Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The new metaphor of life

Farming is no bed of roses; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles.

Midway through this racy narrative, one pauses to wonder what the fuss is all about being a farmer’s wife. In these troubling times when farmers are in the news for all the wrong reasons, no woman in her wildest dream would imagine being a farmer’s wife. Neither did she, a working mother of three hyper-active kids, whose life twirls between the extremes of managing a dreary boss fixated on selling chunking-looking tabs to the kids to a surefire husband in pursuit of creating a steady supply of organic milk from his own farm. Between these extremes lies a life which is as ordinary as it could be, and as exclusive as she has made it look like. 

Part memoir and part fiction, How I became a Farmer’s Wife reflects an unending quest for change from the urbane life laced with repetitive conditioning. Outwardly everything may look calm; it is the turmoil deep down that disturbs life’s rhythms. Metaphorically, it is akin to the tea cup which seems normal on the surface, but for the soggy biscuit bits which lump disgustingly at the bottom to destroy the tea-drinking experience. The comfortable steel-and-chrome high-rises of Gurugram are like the tea cup, with its soggy posse of challenges.  

Within the familiar off-beat tales of techies quitting their high-paying jobs, this story is about the coming to life of Vijay who only a few months ago was slump-shouldered and resigned to his daily routine. That he found a new meaning of life in cows and crops is only part of the breezy narrative, his better half finds comfort in yoga as she unwillingly pursues a corporate career to help him with his dream is the second part. Only one sacrifice in the real world will suffice. 

Running on two parallel tracks, the tongue-in-cheek narrative is about de-stressing life as the leitmotif of urban existence. ‘Why don’t you take up yoga again, you seemed to feel a little better at that time’ is a subtle advice to the lady of the house to keep cool while the budding farmer gains roots in the startling unfamiliar territory. With an incredible knack of story-telling, Yash captures the microcosm of change sweeping the household amidst its daily ordeal. Capturing delicate moments, cheeky encounters, and weird incidents, she lets the writer in her take control of expressing what it takes to be a farmer’s wife. 

With the choice thrust on her, there is little that Yash could do but float in Vijay’s dream world of fresh milk and organic gobhi. The list of items coming out of the leased farm did grow in the dream sequence, but it was only milk which started flowing with some packs of organic veggie tossed in. Getting into farming was an on-the job-exposure that the entire family was forced into. Away from tabs, the weekly visits to the farm were engaging experiences for kids. Choosing nature over technology, the kids learnt to be empathetic towards puppies, cows and the crows. 

Amidst the unending efforts of getting the city out of her, the lingua franca of farming weighed heavy on her and the kids. While jatropha sounded like Jethro Tull to her, the kids took a fancy at savoring some dung cakes. Nonetheless, prodigious vocabulary and distinctive techniques turned farming into an engaging and entertaining vocation for everybody. Despite her initial reservation, Yash soon discovered similarities in tending cows and mending kids. Her sympathy for Vijay translated into an unconditional support to let him be a farmer, and she a farmer’s wife. 

Written with wit, humor, flair and purpose, How I became a Farmer’s Wife chronicles the mid-career crises that most discerning techies often go through. After all, there is a limit to which urbanscape comforts can comfort these upward mobile couples. But farming is no bed of roses either; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles. Not only challenging, the transition could fall short of expectations too. 

Towards the latter half of the story, Yash realizes that success is more than just winning the race. Even if the transition didn’t go the full circle, it did create a farmer in Vijay and converted Yash to accept herself as a farmer’s wife. The passion he exuded and the freedom he acquired had lifted the morale of the entire family. As the couple rode out of the farm for the last time, Yash felt an incredible sense of freedom and a distinct sense of connection with the man whose waist she hung on to for dear life. Finally, the parallel tracks had begun to merge. Freedom comes at a price, only if one is willing to pay for. 

How I became a farmer’s wife
by Yashodhara Lal
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 318, Price: Rs. 250

First published in the Hindustan Times on June 8, 2018

Monday, June 4, 2018

Nature, like mother, only generates musical lullaby. Ironically, we the mortals miss the lullaby for the words as we love noise and miss the embedded signal.

In her debut fiction, Kunjana Parashar creates a child’s imagery on nature that is fresh, insightful, reflective and persuasive. Syaahi, meaning ink, is a restless 9-year old girl chided as a slowpoke in class who, like most children, sticks a tongue out towards her uninteresting school building as she heads home for the vacations. Instead she finds solace in nature, amidst the garden trees and creepers, conversing with mute trees about all that she is unable to share with her grandma and the class teacher. In her little mind, trees are great listeners and respond through rustle of leaves or an occasional falling inflorescence. Much to her surprise, the old Rain Tree, under whose feet she had spent countless hours feeling the texture of its roots and bark, seeks to whisper that only she could hear and comprehend.

Lamenting a lack of interest among kids towards nature, the Rain Tree finds a discerning pupil in Syaahi, and exposes the strengths that her grandma and school teacher have not been able to discover. Erasing her of self-doubt, the rooted giant instills a sense of self-belief in the child. Reminding her to nurture good seeds of patience and care, the child is pumped up with irresistible energy to embark on a secret journey to make her vacations ‘green’.  

Kunjana, an English literature graduate, has let her imagination take wings as Syaahi begins to sway on the long aerial roots of the friendly Banyan tree from one part of the city to other. Her worldly encounters on sowing the good seeds are short, but detailed and accurate. Such innocent indulging is the narrative that one finds being flung up high with the child, only to be reminded of the follies that have been collectively committed on the ground. Syaahi’s Green Summer is about appreciating simple pleasures, and generally easing up in a society that encourages materialism and competitiveness.

At this time when people are pulled in separate directions, often directionless to say the least, Syaahi fuels life into the ecosystem with her innocent charm. Showering compassion to birds and beasts, she gets their roaring, squeaking, barking and purring in return as if the garden was but a colorful Indian wedding. The notion of co-existence, of interdependence on each other is reflected as all creatures join the tiny doll in her affable greening initiative. There are hardly any dramatics, just plain narration that catalogues every moment in detail.

In her imagination, the author creates a character in tiny Syaahi who is observant of every little thing around her. No wonder, the garden is like her secret, private den and sanctuary. It is here that she will compose lullaby of musical sounds and musical whistles – no words. She believes that if you use words in a lullaby, you would wake up the one you are trying to put to sleep. I envy Kunjana for the effortless ease with which she conveys a profound message. Nature, like mother, only generates musical lullaby. Ironically, we the mortals miss the lullaby for the words. We love noise, but miss the embedded signal.      

It is book about reconciliation, first with self and then with the surroundings. This could well be the most rudimentary takeaway from Syaahi’s Green Summer, but the central preoccupation in the book is about possibilities, and the conviction of turning simple dreams into transformative realities. This tiny gem of a book doesn’t preach but leaves a message that can inspire every discerning mind into creating his/her own set of actions. Without employing an expansive definition of ecological prudence, Kunjana nonetheless offers a simple but doable body of conscience choice with humane values.

