Return of a King: The First Afgan War

There is a certain cyclic order to British rule in the subcontinent. Successful occupation, social disconnect with the natives obscuring the British to a growing resentment (mostly based on religious but also nationalistic sentiments) caused by the actions of a handful of British officials and other elements of the colonial entourage, the resentment slowing but steadily solidifying into mass based anger simmering under the surface for some time and then a singular incident blowing it up into a wide spread revolt against the British leading to their large scale massacre (including their children and women folk), the sudden explosion of revolt and its utter brutality taking the British by surprise.

They are destroyed, defeated and pushed back. There is a period of calm. The British organize themselves and retaliate. The retaliation is severe, equaling the savagery and ferocity of their opponents. The natives are massacred, humiliated and defeated. British power is restored.

Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857, which rocked British rule in India albeit for a short period, has the same pattern to it.  Around 100 years before the Mutiny there was lot of bonhomie between the British and natives (exemplified best by an affair between a British spy and a lady of Muslim nobility in Hyderabad – read  Dalrymple’s The White Mughal – which had scandalized the Muslim and the English society alike).

This bonhomie was frowned upon by high officials in England and it slowly stopped leading to a complete absence of social exchange between the ruler and the ruled, placing the British poorly to gauge the widespread anti-British mood among Indians which led to the outbreak of the Mutiny, a result of multiple factors but provoked by a single incident – a minor East Indian Company soldier’s refusal to put cartridge in his mouth to tear off its opening which was rumored to have been greased with animal fat.

Large scale massacre of the British followed – followed by British retaliation and restoration of British rule in India. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal brilliantly captures everything about the Mutiny.

In many ways, 1857 was a repeat of 1840 – 41, when British rule’s hubris, ignorance of local conditions and insensitivities towards local sentiments led to a similar disaster but on a much, much bigger scale, this time in Afghanistan. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, which I read recently, deals with it.

The British have intelligence that Russia is planning to invade India, the jewel in the British Empire crown, via Afghanistan with the help of Napoleon. The intelligence sends panic waves in British quarters from London to Calcutta and the theory, which was highly exaggerated, finds its backers and gathers momentum over time. Only a friendly administration in Afghanistan can prevent the disaster, the British decide eventually.

Shah Shuja had been deposed from the throne many decades ago by Dost Mohammad who has ruled Afghanistan since. Against the advices of one of their most hands-on observer – Alexander Barnes – who has spent considerable time in the region, the British decide to invade Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammad and restore the rule of Shah Shuja.

After a bitter war between the two sides, the British manage to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan. But problems start soon after. Three things slowly turn the mood of the Afghans against British occupation: dislodging of Dost Mohammad, a popular king; British policies in Afghanistan some of which hit the interests of the local tribal chiefs involving removing and curtling subsidies they had received for very long from the king; and the most incendiary one: licentious ways of the British officials using Afghan women, from all social sections, for pleasure.

Amidst growing resentment  a singular incident involving a slave girl, who had escaped from the harem of an Afghan of nobility to Alexzander Barnes, now the highest British official in Afghanistan whose licentious ways with Afghan women are chiefly responsible for  the growing anger against the British – sparked the revolt. The common Afghans, enraged by the fact that the kafirs are dishonoring their women folk, rise to arms massacring anything and everything British on their way. A mob storms into Alexzander Barnes’ place and slaughter him.

Eventually British exit from Afghanistan is negotiated but here awaits an even bigger disaster for the British. Afghanistan is a complex country whose different provinces are ruled by different tribal leaders – and a central leadership’s authority is dependent on their fealty to it. However, tribal groups often act independent of the dictats of their central leadership.

On their way out of Afghanistan when the British entourage is passing through the Khyber Pass they find themselves completely helpless against the tribal groups constantly buffeting them with sniper and ambush attacks in a terrain completely unfamiliar to the British and one that the tribals know like the back of their hands. The weather is more inhospitable than the terrain. An unexpected snow storm leaves the British troops, leaving officers and fellow companions frozen to death and those escaping death, completely maimed.

The humiliation makes international news headlines and is seen as the biggest reversal to face the Empire since its beginning. Prestige has to be restored. Retaliation and recapture of Afghanistan follow…

This is followed by another revolt taking place – this time spearheaded by Akbar Khan the son of the deposed king Dost Mohammad who had been banished to India by the British after he surrendered to them following the British invasion of Afghanistan to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan.

