“The Women Who Ruled India” by Archana Garodia Gupta

This is a book I was actually waiting for. I was pretty sure there were many women rulers in India whose names are virtually unknown. I’ve been doing my own share of research but this book made me realize the depth of my ignorance.

Yes, I know the Begums of Bhopal had ruled for a 100 years albeit with the help of the British. Yes, I had heard of the Dhenkanal copper plates, but the 100 year rule of the Bhaumakara queens of Odisha was a revelation to me. The dynasty had lasted 200 years. Of the 18 rulers, 6 were female, and they had ruled long and well. Tribhuvana Mahadevi, the first of the queens had ascended the throne in 846 CE. And not a single queen had adopted a son to bolster her own legitimacy.

I had hitherto believed that Abbakka Rani of Ullal was a single heroic woman who had valiantly fought off the Portuguese for decades. Now I learn there were two Abbakka Ranis.

There are tales of well known women like Razia Sultan, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Chand Bibi who defended the two sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, Kittur Rani Chennamma, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, and Nur Jahan, who was the de facto Mughal as her husband Jahangir lapsed into an alcoholic stupor and left the reins of the empire in her hands.

The surprises came in the shape of the Attingal Ranis of Kerala, and Rani Karnavati of Garhwal who acquired the epithet ‘naak-katti rani’ after she cut off the noses of Emperor Shah Jahan’s forces whom she defeated and captured. Garhwal went on to defy Aurangzeb, and still managed to survive.

I had never heard of Didda, Queen of Kashmir, who ruled ably for half a century from 958 to 1003 CE. And the author tells us that Kashmir had many women rulers before and after Didda. Before Didda another queen, Sugandhadevi, had wielded power for 50 years, first as regent and later as independent ruler. When Didda’s husband died she cleverly avoided committing sati by staging a superb drama. In fact the book mentions several women who committed sati and several others who refused to do so. I found this part most interesting.

In the 13th century Rudrama Devi of Orugallu (now Warangal) was groomed by her father Ganapati Deva of the Kakatiya dynasty to take over the reins of the kingdom after him. She was made co-ruler in 1259 CE and later in 1262 CE she ruled independently, although she sat on the throne only after the death of the king in 1269. Only a few decades earlier in 1231 CE the Delhi Sultan Itutmish of the Slave dynasty had declared his daughter Razia Sultan as his heir, overriding the claims of his three sons. Razia refused to be called Sultana because the word meant ‘sultan’s wife’. She was the only woman to adorn the throne of Delhi and her reign was short-lived. Rudrama Devi, however, lived to be 80 years old and died around 1289 CE.

A chapter titled “The Heroines of Chittor” makes interesting reading. The author points out that “Karmavati, Jawahirbai and Mirabai were all women who flouted the norm in choosing not to commit sati and came into prominence only after being widowed.” Rani Karmavati did not choose to die when her husband Rana Sanga died in 1528 of wounds sustained in battle, having been defeated by Babur. Bhojraj, Rana Sanga’s heir apparent and husband of the poet-saint Mirabai had already fallen in battle the previous year.

Several years later, in March 1535, Chittor was besieged by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. When the walls were breached with Portuguese cannons, Rani Karmavati led 13000 Rajput women to commit jauhar, while the men fought to the last man. Earlier the queen mother Jawahirbai had led a cavalry charge to defend the breach and died a glorious death along with several other women dressed in male attire. Fortunately for Mirabai she had left Chittor for Merta in 1534, and thus she survived. She lived on until 1547 extolling the divinity of Lord Krishna.

Tarabai, the warrior wife of Prithviraj, often joined her husband on the battlefield. She was acclaimed for driving off a war elephant with her sword. The couple lived in Kumbhalgarh, where Prithviraj was poisoned by his brother in law. Tarabai chose to die on his funeral pyre. Looks like sati was fashionable, but the women did have a choice.

Down south in Madurai in 1682 CE, Rani Mangammal refused to commit sati when her husband Chokkanath Nayak died. Instead she ably guided her young son Virappa Naik, who died seven years later of small pox. When his pregnant wife tried to commit sati, Mangammal forcibly restrained her. The lady Muthuammal later gave birth to a son Vijaya Ranga and subsequently committed suicide. Mangammal continued to rule as regent until 1705, when she died in mysterious circumstances.

I didn’t read the book – I devoured it.

