Oct 142012

When i was younger, and far more hard headed and terribly more cynical, i found the realm of Magic Realism to be strange. Maybe growing up with Hindi films with God in special appearance, or a dream sequence did that to me.

I was not yet a teenager when Salman Rushdie’s first book Midnight’s Children was released. One summer vacation, I must have been around 13 maybe even 14, someone gifted us a copy. I tried reading it, and naturally, did not understand it. I trudged through it, hated it and went back to reading whatever it is that I was reading at that phase in life. Later on I discovered the works of Isabella Allende and her magnificent House of Spirits, Marquez and even the later works of Rushdie. But I never really got back to reading, what most critics considered to be his finest work,  Midnight’s children.

A few months ago, i got an eBook version of Midnight’s children. But, before i could start it, Joseph Anton was released. Joseph Anton tells the story of Salman Rushdie and how his life is impacted by the fatwa declared by Ayotollah Khomeni.

Joseph Anton is a the name under which Mr.Rushdie lived during the fatwa period – an amalgamation of the names of two authors he admired - Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. The memoir is told in the third person. A form in which the author almost becomes a bystander in his own life. Things happen to him. It never seems that he is actively involved in any of them. Marianne Wiggins chases him, marries him and dumps him. Elizabeh West breezes into his life, loves him  and wants to have his baby. His friends pull out all stops to fight for him. His enemies pull out all stops to want to kill him. The press vilifies him. The politicians are unsure of him. The cops are there like a brick wall for him. And, in all this the protagonist Joseph Anton is almost an observer.  He participates sometimes, but the support cast are far more interesting than he is.

Among the more fascinating characters is his father, Anis – who woke the genie of story telling in a young Salman, telling him stories of the Panchtanra, Kathasaritasagara, Hamzanama & Hatimtai.

To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no ‘real’ genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths and the truth could not tell him, and second they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard…his to laugh at and rejoice and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in turn.

Just as he grew with a from of narrative that gave you a story within a story – so too in Joseph Anton he gives you interlinked stories, that can work as stand alone ones. There is the story of the immigrant, who is caught between cultures, until he realises that he is not “rootless, but multiply rooted”.There is the story of his troubled relationship with his father Anis and the portions of the memoir that deals with these have the most emotional connect. It seems that there is a raw wound even now. There is the story of a bad marriage, with author  Marianne Wiggins, going off the rails (she is portrayed in terrible light). There is a love story with Elizabeth West. Then there is a Lolitaesque story with Padma Lakshmi. There is a story of friendship that endures. There is a story of betrayal. There is the story of a brave stand. Then there is the biggie – the story of the man on the run. And finally there is the story of the Freedom of Speech and what it means in today’s multicultural age, where each culture is trying to assert its identity.

A bulk of the book is about the fall out of the fatwa. The rush to find safe havens where he won’t be blown up, his having to live life as a protected person and the impact it has on his freedoms. The effect of ‘security’ and being in a state of suspended animation from normalcy on him, and those nearest and dearest to him. In this entire saga, his friends are there for him like Rocks of Gibraltar.

He would remember this, the nobility of human beings acting out of their best selves, far more vividly than the hatred – though the hatred was vivid all right – and he would always be grateful to have been the recipient of this bounty.

There are three very telling lines in the book, about Satanic Verses. The first is

The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an ‘insult’ he wanted to reply, I can insult people a lot faster than that

and the second was

“Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How would one write a quarter of a million words by accident?”

and then there was the writing on the wall

Throughout the writing of the book he had kept a note to himself pinned to the wall above his desk. “To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in the reverse,” it said. “To gain immortality, or atleast posterity, you lose, or atleast ruin, your actual daily life”

And, it came to pass. almost a decade of living in the shadow of terror. Of being a prisoner. of being reviled and hated. Of guilt on the deaths due to riots. A decade in which he became the focal point of protests on freedom of expression. A decade in which his political involvement increased, but his  writing suffered – the first few years he is barely able to write anything.

For a man who spends the bulk of the book defending his right to free speech and expression, he is very unforgiving of the choices of others, especially those who did not want to become a part of the fight. His universe is binary. Those who unquestioningly stand by him – no matter what – are  the good guys. Those who question him become grey. If a publisher did not want to publish the book because he didn’t want his staff bombed out, or the cops called off a book signing for security reasons it, in the book, becomes a more or less irrational decision. But hey, it is his memoir. He is allowed to be the hero in it.

