Friday, July 1, 2022

First superstar who played every role to perfection

Holding human values close to his chest, Ashok Kumar had junked Adolf Hitler's  congratulatory note on his performance in Achyut Kanya.
A quarter of a century since his last screen appearance and two decades after he died, film buffs still recall Ashok Kumar’s (1911–2001) multiple contributions to Indian cinema. Starting as a reluctant actor in 1936, his career, that spanned 64 years and 350 movies, spanned the evolution of cinema in the country. Launched opposite Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya, Kumar went on to become Hindi cinema’s first super star. Such was his popular appeal that, for seven continuous years, Roxy Cinema in Bombay showed only Ashok Kumar films.

With no school of acting to fall back upon, Kumar rehearsed before the mirror, much like Adolf Hitler did before he appeared in public. It is a sheer coincidence that Hitler sent Kumar a congratulatory message on the success of Achyut Kanya, the iconic film on untouchability. Far from drawing any promotional value from it then or later, Kumar tore and threw away the historical document. “Laurels can never be more important than principles and human values,” he said. Kumar’s eldest daughter Bharati Jaffrey mentions the incident in the preface to this reissued biography and confirms that he valued equanimity in the pursuit of excellence.

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007), author of Dadamoni, who scripted cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Parineeta and Abhimaan, has drawn a warm and intimate biography of one of Hindi cinema’s great icons. Kumar transformed the prevailing theatrical acting style to a naturalistic one, and played every role to perfection - from the young romantic to the mature hero, to an ageing character actor. The list of his remarkable performances is long and impressive – the suspected judge in Kanoon, an old man in Aashirwad, an unassuming villain in Jewel Thief, and a lecherous senior in Shaukeen. With his signature smoking style and distinct hand movements, Kumar was both smooth and natural in diverse roles.

But things could have been different. German director Franz Osten who was associated with Bombay Talkies rejected him after a screen test: “You have a square jaw; you look so young and girlish”. However, studio boss Himanshu Rai’s insistence on casting him as a hero prevented Kumar from returning to Calcutta to pursue his unfinished study of law. The rest is history. Apart from delivering a series of hit films during the 1940s and early 1950s, Kumar contributed to building Bombay Talkies. He invited the illustrious Bimal Roy, launched Dilip Kumar, initiated Dev Anand, gave a break to BR Chopra, got Sachin Dev Burman to compose music, and introduced Kishore Kumar. He also gave a platform to writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Saheed Latif, Kamal Amrohi, and the author of this volume Nabendu Ghosh himself. All these writers introduced complex social reality to cinematic storytelling.

The vibrant culture of filmmaking in the formative years of Hindi cinema comes through in this slim book on Ashok Kumar’s life. Few could have imagined that the initially reluctant actor would one day serve as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterization, voice control, timing, gestures and posture. “In acting, you have to give so much of yourself yet not be yourself,” said Kumar who worked with the virtual who’s who of Indian cinema.

An accomplished script writer, Ghosh has not allowed Ashok Kumar the actor to get the better of Ashok Kumar the person. His reservation about embracing female co-stars, his confidence in his fans as he drove with Manto through a tense Muslim neighborhood during Partition, and his real life persona as an ordinary family man are all touched upon. Ashok Kumar lives on in the minds of all those who cherish quality acting.

Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar 
by Nabendu Ghosh
Speaking Tiger, New Delhi 
Extent: 189, Price: Rs. 499.

First published in Hindustan Times on July 2, 2022.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

New words for a changing earth

There is no denying that for the situation to change, the disoriented and distressed state of being needs an urgent resolution

Hidden under the fabric of modern life is our unending quest for being with nature. Yet, nature-deficit socialization has emerged as a distress condition that afflicts us to escape from the humdrum of life into wilderness every so often. Given that a global epidemic of depression is upon us, our dream run of existence may have already reached a precipice? So it seems, if overwhelming usage of negative eco-emotional typology in recent times is any indication. Not without reason terms like biophobia, ecocide, toponesia and ecoparalysis have come to dominate our assessment of the impact of anthropocene as a fait accompli for living beings.

As climate warning and environmental disasters occur with growing intensity, the ascendency of negative emotions remain a compulsive human response which acknowledges that fear of nature is not only real but systemic too. Every human culture has its own version of battling negative emotions to stay ahead, else humans would have long been consumed by the cumulative impact of destructive emotions. While both types of emotions are necessary, we need to understand why pessimism and distress is overwhelming people the world over and how can ways be found for nurturing emotions of optimism and empathy to bring an order. There is no denying that for the situation to change, the disoriented and distressed state of being needs an urgent resolution. 

If negative emotions are allowed to expand and dominate, the fear of systemic ecosystem collapse will further distance each subsequent generation from nature and life. Unless checked, not only will environmental degradation continue to increase but each generation will accept the impoverished nature as the norm. This will only allow the anthropocene obscenities to attack the foundations of life and life processes. It is only through a hopeful vocabulary of positive emotions that the condition of environmental general amnesia can be overcome. Will new words help us capture the chronic nature of biophysical changes differently?   

It is this compelling question that environment philosopher Glenn Albrecht has sought to answer through new words that capture the feeling of psychological desolation. Borne out of his lived reality of homelessness and powerlessness in Australia’s Hunter Valley, Solastalgia was coined to capture the homesickness one feels when one is still at home. Created in 2003 by combining sōlācium (comfort) and algia (grief), the word has gained credence in academic debates and popular culture to describe a form of emotional distress caused by environmental change. While creating a word doesn’t give the experience more power, it does give power of better understanding and reflection. Albrecht deserves praise for breaking the limits of vocabulary to make a better sense of the world we live in. 

The power of Earth Emotions lies in it being imaginative and real at the same time. This deep and meticulously researched book introduces the reader to as many as a dozen new words, from soliphilia to sumbiophilia, without which the full range of our emotional responses to the rapidly transforming world may not get addressed. It was the gradual success of solastalgia that encouraged Abrecht to invent more words to direct positive emotions towards repairing human-earth relationships. Soliphilia came out as one that describes peoples’ response to biophysical desolation by political and policy action. 

By placing a form of love at the core of the new vocabulary, Albrecht has treaded on a not-so-linear path of replacing negative with positive earth emotions. Given the sheer embeddedness of the anthropocene in every aspect of life, the protective layers of positive emotions have literally been peeled away. There are no two thoughts on it, and all the more reason for rediscovering lost words for landscapes, natural objects, and natural processes to identify feelings and emotions. It is a pioneering undertaking which the author describes as neither idealist nor atavistic, however, it allows the reader to understand what it is like to avoid being tossed about in an environmental storm.

Earth Emotions is rightfully identified as a work of interdisciplinary philosophy that unites eco-crises with eco-linguistics. It is an ambitious undertaking that questions the very premise of global governance that has led us to the imminent ecological, economic, and climate collapse. Without doubt, the world needs to shift from the current human-dominated anthropocene to the human-connected symbiocene, where every element of human existence will be seamlessly integrated back into life cycles and processes. To that effect, Albrecht suggests Sumbiocracy to replace the outlived idea of democracy, as a form of government where humans govern all reciprocal relationships at all scales, from local to global. Earth Emotions remains optimistic for a future that must end in victory for the forces of creation.

