Book Recommendation: India Discovered by John Keay

India Discovered
India Discovered by John Keay

Sometime in fourteenth century, the then Sultan of Delhi Feroz Shah cited a curious column in a village near Khizrabad (modern Haryana). Something was inscribed on it, but it was in a script he didn’t understand. He was quite taken by it though, and decided to move it to his capital Firozabad. It took efforts of thousands of men, but Sultan was committed and it got done. Then he sent for learned men, including many Brahmins and Hindu Devotees, and asked them to decipher the inscription. None of them succeeded.

Brahmi script was already forgotten by fourteenth century. Nobody knew of the now-famous Ashokan inscriptions that were strewn all over the country. And yet, today, in twenty-first century, we know all about them. We know exactly what they say. We also know enough about Ashoka’s life to make a daily serial out of it (not to take away the credit from amazing fiction writers involved with our television industry!!).

How did we figure all that out?

Did you curse under your breath in your History lessons that the founders of two different empires, separated by centuries (and birth of Jesus Christ), should both be called Chandragupta and try you in your exams? Take heart; the Chandraguptas confounded people who tried to piece together our history too.

That the way History is taught in our schools is broken is a foregone conclusion. But even as adults, when we fight over history, we often forget to ask how we know. And how much can we know for sure. Is whatever we know set in stone (despite the inscriptions, pardon me!)? We forget that nobody was recording history for us as it happened, much less so in India, and go on to talk about events from centuries or millenniums ago with the confidence of an eye-witness. We try to settle the questions that would affect millions of people today with the “experience of thousands of years”. We do not realize that we really do not have the memory of those years preserved neatly somewhere.

It in such moments of complacence and superciliousness that a book like India Discovered can help us to humility. We can then start questioning history, and our knowledge of it, a bit more. The book is not about history of India, but about how it was pieced together, especially with almost complete absence of any accessible historical documents of pre-Mohammedan period. And the story is as fascinating as it is enlightening. People have spent their lives (often cut short by their inability to adjust to Indian climate) traveling across the length and breadth of India. They have worked their bodies and mind to exhaustion and madness trying to decipher the old scripts. Some of the most fascinating work has been done by people purely out of passion, with no official backing and with personal finances. It is the story of those people and their work.

The book mostly covers the work done by people from 18th century to 1930s. And it traces the discovery of India as it appeared to European eyes. This requires me to put up a few clarifications about the book:

  1. Given the political situation of the period, most of the work was indeed done by Europeans, especially the people of British Raj. So, we need to keep our nationalistic pride aside and accept that a large part of our past was indeed re-discovered by them.
  2. It does not mean that Indian past was necessarily discovered by unsympathetic eyes. Yes, there was often a tendency to attribute any astonishing Indian achievement uncovered by studies to outside influence. The Brahmi script was initially conjectured to be bastardized Greek and Ajanta cave paintings done by ancient Egyptians! But a large number of people working on ground had more scholarly and scientific sentiments than those who needed to push an inferior race agenda for political purposes. Then there were some who were such fierce India apologists that they may put our modern-day nationalists to shame. There were also biases against Indian art and architecture, because it refused to fit into anything the incumbent European sensibilities could appreciate. But the findings and increasing appreciation of Indian life and culture pushed through those biases and ultimately shone.
  3. Since the book is written for a non-Indian audience, its style can get jarring at times. For example:
    1. He draws parallel from European and Mediterranean history to explain the importance of something Indian. It probably does make the subject accessible to the book’s intended audience, but I often have to rush to Google or wikipedia to figure out how important was that finding with which he is comparing the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization.
    2. Then there are episodes where you wonder how it would look to an Indian eye. The discovery of Buddhism’s origin in Indian seems to be a big deal. I wonder if it was a big deal only to the Europeans or to the Indians too? What about the countries where Buddhism was being practiced. The temple at Bodhgaya was in the custody of Brahmins. They reported some foreigners coming there with an old prayer books and reciting unintelligible prayers. They turned out to be Burmese Buddhists. So, Burmese Buddhists definitely knew about Bodhgaya and even the exact temple supposedly erected at the site of Buddha’s enlightenment. It is implied that the Brahmins didn’t recognize the Buddhists. But Buddha had supposedly been assimilated as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Did they know about that Buddha? Was he in the Indian religion consciousness? As an Indian these are the questions I wanted the answer for, but they were not addressed in the book.
    3. There are tales of people who studied and wrote about specific Indian population and helped Europeans understand Indian better. Someone wrote about Rajputs, someone about Sikhs, and someone about tribals. Was their work important for Indians too? Had we also forgotten the history and resplendence of Rajputs? Or was its importance limited to making Europeans appreciate India in its own right?

