationalized fake news is an accepted reality? Hasn’t the world long believed Kardashians to be real without anybody watching them? A belief in fairies has given a sense of purpose to treating nature in a compassionate manner. Sugg presents the case of emerging genre of fairy ecologists who have helped to counter the predatory behaviour of industrialism and capitalism. The belief in fairies has led many development proponents to accept that cutting an oak tree or demolishing an elf habitat will invite dangerous retribution. The belief in fairies has the power to respiritualize nature, much like what the nature spirits, the Navi, demonstrated in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. If faith in fake can have real impact, let the fake-of-the-fairies prevail. And, why not?  

Fairies: A Dangerous History
by Richard Sugg
Reaktion Books, UK
Extent: 280, Price: £16

Friday, May 10, 2019

Catching the fleeting idea

It is a common perception that unless ideas root and grow, these wither and lose relevance.

Ideas are fleeting in nature, considered by many as a kind of potential energy that dissipates in quick time. It is a common perception that unless ideas root and grow, these wither and lose relevance. Yet these are rarely in short supply, as everybody has ideas! Either pricked by a curious moment or triggered by a news event, ideas erupt in fertile minds without any regard for time and place. Unless ideas are allowed to mature like wine, this fleeting energy does not catch much attention. If this is what ideas may mean then why should a compilation of newspaper columns as a book of ideas catch any attention? In his foreword to India in the Age of Ideas, economist Bibek Debroy sets aside this dilemma by arguing that other than pandering the writer’s ego the idea of packing ‘ideas’ in a book may remain somewhat questionable. So be it!

Written over a decade and more, there are some sixty-six short pieces packaged together to take the reader on a roller-coaster ride through history and culture, urban designs, and economics. Several of the pieces are set in the past and therefore dated, whereas the more recent ones reflect contemporary concerns and hence relevant. While the author claims to have addressed diverse issues from an inter-disciplinary perspective, using a Complex Adaptive System lens, the narrative is a linear response to evolving situations. It couldn’t have been different as the basic premise is rooted in providing quick response to current challenges. 

Many of the issues raised are simple and relatable. Who would not agree that the Indian history must be rewritten by properly revisiting the primary evidence? Isn’t the issue of legitimacy of ruling elite at the core of the current crises in democratic governance?  Can the country afford to discount the role of new middle class as a harbinger of cultural transformation? These and others issues need a nuanced understanding rather than a quick fix. Given his academic and administrative background, however, solutionism remains core concern for Sanjeev Sanyal. 

India in the Age of Ideas misses out on assessing complexities of interactions between human psychology, cultural norms, and social behaviour in addressing contemporary social, economic, cultural, and political challenges the society is currently grappling with. While the author holds up a mirror to the historical contradictions, cognitive dissonances, and governance deficit, how must collusion course between them be resolved has remained largely unaddressed? 

Although there is a limit to which meanings can be layered into newspaper columns, many pieces written over the years are reflective and engaging. In an easy to read style, Sanyal shares some of his off-the-cup concerns. While agreeing with the author on the need for relocating the Independence Day celebrations across different parts of the country, I may suggest similar attention to other events of national importance. Similarly, there is merit in author’s laying emphasis on debates based on evidence than on ideologies and personalities. 

By deliberately avoiding an updation of the articles, Sanyal has not only taken the readers for granted but has weakened his own arguments at several places. The author’s assertion that quick response to a situation is more important than a meticulous plan seems preposterous. And for a book of ideas, inclusion of such unsubstantiated ideas is surely not a good idea. There are quite a few repetitions and contradictions that have gone unnoticed in the compilation. 

India in the Age of Ideas should be more valuable to the author, as he may not need to preserve newspaper clippings of his articles anymore. Given that it is a compilation of old articles, the book seems over-priced. However, this genre of book publishing has value provided the information is updated and the arguments substantiated into a coherent narrative.   
India In The Age Of Ideas
by Sanjeev Sanyal
Westland, New Delhi
Extent: 318, Price: Rs 699.

First published in the Hindustan Times, dated May 11, 2019.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The ultimate binge drinkers

Institutionalization of the bedbugs' fear in identifying other vermin in the society from the aim of social segregation and eradication is shocking!

