Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Book Review: “Ashoka” by Charles Allen

Of course I knew who Ashoka was even before I started reading Charles Allen’s most recent offering on one of the greatest kings India has ever known. I am sure that almost all Indians do. What I expected to get from Ashoka was a detailed description of Emperor Ashoka, how he came to power and a list of all the good things he did after that famous change of heart and conversion to Buddhism subsequent to the conquest of Kalinga. What I ended up was something else. No, I wasn’t disappointed. Far from it, rather. Allen’s 400-page tome on Ashoka (that’s not including appendices, annexures or the elaborate index at the end) is not just a compilation of all that’s known about Ashoka. If that were to be the case, the book wouldn’t have run to more than 75 pages. Rather, it is a detailed exposition of how archaeologists, many of them employees of the East India Company and British Indian bureaucrats, motivated mainly by curiosity and a love for India’s history, dug around, came up with theories, some of them silly, and ultimately shed light on a man every Indian ought to be proud of: Emperor Ashok. Ideally, the book ought to have been titled "The Search For Ashoka The Great" or something on those lines.

As amateur British archaeologists started to unearth Ashoka’s rock edicts, they put forth various theories about him. Some of the early theories about Ashoka and the Mauriyan dynasty were downright ridiculous. For example, William Jones, a linguist fluent in 13 languages including Persian and Sanskrit, an Oxford graduate, a barrister enrolled at the Middle Temple Inn, a judge on the bench of the Supreme Court at Kolkata, took the view, after reading the Puranas in the original and examining rubbings of Brahmi inscriptions on various pillars erected by Ashoka, such as one found in Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s palace, that a conqueror or law giver from Ethiopia had lived in India around a thousand years before Christ. That was around 1789 and at that time, the world knew very little about Buddhism or of Emperor Ashoka. Later, more and more information flowed in, especially from Sri Lanka where Buddhism flourished and from China from where travellers such as Faxian (Fahien) and Xuangzang (Huen Tsang) had visited India in 399 CE and 629 CE respectively.

Until I read Ashoka, I wasn’t aware of the extent of Greek influence on the Mauryan Empire and its culture. Allen tells us that Chandragupta or Sashigupta, known to the Greeks as Androkottos or Sandrokoptos or Sisikottos, was a Vaisya horseman who served Alexander the Great as a mercenary, in which role he actually helped Alexander defeat horse people such as the Aspasioi and Assakenoi in what’s now Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After Alexander captured Mount Aornos (modern day Swat), Sisikottos was appointed as governor of that area as a reward for various services rendered. However, as soon as Alexander turned around and started the long journey back to Greece via Persia and Babylon, Chandragupta united the local tribes and asserted himself. We are told that Chandragupta was probably involved in the murder of Philippos, the governor of Gandhara and within a few years of Alexander’s exit from India and his death in Babylon, Chandragupta started to capture territory held by Alexander’s satraps and also defeated the much despised Nandas. Allen tells us that Chandragupta’s minister and chief advisor Chanakya played a vital role in Chandragupta’s success, but Allen’s description of Chandragupta and Chanakya is a far cry from that given in Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant. Chandragupta is his own man and Allen tells us that Chanakya stuck to him like a leech and played a moderating role.

Before the arrival of Alexander, the people living Northern India did not have an indigenous written script, though the famous grammarian Panini lived around that time. Allen suggests that Prakrit, the main spoken language of those days, was written in Aramaic until the Brahmi script was developed. Did Chanakya play a role in the development of Brahmi? Most probably he did, according to Allen. Art and sculpture is another area where the Greek influence is highly visible. All of a sudden, artefacts from that era show a great deal of Greek influence. Also, Greek mercenaries were employed by Ashoka and other Kings of that era.

Ashoka came to power after murdering his elder half-brother Sushima. Once he was in power, he killed off his remaining half-brothers, all ninety nine of them. Only one brother, Tissa, was allowed to live. Ashoka was a short, corpulent man with rough skin who was susceptible to fainting spells. He once burned alive all his concubines when he found out that they did not like to caress his rough skin. Most probably, he was already a novice or lay Buddhist when he launched his attack on Kalinga, but after the Kalinga war, he stopped all further violence and became very kind and gentle, though towards the end of his life. Ashoka had many wives. His first wife Devi was the daughter of a merchant and Ashoka’s children through Devi, namely Mahinda and Sanghamitra became Buddhist monks and missionaries. Ashoka’s chief queen was Asandhimitra and she bore his heir apparent Kunala. Unfortunately Asandhimitra died when Ashoka was in his mid-sixties. The replacement queen Tishyarakshita turned out to be clever and evil. Clever because she found a cure for Ashoka’s stomach ailment by finding a man with similar symptoms, killed him and invented a way of killing the worm found in the dead man’s tummy (with the despised onion). Evil, because she had Kunala blinded. Towards the end of his life, Ashoka went into a frenzy of donating every last bit he owned in the world to his favourite Buddhist monasteries and died an unhappy man.

Ever since Buddhism came into prominence, it had been at loggerheads with Brahminism. Brahmins opposed Buddhism because the two faiths competed for patronage. Brahmins also sought to co-opt Buddhism within the folds of Hindusim. Arab historian Abu-al-Fazl had written in his Ain-i-Akbari that ‘the Brahmans called Boodh the ninth avatar, but assert that the religion that is ascribed to him is false.’ In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Hindu resurgence led by Adi Shankara had decimated Buddhism. Allen takes the view that ‘some of the most famous Hindu temples in India almost certainly began as Buddhist structures, often incorporating Buddhist icons, either in the form of images of deities or as lingams. For likely examples – selected simply because they come from the four corners of the subcontinent – are the Badrinath shrine in the far north Garwal Himal, the Jagannath temple at Puri on the east coast, the Ayappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala and the Vithalla shrine at Pandharour in Western Maharashtra.’ Islamic invaders dealt the final blow, putting many Buddhist shrines and universities, such as the university at Nalanda, to the sword and torch.

Allen goes a bit overboard is detailing how Ashoka is unsurpassed in the sub-continent’s history and how India hasn’t done right by him. True, Ashoka was the first person to propound the theory of ahimsa and his messages on the rock edicts carry a secular message and not a Buddhist one. Allen is angry that Ashoka is not celebrated as a great hero across the length and breadth of India and cites two important reasons for this state of affairs. According to Allen, many Indian historians did not like the fact that the Mauryan empire and various Mauryan kings, especially Chandragupta Maurya, were influenced by Greek culture and had benefitted from their interactions with Alexander the Great and his Greek/Macedonian army. Therefore, they did not glorify Ashoka as much as they ought to have. No, Allen does not say that Ashoka had any Greek blood - even though Chandragupta did marry Ambassador Megesthanes’s daughter, his heir and successor Bindusara was born of his first wife. The second reason for the non-glorification of Ashoka is, according to Allen, the rise of Hindutva, which doesn’t like the way Ashoka propped up Buddhism and downgraded Brahminism. Around the time of India’s independence, when a secular Nehru was in charge, Ashoka was good news. Ashoka’s chakra found a place on the Indian flag and Delhi’s best hotel was called Ashoka. However, after Nehru’s death, Indians stopped giving Ashoka much importance. Allen is certain that this is because Hindutva ideology which has been gaining ground in India, doesn’t wish to glorify a man who was very much influenced by Greek culture. Allen may be right to some extent, though I suspect bureaucratic sloth may have played as great as role as Hindutva ideology in the lack of attention towards Ashoka.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Book Review: Mamata Banerjee’s Memoir “My Unforgettable Memories”

What’s it that drives a man or woman to perform public service? Why do some people bother to work for the welfare of others? Many enter politics to enrich themselves, but there are a few who are scrupulously honest. Why do such good people neglect their families (and themselves) as they go all out to serve the greater good? Mahatma Gandhi did so much for the cause of India’s independence, but his wife and children were neglected to such an extent that his eldest son Harilal turned out to be a drunkard who died of liver disease. Do such honest public servants really care about public welfare or do they only want to gratify their ego? Or is it a mix of both? In short, what’s it that makes honest politicians tick?

