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.

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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.

 

bhesmah

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

 

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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?

karna_in_kurukshetra

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.

250px-westindies1900team

From here…

 

blackwash

…To here

 

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Behaving Ourselves

November 14, 2016 § 1 Comment


misbehavingMisbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (Thaler, Richard H)

Not very long ago, I blogged about Bronislaw Malinowski’s Magic, Science and Religion, where he strove to convince his readers that the Stone Age people of Papua New Guinea were as rational and logical as the modern man of science: it is just the modern world has equipped us with so much more pre-digested knowledge. We couldn’t have figured out by ourselves a lot of the stuff that we ‘know’ to be elementary; a lot of the stuff the Trobrianders accepted as obvious appear ridiculous to us. We forget that large parts of our cutting edge science, too, would appear indistinguishable from mythology and superstition to aliens capable of inter-galactic travel.   

One of the sciences where our current knowledge might be on wobblier ground than we realize is economics. The trouble with economics, as Thaler points out, is that it comes up with laws about the rational decisions that people ought to make in economic matters; then it performs a quick sleight of hand and assumes that everyone does make rational decisions in economic matters.

As Thaler points out in every chapter in this book, this is not quite accurate, even on a broad, average basis. As a rule, people do not always behave in a way that economists would describe as rational – while gambling, investing, spending frivolously, suing, earning or giving away. The way people think about money changes depending on whether they already have it and can lose it, don’t have it and can win it, have already spent it on something they haven’t used, or are paying for something they’ve already used. Conventional economics tells us that these things shouldn’t make a difference, and more, that these things do not make a difference to people. But they make all the difference.

A girl splurges on some dresses that she now doesn’t like; her mother, furious, insists that she wear the dresses she bought. An economist would call it a sunk cost: whether the girl wears the clothes or not makes no material difference as long as she doesn’t buy any more. And yet there is a perfectly sound logic to this, one that parents around the world would understand. The girl’s punishment would teach her a lesson she would remember the next time she felt like going against her mother’s advice. This may not be an economic goal but at times, it is certainly a well-defined parenting one. People do not think with only their wallets all the time. Either we do not maximize our utility all the time (as economists say we do), or we try but fail to do so (because we are of inferior intellect than those economists), or the economists’ notion of utility is too simplistic to cover all our aspirations, fears and things in between.

So what Thaler (and some of the others he mentions, notably Danny Kahnemann and Amos Tversky) wanted to do was study the economic decisions that people actually make, and to try and understand the rules underlying those. Misbehaving is the story, not just of those quirky decisions, but of Thaler & co’s struggles to gain academic respectability for their theories and methods from “the establishment”. For long they were dismissed as an irrelevant side-show, and derided for cozying up to psychologists instead of to mathematicians. The people who misbehave in this book are the old-school economists who didn’t see behavioral economics as a worthy occupation. Besides, if your theory predicts that people will act in a certain way, and most of them don’t, it is your theory that is misbehaving, not the subjects of your predictions.

Oddly, Thaler’s story has a parallel with Bronislaw Malinowski’s. Until Malinowski’s generation, primitive tribes were studied almost like zoological phenomena by anthropologists: they were not thought capable of human intelligence. Malinowski stayed among the tribes, studied the way they behave without preconceived notions; he thought that’s what anthropology should be all about. Until Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky, people were studied as if they were logical automatons: they were not thought capable of human passions and emotions. Thaler thought he would study the way they behave without the baggage of economic theory about how they OUGHT to behave: he thought that’s what economics should be all about.

Misbehaving is a hefty book, funny, rambling in parts, bristling with ideas and stories, very different in form and substance from the slim, austere volume of essays that Malinowski published, but I got the same moral out of both: that ultimately, people are people. In order to understand them, you need to observe them, walk around in their shoes, collect the data. And before you do any of that, you ought to forget all the theoretical models and frameworks they taught you in college.

Coming up Trumps

November 10, 2016 § 8 Comments


Today I am making a one-time exception to talk about politics instead of books: I’d have to be an emotionless automaton not to struggle to process what just happened in the presidential elections.

When unexpected stuff happens, the mind seeks closure, and hunts for a good explanatory framework to hang its hat on. Now, in this case, there are several serviceable ones to choose from. Some of them helpfully provide an explanation that is also a satisfactory lashing-out: the White Racist Backlash,  the Woman-on-Woman Misogyny, the Ignorant Bigotry of the Unwashed, the xenophobia caused by economic inequality, the mean-spirited nativism of newly naturalized Hispanics…but I like to paint a wider canvas and with a broader brush, so here’s the one I’m going with.

In the mid-20th century, Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter came up with a theory of economic history that states that booms and bust cycles last broadly 40-60 years apiece, and form alternating cycles. So you have Prosperity, Recession, Depression, Improvement, Prosperity…you get the picture. In a similar vein, I believe it is possible to talk of alternating political waves of centripetal and centrifugal revolutions (towards and away from the center). I wouldn’t be surprised if such a theory already exists, because it fits. It is largely Western democracy centric, but I think elements of it are increasingly applicable to the rest of the world.

A centripetal wave is inclusive and relatively liberal, but in order to be inclusive, it is also about compromise and increasing complexity and corruption, until those side-effects breach a threshold and the people reject it comprehensively in favor of the simplicity and clarity of thought of a more extreme position. This comes with its own baggage: a heightened sense of jingoism, suspicion of foreigners, a stronger focus on the military, a stronger inner unity fueled by aggressive economic growth, but also by a feeling of competitive animosity towards the Others. Eventually, these side-effects too reach a level when people reject it and lurch back towards the inclusive, amiable, corrupt center.

