Book Review: From Plassey to Partition and After by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

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From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern IndiaFrom Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘From Plassey to Partition and After’ is that rare unbiased book on modern India. Objective and comprehensive, it is the one and only book you need to read to grasp the complex contours of modern Indian history. What distinguishes it from other books is that the author Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is careful to treat modern Indian history as a site of intense contestation. He doesn’t thrust a particular narrative in your face, like Bipan Chandra pushes his Marxist nationalistic narrative of India’s freedom struggle in India’s Struggle for Independence. Rather, Bandyopadhyay recognizes that freedom meant different things for different socio-economic groups and furnishes a well-researched summary of various historiographical strands.

He also incorporates recent academic work on economic history and explains modern political developments in the context of material conditions, marking an illuminating shift from the usual personality & ideology centric approach to historical events. For instance, he writes that Pakistan was presented as a ‘peasant utopia’ to the peasants of East Bengal, which would liberate the Muslim peasantry from the hands of Hindu zamindars and moneylenders, thus representing a break from existing agrarian relations. He also writes about the balancing act Congress had to perform between indigenous capitalists and the working class. He writes that working class support for the Congress was, in general, weak – industrial workers in Bombay had meanwhile thrown in their lot with the Communists – with the exception of Bengal where their fight was against the British capitalists.

He also writes about how caste relations played a role in the success of Congress-led mass movements. In general, many 19th century peasant movements with a significant element of self-initiative were co-opted into the Non Cooperation Movement. Regions with no pre-history of peasant mobilization remained quiet during so-called ‘national’ movements. And regions with long-standing resentments often spiraled out of the hands of Congress leaders and turned violent. The movement was controlled and successful primarily in the region where dominant peasant communities such as the Mahishya caste in Bengal and Patidars in Gujarat held sway over lower caste agricultural labourers. Regions with more cross-caste mobilization, such as Awadh, tended to turn violent.

The book is a scholarly achievement, a task made all the more difficult by the proximity of the period under study. The only thing this book needs are some section headings between the relentless paragraphs. This will help the reader mentally categorize the various crisscrossing strands and combine them to harvest an accessible account of this complex period. This quibble aside, From Plassey to Partition is easily the most enlightening book on modern India I’ve read. Highly recommended!

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Book Review: Land of the Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal

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Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India's GeographyLand of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Land of Seven Rivers is an oversimplified, inaccurate history of India with a pronounced nationalistic tilt (Sanyal seems to believe in the Out of India theory, though he is not confident enough to proclaim this outright). His writing is substandard and lacks the nuance essential to good history. (I would recommend John Keay’s India: A Brief History for an unbiased, accessible, almost poetically written history of India)

I find it difficult to understand what Sanyal set out to achieve with this book. The subtitle claims it to be A Brief History of India’s Geography, but that it most certainly is not. It reads more like a collection of random, often interesting, facts laid down chronologically; facts that have more to do with the various phases of urbanization in India than geography. Geography, at best, provides a background to historical events in this narrative. The Saraswati river (predictably) makes many appearances in the book, as Sanyal traces the historical evolution of Indians’ geographical knowledge through textual sources like the Vedas, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Another major theme in this book is India’s trade links with other cultures and places, through which India exported its culture and civilization. Sanyal writes about this with typical nationalistic pride that is tinged with nostalgia for the glory days.

However, what’s most annoying is how Sanyal constantly marshals silly parallels between India’s past & present in a bullheaded attempt to prove India’s civilizational continuity (not that I deny it). He also makes up wild theories without providing any source for the same, which totally ruined his credibility for me. He constantly attempts to buttress his point that Indians were not an ahistorical people, as most Western scholars are wont to assert. In this, I partly agree with him. However, if one compares our sporadic, hagiographic record-keeping to the almost obsessive, detached documentation of ancient China, we fare poorly. Sanyal’s primary argument to prove Indians’ historical consciousness is the Ashoka edicts and how succeeding dynasties (Guptas, Tughlaqs as well as the British) inscribed their names on various edicts and hence saw themselves as the inheritors of an ancient civilization. And lastly, he has a massive boner for the lion, both as an animal and as a signifier of royal authority that has followed India down the centuries and today graces India’s official emblem.

