Divya Manian

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Book Reviews for 2012

I had almost stopped reading books, till I picked up Savage Detectives about 3 months ago. I have since spent more time reading books, and this month has been the most I have read in this year. Here are reviews of some books I have been reading.

Savage Detectives

Thanks to the frequent prodding of Angus Croll & Edward Awkward, I started reading this novel. Suffice to say, I would be hard-pressed to find a novel I have savoured more. Roberto Bolaño weaves an amazing narrative full of strange characters (yet believable) and not only does he write, but also has illustrations! And it does not appear strange or weird at all, but in fact you wonder how can there not be illustrations?

It must have taken years for Bolaño to exhibit this skill with words & writing, and if it appears so in translation, I can only wonder how amazing it must really be in the original text.

From the Ruins of an Empire

Pankaj Mishra writes from the perspective of the East Asian philosophers & intellectuals about the savagery of colonialism that inflicted that part of the world. From the Ruins of an Empire is in part a response to all the positive & almost heroic portrayal of colonialism by historians such as Niall Ferguson.

While I found this book very emotional & less of a view from a dispassionate analyst, reading through the events makes it really difficult to understand how it could be otherwise.

This book just underscores how much of history is written by the victorious. Not even growing up in India, did I get to understand & realise various genocides that the British rule allowed (or even enabled) in India. This book at least enlightens in some manner the corrosive nature of colonialism.

Twilight in Delhi

I chanced on Twilight in Delhi under packs of new Indian thriller novels in a bookstore nearby. I recalled reading about this in the bibliography of Pankaj Mishra’s book as a novel that authentically elaborates the culture that was lost when Mughal Empire was in ruins.

I really want to like this book, but its narrow-minded nostalgia reminds me of the nostalgia Glenn Beck has for those “good old days” when racism was abundant. Unlike The Jewel in the Crown (the other nostalgia book I read) this book has almost no interesting characters who are not muslim or at least dealing with being someone who feels neither here nor there.

Perhaps these people really felt Mughal rule was full of glory and innocently forget the slaughter and destruction that was wrought on non-muslims. Maybe, like the city-dwellers of India who know nothing of the sufferings of those in villages, they believed Mughal Empire was truly glorious and the British were the only cause of destruction.

It was a good read but not interesting enough to consider it as important as The Jewel in the Crown in the context of historical fiction.

From the Caves & Jungles of Hindostan

In Chennai, I live very close to the Theosophical Society and reading whatever little about Theosophy, it seemed like Madam Blavatsky’s writings would make a very entertaining & humorous read (or perhaps arouse my anger). I was very very surprised when I found someone from that era writing with as less bias as possible about Indians and the culture of hinduism.

This book reads like a journal or at least a set of letters, but is a fictional account of her travels in India. I made a map of the places Madam Blavatsky went to for fun and it is clear it is not a report of any single journey.

What is fascinating though, is how perceptive she is. The book was originally published just after the Mutiny and she writes:

The English education they receive only enables them to learn that Europe was plunged in the darkness of the Stone Age, when India was in the full growth of her splendid civilization. And so the comparison of their past with their present is only the more sad.

Further, she does not seem to be enamoured by the caste system or idol worship and especially the male brahmans. She also explains how women are treated so wretchedly and seems to suggest the higher-caste a woman is the more wretched she is treated.

Almost everything she mentions about brahmans are ways I know brahmins behave – which only makes me all the more angry about the disgusting caste system.

I did not imagine I would like this book but I came away with more respect for her & her work rather than simply finding entertainment in laughing at her.

Red Sun – Travels in Naxalite Country

This was the first book I bought on FlipKart which is interesting online shopping experience because it allows you to pay by Cash on Delivery. This was my first experience of doing that anywhere, and it was pretty smooth with constant updates via SMS on the state of my book.

Anyways, if there is one book you must read about India, it must be Red Sun – Travels in Naxalite Country. Most of the vocal Indians online (including myself) live in the cities where murder & mayhem are pretty rare (except if you live in Delhi), and hence we are unaware of what happens outside of these cities.

Sudeep Chakravarti talks to various ex and current naxals and tries to find out why they are at war with the government of India. The picture of reckless violence & corruption he paints makes you wonder how you can even consider India as a country that is making progress. Tribals have never had a voice before and even today their situation is unchanged.

Madam Blavatsky’s tales mention the constant terror of tigers as soon as you get out of town and it is hilarious to contrast that with the current situations where tigers are almost extinct and almost all available forest land is being converted to coal mines being controlled by private militia & tribals - whose daily sustenance derives from such forests – are being driven out.

Two movies I saw recently make Sudeep’s book even more vivid in my mind: Gangs of Wasseypur and Shanghai.

The Science of Criticism in India

What I did not know when I visited the Theosophical Society earlier is the society has a book store with books that have been published once and never again – especially analysis of old Sanskrit texts by Indologists.

The Science of Criticism in India is one such book. I have been watching a lot of movies lately and been trying to understand why I liked a movie more than another, and this book tells me that it is because of the rasa each movie brings about on me as an audience.

A.K. Warder states that critics of sanskrit literature have viewed ‘literature’ to be one that foremost gives pleasure or delight. In that respect, some of the critics have also authored their criticisms to foremost be delightful or pleasurable. Meanwhile, some others (as commentary to their interpretation of plays such as Meghadhūta or Harshacharita) spend time delineating what aspects of the play are causes of such pleasure or delight.

If only all movie critics spent time trying to elaborate their criticisms in this manner! A lot of art critics spend time trying to impress the reader with their knowledge of the era when the art was created rather than trying to elaborate on what the experience of the art brings. While history of the creation of the art is interesting, what is more interesting is why this art is worth getting a ‘taste’ of.

It was good to understand the various criteria these critics from several years before the Christian Era thought was vital to dissecting why a particular art was the cause of delight.

Ramanuja on Yoga

I got Ramanuja on Yoga to understand what “Yoga” really is. It was mandatory for me to do yoga at school, when nobody outside of my school even cared or knew what yoga was. Suddenly, everyone in any major city seems to be a member of a yoga class!

Sadly, this book is specifically about Ramanuja’s views on Yoga, which states Yoga is only a means to focus your mind on the ‘Supreme Being’ & you must engage in constant devotion to actually become one with the ‘Atman’.

I do not understand how Ramanuja can glibly state humans must be beyond anger and sadness while apparently this Supreme Being is not and will only bestow favours & release of the soul from the body with 24/7 devotion and practice of all the actions prescribed for that particular caste.

This book suggests Patanjali’s original treatise on Yoga is devoid of any allusion to a Supreme Being, which makes it more like a book I would be interested in reading.

Your Recommendations?

I hope this bout of reading illness persists! If you have any interesting books to recommend, please do so in the comments.