“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy1

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was my first real insight into white working-class America – what he describes as ‘hillbillies’ from a poor Rust Belt town. The author gives a compelling explanation of why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to ‘make it.’ I picked up this book after the 2016 election to get an idea of the Republican base.

I just loved the glimpse into Vance’s chaotic family history – his grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother dealing with demands of their new middle-class life while struggling with the legacy of addiction, alcoholism and poverty that is so characteristic of their part of America.

Vance’s grandparents moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them and to raise a middle-class family. When J.D. graduates from Yale Law School, he succeeds in achieving generational upward mobility – a story interspersed with its fair share of humor and colorful characters. He was mostly raised by his grandparents along with his half-sister because his mother was an addict who went from husband to husband and Vance barely knew his father. He did poorly in school and was lucky to get out of the cyclical poverty when a cousin pushed him into joining the Marines, which was an American melting pot. From there he went to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School.

At Yale, his mentor was Amy Chua – the famous ‘tiger mom.’ But he feels the disdain from his fellow-mates who come from a different socio-economic class and cannot relate to his ‘white poverty’ or his marine background. He meets his future wife, Usha, at Yale and finds much more

Vance doesn’t pretend to be a policy expert or offer solutions – he merely opens our eyes to them. But after reading the book, it did make me think about what can be done to create opportunity in poor communities, especially in ‘middle America.’

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel” by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics

I was at the Munich airport and had time to kill. I went to the bookstore and my eyes fell on a book with an intriguing name. I went ahead and bought it. And sure, I got my money’s worth.

I was startled to learn that this is the author’s first book. He sure writes like a pro. And he’s chosen a mind-blowing topic. I’ve read many books written by journalists, but this one’s the best of all. It’s a lesson in economics, sociology, crime and the dark side of human life.

We learn that the world’s taxpayers spend $100 billion a year combating the illegal drugs trade. “There is an overwhelming focus on suppressing the supply side of the business, when basic economics suggests that addressing demand would make more sense.”

The global narcotics industry has annual revenues amounting to about $300 billion and serves a quarter of a billion consumers. It closely resembles a professionally run multinational corporation. “Colombian cocaine manufacturers have protected their profits by tightening control of their supply chains, along the same lines as Walmart. Mexican cartels have expanded on a franchise basis, with the same success as Macdonald’s.”

Monopsony means ‘single buyer.’ While a monopolist can dictate prices to its consumers as it’s the only seller, a monopsonist can dictate prices to its suppliers, because it’s the only buyer. Drug cartels keep the price of coca stable by putting pressure on the suppliers who in turn squeeze the growers. So any production loss or destruction of crop affects only the farmers – those at the very bottom of the supply chain. On the international market the price of cocaine has remained steady for over two decades. So has the number of cocaine users.

“Prison is fabulously expensive. Sending a teenager to jail costs more than it would to send hint to Eton College, the private boarding school in England that educated Princes William and Harry.” For criminal organizations, prisons pay a pivotal role in the recruitment and training of staff. The La Nuestra Familia (our family), a California based prison gang was founded in the 1960s by prison inmates looking to protect themselves from another gang, the Mexican Mafia. The Aryan Brotherhood is another American prison gang. (Gosh, there’s a whole world out there that we’re clueless about!)

“Buy cocaine in Europe or the United States and it’s an uncomfortable certainty that you have helped to pay for someone to be tortured to death…” Drug cartels often seek publicity for their gruesome murders. The author was told that the worst time to step out in Ciudad Juarez (in the Mexican state of Chihuahua) is 5-45 p.m. because that’s when the gangs carry out their executions in time to lead the 6 p.m. news broadcast.

