Saturday, 30 June 2012

Book Review: “Sky Train – Tibetan Women On The Edge Of History” by Sam Canyon

Writer and activist, Canyon Sam, a third generation American of Chinese origin, goes to Tibet for the second time in 2007. The first visit had been in 1986 when Tibet had just been opened to foreign tourists. During the second visit, Sam is able to take the sky train which connects Tibet to western China. According to the pleasant male voice Sam heard through the sky train’s public address system, the Golmund to Lhasa section, is 709 miles long, for which construction work had begun in 2001 and began operating in 2006, seven months before Sam’s journey. The highest point at 16,640 feet, is at a higher elevation than the railroads in Peru. The sky train has not only allowed the Han Chinese to loot Tibet (which the Chinese call the Western Treasure House, for its wealth, in the form of mineral deposits and timber), it has also facilitated the immigration of Han Chinese to Tibet on an unprecedented scale.

Sky train is the story of four extraordinary Tibetan women whom Sam met in various places – in Dharmasala, Switzerland, Lhasa and elsewhere, whose tales symbolise the struggles and trauma undergone by the women of Tibet on account of the Chinese invasion. Sam tells us that the experiences of Tibetan women are different from and much worse than that of the men. At the time of the Chinese take-over, Tibet was a primitive, pre-industrial society, which was also patriarchal with a capital P. Tibetan Buddhism taught that women were inferior creatures and women prayed that in their next birth, they be reborn as men. The Chinese came to Tibet in 1950 and formally annexed it in 1959. There was fighting and bloodshed and many Tibetans were killed. Many more fled to India. The bulk of those who left Tibet were men. Very few women managed to escape. Why was that? Because generally men did not want to take their womenfolk with them. Sam tells us of a Rinpoche who refused to have women in his caravan, causing one Mr. Paljorkhyimsar to leave behind his wife, one of the four women around whom this story is centred, as they fled Tibet. So they women stayed behind, doing their best to preserve Tibetan culture. Many of them were imprisoned and tortured. The majority of the inmates of Chinese labour camps were women.

Sam met her four women for the first time in the 1990s and she meets them again many times afterwards. There’s Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar, Mrs. Namseling, Mrs. Taring and Sonam Choedron. Their stories are unique and heart-rending. As mentioned above, Mrs. Paljorkhyimsar’s husband left her behind in Tibet since the Rinpoche he was escorting to safety refused to have a woman in his caravan. She spent a total of 22 years prison and labour camps before she managed to leave for Switzerland where she was reunited with her family. Mrs. Namseling came from a working class family, and at the age of fourteen was married off to a government official twice her age, who coerced her mother to give her in marriage. Despite such a rough start to the marriage, her husband turned out to be a kind man and one of her daughters ultimately married the prince of Gangtok, which was an independent country at that time. After her marriage, Mrs. Namseling led a life of leisure. The women went to each others houses, sang songs and played games. Essentially every day was Sunday. A witness to the bombing of the Dalai Lama’s palace by the Chinese in 1959, Mrs. Namseling too spent time in prison – a total of nine years. Mrs. Taring came from one of Tibet’s oldest families, learned English in Darjeeling in the 1920s, founded the Tibetan Homes Foundation in India which housed and eduated thousands of Tibetan children orphaned in 1959. The fourth lady, Sonam Choedron who had been born and raised in Lhasa, was involved in underground intelligence work for many years, in the hope of freeing Tibet from Chinese rule. Captured and put in prison, she was released in the winter of 1991. Life was cruel to her even after her release - her cabbie son was murdered by a passenger. Sonam Choedron found it possible to pardon the murderer. In May 1992, Sonam and a daughter managed to get leave to travel to Shigatse to do a puja and escaped to India.

Sam calls herself a student of Buddhism. When asked what her interest in Tibet is, was it Buddhism, was it politics, the land or the people, Sam’s reply was ‘total.’ Mind you Sam doesn’t call herself a Buddhist. She also does not explain how she reconciles her immense respect for Tibetan Buddhism with her anger at some of its anachronistic values, especially towards women. The Dalai Lama, who has written the foreword to this book, has repeatedly stressed the need for non-violence in dealing with the Chinese, while at the same time emphasising the need for retaining Tibetan language and culture. Sam doesn’t question the wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s pacifist teachings. In this modern age, there are very few examples of primitive societies resisting a foreign invader successfully. Vietnam and Afghanistan come to mind immediately. In both cases, the locals received assistance from the enemies of their enemies and they used violence to win their freedom. Does Sam feel that Tibetans can win freedom from the Chinese without the use of force? Or does she think violence would be futile and just as Gandhi was right in emphasising non-violence, so’s the Dalai Lama? Sam does not answer these questions, let along raise them. Her focus is only on telling the stories of the four women mentioned above.