It is clear from reading the book that 200 odd pages are not sufficient to capture the story of the discovery of Indian history. It is also likely that the contribution of non-English people have been overlooked (purely a conjecture – I don’t know.) Discovery of South Indian history has not been adequately covered.

Despite all that, it makes for a very readable book that keeps you interested chapter after chapter. I know that nobody is going to listen to my recommendation of including it in History curriculum at our schools. But as readers you have control over your destiny. So, pick up the book. It is totally worth a read.

If you need motivation, try answering this. How do we know that those inscriptions are Ashokan? None of them mention King Ashoka.

Aside

  • I wonder how the temple of Bodhgaya was wrestled away from Brahmins? Try that at any place of worship today!
  • Don’t worry that reading about European discovery of Indian history will colonize your mind. The good Christians were as horrified at the nude sculptures and exaggerated sexuality of figures like yakshi as the self-appointed custodians of our culture today would be.
  • There is evidence that covering upper body was optional in Mauryan times, even for women. At least in that respect, our daily serial is not authentic.
  • All the statements about the Indian television should be consumed with salt to the taste.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

The Recovery of a Lost Civilization

Two hundred years ago, India was seen as a place with little history and less culture.Today it is revered for a notable prehistory, a magnificent classical age and a cultural tradition unique in both character and continuity. How this extraordinary change in perception came about is the subject of this fascinating book.

The story, here reconstructed for the first time, is one of painstaking scholarship primed by a succession of sensational discoveries. The excitement of unearthing a city twice as old as Rome, the realization that the Buddha was not a god but a historical figure, the glories of a literature as rich as anything known in Europe, the drama of encountering a veritable Sistine chapel deep in the jungle, and the sheer delight of categorizing ‘the most glorious galaxy of monuments in the world’ fell, for the most part, to men who were officials of the British Raj. Their response to the unfamiliar – the explicitly sexual statuary, the incomprehensible scripts, the enigmatic architecture – and the revelations which resulted, revolutionized ideas not just about India but about civilization as a white man’s prerogative.

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Short Book Review: The Sceptical Patriot by Sidin Vadukut

The Sceptical Patriot
SBR: High on intent, low on content. The idea is good. The Sceptical Patriot wants to find out how authentic the patriotic claims about India’s greatness you keep receiving  in email forwards and Facebook posts are. But there just isn’t enough content about the issue at hand for it make a book. It would have been better off published as an article. To create a book the content has been padded unbearably with personal anecdotes that have no connection whatsoever with questions at hand.
To read or not to read: Wait for a better book on the topic. Or try to find out if the author has written an article on the subject. That might be enough.

Book Recommendation: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Pardon me for my opening example, I have just come back from a feisty publishing conference.

“Amazon has gotten people used to low eBook prices.”

“People know what they want to pay!”

If you are someone who has used such a refrain, you need to stop and rethink. Although Economics 101 starts with demand and supply curve, which assumes that people know exactly how much value they can derive from a product or service, in reality people are highly unaware of it. How they decide how much they are willing to pay is not by weighing some intrinsic value of the object in question, but by what they have been anchored to believe they should pay.

If you have ever been thrown into a negotiation situation where you do not know what the ‘prevailing prices’ are, and hence have been hesitant to put a number on the table, you know that you don’t really know how much to pay for something.

In an experiment described in a book people were asked to write down last two digits of their social security numbers before answering how much would they be willing to pay for certain products. When the data was analyzed, people with their social security numbers ending in higher digits were willing to pay significantly more for the products than those who numbers ended in lower digits. There can’t possibly be any correlation between those two digits and the value of any product, say a bottle of wine. But when there is no other anchor, even something as arbitrary as last two digits of SSN becomes an anchor.

