Book Review

Sea of Poppies – Short Review

The amount of research gone into the work is simply astounding. But as a piece of literature its appeal is limited. I would recommend the book only to those patient enough to read 500 pages long of agony and gloom our forefathers have been subjected to. A masterpiece, Sea of Poppies shows what happens when painstaking research over shadows literary flourish.

 

P.S. – Will write a bigger one later.

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Book Review, Gandhi, India, Indian Politics, Narendra Modi, Review

Book Review : Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

I rewrote the Review for a magazine, which I think is better than the original review. I am publishing it here in my blog.

The book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire is written by Alex von Tunzelmann, a British historian. Tunzelmann was educated in Brighton and at University College, Oxford. She has contributed to The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman, The Truth About Markets by John Kay, Does Education Matter? by Alison Wolf, and Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence. She has been recognized as a Financial Times Young Business Writer of the Year. Most recently she has collaborated with Jeremy Paxman on his book, On Royalty. Recently, she has begun writing a weekly column for The Guardian entitled “Reel history”, in which she discusses and rates popular films for their historical accuracy. India Summer is her first book and was released in 2007. Red Heat. Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, 2011, covers the relationship of the United States with Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti during the time of the Cold War.

Indian Summer focuses on that period of Indian history when India was fighting a war of its own which had been clouded by the much larger war going on in the world. Our traditional understanding of Indian history is dominated by left – leaning narratives. Most of the books which deal with the ‘Modern History’ of India, usually gains speed with the Battle of Plassey of 1757 which seals the question of Anglo- French rivalry in India. The Battle of Buxar which takes place 7 years later establishes the British as one among top powers in Indian subcontinent. This narrative of Indian history meanders through various ups and downs involving 1st War of Indian Independence in 1857, jumping next to the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the Moderate – Extremist tussle, the Surat split of Congress, the 1916 merger and Lucknow pact, arrival of Gandhi, the Non-cooperation Movement of 1922, Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930, the passing of Government of India act 1935 and subsequent formation of Congress governments in various provinces, the Second World War and Quit India Movement, Arrival of Mountbatten, Partition and finally Independence. Nearly 190 years of history is compressed into books of some 500 pages long and is passed off as a thorough look at the various aspects of history; when the authors and readers themselves know that it is an impossible task to capture in a single book, even the various strands of our national movement, leave alone the entire duration from the arrival of British to their exit. It is one of the reasons, why the division of Indian history into ancient, medieval and modern, following the standard western practice, makes little sense.

Especially glossed over are those final years of Independence when readers are overwhelmed by the countless number of frantic attempts by both the Indian and British sides to reach an amiable solution to the question of Independence and the then elephant in the room, Partition. Hence we see a series of solutions following one after the other in quick succession: August Offer, Cripps Mission, Rajagopalachari Formula, Desai – Liaqat Pact, Wavell plan, Cabinet Mission and finally the Mountbatten Plan which eventually gets converted into Indian Independence Act 1947. But the amount of painful discussions gone into them, the thought process that went behind the decision, the names of those invisible men and women who held the strings of the political puppets, remain unacknowledged and rightly so. After all, the traditional historians are only trying to present the important milestones of our national movement and not write an encyclopaedia. It’s a different fact that those who were indeed entrusted by the government to write encyclopaedias only siphoned off the funds and later turned up empty handed with flimsy excuses. The curious case of how these very researchers ended up publishing many history books on their own is detailed in ‘Eminent Historians’ by the inimitable Arun Shourie.

One of the more famous accounts of those final days is given in the book Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which is more of a hagiography of Mountbatten than a serious attempt at chronicling the history.

Among such books, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, with a better access to resources and a relatively novel attempt at narrating the final days of Independence, does stand out. The book is different from others of the same genre in such a way that it is less about a historical period and more about some of the key personalities – namely India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the last viceroy of India Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina Mountbatten – who shaped those crucial moments of our Independence movement. The author narrates incidents from the protagonists’ early days, leading up to the moment of their meeting, the influences they had on each other, how it continued to influence them even post  Independence and how all this inadvertently shaped India’s destiny.

