Article of the Week: Borderlands by Kai Friese

The beginning of the article is capable of challenging Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike.”

ALL NATIONAL BORDERS ARE IMAGINARY. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too.

It is customary to spout platitudes about nations, their glorious histories, their heart-stirring national anthems, their national characteristics and their bitter-sweet relationships with neighbours. So much that we tend to forget that nations are often accidents of history and there is nothing natural about them. Nowhere is it more apparent than the border areas, where a casual ink stroke has separated families and societies and natural economy arbitrarily into two nations, where it is impossible for people to live by  national ideals (and isolations) that inlanders in their comfortable homes and stable lives rejoice in.

As if an arbitrary boundary wall is not enough, there is the absurdity of chit mahals on India-Bangladesh border.

There are some 200 chhit mahals in all,  approximately 106 pockets of Indian territory inside Bangladesh and another 92 the other way around. Some are “counterenclaves”: an island of Bangladesh surrounded by India, surrounded by Bangladesh (or vice versa), and one, called Dahala Khagrabari # 51, is an Indian counter-counterenclave or, in the jargon of border management, an “adversely held third order enclave.” India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh.

And there are valid reasons of “national” politics for why the situation has not been remedied and people are stuck with their disconnected nationalities (and hence lack benefits, papers, identities and rights!). Na khuda hi mila, na visaal-e-sanam* is what it reminds me of.

People are killed, raped and mutilated in the normal course of the day – visiting their families and carrying out trade that makes perfect sense for the area, but which national ideals have declared illegal.

Read the entire story of borderland dwellers on n+1 magazine.

* I neither found God, nor achieved union with my love.

Article of the Week: Dr. Raghuram Rajan’s speech on Democracy, Inclusion, and Prosperity

The question that Dr. Raghuram Rajan, governer of RBI in his professor of political economy avatar, asks is

But how do countries ensure political freedom and economic prosperity? Why do the two seem to go together? And what more, if anything, does India have to do to ensure it has these necessary underpinnings for prosperity and continued political freedom?

Dr. Rajan starts by explaining Fukuyama’s three pillars of a liberal democratic state

  1. Strong Government: Strong government does not only mean one which has great military power or effective intelligence against enemies, but one that can provide effective and fair administration too. Dictatorships are usually weak governments. They can terrorize their citizens, but not provide good governance.
  2. Rule of Law: Government’s actions are constrained by rule of law, which might be enforced by religious, judicial or moral authority.
  3. Democratic Accountability: Government has to be popularly accepted.

Strong governments do not always move in the right direction.

Hitler provided Germany with extremely effective administration – the trains ran on time, as did the trains during our own Emergency in 1975-77. His was a strong government, but Hitler took Germany efficiently and determinedly on a path to ruin, overriding the rule of law and dispensing with elections.

Both rule of law and democratic accountability are needed to steer a strong government on the right path. (Why both? Read the explanation in the full text of the speech.)

Dr. Rajan then goes on to introduce a fourth pillar in his discussion – free enterprise.

Why are political freedoms in a country, of which representative democracy is a central component, and free enterprise mutually supportive?

It isn’t quite obvious that they should be. Democracy treats everyone equally. Free market system does not. Income and property decide an individual’s power in a free market system. But despite this difference there are certain circumstances in which they go hand and in hand.

(To) the extent that the rich are self-made, and have come out winners in a competitive, fair, and transparent market, society may be better off allowing them to own and manage their wealth, settling in return for a reasonable share of their produce as taxes. The more, however, that the rich are seen as idle or crooked – as having simply inherited or, worse, gained their wealth nefariously – the more the median voter should be willing to vote for tough regulations and punitive taxes on them.

The key, then, is level playing field. When there is a perception of fairness in competition, inequality does not breed resentment. Democracy and free market support each other by giving everyone the opportunity.

The level playing field, however, is easier hoped than achieved.

(In Western democracies) quality higher educational institutions are dominated by the children of the rich, not because they have unfairly bought their way in, but because they simply have been taught and supported better by expensive schools and private tutors. Because middle class parents do not have the ability to give their children similar capabilities, they do not see the system as fair.

This is something India needs to be careful about. Right now we are moving in the direction of providing level-playing field to more and more people by giving access to education. But it would not automatically remain so.

