The world has already written much about this book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. From Bill gates to Barack Obama everyone seems to be liking it.
It has been in bestseller list for three years now and the sequel to the book also got released. I got a chance to buy this recently when I walked up to a bookshop where the people running it were so enthusiastic about recommending it to me. I can never ignore such recommendations. So managed to buy it and read it over the last weeks. It is an ambitious book in its scope to write the history of Homo Sapiens in 440 pages. The books core strength is it has a theory about it in understanding the human history, and this is the framework through which human history is studied. The author looks at human species from such heights where in our industrial revolution even the agriculture revolution is still in its infancy. The verdict is still out on these drastic changes that happened in our lives over the period of human existence. For most time in our history, we managed to remain as insignificant species living in subsistence level hunter-gatherer societies. Had anyone predicted in our early days that this insignificant species which named itself sapiens(we are known for humility :)) would go on to dominate the earth in such ways, even the most optimistic would not have believed it.
So what made us so dominant and evolve into what we are today.
It is these fundamental answers that this book wants to capture in a manner more accessible manner. No wonder that this book is highly inspired by Guns, Germs and Steel by Jarred Diamond which is a similar book trying to answer why the European Asian Societies evolved to dominate other continents and not the other way around. These books do have serious lacunae as there will always be people who find it too simplistic in writing. But we just need to live with this limitation and look at the perspective this book offers which makes us wonder and imagine this journey in its fullest. It makes us raise questions and move forward to understand things in much more detail than what this books.
The book also has such sections where we keep wondering that journey and the path human race has travelled in these years. This sense of marvel and wonder that unravels in each page of this book which makes reading such joyful experience.
I am not interested in writing about specific sections of the book so much but want people to go for this book.
Just completed reading the novel, I just wanted to write the immediate thoughts that rise in my head after finishing it. The greatest strength of the novel is the razor sharp language of the writer, hard to believe it is his first novel in Tamil. Such clarity and seamlessness in writing. The portions in the novel where he captures the darker emotional turmoil are brilliant. Especially the multilayered emotions underpinning any act. There is an underlying darkness in the novel, especially the way the emotions are deconstructed to really show the starker realities. But it is no way shocking, as you read it you only feel the truthness of it. That is a real hallmark of any literary work to bring it to our own notice the things we always knew.
The strength of the novel is in the ease with which the writer has effortlessly traveled into the many layers of the character’s subconscious.
The novel is a metafiction about the writer’s novel OlirNizhal, like a novel within another novel. This creates this confusion of which is real and which is fictional, in a way life itself is a fiction we create for ourself is the underlying premise of the novel. We are constantly creating a fictional account of ourself, it is only through our stories we say ourself we come to know who we are. Also the stories we don’t even acknowledge also reveal much more about who we really are. This duality and fictional nature of our life come out really well due to the metafiction form of the novel.
Although it has a dalit social life as its platform, it is a novel of the individual, it has very little substance to read it as a social novel.
So.Dharman is an important tamil writer, who has documented the lives of the Dalit community in his previous works such as Koogai. He is a natural successor to the writings of Ki.Rajanarayanan , Poomani who captured the rural lives of tamilnadu. Their stories are rooted in realistic portrayal of rural lives in tamil literature. They are masters in capturing reality in a photographic natural free flowing style. So.Dharman has captured the dalit life, the odds faced by them in rural life even today in his previous works. His previous novel Koogai captures the conflict and oppression faced by Dalits. சூல் his latest work which was awarded the best novel of year 2016 by Vikatan in their yearly awards, is a slight shift from his Dalit forte. It still is the rural life that Dharman explores but its in its entirety not just the Dalit but the whole of the rural life.