The idea that human beings are not really rational the way classical economists would want them to be surprises nobody other than those economists. So, a task like cataloging human irrationalities would hardly ever run its course, and would still be quite futile an exercise. What would they prove that we don’t already believe in? What makes this book – and several behavioral economics studies – interesting is that we aren’t just irrational, but we are irrational in very systematic ways. In many situations, therefore, the way we’d behave irrationally is predictable.

Why care? It helps in better decision-making, in understanding other people’s baffling decisions, and in avoiding the traps set up by sales and marketing professionals who have from experience or training have learned to exploit our predictable irrationalities.

The book is conversational and easy to read, although it does sometimes meanders into stories too much, as popular business and psychology books are wont to doing. But unless you are someone who already knows everything Daniel Kahneman has done, you should read this book. If you like what you see, you might then want to venture into Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman himself, which is a much more content-packed book.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website:

Why do our headaches persist after we take a one-cent aspirin but disappear when we take a fifty-cent aspirin?

Why do we splurge on a lavish meal but cut coupons to save twenty-five cents on a can of soup?

When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we’re making smart, rational choices. But are we?

In this newly revised and expanded edition of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

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Short Book Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin
SBR: There can be no doubt about the quality of writing given the Margaret Atwood’s reputation. But The Blind Assassin leads to nothing and is still super-long. So, it’s difficult to justify the time it takes to read the book. The suspense, which is the meat of the story, is manipulated, not natural at all. You feel cheated in the end.
To read or not to read: This is the only book by the author that I have read (decided to start with the Man Booker Prize winner!). But my guess is that I would have been better off reading something else. So would you, I think, unless you are a fan and want to read all of her books. In which case, go ahead!

Introducing Short Book Review (SBR)

I am starting a new series of posts on Worth a Read under the category Short Book Review (SBR). These posts will be what the name says – short book reviews, no more than a few sentences focusing on what was the best, the worst or the most important thing about the book.

No star ratings. The goal here is to indicate who should or should not read the book.

I’m not Afraid

I am not afraid

I’m not afraid

I’ve been scared of shadows
Fearful stalkers

I’ve been woken by nightmares
Gasping for air.

I’ve run away from a room full of people,
Deactivated and closed social media accounts.

I’ve avoided online forums,
Book club meets.

I‘ve covered my ears and shut my eyes,
Lived in fear for ages.

But worry no more
I’ve read all the books in the series.

I’m not afraid of spoilers now.

Article of the Week: Be careful, your love of science looks a lot like religion by Jamie Holmes

As one of the articles we have discussed earlier on this blog reveals, ignorance is mostly (confidence-inducing) misinformation and hence misinformation can be safely labelled as dangerous. Misinformation, as wise people declare with a knowing nod, is worse than no information. In a similar vein, a misinformed defender can be worse than an uninformed bystander or even a critic. Science and scientific methods seem to have quite a few such dangerous defenders. The article we have selected for this week should warn you against the beliefs that you may mistakenly think to be pro-scientific, but are really just the opposite, especially when science is fielded against religion and its dogmas.

The article quotes the results of some studies:

When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals.

and

Another study led by University of Amsterdam’s Bastiaan Rutjens in 2010 found that uncertain subjects expressed an increased faith in God o​r i​n evolution, provided that evolution was presented as a structured and predictable process.

It seems that we tend to accept science for the same (misguided?) reasons as religion. To feel “a reassuring sense of order”. One way in which this need for predictability and order reflects is by resorting to extremism, where the world is divided into good and evil, black and white, saints and sinners. Some use religion as a vehicle for expressing this extremism, and others can do the same with science too ( “Anything not statistically significant is truly worthless.”). The article reminds us that “psychology, not theology, is at the root of extremism.”

In case you think that while extremism with religion is dangerous, extremism with “science” is harmless or even desirable, take a step back; science is not about absolute beliefs.

If the moral authority of science is rooted anywhere it is in the opposing stance, in its acceptance of fallibility and its welcoming treatment of ambiguity and unknowns. That is where science finds its contrast with scientism and many religious perspectives.

Why does it matter to the general public? Because when our understanding of science and scientific methods does not accommodate uncertainties and fallibility, it bestows a legitimacy on dogma. And dogma is not science’s strong point!

If the public were more comfortable with degrees of scientific uncertainty, for one, then climate change “skeptics”—those merchants of doubt, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway dubbed them—wouldn’t be able to conflate so easily minor uncertainties with substantive disagreement.

