Saturday, January 21, 2023

A way of life and existence

From the days of earlier traders to the present, India has remained an intriguing destination of multicultural diversity, and complexity. The traders and invaders while serving their self-interests enriched the ancient land with various linguistic, religious and spiritual cultures, turning the land into a contested landscape for cross-fertilization of ideas for peaceful co-existence in a caste ridden society. Spiritual essence and mystical impulses have long been in vogue in the country, the Bhakti movement being a significant milestone propelling non-theistic wisdom traditions during the medieval period. It seems the advent of Sufism in 7th century was perfectly timed to create a composite culture. 

Situating the living traditions in the contested history lends it a contextualized social relevance for the present. Sufism as a way of life and worship had found resonance with the prevailing socio-spiritual revival of the time, creating its own space and following for developing emotional and ecstatic aspects of salvation. In presenting a living history of Sufism, In Search of the Divine explores its core idea and ideals, its origin and spread, and its strengths and contradictions. Inspired by her lifelong practice of Islam and backed by a decade-old journey into its Sufi traditions, author Rana Safvi connects the personal with the profound in making a case for the age-old traditions to offer a ray of hope for the future.

For the uninitiated, the author makes it clear upfront that Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but it is no different from the religion either. Reason being that Prophet Muhammad initiated the concept of tasawwuf, the Arabic term from which the word Sufism is derived, which thus remains rooted in Islam. In fact, Sufism and Islam are often used interchangeably and remain the primary link to all later silsilahs (order), a genealogy for the transference of the spiritual tradition. Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, where the seekers traverse the spiritual path to connect with their inner self, the God within. India’s syncretic culture could easily embrace this concept.  

However, the spread of Sufism in medieval period wasn’t always easy as it was attacked both from inside and outside Islam for being ‘indifferent to matters of religious law’. Had there not been the patronage of state and its elites, the Sufi tradition may not have sustained itself in the region.  While the role of Sufis in fostering a composite culture gets highlighted, the role it played in the conversion of large sections of local population to Islam is mentioned in the passing. This aspect may have been beyond the scope of the book, but for discerning reader it will remain a crucial miss in the rendition of ancient histories of living traditions. 

All said, Sufism has long fascinated people across borders and generations. It involves praying in such a way that one can experience the divine personally. Sufism evolved as a reaction to the growing materialism and worldliness, and with its insistence on knowledge, self-introspection, and gnosis produced many great scholars. However, in recent times most devotees visit dargahs for seeking divine blessings for good health and material possessions. Though beset with conflicts, dargahs and shrines are an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape. Rana Safvi’s visits to dargahs and shrines across the country provide vivid details of the its sacred atmosphere. The reverent crowds, the heavy smell of incense, and qawwalis in the courtyard extend a mystical experience.  

The Search for the Divine is a spiritual journey through many splendored hues of Sufism. It is an ambitious undertaking on a subject that has much to offer by way of peace and salvation. Considered a deeply secular tradition, Sufi poetry and music has greater following despite some of the fundamental debates on its beliefs and mystical dimensions. At a broader level, the book positions itself to address the emerging discourse of anti-Islamism in a global context. 

Sufism as a spiritual practice has survived nearly two millennia, the hope for emancipation being the umbilical link between the devotee and the shrine. Rana Safvi successful situates dargahs as centres of cosmopolitanism and a place for spiritual recluse for the troubled minds. The popular expression of zikr, qawwali, dhamaal and khayal only enrich its mystical dimensions. The book has as much for the believer as for the sceptic.

In Search of the Divine 
by Rana Safvi
Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 415, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Deccan Herald on Jan 22, 2023.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The forgotten rebellion

The colonial history is full of such missed opportunities, exposing the needlessness of many rebellions.

Painstaking efforts in re-reading colonial history by historian Peter Stanley has brought to light the chilling account of the 1855 Santhal rebellion that has been overshadowed by the events of the great mutiny of 1857. Perhaps the only reminder of the rebellion termed Hul, meaning the movement for liberation, are the ‘martello tower’ in Pakur and the statues of the Bhugnadihee brothers across Jharkhand. That some 10,000 Santhals were literally executed by the British has been dismissed as lost history, unworthy of any serious attention. In reality, the Hul was certainly a war with clear cause-effect relationship. Though it lasted only six months, the lives lost could trigger many mutinies that were to follow. Even after 170 years, its intangible consequences seem discernable. 

It was the sixty-odd years after Robert Clive’s victory over Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in 1757 that the British had settled the Santhals into the uplands of Lower Bengal — the core of which was the Damin-i-Koh and the Rajmahal Hills, where their existence depended upon what they could harvest, hunt or gather. In less than two decades, the Santhals had transformed dense jungle into intensely farmed croplands. It only served the British officials who encouraged migration to collecting revenue and attracted moneylenders who oppressed the poor with unmitigated extortion. Dispossessed of their land and oppressed by the elite, the peace-loving tribals recognized the cause of their oppression and acted to change their situation. Curiously, they failed against the British might but not without manifesting their agency and asserting their distinct identity. The actors and the nature of oppression may have changed, but the suffering inflicted upon the tribals emboldens many to rebel even in the present. History repeats itself!   

A professor of history at the Canberra-based University of New South Wales, Peter Stanley has drawn the most comprehensive account of the rebellion - why it occurred, how it was fought, and how it ended. Written with empathy and concern, the richly documented treatise provides a compelling account of the unusual collision of tribal history and imperial history, the impact of which continues to inform and define the contours of tribal existence. Had the British noticed, heeded or acted upon the Santhals concerns regarding unmitigated dishonesty and exploitation by the moneylenders, the reason for many to join the Hul could have been avoided? The colonial history is full of such missed opportunities, exposing the needlessness of many rebellions. By their own assessments, the enormous cost in the sufferings of the Santhals could not be justified.

History is more than the story of the victor and the vanquished. Stanley draws a vivid picture on the life and times of the Santhals, who lived in small, neat villages surrounded by jungle, with each village with its sacred grove of sal trees signifying their spiritual connection with the land. Covering three seasons of the disturbed year, the book chronicles in rich details distorted perceptions and prejudiced assumptions on assessing the otherwise peace-loving Santhals’ desire for justice. Despite all accounts of the rebellion written in English, the author has done a commendable job in presenting an exhaustive military history of the Hul. 

Stanley argues that there is potential value in revisiting such insurgencies using the neglected sources which have informed it. Indigenous sources offer vital perspectives to the existing body of information generated by the colonial authorities in getting complimentary insights into both the nature of subaltern resistance and of its suppression by colonial masters. Hul succeeds in generating historical curiosity on unfolding all that transpired in understanding the causes and consequences of insurgency and counterinsurgency. The book suggests that a series of studies on rebellious uprising can help better understand the roots of resistance across the sub-continent. 

At this time when the country’s history is being churned to create a palatable political narrative, nothing can be more compelling than revisiting those historical events which describe the experience of specific groups in upholding the banner of freedom and equity. More than glorifying the past sacrifices, the task should be to recreate historical narratives that describe the period, and the lessons contained therein. Stanley has indeed drawn a framework for initiating a program for undertaking such studies. To that effect, Hul offers an interesting reference point. 

