VS Naipaul (and Prime Minister Imran Khan)..

I have been busy with a move for several months (from the Midwest to the Best Coast) and have not been active on Brownpundits. I hope this will change in the coming weeks and months. Not enough time today for a full post on something,  just some quick notes on two recent events:

  1. VS Naipaul has died. I am a fan of Naipaul the writer, which sometimes gets me into arguments with woke friends, because the memo has been circulated that he was “a White supremacist” and so on (there is also the issue that he was a misogynist and mistreated some of the women in his life, which is probably true, but the broader un-personing instructions are based on his supposed ideological crimes, not his personal life). I don’t have anything to say about his relations with women (FWIW his last wife seems to have been happy with him) or his general crankiness and misanthropy, but I think the ideological accusations are an unfair characterization of his work. As far as I can tell, he had no single over-arching ideology; his aim was to try and see “things as they are”, which is never easy (and perhaps never possible), not to promote a particular Right or Left wing political viewpoint. He will be missed.   

From “The Enigma of Arrival”

Continue reading “VS Naipaul (and Prime Minister Imran Khan)..”

The Tears of the Rajas: One Family’s Experience of Serving the East India Company

From my personal blog:

Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster 2015) tells the story of his grandmother’s family—the Lows of Chatto–who spent a century serving the East India Company. The book focuses on Mount’s  great-great grandfather, John Low, who arrived in India in 1805 and finally retired after the Mutiny of 1857 (the First War of Independence as it is known in India). John’s sons also served the Company, with one of them—General Sir Robert Low—being involved in the 1895 relief of Chitral, the northernmost outpost of British India (now in Pakistan).  The Lows were also related by marriage to other prominent British Indian families, including the Thackerays (which included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) and the Metcalfes. John Low’s daughter Charlotte married Theo Metcalfe, the son of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident at Delhi.  Through the stories of these families, Mount provides an enlightening perspective on what life was like for the British as they consolidated their Indian Empire during the 19th century.

It is ironic that John Low, who firmly believed in leaving native kingdoms alone whenever possible, was involved in the deposition of several princes from their thrones.    The first of these was the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II.  In 1817-18, Low was the assistant to Sir John Malcolm and was responsible for getting the Peshwa to surrender and go into exile in Bithur, a small town just outside Cawnpore (modern Kanpur).   He also served as Baji Rao’s jailer in Bithur. The Peshwa’s surrender brought an end to the final Anglo-Maratha War.

Later, while serving as the British Resident at Lucknow, Low was responsible for deposing Munna Jan, the boy-king of Oudh (Awadh).  In 1837, after the death of Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider, the British decided to put his uncle, Muhammad Ali Shah (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s grandfather) on the throne.  However, the late Nawab’s stepmother, The Padasha Begum, had other plans and led a coup in favor of Nasir-ud-din’s son, Munna Jan.  Low thwarted this rebellion and sent the Begum and Munna Jan to Chunar Fort, near Benaras, where they were locked up for the rest of their lives.  A sepia drawing by Monsieur Dufay de Casanova, the Court Painter, entitled The Begum’s Attempt to Usurp the Throne of Oudh for Moona Jan, 7th July 1837 “conveys the darkling chaos with the heroic Resident standing firm and his brother-in-law John Shakspear with his huge black mustachios being manhandled by the supporters of the Begum, who is just visible in her palanquin below the throne” ( Mount 295).

In contrast to John Low, who did not believe that the British should annex territory, various Governors-General were interested in increasing the revenue of the Company and expanding the area under direct British rule.  The chief example is Lord Dalhousie, who is responsible for the final annexation of Oudh that sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah into exile in Calcutta. Mount writes: “Across the path of these vital modern communications there still lay a wodge of native principalities, as much a barrier to the spread of British justice as to the British spirit of modernity. The petty princes of Bundelkhand, the greater rajas of Nagpur and Jhansi and above all the King of Oudh were an offense to His Lordship’s pious and impatient eye. With their eunuchs and their dancing girls, they stood, or rather rolled, in the way of progress” (416).  John Low was against Lord Dalhousie’s intent to annex territory, arguing that deposing native rajas who had not broken their word to the British alienated the people as did “remitting large portions of the revenue for pensions and salaries in England (which bring no return to India), instead of spending such revenues within the countries which produce them” ( 421).  He went further and wrote that “the natives of India are in one respect exactly like the inhabitants of all other parts of the known world, they like their own habits and customs better than those of foreigners” (423). Low recognized that British annexation was the cause of great resentment among the Indian people.

