Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Book: Keepers of the Faith by Shaukat Ajmeri

At a time when we are witnessing religious revivalism in a garish form all around us, here is a novel that presents the flip side of religion. Keepers of the Faith presents the recent history of the close-knit Shia Muslim community of Momins. Rigorous and nuanced in presenting religious aspects of the Momin sect, some of which actually happened in the Seventies, the narrative proceeds through a beautiful love story between Akbar and Rukshana. 

What happens with the Momin community is in many ways no different from what happens with many other communities. Argument and negotiation with the traditionalists is bound to fail. What the traditionalists seek is often not a rational argument and textual interpretation. The promise of authority and identity are what draw a lot of people to radical religious communities. Young people, often marginalized and alienated get drawn. They then become political tools.

The way the author captures the trepidation of a love that is just blossoming between two youngsters, and the subsequent explosion of the long suppressed love, is moving. 

What is clear is that any positive engagement with a religion is less likely to produce a liberal religion. It is more likely to accelerate reactionism. That leaves us only with the option of transformation of public sensibility. Pluralism, diversity, and basic liberties must become non-negotiable in public sensibility irrespective of the religious denomination. In Keepers of the Faith one reads about the horrific practice of female circumcision in the Momin community. It is one example of the perils of a blind acceptance of religious practices.

True art must clarify life for us, establish some models of human action, celebrate the good and mourn the tragic, and overall must expand our understanding of what it means to be truly human. Novels are one art form that have a tremendous potential.

Novels like Keepers of the Faith certainly help to improve public sensibility. In the Foreword for the book, Prof Ismail K Poonawala writes that Keepers of the Faith should be read by all Momins conversant with English. Yes, indeed, and others too. The narrative certainly must make every reader reflect about their own religion and its keepers.

 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Elections 2019 - through War and Peace

Today Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party has secured a strong mandate to govern India for a second term. In the five years of the preceding term many of the founding ideals came under strain. The election process also was marred by several transgressions by the ruling party. Notably, a wilful and blatant flouting of Election Commission rules by the ruling party, and cocking a snook at the good traditions of civilized electoral practices by fielding a terror suspect into the fray. Also invoking the army in election campaigns, which is against the rules.

None of that seems to have mattered to the voters and if anything the PM's stock seems to have gone further up. It makes you think whether it is just the "power" of an individual to subject a nation to his will or if there is something more to it.

Elections 2019 clearly appear to be driven by sectarianism, aggressive nationalism and a kind of inexplicable hatred towards liberalism among a vast majority of Indians. That appears more plausible than to ascribe the results to Modi's "oratory", or Shah's booth managing "genius" , or even to the "ineffective" communication of the opposition and so on.

The great Leo Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace devotes an entire chapter (Second Epilogue) to the discussion of questions like how did individuals make nations act as they wished. According to Tolstoy, the inner events of human beings are the most real and immediate experiences and they constitute what life is made of. In his view the routine political historians who write history as a series of public events are not providing the correct perspective.

Throughout the novel Tolstoy illustrates the difference between written history and the private history through the lives of the statesmen and commanders who are the players. He demonstrates how little control they have over the destiny of the events they believe they command, while the "soldiers" who do the fighting are the most responsible for its outcome. These men delude themselves by believing that it is their memoranda, resolutions, councils and orders that determine the outcome.

Tolstoy's argument is that even men of destiny like Napoleon are impostors as no single will or theory can fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast number of possible causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which results in the events recorded.

Tolstoy throughout the novel, and especially in the chapter Second Epilogue, tries to prove  that it is an illusion if individuals  think they can understand and control  the course of events by their own resources. Ordinary day to day lives of  common people result in social, political and economic phenomena and not the other way round.

Tolstoy believes that  our lives are subject to a control of  natural law along with the entire universe. We are unable to accept this "inexorable process" and instead view our existence as regulated by the  wilful acts of individuals with a capacity for good or evil.  These individuals in their egoism take responsibility  for events as that provides them with an imaginary significance. Like a mosquito flying in an aeroplane thinking that it is flying the plane.

