Tuesday, June 4, 2024

More than just a hot drink

What do you do when you are not doing anything? Drinking chai, what else! This is literally the case for many. Breaking for a cup of chai between tasks is considered a fundamental right at workplaces. Warm and comforting, it inspires feeling of relaxations and trust and fosters instant bonds among strangers. Indeed, drinking chai is synonymous with being Indian.

Is chai an addiction or can it best be described as a carefully considered compulsive habit? Whatever the case may be, it works in many amazing ways: if you are sleepy, you need a cup of tea; if you are cold, tea warms you; if you are restless, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you up; and, if you are excited, it will calm you. No other beverage offers so much at such a low price. Unsurprisingly, India consumes some 1.2 billion kilograms of tea each year.

The Book of Chai is a celebration of the milky brew that’s an intrinsic part of the life of Indian communities worldwide. Each cup contains within it an interesting bit of history. This is true if you are slurping it at a roadside dhaba in Bhopal, a tiffin room in Chennai or at a café in Dehradun. And rarely do two cups taste alike.

Successful London-based tea entrepreneur Mira Manek whose love for chai led her to set up the Chai by Mira brand takes the reader on an enriching, even therapeutic, journey. In The Book of Chai, she blends 65 delicious tea recipes with personal chai memories to highlight the drink’s integral role in Indian life and culture.

The Chinese were drinking tea for over 2,000 years before the rest of the world woke up to its pleasures. It was only after tea plantation was established in Darjeeling in 1841, that cups of chai became ubiquitous in India. The untiring efforts of numerous people who pluck soft tea buds for further processing is what makes your morning cup reality. And the CTC (Crush, Tea, and Curl) process is what drove the massive growth in consumption that has led to 75 percent of the domestic crop, a little over 800 million kilograms, being consumed within India alone.

Chai is more than just a hot drink. Herbs and spices infuse it with delicious and distinctive flavors. From ginger and cinnamon to cardamon, cloves, lemongrass and nutmeg, any number of spicy chai variants are available on retail shelves. Mira Manek’s range of fragrant chai recipes to be enjoyed through the day include the familiar Ukaro and Kadha, and Saffron Chai Muesli and Pumpkin Chai Latte, among others.

As a student, this reviewer often consumed 17 cups a day. At a conservative estimate, that’s about 28,000 litres of chai in an active lifetime. Friends often wonder if chai flows in my veins. To which I retort with the response favored by the Japanese: “If a man has no chai in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty”. Chai connects the drinker with some of the great things in life. And unlike other beverages, a cup of chai in itself makes for good company. From the first sip to the last, the chai drinker is transported to tea gardens in the hills with their flowing streams, chirping birds, and hovering clouds. 

Most Indians simply cannot live without their cup. From keeping loneliness at bay to invoking freshness, chai does it all. It is an aggregate of many things poured into a cup; the aroma and flavor are just physical manifestations. Flip through The Book of Chai while you sip on a steaming cup of India’s favorite mood enhancer.

The Book of Chai
by Mira Manek
Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 289, Price: Rs. 899.

First published in The Hindustan Times on June 4, 2024.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Will the Sun ever set on Coca Cola?

Cities across the world are suffering from a severe water crisis as climate change fears turn real; there’s also a huge pushback against the use of sugar with diabetes on the rise. Yet, travel to virtually any place on earth, and one is likely to find a bottle or can of Coca-Cola. How has this carbonated drink become ubiquitous across the water-stressed world, and whose primary constituent is locally sourced water only?

The story of Coca-Cola reflects the entrenched realities of globalization, development and capitalism, and Sara Byala’s Bottled tells it from the perspective of Africa where the sugary drink is available everywhere, when most life-saving medicines are not. “In its profound breadth and depth, Coca-Cola offers an unequalled lens onto modern Africa,” she writes.

Kola nut to Coke

Yet, as Byala points out, “there would be no Coca-Cola without the African kola nut”, and she begins her story with how America got enamored with the west African tree and its seed which has a caffeine-yielding stimulant. “In May 1886, as Europe was scrambling to carve up the African continent, John Pemberton [in Atlanta, America] created the earliest version of a beverage that would soon be called Coca-Cola, a drink whose name and whose origin, came in part, from Africa.”

Coca-Cola, says Byala, narrates its African story as one of “unstopped progress” that began with its first bottling in South Africa in 1928, and is now present in every African nation as the continent’s single largest private employer “with a multiplier effect”.

Byala, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, provides an in-depth assessment of how a global beverage brand adjusted its marketing strategy to the socio-political demands in conquering a continent. While she undertook fieldwork in eight countries, Egypt, Eswatini, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, Byala guided research assistants to conduct interviews in several nations.

From Cape Town to Cairo — the accompanying illustrations and photographs, including one of a Coca-Cola stall in front of the Sphinx, Egypt tell a thousand words more — the company aligned with everything from education to the anti-apartheid struggle in locating the beverage in the lives of people. “The more I researched and spoke to people, the more the story of Coke appeared as a parable for late capitalism, full of both cause for concern and seeds of optimism,” she says.

Fringe Benefits

By 2020, more than three quarters of a million Africans were being supported by Coca-Cola, not to mention that 10-12 indirect jobs were being created in related industries. It is a familiar narrative on how corporations contribute to solutions while generating problems in the first place.

Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives around water, carbon use, and waste recycling have been talked about. The company promotes healthy, youthful, and active living in its marketing campaigns but never in its century-old history has it ever suggested how much of its intake will be enough for a healthy body.

Like elsewhere in the world, Coca-Cola’s century of existence in Africa is not without its fundamental share of contradictory compromises. While increased consumption of the global beverage is not without serious ecological and biological impacts, its missionary endeavor to plough back a small portion of its profit back into social emancipation is anything but greenwashing — justifying capitalism’s logic of insatiable growth against what the ecosystem can sustain.

Bottled is as much a social history of colonization by a beverage company as an expression of self-determination and acceptance of modernity by an unsuspecting mass of people across the continent. Byala highlights how Coca-Cola positioned itself differently in each country, bending to consumer power in generating a distinct narrative focused on its sale. While it does help enhance an understanding of a globalized and integrated world it also raises a critical question: at what cost can the planet and human body endure it?

Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African 
by Sara Byala 
Hurst, London
Extent: 366, Price: £30.

First published in The Hindu on June 2, 2024.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The existence under shadow

Much has been written about and much will get written about the generative artificial intelligence, or AI, that is fast revolutionizing the way we work, study, and consume. In this rapidly changing world of automated decision making that is influencing our behavior, what does it mean to be human hereon remains an impending question. Delighting us with the humanlike ability to write, visualize and talk back, AI has crunched large data to free us from our own actions. Come to think of it, machine is taking back our agency and self-respect.  

Proponents of AI may loathe at the idea of pinning down technology’s dramatic progress in its early days, however, the glaring fact is that limiting human ability to decide and direct its actions hold fundamental contradiction to our evolution as a species. Little is known about how machine-learning models draw statistical inference from volumes of data at its disposal. With quantum computing set to exponentially enhance machine’s ability to intuitively mimic processes, the advent of AI raises more questions than answers. 

Code Dependent is not about how technological infusion is empowering algorithms but how AI has insidiously entered our lives and altered the very experience of being human. With over a decade of experience in writing and reporting on AI for the Financial Times in London, Madhumita Murgia explores what the rise of AI means for us as a society. It is a story on AI with a human face, told through the lived realities of nine unrelated persons from across the world. The stories are chilling, calling for an urgency to act before AI takes over. What comes out is an absorbing and engaging narrative. 

These stories look at everyone from underpaid gig workers to an activist, a refugee, a single mother, a doctor, a bureaucrat, and a priest. Through these case stories, Murgia examines all the relevant facets of life, from livelihood to society and from freedom to future. What comes out clear is that ‘surveillance capitalism’ is the denominator which guides the business model that monetizes personal data. Amid all the hype and frenzy around AI, there is little denying that the prejudices of those who create it gets amplified. For instance, facial recognition camera is biased towards fair skin, religious minorities, migrant and refugees, and religious minorities. Backed by data colonialism by tech-giants, any scalable system under the capitalist economy is built to benefit large groups while excluding the other. This can only trigger exclusion and inequality.        

