Urban Naxals; Vivek Agnihotri

Blindness to the Goodness

One of the speakers at the Mumbai launch of the book, Urban Naxals by Vivek Agnihotri, was Sandeep Singh. He talked of the wars that are no more fought by swords and guns – but by words. The term #UrbanNaxal which is the product of Agnihotri’s book, is a weapon, in that sense. In times of unconventional warfare, where the enemy remains invisible; terms like #UrbanNaxals are used to define and name an enemy. Proper terms are like night vision and thermal imaging cameras that help us identify the enemy better.

“Once upon a time in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and said: well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things. His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companion’s foolishness, and explained. When the names for things are incorrect speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of the society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people do not know what to do. ‘The thing about the gentleman,’ he warned, ‘is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned. The philosopher’s name was Confucius.”

~ Unspeak: Words are Weapons, by Steven Poole

So, the author gives us this term, a result of his experiences in the making of his film, “Buddha in a Traffic Jam.” This term has found it’s place in the in the new battleground that are social networks. We may even take it to be the standard. But how do we apply it. Who is an #UrbanNaxal?

Urban Naxals Book CoverLibtard, AAPtard, Congi, Sanghi, Bhakt, and such, is the currency on which current conversation thrives. What is the value of this currency? It has no fixed value. This book offers good answers; however the takeaway of this book is not just the one term – #UrbanNaxals. In the Mumbai book launch – the author clearly explained who is and who is not an #UrbanNaxal. Yet I fear, for those who will snatch this term and misapply it variably diluting it’s well-researched powerful definition.

Of the ways that the author explained the nature of an #UrbanNaxal – I felt he missed saying one thing. The #UrbanNaxal has a “Blindness to the Goodness” – a deliberate attempt to not see the good around you and then build a narrative. The sharp focus on what’s wrong creates the inability to see any good. That is how the #UrbanNaxals are, create a narrative.

This book has given us the means to understand who #UrbanNaxals are. That is why this is a very important book. The author in his book, as well as in many talks, has made it clear that it covers a specific set of people who engage in specific set of activities. #UrbanNaxals cannot be carelessly used for all who dissent. There are two types of dissent: one is guided by a purpose and the other is guided by a purse.

A Traveller’s Tale

Many things have been said about “Urban Naxals” – the book. It has been variously shelved in politics, sociology, even memoirs. No one has called it a travel book to my knowledge.

Urban Naxals is the culmination of a journey. Not necessarily only the travel from one location to another. A journey of experiences and insights. Talking of locations, early in the book, the author has something to say about risk, with a specific reference about people who dwell in Mumbai. He says,

“My adventurous family agrees. My wife and children are Mumbaikars. They have no idea how ugly political agitations can get.”

Ouch. I wince at this statement. Being a generally well-travelled Mumbaikar I take an exception to that statement. But, I get his point. It’s fair.

In days and times where armchair travel is common, being at a place and experiencing it is nothing like knowing a place and experiencing it. It’s a different reality, which is what culture shock probably means. Insights need an open mind if they are to make sense, which the author has done extensively and brilliantly. For engaging in all the experiences of the journey that resulted in this brilliant book, I’d say that Vivek Agnihotri’s book is also a travel book. A unique one at that.

Fighting Mediocrity and Inefficiency

Early in the book, the author talks of the fight against mediocrity and inefficiency. Thankfully, it is not a statistical exposition of the happiness index of people who live in this country. Personal experiences with people come to the fore all along the story-telling. Raw.

I have worked a lot with templates; have even developed templates – yet, all I wanted – was to destroy them; but I had to work with people who revered templates. It’s easy and it’s safe. Addiction to a template is the path to mediocrity, influenced by timidity.

The fact that unintentionally, though it may be, we allow mediocrity and inefficiency. I won’t use the word ‘tolerate.’ There’s a significant difference between allowance and toleration; in the first permission is explicit, in the second, permission is silently withheld.

As defined by the author, #UrbanNaxals want to confuse you, create doubt, and cause chaos in what you once believed in. But why does it work for the #UrbanNaxals, if all they are doing is appropriating or usurping the meaning and context of words? A large part of the response to #UrbanNaxals is abuse. That is the worst kind of response. The discourse is inefficient and ineffective. Vivek Agnihotri’s Urban Naxals is being celebrated for bringing the term #UrbanNaxals to us, which it rightfully should be, however, the other message of conquering mediocrity and inefficiency deserves equal footage, if not more. Some of his experiences on creativity during the making of his film need an equal salute. It is very easy to reduce #UrbanNaxals to identify people – but mediocrity and inefficiency is also a kind of #UrbanNaxal that eats at our abilities and opportunities. They too need an honest and a qualified response from us that is intelligent and assertive. Calling out #UrbanNaxals on social media will not be enough. The response will have to be above anger and name calling. It will have to be creative.

