11.1.15

Where I review Gandhi Before India and start rambling

tl;dr Books is really well written and worth the read. Discussing Gandhi though, remains a challenge. 4.5 stars - buy, it read it, enrich your lives.

Writing about M.K.Gandhi - the eponymous Mahatma - is not a trivial task. In a country which is constantly questioning its identity and busily forgetting it's recent past, visiting his life story is no easy task. Making this more difficult is the limited writing on the time Gandhi spent cementing his ideas and philosophy outside of India. This period is what Ramachandra Guha does a stellar job of narrating in Gandhi Before India. The book walks us through Gandhi's childhood, his turbulent youth and talks extensively about his days as the leader of the hard-fought civil rights movement in South Africa.

The book is well written - as you can expect from someone who wrote India After Gandhi and follows it up with another scholarly work. It paints a different picture than from what Indians have largely painted for themselves from the one movie, TV shows and politicians' speeches. It's also a narrative a lot of Indians may not care about since it is set in a foreign land dealing with problems of the diaspora from generations ago. Popular imagination has restricted Gandhi's 21 year stint outside India to an eviction from a train and a few fiery speeches without his trademark dhoti. Guha has filled in an enormous gap in my education and given me more insight into how Gandhi came onto his idea of Satyagraha and non-cooperation.

The book covers Gandhi's life and career, from a life of opulence on the west coast of India to eventual triumph  in the plantations, mines and prisons of South Africa - a journey that passed through England and briefly Mumbai. And quite a remarkable career it is - a lawyer, an editor, a mass agitator and a prophet all rolled into one. Guha convincingly places the roots of all these activities - and their growth - squarely in the events of Durban and Natal. Weaving a narrative using Gandhi's printed works, his correspondence and newspaper articles, Guha takes us through the broadening of a man's vision and the strengthening of his convictions. It is remarkable that the man, who with a pinch of salt would one day shake the very foundations of the British Empire, began his crusade as a loyal denizen of the Empire trying to accommodate the aspirations of his countrymen in the Empire's legal framework. Gandhi even organized an ambulance corps during the Boer War and encouraged volunteers from the Indian populace. Guha skillfully takes us through the events that turned this loyal son of the Empire into its greatest nemesis.

The England phase was definitely an eye-opener. That Gandhi was a London educated barrister was know; that he spent a significant time being socially and somewhat politically active there was interesting. Guha does a fine job of unearthing and highlighting this relatively obscure phase of Gandhi's life in the voices and letters of all the major players.

As a migrant myself, living in an age of great immigration turmoil, Gandhi's role as the crusading lawyer fighting for civil rights of migrants is especially thought provoking. As a man of his class, he began fighting for the middle classes and the wealthy, but his real gains had to wait on his leadership of the indentured Tamil plantation workers and miners. It's easy to forget that though England abolished slavery, she ensured slave-like conditions for millions of individuals across the globe. This book reminds us in good detail about the struggles of these people and their crusade to better themselves. What is also interesting is Gandhi's work with the migrant Chinese and the native African peoples. It is quite astonishing that Gandhi was able to stitch together an alliance of sorts that included sympathetic (and a few blindly loyal) Europeans in a day and time when class, caste and race prejudice was ingrained heavily - even in the great man himself.

The highlight of the book is of course the development of the ideas of non-cooperation, non violence and Satyagraha that Gandhi gradually evolved in South Africa. Guha details Gandhi's activities as a vegetarian in London which brought him the company of like-minded pacifists, his conversion to the path of Tolstoy and his spiritual development which matured in the Farms and prisons of South Africa.  Gandhi's initial forays, based on his readings and older movements, feel naive and crude at first, but the sheer moral high ground that he was able to base his philosophy on and the strict adherence to his principles literally converted more and more adherents. Gandhi's originality probably lies in his ability to tease out the moral strength of poor and unimaginative laborers and lead them to a life of equal rights while suffering equally (or more ) as them.

Another interesting theme of the book is the seeming indispensability of Gandhi's leadership. As in the Indian context, not only did Gandhi face challenges to his leadership, he also faced disillusionment of a lot of his initial followers because of the demands his methods put on them. Time and again, it is interesting to observe, how the mass was unable to accept anyone else's leadership. A huge part of this was of course that his writing - fairly lucid, although sometimes gibberish -  was always appealing to his readers' sense of moral, honor and dharma. Some part of it was also probably his strict adherence to his own ideals - we can appreciate this more in the Indian context, but it does provide some more insight into why, despite sustained opposition, he remained the preeminent leader of the Indian population.