The historical facts might appear a bit loaded in favor of military details by the colonial actors, but Stanley gets a glimpse of the horror of the Hul through Santhal songs and poetry which records dislocation, separation, death and grief. One such verse sums it up: ‘The land has gone dim / the raiders are upon us.’ 

Hul! Hul! 
by Peter Stanley
Hurst, UK 
Extent: 343, Price: Rs. 450.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Jan 02, 2023.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Revisiting the best of 2022

Vocabulary of human emotions

Based on extensive research, Prof Brene Brown of the University of Houston tells us that part of why most of us are stressed is because we are limited in our understanding of emotions to be able to manage and regulate them, as vastness of human emotions and experiences are grossly expressed as mad, sad, and glad. And these three limit us to understand our emotional experience. We need emotional granularity for nuanced understanding, and to quote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'the limits of language mean the limits of my world'. In Atlas of the Heart (Vermilon/PRHIPL, 296 pp, Rs 1250) Brown has found 87 human emotions to enrich our vocabulary with more power to better articulate and understand our emotional experience. Having access to the right words alone can open up the entire universe to us, and help us get over quite a bit of what we may not need. It is a virtual tour de force on human emotions, revealing more than what we may know about ourselves. 

Envisioning future farming 

Provocative and somewhat outrageous, it is hard not to agree with writer-activist George Monbiot’s proposition of reinventing our food system because farming has emerged as the greatest cause of environmental destruction. Having got us on a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy, modern agriculture might well be the greatest crime in human history. Packed with factful case studies, Monbiot argues that it is still possible to feed the world without devouring the planet. Regenesis (Allen Lane, 339 pp, Rs 999) is a clarion call to unlock the farming system that has made over 800 million go to bed hungry while demand for growing food continues. Drawing on astonishing research, the book opens up a vital debate on how to value and protect most precious substance on which we’re so reliant and yet is so little talked about – soil.  

Antidote to intellectual fragmentation

With seven decades of her colossal literary career, Margaret Atwood’s occasional pieces and essays are no less imaginative and inspiring. While her milestone ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ remains a literary masterpiece on women’s reproductive rights amidst intersectional failings, Burning Questions (Chatto & Windus, 475 pp, Rs 999) has 65 non-fiction pieces written by her over a period of 17 years which are wide in scope and reach. From literature to human rights, and from feminism to environment, Atwood provides direct access to her thinking and feeling on the challenges confronting us. It is not all bad, as she swings between hope and despair. Written in her characteristically tongue-in-cheek style, Burning Questions is a serious treatise on questions that must be addressed if we care about our own human wishes, and wish very hard for our own future survival.    

Ability to change 

Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday, 390 pp, Rs 699) sits at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction, blurring the imagined from the real, in narrating the story of Elizabeth Zott who becomes the face of a cooking show ‘Supper at Six’ through which she educates her viewers in chemistry, self-worth and agency. Zott, the single mother and a chemist, triumphs through a sexist 1950s establishment with hard work and pragmatism and uses the media available to women of her era to new ends – daring them to change the status quo. Funny and furious, it makes for interesting and compelling reading as an average woman wade through the unpredictability of life to become acceptable as a change agent. Such is her influence that Vice President Lyndon Johnson, after watching the show, opined to a persistent reporter ‘I think you ought to write less and watch TV more’. It is no exaggeration to say that when Elizabeth Zott finished cooking, an entire nation sat down to eat. 

Veiled resistance

Hijab is a burning question of our times. What is more, the issue of unveiling and veiling has been initiated by Muslim women. The lingering question is: whether it is women’s sartorial choice of wearing a hijab or it is linked to religious and patriarchal enforcement. There are no easy answers though, as hijab gets new meanings under changing political and social contexts. In this timely collection of essays in The Hijab (Simon&Schuster, 240 pp, Rs. 599), the writers explore the politics of Muslim women’s attire as a site of contestation. It goes without saying that the meaning of veiling is neither stable nor singular, irreducible to any one reason or justification.  

By sourcing diverse opinions and perspectives, the editors have left it to the imagination of the reader to draw emotional underpinnings of hijab as a manifest personal practice that is up against private challenge triggered by public gaze. Given the grave political contestation on the subject, the book provides a variety of historical, ethnographic, and political perspectives to get a better sense of its politics. The Hijab makes a significant contribution to understanding veiling in the context of the wider community, and the very idea of citizenship itself. Only a well-informed public discourse on the subject can resolve the simmering discontent.

War yet to be won

It has been five decades since an all-time classic film Anand hit the screen, and Richard Nixon had signed the landmark National Cancer Act to fund research on combatting cancer. Far from winning the war over cancer, it has become the emperor of all maladies with an estimated 18 million new cases diagnosed each year. A decade from now, however, the global burden is projected to grow to 21 million new cancer cases with no less than 13 million succumbing to it. Tragically, Anand’s inspiring tale of celebrating life amidst brutal certainty remains perhaps the only mantra for all those who may have to traverse their own journeys through the dreaded illness, then and now. A New Deal for Cancer (Public Affairs, 404 pp, US$30) while detailing the ways in which our deeper failing as a society have held us back from winning the war over cancer offers bold new plans to win humanity’s battle against the dreaded condition. All said, the war against cancer continues to remain humanity’s most ambitious undertaking.

First published in Deccan Herald on Dec 25, 2022.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Can the tiger regain its stripes?

One of the world’s best tiger biologists makes a case for growing the Big Cat population.

“While the future is far from secure for the Indian tiger, it is far brighter than it has been in decades.” Drawing this conclusion in his new book, Among Tigers, one of the world’s best tiger biologists, K. Ullas Karanth, backs it up with facts. He argues that though densely populated by 1.3 billion people, India still has 380,000 square kilometers of potential tiger habitat. “If these forests can be nursed back to health by employing proven means already at our disposal, they can provide enough habitat for 15,000 or more wild tigers,” he writes.

A fresh tiger census is on, and the present strength of the Big Cat population hovers around the 3,000-mark with expansive encroachments of its habitat. If you are thinking Karanth’s optimistic estimate is off the mark, think again. Not long ago, an equal number of tigers were hunted each year in the country. In the present, however, saving tigers offers the best bet for recovering the storehouse of natural gene pool to address future climatic challenges. Tiger recovery in India also offers a road map for recovering wild tigers across the world, he says.

Being the first to radio-track wild tigers in the country, Karanth has spent the better part of the last five decades in understanding the distinct biology of wild tigers to resolve their conservation challenges. Among Tigers is a remarkable autobiographical narrative on the biological behavior of the tiger, its critical role in shaping natural ecosystems, and its presence in our collective imagination. “The triumphs and tragedies in the lives of my collared cats consumed me to a degree that is impossible to understand,” he contends.

Karanth brings out the joy of being in the forest and the perils of engaging with forest bureaucracy in equal measure while drawing up proposals for conserving wild cats. Balancing human emancipation and nature conservation is critical for making more rooms for tigers, he outlines. Distraction in achieving the goals of tiger conservation must be avoided, cautions Karanth, as everyone wants a piece of the tiger action by indulging in fuzzy thinking, misguided compassion, and inflated media hype. The history of tiger conservation is beset with such anomalies that this book seeks to amend, including the ‘Karanth tiger scandal’ that makes interesting reading. Written with compassion, clarity and concern, Karanth leaves the reader convinced that achieving 15,000 tigers in the country is not delusional optimism.