This revolt is different from the earlier one which ousted the British from Afghanistan the first time. The earlier one was due to a confusion of several factors – imposition of a puppet ruler, British policies and behavior with locals – where religion played but a minor role; the second rising is distinctly religious in character, mobilized by Akbar Khan as such.

Faced with a religious uprising, and depleting British coffers owing to an ongoing Opium War in China, Britain decide to retreat from Afghanistan…to India. However, the retreat, this time via a route different from the earlier one, is an experience no different from the earlier disaster – again constantly troubled by Afghan tribes through sniper attacks carried out from the crevices of the craggy mountains surrounding the serpentine passageways through which the British entourage (the entire soldiery, families and camp followers) are retreating.

To this day the country remains as inhospitable to foreigners as it was 170 years back when the British had left. The Russians got a taste of that in 1989. The Americans have been bearing the burnt for some time. While Dalrymple was researching the book, an Afghan told him: “We sent the Brits on their way. The Americans know their game is up, only their bosses back home refuse to accept the reality. The next will be the Chinese.”

The America We Hardly Know

You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.

Taken from Good Reads

You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.

And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.

What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.

There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.

Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.

But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.

Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.

But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.

Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.

As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.

When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.

He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always fun to read. Lot of information, presented in a very interesting manner. But that’s not the only trait of Bryson’s writing. His writing is high energy and his humor is over the top, if a little low brow sometimes. There are very few serious moments – in fact he looks at anything serious with the smirk of a jester – and there is always a college buddy air to it. I am currently having lot of fun reading a travelogue by Bryson on small towns of America – and will write something on it when I finish it.

The book review below is on a Bryson book I had read many years ago and believe it is one of his most popular and best works – English the Mother Tongue coming very close. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is a wafer thin hardbound book – I have never seen a paperback version – where Bryson recreates the times Shakespeare lived in and using very little credible information that’s available on the Bard creates a picture of him which at least told me things I never knew about the greatest writer in the English language. Enjoy.

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Anything about Shakespeare inspires two reactions: boredom and reverence. And this makes Shakespeare a bad topic for a book. That’s why credit should go to Bill Bryson for his Shakespeare for making it everything that a good book is – exciting and informative.

The problem about writing a biographical book on Shakespeare is that about most of his life there is no concrete record set in a tight chronological order. So you are left to rely on his plays and the times he lived in to track his life.

That’s precisely what Bill Bryson has done. He has brought Shakespeare to his readers through the times he lived in and relied on his plays to trace as much of Shakespeare’s life and world as the work of any writer can possibly reveal about its creator.

Bryson describes the England of Elizabethan times, the rule of the queen, life of commoners in London (where Shakespeare lived while working as a playwright), the personality of the queen, her relationship with the arts and artists (she was a patron of theatres and a tyrant too) and how theatres were run those days.

Bryson has handled his research material so well that you hardly feel there is very little Bryson has to offer about the main subject – Shakespeare. In fact, you will feel a picture of how Shakespeare would have lived his life in 16th century London taking shape behind the details of the times he lived in.

But Bryson has had to depend on this method mostly to describe Shakespeare’s life while he stayed in London because almost nothing is known about the part of life Shakespeare spent in London. Albeit, there are other parts of his life one can track through piecemeal records like court and marriage records and what is documented by earlier biographers.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and went to school there. His father was a merchant and although the Shakespeares weren’t rich they didn’t lack for anything; however, William’s father fortunes declines towards the end of his life as fell upon hard times with his business failing leading to mounting loans. Shakespeare was a decent student and showed flair for Latin early on.

Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright. His entry into the world of theatres was dramatic. A troop was travelling to Stratford to stage a play and a fight broke out between two actors on the way. One actor died and when the troop reached Stratford, it took Shakespeare as a replacement.

Shakespeare’s plays were not greatly regarded in his days; some of his contemporaries’ plays were regarded more highly than Shakespeare’s. Not much literary value was attached with plays those days and they were considered means of earning a living through quick entertainment. This explains why Shakespeare’s works were not compiled with an intent to preserve them within his lifetime. Long after the death of Shakespeare someone compiled them as First Folio and later subsequent Folios were published by others.

