The Whiff of Scandal

October 7, 2017 § 5 Comments

OthapOthappu: The Scent of the Other Side (Joseph, Sarah)

As even the most desultory browser of these pages must have deduced by now, I don’t read much fiction. The last book of non-non-fiction that I read was a collection of James Thurber’s humorous pieces, back in June 2016. The last NOVEL I read was in January 2016, when I read James Morier’s early 19th century Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. For my most recent book of fiction by an Indian writer, I’d have to go back over five years, to May 2012: which was when I read a translation of Kalidasa’s Avignana Sakuntalam. Why do I read so few books of fiction? Or books by Indian authors? Or books written in the 21st century? No particular reason, really: there was always something else that I wanted to read more urgently.

Whichever way you look at it, Othappu, a contemporary novel translated from its original Malayalam, is a pretty big departure from the norm for me. I found it very readable: the book is mercifully short, the story simple, the characters very credible. But while I can understand the central crisis in the story at an intellectual level, it doesn’t hit me hard at an emotional level. But that’s because of who I am, or more precisely, of what I am not.

Othappu is set in Kerala, the southern Indian state affectionately referred to by its natives as God’s Own Country, perhaps in acknowledgment of the sheer diversity of gods worshipped in the state. Large populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians manage to live there in harmony (or in as close to harmony as it is possible for Indians to live). While Christians are the smallest of the three groups, there are over 6 million of them, and Kerala is home to more Christians than any other state in India. Christianity in Kerala accommodates several denominations, but chiefly, there are the Syrian Christians and the Catholics. The protagonists of the book, Sister Margalitha and Father Roy Francis Karikkan, are Catholics.

Margalitha comes from a wealthy and influential family: her father was a pillar of the community; her brother is the mayor. It is appropriate for such a leading family to send a daughter to the convent; Margalitha becoming a nun is a family act, a way of giving thanks, or giving back to society. It enhances the prestige of the family. Roy Francis, on the other hand, comes from a much humbler background: his father is a day laborer. About the only escape Roy has from a life of drudgery is to join the church. He works scrupulously and tirelessly to save his own soul and those of the community he services; the day he is promoted to the position of a vicar is the proudest one of his father’s life, and the making of his family.

The horror, the stigma, the scandal, the utter and irredeemable humiliation felt by their families, when Sister Margalitha renounces her vows and Father Roy Francis takes off his cassock, constitute the central crisis I referred to earlier: the one that I can possibly understand, but struggle to feel. As Paul Zacharia says in his commentary on the book, to feel its full emotional impact, I should have to be brought up as a believer in one of the Abrahamic religions, ideally in a devout Catholic family. To me, celibacy is a personal thing, between an individual and their god if they believed in one. Raised in India, I instinctively understand the deep social respect for renunciation, but its flip side, the renunciation of renunciation, means nothing more to me than a return to social life. One just becomes “normal” again, like everyone else, one comes back to society.

Yet, at that precise point, Catholic society ostracizes Margalitha. Her family disowns and shuns her as soon as she leaves the convent, well before her romantic relationship with Roy Francis begins. Her resultant pregnancy is a scarcely noticed lesser crime that no-one is particularly concerned about. Then her vacillating lover deserts her when she is pregnant and destitute – and that I do find shocking – but nobody else in the book seems to, including Margalitha herself. All this I find hard to comprehend, but perhaps, as Zachariah also says, it is as much to do with Catholicism as with the fact that female celibates are held to higher standards than male ones.

Sarah Joseph zooms back and forth between a very intimate close-up of the personal crisis of two individuals, its effect on their families, and how the Christian society beyond relates and reacts to it. There is the worldly, calculating Bishop, the atheistic rationalist, the church-approved faith healer, the heretical lady preacher, the Franciscan recluse with a gun, the ‘low-caste Christian’ who can never be a priest, the Syrian Christian priest with a Catholic wife, and others.  Each of them has his or her own concept of faith, of the Church, of responsibilities to family and society, of love and of God. And yet, the sum of all these contradictory crises and concepts of faith, is one society, and one religion, in one small part of the world.