The Land of Seven Rivers ultimately is a book that believes in the questionable motto: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Please avoid. There are much better history books out there.

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Book Review: Neon Noon by Tanuj Solanki

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Neon NoonNeon Noon by Tanuj Solanki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is difficult to review a book as unabashedly experimental and self-indulgent as Neon Noon, so rare is it in the annals of Indian English literature, with its history of social realism and plot-centric novels. It is admirable how unwavering the book’s commitment to solipsism is, how it chooses to make a bold departure from Indian literary tradition. The book’s protagonist T (a semi-autobiographical version of the author Tanuj Solanki) is a corporate minion living in Mumbai, nursing a heartbreak caused by his breakup with Anne-Marie, his white French girlfriend. T sleepwalks through his soulless job and bemoans ‘the cult of the five-day week and the two-day weekend in which love is only allowed in the wrinkles of time that have not been smoothened’. The reasons behind his breakup are left ambiguous, but are hinted at by interspersing passages in the book [hint: it involves an unborn French-Indian son].

To add to T’s misery is the fact that T is that tortured creature – an aspiring novelist – a ‘compulsive archivist of himself’, forever obsessed with the idea of translating reality into words, and vice versa. T spends the bulk of his time converting his experiences into succinct, forceful sentences, a process he believes essential to becoming a writer. He is a faithful narrator of his own life. In that sense, the book is being read as it is being written, and written as it is being experienced, in classic stream of consciousness fashion. At a few places, Solanki even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader, usually to aid him in fathoming a narrative leap or to apologize for some literary deficiency. Neon Noon is simultaneously about T finding relief from his lovesickness through obsessive documentation and about his discovery of his artistic voice [which is brooding and serious].

At the level of plot [since the first question most ask is “Story kya hai?”], the book is about a broken man made whole by an affecting encounter with an enigmatic whore in Pattaya. But to even think of this book at this base level is to take away from its multilayered charm. Solanki’s writing is often digressive, but reading through his ruminations, which vary from critiques of liberal capitalism to an exploration of the French language, you are often ambushed by strikingly beautiful sentences, rambling streams of words that unerringly find their way to fertile meaning. It is these sentences that lend Neon Noon its literary quality and elevate it from a hedonistic tale of cavorting with Thai prostitutes to something more subtle and redemptive. Sample this description of a Thai brothel, at once euphemistic, insightful and eloquent, as a place where “mid-sized capital and mid-sized enterprise waltz together to present the world’s oldest value proposition in glitzy red, inescapable allure”.

The book sometimes feels disjointed, arising from the fact that the first few parts of the book are independent short stories that have been stitched together to yield a novel-length book. But these short stories provide a necessary background to the protagonist and add flesh to T’s character. And the disjointedness is only felt in retrospect upon finishing the book, not while one’s reading it. However, one major criticism of the book is its humourlessness. If only the protagonist could view his own misery in a lighter vein from a cosmic plane, it would have made for a more entertaining read [but probably wouldn’t have made the book possible]. Also, I did not understand the point of the unborn son, unless it is T’s obsession with this imaginary character that precipitates the breakup. But then, these are the inevitable quibbles to an engrossing, melancholy novel that will eventually tug at your heartstrings. Recommended!

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Book Review: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

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A Suitable Boy (A Suitable Boy, #1)A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t even know where to begin gushing about this one, so panoramic is its scope and so delightful its literary charms. Vikram Seth’s 800,000 word magnum opus is lengthier than War and Peace and more compulsively readable than a well-paced soap opera. It is an event in one’s life. I call it a soap opera, because fundamentally, the plot is a family drama, revolving around the wooers of its principal character, Lata Mehra.