Despite it being written from a child’s perspective, the book is a thoughtful tour in the garden that blows a layer of dust off from our clogged minds. Syaahi’s Green Summer is more for the teachers than children, a must read for evoking all round interest in understanding what we seemingly consider as given. Ignoring the disappearance of tiny sparrow from our daily lives, for instance, carries an ominous sign on our own existence. The author invites her readers to connect with her with cheeky comments and snarky witticisms. She deserves accolades!

Syaahi’s Green Summer
by Kunjana Parashar
APK Publishers, Pune
Extent: 84, Price: Rs 150

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who decides what is good for us?

With the idea of stable water thrown into the tailspin of prevailing/emerging water crises, the need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries was never more compelling.  

Cape Town may be the first waterless city and surely not the last, but that humans are drawing more than their geological share of water should make us shudder as things are becoming worse before getting any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has turned it into an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the anthropocene. With the idea of stable water thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.  

By altering the planetary systems humans themselves have attained the status of a geological force, influencing the philosophy of water management that connects culture, geography, and economics to lose its relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological limits but beyond regional and national boundaries too. Unless this predominant approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, addressing inequalities that exist on a geological scale cannot be addressed. 

And, there is no opportune time to question it than now as humanity’s total share of natural materials and energetic throughput accelerates at a phenomenal pace. While it is agreed that dividing humans from nature may not help in understanding its impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had engineered oppressive logic which enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do contradictions over water, such as those over the right to water, gain civil status?  

The trouble with single planetary story on water, triggered by a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist but simply posits that we should do without them. Instead, Schmidt presents three philosophical concerns to counter it: first, water resources should be managed without privileging any particular cultural understanding; second, acknowledge different social relations that take shape around different water use practices; and third, appreciate the different symbolic ends that others may hold as intrinsically meaningful. 

These three concerns – over subjects, social relations, and symbolic goods – could be critical entry points into initiating a new discourse on water management, as the paradigm of ‘making things public’ is inadequate since it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed 19th century solution associated with the society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to emerging social entrepreneurship around water, the basic contention here is to ask what questions arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water through a theory of modernity. 

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge an understanding on engineering solutions relate to the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an ‘unfolding water drama’, there is a great deal required to depart from the previous ways into new ways of managing water in the anthropocene. The challenge, however, for the global water governance is that it does not substantively depart from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve. Schmidt does not offer any solution, but attempts to implicate ideas widely held in water management that have contributed to unequal water relations.

Making a strong case for re imagining water management, Schmidt refuses to think of water as only a resource because it lends credence to the surplus-scarce-security trilogy that reinforces structures of thought leading to a single planetary story regarding risks to people, the planet, and the economy. And such a story, far from generating empathy, offers further justifications for the existing approach to water management. Such an approach fosters unequal practices (of access, allocation, and pricing) that favor one cultural understanding of water over others.           

Schmidt questions the existing philosophy of water that had rejected older ideas as too metaphysical or too far down the evolutionary ladder of social development. However, the chosen philosophy was not without its own mythical elements. Did it not claim that the idea of liberal forms of life was uniquely equipped to manage water within vast array of social and economic demands? The end result of this philosophy is that water which was once abundant is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed the way it is, majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water, if at all.  

The book offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to address water, which remains ever restless in this new geological era, and the choice to continue pursuing it as only a resource may offer limited resolution to the magnitude of the problem at hand.   

Water 
by Jeremy J. Schmidt
SAGE, New Delhi
Extent: 307, Price: Rs. 995

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ringing that bell of justice

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

So widespread is its appeal and demotic reach that its cinematic rendition too had to face it - a real PIL against a reel PIL – for representing legal profession in a poor light. Though the case was quashed, it did in a way justify the strength of contemporary jurisprudence in the country. Jolly LLB and its sequel Jolly LLB-2 appealed to viewers as these movies celebrate the power of PIL in challenging deeply elitist and exclusionary dimensions of legal procedures. To an average cinegoer, PIL is the reminder of the bell that Emperor Jahangir is believed to have hung outside his palace for aggrieved subjects to pull at any time to seek instant justice. But why the poor didn’t get justice in the first place has remained unanswered!

In response to the slow paced court procedures which exemplify ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ the PIL was introduced in the late 1970s as a tool to represent subaltern interests, aimed at erasing the class-based biases. It was hailed as the most responsive move by the judiciary, providing speedy justice by easing traditional judicial procedures. It did work as judges donned their activist avatar, and in the interest of the public proclaimed solutions, reprimanded officials and enforced orders. A celebratory clamor followed as general public found recluse in court’s role in filling ‘vacuum in governance’.

But what began in the late 1970s as a judicial revolution was reduced by mid 1990s to a tool that worked against the very interests it had promised to serve. Citing the ruthless ‘slum demolition’ and the controversial ‘sealing drive’ cases in the capital, Anuj Bhuwania unfolds how a promising judicial tool was appropriated by the court to jump jurisdictional limits in taking control of urban governance through PIL. It did improve matters but at the cost of larger public good. The sealing drive is a case in point wherein then Chief Justice Y K Sabharwal took personal interest in turning a long-running PIL about relocation of industries into a case about misuse of commercial properties, purported to serve the interests of his own family. Although the charges of corruption remain unproved against the now deceased judge, the ideological slant in favor of corporate capital affecting livelihoods of millions remains evident.

The cases referred to in Courting the People make it amply clear that the non-procedural and arbitrary nature of PIL has helped the court initiate a case in public interest on its own, appoint its own lawyer, investigate the issue, and issue orders for implementing its decision. What is more, in a majority of cases the victims were neither consulted nor allowed to enter the court room before the court pronounced on their fate. Class-based exclusions were materially inscribed. Taking cognizance of such pathetic instances, the author wonders how PIL has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

However, it will be erroneous to conclude that the book views PIL entirely in poor light because it argues that with the right kind of judges, who do not take procedural liberties on offer; a right kind of judgement is still possible. Bhuwania’s emphasis throughout the book is not so much on the unjust outcomes of PIL cases, but rather on the profound injustice of the judicial process adopted in them. In this context there is little denying that the pathology of PIL has infected legal culture more generally in the post-liberal era, as armed with radical potential of PIL the appellate judges could pursue political causes they deemed fit.

It goes without saying that in the din of emerging PIL culture the important and challenging aspect of integrating the three-tiered judicial system into well-oiled functioning machinery that can provide timely and quality justice to the subaltern has largely been side-stepped. The lower judiciary with its inefficient and corrupt system continues to be perceived as purely pathological, whereas the heroic persona is reserved for higher courts that are viewed, thanks to PIL, as the panacea to endemic social and political ills. In the market-driven demand-supply scenario, the culture of PIL with its star judges and celebrity lawyers has acquired a conspicuous and higher political status in the country’s appellate judiciary. Its self-congratulatory nature with its inbuilt justifications will only perpetuate it to grow.

