Book Review: The Era of Bajirao

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Jadunath Sarkar, the preeminent historian of Maratha history states

The place of Bajirao I in India’s history comes home to us with unmistakable force and vividness when we compare the political situation of this country in the 1740 to that in 1720.

In 1720, Marathas were a small state spread over a few districts in western Maharashtra rife with internal divisions, while by the end of 1740 Marathas were the largest power in the country which covered lands from the Tungabhadra to the Yamuna. This was largely due to the unbeaten generalship of Peshwa Bajirao I. Uday Kulkarni, a Doctor by training, has taken to history writing these last few years and his writing has been a refreshing counter to the narrative-focused history popular in recent times. Dr. Kulkarni goes through the original sources as methodically and systemically as a surgeon would and the result is a crisp, tight book grounded in documents and not a narrative/hagiography held together by the whims of the author.

The tale starts with the Maratha-Mughal war of the late 17th century and ends with the death of Bajirao. The river Narmada or Rewa is the voice of the book as Rewa Uwaach, as Bajirao’s life was witnessed by the river Narmada, from his earliest campaigns to his untimely death. A few relationships and characters from this time period stand out in the book, and I got to know some interesting facets of all these characters and their actions in the book.

The Aurangzeb – Shahu relationship, its genesis, and its implications have been well represented in the book. Whether it was due to remorse, realpolitik, or human nature but Aurangzeb had treated Shahu well in captivity and Shahu’s unwillingness to directly attack the legacy of Emperor Aurangzeb is one of the most under-explored parts of Maratha history. This facet of Shahu can be seen as a constraint on the ambitions of the dynamic Peshwa.

Kulkarni presents the Era of Bajirao as a rivalry between two generals, Nizam-Ul-Mulk – one of the last generals from the time of Aurangzeb &Bajirao. Bajirao’s victories over the Nizam, both military and diplomatic are covered very well in the book.

The author also sheds light on a not very known fact about the life of Bajirao – his troubles with debt. The letters exchanged between Bajirao, Chimaji Appa, Brahmendra Swami, and Shahu Maharaj all point to the constant financial pressure under which the Peshwa operated. The strain between the Emperor and his prime minister over various issues, from financial matters to Bajirao’s conquering zeal are all brought forth.

The Konkan campaigns of the Peshwa, against the Siddis and the Portuguese, take up a considerable amount of the book. Chimaji Appa, the hero of the wars with the Portuguese who has often been ignored by popular imagination gets his due. The episode of Mastani is dealt with without unwarranted speculations or folk gossip. The fascinating character of Brahmendra Swami is always present in the background as Bajirao and co’s spiritual mentor.

Kulkarni also differentiates the ethics & morality of the Marathas – especially under Bajirao and Chimaji from their enemies with examples like Bajirao’s decision of not mauling Delhi and Chimaji’s respectful treatment of the Portuguese (especially women).

Bajirao’s singular quality in Kulkarni’s view is

Flight in the face of a strong enemy was not considered an act of cowardice, it was never the intention of the Maratha troops to give battle in an unfavorable situation. Bajirao’s success lay in his ability to choose when to fight, where to fight (and more importantly) when not to.

The only issue a reader might have with the book is arguably also the book’s strongest quality – the author’s unwillingness to speculate beyond a reasonable point. As a reader, at many places, I felt that I wouldn’t mind going a bit deeper into the motivations and implications of the actions of the book. But all these issues are compensated easily by the treasure trove of letters, accurate maps (with military movements), and illustrations offered in the book. On the whole, I would rate the Era of Bajirao 5/5 and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Indian history. It is especially a must-read of every Marathi Manoos – given the profound implications, the life of Bajirao had on Maharashtra. It is quite feasible, that without Bajirao’s and Chimaji’s rescue of North Konkan from the Portuguese, we might have even had a Portuguese governed Konkan (like Goa).

Dr. Kulkarni has also written some more books – including the Solstice of Panipat & and a book on James Wales – the Artist & Antiquarian in the time of Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao. His upcoming book – the Incredible Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa starts where he left off in the Era of Bajirao. Sadly none of these books are available in digital format and might be difficult to obtain abroad. For those who can’t get their hands on the book, you might be interested in the following for time being.

