Monday, 31 October 2011

Book Review: "Across the LoC – Inside Pakistan Administered Jammu and Kashmir" by Luv Puri

Luv Puri is a reputed journalist who has in the past worked for the Hindu and reported extensively on Pakistan and the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. Currently a Fulbright scholar at the New York University, Puri has written a book which, like Puri’s first name, is compact and petite (though not as sweet) and seeks to ‘go beyond the official narrative and present an objective view of the situation on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan Administered Jammu and Kashmir in particular and reconcile the contesting views of India and Pakistan’.

Puri succeeds to a large extent. The facts and statistics presented in Across the Loc are of the sort one doesn’t come across easily in the mainstream media. A fair amount of attention is paid to the demographics of J&K prior to 1947. Jammu and Kashmir were so different in many ways, not just in the percentage of Muslims in each region. We all know of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference. How many of us know of the Muslim Conference and its relationship with the Muslim League in undivided India? Do you know how well Jinnah got along with Sheikh Abdullah especially after Jinnah’s visit to the state in 1944? In simple terms, the National Conference was pro-India and pro-Congress and the Muslim Conference was pro-Pakistan and pro-Muslim League. However, the Muslim Conference’s leadership in Jammu did not see eye to eye with its leadership in the Valley. So much so that the President of the Jammu group announced at a press conference on 28 May 1947 that it stood for independence. Less than two months later, Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah, the leader of the Muslim Conference in Srinagar sought internal autonomy and accession to Pakistan in matters relating to defence, foreign policy and communications.

Puri’s account is very objective and balanced. He refers to India-held Kashmir as Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir or IAJK and Pak-held Kashmir is Pakistan administered Jammu and Kashmir or PAJK. The book is divided into six chapters and each of those chapters told me a lot of things I didn’t know earlier. For example, Puri tells us that after India recaptured lost territory during the 1965 War, retaliatory action was unleashed against the Muslims in the Mendhar area of Poonch district, suspected to have sided with Pakistan’s campaign. Apparently this led to large-scale displacement from IAJK to PAJK. The chapter on Mirpur and the role played by immigrants (to the UK) from Mirpur in the JKLF and other insurgent groups is very interesting. It is claimed that half the Pakistani immigrants in the UK are from Mirpur. Equally interesting is Pakistan’s attempt to show PAJK or Azad Kashmir to be an independent country, which is subject to an international dispute, and give it the trappings of a sovereign state with its own Supreme Court, President and Prime Minister, even though the Legislature of PAJK has to share power with the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council.

Where Puri fails to deliver is in the analysis department. Across the LoC is solid on fact, no doubt about it. However, the presented facts are not analysed and opinions put forth to the extent one would expect in a book of this nature. Much of the text consists of quotes from other books or from people interviewed by the author. Puri rarely puts forth a point of view and this can be immensely irritating. For example, when Puri talks of Darul Uloom, Asia’s largest Muslim seminary at Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, he says that ‘till the 1980s, 25 per cent of the students at the seminary came from outside India.’ Apparently, the Indian government has now cut down the number of student visas given to international students and their numbers have dropped. Puri says that ‘many scholars at Deoband feel that a liberal visa policy will contribute to infusing the true Deobandi pedagogy in its true spirit that is neither incendiary nor extremist.’ Okay, so far so good, but does Puri think that a more liberal visa regime would make sense? You never get to know since Puri does not spell out his stand.

Despite this shortcoming, Across the LoC is an excellent (or even mandatory) read for anyone interested in the Kashmir dispute.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Land of Two Rivers by Nitish Sengupta – Book Review

Nitish Sengupta studied history at the Presidency College, Kolakata, taught history for a brief while and then, like so many talented Indians of his generation, joined the Indian Administrative Services. After his retirement, Sengupta entered politics and joined the Trinamool Congress, ending up in the 13th Lok Sabha (1999-2004). Currently Sengupta is Chairman of the Board for Reconstruction for Central Public Sector Enterprises in New Delhi. Despite all this, Sengupta never lost his love for history, as evidenced in his most recent book, Land of Two Rivers, a project which took him seventeen years to complete.

A labour of love, Sengupta wrote Land of Two Rivers in the hope that it will encourage ‘those who speak Bengali, about 250 million in number, take an active interest in their common political history, their shared composite culture and above all, the common language they take pride in.’ Note the words ‘common’ and ‘composite’, the former used more than once in the sentence I have just quoted. These words and their synonyms are used repeatedly by Sengupta as he describes the ethnic origins of the Bengalee race and takes his readers from the time human habitation came to the land where the Ganga and the Brahmaputra flow, till the creation of Bangladesh. How did the various ethnic groups in the land of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra fuse together to become Bengalees? How was the Bengali language, the sixth largest in the world in terms of number of people speaking it, formed in the tenth century? Why did the Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose attempt to have an ‘independent, sovereign, undivided Bengal in a divided India’, fail? One detects a tinge of regret as Sengupta describes the second partition of Bengal and chest thumping pride as Sengupta talks of how Bengalis in East Pakistan fought for their language. And won.

Let me repeat this. Sengupta took seventeen years to write this book and every paragraph in Land of Two Rivers reflects the effort that has been put in. There are no dramatisations, other than that which occur on their own, and Sengupta’s descriptions are very much matter of fact, be it his description of how the Chinese Buddhist traveller, Fa-Hien’s writings mention a prosperous Bengal or the description of the events of Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946 and the Calcutta Killings. Sengupta evidently subscribes to the school of historial thought propagated by RC Majumdar and later Romila Thapar. The Aryan migration theory is accepted and is used to partly explain migrations into the areas which is now form West Bengal and Bangladesh as well as caste structures and ethnic mixing amongst Bengali speakers.

