Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book Review: “Lines on the Face: It’s a long road to Freedom”, by Sudipta Banerjee Chakraborty

Sudipta Banerjee Chakraborty’s debut effort features six short stories, each of which, except the final story, has an American setting or atleast a link to America, and lots of Bengali characters, giving the entire book a Jhumpa Lahiri-ish feel. No, Chakraborty is no Lahiri and I found the first story, Gullies and By-Lanes, especially disappointing. The protagonist is a young American girl of Bengali origin who has come down (from Chicago) to Kolkata as a Citibank employee, giving up the comfortable accommodation offered by her employer and staying with a family where the woman of the house Rohini ‘used to look like Madhuri Dixit’ and is married to a younger man, Raghuveer, who is a truck driver. Though Chakraborty keeps one engrossed and flips a few surprises, I found the story-telling to be jerky and more-to-the-point, unauthentic. The second story I am Blue set in Chicago was a few notches better. A woman from New York (of Bengali origin) who is divorced from her French husband, her Punjabi friend (an Indian immigrant) who is a Professor at the University of Chicago and is married to an Italian woman with a weakness for pasta and cheese, statements like 'You are a bigger exception in my life than you think you are Mister' and 'For you, I have broken all the rules' heighten the Jhumpa Lahiri atmosphere. Still I wasn’t too convinced.

The third story, Doctor of Philosophy woke me up. A brilliant piece of writing set in small town India, it is the story of Prof. Sadhin Banerjee, a self-made academic who comes to terms with his favourite daughter Urmi’s values and way of life. I don’t want to divulge much and give it all away, but Doctor of Philosophy is simply brilliant. In particular, Chakraborty gets the small town setting (Shantinagar, West Bengal) just right.

The Reunion takes you back to Chicago and once again I hoped to get a feel of the city .... and was disappointed. Nevertheless The Reunion is a good story which has two school friends from a tiny sleepy town in West Bengal meet again ....... in Chicago. They both carry scars – Vidya is married for the second time and Tia is still recovering from her ordeal at the Film Institute in Mumbai. Towards the end, we find the two friends in the same bed – I won’t say more – please read this book to find out for yourself.

The Blessed Womb belongs to Mrs. Soumi Deb, a teacher at a Girl’s School in Burdwan and more importantly Bapi’s mother. An IIT alumnus, Bapi is in the USA (where else would he be?) and Mrs. Soumi Deb has her whole family, including her long-suffering husband Aloke, and her colleagues, wrapped around her fat fingers. As the financial crisis deepens in the USA, Mrs. Soumi Deb starts hoping that Bapi might return. Does Bapi return to the land of his birth? I won’t tell you, but I can assure you that you will end up liking Mrs. Deb towards the end.

The final story Upanayana, the only one without a foreign angle, is a study of Mrs. Tara Mukherjee, a widow, whose only weakness is the image she carries around of her late husband, who was so intelligent and scholarly, but always ill and unable to do any work around the home. A woman who believes in hard work and thrift, Tara has a weakness for dogs, though she doesn’t have one in the house since her late husband (who’s watching from above) wouldn’t like it. When Tara spends time in a park feeding dogs, she runs into a neighbour, Yakub, ex-army doctor and ............a widower. Slowly a bond develops between the two lonely souls despite the obvious differences in their backgrounds. If I had to rank these stories, Upanayana would be a close second to Doctor of Philosophy.

The title of this book gives the impression that these stories are entirely about women and/or feminism. They are, but they are also a lot more than just that. In stories such as Doctor of Philosophy, the idea that a woman should be free to choose her own path, is propagated by a man. In The Blessed Womb, the protagonist Mrs. Soumi Deb does not crusade for woman’s rights, though she fights to get what she wants. Her character shows up the traditional Indian woman in her true colours and suggests that it is indeed a long road to freedom.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Book Review: No Easy Day by Mark Owen

Former navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette was part of the SEAL Team Six which raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and executed him. A little over a year after that daring raid into the heart of the Pakistani establishment, Bissonnette has come out with a first person narrative, co-authored with journalist Kevin Maurer, about the events which led to the death of Bin Laden. Bissonnette’s No Easy Day has been published under the pseudonym Mark Owen, but his identity was revealed by Fox News shortly after the first news release of this book came out. Bissonnette is now all over television and YouTube.

The Author’s Note to No Easy Day tells us that Bissonnette has ‘taken great pains to protect the tactics, techniques and procedures used by the teams as they wage a daily battle against terrorists and insurgents around the world. If you are looking for secrets, this is not your book,’ we are told. I am not sure if the Author’s Note was written after the book was written, as an afterthought, but No Easy Day does divulge a lot about Navy SEAL tactics and the workings of the mind of a SEAL. For this 300-odd page book is not just about the Abbottabad raid. It is also the story of what motivated Bissonnette to become a SEAL, the training he underwent before he became one and describes a few operations that preceded the Abbottabad raid, such as the one in which SEALs killed three Somali pirates who had hijacked the Maersk Alabama and held the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, hostage

The SEALs refer to Osama Bin Laden as Usama Bin Laden. UBL was code-named 'Geronimo' and the operation was called 'Neptune Spear'. It may be remembered that after howls of protests, it was ‘clarified’ by the US Government that 'Jackpot' was the code name for Bin Laden as an individual and 'Geronimo' was the code word for Bin Laden's capture or death. No, Bissonnette doesn’t give any such clarification. I guess the USA is no better than India which insensitively used the phrase the Smiling Buddha for its first nuclear device.