Earth Emotions  
by Glenn A.Albrecht
Cornell University Press, USA 
Extent: 240, Price: US$19.95.

First published in Deccan Herald on June 5, 2022

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Flicking away all odds

The humble beginning of a committed cricketer who braved odds and inadequacies of life in attaining dizzy heights over the cricketing landscape.

Before the World Cup triumph in 1983, Indian cricket was saddled with the idea that ‘to draw a match was as good as a victory’. Every batsman occupying the crease had the solo objective of ensuring that the game was not lost. During those days, runs scored were incidental in the quest for staying longer at the crease. Gundappa Vishwanath lived in such times, ensuring that India never lost a cricket match in which he scored a century. Rare distinction for a cricketer known for the classic square cut, which made 5’2” diminutive batsman a giant in the game. In an international career spanning two decades with 91 test matches under his bat, Vishwanath had rubbed shoulders with all-time greats like Garfield Sobers, Ian Chappel, Vivian Richards and Tony Greig and had let his wristy batting do the talking against fearsome speedsters in Denis Lillee, Andy Roberts, Jeff Thomson and Joel Garner. 

Co-written with veteran sports journalist R Kaushik, Wrist Assured narrates the humble beginning of a committed cricketer who braved odds and inadequacies of life in attaining dizzy heights over the cricketing landscape. Vishwanath’s debut was momentous, his dismissal for zero in the first innings of the Green Park test against Australia in 1969 had earned the debutant the ire of the fans. Undeterred, he returned with a resolute 137 in the second innings to announce his arrival on the international circuit. The journey from zero to hero in a matter of few days became the catalyst for his smooth ride in international cricket. 

Vishwanath’s autobiography could not have been better titled – a recognition of the wristy square cut being his signature cricketing shot that helped in scoring 4,000 of his 6,080 test runs. The square cut may have fascinated viewers but it was a stroke born out of necessity. ‘A slight, thin boy with no power to speak of, used the pace of the ball to reach the boundary’. Batting for Vishwanath was more than just a power game, it was more about crafty finesse with exquisite control. ‘At that level, it is more about your mind than your skills’, asserts Vishwanath. With no bloated coaching and support infrastructure on offer, players during those days had to go by their basic instinct in making the most of the opportunity on offer. 

Wrist Assured makes for an absorbing reading, as it not only traces the cricketing journey of the little genius but offers great insights on the game itself. Much as the game might have changed in favor of its popular shorter version, it is all about honing one’s skills against the wares of the bowlers. Vishwanath has drawn extensive lessons from his batting experience on the most iconic cricketing venues in the world to conclude that one should be ready for change in thinking, attitude and mindset. In nutshell, be mindful of situations and conditions is the key message.    

In his playing days, not much was known about the making of the little genius. In Wrist Assured, it is all in the open – the tennis-ball experience in the dusty by-lanes, the magical touch on the iconic cricketing grounds around the world, the bonding with illustrious domestic and international stalwarts, and the role as an ICC referee and a national selector. Viswanath pays rich tributes to his mentor Tiger Pataudi. When Pataudi learnt that Vishwanath did not go to the gym, he gave him a tip ‘I’m sure you must have buckets at home? Fill up two buckets with water and lift one with each hand 20 times in a row. Do this three to four times a day, regularly.’ Lifting buckets strengthened his forearm and wrist, and the rest as they is history. 

It is a delight to read the sincere and honest reflections of a living legend. Credit to Kaushik for letting the feelings and emotions of the wristy genius get rich expressions that are laced with amusing anecdotes and innocent playfulness. That they didn’t slide on the ground to stop the ball during those days had more to do with their daily allowance and less for the risk of throwing oneself around. ‘With daily allowance of two pound sterling, a dive translated to a green patch on the trousers, and a spell in the washing machine. That also meant going without one, sometimes two meals’. This and much more, Wrist Assured is a sheer joy to read. 

If you’re a fan of the wristy genius, you must read the book. If you love the game of cricket, you better not avoid reading it. And, if you are neither of the two, you must read to learn how sincere efforts and honest commitment makes legends out of the ordinary. 

Wrist Assured: An Autobiography
by Gundappa Vishwanath with R Kaushik
Rupa, New Delhi 
Extent: 267, Price: Rs.595.

First published in Deccan Herald on May 22, 2022.

This is my third attempt at reviewing a book twice. And, I enjoy testing my abilities. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

One too many for the wrist

India never lost a cricket Test match in which Vishwanath had scored a century.

Four decades after he put away his bat, Gundappa Vishwanath goes down memory lane to relive and revive all that went into making him a wristy genius of the world cricket. What comes out is an absorbing Wrist Assured, a biography that is as smooth as the square cut that had mesmerized a generation of cricket lovers. Following on his first-innings zero with a resolute 137 in the second innings on his debut against Australia at the Green Park at Kanpur in 1969, Vishwanath had touched the lowest of depths and experienced the highest of peaks in his first outing in international test cricket. Those four days of anxiety and ecstasy had proved path-charting for the little genius, whose classic square cut had helped him notch majority of his 6,080 runs scored in 91 Test matches played for the country.  

One might wonder if these statistics by a five-feet-two yesteryear cricketer significant enough to warrant attention? Among many, there are two stellar reasons for him to be counted amidst all time great cricketers. In an era when a draw was considered as good as a victory, India never lost a cricket Test match in which Vishwanath had scored a century. And, one of his 14 Test centuries had contributed to then highest successful second-innings chase in cricket history against mighty West Indies at the Port of Spain in 1976. All this contributed to subtle change in mindset: the Indian cricket team was no longer talking about not losing but had actually started discussing winning. Vishwanath’s wristy square cut had contributed significantly to this strategic shift. By the time he retired in 1982, India had become a cricketing force to reckon with.    

Co-written with veteran sports journalist R Kaushik, Wrist Assured takes the reader on a nostalgic journey to the formative years of Indian cricket that contributed to the making of the little genius as one of the most adored and respected cricketer. For better part of his 13 years in Test cricket, Vishwanath was second only to Sunil Gavaskar in importance for the team. Many of his knocks had no parallel - such as the 97 he made out of India’s 190 against West Indies at Madras in 1975, the 114 out of the team’s 237 at Melbourne against Australia in 1981, the unbeaten 112 against West Indies in Port of Spain in 1976. These scores earned India precious wins, but many of his 35 half-centuries were game-saving scores no less. 

Vishwanath was an instinctive player, mindful of situations and conditions to unleash his natural talent. ‘What is the point of playing, if you are not better today than you were yesterday?’ A dreaded zero on his debut became a life’s lesson in cricket, reason enough for Vishwanath to play with such caution that he had only 10 zeroes in 155 Test innings. There is no shame for a batsman in getting zero, provided one knows why you got it and how to avoid its recurrence. Wrist Assured is a brutally honest self-assessment of his cricketing career and an appreciative inquiry on the contribution by contemporary cricketers in the making of the little genius. 

The wristy square cut may have fascinated viewers across the world but it was a stroke born out of necessity. How else would have a little thin boy made the ball to reach the boundary? Earlier in his career, Vishwanath had realized that by using the pace of the ball the square cut had the greater potential to cross the boundary than any other stroke. Over the years, such was the technical finesse to his signature stroke that opponent captains would station extra fielders to check the stroke. Ideal for his back-footed horizontal-blade square cuts, Vishwanath always used a light weight super-short handle bat for executing the square cut and the hook. How he developed the steely wrists to execute a perfect square cut is interesting to read.