So, empirically: we had a centrifugal, uber-nationalist period between 1776 and 1857, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon, the South American and Mexican wars of Independence, the failed revolutions in several countries, the Italian risorgimento, perhaps even the failed 1857 revolt in India. Then, there was a long period of stable centrism, until the next wave of establishment demolition, between 1914 and 1948 (from Franz Ferdinand to Nehru and Mao), followed by another largely centrist era.

Donald Trump’s win proves to me that we are now well into the next wave. But the US didn’t start the fire. It is merely part of a global centrifugal anti-establishment wave, that started in 2010 with the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the failed ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran, the failed revolutions in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria (that are still burning), the accession to power in 2012 of Vladimir Putin in Russia, the accession to presidency in 2014, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the accession to power in 2014 of Narendra Modi, and of course the Brexit in the United Kingdom. Every one of these was brought about by a strong mass movement across sections of society, and those that failed, did so because of undemocratic reactionary interventions from outside. Next stop France, where Marine Le Pen is already cracking her knuckles in anticipation.

And the Republican Party? Only weeks ago, they were panicky, in such complete shambles that they were talking about recovering by 2028 at the earliest. They didn’t plan this. Nobody planned it.

Here’s what Otto von Bismarck said, when asked about how leaders make history. And mind you, the man knew a thing or two about his subject.

“A statesman has not to make history,” (imagine this said in a Teutonic accent), “but if ever, in the events around him, he hears the sweep of the mantle of God, then he must JUMP UP! and CATCH it at the hem.” (emphasis mine)

That “mantle of God” Bismarck was referring to, is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the inexorable tsunami of history, that has now swept along all of us, and Donald Trump is helplessly at the crest of the wave, and when we look up, we see him leading us.

Conclusion 1: The lurch to the right will not be without some positives, just like the centrism wasn’t without its negatives.

Conclusion 2: For liberals and centrists: this too shall pass, though it may take the next few decades or so until the next centrist wave, and many of us may not be around to see it. It’s definitely going to get worse before it gets better.

Conclusion 3: Since neither party establishment really saw this coming, it is a historical accident that it was D Trump v H Clinton. If it had been J Bush v B Sanders, we’d possibly be seeing THE SAME WAVE, and President Bernie waving to us from its crest.

I feel better already. And also worse.

The Approach of Perfection

November 1, 2016 § 4 Comments


attarThe Conference of the Birds (Attar, Fariduddin) (translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

 I heard of the Manteq al Tair nearly two decades ago, in Jorge Luis Borges’ characteristically brief short story, The Approach to al-Mu’tasim. Borges’ terse summary of the ancient tale blew my mind then, but I wasn’t even sure at first that it was a real book, and not something he invented. It took me all these years to seek and acquire an English translation, and I am glad I did: Darbandi and Davis’ translation, in flawless iambic pentameter, does full justice to the Sufi classic in form and substance.

I have run into Dick Davis before, having read his rather excellent prose translation of Abul Qasim Ferdowsi‘s Shahnameh a few years ago, but I’d like to talk more about the original poem than about the translation (which just tells you what a great translation it is).

Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Farid-ud-din “Attar” was born in the twelfth century in the town of Neyshapur, to the north east of Persia. Some say he was among those massacred by Chingiz Khan’s Mongol hordes when they poured into Khorasan in the 1220s. In between, Attar was many things: possibly a seller of perfumes, probably a healer and dealer in herbal remedies, and without doubt one of the greatest mystical poets in the Sufi tradition, and the Manteq al Tair (The Conference of the Birds), an epic allegorical poem, is arguably his best work.

Sufism is the inner, deeply spiritual tradition that permeates Islam, and runs as a powerful undercurrent below more worldly traditions like the Sharia law that we hear so much about. It isn’t a different sect, just a different aspect of Islam, an aspect that it shares with other eastern religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism (which, like all religions, have other less praiseworthy aspects as well). Small wonder that the frame story of the poem is possibly borrowed from one of the sections of the Kalileh wa Dimneh, a 6th century Persian translation of the Indian Panchatantra.

The story of the Conference is easy to relate. There is a kingdom of birds, and it is in crisis. The birds decide they need a king to lead them, a bird more perfect than all of them. One of them, the hoopoe, recalls seeing in his childhood, in China, a feather of the ultimately perfect bird, the Simurgh. He exhorts the rest of the birds to join him on a journey to the distant land where the Simurgh lives, so that they may offer him their crown. Overcoming their many misgivings about the daunting journey ahead, the birds set off in search of the Simurgh. During the quest, they come face to face with their flaws and deepest fears, their vanities, timidity, sentimental attachments, and other weaknesses; many drop out along the way of thirst or weariness. They cross the valley of the Quest, then that of Love, that of Insight into Mystery, then of Detachment, Oneness, Bewilderment, and finally the Valley of Nothingness. The hoopoe is their guide throughout, encouraging them with parables and philosophy, until eventually, ragged and exhausted, a mere thirty of them reach their destination. But where is the Simurgh? It is nowhere to be seen. Someone finally shows them a mirror and in it they see their own reflection, and they realize that they are the Simurgh, that they have become the perfection that they had been seeking so assiduously.

bird

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