Set in the early 1950s and written with a forceful simplicity akin to R K Narayan, it covers 18 months in the entwined lives of four families – the Mehras, Kapoors, Chatterjis, and Khans – and through these characters proffers an intricate peek into a most fascinating (and neglected) period in Indian history. It is an uncertain era when India is transitioning from feudalism to democracy. The First Great General Elections are to be held in 1952 and the central legislative event is the abolition of the oppressive zamindari system, and with it, an entire way of life: courtesans, Hindustani classical musicians and purana khidmatgars. Caste is beginning to make itself felt in electoral calculations, and Nehru remains a force to be reckoned with. On this level, A Suitable Boy is painstakingly researched historical fiction. Seth writes with a level of detail that is unreal. As one reviewer notes, “he writes with the omniscience and authority of a large, orderly committee of experts on Indian politics, law, medicine, crowd psychology, urban and rural social customs, dress, cuisine, horticulture, funerary rites, cricket and even the technicalities of shoe manufacture.”

A Suitable Boy is undoubtedly one of the biggest achievements of world literature and will remain one of my all-time favourites. I feel lucky to have read it at this point in time since I can’t wait for its sequel coming out next year, the appropriately titled A Suitable Girl.

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The United States is Helping China Buy Gold

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The gold game’s afoot in China.

Easy Money

gold

In June 2015, China declared having bought 604.34 tonnes of gold. It’s last declaration before this had come in April 2009, when it had declared to having bought 454 tonnes of gold.

It couldn’t have bought such a huge amount of gold all at once given the limited supply of the yellow metal. Between April 2009 and June 2015, China regularly bought gold. It only declared it all at once in June 2015. The country had followed a similar strategy before April 2009, as well. It had last declared having bought 99.5 tonnes of gold in December 2002.

Hence, even though China has been buying gold all along, it has chosen to do so quietly, instead of going public with it. The reason for this was fairly straightforward. Gold is a thinly traded commodity, and hence, it makes sense for China to keep accumulating gold at a slow and regular…

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[Fiction] The Quiet Man

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He was a quiet man. He sat there, stroking the rim of his nose absent-mindedly, his face modestly contorted in a frown which lent his personality an air of concentrated disgust. His face was scarred from the battles of youth: acne. The angry boils of his teenage years had cleared, but that had made no difference, they had merely settled, made themselves at home.

His clothes were unremarkable, a brown checked shirt, neatly pressed black trousers and recently polished cheap black shoes. He looked no different from everyone around him. It characterized the bourgeois. He didn’t know that. But he knew that was no measure of him. There was a difference. He knew it.

“Buddy, I’ll mail you the terms and conditions of our company. Go through it and intimate me of your acceptance. We’ll love to have you on our team.” the loud-mouthed HR representative, Manu negotiated with the new joinee on the adjacent table.

He looked up to see Manu, who had been looking in his general direction, smiling at him. He smiled back quickly. He hoped the smile had reached his eyes, he didn’t know. He went back to staring at his computer screen.

“One, two, three, four, five , six, seven, can you believe it?”, the pretty girl behind him chimed.

“What? What?”, her friend asked, excited.

“There are seven people wearing green today. Awesome no?”

“Just like that day with all those pink dresses. I think there were more pinkys though.”, said the guy sitting on the opposite computer, the one who was always surreptitiously stealing glances at her. The girls started giggling.

At lunch, that day, no one solicited his company. He bought ice cream to feel better. He proceeded to sit on an empty table in the cafeteria, the cone in hand. Sweet, quiet, purposeless contemplation.

“Aur Dubeyji, having lunch alone today?”, a voice interrupted him. It was the IT guy.

He merely smiled, not because it had been a rhetorical question, but because that was all he could do. The perfunctory and the frivolous held no interest for him, so he thought. His perpetual nervousness had cost him the hearty spontaneity which familiarity and proximity engender.

On the way back, in the empty elevator, he had time to look at himself in the mirror. He didn’t like it. He noticed an older body which wasn’t representative enough of his potential. He didn’t feel too good.