Overall Assessment: If you’re a history buff, you’ll simply love this book

The Women Who Ruled India
Author: Archana Garodia Gupta
Publisher: Hachette India
Publication Date: December 2017

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

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Becoming

While the buzz about this book started well before it was published last November and all but guaranteed that it would be a bestseller, I did not feel particularly compelled to read it. I am not very interested in politics and had no special fascination for Michelle Obama to want to read her memoirs, any more than I cared to read books by or about any other first ladies, or any politicians for that matter, including Barack Obama. But then, a friend told me about the audio book of Becoming and how good it was, especially because it was narrated by Michelle Obama herself. It so happened that I had a long road trip coming up and decided to give the audio book a try.

I was blown away – it was so good! Not only was the quality of the writing impeccable and the narration flawless, it was such a detailed and honest account by Michelle Obama of her life that I felt like I had undertaken the journey with her and understood everything she had gone through. While I was not able to finish listening to the audio book on my road trip, I bought a physical copy of it after I returned and am amazed to find that even after finishing it, I can keep returning to re-read parts of it with as much interest and enjoyment –and admiration of the quality of the writing — as before.

In Becoming, Michelle Obama captures her life (until now) in three parts. In the first part called “Becoming Me,” she describes her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago with her family. Although they were working-class and far from wealthy, she had a happy childhood – her parents had a stable marriage and were loving but firm; she had a great relationship with her brother who was very popular and well-liked in the community; and she had a large extended community of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and was never lonely. While the neighborhood she lived it gradually became gentrified, going from a white majority to mostly black, about the only angst she experienced in her childhood was academic pressure – she was extremely driven and even the smallest slide in her own performance weighed heavily on her. She describes how the demoralizing assessment of her as “not being Princeton material” by her college counselor in high school motivated her to — as she puts it, “I’ll show her!” – actually get into Princeton, where she was one of the very few black students. She continued her Ivy League education with a graduate degree from Harvard Law school and eventually moved back to Chicago to work as a high-powered lawyer in one of the glitzy high-rise office buildings, which she had seen as belonging to a totally different world when she was growing up in the city. It was there that she met and fell in love with Barack Obama, who was an intern at her firm.

In the second part, “Becoming Us,” Michelle Obama describes her courtship with Barack, their marriage, the birth of their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and their early years as a family. She talks about the challenges she faced as a working mother, trying to balance her home life with her professional one, her growing disenchantment with the world of corporate law, her struggle to find work that was meaningful and uplifting, and her initial reluctance but gradual acceptance of her husband’s calling into politics born of his genuine desire to make a difference. What was most interesting to me to read about at this stage of her life was her growing realization that her enormous drive and motivation that had pushed her to get an Ivy League education and a high-paying, high-powered job in corporate law came more from her personality of “checking the right boxes” and of wanting to earn the admiration of people rather than from a true calling. This realization was all the more vivid for her as it contrasted so sharply with that of her husband, who got into politics not out of self-glory or to make himself feel good but out of a genuine desire to do good for the country. I could also relate to how a person like her, who was meticulously organized and obsessively tidy, could learn to co-exist with someone who was the other extreme — messy and disorganized — without affecting their close and loving relationship. As she puts it, “you find ways to adapt.”

The third part of the book, “Becoming More,” is devoted to the eight years Michelle Obama spent as first lady in the White House while her husband was the President of the United States. She talks about the challenges that come with the position, the close and unending scrutiny of her every move including the clothes she wore, the visits with foreign dignitaries, her various initiatives as first lady including the emphasis on eating right, the constant presence of the Secret Service which made going anywhere an enormous undertaking, and the attempt to shield her daughters from the public glare and allow them to lead as normal a life as possible. Given how well documented Obama’s years as President were as well as my own lack of interest in politics, I found this part the least compelling of the three in the book.  However, it is an essential part of her story, and I appreciated that she did not glorify it in the least, any more than make light of it. Over and above all, it served as an important reminder that even if something looks glamorous on the outside, there is as much pain, grief, and just plain, old-fashioned hard work as there is with anything else in life.

It’s a rare privilege to be privy to the thoughts and experiences of another person, and in the case of Becoming, they are not just “stream of consciousness” notes by Michelle Obama but a meticulously detailed narrative that is so well written that you can enjoy reading it for the quality of its writing alone, even if you are not interested in her life story. I didn’t think I was, but I got hooked once I started reading. There are no major dramatic moments or upheavals here, no childhood traumas that she had to contend with or obstacles that she had to overcome. Despite being black, she never talks about any kind of victimization or overt racism apart from what her husband had to encounter as the first black US President. Her story is just that of a regular person who was smart and hard-working and was driven to do well, and subsequently had the good fortune to meet, fall in love with, and marry a kind, generous man who went on to become the President of the United States.

Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“The Theft of India” by Roy Moxham

thetheftofindia

What the Europeans did in India is what this book is all about. The progress of colonization and the cruelty of the colonists are elucidated using quotes and anecdotes from the colonizers themselves. The book is small, handy, and easily readable.

Vasco da Gama and his men on landing at Calicut in 1498 knelt to pray in a temple thinking it was a church. One of them later wrote about the sacred threads worn by the priests across their upper bodies. The men also took home “some white earth which the Christians of this country are wont to sprinkle on the forehead…”

In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived with six ships and bombarded Calicut. Then he left for Cochin, where the king allowed him to establish a factory. But the Zamorin’s fleet pursued him and he slunk away in the dead of night leaving behind 30 of his men. Ending up at Cannannore, he befriended the Raja. By then the Franciscan missionaries accompanying him had realized the difference between Hindus and Christians.

In 1502 Vasco da Gama returned. En route to Calicut the Portuguese encountered the Miri, a ship carrying pilgrims returning from Mecca. A Portuguese eyewitness described the chain of events: “We took a ship from Mecca in which were 380 men and many women and children, and we took from it fully 12,000 ducats, with goods worth at least another 10,000. And we burned the ship and all the people on board with gunpowder.” Another eyewitness recounted how the women offered their jewellery and held up their babies “that we may have pity on their innocence.” These are Portuguese accounts of Portuguese barbarity in a land where they came as traders looking for spices.

The Arab traders of Malabar resisted the Portuguese from the very beginning. The Zamorin ignored the Portuguese demand to expel them. (The Moplahs are said to be descended from 13 Arab merchants who settled on the River Beypore in the 9th century.) The Zamorin’s 32 ship fleet was destroyed by Portuguese guns. The ships were either sunk or set on fire and floated into Calicut harbour.

Next to arrive was Francisco de Almeida. His son was killed in a naval battle off the coast of Diu where the Zamorin’s ships teamed with an Egyptian fleet and successfully fought the Portuguese. But the betrayal of the Diu Governor precipitated the withdrawal of the Egyptians and the subsequent defeat of the Zamorin’s navy. Thereafter the Portuguese dominated the Arabian Sea coast. Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived next.

Goa derives its name from Govapuri at the mouth of the Mandovi River. In 1510 it was ruled by the Bijapur Sultan, Yusuf Adil Shah. Albuquerque easily captured it but fled when the Sultan’s army approached. The Portuguese massacred the Muslims before retreating to their ships. The fury of the monsoon prevented them from sailing. They ran out of food and were reduced to eating rats but did not surrender. Eventually they sailed away but returned on 25 November 1510, to capture Goa and put to death 6000 Muslims.

Albuquerque wrote to the King of Portugal, “I have decided that all the horses of Persia and Arabia should be in your hands, for two reasons: one being the heavy duties that they pay, and secondly, that the King of Vijayanagar and those of the Deccan may recognize that victory depends on you, for he who has the horses will defeat the other.”
Albuquerque, for all his cruelty, forbade the practice of sati in Goa.

In 1538 the first Bishop arrived in Goa. In 1540 the destruction of temples began. Francis Xavier arrived in 1542 and started mass conversions. He died off the coast of China in 1552, was first buried in Malacca and later shipped to Goa in 1554 to be finally interred at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. The author notes that “…parts of a shoulder blade are in Cochin, Malacca and Macao, the upper arm is in Japan, the internal organs have been distributed as relics…”

At Bassein in 1564, the Portuguese smashed the idols in a temple, killed a cow and sprinkled its blood in the sacred lake. The first Inquisition happened in 1560 in Goa. It was Francis Xavier who had recommended this horrendous practice to the Pope. 16,172 cases were investigated, thousands imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake before the practice was banned in 1774. The Inquisition was revived in 1778 and finally banned in 1812.

The book gives us many interesting anecdotes about the Kunjali Marakkars, commanders of the Zamorin’s fleet, who put up the fiercest resistance against Portuguese intrusion into Malabar. If the Zamorin hadn’t fallen out with them in the last decade of the 16th century and sided with the Portuguese, the history of Malabar may perhaps have taken a different turn. Marakkar’s surrender on 16th March 1600 was followed by treachery and tragedy. The Portuguese carted him off to Goa where he was publicly beheaded and his body dismembered and exhibited on the beaches. Then “his head was salted and conveyed to Cannanore, there to be stuck on a standard for a terror to the Moors.” The Zamorin had effectively dug his own grave. A century of resistance to colonization was over.

