Saturday, November 21, 2020

Resetting the clock to rethink life

De-growth can help people engage life journeys with patience and compassion, rather than investing in material acquisitions to escape the daily quota of pain, sadness and frustration.

Epidemics have happened in the past but the speed and scope of the present contagion has left the world reeling under its brutal impact. The interconnectivity of accelerated global economies with encroached habitats, exhaustive agriculture and commoditized wildlife has helped the virus to move without any inhibition to expose the weak fundamentals of the existing economic systems. The billion dollar question that begs serious attention is whether the existing systems would be capable of scaling back production at levels and in ways that do not cause further loss of livelihood and life? And, will the growth of society slowed down by an unprecedented disaster emerge more resilient later, with the goal of mitigating the economic and ecological crises which has led it to the present situation?

Pursuit of growth cannot address the growth pangs, much like addressing a problem by applying the solution that caused the problem leads nowhere. The core problem with the capitalist model of growth is that it leads to mounting debt, increasing inequality, rising unemployment, and shrinking finances, and sacrifices made in its pursuit lead to externalizing costs that are forced on both poor people and mute nature. What it does though is to keep billions under the illusion that trickle-down effect will get them leftovers of accumulated wealth year-on-year, but the broad architecture of the economic construct remains exclusionist at the core.

Confronting the idiom of economism head-on may seem preposterous, but slowing down under the current pandemic with ideas on frugality having caught on seems an apt time to press home the case for degrowth. After defining the term in their first book, Degrowth - A Vocabulary for A New Era, the authors take the idea forward in their second outing half a decade later by suggesting a way of living with less, however, with the aim of living differently by promoting well being, equity and sustainability. Degrowth, according to the quartet, should help people engage life journeys with patience, compassion and care for self and others, rather than investing time and resources for material acquisitions to escape the daily quota of pain, sadness and frustration. After all, how long should the cycle of sufferings remain self-perpetuating? 

While the political system is obsessed with a growth-driven model based on private property, paid labor, and a consumptive market, The Case for Degrowth provides numerous cross-country examples of eco-communes, transition towns, and co-living communities that need support, strengthening, and scaling up. Spread over five sections, with an add-on section elucidating the frequently asked questions, this pithy book offers well-argued critique of the growth systems while presenting policy packages for promoting degrowth that will help people produce only as much, consume less, share more, enjoy time, and live with dignity and joy. There are clear directions being proposed in the book to make degrowth a reality, however, it by no means should be read as a euphemism for ‘green deal’ as it is a low resource use transformative process that ensures universal basic services for all, with an assured universal basic income. 

Offering deep analysis, the book argues for a transformative politics that is not back-to-the-roots journey but one that provides multiple options and strategies about recreating frameworks for engaging communities in playing an active role in designing their own life support systems. Ever since it was launched at a global conference in Paris in 2008, degrowth has caught on as an idea for researchers and movements to pursue as an alternative to growth-obsessed politics. With GDP driven global economy taking a serious beating during the pandemic, the book could not have come at a more appropriate time. 

The Case for Degrowth is a bold new statement on re-ordering values and resources to support the development of diverse life-making processes operating in different logics under differing conditions. The writers are convinced that by adopting diversity of approaches can resilience be achieved in the face of the existential crises. Written with empathy and concern, the book is an open invitation to its readers to play a proactive role in pushing the idea at levels that can generate political support for a non-GDP growth. 

The paradigm shift in proposed policies and actions in the book take into account historical, cultural and social contexts which may have its share of pitfalls, but the pandemic has indeed shown that modest living, enjoyed in solidarity, amidst shared living is indeed a possibility.

The Case for Degrowth
by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria 
Polity, Cambridge (UK)
Extent: 151, Price: US$12.95.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated Nov 22, 2020.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Don't Wanna Know

Our taste for ignorance is a strategic tool for autocracies, a drug spurring mindless consumerism and turning crucial profit.

The cover picture of this pithy book says it all, ignorance could be a blissful reality as it does not involve not knowing but constitutes an abject surrender to denial in the event of reality becoming too hard or painful to grasp. Nothing matches this better than the abject denial by leaders at the first ever online G20 Summit in late March, proclaiming that the world ‘will overcome the pandemic’. Such collective denial by world leaders has cost the society valuable lives and livelihoods while the corona virus has continued to rampage the world, confirming thereby that democracy has become a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.  For Renata Salecl, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, intriguing is the overwhelming relevance of ignorance in post-truth era when we are effectively swimming in constant surge of information and misinformation. 

Ignorance is not a new invention though, but an age-old human trait that plays out in many different aspects of daily life. Instances from daily existence do reflect that feigning ignorance in matters of love, illness and trauma has been found critical in keeping the desire of being active and alive. But why being ignorant at times works better than being knowledgeable is the question that Salecl explores through the realm of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and popular culture. While there is little denying that people in the grip of anxiety use ignorance as an efficient defense, it is baffling that the so-called knowledge economy has turned upside down as an ignorance economy. As a result, ignorance holds both social and political currency that knowledge does not. 

One would tend to agree with Salecl that in this technology-driven world, to embrace ignorance is more a matter of choice. ‘To know or not to know’ is context specific and of vital importance for any individual. The French philosopher Michael Foucault may have equated power with knowledge in his seminal work during the mid-twentieth century, understanding how power relates to ignorance today holds much relevance. More so, as the rise of cognitive inertia in the post-truth era has helped leaders persist with bundle of lies while more and more people increasingly show indifferent to making a distinction between what is a truth and what is a lie?

A Passion of Ignorance could not have come at a better time as ignorance is fast gaining increased legitimacy in the public space, and there is little by way of explanation for this growing trend. The book cautions that collective ignorance is emerging as a passion, letting it be manipulated as a strategic tool for autocratic politics. Lack of knowledge is no longer a matter of concern as a search engine such as Google is only a click away. Alarming though is the fact that with an easy access to information, everyone has become an amateur expert while casting serious aspersions towards any form of professional expertise.   

Are we then staring at a future when the society will greatly depend on its ability to inhibit intellectual capabilities? Current skepticism for knowledge may indicate so but Salecl considers it as a transiting phase that has light at the end of the tunnel. With a rising number of people actively choosing not to know and with little by way of distinction that can be made to ascertain what is known is true or false, suggests Salcel, the world may indeed be heading towards reclaiming the role of knowledge. Since our anxieties for lack of knowledge have yet to reach a critical threshold, it is anybody’s guess when the end of the tunnel will indeed get sighted. 

A Passion for Ignorance remains inconclusive but unfolds aspects that explain why acquiring knowledge has taken a backseat in the quest for economic growth, and how the process may be reversed? However, it offers a multi-layered narrative on how ignorance manifests itself in various facets of science, technology and psychology, and why technology-driven capitalism will continue to nurture ignorance to remain in the business of profit. Little gets realized that be it packaged products or acquired information, consumers have little clue how the algorithms are at work to promote ignorance in order to make profits. Unless people begin to question their trust in pre-packaged knowledge by pressing the anxiety button about the unknown, our capacity to remain willfully ignorant will only expand and flourish. 