Indian Summer is one of those new kinds of history books that tries to present nuggets of tinnient information interspersed along with the actual narrative. Hence we find that during the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, a police constable Gangadhar Nehru and his wife Indrani who were fleeing Delhi, were almost caught because their daughter looked as pale as an English girl; that Winston Churchill had suggested to have Gandhi-ji “bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and let the viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample the Mahatma into the dirt.”; that Annie Besant had identified Prince Edward as the re-incarnation of Akbar and that the young prince “was not over-pleased at the idea of having been a black man” and so on.

As a side track history, Tunzelmann has also recorded the Mountbattens’ activities in London. Louis Mountbatten, known as Dickie to his friends, had been the right hand of Edward VIII. Tunzlemann recounts what an appalling disaster a young Edward’s India visit had been in the 1920s. One is reminded of the Downton Abbey scene where it is told “The Prince did splendidly, sir. He was so popular wherever he went” when in reality the tour was a mess wherever he went – Bombay, UP, Delhi, Madras. Tunzelmann says ‘the prince‘s tour had revealed the acute unpopularity of the British in India.’

Departing from the usual historians, Tunzelmann focuses on some of the key female personas of those times – a Lady Macbethesque Fatima Jinnah; the lovelorn Padmaja Naidu, who had smashed the portrait of Edwina on finding out that a visit by Jawaharlal, apparently to propose to her did not turn out quite the way she wanted it to be; the calm, composed and responsible first female Cabinet minister Amrit Kaur; and of course Edwina Mountbatten, who, in a way, is the protagonist of the book.  She writes “Women were prominent in Indian politics, a trend which Edwina Mountbatten, along with many Indian women, attributed to Gandhism. Nonviolence, passive resistance and boycotts were all tactics which could be practiced by women without breaking social conventions. As a result, there were more powerful women in India‘s Congress than there were in Britain‘s Labour Party or in the United States‘ Democratic Party at the time”

But the author loses the plot when it comes to certain details regarding other Indian leaders. It may be because they do not have personalities as colourful as Nehru and the Mountbattens; but much attention has not been given to the details about Bose and Patel. Hence Bose is described as a right-wing leader while Patel is projected as a Hindutva leader who would have been bad choice as the Prime Minister. When contacted, she responded that she stands by her views on Patel and Bose. She also soft-pedals the role played by Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, with the general tone of her writing suggesting that some-how it was the well-intentioned budding nation of Pakistan that was wronged by the arrogant new power India under the strong-man Home Minister Patel, with Nehru unable to do anything since his hands were tied because of public pressure. But then again, her chapter on Kashmir is well worth a read since it explains the circumstances from a British point-of-view and gives some justification for referring the issue to United Nations. The final chapter also seems unnecessary; meandering into territories which do not suit the general setting of the book.

A book which shares similar topic with Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer is Ramachandra Guha’s voluminous India After Gandhi. Though Guha’s book is a work on the Independent India, topics such as Partition, Kashmir, the influence of Mountbatten, consolidation of Princely states are dealt in both, albeit with varying levels of indulgence. Indian Summer has a slight flair for theatrics while India After Gandhi uses a more tempered language, though it is amusing to note that Guha does not mind peddling half – truths about the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his ‘magisterial work’ . Hence while Guha stops with how the Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyer ‘used to launch an excoriating attack on Gandhi’, Tunzelmann doesn’t mince any words and quotes the Dewan that he had files which contained cuttings to prove that Gandhi was a dangerous sex maniac who could not keep his hands off  young girls. Like India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra, Tunzelmann doesn’t try to present a picture perfect situation and treads the dangerous territory of the internal lives of Nehru and Mountbatten. She leaves the more bromide way of chronicling to other historians and livens up the whole exercise using trinkets of amusing anecdotes. For example we see how Jinnah deliberately turned up late for a party thrown up Mountbatten. When asked about it, he replied ― “My boy do you think I would come to this damn man‘s party on time? I purposely came late to show him I despise him.”; how when the Maharaja of Jodhpur met the ever so percipient V P Menon, he had “pulled out a pistol concealed behind the nib of a very large fountain pen and screamed that he would ―shoot him down like a dog if he betrayed the starving people of Jodhpur.”

