“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan


“If you do not have a sword,” Jesus instructed his disciples, “go sell your cloak and buy one.” Was this the same man who said, “Turn the other cheek” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself”?

Iranian born American author Reza Aslan makes a valiant attempt to unveil the real Jesus – and in the process unearths some curious facts. The gospels were recorded by Greek speaking diaspora Jews. The gospel of Luke was written in Antioch and that of John in Ephesus. Almost every story written about Jesus was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. (In 70 C.E., the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground.) The Kingdom of God never came. But Jesus, the messiah, was gradually transformed from a revolutionary nationalist into a spiritual leader espousing a message of peace and brotherhood.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus seems to have pre-dated the gospels and other written sources. But only two facts about Jesus are absolutely certain: Firstly, that he was a charismatic preacher who led a Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century. Secondly, that Rome crucified him for this crime. The plaque they placed above his head on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. (However, Mathew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.) There’s no evidence for the ‘born in the manger’ story or the ‘immaculate conception’ theory.

Jesus performed faith cure and exorcism – and never exacted a fee. There’s more historical material confirming his miracles than either his birth or his death.

Jerusalem had a history of conflict long before the birth of the saviour. The story of Moses and the great exodus is well known. But the Jews did not live happily ever after in the Promised Land. The Babylonians obliterated King Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. Later they were defeated by the Persians who allowed the enslaved Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Then Jerusalem fell to Alexander the Great and was subsequently ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 164 B.C.E. the Jews regained power and held it for the next 100 years. Roman dominion began in 63 B.C.E., and when Herod died in 4 B.C.E. a period of violent uprisings followed. Jesus was born sometime between 4 B.C.E. and the takeover of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 6 C.E.

In 28 C.E. an ascetic preacher, John the Baptist, began baptizing people in the River Jordan. Jesus was baptised by him – and probably began his ministry as John’s disciple. Sometime between 28 and 30 C.E. John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas, one of Pontius Pilate’s lieutenants.

After his baptism Jesus went out into the wilderness of Judea – and returned home only after the arrest of his mentor. By then he had metamorphosed into a preacher. He called himself ‘Son of Man’. He had both male and female disciples who followed him from place to place. Women disciples named in the New Testament include Joanna, Mary, Salome, Susanna and Mary of Magdala.

The matter of Jesus’ bachelorhood also remains unresolved. Celibacy was extremely rare in Jewish society, being restricted to monastic orders such as the Essenes (custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The prophet Isaiah had foretold that Israel would be redeemed, that God’s Kingdom would be established on earth. Jesus merely said the Kingdom of God is at hand. But it amounted to saying the end of the Roman Empire was imminent. His “blessed are the poor….” statement implied a reversal of the prevailing social order. It was a call to rebellion. Consider this quote from Matthew and Luke, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

After Jesus’ death his brother James became leader of the early Christians. The Lord did have brothers and sisters – which goes to disprove his mother’s perpetual virginity. Joseph, the father, disappears after the infancy narratives. He is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke, as is the story of the virgin birth. According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus first begins preaching in Nazareth, the villagers ask, “Is this not Mary’s son?” Males in Palestine were never called by their mothers’ names. Burial after crucifixion was not normal practice either. It was customary to leave the corpses on the cross to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey. So why and how did Jesus get a burial?

Saul of Tarsus (who became Paul after his conversion) rejected Jewish law and began teaching believers not to circumcise their children. He had serious conflicts with James and the apostles. In the early sixties Paul was arrested and extradited to Rome, where Peter, the first of the 12 apostles was already living. In 66 C.E. as Jerusalem erupted in revolt, the emperor Nero had Peter and Paul executed. Their martyrdom made them the most important figures of Christiandom. There had been messiahs and martyrs before and after Jesus, but today he alone is God.

Though James headed the first Christian community and eventually died a martyr, he was overlooked in later chronicles, and almost wholly excised from the New Testament.

The book throws light on some ancient Jewish traditions. I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of the daily rites of the Temple of Jerusalem to that of our Hindu temples. The burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the sounding of trumpets, and the animal sacrifices (which are now unlawful), the purification rituals and the shaving of heads would be all too familiar to any practising Hindu. Menstruating women were not allowed to enter the Temple.

Overall Assessment: Great read, though it does appear that the author has a bee in his bonnet.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
AUTHOR: Reza Aslan
PUBLISHER: The Westbourne Press

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

“Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh” by Kuldip Nayar

Without Fear

A mother who advises her young son to shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ when he stands at the gallows. Vidyavati Kaur, mother of Bhagat Singh. We ought to remember her name. It’s the least we can do.

23rd March, 1931. Lahore Central Jail. 3 young revolutionaries are hanged – Bhagat Singh, Shivram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. That’s when the countdown begins. The beginning of the collapse of the mighty British Empire.

Bhagat Singh once said to Congress leader Bhimsen Sachar, “Revolutionaries have to die because the cause they represent is strengthened by sacrifice – not by an appeal in court.” When asked by his lawyer Pran Nath Mehta just two hours before his execution whether he had any message for the nation, Bhagat Singh said, “Just the two messages : ‘Down with Imperialism!’ and ‘Long live Revolution!’”

In an article titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, Bhagat Singh wrote, “I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be? A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian may dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hopes should I entertain? I know that it will be the end when the rope is tightened around my neck and the rafters removed from under my feet.”

When Bhagat Singh and the other defendants entered the court singing, “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna bazua-i-katil mein hai, Waqt ane de bata deinge tujheeh asman, ham abhi se kya batain, kya hamare dil emin hai,” the British judge summoned the public prosecutor and demanded a translation. It was the 5th of May 1930. The poem is believed to have been composed by Ram Prasad Bismil, another HSRA member, who had been executed on 19th December 1927 for the Kakori train robbery.

Bhagat Singh wrote 4 books in jail. All of them disappeared without a trace. The titles were: The History of the Revolutionary Movement in India, The Ideal of Socialism, At the Door of Death, and Autobiography. Mathura Das Thapar, brother of Sukhdev brought a copy of the ‘Proceedings Book of the Lahore Conspiracy Case’ from Pakistan to India and deposited it with the National Archives in New Delhi. Sukhdev had scribbled comments in the margins before his execution.

The average age of the 28 accused in the Lahore Conspiracy case was 22. Jatindra Nath Das died after 63 days of fasting in jail. The British made the cryptic announcement: “J. N. Das died yesterday at about 1-10 p.m. His brother K. C. Das received Rs. 600 from Subhash Chandra Bose from Calcutta to pay for the carriage of the body by car.”

Bhagat Singh surpassed the 97-day world record for hunger strikes, set by an Irish revolutionary. He fasted for 116 days in 1929 along with several other revolutionaries. A daring plan was hatched to rescue Bhagat Singh and others from jail. It ended in a fiasco when a bomb exploded in Bhagwati Charan’s hand killing him on the spot. Nine months later Chandrasekhar Azad died fighting the police at Allahabad.