However, for Lord Dalhousie, Oudh was “a cherry which had long been ripening” (430).  In February 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed. Mount writes: “Wajid Ali Shah was the last of the weeping Rajas to discover how much British friendship was worth. Every native prince’s dealings with John Low and his clan seemed to end in tears” (443).

More here


Ananda Coomaraswamy: The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon (1913)



“The artist is not a special kind of person; rather each person is a special kind of artist” Ananda  Coomaraswamy, A pioneer historian of Indian Art and foremost interpreter of Indian culture to the West’.

Ananda  Coomaraswamy: The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon (1913) not really a review but excerpts from the book. Very readable and not just the art but the religious and philosophical background to art.  This and other books by AC are available free, link at end of the post.

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947)
Son of
Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy  the first Ceylon (and  South Asian?)  Knight and Elizabeth Beeby, who was a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. First class honours in Geology and Botany (1900) from University of London. The first Director of Mineralogical Surveys, Ceylon (1903). Doctor of Science degree from the University of London in 1906 for identifying and research on the mineral Thorianite.

In 1905 he founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society.  The Society was “formed in order to encourage and initiate reform in social customs amongst the Ceylonese, and to discourage the thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European habits and customs”. He claimed fluency in 36 languages, where his definition of fluency in a language is the ability to read a scholarly article without referring to a dictionary.

AC refused to join the British armed services in World War I and As a result he was exiled from the British Empire and a bounty of 3000
Pounds placed on his head by the British Government and his house was seized. Moved to USA in 1917 together with his extensive art collection, described as ‘among the finest in the Western world’. His entire private art collection was transferred to Boston Museum of Fine Arts,  and worked there as Curator and as Visiting Lecturer at nearby Harvard University for the next thirty years until he retired in 1947.

AC’s first book major book Medieval Sinhalese Art was self published. Using his considerable inherited wealth bought the ailing Essex House Press and a small church called Norman Chapel in Broad Campden in Gloucestershire.  He used part of the premises as his residence and moved the machinery of Essex House Press to the rest of the building.
Hand printing of the book started in September 1907 and was completed in December 1908.  The layout of the book, which is a work of art in its
own right, and the printing of the 425 copies were supervised by him.
(more and much of above from In Appreciation of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy)

Excerpts from Ananda  Coomaraswamy: The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon (1913)

In the first place, almost all Hindu art (Brahmanical and Mahayana Buddhist) is religious. ” Even a misshapen image of a god,” says Sukracharya {ca. 5th century a.d.) “is to be preferred to an image of a man, howsoever charming.” Not only are images of men condemned, but originality, divergence from type, the expression of personal sentiment, are equally forbidden. “(Animagemade) according to rule (shastra) is beautiful,no other forsooth is beautiful.

” the likeness of the seated yogi is a lamp in a windless place that flickers not”{Bhagavad Glta, vi. 19). It is just this likeness that we must look for in the Buddha image, and this only. For the Buddha statue was not intended to represent a man ; it was to be like the unwavering flame, an image ofwhat all men could become, not the similitude of any apparition (nirmanakaya).

A like impersonality appears in the facial expression of all the finest Indian sculptures. These have sometimes been described as expressionless because they do not reflect the individual peculiarities which make up expression as we commonly conceive it.

This ideal is described in many places, typically, for example, in the Bhagavad Gita xi. 12-19 : ” Hateless toward all born beings, void of the thought of I and My, bearing indifferently pain and pleasure, before whom the world is not dismayed and who is not dismayed before the world; who rejoices not, grieves not,desires not; indifferent in honour and dishonour, heat and cold, joy and pain; free from attachment”—such an one is god-like,from attachment”—such an one is god-like,

BhagavadGita is also the chief gospel of action without attachment: change, says Krishna, is the law of life, therefore act according to duty, not clinging to any object of desire, but like the actor in a play, who knows that his mask {persona) is not himself. For this impassivity is not less characteristic of the faces of the gods in moments of ecstatic passion or destroying fury, than of the face of the stillest Buddha. In each, emotion is interior, and the features show no trace of it: only the movements or the stillness of the limbs express the immediate purpose of the actor.

This amazing serenity (shdnti) in moments of deepest passion is not quite confined to Indian sculpture: something very like it, and more familiar to Western students, is found in the gracious and untroubled Maenad furies of the Greek vases, the irresponsible and sinless madness of the angry Bacchae.