Written with academic clarity and professional empathy, Prof. Renata Salecl takes the reader into an insightful journey on why we are what we have become, not realizing that we are increasingly being left out in our highly unequal society. The corona virus onslaught has only exposed our systemic vulnerability at the hands of the powers-that-be to remain ignorant, and thus exploited. A Passage for Ignorance is a call for breaking free from the interplay of circumstance and choice that only aims to keep all of us trapped in the sphere of ignorance. 

A Passion for Ignorance
by Renata Salecl
Princeton University Press, USA
Extent: 195, Price: $24.95

First published in weekly Outlook, issue dated Nov 7, 2020.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Inside the wilds of curiosity

Literature has stayed aloof in generating environmental consciousness, leading to inter-generational disconnect in transferring the subtleties of inter-dependence on nature and myriad other life forms.

Whether auspicious or propitious, the bee-stung protagonist from village Mudigree in Chickamaglur district takes the reader on an exploration of many worlds of human existence, both natural and exogenous, in the pristine forest ecosystems of the Western Ghats. Known for his astute observations, curious reflections, imaginative narrative, and unpretentious writing, K P Purnachandra Tejaswi weaves a simple but imaginative story that interconnects nature with human follies, inquisitiveness and wisdom. Carvalho, the self-effacing scientist, connects dots in the enticing story through Mandana, the bee keeper; Raami, his lady love; Kariappa, the born tree-climber; and Kiwi, the Golden Spaniel; towards reconfirming nature as a living laboratory where evolutionary forces are still at work. Laced with wit and humour, the multi-layered narrative unleashes the power of insightful observations as the guiding spirit for being in harmony with nature. 

Three decades since it was first published, the novella has not lost out on its popularity for its style and simplicity in creating narrative engagement that helps the curious, observant and indulging child come to life in each of its readers. It is only as a child that one begins to make learning a reality. To this effect, Tejaswi adopts the role of both as a participant and narrator in pursuing his childlike curiosity in creating a literary form that remains non-judgemental but perceptive and persuasive nonetheless. Carvalho helps the reader face the perils of modernity with the right mix of native beliefs and wisdom. 

Language and literature have curiously stayed aloof in generating environmental consciousness, leading to inter-generational disconnect in transferring the subtleties of our inter-dependence on nature and myriad other life forms. In the words of author Amitav Ghosh, an absence of serious literature on the subject has contributed to society’s collective failure in getting a sense of the imminent ecological crises. Western Ghats region has imprints of ecological callousness like none other but without much anxiety reflected by its inhabitants. Further, the conventional cause-effect narrative on the emerging environmental catastrophe rarely engages many.

Carvalho ought to be read in light of such reality. As a storyteller, the narrator doesn’t lay undue emphasis on environment but leaves it to the reader’s imagination to create possibilities in his or her own depth of understanding. Neither obtrusive nor preachy, the story in search of the elusive flying lizard is a narrative axiom that has environment as its central character. Engaging in both concept and setting, the reader is taken through real-life experiences in the wild as a lived reality. What’s more, it is an effortless ease with which the power of prose creates an enduring relationship between the reader and the human/non-human characters. 

By fusing the evolutionary processes with contemporary realities, the writer provokes his readers to contemplate ‘why has nature transformed humans into quadrupeds while the likes of flying lizard remains unchanged’. There are not many like Tejaswi who have immersed themselves into deep intellectual pursuit in getting closer to our current state of being. The author shares his fascination for nature’s beauty reflected in the subtle composition of colours and the structure in beetles, butterflies and grasshoppers which convinces him to let them be an observer’s delight.  

Carvalho is a remarkable story that acts as a non-imposing guide to observing nature in its pristine state without losing on the feelings of excitement and wonderment. Packed with humour and rustic wisdom, the story evokes the awe of the unknown as an emotion that can ignite the imagination of children and adults alike. Tejaswi is clear that it is only through such writings that literature can move closer to meeting its primary responsibility towards society. In doing so, he calls upon his contemporary writers to move away from self-serving modernist writing of the early seventies. Not many could emulate the Sahitya Akademi laureate though. 

Tejaswi’s legacy lives on, and so has been his craft of storytelling. The distinction in his writing stems from his ability to accord equal importance to all the major and minor characters in taking the story forward. In Carvalho, he lays emphasis on inter-connectedness, between humans, animals and non-humans, as the leitmotif for understanding and appreciating nature. It makes for an interesting and absorbing read, with measure of its excellence partly resting on the translation being close to the original. In Prof. D A Shankar, Carvalho has had the benefit of an accomplished litterateur who hasn’t missed out on detailing the characters in same light as conceived by the superior craftsman. It is an enduring work of fiction with all the necessary ingredients - simplicity of language, strong imagination, and formal inventiveness. 

Carvalho by K P Puranchandra Tejaswi
Translated by: D A Shankar
Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi
Extent: 98, Price: Rs.80.

First published in Seminar, issue dated Nov 2020.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Mirror to the hellfire

The poor are at the receiving end of a systemic malaise triggered by cocktail of all pervasive religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, sustained ignorance, and a frenzied media.

It is easy to be vicious and difficult to be virtuous in today’s world, especially when many of the social structures that connect and sustain us enable exploitation and disincentivize justice. Rarely is virtue encouraged when subjugation and subversion has gained currency in a politically vitiated environment. 

A Burning is borne out of such contemporary realities, where freedom has a price that a majority is not willing to pay for. And those who eventually pay, do so by putting their life at stake. Jivan, unlike a muslim woman name, captures the collective amnesia of a tumultuous society in which life oscillates between personal aspirations and political ambitions. Written with empathy and concern, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, a native Bengali who moved to New York, creates an imagery of urban reality with its embedded fears and hopes.

Jivan’s agitated mind could not forego the horror of witnessing some hundred people charred to death inside a firebombed train at a station which reflected in her facebook outburst ‘if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’ Little did she realize that such innocuous statement would be her undoing, shattering starry-eyed hopefulness of making it big in the city with poor ailing parents? Forced to sign a confession statement of abetment in the terrorist act, her future lay doomed in the prison. For the world outside, her impoverished life had fodder for the frenzied media to cook stories of plotting against the state. 

Recent political churnings do lend familiarity to the story, but the narrative draws two related characters whose compelling presence do not raise hope for the lead protagonist but provide inter-connectedness to the vulnerabilities that afflicts them. While PT Sir, the physical education teacher knew Jivan as an avid sportsperson who could do no wrong, the transgender Lovely who took language tuition from Jivan knew she was carrying books and not bombs on that fateful day. 

Majumdar allows her characters to assess the depth of their friendship against the emerging volatility in developing their own narratives as both nurture personal dreams and ambitions. After all, there are brutally honest moments in everybody’s life when subjectivity of desire and longing over-weighs ideal societal concerns. Can you blame anyone from wanting, so much, to be not even rich, but just middle class? 

A Burning is a sympathetic reflection on the lives of ordinary people in the world’s largest democracy, where self-justification has legitimized status quo of existence. No wonder, therefore, many things continue to happen in ordinary lives for no reason at all. ‘People are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled.’ It goes without saying that the poor are at the receiving end of gross systemic malaise triggered by a cocktail of all pervasive religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, sustained ignorance, and a frenzied media. The abuse of power by influence peddling opportunists’ pushes a vast majority to the margins. 