“Goa relied on a huge population of slaves……Women slaves were sold semi-naked at auctions and fetched more if they were virgins.” All the European powers exported slaves, mostly to the East Indies. “Slaves were commonplace in Madras. …The accounts show that in the month of September 1687 no fewer than 665 slaves were exported.” Edward Barlow, an English sailor noted in his journal in 1670 when his ship docked at the Company’s newly formed base at Valapattinam that the local people would not sell them cows but that for a small sum “you may buy their children”.

Bombay was ceded to Portugal in 1534 by the ruler of Gujarat. The Portuguese did nothing except destroy a few temples and build a few churches. In 1662 when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II of England, Bombay became part of her dowry. Six years later Charles II leased it to the East India Company. And the rest is history.

The author opines that the Mughal rulers, excepting Akbar, did little to improve the economy or the lives of the people. Thomas Roe stayed at Agra for three years and supplied alcohol to Emperor Jahangir. Shah Jahan ordered the destruction of Hindu temples. Aurangzeb converted Surat’s Jain temple into a mosque. His 50 year rule left a legacy of religious conflict that persists to this day.

Overall Assessment: Recommended for whites, blacks and browns alike.

The Theft of India
Author: Roy Moxham
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Year of Publication: 2016

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

“The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

the epic city

I picked up this book on the streets of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during my recent visit to the city. I was looking for something local to read and couldn’t seem to choose from among the scores of books by Indian authors at “regular” bookstores like Crosswords. Walking down Park Street, one of the most famous streets of Calcutta, I stopped at one of the streetside book stalls to browse through its collection. I had discovered some excellent books from streetside stalls like this when I was growing up in India, and history seemed to repeat itself. The bookseller handed me a copy of The Epic City and told me it was very good. I read the blurb, which was intriguing; I was also very impressed with the credentials of the author. But what really clinched the deal for me was this quote from the back cover:

 “Stop and ask for directions in Delhi and no one knows, because no one is truly of the city. Ask for directions on any Calcutta street corner and a half-dozen mustachioed men will appear out of nowhere. They may offer radically divergent views on the matter, a street fight may break out as a result, rival political camps may emerge, and traffic may be barricaded for the rest of the afternoon. But it is their city, their streets, their neighbourhoods.”

Not only was this so well-written, it described Calcutta to a tee!

However, The Epic City is not just an ode to Calcutta, glorifying all the wonderful things about it such as its history, culture, character, vibrancy, and the passion of its people. It is also an unvarnished look at the city, warts and all, including the dirt and grime, the poverty, the chaos, the overwhelming number of people, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. While all of this can be said of any major metropolis in India, Calcutta, in particular, seems to be caught in a time warp, according to Kushanava Choudhury, the author of The Epic City. And yet, it hasn’t seemed to have kept him away. He was born in Calcutta and moved to the US when he was 12, but the lure of the city was so strong that he returned to Calcutta after graduating from Princeton to work as a journalist, went back to the US to do a Ph.D. at Yale, and returned again to write The Epic City. His first return was born from idealism, of wanting to make a difference; the second time, he returned simply to capture the essence of the city he loved.

As a result, we get to experience Calcutta through Choudhury’s eyes at three different stages of his life: growing up in an ancestral home as part of a large, close-knit family with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; working as a journalist fresh out of college in The Statesman, a leading Calcutta newspaper; and finally, as a married young man attempting to be a writer. Needless to say, he has a wealth of stories to share about the myriad aspects of life in the city, all of which stem from his own personal experiences. Some that stood out for me include the attempted renovation of his ancestral home by his uncle, an architect trained in the US, who finally gave up because of the labor problems and red tape, and returned to the US; his grandmother’s death, which brought the entire extended family back together in the ancestral home for her cremation; his search for an apartment to rent with his wife, the news of which spread like wildfire and resulted in many people voluntarily coming forward with prospective apartments that were not remotely what they were looking for; chasing news stories as a journalist that involved trying time and again to have meetings that kept getting postponed; and participating in the omnipresent “addas” of people hanging out having fervent discussions about politics, books, sports, philosophy,  or literally, anything under the sun.

I found The Epic City a perfect companion for my visit to Calcutta, as I could relate first-hand to many of the experiences so eloquently captured by Choudhury and became familiar with several of the places in the city that he described in the book. But even for those not living in or visiting the city, it shows how it is possible for someone to love a place despite all the many inconveniences of life they encounter there, so much so that they would actually choose to live there instead of a much easier, comfortable, and less stressful life in their home country.

