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

Do and Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall assessment: Must read.

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

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

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

This Child Will Be Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall assessment: Good read.

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

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

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

Reminiscences_of_the_Cuban_Revolutionary_War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Assessment: Must read.

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

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

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

Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Che Guevara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall assessment: Meticulously researched. Must read.

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

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

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

Zealot.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
AUTHOR: Reza Aslan
PUBLISHER: The Westbourne Press
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2013

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

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

The Boss of Bosses

‘The best forgiveness is revenge.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall assessment: Brilliant book.

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

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

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

Without Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime

I am addicted to three late-night comedy shows — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Late Night with Seth Meyers — all of which I record daily on my DVR and watch religiously the next day. They are essential for me to get my daily quota of laughs. While I heartily enjoy all three shows, the one that I invariably watch first is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He took it over from Jon Stewart barely a couple of years ago, and Jon Stewart was so good that it was hard to imagine anyone being able to fill in his shoes. But Trevor Noah has taken the show and made it his own, imbuing it with his unique sensibility — he is from South Africa and is biracial, and is therefore able to look at events in the US as well as the world with a perspective that is very different from the traditional American talk show host. He also has such a natural fair for comedy, which, combined with an innate charm, makes him immediately likable.

Born a Crime is a memoir Noah has written recently that is primarily focused on his childhood growing up in South Africa, against the ugly backdrop of apartheid. While this inhumane system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination was ending as he was growing up — thanks to activists like Nelson Mandela — Noah was born at a time when it was still illegal for black and white people to have sexual relations, let alone procreate. Thus, as the child of a white man and a black woman, he was “born a crime,” which explains the title of the book. However, Born a Crime is far from being a dark and depressing read that is focused on the many horrors of apartheid and the fight to end it; instead, it is an account of Noah’s childhood growing up as a “colored” person in South Africa. He was raised primarily by his mother and had more or less a black upbringing, although the tone of his skin did set him apart and made him learn to be like a “chameleon” to fit in with different groups of people. At the same time, it robbed him of the sense of belonging that comes from fitting in squarely in one group.

We see both these seemingly contradictory aspects manifested in so many ways in the anecdotes that Noah shares in this book about his life, from the time he was a little boy being brought up by his mother — with frequent visits to her family where he got a chance to experience the full gamut of relationships including cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and even a great-grandmother — to his adolescent years — by which time his mother had remarried and had two more boys. By the time he was a young adult, he was well on his way to moving out of the house to a place of his own. He had his share of romantic crushes in school, just like any other adolescent, and also had several brushes with the law — mostly involving petty crime — which stopped when he actually ended up spending a few days in jail. Eventually, his natural flair for entertaining people and making them laugh is what led him to doing comedy for a living.

What I enjoyed most about Born a Crime are the stories of Noah’s early childhood, many of which would have been really sad and depressing but for his outlook and the manner in which he narrates them, which makes them funny rather than tragic. For example, the book starts with his mother throwing him out of a moving bus when he was nine years old and then jumping out of the bus herself with his infant step-brother. With an opening like that, how can you not be hooked? There is another story that is laugh-out hilarious, and that is to do with toilets, or rather, the lack of them. In Soweto, the place where Noah grew up, there were only communal toilets, and even those were little more than unceremonious holes into the ground, with flies a constant present. Noah describes how he always had “an all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into [Noah’s] bum.” There’s a lot more to this story which I cannot repeat here — it’s worthwhile reading the book for that story alone! — except this priceless observation, “I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forgot how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”

While few people would refer to our bodily functions so crudely, at least in writing, it is so characteristic of Noah to share his observations so bluntly, without any attempt to sugar-coat them. The other stories he narrates are in a similar vein, and I could literally hear his “voice” as I was reading them, with the same tone and manner of speaking that he has on his show — it comes through loud and clear.