Majumdar’s impressionistic young mind captures the undercurrents of sustained exploitation of the poor, but offers little by way of salvaging such lives. The narrative highlights natural weaknesses of its characters, who lack courage to defend truth and end-up being part of the media frenzy that guns for the blood of an innocent. Is it a reflection on the emerging culture of our times or an indictment of the dominant political discourse that has polarized the society? The writer leaves the reader to draw distinction as the fast paced narrative falls short of offering any political corrective to the rampant dumbing down of the public mindscape. Victim of their own circumstances and vulnerabilities, none of the characters stand up to get counted. What is disturbing is the bluntness with which they make choices, representing freedom in pursuing opportunities for serving their interests. 

The novel’s much hyped release notwithstanding, A Burning falls short of expectations to evince interest. It misses out on an element of suspense to be a thriller; and falls short of strong imagination to sustain curiosity. However, it scores in detailing the street life within which its leading characters justify their existence, and their predicaments. Their fated actions don’t evoke strong feelings though, and instead expose their meekness. And, meek characters do not necessarily make for an inspiring narrative. 

A Burning offers a measured assessment of expansion of a political ideology that is both horrifying and devastating. Such ideologies leave little in the hands of people to make informed choices, but enforce decisions upon them to act in a way it is deemed deem fit. The interplay of circumstance and choice under such conditions is but a vicious trap of vulnerability from which the characters can hardly escape. 

A Burning
by Megha Mazumdar
Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, New Delhi
Extent: 293, Price: Rs.599.

First published in Deccan Herald, issue dated Oct 4, 2020.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Freedom's Backstory

This study busts the persistent myths about colonialism, also detailing how many Britons turned against their empire’s endless oppression.

There is an unmistakable stamp of authority in Priyamvada Gopal’s unraveling of the compelling history of self-determination by the enslaved colonial subjects in her magisterial new book Insurgent Empire. Having courted early controversy in questioning the assertion of the Empire benevolence over its subjects by historian Niall Ferguson on an infamous 2006 BBC show, Gopal has shown courage of conviction in confronting the imperial amnesia by conforming that the colonized people were active agents in their own liberation. In more ways than one, Insurgent Empire is a credible revision of the colonial history, and the struggles of the oppressed against the oppressor.

Making a significant contribution to the colonial history, Gopal lends an authoritative rejoinder to the sustained view that the empire was a necessary undertaking to civilize the natives. Historical accounts provide evidence to the contrary as natives remained hostile towards any such undertaking by the colonial enterprise. In the words of lawyer and jurist John Bruce Norton, who claimed to have foreseen the great Mutiny, the pedagogic value of the sepoys’ asking the British to examine their own betrayals called for a certain kind of reverse tutelage, seeking the oppressor to learn from the oppressed. In a sense, it was a call for the ruling elites to bend their ear low to their subjects – to listen and integrate. In contrast, the enclaves of power did just the opposite.  

Following the mutiny, the colonial system had reduced itself to producing grinding situations for the peasants in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sustained unrest among the masses was vividly captured by many critics of the empire, who found that cataclysmic revolt was not altogether impossible. For Keir Hardie, the Labour Party pioneer and a natural-born critic of the imperial  project, the dissatisfaction with imperial rule was deep-rooted to warrant convulsions; for journalist Henry Nevinson the power of resistance had made thoughts of imperial benevolence obsolete; and for future British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, renascent national pride had taken roots from the idea of Swadeshi. Insurgent Empire provides clear evidence that the resistance to the empire had generated dissent around the imperial project within Britain as well, which had emboldened the movement and lent support for self-rule to become a reality. 

It is an instructive reading on how Indian agency became a currency that the empire could no longer ignore, and which only helped its own working class learn that their oppression wasn’t any different from the injustice unleashed by their ruling elite in the faraway land. In these times when popular dissent is viewed with utter disdain, Insurgent Empire makes for gratifying reading in getting a layered sense of how dissent in the colonial contexts can be interpreted to revise and radicalize existing dissenting tendencies. With the history always in the quest of repeating itself, Gopal’s use of the narrative texts of anti-colonial resistance helps to elucidate the relationship between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Howsoever marginalized, it is clear that dissent must articulate itself against the grain of the dominant at all times.    

Insurgent Empire makes somewhat different reading of the natives’ movement for emancipation. It articulates freedom as a human desire for self-assertion, which spread like wildlife among the suppressed across colonized lands. It argues that the treatment of resistance as mere episodes harbors a serious cost, which both the oppressed and the oppressor had to bear. One can find a sense of discovery in the manner in which Gopal has interrogated the diversity of records in weaving a comprehensive history of anti-colonialism, and its subsequent implications. Besides the political and historical, the voluminous study provides insights on the difficulties that the empire encountered in understanding the native mind. It threw open the problematic of engaging with subjugated others with whom a common ground of reconciliation was never found. 

What is more disturbing, however, is the persistence of colonial mythology in the minds of British public and its political masters that the ideas of freedom and liberty were indeed bestowed on the colonial subjects by their imperial masters. No surprise, therefore, that successive British prime ministers have repeatedly asserted that ‘the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over’, as the greatest ideas of tolerance, liberty and civic duty have been endured by the British. Gopal has painstakingly tried to undo this mythology systematically, urging Britons to interrogate such mythologies that they are routinely invited to consume, and instead lay claim on more challenging history of their own emancipation in the wake of the widespread rebellion. Insurgent Empire is an ambitious undertaking that argues against disdainful dismissals and active silencing of dissent and resistance to fully decolonize the minds of the powerful in the postcolonial world.  

Insurgent Empire
by Priyamvada Gopal
Simon&Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 607, Price: Rs 799.

First published in weekly Outlook, issue dated Sept 28, 2020.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Endearing legacy of the slain prince

Dara was a great unifier of religions and essayed his brand of religious liberalism at a time when orthodox Sunni faith was on its ascendancy.

The legacy and the myths surrounding him have far outlived Dara Shukoh, inspiring historians of varied hues to reconstruct the unusual persona of a prince who could have been an Emperor. A visionary thinker, a talented poet, a prolific writer, a theologian, a calligraphist, and a warm-hearted family man, the eldest son and chosen successor of 5th Mughal Emperor Shahjahan held a bundle of virtues like none other but could not breach the war of succession that had come to symbolize the ruling dynasty. Yet, the tragedy of a multifaceted visionary and the counterfactual Dara Shukoh poses continues to our own times.

Clearly ahead of times in expressing love, compassion and tolerance towards other faiths, Dara was cast in the mold of his great grandfather Akbar to give the Mughal lineage a distinct identity in history. That was not to be as his die-hard pursuit for pantheistic philosophy, which made his mind glued to addressing philosophical questions, had robbed him of the slightest interest in military strategy. Sitting beside his father in the court, the crown prince would often be oblivious of the proceedings around him. What was overlooked by the doting father and the Emperor didn’t miss the attention of the courtiers who began to harbor misgivings about Dara’s credentials as the future of the empire. For the prince, however, the empire was confined to his inner world.

Why the Emperor didn’t infuse the indomitable Timurid spirit in the crown prince? Why the quest to win the war of succession was not transposed on Dara? Was the eldest of the claimants to the throne a reluctant sovereign? These questions continue to resurface as historians reconstruct the legacy of the ‘good’ Mughal whose ascendance to the throne would have altered the course of Indian history. Avik Chandra’s meticulously researched and engrossing biography of the slain prince presents him as a syncretic scholar of extraordinary genius whose growing enmity with the clergy had put paid through his life in a purely Islamic state. 