Each of the stories make it clear that AI is out to compromise our agency and shatter our illusion of free will. Data workers are as vulnerable as factory workers, they remain an undervalued bedrock of the AI industry. The algorithms that create deepfakes target women, who are hypersexualized by technology. Facial recognition has empowered police to exercise nuanced judgement, promoting widespread human rights abuses. In a world wherein AI promotes surveillance, censorship and control, freedom is the first that gets compromised with dissent becoming irrelevant. The stories in the volume are disturbing, exposing powerlessness and vulnerability in a world turbocharged by AI. 

Generative AI has raced through the economy without any of the compelling questions being addressed. Will so-called knowledge workers still have work in few years' times? Who owns the rights to all of humanity’s creative outputs? Will white collar jobs continue to exist as they are? How can a society be sustained without work? The trouble is that people – scientists, economists and politicians – who are supposed to have answers to such questions are as much in dark. In the post-truth era, controlling AI from producing false or biased contents will remain a challenge.

Murgia is clear thar AI is a way to augment human intelligence and solve impossible problems but has utility when it preserves human dignity. To preserve human agency, the author has drawn a checklist of guiding principles to ensure that algorithms are not without ‘algor-ethics’, a basic framework of human values to be agreed upon by multiple stakeholders around the world and implemented by machines. Written with empathy and deep concern about the future of mankind, Murgia raises question on the unrestricted idea of selling back our dreams repackaged as the products of machines. Code Dependent makes for compelling reading as it concerns everybody. It concerns the impact of AI on our collective future.  

Code Dependent 
by Madhumita Murgia
Picador India, New Delhi 
Extent: 311, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in Deccan Herald on May 26, 2024.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

A lyricist who was a poet

“जो जाने-माने कवि और गीतकार आनंद बक्शी को नहीं जानता वो हिंदी सिनेजगत से वाकिफ नहीं है”, यह कहना है प्रसिद्ध कवि एवं गीतकार गुलज़ार का और उनका यह कथन हाल ही में पेंगुइन स्वदेश द्वारा प्रकाशित “मैं जादू हूँ चल जाऊंगा – आनंद बक्शी के अनसुने नग्मे” से लिया गया है। आनंद बक्शी के पुत्र राकेश (आनंद) बक्शी द्वारा संकलित एवं संपादित इस पुस्तक में नामी शायर एवं गीतकार जावेद अख्तर आनंद बक्शी के योगदान पर बात करते हुए कहते हैं कि वो दिन दूर नहीं जब आनंद बक्शी की काव्य रचनाओं पर विश्वविद्यालयों में पीएचडी की जाएगी। अपने करीब चार दशक लम्बे कैरियर में कवि एवं गीतकार बक्शी ने 4000 के आस-पास गीत लिखे और अगर आप हिन्दी फिल्मी गीतों के शौकीन हैं तो यह नहीं हो सकता कि आपका कोई दिन आनंद बक्शी का  कोई ना कोई गीत सुने बिना गुज़र जाए! उन्होंने हर मूड, हर इमोशन पर गीत लिखे हैं – गीत लिखने की उनकी रेंज बहुत ही बड़ी है। मन का ऐसा कौन-सा भाव है और दिन का कौन-सा लम्हा जिस पर उन्होंने गीत न लिखा हो – और उनके ये सभी गीत अत्यंत लोकप्रिय भी हुए हैं।  

पुस्तक में संकलित आनंद बक्शी का आत्मकथ्य पढ़ने से उनकी जद्दोजहद का अंदाज़ होता है।  गज़ब तो यह है कि नौसेना की नौकरी उनकी पहचान कभी न थी, उन्होंने खुद को अपनी कविता में ही पाया। मैं अक्सर अपने मित्रों से पूछता हूँ कि ‘तुम यह न होते तो क्या होते’ अर्थात ‘जो कर रहे हो वो अगर न कर पाते’।  अभी तक मुझे तो कोई ऐसा उत्तर नहीं मिला है जिस की  मैं आपसे चर्चा कर सकूं, क्योंकि जुनून ही किसी की भी सही पहचान होती है।  आनंद बक्शी ने अपने जुनून को साधने के लिए सब कुछ कुर्बान किया। उनके गीतों में उनके जीवन की पूरी झलक मिलती है. ‘तेरी कसम’ फिल्म के लिए अमित कुमार द्वारा गाये ‘मेरे गीतों में मेरी कहानियां हैं, कलियों का बचपन है, फूलों की जवानियाँ हैं’ हमें उनके जीवन-दर्शन की झलक तो मिल जाती है। बहरहाल, चर्चा हम कर रहे हैं उनके अनसुने नग्मों की।

राकेश आनंद बक्शी ने अपने पिता के अभी तक अनसुने नग्मों का यह जो संकलन तैयार किया है, यह इसलिए भी महत्वपूर्ण है कि इससे हमें आनंद बक्शी को और गहराई से जानने का अवसर मिला है। मुंबईया फिल्मी गीत लिखते समय गीतकार पर व्यावसायिक दबाव भी होते हैं लेकिन ‘मैं जादू हूँ चल जाऊँगा’ में संकलित रचनाएं हमें एक अलग रचनाकार से रु-ब-रु करवाती हैं जो एक भावना-प्रधान कवि भी है और कोमल हृदय से उपजी उनकी रचनाओं में निहित गंभीर जीवन दर्शन भी उमड़-उमड़ कर सामने आता है। आप कह सकते हैं कि शायद ये उनकी ज़िंदगी का फलसफा है जो उनकी रचनाओं में खिड़कियाँ बनाकर हमारे सामने आता रहता है। बक्शी जी ने अपने संघर्ष के शुरुआती सालों में बंबई के दादर रेलवे स्टेशन पर करीब तीन साल बिताये थे – है न कमाल की बात कि इतना दर्द पा कर भी कवि का ह्रदय प्रेम की बात ही करता रहा क्योंकि उसको भी एक अदद सहारा मिल ही गया था इन भावों को अलफ़ाज़ देने के लिए: 

मुक्क़दर साथ अगर देता सहारे भी कई मिलते
खुदा के नेक बन्दों में हमारे भी कई मिलते

वैसे तो बक्शी जी के लिए जज्बात के बाद ही तर्क की जगह आती थी और यही कारण है कि ‘चिंगारी कोई भड़के तो सावन उसे भुजाये, सावन जो अगन लगाए उसे कौन बुझाये’ की प्रश्नात्मक प्रस्तुति भुलाये नहीं भूलती। लगभग 70 अनसुने गीतों और कविताओं से सुसज्जित इस छोटी पुस्तक में भावनाओं का सैलाब है। जो यह कहते रहें है कि बक्शी जी सिचुएशंस पर ही गीत लिखा करते थे उनको यह इल्म हो जायेगा कि हर गीत में कवि का दिल भी बराबर धड़कता था। अब यह पंक्तियाँ देखिए :

नहीं कुछ फायदा दिल में हाले–दिल छुपाने से
जुबान पे बात आने दो भले लड़ना पड़े ज़माने से

मुझे लगता है कि बक्शी जी आम आदमी के कवि थे और उनके शब्दों में हमेशा एक ताज़गी रहा करती थी। इस ताज़गी को आप अपनी तरह इस अनूठी पुस्तक में जगह-जगह देख सकते हैं। राकेश बक्शी ने अपने मरहूम पिताजी की स्मृति को तो अपने इस प्रयास के जरिए सँजोया ही है, साथ ही उन्होंने बॉलीवुड के गीतों से मुहब्बत करने वालों पर भी यह एक बड़ा उपकार किया है। उन्होंने आनंद बक्शी के अनसुने गीतों को सामने लाकर बक्शी जी की पुरानी रचनाओं की भी याद ताज़ा कर दी है। कभी-कभी तो मैं बक्शी जी की रचनात्मकता के आगे नतमस्तक हो जाता हूँ। अगर आप ने देव आनंद की फिल्म ‘जानेमन’ का गीत सुना है तो आप यह बखूबी समझ जाएंगे जो मैं कहना चाह रहा हूँ. इस फिल्म के शीर्षक गीत ‘जानेमन, जानेमन किसी का नाम नहीं फिर भी यह नाम होंठों पे न हो ऐसी कोई सुबह नहीं शाम नहीं’ किसी के न होने का भी गज़ब अहसास देता है।    

अगर लेखक राकेश आनंद बक्शी मुझे इस पुस्तक का शीर्षक देने का मौका देते तो मैं कुछ यूँ लिखता ‘मैं शब्दों का जादूगर हूँ, जादू करता रहूँगा’।

Main Jadoo Hoon Chal Jaunga
by Rakesh Anand Bakshi
Penguin Swadesh, New Delhi
Extent: 196, Price: Rs. 211. 

