Empire of Pain: A Short Book Review

With a rating of 4.6 on goodreads, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain is the best and highest-rated book I have read this year! Written in language that makes it extremely accessible, the book chronicles the story of the family behind OxyContin and the opioid crisis in America. Keefe covers four generations of the Sacklers and documents the greed and denial they embody, keeping their company and the drug at the center of the story – a no small feat by any measure. The author punches above his weight and manages to shatter a name that adorns some of the biggest museums and schools in the world. Keefe is meticulous in his research, and the book itself is well-paced, effortlessly moving through a period of about 107 years. Continue reading

The Adivasi Will Not Dance: A Short Book Review

India’s coal belt cuts across the eastern states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, home to the Santhals among other tribal communities. As it did for much of the world since the industrial revolution, coal has played an important role in India’s march towards capitalism, and in the process, tied itself inextricably to the fates of such communities. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a collection of short, provocative and mostly apolitical stories that operate in the backdrop of a transformation that took place within such tribal populations, impacting their lands and their professions. Themes of destitution, prostitution and exploitation run through each story and detail the march of progress over a people’s plight.

The coup de grace is the book’s final story of an Adivasi who refuses to dance – hence the name – in front of a “Bengali President” at a function in the village of Godda to lay the foundation stone for an Indian billionaire’s thermal power plant. While the author avoids naming anyone, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the President in question is Pranab Mukherjee and the Indian billionaire MP is Naveen Jindal, and the story itself is based on an actual incident that took place in 2013.

We heard he was a very rich and shrewd man. He was also an MP. We also heard he likes polo – some game played with horses – and that his horses were far better off than all the Santhals of the whole of the Santhal Pargana.

I am far removed from the realities of the heartland, and in all honesty, some of the stories feel unremarkable to a mind incapable of grasping the enormity of state-sponsored marginalization and subjugation. I am also ashamed to admit that I know more about the history of racism and African Americans than I do about casteism in India. I’m reasonably certain that our progress, built on their plight as it is, is littered with countless events that could have been our moment of reckoning, not unlike George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in the West.

Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier?  

Perhaps an accurate reflection of my ignorance and insularity is that famous quote from The Game of Thrones, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The book is an easy read, has a rating of 4.13 on goodreads, and was banned by the state government of Jharkhand in 2017 – which is another big reason to read it 🙂

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Short Book Review

I wonder what masochistic sorcery drives me to pick up books on topics that clearly leave me exhausted and drained. Especially books that start with these words, “It is worse. Much worse than you think.” To say that David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth is an essay – which is what it was in its original form – that explores a world worsened by climate change is an understatement. Using language that conveys earnestness, alarmism and cynicism – for this, he believes, is the only way to wake up the human race from its slumber of denial and ignorance – he paints a grim picture 80 years into the future at different stages of warming.

Imagine an interactive dashboard where you could slide a flag on a scale, starting from 2°C (the line in the ground that was drawn in 2016 at the Paris agreement), crossing thresholds such as 3.2°C (if the world were to immediately ratify the emissions targets of the Paris agreement) and 4.5°C (if we continue on our current emissions path) and on to outlier but probable scenarios of 6°C and beyond. For each threshold, imagine if you could see the devastation that occurs, not just across a map of the world at the bottom of this dashboard, but also to the city and the town where you currently reside, covering – to borrow a term – elements of chaos such as: heat, hunger, rising sea levels, wildfires, natural disasters, dying oceans, air pollution, diseases, economic collapse and war. That is this book. Continue reading

Love in the time of Corona!

Trying to stay optimistic and positive over the last year was easier said than done, more so for people like me. Early in the pandemic, I realized that I’d have to be more cautious and careful than most people, to protect not just my physical health but also my mental health. To that end, I decided to focus on the things that I liked. I stopped consuming the news and began channeling my energy into reading more books, especially in areas that I was interested in… I was always a reader but I found a new vigor and joy in what I was trying to do.

The reviews I post online are supposed to be a small attempt to distract from the armchair activism of social media. An effort to talk about something else other than death, disease, politics. By not participating in such conversations, I’m choosing to protect myself by doing the one thing I know I’m good at… Read and write. And on this journey, I’ve found love and support from some really amazing and talented people (you know who you are). There are times when I feel stuck and overwhelmed with every aspect of life, and I go back to my conversations with these people and it helps. Thank you!

I hope those who’ve picked up the books that I’ve recommended (which were recommendations from someone to begin with) have benefitted in some small way. I also hope that my writing moves away from the derivative nature of what I’m doing right now – reviews of books written by people who know a lot more about the world than I do – to something more original.