Friday, 23 December 2011

“Pakistan: A Personal History” by Imran Khan – Book Review

Almost two years ago, I had blogged about Imran Khan and my comments weren’t exactly very flattering to the former captain of Pakistan’s world cup winning squad.

I have now just finished reading a book by Imran which combines Pakistan’s history with Khan’s own story. Khan writes well and tells a simple story of how Pakistan has evolved since its independence, the challenges it faces and how Khan’s political party Tehreek-e-Insaf can offer a credible alternative to the established parties. One may not agree with everything that Khan has to say, but one is forced to admit that Khan has passion, drive and determination for his cause.

Khan has a view on a number of issues, ranging from Pakistan’s founders Jinnah and Iqbal to the Taliban to the path which Pakistan should take to get out of the morass it is currently in. Hardly surprising, I guess, otherwise Khan wouldn’t be in politics or write a book for that matter. Khan comes across as a conservative man, one very proud of his Pathan origins, his religion worn on his sleeve. I initially thought Pakistan: A Personal History would be addressed to and meant for young Pakistanis, ones who would vote in the next elections, but no, by the time I finished this book, I got the feeling that Khan was trying to explain Pakistan to the West, to ask for greater understanding (not sympathy- Khan is too proud for that) and respect.

The broad contours of Khan’s story would be known to most people in the sub-continent. As a youngster, Khan had a privileged childhood, went to one of the best schools in Pakistan, had a dream career playing international cricket for Pakistan, led Pakistan to its one and only world cup victory, built a world-class cancer hospital in memory of his mother with public donations, got married to the very pretty and very young Jemima, got into politics, initially made a hash of things, got divorced and has managed to stick around in the political arena till now. Mind you, there isn’t too much about Khan’s rise to fame and glory in cricket, other than occasional references to various incidents, both good and bad ones. If one expects a cricketing biography, one’s going to be disappointed.

Similarly there isn’t much about his courtship of Jemima. Khan tells us that he was all set for an arranged marriage when he met Jemima. He doesn’t use the words ‘fall in love” though he does say that he ‘found her attractive and intelligent and was particularly impressed by her strong value system and the fact that despite her young age she already had a spiritual curiosity.' I though Khan’s account of the reasons for their divorce much more honest and straightforward. I’d say this book is 8/10th about politics and ideology, 1/10th about cricket and the remaining 1/10th is other personal stuff.

There are quite a few interesting anecdotes about Khan. One is set during the 1965 War with India when Pakistanis expected the Indian army to land in Lahore where Khan lived. Some of Khan’s older cousins formed a junior defence league and were armed with guns. Two of Khan’s ‘overzealous cousins almost ambushed, shot and killed two innocent people, mistaking them for Indian paratroopers.’ It is not cleared if the two innocents were “killed” or “almost killed”. There is no mention of any punishment and so I presume it was only “almost killed”, but then you never know in Pakistan. There is another story of how Khan’s tips helped his brother-in-law Ben Goldsmith, who had lost about 10,000 pounds spread betting on cricket, recoup his losses. After the losses were recouped, Ben made enough money (in two days) for Khan to pay off his party’s debts. Mind you, Khan says he never gambled in his life till then and there is no mention of Khan repeating such a performance.

Khan mentions how Zia declared the Ahmediyas to be non-Muslims, but doesn’t comment either in support or against that declaration. Clearly, Khan doesn’t want to lose any votes over this issue. However, in the matter of Salman Taseer's murder, he takes a clear stand calling it tragic. Khan also takes the view that Tasser’s assassination and the subsequent killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is a result of the polarisation in Pakistan brought about by Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror. ‘Before 9/11, Taseer’s remarks recommending a change to the blasphemy law in order to prevent its misuse might not have even got a mention in the newspapers. At worst they might have roused a few statements by clerics wanting to mobilise public support among their constituencies, but in the current polarised climate everyone and anyone is at risk if they happen to be on the wrong side of the divide.

Khan goes out of his way to explain Islam, Pakistan and the Pashtuns (who can do no wrong) to the outside world, sticking his neck out in the process. Most of what Khan has to say is sensible and correct – to an extent atleast, such as that Islam has had a glorious past when it produced a number of scientists and geometricians and the like (when the West wallowed in darkness), that a genuine Islamic state would necessarily be a welfare state which would tolerate minorities, that the Taliban were fundamentalists, but never terrorists, that no Pakistani had taken part in the 9/11 attacks, that the Taliban could have been persuaded to have Osama bin Laden tried in an Islamic court of law, that it is still possible to make an honourable peace with the Taliban. Khan leaves one in no doubt that if his party comes to power, the Pakistani army will stop participating in the War on Terror. Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to get American aid, he feels it makes Pakistan aid-dependent and most of the aid money lines the pockets of the rich and powerful.

When Khan talks of the honour system, yes the very same idea which causes fathers to kill their daughters who fall in love before marriage, he says, ‘the concept of honour has received a bad press because of the deeply offensive honour killings, but by upholding one’s honour impoverished people living hard lives can maintain a sense of dignity and command respect. In the tribal area, the highly decentralized form of democracy is based on the jirga system – local councils of village elders, similar to the Athenian democracy of the city-states of......’ I’m going to leave this at that.

Again when Khan talks of opposition to women’s liberation, we are told, ‘While the masses in Pakistan are impressed by the tremendous technological progress of the Western world, their understanding of the Western moral value system mainly comes from watching television and they do not respect what they see. Therefore they are deeply suspicious of any attempt towards westernization – particularly women’s liberation. They don’t regard this as women having the right to fulfil their potential, but rather as having the right to be sexually permissive. Therefore westernised Pakistanis are considered to have loose morals too. One of the many derogatory things which people say about westernized couples is that "he does not get angry and she has no shame." It is because of this attitude that sometimes modernization is resisted because it is perceived to be westernization. People are also therefore wary of foreign NGOs dealing with women.

Khan’s sense of righteousness and destiny shine forth brightly, as Khan discusses Pakistan’s current political dilemma and the role he would play if he could win political power. We find statements like ‘that left only my party and the religious parties to take a stand.’ Khan wants Pakistan to ‘reclaim the vision and wisdom of the modernist reformers who paved the way for the creation of Pakistan. We need to do this because we badly need a cultural, intellectual and moral renaissance in Pakistan so that we are able to create societies and communities that are educated and enlightened, just and compassionate, forward-looking and life-affirming. We need to utilize our rational faculties and engage in scholarly discussion and reflection to find a solution to contemporary issues such as the blending of the positive aspects of Western culture with Islam. The new renaissance must also offer an alternative to the Western materialism and consumerism that has been totally imbibed by our ruling classes and which our country cannot afford.

Khan is quite clear that it is the current ruling classes of Pakistan who are at the root of Pakistan’s misery. Not only do they covet foreign aid money, which they then siphon off, they also ape the West and do not subscribe to the values which Pakistan’s founders had espoused. The English language schools of Pakistan, which follow a curriculum different from that of state schools come in for some severe criticism for creating brown sahibs. ‘When Pakistan became independent, we should have rid ourselves of these English medium schools,’ Khan sermonises and then adds, ‘in other post-colonial countries such as Singapore, India and Malaysia, they set up one core syllabus for the whole country.’ I can’t speak for Singapore, and Malaysia, but Khan should have done some more research on India before making such a flattering statement. If India had done away with all English language schools, yours truly would not be posting this piece on Winnowed and Khan would not have written Pakistan: A Personal History in English if Pakistan had done away with all its English language schools.

Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to have the Western form of secularism. While noting that ‘Islam gives all the freedom of a secular society – yet an Islamic state cannot be secular. To understand secularism as it exists in the West today, it is important to remember the evolution of Christianity within the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the State and the Church had their distinct boundaries. Over the centuries, many other influences have shaped modern-day secularism. But the separation of Church and State could not happen in Islam since it has no concept of a Church.’ I don’t think the Church and State were so distinct during the days of early Christianity. Also, I don’t see how Islam not having a Church should prevent the State from disassociating itself from religion. Khan does offer an explanation by quoting Iqbal who said that ‘when a State is governed without the moral values that are rooted in religion then naked materialism is likely to replace it – exactly the observation made by Mohandas Gandhi when he remarked, ‘those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.’ The two greatest institutional tyrannies of all times, the Nazi Reich and the Soviet Union, were Godless constructs.

Khan ends his 364-page (sans le index) tome on the most positive note, telling us that his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf is the only party which can get Pakistan out of its current desperate crisis. ‘For the first time I feel Tehreek-e-Insaf is the idea whose time has come,’ Khan tells us.