The bibliography is excellent - I've no idea how I am going to be able to digest all of that. Guha drew not from the one well-cited single source - The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi - but was able to go far afield and draw from diverse biographies, paper clippings and personal interviews. My reading list has become well inflated with titles and I'm almost tempted to perform the sacrilege of making notations on my copy of the book so I can keep track of what I want to read. If for nothing else, just buy the book to appreciate the scholarship of the author.

The book does a grand job of portraying Gandhi as a prophet and therein lies my quandary. For my generation of peers who grew up with bomb blasts, high altitude warfare and the specter of urban terrorism,Gandhi is divisive. Gandhi has always has shouldered more blame - possibly because of his moralistic politics which appear bizarre now, quite definitely because of his stature. The haze of time has completely wiped out a coherent memory of the remarkable revolution that Gandhi was able to architect to free millions of people. Narratives of Gandhi obliging Pakistan's creators and "giving up" wealth that were rightfully Indian are pretty common and most definitely spurious. So do stories of his supposed physical cowardice - this in spite of his documented ambulance work in the Boer war and his courage in the face of prison. Satyagraha - literally, soul force - is controversial at best in today's day and age. Its practice reeks of emotional blackmail, it's adherents come off as naive (or in some cases, bullies).

So then, who is Gandhi? Is he just just an ideal of a saint we should consign to textbooks then? Has he no place in our daily discourse except as a target of blind faith on end or frustration and contempt on another? I think Guha makes a great case that not only is Gandhi relevant, the study of his work in creating a non-violent mass movement is also highly relevant. As the Arab Spring and AAP have proven, mass movements run by the middle class are highly seasonal and don't necessarily live through a winter. Looking back at Gandhi and his leadership might give us some insight on how to sustain confrontation against tyranny. I don't know if Satyagraha is a relevant weapon any more, but civil disobedience offered by loosely knit people's organizations will always remain a potent force. This book reminds us that these ideas - quite radical for their day and age - were not conceived in ivory towers, but wrought in the crucible of a struggle and shouldn't easily be dimissed.

Verdict - Read it, one of the better books to come out of India.

8.1.15

Best books of 2014

Last year was a fantastic year for reading books. I picked up some remarkable books and had a smashing time reading them. A lot of them were India-centric, a topic which  - surprisingly - I have not read a lot on. India trips do help here - the availability of books does make it easier to pick them up. There were a few duds as well - not overly bad, but it's never guaranteed when all you can do is judge a book by its cover hehehehe.

Here is my pick of the books from 2014.

Gandhi Before India Ramachandra Guha - It's a well-written, tight and scholarly book - albeit a long read - on the life of M.K. Gandhi in South Africa. It covers a period of close to 25 years and uncovers (or re-discovers) a lot of Gandhi's work in South Africa. A riveting read, it has led me to a new appreciation of Gandhi's role in mobilizing the Indian diaspora and it deserves its own blog post.

Team of Rivals  D. K. Goodwin - This is one of the best books I've ever read. Taut and gripping, this book kept me focused on every page despite the sheer size of the book. Shifting the focus from Lincoln and the war, this cast a lens, quite dramatically at times, on all the other main players during war time. Worth a read for any Civil War buff or anyone interested in statesmanship in general.

Two Serpents Rise Max Gladstone - This was one of the of my surprise finds at the library. Good sci-fi fantasy is hard to come by in this age of rings and emperors. This off-beat take on gods, demons and corporate power struggles is both dark at times and breathtaking at others. Recommended for your quick sci-fi needs.

The Box Marc Levinson - This was from Bill Gates' 2013 book list. And he was on the mark. I've always wondered the history behind containers and who came up with that idea. Levinson paints a great narrative of origins of the seemingly unstoppable growth of container shipping and its role in creating the modern world. If you've ever wondered why stuff from China is so ubiquitous, this book provides one small clue.

Empires of the Sea Roger Crowley This is more for the medieval history buff. The European-Arab conflicts have always fascinated me, ranging as they did over enormous distances and over huge land masses. The flow and ebb of naval battle has been well captured by Crowley, especially the siege of Malta. It's also not a very big book and the succinct narrative keeps you glued till the last page.

Eisenhower in War and Peace J. E. Smith I've been a WW2 buff for over two decades and one name that featured prominently in all my readings has been Ike's. This book is by far one of the best biographies I have read - detailed without being overwhelming, very little commentary, deep analysis and aggregation from multiple sources - this was a joy to read. Ike was the President who could have unleashed a global nuclear war, but ended up being a super-diplomat who worked towards building safeguards against such an event. He is one world leader everyone should know more about and learn from.

5.1.15

2015

I went back and looked at my 2014 post and well, let's just say I'm glad I didn't call them resolutions. I met a few of them - some amount of tech improvements, the financial planning stuff is not so bad, but nothing great. I also managed to read 25+ books last year - minor yay. Not a lot of blog posts or heroku apps- I blame the 2 India trips I had to make.

