“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South.jpg

Two of my all-time favorite books are Victorian classics — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – and I have been so starved of books in this genre that discovering North and South was like coming across a gem I never even knew existed. I stumbled upon its 2004 BBC adaptation — in the form of a four-part miniseries — on Netflix last week, remembered the recent write-up of the book by Nathalie Dorado-Fields, and started watching it – and couldn’t stop. It made me then get the book which I first obsessively read cover to cover, and then went right back and re-read it. It was simply that good.

As with most Victorian classics, North and South is, at its heart, a love story, and as with most books like it, the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine is sustained throughout the book, literally right down to the last page. The heroine here is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman who is forced to move with her family from the idyllic pastoral community in the south of England to the gritty industrial and manufacturing community in the north. The hero is a mill-owner in her new surroundings, John Thornton, who is taken with her right away, but whom she finds too harsh and unfeeling until it is almost too late.

While it would be easy to write North and South off as just another romance, what makes it so much more is how it captures the weighty social issues of that time related to industrialization — the growth in manufacturing, the increase in factories, the economic disparity between the mill owners and the workers employed in them, and the class divide. It provides an unflinching look at the lives of the mill workers, their extreme poverty, and their poor health, attributable in large measure to the unhealthy working conditions and polluted air inside the mills. A large portion of the novel is centered around a strike by the mill workers, and the part played in it by the workers’ union. This was when unionization was first starting, and while the strike didn’t end up benefitting the workers in this case, the perspectives of both the workers and the mill owners are the subject of extensive debate and discussion between the various characters. Also, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of life at that time — there are quite a few deaths and even a suicide. It reminded me a lot of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which portrayed the brutality of criminals and the pitiful treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London in the same heart-rending vein. You feel like you are there and can viscerally experience the pain.

Usually, novels like this are written entirely from one point of view, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. But North and South was unique in that respect — it takes you inside the head of both the hero and the heroine. You can feel both of their feelings, their emotions, their reactions to each other, and to the world around them. It made the book so much more richer and the story so much more vivid.

I am thrilled to have discovered a new book to add to my much-loved collection of classic literature as well as another author in this genre that I so much admire. I have already added Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books to my reading pipeline.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Publication Date: Chapman & Hall, 1855
Edition: Norilana Books, Nov 2007

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine

I had the privilege of reading this book along with a friend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, since I didn’t know too much about it except from what the title suggested, that it would be about time traveling.

When I first started to read this story, it reminded me a little of the Sherlock Holmes’ series because we are introduced to the time traveler through the perspective of another character, very much like how Watson recounts his observations of Holmes. The time traveler is passionately proposing his idea of time traveling and introducing the machine he has invented to a group of men who are very skeptical of him.

On their second meeting, the time traveler shows up late to their dinner meeting and when he arrives, he is looking very haggard. It turns out that he had just returned from visiting the future. What follows from then on is the time traveler sharing the story of his journey into the future and what he experienced there.

I was really excited and curious to know what happened to him over there. Why was he looking the way he was? Would they finally believe him? Was he even telling the truth? Those were some of the questions that sustained me throughout this book.

Another thing that intrigued me about this story was that it was a science fiction book written in the Victoria Era. I was curious to know how science fiction would play out during that time period. Moreover, it was my first science fiction novel. Some of the science fiction aspects that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of the actual travel into the future and the descriptions of the world and inhabitants he encounters over there. I look forward to continuing to explore this genre thanks to this book.

The author, H.G. Wells, seemed to be very passionate about issues and changes that were going on during his time period due to industrialization. His beliefs come through heavily in his story. It seemed like he believed that the type of progress that was happening during his time would bring about moral decline. These are themes and questions that arise throughout his story. I enjoyed this part as well because I was able to understand what aspects of society were important to him, and it caused me to question where I stood on the issues he would bring up.

This was something I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would mostly be fantasy-like but I enjoyed that he was able to create a fantasy world that symbolized real issues. It was fun to read about this world and imagine it, but it was also interesting to think about the heavier issues that each of these aspects represented.

Overall, it was a fun book to read, especially since I read it with a friend. It was fun to briefly be part of this world and also discuss the heavier topics that were brought up. It was also a short book. If you enjoy the morality aspects that are often brought up in Victorian literature, along with the fantasy elements from science fiction, you might enjoy this book.