Sengupta’s inflection-less writing comes at a price though. There were times when, while going through a description of, say, the Kaibarta rebellion in the 11th century, I had to stop in mid-sentence and figure out who ‘Bhim’ was. Since Land of Two Rivers is a continuous flow of facts and characters at an even pace without flourishes or melodrama, many names and facts merely flowed through my head without lodging. I had to scan through two of the preceding paragraphs twice before I could locate ‘Bhim’, the third of the three Kaibarta chiefs who occupied Varendra or north Bengal.

Sengupta does not hesitate to fight for his (Bengalee) heroes. When discussing Sasanka, the first ruler of the land that later came to be called Bengal, and his alleged anti-Buddhist bias, Sengupta pleads that ‘in fairness to Sasanka, it needs to be emphasized that his so-called anti-Buddhist stance was clearly more political than religious. He had to fight against two Buddhist kings and therefore, some Buddhists in his own dominion had to bear the brunt of his hostility. But he should not be made to suffer in the eyes of posterity for not having had emotionally motivated chroniclers like Banabhatta and Hiuen-Tsang to write in his favour.

Sengupta carries out a similar exercise in the case of Siraj-ud-Daula and the Battle of Plassey, which, Sengupta tells us, was not exactly a whitewash as many historians have made it out to be. Sengupta’s description of the young Siraj-ud-Daula who was so talented and had so many short-comings is one of the best bits of this book. Did the Black Hole of Calcutta actually exist? Do please read this book to find out what Sengupta has to say about it. Equally well written is the chapter on Subhas Chandra Bose. Aptly titled the 'Rise and Fall of Netaji Bose', this brief and succinct chapter told me more about Netaji than any other book I have read. However, Sengupta does not ask or answer one crucial question: Was Subhas Chandra Bose right in having started the INA rebellion? With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the Japanese and Germans were bound to lose the war, but in the dark days of the German Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbour and the British retreat from Singapore, who knew which power would prevail? Subhas Bose wanted independence for India at any cost and was willing to ally himself with the devil, for all he cared, as long as he achieved his goal.

One important Bengalee politician whose character I felt could have been analysed in greater detail, is Suhrawardy. A man who played almost as important a role as Jinnah in the creation of Pakistan and the popularisation of the Muslim League among ordinary Muslims, Suhrawardy was almost entirely responsible for the Calcutta killings during Direct Action Day. However, Suhrawardy also took the lead in fighting for Bengalee rights after Partition and joined the Awami Muslim League, later renamed as the Awami League. Sengupta does talk of Suhrawardy in detail, but analysis of his character on the lines of Subhash Chandra Bose or Siraj-ud-Daula is missing.

Unfortunately and sadly, Sengupta’s tome slows down after Bangladeshi independence, through there are brief mentions of developments till the West Bengal elections of 2006 when the CPI(M) was returned to power, despite inroads made by the Trinamool Congress. I do wish Sengupta had discussed and analysed the agitation for Gorkhaland by Nepali speakers in Darjeeling and Doars in the north of West Bengal. The absence of discussion on this topic is all the more glaring because towards the end of the book, Sengupta devotes a page to ‘Bengalees in India outside West Bengal’ and dwells upon the plight of Bengalees in the Barak valley of Assam. In a country where all states have been divided on a linguistic basis and where every linguistic group has a state of its own, should the Bengalees who care so much for their language and who suffered so much at the hands of those who sought to impose another language on them, prevent Nepali speaking Gorkhas from having a state of their own?

I was also hoping that Sengupta would make an attempt to analyse why Indo-Bangladeshi relations are not so warm or friendly as they ought to be, considering India's assistance in the creation of Bangladesh, a topic on which, I am sure Sengupta could have contributed a lot. After the creation of Bangladesh, a large number of Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, many of whom had colluded with the Pakistani army, were disenfranchised. I wish Sengupta had expressed his views on this issue.

Nevertheless, despite the few ‘missing’ issues and events, for all history buffs, friends of Bengal, lovers of Bengali and Bengalees, Land of Two Rivers will undoubtedly make a riveting read.

Note: Sengupta spells the language as ‘Bengali’ and the people of Bengal as ‘Bengalee’.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Muammar Gaddafi and Velupillai Prabhakaran – Parallels in Life and Death

Gaddafi recent demise at the hands of TNC fighters reminded me of Prabhakaran’s death at the hands of Sri Lankan forces in May 2009.

Both leaders were very charismatic, essentially secular, with patches of left-wing socialism and aspirations to be modern and high-tech. Both leaders built up a personality cult around themselves. Neither leader hesitated to invoke God or religion or play on the religious sentiments of the people or play one religious group or sect against others. For example, in 1990, Prabhakaran’s LTTE expelled over seventy thousand Tamil speaking Muslims from their homelands in the Northern Province, towns such as Chavakacheri, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Jaffna, since they were suspected to the traitors to the cause of Tamil Eelam. In Jaffna, the entire Muslim population was forced to assemble in the grounds of Osmania college and leave within 2 hours, carrying with them nothing more than the clothes on their backs and fifty rupees each in cash.

Both leaders were happy to build links with other terrorist groups world-wide. If Gaddafi provided semtex to the IRA, Prabhakaran’s LTTE had links with various terrorist and naxalite groups in India to whom they sold weapons. The LTTE also used its shipping and logistics units to transport drugs from Colombian cartels and sold them to raise revenue. The LTTE had ties to the IRA as well and Sinn Fein arranged for Prabhakaran’s son Charles Anthony to study Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Belfast. One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam, went to the London School of Economics, where he completed a Ph.D. It was later alleged that Saif al-Islam’s Ph.D thesis on "The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions" was plagiarised.