He had a report to give the boss in half an hour. He felt confident about that. He had nothing to report, with all the right reasons. His boss was always undecided on what he wanted, whether this was part of a larger scheme, he didn’t know. He had a nagging suspicion that information was held from him, that he was a mere pawn, another cog in the wheel. The larger picture was hazy and all he happened to desire was clarity.

After reaching his seat, he took a long sip from the water bottle carrying the sticker of his name. He had once gone through half the bottle in a hurry, only to realize that it wasn’t his name on the sticker. He had then emptied half his bottle into it to make it seem undisturbed. He had been careful ever since.

He went through what he was going to say in his mind. He knew he had to sell it well, otherwise it would just mean more pointless toiling, another day to kill. After he had done all he could, he picked his large notebook and set off. He had a purpose, at last.

“May I come in sir?” he knocked on the door.

“Yes, yes, come on in.” He entered, his notebook held across his chest.

“So, what have you got for me?”, the boss swivelled around from his computer to meet his eyes with a piercing gaze that had seen him through to the top.

“Nothing much, sir.” He realized he had gotten off on the wrong footing.

“What I mean, sir, is that there doesn’t seem to exist a reasonable degree of correlation between inflation, money supply and IIP.” The boss held the tips of his finger together and closed his eyes. That was not a good sign. This was his listening position. He was a incisive reasoner and a practiced listener. Right now, he wanted to hear a good reason. Fortunately, he had one prepared.

“Sir, the predictive nature of our model hangs on our ability to predict the change in the trend of inflation. Now, autocorrelation can give us that, but only with a lag. It has no predictive quality. The prediction of the change in the trend has to be accounted for by external factors like IIP and money supply, which simply do not provide us with enough information to make a reasonable estimate.” He had stated his case. He was satisfied. He had been succint and sensible, much suited to the boss’ taste. “The model is doomed to failure.” he wanted to add, to deliver the finishing blow.

The cabin was deathly quiet.

“Have you tried the seasonally adjusted values?” the boss inquired, his eyes still closed.

“Yes, sir.” he said hurriedly. He had not. He thought there wasn’t much value in that. Seasonally adjusted values merely smoothened the variations arising due to the seasons, but the inherent lack of correlation was nagging him.

“Okay, so what do you want to work on?”, the boss got out of his reverie.

He did not know what to say. This had been too easy. The haze returned. He couldn’t see clearly. He could not comprehend why all his hard work of months was going to be led to waste. Suddenly, he didn’t want what he had wanted. He wanted some form of resistance, something to tell him that he had not been a fool. He didn’t understand the pawn had the king under check. It was a victory, albeit minor. He would, eventually. Right then, he despised being a pawn.

“Sir, I wanted to work on the debt market, understand the contribution of the major participants and how the market works in the real world.” he said.

The boss nodded his head, his eyes closed again. He stood there, the notebook held close, hopeful and perplexed.

“I’ll think of a project appropriate for you and let you know by tomorrow. Till then I want a neat report of what you’ve been doing.” He nodded. He did not feel as glad as he had imagined. He realized he hadn’t been doing much all these days.

He walked back to his seat. The feeling began to sink in. He had been released from the anguish accompanying the feeling of being on a wild goose chase, the hopelessness which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t find the goose because somewhere inside you don’t want to.

He thought he had seen the slightest hint of a smile on the boss’ face when he was leaving. He drank some more water, a faint smile playing on his face.

When he reached home, his wife noticed and complimented his good mood, said that he should be more like this. He rolled his eyes and told her it wasn’t that simple.

The next day, he smiled confidently at the receptionist and wished her a very good morning. He reached his desk and noticed the new face in the usual crowd. He sat and got down to making the report. Soon, Manu arrived, the new guy in tow, making all the introductions, doing his job.

