Review: Anarchy -A Highly skilled jester playing to the gallery- Dalrymple’s Jaundiced Revisionism about British East India Company

The following review is from Major Amin. Formatting issues remain, but I think readers will find it interesting. (By the way, Major sahib did not say it outright, but I personally think Dalrymple has found the secret sauce of what sells in anglicized “South Asians” (i.e. blame the Brits, bless the Mughals (this is supposed to indicate how great India was before the evil company), pretend all would have been great if “a commercial company” had not ruined India) and his books massage that segment (and since the Anglo elite, no longer running a colony, itself finds this attitude very congenial, the books also do well in the Metropolitan market)

From Major Agha Humayun Amin: 

Dalyrymple is a man who cannot be taken seriously because he writes to please the gallery. For example, Dalrymple totally misses the fact that Nadir Shah of Persia had agreed to spare Delhi , and accept a ransom amount , but was persuaded to sack and plunder Delhi , by Saadat Ali Khan the Mughal governor of Avadh. How serious historians can evade and omit such basic facts is mind boggling. Dalyrmple totally misses the greatest betrayal in Indian history at Karnal where Nadir Shah of Persia on prompting of Nawab of Avadh Saadat Khan decided to pillage and plunder Delhi after an initial agreement to return to Persia after being paid a relatively small fine.

An Indian author (Page-v- AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORICAL ALBUM THE EAJAS AND TAALUQDAES OE OUDH- Daroghah Haji Abbas Ali-Printed by Northwestern Provinces and Oudh Government Press- Allahabad-1880.) had thus defined it as the greatest treachery in Indian Muslim history , which this most intellectually dishonest man omitted as below:–

Saadat Khan eventually, by paying two crores of rupees, obtained the appointment he had all along quietly coveted, viz., that of Amir-ul-issa, Vizier of Delhi. But the attainment of his ambition brought out his worst qualities, though fortunately for his former reputation and for those brought under his influence, his career of oppression and cruelty did not last long. His treasonable advice to Nadir Shah mainly led to Nadir’s disgraceful work of spoliation at Delhi” All the treasure and jewels of the Imperial Court were taken, and everyone who did not make a clean breast of his wealth was tortured most unmercifully.”

Another eminent Indian author (Page-21-THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NAWABS OF LUCKNOW- Ravi Bhatt- Published by Rupa Publication -New Delhi-2006)

described Indian Muslim treachery of Saadat Ali Khan as below:–

He tempted Nadir Shah with a promise to extort about Rupees 20 crores from Delhi. Nadir Shah decided to take a chance. He appointed Saadat Khan as the vakil-i-mutlaq and asked him to take the charge of Delhi. Later on, Delhi was completely destroyed by Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah had gone with his army to Delhi to collect money. In Delhi, a rumour suddenly spread that Nadir Shah had died, so a mob attacked one of his troops of 3,000 people. A bullet narrowly missed Nadir Shah himself when he was going to the mosque to pray. Nadir Shah retaliated by ordering a general massacre in which several thousands of innocent people were killed and large-scale proper-ties were destroyed. Nadir Shah also sent his men to Awadh to bring Sadat Khan’s money. Humiliated by Nadir Shah, Saadat Khan committed suicide on 20 March 1739.” 2

Dalrymple is master in spinning exaggerated yarns about British treachery but has no time for Indian Muslim treachery which far exceeded British treachery!

Strangely Dalrymple misses even inserting a biographical note on Nawab Saadat Ali Khan , whose treachery and low character far outmatched any British actor , including Clive.

Dalrymple spents great energy on famine of Bengal of 1770 and vilifying the company but fails to reconcile the fact that a far greater famine broke out in Bengal under the British crown. His treatment of events reeks with extreme polemics and subjectivism.

On page 12 there is a small typing error placing third Mysore war victory of Cornwallis in 1782 rather than 1792.