Both leaders always had a working relationship with the West. Despite sanctions and other restrictions, Libyan officials were always in contact with European countries which were keen to do business with the oil rich state. As for the LTTE, even after sanctions were imposed by many Western states, the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora made it easy for them to cultivate mid-level leaders in the West who were keen to remain in the good books of the Diaspora, many of whom could vote in the elections.

Death came to both Prabhakaran and Gaddafi in a violent manner, at the hands of men who were just as violent as they were. Gaddafi was captured alive as he tried to flee the TNC’s stranglehold over Sirte. After being beaten and manhandled, he was most probably executed by fighters who did not have the patience to put him on trial as international law would demand. In his final days, Prabhakaran too had been holed up with a few close aides at Mullaivaikaal near the Nanthikadal lagoon in Mullaitivu, North Eastern Sri Lanka. He tried to break out of the military dragnet around him and almost made it. It is alleged that he was captured alive and later killed by the Sri Lankan army, which like the TNC fighters in Sirte, had run out of patience for the demands of International law and human rights, though the Sri Lankan government claims that he died of a random gunshot wound and that his body was accidentally discovered.

Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathani Erambu, daughter Duwaraka and second son Balachandran were also found dead within a short distance of Prabhakaran’s body, giving rise to the credible suspicion that all of them were killed by the Sri Lankan army. Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony was killed a day earlier. One of Gaddafi’s sons Motassim Gaddafi was killed along with him, most probably in the same manner, after being captured alive. There are conflicting reports that some of Gaddafi’s other many sons, like Khamis Gaddafi, Saif al-Arab and Saif al-Islam have also been killed or captured.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Scorpion's Tail by Zahid Hussain – Book Review

Zahid Hussain is a Pakistan based journalist and correspondent who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and Newsweek. His book The Scorpion's Tail was released almost a year ago, but I got around to reading it only now.

Minus its notes and index, The Scorpion's Tail runs to just over 200 pages and is an easy read because a large chunk of it is written in the style of reportage. Hussain traces the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan from the time of its creation when clerics of the Deobandi sect opposed India’s partition because they felt it would weaken Muslim power in the Indian subcontinent. Though Hussain is short on analysis, The Scorpion’s Tail is an excellent description of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. One gets a ring-side view of events as they unfolded and as Pakistan moved away from democracy towards dictatorship and gave Islamic fundamentalists a greater say in public affairs.

Hussain’s sources are mainly news reports from the BBC, CNN and similar news vendors. He has also relied on his own interviews with various people, such as friends of Benazir Bhutto. Hussain commences his books thus: ‘On a hot August night in the remote town of Makin in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region, a short and stocky bearded man, hooked up to an intravenous drip, lay on a cot on the rooftop of a vast house. A young woman in her late teens massaged his legs. Nearby a predator drone hovered in the clear sky, then zoomed in on the couple………

While describing the attack on the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October 2009, Hussain tells us that ‘the men in crisp white fatigues riding a white Suzuki van with a military registration plate evoked no suspicion. The guards at the first security checkpoint waved them through………….As the van made its way past the checkpoint, gunmen suddenly jumped out and started firing indiscriminately………the gunmen ran towards the heavy iron gates. Apparently out of nowhere appeared another group of gunmen in uniform, and before the guards could realise what was happening several of them were shot. An intense firefight broke out when the soldiers in the watchtowers began firing on the intruders, killing three of them and injuring another. Gunmen coming up just behind the injured attacker then shot their wounded colleague dead in an attempt to confuse the guards. The trick worked: the guards made no attempt to stop the attackers as they rushed towards…….Brig. Anwar ul-Haq, the director of security, was in a conference in his office in the building when the melee broke out. Interrupting the meeting and rushing into the hallway, he saw a man in military uniform with his back turned to him and called out, “Move away from here.” The man turned around and shot him dead.

How did Hussain know what exactly Brig. Anwar ul-Haq said to the gunman before he was shot dead? Hussain does not reveal his source. No, I am not disputing Hussain’s version since various newsreports, such as this New York Times report, have said something very similar.

While describing the 4 December 2009 terrorist attack on a mosque in Rawalpindi frequented by military officers which killed 36 people, Hussain does not tell us if the mosque was Shia or Sunni. The name Askari suggests Shia, but then I am no expert on these matters.

What I didn’t like about The Scorpion’s Tail is that Hussain avoids expressing his own view even when the circumstances beg him to do so. For example, Hussain tells us that after Benazir Bhutto was killed ‘Zardari produced Benazir’s will which declared that he should lead the party in the event she was killed. Many of her friends and associates believed that the will was fabricated, but given the turmoil in the party due to her death, he faced little opposition in the party ranks.’ A footnote tells us that Hussain bases this report ‘on author interviews with close friends and aides to Benazir Bhutto.’ However, what’s Hussain’s view? Does he feel the will produced by Zardari was fabricated? We never know.

Hussain’s conclusions are very simple. According to Hussain, there is a fundamental flaw in the U.S approach to the war, namely a failure to appreciate that the Taliban are essentially Pashtuns fighting to evict outsiders in their historical homelands, just as they fought the Red Army and other earlier invaders. Hussain feels that this war is unwinnable for the US and feels that a political settlement is the only solution. Hussain makes a few references to India’s attempts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and hints that Pakistan’s ISI is justified in supporting the Taliban in an effort to counter Indian influence over non-Pashtu ethnic groups in Afghanistan, especially northern Afghanistan. In short (though he doesn’t spell it out), Hussain wants the Pashtu dominated Taliban to be given control over Afghanistan, at least the Pashtu majority areas, and hopes that such a settlement will put an end to the terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

