Book Recommendation: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj MishraWhether it makes you feel rambunctious, resigned or resentful, the reality is that in the modern world the only perspective on history, political discourse as well as moral imperatives that commands legitimacy has been the western one. The reason for that is not profound or surprising. It is the old story of history being written by the victors. And despite the decolonization in the 20th century and waxing and waning fortunes of individual nations, the West, as a whole, has managed to remain powerful in the world order. So has their perspective.

The resentful attempts at reverting this intellectual domination shoot themselves in the foot by failing to distinguish between the message, the messenger, and the method (of arriving at that message). They disparage the message, because it came from the western messenger, and as far as the method is concerned, who cares? At least in India, we have known everything since Vedic times. These attempts also tend to be very narrow in their outlook. Their wet dream would be to replace the western domination of ideas with their own. It isn’t aimed at exploring and accepting multiple different perspectives before trying to come up with a universal theory if one is at all possible. At their core, these attempts are defensive and expose deep-seated insecurity and inferiority complex.

In this context From the Ruins of Empire is an important book.

It is Important because it challenges the western perspective by using the methods that have legitimacy in the modern world (you can call them “western” if you will). The result is a book that isn’t marred by defensiveness or any kind of inferiority or superiority complex. It doesn’t feel the need to achieve an outright victory for an alternate perspective, but it goes out and states the perspective boldly.

As far as the content is concerned, the book follows the history of Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which first saw its subjugation by Europe and then independence in one form or the other. But more importantly, it traces the evolution of Asian thought through the period. Here we see the birth, evolution, struggles, contradictions, adaptations, appropriations and suppression of ideas like Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, value of Confucianism or ancient Indian thoughts, Islamic Revival and others which played an important role in resistance to the West. Many of these don’t get enough attention in the conventional narratives. Even in the Asian countries themselves. In India, for example, the desperate need of nation-building after independence has led to a flattening of the history – the creation of a simplified story starring bad foreigners and good freedom fighters. The inconvenient and nuanced thoughts, even when native, are suppressed or completely removed. We sing Tagore’s national anthem but do not know the apprehensions he had about nation states. The West has, of course, done its own whitewashing. By bringing all that out this books gives the various non-western perspective of history strong legs to stand on. Western intellect has not given us all the answers we need. At the same time, bravely, this book recognizes that the alternate perspective doesn’t really give all the answers the modern world needs either. The following quote is an important one:

The rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.

Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future.

It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

We need more books like these, covering more aspects of history, politics, economy, and morality of it all.

Book Description

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

Viewed in the West as a time of self-confident progress, the Victorian period was experienced by Asians as a catastrophe. As the British gunned down the last heirs to the Mughal Empire or burned down the Summer Palace in Beijing, it was clear that for Asia to recover a new way of thinking was needed. Pankaj Mishra re-tells the history of the past two centuries, showing how a remarkable, disparate group of thinkers, journalists, radicals and charismatics emerged from the ruins of empire to create an unstoppable Asian renaissance, one whose ideas lie behind everything from the Chinese Communist Party to the Muslim Brotherhood, and have made our world what it is today.

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Other Books by the Author

I haven’t read any other books by the author, but here is a list on his wikipedia page. Many of them have received great acclaim.

 

 

Article Recommendation: The Fallacy of Success by G. K. Chesterton

The reason I am recommending this excerpt from All Things Considered by G. K. Chesterton is not because it says something that nobody else is saying today. But because he said it over a hundred years ago.

There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success.

So it turns out that self-help books and their nothingness are not a malaise that has appeared only recently. And nor is the need to caution people against them particularly modern.

So if you are not convinced against self-help books in modern way and would rather partake some ancient wisdom, read The Fallacy of Success by G. K. Chesterton.

Article Recommendation: The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

Now here is an article that calls a spade a spade. The spade here is management theories and education. Management education started with Frederik Taylor, whose theories have fallen into disrepute and are taught, at best, in “the history of management theory” lessons, but business education that he propagated has continued to prosper and so have continued the rise and fall of management theories.

In the spring of 1908, Taylor met with several Harvard professors, and later that year Harvard opened the first graduate school in the country to offer a master’s degree in business.

Although it is usually the same two concepts that keep coming up in new garbs adorned by new buzzwords.

Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.

And the entire discipline manages to escape any kind of accountability.

The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year.

But don’t MBA programs create those highly paid executives?

Management education confers some benefits that have little to do with either management or education. Like an elaborate tattoo on an aboriginal warrior, an M.B.A. is a way of signaling just how deeply and irrevocably committed you are to a career in management. The degree also provides a tidy hoard of what sociologists call “social capital”—or what the rest of us, notwithstanding the invention of the PalmPilot, call a “Rolodex.”