Vishwanath must have maintained a meticulous journal on his cricketing escapades for co-writer Kaushik to generate perfect linguistic expressions to his feelings and reflections. Wrist Assured takes the reader back in time to those cricketing years when ball-by-ball commentary was the only means for cricket lovers to create visuals of the playing arena. Vishwanath helps the reader relive those momentous innings through his eyes, nothing more exquisite than the batsman sharing the twists and travails of facing some of the fastest bowlers in the game. To hold onto one’s nerves at the sight of blood on the pitch demands courage to back oneself up amidst the entire opposing team gunning for your wicket. 

In his post-cricketing years, Vishwanath chaired the national selection committee, was appointed an ICC match referee, and offered expert advice as a television commentator. In his multi-faceted roles in the world of cricket, Vishwanath comes out as a modest and self-effacing person. ‘Cricket’s life lessons have made me the person I am’, he concludes. 

Wrist Assured: An Autobiography
by Gundappa Vishwanath with R Kaushik 
Rupa, New Delhi. 
Extent: 267. Price: Rs, 595.

First published in the Hindustan Times on May 14, 2022. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Symphony of rhythm and melody

There is declining audience patience, and heightened degeneration in aesthetic sense of poetry, diction and music.

A heady combination of unique synergy and unmatched individual brilliance made the music composed by the incredible duo of Laxmikant and Pyarelal resonate beyond their active life as film musicians. Nicknamed LP, they became the L-ongest P-laying uncrowned monarchs of film music, composing 2,900 songs for 750 films in a career spanning three decades until 1993. Entertainment journalist Rajiv Vijayakar has drawn their biographical sketches, their eventful coming together, and their journey of unmatched popularity in Music by Laxmikant Pyarelal. LP indeed created a popular symphony with a classic touch.  

With an extraordinary mix of lyrics, melody and rhythm, LP created larger than life music. Such was their musical appeal that people in theatres would express their appreciation by throwing coins at the screen. Dafliwale dafli baja composition from film Sargam was so popular for its musical score and cinematic rendition that an unbelievable one crore rupees in coins were collected from movie halls in 1979. It was their bond of friendship, and the understanding of music that was nothing short of miraculous in delivering an incredible saga of unequalled success.  

In their formative years, both have had the opportunity of assisting legendary film musicians like C Ramachandra, Shankar-Jaikishan and Kalyanji-Anandji. However, to survive in a highly competitive world of film music, the duo continued experimenting with both musical notes and singers to create a distinct niche both among producers and listeners. What clicked for them was their mastering the art of being slaves to a cinematic situation, and the screen characters. Such has been their oeuvre that soundtrack after soundtrack are worth keeping for posterity. 

In such times when there is declining audience patience, and heightened degeneration in aesthetic sense of poetry, diction and music, encapsulating the life and music of past masters is a tribute to their virtuosity and versatility. Seemingly in awe of LP, Vijayakar has brought to light the extraordinary caliber of the duo in enriching listener’s life with musical and lyrical content. Each musical creation holds a story in itself, which is what makes the book interesting and engaging. That they flew to London in mid-1960’s to get a feel of the city for composing Nazar Na Lag Jaye for the film Night in London is one among several interesting stories captured in the book.    

If the number of chartbusting melodies were any indication, LP were musically cut above the illustrious luminaries of their time. However, in no way should it be inferred that stalwarts including Shankar-Jaikishan, S D Burman, O P Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Usha Khanna, Rajesh Roshan and R D Burman were less innovative? In effect, the duo did admit that they not only learnt music from them but also what not to do as musicians. This had helped LP in contributing their share of music to the combined contribution of others in making 1960s through 90’s the glorious period of film music. Indeed, that remains a period of musical splendor.  

Music by Laxmikant Pyarelal offers glowing tributes to the incredible duo, with contributions from singers, lyricists, actors, filmmakers and musicians. While Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar were their favorites, in all some 105 male and 72 male voices got their career breakthroughs as singers at the recording studios of Laxmikant Pyarelal. They had earned deepest admiration by all those who worked with them. LP music was as concerned with virtuosity, as aware of feelings and stories. Their musical discoveries underpin the creation and comprehension of music that were unknown to many others.    

Vijayakar captures everything a music lover would like to know about the incredible Laxmikant Pyarelal., their incomparable musical range of unmatched quality. However, a separate section on how some of the chartbusters were composed would have added value to their genius. Given that we have only two eardrums and two ears, how indeed many appealing sounds get created remains intriguing. Laxmikant has long departed by Pyarelal is still devoted to music. Being the only Indian composer to have a symphony ‘Om Shivam in A-Minor’ registered in his name, Pyarelal has ensured that their musical legacy lives on.

Music by Laxmikant Pyarelal 
by Rajiv Vijayakar
Rupa, New Delhi 
Extent: 312, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in the Hindustan Times on April 28, 2022.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Unmaking of a water crises

Not much seems to have been learnt,  partly because resolution to the crises rests on the very premise that drove it to the present predicament.

India’s water crises is worse than what it may seem. In effect, it is worsening by the day, each season, and year on year. Post independence, per capita water availability has declined from a high of 4,000 cubic meter in 1947 to an abysmal low of 1,486 cubic meter in 2021. It is an alarming trend, given the accepted global norm being 3,000 cubic meter. Given the country’s annual water endowment of 4 billion cubic meter, the picture one gets to see is that of scarcity amidst plenty.

Statistics reveal only a part of the daily ordeal a sizeable population in the country has to go through, both in urban and rural centres. As household water connections have remained an exercise in numbers, as per capita daily allocation of 135 litres for urban and 55 litres for rural areas is good only on paper but not on the ground. The gap between water haves and have not has only widened. No surprise, therefore, that increasing demand, asymmetric distribution and contaminated supplies have left a large growing population vulnerable to water stress, social conflicts, and medical conditions. Over the decades, programs and projects have delivered promises but not enough water. As a consequence, a country with strong cultural and spiritual connection with water is water stressed.

The solution to the crises may seem obvious, yet it has remained somewhat elusive for the well-entrenched water bureaucracy both at the federal and the state level. As the total precipitation is received during few monsoon months in a year, tapping rainfall into surface storage structures for use during lean season remains a workable solution. Before being subsumed under the urban sprawl, the traditional water tanks peppered across the country had stood us in good nick to even out seasonal and geographical variation in rainfall. Large dams were supposed to have performed better as a replacement, but cumulative storage capacity of these structures has remained below par. As a result, India’s per person surface water storage is an abysmal 150 cubic metre – 10 times less than the global average of 1,500 cubic meter. In comparison, China stores thrice as much while the US stocks ten times more than India. As a consequence, multi-locational hydro-anarchy has been more of a norm than exception as the country inches closer to an abyss. 

Water bureaucracy ought to take the blame for deepening the hydro-logical fault lines created by the British. No wonder, the present water management persists on capital-intensive big engineering structures that cause modifications of the landscape upon which traditional wisdom of eco-region specific water conservation techniques and judicious water use was practiced for centuries. Far from appreciating the hydro-logical diversity and reviving the traditional systems, the water institutions have sought to spread scarce resource across land and across time. Not much seems to have been learnt,  partly because resolution to the crises rests on the very premise that drove it to the present predicament. Thus, the story of water has continued to evolve as an expanding sedentary society negotiates a world of moving water.  

