Tag Archives: India

Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★


The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.

The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆


The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

India: A PortraitIndia: A Portrait by Patrick French

My Rating★★★☆☆

India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

French divides the book into three neat parts – Rashtra (Nation, i.e., The Politics), Lakshmi (Wealth, i.e., The Economics) & Samaj (Society, i.e., The Sociology). He attempts to sketch a comprehensive ‘portrait’ of the country by using this eminently scientific approach. Hard to fault the ambition. Except that India refuses to be divided into such easy compartments. Nor are these sciences ones that can be easily examined without reference to each other. They are not the hyphenated-sisters for no reason. Much of the pleasure in reading the book comes from the tension generated by French trying to wrench and force fit his stories into his compartments, religiously avoiding cross-references (as much as possible). The fact that he keeps the whole thing coherent is an achievement in itself.


Appropriately the first section is politics which is the fountainhead of much that follows. French here attempts the herculean task of trying to compress the byzantine complexity of Indian politics into a third of a book. He keeps it light and funny and does not lack in insight when it comes to history. But his telling is slightly biased in favor of the current government – lavishing praises on Mr. Singh, Soniaji and on her son, even as he dishes out excessive criticism on almost everything else concerning Indian politics. It must be an embarrassment for the author if it were pointed out now how he was praising Rahul Gandhi as the possible savior of an increasing decadent Congress system while so insightfully highlighting the worst aspects of the party politics.

The best analyzed chapter of the book (Family Politics) comes in this section and deals with the minutiae of Hereditary Politics that has plagued India. With the help of some (almost) ad-hoc calculations and excel-plugging, French arrives at a picture of how deep-rotted the problem really is. This depressing analysis points out how low a proportion of non-hereditary political leaders, i.e., people who made it on their own merit are there in the higher (and even lower) echelons of power. As opposed to the ones who didn’t need merit – He calls them H-MPs/H-MLAs (Hereditary-MP/MLA). Can’t think of a more stinging slap on the face of ‘democracy’.

French ends the chapter with a stirring warning that the route India has taken of entrenched hereditary politics is taking her rapidly back to the era of Kings and Princes.


As with any Indian Economic history, French dives with great relish into criticizing the early planning economy, especially Mahalanobis – he even points out how this damaged not just India but the rest of the newly independent countries as well since they looked to India (Calcutta in lieu of Chicago) for economic wisdom and adopted Mahalanobis’s elaborately concocted fantasy as theory.

But the fact is that the steady stream of economists who poured into India in that period of exceptional enthusiasm (which Das elaborates in his book) had all certified the plan as faultless, Friedman being one of the few voices to cry foul and that was probably more because it was against his ideology than because of any specific objections to the theoretical framework.

Thought experiment: India as an early Keynesian vs Monetarist battleground. Almost, but not to be. Sigh.

In addition to the standard fare of criticism of early policies and the run up to the much hyped turning point of the 90s, some interesting flashes stand out in this section to interest even the informed reader – such as:

How Keynes’ early career and theoretical synthesis was shaped by India;

How the at-first-glance stunningly socialistic and idealistic ‘Bombay Plan’ was as in fact politically motivated and was a shrewd move to outflank the left-wing;

How Mahalanobis was obsessed with the science of skull measurement and concocted dreamy theories on the racial superiority of Bengalis, etc.


Fittingly, this concluding section about Indian Society is the most amorphous and yet most coherent part of the book. He uses it to highlight some of the everyday concerns of the Indian media and the everyday fears of the Indian ‘common-man’ – all of which seem mundane but are of stunningly tragic proportions if one could only take a step back and see the extent, depth and sheer depravity of it.

The topics he takes on in this section ranges from caste issues, societal disconnects such as the urban-rural divide (where he follows up on the Kafkaesque Aarushi story, in great detail.), religion and its discontents, customs – their origins and current forms, ancient science, philosophy etc and even some tasty anecdotes such as how Mahalanobis (yes he does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with Mahalanobis – just as he can never talk of Keynes without commenting on his sexuality within the same sentence) saved Ramanujam from chilly nights by teaching him the engineering dexterity necessary for manipulating a blanket.