Largest of armies have been annihilated by the smallest of armies, by causing chaos and confusion – this is a recurring theme in history. When armies – large or small – have won wars, they have been excellent, efficient, creative, and stood their ground.

Urban Naxals, by Vivek Agnihotri has to be read, perhaps more than once, and has to be read by many.


Hinduism and Nature; Nanditha Krishna

In simplest of the terms, this book lists the approach towards ecology from the perspective Hindu scriptures, beliefs and customs. Well-separated, it deals with flora, water, fauna, and other natural formations. For each of these, the author uses references from vedic, upanishadic, and other scriptures, as well as customs and practices, which help understand the approach that Hinduism has towards protection and reverence of the environment.

Hinduism and Nature, Book CoverThis is a well researched text, with interesting references, and language is simple and clear. It’s a perfect introduction to someone who is seeking the worldview on environment from the perspective of Hinduism. Concepts of preservation and conservation in the Hindu world view are suitably described. For those of who may be aware of some of these concepts, there is interesting trivia, up for consumption. And no surprises, when parallels (or contrasts) are drawn between Hindu and Buddhist practices.

Initial part of every section is a conceptual description of environmental concern — which makes for interesting reading — of the references as well as the impact on the environment. As each chapter or section progresses, the prose-approach to the lists of various tanks, trees, mountains, gardens and what have you becomes tedious reading. The items in the list are very similar in nature, and it just seems a re-reading of a paragraph, over and over. What should have been tabulated is expanded in avoidable prose. This content, which comes across primarily as reference, should have been relegated to the end of the book, rather  than embedding it in the primary text.

The book has a few images, which do not serve any purpose. They are low quality, small, often not more than an inch tall, and in black & white. It would have been easier to give a search phrase for the reader.

Worth a read if environment is an area of interest for you, and if you are curious about how Hinduism approaches it.

Mughals and the Deccan: Political Relations with Ahmadnagar Kingdom; M. Siraj Anwar

I think, I am having a good run, reading history books. This book is one of them.

This book started as a thesis for M. Siraj Anwar’s doctorate. What it has done, is helped us give a very specific insight into Deccan history. I enjoyed reading this book as a student of Deccan history.

I liked the sharp political focus of this book, as the title suggests. It does not waver from its objective. There is a truism about this book that is refreshing. The depth of study is respectable. The sense of interpretation is too. As a reader of Deccan history, I may disagree with some interpretations, but overall, this is a satisfying book.

When you imagine and sense the complexities of the Deccan politics, the mind boggling-ness of it all, this book helps you to come to terms with it. The book does not make it easy. It cannot make it easy; because what went on was not easy. It asks for your unwavering attention. For if, you were to skip a sentence, even, you might lose the tangled thread of the politics in play.

If Deccan history is something you are interested in, it is a must-read.


The Era of Baji Rao; Dr. Uday Kulkarni

A serious problem afflicts Indian writing of history. The books are either jingoistic or utter drab collection of references. Often the texture is uneven, usually due to the author’s specific areas of interest in a timeline. Worse, scant attention is paid to presentation and copy-editing by most Indian publishers of books of history.

The Era of Baji Rao, by Dr. Uday Kulkarni, thankfully, is none of the above. (Save for a few typos that could have been easily taken care of and a couple of maps that could have been clearer).

33655331Writing a book on a person like Baji Rao I, given his life and times, is a difficult one to write, without falling in the trap of being in awe of his achievements. The author is aware of that, and says so, in the opening note. Dr. Kulkarni stays true to this submission.

From being a very well-researched book to its balance in presentation, I’d mark this book as ground breaking. Dr. Kulkarni has laid down a framework for writing a biography that does not insult the intelligence of the reader; in fact, the book respects the reader’s intelligence. In a few reviews Dr. Kulkarni was congratulated for not forming conclusions. The conclusions are there; they aren’t however, dumbed down as is usually the practice. They are there; they aren’t obvious. And standing tall on a mountain of such irrefutable, rich, and varied references that Dr. Kulkarni has gathered, there is no reason why an author should not conclude.