The most formidable challenge Bryson has had to deal with in the book is to arrive at a conclusion on whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else did it under the Bard’s identity for some consideration or other.

The jury is out on this to this day. There are two lobbies, one believes Shakespeare wrote those plays and the other that Shakespeare wasn’t educated and experienced enough to write those plays; that they had to be the work of a person who enjoyed a higher standing in the society (possibly an aristocrat) than Shakespeare did and due to his social position was better connected than Shakespeare; had more access to the workings of royal courts (to have written about court intricacies in the plays) and, of course, was better educated.

Detractors of Shakespeare have found many to have these qualifications who lived at or around the time of Shakespeare and each one of the detractors has his/her own Shakespeare number two and individual theories to establish their claims.

Bryson has used many arguments to debunk the claims and the central one is, although Shakespeare hadn’t received any university education as there was no university in Stratford, he had finished his school education. Overcoming his deficiencies to write those plays would be, in any case, a great achievement, which, however difficult, wouldn’t be impossible, Bryson observes.

And there are country scenes in Shakespeare’s plays whose inspiration could be traced back to his growing years in Stratford. Bryson finishes the book by concluding that it was none other than Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to him – “whoever he was”.

A deficiency of the book is that Bryson didn’t tell much about the division between Latin and English and why exactly even plays enacted with the royalty in audience was played in English while Latin was the court language.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have written on Jhumpa Lahiri on this blog. I found out a book review I had written in 2014 on a book – The Lowland – by her which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year. Sharing it here.

 

I had heard and read about Jhumpa Lahiri, but had never read her works. Recently I finished her Lowland, her latest offering, which was nominated for the Booker prize. I am happy that I have arrived if a little late. Lowland deals with the Naxal period in Bengal and peels one layer after another off the movement to show its various sides.

Let me first admit that my interest in the book owes itself to this subject, Naxalism. Taking the movement as the center, Lahiri’s plot uncovers how Naxalism changed the lives of people involved in it, its impact on their families and later generations.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in the 60s, in a middle class family where not wealth but education is valued. The brothers share a strong bond and their relationship is one without any sibling rivalry. As the two grow up, while Subhash remains chiefly interested in studies, the storm of Naxalism that’s building up in the city gradually attracting impressionable middle-class Bengali youth into its vortex, slowly draws Udayan into its fold. And Udayan starts moving away from his studies and family plunging into the world of Marxist and Maoist ideas. On the other hand, Shubash goes to the US to pursue higher education.

After Subhash leaves for America, the story gets split into two parts, Subhash’s life in the US and Udayan’s in Calcutta. Subhash, now staying in America, loses day-to-day touch with Udayan’s life in Calcutta, only staying updated with it in snippets through Udayan’s occasional letters.

One day, Udayan writes about Gauri, the girl he is courting, although Subhash keeps his brief affair with an American middle-aged lady a secret from his parents and brother. Another day, Subhash gets a letter from his parents, written in a laconic manner, telling him that Udayan has died and that he should come to Calcutta immediately.

From here on, the style of narration changes, moving back and forth in time, to reveal to the reader, bit by bit, the circumstances in which Udayan died.

Back to Calcutta, Subhash finds Udayan’s widow in a neglected condition and decides to gives her a new life by marrying her. They get married and as Gauri starts her life in America, Lahiri frequently moves back in time to chronicle the circumstances in which Udayan had met with his end.

Udayan’s Naxalism-affected life forms the spine of the story and Lahiri has revealed it in small doses keeping her readers looking out for more and refusing to quench their thrust until the last page of the book.

Shubash’s and Gauri’s life in America on Rhodes Island, has a lot to offer to the reader, too. Just as Jhumpa Lahiri has described Calcutta very well, her descriptions of Rhodes Island transport you to the place. In that, Lowland is a novel that constantly explores the differences in the two worlds and how they shape the lives of people inhabiting them.

As the story progresses, Jhumpa sometimes skips important bits of some incidents as they unfold and covers them later, springing a surprise on you after you have reconciled to having been shortchanged by the author. Later, you realize that sparing you some details involved in an incident keeps you interested and when you are finally thrown those details at, you feel your thrust has been pleasantly quenched.

She narrates key incidents related to Udayan’s death several times over, each time through the perspective of a different character, making the same incidents look different each time and thus bringing the story full circle or as a  Hindi reviewer put it, giving you a Sampurna Anubhav (a complete experience).