Mamata Banerjee’s memoir “My Unforgettable Memories” has been translated from Bengali by Nandini Sengupta. Dedicated to Ma, Mati (Land) and Manush (People), My Unforgettable Memories is a rambling memoir which gives the reader an insight into how Mamata Banerjee’s mind works. Of course, it also has details about Banerjee’s childhood and her journey as a politician, ending in the Chief Minister’s chair. I am not saying that Banerjee is an honest politician, but her memoirs certainly give that impression.

Banerjee seems to have had a happy childhood. Her description of her life in Calcutta, to which her family migrated when she was very young, reminded me so much of a character from one of Tagore’s short stories set in the early part of the 20th century – swimming in the River Hoogly, eating lots of sweets and other home cooked food etc., home schooling and private tutors – that I found it difficult to believe a kid growing up in Calcutta could have such a lifestyle, despite Banerjee telling us that she went through a street food craze phase. Equally bizarre, I found it unbelievable that a girl from cosmopolitan Kolkata would have so much trouble with food when travelling overseas, as Banerjee did during her various foreign jaunts, despite not being a vegetarian.

Banerjee tells us that she was close to her father, but doesn’t tell us much about him. She doesn’t even mention his real name, but thanks to Wikipedia and the internet, I now know that Promileswar Banerjee was a businessman and a Congress Party worker. Did her father initiate Banerjee’s entry into politics? Surely Banerjee learnt a lot about politicking from her father? Banerjee is totally silent on all this. Banerjee doesn’t seem to have suffered for lack of money, even after her father died when she was young. However, Banerjee did a lot of household chores – cooking and cleaning – hers wasn’t a comfortable upper middle-class life, cushioned by an unending train of domestic helpers.

Banerjee is religious and if judged by western standards, a few of her anecdotes show her to be rather superstitious. Pujas and prayers play a big role in her life, this has been the case right from childhood. However, she comes across as some very open-minded in matters of faith. She does talk of visiting dargahs and seeking blessings from a variety of sants, peers and other men of God.

That Banerjee can be unbelievably obstinate and adamant is brought out very well when Banerjee narrates the story of how in 1984, after defeating Somnath Chatterjee and breaching the red citadel of Jadavpur, Banerjee goes to meet with the ageing Prafulla Chandra Sen, former Chief Minister of West Bengal and seek his blessings. Prafullada, then around 87, had worked for Banerjee’s victory behind the scenes and is delighted to see her. He blesses Banerjee, treats her to lunch and gifts her a silk saree. Then comes the request, ‘Khuku, please request Mamata to wear the saree and show me how it looks.’ Of course, Prafullada doesn’t know that ever since Banerjee joined active politics, she has never worn a silk saree. In the end, Banerjee doesn’t show any flexibility and wriggles out of that situation, though she says that since that day she visited Prafullada at least once a week to take his counsel.

My Unforgettable Memories has a number of anecdotes about various politicians active in Bengal and in Delhi, almost all of them referred to with the ‘da’ suffix. Banerjee has only good things to say about Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and was terribly cut up by their assassinations. In fact, she says that when Rajiv Gandhi was killed ‘I was orphaned all over again, for the second time in my life since my father’s death. I did not speak to anyone for a week. I simply could not eat a morsel. I used to shut myself up in my room and cry. It has been so many years, but even today, I feel his presence in every step I take; he touched a chord that still plays the symphony of my life. Whenever I face a problem, whenever something upsets me, unknowingly my eyes seek out Rajiv’s photograph on the wall in my room and I can almost hear him say, with that winsome smile on his face, ‘Mamata, how are you? All well? No trouble I hope?’ I am not sure how one can classify these emotions, but I am sure that if Rajiv Gandhi were alive, Banerjee would not have broken off from the Congress Party to form the Trinamool Congress. Such feelings are not expressed towards Sonia Gandhi who is referred to as the Queen Mother in various places and the limited respect that’s accorded, is given grudgingly.

There are three types of people surrounding Banerjee: Friends, Enemies and Conspirators. Right from page one, Banerjee classifies people into these categories. Friends are all those who follow her, help her, support her in all her endeavours, and never criticise her. Enemies are those evil people who want to harm her and harm the people, harm Bengal etc. Then there are the conspirators who are those who claim friendship, but secretly plot her downfall. In the epilogue, Banerjee says that ‘at this point, instead of coming together to create a new Bengal, the CPM and its friends have started a number of conspiracies. It is easy to openly point out the Maoists, but those who are sabotaging our plans in disguise are more difficult to recognise. I will not say anything about Maoism. People can have different ideologies. There is nothing dishonourable about that. But terrorism, murder using ‘supari’ killers to kill people are some things I will not tolerate. I will continue to call my enemies in disguise as ‘friends’. It is easy to spot those who are openly our enemies. But what does one call those who pretend to be friends only to stab us in the back, those who secretly strengthen the CPM’s hand? For the moment I shall call them ‘friends’. I would like to thank God and Allah that I have managed to recognise these so-called friends in such a short time. Their ‘blessings’ have helped me to see through them. ............My friend, who are you conspiring against? Someone who is willing to give her entire life without giving anything in return? I work. I do not want anything in exchange. Whatever I have received is enough. I have got the blessings, love and good wishes of the people and I am satisfied with that. In the interest of the people, I do not want to waste time..........’ It goes on and on, in this vein.

The best parts of My Unforgettable Memories are Banerjee’s blow-by-blow descriptions of various incidents, how she contested elections, organised rallies and morchas, fought pitched battles with the police and CPM goons, broke off from the Congress, applied to the Election Commission for registering the Trinamool Congress as a separate party, defeated the CPM and the state machinery at Nandigram etc. Some of her stories, such as how the Congress high command tried to prevent her from applying to the Election Commission in time for registering the TMC, or how when she was assaulted by CPM goons with the connivance of the state police, at the Hazra crossing in 1990, two blows landed on her head and still she managed to lift her hands and block the third blow with an iron rod which would otherwise have killed her, ring true. Also, when Banerjee tells us that ‘my body has taken so much battering that I am still alive is itself a miracle,’ we know that she is speaking the truth. The most important part, and for this part alone, this book ought to be made mandatory reading for the Congress high command, is the part where Banerjee details the reasons why decided to form the TMC. No, I am not going to detail them here. Please do read this memorable book to find out for yourself.

Nandini Sengupta, who translated My Unforgettable Memories has done a very good job. One can almost image Banerjee speak these high-flown dialogue lines in chaste Bengali. For example while describing how Banerjee helped organised a Congress rally at the iconic Brigade Parade Ground in 1992, we are told that, ‘But in a meeting at Esplanade East, I suddenly announced that the next rally would be at the Brigade Parade Ground. It was almost as if I could see the crowd come alive. I dumped my doubts and rode the excitement of party colleagues to organize what no one else had managed in ten years. ......................Every time I would cross the open field in Brigade Parade Grounds, I would wonder – I hope our rally will not turn into a sad joke. We were not the only ones beset by doubts. The ruling CPM and even our own party leaders were pretty much convinced that the rally would be a huge flop. Yet we got incredible amount of help from the workers’ organization and other parts of the party, not to mention the common people. ..........................................Even before the meeting actually happened, we started facing increasing opposition. But in the weeks running up to the event, the entire state was engulfed in a kind of momentary madness. The rallying cry was: ‘Brigade Chalo’. At the parade ground, work was going on at a feverish pace...............................25 November 1992. By the time I reached the venue, there were 50,000 people. Slowly the crowd started to build up. All roads, across Bengal, led to the ground. There was excitement in the air. Everywhere we looked, there were a sea of expectant faces. Was this a dream? Was it magic? ......................I realized how desperate people were to come all the way to sound the death knell of those in power. Their tears, cries of help, loss and bereavement hit me like an avalanche. I decided that this was it! I decided to sound this death knell all across the state from Canning to Kanchenjunga. ......................... The truth is, I wanted to give something back to the people. Whatever life has given me, every new dawn, every sunlit path has been a gift from the people. They are my inspiration. I am what I am, thanks to them.