Inspector W J C fern, a British officer who was at the scene of Saunders’ killing failed to recognize Bhagat Singh at the identification parade. It was the testimony of the five approvers that sealed his fate.

Bhagat Singh once wrote to his mother Vidyavati Kaur, “I have no doubt that my country will one day be free. But I am afraid that the brown sahibs are going to sit in the chairs the white sahibs will vacate.”

Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh met in Lahore Central Jail. The former told the latter that one day he would go to England and kill Michael O’Dwyer who had been Lieutenant Governor of Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had been committed. Nine years after Bhagat Singh was hanged, Udham Singh managed to fulfil his promise. On 13th March 1940 he shot dead O’Dwyer in London, a full 21 years after the gory event in Amritsar.

The book throws light on many crucial historical facts – and highlights refreshingly different perspectives. The good the bad and the ugly appear in different shades of black, white and grey. All men and women born in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom should read this book.

Overall assessment: A brilliant book about an immortal subject. Do read more than once.

Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh
Author: Kuldip Nayar
Publisher : Harper Collins (First published in 2000 by Har-Anand Publications)
Year of Publication: 2007

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

“Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Killing Lincoln

Lincoln has his premonitions. Two weeks before the assassination, he has a nightmare which he recounts to his wife and colleagues after a few days: “There seemed to be death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room. No living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms. Every object was familiar to me. ” Lincoln goes on to describe how he reaches the East Room and finds a corpse surrounded by soldiers and mourners. He asks one of the soldiers, “Who is dead in the White House?” Pat came the reply, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” Thereupon the crowd burst into a loud outpouring of grief.

Bill O’Reilly is a household name in America. Together with Martin Dugard, a historian, he puts together a highly interesting account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14th April, 1865. The history books had told us the dark deed was done by an actor, John Wilkes Booth. And we knew there were unexplained coincidences and conspiracy theories. This book tells us a lot more. The authors adopt a countdown format, with the narrative beginning six weeks before the assassination. The events of each day are outlined minute by minute. These are the concluding days of the Civil War and there is violence, bitterness and hatred all around.

It wasn’t a lone wolf attack. There were co-conspirators.William Seward, Secretary of State, who was seriously ill was attacked in his bed on the same day at the same time. He was wounded but survived. Seward went on to buy Alaska for the United States.

While Booth was shot dead 12 days later, 4 others were sent to the gallows within 3 months while a few more served prison sentences. Lewis Powell, the man who attacked Seward, was among those hanged. Mary Suratt, who provided arms and lodging to the conspirators became the first and only woman to be hanged in the United States. Whispers were doing the rounds that Edwin M Stanton, Secretary of War, formerly a brilliant Ohio lawyer, was somehow in the know of things. Was he among the conspirators? No evidence could be found.

The Montreal based J J Chaffey Company had paid $15000 to Booth and a whopping $150,000 to one Lafayette Bayer, a former spy, who was hand-picked by Stanton to head the man-hunt for Booth.

A telegram was sent to Chicago from Water Street on April 2nd, 1865, stating, ” J W Booth will ship oysters until Saturday 15th.” Booth never had anything to do with oysters or shipping but he shot Lincoln on April 14th. After his death, 18 pages of his diary mysteriously disappeared. Booth could have been captured alive but he was killed.The diary was found on him, but the contents were revealed only two years later, when Stanton handed it over. Did he remove the missing pages? It is anybody’s guess. Apparently it was Lafayette Baker who had handed it over to Stanton. This was revealed in 1867 when Baker published a book. Baker feared he would be killed – and he was.

Strange coincidences were a dime a dozen. On the day of the assassination, Lincoln’s bodyguard went on a drinking binge leaving the President unguarded at Ford Theatre. And he was never punished! Earlier, Lincoln’s eldest son Robert had been pushed from a railway platform on to the path of an incoming train. And guess who hauled him to safety? It was none other than Edwin Booth, elder brother of John Wilkes Booth. Another twist in the tale: Robert Lincoln was enamoured of Lucy Hale, who had secretly agreed to marry John Wilkes Booth.

Does the book merit a read? You bet!

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever
Authors: Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: September 2011

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

“The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma” by Thant Myint-U

The River of Lost Footsteps

I really, truly loved this book. Let me tell you why. Myanmar is India’s neighbour alright but this is the first time I came across a book written by a Burmese author. It is both historical and personal and tells us what has been happening in this closeted country during the last 100 years. The legacies of British colonialism, the brutalities of the Second World War, the bloody civil war of the late 1940s, the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, independence in the 1960s and subsequent rule by the military are laid bare with rare insight and political acumen.

India and Burma have overlapping histories and a common experience of British occupation. Having lived in India all my life, I had read history and understood international relations through my own special nationalist prism. I found Myint-U’s perception of historical events refreshingly different and authentic too.

The book provides much food for thought. The author points out that like Bahadur Shah Zafar, India’s last emperor, who was exiled to Rangoon, Burma’s last king, Thibaw, was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. His description of the fall of Singapore in 1942 to Japanese forces is revealing: “Despite all the frenzied preparation (at the expense of Burma), the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore fell on 15 February, and Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, with knobby knees and in short khakhi trousers, surrendered at the Ford motor factory to the much smaller force of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the bull-necked ‘Tiger of Malaya’. No fewer than seventy-thousand imperial troops – British, Australians and Indians – had been defeated by thirty thousand Japanese.”

The author informs us that the Buddha died in 484 B.C. at the age of 80 after eating contaminated pork. When Chandragupta Maurya defeated Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator and a peace treaty was concluded, the Macedonians “ceded most of the occupied territory in return for five hundred elephants.” The Burmese word for college, tekkatho is derived from Taxila. When Pagan was at the height of its glory in the 12th century, the kings and nobles wrote in Sanskrit and Pali and experimented with various Indian scripts until finally the Burmese language was reduced to writing (with a script from South India).

In 1106 when a delegation from Pagan reached the Chinese imperial court at Kaifeng, the emperor ordered that they be accorded the same rank and respect as the Cholas of South India. (The author calls them Colas. I guess he too is a victim of Americanization!) However, the Grand Council observed that the Colas were subordinate to the Sri Vijaya Kingdom of Sumatra whereas Pagan was now a big and independent kingdom. (This was one hundred years after Raja Raja Chola built the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.)

In 1657 following the death of Shah Jahan, when Aurangzeb seized the throne, his brother Shah Shuja fled to Burma with his family and was sheltered by Sanda Thudamma, the king of Arakan. The king soon fell in love with Shah Shuja’s daughter Ameena and asked for her hand. Shah Shuja was horrified – and planned a coup in response. The plot was discovered and Shah Shuja fled to the jungle, where he was captured and killed. The princesses ended up in Thudamma’s harem, but soon afterward the king suspected another plot and slaughtered all the members of the Mughal royal family, including a visibly pregnant Ameena. A furious Aurangzeb besieged the Burmese kingdom. A year later when Chittagong fell to the Mughals, two thousand Arakanese were sold into slavery.