In describing Aurangzeb on page 13 Dalrymple misses the most essential fact that it was the Hindu Mahratta Insurgency that laid foundations of decline and fall of Mughal Empire. In this regard Rajputs etc. were mickey mouse players and the real hero of Hindu resurgence was Sivaji.

Degradingly describes Mohammad Shah but fails to note that under his tenure Mughals defeated Ahmad Shah Abdali at Sirhind in 1748

Battle of Buxar took place in 1764 and not in 1765 as Mr Dalrymple states on page-16.

Dalrymple is addicted to false fantasies. Thus he projects the Mughals as the height of civilization while these so called civilized Mughals in 1719 publicly tortured Banda Sahibs five year old son, gouging out his heart while the child was alive and shoving it in his fathers mouth !

Nadir Shah did not invade Afghanistan in 1739 but in 1738 via Helmand as it was a long way from Delhi but our brilliant and careless writer states he did so in 1739; worst is his treatment of military events like in describing First Anglo Mysore war he glorifies Hyder Ali but fails to note that he lost in various pitched battles to Colonel Smith and won only because of lack of cavalry by the company as well as extreme corruption of company’s officials.

Dalrymple’s treatment of military history is atrocious. Like in discussing Second Anglo-Mysore War he only discusses one battle Pollilore. whereas totally ignores the fact that Hyder Ali was repeatedly defeated at Porto Novo , Sholingur etc by Sir Eyre Coote. Dalrymple totally forgets the fact that while the company lost one battle in 1780 the war continued till 1784 and was inconclusive.

Dalyrmple’s use of historical facts is one sided and extremely biased.

Ahmad Shah Abdali never went to Delhi in 1762 so Dalrymples claim that he ousted Imad ul Mulk in 1762 is incorrect (page- 259 ).

By and large the book is a repetition of well known facts of British Indian history. However Dalrymple has wasted a book in vain as it brings out nothing new. His whole conclusion about the company and the title of the book “Anarchy” is extremely questionable and debatable. Firstly English East India Company did not cause anarchy in India as Dalrymple repeatedly tries to prove. India was in complete anarchy when the British company became a serious player. Delhi was sacked more than 40 times between 1737 and 1800 by non British but Dalrymple is blind to this hard fact. All the bad things he sees are only to be found in English East India Company.

His military knowledge is myopic and he constantly distorts military history and uses bits and pieces to prove or disprove as he wills at whim.

As a matter of fact the company restored order in India .First three universities in Indian history were founded at Calcutta ,Madras and Bombay in 1856-57. Outmoded customs like widow burning , infanticide etc were abolished by the company. A hereditary class of feudal was created by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 as a result of which political stability was introduced and strengthened in India.

The company had many reformers, philanthropists and utilitarians but Dalrymple in his irrational hatred is blind to all these people. To Dalrymple all that British East India Company did was bad and he has an extremely jaundiced and twisted vision. Dalrymple gives no weightage to the fact that British parliament and system prosecuted Clive and Warren Hastings and tried to regulate India. Above all Dalrymple forgets that without the driving spirit of corporate enterprise of the company the British would never have conquered India.

While personal interest has constantly dominated human conduct in history,  whether it was a company or a state , Dalrymple wears colored glasses and his perception is cloudy as well as confused.

Lastly my most serious issue with Dalrymple is his overly simplistic sweeping judgements. Mughals were as big opportunists as the company. They were a small group kicked out of central Asia and captured India or north India just like the British company because of superior military tactics. If you look at Mughal contributions you find only Taj Mahal or Shalimar Bagh in Lahore ! Whereas the British company gave India , irrigation , universities, a sound military system , a system of governance and social classes like feudal who made the system more stable.

Another point that Dalrymple totally misses is that the company saved the Indian Muslims from total political extinction . The Muslims were nobodies by 1800. Delhi was Mahratta ruled, Badshahi mosque of Lahore was a horse stable and a powder magazine! The Mahrattas and Sikhs totally dominated north India! But a knight in shining armor comes and saves the Indian Muslims. Lake saves Delhi Muslims ! Hugh Goughs saves Lahore and Peshawar Muslims ! But Dalrymple misses out all these things.