History remains inconclusive on why a prince who had repeatedly demonstrated his lack of interest in the tedium of administration was chosen successor to the throne? This may have led him, the de-facto administrator of the empire under imperial protection, to see little reason to renounce the comforts of his regal life while in intellectual pursuit of the ultimate truth. Such unrequited confidence, combined with his derision of the clerics, proved costly in the long run for the crown prince as growing number of detractors and adversaries insidiously worked against him. It may not be erroneous to conclude that Shahjahan’s excessive love made Dara an innocent victim of the political circumstances.   

Like his forefathers Akbar and Jahangir, Dara was a great unifier of religions and essayed his brand of religious liberalism at a time when orthodox Sunni faith was on its ascendency. In discussions with the learned men of all faiths, he had concluded that apart from the manner of exposition of the doctrines there was no difference between Islam and Hinduism. Dara’s abiding interest in gnosticism and monotheism continues to endear till this day, serving the ideological positions of those who seek to establish supremacy of the dominant religion. However, for the crown prince the search for spiritual truth was for his personal redemption. 

Chanda’s retelling of an interesting and somewhat decisive period in medieval history presents Dara as a scholar-philosopher who was pushed into the war of succession more out of compulsion than choice. He may not have been any match to his three brothers, who each controlled a revenue region and were always battle-ready, but his scholarly erudition was to become a legend in history. Dara’s translation of the Upanishads into Persian is one among his works that continues to engage a generation of Indologists. It is a matter of conjecture if without formal training and exposure in military strategy the crown prince could have become an Emperor?          

Packed with delightful and unknown details, Dara Shukoh is a sensitive portrayal of the life and times of the poet-prince to whom history remained kind in parts. While he did not live to attain the imperial status his father had ordained for him, his legacy resonates far and wide even after more than three centuries. That the prince pursued the path of religious tolerance in the volatile times of power politics is enough to remind us not to lose out to the forces who are condemned to repeat history. In an engrossing narrative, Chanda tries to construct the mental imagery of his protagonist whose posthumous fame remains unparalleled. It seems there is more to Dara Shukoh then there ever was, relevance of his thoughts have only increased with time.

Dara Shukoh is a brilliant recreation of the bygone era, which presents the enigmatic prince as a mystic with ecstatic assertion about his spiritual vision. Written with empathy and concern, it brings to light the philosophical insights of the person who remained in pursuit of truth all his life. What is interesting though is the manner in which the author has connected the past with the present, in not only detailing the sight of Dara’s burial but about the library that still houses the remainder of his collection of over two million volumes in Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. If he is the person who could have changed the course of our history as it is widely believed, then will it not be prudent to preserve his works as a historical heritage? The book is suggestive of the need to pay attention to preserving Dara Shukoh’s works, because his vision of India remains relevant to this day. Avik Chanda’s meticulously researched book deserves wide attention. 

Dara Shukoh
by Avik Chanda
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 427, Price: Rs. 799.

First published in The Book Review, issue dated September 2020. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Coming to grips with mega disasters

Modern life in congested urban spaces backed by industrialized agricultural practices, and underfunded health systems is giving pathogens the opportunity to become internationalized.

As this book went into production, the Covid-19 pandemic had begun to ravage the globe. With no let down in worldwide infection spread and human casualties, the dreadful virus has exposed the vulnerabilities of the very systems and processes that were intended to manage such disasters. Much like how the tragedy of 9/11 was beyond imagination in character and scale, Covid-19 has exposed the world to the most existential threat till date. While there is little denying that the virus has caught all countries off guard, Jeff Schlegelmilch wonders if old ways of thinking about disasters will get us any better. With infectious diseases increasingly surpassing advances in medicine in an interconnected world, the impact of bio-threats is becoming far reaching and often difficult to contain. How the world confronts the current viral invasion will determine preparedness to meet mega-disasters in future?

In assessing threat of imminent five mega-disasters – bio-invasion, climate change, infrastructural failure, cyber threat, and nuclear conflict – the author contends that their potential to break down the old systems with respect to incident command, vulnerability assessment, and public safety raises serious questions on disaster preparedness. With extreme weather events like floods and earthquakes occurring in toe, the duress of the Covid-19 pandemic creates new anxieties among nuclear powers, with the potential for bad actors to exploit the situation. The over-sized impacts from the pandemic are partly of our own making, because the threat of pandemics have been oversimplified and downplayed in recent years.  

While 1918 influenza remains a grim reminder of worst-case scenario, some of the more recent outbreaks haven’t met as serious an attention - the 2009 Swine Flu that killed more than a million people; the 2014 Ebola virus that has yet to be tamed; and the 2015 Zika re-emergence has remained potentially devastating infection to say the least. The evidence seems to show that the global environment has become an ideal incubator for bio-threats, both at an increased frequency and with increased severity. What is more, modern life in congested urban spaces backed by industrialized agricultural practices, and underfunded health systems is giving pathogens the opportunity to become internationalized. The fact that some 60 to 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic adds to the growing concern.        

At the core is the need for pharma research to outpace emergence of infections. Ironically, resources that feed into health care system rely on viable markets to justify financing research, development, and production. Should that not have been the case, vaccine against Ebola would have been available. In reality it wasn’t because there isn’t a large market for it. Even in the best case, it is the disproportionate focus on treatment rather than prevention that has brought the world to an abyss. Even the global programs like the United States Biodefense Strategy, and the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense have suffered on account of chronic budget shortfalls, shifting priorities, and a dearth of research funding.  

Rethinking Readiness is about setting a new framework to ensure that we take serious risks head on and built resilience to them, by articulating preparedness and redundancy in terms of economic benefit. Quoting climate change as an example where fierce headwinds from climate change deniers who don’t wish to face the increasing cost of reducing emissions for doing business in a global competitive landscape, the book suggests  a slew of incentives like a discounted insurance rate, the tax deduction, and the financial collateral to secure funding for reducing the threats and vulnerabilities. In addition, this will require elected officials and democratic institutions accountable for preparedness, rather than just recovery from disasters.       

Never before we had more knowledge and more resources at our disposal, argues Schlegelmilch, and yet human delusions of purpose and exceptionalism have brought us down to the present state. No wonder, the continued appearance of high-impact infectious diseases or pandemic potential in humans is certain. By using a breadth of references the author lends perspective to our continuing struggle to achieve readiness and sustainability because ‘we are not the first people to believe we are living at the end of time.’  

The world seems to have been caught in its own trap. The number of laboratories studying dangerous pathogens have only proliferated despite the adoption of the International Health regulations by all 196 member countries to detect, evaluate, and report on the risk of health threats. If Covid-19 virus’ accidental release is any indication, it is clear that ‘there hasn’t really been a governance structure in place to prevent gains from such malicious research.’ Rethinking Readiness illustrates inter-connectivity between multiple drivers, and the need to embrace the whole problem than small pieces of it.  

