Pocket Review: Secret City. A History of Gay Washington

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington by [James Kirchick]

For a good review, see here at Reason

I dont have a detailed review, just a short note. The book is not a detailed history of gays in Washington (such a book would have to start in the 1790s and would have to include the stories of Black and poor gay people; two groups notably excluded from this book, which is mostly high class elite gossip). This book actually covers the time from the 1930s to the 1990s (though it does begin with a reference to Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed with his male friend, that anecdote is just a hook to start the book with; Kirchick does not actually claim that Lincoln was gay). Prior to the 1930s there were gays in government, but little or no overt discussion of the topic; their sexual preference mostly caused problems from the 1940s to the 1990s, when there was a “lavender scare” that actually exceeded the Red scare in duration. Interestingly this lavender scare was partly driven by closeted gays, including McCarthy’s aide (and Trump’s teacher) Roy Cohn. There was a fear that homosexuals were a security risk because they could potentially be blackmailed, but actual analysis of American spies indicates that very few were gay and none were recruited via blackmail. Still, many lives were destroyed in the course of this scare and the topic remained “hot” until the 1990s, when gay liberation finally took hold and by now we are the point that we have an openly gay transportation secretary (and former presidential candidate) whose main scandal is that he took paternity leave in the middle of a transportation crisis. Though his final conclusion is optimistic (gay liberation is “a magnificent accomplishment of the liberal society, enabled by the fundamentally American concepts of free expression, pluralism, and open inquiry.”) there is a backlash in process (mostly directed against Trans activist over-reach, but likely to catch gays in the dragnet) and the current equilibrium may not be that stable. The notion that gay liberation is an active cause of civilizational decline is not gone (there is an anecdote in the book about the state department security chief commissioning a study of how homosexuality causes civilizational collapse, but the researcher concluded that homosexuality did not in fact cause the collapse of Rome and Greece) and may come back in other guises.

The book is an easy read and is full of interesting stories and characters. If you are interested in American politics and recent history, you will enjoy it.

See the Reason review for more details.

Book Review: Saartha – 8th Century India recreated

After reading SL Bhyrappa’s Parva I wanted to read more from the man. I started with Saartha after a friend recommended it. Review of Parva.


the Tale:

Saartha is a tale of a Brahmana sent on a mission by his king under the pretext of finding more about the various trade caravan routes with a Saartha (caravan). The protagonist Naga-Bhatta is the first person narrator for the entire book. The novel is primarily a journey of self realization of Naga-Bhatta – dealing with a varied range of emotions from anger, infidelity, love to melancholy and despondency. Naga-Bhatta travels from his hometown in Central India to North Indian plains – particularly Mathura, from Mathura to Kannauj and Kannauj to Magadha, Magadha to Mahismati before embarking upon a journey to Arab ruled Multan before coming back to Mathura. Though a lot of characters come and go in the novel, the ones who leave a mark as personalities apart from Nagabhatta are Pratihara Senapati JaySingh and actress and Yogini Chandrika. Other than that, the author also brings the real life historic personalities to life in fantastic and powerful manner. – Mandana Misra, Kumarila Bhatta, Bharati Devi (Misra) and epoch changing Adi-Shankaracharya. Apart from that, the author deals with the intellectual fights – especially between Sramanas (especially Bauddhas) and the followers of the Vaidika Dharma (Vedic Hindus). Bhyrappa manages critical about aspects of both the traditions even though the narration is that of a Vaidika Brahmana.

The storytelling is top notch and visually perfect. The dialogues are extremely effective and powerful. But where the author excels like in Parva is bringing to life a real world from a time long gone. What is more – he manages to do it with the Zeitgeist of the story in mind – not our own. The author doesn’t want to be politically correct or use his zeitgeist as a lens to observe the events of the tale. As the narration is that of a moderately patriarchal 8th century Brahmana, he doesn’t try to bring up the hypocrisy of his position – wherein the protagonist has no qualms about his (attempted) infidelity while he cannot digest his wife’s betrayal so much that it derails his life – filing him up with despondency and emptiness. Its in moments like these that the brilliance of the author comes through.

Throughout the narrative we are come across various spiritual paths available to the thinkers and philosophers in Ancient India – namely the Karma Kanda focused Vaidika Mimansa path, the Mahayana Bauddha path, the Yoga path, the Tantrik path, and finally Shankara’s Advaita. How the Naga-Bhatta grabbles with these paths and how he finds his Karma at the end is essentially the story of novel, Alchemist like tale with huge dollops of sophisticated philosophy and realism. What is fascinating about this book is that unlike Parva (Mahabharat) this book deals with and uses supernatural powers not just as sidenotes but for important parts of the story arc. Also the author’s grasp over Sanskrit is just spectacular, and like in Parva he has created couplets here and there as per the plot demand.


the Polemic and the Philosophy: (Spoilers ahead)

