Short Book Review: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu

SBR: The Birth of the Maitreya is the English translation of a book by Bani Basu which is considered a modern Bengali classic. But I didn’t really like the book. I went through it because I want to learn more about the different period of India history, and I like historical fiction as a vehicle. Set in the time of Buddha and tracing the politics and intrigues of the different Indian kingdoms of the time, especially Bimbisara’s Magadha and Prasenjit’s Kosala with a dash of Takshashila and Avanti, the book’s canvas and the complexities it attempts of tackle are admirable. But the characters are confused mix of traits, motivations, and stages of mental development; and the descriptions of the courts, bazaars, people’s wealth and social settings appear to be an appeal to our fantasies more than an attempt to recreate realistic history. Modern concerns of nationalism, feminism, tribal issues, science have been unabashedly spouted by characters situated in a very different era. Discussion of timeless or contemporary issues through historical fiction is an admirable goal, but its execution is not easy and the attempt doesn’t succeed in the book.

To read or not to read: No. Unless, like me, you are also on a mission to read everything related to Indian history or historical fiction.

Short Book Review: Europe – A History by Norman Davies

SBR: As the name suggests Europe – A History is a book on European history from the earliest time right up to the 1990s. It is one of the most recommended popular history books on the subject and it assumes that mantle very responsibly. Readable and comprehensive, it avoids one of the most common pitfalls of the popular history books, which devote too much space to modern history – reflecting the abundance of the source material rather than the relative importance of a period. The space devoted to different periods is much more balanced here. The histories of many modern nations of Europe are so intricately connected with each other that reading national histories may not make much sense if you don’t have an idea of the overall history of the continent. A book like this comes in very handy when you hit that wall.

To read or not to read: Yes, if you are interested in the subject, i. e. European History.

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.

Purchase Links

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.



Short Book Review: A History of Cambodia by David P. Chandler

A History of Cambodia by David P. ChandlerSBR: My luck with reading histories continued as I started reading A History of Cambodia by David P. Chandler. Like A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins that I read earlier, this book about Cambodia was just suitable for my purpose. The purpose was to get an overall introduction to the history of the country in a readable language and within a reasonable length of the text. I should have read it before our Cambodia trip a year and a half ago. But we acquired this book only in Cambodia and after returning back, it kept getting pushed down the to-read pile. But it resurfaced finally, and I am glad it did. Like other books of this type, this also devotes a large amount of space to modern history. But in Cambodia’s case, I am not complaining, because it is a history that is still playing out and it helped put a lot of what we saw there in context.
To read or not to read: Yes – as a good starting point for or as a quick overview of Cambodian history.

Short Book Review: A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins

A Brief History of France by Cecil JenkinsSBR: Unlike in the case of Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the book I picked up to get an overview of French history turned out to be suitable for this purpose. A Brief History of France is readable with clear chronology and just the right amount of information. If you are not familiar with European history in general, you would have to do an Internet search once in a while for related events or people. But that is bound to happen while reading any book on history. There is no way an author can account for what all their readers do or do not know already. Don’t expect thoroughness, but everything major seems to have been covered. It does lean a bit too heavily towards modern history and compresses the ancient one too much. But that is a minor complain when the aim to get a quick and brief overview.
To read or not to read: Yes – as a good starting point for or as a quick overview of French history.

Short Book Review: A History of Sri Lanka by K. M. De Silva

A History of Sri Lanka by K. M. De SilvaSBR: The idea behind picking up a book on Sri Lankan history was to get a broad overview in preparation for our trip (since concluded), and not really research it to hell and beyond. Although I slogged through it, this wasn’t a book suitable for that purpose. Too much back and forth in chronology, too many details about land, taxes, bureaucracy and economic policy which was difficult to understand, and overall a difficult-to-follow narrative. Perhaps the book was meant for professional historians, and not for an unsuspecting layperson. That said, I did finish the book and got an idea of the nuances of Sri Lankan history.
To read or not to read: Not unless you are a professional historian. Find some other concise and readable book for a lay audience.

Short Book Review: India: A History by John Keay

India: A History by John KeaySBR: John Keay’s India Discovered was an eye-opening read for me. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I picked up India: A History when I wanted a refresher on Indian history for myself. This book is as charmingly written and accessible as India Discovered. No complaints on that front. There were some annoyances for me. Sometimes the fact that it was a book written by a British for a largely western audience was too much in my face and I wanted to read those things from an Indian perspective instead. Also, there are many instances where certain people, incidents, ideas just pop-up without adequate background. Sometimes I find them to be important ideas whose background was essential. But overall, no history book can satisfy all kinds of audiences. There are trade-offs to be made between being detailed, but huge and unreadable and being concise at the cost of losing some information or nuance. There are also trade-offs between viewpoints to be adopted. Finally, there is a trade-off between being opinionated and readable vs. being dry with a pretense of total objectivity. If some trade-offs rattled me, others worked very well.
To read or not to read: Yes, not as “the” book on Indian history, but definitely as an accessible starting point or refresher.

Short Book Review: Viet Nam – A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan

Viet Nam - A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben KiernanSBR: The point of reading Viet Nam – A History from Earliest Times to the Present was to acquaint myself with the history of the country before our trip in last November. That purpose was served, but the book was not the best I could have picked up for a quick overview. When the sources are available, it becomes so detailed that sometimes I wondered if I was reading the original source itself! It doesn’t do much justice to the history of central and southern Vietnam before the northern Viets overran the areas. Unfortunately, books on complete Vietnamese history are difficult to search, because search results are overwhelmingly dominated by the plethora Vietnam-America war books. That’s how I ended up picking up this one because I wanted an overview of the entire history and it was one of the few that cropped up.
To read or not to read: Not for a quick overview. Search elsewhere.

Short Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah HarariSBR: I once jokingly summarized Sapiens by saying that we fu**ed up wherever we went and we take ourselves too seriously. Or perhaps I wasn’t joking at all. That’s what it says. But the beauty of the book is that it is accessible and easy to read. The author has not tried to attempt writing in a way that will pass scholarly muster. And that may make you uncomfortable where he is talking about things you may have in-depth knowledge of (for example it wasn’t satisfying for patriarchy to be declared universal without even a mention of matriarchal societies we do know of and any attempt to understand why they were different). But one book can’t be everything to everybody. And what this book is, makes it worth a read. But beware. If you are devoted to the idea of a meaningful life, this book may annoy you, or in the worst case even depress you. Human life has no meaning, the book declares blithely (and I agree). The author still seems to find some solace in Buddhism (which I don’t!).
To read or not to read: Yes.

Short Book Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving StoneSBR: The Agony and the Ecstasy – a novel based on Michelangelo’s life-  was another novel that was picked up in the anticipation of our Italy trip, although I read it only after coming back. The timing wasn’t bad though. After having seen the sights, the streets and the cities it is based in, it was easier to appreciate what was going on. This long book didn’t work for me, however. The charm of historical fiction comes from the history as well as from the fiction. This is one of those that perhaps got the history right, but not the fiction. Although one can appreciate the thoughts the author put in Michelangelo’s head before he started on each of his historic creations, he didn’t make the character come alive to me. The dialogs had no distinction and events around our protagonist often unrealistic as well as dull. The book is also criticized for dismissing Michelangelo’s homosexuality, which is now apparently well-accepted. But I won’t judge the book if the author felt compelled to take that stance. The book is as much a creation of its own times (published in 1961) as Michelangelo was of his own.
To read or not to read: If you are specifically interested in Michelangelo, then yes. But I would not recommend it for the delight of reading.
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