Title: Ambani & Sons – The Making of the World’s Richest Brothers and Their Feud
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Title: Ambani & Sons – The Making of the World’s Richest Brothers and Their Feud
Author: Hamish McDonald
Publisher: Roli Books, 2010 (First)
Reliance Industries is India’s largest and most profitable company in the private sector. Built by Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani (Dhirubhai) from scratch, the enterprise struck deep roots during India’s License-Quota-Permit raj. When the economy opened up, he could build on the groundwork he’d already prepared and the company rapidly grew into one of the most profitable ventures in the world. Dhirubhai’s murky dealings in cornering plum government allocations and excluding his business rivals is the subject of the author’s controversial book, The Polyester Prince, which is officially banned in India though e-books can be freely downloaded from the web. However, this work is free of contentious issues in the sense that the author has applied brakes on his investigative drive so that it could be sold in India. Details of several clandestine and unethical deals are given of course, but the consistent refrain is that none of these would have been needed if India had practised an open-market, free-enterprise policy which it adopted in the last decade of the past century. The book is indeed a good read.
Dhirubhai was born in Kathiawar, Gujarat in 1932. After completing his high school education, he was forced to look for work, prompted by the very small income of his father, who was a school teacher. Belonging to the Bania caste, he had extensive contacts rooted on caste lines with merchant communities worldwide. He was employed by a merchant firm in Aden, Yemen where he worked as a salesman for Shell products, garnering a slew of business contacts across the Red Sea littoral and East African ports. Aden was a busy British port-town in those times, similar in stature to Singapore. His business acumen and risk taking was phenomenal. It is said that he used to buy up Yemeni silver rials which had more metal in it than the prevailing exchange rate with pound in order to melt it to make silver ingots for trading. In 1958, he was back in India, looking for business opportunities which saw the birth of Reliance Commercial Corporation which traded spices and textiles for export to the Middle East and East Africa.
At that time, India was standing mute witness to one of the most ridiculous exercises in centralized planning and bureaucratic control on business ever imposed on a democracy, but clearly modeled on authoritative communist regimes. Nehru and later his daughter, Indira Gandhi, both prime ministers, thus paved the way for inefficiency, nepotism and corruption to saturate decision-making machinery of the government. Those industrialists who had friends or bribe-takers in positions of power to pull strings greatly benefited from this sorry state of affairs. It is often said that Ambani didn’t engage in illegal activities. He simply changed the rules when it best suited him through his extensive connections at the right places. In its frantic bid to earn foreign currency, Indira’s government was willing to go to any illogical extreme. Ambani exported cheap nylon fabrics at elevated prices to free ports which languished and later got damaged there. But, based on the calculated value of exports, he could import polyester filament yarn (PFY) which attracted huge margins, nearly reaching 600%. The scheme was of course, open to every one, but Dhirubhai saw it first. When the others too got wind of it, the margins naturally fell.
McDonald identifies and explains Reliance’s expansion phase in the 1980s. After Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984, Ambani’s plans were thwarted by Rajiv Gandhi’s initial enthusiasm at fair governance. This was in sharp contrast to that of his mother, who had pushed corruption to the centre-stage of Indian administration through her ruinous measures of stifling bureaucratic control of every aspect of the economy. But when Rajiv himself was later bogged down in accusations of corruption, notably in the Bofors gun deal, he changed track and Dhirubhai entered his good books. Together, they hunted down Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing, who was Ambani’s business competitor and the Indian Express, which unleashed a tirade against corruption through a brilliant correspondent, S. Gurumurthy. Ambani had a powerful opponent in the figure of V P Singh, who was Rajiv’s finance minister. Singh ordered several inquiries into cloudy deals, but soon lost favour with Rajiv who slowly became the unwitting victim of the machinations of a coterie around him.
V P Singh’s election victory in 1989 brought in a difficult time for Dhirubhai, but it didn’t last long. The author has finely summarized the deals that brought him down in 1990 - the Mandal and Masjid issues. Narasimha Rao’s reforms policy brought in a revolutionary change which wiped away most of the roadblocks put by an over-enthusiastic officialdom. Reliance’s growth was huge by any standards in the last decade of the century. Ambani’s death in 2002 soon forced the simmering tension between the brothers to break out in public. A settlement was reached in 2005 and a conciliatory partition of assets was enforced. McDonald ends the book with a reminder that it has reached a pause in the story, to which the not-so-old brothers and their unbridled energies could in future provide fertile grounds for more juicy anecdotes.
McDonalds’s lack of awareness of social realities in India makes itself felt at many places. Extravagant claims like Reliance made or broke many prime ministers may be written off as inevitable loud mouthing, characteristic of a book of the genre. But on other issues, the author is not knowledgeable enough to pass comment. When narrating the antecedents of S Gurumurthy of Indian Express, it says “He was the product of a Brahmin family near Madras and was blocked from university by Tamil Nadu’s policies of favouring lower-caste students” (p.124). Coming from Australia, which has one of the worst cases of economic and social repression of the indigenous aboriginal communities, McDonald may be forgiven for not fully grasping the measures of social justice put in place for the lower castes, whose condition was much worse than Australia’s aborigines. The reservation is not 100 per cent and if Gurumurthy was smart enough to come on the top 30-40%, he could’ve attended the university. Presumably, he was not bright enough!
The book presents a picture of continuous economic liberalization measures starting from 1980 onwards whereas we normally credit P V Narasimha Rao for initiating the reforms in 1991 which catapulted India to the world’s fourth largest economy in purchasing power parity. What we read from the book is that the pace was so gradual at first that it was not felt. However, there is sufficient proof from the pages that Rao and Manmohan’s reforms were anticipated very early on and all the prime ministers of the period, Indira, Rajiv, V P Singh and Chandrashekhar followed it even if with some demur.
