[So I have returned to BP and will be posting here occasionally (though my personal blog is going to be my focus). Let’s just let the drama of the past week go.
I am cross-posting a book review I did of Alice Albinia’s novel “Leela’s Book”– a modern reworking of The Mahabharata. This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in April 2012. ]
According to Hindu mythology, TheMahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes. Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind. The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn. She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear. Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom. These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book (originally published in January 2012). The story revolves around Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, an eminent professor of Sanskrit and his relationships with two sisters, Meera and Leela. Twenty-two years before the novel begins, Vyasa had seduced Meera, who died after bearing him a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. After falling out with her sister regarding her relationship with Vyasa, Leela had gone into exile in New York, making a vow never to return to India. Now, two decades later, Leela is forced to return because her husband’s niece is marrying Vyasa’s son. Although the family thinks that they have arranged the wedding for their own selfish purposes, events are really being directed by Lord Ganesha, who is trying to save Leela, his beloved heroine, from Vyasa.
Many sections of Albinia’s novel are actually narrated by Ganesh. The god wants to correct the belief that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata. As he tells the reader, “I freely admit that my sworn enemy is Vyasa, pedestrian composer of India’s too-long epic, a poem called the Mahabharata, every word of which I wrote” (Albinia 26). Ganesh also wants to reveal Vyasa’s true character. He says:
Now, in the Mahabharata, Vyasa portrays himself as a holy sage, with matted hair and an otherworldly air, an expert teacher, the counsellor of kings, the wise old grandfather of his characters. He builds up a fabulous portrait: comforting yet aloof, clever yet alluring. I have only one problem with this benign vision: it is totally untrue. In these pages of mine, I will correct the misapprehension under which mortals have languished for so long. I will show how Vyasa disrespected ladies, failed to dissuade his descendants from mutual carnage, gave students of literature headaches with his prose (29).
Ganesh also confesses that he added his own original characters into Vyasa’s story. Two of these were Leela and Meera. Ganesh tells the reader: “Without mentioning a word of it to anyone, I simply dropped [Leela] into Vyasa’s tale, at one of the few places in the epic where a character didn’t have a name – Vyasa’s own bed, as it happened – as the amorous slave-girl he impregnated by mistake (after his late brother’s widows had had enough of him)” (31). Leela and Meera have been together through eight avatars, and the present story (their ninth avatar) is Ganesh’s last chance to get things right and save Leela from Vyasa. Continue reading “Leela’s Book: A Review”
I was recently asked by AnAn to write a detailed post about Mr. Hussain Haqqani (henceforth HH) and his three books that I’ve read. I find it difficult to write about someone who is still active in his field of work and someone who arouses so much anger and partisanship among the commentariat in Pakistan. I decided to write about things that I know definitively, publicly available information about him and testimonies from two reliable witnesses about HH and then briefly discuss the three books (Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Magnificient Delusions and India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we just be friends) that I’ve read (I just started reading his fourth one, ‘Reimagining Pakistan’). It is hard to label HH as a turncoat or opportunist because most major politicians in Pakistan changed course in their political life starting with Zulfiqar Bhutto, followed by Mian Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto(BB) and Imran Khan. People and their ideas evolve or else, they are ossified and become part of history while they are alive (Exhibit A: Most of the left-wing politicians of Pakistan).
HH comes from a Muhajir family based in Karachi and went to Karachi University where he was an active member of Islami-Jamiat-Tulaba (IJT), the student-wing of right-wing, religio-political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). He claimed in Magnificient Delusions that he stopped students from burning down the American Consulate in Karachi in 1979 when Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by ultra-Wahabi rebels and the conspiracy theorists put the blame on the US initially (the Embassy in Islamabad was burnt down by a mob of students). His claim has been debunked by several members of IJT at the time. He worked as a journalist for a few years after graduation. In the late 1980s, he was a media-consultant for Nawaz Sharif, the center-right politician from Punjab who rose to prominence as Punjab’s finance minister under General Jilani’s governorship (1980-85) and later served as the Chief Minister of Punjab (1985-90). Nawaz Sharif was part of an Islamist alliance, Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) which opposed Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the 1988 elections. It is beyond doubt that the character of Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto was mercilessly attacked during the election campaign. Helicopters were used to throw fliers over major cities in Punjab with explicit photos of the Bhutto ladies to malign their reputations. According to witness number 1, he saw HH in New York during that campaign where HH was offering nudes of Benazir Bhutto to anyone who was interested to see them. IJI still couldn’t win the federal election and ended up winning in Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif assumed the Chief Minister-ship.