Maenad Satyr-Vase 480bc

There is no more remarkable illustration of the Hindu perception of the relative insignificance of the individual personality, than the fact that we scarcely know the name of a single painter or sculptor of the great periods: while it was a regular custom of authors to ascribe their work to better-known authors, in order to give a greater authority to the ideas they set forth.

This process of intuition, setting aside one’s personal thought in order to see or hear, is the exact reverse of the modern theory which considers a conscious self-expression as the proper aim of art. It is hardly to be wondered at that the hieratic art of the Indians, as of the Egyptians, thus static and impersonal,should remain somewhat unapproachable to a purely secular consciousness.

Much later in origin are the definite Assyrianisms and Persian elements in the Asokan and early Buddhist sculpture, such as the bell-capital and winged lions.

Early Buddhism, as we have seen, is strictly rationalistic, and could no more have inspired a metaphysical art than the debates of a modern ethical society could become poetry. The early Sutras, indeed, expressly condemn the arts, inasmuch as ‘ ‘form, sound, taste, smell, touch, intoxicate beings.” It is thus fairly evident that before Buddhism developed into a popular State religion (under Asoka) there can hardly have existed any “Buddhist art,”

A confusion of two different things is often made in speaking of the subject-matter of art. It is often rightly said, both that the subject-matter is of small importance, and that the subject-matter of great art is always the same. In the first case, it is the immediate or apparent subject-matter—the representative element—that is spoken of; it is here that we feel personal likes and dislikes. To be guided by such likes and dislikes is always right for a practising artist and for all those who do not desire a cosmopolitan experience ; and indeed, to be a connoisseur and perfectly dispassionate critic ofmany arts or religions is rarely compatible with impassioned devotion to a single one.

The paintings of Ajanta, though much damaged, still form the greatest extant monument of ancient painting and the only school except Egyptian in which a dark-skinned race is taken as the normal type.

Ajanta Painting
Ajanta Painting


Painting/fresco,  approx 500 AD Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

When a little later we meet with the excavated chatiya-houses, and, later still, the earliest Hindu temples of the Aryavarta and the Dravidian school, we are again faced with the same problem, of the origin of styles which seem to spring into being fully developed. . It is clear that architecture had not made much progress amongst the Aryans when they first entered  India; on the contrary, all the later styles have been { clearly shown to be developments of aboriginal and non-Aryan structures built of wood(posts and beams, bamboo, thatch), the intermediate stages being worked out in brick. The primitive wooden and brick building survives to thepresent day side by side with the work in stone, a silent witness of historic origins. Some of the details of the early stone architecture point to Assyrian origins, but this connection is, for India, prehistoric. How the use of stone was first suggested is a matter of doubt; none ofthe early forms have a Greek character, but are translations of Indian wooden forms into stone; while stone did not come into use for the structural temples of the Brahmans until so late as the 6th century A. D.

The Ceylon Shilpashastras preserve canons of form and proportion for six different types, called by such names as Bell-shape, Heap of rice, Lotus, and Bubble.

Chaitiya Hall (approx 50 AD), Karli, India

Another most important class of early buildings, and one purely Buddhist, is that of the chaitiya-hall (Buddhist temples).

The prototype perhaps survives in the dairy temple of the Todas. We are well acquainted with the structural peculiarities of the chatiya-halls, from the many examples excavated in solid rock. These have barrel roofs, like the inverted hull of a ship, with every detail of the woodwork accurately copied in stone. The earliest date from the time of Asoka(3rd century B.c.) and are characterised by their single-arched entrance and plain facade.

Toda Hut

Reservoirs:  but it was only notably in Ceylon that there existed conditions favourable to the construction of very large works at a much earlier date. The largest of the embankments of these Ceylon reservoirs measures nine miles in length, and the area of the greatest exceeds 6000 acres (24 sq km). The earliest large tank dates from the 4th century B.C. What is even more remarkable than the amount of labour devoted to these works, is the evidence they afford of early skill in engineering, particularly in the building of sluices: those of the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. forming the type of all later examples in Ceylon, and anticipating some of the most important developments of modern construction. The most striking features of these sluices are the valve pits (rectangular wells placed transversely across the culverts and lined with close-fitting masonry), and the fact that the sectional area of the culverts enlarges towards the outlet, proving that the engineers were aware that retardation of the water by friction increased the pressure, and might have destroyed the whole dam if more space were not provided.but