First published in www.RaagDelhi.com on May 23, 2024.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The weapon that is also an idea

35 years ago, Iran's religious and political leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie in February 1989, ordering Muslims to kill him after being outraged by Rushdie's popular novel 'Satanic Verses'. And under the same fatwa, a 24-year-old man fatally attacked Rushdie with a knife during a public lecture in New York in August 2022.

The offensive comments raised on 'Satanic Verses' have their own history, but the unique thing is that it all happened a decade before the young man was born, and who had apparently read only two pages of the novel that led him to commit the crime. In this attack, Rushdie sustained 10-15 stab wounds on the shoulder, chest and face, and lost one of his eyes. Rushdie has compiled his grief and thoughts in a recently published book 'Knife - Meditations After an Attempted Murder'. 

Before discussing Rushdie's book, I think it is important to understand the difference between 'believing' and 'knowing'. Why did that young man 'believe' without 'knowing' that Rushdie had made derogatory comments against a particular religion in the book? But if you think a little deeper, this method was started by 'dharma' millennia ago, making followers 'believe' without 'knowing'. Let rituals justify the rest. It simply asks to 'accept' without 'knowing'. That young man who attacked Rushdie only carried out years of hatred 'accepted' and 'stored' by the society he claimed to represent. The hero of Dostoevsky's classic novel 'Crime and Punishment' too believed that some crimes are justified. It is another matter that after the murder, the protagonist remains a victim of delusion, paranoia, and hatred. A thought or feeling that one does not 'experience' oneself is not less than a crime.

In the hall where Salman Rushdie was attacked, the audience wondered why Rushdie didn't defend when he saw the attacker coming towards him with a knife. Rushdie says that violence has intense power to destroy reality in which rational thought finds no place. In the environment of fear and anxiety, right thinking disappears somewhere.

The same thing happened in that attack. By the time Rushdie could realize, the 'knife' had followed his religious diktat. It is amazing that the (knife) that personified hatred does not become a subject of hatred because if this knife were in the hands of a doctor, it would be a 'life saver' 'and not a 'killer'. Thoughts are converted into actions by the sequence of mind-word-action, and when the mind is filled with hatred, one can only imagine what the action could be. That young man could not extricate himself from the cycle of mind-word-action. 'Believing' so dominated 'knowing' that the knife did what it was told.

After losing an eye in this violent incident, Rushdie got a chance to re-understand the two-eyed society and he had the self-awareness to see and show the 'Knife' as an idea more than a weapon. In many ways Rushdie has written the autobiography of the knife – the knife is as much a 'weapon' as an 'idea'. The knife's 'closeness to the body' makes it a weapon of ideas.  A knife itself is not a piece of metal if there is no 'edge' in it. After this incident, Rushdie realized that he himself was using literature as a knife to cut across dogmas in society.

A knife cuts cakes and vegetables, opens bottles and bodies. 9/11 used the airplane like a knife to cut the twin towers. Anything can become a knife if the edge is sharp, but a knife is felt when it cuts what we often don't want to see cut. Language is also a knife that can cut ideologies without actually cutting anything. The knife is also a painful experience that brings life closer to new experiences. Knife has the power to take life, but it also has the amazing power to give life, as we have discussed that a knife in the hand of a doctor or a scythe knife in the hand of a farmer promote and sustain life. 

One thing is certain that the knife has given Salman Rushdie a new identity in which the knife plays a central role, and he will now have to live with this new identity. Knife is a challenge that will help Rushdie to stay relevant without repeating themselves! It was only a matter of a genius writer like Rushdie that he made positive use of this unfortunate murderous attack on him and took a deep look at the current trends in the present society using KNIFE as a psychological and philosophical tool!

Knife
by Salman Rushdie
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 209. Price: Rs. 699.

First published (as translation from the original in Hindi) in Outlook, on May 18, 2024.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Knife is as much a weapon as a thought

35 वर्ष पूर्व ईरान के धार्मिक और राजनीतिक नेता अयातुल्लाह ख़ुमैनी ने भारत में जन्मे ब्रिटिश लेखक सलमान रुश्दी के ख़िलाफ़ फ़रवरी 1989 में फतवा जारी किया था  जिसमें उन्होंने रुश्दी के बहुचर्चित उपन्यास ‘Satanic Verses’ से रुष्ट होकर मुसलमानों को उनकी हत्या करने का आदेश दिया था और उसी फतवे के तहत अगस्त 2022 को न्यूयॉर्क में एक पब्लिक लेक्चर के दौरान एक 24 वर्षीय युवक ने रुश्दी पर चाकू से कातिलाना हमला किया।  

‘Satanic Verses’ पर उठाई आपत्तिजनक टिप्पणी का अपना इतिहास रहा है, लेकिन अनूठी बात यह है यह सब कुछ युवक के जन्म से एक दशक पहले हुआ था और उसने वारदात को अंजाम देने के समय तक उक्त उपन्यास के शायद दो ही पृष्ठ पढ़े थे। इस हमले में रुश्दी ने कंधे, छाती और चेहरे पर चाकू के 10-15 वार झेले, और अपनी एक आंख गवाई। रुश्दी ने अपनी व्यथा और विचारों को हाल ही में प्रकाशित एक ख़ूबसूरत पुस्तक ‘Knife – Meditations After an Attempted Murder’ में संकलित किया है। यही इस आलेख का संदर्भ है और पाठकों को आगाह कर दूँ कि यह आलेख उपरोक्त पुस्तक की समीक्षा नहीं है।  

इस से पहले की रुश्दी की पुस्तक पर चर्चा करूँ, मुझे लगता है कि यह समझना ज़रूरी है कि ‘मानने’ और ‘जानने’ का अंतर क्या है। ऐसा क्यों हुआ कि उस युवक ने बिना ‘जाने’ ही यह ‘मान’ लिया कि रुश्दी ने पुस्तक में उनके धर्म के विरुद्ध अपमानजनक टिप्पणियाँ की हैं। आज तो खैर हम आसानी से ये कह देते हैं कि Whatsapp काल में बिना जाने सब कुछ माना जा रहा है। लेकिन थोड़ा गहराई से सोचें तो इस पद्धति की शुरुआत तो ‘धर्म’ ने सदियों पहले कर दी थी और सभी धर्मों में बिना जाने हुए मानना एक तरह का धार्मिक ‘रिचुअल’ जैसा बन गया था और आज भी है। रूढ़ियों को भी बिना ‘जाने’ बस ‘मान’ लेना इसी पद्धति का हिस्सा थी। रुश्दी पर हमला करने वाले उस युवक ने बरसों से समाज द्वारा ‘मानी’ और ‘संजोयी’ घृणा को केवल अंजाम दिया। दोस्तोवॉसकी के उत्कृष्ट उपन्यास ‘Crime and Punishment’ का नायक भी यही मानता रहा कि कुछ अपराध तो न्यायोचित होते हैं। यह और बात है कि क़त्ल के बाद नायक ताउम्र भ्रम, व्यामोह, और घृणा का शिकार रहा। जिस विचार या भावना की स्वयं अनुभूति न हो, उसे मानना खुद में किसी अपराध से कम नहीं।