Indian Summer, in fact, is not so much of an extended gossip column as has been advertised in many places. It mainly speaks about the fears, aspirations, indecisiveness and hopes of Mountbatten, Edwina, Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi during the beginning of a new era in the world’s history. It is a decent effort, but none the less, admirable.

Book Review, Gandhi, India, Indian Politics, Politics, Review

Thoughts on ” Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire “

Lady-Edwina-and-Lord-Loui-001
Edwina Mountbatten, Louis Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

Thus begins Alex Von Tunzelmann’s amusing work Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire , chronicling the final days of Indian Independence. The book’s cover shows the first Prime Minister enjoying the twinkle in the last Vicerine’s eyes, while a sharply dressed last Viceroy looks the other way. That pretty much sums up the gossip rendered via the book.

Indian Summer is one of those new kinds of history books that tries to present nuggets of tinnient information interspersed along with the actual narrative. Hence we find that during the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, a police constable Gangadhar Nehru and his wife Indrani who were fleeing Delhi, were almost caught because their daughter looked as pale as an English girl; that Winston Churchill had suggested to have Gandhi-ji “bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and let the viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample the Mahatma into the dirt.”; that Annie Besant had identified Prince Edward as the re-incarnation of Akbar and that the young prince “was not over-pleased at the idea of having been a black man” and so on.

As a departure from the usual historians, Tunzelmann focuses on some of the key female personas of those times – a Lady Macbethesque Fatima Jinnah; the lovelorn Padmaja Naidu, who had smashed the portrait of Edwina on finding out that a visit by Jawaharlal, apparently to propose to her did not turn out quite the way she wanted it to be; the calm, composed and responsible first female Cabinet minister Amrit Kaur; and of course Edwina Mountbatten, who, in a way, is the protagonist of the book.  She writes “Women were prominent in Indian politics, a trend which Edwina Mountbatten, along with many Indian women, attributed to Gandhism. Nonviolence, passive resistance and boycotts were all tactics which could be practiced by women without breaking social conventions. As a result, there were more powerful women in India‘s Congress than there were in Britain‘s Labour Party or in the United States‘ Democratic Party at the time”

Edwina, dressed for the coronation of George VI, 1937
Edwina, dressed for the coronation of George VI, 1937

Edwina comes across as the archetypical heroine struggling with her internal conflicts. She is temerarious, she is magnanimous in charity, a lone rebel in her high society filled with a nimiety of princoxes, she is a passionate lover. Tunzelmann sets aside a considerable portion of the book in psycho-analysing her and her relations with various men including our first Prime Minister while simultaneously showcasing how the Vicerine outshined her husband in issues related to administration and relief work. The author points out how, when Lady Mountbatten noticed that the a refugee hospital camp was devoid of lamps, she had struggled to obtain one from the brigadier in New Delhi; how she took special care to pass the Nursing Council Bill before Partition through lobbying; how her friendship with Nehru boosted her left-leaning political beliefs; how Edwina had “trudged for hours around the grim hovels in which many thousands of the city‘s poor lived” and so on.

At the same time, the author, whose flair for dramatic theatrics is visible throughout the pages, gives rivetting details of Nehru and Edwina’s complex relationship. I leave here a lone paragraph so as not to play a spoil sport. “There is an intriguing tale told by S. S. Pirzada, later foreign minister of Pakistan, that Jinnah had been handed a small collection of letters that had been written by Edwina and Jawahar. ―Dickie will be out tonight—come after 10:00 o‘clock, said one of Edwina‘s. Another revealed, ―You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up. A third said, ―I have fond memories of Simla—riding and your touch.