The Epic City may not entice you to move to Calcutta, but it certainly allows you to understand and appreciate those who do.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: October 2017

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

“The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape, of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the Dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib” by James Scurry

jamesscurry

This memoir was first published in London in 1824, two years after the death of the author. Born in Devonshire, James Scurry had gone to sea at a very young age, probably accompanying his father. His Indian ordeal began at the age of 15 when he was captured by the French off the Coromandel Coast and handed over to Hyder Ali. After a decade in captivity he made a daring escape and managed to return to England where he built a chequered career, and died at the age of age of 57, leaving behind a widow and son.

Scurry begins his amateurish narrative by telling us he set sail from Plymouth Sound in the ship Hannibal and ended up near Ceylon where they ran into trouble with the French. He dived into the shark-infested waters and tried to swim to safety. “I had nothing about me but a silk handkerchief with two rupees, all my treasure, tied up in the corner.” He mentions Trincomalee, Batticaloa (which he called Bloody Bay), Tranquebar and finally Cuddalore where he was taken along with others after his capture. The year was 1781.

After two months of imprisonment in Hyder Ali’s fort of ‘Chillembroom’ where a famine was raging, the prisoners were marched off to Bangalore. “No butcher ever drove oxen with more cruelty than we were driven.”

Eventually, a group of 52 boys aged 12 to 17 were assembled and told they were now the ‘sons’ of Hyder Ali. They were marched off to Seringapatam, and their heads shaved. Months passed and Hyder Ali ‘Cawn’ died. “…towards the close of his life, when the ulcer was rapidly spreading, he, by advice, ordered several criminals at different times to be killed, in order to apply their livers to his sore.”

Scurry makes an intriguing observation that, “Hyat Saib was the rightful successor, but Tipoo proved the more powerful.” (Hyat (Ayaz Khan), was a Nambiar boy from Chirakkal who had been captured in 1766, converted and re-named before growing to be a prime favourite of Hyder Ali. Hyder is said to have publicly proclaimed that he wished Ayaz was his son and successor.) Did Hyder actually nominate Ayaz to succeed him? Or was Scurry referring to palace whispers?

Tipu’s accession aggravated the misery of the English captives, as they were incorporated into slave battalions. “Our ears were bored and a slave’s mark was put in each of them.”

Scurry describes the fate of Brahmin prisoners and English officers in Tipu’s custody. “…Colonel Bailey, who was in leg irons, with Captian Rumney, and Lieutenant Fraser and Sampson. The three latter had their throats cut at Mysore. Colonel Bailey appeared much emaciated; I rather think grief was the cause of destroying his constitution.”

Of the Malabar (Mangalore) Christians, Scurry records that 30,000 of them were driven to Seringapatam, “where all who were fit to carry arms were circumcised, and formed into four battalions.” Tipu wanted their daughters for his harem and when they refused, they were all imprisoned. “The chumbars, or sandal-makers were then sent for, and their noses, ears and upper lips were cut off; they were then mounted on asses, their faces towards the tail and led through Patam…”

“The principal street in Seringapatam, on each side, was ornamented with paintings, such as, elephants whirling Europeans in the air – tigers seizing whole battalions of English sepoys – five or six English officers supplicating for mercy…” Later when Tipu feared the English would get to Seringapatam, these paintings were removed.

Scurry asserts that Tipu was a coward and a tyrant, and probably mentally deranged. Tipu kept nine large tiger cages in front of his treasury. Three of his principal officers were thrown to the tigers and devoured in an instant. The tigers didn’t live long either. Tipu went hunting and brought in new ones. Scurry describes in detail the unique instruments of torture that Tipu used. “But his most common mode of punishment was that of drawing to death by the elephant’s feet.” This corroborates the accounts of other writers in Malayalam and English.

Scurry also describes Tipu’s ‘games’ that would have put the ancient Romans to shame. When Tipu concluded peace with the British in 1784, and the customary exchange of prisoners took place, Scurry and a 100 other boys were sorely disappointed. Had their government forsaken them? Scurry records that he went into depression for three months.

To cut a long story short, Scurry was circumcised, re-named Shamsher Khan (he spells it Shum Shu Cawn), and forced to marry a dark-skinned girl from Arcot, also a prisoner. “She was an affectionate creature by whom I had two children, one died and the other I left in the arms of its distracted mother.” Scurry eventually escaped into Mahratta territory and returned to England in 1793. His efforts to trace his wife and child proved futile. Recounting his final moments with them he wrote, “I was eager to give them a final embrace; but fearful of the consequences. Oh my God! What were my sensations then! And even now, after a lapse of more than thirty years!”