The book is recommended.
Rating: 3 Star
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Title: How Jesus Became Christian – The Early Christians and the Transformation of a Jewish Teacher into the Son of God
Author: Barrie Wilson
Publisher: Phoenix 2009 (First published: 2008)
A good book written with much moderation and backup research in contrast to the provocative nature of the title. Religion is an avenue of human venture where study of early history is not entertained. The faithful follow the priesthood whose imprimatur substitutes reason. But scholars and objective students of early history of the church feels a vacuum between the time when Jesus preached in Judaea and the Christian church was established, covering the first 350 years of the Common Era. This book steps in to fill the vacuum with comprehensive coverage of events and personalities who defined the new religion and pioneered its way in the turbulent centuries of the early Christian era. Barrie Wilson is eminently suitable for the task, being the Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Toronto’s York University. He is an award-winning educator and teaches courses on early Christianity, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple literature. He is the author of a number of academic books, but this is his first book for the general reader. But the simplicity and clarity of detail showcased in the book belie the fact that this is his first work for the lay man. The book spans seven hundred years of history of eastern Mediterranean from 300 BCE to 400 CE.
Alexander the Great was the single most influential character in history who changed the course of it. His campaigns caused Greek civilization to spread on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. City states on the model of Greek ones like Athens and Sparta sprang up which accommodated a cosmopolitan society practicing multiple religions, most of them polytheistic. Unlike the Jews of Israel, those religions showed a spirit of assimilation and cooperation towards Hellenization, which found the monotheistic Jewish community making sacrifices to get along with the foreigners in their midst and who ruled over them. Such non-Jews were called Gentiles, a disparaging term among pious circles. The strict dietary and social customs and unrelenting demand for allegiance to a single god created tensions in the community. Four major factions originated out of the necessity to wake up to challenges. The first one, Sadducees were wealthy priests and accommodated the wishes of their occupiers – the Greeks at first and Romans later – often by forcibly suppressing claims of would-be Messiahs who sought to obtain deliverance from foreign yoke. The second party, Pharisees concentrated on education by which religious values were imbibed. The Essenes, a community which withdrew from the society to found closed networks on the Dead Sea coast were hardliners. The Zealots were the most passionate about keeping the Jewish spirit alive and resolved to fight the occupiers whenever events presented an opportunity.
Judaism fervently hoped for a Messiah in these turbulent times who would overthrow foreign rule, establish an independent Jewish state, become the Davidic king, usher in an era of universal peace and establish the kingdom of God. The wicked would be eradicated and the righteous dead would be resurrected to a stretch of eternal life. Those who are living and faithfully follow the Torah (the first five books of Old Testament) would also have immortality. Such was the grand scheme of things envisaged by an increasingly desperate Jewish people. Wilson presents a well-researched argument that Jesus was an ultra orthodox Jew who taught rigorous practice of the Torah. Clear and varied quotations from the gospels are furnished to support the claim. While we get a general impression that the argument may hold generally, it appears that Jesus’ attitude to many points of the religious law, like observance of Sabbath was liberal, thus negating the author’s chain of reasoning. Jesus promised a new state, a kingdom of God which would materialize in his own lifetime in which he would become king. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem mocking marks of royalty was exactly to convey the message. The Sadducees, backed by Roman troops were not amused at this political affront to Roman order, the Pax Romana and had him crucified. His disciples were disappointed at the kingdom not arriving, then hoped for Jesus to reappear and proclaim it.
James, who was one of Jesus’ own brothers, headed the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. They were thoroughly Jewish, who saw Jesus in flesh and blood. Their conception of him was as a mere mortal, having no divinity, no virgin birth and no resurrection, but a great Rabbi chosen by God. Their descendants continued for more than a century under the title of Ebionites and Nazareans. Meanwhile Paul, who also was a Jew, but not rigorously following the Law began preaching a Christ Movement among the gentiles, mainly in areas now in Turkey. His disciples were reluctant to follow the 613 injunctions in the Torah required to be followed by the faithful, including male circumcision, dietary strictures, observance of Sabbath and others. Paul’s Christ was a saviour figure appealing more to Romans than the historical Jesus who was only a Jewish Messiah claimant. His followers needed to practice the simpler Noahide laws which were only seven in number. However, his movement needed to possess the authority of antiquity to claim and obtain legitimacy in the Roman world which venerated ancient objects and beliefs. That link was provided by the Book of Acts of the Apostles, which the author says was penned by Luke, the gospel writer. It fused the Jesus and Christ movements into two arms of a common movement when in fact both the groups exhibited characteristics of different religions. Wilson goes on to claim that around the end of the first century, the present sequence of books of the New Testament emerged, but they are not arranged chronologically. The epistles of Paul are the oldest documents in the collection, followed by gospels of Mark and Matthew, then by Luke, Acts and finally John. Eventually, Paul’s Christ Movement was transformed into modern Christianity while Jesus Movement petered out. Paul also established that belief in Jesus Christ was the only requirement expected of a follower who need to obey Torah.
Pauline Christianity, embellished with Greco-Roman mythology, gained converts and became very strong in the 2nd century. Virgin birth and resurrection was two of its cornerstones. Wilson presents several examples from other theologies of the time where virgin birth is resorted to. These include Attis (a god and virgin mother Cybele), Pythagoras (god Apollo and human mother Parthenis), Caesar Augustus (god Apollo and mother Atia), the Persian religious figure Zoroaster and many more.