“Ashish, this is Pratik.” Manu began. He awkwardly turned his head away from them, his face slightly lopsided, one of his eyes slightly smaller than the other. Manu went on, “He works with the fund accounting team. He’s been here with us for around a year. This is Ashish, he is a project trainee who has joined us for an intern lasting, what two months?” he asked offhandedly.

“Yes, sir.” Ashish replied dutifully. They looked at each other and smiled.

“Manu, it’s Alok, not Pratik,” Manu’s assistant reminded him. She looked awfully embarrassed.

“Oh, I am so sorry.” Manu was suave as always. “Ashish, meet Alok.”

He forced himself to meet eyes with Ashish.

“Hi. Have a good time here.” He shook hands with the newcomer and smiled. It took an effort.

After they had gone along to make further introductions, he sunk his head and closed his eyes. He knew he was different. He was better than them.

The Age of Rockstars

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The old gods are dead. The new idols of liberal, democratic techno-capitalism are ‘rockstars’, to use a tellingly overused term.

They are aspirational deities, Schrodinger’s cats who’re simultaneously anti-establishment and of the establishment: people elevated by the (social) media into perfect, endearingly flawed demigods to fulfill our Enlightenment-era tendency to venerate individual genius.

Rockstars can now be found in almost every conceivable field (except those involving manual labour): Justin Trudeau, the rockstar politician; Elon Musk, the rockstar technologist; Steve Jobs, the rockstar businessman & visionary; Neil Gaiman, the literary rockstar.

We have start-ups falling over each other to hire rockstar software developers. Hell, we even have a rockstar RBI governor, arguably one of the most unsexiest jobs around before the advent of the articulate, stylishly bespectacled Raghuram Rajan.

If anything, the fact that ‘rockstar’ is now used to deify politicians, technologists, entrepreneurs, programmers and writers, everybody but musicians, is proof that while rock music may be commercially dead, its erstwhile practitioners still set the benchmark for fanatic devotion.

Trucking on NH39: India’s most dangerous highway

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A soldier keeps watch as trucks pass through NH39

A soldier keeps watch as trucks pass through NH39

By no stretch of imagination is Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, a pleasant place to live in. On a damp Sunday morning, it feels like I have walked into a tropical war zone — there is a strange uneasiness in the air and the roads have been chiselled away by passing trucks and frequent downpours into an uneven slush of concrete and mud: a consequence of frictional forces and persistent civic indifference. Continue reading

Witnessing the ancient migration of Kashmiri Gujjar nomads

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Home » Enterprise » Trend » A season of exodus A Season Of Exodus A truck ride through J&K in our special series, The Highway Economy Rajat UbhaykarAUG 25 , 2015 Photographs by Ozzie Hoppe A Gujjar family has finally found a ride and are loading their belongings, which include cloth bags bound by coir, and bundles of wood to keep them warm in the mountain pastures

A Gujjar family has finally found a ride and are loading their belongings, which include cloth bags bound by coir, and bundles of wood to keep them warm in the mountain pastures

The sun is high up in the sky and a column of dilapidated trucks trundling past kick up an opaque cloud of dust, enveloping everything in a fine layer of golden brown grime. I discover the muddy imprint of a dust-sweat admixture when I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief. The mercury has easily crossed 40 degrees Celsius here at the Transport Nagar along the NH44 in Jammu — a vast unpaved transitory home for trucks — much to everybody’s discomfort, and the ferocious sun beating down mercilessly is making my head throb. This must be the forewarnings of a sunstroke, I think, and plod to the nearest watermelon stand. Continue reading

Tracxn: Accelerating Start-Up Discovery For Venture Capitalists

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Tracxn founders Neha Singh & Abhishek Goyal

Tracxn founders Neha Singh & Abhishek Goyal

There is a start-up boom underway. Each day, a few budding start-ups founded by enthusiastic young students and college graduates open shop. According to Nasscom data, more than 3,100 tech start-ups were registered by the end of 2014 and the number is expected to rise to 11,500 by 2020. Many of them will down shutters in some time, while a handful will go on to become behemoths in their niche space, backed by big investor money. Continue reading