Courting the People raises more questions than what it sought to address in the first place. It is a somewhat disturbing read that points out at its (PIL) fundamentally protean nature which stems from its mimicry of ideas of popular justice. As long as it is believed that the poor can gain justice from benign paternalism of the presiding judge, the idea of Emperor Jahangir’s Zanjir-e-Adl will continue to resonate in the corridors of appellate courts. Bhuwania’s efforts will be well served if his research is made available in a language palatable to a wider readership.

Courting the People
by Anuj Bhuwania
Cambridge, New Delhi
Extent: 157, Price: Rs 495

First published in the Hindustan Times dated May 12, 2018.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The ran and the banned

Such is the power (lure) of advertising that it not only makes the egoist socialites dance to its tune but inspires the macho celebrities (stars) strip to their bare essentials.

Had he not been married to Mary Pears, daughter of soap company owner Francis Pears, Thomas Barratt would not have invented the catchy phrase ‘Good morning, have you used Pears' soap?’ as the first ever advertising campaign in the late 19th century. Pears gained the desired traction among consumers, impelling them to prefer it over other brands. Barratt did not live long to see the expanse of his pioneering work, but the impact of advertisements on our life choices has only grown. However, what goes into the making of a short but persuasive form of communication that can even influence a bald person to buy a comb is worth a curious look in. 

Clearly, there is much that goes into making of a short advert than what finally gets served on the prospective consumers. Else, how would women of all hues continue to believe that a teeny peck of cream would make them fair and lovely? And, why would men have unstinted faith in a diminutive capsule to restore vigor past their prime?  Converting products into habits is what the advertising industry excels in, announcing with aplomb the relevance of each product. Such is the impact that some of the taglines stay in popular memory long after the product disappears from the market. What an idea, Sirji is one amongst many, and so is Yeh dil maange more

Pulling quirky insights from her stint in the world of advertising, Ritu Singh reveals the truth behind somewhat amusing world of advertising that quite often blurs the divide between the sublime and the ridiculous. From evoking a feel-good feeling of owning a scooter through Buland Bharat Ki Buland Tasveer to a sexually suggestive expression Yeh toh bada toing hai by a village belle washing hubby’s undies, a wide canvas was laid bare for affirming consumers’ emotions on one hand to fiddling with perverted fantasies on the other. The outrage that followed was enough for the sexpressive ad to be banned. The ad continues to evoke interest in the virtual space. 

Isn’t advertising an evolving art, a creative undertaking on testing hypotheses even if some (sexually suggestive) ideas remain ahead of its times? Why is there no space for such adverts in the land of Kamasutra where some explicit (rather abusive) expressions are affectionately used to greet each other, and where not long ago the entire nation was singing ‘Bhaag bhaag DKBose’? Why the society has a line drawn between what is cultural and what is public? 

Adhering to such norms, the ad world remained cluttered with dull and drab commercials during much of the recent past, creating more noise than signal. Occasionally, there have been attempts to break free to shake up socially and culturally diverse landscape, seeking re-evaluation of consumers entrenched notions in the changing world of want and necessity. Some worked and many didn’t, as merging tradition with modernity and frugality with profligacy has not been easy. 

Written with wit and flair, Stark Raving Ad takes the reader on a giddy tour replete with unforgettable taglines, naughty storylines, brand scuffles, and industry scandals. There is a story behind each short commercial. Take the case of the only ad featuring actor Dev Anand in the early 80s which was taken off air because no one seemed to notice the fabric he was seemingly promoting, and the  most watched ‘one black coffee’ mobile ad of the mid-90’s which clicked more for the gaffe than the handset. Howsoever imaginative and creative the treatment might have been, these ads did not make businesses feel needy, and had their lifespan cut out.

The ultimate challenge argues Singh, is to create moments on screen that can guide viewers’ aspirations, stir their emotional quotient, solicit their pride, and trigger envy in others through their purchase. And the consumer market has everything on offer for the creative guys/gals at the ad agencies to burn their butts, as insiders call it, to generate few seconds of lasting impact. Be it detergents or undergarments, biscuits or condoms, paints or pizza, and jewelry or motorbikes, the challenge lies in pitching adverts for as diverse the viewers as the products. The ultimate test being that everybody agrees with the storyline and/or the tagline, and the product sells. 

Grouping hundreds of ads in a dozen odd curious chapters, like Thoo-Thoo, Main-Main and  Mummy Badnaam Hui, Stark Raving Ad is a run through the world of Indian advertising with its hits and misses, and the ran and the banned. That there are more hits than misses is evident from the fact that it has kept an eye on the social-psyche of everyday living, the quest for variety and the appetite for questioning, in creating a mosaic of short commercials. What amuses me is the fact that the advertising industry has not only made the egoist socialites dance to their tune but inspired the macho celebrities strip to their bare essentials, all for enticing the aam aadmi

Stark Raving Ad is an exercise in nostalgia, in the makeshift world where the aam aadmi enjoys the forbidden apple while gulping mango juice in the land of (k)aam-sutra. 

Stark Raving Ad
by Ritu Singh
Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 276, Price: Rs 350.

First published in BLink of the Hindu BusinessLine on May 5, 2018. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Fine Head for a Story

Alum Bheg was a nondescript pawn sacrificed in the tumult of 1857. His story, told without empire-bashing or nostalgia, throws light on a brutalising colonialism.

It may not have caught the attention of historian Kim Wagner had there not been a neatly folded slip of paper in the eye-socket of the skull, which read: ‘Skull of Havildar Alum Bheg 46th Bengal Infantry who was blown away from a gun. He was a principal leader of the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition.’

Intrigued by the manner of execution and the subsequent collection of the skull as a trophy, Wagner sought to restore some peace for the dispossessed by piecing together the history of barbaric treatment of the natives by the imperialists. It is a work which scholars call a subaltern prosopography, depicting the cruelty of the natives and the barbaric retribution which followed. 

Following the execution the skull was carried home by Captain A R G Costello, who was witness to the execution in Sialkot on July 10, 1858, before it resurfaced a century later at pub The Lord Clyde in 1963. It took another fifty years before the inglorious skull, directly linked to a part of colonial history, coincidentally reached a Danish historian researching on imperial executions. The Skull of Alum Bheg is a meticulously researched, gripping narrative that brings to life the human aspects of imperial domination. Staying clear of both mindless empire-bashing and jingoistic empire-nostalgia, the narrative provides a nuanced understanding of the past by portraying the personalities on all sides of the conflict. The final brutal outcome is reflective of the relationships and circumstances between the ruler and the ruled, guiding us to address the enduring legacies of imperialism that are still with us today.

Resentment was brewing following the Barrackpore mutiny, in which hundreds of native sepoys were slaughtered in 1824, with the soldiers increasingly getting convinced that their officers were deliberately, and insidiously, undermining their ritual purity leading to infidelity. The British did little to assuage doubts and fears attached to biting the cow or pig-fat greased cartridges. Instead, by disbanding the sepoys of first Barrackpore and later Berhampore garrisons they only managed to stoke resentment amongst their most trusted and most needed support to rule 200 million people. The native foot soldiers outnumbered their counterparts in the army; there were five native sepoys for each imperial soldier. Relying on their numerical strength, the natives mutinied against their racist and rapacious ruler.