Perhaps the thing I liked the most is that she has not tried to eulogize Naxalism calling it a fight between rich and poor to create an equal society. Instead, she has handled the subject unsentimentally blaming all sides, sparing none.

On William Dalrymple

All I remember from history I read in school and BA are names and some stray events and years (only the big ones). Conversely, I remember the whole narrative and the main characters of the one history book – The Last Mughal – and several articles on various topics of subcontinent history by William Dalrymple I have read over the years.

This is the difference between telling history in a didactic manner as is taught in our schools and colleges and in a story telling manner.

Dalrymple chooses a passage of time / event, researches it deeply down to finer points about each character and writes it like a novel where the emphasis is on characters and how their traits shape the historical narrative.

In the book I am reading now, The Return of a King, Shah Shuja a literature lover who is kind and considerate departs from the general Afghan practice of blinding a defeated and captured enemy spares a person from the Barakzai clan a rival group who had revolted against his rule and merely keeps him captive in a fort.

Later this person escapes from imprisonment, joins Shuja’s rival and captures large swathes of his empire eventually bringing an end to the rule of the Durrani Empire to which the Shah belonged.

William Dalrymple is a Scott who has been staying in a farmhouse near Delhi for many years. In his early years in India as a historian he said his books shed new light on subjects that had been earlier written on by Indian historians, thanks to his use of research material that were left unused by his Indian counterparts  “who were too lazy to use them”. The statement enraged the literary establishment and Dalrymple immediately came under attack.

Sobha De said the White Mughal, among Dalrymple’s early books which tells the story of a love affair between a British officer and a girl from Muslim nobility which took place almost 100 years before the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny when there was lot of camaraderie between the British and Indians which declined slowly because it was frowned upon by England and slowly disappeared resulting in complete gulf between the two sides – was imitative of The Far Pavilions which dealt with the same subject more competently. And Ramchandra Guha said Dalrymple’s books are factually inaccurate.

Dalrymple largely ducked the attacks complementing Shoba De for defending her beauty against age and calling himself poorly placed to return the barb of Guha because “Ramachandra Guha writes on cricket and I hardly know anything about the subject.” It was Guha’s pre India After Gandhi days.

Accusing Dalrymple of factual inaccuracy is slightly missing the point. Of course, accuracy is the primary responsibility of a historian or any nonfiction writer but given the way in which Dalrymple writes history there has to be some space for interpretation.

Dalrymple has done to history reading what Chetan Bhagat has done to novel reading: both have attracted people from outside traditional base of readers to the form. A large section of Dalrymple’s reader base are people like me: history lovers but not historians (aspiring or otherwise).  They enjoy a good narrative and don’t consider little liberty taken with facts or interpretation creeping in as sacrilege.

But what research material does Dalrymple blame fellow historians for not using? As much as Dalrymple makes use of official archives and site research to construct the larger grid work of his narrative, he relies heavily on things like personal letters exchanged between characters and accounts left by contemporary travelers / observers for the inner lives of his characters. In Victorian times there was a custom of writing long letters, he had said once.

Enyd Blyton in Chikmagalur

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enyd Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction – picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of books.)

I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation, whether someone was a commercial or literary writer, his/her position in the world of literature etc. I developed these pretentions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enyd Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years back why I didn’t try out Enyd Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I wasn’t class conscious but age conscious back then. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s just author wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was out of the question. But my indifference to writers like Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with Blyton.

In my early reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enyd Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enyd Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English – where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society as it existed at a particular point of time…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree on which the aircraft was, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

There is a moral and social justice angle to Three Cheers, Secret Seven. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for a lot derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and since they don’t go beyond 100 to 120 pages, most of them over weekends.

The Artist of the Floating World – A Different Kind of Experience

Generally novels dealing with abstract themes without any tangible storyline don’t make very arresting reads. The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro is an exception to the rule. Set in a post World War 2 Japan, the novel deals with multiplicity of themes.

How accepted values of the past come to be frowned upon by subsequent generations; how a war can change a country not only in terms of its physical landscape but also values; how a current generation can blame a former generation for something without fully appreciating a situation; Japanese art and culture. It almost has everything under the sun. Yet nothing seems forced. Every theme seems to fit into the larger architecture of the novel.