Dalrymples most serious failure is that greed and avarice is not a British company failing but a human failing and all Indian rulers were guilty of this .

 

Dalrymple fails to appreciate that Indians gladly fought against Indians under the company because the company paid salaries in time !

Dalyrmple fails to note that British company’s triumphs were triumphs of organization where Lieutenant Flint repeatedly defeated Tipu Sultan with a 100 % Indian force at Wandewash. Dalrymple fails to appreciate that India was conquered by an organizationally superior company using 80 % Indian manpower ! Why Indians followed them if they were so evil as Dalrymple believes or wants us to believe !

Today what we are seeing in Pakistan is far worst than what any British company could have done to this region. No one is safe in Pakistan, anyone who dares to speak the truth can be abducted by state security agencies. This scribe who retired as a major is getting less than 100 USD per month pension , which is good only for starvation and death.

But intellectually dishonest characters like Dalrymple can exaggerate and paint false pictures , just to sell his books ! And lastly Dalrymple fails to relate to what happened after the British left. Pakistan where I live is the most corrupt state in the world. Pakistan’s tax officials of the so called FBR are 1 billion times more corrupt than English East India Company could be in their wildest dreams. Parochialism is such that in todays Pakistan entire establishment consists of few districts and few castes of North Punjab and small parts of Sindh !

Characters like Dalrymple thrive on emotional manipulation which is why Dalrymple needs to be questioned and refuted !

Book Review: Grand Delusion; the Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Book Review

Steven Simon.  Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East (New York: Penguin Press), 2023.

“Grand Delusion” by Steven Simon provides a timely analysis of the dynamics that shaped American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era in the Middle East.

The major theme of “Grand Delusion” revolves around the notion that American policymakers suffered from a persistent delusion that military force alone can bring about sustainable change and security in the complex web of Middle Eastern conflicts.

In the last five decades, American involvement in the region revolved around many areas considered vital for American national security interests.  In the early phase, containment of Soviet Union was major area of concern.  The U.S. sought to prevent the spread of communism and Soviet influence in the region, leading to increased military and economic aid to countries perceived as strategically important allies, such as Turkey and Iran. Continue reading Book Review: Grand Delusion; the Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

Book Review: लोक माझे सांगाती

This was only the second Autobiography I have read and I enjoyed it a lot.
Naturally no one should expect any autobiography to be frank and thorough, much more so incase of the autobiography being of an active politician.

Mr Pawar’s vision for development which often doesn’t get discussed gets due credit in the book. His putting his ideological commitment over electoral gains in the “Namantar” controversy, speech on Women’s rights and the anger at the Dabhol-Enron project stood out of the book for me.
His lack of explanations for his miscalculations (like supporting Sonia Gandhi in 90s), corruption allegations sticks out like a sore thumb. His (now) wrong predictions post 2015 and somewhat myopic view on Hindu-Muslim problems could highlight the shortcomings of his brand of Progressivism.

To really understand an autobiography, one must always read between and beyond the lines. Mr Pawar has also been linked with outfits like like Sambhaji brigade, especially in the 21st century. But brigade and their notoriety do not find a single mention in his book. Nor does the eponymous
second Chattrapati (unless i am mistaken).

In the final passage, Mr Pawar mentions his close friendship with the radical Muslim rationalist – Hamid Dalwai. Incidentally, after the tragic and early death of Hamid Dalwai, it was Sharad Pawar who ensured Mr Dalwai’s final wishes of cremation were followed, against his family/communities wishes. Given this history, its highly ironic that the NCP has among its ranks some leaders who couldnt be further from Mr Dalwai in their speech and action.