Why did Bissonnette come out with this book? Bissonnette says that he proposes to donate most of the proceeds from book sales to veterans’ charities. One of the reasons for keeping the identities of the SEALs involved in the raid secret is to protect them from revenge attacks. Bissonnette is a brave man and doesn’t seem to care about any possible threat to his life. However, such bravery alone cannot explain why Bissonnette broke his service rules to write this book.

From the manner Bissionette profiles his childhood in Alaska, how he was allowed to use a gun very early in his life, taking responsibility for his firearm, to the statement by one of Bissionette’s comrades just before the raid that if they pull it off, Obama will get re-elected, to the various wise-cracks about Obama, it is clear that Bissionette is Republican or at least, he is anti-Obama. If one goes by Bissionette’s narrative, most SEALs are cut from the same cloth. As Bissionette ends his book, he tells us how when the entire team met with Obama and Biden in Kentucky, Obama invited them all to his residence for a beer, a promise which wasn’t kept. In the closing lines of No Easy Day, Bissionette asks Walt, his friend and fellow SEAL, “Hey, did you ever hear anything about that beer?” Walt’s smirk is back, Bissionette tells us. “You believed that shit,” Walt said. “I bet you voted for change too, sucker.

Mind you, I don’t claim to be an Obama fan. I’ve written a number of not-so-flattering things about Obama in the past. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for my posts on Obama. I’d also predicted (before foot-in-the-mouth-Romney put in an appearance) that Obama won’t win a second term. When I examine Bissonnette's feelings towards Obama, my only interest is to understand what might have motivated Bissonnette to write this account. I’d say it’s highly likely that Bissonnette wanted to convey to his fellow American voters that though Obama was in charge at the time of Operation Neptune Spear and though he gave the green light for the operation to go ahead, the SEALs who really did the job don’t think much of Obama. The fact that the US elections are just around the corner must have played no small part in Bissonnette’s decision to bring out this book at this time.

Bissonnette makes an effort to justify his decision to write this account. In his Epilogue, Bissonnette says that after the raid, so many incorrect account of the attack came out. ‘Even reports claiming to have the inside story have been incorrect. To me, the story is bigger than the raid itself and much more about the men at the command who willingly go into harm’s way, sacrificing all they have to do the job. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told, and told as accurately as possible.’ Further, Bissonnette says that ‘since May 1, 2011, everyone from President Obama to Admiral McRaven has given interviews about the operation. If my commander in chief is willing to talk, then I feel comfortable doing the same.

According to maps given in the book, the SEAL teams flew from Jalalabad to Abbottabad via Indian territory, though on their way back, they took the direct route. Bissonnette does not explain if the Americans evaded Indian radar or if they had permission from India to fly over Indian territory. I feel that they latter is much more likely. India most probably has a system in place for allowing American craft to fly over Indian airspace close to the Pakistani border without the need for elaborate explanations.

Did Bissonnette and his colleagues kill Bin Laden in cold blood? According to No Easy Day, the answer is in the affirmative. Bissonnette tells us that Bin Laden was shot by a SEAL as he peeped out of his room. When Bissonnette entered the room with another SEAL, Bin Laden was on the floor, at the foot of his bed, wearing a white sleeveless T-Shirt, loose tan pants and a tan tunic. ‘The point man’s shots had entered the right side of his head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing.’ Though Bin Laden was dying, Bissonnette and another SEAL trained their lasers on Bin Laden’s chest and fired several rounds. ‘The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.

Bissonette and other SEALs who frequently pop sleeping pills to get a good night’s sleep never voice the slightest hesitation about their mission, never question for a second the morality of their action. Immediately after entering the three-storied house, the SEALs killed al-Qaeda operative Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Later they killed Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s brother Abrar al-Kuwaiti along with his wife Bushra as she tried to shield him. Just before Bin Laden was killed, the SEALs had despatched Bin Laden’s son Khalid. Bissonnette’s descriptions make it clear that the SEALs were not making any serious effort to take Bin Laden or any of the other men alive, though they had been instructed by a lawyer from either the Department of Defence or the White House that ‘if he is naked with his hands up, you are not going to engage him. If he does not pose a threat, you will detain him.' Mind you, I doubt if anyone else in the SEALs' place would have acted any differently, considering they were in hostile Pakistani territory.

Written in simple, functional prose, No Easy Day is a compelling read. It will be interesting to see if the US government takes Bissonnette to task for writing it.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Arati Venkat’s Earth Kitchen

My friend (and senior from law school) Arati Venkat quit a corporate job and lifestyle in Dubai and moved to Bangalore to live on a farm and absorb the essence of simple pleasures rural India has to offer. Eighteen months after her move, we had a chat.

Arati, after having been a corporate lawyer and business consultant for over 13 years, you can now call yourself an organic farmer & social entrepreneur. What prompted this move?

