Monday, March 18, 2019

To sin is human, afterall!

To sin is essentially a mind game, and only mindful action can dissuade humans from committing a sin.

The quest for grabbing anything forbidden has been a crucial aspect of human existence; else the apple in the Garden of Eden would have left hanging. The act to sin has stayed on with us ever since. Be it the Christianity’s seven sins or the Hinduism’s five, all efforts to stay away from sins have only brought us closer to committing a sin. Despite a consistent religious and moral battle to stay away from them, there are some unseen forces that tempt us to take a call on them. In a closed society where everybody is guilty of some sin, the only crime seems to be getting caught. Come to think of it, in a world of thieves ‘stupidity’ of getting caught may indeed be on top of all sins! 

It goes to the credit of Saint Gregory who, in the 6th century, enlisted seven deadly sins as pride, gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, envy and wrath, which seem an expanded version of the five Vedic sins – Kama (desire) , Krodh (anger), Moh (lust) , Lobh (greed) and Anhkaar (pride). Irrespective of its religious connotations, these traits have been acknowledged detriments to mental peace, individual prestige and social reputation. Yet, as experience shows, the impulse to indulge in sinful behaviour is so strong that people easily succumb to the forbidden temptations - the mythical apple continues to hang low.    

For aeon ‘why we do the things we know we shouldn’t’ has been a subject of intense religious and philosophical inquiry, however, without any end to the battle between temptation and restraint. Labeling certain human traits as bad behaviour has hardly been a deterrent. Is it because people do not ascribe the same negative value that has been historically assigned to the sin under reference? If that be so, is it the reason for sinful traits to persist or is there more to understanding nature and proliferation of sins than what has been understood till now? 

Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist and a television presenter, gets deeper into examining the origin and societal relevance of sins as viewed through different religious lenses. In last 10 years since attaining a doctorate in neuroscience from University College London, Lewis has focused his attention on making the latest neuroscience research the widest possible audience through print, radio and television. His radio show Secrets of the Brain is currently being aired in 20 countries, and his co-authored book Sort Your Brain Out has gained popularity. In all of his works, Lewis comes out clear that in varying degrees sins are considered major obstacles to peace and enlightenment. Curiously, however, the world has done pretty little to limit the temptations that surround us. Instead, social media, live streaming, and online shopping has spurred greed, gluttony, lust and envy, while reinventing narcissism as the leading new normal behaviour. 

When the term narcissism was coined by Sigmund Freud some 100 years ago, it was with reference to loving or caressing one’s own body to appease one’s romantic partner. Today, it means an obsession with the self that is as much a cause for social pain of rejection as a physical pain of isolation, resulting from an over-inflated sense of self-importance. 

The Science of Sins peeps into the world of seven deadly sins in their many dimensions, both historical and contemporary; to understand the neural battles between temptation and restraint that takes place within our brains. Using the enormous amount of scientific data on the human brain that has accumulated over the years, the book explains how the neural circuitry of the brain is involved not only in tempting us to be sinful, but also how tweaking parts of our brain could help dissuade us from committing a sin. Although medical terminology thrown across makes it a heavy reading narrative, anecdotal reference to real-life stories sustain readers’ interest.

While Lewis uses intriguing scientific facts to explain why committing sin is impulsive, he leaves the reader in the lurch when it comes to getting over it. Acknowledging that there are no magical cures, he nonetheless advocates ways to train brain to resist temptations. Magnetic stimulation and medical interventions can curb pathological behaviour in extreme cases, mindfulness meditation has been found to be an effective way of remodeling various parts of the brain as a steady process. In the world where each of the seven deadly sins has been systematically taken advantage of by the nefarious forces of global commerce, the quest for remaining healthy, happy and productive warrants a serious application of mind.

The essential take away from this well-researched book is that sin is a mind game, and only mindful action can dissuade humans from committing a sin. Assessing each of the seven sins - pride, gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, envy, and wrath - from philosophical and neuroscience perspectives, Lewis lets the reader get a clear sense that only by eliminating inner turmoil and personal suffering can an external sinful stimulus be checked. The Science of Sin falls short of a self-help book as it leaves much for the reader to decide upon. It is nonetheless a book that offers deeper insights on various shades of sins, and how people grapple to reduce their individual vulnerabilities to cope with it. The book concludes that it is not hard to do things we know we shouldn’t, provided we remind ourselves on it frequently.  

The Science of Sin 
by Jack Lewis
Bloomsbury, New Delhi
Extent: 304, Price: Rs 499.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The rise and fall of a hero

....who crushed the skulls of all who opposed him in a bloodsplosion of gruesome vengeance!

In her authoritative study of selected monuments in Modern Delhi (Building Histories, University of Chicago Press, 2016) historian Mrinalini Rajgopalan drew a special reference to the statue of Brigadier General John Nicholson– the British officer who had turned the tide of the Rebellion of 1857 in favour of British troops – which was sought to be removed as early as in 1949. Although the statue of Nicholson wielding a sword was eventually relocated to his Irish hometown of Ulster in 1957, the Ministry of Home Affairs had turned down the earlier plea on the grounds that there wasn’t any noticeable public concern about the monument, and that it only acted as a reminder of our weakness as a historical lesson. 

Post-independent India did show remarkable restraint in its attitude to the British era but by the time the tenth anniversary of Independence approached – 1957 was also the centenary of the Indian Uprising – the mood had changed, and a statue of a British soldier with unsheathed sword seemed highly vulnerable to nationalistic fervour. The three-and-a-half tonne statue was finally removed and ferried to Belfast before the anniversary, and with it went that part of history which had compared a young army officer to the likes of Napoleon by his contemporaries. Called ‘The Lion of the Punjab’, Nicholson continued to remain popular in Britain through much of the 1950s and 1960s for his decisive role in breaching the mutineers’ defence of the walled city of Delhi, but has lost much of it in recent times with modern British historians dubbing him as “an imperial psychopath” and “a homosexual bully”. By late 1960s his name had become a byword for brutality and racism, and his portrait, once proudly displayed in the exhibition of Great Irish Men and Women at the Ulster Museum in Belfast was removed. One website badassoftheweek.com describes him as “one who crushed the skulls of all who opposed him in a bloodsplosion of gruesome vengeance”, and that he is “in equal parts respected and despised by roughly everyone on the Indian subcontinent”. What made an erstwhile hero, considered ‘The Hero of Delhi’ by BBC Radio in 1950 lose his credibility in his home country? Is it because British peoples’ attitudes to race and Empire have changed in the years since his death? Or, is there more to this complex character that has yet not been fully unearthed in earlier accounts of his life?  

Journalist and radio broadcaster Stuart Flinders has pieced together a new perspective on Nicholson’s personality in his biography Cult of a Dark Hero based on previously unpublished material, letters and diaries. India was an appealing career move for a majority of youth in Ireland that made Nicholson, one of the seven siblings, use his uncle’s influence to join 37,000 European soldiers at that time in British India. After completing his basic training upon arrival in Calcutta in 1839, Nicholson was given permanent position with the 27th Native Infantry (NI) at Ferozpore. From there on Nicholson was quick to adapt to local conditions, and proved his mettle in first fighting the Afghans, and then the Sikhs.