Monday, 19 December 2011

“Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War” by Sarmila Bose – Book Review

I’ve always wondered why India and Bangladesh aren’t better friends than they are. I mean, when soldiers from West Pakistan were carrying out a genocide in what’s now Bangladesh, one which caused the deaths of a few million Bengalis, India stepped in and helped the Bengalis gain independence, losing a few thousand of its soldiers in doing so. Why then do so many Bangladeshis want to have, as good a relationship with Pakistan as with India? Why are so many Bangladeshis friendlier towards Pakistan than towards India? Why is the Bangladesh National Party able to flourish in Bangladesh, even gaining power on a few occasions, despite being inimical towards India and friendlier towards Pakistan and despite being allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami which had collaborated with West Pakistan and opposed Bangladeshi independence? All these questions I had raised in this post dated March 2009.

I just finished reading a brilliant book by Sarmila Bose, a research fellow at Oxford, which has provided me with the answers I have been searching for so long. Of course, the answers provided by Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War do raise further questions, but it is a very good start in getting a fix on what exactly happened in the run-up to Bangladesh’s independence, something which ought to have been done decades ago.

Bose questions many of the commonly held assumptions relating to the events of 1971 which led to Bangladesh’s independence. Was there actually a genocide by troops from West Pakistan against the Bengalis of East Pakistan? Were the Bengalis entirely innocent victims and were Pakistani federal troops the only aggressors, as portrayed by most media sources? Finally and most importantly, how many people died in those turbulent times? Did three million Bengalis actually die at the hands of troops from West Pakistan? Did India actually hold 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as PoWs?

Bose tries to answer these questions by analysing various events that took place during that period, especially the massacres and interviewing various participants in those events, taking the trouble to meet with Pakistanis, Bengali fighters, Bengali civilians and non-Bengali civilians as she seeks to find if commonly accepted wisdom is indeed true. For example, in order to verify details of the attack on Dacca University on the night of 25th- 26th March 1971 which is supposed to have resulted in the deaths of 300 innocent students and professors who were killed in cold blood, some in their dormitories as they slept and some rounded up and executed in the University grounds, Bose interviewed army officers such as Lt. Muhammad Ali Shah of 18 Punjab who took part in the attack, studied tape recordings of radio communications among Pakistani army officers during the attack (which are preserved at the Liberation War Museum in Dacca) and reviewed documents prepared by the US consulate in Dacca. The attack on Dacca University is particularly infamous since one Professor Nurul Ula managed to films some of the killings and this footage is actually available on YouTube. Bose found that the students at Dacca University were armed and had trained for battle. The training was mainly with dummy rifles and the students’ weaponry was of course no match for that of the soldiers’, but the fact is that it was not a massacre of sleeping victims, but a two-way battle. Soldiers enroute to the University had to clear barricades of felled trees and on reaching the University, there was some initial resistance before the soldiers prevailed.

During the attack on Dacca University, Rokeya Hall, the Women’s hostel is supposed to have been attacked, with girl students having to jump out of their hostel windows to reach safety. Bose’s research shows that most girl students had vacated their hostel by 25th March and only 7 girls were left, all of whom stayed with a tutor on the night of the attack and survived. Some like Professor Guhathakurta and Professor Maniruzzaman were taken away from their homes inside the campus and killed. One Rabindra Mohan Das, whose father worked in the Provost’s office, and whose entire family was killed, tells Bose that 29 staff members were ordered to pile up corpses and were later killed. Rabindra Mohan Das and another boy were spared since they were considered too young. Brig (Lt.Col) Taj who commanded the 32 Punjab regiment told Bose that by his estimates, only 44 people were killed in the two main halls targetted. However, records of radio communication between officers who took part in the attack indicate that no prisoners were taken and that around 300 people were killed. The memorial at Dhaka University for the University’s faculty, students and staff who lost their lives during 1971 has only 149 names and so the number of faculty, students and staff who died that night has to be even less. Bose wonders what the real number is? Did the army men exaggerate casualties or were there fighters in the campus who were not students? Finally, Bose pertinently asks why the alleged mass grave outside Jagannath Hall wasn’t exhumed after the liberation?

The conclusions which Bose comes to are rather startling. According to Bose, the movement for Bangladesh’s independence was hardly peaceful or Gandhian, as claimed by many. Bengalis who were agitating for more rights and for freedom were usually armed with weapons ranging from rifles to sickles. In other words, they were not a peaceful bunch. From 1 March 1971 when the elected national assembly was postponed till the time the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1997, violent Bengali mobs and rebel fighters targeted Pakistani soldiers and their families and killed many. Despite this, federal troops exercised a certain degree of restraint. There were a number of massacres of Biharis which could be called genocide, especially because those killings did not discriminate between men women and children. On the contrary, when federal Pakistani troops massacred Bengalis, they usually let women and children go. Local Bengali Muslims were responsible for many of the Hindus who were killed or chased away from their homes. Greed for wealth and property was the prime motive for such actions. Many Bengali intellectuals killed just before the surrender by General Niazi died at the hands of collaborating Bengali outfits such as Al-Badr and Al-Shams (both commonly called Razakars) and not Pakistani troops.

Did India actually take 93,000 PoWs? The total number of Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan was only 34,000, plus another 11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel. India is right in saying it had 93,000 Pakistanis in its custody, but this figure Bose tells us, included civilian officials, civilian staff, woman and children. Pakistan’s President and Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen. Yahya Khan is given a clean chit by Bose who finds him ‘sensitive to Bengali grievances’. Bose reminds her readers that Gen. Yahya Khan actually ensured that the elections held were free and fair, thereby enabling the Awami League to win a majority.

Finally and most importantly Bose concludes that the total death toll from Bangladesh’s independence movement was neither 3 million Bengalis as claimed by Mujibur Rahman and as accepted by almost everyone outside Pakistan, nor was it as 26,000 as estimated by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, but between fifty to one hundred thousand and in this figure, Bose includes Bengalis, Biharis, Pakistani and Indians. If the Pakistanis had actually killed 3 million Bengalis or any other number close to it, one can be sure that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis would not be on good terms now. So many Bengalis would not have collaborated with the Pakistanis to the extent they did. We are given the example of two brothers, both of whom were in the Pakistani army. One brother, Maj. Gen. Imamuz Zaman of the Bangladesh army, defected to the rebels and the other, Brigadier Abul Lais Ahmaduz Zaman continued to be loyal to Pakistan. Both officers continue to serve their respective countries.

One can dispute Bose’s numbers on the basis that she has placed a great deal of reliance on her interviews with Pakistani army officers. Also, some of Bose’s suggestions and inferences can be challenged. For example, while investigating a massacre at Thanapara village, on the banks of the Padma, where a number of villagers had gathered, Bose tells us that before the shooting, the Pakistanis had accused the villagers of being Indians who had crossed over and explains that Thanapara is very close to the Indian border and at the time of the massacre, the water level was very low, making it possible to easily cross-over. However, we are also told that the men were segregated from women and children and only the former were shot. Surely, Indians wouldn’t have crossed over with their families, including children! However, Bose seems to be convinced that the soldiers thought the villagers were Indians who had crossed over.

Bose takes great pain to show that the killings by the West Pakistani soldiers do not amount to genocide as defined by the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because they were not carried out with the aim of wiping out the Bengali race. Bose justifies this by explaining that on numerous occasions, men were segregated from women and children before being shot. In some cases, such as when a number of Hindu refugees fleeing to India were killed at a place called Chuknagar, the reason for killing was because the killers thought the Hindus would receive training in India and return to fight them.

With a few weeks after Operation Searchlight was launched on 25 March 1971, the Mukti Bahini were almost entirely crushed, though they continued to launch sporadic, but ineffective attacks which only succeeded in attracting reprisals. Indian forces therefore carried out frequent infiltrations into Bangladesh many months before the formal commencement of war in December 1971, using artillery, tanks and occasional air strikes to support the Mukti Bahini.

Why did the Bengalis start a movement for independence from their co-religionists just over two decades after fighting to break up India on the basis of religion? India was partitioned because elites among Indian Muslims felt that they would be marginalised in an independent India. In all probability Bengali elites started feeling marginalised by the Punjabi elite in the West and decided to have a country of their own. The Muslim Punjabi’s inability to understand the Bengali’s love for his language and culture doubtless played a role. Bengali hatred towards their countrymen from the west was focussed on the Punjabis, to the exclusion of other ethnic groups. Derogatory terms were used to describe Punjabis – such as Shala Punjabi (Punjabi bastards) or Punjabi Kukur (Punjabi dog) or Borbor (barbarian) or doshu (bandit) or noropisach (human demon) or noroposhu (human animal). Bose tells us that in comparison, West Pakistanis referred to the rebels as miscreants or Muktis or Awami League thugs. There were many instances of Pakistani soldiers helping Bengalis, but civilian accounts describe such soldiers as ‘Beluch’ or even Sindhi, though there were very few Baluchi soldiers in that theatre of war and in any event, the average Bengali civilian wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Punjabi and a Baluchi.

