The Buddha and the Sahibs

The Buddha and the SahibsThe Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not a believer of a benevolent colonialism as per the likes of Niall Ferguson or John Keay. However I also do not believe in the pure evilness of the British colonial enterprises as well. Like everything I think there is a big grey area in between which defines this rule. There are positives and there are negatives.

Charles Allen has been a favorite author for telling the stories of the erstwhile Raj from the days of reading 'Ashoka'. He tries to walk this grey part of the history without being judgmental and that's what makes this book fascinating.

I've read the stories about James Prinsep, Alexander Cunningham, "Oriental" Jones and quite a few of the interesting individuals who came here to conquer and ended up uncovering a large portion of Indian history which was neglected and unknown for reasons which are not relevant here.

'Buddha and the Sahibs' tells the story of the re-discovery of Buddhism in India in the late 18th and 19th centuries and the people who did that. The book reads like a detective fiction and expertly puts together the pieces of the discovery.

The story of Buddhism is an inspiring one and above all, the story of the King 'Devanampiya Priyadasi' - the most humane of all kings ever ruled otherwise known as Ashoka is another that defies belief. And what is more amazing is the way the king was identified after the masterly deciphering of the Ashoka Brahmi script by James Prinsep. This is a story that can be read again and again.

More than my infatuation with Ashoka, the book introduces a host of characters who are unbelievable to start with and astoundingly curious and meticulous to the end. James Prinsep who started as the assay master in the Benaras Mint and ended up deciphering the Ashoka Brahmi and identifying the King Ashoka as the Devanampiya Priyadasi of the inscriptions and dying by his 40. Alexander Cunningham - in between his constant part in the frontier wars - manages to trace the entire travel route of Huan-Tsang and identify a host of lost cities and write a long series of books as well.

They may be the product of the imperial era and may have had their prejudices (which are common to that era) but like William Jones - who founded the Asiatic society and be a judge as well - are all driven by the scientific curiosity of the day and there is no just reason for not being thankful to them at all.

It is not just those who are named here, I actually went through a few volumes of the Journal of Asiatic Studies (JAS) published by the Asiatic society founded by Jones and most of those who wrote about the flora and fauna of the country or the ruins of some regions are all local tax collectors and soldiers with some regiments. It is a testament to their interest that they not only observed what was around them, they recorded them as well.

The discovery of Buddhism in the Indian main land by all these people and the discovery of the ruins and location of the holy sites makes for very interesting reading. Charles Allen goes through the steps and the way the entire story unfolded with exciting discoveries. The various events and the unlikely heroes (Hastings or Curzon, anyone?) and of course, M.K.Gandhi and Ambedkar make a cameo as well.

The one part that I find missing is the how Buddhism was obliterated in the country where it was born and how the holy sites were laid waste or taken over by the local Mahants (as in the case of the temple at Bodh Gaya). That is a story that gets mentioned in the passing - like the story of the discussion between the Lama and the Shankaracharya - but is not pursued. I thought that would've made the book more complete.

Overall, a very interesting book..

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the WorldGandhi: The Years That Changed the World by Ramachandra Guha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I finished the book, the struggle was to how to write about it and where to start. Gandhi lived a very crowded and active life and it is difficult to find what to write about it all as there is a sense of missing out on a lot of detail. The 900+ pages of the book amount to Guha's dilemma about the same. How to account for all the events of his life and those lives he touched upon and the events he shaped must have been a daunting task to set for oneself.

Guha's narrative encompasses the political events of the day, the personal life of Mahatma and how the world looked at him. The problem with all that is that Gandhi lived his life in full public glare and didn't bother to hide away anything. Hence most of what he wanted to say and do, he did in the public leaving nothing much of interest for an enterprising biographer writing 70 years later.

There are some new material from the archives which are interesting to read about and the correspondences but was a little disappointed by the non-judgemental tone of the entire book which even Gandhi would've found unacceptable.

A self-proclaimed 'Philosophical Anarchist', Gandhi's life was what he called his autobiography - his experiments with truth. He was one who was experimenting with the truth always - trying to change his perception of it if the results are not to his liking. He was open about it, wrote about it, keep talking about it and changed his views if he was convinced.