They drink, and drink, and drink – up to three times their own body weight. No wonder, they are called the ultimate binge drinkers. At times, they are too bloated to return to their homes. Their stealthy lifestyle of drinking, and their habit of helping themselves uninvited stirs the strongest psychological fear among people. Evolved some 100,000 years ago, bedbugs’ drinking habit has sustained them as a species at the cost of humans who continue to shudder at the mere mention of these tiny blood suckers. Its influence on our lives has been unprecedented, pretty much every other bug, including the stomach bug, the computer bug, and the electronic bug carries that name tag. 

In his fifteen years of research on bedbugs, Klaus Reinhardt, a professor of applied zoology at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, has found that only two from some one hundred odd species of the family Cimicidae are found in our beds. While Cimex hemipterus resides in the tropical regions, the other Cimex lectularius dwells in temperate zones. Although bedbug sightings may have declined in many tropical countries in the recent years, increase in bedbug infestation in the UK, US, Australia and Canada in the past fifteen years clearly indicates that bedbugs have no respect for class and prosperity. In fact, they never had given the fact that London was heaving with bedbugs in the early 19th century. 

Divided into nine profusely illustrated sections, covering aspects of bug diversity, bug sex and bug forecast, Bedbug provides intriguing, engaging and entertaining insights into the life of an insect that is as much part of science as fiction. Alexander Dumas sighted bedbugs during his travels; Shakespeare referred to bedbugs in his plays: and Queen Charlotte was not ashamed of the infested Buckingham Palace. Throughout recorded history, bedbugs have featured in literature, film, poetry and pop culture. The sci-fi musical Bedbugs!!! had a successful run Off-Broadway in 2014. The musical comedy amplified extreme fear leading to paranoia about bedbugs becoming immune to almost all forms of insecticide. In the musical, a mad-scientist Carly mutates New York City’s bedbug population with her super-insecticide to take revenge of her mother’s bedbug-related death. Through the natural history lens, Reinhardt explores how bedbugs became ‘the other’, to represent personal animosity by creating parasitical villains. 

Bedbug provides multiple perspectives on an insect that causes more mental despair than any other human parasite, and yet has interesting aspects that call for tolerance towards it. For a species to be all pervasive, it must have a distinct genetic makeup and a curious sex life. Bedbugs are indeed unique on both aspects. With 14,000 identified genes in the adult bedbug to 36,000 genes for the entire species, researchers are now looking at the genome of the bedbug that can help in the design of pesticides to get rid of these blood suckers. It is still early to suggest if such a possibility has been worked out to any degree of certainty. However, genetic research can indeed help in identifying genes that area associated with blood-sucking, or digestion, or their mating habits, or whatever. 

When it comes to the battle of sexes, male bedbugs are clear winners as it stabs knife-like copulatory organ through the skin into the female’s body. How do females survive such traumatic insemination? That they survive, and contribute to building multiple progenies must make any sane head spin with bewilderment. Have female bedbugs invented a set of extra genitalia to cope with traumatic mating? Reinhardt sets aside such bizarre exaggeration to provide a set of possible strategies that female bedbugs may have been applying to stay in the business. When it comes to issue of sex, humans may have something to reflect upon bedbugs mating encounters. 

What makes Bedbug insight-fully interesting is the manner in which scientific research has been viewed keeping in mind the journey of this insect through history, literature and culture. We may not want to be soft on bedbugs but the fact of the matter is that it costs more than it is actually worth. It has led to resistant bedbugs! According to Reinhardt, there is lot to learn about this profoundly misunderstood insect. The bizarre mating habits of bedbugs have recently led to the development of a homeopathic remedy to cure ovarian pain. It is well known that bedbug’s flatness had helped Einstein unravel the presence of infinity. 

The essential message from Bedbug relates to institutionalization of the fear of bedbugs in identifying other vermin in society from the aim of decimating them. Reinhardt hopes that pest and vermin metaphors will not be used to invite thoughts of social segregation and eradication – like the Jews annihilation in Germany and the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. Bedbug informs and entertains, suggesting tolerance as a means of controlling the bug. 

Bedbug
by Klaus Reinhardt
Reaktion Books, London
Extent: 184, Price: £12.95

First published in Current Science Vol. 117(06), dated Sep 25, 2019 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Getting away with murder

The massacre shamed Britain and helped India win independence.