Read the complete article at Quartz.

Invitation to Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) Party

BYOB Party Invite

It’s that time again for book-lovers and book-loving aspirants to meet  and party— bookish style. Bring a book you really like and talk about it. Food and drink is on the house! We have wonderful co-hosts this time in Vaishali and Arun from Reading Hour.

RSVP

FAQs

So, what really happens in a BYOB Party?

Everyone brings a book and talks about it. Conversations follow and they are good. So are the refreshments!

You can take a look at what happened in some of our earlier parties here:

Do I have to be there for the entire duration of four hours?

We aren’t closing doors or locking you in. But the party is best enjoyed if you are there for the entire duration and listen to people talk about a variety of books. Trust us, you won’t know how time flew.

Do I have to bring anything?

Nothing really. But if you have a copy of the book you want to talk about, you might want to bring it in. Other attendees might want to have a look, or you might want to read a paragraph from it.

I am an author. Can I bring a book written by me?

A good writer should be a voracious reader. It would be preferable if you brought a book you really like written by someone else,

Who are the organizers?

Worth a Read and Reading Hour.

Where is the party?

177-B, Classic Orchards Layout Phase 1
Bannerghatta Road, Behind Meenakshi Temple, Bangalore – 560076

I have more questions. Who do I contact?

Shoot an e-mail to jayajha@instascribe.com.

Okay! I am ready to come. What do I do?

Just RSVP here and turn up on time!

Book Recommendation: Ghumakkad Shashtra by Rahul Sankrityayan

Ghumakkad Shashtra
Ghumakkad Shashtra by Rahul Sankrityayan

I was in two minds about the book recommendation for this month. To recommend it or not to recommend it. The reason for the dilemma was that the book is written in Hindi and no English translation seems to be available. And because the book is not in public domain yet, venturing on a translation would require complicated rights negotiation.

But it is a book that provokes me. And some of you can read Hindi. So, I decided to make it the Book of the Month despite my hesitation. May the torch of “ghumakkad dharma” be kept aloft by the Hindi readers until an accessible English translation is made available.

What is a Ghumakkad?

Wanderer, traveller and nomad are some of the words that come to my mind as translations. And yet, thanks to the old, cliched problem of translations, none of them are quite what Ghumakkad means. A Ghumakkad is not purposeless like a wanderer, not formal like a a traveler and not tied to his herd like a nomad.

Ghumakkad is a devout follower of Ghumakkad Dharma. And Ghumakkad Shashtra is a textbook, a reference book, a how-to and a shashtra to aid that devout follower.

The author was what in today’s slang would be called a thorough badass. He had first ran away from home at the age of nine. He first started studying Buddhism so that he could denounce it in favor of the Arya Samaj’s interpretation of ancient Hindu religion. In the end he converted to Buddhism. Despite having little formal education, he was a polyglot who knew Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil, Kannada, Tibetan, Sinhalese, English, French and Russian. Despite that he favored Hindi as the national language of India. Because of that stand, he was expelled from the Communist party, although he was a staunch communist and a noted Marxist theoretician.

You have to be a badass to write a book like Ghumakkad Shashtra with a straight face. There is no apology for assuming that there is something called Ghumakkad Dharma and that it needs a Shashtra. And a shashtra it is, one that can put today’s how-to’s and “for dummies” books to shame with his detailed exploration of all the big and small aspects of Ghumakkadi.

I can almost imagine Pt. Rahul Sankrityayan speaking in an entrepreneurship conference today, telling young aspirants that they shouldn’t care for what the world would say, how mother would cry, how father would be disappointed and how marriage prospects would be ruined. He speaks to the aspiring  ghumakkads and not to the 21st century tech-entrepreneurs. If parents don’t understand your aspirations, how you could be a better person and how you could make a better contribution to the human race by being away from them, then it’s their problem.

He is brazen about things. Ghumakkads should not marry, and if they do the spouse must be a fellow ghumakkad. At no point of time should they try to come in each other’s way. If one is feeling restrained by the other they should be free to go ahead on their own. And under no circumstance should they grow the family. That’s the death of a Ghumakkad. You can almost see the book faltering here with lack of concrete advice. I am guessing that it was because birth control was not mainstream then. But it doesn’t fail to address the common societal concerns about not having children. Why worry about children? Look at the number of people in your caste and gotra. Too many people have already done enough to keep the clan going. What misery can befall the human race if a few ghumakkads decide not to have progeny? Talk about being ahead of his time. The decision to not have children raises eyebrows even in the 21st century, even amongst the most elite, most enlightened folks.