जिस हॉल में सलमान रूशदी पर हमला हुआ, उस हाल में उपस्थित दर्शकों ने बाद में जो प्रश्न उठाया वो स्वयं रुश्दी ने भी खुद से पूछा है कि ऐसा क्या हुआ कि उस हमलावर को चाकू लेकर अपनी तरफ आते हुए देख भी लिया लेकिन फिर भी रुश्दी आत्मरक्षा में कुछ कर न पाये? रुश्दी कहते हैं कि हिंसा में वास्तविकता को नाश करने की वो तीव्र शक्ति है जिसमें  तर्कसंगत विचार की कोई जगह ही नहीं रहती। भय और चिंता के वातावरण में सही सोच या विवेक कहीं गायब हो जाता है।

उस हमले में भी यही हुआ था। जब तक होश संभलता ‘चाकू’ ने अपने धर्म का पालन कर दिया था। गज़ब है जो (चाकू) घृणा को अंजाम देता है वो घृणा का पात्र नहीं बनता, क्योंकि यही चाकू किसी चिकित्सक के हाथ होता तो ‘जानदेवा’ होता न कि ‘जानलेवा’, क्योंकि चिकित्सक की मन:स्थिति जीवनदान की होती है। मन-वचन-कर्म के तारतम्य से ही विचार कर्म में परिवर्तित होता है और जब मन घृणा से ओतप्रोत हो तो कर्म कैसा होगा, इसकी तो मात्र कल्पना ही की जा सकती है। वो युवक मन-वचन-कर्म के चक्रव्यूह से खुद को निकाल ही नहीं पाया। ‘मानना’ इस कदर ‘जानने’ पर हावी रहा कि चाकू ने वो ही किया जो उसे बताया गया।

इस हिंसक वारदात में एक आंख गंवाने के बाद रुश्दी को द्विचक्षु समाज को पुनः जानने-समझने का मौका मिला और उन्हें ‘Knife’ को एक हथियार से ज़्यादा एक विचार के रूप में देखने और दिखाने का आत्मबोध हुआ। कई मायनों में रुश्दी ने चाकू की आत्मकथा लिख डाली है – चाकू उतना ही ‘एक हथियार’ है जितना कि ‘एक विचार’।  चाकू की ‘शरीर से घनिष्टता’ ही उसके ‘अपने’ होने का अहसास दिलाती है। चाकू खुद में तो एक धातु का टुकड़ा भर ही है अगर उस में ‘धार’ न हो। इस हादसे के बाद रुश्दी को यह एहसास हुआ कि वह स्वयं भी साहित्य को एक तेज़ धार वाले चाकू की तरह ही तो इस्तेमाल कर रहे थे। इस दुर्घटना से ‘धार’ और ज़्यादा तेज़ और सार्थक ही होनी चाहिए,  इन संभावनाओं से इंकार नहीं किया जा सकता।

चाकू केक भी काटता है और सब्ज़ी भी, बोतल भी खोलता है और शरीर भी।  9/11 ने तो हवाई जहाज़ को एक चाकू की तरह इस्तेमाल किया ‘twin towers’ को काटने के लिए। धार तेज़ हो तो कोई भी चीज़ चाकू बन सकती है लेकिन चाकू के होने का अहसास तब होता है जब यह वो काटता है जो हम अक्सर कटा हुआ देखना नहीं चाहते। भाषा भी तो एक चाकू है जो बिना कुछ काटे वैचारिक काट-छांट कर सकती है। चाकू एक कष्टदायक अनुभव भी है जो जीवन को नये अनुभवों के करीब लाता है। चाकू में जीवन लेने की शक्ति तो है ही, जीवन देने की अद्भुत ताकत भी है जैसा कि हम चिकित्सक के हाथ के चाकू की चर्चा ऊपर कर चुके हैं और या फिर आप किसान की दराँती के चाकू को भी उसी श्रेणी में रख सकते हैं जो हमारी क्षुधा पूर्ति के लिए फसलें काटता है।    

एक बात तो तय है कि चाकू ने सलमान रुश्दी को एक नई अस्मिता दी है जिसमें चाकू केन्द्रीय भूमिका में है और उन्हें अब इसी नई अस्मिता के साथ जीना होगा। ‘Knife’ एक चुनौती तो रहा ही है लेकिन उनके पास एक मौका भी है अपने को दोहराये बिना सार्थक बनाये रखने का! यह रुश्दी जैसे प्रतिभाशाली लेखक के ही बस की बात थी कि उन्होंने अपने पर हुए इस दुर्भाग्यपूर्ण जानलेवा हमले का भी सकारात्मक इस्तेमाल किया और वर्तमान समाज में विद्यमान प्रवृत्तियों पर एक गहन दृष्टि डाली जिसे आप समाजशास्त्रीय या राजनीतिक दृष्टि भी कह सकते हैं और मनोवैज्ञानिक और दार्शनिक भी! 

Knife
by Salman Rushdie
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 209. Price: Rs. 699.

First published in www.RaagDelhi.com, uploaded on May 8, 2024. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Much has changed but much remains the same

In the re-reading of history, Aurangzeb gets a chance to clarify his position.

It is said that things about history need to be read or understood in conjunction with the context and time. The context helps place historical events in right perspective. Else, history passing through opinion(s) over time distorts facts to suit ideological predisposition. It is another matter that the subject of history has been a casualty of ideological biases in recent times. The one who has seemingly suffered the most from such biases has been Aurangzeb, the longest serving emperor of the Mughal dynasty. Should the trend persist, his half-a-century of rule will remain fodder for promoting divisive ideologies for several more centuries.  

Despite being known to have built temples for the Hindus, Aurangzeb continues to be discredited for destroying temples only. Vilified for taxing people to amass wealth, that Aurangzeb lived off the prayer caps he sold is willfully allowed to pass. Such has been the tirade against him that even Francis Bernier’s impressions that ‘the king governed his subjects with equity and impartiality’ doesn’t value any bit. Given the tumultuous years of his half a century of rule, Aurangzeb must have evolved from an aggressive king to a pragmatic ruler. Much has been written on him but nowhere the possible transformation of a ruler ever been thought about, much less considered.

History is always written by the victor, but the case of Aurangzeb is quite in contrast. With a city and many roads named after the king already erased from the map, efforts to annul his name from the history books is a work in progress. Had it not been for his long stint as an Emperor, Aurangzeb would have been relegated as a fringe ruler many centuries ago. While most only see an antagonist in him, but it is often ignored that Aurangzeb too may have been affected by the circumstances and legacy which were nowhere under his control. Conversations with Aurangzeb allows the long-dead Mughal emperor to clear several misconceptions about him. 

Based on historical facts but written as a genre-bending novel, the narrative positions history to counter ideological impulses of the time. Translated from the Tamil, it is a distinct form of telling a story that is funny and witty but reflective and entertaining. An Aghori summons into his body the spirit of Aurangzeb to speak to the interlocutor. Once the spirit manifests in the body, it introduces itself: “I, Alamgir, born Aurangzeb, have come before you.’ There is much misinformation in history about me, the spirit argues, that I wish to clarify and set aside.

Aurangzeb makes it clear upfront that he was not cast in stone. He lets it be known that his life had three distinct sections in accordance with his age – forty to fifty, fifty to eighty-five, and eighty-five to ninety. Each section reflected different persona. One can easily be anguished by what he did and be as painful for being victimized for something he was trapped into. Without any exception, he was certainly not secular in those times. The era might have changed but not the time – isn’t deep religious portrayal a social and political virtue now? 

Such is the narrative strength of the fact-filled story that neither will it find favor with the chest-thumping right wing not with the self-proclaimed liberals. Aurangzeb puts in right perspective the things reader believes because s/he wants to believe. In saying so, the spirit concurs with noted historian Jadunath Sarkar that Aurangzeb’s life was a Greek tragedy. In making a case for and drawing lessons from his tragic life, the spirit invokes the reader to connect the past with the present in unbiased assessment of the history that has been misinterpreted.  

Conversations with Aurangzeb is an interesting way of re-reading history. It is a groundbreaking book that rekindles interest on the life of an Emperor that has seemingly been long dusted. By drawing and equating the past with the present, the narrative at places could be alarming and frightening too. It places the past under tight scrutiny without drawing any conclusions. However, the spirit doesn’t shy away from admitting that it had sinned a great deal in its ninety years on earth. In doing so, the spirit also holds a mirror to the justifications unleashed by us to in favor of our own wrong doings, both socially and politically. If lust for power is what Aurangzeb has been accused for, the spirit questions if lust for money, lust for power, and lust for blood any less prevalent now. 