Tolstoy examines the question of free will and inevitability. He stresses on the reality of an inexorable historical determinism. See this paragraph in Second Epilogue-
"If we consider a man alone, apart from his relation to everything around him, each action of his seems to us free. But if we see his relation to anything around him, if we see his connection with anything whatever—with a man who speaks to him, a book he reads, the work on which he is engaged, even with the air he breathes or the light that falls on the things about him—we see that each of these circumstances has an influence on him and controls at least some side of his activity. And the more we perceive of these influences the more our conception of his freedom diminishes and the more our conception of the necessity that weighs on him increases."
"The degree of our conception of freedom or inevitability depends in this respect on the greater or lesser lapse of time between the performance of the action and our judgment of it."

I think what Tolstoy is trying to infer is that, at the point while we are participating in the event it appears like we are exercising our free will. When removed from the present, say in a few years, it may seem that our actions lacked free will and we were acting on a natural course controlled by the universe.

I am trying to use these insights from Tolstoy to console myself when faced with the stark illiberalism, and such huge support for divisive, majoritarian politics in India. That some necessity (a necessity to cater to their base bigoted worldview?) maybe driving the vast majority of Indian voters to have voted the way they have done.

A few years back Fareed Zakaria had written this in his book The Future of Freedom-
"But looking under the covers of Indian democracy one sees a more complex and troubling reality. In recent decades, India has become something quite different from the picture in the hearts of its admirers. Not that it is less democratic: in important ways it has become more democratic. But it has become less tolerant, less secular, less law-abiding, less liberal. And these two trends—democratization and illiberalism—are directly related."

Zakaria's words just became  truer in India today.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fascinating World of Words

"Compared to the drama of words, Hamlet is a light farce". said Anatoly Liberman.

Words indeed have hidden lives.  Not all of us take an interest in the many common and uncommon words we employ in our communication.   If we did care, what we are sure to discover is the fascinating world of words.

There is one man who has indeed taken this interest in words a different level altogether. His name is Anu Garg, an Indian born computer engineer settled in the USA. He started, in 1994, what the New York Times called "arguably the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace"

Anu Garg sends out a simple email every day, A.Word.A.Day (AWAD), containing a word, its definition and etymology, and an example of its current contextual usage; this to more than a quarter million subscribers around the world. Incidentally, recently, on the 14th of March this service completed 25 years.

I have been a loyal subscriber to A Word A Day for a long time and there have been countless occasions when stories about some words have left me absolutely enthralled. For example, the word Window comes from Old Norse, the predecessor of English, in which it meant "wind's eye". How poetic, isn't it?

Garg organises words into themes. One week the featured words could be Eponyms, words that are derived from people's names (for example, shrapnel, after a British army officer). Another week it could be words borrowed from another language, such as Yiddish, or Sanskrit. Sometimes he provides words that have some interesting and unusual patterns. The word Facetious, for example, is a word with all five vowels, once and only once, and in order.

Any dictionary can provide you with a large collection of words. As the French novelist Anatole France called a dictionary "the universe in alphabetical order". What Mr Garg does through A Word A Day is to identify and present some of the more interesting words with their biographies.
That biography of a word- the story behind it is called etymology (from Greek etymos which means true).

Some people think that everyday words are enough as they are afraid that if they use an uncommon word the others may not understand. It's a Catch-22 situation.  Others don’t understand the words because the words are not used often. Garg suggests that we look at words as a color palette. You don’t have to use all the colors in a painting, but it helps to be able to use the right shade. There are some, like Dr Shashi Tharoor, who employ uncommon words in their writing and speech. This gives a certain vibrancy to their communication.

Anu Garg has also brought out a couple of books that contain a selection of some of the words appearing in A Word A Day. Let's look at some common words with their intetesting backgrounds. These have featured in the AWAD over the years and also in one Anu Garg's books - "The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two".

PUPIL The two senses of this word, a student and the part in the center of the eye, are related. We got this word from the Latin pupus meaning a boy and pupa meaning a girl.
In the part in the center of the eye, even adults appear small like little children. And that’s why that part of the eye is called a pupil.

ADMIRAL What could the commander in chief of a fleet have in common with a Muslim ruler?  Admiral is another form of the word emir/amir, the title of the head of state in some Islamic countries. It came from amir al meaning “commander of”.

SYMPOSIUM Symposium was originally a “drinking party”. Drinking has a way of relaxing the tongue, and that idea grew into the current sense of symposium where people gather to engage in conversation on a topic.

TAXICAB A taxi is, well, one which taxes. It’s a shortened form of “taximeter”, which is the name of the device that calculates the fare.

TRAVEL The word travel comes from another word, travail, which means hard, painful work.