Bose ends the book on a dramatic, but thought provoking note. ‘When the Pakistani army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971, he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When the soldiers of the (Bangladesh) army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975 he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law, and three sons, the youngest a child of ten.

Ultimately, neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different parties with a terrible human toll. The war of 1971 left a land of violence, with a legacy of intolerance of difference and a tendency to respond to political opposition with intimidation, brutalisation and extermination.

I found this book, the main body of which runs to just 183 pages, with appendices and an elaborate and useful index taking up another 55 pages, difficult to read (though I read it over a single weekend) since the typeface is very small and cramped, making it strenuous for my eyes. The very matter of fact and clinical manner in which Bose discussed massacres and other atrocities did not make it any easier.

Friday, 16 December 2011

“Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas” by Homen Borgohain and Pradipta Borgohain

Well known Assamese writer Homen Borgohain and his son Pradipta have come up with an excellent book on the Nagas, one of the most distinct ethnic groups within the Indian sub-continent. With a past that is shrouded in mystery and smoke from the fires of Naga insurgency yet to disappear completely, the proud Nagas have been misunderstood by mainstream India and its politicians. Scrolls of Strife makes a valiant attempt to reverse this position.

Naturally, the Naga quest for independence from India forms the crux of this book. The Borgohains try to examine this struggle from the Nagas’ point of view as well as from the other side. Since the Borgohains are not Naga, a fair amount of space is devoted to explain how the Nagas view them. Do they see them as Assamese or as fellow North-Easterners with a common Mongoloid heritage? Homen Borgohain is an Ahom (which makes his son Pradipta half-Ahom) and we are told that Homen finds easy acceptance in various parts of the north-east, especially in Manipur and Mizoram where he is mistaken for a local.

The Borgohains give various reasons why people from the mainland find it difficult to understand the Nagas or to accept them as one of their own. Food habits are an important reason. The Nagas, like the Mizos, are die-hard carnivores and eat anything and everything, including dog meat and bat meat. Their popular drink ‘Ju’ is form of rice beer, which attracts insects which lay eggs and spawn maggots and has to be drunk with the live maggots inside. The average Indian from the mainland with so many dietary restrictions would just not be able to share a meal with the average Naga. The Indian army has been present in Nagaland for many decades now and for many Nagas the Indian soldier epitomises India. However, the Borgohains are careful to point out that the Nagas have troubles not just with Indians from outside the northeast, but also with Assamese and the Manipuris.

The Nagas have a love-hate relationship with the Assamese since the region that is now Nagaland was once part of Assam and many of the bureaucrats who governed the Nagas were Assamese. The Borgohains narrate numerous examples of the animosity towards the Assamese – for example cars with Assamese number plates are much more likely to be vandalised in Nagaland. On the other hand, many centuries ago, the Nagas had learned to get along with the Ahoms who were almost as egalitarian as the Nagas. Since the various Naga tribes speak distinct languages that are mutually unintelligible to each other, a pidgin called Nagamese has evolved, which is largely based on Assamese. We are told the story of an Angami Naga who married an Ao girl. When asked what language he proposed to his future wife, the man replied, ‘Why, in Assamese, which is the language of love for all Nagas.

After Nagaland was formed in 1963, many Nagas like the Tungkhul Nagas were left out of Nagaland, which has given rise to the demand for a greater Nagaland or Nagalim. The Borgohains tell us that until 1971 when Bangladesh was created, Pakistan did support the Naga insurgency from bases in East Pakistan, but doesn’t do so any more. The Chinese had an affair with Naga insurgents, but devout Christians and communists make strange bedfellows and after the Chinese failed to persuade the Nagas to link their insurgency with the Naxalites of West Bengal, they became disenchanted with the Nagas.

The Nagas fought the British but later grew to respect and even like them. During the British rule, American Baptist missionaries converted most Nagas to Christianity. Unlike mainland India where the people had organised religions which prevented conversions on a large scale, the Nagas’ animist faith did not stand up to missionary zeal. We are told that the Baptist missionaries had either the active or tacit support of the British government, but the reason for their overwhelming success was their dedication and single mindedness. Christianity tamed the Nagas who till then were head-hunters. However, it also unalterably changed the Naga character. Until Christianity was introduced to the Nagas, each Naga village was a sovereign state and each Naga home a castle. Christianity took away that village/clan/tribe based identity which the Nagas had.

Naga insurgents have tried to use Christianity to whip up support for their movement. ‘Nagaland for Christ’ is a catchy phrase, but do Christian missionaries actually support the Naga insurgency or the demand for independence? Apparently, there has been only one instance of a foreign missionary assisting Naga insurgents.

One of the best things about Scrolls of Strife are details of how various Indian leaders got along (or did not get along) with the Nagas. The Borgohains tell us that Mahatma Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan and Rajaji understood the Nagas and were very sympathetic towards the Naga cause. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru was not, especially after the Nagas staged a walk-out in 1953 at a meeting in Kohima where the Burmese Prime Minister U Nu was also present. Indira Gandhi is supposed to have given the Nagas a patient hearing and they liked her. B. K Nehru did the opposite.

Just as interesting is the description of various Naga leaders like Zapu Phizo, T. Sakhrie, Thuengaling Muivah, J. B. Jasokie etc., their struggles and ideologies. The story of how T. Sakhrie took the path of peace and was beaten to death by Phizo’s men is as heartrending as the various tales of army brutality and discrimination faced by the Nagas in other parts of India.

These days many Nagas live and work in different parts of India where they sometimes feel discriminated against. The insurgency against India has been put on hold and the uneasy peace is likely to last for a while. Nevertheless, the Naga continue to be proud of their tribal identity, their culture, their (relatively new) Christian faith as they ponder their future in an ever changing world.

If there is one thing I didn’t like about this book, it’s that there are numerous references to the Battle of Khonoma where the Angami Nagas apparently put up a terrific fight against the British. However, the actual battle is not described and I could not even find it on the usually reliable Wikipedia. You can read about it on this blog though I can’t vouch for its veracity.

On the whole, this book is an excellent read and ought to be widely circulated within the Indian mainland – just so that fellow Indians know each other better.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

When A Lawyer Falls In Love by Amrita Suresh – Book Review

I picked up this book because I was under the impression that lawyers almost never fell in love, at least to my knowledge, and I wanted to read an account of a genuine, 24 carat lawyer falling in love. You know, I thought I would find out (how a hard-nosed lawyer could possibly fall in love) and pass on the information amongst my friends, many of whom, like me, are practising lawyers – my once in a lifetime contribution to my legal fraternity.

I was disappointed. Amrita Suresh’s book is about law students and not lawyers, which is not such a bad thing, but then, it could have been about art students or medical students or engineering students for all the difference it would have made. If one is looking for those nuggets of detail specific to law schools and those who study there, those tales of intense competition, rivalry and camaraderie, moot courts, idiosyncrasies of senior lawyers and such like, information which only lawyers and law students can generate, one would be disappointed. To be fair to Suresh, the novel’s back cover explains that Suresh isn’t a lawyer and the preface discloses that her knowledge of law schools has been gained through a close friend who went to a reputed law school.

Suresh writes well. The sort of smooth, feel-good writing one would associate with the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or maybe even Nancy Drew. Most of the time, the writing is meant to convey the ache in somebody’s heart, like this one: ‘‘Ankur, I made this card for you,’ Sonali said handing him a neat light blue card. There was a cute sketch of a chubby little girl holding a flower and looking down. Sonali was exceptionally good at drawing. Just as she was exceptionally good at everything else. Like tormenting him.’ The dialogues usually play to stereotypes, like this: ‘A bulb is easy to fix,’ the young female engineer replied, ‘a male ego isn’t.

The plot revolves around affairs of the heart, as the title would indicate or rather, affairs of multiple hearts and one is in little doubt as to the outcome even though Ankur Palekar is baby-faced and diminutive and the object of his affection, Sonali Shah does show short-lived partiality for the tall and handsome Rohit Randhwah. Almost all the leading characters come through the novel without any damage or injury. I wouldn’t say that Suresh has fleshed out her characters very well – they are rather two dimensional, but her descriptions do suffice for this tale. For example, while introducing the reader to Pavan Nair, the fall guy on many an occasion, we are told that: ‘Next to Souvik sat Pavan Nair, a guy, it was said, with a mind the size of a mighty star. When viewed from the earth that is. His painfully obvious observations made those around him want to develop homicidal tendencies.'