However, his basic principles of non-violence or civil disobedience did not get to change. He experimented the methods in which they can be taken to the masses (which experiments were mostly completed during his time in South Africa) but never changed the basic principle underlying them. However he was ready to talk about them to everyone, wrote tons of articles about them and practiced till his death.

So, the political part of the book has to tell the story which was well-known to everyone. To me, Gandhi's relationships with Rajaji or M.A.Ansari are the new. The movements he spearheaded, the reasons he pulled back the agitations are all well-documented and known. So Guha takes the path of showing the responses to these events from the press and the outer world. While that adds to the story, it does not alter it in anyway.

What I would've preferred is probably for Guha to place the events of Mahatma's life in a frame of the events of the day and try to make sense out of it. But sadly, the biographer stops at telling the story without a larger concept or a viewpoint of what happened. The latter part may have been a conscious decision but the former one was a missed chance.

Two personalities stand out in the book as important - one politically and the other on a more personal front.
Gandhi, Ambedkar and Jinnah
Dr B.R. Ambedkar comes out as a churlish, petty politician at the start of the book but seem to have had a change in status by the end. That I think, is doing injustice to him. Ambedkar's life took a different arc than the ones by the brahmins and banias of the day and probably Gandhi was the only person in that time who understood that and treated Ambedkar as more of an equal when others tend to look at him as a small time politician from the hinterland. Mahatma understood the significance of what Ambedkar is standing for and the truth of it - the injustices done to the untouchables - made him turn tack and focus on the reformation after the Poona pact than any other politician in those days.

The impetus given by Ambedkar's stand helped in the opening of the temples and wells for the lower castes and helped in moving forward the reformation needed in the Hindu religion as a whole. This is a relationship and issue that resonates more in the current India - which is still struggling to move forward on these reforms and has to handle the resurgent backward castes along with the rest of the Brahminical hierarchy and the Dalit identification has made it more difficult to implement any now. A deeper analysis of these chapters would've made a lot more sense as a book for the modern India.

The episode of Gandhi's romantic liaison with Saraladevi Chaudarani is something that was new to me. I never heard or read about it before now. So it was interesting to read about this part of Gandhi's life but as Guha admits there is little material available - their correspondences seem to have been destroyed with only a few letters left and so a lot of the story seems to be surmises from the references to their relations in other people's letters and writings. So while it is interesting, it is also the part where there is not much data. However, based on what I read, the affair lasted about a couple of years with no physical consummation but Mahatma keep referring to the episode in later years as when he came close to physical lust (though without any direct reference to the lady). But how important it is in the overall life of Mahatma is a question that never gets asked or answered.

Surprisingly, Nehru gets a minuscule part in the book (less than Patel or Bose), but Jinnah gets his share but the nuances of the discussions and dissent in Congress with Mahatma over partition are glossed over.

Overall, I was left a little dissatisfied with the book as I would've expected Guha to tell a little about the relevance of Gandhi's life in the modern India with the resurgent Hindutva in power and the Hindu-Muslim harmony is in more danger than any other period of the free India. That would've made the book a little more than a biography but made a lot of sense .

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Bleak landscapes and the morbid story lines are nothing new to the Coen Brothers. I remember the night I watched 'Fargo' exactly for the same reason. Cooped up in a downtown apartment in Omaha with a few feet of snow making it impossible to go out, the movie pretty much summed up the mood of that night in 1999.

It is exactly for the same reason that I love the Coen brothers as well. They can show a ray of sunshine now and then like they did in 'O Brother, Where art thou?' but then it is when telling sordid tales coupled with desolate landscapes that they actually shine.

So it was with that expectation that I started watching 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' which I have to say is probably the grimmest of the tales told by the Coens and the most frivolous as well. There are no happy endings but just a reminder of how most of the tales end in real life.

The film is structured as an anthology of six different stories happening in the American west of the yore and is told as chapters of a book. All six stories handle different parts of the hard life in the west  the wagon trains, the saloon fights, the coach travels, the gold rush but all are held together by dark humor and dark drama.