While the story of Saartha works on various levels, I doubt if that was the main purpose of the book. The author uses the character arc of Naga-Bhatta around which the tapestry of 8th Century India is painted, and its this tapestry that works more than the story. In the beginning we are introduced to the conflicts and divergences between Vaidika and Bauddha traditions, while noting the important changes which were occurring in the Bauddha tradition during this time. Some scholars have pointed to these changes (adopting of Puranic deities and tales) which made the Bauddha traditions loose its differentiating USP. The portrayal of Drama as a means of spread of devotional traditions of Rama and Krishna is fantastic. The mechanisms of Yoga and especially Tantra are very well explored. The flirtation of Naga-Bhatta with Buddhism, his abandoning of Vaidika traditions and coming back are not only explained convincingly, but readers also given a peak into the potential origins of the Maithuna images (erotic coupling images) which adorn the Khajurao temples.

The first climax of the book – based on the hagiography of Shankara- deals with the encounter of Adi-Shankara with the Guru of Naga-Bhatta – Mandana Misra, and though Mandana Misra is said to lose that encounter personally as I reader I couldn’t follow the logic of it. Similarly the peek into the life of Kumarila Bhatta – the Mimansika who is said to have defeated the Buddhists before Shankara left me unsatisfied. However one has to note that maybe that was the desire of the author, who clearly seems to favor the Vaidika Mimansikas (minus some orthodoxy).

The final climax of the book is about the confrontation with Islam. This part felt slightly caricaturish but still captured some of the salient reasons for Islamic incursions into the subcontinent. The tripartite struggle of Palas, Prathirahas and Rashtrakutas, the Hindu insularity and naivety & superstition and various other reasons come forth during the climax. The book ends on a very sour note, but that wasn’t surprising, as Bhyrappa is no bollywood screenwriter (who make Padvawat and Panipat appear as victories of Hindus (maybe even Prithviraj)).


Incidentally the History podcast Brownpundits have been producing was covering the same time period which Saartha covers. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in history, philosophy or even self discovery – Saartha works very well on all these fronts.

Personally as an agnostic I have wondered why have I never been attracted to the philosophy of Buddha whereas I have always been attracted by the philosophies’ Vaidika and Puranic Dharma. Bhyarappa was able to give me the answer in one sentence “Can you imagine Buddha saying what Krishna says (on Kurukshetra) ?”

Book Review: Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh-India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.

India’s complexity is a perennial source of inspiration for commentary, columns and books.

Shrayana Bhattacharya, a World Bank economist, joins the list of authors who have tried to explain India with their books.

The book is about contemporary Indian women.

Ms. Bhattacharya, who trained in development economics at Delhi and Harvard university, uses her years of experience in primary research, to bring us her own, and stories of women from a cross-section of society.

The cornerstone of these stories is Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s most famous movie stars.

In a career spanning over three decades, Mr. Khan has built, through his cinema and his off-screen presence, an image of an ‘industry outsider’ who dominates the Hindi film industry with the dint of his hard work and sincerity.

His choice of unconventional roles for a leading man, in the early part of his career, and his off-screen image of a loving husband and family man stand him apart.

This is in contrast with the usual tropes of a male Hindi movies star , the good guy who charms his way to audiences’ heart on screen and whose umpteen romantic dalliances they read in the press.

Khan’s popularity, in the Hindi heartland and amongst the diaspora, is the string Bhattacharya uses to stich tales of gender disparity and loneliness.

We get a ringside view, Bhattacharya takes us through her own and lives of five other women, as they struggle with lack of income opportunities, denial of agency and grapple with every day challenges of living in India, exaggerated by their gender.

What holds these women together is their love for Khan’s cinema and in turn Khan himself.

When they need joy, inspiration in their lives and an escape from every day struggles, the women seek Khan’s onscreen roles and his offscreen persona.

The pictures that Bhattacharya paints, are colored by facts.

The protagonists of her stories come alive, unlike in Khan’s movies, as she vividly explains their lives with a sharp eye for detail.

When giving context to their struggles, she backs her submissions with reams of hard data.

Annexures include a table that captures share of dialogues for women in some of Khan’s movies.

She gives the women who shared their stories and their unbound love for Khan with her, their own voice.

The writing is not rhetorical flourishes with clichés thrown in. That bane of most commentary on India. The book engages.

Even for those who live in India and see the every day reality, the book is thought provoking. The passage where she describes the transactional nature of relationships is worth a chapter of its own.

Where the book misses out is on exploring the other impact of Khan’s filmography.

Barring notable exceptions, Khan’s work since his seminal hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, has comprised of Yash Raj school of saccharin cinema.

Movies where characters are super rich, beautiful with ‘love’ as the only thing missing in their lives.

It’s the kind of cinema that’s as far from the everyday India as cinema can get.

Khan and his cinema have done their bit in building the hegemony of ‘How much money do I make? How do I look?’ lifestyle.

The characters in her book struggle with these questions too.

Khan’s role in shaping a consumerist, trying to ‘fit in’/ ‘cool’ individual persona is left unexplored.