And

For companies, M.B.A. programs can be a way to outsource recruiting.

Read The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart.

Book Recommendation: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

The Illicit Happiness Of Other PeopleThe Illicit Happiness of Other People is melancholy, humorous and philosophical, all at the same time.  When I first read the book a few weeks ago, I found the first few chapters a drag. I was, perhaps, wondering why I am being presented with bits and pieces of a decently smart, but an intellectually megalomaniacal teen’s philosophy, which, in its entirety, would most likely be borrowed wisdom that sounds profound, but means nothing. I held on because the writing was good and the dig at the typical middle-class Madrasi’s life* humorous. I am glad I did. I read the initial chapters again recently to see if there were other reasons for finding them such a drag. Surprisingly, I no longer found them so, perhaps because by the time the novel ends, the author ties up many of the threads he introduces in these chapters. So I was discovering a purpose in them now.

The philosophy of Unni Chacko, the dead teenager around whom the plot revolves, won’t help you find the ultimate truth, but it will make you smile, or think or wonder if there is any difference between wisdom and mental illness and what really defines normal vs. delusional.

Ruminate over the following, if you like.

It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity.

Or this.

Truth usually shows humanity in a poor light.

And here is the delusion explained.

The fundamental quality of a delusion is that it is contagious. The very purpose of every delusion is to transmit itself to other brains. This is how a delusion survives. On the other hand, truth can never be transmitted, truth can never travel from one brain to another. Movement is a quality of delusion alone.

In case you are wondering why?

Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system in unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.

And sainthood deflated.

The distinction between a delusion and a lie is the very difference between a successful saint and a fraud.

And if you thought language was the best thing that happened to humankind.

Language was created by nature to guard its secrets, not to reveal them. We are trapped in language. Even thought has become language.

The reference to a wife plotting to kill her blissfully unaware anarchist husband (overstated) in the book description, a cartoon for the cover and the publisher calling it a ‘darkly comic’ story gives an impression of a very different kind of book. You might go in expecting a satire. But that’s not the case. There a dry, dark humor in the book, but it is very different from satire. The overall tone, in fact, in rather pessimistic despite the humor and wit. It is possible to get depressed with the wise pessimism. But you will survive it. Do read the book.

Book Description

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

Seventeen-year-old Unni Chacko has done something terrible. The only clue to his action lies in a comic strip he has drawn, which has fallen into the hands of his father Ousep, an anarchist. Ousep begins investigating the extraordinary life of his son, blissfully unaware that his long-suffering wife is plotting to kill him. Set in Madras in 1990, this is a darkly comic story involving the relentless pursuit of a failed writer who has found purpose, an adolescent cartoonist’s dangerous interpretation of truth, the plots of a brilliant housewife, and the pure love of a twelve-year-old boy for a beautiful girl.

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Other Books by the Author

Manu Joseph’s first book Serious Men was widely praised and won multiple awards. I have not read it, but by all indications, it is a satire worth reading.

  • It could have been a dig at the typical middle-class life pretty much anywhere in India, except perhaps Karnataka, where the JEE craze was not there, at least until a decade ago.

Book Recommendation: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell JarI recommend this book with some trepidations and a trigger warning. If you are prone to depression this book may hit close to home. It is not surprising that the novel is partly autobiographical. The picture Sylvia Plath paints of the world inside a depressed young girl’s head is so vivid that only someone who has experienced it first hand could know it. And her talent with words ensures that what words express is faithful to what really goes on in the head.

The book was published in 1963 and one has to be thankful that the understanding of mental health issues are much better today and somebody with an issue like Esther Greenwood’s in the novel might get a better treatment.  But the universal interest I have in mind in recommending this book is that it can help the reader understand the situation depression puts someone in. If you find yourself shaking your head at the fatalistic way in which the protagonist behaves and just can’t get a head or tail of her motivations, then know that she can’t either. And that’s how depression works. It can help you cope and help better if, God forbid, someone close to you is suffering from depression. It should also be treated as a warning against stigmatizing mental health problems, which is far too common in our society. Reaching out for treatment and help if one is depressed is nothing to be ashamed about.

Apart from all these, the work is eminently read-worthy for the beautiful writing too.

Book Description

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

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel is partially based on Plath’s own life and descent into mental illness, and has become a modern classic. The Bell Jar has been celebrated for its darkly funny and razor sharp portrait of 1950s society and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

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Book Recommendation: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

One Part WomanEveryone knows about the controversial novel One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan thanks to the hooliganism of the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture. But controversy, although it introduced me to the book, is not why I am recommending it here. The reason for the recommendation is simple. It is a beautiful story and a well-written one. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan reads smooth, and hence even though I can’t read the original, I am convinced that it does justice to the original work.