The drama doesn’t end with just this curious romance, but inevitably extends to the power politics of the time. The issues of freedom and dominion formation has been explained in a more bromide, but none the less, academic manner in Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Tunzelmann has livened up the whole exercise using trinkets of amusing anecdotes. For example we see how Jinnah deliberately turned up late for a party thrown up Mountbatten. When asked about it, he replied ― “My boy do you think I would come to this damn man‘s party on time? I purposely came late to show him I despise him.”; how when the Maharaja of Jodhpur met the ever so percipient V P Menon, he had “pulled out a pistol concealed behind the nib of a very large fountain pen and screamed that he would ―shoot him down like a dog if he betrayed the starving people of Jodhpur.”. Interestingly, she has also included the infamous comment by Travancore Diwan C P Ramaswamy Aiyer when he had met Mountbatten, that he had files which contained cuttings to prove that Gandhi was a dangerous sex maniac who could not keep his hands off  young girls.

As a side track history, Tunzelmann has also tracked the Mountbatten’s activities in London. Louis Mountbatten, known as Dickie to his friends, had been the right hand of Edward VIII. Tunzlemann recounts what an appalling disaster a young Edward’s India visit had been in the 1920s. One is reminded of the Downton Abbey scene where it is told “The Prince did splendidly, sir. He was so popular wherever he went” when in reality the tour was a disaster wherever he went – Bombay, UP, Delhi, Madras. Tunzelmann says ‘the prince‘s tour had revealed the acute unpopularity of the British in India.’

Indian readers may be amused to know that the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, is the nephew of Mountbatten and that he chiselled the Duke’s life into what it is now. There is also an interesting note about the later life of the Mountbatten, where a military coup by Mountbatten against the then Labour Government of Harold Wilson was stymied only because of the intervention of Queen Elizabeth, who was greatly influenced by Mountbatten in turn during her formative years. In fact, Prince Charles considered Mountbatten like a father figure to the extent that when Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, he had written in his journal that he had lost a “combined grand-father, great uncle, father, brother and friend. Life will never be the same now that he has gone”.

Winston Churchill comes across as a pervicacious blimp and rightly so. An adequate amount of space has been provided to the minimal yet important role Churchill played during the 1940s. In fact, there is ineluctable evidence to show that Jinnah had an active support of Churchill and it was only through Churchill that Jinnah could have been controlled. In more than one instance, it is shown how Jinnah took the advice of Churchill and toned down his demands, thereby making thing easier for the British. On the other side, Mountbatten had a profound influence on Jawaharlal Nehru, and continued to have it, many years post independence, to the extent that when Nehru passed away the British High Commission in Delhi complained ― Now that Nehru is gone we shall no longer have the enormously valuable access to the India Government‘s inner councils which Lord Mountbatten‘s personal friendship with him gave us at crucial moments.

Nehru with Kennedys
Kennedys’ India Visit

Nehru and the Mountbattens shared a very complex relation from what it seems. Louis Mountbatten had immense admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru as a liberal leader and in turn Nehru felt that Mountbatten was India’s true friend in Britain. In a cinematic twist, both the men were madly in love with the same woman – Edwina. In hindsight it can be said that Mountbatten’s love for her was much more intense because he allowed her to carry on the affair with Jawaharlal Nehru and actively facilitated it, by suddenly coming up with reasons to leave home for long hours especially when Nehru visited the Mountbatten residence. Nehru on the other hand, had always been able to find love in almost every corner except in his wife. The author gives an interesting anecdote about Nehru’s US visit in 1961. “Kennedy brought up a range of topics which usually interested Nehru very much—Berlin, Vietnam, nuclear testing, Indo-Pakistani relations—and yet the Indian premier seemed out of sorts and could not be induced to grunt out more than a sentence or two in reply. That evening Nehru dined with Kennedy. During the dinner, Nehru eased up considerably—not least, noted Galbraith, because he ―had sat between Mrs. Kennedy and her sister and with the light of love in his eyes. The rest of the trip went without a hitch.”