Ayutthaya, the capita of Siam (named after Ayodhya of the Ramayana), was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. In the 18th century they were on an invasion spree – they routinely invaded Manipur, and on one occasion almost wiped out the entire population. In 1817 they occupied Assam.

Here’s something I really need to share: “The modern war rocket started its life, not in the West, as one might expect, but in India. In 1799, as the British laid siege to Seringapatam , Colonel Arthur Wellesly (the future duke of Wellington) advanced with his men toward a small hill nearby, only to be attacked by a tremendous barrage of rocket fire and forced to flee in complete disarray. When the fortress finally fell, among the enormous loot sent away to England were two specimens of Mysorean rockets.” This triggered a vigorous R&D program at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal and an improved version soon emerged – the Congreve rocket. Eight years later Copenhagen received the first shower of 40,000 rockets. In 1812 Washington DC was bombarded, burnt, and captured for the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The author can be forgiven for saying that Bihar is the birthplace of the Buddha. It was Gautama’s karma bhumi after all. What if he was born in Lumbini in Nepal?

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

The River of Lost Footsteps – A Personal History of Burma
AUTHOR: Thant Myint-U
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber Ltd., Bloomsbury House, UK

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

“Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan” by Shrabani Basu

Spy Princess

I’d read “Victoria and Abdul” by Shrabani Basu and I’d been really, really impressed. It was about Queen Victoria striking up a great friendship with a young man, Abdul Karim, who had been brought from India to work in the palace. The stupendous amount of research that formed the basis for that book and the author’s way with words had made it a most enjoyable read. So I picked up the “Spy Princess” with a basket of great expectations. Noor is a fascinating subject, firstly because she was a spy, and secondly because she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Lion of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799. The book, however, disappoints as it enlightens. Too many characters, too many details, too many sub-plots make it a tiring read.

Born in Moscow to Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian prince who was a Sufi singer, and an American woman, Ora Ray Baker, Noor-un-nisa was the eldest of four siblings, and lived mostly in Paris and London. Neither her genteel upbringing in the Sufi tradition nor her sensitive, refined temperament had prepared her for the stupendous role she was to play during the crucial years of World War II. Noor was executed by the Nazis at the Dachau concentration camp on 13th September 1944. It was only two years after the war ended that this fact became known. On 16th June 1943 she had been airdropped in France along with three others, none of whom survived the war.

Noor’s story is a saga of personal tragedies. At twelve she fell in love with a Dutch boy but her parents didn’t approve. Her father wanted her to marry Alladatt Khan, a man from Baroda, but that was not to be. Noor lost her father when she was thirteen, and took upon herself the burden of looking after her mother and younger siblings. In a short story titled ‘Echo’ she wrote: “Amongst the nymphs who lived on a high mountain slope was a little one who talked and talked and jabbered and chattered, even more than the crickets in the grass, and more than the sparrows in the trees. Her name was Echo.” She soon began contributing poems and children’s stories in magazines and radio.

Noor had learnt the basic Indian ragas from her father and played the harp and the piano. While studying music at the Ecole Normale de Musique, she was involved with a Turkish Jew. The relationship lasted six years and left her emotionally drained.

Noor graduated in child psychology from the Sorbonne in 1938. Her English translation of the Jataka Tales was published in England in 1939. In 1940, she broke off her engagement and decided to move to England with her family. Hours after the fall of Paris they set sail on the last boat to leave France. In November Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Later she was chosen as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent and became the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France to aid the Resistance. The average survival span for a radio operator was estimated by the SOE to be six weeks, and Noor was briefed about this. Her acceptance of the fatal assignment was whole-hearted.

Before leaving England, Noor told her family she was engaged to a British officer and they would marry when the war ended. The mystery man was never identified. In Paris, Noor was linked to Antelme (who was later executed by the Germans) but the nature of their relationship is uncertain. It was wartime after all – and Noor was an unfailing romantic.

For four months after landing in France Noor evaded capture, changing locations frequently, changing her appearance occasionally, and relying on her network of friends who provided cover. She was eventually betrayed and fell into the hands of the Gestapo. When Ernest Vogt at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris told Noor her sacrifice had been in vain, she replied calmly, “I have served my country. That is my recompense.” After making two daring escape attempts, Noor was labelled “highly dangerous” and transported to a prison where she was kept shackled for the next ten months. Despite interrogation, abuse and torture she revealed nothing and remained defiant until her last breath. She was only thirty when she died.

Had the SOE deliberately sent innocent girls to their deaths, knowing they would never return? The compulsions of a country at war cannot be viewed through a peace-time lens, and obviously one cannot expect simple answers.

In 1949, the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honour was bestowed upon Noor. France had awarded her their highest civilian honour in January 1946. Every year on Bastille Day (14th July) a band plays outside her childhood home, Fazal Manzil, on the rue de la Tuilerie. A square in Suresnes is named Cours Madeleine (The French know her by her code name ‘Madeleine’). There is a plaque in her honour at Dachau in Germany, and another at Grignon in France where she made her first transmission. In 2012 a bronze bust of the ‘spy princess’ was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London.

Overall Assessment: Despite its shortcomings, this is a book that begs to be read.

Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
AUTHOR: Shrabani Basu
PUBLISHER: Sutton Publishing, UK

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

“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads

Penned by an Oxford scholar, this 600 page chronicle has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in your world view. The narrative is embellished with nuggets of information about the ancient and modern worlds. It deftly removes the mask of ‘civilization’ from the face of Europe and reveals the true motivation behind many historically significant moves.

• The Prophet Mohammed’s last words: “Let there not be two religions in Arabia.”
• The faithful (Muslims) had initially been told to face Jerusalem when they prayed. It was only in 628 (six years after his flight to Medina) that Mohammed decided on Mecca.
• When Mohammed came to Yathrib (Medina) the Jews in the town concluded a mutual defence agreement that offered protection for their faith and property. However, one rabbi opined that Mohammed was a false prophet, ‘for prophets do not come armed with a sword’.
• Muslims were tolerant towards other religions during the early decades of Islam. They rebuilt the church at Edessa (Turkey) when it was damaged by an earthquake in 679. The mosque of the Dome of the Rock, constructed at the start of the 690s, had mosaic inscriptions mentioning not only Mohammed but also Jesus and Mary. Muslim attitudes towards ‘kafirs’ hardened towards the end of the seventh century as a result of the antagonism between rival factions for the control of Islam. (Of the first four caliphs, three were murdered.)
• The Arab conquest of Sindh (Pakistan) in 711 yielded 60 million dirhams in immediate gains (not accounting for future taxes).
• “Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Quran about legacies.”