Scurry’s language and spellings are quaint. We hear of him speaking the “Moorish’ language, the Canary language and the Tellingey language. He also recounts ‘seeing the Bramin women ascend the funeral pyre with the dead bodies of their husbands, apparently with as much composure as we would sit down to our breakfast.” His words are straight from the heart of an unlettered man.

Overall Assessment: Certainly worth reading.

The captivity, sufferings, and escape of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib
Author: James Scurry
Publisher: Forgotten Books
Year of Publication: 2015 (Original 1824)

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

“Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road” by Scott C. Levi

caravans

This book is part of a series by different authors detailing the global commercial activities of Indian merchants down the ages. It presents an amazing account of the trading practices of Punjabi businessmen, whose initiative and enterprise will certainly surprise the reader. Moreover, there’s a detailed account of the slave trade and the horse trade, which were inextricably intertwined.

India had been cultivating cotton and producing textiles from antiquity. Textile fragments excavated at Mohenjo Daro indicate that dyes were used for colouring. The Greek historian Herodotus had referred to Indian cottons.

The Arthashastra the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti refer to institutionalized slavery in India. Mahmud Ghazni took away not only India’s treasures but also hundreds of thousands of slaves. The Slave dynasty (builders of the Qutub Minar) also kept up the slave trade. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398 he returned to Samarkand with plenty of wealth and slaves. Alauddin Khalji (ruled 1296-1316) had 50,000 slave boys and another 70,000 slaves engaged in construction works. Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351 to 1388) had 180,000 slaves. Th author notes that, “The Mughals regularly included skilled slaves as gifts along with ambassadorial exchanges.”

In 1646 Shah Jahan’s army occupied Balkh and marched to Samarkand under Aurangzeb. Defetaed by the long, cold winter the Indian forces had to retreat. A central asian chronicler recorded that the Central Asian ‘wolves’ captured the retreating Indian ‘slave-sheep’ and sold them in the markets of Samarkand, Tashkent and Turkestan. The voluminous supply of slaves caused prices to plummet from 225 tanga in 1589 to 84 tanga in 1646.

The Lodi dynasty of Afghan Pashtuns (later overthrown by Babur) came to India as horse traders. “The fact that the ancient Indian ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice, is described already in the Rig Veda indicates that Indians were involved in this exchange many centuries before Herodotus,” the author points out. Marco Polo noticed that the Malabar rulers imported 10,000 horses a year at a cost of 2.2 million dinars – and all but 100 would be dead by the end of the year. Niccolao Manucci wrote in the latter half of the 17th century that 100,000 horses were led from Bukhara to India every year and 12000 of them went directly to Aurangzeb’s stables.

Babur wrote in 1504, “From Hindustan, caravans of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pack animals bring slaves, textiles, rock sugar, refined sugar, and spices.” 22 years later he would defeat Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat and found the Mughal dynasty.

Successive rulers in India and Central Asia carefully protected the caravan trade. When Akbar learnt that Afghan and Baloch tribes were preying upon the caravans, he sent his army to subdue them. Thousands of tribesmen were killed and thousands more enslaved and deported.

The arrival of the Europeans did not impact the caravan trade. The Portuguese brought much silver from the Americas in exchange for spices and textiles. The 17th century French traveller Francois Bernier observed, “Gold and silver, after circulating in every corner of the globe, comes at length to be swallowed up, lost in some measure in Hindostan.” The French monk Raphael du Mans described India as a place “where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss.” Earlier in the 1st century Pliny the Elder and the anonymous author of Periplus Maris Erithraei had bemoaned Rome’s massive trade deficit with India.

Mulasthana or Mulastanapura became Multan in the 8th century following the Muslim conquest. Alexander the Great took the city in 326 B.C.E. 13th century records identify Multanis as money-lenders and wholesale textile dealers for the first time. Indian merchants were considered indispensable to the local economy and the term ‘Multani’ referred to both Hindus and Muslims. As Multan began to suffer repeated invasions in the mid 17th century, Multani merchants relocated en masse to Shikarpur in Sind.

In the 17th century the French jeweller Tavernier commented that Indian money-changers or Shroffs surpassed the Jews in their shrewdness. The Punjabi Khatris prospered due to Mughal patronage but outlasted several dynasties in India and Central Asia. There were Marwari Jains in Astrakhan in the 17th century.

Nadir Shah’s reign was the most disruptive period in the history of the Indian merchant diaspora. In 1736 he slaughtered the Hindu communities across Iran. After his assassination in 1747 Indians began to return.