Jeff Schlegelmilch has made a significant and timely contribution on a subject that the world is struggling to comprehend. An insightful road map - rooted in research and practice – brings deeper learning to scale across all levels of system change. Rethinking Readiness is a must-read for everyone committed to understanding the most existential threats we face, reinforced by the inclusion of multiple examples of inadequate response, including the identification of risks, opportunities, and misapplications embedded in practice. Unless the world invests in evidence-based, multi-sectoral, attainable solutions and prepare the next generations to engage in addressing the critical challenges, the threat of mega-disasters will continue to loom large on us. That’s why the book makes a thoughtful and compelling reading.    

Rethinking Readiness
by Jeff Schlegelmilch
Columbia University Press, New York
Extent: 178, Price: US$ 20.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, issue dated Aug 24, 2020.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Floods don't always happen, these are caused too

The reality behind the statistics and headlines of manmade disasters are too grim for words.

Rivers Remember by Krupa Ge
Context, New Delhi
Extent. 218. Price: Rs. 499
Flooding has always threatened human habitation, but it is happening too often in recent times with disastrous consequences in unexpected places. Much larger in scale than in the past, urban floods have become a serious phenomenon. If floods had taken water-stressed Chennai by surprise in 2015, it had shell shocked planned city of Chandigarh in 2017, and had aamchi Mumbai reeling under its impact in 2019. The repeat occurrence of devastating Kerala floods of 2018 has exposed ‘once-in-a-100-years’ flood theory to serious questioning. 

The havoc that the floods wreaked this year in several parts of the country clearly indicate that there is more to come, perhaps even worse. That floods don’t just happen but are caused adds another twist to the long tale of floods in the country. Piecing together the collective failure of the authorities to protect its inhabitants from an avoidable tragedy in Chennai in 2015, Krupa Ge brings to life the agony of the trapped in a touching account of those unforgiving waters of the city rivers, relentless in reclaiming their rights over their course in Rivers Remember

In what reads like a virtual charge sheet on those responsible for water (mis)management, including storage, distribution and disposal, Ge is clear in her indictment on how violation of provisions for effective urban planning were compromised for the worst to occur. Such is the nature of polity and governance that none gets penalized for making thousands to suffer for no fault of theirs! Armed with responses to several RTI applications, the narrative provides an authoritative reading on how not to manage water whatever be the situation. 

Rarely have lessons been learnt though, as callousness coupled with absolute arrogance remains prime in the abuse of nature. In his travels through the ecologically rich landscape of the Western Ghats, journalist Viju B found striking evidence of such attitude in the devastation unleashed through mining, quarrying, and deforestation in Flood and Fury. Combining travel writing and reportage with readings of history and literature, the author elaborates the way floods have been shaped into the region by blocking natural channels through structural changes in land use. 

Flood and Fury by Viju B
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent. 285. Price Rs. 399
Written with an investigative flair, these timely books on the experience of being flooded are a forewarning as the planet warms and the waters rise. With several places experiencing submergence under 12-15 feet of water in recent times, the challenge of managing disaster in the present reality is too hard to ignore. In their no-holds barred explanation, Ge and Viju mince no words to proclaim that public institutions are caught in a time warp – nowhere close to matching the speed, enormity, and ferocity of water-induced disasters. 

The reality behind the statistics and headlines of such manmade disasters are too grim for words. As relentless rains over a shorter window become a recurring phenomenon, enhancing storm drains’ capacity and improving dam outflow management to buffer sudden spike in monsoon outbursts has never been more compelling. Ironically, the political-economy of investment in water sector only encourages obfuscation of investigations on the causes of floods, and any directives on promoting conservation over development get glossed over. 

Chennai and Kerala disasters bear testimony to the business-as-usual approach, which not too long ago consumed 280 and 483 human lives respectively. Both books remind us that these were not isolated, freak incidents to be lost to history. Instead, these signal something graver as human interference and alterations to the natural landscape is forcing nature to become bitterly hostile all across. Humans may have short memories but not rivers, which remember to follow their course whatever be the situation and dislodge any obstruction that comes their way. 

Krupa Ge digs into the history and culture of the Cooum, Adyar and Kasasthalaiyar rivers to construct the why and how of what befell the city in 2015. Her investigations do not auger any optimism for the future though, as things have begun to regress to inanity. For Viju B, the gross indifference to the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has led to its undoing in Kerala in particular, and the Western Ghats in general. Both books are wake up call for planners and politicians to see beyond short-term vested interests.  

Rivers Remember and Flood and Fury are welcome addition to limited books on the subject. While basin-level planning, eco-restoration of catchments, and improving the drainage systems are all but known, use of remote sensing in predicting weather and forecasting floods alongside effective inter-agency coordination can help minimize impact of manmade floods. Without doubt, there is a need to go back on the drawing board to manage swirling waters in the 21st century.

First published in the Hindustan Times on August 24, 2020

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Anything, but not about future

Water future is in the hands of an archaic water sector, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by business-as-usual approach.

Cape Town achieved ‘Day Zero’ not too long ago, sending alarm bells ringing across the urbane world to set in order its water management system to avoid being next on the new nomenclature for cities. Despite it being clear that improved water management requires better coordination between demand and supply while keeping a close tab on the source, water scarcity continues to haunt human habitations like never before. No surprise that quite a few cities have already started vying for the second position. With depth to groundwater level having slumped to 93.7 per cent during the last decade, and with most water bodies consigned to unrestricted development, Bangaluru continues to be in the race for such dubious distinction. 

Water crises is at the tipping point across the world. In their 2018 study published in Nature Sustainability (1, 51-58), Martina Florke, Christof Schneider and Robert McDonald had projected an urban surface-water deficit of 1,386–6,764 million m³ affecting one-third of the 482 world’s largest cities studied. The study had concluded that by 2050, Jaipur will be the city with the second-largest water deficit in the world, Jodhpur 14th and Chennai 20th. Several other studies point to the fact that a grim water future is staring all across, with its implications cutting across the socio-economic fabric of the society. In light of the emerging scenario(s), a volume on Water Futures of India assessing the status of science and technology in addressing the impending crises evokes interest. 

Initiated by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), and supported by two projects at the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR), the edited volume comprises of chapters written by eminent scientists and engineers engaged in water research and practice with an aim to bring to light the status of water science and technology in dealing with the current and emerging water crisis. From water trapped in deep aquifers to that locked in glaciers, and from what flows on the surface to that floating in the atmosphere, science and technology of understanding water in its different forms and settings has grown in leaps and bounds. Seemingly, science is now able to account for each drop of water as it moves through the consumptive systems. Paradoxically, however, the more is known about the universal solvent, its source and flow dynamics, the less is at the systems’ command to resurrect the elixir of life to its pristine glory.  

Given its growing demand, moving water on a circular economy pathway has emerged as an opportunity to accelerate and scale-up recent scientific and technological advances supporting greater efficiency across sectors. Within the regulatory market space, the value of existing practices and technologies that enable navigation through the water pathway, the material pathway, and the energy pathway allow a shift from ‘take-consume-dispose’ model to strategies based on demand management, resource diversification, operational optimization and nutrient recovery. However, limiting itself in scope Water Futures of India remains restricted to addressing water challenges from an interdisciplinary perspective. 

