Ri – Homeland of uncertainty : Book Review

The Blurb

Ri- Homeland of Uncertainty is adapted from the National Award Winning Khasi film by the same name. Trapped in the limbo between ideology and conscience, Manbha finds him himself part of a terror outfit. An unexpected opportunity, anger, squalor and disillusionment – followed by and armed combat and injury lead to the soul- searching that form the substance of this moving tale.

My Review:

  The story opens with the police inspector addressing the press about the recent encounter with the terrorists. As it is the norm, the media does not buy the statement given by the police.Familiar isn’t it?

There are three main voices in this story – the one of the law enforcement, second, that of the terrorists and last, the voice of the people. Like any other region rife with violence and terror activities, Meghalaya was also one such state that was filled with uncertainty between the years 2000 – 2004. Ri, documents one such story…from the perspective of all the three voices. The people are terrorized, the businessmen and merchants were subject to extortion and murder. Curfews, bundhs and living in fear had become a way of life for the people.

The law enforcement agencies were trying their best to stop and eliminate terrorism while trying to protect the people, which was a very idealistic thought but not impossible.

The terrorists’ filled with misplaced ideology that they were freedom fighters is pitiable highlighting that the youth can be brainwashed so easily to commit crime for the vested interests of some.

The story moves quickly and is gripping that it is difficult to put the book down. The character of Kyndiah, Manbha and Emika is well described. Kyndiah comes across as a dedicated and disciplined police officer who has no personal life to speak of. Manbha, the youth with an ideology of being a freedom fighter and not a terrorist. Emika the journalist turned teacher, who is a victim of terror, who believes in the rehabilitation of the young terrorists.

What I did not like:

The story becomes preachy towards the end. I would have loved to read more about the actual fears and insecurities of the people. And Emika not afraid of a gun toting terrorist seems a bit far fetched. The conflict could have been pronounced.

My question to the author:

Ri is a fictitious depiction of various mindsets of people of Meghalaya. Yet, some amount of research must have gone into writing the script which must have been drawn from the real life incidents. Can you tell us the research that went into the writing of Ri? How did you come about writing the script of Ri?

Paulami: At the scripting level there was a lot of research for every scene. Case studies and news paper clips had helped me to make the story closer to reality. I have also referred to a lot of geography texts to stay closer to the feel of the region. A lot of it is also first person account. Since we were dealing with a very sensitive subject, I had to be double sure before putting down a scene.  Manbha or SP Kyndiah are maybe people I have seen around me in Shillong. These are just names that I have given to add flesh to my story. Ri talks about a treacherous phase of Meghalaya, and through different layers and emotions I have just tried to tell that story. Sometime when I read it, I almost feel I am reading nonfiction. The killing of Agarwal, or the shootout that kills Emika’s father has all happened and had left bloody spots on the hilly abode. Cinema in India has talked about Kashmir and Naxalites.   Ri was our opportunity to reach out to India with our story. Thus research was the backbone of the script.


~ Janaki Nagaraj.

Originally posted at Literati


I stopped at Pinkerton

to write this post 😛 on collective Memory … about collective memory while reading books or texts of any kind or while in a conversation…. especially books located in other countries away from ours….

I think Indian Writing in English is easier to read and understand without an encyclopaedia near at hand or open in a browser because many of the references are part of our collective memory 😀

For instance, for most of the Indians, Independence Day is August 15 every year. With it as we are a part of a more or less, a similar school curriculum, many details rush in beginning with this date, the month and the year 1947, the 12 o’ clock speech, Nehru, Gandhij, Satyagraha, Partition, Pakistan, Cricket, the Subcontinent, British, Colonial, Commonwealth…. may not be in this order, it could be any… the point is all this information can be encapsulated with that one date.

Let’s take the Taj, it may refer to the one at Agra, or the tea company, the group of hotels spread all over India, the stories as to why it was established in the first place,  after 26/11 we have some painful new memories, Kasab’s face looms (may be/may be not)… TATA can refer to a variety of products…to Titan to steel.. to Nano..

Delhi, is always the Capital with a ‘C’ and some may also remember its architect, Luyten, a mention of Ayodhya or Ram or Babri Masjid can bring to mind so much reality and myth, the boat races or the durga pooja fills us with everything from the huge sets, to art directors to processions to sweets, energy, relatives, food, lights… same with sabarmati, golconda… rasgullas… Marine Drive…modak 🙂 🙂

A passing reference without an explanation about any of these will immediately open a truckload of associated memories or instances. They could be at the level of the personal, private, secretive, familial…….public, cultural, collective …….