Charu Nivedita’s novel is a complicated but interesting and amusing undertaking to dispassionately view the subject that has been grossly misunderstood. It is part historical and part fiction but a satire, nonetheless. It is cult Tamil writer’s contribution in understanding history that is as much a biting commentary on our times.

Conversations with Aurangzeb
by Charu Nivedita
Translated by Nandini Krishnan
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 355, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in the Hindustan Times on April 27, 2024.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

It may indeed be cheaper to save the world.

Have capitalists woken up to both the cost of inaction and the opportunity of action? 

Modern economic growth and rising demand for goods at relatively lower prices has led to inevitable exploitation of nature, and consequent climate change. There is no denying that unfettered capitalism has contributed to over extraction of natural resources and increasing emission of greenhouse gases. Should uncontrolled capitalism persist till 2050, the aim of restricting average global temperature within 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels may remain a pipe dream. Emitting billions of tons of carbon dioxide will see continued climate extremes leading to the loss of lives and livelihoods. No wonder, climate emergencies have become frequent.  

Many environmentalists believe that the long-term solution to tackling climate crises is to uproot capitalism because ‘we cannot solve the problem by what caused it’. It is argued that tackling the climate crises without replacing an economic system that is partially responsible for the excess greenhouse gases stuck in the atmosphere may remain elusive. General consensus is that without ensuring nature’s well-being, human well-being is unlikely to be achieved. However, with only few decades at hand in averting catastrophic climate change, the possibility of putting a new economic system in place may seem improbable. 

Despite capitalism being well entrenched, reforming capitalism seems the only practical way to avoid the system from collapsing. Passionate capitalists fear that policy reforms may kill the market. But policy shifts in favor of climate-oriented technologies and investments have created new business opportunities. Whether such efforts add up to make an impact at global scale has yet to be fully ascertained. Some trends are noticeable, the UK economy grew by 60 percent between 1990 and 2017 while its carbon emissions declined by 40 percent. The task lies in replicating and escalating such transformative processes and practices. Although climate financing may have been slow, the Paris Agreement has triggered a process of change. 

Climate Capitalism is about how to transform world’s dominant economic system while ensuring that the wheels of progress don’t come to a halt. From renewable power to green cement, from electric cars to carbon capture – emission-reducing technologies have tossed new opportunities for private capital and government regulations to work in tandem. The process to harness the forces of capitalism to achieve zero emissions has already begun. Although these are still early days for capitalism to wear a natural look for addressing impending climatic concerns, a faint ray of optimism seems to have been generated. 

It has been over two decades that industrial capitalism has been critiqued for neither pricing nor accounting its negative externalities. It liquidates natural capital and calls it profit, undervaluing both natural resources and living systems. Akshat Rathi chronicles the political maneuverings that made possible China’s lead in building fleet of electric cars, India’s success in promoting solar power, America’s success with reversing climate damages in the oil industry, and the Danish quest for pushing wind turbines. All such initiatives combined; it has been estimated that 2% of global GDP is enough to make the carbon dioxide problem go away! Far from being linear, however, there are disruptive elements that play upon power politics to brittle the path to zero emissions. Politics, technology and finance would need to align in the right direction. 

With climate emergencies threatening life, public perception on the global climatic accords and green initiatives remains grossly skeptical. Holding an optimist position, Akshit argues that we cannot insulate ourselves from the transformation - from fossil fuels to clean energy – coming our way. From the bureaucrats to the billionaires, and from the doers to the enforcers, there are multiple actors on the capitalist platform who would need to merge differences in reforming the economic system towards shaping a climate-conducive capitalism.

Climate Capitalism conveys optimistic narrative which contends that it’s cheaper to save the world than destroy it. It goes without saying that the time for uncontrolled capitalism is long over. What kindles a ray of hope is that capitalists themselves have woken up to both the cost of inaction and the opportunity of action. 

Climate Capitalism 
by Akshat Rathi
John Murray/Hachette, London
Extent: 260, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in The Hindu on April 19, 2024.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

No iffs, only butts

We are humans, thanks to our butts. 

Rarely is the derriere taken seriously enough to be written about, but there have never been any ifs about butts. People with big butts are as worried as those with small, as both want to suit the size they deem fit. The entire health industry with its gadgets and diet plans is geared to fulfil such body-reshaping desires. But a butt always remains what it is. If it were not butts, evolutionary biologists explain, humans would neither have traversed long distances nor escaped predation. ‘We are humans, thanks to our butts’. Butts: A Backstory traces the evolutionary biology and cultural relevance of this enigmatic body part.

Cheeky and entertaining, Heather Radke presents the cultural history of a body part that has long been perceived as an indicator of women’s nature – from femineity to morality. It offers a perspective-shifting reading on a body part, from mania for Sarah Baartman’s butts during 18th century to fetish for Kim Kardashian’s backsides in the 21st. The deeply researched narrative examines society’s obsession with derrieres and elaborates what butts are and what butts mean.  Within butts’ cultural histories are embedded stories of tragedy, anger, obsession, lust, and joy. It turns out to be an absorbing reading on a subject so familiar as to be practically invisible. 

The objectification and commodification of butts has remained a work in progress. Fascinating is the fact that all throughout modern history women have found their butts under influence of male gaze. No wonder, Kate Moss’ small butts were once the gold standard in femineity and few years later big butts of Jennifer Lopez were glorified. The story of butts is all about male fascination and obsession for a body part that female have continued to pay dearly to avoid being shamed for carrying the size and shape not in vogue. The book makes significant contribution to the complicated discussion around women’s bodies.  

Radke raises question on why have women been enamored by male gaze to take evolution into their own hands - by hiding, accentuating, ignoring or sculpting their butts. ‘In the process, not only do women harm others, but harm themselves by never really understanding where the shame comes from.’ Butts are essential for being human, but during last two centuries women’s butts have been talked around the ideas of race, gender, fitness, fashion, and market. No wonder, feelings about butts are trapped in ideas and prejudices. 

The cheeky peach emoji on the cover may hold a sales-pitch but the book is a curious but intelligent peep into the world around butts. The narrative offers more than what any reader may have expected, raising empathy on physical suffering butts were once subjected through bustles and corsets. Such stuff has long been dusted but fashion freedom has now subjected women to wear the flapper dress to demonstrate masochistic ‘self-control, or even self-harm.’ Plastic surgery is for those who wish to burn their butts to conform to new body shape.  

Butts: A Backstory chronicles each change in social consciousness around butts that drove the market for women in the last three centuries. It is intriguing how this human body part came to be on the receiving end of so much attention. Placing her own body in the center, the award-winning essayist and journalist concludes that howsoever women may have treated their butts, our bodies have their own agenda not to obey us. Whether one wants it big or small, a butt always remains what it is. The human body stubbornly refuses to oblige. 

Deeply researched and ingeniously written, Radke argues that the cultural history of butts has a enduring message for everyone to not only understand past mechanisms on body-shaming but develop new meanings on how our bodies ought to be seen. The author leaves reader with the answer she offers those who ask ‘your butt is too big’ – compared to what?  

Butts: A Backstory
by Heather Radke
Simon&Schuster, London
Extent: 310, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Deccan Herald on April 7, 2024

Thursday, March 7, 2024

The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.

Ric Elias was one amongst 155 passengers on the US Airways flight that had emergency landed in the Hudson River during the month of January 2009. None of the passengers had any hope of surviving but for the pilot who single-mindedly tried to avert the disaster, and eventually saved everyone on the ill-fated flight. Ric’s outlook on longevity changed that day as he realized that, like the courageous and skillful pilot, all it needs is to think about what lies ahead at any moment in time. Ric later remarked, ‘I think people get old when they stop thinking about the future.’ The quest for longevity is when people think about their dreams, their aspirations, and what they still look forward to – they are young. Simply put, overcoming fear of dying is longevity. 