I found Khan’s portrayal as an all-India star an over-played hand. Khan’s as much a pan India phenomenon as Dal Makhani, the ubiquitous North Indian delicacy, is a pan India delight. The cinema crazy south Indian states have temples of their movie stars and Khan is not in one of them.

As she writes on the state of affairs, Bhattacharya skips the raging phenomenon sweeping urban India. The Dating app. Where the society has failed markets have stepped in. Technology is helping even the scales for women. The progress is slow and it does not include the majority but it’s a start.

India is a large complex place with everyday challenges being met head on by a young and an energetic populace.

Bhattacharay’s book captures some of these challenges and the forces taking them on, impeccably.

Anybody trying to get a sense of the churn going through India and its society will be well served by this book.

One hopes her fellow commentators will be inspired by her lucid writing and her love for data.






China: A Book and a TV serial..

I just finished Edward Rutherford’s “China, the novel” and enjoyed it. Capsule review:

China: The Novel by [Edward Rutherfurd]

This author writes sweeping sagas about particular places (London, New York) and clearly researches a lot before he writes. This one covers China from the first opium war to the end of the Qing dynasty. As usual, he has created characters (a British opium trader, a missionary, a Chinese mandarin, a Chinese rebel, a eunuch in the Manchu court, etc) that cover all important events (opium wars, Taiping rebellion, court intrigues, empress Cixi, etc). The book is a fun read and the history is well researched. While you can read many books about the history of the era, this one fills in the social mores, family dynamics etc in ways that a history text cannot. Well worth a read.

And happened to finish the overly long serial “Ruyi, Royal Love in the Palace” on Amazon Prime at the same time. This is a (very fictional) account of Ruyi, the Ula Nara empress in the reign of the Qianlong emperor. The details are ALL fictional, but the serial is lavishly produced and seems to capture the atmosphere of the harem (or what i imagine to be the atmosphere of the harem) very well. The novelist seems to have had some moral purpose in view, so the evil nature of the whole arrangement is perhaps a bit overdone (but it is also possible that in actual practice it was even more evil than this), and the serial is TOO long, going on for 87 episodes where 20 would have been more than enough. And some of the plot devices are also unrealistic (everyone is plotting, plots get discovered all the time, but the emperor never seems to take precautions against them; on the other hand, he too may be constrained the nature of the institution). But slowly but surely it does capture the terrible nature of this institution. Worth skimming through if you don’t have the time for a long soap opera.

Can Linguistics prove AMT & reject OIT ?

It is often argued by supporters of the Aryan Migration Theory, including academics, that the data obtained from the discipline of linguistics makes it impossible to posit the Indian subcontinent as a potential Indo-European homeland.

Map courtesy – Peterson (Fitting the pieces…)

We often hear and read such blithe dismissals,

Long before the IE proto-language was an issue, Friedrich Schlegel recognized the antiquity of Sanskrit and its parallels to related languages like Greek and Avestan. In his work Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (published in 1808) he praised the Old Indic language for its pureness and clarity and he implied that India alone must have been the origin of the later IE “colonies”. Today India can be ruled out as a homeland candidate with the utmost probability.

I am often bemused and at times annoyed by such absolutist statements. What exactly is that incontrovertible evidence that makes it most impossible for India (and the Indian subcontinent) to be even considered a potential PIE homeland ? Most often, these scholars never bother to explain how they are so sure. I doubt that they would be able to defend their statement if pressed further.

But rather than expect them to change and become more objective, it is better that we look for ourselves to see if their statements have any merit at all. And that is what I intend to do so in this piece.

We shall tackle this subject in two sections:-

1) Analyse the linguistic data from the subcontinent, Indo-European and non-Indo-European, and find out if there is sufficient evidence there to prove that Indo-Aryan languages are not native to the subcontinent.

2) Look at the nature of the linguistic evidence obtained from  the Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian languages in the subcontinent vis-a-vis the rest of the Indo-European languages and find out if that evidence argues against or for an Indian origin of the Indo-European languages.

Continue reading Can Linguistics prove AMT & reject OIT ?

India that is Bharat — The Good, the Bad and the Overstated

The early 2010s saw the internet (particularly youtube) filled with “Takedown” videos of famous public intellectuals and debaters of the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro. These figures typically have a contrarian take, rhetoric flourishes, exuberant confidence, and sometimes even persuasive arguments. As Youtube and Takedown videos become popular in India, one individual has made more waves than most others — J Sai Deepak – a lawyer cum debater.

India that is Bharat was published 4 months ago and has created quite a buzz — which isn’t restricted to social media. The book is a bestseller on Amazon with 1584 ratings with an average of 4.8. Even on the conservative Goodreads, the book is rated at 4.55 after 167 ratings. I decided to review this book in detail after a few recommendations, especially as I feel people to the liberal side of me in the Hindutva — Liberal Overton will not give this book the honest assessment it deserves.