Wading through reams of historical records, Wagner weaves together a compelling history of mutiny as it spread across most of the northern areas. In some ways, the popular uprising was an armed rebellion against a longstanding climate of dissatisfaction, brewing out of perceived religious subjugation, which had played out differently across regions. Sialkot cantonment was on the tenterhooks of an uneasy calm, partly because the sepoys of the Bengal Army constituted a uniquely coherent group who found a sense of unity as they lived far away from their villages in Awadh. But they could not be insulated from the disturbing news of mutiny for long, and in the ensuing chaos personal animosity had merged with general discontent to claim innocent lives. 

Shockingly, however, the existing evidence makes no mention of Alum Bheg as the principal mutineer at Sialkot, for which he was held guilty and sentenced. Neither is there any indication that he played any role in brutal assault and killing of Jane Hunter, her two-year old son, and Dr Graham. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, Alum Bheg and his men chose to head for Delhi to offer their allegiance to Bahadur Shah. It was to their undoing, as they were waylaid on at Trimmu Ghat on the banks of river Ravi in Gurdaspur, and were forced to flee into Kashmir. The imperial forces hunted them down as an act of betrayal was considered morally and politically indefensible; severity of retribution was implicitly justified. 

Wagner uses the story of one man’s death to excavate the weak under-belly of the nineteenth century empire, which considered the outbreak of mutiny as personal attacks on themselves. As an act of retributive logic to Kanpur killings wherein slaughtered European women and children were dumped in a well, the British took an unmistakable sense of achievement by consigning innumerable mutineers to a well in Ajnala. Wagner notes with dismay that there are no heroes in the book, only victims. Convinced that the execution of Alum Bheg was a deliberate attempt to deny him his funeral rites, the author proposes the peaceful site of the Battle of Trimmu Ghat, on the island in the river Ravi, as his permanent resting place. 

Meticulously researched and vividly written, it is a page turning narrative that lays bare the Victorians’ macabre fetish for collecting body parts. But, cautions Wagner, the complexities of the past must be viewed beyond the moral binary of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  

The Skull of Alum Bheg
by Kim A. Wagner
Hurst & Co, London, 
Extent: 287, Price: Rs. 599

First published in Outlook magazine, issue dated May 7, 2018.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Be the change you want to be

During such times when cultivation has become bedrock of farmers’ suicide, the story of getting back to the roots may seem outwardly romantic and far-fetched. 

It may seem a contradiction in terms but change, in itself formless, is the stuff that brings change to all animate and inanimate forms. Be it materials, products, systems, institutions, processes, thoughts, relationships or emotions, change manifests itself as a state of affairs at different points in time. From Heraclitus to Einstein, an enquiry into change has revealed diverse perspectives with each insight reaffirming the inevitability of change, as much a reality as a point of view. In modern times, however, change as a point of view has helped trigger possibilities of restructuring one’s life so as ‘to be the change that one may want to be’. 

For techie Venkat Iyer, change has meant a planned shift from a self-imposed fast-paced stressful urban existence to a more relaxed rural setting where time remains at your beck and call to usher in a nuanced meaning to life. The resolve for seeking peace in a space that he could call his own has grown in the last fourteen years, since he moved to another world just hundred kilometers from the dream city called Mumbai. Convinced that a transition alone can help throw the city out of him, the young software engineer set out on an arduous journey to nestle himself in the lap of nature. Since farming nowhere generated equivalent of the monthly pay cheque he was used to, transformation to a non-consumptive lifestyle became his compelling daily reality. 

The story is insightful and reflective; shedding light on how personal resolve can answer the question of responsibility that comes tagged along with change. The responsibility towards self, society and surroundings can be as intense as it can get, generating as much empathy towards the two legged species as for the slithering reptiles. It soon became clear that the organic way of life was bringing back a lot of creatures to the farm. Even the colorful rooster did not need an official invite to join the flock of hens. Nature was in awe of itself, celebrating each new arrival. 

One might wonder if such romanticism can last long, and whether ascetic living could be the new normal. With no dearth of courage and an unending conviction, Venkat relocated himself with ease despite the daily ordeal of battling people, and their prejudices. Once he got the better of it, he became part of the social milieu – taking support and extending cooperation to local people. The transition from managing microchips to cultivating moong was promising; harvesting 300 kgs of the common lentil as the first crop was a major morale booster.

Moong Over Microchips is full of incidents and encounters, each adding a new dimension to learning human behaviour amidst challenging adversities. Curiously, the spectre of an economic imperialism that phrases everything in economic terms is yet to hit the countryside, where goodwill can still be the mode of intangible transaction. The old lady in the tribal hamlet of Boripada bartered the near-extinct Kasbai rice seeds for a pittance, unaware of the immense contribution she is making towards preserving country’s biodiversity. Unspoilt by progress, such humble contributions will eventually count in the progress of the country. 

Such experiences notwithstanding, it was clear from the beginning that farm harvest alone cannot make Venkat laugh all the way to the bank. But what made him smile was the joy of seeing the seed he planted push out of the soil, and that he could grow most of his daily needs on the farm was a satisfying experience. This may sound abstract for those who take the gloom and doom in the city for granted, and pay a heavy price for it. That there is value in living under the open sky, amidst undisturbed nature, with friendly pets, and consuming homegrown vegetables is unlikely to touch a chord with many of them. This is because we have lost out on love and sensitivity in favor of anger and anxiety.

During such times when cultivation has become bedrock of farmers’ suicide, the story of getting back to the roots may seem outwardly romantic and far-fetched. Nowhere does the author make such a suggestion however, his story is more about the quest for transforming stressful lifestyle and the grit required to make it work. That he found in farming a way to salvation is only an indicative possibility. The core message the author delivers through his lived-in experience is that one could easily live without several of those things that are considered ‘essential’ under the influence of the market. A life stuffed with avoidable materials and products can provide value-added return, devoid of any depreciation.       

For all those having a hard look at where they are headed, Moong Over Microchips offers a list of pre-requisites before taking the plunge. That another world and another location waiting to be explored for self amelioration are without doubt out there. Much will depend on what happiness means to a person, and what price one is willing to pay for attaining it. 

Moong Over MicroChips
by Venkat Iyer
Penguin Viking, New Delhi
Extent: 237, Price: Rs 499

First published in The Hindustan Times dated April 14, 2018.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Through the eyes of the 'other'

As the British wrested power across the country, their racial attitude against the native came to the fore.

The claim that the Hindus are a separate nation, and so are the Muslims, and cannot live together in peace without the British was an Orientalist construct that was applied to tear apart the social fabric of the sub-continent. Once their motivation had graduated from commerce to empire, the colonial hegemony was asserted through cultural supremacy of power and control. It was much sinister than that, as it had proclaimed a moral superiority by reducing the subjugated to a ‘decomposed society, with intellect no higher than a dog’. So profound was its cumulative impact on the masses that 5,000 officers with an army of 65,000 white soldiers were enough to control 300 million people spread across the undivided landscape. Arvind Sharma examines Edward Said’s fundamental thesis - that power invariably drives the production of cultural knowledge – to unfold the ideological might which helped the British exercise full control over people of India.

