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India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age by Gurcharan Das

India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age

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India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age by Gurcharan Das

My Rating★★★★☆

Through most of the reading I wanted to be critical of the book. I was disappointed that the wisdom that was characteristic of the Das who wrote The Difficulty of Being Good was not much on display in his exploration of the 2nd of the four foundational principles (Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha) of Indian life [sic]. I could only conclude that it must be difficult for one man to take on the challenge of elucidating all four. I also had some fun imagining that this might be even more the case if he ver decides to turn to the third of the big 4!

The reason for this criticality was that it was constructed as a personal history – it was supposed to be a growing up story for India, entwined with Das’s own. For most of the book this imbued it with a needless tragic sense and also made it seem artificial. The view seemed to be too one-sided, almost like a deliberately bourgeoisie history. There was something not quite right in the telling and while Das’s smooth writing mostly glosses over this, it did come out plainly in instances such as (for example) when he talked about the psychological basis for indian’s inability to cooperate and work in a team atmosphere. A patently absurd Freudian explanation that even the author seemed to know as just playing for the stands.

In all, there seemed to be too much of being wise after the event and Das seemed reluctant to put behind his early enchantments and disillusionments with Nehru and his dreams, not seeming to realize that the models were the best ones available back then. This was exactly the sort of wafer thin analysis that lends very easily to the sort of creeping criticism for India and ‘our ways’ that is characteristic of the modern ‘middle-class’.

Then somewhere towards the end, Das gives up the pretense of telling his own story and plunges into a reflective and more clear-headed assessment of present day India, no longer overshadowed by the perceived failures of the past. From being a depressing saga, the book suddenly leapt into the sunlight of such intense optimism and sudden lack of generalizations. The tide turns with the account of the exciting days of reform. The drama and the personae are wonderfully captured and in spite of being a well-worn story it literally keeps the reader at the edge of the seat as it unfolds like a Bollywood drama, full of machinations and quick steps and side steps – a subtle dance that Das takes great pleasure in composing and unravelling.

From then on the writing takes on a breathless character, as if Das in his old age has recaptured the spirit that was supposed to awaken Independent India half a century ago. That explains the title of the book, though he could just as well have titled it “Gurcharan Unbound” – after all, it was not just India that reinvented itself towards the end of this ‘personal history’. In doing this Das vindicates his narrative choice – the narrative moods were meant to capture the turbulent see-saw of emotions that the nation itself went through. Das does it beautifully, it was just that I failed to appreciate it till the very end.

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Posted by on August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy by David M. Malone

Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign PolicyDoes the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy by David M. Malone

My Rating★★★★☆

Malone delivers a surprisingly intimate and forgiving account of India’s sometimes exasperating mix of foreign policy and external relations. This book is a refreshing break from the posturing and grandstanding typical of many Indian writers and the bipartisan and sometimes startlingly ignorant rhetoric coming from most foreign commentators on international relations.

The author manages to see the issues from a uniquely Indian viewpoint (gleaned from his seemingly chummy relationship with most of our prominent scholars – anecdotes litter the book) and to a large extent internalizes the many contradicting tendencies (mostly domestic, unsurprisingly) that influence the outcome of India’s foreign policies and comes up with a coherent attempt at showing that it is not as discordant and incomprehensible as it might appear at first to the outside (or even inside) observer.

Malone gives hope that there is no need to get lost in the cascade of apparent contradictions that might spew from our overly eloquent delegates and that with the right kind of effort India too can be deciphered by her foreign allies and also by her own students.

This gives pause for thought about the right method towards approaching other similarly situated countries which seem to have as patently a lack of ‘grand strategy’ and a similar tendency for ‘getting-through’. This book is a strong case for more scholarship and less diplomacy in international relationships. It seems to be good advice.

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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire by Sugata Bose

His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle Against Empire

His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire by Sugata Bose

My Rating★★★☆☆

One attempt too many at defending political decisions and one slur too many at the other leaders (Nehru, Gandhi, Patel among others), all the while trying to portray Bose as a visionary who alone had the true picture of world politics and the future, makes this a bit of a propaganda book. At many times it resorts to ‘if’s to wonder about what Bose might have done or speculates on how he could have influenced various momentous events. At other times it is a string of ‘but’s to explain all the questionable affiliations and decisions that plague Bose’s legacy. In the end Bose’s own statement is what truly reflects his impact on the politics of the day: ‘Subhas felt like “a political Rip Van Winkle.”

With Bose being a distant absentee during almost all the major turns in the play, the author had to resort to some questionably speculative tricks to make him the star actor. The ‘biography’ is all the worse for the fact that it spends most of its pages trying to follow Bose in his meandering journeys rather than trying to understand his political/ideological progress that culminated so historically.

There is no doubt that Bose was a man of high integrity and as true a son of Mother India in those turbulent times as any of the other celebrated leaders. He deserves to be on as high a pedestal as any of them does. They were strong men and hence had strong ideals and also individual tendencies. All of them could not be right and none of them could be right all the time, there is no need for an apology to be composed for any of them, same being the case with Bose. Four of Five stars to the Protagonist; Two of Five for the Biography.