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you take a moment to ponder and reflect on life’s achievements and future desires. Dubai gave me the opportunity of a lifetime where I not only worked with the who’s who of Dubai, but also was privileged to be part of building what the city has become today. But once you have done and re-done the tasks, the challenge seems less and less attractive (but the money sure gets better!). I had decided that returning to India (and more specifically Bangalore) meant I would not be part of the corporate rat race, which in turn meant I had to plan out my financial security before taking the flight home. Bangalore has had its share of development blows which I constantly observed. To match my dreams I had to break away from the norm and do something different, like I have always done – facing consequences as they come along. Dubai gave me a perspective on the glitz and glamour quotient life offers and it also made me realise that I did not want to be part of it. I wanted more – something more fulfilling, something more real and grounded and thus the transformation to being an organic farmer and social entrepreneur.

Tell us a bit more about your notion of an organic lifestyle.

Organic in all its essence combines mind, body and soul. The desire and action to be one with nature and bask in its infinite beauty is organic. To be at peace with oneself is perhaps the most sought after state of mind, which I feel reasonably confident of finding.

Why Bangalore? Why not Pune or Kochi or Chennai or Chandigarh?

I am glad you asked, because I did quiz myself on an alternate location and it may have turned out to be some picturesque place in the Himalayas. But Bangalore happened, it’s home and it’s where I had land and living on the fringes of the city provides me with a suitable balance - a comfortable distance away from urban mayhem but close enough to enjoy the amenities it has to offer.

How much land do you cultivate? Do you own it? If yes, did you buy it or was it inherited?

It is a generous gift from my mother (which we christened “Grassroots”). The 6 acres were purchased way back in 1984 with the intention of developing a farm. It didn’t materialise for my parents, but it worked out for me. I envisioned full-fledged agricultural lifestyle, but realities of finding farm hands made me curtail my activities and instead I planted 1200 trees to cover more than half the land. I left myself a generous 2 acres to try my hand at growing crops.

What plants or crops have you started with?

Excited to get started, I readied a small patch to grow vegetables and herbs. Fruits trees had been planted a few years earlier. My front and back flower garden took shape soon after. In the 18 months I have lived on the farm, I have harvested 3 rounds of vegetables, perennial herbs; fruits are regularly harvested and always there are flowers in bloom.

The vegetables I eat, I grow – mostly Indian vegetables like beans, okra, tomatoes, brinjal, gourds, carrot, radish, peppers, cucumber, onions, potatoes amongst others.

Capsicum, Chilli & Tomatoes


My palate enjoys salads and herbs and so on a small scale I have basil, rosemary, chives, mint, dill, oregano, thyme and 4 varieties of lettuce.

Basil in a pot


Fruits are more seasonal, but I have harvested guava, sapota, fig, amla, musambi, pomelo, star fruit, papaya, banana, custard apple and mango. My other passion for colour and fragrance makes me a manic shopper for flowering plants – from tuber rose to roses, jasmine, lilies, geraniums, zinnia, marigolds – I try to include a vivid palette of colour.

Do you have any pets on your farm?

We are parents to a pair of handsome Tibetan Mastiffs (Zulu and Pasha).

They are our pride and joy and in fact we are known in the village by the 2 “bears” that live on land. They have made us proud by having won their Indian Championships when they were all of 15 months. Besides them, a family of cats have adopted our abode, not to mention a variety of birds that nest here – ones I am familiar with - Indian Roller, Bulbuls, Sunbirds, Sparrow, Kingfisher amongst others, all live alongside an assortment of snakes.

How do you sell your produce?

Having gained some confidence on growing, I launched Earth Kitchen in June 2012 which for me was a way of formalising my efforts. Agriculture has so many technicalities which you can read about but can only learn while practicing – I am still dabbling with soil conditioning, composting, plot size, yield, duration of yield, not to mention the most critical factor – rain - over which I have no control. At the moment I share my produce among friends and neighbours. Although at some point in time I will formalise an organic community and cater to them through Earth Kitchen.

Do you expect to make enough money to live off the land or will you be relying on your savings for some time to come?

Fortunately for me, we (my husband, Naved and I) have a couple of commercial assignments running in parallel that take care of the bills and allow us guilt free indulgence in our passions. Living on a farm has its share of expenses, but it is definitely cheaper than living in the city. At the scale at which I am farming, there is very little chance that I will grow rich growing beans and tomatoes. To make it commercially viable, you have to farm on an industrial scale or create cooperatives so there are economies of scale.

In other words, if you were a farmer with 2 acres of land and no other source of income, you would have a hand-to-mouth existence?

Well maybe not, but it would surely need intensive work and dedication to make enough money from 2 acres of land to lead a comfortable life. Agriculture is hard work and the results are not always guaranteed. Choosing the right crop(s) to optimise yield and returns stems from knowledge - which if I were a “farmer” in the traditional sense, I may not have access to. The supply chain for agricultural produce is not accessible to all – like cold storage, prices, auctions etc. Growing low return on investment crops like ragi doesn’t help in improving a farmer’s bottom line and also soil enhancement is critical and needs attention. Further the entire issue of pesticides and its impact on soil has to be addressed. If one uses pesticides, soil will show deterioration, sooner or later. There are a few dynamic farmers I know who have commercialised the seedling business, learnt from bio-technologists and have dabbled with high value crops like vanilla, agarwood, arecanut etc. To answer your question more specifically – I would utilise resources to optimise yield and value. I would grow cash crops, medicinal plants and even perhaps lease a portion of land to a corporate willing to invest and pay me my costs. I would keep my knowledge radar on, to absorb information available. It surely is more than a 9 – 5 job, but its fulfilling especially when you see the results of your sweat.