There is scarcely any Hindu building standing which can be dated earlier than the 6th century a.d. without any trace of historic origins. The explanation of this circumstance is again to be found in the loss of earlier buildings constructed of perishable materials; all the greatarchitectural types must have been worked out in timber and brick before the erection of the stone temples which alone remain. One point of particular interest is the fact that the early temples of the gods, and prototypes of later forms, seem to have been cars, conceived as self-moving and rational beings.

and in another place, the whole city of Ayodahya is compared to a celestial car. The carrying of images in processional cars is still an important featurej of Hindu ritual. The resemblance of the Aryavarta shikhara to the bamboo scaffolding ofa processional car is too striking to be accidental. More than that,’ we actually find stone temples of great size provided with enormous stone wheels (Konarak, Vijayanagar) and the monolithic temples at Mamallapuram (7th century) (fig. 83) are actually called rathas, that is cars, while the term vimana, applied to later Dravidian temples, has originally the same sense, of vehicle or moving palace.

The greatest period of Indian shipbuilding, however, must have been the Imperial age of the Guptas and Harshavardhana, when the Indians possessed great colonies in Pegu, Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, and trading settlements in China, Japan, Arabia, and Persia.

Many notices in the works of European traders and adventurers in the 15th and i6th centuries show that the Indian ships of that day were larger than their own ; Purchas, for example, mentions one met by a Captain Saris in the Red Sea, of 1 200 tons burden, about three times the size of the largest English ships then made (161 1).Many notices in the works of European traders and adventurers in the 151!^ and i6th centuries show that the Indian ships of that day were larger than their own ; Purchas, for example, mentions one met by a Captain Saris in the Red Sea, of 1 200 tons burden, about three times the size of the largest English ships then made (1611).

It is worth while to remark that a good deal of the material used for dagger-handles and similar purposes is not Indian or African ivory, but is known as “fish-tooth,” most of it being really fossil ivory from Siberia. Old examples prove that there used to exist an overland trade in this material. Hippopotamus and walrus ivory may also have found its way to India by land routes.

The great majority of Indians wear cotton garments, and it is from India that all such names as chintz, calico, shawl, and bandana have come into English since the i8th century. Weaving is frequently mentioned in the Vedas. cotton, silk, and woollen stuffs in the epics. Silk was certainly imported from China as early as the 4th century B.C.,

Neither cotton-printing nor dye-painting are Sinhalese crafts. All the finer cloths found in Ceylon appear to be of Indian origin. There is evidence of several settlements of Indian weavers in Ceylon on various occasions.

The Mughal portrait style is scarcely clearly developed before the time of Jahangir (1605 to 1627). At its best it is an art of nobly serious realism and deep insight into~character7 at its worst, it is an art of mere flattery. Two works reproduced here, the Bodleian Dying Man (fig. 169) and the Ajmer portrait of Jadrup Yogi (fig. 170), stand out before all others in their passionate concentration.
(my sbarrkum note; if some one can send link to modern colored images, Jadrup Yogi or Dying Man very welcome)


List of free books by Ananda Coomaraswamy

Book Review: Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak (Silent no more?) by Lt Gen (Rtd) Shahid Aziz

The late great Asma Jahangir once described Pakistan’s generals as ‘duffers’ on national TV. While it would be disingenuous to generalize a whole group as duffers, one can infer that within a strictly hierarchical structure as the army, loyalty to the force and to the commanders is considered a greater asset than intelligence or aptitude. A better experiment would be to take a look at the books written by various retired generals through the decades and reach a conclusion. It can also help us understand what type of characters are highly valued by the institution and thus given promotions. Many of the earliest officers in Pakistan Army wrote their memoirs including (but not limited to) General Ayub, General Sher Ali Khan, Air Marshal Asghar Khan and General Gul Hasan.  General Sher Ali Khan was an ‘ideologue’ of the elusive ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ while Ayub Khan and Asghar Khan had slightly more pragmatist views in that regard. Lt Gen Shahid Aziz belonged to the former category. According to his account, he was an honest officer who always put the interest of institution before any other interests.