Being the manifestations arising out of the Politics and Economics outlined in the first two sections of the book, this final section finds French at his poignant journalistic best. Tracing out moving stories and making almost a travelogue of this, one gets the feeling that this was what French originally wanted to write about and the run up/introduction in which he wanted to show some of the underlying causes to the societal ills of India ended up turning into a two-thirds-of-his-book-long introduction.

French should probably have stuck to the original plan. It might have meant that we could have had a profoundly moving portrait, without being asked to do a connect-the-dots puzzle all the time before being shown the stark reality of the picture for a flash and then being blind-folded again. Left alone with the confounding puzzle, most dots still left hanging.

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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Twilight’s Children: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

My Rating★★★★☆


Twilight’s Children


He had found the letter under his brother’s bed.

He had not minded the dust that lit up the damp light of the room. He had read it immediately. But now that he was back in his room, he took it out again, wanting to read it one more time, as always.

He remembered all the letters he used to receive from India and of how he could hear his Udayan’s childhood voice as he read it, even when the voice was long changed. In this letter he could not.

This time he picked up from the third page of the letter, glancing at the parts that did not make sense to him.

What defines identity once you are away from your center? What defines the center when you are away from our identity?

He wondered why Udayan would take the trouble to write all this when it must have been such a struggle to write at all. With that hand of his… Is it because he wanted to take comfort in talking with me? Or does he just write whatever comes to mind, arrange them in a semblance of order and mail them across the oceans? He looked back at the page.

Is it anger in the obvious betterment seen all around you? Is it shame that you were never really part of it? That you were not part of building it? And instead of building one you have just taken the easier path? Is it pride, perhaps, in your independence? Is it the blustering of the intolerable journalist when he talks about the better ‘systems’? Is it just a sense of loss of all that is left behind?

He skipped the last few lines and then skipped to the next page. Udayan’s handwriting always used to deteriorate towards the end of a page and now it was almost unreadable. ‘Not that I am missing much’, he said to himself.

Wherein lies the center of the modern man’s existence?

Is it in an imaginary village consisting of all that mattered to him as he was growing up – do they ever break that circle? Or is it constantly expanded as you grow? Or is it constantly redefined?

If you don’t have the less developed multitudes (relatives like me) to look upon you from that left-behind circle, will any achievement truly matter in life? Can your center, your point of reference and your identity, only be defined from a transpositional view from below? Or is It from a patriarchal view from above that leaves you smarting?

He was not sure why Udayan had taken to writing to him as if the roles were reversed – as if he was the one who had never set foot beyond his home city and as if Udayan was the one who had roamed the world and thought about a home that had been left behind with such ease. Of course, Udayan wouldn’t have been able to leave behind anything. He had been able to. ‘With ease’, he repeated doubtfully.

He had skipped ahead again without noticing it but decided to carry on. He knew he would be reading it over later. Again.

What of the constant sense that assaults you of not being part of the ‘real’ world – of the world you inhabit – the ones outside your country, your center being somehow artificial? Is it this artificiality that gives you wings? Soaring in a flight of fancy to heights you wouldn’t have dreamed of back where the real things are?

It is not as if he didn’t know that this was probably Udayan’s way of teasing him into coming back home. And it is not as if he didn’t know why it was never posted. He started skipping across the letter faster, eager to reach where he was addressed directly. Eager to see if could recapture the childhood voice when he read his brother addressing him directly instead of talking platitudes. He uttered a faint hum as he skipped across increasingly badly scribbled lines.

Is it a requirement to step outside the circle to be able to step outside it?

How do you view the real world then? Are they the dream now that you are living the dream?

Can you sleep knowing that the dream is never to be dreamt?

Why wouldn’t you try to dream up some solutions as well then? Why wouldn’t you start believing that your newfound wings would work in that ‘real’ world too? Why wouldn’t you even consider flying back?

Why wouldn’t you attempt to solve all the problems?

Even if you never attempt it, you know that with these wings of yours, any problem is an easy one, especially those – the ones in that ‘real’ world. The shadow world of reality.

