Tag Archives: India

Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★


The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.

The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.

The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.

Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.

The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.

A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.

Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.

The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?

The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆


The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

India: A PortraitIndia: A Portrait by Patrick French

My Rating★★★☆☆

India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

French divides the book into three neat parts – Rashtra (Nation, i.e., The Politics), Lakshmi (Wealth, i.e., The Economics) & Samaj (Society, i.e., The Sociology). He attempts to sketch a comprehensive ‘portrait’ of the country by using this eminently scientific approach. Hard to fault the ambition. Except that India refuses to be divided into such easy compartments. Nor are these sciences ones that can be easily examined without reference to each other. They are not the hyphenated-sisters for no reason. Much of the pleasure in reading the book comes from the tension generated by French trying to wrench and force fit his stories into his compartments, religiously avoiding cross-references (as much as possible). The fact that he keeps the whole thing coherent is an achievement in itself.


Appropriately the first section is politics which is the fountainhead of much that follows. French here attempts the herculean task of trying to compress the byzantine complexity of Indian politics into a third of a book. He keeps it light and funny and does not lack in insight when it comes to history. But his telling is slightly biased in favor of the current government – lavishing praises on Mr. Singh, Soniaji and on her son, even as he dishes out excessive criticism on almost everything else concerning Indian politics. It must be an embarrassment for the author if it were pointed out now how he was praising Rahul Gandhi as the possible savior of an increasing decadent Congress system while so insightfully highlighting the worst aspects of the party politics.

The best analyzed chapter of the book (Family Politics) comes in this section and deals with the minutiae of Hereditary Politics that has plagued India. With the help of some (almost) ad-hoc calculations and excel-plugging, French arrives at a picture of how deep-rotted the problem really is. This depressing analysis points out how low a proportion of non-hereditary political leaders, i.e., people who made it on their own merit are there in the higher (and even lower) echelons of power. As opposed to the ones who didn’t need merit – He calls them H-MPs/H-MLAs (Hereditary-MP/MLA). Can’t think of a more stinging slap on the face of ‘democracy’.

French ends the chapter with a stirring warning that the route India has taken of entrenched hereditary politics is taking her rapidly back to the era of Kings and Princes.


As with any Indian Economic history, French dives with great relish into criticizing the early planning economy, especially Mahalanobis – he even points out how this damaged not just India but the rest of the newly independent countries as well since they looked to India (Calcutta in lieu of Chicago) for economic wisdom and adopted Mahalanobis’s elaborately concocted fantasy as theory.

But the fact is that the steady stream of economists who poured into India in that period of exceptional enthusiasm (which Das elaborates in his book) had all certified the plan as faultless, Friedman being one of the few voices to cry foul and that was probably more because it was against his ideology than because of any specific objections to the theoretical framework.

Thought experiment: India as an early Keynesian vs Monetarist battleground. Almost, but not to be. Sigh.

In addition to the standard fare of criticism of early policies and the run up to the much hyped turning point of the 90s, some interesting flashes stand out in this section to interest even the informed reader – such as:

How Keynes’ early career and theoretical synthesis was shaped by India;

How the at-first-glance stunningly socialistic and idealistic ‘Bombay Plan’ was as in fact politically motivated and was a shrewd move to outflank the left-wing;

How Mahalanobis was obsessed with the science of skull measurement and concocted dreamy theories on the racial superiority of Bengalis, etc.


Fittingly, this concluding section about Indian Society is the most amorphous and yet most coherent part of the book. He uses it to highlight some of the everyday concerns of the Indian media and the everyday fears of the Indian ‘common-man’ – all of which seem mundane but are of stunningly tragic proportions if one could only take a step back and see the extent, depth and sheer depravity of it.

The topics he takes on in this section ranges from caste issues, societal disconnects such as the urban-rural divide (where he follows up on the Kafkaesque Aarushi story, in great detail.), religion and its discontents, customs – their origins and current forms, ancient science, philosophy etc and even some tasty anecdotes such as how Mahalanobis (yes he does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with Mahalanobis – just as he can never talk of Keynes without commenting on his sexuality within the same sentence) saved Ramanujam from chilly nights by teaching him the engineering dexterity necessary for manipulating a blanket.

Being the manifestations arising out of the Politics and Economics outlined in the first two sections of the book, this final section finds French at his poignant journalistic best. Tracing out moving stories and making almost a travelogue of this, one gets the feeling that this was what French originally wanted to write about and the run up/introduction in which he wanted to show some of the underlying causes to the societal ills of India ended up turning into a two-thirds-of-his-book-long introduction.

French should probably have stuck to the original plan. It might have meant that we could have had a profoundly moving portrait, without being asked to do a connect-the-dots puzzle all the time before being shown the stark reality of the picture for a flash and then being blind-folded again. Left alone with the confounding puzzle, most dots still left hanging.