As Aryn Baker, Time's bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan has written in this article, it is clear that the US troops in Afghanistan are fighting a losing battle and it is only a matter of time before they leave Afghanistan. Once they do, the Taliban are bound to defeat the rag-tag Afghan National Army and re-establish the control they had prior to 9/11. A few Tajik and Uzbek warlords may control a few slices of territory in the north. However, will that put an end to fighting in Pakistan? What’s the guarantee that the Pakistani Taliban will not continue the fight in Pakistan for a greater say in government? Wouldn’t the Al Qaeda like the idea of controlling a state which has nuclear weapons? With a safe haven in Afghanistan, wouldn’t Islamic fundamentalists want to continue the good fight which started out as revenge attacks in retaliation for Pakistani support for the US forces and the drone campaign? It is very unlikely that Islamic fundamentalists will manage to take over Pakistan. Most Pakistanis are happy to use the militants to fight in Kashmir and elsewhere, but as explained by Anatol Lieven in his brilliant book Pakistan: A Hard Country, Pakistanis do not want mullahs to rule Pakistan. The Pakistani army carried out a successful campaign against the Taliban in Swat and (to a lesser extent) in South Waziristan. If needed, the Pakistani army has the ability and determination to fight the Taliban if they attempt to takeover Pakistan. However, none of this precludes the Taliban from making a bloody and very expensive (for everybody) attempt to do so.

Monday, 17 October 2011

India’s External Intelligence – Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) by Maj Gen VK Singh – Book Review

I bought this book (which was published in 2007) because I have always been curious about RAW, India’s external intelligence agency, about which not much is known, at least not as much as is known about the CIA or the KGB or the Mossad. After I read the very badly written one page publisher’s note titled ‘Attention Authors’ which precedes everything else in this slim volume (of around 180 pages), I nearly stopped reading and threw away the book. However, I am glad I didn’t, since Maj Gen VK Singh’s English is relatively much better than that used in the publisher’s note, despite the publisher’s claim that ‘an author always gives the raw material in the shape of manuscript and it is the sense of publisher to make it a finished product.’

Singh was a senior army officer with 35 years’ experience in the Corps of Signals who joined RAW in the year 2000 at a relatively senior level (as a Joint Secretary) and served for 4 years, after which he retired. Singh was involved in various projects for upgrading RAW’s technical capability, which according to Singh, is not exactly the most advanced in the world.

India’s External Intelligence is a disappointment since Singh was solely involved in signal intelligence rather than human intelligence or even the analysis of gathered intelligence and doesn’t know much about, or at least, doesn’t reveal anything exciting about the workings of RAW. Many of the incidents which Singh discusses, such as CIA mole Rabinder Singh’s defection to the US, are already well-known and Singh doesn’t reveal anything which is not in the public domain. However, the various issues raised by Singh, are valid and important and Singh has, in my opinion, done yeoman service to India by writing this book. Is there a need to have better oversight over RAW, which according to Singh functions in a manner (corrupt and inefficient) not much different from any other department of the Indian government? Since intelligence obtained through technical sources, such as wiretapping etc. accounts for over 90% of total intelligence gathered, shouldn’t more resources be allocated to telecom teams? Shouldn’t the individuals running those teams be better qualified? Since there is so much overlapping between the functions of RAW, IB, Military Intelligence (MI) and dozen other agencies, which behave more like rivals rather than departments of the same government, shouldn’t RAW and IB be merged? The answers to all of this is, according to Singh, an unequivocal Yes.

Singh tells us that during the Kargil war, India made public a telephone conversation between General Pervez Musharaff and his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz, in order to prove Pakistan’s complicity and gain brownie points with the US and the United Nations. However, by doing so, India revealed to Pakistan that a particular satellite link between Beijing and Islamabad was being intercepted by RAW leading to its immediate closure. Of course, Singh mentions this in a very disapproving tone and gives the example of how during World War II, the Brits who had cracked the Enigma codes found out that the Luftwaffe was all set to bomb Coventry, but did not evacuate the city in order to not to tip off the Germans that the Enigma codes had been cracked. Many lives were lost, but the Germans continued to use Enigma codes. All of this sounds good, except that this is a very bad example. As Wikipedia can tell you, this anecdote (about Coventry) was put forth by a former RAF officer, but has since been discredited. Also, if India only wanted to gain brownie points with the US and the United Nations, the details of tapped call could have been provided to the US or UN officials in a confidential manner, couldn’t it? No, Singh doesn’t ask this question.

Singh’s narrative, though not very exciting, is very honest, though at times a tad clumsy. At the very outset, Singh makes it clear that he joined RAW not for career advancement or in search of adventure, but because if he had continued in the army, he would have had to retire in 2 years’ time, whereas by joining RAW, he got to work for 4 more years. Singh comes across as a man who wouldn’t tolerate the slightest indiscipline or infraction of procedure, traits which wouldn’t guarantee success while working for any civil administration anywhere in the world.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven – Book Review

For the past many months, I have been planning to write an article on ‘when will Pakistan break-up?’ or ‘What should India do when Pakistan breaks-up?’ Well, I no longer have such plans, having just finished reading Anatol Lieven’s masterpiece on Pakistan where he convincingly argues that though Pakistan might be going through a very bad phase, it is not a failed country and is very likely to survive for quite some time to come. In fact, if Pakistan were to collapse, it is most likely to be the result of water shortages and other problems caused by climatic change, arising from over-exploitation of the waters of the Indus.

Lieven covered Pakistan as a journalist working for the Times and knows his subject matter very well. I doubt if there are many native Pakistanis who could analyse as well as Lieven the nitty-gritty of Pakistan’s internal divisions, both regional and sectoral (between the Shias and the Sunnis) and most importantly the challenges faced by Pakistan on account of the Taleban. Lieven’s account was such a pleasure to read and so very gripping that though it took me almost two weeks to finish the 560-odd page tome (which includes end-notes and the index), I felt sad when the book, like all good things, came to an end.

