Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Gandhi: The Definitive Biography

Ramachandra Guha (2018). Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi, pp. 1129

This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who in many ways defined the twentieth century. Gandhi had a long, eventful, and public life in three continents, the most prominent of which was spent at the helm of the mass struggle for freedom in the largest empire of the colonial world in British India. Furthermore, Gandhi shared in a lucid and direct manner, the arguments and counter-arguments that governed his political life, and the experiments that shaped his private world, through his published works that run into 95 collected volumes and personal papers that span many decades.

What is new for a biographer of such a prominent personality on which many scholars have spent a lifetime? In the second (and last) part of this extended biography, Ramachandra Guha does the astounding feat of throwing new light into a well-rehearsed story with the academic authority that comes from sustained scholarship and undying interest in the subject. Perusing sixty archival sources including the collected works, letters, contemporary newspaper articles and published secondary resources, Guha is also the first biographer to use materials from the recently released personal papers of Mahatma Gandhi that was entrusted with his last secretary Pyarelal. Divided into five parts, the second volume of this biography begins in 1915 when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, until his death in 1948.

From Empire Loyalist to Satyagrahi

The story begins with Gandhi’s return to India, fresh from his struggle on behalf of Indians in South Africa, as a loyalist of the British Empire and a decorated volunteer during the Anglo-Boer war and the Zulu rebellion. In the next three decades, the political experiments of Gandhi take its course through three experiments in Satyagraha (or truth-force), non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience through the Salt March and Quit India proclamation. Throughout the narration of this political struggle, three characteristics stand out in this biography.

Guha devotes considerable space to bring out the Gandhi’s thought process behind his various propositions. One example Gandhi’s insistence on spinning cloth that combines the ideals of personal uplift, social reform, economic self-sufficiency and national pride. Similarly, the other pre-occupations such as learning languages and reading about religions have been given fair treatment. Just as freedom and self-sufficiency went hand in hand for Gandhi, personal relationships and first-hand knowledge was a road map for inter-community cooperation. Understanding the Gandhian rationale helps the reader to appreciate the protagonist’s intense and (often mind boggling) obsession with seemingly disparate activities in the midst of intense political struggle for freedom.

The second feature is that Guha delicately brings out a nuanced evaluation of Gandhi’s outlook. For example, on the women’s question, whilst Gandhi supported education, abolition of the purdah (veil) and gendered division of labor, he also acted like a patriarch who assumed that woman had a prominent role in childbearing. Such seemingly contradictory viewpoints lead to the biographer’s remark that Gandhi was progressive by the standards of his time but conservative by ours. Similarly, Gandhi’s obsession with diet and celibacy, and his changing assumptions are patiently and painstakingly brought out. 

The third feature is that Guha brings out the lesser known personalities in Gandhi’s life and acknowledges the role they played in making Gandhi who he was. An excellent illustration is the generous and tender portrayal of his secretary Mahadev Desai, his unceasing commitment to Mahatma’s life and the poignancy of his death.

Gandhi for Our Times

The book concludes with an epilogue that brings out debates after Gandhi’s passing. What has Gandhi to show for himself in today’s world? Guha enumerates four points. First, Gandhi had that rare quality of being monastically steadfast in his principled stands whilst maintaining an open mind to new ideas and arguments. He permitted himself to change, even contradict himself as he formed and reformed his opinions. It is this quality that leads to what is perceived as ‘inconsistency’ in Gandhi’s thoughts. For example, his take on race, caste and women changed significantly in the course of his lifetime. It is only by thinking through him and walking with him all the way, that we understand the validity of his suppositions.

Second, Gandhi had a heightened sense of self awareness that opened himself to criticism from various quarters. It stands to his merit that rather than withdrawing, he thoroughly enjoyed and engaged in a good fight. Third, Gandhi did not have a private life, in the sense the modern reader understands it. His experiments, inferences and the journey of self-discovery was widely shared with the world, exposing the best and the deeply controversial in him. Finally, Gandhi had immense physical and mental strength to perform these experiments on himself, including some of his greatest fasts and long marches in his act of Satyagraha. Gandhi fasted every alternate year in the last thirty-five years including two 21-day fasts. These four remarkable characteristics, qualify, illuminate and sometimes confound him in the eyes of all who read him today.

Whatever I look for in the best of books- novelty in perspective, persuasion in argument, the beauty of the literary- are abundantly present in this book. Seldom does a larger-than-life historical figure meets his match in the biographer, the way Gandhi meets Guha. Clearly, this is the book of the year for me!