Are you on your own on your farm or do you have any help?

I started off by saying I had to curtail my dream due to a scarcity of farm hands and it always made me wonder how a populous country like ours could face such a problem. Not to mention the recent outburst by Thackeray on inter-state labour migration, all I can say is if it wasn’t for inter-state migration, there would be no farm hands and other casual labour available. I have a family from Jharkhand living with me and a few local ladies who support me in sustaining my lifestyle.

Are you in touch with similar people who have eschewed a corporate lifestyle and have gone ‘organic’?

Yes and no. There are informal organic farming groups I am in touch with and have come across people from social networking connections who are intrigued by what I do. But I don’t want to get bogged down by a linear chain of thought or practice. I want the “One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka way of thinking and practice to guide me and bring me closer to nature. I have interacted with “weekend” guests at the Taj Kuteeram (my neighbour) who philosophise too much on how life should be. When we landed in India back in July 2010, we had no (detailed) idea how things would turn out, but I guess you just have to take a risk if you want something different from life.

What’s your typical day on the farm like? Do you wake up at five in the morning and head off to work?

Well actually, I do! We have 2 gorgeous Tibetan Mastiffs waiting to be exercised at dawn, after which I attend to the garden taking notes on how to keep improving and watch my tomatoes turn red. Rounds and assigning tasks take me till about 9 am after which I get some time to rummage through my emails and to do lists. A hearty lunch (produce from the farm whatever available) followed by a short siesta and 4 pm onwards the second shift begins. Oversee the irrigation and attend to the simplest but must-do tasks like weeding, seed collecting, pruning, while keeping an eye on the neighbouring farm kids who come to me for English tuition and school homework. By 6 pm we are ready to walk the dogs again or let them free on the land, enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the city lights take over the night. It’s early to bed only to awaken fresh to relive my dream.

Tell me about an instance or an event which made you happiest since you started your new venture?

There are many, but one in particular that puts a smile on my face is when I harvested in excess of 100 kgs of potatoes last winter. I know it sounds like a lot, but my farmer friend was not impressed, as he apparently got a yield 10 times that of mine. The justification however I had was that it was “organic” and I did let the insects share the bounty. For me it was a moment of pride and delight as I was able to cook and share my produce, and it made its rounds for almost 6 months. I am so looking forward to breaking my own record this winter.

Were there any sad moments or major disappointments?

None personally, although I do feel sad about the fact that villagers, due to want of knowledge and organizations, are abandoning farming and getting sucked into the lure of city life. This converts farming communities into hordes of landless labourers and does them no good – in fact, most of the time, their standard of living goes down and they suffer all the ills of being at the bottom rung of the urban jungle.

Would you advise a youngster who has just finished college to take up farming rather than go in for a regular office job?

Farming is tough and often thankless – ask those farming families whose bread winners have committed suicide, a very common occurrence in India now. What people living in cities take for granted – food, in all its varied forms – needs the farmer’s blood, sweat and tears to produce. And what does he get in return for feeding the world? Mostly, not even enough to feed himself.

Farming needs to be backed up by financial security. Living off the land is fine, but you need to have enough for the initial investment, setbacks and unforeseen circumstances. Farming is surely an amazing life changing choice at say 40 (although I can proudly say I did it at 38). It can surely run in parallel as a hobby - a few people I know practice it, but to make a living out of it is not easy. Farming needs vision and patience – you can’t have instant trees or tomatoes and your soil, if never cultivated before, needs oodles of nurturing before it responds. But if you can build your life around it, it will surely be worthwhile to wake up every morning to a new sunrise.

Is there anything the government could do to make life easier for Indian farmers?

I don’t think the government has the capacity – or interest – to improve the life of farmers. I believe the best way to improve the lives of Indian farmers is to replicate in other agricultural sectors what Dr. Varghese Kurien did for dairy farmers. Only when farmers join hands can they achieve prosperity.

Book Review: “Green Zone – Imperial Life In The Emerald City” by Rajeev Chandrasekaran

When the US invasion of Iraq took place in 2003, I was in London, having arrived there less than a year earlier. There were demonstrations and protests against what was described by the left-wing press to be an unfair war against a legitimate government. I did not take part in the protests. This was mainly because I didn’t have much free time. I was doing a one year Masters degree at the LSE. I was about to get married. I was writing my first novel. I had a part-time job. Another reason for not taking part in the protests was that I actually thought something good might come out of the invasion. I had in mind the US track-record in countries such as Japan, Germany and Korea, which were rebuilt largely with American help and assistance. I thought that a country which could implement the Marshall Plan and carryout the Berlin Airlift was very likely to change Iraq for the better and possibly use it as a tool to democratise and improve the rest of the Middle-East. How wrong and naïve I was!