Or sometimes a joke we shared at school… Q: Why did Rajiv Gandhi marry Sonia Gandhi? A: Because… all Indians are my (his) brothers and sisters 😛

So, Pinkerton!! that’s where I stopped reading…They come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton Detectives (eat pray love)…

The very first image that came to my mind were those of the twin detectives in Tintin… but their names aren’t Pinkerton, they are Thomson & Thompson 😛 I don’t know why Pickwick Papers came to mind almost immediately, may be it starts with the same letter P… and then I was clueless because nothing else came to mind and… I had to look up and……… a whole history related to a country and why Pinkerton and not Holmes or the Ladies Detective Agency in that line…

Collective memory …

Writers are a lucky lot because they do not have to explain in a lot of words about a whole lot of things because  collective memory bridges the unsaid, the unexplained, the paragraph breaks, the ellipses ….

An old post this one, seemed to attract a lot of traffic on my blog today, thought I’ll post it here as well under pleasures of reading. Here you go for the original

The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains a mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Dickens’ last novel | unfinished |

To spice it up, it is a murder mystery which Dickens left unfinished when he died! It almost seems as if, Dickens timed his death or timed the writing of this novel in such a way that it will be talked about forever.

So we have an incomplete mystery; it falls under the detective genre and makes life more interesting for the readers can speculate the course of events and debate on it 🙂  Too much to do from a book over 140 years old, some would feel; many writers on their own or commissioned by societies have read and re-read the available parts of the novel to make conclusions unofficially. The book is in news as an official end is being written which will be dramatized and screened on BBC.

The Plot: Set in Cloisterham | peopled by John Jasper, Rosa Bud,Neville and his sister Helena Landless, Rev. Mr. Crisparkle,  Mr Grewgious, Durdles, Mr Datchery and Edwin Drood| It starts off in an opium den| a murder plot, some scheming, a disappearance, accusation followed by an enquiry, formal and informal| and the mystery of the novel begins as Dickens died

This novel remained unfinished as it was serialized. It was written in installments and sent to the publishers for weekly/monthly publications. The Victorian years (1837-1901) were known for its serialized fictions in literary magazines, and Dickens was a champion writer.

Each part would end in suspense to create an interest in the readers to look forth for the next issue. The next issue would invariably have a summary of the previous parts so that even a new reader can continue reading from the latest part. The course of the story changed according to its reception.

Interestingly, these novels were accompanied by illustrations or a single illustration at the beginning of the first installment with potential clues to the entire story. Many Drood fans have re-read and carefully analysed the illustration/cover page to speculate what Dickens had in mind as an end. Have fun following their path, the illustration to the left was illustrated by Charles Allston Collins

Verdict: I’m a die-hard fan of some of Dickens’ work. At the same time, I do not like dark stories. This is not one of my favourite from him. Additionally, I read it as part of coursework this semester, a course titled, “Reading Fiction,” so you release how much I love this book by now 😛 Not a leisure read at all, take out some time for it.

Happy Reading 🙂

Cross posted at pins & ashes

‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence

(posted on behalf of Pooja – A die hard dreamer who fell in love with literature and poetry after being introduced to the enchanting world of Kubla Khan around 5 years ago, she claims to be drop dead envious of every person who, with a light touch can make the 26 alphabets of the English language hum and throb with passion and life. That magic hidden in the written word is what makes her tick. After 3 years as a literature student she joined up for MCJ out of the laziness to study any heavy subjects and so as to escape the confines of home. Fresh from college, she is now on her first job at a small firm in Trivandrum, Kerala.)

A Book I Read for Christmas

poojaAn obscene book banned from society! The most controversial book of his times!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence always had a way with piquing up my curiosity during my degree days as a student of Literature. It was this Christmas, 4 years later that I could lay my hands on it.

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position. The war had brought the roof down over her head. And she had realized that one must live and learn.

She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917, when he was home for a month on leave. They had a month’s honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits. Constance, his wife, was then twenty-three years old, and he was twenty-nine.”

Frank & straightforward, the opening paragraphs of the novel plunges right into the heart of things. It puts the characters, their mindsets and the times in perspective.

Books are to me, like the people I meet in life.

There are those whom I don’t even try to make friends with (aka. those with an overdose of science, math etc.) Then there are others whose looks I don’t like but then, often owing to a complete lack of options, I give them a try anyway. And some of them come recommended via acquaintances. But some of them are rare treasures. They are much like those outgoing, jolly people you meet in life. The ones who make friends easily and put you at ease the moment you start a conversation.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was to me, one from the last category. It put me at ease immediately.

There is immense depth and innumerous layers to this book.