Sonali Shah believes in astrology and if the explanations of the zodiac and exceptional amount of dialogues revolving around star signs are anything to go by, author Suresh must take the stars very seriously.

We are told that AIU College is one of the most reputed law colleges in India and it is fully residential. However, there are no concerns about bad food in the hostel mess or the other usual discomforts one would associate with hostel life. There are students from all over India, as befits a law college that is so very reputed. There are Holi parties, college cultural festivals where smart, pretty, handsome law students meet smart, pretty, handsome engineering students and everyone has a good time. When the story kicks off, Ankur Palekar and friends are in their third year and when one reaches the last page of this 230-page ‘very light read’, they have graduated and are ready to step into the big bad world of lawyers. There are a few mentions of exams, with the characters worried more about their love affairs and one doesn’t really notice how the years roll by.

What I hated most about this book is that Suresh doesn’t tell us which city or town AIU College is located in. I know that this may not be a big deal for many, but for me, the inability to tie the story to a location ruined the tale. On top of that, there are a number of faux pas which are bound to be made when the author is a non-lawyer. For example, after telling us that AIU College is fully residential, even for those students who stayed a stone’s throw away, we find one student leaving college for personal reasons and hoping to complete ‘his final year through correspondence’. One hears a professor remind the students of a law firm which has achieved a certain certification, ‘so that they could start taking things seriously since they were in the final year’. I doubt if there is any law school in India where the teachers (have to) prod students into taking their search for a corporate law job seriously. Students are usually much more clued into corporate law firms than their teachers.

Now don’t let my peeves dissuade you from buying this book. It’s well written and if you like chik-lits, you might well enjoy When A Lawyer Falls In Love.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat – Book Review

Chetan Bhagat goes to GangaTech, a private engineering college in Varanasi to give a motivational lecture and meets its Director, the very young and very lonely Gopal Mishra. Gopal has an obvious drinking problem as well as an urge to tell his ‘story’, something which turns out to be very convenient, since Gopal’s story forms the rest of this novel. Since Gopal is lonely, it’s obvious that he didn’t ‘get’ the girl, the girl being the very pretty Aarti. However, Bhagat is such a good story teller that he keeps his reader on tenterhooks till the end of the book, open to a number of possibilities, wondering how exactly the story would reach the end already revealed at the beginning of the story.

Revolution 2020 has all the usual Bhagat ingredients. It has clichés, a half-decent plot which creaks just a little bit, parts of which could have come from a Harold Robbins or Jeffrey Archer novel, politically incorrect characters who shoot from the hip and could belong to any town in India, drama and a large dose of reality. I just can’t emphasise the last bit sufficiently enough. Clichés notwithstanding, Revolution 2020 takes the reader into the dark underbelly of India’s private education sector, where almost everything involves a bribe or something equally unsavoury. At times, I felt that Bhagat went overboard with this depiction of how bad things can be with private unaided colleges structured as trusts, which which are in reality full-fledged business enterprises. However, a friend did confirm that HR managers at certain large companies do ask for kick-backs from private colleges, ones that are at nowhere at the top of the rankings, to hire from those campuses.

Bhagat’s characters date, kiss, party and sleep around (furtively). Atleast some of them do so. Though this novel is set in small-town India, I did not find this to be unrealistic, given the genuineness of Bhagat’s narration and the changes that are sweeping across India's social landscape.

Bhagat’s language is not spectacular and I did notice at least one grammatical mistake, but on the whole, the English is good enough to convey the story. If you are not too snobbish to watch and enjoy a Bollywood movie, or any other Indian language movie for that matter, you could enjoy Revolution 2020.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol II: 1839-2004 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

The second volume of Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs picks up the story where it was left off at the end of the first volume – the death and funeral of Ranjit Singh. The sad notes continue. The regicides amongst Ranjit Singh’s seven sons which followed demise demonstrated how far the Sikh community and its rulers had moved away from the ideals preached by Guru Nanak. Power mattered and nothing else. Kharak Singh, Ranjit Singh’s eldest son and Kharak Singh’s son Nao Nihal Singh had to be cremated within hours of each other, their consorts performing sati. Ranjit Singh’s second son Sher Singh and his young son Pratap Singh were slain by Ajit Singh Sandhawalia and his uncle, the Sandhawalias being distant relatives within the royal family. The only gallant notes at that point in time come from the brave General Zorawar Singh who served the Dogras and led successful campaigns to Ladakh and Tibet. I had no idea till I read this book that Indian rulers had clashed with Royal Chinese troops in Tibet. And won most of their battles!

The Sikh army saw repeated mutinies, but performed excellently against the British during the first and second Anglo-Sikh wars. In fact, it performed so well during the Battle of Ferozeshahr during the first Anglo-Sikh war that the British Indian army took such a beating and ‘the fate of India trembled in the balance.’ However, the Sikh army had its share of traitors and Tej Singh who arrived with fresh troops and guns did not deliver the coup de grace. Instead, he silenced his guns and gave the British a reprieve. The next battle at Sabraon turned out to be India’s Waterloo, mainly on account of the role played by traitor Lal Singh. The Second Anglo-Sikh war also saw the Sikhs achieve a grand victory at Chillianwala, but they failed to follow up with decisive action.

After the British took over the Sikh Kingdom, a miracle took place. Enemies were converted into friends within a very short period, mainly on account of the excellent administration by the British backed by a sense of fair play. Canals were dug and deserts made to bloom. Wealth increased and the Sikhs became loyal foot soldiers of the empire. So much so that when India erupted in mutiny in 1857, the Sikhs were loyal to the Brits and practically saved the Empire. The opportunity of paying back the Mughals for the religious persecution they had suffered, especially the murder of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Emperor Aurangzeb, was only an added bonus. It was hardly surprising when after the mutiny the Sikhs were designated as a martial race and given special treatment while races such as the Bengalis who had helped the British defeat the Sikhs in the two Anglo-Sikh wars, were considered non-martial. Punjab became even more prosperous and loyal to the crown.

Another side effect of the British patronage of the Sikhs was that it prevented many Sikhs from reverting to Hinduism. Great care was taken to ensure that Sikh religious sentiments were not hurt, especially for those serving in the army. In fact, once enlisted, Sikhs could not cut their hair short or give up the outwards characteristics of Sikhism!

Most Indians would have heard of the Akalis and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, but how many of us know how control of Gurudwaras used to be with Udasi mahants and the Akalis had to fight to gain control of their holy places? Do read this book to find out more. It’s worth it.

When the First World War erupted, the cream of Sikh youth went off to fight for the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia and various other fronts. The British were grateful, but also cautious since the Ghadr movement was also on. Migrant Sikhs shocked by the racist treatment they received in Canada and the USA, returned to Punjab to fight for its independence. The Punjabis were however not ready for an independence struggle and many of the Ghadr activists were turned over to the police.

One good thing about Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs is the little snippets of information which are slipped in, which totally distort one’s understanding of a particular subject. For example, one gets to know that Kaiser’s Germany had plans to send large shipments of arms to support the Ghadr movement. However, the internecine quarrels between Indians dampened that enthusiasm. One Dr. Chandra Kant Chakravarty misappropriating a large amount of money provided by the Germans and sending them fictitious reports of his achievements dampened it even more.

During the Second World War, the Japanese initially treated defecting Indian soldiers poorly and with contempt. So much so that Captain Mohan Singh was forced to dissolve the INA. It was later revived when Subhas Chandra Bose arrived on the scene. By that time, the Allies had knocked the stuffing out of the Nipponese who had lost some of their swagger. However, the INA’s performance was poor on the whole, Khushwant Singh tells us.

Partition affected the Sikh community adversely, much more than the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab. The labour government partitioned Punjab on the basis of population and not property ownership. ‘The Radcliff award was as fair as it could be to the Muslims and the Hindus. The one community to which no boundary award could have done justice without doing injustice to others were the Sikhs. Their richest lands, over 150 historical shrines, and half their population were left on the Pakistan side on the dividing line.