Fighting the Ghilzais (tribe) in Ghazni was both torturous and tumultuous. His mother’s parting words ‘never forget to read your Bible’ were of little solace as blood thirsty tribesmen lurked around. In one of his diary entries, Nicholson had noted his anguish: “I return home to breakfast disgusted with myself, the world, and above all, with my cruel profession. In fact we are nothing but licensed assassins”. Nicholson may have sounded apologetic in his note but his hatred for the natives was only to be cemented upon discovering his brother Alexander’s mutilated body as he was passing through the Khyber Pass. Alexander had also come to India as a cadet. 

Cult of a Dark Hero provides a detailed account of the life of a controversial soldier whose extraordinary efforts on inventing the Movable Column of troops helped to nip revolt in the bud, and ensured that Punjab remained under British control. The more power he gained, the more control he exercised in dispensing justice. Flinders provides evidences of Nicholson’s method of asserting the rule of law, which not only won him local support but anointed him as a cult figure, somewhat of a deity. Stories of him bringing peace, justice and, where necessary, retribution merged with ancient tales from Islam, and he became a mystical figure, part folk hero, part Muslim legend. The cult of Nikal Seyn had a dedicated following spread across religious beliefs but the cult was finally taken up by Shia Muslims in remote parts of Punjab. The cult survived on stories that valorised him as a super hero. One story had Nikal Seyn cutting off a man’s head, realising his mistake and putting it back again, following which “the man made a bow and walked home highly satisfied and honoured”. However, such stories were not to last long with the change of times and traditional practices. 

Nicholson career of less than two-decades culminated with his last military encounter in securing walled city of Delhi that not only made him one of the great heroes of Victorian Britain but cost him his life too. Cult of a Dark Hero provides graphic details of the assault on Delhi, which proved beyond doubt that Nicholson knew no fear, and preferred to act rather than to take advice or seek permission. After the guns had blasted holes in the city wall, Nicholson commanded his troops to enter the city amidst terrible shower of fire at Kabul Gate of the city, and with rebels occupying the adjoining houses. Nicholson received a bullet under the right arm on September 16, 1857, and succumbed to it six days later on September 23. “His was a life of adventure lived on the very edge of the British Empire, as courageous as he was ruthless, as loyal to his friends as he was merciless to those who crossed him”.

In his foreword to the book, Sir Mark Tully wonders if much of the opprobrium heaped on Nicholson takes full account of the times in which he lived. That he was brutal there is no doubt, but he was a dedicated soldier with a clear sense of duty. 

Tully was taught by his mother to hold Nicholson in high esteem, as his great-great-grandfather Richard Nicholson was John Nicholson’s uncle. He finds that Stuart Flinders’ research on the controversial life of an archetypal imperial hero has pursued a balanced middle course. Flinders does not paint John Nicholson either black or white, but leaves the verdict open. Not as a justification but as an explanation to how Nicholson got dubbed for his outrageous attitude, historian William Dalrymple has written that “the atrocities committed by the native sepoys against the British women and children had absolved the British of any need to treat the rebels as human beings”. Early in his career Nicholson had admitted that “he disliked India and its inhabitants”, which perhaps led to his ultimate branding as an imperial psychopath, but by no means was he the only British officer to have been engaged in wanton cruelty.      

Cult of a Dark Hero is as much an engaging account of the British exploits in laying control over vast expanses of undivided India as about the man who seemed undeterred by fear of any kind. Flinders stays objective in his readings of personal letters and diary entries in assessing the conditions that made a young man go beyond his sense of duty in making a living. His uncanny power of penetrating the disguise, helped by his habit of maintaining an extensive intelligence network, made him a military strategist of unmatched qualities. That he stayed ahead in taking decisions at the time of crises made many of his seniors uncomfortable. However, his temperament was ideally suited to the times in which he lived.

In his perceptive assessment, Flinders argues that there was a deep sense of racial supremacy exhibited by Nicholson in his actions, which is rightfully abhorred in recent times. The reputation of Gordon of Khartoum, the British officer who suppressed the Muslim revolt in Sudan in 1880, followed a similar trajectory for the same reason. Although it may remain difficult to justify his brutality in the service of the Empire, it is equally hard to draw conclusions on why he lost out on his cult status in recent times. Nonetheless, Flinders concludes that Nicholson was driven by personal ambition and a sense of duty to his country rather than by any notions of improving the lives of those amongst whom he worked. His presence during the Uprising was reassuring to Europeans, but it did alter the course of history for those who were subjugated by the imperial forces. For those interested in the history of freedom movement, Cult of a Dark Hero provides insights on how the Indian Uprising of 1857, often referred to as the First War of Independence, was eventually lost, but which had sown the seeds of a long-drawn battle to win freedom 90 years later.      

Cult of a Dark Hero: Nicholson of Delhi
by Stuart Flinders
I B Tauris, London, 
Expanse: 231 pp, Price: £ 25 

First published in Biblio, issue dated Jan-March 2019.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The enigmatic cultural icon

Can a river which has watered and nurtured an entire civilization from time immemorial be left contaminated, carrying an unbearable burden of silt and detritus?

Ganga strangely represents the physical manifestation of an accepted mythological duality – to be divine and vulnerable at any given time. Revered as a goddess, the river is endowed with two contrasting characters: one as an eternal deity of the flowing waters, the other as a carrier of the accumulated human misdeeds. This beguiling duality has allowed the river to be worshiped and neglected at the same time, regardless of its worth as a finite and tangible resource. Flowing through the heart of an ancient civilization, the unholy alliance between purity and pollution has kept this enigmatic cultural icon on the very edge of survival. It continues to survive nonetheless!  

In an insightful account of the myth, religion, history and development of the sacred river, the University of California historian Sudipta Sen delves into the duality manifest in the approaches adopted to ease the Ganga of the vexing problems afflicting its purity and flow. While attempts to clean the river of its pollution load have been victims of their own top-down ambitious scope, the mythological history of the river makes it difficult for multitudes of Indians to accept that the river may be in imminent danger. Despite the evidence of an unprecedented ecological decline, the unstinted faith in the divine powers of the river makes it easy for a vast majority to espouse confidence that the Ganga will never go dry like the great Yellow river of China. 

But can the river’s miraculous powers heal its own scars? Sen let’s mythology speak for itself to serve a possible clue. During her descent to the world, an anxious Ganga had asked King Bhagiratha: where shall she cleanse herself after people wash off all their sins in her waters? In his unexpected reply, the King had expressed confidence in the moral obligation of all upright mortals to carry out the unenviable task of expiating the sins of the world. Such is the power of mythology that it continues to inspire faith that the collective power of the sinners will rise one day to restore the river into its pristine state. Will it?

Within the study of the significant historical moments that shaped the river, the book offers two parallel but inter-related threads that connect the mythical and historic with the climate and ecology in getting a sense of the cumulative consequences of human activity from the past to the present. Far from learning any lessons from its rich history, argues the author, the uneven contours of the past are very much at work today. The purest of all rivers continues to remain the most polluted. And, there is no getting away from the fact that the great cultural icon is in trouble, suffocated by dams, encroached by overcrowding, and desecrated by discharge.  

Ganga is for anyone interested in how a river shapes human culture and its history, stimulating multilayered interpretations on its metaphysical threshold. It is an ambitious undertaking that blends geography, ecology, mythology and religion in presenting an intimate biography of the most sacred and beloved river. It is as much a celebration of its glorious past as a mourning of its pathetic present. It is scholarly treatise which, by author’s own admission, took twelve years in the making, and is an essential reading for those interested in understanding a river from its diverse social, cultural and spiritual perspectives.  