• The customary greeting in Italy, ‘Ciao’ does not mean ‘hello’ – it means ‘I am your slave.’
• Venetian merchants became involved in the slave trade in the mid 8th century.
• From the 8th to the 10th centuries, slaves were the currency used for trade between Europe and the East. Money was a later addition.
• A ninth century prayer from France: “Save us, O Lord, from the Savage Norsemen who destroy our country; they take away….our young, virgin boys.”
• The Roman empire at its height required 250,000 to 400,000 new slaves annually to maintain its slave population, but the size of the market was substantially larger in the Arab world (centuries later).
• One writer opined, “There is no equal to the Turkish slaves among all the slaves of the earth.” Another account mentions a Caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each.
• There were guide-books for slave-purchase. Wrote one 11th century author, “Of all the black (slaves), the Nubian women are the most agreeable, tender and polite.”
• Jewish merchants played a key role in trafficking boys and girls from Europe and castrating the males on arrival. Eunuchs were highly valued. “If you took Slavic twins, wrote one Arabic author in this period, and castrated one, he would certainly become more skilful and ‘more lively in intelligence and conversation’ than this brother – who would remain ignorant, foolish and exhibit the innate simple-mindedness of the Slavs.”
• The Arabic word for eunuch comes from the ethnic label referring to Slavs.

• Rustichello of Pisa and Marco Polo of Venice struck up a friendship in a Genoese prison. Genoa had been victorious in separate naval battles against Pisa and Venice – and the poor men had been captured. Rustichello had spent a decade in prison before the world traveller came along. It was he who carefully recorded “The Travels of Marco Polo”.
• The Mongols were “far removed from our common perceptions of them.” They combined military dominance and selective brutality with religious tolerance, political savvy and liberal taxation.
• The Incas had meticulously recorded births and deaths.
• Elihu Yale was Governor of Madras for 5 years. He returned from India with priceless loot that included five tons of spices, diamonds and precious objects. Before his death (in Wales) he donated generously to a college in Connecticut that now bears his name. (Wikipedia describes Yale as merchant, philanthropist and slave trader.)
• European powers often resolved their disputes by exchanging their colonies. Madras changed hands between the French and the British. When Portugal ceded Bombay to Britain as part of the dowry of Catharine of Braganza in the 1660s, the Portuguese Governor of Bombay predicted that this move would spell the end of Portugal’s empire in India. It did.
• After Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757, over two million pounds flowed into the pockets of East India Company employees. Clive became the richest man in the world. The Bengal Famine of 1770 followed soon thereafter.

Everything about this book is interesting. The fonts are reader-friendly but you need both hands to hold the book.

An unforgiveable faux pas: The Guru Granth Saheb is described as “the great scared text of Sikhism.”

Overall assessment: It would make Oxford proud.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
AUTHOR: Peter Frankopan
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

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

“Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram” by Dang Thuy Tram

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, I paid the princely sum of fifteen US dollars for the diary of a dead woman I had never heard of. As I began to read, the realization dawned on me that hers was a true rendering of history – and every word was dynamite. This was no ordinary woman, no white-collared doctor, no run-of- the-mill revolutionary. She had the heart of a humanist, the soul of a poet, and the grit of a guerrilla fighter. “For the first time I dig a grave to bury a comrade. The shovel hits a rock, and sparks fly like the flame of hatred in my heart.”

On 22nd June 1970, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, barely aged 28, was shot dead by American soldiers as she walked along a remote trail in Duc Pho with three others. Her diary made its way to the United States and remained for decades in the possession of Fred Whitehurst who worked for the FBI, turned whistleblower, and finally tracked down Thuy’s aged mother in Hanoi to hand over the precious memoir. Published in 2005, the diary was an instantaneous hit. The English translation emerged in 2007. Thuy’s last words express her deep anguish and sense of hopelessness in the face of a powerful destiny: “I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Born in a cultured, ‘bourgeois’ family, Thuy learnt to play the guitar and the violin. She qualified as a doctor and was accepted for higher studies in surgical ophthalmology. Yet she chose to move south and join the resistance in December 1966. Her beloved country was at war and America was no mean foe. Part of her motivation was her desire to re-unite with the love of her life, a man she simply calls ‘M’. Thuy had loved him from an early age but he had joined the North Vietnamese army four years earlier. The truth about their break-up remains shrouded in mystery. Thuy’s diary is actually the second volume, the first having been lost in the war zone during a miraculous escape on 31st December 1969. Did she write about her heartbreak in the first volume? We may never know.

The pocket sized diary was often scribbled in dark, humid, underground shelters or narrow caves in the mountainside. US President Richard Nixon is a “mad dog.” American soldiers are “devils” or “bandits”. Thuy speaks of revenge but never kills a fly. She only saves lives. Thuy speaks of young men dying in her arms, of performing amputations without anaesthesia, of a great many medical challenges. In mid 1969, she wrote, “I will not be there when they sing the victory song.”

Of her broken relationship she says little, but her words are powerful. “The trust stemming from ten years of waiting and longing does not erode easily, but when it cracks it’s hard to repair.” And, “I know the roots of my love still lie deep within my heart, dormant but not dead. It can sprout, it can grow if spring returns. A part of me is still that young girl you know, the one who loves to feel cool raindrops on her face.”

Her writing is embellished with simile and metaphor, and the play of emotions mingles with practical descriptions of life’s harshest realities. There is poetry in every sentence. One marvels at the ebullient romanticism of the young woman in an environment shrouded by the horrors of war. Bravery and optimism, pathos and idealism – a plethora of intense feelings gives the diary a powerful voice that reaches out to even the most disinterested reader. Some excerpts:

  • My soul is as full, as tumultuous, as a river after days of torrential rain.
  • My youth has been soaked with the sweat, tears, blood, and bones of the living and the dead.
  • The hand-basket is heavy, but my worries are much heavier.
  • Hatred is bruising my liver, blackening my gut.
  • This war has robbed me of all my dreams of love.
  • Oh! Cruel American bandits, your crimes are piling up like a mountain. As long as I live I vow to fight until my last drop of blood in this thousand-year vendetta.

The diary begins on 8th April 1968, when Thuy had already spent two years among the fighters. The words she used to pay tribute to a fallen comrade are entirely appropriate and applicable in her own case: “Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
AUTHOR: Dang Thuy Tram (translated from the Vietnamese by Andrew X Pham)
Date of Publication: 2007

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

“Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment” by Vera Hildebrand


This is a book about extraordinary women caught up in events most extraordinary. Set in the early 1940s when World War II was raging across the globe, it traces the founding of the INA (Indian National Army) in Singapore, the remarkable role played by Subhas Chandra Bose, and the origin, activities and eventual disbanding of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

The best thing about this book is that it tells us of women we have never heard of before – women of Indian origin born elsewhere, who were nevertheless willing to lay down their lives for the freedom of an unseen motherland. In India, many of us have heard of Captain Lakshmi (Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan Sehgal, daughter of Ammu Swaminathan and sister of danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai) but the other names are new to us. Danish researcher and author, Vera Hildebrand, tracked down 22 surviving Ranis in India, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States and recorded their statements. She also interviewed male soldiers of the INA and Japanese co-fighters. She pored over piles of documents and her conclusions are presented in this book. (Interestingly, the Netaji Research Bureau housed in the Bose family home in Kolkata denied access to the voluminous records in their custody, including catalogues.)

