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.

 

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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.

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.

The Gita For Children; Roopa Pai

26043368A good read.

Especially, for children – I’d imagine in the age range 12-16. The book is a very simple expository of Sri Bhagvad Gita. The language, the presentation, and the ideas are in line for children to understand the holy book.

At times, I thought it was too reductionist, but then, that’s a hazard of simplifying such books. For someone who would like to get to know the Gita, this is a good start. But that’s important: it can only be a start. If this is the only book you end up reading the understanding will be quite vague.

Recommended for adults too. (If you can ignore the adolescent examples)

The Indian Struggle, 1920-1942; Subhas Chandra Bose

It’s often said that we don’t find books; books find us. In this case, it was a bit peculiar. I found this book in December 2002, I think at Bangalore airport, at Sankar’s Bookstore. And it has been on my bookshelf since. The book finally found me, thirteen years later.

And I am glad it found me.

While most of us have a vague idea about Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s contribution (and most of it related to the Azad Hind Fauj), to know specifically his life, thoughts, ideals and struggles, before Azad Hind Fauj, is a completely different thing. This slice of history of the struggle for Indian Independence, perhaps systematically, has been denied to the public at large, to ensure that an otherwise popular version stays popular. I say this only in context of published material that’s promoted as important scholarship, as far as the history of Indian Independence is concerned.

5013856This book is 2nd in a series of a collected works by Netaji. I’ve not read the first, so I am yet to know more about Netaji’s life before 1920. This book covers the events between 1920-42, and are primarily related to goings-on of the Indian National Congress and the various people and personalities associated with the movement. In The Indian Struggle, 1920-1942, Bose presents the larger canvas of context that determined the struggle. The narrative is multi-dimensional; at the same time — a sequence of events, the impact of the effects, and the collective emotional upheavals, of all concerned. He takes care to bring in details at the right time, and importantly – in the right amount. He dwells on them, just as much is pertinent. Many events are cross-referenced often, and in good measure, which helps make sense of the complex organisation that was the Indian National Congress. The book has key insights on the arrival and growth of Communism, the nature of the devices of negotiations used by the British, and the background to a few events that we take for granted. In all this, the modesty with which he speaks about his own achievements and actions, often only through footnotes, is conspicuous.

Three personalities figure prominently: Mahatma Gandhi, Deshbandhu CR Das, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in that order. Of these, the presentation on Gandhiji is most intriguing. As the reader is exposed to the inner workings of the Congress, the role played by Gandhiji, and his nature, the popular edifice of the Mahatma starts shaking, inch by inch, page by page, chapter by chapter. He continues to remain the Mahatma, but we also see him as a human. Netaji and Gandhiji disagreed more than many times on various issues, yet, Netaji clearly criticises and praises, wherever and whenever it due. The criticism and praise come in equal measure and force—evidence that Netaji understood Gandhiji like none other.

Compare,

The Indian National Congress of today is largely his (Gandhiji’s) creation. The Congress Constitution is his handiwork. From a talking body he has converted the Congress into a living and fighting organisation. It has its ramifications in every town and village in India, and the entire nation has been trained to listen to one voice. Nobility of character and capacity to suffer have been made the essential tests of leadership, and the Congress is today the largest the most representative political organisation in the country.

with,

[…] the Mahatma has failed, because he had to play a dual role in one person—the role of a leader of an enslaved people and that of a world-teacher, who has a new doctrine to preach. It is this duality which has made him at once the irreconcilable foe of the Englishman, according to Mr. Winston Churchill, and the best policeman of the Englishman according to Miss Ellen Wilkinson.

As we try (and often fail) making sense of Indian politics, these books — the other side of the story — are invaluable in providing a perspective. Most of us have a curated, rose-coloured, and abstract sense of our history imposed on us, which then becomes the only lens for us to see through, and limits our perspectives.

The story behind the curtain is another story, altogether.

Why I Assassinated Gandhi?; Nathuram Godse & Gopal Godse

24233334There’s much commotion these days of books being banned and such. While this is not a book in the true sense of the word (it is a statement by Nathuram Godse, given in court as he stood accused of assassinating Mahatma Gandhi), it is perhaps one of the earliest documents that was banned by the government, from being published. (The ban was lifted in 1968).

It has been converted to a book form by his younger brother, who was also imprisoned as a co-conspirator for abetment and was imprisoned for life (released in 1964 after serving 16 years). While the statement of Nathuram Godse is the meat of the book — 102 of the 208 pages — Why I Assassinated Gandhi? has now been released with context, by his brother, Gopal Godse.

Like most medium-sized Indian publications, the book suffers heavily from a lack of editorial and design intervention. All the more unfortunate for this specific and critical episode in our history. Needless to say, the controversial nature of the content, even after six decades, is perhaps the reason no major publisher in India will ever seek to acquire such a title. It, then, automatically falls to the small-and-medium sized publishers.I’d like to congratulate Farsight Publishers for that.

Irrespective of your own beliefs of the role, contribution, and the impact of various leaders in the Indian Freedom Struggle, this book is worth a read. That this man assassinated the most popular figure in the history of Indian independence cannot be a reason not to read the book; in fact it is the reason, why this book needs to be read. The statement by Nathuram Godse is an articulate statement of his reason. And this being a court record, there is little scope for a fiction-creep, and perhaps, therefore, less easy to dismiss as fiction.

It matters less whether your reasons are right or wrong, and which prism they are viewed from. It matters more how convinced you are in your purpose and how well you can rationally defend and articulate that purpose. Nathuram Godse did that with great skill and art.

For that one reason, at least, this is a definite read.

Without Fear: The Life & Trial of Bhagat Singh; Kuldip Nayar

51xtHN6w3yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_What a wonderful opportunity this was, to bring out the story of this great patriot. While there is enough detail about the trial, and backed up by research and such, somehow, at the end, I was left with a sense of incompleteness. As if, there’s more to this, than is written in the book.

There’s little about the life of Bhagat Singh, and more of the trial of Bhagat Singh. The author takes on some fictional license at places, and suddenly we find the language to be a bit ornate.

Yet, if you are interested in the life of Bhagat Singh, this is a good book. There’s much to know about the patriot through his writings and thoughts. Like any other popular leader, there is a slice of his life that we have come to know about, and that is what we celebrate, without ever understanding the motivation and the philosophy. That Bhagat Singh was an anarchist, is interesting to note. For me personally so, because the book I finished just before this one, was On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky. It was interesting to note the reference of popular anarchists and their writings in these two books.

The details, of the episode of Gandhi’s intervention to save Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru, are lesser known, and the author has used extracts and full letters for a better understanding of the circumstances that prevailed, as well as the thinking of the Congress, at the time.

That he was an atheist, I knew. But to read his essay, “Why I am an Atheist” was an eye opener. At such a young age, to have the background, perception, and importantly, the conviction (after “converting” to atheism) is indeed heartening.

The full essay, Why I am an Atheist, is available here.