Thursday, December 23, 2010

‘Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems’: Interview with Omair Ahmad, author of Jimmy The Terrorist

Omair Ahmad in conversation with John Cheeran

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy The Terrorist is a partisan, political novel, set in Moazzamabad, a fictional north Indian neighbourhood that speaks of the alienation of the Muslim community. But being partisan and political in fiction is no longer considered a crime.
Ahmad, a political analyst based in New Delhi, says the title is a red herring. “The book is more about society. It is about how in small towns life revolves around small issues. We try to define everything by political terminology. Is Jamaal (Jimmy) a terrorist, a nationalist? He is a human being.”
Ahmad ends his novel by saying,”No one asked who Jamaal had been, where he was born, or what he did, but Jimmy the terrorist was listed, his death reported, and may be that is the important thing.”
These are precisely the questions that Ahmad has tried to address in his novel. At a certain level, Jimmy the terrorist is also about the author.
Ahmad argues: “Politics is important. I gave up science to study politics. I was 17 when Babri Masjid was demolished. I came into my adulthood at a time of great political conflict in India. My school was being evacuated because of the potential of a riot. Some people tried to ignore the political churning and moved on. For me it became important to understand the unfolding of events. I wanted to figure things out. The result is this novel. Jimmy in a sense goes back to very local roots. It’s not about grand events. It’s not about 9/11. It’s very local. And those are the things that matter to people in the end.”
Ahmad considers himself a lucky guy when compared to Jamaal. He says: “I didn’t get killed in a riot but one of my cousins was killed. I didn’t get roughed up by the police. But all these happened to people who matter a lot to me. It matters for me to address issues that matter to the people who do not matter.”
Jimmy The Terrorist is the Muslim narrative of recent Indian history, pockmarked by grievances, riots and pogroms.
Ahmad, however, admits that his is not the Muslim voice. He says: “I’m not trying to represent the Indian Muslim community. It’s a community too large and too diverse for me to represent, or for any one person, in the same sense that no one person can represent India.”
Ahmad believes that the problems of Indian Muslims are secular, not religious. He says: ”People are more influenced by their local situation. If you look at the geographical spread of Indian Muslims, 60 per cent live in UP, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. All these states have gone through political and economic crises. When 60 per cent of Muslims live in these states that are not rich and prosperous, how does it matter which religion people belong to? That is why the making of Jimmy is important to me. It’s not one person. It is the society, the economics, the town and the situation that makes or breaks a person. And Jimmy is a broken person. And in my case, I’m not.”
Ahmad says though religion informs every page of Jimmy The Terrorist, the protagonist’s concerns are all secular. ”Religion is very much a part of a person’s identity. All the decisions that Jimmy ends up taking, whether his confrontation with the cops, his alienation within his school or his decision to become a typist while studying for IIM entrance examination, all these are purely secular decisions.”
Ahmad says religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. “Of course, Jimmy talks in terms of religion. And Jimmy looks towards the maulana for some kind of understanding which he is not able to give. It is one of the most important points in the book when they talk about Dawood Ibrahim having stopped riots in Mumbai. The maulana can respond only in terms of religion. Religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. In that sense Jimmy is a political problem.”
Ahmad becomes uneasy when people answer political questions in religious terminology. “Once you say that ‘God said this’ I have a problem. I haven’t met anyone who has interviewed God. Religion is not about political questions. As Amitav Ghosh says in his book The Imam and The Indian, people who purvey religion are not interested in religious questions. They are interested in political questions. When Osama bin Laden talks about occupation, vengeance, or killing, all those things are exquisitely political questions. He wants to be a political leader. Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems.”

Are Muslims in India one step away from breaking down like Jimmy?
“Jimmy is a single person in a large community. He is an outlier. He is not what everybody is. He starts from a broken family. He is in a broken society. His parents are in trauma. He still tries to go on, displaying resilience. At one point he breaks down. We all carry within ourselves possibilities of breaking down. Rafiq, his father, carries on despite taking a battering. Most Indians carry on despite heavy odds. I don’t want to say that Jimmys do not exist. They do. The Muslim alienation does not spring from nowhere. In its bid towards power the BJP used Muslim bashing to garner votes. It’s not that Indian Muslims went out to be alienated. It’s quite another matter whether the BJP has revised its position. But I think Muslim alienation will take care of itself.”
Ahmad also questions Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. “Gandhi had this practice of looking at religious representatives as political representatives. So it was a maulana, pandit or sardar for him. And that’s a problem. Ask a maulana what are the problems of the Muslim community and he will say they are not religious enough. Ask a priest what are the problems of the Hindu community and he will say they don’t pray enough. If you go to a political leader who happens to be a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, he will talk about unemployment, lack of infrastructure, etc. That’s a political problem.”
Ahmad points out that, in India, poverty matters much more than religion. “Access to opportunity is vital. You want to be poor in India and that’s the worst kind of discrimination you face. No Muslim can say he has been discriminated on the basis of religion as much as a poor man is discriminated for being poor in India. But to be Muslim and poor is a different thing,” says Ahmad.
But there have been outstanding Muslim contributions in sport, entertainment in India. Why not in politics?
“There is a distinction between how much a minority can achieve in sports, arts and in politics. Politics requires people to take one side or the other. It’s always a thing of numbers. But it’s true that democracy works better than any other system. Democracy has a problem because it tends to be majoritarian. Liberal democracy, however, tries to address this fault line through courts, press, etc. Political leadership from Muslims will take time in India. It cannot be compared with their achievements in other areas. There is still a hangover of partition in India.”

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy the Terrorist was short-listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. Ahmad has degrees in international politics from JNU (New Delhi) and Syracuse University (New York) and has worked for Voice of America, the British Foreign Office and the Conservative Party's National & International Security policy group. His other works are Encounters and The Storyteller’s Tale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Business Standard Edit on Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th century

Editor's note:This brilliant editorial in Business Standard gives a balanced picture of Indian cricket….It’s a shame that analysis has been abandoned in favour of mindless eulogies in most of the sport pages of Indian newspapers.

After losing the final of the 1983 World Cup to India in June, West Indies came visiting four months later. They won the first Test by an innings and 83 runs, drew the second, won the third by 138 runs, drew the fourth, won the fifth by an innings and 46 runs, and drew the sixth. It was a comprehensive drubbing handed out to the new world champions. Clive Lloyd’s marauders had had their wish in what was termed the “revenge series”. The average Indian cricket fan seems to have very little recollection of that drubbing. They do remember the series, but for the two centuries Sunil Gavaskar scored in two drawn matches. They discuss in detail Gavaskar’s century in the second Test, his 29th, an uncharacteristically breezy one off just 94 balls, which brought him on a par with Donald Bradman. In the last Test, batting at number four, as opposed to the opening slot he occupied for most of his career, Gavaskar scored 236 not out. This took him not only beyond Bradman but also beyond Vinoo Mankad’s highest individual score by an Indian, a record which had stood for three decades.
Much has changed since then. West Indies, a world-beating force, have become the whipping boys. Australia have dominated and dissipated. Generations of players have come and gone. India has learnt to win overseas and risen to the position of the number one Test team in ICC’s rankings. It is not dependent on any one player anymore, as it depended on Gavaskar in the 1970s and 80s, and on Sachin Tendulkar for the entire decade of the 1990s. But one look at the last few days’ coverage of the first Test in South Africa will make any half-informed person wonder if much has changed. To be fair, Tendulkar accomplished a stupendous feat, his 50th century in Tests. That Gary Sobers, a bonafide all-time-great, scored 26 in his career would put Tendulkar’s accomplishment in perspective. However, the celebration around it glossed over the fact that, even as Tendulkar remained unbeaten when thundershowers washed off the fag-end of the fourth day’s play, India were staring at certain defeat. Curiously, the mood was celebratory, even euphoric. Everyone was busy digging out the list of Tendulkar’s centuries, his childhood photos, and the talking heads had a field day. No one would listen to the man himself, who insisted that 50 was just another number.
This could have been forgiven in the days when the team lost regularly. After all, everyone needs something to celebrate. Tendulkar often gave us the reason. His 114 as a 19-year-old in 1992 at Perth, whose pitch had much more spite then, is celebrated by his peers as arguably his best. Well, we lost that Test by a small matter of 300 runs! This attitude can be forgiven in an underdog. No one expects them to win, so they celebrate whatever they can, and cricket offers ample scope for an individual to shine even as the team surrenders. But, to be beaten by an innings and some, while being the number one team in the world, should call for some embarrassment, some hand-wringing.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why We Don’t Talk: A Review

By John Cheeran
Here comes a very contemporary short story anthology that captures the flavour of Indian Writing in English (IWE). Why We Don’t Talk has contributions from 27 writers and the anthology has a distinct feminine feel to it. Some of the very well established names in IWE figure here, including Anita Nair, Chetan Bhagat, Jaishree Mishra and Usha KR.
A large chunk of them are eminently readable though there are very few stories that will stay with you once you put the book down. A majority of the stories record very intense private conversations but fail to start a dialogue with the reader. Would someone be interested in hearing out my version of events is a question that should have been with the contributors.
Amit Varma’s Urban Planning breaks from the self-indulgent mould and engages the reader right from the start. It’s an irreverent take on Indian reality where bureaucracy and political class pretend they are in control of things whereas they are as much clueless as you and me. Varma brings in humour and delineates his characters with ease and authenticity, things that determine the shelf life of a story. Joshua Newton’s Taj Mahal is a spirited attempt to peek into a familial relationship that cries out for care, touch and love. But one can’t figure out how reading a survey on people’s sexual preference and behaviour would act as the key to unlock Taj Mahal. Yes, there is a need to talk about this and much more.

