I have decided to take a short break from the field work on the The Idea Of India project. The monsoon and exhaustion have collaborated and pushed me to return to Delhi to rest, and also to rethink my work plan for the coming months. But as always, I now find myself immersed in readings, some of which were recommended to me by friends, others I found on friend’s bookshelves, and some that I had ordered online. So what am I reading:
Anatol Lieven’s rather interesting work, Pakistan: A Hard Country. Lieven is an anthropologist by training and hence his rather interesting and unique approach to the country through its kinship networks and their role in the stability of the country, and its resistance to change.
What is certainly refreshing about this work is that it eschews so many of the mindless clichés that almost all foreign journalists and writers attempting reporting, reportage and books on Pakistan fall prey to. Lieven brings a wonderfully open mind and manages to spend time with a wide range of Pakistanis. This is perhaps one of the better general texts about a very complex country that I have read in a long time. Its earliest chapters do suffer from some simplicities, for example, when he draws a rather straight line between Islamic history in South Asia and Pakistan’s modern religious and political struggles. I found this opening section rather weak, particularly when it is obvious that he has read some of the most important works on South Asian history, including that by Ayesha Jalal. To then continue the habit, as his opening sections of the book do, of simplistically constructing Pakistan’s modern history by seeing it exclusively through things ‘Islamic’ and/or ‘Muslim’ is lamentable. I await a work gleefully reveals the many varied and wonderful non-Islamic, non-Arab, non-Muslim heritages that reside within the borders of Pakistan and have directly and overtly influenced the cultures of the people who now go to make the nation. The influence of the Indus valley civilizations, the inherited norms of non-Muslim communities, and the deep impressions of Buddhist and Hindu cultures reside deep in the heart of the country’s people, and are as crucial a determinant of its social and cultural makeup as anything ‘Islamic’.
Despite this weakness the work is complex, engaged, open-minded and provocative. And it is certainly a departure from the norms and offers us many interesting insights into the country. There are a number of online reviews of the book two which I found interesting can be found here, and here.
An exciting review of Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer in Le Monde Diplomatique proved too much to resist and I have in my hands a copy of the work.
To be honest I have never quite been intrigued by Montaigne and frankly I would not have started reading it had it not reminded me of the works and methods of Theodore Zeldin and his wonderfully fun An Intimate History Of Humanity.
Zeldin’s work remains one of my favorite reads in the last decade. I do remember that it was the work where I first read about the origins of romantic, all-consuming love as we understand it today. I in fact used this in an essay I wrote later about Kashmir called Whats Love Got To Do With It?. And so a few pages into Bakewell’s How To Live reminded me of Zeldin’s voice and I was hooked. Its a fabulous journey into a varied and questioning mind with the rare talent of speaking and writing with clarity and insight. I don’t know Montaigne’s work, but Bakewell’s book is a lovely introduction for me into his life and thoughts. There are various reviews of the book here, here and here.
I also have in front of me a book that I wasn’t very sure about, but a recommendation by the lovely Ananya Vajpeyi convinced me to at least give it a chance. Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India
The book was banned in certain states in India. In all such bans, the reasons were specious and foolish. Even this was not enough to convince me to read it. But I decided to and have a copy of it with me now, but as I make my way through its pages I realize that my original misgivings may have been correct. Certainly the earliest chapters of the work suffer from a desperate, near artificial attempt to being Gandhi ‘down to earth’. It is written as if each small revelation of Gandhi’s being human, weak, petty, or wrong is meant to pierce a hole in the veneer that defines him as the Mahatma. Lelyveld is unable to see the man, the mind and the intellectual and spiritual efforts of an inquisitive, intelligent young lawyer confronting a world that defied his idealistic ideals and that he then decided to take on one step at a time. Lelyveld paints him as inconsistent, hypocritical, petty, cowardly and narcissistic. And yet, despite Lelyveld’s efforts he cannot hide from the reader the fact that Gandhi was a young man becoming what he willed and believed rather than what he was. If Lelyveld writes him as petty, a mere few sentences later we see an act of tremendous intellectual and spiritual courage that overturns that judgement. If Lelyveld suggests that he was hypocritical, a few sentences later we are provided evidence to the contrary. And yet Lelyveld refuses to connect the dots, and, as Pankaj Mishra said in a review of the book in the New Yorker, ‘…rarely zooms out to a broader picture…’
Another book I am going through has perhaps one of the most appropriate and poignant cover photographs I have seen in a long time. Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful And The Damned: Life In The New India has a classic, modern image of India as it is unfolding all around us.
I love this image. I want to congratulate the designer for putting it together on this cover. The context of the work informs the entire photograph with the history of post 1990’s India. Right there, on this woman, sits the uncomfortable foisting of an imported idea of the modern and the future. It reminds me of that terrible judgement that Ashis Nandy passed about India…that we (South Asians) have a past, a present, and a future that is someone else’s present. Siddharta Deb as a smart and savvy journalist and writer. The work is basically journalistic in nature, and in sensationalism. Despite those flaws it makes for poignant reading. But it lacks an edge, and it lacks a commitment. I don’t have a better way to describe than by linking to a recent BBC Radio 3 interview that Arundhati Roy and Siddharta Deb where Deb’s ‘nuanced’ voice is made to stand alongside the far more pointed, critical and committed voice of Arundhati Roy.
Even a cursory comparison of Arundhati Roy’s new work, based on her recent reportage on the Maoist insurgency in India’s East, is a strikingly different work than Deb’s. I have not read Roy’s new work, but I know her voice and I know it well. I love her voice. And at least two of the essays in this new book were published elsewhere and are known to me.
But where Roy is precise is analysing the dysfunctions of India’s democracy, and its unthinking, blind spiral towards a neo-capitalist nightmare, a nightmare that is being lived out by hundreds of millions of her citizens, Deb’s is a quieter voice revealing the lived consequences of India’s new emerging ‘middle class’ and the horrors of their new world. The two works together create a powerful understanding of how one set of social and economic pathologies is being constructed while entire worlds – tribal, rural, ethnically diverse, environmentally complex, are being pillaged to feed the gods that have already failed and died across the modern industrialized Western world. What we are witnessing in India today is an internal colonialism that is cannibalising entire communities, ethnicities, eco-systems, and centuries of indigenous knowledge to satisfy a narrow-minded idea of material success complete with its delusion belief in the trickle down benefits that have never emerged elsewhere and will not do so in India either.
Keynes may have studied India, but he does not seem to be relevant to her modernity. I recommend both books.
Of course, there are more books, but those still sit on a shelf in my room and I will need more time to get to them. Christopher Pinney’s exciting Photos Of The Gods, Annu Jalais’ Sundarbans: Folk Deities, Monsters & Mortals, and the tonnage of G Pandey’s new Omnibus wait not-so-quietly, insisting on being held, opened and absorbed.
I am on a break from the project. Apparently.