The Time Machine
Author: H.G. Wells
Original Publisher and Publication Date: William Heinemann, 1895
Edition: Signet Classics, October 2002

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone” by Satya Nadella

Hit Refresh

I typically do not read business books. However, the author of this book, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, recently appeared on a talk show that I watch, and I was intrigued. Not just by the premise of the book — when do you hear the word “soul” in the context of a technology company? — but by Nadella’s own story. I found out that his son has severe cerebral palsy, and this topic only came up because he was talking about the power of technology to do good, exemplified by some students from the local university who had rigged his son up with a device that allowed him to play music on his own. While that was a truly inspiring example of how technology can help, what I found even more inspiring is how he had achieved so much, risen to lead the leading technology company of the world, all while having a very challenging personal life. Usually when I read about highly successful people, I assume that they must have a charmed personal life which allows them to achieve the great things that they have achieved. But clearly, this was not the case with Satya Nadella.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and having a child with special needs would, I think, certainly make you more empathetic, more generous, and overall, a nicer person. But I didn’t think it could actually make you capable of also rising all the way to the top as a business and technology leader, which is typically a highly competitive, cut-throat field. But, as it turns out, it can, as evidenced in Hit Refresh, in which Nadella describes how his personal experiences have shaped the way he leads Microsoft. It’s no longer just about being the market leader and increasing profit margins, but more about making a difference. It’s being able to steer Microsoft to use its vast engineering talents to continue developing devices and software that can improve the lives of millions of people around the world, using cloud connectivity, mobile access, data analytics and other technologies. It calls for cooperation with companies that were once bitter rivals, such as Apple, along with younger powerhouses such as Google. When the focus is more on doing good rather than on under-cutting rivals and being the “best,” even employees can feel imbued with a sense of purpose and meaning that makes their everyday work much more life-affirming.

For those curious about Nadella himself, Hit Refresh does provide a brief account of his background and journey from India to the US — a journey which will be familiar to many Indians who also came to the US to work in engineering and software — as well his many years working at Microsoft as he rose through the ranks before finally becoming CEO. The book also discusses upcoming technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, mixed reality, and quantum computing, all of which seem promising to our continued improvements as a society and which Microsoft is exploring. Hit Refresh also has some discussion about politically sensitive issues such as privacy, security, and globalization, but not as much as I had hoped. It would have been very illuminating to know how a progressive technology company, which wants to have a global impact, can operate in a political climate that is protectionist and nationalistic, almost regressive?

While the subtitle of this book, The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, is somewhat grandiose, it is a simple, non-pretentious, non-erudite, straight-from-the-heart account of how Satya Nadella — only the third CEO in Microsoft’s 42 year old history — has been inspired by his personal experiences to make empathy rather than competitiveness the essence of Microsoft, so it can contribute to making the world a better place for everyone.

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone
Author: Satya Nadella
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: September 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

This book has been selected as one of the two “Silicon Valley Reads” books for 2018, and as a result, it seems to be everywhere in the Bay Area where I live, prominently displayed on library shelves and multiple copies available for check-out. The author, Mark Lukach, is also local to the Bay Area, a high school teacher and freelance writer. As the title suggests, it is a memoir of his experience with the mental illness that afflicted the person he was closest to – his wife, Giulia.

Mark and Giulia had a fairy tale romance – they met as freshmen at Georgetown University, dated, fell in love, got married and moved to San Francisco to start their careers. They both come from loving families and had little to complain about – they were smart, good looking, ambitious (she more than him), and most importantly, they had each other.

Their idyllic life was unexpectedly shattered three years into their marriage by Giulia’s psychotic breakdown, which came literally out of nowhere. It started out with some normal stress at work which caused her some pressure, most self-imposed, and quickly ballooned into a full-blown panic attack, making her delusional and suicidal. She had to be admitted to the psych ward and was there for almost a month before she was allowed to come home. She went on to have two more psychotic episodes, one shortly after the birth of their son, and again a few years after that. The book closes with what seems to be the end of the third hospitalization. However, given the nature of this illness and its typical pattern, Giulia’s psychosis is likely to recur, so this is by no means the end of the struggle for her and Mark.