He described himself in the following words in his book:

“Why am I full of contradiction? Why can’t I be balanced? Then I console myself with the thought that a pendulum has a balance too; what use is a balance that is static and frozen? Real balance is in movement. One should be flying back and forth on a swing.” (Translation: Khaled Ahmad)

Reading the book, one gets the impression that he was slightly more PakNationalist than the average military Joe and his levels of self-righteousness were high enough to prompt him writing that book. He knew exactly what he was doing and was a man of his (however flawed) convictions. He was the kind of guy who refused to vote for Zia in the sham referendum held in 1984, despite being asked by his superiors in the military, the type of officer who wouldn’t display a star and Pakistan’s flag on his staff car.  Musharraf obviously was wily enough to see through Shahid Aziz’s simplistic stupidity and didn’t promote him as the Vice-Chief of Army Staff. You can see his cognitive dissonance in the book that he has no shame (or self-awareness) appropriating Faiz’s work (the book is littered with poems by Faiz and Ahmad Faraz, both of whom were harsh critics of despotism and military rule in Pakistan and left the country rather than stay under a military dictatorship).

I think he’s the ultimate Nasim Hijazi character (Man on a white horse), someone who imbibed the whole PakNationalist Muslim narrative and decided to live accordingly. By PakNationalist Muslim narrative, I mean believing wholeheartedly in the ‘Two Nation Theory’, believing in conspiracy theories that the US-Israel-India nexus is constantly working to undermine the sovereignty of Pakistani state, holding the military at a higher pedestal than politicians and believing that Pakistani Islam is supposed to save the rest of Muslim world. Throughout the book, he refers to Taliban (of any variety) as ‘Mujahideen’, without any shame or remorse. His view about Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is the following:

“The bombs that kill innocent Pakistanis in bazaars and mosques are planted by friends of America, and this terrorism is done to persuade Pakistan to embrace America more closely, allow the government to pursue pro-America policies, and to alienate Pakistan from the mujahideen. But this trend of support to the killers of Muslims is an open rebellion against Allah.”

In the book, he mentioned two instances during his training in the US when he was approached by people who wanted him to leave Pakistan army and join the US army in the same position that he held in Pakistan. This sounds preposterous because you need to be a green-card holder or a national to enlist as an officer and you can’t be inducted straight as a commanding officer.

One of the more interesting (but not completely unsurprising) aspects of his book was the discussion of nepotism and corruption within the ranks of the army (especially corruption during weapons procurement and the way DHA scams people). Such things, if ever pointed out by civilians, would constitute heresy and treason. Another aspect that intrigued me was his criticism of war tactics during 1971 (he fought along the Kashmir border) and during Kargil (when he was part of ISI).

The most useful part of the book is when he discusses his role as a first-hand observer of Musharraf’s coup and its aftermath. He was also part of the team that selected people for running different ministries under Musharraf and he spilled the beans on how Ministers of Finance, Commerce, Trade, Industry, and Petroleum were ‘pre-selected’ and Shaukat Aziz never even appeared before the interview panel. He was initially optimistic about the monitoring mechanism put in place to hold the relevant ministers accountable but things didn’t work as smoothly or ideally as he wished. He laid the blame squarely at Bureaucracy’s feet.

His thoughts post-9/11 were:
“After 9/11 the bitter reality of a unipolar world was exposed. This incident happened under suspicious circumstances. A lot of American experts claim that this incident was orchestrated by American Intelligence Agencies and Jewish terrorists”.

He was bitter about the fact that Musharraf allowed US forces to use some of our Airbases (Shamsi, Zhob, Dalbandin, Jacobabad). He also mentioned how Indians sneaked into Afghanistan right after the organisedUS-led operation and took over TV stations in Kabul. According to his account, American forces didn’t keep Pakistan informed regarding their hunt for Al-Qaeda militants and knowingly pushed then towards Pakistan. About the first encounters between SSG unit and Al-Qaeda militants, he was full of praise for the militants and commented: ‘how can you compare a salaried individual with a guy who is looking to be martyred?’

Regarding the Indian Parliament attack in December 2001, he had this to say: “After The Delhi bomb attacks, Pakistan was accused in the world as a terrorist haven. This was a ridiculous claim. By that time, Pakistan had ceased help to Kashmiri Mujahideen. ISI was strictly acting upon the new policy. Obviously, Kashmiri Mujahideen were not an organized group, they were nothing more than a ragtag army who were fighting in the way of Allah, not listening to anyone. However, the government wasn’t involved.”

