Book Review: The RigVeda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge.

O Sages, I ask it to know

(RigVeda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.

The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:  (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/index.htm)

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods.  In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review. Continue reading “Book Review: The RigVeda”

Shaheed Rani. Hasan Mujtaba’s Poem for Benazir Bhutto

The poet Hasan Mujtaba wrote a famous poem on the occasion of Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom (December 27th 2007), and it is an absolute classic. I have translated it with his approval  (the full urdu text is here, and it also posted at the end of this post):

How many Bhuttos will you kill?

A Bhutto will emerge from every home!

This lament is heard in every home

These tears are seen in every town

These eyes stare in the trackless desert

This slogan echoes in every field of death

These stars scatter like a million stones

Flung by the moon that rises so bright tonight

How many Bhuttos will you kill?

A Bhutto will emerge from every home!

Continue reading “Shaheed Rani. Hasan Mujtaba’s Poem for Benazir Bhutto”

Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?

We had a little discussion on Twitter about this topic. It was triggered by this post by Sam Altman @Sama, (about increasing political censorship of heterodox ideas in Silicon valley) but became a more general argument about US competitiveness and ability to attract talent, especially scientific talent. I just wanted to put a few random thoughts and questions out there, in the hope of enlightening feedback.

Clearly the US is still the world’s number one destination for exceptional scientific talent. But this is just year one of the reign of the mad king and already there are many reports of racist and bureaucratic obstruction of visas and suchlike (being both racist and bureaucratic, this process naturally has limited connection to rational priorities). There is also the general decline of US reputation across the globe (whether it reflects the reality of US life and to what extent, these are separate issues; the perception itself would likely influence SOME aspiring migrants). This is one (obvious) side of the story. There is also an attack from the Left flank (see below). Continue reading “Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?”

The Indian Political Service (Raj era)

There is not much known about Indian Political Service (IPS); a service that was involved in three important areas of Empire.  It was part of indirect control of Indian states, frontier areas and peripheral areas of the Empire in Persia and Persian Gulf states.  Following was part of an exchange on the subject.

 

Indian Political Service (IPS) is a very little studied subject.  My two cents worth comments bolded in the main text.  Hope that adds some additional flavor to a savory dish.

 

Hamid

ASPIRING FOR THE INDIAN POLITICAL SERVICE – A CASE STUDY OF A FAILED ATTEMPT

By Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid (Retd)

 

Syed Shahid Hamid was commissioned from Sandhurst in 1933 and joined 3rd Cavalry a recently Indianised regiment in which he spent six years. The second half of this term were not easy as he did not get along well with the second-in-command who was subsequently promoted to command the regiment. Since there were no vacancies for Indian officers in the other two Indianised cavalry regiments, Shahid sought an entry onto the hallowed ranks of the Indian Political Service (IPS).

The IPS was the cadre of officers which dealt with the Princely States and foreign affairs of the Government of British India. Its genesis lay in a department which was created in 1783 by the East India Company for conducting “secret and political business”. Since in the India of that period Persian was the language of diplomatic correspondence, the head of the department was known as the ‘Persian Secretary’. Its primary responsibility was dealing with the Princely States through British Residents appointed from the Department. It also housed the officers of British India’s diplomatic service i.e. its emissaries to the countries surrounding India and the Trucial States in the Gulf. (The early organization performed various functions including intelligence gathering, diplomatic and foreign affairs.  The Secret & Political Department established in 1784 had three branches; secret, political & foreign. This set up remained in place until 1842.  In 1843, the name was changed to Foreign Department.  In 1914, it was named Foreign & Political Department of the Government of India. In 1937, the title was changed to Indian Political Service.)The IPS cadre was generally referred to as Political Officers, or colloquially as “politicals”. Some famous names in the history of the Middle East served as Political Officers including Sir Percy Coxs who masterminded the British policy in this region during the First World War. (on frontier, the name ‘poltical’ in Pushto still generates an aura among tribesmen although they fondly remember British officers of a bygone era.) Continue reading “The Indian Political Service (Raj era)”