What also comes across is his love for his mother, a truly remarkable woman who was extremely tough as well as fiercely independent, who had him when she wanted to have a child but without the traditional marriage to a man in her community and the subservience that goes with it. She left home at a young age, found a secretarial job at a time when this was impossible for black women, found a decent man — who happened to be white — to father a child, and then raised the child on her own. This is how Noah came to be — a biracial kid brought up by his black mother, who couldn’t even be seen with him in public when he was small because it was illegal. His mother did eventually get married to a black man, who turned out to be abusive, but she never stopped being tough and independent, the rock that supported him. Quite simply, he was lucky to be her son.

I enjoyed reading Born a Crime and getting a chance to learn about the back story of someone whose comedy I thoroughly enjoy and who has made it so big in the US. It was also illuminating to hear a first-hand account of someone who has lived though the waning years of apartheid. Over and above all, it’s always fascinating to get a chance to see how people end up doing what they do.

Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: November 2016

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

” Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I'm Dying

An incredible true-life story recounted by a member of a family that was torn between Haiti and the United States. A heart-rending tale of two brothers who loved and trusted each other but were compelled by circumstances to live apart. Joseph, the elder, lives in Bel Air, a hilltop neighbourhood overlooking Port-au-Prince harbour. The younger brother, Andre, moves to New York in the prime of his life leaving behind a wife and two infants. The elder of the two is the author of this book. She was barely two when her dad disappeared. Two years later, her mom follows dad. Edwidge and her brother Bob wait another eight years to make the crossover to privilege and prosperity. Dad slowly and painfully builds a future in a strange country, driving taxis to make a livelihood. Two of his four children are born in the United States.

Of her father’s migration the author says simply, “Because he had a job, a wife and two children as incentives to return to Haiti, my father was granted a one-month tourist visa. But he had no intention of coming back.” While Danticat avoids the temptation of getting too sentimental, any reader can easily feel the intense pangs of separation felt by every one of the characters in the story. Imagine the pain of a mother having to abandon a two year old and a four year old and make a leap into the unknown!

Abandoned children were aplenty in Joseph’s household. His grandson Nick was more or less forsaken by both parents, who separated soon after his birth, his mom moving to Canada and his father Maxo to the US. Marie Micheline, the precious orphan, who lost her Haitian mother and was abandoned by her Cuban father when she was six months adds sweetness and pathos to the story. Raised by Joseph and Denise, she bear four children out of wedlock, escapes domestic violence, and works as a nurse, until her life is brutally cut short when she was only thirty seven. “Nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau would have opined.

Joseph’s wife Tante Denise appears as a larger than life figure, presenting a portrait of grace and stoicism in the face of adversity. Interestingly, the author’s own mother is mentioned less often.

Joseph loses his voice in 1978 following illness and surgery. There’s no dearth of tragedies – to list them would be next to impossible. Yet the book is not a tear-jerker but a thought-provoker, a true measure of the author’s literary finesse.

The book traces Haiti’s descent into political instability and social chaos, and speaks of abject poverty, lawlessness, gang wars, police raids and indiscriminate violence. “It was Thursday, July 15th, 2004, the fifty first birthday of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa.” That’s an interesting way of putting it.

“The hill in Bel Air on which the house was built had been the site of a famous battle between mulatto abolitionists and French colonists who’d controlled most of the land since 1697 and had imported black Africans to labor on coffee and sugar plantations as slaves. A century later, slaves and mulattoes joined together to drive the French out, and on January 1st, 1804 formed the Republic of Haiti.” Wow! That’s the only example of slaves vanquishing a mighty colonial power. I’d read about this before but Danticat’s narrative is particularly interesting because it triggers some rare thoughts. Why did the Declaration of Independence (from Britain) by white colonists (in North America) become a globally acclaimed historical event, while a more stupendous feat achieved by poor and unarmed black slaves has gone unnoticed by the world?

And what follows is even more fascinating: “More than a century later, as World War I dawned and the French, British and Germans, who controlled Haiti’s international shipping, rallied their gunboats to protect their interests, President Woodrow Wilson, whose interests included, among others, the united Fruit Company and 40 percent of the stock of the Haitian national bank, ordered an invasion. When the US marines landed in Haiti in July 1915 for what would become a nineteen year occupation…” Oh! So one hundred years later (with mass produced social media ‘fake’ news at our fingertips) if some of us expect President Donald Trump to be driven by his economic interests, that wouldn’t be so far-fetched would it? After all, history is said to repeat itself.