India that is Bharat is book 1 of a trilogy that seeks to set the foundation for the arguments J Sai Deepak is going to put forth in volumes 2 and 3. The basic premise of the argument (i am paraphrasing) is that events from the 15th century to 19th century Europe that shook the world led to universal definitions of concepts like “Modernity”, “Secularism”, “Equality” and “Rationality”. The author claims that these definitions were fundamentally shaped by the Protestant reformation and underlying Christian morality and are hence “Christian”. In addition, these values went hand in hand with the 18th and 19th-century colonization of Bharat, the legacy of which is still ubiquitous in India. For someone who is even superficially well-read on these topics and has an open mind — this claim is not unsupported (though one could argue on the fine details). The clarity of thought of the author is at display in every word of the book. The book is not a scholarly exercise but a precise multi-utility instrument at the disposal of the ever-growing Indic consciousness movement.

Having accepted this basic premise, the 4 “schools” thought to address it are — Modern, Post-Modern, Postcolonial, and Decolonial, of which the author clearly favors “Decolonial school” as it addresses the “Protestant” elephant in the post-colonial nation-states — Coloniality. The book is divided into three sections, Coloniality, Civilization, and Constitution; each of which is expanded using primary references juxtaposed with the author’s insights. The references give the narrative authenticity but those need analysis and extrapolation which the author goes on to provide with surgical precision with a clear end-goal. In most cases, the analysis of the primary references is convincing and solid (though there are some glaring misses — will expand on them later). The extrapolation from even the most solid inferences is however hit and miss. Like the author, I would also attempt to break my review into three neat sections — the Good, the Bad, and the Overstated.

the GOOD:

The immense work put into building this narrative doesn’t escape the reader’s attention. Especially the argument put forth in the final chapter — “the standard of civilization” is a compelling one and doesn’t often get recognized in the public international discourse. A lot of the issues from that very framework continue to haunt countries like India under the veil of international consensus. The author also does a good job of convincing the reader that seeing India as a “civilizational state” is wishful thinking at best. The author also convincingly brings the various points of divergence between India/Dharmic and Christian/Protestant thinking. It is undeniable that this divergence brought about both the direct and indirect stereotyping of “Hindoos” and their “traditions”, the legacy of which the Hindus of the 21st century have to countenance. Eg: The academic mainstream thought of viewing the Sramana traditions (and to a lesser extent Sikhism), primarily as revolts against Brahmanical orthodoxy (of Varna)— similar to the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic church. Also, the Essential practices test applied to Hindu Sampradayas with emphasis on the written word.

Another interesting point brought forth by the author is the difference in attitudes towards non Humans (nature in general) between the Abrahamic faiths and Indic faiths. What the author didn’t touch upon, but could have added is the attitudes towards Darwinian evolution are also in great divergence in these two OETs (onto etymologies) of Western and Eastern faiths. If a man is a part of nature, evolution is easier to digest. Sadly this harmony with nature which takes the form of worship of nature is seen as a joke in the Abrahamic OET. (Though I do not concur with the author in fullness that a lot of current problems with environmentalism come out of this universalism).

In general, the primary references in the book are well researched and the inferences drawn from them are robust and provide a solid foundation for an interested reader to extrapolate. Constituent assembly debates, House of common debates are presented tersely enough to get a moderately deep understanding of the discussions at hand.

However, the biggest positive contribution of the book is that it recognizes “Coloniality” as an impediment to the realization of Indian(particularly Bharatiya) potential. The continued and blind aping of the west — be in food habits, dress codes, language policy all prevent the confidence of the native from growing. Good communication is often correlated with good English in most fields where the institutional imprint is high (from the Tech industry to journalism). I can tell this from first-hand experience that the country has lost thousands (maybe lacs) of brilliant and honest minds, who are not “Modern” in their outlook, do not get the necessary support from society in general and institutions in particular.  Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the Supreme court and English media journalism. Mediocre yet articulate English-speaking elites have suppressed the talents from the subaltern sections of the society from rising up.

the BAD:

Having said the above, I have profound problems with a lot of narratives in the book. My primary problems (as well as support) with the narrative are illustrated below

 

Below are a few of the numerous examples in the book which signify the fallacies of the narrative.

  1. In a robust argument about Colonial ethnic cleansing/genocide of Native Americans, the author lets slip the following UNREFERENCED line — which is not just an exaggeration but an objectively falsifiable statement.

In some cases diseases, such as smallpox and the plague, were introduced with the knowledge that the indigenous community was not immune to them.

Kindle location 1054

2. The author addresses the Christian/Colonial framing of the Jati-Varna system by quoting the works of Nicolas Dirks’ among others. While the Colonial reading of Jati-Varna which became the modern Caste System is refuted; the alternative hypothesis for the reality of the Jati-Varna system is missing. The author also completely avoids the recent genetic studies which point to unique endogamy among Indian Jatis which has poked a lot of holes in Nicolas Dirks’s hypothesis. 

3. In general the references to and inspiration from Greco Roman culture in Enlightenment are largely omitted while its Protestant roots are overemphasized.