East Pakistan 1971

This topic comes up every year in December (for obvious reasons) and this year Dawn has published an unusually good summary of events (from a liberal/progressive/reasonable Pakistani POV) and Ahsan Butt has an excellent article about the thinking behind the genocide. You can read these, or read one of the many good books written about the events leading up to the Pakistan army’s surrender in East Pakistan. I have something of a personal interest in this subject (my father and two uncles served in various capacities in East Pakistan in 1971).  In this post, I just want to share my personal opinion about a few aspects of this story. This will likely upset many people, both in Pakistan AND Bangladesh, but my aim is not to upset people, just to get as close to the truth as possible. So here goes..

How many people were killed in East Pakistan and who killed them?

This question gets debated every year; Bangladesh says 3 million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani army in one of the great genocides of the 20th century. Pakistani nationalists either deny the killings altogether, or insist that “only a few thousand” were killed (which is pretty awful in itself, when you think about it) and that shit happens in civil wars, everyone should move on. In addition, Pakistanis also blame the Bengalis in turn for two separate rounds of killings. The first one in March 1971 when Bengali mobs are accused of killing West Pakistani civilians and Biharis during the civil disobedience phase of events and a second (and bigger) round of killings that took place after the Pakistani army surrendered, when the Mukti Bahini and Bengali mobs took revenge against collaborators and against the Bihari community in general.  

The army’s refusal to call a national assembly session after the Awami League had won the elections led to province wide and near-total civil disobedience in early March 1971; civil disobedience was so complete that the military leadership was unable to find a Bengali judge willing to administer the oath of office to their new governor; banks, post offices, civil administration, everything ground to a complete halt; cantonments were running short of food because no one would sell it to them. The Biharis were Indian immigrants (mostly, not exclusively, from the state of Bihar; they were Urdu speaking, generally leaned Islamist, and supported the army during its crackdown against the Bengalis; many of them joined special “Razakar” (volunteer) groups that fought alongside the Pakistani army and served as their eyes and ears. Many of their members also took the opportunity to settle personal scores and grab Bengali (especially Hindu Bengali) property. Biharis also played a disproportionate role in  two paramilitary organizations set up by the Islamist Jamat Islami party (Al Shams and Al Badar) whose members did much the same as the razakars, but with far greater enthusiasm and ideological commitment. Incidentally, both the razakars and  AlShams and Albadar did have Bengali members, though this is now underplayed in Bangladeshi historiography.  The Jamat e Islami related groups (Alshams and Albadar) are also the prime suspects in a major crime that occurred on the eve of surrender, when many leading Bengali nationalist and progressive intellectuals in Dhaka were mysteriously picked up and killed, most likely as a heinous and calculated attempt to “decapitate” the new state whose independence seemed to be imminent.

So who is telling the truth? No one will ever know with total certainty because the opportunity to systematically examine these events, interview survivors, collect records and produce statistics was lost in the chaos that followed the independence of Bangladesh. What follows is my personal opinion, based on all that I have read and heard: Continue reading “East Pakistan 1971”

Review: On China

“On China” is a curious mixture of history, geopolitical analysis and self-serving memoir (concentrating mostly on the last two elements). Kissinger reviews some of the highlights of Chinese history; ancient and medieval China is covered quickly and superficially and the material is pretty much standard issue, but the level of detail increases after greatly from the opium war onwards and the book becomes much more interesting at that point. Kissinger makes the case that the Qing bureaucrats, in dire straits thanks to internal revolts, financial crisis and administrative decay, were not completely clueless or apathetic. Faced with determined, ruthless and far more technologically advanced European powers who had already overcome or overawed other great non-Western empires, Qing diplomats did their best to play European powers against one another and try to use (very limited) breathing space to try some fitful reforms, but the court was too far gone and the situation could not be salvaged, which led to 100 years of defeat, disorder, revolutions, famines and other disasters. Continue reading “Review: On China”