He felt a faint irritation with his brother now. What right did he have to lecture? What had he done except read a bunch of books and preach around? Then he checked himself. Udayan had always stopped teasing whenever he got angry. He used to always know why.

It is not necessary, of course, that the circle of identity had to be a country or a village or a society or family – stepping outside your circle, outside our reality gives you wings and solutions – but the solutions and the wings are never to be allowed back in – you may step back in but you step back in as yourself, without the fancy stuff. And then you have to forget the dream. You can only inhabit the twilight or the sunrise. Never both.

Ah, he remembered, now is when he talks about the book he had asked me to send to Anita. Udayan had ended up reading it first. Mostly because one of the main characters in the book shared his name. He tried to recollect the little he had read of the book before wrapping it. He knew that much of Udayan’s ramblings in this letter might have come from the book.

After all, there were some parallels. It was the eternal afterlife of the exile that Jhumpa Lahiri was always expert at dissecting. ‘Maybe it was all a build up towards telling me why I should read it too’, he mused, ‘maybe he was not taunting me at all’. Or maybe he felt the book could do that job much better.

There are some books which once read you have a compulsion to make others read – as if the enjoyment is not complete until it is shared. Until you can see the expression of amazement in the other’s face when they have read too – your enjoyment growing in the realization of theirs.

This book is not like that – it is a quiet pleasure to read but there is no expectation of pleasure from the sharing of it – there is no compulsion to talk about it – there is nothing much to talk about really. It is boring in its own way: a beautiful and boring stream that you saw on your way – you paused to see it but you don’t run home to get your wife to stare at it together.

I was excited to read it, to see how it would capture the times that we have lived through. Times that held so much meaning for us. But, it was not meant to be of the masses and the loudness of the massed struggle – just of the individuals and of the quietness of their desperation — it requires no knowledge of our complicated history or the nuances of our anger that ignited the streets. It was not even remotely concerned about all that…

He started searching for the book among the shelves. Then under the bed. His brother loved to sleep with a book and let it slide under his bed as one arm arced and drooped. There it was. Almost brand new. Only two pages bent to mark places to return to. He turned back to the letter.

We are Twilight’s Children, brother, the Midnight’s Children was still some way ahead of us – we are the ones without definition. We were born before the darkness set in, and the day too far off.

After reading The Namesake (the one that you had sent me years ago – ordering me to read it and that you wanted me to get a sense of your University student life), I searched for something new in this one… trying to find what excited the author, trying to get a glimpse into your life – the intimacy with the characters was there – that was expected, that was known; the reality of private lives was there – again known, again expected. What set this apart from the other one? Is it the suffering? But what is suffering? Where was it? I couldn’t see it? Is it necessary that your own anguish has to be less than that of a character’s for you to be able to feel empathy?

But, when I read about this one (in an editorial review), I half thought I could get you to read it… to understand me – another book from the same author. There seemed to be a symmetry to that. But it was not to be. It was not about Bengal, at least not the Bengal that I lived through… it was not to be.

I am told the author grew up in Rhode island – that intimacy is visible. Rhode island becomes more of a home to the reader than his own Bengal. Again, my purposes were not being served by the author.

He looked at the marked pages of the book again and noticed that both seemed to be underlined faintly on lines that described their city. The language was exquisite. Maybe the time away from his expected times and places put him off the book. Udayan was never one for relishing language. He always wanted meanings and words to speak loud and bold.

You had told that you would try to read this before sending it to me. If you managed to complete the book, you must have realized that the book is not very atypical of Lahiri. I am afraid she will find it hard to win another Booker until she breaks out of her own mould or a Booker Committee comes along that doesn’t take the trouble to have read the previous winners.

He smiled at his brother’s silly mistake and continued reading. But he found that he was skipping through the lines now, without reading much. Soon he had reached the end of the letter. It did not end with the usual wishes and he knew that it had not been finished. He quietly flipped back to the beginning again. He could hear the milkman cycling outside on his early morning rounds.