Title: Why We Don’t Talk
Compiled by Shinie Antony
Publisher: Rupa and Co
Rs 295, Pages 239

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Self-control is not working. Indian media need to be regulated, says BG Verghese

By John Cheeran

The essential thing about BG Verghese, renowned editor and columnist, is his optimism.
“Market, and money, has taken over the Indian media. But we shall overcome,” says Verghese, who began his career in 1948 with The Times of India as a trainee reporter and went on to edit Hindustan Times (1969-75) and Indian Express (1982-86).
He is 83 and has just published his memoirs, titled aptly for a journalist who reported on India for 60 years, First Draft, Witness To The Making of Modern India.
But, then, for those who know the history of post-independent India, Verghese has been more than a witness to the making of India at its foundational levels, the vandalisation of constitutional institutions and unfolding of emergency. Verghese was a participant too.
The editor who lost his job at the Hindustan Times for daring to criticise prime minister Indira Gandhi (and he was information advisor to PM Gandhi between 1966-69) contested the post-emergency Lok Sabha elections in 1977 from Mavelikkara in Kerala, and there by took his critique from writing and reportage to the highest platform available in a democracy. It was a pivotal moment. Recalling those exhilarating campaign days with a glint in his eyes, during an interview with DNA in Bangalore, Verghese says: “In 1947, India got independence. In 1977, India got a sense of freedom.”
Now as the ethically embattled Indian media are grappling with that sense of freedom, won thanks to the backbone of those who refused to bend and crawl, Verghese advocates the regulation of the media.
Verghese says: “India has the most unregulated broadcast media in the world. There are 400 channels in the country. It is important to have regulations. Unregulated mass media are bad for India. You can drive fast only when you have sound brakes. Journalism is the most powerful tool in India but an irresponsible press is very dangerous.
The former editor says the principle of self-regulation has failed to work in India. “Self-regulation is a good thing. But I don’t think self-regulation is enough. What we need is sensible regulation. In India, libel laws are very poor. There is a need for the reformation of defamation laws. There are strong laws to control the press in the US and the UK. The government in India has tried to introduce legislation to regulate the media but lack of numbers in the Parliament has thwarted it. Whenever the matter comes up for debate, the media say it’s an infringement on their freedom which I consider a specious argument.”
Verghese points out that the Press Council of India (PCI) is a weak instrument for various reasons and cannot control the media. “The PCI should have penal powers. At the moment it’s not a court of law, but a court of ethics. Most of the larger newspapers in the country do not report the findings of the PCI. It is quite scandalous that the council did not approve the report on paid news practices by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Srinivas Reddy in its entirety. Names of all offenders were deleted when the PCI approved it. That’s not the regulation one needs.”
Vergehse also reminds one about the importance of being a journalist. “The character of journalism is changing. Now you have citizen journalists. Journalists are public trustees of freedom of speech and if you betray that trust, the consequence is much graver than when a citizen journalist leads you astray. The change has to come from younger journalists and readers. The press needs to assert its integrity or else it will betray its role as a trustee of the man on the street and freedom of expression. Credibility is vital for the media whether it is print or electronic or digital. Things will definitely change. Readers and the political class are gradually realising the gravity of the situation.”
Verghese says many editors have abdicated their responsibilities. Referring to the country’s leading newspaper, he says there are no editors but managers. But he is quick to point out that the media have become frighteningly powerful despite the down sizing of the editor’s role within the media organisations.
Verghese explains the contradiction: “Everyone is frightened of the media. What you write is read by millions of people. It is because of the growth of print, broadcast, and internet platforms. Everyone gets his first information from the media, including intelligence chief and PM. Communication is swift and hence the media have become so powerful. And a great sense of responsibility goes with it. Some of these papers are fabulously rich. Some newspapers even started banks. Because of these, managements felt that editors are unnecessary since all you have to do is to fill the space between advertisements. Managers became more important and the mission of the newspaper got subordinated to profit. The balance was lost. Some editors stood their ground but many of them didn’t. Younger journalists were very upset but then they lacked the power and the ability to hold on. Some of the papers and some of the channels and individuals within in the organisations stood out. Private treaties, paid news and people cosying up to power centres have changed the media.”
Verghese adds that editors, too, have failed the test. “The image of the editor was different in the past. The editor was not supposed to be seen but read. Now they are being seen. Many of the editors run from one studio to another in the evening when they should be editing their newspapers. At the hour of newspapers going to the press many editors are missing.”

But then what explains the phenomenal readership of these newspapers?
“Firstly, they have base taste. Everything is Page 3. Then, the market. Till the economic reforms of the 90s, the scene was much stale. No foreign direct investment, no mergers, no new companies were being formed. Suddenly, all that changed. Stock market became big news. Sport became big business. They control the scene with a razzmatazz package with sections on sudokus, quizzes, comic strips, gardening, motoring, etc. The raddi value of the Times of India is more than its cover price. And they give free copies. You go to the airport. Loads of copies are piled up. Go to the railway station. Loads of copies are piled up. A lot of these circulation figures are bogus.”
Verghese is not a man of the establishment but when he says the best news in the electronic media come from Doordarshan and All India Radio it is a sharp rebuke for the breaking news channels. “It (Doordarshan) is the most honest. They do not spice it up. They give it in a straightforward fashion.”
Though the corporate-PR-media nexus has come in for flak in the aftermath of Niira Radia telephone tapes, Verghese believes that corporate India has a major role to play in the progress of India. He says: “The corporate India is part of the solution, not part of the problem. Driving out corporate India from tribal areas is a grave mistake. There has to be strong regulatory framework while allowing corporates to operate. Why do you want to shut them out? Tame them. Make them do the work you want to do. Poverty is a great enemy of the environment. People want to run away from land. They feel trapped there. Studies show that 45 per cent of farmers want to abandon agriculture because they can no longer make a living out of it. They want education for their children. They need jobs.”
Such unconventional but original positions make Verghese’s arguments compelling. And a careful reading of First Draft, his memoirs, proves as much. Varghese says the prime reason behind his memoirs is to fill the vast blanks in people’s memory, including that of decision makers, about the history of post-independent India. Verghese says: “You could create all sorts of problems because of this blank space. You could misread history. People don’t realise that Kashmir only acceded to India but never merged. When Omar Abdullah said that, people were aghast.”
As Verghese puts it, In First Draft, he tries to give a worm’s eye view of the post-Independent India. “I wanted to portray the leaders that I came into contact with –Nehru, Indira Gandhi, etc--, warts and all. They must be properly and honestly assessed. You may not agree with many things they say. They may even say foolish things. But you do not write that. How can you tarnish the image of the great man or the great lady? We complain that some people want to rewrite history. But we rewrite it ourselves because in the first place we don’t write it straight,“ he says.
The final draft of the Indian media, let’s hope, readers will write. We shall overcome.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Radia tapes and Indian journalism: Tunku Varadarajan in The Daily Beast