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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Twilight’s Children: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

My Rating★★★★☆


Twilight’s Children


He had found the letter under his brother’s bed.

He had not minded the dust that lit up the damp light of the room. He had read it immediately. But now that he was back in his room, he took it out again, wanting to read it one more time, as always.

He remembered all the letters he used to receive from India and of how he could hear his Udayan’s childhood voice as he read it, even when the voice was long changed. In this letter he could not.

This time he picked up from the third page of the letter, glancing at the parts that did not make sense to him.

What defines identity once you are away from your center? What defines the center when you are away from our identity?

He wondered why Udayan would take the trouble to write all this when it must have been such a struggle to write at all. With that hand of his… Is it because he wanted to take comfort in talking with me? Or does he just write whatever comes to mind, arrange them in a semblance of order and mail them across the oceans? He looked back at the page.

Is it anger in the obvious betterment seen all around you? Is it shame that you were never really part of it? That you were not part of building it? And instead of building one you have just taken the easier path? Is it pride, perhaps, in your independence? Is it the blustering of the intolerable journalist when he talks about the better ‘systems’? Is it just a sense of loss of all that is left behind?

He skipped the last few lines and then skipped to the next page. Udayan’s handwriting always used to deteriorate towards the end of a page and now it was almost unreadable. ‘Not that I am missing much’, he said to himself.

Wherein lies the center of the modern man’s existence?

Is it in an imaginary village consisting of all that mattered to him as he was growing up – do they ever break that circle? Or is it constantly expanded as you grow? Or is it constantly redefined?

If you don’t have the less developed multitudes (relatives like me) to look upon you from that left-behind circle, will any achievement truly matter in life? Can your center, your point of reference and your identity, only be defined from a transpositional view from below? Or is It from a patriarchal view from above that leaves you smarting?

He was not sure why Udayan had taken to writing to him as if the roles were reversed – as if he was the one who had never set foot beyond his home city and as if Udayan was the one who had roamed the world and thought about a home that had been left behind with such ease. Of course, Udayan wouldn’t have been able to leave behind anything. He had been able to. ‘With ease’, he repeated doubtfully.

He had skipped ahead again without noticing it but decided to carry on. He knew he would be reading it over later. Again.

What of the constant sense that assaults you of not being part of the ‘real’ world – of the world you inhabit – the ones outside your country, your center being somehow artificial? Is it this artificiality that gives you wings? Soaring in a flight of fancy to heights you wouldn’t have dreamed of back where the real things are?

It is not as if he didn’t know that this was probably Udayan’s way of teasing him into coming back home. And it is not as if he didn’t know why it was never posted. He started skipping across the letter faster, eager to reach where he was addressed directly. Eager to see if could recapture the childhood voice when he read his brother addressing him directly instead of talking platitudes. He uttered a faint hum as he skipped across increasingly badly scribbled lines.

Is it a requirement to step outside the circle to be able to step outside it?

How do you view the real world then? Are they the dream now that you are living the dream?

Can you sleep knowing that the dream is never to be dreamt?

Why wouldn’t you try to dream up some solutions as well then? Why wouldn’t you start believing that your newfound wings would work in that ‘real’ world too? Why wouldn’t you even consider flying back?

Why wouldn’t you attempt to solve all the problems?

Even if you never attempt it, you know that with these wings of yours, any problem is an easy one, especially those – the ones in that ‘real’ world. The shadow world of reality.

He felt a faint irritation with his brother now. What right did he have to lecture? What had he done except read a bunch of books and preach around? Then he checked himself. Udayan had always stopped teasing whenever he got angry. He used to always know why.

It is not necessary, of course, that the circle of identity had to be a country or a village or a society or family – stepping outside your circle, outside our reality gives you wings and solutions – but the solutions and the wings are never to be allowed back in – you may step back in but you step back in as yourself, without the fancy stuff. And then you have to forget the dream. You can only inhabit the twilight or the sunrise. Never both.

Ah, he remembered, now is when he talks about the book he had asked me to send to Anita. Udayan had ended up reading it first. Mostly because one of the main characters in the book shared his name. He tried to recollect the little he had read of the book before wrapping it. He knew that much of Udayan’s ramblings in this letter might have come from the book.

After all, there were some parallels. It was the eternal afterlife of the exile that Jhumpa Lahiri was always expert at dissecting. ‘Maybe it was all a build up towards telling me why I should read it too’, he mused, ‘maybe he was not taunting me at all’. Or maybe he felt the book could do that job much better.

There are some books which once read you have a compulsion to make others read – as if the enjoyment is not complete until it is shared. Until you can see the expression of amazement in the other’s face when they have read too – your enjoyment growing in the realization of theirs.