Then there is context. If a book were to focus only on the achievements of a historical personality, it tends to become hagiographical. Depending on how you view that personality, it causes unnecessary chest-thumping or extreme suspicion of bias. One of the key highlights of The Era of Baji Rao is that there is rich and relevant context to the life and times of Baji Rao I. It is not written in isolation; on the contrary, the context to the why and how of any of his campaigns, initiatives, or choices is is there for the reader to see. A context to the circumstances in which a choice was made is of more value to the reader than an insipid statement of the choice. This, coupled with a deftly handled insight into Baji Rao I’s character, personality, and emotion makes this one of the better non-fiction biographies.

If you have an interest in the history of India, the Deccan, the Marathas, or Baji Rao I himself, this is a book, you should be reading now!

Challenging Destiny: A Biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji; Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran

I was looking forward to this book, after the author’s historical fiction debut. That one was a well-researched book, but the dramatisation in the fiction wasn’t to my liking; it was trite, and often unimaginative.

Challenging Destiny: A Biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji is a non-fiction book by the author, and is a very well-researched book. It refers to many of the various biographies of Shivaji that are in circulation and makes extensive use of extracts from these books. As the author tells you early on, Mehendale’s biography of Chh. Shivaji is the primary source for this book; needless to say, this book borrows heavily from Mehendale’s biography.

4136rg1qgkl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I was a bit surprised that the author has chosen to use an academic (in-text, APA) form of citation, rather than using endnotes of footnotes, especially given that there are numerous direct quotes from other authors. Perhaps, because of this, the texture of reading seems uneven, at times. There are times in the book, where references (like the definition of a gaon, mauja, and kasbah), are completely out of place, irrelevant, and do not fit in the narrative at hand.

Overall, for someone who does not know the life and times of Chh. Shivaji, it is good first book, which covers his life and career, fairly well. For someone with a more serious interest in history, there are other biographies.

I return to my pet peeve. This book is published by The Write Place, the publishing arm of Crosswords. It is a sorry state of affairs in Indian publishing where copy-editing isn’t given the importance it deserves.

It’s not oddicers, its officers. Not tilted, but titled. And, definitely there isn’t a word called agreeded.

Songs of the Cauvery; Kalyanaraman Durgadas

33560834Loved the pace. Loved the visual storytelling. But visualisation isn’t easy, given that most items/objects are described in Tamil, which assume that the reader is Tamil or knows the language. In the beginning the author makes some effort to explain a few Tamil words, after that, it’s all on assumption.

Also, towards the end, the quotes of freedom fighters seem laboriously inserted. At places, it seems that an entire chapter has been inserted for the explicit purpose of quoting someone.

If you understand Tamil, you may enjoy Songs of Cauvery more than I did.

I wish I had a better start to 2017. 🙂

The First Firangis; by Jonathan Gil Harris

I encountered this book, when I was researching material for my post Of Foreigners & Their Blades; it all started because of the word: firangi.

The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian by Jonathan Gil Harris is a collection of stories of “foreigners.”

25996436Harris uses the backdrop of the human body to write these twelve stories. This is a new way to look at history, through lives of people and how they adapted to foreign conditions and became natives so to speak. The author’s background as a professor of English literature shines throughout the length of the book. The cross-references to social and political dynamics in various regions offer an insightful context to the lives of the people we are reading about and the placement of these lives in these contexts, is done with care and thought. The scope and quality of research is on display, through the 300 pages of story-telling.

The book starts with good pace and is an enjoyable read, at least till you get to a fourth of the book. This far, I felt immersed in the stories, then, slowly the texture and style of the writing unravels. In the first quarter of the book, it was perhaps the well-peppered trivia — mostly etymological and place names — that distracted me from what was going on, in the book.

And what was going on in the book unravels itself in an introduction to a story, somewhere in the middle of the book, by Harris himself:

Stories and clothes are, if only metaphorically, closely related. As my phrasing in the previous paragraph suggests, stories are woven and unwoven; we say spin a yarn, or tease out a tale, or lose the thread of a narrative.

It took me a while to read ahead in the book after this statement. I kept going back and forth between the stories, that I had already read, and then proceeded reading the rest of the book. The mapping of the stories to the “human body” themes — arriving, running, renaming, re-clothing, swerving, weathering — felt forcefully fitted. It slowly starts becoming clear why. For most of the people whose stories are being told, the available information is scanty. There are many assumptions made (not necessarily unreasonable) to help the storyline. Connectors like: “we can only imagine”, “may have”, “could have been”, “while we do not know”, “we can only speculate”, are abundant. While this is acceptable when linking two disconnected facts, Harris often takes two far-away facts and connects them through a series of conjectures. At times, and perhaps because of the bodily themes, the story-telling seems contrived; the assumptions force-fitted.