Years from now, earnest journalism majors will study an episode that aired on Indian television Tuesday, in which Barkha Dutt, a massively influential but ethically embattled TV news anchor, submit herself to public inquisition by a panel of her peers. Four flinty journalists grilled the anchor on the extent of her relationship with one of India’s most influential (and, some would say, murky) corporate lobbyists, with whom the anchor was clandestinely taped talking about how to get a pliable politician a job in the Indian cabinet—a placement that would have benefitted the lobbyist’s corporate clients to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (One assumes that clips of the inquisition will be posted on Ms. Dutt’s NDTV website.)
Think—and I offer this rough-hewn equivalent only to bring the matter to life for an American readership—of Katie Couric as the anchor, caught on tape talking to the flack for Halliburton, on the subject of getting Halliburton’s preferred candidate the job of defense secretary in the run-up to a major war. And think, then, of an hour-long segment in which Couric sits down with, say, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Hiatt, Ken Auletta, and Katrina vandel Heuvel, and submits herself to on-air questioning on the subject—with the aim of explaining, as Dutt has sought to do, on Twitter, Facebook, and in a press release, how her conversation with the lobbyist was within the bounds of ethically acceptable journalism.
Dutt has said, in a nutshell, that the uber-influential lobbyist was just a source, and that she was stringing the source along in order to milk her for as much information as she could get—both immediately, and as editorial investment for the future. Although there is absolutely no evidence that Dutt stood to gain financially from discussing how to place the lobbyist’s man in the Indian cabinet, the conversation reeked of an unseemly proximity between journalist, lobbyist, and corporate interests, so much so that there are vociferous, and entirely reasonable, campaigns to bounce Dutt, as well as many other senior journalists who were also caught on tape, out of a job. The fact that the journalists canoodling on tape with the lobbyist were a “Who’s Who” of sorts of New Delhi’s journalistic elite has fueled a sense of public chagrin that will not easily be quelled. Indians are cynical by nature; and so, when they feel betrayed by the few figures they trust, the disappointment is acute—and irrepressible.
Indian journalism is regarded by many in America (including by my own sainted editor, Tina Brown) as vibrant, rich, and healthy; by contrast, journalism in the West is believed to be in the grip of an existential and financial crisis. But the recent lobbyist-journalist-politician scandal in India (of which everything you could wish to read can be found in Outlook magazine, and here, in this incisively compendious newspaper piece by my brother, an editor at The Hindu newspaper) has dynamited the Potemkin village that is Indian journalism. What has looked to us to be healthy, roseate, and vigorous is, in fact, rotten, corrupt, and frequently amoral.
Indian journalism is woefully bereft of an institutional ethical architecture, relying instead on the ethical instincts of individual journalists. As such, there is a sort of ethical free market in operation, in which readers or viewers make up their own minds on whether so-and-so can be trusted as a columnist, whether this or that anchor can be relied upon to hold no brief for politicians or corporations, whether this newspaper or that can be trusted to report the news without fear or favor. As N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, pointed out in a recent debate on Indian TV, the journalists in question, here, would not have survived five minutes at The New York Times, or the FT.
In truth, Indian journalism is a vast field inhabited by a multitude of interests and abilities, an anarchic Klondike in which fortunes and reputations are being made, and in which the kind of anal but indispensable ethical standards that make the better stratum of American journalism reliable are broadly absent. Many major Indian newspapers practice something called “paid news,” with unofficial rate cards, in which people and companies can get their stories and photographs on Page 1, or their books reviewed, on payment of a fee to the news corporation in question. Politicians, too, must pay, particularly at election time, to get up-front coverage. In the same vein, Indian journalists seldom, if ever, disclose their interests in stories they write about. (An Indian journalist once berated me for “all this American disclosure crap.”)
There is, also, a curious demographic problem: Virtually all the super-elite journalists in New Delhi and Bombay are from families with corporate or bureaucratic connections, men and women who would, in previous generations, have entered the elite bureaucracy themselves, whether it be the Indian Foreign Service or the Indian Administrative Service. Journalism today offers a quicker and more effective route to power, especially now that the bureaucratic services have been opened up to a wider swath of Indians as a result of affirmative action. In essence, the “babalog”—the well-born—who used to dominate the country’s administrative cadres are now crammed into the media. It is the one avenue of real power for India’s otherwise somewhat disenfranchised elites, in the sense that they can’t ever get elected to parliament. So they have turned the media into a form of socio-cultural Establishment and feel quite at home with the other “establishments,” whether business or political, that are to be found in modern, democratic India, regarding theirs as in no way inferior.
A final word: India’s media is still an insulated and protected sector. To this day, foreign media companies cannot own more than 26 percent of an Indian imprint. This has made for an insular press, a corrupt press, an Indian media untested not merely against global standards of journalistic craft, but also against Western standards of journalistic ethics. Dutt, surely, has a heckuva lot of explaining to do. But she’s not the only one in that position—by any stretch.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal.

Radia Tapes and Indian journalism: Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu

As squeamish schoolchildren know only too well, dissection is a messy business. Some instinctively turn away, others become nauseous or scared. Not everyone can stomach first hand the inner workings of an organic system. Ten days ago, a scalpel — in the form of a set of 104 intercepted telephone conversations — cut through the tiniest cross-section of a rotting cadaver known as the Indian Establishment. What got exposed is so unpleasant that several major newspapers and television channels that normally scramble to bring “breaking” and “exclusive” stories have chosen to look the other way. Their silence, though understandable, is unfortunate. Even unforgivable.
After all, the tape recordings of Niira Radia's phone conversations have come to light against the backdrop of the recent Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on the allocation of 2G spectrum, which demonstrated how the rules were arbitrarily bent by the then Telecom Minister, A. Raja, in order to favour a handful of private companies at government expense. Among the beneficiaries of Mr. Raja's raj were Anil Ambani. And also Ratan Tata. In one of the tapes, an unidentified interlocutor asks Ms Radia, whose clients include both Mr. Tata and Mukesh Ambani, why “you people [i.e. the Mukesh Ambani group] are supporting [Raja] like anything ... when the younger brother [Anil Ambani] is the biggest beneficiary of the so called spectrum allocation”. “Issue bahut complex hai,” Ms Radia replies. “Mere client Tatas bhi beneficiary rahein hain (my client, the Tatas, have also been a beneficiary).”
Apart from telecom, the tapes also provide valuable insight into the gas dispute between the two Ambani brothers. This was a dispute in which Mukesh Ambani made skillful use of the “gas is a national resource” argument with a pliant media even as he used his influence with individual MPs to try and orchestrate a massive tax concession for his company from the same national resource, Krishna-Godavari (KG) basin natural gas.
In an interview to NDTV and the Indian Express on Saturday — two media houses that have so far avoided covering the tapes — Ratan Tata has called the recordings a “smokescreen” designed to hide the real truth. He is wrong. Utterly wrong. No doubt we know very little about who leaked the recordings and why these were cherry-picked from a wider set of 5,000 recordings the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities made as part of their surveillance of Ms Radia. But even if the story they tell is partial and designed to expose only a fraction of the corporate lobbying which has been going on, we would be naive to ignore the contents of the tapes or be dismissive about their significance.
In the science fiction film, “The Matrix”, Morpheus tells Neo, “You're here because you know there's something wrong with the world.” The Matrix, he says, is the world that has been pulled over everyone's eyes to blind them from the truth that they are slaves. He offers Neo the choice of a blue or red pill. “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill ... and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
The Niira Radia audio archive loaded on to the Internet by Open and Outlook magazines last week is the red pill of our time. It reveals the source codes, networks, routers, viruses and malware that make up the matrix of the Indian State. The transmission of information, also known as “news”, between different nodes is vital for the system to work efficiently. The news is also the medium for reconciling conflicts between different sectors of the establishment. If you hear the recordings, you begin to understand the truth about the Wonderland that is India. No wonder there are many amongst us who would rather swallow the blue pill. For once you go in, the only way out is to keep digging. And yes, the rabbit-hole runs deep.
So deep, for example, that we hear a Member of Parliament, N.K. Singh, who is meant to represent the people and the state who voted for him, brazenly batting for a single-man corporate constituency, Mukesh Ambani.
In one recording, Mr. Singh tells Ms Radia of the firefighting he is doing on behalf of Mr. Ambani to ensure a tax concession the finance minister had announced in the 2009 budget for gas production is made applicable retrospectively. Ms Radia says she has killed news stories about the Rs.81,000 crore super profit Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) would make were that to happen but Mr. Singh is more concerned about what happens in Parliament during the debate on the Finance Bill. His fear is that if Opposition MPs make a noise about a largesse being given to one company, the finance minister would be on the defensive and the prospect of extending the concession retrospectively would not even arise. Mr. Singh accuses BJP leader Arun Shourie of being on Anil Ambani's side and reveals how he has managed to get Mr. Shourie replaced as the BJP's lead speaker by Venkaiah Naidu. How well does Mukesh know Venkaiah, asks Mr. Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar on a Janata Dal (United) – JD(U) ticket. Ms Radia replies that a senior RIL executive, P.M.S. Prasad, knows Mr. Naidu well. “Then I am going to get him flown in today to talk to Venkaiah,” Mr. Singh says, “because if he is the first speaker, and he already takes a party line, then it will be very difficult for Shourie in his second intervention, to take a different line. Then we have to orchestrate who will speak, you know, this is the immediate problem right now. Because, frankly, if this doesn't go through, this tax thing, then it's a major initiative taken that then fails to materialise.”
We don't know if Mr. Prasad flew down and met Mr. Naidu as N.K. Singh wanted him to do. But the BJP leader's speech in Parliament two days later has this telltale suggestion: “The Bay of Bengal has become the new North Sea of India. Government departments should not be seen quarrelling whether mineral oil is a natural gas or not. Whatever concessions [are] needed for infrastructure, exploration ... are connected with the energy security of the country.” This was a veiled reference to the Petroleum Ministry's letter to the Finance Ministry asking for natural gas to be given the same tax concessions available to oil retrospectively and not just from the New Exploration Licensing Round (NELP) VIII round which would exclude RIL's KG basin output. A request the revenue secretary had turned down.
In other recordings, we see journalists and editors, who are meant to report and analyse what is going on objectively, offering to become couriers and stenographers and foot soldiers in the war one set of corporate fat cats is waging against another. We also see a political fixer, Ranjan Bhattacharya, whose USP once was his familial proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party, seamlessly open a line to the Congress and go about his business as if election results don't matter. He boasts about his proximity to Ghulam Nabi Azad and his ability to send a message to “SG, boss”, a reference to the Congress president. He then quotes Mukesh Ambani telling him the Congress party is now “apni dukan”. Mr. Bhattacharya may have been lying about his influence but then the formidable Ms Radia is anything but a dupe.
We also hear in the tapes an iconic businessman, Ratan Tata, who today makes sanctimonious statements about crony capitalism and the danger of India becoming a banana republic, lobbying through his PR agent, Ms Radia, for A. Raja to be given the Telecom portfolio.
If the allocation of spectrum by the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 and 2009 is one of the biggest scams in independent India, then the involvement of businessmen like Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and Mukesh Ambani in lobbying for their choice of telecom minister when the UPA government returned to power in May 2009 is surely a very important part of the back-story. But it is a story none of the journalists who liaised with Ms Radia during this time chose to report. More than the squabble within the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) or between the DMK and the Congress, the involvement of India's biggest companies in the process of cabinet formation was the story that should have been headlined. Ms Radia talks of Sunil Mittal and AT&T using Times Now to push out stories about Dayanidhi Maran being the frontrunner for telecom and Mr. Raja being in disfavour. Her own strategy appears to have been to use her relationship with Barkha Dutt and Shankar Aiyar to get the opposite message out onto news channels like NDTV and Headlines Today.
Instead of using Ms Radia as a “source” for covering the DMK, her role, and the role of her principal clients, in trying to push for a minister who was seen even then as tainted ought to have been exposed. But then Delhi is a hothouse of power, and proximity to power deadens one's reflexes and weakens one's nerves. What Indian journalism needs more than anything else today is distance. From both politicians and industrialists. It is never too late to swallow that red pill.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lost And Found by CP Surendran: A Review

