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The State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

The State of The NationThe State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

My Rating★★★★★

This book was an Independence day gift to myself and it has turned out to be a good choice. In Nariman’s exploration and assessment of various issues based on constitutional tenets, the ‘state of the nation’ seems healthy only when these issues collide with the courts of law. Men seem good, reason seems triumphant and government officials and leaders seem to be the arbitrary children that they actually are, but all without feeling that this is cause for a tragic gloom – because the parent is around to discipline them. We need the courts to overreach, Nariman seems to be saying in all earnestness (with his characteristically profligate smattering of exclamation marks in the text).

It has to be admitted that there is a genuine (almost perverse) pleasure in seeing leaders who are consistently acknowledged to be the scourge of modern India being put in their place, being given a public reassessment of their sense of importance. This is what Nariman provides (drawing heavily on his 60 odd years of experience at the bar) through his numerous anecdotes and mini case-studies – this is also what the courts Vs government drama provides to the common man. It allows us to generate a healthy skepticism of the government and moves us away from the ‘mai-baap’ mentality. The highest courts play a vital role in this.

While the Govt might see this as an erosion of credibility, and resent this incursion and ‘overreach’ Nariman seems to say that this is exactly what the doctor (constitution) ordered in the first place: what a good governance really requires are institutions that have full cognizance of their own fragility and of their own failures.

Thus the majority of the book enumerates the state of the nation using the Constitution as a yardstick and seems to imply that as long as we have wise men in the courts acting as zealous watchdogs of the Constitution, democracy is safe and if not progress, at least regress is effectively checked.

So while saying in not as many words that the state of the nation is bad but could have been much worse if not for the courts, Nariman has the conscientiousness to also examine his beloved judiciary itself. And to his credit, he does a remarkable objective and unbiased take on it. The last chapter is almost ominous, and almost certainly deliberately exaggerated. The spirit of the chapter is that if the nation, Constitution and democracy is being guarded by the judiciary, we need to ask every now and then the clichéd question: ‘who will watch the watchmen’. And we need to be very very aware of the real and present dangers.

But in the end, I have not let the brooding last chapter detract from the overriding confidence that the book asks of me towards the judiciary and by proxy to the nation and its ‘state’. Every section in this book begins with one of the political cartoons of the legendary ‘common man’ (from the series of iconic sketches by Laxman who used to express the ‘state of the nation’ more powerfully than what many serious journos ever managed – a role that the amul ads now seem to be valiantly trying to fill) that illustrates poignantly some of the issues that Nariman wants to address in it. The last chapter did not have one, presumably because he could not find one. In the end, that lack of a cartoon was the most telling thing for me.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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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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The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

The Idea of IndiaThe Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

My Rating★★★★★

Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book’s context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book (partly because of the allure of the title and partly because It was among the 25 Popular Penguins). During the first 12 months I read the first half of the book, plodding slowly, 2-3 pages once in a while, with a deliberate exercise of will-power, littering the book with marginalia and exclamation marks – amazed at the language and the torrent of ideas and information.

Then, unintentionally, the book was gradually put aside and lost among a growing tide of must-read books. Meanwhile, I read many other books dealing with the same subject matter and discussing many of the same questions, familiarizing myself to some extent with the numerous arguments. Today I picked up Khilnani again to read a few more pages to get a move on (I hate half-completed books on my shelf) and to my surprise, all the plodding was gone and I breezed through the rest of the book.

No more was it an incomprehensible lecture which I should try and capture as much of as I can, it was now a pleasant conversation with enough interesting back-and-forths from both sides that notes and such became unnecessary. The book became more memorable and the reading experience actually improved with this loss of awe.

This is the first mid-book transition like this for me in which the tone and texture of the book, along with my entire attitude towards it shifts so rapidly. Makes me wonder how much is missed by reading a well written and popular book first without taking the trouble to study the subject first – most of the richness that informed the author in his writing is lost on the reader by the author’s attempt to make the book more readable. It is a necessary tragedy. (Unless the reader takes it on himself to alleviate the collateral damage). Is it?