The book offers no quick fixes on redeeming the river from the civilizational onslaught. It instead asks why the Ganga, held in such reverence across a multitude of religious traditions, remains hostage to the promise of development and risks of degradation? It provokes the discerning reader to grapple with the river’s rich past and its most uncertain future. At this time when the cleansing and the purification of the Ganga has been an urgent and much-vaunted national priority, the book offers a nuanced understanding on the river from a cultural and civilizational perspective. 

A river which has watered and nurtured an entire civilization from time immemorial cannot be left contaminated, carrying an unbearable burden of silt and detritus. Sen argues that it is time we identify what stands in the way of tangible progress toward a cleaner and healthier river. The time to act has never been as urgent!      

Ganga: The Many Pasts of A River
by Sudipta Sen
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 445, Price: Rs 799.

First published in Civil Society magazine, issue dated March 2019.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Life hacks in vale of tears

As tech takes over, deepening misery, battering the human spirit, subduing truth, Harari advocates a meditative resilience, a constant debate

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. And, it is becoming increasingly so as machine intelligence powers its way beyond intelligent minds and algorithms begin to guide human emotions. Far from maximizing human potential, such technological transformation is upgrading computers to the extent that it will empower a handful of tiny elite at the cost of most others who not only stand to get exploited but are being made irrelevant in the process too. The cumulative impact of emerging info-tech revolution is fueling global inequality like never before, while contributing to increasing social tensions which are dividing humankind into hostile camps. 

Unless the situation is peeled to its last layer, it may not be clear where the world is headed and how indeed should we protect ourselves and the generations to follow. From ecological cataclysm to fake news epidemic and from chauvinistic nationalism to underrated bio-terrorism, the world is fast becoming a theatre of the absurd where the bull of progress is raging wild with anxiety and anger. Spare a moment and one will find that in the emerging social milieu the internal lives of individuals are being compromised. Little do we realize that an unprecedented pressure on our personal lives had ignited the Arab Spring, and has now sparked #Me Too movement? Clearly, there is more to come as our internal psychological mechanism remains under duress.  

In his clear-eyed and searingly realistic assessment, Yuval Noah Harari draws lessons that celebrate human wisdom but without discounting human stupidity. Enlisting 21 carefully distilled lessons into 5 over-arching themes, the Oxford scholar traverses the world of despair emerging from unresolved technological and political challenges to underscore the significance of meditative resilience in a world of post-truth ignorance. It is a curious and reflective analysis of the existential challenges here and now, lessons that are borne out of our complicity in political biases, unabashed privileges and institutional oppression.  

Harari keeps it plain and simple, locating lessons in our everyday acceptance of the so-called inevitable. Many of the social and political disruptions of our time can be located in ever more lonely lives we live in an ever more connected planet. Irrespective of how many virtual friends one may boast, it is an accepted fact that one cannot know more than 150 individuals. The facade of generating likes on the social media is not without serious psychological repercussions. Humans may have got everything under their control in their journey till now, but in the new age they are finding it hard to make sense of all that the technology has on offer. 

As the title suggests, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a collection of essays written over time to grapple the present day predicament of existence. Much of what he writes emerges in response to the nagging question ‘why there is so much suffering in the world and in my own life?’ Harari contends that we are living in an age of bewilderment, when myths of all kind are collapsing – from religious myths about god and heavens to nationalist myths about the motherland and the nation-state, and from romantic myths about love and adventure to capitalist myths about economic growth and consumerism. Yet, the society continues to nurture myths.

Truth is a casualty in the process.  The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens; instead they have been busy constructing stories. Be it religion or politics, the focus is to fit ourselves into some ready-made story such that we stay away from truth. This is how life has continued from generation to generation, making each animal play its part in the story. But without getting to know ourselves more, we will continue to believe stories. So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, explains Harari, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. 

While one might not concur with all the lessons on offer, the infectious enthusiasm with which Harari writes makes it virtually impossible not to be carried away. The author of the global bestseller Sapiens has rooted his essays in everyday realities; the book however remains ambitious in scale. The essential take home message is to join the debate about the future of humanity. History is unlikely to give us any discounts or exempt us from the consequences if we continue to pursue our busy schedules. More people join the debate the better it is. The globalized world is in dire need of the empathetic imagination. 

In spite of its unwieldy capaciousness, Harari espouses a fundamental truth about our scarred times: that nothing can insulate us from the vagaries of a violent and vengeful world.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century 
by Yuval Noah Harari
Jonathan Cape, London
Extent: 352, Price: Rs 799

First published in Outlook magazine, issue for the week ending Feb 25, 2019.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Time's Bitterest Jokes

Only by recreating a sub-continental imagination based on diverse cultures and interlinked histories can a plural world with open setting be created that we can call a home! 

For the Greeks nostalgia meant a mix of sweet and bitter pang that humans often suffer in search of their roots, and their belongingness. From what was once considered a return of pain or some sort of sickness, relived nostalgic moments are now said to improve mood, increase self-esteem, strengthen social bonds and imbue life with meaning. It does so for Ziauddin Sardar, as moments of reckoning through sights, scents, and sounds of the lived past reveal his true self as a desi, an identity that sans ethnic lineage and national boundaries. Why should my identity be limited to a mere seventy years and a vaguely samosa shaped area on the world map? As a compassionate critical thinker and an accomplished author, Sardar traces his identity in the macrocosm of culture and civilization that is beyond the body politic of the nation-state called Pakistan. 

Ways of Being Desi pieces together those aspects of history and culture that have either faded from peoples’ imagination or lie marginalized in the percepts of territorial identity. It has cast an unmistakable imprint on people’s mind, shattering their self-esteem to the point that they don’t find anything true and authentic within their own country. Nothing could be worse for a heterogeneous population than a lack of belief in self and the country, the psychological underpinnings of which reduce the sense of belonging to a caricatured symbolism of political identity. It is the diasporic sense of separation and loss that is beautifully reflected in the rich anecdotal narrative that has curious elements of sub-continental imagination. 

Only by building courage to remove the mask of modernity could the author hear the call of sanity and sweetness of everydayness that he had long lived, and cherished. Sardar unapologetically returns to his desi-ness, and rediscovers the emotional power of relationships; captures the sense of aesthetics in language; and locates himself within the civilizational space called watan. The detective novels of Ibn-e-Safi, the cinema of Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt, the poetic genius of Ghalib and Faiz, and the crossover Pakistani television dramas help him comprehend the missing sub-continental imagination, the absence of which has only given people of the partitioned land a sense of political identity that has distanced itself from the history and culture of its ancestral lineage. 

Within the political realities which persist only for maintaining status quo the idea of coming together of diverse traditions separated at the cruel hands of history may sound romantic; however, there is merit in it as it can counter the collective insanity and despair that fuels a sense of inferiority. Such remote possibility is pregnant with the idea of building creative alliances between shared culture and affinities to act against the helplessness and impotence generated by modernity. One begins to feel author’s pain and at the same time aligns with his optimism that only by recreating a sub-continental imagination based on diverse cultures and interlinked histories can a plural world with open setting be created that we can call a home! 