On 22nd April 1945, Bose had ordered all INA documents destroyed. British Intelligence had interrogated all INA prisoners and defectors but the original reports seem to have disappeared. Copies made by Colonel Hugh C Toye and shipped to England are surviving. The author managed to view them at the British Library, UK. Five of the Ranis had unpublished memoirs or voluminous diaries – Janaki Thevar Athinahappan, Asha Bharati Sahay Choudhry, Aruna Ganguli Chattopadhya, Eva Jenny Murty Jothi and Dhanam Lakshmi Suppiah Ratnam.

The author critically examines Netaji’s contribution to Indian nationalism and the advancement of women’s equality. The book also mentions several women revolutionaries in India’s freedom struggle, whose names have largely been excluded from history books – Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Dutta, Bina Das, Suniti Chowdhury and Shanti Ghosh. Mrs. Lilavati Chaganlal Mehta and her two daughters, Neelam and Rama, were among the first to join the Ranis in Burma. The INA had about 50 Burma-born Ranis. From Malaya, there were many Tamil-speaking estate workers.

On the night of 4th April 1945, a group of 51 Ranis were retreating from their camp in Myanmar to relative safety in Thailand, escorted by Lieutenant Khushal Singh Rawat and led by Ponammah Navarednam and Janaki Bai. Two of these women fell to sniper bullets while on a freight train from Rangoon to Bangkok, and were buried on Burmese territory, somewhere along the railway line. Stella Thomas and Josephine died unhonoured, with no tributes, no memorials, and no customary encomiums. They were probably South Indians recruited from Malaya. While serving in Burma, Janaki Bai lost her father and Labanya Ganguli Chatterji was widowed barely six months after her wedding.

When the war ended, Labanya studied medicine as did Gian Kaur and Gauri Bhattacharya. All of them settled in India. Japan-born Asha Sahay settled in India along with her father, Anand Sahay. Dacca-born Anjuli Bhowmik had been only twelve years old when she joined the regiment along with her fourteen year old sister Shanthi. Manwati Pandey came from a family of Indian nationalists. Post independence she married Dr. K C Arya and settled in Kanpur. She is known as Lt. Manwati Arya and has authored several books including a few on the INA. While travelling from Rangoon to Maymyo in 1944 she had cut her long tresses short as most of the other Ranis did. In 2008 when the author asked her if the girls had regretted giving up their hair, Manwati replied with a hearty laugh, “We were ready to give our heads, so who cared about the hair!”

Overall Assessment: Very interesting.

Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment
AUTHOR: Vera Hildebrand
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India

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

“Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” by Svetlana Alexievich


The 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the erstwhile USSR is a horror story we’ve all heard. The site is now in Belarus – a tiny country with a tiny population. The Nazis obliterated 619 villages and their populations during World War II, and the Chernobyl fiasco wiped out 485 villages. Of those who remain 20% are said to be living on contaminated land.

This book by Ukraine born Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich traces the events that unfolded during those days of horror and the slow death and disease that transformed the lives of innocent people in the vicinity. The author raises a poignant question, “Why repeat the facts – they cover up our feelings.”

It comes as no surprise that the book is full of heart rending stories. Any sensitive person will have a hard time getting through it. Half way through the book you’re sure to stop and ask yourself: Do we really need nuclear energy, leave alone nuclear weapons?

Here’s a simple narrative: “Tell everyone about my daughter. Write it down. She’s four years old and she can sing, dance, she knows poetry by heart. Her mental development is normal, she isn’t any different from other kids, only her games are different. She doesn’t play “store” or “school” – she plays “hospital”. She gives her dolls shots, takes their temperature, puts them on IV. If a doll dies, she covers it with a white sheet. We’ve been living with her in the hospital for four years, we can’t leave her there alone, and she doesn’t even know that you’re supposed to live at home.”

Nikolai Kalugin, a father says, “I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget.” He shares a painful memory: “My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear, ‘Daddy, I want to live. I’m still little.’ And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.”

Anatoly Simanskiy, a journalist says, “Yesterday my father turned eighty. The whole family gathered around the table. I looked at him and thought about how much his life had seen: Gulag, Auschwitz, Chernobyl.”

Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belorussian Academy of Sciences, shared some real pearls of wisdom: “No they weren’t a gang of criminals. It was more like a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience. The principle of their lives, the one thing the Party machine had taught them was never to stick their necks out.” He had this to add: “The State always came first, and the value of a human life was zero.” And this: “People feared their superiors more than they feared the atom.”

Vladimir Ivanov, a former first secretary of the Satvgorod regional Party committee told the author, “It was the military way of dealing with things. They didn’t know any other way. They didn’t understand that there is really such a thing as physics. There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx. But what if I’d said that then?” Perhaps he wouldn’t have lived long enough to speak to the author. (This speculation is mine alone!)

A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, as we read these personal testimonies we are left with a feeling of great sadness. But there is a faint thread of humour too, like a rainbow emerging from the dark clouds. An Ukranian woman is selling big red apples at the market, calling them ‘Chernobyl’ apples. Someone advises her to drop the advertisement as no one would buy them if they heard they were from Chernobyl. The woman then says coolly, “They buy them any way. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.”

Overall Assessment: The author has done a brilliant job. Steel yourself before you read the book.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
AUTHOR: Svetlana Alexievich (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen)

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

“Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination” by Joyce Appleby


Marco Polo, the 13th century traveler, landed in a Genoese prison on his return from the Far East. His cell-mate was a writer and that’s how his story came to be told. ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ was Columbus’ favourite book. Columbus was Genoese but his sponsors were the King and Queen of Spain. When he returned from the West Indies in 1493 he presented them with six Taino Indians, besides many species of plants and animals. Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas in the next decade, and when Hispaniola ran out of gold, he introduced sugarcane cultivation using forced labour. Religious conversion happened simultaneously. In the meantime the indigenous peoples encountered European induced diseases such as small pox and died in droves.

On Columbus’ second voyage, the Spaniards discovered pineapple on the island of Guadeloupe. Little did they know the ‘Indians’ had imported these plants from Brazil and Uruguay in their ancient canoes!

There are stories within stories. Spaniards invaded Cuba in 1511 and Mexico in 1521. Seven decades after Columbus’ arrival the New World had seven times as many Africans as Europeans. Eventually it was Amerigo Vespucci (a Florentine) whom the great new continents were named after. Unlike others before him Vespucci realized that the spot where he had landed (Brazil) was part of a new continent. His travel accounts published in 1502 won him instant fame. Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer, while preparing a new map in 1507 chose the name ‘America’ for the two continents in the western hemisphere. The rest is history.

Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, but it was Magellan who named it. John Cabot (a man from Genoa) had explored Greenland, Newfoundland and the east coast of North America under the English flag in 1497-98 but he didn’t get much press. (Cabot’s expedition is believed to be the first by Europeans to mainland North America since the Vikings landed five centuries earlier.)

Hernan Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, wrote about the Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlan and their utter surprise at finding resplendent buildings, stone statues, gold artifacts, frescoes, floating gardens et al. Bartolome de Las Casas (traveler and writer) denounced the cruelty of the conquistadors in his 16th century book “The History of the Indies”. When other European writers mentioned the Aztecs’ human sacrifices and the cannibalism of the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, Las Casas reminded them of the biblical story where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son.

Ferdinand Magellan did not really circumnavigate the globe but one of his ships did. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and only one of his five ships, the Victoria, returned to Spain in 1522 with 18 survivors and 26 tons of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Magellan was Portuguese but he took Spanish citizenship in order to participate in the exploration.

The book is full of interesting facts that a lover of history and sociology is sure to lap up with immense pleasure. Here are some samples:

  • Jeanne Baré, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (1766-69), went on Bougainville’s expedition disguised as a man, but on landing in Tahiti was instantly recognized as a woman by the natives.
  • The Aztec jugglers whom Cortez brought to Spain were later sent to Rome to entertain the Pope. That’s when rubber balls had their European debut. Yes, the Aztecs were rubber-tappers!
  • Francis Drake looted the Spanish silver fleet during his 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe. This enabled Queen Elizabeth to pay off her country’s debt.
  • In Java, Antonio Pigafetta (a writer accompanying Magellan) “learned about the practice of suttee, described by his native interpreter in glowing terms as a ceremony in which a flower-bedecked widow happily accepted her duty to join her husband’s corpse on the funeral pyre.”
  • An island near Borneo “was occupied by Muslims who, though as naked as the other natives, adhered strictly to Muslim rules about diet and hygiene.”
  • “When the Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala, chided him (Carl Linnaeus) for placing humankind among other primates, Linnaeus replied airily that he knew of no way that would follow from the principles of natural history to make a generic difference between humans and simians. Either the archbishop should find one or cease his complaint.” Wow! So much for the Creation myth and the cute tale of Noah’s Ark!
  • “Thomas Jefferson, then the United States foreign minister to France, supposedly brought back the recipe for French fries, which he served over the next decade at the White House.”
  • In 1867 America bought Alaska from Russia. The purchase was described as “Seward’s Folly” after Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward who had negotiated the treaty.
  • In 1785 Napoleon Bonaparte, then aged 16, made an effort to join a naval expedition but did not qualify. The two ships carrying 220 men met a tragic end after leaving their last port of call in New South Wales, Australia in January 1788, and were never heard of again.

The story of the potato is a must-read. And that’s not all. Pedro Alvares Cabral, Charles Darwin, Alexander Humboldt, the Medicis of Florence, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Alexander Selkirk, Captain James Cook, and a horde of other stalwarts make guest appearances that are sure to leave the reader absolutely delighted.

Overall assessment: A scholarly masterpiece.

Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination
Author: Joyce Appleby
Publisher: W .W. Norton & Co.
Year of Publication: 2014

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

“Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River” by Alice Albinia


This first book by a young author made me feel thoroughly ashamed of my ignorance of history. A splendid piece of meticulous research, it ought to be read by every Indian and Pakistani, not to mentions Afghans, Tibetans, and others. The author traces the path and history of the mighty Indus River in an altogether novel narrative, and portrays the lives and aspirations of the peoples who inhabited the lands surrounding it. The book is at once a delightful travelogue, and a superb historical narrative spanning thousands of years. It is serious, yet entertaining, cerebral but not incomprehensible.

Consider these snippets of information:

  1. Islam had a complex relationship with slavery. As in the Bible, slaves were an important part of the Quran’s social system. Mohammed himself sold the Jewish women of Medina into slavery – and the Quran, which has a rule for everything, scripted a strict code regarding their treatment. Slaves were not objects but human beings and they were to be considered a part of the family.
  2. The 10th century Baghdad Caliph had 7000 black eunuchs (and 4000 white ones).
  3. As Islam’s reach into Africa deepened, and the number of black slaves being exported to Arabia increased, so did Arab racism about Africans. Some historians trace this to the revolt by black slaves working in the mines and plantations of Mesopotamia in 883CE.
  4. Arabs imported/exported 2 million sub-Saharan slaves between 900 and 1100.
  5. When the first Muslim-Arab army arrived on the shores of Sind in 711CE, it arrived with plenty of African slaves.
  6. In 1240 Razia Sultan was deposed for having an affair with her Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slave minister Jamaluddin Yaqut, though Razia herself belonged to the ‘Slave Dynasty’ which was of Turkish origin.

All this has to do with slavery but that’s not what the book is about. There’s lots of information about many things, people and events. There are profound sentiments and an overall sense of pathos. The unstated is as powerful as the stated. Babur hunted rhinoceros in the jungles of northern Punjab. (Now the region has no more rhinos.) Ashoka’s edict at Kandahar was scripted in Aramaic and Greek. The land where the Golden Temple of Amritsar stands was donated by Emperor Akbar to the fourth Sikh Guru. (This is fiercely contested.)

Overall Assessment: If you have any intellectual pretensions, do read the book. If you have an interest in history, sociology and the environment, it’s a must-read. Flippant readers, keep away – this book is not for you!

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River
Author: Alice Albinia
Publisher: John Murray (An Hatchette UK Company)
Date of Publication: 2008

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

“Sahibs’ India: Vignettes from the Raj” by Pran Nevile


This is a meticulously researched work, yet the author eschews boring details and tells us only what informs and entertains. “In the royal household of the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, there were 300 indoor servants, of whom a third were cooks.” My heart stops, my head spins, my hair stands on end! While we do know that the British in India lived in opulent splendor, the actual details and descriptions are revealing if not shocking. We are left wondering whether the kings and queens of England enjoyed such luxuries as the sahibs did.

The chapters have interesting titles, indicating the shape of things to come: Sex and the Sahib, Memsahibs and the Indian Marriage Bazar, When Sahib was Hooked to Hookah, Nautch Parties, Fun and Frolic in Simla, Shikar and Pig-Sticking, Sadhus, Sufis and Sanyasis, Banning of an Indian Erotic Epic, and so on. “David Ochterlony, the British resident in Delhi (1803) popularly known as ‘Loony Ahktar’, lived like a royal prince and used to take the air in the evening accompanied by his thirteen Indian bibis riding elephants.” Similarly, William Frazer who was the British commissioner in the 1830s maintained seven Indian wives and had several children, who were either Hindu or Muslim depending on the faith of their mothers.