By John Cheeran
CP Surendran’s Lost And Found can be read as a Bollywood script with gravitas. For someone as accomplished with words as CP, I should say at the outright, that the novel disappoints, again. May be, expectations were too many to begin with.
CP is many things -- poet, journalist, columnist and that may have complicated the role of being a novelist for him. His first novel, Iron Harvest, rooted in Kerala tackled the dreams of the rebellious youth during Emergency, but was lost in a running stream of imagery.
As a journalist you are condemned to a life of cursing and questioning and every story that lands on editing table can be material for a novel. In fact, newspaper stories often defy imagination.
CP’s situation deserves readers’ sympathy. Being a journalist and novelist it would have been hard to stave off the temptation of making use of events during 26/11 for a work of fiction. That CP dared to look back on 26/11 and Bombay, not much in anger but in compassion, understanding and reconciliation both at personal and political levels, is a praiseworthy act.
The dread with which one approached Lost And Found disappeared as taut sentences spread their ink. When CP writes “The future seems extravagant, unnecessary” you may agree with him.
But to make use of the trite Bollywood theme of twin brothers separated at birth coming together as the pivot of Lost And Found must have taken a leap of faith for the novelist. A terrorist from Pakistan wielding an AK-47 bumps into his twin brother, biological mother and alleged father in a Bandra apartment moments before he prepares to put his foot on the doors of heaven. Jihad meets its comeuppance in the outcome of a one-night stand of a Malayali couple.
Even dark humour needs to have its boundaries and I wonder whether CP wanted Lost And Found to be read as a spoof for our troubled times.
Yes, there are redeeming features, too. In Lost And Found, Bombay conveniently becomes the canvas for CP’s take on journalism, religion, fundamentalism, Islam, and broken relationships. They would have made excellent reading as newspaper columns – in fact Placid Hari Oadnnur’s profile of freelance photographer Udit Rai, The Dog of Small Things, is outrageously brilliant-- but not as a gripping narrative.
A farrago of characters and a bhang-inspired plot make for Lost And Found. Lakshmi Menon the porn writer, who was raped in a Mumbai local train many years ago, kidnaps her alleged rapist from a party and brings him home the night before terrorists from Karachi land on Mumbai shore to script 26x11. It was a beginning but the carefully wrought sarcasm and cynicism get washed away in the desperate effort of the author to justify his cast of characters. Yes, in India and Pakistan a lot of things do happen. Even on Bollywood screens. What Lost And Found wants its readers to believe is much more than that, a task in which CP has failed them again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The China Syndrome By Harsh V Pant: A Review

By John Cheeran
The problem with India’s diplomatic class is that it does not believe in the argument of power but in the power of argument. The power of argument does not take you far and the rise and rise of China is an example for that.
The Chinese Communist party knows what it wants and goes about achieving it without any moral rhetoric. Not for nothing then Deng Xiaoping said: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.” China deals with anyone and everyone if it serves its agenda. It has no qualms about striking strategic partnerships with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or dictatorships in Africa or Asia, including the Burmese junta in India’s backyard. It doles out aid to authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America with no strings attached so that it can get what it seeks, be it energy or geopolitical advantage. It has powered Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, is in many energy deals with Iran and buys arms and ammunition from Israel. It, apparently, knows how to project power.
On the other hand, India’s diffidence in power projections is creating a perception in South East Asia that there is nothing to fear from New Delhi.
Harsh V Pant, who teaches at King’s College in London, in the Department of Defence Studies, flays the Indian establishment in his new book The China Syndrome, for not having a consistent, reasoned policy to deal with the dragon.
Pant is quite blunt in his assessment of India, especially in the backdrop of the recent chatter of India taking its rightful place in the comity of nations, along with the US and China and says India should stop talking about becoming a global leader. He adds that no one takes such claims seriously when India has been unable to get a grip on its own neighbourhood.
Pant excoriates the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) for not conceptualizing a long term strategy, especially when negotiating with China. So one day China is India’s enemy No.1, then becomes a good neighbour and later wooed as India’s greatest neighbour.
Pant chides prime minister Manmohan Singh for buying into the liberal fallacy that assumes only if nations trade with each other more, the world would become more prosperous and peaceful. Sino-Indian relations rely too much on this premise, forgetting geopolitical narrative. So even though China is India’s largest trading partner, India’s relationship with the middle kingdom remains uneasy.
India’s inability or rather unwillingness to see the world as it is rather than as it should be has become the bane of its foreign policy, argues Pant.
He writes that China is not a malevolent, sinister international entity out there to demolish India. It is a state which is simply pursuing its own strategic interests in a hard-headed fashion on its way to achieving the status of a super power.
Tibet lies at the heart of the deep distrust between India and China. Pant correctly observes that the world is not willing to confront on China on any issue. That makes Sino-India relationship all the more challenging.
2010 marks 60 years of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1951 should have led to a fundamental reassessment regarding China’s motives with respect to India. And, India lost the 1962 war with China.
Yet, even in 2010, China’s gradual encroachment of Indian territory continues to surprise the Indian leadership, writes Pant.
India needs to urgently review its defence prepardness vis-à-vis China. The real challenge for India, however, lies in China’s rise as a military power. In the post-26/11 scenario, it has been pointed out that India seems to have lost even its conventional superiority over Pakistan.
The very fact that the United States is willing to back India in its quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council stems from the Obama administration’s strategy to contain an ever rising China, militarily as well as commercially, making use of India as its bulwark in the East. It is now for the Indian establishment to play the game.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Harbhajan and the art of scoring runs

By John Cheeran
Harbhajan Singh has hit another Test century.
The century (111) in Hyderabad is his second consecutive knock against New Zealand in the ongoing series.
Last week in the first Test at Ahmedabad Harbhajan had scored 115 in the second innings and 69 in the first innings. These three consistent scores against a decent international bowling attack cannot be viewed as an aberration.
No wonder then that former Indian skipper Rahul Dravid argued on Sunday that the off-spinner from Chandigarh could be evolving into an Indian Gary Sobers. May be, may be not.
Well, Dravid can be, at times, quite magnanimous to his teammates. There is, absolutely, no shades of the West Indian all-rounder in Harbhajan Singh. But Harbhajan has improved a lot as a batsman. He has succeeded when top order batsmen failed to come to the rescue of India as in the second innings of the first Test in Ahmedabad.
What explains Harbhajan’s sudden success as a batsman?
Before getting into that debate let me state that Harbhajan has failed in his primary responsibility as the seniormost spinner in bowling out New Zealanders. Harbhajan took four wickets in the New Zealand first innings in Hyderabad but could take only one in Ahmedabad.
There is little doubt that Harbhajan belongs to the Virender Sehwag School of Batting. The Sehwag School of Batting believes in belting the ball, without getting bogged down by the consequences and the context of the match. It does not observe the niceties of wearing out the bowling attack. When Sehwag succeeds, he invariably hammers a big score or else he falls too early to leave the Indian innings wobbling.
In Hyderabad, Harbhajan, a No.8 batsman, has top scored for India with 111 off 116 balls. His strike rate of 95.68 in this innings is much better than that of Sehwag (80). And to consider that Harbhajan top scored for an India with a batting line-up that boasts of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Dravid and VVS Laxman!
Batting is a much refined task compared to bowling. But a fearless approach wins you more than half the battle. You cannot blame Harbhajan if he had thought of emulating the raw, robust approach of Sehwag in plundering runs. If Harbhajan the batsman attempts a wild shot and gets out in the process he has still opportunity to redeem himself as a bowler. His existence as a cricketer and a member of the Indian squad does not hinge on the number of runs he scores. Such knowledge can be extremely useful for a cricketer who has wielded the long handle in the past and has a devil-may-care attitude to life in general.
Whereas specialist batsmen are hampered at the crease by the responsibility to score runs, the lack of any such burden sets free the likes of Harbhajan at the batting crease. But, then, why other bowlers in the side are not able to reproduce the success of Harbhajan?
May be, they are not willing to walk that extra mile. It is important to recall at this juncture that former Indian captain and leg spinner Anil Kumble said in an interview that since they (Srinath, Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad) are bowlers they do not want to stay at the batting crease and risk injuries and thereby jeopardize their career. The approach that it is the job of batsmen to bring home the runs is fine up to a point. But, there is no doubt that Harbhajan has no such reservations when it comes to cocking a snook at the opposition.
Yes, some skills to improvise while going for strokes do count. Hand-eye co-ordination, too, is important. But a big heart for fight counts much more than that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Desiree by Annemarie Selinko: A review

