Friday, February 26, 2021

The News Today, Oh Boy !

The all-you-can-eat-menu of daily news is toxic rubbish.

Audacious, provocative, and utterly persuasive, Stop Reading the News does what a vast majority may be secretly contemplating, but often lack courage to act in recalibrating not just what is possible, but what is increasingly necessary. One of those rare books that sets out to argue a point that you are likely not to have a deeply settled opinion on, but forces you to work through a whole series of interconnected views and assumptions to take a call. Witty, clear, and concise, even when the narrative may fail to convince the die-hard news lover, it does succeed in making one think. Really think, on how to avoid both reading and watching news for a happier, calmer, and wiser life. 

Having banished the obsession of news reading and watching from his life for over a decade now, Swiss journalist Rolf Dobelli provides a step by step guide on following his footsteps to reward oneself with less disruption, more time, less anxiety, and more insights. The economics and politics of news generation has made the output so addictive that before one realizes, news becomes to the mind what sugar is to the body. Digitalization has made news even more potent, its corrosive impact sidles automatically into the brain. No surprise, the all-you-can-eat-menu of the daily news has become a toxic but compulsive diet. 

Stop Reading the News peels many layers of news production and its persuasive marketing which forces the reader into believing that without the news our life would be worse off. Despite most of what one gets to read or see is superfluous and exaggerated, little gets realized that the news is opposite of understanding the world. It only reports events – events without contexts. Yet it remains dangerously addictive for a vast majority, making the consumer overconfident about carrying a permanently inflamed and completely pointless appendix that can easily be done away with. The illusion of empowerment is overwhelming!

Packed with delightfully readable chapters, Dobelli propels readers to the compelling need to build one’s own crap detector as the media has gradually stopped acting as a crap filter for its readers, listeners and viewers. Confirming Sturgeon’s Law which states that ‘ninety per cent of everything that is published is rubbish regardless of genre’, the media has only degenerated to the extent of losing its relevance. Sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon did face widespread condensations for his sweeping statement that later became a law, but novelist Ernest Hemingway had little doubt on the ‘need for having a built-in automatic crap detector’ as media’s business model involves shoveling the greatest possible magnitude of rubbish over the greater possible area. 

The trouble with the news is that our brains are deluged with information on which we have a remote possibility of acting upon. Once our impulse to take action fades, we not only become passive but assume the role of a victim, defined as learned helplessness. Dobelli’s intuitive but engaging style of writing asks questions on our obsession with the news at the cost of inner peace and creativity. The theoretical basis for banishing news is as compelling as the proposed thirty-day plan to take the mental step of staying away from the news. The news-contaminated lifestyle needs time to detox. Once out of it, the book lists myriad other ways of engagement that could be mentally more nourishing. 

Stop Reading the News would not have come about had the author not been invited to talk to internationally acclaimed journalists at The Guardian newspaper, precisely critiquing a subject that they spent their days producing it. On the following morning, Dobelli’s arguments appeared under the title ‘News is bad for you’ on the newspaper website. It remained most-read newspaper articles for the year 2013. It is interesting to note that Dobelli could tease the bunch of distinguished journalists by concluding that ‘what you are doing here is basically entertainment’, without anyone contesting it. The author sounds as much convincing now.    

Dobelli has dealt a complicated subject in its entirety, taking the discerning reader into a world of dangerous possibilities which most of us have unknowingly put our life at stake. It is light reading on a serious subject, insightful and reflective. It is a timely book on a subject that is not only affecting our lives inside out, but causing disturbing influences on our society and polity. Anybody reading this book would think twice about switching on the television news or glancing through the pages of the newspaper.  

Stop Reading the News
by Rolf Dobelli
Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 160, Price: Rs. 399.

First published in the Outlook magazine, issue for the week ending March 8, 2021

Friday, January 22, 2021

The landscape of contradictory impulses

Mystics, monkeys and murders have come to be identified with parts of the Ridge. 

Delhi may have been slowly forgetting its past but the Ridge, the green lungs of the sprawling megapolis remain living fossils in the history of its making. Between its stones and soil are held the political, economic, and ecological tensions between the rulers and rebels, the orthodox and the liberated, and the civilised and the wild. Spread over 80 square kilometers of reserved forest in the city, it is as much a place for lovers, joggers and stoners as for landlords, administrators and politicians. All said, it is a blissful reality in an otherwise polluted city. 