With the benefit of hindsight, I now wish I had taken part in the anti-Iraq protests that took place in London. It is now clear that the Yanks had a plan for invading Iraq, but none for its occupation and administration. The lack of planning and foresight totally destroyed Iraqi infrastructure and its once high standard of living. Not only does Iraq now have a Shia-dominated government that is sympathetic to Iran, it also continues to be very unstable, with Sunnis still fighting the government and Christians being hounded out.

Rajeev Chandrasekaran’s Green Zone was released in 2006/2007 and has been on my reading list for a very long time. Chandrasekaran’s masterpiece only confirms what we all know by now, that just as the Berlin Airlift was America at its finest, the Iraqi occupation displays America at its nadir. Chandrasekaran was the Washington Post's bureau chief in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 and therefore had firsthand access to the Green Zone, in the heart of Iraq where the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA) had its head quarters, and the world outside the Green Zone. In chapter after chapter, Chandrasekaran lays bare the ineptitude of the CPA and how Iraq slipped into disaster.

Almost all appointments to the CPA went to Republican Party loyalists who were looking to make some quick money and/or fill up their CVs. Most of them didn’t really care about Iraq or if they did, they went about helping Iraq the wrong way. Some stupid decisions were really, really stupid, like the disbanding of the Baath party and excluding Baath party loyalists from all government posts and the demobilising of the Iraqi army. The US armed forces were much more concerned about maintaining their soldiers in comfort than in rehabilitating displaced Iraqis and rebuilding Iraq. Creating a comfort zone for the soldiers and marines meant serving bacon and other pork products in a country where pork is haraam. The Americans just didn’t care. Contractors siphoned off huge chunks of money using inflated bills.

There were a few stories which, for me, conveyed the sheer tragedy of the Occupation. One was the story of Walid Khalid, an Iraqi who used to work for pizzeria next to the Trevi fountain in Rome. Returning to Iraq after its ‘liberation’ from Saddam, Walid Khalid set up an authentic Italian eatery just north of the Green Zone and waited for the expected American customers to arrive. However, the Americans never came, since they had everything they needed inside the Green Zone, which always had electricity and air conditioning even when the rest of Iraq was starved of power. Then there's the story of a Press liaison officer who could not speak a word of Arabic. At the end of the book, we are told that USD 25 million has been set aside for Iraqi universities. However, Iraqi universities do not get the money which is instead given to US universities which want to establish partnerships with Iraqi institutions! I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you.

Amidst all that rubble, there was one happy ending. This is the story of how a State Department staffer named Alex Dehgan was sent to Iraq to reach out to former Iraqi scientists and re-direct them to harmless avenues, before they were snapped up by the Iranians or others not-so-well-disposed towards America. Chandrasekaran tells us that Dehgan had considerable success since he broke all rules and because he was not part of the CPA.

Towards the end of the book, we see First Sergeant Jerry Swope lead a platoon of soldiers in Humvees to Sadr city to escort and protect three septic tank trucks as they went on a mission to vacuum pools of sewage bubbling from corroded underground pipes. After one round of vacuuming, the Iraqis driving the septic tanks leave, telling Swope that they feared for their lives. Unknown to Swope, the previous night American special forces had arrested Moqtada al-Sadr’s deputy and war had been declared. The Humvees run into an ambush on their way back and many precious lives are lost on both sides. One does wonder how the Americans managed to antagonise the Shi’ites after having liberated them from Saddam.

The story of the Green Zone is the story of human arrogance, greed and corruption. It is also a tragedy.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A Conversation with Adv. Aditya Sondhi, Ph.D

My friend Aditya Sondhi, a leading advocate based in Bangalore, recently completed a Ph.D on a topic which is very relevant for our times. I have reproduced below (with Aditya’s permission) excerpts from my conversation with him.

1. You are a practising advocate. Despite having an obviously busy schedule, you have done a Masters in Political Science from Bangalore University and then followed it up with a PhD from Mysore University. What motivated you to do this?

Vinod, firstly, let me say how pleased I am to have this tete-a-tete with you - a classmate and friend since 1993.

My Hindi Master from Bishop Cotton Boys' School - Dr Iqbal Ahmed, prompted me to think about academic pursuits while I was practising. He is someone I've stayed in touch with after School, and found much guidance from. Dr Ahmed holds a PhD in Hindi, having made a comparative study of the works of Mahatma Kabir and Dr Iqbal (the poet). It was a pursuit of learning that really prompted me to do the M.A. (through a 'correspondence' course) and then, the PhD. Initially, I was inclined to do my Master's in English, but was disappointed to find that our BA LLB (Hons) degree does not qualify us to do a Master's in anything but law or political science!

2. Tell me a bit about your Ph.D thesis.

My thesis is on The Interface between the Army and Democracy: India and Pakistan Compared (1947 – 2008). I examined the various reasons for military intervention in democratic spaces – the causes behind military takeovers and the end result – usually the dilution of democracy. I’ve also looked at the role of passive institutions in creating political spaces that can be filled by liberal, democratic institutions and traditions.

3. How did you conclude your thesis?

Essentially by finding that politically active armies and the growth of democracy are inversely co-related, and that young, liberal democracies need a-political, secular armies and strong civilian institutions to enable their growth. I did emphasize the fact that the Indian army by being a passive, politically unambitious institution created the political space for democracy to flourish, and that such passive institutions need to be regarded while applauding the growth of liberal traditions. (This is not to say that Indian democracy is anywhere near perfect!) In conclusion, the comparison between India and Pakistan brings home the sharp distinction in their political history, and the significantly divergent roles played by the armies, the civilian institutions and judiciaries in both countries.