Sarah Joseph is brave. She has written a book that is frankly critical of organized religion, of social standards and morals, while living in that society. As a Catholic woman from a conservative background, she has written of a nun’s exploration of her own sexuality and faith. This cannot have been easy, or without risk of a social backlash of some sort, even if it isn’t as drastic as the one her heroine received. Yet I am not aware of any recriminations or adverse repercussions to her. This speaks well of the Christian community in Kerala. There are plenty of communities I know that would be far less forgiving of a frank appraisal of their morals and religious practices, even from within.


Other People’s Stories

September 17, 2017 § 4 Comments

RealmIn the Realm of the Gods – Lands, Myths and Legends of China (Cass, Victoria)

I was on vacation in China earlier this summer. It was a unique experience. Not only did Mandarin have no words in common with any of the languages I understood, even my gestures met with blank incomprehension. I also found the Chinese formal, regimented and inscrutable. I’ve been to 30 countries around the world, but China was… different.

And yet, once I looked closer, I found Chinese culture very familiar, in some unexpected ways. Their family values seemed identical to the ones I was raised with. The crowded market in Xi’an looked, smelt and felt like crowded markets anywhere. As our boat wound its way around the Three Gorges, the monotony of mist-wrapped cliffs was broken ever so often by the spires of countless tiny pagodas, just as boat rides through Indian rivers are punctuated by the relentless pealing of temple bells.

I visited some of these pagodas. Some were shrines to local deities: to river or mountain gods, for example. I wondered next about the mythology of these people: would every rock and temple have a legend attached to it, as it does in India? How I wished I could communicate with the locals, to find out! I found a few books of Chinese legends, but the English was terrible, and the stories sounded censored and artificial.

It was then that I discovered this wonderful book, in the boat’s tiny ‘library’.

Victoria Cass is an expert in Chinese culture – you can read all about her here. Her book is scholarly and researched, yet playful. It has literary merit, yet the magnificent photographs on every other page make it a great coffee table book too. It shrewdly and satisfactorily fills a void, by introducing English speakers to Chinese legends in smooth, idiomatic prose, while demonstrating a nuanced understanding of Chinese culture, history and geography.



Pagoda by the riverside (pic credit Tan Wei Liang Byorn – Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0,


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Reductions from Absurdity

September 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

riddlesRiddles in Mathematics (Northrop, Eugene P)

Logicians since Aristotle have referred to three axiomatic Laws of Thought as being at the core of all rational discourse. In summary, the laws say that every statement that has an unambiguous meaning, must be either true or false, but not both at the same time. When a statement violates these principles, it is called a paradox.

Logicians have never liked paradoxes. They put cages around them, and exhibited them as monsters, as absurd objects of amusement, in the way that deformed freaks are displayed in fairs for the titillation of the well-formed. These dregs of logical society were much-reviled. From time to time, a proposition would be taken, subjected to intense deductive procedure, until it confessed to kinship with one of the monsters, and it would then be drummed ingloriously out of town to join them outside the walls. This whole inquisition was called Reductio ad Absurdum, and the city of rational thought strove to ensure that only the purest and most untarnished by the suspicion of paradox could reside within its walls; only those statements, in fact, that could be deduced, legitimately, from a long line of unimpeachably logical statements and could claim descent ultimately from one of the Axioms themselves.

The existence of paradoxes was NECESSARY, in a way, for the city to be built on the solid foundations of truth, but it was necessary as something OUTSIDE the city, that existed to provide contrast and background. If we had no concept of nonsense, the word meaningful would be… meaningless. 

Until Kurt Godel arrived and showed the good citizens that the walls around their city didn’t make them great again. But that’s a different story, a philosophical one, and not the subject of today’s book.