Indian presence in Russian territory diminished in the second half of the 19th century due to Russian expansionist policies and harsh restrictions imposed on Indian businesses. Ivan the Terrible had annexed the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century. The 1917 Revolution virtually ended Indian enterprise in Russia. With Partition in 1947, the Indians in Afghanistan had to move elsewhere, as the trade lines were cut off.

In 1914 Paramanand Deepchand Hinduja moved from his native Shikarpur in Sind to Bombay where he established firm. Five years later he moved his business to Iran. When he passed way in 1971 his successors maintained a close relationship with the Shah as well as the Indian government. The business shifted to Europe after the 1979 Islamic Revolution but continued to thrive. Today they employ 70,000 people in 35 countries and have assets worth an estimated $35 billion.

Years ago I was travelling in Uzbekistan with a few women. We were frequently accosted on the streets by local women asking to be photographed with us. They would first ask “Hindustan? Hindustan?” and when we nodded they would signal that they wanted a picture. This happened in not only in Tashkent but also in Bukhara and Samarkand. I suspected it was Bollywood mania, but after reading this book I can see other reasons too.

Overall Assessment: Very Interesting

Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road
Author: Scott C. Levi
Publisher: Portfolio (Penguin Books)
Year of Publication: 2016

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

“Black Boy” by Richard Wright

Black Boy

Black Boy was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1945, and has remained one of the best-selling books by the pioneering African-American writer, Richard Wright, who lived from 1908 until 1960. It is classed as an autobiography but it reads more like a novel. Wright was already famous as a writer of stories and essays, and his first novel, Native Son, had been an immediate best seller when it was published in 1941.

Notably, the version of Black Boy that became the best-seller is not the book we read today. Wright composed the book in two parts. Part One, called “Southern Night,” covers his youth in the South, and Part Two, called “The Horror and the Glory” and only half as long, covers his young adulthood in Chicago. Wright’s major point is that life in the South did not prepare him for life in the North; he had to go through a second childhood to learn the ways of the city.

The two parts are very different. The first part strives for mythic status; Richard presents himself as a stand-in for every poor black boy in the South who wanted to be respected as an individual. The second part is increasingly specific to his own life and loses its mythic status, as Richard tries to understand and justify his actions in Chicago. Because of this, his publisher persuaded him to release the first part on its own in 1945. This is justifiable on the grounds that it is a coherent and complete work of art, but for Richard it meant that his story was brutally truncated. In the 1990s, Wright’s original work was published whole as he had intended, and that is the version people read nowadays.

The book’s full title is Black Boy (American Hunger), and in it, Wright depicts spiritual and emotional hunger as well as the constant physical hunger of his youth. One of his major points is that racial discrimination deprives African-Americans of opportunities for self-realization and self-respect. He asserts that racism limits the emotional and cultural development of black people, so they have no idea of their own worth. Fortunately there has been enough progress toward equality that Wright’s depiction of racism in the South in the first half of the 20th century seems dated now, but in its time, it was incendiary because it was shocking to see a secret aspect of American society depicted so vividly.

Racism is not the book’s only subject. The boy Richard was permanently scarred by a peculiarly nightmarish childhood that deprived him of any form of worth. He defined the problem as one of racial discrimination, but I think his warped family situation made him dwell on this issue.

As a child, Richard is almost completely deprived of love and support. His closest relationship is with his mother, who routinely slaps him for asking too many questions or bringing up forbidden subjects. After she suffers a series of paralyzing strokes, the best she can do is to nag him weakly to do his best in school. As she becomes more helpless, he loses his sense of connection with her. Richard’s father abandons the family when Richard is 6, leaving them in abject poverty. His mother’s family takes them in, but they treat Richard like a little heathen.

The most excruciating part of his situation concerns religion. Richard’s grandparents and an aunt who lives with them are ardent 7th-Day Adventists who insist on a host of forbidding rules and are determined that Richard join their sect. As a boy who had experienced little in life beyond hunger and disrespect, Richard can’t accept any religious belief. Long passages are devoted to the Adventists’ efforts to recruit him, and the thoughts he has about spiritual beliefs as a child. In fact, one of his earliest experiences of self-realization is his unwillingness to accept their beliefs, and his inability to pretend that he does in order to fit in. This condemns him to total rejection by his mother’s family. After his mother converts to Methodism, she too tries to save his soul, and resorts to emotional pressure to get him to be baptized, but he soon returns to bitter skepticism.