I found myself comparing China’s exploitation of Tibet with the exploitation by various European nations of their colonies. Modern technology has allowed China to drain wealth from Tibet and pollute it on a scale unimaginable a few decades ago. Mind you, mainland China has also been polluted just as much, if not more. The Chinese consider Tibetans to be primitive cousins who need to be civilised. However, there is no racist animosity towards them. For example, there are no restrictions on Han Chinese marrying Tibetans. Thus when Sam spends Losar (the Tibetan New Year) with her friend Tashi’s family in Lhasa, we meet Tashi’s brother-in-law who is half-Chinese, as he sets off fireworks from their terrace. In contrast, the British especially, did not want inter-racial marriages in their colonies. The white man’s burden, fuelled by plain vanilla greed, was the engine which drove European exploitation of the colonies. For China, it is greed mixed with the desire to integrate a primitive and long-lost part of China with the mainland.

China’s treatment of Tibetans is also eerily similar to the way European settlers in America treated the natives of that continent. In addition to introducing a number of diseases hitherto unknown to the Tibetans, the easy availability of liquor has resulted in a serious drinking problem in Tibet.

Sam writes well, though at times I caught myself wishing this book was more structured and less rambling. The best bit about Sky Train is towards the end when Sam’s friend Tibetan friend Tashi asks Sam to carry a gift for the Dalai Lama to Dharmasala. The gift consists of a robe left behind at the Norbulingka, the traditional summer residence of Dalai Lamas, in 1959 and saved by Tashi’s aunt for the last fifty odd years. Tashi’s folk thought the robe might have belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. In addition to the robe, Tashi’s mother has sewn a shirt from some other cloth the aunt had saved. Sam is to hand over the gifts to the Dalai Lama and obtain a receipt. Yes, a receipt and two beads from his mala. A mala, the index tells us, is a string of 108 beads used by Tibetan Buddhists for counting prayers and mantras. Does Sam succeed in handing over the gifts to the Dalai Lama and getting a receipt, not to mention two beads from his mala? Please read this book to find out.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, wikipedia tells us that the name Canyon Sam came about when as a teenager, Sam had a dream about a beautiful canyon and changed her name.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Book Review: Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas by Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar was prescribed reading for my history papers at the National Law School of India University and I became a fan, though I can’t say I’ve read much of Thapar once academic requirements were met. Recently I read a book on the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka by Charles Allen and to say I found it provocative would be an understatement. According to Charles Allen, Ashoka was heavily influenced by the Greeks. His grandfather Chandragupta Maurya had been a mercenary who fought for Alexander the Great. Buddhism was systematically decimated by a Hindu resurgence led by Adi Shankara. Allen goes to the extent of saying that in modern India, Ashoka is not given the importance he deserves since Indians don’t not wish to glorify a ruler who was so much influenced by Greek culture. I picked up Thapar’s Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas more to see if any of Allen’s fanciful theories have been supported by Thapar than anything else. Thankfully, they have not been.

Thapar says that it is possible Chandragupta met Alexander the Great. In any event, there were very numerous cultural exchanges between the Greeks and the Mauryas, which included matrimony, but Thapar does not dwell much on whether such influences shaped Aśoka (as spelt by Thapar). What then according to Thapar made or created or resulted in Aśoka achieving so much during his rule? ‘The single man who dominates his race, his society, his community, often in opposition to the larger body of his compatriots, is not an isolated prophet or an evil genius, or a man of supernatural vision born out of his time. The germinal matter which he may have used in order to found his position and power will, on analysis, be found to lie within the group from which he arose.’ I thought of Hitler, his ideology and rise to power as I read this. Did Hitler convert a big chunk of German society to his anti-Semitic ideology or were the seeds of anti-Semitism already dormant in Germany and Hitler only had to cause the dormant seeds to germinate? Thapar says that ‘it is largely the reactions to the particular conditions of a given society which are responsible for the attitudes of its individual members.......... It is sometimes said that personal idiosyncracies are often responsible for the policy of a man in power and that these are unrelated to the larger society and age to which he belongs. But even this apparent autonomy of personality is only on the surface. Investigation reveals a social influence in the promptings of many personal actions, or atleast the influence of a social force outside the isolated man.’

Thapar discounts a lot of the commentary from Buddhist sources, including writings from Ceylon, since they had a vested interest in showing Aśoka to be a hardcore Buddhist who sent his son and daughter as missionaries to Ceylon. Thapar says that Buddhism had reached Ceylon before Aśoka’s son Mahinda went there as a missionary. Probably there were even Dhamma missions to Ceylon before Mahinda’s visit. Prince Vijaya most probably went to Ceylon with a large number of people, including the first Buddhists and they took Prakrit with them. Ceylon chronicles claim that Prince Vijaya was from Vanga, but Thapar is of the view that Indian settlers in Ceylon came from both eastern and western parts of India. Thapar does not specifically comment on whether the Tamils had started living in Sri Lanka before the Sinhalese, but she does say that people of all sects lived in Ceylon before Mahinda got there. For example, the princess who married Prince Vijaya hailed from the Pandyan kingdom which is now in modern day Tamil Nadu. Anyone willing to listen?