It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us

Location 5209

References like these in Macaulay’s minute are totally ignored

A lot of the modern concepts which gained traction in the Enlightenment were clearly of Greco-Roman (or even Indian, Persian) origins. While these may be denied by a section of Christian thinkers in the past (and even so today) — that is not true for the mainstream Western scholarship.

4. It would be fair to assert that the nuance of piecemeal and incremental progress (which incidentally the author might support as a legit way of native reform) has been put through the post-modern lens. Eg: The takedown of Emmanual Kant and his Christian worldview which encompassed racism.

There are some more examples that illustrate my broader point, but I will not add all of them here. (Maybe I can publish my detailed notes somewhere else if needed). In addition to these specific issues, the major incoherent argument made is the insistence of viewing “Modern” concepts of “Equality”, “Liberty”, “Rationality”, “Reason” as at least quasi Protestant. The natural consequence of this is the call for being “Vary” of these concepts themselves – not just their imposition by Coloniality. 

This assertion of erroneous as looking at Englightenment primarily a consequence of Protestant Reformation is tenuous at best. But more importantly, history is rife with Concepts/“Memes” which come out of an OET per se and over time lose connection to the OET itself (to view those concepts from the lens of their germination). The savior/messiah concept seems to have made an impression on Indic faiths from Judeo-Christian OET leading to “Maitreya the messiah” (on may also claim that Hindu Kalki is also a result of that but I am not confident about it). This clearly happened without “Coloniality” as Rome only became a Chrisitan empire later. The same is true for the Crystallization of Islamic orthodoxy which not only drew upon concepts of Totalitarian Assyria but also learning mechanisms of Turanian Buddhism (Buddhist influence of Madrassas).

Ironically the template used by the author to claim that modernity and rationality are Christian (Protestant) is exactly the template used by post-modernists (and now Woke) to classify modernity, science, and rationality instruments of White supremacy. This is also the exact same mechanism used by Leftist scholars and Ambedkarites to dismiss or oppose aspects of Hindu culture under the guise of attacking “Brahminism”.

This is a plain double standard disguised as moral relativism.

Another major umbrage I take to the narrative (at least in the first book) feeds into a post-modern and moral relativist framework for contemporary issues. It is one thing to view the past through moral relativism, but completely different to view and judge different groups in the society using different standards. Concepts of community rights and standards become imperative in such a framework and the author makes it crystal clear in the following passage

Kindle Location 3448-3455

While it would be incorrect to claim that the author’s narrative is attacking individual rights, it is clear “if individual rights are adversely affecting interests of a group then the individual right must be traded off against the greater good”. To bolster this position one might take the example of Sabrimala but let’s take a slightly different and problematic example. Will an individual who stands to inherit immense ancestral wealth lose it because of an unapproved marriage or a lifestyle decision? Will the group interest (endogamy/tradition) trump individual rights? More importantly, how is “group interest” defined? In this framework is Jati endogamy as a tool of preserving ancestral traditions a valid “Group interest” which trumps individual rights (related to property specifically). I am not suggesting that this framework wouldn’t allow individuals to legally marry outside group, but the costs associated with such an activity could be legally recognized. Will the provision in Article 35A for Kashmiri women to lose state domicile be defensible under this framework of Preference for “Group interests” over individual rights?

the OVERSTATED:

The author spends the first section of the book linking Coloniality to Protestant reformation and its ramifications. While the link between the two is undeniable, the emphasis laid on Christian roots of Western civilization, Coloniality, and to an extend Enlightenment is strongly contestable. It is not about whitewashing history but acknowledging how other factors play an important and even at times decisive role in the changes that took place after the fifteenth century. This omission would lead an ignorant reader to put the onus of the New world order emphatically on Protestant reformation and its repercussions while ignoring the other factors.

The author almost spends an entire chapter (10) bolstering the idea that British Secularism (or somewhat even-handed treatment of faiths) is a result of pragmatic and mercantile self-interests and not secular enlightenment principles. This is a classic strawman, for even Anglophiles do agree that the British outlook towards religions in India was due to a pragmatic and mercantile attitude; of first the Company and then the Crown. Quotations from conservative members of an Anglican monarchy (not a secular republic unlike France) and Bishops are used to convey the idea that the British Crown and its parliament were Christian and not secular. While the British Anglican church is always seen as somewhat benign compared to other Protestant denominations, the claim that they are seen as secular/idealist in outlook isn’t true for even the 20th century — let alone 19th century (which the book claims to refute).

This line of argument takes the form of overstatements like “Christian character of Government of India” and “legislative bodies acted with the political theology of Christianity”, “Christianisation of morality” and a lot more with immense emphasis on the Christian side of British coloniality. But if this efficient and well-oiled state machinery secondary or even tertiary plans of proselytization, wouldn’t have managed to convert more than 1% of the mainland Hindu population? (most Christians at the time of Independence resided in Goa, Kerala, and Northeast).