It has been a century to the day since 1,650 bullets were fired non-stop on unarmed civilians at Jallianwala Bagh, a bloody result of the imperial fear of the natives. The questions of what led to the dreadful killings of hundreds of innocents and how the mass slaughter was dealt with afterwards have pushed researchers and historians to explore the colonial psyche and come up with fresh insights on understanding  the dynamics of colonial brutality.


Jallianwala Bagh by Kim Wagner
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi
Extent: 323, Price. Rs 599.
In his rigorously-researched Jallianwala Bagh, historian Kim Wagner, whose earlier work includes The Skull of Alam Begh, situates the massacre in the Empire’s mindset of retribution and the need to silence growing native discontent. The other book being reviewed here, Kishwar Desai’s Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The Real Story wades through official and counter-narratives to provide a nuanced account of the shocking incident. Both books – among the first to be released in time for the centenary; other notable titles include a translation of Khooni Vaisakhi by Nanak Singh, Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin and Rakshanda Jalil’s Jallianwala Bagh; Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry – help us gain a better understanding of this seminal moment in India’s history.

While Wagner maintains the historian’s carefully detached tone as he notes the unjustifiable use of brute power to stop purported sedition from spreading to the countryside, Desai provides a passionate reconstruction of the events leading to the dreadful day, including the deep-rooted racism of the rulers.

What is the value of revisiting something that happened 100 years ago other than to cause emotional discomfort leading to nationalistic posturing, the reader might ask. No amount of denouncing and condemnation of the personal idiosyncrasies of the stone-faced Brigadier General Reginald Dyer can erase this incident which continues to make little sense even in the context of the brutal violence of the imperialism prevalent today. The Lieutenant Governor of Punjab Sir Michael O’Dwyer was in favour of exemplary terror to silence discontent among the natives against the dysfunctional state and that Brigadier General Dyer deliberately picked Gurkha and Baluch soldiers to shoot into the crowd, thus demonstrating that the Empire would persist ruthlessly with its divide-and-rule policy to retain power and subjugate the colonised.


Jallianwala Bagh, 1919 by Kishwar Desai
Context/Westland, New Delhi
Extent: 257, Price. Rs 699.
It is difficult to be objective while drawing lessons from the incident. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre offers a two-way learning process, however, by promoting a profound understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them. Following the archival grain, Wagner reconstructs events not simply as they happened, but as they were experienced by different people at that time. Jallianwala Bagh reveals how different experiences were treated differently and in the process, helps the reader to understand how violence worked, or was thought to work. In the end, it resulted in a mistrust of the colonial state.  

Desai imagines the cries of men, women and children who lay dying at the Bagh. “History belongs primarily to the victor, but only as long as we allow it,” she writes. She believes the massacre was not spontaneous as has often been made out. It was carefully planned. If this had not been the case, Miss Sherwood’s near-death experience at the hands of native rioters on April 10 would not have been brutally reprimanded, and Mrs Ratan Devi would not have had to spend the night of April 13 grieving over the dead body of her husband.

In the centenary year of the massacre, both books pay tribute to thousands of those who were humiliated, tortured and killed under the pretext of martial law. As the memories of the dastardly act are revoked, the call for a public apology by the British has resurfaced once more. Did the British do enough to detoxify the issue? Winston Churchill called it “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”. David Cameron, who was the first British prime minister to visit the monument, denounced the massacre and called it a deeply shameful incident in British history, as Churchill did, while shying away from apologizing for the event. He said, instead, that the UK “stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world”.

Addressing this lingering concern, Wagner wonders if an apology will do any good as both those who suffered, and those who perpetuated the crime are no longer alive. Such a take on the massacre may not appeal to everyone but it also goes without saying that the sacrifice of thousands at Jallianwala Bagh was not a waste. The massacre shamed Britain and helped India win independence.

But the ways of colonial justice were perverted indeed: while Udham Singh was hanged for his revenge killing of the former lieutenant governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, General Dyer, the chief perpetrator of the crime, was never convicted. He got away with genocide.

First published in The Hindustan Times, issue dated April 13, 2019.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Fear of an imaginary rebellion

It is still difficult to reconcile with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the violence unleashed by British colonialism.