In end the reader is forced to acknowledge both the genius and underachievement of a brilliant career which wouldn’t contain national premiership. (YET)

Soldier Sahibs-Review

I reviewed this book for the Pakistani magazine “Herald” 22 years ago. We had a podcast about the East India company yeseterday and it reminded me of this book, so I dug up my old review (posted unedited):

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’. Continue reading Soldier Sahibs-Review

Book Review: Ancient India, a Culture of Contradictions

Of the 4 books of Dr Upinder Singh i have read, this is arguably the weakest. Firstly it doesn’t add much to the discourse – its largely summary of her earlier works thematically – with slight re-interpretation. The book is divided along four themes – Social inequality (Caste), Love, Gender relations, Violence and Religious freedom/plurality.

If you have been reading and following Dr Singh’s work and have good recollections, the ever present politics of this book can be jarring. The author starts with the anecdote of suicide of Dalit activist Rohit Vemula before embarking on the historic analysis of “Caste”. jAti-varna Matrix of Ancient India needed more in depth analysis as done for Political violence (in author’s previous book on Political Violence in Ancient India). The essay covers all the bases, but fails to enrich an informed reader – while making some unsubstantiated arguments.
eg: Caste in Sangam Era (or lack thereof). While the argument made holds for Vaidika concept of “Varna” it doesnt hold for Caste – a hybrid of jAti-Varna.

I felt the author played it very safe ending with “remains imperfectly understood”. Isn’t jAti-Varna system also an “old kin based” system ? Doesn’t it seem more natural to speculate that existing old kin based system merged with Vaidika abstraction of Varna ? Maybe – maybe not but the author doesn’t try to speculate.

The “desire and detachment” essay was refreshing, something i would definitely go back to. The next section “Goddesses and misogyny” covers the religious developments well enough but leaves the Economic(“Marxist?”) reasons for patriarchy out of the analysis. The role of economics in the patriarchal setup of agrarian and pre-industrialised societies doesn’t get more than a brief mention.

The next section, “Violence and Non-Violence” was a summary of her earlier book – good enough, but i would suggest interested parties to read that book – as it goes into the texts while making grand narratives and arguments. As a result the arguments in the previous book stick, this doesn’t (though its the same argument). Also some inconsistencies I had not noticed in earlier book came to my notice this time around. While comparing Ashok’s ideological espousal of Non-violence to Kautilya’s pragmatic approach (one may differ in the labels), the author doesnt fully challenge the above assumption even though it comes up in the text. Following is Kautilya’s recommendations for looking after animals.

How is looking after incapacitated horses pragmatic?

If one re-reads the subtext, ideology (empathy?) comes up again and again in Kautilya, whereas pragmatism and realpolitik in Ashok – the point the author notices in Ashok but not in Kautiya.

The last section was also enjoyable, if one manages to ignore the often jarring political undertone. The author lets slip a line

“These days, one dare not crack jokes about religion.”

Firstly, we cannot compare what we can glean of an ancient society from reconstruction to the documented 21st century realities. While trying to avoid the romantic reconstruction (or for contemporary politics), the author seems to have gone into the same. Yet I enjoyed the information I got from the last section, especially the Kshemendra’s satires from ancient Kashmir.

I would recommend the books for those who are really interested in Ancient India, but I would also recommend dozens of other books before this – especially the ones I havent read. Jarring and without original insights (unlike her previous works) I would still rate this book 3/5 for its readability and denseness.

What I had admired about Dr Singh’s work till now was her unwillingness to let politics and ideology rear its ugly head in her work – unlike other authors on ancient India (Including new emerging scholarship from the Hindu side). Though what saves the book is the author’s unwillingness to make “leaps of faith” – which become foundation for next scholarship – common in Ancient Indian History.

 

 

Review: The Map and the Scissors by Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar, a Gujrati from Ohio (he is the poet laureate of Ohio and if you have not read his poetry, do look it up, he is good) already wrote one novel about partition (called, appropriately enough, partition) but as he says in the epilogue, his views continue to evolve and another book was needed. And what a book it is; a riveting page-turner that tells the story of partition through the parallel lives of Jinnah and Gandhi, all wrapped up in very tight and carefully thought out writing, with quotes from Plutarch, the Gita and other works used as needed.