“In the fall of 1994, Aristide returned to Haiti, accompanied by 20,000 US soldiers. Citing the brutality of the military regime and the menace of a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to nearby Florida, then President Bill Clinton launched Operation Uphold Democracy.” The author points out that while Cuban refugees were welcomed with open arms Haitian refugees were often imprisoned and deported. Joseph dies in tragic circumstances and Andre follows soon thereafter.

Danticat is humble enough to say, “What I learned from my father and uncle, I learned out of sequence and in fragments. This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at recreating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time. I am writing this only because they can’t.”

Overall assessment: Don’t miss this masterpiece.

Brother, I’m Dying
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Publisher: Random House
Year of Publication: 2007

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

“Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” by Frank Bruni

Where You Go

New York Times best-selling author Frank Bruni shows why rejection from an Ivy League college does not spell disaster but may even be a blessing in disguise. In his book, Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Bruni takes on the myth that getting an Ivy League education is not only necessary for success as an adult, but also a stepping stone to wealth and prosperity. He examines the chaos of the college admissions process in the US, looking at college rankings, SAT scores, and acceptance rates of elite colleges.

Bruni connects the mayhem of admissions to the emphasis on privilege and branding, which ends up categorizing people by their race or their family’s income. Too often, admission into a top college becomes the number one priority, while trying to go to a school where you get the best education takes a backseat. Crafting a student’s resume begins as early as in preschool, as community service, sports abilities, and other extra-curriculars all contribute to where the student ends up attending. Students can only relax when they are finally accepted somewhere.

Bruni writes, “The sale is more important than the product,” as he uses his own personal experiences to show that being rejected from Ivy League colleges may, in fact, be a blessing. Bruni uses Arizona University as an example of a great school that is not in the Ivy League. Arizona offers high quality education, with a faculty that includes two Nobel and five Pulitzer Prize winners. Getting an education from your top choice, even if it is not in the Ivy League, is still the best option, but rejection can lead you off the path, where you have to learn to be self-reliant and more flexible, increasing your chances of success.

Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be is a must-read for students heading into colleges, as it reminds them that just because a college may be higher ranked or has more prestige does not mean it’s a better place for their education. Written in a dynamic style but containing a lot of valuable information, this is a book that families and students cannot overlook as they get into the bedlam of college admissions.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Author: Frank Bruni
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: March 2015

Reviewer: Sahil Kurup is a high-school student at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

“Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World” by Tracy Kidder (Adapted for Young People by Michael French)

Mountains Beyond Mountains

This was a book I borrowed from a schoolgirl in Columbus, Ohio. She has a dream of becoming a doctor and I was curious to know what she was reading. I picked three titles from her home library and ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains’ was the first one I read. Quite predictably, it was a version adapted specially for kids. The original book was authored by Tracy Kidder and published in 2004. Michael French was responsible for the adapted version.

The book is about a medical man with a noble mission. Dr. Paul Farmer, born in America in humble circumstances, goes to Duke university on a scholarship and chooses his life’s work in disease ridden Haiti, one of America’s poorest neighbours. He works and travels 24/7, treating patients, raising funds, and convincing global opinion makers that the poor must have options too, that healthcare would be ineffective if it targeted only the wealthy.

The book traces the amazing journey of an amazing individual, an inspiring saga of energy, enthusiasm and professional excellence. It’s a MUST READ for any one who has interest in the medical profession.

Paul Farmer and some of his most committed team members go on to found Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit organization that combats diseases such as TB, AIDS and malaria in far flung places such as Peru, Kazhakhstan, Russia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Malawi, Lesotho and Rwanda.