BAJIRAO PESHWA – THE EMPIRE BUILDER

 

 

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Book Review : Exotic Aliens, The Lion and The Cheetah in India

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The core argument of the book is given away on the cover itself

In the sixteenth century, Dutch traveler Jan Linschoten noted the absence of lions throughout the Indian subcontinent. Two hundred years later, echoing similar comments made by various hunters and observers of Indian wildlife, the British shikari, and writer, Captain Thomas Williamson, emphatically declared: There are no lions in Hindustan. Much the same was said about the cheetah in the region.

Romila Thapar’s argument: Lions have been strongly associated with kingship and lions motifs are spread across the world despite those regions (United kingdom, Sri Lanka) having no indigenous lions. Starting with civilizations of the middle east and how these cultures associated kingship, divinity, and morality with lions, Romila Thapar concludes that no imagery of Indus Valley civilization has lions. The contrast between the Western Bronze cultural emphasis on Lions and the total absence of lions in Indus valley seals (unlike Tigers who are ubiquitous) is profound. (Essentially the same argument is made for the HORSE in Indus valley). Thapar then goes on to speculate that the first interactions, the lands of the Indus had with Lions were after Alexander’s conquest and later Indo Greek rulers. She also points to the Rigveda (which she claims at least was partially composed beyond the Indus in the west) mentions lions and not tigers thought the later Vedas (esp Atharvaveda) mention Tigers more than Lions. Another point she makes, is tigers interactions are much more common in Indian literature (from Mahabharata onwards) while lions are often invoked as symbols.

Continue reading “Book Review : Exotic Aliens, The Lion and The Cheetah in India”

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Book Review: Our moon has blood clots

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Our moon has blood clots is a gripping biographical tale by journalist Rahul Pandita – which recounts the horrors faced post-1986 Kashmir by the Kashmiri Pandit community at hands of Pakistan aided Islamists. The subtle changes in some Kashmiri attitudes towards the Pandits since the 1980s are brilliantly conveyed through small incidences from the author’s childhood. The book tells the other side of the Kashmir story which has rarely received attention in the global political and even local social circles. The terror emanating nightly from the local mosques jumps out of the pages very effectively. All the killings are from 1989 onwards are told separately and serially which is very impactful in recreating the reign of terror- the pandits must have felt in their ancestral homeland. The Islamist nature of killings is also highlighted (how some pandits were killed with nails hammered to their foreheads). The book also highlights how the silent observers of the valley, who may have not approved the brutalization of Pandits, rarely put up a fight supporting their neighbors. The continuing tragedy of the Pandits at the hands of Jammu residents and negligent central and state government is also narrated from personal and observed experience. The ethnic cleansing of Kashmir in 1947 at hands of Pakistan supported tribesman is also connected to the book narrative through another POV.
The passage where the author narrated his personal journey back to his house leaves the reader in a sad and dazed state. The author’s Hindu culture and heritage are always present in the backstory and hence the pain at the potential loss of Kashmiri pandit culture in the refugees creates a particularly poignant moment in the book. The author’s sufferings, however, aren’t translated into bigotry against Muslims (Kashmiri or non-Kashmiri). The reference to Gujarat 2002 riots (author’s father’s recollections at the lynching of Ehsan Jafri) in the juxtaposition of Pandit anger at suffering is handled with consideration of human rights as the author explained once on television debate. (I have lost my home, not my humanity).

There are few things in the book which could have been handled slightly differently for a better effect IMO. The narrative structure of the book is not perfectly linear – which could’ve been handled differently – but that’s a personal preference and many might view it differently than me. The 1947 story could also be helped a bit by putting it into the larger Partition story of 1947, even though this occurred 2 months after the worst slaughter of 1947. However, these criticisms don’t blunt the impact this book will make on any reader. The book not only makes you feel the pain of the Pandits but also makes you want to work towards preserving the Kashmiri Pandit culture and heritage (especially in the valley). There really is no solution to the Kashmir valley question problem till the Pandits return to their ancestral homeland from where they were brutally driven out.

Post Script: 

The only personal connection I have had to the Pandits is because of the Kashmiri Pandit Quota present in Maharashtra Education enacted by the Shivsena BJP government of 1995 on Balasaheb Thackeray’s insistence. Slapstik or anyone else with Kashmiri connections – Could you please add your comments on Pandita’s telling of the story – both in Book and other media. For me, he serves as a Northstar to navigate polarized debates on twitter and social media in general – for example, his coverage of Delhi Riots & 2019 election. 

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Book Review: The Universal History of Numbers

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A review I wrote 20 years ago.