Northrop teaching mathematics…pic credit University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf digital item number, e.g., apf12345], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

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The Past is a Foreign Country

August 8, 2017 § 2 Comments

India afterIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (Guha, Ramachandra)

When it comes to history, Indians have a lot to say, being naturally garrulous and obsessed with the past, and having 5,000 years of it to talk about. Every Indian I know – I know thousands, and not just on Facebook either – is a self-certified expert in Indian history, from the Indus Valley civilization all the way to yesterday’s newspaper. In India, history merges seamlessly into politics. Much of what passes for relevant political debate in the country today concerns whether a people known as the “Aryans” invaded the land 2000 years ago, which mathematical and medical discoveries were made here before the birth of Christ, where certain gods were born, and how horrible exactly the Mughals were.

Where ancient history is difficult to extricate from politics, can contemporary history be less combustible? Ramachandra Guha (whom we met years ago in these pages as the author of a masterful history of Indian cricket) wades cheerfully into this minefield with India After Gandhi, an ambitious tome of a book that lovingly details the first 60 years or so of India’s existence as an independent nation.

No historian can lay claim to complete dispassionate objectivity, to the extent that he/she deliberately chooses facts and narratives from a set of options. The best historians are conscious of this, and admit to taking sides. Further, they are honest and scrupulous about documenting reputable sources for their facts and figures, clearly calling out their own opinions and conjectures, and about following the train of logical reasoning, even if it leads them away from a conveniently simple narrative. Ramachandra Guha checks these boxes, and so I believe he does as good a job as is possible with his subject matter, given the impossibility of achieving universal agreement.

Whose side is he on? Emphatically, on the side of pluralism, secularism, free speech, democracy, progress and peace. And yet he is not partisan: he calls out corruption, pettiness, missed opportunities, errors of judgment, crimes and character flaws wherever he sees them. In a nation famous for its sacred cows, it is refreshing that Ramachandra Guha has none. Guha clearly respects Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation’s first Prime Minister, and yet the sensitive portrait he draws of Nehru does not airbrush his warts and wrinkles away. Guha’s opponents may dub him naïve and idealist, but he is a scholar, not a politician; he is charged, not with running the country, but with keeping score.

So, what does Guha’s scorecard look like?

There are several significant and unique accomplishments of which every Indian should feel justifiably proud, says Guha. The biggest, and where his story begins, is the Constitution.

The process by which the Indian Constitution was deliberated in painstaking detail over three years by a large and diverse group of representatives, and the quality of the final document that was adopted, are both spectacular triumphs of the human will: very few countries can boast of anything similar. To fit in the requirements of so many meant compromise and dialogue, and that set the tone for the nation: the first generation of Indian leaders hedged and accommodated everyone at every step, leaving everyone only slightly unhappy, and nobody too thrilled.

The Indian approach to foreign policy (the non-aligned movement), for instance, didn’t win India friends in the west, or indeed in the third world. Nevertheless, with the exception of a Chinese hiccup in 1962, India largely kept out of trouble through the tense Cold War period.

Likewise the Nehruvian economic policy (the Fabian socialist approach, with Five Year Plans and government control over heavy industry) has been relentlessly panned in recent times, and a lot of the criticism is justified (especially the low spend on primary education and healthcare), yet the accomplishments on the front of food self-sufficiency and land reform are not to be scoffed at, if we consider the abject state of decrepitude that the British left behind. Free markets have no time for the starving poor. The hesitant steps that Rajiv Gandhi took towards economic liberalization could have been taken ten years before they actually were – India lost a decade of growth between 1975-85 according to many calculations.  There are furious critics on the left as well, who point to the continued misery of the poorest sections of society despite 70 years of independence. Indian governments have tended to tread a careful middle path between these critics, not satisfying either.

It is in the political sphere that India made its boldest and most decisive experiment, with a proudly free media and a strongly democratic tradition, with multi-party democracy and universal adult franchise, that its foreign critics refused to believe could ever take hold. Guha documents several dire foreign predictions of the demise of Indian democracy, and yet India is possibly the only nation that shrugged off its colonial yoke in the mid-20th century and has remained steadfastly democratic ever since (even the dreadful Emergency period lasted only 2 years, and no general elections were skipped). There is no question that a single modern nation has been successfully forged in the process, out of 500+ principalities, and one billion people speaking 800 different dialects.