The descriptions and the characters transport you hundred years back to the little, sleepy village in Tamilnadu, which is the scene of the aching story. In a time and society where children are the sole reason and purpose of a marriage, and fertility treatments are several decades into the future, what happens to the lives of a childless couple? The medicines are not working. The gods ae not listening. Another tradition offers a way out. A tradition that acknowledges the primal emotions and instincts, as well as the social necessities. But already, at the time of the story, the morality is changing. The tradition may not be conducive to a “modern” couple’s relationship.

You get sucked into Kani and Ponna’s love, their pain and their dilemma. And before you know it, it has become your own story, the story of people around you. The struggle for living up to societal expectations, the cruelty in the event of failure, the difficult choices presented, occasional philosophical realization of the futility of it all, it is everyone’s story. Read it.

Book Description

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

All of Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child—from prayers to penance, potions to pilgrimages—have been in vain. Despite being in a loving and sexually satisfying relationship, they are relentlessly hounded by the taunts and insinuations of the people around them. Ultimately, all their hopes and apprehensions come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara and the revelry surrounding it. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. Acutely observed, One Part Woman lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.

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Book Recommendation: City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

 

City of SpiesBelated Post for May 2016

City of Spies by Sorayya Khan has a surprisingly benign and soothing spirit to it belying the turbulent times and events it is set in. The point of view is also curious. It isn’t that of an insider defending Pakistan. It isn’t one of an outsider berating it either. The protagonist – a young girl – is simultaneously an insider and an outsider. There isn’t much of a plot in the story, and things that do happen are mostly historically known. But it keeps you riveted to the pages (screen in my case, as I read it on Kindle). The reason is that the protagonist Aliya’s struggle to make sense of the world around her is not only her own. We all struggle with that, and not just as children or adolescents. But well into our adulthood, perhaps all our lives.

It is coming of age story for people of all ages. Not to be put aside as meant only for young adults.

Book Description

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

‘God was everywhere, but so was the general.’

It is the summer of 1977 and Pakistan swelters in the unrelenting heat. Weeks after her eleventh birthday, Aliya Shah wakes up to the news that there has been a coup d’état, General Zia has taken over the country and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail. Although the shadow of the general and his increasingly puritanical edicts threaten to disrupt their comfortable existence, life goes on for Aliya much as before as she attends the American
School in Islamabad.

However, when a much loved young boy, the son of the family retainer, dies tragically in a hit-and-run accident, her world is turned upside down, especially when she discovers the terrible secret of the murderer’s identity.

City of Spies is coming-of-age story that explores Aliya’s conflicting loyalties and her on-going struggle to make sense of her world. Set in late 1970’s Islamabad and Lahore, City of Spies is a gripping novel that unfolds over thirty months in Pakistan’s tumultuous history.

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Book Recommendation: The King’s Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshtha

The King's HarvestThe book contains two novellas An Open-and-Shut Case and the eponymous The King’s Harvest. Don’t look at the hype and the sales numbers and this is easily one of the best English-language books to come out of India. The writing is adroit, literary merit of the text considerable and the juxtaposition of the dark and the criminal with the innocent and the straightforward is hair-raising and heart-tugging at the same time. The vivid elucidation of not just what is picturesque about Sikkim, but also of its towns and villages, police stations and homes, people and their ambiguous characters and moralities is the cherry on the top. While it is unambiguously a “book from Sikkim”, the last one makes it relatable to all, especially those who have grown up in small places.

You can read and understand the stories in many ways. Since that is one of the charms of the books, I am not going to tell you what all I read in the book. I must confess I felt overwhelmed at times. But you must read it and decide for yourself!

The hardcover edition that I read has also been produced beautifully. The cover is bewitchingly beautiful and interiors are well-done too.

Book Description

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

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, in a village above the Rangeet river in Sikkim, a woman called Kamala hacks her husband, Police Constable Puran, into forty-seven pieces, then walks to the nearby police station and turns herself in. At first, the murder seems an open-and-shut case to Dechen, the tough, foul-mouthed, prickly lady cop in-charge of the investigation. But as she begins to delve into the lives of Kamala and Puran, she discovers a world of lies, deceit and love gone wrong, where nothing is as it seems, and the guilt of murderers is difficult to establish.