SALARY The word salary came to English from the Latin salarium, which means an allowance for salt. In olden times salt was expensive. So soldiers used to get rations of salt. The word came from the Latin “sal”, meaning”salt”.

POLITE When you’re polite, you are polished, from Latin polire (to polish).

GLAMOUR This word is another form of the word “grammar”. The magical charm sense of the word arose because grammar, or learning, used to be associated with the occult.

PLAGIARISM When one plagiarizes, one is kidnapping words of another, so to speak. The term comes from Latin “plagium” (kidnapping).

ENTHUSIASM Today, if someone is called enthusiastic, it’s seen as a compliment. But it wasn’t always like that. In the 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Everywhere the history of religion betrays a tendency to enthusiasm.” At that time, enthusiasm meant being possessed by God or a vain confidence of being divinely inspired. It’s from Greek theos (god).

NAUSEA If you’ve ever felt sick by the swaying motion of a boat, you’ve unknowingly experienced the origin of nausea. It came to English from the Greek word “naus”, meaning a ship. The motion of a ship causes many people to feel sick in the stomach. That’s why it’s also called motion sickness or seasickness.

The Webster’s dictionary contains some half a million words. The words that have featured in A Word A Day in the last 25 years exceeds 5000. So many great stories have been shared on words and the world of words never stops fascinating.  The words that have featured in AWAD have all been  archived at wordsmith.org. See my blog page (Word Resources) for a thematic arrangement of links to AWAD archives.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book: Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad

Recently I completed reading Jawaharlal Nehru's autobiography called Towards Freedom. The autobiography, which inevitably is also an account of the events in the nation's struggle for independence, ends at the year 1935. There is also a section at the end of the book, subsequently added, that briefly mentions the events of the next five years.  Nehru mentions about the start of the second world war and the demand of Indian National Congress for self-determination in exchange for cooperation in the war. He also records the fact that the British did not agree to this. Here is what happened to the demand, in his own words-

"...imperialism thinks otherwise and imagines that it can continue to function and to coerce people to do its will. Even when danger threatens, it is not prepared to get this very substantial help, if this involves a giving up of political and economic control over India. It does not care even for the tremendous moral prestige which could come to it, if it did the right thing in India and the rest of the Empire."

That is how the autobiography ends. The question of what happens in the intervening period, before India finally got Independence in 1947 is of great interest. By some happy coincidence, soon after reading the auto-biography I came across this amazing "forensic non-fiction" work called Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.

Written by the promising young Indian writer Raghu Karnad, this book is a result of the author's pursuit to trace the story of his grandfather and a couple of other relatives who had fought in the second world war with the Indian army.

Reconstructing the events of the past with painstaking research, what he has gifted us is a rare account of the important years 1939-45 in Indian history.

In the prologue, the author points out how personal and institutional memories go through revising and reshaping. The interviews he conducted with the Indian veterans illustrated this, he says. Well, that must be true to some extent of any history. People remembering differently. Remembering some facts and forgetting others to suit a narrative. The author puts it nicely- "In general , their memories, like all memories, were smoothed and polished by time, as pebbles in a stream."

Perfect or not, memory of the nation's history is definitely important. What are we without a memory of our history? As Nietzsche said, it is only the beast that lives unhistorically.

The second world war must be one of the most recounted events in modern history. While ably providing the missing Indian context in the war, Farthest Field also helped me recall some great novels and movies made on the subject of the Second World War. All these works on the war usually have focused on just one aspect of or one location in the war.

Farthest Field holds your attention from page one. Divided into three parts, the action on the Indian mainland as well as on the western and the eastern parts of India are covered.

In the first chapter there is a description of  the Parsi household from where the protagonist Bobby hails. At once ribbing and respectful, the definition runs like this: " The Parsis: pale as scalps, mad as coots, noses like commas on the page. They were devoutly civilised, consummately lawful...".
The author certainly has a little license on the community, as his own grandmother, an important character in the book, Nurgesh (Nugs) hails from it. While reading this chapter I remembered Rohinton Mistry's fine novel, the Booker nominated Such a Long Journey, which is entirely the story of a Parsi family. There is difference in the writing styles and there is no war in Such a Long Journey.

After setting down the backgrounds of the main protagonists Bobby and his brothers-in-law, Ganny and Manek in Part One, the action firmly shifts in Part Two to the war front on India's West. 