Was Aśoka such a pacifist that his pacifism weakened the empire? Thapar responds in the negative. Aśoka’s empire covered most of the sub-continent and if he wanted to expand, he would have had to fight west of the Hindu-Kush, an action that would not have been so wise. Further, he had excellent relations with Antiochus of Syria, his only serious rival in the world known to the Indians of those days. As an example of Aśoka not being so pacifist, Thapar says that capital punishment continued to be awarded in Aśoka’s time. Aśoka might have been a practising Buddhist, but his secular message to his people, one contained in his various rock edicts, was one of Dhamma.

Why did the Mauryas decline after Aśoka? Thapar downplays the so-called conflict between Brahminism and Buddhism, something which has been stated by many historians to be one of the reasons for the decline of the Mauryas. Thapar categorically states that the Mauryas did not decline on account of this conflict. Rather, it declined because the Mauryan empire did not have the concept of statehood. Rather, the emphasis was on maintaining the social order. Also, Mauryan administration was too top heavy and centralised and as the empire became weak, the centre could not control the periphery. The partition of the empire immediately after Aśoka’s death also played a role, as did the fact that Aśoka’s successors were of a lesser calibre.

Thapar is an academic who does not have the slightest inclination to use bombastic language or blockbuster narration. Maybe because Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas was originally published in 1973, one finds a lot of quaint phrases such as ‘on an examination of these statements, it is apparent that.........’, ‘there is agreement among various sources that’, ‘for the purposes of this enquiry, we shall restrict ourselves to’, (this use of the royal ‘we’ is the best of the lot) ‘we have attempted in this work to place Aśoka in historical perspective, against the background of....’ and ‘we are of the opinion that.’ In order to capture the new evidence and knowledge thrown up since the time of its first publication, the 2012 third edition of Aśoka And The Decline Of The Mauryas has a very elaborate Afterword and appendices of around 60 pages each.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Book Review: “Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West” by Ahmed Rashid

Ahmed Rashid, the author of critically acclaimed books such as Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and Descent into Chaos, has come up with yet another book on the various dilemmas facing AfPak. Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West is not really a book. Rather, it is a collection of essays on the present state of Pakistan and Afghanistan with a few predictions on what the future foretells. To quote the author from the preface, ‘it resembles a book of essays, each dealing with a different aspect of the same problem, discussing the processes that have led to the present impasse. As such, it can be opened anywhere, and any chapter can be read separately from the rest.’ What Rashid doesn’t say is that Pakistan On The Brink is a rambling narrative from an author who has a good insight and sensible views, but doesn’t say a lot that is unknown to one who has followed AfPak, Taliban and the Al Qaeda for the last ten years.

In Descent into Chaos, Rashid had confessed that Hamid Karzai is a good friend and there was little criticism of Karzai. As if to make up for that shortcoming, Pakistan On The Brink ruthlessly takes Karzai to task and almost puts him to the sword. Rashid tells us that in January 2008, he had advised Karzai to not to take part in the next elections and to step down and handover power to someone else. Karzai did not heed Rashid’s advice and in that he was supported by the Americans for whom ‘elections had become a litmus test determining everything else. A U.S. intervention in any third-world country now consisted of holding an early election so that the country could be dubbed a democracy, and then the United States could head for the exit. By contrast, the European philosophy, favoured by the UN, was to first build governance and an economic infrastructure – nation building – so that elections could be both meaningful and sustainable.

Despite its rambling nature, Pakistan On The Brink provides an excellent insight into how the US-Pakistani relationship broke down. Rashid places a fair amount of the blame on Obama for America’s inability to connect with Afghanistan. According to Rashid, unlike George W. Bush, Obama never connected with any group of Afghans. ‘Michelle Obama travelled the world and promoted her favourite interests involving women and children and health, but sadly none were related to Afghanistan’s women and children and the Afghans noticed that too.’ Obama’s Afghan policy was set by the military and did not involve consultations with the Pakistanis or Afghans. Soon the US and Pakistan were talking past each other.

The Americans did not really believe in talking to the Taliban. Even when they did, they continued killing the Taliban by night, something which did not persuade the Taliban to talk to the U.S. Finally when the Germans got the Americans talking to the Taliban, Pakistan’s ISI, which also did not want the U.S to hold talks with the Taliban, arrested Mullah Baradar, the number two Taliban leader who was responsible for the peace talks.