Among Tigers: Fighting to Bring Back Asia’s Big Cats
by K. Ullas Karanth
Chicago Review Press/PRH
Extent: 240, Price ₹1,499.

First published in The Hindu on December 18, 2022.

Monday, November 28, 2022

The airways of healthy existence

If face is the index of mind, breath is the indicator of human well-being. 

It fuels all life forms but extinguishes it too. Breath makes things come alive, so much that the natural act of breathing is taken for granted. That is where the problem lies because breathing is more than the intuitive act of inhaling and exhaling. Repeated 25,000 times a day, it has the potential to rejuvenate internal organs provided the extraordinary act of breathing is properly followed. Simply put, nine out of ten of us don’t breathe correctly - causing or aggravating a laundry list of chronic diseases. And hospitals only deal with breathing emergencies related to specific maladies of the lungs. With that be so, what then is the way out? 

The way to correct breathing is an individual responsibility, and we owe it to none other. But to consider that it is a pretty simple act that is well understood could be a fallacy. It is here that Breath comes handy to help the reader breathe like never before, and science writer James Nestor peps it up with his personal experience of making breathing a lived experience of immense possibilities. Only by following a tough breathing regime could the author get his four hours of daily snoring reduced to just ten minutes. For this incredible change to happen, he had to go through an awful experience of forcefully breathing through the mouth for first ten days, as his nostrils were plugged, and revert to nasal breathing for another ten days with his lips sealed with a piece of tape. The longer one breathes through the nose, the clearer and bigger nasal cavities do the rest.     

Breath is an account of a protracted journey into the world of breathing, which turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. In a decade of travelling, research, and self-experimentation the author found that the benefits of breathing are vast, at times unfathomable. While many drugs don’t work for panic, anxiety, and other fear-based conditions, slow and steady breathing acts like an effective therapy. Breathing is a missing pillar of health. More important than what we eat or how much we exercise, it is 1.7 pounds of oxygen our cells consume from our daily intake of air that passes through our lungs. The most interesting aspect is that unlike other drugs, breathing as a therapy works for everybody.    

Most of what Nestor found aren’t new discoveries though. A sizeable majority of it, including inhaling-exhaling techniques, are around for several millennia. Over the years, however, these techniques are being rediscovered and scientifically validated. ‘The fruits of this once-fringe, often forgotten research are now redefining the potential of the human body’. Limited but cutting-edge research in pulmology, psychology, biochemistry, and physiology has already demonstrated that many modern maladies – asthma, anxiety, psoriasis – could either be reduced or reversed simply by changing the way we inhale and exhale. Breath is a life changing book that generates new interest on a subject that has eluded modern medicine for long. 

It's interesting how mere curiosity of having benefitted from a breathing course triggered Nestor’s interest in exploring new science in the ‘lost art’. Stories on the magical aspects of breathing abound in the world of yoga practitioners, as popularity of yoga in the past two decades has brought a large number of huffing and puffing exponents in public spaces. Whether or not they are breathing better remains to be ascertained. From alternate nostril breathing to breathing coordination, and from resonant breathing to Buteyko breathing, Nestor has explored all techniques of breathing that make impact on human health and longevity. Having experienced the impact of proper breathing, the author considers himself a self-styled 'pulmonaut' ready to take the readers on a breathing mission. 

Breath raises hope of revolutionizing the health sector by generating renewed interest in beathing techniques to act as a preventive medicine that helps in retaining balance in the body such that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues. Should we lose that balance from time to time, breathing can often bring it back. Afterall, even a small change in the body functions is reflected in its breathing pattern. However, modern medicine has yet to take a serious note of this wisdom generated by the Buddhist monks over two millennia ago. If face is the index of mind, breath is the indicator of human well-being.  

James Nestor, an accomplished writer who lives and breathes in San Francisco, deserves credit for drawing a comprehensive scientific treatise on a subject that has thus far remained part of the cultural traditions of many societies. By validating it scientifically, he lends credence to breathing for its widespread adoption. Breath claims that once it is read, you will never breathe the same again. And there is virtue in letting that claim be.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art 
by James Nestor
Penguin Life, New Delhi 
Extent: 280, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Nov 26, 2022.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

In defense of liberalism

The legitimately elected autocratic rulers in democracies across the world have left no stone unturned in weakening democracy - the very foundation of liberalism.

Like democracy, liberalism has been conveniently used and vexatiously abused too. With deficit democracy all pervasive, liberalism as a doctrine has lost much of its sheen. Considered two faces of the same coin, liberalism refers to the rule of law whereas democracy refers to rule by the people. Curiously, it is liberalism that has come under the sharpest attack by both the progressive left and the populist right in recent times. Why would it be so when liberalism has been held as an engine of economic growth, creator of new technologies and producer of vibrant culture? Is it because the foundational principles of equal individual rights, law and freedom subvert political power? 

Since its initial grounding following the French revolution, liberalism as a political philosophy has gone through several iterations but has always returned because of its underlying strengths in liberty and equality of people before the law. There is none better qualified than Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at the Stanford University, to delve on the brewing discontents on the complexities of practicing liberal values. The emerging discontentment has more to do with how the liberal ideas have been interpreted rather than the essence of the doctrine itself. The threat to liberalism from the right are more immediate and political whereas from the left are slower and primarily cultural. Look no further than the legitimately elected autocratic rulers in democracies across the world who have left no stone unturned in weakening democracy - the very foundation of liberalism. 

Despite this political doctrine under relentless fire in recent times, Fukuyama considers centuries-old tradition of liberalism as the best hope for twenty-first century democracy. As a matter of practical politics, is there a way to get to an alternative political order that is realistic? However, for such determined assertion to stand tall, liberalism has to fight its own demons. Giving the potentially destructive movements in the recent past their due, the author contends that neoliberalism as practiced by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was at least in part necessary. It paved the way for neoliberalism, the economic avatar of liberalism, which was rejoiced by millions who saw the role of state denigrated in the free-market economy aimed at promoting growth alongside efficient allocation of resources. It is another matter that in the last two decades, neoliberalism has instead succeeded in destabilizing the global economy.   

Liberalism and Its Discontents makes an absorbing and reflective reading on the degeneration of a political doctrine that is bound to have an influence on our lives. However, liberal societies have to take a major part of the blame too, for having transformed responsive citizens into self-indulgent consumerists. Default to selfishness is human, which makes such consumers with their narrow interests gullible to easy manipulation by market forces and political interests. The implications of such sweeping appropriation by powers-that-be hurts ordinary people far more than wealthy elites in most countries of the world. Can the political system be recalibrated under such a scenario?   

Pithy but to the point, the book makes the reader ask the essential questions. It makes us wonder if concerns regarding freedom of speech will remain unchallenged by technology that provide untested channels of communication. Privacy holds critical value for liberalism to attain its societal goals. How will democratic values remain intact when society is moving away from liberal principles by embracing identity based on race, ethnicity and religion? Such has been the impact of politically enforced dominant national identities that communal violence is becoming more of a norm than exception. The need for a corrective recourse to equitable social principles have never been more compelling. For Fukuyama the unanswered question is whether liberal societies can overcome the internal divisions that they themselves have created.  