Their relationship had been stretched – stretched halfway across the world – refusing to break, no matter how much he tried.

He walked slowly to the window-sill and lit the candle he had placed here. He watched as the ashes settled nearby and turned away as the breeze started to carry them away.

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts


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Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century by Shashi Tharoor

Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century

Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century by Shashi Tharoor

My Rating★★★★☆

Joe Nye aka “Mr. Soft Power” in ‘The Future of Power’ has argued that, in today’s information age, it is the side with the better story that wins. This book is Tharoor’s conscious or unconscious attempt to ensure that India is the party with the better story (of course to one’s own eyes one always has the better story). To Tharoor, India is gentle and reasonable and completely justified in all its actions; where they can’t be justified, they can be explained away with the excuse that a functioning democracy will take circuitous routes (the elephant metaphor). Thus the benign elephant dances with starry-eyed smaller countries, reluctantly peeping neighbors, a very naughty dragon, a ferocious but almost toothless opponent with a weapon that can’t be used, some failed states and a big circus master with a big funny hat. But all that is incidental because the elephant is gentle enough to be above reproach. So, who is the hero of the story? I leave that to your guessing skills.

Other than that, this reads like a sequel/update (with even the metaphors not being spared) to Malone’s wonderful book – with all the edges carefully shorn off and decorated in cheerful Diwali lights.

The second half of the book which takes a look at North Block and UN and their many idiosyncrasies, arguing for and against continuing relevance is more entertaining – because Tharoor actually has original stuff to contribute here along with many anecdotes which are well-worn but still funny. And though the book’s cover boasts that he tries to evolve a grand strategy (which Malone had criticized India of lacking and Tharoor wants to prove exists inside of the folds), it only delivers some passably good platitudes.

In the end though, I cannot forgive Tharoor – the primary reason for me picking up this book was my irrepressible curiosity on how the author would justify such a presumptuous title. And Tharoor never bothered to oblige, except for a two-line justification which only talks about a redefinition of what the ‘pax -ica’ latinization means in this new century. Disappointing? Yes. But, perhaps true too – it gels well with Pinker’s Angels.

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Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆

Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma GandhiGandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The complexity of Gandhiji’s life requires careful attention to both his public and personal trials. This is the basis on which Wolpert proposes to build yet another biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most well examined and yet one of the most enigmatic personalities. Wolpert says that even as he was writing his many works on India, he was always drawn towards Gandhi’s life but yet shying away from the endeavor, invariably daunted by Gandhi’s elusive personality and the extent of his archive, yet hoping that greater maturity and deeper knowledge of India would help him to understand the Mahatma’s mentality and reasons for his often contradictory behavior. When he finally decided to do so and confronted the veritable mountain of literature that exists about the great man, he almost decided then to abandon his “Gandhi” once again, “feeling that perhaps I had nothing new to add to what was known about the amazing man who called his life an “open book,” and fearing that at age sixty-eight, completing my research and writing might take longer than my lifetime.”

While a noble quest in itself, in the search for an alternative take and for a more comprehensible explanation Wolpert can be said to have stumbled, and badly. One wishes he had taken better head of his own misgivings. Gandhi used to famously call his own life as his Tapasya. Wolpert translates this tapasya as passion (thence the title of the book), then elaborates on the classic, noble meanings of the word (in drawing a parallel to ‘the passion of the christ’, for the benefit of his western readers) then ends up reverting back to the modern and much more ordinary meaning of the word with no sanction from the original tapasya. He continues to use the word passion in all sorts of contexts and gets it thoroughly mixed up. The reader has to put in a special effort to keep things straight about which context the word is being used in in any given instant.

He then proceeds to analyze Gandhi’s life and his now much publicized ‘personal life’ from what can only be a called simplified western understanding of some vague tantric and magical ‘stuff’. This leads to selective attention to possibly controversial letters and passages and Wolpert eventually slides into a continuous exposé-mentality that makes not much of an attempt at trying to understand the real meaning behind the ‘experiments’. The world has been treated to a lot of this about Gandhiji by now but the mud does not seem to stick. This might perhaps be because he was open about his life in a way almost unimaginable now and just as when he asked his friends then to point out any error in his ways, the same question can hardly be answered assertively even now.