Sool has an interesting form as a novel, for eighty percentage of the novel the rural life exists in a timeless expanse. Timeless in the sense there is no clear indication of the time of the novel, still one can guess the time through incidents coming from outside. It gives us a feel that the rural life, its customs and traditions exist in a manner which is timeless, that has not changed from a long time. There is a certain rhythmic circularity and order about the rural life like that of the rains which bestow it with all the wealth. Rain is crucial to the rural life, every prosperity of the village stems from it. Hence we are introduced to the rural life with the NeerPachi ( Neer in tamil is water, pachi is the one who regulates the flow of water to the farms) who manages the Kanmaai(the tank in which water is stored), and regulates the flow of water to the village farms owned by the families. The management of Kanmaai is central to the rural life as it ensures the availability of water for farming. Every year before the rains arrive the excess silt deposited is cleared of from the kanmaai so that the capacity is not diminished. This silt as it is mineral rich is equally distributed to the farm families to be used in their land. The Neerpachi also monitors the Kanmaai for places of weakness and ensures that the trees and bushes around the Kanmaai are not destroyed because they act as natural fences to the Kanmaai. This integral management of the resources is well documented in the novel. The rural life captured by So.Dharaman is highly interdependent not just among the people living also the birds and animals which depend on the farm for survival. The agriculture as the first form of economic activity also creates ancillary work for carpenters, ironsmith, potters whom depend on the farm family for their life. The village is well contained and managed autonomously, we see very little impact from outside.
The rural life is highly religious and mythical and firmly believes in the idea of karma, especially the repercussions of bad karma. The novel also shows the formation of rural deities, a way in which the village attone’s for collective mistakes or how it remembers the great sacrifices people made for the village.
These deities live and protect the life of people in rural life. The novel is full of amazing stories on heroic sacrifices especially the life of Koppulaai who being chid-less manages to become the loving of the mother of the entire village.
The novel takes dramatic turn after the arrival of the modern democratic government. Indian independence was achieved during the heights of modernity where people genuinely believed that modern science will radically change the world. So post Independence the government initiated steps to reform the agriculture practiced in rural villages and it in excited zeal was not in any mood to study the current practices prevalent in rural india. It completely reverses the holistic water management done by the traditional NeerPachi by appointing a government employee with very little first hand experience.
The rise of atheistic politics and complete disregard for the rural beliefs literally killed any morality. The newly elected rural head chief, who is a native of the same village completely disregards any tradition inspired by the
atheism promoted by his leader is corrupt to the core. He gets Puramboke land which is land belonging to commons written to his name. And he forces the Neerpachi to divert water to this land against practice that water from Kanmaai is used only for the Nanjai land. On Neerpachi’s refusal appoints a government employee to oversee the Kanmaai. The destruction of the Kanmaai is slow and painful it reads like the destruction of all traditional knowledge and life.
The yearly removal of silt is stopped , which reduces the collective capacity of the Kanmaai. The pleas of the people to clean the Kanmaai was mostly ignored saying that things take time in government dealings. The water level in Kanmaai goes down, the non availability of the silt reduces the organic capacity of the farm land. Government ill introduction of Seemai Karuvelam tree from Australia as fences, grow in such breath take pace it sucks the already depleted water table.
The government also introduced the Silpa kendai a type of fish which continues to destroy native fish even today. The scant regard for the environment and the traditional agricultural practices is a classic case of throwing the baby with the bath tub.
It is understandable that our rural life was plagued with issues like caste system, the practice of untouchability etc but it also had years of traditional knowledge. It is unfortunate that we gave scant regard for our ancestors knowledge in agriculture. It is something which continues to impact us even today.
Important work ,
Rupa Viswanath’s The Pariah Problem traces the time during which the problem of the Pariah came to the fore. It starts of in the late nineteenth century and continues till the second decade of the 20th century when the problem transformed through various stages.
The Panchama or the fifth varna were people who lived outside the chathur varna caste system.