This book captures Mark’s harrowing experience as he goes from being a “normal,” carefree, happily married young man — who can scarcely believe his good fortune at being able to spend the rest of his life with the girl he fell in love with — to having his life completely upended and being thrust in the role of caregiver to the same girl who now seems to be a completely different person. Caregiving is hard enough for physical illness, but at least the person that is being looked after is the same — the illness may have devastated their bodies, but not their minds. With mental illness, however, the person can literally become someone else. In Giulia’s case, while she was eventually able to get back to the person she was after the end of each of three psychotic episodes she has had so far, Mark had to keep drawing from the memories of their earlier life together to keep going when she became ill.

And the “going” was unimaginably rough — doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, keeping up with work, worrying about rapidly draining finances, looking after their baby boy during her second episode, and continuing to be a single dad to a preschooler during her third hospitalization. Thankfully, both his and her parents were very supportive and tried to help out as much as they could, but there was only so much that they could do. It really was his “cross to bear.” In addition to being physically exhausted and having no time for himself, Mark also captures his anger, his resentment, and his feelings of helplessness candidly. Even though he knows that it’s not Giulia’s fault that she is mentally ill, he can’t help being frustrated to the point where it seems almost impossible to go on.

I found My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward a brutally honest account of how mental illness can come from nowhere and utterly devastate lives, not just for those who are ill but for their family members, who have to continue to look after them even when they become completely different people who often have delusions, hallucinations, manic depressions, and suicidal tendencies. Kudos to Mark for not giving up on his marriage — the thought of skipping out because it was too hard did not even occur to him. In a day and age when close to half of all marriages in the US end in divorce, Mark’s commitment to Giulia is an inspiring affirmation of the “in sickness and in health” maxim that a marriage is supposed to embody.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward
Author: Mark Lukach
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is the most well known novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — unarguably the most prestigious literary award — a few months ago. Unlike most other writing awards, the Nobel Prize is awarded for an entire body of work rather than one particular book, and I was very gratified that it had been awarded to someone whose work I am familiar with and really like. I had read The Remains of the Day shortly after it was published in 1989 and while I couldn’t remember the specifics of the story, I remember it being a very good book. It won the Booker Prize the year it was published, which now seems remarkable to me as well — those were the days when the Booker Prize went to novels I could actually read and comprehend and admire, rather than the current trend of awarding it (along with other awards) to what seems to be post-modern fiction that does not believe in straightforward story telling. The Remains of the Day was also made into a highly acclaimed Oscar-nominated movie in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, further cementing its reputation as one of the best books in recent times.

Given that I didn’t remember much about the book except that it was about a butler in olden day England, I picked it up again, spurred by the awarding of the Nobel Prize to its author. It is indeed told from the viewpoint of a butler, Mr. Stevens, who has been the head butler of a grand estate in England in the early 1990s. It traces the years of his work – he prefers to call it “service” – at Darlington Hall, starting from when he was a young man in the years before the First World War to several years after the Second World War. The story is narrated in the form of his reminiscences while he is undertaking a journey to reconnect with Miss Kenton, who used to work in Darlington hall as a housekeeper for many years and who he thinks, from a recent letter from her, might be interested in returning to work there. She left when she got married and while it has been several years, he gets the feeling that she is not really happy and may want to return. So he takes a few days off to journey through the English countryside to meet her.

While several of his reminiscences are about Miss Keaton, we also get to know about his life as a butler in detail, about his employer, the politics of that time, and about how his father, who was also a butler, exemplified loyalty, professionalism, and dignity, right up to the end of his days. It is these exact same values that Mr. Stevens also lives by. He has the utmost loyalty to Lord Darlington, an essentially good man who, in the years leading up to the second World War, tries to broker peace with the Germans and ends up being branded as a Nazi sympathizer. Needless to say, in the course of these years, Darlington Hall becomes the hotbed for a lot of political activity, with lots of important visitors and lots of meetings. Throughout, Mr. Stevens prides himself on running the household smoothly and precisely, and being the perfect butler, who strives to be as unobtrusive as possible yet always on hand when something is needed.

