Nov 052016


Sultan of Delhi by Arnab Ray, Aka the Great Bong, is a racy and gripping read about a boy who starts with nothing, and rises all the way to the top of his game.

The story starts with a today, and keeps going back and forth to multiple yesterdays – and, most of these yesterdays are a part and parcel of the history of the sub continent. And, in charting the story of the main character around the historical moments – Partition, the creation of Bangladesh, Emergency, the story becomes as much a story of the changing face of India post independence, as it is of Arjun Bhatia

The story is that of Arjun Bhatia, one of the millions who came across to Delhi from Western Punjab in 1947 – with nothing but a bit of gold in his pocket and the burning desire never ever to be helpless again. Arjun, in this period has not yet hit his teens, but has to grow up fast to survive. He has to be parent to his father – who is in deep shock after the events of the partition that led to his wife and other sons being killed (Arjun’s mother and brothers). As Arjun tells his father, during a meltdown

 It’s not that I don’t love you, daddy, it’s that I don’t respect you. It’s just that I don’t respect your opinions. Because I don’t respect fools. Fools are the most dangerous people in the world. They get others killed.

As Arjun makes a life in Delhi, the story charts his growth from a mechanic to a gun runner, and a gun runner to a legit businessman, who makes his way in the corridors of power. Arjun is relentless in his rise to the top. His marriage of convenience – to inherit a going concern, that later settles into companionship – is as important to him; as the love of his life Nayantara – the widow of a man he kills. He is meticulous in his plotting his path ascension – a ruthless drive that is reminiscent of Michael Corleone – the two fold desire to protect your family, and be at the top.  It is a dangerous game, and Arjun makes his fair share of enemies. In one of the best face offs in the book (and there are a few), Arjun has a line, that possibly not just defines him and his way of doing business, but also the essential tussle in Delhi – between the English speaking ‘elite’ and the Hindi speaking ‘new elite’.

Yeh madarchod-behenchod ka sheher hai, angrezi gaali se kisko darwayenge?

While it is a story of Arjun and his rise to being the Sultan of Delhi, it is also the story of the way business is conducted in modern India. It is also the story of families and how they define you. The son who judged his father as a fool, is now judging his sons as the same. You can sense his slight impatience at how long it takes for the next generation to get a point, that he has known instinctively.

The book is racy, the characters are real. They speak real. They sound real. You know about people like them. And, yet it is a story that is unique in it’s ambition. As Ray recounts the story of Arjun Bhatia over a 60 year period, the non linear narrative of jumping between time frames – each revealing a little more about Arjun – keeps you hooked.  The flashbacks move the story forward, they aren’t just there for the sake of ideal curiosity. The use of hindi is natural, as is the use of English. And, that is one of the things I really enjoyed about the Sultan of Delhi, is the way it flowed.

I also give full compliments to whoever edited this – because if i had material that spanned 60 years, i would not be able to write such a tight book.

I am hoping there is a sequel. I want to know what happens with the characters, next 🙂

Sep 152016

I wrote this for She the People, earlier this week

Many years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s, dystopian novel, Handmaid’s Tale. Set around a plausible tomorrow, it looks at a world where fertility has plummeted, and there are a special category of women   who are kept especially for reproductive purposes. As I read the “Politics of the Womb” by Pinki Virani a frightening today began to emerge. Where there are women, whose only value to the world seems to be the eggs that she produces, the uterus that she has, and the womb that she rents.

A riot, in very slow motion, is being engineered on the woman inside her body; to take her apart, part by profitable part.

The slow rampage is in the name of God – for hers is the womb and she shall conceive.

In the name of science – for hers is the hostile uterus and medical evaluation must arbitrate. ……The world over, the combined might of religion and science has converged to martial many a uterus with a child. At any cost; to the woman, to her baby.