There’s a whole lot of interesting information:

  • In the early 1970s, Stanford University students used Arpanet (a precursor of the internet) for the first time to arrange a deal with the students of MIT. The subject of the transaction was a bag of marijuana. Today, on the ‘dark web’ of the internet drugs and weapons are anonymously bought with bitcoins, and contract killings are said to be on sale. A recent Global Drug Survey revealed that in the UK 22% of illegal drugs are purchased online.
  • Many hotels in La Paz, Bolivia serve coca tea to guest on arrival.
  • The UN estimates that the average coca grower in Columbia earns $2 a day.
  • Brazil is the world’s second biggest market for cocaine after the United States.
  • Spain is the main gateway to Europe for Latin American drugs.
  • New Zealand shuts down more crystal-meth labs each year than any country in the world apart from the United States and Ukraine.
  • “For criminals looking for an offshore base in the Americas, Guatemala has a lot to offer. But it faces stiff competition from its southern neighbour, Honduras.”
  • Guatemala’s president Otto Perez Molina, stated that, “Today more people are dying in Central America through drug trafficking, and the violence it generates, than are dying in the United States through the consumption of drugs.”

The book talks of the franchising of criminal brands, the manufacture of ‘designer drugs’, the emergence of “Frankenstein drugs’, and lots more. In short, it’s one deadly cocktail.

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel
AUTHOR: Tom Wainwright
PUBLISHER: Ebury Press
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

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

“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34
AUTHOR: MANINI CHATTERJEE
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1999

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

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This Child Will Be Great

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first woman president and this book is her memoir. She recounts how she came to power in her native Liberia and the tremendous odds she had to overcome to get there. Sworn in as President in January 2006 at the end of a fourteen year long civil war, she remained at the helm for 12 years and oversaw a peaceful transition. Liberia went to the polls in October 2017 to elect a new leader.

The book reveals the complexities of Liberia’s links with the New World and its long and painful history. While the slave trade saw Africans shipped from West Africa to the Americas to undergo forced labour, there was a reverse flow of freed slaves to these shores in the early 19th century. Monrovia, the capital of Liberia is named after US President James Munroe and the country’s flag resembles the American flag. The settlers thought they were somehow superior to the indigenous peoples and the seeds of conflict were sown. Liberia’s first President was a man born in Virginia.

Ellen’s paternal grandfather has eight wives and god knows how many children. Her maternal grandfather, a German trader, had married a local woman and the couple had one daughter. At the start of World War I, Liberia expelled all Germans, to demonstrate its loyalty to the US. The grandfather returned to Germany and was never heard of again.
Ellen’s father was the first indigenous man to be elected to the legislature. He suffered a paralytic stroke while in his early forties and soon the family fortunes nose-dived.

At 17, Ellen fell in love and married James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from college in Alabama. They both found jobs and had four children in quick succession. When James moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study further, Ellen went too, leaving the grandmothers to care for the little ones. She studied at the Madison Business college, and worked part time, sweeping floors and waiting tables.

“In Madison I was so cold I sometimes feared my tears would freeze.” James was alcoholic and abusive and Ellen had to learn to cope. “Doc always did enough to hurt but not enough to maim or kill. Just enough to keep me in a state of fear.” Twice he put a gun to her head but did not shoot. She knew that if she walked away, or even if her husband did, she would lose custody of the children. When they returned to Liberia, James did, in fact, take away the children from her. Following their divorce, he remarried and moved to Florida with the youngest child.

Ellen had a government job and soon she had an opportunity to study at Boulder, Colorado and Harvard. She had already created ripples in government circles by criticizing the powers that be. Her American education, work experience and contacts stood her in good stead as she returned to Liberia and slowly but surely worked her way up the political ladder. When the President of Liberia died in 1971 and a new President came to power, Ellen was offered a new job- that of Deputy Minister of Finance. Eight years later there was a coup. Ellen left the country and took up a position with the World Bank.

Liberia had enjoyed political stability for century but glaring economic disparities threatened the delicate equilibrium and the insensitivity of the men in power brought things to ahead. The Rice Riots saw police fire upon a crowd of demonstrators killing at least 41. Soon thereafter at a conference of the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now African Union) in July 1979, President Tolbert remarked that the most pressing problem of the continent was apartheid in South Africa. The following month Ellen was made the first female Finance Minister in the nation’s history. A year later there was a coup and president Tolbert was killed. Only four ministers were spared – and Ellen was one of them.