While there is little denying that mystics, monkeys and murders have come to be identified with parts of the Ridge over the decades, such contradictory impulses nonetheless harbor crucial vantage points for understanding the interconnectedness that can help in healing its ecological scars. Thomas Crowley views the sacred and the profane with empathy to create a new vision for the Ridge, one that has something for everyone with its riches redistributed and enjoyed by all. Till it remains a contested territory with rights and obligations skewed in favour of the powerful, the future of this green zone will remain vulnerable to both manmade and cosmic challenges.   

Fractured Forest Quartzite City is an absorbing and engaging read on the subject of urban development. In the quest for international investments, most cities go for style over substance and keep a shiny surface atop a chaotic subsurface. A city as big as Delhi has slowly turned into a shadow of its glorious past. The foundations of this degeneration were laid in 1911 during the establishment of the capital by the British. Later, not only were the quartzite structures inherited, the many British laws and attitudes too became part of the legacy. The Ridge was to become its intended victim, supporting both production and consumption to sustain the city’s economic transformation.  

Like a curious child exploring the inner functioning of a mechanical toy, Crowley has not left out any detail in his investigative narrative on the Ridge. If the Tughlaqs, the Khiljis, and the British appear as part of its bloodied  history; the Rajputs, the Gujjars, and migrants contribute a socio-cultural narrative; and, the likes of the Jagmohans, Ponty Chaddhas and the monkeyman fill the political-economic perspective. It seems the  Ridge has never existed in a vacuum as many aspects of its economic, social, cultural, and political history remain entangled in its geological existence. Peeling the layers exposes the realities which have been ereased from public memory. This book is a plea to reconnect with the Ridge’s past to build a common heritage of shared responsibilities.              

Lucid and well-researched, Fractured Forest Quartzite City presents the Ridge as a living entity. The Ridge is to Delhi what lungs are to the body, pumping oxygen into its air for its inhabitants to realize their dreams, their fantasies, and their unspoken desires. Without the story of the Ridge, the history of Delhi too would be incomplete. Crowley’s painstaking efforts in recreating the legacy of the Ridge is a tribute to its geology and ecology that made many cities rise and fall around it. However, it is now up to the contemporary city to ensure that its lungs stay healthy for a vibrant engagement with its populace.  

The book helps readers discover how the Ridge and the city have shaped each other, and will continue to co-evolve. Crowley’s aim has been to broaden the scope of thinking about Delhi’s environment by reconnecting its past with the present, and exposing how consumption effects the immediate environment. Fractured Forest Quartzite City provides a comprehensive account on the evolution of the megapolis and leads the reader to understand that growth cannot be at the cost of ignoring the Ridge.  

Fractured Forest, Quartzite City
by Thomas Crowley
Sage, New Delhi
Extent: 350, Price: Rs.795.

First published in the Hindustan Times, Jan 21, 2021.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Illusion of a makeover

That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority. 

Francis Fukuyama had professed that the post-war evolution of mankind will spur the ideological universalization of liberal democracy. In saying so, the author of The End of History and the Last Man had assumed that the world of globalization will subsume spiritual values and national identities. However, in her innovative analysis Ravinder Kaur, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, questions this assumption and argues instead that identity politics is being capitalized as a brand in recent times to gain greater economic value. India's recent mega-publicity campaigns aimed at transforming the nation-state into an attractive investment destination has been one such utopian vision of a twenty-first century nation building. It is built on the optimistic illusion that ‘good times’ are just round the corner, strengthened by the attention-grabbing spectacles that keep its consumers constantly hooked. 

Brand New Nation is a thoughtful enquiry into the capitalist project that has transformed the state into an authority that holds the power to brand, legislate and rearrange the nation as a market-ready investment enclosure. The populist nature of this new image building, driven by necessary infusion of global capital, has led to the fragmentation of a plural society into a polarized mass of individuals who are ready to compromise in the pursuit of self-interest. That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority. These seeming contradictions have come to characterize the image makeover.  

It is indeed a seductively repackaged idea of image building wherein ancient cultures and modern ambitions have been made to co-exist in a democratic set-up that has majoritarian autocracy at the top. Not many seem to be complaining though as capitalist growth and hyper-nationalism has created social enclosures that have come to characterize the brand new nation. In an engaging multi-layered narrative, Kaur unravels how seemingly contradictory positions cohere in rearranging the so-called liberal political order. Where else can one find identity economy and identity politics hold joint currency in creating a populist notion of good times that harbors seeds of sectarian violence triggered by an exclusionary economic growth agenda? 