A bonus that happened last year was all the time I got to spend with family and friends. The boy grows bigger every day and it is the greatest thing I have. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with friends and got to meet so many people again that I can't stop smiling at the memories.

I'm also being dismissive and calling it "tech improvements", but this is the first year that I truly feel I've gotten out of my tendency to fall prey to the impostor syndrome at every workplace. It's a tough place to be in at times, but I've grown and I love what I do.

So what's in store for this year? Again, no resolutions and easy moving goal posts. The one thing I really want to keep plugging on is the github and heroku goals. I don't want to keep building apps that only I can see and work with. That's finite and completely unworthy. I have some ideas brewing and hopefully will make more time this year.

Another thing I do want to do is more book reviews. They tend to spiral into #longreads and I can ramble a bit. But, I read a lot and it makes sense that I spend some time internalizing what I have read. Intriguing notion that - reviewing the lessons learnt from a book. I'm sure y'all agree.

Seeya on the other side of this year.

4.1.15

Rajesh Khanna - the lonely, dark star

Dark Star - The Loneliness of being Rajesh Khanna by Gautam Chintamani narrates the complex and intriguing story that was the life of Rajesh Khanna. Arguably Bollywood's first superstar, his life is almost straight out of his own movies. An actor who lived on the adulation of millions and then became a nobody, Rajesh Khanna pretty much dropped out of everyone's sight in the noughts till the disastrous Wafaa. A revival of sorts has happened with everything Rajesh Khanna in the past few years after his death and this book is a pretty good addition to that.

Chintamani does a grand job of detailing the early, halcyon years of Rajesh Khanna. It's a remarkable testament to the actor's abilities - and his luck - that most of his memorable hits came in a really short period ( 1969-73). The book traces this history tying together diverse conversations on his discovery , his explosive success, his meteoric rise, his downfall in the age of the angry young man, his days in movie obscurity and his last hurrah. Well written and fairly light on the reader, the book treats its subject with sensitivity and in some places even borderline awe. The book was written after Khanna's death, so we miss out on a direct narrative; but a supporting cast of Bollywood giants from the 60s and 70s and numerous movie magazine articles ensure a tale that you will not forget that easily.

It is perhaps easy to dismiss his acting chops and movie selection, since Khanna is mostly remembered for his mannerisms and being the vehicle for Kishore Kumar's voice. Rajesh Khanna was making movies on pre-marital sex, broken marriages, union conflicts, among a diverse array of uncommon movie topics, before they were hip. His movies appealed to every age group and if you look beyond the music and hand waves, you'll find intriguing stories backing movies like Ittefaq, Safar, Anand and Aradhana.The explosion of anger that Amitabh Bachchan ushered into Bollywood brought abrupt closure on such films till parallel cinema and it is easy to forget what a great actor Rajesh Khanna could be.

A common strand in the book is the tragic music of Rajesh Khanna's movies. Chintamani uses their lyrics imaginatively to chart the course of Khanna's life and times. They seem to almost mirror the insecurities and the road to his eventual downfall. In a fairly poignant chapter, the author traces the path of bad choices, poor decisions and worse attitude in the actor's life using the lyrics of Zindagi ke Safar Main from 1974's Aap Ki Kasam. Hindsight is 20-20 as they say and it feels like if the actor had paid more attention to Anand Bakshi's poetry, he might have lived the life of a superstar a little longer.

The sections on his personal life are straight out of a gossip rag if you are into that kind of reading (I am - guilty secret). His on-off and never quite ended affair with Anju Mahendru, his very abruptly ended tryst with Tina Munim and his age-defying marriage to Dimple will live as long as the cult of Bollywood survives. The author didn't get a lot of access to the main players, but he has made a good attempt at re-painting the drunken binges, the tantrums ( Khanna intrigued to hold a grand party at the same time as a awards show where he was denied an award), the food fests and the largess of Khanna. His inability to match Amitabh's acting curve probably played the biggest part in his dethroning, but the minor intrigues of his "durbar", his pettiness and the narcissism make for fascinating reading.

As part of a generation that came to age with the cable revolution, Rajesh Khanna has always been part of my life. Growing up to reruns of Bawarchi, Safar, Roti, Namak Haram and of course, the wonderful Anand, I spent my teenage years always one channel change away from him. I've watched him cry, love, laugh and - more often than not - die with a smile on his lips. He epitomized the tragic hero - forever caught in a cycle of destruction and death. Still, I was never part of the generation for whom he was a super star. I don't think I've ever thought much about his role in Bollywood's history or his place in the pantheon of herodom. I mostly just knew him for the songs and the (by my time) archaic and comical expressions and handwaving. That gap has been filled thanks to this quite interesting book.

Verdict - buy it, read it. 4 stars.