It throws light on the social conditions and mindsets of the post WW1 times, gives an insight into the psyche of each of the characters it portrays and ofcourse, there is an in depth study of sex- how relevant it is, the different phases of passion and so on.

I will here touch upon aspects of the book that I am sure will remain with me for a very long time to come.

The outline is, thus- Lady Chatterley is married to Sir Clifford who returns home from the war in a battered state. Treatment doesn’t help and he is paralysed from the waist below.  They come down to Wrangby to settle down to the life they are destined to. The development of an illicit affair between the Lady and their gamekeeper forms the rest of the story.

The first of the many aspects that touched me is the insight into the mind and thinking of the Lady. 23 years old, in the prime of her life, stuck with a husband who is half paralysed, she does her best to be the dutiful wife. In fact, she is a dutiful wife and takes good care of him. But then enters the issue of her needs and requirements as an individual.

I loved the way the writer took me into her heart and showed me in person every one of the battles that raged there!

I have often heard and read about those soldiers who have had to return home wounded. But reading this book showed me how the psychological fears, sense of insecurity, the agony of shame, the craving for life and well being, all play out.

The relationship between the lady and her lover, the gamekeeper, Parkin seems purely physical but at times I felt there was more to it. Maybe it is the feeling of being wanted that made both the Lady and her lover stick together.

The burning passion in the detailed descriptions of the love sequences showed me why exactly the book created such controversies in his times!

A thought in the mind of the Lady about love and passion having different phases intrigued me.

But the pivotal point in the novel that struck me was this question posed to the Lady by a member of the working class…

 “Do you think it is possible for people in a very different walk of life to be friends-really friends? What I want to know is it possible that there could be a real friendly feeling between the working class and the upper class?”

This seems to me a central point that runs throughout the novel. This battle of the classes seeps in into the passionate relationship between the Lady and her lover as well.

There are many more aspects to this novel that needs to be looked into but I’d like to end on this note.

Even when we argue that all are equal, even when we are nice to those “below” us, even when we boast that we are good, kind and benevolent even to the domestic help at home, isn’t there a tinge of class thinking lurking in our “benevolence” and “kindness”?

What do you think?

The Illustrated Man|Ray Bradbury

Since I’m in a trance, it looks to me impossible to resist the urge …”It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. Walking along an asphalt road, I was or the final leg of a two weeks’ walking tour of Wisconsin. Late in the afternoon I stopped, ate some pork, beans, and a doughnut, and was preparing to stretch out and read when the Illustrated Man walked over the hill and stood for a moment against the sky..

Vaayadi Pennu

I would say, the preface/prologue/introduction piece of Ray Bradbury’sThe Illustrated Man (1951) is one beautiful piece of writing.

It could be that love is too generic a term to describe the fascination and attraction to something of this kind; add in the factors of transience, add in the fact that love is with the words on the page. But these strings of words create an urge and manipulates (there, it is ironical to use in this instance, but think positive manipulation, then it turns oxymoronic :P) the senses of a feel of what it describes… I could see his plate, while reading about it.

It was love alright last night. And you have seen me post these bits on FB… Some of you have even started on the same path I’ve walked through since last night ….

Since I’m in a trance, it looks to me impossible to resist the urge …”It was…

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The Year through the Reads

Reminiscing the Reads

Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books  against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others…

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‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian

islandThe abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.

For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.

Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.

“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”

As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a  community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.

Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,

“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.

Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.

What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations  like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as  he leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.


(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads athttp://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.


The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it


(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads athttp://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

Venu @ the window

The basis of the Renaissance movement lay in the ‘discovery’ and absorption of natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy, in the 12th and 13th centuries AD in Italy. Onto this was added, in the 15th and 16th c.AD, the question of the true nature of ‘The Word’, and the relative positions of Church and Man to it. The answer to the question was a cultural efflorescence that dazzled the Western world, shook Abrahamic religions out of a millennial stupor, and culminated in the next phase of human evolution – the industrial revolution. To set a key, central date around which these five centuries swung, seems more self-defeating than an infinity of Sisyphean strivings; and yet, there is a date, after which the impetus for a new learning, a new enlightenment, and a new style of trade, gained critical momentum – 1453 AD, the fall of Constantinople. The rush, indeed a veritable…

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The Two Avataras of Romila Thapar

I was first introduced to Romila Thapar by my father, not long after I had exited my teens. On a weekend trip to Stavanger to do my laundry, he handed over his dog-eared copy of Thapar’s seminal work on Ancient India, along with Percival Spear’s companion volume on the medieval and modern periods. Over the next fortnight, I read both volumes with hardly a pause. I was hooked! When I went home a month later for Easter break, he handed me Basham’s equally magnificent ‘Wonder that was India’. “Read it for balance”, he said, somewhat enigmatically. A delightful lesson which sank in only later in my twenties, but which has stayed with me ever since – a lesson which I now employ to Dr. Thapar’s latest work: “The Past as Present” [Aleph Book Co., 2014].