Due to Palace intrigues and constant bickering between Punjab and the Federal Government and unrest in Sindh, BB’s government was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the President, after twenty months. In the ensuing elections, IJI succeeded in winning the election (there was massive rigging taken place on orders of the Presidency and funds were distributed to various IJI politicians, details of which can be found by googling ‘Mehran Bank Scandal’). HH served as Sharif’s spokesman till 1992 until he was sent to Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s ambassador. In 1993, the Sharif Government was dismissed by President Khan (with prodding and backroom deals by BB and Co). HH flew back from Sri Lanka and became a spokesman for the BB government that followed (1993-1996).
In 1996, the second BB government was dismissed by President Laghari and Nawaz Sharif’s party started ruling again. It was toppled during October 1999 and General Musharraf became the ‘Chief Executive’ of Pakistan. According to witness number 2, he saw HH begging Musharraf (or one of his generals) for the Information Ministry. The request was denied and HH spent a few years running a consultancy. In 2002, he arrived in Washington DC, as a guest of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2004, he joined Boston University as an Associate Professor of International Relations. He also headed a project by Hudson Institute on Islam and Democracy. Post-9/11 was a time in which the issue of Islam and Democracy was selling quite well in the ‘West’.
In January 2005, ‘Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military’ was published. It is a very good book detailing the history of Pakistan and the Mullah-Military Nexus that rules Pakistan today. The book was written with the help of Carnegie Endowment and the audience in mind was definitely American (with emphasis on post 9/11 understanding of Pakistan). It touches on all the relevant bases (quoting Ayesha Jalal, Khalid bin Sayeed, Margret Bourke-White, Stephen Cohen, Lawrence Ziring), the way Islam was used by Muslim League (and in certain instances, Jinnah himself) during the ‘Pakistan Movement’, the paranoia induced by newspapers and politicians about threats to Pakistan’s existence, the trifecta of Pakistan Ideology (Islam, Urdu, hostility towards India), suppression of dissent by ethnic groups using the tools of the Ideology (branding anti-state elements as anti-Islam is favored strategy even today), the way history was shaped from an anti-British perspective to an anti-Hindu perspective (since we got Independence from the British, not the Hindus), the first Kashmir War, the first Martial Law, attempts at a revisionist historiography, the disaster that was the 1965 war with India and so on. The book reveals very little new information (if you have read the liberal-secular version of Pakistan’s history) but is a very good collection of various liberal-secular and diplomatic sources and serves as a good primer on Pakistan’s political history. I’ve always maintained that HH’s writing is often much better than his politics or his past.
It is often said that Pakistan’s political landscape is dominated by 3 A’s (Allah, Army, and America). The discussion on US-Pakistan relations in the first book forms the basis of his second book, Magnificent Delusions. Four years ago, I wrote a couple of articles, titled ‘Good Ally, Bad Enemy?’ reviewing US-Pakistan relations with excerpts from HH’s second book alongside the works of Carlotta Gall, Gary Bass and Daniel Markey (1. here 2. here). I’ll mention some quotes from HH’s book that I used in those articles.
“Anti-western propaganda was often unleashed precisely so Pakistani officials could argue that the United States had to support Pakistan against India, so as to preserve its alliance with them. Few Pakistanis knew how much their country and its armed forces had become dependent on US assistance.”