Amit has done his research and the novel is rich in historic detail and apt anecdotes. Some dialog has obviously been imagined, but wherever possible the words they speak are the words various histories and memoirs have already recorded. What emerges is a very striking portrait of two very different Gujratis who, for better AND for worse, determined the fate of British India and of the largest population group in the world (Indians in united India would exceed the population of China by hundreds of millions). Jinnah is the hugely talented and ambitious anglicized lawyer who became the most successful barrister in India before entering politics. An upper crust “brown Englishman”, he has great success politicking within the new Indian elite, but is sidelined by the rise of Gandhi and his popular politics (deftly captured in a scene where the newly arrived Gandhi is invited to a meeting of the Gujrati association which Jinnah chairs; after Jinnah has finished his perfectly modulated English speech, Gandhi opts to speak in Gujrati and the crowd goes wild. A taste of things to come.

Jinnah gradually sours on the idea of united India and is reborn as the messenger of Muslim separatism and the father of Pakistan. Gandhi has a slower start as a lawyer, but in South Africa he has found a new vocation: mahatma or great soul. Unlike Jinnah, he has world historical and prophet-level ambitions, and his impact is huge, yet he also fails at the most important task he set himself (winning independence for a united and spiritually elevated India), while Jinnah gets his moth-eaten Pakistan, but then he also gets to say “My God, what have I done?” when he sees the carnage unleashed by his campaign. Gandhi heads towards his meeting with Godse, while Jinnah’s tuberculosis finally finishes him while he lies in a hot ambulance that has broken down on the main road in Karachi. Amit is a poet and he brings a poetic touch to these events; the description may be brief, but it covers a LOT of ground.

The book also does a fine job of bringing Fatima Jinnah out of the shadows. She is the “white wolf” by Jinnah’s side, Pakistan’s virgin mother. There are many excellent books about partition, but almost none pay enough attention to Fati. Amit rectifies that error. Short but telling descriptions introduce all the other main characters of this tragedy, from Nehru and Patel to Liaqat and Suharwardy and Mountbatten and Edwina. And while it is not a very thick book, it manages to fit in almost every important event that happened along the way. Jallianwala bagh, the salt march, the Pakistan resolution, Direct Action, partition riots, it is all there, and while the coverage is not very detailed, a lot of thought has been put into every vignette, so they convey a lot more than you might expect at first glance. Unfortunately this tight pacing and compact descriptions also mean that the reader is expected to have a general idea of what went on and some of the clever literary maneuvers are best appreciated when you already know something about the events in question. Still, even those without prior knowledge will get most of it, while knowing more already will help you appreciate it more. Well worth a read.

Dream part 1

Dream 2
Nehru, Patel, Gandhi

Book Review: India, Bharat and Pakistan – a Not so Gentle Reminder

Lawyer and author J Sai Deepak is back with the book of his India that is Bharat Quadrology. I had reviewed his first book India that is Bharat almost a year back – you can find my review here.

The Summary: 

J Sai Deepak’s second book dissects the time from the fall of the Mughal empire to the Khilafat movement relying heavily on the tools developed in the first book and a vast number of primary sources. The author also investigates the trail of the Islamic doctrine consolidated during the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri (compiled on orders of Aurangzeb) back to the 13th century Islamic scholar Taymiyyah and Syed Ahmad Sirhindi (a contemporary of Mughal Emperor Akbar).

The two figures covered in detail among the post Mughal Ulema are Shah Wahiullah Dehlawi and Syed Ahmad Baraelvi – the two giants who have shaped the Islamic revivalism in the 18th century. The establishment of Wahhabi power center in Northwest of Punjab, establishment of the various schools of Islam in North India – Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Ali-garh and the British crackdown of Wahhabism are all discussed in sufficient detail before jumping off to Syed Ahmad Khan and the modern genesis of the two-nation theory. The author then covers all the important events from the Partition of Bengal to the Khilafat movement – relying heavily on primary sources. The book ends with a summary of the Khilafat riots – especially the Mopla massacre.