There is little denying the fact that widespread social influence caused by the imposition of the subjugating culture helped the ruler justify its rule. The British had the luxury of time to reconstruct the cultural history of the undivided landscape, to convince themselves that without their intervention the sub-continent had little future. Else, they could not have created a veil around the plunder of country’s riches, first as East India Company and later as the Empire, which they were engaged in for almost two centuries. India had 24.5 per cent share of global manufacturing output in 1750, which was reduced to mere 2 per cent at the time of independence.

Sharma’s sharp and thought provoking narrative leaves one wondering at the change in attitude of the British during the early nineteenth century. In its early days, the company patronized both the Hindu and the Muslim religions, which transformed dramatically thereafter. As the British wrested power across the country, their racial attitude against the native came to the fore. It will be unjust to judge that action in hindsight, as the ruler had an obligation to not only build their national identity but to reflect a superior self-image back home. Perhaps, permission to allow Christian missionaries to set up educational institutions in 1813, euphemism for conversion, was a step in pushing racial arrogance to the next level. It only helped widen the racial divide further, leading first to the Mutiny, and then to the quest for freedom.

The Ruler’s Gaze is an in-depth study on how misinformation and misinterpretation guided the way in which the myth called India was interpreted by the Greeks and the Europeans. It is intriguing that Indian civilization - its languages, epics and cultures – has been a subject of intense enquiry through most of the recorded history. Did its riches not turn the sails of marauding seamen to unleash organized violence on India? Not without reason the British fought some 110 battles, including those with the Dutch, The French and the Portuguese, to seize India with the ulterior motive of enriching their own resource-poor existence.

Exploring a nuanced understanding of the outside/insider dichotomy of understanding the native, Sharma attempts to presents the ‘other’ perspective as the one that helps to know ‘us’ better. Far from being objective, the ‘others’ saw and understood the native as they deemed fit, justifying George Orwell’s remarks that ‘they denied and obliterated peoples’ understanding of their own history’. To justify their own anomalous presence, the British drew an anomalous portrait of the India based on deep-rooted caste configuration and well-entrenched social practices viz., sati practice, child marriage, dowry and rampant untouchability. It helped them score some brownian points for enforcing their kind of governance on the natives.

The question that begs attention is whether that situation has changed for the better. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy continues to persist, and so are other socio-cultural anomalies. Lord Macaulay had drawn a long term aim ‘to form a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect (who in time would become) by degrees fit vehicles for conveying (our) knowledge to the great mass of the population’. While this wider argument did apply correctly during the colonial period, that it has transcended time zone to afflict potent impact on the dominant politics remains discerning.

A professor of comparative religion at the McGill University in Montreal, Sharma unfolds the Saidian perspective to prism India through the eyes of the rulers. It is scholarly work that is insightful, revealing, and disturbing, leading to multiple interpretations but not without accepting that Saidian frame of mind continues to remain relevant even today.

The Ruler’s Gaze: A Study of British Rule from a Saidian Perspective
by Arvind Sharma
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 426 pages, Price: Rs 699

First published in the Hindustan Times dated March 17, 2018.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What if Lehman Brothers were Lehman Sisters?

Because women are warm, tender, caring, and compassionate, their perception is at a tangent to the mainstream economics that hinges on the science of self-interest.

She must have said it in a lighter vein then, but France’s Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde statement ‘if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the financial crises would have turned out differently’ is worth a curious scrutiny. Women may not have been on top in the capital market, but Lehman Sisters would not have allowed the American housing market to overheat in the first place. Past is unlikely to be rewritten, but an emphatic post-facto speculation may ring a different bell at the Wall Street in future. Is such a thought experiment worth any cause now? 

It indeed is, because it helps infer distinctions as humans of opposite sexes have contrasting biologies to handle risks and opportunities. That higher testosterone levels in men make them prone to taking risks is one significant manifestation. And, it is the excessive risk-taking that caused banks to capsize and the resultant financial meltdown to occur. Could it be that simple? May be not, concurs Katrine Marcal, but there is some logic in viewing economics through female mind. Because women are warm, tender, caring, and compassionate, their perception is at a tangent to the mainstream economics that hinges on the science of self-interest. The world that is driven by self-interest is essentially masculine, hence the dichotomy and the disaster!   

The trajectory of Marcel’s argument rests on this missing feminist dimension in economics, the seeds of which were sown by Adam Smith who even discounted his mother’s contribution in household economic statistics despite her daily contribution to cleaning the house, cooking the food, washing the clothes, and squabbling with the neighbors. One wonders if The Wealth of Nations could have been written had Margaret Douglas not prepared dinner for Adam years on end since he never married. The reason for discounting women contribution is primordial, borne out of the assumption that women’s responsibility for care is but a free choice inherited as an opposite sex. Nothing could be far from the truth, however.

Taking a rigorous economic route, the book challenges patriarchy and the entrenched masculine notions that have, and continue to belittle women as the ‘other sex’ who is only good at pushing the washing machine button or at changing the soggy nappy. Could there be something in women’s biology that makes her better suited for unpaid work, questions Marcel. Freud’s view that women scrub, wipe and clean to compensate for a feeling of inherent filth in their own bodies has been proven to be a sheer psychological myth. The renowned psychoanalyst didn’t know what he was talking about, as woman’s sexual organ is an elegant self-regulated and much cleaner organ than other parts of human body. Such prejudices run much deeper, and often do not cohere with reality. Women bodies, emotions and skills have been suitably appropriated to serve the economic man, as if they aren’t productive in any sense of the term. 

The narrative is terse but witty, and makes the reader feel the glaring absence of women as a cog in the economic wheel. As economics is still a science of choice, a choice has broadly been made in favor of man being its driver. No surprise, therefore, that economics is but a male bastion that relies on a rational behavior that is deft at the art of maximizing profit by discounting the importance of emotions, relationships, cooperation, and altruism. The activities that happen without dollars changing hands remain intangible, and hence discounted as feminine vocations. 

Has economy not failed women? Taking a passionate dig at the economic man, the author argues that economic man’s primary characteristic is that he is not a woman. Women may have selectively moved up the economic ladder, but essentially to be like him. It is precisely for this reason that economic outcomes are gender neutral, as if an opposite sex can’t have different structural relationships to production, reproduction, and consumption in society. And, how can there be a comprehensive understanding of economics when what the other half is doing is not brought into the picture. Economics cannot have only one sex!  

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner is an intense but revealing undertaking. Originally written in Swedish, the translation by Saskia Vogel retains its verve and flair, and is a joy to read. If economists have any intention of ridding the world of its complex economic problems, this book has multiple perspectives that can be worked upon. Feminism’s best kept secret, concludes Marcal, is just how necessary a feminist perspective is in search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems. Feminism is more than just ‘rights of women’; the economic system needs improvement to accommodate the missing dimensions of what it means to be human. 

One thing is clear that if Margaret Douglas was alive today, and witness to the impact of Smith’s economic theory, she would not have cooked dinner for her son. She would have instead ordered it online. 