Wilson’s message is loud and clear. We read that “Jesus never converted to another religion. Nor did he start one. If he were to return, he’d probably be amazed – perhaps bewildered or possibly even angry – at what has been created in his name” (p.72). The author alleges that Paul and his followers were partisan to a Jesus Cover-Up program in which the human Jesus was erased out of the text and supplanted with a god-human, dead-resurrected Christ. Those Jews who saw him practicing in their midst and who were aware of the great chasm developing between them and Paul’s Movement opposed it. The Proto-Orthodox (early Christians) abhorred the presence of Jews who could blow up their cover. Wilson thus identifies the origins of still pestering antisemitism in Christian texts to this feeling of confusion and guilt at having usurped the Jews of their heritage.
The book definitively possess an air of belonging to one of the genres of conspiracy theories. The author is passionate about the concepts which he deems to be true, but fails to account for even some straightforward inconsistencies. He argues that Paul divorced the ideals of his new religion from Judaism to align it with Greek/Roman mystery cults, so as to win converts and to assimilate it into Hellenization. But this argument fails to explain the antagonism it met at the hands of Roman emperors who suppressed it mercilessly until Constantine converted to it in 310s. The book fails to convincingly present the reason for this antipathy if Paul had so disguised it as a Greek cult.
The author assumes the historicity of Jesus as authentic, even though there are disagreements among scholars in this regard too. The book is equipped with a nice timeline and glossary, but the author’s insistence on the use of terms like A.D. and B.C. instead of the secular C.E and B.C.E diminishes its claims to scholarly authenticity. Even though littered with weak arguments stemming from conspiracy theory, it however collects some novel arguments which would attract readers’ attention.
The book is recommended.
Rating: 3 Star
Monday, April 29, 2013
Title: The Emerald Planet – How Plants Changed Earth’s History
Author: David Beerling
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2008 (First published 2007)
David Beerling is Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the University of Sheffield. His work on the evolution of life and the physical environment is widely recognized. He has published several research papers and is co-author of Vegetation and the Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: Modelling the First 400 Million Years. This book is also on the related topic of how plants change the history of the earth by influencing components that change climate. Plants are the primary food producers of the planet. Every living being, even carnivores, depend directly or indirectly on plants for their food. Not only food production, these life forms that paint our planet an emerald hue is active in recycling of carbon and water and ultimately is responsible for climate change in subtle ways. The book presents the history of life during the last half-billion years and the triumphs and tribulations it had gone through in this period.
Beerling begins with the most obvious manifestation of plant-hood – green leaves. Even though we take them for granted, leaves evolved rather late in the history of plants. Ever since ancient plants colonized land some 420 million years ago, the most prevalent varieties were leafless forms. This continued for about 40 million years which is a long time even by evolutionary standards. Humans evolved from ape-like ancestors in a tenth of the time! The event which caused the sprouting of leaves and a great flourish of plant life 380 million years ago is claimed to be a decrease in the level of carbon dioxide in atmosphere. Microscopic pores called stomata on leaves through which this gas is absorbed and water is released is dependent on the level of carbon dioxide. If the level is high, number of pores would be less. So, when the level plummeted, pore count shot up, resulting in more leaves. In fact, the spread of plant life was so explosive that it is compared to Cambrian Explosion for the animal kingdom in which marine life forms had a tremendous diffusion across the entire earth. The author stresses a curious fact here. The genetic toolkit for making leaves, like necessary genes were already present in earlier plant forms as well, but the switching on of the gene was prompted by climate change, which was global cooling in this case.
The leafy plants then went through a phase of gigantism. Around 300 million years ago, in the carboniferous era, huge leaves and fens dominated the landscape, complemented with huge life forms like dragon flies that reached 1.5 meters in wingspan and spiders with a length of 1 metre. The reason for the enhanced size is articulated to be a spurt in oxygen levels which rose to as much as 35%, as against 21% at present. The increase in oxygen, coupled with increased atmospheric pressure gifted the faculty of flight to bigger insects too, though with reduced maximum speed. 50 million years later, in the Permian age, oxygen levels suddenly plummeted to 15% which is cited as one of the reasons for the mass extinction of fauna in that era, termed Permian Extinction. True to the requirement that an impartial observer should present all aspects of an argument before the public, Beerling presents ozone depletion as another plausible cause for the obliteration of nearly 95% of all living species virtually overnight. Ozone layer is a shield in the stratosphere which prevents dangerous ultraviolet-B radiation reaching earth. This type of radiation can cause mutation in cells which most often leads to death of the organism. Traces of volcanic eruptions of a massive scale have been observed in Siberia during this time. The resultant gases such as chlorine might have damaged the ozone shield.
Global human population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050. Rice and wheat, the two principal cereals for feeding most of the world has nearly reached their maximum efficiencies. The book presents a unique genetic engineering approach to get over this bottleneck. Rice and wheat uses a special enzyme called Rubisco for photosynthesis which is a remnant of a gene that evolved long back, about 2.5 billion years ago. A carrier molecule containing three carbon atoms act as the mediator and such plants – which means most of them – are called C3 plants. However, in a variety of grasses which include maize and sugarcane, there is a small change in the gene. Here, the intermediary contain four carbon atoms and are called C4 plants. Photosynthesis in C4 plants are much more efficient in converting carbon dioxide to crop. If the genetic photosynthetic pathway of C4 could be transplanted to C3 plants, their yield could be improved still further, ensuring stable food supply to billions in future. However, the popular attitude to GM food need to change for this to materialize.
Beerling presents a strong case for humanity’s attention to focus on anthropogenic global warming due to increase in the level of carbon dioxide. An example of what the world would look like in an atmosphere rich in a mixture of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide was seen 50 million years ago. Subtropical climate prevailed in the poles and the tropics became a hothouse around this time. Fossil remains of forests in the Arctic dated to this period has been recovered. Scientists differ on the reasons that drove the planet through such a hot phase, but the consensus seems to be that the rise in carbon dioxide led to similar increases in other greenhouse gases through complex, interconnected processes. The author’s warning is highly relevant, timely and illuminating.