Much has been written in recent times on how India has expressed its ambitions of becoming a global power, however, the market logic of reconfiguring the nation-state as a cultural hub of profitable business enterprise of a specific kind provides fresh insights on the subject. Brand New Nation bridges the past and the present in proposing that the re-imagination of the country is rooted in its past, albeit packaged in a tech-friendly software utopia embraced by the younger generation.  "Put simply, the Brand is manufactured and marketed on a well-calibrated play of attention and diversion, of secrecy and excessive publicity that creates its own truth and public secrets that people know not to know". However, culturally troublesome fact in the new brand is the political push for the pre-Islamic imagery of the country – tactically evicting minorities and the others (the Muslims, the Dalits) from the image frame. It is here that the new image holds potential to develop serious social fissures.   

Can the country hold on to its new image beyond the current political dispensation that nurtures it? Can the brand new nation remain afloat in the permanent anticipation of good times? Can the state of optimism be sustained under falling economic growth? Unless we begin to make sense of the return of ethnonationalism with a majoritarian impulse, argues Kaur, understanding the limitations of branding the nation-state will remain incomprehensible. Outwardly attractive it may seem, but the unabashed illiberal majoritarian politics taking over the liberal democracy has yet to stand the test of time in addressing the pressing economic challenges. 

Brand New Nation makes interesting and absorbing reading but leaves the reader to draw his/her inferences on the transition that the nation-state is passing through. While the imagery of a brand new nation offers an optimistic sales pitch, the consequences of the socio-political experimentation that conveniently categorizes those who doubt or raise troubling questions has yet to be fully assessed. Whether it strengthens the political leadership or will lead to its weakening will determine the endurance of the new image. All said, a history is in the making with the promise of a new tryst with destiny. Kaur deserves appreciation for taking the reader on a tour of the changing trajectory of re-building a nation-state. .

Brand New Nation
by Ravinder Kaur
Stanford University Press, USA
Extent: 346, Price: Rs. 1,524.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated Jan 10, 2021.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A sub-culture of non-existence

These tribes have no future tense in their conversation, relying on what nature has on offer on a daily basis.

It is a book that immerses into the lives of six forgotten tribes to draw their non-fictional portraits with exquisite specificity and empathy. It doesn’t intrude into the lives of the elusive Halakkis, Kanjars, Kurumbas, Marias, Khasis and Konyaks, but places the discerning reader amidst these tribes to go with the flow of their existence under most marginalized conditions. However, none of the protagonists seem to be complaining as yet but do make us realize that we have been looking at everything about them the wrong way. Living within their traditional beliefs but distanced from the so-called civilized society, these tribes are oblivious of their anthropological worth in the changing times.  

With her ears firmly to the ground, the author constructs an uncommon narrative on their emotional conflicts with the changing realities. With obscure identities, these tribes continue to wage a silent battle for existence within their isolated confines. In doing so, they pose existential questions: should these tribes negotiate with the world that neither gives attention to them nor counts their being; why have they not been allowed to develop along the lines of their own genius; and, why has modernity relegated these tribes to the dusty bye lanes of history? White as Milk and Rice provides insights on the lives that may have been less lived from modern viewpoint, but their distant and distinct lifestyles produce vibrations that are reflective of their organic bonding with the nature. 

Not allowed to integrate with mainstream society, the Kanjars have persisted with their criminal lifestyle; holding sexual freedom valuable before marriage, the Marias have retained their dedicated space for conjugal experimentation; and, despite the pressures of a matrilineal society, the Khasi women feel empowered with their traditional inheritance. Within these broad frames are layers of visuals that provide a vignette of the tribal lifestyles. Each story has sub-stories, revealing details on how life, livelihood and lifestyle is being negotiated. What comes out clear is that the colorful life of the tribes cannot be painted with one brush stroke, their design of development varies even across households within the same tribe.  

In peeling the layers from their lives, the Kundalia has let go the writer’s prerogative and instead allowed the characters to speak for themselves. A third-person narrative, howsoever packed with data and facts, remains a non-fictional portrayal that allows the reader to experience the complexities of engagements with the otherness of the others. One might despise the desire of the Konyak men to display animal heads as trophies of courage and strength, but it must be known that the traditional practice of displaying human skulls has been done away with.  For them, it is a sense of belonging and freedom that has been inherent in such cultural practices. These disturbing trespasses challenge the reader in taking a deep dive into the socio-cultural underpinnings that characterize the imperatives of tribal existence. 

White as Milk and Rice makes interesting and engaging reading, loaded with details about the tribes’ daily routines and about practices that reflect their inter-personal relations. The Kurumba’s skillful act of honey gathering from hives hanging on precarious cliffs is dare devil to say the least. Even while dangling between life and death from the cliff, the Kurumba boy gently speaks to the hive ‘some for the forest, some for me’ treating the hives with almost familial care. Stories like these reflect empathy, leaving the reader to draw conclusions on the lives that these tribes live, one day at a time. Some tribes have no future tense in their conversation, relying on what nature has on offer on a daily basis. No wonder, most tribal hamlets celebrate at the end of each day as a mark of thanksgiving for the day gone by with an innate desire of welcoming the next. 