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?
by Katrine Marcal
Portobello Books, London
Extent: 230, Price: Rs 374  

First published in Hindu BusinessLine dated March 31, 2018 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Witness to unfolding moments of life

There is nothing more beautiful than an unfinished tale as life, like democracy, is a fight that ought to be played by each one of us with all the weapons that one can find.

There are multiple encounters, stories on nature of human thoughts and emotions unfolding under the clouds of uncertainty and change. Drawn from different segments of society, with drifting perceptions on life and belonging, the seven characters in Clouds weave a grand story of city and village in the dream world of Bombay. The divorced Parsi psychotherapist Farhad finds love in Zahra; and discovers accidentally before taking a flight to San Francisco that Hemlata had experienced love (and marriage) as a kind of moisturizer whose effect didn’t last long. Elsewhere in the city, the ailing Odia couple of Eeja and Ooi relive their golden past in the company of Rabi who is a proxy to their son Bhagban, whose electoral battle is aimed at securing political power to lead the democratic struggle of the Cloud people from the stranglehold of a mining company. Each of these half-a-dozen characters create stories that cast distinct reflections on life, lifestyle and survival.

Brilliantly evocative, Clouds is an encounter with mortals, their transient loneliness, entrenched traditions, and changing cultures, that cast a mesmerizing spell on what one may think about life. There is nothing more beautiful than an unfinished tale as life, like democracy, is a fight that ought to be played by each one of us with all the weapons that one can find. ‘If you don’t fight for your share, somebody else will take that they can use.’ As much as love and private life of human beings, religion and politics has been transformed into products that can be bartered.

Within the moralistic, fatalistic and somewhat monotonic frame that defines most Indians, the author draws imaginative contours of regional identity amidst growing cosmopolitanism. The characters don’t preach what they perceive but leave it for the reader to take away meanings from their respective stories. Built upon the scaffolding of Arjee the Dwarf, Chandrahas’ first work of fiction, in which a desolate young man sees the image of his own condition in the clouds that hover above, Clouds is a novelistic structure of multiple narratives which are trapped within the limitations of its perceptions. After all, man’s best and even his worst is neither bright not dark, but always in self-doubt. Life is made of a cloudy nature, of dreams and shattered realities. Within the plenitude of life, each of the half-a-dozen characters generate surprising patterns about isolation and (dis)continuity of human existence.

Taking pleasure in the variety of human encounters, Chandrahas creates a fascinating mosaic of conversations that are as much real as reflective of human nature. His style is fresh, revealing and entertaining, intense and mild, unfolding the otherness of others through stories of love, sex, faith and belief. Clouds offer the continuity to the uncertainty of lived experiences. No wonder, under clouds the look and color of the world is only a trick of light. The truth of human condition lies within the horizon of its perception, whatever be it. Truth is anything but a subjective reality, caught in the time warp. Nobody can be as happy as they think they can be!

Farhad fleeting sexual encounter with Zahra fulfills a bodily desire, the search for happiness remains a work in progress; Hemlata’s self-doubting single status deserves to be heard, engaged with, and respected; Baghban’s quest for political identity comes at the cost of his ailing parents, and their unstinted faith in Lord Jaganath; and, Rabi’s self-sacrifice in favor of the Cloud people bequeaths promise of a cosmopolitan future. Each character is a victim of his/her decisions, in a world of unattainable future. It is a work of fiction that has politics and development at its core, transformation and change viewed through the inevitability of human existence, and death. In his figment of imagination Chandrahas draws contours of reality, of lived encounters that carry the everydayness of emotions about somewhat failed expectations from life, and yet characters tread on in search of understanding the moods of the city, its people, and their politics.

‘Amazing how ruled, regulated, routine our lives become without us knowing it, even inside what we take to be our spaces of pleasure and freedom’. In Clouds, there are footprints of an emerging new talent. If there was another kind of storytelling waiting to be discovered, Chandrahas Choudhury has brought it up with his deft touch of perception and imagination. He is an author whose work will be keenly awaited.

Clouds
by Chandrahas Choudhury
Simon & Schuster, Delhi
Extent: 280, Price: Rs. 669

First published in Deccan Herald dated Feb 11, 2018.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

To be on cloud nine!

....from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.

It is perhaps the only instance when science surrendered to symbolism, and for some good reasons. The expression ‘to be on cloud nine’ has been in vogue since 1890 discovery that the highest-rising cloud was the ninth and last on the list. But later scientific research proved it to the contrary, identifying cumulonimbus to be tenth, and the last cloud. Despite such finding, the World Meteorological Organization sustained euphoric status to cumulonimbus as the true cloud nine. As a result, numerical expression cloud eight for ‘drinking too much liquor’, and cloud seven for ‘seventh heaven’ stays!  

However, there is more to clouds than just these numbers. From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from the muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change and cloud computing. Capturing their picturesque journey from ‘an ultimate art gallery above’ in the words of Ralph W Emerson to the ‘center of digital life below’ as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multi-faceted narrative on nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject. And, indeed it is!

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery on the subject, having already published two books on clouds - The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first book captures all things to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation on understanding the science of clouds. In his third book under reference, he has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled their mysteriousness. Throughout human history attempts to understand clouds and their behaviour has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless source of creative contemplation, from Socrates to Seneca and from Kalidas to Ruskin. Each attempt has helped in presenting a different story.

Clouds emerges is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modifications. American (failed) attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military trials have invoked widespread concern from international community to declare clouds as ‘a resource that belongs to no one’. Legal remedies for trespassing territories for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding would need to be curtailed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Since science is only beginning to understand the role of clouds in shaping future conditions on earth, a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behaviour of clouds that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightening strikes is one of many surprises that clouds have in store. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightening activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space remain unanswered? 

It is evident that clouds are challenging human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes, who always had their head in clouds, had long professed that ‘from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.’ Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomenon or processes, Leonardo da Vinci had described clouds as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability provides food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. The current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to re-imagine and re-understand clouds. There may be clues in arts and literature to make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contention is that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind while embarking on geo-engineering projects that temper with atmosphere, and clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, it is clear that there is no way of knowing what is really going to happen to our increasingly changing  atmosphere, and just as in centuries past, clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubts and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come. 

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, these have larger role in keeping the earth hospitable to living beings. Clouds provide insights on history and science of clouds, and acts as a guide to pursue mankind to get a sensitive handling on the wooly product/process hovering between sky and the earth. Cogent and colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds. 

Clouds: Nature and Culture
by Richard Hamblyn
Reaktion Books, London
Extent: 251, Price: $25

First published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReviews.

Friday, January 12, 2018

An exercise in hortatory optimism!

The world needs a new economic system that unleashes altruism as a creative force by assuming that human beings are born entrepreneurs and not mere job seekers. 

At an address in Prague in August 1996, Lech Walesa said that while the transition from capitalism to communism was easy, the transition from communism to capitalism wasn’t. “It is easy to make fish soup from the aquarium with living gold-fish, but just imagine what a challenge it is to try to make the aquarium with living goldfish out of the fish-soup,” he said, adding that this was what was being attempted in his native Poland.