One of the things I like about Rashid’s writing is that he does not hesitate to voice an opinion on the personal abilities of various movers and shakers. In Descent into Chaos, he had expressed a not so flattering opinion on Nawaz Sharif. In Pakistan On The Brink, Rashid says that in contrast to Musharaff, who for all his faults was decisive, Chief of Staff Kiyani has shown himself to be indecisive and unable to hold anyone to account. ‘When Osama bin Laden was killed and the ISI Chief General Pasha offered his resignation, Kayani refused to accept it. Ultimately nobody was punished for Bin Laden’s six-year long presence in Abbottabad.’ With regard to Asif Zardari and Yousaf Gilani, Rashid says both men are terrified of the Pakistani army and only want to have a long and safe term in office. To do so, they do their best to avoid riling the army.

Rashid says that Pakistan lost its 1965 war with India. I was under the impression that it was a stalemate. Rashid also says that in all probability India is supporting Baluchi insurgents. Rashid is sympathetic towards India’s attempts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Since India is the most dominant economy in South Asia, Rashid feels that Afghanistan can only benefit from an association with India. Similarly, Rashid wants Pakistan to come to terms with Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Iran has a long border with Afghanistan and Persian is spoken in a large part of Afghanistan. Given such links, it is only inevitable that Iran would want to play a role.

The relationship between Pakistan and the United States has practically broken down and it is now a case of enemies working together because they need each other. Rashid suggests that even the Taliban don’t like the ISI all that much – they resent the fact that Pakistan and the ISI want to keep the Afghan pot boiling rather than bring peace to Afghanistan. As Rashid discusses the current situation in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood threadbare, he poses a few interesting questions. Currently many Pakistani ex-servicemen are employed by various Sheikhdoms and in the past Pakistan has despatched its troops to Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries to protect those in power. How would Iran react if Pakistani troops were to help a gulf emirate crush an Arab spring uprising?

Rashid’s final chapter has more of gloomy forebodings than advice to make things better. The only takeaway I got was that nuclear power Pakistan is a much bigger problem than Afghanistan and has to mend itself. Pakistan’s elites must learn to pay taxes and Pakistan’s ruler must stop distinguishing between good and bad Taliban. When Swat was taken over by the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani army was able to defeat the militants and drive them away because it did not seek to distinguish between different categories of militants and there was no hidden agenda of protecting one group, as the Pakistani army is currently doing with the Haqqani faction in North Waziristan.

Pakistan On The Brink is a good read for anyone who hasn’t been following the news from Afghanistan and wants to bring himself upto speed on Afghanistan.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Book Review: Tughlaq by Girish Karnad

Originally written in Kannada in 1964 while Girish Karnad was studying at Oxford and translated into English by the author himself, Tughlaq is one of the most critically acclaimed plays ever staged in India. The version I recently re-read, a 2012 reprint by Oxford University Press, is a 116 page gem which includes a detailed author’s note, an introduction by UR Ananthamurthy and an essay by Aparna Dharwadker on “Historical Fictions and Postcolonial Representation: Reading Girish Karnad’s Tuqhlaq”.

Any student of Indian history, nay, every Indian school student, knows Muhammad bin Tughlaq. A byword for stupidity and arrogance, a King who was daft enough to want to move his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and to issue copper coins with a value equal to silver ones. But was it as simple as that? Was Tughlaq a simpleton who did silly things or an extremely shrewd operator and manipulator who got carried away with his own cleverness? In the opening part of this play, one hears of a Brahmin who brings a charge of misappropriation against the King and is awarded damages by the Kazi. The King wants to treat everyone, both Hindus and Muslims alike, we are told. Later it was turns out that the Brahmin claimant was actually a Muslim in disguise. Would the King have tolerated a claim against him by a fellow Muslim? Would the Kazi have awarded damages? Was Tughlaq’s desire to place Hindus on par with Muslims, in an era when political correctness was unheard of, the reason why the Brahmin managed to win his case?

There are many more stories about Tughlaq, each showing him to be clever man who anticipates his opponents’ moves and easily thwarts them. The learned Tughlaq is also ruthless in having his way, having no qualms in getting people killed. Issuing copper coins with a value equal to silver ones was a good idea in principle, one far ahead of its times. These days, we have paper currency which is not fully backed by a gold standard. Yet, Tughlaq’s scheme backfired as counterfeit coins flooded the country. Having the capital in the centre of the country rather than in Delhi might have worked if Tughlaq hadn’t insisted on every Delhi’ite moving to Daulatabad.