This and much more, Watershed provides a comprehensive assessment of country’s unfolding water crises. With climate change impact getting pronounced, the extremes of drought and floods is bound to expand water insecurity. Amidst the scary scenario, however, the book highlights community initiatives on water conservation that need integration with the beleaguered mainstream water systems, and their possible up-scaling. Making the water sector resilient to externalities of challenges is the running theme across the book as it traverse 4,000 years of country’s water history. It is readable primer on the rich, complex and diverse waterscape that nudges the reader to learn from the past in carving out a water secure future. 

In proposing a checklist of actions, however, the author misses out on the fact that the society has long delegated all decisions on managing water to the water bureaucracy, who gets to decide what happens in everyone’s home. The fundamental question about water is related to power, and only by developing a new social contract with the communities can the water bureaucracy unfold a hybrid water management where power on water is shared for promoting location-specific community-driven initiatives. With water crises on the verge of breaking through the thin walls of political institutions, forging a power-sharing alliance with the communities can usher a new era in water management. Else, individual and community action towards conserving water will remain at the periphery with the political institutions pursuing business-as-usual. Institutional reforms in the water sector can be the first step towards saving the country’s water.     

Watershed: How we destroyed India’s water and how we can save it. 
by Mridula Ramesh 
Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 415, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in the Hindustan Times on April 23, 2022.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Light from a dark place

'We are in a perpetual quest to find our voice and the courage to express what we really feel.'

Astute yet sensitive, written with elegant style and delicious verve,  the collection of stories by Wajida Tabassum are seductively glorious. Expressing herself within a dominant culture; being a woman in a male-dominated society; and staying independent within a tight-knitted family, the stories alone carried her out of a murky hole to a meadow. Breaking free from impoverished and forbidden life, she weaved prose that allowed hushed sadness and repressed emotions to navigate the world without fear. Credit to her ingenuity that didn’t allow social intimidation to get the better of her creative instincts. 

Translated into English for the first time by Pakistani journalist Reema Abbasi, the stellar collection of nineteen short stories set in the old-world aristocratic society capture the entire range of the realities of middle-class compulsions and depravities indulged in by the social elite. Arranged under four sections – Lust, Pride, Greed and Envy – all that is a sin to others ends up as triumph for the protagonist. Holding on to the force of its original rendition, Abbasi has translated the stories with flair and finesse to connect with the dilemmas that continue to confront women in modern times. ‘We are in a perpetual quest to find our voice and the courage to express what we really feel’. Wajida sets her women free to chase their freedom with a stubborn passion. 

Asserting that Sin, like people, has many shades and facets, Wajida had hoped that the stories will be read and remembered as works of literature. Erotic with symbolic details, the women in her stories refuse to be puppets. Bearing subtle resemblance to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, the Begum revolts against her husbands’s drunken sexual escapades in Hor Uper (Up, Further Up) by appointing a young boy to massage her. Replacing her gharara, a garment stitched between the thighs, with a long skirt called lehenga acts as a symbol of revolt. In Lungi Kurta, another tale wrapped around garments, a new bride exchanges clothes to take revenge on her husband’s betrayal. The stories make a smart, powerful, and very contemporary read that touches on the struggles shaping the very world women live in today.

In her lush and vivid prose, Wajida lets her women shed any threat of censure by the society to take full ownership of their bodies. In doing so, she lets the reader confront the entrenched assumption that women lack courage to radically liberate themselves. Through her own story Meri Kahani, Wajida surprises reader with her rebellious fearlessness while being part of a conservative, demanding household. The consummate erudition is matched only by her creativity, and startling capacity for unfolding emotional layers. She wins deepest admiration for it, while her vulnerability remains heart-breaking at the same time. 

Reema Abbasi
Each of the stories in this anthology capture the power of the subliminal with nuanced precision.  Power play, betrayal, impotence and abandonment run through most of the stories, providing backdrop for the downfall of the nobility. Zaakat (The Alms of Death) and Joothan (Leftovers)  reflect nobility of middle-aged Nawab Jung in poor light, getting a lesson on charity from the poor adolescent girls in the first and an eye-opening message on who survives on whose leftovers in the second story. Considered a jewel of Urdu literature, Wajida demands to be read. 

Told in sharp and evocative style, stories in Sin examine the nature of domestic relationships, self-determination, and what it means to be a person. An entrancing page-turner, the stories have just enough to trigger the ultimate implosion. With notable exceptions, Wajida was a woman who did not so much express opinions or emotions, but interrogated both. Reading her for the first time, I can safely say that she was a woman who mattered, very much. Such is the power of her prose that you can’t get her out of your head. 

One of the foremost women writers of her time, Wajida was known for her formidable power of storytelling. First published in the middle of the last century, her bold writing was seen as immoral and scandalous and faced many a public protect. In the league of Chugtai and Manto, Wajida is wonderful at understated sadness presented without a twinge of self-pity. Her stories reflect a tender and enduring portrayal of the difficulties of forging one’s own path after being born and raised in a conservative society. ‘My stories will journey out of their walls when the time is right for me to navigate without fear,’ she would say.

Wajida was not just another writer, prone to the petty delusions but genuinely interested in drilling down into the hardpan of human existence. She didn’t look for approval, and refused to be bullied by what everyone was saying or what everyone believed. She abhorred the kind of thought that forecloses thought. Less said, one may commit sin by not reading Sin.

Sin by Wajida Tabassum, 
translated by Reema Abbasi
Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 220, Price: Rs. 499.   

First published in Deccan Herald on April 17, 2022

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Man behind the greatest showman

Visual narration was his strength, through which he connected with the audience and left an indelible mark.

Measuring up to that sobriquet, Raj Kapoor stayed ahead of his times as the greatest showman who celebrated the making of purposeful cinema with aplomb. Allowing creative imagination to stay in the lead, his storytelling had an un-compromising flourish that risked everything at the cost of saying something important. His defining film Mera Naam Joker, the story of a clown who makes other laughs hiding his own sorrows, did not connect well with the audience but attained the status of a classic nonetheless. For a creative genius, the product held value over profit: ‘I agree that there should be some kind of economics but, for a true filmmaker, the heart has to reign supreme.’

In his four decades of an intensely engaging career, both as an actor and a filmmaker, Raj Kapoor  could carve a distinct niche for his creative pursuits in holding a mirror to the society. From his directorial debut in Aag in 1948 to an unfinished Henna in 1991, he dealt with human emotions, demolished social taboos, and exposed the duality of society. Visual narration was his strength, through which he connected with the audience and left an indelible mark. In the illustrious company of the tragedy king Dilip Kumar and the eternal romantic Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor stood out for his creative versatility to complete the Hindi cinema’s iconic trinity. 

In paying rich tributes to his mentor, Rahul Rawail reveals the eccentricity of the person behind the colossus. The Chaplinesque character on screen had a complimentary off-screen side to him, which was crazy, weird, affable, and amusing. Put together, it seemingly helped the actor and the director in him to have hugely appealing distinct identities. Need it be said that the dual identities epitomized a brand of film making that was unique to Raj Kapoor, guiding him to pick subjects which few had the courage to – Awara, Jaagte Raho, Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai, Mera Naam Joker are few among many of his films that bear testimony to the sheer spectacle of content, form, technique and magnitude on celluloid.  