The United States bolstered the new government and Liberia soon became the CIA’s main station in Africa. Ellen went back to the World Bank and later worked for Citibank. By then three of her sons were studying in the US.

Ellen never ceased political activity. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for speaking out against the government. But she was offered clemency due to intense pressure from Citibank and elsewhere. One of the messages passed to her in prison had read, “We’d rather have a live ant than a dead elephant.” Of her subsequent flight from her homeland Ellen writes, “As much as I wanted to stay in Liberia, I wanted even more to stay alive. It was time to go.”

In 1990 civil war erupted and there were massacres in Monrovia followed by a massive exodus to neighbouring countries and total internal displacement of indigenous peoples. A Boston Globe reporter was told by a local, “The dogs ate the dead, and we ate the dogs.”

The book is one long politico-historical story that almost eclipses the personal. But there are interesting insights too, not entirely about Africa. For instance, the Confederate general Robert E Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia. Wow! Do you think his statues ought to stay?

Overall assessment: Good read.

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President
Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of Publication: 2010

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

“Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

Reminiscences_of_the_Cuban_Revolutionary_War

This is a book about the Cuban Revolution by one of its legendary heroes. It was compiled in 1963, four years after the triumph of the guerrilla war that brought Fidel Castro to power on 1st January 1959. Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla fighter Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had fought shoulder to shoulder with his Cuban comrades to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A universal symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice, Che believed that revolutionary uprising was the only path to liberation of oppressed peoples.

Talking of his harrowing experiences in the first few days after the small band of warriors landed in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, and all but 20 of the 82 men died in combat, Che writes, “I immediately began to think of the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind.”

The innocence of youth is striking. “As a trophy from the Battle of La Plata, I had taken a helmet from one of Batista’s corporals, and I wore it with great pride.” The helplessness of the invalid is apparent. “My asthma was somewhat aggravated and the lack of medicine meant I was almost as immobile as the wounded.”

The mind of the quintessential revolutionary is evident. “The people in the Sierra Maestra grow like wild flowers, untended and without care, and they wear themselves out rapidly, working without reward. We began to feel in our bones the need for a definitive change in the life of the people.”

The sensitive humanist also surfaces from time to time. “Blind and unrewarded sacrifices also made the revolution. Those of us who today see its achievements have the responsibility to remember those who fell along the way, and to work for a future where there will be fewer stragglers.”

Che describes his efforts at dentistry with characteristic humour. “Besides the meagerness of my skill, we had no anaesthetic, so I frequently used ‘psychological anaesthesia’ – a few harsh epithets when my patients complained too much about the work going on in their mouths.” When Batista’s forces leave behind a trail of destruction after failing to find the guerrillas, Che observes: “In the midst of the smoking ruins we found nothing but some cats and a pig; they had escaped the destructive fury of the invaders only to fall into our gullets.”

Che recounts his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, tells us how they both landed in jail, how they bribed their way out and how they made the dangerous sea crossing to land on Cuban shores after running out of food, water and fuel. “It was a shipwreck rather than a landing,” he writes. He describes how they ate raw crabs, horse meat and anything they could lay their hands on, how they drew water from holes in the rocks using hollowed out sticks, and how they dealt ruthlessly with traitors and informers.

There is deep pathos in his references to fallen comrades. “We must make time to weep for our fallen companeros while we sharpen our machetes.”

If Che Guevara hadn’t become a guerrilla commander he could have been a best-selling author. He was such a prolific writer – and he had so much to say.

Overall Assessment: Must read.

REMINISCENCES OF THE CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR
AUTHOR: ERNESTO ‘CHE’ GUEVARA
PUBLISHER: OCEAN PRESS
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006 (first published in Spanish in 1963)

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

“Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Heretic

Somalian born Ayaan Hirsi Ali is undoubtedly one of the most powerful liberal voices of the present century. She puts forth powerful arguments in order to prove that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. As the Muslim world struggles to come to terms with the challenges of modernity, believers have no option but to reconsider their stance on crucial concepts such as jihad, polygamy, talaq, inheritance rights, and a host of other issues. The attempt to adapt 7th century teachings to 21st century aspirations is causing much heartburn. The Arab Spring and Islamic State are manifestations of the soul-searching that is happening within the Muslim world.