They were subjected to inhuman life conditions , living a life of slaves in the feudal agricultural life of India. There were strict strictures which controlled their lives, they were considered untouchable and usage of public resources like streets, water resources and gazing land etc was barred to the people of Panchama caste. The Panchama were tied to the landlords and held no property and were completely dependent on the landlord (Mirasdars) for sustenance. Mostly entire family of Panchamas worked for the Landlords and lived in Ceri(low lying areas which were isolated typically owned by the Mirasdar), they faced constant threat of eviction by the Mirasdars. This is akin to the slave system prevalent in the West which was abolished in the British colonies in the 19th century. So the official introduction to the Pariah problem started with the colonial officials denying the existence of a slave system comparable with that of the West. It was considered to be a gentle servitude with mutual beneficial relationship between the landlord and the Panchama. Hence forth cannot be compared with that of the Western Slave system. This initial reluctance to accept the problem as existing stems forth from two key aspects,
1. The state (represented by the British) had a nexus with the high caste landlords because of the state dependence on them with respect to the revenues. The British in comparison with other rulers
levied heavy taxes on agriculture, hence the underlying system was beneficial to the British.
2. The British administration for its day to day execution of administrative procedures were dependent on the high caste Hindus hence there was a tacit understanding of how the country side works in the Indian Feudal context. The term the author uses to rightly point out the relation is “Caste-State” Nexus.
Land was the major tool in feudal hegomany and access to it was highly guarded. Hence there were rules which effectively prevented the Panchamas to acquire land. Although their capability to accumulate surplus was limited, there were rules like the Darkhast rule which effectively prevented the purchase of land by the Panchama. The rule gives first option to the Mirasdar in buying Poramboke land and the Mirasdar’s effectively kept buying land back to prevent Panchamas buying land. In this way the Mirasdar could control the labor and use it to his benefit which is a classic feature of any feudal serfdom.
Missionary and Religious Neutrality.
Unlike most commonly believed the missionaries were highly reluctant in the conversion and working in behalf of the Panchamas. Part of the reason was the Protestant Missionaries wanted to first convert the high caste hindus which they thought will create a domino effect and result in the conversion of the majority of Hindus. And also they were highly uncomfortable with using the realm of material in conversion as they thought that was undermining the spiritual plane. And in most cases it was the Panchamas who approached the Missionaries in issues which they needed help. In this way the Panchamas were able to open a channel to the state with the help of the Missionary bypassing the high caste Hindus. The missionary after the initial reluctance took up the cause of the Panchamas, and the first they tried was acquiring land for the Panchamas and settling them in the form of a cooperative society. The missionary will manage the estate and will also forward loans to the Panchamas already converted to the Christian Faith. In a way the missionary also doubted the Panchamas capability to manage the farm land independently. This was faced with considerable opposition in the country side. The high caste Hindu Mirasdars were genuinely worried with loosing control over the labor and the granting of land was criticized as stepping out of the Religious Neutrality the Queen had promised after the revolt of 1857. This was a very small initiative taken by the missionary and the resultant opposition effectively stalled initiatives for another decade when ideas of what considered Public welfare changed.
The New-Liberal Wave :
In the beginning of the 19th central there was a wave of new liberal wave in Britain which championed for state intervention in public welfare to counter the negative impacts of market economy. This transformed in the Indian context as Panchama welfare. One of the initiatives to give housing sites to Panchamas in the South Presidency. There were varied but strong opposition to the initiative of the government. One of the thing was outright rejection of the argument that the Panchams faced hardship in the current setup and rather it was argued it was a mutual beneficial setup and the government should not interfere with the existing setup. Even a liberal newspaper such as The Hindu argued that interfering with the labor economy will destroy Indian agriculture.
There was also argument that these are done at the behest of the Missionary and the Panchamas are content with the current scheme of things. But in contrast the Panchamas were highly interested in the government scheme and were eager to get house sites to get out of the Mirasdar claims. Violence was let loose on Panchams in various places and innumerable hardships were put on the scheme implementation.
Shifting it to the Social:
The final stage in the Panchama problem was when they started asserting the rights which are granted to any individual belonging to the British empire like access to public roads and wells etc.
This was possible after Dalits were choosen as representative to voice the concerns of Dalits in legislative council. One of the first Dalit representative choosen was M.C Rajah, he spoke in multiple occasions in the legislative council on the everyday hardships faced by Dalits in living their life. In one such incident M.C Rajah brings up the issue of two Panchama men who were forced to get down from a public bus. Although the members were unanimous in condemning it they felt nothing could be done in the realm of the political and work should be done in the social. M.C Raja’s plea to punish such acts were turned down and even his plea to cancel the license of the transport company in this issue was turned down. This reluctance of the state in implementing the laws and shifting the ground of the problem to the “Social” from that of the political was the final stages of the Pariah problem.