Raj and Dimple on the sets of 'Bobby'.
Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work is a racy memorabilia of the time spent assisting and learning from the maverick filmmaker. Drawing on valuable moments from an enviable association, Rawail shares memorable nuggets on the art and science of film-making that had made Kapoor attain dizzy heights in the world of cinema. Passionate as he was, considering himself ‘non-existent if cinema did not exist’, Kapoor had an incredible eye for details with an uncanny grasp on musical opportunity to create everlasting visual impact. No wonder, his musical flair remains a bench mark that continues to inspire and feature in songs composed till date.

Rawail recounts the making of the song Aa ab laut chalen in the film Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, which engaged 60 chorus artists and 120 musical instruments to match the onscreen grandeur of the situation. Since no recording studio in 1950’s could accommodate a large ensemble, the song was recorded in the open just past midnight. Kapoor’s obsession with music was overwhelming, and his knowledge of film-making was extensive. It was only through an innate knowledge of all aspects of film making – camera handling, the lighting, shot arrangement, scene sequencing and editing – that his films could be larger than life. 

Predominantly told through his association during the making of two iconic films - Mera Naam Joker and Bobby – Rawail reconstructs the aura of the greatest showman by pulling relevant anecdotes from the past that he had learnt from the master himself, and his close associates. Written with warmth and clarity, Raj Kapoor: The Master at Work makes for a delightful reading about the enigma who lived and breathed cinema. The book reveals that when it came to cinema, there was nothing that Raj Kapoor could not do. 

Raj Kapoor’s legacy lives on across many countries, a reflection on the filmmaker who was more than  the sum of his whimsical and creative facets. Himself an accomplished filmmaker, Rawail signs off his thoughtful memoir with a moving chapter on Kapoor’s untimely demise. ‘The flames engulfed the mortal remains of the Master and, as the fire rose, it heralded the birth of the immortal Raj Kapoor.’

Raj Kapoor: The Master At Work  
by Rahul Rawail
Bloomsbury, New Delhi 
Extent: 245, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in the Hindustan Times on April 13, 2022. 

Monday, April 4, 2022

History written on water

Embedded in its contested basin are the seeds of a probable 'world war on water'.

If one doesn’t understand the past, misinterpretation of the present is unavoidable. Apt in the context of river Nile that courses 6,800 kilometres across 11 countries, historical knowledge becomes critical to fathom the hydro-political transformation the region is currently going through. From Herodotus to Flaubert and from Alexander to Napolean, the waterscape that cuts across the sprawling desert under a cloudless sky and a scorching sun was as much an inexplicable wonder as an ideal subject of divine benevolence. However, it was only during the nineteenth century that the Nile’s geography was systematically mapped. 

Having established himself as an acknowledged water historian, Terje Tvedt has condensed 7,000 years history of one of the greatest rivers in an immensely readable volume that is insightful, engaging and reflective. The Nile is a historical travelogue that begins in Egypt, at the mouth of the great river, and moves upstream along its banks tracing the source of its twin streams - the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian highlands and the While Nile from Lake Victoria - before the two merge at Al Mogran in Sudanese capital Khartoum. The author submits that it is only ‘by following the river up from place to place, as slowly and systematically as the river’s own heartbeat, that its secrets can be uncovered and its role and significance for society’s development can be understood’. The Nile emerges as a wellspring of knowledge, the history of human evolution and development in the region through its flowing waters.  

Written in a non-fiction story telling style, the narrative has been built on the characters and the events in history - from Caesar to Cleopatra, to Churchill and Mussolini, and to Abiy Ahmed and Donald Trump – who all sought the control and use of the Nile. In the course of its chequered history, the river has remained a perpetual object of political intrigues and power struggles. The colonial march of subjugation of the natives upstream of the river contributed to shifting the goalpost of contention along the river - from the Aswan Dam in Egypt to the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. Over the years, each country sharing the river course has sought to emulate the Egypt’s model of development at an ecological cost to its free-flowing waters. Embedded in its contested basin are seeds of a probable 'world war on water'. It is for the geopolitical developments in the region to allow the river to ‘let live’ and  avoid such dreadful future.       

The Nile makes for a fascinating read. It is a travelogue enriched with ancient and colonial history that has transformed the region in which most governments in the river basin have drawn plans to control, tame and harness the river. One wonders if the finite natural resource can satisfy everybody’s needs at any time? Tvedt, a professor of geography at the University of Bergen, is an unrivaled communicator who has kept the interests of a wider readership in mind while unfolding the biography of a river which is lifeline for over half a billion people. Through the story of the Nile, the author opens a window to the historically, socially and politically diverse countries of the region -  Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, Eriteria and Ethiopia. Without getting hold on the history of the region, understanding its present predicaments may remain elusive.

The contribution of the Nile to origin and growth of civilization is unparalleled, it nourished the earliest humans who wandered out of Africa and peopled the earth. No one would disagree that the river has played a crucial role in the histories of the countries through which it flows, even if its importance is somewhat exaggerated in determining the political outcomes. Presenting a multidimensional and pluralistic perspective on the historical water course, Tvedt wonders if competing interests of member countries will cause hydrological anarchy or the impending threats propel the governments to collaborate for the Nile hydro-solidarity? 

The Nile is an ambitious undertaking, vast in scope and expanse. It is a welcome addition to growing literature on the Nile, and is highly recommended for all those interested in how rivers shape history, politics and culture. It is a magnificent work which could easily become a classic.    

The Nile: History’s Greatest River
by Terje Tvedt 
I B Tauris, London 
Extent: 380, Price:  £ 30.

First published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReview, July 2022

Saturday, March 19, 2022

History without romance is sterile

The history of romance for silk has never waned since it was first discovered some 3,000 years ago in China. The most closely guarded state secret has paid rich dividends for China which presently accounts for 74 per cent of the world’s total production of raw silk, and controls 90 per cent of the world’s silk market. Such is the fascination for the chequered history of trade in silk that the present Chinese government has decided to revive the historic Silk Road – through the controversial Belt and Road initiative.  Ever since the first century scholar Claudius Ptolemy wrote about it, the earliest highway in the world has continued to fascinate historians.  

Considered by historians as the quintessential example of ancient globalization connecting the great empires of China and Rome, the old Silk Road influenced social and economic assimilation of cultures across Europe, Asia and beyond. Trading in silk, jade, spices, horses and slaves, the caravans trundling along this road discovered each other and the encounter between them changed the course of human history. It is for this reason that the history of the Silk Road assumes significance in questioning  the Western bias on the role of  the older civilizations in shaping the world. There is much to counter such assumptions. 

In the quest to resolve the 2,000-year-old riddle about the Stone Tower that Ptolemy had written about - the midpoint in the route linking Asia and Europe that was the most important landmark for travelers on the silk route - Dean retraced the Silk Road from Istanbul to Xi’an, and sifted through earlier descriptions in geographical search. The mid point remains important pivot on the Silk Road  because locating the elusive site would help capture the wider historical context for future excavations towards understanding the history of civilizations that existed along the route.