How is the book? it needed a good editor to prune 200 pages out of it. IT is like every party, every celebrity, every slight  every praise had to go into the book and, therefore,  it did. It is terribly indulgent, and terribly long. The first 40 % is brilliant. absolutely brilliant. The second 30 % is decent.  The last third has all the charm and attraction of a plate of cold idli served at an express-way food court

A book about a fatwa on an author who wrote book, that changed lives . One the violence caused by the reactions to the book, he paraphrases his lawyer saying ..

 …the consequences of violence were the moral responsibility of those who committed the acts of violence; if people were killed, the fault lay with their killers, not with a faraway novelist.

In a world where offence is quick, and the call to violence is quicker – i agree with this statement a 100%

Salman Rushdie, for me, before I began reading this book was never a sympathetic character. I was a student in Britain in the days following the fatwa. It seemed that he not only instigated the issue, but revelled in it. It made him world famous. But, 25 years later as i read the book, i realise the flaws a binary teenage view of the world has. The easiest thing for him to have done is capitulate. It is not Rushdie against a fatwa. It is a man against governments of the world including his own government, with people venting hate at him, with tremendous pressure for him to recant , with a sense of guilt at people dying, and the cost to his own family. And he stood his ground. If nothing else, that requires admiration. It cannot have been easy. I only wish if i am in a similar situation – facing a mob or even a small group alone, with only the courage of my convictions on my side – i show some of the courage that he does.

I have finally begun reading Midnight’s Children, almost 28 years after i last tried to read it.

Sep 232012

just began reading, Salman Rushdie’s book Joseph Anton. This is the first part of the paragraph

AFTERWARDS, WHEN THE WORLD WAS EXPLODING AROUND HIM AND THE lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man.

I am hooked.

Sep 022012

The DNA has carried a slightly shorter  version of my review of Shashi Tharoor’ s book Pax Indica


Pax Romana or the Roman Peace is a Latin Term used to describe the, slightly over two hundred year period, when the Roman Empire saw relative peace and prosperity. It was a period when the Republic made way for the Emperor (Augustus); various warring factions within Rome were brought to heel; the Empire was kept safe from invasion and the military expansion was kept to a minimum. It was a time when Rome became the focal point of culture, trade and influence and was the dominant power. The term has been used for other Empires – Pax Americana (the period post the Second World War), Pax Britannica (the century leading up to the First World War), Pax Mongolica (the height of the Mongol Empire in the 13th & 14th centuries). In each of these cases the power of the Empire – military, economic, and cultural combined with internal political stability – ensured Peace. In each of these cases the core of the Empire – Rome, America, Britain and Mongolia – were protected from war on, while they expanded outwards with their military and trade might. This Pax Imperium was great for each of the States that were the power centres, but it had a mixed result vis-à-vis regions & people that came in the path of the Imperial Juggernaut.


Pax Indica or the Indian Peace is Shashi Tharoor’s look at modern India – that has come out of the shadow of internal divisions and external invasion – to take her rightful place on the world Stage.  Tharoor’s basic hypothesis is that India can use a combination of her size, her trade prowess, her soft power and her growing influence in the world to ensure an age of domestic transformation. He sees word Pax Indica not to imply world or regional domination, as much as foreign policy that allows India to play a role in developing a  21st century “Peace System” that will help ‘promote & maintain a period or co-operative co-existence’ and in  “helping shape the global order’


Pax Indica looks at Indian foreign policy from both a historical perspective, and a normative one. He is rather uncritical in his assessment of history. His great admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru probably gets him to see Indian foreign policy through rose tinted glasses. For example, the entire 1962 debacle in which China wrested ’23,200 square kilometres of Indian territory’ is explained away in one paragraph. His defence of non-alignment is robust. And he believes that those who “critique Nehru for not taking the ‘winning side’ speak with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight’. He also says of non-alignment as Indian foreign policy in the first 40 years after Independence gave India an advantage in the last two decades because that policy

‘enabled us to work with all the major powers without exception – and to get help (if I may be allowed to mangle Marx) from each according to their capacity, to us according to our need.

In this period (post 1991) the ‘post-colonial’ chip has fallen off India’s shoulder and she can look at the world from a position of authority.