There were tensions within the top brass in 2002-03, which have been highlighted by the author. There were turf disputes between ISI and Army, involving some captured Al-Qaeda militants, close coordination between Army and CENTCOM,  and development of a Quick Response Force and a Special Operation Task Force within SSG. There were two assassination attempts on Musharraf in the period 2003-4 which were orchestrated by people within the military.  He, however, voted for Musharraf in the 2001 Referendum. (Just an aside, I was an ‘observer’ for the Referendum near a village in Mansehra and saw how people brought NICs of dead people to the voting station so that those people’s vote could be counted).

His reflections on becoming CGS (Chief of General Staff):
“My tenure as CGS was really hard for me. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. In Afghanistan, we collaborated with the U.S. while waving the flag of non-partisanship and were equally responsible for massacre of fellow muslims, a dictator who came to the fore promising change became President for five years based on a sham election, Incapable and corrupt politicians were promoted by the army to run the country, compromises were made on Kashmir under American pressure, separatism in Balochistan was promoted, commercial TV channels were allowed to manipulate our nation’s narrative, ‘Pakistan First’ was used as a slogan and there were efforts to reform Islam under the auspices of ‘Enlightened Moderation’. He argued with Musharraf in favor of keeping the Kashmiri ‘Mujahideen’ as proxies against India.

He rails against both secular people and religious people because they don’t follow what he thinks is the righteous path. According to his plan, religious education in regular schools should be updated and secular education in religious schools should be updated so that in a decade, students of both systems are on par with each other. He sparred with Musharraf and his friends over this at dinner parties. The more alarming insight from the book is that such view and such officers were popular in the army. He also had a romantic view of the ascetic life, free of the burdens of money, job and retirement.

Book Review: The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel baloch was murdered in cold blood two years ago. She had rose to prominence as a ‘bold’ social media personality, challenging Pakistani society’s consensus on ‘morality’. Her selfies, vlogs, Live videos and twitter posts were shared and re-shared thousands of times as soon as she posted them. Sanam Meher’s book on her life is a poignant portrait of Qandeel’s (real name: Fauzia Azeem) life, where she started, whom she encountered on her ascent up the ladder of popularity and the obstacles she faced by Pakistan’s entrenched patriarchal culture. The book is important not only because of Qandeel’s story but because it focusses on other people, such as Digital Rights Activtist Nighat Dad and a female police officer who was tasked with investigating Qandeel’s murder. While she was alive, I personally didn’t care much for her but I remember receiving the news of her killing while I was in a library preparing for my USMLE Step 1 and the shock that I felt. She has been re-branded as an icon of feminism after her death and the National Assembly closed a loophole in the law regarding ‘Honour Killings’ soon after her death.


Islamabad-based band Bambu Sauce sang a song titled ‘Wazir-e-Azam Qandeel Baloch’ a few days before she was killed. You can listen to it here:


Review: The Spy Chronicles

This is a review of “The Spy Chronicles” (not by me, but by our regular contributor Dr Hamid Hussain), a recent book co-authored by two former chiefs of ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency) and RAW (the Indian intelligence agency). The book has generated some controversy (a lot of it far-fetched and irrational) and the Pakistani author (Retired General Asad Durrani) has been called to GHQ to provide an explanation and has been barred from leaving the country until an enquiry (conducted by a 3 star general) has been conducted.

The review is by Dr Hamid Hussain.

The full title is: Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. A. S. Dulat, Assad Durrani and Aditya Sinha (Delhi: Harper Collins), 2018.

This book is neither a memoir nor an organized attempt to explain a theory. It is essentially a transcript of conversations. It covers India Pakistan relations, Kashmir, Afghanistan and other general regional and international topics. Two informed individuals from rival countries engaged in a candid conversation and some of their views are not fully in line with the official stance of their respective countries.
In view of unresolved issues between India and Pakistan, there have been several international attempts to bring high former officials of both countries together for dialogue. One effort was to bring former intelligence officials of both countries together. This effort called ‘Intel Dialogue’ was organized by the University of Ottawa. Dulat and Durrani met each other during these ‘Track II’ efforts and developed a kind of friendship. Continue reading “Review: The Spy Chronicles”

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist who has spent many years researching the Mongols in general and Genghis Khan in particular. The book is a very sympathetic portrayal of Genghis Khan and his descendants and their impact on world history. It is a very easy read and is an excellent summary of the rise of this amazing man and his (relatively few; a total population of less than a million) people to greatness. And there can be no doubt that Temujin is one of the most remarkable characters in world history; one of those (few) heroes about whom you can confidently say that without them, the history of his people would have been VERY different indeed. He is a one-man refutation of the idea that individuals, no matter how prominent, do not really matter and all we need to study are the aggregate/impersonal/stochastic processes that drive history. Continue reading “Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”