Banerjee comes across as a woman on a mission, one who will brush aside all opposition as she inexorably moves forward. I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘move forward towards her goal’ since Banerjee never spells out any specific goal other than the vague and long term goal of serving the people. As may be expected, Banerjee never even suggests or gives a hint of having any ambition or wanting to be in power or that her Chief Ministership came about as a result of extensive planning rather than something providence dropped on her head. Never once in this book does Banerjee admit to making a mistake, other than mistakes brought about by trusting the wrong people. After I finished the book, I got the feeling that Banerjee is the sort of person who would seriously believe that she is a force for good and that everything she does is for the general good. Even if she breaks the rules, it is for the good of the society. To take that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, since Banerjee is the best thing that could happen to Bengal ever since rosogollas were invented, anything that needs to be done to keep her in power and her enemies at bay, would be justified.

All of this is extremely interesting in light of recent reports which show that Banerjee in power is a very different kettle of fish from the Banerjee who fought the CPM as an opposition leader.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Book Review: Tamil Tigress by Niromi de Soyza

Niromi de Soyza doesn’t exist. The former LTTE fighter who wrote Tamil Tigress has adopted a nom de plume because she fears for her personal safety and that of her family. Niromi’s fears aren’t totally unfounded. Niromi’s offering is a memoir of the time she spent with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a dreaded organisation that was once described as the most effective and ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. At the height of its power in the early part of the last decade, the LTTE controlled most of Northern and North Eastern Sri Lanka. Niromi is as critical of the LTTE as she is of other players in the Island’s tragedy. True, the LTTE doesn’t exist anymore, but its supporters in various western countries remain as fanatic as ever, with dreams of an independent Eelam burning as brightly as ever.

Tamil Tigress is well-written. The prose is smooth, but doesn’t have unnecessary frills or garnish. One of the best things about Tamil Tigress is that it captures the mood and atmosphere of Jaffna prior to 1983 when the troubles began and afterwards. Compared to the hill country where Niromi and her parents led a very western lifestyle for the first eight years of Niromi’s life, Jaffna was a bastion of conservative values. Niromi’s father was a high caste catholic, while her mother was an Indian Tamil, a Hindu of a different caste and was looked down by her in laws even though her father was also, just like her father-in-law, a railway station master. Niromi’s parents had married for love. Niromi’s father was an engineer working for the Sri Lankan Electricity Board’s technical college at a place called Norton Bridge in the picturesque Central Province, around sixty kilometres south of Kandy. When eight year old Niromi is sent to her paternal grandmother’s place in boring Jaffna (because the Sinhalese heartland had become unsafe for Tamils), she is unhappy with her surroundings, which are very different from Norton Bridge where Niromi, her younger sister and her parents had led an easy-going and laid-back life.

Caste and class played an important role in the life of Jaffna Tamils. This is in a way not much different from the situation in Tamil Nadu or the rest of India. Niromi’s paternal grandmother, a devout catholic, is quite superstitious, practising a form of Catholicism that is very native in character. Niromi’s father is on the whole progressive, encouraging a western lifestyle and does not make Niromi go through an antique ritual, which many Tamils follow even now, one that involves a public ceremony almost akin to a wedding, to celebrate and declare to the world the onset of a young girl’s menstrual cycle. He however forbids her from singing in the church choir since it is composed mainly of girls from lower castes! He also gets rid of a scrapbook she had with pictures of Sridevi, the Indian movie diva, and suggests that she collect pictures of Mother Mary.

It is interesting to note that most of the LTTE cadres were from the lower rungs of society. The upper classes fled Jaffna for safer destinations all over the world. There’s an interesting anecdote when a Tiger named Roshan (who later plays an important role in this narrative) tries to force one of Niromi’s neighbours to move to another house, so that the LTTE can use the neighbour’s house which is strategically located as a base. The elderly neighbour’s verbal abuse forces the Tiger requisitionner to leave. This is essentially because Roshan is from a poorer background and a lower caste. When Niromi and her friend Ajanthi enrol in the LTTE, they are treated as curios and more importantly, they get preferential treatment since they are ‘upper class’. Nothing illustrates the background and educational qualifications of the average LTTE fighter than the anecdote of how when once Niromi referred to the LTTE by its acronym, one of her fellow fighters, a girl named Dhushi, wanted to know what it meant, since ‘until then, she only knew the organisation she was a member of as just Pulihal [Tigers]

Women in Jaffna did not have an easy life. Men could loll around and still expect to be waited upon hand and foot, while women slogged. This attitude seems to have percolated to the LTTE as well. Initially, the Tigers did not admit women – the attitude was that it would be tantamount ‘to placing a spark of fire next to cotton wool’. The first female LTTE fighters were actually from rival organisations, the TELO and PLOTE, which had been banned and then decimated by the LTTE. The female fighters of these organisations who were undergoing training in India were allowed to complete their training and admitted to the Tiger fraternity on their return to Sri Lanka. Niromi tells us that untrained female Tigers were referred to as ‘Makkal’ by the Tigers. ‘Makkal’ can be loosely translated as ‘people’ or even ‘the masses’. We even hear Prabhakaran address Niromi and her fellow trainees as ‘Makkal’. There are quite a few instances narrated by Niromi which show the deep chauvinism exhibited by the men folk in northern Sri Lanka, both civilians and male Tigers, towards female LTTE cadres. However, during one of Prabhakaran’s speeches at Niromi’s training camp, he said that ‘women were the future of the organisation, as they were more dedicated and willing to please.’ Towards the end of the her memoir, when Niromi and other LTTE fighters shelter in the Vanni jungles, Niromi tells us that female fighters, even the senior-most among them, were never part of strategy discussions.

The women in the LTTE, Niromi’s colleagues, might have been second class members, but it doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to crack pithy one-liners and find humour in the dreariest of all places. When the one-legged leader Kittu is asked for advice by a trainee, he responds, ‘what advice can a legless commander give budding fighters?’ Pat comes the muttered, under-the-breath response from one of Niromi’s fellow trainees, ‘how about a lecture on self-pity?’ The LTTE itself seems to have a weird sense of humour in the way it foisted names on all its recruits. We are told that someone who was very dark skinned was renamed ‘vellai’ which means ‘white’ in Tamil. Another chap is called ‘Manmadhan’, meaning the handsome God of Lust. Niromi tells us that the chap in question ‘was quite the opposite.’

The factors which caused Niromi to take up the gun are well sketched and Niromi builds up a good case for her decision to join the Tigers. When she was a child living in the Central Province, she witnessed the forced deportation of half the Indian Tamil population. Children were separated from their parents and old people were treated harshly. The Sinhalese sat around and watched, unruffled. Then there were the 1977 riots and the riots in 1983 immediately after the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 government soldiers in Tinneveli near Jaffna, where so many Tamils were killed in Colombo and other Sinhalese dominated areas. The Jaffna library, which housed so many culturally important and unique documents and palm leaf manuscripts, was burnt down in 1981 by a mob of policemen and militia men. Niromi doesn’t say this, but this act of vandalism was in retaliation for the murder of three Sinhalese policemen at a TULF rally.