By John Cheeran
23 years later, I re-read Desiree, the historical novel by Annemarie Selinko. Desiree – Citizeness Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary-, daughter of a Marseille silk merchant, was the first love of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Regarded as the most fascinating historical novel since Gone With the Wind, Desiree is an engaging and powerful read but, I guess, largely remains faithful to historical facts.
Emperor Napoleon and his rival marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte played huge roles in the making of European history in the 18th and 19th century. But this spunky and loyal girl played an equally important role in the lives of these two men and, eventually, became the queen of Sweden.
Everyone who knows about Napoleon also knows about queen Josephine. But not many know about Desiree, who as a 14-year-old, emptied her piggybank and gave a bankrupt, 24-year-old general Napoleon 98 francs to make his journey to Paris to plead his cause with army top brass. Before the world bet on Napoleon, Desiree had the first pick.
Successful men are opportunists and Napoleon did not shy when opportunities beckoned him in Paris. He married Josephine to make his forays in the Parisian labyrinth and further his grand strategy.
Annemarie Selinko writes the novel as a diary kept by Desiree. Its tone is intimate and direct. The simple, unaffected and short sentences convey the romance and breathlessness of, first the French revolution and then that of vaulting ambition of generals. In Desiree, Selinko gets quite closer to a woman’s heart, if such a thing is ever possible.
The events that Desiree is privileged to witness are highly political but this is not a political novel. It’s a novel about trust, love and honour and how we react when confronted by events bigger than ourselves. It’s a must-read for you.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A Review

By John Cheeran
The Finkler Question raises many questions on morality, identity and friendship. Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize winning novel is witty and engaging but not an easy read.
Anyone who can write this line, “Death was his only serious rival,” must be good.
And, honestly, I don’t find that funny.
Jacobson, while portraying a gentile and former BBC worker Julian Treslove’s search for his imagined Jewish self in the company of his Jewish friends, gives an unconventional novel, a novel of political and moral relevance when pitted with today’s realities.
It’s about Jewishness but then it is much more than that.
In Jacobson’s own words: “This (The Finkler Question) is a novel about love, loyalty, memory and loss. Mainly it is about the way these things impinge on person to person love, but it is also about the way they impinge upon ideas, and Israel is an important contemporary idea.”
They say The Finkler Question is a comic novel but I find it deeply unsettling, and engaging in that sense. The fact that Jacobson is a Jew does not stop him mocking at the chosen people. But through Sam Finkler, the ashamed Jewish philosopher, Jacobson exposes the hypocrisy of those who hate Jewish people simply for being Jews and captures the fear of another wave of anti-Jewishness flowing from anti-Zionism.
The changing equations among the three friends – two Jews --Libor, Finkler -- and Gentile Treslove –,indeed, hold answers to our own dilemmas in this shifty world.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead thinkers, living ideas: A talk with historian and author Ramachandra Guha

Author and historian Ramachandra Guha calls Makers of Modern India, a book edited and introduced by him, as the public face of the Indian political tradition. In an interview with John Cheeran, Guha talks about how his 19 thinker-reformers hold a mirror to contemporary India and the rest of the world.


Dead thinkers, but living ideas. Was that the guiding principle behind this new anthology?

Yes. But I should add something else -- prose that is still accessible. There are many whose ideas are expressed in archaic, antiquarian prose. For example, spiritualists. We have Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Sree Narayana Guru. But translations of their work come across as stiff prose. The language, clarity was also important to me.

Why this book matters?

This book is a beginning of a conversation. It is not an end. This is an attempt to open up a new path. In one volume it gives a broad, comprehensive picture of our political tradition to readers. It has most of the important thinkers but not all.
The second objective of the book is to persuade other historians to dig deeper. Only Gandhi’s works are easily accessible. We don’t have Rajagopalachari, Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). What have I done is only selections. One could have an entire volume on each one of these thinkers. Also, I want to encourage more detailed research into these aspects of our political and intellectual history. It’s a kind of guide for average reader and an invitation to my fellow historians.
You always take Indian democracy for granted. Indian unity, you take it for granted. Indian democracy is alive as a result of the works of these men and women Makers of Modern India talks about. This book makes us aware of our tradition and critical appreciation.

Why were these 19 political thinkers chosen?
They are politicians and social reformers. They must be thinkers and doers. And their writings must be original. So I have left out Subash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel. Dead thinkers, living ideas and readable prose. Whether in English or translation they are talking about important issues. These 19 people wrote about all kind of issues. But I have selected only works that are still relevant to us. Some of Gandhi’s writings are not relevant. Same goes for C Rajagopalachari. What CR wrote about Ramayana, Mahabharata and all that does not matter now. I only selected those writings that are relevant to democracy, social life and the situation of India today.

You have written in the epilogue of Makers of Modern India that Tilak, Jinnah and Golwalkar have lost their relevance to the realities of today. Still they figure among the chosen 19?

Because they had a defining impact on modern India, positively and negatively. Jinnah and Golwalkar negatively. Because Jinnah set out certain positions people like Gandhi and Nehru were forced to emphasise the plural, multi-religious nature of India. Likewise with Golwalkar, from the side of Hindu extremism.
So they defined the parameters of the debate, they shaped how people responded. And in a negative sense, they influenced India. So they were also makers of India. Tilak was a great leader of freedom struggle and called for political emancipation and we have that now. In that sense Tilak is not so relevant to contemporary India.

Some surprising omissions from your list of 19 are Bose and Patel. Don’t they qualify as thinking politicians?

Yes. Their writings are very dull. They are not readable. Bose wrote a book called India’s Struggle but it is extremely dreary and verbose. Such writing would turn off people.
It is very important for a historian to guide the reader. So I have given references to biographies of Bose, Patel and, similarly, of Indira Gandhi.
Even though these people do not figure in my book, if a reader wants to find about more about them, they can find it.

Then, these 19 are only choices, not endorsements of a historian?

Yes, these are not endorsements. The book captures the diversity of thought. There is a wonderful essay by Lohia on English, arguing that it should be banished. The book also has an equally wonderful defence of English by Rajagopalachari. So what matters is the quality of debate on either side. Similarly, on caste. Gandhi says the primary responsibility for ending untouchability is with upper castes. But Ambedkar says it is not so and we will organise from below. So, competing perspectives are there.
On economic policy, Nehru and Rajagopalachari offer different views. The quality, diversity, flavour and richness of the debate which is essential for our democracy you get in Makers of Modern India. Without pushing my ideas down the reader’s throat, I guide them gently.

One can’t find a single factor binding your 19 makers of modern India. As you have said, there is only a connected political tradition, disputatious in nature, that informs the book…

There is a continuous referring back to the past. Tagore refers back to Rammohan Roy. Phule is reacting to Gokhale. A whole section is on Gandhi and his critics. Hamid Dalwai answers to Rammohan Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan. There is a continuous, self-referential approach.
They have made departures from what had happened before. I have tried to bring back the tradition of dispute into the book. Most of our people don’t understand that how rich and productive our traditions, political debates were.
Right now debates are very superficial, especially on television channels. You find crude, simple minded, superficial, ill-informed debates on major issues and public policies. It could be on affirmative action, it could be on terrorism, globalisation, functioning of parties, democracy, election, etc. The whole debate is ill-informed and shrill. I want to write many more books like this. Entire volumes on Rajagopalachari, Lohia, Dalwai and many others. This book, I hope, will lead to a much more improved political debate.

You are a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Apart from these two, who among the 19 you are fascinated with?

Most of the people I admire. Sixteen out of 19 them I admire. What has happened is that because it is so fashionable to attack Nehru today from all directions, left wing, right wing, because I have good things to say about Nehru, people focus more on that. Actually, as I said, I have a very, broad-minded, catholic approach to history. To me the five greatest Indians are Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Tagore and Rajagopalachari. Gandhi I would put slightly above others. Gandhi had a universal reach. Gandhi and Ambedkar are regarded as rivals but I admire both. Today we need most of these people. When I make some qualified defence of Nehru, in the face of concerted attack on him, people say I’m a worshipper of Nehru.
In my book, India After Gandhi, I pay a great deal of attention to the contribution of Patel. Patel played as an important a role that Nehru played in the early years. So in that sense there are a lot many Indians that I admire.