There is little denying that without course correction the liberal societies will not be able to compete with the rising authoritarian powers. Already in many countries a select class of oligarchs have converted their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media houses. The signs are ominous. But till such time that the society doesn’t provide a strong sense of community that is neither permissive of strong disrespect for others nor tolerant of growing inequality, the chance that manipulative elites will capture social and financial institutions can hardly be ruled out. Only by restoring a liberal order, argues Fukuyama, can heightened political passions be made to stay calm. 

The author ends Liberalism and Its Discontents with a series of recommendations, including for the devolution of power to the lowest appropriate levels of government, the robust protection of speech and proven truth, and a sensible redistribution of wealth. Only through a liberal social order can the risks and challenges of economic slowdown and climatic upturn be averted. Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival - indeed, to the survival – of liberalism itself. 

Liberalism and Its Discontents
by Francis Fukuyama
Profile/Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 178, Price: Rs. 499.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Nov 16, 2022.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Making of the girl next door

It is a a story of an unforgettable childhood filled with love, adventure, mystery, tragedy and joy.

There are millions of circumstances and situations that arrange themselves in an intimate pattern to shape a person. The cumulative influences these have on life are far too many to understand, and a great majority of them are beyond control. Revisiting childhood and writing on it could be both amusing and exciting provided one looks at the simplest things of life with a little bit of whimsy to make them interesting, allowing the ghosts to finally rest in peace between the pages. In a beautifully written memoir, Deepti Naval excels in making her childhood immensely relatable, making the reader feel nostalgic about one’s own childhood.  

In the current climate, it is reassuring to read such a sober, sweetly textured text which brings out certain amount of affection and concern hidden in each sub-plot. It is a a story of an unforgettable childhood filled with love, adventure, mystery, tragedy and joy that makes A Country Called Childhood a screenplay with distinctive sights, smells and sounds of a bygone era. From having her ears cleaned periodically to coming of age and her first kiss, and from bunking classes for watching movies to lying on the terrace watching stars were the stuff of reality that found a permanent nesting place in her heart. Those moments of everyday life nurtured her imagination. 

Life in a typical post-independent Punjabi household reflects shared set of values despite economic hardship being the common social denominator. Many of the sub-plots may seem dated, but these were important in shaping what the author eventually became – a sensitive actor, a talented director, and an accomplished writer rolled into one multi-faceted personality. Readers who may pick the autobiography in search of learning about her work in life and films may not be disappointed, as Deepti Naval joins all the relevant dots of her growing up that led her to portray ‘sensitive and close to life’ roles in some 100 films that she had acted in her career spanning four decades. 

She had multiple influences at work during her childhood and adolescent life, which helped her curate many unforgettable on-screen characters. The middle-class sensibilities of growing up in a close-knit family is well evident in her characterization of a salesgirl in the classic comedy Chashme Buddoor (1981). Unlike the detergent, it’s brand name ‘Miss Chamko’ has stayed on as her nickname for the measured performance with which she gracefully conducted herself while selling detergent in a bachelor's pad without indulging in anything extravagant. Parental instruction to ‘put your head down, no need to look around’ was on display in this performance. 

Although the author grew up idolizing two actors – Sadhna and Meena Kumari - A Country Called Childhood stands apart amidst the plethora of banal biographies by the celluloid celebrities in recent times. In contrast, it is a visual imagery that records simple experiences of the place and people with eloquent description. In delivering an engaging, enriching, and entertaining narrative, the author doesn’t brush aside even the smallest detail. Each character comes alive through rich prose, and her memory serves her well in reviving the past after having burnt her diary containing ‘deepest thoughts and emotions’ at the time of leaving Amritsar. 

It’s a story full of ups and downs, with the author surviving failures and upheavals with equal calm. Her experience of blackouts during the Indo-Pak war, the shock of her mother's near electrocution, and her father’s daily ordeal during his first year in the US have so much in common for some of us who have spent time in Punjab. Having retained the cultural context of the local lingo and practices, the book serves a reminder on growing up years in the land of five rivers. The utensil polishing smell by the kaliewallah, the trademark twang-twang by the cotton fluffer, and open lice-picking sessions in the courtyards have retained their nostalgic value.      

A Country Called Childhood is a memoir of extraordinary brilliance, with the author valuing her childhood more than perhaps her screen achievements. For Deepti, these are the ‘stories that make my world come alive’. Insightful and reflective, the engrossing narrative offers a perspective in retaining and recalling childhood memories. More often, people are livid about their childhood and accord little purpose to the struggles and challenges which align with only fear and sadness. There is little denying that most of us have little by way of a proper perspective on how to relate with our childhood memories, which the book serves to convey. Not without reason it is said that if you carry your childhood with you, you are never too old.   

Deepti Naval leaves the reader with a soft glow of nostalgia. It is an empathetic storytelling in which the characters – her family and friends – come alive as our own. For once, the reader may begin to feel the accomplished actor as one amongst us – the girl next door!

A Country Called Childhood 
by Deepti Naval
Aleph, New Delhi 
Extent: 343, Price: Rs. 450.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Nov 7, 2022.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The riddle wrapped in a mystery

Kishore Kumar delivered emotional authenticity of human feelings.

The enigmatic singer was an amazing pack of multiple identities, ever changing with time. Instinctive and spontaneous, he expressed himself in parts, but the sum of parts never revealed his true identity. The defining aspect of his identity – the songs – oscillate between deceptive complexity and actual simplicity, creating curiosity of discovering him and his ways.  Kishore Kumar: The Ultimate Biography is an ambitious undertaking at discovering Kishore the person, whose appetite for excellence made him a genius; Kishore the voice, that delivered emotional authenticity of human feelings; and Kishore the icon, who personified musical veneration. It is a tribute to a singer who has continued to have a hold on the airwaves ever since. 

It has been 35 years since his passing, but Kishore’s voice remains endearing to the listeners. He was an unschooled genius who could not read music notes, but his fans included classical maestros such as Bhimsen Joshi and Kumar Ghandharva. To the extent that classical vocalist Kanika Bandyopadhayay had once remarked: ‘Just to listen to these songs is a motivation to live longer’. Kishore’s rendition of choral backed raag Yaman composition Woh sham kuch ajeeb thee (Khamoshi, 1969), and raag Charukeshi-based Jeevan se bhari teri ankhen (Safar, 1970) stand testimony to the ease with which he negotiated classical compositions to sublime perfection.  

Born with an abnormally hoarse voice that produced a coughing sound, Kishore would not have become a singer had his right toe not got accidently severed by a kitchen knife back in 1934. That one moment in childhood opened the door to an unimaginable future awaiting Kishore. In the absence of strong antibiotics, he had cried incessantly for some seventeen or eighteen hours a day for a few weeks that gave way to a clear, distinctive high-quality phonation. At the cost of his school studies, the destiny’s child carefully nurtured trait of effortless singing. Kishore never allowed the child in him to die, liberally using nonsensical words, scatting and yodelling as part of the song. The classic comedy (Padosan,1968) came handy for Kishore to impromptu create the song Mere bhole balam, and insert innovations like Oye tedhe, Seedhe ho jaa re during the final recording of Ek chatur naar, that R D Burman had no hesitation to accept. 