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Third Pillar

Raghuram Rajan (2019), The Third Pillar, HarperCollins, New Delhi, pp. 436

The Third Pillar explores the neglected variable ‘community’ that economists barely discuss in their analysis of market economy. The state-market is the bipolar continuum within which all economic policies embed themselves.  Leaving out the community is essentially leaving out people. This omission has a human-centred cost because of the uncertainties unleashed by automation, financial crises and climate change that characterize the anthropocenic age that we live in. It seems that the explanatory models of economics are complex; the policy prescriptions required to forestall calamities dependent on large structures and institutions. People who are caught in between are unable to secure quality university education, find employment, access social security and settle in families of their own This book examines the cause and consequence of this context, keeping the community, at the heart of its analysis.

When a financial economist reviews the role and the reality of the community, a lot of questions abound. How far can he go meaningfully within the limitations of his discipline? What new idea does he bring that the sociologists, anthropologists and historians have not given us? Rajan surprises the readers on both counts: the breadth of his analysis of the variable ‘community’ in reference to state and markets and the depth of his enlarged vision for the community in the near-future. To accomplish this creditable feat, he marshals evidence from economic history as well as case studies of countries and cities.

Inclusive Localism

The book is divided into three parts. The first traces the origin and rise of the three pillars- the modern state, the market economy and the community. He describes the historical circumstances under which each pillar rose with its particular characteristics and also addresses some lost possibilities. The second part argues why an imbalance of the three pillars in mid-twentieth century changed the equation of how we perceive them through various models in social sciences. The ascent of the market has come about with limited state capacity and unravelling community. Therefore, the problems of the market such as recurring financial crises could scarcely be contained or addressed by a depleted state and weakened community. The rise of populism and the anti-competition rhetoric has been an attempt to retaliate against the market’s logic of ups and downs that has resulted in widening economic and social inequality. The third and final part of the book addresses the measures to restore this imbalance. Rajan has proposed ‘inclusive localism’, a concept by which communities can remain diverse and vibrant whilst having the power and financial resources to improve their local institutions and keep the neighbourhoods in good health.

This book marries the abstractness of theory with the concrete implications of policy. It is one of those books that you will finish fast because it is too important to miss. It is this contemporary relevance, the authority of evidence and a delightfully fresh and non-pedantic voice that sees you out of the last page. A winner through and through!

Friday, 2 August 2019

Negotiating Rights in Neoliberal India

Zoya Hasan (2018), Agitation to Legislation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp.178

We live in an age of social movements that connect local political demands of small communities to global movement of production and consumption. From Occupy Wall Street in the United States to Indignados in Greece and Spain, these movements articulate demand for rights based on claims of inequity and injustice. Beyond political resonance, they are tied by the same structures that they seek to transform- the withdrawing state, privatized services and coalition politics of neoliberal capitalism. These movements are vehicles of new discourse of politics as increasingly the old vocabulary of ‘class’ seem reductive as groups grapple with fragmented and multiple identities. In this context, this work explores rights movement in India through three prominent case studies.

The author of the work, Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s best universities for social science research. This book is a collection of three lectures she presented at the National University of Singapore. The work presents an overview of the campaign for right to food, the campaign against corruption and the campaign for women’s reservation bill for political representation. Woven within the history of contemporary India, Hasan contextualizes the narratives within the fold of neoliberalism. She explores the relationship between public protests, political mobilization and policy making.

Formal and Informal Politics

Hasan places the public movements for rights against the neoliberal paradigm of development that has made social entitlements to basic services such as food, health, education and employment legally enforceable. She specifically examines what makes some social mobilizations more successful in turning into laws than others. For analyzing this question, she explores the process through which public protest interacts with formal political mechanism, prioritizing itself, negotiating the specifics and competing with demands for rights forwarded by other movements. This framework pits the interaction between social movements and political parties as a site of competition, contention, dominance and resistance.

I found this work illuminating on two counts. One, Hasan deals with social movements in conjunction with party politics and traces the journey of a demand from the ground into the wells of the Parliament. Two, she compares the competing dynamics of various social movements that push some forward at the expense of others. For example, as she points out, the right to food campaign in India was successful in becoming an enforceable law because it was ensconced in a gamut of a group of ‘rights’ that gave it a sense of coherence and urgency that something like women’s reservation bill lacked. This type of insight makes it interesting to know what makes public protest click or fizzle out.

If you have been following contemporary social movement literature as a scholar, this is a great introduction to Indian case studies. If you just want to make sense of the politics of public protests, then this is a great first step!