Sardar traverses a significant part of his nostalgic journey through films, as he finds in them reflections of contradictions and opportunities, as well as poetic aesthetics and cultural values. In addition to acting as a universal symbol of sub-continental identity, films like Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Devdas, and Pyassa not only set the literary agenda but acted as a lifeline for cultural survival. Despite their many-layered complexities, films have been an invitation to a meditation on love and beauty, art and life. While the Indian cinema of the fifties, sixties and early seventies engaged with audience purely on the basis of shared cultural assumptions, the television dramas of Pakistan during the eighties and nineties explored the role of tradition in shaping a contemporary identity. Both found resonance across political boundaries, a testimony to the acknowledgement and appreciation of shared cultural chord. Could film and television media of the kind be the reflecting mirror of shortcomings, and a messenger of promises?   

At the core of Ways of Being Desi are reflections on socio-political realities of a country that has belittled the identity of its own people. Packed with sardonic wit and uninhibited sarcasm, the author provides an honest exploration into the shaping of the nation-state, that is perpetually in paralysis. Not only the land area but the mental spaces of people have been partitioned, distancing them from the aesthetic and sensibility of their sub-continental belonging. The country needs to recover its tradition of pluralism and humanism before its segregated populace plunges it deeper into the abyss of bigotry, violence and mob rule, cautions Sardar. The author invokes desi-ness as a living, dynamic reality that has the potential to reclaim the past to reunite it to its futures. 

Ways of being Desi 
by Ziauddin Sardar
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 299, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Outlook magazine, issue covering the week until Jan 21, 2019.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Wisdom of the past holds good

Being able and willing to live inexpensively may be a virtue that the majority of people across the globe will have to practice out of necessity.

Frugality has been abandoned, and with it, the wise words of the sages, from Buddha to Socrates and from Thoreau to Gandhi. The idea of simple living is now deemed insufficient, unexciting, and even uninteresting by a significant portion of the global population. As the lure of purchasable pleasure entices people into relentless earning and spending, a culture of unceasing consumerism has pulled those with resources away from frugal simplicity. Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University, tries to explain why frugality has not become a global norm --despite so many wise people having championed it over the years.

Westacott, a philosopher, sees a deep contradiction in the idea of individuals pursuing happiness within a competitive consumptive society. Competitiveness can only fuel jealousies. Any attempt to distinguishing oneself by acquiring products as badges of social position only creates a false and temporary sense of happiness. In extreme cases the propensity to acquire and hoard can turn pathological, dominating a person’s life until they require treatment for a psychological disorder. Epicurus and Plato were convinced that securing material wealth was unlikely to bring happiness and that living simply was the key to moral purity.

It appears that the idea of frugality has fewer and fewer takers because the concept of simple living has turned out to be quite complex. Pursuing frugality in the current world restricts the pursuit of excitement and adventure in a world loaded with such opportunities. Further, we are living in the times when the economic imperative to growth has meant that a minimum level of economic activity must continue to keep several fellow beings busy so they can make sense of their gainful existence. Despite most of us, at one time or another, feeling some sort of moral pressure to embrace frugality, the world is stacked against us. The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t a polemic urging people to change their lives by embracing simplicity, but rather a broader investigation of both frugal and luxurious living. We are each left to draw our own conclusions, regardless of how confusing our choices may be.

Many people jump on and off three treadmills: the hedonic treadmill for pursuing happiness, the status treadmill for satisfying consumption, and the working treadmill for generating income. All this on and off come at an enormous cost: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why can’t people break free of the shackles of false happiness? Westacott acknowledges that our culture is torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth, and denouncing it as an undesirable trait that bespeaks false values. Beyond that, though, there is no further explanation.

Freedom has been central to the idea of the good life offered by philosophers of every generation, but consumerism has reinterpreted this through the lens of false values. In the interconnected world of growing individualism backed by the availability of a myriad of economic choices, argues Westacott, freedom needs to be exercised in the context of contributing to the public good. Given the problems of pollution and global warming, we need to live more frugally and less wastefully in order to protect natural resources. That’s in our own interest, and the common interest. Technology may be of some help, but it, too, adds to an ever-increasing demand for more goods and services. Frugality is a possible antidote to over-development, one that the world can hardly ignore.  

The Wisdom of Frugality succeeds in providing a springboard for thinking about whether the wisdom of the past still holds today. Being able and willing to live inexpensively may be a virtue that the majority of people across the globe will have to practice out of necessity.

The Wisdom of Frugality
by Emrys Westacott
Princeton University Press, Princeton
Extent: 313, Price: $20

First published at the AnthemEnviroExpertReviews, uploaded on March 5, 2019.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The tao of desire

The urge to own and the surge for acquisitions put one onto a never-ending cycle of desire, facilitated by emotional and economic capital.  

Desire is innate to human existence, and love is its prime manifestation. From sexual to asexual and from material to abstract, desire is double-edged something that explores human strengths while simultaneously imploring its vulnerabilities. Lethal as it may seem, desire’s origin as Kama in scriptures and philosophies swings between two extremes – Vatsyayana’s sensuous poetry and Victorian middle-class morality. However, in a world where human sexuality and relationships are up for reinterpretation the chance that a deeper understanding of kama may help knock down the flawed human condition could indeed be a reality. Gurcharan Das is convinced that by repossessing the creative forces of kama can the classical balance between the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha  and Moksha - be restored in our chaotic lives tossed between tradition and modernity. 

That the essence of kama has been reduced to its sexual context has indeed been the cause for it not been seen as the force behind the life instinct. Vatsyayana understood it more than a natural energy, and sought it be cultivated as an art. The Upanishads found in kama the capacity to beget life, lying in it the origin of civilization. Das pulls leaves out of his own love life to suggest that by only cherishing desire can one attain to live life to its fullest. Nothing comes without pain though, as dangerous emotions such as jealousy, hate, and fear give company to desire. At the core of his thesis is that while dharma is a duty towards others, kama is duty to oneself. How one balances between the two is what differentiates the special from the ordinary! 

Kama, The Riddle of Desire is an intense reading of the ancient scriptures and the western philosophies aimed at unraveling multiple strands of desire, the former offers an optimistic view of creation as the latter evokes feelings of shame and guilt. One might wonder if the ascetic and the erotic are two aspects of the same human nature. The ascetic, or the kama pessimist, seeks renouncement whereas the sybarite, or the kama optimist, favours indulgence. If the story and sub-stories of this part-fiction, part-autographical narrative is anything to go by, each desire springs from a feeling of incompleteness. The urge to own and the surge for acquisitions put one onto a never-ending cycle of desire, facilitated by emotional and economic capital.  

Despite the twists and twirls of his journey in search of love, Das’ staying on the side of kama optimist may have been on account of most of his life spent inside the capitalist world, where controlling desire may merit limited consideration. Only by living life to its fullest can one ever realize the true potential of kama as a game change, argues Das, because to stop desiring and to perform desirelessly do not mean the same. If desire is indestructible, as Lord Krishna said, then desire should not be renounced but instead channelized towards greater public good, if at all.   

It is a ground-breaking narrative that is engaging and enlightening, shedding new light on the irresistibility of desire. It pulls desire from the trap of guilt, and assigns new meanings to it. Das reminds us that kama is our duty to live every moment as though it were our last, because making creative use of kama serves higher purpose of life. It is only by becoming aware of the higher purpose of life, a duty to oneself, which can help reclaim our primordial humanity. Kama, the Riddle of Desire is a sensitive but ambitious undertaking on a subject on which lack of female perspective completes only half the story.     