Rupa concludes that the various problems we see in the handling of the Pariah in still seen even in the present.
Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is an incredible tour de force. The book is a geological history of the Indian Subcontinent.
Human history of Indian Subcontinent itself is such ancient but the geographical history of immensely vast when compared to the human history.
This book captures the entire history of this ancient landmass from the time the earth was formed billions of years ago. It is such a vast and dry subject but the author has captured it in a such vivid and intense and amazing manner. The key thing that works wonders in this book is the relation to the current. It is with such amazing realization we are turning the pages. We are filled with a sense of awe and great fullness about everything about the existence of everything including life.
The book traces the geographical events and relates to the current terrain and it opens us to the immense greatness of our planet. Take for instance the information that the Nandi Hills which is a famous tourist hills located near Bangalore is made of rock which is 3.5 billion years ago.
Or the fact that my native of Trichy once had massive dinosaurs roaming about by the fossils identified. This fill us with such amazement and wonder.
The other aspect of the book is the lyrical writing of the author. Subjects like paleontology or fossil fuels are immensely dry but it is written in a manner that makes it so gripping.
Take for instance the analogy of comparing the age of earth with a 46 year old lady and life just started in the middle of 42 years. Human beings evolved in the middle of the last week and industrial revolution is just a minute old in the giant scale of time of our 46 year old mother.
Another aspect is the sheer amazing events that shaped our planet which impacts us in surprising ways of our lives even today. Take for instance the coal belt of present day Jharkand, Bihar was formed by continuous submerging of forests layer on top of layer which happened due to the incessant rains that happened for around 1000 of years.
Or Say take for example the Palaghat pass which connects the states of Tamilnadu and Kerela was formed when the Indian subcontinent which was connected to Madagascar and when it started moving towards Eurasia the land was split and that opening is the point in which Madagascar split with the Indian Subcontinent.
These make us wonder what an immensely mysterious thing this life is and how small we are in the infinite expanse of the universe.
As you read through this book you are always filled with amazement at the idea of human life and also our very small place in this earth.
If you have sons , daughters gift it to them this should be a bestseller and it can inspire them to achieve great heights.
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Tantu – The Loom of Life by S.L. Bhyrappa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The announcement of Emergency in Independent India was one of the darkest hours of Indian Democracy. It is a culmination of the decade long decline of idealism in all forms of life in Independent India. The time of the freedom movement was a period of great Idealism and hope, Millions of men lived for such lofty ideals sacrificed their whole lives for the idea of Independent India. Once Independence arrived, the system of governance that came into existence was something which was completely dependent on the bureaucracy which was more interested in survival rather than nation building. The satyagraha workers were sidelined as the rule was more centralized and had no room for the ideals of Gandhian Decentralization. Hence India was ruled by a bureaucracy and politicians working over them. As the idealism of the early years withered the revolutionary zeal that was achieved during the independence was lost completely.
This novel is a record of this loss in idealism. The novel reflects this loss in multiple layers.
Obviously the functioning of the government, the License-quote raj system which promoted corruption at all levels and resulted in economic stagnation. In addition it also reflects this on the personal lives of the people, the lives of everyday human beings who crave for power and material benefits where common decency is killed everyday.
In addition to the loss of idealism this novel laments, the other fundamental theme of the novel is the complete loss of authenticity and Indian tradition in all lives post independence.
Especially in the education system we inherited from the British was completely lacking in Indian thought and sensibilities. Resulting system could only produce people who are interested only in the economic affluence that modern education rather than character building which education had to promote.
The novel is brilliant in a sense it realistically captures the pettiness of the upper middle class bureaucracy. Especially the culture associated with Delhi based bureaucracy who relish in tax payer money with lavish parties and the way corruption is normalised in this system of over governance.
