Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Idol Thief, by S Vijay Kumar

The Idol Thief: The True Story of the Looting of India's Temples, by S. Vijay Kumar


W

oven around the dramatic chase across the world to bring down the most prolific and high-profile trafficker of temple idols is a tale of avaricious museums, apathetic governments, honest policemen, and avid bloggers.

This book, based on the author’s painstaking research into the events and characters as well as his own efforts at tracking down stolen idols and collaborating with authorities across the world, reads like a Dan Brown thriller. That is a strong testament to Vijay Kumar’s skills in the way he is able to marshal an astonishing array of faces and facts and locations into a gripping, coherent narrative.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Navigating Brahma's Paradox - Tales From the Ramayana

W
hat is a paradox? According to Wikipedia, a paradox is "is a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to an apparently-self-contradictory or logically unacceptable conclusion."

Navigating Brahma's Paradox


As an example, consider the Liar paradox where a liar makes a statement, "This statement is false." If the liar is lying, as is his nature, then the statement is true, in which case the liar is lying, and the statement is true, which it is not, and so on… Or take its related version - "You must reject this statement I am now making to you, because all the statements I make are incorrect. It's a favourite of mine (it appeared in a short story, "The Monkey Wrench", by Gordon R Dickson, in the August 1951 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction'). What is the consequence of a paradox? In the case of the "Monkey Wrench", not very good, at all.

The Ramayana contains at least one instance where we witness a paradox in the making. An impossible situation arises that is averted, and which leaves one wondering, "what if".

The story is described in Sarga 20-22 of Uttara Kanda, the last kanda in the Ramayana. Interspersed in this story are several other fascinating nuggets that are worth sharing.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sardar Patel - The Man Who Saved India, by Hindol Sengupta

The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and His Idea of India, by Hindol Sengupta

I
f you want to understand the insidiousness of narratives, pay close attention not only to those who are written about. Pay more attention to that which is left unsaid, and at those who legacy and history are ignored, those political leaders who are rarely written about. In the narrative that was planted in India in the decades following Independence, Sardar Patel's name was conspicuous by its absence. Growing up in socialist India in the 1970s and 1980s, I recall Sardar Patel's name as taken only in the safety and privacy of homes, behind closed curtains, where the elders would cautiously whisper about the man who united India and who should have been prime minister instead of Nehru. We, the children, would wonder who this man was. Who was Sardar Patel, about whom not even a line could be found in our government-sanctioned history textbooks, and about whom one rarely heard a word on the government-run AIR and Doordarshan?

But the legend of Sardar Patel sustained, nurtured by those who had lived through Partition to see one man unite India in the years following Independence and by those who saw a dizzying array of blunders by its first prime minister sink India deeper and deeper into a morass of corruption, socialism, and poverty.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Mother Teresa and her Baby Bazaar

T
here was a fair amount of shock and disbelief in many circles when news, on the 7th of July 2018, broke that a nun at Nirmal Hriday (a hospice established by Mother Teresa) in the town of Ranchi had been arrested and remanded to judicial custody by a court for allegedly selling a baby at the Nirmal Hriday home. According to another story, "Arti Kujar, head of the Jharkhand State Child Protection Society, told Reuters that they suspect the home was charging upwards of $600 for each baby, depending on what the prospective parents could afford to pay."

Soon enough came the suitably shocked protestations from the Mother Teresa founded Missionaries of Charity, along with the expected dislaimer - “We are shocked to know what has happened in our home… it is completely against our moral conviction,” Sunita Kumar, spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity, stated. “We are carefully looking into this matter. We will take all necessary precautions that it never happens again, if it has happened.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

Krishna Gopeshvara, by Sanjay Dixit - Review

Krishna Gopeshvara: The Truth of Vrishnis (Book 1 of the Lord Krishna Trilogy), by Sanjay Dixit

K
rishna Gopeshvara is a book that takes you back in time and also makes you think about its parallels with medieval and modern history, about divinity and humanity, and individuals versus ideologies. Are there lessons to be learnt?

As evil scales new heights of destruction upon putting on the cloak of ideology, it acquires a degree of pervasiveness and permanence when it adopts the patina of unquestionable dogma. Marxism was an inchoate idea in one man's head. When it became an ideology, it became a Red Holocaust, killing over one hundred million across the world in the twentieth century. When ideology and fanaticism infected religion, they gave birth to absolutism and monotheism, accompanied by violent expansionism across the world. Such is the subterranean message that runs through this book. The evil in one man, if nurtured by the pervert philosophy of the mad genius, can wreak havoc on society.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Urban Naxals - The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam - Review

"Because there is no space for alternative narrative"

Urban Naxals - The Making of Buddha In A Traffic Jam, by Vivek Agnohotri

S
ince the beginning of civilization, the favoured method of barbarians out to destroy great civilizations was to destroy their places of learning. Most Mayan writings of the Aztecs were destroyed by Bishop Landa of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, while other Catholic priests burned the great Aztec library of Netza Hualcoyotl in Mexico City in the sixteenth century. Pope Gregory the Great ordered the library of Palatine Apollo burned in the late sixth century. The great library of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest library in the western world, was burned at the urging of Christian Bishop Theophilos. The largest library in the world at the time, at Nalanda, which contained an estimated hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji's hordes in 1193 CE. During the twentieth century, thousands of books were burned by the German Student Union in Nazi Germany in 1933.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Fourteen Faults of a Leader

The 14 Faults of a Leader - Do They Still Hold in the 21st Century?

I
 will confess straight off the bat - this post is from the Ramayana, but its learnings apply uncannily enough to modern day leadership too.

With that minor matter of a confession out, let's get started. While one may not associate the Ramayana with expositions on statecraft, the fact is that the Ayodhya kanda itself has one such example. In sarga 94 (of the Critical Edition, sarga 100 in other versions) of the Ayodhya Kanda, when Bharata comes to meet Rama and to persuade him to return to Ayodhya as the rightful king, Rama, of course, refuses, but first asks Bharata about the state of the kingdom and whether Bharata, as the presumed king of Ayodhya, is following the duties of a king. This is one of the longest sargas in Ayodhya kanda, and is worth reading repeatedly. More pertinently, Rama exhorts Bharata to abandon the sins associated with kings. How many? Fourteen. Let's look at them all:

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Valmiki Ramayana - 1, translated by Bibek Debroy

The Valmiki Ramayana, Vol. 1, translated by Bibek Debroy


H
aving gone through the marathon of translating the unabridged Mahabharata, the Ramayana would have seemed like a sprint to Bibek Debroy. In any case, this is another stellar effort that succeeds in bringing out the beauty and emotions of the epic, as much as the limitations of a faithful translation permit.

Unlike the Mahabharata translation, that spanned five years, and with one volume coming out every six months or so, the Ramayana translation was released as a single three-volume set in 2017. The first volume covers the first two kandas - Baal and Ayodhya, and ends with Sita accepting the gift of ornaments from Anasuya and the three - Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana entering Dandakaranya.

I doubt much value would be added were I to attempt a summarization of the Ramayana itself, so I will use this review to point out some interesting things about the translation itself.

First, the style of the translation is very similar to the one followed in the Mahabharata. There is a sense of familiarity in that sense. The copious footnotes follow you throughout, like a faithful companion. More on that later.