Yet if history is the story of how things change over time, reading Guha in 2017 merely brought sharply into relief the number of things that have come full circle, perhaps reinforcing the stereotype of how Indians see time not as an unswerving arrow of progress, but as a cycle rotating in the same place.

Here are a few highlights:

In December 1947, Nehru wrote to the Maharaja of Kashmir, speaking of how the Indian union could not retain Kashmir “except through the goodwill of the mass of the population…if the average Muslim feels that he has no safe or secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view or else we fail.”

In 1950, an American psychologist [Murphy, In the Minds of Men] conducted a survey on the state of the Indian Muslim. His respondents – who were from towns in north and west India – were beset by fear and suspicion. “We are regarded as Pakistani spies,” said one. ”Is it any great wonder,” asked Khushwant Singh after riots in the 1960s, “that an Indian Muslim no longer feels secure in secular India? He feels discriminated against. He feels a second-class citizen.”

In June 1959, Nehru visited Kerala in the wake of violence (weeks before he dismissed the Communist government). He wrote that he was alarmed by the “thick walls of group hatred” – the two sides were like hostile countries at war (Mannath Padmanabhan’s Nair Service Society, and Namboodiripad’s Communists)

In July 1962, a conflict arose over the Dhola-Thag La ridge in the valley of the Namka Chu river where the borders of India, Tibet and Bhutan all meet. The Indians claimed that the ridge fell south of the MacMahon Line, the Chinese argued that it was on their side. There are only two points where India, Tibet and Bhutan meet: once in the eastern tip of Bhutan, at Dhola – Thag La, and once in the western tip, at Doklam)

In 1965, the Anglo-Saxon member, Frank Anthony, deplored the ‘increasing intolerance, increasing obscurantism increasing chauvinism of those who purport to speak on behalf of Hindi’

In 1966, Hindu holy men agitated, calling for an end to the killing of the sacred cow.

In the 1960s and 70s, Maoist guerrilla bands seized power in large swathes of rural impoverished states. They fought the police and the army, they melted into the jungles when convenient, and they enjoyed the support of local village communities, against the state.

In May 1973, in a thoughtful essay constitutional expert AG Noorani deplored the politicization of judges – many of whom had begun speaking on matters well outside their purview

Without the dates, each of these issues could serve as the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper. These conflicts of identity, perhaps natural in the first decades of the independent nation, are rearing up again, 70 years after independence, because the core questions of national identity have not yet been resolved conclusively.

Guha believes, as the fathers of India’s constitution did (and as I do) that the optimal model for assimilation for a nation as diverse as India, is not the American melting pot, where individual groups pour in their flavours into a common pot and assume a single uniform identity that encapsulates all. Guha says the optimal model is the salad bowl, where each group stands out, ‘different and distinctive in how it looks and behaves’. I would quibble, and recommend rather a burrito bowl, where the habanero salsa adds spice to the guacamole, and the pinto beans go well with the rice, but you can taste each of them separately as well. But the important thing is, you cannot define the burrito as one dominant ingredient or the other.

We must remember that Ramachandra Guha’s story ends in November 2006. India in 2017 is at a crossroads. It is all about various ingredients that are asserting their superiority over other ingredients, and demanding to be accepted as the single definitive flavor that all others need to rally around: they are religious, linguistic, cultural, caste-based. But to use a different stereotype, India is like the great rope trick illusion. It stands tall and firm only when we look at it out of the corner of our eye, only when we do not subject it to close scrutiny, only when we do not seek to define it too clearly; for when we do, we see the fuzzy boundaries and the contradictions, and the magnificent edifice may collapse before our eyes. The much-decried spirit of compromise and accommodation of the nation’s first leaders may not have achieved much, but it did ensure that the fragile democracy did not fail, in the way that almost every other young nation born in the 20th century did.

But perhaps ignoring these questions merely drives them underground. Perhaps the nation needs a second constituent assembly now, to reexamine these questions of identity. Is the nation strong enough now to withstand such a tumultuous debate? Will a strong state emerge from this debate, that subsumes into itself all individual sub-identities? Would it be a desirable thing? That’s what the present administration perhaps believes, and only time (and a different history book written in the future) can tell if it will be successful.