Niromi adopts the name Shenuka on joining the Tigers. Shenuka is a Sinhala name, one which cannot be pronounced easily by many Lankan Tamils, but Niromi doesn’t care. Life within the LTTE is tough and the fighting tougher. Unlike most of her colleagues who were used to a life or hardship, Niromi finds the toilet facilities so disgusting that she and her bosom friend Ajanthi who is also from a similar background, initially resolve to eat less so that they don’t use to go to the bogs too often.

The LTTE is shown to be ruthless towards other Tamil groups which refuse to disarm when ordered to do so. Niromi is not happy when she is told that many TELO and PLOTE members were killed by burning tyres placed around their necks. Niromi is deeply uncomfortable and unhappy when the LTTE kills her distant relative Benjamin solely because he belongs to the rival EPRLF. Niromi doesn’t mention this, but on 8 October 1987, the LTTE had ambushed an IPKF rations truck carrying paratroopers, taken 5 paratroopers prisoner and killed them by garlanding their necks with burning tyres. The murder of many innocent Sinhalese by the LTTE upsets Niromi. Nevertheless, she believes that only the LTTE can provide a solution to Tamil woes and joins the LTTE. However, after joining the LTTE, her doubts increase in the face of LTTE’s ruthlessness, though she manages to silence her disquiet for a while. Suspected spies are cruelly executed. The LTTE expects unquestioning obedience from its members and brutally punishes all those who dare to disobey. As the LTTE fights the IPKF, civilians are unhappy. There are a few instances where they accuse the LTTE of breaking the peace and request them to stop fighting. The LTTE ignores them. In fact, Niromi makes it clear that even when agreeing to a truce and weapons surrender after the IPKF accord, Prabhakaran had no plans to surrender his weapons or give up his demand for Eelam.

There are so many interesting anecdotes about Prabhakaran and many of the other top LTTE leaders. Niromi tells us that during her training, Prabhakaran visited the training camp often. His wife Madhivadhani and their two children – Charles Anthony and Dhuwaraka - accompanied them once in a while. Niromi tells us in a matter of fact manner that ‘A self-trained man, he wanted us to develop exceptional patience and mental strength which he claimed to have achieved as a young boy by staying inside a sack in the sun all day (no ordinary achievement considering Jaffna’s heat), by inserting needles under his finger nails and by torturing insects.

One of the diktats of Prabhakaran was that men and women, or rather boys and girls, serving together should not be romantically involved. Roshan, the Tiger who had tried to requisition a house from one of Niromi’s neighbours, is attracted to Niromi and vice versa. The affair comes to nothing, but many of Niromi’s friends tease her about it and one is left wondering till the end if some disciplinary action might be taken against Niromi or Roshan on account of it. Towards the end of the memoir, two young LTTE fighters, Nora and Shanthan are accused by LTTE leader Mahathaya of falling in love. Shanthan is summarily executed, and his body is displayed in public with a note to the effect that ‘he was punished for misbehaving.’ Nora is ordered to ‘prove her loyalty to the organisation by taking a frontline role at every confrontation with the enemy and by stealing an item from the enemy’s camp each time’. Nora’s comrades privately sympathise with her, but none of them openly object. Rather they advice Nora that she ought to fulfil her punishment at least once before she resigns, just to prove her loyalty. This attitude is nothing new. Earlier, we are told of how an LTTE fighter, when ordered to shoot his father, who was suspected of being a spy, complied with the order, before he quit the LTTE.

The punishment meted out to Shanthan and Nora turns out to be the last straw for Niromi who resigns. All her comrades want to resign as well, but they are not allowed to do so. Niromi explains how her background (upper middle-class and upper caste) actually played a role in enabling her to leave the LTTE other than as a deserter. Niromi’s extraction from the LTTE’s hands to her family’s custody is finally achieved when the Mayor of Kilinochchi intervenes in person.

Many writers and bloggers have disputed the veracity of Niiromi’s account. Here’s one such article which explains in detail why Niromi has allegedly got so many things wrong in her narrative. And here’s another.

After reading Tamil Tigress, I felt that on the whole, the narrative sounded genuine. Of course, it is possible to picks a few holes here and there in Niromi’s story. For example, Niromi talks of many a meeting with the LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran and his number two Mahathaya. Even after one makes allowances for the LTTE being, in 1987 when Niromi was a member, a much smaller organisation than the beast it grew to be in the present century, I found it incredible that Prabhakaran would spend so much time with newly recruited fighters. Niromi tells us a lot about Prabhakaran, including that he was passionate about Hinduism and she was worried she might have to convert to Hinduism. I found this difficult to believe. The LTTE, like many other Tamil groupings in Sri Lanka, was essentially Marxist/Socialist in ideology and its top leadership was largely atheist. The nom de guerre adopted by or foisted on many LTTE fighters were Christian or Muslim names, such as Soosai (which means Joseph in Tamil), Gaddafi etc. Dead LTTE fighters were buried and not cremated. I seriously question Niromi's contention that Prabhakaran was a flag-bearer for Hinduism, though he might have had an anti-Buddhist bias since most Sri Lankan Tamils identify Buddhism with the Sinhalese community. Another anecdote (which I found unconvincing) is how after the fighting with the IPKF started, Prabhakaran gave Niromi money to buy uniforms for the female fighters. ‘How much money do you think you will need, children?’ About 20,000 rupees?’ Prabhakaran asks. Just the thought that after hostilities with the IPKF commenced, Prabhakaran would go around handing out rupee notes to a bunch of female fighters to buy uniforms for themselves, cracked me up. The instances where Niromi meets Mahathaya are much more believable since Niromi and Mahathaya are part of a group on the run from the IPKF.

Eminent journalist DBS Jeyaraj, who has written a series of posts in support of Niromi (as a rebuttal to the various allegations and accusations that Niromi’s account is fraudulent) tells us that ‘Niromi is the name of an old school friend and a name she liked. De Soyza is for Richard de Zoysa, the well-known journalist, TV announcer, screen and stage actor who was abducted and killed by “state terrorists” in February 1990’. You can find Jeyaraj’s posts on this topic from these links: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Part 5 is yet to be posted)

I tried to compare Niromi’s account with that of one Anthony Thasan, a.k.a Shoba Sakthi, whose autofiction Gorilla has been translated into English by Anushiya Sivanarayanan. I had reviewed Gorilla in mid-2008 and my review can be found here. However, I did not get far in my comparison since Shoba Sakthi was a poor, dalit boy and the treatment he received while in the LTTE could just not be compared with what Niromi underwent.

The biggest criticism against Niromi, and this bit is fully justified, is that Tamil Tigress’s blurb talks of how ‘two days before Christmas in 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush, as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting government forces in the bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades.’ Note, the reference to ‘government forces’. As has been pointed out by so many folks on the internet and elsewhere, in 1987, the Sri Lankan army was confined to the barracks and the LTTE was fighting Indian soldiers who had been sent there as a peacekeeping force. In the first Chapter of this memoir, the same ambush is sketched out in detail. In this chapter, the reference is to ‘soldiers’ as hundreds of Indian troops surround Niromi’s group and kill many of her friends. There is no mention of troops from the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the IPKF , or of Sri Lankan soldiers. Later on, in the 14th chapter, the same ambush is explained in greater detail. Here Niromi makes it clear that the LTTE is fighting Indian soldiers. All of this has given rise to the well-justified accusation that Niromi’s memoir is an attempt to show the western world, how much Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered without messing up the narrative with the confusing presence of the IPKF, at a time when Australia, where Niromi currently resides, and the rest of the Western world is clamping down on boat people and other refugee arrivals. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan Tamil community has suffered, but is Niromi entitled to whitewash certain facts in such a clumsy manner to project victimhood and to explain why Sri Lankan Tamil refugees should not be forced by western nations to return to Sri Lankan?