The film opens with a cheery note nevertheless with the story of the quick draw Buster Scruggs a.k.a San Saba Songbird , making light work of the outlaws in a bar and a saloon before unwittingly killed by another young gun. As Buster in his whites with a angels wings and a lyre bursts into a duet with his killer admitting that he cannot be the top gun forever - the whimsical notion of death and the life in the west itself comes to the fore.

However, to me the best of the six stores have to be the one called 'The girl who got rattled' which combined a bit of everything and threaded a story which just have to end in tragedy. Zoe Kazan, as the sweet Ms. Alice Longabaugh who loses her brother while on the Oregon trail and was looking forward to a marriage with the trail hand before everything ends in a misjudged fight with the Indians. The reaction of Zoe when marriage was proposed is a delight to watch and the life they start imagining in Oregon before everything crashes down is a reminder of how lives are lived.

The final story of the anthology is also the one which tries to make sense of all the other tales by some philosophical discussion and it is interesting to follow the discussion which goes from being silly at the start to a discussion about love into the inevitable death as they stage coach riders reach their destination. As Rene, one of the riders, tries to explain the dichotomy of the life away and define the way love is perceived by different people, the conversation ends with the inevitable dichotomy of those living and dead.

The exceptional beauty of the landscape is contrasted with the lives of the people who try to make it there. The loving thing about any movie by the Coen brothers is the witty wordplay combined with sleek edits to tell  the stories. The whole thing is attenuated by the beautiful Prairie landscape and the never ending lands of the west.

In the 'Meal ticket' this beauty of the land and the brutality of life itself is brought out through the repeated talk on the Ozymandias and the story of Kane and Abel. There is no moral scale here but only a question of surviving the rugged life.

The movie eventually take one look at the life and the morbid ending awaiting everyone and laughs at the whole charade of living it.


The Complete PersepolisThe Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'The Complete Persepolis' tracks the life of Marjane from about 10 years till 24 years. Thats about the most conservative way of saying it. This is a book which tells her story just like the way she is in real life - loud, opinionated and doesn't give a damn about anyone.

That is the reason to love and hate the book. The book is actually in a graphic novel format - while I've read more comics in that format - reading a real-life story in the format was novel. But the drawings, though in black and white, convey clearly a lot more than mere words ever do. That is probably the reason to read it as well.

This coming-of-age of Marjane happens to be from about 1979 till about 1993 - in Iran and Europe - crossing over the tumultuous period of the nations history - first the Islamic revolution and then the war with Iraq. It is also the period Marjane is continuously in a rebellious mode both in Iran and in Europe where she is sent for schooling.

In a way, the book also documents the life of the upper Iranian middle class as they try to survive through the religious persecutions and the war and also try to live the life. Marjane's family is prosperous at the start of the revolution and though they go through the difficult times of the revolution and the economic despair of the later times, they are comparatively well-to-do in comparison with the others in the story.

However, this is strictly the story of Marjane as she tries to make sense of the sudden religious restrictions like the veil being applied everywhere and the punishments they have to go through for non-compliance and she picks up trouble wherever she was asked to conform.

To me, the book at least broke some of the perceptions we've about the people in these countries. Other than a few Iranian movies, there is very little documentation around about the people of the country. Thus it is interesting to read about the liberal views of the middle class and still that excludes how the rest of the country - the majority - lived through these times.

Marjane's personal experiences are reflective of the way the country was governed - she loses uncles and friends to the war and they joke about the disabled to overcome the sickening scenario of the country. For a while, she tries living in Austria but ends up hating it and comes back.

Marries a guy - with the whole family expecting her to get a divorce - and dutifully fulfills that expectation in a couple of years. She doesn't grieve over that episode rather dissects why that marriage was a failure in a rather curiously detached way. Like a mistake we make and then realizing it.

There are moments I thought it would be better if I have some backstory but overall a superlative read..

Museum of Islamic Civilization - Sharjah

I usually get the looks when I tell anyone that I am visiting the museum there. It is like 'why would you do that'. Usually I do not answer that look but what I read today answers that very well - 'Culture and Education are the lethal weapons against fundamentalism' (Marjane Satrapi in 'Persepolis').