4. Is your thesis likely to be released as a book?

Time-permitting, I hope to convert it into a book in due course.

5. You have already published a book – Unfinished Symphony. You also write short stories – one of your stories won a prize in the Sunday Herald Short Story Competition. What was more fun? Your Ph.D or writing Unfinished Symphony.

I guess Unfinished Symphony was more fun in terms of making very interesting and uplifting discoveries about my old school, and profiling its eminent alumni . However, the thesis turned out to be very enriching in terms of my understanding political nuances in India & Pakistan, and absorbing the interplay between various facets of political society.

6. You must be a very good time manager. Do you believe it is good to fit in as much as possible into one’s day?

Hardly a good time manager! I wish I could play more golf, find more time to be with friends, listen to and play music, travel, and sample interesting cuisines. My day is almost entirely gobbled up by the practice of law, though I try and squeeze out time for some other academic pursuits like writing or teaching.

7. Do you think your pursuit of knowledge in humanities makes you a better lawyer or is it strictly a hobby?

Indeed, law and justice-delivery is a reflection of the socio-economic and political realities of the time. There is therefore an overlap between the study of humanities and the understanding of law, especially constitutional law.

8. Do you follow politics?

Fairly closely.

9. What fascinates you more? Domestic politics or international politics?

Clearly domestic politics, as it is relevant to me as a citizen and helps me understand (and gape at!) the chaos of our times.

10. Since you are so much interested in politics, let me ask you a question - Who do you think was primarily responsible for India’s partition? The British or Jinnah or Nehru? And why?

Partition was an accident of history. I doubt any of them really willed a division of states in the bloody fashion that it occurred. Kuldip Nayar in his autobiography remarks about Jinnah being distraught at the sight of thousands fleeing their homes, in the backdrop of violence and carnage. All told, the inability of the civilian leadership of the time to find common ground resulted in the divide becoming, needlessly, a communal issue that brutally bifurcated people cut from the same cloth. (My father and grandparents on both sides are partition migrants.)

11. Are you likely to enter politics?

No such plans.

12. Would you encourage other lawyers to mix the practice of law with academic pursuits?

Only if such pursuit can be undertaken seamlessly, without affecting the practice itself. I have no doubt though that a practising advocate cannot afford to be uni-dimensional in his / her intellect.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Book Review: “The Illicit Happiness of Other People” by Manu Joseph

Manu Joseph’s second novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People, treads a path very different from his first one, Serious Men, which had a Dalit protagonist battle a Brahmin boss, both of them employed at a research establishment in Mumbai. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in 1980s Chennai and involves the Chacko family, Keralite immigrants to the southern metropolis.

Unlike Serious Men which revolves around class/caste differences, The Illicit Happiness of Other People merely sets out to tell a story and does it very well. Very early in the book, we are told that on the 16th of May 1987, Unni Chacko, son of Ouseph and Mariamma Chacko, committed suicide. He was seventeen. His father Ouseph Chacko sets out to find why Unni jumped to this death and the novel starts three years after Unni’s death and moves backwards. Ouseph meets people whom Unni had known or met. A journalist working for the news agency UNI, an atheist and a drunkard, Ouseph’s main success lies in not behaving or even resembling his middle-class neighbours who he thinks are either bank clerks or have much in common with bank clerks. His wife Mariamma on the other hand is very religious and god-fearing. She also talks to herself. Unlike Ouseph and Mariamma’s chacracters which are very realistic, as is that of second son Thoma, Unni is a caricature. Unni is very good-looking and his thoughts and actions are not that of a higher-secondary school-going teenager. To top it all, he is a talented cartoonist. It is impossible to not like Unni.

Very early on in his life, Unni realises that he is different. Or rather, he starts believing that he is different. From then on, in addition to making cartoons which are acclaimed by many, Unni starts exploring his own mind. A precocious boy who learns to exercise his power over others, Unni carefully picks Somen Pillai and Sai Shankaran as his friends. Somen believes he is a corpse and Sai is in awe of Unni and Somen and lets them both experiment on him. The three teens have awesome adventures with Unni and Somen having all the fun, usually with Sai’s hair standing on end.

Unni is close to his mother Mariamma and is not exactly chummy with his father Ouseph. Yet when Unni dies, it is Ouseph who goes in search of the truth. Unni calls himself an atheist Hindu and yet he gets a Catholic burial at the Fatima Church. This despite the Church considering suicide to be a sin. As Ouseph searches for Unnni’s past, we get nuggests from Ouseph and Marriamma’s earlier lives as well. Ouseph used to be a popular journalist in Kerala, but was forced to migrate to Chennai after he broke the story of how a powerful archbishop in Kerala was also a paedophile. When Mariamma was twelve, she was molested by a local lad, Philippose. Philippose wasn’t the local goon. Rather he was the nice young man who read the Bible during the Sunday service, sang in the choir, organised boat races and was liked by all. One day Mariamma confides in Unni the trauma she underwent when she was young. Very soon Unni is on his way to Kerala to meet Philippose and confront him. Does Unni manage to meet Philippose? I’d rather not give that away.