It also captures the utter lack of ideals and the depression that anyone with a sense of idealism has to suffer at every step with the careless bureaucracy and corrupt politicians.Classic case is the suffering meted out to Anaiah whose only mistake is to yearn for an education which is Indian thought. This utter hopelessness is the very characteristic which this novel portrays over and over in independent India.
Gandhi keeps coming back in this novel, as a sad remembrance to the reader, and as a clown in the curses of Kanti the suave and sophisticated Delhi based women. She is the wife of Ravindra the central character of the novel who is idealistic and hence unable to earn the money that Kanti wants him to. Kanti leaves Ravindra and becomes a garment exporter yearning lakhs of rupees.
It is through the personal lives and the seeming contradiction between them we see this duality getting played. The idealistic Ravindra and the seemingly pragmatic and opportunistic Kanti representing the existential modernism going at each other is a classic philosophical debate of 20th century. In this sense Bhyrappa has put forth a critique of the modernistic thought and the lonely death Kanti suffers is what Bhyrappa should have felt about the loneliness of existentialism.
Inspite of the external situation we see people still inspired not loosing hope as the karma yogi defined in Bagavat Gita fighting the lonely battle on the side of idealism. Even though the novel seem to end at the announcement of the emergency its message is one of the duty against the modernism rooted in existentialism.
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Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Yayati by V.S Khandekar is the modern retelling of King Yayati’s story from Mahabharatha.
Yayati was the king of Hastinapur who married Devayani the daughter of Sukracharya.
He was the son of Nahusha who was cursed for insulting the sages on his victory over Indra.
Yayati’s life was tormented by his unending desire of women. This novel retells the story as a series of recollections from three main characters in the story, Yayati , Devayani and Sharmishta.
Yayati life is filled with continuous oscillation between desire passion on one side and contemplation, love and understanding. He is introduced to the fascination of love through his childhood relationship with Alka , who is eventually vanished when Yayati’s mother knows her closeness to the king. Yayati sees her dying due to the only fault of being born in a lowly caste and getting closer to Yayati. This creates a lasting impression on Yayati’s young psyche.
Yayati in his young age is introduced to the character of Kacha who is a sage and student of Angiras who is undergoing deep penance and is highly knowledgeable in philosophy and religion. Kacha makes a favorable impression on Yayati as he looks upon Kacha as inspiring friend.
As the feud between the asuras and devas , Kacha is asked to get the sanjeevini from Sukracharya and he joins sukracharya as the disciple and finally learns of the Sanjeevini.
Kacha and Devayani fall in love but Kacha forgoes devayani over duty which completely hurts devayani’s fragile ego.
As it goes Yayati meets Devayani on the fateful day when Sharmishta the daughter of Vrishapavarna insults Devayani and pushes her into the well. Devayani and Yayati fall in love as they seen in each of them the mirror image , beautiful and each of them are passionately in loev with themselves. Devayani hurt by the insinuation of Sharmishta, makes her father ask Vrishapavarna to marry devayani to Yayati and make Sharnishta as her maid.
With this eventful day’s activities lives of these three people Yayati, Devayani and Sharmishta gets entangled in a life of misery. Yayati and Devayani’s conjugal lives eventually falls out mainly due to the extreme egoism of Devayani. Yayati could not feel the love that his soul seems to be yearning for and eventually builds incestuous and secret relationship with Sharnishta.
Sharmishta and Yayati find the lasting happiness and conjugal fulfillment that both of them seem to be yearning. And Yayati for once seems to have find what he seems to be yearning for.
Albeit it is short lived as Devayani finds out this relationship, Sharmishta is forced to fled with her son Puru on one eventful night not to see Yayati for 18 miserable years.
Yayati falls to degenerate levels living by wine and women every day for eighteen years.
His complete degeneration is an act of vengeance, retribution and destruction of one soul.
From this lowly depths he is saved from the meeting of Sharmista and Puru and the curse of Sukracharya. Yayati and Devayani realize the value of loving sacrifice and the essence of love by the action of Puru at the ending when he comes forward and accepts Yayati’s curse and is ready to sacrifice the country to Yadu the son of Devayani.
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