‘James L. Langley, American Ambassador to Pakistan (1957-59) wrote, “Pakistan’s forces are unnecessarily large for dealing with any Afghan threat over Pashtunistan. Pakistan would be of little use to us should perchance worse come to worst and India go communist… One of the most disturbing attitudes I have encountered in the highest political places here is that the United States must keep up and increase its aid to Pakistan, and conversely, that Pakistan is doing the United States a favor in accepting aid, in addition to the Pakistani pro-Western posture in the Baghdad Pact and SEATO and the United Nations, when actually these postures are in part dictated by Pakistani hatred for India.”
“India’s Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, ‘tried to persuade [Henry] Kissinger to recognize the need for more robust US involvement. She said that Pakistan has felt all these years that it will get support from the United States no matter what it does, and this has encouraged an “adventurous policy.” India is not remotely desirous of territory, and to have the Pakistanis base the whole survival of their country on hostility to India was irritating.”
“When Zia was approached by an American diplomat who conveyed the anxiety on America’s part regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, Zia said: ‘I am an honorable man. We are an honorable people. I ask you to tell your President that I give him my word of honor as President of Pakistan and as a soldier, that I am not and will not develop a nuclear device or weapon.'”
In his third book, HH focussed on certain aspects of the thorny India-Pakistan relationship: History, Kashmir, Nuclear Bombs, and Terrorism. The book is peppered with anecdotes and is a useful read as a primer on the relationship and the difficulties therin. One gets the impression after reading the book that if it were left to the civilians, the two countries would have patched out most conflicts, however, Pakistan’s military and India’s diplomatic bureacracy took maximalist positions to thwart that ambition time and time again.
Why is HH so controversial in Pakistan now?
He was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US by the PPP-led government (2008-13). It was a turbulent time for Pakistan because barbarians were literally at the gates (Taliban in Swat and Al-Qaeda+TTP in Waziristan). HH has certain views about Pakistan that are not palatable for the military establishment/Deep State. Those views include his insistence on civilian supremacy in the country, deceptive attitudes towards the United States and over-reliance on religion in political discourse. In addition, HH was trying to be a conduit between Pakistan’s civilian government and the United States during his time as the Ambassador (as opposed to a majority of Pakistani Ambassadors to the US who are appointed only after a firm nod from the GHQ) and that irked the establishment even further. It was during his tenure that Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbotabad (May, 2011). HH, in an op-ed published last year in Washington Post (read here), took credit for helping the Obama administration in that endeavor (which, in light of Trump’s recent ascension to power, seemed an opportunistic move). Soon after the raid, a conspiracy theory was hatched by the Military Establishment in Pakistan implicating HH. It was alleged that HH had sent Admiral Mike Mullen a memo (on President Asif Zardari’s advice) through a shady in-between named Mansoor Ijaz asking for help from the US in case our generals tried to topple the government in the wake of the OBL raid. The case dragged on in the court and later, a judicial commission but the charge was not proven. HH had to resign as the Ambassador. He has since been at Hudson Institute. In recent years, he has started, with the help of another Pakistani-American, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, SAATH forum (South Asians Against Terrorism and Hatred) that gathers progressive voices in London every October to talk about the future of Pakistan. (Full disclosure: I have been invited to the last two versions of this forum but the first one i couldn’t attend because of visa refusal and the second because I was doing an internship in Houston at the time). I personally agree with most of his views regarding Pakistan but I think his name has been tarnished so much by the Deep State that it is hard to advocate for his name/ideas/books in Pakistan. I believe that he is worth-reading and worth-engaging. If only the military establishment could fight ideas with ideas instead of slander and mis-information.