Do you think Nehru should have quit as prime minister much earlier than he did?

That’s a good question. He almost quit in 1958. In 1958, he took a long holiday – three weeks he went to Kashmir and thought about it, and almost quit. Possibly he could have nurtured a successor and we can’t say for sure. But it is sad that people think they can continue for ever. In Tamil Nadu there is Karunanidhi and LK Advani thinks he can become prime minister the next time.
It’s my view and I still stick to that Manmohan Singh should have quit in March –April 2009. He should have done only one term. He came in at a very difficult time, right? He came in 2004 against a backdrop of real polarisation of religious feeling, Gujarat riots, Kargil war, global terror, etc. If you look at the whole background he came in, we were really worried, all of us.
In March 2009, I actually met him and said “you should either come through Lok Sabha as a person in his own right or step down, saying that “I came at a difficult time and did a good five years. My work is done.” But the desire to cling on to power is there. And people now forget that he did a difficult job quite well when there was fear about many levels. So I think when to retire is a very difficult choice. In all spheres. Not just in politics. You know, Verghse Kurian, who contributed so much but eventually was kicked out of an organisation (Anand, Gujarat) which he built for sticking on even when he was a liability. Look at cricketer Kapil Dev and how long he kept Srinath out of the Indian team. It is very hard to judge when to retire. Mandela (Nelson) retired at the right time and transferred power. Yes, may be after two terms, Nehru should have retired in 1959 and thought of a transition.
Manmohan Singh is a good example (of not retiring at the right time). Now he is more of a lame duck prime minister. Tony Blair needed to be kicked out, so was Margaret Thatcher, she stayed 13 years and had to go finally.

While putting together this anthology, were there any surprising discoveries in terms of ideas, and even thinkers? For readers like me, Hamid Dalwai as a Muslim Nehru, is a revelation… You have done a similar thing in Corner of A Foreign field with Palwankar Baloo…

Surprising discoveries, in terms of ideas, certainly. In terms of thinkers, Hamid Dalwai is one. It was surprising and refreshing. I discovered him at a time when he was almost forgotten. The themes, yes. Rajagopalachari, I had read only as a critic of the licence-quota raj. But when I read deeply, I found his ideas about English language and his warnings about the need to control money power in elections highly pertinent.
Then there is Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). We know JP for his opposition to Indira Gandhi. But I found JP as a defender of ethnic minorities, including Kashmiris, Nagas, etc and these are still relevant today. For me, too, this book was a journey of education and understating. In that sense a quite pleasurable journey. But it was tough too. How much to keep of individual people’s writings in this book. There were many brilliant excerpts from Ambedkar and Gandhi which I could not include because of space constraints. All those decisions were to be made.
I want this book to be ready by everyone. Already enquiries have come about translations into Malayalam, Tamil, so that it will reach a wider audience.
I discovered Dalwai by accident. I saw his book called Muslim Politics In A Secular India at pavement in Bombay. And started reading him. This was a very long time ago. It must have been at least 15 years ago. The book was published in 1968 but now totally out of print. I was fascinated by his foresight. Then I had the good fortune to meet his translator Dilip Chitre, the late Marathi poet. So he told me more about Dalwai. He gave me the other articles by Dalwai and spoke about his background. How he came from the Konkan coast and all.

Were Dalwai’s writings the most difficult to access?

All were difficult. This book is the result of 15 years’ thinking and reflecting. It is not that I decided to compile the book 15 years ago. But for the last 15 years I have been reading and reflecting. If you look up the acknowledgements given in the book, you will see a quite few eccentric ones -- I have thanked Nehru Memorial Museum, and its staff. And I have also thanked secondhand bookshops. Makers of Modern India is based on books and pamphlets which are not available even at the most prestigious of libraries.
So 15 years ago, I was interested in these thinkers. Then 10 years ago, I started working on India After Gandhi. Then of course I had a long term interest in Gandhi. I’m now writing a two-volume biography of Gandhi. So all these things gave me a deeper understanding of these thinkers. So I decided I should bring all these in an accessible form for readers to learn about this extraordinary array of thinker-reformers. But this happened over a fairly long period of time. Over a long period of time, ideas were germinated and developed.
Then I started working on the book. How to select these thinkers, how to organise them and how to write the introduction.
I was working on India After Gandhi from 1999 onwards. In 2005 October, I published a critical review of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Then he replied to that. There was a debate. Then, consequentially, I decided to make my point.
It was a matter of curiosity. The world of emperor Asoka and the situations in the 19th and 20th centuries were different. The issues we are talking about now, gender equality, caste, freedom of the press, economic policy, industrialisation, linguistic diversity were unknown to Asoka. So in a sense those ideas of Asoka’s times were forgotten and not relevant to modern India.

You have, by careful selection, given fresh insights to these Makers of Modern India. For example, JP comes across as a defender of ethnic minorities, including Kashmiris, Nagas, etc. JP writes: “Constitutional integration has little meaning in the absence of emotional integration. It is impossible to hold down by force any sizeable population permanently. If we continue to do it, we cannot look the world straight in the face and talk of democracy and justice and peace.”

JP is so prescient and extraordinary in his views. How contemporary it is. It was written in 1964.

How do you think our political establishment would react to it?

The person this article should be shown to is LK Advani and ask him what he thinks about JP’s views. In the present establishment there are some sensible people, including the prime minister who thinks Kashmir is a genuine issue. But for political reasons they cannot openly acknowledge it but they know that it (Kashmir) cannot be permanently held down by force. Army and the security apparatus may want to do it. But we want emotional integration, not forcible, legal or political integration. JP’s article on Kashmir is a classic example of dead thinkers and living ideas.

A striking absence of gloom marks your writings about modern India. You are a great believer in the India story. Despite a plethora of problems you still consider India the most interesting country in the world. How pertinent is the Indian experience and makers of modern India to the rest of the world?

No, I’m not. That’s not true. My book says India is a 50-50 democracy. I’m a severe critic of our fault-lines. I’m an Indian democrat who wants to redeem and improve Indian democracy. You know, I don’t think in black and white, all right? There is a CIA view of the world and left-wing extremist view of the world. Leftwing extremists say India has a sham democracy. This book has so many critical essays on all aspects of our nation. Indian democracy is a work in progress. It’s a miracle.
Indian democracy and pluralism is hard-won. It will continue to be hard-won. We have to be vigilant about extremists. We have to be very attentive to the fault-lines. We have to continuously attend to renewing our institutions. And the processes. In that sense I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist.
I don’t believe in India story. I want a more peaceable and contented India. It’s a real struggle but what I don’t want is an India of 25 parts and that would be disastrous.
Southern states are a very good example. For example, Kerala. To think of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer wanted an independent Travancore. EV Ramaswamy wanted an independent Tamil nadu. That would have been disastrous for the country. The greatness of India is its diversity. The tragedy of India is the differentiation and inequality. Corruption of the political system.
These 19 thinkers in the book hold a mirror to us while holding a mirror to the rest of the world. India’s experiences can be central to a global debate.
In India After Gandhi I say that anticipation of our super stardom is premature. If the present trend continues one half will be like California and other half will be like sub-Saharan Africa.

Does putting together an anthology any way limit the role of a historian? Is this a less satisfying effort because you are only introducing the works of others to a wider audience?

I like doing anthologies. I did Picador Book of Cricket Writing. I have done three so far. I did an anthology of the writings of M Krishnan ---, Nature's Spokesman : M. Krishnan and Indian wildlife -- the naturalist, who wrote hundreds of wonderful columns on ecology, conservation but never a book. It’s a way of paying tributes. Bringing together diverse things under a connected theme.
I’m like a sutradhar. I’m behind the scenes. It’s complementary to my other work. Makers of Modern India is complementary to the work I have done for India After Gandhi.

How difficult an exercise was it to put together Makers of Modern India? You have dedicated this work to the selfless tribe of librarians…

It was pleasurable and difficult. Difficult because of the exclusions one had to make due to shortage of space. Each of these individuals deserves a whole book. Those who have been left out deserve another anthology.
We are very good on social history. Of peasants and workers. Or writing about political leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru. But not on intellectual history, history of ideas, how people argued and debated about culture, religion, language and democracy, justice, gender. Perhaps in regional languages there are some examples. In Malayalam there are good anthologies in the 19th century on arguments about religion, development, etc.

Makers of Modern India offers an entirely different picture of Indian politicians when compared to the current corrupt lot. Do you expect politicians to read your book?

I don’t think politicians of today are aware of their legacies. I hope politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh and including Aditya Thackeray read this.

You are the closet we have for a historian as a rock star. Any comments…

No, no.

But in the sense that you made history accessible to a wider audience...

