“Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan” by Kate Brittlebank

The Life of Tipu Sultan

This 2016 book was probably written merely to cash in on the Tipu Sultan controversy. It’s full of conjecture and merely skims through some of the facts relating to Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, and his father Haider Ali. The author makes a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to put herself in the shoes of the father-son duo and imagine the social and political scenario in 18th century India.

On the plus side, the book is small and can be read in a maximum of two hours. On the minus side, the facts cannot be taken at face value and the writer’s imagination must be discounted. I’m amazed that she could gloss over the cruelty of these two men simply by contending that in those times every ruler was cruel. Similarly, she makes light of forced religious conversions describing them as ‘punishments’ for standing up to these invading upstarts. She even goes to the extent of placing a disproportionate share of the blame on the British for many of Tipu’s failures.

If you’ve already read other writers on the subject of Tipu Sultan, you needn’t read this one. You won’t miss anything. Unless you’re interested in knowing the number of women in Tipu’s harem, counting the number of his sons and daughters, learning the names of his grandparents and so on. However, if you can ignore the conclusions and implications and skilfully separate the wheat from the chaff, you will find interesting nuggets of information.

Referring to Haider Ali’s role in the siege of Tiruchirapally in 1751-52 Brittlebank writes, “…Mysore allied itself with British forces during the succession dispute for the Nawabship of the Carnatic, whose capital was Arcot in northern Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, Mysore switched sides to the French, as a result of British broken promises.” Now what does this reveal? Haider Ali allied first with the British and then with the French. That doesn’t seem like ‘Indian nationalist zeal’, does it?

If you read between the lines, you realize that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan invaded all their neighbouring kingdoms. They dislodged the Wodeyars from Mysore, the Ikkeris from Bidanur (Bednur), and repeatedly attacked Malabar, Arcot, Mangalore, Madras and even Travancore without the slightest provocation. In these circumstances, it just doesn’t make sense to blame the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the British for ganging up against Tipu. Perhaps it was the cruelty of the father and son that made the Marathas and the Nizam realize that that their only hope was to ally with the British. This was certainly the case with the Malabar chieftains, but the book hardly mentions the Mysorean incursions into Malabar.

When the author does mention Malabar, the accounts are ridiculously off the mark. Take this example: “By February 1783, Tipu and his army had returned to Mysore (after Haider Ali died in December 1782 near Chittoor); the newly installed ruler had unfinished business to attend to in Malabar, where the East India Company’s Bombay army was continuing its aggression.” Unfinished business indeed! Similarly, Haider Ali’s attacks on his neighbours are justified on specious grounds. “Access to Malabar ports was important for trade, as was the control of Bednur.” And “the incursion into Kodagu was the result of his intervention in a succession dispute…” You see, all is fair in love and war! In this manner one can rationalize any kind of brutality and injustice.

The author refers to forced conversions thus: “This was not a religious policy but one of chastisement.” Really? I’m surprised the Sanghis missed this one. Another snide remark that really takes the cake: “One of the malcontents with whom they (the British) aligned themselves was the Raja of Travancore, Rama Varma…” And what had the poor Travancore ruler done to deserve this rude epithet? In the author’s own words, “Rama Varma had harboured resentments against Mysore since he had fallen out with Haider in the 1760s. The defensive lines he had constructed in 1764 ran from east to west to protect from invasion an exposed part of Travancore’s northern border.” So protecting his border from an invader was the one crime committed by Rama Varma. Did Travancore invade Mysore? No questions, please! This is a story – and stories are written to entertain.

The entire book seems like an attempt to whitewash the sins of Tipu Sultan. The publisher Juggernaut Books ought to have been more discerning. At least the proof readers could have corrected the errors. Ever heard of a Tadri port on the Malabar coast? North Kanara, my dear Juggernaut!

Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan
Author: Kate Brittlebank
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Year of Publication: 2016

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

“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood.jpg

I remember listening to a Commonwealth Club radio program a few years ago in which Salman Khan of Khan Academy was interviewing Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. (It was technically a “conversation,” but from what I remember, it was Salman Khan asking most of the questions.) By this time, Khan Academy was a universal name, but Elizabeth Holmes was a promising young entrepreneur in the mold of Steve Jobs. Her startup, Theranos, was poised to revolutionize the healthcare industry by making blood testing very quick and affordable. Anyone could go into a wellness center, get a small draw of their blood by simply pricking their finger, and get their results back within a few minutes.

It seemed almost too good to be true! But the confidence with which Holmes spoke, her sincerity, and her passion won everyone over. I remember being totally awed by what I heard. She described how she had waited for hours outside the office of a Stanford professor to beg him to be allowed to do research in his lab, and had eventually dropped out of Stanford to start Theranos. She could not believe at how inefficient blood testing was, how you had to draw so much blood for a test, and how it took days to get the results back. She wanted to make this process much faster, more efficient, and less painful, and seemed to have found a way to do so. Who were we to question this? After all, this is what innovators do—they are geniuses in their fields and come up with breakthrough solutions to problems. So many of our best innovations have come from revolutionary thinkers, and Holmes certainly seemed to be one of them. She had the conviction that Theranos was going to change the world.