In that sense India After Gandhi might well have been titled India Before Modi. Today, to many, this book may already sound like ancient history.

The Great Indian (American) Novel

July 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

buckb_The Mahabharata (Buck, William)

I am conscious that my last review was also of a version of the Mahabharata – Purushottama Lal’s. This doesn’t mean I read nothing else – merely, that I had nothing to say about the books I read in between.

Lal’s work was a self-described ‘transcreation’: he was careful to distinguish it from a translation. William Buck’s work calls itself a ‘re-telling’, too. Both are considerably condensed – Buck’s from the 5800 page Pratap Chandra Roy original to a slim 400-page version, while Lal’s is even slimmer, and from an even heavier source.

But a huge chasm yawns between the two men in punditry, in the methods they used, and in the Mahabharatas they have engendered.



Buck’s Mahabharata, with a thousand holes poked in it (but the ways of dharma are subtle) (Pic credit:


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Not Here and Nowhere Else

January 8, 2017 § 3 Comments

plalThe Mahabharata of Vyasa (Lal, Purushottama)

My obsession with world mythology in general, and with the Mahabharata in particular, is no secret. I am proud of having owned a collection of Mahabharata translations way before Devdutt Pattanayak made it fashionable to read mythology. I have blogged about Kamala Subramanian’s version in these pages, and it is time now to talk about P Lal’s.

To begin with, this isn’t the Mahabharata that Purushottama Lal is famous for. That is the legendary sloka-by-sloka poetic translation, a set of 18 volumes or 338 ‘fascicules’ that he started work on in the 1960s and took him twenty years to complete. This isn’t the Mahabharata that, to emphasize the oral nature of the epic tradition, he started reading out aloud from, for an hour every Sunday in a room in Kolkata, in 1999, a tradition that continues to this day.

No, what I own is a “condensation from Sanskrit and transcreation into English”, a slim paperback volume first published in 1989. How does he condense 20 years’ work in 250 pages? Unlike other authors I have read, Lal does not simplify, interpret or elaborate on the 100,000 sloka original: he keeps faithfully to the original verses, but selects verses that can be strung together in a single prose narrative, and omits the innumerable digressions and tangential material that make up the epic.

How does this version compare with any of the others I’ve read?


The Kurukshetra War (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


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Who Not Only Cricket Knows

December 3, 2016 § 5 Comments

clr-jamesCricket (James, CLR)

CLR James was a 20th century Caribbean journalist and writer on history, politics, literature…and on the game of cricket. His 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, is hailed by some as the best cricket book of all time. The book under current consideration is an anthology of his essays, letters and published articles on cricket from 1933 to 1985.

Now I haven’t read the non-cricket books for which he is famous – his writings on Trotsky, L’Ouverture, and Kwame Nkrumah – but I doubt that he wove in any elements of cricket in them. His cricket-related writings, however, drip with history, politics and literature. He debates Shakespeare’s King Lear with John Arlott; he evokes Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads while writing about Gary Sobers; he quotes the great English dramatic critic William Hazlitt while writing about Learie Constantine and Matthew Arnold while writing about Sandeep Patil’s 129 at Old Trafford in 1982. But literary eloquence aside, what stands out most in James’ work is his passionate post-colonial nationalist politics.

One of the earliest essays in the book narrates the story of the first team from the West Indies to tour England, at the end of the 19th century. They didn’t do shabbily, but were rewarded with a cartoon in The Star newspaper, that depicted Dr. WG Grace, ‘huge, towering, bat in hand, while around him crouched six black men all shedding tears, and saying to the doctor: “We have come to learn, sah!”’ Fittingly, one of the last essays in the book chronicles the famous 1984 “Blackwash”, where David Gower’s abject England were hammered 0-5 at home by Clive Lloyd’s swaggering stalwarts. James’ cricket essays trace the arc of history from the first event to the second.


From here…



…To here


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  • Notes

    Please note that I use the 'Rating' button on each post to rate MY experience while reading the book in question. If you have positive or negative opinions to express about the POST itself, please use the Comments section, or send me an email. Please do not use the rating button.

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