So, if one were to understand a people to any extent, it is important that one try to understand their culture to whatever extent possible. The culture of the land at any moment reflect the people who inhabit it at that time. Hence, our pride in all those big temple builders and poets of the eon. However, it is also imperative to look at what we are leaving behind for a future world to wonder at. That anyway is for another day.

So it was that when I came into Sharjah, the first instinct was to look for the museums of the city.

I stayed near the Al-Qasba area and it was actually quite a surprise to find a vibrant art scene in the city. From what I gathered from the locals, the Emir of Sharjah is a man of taste for art and culture and so the active art scene in the city.
Al Qasba Canal
Al-Qasba, in itself is such a place of beauty and houses its own contemporary museum with displays of some modern art installation which were interesting to look at but mostly ended up scratching the head wondering what it might be. The garden and pathway along the Al-Qasba run till it meets the Al-Majaz waterfront facing the Gulf.
However, what I was interested mostly in was the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization in the heritage area of Sharjah. I happened to have visited the other wonderful museum on Islamic civilization in Doha and wanted to check this one out as well.

The Museum itself looks very traditional in its outlook from the outside with the traditional Islamic architectural parts of it looking distinct in the contrasting sandstone tiles on the wall. The museum is huge with six distinct galleries on both sides of the structure and took me close to 3 hours to go through the entire building (one of the galleries - the Islamic science and technology wing was closed and that was a disappointment).
The Islamic faith displays form the first part of the museum covering one full wing of the ground floor. The displays cover the history of Islam, how it spread, the written history and calligraphy of Quran and all aspects of the faith and tenets of Islam. What was fascinating is the way the entire thing was spread out across the displays - the different Qurans, the history of Ka'aba, the Kiswahs that were there. This covers the interest to learn the basics of this fascinating religion. It was interesting to read through to understand the basics of this religion.
Qandil from the Kiswah
Kiswah from Ka'aba

As  the other wing in the ground floor - the Islamic science and engineering block was under maintenance, it was time for the four galleries in the first floor.

The first floor galleries cover the periods of the Islamic civilization in two parts - the first 10 centuries and the more recent history. The history of the spread of Islam to the growth of the art and culture of the Islamic world is detailed in the four large galleries.It was also a good thing that there was not much crowd in the galleries giving one the time and space to enjoy the displays.
The Cut glass set - the most exquisite piece in the gallery

While the amount of artifacts in the museum is not overwhelming, it is also to be noted that the conceptual arrangement and detailing of the artifacts in the museum were very good. Some of the curating could've been better - the indexing and numbering of the collective exhibits was confusing - but that is a small thing compared to the overwhelming amount of information to be digested.

The Samarra Mosque
The most interesting part - to me, at least - was the architectural section of the galleries. Probably, it is where the entire Islamic world excels beyond comparison. The section on the Mosques from the initial days of Islam to the modern, contemporary ones is not just interesting but very enlightening as well. The modern structures make use of the basic structure of mosques in very unique and artistic manner.
The battle standard
It takes about 3 hours to cover all five galleries and the sixth one would've added another 30-45 minutes. But probably, the best place in Sharjah to understand the local culture and customs of the people of this part of the world.

The modern Souq
Dhows lined up in the gulf

After that overwhelming experience, took a walk , in that burning sun , around the heritage part of Sharjah - called the 'Heart of Sharjah' - and the dhows on the gulf and the souqs lining the streets reminding one of the many parts of those galleries that I just noticed. A very enriching experience!

புலியின் நிழலில்

புலியின் நிழலில்புலியின் நிழலில் by Namdeo Nimgade

'புலியின் நிழலில்' நாம்தேவ் நிம்கடேயின் வாழ்க்கை வரலாறு.

கைர்லாஞ்சி படுகொலைகளின் பின்னணியுடன் துவங்குகிறது. தாழ்த்தப்பட்ட, தீண்டத்தகாத சாதிகளின் பின்னணியும் கொண்டு எந்தவித பொருளாதார பின்னணியும் இல்லாது - சமூக விழிப்புடன் தன பங்கையும் ஆற்றி வாழ்வில் ஒரு நிலைக்கு வருவது என்பது அதில் ஒரு பாதி பின்னடைவை கொண்டு முன்னுக்கு வரும் எவருக்கும் கொஞ்சம் புரியும்.