The chapters in the book are not logically structured, leaving the reader to perform the difficult task of manipulating between incongruent concepts. The author has not been entirely successful to convincingly establish that plants altered the ancient earth’s biosphere. What we glean from the laboured discussion is the opposite idea. The flora and fauna changed or adapted to changes in climate while the unlucky ones unable to cope with simply perished. The book thankfully economizes on the use of botanical nomenclature to the minimum possible, which is to be appreciated from the point of view of a more general audience. A set of monochrome plates are included which is unfortunately irrelevant to the topic under discussion. Figures and charts are cryptic and fail to deliver the message. A hefty Notes section also diminishes the book’s reputation for easy readability.
The book is recommended.
Rating: 2 Star
Friday, April 19, 2013
Title: Somanatha – The Many Voices of a History
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Penguin, 2008 (First published 2004)
Romila Thapar is one of the leading historians of India with a leftist leaning. A learned scholar of ancient India, she has authored many books such as Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Ancient Indian Social History and Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. In this enlightening work, she uncovers various aspects of a historical incident which colours the imaginations of millions of people even in today’s India and conspires to define their attitude to a section of the society which profess a different religion from their own. The temple at Somanatha in Gujarat was raided in 1026 CE by Mahmud, the king of Ghazni in today’s Afghanistan. The incident truly ushered in an era of invasions from central Asia which lasted for half a millennium until Babur’s in 1526. India went under Islamic rule till it was overthrown by the British. Mahmud not only destroyed and plundered the temple, he desecrated it, reneged on his promise to return the idol in exchange of money, carried it off to Ghazni where he smashed it to pieces and placed them on the footpaths leading to the central mosque and the market place so that the faithful could tread on them while going in for worship or doing a mundane commercial transaction. Historians traditionally claimed this event to be the crucial moment which redefined the relations between Hindus and Muslims in a damaging way and that it created a trauma on Hinduism which persist even today. Thapar negates all such allegations which rest on mono-causal reasons, stating that religion was only one of the factors which drove kings and conquerors on each other’s throats. In an interesting book born out of immense research based on sources spanning centuries, crossing geographical boundaries and transcending the bounds of language, the author has brought out her sharp assessment of history in a convincing light. However, we still get to know that the temple was sacked serially by Ulugh Khan (1299), Muzaffar Khan (1395), Zafar Khan (1398) and Mahmud Begada (1469).
The Shiva temple at Somanatha was known as Prabhasa Pattana in ancient times and was a prominent place of pilgrimage. The local chieftains and their Chalukya overlords financed the temple through munificence. Prabhasa was also a trading port which had extensive commercial transactions with the Middle East and south east Asia. The author surmises that the temple also took part in trade and it flourished as a consequence. Gujarat acted as the hub of maritime trade. Textiles, spices and jewels were exported and wine, horses and metals formed the import. Inscriptions from the period after the invasion of Mahmud shows that trade continued to provide the mainstay of local economy. The temple lost its sheen by the 15th century when trade dwindled due to the development of overland trade routes to Persia and Arabia and the direct maritime commerce between south east Asia and Arabia in spices, eliminating Indian middlemen. Thus the author hammers home the point that the temple fell on bad times due to economic reasons and not due to the plundering raids of Mahmud.
There was a strong religious factor about Somanatha that had aroused the wily, fanatic temper in Mahmud. Somanatha, or Somnat was rendered as su-manat in Persian, referring to the goddess Manat of Arabia who was worshiped along with two other goddesses Lat and Uzza at Mecca until the Prophet stopped the practice and ordered destruction of the idols. Manat was worshiped in the form of an aniconic image of black stone which could have been confused with the cylindrical form of the lingam, the icon of Somanatha. It was rumoured that this idol of Manat escaped the searching parties of Prophet Mohammed and ended up in Gujarat. The narrative presents some interesting glimpses on the religious life of pre-Islamic Mecca.
Thapar examines inscriptions and chronicles of the period thoroughly. The Turko-Persian sources eulogize Mahmud and delights at the humiliating blow inflicted on infidels. Many chroniclers are mentioned, like Ferishta, Barami and Isami, who weaved an entire structure of how a model king should behave in similar circumstances. The Sanskrit sources paint a different picture. Even though the former sources claim that the temple was desecrated and converted to a mosque, the indigenous sources maintain that the temple continued to function at least till the end of 15th century. We also read of a Kadamba king who ruled Goa making a pilgrimage to Somanatha by the sea route in 1036, ten years after Mahmud’s raid. No mention about the destruction of the shrine is seen. But again, in 1177, there are references to a broken idol and how the wife of a king’s minister had the image replaced. There is also a marked difference between the attitudes towards different Muslim societies. The Arabs, who conquered Sindh in the 8th century didn’t harbour territorial ambitions and soon engaged in a mutually prosperous trade in the western seaboard. Hence Tajiks, as they were called are shown in a friendly demeanour while the Turks who came from Central Asia, called Turushkas, Shakas, Mlecchas were the hostile ones who conquered the land. What Thapar establishes is the fact that the history of the period should be understood as a struggle between various sections of society rather than as a plain fight between Hindus and Muslims, which it is often made out to be.