Georges Ifrah is a Frenchman of Moroccan origin who was an ordinary schoolteacher of mathematics before his students sparked one of the great intellectual quests of our time (or, indeed, of any time). His students asked him where numbers came from? Who invented them and why? How did they take their modern form? When he tried to answer these simple questions, he found that the information found in standard textbooks was highly unsatisfactory and frequently contradictory. Not content with passing on half-truths and conjectures, Mr. Ifrah abandoned his job and embarked on a ten-year quest to uncover the history of numbers. He traveled to the four corners of the world, read thousands of books, visited hundreds of libraries and museums and asked questions of countless scholars. All this research was supported by odd jobs as delivery boy, chauffer, waiter, night watchman and so on. The result was a book called FROM ONE TO ZERO A Universal History of Numbers, (published in English translation in 1985  ). The book was a hit and brought fame and fortune and the chance to do more research. This led to a much larger book, The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer, which was translated into English in 1998 (after initial publication in French in 1994) and is now available in either one or two volumes.

These books have earned Mr. Ifrah the title of “Indiana Jones of numbers” and worldwide celebrity. After reading the book, I can only add that he deserves every superlative that has been used, and more. To quote a reviewer from “The Guardian”: “Georges Ifrah is the man, and this book, quite simply, rules.” This is not just a history of numbers, it is universal history disguised as the history of numbers. Mr. Ifrah starts with the most basic questions; what kind of “counting sense” do animals possess? What do we know about the number sense of our pre-human ancestors? When we evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, what kind of numerical ability was “hard-wired” into our brains? He presents fascinating information about the most primitive counting systems, using tally marks, fingers, body parts etc. from these simple beginnings, we move to the abstract concepts of number and its notations. The detail provided is astounding. We learn about the earliest systems of numbers used in the Middle East, India, china, and the ancient Maya etc.etc. And not only do we learn about the numbers, Mr. Ifrah slips in his humanistic, sensitive and very very detailed knowledge of history so smoothly that we hardly notice that we are learning, not just the history of numbers, but the history of mankind; told by a very fair, very balanced and deeply sympathetic observer. Continue reading “Book Review: The Universal History of Numbers”

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Yugant / युगान्त : Book Review/Recommendation

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Yugant / युगान्त is a critical and rational analysis of Mahabharata by the Irawati Karve – the anthropologist, sociologist, educationist and writer from Maharashtra, India. She was the daughter in law of Dhondo Keshav Karve – a reformer from Maharashtra.

Yugant confronts various versions of Mahabharat analytically and tries to make sense of character arcs and motivations. Intelligently analyzed without religious respect but with literary respect. The motivations of Pandavas for marrying Draupadi as the Royal Queen are very well explained. The literary accounts of chats between Dhritarashtra and Gandhari & those of Draupadi’s death are very well written and move your heart. Krishna (Vasudeva) stands out not only because of the brilliance of his character but the wonderful analysis and the crisp unraveling of his motivations. The Arya (Kshatriya) Dharma is explained in Krishna and Yugant chapters. The author enthralls with deep and intelligent writing in the final chapter that resonates wonderfully even in the 21st-century internet age. The sincere and irreligious comparisons of Mahabharat Era – Arya Dharma to contemporary Hindu religion and other Prophetic Faiths are interesting. Throughout the book, the author refrains from applying current Zeitgeist as a yardstick – something which is refreshing in 21st century polarized analysis and debates which always have political undertones. Even without a direct running story arc – the arrangement of essays offers a wonderful climax – especially Krishna and Yugant chapters.  With recent elevation of Heroic Karna in Indian literature and thought, a look back of the character of Karna as seen in 1950s-60s is a pleasant change.
Surprisingly the argument for conservatism offered at times by the author towards the end – is also a stimulating one.  Further readings of Mahabharata (Bhandarkar critical edition) may lead to various disagreements with author’s positions at various points – but that has to be expected, especially for a text as dense and significant as Mahabharata.

Post Script:

I have not read the English edition. I cant vouch for the  English version. The analysis is very well explained in the original Marathi editions. Some of her work – especially on Anthropology is hotly contested today, but IMHO her MO is very relevant even today.

A recent twitter thread on the Author:

This book is easily available on Amazon in India in both languages. The price on Amazon.com appears unreasonably high.

 

 

A note for Traditionally inclined Hindus  – None of the analysis is reverential but it avoids the viewing of Mahabharata from western lens. 