What Mr. Stevens sets most store by, however, is “dignity” — he seems to personify the “stiff upper lip” the English are famous for having. Nothing seemed to faze him, he was never flustered. Even in his encounters with Miss Keaton – some of which were rather unsettling – he remained very stoic, practically unfeeling. It is obvious to us as readers that Miss Keaton is drawn to him, but she becomes so frustrated in his apparent lack of outward responsiveness that she ends up accepting a marriage proposal and leaving. Their encounters are beautifully captured, and you can feel the underlying tension between them, the powerful emotion of unrequited love that she must have experienced until she could bear it no longer and was forced to leave.

The title of the book refers to a revelation Mr. Stevens has at the end of the book, thanks to a chance encounter on his return journey at a seaside town after his meeting with Miss Keaton. He gets into a conversation with a stranger sitting beside him on a bench, who talks about how relaxed and happy people feel in the evening after doing their day’s work, making it the best part of the day. They can just put their feet up and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Mr. Stevens realizes that this can apply to one’s entire life as well, where we can take the time to enjoy the later years of our lives — with no regrets — after the hard work we have put in during our earlier years. These are “the remains of the day” as it were, and it’s a beautiful and uplifting idea that all older people can appreciate. There a sense of rest in the later years of our lives, with all those hectic days – focused on achievement and success – well behind us.

The Remains of the Day is so beautifully written — it makes the old world charm of early England come alive — and is so authentic in its portrayal of a butler if that time that it’s hard to believe it is written by a contemporary author. I’m always amazed when a writer can create something so real from something so far removed from their own experience. The Nobel Prize in Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro is so well deserved. I absolutely loved this book.

The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: May 1989

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winner (she is much in the news lately for her 2017 National Book Award winner Sing, Unburied, Sing which I loved). It is the story of a family living in poverty in semi-rural Mississippi in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. The protagonist is a young teenage girl who has two older brothers and a younger brother. Their father is largely absent in any supervisory sort of parenting role and focused on preparing the house for the onslaught of Katrina. The mother has died some years ago in childbirth.

As the story unfolds, we get to meet the family and their friends and see the world from our protagonist’s viewpoint, with all the pain and panic of realizing she is pregnant, the care and concern for her brothers and the anguish of unrequited love. We see her brothers struggle with their own demons – one brother has basketball aspirations and hopes for opportunity, another is totally absorbed with his dog and her litter and the puppies’ well being. The father is focused on preparing their decrepit house to withstand the coming storm, oblivious of the storms raging in his children’s lives. Ward is not verbose and descriptions do not drag on, but the early chapters are awash with all manner of big and small details of life that make this family real to the reader. When the storm finally hits, we are heavily vested in their struggle to survive, and the description of the power and majesty of the storm is gripping. However, it is in the aftermath with the family picking themselves up, that this book shines brightest.

The writing is lyrical and reminds me of Maya Angelou – Jesmyn Ward writes like a painter or poet. The scenes she sets, the characters she puts in those scenes and the description is so absorbing that you barely notice the story unfolding. Ward takes a poor dysfunctional family with problems aplenty (petty crime, dog fighting, drugs and teenage pregnancy) and makes them beautiful and noble and heroic.

This is a book that will shine for some years to come. I am so glad to have read it.

Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: September 2011

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

“Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny” by Zahir Dehlvi


This is an English translation by Rana Safvi of the Urdu original by Zahir Dehlvi. It gives a fascinating first person account of life in Delhi during India’s First War of Independence, an earth-shaking event that the British simply called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ Zahir Dehlvi was a privileged official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and he saw and reported everything that went on in those tumultuous days.

The Enfield rifles supplied to the Indian soldiers by the British rulers had greased cartridges said to be coated with cow and pig fat, which was obnoxious to Hindus and Muslims alike. They refused to bite the bullet. Instead they revolted. Soldiers from the Meerut cantonment killed their British officers, marched to Delhi on 11th May 1857 and declared the octogenarian Mughal as Emperor of Hindustan. The aged poet, a pensioner of the British, was simply not up to the task. Zahir Dehlvi was then 22 years old. His wrote his memoirs on his deathbed. While he is no historian and his narrative is prone to hyperbole and unmistakably pro-British it gives us rare insights into the events of the day, and for this reason alone deserves to be read. The translator has done a commendable job and the publisher has ensured that the book itself is a collector’s delight.