Then there is a centimillionaire tech entrepreneur named Johnson, 46, who has spent most of the last three years in pursuit of deflecting death. Over $4 million has been spent by him on a life-extension system called Blueprint, aimed at vanquishing the ravages of time on his body. A team of doctors enforce a strict health regimen that includes gulping 111 pills a day to deaccelerate any act of ageing. Johnson’s quest is to turn his whole body over to an anti-aging algorithm. He believes death is optional, and he is not opting for it. The data compiled thus far suggests that Blueprint has been successful as it has given him the bones of a 30-year-old, and the heart of a 37-year-old. Only time will tell how far longevity experiment takes him to counter the popular adage that a man who has a long life has not lived enough.

With average life expectancy well into the late seventies, interest in prolonging life has provoked a new way of thinking. However, quest for increasing lifespan does not run concurrently to improving health span. Notching more and more birthdays while nursing an ageing life is a grim reminder of a hapless mythical Greek named Tithonus, who asked the gods for eternal life but forgot seeking eternal youth as well. The subject of longevity is undoubtedly complex, and there is no single pathway to achieving such an ambitious goal. Yet there is a sizeable number who have hit a century of survival, but for a vast majority living longer and living better continues to remain a distant dream. Longevity has puzzled humankind for millennia.            

Taking a deep dive into the world of longevity, longtime physician and surgical oncologist at the National Cancer Institute Dr Peter Attia has kept in view the Horsemen diseases viz., cancer, diabetes, heart and neurogenerative diseases. The very process of aging itself is what makes us vulnerable to these diseases, while also affecting our health span. Invariably, one has to pass through the valleys of cognitive, physical, or emotional destruction while negotiating old age. However, these are preventable provided proper tactics is applied in the early years. ‘The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining’. 

What makes this definitive enquiry that merges health span with lifespan in creating an interesting narrative on longevity is the openness with which both professional expertise and personal experience has been taken into account. Attia refers to Medicine 2.0 as a quick-fix mentality, short-term fixes for immediate problems like an infection or a broken bone. Sticking with this mentality can make one go only thus far and no further, leaving one on forever the merry-go-round of fad diets, trendy workouts, and miracle supplements. A shift in mindset to Medicine 3.0 requires an entirely different strategy.

Outlive provides an update on how far Medicine 2.0 has gone in addressing the Horseman diseases, which has supplanted fast death with slow death by adding few more years to life. Quoting innumerable studies and surveys, Attia explores the science of not just prolonging life but extending aliveness. It is in this respect that sleeping and emotional health gets prominence as performance-enhancing substance, not only physically but cognitively. Not without reason evolution has made both of these non-negotiable. Attia seems to have missed out on including the science and art of correct breathing in impacting both health span and lifespan.

Attia enlists five broad domains in Medicine 3.0: exercise, nutrition, sleep, emotional health, and health supplements. His Medicine 3.0 thesis is that if we address our emotional health, and do so early on, we will have a better chance of avoiding clinical mental health issues, and our overall health will benefit a great deal. However, dealing with emotional health is harder than physical health. The trouble is that people are often less able to recognize the need for emotional health, as there are unrecognizable signs and symptoms reflecting their condition. Antidepressants and mood stabilizers can often deploy, but mindfulness meditation is what can make all the difference.

Outlive is a tool book on how to live a long, meaningful, and fulfilling life. It is a groundbreaking manifesto on staying young, even as we grow older. Much of the source of our condition is in our own head, the impact of our own unguarded thoughts. In the first century AD, Seneca had expressed it a bit differently: ‘we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.’ Attia provokes his reader.to consider that there is no pharmacological magic bullet to treat all the scary stuff that we often talk about. Medicine 2.0 is relevant, but it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about bodily processes that takes decades to unfold. Having tread long years in the world of medicine, Attia foray into the world of Medicine 3.0 is as ingenius so reflective in making a strong case for not only living longer but living better too. Attia leaves the reader to resolve if life is better lived as cool-headed Ric Elias or an agitated Johnson.        

Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity
by Dr Peter Attia
Vermilion/Penguin, London
Extent: 482, Price: Rs. 799.

First published in the Hindustan Times, March 7, 2024.        

Monday, February 19, 2024

The cow’s status doesn’t protect her

A senior lecturer at Deakin University in Australia, Yamini Narayanan exposes how the cow has been exploited to promote casteism and communalism. In an interview, she responds to questions that emerge from her ground-breaking book Mother Cow, Mother India. Edited excerpts.

Its political connotation notwithstanding, does cow vigilantism hold the ‘cow’ as a cultural symbol to promote vegetarianism? Why is she vulnerable to being a dairy or milch cow?

India is overwhelmingly and emphatically a non-vegetarian country, and cow vigilantes are not to be confused with animal activism whose overarching priority is usually veganism, a rejection of the consumption of all animal-derived products, including dairy and eggs, which are part of a vegetarian diet. Cow vigilantism is a mode of remaking the cow as a ‘Hindu’ body, and more specifically, as representing a Hindu state. And it is precisely the sacrality imposed on the cow that makes her vulnerable to being a ‘dairy’ or a ‘milch’ cow.

The need is to understand the politics of cow protectionism differently when we place the lived realities of cows and their infants at the center. Cows are bred for dairying in India, but the extreme and unfathomable violence inherent in dairying is linked with slaughter. Cows who are infertile, diseased, male etc. must be necessarily sent to slaughter.

The public meta-narrative is that cows are either abandoned on the road or sent to gaushalas, but the cold reality of dairy economics is animals bred and exploited for dairy must be eventually slaughtered when no longer producing lactate. This happens underground in India. However, framing the cow as ‘mother’ or ‘goddess’ is basically a gaslighting tactic that blurs the cold reality that the cow is a milk-producing resource and economics demands that the unproductive resources be treated — and disposed of — as such. In masking this reality, the cow’s sacred status intensifies her vulnerability to being used for dairy — it does not protect her or her calf.

Hasn’t the ‘cow’ been consciously used as a political tool to promote identity? Is the idea of a nation-state (around ‘cow’) aimed at political control over the population at the cost of perpetuating social and economic inequality?

In India, cows have been made a ‘Hindu animal’ — and as ostensibly representing a Hindu state. Cows are of course, not naturally Hindu (or of any other religion), which are anthropocentric identifiers of the human self and human others. However, making cows Hindu and banning their slaughter as protection for ‘Hindu animals’, serves a divisive purpose in an aspirational Hindu state. My book, however, exposes the inherent contradiction — and impossibility — of banning cow slaughter in a state that heavily promotes and subsidizes dairying. Dairy is a slaughter industry, so a cow slaughter ban is a plain economic impossibility.

Animal slaughter in any country is usually undertaken by some of the poorest, and most socially vulnerable communities. In India, it is some of the poorest engaging in slaughter, usually of the Dalit and Muslim communities, and who are at enormous risk of getting lynched, raped and killed, for essentially supporting the dairy industry which is both state-supported, and indeed, constitutive of the Hindu identity itself. No Hindu ritual is conducted without milk, ghee and butter, which all require cow slaughter.

Could a parallel be drawn between how we treat the Ganges and a cow?

Absolutely this parallel can and must be drawn. What both the Ganga and the cow demonstrate, is the harm that has been done to both, in the name of their sacralization. Sacralization is a form of objectification, and any objectification that is non-consensual, is profoundly harmful to the one being sacralized. The Ganga and the cow have both been harmed — precisely in the name of being sacred — quite literally to their deaths.

Why is it that protectionism pertains to just one of the dairy animals (i.e. cow), and neither to its progeny nor its male co-genitor?

Vegetarianism is as violent as carnivorism, as vegetarianism involves the consumption of dairy and eggs, which are both deeply violent, extractive industries, that ultimately require slaughter of the animals. The fact that vegetarianism is also violent is universally blurred.

How does a society accommodate in daily life the binary of the ‘cow as a sacred animal’ and the ‘cow roaming the streets’ as a symbol of neglect?