 

 

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Book Review: The Quetta Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Pakistan Army by David O Smith

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From Dr Hamid Hussain

Book Review – The Quetta Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Pakistan Army by David O Smith

 Hamid Hussain

David Smith’s book The Quetta Experience is a groundbreaking and unique study of Pakistan army’s prestigious Command & Staff College that trains army officers for higher ranks. This book is based on interviews of American army officers who attended Command and Staff College at Quetta in Pakistan. Foreign Area Officers (FAO) of US army spent a year at Staff College.

Colonel David Smith is well qualified to embark on this kind of project.  He attended Staff College Quetta in 1982 and has remained in contact with large number of senior officers of Pakistan army.  In view of his extensive contacts in Pakistan army, he has been a Pakistan hand at Pentagon and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) for over two decades. Continue reading “Book Review: The Quetta Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Pakistan Army by David O Smith”

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Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland

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Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD ; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery,  the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.

Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.

Continue reading “Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland”

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Review: Soldier Sahibs

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This was written way back in 2002 for the Pakistani newsmagazine Herald (which just closed down unfortunately). Lets see how it holds up.

Soldier Sahibs is an old-fashioned and unapologetically imperialist book. And writer Charles Allen makes sure you know what you are getting into by giving it the flagrantly politically incorrect subtitle: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed India’s Northwest Frontier. But imperialist does not necessarily mean inaccurate and Allen has taken a good deal of trouble to get his facts right. The book claims to tell “The astonishing story of a brotherhood of young men who together laid claim to the most notorious frontier in the world, India’s North-West Frontier,
which today forms the volatile boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The men in question include John Nicholson, Harry Lumsden (founder of the Guides), Herbert Edwardes, William Hodson, James Abbot and Neville Chamberlain. Protégés of Sir Henry Lawrence, these men were responsible for laying the foundations of British rule in the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier. The author’s intent is to tell the story of these young men and through their adventures, give the reader an idea of how the British conquered – or, as he would prefer, “pacified” – the ‘wild’ Northwest Frontier of India.
But while Soldier Sahibs gives a very readable account of the adventures of these (surprisingly) young men, it is not possible to piece together the broader history of those times from his book. Why the British were here in the first place and what were the factors that made a small island in Europe more powerful than any kingdom in India do not form any part of Allen’s concerns. Nor does he waste much time explaining the situation in the Punjab or of the East India Company at that time. In fact, the author does not even provide a map of the vast area over which his protagonists established their rule. If you are totally at sea about those times, then you may have to read a few other books to fully appreciate the goings-on in this one. But if you are one of those enthusiasts who cannot get enough of the Raj, the mutiny and all that jazz, then you will definitely enjoy this book. Its written in authentic ‘Flashman’ style, with wit and verve and loads of ‘local color’.
The English heroes may appear larger than life but by all accounts some of them indeed were larger than life. And being Englishmen, they left us a veritable storehouse of laconic and understated wisecracks. These include Nicholson walking into the mess to tell his fellow officers: “I am sorry gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks.” (The cooks had apparently poisoned the food but were detected and hanged, and dinner was served half an hour late).
Though Nicholson gets the most lines in the book, the stories of Edwardes of Peshawar and Bannu and Abbot of Abbotabad are also told in some detail. William Hodson, the villain who executed Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons, also gets a sympathetic hearing. We are told surprisingly little about Sir Henry Lawrence, who is supposedly the godfather of this fraternity. And it is not always clear why certain officer’s lives are described in detail and others get only cursory mention. Lack or availability of sources may be the explanation for that .
In these times, it is impossible to read such a book and not look for parallels with the current efforts at “pacifying” Afghanistan. But these British adventurers and their peculiar code of life are poles apart from the westerners who are now coming to bring us into the civilised world. Occasionally, Madison Avenue will try to create a suitable heroic image for some American colonel or diplomat but the substance of this new empire is very different from the last one and so are its agents.
Nicholson and company may have been bigoted, male chauvinist psychopaths, yet they also had undoubted personal courage and their own peculiar brand of love of justice. In the Pakhtuns and the Punjabis, they found not just enemies, but also friends and fellow adventurers. It is fashionable these days to describe their local supporters as ‘traitors’ who took the side of a ‘foreign power’. But to the Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims and Pakhtuns who fought under Nicholson to reconquer Delhi, the capital was also a foreign power and one they did not remember fondly. And these British officers had always respected their honour and treated them fairly. They provided an administration that was in many ways a big improvement over the ‘locals’ they had replaced. In fact, it would not be remiss to say that the Punjabis and Pakhtuns who fought for the British may have been men of higher character and personal courage than most of their current detractors. Many things have improved since Nicholson rode across the plains of the Punjab blowing mutineers from canons but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that some things have also deteriorated.