Dehlvi’s father and grandfather served the Emperor and he too was presented in court at the age of 12. He led a leisurely and lavish existence, riding horses, smoking the hookah, writing poetry and mingling with the likes of Mirza Ghalib. “Our days were festive like perpetual Eid….” Until the advent of the rebels.

After the mutiny was suppressed the Emperor was exiled to Rangoon and all his employees were fired. Dehlvi was destitute, having lost all his wealth and his ghazals as well. He fled with his family and later took up employment in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk which he described in great detail. He also presented interesting portraits of Bhopal, Baroda and Hyderabad where he had brief sojourns.

Here are some quotes and anecdotes from the book:

“There is a mosque here, which was built by Qutbuddin, though it is in a dilapidated condition. This mosque was built from the remains of temples. It had only been half done when the Badshah-e-Islam dies, and was thus left incomplete…….In the courtyard of this mosque is the broken temple, which is absolutely different and unique…….The iron pillar which people call killi or nail, has been installed in this courtyard. It has inscriptions in khat-e-shastri.” (The author meant Sanskrit but he was wrong. The translator tells us it was Brahmi script.)

“Once some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all the butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. The British government gave orders stating that these butchers should take their shops out of the city. They had all the shops within the city closed.” When the butchers and their families moved out and camped outside the city, the emperor insisted on pitching his tent alongside them. He stayed put until the British Resident rescinded the order.

The rebel soldiers after capturing Delhi appealed to the Emperor, “We are employees of the British. We have helped establish British rule from Calcutta to Kabul by sacrificing our lives, since they did not bring an army with them from England. All their conquests are due to the Indian army……And now…they want to destroy our faith and religion and convert the whole of Hindustan to Christianity. ….Now the time for revolt has come and the entire army has risen and refused to obey orders.” The Emperor’s response was, “Who calls me badshah? I am but a mendicant who is somehow living a Sufi’s life in the fort with my progeny…….The monarchy left my house 100 years ago.” His hapless grandfather had entrusted Hindustan to the British. He himself had no powers to take any decision. Therefore he has summoned the British Resident, Fraser. The Resident arrived soon thereafter.

The first victim of the riot was a Christian priest – a Hindu covert. Dehlvi says, “….as the sound of the shot rang out, the priest’s soul left for its heavenly abode.” The next to follow was Chamanlal, the emperor’s physician, who too had converted to Christianity. Then came the turn of the Resident.

Months passed. The rebels continued to hold Delhi. “The poor Badshah was always in a state of worry and anxiety and had stopped coming out of his Mahal. He was always sad and teary-eyed.” The Emperor said of the mutineers: ‘These rogues came to ruin my dynasty…..After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children, and hang it on the Qila merlons.”

After several battles the British finally gained the upper hand and the rebels had to flee. They requested Bahadur Shah Zafar to go with them but he declined. The Emperor left the fort and took refuge in the environs of Humayun’s tomb. The British commander “arrested thirty Timurid princes, including the Badshah’s sons, grandsons and sons-in-law, and murdered them outside the walls of Delhi. He sent their heads to the Emperor.”

I read the book with a heavy heart.

Overall Assessment: Read it if you have an interest in Indian history.

Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (Urdu original in 1914 at Lahore)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small Bombs

This debut novel won a lot of awards when it was published last year and was one of the finalists for the National Book Award. Not only did it come to me with a strong recommendation, I was also intrigued at the prospect of discovering a new talented Indian author whose books I could identify with. Having grown up in India, it’s always nice to read fiction set in familiar surroundings that I can immediately relate to.

As should be obvious from its title, The Association of Small Bombs is about terrorism, not the large-scale terrorist attacks that make deadlines but the many smaller ones that are set off in local markets and neighborhoods, which happen so frequently in India that not a big deal is made of them. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the families that are affected, in which case your whole world is turned upside down. The Association of Small Bombs starts off with one such bomb blast in a Delhi neighborhood in which two young boys — brothers who had gone to pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop, accompanied by their friend — are immediately killed. Their parents, the Khuranas, are shocked and devastated, and their marriage never recovers, despite having another baby five years after the blast. They spend much of their time in the courts where the terrorism suspects that the police have rounded up are on trial, and as to be expected, these are long-winded court cases where there is no real evidence of the crime. Eventually, the Khuranas take the lead in bringing together other families who have been affected by similar blasts into an “association,” which is where the title of the book comes from. Sadly, even this common cause is not enough to prevent the Khuranas’ marriage from eventually unraveling.