In a world where it is acceptable, indeed expected, to berate the problems of non-alignment, Tharoor offers a perspective on why the path of foreign policy independence in the years following 1947 was the correct path for India to follow. However, he also says that in the years to come foreign policy cannot be led by belief and ideology as much as with one single goal – that of ‘facilitating India’s economic growth in order to bring our billion strong masses into the 21st century.’ And he talks about the need to

‘cultivate good relations with countries that can assist us in that process – trading partners and investors in the economy; suppliers of energy resources and assurers of food security; and partners in our fundamental objective of keeping our people safe, secure and free ‘


This kind of explains the seeming contradictions in India’s foreign policy – the friendship with Iran and the desire to boost trade ties despite the west having issues  (“Iran’s natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, have been increasingly important to India for decades’) at the same time as strengthening her ties with the West;  the growing relationship with Israel (‘India is now Israel’s largest market for defence products and services’) along with a continued support for the Palestinian cause ; India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan – not through the display of naked power or military might, but through kinder and gentler ways; an enhanced involvement in Africa – through trade, government credits and private sector involvement. All these, says Tharoor makes India a very influential player on the world stage.


Right at the beginning Tharoor says that the book is ‘like an onion’ begins with Pakistan and peels outwards, from South Asia and neighbourhood to the world beyond.’ There is a whole chapter (entitled “Brother Enemy) devoted to our troublesome neighbour in the west.  A State whose own internal divisions are so vast that the rulers of Pakistan ‘do not feel able to challenge militant groups and their leaders because they have become too popular with a radicalized and pro-Islamist populace’ – the charitable explanation; or ‘those in power are happy to allow the terrorists to run free and wild, as long as they are only threatening India’ – the sinister excuse.  Tharoor is of the firm belief that it would not be realistic to expect Pakistan to change fundamentally for there to be peace – there are too parties jostling for power in Pakistan to allow that. He spends quite a bit of time listing those parties and their positions vis-à-vis India in public and private. But, in his opinion, ‘we want peace more than Pakistan does, because we have more at stake when peace is violated’ and therefore India should ‘seize on whatever straws in the wind float its way from Pakistan to explore possibility of Peace’. It is possibly the only controversial statement in the entire book. And also rather simplistic. He believes that stronger economic ties, a MFN status, and trade could enable Peace, while more contentious issues like Siachin or Kashmir get discussed separately.


There is an entire chapter on China that doesn’t say too much except that we can’t compete with them, we shouldn’t have conflict, maybe we should co-operate. He says that the normally complacent Elephant (us) is naturally wary of the “hissing dragon’. History, the last 60 years including India’s support and sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and the Chinese support of the Indian communist movement – plus the war of 1962 and China’s territorial claims on parts of Arunachal Pradesh have kept relations between the two strained. He lists all the advantages that China has “India’s sclerotic bureaucracy versus China’s efficient one, India’s tangles of red tape versus China’s unfurled red carpet to foreign investors, India’s contentious and fractious party politics versus China’s smoothly functioning top-down communist hierarchy,” and then says, without a trace of irony or sarcasm “India has become an outstanding example of the management of diversity through pluralistic democracy’. But he says, “India is a fractious democracy, China is not. But as an Indian, I do not wish to pretend we can compete in the global growth stakes with China” . He sees India and China following different paths and both making the future their own.


The first 7 chapters of the book are devoted to the neighbourhood; ‘The Near Abroad’- the Arab world and the Rest of Asia; The United States of America; Europe, Africa and Latin America – bunched together in a single chapter.   The bulk of these chapters are a walk through the history of India’s relationship with that country. It is in the last 4 chapters that he makes his recommendations. He believes that India ought to use a combination of soft power and public diplomacy in a multi aligned world to achieve her objectives. With the rest of the neighbourhood and the world he advocates growing trade ties to bind us together. In the case of the rest of the world the recommendation is similar – trade ties and soft power to see “peace in our times’. Tharoor is a fan of Indian soft power, though the role of the state in building that power is unexplained. Soft Power arises despite the state – from films, trade ties, cultural exchanges – all the State can do is exploit it, if it exists. The chapters on the ‘Global Commons’ and the need to move from “multi alignment’ extend his philosophy of being ‘ajatshatru’ (without enemy) and ‘sangamitra’ (friend to all) – and that is the guiding philosophy of the book. It may seem optimistic, simplistic and even naïve in parts – but it possibly has a grain of truth and practicality. Apart from Pakistan, India has decent relations with most of the world. It cannot afford to militarily engage to establish influence; nor does she have the kind of wealth to sign blank cheques for the rest of the world – so all that remains to be used is soft power. And, Tharoor advocates that India use that to the hilt.