 

 

P.S. About the book itself, it is a very poetic and well written exploration of the question of Indian Identity. While Khilnani doesn’t offer much in the form of new theories on what this definition should be, he very evocatively sets forth the many identities that have and continue to define the vast nation. The discussion on Nehru and Gandhi is exceptional in their clarity and the unreserved take on Hindutva deserves to be read with great attention. The last chapter rises to a poetic crescendo with Khilnani offering his own conceptions on how these various identities should be interpreted and accepted. The stunning bibliographic essay which lists close to 200 odd books is a treasure trove and has given me an enormous and intimidating list of books that should be explored.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Books

 

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India Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

India Since IndependenceIndia Since Independence by Bipin Chandra

My Rating★★★★☆

The book is supposed to be one of the most authoritative histories of the period, presented by a set of celebrated authors who were instrumental in authoring most of the text books of the academic curriculum (India). It is disappointing then to see that ideology colors even such a work. If you can stay away from the strong biases that run through most of the interpretative chapters, this is actually quite a good book read.

It provides a good contrast (counterpoint?) to Guha‘s history. It is quite stunning how history changes so radically from one book to the next. The two books tell of the same period but with such marked divergence. As a reader one can accept this transition with surprising ease since the story is not in the telling but in the leaving out, in the focusing of the searchlight on select incidents and in leaving the rest in the darkness. This strengthens my growing obsession with historiography and its many wonders. Has any fully illumined history of any period yet been written? I am yet to find one.

The next book in my romance with historiography might have some answers – History at the Limit of World-History. I am thoroughly excited to have stumbled on this one and am hoping to continue this review over there.

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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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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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India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

India: The Emerging GiantIndia: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

My Rating★★★★☆

After having read Sen (Development as Freedom) and having been greatly influenced by his ideas, it was only fair to Bhagwati that I read one of his books next. But I decided to start with his collaborator’s work before moving into his own. Having read Dasgupta‘s views on this recently helped in this decision.

Am planning to be reading the two new works by the contending clans next…

In this book Panagariya offers an analytic account and interpretation of the major economic developments in postindependence India along with a detailed discussion of where the policies currently stand and a road map of the future reforms necessary to accelerate and sustain growth.

The principal problem with such a specific and policy oriented book that is grounded on empirical data than on any purely ideological or theoretical grounds is that the stats need to be updated every two years or so to maintain relevance, not just of the recommendations but of the argumentative underpinnings as well.

I am tempted to write a detailed review on the policy recommendations and the outlines provided by Panagariya but I have to refrain till I catch hold of a decent book with a more recent treatment.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Oath of the Vayuputras by Amish Tripathi

The Oath of the Vayuputras (Shiva Trilogy, #3)The Oath of the Vayuputras by Amish Tripathi

My Rating★☆☆☆☆

A funky mix of pseudo-science, pseudo-history and pseudo-mythology, The Oath of the Vayuputras marks a new low for this trilogy. Amish ensures that anyone reading this book will emerge with a thoroughly muddled conception of Indian mythology and pre-history. This would be a valuable asset when the movie comes out.

I had criticized the plot mechanism in my previous review by comparing it to an Amar-Chitra Katha. I have to take that back. Amar-Chitra Kathas were really good, in fact. No I would venture to say that the plotting, the characterizations and the dialogues are in the time honored tradition of the beloved saas-bahu serials of India. You cannot go wrong with that.

I clenched my teeth and read through this one. And guess what, the book ends with a threat that Shiva willing, there might be more!

PS. I have so many rants, especially factual ones. But unless someone wants to contest me about the virtues of the book, I am not going to bother.

PPS. The Star Progression for the trilogy = 3,2,1.

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Posted by on June 2, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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