My 2 Annas:

It took me 3 weeks to complete the first section of the book. I completed the rest of the book in 2 days. I think this statement itself is a review in a nutshell. If I had to give a one phrase review for book 1 it would be “Overstated yet immensely Consequential“, if I have to do the same for book 2 it would be “About time or Oh My Gods“. This is not to say I don’t have disagreements with the book – especially some of author’s conclusions, but the overwhelming thrust of the book is something I strongly agree with.

Firstly, the book busts all the popular notions of two-nation theory and it being solely a creation of the British. The author effectively traces the modern origins of the two-nation theory to Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh movement at the very least. The book also covers some of the lesser-known events from the 19th century – the Wahhabi movement and the conflict in the Northwestern frontier province. The book makes it abundantly clear that Islamic revivalism was less a reaction to Colonialism and more a reaction to Hindu and Sikh resurgence. The fact that both the British and Muslims saw each other as closer religiously and hence more acceptable/worthy instead of the “Hindu” is driven through via a vast number of primary sources. 

The common trope among the secular (even Hindutva discourse) about the Syncretic nature of Sufis is addressed (though I felt the author didn’t fully go into this question).

Location 528

Pan-Islamism and its proponents – especially Al-Afghani are also covered in the book.

Secondly, the book also goes into origins and progress of “Moderate Nationalism” under Indian National Congress right up to the ascendency of the “Mahatma”. I had expected the author to be slightly unfair to the Indian National congress and especially the role of Gandhiji but to my surprise he hasn’t. Though some conclusions may seem a tad unfair at times but because the author relies heavily on primary references the “judgement” is moderated. Most importantly the support of Khilafat which is put firmly on the shoulders of Gandhiji in Hindutva circles, is clearly shown to be a mainstream view of Indian National Congress years before ascendency of Gandhiji, absolving Gandhiji of some of the blame.

The inability of the “Indian nationalism led by Hindus” in dealing the Islamic exceptionalism both before and during the period of “Hindu-Muslim” harmony is on display in the book. The author compares “Coloniality” of the Hindus to the “Rootedness” and “Intransigence” of Muslims for these defeats. Whereas there can be no doubt that Muslim “Intransigence” was important, I find the blame laid on “Coloniality” not watertight.

Take example of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kemal Pasha “Attaturk”. Both were modernizers who tried to jettison the past of their respective countries. What separated them both wasn’t any rootedness or lack of deracination – but a personal attribute, namely political ruthlessness, incidentally something Mohammad Ali Jinnah shared. Kemal Pasha not only broke the tradition of the Khalifa but also forced the Roman alphabet overnight on the Turks. Similarly, in India the two heads who had the most clear-eyed vision of the thread of Islamic exceptionalism were Dr Ambedkar and Veer Savarkar (both “Modernists”). I would instead put the blame on Hindu naivete which is an unfortunate byproduct of Hindu Pluralism – we simply never understood the other. Most of our ReConquistadors (with notable exceptions) did not pursue Reconversions.

Another thing I found mildly irritating in the book (continued from book one) – is the use of the term Middle eastern coloniality/consciousness. Ironically the term “Middle Eastern” itself reeks of its Western Colonial origins. I would have used the term Islamic or Arabic instead, but this is sematic disagreement which doesn’t matter much.

a Not so Gentle Reminder:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results“.

The disagreements with the author’s conclusions notwithstanding, the book is a not so Gentle Reminder for the India that is Bharat. In retrospect, the compromises Bharatiya nationalism offered, from accepting disproportionate Muslim representation to supporting the fanatical Khilafat movement, may have worked against the Indian civilization itself. While it may be unfair to excessively blame the Bharatiya leaders from the past, it’s imperative to call out those who are flirting with the same approach in the 21st century (incidentally my position a few years ago). Essentially the Hindu leadership made a Faustian bargain and sold their brains. Though Swatyantraveer Savarkar is almost absent from the book, he cast a long shadow in my mind while I read the book.