In CONCLUSION:

Overall it is fair to say that the author doesn’t confront the plurality of viewpoints on the topic he is addressing. The rhetorical tools which the author deploys in the audiovisual medium are somewhat blunted in the written word, and this also is a weakness of the book. He makes a persuasive case for Decoloniality despite these flaws, but the argument is far from water-tight. (though clearly, a majority of readers would disagree). Every now and then amidst robust points, the author also displays his tendency for hyperbole like calling retention of Hindu identity of the geography of the majority a paper identity. Not only that, but the author also uses postmodernist (“woke terms”) like “politico-epistemic violence of modernity” which is a red flag for whoever is following the debates around these issues in the West.

The book comes out as a precise instrument and not as an inquiry — which is both its strength and its biggest weakness. To date, I have not come across one legitimate critique of the book, either on GoodReads or Amazon or any digital or non-digital publications. The reason for this is clear though, one side of the ideological spectrum treats the author and his arguments as a pariah or upstart — either too extreme or too mediocre for attention. On the flip side, the other side has and will continue to treat this work as “Groundbreaking”, “Red-pilling” or “even personification of perfection” which seems a stretch even with concessions – especially coming from people who are vastly well-read and more of an intellectual bend than myself. I would argue the people on all sides of the political spectrum taking these positions are either dishonest, myopic, or incompetent. Or maybe it’s that they’re blown away (or repelled) by the personality and rhetoric prowess of the author.

While the readers of this post wouldn’t necessarily agree with all the criticisms I have made above, at least some of the criticisms ought to stick.

Having said that, the book was very important and consequential, especially due to the ingrained coloniality in our institutions and minds (especially the courts). For all its faults, the core argument of the book — that India still has a considerable colonial hangover and needs to shed it to become Bharat — stands solidly by the end of the book. The author has also inspired and convinced me to become more Bharatiya despite my profound disagreements with the book. For context: On identifying with the label “Liberal” over “Conservative”. My position on the liberal/conservative scale has shifted slightly to the conservative side due to my engagements with the author’s (and many other) viewpoints in general and this book, in particular. This book can also be seen as part of the famous Tilak vs Agarkar/Ranade debates that have shaped the Marathi society for the last 100 years. One could say that the intellectual and state pendulum has swung more in Agarkar’s favor and this book is an attempt to wrestle it back towards Tilak.

Given the popularity of the book and the author, the cliche saying “Love it, Hate it but you can’t ignore it” is perfect, to sum up the book in particular and the Decoloniality movement in general. It is definitely a must-read for all interested in public discourse about India that is Bharat.

Post Script:

There may be some errors in my original criticism – especially Point 1 of section the “Bad” which can be worded better. My criticism was about allegation of “with the knowledge that the indigenous community was not immune to them” which was not supported by the author by references. That narrow point stands it is unreferenced but pointed criticism around it I made is wrong.

I was unaware of the scholarship which points that early Europeans may have some awareness of the way immunity works and how the it played in way of accelerating their colonization.

Capsule Review: The Verge, by Patrick Wyman

 

The verge is a short and very readable account of an early phase in the rise of modern Europe, from 1490 to 1530 or so. Wyman has selected a cast of characters including Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, Martin Luther, the banker Jacob Fugger, various printers, Emperor Charles V and Suleyman the magnificent; and he uses their stories to weave a story of how the foundations of modern Europe (and by extension, of modernity itself) were laid by the fortuitous intersection of many small and big changes. The invention of printing, the rise of modern finance, the rise of professional military men, the reformation, all these played a role in creating the modern states of Western Europe; states that soon outclassed all competitors and eventually dominated the entire globe. If there is one factor that gets star billing in this book, it is the financial innovations that allowed Western European monarchies to tap more capital in more innovative ways, but the whole point is that no one magic factor drove the great divergence; many different factors came together to set the stage for it. The book is very well written and Wyman has a eye for interesting anecdotes and factoids that keep the reader engaged and interested. Well worth a read.

If you are interested in learning more, Razib Khan has a good review in the National Review: https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/0… (less)

Capsule Review: The Jewish Brigade

The Jewish Brigade is a graphic novel from Dead Reckoning, a division of the Naval Institute Press. It is the (fictional) story of two soldiers in the Jewish Brigade of the British army, an actual unit that was raised in 1944 and that fought for a few months in Italy before the war ended. After service in occupied Europe for a while, the brigade was disbanded in 1946. Some of its members helped organize assistance for Jewish holocaust survivors in Europe, including arranging travel to Palestine for some of them. Many of these volunteers ended up in the Haganah and the Jewish army that fought the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The author has used this historical background to create the 3 stories that make up this graphic novel.

In the first two, our heroes are members of the Jewish Brigade in occupied Europe immediately after the end of the war in May 1945; as they search for their own kin and run into other survivors they witness fresh horrors as Jews who survived the holocaust sometimes face a hostile reception from their old neighbors and remain in danger of being killed by random Nazis, anti-semites and sundry violent thugs who roam war ravaged Europe at this point. Our heroes help some survivors, face new tragedies and even execute (without trial of course) some Nazis in the hellscape that is postwar central Europe. The book does a great job of reminding us that for many people the war did not end in May 1945 and many violent and cruel tragedies took place as the “unfinished business” of mankind’s greatest war slowly wound down.