பாபாசாகேப் அம்பேத்கருடனான தன்னுடைய உறவை ஆவணப்படுத்தும் நோக்கமே தன்னை எழுத வைத்ததாக சொல்லுகிறார் நாம்தேவ். எனக்கும் இந்த புத்தகத்தில் பிடித்தது அம்பேத்கர் என்னும் மனிதரே. அவரின் பிம்பங்கள் இன்றி ஒரு அளப்பரிய தலைவராய் வருகிறார்.

சாதி பற்றிய எந்த உரையாடலும் அரசியல் சார்ந்தே நடக்கிறது. இந்த புரிதல் முக்கியமானது. இந்த உரையாடல் நிகழாமல் - நம் நிலையிலும் கீழாய் ஒரு உலகம் தினசரி அவமானங்களையும், வன்முறையையும் எதிர்கொண்டு இயங்குகிறது என்ற விழிப்புணர்வு வராது இந்த உரையாடல் முழுமை பெறுவதில்லை. இந்த உணர்வு வரவிடாமல் இருக்கவே ஊரும் சேரியும் பிரிக்க படுகிறது. சாதியத்தின் கொடூர நிதர்சனம் பூசி மொழுக படுகிறது.

இன்றைய நிலை இப்படி இருக்க நாம்தேவின் ஸாத்கவ் கிராமம் 100 வருடங்களுக்கு முன் எப்படி இருந்திருக்கும் என்று நாம்தேவ் ஓரிடத்தில் சொல்லுகிறார். உயர் சாதி கல்யாண மாப்பிள்ளை - பெண் ஊருக்கு வண்டியில் போகிறார். இருட்டுவதற்குள் போய்விட வேண்டும் - அவர்கள் வண்டிக்கு முன் கீழ்சாதியை சேர்ந்த இருவர் ஓட வேண்டும். அவர்கள் உயர்சாதி கூட்டத்திற்குள் வந்துவிட கூடாது. எனவே மாடுகளை விட வேகமாய் ஓடவேண்டும். பெண் ஊர் சேர்ந்தவுடன் மாட்டு தொழுவத்தில் தூக்கம் - தூக்கி எறியப்படும் இலைகளை பொருக்கி சாப்பிட்டு கொள்ளவேண்டும். இப்படி மனிதனை மாட்டிலும் கீழாய் நடத்திய சாதி முறையை இப்போதும் எங்கும் தூக்கிக் கொண்டு அலைகிறோம்.

இப்படி இலை பொறுக்கும் நாம்தேவ் , பதினாலாவது வயதில் பள்ளிக்கு செல்ல தொடங்குகிறார். அங்கிருந்து நாகபூரில் கல்லூரி. அம்பேத்கரின் இயக்கத்தில் இணைகிறார். நாகபூரிலும் எதிர்கொள்ளும் சாதிய அடக்குமுறைகளை தாண்டி படித்து முடித்து - IARIஇல் வேலைக்கு சேர்கிறார். PhD பண்ண விஸ்கான்சின் பல்கலைக்கழகம் அழைக்கிறது. முனைவர் ஆகி , அம்பேத்கரின் பாதையில் பௌத்தம் தழுவுகிறார்.

'மதம் மனிதனை மிருகமாக்கும் - சாதி அவனை சாக்கடையாக்கும்' என்று சொன்ன பெரியாரும் , 'கற்பி, ஒன்றுசேர், போராடு ' என்ற அம்பேத்கரும் இணையும் புள்ளி - கல்வி. சாதீய கீழ்மையிலுருந்தும், பொருளாதார கீழ்மையிலுருந்தும் கல்வி மட்டுமே வெளிக்கொணர்கிறது. அதை மறுப்பதன் மூலமே சாதீயம் சாத்தியமாகிறது. நாம்தேவ் வகுப்பறையின் வெளியில் நின்று பாடம் கேட்கிறார் - உயர் சாதி மாணவனைவிட அதிக மதிப்பெண் பெற்றதற்கு அடித்து தூக்கி போட படுகிறார். அதையும் தாண்டி படித்த ஒவ்வொரு நாம்தேவிற்கும் ஈடாய் வேறு எத்துணை பேர் கொலை செய்யப்பட்டும், திரும்ப கிராமங்களுக்கும் சென்றிருப்பார்கள் என்று தோன்றாமல் இல்லை.