Kama: The Riddle of Desire 
by Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 548, Price: Rs 799.

First published in the BusinessLine, issue dated Dec 10, 2018.

(It is perhaps uncommon for a reviewer to review a book twice, but one can surely have two views on the same title. I have attempted it, please scroll down to read the first review). 

Friday, November 23, 2018

The world of frugal possibilities

If there are pluses in pursuing jugaad as an innovative approach, the flip side of maneuvering obstacles has its moments of shame too!

It goes without saying that most Indians are culturally wired to solve problems. There is a seemingly inbuilt cognitive ability in a large impoverished majority for jugaad, a quick-fix frugal innovation to wriggle out of any challenge. Does it not reflect peoples’ self-reliant optimism to confront challenges? It does, else multiple variants of ‘scare crow’ to protect mature crops would not exist, and neither would equally affordable mechanical improvisations like buttermilk churning washing machine and the motorcycle-cum- tractor. ‘Next to impossible is only possible’ has gone under their skin of people, turning every obstacle into an opportunity as if there is no tomorrow.

The search for a cheaper air conditioner by investigative journalist Dean Nelson, who spent few years in Delhi reporting for the London’s Sunday Times, led him on his jugaad journey which has been as much a celebration of inspiring resourcefulness of the poor as also a criticism on the absence of a formal system to optimize such talent. Not only did he discover the low-cost work-in-progress Snowbreezer, a device that generates cooling effect by passing air over an ice brick, which has yet to be perfected for wider adoption, but was surprised to learn that juggad mentality alone helped the country propel its spacecraft Mangalayam at less than the cost of the Oscar-winning Hollywood space thriller Gravity. Incidentally, neither of the two innovations are products of an economy that values and advances jugaad mentality. 

However, it has yet to hamper the spirit of innumerable people who haven’t allowed poverty to get the better of their intellectual ability at solving problems. No surprise that there are innumerable inspiring tales of optimism amid scarcity and poverty that abound in everyday living of a largely impoverished society in the country. It is a blessing in disguise, as it has spurred creative improvisation for developing products and designing processes that are frugal, flexible, and democratic. From handy tips to improvised tools and from enhanced techniques to adaptive practices, there is a rich repository of innovations on offer. 

While it remains intriguing what fuels innovative desire in ordinary people, equally compelling is the reason why such innovations are gifted, often anonymously, to the society at large? 

In his jugaad journey, however, the author discovered that in addition to being inspiring and socially relevant the unending quest for frugal inventions has led people to bend the rules and beat the system all across. As scarcity is deeply ingrained in the psyche of people, they start looking for ways to bypass it rather than question the system that has led them to scarcity in the first place. From jumping queues to offering bribes, the ability to creatively manage obstacles by adopting quick-fix solutions has become a socially-accepted convenient way of life. If there are pluses in pursuing jugaad as an innovative approach, the flip side of maneuvering obstacles has its moments of shame too, asserts Nelson.

Should jugaad mentality be allowed to circumvent the system? As long as people continue to remain spaced by socio-economic disparities, the best chance for them to survive in such an ecosystem of challenges rests on them being relentless on jugaad. Since the existing system cannot accommodate all the innovations and transform them into entrepreneurs, a large number of those left unattended on the margins will need to pursue the survival options at their disposal. It may, therefore, be risky to paint the world of jugaad with a single brush.

Jugaad Yatra is an absorbing, revealing, and reflective journey on the resilience, individualism and resourcefulness of people which further indicts the government of its failure in the wake of people’s fierce survival instinct. The book is a tour d’Horizon of the enriching world of jugaad, from the dusty village roads in Yamunanagar to the swanky corporate arcades in Mumbai. It provides a snapshot into the world of frugal innovations that are finding their way into the mainstream albeit at a snail’s pace. For the country to tackle its growing socio-economic and political challenges over in the decades ahead, jugaad ought to feature in its list of prescriptions to circumvent many of its challenges. 

Like the English traveler who, during the Mughal period, had recorded that ‘the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done,’ Nelson echoes that people in India have continued to be innovative, with inbuilt entrepreneurial ability to turn things around. This good news can be fully realized by institutionalizing ‘good jugaad’, by giving it a platform on which bottom-up innovations could be converted to address the mounting social, economic, and environmental challenges. 

Jugaad Yatra 
by Dean Nelson
Aleph, New Delhi
Extent: 175, Price: Rs 599

First published in the Hindustan Times, issue dated Nov 24, 2018.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

GDP on a Reckless Aston

From the British Raj to the License Raj, and now the Resource Raj, the relentless growth has proved to be economically disruptive, socially bruising and environmentally destructive.

It has been five years since an Aston Martin, valued at $700,000, hit and spun an Audi A4 onto the opposite carriageway before a collision with another car had its front end crushed. No one was killed in the night of the accident on December 8, 2013, but the identity of the driver remains an unresolved mystery as the mangled remains of the car disappear into oblivion. The case has long been buried, but the skeleton keeps on popping in peoples’ memory. The accident on one of Mumbai’s busiest thoroughfare, Peddar Road, continues to evoke conspiratorial theory even today as the car belonged to the Reliance Industries, and none other than a young man from the country’s pre-eminent business dynasty could have been at the wheel of the invaluable car at that unearthly hour. The confession of a so-called driver claiming to be the one at the wheel during the late-night test drive could be anything but weird, reflective of the tumultuous times when political and economic influence protects the rich.     

Evoking Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age when greedy, corrupt industrialists, bankers and politicians had ruled USA at the turn of the 20th century, the Financial Times’ former Mumbai correspondent James Crabtree provides somewhat similar but an unsettling portrait of the country that claims to uplift itself on the GDP curve but at the expense of its poor and the vulnerable. In each portrait drawn by Crabtree, from Ambani to Adani and from Mallaya to Reddy, none of the wealthy and opulent come out without their share of compelling stories of scams, scandals, and erased crimes. And, the stories are only beginning to unfold in the public. 

The stories may sound familiar on surface but the devil is in the details. The billionaire class may have painted a bright future for the country, but the sanitized capitalism had left public sector banks holding at least $150 billion worth of bad assets in 2017.  Was such a situation unexpected in a democratic set up?  Crony capitalism is at the core of an unholy nexus, which keeps the political machine suitably oiled to fulfill its electoral promises, for regaining power and returning favors back to the businesses to keep it oiled. This unchecked cycle has led to the overnight ascent and dubious finances of the new billionaire class, leading to a shocking trend about the continuing purchase of politics by the wealthy. The die has been cast.

Crabtree has captured what is often considered a given, but for him it is a curious case of a democracy being weakened at its core as the lines between politics and business get blurred to dangerous extremes. No wonder, the country has become a picture postcard story of wealth amidst poverty marked by a growing economy that only widens income inequality. Part of the problem, argues the author, is that India itself, for all the lofty ideals of its constitution, has never actually made the transition to becoming a full liberal democracy, with public institutions capable of guarding in every respect the civil and political rights of its many peoples. 