The book is a work of fiction of course, and it is undoubtedly also a work of propaganda, with strong Zionist undertones. In the third section, set in Palestine, the propaganda becomes even more strident and one-sided (the heroes are Jews, the villains are Arabs and British officials who fail to support the Zionist project) and if that sort of thing turn you off, then this may not be the book for you. On the other hand, if you want to get a good introduction to the chaos that followed the war and the many gruesome and violent tragedies that happened well after the war was officially over, this is not a bad place to start.

The art work and writing are quite good, but the story is not always easy to follow and some characters appear and then disappear without the reader finding out what happened to them. The three pieces are loosely connected, but can be read separately and will still work. Overall, well worth a read, as long as you keep in mind that it IS propaganda, even if it is mostly on the side of the good guys.

(I got this book as a review copy from Dead Reckoning).

Parva: An epic masterpiece


 


Parva is without doubt the BEST retelling of Mahabharata I have read. I do not claim to have read all the dozen or so great retellings of the Mahabharata, but among the ones I have read and seen this one is by far the most satisfying. 


The narrative of Parva is a slow buildup of first person (and limited third person) arcs leading towards the Great Bharata war. The tale begins with old Shalya Raja (the brother of Madri — the mother of Nakul Sahadeva) in Madradesh. Over the next 900+ pages we meet all the major characters barring Krishna Vasudev and Dharmaraj Yudhisthir (I wonder why). As small incidences over 2 -3 days are narrated we understand the story through Flashbacks. The book directly covers events from around 3–4 months before the war and an epilogue which occurs a few months after the war. Inspite of familiarity with the text, the narrative is unputdownable (I managed to complete the 950 page tomb in just over a week despite a very busy schedule). The marathi translation was excellent imo and the review will not focus on that (though like always i guess the Kannada text might be more powerful). The book is also available in English (along with many Indian languages)

Realism:

The book offers a refreshingly realist take at the events which manages to remain faithful to the original text while not embracing incredulity. The five Pandavas are born from 4 different fathers who are also called Devas, who reside in the cold Himalayas. Out of the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra around 86 are Suta (Bastards) while 13 are born to the blindfolded Gandhari. Nagas, Rakshasas, Gandharas are not supernatural beings, but merely skilled warrior tribes who are An-Arya. The depictions of food, violence, travel are all bang on the money.

Characters:

Bhyarappa’s Bhimasen was a revelation to me. Though his true love for Draupadi is alluded to in some other narratives, its Bhima’s lovestory with Draupadi that forms the core of the first few chapters. His clear eyed vision, which is often derided as foolish or uncouth is expressed very sympathetically.

Kunti shows us her envious side and her troubled relation with the impotent Pandu explored. The arrogant and heroic Arjun, the brave and beautiful Draupadi and the anti Hero Karna do not deviate much from their usual arcs (though Arjun is shown a bit more objectively). Dronacharya, the target of Zeitgeist (Ekalavya) is dealt a fairly sympathetic story arc.

In general, characters are given real motivations and are allowed to see the error of their ways with time. Example — Pandu starts off as a wife beating, impotent and inconsiderate prince with no redeeming qualities. Though he dies due to his lust, he has made a giant transformation through the eyes of Kunti. 

Some traditionally less explored characters like Yuyudhan Satyaki gets many narratives to himself. His first narrative which sets up Krishna Vasudeva was my favorite section of the book.

Dharmaraj Yudhishthir though appears to be dealt a bit unfairly. With no POV narrative, Bhyrappa makes “Dharma”Raj the object of disdain — a confused charlatan who stands on shoulders of his brave brothers and advisers and always tries screw things up with bravado or stupidity.

Sex: 

Sex and lust as strong motivations are ever present in the narrative as with the original text. Yet the sex is always in the background, the passive, never the active. Though at times, the references to sex and role of Dasi(s)(maid servants) gets a bit jarring. However the author makes the distinction between the Kshatriya attitude towards lust with those of others. Kunti who has seen how lust and unhealthy attitude towards sex can destroy marriages and lives, raises her sons to respect women in general and never indulge in sex except with the lawfully wedded wife. Only the libidinous Arjun (who ironically loses his libido before his time) ever marries someone other than Draupadi. The lust (moha) for Draupadi results in envy at Swayamwar, polyandry, disrobing, various kidnapping.

Dharma:

The author dissects the various strands of Arya Dharma with no ounce of respect. Throughout the book the author posed various smaller questions of Dharma like

Was Balram who killed his devious and petty brother in law in a fit of drunken rage right or was it wrong if he because he was in drunken rage? 

Was Yuyudhan Satyaki wrong to not marry the hundreds of women rescued from the dungeons of Narkasur? 