This book is not like that – it is a quiet pleasure to read but there is no expectation of pleasure from the sharing of it – there is no compulsion to talk about it – there is nothing much to talk about really. It is boring in its own way: a beautiful and boring stream that you saw on your way – you paused to see it but you don’t run home to get your wife to stare at it together.

I was excited to read it, to see how it would capture the times that we have lived through. Times that held so much meaning for us. But, it was not meant to be of the masses and the loudness of the massed struggle – just of the individuals and of the quietness of their desperation — it requires no knowledge of our complicated history or the nuances of our anger that ignited the streets. It was not even remotely concerned about all that…

He started searching for the book among the shelves. Then under the bed. His brother loved to sleep with a book and let it slide under his bed as one arm arced and drooped. There it was. Almost brand new. Only two pages bent to mark places to return to. He turned back to the letter.

We are Twilight’s Children, brother, the Midnight’s Children was still some way ahead of us – we are the ones without definition. We were born before the darkness set in, and the day too far off.

After reading The Namesake (the one that you had sent me years ago – ordering me to read it and that you wanted me to get a sense of your University student life), I searched for something new in this one… trying to find what excited the author, trying to get a glimpse into your life – the intimacy with the characters was there – that was expected, that was known; the reality of private lives was there – again known, again expected. What set this apart from the other one? Is it the suffering? But what is suffering? Where was it? I couldn’t see it? Is it necessary that your own anguish has to be less than that of a character’s for you to be able to feel empathy?

But, when I read about this one (in an editorial review), I half thought I could get you to read it… to understand me – another book from the same author. There seemed to be a symmetry to that. But it was not to be. It was not about Bengal, at least not the Bengal that I lived through… it was not to be.

I am told the author grew up in Rhode island – that intimacy is visible. Rhode island becomes more of a home to the reader than his own Bengal. Again, my purposes were not being served by the author.

He looked at the marked pages of the book again and noticed that both seemed to be underlined faintly on lines that described their city. The language was exquisite. Maybe the time away from his expected times and places put him off the book. Udayan was never one for relishing language. He always wanted meanings and words to speak loud and bold.

You had told that you would try to read this before sending it to me. If you managed to complete the book, you must have realized that the book is not very atypical of Lahiri. I am afraid she will find it hard to win another Booker until she breaks out of her own mould or a Booker Committee comes along that doesn’t take the trouble to have read the previous winners.

He smiled at his brother’s silly mistake and continued reading. But he found that he was skipping through the lines now, without reading much. Soon he had reached the end of the letter. It did not end with the usual wishes and he knew that it had not been finished. He quietly flipped back to the beginning again. He could hear the milkman cycling outside on his early morning rounds.

Their relationship had been stretched – stretched halfway across the world – refusing to break, no matter how much he tried.

He walked slowly to the window-sill and lit the candle he had placed here. He watched as the ashes settled nearby and turned away as the breeze started to carry them away.

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts


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Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century by Shashi Tharoor

Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century

Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century by Shashi Tharoor

My Rating★★★★☆

Joe Nye aka “Mr. Soft Power” in ‘The Future of Power’ has argued that, in today’s information age, it is the side with the better story that wins. This book is Tharoor’s conscious or unconscious attempt to ensure that India is the party with the better story (of course to one’s own eyes one always has the better story). To Tharoor, India is gentle and reasonable and completely justified in all its actions; where they can’t be justified, they can be explained away with the excuse that a functioning democracy will take circuitous routes (the elephant metaphor). Thus the benign elephant dances with starry-eyed smaller countries, reluctantly peeping neighbors, a very naughty dragon, a ferocious but almost toothless opponent with a weapon that can’t be used, some failed states and a big circus master with a big funny hat. But all that is incidental because the elephant is gentle enough to be above reproach. So, who is the hero of the story? I leave that to your guessing skills.

Other than that, this reads like a sequel/update (with even the metaphors not being spared) to Malone’s wonderful book – with all the edges carefully shorn off and decorated in cheerful Diwali lights.

The second half of the book which takes a look at North Block and UN and their many idiosyncrasies, arguing for and against continuing relevance is more entertaining – because Tharoor actually has original stuff to contribute here along with many anecdotes which are well-worn but still funny. And though the book’s cover boasts that he tries to evolve a grand strategy (which Malone had criticized India of lacking and Tharoor wants to prove exists inside of the folds), it only delivers some passably good platitudes.

In the end though, I cannot forgive Tharoor – the primary reason for me picking up this book was my irrepressible curiosity on how the author would justify such a presumptuous title. And Tharoor never bothered to oblige, except for a two-line justification which only talks about a redefinition of what the ‘pax -ica’ latinization means in this new century. Disappointing? Yes. But, perhaps true too – it gels well with Pinker’s Angels.