Or so we thought. Not just we, but everyone. Theranos was heralded as the next success story in Silicon Valley where it was based. Millions of dollars of investment poured in from the leading VC (venture capital) firms in the valley—no one wanted to miss out on the potential of investing early in a startup that guaranteed to succeed in a big way. Not only was the idea so brilliant, but the company had a “dream team” of highly respected advisors, including the Stanford professor Holmes had worked with, as well as partnerships with companies like Walgreens and Safeway to establish “wellness centers” in their stores equipped with Theranos technology for customers to come in and quickly get blood tests done. It had also attracted the attention of leading drug companies like Pfizer who saw the technology as a way to potentially reduce their costs and bring drugs to market sooner.

As it turns out, it was indeed too good to be true. The technology did not really work, and thanks to a string of whistleblowers, many of whom had worked for the company, Theranos was exposed as a fraud and has been forced to close, with Holmes and her business partner facing several lawsuits. Most of the credit for uncovering the truth goes to John Carreyrou, an investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal who doggedly pursued the story after being contacted by a credible lead in late 2015 who raised doubts about it. He has documented this story in Bad Blood, chronicling the rise and fall of Theranos. Based on interviews with former employees and many others who had been associated with the company in various ways, Bad Blood is essential reading for anyone interested in how such a massive fraud could have been perpetrated and strikes a cautionary note for aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to make it big. While a technology startup can be a hit or a miss, and those who fail can just move on to other things, the stakes are much higher in a field such as healthcare where lives are at stake. It is to Carreyrou’s credit that he realized the enormous implications of the possibility that Theranos’s blood-testing technology did not work properly and continued to investigate it until the truth emerged. From that respect, he deserves all the awards and accolades he can get for almost single-handedly exposing a fraud that could have had life-threatening consequences if it was not uncovered.

At the same time, from a literary point of view, the book itself lacks merit. To start with, it is written like a book of fiction with a plot, characters, and events, rather than the non-fiction book it is. The trouble with this is that Carreyrou does not have the talent to write fiction — his writing is very trite and uninspiring, with a plodding narrative, unnecessary descriptions of people, and pedestrian language. It was very hard to read through it. Also, there were so many characters throughout the book, that I had to keep turning back the pages to see who they were and in what context they had first been mentioned. It seems that every person who was interviewed makes an appearance in the book. And of course, there are many more. Did I really need to know what this person or that person looks like, where they met for coffee, where they live, where the office party was, and so on? Was that really meaningful to how the Theranos saga unfolded? It seems to me that Carreyrou wanted to make this a full-length book rather than an article, so he had to put in a lot of detail to fill the pages, most of which is not even interesting.

Over and above that, the book seemed really one-sided. I appreciate that Holmes and her partner, an Indian man called Sunny Balwani, committed serious fraud by not disclosing the truth about the problems with the technology, but don’t they have a single good quality? Going by Bad Blood, it would seem not. Holmes is always scowling and Balwani is always supercilious. And of course, both are extremely paranoid and blatantly lie to investors and potential partners. Holmes at least has some charm that she can “deviously” turn on when she needs to, with her “piercing blue eyes” that can hold the intended target in thrall. Balwani does not even have that — he is not good-looking and is always “barking” orders. The same bias extends to the other characters as well. All those against Holmes are portrayed in a good light — they are smart, have integrity, and have doubts about the technology — while those who are on her side are portrayed in a negative light — they are unquestioning “yes men” who are always sucking up to her.

It is obvious that the book was based on interviews solely of people who hated Holmes and Balwani. It does not ask why they stayed in Theranos for so long. Like it or not, they were all complicit in the fraud. What about the long string of people who were fired when they disagreed with Holmes, some quite early on when the company was started (in 2003)? How come they didn’t tell anyone about this? Were they only saving their own skins? That doesn’t seem like an ethical thing to do.

Also, what about leading Silicon Valley figures like Tom Draper and Larry Ellison who were early investors in Theranos? Were all these exceedingly smart people also taken in, and having done so, how did they go along with the company for so long without, as the saying goes, “smelling a rat”?  What about Holmes’ professor from Stanford, a highly respected academic? And going back to that interview of Holmes with Salman Khan of Khan Academy that I had heard, was he also gullible as well? Given his focus on volunteer work rather than on the typical “money and fame” success factors that most entrepreneurs crave, would he not be able to tell if someone was sincere or just faking it?