But the author loses the plot when it comes to certain details regarding other Indian leaders. It may be perhaps they do not have as colourful personalities like Nehru and the Mountbattens, but much attention has not been given to the details about Bose and Patel. Hence Bose is described as a right-wing leader while Patel is projected as a Hindutva leader who would have been bad choice as the Prime Minister. She also soft-pedals the role played by Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, with the general tone of her writing suggesting that some-how it was the well-intentioned budding nation of Pakistan that was wronged by the arrogant new power India under the strong-man Home Minister Patel, with Nehru unable to do anything since his hands were tied because of public pressure. But then again, her chapter on Kashmir is well worth a read since it explains the circumstances from a British point-of-view and gives some justification for referring the issue to United Nations. The final chapter also seems unnecessary; meandering into territories which do not suit the general setting of the book.

Indian Summer, in fact, is not so much of an extended gossip column as has been advertised in many places. It mainly speaks about the fears, aspirations, indecisiveness and hopes of Mountbatten, Edwina, Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi during the beginning of a new era in the world’s history. It is a curate’s egg of an effort, but none the less, admirable. I end this review with one of the more lachrymal episodes of the book.

At 7:30 the next morning, the Turners‘ secretary knocked on Edwina‘s door. There was no reply. She opened it to see the Countess Mountbatten of Burma lying on the bed. Her body was already cold. She had suffered heart failure a few hours before. Still one of the world‘s richest women, she had had no splendid possessions with her; only a pile of old letters on the bedside table. She must have been reading them when she died, for a few, having fluttered from her hands, were strewn across her bed. They were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.

Edwina had a horror of being interred in the claustrophobic family vault at Romsey Abbey and had asked her husband to bury her ―in a sack at sea. HMS Wakeful was offered by the Admiralty and sailed from Portsmouth. The coffin was discharged into the waves from beneath a Union Jack. Mountbatten, in tears, kissed a wreath of flowers before throwing it into the sea. The Wakeful was escorted by an Indian frigate, the Trishul. Jawaharlal Nehru had sent it all the way to the English Channel, just to cast a wreath of marigolds into the waves after Edwina‘s coffin.

Book Review

Reading List for 2014

As the year draws to a close, I recount my first blog  of 2013 where I had listed a few books which I had intended to read.

  1.  A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar – KA Nilakanta Sastri
  2. India Grows at Night: A liberal case for a strong state – Gurcharan Das
  3. India Unbound
  4. India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy Ramachandra Guha

 

The above listed books are four of the twenty books I had listed, which I had completed. Despite not reading the other 16, I in fact, managed read a decent number of many other books. It is my bad that I did not list them properly. May be I should I have done it. Rookie mistakes are so annoying! (Read that in Frank Underwood’s voice.)

I have made a list for 2014 – a mixed bag of books dominated by non-fictions . The list is pretty long and I intend finish reading them, because the topics are so interesting. I am going to list them here based on various genres.

2014 – Reading List

Self Development and Human Psychology

  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  2. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
  3. Gretchen Rubin – The Happiness Project (epub)
  4. The Irrational Bundle – Dan Ariely – Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty
  5. Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Daniel Pink -Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  7. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers – VS Ramachandran
  8. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Paperback) Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein

 

International Relations and World History

  1. The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
  2. The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman
  3. Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty
  4. Forbidden Nation – A History of Taiwan Jonanthan Manthorpe
  5. Liberal Fascism The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning Jonah Goldberg
  6. Glimpses of World History Jawaharlal Nehru
  7. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William L. Shirer
  8. The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Socities – Jared Diamond
  9. Currency Wars – The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards
  10. Mao’s Great Famine – The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958 – 62 – Frank Dikotter
  11. D- Day The Battle For Normany by Antony Beevor
  12. Lawrence in Arabia, War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East – Scott Anderson
  13. The Darker Nations A People’s History of the Third World- Vijay Prashad
  14. The Revenge of Geography Robert Kaplan
  15. On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
  16. Water for Sale: How Business and the Market Can Resolve the World’s Water Crisis by Fredrik Segerfeldt
  17. China A History (Paperback) by John Keay
  18. The Prabhakaran Saga by S. Murari
  19. Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

 