The best bit about the second volume is Khushwant Singh’s description of how the movement for Khalistan gained momentum and secessionism gained ground. The demand for a sovereign Sikh state had always existed. Some of those agitating for a Punjabi Suba from the time of India’s independence, which ultimately resulted in the creation of three states, Punjab, Haryana and Himchal Pradesh, did have an independent Sikh state in mind. However, it was the appeasement of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale by Indira Gandhi and her man in Punjab, India’s future President Giani Zail Singh, which fanned the flames of secessionism and led to Operation Blue Star and calamity. Khushwant Singh’s description of Operation Blue Star does not tally with the popular understanding of how Operation Blue Star unfolded. No, the Indian army did not rush into the Golden Temple without preparation and suffer huge casualties. Far from it, we are told that ‘many months earlier, the army had been instructed to keep itself in readiness to move to the Golden Temple whenever ordered to do so. A replica of the Temple complex had been prepared at Chakrata (near Mussoorie) to familiarize besiegers with its layout, entrances and fortified positions. Information of the strength of Bhindranwale’s fighters, their dispositions and the kind of weapons they possessed had been gathered by the intelligence agencies of the police and the army.’ I won’t divulge more except to say that when Sikh peasantry around Amritsar started to converge towards the Temple carrying whatever rustic weapons they could find, army commanders decided to finish off the task during the night of 5-6 June. ‘They threw in all they had: their commandos, frogmen, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tanks.’ Khushwant Singh tries to sound neutral and unconcerned, but his anger at the turn of events is evident. Do please read this book for a blow by blow account of how this attack unfolded and ended.

Khushwant Singh does not tell us about army casualties, though he does say that in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Temple, around 4000 Sikh solders deserted their cantonments in various parts of India, slew their officers and fled towards Amritsar. Many were arrested. Some were killed. Just as riveting as the build-up to Operation Blue Star is the description of how Khalistani terrorism took deep roots in Punjab, till KPS Gill uprooted and destroyed it.

The only bit I didn’t like about A History Of The Sikhs is that Khushwant Singh’s description of the various battles fought by Sikh soldiers could have been better. The descriptions are detailed and good, but one misses the thunder of hoofs, the clash of steel, the euphoric scream of the victor or the knotty feeling of defeat in the tummy. I guess good history telling can do without all this and each of the two volumes of A History Of The Sikhs is excellent reading despite the lack of drama depicted from an infantry-man’s shoulder, the sort of stuff one finds in world-class history books such as Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy At The Gate which revolves around the Battle of Vienna (1682) where the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna by a coalition of European powers. But still......

Khushwant Singh ends the book on a positive note commenting that in 2004, two Sikhs were at the helm of affairs in India, with Manmohan Singh holding fort as the Prime Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwali serving as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a notional fulfilment of the prophecy - Raj Karega Khalsa – the Khalsa shall rule.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sonia Gandhi by Rani Singh

Edvige Antonia Albina Maino has come a long way since her childhood in Italy. Given the pet name Sonia by her father who once spent time in time in Russia as a prisoner of war, Sonia Maino went to Cambridge to improve her language skills, met Rajiv Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous and longest lasting political dynasty (who had no political ambitions then), married him and lived happily ever after. Except that, things didn’t work out exactly like that and two political assassinations later, Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress Party which currently holds the reins of India’s federal government.

Biographer Rani Singh is a London based journalist who has worked with the BBC for many years. I picked up her biography of Sonia Gandhi in the hope that it would tell me something about the Lady-From-The-Land-Of-Mona-Lisa-With-An-Equally-Enigmatic--Smile which I didn’t know about. Disappointment settled in quite early. On page 3 itself, Rani Singh describes Rajiv as ‘North Indian, aristocratic and tall’. Born to a Parsi father and a Kashmiri Pandit mother, I’ve never heard Rajiv Gandhi described as a ‘North Indian.’ The Nehrus were very cosmopolitan, we are told by Rani Singh, though Indira Gandhi (who herself had married a Parsi) apparently had wanted a Kashmiri daughter-in-law for her son Rajiv.

This biography has evidently been written for a global audience, especially for people who have a vague idea of India and the Gandhi family and Sonia’s role in it and want to know more about all three. Nevertheless, I plodded along and was rewarded to some extent. There were a few trivia I hadn’t known about earlier. For example, I hadn’t known that Sonia’s father didn’t approve of her marriage and didn’t attend her wedding in India. I got to know a lot about Indira, Rajiv and Sonia’s food habits. Apparently one day, Sanjay Gandhi threw his plate across the room because the eggs Sonia Gandhi had cooked for him hadn’t turned out right. However, such gleanings are mere titbits and don’t really make this biography worth reading. Also, Rani Singh leaves some facts unexplained. We are told that Rahul Gandhi lived and worked in London for a while under the name Raul Vinci. Why did he do that? Was there a security threat to Rahul Gandhi in London? Even more intriguingly, we are told that Yaasser Arafat had warned Rajiv Gandhi of the threat to his life, just as Indira Gandhi had given a similar warning to Yaasser Arafat. How did Yaasser Arafat know of a threat to Rajiv Gandhi’s life? Let’s not forget that the LTTE which killed Rajiv Gandhi did have ties to the PLO at one point. No, Rani Singh tells us nothing more, in her book which at times seems to be largely a compilation of quotations from various sources.

Because this biography seeks to explain Sonia’s India to its readers, one gets a précis of the various political events that took place in India after Sonia’s arrival. Events such as the spat with Maneka Gandhi are also covered. However, this summary of events is, just like the rest of the biography, written in a one-sided manner which shows Sonia, Rajiv, their children Rahul and Priyanka and to a lesser extent Indira Gandhi in a very flattering light. For example, Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare emergency is described in the following manner: 'The morning of June 25 the threatened opposition protest packed the streets while Indira consulted a prominent lawyer and chief minister who was an expert on the Indian Constitution, telling him that drastic urgent action is required. The lawyer left to read and re-read the constitution and returned with his findings. Indira then asked him to escort her to see the President whom she informed that, as the Indian constitution provided grounds for action when a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances”, Indira and her government had decided to declare a State of Internal Emergency.

There are certain notable omissions. There is no mention of Rajiv’s statement trivialising the anti-Sikhs riots that took place following his mother’s assassination. A few weeks after the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi is reported to have said, 'Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.'

Rani Singh tells us that ‘Rajiv’s death was the most devastating of the three Sonia had experienced in the Nehru side of the family. Yet she now had to lead, to handle the proceedings and only managed it with the support of her equally devastated children.’ Yeah Rani Singh, I was under the impression that Sonia might have been devastated more by Indira Gandhi’s or possibly even Sanjay Gandhi’s death than Rajiv’s! Thanks Rani Singh for clarifying.

The funny thing about this biography is that it is not an authorised one and the author has not interviewed Sonia Gandhi for this book. One would expect an unauthorised biography to ask all the tough questions and poke into uncomfortable corners. Rani Singh does nothing of that sort. Using a consistently flattering note throughout the book, the reader is given a rose-tinted view of the Gandhi clan as a whole and the Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka sub-clan in particular. The ease with which political dynasties perpetuate in the sub-continent is explained and even justified, but is never questioned. The last one-third of the book seeks to explain why, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Sonia Gandhi entered politics after some initial reticence. According to Rani Singh, Sonia Gandhi was not happy at the way the Narasimha Rao government handled various issues, especially the Babri Masjid demolition. Also, many Congressmen keenly wanted a Gandhi at the helm. Therefore, Sonia Gandhi, who till then was working with a few NGOs which sought to further Rajiv Gandhi’s ideals and dreams, stepped into full-time politics. I can’t say I found this explanation fully convincing. After all, wasn’t it the same Sonia who so desperately tried to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from entering politics because she feared for his life? Now after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the same Sonia is keeping the chair warm for Rahul! Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s induction of Rahul into the mainstream of politics has been gentle. Though many critics are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.

Rani Singh doesn’t bother to analyse whether Sonia Gandhi is justified in controlling power from behind the scenes, taking decisions which the Prime Minister ought to be taking. Power without responsibility is not necessarily a great thing. An unfazed Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s project for India is grand social legislation and it’s driven by gut instinct more than calculation. For this purpose, she has created bodies entirely new to the Indian polity, made up of outspoken academics……………

Before I end, tell me say that I do admire Sonia Gandhi for her dignity, grace and courage under fire. From what one sees and hears, she is as good a human being and politician as any in this country. There are faults of course, but then, who is without them? In any event, Sonia Gandhi deserves a better biographer than Rani Singh.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now by Deepti Naval

Yes, in case you are wondering, it is the same Deepti Naval. Same as in, the actor (these days one doesn’t use the word actress) who has done over sixty movies. Naval has been published by Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing, which will shortly bring out my novel When The Snow Melts. A few weeks ago, I had attended a book discussion event at the Crossword Book Store in Juhu where Deepti Naval discussed The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now with the even more famous actor Shabana Azmi and had picked up an autographed copy of the Mad Tibetan.

Yes, I knew that Naval has many talents, that she can paint, write and take pretty photographs, but reading is believing and until I finished the first of the eleven short stories that make up this collection, I didn’t really believe an actor could also write. Proof of the pudding is always in the eating, right?