There are hundreds of stories about the inimitable Kishore, about his genius, about his parsimony, about his eccentricity, and about his run down with his directors which are meaningful curated to give the narrative a credence of an ultimate biography. The 550-page biography is indeed more factual, more accurate, and far more informative. However, when each of Kishore’s 3,000 odd songs has a story to tell, one wonders if serious Kishore Kumar aficionado will ever have enough on the maverick singer. Kishore not only sang his way into the hearts of people, but he did also so while proposing to Leena Chandavarkar over phone singing Mere dil me aaj kya hai (Daag, 1973). 

Kishore was borne to sing. Little realizing that his words would prove to be prophetic, he had once nonchalantly responded to the reprimand of his teacher for playing table on the desk saying: ‘sir, this will be my career one day’. Kishore persisted with his devil-may-care attitude throughout life, which had helped him sail through ups and down in his life. With his voice so fluent and mellifluous, he could generate entire spectrum of emotions with utmost ease. If his carefree yoddling number Zindagi ek safar hai suhana (Andaz, 1971) could make life worthy of more, the more sombre Zindagi ka safar (Safar, 1970) can drown the listener in tears.  

Kishore’s long-standing friend Pritish Nandy, journalist and filmmaker, defined him in three words: Madcap. Mystic. Magician. At the other end, Bhattacharjee and Dhar count him as the last ‘great natural’ in Indian cinema, who continues to be part of listeners from dawn to dusk. No wonder, the ultimate biography documents the life of Kishore Kumar as per the time-based rule of raags, beginning with morning raag Bhairav and concluding with night raag Kedar. Kishore Kumar: The Ultimate Biography is an absorbing book on the life and times of Kishore Kumar, the eccentric talent who did not quite go by the book.  

Kishore Kumar: The Ultimate Biography
by Anirudh Bhattacharjee & Parthiv Dhar
HarperCollins, New Delhi 
Extent: 544, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in The Hindu on Oct 27, 2022

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Getting wild at the wildlife

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and species-specific conservation initiatives have succeeded in putting wildlife under existential stress.

The ceremonious airlifting of the long extinct Cheetah, the fastest big cat on the planet, from Namibia to the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and a recent alarming report indicting humans for being wild at the wildlife, leading to extermination of at least 70 percent of the world’s wildlife, offers a disturbing backdrop to reading WildlifeIndia@50, supposedly a celebration of five decades of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, an edited volume with contributions from administrators, foresters, conservationists, activists, and journalists. In last five decades, the law has gone through several amendments but its implementation has been found wanting.

Indira Gandhi’s deep interest in wildlife had led to the enactment of the central legislation in 1972, the provisions of which were essentially aimed at regulating hunting. Over the decades, however, the National Board for Wildlife under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister has made the law exhaustive and brawny, but the corresponding political commitment to uphold its provisions have only waned. Nothing could be more appalling than to learn that two consecutive prime ministers snoozed through the all-important board meetings and the recent-past environment minister tweeted his excitement regarding the board’s permission for the expansion of a railway line through a tiger reserve and a wildlife sanctuary in the Western Ghats. How does the diversion and destruction of pristine forests translate to wildlife conservation? If anything, it is a breach of public trust!

While many contributors to the volume are disillusioned that forests and wildlife have continued to shrink, there are others who contend that the glorious legacy of the National Board for Wildlife stands tattered. The contributions to the volume are both revealing and reflective, providing an engrossing journey by conservationists and practitioners on the twists and travails of a landmark legislation which was projected as ‘ever vigilant in the cause of free-loving fellow citizens ie., wild animals and birds’. Far from serving its primary objective, however, the provisions under the legislation have been twisted to grant rights to violate wildlife habitats. The frenetic pace with which such permissions are being granted by the Standing Committee, constituted by the Board, the area under 990 Protected Areas is likely to shrink from the present 5.2 percent of the country’s geographical area, which is already below the world average of 9.3 percent. 

The essential take home from the lived experiences and perceived reflections by contributing writers in WildlifeIndia@50 is that good intentions are not necessarily paved with expected outcomes. Ironically, multiple enabling amendments to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and subsequent species-specific conservation initiatives have broadly succeeded in putting wildlife under existential stress. Nothing could be more shocking than the fact that the institutions created by the law to protect wildlife have proved counter-productive. The provisions of the Act have been  so conveniently misinterpreted that the misinterpretations have become de facto provisions. As a result, there is a progressive law that lacks corresponding order.

The idea behind this commemorative volume, claims the editor, is to inform, entertain, and enlighten. It informs and enlightens for sure, but not without amusing the reader. Sample this: a rare albino sloth bear was relocated to the zoo as then chief minister of the state desired the unique animal to be seen by the public at large. What purpose the animal serves if no one gets to see it? The legal provisions were suitably compromised to honor the fancy, and the unlucky animal landed in the zoo to the joy of viewers. Nowhere does the law proclaim that wild animals are government property, however, the idea has remained ingrained in the minds of power that be. 

The question that begs an answer is: has the Wildlife (Protection) Act with its half a dozen amendments been objectively understood by those who are supposed to uphold it? The volume under reference provides enough evidence that officers, judges and lawyers are still grappling to make a sense of its provisions. Had that not been so, a court would not have acquitted a magician for illegally possessing an ajgar because in its wisdom an ajgar is too young to be a python. While the law does not draw any distinction on the age of the animal to be protected , the court observed that only after attaining the age of maturity does an ajgar become a python. On top, ajgar is not mentioned in any of the schedules. It is rightly said that a law is only as good as it is understood. 

Himself a forester, Manoj Misra deserves credit for collating contributions from those engaged in the pursuit of protecting the wildlife and its habitats. WildlifeIndia@50 makes for interesting, amusing and shocking reading, highlighting the fact that the power of citizens to question the decision of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is legally out of question. It leaves the reader to hunt for answers.

Wildlife India @ 50 
by Manoj Kumar Misra (Ed)
Rupa Books, New Delhi 
Extent: 517, Price: Rs. 995.

First published in The Hindu on October 23, 2022.  

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Not Maid to order

Only a polished mirror reflects your face of innocence back to you.

This is a story of a nobody involved in the murder of a somebody, who holds a prism for everybody on life and life lessons. Nobody is the protagonist, Molly Gray, a room-cleaner in an upscale hotel, the dead is a wealthy somebody, Mr. Blake, and everybody is the reader at large. Molly is a diligent worker who parts her hair in the middle, and likes things plain and simple. Her explanation of things invites suspicion from the police, who eventually arrest her as the prime suspect. But with help from the people around her who believe in her innocence, Molly finds a way out. 