Monday, 1 July 2019

Markets and Match Making

Alvin Roth (2015), Who Gets What and Why, William Collins, London, pp. 260

For anyone who is interested in the implications of market failure, this book opens a new road. In a breezily delightful work, Nobel Laureate Alvin Roth, illustrates the challenging field of market design and match making that comes into play when ordinary markets fail to trade certain goods and services. The main highlight of the book is how Roth accomplishes to convey a complex economic problem in an engaging manner by taking a conversational tone that makes reading this work a joy ride!

To begin with, markets fail to capture information of demand and supply through prices when it ventures to trade in certain types of goods and services. In such cases, non-market values crowd out market principles. Take the example of trading in organs like kidney or school admissions in public education system. The act of buying and selling these ‘commodities’ lead to undesirable outcomes for the society because of value preference that makes such trade repugnant or inefficient. Then, the efficient way to allocate resources becomes the task of a very different type of exchange- that of match making.

Match making markets are different from regular commodities markets not just in their provenance. Match making markets have interested parties on the demand and supply side who wish to be allocated with efficient outcomes without the help of price signals. To accomplish this, both sides provide an ordered list of their preference and a central agency allocates optimum matches.

Match making and market design has been successfully used to solve optimization problems in organ transplantation, school allocation, employment offers and much more. This book lucidly illustrates the illuminating problems on which Roth worked on.

This is an introductory work that is meant to get students and lay readers get hooked to the idea of designing markets. Like always, more math in store for those who want to progress further. What is a bit of game theory when you get to solve interesting puzzles like these? I say, go for it!

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Bring Back the Lost World!

Torill Kornfeldt (2016), The Re-origin of Species, Cntxt, pp. 236

Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt introduces the idea of ‘de-extinction’, a process by which biological research attempts to re-introduce a version of extinct species as a method of conservation. Using preserved genetic material, there are scientific communities in different parts of the world that are trying to ‘rewild’ and ‘repopulate’ the lost species. This nostalgia for the lost world is associated with a vision of the future that raises ethical, moral, philosophical and scientific questions peculiar to the epoch we live in - the Anthropocene.

Fundamentally, rewilding changes the relationship between humans and nature. The species that get picked to have another go in this planet are the charismatic species that humans adore (beginning with Dinosaurs!). Furthermore, repopulation should happen in large numbers for species to thrive. The new species must be morphologically similar and perform the same ecological function. There is also the question of suffering of the animals who are being experimented upon as part of a concerted human vision. Of course, these questions come up only after we have successfully overcome the technical difficulties in genetic engineering.

Even though it appears as a story straight from scientific fiction, it was fascinating to understand the conviction and the decades of effort some of these projects have gone through. The age of the Anthropocene throws up many challenges and mass extinction is one of them. There are many ecological movements and genetic engineering technology that have come about to defend the planet. The de-extinction project - edgy, extreme and emotionally charged - is one of them.

This book is an English translation of the original Swedish version and there are a few bumps in editing. However, that does not really deter you from the flow of the story-telling. Kornfeldt uses the lively first-person narrative to bring out these stories and that is a great delight! Go for it!

Wednesday, 1 May 2019


Nadia Murad (2017), The Last Girl, Virago, pp. 306

This is the inspiring story of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi girl born in rural Iraq, her extra-ordinary escape from sexual slavery by the Islamic State (IS) and her ongoing battle against sexual violence in war-torn regions as a Nobel laureate and an Ambassador of Peace. Born in the village of Kojo in Iraq, Murad led the ordinary life of Yazidi women with dreams and hopes for a peaceful future even as the rumblings of war and ethnic cleansing was all around. Gradually, what was commonplace - a family outing, harvest in the village field, pilgrimage to a holy shrine and communal celebration become more and more difficult as a minority community in a country increasingly defined by a narrow definition of nationalism.

As friends turn unreliable and strangers surround their lives, everything Murad and her family knew as a way of life comes to a standstill. She loses most of her family and her village overnight in a mass massacre and young girls and women are abducted as sex slaves and sold through an unbreakable chain of buyers and tormentors by the IS. In a first-person account, Murad details the harrowing sexual, mental and spiritual abuse as a woman and minority citizen as she is held captive and exchanged for money all across IS-held Iraq.

Throughout this inhuman and terrifying ordeal, Murad clings to the comforts of a happy past spent among her people and that of a gritty future she is determined to make for herself. She has to grieve for her lost self even as she mourns the loss of others. She has to define the meaning and purpose of her life from the searing pain of her past. She has to make home in a new country and fight for the rights of others like her. The strongest motivation to do so is the determination that she should be the last girl to go through such gruesome struggle for dignity and self.