Even a century after the dreadful afternoon that silenced hundreds of unaccounted innocents it is hard to reconcile any justification for the barbaric massacre that remains a red blot in the British history. Monstrous no less, the ten minutes of terror unleashed on a hapless crowd gathered in Jallianwala Bagh on the fateful afternoon of April 13, 1919 only proved that violence was a key aspect of British colonialism. General Dyer had seemingly followed the principle of exemplary violence that had justified mass slaughter of sepoys by Cooper during the 1857 mutiny, and summary execution of namdharis by Cowan in 1872. In each of these instances, fear of an imaginary rebellion had provoked violent action. In justifying his own action, Dyer had disingenuously acknowledged that ‘we cannot be brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear’.

In his painstaking reconstruction of the circumstances that led to the dastardly act, historian Kim Wagner wonders if that seminal moment in the history of India and the British Empire has been rightfully understood. In making sense of the form and function of colonial violence, he concludes that spectacular display of brute force was the most effective means of preserving control over the natives, as was evident in brutal reprisals by the British in Kenya, Egypt, and Ireland during its colonial rule. Although events of colonial violence were conveniently attributed to some rogue individuals, as Winston Churchill’s disavowal of Dyer’s action indicated, it only helped ignore the very structure of imperialism that harbored violence in its design. Else, physical and symbolic humiliation, including crawling orders and public flogging, would not have continued following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. That it did, indicate that the massacre was pre-emptive and retribution well considered.

Jallianwala Bagh is a powerful reassessment of the causes and course of the massacre, pieced together by mining facts from a variety of written sources. Like his previous works on the British imperial history which include books on Thugee and The Skull of Alum Bheg, Wagner provides an unbiased account of colonial panic and subsequent brutality. It was the growing unrest throughout the British Empire in 1919 that had made decolonization a real possibility across the colonized entities in Asia and Africa. Despite its barbaric nature, the dreadful incident at Jallianwala Bagh could well be described as the last gasp of an imperialist ideology mired in racial discrimination.

Did the British ever felt remorseful for the tragedy that befell thousands of unarmed civilians?  Despite termination of his military services, for the British public Brigadier-General Dyer was a ‘hero’ who, most believed, was the man ‘who saved India’. Through an appeal in The Morning Post newspaper, as much as £ 26,000 were raised which meant that Dyer could retire in comfort and without any financial concerns. What’s more, Dyer received a full military funeral upon his death in 1927. In his tribute, Rudyard Kipling had remarked ‘He did his duty as he saw it.’ Aren’t public sentiments reasons for the British to avoid tendering an apology for the heinous crime?

Wagner doesn’t shy away from addressing this lingering concern. Far from being apologetic, asserts Wagner, Churchill’s description of it as the ‘unprecedented monstrous episode’ was an act of deflection that only asserted the moral legitimacy of the British Empire. During his visit to the Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron had persisted in denouncing the massacre but not without reclaiming the moral narrative ‘that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world’. What will the British apology seek to serve now that both those who suffered, and those who perpetuated the crime are no more?

Will an apology heal the wounds, and should we even attempt to heal the wounds? Even if the British apologize, it would only be for one man’s actions, as isolated and unprecedented, and not for the colonial rule, that in Gandhi’s words, produced Dyer. While an apology in the centenary year will assuage pent-up emotions, it is important that the seminal event in India’s colonial history helps in reiterating the need for individual right to freedom of expression. Jallianwala Bagh is an important book on the colonial era, as much relevance for our post-colonial world.

Jallianwala Bagh
by Kim A. Wagner
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi
Extent: 323, Price: Rs 599 .

First published in The Hindu Magazine, issue dated April 7, 2019

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Capturing water through its flowing history

Without counting cultural values and notions of justice, any attempt at re-engineering water management is bound to escalate fears about nature and climate.  

Current clamor on water scarcity is pitched around what  nature supplies through rains and what gets delivered through pipes, backed by the assumption that effective demand-side management will help counter supply-side conundrum. Far from it, a water crisis has become severe even when large parts of the country have seemingly escaped what is traditionally termed as ‘monsoon economy’. Between the extremes of a dreary winter and a blistering summer, water crises manifests itself in dried and polluted rivers; as cumulative water shortage in major reservoirs; and in unending queues of desperate people awaiting erratic supplies. This all points out towards an emerging social disruption, if it isn’t there already!