“The UN estimated in November 2014 that some 15000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have travelled to Syria to join the radical jihadists,” she points out. The threat posed by terrorist groups is very real and the need to tackle the root causes is urgent.

“The call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam,” the author opines. Her reasoning is not unsound. Demonstrating the power of indoctrination, she writes of her own intolerant past self, “When Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran called for the writer Salman Rushdie to die after he published The Satanic Verses, I didn’t ask if this was right…….Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die; after all he has insulted the Prophet. My friends said it, my religious teachers said it, the Qur’an said it, and I said it and believed it, too.”

Ayaan focuses on five areas that need re-thinking: (1) Muhammad’s infallible status (2) the Sharia (3) the glorification of the afterlife (4) the call to wage holy war (5) the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law. “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” The author notes that today the Shahada is not merely the Muslim profession of faith but the banner of IS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. She says, “We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ‘racist’”.

The author expresses the hope that the movement for reform is already under way. She recounts certain events that give room for hope. On New Year’s Day 2015, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave an astonishing speech at Al-Azhar University. He asked, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” He went on to say: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…..because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood once said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

I can’t help thinking Ayaan ought to have visited India, especially Kerala, where peace-loving Muslims are in a massive majority. Or Indonesia. Or Malaysia. Perhaps she might modify some of the harsher postulates based on her own experience of militant Islam in Africa and Arabia. Moreover, she would realize that Hindus comprise only 15% of the world population, and they too indulge in honour killings and inhuman punishments.

Overall Assessment: To describe this book as thought-provoking and path-breaking would be an understatement. But I suggest you read “Infidel” first.

TITLE: HERETIC: WHY ISLAM NEEDS A REFORMATION NOW
AUTHOR: AYAAN HIRSI ALI
PUBLISHER: HARPER COLLINS
PUBLICATION DATE: 2015

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

“The Story of Che Guevara” by Lucia Álvarez de Toledo

The Story of Che Guevara

Among the innumerable authorized and unauthorized biographies of the legendary Che, this one – by an Argentine author – surely stands out.

Che Guevara is the ultimate symbol of rebellion and idealism. He rejected the trappings of power and embraced the hard life of the guerrilla fighter. He was born in Argentina and had Cuban citizenship conferred on him, but his outlook was global and his spirit truly Latin American. He condemned the United States at the UN General Assembly in 1964. The following year he criticized the Soviet Union at an international conference in Algeria. He was not one to toe anybody’s line. Even Fidel Castro let him do as he pleased.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a chronic asthmatic, decided early in life that he would overcome. He practised swimming, sports, riding, and shooting and enjoyed the outdoors. In 1947 he evaded military service by having a cold shower before turning up at the barracks for his medical examination, knowing full well that it would trigger a severe asthmatic attack. As a consequence, he was declared medically unfit. He qualified as a doctor in 1953.

Ernesto’s paternal grandmother Ana Lynch was born in San Francisco and came to Argentina at the age of 12. His parents were unconventional people.

In 1950 Ernesto’s 4700 km bicycle trip was featured on the cover of a sports magazine. Besides, he met Chinchina Ferreyra and fell in love. In 1951 he worked as a male nurse on a merchant ship that took him to Brazil, Trinidad, Curacao, British Guyana and Venezuela. En route he wrote a short story titled ‘Anguish – the only Certainty’ wherein he interspersed his own philosophical musings with quotes from Sartre, Nehru and others. Realizing that sailing was not his destiny, he returned home and sought out Chinchina. The immensely rich Ferreyra family did not favour Ernesto’s marriage-plus-travel proposal.

Then began the famed motorcycle trip with Alberto Granada in December 1951. In July 1952, their paths diverged, Alberto landing a job in Venezuela and Ernesto ending up in Miami with one dollar in his pocket. A month later Ernesto returned home in a cargo plane, and in July 1953 set off again, this time with Calica (Carlos Ferrer). They meant to go to Venezuela but ended up in Bolivia. One day, while having coffee at a cafe in La Paz, they noticed a family seated alongside them and eating sandwiches. Their Indian maid was sitting on the floor beside them and the children were throwing crumbs to her as if she were a dog. Calica’s diary recounts how this incident shocked them to the core.