Reading about the North African campaign and about the action in El Alamein brought to mind another Booker nominated novel The English Patient. A lyrical, evocative novel by Michael Ondatje. Although that novel has the North African campaign of the Second World War as its backdrop, the major part of the story is set in an Italian villa. There is also an Indian character in The English Patient, named as Kip, a Sikh soldier, also a sapper like Bobby in Farthest Field.

Farthest Field impresses in terms of descriptions of actions in the war fronts. The actors being Indian soldiers also makes it even more interesting considering that there aren't many great war books involving Indians.

History only informs what happened. It takes fiction, or "forensic non-fiction" to really make it nuanced and relatable. The long list in the Bibliography indicates the attention paid by the author to get accurate details and accounts of fighting. Even so, as the story is built around collected facts, that too after so many years, there may be some imperfections. But, as the author notes in the prologue, this story is one "in which the lives of a few might stand in for many others."

Hemingway wrote two wonderful novels based on wars, weaving in poignant drama involving people caught in the wars. In the novel A Farewell to Arms, the author used his own experience of working as an American ambulance driver in the Italian campaign of the World War One. And the other novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was again based on the experiences of the author in the Spanish Civil War. It certainly helps to understand the human angles of the wars too in addition to the much heralded political angles.

Farthest Field too skillfully combines personal lives that get dramatically altered on account of war. Ganny and Nugs being one such couple that gets caught up in the whirlwind of war.

In part three, the action shifts to the war front on India's East. Reading about the Japanese advance through Burma and the surrender and retreat of the British, brought to mind images from the fascinating David Lean movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  In that movie set in Burma in 1943, a Japanese colonel puts a group of British war prisoners to work to build a bridge over the Kwai river. Reading about Bobby and his Bengal Sappers moving into coastal Burma, the imagery to me was strengthened by the recollection of the great movie.

The other sections that impress in this part of the book are the stark description of the great Bengal famine of 1943 and the gripping battle for Kohima that the Indian army fights with the Japanese.

In the afterword, the author provides a lucid summary of the events and the role of various agencies in India during the crucial period of 1939-45. One also gets a greater clarity on the background and role of the Indian National Army formed by Subhas Chandra Bose. Neither Nehru's Congress nor Bose's INA are depicted as game changers. The former comes across as largely ineffective, while the latter as almost insignificant. And the third set of people, neither left nor right leaning, were not so much concerned about either sides of the war - the fascists or the imperialists. The ones that joined the British Indian army mostly came from this group. Even if it was merely self-interest or a sense of adventure that drove them to join the military, they too deserve a place in the nation's memory. Farthest Field succeeds in reviving that memory. Whatever be their motivations or political views, these Indians fought so valiantly that they changed forever the perception about the Indian military force. 

Hope this excellent book rekindles interest in our modern history. Somehow, the textbooks don't do an adequate job of drawing young minds deeper into the study of history. Vested political interests conniving to present a selective or an incomplete version of history through the school curriculum also doesn't help improve the situation.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book: The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

This novel published last year is certainly one of the best books by an Indian novelist that I have read. When some recent events in the country are part of the narrative, one is naturally curious to see the author's perspective. Important events like the Emergency in 1975, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, and the demolition of the mosque in 1992,- all these form a backdrop to the story in this novel.

The Way Things Were takes an honest and intelligent look at the political and social aspects of the country through the window of the Toby family. The novel begins with Skanda tasked with returning the body of his father Toby to India. In the process he comes in touch with his family. The history of his family is interwoven with that of the post-independence India. Another important element in the novel is Toby being deeply interested in Sanskrit and his son also carrying the same passion for the language.

I have a habit of noting down the page numbers whenever I come across passages or a quote that I find interesting. In this book there was so much that was interesting that I had to pause every few pages to take in the beauty of a turn of phrase, an observation, an interesting cognate of a Sanskrit word, and so on.

Look at the way the author presents the persona of Toby in just a couple of well chosen details-

"...there was an innocence, a naivety in his face that gave away as someone who could not have grown up in India. Not, at least, in north India, where even the stray dogs had a knowing and watchful look. It was strange: there was never a man who knew more about India and, yet, knew India less, than Toby. He was like one of those men who fall in love with the idea of a woman, while all the time insulating themselves from her reality." - pg 54

As Skanda discovers the story of his parents and other family members, we get to get to see the story of a family that goes through turmoil and change over each succeeding generation. Along with the family story, the author portrays the changes the country has gone through. In the process, a lot of insights are provided on the changing dynamics in terms of gender, class, caste and so on. Taseer is never sparing in his portrayal of the contradictions seen in the conduct of some sections of society. Here is a sample, where the author flashes his critical torchlight on the elite society of Delhi-

"...to both be in India and to stand at a distance from it. The members of this class, who were already set apart from the rest of the country by the loss of language, by privilege, of course, and by what had come to seem almost like racial differences, had no desire to shed their distinctiveness. They clung to it, in fact, wanting nothing so much as to remain inviolable and distinct: foreigners in their own country.