I read and re-read this overwhelming story over a period of many days. The journey with her is filled with deep darkness and absolute light as she emerges alive and takes on the mantle of a survivor. It is baptism by fire that we all need to understand the kind of torture women and children go through amidst war and conflict.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Era of Xi

Fran├žois Bougnon (2018), Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, Cntxt, pp. 181

The rise of the Chinese President Xi Jinping is also about the rise of China and what it stands for today. The era of Xi (named after the fashion of giving generational titles to Chinese political leaders such as Mao and Deng) is remarkable for its unique combination of the old and the new.  Harnessing Mao’s teaching and a thousand-year old traditional culture, Xi’s ‘neoauthoritarianism’ is a school of thought shaping contemporary China with its emphasis on a strong state, the plank of anti-corruption and relaxed confidence in the ‘Chinese dream’.

Building a Chinese Dream

Xi has been able to articulate a vision of market economy with socialistic characteristics for China. This image of economic development encompasses attaining material needs for a better life along with pride in one’s country and culture. A careful pantheon of historical ideas has been chosen to represent this ideal. For example, legalism, a belief that advocates the use of law, governance and authority to modify the behaviour of people is widely admired for its efficiency as an institutional approach. Additionally, the rising inequality in China also requires a discourse that includes all classes in the Chinese dream. This is done by controlling the domestic media through party discipline while harnessing foreign media to propagate narratives about China to a wider audience. Furthermore, the celebration of Chinese grown technology firms such as Ali Baba, Xiaomi, Baidu and Huawei stand for pride in the Chinese capacity to find alternatives suitable for its own needs and temperament.

Along with the political transformation, Xi is also leaving behind an impressive personal legacy. After Mao, he is the only leader to have his name added in the Chinese Constitution. More recently, he gave himself an unlimited Presidential term. Although he writes a great deal about his thoughts on China, he rarely gives interview to the Western media, managing a persona of enigma.

To me, this book stands out for many reasons. First, it is concise and succinct in its analysis. Bougnon, the former Le Monde correspondent in Beijing, uses his journalistic experience to provide a well-researched background story and generously archives Francophile scholarly research on China. This is a valuable addition to the recent works published by writers working predominantly in English. An engaging political read for our times!

Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Hawking Effect

Stephen Hawking (2018), Brief Answers to the Big Questions, John Murray, pp. 220

“Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions.'
                     Kip S. Thorne, Memorial Service of Stephen Hawking

One year ago, to this day, on International Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, Stephen Hawking, internationally renowned cosmologist and former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University passed away. Arguably, the most celebrated and well-known living scientist of his time, Hawking broke frontiers in our understanding of the universe while blazing personal triumphs against a degenerative disorder. This volume of brief answers to the big questions is drawn from Hawking’s enormous and meticulously kept personal archives with a foreword by his on-screen alter ego Eddie Redmayne, introduction to his life and work by his long-term collaborator Kip Thorne of Caltech (US) and an afterword by his daughter Lucy. It is a volume celebrating his life, work and the inspiring person that Stephen Hawking was.

Questions and Answers
During his lifetime, Hawking was constantly queried by experts, world leaders, fellow scientists, business people and lay folk alike on everything from religion to science and the future of our planet. This book brings together ten such very big questions and Hawking’s responses to them. True to the eclectic nature of this exchange, only two out of the ten questions directly concern his discipline, cosmology. The rest include the stuff of science fiction like time travel and extra-terrestrial life to the future of humankind including prospects of colonizing space and being outsmarted by artificial intelligence. Stephen’s responses are detailed and scientific, his vision bold and daring, his spirit courageous and optimistic, his tone witty and self-deprecating. It also shows a remarkable openness to ideas, a child-like curiosity and a sense of wonder at everything around, profound respect and regard for the work of peers and intellectual forefathers, a constant awareness to privilege women (with his consistent use of the feminine pronoun throughout the book to refer to humankind), and silent pride in the achievements of humans over the last three centuries aided by science.