Niromi tells us time and again that she never saw the faces of the IPKF soldiers she fought. I find that difficult to believe. When faced with an enemy which was superior numbers and weapons, the standard tactic would be to get in as close as possible before the firing starts. The first time Niromi was involved in a fire fight, at a village called Kopaay, she and the others with her ran away when called on to surrender. Fortunately for Niromi, the IPKF did not pursue her. The second time Niromi was in combat, we are told that ‘the battle lasted all through the night. I hardly noticed the time pass as we continued to fire intermittently, changing our magazines only once. All I could see were flashes of gunfire. I aimed at them, but never saw a soldier.’ During the ambush which is briefly described in the blurb, and in greater detail in the first and fourteenth chapters, Niromi and other survivors hide in a nearby large lantana bush. When the soldiers close in, Niromi and others are ordered to ‘quietly cock your rifles. Place your kuppies (cyanide capsules) inside your mouth. If the soldiers spot us, fire the entire magazine into them and then bite the capsule.’ The soldiers come close enough for Niromi to see their boots, but they are not spotted. I assume Niromi didn’t see a soldier’s face even then.

Once when Niromi is in a house where some Sinhalese PoWs had been housed before they were executed by the LTTE, Niromi wonders ‘How could anyone shoot someone at such proximity, especially unarmed prisoners? Then I thought of Benjamin – he had met death in the same way as these soldiers: unarmed and defenceless. I hoped I would never be asked to carry out such a task by the Tigers. The only enemies I was prepared to shoot were faceless, armed and in uniform, somewhere out there trying to destroy me and my people. I did not want them to be in civilian clothes or in the same room as me.

Niromi accuses the IPKF of committing various atrocities and says (rightly in my opinion) that she would have expected Indian soldiers to be better behaved. There is one instance where Niromi talks of the IPKF as a foreign army, distinguishing it from the Sri Lankan government forces. She tells her readers that ‘I resolved that I would not let Ansaar’s death be in vain, I was going to fight until the foreign army was driven from my homeland and we could attain Tamil Eelam, where there would be no more torture or murder.’ Towards the end of the story, we are told that the IPKF raided her house, ransacked it and marched her mother and younger sister to the nearest camp for further questioning. However, because Niromi’s focus is on atrocities by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese majority, India and the IPKF get off relatively lightly.

However, not once does Niromi say that she didn’t like the idea of fighting the Indian army, when the Sri Lankan Tamil community considered India to be a friend and the real enemy to be the Lankan government. A blogger, who seems to know a lot more than I do, claims in this article that in May 2009, when the LTTE was on the verge of defeat, Niromi published a short story of some nine pages in the Daily Telegraph entitled: “Life as a female Tamil Tiger guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers.” Apparently in this story, she made it clear that she fought the IPKF and that 'fighting the Indian soldiers made no sense to me.'

Niromi’s attitude towards India is ambivalent at best, though I suspect there is little love lost. Once Niromi notes ironically that even when the LTTE was fighting the IPKF, wounded LTTE fighters could get medical help in India (no, she doesn’t say they could get help Tamil Nadu). In another instance while travelling by boat along the Sri Lankan coast, she notes the deserted shore and thinks ‘we must still be in Sri Lanka, because I remember having heard that India was highly populated.’ Most probably if Niromi weren’t too worried about garnering international opinion, she would have been more forthright on the IPKF and India. We are told that within two months of leaving the LTTE, Niromi was enrolled in a boarding school in India and she graduated 18 months later. ‘I had been elected one of four captains and crowned prom queen of the year.’ I assume the school Niromi went to was one of the few international boarding schools in India – the average Indian school doesn’t do prom. How did Niromi like her school, I wonder? How did she feel being in India after having fought Indian soldiers, at a time when her former colleagues were still fighting Indian soldiers? The IPKF was in Sri Lanka until March 1990.

There is another reason to doubt the accuracy of the ambush mentioned in the blurb and twice in the book. It is in this ambush that Niromi’s best buddy Ajanthi is killed. Niromi tells us that a short while before the ambush, a fellow-fighter, a girl named Sadha who claimed to be able to read palms, took a look at Ajanthi's palm and in a sudden burst of drama in an otherwise matter of fact narrative, told Ajanthi that she had a very short lifeline.

Niromi’s literary deception in a way fits in with her earlier behaviour when she joined the LTTE. Though she knew that the LTTE was tyrannical and treated rival Tamil organisations in a despicable manner, though her relative Benjamin had his teeth knocked out and was beaten black and blue by LTTE leader Vasu, kept in detention for many months and later murdered in cold blood in retaliation for the grenade attack on Kittu (which was allegedly carried out by the EPRLF), Niromi still joined the LTTE because she thought the LTTE alone could safeguard Tamil rights. 17-year old Niromi thought she was looking at the larger picture, ignoring the ground realities surrounding her and the pleas of her family. Niromi turned out to be wrong then. Is she doing the right thing now?

In the concluding (20th) chapter, Niromi takes the offensive against the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record. Niromi says that ‘currently, some 100,000 Tamils, displaced by the war – including children and the elderly – are held against their will behind barbed wire in concentration camps, where they endure primitive conditions. Many are also held in prisons without charge or trial. Meanwhile Sinhala resettlement programs take place in their hometowns.’ It is true that many Tamils are still held in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) and these camps are not exactly comfortable R&R resorts. However, it cannot be denied that the Sri Lankan government is entitled to hold to account those civilians who supported the LTTE which had crossed all boundaries of civilised human behaviour. I’m sure the IDP camps and resettlement programmes for inmates of those camps have many drawbacks, but I am not going to comment any further since I am not competent to do so. Here are a few balanced articles on the camps for IDPs: : Article 1, Article 2 and Article 3.

Niromi concludes that ‘at the time of writing this book, Sri Lanka remains a very dangerous place. Not only for Tamils, but for anyone who openly criticises the government.’ To some extent Niromi is right. The Rajapakse government has a horrible human rights record. Anyone who criticises the government is at risk of being silenced as the murder of well-known journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga has demonstrated.

Niromi is perfectly entitled to argue that Sri Lanka is still a dangerous place for Tamils and that Western governments should not force Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to return to Sri Lanka or turn away fresh arrivals. However, should she have morphed Indian peacekeepers into Sri Lankan government soldiers in order to project a more simple and less complicated narrative to achieve her ends?

Niromi ends her memoir with words of thanks and goodbye in Tamil and Sinhalese. Instead, I wish Niromi had made a few positive suggestions to make life easier for the Tamil community living in Sri Lanka. Granted, the Sri Lankan government hasn’t shown any sign of wanting to offer a fair deal to the Tamils in Sri Lankan, granted most of the politicians representing the Tamils are government stooges, but is the situation really irredeemable? Couldn’t the girl who could speak to Sri Lankan soldiers in Jaffna in Sinhala and was addressed by them as Podi Nangi offer a few concrete suggestions to make the island the paradise it used to be? After the 1983 riots, there haven’t been any anti-Tamil riots by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Not even when in June 1990, the LTTE massacred over 600 Sri Lankan policemen who had surrendered to them after receiving promises of safe conduct, nor after the Battle of Mullaitivu in 1996 when the LTTE killed over a thousand Sri Lankan soldiers or after the LTTE captured the Elephant Pass complex in April 2000, yet again killing over a thousand Sri Lankan soldiers. The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora based in Canada, UK, Australia and other Western countries is still dreaming of a Tamil Eelam. Doesn’t Niromi have a message for such die-hard fanatics who are willing to fight to the last Tamil left in Sri Lanka?

The Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka is not particularly different from that of other developing countries. Yes, critics of the government are harshly put down, but those willing to keep their heads down and work hard seem to do well. This is the case in so many Asian and African countries including the United Arab Emirates to which Niromi’s father migrated leaving his family behind in Sri Lanka, India and China. Sri Lanka’s treatment of its Tamil minority has been shameful, but has it been much worse that Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines who have lived there since time immemorial? Niromi herself tells us, when narrating the time she spent inside a village school at a place called Alavetti, that ‘I was impressed by the large and well equipped village school. The one thing the government was doing right was giving children free access to education all over the country; even at private schools, we never had to pay for our text books.’ Mind you, this village is 15 kilometres north-west of Jaffna, in the heart of the Tamil country at a time when the Sri Lankan government was not in control of that area. I just can’t imagine the Indian government running excellent schools in areas under the control of, say, the Maoists. I can however imagine Niromi’s scornful riposte to such an argument!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Book Review: “When Loss Is Gain” by Pavan K. Varma

Well-known non-fiction writer Pavan Varma has produced his first work of fiction which deals with important and interesting issues such as the meaning of life and the age-old human dilemma between enjoying life to its fullest and making sacrifices for the sake of spiritual and material gain. As one may expect, Varma’s prose is always elegant and beautiful, with dollops of fine verse in between, in the form of quotes from a range of poets and writers such as Kalidasa, Ghalib, Nida Fazli, Amir Khusro, Bulle Shah, Zauq (the poet and tutor of Bahadur Shah Zafar), Jagjit Singh, Basavanna etc.

The story itself is rather simple and relies on themes such as marital infidelity and desertion, which are as old as mankind. Anand is a lawyer working in a law firm run by Adi, his friend from college. Adi has everything, the right background, charm and money – and a young son, though Adi is divorced. Anand plays second fiddle to Adi and gets paid for it. Very shortly after the reader gets used to the relationship between Adi, Anand and Tanu, Varma rocks the boat. Anand and his wife Tanu are unhappy since they haven’t been able to have a child. Adi turns nasty, doesn’t give Anand his due, Tanu turns unsupportive and Anand rightly suspects Tanu of having an affair with Adi. When one thought things couldn’t get worse, Anand is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a few months to live. Tanu confesses to a dying Anand of her affair and tells him that she plans to marry Adi. It helps that Adi has a son from his first marriage.

Just as one starts to wonder how the story can go on for more than a few more pages, Varma jolts everything once more. It turns out that Anand did not have pancreatic cancer, it was something else, which can be cured with an operation. Anand gets a fresh lease of life and he goes off to Bhutan where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Tara, a recluse from India, who is trying to become a Buddhist nun. After some desperate wooing and pursuit, Tara and Anand get hitched and turn to Delhi to lead a contended life.

Though I really enjoyed reading this novel, though the story skipped along lightly on the wings of Varma’s delightful writing and I read the 206-page book in a single sitting of around 3 hours, I didn’t like many things about the story. Some of my dislike stems from the fact that I like some amount of detailing and more importantly, hate it when the loose ends aren’t tied up. We are told that Anand is a lawyer whose clients ask him if their cases are likely to be successful. From this one may gather than Anand is a litigator, one who appears in court, rather than a corporate lawyer who drafts agreements for clients. However, not once do we see Anand go to court. Rather we are told that he spends all his time behind a desk. Yes, Varma does tell us that Anand does all the background work for Adi to steal his glory. However, even Adi doesn’t seem to spend much time in court. In any event, even the junior-most lawyer in a firm of litigating lawyers is bound to spend some time in court, seeking adjournments and making minor appearances. After Anand survives the cancer scare, he is offered a better job by a rival law firm, as a “Senior Vice President” in charge of International Clients. I’ve never heard of any law firm in Delhi or Mumbai or London or New York or anywhere else in the world which has such a designation. Law firms have Partners and below them are Associates. Varma is a career diplomat, but he holds a law degree. Even if he never practiced law, he could have made a couple of phone calls to any of his former law school classmates and done some basic research into how law firms are organised before writing this book. Did Varma think that because he was writing fiction (for the first time) he could dispense with research altogether?

There is no mention of any divorce proceeding, even after it is clear that Anand isn’t going to die. But when Anand goes to Bhutan, there seems to be no obstacle to pairing up with Tara in a simple Bhutanese ceremony.

We are told that Adi’s wife got custody of their son Arpit when Adi got divorced, but when Tanu has an affair with Adi, Arpit is conveniently brought back. In fact, the opportunity to be a mother to Arpit is one of the attractions for Tanu to marry Adi.

Anand had a tough childhood, with his father dying when he was eleven and his widowed mother struggling to put him through school and college. We are told his mother died just before he graduated, presumably with a law degree. In another place, we are told his mother died before Anand turned nineteen. In India, one doesn’t graduate with a law degree before the age of twenty two. Twenty three, if one gets the law degree as three-year second bachelors’. How can a writer with a law degree make such basic errors?

Despite, having had such a poor childhood and not really making it big as a lawyer, when Anand decides to stop working and live off his savings, there miraculously appears a property he had ‘bought as an investment, but never visited’. When the savings are tallied, there is enough for Adi to lead a simple, but comfortable life till his death. Of course, towards the end of the novel, after Anand marries Tara, he does accept a job which requires him to work four days a week, as a consultant, at twice the salary he got from Adi. I do wish Varma had explained where one can get such a job in Delhi or elsewhere in India. I personally know of atleast a couple of hundred lawyers who would jump at the chance!

The tables are stacked in favour of Anand from Page one. Adi is built up to be an ogre, a man who has to be disliked by every reader. Tanu too is shown to be insensitive and there is an air of comeuppance when at the fag-end of the novel Tanu makes a re-entry, having paid for all her sins. Adi too comes to a nasty end. Everything comes easily to Anand once he has decided to change his rules for living and enjoying life. One morning while pottering around Humayun’s tomb, he runs into the Bhutanese ambassador Kinley Namgyel (incidentally one Major General Vestop Namgyel happens to be the Bhutanese ambassador to India) who suggests that he take a holiday in Bhutan. For good measure, the ambassador, playing the role of ambassador to the extreme, takes Anand’s card and fixes for Anand to stay with the ambassador’s niece Chimi who has one of the oldest traditional homes in Bhutan, at a place called Wangsisina, which she runs as a guesthouse. Chimi is conveniently divorced and pretty and plays the perfect host, trying her best to cheer up Anand, taking him to town to party and sleeping with him for one night only, after which they become very good friends, agree they are not in love and Anand is left free to pursue Tara.

All of this brings me to an interesting question. Is a fiction writer entitled to play fast and loose with facts and reality in order to convey a particular point or to push an agenda? I should think No. In any event, When Loss is Gain did not convince me to quit my job and live off my savings for the rest of my life or at least try and get a job which pays less but has more comfortable working hours.

Let me not go on in this vein, this book doesn’t deserve it. One of the best things about When Loss is Gain is how Anand wins over Tara. In this game, Anand doesn’t have it easy and he is forced to fight very hard. There is melodrama and some stereotypical mating moves – Tara actually loves Anand but she is so determined to become a nun that she pretends otherwise - but on the whole, Varma does this bit pretty well. Particularly good are the dialogues between Anand and Tara debating the meaning of life, whether it makes sense to enjoy life or if a Spartan life of penance and suffering is more worthwhile. Also excellently written is the explanation (which may not make sense if examined by a nitpicker like me) as to how the doctors who diagnosed Anand with terminal cancer got it so wrong – no, they did not mix up reports, it is a much more nuanced explanation. Please do read this book to find out for yourselves.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Book Review: “The Legend of Amrapali” by Anurag Anand

Amrapali was a famous courtesan, pretty, clever, talented and everything else that courtesans are meant to be, who lived in the city of Vaishali, the capital city of the Lichchavi clan, one of the eight Kshatriya clans that had united to form the Vajjian confederacy. The Vajjian confederacy is reputed to be the world’s oldest democracy where the King was elected by an electoral college consisting of princes and nobles from the Kshatriya clans. Remember, we are talking of a time that was around 2500 years ago, when Mahavira and Gautama Buddha lived and preached. Incidentally, both these gentlemen lived in the vicinity of Vaishali. Lord Buddha is said to have visited Vaishali many times. The legend of Amrapali is well-known in India.