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

The Discovery of IndiaThe Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

My Rating★★★★★

It is but folly for me to attempt to review a book so close to my heart. But, on my third reading of this book, it is time to finally go beyond the beauty of the prose and the elegance of Nehru’s presentation. It is time to see if the book achieves the objectives it sets out to achieve and judge it thus. I will let my earlier one-line review stand. Here goes…

The following passage reflects the objective of the book.

To know and understand India one has to travel far in time and space, to forget for a while her present condition with all its misery and narrowness and horror, and to have glimpses of what she was and what she did. ‘To know my country’, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘one has to travel to that age, when she realized her soul and thus transcended her physical boundaries, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.’

Does it achieve such a grand objective? It sweeps across Indian history on very able wings and the history unfolds with irresistible drama and with the glow of a golden splendor. India of old comes alive for the reader in all its old grandeur. But this is dazzle. Does the expedition go beyond that and ‘discover’ India? It does and it doesn’t. The India glimmers and fades – reappearing every time Nehru takes an unbiased look back and disappearing every time he turns his gaze eagerly to the present.

The second half of the books quickly descends into a political commentary from being a historical study – and in this transition from history to the present, the ‘discovery’ is left incomplete in the urgency to expostulate on current happenings. This is a minor failure and Nehru is quite aware of it. He has to go back to the vagueness he started with to end his quest:

Nearly five months have gone by since I took to this writing and I have covered a thousand hand-written pages with this jumble of ideas in my mind. For five months I have travelled in the past and peeped into the future and sometimes tried to balance myself on that ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time.’ These month have been full of happenings in the world and the war has advanced rapidly towards a triumphant conclusion, so far as military victories go. […] Because of this business of thinking and trying to give some expression to my thoughts, I have drawn myself away from the piercing-edge of the present and moved along the wider expanses of the past and the future. But there must be an end to this wandering. If there was no other sufficient reason for it, there is a very practical consideration which cannot be ignored. I have almost exhausted the supply of paper that I had managed to secure after considerable difficulty and it is not easy to get more of it. The discovery of India — what have I discovered? It was presumptuous of me to imagine that I could unveil her and find out what she is today and what she was in the long past. […] Yet something has bound them together and binds them still. India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and today when she appears to be the plaything of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive. There are terrifying glimpses of dark corridors which seem to lead back to primeval night, but also there is the fullness and warmth of the day about her. Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable, and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly, and looked down into wisdom’s well. Each one of them is drawn to her, though perhaps each has a different reason for that attraction or can point to no reason at all, and each sees some different aspect of her many-sided personality.

While that maybe so, this too is pardonable as even the political statements soar to heights sometimes and is amazing: (more in updates section)

The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India, and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’

The conclusion is a fitting one (though this passage is not really the conclusion). It was ultimately not about the Discovery of India as India is too diverse and manifold, it was an inquiry into the soul of a generation, a Discovery of their India, of the India then, of that generation, the greatest generation perhaps in our living memory:

My generation has been a troubled one in India and the world. We may carry on for a little while longer, but our day will be over and we shall give place to others, and they will live their lives and carry their burdens to the next stage of the journey. How have we played our part in this brief interlude that draws to a close? I do not know. Others of a later age will judge. By what standards do we measure success or failure? That too I do not know. We can make no complaint that life has treated us harshly, for ours has been a willing choice, and perhaps life has not been so bad to us after all. For only they can sense life who stand often on the verge of it, only they whose lives are not governed by the fear of death. In spite of all the mistakes that we may have made, we have saved ourselves from triviality and an inner shame and cowardice. That, for our individual selves, has been some achievement. ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live as not to be tortured for years without purpose, so live that dying he can say: “All my life and my strength were given to the first cause of the world — the liberation of mankind.”‘

 

If only we could also figure a path to save ourselves from triviality. If only we too could Discover the moving spirit of our own Generation.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Oft In My Thought

Oft In My Thought

Ah, how often I have sought in my days,

To emulate the great leaders, and be gently led,

By their virtuous actions and well-laid plans.

How often I charted the best courses to take

To reach those heights of thought and action;

And thought evermore of what best will portray

Their everlasting influence on this humble self,

That will make this world to be as they always saw,

In their lofty wishes and their fanciful dreams.

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But all those thoughts, alas, they too crumble and dry,

And serve no more the masters that send them forth,

Who are now but ashes or just food to now dead worms,

And so are their thoughts but food to a few blind men.

And this world that lets the best of it die,

And leaves not even a soul or a smile behind,

For what I should try, what lasting effect,

When in showing the virtues, I forget them more?

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How to pass that time of the night,

When all too familiar shame shows its head:

Have you forgotten all your virtues,

It asks with the malevolent sweet smiles,

The dead might banish sins and conquer great heights,

But will the living learn, it sneers and slips away.

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To what profit we move, to what end we sing,

Praises of these men, and put their faces in public places?

The most good, most fair and most just of men;

They no longer walk this realm, what omen there?

And when the young can no longer dare imagine

That their footsteps once hallowed these very ruins…

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This poem is dedicated to my last reading of:

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

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The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

My Rating: ★★★★★

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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