P.S I have highlighted two events mentioned in the article that were based on stories shared with me by two people I have known for a while. HH presented his own version of events in two tweets last night (05/22/19). Here’s what he tweeted:
The piece contains some ‘I saw X do Y’ without cross-chekcing and is not accurate because of that. (https://twitter.com/husainhaqqani/status/1131390153400958977)
For example, witness no 1 claims he met in NY during 1988 election campaign. Browsing through my passports (all preserved since 1974) would reveal that I was never in US during that period. people lie for all sorts of reasons. That’s why corss-checking is so important. (https://twitter.com/husainhaqqani/status/1131391145546801159)
Witness 2’s claims suggest that he was present in meetings between Musharraf and I or between one of Musharraf’s minitsers and I. Again, should have been easy to verify veracity or lack thereof with a little effort. (https://twitter.com/husainhaqqani/status/1131395539835207680)
Russel Spurr was a British-Australian journalist who spent most of his life reporting from East Asia (20 years in Hong Kong), during which time he made many trips to China and Taiwan and interviewed multiple veterans of the Chinese intervention in Korea to write what was probably the first book covering the Korean war from the Chinese perspective (published in 1988). The book (Enter the Dragon. China’s undeclared war against the US in Korea 1950-51) provides a great introduction to the “other side” of the Korean conflict. Writing in journalistic style, he freely recreates conversations and scenes that obviously rely on accounts of survivors as well as his own imagination, but that does not mean he has not done his research. He knows his history and the bare facts are always accurate. And whatever the book lacks in typical military history details, it more than makes up in the form of vivid anecdotes that really bring the war to life. Continue reading “Review: Enter the Dragon. China’s undeclared war against the US in Korea”
It has been 70 years since the Partition of India. The separation was an ugly affair, with both sides holding grievances against each other. After living side by side for more than a thousand years, Hindus and Muslims were declared separate nations by the All India Muslim League which used religion as the primary reason to demand a separate state. When Pakistan came into being, Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to be inclusive in his August 11th speech at the Constituent Assembly. But his was a lone voice in a chamber full of proto-Islamists. Debates over the Objectives Resolution brought this issue to the fore when all the non-Muslim members of the Assembly voted against it. The Islamic identity that was chosen by the ruling elite, was propped up in opposition to secular India. Pakistan’s attitude towards India has steered its foreign policy and at times, domestic policy, throughout the last seven decades.
Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani has had a ringside seat to developments in this arena since the late 1980s. His latest book, India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just Be Friends, tries to capture this unique relationship by focussing on four key areas: History, Kashmir conflict, Nuclear Bombs, and Terrorism. His analysis is peppered with interesting anecdotes that shed a new light on how politicians from the two countries have interacted over the years. It is also a concise history of different efforts by both countries and the International community (United Nations, the United States, and China) to reach a settlement on bilateral issues, especially the Kashmir dispute. Another book that sheds light on recent milestones in India-Pakistan relationship is Myra Macdonald’s ‘Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War’. Based on her reporting experience in South Asia for more than a decade, MacDonald has penned a magisterial account of events that underpin the current relationship between the two countries.
On Kashmir, Ambassador Haqqani mentions the 1962-63 Indo-Pak talks when India was willing to give up 1500 square kilometres of territory but then Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stuck to a maximalist position, rejecting the offer out of hand. Both sides have stuck to their guns since then and neither side is willing to consider a middle-of-the-road compromise anymore. Pakistan has tried using non-state actors and direct intervention, worsening its own case. India neglected the Kashmiris — despite Kashmir’s state assembly ratifying the accession of state to India in the 1950s — and tried manipulating election results in 1987, resulting in a full-scale insurgency that was later supported by Pakistan. After 9/11 attacks, when the insurgency in Kashmir died off, India failed to sell its multicultural and liberal democratic dream to the Kashmiris. In a recent interview with Indian Express, former chief of India’s Research & Analysis wing (RAW) A.S. Dulat spoke about the failure of Indian government to try rapprochement with Kashmiri leadership, resulting in the current unrest in the Valley.