Bollywood has paid its homage to this legend.

Now, Anurag Anand, an upcoming author, has penned a novel which is loosely based on the legend of Amrapali. I say loosely because in the most well-known version of Amrapali’s story, Amrapali was declared to be the state courtesan or Nagarvadhu of Vaishali in order to avoid fights between her numerous suitors. Amrapali had an affair with Bimbisara, King of neighbouring Magadha and bore him a son. Later Amrapali became a Buddhist, as did her son. Anand's The Legend of Amrapali follows the most accepted version during Amrapali’s initial years when her adoptive parents found her abandoned in a mango groove (hencethe name Amrapali), but diverges drastically when Amrapali gets older. Anand’s version is racy and exciting, with a decent share of melodrama and suspense.

Manudeva is the King of the Vajji confederacy, a man who has been elected to power. Anand’s plot pivots around Manudeva’s infatuation for Amrapali, whom Manudeva glimpsed once while he attended a discourse by Gautama Buddha. Amrapali has a lover, her childhood sweetheart Pushpakumar, whom she wants to marry. When Amrapali’s father rejects the King’s proposal to make Amrapali his queen, Manudeva gets Pushpakumar implicated in a false case of spying and at the same time arranges to have Amrapali declared the Nagarvadhu, a position which would require her to entertain him as well as other nobles of the state. Pushpakumar is killed while escaping from prison and Amrapali is forced to become the state courtesan. The rest of the story revolves around how Amrapali attempts to take revenge against Manudeva for the murder of Pushpakar and for her own predicament. I won’t say any more about this and play spoilsport, but will leave it to you to read this novel and find out if Amrapali is successful and how it all ends.

On the whole, Anand is a good story teller, as good as Chetan Bhagat or Ashwin Sanghi, and The Legend of Amrapali is a good book, especially if you like the romantic genre. The plot is interesting, though I found it difficult to believe that Amrapali’s adoptive father would reject the King’s proposal, and Anand does manage to keep his reader engrossed till the end in Manudeva’s machinations and Amrapali’s quiet scheming. One of the things I especially liked is how Anand has brought out the corruption that existed even in the world’s oldest democracy. Politicians will be politicians after all! The one thing I liked the least was how Anand goes out of his way to have Amrapali reject Gautama Buddha’s teachings. Though Anand only expends a page on this rejection, I felt that it was totally unnecessary, especially since in the most well-known version of the Amrapali legend, Amrapali does become a Buddhist. Was this divergence the reason behind William Dalrymple’s interesting quote (given on the back cover) – ‘Amrapali is potentially a wonderful subject for a book.’ Dalrymple doesn’t comment on Anand’s novel per se or even mention if he has read it!

There were a few other things I didn’t like about this otherwise good novel. Anand uses a lot of vernacular in his narration. There are references to Pehar (a unit of time, 3 hours), Kanda (segment), Kootniti (politicking), Ranniti (the science of war), Muhurat (an appointed time, usually an auspicious moment), Viniccaya Mahamatta (Enquiring Magistrate) and the like, which is all very good and befits a story of this sort. However, interspersed with all that native terminology, one finds some modern vocabulary which stands out. There are references to “commandos”. Anand tells us that the ‘king or any other member of the elected council could nominate any girl they found to be suitable for the post on a suo motto basis’. I found this inconsistency disconcerting. The use of modern terminology while narrating an ancient tale is not something new. Stephen Pressfield carries this out to perfection in his Afghan Campaign. At times, Anand’s use of contemporary lingo works well. For example, we are told that ‘the government had attempted to counter the epidemic by calling in doctors from Magadh, Avanti and othe nearby kingdoms. Free medication was provided from dispensaries across the city. Medical camps were organised in the …..’ At times it does not such as when Anand describes how Amrapali found her father’s body after he committed suicide, dejected by his daughter having to become the state courtesan. Anand tells us that ‘Somdutt’s body was flailing in the air, with a garment fastened around his neck, its other end secured to a metal hook, protruding from the tall ceiling. A settee which he must have used to reach up to the height, was rolled over a few steps from his dangling feet’. I didn’t mind the use of the metal hook all that much, though I would have preferred a wooden crossbeam, but the mention of the ‘settee’ did unsettle me.

Just before the wedding ceremony where Amrapali was to marry her sweetheart Pushpakumar, just before everything went wrong, Amrapali accidentally spills some salt. Of course she immediately throws a pinch over her left shoulder, but it doesn’t help. Now, the superstition over spilt salt is a very European/Christian one, driven mainly by the fact that salt was a very expensive commodity in medieval Europe. Also Judas is supposed to have split salt during the last supper. Throwing it over the left shoulder is meant to hit the devil lurking behind. Of course, India has its share of superstitions and bad omens, but spilling salt isn’t one of them. I wish Anand had mentioned an ancient Indian superstition or bad omen rather than make Amrapali spill salt.

There is a reference to soldiers from Vaishali fighting the Huns ‘beyond the unassailable stature of the Himalayas’. From what I remember of my history lessons, the Huns came into contact with Indians only during the time of the Guptas – 5th century AD or so. Later in the tale, Amrapali acquires a posse of Mongolian Xiongnu bodyguards. We are told that the Xiongnu from Mongolia are ferocious fighters and later on in the story, they do perform spectacularly well. I doubt if any Mongolian mercenaries were found in India during the time of this story, but their presence doesn’t do this novel any harm.

Despite the nature of Amrapali’s job, there are no graphic descriptions or steamy scenes, which doesn’t harm the story in the least since Anand does keep the plot moving at a steady clip. Anand’s prose is functional, which soars high at times. There are also a few instances when I found his usage clumsy or even wrong, such as when Amrapali’s closest friend Prabha is snatched from bondage by the Mongolian Xiongnu bodyguards and brought to safety without a scratch. We are told that ‘with a scratch-less Prabha and bodies of the three fallen guards heaped on their horses, they began their return journey to the palace.

The hitches pointed out by this nitpicking blogger are minor and let me reiterate that on the whole, The Legend of Amrapali is a good read.

PS: Could the publishers fix the glaring typo on the inside of the front cover?

Monday, 6 February 2012

Book Review: “The Caliphate's Soldiers: The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba's Long War”by Wilson John

Over three years ago, on 26 November 2008, a bunch of terrorists infiltrated into Mumbai and attacked a number of targets ranging from five start hotels, a public transport hub, a Jewish community centre, a hospital and the like. The terrorists were young men who were superbly motivated and trained by an organisation which was a state within a state. As powerful as a state, but with no accountability to the international community and with notions of human rights and liberties far removed from what the average civilised being holds. None of the terrorists expected to survive the attack, they were expected to fight to the death and cause as many casualties and as much mayhem as possible. However, one of the terrorists did survive and based on his testimony and other evidence, the world now knows a lot more about the Lashkar-e-Taiba (“LeT”), the organisation responsible for that atrocity.

It was only after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks that the United Nations designated the LeT as a terrorist organisation. Despite that, even now, there is a dearth of information on the LeT. So much has been written about the Taliban and the Al Qaeda and so little about the LeT that Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has written the foreword to Wilson John’s The Caliphate's Soldiers: The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba's Long War tells us that ‘there is no book quite like it, traversing as it does a huge swath ranging from the Lashkar’s history to its virulent ideology, to its organization, resource mobilization and operations. John’s book thus functions as a primer in the best sense of the world: it provides a comprehensive introduction to this insidious terrorist group who global reach has increased considerably during this last decade at a time when most analysts and governments, atleast in the West, were consumed by threats posed by the Al Qaeda.