Bad Blood does not shed light of any of these conundrums. While I have the greatest admiration for the author for his breakthrough reporting on the Theranos fraud, the inability to provide a nuanced portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes and explain how so many smart people got hoodwinked for so long made me question his version of events and the veracity of the interviews he has conducted. By branding Holmes as someone who was out just to make money and achieve glory by any means necessary, he has failed to acknowledge that human beings are fallible — someone can start out with a very sincere desire to improve on something and continue to pursue it even when it is not working in the hope that it will eventually work. The story of Theranos is appalling and serves as a crucial wake-up call, but by categorically painting Holmes as evil rather than someone who could have just been badly misguided, Bad Blood was way too one-sided to be at all insightful.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Author: John Carreyrou
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: May 2018

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

“A Century Is Not Enough: Inside the Mind of a Cricketing Legend” by Sourav Ganguly

A Century is not Enough

If you “understand” Sourav Ganguly as a Captain, then you should read this book. If you loved the Indian Cricket Team of 2000s, then also you should read this book.

When I say understand his captaincy – it is that feeling that you get as a fan, about what he is going to do next on field and why he is doing that.

Even if you have no clue about either of those things, then also you can have a go at this book because it’s not just about Cricket. It gives you some insights about life and how to succeed in life, along with the the signature Ganguly advice – to never back down!

The book is a collection of memories narrated through the mind of one of the most successful captains of Indian Cricket Team. He seems to recall every single successful innings that he played (including the stats) and sheds light on some of the tactical decisions that were made during that period when India emerged from a polite average team with a lot of individual talents to one of the major aggressive units in the world. As avid Cricket fans know – Sourav planted the seeds, the fruits of which are still being enjoyed by the present Indian team.

It might seem like he’s doing a self promotion at some places but to be fair, it is a necessity. For instance, most of his critics doesn’t know the fact that he has the most number of “Man of the Match” awards to his name second only to Tendulkar (even though Kohli is quickly catching up). Things like these that the management did not notice during his infamous exit during the Greg Chappel era has been brought into light through this book.

The story of a “Comeback King”. A must read for Indian Cricket fans.

A Century Is Not Enough: Inside the Mind of a Cricketing Legend
Author: Sourav Ganguly
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Publication Date: February 2018

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering” by Scott Samuelson

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

Life is tough. There is no getting around that fact. Even if you are not personally experiencing a crisis or a tragedy at the moment, you only have to look around you to see how much misery is there in the world. And this is not a new phenomenon — it has been like this since the dawn of civilization. The kinds of crises that we face may differ from generation to generation, but suffering seems to be very much a part of the human condition. Not only are we vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis just like any other species on earth, we also have to contend with wars, epidemics, poverty, starvation, injustice, crime, illness, and of course, death — not just of our own, but more painfully, of those we love.

What, then, are we to do? How can we cope with suffering? How do human beings, as a whole, deal with what seems to be an inevitable fact of life? The book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, attempts to show us how. The author, Scott Samuelson, draws from his extensive knowledge and study of philosophy to highlight seven different approaches to suffering, ranging from the Book of Job in the Bible, to the teachings of Confucius, to philosophers such as Nietzsche, and surprisingly, even the Blues music genre that has slavery at its roots. While each of these has a distinct approach to suffering, they can, by and large, be divided into two main camps: fix-it, where you seek to eliminate it; and face-it, where you come to terms with it.

Interestingly however, these two camps are not as far apart as they may seem — we have to accept suffering as it is inevitable, but at the same time, we are hard-wired to oppose it. The drive to ameliorate suffering is responsible for all human advancements — witness the enormous strides we have made in medicine, agriculture, weather forecasting, technology, and so in, in every field of human endeavor. At the same time, we have to accept that just as you cannot have a right without a left, or an up without a down — the yin/yang principle — you cannot have joy without sorrow, happiness without sadness, and goodness without evil. In short, humans will continue doing what we can to “fix” suffering while reconciling to the fact that some of it is inevitable and we have no choice but to “face” it. In fact, suffering seems to be integral to human growth — most of our art, music, and literature has been created in response to it. This understanding is pivotal to our acceptance of suffering and learning to live with it gracefully.

While Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering seeks to provide insights into suffering for anyone seeking to understand it better, it is also unequivocally a philosophy book. This makes it essential reading for anyone who would like to delve into how different philosophers throughout the ages have thought about the question of suffering and its centrality to human existence. However, for those who are not particularly interested in philosophy as a subject to be studied, or in learning about different philosophers and their lives, this is not a book that they will likely read cover to cover. I found myself skimming though many sections of the book that seemed more like a history lesson on different philosophers, since I was more interested in learning about how people cope with suffering rather than what different philosophers have had to say about it. Few people now have the luxury of not having to work for a living, of having the time and the resources to ponder about life and its mysteries as they were able to do in the past. It’s one thing to arrive at an intellectual understanding of something, but another thing to actually feel it. This is why philosophy as a discipline has a limited appeal for me, and I didn’t appreciate Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering as someone who was into philosophy would have.