I learned so many knew things about Pakistan, I didn’t know before. For example, I had a vague idea that the Bhuttos and Zardaris were Shia, but I didn’t know that they displayed outward signs of being Sunni. Thanks to Hosseini’s Kite Runner, I used to think that the Hazaras are a downtrodden community on both sides of the Hindu-Kush. No, Lieven tells us that in Pakistan, the Hazaras (who had migrated from Afghanistan) are a relatively modern and prosperous community.

One of the most important stereotypes dismantled and put aside by Lieven is the one that Pakistan is a feudal society, not much different from 15th century England. No, rather it is one where ties of kinship are very strong. The head of the clan or tribe is expected to look after his people. For this, he squeezes out all that he can from the government, through corruption or otherwise, and spreads it around. Pakistan has one of the world’s highest rates of charitable giving per capita. Politicians are corrupt, but they work very hard in spreading the booty within their clan and support base. The politician who doesn’t do so, will be left without a clan before long. For this reason, Lieven says Imran Khan will not do particularly well in Pakistani politics since no one expects Imran Khan to have much loot to hand out. The army is very powerful and corrupt, but again, corruption is more in the form of standardized rewards for army officers, such as housing plots and plums postings after retirement, rather than individual officers diverting funds for their personal use without other officers knowing about it.

The most surprising thing about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the Taleban in Pakistan is that the duo is still so weak and their growth has been so slow. The obstacles to the growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan are the same as those which prevent the spread of democracy, namely kinship and nepotism which forces Pakistanis to resist change. Also, the Barelvi Islam followed by most Pakistanis is very different from the version espoused by the Taleban. Barelvis worship at the shrines of saints who they believe would intercede on their behalf with God and carry out miracles. In many cases, Shariah is actually a modernising force and is less harsh on women than customary laws like Pashtunwali followed by the Pathans or the customs of the Baloch. However, the laws implemented by many Teleban leaders in their areas of control within FATA or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a mix of the Shariah and Pashtunwali, with more of the latter than the former.

The most impressive aspect of Lieven’s treatise is his felicity in conveying to his readers the complexities of Pakistani society and politics in simple bytes. For example, when he talks of the Pathans, he tells us that they are ‘eighteenth century Scots without the alcohol.’ The Barelvis are compared to Catholics, if the Taleban can be called Puritans, that is. When discussing Punjabi attitudes to other ethnicities in Pakistan, we are told that:

'Punjabis from north central Punjab certainly feel superior to the other nationalities in Pakistan. They are harder working, better organised and more dynamic than anyone else in Pakistan except the Mohajirs. Punjabis respect Mohajirs, but since the latter are not farmers, they cannot really be fully fitted into the traditional Punjabi view of the world. For the Sindhis, the Punjabis have a rather amused and tolerant contempt, as for pleasant and easy-going, but lazy younger relatives. For the Baloch there is contempt without the tolerance, as primitive tribesmen sponging off Punjabi charity. Punjabis believe they are more modern and economically dynamic than the Pathans. Yet in Punjabi Muslim culture there is also an ingrained cultural and historical respect for the Muslim pastoral warriors who repeatedly swept across Punjab from Afghanistan, and from whom many Punjabis – especially in the upper classes – are or claim to be descended. And the Pathans, however savage are widely seen as Muslim warriors par excellence, who prowess has been celebrated in Pakistani literature and propaganda in all the modern wars from Kashmir to Afghanistan.'

Does Punjab dominate Pakistan? Yes, to some extend it does. However, Lieven doesn’t think it is entirely one-sided. Unlike the Sindhis, Balochis or Pathans, Punjabis identify themselves with Pakistan as a whole, to the point of almost submersion in Pakistan. They haven’t made any effort to develop Punjabi as a provincial language. ‘Whereas Sindhis and Pathans almost always speak Sindhi and Pashto among themselves, educated Punjabis usually speak Urdu with each other, when they are not speaking English.’ On top of this, Punjabis are not a monolithic group and there are so many divisions within Punjab. For example, in most of Southern Punjab, a distinct language called Seraiki is spoken.

Lieven does not seem to have much sympathy for the Baloch nationalist movement. Lieven quite rightly points out that though Balochistan occupies 43% of Pakistan’s land area, it has only 7% of Pakistan’s population. Therefore, crying out for a greater share of wealth, isn’t necessarily very fair. Lieven feels that, if Balochistan gained independence, ‘Baloch tribalism would reduce it to a Somali style nightmare, in which a rage of tribal parties – all calling themselves ‘democratic’ and ‘national’ – under rival warlords would fight for power and wealth.

Lieven keeps asking around for information and comes up with gems. For example, a military acquaintance tells Lieven that ‘while A.Q. Khan certainly profited personally from some of his deals, at no stage was he truly a ‘rogue’ element. Rather, every Pakistani president and chief of army staff knew in broad outline what A.Q. Khan was doing. They might not necessarily have approved in detail – but then again, they took good care not to find out in detail. ‘He had been told, “get us a bomb at all costs”, and this is what he did.’’ All of this makes a lot of sense.

A former minister in Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet sums up his character for Lieven as ‘not at all educated but very shrewd, intelligent, determined and courageous. But unfortunately also autocratic, impulsive, reckless and hot-tempered, which has often been his downfall.’ This descripton differs rather drastically from the one provided by Ahmed Rashid in his Descent into Chaos.

Lieven has a good eye which notices the small things as well. While visiting Nawabzada Bugti, a Baloch leader, he comes across Bugti’s ‘small, thin, dark-skinned servants’ who are called ‘Mrattas’, since they are apparently descendants of Marathas from central India, captured in war by the Mughal emperors and given to their Bugti troops in lieu of wages. I’ve never heard of this community before. I assume they have converted to Islam. Does the Indian government have any plans to seek their repatriation, I wonder? Would the Mrattas want to be repatriated?