The book introduces us to many interesting personalities. Tim White is the ultimate philanthropist who supports Farmer’s ventures until he is down to his last penny. Jim Yong Kim, who partnered with Farmer to found Partners in Health is now President of the World Bank. Didi Bertrand is the Haitian woman who marries Farmer and shares his vagabond lifestyle while bringing up the children. She lived in Paris for years before moving to Rwanda with her husband. Ophelia Dahl, daughter of Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal and celebrated author Roald Dahl, meets Farmer in Haiti when she was just eighteen. She finds her calling and becomes one of the prime movers behind PIH.

Overall Assessment: Great story, great subject, but a bit laboured.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World
AUTHOR: Tracy Kidder (Adapted for Young People by Michael French)
PUBLISHER: Random House
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2004

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

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is the amazing story of a young African – American woman who became ‘immortal’ after cervical cancer claimed her life in 1951. The cells from her cervix came to be known worldwide as HeLa cells and continued to grow and multiply ad infinitum. They were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. They were the first living cells shipped via postal mail. They facilitated the development of the polio vaccine in 1952. They aided cancer research and virology studies, besides cloning and gene mapping. Both Russian and American scientists had managed to grow HeLa in space. But no one had ever heard of the cell donor.

Was Henrietta Lacks really a donor? Was she aware that her cells had been cultured? Poor Henrietta knew only pain and hopelessness. She didn’t know the cells that were killing her by the second were going to live forever.

The author gives us interesting details of the life and family of Henrietta Lacks and brings up interesting questions about medical ethics, informed consent, and donor rights. It was only two decades after her death that Henrietta Lacks was actually named in a publication as the source of the HeLa cells. Only then does the world realize that the cells came from a black woman. Only in 1973 do her children learn that her cells are still alive and multiplying. Only in 1975 do they understand that the cells are being bought and sold and that companies and individuals are earning profits while they themselves can barely afford medical treatment.

Henrietta Lacks, wife of David Lacks and mother of five children, died when she was just over thirty. She had been born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Her mother had died in childbirth when Loretta was only four years old. No one knows how or when Loretta became Henrietta. She was brought up by her grandfather, a poor tobacco farmer. She married her first cousin when she was twenty. By then the couple already had two children. It is a tragic tale of poverty and the acute deprivations that accompany it. Henrietta fell victim to cervical cancer, suffered acute distress, both physical and mental, and finally succumbed.

The book is as much about the life and journey of HeLa cells as it is about Henrietta Lacks and her family. You have to be greatly interested in science, anatomy, genetics and medicine to really enjoy the book. It is extensively researched, is acclaimed as a New York Times bestseller, and the subject is fascinating. Yet it is hard to sift through the scientific facts and get a grip on the story. The book unearths some unusual facts that most of us are unlikely to have heard of. “When the first humans went into orbit, Henrietta’s cells went with them so researchers could study the effects of space travel, as well as the nutritional needs of cells in space, and how cancerous and non-cancerous cells responded differently to zero gravity. What they found was disturbing: in mission after mission, noncancerous cells grew normally in orbit, but HeLa became more powerful, dividing faster with each trip.”

The sad part is that none of Henrietta’s children were able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation that marked their mother’s life. The paths trodden by the five children are all too predictable, given the circumstances of their birth and family history and the reader can’t help sympathizing with them. What became of Elsie, the first daughter who was committed to a mental institution while still a child, is particularly heart-rending. Deborah, the younger daughter learns of her existence decades after Elsie’s death. Neither their father nor their eldest brother, Lawrence, had ever mentioned her.

Dr. George Gey was the man who cultured the first HeLa cells. This was at John Hopkins. He gave them away to anyone who asked for them. He had no profit motive. But soon the distribution of HeLa cells became commercialized and a multi-million dollar industry was born. Samuel Reader, the owner of Microbiological Associates was first to make big money out of this. But it was John Hopkins that Henrietta’s children were wary of. The author traces the history of this world renowned institution which makes interesting reading. “John Hopkins was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland where his father later freed his slaves nearly sixty years before Emancipation. Hopkins made millions working as a banker and grocer, and selling his won brand of whiskey, but he never married and had no children. So in 1873, not long before his death, he donated $7 million to start a medical school and charity hospital.” And the rest, as we know, is history.