To me, the best parts of the book were when the author talked about his own personal experiences with suffering as well as the many discussions he had in the course of his volunteer work in a prison where he was teaching philosophy to prisoners. There is an entire thread in the book on the problem of evil — which is at the root of so much suffering — and the related issue of incarceration as a punishment for crime. I would have been interested in reading a lot more about that.

That said, I found Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering an invaluable read for its extended discussion of something that is a fundamental part of our existence and for its holistic look at suffering, not just as something to be accepted, but also as something it is in our nature to work to avoid. That goes a long way with learning to make peace with it.

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
Author: Scott Samuelson
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 2018

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

“Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler

Everything Happens for a Reason

Anyone who has ever asked the fundamental question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” would not be able to pass on this book without being intrigued by its title. It seems to be unequivocally saying that the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” that we hear so often being bandied about, especially addressed to people who are going through a tragedy, is a lie, plain and simple. For anyone who is not religious — who does not believe in a “grand scheme” for life, who does not believe in an afterlife, who finds the concept of “God” to be something that humans have fabricated to makes themselves feel that someone is in charge – for such a person, a book like this simply affirms what they already know. But for those who do believe that “everything happens for a reason,” this book is a must-read, especially because it is written by someone who was steeped in religion and knows exactly what that line of thinking is like.

The author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, who was not only brought up as a Christian and still follows it, but has spent her professional life specializing in the study of something called the “prosperity gospel” in Christianity, which sees fortune – notably money, success, and good health – as a blessing from God and conversely, any misfortune as a sign of God’s disapproval. While it may seem amazing to other people that such a line of thinking even exists – despite all evidence to the contrary, with innumerable people, including babies and children, suffering everyday through no fault of their own – it does, with plenty of preachers teaching it and plenty of followers believing it. Despite being an academic, Bowler also experienced her own “prosperity gospel” or sorts when she was able to conceive and give birth to a baby after several setbacks, had a book published, and was cured of a crippling physical ailment that had temporarily made her unable to use her hands and arms. All of this, and with a loving husband to boot, she was flying high. How could she not see herself as blessed?

But then, it all suddenly came crashing down. She started having several abdominal pains, and it was diagnosed as stage 4 colon cancer. With a survival rate of only 10% and no “cure” as such, Bowler had just been handed a death sentence. While she didn’t know exactly how long she had to live, she knew that sooner rather than later, she would die, and her baby boy would have to grow up without her and her beloved husband would have to bring up their son on his own. This has made her look anew at not just the prosperity gospel, but at many of the common religious beliefs people hold and which several of them tried to comfort her with — not just “Everything happens for a reason,” but also things such as, “God needs an angel,” “You will be in heaven and can watch over your family,” and so on. She now sees these not just as harmless platitudes that can help to comfort some people when they are dying, but outright lies that can prevent people from accepting the inevitable in good grace.

So far, Bowler is still living with the cancer, with traditional treatments and some promising new immunotherapy ones that are continuing to keep her alive, a few months at a time. But she does not know when her time will run out. Hearing first-hand from someone who is looking at death right in the face is a searing experience, whether you are religious or not. The book is chock-full of insights that can only come once you are in that place of knowing your days are numbered. (Actually, everyone’s days are numbered, but it’s easy to forget this in the hum and bustle of our daily lives.) And even for those who are not faced with this calamity yet, she provides some sage advice on what NOT to say to people who are going through tough times as well as what to say or do to help. Reading the book is worth it just for this alone.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
Author: Kate Bowler
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 2018

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

“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” by Michael Chabon

Pops

Even though Michael Chabon is a well-known author – he has written several novels and has also won the Pulitzer Prize for one of them – I had not read any of his books. What prompted me to pick up his latest book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, was a recent interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air, in which he talked about the book. It sounded very interesting, and once I got a copy, I found that it was such a short book that I was able to read it in just a few days, which is usually impossible to do with nonfiction books unless they are so riveting that you just can’t put them down.

Pops is a collection of seven essays on fatherhood of which six have already been published in different magazines including GQ, Atlantic.com, and Details. It is not at all unusual for a famous author to repackage his or her articles, essays, or short stories into a book, which is what Chabon has done with Pops. However, what does make it atypical — and not in a good way — is how little new content it has. The book is essentially made by sandwiching the six already-published essays between an Introduction and a seventh essay at the end of the book. It seems almost too easy, especially when you think of the millions of wannabe writers slaving away for years to make their words see the light of day and are often disappointed when it never happens. Evidently, when you become a famous author, you can get away with simply collating some of your already published essays into a new book. But as they say, success builds on success. And who ever said that life was fair?

Getting back to the book itself, there were parts of Pops that I really liked – and these were the parts that Chabon also talked about in his Fresh Air interview, making me somewhat miffed that there wasn’t much else so gripping in the book that I had not already heard. As is obvious by its name, all the essays in the book are primarily about some of Chabon’s experiences as a father to his four children on a range of issues, including clothes, sports, behavior, and language. The final essay is about Chabon as a son himself, when he goes to visit his father who suddenly falls very ill. I would say that while none of these experiences were particularly insightful, it is Chabon’s skill as a writer that makes them interesting. In any case, parenting is something that most people who are parents themselves can usually relate to, and it is always interesting to hear about how other parents deal with different aspects of raising kids.