Lieven’s conclusions are interesting – they could have been made by a nationalist Pakistani politician. Lieven asserts that the US led campaign in Afghanistan has been responsible, above everything else, for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan since 2001. Lieven wants the US and other coalition forces to recognise that ‘Pakistan’s goals are in part legitimate, even if the means by which they have been sought have not been and this legitimacy needs to be recognised by the West’. Pleading for restraint in drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, Lieven is vehement that US ground troops should not be inducted into Afghanistan. Rather, he would have the US and Pakistan negotiate with the Taleban. I can’t say I fully agree with Lieven, though this position is understandable. For Lieven, the Taleban are just a manifestation of Pashtun society. In the past, even during the time the British ruled India, it was common for religion to be used to rally the Pathans against outsiders. After, Pathans are always willing to die for Islam, though they don’t necessarily live by it.

Lieven briefly says in his conclusion that a collapse of Pakistan will be disastrous for India too, generating chaos which will destabilise the whole region. Lieven does not explain this in detail. I had taken a similar position in this post published over two years ago.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Why Are Food Prices So High In India?

Recently I happened to buy a one-litre bottle of sunflower oil from a mom & pop shop in Bandra. Usually I buy a number of items from this shop and the bill ranges from a few hundred rupees to a couple of thousand. This time I had nothing else to buy and so I noticed that I was paying one hundred and forty rupees for a litre of sunflower oil. I was on my way home after work and didn’t think much about it. However, something about the price kept nagging me.

Ever since I returned to India around nine months ago after over eight years in the UK, I have been trying to come to terms with the new India. There are so many more cars on the roads, shopping malls everywhere, new restaurants opening every month and of course, everything is a lot more expensive. However, one hundred and forty rupees for a litre of sunflower oil seemed excessive. On a lark, I went to Tesco’s website and checked the price of a litre of sunflower oil in the UK. For those who haven’t been to the UK, Tesco is the largest retail chain in the UK and commands over a 30% share of the UK retail market. It a middle-class chain, slightly cheaper than Sainsbury’s but not as dirt cheap as Lidl. Like other retail chains in the developed west, Tesco is good at sourcing supplies (mainly food, but also clothes and home appliances to a lesser extent) cheaply and selling them to its customers at wafer thin margins.

Well, as I expected, the price of a litre of sunflower oil at Tesco is less than what I had paid in Bandra! Tesco branded sunflower oil was the cheapest, but other brands too cost less than Rs. 140. Here, you can use this price-checker to find out how much any particular grocery item costs in Tesco’s UK outlets. And this website will give you the current rupee exchange rate for the British pound.

Almost everything sold in the UK is grown or manufactured elsewhere. Many countries in the European Union, like France produce sunflower oil. However, production within the EU does not meet local demand and Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil to the UK, followed by countries such as Argentina and South Africa. The sunflower oil sold at Tesco is sourced from outside the UK. Even after accounting for the fact that Tesco has great bargaining power and can source its supplies very cheaply, most probably directly from the farmer, one has to make allowance for the much higher establishment costs in the UK and the small margin Tesco pays itself.

There can be only one explanation for this high price consumers pay in India for staple items such as sunflower oil. Since Indian farmers are not obviously being paid a lot of money for their produce, middle-men, with political patronage must be hoarding sunflower oil stocks, driving up prices and taking a huge cut for themselves. I can afford to pay one hundred and forty rupees for a litre of sunflower oil. I wonder how many Indians can do the same without heartburn.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

“Ithaca” by David Davidar – Book Review

The blurb to David Davidar’s latest – third – novel gives the following information: “In the early years of the 21st Century, sweeping change is taking place in the publishing industry. Ill-equipped to handle the transformation of their world, a number of publishing houses struggle to survive – one of these is Litmus, an independent firm in the UK. The onus of ensuring that the company remains viable falls upon its publisher, Zachariah Thomas, who also edits its most successful author, Massimo Seppi. Seppi’s quartet of novels, featuring angels and archangels, has sold millions of copies worldwide.

Unfortunately for Zach and for Litmus, Seppi dies unexpectedly. Without its star writer, Litmus’s chances of surviving the economic downturn are slim, and when a giant corporation intent on taking it over begins to move in for the kill, it seems impossible that Litmus will remain independent. To keep his company intact, and to give it room to regroup and chart out a strategy for the future, Zach must, among other things, try and mine the Seppi legacy for one last gem. He travels around the globe, from London to the new Litmus subsidiary in Delhi, from negotiating meetings in Toronto to the halls of the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair, from a sales extravaganza in New York City to the streets of Sydney, and more, in his quest to stave off disaster.

The blurb isn’t exactly accurate. Not really, no. The trip to Delhi, a detour while travelling (from London) to Toronto, has nothing to do with mining the Seppi legacy and the trip to Sydney is to take part in a panel discussion on the editor’s changing role in publishing, and to give a talk on the life of Massimo Seppi and the five great Angel books. To be honest, only the trip to Toronto is part of the sieving of the Seppi estate for gold nuggets. In fact, the novel, as much a travelogue as it is work of fiction, is divided into 9 chapters and the first seven are named after cities visited by Zach!

Ithaca is a novel by a publisher, about publishing, for those interested in knowing how publishers live, eat, drink, copulate, satisfy their egos and make money. Davidar is in his element in Ithaca, protagonist Zachariah Thomas’s life closely mirrors Davidar’s own story and Davidar spins a tale which is interesting and exciting and makes Ithaca a worthwhile read. In any event, it is a much better book than Davidar’s first one – the House of Blue Mangoes. (Disclosure: I haven’t read Davidar’s second novel – The Solitude of Emperors.)