Ono worked as a propaganda artist during World War 2. Now retired, he ruminates on his past – about the friends he once had, the slow decline and disappearance of the pleasure districts he once visited regularly – his ruminations work as a window to the reader into different aspects of not only his own past but also that of the country.

Told in the first person, the recollections don’t flow in a chronological order but appear in a haphazard way triggered sometimes by a stray thought or by an unlikely object – progressing for some time to form a full-bodied theme and then when seen by the reader after it has run its course the sub theme appearing to be in sync with the larger theme. In the foreword Kazuo Ishiguro says he wanted to deal with memory like Marcel Proust.

As an Asian I sometimes find Western novels culturally alien – oh, that sort of thing would never happen here. We treat our parents more respectfully than that etc. – but Japan seems too familiar. Arrange marriages, stiff respect for elders, conformity, everything is so similar to how India is. I had the same feeling when I had read Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden, although it was on a different subject.

If there is any constant theme running through the book it is Ono’s concern about how others see his role during the war. His younger daughter’s marriage negotiations suddenly broke under rather mysterious circumstances.

One day while the marriage negotiations were still on he had a chance meeting with his would-be son in law who told him that the president of his company had committed suicide as an apology to the current generation on behalf of those who were responsible for the war. Ono had a long conversation with his future son in law about why should anyone be apologetic for the war trying to steer him away from his beliefs. Soon after this incident, the son in law’s family withdrew from the negotiations.

Ono suspects the husband of his elder daughter blames the previous generation for the war and believes his daughter shares her husband’s views. He goes through a moment of bitter introspection where he feels frustrated and angry about the accusatory attitude of the current generation towards his and decides to write an angry mail to his daughter and her husband.

Had it not been for Kazuo Ishiguro’s light and easy style of writing the book would not be an easy read. The Artist of the Floating World is the first novel I read as an ebook.

Gene – Part Autobiography Part History Part Scientific Enquiry

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s two uncles were afflicted with schizophrenia which manifested itself, within a few years of each other, when they were in their late teens wreaking havoc in their lives. One left home and never returned; the other ended up in a mental asylum.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s mother and his aunt were identical twins. Mukherjee’s aunt got married to a lawyer in Calcutta coming from a wealthy background and his mother to an average job doer in Delhi.

It was the 60s, and within a few years of the marriage, Calcutta, a city beset by social and political disturbances and creaking under a migrant population from Bangladesh, sank into chaos and lawlessness, becoming a city where people cared very less for hiring a lawyer.

On the other hand, Delhi, the capital of a newly independent India, saw wide spread prosperity providing even an average job doer enough opportunities for professional growth, raising the living standards of Siddhartha’s family while the financial condition of his maternal aunt, in Calcutta, steadily plummeted.

These two incidents reveal several characteristics of genealogy, one suggesting the impact of gene on lives and the other, impact of fate superseding that of gene. They form one pillar of The Gene: An Intimate History’s narrative which Siddhartha keeps returning to, to illustrate and enrich the other pillar of the narrative, which deals with how human knowledge about gene has evolved and people who have contributed to it.

There are many early exponents of genetics but those who laid out the basic understanding of purpose and functions of gene are Gregory Mendel a monk, of all people, and Charles Darwin. Darwin said genes carry information from one generation to another, Mendel said the posterity carrying this genetic information are not always uniform in their physical features but varied.

Advance in knowledge of genes has been accompanied by a yearning to manipulate genes to create perfect humans. This quest for perfection started in the US in the 1920s, where, with the collusion of the judiciary, social misfits (which could be anything from an insane person to a social dissenter) were identified and then sequestered to prevent any interaction with the society at large.

This method of perfection through segregation of undesired elements earned its enthusiasts in subsequent years. Among its greatest and most pernicious enthusiasts was Hitler whose elimination of Jews and other types of ‘social misfits’ was nothing but genetic cleansing or eugenics to create a pure German race.

Post WW2 when the world woke up to the horrors of the Nazi Germany practice, eugenics was banned in several countries including the US marking an end of the first if a little crude attempts to control the future.

Eugenics resumed in the 60s again and this time attempts were made to control the future through gene editing which survives to this day and progresses parallel-ly with improvement in knowledge of genes.