And yet - strange as it must seem- they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian - their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty - they concealed very well." - pg 56;

Important historical events in modern India like the Emergency also get a perceptive view in the backdrop of the travails of people caught in the storm. A couple of characters in the novel, called Vijaipaul and Gayatri Mann, prove handy for the author to come up with some strong views on the politics of the time.

On Emergency-

"...all it will do, this Emergency, is allow Indians to see themselves a little more clearly."
"...by shattering the illusion of liberal democracy. It's very bad, you know, when you're such a third-rate place, to parade around high notions of liberalism and democracy, which is, as you know, developed at the height of another civilization's achievement; and which, in a place like India, only mask the reality. Hide the decay. Much better the end come fast."- pg 79;

And, about the demolition of the Babri mosque-

"This new order - they will use the epics, the poets, Manu, Ayodhya, whatever - and they will hollow them out of meaning. They will make slogans of them. That is what they want them for, as symbols of their rise, and nothing more. They don't want an intellectual rebirth; that requires hard work and labour; that, if taken all the way, can be a frightening thing. It can force you to confront things about your past that are uncomfortable." - pg 424;

References to Sanskrit language appear throughout the novel. Through the characters of Toby and Skanda, who never fail to find cognates (words of the same origin) to Sanskrit words they come across. For word lovers (I am one too!), the book is a treasure house. Every other page has some interesting reference to some word or the other.

Some examples of the glowing praise the Sanskrit language receives in the book are-

"...in a country where so little was planned, everything haphazard and shoddy, here, at least, was an example of the most exquisite planning."

"If we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing- the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting - we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language. Not so much the use of it as the study of it: their grammars were peerless, easily the most profound meditation on language in pre-modern times." - pg 83;

"My great love was always this language, which I found as a young man. It seemed to me at the time to contain a whole universe of thought and feeling and sensibility. I believed it to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
This I believed must be what the poets of old had meant when they spoke of language as a deathless thing and gave to its most basic unit - the syllable - the work aksara: that which does not decay." - pg 540;

Lastly, more than anything else this novel is about history.  The title itself is a translation of the Sanskrit word iti-ha-asa. The reality is that there does not seem to be much awareness or interest in the study of history in our country. Often, what little knowledge there is of history is also quite skewed.

The following lines from the novel bemoan the same in the form of Gayatri Mann remembering Toby thus-
"..His whole approach to things, to history, to memory, to place, to civilization: it was of another time. He used to think people couldn't do without an idea of their past, without an idea of who and what they were.
That perhaps people can get by with a lot less than we thought. That perhaps this thin overlay of global culture, a few malls, a few movies, a mobile phone or two, is more than enough for most people. Enough to get them through.. - pg 510

Taseer quotes Coatzee to make the point that a historical understanding must, in the end, be an understanding of the past as a shaping force upon the present. - pg 339

Again, the need for history is reiterated by the following quote from V S Naipaul- "Men need history. It helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there" - pg 550

For someone interested in contemporary writings on the recent past in India, a novel like The Way Things Were is definitely a good choice.  The world of Sanskrit language, brought alive through the character of Toby and then his son Skanda, becomes a metaphor for the richness of the ancient culture and serves as a reminder that the things we truly ought to feel proud are often lost in the noise generated by the slogans of the new order.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Book: The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial is certainly one of the darkest novels I have read. A haunting account of a citizen's travails at the hands of an unjust government and its institutions. Hailed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century, this novel was completed exactly hundred years ago (1915), although published a few years later (1925) after the death of the author Franz Kafka.

Leaving aside the deeper philosophical concepts for which the novel is often cited, like Absurdism, and Existentialism, even to a lay reader the narrative raises questions about justice, violence, and authority. Through the story of a man unjustly persecuted, the novel provides a satirical, ironical view of the system.