On the outside it may seem an open-and shut case unworthy of writing about. Not really as I've yet to read anything quite like The Maid - a beautifully crafted novel that sits at the intersection of crime and wisdom. Walking unseen through our world, Molly silently cleans the allotted rooms at the hotel, and once back from work finds solace in the company of her deceased grandma whose wise words continue to resonate and rekindle a sense of direction to her life. Molly’s voice may be subdued, but not her story. And, the murder creates a bloody opportunity for her to be heard. Nita Prose lends her flawless writing skills to make Molly express herself as she carries her perfectly stacked maid’s trolley through corridors of the hotel every morning. Cleaning to her is a re-energizing activity. ‘If you feel sad just grab a duster.’ One can bust inertia in the process.

By keeping it plain and simple, the novel concludes that people are a mystery that can never be solved. The narrative ends up being a commentary on the hypocrisies of society, which never accords fair treatment to innocent people. Nita uses carefully crafted prose to counter verbal jousts and jabs often hurled at ordinary people. The nuanced treatment of the characters makes it clear that we are all the same but in different ways. Molly’s inner journey is handled with empathetic concern, letting the reader align with her memorable reflections on life. It is an unputdownable page-turner that seems like a mirror held on us. ‘Only a polished mirror reflects your face of innocence back to you’.  

Toronto-based Nita Prose, a longtime editor and book promoter,  has made good use of her editorial skills in her debut novel that has stirred the bestselling lists on both sides of the Atlantic. And justifiably so, as Nita  turns  a  simple plot  into  a riveting and deliciously refreshing novel. At the end, one feels it is more than just a murder mystery. 

The Maid lets you feel for those faceless people who clean you hotel rooms. Without doubt, the well-stocked housekeeping trolley is a portable sanitation miracle. In doing what a maid does to bring the room to order, she knows more about the person who slept in the cozy bed and soiled the toilet seat. But we often know pretty little about the one who knows lot about us. Skillfully layered  and masterfully told, the endearing tale of a faceless maid is a reflection on how we treat those who seem to harbor a sixth sense to know what lies behind our outer façade. Nita has given a literary fling to the narrative that is both gripping and engaging.

I have deliberately avoided revealing the story because that is not necessarily important in the context of the small world that Nita has opened up for all of us. It is inspiring to note that a lowly maid holds the strength of her character to make everything orderly again, as if she is cleaning a room of its dust and grime. It is her plucky optimism for life that lends her courage to get a clean-chit for the murder in which she is erroneously embroiled. Is it her penchant for details that helps her do so? The Maid hits all the right notes to cast an endearing appeal. 

Heart-warming and refreshing, Nita Prose makes us view the world through a nobody, the lowly maid. Molly makes her presence felt from the first page: ‘If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ There could be nothing more compelling in the world where very few of us enjoy our jobs. Molly turns out to be a charming maid, living life on her own terms.

The Maid 
by Nita Prose
Harper Collins, New Delhi 
Extent: 343, Price: Rs. 450.

First published in Deccan Herald on Oct 23, 2022.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Many shades of prejudice

It holds a mirror on the prevailing culture of alienation that cause us to see others as threats.

The Last White Man, Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, opens with a distinctly Kafkaesque imagination: ‘One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown’. No reason is assigned to this dramatic transformation, but the short novel of long-sentences explores its impact on Anders, his girlfriend, and the people who live in the unnamed town. Trapped indoors because he dreads stepping outside, Anders soon learns that skin color is not frivolous, it gives us our identity that has influence on our bodies and actions. Color is both medium, and the message. As more people change color, the transformation begins to spread across the town such that there is just one white man left, and then there are none. 

Poetic and strangely musical, The Last White Man is a perspective-altering allegory of being the other person within the same body. Anders surreal transformation upends his world, robbed of the white privileges he is forced to create space for himself in the world. It compels him to examine the otherness of others by being the other, drawing distinction on being invisible now as was hypervisible before. It was shocking for him to realize what color does to one’s existence: people who knew him no longer knew him. Neither on the street and nor at the grocery store, nobody noticed his transformation – reflecting a flicker of disliking from the White people. No one hit him or knifed him, but Anders was not sure where the sense of threat was coming from, but it was there, and it was strong. He remains apprehensive about using the rifle his ailing (white) father gave him ‘to be seen as a threat, as dark as he was, was to risk one day being obliterated’. 

It is a discomforting book that explores racism through speculative change, but remains optimistic towards anticipated societal transformation. Can such a future be deferred for long? It is a question The Last White Man seeks to address by drawing attention to racism paranoia. It is through a feeling of ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging’, and the imminent danger from those who belong to the category one doesn’t belong can an imaginative narrative be created to envision a world bereft of such threat impulse. Concerned about the unusual transformation are four characters, Anders and his ailing father, his girlfriend Oona and her mother, who lend human face to probe a deep-seated and deeply problematic obsession with whiteness. While Anders father is worried about his son’s safety, Oona’s mother resents her daughter’s relationship. Social perception to the transformed appearance lets loose a can of dreadful worms, as violence spills on the streets. 

Did post-9/11 experience by the author reflect upon the story? Hamid has been reported saying that as a Pakistani Muslim living in the US, the post-9/11 experience of being stopped at the airport and seeing people nervous in his presence had real effects on the story. ‘I hadn’t changed, but, almost overnight, the new racial and ethnic category had been imagined on to me.’ The Last White Man holds a mirror on the prevailing culture of alienation that cause us to see others as threats. Anders sums this up: ‘he wasn’t sure he was the same person, he had begun by feeling that under the surface it was still him, who else could it be, but it was not that simple, and the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are.’ Talking sense into someone in these troubled times isn’t easy, but fiction holds the power to disarm dominant narratives.  

The Last White Man is a short novel of very long sentences, over 30 coma at times in a sentence. Although not counted, the book may have no more than 180 sentences. And, there seems a lyrical purpose to it as the inimitable style allows the idea to grow with all its related and unrelated inferences and references. It gives the story a nuanced impact. The story is poignant and pointed, speaking for a more equitable future in which widespread change can serve to erase the entrenched divisions of the old fade away. Hamid offers swelling remorse and expansive empathy, a story of love, loss and rediscovery.

Hamid ends this strange, beautiful allegorical tale on a hopeful note, with Anders and Oona blessed with a daughter who is brown in color. And while memories of whiteness receded, memories of whiteness lingered too. The whiteness could no longer be seen but was still a part of them. The times had long changed, and the extraordinary power of transformation had stripped the world of its racial prejudice.

The Last White Man 
by Mohsin Hamid
Penguin, New Delhi 
Extent: 180, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Deccan Herald dated Sept 18, 2022.

Friday, September 9, 2022

A thinking man's actor

He was limitless because he had no set ways in his acting, which helped him humanize his characters.

The characters Sanjeev Kumar enacted on screen have lived on long after his death. These include the hapless husband in Dastak (1970), the deaf and mute father in Koshish (1972), the purposeful thakur in Sholay (1975), the obsessed nawab in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), and the ambitious realtor in Trishul (1978). Playing every role to perfection, he created a distinct niche for himself among the more conventionally handsome reigning screen stars of his time. Indeed, he was as much a thinking man’s actor as a director’s actor.  