Walesa’s fellow Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, has now drawn up a proposal to make soup out of an aquarium. Riding on the contested success of the micro credit movement, he presents a case for reinventing mainstream economics in A World of Three Zeroes. The proposal for the new economics aims to create a world with zero unemployment and zero poverty in an eco-friendly world that will have zero net carbon emissions.

In a realm where money begets money, Adam Smith’s invisible hand hasn’t served the poor which led economist Thomas Piketty to argue that progressive taxation alone can remedy growing income imbalance. Yunus’ contention is that neither of the two (progressive taxation or the invisible hand) will change the picture. He believes the solution rests on unleashing the entrepreneurial skills of the bottom billions in creating a mass base for building models of ‘social business’. The world needs a new economic system that unleashes altruism as a creative force by assuming that human beings are born entrepreneurs and not mere job seekers. In his hortatory writing, the author calls for a hybrid business model that is neither quite for-profit nor quite non-profit but one that partakes virtues of both in leveraging the innate human desire to be selfless.

Drawing inspiration from several of his social business models currently operative across the world, including Golden Bees in Uganda and the Human Harbor Corporation in Japan, Yunus is convinced that the old ways of addressing poverty and unemployment through charitable efforts and government programs cannot generate the desired 40 million jobs every year. The idea seems to have merit, and is the reason leading global companies like Renault, McCain, Danone and Essilor have contributed funds to run social businesses for providing multiple services to the needy in poor suburbs in both developed and developing countries. The bottom line, the author argues, is to give people the resources and know how such that they can grow and become part of the economic mainstream.

The proposition is promising but, like the micro-credit model, the idea of the social business smacks of overt optimism. That both are borne out of the capitalist economy can in itself be their undoing. Since the idea of social business is but an extended version of the micro credit model of entrepreneurship, its performance has a direct corollary on the future of social business. Despite claims, the short-term gains from micro loans have not translated into the creation of long-term assets. This has trapped a large number of poor recipients into a debt cycle. Barring a few exceptions, the majority of microfinance institutions have been on a profit-making spree at the cost of poor lenders. This is why it has remained a low-hanging fruit of the capitalist economy. Under the circumstances, will social business be any different?

Yunus’ intentions are noble and his approach is balanced and practical. The case for social business has been persuasively made but the precondition of a near ideal sociopolitical ecosystem to nurture it seems preposterous. Left on its own without a regulatory framework, there is a risk that unscrupulous capitalists will exploit the opportunity to colour their profit-making business as a ‘social business’. While no society is driven by greed alone it is also true that economics has remained the science of self-interest. It seems unreal to expect economic man and capitalist market to turn away from profit maximization.

The capitalist economy continues to build its social image through charities. But the trouble with a charity dollar is that it can be used only once while a social business investment dollar is recycled indefinitely. Yunus is convinced that a dollar invested in social business can contribute significantly to transforming local and national economies. Clearly, there is a need to rethink the tenets of free-market capitalism and the marketplace itself. Add to this the question of the coexistence of social business within the dominant world of the capitalist economy, and the risk of the former being usurped by the latter.

While it is true that only re-envisioned economics will recognize humans as natural entrepreneurs, best served not by jobs but by opportunities to make their own ventures in the marketplace, the challenge of re-imagining mainstream economics can only be seen as a work in progress. Yunus generates excitement about the potential of turning things around but there are more questions than answers in his vision. Though the humane proposal for economic reform is far from practical, A World of Three Zeroes does provide provocations for a wider engagement with development economists and specialists.

The review was first published in the Hindustan Times, dated Jan 13, 2018. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The quest for power, and the lure for more..

Of over two dozen titles that I chanced to read during the year, the three titles drawn from history, philosophy, and ethology interconnect to create a better understanding of us and our times.


Childhood curiosity about the Queen who had said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to the widespread bread shortages during one of the famines that occurred during the reign of her husband, Louis XIV, in the 18th century France had prompted me to read Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days (Rowman & Littlefield). Historian Will Bashnor has brought the shocking facts of the Queen’s last days before she was sent to the guillotine, which during the French revolution was called the 'national razor'. It offers a riveting account of her tragic fate, with the jury predisposed on its verdict. The narrative captures the compelling conditions in which the royal prisoner, registered as Widow Capet No. 280, was torn from her family, especially from her eight year old son who was made to die under most tragic solitary (dark) confinement. The book records the most significant event in world history, but is a painful reflection on the justice system on which Napoleon could not resist commenting, “The queen’s death was a crime worse than regicide”.
The quest for power and the lure for riches can drive anybody nuts, be it the ruler or the ruled. Yet, there remains a conflict between the virtues of simple life and the merits of extravagant living. Frugal simplicity may be a boring idea amidst the quest for more, but the need for frugal living is more pertinent now than ever before. Philosopher Emrys Westacott has pulled together over two thousand years of moral philosophy, from Socrates to Gandhi and from Buddha to Thoreau in The Wisdom of Frugality (Princeton), to drive home the contemporary relevance of an idea that counters the apparently irresistible economic imperative to grow. One of the central preoccupations in the book is why, if so many smart people have championed frugality, it hasn’t become the global norm. No wonder, therefore, luxurious living continues to be viewed as morally suspect but not without being equally envied and admired. The book rightfully concludes that the idea and appeal for frugality is more than just nostalgic because the very survival of mankind rests on simple and less wasteful existence, thus giving ancient wisdom a new relevance. 
   
We might consider ourselves to be the wisest on the earth, but in reality we have yet to outsmart animals. Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal pulls together amazing surprises from the cognitive world of animals in his fascinating book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are (Granta). The book focuses on observations and behavioural experiments from the growing field of evolutionary cognition. It allows us to peer into the minds of non-human animals – such as primates,  corvids, dolphins, elephants,  and even the octopus. It puts to rest many myths around animals’ wisdom, including the story of the thirsty crow. Experimental observations have proved that if there are pebbles lying around a jar, the crow is sure to pick these up to source water from the depth to quench its thirst. Interestingly, the book offers a corrective on so-called human exceptionalism, and should be a must-read as much for young students as for the adults past their prime.   

Contributed on invitation from The Hindustan Times and published on Dec 23, 2017, the interesting books read during the year.   

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Can literary acumen swing political power?

There is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises.

Can literary acumen act as a means to political ascendency in recent times? Alternately, is there scope for political prowess to be embellished by literary merit? Far from getting any further on it, the veracity of such questions will be frowned upon and the audacity of the seeker will evoke mirth and glee. Present day political life is marred by a moral decline and a slump in ethics, to say the least. And there is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises. Acquisition of power is at the cost of everything humane, literature being an essential casualty.      

That literary enterprise of history, language and religion can be combined as an aspect of nation building is an essential take away from the lives of two nobles, the father and son who lived separately through the reigns of four Mughal emperors. Bairam Khan for his military acumen, and Abdur Rahim for his literary prowess, had stamped their extraordinary presence during the period of great literary and spiritual effervescence under the reigns of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shajahan during the 16th and 17th century. More than their unconditional loyalty, it was their political acumen and martial valor that had helped both to enviable positions in the royal courts. 