Richard’s family sees him as a wayward boy whose actions are always bad, and you can see their point. At the age of 4, he burns the house down. Soon after, he kills a kitten. At age 6, he becomes an alcoholic. He learns to talk dirty before he learns to read. He taunts the Jewish store owner with the same kind of prejudice he is subjected to. He is paralyzed by shyness in school. He unwittingly sells racist tracts. He refuses to be punished for things he didn’t do, and uses a knife or straight razors to protect himself from his abusive relatives. When he graduates from 8th grade, he insists on giving the Valedictorian speech that he wrote himself rather than the one the principal wrote for him. As he grows older, he wants to read novels and write stories, the work of the devil in his families’ view. He wants to work on Saturdays, a holy day for the Adventists. After he gets old enough to work full time, he finds he will never be able to save enough money to escape North, so he resorts to participating in a scam for extra money, and finally engages in theft to get a stake. Wright presents all these incidents in novelistic detail, including his thoughts and feelings at the time.

His extreme poverty forced Richard to seek work at a very young age, and this is when he begins to encounter racial prejudice. Wright catalogs every sort of racial indignity that a boy could experience in the heart of the South, and he analyzes just how these experiences affected his development. White people expect black people to be totally and smilingly subservient, like slaves. No matter how hard Richard tries to conform, he seems uppity to the whites, who frequently bully him into leaving his job.

Wright’s childhood was so deprived— emotionally, spiritually, and economically—that his pursuit of knowledge and self-realization seems miraculous, totally inexplicable. He becomes an ardent reader despite the disapproval of his family and the scarcity of reading materials. His formal education is patchy due to poverty, but he is passionate about seeking knowledge, and adventure as well, through reading. Where did he get that passion? Where did he get the massive intelligence to digest all that material? Wright shows very few positive influences on his life.

Not surprisingly, Wright’s adult life in Chicago is considerably more complicated than his childhood in the South. No longer can he encapsulate his experience into a string of deftly drawn episodes; various aspects of his life overlap and intersect, and learning takes place over longer arcs. On the plus side, there is less public racial discrimination; he can sit anywhere on public transportation, and he doesn’t have to defer to white folks. But racial prejudices remain at a deeper level. This is true for Richard as well, who notices that even when white people try to treat him respectfully, he still assumes they are the same as white people in the South. His personality is so hardened that it is hard for him to form relationships.

Career-wise, Wright does rather well, though he never acknowledges this. He starts out as an errand boy and dishwasher, but he soon passes the exam for postal clerk. Meanwhile he reads all the important novels of his day and tons of sociology and psychology. During the Depression he becomes an agent for insurance and burial societies, discouraging work that nevertheless gives him access to the lives of a wide variety of poor black people. When that job dries up, a relief organization assigns him to be an orderly in a medical research institute. Finally he gets a job with the South Side Boys’ Club that he finds deeply engrossing. Later he is assigned to do publicity for the Federal Negro Theater, which is a writing job, at least; when that fails, he is assigned to do publicity for a white experimental theatrical company.

What really muddies his narrative is his relationship with the Communist party. Richard finally meets some people with similar social and philosophical views, and through them he gets drawn into the John Reed Club, a group of artists and writers which was associated with the Communist party. At first the theory of Communism, and its version of history, enthrall Wright, but he realizes the idealistic Communist activists are deeply ignorant of the life of ordinary black people. He is suspicious of them, but he is drawn in when they offer to publish some of his stories. From this point, his memoir becomes a messy recital of political manipulation, group rivalries, and Communist tactics as he is unexpectedly propelled into a leadership position in Chicago’s Communist party and just as unexpectedly demoted and reviled, as the international party becomes more rigid. After two chapters of ups and downs in the party, his relationship is finally ended definitively, and he concludes the book in a state of deep disillusionment, though nevertheless determined to continue writing.

In addition to racism, Wright struggles with rampant anti-intellectualism. His ardent and wide-ranging self-education plays a painfully ambivalent role in his life. On the positive side, reading is his only escape from his frustrating life; on the other, it automatically makes him unusual and suspect, not only among his family, but also his friends. As an adult, he talks like a person with a college education. This is an advantage in building his career, but it makes him suspect among other Negro members of the Communist party, who are mostly unlettered new arrivals to the North, because it identifies him with their white oppressors.

The first time I read this book, I was disdainful of the long passages of explanation and analysis, considering them to be artless. But the second time, the composition sounded seamless, and I realized that the development of the author’s understanding of life is an important part of the story. Wright desperately wanted to understand himself and to make himself understood, and his voice rings with probing sincerity in every word. Many critics believe Wright helped change racial relationships in America.

Black Boy
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: March 2007 (first published in 1945)

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith is an art educator who writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“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 just getting started — 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 was 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, high-regarded investors and senior government officials, 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 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 learning about 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 Thernanos’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 been first 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 so 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 questions. 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 had 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.