But this indifference to typical familial and societal imprisonment in the name of love does not mean that ghumakkads are heartless people. They love humanity. Their instant connection to and love for a fellow Ghumakkad is enviable. And they wander for the betterment of human race. They are the ones who have given us ancient travelogues; who have led to the synthesis and assimilation of various cultures; who have spread art, science and knowledge from one corner of the world to another. Today’s Ghumakkads must add to the tradition. They must write, take photos, create art and leave them behind for the world. But they shouldn’t be  fame-seekers. So long as their work benefits the world, a true Ghumakkad will not care if he gets the credit or not. Ghumakkad is the ultimate knowledge-seeker.

The societies that have produced and encouraged Ghumakkads have prospered. Those who have shunned them have deteriorated (how Indians made crossing the sea a sin and how backward our society became)!

So what if he is writing in the first half of the twentieth century? He doesn’t think that only men can be a follower of Ghumakkad Dharma. It is open to everyone, including women. He is convinced of the success of women emancipation. He has seen so many changes in just three generations that he doesn’t see the need for women to hold back. Yes – the society has a history of subjugating women and they might have a few more obstacles in their way. But what is a Ghumakkad if not the conqueror of mountains? And ditches and societal chains.

It’s a life lesson. What should you be doing from the age of 10 or 12 so that you can leave home and be a Ghumakkad by 20 is all covered there. Can  you give a challenge of the duration of JEE preparation for kids these days, do you think so? What do you do about money? How do you approach the backward tribes and the nomads? What about the fear of death? Can you still keep your religion if you are a Ghumakkad? Is there a best religion for Ghumakkads, that is if they need something other than Ghumakkad Dharma?

Some concerns are outdated. A lot more (all?) of the world is mapped now that was in his days. A lot of information about far-flung places is available on your fingertips. An updated shashtra would have instructions not only on how to make friends everywhere but also on how to get Internet access every now and then. An updated shastra would also not bother about how to preserve your diaries over the years, because you have to travel light. There is computer to type it in and there are Internet and cloud to back it up on.

I have overcompensated here for the lack of English translation of the book. I have been tempted to summarize. But I haven’t really done so. Your must taste the rasa of the shashtra on your own and dilute it by taking it through an intermediary, a poor intermediary at that.

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Article of the Week: We Are All Confident Idiots by David Dunning

The article I have selected for this week is by David Dunning, one of the pair after whom the Dunning-Kruger effect is named. For those who have not already searched wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

Basically when idiots think they are the bosses!

The article explores similar and related phenomena focusing on ignorance.

What is ignorance? We tend to think of it as unawareness about something (the dictionary also says something like this). But if we do so, we don’t truly comprehend the dangers and impact of ignorance.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This can explain what to me is one of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. That education doesn’t really work in fighting ignorance. If ignorance were absence of knowledge, education could have imparted knowledge and made people wiser. But since it is not the absence of knowledge  but misguided knowledge, all too often education ends up producing illusory confidence without disabusing people of their wrong ideas. The information that comes through education is bent to fit in with the sacrosanct beliefs people already hold, instead of challenging and changing it.

The article mentions an example, where people uninformed about nanotechnology were “educated” about it through a brief write-up. Before reading, their opinions on the impact of technology were unsure and all over the map. However, armed with education, their beliefs became more confident and also polarized. The polarization was guided by what they already believed in (details in the article).

There is another interesting mention of an experiment, where teaching people about evolution not only increased the percentage of people believing the right things about evolution, it also increased the percentage of those believing the wrong thing. They were confident about their wrong beliefs too!

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

The article does end with some advice on how to manage ignorance-generated confidence. Those I think will only work, as in the case with most advice, if the idea has been internalized by you and you can clearly see the misguided confidence not just in others, but in yourself too. Knowing what is going on can definitely be a first step towards it.

By the way, if after reading it you find that you can see it happening only to others and not to you, you might be bending the information to fit the sacrosanct belief you hold about yourself – that you are smarter than everyone else!

Read the complete article on Pacific Standard.