Offence: The Hindu Case

Link: You can vote on my Amazon review of the book here. Thanks. The author has linked to this review on his blog.

Offence : The Hindu Case is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Some of the other books in the series argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, my view is that only free speech purists may be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

Back to this book. At 116 pages, including references, it is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain’s story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India’s constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic), and with India’s history and indeed Hinduism’s history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on “offence” which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion’s mythology and traditions.

To construct his argument, Mr Tripathi draws upon the writings of and conversations with some of India’s leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism. However Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators, none of whom is remotely as scholarly as Doniger, who has spent several years studying Hindu texts.

This book is a snapshot of India’s recent events. It is a book about India’s present, not India’s past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

Some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Indeed recent books that are less than effusive about Hinduism have evoked highly polar reactions from Hindus. For instance, while discussing Doniger’s recent book, I asked a particularly upset lady if she had read the book. Without a hint of irony but with all the puissance of righteous rage, she said: “Why, no self-respecting Hindu will ever read that book!”. While not representative, the line captured for me the difficulty of having an informed discussion about religion in general and a religion such as Hinduism in particular, with its plurality and diversity.

Others will find this book thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi’s is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: This book is not to everyone’s taste and many are bound to take offence. It will however enthrall those who remain ever curious about religion and its role in political and societal narrative. I think those interested in India but confused by the rapidity and complexity of the moving feast will find the book an interesting introductory read too.

The Interesting Bits

Link: The Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on the ‘helpfulness’ of this review.

On the Amazon Vine programme, I picked Justin Pollard’s The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed to read and to review.

I spent almost a whole day and then some, reading the book. As I was going to review it, I also made notes which made the whole thing rather time-consuming.

At just short of 300 pages, this is not a small book, but its being organised into 20 chapters makes it manageable.

Written by one of the writers of QI, a quirky quiz programme on the BBC hosted by the polymath Stephen Fry, the book is a treasure trove of historical tid-bits and trivia. It is no encyclopaedia but inside one finds gems such as Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh ancestry, the origins of the word ‘bunkum’, the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the Indian war of independence of 1857 (the Indian Mutiny if you prefer the British historical framing) and the country name that is an acronym (Paksstan if you are keen; go ahead, work it out!).

Each chapter begins with a quote that captures the essence of the chapter. For instance, Chapter 6 ‘What’s in a name?’ cites R S Surtees, in “Three things I never lend – my ‘oss, my wife, and my name‘. The questions addressed all relate to the theme so the said chapter addresses the curiosities behind Gordon Bennett, the Bob in Bob’s Uncle, the original Tommy, Uncle Sam and nosy Parker.

The style of writing is accessible and although intentionally funny, does not appear laboured. The book – as far as I could see – is remarkably free of typographical and grammatical errors. The parental rating within and between chapters may vary. My original intent was to hand over my 1st edition copy to my 8-year old godson. However having read it, I am inclined to wait for 2-3 years so that I do not have to field any tricky questions from him yet.

This is a book that needn’t be read in a sequence. In fact it is best enjoyed by randomly opening a page and reading whatever questions are contained on that page, as I did. Rather like a tin of mixed biscuits – some plain digestives, some cream cookies, some jam-centred tarts, where the best way to enjoy is to dip randomly into the tin, pick one out and relish it.

After all, it is about “the history you might have missed”.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book would make a good Christmas present for a 10-12 year old with a curious bent of mind and a nose for trivia.


The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’ were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.