நாம்தேவின் அம்பேத்கர் வெகு சன சித்தரிப்பில் இருந்து விலகி ஒரு உயரிய தலைவராய், எப்போதும் தான் நம்பிய ஒன்றை வலியுறுத்தும் நபராய் வெளிவருகிறார். தன படிப்பின் மீதான நம்பிக்கை அவரை ஒரு பெரும் தலைவராய் நிலை நிறுத்துகிறது. நாம்தேவ் அவரை தன் தலைவராய் காண்கிறார். அவரது அரசியல் அதிலிருந்தே வருகிறது. கல்வியின் முக்கியத்தை அம்பேத்கரை பார்த்தே வழி நடக்கிறார்.

இத்தகைய புத்தகங்கள் சொல்வது என்னை பொறுத்த வரை ஒன்றே. சாதிய ஒழிப்பு என்பது அனைவரும் படிப்பதனால் மட்டும் வரப்போவதில்லை. அதையும் தாண்டிய மனிதம் வரவேண்டியும் இருக்கிறது. 

First Man (2018)

After some time into the movie 'First Man' - the Titan lifts off with the Gemini 8 crew. The entire lift-off visual starts within the capsule of Armstrong and the traditional rosy lift-off is turned around. For a minute there, you travel up at the immense speeds escaping Earth's velocity with the entire capsule knocking off like crazy till the eerie quite of the zero gravity sets in and Armstrong switches off the lights to search for Aegena.

That sequence is what is interesting about the movie. The entire mission to the moon has been documented multiple times in the past - from documentaries to movies. The linear story telling and the adventurous spirit of the missions are there for all to see. 'First Man' takes a very familiar story - with the end known to everyone - and tells it very differently and succeeds.

Neil Armstrong - probably the least adventurous person in the Gemini Astronauts and probably the most methodical of the group - is not a perfect fit for a movie about a landing on the moon. So the movie takes the cues from his personal life and try to make the moon landing about something of a redemption and closure moment of Armstrong.

A stolid and determined man, Neil Armstrong comes out as a cold and calm person who even as a test pilot for X-15 bounces into atmosphere and coolly injects himself back into the atmosphere. If there is any emotion shown by him, probably it was not known outside his family. So the movie heavily focuses on who the man underneath that mask is and connects with the mission he was entrusted with.

The loss of his daughter probably pushed him into that mask more at the start of that eventful decade and the movie shows him being unable to bring to a closure that loss and withdrawing into a shell more and more. The coolness with which he handles the pre-launch press conference is one.

The movie works because it keeps the landing on the moon as a sideshow and chooses to focus on the man himself more. The technical parts of the landing are told over quickly and the emotional drama between Neil and his wife plays out more with some stunning visuals being thrown in.

The Man on the moon program brought forth a bunch of colorful astronauts who are legendary and of course, men who did a lot of crazy stuff in the space. Starting with Chuck Yeager (though he didn't fly) to men like Gus Grissom or John Glenn or Jim Lovell, the men were all desperadoes seeking adventure in doing crazy things and a lot of them paid for it with their life as well. Strangely, you don't hear such stories of heroism about Armstrong - he is the guy who made the whole man on the moon thing look simple. He just went there and said a few words and came back - no big deal.

May be, that is why it is interesting to see him as a grieving father unable to get closure and shrinking into his emotional shell more and more. And though it was not clear on the way the final landing sequence on him is done - with the dropping of the bracelet in moon - whether it happened really or not - but it was poetic. It is impossible for anyone to be standing on the moon and not do that.

If you really want to learn about the whole 'man on the moon' program, you still have to see 'From the Earth to the Moon' series - that is the best there is. But if you would like to see a human drama unfolding around the man who did that first, this is the movie to watch.

The Buddha and the Sahibs

The Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen My rating: 5 of 5 stars I am not a believer of a benevolent colonialism as per the likes of ...