Wolpert’s overly spiritual take on Gandhi’s life and seeking an explanation in that alone is detrimental to any real understanding. Gandhiji was not a mere spiritual guru, he was a shrewd political leader who mobilized more people voluntarily than perhaps anyone ever has. He combined religion, politics, idealism and personal relationships into a single field of action. Gandhi’s life can even be said to be, without too much exaggeration, an object lesson on codes of purity and honor, on the meaning of martyrdom, and on the construction of a heroic life. Nevertheless, his life should be seen as a human life, no more and no less, and as a testament to the heights that the human spirit can climb with patient effort. That is where the inspiration of his ‘life as message’ lies: in replicating a part of that ambition of spirit, not in being a distant unattainable sainthood emulatable only through statues and honorifics.

In the end, the book is reduced to an overly romanticized set of platitudes, talking sometimes dreamily of yogic strength and sometimes of some mysterious ‘ancient civilization’ in Wolpert’s half-distracted quest to explain the reason behind these ‘experiments’ and of Gandhi’s ‘passion’. The explanations are not always coherent and shows scant understanding of the scriptural knowledge and Vedic traditions that Gandhi drew from in order to formulate his life and rules, and if drilled the author might be hard pressed to supply what he meant by half of these platitudinous terms.

The book also disappoints as a scholarly exercise: Wolpert has in fact tried to deconstruct Gandhiji from an almost anthropological perspective. There are many different ways in which the traditional subjects of social anthropology can be described, and one would perhaps contend, borrowing from Marc Augé, that anthropology has always been an anthropology of the ‘here and now’. This does not mean Augé would implore Wolpert that anthropology has to cast its eye only on objects that are near it, but rather that the mode by which knowledge is produced in anthropology is the mode of intimacy. The ‘here’ is the society in which the anthropologist must have travelled and lived, while the ‘now’ refers to the privileged place given to the present. Unfortunately Wolpert satisfies neither condition and hence his mode of producing knowledge, has a unique intellectual object – the ‘exotic Other’. This exotic Other can not be encountered accidentally, it has to be sought out as the opposite of the Self. Hence, as Amartya Sen would argue, anthropological knowledge can come to be a map of difference, of alterity or to be entirely slotted into his one of three categories: the exoticist approach. Any biography thus conceived is doomed to be a theatre of the exotic and hardly a source of knowledge or understanding.

In never being able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to explore the personal life or the political life, or in perhaps not being able to find any way to separate the entangled strands of the two, Wolpert compromises too much and presents us with a very shallow work. The book cannot serve as an introductory read because it leaves out and simplifies too much, and it cannot serve as a supplementary read since it has nothing original to add. So what purpose did the book serve? I cannot discern one.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Books


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The State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

The State of The NationThe State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

My Rating★★★★★

This book was an Independence day gift to myself and it has turned out to be a good choice. In Nariman’s exploration and assessment of various issues based on constitutional tenets, the ‘state of the nation’ seems healthy only when these issues collide with the courts of law. Men seem good, reason seems triumphant and government officials and leaders seem to be the arbitrary children that they actually are, but all without feeling that this is cause for a tragic gloom – because the parent is around to discipline them. We need the courts to overreach, Nariman seems to be saying in all earnestness (with his characteristically profligate smattering of exclamation marks in the text).

It has to be admitted that there is a genuine (almost perverse) pleasure in seeing leaders who are consistently acknowledged to be the scourge of modern India being put in their place, being given a public reassessment of their sense of importance. This is what Nariman provides (drawing heavily on his 60 odd years of experience at the bar) through his numerous anecdotes and mini case-studies – this is also what the courts Vs government drama provides to the common man. It allows us to generate a healthy skepticism of the government and moves us away from the ‘mai-baap’ mentality. The highest courts play a vital role in this.

While the Govt might see this as an erosion of credibility, and resent this incursion and ‘overreach’ Nariman seems to say that this is exactly what the doctor (constitution) ordered in the first place: what a good governance really requires are institutions that have full cognizance of their own fragility and of their own failures.