There are several themes that run through the novel but the theme of justice and judgment particularly appealed to me. It is possible that some of the descriptions of the Court and related things could be metaphors for something other than law. Yet, you cannot but marvel at the eerie depiction of a modern citizen trapped in a bureaucracy controlled by shadowy procedures.

The events described unfold in a European city, a hundred years ago. The political system, the court system, it is all obviously different back then. Yet, what is universal is that 'law is an abstract thing' and  'the Court is the human embodiment' of the law. As a system run by human beings, law becomes subject to corruption. Kafka portrays that corruption of the courts quite brilliantly in Chapter 7. This definitely is the chapter that I liked best.

Here are some excerpts from the Chapter 7. In these sections, Titorelli the painter who has some inside connections with the courts, advises Joseph K. the novel's protagonist on the court proceedings-

"...There are three possibilities, that is, definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. Definite acquittal is, of course the best, but I haven't the slightest influence on that kind of verdict. As far as I know, there is no single person who could influence the verdict of definite acquittal. The only deciding factor seems to be the innocence of the accused..."(page 167)

" We must distinguish between two things: what is written in the Law, and what I have discovered through personal experience; you must not confuse the two. In the code of the Law, which admittedly I have not read, it is of course laid down on the one hand that the innocent shall be acquitted, but it is not stated on the other hand that the Judges are open to influence. Now, my experience is diametrically opposed to that. I have not met one case of definite acquittal, and I have met many cases of influential intervention..." (page 168)

"Ostensible acquittal and indefinite postponement" said the painter. "...the difference between them is that ostensible acquittal demands temporary concentration, while postponement taxes your strength less but means a steady strain. First, then, let us take ostensible acquittal. If you decide on that, I shall write down on a sheet of paper an affidavit of your innocence."
"...it is not in the least certain that every Judge will believe me; some Judges, for instance will ask to see you in the person. And then I should have to take you with me to call on them. Though when that happens the battle is already half won, particularly as I should tell you beforehand, of course, exactly what line to take with each Judge."
"...I shall then deliver it to the Judge who is actually conducting your trial. Possibly I may have secured his signature too, then everything will be settled fairly soon..." (page 172)

"...The Judge is covered by the guarantees of the other Judges subscribing to the affidavit, and so he can grant an acquittal with an easy mind, and though some formalities will remain to be settled, he will undoubtedly grant the acquittal to please me and his other friends.Then you can walk out of the Court a free man."

"...but only ostensibly free, or more exactly, provisionally free. For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven't the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, and to all of us."

"...The great privilege, then, of absolving from guilt our Judges do not possess, but they do have the right to take the burden of the charge off your shoulders. That is to say, when you are acquitted in this fashion the charge is lifted from your shoulders for the time being, but it continues to hover above you  and can, as soon as an order comes from on high, be laid upon you again."

"...In definite acquittal the documents relating to the case are said to be completely annulled, they simply vanish from sight, not only the charge but also the records of the case and even the acquittal are destroyed, everything is destroyed. That's not the case with ostensible acquittal. The documents remain as they were, except that the affidavit is added to them and a record of the acquittal and the grounds for granting it. The whole dossier continues to circulate, as the regular official routine demands, passing on to the higher Courts, being referred to the lower ones again, and thus swinging backwards and forwards with greater or smaller oscillations, longer or shorter delays. These peregrinations are incalculable."

"...No document is ever lost, the Court never forgets anything. One day - quite unexpectedly - some Judge will take up the documents and look at them attentively, recognize that in this case the charge is still valid, and order an immediate arrest. I have been speaking on the assumption that a long time elapses between the ostensible acquittal and the new arrest; that is possible and I have known of such cases, but it is just possible for the acquitted man to go straight home from the Court and find officers already waiting to arrest him again. Then, of course, all his freedom is at an end."