At this time when mankind is pushed into forced seclusion and shrinking resources, the book offers heart-warming narratives on connecting with inner self and other aspects of nature that remain bountiful.   

White as Milk and Rice
by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 399.

This review was commissioned by The Hindustan Times.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Politics and the sexual lives of women

Neo-liberal ideologies have commercialized basic human emotions; leaving women vulnerable to exploitation.

Human relationships are rarely equal when partners do not enjoy economic independence. The lack of equality not only inversely impacts relationships but the experience of sex itself. Shrouded in uneasy dealings between the sheets, the role of different structural relationships to something as fundamental as sex has rarely been acknowledged. In the capitalist world saturated with real and virtual sex, neo-liberal ideologies have commercialized basic human emotions; they are things to be bought and sold, and these transactions have left women vulnerable to exploitation both within the household and at the workplace. Can it be argued that capitalism’s triumph is indeed a calamity for most women?

Kristen Ghodsee’s book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism accomplishes the difficult task of engaging readers on a subject that may have lost much of its relevance in an era dominated by capitalist claims on undeterred human progress. Provocatively written and deftly argued, the book, published in 2018 but now available in paperback, spans an impressive intellectual scope and is based on Ghodsee’s extensive research on the status of women in eastern European countries. She prods us to think about the invisible workings of power and the ways in which it has filtered into people’s daily lives, so much so that most cannot detect the political hues it tends to take on. In this deeply researched book, Ghodsee wonders if capitalism has proven to be a worse influence on the lives of women than state socialism, a system that women were once so eager to cast aside. She convincingly lays bare a few hard facts to underscore her argument.

The American ethnographer argues that privatization and liberalization of the economy have disproportionately eroded the safety nets that allowed women to combine work and family responsibilities with equal ease. Combining facts with lived experiences, she navigates the socio-political realities in countries that were once socialist to emphasize how policies and programmes were designed to invest vast resources in education and training to guarantee full employment, which to some degree ensured economic freedom for women. While Bulgarian women were pursuing careers during the post-World War II economic boom, American women were stocking their kitchens with appliances. One among many, this comparison reflects how political and economic structures insidiously pushed women into the world of social disparity and income inequality.

However, Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in no way advocates a return to any form of 20th-century state socialism that had failed under the weight of its own contradictions. Instead, she suggests the need to combine the good aspects of both models (socialism and capitalism) while rejecting their obvious drawbacks.

Organised into six lively chapters, each beginning with a personal jumping-off point, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism is a fascinating study of sexual economics which makes a compelling case for a more expansive understanding of feminism. It helps a reader gain multi-layered insights into the impact of the political organisation of society on the intimate lives of women and their freedom.

With this book, Ghodsee explores a subject that has remained under wraps for long. She compares the socialist vision of free sexuality based on equal rights with the capitalist idea of commodified sexuality to conclude that women under socialism enjoyed more satisfying personal lives. It is no secret that the reintroduction of free markets in Russia shockingly coincided with a return to the commodification of women, she writes. That many East Germans too believed that their pre-1989 sexuality was more spontaneous, natural and joyful compared to the “commercialized” and “instrumentalised” sexuality they encountered when they joined West Germany.

Ghodsee argues that unless women begin to question their fait accompli status, their capacity to remain willfully ignorant about their rightful status will only grow and flourish. Although switching economic systems for having better sex may seem a tad trivial, embracing certain aspects of socialism alone can ensure freedom for women from the transactional ethos of sexual economics theory, which determines how men’s and women’s sexual thoughts, feelings, preferences and behavior follow fundamental economic principles. It is difficult not to agree with Ghodsee, whose experience of living in the socialist world comes handy in connecting academic theory with social practice.

Written with academic clarity and professional empathy, this book takes the reader into an insightful journey on why women are pushed to the economic margins of a highly unequal society under capitalism. As socialist ideas have begun to enjoy a renaissance among the younger generation in countries such as the US — recall the youth support that Bernie Sanders enjoys — an alternative political path to a more egalitarian society is indeed a possibility. After all, all that they told us about communism is not a lie but many claims about virtues of capitalism are indeed turning out to be untrue.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism
by Kristen R Ghodsee
Bold Type Books, New York
Extent. 225. Price  ₹599

First published in The Hindu BusinessLine dated December 07, 2020.

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.