Review: 12 Rules for Life (Jordan Peterson)

This is not the sort of book that usually interests me, but what with the controversy surrounding this man, I decided to look it up. To my surprise, when I requested it at my local library I discovered that I was 67th on the hold list! The man has clearly struck a chord; I have never seen a hold list that long in our (rather small) library. Luckily the system seems to have bought more copies, so I only had to wait a couple of months to get my copy. The book lists 12 rules that are an “antidote to chaos”. Somewhat to my surprise, they are generally good rules, though some of them are rather obvious, and even a bit hokey. Since many of you are not going to read the book, I will list them here:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Continue reading “Review: 12 Rules for Life (Jordan Peterson)”

Bhatkhande: The Contradictions of Music’s Modernity

I am excerpting this post from my personal blog. This semester,in my “Evolution of Music in South Asia” course, I gave 2.5 lectures on Chapter 3 of Professor Janaki Bahkle’s book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition—  focusing on Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition(Oxford University Press 2005), Professor Janaki Bakhle extensively discusses Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936), a musicologist largely responsible for the standardization of Hindustani Classical Music. Bakhle describes Pandit Bhatkhande as “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled and troubling characters. It may be better to view him not as a charlatan or a savior, but as a tragic figure, one who was his own worst enemy. All through his writings, there is ample evidence of elitism, prejudice, and borderline misogyny” (99).  She goes on to note the irony that though Bhatkhande is revered as a great figure in Hindustani music, his vision for the art form is not being followed today. For example, Bhatkhande wanted to create a national tradition for Indian music, not necessarily a Hindu tradition.  Yet today, much of Hindustani Classical music is “suffused with sacrality” (99). Bakhle describes how at a recent musical gathering in Bombay, Bhatkhande’s portrait was adorned by a marigold garland with a silver incense stand placed in front of it.  She asks the crucial question: “How did it happen that a vision that began with scholastics, debate, and secularism culminated in garlands and incense?” (100).

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande was born on August 10, 1860, into a Brahmin family in Bombay. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, he and his siblings were taught music. This was not unusual in a family of his class background.  At age 15, Bhatkhande began receiving instruction in sitar and studying Sanskrit texts on music theory, a field of inquiry that would remain his obsession throughout his life.  In 1884, he joined the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the music appreciation society, which exposed him to a rapidly expanding world of music performance and pedagogy. He studied with musicians such as Shri Raojibua Belbagkar and Ustad Ali Husain, learning a huge number of compositions, both khayal and dhrupad (100-101).

In 1887, Bhatkhande received his LLB from Bombay University and began a brief career as a criminal lawyer. After the death of his wife in 1900 and of his daughter in 1903, he abandoned this career to turn his full attention to music.  The first thing he did was to embark on a series of musical research tours, the first of which was conducted in 1896.  He traveled with a series of questions. His major project was to search out and then write a “connected history” of music and it began with these tours, which he believed would give him some clues to help recover some missing links.  He was less interested in the actual performance of music than in the theory that underpinned the education of the musician.  He kept several diaries of his tours, which served not only as an account of his travels but also as blueprints for his future writings.  Bakhle notes that he “did not interview the people he met so much as he interrogated them, seeking out what he judged to be their ignorance. In all these encounters Bhatkhande met only men. He had little regard for women musicians and did not believe he could learn anything from them” (103).

Bakhle describes several encounters that Bhatkhande had with various scholars of music. One that is particularly indicative of his attitude towards practicing musicians and to Muslims in general is the dialogue he had with Karamatullah Khan, a sarod player from Allahabad.  During this conversation, Khan argued that knowledge of Hindustani music did not come only from Sanskrit texts but also from those in Arabic and Persian. He also stated that it did not matter if the ragas had come to India from Persia or Arabia or gone from India to those countries.  This argument deeply upset Bhatkhande who was obsessed with finding a Sanskrit origin for an Indian national music. Bakhle  writes: “From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Karamatullah Khan was voicing a prescient and progressive claim against national, ethnic and religious essentialism when it came to music. But Bhatkhande was looking for a ‘classical’ music that existed in his time not one that used to exist in ancient times” (112).  She goes on to note that Bhatkhande was “not unique among late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalists in caring deeply about a classical and pure past… All nations ought to have a system of classical music” (113).