For getting a better sense of the emerging water crises in an age of climate change, Sunil Amrith, Professor of South Asian Studies at the Harvard University, suggests a nuanced understanding on how history shaped water management and use; what compelled the society to respond to new economic opportunities; and how mastering the unevenness of water and its extreme seasonality by the British shaped an economy that improved revenue flow into the treasury?  With maximizing revenue being the be-all and end-all of the British rule, every investment in infrastructure had led to expanding trade for Indian products in the markets of London, Liverpool, Hamburg, and New York. Investment in irrigation works bolstered local resilience to drought, signaling benevolence of the rulers, while ensuring that the state’s coffers remained full. The political connotation of investment in irrigation projects has persisted since then.   

In his reading of the history, Amrith finds a serious lack of realization of nature’s water endowment in expanding irrigation – exploiting economic gains from water remained bereft of social and ecological concerns. And this had continued well into the twentieth century as quick economic turnaround had propelled a large swathe of large landowners to switch to water-guzzling cash crops like cotton and sugarcane. It has only eroded deep social and historical patterns that had treated ‘the monsoon as a way of life’ in promoting crop diversity, and a culture of resilience. With farm crises at its peak, the state is now trying to restore historical sanity by promoting diversified crops a’la more crops per drop.     

Amrith mines British and Indian archives to produce a lively history that unfolds the development of modern meteorology in erasing water inequalities. That water has been a source of both social and economic power was known to the powers-that-be, it was in the disguise of democratization of irrigation expansion that the state sought to usurp power. No wonder, control over water became an engine of inequality between people, between classes and castes, between city and regions. Regional disparities have become ever more pronounced. Little has been learnt that 4 per cent of the available world’s fresh water will always be in short supply to serve 14 per cent of world’s population with competing, and increasing demands. 

Unruly Waters provides in interesting peep into the history of water development that continues to shape and reshape politics in the countries of South Asia. It captures the fears and dreams of rulers and governments in the region in laying control over its shared natural endowment through dams and rivers diversions, which has led to unleashing political tensions between neighbors. It is bound to escalate, as both China and India race to construct hundreds of dams to secure both power and water in carving an elusive water future in the age of climate change. Amrith reminds the present-day governments of both countries about what its founders had painfully remarked: “Jawaharlal Nehru had lamented the ‘disease of gigantism’ in promoting large dams whereas his compatriot Zhou En-lai had acknowledged the mistake of accumulating water by cutting forests”. It is an irony that political expediency has allowed cumulative wisdom of the past to erode. 

As the risks of climate change become increasingly evident in the region, there are essential lessons to be learnt from the shared history of miscued water development in South Asia. That many measures to secure the region against monsoon vagaries have destabilized the monsoon itself through unintended consequences leave much to be desired for sane actions in securing a safe water future. Need it be said that the idea that modern technology will fix matters is passé.   

Unruly Waters is the most comprehensive historical treatise on rains, rivers, coasts and seas, as also on weathermen, engineers, and politicians who sought to tame nature. Amrith covers a vast historical landscape on water but leaves the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. It should be essential reading for researchers and planners as it has between-the-lines lessons and messages to be captured to getting a better sense of the unruly waters. In suggesting that the task to understand the monsoons and the rivers that shape the region is far from complete, the author is emphatic in his suggestion that water management can neither be purely technical nor can it be addressed on a purely national scale. Without counting cultural values and notions of justice, any attempt at re-engineering water management is bound to escalate fears about nature and climate.  

Amrith calls for a new political imagination to view water beyond local histories and national boundaries. ‘Water, which connects Asia, cannot be allowed to divide the region’. There cannot be more compelling reason for countries in the region to cooperate in managing and sharing water then the fact that the countries in South Asia are the world most vulnerable to climate change. Unruly Waters presents all the essential elements to get back on the drawing board to plan a secure water future for the entire region amidst the most challenging times. 

Unruly Waters
by Sunil Amrith
Allen Lane, UK
Extent: 397, Price: Rs 799.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, issue dated April 1, 2019.