In the concluding part, Dr. Rajan makes an interesting point about India’s political situation. He is of the view that (despite many shortcomings), the checks and balances on the government is not in a bad shape. The rule of law and democratic accountability is functional here. But strong government is still wanted. This is a situation unique to India because in most parts of the world, strong governments have emerged first and checks and balances have followed.

Let me emphasize, we need “checks and balance”, but we should ensure a balance of checks. We cannot have escaped from the License Permit Raj only to end up in the Appellate Raj!

Read the complete speech on scroll.in.

Book Recommendation: God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar

God's Little Soldier
God’s Little Soldier

My first reaction after reading God’s Little Soldier was that if I could write something like that, I would take sanyas. Not just from reading and writing, but from every other vocation as well.

Let me set the record straight. I am not given to exaggerations; not while praising someone, not while criticizing. So, when I was so loquacious in my admiration of the book, it was because it had indeed impressed me deeply.

An upfront warning though. If you are prone to taking offence, don’t read this book. It has potential of offending people left and right. Nothing is sacrosanct once Nagarkar picks up his pen. No religion, no philosophy, no country, no society, no God, no human, not even rationality and liberalism. And it doesn’t happen because the book is deliberately provocative. No. All it does in bare the story called life for all to see (read)!

Subversion, wit and an expansive narration (spanning three major religions, four major countries and events like 9/11) are of course there in the book. But what makes me marvel most of all is just how many layers are packed in those six-hundred odd pages. Yes – I see you raising your eyebrows. That’s a big book going by the industry standards. But it’s not big for the story it tells. Or I should say stories?

You will find many stories in it.

There is the story of sibling relationship, swinging to and for with sibling rivalry and loathing on one extreme, and fraternal affection and longing on the other.

There is the story of dangerous genius. He is capable of doing whatever he sets his mind to. Mostly, he just wants to save the world. But he is focused and single-minded to destruction, his own and everybody else’s. He always knows the right from the wrong. He doesn’t need to see somebody else’s point of view. They don’t measure up to his exacting standards. They are not worthy. And you are forced to face the dreadful question. Who will save the world from the genius?

If the single-minded genius destroying everything life-affirming is too dark for you, there is also the story of his reasonable, conscientious, moderate sibling. He is filled with doubts. Reasonable doubts, I must add. He finds it necessary to question every dogma, and rationally so. He is a humanist, adoringly so. But his reasonable doubts, rational questioning, and infinite humanism are strong to the point of being debilitating.

And there, dear world, lies your choice. Your only choice. And like the rational sibling declares somewhere in the book, whatever choice you make will be the wrong one.

If you had to look up to someone who would you look up to?

The self-assured, charming genius, who has one single goal in life to exclusion of everything else, who is sure of that being the only worth goal for everyone, and who has the ability, conviction and single-minded focus to achieve his goal irrespective of the collateral damage? Or the one who would need your reassurances and must be forced into a leadership role by the followers, who would never see one solution as the right one and constantly weigh pros and cons for different people, who would always see more than everyone else, who would confuse you to no end with his if’s and but’s, and who would do the best-possible thing, only if he can make up his mind to push for something at all?

We don’t have great options, do we? But I’m afraid I have digressed. Leadership questions weren’t on the mind of the author. But I could not help seeing the story that was on my mind in the book. I think that is the beauty of the book.

One of the most important and direct ideas the book puts forward is about religious extremists. Extremism is religion in itself. Extremists will find reasons to be cruel and violent in any religion. They usually just latch into the religion they are born into. But really, any other religion would have done just fine by them. Although it is sort of fantastic on author’s part to have the same character being fanatic under the umbrella of different religions, but that serves to elucidate the idea even better. The moderate sibling blatantly opines, ‘You remained faithful to your religion, the religion of extremism.’

There are many, many more stories. Of the charms and perils of Bollywood, of the writer’s struggles, of a family trying to adjust to reduced circumstances, of God(s) found and lost, of business, of politics… But it would not do to recommend a book for reading and tell you everything about it.

There is another warning before you pick it up. The book can be baffling. It isn’t always realistic or reasonable. The central character doesn’t grow at all. He remains the same throughout the book. The amount of kindness and forgiveness this monstrous genius receives from everyone around him is hard to believe, and so is the number of disparate (mostly destructive) things he manages to do in one lifetime. But don’t judge the book on that basis. It isn’t supposed to be judged on that basis.