While I was overall somewhat disappointed by Pops — it seemed to cover too little ground to be a “full-fledged” book — there was one sentiment expressed in the book that was so profound that it simply blew my mind away and made the book a must-read. In the Introduction, Chabon describes how he was strongly advised against parenthood by a famous author when he was a young aspiring writer himself. He was told: “You can write great books. Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.” Chabon not only went on to have four children, but he also became a famous, award-winning author with fourteen books. Thus, while disregarding this (unsolicited) advice actually turned out to be a good thing for him, he obviously did not know it at that time and chose to have kids anyway. He explains why he made this choice in the last paragraph of the book’s Introduction:

“If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.”

To me, just reading this one paragraph made the book worthwhile – it’s the kind of wisdom that needs to be framed so that we can keep coming back to it. I may not care for Chabon’s novels, but his sentiments expressed in this one paragraph captures, for me, the crux of the human condition—death is evitable, our lives spans are but a blip in cosmic time, and is there any point striving for “eternal” fame when we won’t even be around to experience it?

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: May 2018

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

“‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War” by Vedica Kant

India and the First World War

A collector’s delight, this book has more photos than text. Even if you aren’t a serious reader you can enjoy the pictures and their captions. The gruesome realities of war come alive through the pages. According to Max Weber, the British and French armies comprised “niggers, Gurkhas, and the barbarians of the world.”

One and a half million Indians participated in the war. Over 70,000 were martyred. Gandhi, Tilak and Sarojini Naidu persuaded Indians to serve the imperial cause. Gandhi’s ‘Appeal for Enlistment’ leaflet said: “If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible dispatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.” The 700 odd princely states saw the war as an opportunity to curry favour with the British.

The soldiers left behind hardly any traces of their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Most of the information was gleaned by reading their censored letters. There is only one first person account of soldier’s war experiences. Two Bengali gentlemen, Dr. Kalyan Mukherjee and Sisir Sarbadhikari, who wrote their memoirs, were part of the medical corps.

Havildar Abdul Rahman wrote to a friend in May 1915: “For God’s sake, don’t come don’t come don’t come to war in Europe…and tell my brother Mohammed Yakub Khan for God’s sake do not enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist.” Amir Khan in a letter to wrote to Khan Zaman in Rawalpindi district, “…our guns have filled the German trenches with the dead and made them brim with blood. God grant us grace, for grace is needed. Oh God, we repent! Oh God, we repent!” Gulab Singh wrote, “Many men have had their feet cut off for they had been burnt by the frost.” Santa Singh wrote to his mother, “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums (so that) they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen….They too are the children of mothers.”

When a sepoy decided to marry a Frenchwoman, a fellow sepoy wrote, “Mahomed Khan, the lance dafadar, is engaged to a Frenchwoman on the condition that he becomes a Christian. The marriage ceremony is to take place in two or three days. We have done our best to prevent it, but all has been in vain.”

Ragbir Singh wrote, “I have been wounded twice, and now this is the third time that I am being sent to the trenches….If Parmeshwar (God) allows I will escape but the butcher does not let the goat escape.”

The Home Office sanctioned cremation at a site near Brighton, although the 1902 Cremation Act virtually banned open-air cremation. When ghee was in short supply and there was talk of serving margarine to the wounded sepoys, the War Office intervened with a note: “If it got about that we were using margarine, there might be an explosion similar to the old cartridge trouble of the Mutiny.”

By January 1915 Germany had decided to build a mosque near Berlin to cater to Muslim POWs. The Germans had initially protested against the use of Indian and African soldiers in the war – something they viewed as a breach of racial etiquette. A few months later these barriers crumbled and new liaisons emerged.

The story of the two Afridi Pathan brothers, Mir Dast and Mir Mast, makes interesting reading. The former won the Victoria Cross for bravery in war. The other defected to the German side along with twenty two others and later joined a German mission to Afghanistan to convince the Emir to invade India. The British had increased the Emir’s stipend so he was in no mood to rebel. Both Mir Dast and Mir Mast survived the war.

206 Indian POWs lie buried in a forgotten cemetery fifty miles outside Berlin. In fact the Indian dead are scattered all over Europe, some with memorials, some without. The question ‘who will remember me’ hangs heavy.

It wasn’t just Europe. 40% of Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia in the blazing heat and chilling winters of the Arabian Desert. Sarbadhikari describes an incident where he and another soldier, after marching continuously for three days in hunger and cold, set off to look for food and found a piece of bread in the haversack of a dead white soldier. “We divided it between us and were eating it in the dark, when we realized that the bread had a peculiar taste. Then we understood. The bread had soaked up the soldier’s blood…”

In April 1916, 17000 British- Indian troops under Captain Townshend surrendered to the Turks after enduring a five month long siege at Kut al-Amara. They were marched off through the desert to a location in present-day Syria to build the Baghdad-Istanbul railway. They witnessed the Armenian genocide. A small Armenian boy who was the lone survivor of his family was adopted by an Indian sweeper, given the name Babulal, and brought back to India after the war.