"The case begins all over again, but again it is possible, just as before, to secure an ostensible acquittal. One must again apply all one's energies to the case and never give in." (pages 173-174)

"Ostensible acquittal doesn't seem to appeal to you, said the painter. Perhaps postponement would suit you better..." (page 175)

"Postponement consists in preventing the case from ever getting any further than its first stages. To achieve that it is necessary for the accused and his agent, but more particularly his agent, to remain continuously in personal touch with the Court. Let me point out again that this does not demand such intense concentration of one's energies as an ostensible acquittal, yet on the other hand it does require far greater vigilance. You daren't let the case out of your sight, you visit the Judge at regular intervals as well as in emergencies and must do all that is in your power to keep him friendly; if you don't know the Judge personally, then you must try to influence him through the other Judges whom you do know, but without giving up your efforts to secure a personal interview. If you neglect none of these things, then you can assume with fair certainty that the case will never pass beyond its first stages. Not that the proceedings are quashed, but the accused is almost as likely to escape sentence as if he were free. As against ostensible acquittal postponement has this advantage, that the future of the accused is less uncertain, he is secured from the terrors of sudden arrest and doesn't need to undergo - perhaps at a most inconvenient moment - the strain and agitation which are inevitable in the achievement of ostensible acquittal. Though, postponement, too, has certain drawbacks for the accused, and these must not be minimized. In saying this I am not thinking of the fact that the accused is never free; he isn't free either in any real sense, after the ostensible acquittal. There are the other drawbacks. The case can't be held up indefinitely without at least some plausible grounds being provided. So as a matter of form a certain activity must be shown from time to time, various measured have to be taken, the accused is questioned, evidence is collected, and so on. For the case must be kept going all the time, although only in the small circle to which it has been artificially restricted. This naturally involves the accused in occasional unpleasantness, but you must not think of it as being too unpleasant. For it's all a formality, the interrogations, for instance, are only short ones; if you have neither the time nor the inclination to go, you can excuse yourself; with some Judges you can even plan your interviews a long time ahead, all that it amounts to is a formal recognition of your status as an accused man by regular appearances before your Judge." (pages 175-177)

The novel is available online for free at the following site-
The Online Literature Library

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book: The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

This collection of essays on Indian culture, history and identity was published ten years ago. I remember that at the time of its publication this book had received rave reviews. After purchasing this book I had put it in my bookshelf and forgotten all about it. Recently, while watching Amartya Sen on television, I remembered the book and took it out to read. Surprisingly for a book mostly on history, this one was engrossing.

As the author points out in the preface, the great diversity of our country makes any attempt at defining its culture, history or politics a very complicated task. A task that must involve considerable selection among the innumerable things that one can focus on. The author mentions that the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of a choice.

The long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions are cited by the author as the reasons for selecting this as the focus for this work.

The book is divided into four parts. The essays in "Part I : Voice and Heterodoxy" outline the nature, reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition in India. "Part II :  Culture and Communication" contains essays on the role of communication in the development and understanding of cultures. Insights on the subject from the works of the poet and writer Rabindranth Tagore, and the film director Satyajit Ray are provided in this part. "Part III : Politics and Protest" contains essays on the politics of deprivation and the precariousness of human security in the subcontinent. "Part IV: Reason and Identity" contains essays about the role of reasoning in the identity of Indians.

At a time when any talk on culture and history often turns shrill, where propaganda takes the place of facts, it is crucial that for answers we turn to people with proven credentials and scholarship . With decades of scholarship and rigorous academic research to support him, Amartya Sen makes very convincing arguments. Respecting the very 'tradition of arguments' in our culture that he painstakingly elaborates throughout the book, we ought to pay attention to the cogent case that he presents.

The essays are written in such clear, convincing and readable manner that they don't demand any great scholarship from the reader to understand. He raises such fundamental and relevant questions that you pause in your reading to ponder over them. For anyone interested in getting a better understanding of our very ancient and diverse history, this book can be a great source.

Reading 'The Argumentative Indian' makes one feel less proud about some things about current politics, and proud about some things from the past that one has generally been ignorant about.

I have listed some observations and arguments in the book on certain topics that I found to be incisive.

On the relevance of the dialogic tradition -
"Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs)."(Preface - page xiii)
"The nature and strength of the dialogic tradition in India is sometimes ignored because of the much championed belief that India is the land of religious, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices. "(Preface - page xiii-xiv)

On the importance of an understanding of Indian heterodoxy-
"This is especially critical because of the relative neglect of the rationalist parts of the Indian heritage in the contemporary accounts of India's past, in favor of concentrating on India's impressive religiosity. That selective attention has, in fact, produced a substantial bias in the interpretation of Indian thought, and through that in the understanding of the intellectual heritage of contemporary India." (Part I, Essay 1 - page 25)

Amartya Sen's grandfather Kshiti Mohan, in his book called Hinduism, on liberality being part and parcel of the basic Hindu approach-
"Hinduism also points out that a difference of metaphysical doctrine need not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is his dharma [roughly, the personal basis of behaviour], not necessarily his religion."
Amartya Sen's comment-
"That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 46)