The Stone Tower is as much a book on ancient history and political intrigue, as much on geography and cartography, taking the challenge to mark the spot among a dozen mentions of a Stone Tower in Ptolemy’s a monumental atlas of the ancient world, Geographia. Though his vague description about the tower even misled Christopher Columbus, the clue that it was on top of a revered mountain did serve a crucial purpose. Narrowing his search down to four chioces, Dean examined the diverse functional requirements of the passing caravans in making a case for Sulaiman-Too  at 1,175 metres above sea level as the location of the tower, a clearly identifiable and permanent landmark close to the Chinese border. How the author finally arrives at the elusive site of the tower makes The Stone Tower a fascinating read.    

The origin and history of The Silk Road comes to life through three carefully crafted chapters, from the birth of the Silk Road to the historical events on its ascendency and control, leading to the establishment of the tower as the pivot that connected social, cultural, political, and geographical dots along the silk road. Backed by meticulous research, the erudite narrative on  the Silk Road presents the region as the progenitor of important inventions that powered then world economy. With China still leading the world in modern technology, and India with its philosophical riches, the history seems to be on the verge of repeating itself.

The Stone Tower covers almost 300 years of ancient history, from 140 BC when a Chinese palace guard had volunteered to travel west for his emperor to AD 140 when Ptolemy had probably completed his monumental Geograhia. It is that part of our shared history that augers well to redefine and realign the present. Dean succeeds in bringing to life 300 years of the bygone era, providing a wider perspective on our shared history. The book makes engaging reading in parts, as some sections will appeal more to history buffs. All said, the search for elusive Stone Tower makes a significant contribution to the literature on the Silk Road, offering a fascinating tale of archaeology and exploration. It is the romance for silk that brings the bygone era to life!

The Stone Tower
by Riaz Dean 
Penguin Viking, New Delhi 
Extent: 223, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Deccan Herald on March 20, 2022.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The palm oil’s curse on life and the environment

The story of palm oil is the story of colonialism, armed gangsters, murderous executive, and corrupt politicians.

There are moments in life when doubts on closely held beliefs begin to surface, as truth gets distilled out of social delusion. It eventually guides us to hold our  assumptions to a deeper scrutiny. That is what award-winning journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has succeeded  through her groundbreaking research, compelling the reader to examine the connections between the choices we make at the grocery store that keeps the  planet under siege. That palm oil’s overwhelming presence in soap and lipstick to baby formula and dog feed is the cause for persistence of poverty and hunger in other parts of world would unsettle any sane mind.

Having insinuated itself into every facet of our lives over the past few decades, palm oil alone counts for one-third of total global vegetable-oil consumption. With annual purchase of 9.2 million metric tones in 2019, India is the world’s number-one palm oil importer. Far from being a boon to the world economy, the multi-billion dollar palm oil business has been a bane instead. Our growing appetite has worsened the situation - more forests are cleared for new plantations, forcible evictions have escalated human sufferings; and enhanced carbon emissions remain the resultant outcome. Despite its long term health and environmental implications, the worrisome aspect is how a lesser-known oil suddenly became an indispensable consumer product? Did consumers really demand it, or had it somehow been the other way round?

Zuckerman unearths palm oil troubled colonial legacy to draw a parallel with its current fetishism, promoted by ruthless industrialization of our modern food systems. With multiple uses and an economic life of a quarter century, palm oil productive potential could not escape the attention of maverick George Goldie, credited for securing Nigeria for the Crown, and quirky businessman William Lever, for establishing oil-palm plantations in Congo, whose disturbing ways of the 19th century continue to loom large over the palm oil industry today. The story of palm oil is the story of colonialism, which is sinister in its present-day design involving armed gangsters, murderous executive, and corrupt politicians.  

Planet Palm is not only a disturbing expose on contemporary ills associated with the palm oil trade but holds unsuspecting consumers complicit in the corporate monopolisation of $65 billion global business. Trade liberalisation has contributed to this inconspicuous consumption, easing crossborder peddling of ultra-processed junk foods by multinational companies. ‘Part of the problem, ‘ explains Zuckerman, ‘is the sort of nutrient-deficient, heavily processed junk that all of this cheap oil enables’. And land planted with oil palm across the developing world, an estimated 104,000 square miles, is land which is diverted from growing healthy foods. Having traveled across four continents, from Indonesia to Honduras and from Liberia to India, the author is unsparing in her revelations, providing disturbing evidences on the world’s most environmentally damaging product – something most of us unknowingly use every day. 

It is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism that will make the discerning reader rush to look differently at the items stacked in its kitchen and bathroom. The collective power of consumer choices  is critical to turning things around as incidences of violence against those opposing the industry has grown – half of 212 eco-defenders reported killed in 2019 were opposing palm oil interests. Such intimately linked are national economies (those of Malaysia and Indonesia) to the palm oil industry that even the governments remain obliged to defend the commodity. What could be more shocking than the fact that France was diplomatically forced to drop plans for a tax on palm oil in 2016, as Indonesian government had made it clear that passage of the law might result in the execution of a French citizen then being held in Jakarta on drug-trafficking charges. Palm oil business is reviving the colonial-era historical horrors. 

Engaging, intriguing and disturbing, Zuckerman provides compelling account of the darkest underside of late-stage capitalism. While there is no denying that our food systems need overhauling, equally important for the consumers is to raise their voices to demand more transparency from the industry. Zuckerman leaves the reader with an optimist note to wean ourselves away from palm oil by using synthetic versions of the oil and convincing companies to adopt no-deforestation policies in their production codes.

Planet Palm is a riveting account blending history, science, politics, and food as seen through the lives of people upended by this hidden ingredient. Instructive and provocative, Planet Palm makes an essential reading for everyone who wonders if our food choices matter. 

Planet Palm 
by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
Hurst & Co, London 
Extent: 335, Price: Rs. 1,606.

First published in the Hindu on Feb 27, 2022.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Humans have gone nuts ever since

A sharp critique of modernity that questions the configured western discourse that highlights the virtues of the economic systems without addressing its structural inequities.

Amitav Ghosh seems to suggest that perils of the present-day climate crises have been in the making for at least four hundred years, as he finds the seeds of climatic chaos in the massacre of the hapless Banda islanders by the soldiers of the Dutch East India Company in 1621. The subsequent seizure of the world’s entire supply of once-lucrative nutmeg set in motion the colonial expantionist project of terraforming, which subjected natives to forms of violence that included biological and ecological disruptions, to suit the lifestyles across another continent. Human history of exploitation has continued to repeat itself, setting in motion the non-human forces to challenge existence of all living forms. 

Such genocidal events have haunting continuity ever since, with the native inhabitants invariably being the intended victims caught in the crossfire of resource appropriation across the globe. Seen as instruments of a higher purpose, the genocide and ecocide continues to gain an inevitable justification in the guise of modernity. The injustices it inflicts are so self-evident and quotidian that they often lose their capacity to enrage. The Nutmeg’s Curse is a powerful polemic reminder on all that has gone wrong, and which remains uncorrected both in letter and spirit. 

In putting forth the argument that the colonial exploitation and global warming are bedfellows, Ghosh connects several historical dots to suggest that under the neoliberal guise the four centuries of terraforming has been universally accepted by global elites. It forms the very basis of present-day capitalism, reflected in 1 per cent owning 99 per cent global resources. Little gets realized, however, that modern economics is insidiously built on the foundations of colonialism, genocide and structure of organized violence. And economics decides how the world gets looked upon.  