The author informs us that, “A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office database turns up more than seventeen thousand patents involving HeLa cells.” The 1980 Supreme Court decision in the case of Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, who had been denied a patent for a genetically engineered bacterium that could consume oil and help clean up oil spills was an interesting piece of information.

Overall Assessment: Interesting, though not an easy read.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Year of Publication: 2010

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

“My Life with Bob” by Pamela Paul

My Life with Bob

Of the thousands of podcasts that are now available, there are only two that I subscribe to, the New York Times Book Review podcast and NPR’s Fresh Air. In fact, I listen to them so regularly that the voices of their hosts – Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review podcast and Terry Gross of Fresh Air – seem more familiar to me than the sound of my own voice. So when I heard of the book, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul that was published recently, I had to, of course, read it – despite the fact that I have a marked preference for fiction and My Life with Bob is more of a memoir. (Interestingly, Pamela Paul was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air shortly after her book was published, so I had a chance to listen to both of them in the same podcast!)

Contrary to what you might expect, the “Bob” of My Life with Bob is not a guy, but a list of books that Pamela Paul has maintained for twenty-eight years, starting from the time she was in high school. This becomes obvious from the subtitle of the book, which is “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.” Thus, Bob here is an acronym for “Book of books.” It might seem strange to keep such a list – it’s not something people commonly do – and it is a testament to how much Pamela Paul loves books that she has kept a record of every book that she has read since high school. And not only that, her Bob is so precious to her that if she was forced to evacuate her home in a hurry, Bob is what she would choose to take – after her family, of course, but before critical documents such as passports and birth certificates. (Bob, is contained, so far, within a single notebook and is hand-written, and while I can see the importance of maintaining the hand-written aspect of it, I think it can at least be scanned and archived, so she does not live in mortal dread of losing it!)

For a fellow book lover, My Life with Bob provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of someone who has always been passionate about books since she was a kid. Keeping a list of books may have started out as a whim for Pamela Paul – one of those things you embark upon in your teens but soon lose interest in – but it actually became almost a necessity for her, as books were the one constant in her life that she was always passionate about. Her list starts with Franz Kafka’s The Trial on a summer-abroad trip to rural France as a high-school student and continues till the present day, following the arc of her life through college, early adulthood living in Thailand in the soul-searching “What do I want to do with my life?” phase, early career as a freelance writer in which she was able to land prestigious gigs such as a monthly column in The Economist, a first marriage ending in divorce, her second marriage, the birth of her three kids, and her professional ascent in the editorial and publishing world that has culminated in what would seem to be the pinnacle for someone who wants to work with books – becoming the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Contrary to a personal journal or dairy which is commonly used by people to capture the events, thoughts, feelings – and very often, angst – at specific times in their lives, maintaining a list of every book that she has read is much more meaningful to Pamela Paul, as it concisely captures the trajectory of her life. Instead of reading her thoughts about what she felt at a certain time if she had captured them in a diary – most people who maintain regular journals will probably have hundreds of them – she can simply look at any book in her list and remember the event or experience associated with it, even if it was twenty years ago – similar to how a photograph can trigger long forgotten memories. In her list of books, she even indicates which ones she was not able to complete, which is also illuminating, as what a person does not like is as indicative of their personality as what they do like. While a list of books cannot always be a good filter to find like-minded people, a person’s reading list does tell you a lot about their personality, and the immediate affinity you feel towards someone who feels the same way about a specific book as you do is undeniable.

As you would expect from someone who is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul is an accomplished writer, and while I have not read any of her earlier books, I found My Life with Bob very well written. It was fascinating to get an inside look at the life of someone whose world revolves around books, all the way from being a “bookish child” who always felt book-deprived, to her current position where she is surrounded by a glut of books and can only manage to read a tiny fraction of them.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
Author: Pamela Paul
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: May 2017

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

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

Killing Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the book merit a read? You bet!

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

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