Somanatha stole the limelight in 1842 when the Governor General, Lord Ellenborough ordered his troops in Afghanistan to bring the gates of Mahmud’s tomb in Ghazni to India. These gates, made of sandalwood, was thought to be the original gates of Somanatha temple. Ellenborough intended that his proclamation would stir up Hindu sentiment in British favour. The gates, when it arrived was found not to be of Indian craftsmanship which resulted in poor response from Indians. The gates were then secretly consigned to a strong room in Agra fort. Its antecedents are still shrouded in mystery. However, the Governor General’s action which favoured idolatry was criticized in the House of Commons, but the House voted in his favour. K M Munshi, novelist, historian and politician of the last century spearheaded a campaign for building a new temple at the site. The construction began in 1951 and completed in the next year, illuminating the aspirations of Hindu nationalism which was increasingly becoming more strident.
The book presents a picture of Mahmud as a parsimonious character who was interested in lining his pocket with plunder and unwilling to spend it in promoting culture in his court which had its roots in pastoralism. Al Biruni was brought to the court, but was banished to India after an altercation with the king. Firdausi, the epic poet of Persia and the author of Shahnama was also disappointed with Mahmud on his frugality and wrote satires on him after leaving Ghazni. Mahmud also profited largely from slave trade. It is said that he captured 53000 prisoners of war after the campaign of Kannauj and sold them for 2 to 10 dirhams per slave, which was only a tenth of the price of a horse (p.44).
Romila Thapar takes great pains to show that bigotry was only a minor constituent of the drive that led Mahmud to Somanatha. This is a trait followed by historians with Marxist leanings. Just because they don’t believe in god or follow religion, they are led to postulate that those twin factors don’t weigh on the choices of others. The author presents plunder and wealth as the reasons for Mahmud’s iconoclasm, while legitimacy for their rule is brandished as the critical factor for the destruction of Hindu places of worship by other sultans. They destroyed the temples that were sacred for the kings whom they subdued. But when the sultans turn against Shiites with the same vengeance, the author is at a loss to find a convincing reason. Religious fanaticism was and still is the foremost reason for violence in those parts of Afghanistan from which Mahmud originated. This fact is sadly missing and confirms the formulaic composition of the narrative according to diktats of ideology.
Indian history is often separated into three periods, the Hindu, Islamic and British. The centuries before 1000 CE is classed along with the first, the period between 1000 and 1750 CE in the second and British period comes after 1750. Historians usually rely on inscriptions, chronicles or other sources in Sanskrit for gleaning information for the first period, Turko-Persian-Arabic sources for the second era and English sources for the last. Thapar objects to such unreal classifications and convincingly brings home the view that sources from other languages need also to be considered while developing a comprehensive historiography of the period under study. This is amply demonstrated in presenting numerous Hindu and Jaina sources side by side to describe the conditions in post-Mahmudic Somanatha.
The book is recommended.
Rating: 3 Star
Monday, April 15, 2013
Title: The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama
Author: Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 1997 (First)
Vasco da Gama was a historical figure whose stature reached astronomical heights in one part of the world for the discoveries he had made, whereas in the other, it was downgraded to abysmal depths for his brutal and spiteful displays of outrage. Sanjay Subrahmanyam has tried to put both these contrasting assessments in a proper historical perspective. Being a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of noted treatises like The Political Economy of Commerce and The Portuguese Empire in Asia 1500-1700, this book is the product of painstaking research and references, as attested by the lengthy Notes section which literally overflow with cross references. The author’s attention and grasp of Portuguese history is notable, without which a book of this caliber would not have seen the light of day.
Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) was the first Portuguese to discover an all-sea route to India. The book begins with allusions to the legendary status of Gama in Portugal, with reference to a 19th century opera, L’Africaine in which he is characterized as the hero. The narrative is drab and colourless. Subrahmanyam’s attempts to establish the political conditions in Portugal in late 15th century is also unconvincing and packed with nothing other than lists of nobles who went in and out of royal favour. Expeditions to West Africa began around this time in search of colonies, slaves and new disciples for Christianity. Bartolomeu Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. Columbus’ travels to the New World prepared the ground for seeds of exploration to sprout. Gama, born in a petty noble family was assigned the task of discovery of spices and Christians in the east by king Dom Manuel. He set sail with three ships and 118 men on July 7, 1497 from Lisbon and encountered several settlements on the East African coast, but almost everywhere the dealings ended in violence or the threat of it. Muslim traders who’d monopolized maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean littoral was not willing to let go of it easily. At Malindi, Gama obtained the services of a Gujarati Muslim pilot to steer the way to Calicut at which he arrived on May 20, 1498. The Portuguese could converse with the king of Calicut in Arabic, as the state employed a lot of traders from the Middle East. The relationship between Gama and the Zamorin, who was the ruler of Calicut was strained from the very outset. Muslims enjoyed prominent positions in court and the king was vulnerable to their machinations. Besides, the gifts submitted by Gama was unimpressive which made the ruler suspect that the Portuguese were in fact pirates. The affairs soon nosedived and Gama restrained twenty nobles of Calicut in his ships as ransom against his own men and goods under the Zamorin’s custody. Some of the prisoners were interchanged and Gama returned on Aug 29, 1498, reaching Lisbon on July 10, 1499 in an arduous journey in which he lost 55 men and a ship. The curious thing we notice from a Portuguese account of one of the travelers is that Gama and his men was under the impression that they’d encountered Christians at Calicut, even after he returned to Portugal after a stay of three months there. He believed the practices of oriental Christians to be so deviant and different that even a visit to a local temple didn’t help to dispel the myth.