Yes – the book is big, but it is worth a read. It’s okay if you have to skip some thinner bestsellers to finish this. The one time I got to ask a question to the author, I could not help asking how he managed to avoid getting banned. His rather self-effacing, but probably correct, reply was to the effect that not enough people have read the book for it to attract attention. That’s rather sad. Not the book escaping ban, but that it has not been read much more widely. Despite the fact that it isn’t some obscure indie publication (Harper Collins in the publisher) and that an earlier book by the author- Cuckold – was a Sahitya Academy Award winner.

Cato the Reader’s Favorite Quotes

Cato the ReaderCato the Reader brings you some of his favorite quotes from the book.

1

If I could teach you anything, he told his pupils and apprentices, I would teach you irreverence. Irreverence towards your guru, irreverence towards all and sundry, but most of all irreverence towards yourself and your solemnities.

2

But blasphemy is always tempting. It is, after all, the first experience of freedom.

3

There is only one God and Her name is Life. She is the only one worthy of worship.

4

If you don’t know your fundamentals, it’s going to cripple your imagination, your concepts and your architecture. Not you but somebody else will pronounce whether something you want can be done or not.

5

Nostalgia is not just selective memory, it is the reinvention of the past as it never was.

6

It is the law of God, or nature, if you prefer, that pain, suffering and grief cannot be transferred by proxy. Neither empathy not sympathy but experience alone is the valid currency of affliction. It alone makes you a card-holding member and allows you to join the club of the wretched of the earth. All else is counterfeit.

Book Description

Below you will find the description of the book from the publisher’s site.

From the backstreets of Bombay to the hallowed halls of Cambridge, from the mountains of Afghanistan to a monastery in California, the story of Zia Khan is an extraordinary rollercoaster ride; a compelling cliffhanger of a spiritual quest, about a good man gone bad and the brutalization of his soul.

Growing up in a well-to-do, cultured Muslim family in Bombay, Zia, a gifted young mathematician, is torn between the unquestioning certainties of his aunt’s faith and the tolerant, easy-going views of his parents.

At Cambridge University, his beliefs crystallize into a fervent orthodoxy, which ultimately leads him to a  terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The burden of endemic violence and killings, however, takes its toll on Zia. Tormented by his need for forgiveness, he is then drawn reluctantly to Christ. But peace continues to elude him, and Zia is once again driven to seek out causes to defend and fight for, whatever be the sacrifices involved.

Posited against Zia is his brother, Amanat, a writer whose life is severely constrained by sickness, even as his mind is liberated by doubt. Theirs is a relationship that is as much a blood bond as it is an opaque wall of incomprehension. Weaving together the narratives of the extremist and the liberal, God’s Little Soldier underscores the incoherent ambiguities of good and evil, and the tragic conflicts that have riven people and nations.

Purchase Links

Other Books By the Author

Finally, if God’s Little Soldier is not quite your kind of book, you should still give a try to some other books by the author. Because one thing is certain. All his works are very different from each other. My affair with Nagarkar had started with Cuckold. The narrative is more conventional and less jarring here, the story is clear, but the genius (of the writer) isn’t missing. Ravan and Eddie and its sequel The Extras are hilarious but subversive and bold at the same time. The third part of the series is Rest in Peace: Ravan and Eddie. His first novel in Marathi Saat Sakkam Trechalis is considered a milestone in the language’s literature and English translation goes by the name Seven Sixes are Forty Three. I am yet to read his recently released Bedtime Story. Needless to say, the anticipation is palpable! Another novel — Jasoda — is also out now.

Article of the Week: Cognitive Celebrity by Matthew Francis

Einstein was – like all of us – a bundle of contradictions, someone who behaved well sometimes and badly at others. As a world-famous scientist, he had a louder amplifier than an ordinary person, but if we expect a genius to be somehow fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, studying Einstein’s life and opinions will disappoint.

And as is always the case with scientific geniuses, Einstein’s theories would exist even if he had not. Special relativity, general relativity, and the photon model of light might not have been developed by the same individual, butsomeone would have sussed them out. Henri Poincaré, Hendrik Lorentz and others worked out much of relativity before 1905, just as Gottfried Leibniz independently worked out the calculus in parallel with Newton, and Alfred Russel Wallace developed natural selection in isolation from Charles Darwin. Historians of science once subscribed to a ‘Great Man’ theory, but we now know that transformative ideas emerge from the work of many talented individuals, instead of emerging ex nihilo from one brilliant mind.

Read the complete article: Cognitive Celebrity by Matthew Francis