Ernesto then made his way to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and eventually Guatemala, where he meet Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary who would later become his wife. Guatemala had plenty of left-wing exiles from right-wing Latin American dictatorships. Che met some Cuban exiles who had been part of the Moncada Barracks attack in July 1953 and were biding their time until Fidel Castro would be freed from prison. Nico Lopez became his first Cuban friend- and nicknamed him Che.

Che was in Guatemala when the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a US-backed coup. He took refuge in the Argentine embassy and obtained safe passage to Mexico. In mid 1955 in Mexico City Che and Hilda became a couple. Che met Raul Castro in June and Fidel Castro in July. The bonding was instantaneous. Soon they established a guerrilla training hideout and ended up spending two months in jail when it was discovered. In a letter to his mother in September Che expressed his thoughts about the fall of the Peron government and informed her of his marriage to Hilda. In February 1956 his daughter Hilda Beatriz was born. In November he sailed to Cuba to fight a long drawn out guerrilla war to oust Fulgencio Batista. In the Sierra Maestra during the long campaign Che picked up the habit of smoking Havana cigars, which soon became his trademark.

In a 1958 radio interview to Jorge Ricardo Masetti, Che was asked why he was fighting for Cuba. He replied, “In the first place I consider my country not only Argentina, but the whole of America. When asked whether Castro was a communist, he said, “Fidel is not a communist. Politically one can call him a revolutionary nationalist.”

When the Revolution triumphed Che became head of the National Bank of Cuba. There is an amusing story relating to his appointment. During a core group meeting Castro enquired whether any of the attendees were economists. Che raised his hand. Castro remarked, “I didn’t know were an economist.” Che replied, “Oh, I thought you said ‘communist.’” And that’s how he landed the job. Later he became Minister for Industry.

Aleida March had joined Che’s group towards the end of 1958. On 2nd June 1959 he divorced his first wife and married Aleida on the same day. They had four children together.

Che did a lot of diplomatic networking, leading Cuban delegations to Europe, Africa and Asia. He visited the Taj Mahal and Hiroshima. In 1965 Che went on a secret mission to the Congo with 150 black Cuban volunteers to foment revolution. Seven months later he had to beat a retreat. When Che wrote about his Congo campaign he began with the words, “This is the story of a failure…”

Che’s Bolivian mission in 1966-67 was doomed from the start. The Bolivian communists failed to support and the peasants did not enlist, so the rag-tag band of outsiders didn’t stand a chance. Che was wounded and captured on 8th October 1967 and executed the following day, presumably under orders from Washington.

Che Guevara had all the qualities of a true revolutionary – fearlessness, intelligence, ideology, passion and ruthlessness. To say that the story of his life is fascinating would be a gross understatement.

Overall assessment: Meticulously researched. Must read.

The Story of Che Guevara
AUTHOR: Lucia Alvarez de Toledo
PUBLISHER: Quercus
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2010

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

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

Zealot.jpg

“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
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2013

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

“The Boss of Bosses: The Life of the Infamous Toto Riina, Dreaded Head of the Sicilian Mafia” by Attilio Bolzoni and Giuseppe D’Avanzo

The Boss of Bosses

‘The best forgiveness is revenge.’

This book about the Sicilian Mafia boss, Salvatore Riina (nicknamed Toto Riiia or U Curtu) was published 15 years after his arrest and imprisonment in 1993. He is now 86 years old, ill with terminal cancer and about to be released from prison on compassionate grounds. His son Guiseppe Salvatore recently came out of prison and published his autobiography.

I picked up The Boss of Bosses at the Muscat airport while waiting for a flight to Milan. The book was meant to relieve boredom in transit but it actually made me lose my sleep, literally and figuratively. After having read The Godfather by Mario Puzo in my schooldays, this was the first time in decades that I was reading about the Mafia. (I must confess at this juncture that I really enjoy the party game ‘Mafia’ which can be adapted to management training in skilful ways.)