Covering subjects ranging from groundwater hydraulics, glacier hydrology, desalinization technologies, sediment dynamics, and isotope hydrology, authors suggest several new tools and techniques to address geophysical complexities within the limited experimental domains. The comprehensive list of scientific challenges raised in the opening chapter, however, remain grossly unaddressed. The volume broadly acknowledges such gaps in connecting cutting-edge science to policy and practice, but none of the contributions break free from the confines that public-funded science and technology has come to be identified with. Consequently, in part it reads like a text with the remaining a subject of research, being researched. 

Water Futures in India raises questions on the directions and relevance of public-funded research on a subject as critical as water. Why it remains at a distance from addressing societal problems? Why scientific research doesn’t influence policy? Why communicating science with other stakeholders remains limited? While technological developments are urgently needed to improve efficiency of water use across sectors in a circular economy pathway, it needs to be underpinned by a strong policy response to ensure its effectiveness.     

Part of the problem lies in water sector being archaic, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by business-as-usual approach. Consequently, it lacks progressive vision and poor adoption of innovative techniques. Given the fact that there is no formal science-policy interface that encourages applied research with the aim of adopting science to improve sector performance, much of the high-end research remains fodder for research journals only. Given large scale spatial and temporal variability of water in the country, role of scientific tools, methodologies and technologies in addressing water issues cannot be undermined.

Water Futures of India falls short of making a desired impact. It is an assortment of randomly selected papers/articles which do not measure up to the expectations from such a volume. Given the fact that not all science produced in the country is applicable on the ground, the volume could have been better designed to position the contents against a futuristic framework. Nonetheless, it has been an ambitious undertaking with a limited shelf life.       

Water Futures of India
by P P Majumdar & V M Tiwari (Eds) 
IISc Press, Bangaluru
Extent: 481, Unpriced

First published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReview, Sept 2020

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Delhi’s Subterranean Truths

It is not the distance but the approach that creates connection of convenience between shades of insecurities and vulnerabilities. 

Hold it tight. The rickshaw ride could turn unruly as it meanders through the underbelly of an unalike city that undervalues the compulsive human-driven commuting that crisscrosses its bye lanes. Ipshita Nath’s debut of  dozen stories of rickshaw rides are an act of poignant meditation amidst searing crowds who are oblivious of the realities simmering at the bottom of the city’s shaky foundations. The mute rickshaw is the inanimate character that ferries the stories of embedded frustrations, guttural aspirations, and discreet reflections. Are these the lived experiences of subterranean existence that help theorize situations of the mind as it grapples with the bizarre and mundane? 

That is, until one reads to find that the rickshaw is a mute witness to situations and characters that are in constant conflict with each other. The twelve short stories in the book are interesting in terms of imagination and reach on the study of being, and about nothingness. While Balram’s jerking of carnal lust provoked animal instinct that weighed brutally upon him, Jugal’s desire for justice ruthlessly dismembers those who evade the hands of law. The stories of Balram and Jugal emanate out of irresistible desires, with strength and vulnerability negotiable within the realm of human thought and action. The rickshaw only helps connect the dots between the extreme realities.  

Nath’s rickshaw pullers are ordinary people pursuing the extraordinary within the make-shift world of possibilities. For them, the forbidden Khan Market and luxurious Dubai are only few peddles away. It is not the distance but the approach that creates connection of convenience between shades of insecurities and vulnerabilities present at different levels in the society. ‘It was all pervasive; an omniscient scent of rot sitting over a narrative of deterioration so great that it seemed larger than life, like a miasma of some eternal putrefaction.’  

Imaginative and unusually enticing, this collection of short stories place the unknown rickshaw pullers, their feelings and minds at the centre. Through that the stories peep into what goes on in those minds: surge of mistaken adventures, provocative wrong choices, and multiple shades of love and desire. The Rickshaw Reveries is bold and adventurous, a collection that represents a strange case of rickshaw pullers’ as an agency without a distinct social identity. Within the stories, life exists on the edge of a precipice but throbbing with life nonetheless as if there is no tomorrow. Flowing in the cesspool of love and desire, the bittersweet experiences reflect a sociology of their own. 

For existence that is practical and somewhat hard-hearted, the trade-off in rickshaw pullers’ life is often at the cost of life itself. Could it be any other way? Nath captures the undercurrents of the trade-off that lunges hubby Mounir full hog to procure a color television that breaks into Shabana’s conditional frigidity. A television set did the trick but at the cost of him losing vision to acute sleep apnea, but Shabana seemed strangely at peace. Strange are the ways of love, which is sometimes unrequited and at other time returned for a heavy price. 

With stories that are disturbing and discomforting, The Rickshaw Reveries unearths shades of truths lying at the cross section of an informal economy. Their survival goes unnoticed, so is their death. Pushed to die at the landfill of civilizational footprints, the life less lived becomes feed for vermin who scavenge a feast out of them as flying eagles keep an eye on it. There are sub-stories within stories that smack of our collective insensitivities. The stories are not about understanding the rickshaw-wallahs but to live and breathe along their dreadful existence.

Engaging with the metropolis is a genre that is gaining literary currency, and Ipshita Nath has demonstrated her ability at getting inside the bewildering realities of urban spaces. She has a narrative skill that is engaging and engrossing, the stories linger longer after reading them. The ubiquitous rickshaw connects these stories of madness, but there is indeed a method in the madness. Packed with real life anecdotes that play along the stories, a flavor of authenticity is lent to the narrative. Without doubt, the author would have wandered the bye lanes on a rickshaw to piece together realities that enhance the value of imagination.  

If attention to language, strong imagination, and formal inventiveness are essential indicators of good fiction, Nath ticks all the boxes with reasonable competence. To me, storyteller Ipshita Nath has arrived riding on a rickshaw!
The Rickshaw Reveries
by Ipshita Nath
Simon&Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 286, Price: Rs.350.

First published in The Book Review, issue dated July 2020.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Unearthing past without discrimination

National chauvinism does not go very far – even where it goes it only acts as a delusive will-o’-the wisp.

Historian T.C.A Raghavan excels in telling story, or rather stories, of history writing in a fascinating account of three historians who shared much in common about their single-minded passion for details in reconstructing the historical past. Coming together of a knighted professor in Jadunath Sarkar, a committed civil servant in G.S. Sardesai, and an unassuming prince in Raghubir Sinh produced volumes on the intricate interface of history that had fading Mughals, rising Marathas and struggling Rajputs at the centre of an immense political flux in the country. History Men captures the intensity of their relationships, often at intellectual variance with each other, in producing history free from its ideological biases.

Sarkar’s multi-volume research on Aurangzeb, Sardesai’s authoritative study on Marathas, and Sinh’s insights on tussle between Marathas and Rajputs are significant historical outputs, but it was the extraordinary fellowship between the three that created a benchmark for scholarship in history writing. All three had a voracious appetite for unearthing facts of history and a near obsession with establishing factually chronology through primary sources. As historians they sought to speak the truth at a time, during early 19th century, when history was under the threat of being appropriated to further the pursuit of nationalism. The discipline of history continues to be confronted by such reality even today. 

Through a commentary on trio’s published research and reflections on their unpublished exchanges, Raghavan examines the challenge of history writing both as a discipline as well as a piece of heritage. They had their share of disapproval and criticism for judging the historical characters as they did, but remained firm in their historian resolve of seeking truth, understanding truth, and accepting truth. That has been the enduring legacy of these three medievalists. Towards the end of his life, Sarkar had reiterated that ‘national chauvinism does not go very far – even where it goes it only acts as a delusive will-o’-the wisp.’ 