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Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆

Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma GandhiGandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The complexity of Gandhiji’s life requires careful attention to both his public and personal trials. This is the basis on which Wolpert proposes to build yet another biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most well examined and yet one of the most enigmatic personalities. Wolpert says that even as he was writing his many works on India, he was always drawn towards Gandhi’s life but yet shying away from the endeavor, invariably daunted by Gandhi’s elusive personality and the extent of his archive, yet hoping that greater maturity and deeper knowledge of India would help him to understand the Mahatma’s mentality and reasons for his often contradictory behavior. When he finally decided to do so and confronted the veritable mountain of literature that exists about the great man, he almost decided then to abandon his “Gandhi” once again, “feeling that perhaps I had nothing new to add to what was known about the amazing man who called his life an “open book,” and fearing that at age sixty-eight, completing my research and writing might take longer than my lifetime.”

While a noble quest in itself, in the search for an alternative take and for a more comprehensible explanation Wolpert can be said to have stumbled, and badly. One wishes he had taken better head of his own misgivings. Gandhi used to famously call his own life as his Tapasya. Wolpert translates this tapasya as passion (thence the title of the book), then elaborates on the classic, noble meanings of the word (in drawing a parallel to ‘the passion of the christ’, for the benefit of his western readers) then ends up reverting back to the modern and much more ordinary meaning of the word with no sanction from the original tapasya. He continues to use the word passion in all sorts of contexts and gets it thoroughly mixed up. The reader has to put in a special effort to keep things straight about which context the word is being used in in any given instant.

He then proceeds to analyze Gandhi’s life and his now much publicized ‘personal life’ from what can only be a called simplified western understanding of some vague tantric and magical ‘stuff’. This leads to selective attention to possibly controversial letters and passages and Wolpert eventually slides into a continuous exposé-mentality that makes not much of an attempt at trying to understand the real meaning behind the ‘experiments’. The world has been treated to a lot of this about Gandhiji by now but the mud does not seem to stick. This might perhaps be because he was open about his life in a way almost unimaginable now and just as when he asked his friends then to point out any error in his ways, the same question can hardly be answered assertively even now.

Wolpert’s overly spiritual take on Gandhi’s life and seeking an explanation in that alone is detrimental to any real understanding. Gandhiji was not a mere spiritual guru, he was a shrewd political leader who mobilized more people voluntarily than perhaps anyone ever has. He combined religion, politics, idealism and personal relationships into a single field of action. Gandhi’s life can even be said to be, without too much exaggeration, an object lesson on codes of purity and honor, on the meaning of martyrdom, and on the construction of a heroic life. Nevertheless, his life should be seen as a human life, no more and no less, and as a testament to the heights that the human spirit can climb with patient effort. That is where the inspiration of his ‘life as message’ lies: in replicating a part of that ambition of spirit, not in being a distant unattainable sainthood emulatable only through statues and honorifics.

In the end, the book is reduced to an overly romanticized set of platitudes, talking sometimes dreamily of yogic strength and sometimes of some mysterious ‘ancient civilization’ in Wolpert’s half-distracted quest to explain the reason behind these ‘experiments’ and of Gandhi’s ‘passion’. The explanations are not always coherent and shows scant understanding of the scriptural knowledge and Vedic traditions that Gandhi drew from in order to formulate his life and rules, and if drilled the author might be hard pressed to supply what he meant by half of these platitudinous terms.

The book also disappoints as a scholarly exercise: Wolpert has in fact tried to deconstruct Gandhiji from an almost anthropological perspective. There are many different ways in which the traditional subjects of social anthropology can be described, and one would perhaps contend, borrowing from Marc Augé, that anthropology has always been an anthropology of the ‘here and now’. This does not mean Augé would implore Wolpert that anthropology has to cast its eye only on objects that are near it, but rather that the mode by which knowledge is produced in anthropology is the mode of intimacy. The ‘here’ is the society in which the anthropologist must have travelled and lived, while the ‘now’ refers to the privileged place given to the present. Unfortunately Wolpert satisfies neither condition and hence his mode of producing knowledge, has a unique intellectual object – the ‘exotic Other’. This exotic Other can not be encountered accidentally, it has to be sought out as the opposite of the Self. Hence, as Amartya Sen would argue, anthropological knowledge can come to be a map of difference, of alterity or to be entirely slotted into his one of three categories: the exoticist approach. Any biography thus conceived is doomed to be a theatre of the exotic and hardly a source of knowledge or understanding.

In never being able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to explore the personal life or the political life, or in perhaps not being able to find any way to separate the entangled strands of the two, Wolpert compromises too much and presents us with a very shallow work. The book cannot serve as an introductory read because it leaves out and simplifies too much, and it cannot serve as a supplementary read since it has nothing original to add. So what purpose did the book serve? I cannot discern one.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Books


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