Indica A Deep Natural History

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian SubcontinentIndica: 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 LifeTantu – 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 LustYayati: 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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Isaac Bashevis Singer Collected Short Stories

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis SingerThe Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Isaac Bashevis Singer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Isac Bashevis Singer Collected Short stories there are such Gems.
There are three broad themes in this collection, three broad stages of Singer’s life himself.

1. Stories on the Jewish Heritage
There are stories which are more like Rabbi folklore as collection of stories which are centered around the theme of Sin, belief and the idea of redemption.
There is just bunch of people talking and telling stories directly typically a Rabbi or Hasidim. These are direct lyrical and include elements of magical elements in them. They are free flowing and capture the Jewish life in Poland.
Stories like the Passion, The Gentleman from Cracow , The last daemon, Moon and Madness etc.

2. Stories set in Poland
There are stories in Poland which are from Singer life as young man in Warsaw his understanding of the Jewish life and his impulses facing modernity.
Stories like the Three Encounters. There is a boyish yearning for the lost life.
There are also tremendous gems like The Spinoza of the Market street and The little shoe makers of Frampool which are amazingly lyrical Jewish life and the modern life.

3. Stories post the holocaust.
These stories are just show the life torn apart by holocaust but never over sentimental in any way. Especially stories are so subtle it just magnifies the impact. Stories like Bus, Job, Cabalist in the East Broadway etc.

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Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony

Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for HarmonyGandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony J. Parel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book Anthony J Parel builds a fundamental philosophical background on the basis of which various ideas of Gandhi can be best understood. Gandhi has been seen in multiple directions, as an exponent of non-violent civil disobedience (sathyagraha) against the British, one who constantly changed his life style like things he wore to what he ate. He was someone who had multiple identities. This book the author tries to understand this complexity of his life and actions using the ancient Purushartha system . Purushartha an ancient Indian thought which attributes four fundamental inspirations or foundation of life for each human being namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Dharma – Its the duty and ethics of any human being.
Artha – Its the money one has to earn through his work.
Kama – Its the part of life associated with pleasure including sexual, aesthetic and related to arts.
Moksa – The part of life through which one attains his salvation.

Any meaningful life should essentially contain all the above purusharthas. All of them should work in harmony for proper life. The author argument is that Gandhi reinvigorated on the fundamental Purushartha system to make it the philosophy driving his life.

Gandhi did multiple innovations to the fundamental system,

1. Over a period of time in India, Moksha took center stage in the philosophical discourse in India.
This tilted the balance against Artha and Dharma resulting in stagnation. This was the discourse even during Gandhi’s time especially on the part of people who wanted to attain Moksha. Life in politics and economics was considered an impediment in the pursuit of Moksha. Infact when Gandhi sent his initial letter containing questions to Raychand Bhai, he was advised not to meddle with the politics of Natal Indians if he really wanted to attain Moksha. Gandhi never could reconcile with the ascetic tradition of renunciation. He fundamentally wanted to bridge this gap between Dharma and Artha on one side and Moksha on the other. For him politics would be completely corrupted if its bereft of spirituality. In a similar vein pursuit of artha without any concern for other Purusharthas would only result in idle consumerism.
Gandhi brought spirituality to the core of worldly pursuit such as Artha and reconciled the pursuit of Moksha with Artha.

2. The dharma of the older cannon was based on the caste system. Unlike many of the conventional Modernists Gandhi thought that initially that the caste system is required. He was initially suggestive that the original system was right but it could have got corrupted over the period of time. But as he evolved he categorically rejected the caste system and called for his complete abolition. In place of the old cannon Gandhi promulgated the dharma of civic nation. Gandhi was not an anarchist as argued by many, in many ways he accepted the idea of modern state albeit a non violent state. But he accepted the nation should have any army to protect against external aggression, he dejected many of his pacifists friends in this regard. But he felt that any law abiding individual should be ready to resort to sathyagraha against the state if unjust things are imposed on him. He was also categorically different in the sense he stressed the importance of duty with rights.

3. Gandhi’s moksha was fundamentally different than the conventional contemplative mode of moksha. He was a man of action, so his path was that of the Karma Yoga which was the chapter in Gita that moved him most. He was also deeply moved by the idea of Saranagathi or complete surrender to attain moksha. He mixed the Karma yoga of action and bhakthi yoga inspired from his Vaishnava theist root.

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Rajaji – Rajmohan Gandhi

Rajaji, a LifeRajaji, a Life by Rajmohan Gandhi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rajaji is one of the personalities who is constantly portrayed as a villain in many of the biopics on other people like the Film on Periyar. One thing everyone in Tamilnadu knows, he was a castiest bhraminical leader who wanted to bring education system based on Varna system.