I went to the same college in Cambridge, Gonville & Caius, where Hawking was a fellow. I was at the King’s Parade (the iconic centre-town of Cambridge) with fellow Caians and people from all over the world as Cambridge bid adieu to its beloved professor. As to Caius and the rest of the world, his absence is not easily overcome. But we can take strength from his example and continue on the magnificent vision he shared with us.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Towards a Fellowship of Faith

Shashi Tharoor (2018), Why I am a Hindu?, Aleph, pp. 297

Works of polemic beginning with ‘Why I am (not) something’ makes for interesting reading because of the focus on a single side of the debate and the force of  arguments. The first of these and arguably the most well-known is Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, a speech delivered for the National Secular Society, London which was later published as a pamphlet. So, I was much intrigued when the latest book of Indian Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor came out last year, considering his brand of secularist Hinduism is increasingly portrayed to be irrelevant in contemporary India.

Tharoor makes his central argument in three parts. In the first, he sketches his personal version of Hinduism with its eclectic mix of beliefs and cosmopolitan view of the world. On the one hand, Tharoor questions several Hindu cultural traditions such as caste system and superstitions that have entrenched inequality among the Hindus over the centuries. He then explains his personal need to be a Hindu, with its emphasis on self-realisation rather than collective advancement, its doctrinal openness and flexibility of practice.

Political Hinduism

In the second part, Tharoor focuses on political Hinduism, which has endangered his personal HInduism. By tracing the ideology of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism through the doctrines of its proponents, the author demonstrates how the liberal and pluralistic ethos of Hinduism as a way of life is incompatible with the cultural nationalist version.

In the third and the last part, the author presents his arguments on how to take Hinduism back to its liberal fold. He argues that reclaiming the intellectual heterodoxy of Hinduism is the key to this project. Hindus were essentially henotheists, i.e., people who worshiped their gods whilst not denying the existence of other gods. For example, Hindus did not have dogma, prescriptive texts or even the need to believe in god to be accepted under its umbrella. This is why Hinduism is sometimes described as a ‘federation of philosophies’ or ‘fellowship of faith’. Reclaiming that version of Hinduism is not only relevant for liberal Hindus but also for inter-religious peace in a country such as India with immense religious diversity. Reform movement within religion may be an important strategy to retrieve other ways of thinking, of which textual work like this, may be the first step.

This book is well researched and duly annotated, catering to lay readers as well as individuals who are familiar with the religion. What makes it a compelling read is Tharoor’s personal conviction of his arguments and his plea to bring back freedom of thought and belief that enables Hindus and non-Hindus to live in peace. A timely intervention in these troubled times!

Friday, 1 February 2019

Future Gazing with Harari

Yuval Noah Harari (2018), 21 lessons for the 21st century,  
Jonathan Cape, pp. 352

Yuval Noah Harari is an Oxford-educated historian to watch out for! Through his three books Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 lessons for the 21st century, Harari makes sense of what this century is all about, with historical and contemporary evidence on the biggest forces sweeping our times. The merging of biotech with infotech, the global dimensions of our personal lives and inequality resulting from institutional complicity are the scenarios he examines the most through his work. He speaks of our times as one in which ‘the old stories have collapsed and new stories have not taken over’ and his attempt is to bring light to this liminal space.

The limits of the liberal story

At the heart of his argument is the perceived limit of the liberal story that dominated the political and economic ideologies of the twentieth century. As we shift authority from humans to algorithms, we are shifting the battle from one against exploitation to that against irrelevance. In this battle, ideas about ‘free will’ and freedom go for a toss and the common enemy becomes flawlessly rational and empirical evidence more compelling. An example is the nature of discrimination that we have historically fought (group prejudice that is based on social attitudes against minority groups which is malleable) to one that we might fight against algorithms (personal prejudice based on empirical evidence of incompetence that is not easily mutable). How is the protection and rights of the majority of us to be conceived in this unfolding age? And who is to lead us in thoughts and value models in the age of flux? Harari ominously warns that historically corporations were never ideal vehicles to launch social and political revolutions because of their focus on wealth maximization. The pre-eminence of corporate solutions to human problems has to be evaluated afresh and the resurgence of public-funded institutions such as universities is the need of the hour.  

The secular ideal

The resurrection of extreme ideologies such as the rise of the religious right and the extreme left is to be seen in this context. The path that Harari pursues is re-examining our commitment to what he refers to as the ‘secular ideal’. He charts out the tenets of this ideal based on commitment to truth based on evidence, compassion based on appreciation of suffering, equality based on suspicion of a priori hierarchies, freedom to think, investigate and experiment and courage to fight biases and oppression. This might seem like an idealist’s dream, but the author warns us with a grounded pragmatism that human history is not one long story blessed with a continuous evolving meaning. It is made up of disparate strands of episodes each with its own illuminating inferences. To think through our times is the first step of appropriating agency.

A superb companion to the new year!