Bakhle argues that “Bhatkhande’s search for the origins of Indian music was not a simple Hindu nationalist search. He emphasized that music as it was currently being performed belonged to a different period, one that was constitutively modern and adequately different from previous periods so that any reliance on texts such as the Dharmashastras as a guide for everyday life was seen by him as romantic at best and anachronistic at worst. [He] rejected the idea that the claim for an unbroken history of music could be sustained merely by asserting that Hindustani music could reach back into antiquity, to the Sama Veda chants, as the origins of contemporary music. He also came to discover that music’s relationship to texts more than two hundred years old was difficult, if not impossible to prove” (115).  

More here



Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Allama Iqbal

In the late 1920s the Indian Islamist and poet Mohammed Iqbal delivered six lectures at Madras (to the Madras Muslim Association), Hyderabad and Aligarh, in which he set out his vision of the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam. Apparently Iqbal himself intended to write a second, larger book to be called “The Reconstruction of Legal Thought in Islam”, to which these lectures formed a sort of philosophical prelude.  That second book was never written, but the lectures were combined with a seventh lecture (“is religion possible”) that was delivered to the Aristotelian society in England, and published as a book “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”.  By the time the book was published (first in Lahore in 1930, by Kapur Art Press, then with the seventh lecture included, by Oxford in 1934), Iqbal had been knighted for his services to the crown and was already a famous poet (in both Urdu and Persian) and was being honored by the Islamicate elite of India as their philosopher and thinker par excellence. Since this is the only work of philosophy that he ever composed after his PhD thesis, his status as a philosopher is heavily dependent on this slim volume.

The book is primarily targeted at contemporary Muslims, who were keenly aware of their weakness vis-a-vis Europe, as well as of their historic role as a “worthy opponent” that at some point in the past held the upper hand against Western Christian competitors. Iqbal’s primary mission here is not some open ended search for philosophical truth, it is the revival of Muslim greatness, the basic fact of which is taken for granted and is an element of faith. In his own words:

“I have tried to meet, even though partially, this urgent demand by attempting to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.”

Like many other religiously minded thinkers of the day, he was also quite taken with modern physics and believed “the present moment is quite favorable for such an undertaking. Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations. As a result of this criticism the kind of materialism, which it originally necessitated, is rapidly disappearing; and the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.”

In terms of his education and training, Iqbal was firmly in the Western philosophical tradition (tending mostly towards its German, orientalist, idealist and romantic currents) and like other Islamist modernizers, he took it for granted that the “Muslim world” has to come to terms with modern knowledge, but this was to be done from within the Islamic tradition and while maintaining the distinctive character of Muslim society. His grandfather may have been a Kashmiri Hindu (his son claims the conversion happened 400 years earlier) and it has been claimed that there were branches of the family that remained Hindu, but either because of this relatively recent conversion, or because of his mother’s strong Muslim faith, his commitment to Muslim separatism and supremacism was strong and unbending. He was willing to admire other traditions (including the learning of the Brahmins, about whom he has interesting things to say elsewhere) and learn from them, but they are always “other” traditions, about this there is never any doubt.

Iqbal’s (supposed) Hindu cousins
Mom and dad

The books is interesting, especially if you are philosophically inclined towards the “spiritual” and the mystical; on the other hand, if you are somewhere on the “new atheist” spectrum then the book can only be of historical interest. Even those who are willing to entertain metaphysical speculation should be aware that this is not a systematic philosophical text. All the central claims of the book are simply asserted (there is rarely any detailed argument showing why they are correct) and the historical views are very early 20th century, with the ghosts of Spengler and countless lesser writers hovering in the background. Entire cultures and historical epochs are summed up in ex-cathedra pronouncements of the sort that were popular in that age but seem to have fallen out of favor since then. For example  “the cultures of Asia, and in fact, of the whole ancient world failed because they approached reality exclusively from within and moved from within outwards. This procedure gave them theory without power, and on mere theory no durable civilization can be based”.

Always hovering in the background is his (not so original) view that history is progressive and something is gradually unfolding and developing as we move from ancient cultures (India, Greece, never China) to Islam to modern Europe. In this great drama, the “spirit of Islam” is essentially anti-classical and empiricist and it is Islam that created the foundations of modern science by introducing this attitude into humanity (“European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam”). This basically Hegelian view of history was all the rage in the circles that Allama Iqbal frequented (its echoes survive to this day), and if this is still your cup of tea, jump right in, Iqbal will not disappoint you. Continue reading “Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”