On a day of endless rain, a man emerges from thirty-two years of isolation to meet his king, whom he owes a share of the harvest from his fields. Journeying across leech-infested forests and forbidding valleys, he tells his children the story of his life one that has been full of drama and magic. But the biggest miracle of all awaits him in Gangtok…

These two novellas, united by their strong sense of place, showcase Chetan Raj Shresthas enormous gifts as a storyteller. Magical, gritty, nerve-wracking and stylish in equal measure, this is an exceptional debut.

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Book Recommendation: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

DoctorZhivagoDoctor Zhivago is the ultimate commentary on the romance of revolution. It takes you through the hopes and the expectations, through the act itself, and then through the aftermath. What is important about this novel is that it is not the voice of a skeptic from the outside who says “I-told-you-so”, but that of an insider who has seen those dreams and who mourns their demise, but can’t unsee the demise any more than the child in the first chapter can undo the death of his mother. This insider is not the perpetrator. What happens to him is just a side-effect. However, the side-effect is what happens to most of the people. And that’s why the story is poignant.

What you experience is not the heady rush of the idealists, so sure of themselves that the wrongs done to the individuals and chaos created in the society not only feels acceptable, but even desirable to them, but the helplessness of those who are swept away in the heady rush. They may be simple people either unable to comprehend the nuances of the changing world and hence losing, or seeing, at least, the short-term opportunities, however unprincipled, presented to them, and  turning it to their advantage. They may be intellectuals, losing because their intellect revolts against the defilement of high ideals, or winning because they turn their intellect to making the best of the changed circumstances. Our protagonist is the former kind of intellectual, presumably, representing the author himself. But you encounter all sorts of people through his journey and you find it easy to forget that behind all this was some high ideal trying to undo the earlier wrongs.

This is also the personal story of Zhivago right from his childhood, his coming of age, his family and romantic ties and his relationship with people, including multiple women. None of it is unaffected by the political and social upheavals, though. You have to wonder if the love story of the novel, the relationship of Lara and Zhivago would have aroused the tender feelings it did if the circumstances were normal.

Cato the Reader’s Favorite Excerpts

Cato the ReaderThe philosophy of the book charmed Cato the Reader and here are some his favorite excerpts.

1

But what is consciousness? Let’s see. To try consciously to go to sleep is is a sure way to have insomnia, to try to be conscious of one’s own digestion is a sure way to upset the stomach. Consciousness is a poison when we apply it to ourselves. Consciousness is a beam of light directed outwards, it lights the way ahead of us so that we don’t trip up. It’s like the head lamps on a railway engine – if you turn the beam inwards, there would be a catastrophe.

2

It’s only in a family quarrel that there is a beginning — and after people have pulled each other’s hair and smashed the crockery they try to think who it was that started it. What is truly great is without beginning, like the universe. It confronts us suddenly as if it had always been there or as if it had dropped out of the sky.

3

But such things keep their original purity only in the minds of those who have conceived them, and then only on the day they are first published. By the day after, the casuistry of politics has turned them inside out.

4

It’s only in bad novels that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up! Don’t you think you’d have to be a hopeless nonentity to play only one role all your life, to have only one place in society, always to stand for the same thing?

5

Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life — they have never felt its breath, its heart — however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material which needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded. If you want to know life, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my theories about it.

6

History is not made by anyone. You cannot make history; nor can you see history, any more than you can watch the grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kinds and Robespierres, are history’s organic agents, its yeast. But revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. The overturn the old order in a few hours or days; the whole upheaval takes a few weeks or at most years, but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website. (I read a different translation and edition.)

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Book Recommendation: English August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

English August“Marvellously intelligent and entertaining” – one of the reviews printed on the back cover of English August says and I concur. Profanity, sexual jokes, and scatological humor abound, the protagonist is drunk and stoned almost every single moment, you feel like whacking him for being an indulgent, self-absorbed, spoiled youth who doesn’t take anything or anybody seriously; and yet you can’t help but see the world through his eyes –  in all its mundane, petty and purposeless glory.

You can decide what to make of the book. You can laugh out loud and forget about things. You can identify with the protagonist’s sense of purposelessness and isolation if you have been or are going through a similar experience yourself. You can wonder about the big, fat Indian bureaucracy, its lethargy and its corruption. You can hate our hero for being apathetic to a job where he could impact several lives meaningfully if only he would stop being cynical. And that is the beauty of the writing. It doesn’t preach or impose anything on you.

English August is a true modern Indian novel. There is no romanticization of either the good or the bad. There are no exotic, dreamy portrayals. No ultimate happy union of the east and the west, of the megalopolis and the hinterland, of the Kolkata-and-Delhi-boy and the small-town locals.  It is an affectionate yet unsparing portrayal of India.

In its craft, language and style, it stands right along with the best English novels worldwide.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website. (The edition I read was from Rupa and Co.)

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