In certain respects, the LeT does not appear to be much different from other terrorist groups that are spawned and incubated in Pakistan. The LeT runs a number of recruitment and training centres in Pakistan. It openly raises money through a number of front organizations, many of which are charitable ones. The leaders of the LeT live in various Pakistani cities. A lot of money is received from overseas donors. However, in one crucial respect, the LeT is different from other terrorist groups based in Pakistan. At a time when Pakistan seems to be on the verge of civil war, when so many Islamic fundamentalist organizations have broken with the Pakistani government and have attacked the Pakistani army, the LeT has never attacked a single target in Pakistan. In other words, the LeT is closer to the Pakistani establishment than any other terrorist group based in Pakistan.

Does it mean that the LeT has nothing to do with the Al Qaeda? Far from it, the LeT has been actively supporting the Al Qaeda in Pakistan and elsewhere. Does this mean that the LeT is focussed only on Kashmir, which still remains the primary goal for the Pakistani State? No, the LeT’s dream is to establish a global Islamic caliphate, though it is much more active in Indian Kashmir than anywhere else. The LeT acts as a kind of terror BPO, managing terror campaigns for the Pakistani army in Kashmir and for other wealthy patrons elsewhere. It has the ability to do so, with a strength of around 50,000 men, well trained by ex-army men and equipped with the best weaponry that donations can buy. According to John, the LeT is a threat to Pakistan, coalition troops in Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia.

What is the genesis of the LeT? Why was it set up after the Soviet troops had exited from Afghanistan? What are the LeT’s ideological moorings? Can it be said that the defeat of Shah Waliullah’s grandson and his followers at Balakot in 1831 has played a role in the creation of the LeT almost 175 years later? To what extent was LeT’s found Hafiz Mohammad Saeed influenced by Shah Waliullah, Mawdudi and Ibn-e-Taymiyyah? How could an organisation based in Pakistan motivate a paunchy Chicago businessman named David Coleman Headley, aka Daood Gilani, to help them carry out the 26/11 Mumbai attacks? Does LeT have links to Dr. A. Q. Khan? How much funding and support does the LeT receive from the Pakistani army and the ISI? If India and Pakistan were to be embroiled in armed conflict yet again, what sort of role could the LeT be expected to play? Would this ruthless organisation hesitate to use nuclear weapons if an opportunity presents itself? Do please read this wonderfully expansive book for answers to all these questions.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book Review: Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi

Chanakya’s Chant has been on my reading list for some months now, but it was only last week that I managed to start on it. A very unusual book, I am yet to make up my mind how I feel about it. Should I recommend it to others or should I consign it to the heap where other bestsellers such as Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas have been dumped?

The author of Chanakya’s Chant, Ashwin Sanghi has created two Chanakyas – the original one who lives in 340 BC, at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of India and his modern day avatar who was born as Gangasagar 2,300 years later - just before India’s independence. Both men are king makers and unashamedly so. The former wants to make Chandragupta Maurya the ruler of a united Bharat. The latter wants to make his protégée Chandini Gupta the Prime Minister of a strong India. Both Chanakya and Gangasagar are Brahmins from humble backgrounds, very shrewd and cunning manipulators who would stop at nothing to get what they want. We are told that Gangasagar was born in 1929 in Cawnpore, but, post India’s independence, Sanghi takes away the reader’s grip on dates and we never get to know the year in which Chandini Gupta becomes Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and later Prime Minister of India.

Sanghi writes well. On a comparative note, I would say that he is a far better writer than Amish Tripathi and a lot more imaginative. Chanakya’s Chant is reasonably well researched with a vast array of characters ranging from Alexander the Great and his generals to Paurus the Indian King who fought him (and lost) to scores of fictitious characters, kings, prostitutes and commoners, rich and poor, businessmen, gamblers, crooks, dacoits, goons, men, women and children, politicians and plebians. Sanghi’s descriptions are especially good. For example while describing Paurus as he faced Alexander’s army:

‘We are being attacked,’ yelled the vanguard of Kaikey’s massive army. Like an echo, the message was relayed through a series of shouts until it reached the ears of the towering Paurus. His name was derived from Purushottam – Supreme Being – and he looked nothing less than that. Standing over six and a half feet in height, the king had a radiant glow on his face that was accentuated by his curled and oiled moustache, in the typical fashion of Rajput warriors. He wore his military armour and regalia as though it were an intrinsic part of his royal personage. His muscles rippled with every move he made, his chest puffed out with muscular pride. His fair skin was wet from the rains, but each droplet clung to his frame as though it were in love with his body, refusing to let go of the physical contact. His jet-black hair hung down to his shoulders and was held in place by a ruby encrusted helmet that covered half his face. He was the mighty Paurus. Having subdued the hill kingdoms of Kashmir, Mallayrajya, Kuluta and Sindh, he was rightly entitled to the title – Parvateshwar.’

Sanghi does take a few liberties with history, especially when describing how events unfolded after Alexander the Great’s death. However, despite all that, one doesn’t get the feeling that Sanghi has mangled history, unlike in the case of Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha.

The best thing about Chanakya’s Chant is that it manages to capture the reader’s interest and hold it till the end, which takes place on the 441st page. There are minor plots roughly every five pages and Sanghi switches between the past and the present with ease and fluidity. The plots are devious and interesting, but some of them are out of the world.

On the flip side, Chanakya and Gangasagar appear to have superhuman intelligence and cunning when compared to those around them. They both win every round and that too with ease. The people around them are made out to be either duffers or in awe of Chanakya and Gangasagar. This applies even to individuals like Chandragupta. When faced with page after page of such easy victories, I was tempted to give up, but as mentioned earlier, Sanghi does manage to hold the reader’s interest and my curiosity to know how the novel ends made me read on and on.

Some of the sub-plots and sub-stories are too farfetched to be true. For example, there’s a scene where Chandini Gupta, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and her secretary Shankar are driving to a meeting in interior Uttar Pradesh (the State helicopter is out of service) when they are accosted by gun wielding dacoits on horses. Chandini has two bodyguards, but they are both killed by the dacoits. However, Shankar manages to get the better of the dacoits, killing two of them and drives Chandini to the safety of a government guest house, where the telephone isn’t working. A grateful Chandini allows Shankar to make love to her. Days later, a livid Gangasagar gets Shankar killed.

Both Chanakya and Gangasagar are not only men of intelligence and cunning, but also possess a great deal of wit. Since they never explain in detail and treat everyone else as idiots, they both come across as very arrogant. Which is fine, but the frequent one-liners and PJs which they crack from time to time when asked for explanations, managed to irk me. Also, Sanghi has used quotes from over a dozen famous personalities ranging from Thomas Jefferson to de Gaulle to Mao Tse Tung to Oscar Wilde to Napoleon to Churchill. Since almost all of these sprout forth from Chanakya and Gangasagar, one gets the feeling of extreme plagiarism, which isn’t really true since all such quotes are systematically acknowledged towards the end of this novel. However, the feeling of originality which this audacious book richly deserves, is much dented on account of those borrowed quotes.

The ending comes with a surprise, one which wasn’t fully expected. I was hoping to see some action after Chandini Gupta becomes Prime Minister, something magical which she does with Gangasagar’s help, which would push India into the ranks of developed countries. Nothing of that sort happens, which makes me wonder if all that manipulation and puppetry was worth it. At least, the ancient Chanakya may legitimately claim that he unified India and gave it a strong ruler in the form of Chandragupta Maurya. There is nothing about Chandini Gupta which gives one the feeling that she is destined to be an exceptional prime minister.

Despite these various shortcomings, on balance, Chankya's Chant is an eminently readable novel.