Balaram who like his more famous namesake in a monogamous relationship following Pati dharma and polygamous Krishna was following some sort of Raja-Dharma. What one person sees as lust is something which serves the greater good, but what do we know. 

However the core of the book is about Niyoga. Despite the fact that both Pandu and Dhritarashtra are sons of Niyoga, Duryodhan raises doubt about secretive Niyoga that led to birth of Pandavas. Everyone from Bhisma, Shalya, Drona and even Krishna Dvaipayana are stumped by it. What lies under the argument is the classic nature/nurture argument. According to older Arya dharma Nurture trumps nature. In that framework even nurtured Karna born before Kunti married Pandu has a legitimate claim to power, whereas Sutas of Dhritarashtra don’t. In other words ironically, the womb of the Queen in a Patrilineal and deeply patriarchal worldview is more important than seed of the King. But times are changing and newer more rigid rules based on nature will come to rule the roost as alluded in the book (which seems to be the historic truth).

The chapters of Bhishma and Krishna Dvaipayam also touch the larger philosophical questions of Karma, Rebirth, and Moksha. The rudimentary beginnings of the core of the Sramana, Carvaka and other Nastika darshanas is also alluded to in those chapters. Unsurprisingly its not the DharmaRaja Yudhishthir who understands Dharma, nor is it the famed Bhishma or even the prodigal partitioner of Vedas — Veda Vyasa or Krishna Dvaipayana, but emphathetic Vasudeva Krishna. 


The book works for many reasons, primarily because it rests loyally on the raw power of the original text. The narrative structure assumes the reader is well versed with the details of sequences of tale, and when every mini narrative reaches its climax, the effect is mesmerizing. The Kamsa Vadh, the death of Jarasandha, the gambling scene and many others are goosebumps invoking. The author builds on the lifetime of familiarity with the story and builds up a crescendo every now and then. The author has refreshingly stayed away from judgmental takes which would lead to disappearance of realism or adulteration. The descriptions of geography, food and violence is very graphic. The author has shied away from describing facial features which was a disappointment to me. The gory and unpalatable realities of war (Game of thronesey) — from starvation, mass rapes, tonnes of decomposing flesh and the overall futility come to the fore in at the end.

This book is going to stay with me for a long time and it is probably going to be read atleast half a dozen times. An epic Masterpiece.

David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

I have been too busy (or wasting too much time on twitter) to write much, but I think we should promote some essays from other sites when they look interesting. Here is one I saw today: David Berlinski reviews Pankaj Mishra’s latest book of essays.   You can read it in full on this link.  

(my own, less erudite and much more rant-like takedown of Mishra and his brand of “tailor made for Western and Westernized Liberals” shtick can be found here) (my own summary of Pankaj in that rant: With Pankaj, the safest bet is that he is “not even wrong”. Good for virtue signaling. Useless for any other purpose.) You can also read a review of sorts I wrote about Pankaj in 2014 that also tries to clarify where I am coming from in this topic)

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire - Mishra, Pankaj - Livres -  Amazon.fr

A few excerpts: 

PANKAJ MISHRA is an Indian journalist, novelist, and travel writer; he is widely appreciated as a scold.1 Written between 2008 and just the other day, the sixteen essays comprising Bland Fanatics were published variously in The GuardianThe London Review of Books, the New YorkerThe New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.2 Readers seeking ideological exuberance must look elsewhere. The essays are themselves unified by a common rhetorical strategy, if not a common rhetorical subject, in which Mishra reveals that he knows something that others do not. “It had long been clear to me,” he writes, “that Western ideologues during the Cold War absurdly prettified the rise of the ‘democratic’ West.”3

What I didn’t realise until I started to inhabit the knowledge ecosystems of London and New York is how evasions and suppressions had resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike. Simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history, had come to shape the speeches of Western statesmen, think tank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, television pundits and terrorism experts.4

Living on hot air, logrolling columnists, like certain abstemious yogis, do not generally require fuel, although they may require logs; and a knowledge ecosystem suggests nothing so much as a child’s terrarium: wood, water, weeds, worms. Never mind. Readers will get the point. They could hardly miss it. In hanging around London and New York, Mishra encountered a good many dopes.

No doubt…

… THE ESSAYS IN Bland Fanatics, if intelligent and brisk, are also imperfectly argued and badly written. Realities are brutal, falsehoods blatant, notions reek, prejudices are entrenchedbinaries pop up here and there (eager, I am sure, to escape gender confinement), crime rates skyrocket, adventurers are bumptious, history is blinkered, delusions climax, despotisms are ruthless, and, if breasts are not being bared, chests, at least, are being thumped.6 Mishra is also a writer unwilling to savor the niceties of attribution. The wonderful phrase “closing time in the garden of the West” appears three times in two essays, welcome relief from the clump of Mishra’s habitual clichés. It is due to Cyril Connolly.7 That “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism” is due, in turn, to Walter Benjamin.8 Mishra has appropriated the phrase and its mistranslation into English.

Continue reading David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

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