Must Read Books on International Relations and World History

  1. Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel–The Fates of Human Societies
  2. Karl Polanyi – The Great Transformation
  3. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics – John J. Mearsheimer
  4. Man, the State and War – A Theoretical Analysis – Kenneth N Walktz
  5. Perception and Misperception in International Politics by Robert Jervis
  6. Red Capitalism The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary by Carl E Walter and Fraser J T Howie
  7. Seeing Like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed + James Scott
  8. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics John J Mearsheimer
  9. Unbroken – A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption – Laura Hillenbrand

 

Specialised History

  1. The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource [Leonardo Maugeri]
  2. Plutonium A History of The World’s Most Dangerous Element
  3. Salt a World History
  4. Spice – Jack Turner
  5. The Prize – The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power by Daniel Yergin
  6. The Emporer of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  7. The Nothing That Is – A Natural History Of Zero   Robert Kaplan

 

Military, Wars and Conflict

  1. On Killing – The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman
  2. Confronting Tyranny Ancient Lessons for Global Politics Edited by Toivo Koivukoski and David Edward Tabachnick
  3. The Origins of Violence Religion, History and Genocide by John Docker
  4. Dirty Dealing – The Untold Truth About Global Money Laundering, International Crime and Terrorism – Peter Lilley
  5. Terrorism and Global Disorder  Political Violence in the Contemporary World by Adrian Guelke
  6. Enemy Combatants, Terrorism, and Armed Conflicts A Guide to the Issues – Edited by David K. Linnan
  7. The Psychology of Terrorism – John Horgan
  8. The Mind of The Terrorist – The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda

 

Books on Pakistan

  1. Pakistan: A New History Ian Talbot
  2. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – M J Akbar
  3. Magnificent Delusions Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding
  4. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan; by Ayesha Jalal
  5. Jinnah: Creator of Pakistan, by Hector Bolitho
  6. Jinnah of Pakistan, by Stanley Wolpert
  7. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic identity: the Search for Saladin; by Akbar S. Ahmed
  8. The Idea of Pakistan, by Stephen P. Cohen
  9. The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History Edited by Ayesha Jalal
  10. The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan by K.K. Aziz
  11. New Perspectives on Pakistan Visions for the Future Edited, by Saeed Shafqat
  12. The Enigma That is Pakistan : Travel Memoirs from the ‘Land of the Pure’  Shivendra Kumar Singh
  13. Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb  by Feroz Hassan Khan

 

Miscellaneous

  1. Conversations with Myself – Nelson Mandela
  2. Basic Writings of Nietzsche [trans. Kaufmann]
  3. Midnight’s Children
  4. Haruki Murakami – Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood

 

 

Barry Fairbrother, Book Review, Casual Vacancy, Dementors, Dumbledore, Fats, Harry Potter, Howard Mollisson, J K Rowling, Krystal Weedon, Pagford, Review, Snape, Sukhwinder Jawanda