On Hindus and Muslims in History-
"The main political moves to undermine Indian secularism have tended to focus, not on discussing the broad current of India's social, cultural or intellectual history, but rather on arbitrarily highlighting specially chosen episodes or anecdotes of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus evidently aimed at generating the anti-Muslim and anti-secular sentiments." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 58)
"The history of India does indeed contain many nightmarish elements, but it also includes conversations and discussions, and extensive joint efforts in literature, music, painting, architecture, jurisprudence and a great many other creative activities." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 59)

On Inventing the Past-
"The redrawing of India's history using the Hindutva lens suffers from some deep empirical problems as well as conceptual tensions." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 65)
"The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India's history. The 'Indus valley civilization', dating from the third millennium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, which are typically dated in the middle of the second millennium BCE."
"Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India's ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (some times called Aryans) from the West, most likely in the second millennium BCE."
"The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of the Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the double 'difficulty' of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 66)
"The achievements that are linked to Buddhism include not just the focus on public reasoning and printing, but also accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature, painting, sculpture and even in the presence of public health care."(Part I, Essay 4 - page 82)
"One of the sad features of a narrowly Hinduized view of India's past is that the justifiable pride Indians can take in the achievements of non-Hindu as well as Hindu accomplishments in India is drowned in the sectarianism of seeing India as mainly a vehicle for Hindu thought and practice." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 83)
"The openness of the argumentative tradition militates not only against exclusionary narrowness within the country, but also against cultivated ignorance of the well-frog. We need not agree to be incarcerated in the dinginess of a much diminished India, no matter how hard the political advocates of smallness try to jostle us. There are serious choices to be made." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 86)

On Western Approaches to India: Three Categories-
"Attempts from outside India to understand and interpret the country's traditions can be put into at least three distinct categories, which I shall call exoticist approaches, magisterial approaches and curatorial approaches.
The first (exoticist) category concentrates on the wondrous aspects of India. The focus here is on what is different, what is strange in the country that, as Hegel put it, "has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans."
The second (magisterial) category strongly relates to the exercise of imperial power and sees India as subject territory from the point of view of its British governors.
The third (curatorial) category is the most catholic of the three and includes various attempts at noting, classifying and exhibiting diverse aspects of Indian culture. (Part II, Essay 7 - pages 141-142)
"The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions." (Part II, Essay 7 - page 159)

On Poverty and Social Opportunity-
"The removal of poverty, particularly of extreme poverty, calls for more participatory growth on a wide basis, which is not easy to achieve across the barriers of illiteracy, ill health, uncompleted land reforms and other sources of severe societal inequality. The process of economic advance cannot be divorced from the cultivation and enhancement of social opportunities over a broad front." (Part III, Essay 9 - pages 197-198)

On Cultural Contentions-
"The issue of cultural disharmony is very much alive in many cultural and political investigations, which often sound as if they are reports from battle fronts, written by war correspondents with divergent loyalties: we hear of the 'clash of civilizations', the need to 'fight' Western cultural imperialism, the irresistible victory of 'Asian values', the challenge to Western civilization posed by the militancy of other cultures and so on. The global confrontations have their reflections within the national frontiers as well, since most societies now have diverse cultures, which can appear to some to be very threatening." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 281)

On Tolerance and Reason-
"It is worth recalling that in Akbar's pronouncements of four hundred years ago on the need for religious neutrality on the part of the state, we can identify the foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India or for that matter anywhere else." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 287)
"Indian secularism, which was strongly championed in the twentieth century by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and others, is often taken to be something of a reflection of Western ideas (despite the fact that Britain is a somewhat unlikely choice as a spearhead of secularism). In contrast, there are good reasons to link this aspect of modern India, including its constitutional secularism and judicially guaranteed multiculturalism, to earlier Indian writings and particularly to the ideas of this Muslim emperor of four hundred years ago." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 288)

On the 'Cultural' Critique-
"Even if it were right to see Indian culture as quintessentially Hindu culture, it would be very odd to alienate, on that ground, the right to equal political and legal treatment of minorities." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)
"The cultural inheritance of contemporary India combines Islamic influences with Hindu and other traditions, and the results of the interaction between members of different religious communities can be seen plentifully in literature, music, painting, architecture and many other fields." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)