We learn that “The cost of landing a European wife in Calcutta worked out to Rs.5000 – far beyond the means of ordinary company officials. On the other hand, according to Captain Williamson’s Guide book published in 1810, the expenses that had to be incurred on an Indian mistress worked out to Rs.40 per month.” We also learn than white-skinned girls from Eastern Europe and Japan were procured to staff the brothels of Bombay and Calcutta. Robert Clive in the 18th century described Calcutta as “one of the most wicked places in the Universe.” In 1828 there was a general strike by palanquin bearers in Calcutta. Interestingly, all of them were natives of Orissa. The rickshaw was introduced from Japan in the 1880s. The Kumbh Mela at Haridwar attracted pilgrims from China, Persia and Bokhara.

“All accounts emphasize the fact that Muslims celebrated their festivals just like the Hindus, with the same earnestness and ostentation and amused themselves with dance and song and other entertainments, including feast and sports,” the book informs us. Persian songs were as popular in India as Hindi songs until the end of the 19th century. “Tazah ba tazah, nu ba nu”, a ghazal by Hafiz (Shirazi) dominated the nautch scene for over a century. By the early 20th century, thanks to the fervor of the missionaries and the campaigns of the vigilantes, the nautch had fallen out of favour and the nautch girls had faded into oblivion.

The book has several amusing anecdotes. Here’s a sample: As the story goes, Nobel laureate C.V. Raman was once performing religious rituals with offerings of food to his ancestors in Gaya when someone said to him, ‘Sir, you are such a great scientist – how can you believe this food would reach your ancestors? Sir Raman smiled and replied, ‘I cannot prove that it will not reach them.’

The author, Pran Nevile, was born and educated in Lahore and served in the Indian Foreign Service and the United Nations. He has written several books on the British Raj, including Beyond the Veil: Indian Women in the Raj, Rare Glimpses of the Raj, and Nautch Girls of the Raj.

Overall Assessment: Worth reading

Sahibs’ India: Vignettes from the Raj
Author: Pran Nevile
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: November 2010

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

“The Travels of Ibn Battuta” by Ibn Batuta (Abridged and Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith)

Travels of Ibn Battutah

“They told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him.” Describing the practice of sati in 14th century Hindustan, Ibn Battuta observes that, “The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; but when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it…”

Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta is undoubtedly the greatest traveller in world history. Born in Tangier, Morocco in 1304, he set out for Mecca and Medina at the age of 22 and returned home a quarter of a century later, having visited much of the old world from Hangzhou in China to Timbuktu in Mali, and traversed an estimated 75,000 miles between 1325 and 1354. On his return he wrote his epic travelogue wherein he mentioned more than 1500 persons by name. Ibn Battuta (that’s his family name) was a Sunni Muslim and a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence.

He described Al Iskandariya (Alexandria) in Egypt as one of the most beautiful places he has ever seen. “Among all the ports in the world I have seen none to equal it except the ports of Kawlam (Quilon) and Qalicut (Calicut) in India……..and the port of Zaitun (Quanzhou) in China.” [Alexandria is still beautiful, but Kollam and Calicut are ports no longer.] Ibn Battuta observed the famed lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos), one of the wonders of the ancient world, on his outward journey and also on his return. When he saw it for the first time, only one face had been ruined but when he returned in 1349, it had virtually become inaccessible.

At Delhi, Sultan Muhammad bin Tugluq appointed him as Maliki Qadi and he spent six years there, referring to his benefactor as king of Al-Sind and Al-Hind. His description of the Qutub Minar and the metal pillar are revealing. There are some descriptions that would make painful reading for devout Hindus. “At the eastern gate of the mosque there are two enormous idols of brass, prostrate on the ground and held by stones, and everyone entering or leaving the mosque treads on them. The site was formerly occupied by a budkhanah, that is an idol temple, and was converted to a mosque on the conquest of the city.” (Delhi was sacked by Muhammad Ghori in 1192, Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated, and a few years later Qutbuddin Aibak established the Slave Dynasty.)

Of the holy man Shaikh Ala al-Din he wrote, “He preaches to the people every Friday and multitudes of them repent before him and shave their heads and fall into ecstasies of lamentation, and some of them faint.” Sounds familiar? These practices persist even today, but not necessarily in the Islamic world.

“No person eats with another out of the same dish,” Ibn Battuta noted. He also spoke of the Indian habit of eating betel leaves with areca nuts, sprinkling rose water and eating samosas. He recounted the common scenes in the capital, telling us a great deal about life in Delhi in the 14th century. “Every day there are brought to the audience hall hundreds of people chained, pinioned and fettered, and those who are for execution are executed, those for torture tortured, and those for beating beaten.” The shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabd in the Deccan is recounted, probably with a little exaggeration.

Of the Syrian city of Aleppo he said, “The spirit feels in the environs of the city of Halab (Aleppo) an exhilaration, gladness and sprightliness which are not experienced elsewhere, and it is one of the cities which is worthy to be the seat of the Caliphate.” Well, if Ibn Battuta were to see the state of Aleppo today he would just sit down amidst the rubble and weep.

These teeny-weeny tales are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots more! Overall Assessment: Very, very interesting.

The Travels of Ibn Battuta
Author : Ibn Battuta (Abridged and Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith from the translation by Sir Hamilton Gibb and C F Beckingham)
Publisher: Picador
Date of Publication: December 2002

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

“In Search of Shiva- a Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan” by Haroon Khalid

In Search of Shiva

“Dama dam mast Qalander……” The peppy tune echoed in my mind as I breezed through Haroon Khalid’s book. Whether sung by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila or Pakistani Abida Parveen or the Wadali brothers, the song has a universal appeal. Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the 12th century Sufi saint is not the subject of this book though. The author, an Islamabad-based journalist and educationist takes us on an unusual journey through little known villages in Pakistan, where religious shrines cling to relics and rituals of a long-forgotten pre-Islamic past, virtually presenting an alternative and liberal version of Islam. Khalid expresses concerns about the rising tide of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan and suggests that many of these quaint practices may soon be wiped out or driven underground.

“But nothing had prepared me for this, a Muslim shrine dedicated to the fertility cult, where women offer phallic-shaped offerings to the patron saint while praying for a child, ideally a boy.” Here, the author recounts his visit to the shrine of Aban Shah Shirazi. Glass bangles and white turbans were among the offerings. No sign of any shivling! Khalid and his fellow travellers finally discovered that an elderly woman had removed all the phallic symbols to hide them from prying eyes. It appears that concerns for modesty played a part rather than Islamic beliefs, or the other items would have been hidden too. When asked about the offerings, the woman said, “These are presented to the shrine by women praying for children. Some of them also bring toys for children and tie them around the trees outside…..Women sometimes come to pray for their cows to give birth to calves.” This in an Islamic country where Hindus comprise less than 2% of the population!