Davidar’s story telling doesn’t have the sheer effortlessness of R.K. Narayan or of Jhumpa Lahiri and Ithaca is more like a work of art painstakingly put together by a talented craftsman than a work of genius, though Ithaca’s pace is not as much forced or strained as in the House of Blue Mangoes. The story is narrated by an omnipresent third person, mostly in the present tense. Narrating in the present tense is tricky business when it is done at length, since the narrator is bound to use the past time at times and has to frequently revert to the present at just the right moment. A few sentences’ delay can get the reader muddled up. Davidar however, is a master of the craft of writing and gets his tenses right to the last T.


Some of the best things about Ithaca are the various anecdotes about publishing and the various larger than life characters who patrol the streets and bylanes of the publishing world. We are told that during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the 'whores go on holiday since all the publisher folk are busy fucking each other, both literally and metaphorically'. Publishers are no different from other corporate houses when it comes to profits, balance-sheets and slogans. Litmus has a slogan – we are the test of a good book. Globish, the giant corporation which wants to acquire Litmus, has values too, in addition to a slogan. Everyone interested in books would know of the Big 6 Publishers. Davidar expands this list to add Globish and makes it the Big 7.

Time and again, Zach is heard to say what a great privilege and honour it is to be in publishing. ‘He goes to lunches and drinks and suppers with agents and publishing colleagues he has worked with for over a decade, men and women he likes and respects for the most part, all joined shoulder to shoulder in an endeavour that they have worked hard to perfect throughout their adult lives – the task of finding, valuing an selling worthwhile writing, which despite all the algorithms and business models that attempt to convert it into something that can be weighed and measured like any other product is ultimately elusive and therefore all the more precious. All its disadvantages notwithstanding, to be part of this world is a privilege and he is proud to belong to this company of men and women, who for centuries have nurtured the mother of all creative arts, story-telling, with dedication and skill.

Though Litmus is shown to be based in London’s West End, in Soho, some of the descriptions given by Davidar, gave me the feeling that it is based in the US. There is talk of firing people, without the need to follow a hundred procedures and having consultations, something which happens in the US, but not in the UK. One of Zach’s colleagues is heard demanding a perfume policy, again a concept much more common in litigious USA than in the UK.

Some of the best stories in Ithaca come out of Zach’s Delhi trip, which, by the way, is a detour while flying to Toronto! I guess this detour would have made a simple 7 hour trip a 24 hour one. Some detour it would be, but I am glad Zach did it. There are stories of Salman Rushdie’s book reading at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, after he won the Booker, stories of how Penguin India was set up by a couple of visionaries (no, the name Davidar doesn’t crop up), stories of how Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy had to be printed on paper used in Bibles, to be able to cram it all in.

At times, Davidar’s descriptions take Ithaca to the realm of pulp fiction. We are told that ‘If publishing has an evolutionary scale, after hundreds of years of natural selection, what has risen to the top is a formidable creature – the Manhattan based publisher of a large publishing company. Capable of stopping a Bengal tiger in mid-spring or charming a swallow out of its nest, this paragon is usually a woman of indeterminate age, with the ability to bed a room full of New Yorkers (unanimously regarded as the toughest and most cynical people in publishing anywhere) to her will, or to make a steeling agent see reason, or to have one of the planet’s biggest authors eating out of her hand.’ All of this makes for good reading.

For me, the best bit of the novel is when Zach goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair where publishers and literary agents meet, a place where a writer has no place, unless the writer is a VIEW – a Very Important Eminent Writer. We do meet one writer who turns up at Frankfurt, one who isn’t a VIEW and he cuts a pathetic figure. The most important section of the Frankfurt Fair is Halle 8, where the UK and US publishers congregate.

Almost as interesting as the publishing anecdotes are the ‘tourist tales’, as Zachariah Thomas trots the globe, for business and for pleasure. The novel commences with a holiday in Bhutan and we are told that only 8 pilots are qualified to land at Bhutan’s only airport, which is surrounded by mountains and overshooting the runway would result in the plane crashing into one. Do watch this YouTube video to decide for yourself how scary an experience it is to land at Paro. Zach eschews Ema Datse, but partakes of Bhutan Mist. I don’t blame Zach, if I ever go to Thimbu, I’d do the same.

Many of the restaurants where Zach goes out to wine and dine are real ones and more importantly, famous ones. Zach lunches at the Orso in Soho. When in Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair, Zach goes to an authentic German restaurant, the Wagner at Sachsenhausen, where he drinks apfelwein (apple wine) and stuffs himself with different meats.

Ithaca’s basic plot is good and Davidar takes maybe one-third of this 273 page book to execute it. As hinted in the blurb, the plot revolves around reviving Litmus’s fortunes by extracting the last Seppi stone and fighting off the attempt by Globish to acquire Litmus. Equally important to the reader is Zach’s return to his Ithaca. The quotes from Cavafy’s Ithaka given at the beginning of the novel and before each of the three parts of the book ensure that this isn’t forgotten. Where is Zach’s Ithaca? Is it London where Zach has spent most of his adult life? No. Hold your breath - It is in India! You see, it was a total surprise to me when after around 20 pages, Davidar casually mentions Zach’s undergrad days in Delhi. But where exactly is Zach from? Is he a Delhite? Many pages later, we are given another hint of Zach’s heritage – the memory of Zach’s ‘grandmother in Kanyakumari making puttu, steamed and fragrant that he would dissolve in coconut milk or meat stew.’ Later we are categorically told that Zach’s father was a manager at a coffee estate in the Shevaroy Hills of Tamil Nadu. Yercaud, a hill station in the Shevaroy Hills is Zach’s Ithaca. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses manages to get back to Ithaca. In the House of Blue Mangoes, Kannan gets back to Doraipuram in Chevathar. Does Zach go back to Yercaud? Does he take his estranged English wife Julia Spence with him or does he merely hope to do so, just as Kannan is seen hoping (to get his estranged Anglo-Indian wife Helen to Doraipuram) towards the end of the House of Blue Mangoes? Do read this extremely readable book to find out.

