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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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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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Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an EmpireIndian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann

My Rating★★★★☆

Tunzelmann has concocted a very readable and balanced history of the last days of Empire. Tunzelmann avoids demonizing any sect, individual or nation and shows the circuitous routes through which every decision was squeezed out, many tragedies averted and many more inadvertently precipitated.

He shows the human frailties and noble aspirations of all of the major participants and does not shirk away from exploring the controversial bullheadedness of Gandhi or from going into great detail about the relationship between Nehru and the Mountbattens, especially the amorous ones.

This was perhaps the best handled of all the topics by Tunzelmann – he weaves an almost spiritual love story between Nehru and Edwina that borders on the outrageous but always forces the reader to forgive two extraordinarily humane characters who happened to need each other a bit too much. Even Jinnah and Patel (and Churchill – if only he had met Nehru or Gandhi in person a bit earlier than when he did!) who are often slotted as extremists show their emotional sides and it does feel like Tunzelmann gives them their due – enough blame but also enough praise.

Tunzelmann does dwell too much on the Mountbattens – almost to the extend that the reader might well start imagining that they were the Empire that the book is meant to talk about and their “secrets” were the “Secret” that the subtitle of the book boasts about. If that is the case, the book does indeed uncover some welcome secrets about the end of “Empire”.

But, from a political and historic standpoint, there were not many secrets that Tunzelmann brings to the fore. He does throw light on some of the most-discussed events such as the drawing of the Kashmir boundary lines, the allocation of Punjab districts, the annexation of Hyderabad etc and how all of these were such intensely personal decisions – different people at the helm might have resulted in drastically different outcomes – they were less politically motivated than emotionally driven.

For these insights, Indian Summer was a thoroughly readable and unbiased book and well worth reading to understand the inscrutable and amazing human actors that populated one of the most dramatic events of the century.

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

 

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