Gama’s successful journey prompted other expeditions, Cabral following him on the heels. Cabral was however, less tactful and ended up in skirmishes along the Kerala coast. Gama himself returned in 1502 at the head of a larger fleet. The objectives had changed this time. Instead of promoting trade with India, he was keen on blocking the spice trade between India and the Red Sea ports, thus enforcing an economic blockade against the Mameluk sultans of Egypt. With the vigour and cruelty of a pirate, Gama attacked and sacked ships. His fanatical temper was blood curdling. He intercepted a ship returning with Haj pilgrims from Mecca off Calicut coast. The people on board, which included 240 men, women and children gave away all precious articles they possessed in return for their lives. Gama accepted the booty and then set the ship on fire in cold blood killing almost all of them. He took 17 children alive from the ship and converted them to Christianity. Gama’s violent methods and foul temper soon alienated the kings of Cannanore and Calicut, the latter city he bombarded for days on end. He moved to Cochin and established cordial relations with the king there and spices were laden at that port. Gama returned to Portugal in April 1503 and reached by September, making the Muslims arch-enemies of the Portuguese. Gama’s career slid into an eclipse during the period 1504-18 when the king Dom Manuel found his licentious deeds in India unpalatable, unjustifiable and also due to palace intrigue. However, he was being elevated to great public acclaim as the man who opened up a strange land for commerce. He was honoured as the Count of Vidigueira in 1518 and made a prominent official in the Manueline court. Gama came to India for the third time in 1524 and died in the same year at Cochin.
The book is littered with footnotes on every page, in a vain bid to assume the spirit of a reference book. This makes reading cumbersome which was already hard labour due to tasteless diction overburdened with liberal quotes from original sources. Readability was never a concern for the author. Most of the monochrome plates interspersed with the narrative do not follow the story line and is inserted just for the sake of it. The readers won’t feel any loss of relevance even if the plates are printed as a whole towards the end of the book or even if it is omitted altogether. The work sadly doesn’t include an afterword about the beginnings of colonialism which was a transformation of early commerce and which would have added some interest to the book. Also, the author is silent about the nationalist spirit which exhumed the physical remains of Gama from Cochin back to Portugal.
Whatever drawbacks one may point out against the book, there is no denying that it reveals the ruthless nature of Gama. He treated non-Europeans as subhuman and even his compatriots sometimes tasted his cruel bend of mind. He refused sick sailors permission to have treatment at a new hospital built in Goa on the grounds that “the king, his lord has no need of hospitals in India, for if they were there, the men would always claim to be sick” (p.318). All this frugality was practiced when Gama himself attired and conducted in royal style, with ushers in silver livery, pages in gold collars and royal etiquette at his table.
The book is very difficult for an easy read. One gets the impression that it was made more intricate than there was a need for it. Totally uninteresting, the book presents a marked variance with other titles from the same publisher, Cambridge University Press. Probably the writer would derive some good by learning the methods of J F Richards as shown in his splendid book The Mughal Empire, published by CUP and reviewed earlier in this blog. In the present form, this book is very tedious and a waste of time.
The book is not recommended.
Rating: 2 Star
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Title: In Spite of the Gods – The Strange Rise of Modern India
Author: Edward Luce
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2007 (First published 2006)
Another good attempt from an Indophile westerner to look at post-independent India with a watchful eye of where it had gone astray and ending with a to-do list. Edward Luce is a journalist who was the bureau chief of Financial Times in New Delhi from 2001 to 2005. He is now based in Washington, DC. Luce reiterated his indophilia by marrying an Indian girl and has traveled extensively in the country. The list of persons he interviewed for the book is a veritable who’s who of Indian society. As the author noted with amusement, Indians open up rather too much when they speak to a westerner and this has resulted in candid assessments of the issue in question. The book is a survey of what India is, in the beginning of 21st century, how it got there irrespective of the crippling paraphernalia attached to its polity, economy and society and what should be the path to be followed in future if the country doesn’t want to be out of the reckoning in the coming decades. Except for his thinly vailed irritation to Hindu nationalist parties, the presentation is balanced and proportionate to the gravity of issues. What is remarkable is the astounding ease with which the discussion transits between one complex issue like religious harmony in the villages to another equally vexing concern on India’s foreign policy which is increasingly pegged to the nuclear arsenal. An insightful comparison to China is made with special emphasis on the inherent advantages of India, though he has restrained himself from predicting an overtaking of the northern neighbour. Even after filtering out exaggerated portions altogether which is naturally expected from a work by a foreigner unaccustomed to the country, it still presents valuable comments and suggestions for the way forward that should be realized and implemented by the citizens of this country.
Luce has presented a surgically precise assessment of India’s industrial sector and the role of the cities in supporting rural masses. India excels in service sector and its manufacturing base is still not competitive enough with other developing countries. The transformation that pulled India out of the bottom half of developing countries was the liberalization measures started in 1991. The author finds the fallacy in politicians and some of the socially upward people’s attitude of praising the role villages play in Indian society. Gandhian it is, but its utility had exhausted after the end of freedom struggle, even for which it was nothing more than a rallying cry. All kinds of superstitions and caste oppression happen in villages which can’t even provide jobs for its people. Productivity of land which lie fractured across generations is very low and unsustainable. Most of the villagers survive on the remittances made by a few of its members working in cities. Even though Luce doesn’t say it in so many words, the villages don’t deserve the pride of place accorded to it in the national psyche. Villagers are exploited by the bureaucracy because even with relaxations instituted after 1991, there are still many laws which are in force and which are to be flouted by paying bribes. It is amusing to observe that those same villagers who are oppressed by government servants want their children’s career to be in government service. With very few exceptions, the author alleges that corruption has entered every avenue of administration and even judiciary.