Constructing history by mounting joint exercises and expeditions contributed a distinct flavor to history writing, by which the three could infect each other to connect geography and topography of the place(s) with characters’ ambitions, achievements and regrets. Such an approach helped history vibrate with life and vigor born of the personal acquaintance with the site of important historical event. For instance, without a visit to Afzalpura, near Bijapur, it would not have come to light that a premonition of his coming end had impelled Afzal Khan to kill and bury all his 63 wives. The tombs of the same shape, size and age close to each other bear testimony to it. 

Historical events in the Mughal-Maratha-Rajput interface interested all three historians in exploring every possible nuance in drawing both the minutiae and larger generalizations. While the killing of Afzal Khan continues to be the wildest exultation among the Marathas but for historians the question worth exploring was to ascertain if his slaying was a treacherous murder or an act of self-defence on the part of Shivaji? Regardless of antagonism and alienation from their own fraternity, the spirit of inquiry and endeavor in research remained foremost in the minds of these historians. Had Rana Sangha not invited Babur from Kabul to destroy Ibrahim Lodi, the medieval period would have been a different history? 

As much a tribute to the incredible contribution of Sarkar, Sardesai and Sinh to the art and science of history writing in the country, History Men makes for an engaging and compelling reading. That the three historians were committed to the Rankean approach to the practice of history is an essential take home for those interested in pursuing the discipline of history. 

History Men
by T C A Raghavan
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 427, Price: Rs. 799.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated July 5, 2020.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Wordsmith par excellence

No contemporary poet has been capable of engineering thoughts on social awakening through poetic lyricism. 

Such has been its lyrical contemporariness that main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya has been taken to heart by even the millennial generation, justifying the adage ‘you can’t have enough of Sahir’ which best describes the work of iconic poet and lyricist who remained an enigma all his life. A poet who consciously chose to call himself sahir – meaning a wizard – created lyrical verses with an aura of mystical mastery, earning a place second only to legendary Mirza Ghalib in poetic excellence. Unlike Ghalib, however, Sahir’s literary output has been restricted within the linguistic boundaries where it was watered and sustained. Surinder Deol deserves credit for lifting such restrictions by spending time to give wings of translation to over ninety of Sahir’s literary creations to make them fly across the world to spread the poetic fragrance. 

An accomplished translator of urdu poetry, Deol puts under critical scrutiny a selection of poems, ghazals and bhajans from Sahir’s creative oeuvre to present a mosaic of his poetic dexterity for a non-native readership. While ensuring that the translated verses carry the essence of the accompanying original, the preceding thematic summary touches upon contours of poet’s twisted relationships and impact of life’s bittersweet experiences on his work. Sahir’s troubled childhood and equally troubled relationships found a permanent place in his poetry, making it difficult to separate the poet from his poetry. That’s perhaps what made Sahir stand out, and stand tall.        

Drawing a portrait of his enigmatic personality in a foreword to Sahir – A Literary Portrait, noted literary theorist Gopi Chand Narang acknowledges Sahir’s proclivity as a lyricist in connecting with listeners’ deep-seated emotions and longings but argues that his giving up on the literary life was a loss as ‘there was a lot more left unsaid’. However, living life on his own terms Sahir had instead claimed that his song writing was close to literary poetry, and more potent in reaching out to millions of people who rarely access literature. Critics may hold it differently but Sahir was first a poet and then a lyricist, the only songwriter whose poetry made its way into films in its purest form. Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein Khayal Aata Hai is one among many poems from his best-selling collection Talkhiyaan which made into a popular film song. 

Deol’s translation reveals that Sahir has been as much an enigma as a poet of extraordinary brilliance, reflecting subtle charms of beauty and the pain of love with strong social, material, and political undertones. From poems to nazms and from ghazals to bhajans, Sahir had a range of expressions to stir readers’ imagination to think of life and life’s messages. Sahir – A Literary Portrait draws a sensitive imagery of the poet who emerges as a reliable medium to evoke multiple human emotions, mastering the art of using metaphors and similes as outer layer of confection to convey the painful realities of life. No contemporary poet has been capable of engineering thoughts on social awakening through poetic lyricism. 

By re-engaging with thousands of Sahir’s verses, Deol offers a tribute to the genius through his literary output. For those who have been in the awe of the poet, the book will help relive moments of abundant romanticism, and for those who are first-time reader of the iconic poet, the volume will work like a gust of morning breeze with its freshness. In both ways, it will leave the reader with the everlasting truth of life, which is but an unending struggle against despair and hope.

maana k is zamin ko n gulzaar kar sake
kuchh khaar kam to kar gae guzre jidhar se hum

(Agreed that we failed to make this world a flourishing garden of hope. But we did remove some thorns from the paths that we traversed.) 

Sahir – A Literary Portrait
by Surinder Deol
Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Extent: 276, Price: Rs 895.

First published in the Hindustan Times on May 25, 2020.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

What's in a name?

Names may not always define the nature of a thing but certainly represent historical lineage when referred to a place.

William Shakespeare’s assertion that names don’t matter, as a rose will smell the same even if named otherwise, makes some sense as names do not necessarily mean what things really are. Names may not always define the nature of a thing but certainly represent historical lineage when referred to a place. This is so as past always matters, it carries the legacy that provides continuity to existence of places. Names provide a sense of purpose and a reason for the place to be; names illustrate the struggles and the triumphs that a culture has faced; and names help people discover their identity with the place, and a continuity of being part of it.  

In the present times when names of places and roads are being swapped to align with political allegiance of a kind, Mapping Place Names of India asserts that ‘place is neither just a site, nor people, politics or culture, but a chemistry between all this nor much more, which creates the soul of a place’. What is right in theory is not necessarily true in practice though. Else, names would not have been subjected to change for a variety of inexplicable reasons. While Mughal-sarai, a place of resting on a long journey during the Mughal period, had to forego its popular identity, Gaziabad, named after its founder Ghazi-ud-din, has continued to skip attention. Is it the political traction that determines the urge for a name change?   

It does as camouflaged within the course of naming and renaming is how a place gets welded with identity, power and space. In the first of its kind book that charts the terrain of placenism as a phenomenon, Anu Kapur investigates how places are named and renamed, and will continue to remain a never-ending process as the quest for carving a new sub-national identity erupts from time to time. From Sanskritization of place names to its Persianization, and from its subsequent Englishization to Anglicization in recent times, names of places in each era has revolved around cultural identity and political influence.

Mapping Place Names of India is a comprehensive account of the geography and history of place names. It is an interesting reading in parts, but is loaded with rich information all through. It is a virtual who’s who on the evolution of sub-national identities in the country. It is an intriguing subject, as not one size fits all when it comes to demand for changing names. While there is no denying that cultural reclamation under political influence is a primary reason for name change, the failure of promised development triggers search for new identity to enforce attention from the powers-that-be as well. 