Unni is a stud. Surrounded by classmates who are busy cramming for the IIT JEE and other exams, Unni immerses himself in his cartoons. The pretty girl next door Mythili Balasubramanium has fallen for Unni. Unni reminded me of this article written by Joseph many years ago about the designer Anand Jon. There are a few similarities in Joseph’s description of Anand Jon and his portrayal of Unni Chacko. Please read the novel and the article to find out more.

Towards the end, Ouseph Chacko has a long and very interesting discussion with Dr. Iyengar, a Neurosurgeon and Neuropsychiatrist, who runs the Schizophrenia Ward at a non-descript mental hospital. Dr. Iyengar has had dealings with Unni in the past and hence Ouseph’s interest in Dr. Iyengar. In the Acknowledgements section, Joseph tells us that he met with neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists as part of his research of this book and so I assume that interesting details of conditions such as Schizophrenia and the Cotard Delusion are factually correct. Through the words of Dr. Iyengar, Joseph tells us that Godmen are not conmen. Rather, Godmen actually believe what they say. When a Godman clains to be God or to have a connection to God, he actually believes it himself. Without such self-belief, a Godman would not be able to convince others of his powers. Please read Joseph’s interview of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for more of his views on Godmen.

There is a constant conflict between Joseph the story-teller and Joseph the satirist. At times Joseph the satirist gets carried away and one starts wondering where the story has disappeared to when Joseph the story-teller makes his appearance. In any event, Joseph’s trademark satire is reasonably entertaining and Joseph the story-teller holds the reader's attention till the end.

Joseph discloses in the Acknowledgements section that he spent the first twenty years of his life in Chennai. Wikipedia tells us that Joseph was born in 1974, and so it looks as if Joseph lived in Chennai during the period the story is set. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Joseph manages convey the feel of 1980s Chennai, with its street demonstrations and hunger strikes in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, to the reader.

Why did Unni Chacko commit suicide on 16 May 1987? Please read The Illicit Happiness of Other People to find out. It is a very good read, definitely as good as the excellent and highly acclaimed Serious Men.

Disclaimer: I am not related to the author though (i) we share the same last name, (ii) both of us were born in Kerala in the same year, (iii) I too spent all my school years in Tamil Nadu and (iv) my younger brother Manoj Joseph is called ‘Manu’ at home.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Book Review: “India’s Biggest Cover-Up” by Anuj Dhar

Until I read Anuj Dhar’s India’s Biggest Cover-Up, I had only a vague idea of the controversy surrounding Subhas Chandra Bose’s death allegedly in a plane crash in Taiwan. I knew that there was some opposition from Bose's supporters towards bringing Netaji’s ashes back from Japan since they believe the ashes do not belong to Netaji, but assumed that everyone, including the Indian government, is trying to find out the truth. Well, I am no longer such a simpleton.

Former journalist Dhar who now heads a non-profit organisation called Mission Netaji believes that Netaji did not die in a plane crash in Taiwan or anywhere else. Rather, Dhar, like many other fans of Netaji thinks that as World War II drew to a close, Bose tried to make his way to the Soviet Union in order to obtain assistance from Stalin’s regime for his goal of freeing India from British rule through force of arms. Dhar theorises that Netaji wanted people to believe he died in a plane crash, so that there would be no one looking for him as he hunted for another ally to replace the Japanese. Dhar claims that the Japanese helped Bose in his plan by passing off the ashes of a Japanese man who died of a heart attack around that time, as that of Bose. Bose divulged his real plan to only one person, his trusted aide Lieutenant Colonel Habibur Rahman Khan, who later claimed that he was with Bose as their plane crashed immediately after taking off from Matsyama airport in Taihoku, Taiwan (then called Formosa). Habibur Rahman Khan gave out that Bose was badly burned in the crash and did not stay alive for long and that the Japanese cremated him. Dhar says that Habibur Rahman lied thus because he was instructed to do so by Netaji.

Dhar does not claim that he knows exactly what happened to Netaji. However, he is convinced that the Indian government is hiding a lot, citing a number of feeble excuses. The Soviet government wasn’t of great help either. Dhar isn’t the sort of armchair theorist who comes up with a hypothesis without sufficient backing. India’s Biggest Cover-Up is around 400 pages long, excluding its end notes, and all of it is filled with facts. Dhar pokes holes in various statements made by the Indian government and commissions of enquiry such as the Shah Nawaz Khan committee and the Khosla Commission. Dhar speaks approvingly of the Mukherjee Commission’s findings which concluded that Bose did not die in an air crash in Taiwan.

Dhar examines at length two men, Shaulmari Sadhu and Bhagwanji who claimed to be Bose in independent India. Though Dhar dismisses Shaulmari Sadhu’s claims, he seems to suggest that Bhagwanji could have been Bose, who having spent some time in a Soviet gulag, was allowed to return to India.

Since Dhar doesn’t make any conjecture as to what exactly could have happened to Bose, I propose to put forth a few, submitting along with my theories, that caveat that I am strictly an armchair theorist who has not done much research on this subject. Therefore, the theories that follow should be taken with a barrel of salt.