Casual Vacancy – A Review


Image Source – The Telegraph
If anyone had any doubt, what kind of a personality J K Rowling is, even after killing off Dumbledore and Snape; who, incidentally, needn’t have attained the current adoration had he not died, then their questions are laid to rest with this book – she is incomparably dark and gloomy for a person who is richer than the godforsaken Queen herself. I had pre-ordered the book in Flipkart, who were kind enough to avail me no benefits of having done so, by delivering the book almost a week late and charging, more than what the other websites usually do. Casual Vacancy was thicker and larger than any book I had read, that I felt initially a rush of happiness for having bought it. My thought was something like this – “So what if I may not like the book, at least people will be impressed that I read something twice as big as a brick”.
Coming back to some real pointers on the book, one word would suffice – A Dementor’s Paradise. Readers of Harry Potter would know that Dementors are those vile beings who suck out the happiness from our life and sometimes our soul too as has been partially demonstrated towards the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban and the beginning of The Order of The Phoenix. The small town Pagford has just lost its  Parish Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and Pagfordians, both who are on his side and on the opposite, react in different ways to the vacancy incumbent upon them. Through these varying reactions, Rowling tries to bring out the grey shades in seemingly good people and the insecurity suffered by seemingly negative women and men we see in our lives and gives them a touch of authenticity that ends up being brutally painful sometimes.
·         Storyline and Themes
The story is political on surface level. An ideological fight between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, between conservatives and liberals, between right and left; and the author doesn’t make any effort to hide whom she supports, though to her credit, she has been consistent in that, she has always espoused liberal ideologies, even in her popular Harry Potter series, which also, in certain angles, is a fight between conservatives and liberals, rather than just about an orphaned boy. But there is the undercurrent that those who are on the left side of the political spectrum can be unreasonable, although, in the end, they are well-intentioned, while on the other hand, the traditionalists are silly and bullies, who eventually try to win by hook or crook.
            J K Rowling had once told in an interview that ever since she had received the news of her mother’s demise, she had always made it a point to make death a larger than life, inevitable villain in all her books. She continues to do so in the book, giving Death, a life for itself, constantly reminding others how fickle life is. The novel takes occasional breaks from the all encompassing gloominess in the form of dark humour, drawing generous contributions from the Howard-Shirley-Maureen-Samantha Mollissons.
            A lot of contemporary themes have been sown in craftily by Rowling, including the abuse of technology – online bullying and hacking for instance; friendship, loyalty and the subsequent moral turmoil we inflict upon ourselves; infidelity in marriage and so on. But most striking is the parts which showcase the friendships, especially about the private friendships we have within our minds with someone else, though not in real life. Thus we have Sukhwinder always remembering Krystal with gratitude in her mind, Gavin’s sudden realisation of his friendship with Barry Fairbrother, Stuart admitting his emotional dependence on Andrew inside his mind, all of which are inside ones head, not openly displayed much to everybody’s discomfiture like the one between Barry and Colin Wall.  

Characters

Barry Fairbrother is no doubt the non-existing hero of the story. He is the aspirational person who makes everyone’s life better with his easy manners and kind nature. Perhaps with his death Rowling is trying to emphasise that true goodness is dead in the society and that we are all only trying unsuccessfully to be good, with her repeated reference to the happier times when Barry was around – be it during a dinner or during the parish council meetings.

             Krystal Weedon, who shows what courage is, comes across as the most striking living character in the story. She is desperate, pathetic, poor yet brave. Her goodness being overshadowed by her apparent negativity is an all too frequent idea employed by the author. The theme is repeated through her mother and brother also. (Remember the sequence where Samantha regrets that had Robbie been neat she might have picked him up). As an antithesis, Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall is portrayed as someone who, though puts up a facade of being different, and dark and twisted, is at the end, a real coward who cannot face the harsh truths of life.
Sukhwinder deserves a special mention for her characterisation. She is the ugly child in the class whom no one cares about. And no one knows about such people. Sukhwinder reminded about all those about whom we don’t care to ask for, who is not missed by his/her presence, who doesn’t make any, perceptible difference in anyone’s life. Yet their life has meaning, yet they do have feelings for themselves and for others. She is that nameless faceless person who exists only in our age old class photos, whose name we don’t even bother to know about.
Then there are the Slytherins. The Mollissons. Howard is that fat ugly guy whom we have to hate and is given importance only due to fear and not out of respect. My views echo another review, “JKR, why do you hate fat people?” Patricia makes an elegant cameo as the estranged daughter of the Mollissons. If there was ever an Emmy for guest appearance in novels, she would get it.

Conclusion

 JK Rowling tries to paint the life in Britain in a darker shade of grey and she achieves it. As someone, who does not like being made to feel guilty for something over which I have no personal control, I feel that she could have toned down on the poverty porn. But since, I was not reading something about the poor brown people, and instead about the poor white people, whom we Indians always imagine to be rich and well off, just because they are fairer, it is bound to be genuinely insightful for a few.


Favourite Scene- 
 

There is this sequence where in Parminder Jawanda blurts out the medical secret of one of her patient’s. It not only gives the readers a strange sense of sweet revenge, however wrong her actions might be, but also make us want to give Parminder a hug and a standing ovation.