However, following the discovery of Nazi horrors in WW2 and subsequent government interventions, two things about eugenics changed. One is – removed from its former purported purpose of racial purity, it is now practiced to remove possibilities of genetically inherited diseases; and the second is – it is practiced only via gene manipulation and not any other form of experiments performed on or with humans.

And the third if you may is the ‘eugenics’ word has acquired a sinister connotation and is used only in reference to abominable racial practices performed at different times in history; ‘gene editing’ has become a widely accepted, secular variant of eugenics.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘part autobiography part history part scientific enquiry’ narrative is very powerful. He peppers his narrative with literary references, mostly taken from children’s literature (Alice in Wonderland being his favorite), to make a point providing a pleasant relief from the claustrophobia of scientific details and also making a point bigger than the sum of its parts.

Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

A book cover is the unsung hero of a book – because we don’t realize that designing a book cover is a great and very difficult art to practice. Jhumpa Lahiri in her book Clothing of Books deals with this aspect of books – and takes us behind the scenes to reveal how book cover designs are conjured up, how different designs work in different cultures and how sometimes book covers can be utterly shallow.

She starts the book by telling how as a child when she would visit India on vacation with her parents, she liked the sartorial discipline of her cousins – who always went to their school wearing uniforms unlike a young Jhumpa, who, back in the US, wasn’t burdened down by any uniform by her school – she preferred the lack of freedom her cousins had to the freedom she had back in the US. She grew up in an immigrant Bengali family and her mother was very keen on Jhumpa sticking to Indian clothes and culture while Jhumpa wanted to be American.

After establishing the importance of the outer appearance and its connection with what lies inside (or what it covers) through an autobiographical chapter, she moves to the role a cover plays for a book. She says a cover comes when a book is finished (from a writer’s perspective) and it is time for it to come into the world. A cover gives a book independence and freedom of its own. It tells her that her work is finished and now the publisher’s work starts. For the publishing house it signals the arrival of a book; for her it’s the farewell. She also tells how she reacted to various covers of her book and informs she approved some of them when approached by her publishers for approval with liking them.

When it comes to her books, her publishers readily commission covers with stereotypical references to India, like elephant, hennaed hands etc overlooking the fact that larger parts of her books are set in America. Once when she complained to her publisher about a cover of her book which had an Indian building in it saying it was too exotic for a book whose larger part was set in the US, the publisher replaced the Indian building with the American flag!

Where the book disappoints is it is only centered around Jhumpa whereas I had expected it to tell about covers of famous books by other writers and provide a wider perspective on book covers instead of only an individualistic view.

 

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

Sometime back I had read this book – The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh – and written a blog on it. Seeing the floods that are taking place in different parts of the world (America, India and now Japan where an island saw a devastating flood) triggering displacement and devastation on a scale unimaginable, I think this book has something interesting to offer – it looks at various such climactic events from across time and from different parts of the world which together indicate that, thanks to modern development, nature has had enough and it’s hitting us back.

It raises important questions about our taste, preferences and lifestyle and explains how they have been shaped by forces of history that were responsible for setting the climatic disaster ball rolling, which slowly has rolled too far and if not stopped immediately will go over the edge. Read this review and enjoy the book.

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There are very few books that fill you with a sense of urgency to write something on them before it’s too late. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which marks the author’s return to nonfiction after a long while, is one such book. The Great Derangement…delves into history (literary and political), analyses contemporary practices, our choices and preferences…and tells us how they are collectively responsible for forcing the nature to unleash destructive forces – like earth swallowing floods, monstrous earth quakes, gales with never-heard-of speed and ferocity – and have brought us to the edge from where a return journey is not possible unless we immediately stop the ‘march of modernity’.

The book blames several things for the climate challenges we are faced with – one is history, another is indifference of serious fiction towards climactic matters, another is the apathy of governments to climactic concerns, still another is our lack of awareness about the havoc climate change can wreak in our lives although there is no dearth of evidence around us.

Ghosh is most morbid about the middle class when it comes to suffering from impact of climate change. He says the rich will fly away in airplanes, the poor will go away to their villages, but where will the middle class go given the fact that they have built their lives in cities? In other words, Ghosh says cities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And particularly those that are close to sea or other forms of water bodies, like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta. Most of these cities were built in colonial period to act as good trade and commerce centers because of their proximity to water. And somehow this preference for proximity with water has crept into the elites of these cities, who tend to build their settlements close to water. The richer the closer.