Thus the majority of the book enumerates the state of the nation using the Constitution as a yardstick and seems to imply that as long as we have wise men in the courts acting as zealous watchdogs of the Constitution, democracy is safe and if not progress, at least regress is effectively checked.

So while saying in not as many words that the state of the nation is bad but could have been much worse if not for the courts, Nariman has the conscientiousness to also examine his beloved judiciary itself. And to his credit, he does a remarkable objective and unbiased take on it. The last chapter is almost ominous, and almost certainly deliberately exaggerated. The spirit of the chapter is that if the nation, Constitution and democracy is being guarded by the judiciary, we need to ask every now and then the clichéd question: ‘who will watch the watchmen’. And we need to be very very aware of the real and present dangers.

But in the end, I have not let the brooding last chapter detract from the overriding confidence that the book asks of me towards the judiciary and by proxy to the nation and its ‘state’. Every section in this book begins with one of the political cartoons of the legendary ‘common man’ (from the series of iconic sketches by Laxman who used to express the ‘state of the nation’ more powerfully than what many serious journos ever managed – a role that the amul ads now seem to be valiantly trying to fill) that illustrates poignantly some of the issues that Nariman wants to address in it. The last chapter did not have one, presumably because he could not find one. In the end, that lack of a cartoon was the most telling thing for me.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age by Gurcharan Das

India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age

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India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age by Gurcharan Das

My Rating★★★★☆

Through most of the reading I wanted to be critical of the book. I was disappointed that the wisdom that was characteristic of the Das who wrote The Difficulty of Being Good was not much on display in his exploration of the 2nd of the four foundational principles (Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha) of Indian life [sic]. I could only conclude that it must be difficult for one man to take on the challenge of elucidating all four. I also had some fun imagining that this might be even more the case if he ver decides to turn to the third of the big 4!

The reason for this criticality was that it was constructed as a personal history – it was supposed to be a growing up story for India, entwined with Das’s own. For most of the book this imbued it with a needless tragic sense and also made it seem artificial. The view seemed to be too one-sided, almost like a deliberately bourgeoisie history. There was something not quite right in the telling and while Das’s smooth writing mostly glosses over this, it did come out plainly in instances such as (for example) when he talked about the psychological basis for indian’s inability to cooperate and work in a team atmosphere. A patently absurd Freudian explanation that even the author seemed to know as just playing for the stands.

In all, there seemed to be too much of being wise after the event and Das seemed reluctant to put behind his early enchantments and disillusionments with Nehru and his dreams, not seeming to realize that the models were the best ones available back then. This was exactly the sort of wafer thin analysis that lends very easily to the sort of creeping criticism for India and ‘our ways’ that is characteristic of the modern ‘middle-class’.

Then somewhere towards the end, Das gives up the pretense of telling his own story and plunges into a reflective and more clear-headed assessment of present day India, no longer overshadowed by the perceived failures of the past. From being a depressing saga, the book suddenly leapt into the sunlight of such intense optimism and sudden lack of generalizations. The tide turns with the account of the exciting days of reform. The drama and the personae are wonderfully captured and in spite of being a well-worn story it literally keeps the reader at the edge of the seat as it unfolds like a Bollywood drama, full of machinations and quick steps and side steps – a subtle dance that Das takes great pleasure in composing and unravelling.

From then on the writing takes on a breathless character, as if Das in his old age has recaptured the spirit that was supposed to awaken Independent India half a century ago. That explains the title of the book, though he could just as well have titled it “Gurcharan Unbound” – after all, it was not just India that reinvented itself towards the end of this ‘personal history’. In doing this Das vindicates his narrative choice – the narrative moods were meant to capture the turbulent see-saw of emotions that the nation itself went through. Das does it beautifully, it was just that I failed to appreciate it till the very end.