In his painstakingly detailed and historically accurate account, T.C.A Raghavan captures the political jealousies and ideological controversies that these nobles were prey to. How they maneuvered through the muddle without compromising on their literary talents is both intriguing and inspiring? Ability to compose and recite poetry spontaneously came handy for Bairam throughout his distinguished career. Adroit in encompassing flattery in its subtlest form in his poetry, the decorated regent could push many crucial political decisions in favor of the empire. Politics was not a disgrace for wise men during those days, but close proximity to the throne did cause repulsion and ultimate decline of Bairam Khan.        

Attendant Lords is a vivid narrative on the most important period in history, when the Mughals were not only consolidating power but were negotiating religious diversity through political upmanship. It is not just the Mughals who were pulling the diverse socio-cultural-religious narratives into a nationalistic discourse, history is replete with instances where powers-that-be have tried to reconcile such tensions in different ways. What made the Mughals different was their attempt at invoking sympathies from our across cultures, with an aim at demonstrating liberal behaviour towards the masses.

Bairam Khan’s dismissal and subsequent departure from the court had left a residual guilt in the mind of Akbar, who showered his kindness on child Abdur Rahim who was only five years old at the time of his father’s demise. Rahim grew up as a well-regarded scholar of Persian, Turkish and Arabic, and owed these acquisitions to the liberal scholarly atmosphere in the court. It had lasting impact on Rahim, on his approach to life, politics, and power. Subsequent to the ceremonious return of his abducted wife on the instructions of Rana Pratap, Rahim had lost all desire to defeat so worthy a foe and had requested Akbar to be relieved of his command on grounds of ill health. On being questioned by the emperor, Rahim is believed to have responded ‘his courage, pride, chivalry and patriotism distinguish him as one who should receive the emperor’s benevolence’. The campaign against Mewar was given up, suggestive of the sowing of the earliest seeds of Indian nationalism on Hindu-Muslim unity.

Given his background in history, Raghvan delves on historicity of the cultural effervescence of the period from a literary lens. Persian poetry was ‘an important vehicle of liberalism in the medieval Muslim world (and) helped in no significant way in creating and supporting the Mughal attempt to accommodate diverse religious traditions.’ Language, poetry and politics were aligned under the patronage of nobles like Rahim, who had himself emerged as a poet of extraordinary brilliance. From decorative to devotional, Rahim’s moral aphorisms rest on simple verses in which everyday life resonates. His verse Rahiman pani rakhiye, bin paani sub sun (Always keep water, for without it nothing exists) has an immortal endurance.    

Attendant Lords is a work of scholarship, navigating the lives of these two nobles in history, literature, and later in cinema. Akbari dispensation of interfaith harmony would not have been possible without Bairam Khan, which was subsequently nurtured by Abdur Rahim. Raghvan aptly concludes the biography of two important pillars of the empire by locating them in the present, ‘..it is their ambitions, accomplishments and flaws, interfacing with difficult choices, rightly or wrongly made, that give us the point of entry to use our own present to understand their long-past lives.’ It is no modest admission than to say that in doing so we do get to understand our own times better. 

Attendant Lords
by T C A Raghvan
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 337, Price: Rs 699

This review was first published in the Hindustan Times, dated Dec 16, 2017.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutable histories on crumbling edifices

Archival narratives were authored, and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state.

Monuments are cast in stone, but not their histories as multiple appropriations in time and space generate diverse narratives of their mute existence. Red Fort has lived through it like none other. From the seat of the Mughal Empire in 17th century to the nucleus of armed rebellion against the British in 19th, it has had its share of history before emerging as the ultimate symbol of a nation-state in the 20th century. In tracing contested history of five monuments in capital Delhi – Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Qutab Complex and Rasul Numa Dargah – Mrinalini Rajagopalan brings fascinating accounts of their unexpected uses and ideological appropriations by state and non-state actors. 

Each of the five monuments had a brush with the unexpected in the course of their archaeological existence: the Red Fort got turned into a place for rebellion, and resurgence; the Jama Masjid served as a place for self assertion during the pre-independence period; the Purana Qila was considered to rest on the mythic city of the Indraprastha; the Qutab complex has had its share of religious skirmishes; and the little-known sufi shrine of Hazrat Rasul Numa was saved by locals from expropriation by the British. The basic contention of this eloquent study is that each of these monuments exists in the space between archive and affect, lending credence to the notion that the monuments are culturally mutable objects far from being symbols of their specific pasts. In this context, the inheritance of the past is rarely seamless and secular.

Drawing detailed portraits of each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan examines how archival narratives were authored and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state. Interestingly, while the colonial government sought to erase reminiscences of the humiliating losses suffered during 1857 rebellion from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Indian government did not remove Nicholson statue, the British soldier who had crushed the rebels, as a reminder of our own weakness to serve as a good historical lesson. These affects reflect differing interests and varying motivations toward the same monument.  

Building Histories captures the archaeological history of the five monuments and the institutional preservation that began with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, which was given additional impetus by the enactment of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act by Lord Curzon in 1904. As a distinct departure from its past history of looting, pilferage and destruction of historic structures, the colonial government had an image makeover post-1857 as it started protecting monuments on behalf of its subjects. Could it be an institutionalized atonement for a previous history that included destruction and vandalism of country’s cultural heritage? 

The book is more than an archaeological treatise on the five monuments, as it raises question on what historical lexicon may suffice to accommodate many voices and affects that continually make and remake these structures. Mrinalini Rajgopalan, an assistant professor in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, opines that Delhi’s rich Islamic structures are deeply vexing to those who seek to reclaim India as a geography defined solely by Hindu culture and history. The November 2001 abortive attempt for reclaiming the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutab complex as a Hindu temple is a case in point. Such parochial reframing of nation and history has been frequently played out on the monuments in the capital city. 

Each monument may be a bearer of specific truths regarding the past, and yet it remains vulnerable to multiple interpretations as the text that sets the regime of truth changes hands over time. No surprise, therefore, that prevailing anxieties between state and non-state actors builds new narratives to justify the imagined past. The creative appropriation of the medieval ruins of the Qila Rai Pithora in south Delhi in 2010, as the remnants of an ancient Hindu empire of Prithviraj Chauhan, has been a way to contain the history and interpretation of the monument. However, there is more to the Qila that is located at the entrance to Delhi, and which has been witness to many ups and downs of the history of India.  

Rajgopalan examines such contestations to argue that since the past could not be retrieved by the contemporary observer, there is a need for each of the monuments to remain a sacred and immutable relic of the past. What worries her is the continuing seduction to redefine the archival past in a bid to avenge past Islamic domination.  

Building Histories narrates extraordinary stories of the each of the five monuments – many of them previously unknown – in making a strong case for pulling archival histories out from the influence of popular emotions. Within the archival representations and affective appropriations of the monuments, the book echoes the need for more nuanced history of architectural objects. 

Building Histories
by Mrinalini Rajagopalan
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 3,857   

First published in The Hindustan Times online on Nov 11, 2017