All together, a brilliant play, one which digs into a King’s psyche and throws up as many questions as answers, Karnad's Tughlaq will continue to taunt Indians for generations to come.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Book Review: Dongri to Dubai – Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia, by S. Hussain Zaidi

For the first time, we have a book which provides a comprehensive account of the growth and development of the mafia in Mumbai. Starting with men like Nanhe Khan, Wahab Pehelwan and the three Johnny brothers from Byculla to Mastan Hairder Mirza, later called Haji Mastan, to Varadarajan Mudaliar, to various Pathan gangsters like Karim Lala and finally, the ultimate don, Dawood Ibrahim, veteran journalist Hussain Zaidi’s book Dongri to Dubai tells the stories of these violent men in a manner never done before by any writer. Dawood Ibrahim, the boy from Dongri who now lives in Dubai, is the undoubted star of the cast. Some of the details are of course well known – that Haji Mastan and Varadaraja Mudaliar were Tamil immigrants who came to Mumbai to do menial labour, that Dawood Ibrahim’s father was a police constable, that Haji Mastan produced a few Bollywood movies with a social message, that many Bollywood movies were funded by the mafia who coerced actors to work with them etc. Many others sub-stories – such as the tale of Mandakini (born as Yasmin Joseph) who was seen with Dawood Ibrahim at a cricket match in Sharjah, the attempt by Chhota Shakeel’s men on Chhota Rajan while he was based in Bangkok (immortalised in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company), Gulshan Kumar’s murder etc – revived old memories.

One good thing about Dongri to Dubai is that it contains a fair amount of intelligent analysis in addition to a tonne of facts and information. We are told that Dawood Ibrahim, whose roots go back to Ratnagiri in south of Maharashtra, became powerful after the police decided to use him to whittle the power of various Pathan gangsters. Zaidi’s style of writing is an interesting mix of matter-of-fact narration, flowery descriptions and dramatic dialogues, reconstructed from the writer’s imagination I assume. While describing how the Mumbai police decided to prop up Dawood Ibrahim to fight Pathan power, Zaidi recreates a conversation between Senior Police Inspector Ranbeer Likha and journalist Mohammad Iqbal Natiq. As Ranbeer Likha cribs about the troubles caused by the Pathan mafia, Iqbal Natiq replies, ‘Sahab, Sholay.’ ‘Sholay?! Have you lost your mind Iqbal?’ Likha asks. ‘You use iron to combat iron,’ Iqbal Natiq counsels Likha, using those immortal lines from Sholay.

Though Dongri to Dubai is a work of non-fiction and sounds authentic enough, at times I caught myself wondering how much of it is true. For example, a few pages after reading an elaborate and flowery account of how Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Sabir was murdered by a team of rival gangsters headed by one Manya Surve in a scene reminiscent of Sonny Corleone’s murder in the Godfather, we are told that ‘legend has it that Manya was the master strategist in the Sabir Ibrahim Kaskar killing.’ There was at least one other instance where I felt that Zaidi either contradicted himself or did not covey his views clearly. We are told that Dawood Ibrahim’s father Ibrahim Kaskar, a police constable, was always an honest man, though he was surrounded by friends who had ties to the gangster Baashu Dada. When Dawood and his brother Sabir carried out their first serious robbery, Papa Kaskar flogged them till they were half-dead and forced them to return the money. One day Ibrahim Kaskar was suspended from his job, for reasons which Zaidi tells us, are not very clear. Zaidi tells us that Ibrahim Kaskar then started working for Baashu Dada, doing minor errands etc., but still remained honest. Maybe Zaidi feels it is possible to be honest even when working for the mafia!

If Zaidi is unlikely to win the Bad Sex in Fiction award, it is mainly because Dongri to Dubai is a work of non-fiction. There are statements like, ‘now, a prostitute will give pleasure to over twenty-five men in a span of twenty-four hours but she will always cherish sex with one particular man. Sex with the chosen one is never be (sic) treated as a chore, for she chooses her beau, as the man’s interest in her is not confined to her body or face.’ And there are scenes such as this: ‘Her clothes had been ripped apart with no glory in admiring her in her nudity. Pouncing on her naked body like a ferocious beast, Samad began biting her all over. Then Shilpa spat on him as they both stood there consumed by unabated passion by the act. She slowly licked her own saliva off his body, sending him into a delirium of ecstasy, as he did the same to her – spitting and devouring his own spit off her naked body, as if that would bring her to the pinnacle of her orgasm.

The best bit about Dongri to Dubai is Zaidi’s analysis of Dawood Ibrahim’s character. According to Zaidi, Dawood is not an Islamic fundamentalist and that his alliance with the ISI is one born of necessity rather than fanaticism. Dawood fled from Mumbai to Dubai in 1986, escaping in the nick of time before he could be arrested. It was a senior politician’s phone call from Mantralaya which tipped him off about the plan to arrest him and allowed him to flee. When the ISI sought assistance from various Indian Muslim underworld dons based in Dubai and Europe for carrying out the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, Dawood volunteered Tiger Memon, who, Zaidi tells us, is a genuine Islamic fundamentalist. By getting Tiger Memon involved in the blasts, Dawood managed to get his rival to flee India. This doesn’t make Dawood a saint, but does act as a pointer to the man’s character. Dawood most probably had no idea that the blasts would be of such magnitude and when he realised that he was in serious shit, he actually called up noted lawyer Ram Jethmalani and offered to surrender. His surrender offer had a few conditions attached – that he should be tried only in respect of the 1993 bomb blasts and that he should be kept under house arrest rather than in jail. Dawood could afford to make such an offer since he had little to do with the 1993 bomb blasts. A number of politicians in India did not want Dawood to return to India and managed to scuttle any acceptance of the surrender offer.