“Cosa Nostra was ruled by terror. You could die over nothing. Over a word, a look. All you needed to do was dither over an order to kill a crony, give one question too many or one answer too few to be squashed like a fly on a window pane.” The authors give a brilliant portrayal of the life and times of the man who rises from a humble peasant background to become the supreme head of the Sicilian mafia in the early eighties.

“One day the Corleonese confided in a cellmate: ‘When I get out of here I want to walk on a carpet of 100,000 lira notes.’ This was a simple peasant from Corleone speaking in 1963. His father and brother had died in a blast when he was thirteen. Toto Riina knew only one kind of life – he had only one option, only one goal, the Cosa Nostra.”
Prison life is described thus: “It was commonly said that ‘you were almost better off inside than out’, and the Ucciardone (prison) was compared to the Grand Hotel. Lobster and champagne came in everyday via the register office, and ended up in the cells of the big guns.”

Riina’s constant companions in the early days were Calogero Bagarella and Bernardo Provenzano. In 1969 he went underground after being arrested and later acquitted in a case of triple homicide. Toto married Antonina Bagarella, the sister of Calo, on 16th April 1974 after a 19 year engagement. They were blessed by a team of three priests at a secret hideout. Their four children were delivered in secret. They lived incognito and were constantly on the move. Toto Riina drove a white Mercedes with his wife seated in front and children at the back all the time remaining undetected. His unexpected arrest in 1993 stunned the nation and the world.

When Toto Riina wrested control of the mafia after a bitterly fought ‘mafia war’ the changes were dramatic. “Cosa Nostra, which was, in its own way of course, a democratic state, became a dictatorship in only two years. The Corleonesi weren’t just a family, they had become a current, an alignment, a party. The affairs of Cosa Nostra effectively changed from one day to the next. The Sicilian mafia had altered its structure, its DNA.”

The book tell us a lot about the mafia – how they lived, what they did, their bizarre norms and values, their code of silence, the businesses they ran, and the bloodshed, vendetta and violence that marked their lives. Here are some interesting descriptions:

• You earned more and risked less with cigarettes. Chesterfield, Camel, Pall Mall. In 1959 a case cost 28,000 lire in Tangier and was sold in Rome for 210,000. Cigarettes were a goldmine. Cigarettes had kept Cosa Nostra alive for a quarter of a century.

• During the early 1980s Palermo was a refinery operating at full steam. DEA experts maintained that the Sicilians covered a third of the North Atlantic market, something like four tons of heroin a year. According to FBI figures it was more than that: six tons a year.

• Piccioli, piccioli, piccioli -money, money, money…No one in Palermo was talking about anything else. Some had mother-of-pearl floors, some had gold taps. They would buy a Jaguar one day and a Ferrari the day after, or build villas with silver swimming pools.

• Giovanni (son of Toto Riina) supplies the proof that his uncle was looking for. At his first murder he doesn’t look away when his victim is dying. He shows character and determination. He doesn’t give in. He doesn’t feel pity. A ‘brave’ son, a man of honour, worthy of his father, his uncle, the whole Corleone ‘family’.

Tommaso Buscetta became the first Mafia boss to spill the beans and his testimony sealed the fate of Toto Riina and several others. In 1987, Riina and several other received life sentences from the court. But he was nabbed only after six years.

In May 1992 anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed in a bomb blast. Soon thereafter another judge Paolo Borsellino was killed. No one had any doubts about who was behind the killings. Buscetta had given valuable information to these judges to enable the conviction of the mafia bosses. After their assassination Buscetta came out with the names of the politicians who were aiding the mafia.

Overall assessment: Brilliant book.

The Boss of Bosses: The Life of the Infamous Toto Riina, Dreaded Head of the Sicilian Mafia
AUTHORS: Attilio Bolzoni and GuiseppeD’Avanzano
TRANSLATOR: Shaun Whiteside
PUBLISHER: Orion Books Ltd.
Year of Publication: 2015

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.