The vast majority of sepoys took their sad stories with them to their graves. As Amitav Ghosh states in the Foreword, “…silence was one of the sepoy’s most enduring traits; it goes so far back and is so consistent that it is hard not to see it as an act of resistance in itself.”

The troops were demobilized after the war and many were out of work. Their story too remains untold. During the clashes that preceded the burning of the police station at Chauri Chaura in February 1922, Bhagwan Ahir, a Mesopotamia veteran, was thrashed by the police. The rest is history.

Overall Assessment: Invaluable for the photos.

‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War
AUTHOR: Vedica Kant
PUBLISHER: Roli Books
Date of Publication: 2014

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

“Keeping the Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India” by Walter Reid

Keeping the Jewel in the Crown.jpg

A brilliant book detailing the last three decades of the British Raj. The tactics used by successive British leaders to bring about irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims are clearly outlined. The Brits used every weapon in their armoury to keep India in the crown. These weapons included deceit, dilly-dallying and divisiveness.

Britain’s prosperity had long depended upon the exploitation of faraway colonies. When the American colonies bid goodbye in 1776, India became the ‘jewel in the crown’. After the First World War, when the danger of losing India loomed large, the Brits acquired new territories in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Their commercial instincts remained uppermost.

A million Indians fought overseas in World War I and 54,000 died. The Brits followed different protocols for burying their own dead, whereas dead Indians were dumped in mass graves. The Memorial of the Missing at Basra (Mesopotamia) mentions about 8000 Brits by name. 665 Indian officers are named too but 33,222 Indian soldiers are reduced to a mere number. This was the pattern all over Europe: Cemeteries, tombstones and markers for the Brits, nothing for the Indians.

Churchill wrote in the Daily Mail in November 1929: “The rescue of India from ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war, and its slow but ceaseless forward march to civilization constitute upon the whole the finest achievement of our history. This work has been done in four of five generations by the willing sacrifices of the best of our race.”OMG! I’d always believed Churchill was a consummate racist but reading this statement really gave me the creeps!

When the Gandhi Irwin Pact was debated in the House of Commons on 12th March 1931, Baldwin made his infamous speech quoting a line from his cousin Rudyard Kipling, about the press having “power without responsibility…the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

When Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, was refused entry to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club because he was accompanied by Indian friends, he established the Willingdon Sports Club which was open to all races. Lord Linlithgow, who became Viceroy in 1936, was prone to chasing butterflies in the Shimla hills. The book has a sprinkling of uncharitable observations on political opponents by various personages. The author even mentions that Nehru’s Gandhi cap was made by Scot of London. And Jinnah owned over 300 suits.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and the same day Linlithgow coolly made a radio announcement that India was at war with Germany. Earlier in August he had already sent Indian troops to Aden, Egypt and Singapore.

“Gandhi…thought that in the face of Hitler’s aggression, German Jews and Czechs should simply resort to non-violence and Britain should submit to German occupation.” When VK Krishna Menon was asked whether he’d rather see India occupied by the Japanese or the British, he said, “You might as well ask a fish whether it preferred being fried in butter or margarine.” The remark ‘a post dated cheque on a crashing bank’ is usually attributed to Gandhi but it was Nehru who said it.

The League’s demand for partition was by no means unique. Elsewhere in the empire there were similar instances. Though the dominion of Canada was created in 1867, Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island came in years later, and Newfoundland joined as late as 1949. When Australia became free, New South Wales and Western Australia chose to stay apart for years – and New Zealand became a separate country.

“Until the war, India had owed money to Britain. As the war went on she became a substantial creditor…” By 1945 Britain owed India 1260 million pounds. When the war ended Britain was indebted to the United States – and the loan was finally repaid only in 2006!

Of the INA, the author states: “The facts are that (1) about 40,500 Indian troops were captured in Malaya/Singapore of which 16,000 joined the INA; (2)a second unit of the INA was set up in 1943 and perhaps 24,000 Indian POWs were recruited; (3) at the war’s end there were thus about 40,000 men in the INA.” I tried to do the math. Only 500 soldiers were unaccounted for. Perhaps they had died or disappeared. In any case it looks like 100% of Indian POWs joined the INA, if British records are to be believed.