Dawood left Dubai and moved to Pakistan towards the end of 1994 after Dawood’s former right hand man Chhota Rajan left Dubai and escaped Dawood’s clutches with assistance from Indian intelligence. Dawood has been in Dubai ever since, except for a brief stint in Malaysia just after 9/11 and a few months in Jeddah after bin Laden’s execution by US commandos. Dawood has now enmeshed himself in the ISI’s network and made himself indispensable to Pakistan’s military-ISI bosses by donating generously to various Islamic jihads and other causes. Pirating Bollywood movies and selling them in Pakistan is the biggest source of revenue for Dawood. Dawood’s daughter Mahrukh is married to Javed Miandad’s son Junaid. However Dawood is a pawn in the hands of the ISI and has to sell his services for the cause of Islamic fundamentalism – something he does not believe in. If India offers an amnesty to Dawood and the opportunity to spend the rest of his life in his beloved Mumbai, would Dawood accept it?

India has a record of condoning offences by gangsters such as Chhota Rajan for the greater good. However, when Dawood’s brother Iqbal Kaskar, who Zaidi tells us has never been involved in any of Dawood’s crimes, voluntarily returned from Dubai to India to face trial, he was hounded by the police and faced a witch-hunt. It took four years for Iqbal to walk away a free man. Iqbal’s experience is unlikely to persuade his brother Dawood to return to India, even if India offers him an amnesty in return for spilling the beans on ISI’s activities in India. Let me add that Zaidi does not suggest that India ought to make such an offer to Dawood, though I believe he comes close to saying so. I do think that such an offer from India would be a brilliant move, since it would shut down a big part of the ISI’s network in India, though I don’t expect it to happen. There are too many politicians in India who would not want Dawood to spill all his beans.

Can Indian’s authorities tame Mumbai’s underworld which continues to thrive? Zaidi tells us that during the emergency years the underworld was virtually under arrest, its activities totally curtailed. In other words, Indian authorities are capable of shutting down the gangsters when they want to. If the mafia thrives, it is because they are patronised by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Do remember, it was a phone call from a top politician in Mantralaya which allowed Dawood Ibrahim to escape from Mumbai and flee to Dubai in 1986. Inefficiency and lack of coordination goes hand-in-hand with corruption. When the Intelligence Bureau hatched a plan to use Chhota Rajan’s men to kill Dawood Ibrahim during the post-wedding walimah of Dawood’s daughter at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai, the Mumbai police was kept in the dark, resulting in two sharp shooters being arrested, while enroute to Dubai! I fear that Mumbai’s underworld is likely to stay in business for a long time to come.

Dongri to Dubai is an excellent read I would highly recommend to anyone interested in Mumbai’s mafia in general or Dawood Ibrahim in particular.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Book Review: Night of the Golden Butterfly by Tariq Ali

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth book in Tariq Ali’s Islam quintet, a collection born in response to the Islamophobia generated by 9/11 and its aftermath. Like the first four books, the idea seems to be to show the civilised face of Islam to the rest of the world. The first four books in this quintet were set in places and epochs ranging from Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella, Saladdin, Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the twentieth century and Sicily in the twelfth century when it was ruled by the Normans. The fifth one, Night of the Golden Butterfly, is set in the present and the locales vary from the Fatherland (as Pakistan is referred to throughout in this novel), London, Paris, Beijing, Kunming, Dali and even Hoi Chi Min City in Vietnam.

Night of the Golden Butterfly could be semi-autobiographical since Dara, a writer from Lahore who is the main narrator of the story, bears a striking similarity to Tariq Ali. The novel begins with Dara’s friend Plato (real name-Mohammed Aflatun) calling in an old favour (which a young Dara had promised to repay with interest) and demanding that Dara write Plato’s story. Dara agrees. The reader is led to believe from the opening chapters that the novel will be all about Plato, but it isn’t. Instead, Night of the Golden Butterfly is the story of Plato and his friends’ circle to which Dara too belongs. Plato’s story takes up maybe a fourth of this 275-page book. Plato, Dara and their friends are the cream of Lahore, all of them moneyed, with Plato, a refugee from Ludhiana, being the only exception, but Plato makes up for his lack of money with his wit, sophistication and intelligence. We are talking early to mid-sixties. The crowd is essentially left-wing, intellectually honest, morally incorruptible and largely atheist. It is also a cosmopolitan crowd, though since the setting is Lahore, most of them are Punjabis. There’s Tipu, a Bengali communist from Chittagong, Hanif Ma, also called Confucius, an ethnic Hui from Yunnan, whose family has settled in Lahore and Jamshed, a Parsi. The honest, atheist, socialist, cosmopolitan values continue to rule the roost till the end of the novel and it is these values which Ali holds up as an example of modern Muslims, for the rest of the world to see.