Pax Indica is foreign policy 101 – a great introduction to foreign policy for students and those interested in reading about how India’s foreign policy evolved since independence. It is a good starting point to understanding Indian foreign policy, but any reader should read more before forming opinions. Shashi Tharoor has a way with words, and the book flows easily and is immensely readable. As he admits, it is not academic, more his perspective as a ringside observer of changing world dynamics.  Pax Indica is a bit like a nice breezy travelogue – the generic kind carried by tourists on visits – through the terrain of Indian foreign policy. There is a bit of history, a bit of geography, some amount of characters to know about, who to know about, the events that mattered, those that didn’t, what to see, what to avoid. It is a very good first person, insider view of Indian foreign policy.  It is an easy read for a serious subject, and that should not be held against the book. If you know nothing about Indian foreign policy this is a good starting point. The book looks at India through rose tinted glasses, and it is good to discount some of the optimism. But, in a scenario where the overwhelming opinions emanating from India is one of doom and gloom Pax Indica is a good countervailing point of view.



Pax Indica

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (June 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067008574X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670085743
Jun 162012

test (This is posting from an ebook being read on the ipad – without a keyboard)

Hobbes in the Leviathan, quoted by Stephen Pinker –  The Better Angels of our nature

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Jun 112012

My column in today’s DNA


A utopian society is an ideal one, which is represented by a perfect balance of happy citizens, a responsible state, a cohesive society – where everyone lives happily ever after. In a Utopian society, there is no coercion, no control; there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place. All ideas co-exist. There is discussion without rancour. There is little or no crime, and war and illness have no place. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ideal society. Literature and epics allude to Utopian kingdoms in the distant past. But, it tends to be more in the realm of fiction than reality.

The direct opposite of a utopian society is a dystopian one. It is a society marked by utter repression and control, in which suspicion and coercion are the norms. A dystopian society is one in which the State or a ruling oligarchy takes away the rights of its citizens for ‘their own good’. Rewards in such a society are few, and punishment swift and lethal. Authors and movie directors have successfully depicted a dystopian future in which there is total censorship, mind control, obedience – where humans are enslaved by technology, where women are mere chattel. Books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Margret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World all describe a dystopian future as do Films like Terminator, Running Man, Blade Runner. Amongst the more powerful works in a not so nice, not so distant future is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Last week marked the death of Bradbury who brought to life a society in which books are illegal. Fahrenheit 451, the title, refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns. What is most gripping about the book is the premise of a society that is so overwhelmed by television and short attention spans that books are seen as a threat to public safety and happiness. New ideas that are communicated by books are perceived, in this society, as being dangerous and offensive to various minority groups and are burnt. There are two parts to the novel – both equally valid. The first part is those of us, the people, who consume mass media and whose world view is exclusively shaped by it, and the second is the State that uses this to its own advantage. While the story is an indictment of censorship, it is also an indictment of mass perceptions and mass hysteria. It is a call to reach beyond the accepted norm and pause and ask basic questions. Mass Media is not God, nor is it infallible, nor is it without its own agenda. Good citizenship is not just questioning the Government or political parties – it is also questioning the media that we consume.

Of all the books on a dystopian future, Fahrenheit 451 cuts closest to the bone because books, rather ideas, have been censored in the distant and not so distant past, and in our present. The ancient Chinese (and the modern ones) banned books. Germany under the Nazis used to make a bonfire of books written by Jewish authors. Iran, under Khomeni, passed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses. The Government of India has an abysmal record on kowtowing to religious extremists of all hues and shades and banning books. It doesn’t take a tremendous leap of faith the believe that a future society can come into being where every dissenting voice is silenced, where every new idea is suppressed and books become the target of mob ire. Henrich Heine had aptly predicted that where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings, and his books were amongst the first to burn in Nazi Germany.

A story like Fahrenheit 451 resonates especially today where we are bombarded by highly sophisticated propaganda by all sides. But ultimately, the take away from the book – is not the death of ideas, but the fact that ideas can never die. As long as there are people willing to think and question, the spread of ideas will not stop. Brave, ordinary citizens from time immemorial have risked life and limb to save books, to pass on ideas to bypass censorship. They have fought against the might of the monarch, of the State, of the Party and of organised Religion. And, they have prevailed. It is possibly why the idea of anonymous masked people defacing websites as a protest against court orders blocking specific sites is so disconcerting. Through out history freedoms have not been won by those lurking in the shadows of anonymity, but people who have had the courage of conviction to openly add their name to dissent. Technology and modernity do not change that. And finally, the thing to remember is that Guy Fawkes – whose mask has become the symbol of the modern cyber protest – was never ever Anonymous.