I have heard similar anecdotes first-hand from people who had a chance to interact with military top-brass in Pakistan. Pakistan remains the only state among the nuclear-capable countries to publicly say that its nukes exist as a defence against another country (India) but it has not yet stated a ‘No First Use’ policy. Nuclear weapons have thus become an integral part of Pakistani nationalism and identity, according to analyst Feroz Hassan Khan. India started its nuclear programme ostensibly to obtain nuclear energy but changed course after the 1962 Indo-China war. Macdonald has mentioned at least three instances when India was ready to display its nuclear capability (before 1998) but was restrained by International pressure. The spectre of a nuclear war hangs over India and Pakistan and remains the biggest threat to humanity in this region. Unlike Nuclear scientists elsewhere in the world, many of Pakistan’s scientists have gone ‘rogue’ in recent years. These include the megalomaniac Dr AQ Khan indulging in a global nuke trade and others who are known to have visited Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The year 2016 saw three different events that will define the broader contours of Indo-Pak relations in the 21st century. On Christmas day in 2015, also the birthday of Pakistan’s current prime minister, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made an unexpected visit to Lahore, raising hopes for improvement in relations and opening of a dialogue. Exactly a week after that, terrorists attacked India’s Pathankot airbase. Investigations by Indian authorities revealed a Pakistani connection and Pakistan’s government publicly agreed to cooperate with the investigation. In March 2016, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser called his Indian counterpart and alerted him about a possible attack during the Shivartari celebrations in Gujarat. As a result, security was beefed up and nothing untoward took place. In April of the same year, Pakistan arrested a suspected Indian spy from Balochistan. The arrest was presented as evidence of Indian meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs and ended any hope of a dialogue with India.
In the last few years, India has started treading the path that Pakistan has taken since the beginning: a path of intolerance, jingoistic nationalism and a visceral hatred for secular values. Pakistan’s political class has lately been trying to change course but the immovable force known as the ‘establishment’ stands in the way. Without improvement of relations between the two countries, the future of South Asia is bleak.
I have not so much read the book as scanned it. For most of the book he builds a case for his basic claim that life, for most people, has improved to an amazing extent in the last 200 years and we can thank science, reason and humanism for all this progress. I assume he has to provide so much data because he knows this is an unfashionable opinion within the postmodern liberal intellectual elite and this bothers him. By listing all these facts and showing us all these graphs, he thinks he can convince even his most skeptical critics that progress is real, and that it is much more widely distributed than most people imagine. Is there something missing from his account of progress? I think there definitely is. I do not disagree with his claim that progress is real. Hunger, disease, violent death, these are not trivial concerns. The tremendous progress in these areas is real, and it is meaningful. Intellectuals who criticize Pinker by pointing to persistent or new forms of ill health, physical suffering or violence should take a break and actually read the book, they will find that he has the data and it is not bad data. Either argue about his data with better data of your own, or argue on some OTHER grounds. On THESE grounds, he is solid. Continue reading “Review: Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.”
Posted on by Omar Ali - Comments Off on Review: The Storm Before the Storm
A relatively short (265 pages), fast paced and lively account of the Roman Republic from 146 BC (the fall of Carthage and Corinth) to 78 BC (the death of Sulla), covering the period in which the Republic saw major social upheaval, conflict and civil war and in which many of the constitutional checks and balances of the Republic fell by the wayside, setting the stage for the final overthrow of the Republic by Julius Ceasar and his grand nephew, Augustus Ceasar. Mike Duncan is known for his Roman history podcasts and in this book he makes the case that the decline of the mos maiorum (the “mores”) of the Roman Republic in this period of crisis was the crucial factor that led to the final fall a few decades later. WHY the mos maiorum fell apart is a big question, and it is not really answered in this book (a book that really tries to answer that question would probably be much denser and longer than this book) , but is beautifully described, and that is enough to earn 4 stars.