Soon the friends finish college and leave Pakistan for greener and more diverse pastures. They don’t exactly keep in touch, because one of them, Zahid, is (wrongly) suspected of having betrayed Tipu, to the security forces who were on the lookout for him. However, their paths and the paths of their wives and girlfriends keeping crossing each other for the next forty or fifty odd years. I found Night of the Golden Butterfly to be a very interesting read because it gave me a glimpse into the mind of Ali. How secular and cosmopolitan is Ali? Very. How Punjabi is he? Equally so. Night of the Golden Butterfly has dialogues which are from the horse’s mouth, capturing the rustic and earthy Punjabi atmosphere of Lahore, which Dara, Plato and their other friends carry with them wherever they go.

Ali is a man of very strong likes and dislikes. In Night of the Golden Butterfly, Dick Cheney happens to one of the objects of his disaffection. Zahid turns out to be a successful doctor, married to Jindié, Confucius’s sister and Dara’s one-time heart-throb. Living in the US, Zahid turns Republican and is part of the medical team which operated on Dick Cheney (in one instance, this operation is said to take place in 1999, in another in 2000), saving his life. Jindié is true to her socialist, left-wing ethos and is bugged with Zahid. Zahid’s children don’t speak with him for a month. Then comes 9/11 and we are told that ‘within twenty-four hours of 9/11, Cheney instructed his staff to make sure that Zahid was removed from his medical team. The Muslim name was enough. He came home that night looking like a beaten dog.’ Zahid, Jindié and family moved to London within months after that. Now, I am pretty sure neither Dick Cheney nor any other senior White House official fired a member of his staff on account of religion, either before 9/11 or afterwards. True, Muslims did face (and continue to face) a lot of prejudice in the United States after 9/11, something brought out very well in Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, but to say that just after 9/11, Dick Cheney fired a doctor who was part of the team which had saved his life, is a bit over the top.

Similarly, the Pakistani army also gets its share of the overblown Tariq Ali pie. After introducing his readers to Naughty Lateef, ‘the spirited wife of a junior officer eager for promotion,’ who sleeps around with two generals at the same, leading them to fist cuffs, we are told that in the Pakistani army ‘the pretty wives of the more obedient junior and nor-so-junior officers were regarded as fair prey, occasionally to be had with the full agreement of the husbands eyeing a rapid promotion or a sinecure in the military-industrial enterprises and pleasantly surprised that their wives had turned out to be such lucrative investments.’ To begin with, there are the only two Generals at any given time in the Pakistani army, namely the Chief of Army Staff or COAS and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, unless of course the Army Chief becomes the President of Pakistan, as Musharaff did, in which case the post of Vice Chief of Army Staff is created and the occupant would also be a General. Thus while the current Pakistani army chief is General Parvez Kayani and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee is General Khalid Shameem Wynne, the next senior-most officer would be a Lt. General. This information is easily available on the internet and one would expect a writer of Ali’s stature to get his facts right. To say that Naughty Lateef was sleeping around with two Generals, (who are not shown to be at the apex of the army pyramid), and to show a third general heading the Inter-Services-Intelligence, which is currently headed by Lieutenant-General Zaheerul Islam, is downright silly. Also, it is very unlikely that the highly Islamized Pakistani army, for all its faults, has a widespread culture of senior officers taking up with the wives of junior officers.

I guess if Ali doesn’t like someone, he will go all out to attack him, even at the expense of the truth or his credibility. Ali does some thing very similar in The Book of Saladin, the second book in this quintet, where he claims that crusaders attacked and desecrated Mecca. Is Night of the Golden Butterfly fact disguised as fiction? Partly, yes. However, some of it is fiction, disguised as fact, within a work of fiction.

The best part of the book for me was Ali’s descriptions of Jindié’s and Confucius’s Hui ancestors and their life in Yunnan. In case you haven’t guessed, Jindié is the golden butterfly who has lent her name to the title. I had a vague idea that China has a Muslim minority generically referred to as Hui, who are very similar to the Han and speak mandarin or dialects of mandarin, but didn’t know till I read this novel that Yunnan province saw a rebellion against China’s Ming rulers in the middle of the nineteenth century in which a Muslim ruler held out against Ming China for eighteen years. Dù Wénxiù, uncle to Jindié’s and Confucius’s great-grandmother Quin-Shi, changed his name to Suleiman and banned the use of pork in Yunnan which had Kunming as its capital, though Dali was its most beautiful city. Sultan Suleiman was a moderate soul, one who treated all his subjects, both Hui and Han, Muslim and non-Muslim, alike. Likewise, his subjects, both Muslims and non-Muslims rallied around him, as he valiantly fought the Ming rulers, who had the support of traitors like Ma Rulong. Ultimately the rebellion failed and the Jindié’s and Confucius’s family left for Burma, from where, after a stint in Calcutta, they ended up in Lahore. Ali holds up the Hui rebellion in Yunnan as an example of how moderate and secular Muslims have been in the past, something on the lines of Moorish Spain or the Muslims in Sicily. Mind you, the description of the Yunnan rebellion forms a small part of the story.