Another popular trope I felt the author could have busted was the trope that Islamic intransigence in India is largely the legacy of “it having been spread by the sword”. The Mopla carnage was undertaken by descendants of Arab traders who came without any major conflict. Maybe violent intransigence and exclusivity is a feature not a bug.

The book becomes unputdownable after the Lucknow Pact, as the Hindu-Muslim unity discussed here which didn’t even last a decade remains as relevant today as ever. The riots covered in the end of the book – especially the Mopla carnage is almost unbearable to read reminding the reader of Kashmir. The letter by Annie Beasant to Gandhiji stands out. The book also brings into focus some of the lesser-known riots like Kohat. Incidentally the trigger for the Kohat ethnic cleansing was blasphemy, a topic which continues to remain as relevant as ever.

As I write this review a century after Mopla Riots, raids are conducted on Popular Front of India members while the PFI supporters can call for Hartals with partial success in Malabar coast. If the first book was a red pill in a blue jacket (Akshay Alladi (@akshayalladi) / Twitter), this is a केसरी (Saffron) pill in a green jacket.

I have skipped over many topics from the book in this review for brevity, but I would urge the reader of this post to buy and read this book in its entirety and engage with the uncomfortable facts it lays down infront of us.

The book ends with the following quote

Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The above line becomes even more relevant especially give the way history is taught in India. I would end this review with a quote (in one of its many forms) most people reading this review would recognize.

अश्वत्थामा हतः इति, नरो वा कुंजरोवा !

Hero and other stories; The short stories of Nadir Ali

As many of our readers know by now, I am Nadir Ali’s son, so this is not an unbiased post 🙂

Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a well-respected Punjabi poet and fiction writer. Hero and Other Stories is a collection of selected short stories translated from the Punjabi. It was published in 2022 by Weavers Press. The originals are in Punjabi and translation always loses a lot of what was in the original, but people who cannot read or understand Punjabi will still find them interesting. His stories are snapshots of a vanished or vanishing Punjab, but also an attempt to keep it alive. They are usually inspired by real characters that he had met or real events that he had witnessed, so in that sense they are also deeply personal. His politics were mostly left wing but these politics are rarely explicit in his stories; A lingering suspicion that modern life, whether Right wing or Left wing, is fundamentally anti-human, is a more prominent theme, but even that takes second place to accurate portrayal of the life and times his characters. Whatever the topic, the characters are always realistic and their culture is portrayed as it was, not how a political or ideological preference would like it to be. These are the lives of peasants, landlords, lovers, dacoits, wrestlers, murderers and heroes. All except one have been translated by Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh (I translated one). The Punjabi language is itself a character in his stories, so translation can never do them full justice, but the husband and wife team has done an admirable job and manage to convey much even in translation. But anyone who can read Punjabi should check out the originals. I hope someday we can also produce audio versions in the original punjabi, as many in Pakistani Punjab cannot read Punjabi with any fluency.  I am posting excerpts from Moazzam Sheikh’s introduction to the book as well as one story. This particular story is fiction, but it is inspired by a real character, the saint of the crows (pir Kaawan aala), who lived (stark naked) in Gujrat in my grandfather’s time and whose shrine still exists there.

To buy the book (and of course, i hope some of you DO buy it) buy from Weaver’s press at this link. This is better for the small press, but if you want to buy from Amazon, click here. 

Excerpt from Moazzam Sheikh’s Introduction to Hero and Other Stories

     It’s widely agreed that all creative work is a result of the creator’s unconscious mind – what and when the unconscious mind unlocks, no one fully understands – Continue reading Hero and other stories; The short stories of Nadir Ali

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) ?”

Brown Pundits