Told through parables, the author insists that without factoring history, politics and culture into the narrative the patterns of omnicide may remain partly clear. On a broad canvas, startling facts reveal the true nature of events that, through processes of indoctrination, have led to the shaping of thought that advocates an idea of civilization characterized by the conversion of land into property and the use of mechanical devices to master nature. Ghosh raises serious questions on the overlapping of dominant thought and the credentialized literature that legitimizes it . 

The Nutmeg’s Curse helps the reader deep dive into the historical processes which counted the native as ‘brute’ but on the sly promote ‘brutal’ practices to sustain global hierarchies of power. The ‘military-industrial complex’ has come to symbolize this brutal power, acting like a protective outer shell that allows capitalism to function. This being so, the enormous quantities of military-related emissions do not feature in global climate negotiations. Further, the expansion of military in China, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey is not seen as an ecologically destructive endeavor, because geopolitical struggle for dominance continues to feature high on the agenda. 

As public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of political maneuvering and overt activism - under the constant gaze of the military-industrial complex – there is an urgent need to question the hubris of motivated reasoning favoring geopolitical dominance. The Nutmeg’s Curse offers a sharp critic of modernity, questioning the configured western discourse that highlights the virtues of the economic systems without addressing its structural inequities. It is here that parables play a role, giving voice to the stories that alone will bring back life to all beings. As the prospect of planetary catastrophe comes closer, the urgency of restoring nonhuman voices to the narrative can not be more compelling. 

Whilst this is an excellent read for those interested in a more detailed history of climate change, the narrative misses on lucid continuity to deliver its core message. Though there is much to comprehend from this ambitious undertaking that meanders through historical events, startling facts, political hoodwinking, and climate economics heading towards an uncertain future. Yet, even an accomplished writer like Ghosh finds non-fiction story-telling a challenging proposition. However, his enduring choice to save the world should inspire kindness and appreciation. 

Despite the narrative veering tangentially, it is undoubtedly a refreshing addition to the otherwise repetitive literature on climate change which continues to seek technological solutions to the planetary crises. Whatever be the approach to circumvent the looming crises, Ghosh leaves the reader with a cautionary note to scrutinize every proposed action because we are now in an era when intersections of technology and politics can destabilize and pervert even the most deeply rooted conceptions of the natural systems. And there could be no better example of this than contemporary India. 

The Nutmeg’s Curse 
by Amitav Ghosh
Penguin RandomHouse, New Delhi 
Extent: 339, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Outlook on Feb 26, 2022.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Slash, poison and burn

The story of cancer is a story about treatment and mutation, hope and despair, life and death

Five decades since an all-time classic Anand hit the screen, cancer 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.  

The First Cell by Azra Raza
Harper Collins, New Delhi
353 pages, Rs 599.
The subject matter is pretty grim, as Rebel Cell unravels the evolutionary inevitability and The First Cell its discontented treatment in highlighting our brutal stalemate with the Big C. Cancer has come to rule over the host with despotic autocracy, and the fatal aspect is that a patient with cancer is as likely to die of it today as one was fifty years ago. Unlike other human ailments, when it comes to cancer we are literally in relationship with death. ‘We get cancer because we can't avoid it’, writes award-winning science journalist Kat Arney, ‘because there is bug in the system of life itself’. Noted oncologist Azra Raza is in agreement that cancer isn’t anybody’s fault, it exists because multi-cellularity exists. Cancer cell is not a foreign invader but a double agent, hardwired into the fundamental processes of life to outsmart our existence. Literally, it is one cell that wants to live longer than the entire human body. Why is it, and how to change it? 

There are no easy answers. But these two books ask the same question that you’re asking, hopefully, that we’re all asking. But that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? However, the authors manage to pack in an awful lot: there’s a heart-wrenching portrayal of the loss of the loved ones, exquisitely detailed descriptions of failed prescriptions, and gloomy narratives on excruciating side effects that leave the cancer patients dangling between life and death. The story of cancer is a story about treatment and mutation, hope and despair, life and death. With cancer too often evolving its way out of trouble, Arney argues that everything we know about cancer may be wrong. Having lost her husband to cancer, Raza laments the pharma industry dogged insistence on slash, poison, and burn (surgery, chemo, and radiation therapies) as the magic strategies.   

Rebel Cell offers insights on a new way of thinking about what cancer really is, where it came from, where it's heading, and how we can stop it. Though mortality is ever-present, this is a book that investigates life in its messy glory. The First Cell takes a step further, by exploring cancer from medical, scientific, and cultural lens. Told through the disoriented lives of those whom the treatment failed, the book questions the unshakable hubris of modern science claim to curing as complex a disease as cancer. The cancer landscape is much worse in reality, as only 5 per cent of the successful drugs extend life of patients by a few months at the cost of millions of dollars, Die from the disease or die from the treatment, the choice is indeed limited.        

Rebel Cell by Kat Arney
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
416 pages, Rs 1,747.
With exquisite subtlety and insight, Raza navigates the twin poles of failed treatment and unfathomable grief with poetic resilience. As a clinical researcher, a treating oncologist and a cancer widow, Raza’s indicts the cancer industry and fellow oncologists for under-reporting failure with treatment therapies. Why both are shying away to tell the stories of majority who die? With failure outnumbering success, cancer stories need no exaggeration to depict the drama of pain and grueling decisions. Knowing well that every bit of criticism applies as much to her as to fellow colleagues, Raza minces no words to conclude that unless research on identifying the earlier markers of the first cancer cells are found the cancer paradigm will soon reach a grotesque, unrecognizable, and destabilized end point.     

Science journal Nature considers The First Cell an incisive critique-cum-memoir. Indeed, it is. Written with empathy and anguish, deeply personalized interactions with patients and families make it a must read treatise on a disease that every one of us has a fifty-fifty chance of getting into. While there is an improvement in cancer mortality due to early detection, significant advances in the treatment of metastatic cancers hasn’t kept pace. A Columbia University professor of medicine and practicing oncologist, Raza gives a voice to our collective anxieties as a species as well as to our growing vulnerabilities. It is responsible writing at its best.    

There is little denying that we need to be a lot smarter to defeat such a wily foe. The traditional strategy of treating cancer has already reached its maximum potential, as every cancer evolves its unique way out of trouble. If a British advocacy group ‘Dying for a Cure’ is to be believed: ‘at the current rate of progress it would take 1,778 years at least before we saw a 20-year survival improvement for all 200 types of known cancer.’ Not to be let down, the need of the hour in cancer research would be to shift from studying animals to studying humans, and a shift from chasing after the last cancer cell to developing the means to detect the first cancer cell.  

The First Cell is no ordinary book of science and medicine. Written with the sensibilities of a poet (Raza’s first book was on Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance) and a deep compassion for fellow beings, Raza questions the profiteering that has come to rule our lives by first flooding our environment with carcinogens and then making profit from treating it. The world need to escape from this vicious cycle, and only by placing prevention and early detection on priority will we be able to outsmart the dreaded enigma. The writing on the wall is clear.