The Mad Tibetan collection reminded me of a dandelion seed, with each story like those small seeds with white whiskers, which when you blow at them, float in the air for a few tantalising minutes, capturing a few fleeting, precious moments, before they are lost forever.

What I liked most about The Mad Tibetan collection was the way it dealt with relationships between men and women. There is mutual attraction, there is tension and some of the feelings are one-sided, but the man is not always on top. Bombay Central is the perfect example of this – Jatin is young and new to Bombay and when the man who befriends him on the train offers him a place for the night, one doesn’t suspect much. Even Jatin’s first impressions on meeting the wife do not arouse one’s suspicions as to what will follow. However, Premonition makes no bones about Vas’s attraction for the woman on the bus. She’s a bit older than him, but she has noticed him and seems to like him. Vas’s premonition of what’s going to happen stays in the background and distracts one from Vas’s pursuit of the woman, which is described so well and doesn’t have an iota of the usual note of harassment.

Tulli is a true story of how Naval made an expedition to a red light district in Mumbai to meet a real prostitute or two, before she played the role of a prostitute in a movie. It all goes off well, till Naval comes face to face with a dreaded pimp, one whom every woman in that brothel was scared of. The pimp is drunk and he mistakes Naval for a new girl in his keep. The two male friends who accompanied Naval are not at hand and Naval is in real trouble until Tulli, the madam she has been talking to, draws the pimp off Naval. Naval tells us that, ‘I stood at the door, unable to move, choked by the scenario before my eyes. The man, ferocious a while ago, was now crumbling in Thulli’s arms. I can never forget her face, the last that I saw of Thulli that night, as we looked at each other: one woman to another, our eyes glistening! I slowly turned towards the dark staircase, then looked back one last time, at Thulli’s world, stunned by the dichotomy…… the absurdity of equation in human bonds.

Other than Tulli, at least two more of these tales are true stories from Naval’s life. Balraj Sahni shows a very young Naval all agog with admiration for the famous actor Balraj Sahni, desperate to get his autograph. Does she manage to do it? Please read this book to find out. D is an incident which could happen to any adult who runs into a school friend after a very long time. It could happen to me, it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone whose memory fails once in a while.

Is Birds also a true story from Naval’s personal dairy? Possibly. The narration is from the heart and the narrator’s pain is contagious. Between Balraj Sahni and Birds, one gets to experience hope and happiness, admiration and anger, sorrow, disgust, irritation and helplessness.

The acknowledgements page at the beginning of the book is enlightening as well as perplexing. So, Ruth Mayberry, the last story in the collection is an interpretation of the life of a dear friend. However, where exactly has Naval planted the bitter-sweet memory from a childhood in Himachal which her Naval’s friend Neeta Bakshi has shared with Naval? My money would be on Sisters, not just because it is set in Joginder Nagar, which I know is in Himachal Pradesh, but also because an aunt of mine once shared a bitter childhood memory with me. Once this aunt had returned home from boarding school for her summer vacations, her hair full of lice. My aunt’s aunt (who looked after my aunt since her parents lived overseas) had taken drastic measures and had her long tresses cut off immediately. Something similar happens in Sisters, but there’s a lot more to that story than the tonsuring of two lice-ridden heads.

The Mad Tibetan which has lent its name to this collection is a story of a …….well, a mad Tibetan whom Naval encountered in Leh. Naval tells us that the mad Tibetan is a bitter old man who is fierce and wild, but when he smiles, he is a child. Like many other stories, the ending is neither happy nor sad. The reader gets to meet the mad Tibetan firsthand and it’s time to move on. Period. The Piano Tuner, the first story in this collection, is also a similar vignette, this time of an old man in Bombay who once played the piano, but now reduced by Parkinson’s, tunes pianos with unsteady fingers. Most of the stories just end with the promise of a new and uncertain day. This is especially true of The Morning After where one finds Lily making a trip to Ghuggar to meet Dolma who seems to have a bad reputation in town. Dolma is dead, but lives on through her son Manu. Lily seems to be total stranger to Dolma and her household, but when she leaves Ghuggar, Manu goes with her and fittingly so. Do please read this wonderful book to find out why Manu should do so.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol I: 1469-1839 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs has been on my reading list for many, many years. Recently I took the plunge and ordered both volumes. Auspiciously, Flipkart delivered them on the eve of Gurpurab. I had expected something on the lines of Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, one of my favourite books, but I turned out to be wrong. A History Of The Sikhs is written in very simple English, without any literary embellishments, as befits straightforward history telling. Very well researched, over one fourth of this four hundred page tome is taken up with appendices, a lengthy bibliography and a detailed index. In the main body of the book, footnotes take up a sizable part of each page.

Sikhism was born out of the conflict between Islam and Hinduism in late-medieval India, when there was a desperate need for a bridge between the two faiths. Nanak was a unique individual who, unusually for Indians of his time, was well-travelled and curious to know more and more. On the foundations laid by Guru Nanak, various Gurus developed the nascent faith through sacrifice and fortitude. Until I finished this book, I had no idea of the amount of bloodletting and massacres that accompanied the growth of Sikhism. Some of it reminded me of stories of the growth of Christianity and its martyrs and saints. The Mughals who followed Akbar started a policy of persecuting the Sikhs. After the murder of the fifth Guru Arjun Mal by Emperor Jehangir, his successor Gurus slowly turned the community towards the path of militancy. Starting with Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Hari Krishen and Guru Tegh Bahadur, Sikh militancy and fortitude grew. It was Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, who formally created the Khalsa and prescribed five emblems (Kes – unshort hair and beard, Kangha – comb in the hair to keep it tidy, Kach – knee length trousers. Kara – a steel bracelet, Kirpan – a short sabre) for each Sikh. Sikh resistance to persecution was now formal.

Before he was assassinated, Guru Gobind Singh charged a mystic named Lachman Das to continue the resistance against the Mughals. Renamed Banda, Lachman Das achieved great success and the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah had to order a general mobilisation of forces to counter Banda who outlived Bahadur Shah. However, Bahadur Shah’s successor Jahandar Shah wore Banda’s forces down and captured him. Torture and execution followed as was the norm for captured Sikh leaders.

The Sikhs and the Marathas contributed to the decline of the Mughals. After the Mughals became weak, the Great Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded India, lured by its fabulous wealth. Nadir Shah’s invasion broke the back of Mughal rule in India. On his way back to Persia, Sikh bands plundered Nadir Shah’s baggage trains which were loaded with loot. The Sikhs liberated many Indian prisoners who were being taken to Persia by Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah was followed by the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani (also called Abdali) who invaded India nine times. Initially, Abdali’s main enemy was the Mughal ruler who for a brief period took assistance from the Sikhs in fighting Abdali. However, Abdali’s fifth invasion was meant to crush the Marathas who were helping the Mughals fight the Afghans. The Marathas were trounced by the Abdali’s Afghans in Panipat on 14 January 1761. The Sikhs stood by and watched. Muslims of northern India, the Rohillas and Shujauddaullah, the ruler of Oudh helped the Afghans. It was indeed a period of shifting loyalties.

After a while, the Sikhs became powerful and soon they were the most prominent power in the Punjab. Until the Sikhs became powerful, the tortures visited on Sikhs were abominable – entire villages burned and pillaged, mass public executions, usually at the horse market, victims, despatched from this earth with blows from wooden mallets, children of leaders like Banda hacked to death in front of their parents. The Harimandir at Amritsar was blown up so many times and the sacred pool filled with the entrails of slaughtered cows. Each time the indomitable Sikhs would clean up and renovate the Harimandir and the sacred pool. Abdali’s sixth invasion led to what the Sikhs call the Vadda Ghallughara, the great massacre, when in February 1962 a fleeing group of 30,000 Sikhs were attacked and most of them were killed. Within a few months of the massacre, the undaunted Sikhs had inflicted a defeat on the Afghan faujdar of Sirhind and by that autumn, they had cleaned up the Harimandir in time for Diwali. The Chhota Ghallughara or lesser massacre had taken place in June 1946 shortly before Abdali’s first invasion. The Sikhs had killed the brother of Lakhpat Rai, the Mughal Viceroy, in the course of fighting. In retaliation, around 7,000 Sikhs were rounded up and killed.

Khushwant Singh tells us that the story of the Sikhs is the story of Punjabi nationalism and consciousness and it is easy to see why it should be so. Other than the Sikhs who were all Punjabis, no other Punjabi community, neither the Hindus nor the Muslims, carried with them a Punjabi identity. Finally when Ranjit Singh created his empire, it was an inclusive one and Punjabis of all faiths were welcome in it. At the height of its power, the Sikh Kingdom under Ranjit Singh included Kashmir and Ladakh.