The opening lines of Pinki Virani’s long hard look at the surrogacy industry, hits you in the gut, and pulls you into a narrative structure that takes you into the universe of uterus pimp; the woman (who is the walking uterus; IVF clinics that charge, and charge, and charge;  the desperate, would be,  parents who want to have a biological child; and the mad rush for designer babies. Politics of the Womb – The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy and Modified Babies is both a behind the scenes look at the new industry that seems to have grown without regulation;  the ethics of such work; and a normative framework for regulation. It is also a manifesto of the rights of the unborn child. Someone has to speak for the child, and Ms Virani makes a very strong case for children born of IVF.


The books looks at how expensive  IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) treatment  is being pushed as the first option, on desperate parents, when there are a gamut of other options, that could spare the prospective parents both an expensive bill, as well as physical and mental trauma. There is between 72-80% failure rate per IVF cycle. Less than a third of people who start the IVF treatment, come away with a baby. The costs-  financial, physical and emotional – are seldom publicized or discussed. And, all this in the backdrop of an  industry that sells a myth of fertility, and downplays the medical risks both to the mother and those that may occur to the child. Virani  looks at the data surrounding IVF and birth defects, that leads to children being born autistic, and  with mental retardation. The risk of babies conceived through Ivf or Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is 37% higher than babies conceived naturally. “Collateral damage” says a doctor, on the side effects, and birth defects.

Virani’s anger against the commoditization of the uterus, and its commercialization, is palpable. When she quotes doctors, involved in the baby making business,  she lets their callousness and utter disregard for the woman’s body, and the reproductive process , stay there unvarnished. “What is a uterus, it is like a room. Repaint, redecorate any number of times”’, Virani quotes a doctor saying.

Surrogacy is in the news of late, because of the bill being discussed in Parliament, as well as the Government’s banning of commercial surrogacy. In light of the high pitched conversations around this topic, it might be worthwhile to read the “Politics of the Womb” to look at the issue in a holistic manner.


(Politics of the Womb; The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy & Modified Babies; by Pinki Virani; Viking; Rs 599; Pages 304)

Oct 252015

I have been reading, marking and re reading bits of Orwell’s essays, that form part of a collection i got for next to nothing, in one of the amazon sales.

The essay I really enjoyed was on the author and social commentator, Charles Dickens. I haven’t read of all Dicken’s works. Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield – i remember having read. Of these, the only one’s that have left a mark are the Tale of Two Cities – Madam Defarge gave me nightmares; Oliver Twist – Faggin and Sikes were memorable characters; and i remember crying for Nancy; and Great Expectations – Ms.Haversham was the single spookiest character in English literature of that era. I have seen a number of adaptations of Dickens’ works, when i was a student. And, i really never thought too much beyond the fact that it was a good narrative.

Reading Orwell on Dickens, kind of slightly shifted my reading of Dickens. All authors tend to be recorders of their era. Even if the book is a love story, the milieu and social mores become very evident in the background information about the characters or the settings. And, given Dickens’ themes – the question asked is – what were his politics? Did he have any? Given that Orwell was writing in an era where socialist ideals, and Dickens wrote in an era when labour reform had already begun – could Dickens have been a socialist ? Orwell doesn’t think so

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as “human nature.” It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a sytem. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power.

However, it was an era when the slightest criticism of the class structure was seen as being pro-socialist. So much so that Macaulay refused to review a book by Dickens. (yes, the very same Macaulay)

 “It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its “sullen Socialism.” Obviously Macaulay is here using the word “Socialism” in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as “Bolshevism.” There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious, ”

Dickens, was not a revolutionary. rather, he believed in the innate goodness of people and their ability to do the right thing.

“It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s “as good is from evil.” Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a “change of heart”—that, essentially, is what he is always saying”

For Orwell, the clash between those who want to change society inside out, and those who believe in gradual change through the changing of individual minds, is  like an ongoing fight. Unlike Hegel’s dialectic this one is rather more violent

“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old—generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.