The Billionaire Raj is a telling account of the pleasures and possibilities of appropriating the state and its systems by an emerging class of political entrepreneurs. In a racy, enlightening, and engaging narrative the author leaves nothing to reader’s imagination as he draws amusing caricatures of the Bollygarchs, a term coined to represent Indian oligarchs. And, these are not without context as the colorful demeanor paints the dark side of the rich and the famous. ‘In his early forties with swept-back black hair and the angle of a crooked nose incongruent with the face’ and ‘a bulky man in a red polo shirt, with gold bracelets on each wrist and chunky diamond ear stud sparkling against his long graying hair’ help the reader see beyond the obvious.  

Much of the foreign correspondent’s memoirs relate to the present political dispensation, on whom alone the blame may not rest, but which hasn’t done much to reverse the trend either. From the British Raj to the License Raj, and now the Resource Raj, the relentless growth has proved to be economically disruptive, socially bruising and environmentally destructive with any number of recent examples to quote from. Having moved to Singapore since completing the book, the author wonders if the country could be any different if it ignores the three major challenges – growing inequality, crony capitalism, and destructive development. 

Crabtree is optimist nonetheless as he draws reference to the Roosevelt-style progressive era, a moment in which anti-corruption campaigns had cleaned up politics and the middle-class had exerted control over government. For this to happen, a lot will need to be done to build state machinery able to create and implement wise public policies, while remaining impartial between different social groups. Without building the state capacity, as Samuel Huntington had cautioned, rapid economic expansion can rip societies apart, resulting in upheaval and social division. The message cannot be more loud and clear!   

The Billionaire Raj
by James Crabtree
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 358, Price: Rs 799

This review was first published in Outlook magazine, issue dated Nov 26, 2018.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The arrows of outrageous Kama

Not only as a force of nature, kama is a product of culture and history reflected in human emotions ranging from love, affection, compassion and joy to adultery, betrayal, jealousy and violence.

Kama or desire has unsettling but compelling disposition that implores human vulnerability, often at the cost of other three goals of human life enshrined in ancient scriptures as - Dharma, Artha and Moksha. Overt emphasis on these three goals may have devalued kama to the extent that its immense creative force has been left unexplored by most. In reality, it is the middle-class morality that has come in the way of reading kama within the sensuousness of a human body, limiting it to the idea of romantic passion that fulfils one’s capability for (sexual) pleasure alone. Curiously, if it had been as deplorable as has been made out to be then why it features as one of the four goals of life, and is respectfully reflected in ancient scriptures and philosophical treatises?    

With an astute philosophical mind and a keen romantic eye, Gurcharan Das pieces together the riddle of desire to restore some balance as kama continues to oscillate contentiously between what he calls kama optimists and kama pessimists – the optimists seek to draw a meaningful purpose of life from it while the pessimists consider it as sheer human limitation. Simply put, within the confines of seeking pleasure manifests kama’s creative as well as destructive powers.  Not only as a force of nature, kama is a product of culture and history reflected in myriad human emotions ranging from love, affection, compassion and joy to adultery, betrayal, jealousy and violence, and the challenge lies in striking a balance between these extremes. 

Unlike poets and philosophers who are usually pessimistic about kama, protagonist Amar meanders through a romantic journey, from a socialist to the liberal era, without denying kama a place in his life by nurturing it as an investment to transcend human limitations. From a childhood crush to a middle age obsession, with a family with two daughters in between, he is hit by kama’s mythical five arrows during various stages of life only to learn that love is a process that develops and changes with time. The fundamental loneliness of human condition got the better of societal moral constraints as Amar seeks liberation from the myth that attachments beyond what is permitted by the society is anything but infringement on human freedom. Can desire be allowed to remain hostage to the norms set by the society and religion?   

Told as a fictional memoir, the book is an ambitious undertaking on balancing the dichotomy of kama’s existence in the body and its reflection by the mind, as an ultimate duty towards oneself to draw the true meaning of life. Subject to how one perceives the narrative, Kama is a story of desire of a human body seen through the percepts of mind. It views desire, as espoused in Rig Veda, as the first seed in the mind, implying thereby that the formless desires form. It is the unique chemistry between the profane and the sacred, marked by a journey that begins with romantic love and culminates into primal energy. Kama is the very root of being human. 

It is through the story of predictable characters that Das weaves his study of desire which helps the reader relate to the contemporary relevance of desire in the times in which we live. For all the purusharthas, the goals of life, the task is to repossess the creative life force of kama to restore harmony in the chaotic modern experience. It is time to think beyond the narrow confines of kama as a subject of sexual desire. The essence of Kamasutra, as a metaphor, needs to be reinterpreted to free it from the gratuitous sense of guilt, thereby helping people relieve the stresses of life. Were the Kamasutra principles the way of life today, the world would have been on a different intellectual stew!

Kama: The Riddle of Desire could not have come at a better time, as human sexuality and relationships are being ascribed different meanings. Marriage, monogamy, adultery and, vengeance would carry different sense in future. To make it easy to comprehend the irresistible transformation, Das invokes Proust to remind us, ‘What matters in life is not whom or what one loves….it is the fact of loving’. As the book sketches the subtle landscape of desire, it reminds each one of us a duty to fulfill one’s capability for pleasure and live a flourishing life.  

For tracing the history of kama and its multiple strands across history, culture and philosophies of both the East and the West, Das deserves praise in creating a mosaic of meanings and interpretations in addressing the riddle of desire. What must not be forgotten however is, as Tolstoy remarked, ‘.. the evidence of other people is no good, all of us must have personal experience of all the nonsense of life in order to get back to life itself’. 

Kama: The Riddle of Desire 
by Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 548, Price: Rs 799

First published in Hindustan Times on Nov 10, 2018.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Good sister, Bad sister

Wanting women to be admirable and admired, the author neither desires women to be ignorant nor ignored by the society.

In his 13th century philosophical treatise on ethics, domestic economy and politics Akhlaq-I Nasiri, theologian Nasir al-Din Tusi had enlisted prescriptions for boys and girls to become gentlemen and ideal women. Although the idea of universal education for women didn’t exist, Tusi had advocated the need for acquiring virtues from everyday living for good conduct by women. This dogmatic child-rearing manual was virtual self-help book in most Muslim households but was to lose its relevance with changing times. Lack of inspiring non-religious literature which could uplift natural instincts of young women to conduct themselves in their married life was felt for a long time. Conservative as it was, the society has had its limitations in imparting moral education to growing children during large periods of imperial dominance. 

Nazir Ahmad had felt such need among his own daughters. That his daughters had a longing for acquiring non-religious knowledge led him to build a fictional narrative that had the cult following after its publication in 1869. Simple in diction and pure in sentiments, Mirat ul –Arus was to become a best-seller in no time, selling over 100,000 copies through multiple editions. It was an experiment in book publishing with Ahmad’s hand written drafts being read by his daughters and neighbors, helping him gain suggestions alongside winning unsolicited publicity. 

The award winning book, considered to be the first Urdu novel, was translated as The Bride’s Mirror in 1903. It is a story of two sisters married to two brothers in the same family: Akbari, the spoilt elder, mean-tempered, an uneducated failure and the younger, Asghari, a competent youngster, who makes a success of everything she turns her hand on. Between the two of them, Asghari wades her way through all sorts of disappointments and setback to rebuild the family and its fortunes while Akbari pulls the family few paces back by pulling out of the household to live separately with her husband. Isn’t it a familiar story that continues to play up till this day? 