Sanjeev Kumar initially struggled to make it in the film industry that has traditionally been unkind to newcomers. But focusing more on impact than on looks, he became successful especially after his sensitive performance in Anubhav (1971). The role led him to be equated with the legendary Gregory Peck, who exuded a similar warmth and intelligence. The 1970s were a great decade for Kumar with his endearing screen presence showcased in films that displayed both his intensity and sensitivity. By age 35, he had arrived as a movie star.  

In Sanjeev Kumar – The Actor We All Loved, his nephew Uday Jariwala and biographer Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta reconstruct the making of one of the Hindi film industry’s finest performers. Sanjeev Kumar was unusual in that he consciously chose not to be a conventional romantic hero. While remaining commercially relevant, this placed him in the league of actors who were not just mere stars. An extraordinary performer as much at ease in mature roles like the one in Mausam (1975) as in the comic double role in Angoor (1982), he could infuse an ordinary dialogue with deep meaning. He was limitless because he had no set ways in his acting, which helped him humanize his characters. His nine roles in Naya Din Naye Raat (1974) remain the perfect example of his versatility as an actor.  

Winning the coveted national award twice in his short career, Kumar made bold choices in reel life. “This is how I am; take it or leave it,” he seemed to say to filmmakers who pressed for more stereotypical portrayals. 

An eligible bachelor, his love life provided much material for gossip columns in the film magazines of the time. His failed relationships with Nutan and Hema Malini were as much talked about as his onscreen performances. There is no way of knowing if his romantic failures impacted his intense romantic onscreen characterizations or if they even contributed to him being natural in diverse roles. Whatever the case, in his short but momentous life, he earned rich accolades from legends like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.  

This book does not dwell on his self-destructive streak, but it was widely believed that Sanjeev Kumar’s gastronomic and liquid obsessions aggravated his hereditary heart disease. Multiple heart attacks followed by a cardiac surgery killed the great actor in 1985. He was just 47.  

This warm and intimate biography has everything that a reader would want to know about the early life of the man known to family and friends as Haribhai, and the subsequent making of the actor called Sanjeev Kumar.     

In trying to pack in everything about the life of a young man born into plenty who embarked on a film career, the biography offers a strange mix of the personal and the professional. It leaves the reader wanting to know more about Kumar’s acting acumen, and how it shaped him as a person. The roles he enacted were not easy to do and the reader/viewer is left wondering how he made it all look so real on screen. Will a new generation of actors look to Sanjeev Kumar for inspiration after reading this biography? The answer to that question isn’t an immediate ‘yes’. However, Sanjeev Kumar: The actor we all loved does fill an important gap in the history of popular Hindi cinema.     

Importantly, while highlighting its subject’s legacy as a devoted family man, a cherished friend, and an accomplished actor, it encourages the reader to rediscover Sanjeev Kumar’s exemplary films.  

Sanjeev Kumar: The actor we all loved 
by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta and Uday Jariwala
Harper Collins, New Delhi 
Extent: 356, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Sept 9, 2022.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Perilous signs of inhospitability


The Earth’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral, and their origin are hidden from view.

Is the earth becoming a dangerous place for human habitation or are recent extreme events a pointer towards the dreadful inevitability? Either way, it is a dangerous world out there about which not much is known with scientific certainty. The history of human existence has been fraught with such exigent calamities that led societies from pre-historic times to offers prayers for ‘peace to be in the universe’. Explained through religion or myth, such prayers have been a way of dealing with the dangers of living on earth. While the earth remains a wondrous planet, its frustratingly complex existence had a violent past to which it seems to be returning. Marine biologist Ellen Prager examines the awesome forces of creation which are equally devastating, and remain perplexing. Through an illuminating look at the range of natural events, from earthquakes to volcanoes and from tsunamis to hurricanes, Prager lists the wish-we-knew about the dynamic phenomena that continue to remain unknown while frustrating and fascinating the scientific community. 

The book seeks to respond to the most compelling question: Why can’t we better predict the natural disasters? Part of the answer to this question is that the Earth’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral, and their origin are hidden from view. Furthermore, our historical record of events are a blip in the planet’s billions of years of existence. Does that reflect upon human inability to predict the future? By studying some of the devastating events in recent times, Prager concludes that preparation and not prediction holds the key to prepare for what lies ahead. This could be disturbing news but she has valid reasons to extend her argument.   

Take the case of Miami where since 2006 the average rate of sea level rise is three times the global average of about 3 millimeters rise per year. The sunny days flooding in Miami has forced the local government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure without being aware about how long the situation will continue to worsen. Given that there are more than seven hundred million people living in low-lying coastal areas across the world, the science of sea-level rise has yet to deliver credible forecast about the impending threat. Consequently, how far and how fast will the sea rise remains open to speculation.  

Prager writes with all the imaginative sympathy of a storyteller, with an overarching concern on the gaps in research to understand the nature of change better. Picking detailed stories of some of the game changing major events – Mount Pinatubo volcano of Philippines, Indian Ocean Tsunami of Sumatra, Hurricane Harvey in Texas – the author highlights what remains unknown about these dynamic phenomena. In addition to giving insights on each of the events, one gets to know recent attempts at advancing scientific quest towards understanding earth’s warning signals. Dangerous Earth makes absorbing reading on the unexpected, and acts as an alert on knowing how to protect lives, property and economic stability. 

Much has been written in recent times on climatic events, but it is the well-reasoned and engaging explanation offered by Prager that makes it a riveting read. Given the recent spurt in extreme weather events, scientists now consider this a whole new field of science which may be with or without the influence of climate change. The list of climatic unknowns is only beginning to expand, throwing new challenges to understand dangers and the risks involved. No wonder, the recent thundery development that caused widespread damage in some parts of Delhi during May this year had caught the India Meteorological Department (IMD) off guard. Prediction is indeed crucial, but preparedness is no less important. 

While highlighting the need for focused research on climatic events and capturing the new areas of scientific enquiry, Prager points out towards the inevitability of dramatic change that is upon us – turning the beautiful planet against its own inhabitants. There can be no denying that there have been similar periods of warming in Earth’s past, it is not the actual temperature that is the issue but the rapid pace at which the global thermometer is rising that is unusual and problematic. It is the comprehensive undertaking on the extreme events that will open new avenues of research in reducing the impacts of extreme events. Loaded with in-depth narratives on recent catastrophic events, Dangerous Earth is an eye opener and a call to devise and develop ways and means of reducing the impacts of a violent planet on its inhabitants and infrastructure.   

Dangerous Earth
by Ellen Prager
Harper Collins, New Delhi 
Extent: 230, Price: Rs. 399.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Aug 1, 2022

Saturday, July 23, 2022

The epic of epic proportions

The Mahabharata appeals as it substantiates the presence of myths in fulfilling our collective desires, anxieties, and fear.

No other text has survived the rise and fall of Indian culture and civilization as the Mahabharata. In effect, the epic story has overshadowed all other forms of human expressions, and remained a product of extraordinary cultural significance. In nutshell, it is an unending story of five generations culminating in a war fought over eighteen days. With dramatic twists and mythical turns in the narrative, the epic has never ceased to excite its audiences and viewers. And, yet it is considered  inauspicious to keep the text at home while the Gita, its quintessential essence, has remained a spiritual text of rich philosophical tradition. Despite the characters and the events of the epic frozen in time, the narrative helps relive those glorious moments and their relevance for the present. What makes the narrative an epic of timeless magic? And, what accounts for its continuing influence on the psyche of millions of Indian? 