This love of the rich for staying close to water makes the sea-facing locations most coveted real estate pieces. And, Ghosh observes, this desirability of these locations as real estate properties, anywhere around the world, makes it difficult for governments (or municipal bodies) to create awareness about the perils of staying close to water bodies, thanks to the political clout the real estate practitioners enjoy everywhere.

For Ghosh the peril of this proximity was best exemplified when he travelled to Andaman and Nicobar islands to report on the impact of tsunami.  He visited an army settlement located close to the sea. He noticed two things: a) the higher the rank of the occupant, the closer his dwelling was to the sea leading to the highest rank holder staying closest to the sea (and vice versa); b) those closest to the sea were affected the most by tsunami.

Ghosh observes that in the pre-colonial period people lived away from water, but with the city-building projects the colonial masters took up, the preference slowly reversed.

One of the most original points Ghosh makes in Derangement is the indifference of literary fiction to the concerns of climate change. According to Ghosh, some of the practitioners of serious fiction in the 19th century consciously moved away from using fantastical elements – like flying carpets or a rising sea gulping a landscape – as a means to tell stories, in order to focus on more prosaic day-to-day affairs of life. This prosaic-ity fulfilled the requirements of serious fiction. So describing minor details of landscape and how people lived their lives became fashionable. Amitav Ghosh says this shift from writing about fantastical occurrences to more mundane motions of life had to do with the emphasis of the Industrial Revolution on betterment of human lives.

This shift made the fury of nature, like floods, cyclones etc., an untouchable terrain for serous fiction – because, as Ghosh observes, the gigantic scale of these furies of nature lends them a fantasy-like incredulity not to be dealt with in the type of fiction which swears by credulity.

Writing on furies of nature fell to less-respected a form of fiction, genre fiction. And, Ghosh rues, it continues to this day. That is why thrillers and science fiction have addressed climactic concerns; but sadly, the author says, because genre fictions hardly receive any serious literary award, the issues they address don’t receive the attention they deserve.

One of the things responsible for pushing us to the brink is replacement of coal with petrol as a fuel. Petrol is a more versatile fuel than coal but that is not the only thing which explains why petrol usurped coal’s position as a primary fuel: the reason is petrol is a politically safer fuel than coal – and what makes coal a politically volatile fuel is the highly visible mining process involved in it unlike the refinement process of petrol which is very opaque.

Remember the blackened face of the 20th century coal miner melancholically looking at you from a black and white photo? This visibility of the plight of coal miners is responsible for the revolutions that coal mining has led to unlike the plight of petroleum refinery workers which suffers in obscurity. And the political elite of the Anglosphere the Churchills and Roosevelts of this world knew about this disadvantage of coal mining, Europe having experienced many of the coal-triggered revolutions, and ensured that coal was replaced by petroleum as a primary fuel.

But as always Ghosh’s favorite whipping horse is once again colonialism. He says Britain made sure that the benefits of the industrial revolution were denied to its colonies – and that’s the kind of development that took place in the Western world didn’t take start in Asia until the 1950s when the colonies started getting independence. But, according to the author, the earth can’t withstand the rigor of another round of Western-style development.

That’s why, in climate negotiations taking place among nations, the Western nations insist the poorer nations to take a different route to development.

Ghosh says governments across the world, particularly the democratic ones, come to power on the promise of fulfilling people’s aspirations – and therefore are ill-placed to ask their citizenry to view their actions in the light of their moral responsibility towards saving the earth from going over the edge. It’s only religious groups that can do that. And Ghosh praises the book Laudato Si written by pope Francis in this regard and does a comparative study between the papal book on climate and another important treatise concerning the same subject, The Paris Agreement – and concludes that Laudato Si is much more lucid and readable of the two.

You can take The Great Derangement in many ways – as a book which preaches, prophesises, disparages – by asking us to happily forgo the type of modern development the Western nations have taken for granted. And I am afraid seeing the book in any of these ways will obscure you to its merit as a well-researched book which forcefully holds a brief for climate and makes some unique points along the way. But it does so not without occasionally sliding into ideological slots avoiding which would have ensured a wider acceptability of its views which are certainly worthy of attention.