A 25-year old woman confessed that when she remained childless after five years of marriage and her mom-in-law threatened her with divorce, a simple phallic offering to the saint did the trick and she was soon blessed with two sons and a daughter. Wonder what the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, would say to that!

The shrine of Baba Mast where thousands of eunuchs congregate, that of Peer Abbas, where dogs abound, the shrine at Kallar Kahar where peacocks are venerated (Babur camped here on his way to conquer India), the shrine of Ghore Shah where toy horses are offered, a shrine for the master of crows, what more do you need? A 75-year old dervish tells the author, “All langar provided to the devotees at the shrine is offered to the crows before anybody else. Children who stutter or have other speaking problems drink water from the same vessel as the crows and are cured.” He continues, picking up a little ash from under a pot, “This ash here is also sacred. Devotees eat it and all their problems are solved.”

In the city of Jhang, where the legendary lovers Heer and Ranjha lie buried in a single grave, the site has become a place of pilgrimage. The story is part of the oral tradition of South Asia, supposedly written by Damodardas Arora during the reign of Akbar and rewritten by Waris Shah in the 18th century. And young people come here in droves to seek the blessings of the long-gone lovebirds.

The book offers many glimpses of life in Pakistan. Here are some interesting examples: ‘Jihad is an obligation, now or never,’ said an advertisement sponsored by the Jamaat ud dawa organization, on the back of a rickshaw. “The (Friday) prayer would be preceded by a sermon from the local maulvi, who while stoking his oiled beard would pray for the demise of the United States, Israel and India, our own local version of the axis of evil…” The author notes the disappearance of kittens from the Billiyonwala Mazaar at Lahore and its rapid transition from a Sufi shrine to a regular mosque. He observes that the Eid Milad un Nabi celebrations are modeled on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, and while the fervor with which Eid is celebrated has increased, its opposition from puritanical Muslims has also increased. Qawwali singing at Sufi shrines also irks the orthodox maulvis who believe that music is un-Islamic.

“I have often been told that there are certain topics pertaining to religion one should avoid writing about because of the negative backlash they are likely to invite. I, on the other hand, argue that one can get away with writing anything in Pakistan as no one reads,” Khalid explains. I hope his luck holds. We don’t want the young man to attract a fatwa or anything. We need sane voices from every country to keep speaking out, to keep writing, to move the dialogue forward.

The publishers could have could have done a better job of editing — I found several blatant errors in the text. But my overall assessment is still: Eminently readable.


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

“A History of the World in 100 Objects” by Neil MacGregor


“In 7 houses there are 7 cats. Each cat catches 7 mice. If each mouse were to eat 7 ears of corn and each ear of corn, if sown, were to produce 7 gallons of grain, how many things are mentioned in total?” This is just one of 84 different problems that grace the Rhind mathematical papyrus found near Luxor in Egypt. It dates back to 1550 B.C. and records not only the questions but also the answers and the calculation sequences in true textbook style. There are computations such as how many gallons of beer or loaves of bread you can get from a given amount of grain or how to calculate the slope of a pyramid.

In this spectacular book, MacGregor presents 100 artifacts from the British Museum that shed new light on the human experience. A 1.8 to2 million year old stone cutting tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania testifies that man existed long before the biblical God created him in 4004 B.C. The Flood Tablet from Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq) that relates the story of the Great Flood pre-dates the Old Testament by a few centuries. A 5500 year old clay model of four cows found near Luxor reveals that cows were venerated in the Nile region then (as they are in India today).

The earliest pottery was made in Japan 16,500 years ago. (No, there isn’t an extra zero!) The Olmecs of Mexico devised the first ball games using rubber balls well over 3000 years ago. A 5000 year old clay tablet with the earliest writing reveals beer measures and the birth of bureaucracy in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Apparently, beer was the first currency, for coins appeared only 4500 years later. The earliest gold coins minted by Croesus of Lydia (Turkey) around 550 B.C. are also mentioned in the book.

The 196 B.C. Rosetta stone led to the cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. A silver drinking cup made around 10 A.D. near Jerusalem depicts scenes of adult men having sex with adolescent boys. (In those days, Jesus would have been a young boy living in the region.) The cup was shunned by art collectors until the British Museum finally bought it in 1999.

A 27-25 B.C. bronze head of Augustus Caesar found in Sudan has piercing eyes that avoid your gaze, no matter where you stand. The statue has an interesting history. A fierce one-eyed queen of Meroe decapitated the statue and had it buried at the base of a flight of steps leading up to a temple, thereby ensuring that every person mounting the stairway would step on the head of the Roman emperor.

The first Islamic gold coins minted in Damascus in 696-697 A.D. had the image of the 9th caliph, Abd al-Malik, but within a year the coins with images disappeared and were replaced with Quranic text. Today a selfie with a Sheikh would not be considered un-Islamic and one could boldly post it on FB and expect dozens of ‘likes’.

A stone fragment dated around 238 B.C. from one of Emperor Asoka’s pillars declares, “I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honoured all religious sects with various offering.” These values of tolerance, pluralism and humanism still hold good.

Among the recent finds is a throne of weapons obtained from Mozambique, a chair made from parts of guns that were made all over the world and exported to Africa. An aboriginal bark shield brought to England by Captain James Cook tells a sad tale of the Botany Bay encounter between the white invaders and the aborigines. A 1903 penny from England has the words VOTES FOR WOMEN stamped all over the king’s head. The coin’s Latin inscription proudly proclaims, ‘Edward VII by the grace of God, King of all Britain, defender of the faith, Emperor of India.’ The slogan that disfigured it was an ingenious campaign method devised by the suffragettes. It would circulate widely and indefinitely because it was too numerous and too low in value to recall.

A Buddha head from Borubodur in Indonesia. An Inca gold llama from Peru. A banknote from Ming China. An ancient stone statue from Easter Island. A ritual seat of the Taino people of the Dominican Republic who were wiped out by 1600, a century after the arrival of Columbus. A Huastec goddess from Mexico. An Indus Valley seal dating back to 2500-2000 B.C. From Istanbul, a 16-century tughra, the stamp of authority of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, a magnificent calligraphy with the sultan’s name in Arabic and the words below in Turkish.

From the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, several chess pieces made of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, probably fashioned in Norway. The queens have their palms supporting their chins and their eyes stare into the distance. The kings are seated on thrones and have their swords on their laps. Only the soldiers lack distinctive character.

A 700 year old Shiva-Parvati sculpture from Orissa brought to England by Charles Stuart, an officer of the East India Company, who was nicknamed ‘Hindoo Stuart’ due to his love for all things Indian. He spoke out against missionary attempts to convert Hindus and in 1808 he published a pamphlet titled, ‘Vindication of the Hindoos’. Will our Hindutva brigade scour the libraries of Kolkata to trace this document? I would love to read it.

Overall Assessment: Never judge a book by its cover – this one’s a masterpiece.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
Author: Neil MacGregor
Publisher: Penguin UK
Publication Date: June 2012

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