For a lot of us who grew up in the 90s, religion was a big part of our lives. This was the time of Amar Chitra Katha’s graphic novels, and televised versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Over the years however, I’ve stayed away from writing about religion, and the quagmire of politics that goes with it, for obvious reasons. But William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives is a case study on how to write without the fear of criticism and controversy. Continue reading
I’ve used reading as an escape from the realities of the world over the last 18 months. And in the process, I’ve managed to rediscover a kinship with books that almost borders on the edge of an obsession now. Some semblance of this obsession always existed since the day I picked up, as a 9-year-old, Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island. I’ve come a long way since then, but those memories remain some of my happiest: lazy afternoons at Nana’s place with The Five Find-Outers, the additional pages that my school librarian had to attach to my handbook just to make entries of The Hardy Boys I’d checked out, the late fees that mum had to pay at Abbas – a very popular circulating library, the pirated books and magazines that I bought from the vendors at King’s Circle.
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
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 🙂