Review: The Holocaust, A New History

Laurence Rees has spent a lifetime studying the Holocaust and it shows in this book. A very readable (and horrifying) retelling that starts from post WWI Germany and details all the steps in the somewhat haphazard but ultimately effective process that led to the most horrifying mass murder in history. It was not necessarily the largest genocide in history (estimates and definitions vary, so it hard to say with certainty) but he makes the case (and I think it is a very reasonable case) that many aspects of this particular genocide are uniquely evil and terrifying (and I am including even larger crimes, such as the Arab and European slave trades, in this comparison). Anyhow, readers can (and surely, will) make up their own mind about the relative horror of this particular crime, but if they read this book, they will at least learn the full extent of it.
He starts with the currents of antisemitism that circulated in 1920 Germany (many of them were pan-European, some were even of Anglo-American origin) and the process by which Hitler rose to power. The book makes clear that while antisemitism was commonplace, most Germans were not thinking of systematic genocide; but some violent, sociopathic and/or evil people were, and they gradually coalesced around Hitler and got the chance to put their various demonic ideas into practice using the resources of a modern state. Continue reading “Review: The Holocaust, A New History”

Review: Rail Ki Seeti (an elegy for partition)

Mohammed Hasan Miraj is a Pakistani writer who served in the army, was stationed at Siachen glacier and then worked in ISPR (Interservices Public Relations) where he made at least one movie and then retired as a major and went to the London School of Economics to earn a degree in communications. While working for ISPR, he wrote several very nice articles in Dawn newspaper, almost all of them little travel pieces about various places in Pakistan; these articles are rich with history and folklore and display an erudite, liberal, tolerant and sagely tragic spirit; they are also obsessed with the romance of train travel.
This apparently lifelong fascination with travel, history and trains has now been poured into his first Urdu book, a small gem called “Rail ki Seeti” (the train whistle). Continue reading “Review: Rail Ki Seeti (an elegy for partition)”

Book Review: Last Hope Island

The history of the Second World War continues to offer up new and fascinating details as archives are opened and dying old men occasionally decide to tell the truth before they die (the latter opportunity is now almost gone, the first is still a work in progress). Lynne Olson does a good job here of bringing to light an aspect of that titanic struggle that deserves its own book length treatment: the European exiles who found shelter in Great Britain (the “Last Hope Island” of the title) and the role they played in the war.

These exiles did not always come to England because England had stood by them; The Czechs had been sold out; the Poles, while unlikely to survive in any case, received little or no real help against the Nazis; the Norwegian campaign and Britain’s blunders and betrayals in that saga are already relatively well known (Churchill, responsible for some of the biggest blunders, was lucky to survive them and become PM; that he did survive them also proved fortunate for those who opposed Nazism, since blunders and all, he was still crucial to the survival of Britain and even the eventual liberation of Western Europe). Benelux and the French fell mostly to their own weaknesses, but Britain’s interventions were not without their share of blunders, minor betrayals and other embarrassments. This book reveals all these details, and shows how much of what did survive owed to individual initiatives, chance, and the vicissitudes of fate, and not to the brilliant performance of the British establishment. Though to be fair, the lesson here is not that Britain had a bumbling establishment, but rather how much stupidity and muddle-headedness attends any great war, especially before the kinks are worked out.
The role of the Poles in particular is worth highlighting (and tragic, now that we know what happened to that much-abused nation in the years that followed); it is already relatively well known that Polish pilots played an outsize role in the crucial Battle of Britain, but I did not realize how much resistance they faced before being allowed to play that role; what is less well appreciated, even today, is how critical their role was in the decoding of Enigma, far and away the greatest intelligence coup of the war. The role of the French in Enigma is also highlighted, as is the absolutely critical role they played in jump-starting the Western nuclear program. Continue reading “Book Review: Last Hope Island”