The author’s appraisal of India’s political system through an examination of the major political parties, the Congress and the BJP can’t be termed impartial. While he gets himself carried away by imagined fascist connections of the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organization that controls BJP, he turns a kind and sympathetic face towards Sonia Gandhi and presents Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi as the person who transformed the national capital as the most desired city in India. To a neutral observer, Narendra Modi of Gujarat may seem to be a more fit choice for representing India’s changing priorities in ushering in economic well being to a provincial state. Dixit, definitely far more efficient than most politicians, inevitably gets assistance from both national and international organisations in getting the funds she wants to bring about infrastructural programs like the Delhi Metro. The ideological basis of BJP is naturally unappealing to most foreigners and Luce is no exception. He envisages a nexus, though in theory alone, to the autocratic regimes which thrived in Germany and Italy in the years leading to World War II. This goes to laughable heights when he claims that the date on which the carnage in Godhra, Gujarat took place (Feb 27, 2002), which sparked widespread communal riots, was coincident in date with the burning of German reichstag by the Nazis in 1933. But here too, he conveniently forgets to mention that the carnage was orchestrated not by the organizations which were blamed for the conflagration that raged as a retort to the incident.
India’s increasing role in South Asia and the rest of the world is presented in an unprejudiced way which emphasizes the part played by Indian Muslims in redefining the country’s seesaw relations with Pakistan. Though under immense stress from hardliners within and without, the loyalties of India’s most numerous minority was never in doubt. This confuses and irritates Pakistan, whose raison d’etre was its claim of representing Muslims as a whole. The troubled state of Kashmir over which Pakistan claims rights is also rapidly changing. Exposed to violence for so long, ordinary people in the valley are showing signs of reaching a compromise with India, especially after the increasingly progressive indicators were seen on the economic front. Even China, which traditionally supported Pakistan as a counterweight to dampen India’s aspirations, is viewing India as a partner in its miraculous economic growth. The nature of specialization of both countries’ economic progress pit them as complementing each other’s strengths. The scramble for energy security by both nations is sure to evoke international realignment in the decades to come. Luce identifies four critical problems the country need to face in the coming years. These are, the challenge of lifting 300 million people out of poverty, overcoming the dangers of rapid environmental degradation, removing the spectre of an HIV – Aids epidemic and strengthening its system of liberal democracy (p.342).
Luce does not subscribe to spiritual calls as is the wont of many foreigners who visit India. He says that India had laboured too long under the burden of spiritual greatness that westerners have for centuries thrust upon it and which Indians had themselves got into the habit of picking up and sending back. The greatest charm of the book is that the author was not dazzled by India’s metaphysical civilization which was only a riposte to the condescending mindset of its colonial masters. Dwarfed and overtaken in every physical or material arena, the people fell back on a spiritual aura which could be sold back to the west. It was westerners who proposed the idea, which was taken up by eager native proponents and used to lure more people from abroad to immerse in the realm of the spirit.
His wit is very amusing and gentle. Reminiscing about his visit to guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, he likens him to Jesus Christ shooting for a shampoo advertisement. Also, being inside the exquisitely designed ashram with white marble and floral motifs reminded him of a wedding cake (p.178).
The book mentions V J Kurian, the IAS officer who has proved that professional management and efficiency are not the monopoly of private sector. His singlehanded contribution to the development of a greenfield airport in Kochi with public-private partnership provided a model for the whole of India. Kurian is identified by Luce as one of the few officials who are simply a cog in the wheel, but forces it in the right direction against heavy odds. Such appreciation is sure to uplift the morale of such officials who are in a very small minority.
The author claims that India’s affirmative action program for the downtrodden lower castes is the most elaborate in the world, with half of the jobs in government reserved for them, but goes on to say, “Few are allocated by competitive examination. In practice, many of the jobs are dispensed by the relevant caste leaders and their networks of hangers-on, or they are put up for sale to the highest bidders” (p.127). This irresponsible and incorrect statement flies in the face of good judgment exhibited by the author elsewhere. Corruption there is, in government appointments, but that is not restricted to lower caste jobs alone. To presume that jobs are divided among themselves by caste leaders is ridiculous and reveals the superfluity of the argument.
The book is highly recommended.
Rating: 3 Star
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Author: Iradj Amini
Publisher: Roli Books, 1994 (First)
Diamonds are notorious for the lust and cruelty which they evoke in men and the rivers of blood that had flowed to satisfy their craving for this hardened piece of carbon. No jewel is more famous than the Koh-i-Noor which has coloured the imaginations of many, due to its mysterious past and the vagaries of fate that befell on its possessors. It is also a bone of contention, though a light one, between India and Britain as the former claims the jewel to be its own which was usurped out of India by the colonial masters. Though there is as yet no indication of Britain agreeing to part with the diamond, one thing is certain. Wherever be the final resting place of Koh-i-Noor, it is sure to land up where it retains an irresistible fascination for the public. This book is an attempt to trace it to its historical origins and the circuitous route it took to end up where it is now. The author, Iradj Amini is an Iranian who was educated in America and Britain. He was the Shah of Persia’s last ambassador to Tunisia and has authored a book on Napoleon and Persia. He lives in exile in Paris and overcomes his nostalgia for Iran by visiting India frequently and by writing on Indian history. His style and attitude is so Indian that never for an instant would you suspect that it was written by a foreigner.
Though the author makes some allusions to the provenance of the gem to references in the Mahabharata to Syamantak Mani, we may dismiss it as more of a conjecture than any historical fact. The diamond enters recorded history after the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 when Babur established Mughal dynasty in India. The jewel was handed over to his son and successor, Humayun, as a tribute from the conquered raja of Gwalior. Humayun’s hold on power did not last long. After Babur’s death, the empire began to disintegrate and Afghan nobles in Bihar under Sher Shah united and defeated Humayun who went in exile to Persia. Shah Tahmasp, who was the emperor of Persia welcomed him on the condition that he accept Shiism, the official religion of Persia. Humayun reluctantly embraced the faith considered heresy by Sunnis, the other branch of Islam. We note in passing that Humayun’s father, Babur had also accepted the Shiite faith as a condition for the Shah’s support to him in conquering Samarkand, which was Babur’s dream. But the strictly religious subjects of Samarkand couldn’t silently acquiesce in to an apostate ruling over them and consequently drove him out. Humayun gifted the diamond which called Babur’s Diamond at that time to Shah Tahmasp in 1544 as a token of gratitude. However, just three years later, the Shah again gifted it to Burhan Nizam Shah, the sultan of Ahmednagar kingdom in Deccan as a goodwill gesture on his conversion to Shiism and making it the state religion. All references to the gem goes out of history for a century thereafter.