Much water may have flown down the Ganges but individuals across the ages have dug into the epic to explore myriad narrative possibilities of the endless story of the Mahabharata. The epic is so crafted that actions by its many heroes, who are victims of their own fallible logic, help the spectators identify with its characters as a means of their own catharsis. This lends the epic an incredible appeal, providing expressions for one’s own actions in judgements and criticisms of those characters. Perhaps, it is the matter-of-fact manner of writing that captures the political and philosophical aspects of the time. With myths still in circulation around us, the Mahabharata appeals as it substantiates the presence of myths in fulfilling our collective desires, anxieties, and fear. On top, the epic is peppered with human emotions of heroism, courage, tension, tragedy, deceit, fantasy, and jealousy to find widespread acceptance across generations. 

Known for his scholarship on language and literature, Prof G N Devy meditates on the Mahabharata at many levels and in many different ways. The slim volume explores the historical timeline of its spellbinding charm; its superlative presence amongst world’s great literary works, the metaphysical and theological tussles it had to endure, and its inherent political message on warfare and nation building. Taking the reader through the epochal journey in the making of the epic, Devy attempts to make the reader understand why it has survived so long. Through its characters and sub-plots, the author argues, the epic presents a palatable pot pourri of historical, mythical, spiritual and psychological perspective of the Time. As a result, the epic ends up being a narrative in subjective reality of the past that is open to multiple interpretations in the present. While several commentaries of the epic already exist, there are many more in the making as well.  

It is indeed arduous to find a predominant reason for the epic to endure itself across millennia. For some, it is a religious text that helps draw distinction between right and wrong. For others, the story provides tenets of being on the side of justice. And, for many the epic offers lessons on what the desire for power does to us. In all these and other readings of the text, it comes clear that Mahabharata is what the reader would imagine it to be. The freedom to view the characters through moral lens rest with the reader, be it divine Lord Krishna or eternal villain Duryodhana.

Devy provides a multi-layered assessment on the epic. Saye he, 'the Mahabharata is yet not regarded by Indian people as a work of the past because it brings to them a distinct method of perceiving the past'. While one may agree and accept that the Mahabharata takes us through the transition from a pastoral state structure to the early feudal one, how is a war justified in preserving and promoting the ritualistic dharma that got codified by religious traditions? Did it not focus on warfare, military tactics, and political maneuvering to depict characters of its actors? However, in many ways the essential messages from the epic have continued to be all pervasive. Some of it, the glorification of dharma and the defense of the varna system, have had deleterious impact on the society.

Though somewhat convoluted for the uninitiated, Mahabharata offers a comprehensive reading of the epic, its evolution and its journey till now. Prof. Devy has written a ready reckoner on the subject, which has the potential to trigger a relook at the epic to address many contemporary concerns that have a direct bearing on it. Mahabharata is a handy and readable addition on the subject, as relevant as ever before.     

Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation
by G N Devy 
Aleph, New Delhi 
Extent: 142, Price: Rs. 499.

First published in the Hindustan Times on July 23, 2022

Monday, July 11, 2022

The next pandemic is already here

In an increasingly contactless world where we are too busy to stop and smile at each other, loneliness is bound to push us into the secluded corners of our lives. 

People may have just outlived the chilling consequences of the pandemic-induced social exclusion but scars of forced isolation remain deep and disturbing, because loneliness is more than being a state of solitude that has become the defining condition of the twenty-first century. Only by expanding the definition of loneliness, however, can one get closer to its wider societal manifestations. Increasing social and economic inequality is at the root of making it a predominantly lonely world, wherein people feel they have only themselves to fall back on - lacking support from employers, communities, and even the government. Loneliness, defines economist Noreena Hertz, is both an internal state of mind as well as an existential reality. 

The situation is much worse than what the words may describe. The elderly in Japan are known to commit petty crimes in order to go to jail, to secure not only company of the likeminded but also support and care. Before the pandemic, in 2018 a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in the UK to support the lonely from feeling disconnected from the society. Research confirms that loneliness has deleterious health effects – it triggers a cumulative stress response, hampers the  immune system, increases risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia, and counts for one-third of premature deaths too. In an increasingly contactless world where we are too busy to stop and smile at each other, loneliness is bound to push us into the secluded corners of our lives. 

Humans by nature are gregarious creatures, and therefore are not built for isolation. But more by design than default, their profoundly atomised living in recent times has made them miss many of the casual and deeper human connections. Increasing digital communication, growing contactless economy, expanding urbanization, convenient online shopping, and hostile architecture have contributed to the current loneliness crises. Hertz argues that the neoliberal revolution of the nineteen-eighties with its free-choice and free-markets doctrine not only prized an idealized form of self-reliance but reshaped our relationships with each other. Should then it be a surprise that we have become more disconnected, siloed and isolated? 

The Lonely Century is a fascinating and original work on one of the greatest challenges of our time. Deeply researched, insightful and compelling, the book is not so much about the emotional ache we call loneliness as about the fragmentation of the society and its wider political implications. Loneliness therefore constitutes many layers of isolation at various levels: how cut off we feel from our work and workplace; how excluded many of us fell from society’s gains; and how powerless, invisible and voiceless many of us believe ourselves to be. All these add up to make lonely individuals extremely vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Described by the Observer as ‘one of the world’s leading thinkers’, Hertz provides an engaging and compelling analysis of the dangers posed by the loneliness pandemic and our collective failure to bring the disconnected back into the societal fold. As a consequence, the world has never felt this polarised, fractured, and divided. This has become a perfect fodder for political forces to exploit the situation. Quoting research studies from many countries, Hertz believes that loneliness – or perhaps more accurately, marginalisation – is linked to the rise of right-wing politics. Evidence of such corelations are not too hard to find, and this should concern us all because the politicians at the extreme have their ears finely tuned to people’s disaffection with an eye on their exploitation for political gains.

Could loneliness be the only driver to trigger political alienation? Is neoliberalism at the root of the loneliness pandemic? While these questions will continue to get debated, there can be little doubt that loneliness has led to an economic crises, costing us billions of dollars in health expenditure, and a political crises fueling divisiveness and extremism. Hertz doesn’t end at highlighting the physical, mental, economic and societal effects of loneliness, but provides a rousing call for action for government, businesses, society and individuals to address and resolve. Unless a concerted action is mounted at all levels, the world will continue to pull itself apart.    

As long as there isn’t widespread realization of the looming crises, the loneliness economy will cuddle the lonely hearts via the eerie robotic companion. Far from setting the society on right course, tools of the loneliness economy will only reassert the words of one of its champion, Margaret Thatcher, who said: ‘Economics is the method, the object is to change the heart and soul.’ So far, neoliberalism has succeeded in its aim. But Loreena Hertz makes the reader feel that there is every reason to be hopeful in our collective ability to reinvigorate society.

The Lonely Century
by Noreena Hertz 
Sceptre, London 
Extent: 394, Price:  £ 20

First published in The Hindu on July 8, 2022.