There are several reasons for this. The first thing is that I don’t work in an ideological straitjacket. I’m a liberal. I’m a middle of the road, pro-liberal and open minded. Most Indian historians are ideological. Either they are Marxist or they are Congress or they are Hindutva. And someone is closer to Sonia Gandhi and someone is closer to Prakash Karat. And that is disastrous for a scholar.
The second thing is that, of course, you must write accessibly, devoid of jargons.
And the third thing is that you should be open to influences. I travel everywhere. I go to archives and research, I do that at my study. But I also go and meet people. I’m traveling all the time everywhere. Recently I have been in Vizag, Lucknow, Trivandrum, Trichur and Coimbatore and absorb things. It’s not like you and your books and students. There has to be a willingness to travel, to learn, to listen. And ready to constantly reformulate your positions. Ideological historians have a line and everything has to fit into that line. But I keep changing. It is very important to get out ideological straitjacket and academic constraints.

About Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and columnist based in Bangalore. He has taught at the universities of Yale, Stanford, Oslo and at the Indian Institute of Science. His books include a pioneering environmental history, The Unquiet woods and a social history of Indian cricket, A Corner of A Foreign Field. His India After Gandhi was chosen as a book of the year by The Economist, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle. Guha’s books and essays have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Indian politicians are ignorant of their legacies: Ramachandra Guha

By John Cheeran

Contemporary politicians are comprehensively ignorant of the legacies they claim to represent, says Ramachandra Guha, author and historian.
Guha was speaking at the launch of Makers of Modern India, a book edited and introduced by him and published by Penguin Books India.
Makers of Modern India is an anthology of the writings of 19 thinker-activists and includes stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru as well as unjustly forgotten thinkers such as Hamid Dalwai and Tarabai Shinde.
The author said the book was the result of an attempt to find out what contributed to Indian democracy and pluralism in 19th and 20 century. He said Indian democracy owes a lot to proximate traditions rather than emperors such as Asoka and Akbar.
Guha said Makers of Modern India is the public face of the Indian political tradition and writings included in the anthology are highly relevant to the contemporary realities. To illustrate his point Guha quoted BR Ambedkar, the maker of the Indian Constitution, “Bhakti in politics will put you on the road to degradation,” and added that Gandhis and Modis would do well to remember Ambedkar’s words.
Why no politician thinks like Ambedkar any more, asked Guha. Why today’s politicians are lacking the intelligence, literary skill and moral courage to tell the truth like their predecessors did, is a question the book would encourage readers to ask, Guha added. “The book is meant for every thinking Indian, and also for politicians,” Guha said.
Girish Karnad, playwright and author, while launching the Makers of Modern India bemoaned that though Karnataka has been responsive to ideas from all over the world, it has failed to produce many thinker activists equaling the stature of Guha’s 19. He attributed this to the fact that Mysore was under the thumb of British rule and what now constitutes the state was divided into four parts and there was little interaction among these units.
Karnad, however, added that Kannadigas should take solace at the inclusion of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a Gandhian and social reformer, whose sphere of work was far removed from the state in the later years.
Karnad said Guha has made the intellectual life of India extremely vibrant and recalled the historian’s confrontations with fellow intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen and Gayatri Spivak, a post-colonial theorist. Karnad said: “Guha throws up answers and raises new questions in his works and Makers of Modern India, too, does it well.”
Makers of Modern India starts with the first liberal Rammohan Roy and takes readers through Gandhi, Nehru, MS Golwalkar and ends with a single and singular individual – Dalwai, a Marathi speaking Muslim.
Notable exceptions from the list of 19 are Subash Chandra Bose and Vallabbhai Patel. Guha says their writings are ‘flat’.
Marxist thinkers are left out since they have not contributed any original ideas.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ram Janmasthan is in Ayodhya: A split verdict for national unity

By John Cheeran
Three judge Allahabad bench of Lucknow High Court has given a split verdict for national unity. The Ramajanmabhumi-Babri Masjid disputed land is to be divided into three parts --- Sunni Waqf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and Hindus – in what can be interpreted as an out-of-the-box judgment. Judges Sharma, Sudhir Agarwal and SU Khan delivered three separate judgments on the title dispute.
The bench rejected the claims of Sunni Waqf board and Nirmohi Akhara but in a reconciliatory gesture said that the land will be divided in three.
The most significant decision of the bench is that it affirms the place below the central dome of the disputed stricture is the birthplace of Ram. It also said prior to the construction of Babri Masjid in 1528, there was a temple structure at the site but it cannot be definitively said whether it was a Ram temple. The bench relied on the evidence presented by the Archeological Survey of India for this.
What emerges is that the bench has clearly gone beyond the brief given to it when one considers the fact that it pronounced that the place is Ramjanmasthan. It has apparently arrived at this decision considering the majority community’s faith and available evidence such as the ruins of a temple.
It also upheld the installation of Ram idols into the Babri Masjid on December 22, 23, 1949, arguing that there never was a Masjid to begin with at Ramjanmabhumi. The bench said as per the Islamic tenets a mosque will not have legitimacy if it is built over an existing place of worship by destroying it.
The court may have also taken into consideration the observation made by Justice JS Verma in 1994 that in Islam, Muslims can offers prayers at any place and therefore a mosque is not place that cannot be taken over by the state, claiming sanctity.
Of course, in a nutshell, the judgment of Allahabad Bench is a vindication of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the stance taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
It remains to be seen whether Indian Muslims will fight the legal battle and ensure that the long festering wound does not get any salve at all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The most famous mikes in Delhi now…

By John Cheeran
Who the hell are Mike Fennell and Mike Hooper?
Are they the new mikes for Commonwealth imperialism?
Are they George VI?
To order, shove and shout against Indians?
The ruckus created around two aspects -- of security and hygiene – by these two as New Delhi races towards hosting the Commonwealth Games is incredible. It has been spearheaded by two bureaucrats from Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF).
At most places, if you had perceived a problem of hospitality, you would not hold press conferences to castigate the hosts. There are many other ways to fix such issues. Why such niceties were not observed by Mikes?
And who are these gentlemen to issue deadlines to the Indian government? IANS reports that Fennell had given India a 24-hour deadline to clean up the Games Village!
The fact of the matter remains that Australian cricketers are currently in India. People do fly down to Delhi all corners of world despite the threats of Dengue, lax security, and floods. And dust.
If Ponting and his men can play in India, what’s the problem with rest of the Australian athletes? Ponting knows all these years he has been given regal hospitality wherever he has gone in India. May be better than Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, for that matter.
So, again, for whose common cause are Mikes are shouting from rooftop?
And why do we, especially our journalists, fret about national calamity and shame?
It’s time to get out of Commonwealth.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why is this national breast-beating over Commonwealth Games?

By John Cheeran

Ah! The sound of national breast-beating over the conduct of Commonwealth Games has turned me deaf.
Yes, we have goofed up certain things. Things could have been done better. Rs70,000 crore could have been put to better use.
But what has happened?
There is indignation and outcry from certain quarters. It is quite sad the outcry has been coming from the white supremacist and insular nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and England. They have been threatening over the last few days to pull out of the Commonwealth Games, citing a long list of reasons which includes inadequate security cover, poor hygiene and living conditions, etc.
Individual athletes have already announced their withdrawals, including Australia’s women’s world discus champion.
Lalit Bhanot, secretary of Amateur Athletic Federation of India and secretary of Commonwealth Games Organising Committee General secretary has a point when he spoke about different standards of cleanliness on Tuesday.
He may be wrong about standards of cleanliness.
But he is spot on when it comes to double standards.
India has a great tradition of hospitality. We also have infuriating approaches to getting things done which can unnerve others.
But the points – security and cleanliness – raised by white nations are merely points of posturing. Please remember, the kind of cleanliness and security these privileged class are quibbling over are 24x7 realities for people like you and me in New Delhi and elsewhere in Indian subcontinent. It also holds true for All the African nations, including South Africa.
Let me say this. This grandstanding of pulling out by a cabal of nations --- Australia, England, Scotland and New Zealand – is only that – grand standing.
Otherwise, it is going to be the end of Commonwealth as we know it.
But the most important guest for India, Pakistan, yes, they haven’t threatened us with a pullout, citing hygiene and security.
If there was any nation in the Commonwealth who should have used the current opportunity to settle political scores, it should have been Pakistan. But they are coming, amply explaining the point made by Bhanot the other day.
Everyone knows that no nation can afford to pull out of Commonwealth Games citing reasons such as security and hygiene. Montreal Olympics witnessed the massacre of Israeli athletes that did not turn Canada a sports pariah. People haven’t stopped flying into New York after 9/11.
But is there an assurance that terror won’t strike again the United States?
Just because of the collapse of a foot over bridge and false ceiling, it is juvenile of news organizations to cry SHAME, SHAME.
Let’s still cling onto to some reserve of self-respect and look at the brighter side. Yes, we will not have a large haul of medals. But let’s thank our political establishment for that. Imagine, following the Chinese model, turning our sports camps into gulags to produce champions to add to national luster.
Journalists are now comparing how China managed to stage Beijing Olympics with India’s amateurish efforts. Tonight I was told that venues for the 2010 Asian Games to be held in Guangzhou from November 12-27 is ready. But, then, in China, journalists will be invited only for the opening ceremony and will be given cues on when and where to clap their hands.
We, instead, have democracy. A third world democracy, that is. India has a different template even when it is going to put the rest of the world in it.
By the way, please understand that the comity of Commonwealth nations is too big than those who are making a hue and cry over the arrangements.
Today I went through the list of nations (as reported by AFP) that are scheduled to take part in the Delhi edition.
It is long. Be calm. The havoc is only on television studios. Cracks are on newspaper columns. Commonwealth Games is happening. Come on India.