Even though the Sikhs fought to clear Punjab of all outsiders such as the Mughals and the Afghans, they never considered joining up with the Marathas to fight the British. During Ranjit Singh’s time, a Maratha – Sikh alliance did appear to be a faint possibility, but neither party was willing to take the first move. It is tantalising to imagine what could have happened if such an alliance had been worked out and used to fight the British. No, let me not digress and travel to a dream world – there was no such alliance. In fact, even when Ahmad Shah Abdali was fighting the Marathas during the Third Battle of Panipat, in which the Marathas were trounced, the Sikhs were only curious bystanders. The Sikhs even fought brief battles with the Gurkhas. Khushwant Singh does not bother to explain the obvious – that at that point in time, there was no concept of Indianness anywhere in the sub-continent.

I found Khushwant Singh’s descriptions of Ranjit Singh and his empire to be fascinating. The parallels between Ranjit Singh and Emperor Akbar are too obvious to be ignored. Akbar was an illiterate man who enjoyed beauty, music and literature. So did Ranjit Singh. Just as Akbar was of a short stature and non-descript appearance, Ranjit Singh too was not famous for his looks. Khushwant Singh describes him as a man of medium height, slight stature, spare frame, wiry as though made of whipcord, with dark-brown complexion, one eyed, his face pitted with small pox scars. To top it all, he had a long grey-beard. We are told that once Ranjit Singh’s Muslim wife Mohran asked him, ‘where were you when God was distributing good looks?’ When you were occupied with your looks, I was busy seeking power,’ answered the monarch.

If you wish to read a very good biography of Akbar, you could turn to Dirk Collier's The Emperor's Writings, which was published very recently.

Like Akbar, Ranjit Singh was also a superb horseman who usually spent 10 hours of the day in the saddle. Ranjit Singh too did not let matters of State prevent him from enjoying women, he had many wives. Unlike Akbar though, Ranjit Singh was a hypochondriac who was constantly on the lookout for cures and medicines. To know more about this fascinating ruler, please read this wonderful book.

Sikhism sought to be a faith which did not have many of the faults which Hinduism had. How far did the Sikhs succeed in this endeavour? A pointer to this would be the fact that after Ranjit Singh died, four of his wives committed sati. Khushwant Singh (quoting other sources such as the Lahore Akhbar) describes Ranjit Singh’s funeral thus: ‘Having arrived at the funeral pile made of sandalwood, the corpse was placed upon it. Rani Guddun sat down by its side and placed the head of the deceased on her lap; while the other ranis with seven slave girls seated themselves around, with every mark of satisfaction on their countenances. ......... The Brahmins performed their prayers from the Shaster ........the priests of the Sikhs did the same from their holy scripture called Granth Sahib and the Mussalmen accompanied them with their Ya Allah! Ya Allah! The prayers lasted nearly an hour. ........... At 10 o’Clockm nearly the time fixed by the Brahmins, Koonwa Khurruck Singh set fire to the pile and the ruler of the Punjab with four ranees and seven slave girls was reduced to ashes.

I found this banal description incredibly saddening. Ranjit Singh was a great ruler and Sikhism was meant to be a simple religion without unnecessary rituals, still eleven women had to be killed on Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre! I think I’ll need a lot of light reading before I tackle Volume 2.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif – Book Review

Mohammed Hanif is a Karachi based journalist and writer who once trained to be an officer in the Pakistani Air Force. Hanif achieved fame through his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. It was also the Best First Book from Europe and South Asia for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Hanif’s signature satire has not deserted him in Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti. Not only is it strong as ever, it is at times overwhelming, especially when mixed up with sarcasm, poverty, pain, violence and nastiness, the one human being to another type of nastiness. The story and plot of Our Lady is very simple. Body builder Teddy Bhatt meets pretty nurse Alice Bhatti, they get married on a submarine and then they don’t live happily ever after. Of course, it is not as simple as that. Teddy Bhatt the body builder also happens to be a police tout. Pretty nurse Alice Bhatti is a Choohra, slang for both Christians and sanitary workers in Pakistan, since a majority of sanitary workers in Pakistan seem to be Christians. At least, Alice Bhatti’s father is one.

A nurse who had her nursing education interrupted on account of a stint in the borstal, Alice is a fighter to the core, the type which fights with one’s nails and fists and if needed, a razor blade, rather than with guns or bombs. The borstal stint came about because Alice was literally left holding a cut vein with a pair of tweezers in an operating theatre when the surgeon had a coughing fit. Alice seems to have been at fault and the patient did die, but the reason Alice ended up in the borstal was more because she was, with some justification, accused of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to murder. We are not told if Alice actually wanted to murder the surgeon, but she did aim the marble flower pot at his head and break his nose and four front teeth. We are told that at her bail hearing in the sessions court, ‘Alice Bhatti carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles. She treats the policewomen as if they were her personal bodyguards, and she looks at the judge as if to say, how can a man so fat, so ugly, wearing such a dandruff covered black-robe, sit in judgement on her?

It’s not just Alice, all other characters in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti are equally unique, slightly eccentric and exceptional, but very much believable. Teddy Bhatt has a job which pays well, but he has irregular hours. A tout who hangs around with the Gentlemen's Squad or G Squad, Karachi Police’s version of Indian encounter specialists, Teddy’s job is to provide ‘valet parking for the angels of death’. When his boss, Inspector Malangi wants to kill someone, it’s Teddy who holds down the victim. When Malangi wants a thumb, Teddy’s provides one. His own. When a prisoner is taken on his final journey, it is Teddy who keeps him quiet and under control. ‘When all else failed, he would tell them cricket jokes, mostly about Imran Khan and his real bat, and they would laugh till their torture wounds would start bleeding and Teddy had to calm them down.’ The G Squad treats Teddy well. They arrange for Teddy’s wedding on the submarine and there’s a warm-up party at a safe house the night before the wedding where Teddy gets to go first with the girl hired for the night.

When Teddy goes to meet Alice and propose to her, he carries a Mauser with just three bullets in it.

Alice’s father Joseph Bhatti, in addition to being an expert on clearing clogged drains, cures stomach ulcers by reciting verses from the Holy Quran, a lit candle balanced on the patient’s tummy. Teddy’s father was a physical education instructor, a strict disciplinarian, a man who would make his wife take off her earrings every morning and give it to him to carry to his school and bring it back, just to make sure no one kills her for her earrings when he is away. Then there’s Noor, Senior Sister Hina Alvi (who is a Christian despite her Musla name), Dr. James Pereira and a few others, each of them as eccentric and interesting as the others.

French Colony where Alice grew up and from where she manages to escape after her marriage to Teddy is not the nicest place in Karachi. Descriptions of French Colony are scattered throughout the book. Here’s one of them:

Alice Bhatti walks past the shop owned by Jesus Bhatti, who sells cigarettes, milk and, when business is bad, pints of his own milk at the Sacred. Next to the shop is an empty shack from where the only entrepreneur in French Colony used to operate, stealing manhole covers and then selling them back to the Corporation. The open drain is clogged, its surface shimmering with all the plastic bags dumped in it. When Alice Bhatti was still a student, she used to mull over this question: if half the population of French Colony is responsible for clearing the garbage from the whole city, how come they can’t keep their own streets clean? Now she knows better and walks carefully trying to avoid the open sewers. She observes a gang of cats jumping the drain, playing a lazy game of catch.

Even more than in A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif shines a spotlight on Pakistani society, the way it treats women, its Christian minority and anyone without influence and money. There are numerous anecdotes within Our Lady of Alice Bhatti which drive home this point. For example, when a young relative of a VIP patient whom Alice nurses, points a pistol to Alice's head and orders her to give him a blow job, Alice starts to comply and gets the flaccid member ready, but as soon as the blood vessels fill up and it elongates, she slashes it with a razor and calmly suggests that her tormentor go to "Accidents" for help. However, Alice has reason to be worried, because there is no formal complaint filed against her, which suggests that a private revenge is being planned. Senior Sister Hina Alvi helpfully suspends Alice for two weeks, with full pay mind you, in the hope that it would mollify the man and his relatives.