Davidar doesn’t seem to believe in the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’. There are numerous instances where the reader receives a brief, very brief, bio of a particular character and because Davidar keeps his telling so succinct, with a hidden surprise or two, Ithaca is none the worse for this. For example, we get to know all of a sudden that Zach’s mother is English. Later, when Zach’s wife Julia meets his parents, she gets along with his father, but not with his mother (though they are both English) and we don’t really get to know why. In all probability, Davidar doesn’t know either.

Notwithstanding Zach’s anglicised demeanour, an English mother and half his life-time spent in London, we hear that Zach still holds an Indian passport and a couple of times, the possibility of Zach returning to India is considered. Every Indian who has lived overseas knows how difficult it is to get a visa in time for a quick trip to another western destination. However, not once do we see Zach stand in a visa queue or worry about getting a visa in time for a trip, though he is a jet-setter who hops into a plane at the drop of a hat.

Davidar doesn’t always connect the dots. We are introduced to Caryn Bianci, Massimo Seppi’s translator. We are told that she is ‘a native of Montreal and formed part of the great Anglophone exodus from what was then Canada’s cultural epicenter during the political disturbances of the 1970s.’ Nowhere does the reader get an explanation as to when and how Bianci learnt Italian formally, if at all. The Italian surname is deemed to be sufficient explanation and we move on, at no cost to the story.

How did Zach end up with the name Zachariah Thomas? There is a casual reference to Zach’s father as ‘Nirmal Aiyah’. For those who don’t speak Tamil, ‘Aiyah’ is a Tamil honorific, someone on the lines of ‘Ji’ in Hindi or ‘San’ in Japanese. Was Zach’s father’s name Nirmal Thomas? Maybe or maybe not, since South Indians do not usually have a surname. In any event, the reader is left to figure this one out.

Does the world of publishing suffer from racism or prejudice (on the basis of race)? Zach certainly does not suffer from its ill-effects. In fact, Zach seems to be the poster child for globalization, the very picture of seamless integration, wherever he is. It is not only Zach who is so well-integrated into a foreign environment. When Zach holidays in Bhutan at the beginning of this story, he runs into an old friend from college, Das and his wife Sonam who have lived in Thimpu for 17 years. Again, there is no mention of any trouble in getting residence permits to stay in the hermit kingdom. Das and Sonam are so well integrated, they actually use ‘We’ when defending Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.

Will publishing houses soon become extinct? Are ebooks and digital editions the only way forward? These questions are debated endlessly by Zach and some of the many people he encounters in the course of his travels. These arguments are a bit one-sided, since the characters who predict the demise of publishing houses like Litmus are, well, not so likeable, people like Prof. Malik, while the ones who feel publishers will always be around, playing a crucial role in selecting what the public reads, are respectable veterans like ninety year old Alfred Rothstein. In fact, one comes back with the feeling that even if large publishing houses like Globish bite the dust, smaller ones like Litmus which are offer customised, bespoke services, will definitely survive. One doesn’t feel too bad about this. Globish is not the nicest place to work for, while Litmus leaves one with a lovey-dovey feeling. Globish fires its employees at the drop of a hat and its London office is in Camden, in dreary North London, while Litmus is in leafy Soho, in the West End.

Zach is shown to be a sensitive chap, one who hates firing people. Davidar goes to the extent of saying that firing people is the most difficult task Zach has to perform as a senior executive, one which he does not hand over to HR. Zach is unsure if ‘slow, compassionate strangling’ at his hands is less painful for the employee ‘than the swift bite of the guillotine’ at the hands of the HR officer, but this doesn’t make him delegate this job. Zach is also incapable of firing his latest girl friend Mandy, who is shown to be shallow and unsuitable for Zach, who so very desperately wants to get back with his wife Julia. Mandy, part-time waitress and wanna-be actress, is finally fired and she returns to hack into Zach’s email and sends nasty and vulgar mails to all his contacts. Does Zach retaliate? Of course, not!

Some of the characters who populate Ithaca are straight out of folklore. There’s Ramesh Wadhwani with whom Zach has dinner in Delhi, who knows all that’s there to know about Indian publishing and lives a life devoted to books. His US equivalent, Alfred Rothstein, Zach meets with in New York. Then there are people like Mortimer Weaver, the CEO of Globish, who have been created to be hated. There are characters like Simon Prescott, the editor of Bibliomania who are meant to be detested. I found Weaver and Prescott to be unrealistic. For example, Weaver is shown to be a cut-throat businessman, but what made him so? Apparently, he was once accused of financial impropriety by a colleague and from then on, he never trusted anyone.

Zach’s India, just like the India in the House of Blue Mangoes, is clean, tidy and mainly rural, at times tough and nasty, but never dirty. If Aaron Daniel is tortured to death by a British policeman, Zach is ragged by a bunch of nasty seniors, who force him to eat a hundred red-hot chillies and then drink soapy water. However, Zach is just as stoic as Aaron and as brave as Kannan, minus Kannan’s trademark tears. There are a few other bits in the novel which aren’t particularly realistic. We are told that when Zach was ten, ‘he was sent to boarding school. It was a tough school and he was the outsider; the student body was largely blue collar and resented his family’s wealth and his life of apparent privilege. He had to fight and fight often just to be left alone.’ True, boarding schools can be tough, but show me one Indian boarding school which has largely blue collar students and where the son of a coffee estate manager is considered to be from a wealthy family.

In this book, Davidar has some very good advice for first time novelists. Also, there are a dozen other things I could comment on. However, I shall stop here and leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.

Here are a few other reviews of Ithaca:

The Hindu is positive.

Mint's review is not so positive.

Outlook is a bit nasty.