Yamini Narayanan
In Indian society, we have come to normalize a huge spectrum of violence against animals. Cows, and indeed pigs, dogs, cats, pigeons, donkeys and so many others, eking out a bare existence by foraging in toxic rubbish dumps, is just one of them. What animals on the street embody, is a chronic state of raving hunger and disease, and also often a fear of human cruelty and violence, especially mothers seeking to feed and protect their newborns and infants. The scale of global animal hunger is scarcely understood and cannot be underestimated. Animals overwhelmingly live, exist and are born into states of chronic hunger — and hunger is something we consider to be one of the most elemental states of suffering when it comes to the members of our own species.

We need to broaden the conversation from fetishizing the cow as the exclusive concern. We need a clear-sighted animal politics that goes beyond cow politics — and radically expands our concern for animals beyond fascist, religious, or cultural politics around one species.

Can cow protectionism stand the test of its contribution to global warming through methane gas emission?

Cow protectionism’s sole objective is to perpetuate the idea of India as a Hindu state. It has never claimed to do anything else. It certainly has no role in mitigating climate change — it can intensify it however, if it allows the reckless breeding of cows to support dairy consumption, while pretending that dairy has nothing to do with cow slaughter.

First published in The Hindu on Feb 11, 2024.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Road building has a never-ending future

For Gandhi, roads were an instrument of oppression.

Road building has caught peoples’ imagination as a harbinger of change, and nothing suits any politician better than to turn it into a reality. No wonder, roadbuilding has been naturalized to the point of common sense in recent times, integrating roadbuilding into a system of governance as part of the development imperative that promotes politics of power. Modern roads are paved versions of age-old pathways which are being promoted and sold to people like any other commodity. Roads have turned out to be an enchanted form of infrastructure that is celebrated to the extent that there is no room for asking dissenting questions. 

Social anthropologist Edward Simpson, a professor at the University of London, has taken on the road to ask discomforting questions on roadbuilding to the roadmen of South Asia. Exploring the political economy of road building, the author questions: Why are so many roads being built in an era of human-induced climate change? What do the roadmen think about their work and the future of the planet? And how did these become central to the region's nationalist and developmental agenda in the first place? Answers aren’t easy to come by, but it is certain that the project of road building is a sure way to win currency and power. 

Roads do transform ways of life and are therefore a self-reproducing system that demands expansion and growth all the time. Consequently, roads have become important sites for inauguration ceremonies and campaign trails. Combining the politics and poetics of road infrastructure, Simpson follows the money to provide a geopolitical narrative that puts road building as a never-ending future. Such is the desire to stay connected that the uncomfortable complicities of roads to impact climate change holds little relevance. Road building from the realm of ideas, discourse, and rhetoric presents an interesting, but controversial story.

Highways to the End of the World digs into the history of road building, how it passed through technological phases and became part of ideological projects. What makes this book absorbing reading is the ethnographic account of the road as a way of telling a story, that cuts a route through landscapes, lives and times. ‘I was interested in learning what people say when they look at road’, quips Simpson, ‘as roads raise fundamental questions about the world and the way we relate to one another’. Gandhi had described roads as instruments of oppression, while for Nehru roads evoked modern amenities and methods. However, over the years roads have become comparative national identity projects in both India and Pakistan, giving birth to political strategies of none other than Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and India’s Nitin Gadkari. It is hard not to agree with the author’s contention that both of them exploited the moral and anticipatory potential of roads for their popularity and electoral success.    

The ethnographic account on roads is illustrative of the broader processes and thought politics that promote a form of market that positions roads as a commodity. Isn’t road part of the economy of elite? Hasn’t levels of corruption in road building been something of a national joke? Despite John Kennedy’s claim that ‘America is rich because American roads are good’, the roadbuilding in the US is not without its share of criticism. Picking up on his longer-term critique of planned obsolesce in his book ‘A Nation of Strangers’, journalist Vance Packard has stated that ‘the mobility enabled by roads and cars is the root of social isolation and loneliness.’ Eventually roads are part of a Faustian bargain, the sacrifice of everything to satisfy desire. 

Simpson’s multi-layered assessment of roads helps realize that road building is more than just the cost of land, working manpower, and inert materials. The narrative on roads asserts that there is nothing better as roads are the only way to address gross inequality and support common responsibility for the future. Travelling across highways in the sub-continent, Simpson found much to the contrary with the highways facilitating drug trafficking, encouraging sex trade, and for connecting land mafia. Not without reason had Gandhi found that the road and its machines enslave people, not only by exploiting their labor but also by binding them to particular forms of consumption. One might wonder if roads contribute to the long-term betterment of the world.

Highways to the End of the World provides a panoramic but contentious view on road building. It is an important anthropological study that examines history, sociology, economy and ecology of road building. It is an inter-disciplinary scrutiny on the process of road building that runs through an unequal world in which scale, friction and speed take the reader along invisible routes ridden with global debt, money laundering, and political conspiracy. It is a must-read book for those who consider road building as a burden on the economy and ecology.   

Highways To the End of The World
by Edward Simpson
Hurst, London
Extent: 351, Price: Rs. 3052.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Feb 5, 2024.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

A pop star's raw and stinging honesty

Much is known about the tortuous life of award-winner pop icon, but fighting to take control of life back from patriarchal exploitation and control deserves to be read as an honest autobiography about motherhood, freedom, and hope. Born into a disturbed childhood, Britney was a little girl with big dreams who only wanted her dad to stop drinking, and her mom to stop yelling. None of it worked her way, instead she was precocious to drinking, smoking and boys at an early age. Losing control over oneself at an early age made her guilty conscience with a lot of shame, with the family considering her to be plain bad. Admitting to her own bad deeds, Britney believed in karma catching up with her.

The Woman in Me tells a focused story of a teenager who learnt too early in her life that the music industry, or for that matter the whole world, is set up more for men.  Britney’s career was not spared, she was subjected to disempowering narratives. Conservatorship was legally thrust on her, which is usually served on people who lack mental capacity to do anything for themselves.  Considered as a teenager corrupting the youth, she was perceived as dangerous for the society. To get her back on track, her father was entrusted with conservatorship to control Britney and her resources. She was literally treated as if she was a criminal or predator by her own parents.

What made the state of California pursue the conservatorship upon Britney? Why the court-appointed lawyer didn’t help her? And, why a man like her father – an alcoholic, a failed businessman, and an abusive parent – was allowed to be her legal guardian to control everything she had? Britney’s freedom was curtailed while her earnings were siphoned to help their cash flow. Neither could she contact her kids nor was allowed access to her mobile phone. Such indignation persisted for no less than thirteen years. 

Anyone in such situation would have been pushed to a breaking point. But not Britney, who reflected the enduring power of music and singing. ‘Singing takes me to a mystical place where anything is possible’. As a teenage pop star, she was eyeballed as a pretty sex object, a double denim-wearing singer. On top, the conservatorship tenure left her with a mix of shock and sadness. She was literally exiled from herself for over a decade. Out of the inordinate ordeal, she now wants not to be someone who other people want but to actually find herself. 

The Woman in Me is an honest reflection on what others thought about the pop star, and how she was subjected to constant bullying and relentless abuse for not confirming to the template. Success has a cost that the pop star had to bear for being half herself and half fictional. Britney confesses that fame is real for those who know how to make fame work for them. For her, there was an essence of real life missing from it. Perhaps, the reason for her to be rebellious and shave her head in public in 2007 to demonstrate it. 

Written with remarkable candor and humor, Britney reveals all that she went through her momentous but disturbing career. Without doubt, she could not have been anything but a singer which helped her express herself exactly as she wanted to be seen and heard. ‘Singing took me into the presence of divine.’ Multiplatinum Grammy awards, and more than 100 million records sold worldwide bear testimony to her fledgling singing career. What comes out clear is that the world is rarely kind to successful women. 

It is hard to imagine what all a carefree popstar had to endure; for being lonely at the top. It is hard to fathom that someone who could perform for thousands at a time could backstage be gripped with panic. She has come out stronger to tell her story. ‘You have to speak that you are feeling even if it scares you.’ Freedom for Britney means being goofy and silly, being able to make mistakes, and learn from them. From being passive and pleasing, Britney has come out being a strong and confident woman. The story is indeed inspiring.