1942 was turbulent year. The Japanese captured Singapore-Malaya, Burma and the Andamans in quick succession. Gandhi launched the Quit India movement. “Rail and telegraph communications were struck at. In Madras, Bihar and the united Province, British servicemen were attacked and murdered…..The Government responded with enormous force……Rioters were fired at and aircraft were used to strafe saboteurs who were tearing up railway lines. In Bombay demonstrators were beaten with rattan canes. Order was not restored for six weeks.” It was estimated that 4000 to 10000 Indian lost their lives in the crackdown. On 31st August the Viceroy informed Churchill, “I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellions since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security. Mob violence remains rampant over large tracts of the countryside.”

“American forces had been arriving in India from the beginning of the year (1942) and by the end of the war there were half a million American troops there.” We learn a few interesting facts about America’s attitude to British imperialism. Just before the Cripps Mission set off for India, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill suggesting that a temporary dominion government be set up in India.

Churchill in his war memoirs claimed that “…the peoples of Hindustan…were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island.” Feel like throwing up? So do I.

Overall assessment: Worth reading.

Keeping The Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India
Author: Walter Reid
PUBLISHER: Viking – Penguin Random House
Year of Publication: 2016

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

“The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History” by Sanjeev Sanyal

Ocean of Churn

A delightful book by an erudite scholar with a penchant for genuine research and a superb style of presentation. Easy to read, easy to understand, difficult to put down. A masterly blend of history, geography, politics, biology, geology, genetics, and archaeology, interspersed with anecdotes and personal testimonies. This book ought to be adapted as a school textbook.

The author eschews the traditional narratives of history presented from the western viewpoint and gives us rare insights into the goings-on in the Indian Ocean rim from pre-history to the present. From the Ranis of Ullal who consistently resisted Portuguese incursions to Marthanda Varma of Travancore who decisively defeated the Dutch at Colachel, and the Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s whose ‘treasure fleet’ visited many Indian ocean ports, the author chronicles the crucial events in India’s history and deftly places everything in perspective.

“When Prithviraj Chauhan, ruler of Delhi, fended off a raid by Muhammed Ghori in 1191, he allowed the invader to return home to Afghanistan! Ghori returned the following year to defeat and kill Prithviraj. This led to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and opened up the rest of India to conquest.” Around 1200 Nalanda University was laid waste by Bakhtiyar Khilji.

The book begins with the fascinating story of Pallava king Nandivarman II whose 65 year reign ended in A.D.796. He was shipped in from a faraway kingdom in south-east Asia at the tender age of 12 to fill the vacant throne. Five generations ago, the brother of the Pallava king had migrated to the remote kingdom, married a princess and inherited the throne. When the time came to send an heir to Kanchi, the youngest of the four sons of the reigning monarch was chosen. And, boy, did he prove his mettle!

Apart from debunking the Aryan Invasion Theory and a host of other myths such as the pacifism of Emperor Ashoka and the patriotism of Tipu Sultan, Sanyal tell us how Britain acquired the island of Manhattan, what they gave the Dutch in exchange, why the merchant Naruttam helped the Omanis recapture Muscat from the Portuguese, how the Bali islanders chose to make their last desperate stand against the Dutch in the chilling style typical of Indian warrior clans, and a lot more. The book is a treasure trove of historical facts that have been painstakingly researched, verified and cross-checked.

Remains of a 23000 year old farming settlement have been discovered near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Europeans may have acquired their fair skin as recently as 5000 B.C. The Harappans exported ghee and cotton textiles. Many of the so-called ‘Indian spices’ were from Indonesia, e.g. cloves and nutmeg.

The Rig Veda indicates no knowledge of Central Asia or southern India. Its geographical canvas is the Sapta Sindhu or land of the Seven Rivers. The river Saraswathi mentioned in the Hindu texts is the Ghaggar River that rose in the Himalayas in the Punjab-Haryana region and finally flowed into the Rann of Kutch. The Sutlej and the Yamuna were among its tributaries. The Indus also used to flow into Kutch until an earthquake in 1819 diverted its course.

Indian soldiers were a global tribe long before the two World Wars. They had seen action at Gaugamela in 311 B.C. when Alexander of Macedon and Darius of Persia came face to face. The Indian cavalry continued fighting even after Darius had fled the battlefield. In 326 B.C. Alexander massacred 7000 Indian soldiers of the Massagan army because they refused to join his invasion of India. Seleucus Nikator gained an edge over the other generals of Alexander when he acquired 500 war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya (in exchange for Baluchistan and Afghanistan). Not to be outdone, Ptolemy managed to get elephants from Ethiopia and smuggled in Indian mahouts to train them for battle.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea tells us there were a large number of Indians in Socotra Island (Yemen). Sanyal tells us the name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sukhadhara’.

Nearly half a century after Ashoka’s death, Kharavela of Kalinga sacked Pataliputra and sounded the death knell of the Maurya empire, yet his name is absent from history books.

The Kingdom of Funan in the Mekong delta, the first Indianized kingdom in southeast Asia, was established in the first century B.C. Nalanda University was partly funded by the Srivijaya kings of Sumatra. Roman women used to consult Indian astrologers. Madagascar was colonised by the Indonesians. By the Pallava period there were large Indian communities living in Chinese port towns. One of the largest merchant guilds called ‘The Five Hundred’ was established in Aihole, Karnataka.