Oscillating between joint and nuclear families, The Bride’s Mirror holds reflections on the rapid transformation the society is going through in general and the ceaseless turmoil many households are passing through in particular. Its context may have changed but the basic philosophy persists, and that is, even in changing social dynamics and gender relations women has considerable influence in the affairs of the household and cultivation of morality plays a key role in building harmonious inter-personal relationships. Consequently, in every incident in the story there emerges some counsel about the cultivation of morality or the refinement of social behaviour. 

In recent times, perverse sides of such stories have become a toast of television audiences. While describing good and bad possibilities, The Bride’s Mirror instead provides many moral maxims along the way as it highlights the virtuous and not the wicked. The true reality of life is presented through conversation and dialogues, without loquacity and shows of temperament. This is what makes the book distinct; even the predictable plot has enduring value for the invaluable nuggets of wisdom that lie splashed across the narrative. With a long exhortation addressed to its readers, the author stresses home the instructive purpose of the story. 

Translated by G. E. Ward, the book had earned the praise from its imperial readers as it exposed them to the lived realities of their fellow-subjects. It must have been a revelation for the British that joint families in Delhi could comfortably survive on Rs 15 a month during those days. That the cultural tenacity of interdependence and mutual respect held the traditional households together must have interested the British public in general, who not only gained insights on household arrangements but also learnt that even in conservative society women had a significant role to play in the household. 

Narrated with a vividness and colloquial detail, the story dispels the common notion that past times were more repressive and unenlightened than today. It is a story of women told by man, stacking women with total responsibility of managing and running the households. For feminists, this approach might be somewhat problematic. But not for Ahmad who desires women to stake claim to authority through good deeds and not otherwise.  Wanting women to be admirable and admired, the author neither desires women to be ignorant nor ignored by the society. 

Nazir Ahmad had cemented his literary acumen by completing a trilogy of books, Banat un-Nash  (for teaching useful facts) and Taubat un-Nasuh (for teaching piety) were award winning additions to his first book. Much might have changed ever since The Bride’s Mirror was published; the story remains relevant as the quest for making life and relationships virtuous remains never ending.  

The Bride’s Miirror
by Nazir Ahmad, translated by G E Ward
Aleph, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 399

An abridged version of this review was first published on the Literary Review of The Hindu on Oct 28, 2018.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

From one of the Queens to the only Empress

‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’

Her self-assessment was in contrast to her role as an astute politician, an enigmatic queen, and an innovative architect. The only woman with a non-imperial lineage to acquire the stature of an empress, Nur Jahan sought to inscribe on her tomb in Lahore ‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’ For one who rewrote history, the epitaph marks her boundless generosity and unlimited humility come alive. History may not have been as kind to her as she was to her fellow beings. During her lifetime, Nur Jahan was always eager to help orphans, beggars, and the homeless. She would often intervene to protect peasants from harassment or over taxation by provincial authorities. Farid Bhakkri, who served the Mughal court, noted that the Empress supported the weddings of orphan girls, and even designed an inexpensive wedding dress Nur Mahali, still used by brides of poorer families. By offering choice of marriage to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the harem, Nur became the earliest feminist in a male Mughal dynasty.     

Till recently, historians failed to recognize her exceptional talents and instead attributed Nur’s meteoric rise to the vulnerability of an inebriated Jahangir, her Emperor husband. Although many of her male contemporaries were in awe of Nur, it was hard for them to swallow that a woman could attain unprecedented political and cultural acumen. Even the Europeans like Thomas Roe and Peter Mundy, who were privy to the Mughal court, could not quite wrap their minds around a woman coming to power because of her sheer talents. No surprise, therefore, most attributed her cunning and conniving nature for gaining co-sovereign authority over a lovelorn king.  

Historian Ruby Lal thinks otherwise. Taking a deep dive into the historical records, she yields provocative and extensive evidence of the forces that shaped Nur Jahan. Who could have ever thought that a baby girl born on a roadside to parents who were fleeing repressive Persia for Indian green pastures would not only become the most favored wife of emperor Jahangir but would attain the status of an Empress? How did it happen? And, how could she do it? From enlightened parental education in early years to an independent existence after first marriage, times favored her expressive inheritance. Also, it must have helped Nur develop a distinct identity as, unlike most Mughal women, she spent the least period in the imperial harem.

Nur Jahan was a product of her time, and did not miss any opportunity to hone and demonstrate her skills. Jahangir’s vow to give up hunting gave Nur an opportunity to show her shooting prowess. No one is sure where and when did she learn shooting but she could amaze everybody by slaying four tigers in only six shots. Jahangir’s mobility too helped Nur deepen and broaden her leadership skills. While the Emperor pursued his interests in nature, geography, art, and philosophy, Nur took on administrative responsibilities by issuing imperial orders under her seal. 

Empress provides an extraordinary detailed account of a remarkable woman, who lived through the reign of three great Mughal rulers. Hailing from a family of Nobles, her father served the Mughal courts of Akbar and Jahangir, she learnt imperial demeanor from her father and brothers. As a result, Nur seemed more canny than other royal women of her age about the workings of the empire. It reflected in the manner in which she conducted herself, both within the court and with the masses. Lal provides a detailed account of how Nur liberated the Emperor from the captivity of a rebellion nobleman, something that doesn’t get as much attention in historical literature.   

While Nur Jahan rise to power was relatively swift, her downfall was even swifter. Her political scheme to anoint her son-in-law Shahryar as the future Emperor did not go to well with the Emperor-in-Waiting Shah Jahan, who made every possible attempt at erasing her legacy by holding her responsible for the succession chaos that took place in the last years of Jahangir’s reign. All attempts at demonetizing currency coins of the Jahangir-NurJahan era were unsuccessful, some coins bearing Nur Jahan's seal survived and are safely preserved in museum(s). Lal’s Empress gives Nur Jahan the due, and acknowledges that if she had her strengths she had her raw ambition and vulnerabilities too.    

Nur Jahan’s last years’ were of isolated existence in Lahore, much of which she spent in building her own mausoleum. That she was a remarkable woman, a perfect example of beauty with brains, whose legend will continue to be remembered with affection, awe and pride. As a discerning reader of medieval history, I yearn to know more about the life of Nur's daughter Ladli, the widow of Shahryar. 

Empress
by Ruby Lall
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 599

Monday, September 17, 2018

Because there are buyers around!

Pulling the world of knowledge from the trap of capitalist economy warrants a shift towards restoring academic freedom.

Neoliberal approaches in higher education have largely failed, as:  it has not led to greater efficiencies but to more bureaucracy; it has not led to greater liberties but to more constraints on teaching, research, and engagement; it has not led to more robust and autonomous institutions but to weakened institutions linked too closely to the immediate concerns of the day; and it has not led to new ways to grapple with the crises that face us but to treading farther down the same paths that created those crises. Prof. Lawrence Busch contends that as the capitalist economy promotes the marketing and branding of everything and everyone, pulling the world of knowledge out from the trap of the business model that aims at investing in education for getting a good job would warrant a shift towards restoring academic freedom.     

Knowledge for Sale could not have appeared at a more important time, as it reflects the painful decline the institutions of higher learning are going through. At stake is the role of higher education as a crucial public good, which is being compromised under the influence of the markets. The crisis is so stark that its symptoms are spread all over: decline of humanities education, escalating student debt, and underpaid contract faculty. One would imagine that with the only knowledge worth pursuing is that which has more or less immediate market value, such a situation was bound to occur.  