Hanif writes well, extremely well. When Teddy messes up and a prisoner escapes from his control, Inspector Malangi does not scream at him. Instead, he takes him out for breakfast and insists that Teddy eat and eat well and eat some more. The reader actually feels Teddy’s anxiety as he shoves the omelettes, toast and tea down into a quivering tummy. Towards the end, I was rooting for Teddy and Alice though I knew that they were both doomed. When the end comes, it is tragic and doesn’t really make much sense, but then, human behaviour does not always make sense, does it? The plot starts unravelling only from the middle of the 230-odd page book and events move rather fast after that. There were times when I found the sarcasm a mite too much and the darkness too depressing. Nevertheless, Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti is a good read, as good as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Taste of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara

A few years ago, on a lark, I wrote a collection of ten short stories set in Simhapara, a fictional village in Kerala. Published on Epic India Magazine and later on Winnowed, I thought it would be a good idea to have the links to these stories in one place. Here they are:

1. The Boy Who Killed A Rainbow

2. Hundred Rupees

3. A New Beginning

4. A Difficult Decision

5. A Pristine Landscape

6. New Kid On The Block

7. Bad Hair Day

8. The Hidden Smile

9. The Family Heirloom

10. A Suitable Father

Friday, 4 November 2011

Steve Inskeep’s “Instant City: Life And Death In Karachi” – Book Review

Recently a friend pointed me to a Wikipedia page which showed Karachi to be more populous that Mumbai. According to this wiki page, Karachi has a population of 12,991,000 people whilst Mumbai has only 12,478,447. That got me interested in knowing more about Karachi and few clicks of the mouse and a week later, Flipkart delivered Steve Inskeep’s Instant City into my hands. I now realise that the list I had found on Wikipedia does not take into account surrounding suburban areas. As Inskeep himself explains at the end of Instant City, ‘cities are usually discussed in terms of their metropolitan areas – the central city plus suburbs and other outlying areas linked by commuting’. By this yardstick, Karachi had a population of 13.1 million in 2010, while Delhi had 22.1 million and Mumbai had 20 million.

On 28 December 2009, a bomb blast hit a Shia Ashura procession in Karachi killing scores of people. Inskeep’s story about Karachi, strictly non-fiction mind you, revolves around this blast. Who could have caused it? ‘What really happened on 28 December 2009?’ Inskeep wonders and explores various possibilities. Instant City’s blurb goes to the extent of stating that it is ‘the story of a single day in Karachi’s life.’ This isn’t exactly true because Inskeep’s excursion into Karachi is a free-flowing jaunt not restricted to the bombing of the Ashura procession on 28th December 2009. Nevertheless, for a big part of the book, the blast plays a central role.

Inskeep’s writing style reminded me of Dominique Lapierre’s and Larry Collins’s various masterpieces like O Jerusalem, Freedom at Midnight and Is Paris Burning? Instant City is a similar masterpiece, though at 250 odd easy-moving pages, it is not as voluminous and some of its descriptions do not have the depth of a Lapierre/Collins book.

By the time one reaches the middle of Instant City, it becomes obvious that Inskeep in unlikely to lead his readers to a grand ending where the identity of those behind the Ashura bomb blast is revealed. Instead, Instant City gets more and more interested in matters such as growth and decline of cities in general and Karachi’s metamorphosis in particular. Towards the fag end of the book, after visiting a locality in Korangi where the street level has risen steadily on account of clogged drains and encroachments, we hear Inskeep say, ‘On that street I finally understood what happened to those ancient cities I had seen; this must have been roughly the way Babylon went underground, and the way that cities were layered on top of cities at Sirkap. Great empires and grand dreams were buried by simple entropy. Bad drainage. Failure to clean the sewers. Failure to pick up the garbage. Failure to look after the neighbors [sic]. Failure to respect the greater good. Failure to govern. Failure, in short, to find workable solutions to chronic problems.

However, Karachi wasn’t always destined to be a city with so many problems. After Pakistan was formed, Karachi became its capital. President Ayub Khan had grand plans for Karachi. Soon after the military coup which brought him to power, he picked up a shovel and laid the foundation stone for Karachi’s first suburb. Constantinos Doxiadis, a highly reputed planner, was put in charge of the construction project at Karachi. It was a difficult job since Karachi was not a clean slate and Karachi was flooded with refugees who had fled independent India. An undaunted Doxiadis tried to ‘create communities where poor people could thrive. He planned buildings that would function efficiently in Karachi’s intense heat. Schools would take advantage of traditional South Asian methods of climate control. They would have perforated concrete walls to increase air flow, as well as wind catchers on the roofs...... He left spaces for gardens in front of and behind houses...... He opposed importing Western construction practices.

However, Doxiadis’s dreams and plans didn’t really work out for Karachi. The poor moved into every nook and cranny they could find. They had to look after themselves, since it was obvious that the powers-that-be didn’t care for them. Ayub Khan himself started to feel that Karachi had too many problems and moved the capital to Islamabad, which was also designed by Doxiadis. To know more about how Doxiadis’s plans went awry, do please read this brilliant book which tells Karachi’s story from the time of Jinnah till the present.

Within the fabric of Karachi’s story, there are a number of smaller stories woven in. For me, the best was that of Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the Edhi Foundation, the leading charity in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation runs a fleet of ambulances which race to every accident or bomb blast site. It also runs homes for the destitute, animal shelters, public kitchens and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts. Abdul Sattar Edhi is a Mohajir, an immigrant to Karachi who started with very little and even now has very little – he still lives with his in a single room. In light of all this, one would think Abdul Sattar Edhi is as close to a saint as one can get. But hold on, Inskeep shows his readers the various facets of Mr. Edhi which makes one pause a bit, especially the admission by Mr. Edhi himself that he is ‘mentally disturbed person’ and the information that Mr. Edhi takes medicines such as Tegral 200 which is used to treat, inter alia, manic depressive psychosis. The best part is the diatribe from his wife Bilquis Edhi who tells Inskeep what a lousy husband she has got. Did you know that Mr. Edhi had, after a decade of marriage to Bilquis, taken in a second wife who eventually left him? Inskeep (rightly in my opinion) tells us that Mr. Edhi, 85 years old at the time of Instant City’s release, is ambitious, though his ambition ‘involved no outward sign of material success’. The insight into Mr. Edhi is yet another reason to read this wonderful book.

I have always been fascinated by the Muttahida Quami Mahaz, once called the Mohajir Quami Movement, MQM for short, a party which seeks to represent immigrants from India and Bangladesh. In Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven talks of the MQM in tones of awe, as he explains how the MQM has built itself into the most powerful group in Karachi, amidst so many animosity and hatred towards the Mohajirs. Inskeep does not share Lieven’s sense of admiration for the MQM, though he concedes that MQM has managed to unify the immigrants who did not have much in common and created an ethnic group out of thin air. Instead, Inskeep devotes more space towards the excesses of the MQM as it seeks to keeps out other immigrants from Karachi and battles the almost equally secular Awami National Party, founded by the Frontier Gandhi and which represents Pathan interests in Karachi. Mustafa Kamal, the Mayor of Karachi, an MQM party man who rose up from humble beginnings, represents the ruthlessness as well as the efficiency of the MQM, a party which recognises merit and allows individuals without patrons to rise up from the ranks. Mustafa Kamal battles to modernise Karachi and make it an IT hub, but one fine day, the post of Mayor is abolished in all Pakistani cities and the good fight comes to an end.

Inskeep’s tome has space for a host of other characters who are no less interesting that Edhi. There’s Ardeshir Cowasjee, the son of the most famous shipping magnate in Karachi, who even now writes columns in the Dawn, fighting the degradation of the city he was born in. You get to meet Sharfuddin “Bobby” Memon, the owner of Lighthouse Cinema and the Head of the Citizen’s Police Liaison Committee. In a blast from the one, you get to know of K. Punniah, editor of Sindh Observer, who returned to Bangalore shortly after the Partition, unable to accept a Karachi which turned its back on its Hindu inhabitants, and died of a heart attack. Tony Tufail, peddler of dreams, built a casino using know-how imported from Macao, but it never got the final licence to take off, thanks to Zulfikar Bhutto’s compromises with Islamic fundamentalists and his ultimate overthrow by Zia-ul-Haq. And there are numerous committed private individuals like Adnan Asdar, Dr. Seemin Jamali, the Incharge of Emergency Department at JPMC Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre and Perween Rahman, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, who keep Karachi afloat amidst so much hopelessness.

Inskeep’s concluding chapter is for all practical purposes a Sermon on the Mount for the denizens of Karachi. ‘Karachi’s diversity is an asset in a world that is fractured along religious lines. If, for example, Karachi’s Christians and Hindus were fully and openly welcomed into public and commercial life, they would effectively become ambassadors for Pakistan. They could explain the country to its detractors, providing a bridge to non-Muslims in India and the West. If religious minorities could say convincingly that they lived in freedom and security, they would compel the world to think differently of Pakistan.’ A big (non-alcoholic) toast to that prayer from Inskeep. Ameen!

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’.