Meanwhile, the friend that the Khurana boys were with at the time of the blast, Mansoor, managed to survive but with severe injuries from the shrapnel of the bomb. He seemed to eventually recover and even goes to the US to study and get a degree in computer engineering. But after just a few semesters, the pain comes back with a vengeance, making it impossible for him to type on a computer and forcing him to return to India. He never goes back to the US to resume his studies and instead gets caught up in an NGO — a group of idealistic young Muslims — working on behalf of suspected terrorists — all Muslim — that have been jailed without any real proof of wrong-doing. While Mansoor is also Muslim, he was brought up in a non-religious family and never gave religion much thought until he joined this group, after which he becomes almost an Islamic fundamentalist. Eventually, one of his close friends, Ayub, from the NGO becomes inducted into the same terrorist group which had planted the first bomb and goes on to detonate another bomb, also in Delhi, on a scale similar to the first one. Ayub himself is injured in the blast and eventually dies. Mansoor is arrested as the bombing suspect because he was close to Ayub and spends several years in prison. The book ends with his release from prison; he goes home and never leaves the house again.

I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading this book or even learned something from it. It started off on a very strong footing by powerfully capturing the first bomb blast and the toll it took on a couple whose lost both their young sons to it, their utter devastation along with terrible feelings of guilt — why had they sent the boys to a TV repair shop to fix an old TV instead of just buying a new one? This “if only I had done this or hadn’t done that” persistent feeling of guilt will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the irreversible loss of a loved one. However, the rest of the book lacked a similar strong focus and seemed quite disjointed, going inside the minds of multiple characters including the Khuranas, Mansoor, Mansoor’s parents, Ayub, and the perpetrator of the original blast, Shockie, but without really delving too deeply into any of them. While it could have been very interesting to understand the mindset and psyche of a terrorist, The Association of Small Bombs didn’t really succeed in achieving that. Instead, there were bits and pieces of different lives, experiences, and thoughts, none of which added up to any kind of comprehensive understanding of even one person in the story.

It was all the more disappointing because the book had such a promising start. It definitely points to a talented author, and I hope he can bring it together in his next book.

The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: October 2016

 Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Revolutionary History of Interwar India” by Kama Maclean

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India.jpg

“On 12th April 1931, a conference of India’s martyrs was held in Paradise. We know because the proceedings were published in the Lahori Urdu newspaper Vir Bharat the following week.” This brilliant piece of anonymous journalism envisions a full-fledged conference with all the formalities and protocol, and presents an intricate blend of humour and pathos. Khudiram Bose, Ramparshad Bismil, Ishfaqullah, Haribhai Balmukand and Khushi Ram occupy prominent seats. The martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh appear in bloodied outfits. The martyrs of Sholapur are there too. Jatindranath Das as head the reception committee ushers in the much awaited trio of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Conches are blown, the gods shower flowers and shouts of ‘Shahidon ki jai’ rend the air. As Jatin Das delivers the welcome address, Jesus Christ arrives. Sardar Bhagat Singh says, “India’s martyrs greet the martyr of Jerusalem.” The Jallianwala martyrs chip in, “Accept our salutation O peaceful shepherd of bloodthirsty sheep.” Jesus announces that “Dyer is today being burnt in hell fire.”

Kama Maclean painstakingly traces the role of revolutionaries in ushering in India’s freedom, unearthing many enigmatic characters who fail to surface in mainstream narratives. In a 1937 book titled The Vanishing Empire, Chamanlal predicted that the British Empire would collapse in ten years. Later he became a Buddhist monk, ‘Bhikshu’ Chamanlal. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was fatally stabbed in Kanpur when he intervened to make peace amidst communal riots. Uddham Singh waited 21 years to avenge Jallianwala Bagh finally murdering Michael O Dwyer in London in 1940.