Answers to many intriguing questions can be found in this book. How long have the Tamils been in Sri Lanka? Where did the Sinhalese come from? Why does Cuttack in Odisha have an annual fair called ‘Bali Yatra’? Why do the Mohyal Brahmins of Punjab join the Shia Muslims during the ritual mourning during Muharram? Why was Muhammad bin Qasim executed soon after his invasion of Sindh? Who first owned the Kohinoor diamond? And so on.

Observing that humans carry the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans in small proportions, Sanyal remarks tongue in cheek, “Given all this mixing, forget racial purity, it seems most of us are not even pure Homo sapiens!”

Overall Assessment: Truly a masterpiece. One of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
AUTHOR: Sanjeev Sanyal
PUBLISHER: Penguin
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: August 2016

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

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

Hit Refresh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dastan-e-Ghadar

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

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

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

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

Here are some quotes and anecdotes from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read the book with a heavy heart.

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

Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny
AUTHOR: ZAHIR DEHLVI
TRANSLATOR: RANA SAFVI
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (Urdu original in 1914 at Lahore)


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

“A Revolutionary History of Interwar India” by Kama Maclean

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
AUTHOR: Kama Maclean
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN BOOKS
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

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

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

The Story of the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD
AUTHOR: SIMON SCHAMA
PUBLISHER: VINTAGE
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014


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

“Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories” by Catriona Mitchell (Editor)

Walking Towards Ourselves

This book is a brilliant mosaic of many feminine voices from India, a collection of short stories carefully crafted to present a consistent and yet diverse pattern of thought and emotion. From Ira Trivedi’s Rearranged Marriage to Sharanya Manivannan’s Karaikkal Ammayar to Urvashi Butalia’s Oxygen, the book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride that is both exciting and frightening. The voices are by no means weak or even similar – and no facet of the feminine experience is left untouched. From the embarrassment of dark skin, to the agonies of match-making, marriage, motherhood and childlessness, alternative relationships and alternative sexual identities, difficult choices and painful lives, this book leaves no stone unturned in its quest for free expression of thought.

Mitali Saran writes, “This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who’s allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.”

Bollywood belle Tisca Chopra writes of the legendary casting couch, “I have been asked, plenty of times — by actors, directors and producers. I play dumb. Smile and pretend I don’t get the hint. Yet, somehow, many men from the film business think it is their right to ask.”

Describing the near trauma of hunting for toilets in the Mumbai metropolis, Annie Zaidi writes, “The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one. Which was several times a day every day. The city seemed to be lurching along anyhow, kidding itself that women didn’t get out much and, if they did, it was never long enough for their bladders to fill up. Mumbai was rumoured to have public toilets, at least at train stations, but to my dismay and fury, I found that most toilets were either non-functional or locked up, especially at night. The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for ‘other’ purposes.”

“Women were so central in the battle for independence, why did we hear virtually nothing about them afterwards? Or for that matter during colonial times?” asks Urvashi Butalia, the firebrand founder of the publishing house Kali for Women.

Salma’s account of her urge to write (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyanraman) and the vicious suppression she encountered is especially heart-rending. The reader is left wondering: Is this my Incredible India? “After hiding within the lime-coated walls of my parents’ home for several years, I moved to my husband’s family house on a neighbouring street and was enclosed by brand new walls, freshly coated with paint.” Salma’s predicament would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience. “Writing poems and reading books were considered serious crimes. My husband warned me to stop reading. He threatened that if he happened to see any books lying around the house he would burn them, and if he saw me writing he would break my fingers.” Salma didn’t stop writing. Today she is a celebrated author, and everyone knows her given name is Rokkaiyya Begum.

“Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drink. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee. He is the husband who can shrug it away and ask me to stop imagining things.” This one is by an anonymous author – not even a pen name.

Saranya Manivannan writes, “In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen.” And she elaborates, “In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remembers seeing the picture of ‘Sultana Raziyya’ in her brother’s history’ book and being impressed with the way the queen exuded power. “In this picture the woman sat on a tigerskin while a man knelt nearby, offering her his scimitar. Instead of flowing veils, she wore the male attire of the time: baggy pants and a vest. Instead of daintily sniffing at a rose, like the women in my father’s book of Mughal paintings, she leaned forward boldly to grasp the weapon offered to her.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories
EDITOR: Catriona Mitchell
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Ira Trivedi, Rosalyn D’Mello, Mitali Saran, Urvashi Butalia, Annie Zaidi, Anjum Hasan, Salma, Anita Agnihotri, Tishani Doshi, Margaret Mascarenhas, Sharanya Manivannan, Tisca Chopra, Deepti Kapoor, C S Lakshmi, Nirupama Dutt, Chitra Banerjee Diwakarunni and one ANONYMOUS writer.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

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