Lawrence Busch is not convinced, and challenges this market-driven approach. His thesis is based on the premise that most of the present-day problems – from climate change to water shortages, and from obesity to financial crises – would need new knowledge in addressing each of these issues. To imagine that market alone will resolve such issues is a fallacy worth challenging, because the market is neither inclusive nor transformative. It does alter consumptive habits only to the extent of minting profits, and almost always by externalizing costs of such a transition. Consider how market incentives in our food system promote diets that create obesity, thereby putting extra demands on medical institutions. Markets on their own cannot substitute institutions of higher education and research which co-create knowledge for the state to act upon. 

Drawing a distinction between liberals of 18th and 19th centuries with neo-liberals of 20th and 21st centuries, the author explains that while the liberals had argued that the State should merely leave the market alone, the neo-liberals sought nation-states active involvement in the market instead. No surprise, therefore, that the market has intervened at individual and institutional levels by changing the rules of the game. Hence, markets and market-like competitions have replaced direct government intervention in promoting higher education and research. 

Professor emeritus of sociology at Michigan State University, with research interests in environmental and agricultural research, Busch argues that education is a public good and that an educated citizenry is an essential component of functional democracy. Through an in-depth analysis on the influence of neo-liberalism the book provides a crucial rationale for defending higher education as an important public good, which ought to be protected from corporate control as defined by agents of privatization, deregulation, and commodification. For this to be realized, universities and research institutions must be remade as places where the future is neither already made in the mold of the market nor in which the market is to be avoided at all costs, but where many possible futures are proposed, debated, and discussed.

Among many cases of the kind, the case of 10-year lease agreement worth Canadian $7 million biotechnology research between Monsanto and the University of Manitoba illustrates how market influences research that may not necessarily be in the public interest. For three years, much to the dismay of many faculty members, the university administration unsuccessfully suppressed the news. This isn’t an isolated case of market influenced research. What is more, such dubious agreements erode public faith in research institutions.  

Knowledge for Sale peels many layers of the crises, including individual researchers’ laid back attitude awaiting pay-checks to those who capitalize public resources to maximize personal goals. Such situations have created a ‘moral hazard’ for the public sector, which only helped create an opening for the market to make inroads through open competition for external grants and by tagging institutions as products in the market. Although there is some merit in this approach as it promises to increase efficiency, productivity and profits, it eventually undermines research, education, public engagement, and fails to contribute to promoting democracy. In the nutshell, public good gets compromised! 

In making a case for the promoting and strengthening public good, Busch investigates four institutional core areas - administration, education, research, and extension – in enlisting specific proposals for change. Ranging from making research institutions secure places with attached conditions to making universities models of democratic discourse, the book challenges the pervasive idea that higher education needs to be run like a business. Citing successful initiatives at many universities and research institutions, Busch has drawn an actionable agenda at the core of which the leading question before the society at large is: what kind of universities and research institutes we want to help us come out of the wicked problems afflicting us?    

For those in the spheres of academics, Knowledge for Sale offers substance to view the current predicaments while at the same time remaining brief and accessible. 

Knowledge for Sale
by Lawrence Busch
The MIT Press, USA
Extent: 153, Price: $25.95

First published in Current Science, issue dated January 25, 2019.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Music to the years

During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity.

Could there be any political underpinnings of the time reflected in this unforgettable song Hum bewafa hargiz na thay, par hum wafa kar na sake of the late 70’s? Not much is there to write home about Anand Bakshi’s lyrics, but Kishore Kumar’s pitch, tone and tenor of delivery made the song a timeless classic. Give a discerning year to the song and one can draw an interesting parallel to this hit-song from a flop-film. Much like the short-lived Janata Party rule at the centre at that time, the much-hyped film Shalimar too had flopped at the box office the same year. And, the song conveyed the message that letting down the people was neither the objective nor the intention. It applied as much to the characters in reel life as to the politicians in real life. 

Differing in their journalistic experiences and personal interests, Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti and Sushant Singh teamed together to draw such parallels, one song per year, to complement the twists and travails of seventy years of post-independent era. As much a book of general knowledge, Note by Note captures the rhythm of country’s socio-economic and political rumblings to the beat of popular film music. The symphony it creates is imaginative, interesting and engaging albeit in parts.

There is no denying the fact that Bollywood songs have held relevance beyond the narratives and situations unfolding in the films. Living in our collective memory, songs articulate some of our deepest desires, delights and even nightmares. Written by some of the great contemporary poets and composed by pre-eminent musicians, film songs have tended to reflect upon our everyday existential, social, national, and universal concerns. The authors argue that rather than narrowing the notion of ‘India’, popular music has continued to expand it. During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity. . 

If Guru Dutt’s reaction to the persistent corruption and degradation of society a decade after independence was masterfully captured in the song Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahan hai, the end of jury system following the landmark Nanavati case was epitomized by Pyar kiya to darna kya. Without doubt, much of the 60s and 70s were youthful years of post-independence generation, the whiff of romance in the air found reflections in first, Oh haseena zulfon waali as an attempt to woo lady love, and second,  Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko confirming  that love has finally found its mark. With one song representing each year of independent India’s history, the book gives music to the years by picking one Hindi film song that was composed and widely heard during the year. 

Nothing could be more challenging than to pick one popular from among hundreds of songs to mirror the development of the nation during a particular year. Some lyrics closely reflect the unfolding realities whereas many other songs need interpretation to match the situation. While the authors argue that the link between words and tunes of songs with the people has been deeper and stronger, the present-day lyricists and composers have the added challenge to generate the level of feelings that can sustain that link. 

Although the efforts by Bhardwaj, Chishti and Singh are commendable, midway through the book a reader starts to wonder if it is a general knowledge book peppered with songs or a book of songs interspersed with general knowledge. However, the authors succeed in making reading modern history musical by juxtaposing short analyses of the songs with thumbnail sketches of development. Papa kehte hain bada naam karega bore little resemblance to the events in the country in 1988, but the lyrics by celebrated poet Majrooh Sultanpuri sought hope amidst all round anxiety. Whether or not one accepts the choice of songs, the selection not only captures the overall mood and groove of the year but the poetic sensitivity with which it was musically expressed as well. 

Be it a reflection of Jawaharlal Nehru drafting country’s future through Afsana likh rahe hoon in 1947 to the period of deaths and strife in 1993 which sought nothing less than a mourner to hum Dil hoom hoom kare, Ghabaraae, the songs of the past seven decades clearly reflect the innate resilience that has seen the country emerge unscathed from each bout of uncertainty. Nothing but the number Anhoni ko honi kar dein, honi ko anhoni, from the movie Amar Akbar Anthony, released in 1977, reflects our national character of pulling ourselves out from all odds. 

Having grown up with the memorable film music of yesteryears, the book evokes nostalgia of the era when rhythm and melody reigned supreme in conveying emotions of all hues. The songs of the past were part of the cultural fabric of the society, stirring emotional chord with its listeners. In the predominant market culture, however, songs are like products on the supermarket shelves! 

Note By Note
by Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti, Sushant Singh
Harper Collins, Delhi
Extent: 159, Price: $35  

First published in Hindustan Times dated Sept 8, 2018