The Hindustan Republican Army sprang up in the 1920s in the United Provinces, later metamorphosed into the HSRA (Hindustan Socialistic Republican Association/Army) and shifted its focus to Lahore. There were invisible linkages between the HSRA and Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) and the Jugantar and Anushilan groups of Bengal.

The revolutionaries were determined to free India from British rule. Their main strategy was to make targeted attacks on powerful people. They attacked a train near Lucknow on 9th August 1925, looted government funds and killed a passenger. For this ‘Kakori Conspiracy’, four men were hanged and five transported for life. On 17th December 1928 Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru shot dead a British policeman J P Saunders at Lahore, and Chandrashekhar Azad killed an Indian constable who gave chase. This was their revenge for the lathi-charge in November that had resulted in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. They went underground, regrouped in Agra and on 8th April 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw low intensity bombs and leaflets on the floor of the Legislative Assembly before courting arrest. Soon other co-conspirators were arrested. The trial dragged on for 23 months, and the bravery and brilliance of the revolutionaries captured the imagination of the nation. Interestingly, they had had themselves photographed in studios in anticipation of capital punishment. These pictures made their way to every nook and corner of India in a brilliantly orchestrated campaign, and soon Bhagat Singh was just as popular as Mahatma Gandhi.

In June 1929 in Lahore Jail the revolutionaries commenced a hunger strike in protest against the differential treatment meted out to Indian and European prisoners. On 13th September Jatindranath Das passed away after 63 days of fasting. Subhas Chandra Bose (on behalf of the Bengal Congress) arranged to repatriate his body to Calcutta, and all along the way it was hailed by wailing crowds.

Jock Scott, Lahore’s Senior Superintendent of Police (who had been the original target of the Saunders assassination) soon packed his bags and sailed for England. The California-based based Ghadar Party threatened that if Bhagat Singh was executed, they would assassinate the incoming Viceroy even before he landed in India.

The HSRA bombed the Viceroy’s train on 23 December 1929 as it approached Delhi but Lord Irwin escaped unhurt. In April 1930 the daring Chittagong Armoury Raid by the Bengal revolutionaries masterminded by Surya Sen rattled the British. However, the young militants were out-numbered and died fighting.

Azad managed to remain incognito until he was killed in a shootout with the police at Allahabad on 27th February 1931. British intelligence noted that the Allahabad Provincial Congress Committee “took an active interest in the cremation of Azad’s body.” Motilal Nehru had died only two weeks earlier and revolutionary memoirs recounted that Azad had taken part in the funeral procession in disguise. It came to light later that Motilal had communicated with and funded Azad. In fact the revolutionaries usually relied on Congress members for financial backing and legal defence.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on 23rd March 1931. It is one of the classic ironies of Indian history that Bhagat Singh, although shunned by Gandhi and neglected by historians, was omnipresent in visual culture. Though originally a turbaned Sikh, his ‘hat portrait’ was firmly imprinted on the Indian psyche, never to be erased.

In Bengal on 14th December 1931, teenagers Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury shot dead a British magistrate, and expressed disappointment when they received only jail sentences.

HSRA members had multiple aliases. David Petrie (who later headed the MI5) was convinced that Balraj, Chief of the HSRA, was Bhagat Singh but decades later Shiv Verma, a surviving member of the inner circle, disclosed that Balraj was Azad.

The book has a chapter on the secret life of Durga Devi, widow of HSRA leader Bhagwati Charan Vohra. The latter had died in a bomb-making accident on 28th May 1930. Durga had masqueraded as Bhagat Singh’s wife to facilitate his escape from Lahore in December 1928. On 8th October 1930 she took part in a daring shooting attempt on Lamington Road, Mumbai, leaving her infant son with Babarao Savarkar, brother of V D Savarkar.

Overall Assessment: The best part of the book is the exhaustive array of photographs and pictures.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
AUTHOR: Kama Maclean

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

The Story of the Jews

Well, I thought I knew their story – until I read this masterpiece and found out how little I knew. The Exodus story is something you can’t help knowing, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, how they wandered in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land. You needed faith to believe the story but I had believed it anyway, at least most of it, excepting of course the more fanciful parts, like the parting of the Red Sea and the encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews and enabled the rebuilding of the temple. Jesus was a Jew. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE and scattered the Jews in all directions. All this I knew. I also knew that my home state, Kerala, had a Jewish community from times immemorial – and after the birth of Israel many of them migrated. Like everyone else, I knew about the Holocaust. And well, the Qumran scrolls or Dead Sea Scrolls as they are called. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d learnt about the Spanish Inquisition in my schooldays but had forgotten what it was all about.)