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Capsule Review: Napoleon, a Life; by Andrew Roberts

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Roberts is an unabashed hero-worshiper when it comes to Napoleon. That can become a little irritating. But he has also done tremendous research and presents a very thorough, very readable and very up to date biography of Napoleon (up to date because new information, including 100s of previously lost letters, have continued to turn up and all that information is included in this work).

His hero worship does not affect my five star rating because he does not hide any of Napoleon’s faults, mistakes or disasters. He just feels the need to jump in with explanations, mitigating factors and examples of similar atrocities/mistakes etc. from others to try and keep things in perspective. If you do not share his Napoleon-love, you can still benefit from reading this book. As someone who grew up hearing about Napoleon from an uncle with several editions of Emil Ludwig’s classic biography always present in the house, I am not exactly an unbiased observer, but I think the book really IS worth a read. Factually accurate, extremely detailed and highly readable.

Best “new thing I learned from this book”? Exactly how much money the British spent (very effectively) as subsidies to various European powers to keep Napoleon in check. I knew they spent money but it had never been clear to me how systematic, well thought out, effective and extensive that effort was.
by the way, Roberts’ England-love is also real, and likely deeper than any Napoleon-love he may have. That too shows up in the book 🙂

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Review: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

I listened to Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s memoir as an audiobook. I was expecting some sort of standard “third world middle class memoir with woke characteristics”, but it turned out to be something far more interesting; Trevor was born to a Black South African mother and a White father during apartheid, when such relationships were illegal. He grew up in poverty with a single mom who sounds like an amazingly strong and independent woman and the story of those early years is the best part of the book. You will learn more than you may expect about daily life in Black South Africa and the story is told with great verve and wit. There is the expected craziness and cruelty of apartheid, but he is also refreshingly blunt about the social evils prevalent in the ghetto and the various divisions (generally violent, sometimes outright vicious) within Black society. South Africa becomes a real (and far more colorful) place for the reader, well beyond the somewhat simple and superficial “black and white” story we all know from (distant) headline news reports. Trevor and his family attend 3 churches every Sunday, escape a possible rape/killing by jumping from a moving minibus, deal with poverty, crime and prejudice (mostly from other Blacks and “Colored” people, since interaction with White society is very limited in any case) and through it all, his mother manages to somehow hold things together and give him a reasonably good education. A violent stepfather (who eventually shot his mother, she survived) and a life of adolescent and early adult crime round out the picture. As a window into South Africa, it was much more colorful (and more interesting) than I expected.

Many of the quirks of Black life that he describes (always with empathy and sympathy) are not too unexpected or shocking to anyone with some knowledge of the world. When his teenage dance troupe goes to a Jewish school and they all start shouting “Go Hitler”  (the name of their lead dancer) it is very funny, and Trevor’s explanation of why they did not see this as some sort of faux pas is sensible and reasonable. But one other episode was personally harder to process for me and that is: cruelty to cats. 2 of the author’s cats were lynched, skinned and hung from their gate because Black South Africans have a thing about cats and witches. And while talking about this, Trevor casually throws in the fact that a Black security guard beat a cat to death on live TV when she ran out onto a sports event in a stadium and Trevor seems to think this is just a cultural quirk and we all have them. He lost me at that point I am afraid. Yes, Spaniards publicly torture bulls, some Chinese do horrible things to various animals and modern people all eat meat from cruel factory farms, but I find it very hard to see this kind of cruelty as somehow “normal”, and Trevor lost a few points in my estimation with his attempt at cultural sensitivity on this topic.

Trevor is, as expected, ready with modern liberal tropes for most of the historical and political references in the book. That is OK, but one does get the feeling that he thinks his experience as a rather unique mixed-race South African, and the lessons he draws from this life, can be smoothly transposed into the experiences, attitudes and priorities of any generic “third world” person.  In actual fact, South Africa is a rather extreme case, and his life is unique and unusual even within that case; the lessons he learned may not apply to every country as much as he thinks.

At the end he jumps from his life of petty crime (basically pirating and selling music and fencing stolen goods) to a successful career as a comedian, but this part lacks the detail we get of his early life. He does not in fact tell us anything about how he came to be a successful comedian. Maybe that will be in some future book. Or maybe he is just a smart guy and does not want to get too far into a phase of life whose characters he still deals with professionally.

Overall, a fascinating and very interesting book. More interesting and insightful than I expected it to be. Worth a read.

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