There is no defender for him in the current scheme of things, by opposing Nehru post independence he cut his links with the Congress. He was bhraminical so never liked by Dravidian politics.

So I had very little opinion or idea about this man’s life. This biography captures the essence of the life of this great man. What stood out of Rajaji,

1. Independent
He is amazingly independent on his thoughts and ideas and till his death was revered as the greatest statesman. Even with the congress he dissented during the independence movement.
He famously opposed the Quit India movement citing the dangers Fascism offers to the independent world. This was suicidal for any leader at that time, and he antagonized the congress cadres base. But he stood by his conviction , as like he did many issues in his long cherished life. He was ready to battle it all alone if required, like the struggle against the License Permit Quota Raj(a line he coined), against the personality worship of Nehru. In these fights of course he did mistakes like aligning with the DMK when he started the Swantantra Party to oppose the Congress.
But he was not the one bogged down by public opinion, and it made him unpopular, loved and hated at the same time.

2. Religious Yet Broad Minded,
We have a template in the liberal circles like any one who espouses the Hindu scriptures like Gita, or one who is a practicing hindu has to be a bigot who supports say things like Untouchability and caste system. Same happened to Rajaji and his bhraminical background not helped in matters.
But in reality he was the first to oppose untouchabilty in tamilnadu. He made his life mission to open Indian temples to untouchable. He famously defended a case on an untouchable entering the Thiruchanoor temple. His ashram inmates comprised of people from different caste backgrounds. He totally believed in the horrors of caste system and untouchability but he didn’t have the standard liberal. So he had to suffer like any independent thinker has to.
So he wrote major works on Gita, Ramayana and his writings were important to the formation of modern tamil prose.

Rajaji’s strength was his witty and memorable one liners with which he won many arguments.
He was one of the most successful lawyers of tamilnadu when he decided to quit the profession to participate in the independence movement. He was one of the finest parliamentarians India produced, and he provided a demonstration of his witty tongue in these debates.

Able Administrator
He was part of the lost breed of administrator who wanted to do the right think not always the popular one. A life long supporter of prohibition of liquor, he changed the lives of poor people through his activities regarding prohibition and khadi. Take for instance the much criticized education policy. The idea was clear and simple, he wanted to increase the admission in schools, with the current financial constraints it was not possible to open more schools neither to increase the teachers. Hence he suggested the school time for children will be reduced to 3 hours and the schools can cater to two batches of students in one day. He also suggested in the remaining time the children can learn their family work. This snowballed into a controversy which was totally uncalled for, and was forced to resign his post. He was adamant to such an extent is surprising but he felt it was the right thing to do.

Funny aspect about Rajaji is introduced as the one with a weak frame in the beginning .
He comes about as one who is often sick and tired wanting to retire. But curiously he outlived all of the major leaders of independence Gandhi, Patel, Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Nehru .
In a way he was active in stages of life from the time British Raj was in full force, the independence movement, to around 3 decades in independent India. This made him involved with so much of issues in a wide ranging arc. He was like the conscious keeper of India for three decades post independence.

This book is a phenomenal learning on his life.

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Nine Live

Nine LivesNine Lives by William Dalrymple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have seen the books of William Dalrymple stacked in many book shops.
But somehow never felt so keen to read his books. Always had a thought that this might be one of those books that Western writers come up with about India in a manner that never impresses me.
I was pleasantly proved wrong by this book Nine Lives. Its a travelogue on the live of nine people as the title suggest. It captures the unchanging aspects of Indian life amidst the ever changing modern life. These lives are frozen in a time completely different to the prevailing modernist epoch.
It is just a great strength of our country that we accept so much different lives to flourish and there is no single prescribed path that our tradition mandates. Here are the things that worked for me in this book ,

1. The book is sincere in what it tries to capture, I never felt any tone of condescension to the lives it is capturing which is usually the case. The accounts are thoroughly researched , each life account begins with an incident, captures the historic root of the life and then uncovers the person in a manner we start to feel them real.

2. The lives capture the essence of our tradition, it includes a Jain nun who in her renunciation and sacrifices tries to attain moksha in the other world , to the Bauls of Bengal whose moksha lies in the song and dance and everyday beauty of the life at hands.

3. The conversations that the author has with the characters are one of the high points of the book. Be it the sthapathi in Swamimalai who speaks about the god taking over the artist in the act of sculpture. Or the conversation with the Sufi Saint on the teaching of Sufi Islam and his message of tolerance and peace. They capture the essence of the book and are really poetic.

4. The lives are also conflicting in a way with the epoch of the current times. Everyone who has choose this life are a rebel and in a way are facing the pressure of the times. This is captured well.

5. It captures the underlying humanity of India.

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