This book was an eye-opener. It brought to mind just as many questions as answers. If the Israelites found Egypt so abhorrent, why did they keep going back there? “The very first time that ‘Israel’ appears on any historical artefact is on the famous late thirteenth century BCE triumphal inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II.” The inscription claimed that Israel had been routed. This lends credence to the belief that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the Exodus probably did happen, though no evidence has been found till date.

Egyptian sources claim that when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE it was an army under the Nubian pharaoh that broke the siege. Very plausible, says Simon Schama. So Egypt wasn’t a permanent enemy after all.

In the 6th century BCE Jews were settled in many parts of Egypt. In Elephantine, the capital of the Pathros region, they even had a temple. They kept the Sabbath, made animal sacrifices and circumcised their sons. Surviving documents related to marriage and divorce reveal interesting facts. While Israelite men had unilateral rights to divorce their wives, in Egypt Jewish women were also entitled to initiate the separation. Tragedy truck in 410 BCE when the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. By the middle of the fourth century BCE, before the coming of Alexander, the Elephantine colony had ceased to exist. However, a century later Jewish settlements had popped up all over Egypt, especially at Alexandria and Thebes.

The Hebrew Bible was written over three centuries – eighth to fifth BCE. While it proclaims monotheism and an exclusive bond with Yehowah, it chronicles a saga of betrayals, transgressions, atrocities, disasters and defeats. “David’s best-loved son, Absalom, is killed in a particularly horrifying way while in rebellion against his father. Solomon’s imperially aggrandizing kingdom lasts not even one generation after his death. King Manasseh institutes the horror of child sacrifice by fire. The Egyptians are always at one gate and the Mesopotamian empires at the other.”

The Song of the Sea has much in common with the Phoenician epic of the storm god Baal’s conquest of the sea. Ecclesiastes is a ‘Wisdom Book’ that owes something to Persian-Babylonian proverbial literature. It was the Hellenistic Jewish world that invented the synagogue. ‘Holocaust’ was the Greek word for ritual cremation of whole animals. Only Greeks and Jews made fire sacrifices of whole animals.

Judaism was imposed at the point of the sword (and the circumciser’s knife) on neighbouring peoples like Itureans and Idumeans. In the first century BCE the Roman general Pompey marched through the Temple, tearing aside the curtain veil and entering the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was admitted. But he spared the temple, as Alexander had done centuries ago. Eventually Vespasian would destroy it.

The mass social upheaval in the towns and villages of Palestine, the coming of Jesus and his crucifixion, the exaltation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, the birth of Islam, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews by Christians in various parts of Europe, and the horrors of the Inquisition are set out in explicit detail. One is left feeling sorry for the Jews, although the author recounts the atrocities committed by the Jews as well.

There is much that would evoke shock and/or surprise. Here are some examples:

  • Judaism and Zoroastrianism had shared purity obsessions,including a belief in the uncleanness of menstruation.
  • Peter the apostle refused to share a table with the uncircumcised.
  • The Prophet Muhammad first commanded the Believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. It was only when the Jews of Yathrib rejected his beliefs that he switched the orientation to Makkah.
  • Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest. So it wasn’t just the Jews and Muslims who had this prohibition!
  • Much of the heart of Westminster Abbey comes from the estate of Licoricia the Jewess and her husband, David of Oxford. The Crown had appropriated the estate in the thirteenth century. Soon thereafter the Jews of England were all sent packing. This happened in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. By the time Columbus had set out to discover America in 1492, Spain had been wiped clean of its Jewish population and five years later Portugal followed suit.!
  • When Vasco da Gama returned in triumph after his India expedition he brought to Portugal back not only spices and animals but also a Polish Jew. I wonder what became of the poor man in a country that had evicted all its Jews!

The book has a sequel. I intend to read it soon.

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.