The Woman in Me conveys optimistic narrative for women to stand for what they are, or what they intend to become. What kindles a ray of hope is that women themselves have woken up to the cost of being subjugated to the opportunity of asserting their identity. 

The Woman in Me 
by Britney Spears
Simon & Schuster, London
Extent: 275, Price: Rs. 999.

First published in Deccan Herald on Feb 4, 2024.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

2023: The world in non-fiction

Even in the US (world’s richest country) one in seven persons continue to live below the poverty line which hasn’t shifted in the last five decades. Leading expert on poverty and homelessness and a Professor of Sociology at the Princeton, Mathew Desmond argues that to understand the causes of poverty the need is to look beyond the poor. More than the lack of monetary resources, poverty manifests itself as constant fear, persistent trauma, sustained instability, and social exclusion for the teeming millions. More than new policies, suggests Desmond, the rich need to put themselves back in the narrative to become poverty abolitionists, refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor to counter the of repeated adage ‘the poor you have always with you’. Poverty, by America (Allen Lane, Rs 1399) is an essential reading by a Pulitzer awarded writer.  

Emperor of Rome (Profile/Hachette, Rs. 1599) is a fascinating account of the social and political world of almost thirty Roman Emperors for 221 years – from Julius Caesar to Alexander Severus. Delving into the lives of the richest, most luxuries, most extreme, most powerful, and most deadly who ruled Rome till 235 CE, Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard not only helps in understanding ancient political culture better but opens our own eyes to the politics of the modern world too. As in the past, autocracy continues to upturn the natural order of things by replacing reality with sham, undermining our trust in what we think we see. 

Divorce has become more of a norm than exception, with any number of subjective interpretations on offer to explain this growing trend. Having gone through it, Shasvathi Siva concludes that divorce in itself is not a bad marriage. Instead, it serves a savior not only for estranged couples but their respective families too. But it leaves the couple stamped and branded, leaving behind feelings of constant ebb and flow. However, one would need to work through such feelings and come out with the head held high. Divorce Is Normal (Penguin, Rs 399) is an invaluable companion for anyone on the verge of taking a call on separation and divorce. 

Women need inspiration and resilience to overcome patriarchal tyranny and religious bigotry. Feminist Noorjahan Bose’s compelling memoir presents a story of courage and
determination in Daughter of the Agunmukha (Hurst, Rs. 2021), which reflects author’s affinity with the fiery spirit of a deltaic river in Bangladesh. Despite being abused by male relatives with persistent social inequalities, Bose worked her way through all odds to emerge a leading feminist campaigner. It is a moving account of her personal triumph to piece together shattered life that exposes regional and religious parameters of subjugated identity thrust on women. Only fiery spirit could break such a social construct. 

Oprah Winfrey has witnessed abundant happiness in her long-running television show and Harvard University Professor Arthur Brooks has researched the meaning of happiness in his distinguished academic career to brew together an emotional caffeine to turn meaningful ideas into doable experiences towards mainstreaming happiness all across. Build the Life You Want (Ebury, Rs 799) brings together the art and science of living in the present moment while disabling the entrenched human ability to rerun past events and pre-run future scenarios. It is a meditative experience on getting ready to rebuild life which is both self-serving and valuable to others. 

Aryans (Hachette, Rs. 799) is timely research on the reality of a major movement of
people into India over three millennia ago, the historical evidence of which has been conveniently appropriated by the overwhelming politico-religious ascendency despite the historical, linguistic and paleogenetic evidence. Being a part of popular imagination, the book adds possible and probable layers of complexity to the narrative. A product of a meticulous scholarship, Charles Allen concludes that the idea of a pure ‘Aryan race’ has no scientific meaning. The book makes an interesting reading, helping the reader to see how absorbing history can be.       

Horses may have reduced presence due to increased automation, but it is the horse that takes us through the rich history of India. An interesting tour de force, The Tale of the Horse (Pan MacMillan, Rs.599) is an absorbing and entertaining mix of stories and histories which reflect the lived reality of the horse across cultural, social and political landscape. From the kings and traders to grooms and bandits, the horse has been instrumental in shaping sub-continent’s cultural and political history. Yashaswini Chandra has brought to light a relatively unexplored subject that provides a fascinating perspective on the horse as a ‘sentient being’. 

Domestication of cats in India may have been a recent phenomenon but cats have
been present in our art, literature and speech for aeons. Cats are considered clever and cunning but have been showered with affection and admiration in stories, poetry and proverbs. Renowned art historian B N Goswamy has presented a delightful picture of The Indian Cat (Aleph, Rs.1299), as evident in our written and oral literatures. It is an immensely readable book with stories on cats drawn from Jataka Tales and Panchtantra which justify the reason for the feline addressed as a close relation with affection.   

First published in Deccan Herald on Jan 1, 2024. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Towards net zero emission

Over reliance on coal as a source of energy and commitment to attain net zero emission by 2070 is delivering contradicting picture.

India’s environmental crises remains unaddressed partly because the expanding middle class focuses on search for private solutions that are at a cost to the environment, and the poor. For a majority of them, diesel generators secure reliable source of energy; groundwater pumps ensure water supply; air purifiers counter air pollution, and air conditioners work against summer heat. The prevalence of these market-led private solutions reduces political pressure to act. No surprise, the institutions that govern environmental matters continue to remain weak. The fact that a growing economy with the world’s largest population has yet to square up with global per capita energy use, which when achieved will have unimaginable impact on carbon budget and consequent climate change. Should that be the likely scenario, India would be both a major contributor to and a potential victim of climate change. This the world would not desire the most populous country to stand out for. Replacing the vicious cycle with a virtuous one may not be easy though. 

India’s energy consumption pattern is no longer a domestic issue, it has implications far and wide at the global level. Its over reliance on coal as a source of energy and its commitment to attain net zero emission by 2070 deliver contradicting picture. Transition from a coal-based power sector to a renewables-based energy sector is both feasible and desirable to mitigate climate change while delivering energy security and reducing air pollution. However, regional variations in energy production and consumption are too huge to provide a clear response. Johannes Urpelainen, a Professor of Energy, Resources, and Environment at the John Hopkins School of Advanced Internation Studies, draws a comprehensive picture on country’s complicated environmental situation to assert that only by reinforcing current policies can sizeable gains be reaped by 2030. Curiously and somewhat paradoxically, India has laws but lacks order to implement them.     

India has started on a low-carbon pathway but any approach to accelerate it at the cost of economic development is off the table. In this thin volume, Urpelainen has painted the complex environmental scenario of a country that is both full of potential as well as is afflicted by greater problems. However, within it lies the scope for the country to claim leadership role in global environmental politics. For such a distinction to be achieved, the country will need to ensure that its reduced water and carbon footprints become the guiding spirit of sustainable development, with a strong equity focus.  

Energy and Environment in India is an excellent reference book, that has profound reflections to trigger fresh debate on the subject. Urpelainen wonders if there are easy answers to most entrenched social and environmental challenges. What he instead does is to present possible qualitative scenarios. The first may see India as a giant with clay feet governed by authoritarian populism, wherein disappointing economic growth and environmental destruction drives a billion people into despair. The second and most likely scenario may be that the country charts an unabated economic growth that fuels inequality but lacks much-needed investments in climate-proofing. The third scenario is utopian that strikes a balance between poverty reduction, climate adaptation, and reduction in environmental footprints of the economy. Each of the three scenarios are discussed in detail for their potentials and possibilities. What comes clear is the compelling need for the political leadership to formulate effective policies, and to resist the temptation to exempt the mighty corporations from strict environmental rules.

What makes this volume distinct is its assessment of the energy and environmental problems from within the complex social, political, and historical settings. The book convincingly argues that to produce fair, equitable, and sustainable outcomes for almost two billion argumentative Indians, the country must strive for a sustainable future through democratic norms. Rarely have democracy and environment being dealt with in the same breath.  

Energy and Environment in India
by Johannes Urpelainen
Columbia University Press, New York
Extent: 220, Price: US$ 30.

First published in The Hindu on Dec 17, 2023.