Kapur unleashes interest in topophilia - the love of, and love for, a place from this book. She laments that this multi-disciplinary branch of knowledge has yet to emerge as a subject for the lack of scholars committed to research on place names. How new names evolve may remain a matter of conjecture, but left to people they still prefer cultural vibrancy and economic progress as new markers for subnational identities. However, intention to wield power over the will of people sees no end. It will be interesting to see how the proposal to change the name of the ‘Taj Mahal’ to ‘Ram Mahal’ gets accepted, if at all.             .

Mapping Place Names of India
by Anu Kapur
Routledge, New Delhi
Extent: 234, Price: Rs. 699.

This review was first published in The Hindu, dated May 24, 2020.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Will everyone get a Ferrari some day?

Even if everyone were to get a Ferrari, it will only be the Fiat of its generation

With Covid-19 having slowed down everything, and with frugality in thoughts and actions set in, the idea of 'de-growth' may seem a possibility provided the newfound approach and attitude towards life and life processes persist both at the individual as well as at a societal level. But isn't resisting growth a risk to economic and social collapse? To pursue it relentlessly may be risky one might wonder – endangering the ecosystems on which economy depends. Despite the classical idea of development been declared dead several times in the past, it continues to persist because ‘Ferrari for all’ is the elusive dream everybody has been made to strive for. Will the world be able to produce enough Ferrari for all, and for all those who are yet to be born? The truth is that not in a foreseeable future?  

Even if everyone were to get a Ferrari, it will only be the Fiat of its generation, and may do little good to the society at large. It will only make people yearn for something different and more, without any let down in the unending materialistic desires. The reach of markets into aspects of life traditionally governed by non-market values and norms will only rob us from finding the meaning of life individually. Isn’t unending desires the reason for growing anxiety? 

Its essence may have existed across traditional cultures through the ages, de-growth has been rechristened by a group of academicians at the Autonomous University of Barcelona to pull the society out from its current abyss. Since it was launched at a global conference in Paris in 2008, de-growth has spread across countries engaging researchers and movements to deliberate and elaborate the idea from diverse perspectives. Confronting the idiom of economism head on, de-growth advocates shrinking of production and consumption with an aim to achieve social justice and ecological continuity.   

Spread over four sections, the book is a compilation of easy-to-read essays which argue that the ‘shift’ is indeed possible. It in no way advocates back-to-the-roots journey but suggests learning from indigenous cultures and techniques for paving an autonomous, close-to-nature, and ecological way of life. The challenge is to give expression to indigenous knowledge and traditions that have been oppressed, minimized or subordinated over centuries. However, de-growth can only gain ground provided political strategies support the idea of non-GDP growth.  

Taking cue from the Sarkozy Commission (Beyond GDP) many developed countries are toying with the newer ways to measure progress, and incorporation of the concept of Buen Vivir (living well) in the new Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia only indicates that the idea of ‘de-growth’ in its diverse manifestations is catching on. Offering deep analysis, the book argues for a transformative politics that should support such initiatives aimed at decolonizing the imaginary of growth. De-growth challenges techniques rather than just calling for their control, providing alternative ways of thinking about environment and development. 

For new ideas on de-growth like frugality, sobriety, de-materialization and digital commons to sink in, the editors have assembled keywords and concepts to construct a language that can take the discourse on de-growth forward. The book is not prescriptive but suggestive in nature, inviting readers to make their own voyage and reach their own sense of what de-growth means to them. It is a must read for all those who firmly believe that modern economy has reached its dead-end. 

Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era
by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria & Giorgos Kallis (Eds)
Routledge, London & New York
Extent: 220, Price: $40 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Indeed, it is a rough road ahead

A slowdown of economy must lead to de-globalization as the answer to unrestricted acceleration that has over exploited natural resources at the cost of increasing inequality. 

Covid-19 has made the whole situation disruptive, and the near future perplexing. It only shows that despite rapid strides in medicine and artificial intelligence the world is not yet ready to deal with outbreaks of diseases that may shock us in future, as the natural habitats continue to be shortened to bridge the distance between the pathogen and the victim. It has long been argued that changing climate will increase the number of diseases passed from animals to humans, as modern society has not left any opportunity in creating conditions that allow such epidemics to flourish with impunity. That Covid-19 like pandemics will recur with increasing frequency is a foregone conclusion.

At this point when humanity looks scared and confused like a colony of red ants exposed when the garden slab gets lifted without a forewarning, the uneasy question that begs a compelling answer is whether or not Covid-19 represents some sort of a catastrophic tipping point? While the origin of the pandemic may remain shrouded in conspiracy theories, there are good reasons to prepare for change, and ensure that humans survive as a species by reconsidering their relationship with nature. ‘On a battlefield when the odd against winning are seen as insuperable, a well-planned retreat is the best option,’ asserts James Lovelock. With countries under forced lockdown, a slowdown of economy must lead to de-globalization as the answer to unrestricted acceleration that has over exploited natural resources at the cost of increasing inequality. 

An award-winning inventor and an independent scientist for over half a century, Lovelock has made it clear through the Gaia hypothesis (now accepted as a scientific theory) that the planet is not an inert identity. Developed in collaboration with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the theory propounds that all organic and inorganic components on the planet are part of one self-regulating system, meaning thereby that if the delicate balance that makes this planet habitable is not maintained than the Earth system (Gaia) will act on its own to bring some semblance to the prevailing disorder. Covid-19 has done precisely that, pulling shutters on most human activities such that nature gets to work on its own revival and rejuvenation.  

At an age when human mind stops thinking, Lovelock is brimming with ideas to make others think. Now at 101, he has come out with some outrageous but thoughtful ideas on the future of mankind, and among many of his books A Rough Ride to the Future captures the present predicament like none other. Though he proclaims himself to be an optimist amidst the rapidly changing global conditions, Lovelock has moved beyond the anthropocene, defined as human influence on the planet, into an emerging epoch he calls the novacene, wherein artificial intelligence will rule the world because a time will come when the present oxygen-rich world would cease to exist. But Gaia, the Earth system, will always remain habitable to whatever life form the evolutionary forces toss around.  

The free ranging maverick that he is, Lovelock postulates more heat resistant forms of life to evolve if the planet continues to get warmer. In that case, an electronic life form based on silicon semiconductors, evolved through endosymbiosis, may be the next form of life on earth. This may sound futuristic fantasy but the hypothesis is based on the premise that our present wet carbon-based form of life may find this planet utterly inhospitable in the event of continuous enrichment of carbon dioxide into atmosphere. An electronic life form will be far less temperature-limited than humans, contends Lovelock.

In his lifetime of independent research, Lovelock has raised fresh insights from the practice of science to the future of mankind on account of accelerated evolution. ‘If life on our planet is able to change the climate, it can as well respond to it.’ Seemingly unplanned, Covid-19 has not only enforced such a response but has added to the existing confusion too. Lovelock chides the mistaken idea of scientists and administrators who think that without stabilizing the environment the spurt in such pandemics can be checked. Instead, the idea should be to strengthen our defenses. Like the nests of bees and ants, the task should be to create self-regulating and self-sustaining cities to house humans. Sounds logical, because when we are in a hot desert we try to keep things cool for ourselves without bothering to make the desert a cool place. 
A Rough Ride to the Future
by James Lovelock
Allen Lane, UK
Extent: 184, Price: £16.99  

Commissioned by the Hindu BusinessLine