Friday, September 17, 2010

KN Panikkar exposes fundamentalists in Kerala

By KN Panikkar in The HIndu

A lecturer with Newman College in the town of Thodupuzha in Kerala, T.J. Joseph, was brutally attacked on July 4, 2010, allegedly by members of a fundamentalist group. It was an act of retribution: Mr. Joseph had framed a question for an examination for his students in the college, which offended their religious sentiments. The punishment meted out by the aggrieved group was to chop off his palm: it was reminiscent of medieval practices.

The authorities of the college, apparently endorsing the claim of the fundamentalists, suspended the ‘delinquent' teacher and ordered an enquiry. The enquiry committee concluded that he had deliberately subscribed to an activity that promoted feelings of enmity between different communities/ religions.

The controversial question paper by itself had not lead to any manifest enmity between different religious communities, as the enquiry report had suspected. But the fundamentalists created a law and order situation by resorting to rioting.

Consequently, the lecturer was dismissed from service, and thus debarred from “future employment in any of the institutions maintained by or affiliated to the university.”

Mr. Joseph had had no record of communal bias or instigation during his career in the college. He is reported to have been a conscientious teacher with a rapport with students and cordial relations with colleagues: this is evident from the public testimony of students. To them his dismissal was thoroughly unexpected, and they struck work demanding his reinstatement. But the college authorities did not relent. They took the position that they would reconsider their action only if the Muslim community made an appeal to reinstate him, or the court issued an order to that effect. A highly irrational act was thus sought to be imbued with legal respectability and given a communal character.

This incident is symptomatic of the creeping influence of fundamentalism that has led to violence in the country at large and certain recent outbursts in Kerala. What has happened to Mr. Joseph is also indicative of the vulnerability of academic space and the authoritarian tendencies of certain managements of educational institutions in the State. Mr. Joseph almost lost a limb (it has since been reattached through a difficult surgical procedure) to the brutality of religious fundamentalism, and he has now been deprived of his job by an insensitive and inhumane college management. While the fundamentalists resorted to the act in order to terrorise the ‘deviants' and ensure that their religious fiats are carried out by all, the college management saw it as an opportunity to enforce discipline and to nip in the bud the influence of critical and rational thinking. Both actions are highly deplorable. Unfortunately, these have not led to a sufficiently strong reaction from the public.

It appears that there is ambiguity in the public mind about Mr. Joseph's own role. The reason is that the charge against him involves meddling with religious sentiments. Although new religions and sects emerge out of non-conformism and as a critique of the present, the established religions mostly see their interest to be linked with the status quo. That was perhaps why the Catholic Church was not moved by appeals to their humanitarian and philanthropic credentials. The Church has now issued a pastoral letter supporting and justifying the action of the college management. It is surprising that in a State that is surcharged by protests and a variety of public interest litigation processes, except for teachers' and students' organisations the liberal intelligentsia has not come forward in defence of Mr. Joseph.

The ‘crime' he committed was to frame a question by reproducing a conversation between God and ‘Muhammad' from a text written by film-maker P.T. Kunhi Mohammed, who is a believer. The ‘mistake' he made was to change the name of the character of a lunatic in the original, to ‘Muhammad.' The fundamentalist group was enraged by the use of the name of the Prophet.

Why Mr. Joseph changed the name is unknown. He is reported to have stated that he was not influenced by any religious reason but used a shorter version of Mr. Kunhi Mohammed's work. ‘Muhammad' is a popular name among Muslims, and there is nothing in the text of the question paper to suggest that it was the Prophet who was implied. Nor did it contain any critique of any religion — including Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.

But to a fundamentalist group that resorts to terror tactics as an instrument of coercion, it provided an opportunity to further its cause. Among Hindus, Rama and Krishna are popular names and are worshipped as incarnations of god. Imagine a situation in which a reference to these names, in literature or academic texts or in a question paper, is considered blasphemous! If this happens, soon writers will find it difficult to give a name to their characters.

That fundamentalists indulge in such irrational behaviour is not surprising. They still live in medieval times, and with hardly any respect for human values. But that cannot be expected from those who have taken the responsibility of imparting education to people. The authorities of Newman College where Mr. Joseph has taught for 25 years quickly took the questionable step of first suspending and then dismissing him — all in the name of communal harmony and secularism.

Unfortunately, they did not realise that the greatest threat to secularism and communal harmony is religious fundamentalism. That is why the management's offer to withdraw the dismissal orders if the Muslim community made an appeal for such a withdrawal, becomes self-contradictory. The management seems to have overlooked the fact that by doing so it was reinforcing the communal, and not secular, consciousness. What was done would only help legitimise the fundamentalist forces and not strengthen secularism, as the college authorities claim. In fact, they should have stood by Mr. Joseph and defended his academic freedom as a teacher. Instead, they compromised with fundamentalism and extended to it a helping hand — also sullying the Christian character of the institution.

It is high time that the managements of public-funded private institutions are brought under a democratic structure, so that healthy norms prevail in these institutions and higher education becomes accessible to larger sections of the population, including the poor. It is to be hoped that either through legal intervention or democratic struggles Mr. Joseph would be reinstated, or adequately compensated.

But the brutality of the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the irresponsibility of educational entrepreneurs on the other, have already vitiated the academic atmosphere. In order to overcome this situation, new steps are called for, both from the part of the government and civil society.

It also raises the larger, even if contentious, issue of the management of education in Kerala. Since 1984, the government, through a system of financial aid, meets the entire expenses towards payment of salary and maintenance of private colleges. The share of the management is meagre. What the managements typically do, however, is to milk these institutions through various means. It is common knowledge that most of these colleges indulge in corrupt practices, both in the matter of appointment of teachers and grant of admission to students. Since there is practically no control exercised by the government or the universities over aided institutions, many managements treat colleges as a source of income. Some of them also fatten their purses by conducting self- financing courses, utilising facilities created by public funds. The Central government has introduced in Parliament a Bill to prevent the prevalent unfair practices in the field of education. How far it will succeed in doing so is anybody's guess.

Religious fundamentalists are on the rise among Muslims and Hindus. Permitting them to influence the practices of education has long-term implications. The most dangerous possibility is the state of social and political consciousness such compromises would produce. Compromising with religious fundamentalism, as the authorities of Newman College have done, is likely to lead the country to Talibanism.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why values should matter…

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes..
“China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.
In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, and as long as that is the case we’ll be No. 11!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li: A Review

By John Cheeran
People are the most dangerous animals in the world, says teacher Gu while recalling how his only daughter Shan was betrayed as a counter revolutionary by her boyfriend in the Chinese immigrant author Yiyun Li’s debut novel The Vagrants.
Living in a totalitarian state Gu cannot be blamed for losing faith in himself and those around him. Betrayals often come from the most intimate and beloved people in one’s life as the teacher realises. Gu, at the end of his tether, is still left guessing whether his first wife used him as an anticipatory bail if the revolution did not take off.
Between two executions Li tries to portray a picture of China coming to terms with the immediate aftermath of the end of Cultural Revolution in 1978.
The Vagrants, which won the Guardian’s First Book Award, promises a lot but fails to deliver in the end. The lack of a central character to build her story saps the energy from Li’s narrative.
You expect a certain kind of stories from a writer who has left behind a totalitarian state. It’s almost a habit now. In that context, much of what the US-based Li, 38, writes fits in with readers’ idea of a stifling atmosphere.
In Li’s China, God is Communist party. In Red Star school, young Tong is reminded of how much the Party cares for its children. “Everybody’s equally loved by the party, but when someone makes a mistake, just as when a child makes a mistake, the party will not let a single wrongdoer slip by.”
Not much of that situation has been changed, if you recall the kind of elaborate arrangements the Party made to prevent the Chinese converging on Tiananmen Square on the 20th anniversary of the suppression of the student protest last year. Till now, there has been no recrudescence of Tiananmen Square.
The Vagrants starts on a somber note. Li evocatively portrays the emotional trauma teacher Gu and his wife faces, preparing for the day of public denunciation and execution of their only daughter, Shan, condemned to death after being branded as a counter-revolutionary by the Party.
It is teacher Gu who shines through this bleak novel, despite his doubts and disappointments, putting counter revolutionaries such as Shan and Kai into the shade. Despite being a teacher revered by villagers, Gu, however, could not determine his daughter’s fortunes.
Shan, revolutionary-turned-counter-revolutionary, we watch only from a distance and get to know through the reminiscences of her parents.
The angst, in the aftermath of Shan’s execution, comes home to roost with Kai, the voice of the revolution. The big change and support that Kai and Jialin expected from Beijing never arrive and the protest fizzles out with another bullet.
In the end you agree with teacher Gu. The only way to live on, he had known most of his adulthood, was to focus on the small patch of life in front of one’s eyes.

Title: The Vagrants
Author: Yiyun Li
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: 7.99 pounds
Pages: 338
John Cheeran at Blogged