Verdict: I must say I am woefully depressed.

For the ‘Why?”, we must differentiate between Romila Thapar the historian, and Romila Thapar the Marxist historian.The differentiation is nuanced, but both definite and visceral. In her first avatar, she holds claim to having written the most readable book on Ancient India in the past century; it is objective, the prose is delicious, and she makes no foray into the politics of historiography [the study of historical research]. She tells it as it is, and where sources are inadequate, or interpretations fraught with limitations, she states so – clearly and purposefully. This approach she continued successfully into her next marvel – an analysis of Emperor Ashoka, his life, his edicts, and the decline of the Mauryas. It was a time in her life [1950’s to late 1970’s] when she was doing original research, when the source material took greater prominence over their dissemination by others; meaning, she held to her views with the force of logic, and since she was better than most in constructing cogent arguments, the rest fell by the wayside. She was a detective solving the mysteries of time.

But then, after the 1980’s, she was presented with that most awful of situations –she was forced to choose; but choose what? No great thinker should ever be forced to choose between the truth and her beliefs – it cuts to the bone of everything she stands for. Sadly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a nationalist right in India, she chose ideology over logic. Ever since, fuelled by a deep hatred for the Hindu nationalist cause, she chose to remodel her platform from one of research, to one of countering – in her mind – pernicious ideas that sought to disrobe her land of the fabric draped by the freedom struggle. Sad indeed, for an historian to forget history and place faith over logic.

As time passed, into the new millennium, she grew increasingly tetchy – I can find no other word to convey the tone of her works, churning out work after work countering what she believed was a depraved ideology. And when the Babri Masjid was brought down, it was war. What she didn’t realize was that she had unwittingly become caught up in that very process she had devoted a lifetime to deciphering: change. But we, her devotees, nodded to one another in solemn understanding, and continued to chase her publications hot off the press. “Somanatha”,for example, where she went out of her way to prove that the great Shiva temple of Saurashtra – perhaps the richest of its era – was plundered by the Ghaznavid invaders solely for economic reasons; the religious angle of crushing idolatry,she says, is ill-defined, or incidental at best. Look at how the Hindu Kashmiri kings looted temples in the Valley ‘left-and-right’? Well, one might ask what lapse of sanity forces her to ignore innumerable firmans that demanded transformation from dar-ul-harb to dar-ul-islam? Could it be that she fears a flaring of evil passions if she walks further down this path? Or, holds she fears of modern India to be so intellectually stymied, that we – the unwashed we – will not differentiate between that age and ours, instead rising on these disclosures in a barbaric tide of sectarian violence? Or, worse, had she by this argument of differentiating between economic and religious plunder, slipped into the politician’s trap of ‘big-rape-vs-small-rape’? Can her devotees not then ask what her views on the medieval inquisition in Goa are?

But then, just when we feared the worst, she returned to her roots with “The Past Before Us” [HUP, 2013] – a dense, sweeping tome that sought to survey how ancient Indians presented their own history to themselves. Suddenly, it was the good Doctor at her best again, showing thru page after memorable page, how the very tenets of historical consciousness vary from civilization to civilization. I should have known better – especially when her central thesis appeared to have been structured in counter to that old claim: the Indians have no sense of history. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in her amazingly logical, if maddeningly convoluted arguments, to note their incipient tendentiousness.

And what notes she collected in the course of writing that book, she furthered into a set of essays with a far more simplistic aim, which her ideologue-in-arms David Davidar was only too happy to publish. An aim to show up low-brow over-generalizations, and to prevent these shallow revisionist themes from making their way into text books. Yes, a noble aim indeed, and most necessary,but I am unable to shake the feeling that this is someone else – some left-liberal clique – using Dr. Thapar’s name to make a few points heard. After all, I have struck work since noon today to write this piece, haven’t I?

Can it then be laid at her door that her fury stems from having attempted to perceive the post-independence process in Westphalian terms, and that somewhere, deep down in a corner of that remarkable mind, she knows she may have gone too far? Perhaps, for in the process, it appears that she overlooked a simple fact – nationalist movements cannot be countered by argument; they can only be contained by compromise. And the ultimate irony? Ah, it is that the true counter to the half-baked loony-tunes she attacks with such vigor, in “The Past as Present”, will actually be made by those of us who adopt her logic and reject her ideology. Go figure!