The second best thing I liked about this book is Ali’s depiction of the upper class Pakistani elite, which sounds very authentic. Ali’s characters, who quote from Stendhal and Balzac at the drop of a hat, sleep around a lot. Dara goes to bed with two of Plato’s partners, Alice Stepford and later with the Sindhi beauty Zaynab, who was at one time, married to the Koran (so that her brothers could inherit her share of the ancestral property. I understand that marrying the Koran is not unheard of in Sindh. Incidentally Plato turns out to be impotent, despite much camouflage to the contrary and Dara takes up with Plato’s women only after he finds out. Dara never gets to sleep with Jindié though at one point he comes pretty close. Please read this book to find out why Dara and Jindié never get to make love – it’s got something to do with Dara’s love for coffee. Towards the end of the book, Jindié confesses to having had a couple of liaisons, one of which is, lest you start wondering if Dara and friends sleep only with fellow light-skins, with a Tanzanian. Of course, one in a while, a character from the higher stratum turns religious, as Jindié daughter Neelum does, though she is still a good human being. One friend, Anis, a closet homosexual, is tormented so much by his parents that he commits suicide. Jamshed the Parsi and Tipu the Bengali communist (and Zahid for a brief while) are the only ones who turn to mammon at the expense of their values and of these, Jamshed comes to serious grief.

Money is never an issue for Dara and friends. Either they are extremely successful in their chosen professions, like Zahid is, or they have inherited a lot of wealth or they have a lot of wealthy friends. The only time we see a glimpse of poverty is when Plato, after moving to the UK, is forced to work as a waiter, as a newsagent and finally as bus conductor. However, even then Plato doesn’t despair. Just like every upper middle class individual from the sub-continent, Dara and gang are used to being waited upon hand and foot. When visiting Zahid at his Richmond mansion, Dara, just to be difficult, asks for Pomegranate juice and is told it’s possible. Towards the end of the book, Dara, Zahid, Zaynab, Alice etc. are to congregate at Zaynab’s country mansion in Sindh where they get to see Plato’s final work. They arrive in Karachi. ‘Zaynab’s brother had thoughtfully organised a helicopter and we were met off the gangway by flunkeys. ……… The flunkeys took our passports and escorted us to the hotel’s VIP suite……….. We were taken to our guest cottages, with mine the closest to the house. I was greeted by a refrigerator overloaded with Muree beer, but demanded fresh lime juice without sugar and a jug of tamarind juice with ice and honey.

Does Night of the Golden Butterfly succeed in exhibiting a moderate and civilised Islam to the outside world? I am not too sure. You see, the bulk of the characters amongst Dara and Co. are practising atheists and left-wingers who have no right to claim to speak for the global Islamic community. More importantly, they form a very minuscule percentage of the global Ummah. Ali does make a few attempts to rope in the common Muslim on the street into the camaraderie and global fellowship exhibited by Dara and friends. We are told that once, ‘after giving a lecture in Olso, I dragged a group of newly arrived Punjabi migrants who attended my talk to the Munch museum to show them their new country’s greatest artist. Some were reluctant to waste precious time, but came anyway. All of them were stunned, and one, Salah, who became a dear friend, had moist eyes, as he whispered in Punjabi, “This is an artist who knew inner pain. Our Sufi poets say that the cure for that lies in oneself. Neither Allah nor a psychiatrist can help.” Do please take a look at Scream and decide for yourself if newly arrived Pakistani-Punjabi migrants in Norway are likely to be so touched by it.

Ali’s characters are deeply upset by the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant feelings aroused by 9/11. They fight back at times. When Zaynab is asked one too many times why female circumcision takes place among Muslims, she responds: “If men can be circumcised, why not women? It was a sign of our equality. Anything a man could bear, so could we.” Once while Zaynab is walking around in Paris, she sees an African man without papers being arrested by a gang of policemen. “It happens in Fatherland all the time, but here too Dara? I was really shocked. People watched in silence and turned away.” “Just like Fatherland,” I told her. “It happens all over Europe. In Italy, they love burning gypsies and taunting Muslims. Repression and cowardice in the face of it have become everyday occurrences. Africans from the colonies, kids from the banlieus, are often treated like shrivelled leaves. Kicked into the dirt. You’ll get used to it.” One is left in little doubt that repression in Paris hurt Dara & Co. much more than anything that might take place in Pakistan. Of course, the fact that Dara and his friends are very unlikely to be so tormented in Pakistan could be one reason for this dichotomy.

Here are links to my review of the first four books in this quintet:

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

The Book of Saladin

The Stone Woman

A Sultan in Palermo