We again find the diamond in the custody of Mohammed Said, son of an oil merchant in Persia, who rose to the position of Mir Jumla (Amir Jumla, the finance minister) of the sultan of Golconda, by sheer intelligence and unscrupulous methods. Golconda was famous for its diamond mines, but history is silent on how it came in his possession. Deccan, of which Golconda was a part of, was not a peaceful place in the middle of the 17th century. Shah Jehan and his son and viceroy, Aurangzeb was eyeing the riches of the province. Mir Jumla’s sympathies lay with Aurangzeb against his own master, which resulted in his family being detained at Golconda. Aurangzeb intervened militarily on his behalf and asked the sultan to release the prisoners and to send Mir Jumla to Agra to serve the emperor. A grateful Mir Jumla presented Koh-i-Noor to Shah Jehan in 1656 as an indicator of his continued fealty.
After Aurangzeb’s death, Mughal dynasty began its gradual descent to obscurity. Mohammed Shah ‘Rangila’, the debauched and incompetent monarch was no match to the vigorous Nadir Shah Afshar of Persia, the son of a shepherd who usurped the Safavid throne. Mughal army was decimated in the war in 1739 and the Shah raped and pillaged Delhi. A huge war indemnity was collected from the Mughal, which included Babur’s Diamond. The story goes that when Nadir Shah saw it for the first time, he was so astonished by its size, beauty and splendour that he cried koh-i-noor which meant ‘mountain of light’ in Persian. The diamond thus had a name. Nadir Shah was assassinated by his own guards who grew tired of his wanton cruelty which didn’t even spare his own son, the crown prince. The diamond, however, was stolen by Ahmed Khan Abdali, the future king of Afghanistan and a trusted courtier of the Shah. Ahmed Shah Durrani, as he was later known, couldn’t consolidate his kingdom for a long time. Internecine warfare and succession struggles made his descendant Shah Shuja to seek asylum with Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab who extorted the jewel out of him as a kind of ransom. Koh-i-Noor was back in India for the last time.
The Sikh kingdom flourished as long as its colourful monarch, Ranjit Singh was in the throne. He combined diplomacy with deft military moves and was in the good books of the British. His death in 1839 led to succession struggles and indiscipline in the army, which rose in revolt against the British many times. Dalip Singh, the 12-year old prince who ascended to kingship was unable to stem the tide. After two Anglo-Sikh wars, Punjab was permanently annexed to the colonial empire. An article in the treaty of surrender specified handing over of Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria. It was presented to her in 1850 and was put on display in the International Trade Exhibition at London in 1851. The spectators were however disappointed at the lack of brilliance of the gem. Microscopic flaws inside and errors in polishing the facets was resulting in the diamond not reflecting light to justify its name. It was re-cut in 1852, with Duke of Wellington, the man who defeated Napoleon was the first to cut it ceremonially. The original, which was 186 carats, was reduced to 109 carats after cutting. It is affixed to the crown and a replica is still in display at British Museum.
Immensely enjoyable, the text contains a concise but very informative and passionate account of the history of the Mughals in India. The destiny of Koh-i-Noor is inextricably linked with that of the Timurid dynasty and it is only natural that any attempt to trace the story of the jewel should include that of the dynasty too which owned it during the period under consideration. Also, the history of Mughals is so colourful and rich in sensational anecdotes and bloodied with fratricidal warfare that it rivets the readers’ attention, whatever be the context. The book also provides insight into the mind of the most bigoted of the Mughals – Aurangzeb. He was a unique character in the annals of Mughal history, vilified by Indian historians and eulogized by Muslim scholars. Amini provides an impartial evaluation of this last Great Mughal’s character. He was conceited, cruel, unprincipled in his methods and a fundamentalist. He reinstated Jizya (a poll tax on Hindus), destroyed temples, abolished the custom duties for Muslim traders while doubling it for Hindus, banned Hindus except Rajputs from carrying arms and mounting elephants and dismissed Hindu employees from the state’s payroll. Naturally, this alienated the lion’s share of the population and seeded the downfall of the empire. This book is a confirmation of the emperor’s personality, coming from a neutral source. Regarding Aurangzeb’s death, Amini says, “In this manner died the prince who was completely devoid of scruples; who had killed three brothers before usurping the Peacock Throne from his father, the absolute monarch whose audacity and tenacity stretched the frontiers of his empire to unheard of limits; the religious fanatic whose bigotry has escalated the conflict that persists to this day between Hindus and Muslims” (p.137).
The book could have contained a few colour plates of the diamond and other historic places mentioned in the text. It would have added great charm to the work. Also, the reader dearly misses a glossary. The author has used several words of Persian and Arabic origins and the reader is kept guessing what it would mean. As an instance, we read that Shah Tahmasp presented a taj to Humayun, and what is meant by taj can only be presumed from the context (p. 48). The book’s strong point is also its weak one. It gives a good depiction of Mughal history, with quick glances at Persian history of 18th century. The story of the diamond hangs only in the coat tails of mainline history. Though centred on India, the author is not particularly sympathetic to her and one would hope that an Indophile author like William Dalrymple has written this book.
The book is highly recommended.