First published in Hindustan Times on Feb 2, 2022

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Intimacy of the virtual kind

Algorithmic matchmaking and digital lovers are close to mimicking human thoughts, emotions, and sensations

The pandemic made artificial intimacy a reality as people in isolation leaned more heavily on the digital tools to work, socialise, and play. Though machines may lack intimacy of real humans, virus-induced human seclusion has unleashed changes so extensive that artificial intelligence and virtual reality have come to proxy human needs for touching, feeling, and connections like never before. Threat from artificial intelligence to human future notwithstanding, algorithmic matchmaking and digital lovers are close to mimicking human thoughts, emotions, and sensations. People have long pushed buttons for machines to perform tasks, it is now for machines to return the favor - by pushing our buttons.

Literally, that is where the future seems headed. With Apps able to sense when users are falling in love, when they are fighting, and when they are likely to break up,  the machines are getting better and faster at gaining human intimacy. They titillate our senses, stimulate our preference, play to our biases, meet many of our wants, and sometimes even satisfy some of our needs. They not only respond to our voices, even talk back with voices of their own. The machines are already building intimacy with us, and us with them. One need look no further than today’s social media ecosystem to see how indeed are artificial intimacies flourishing in our lives.

For University of New South Wales evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the question isn’t if machines will outwit humans but whether the implications of artificial intimacy (ArtInt) will short circuit evolutionary pathways to help us understand ourselves better? While positive fallout of artificial intimacy by way of enhancing personal therapy, supporting mental health, and improving peoples lives are easy to embrace, its downside impact on reductions in marriage rates, shorter-lived relationships, and a more complex social order remains trickier to comprehend. The future is likely to get more complicated though.  

A reading of the dominant trend from screeds of data indicates that digital innovation is up against  human nature, cultural institutions, and social norms. Having studied how sex and reproduction shape the lives of humans, Brooks contends that new technologies could unleash extensive changes in the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century. The pandemic has only propelled digital technologies to interact with, simulate, and even exploit human yearning for belonging, thirst for intimacy, capacity for love, and desire for sex. Not without reason at an annual growth rate of 9 per cent, the sex toy market has been worth US$ 31 billion in 2020.

If current pace of digital revolution is any indication, there is little denying that plenty of good and plenty of bad will come from artificial intimacies in future. One thing is clear that the bonds that users feel towards artificial intimacies will grow stronger and more profound, making it difficult to distinguish their love for some ArtInt from the love they feel for other humans. Haven’t we demonstrated our growing intimacy with social media and video games to that effect? Brooks draws positives from such change in attitude, counting its impact on openness to a variety of sexualities, gender identities, and reproductive freedom.   

Artificial Intimacy weaves an engrossing story on the future that awaits us, without predicting whether or not it will be promising or dystopian. Much will depend on who owns the data, as artificial intimacy applications will be powered by data. Proper regulation for data protection is critical for ArtInt to deliver positive results. It ought to establish user safety and protection in the first place alongside valuing privacy while bridging digital gap and inequity. Whether or not the emerging world of artificial intimacy becomes virtuous will depend on how mature is its acceptance by the public and the policy makers. Viewed from an evolutionary lens, Brooks’ optimism stretches into a brave new world of artificial intimacy which holds potential to make friendship, intimacy, and sex become safer, more equitable, and personally rewarding. There are no options but to prepare ourselves for a new future of human relationships. 

Artificial Intimacy  
by Rob Brooks
Columbia University Press, New York 
Extent: 293, Price: Rs. 2,254.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Jan 7, 2022. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Is it getting beyond us?

The boundary between humans and machines is getting blurred as AI adds a nonhuman concept of the world into scientific inquiry, discovery and understanding.

Human intelligence is literally at stake, as Artificial Intelligence (AI) with its ever increasing capacity to learn, evolve and surprise is becoming a ubiquitous enabler. From online shopping to medical research, and from unmanned aeroplanes to autonomous weapons, machines performing human-level intelligence have rapidly become a reality. And, these are not done yet. Using new algorithms and inexpensive computing power, the machines have become capable of producing insights and innovations that are often  beyond humans. With AI assuming a majority of social roles, it is challenging our understanding of reality and our role within it. 

AI is indeed helping the human mind in accessing new vistas, bringing previously unattainable goals within sight. Who would have imagined chess game AlphaZero to outsmart grandmasters by deploying unorthodox tactics. Antibiotic Halicin discovery by an efficient and inexpensive technique remains beyond human conception. On the destructive side, AI-enabled weapons have the potential to launch digital attacks with exceptional speed and make conflicts more difficult to limit. Illustrative as these examples may be, the trouble with AI is that it accesses reality differently from the way humans access it, and therefore generates outcomes which are not only unpredictable but often inconsistent. When intangible software acquires logical capabilities, it is bound to pose challenges to human perception and cognition.   

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and MIT computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher assess the challenges AI-powered technology poses. They rest their primary discernment on Rene Dascartes’ enlightening promulgation ‘I think, therefore I am’ which reverberates today as a compelling question:‘If AI thinks, then who we are?’. By devising solutions beyond the scope of human imagination, AI will assert the supremacy of nonhuman learning and application. It already does by altering the role our minds have traditionally played in shaping, ordering, and assessing our choices and actions. The authors weigh the future by asking whether or not the humanization of AI-powered devices are creating confusion on what it means to be human, what is intelligence, and what is consciousness?

The boundary between humans and machines is getting blurred as AI adds a nonhuman concept of the world into scientific inquiry, discovery and understanding.  However, the advent of AI obliges us to confront whether we are comfortable with what we know through human reasoning or are prepared to engage with algorithm generated logic.The Age of AI is a reflective primer on a subject that is fast becoming a reality of modern life. It helps raise thought-provoking questions on the impact of AI on our relationships with knowledge, politics, and society. Whether an individual can find space for careful thinking in this emerging future is one matter. 

The authors are convinced that AI is a grand undertaking with profound potential benefits, as it unleashes new scientific breakthroughs, new economic efficiencies, new forms of security, and new dimensions of social monitoring. However, they are also clear that AI is equally capable of distorting and presenting information that may misguide consumers capacities for independent reasoning. ‘The dilemmas AI raises for societies are profound,’ say the authors. With much of our social and political life dependent on network platforms, securing space for debate and discourse that form public opinion is discerning to uphold democratic principles.

The Age of AI paints a broad brush on AI and its potential to alter the trajectories of societies and the course of history. The game changing features of AI are all but known, and the book doesn’t cut a new ground on that. What it does, however, is to seek ways to make AI auditable – making its processes and conclusions both checkable and correctable. To that effect, Henry Kissinger lends his diplomatic weight to the need for international accords on the use of AI, as the machines are already showing the promise of outstripping some of our mental processes, that will allow us to ‘make peace with them and, in so doing, change the world.’

At an individual level, the book does ring a bell. It lets the reader know that human reasoning and autonomy is at stake, and it is upto us to limit how much of it we intend to bargain for. Should we take AI proclamations by faith, like the proverbial Greek Oracle, from clear evidence that they are superior or should we pick and choose the relevant? In a world where plurality is being marginalised, should we rely on a single voice that delimits our choices. The Age of AI calls upon political leaders, philosophers and theologians to probe AI’s deeper implications in making human life fulfilling. The time to define our partnership with artificial intelligence is squarely upon us. 

The Age of AI 
by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
John Murray/Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 256, Price: Rs. 799.

First published in Deccan Herald on January 02, 2022