Dhar is convinced that the Japanese assisted Bose in his subterfuge, that they played along as Bose faked his death and most probably arranged his transportation to the Soviet Union through Manchuria. I would like to question this belief. First let’s look at a few facts. Atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, 1945. On August 15th 1945, Imperial Japan surrendered to the Allies and this day is commemorated as Victory Over Japan Day even now. Immediately after the surrender was announced, Americans, Briton Chinese, Koreans Filipinos and many other nationalities burst into celebration. The Japanese were devastated and many Japanese soldiers committed suicide. Many PoWs were executed by the Japanese by way of revenge.

Bose is alleged to have died in an air crash on August 18th, three days after Japan announced its surrender! If Dhar’s theory is correct, even after surrendering to the Allies, the Japanese cared enough about Bose and the Indian struggle for independence, that they put in a lot of effort to help Bose escape to the Soviet Union. Remember, there was no love lost between Japan and the Soviets. The Japanese has clashed with the Russians in 1904-1905, and won. Between 1932 and 1939, there were a series of border clashes between the Soviet Union and Japan along the Mongolian – Manchurian border. In 1939, just before war broke out in Europe, Marshall Zhukov’s forces handed the Kwantung army a decisive defeat in Mongolia. Stalin had promised the other Allies that Soviet Union would attack Japan three months after the war in Europe ended. Therefore, on 9 August, exactly three months after Nazi Germany’s surrender (on 8 May 1945), the Soviets invaded Japanese held Manchuria.

The Khosla Commission took the view that the Japanese did not hold Bose in high esteem, that they were only using him for their ends, that if the Japanese had won, they would have ruled India as a colony, just like the British. Dhar refutes all of that. In this respect, I agree with the Khosla Commission. According to Dhar, Bose had Nazi Germans eat out of his hands. Dhar also claims that the Japanese had deep respect for Bose and that if they had defeated the British, they would have given independence to India. I feel Dhar gets it totally wrong out here. I believe that the Japanese were using Bose and the INA just as Netaji was using the Japanese. Once they surrendered and the Second World War was over, the Japanese would have very little incentive in helping Bose escape to the Soviet Union which had just invaded Manchuria!

So my theory goes like this: A day or two before the Japanese surrender or maybe just afterwards, British and American agents would have established contact with the Japanese secret service, the Kempeitai. The Japanese would have offered or the Brits would have asked for Bose to be handed over. Rather than arrest Bose and haul him back to India where he was a hero, someone clever would have come up with a plan. The Japanese would have been asked to offer Bose an escape to the Soviet Union. Further, Bose would have been asked to cooperate in faking his own death, so that nobody would be looking for him. Bose, exhausted by his long struggle and left without many options, would have agreed, asking Habibur Rahman to keep his secret and to spread the word that he died in an air crash. Isolated from his INA soldiers and other friends, Bose may have been executed as punishment for the trouble he caused to Imperial Britain and her allies.

Look at it this way. The Imperial Japanese knew that after their surrender, there would be hell to pay. Why would they then go out of their way to further antagonise the Allies by helping Bose escape to the Soviet Union when they would get brownie points for handing him over? Unless, they were saints, which we know they weren’t.

Why did independent India show so much reluctance in digging for the truth regarding Bose? It is tempting to conjecture that the Brits involved Nehru and other top Congress leaders in their decision to eliminate Bose. After all, if Bose returned alive, he would be a rival to Nehru, wouldn’t he? British officials would know that if Nehru or other Congress leaders were kept in the loop, they could be counted on to suppress the truth from Bose’s supporters and his countless fans in India. Let me remind you, I am just theorising.

Since Bose never made it to the Soviet Union, the Soviets might have eventually guessed how Bose met his end. They might have used that information to blackmail Nehru or Indira Gandhi or at least to exert some sort of control over them. I am saying this in order to explain why the Soviets never cooperated in the search for the truth about Bose.

The second theory I would put forth is that maybe the Japanese actually helped Bose fake his death and escape to the Soviet Union. Stalin would have quickly found out that Bose was not an ideal communist who could be relied on to deliver India to the Reds. The un-pliable Bose would have been kept under lock and key for some years, before he was either killed or even allowed to return to India. I believe, this theory would find favour with Dhar, though he doesn’t say so in as many words.

A third theory would go like this. After the Japanese surrender, the Brits persuaded the Japanese to send Bose over to the Soviets, after faking his death, so that his Indian supporters would not ask too many questions. The Soviets were expected to hand over Bose in exchange for something the Soviets wanted or maybe execute him for war crimes with little publicity. After all, the Soviets and the Brits were allies and the Soviets would not have had much sympathy for anyone who sided with the Japanese. Maybe the Soviets obliged the Brits or maybe they changed their minds and didn’t follow the plan. Maybe the Soviets tested Bose for communist leanings and when they found none, imprisoned him or killed him. The problem with this theory is that relations between the Soviets and the USA/UK broke down almost immediately after the Second World War was over and the Brits would not have wanted Bose to fall into Soviet hands even if the Soviets had promised to hand him over or execute him.

I fully agree with Dhar that India should do more to unearth the mystery surrounding Bose’s death. I hope that the truth will finally emerge one of these days.

PS: Could the publishers ensure that a detailed index is added to this very interesting book for the next edition?