Monday, February 26, 2007

Books this year

I've finished three great books this year. I enjoyed reading these books during nights and weekends as the temperature outside dropped to well below 0 F. The cold, unbearable at times, was a blessing in other ways: I had enough time to sit on my cushioned chair in the living room and read, or laze in the bedroom and read, occasionally looking out to see the snow, ever present and brilliantly white in the backyard.

But these are extraneous details; on to the books now.

1. In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India: Edward Luce’s insightful book on modern India, its politics, economic boom, social tensions, communal problems and lots more.

2. The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life: To understand a country, one has to sometimes understand the critical periods in its history. For the United States, one such critical period was the mid nineteenth century when it expanded westward, spurred by the idea of Manifest Destiny and the gold rush in California. Francis Parkman, in his travel narrative through the great plains of the Midwest, provides an invaluable glimpse of the time.

An excerpt from the book is below. At this point of the narrative, Parkman is somewhere near the Nebraska-Wyoming border in 1845, in the vicinity of the Dakota Indians. Note especially the description in the last sentence of how a procession of Anglo American emigrants and the encamped Dakotas chance upon each other, and how Parkman uses the encounter to make a startling prediction about the Dakotas - something that almost came to pass. To be sure, Parkman's condescension and his prejudices, which the book is full of and which reflect the sensibilities of his time, were part of the problem.
“Not far from the chief stood a group of stately figures, their white buffalo robes thrown over their shoulders, gazing coldly upon us; and in the rear for several acres, the ground was covered with a temporary encampment. Warriors, women, and children swarmed like bees; hundreds of dogs of all sizes and colors ran restlessly about; and close at hand, the wide shallow stream was alive with boys and girls and young squaws, splashing, screaming and laughing in the water. At the same time a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of the people who they and their descendents, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earth.”
3. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus: Most of what we read, we already know: indeed, there is something reassuring in what is familiar to us. But books like Jared Diamond’s Gun Germs and Steel are unique in that they can turn things on their head and change our ideas of why history is the way it is; despite their simplifications – and Diamond is guilty of a few – they can give us new ways of looking at the world.

Charles Mann’s 1491 is such a book. Mann brings the American continent before Columbus's arrival to life as never before: summarizing new findings in archaeology and anthropology, Mann reinterprets what we know of the Incas and the other older cultures of the Andes; the Amazonians; the Mayans and the Mexicas of the Central America; the Massachusett, the Patuxet, and the Narraganssett of New England; the Cahokia cultures of the Mississippi, and many others. And along the way he also explains how disease silenced an entire content in such a way that one can only despair at what might have been. In the excerpt below, Mann writes of what this loss means to the world:
“Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery of by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!…Along with the unparalleled loss of life, this [exchange of ideas between cultures] is what vanished when smallpox came ashore.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

About a trip to Lothal

In Ahmedabad, when I was in my fifth standard, I went with my classmates on a day trip to Lothal. Our teachers had made an excellent choice: there could not have been a more direct way to introduce us kids to history. But I wasn’t interested; I was too busy, during the trip, in trying to get the attention of Palak, a girl who sat next to me in class. I remember playing either badminton or Frisbee with her outside the museum building in Lothal; it was the high point of my day. And on the return trip home, I remember looking through the tinted glass windows of our specially rented bus and working myself into a romantic thrall by playing in my mind, over and over again, a maudlin Bollywood song of the time - the title song from the Rishi Kapoor-Sridevi starrer Chandni.

Some vague memories of Lothal have remained: the ruins for which the site is famous; and the displays well preserved in glass cases at the museum. I am aware that even without the distraction of Palak I was quite incapable, at that age, of comprehending the significance of Lothal. But with the sort of thirst I have for history now, no excuse will do: I feel like kicking myself for not having been more attentive or exhibited some curiosity.

Lothal, of course, was one of the urban centers of what is today collectively referred to as the Indus Valley civilization, which flourished about five thousand years ago (the Wikipedia links provide excellent information on this). So I hope to do proper justice the next time I visit Lothal. And perhaps I’ll make it up also by visiting Harappa and Mohenjodaro - cities that were contemporaries of Lothal, and that are now in modern day Pakistan.

Other places I would love to visit: Takshashila (or the anglicized Taxila), also in Pakistan, where, roughly two millennia after the decline of the Indus valley civilization, the wily Chanakya and the brilliant Sanskrit grammarian Panini are supposed to have studied; and, to turn now to some cultures halfway across the world, I'd also like to visit the Mayan sites of Chichen Itza and Tikal, Machu Picchu of the Incas in Peru, and finally, closest to where I am now, the 11th century Cahokia mounds of the Mississipian Native American cultures near St. Louis.

The image above is a recreation of Lothal as envisaged by the Archaelogical Survey of India. Credit for the image also goes to this group and website.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Christopher Kremmer interview

There's an excellent interview of Christopher Kremmer, author of Inhaling the Mahatma, on Chandrahas' blog The Middle Stage. Here is an excerpt of some of Kremmer's thoughts on narrative non-fiction:

"It [narrative non-fiction] is a very post-modern form, and the writer needs to be open to the multi-faceted nature of truth. A building might look beautiful from outside, but at the back it could be a garbage heap. Look at people and things from different angles. Another thing is that you have to be prepared to reveal who you are. These are not objective books, in the traditional sense, so we need to know who is this person who is taking us through northern Afghanistan, or northern India. What’s their background? Why should be trust them? Because the books sometimes don’t have a strictly defined plot, the voice of the narrator is very important in holding it all together and making the reader turn the page. And characters. Don’t forget the absolute necessity for bringing people alive on the page. There has never been a good book that lacked humanity."