Once again, as in his essay on his rather brutal boarding school, Orwell makes some biting observations about the irresponsible rich of that era

“What now strikes us as remarkable about the new moneyed class of the nineteenth century is their complete irresponsibility; they see everything in terms of individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community exists”

And, finally on Dickens’ writing

“I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his “message,” and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a “message,” whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. ……D. H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was “a gigantic dwarf,” and in a sense the same is true of Dickens. There are whole worlds which he either knows nothing about or does not wish to mention. Except in a rather roundabout way, one cannot learn very much from Dickens. And to say this is to think almost immediately of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s—why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect……In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Pierre Bezoukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy’s greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to—Bloom, for instance, or Pécuchet, or even Wells’s Mr. Polly. It is because Dickens’s characters have no mental life.

And, finally on what Dickens was going to be remembered for – the ability to voice that sense of outrage, at injustice that leads to the idea of freedom and equality being curtailed. Orwell believes that it is because

 since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slaveowner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

 Worth buying the book

George Orwell - A Collection of Essays

George Orwell – A Collection of Essays

Oct 152015

Every year, for the media studies programme that I have been teaching for the last decade or so, i try and set assignments that get students thinking. The course, in addition to the syllabus, has documentary viewing, reading of select articles and projects.

This year students had to read one of the following – V for Vendetta, 1984. Fahrenheit 451 – and discuss it’s relevance in the modern world in general, and India in particular.

Many students quoted ISIS propaganda, or Chinese censorship, or censorship in the middle east as examples. Also discussed were the two girls from Palghar who got arrested under the IT act, post their facebook post on mumbai shutting down after Bal Thackeray’s death. But, the majority of them spoke about Facebook and Google being able to track them, know their preferences and monitor what they do.

For them, it is less about government, because government is not a part of their lives. Except once in 5 years. But, google and FB are. The average 22 year spends  increasingly larger chunks of  time and energy online. They are pouring out their lives on these sites. And, now they are worried about what the faceless corporation knows, and can do with that knowledge.

I seriously get spooked out, when i search for a book on google (or a film or anything else) and when i access my gmail, an ad for that product pops up. I know i can disable it (i.e., not see it) but that data is still being collected and collated. Sooner or later, it will be used – most likely against your best interests. And no, going incognito is not going to help.

What was interesting is that this generation (mind you the sample size is small – one class in one college in one city) seems to find the giant, faceless corporation far scarier than the government

the crow
why a crow picture, i couldn’t find anything else 🙂 and, i kind of like crows

Oct 102015

Currently reading, Gail Omvedt on Ambedkar : Toward’s an enlightened India . Began reading it on the flight, back to Mumbai.

The military then, as now, seems to bea  non-discriminatory haven.

Bhiva and his brothers had never experienced untouchability in their earlier military homes, but in Satara they got their first experience of caste discrimination. Bhiva and one other untouchable student were forced to sit separately; no barber could be found to cut their hair; and when he wanted to study Sanskrit, he learned it was banned to untouchables. He could only choose between English and Persian.

When Ambedkar finally joined college – Elphinstone college, and graduated – he did so in English and Persian.

What is also fascinating is the family and caste (Mahar) tradition :

The Mahars also had religious-cultural traditions that linked them to the wider traditions of rural communities and expressed their equalitarian and liberatory aspirations. Some were Varkaris, followers of the cult of Vithoba, the main bhakti movement of Maharashtra; some were Mahanubhavas, members of an even older equalitarian movement. Out of the community rose wandering mendicants of various kinds, often articulating their own synthesis of the Brahmanic, non-Brahmanic and Muslim traditions found in the country. Ramji was a follower of Kabir and observed the prayers and rituals of the Kabirpanthi sect. He was a vegetarian and teetotaller. Another uncle, a sannyasi of the Gosavi sect, had predicted in a surprise meeting with Ambedkar’s parents in 1879 that their family would produce a great man who would relieve the oppression of their people.


Omvedt, Gail (2008-12-24). Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (Kindle Locations 123-129). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

If you are interested, you can buy the book here .

I am also reading, the collected speeches of Ambedkar, edited by Narendra Jadhav. Again, quite fascinating.