The author almost demands that the reader situates and imagines the lives of these people through the author’s lens and perspective. To that effect, this book, which had much more potential to tell wonderful stories, stops short.


It is perhaps a happy coincidence that I am reading What Is History  by E. H. Carr, while I write this review. I thought of The First Firangis, when I read:

Before you study the history, study the historian. […] Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history and of society; and it is in this twofold light that the student of history must learn to regard him.

If we regard Harris like Carr asks us, this book is a great read.

Article: The ‘graduate job’ gravy train is shuddering to a halt

An interesting article that turns the entire employability and “graduate premium” concept on its head.

“There is already alarming anecdotal evidence that the increase in ‘graduate’ jobs is failing to keep pace. Lots of graduates end up in the Uber economy. In any case, the ‘graduate premium’ has always been uneven – high for Oxbridge graduates heading for the City, wafer-thin for those from less prestigious universities working in the public sector (especially if they are women or from ethnic minorities).” (Emphasis, mine)

(Via The ‘graduate job’ gravy train is shuddering to a halt at.)

रायगडाला जेव्हा जाग येते; वसंत कानेटकर | Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete; Vasant Kanetkar

It would be an understatement to say that this is one of the better and popular plays in Marathi, of all times.

Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete is the play that explores the relationship between a Shivaji – A king as well as a father, and his eldest son Sambhaji – the natural successor to the throne. The play tumbles through the relationships and the roles of these two great personalities, the misunderstandings that distance and time had caused between this father and sun duo. For good measure, the key  character turns out to be the second son of Shivaji – Rajaram – the younger step-brother of Sambhaji.

रायगडाला जेव्हा जाग येते; वसंत कानेटकर | Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete; Vasant Kanetkar

रायगडाला जेव्हा जाग येते; वसंत कानेटकर | Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete; Vasant Kanetkar

Court intrigues and scheming for the succession struggle play an important part in this wonderfully crafted play. While a large reason of the popularity of this play may have been due to the characters in the play, that’s only the skin: the meat, bones, and the nerves of this play are in the exploration of the raw emotions and exchanges between a father-king and a prince-son (who have been estranged by distance and time) come to experience: partly because of the actions of the prince, more because of the schemes and the intrigues of the court.

The aphorisms and metaphors are a readers’ delight. The writing is pacy, even if you imagine the mighty Dr. Kashinath Ghanekar on stage delivering the performance, with his signature pauses and voice modulation. The event of the escape of Shivaji from Agra is used to perfection as a presentation of perspective; the text for each of the perspectives, of Shivaji and Sambhaji, are very compelling.

“शेकडो कोसांची पायपीट बिनतक्रार करणाऱ्या पोराचे पाय ओसरीवरून माझघरात जाईतो पांगळे होतात.”

The language employed is “Olde Marathi”, if I can call it that; the medieval usage of certain words, which have now, unfortunately fallen out of favour, is enriching to the entire context of the play. For a person, who is not well versed in Marathi, it was relatively easy to read (with some help from my mother, who was referred to throughout the two days that I took to read the book.

If you read Marathi, this is highly recommended.

Decline And Fall Of The Maratha Empire; Dr. M. S. Naravane

As far as understanding where the seeds were sown for the decline of the Maratha Empire, and even the roots of the eventual confederate nature of the Marathas, this is a wonderful book.

29740758I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Decline And Fall Of The Maratha Empire does an unintentional disservice to the achievements of the Marathas after the Shivaji era. And I say unintentional with much seriousness. As may be obvious from the title of the book, this book is an analysis of the decline and the fall. It assumes, but not explicitly, that the reader has more than a general awareness of the history of the period between the mid 1600s to 1818. If you pick up this book, without the background to this period, this book will come across as grossly critical, negative, and utterly depressing. Needless to say, that is not the author’s intention.

It perhaps needs pre-reading; on the lines of Rise of the Maratha Power, by Justice MG Ranade, or a similar book that describes this period’s history that is comprehensive and well-rounded.

While it is clear that the intention of the book is not to specifically shine light on the darker side of this history, it is a topical book. The reader should bear that in mind.

The analysis itself, is very well done. It is clear and well referenced. It is not a very long book, and the references are a treasure trove, if you are history nerd. Dr. M. S. Naravane writes clearly, unambiguously, with a good sense of the chronology of the start of the decline, and covers some of the not-so-obvious aspects of the issue.

Highly recommended if you are a student of Maratha history. One star removed, for some references which felt gossipy.