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Posted by on August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

The Idea of IndiaThe Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

My Rating★★★★★

Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book’s context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book (partly because of the allure of the title and partly because It was among the 25 Popular Penguins). During the first 12 months I read the first half of the book, plodding slowly, 2-3 pages once in a while, with a deliberate exercise of will-power, littering the book with marginalia and exclamation marks – amazed at the language and the torrent of ideas and information.

Then, unintentionally, the book was gradually put aside and lost among a growing tide of must-read books. Meanwhile, I read many other books dealing with the same subject matter and discussing many of the same questions, familiarizing myself to some extent with the numerous arguments. Today I picked up Khilnani again to read a few more pages to get a move on (I hate half-completed books on my shelf) and to my surprise, all the plodding was gone and I breezed through the rest of the book.

No more was it an incomprehensible lecture which I should try and capture as much of as I can, it was now a pleasant conversation with enough interesting back-and-forths from both sides that notes and such became unnecessary. The book became more memorable and the reading experience actually improved with this loss of awe.

This is the first mid-book transition like this for me in which the tone and texture of the book, along with my entire attitude towards it shifts so rapidly. Makes me wonder how much is missed by reading a well written and popular book first without taking the trouble to study the subject first – most of the richness that informed the author in his writing is lost on the reader by the author’s attempt to make the book more readable. It is a necessary tragedy. (Unless the reader takes it on himself to alleviate the collateral damage). Is it?



P.S. About the book itself, it is a very poetic and well written exploration of the question of Indian Identity. While Khilnani doesn’t offer much in the form of new theories on what this definition should be, he very evocatively sets forth the many identities that have and continue to define the vast nation. The discussion on Nehru and Gandhi is exceptional in their clarity and the unreserved take on Hindutva deserves to be read with great attention. The last chapter rises to a poetic crescendo with Khilnani offering his own conceptions on how these various identities should be interpreted and accepted. The stunning bibliographic essay which lists close to 200 odd books is a treasure trove and has given me an enormous and intimidating list of books that should be explored.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Books


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India Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

India Since IndependenceIndia Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

My Rating★★★★☆

The book is supposed to be one of the most authoritative histories of the period, presented by a set of celebrated authors who were instrumental in authoring most of the text books of the academic curriculum (India). It is disappointing then to see that ideology colors even such a work. If you can stay away from the strong biases that run through most of the interpretative chapters, this is actually quite a good book read.

It provides a good contrast (counterpoint?) to Guha‘s history. It is quite stunning how history changes so radically from one book to the next. The two books tell of the same period but with such marked divergence. As a reader one can accept this transition with surprising ease since the story is not in the telling but in the leaving out, in the focusing of the searchlight on select incidents and in leaving the rest in the darkness. This strengthens my growing obsession with historiography and its many wonders. Has any fully illumined history of any period yet been written? I am yet to find one.

The next book in my romance with historiography might have some answers – History at the Limit of World-History. I am thoroughly excited to have stumbled on this one and am hoping to continue this review over there.

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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy by David M. Malone

Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign PolicyDoes the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy by David M. Malone

My Rating★★★★☆

Malone delivers a surprisingly intimate and forgiving account of India’s sometimes exasperating mix of foreign policy and external relations. This book is a refreshing break from the posturing and grandstanding typical of many Indian writers and the bipartisan and sometimes startlingly ignorant rhetoric coming from most foreign commentators on international relations.

The author manages to see the issues from a uniquely Indian viewpoint (gleaned from his seemingly chummy relationship with most of our prominent scholars – anecdotes litter the book) and to a large extent internalizes the many contradicting tendencies (mostly domestic, unsurprisingly) that influence the outcome of India’s foreign policies and comes up with a coherent attempt at showing that it is not as discordant and incomprehensible as it might appear at first to the outside (or even inside) observer.

Malone gives hope that there is no need to get lost in the cascade of apparent contradictions that might spew from our overly eloquent delegates and that with the right kind of effort India too can be deciphered by her foreign allies and also by her own students.

This gives pause for thought about the right method towards approaching other similarly situated countries which seem to have as patently a lack of ‘grand strategy’ and a similar tendency for ‘getting-through’. This book is a strong case for more scholarship and less diplomacy in international relationships. It seems to be good advice.

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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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