This period of Roman history and its main characters are not as prominent in popular memory as the final crisis of the Republic. Almost every educated person has heard of Julius Ceasar, the ides of March, Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustus, but relatively few people are familiar with characters such as the Gracchus brothers, Gaius Marius and Sulla, which is a tragedy, because their stories are as fascinating (if not more fascinating) than anything that happened in the final crisis of the Republic. if you are not a Roman history nerd and are not already familiar with these compelling characters, then this is a great introduction to the era and its most famous personalities. Colleen McCollough’s historical fiction (the “Masters of Rome” series) is far more detailed and richer in texture because in historical fiction she can fill in details where the historical record is silent (she is very careful to stay faithful to the historical record as far as it is known), but if you just want the story that is in the history books, this is a great place to start. Its all in here, the increasing immiseration of the peasant proprietors who were the base of the ancient Republic; the corruption that came with increasing wealth; the fight to extend citizenship to all Italians; the rise (and violent fall) of the Gracchi, aristocrats who championed the cause of the downtrodden; the incredible (and incredibly long) career of Gaius Marius, the “new man” (novus homo) who rose from outsider to outstanding general, savior of Rome and 7 time consul but just could not bear to retire; and last but not the least, the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, impoverished aristocrat, brilliant general, harsh conqueror and even harsher dictator, who tried to reform and re-animate the ancient Republic and actually managed to retire at the height of his power, but whose reforms failed to prevent (and whose personal example probably aggravated) the final crisis of the Republic. As you read, you cannot help wondering why 20 famous movies and TV serials have not been made about these people. Marius’s escape from Rome alone is worth at least one great movie, with more hair-raising chases, captures, escapes, betrayals and last minute twists of fortune than any fictitious adventure movie could possibly squeeze into one character’s life. Overall, a great read, well worth a look.
Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.
The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site: (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/index.htm)
In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods. In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review. Continue reading “Book Review: The RigVeda”
This was a long rolling rant I wrote 5 years ago while reading Pankaj Mishra’s book “From The Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia“. The format is that I commented as I read the book. So early parts are comments on early chapters and so on. Quotes from Pankaj are in bolded italics. I am reposting today after editing it a little because the topic came up once again.
Spoiler Alert. since the “review” is really a very long rolling rant, written as I read the book, some people may just want to know this one fact: this books is NOT about the intellectuals who remade Asia. That book would have to start with people like Aizawa in Japan, the first Asian nation to be “remade”, but that is one nation and one set of thinkers you will not find in this book. Why? because this book is not about Asia, its history or its renaissance, it is about post-liberal virtue signaling. For details, read on..
Introduction: After being told that everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Pakistani Ambassador (and liberal feminist Jinnahist icon) Sherry Rahman is in love with Pankaj Mishra’s new book I have finally started reading it. I have only read 50 pages so far but it is beginning to set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one. I am not impressed. At all. So Far.
On page 18 he says:the word Islam, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and practices, was not used before the 19th century. WTF?
This is then negated on the very next page by Mishra himself. The only explanation for this little nugget is that Pankaj knows his audience and will miss no opportunity to slide in some politically correct red meat for his audience. There is a vague sense “out there” in liberal academia that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic and even that the label itself may be “Islamophobic”. Pankaj wants to let people know that he has no such incorrect beliefs. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot. Continue reading “Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”
“On China” is a curious mixture of history, geopolitical analysis and self-serving memoir (concentrating mostly on the last two elements). Kissinger reviews some of the highlights of Chinese history; ancient and medieval China is covered quickly and superficially and the material is pretty much standard issue, but the level of detail increases after greatly from the opium war onwards and the book becomes much more interesting at that point. Kissinger makes the case that the Qing bureaucrats, in dire straits thanks to internal revolts, financial crisis and administrative decay, were not completely clueless or apathetic. Faced with determined, ruthless and far more technologically advanced European powers who had already overcome or overawed other great non-Western empires, Qing diplomats did their best to play European powers against one another and try to use (very limited) breathing space to try some fitful reforms, but the court was too far gone and the situation could not be salvaged, which led to 100 years of defeat, disorder, revolutions, famines and other disasters. Continue reading “Review: On China”
This is a frustrating, though still useful, book. Historian Peter Frankopan’s title claims this is “a new history of the world”. He then proposes that what the world needs is to reorient its focus from Europe to “the silk roads”, vaguely defined by him as “the region between East and West.. from the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas”. This almost certainly reflects the fact that the core of this region happens to his particular area of interest (Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and Russia) as a historian. Having made this decision, he has to force the rest of the story to keep coming back to this region, to somehow keep his argument afloat. My recurring thought on reading this book was that all this is unnecessary. He could have written a history of the region without pretending that this was the REAL history of the world, and it would have worked fine. Or he could have attempted a history of the world and not bothered with this tendentious framing. But he insists on doing both, and it causes endless (and needless) irritation. Continue reading “Book Review: The Silk Roads”