Friday, December 5, 2014

NH3 Before Igatpuri

This is a fairly recognizable section of the National Highway 3, as it makes its way towards the picturesque town of Igatpuri, and beyond that to Nashik. It is at this point that the highway bifurcates, and the eastward highway snakes to the left while the westward highway is what you can see in the photo below.,73.5209861,13z

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Shani Shingnapur, Maharashtra

Truth be told, I do not have many photographs of the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Maharashtra. This is because they do not allow photographs inside the temple, and I was too enthralled by the entire experience to remember to take my camera out. The temple town is about 35kms from Ahmednagar - so it can be done as a quick detour if you're on your way to Aurangabad - and about 70kms from Shirdi. Shirdi is, of course, famous for Sai Baba, and going to Shingnapur and back from Shirdi can be done in about four hours. The road is OK for the most part, except for about a 15 km stretch that is not so OK.

However, this was a somewhat striking moment outside the temple, in the parking lot. Apart from the shops that hawk every knick-knack you could want for instant moksha and to protect you from the evil eye of anyone envious of your prosperity - which could be almost everyone and anyone - there was this loads of color (gulal, kumkum, call it what you will) on a cart that was being tended to by this elderly gentleman. Nothing out of the ordinary till you realize the gentleman is a Muslim. While trite and overused to death cliches do come to mind, it is a measure of India's enduring spirit of inclusiveness that binds people together. Commerce of course is a highly underestimated glue.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Oracle Restaurant and Bar

Either Oracle, the enterprise software and hardware company, is getting into the consumer space in an example of brand expansion gone horribly wrong, or someone's been getting a bit creative with trademarks and all. In any case, you can't fault the person from sticking with the Oracle "red" color theme. The cuisine also promises to be international - Punjabi, Maharashtrian (OK so far it's all Indian), Chinese (yes, venturing out), Indian (back to the homeland), and seafood (ok, so not that international after all).

Shot somewhere on NH10, between Shirdi and Rahuri in Maharashtra.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tales from the Mahabharata - 2 When Arjuna Wanted to Behead Yudhishthira

The second installment of my series, "Tales from the Mahabharata", appeared in the Swarajya magazine, on October 7 2014.

The article as it appeared:
When Arjuna Wanted to Kill Yudhishthira
A little-known episode of the Mahabharata illustrates a new idea in the field of social psychology: Ego Depletion.

It was the seventeenth day of battle on the field of Kurukshetra. A most bloody war that had taken a huge toll of human lives and emotions. Even though most maharathis of the Kaurava army had fallen—including Bhishma on the tenth day and Drona on the fifteenth, Karna still remained.

He was now the commander of the Kaurava army, and had been unstoppable, scattering the “Pandu soldiers, like a mass of cotton by the speed of a mighty wind.” So much so that a harried Yudhishthira had withdrawn from the battlefield, unable to withstand the force of Karna’s assault, retiring to his camp where he awaited news of Karna’s death. That piece of news, he was confident, would come from Arjuna himself. After all, hadn’t Arjuna vowed to kill Karna. With Krishna as his charioteer, how could he but not succeed?

So when Yudhishthira saw both Krishna and Arjuna enter his tent, he thought that “Adhiratha’s son had been killed in the battle,” and exclaimed, “By killing Karna in the battle, you have brought an end to my enemies.” The humiliations suffered at the game of dice at the hands of Karna when he had called the Pandavas “sterile seeds of sesamum”, the anger at knowing that it was Karna’s protection and friendship that fueled Suyodhana’s enmity towards the Pandavas—all had been avenged. In this moment of triumph, Yudhishthira revealed the inner torment that had been gnawing away at him all these years. “I have been frightened about him for thirteen years. I was not able to sleep at night. Nor could I be happy during the day. … Whether I was awake of sleeping, Karna was always in front of me.” More than Bhishma or Drona, it had been Karna who had been the biggest thorn in the Pandava’s side. Yudhishthira now wanted to know the details of Arjuna’s battle with Karna.

Arjuna, on the other hand, had grown increasingly anxious over the absence of his elder brother from the battlefield. Not seeing Yudhishthira filled Arjuna with worry. He had asked Bhima on Yudhishthira’s whereabouts, and then proceeded to the eldest Pandava’s camp. When congratulated and questioned by Yudhishthira, Arjuna responded that he had come to invite Yudhishthira to witness Karna’s death at Arjuna’s hands: “If you wish to see it, there will be a fierce battle today between me and the son of a suta.” In short, Arjuna had just poured a bucket of cold water over Yudhishthira’s premature joy.

Yudhishithira’s disappointment was crushing. His anger and frustration boiled over, and he railed against Arjuna, calling him “worthless”, accusing him of being “affectionate towards Suyodhana”, of being fearful of Karna, and ending with what today reads like a quintessential dialogue from a Hindi movie: “It would have been better if you had not been born in Pritha’s womb.”

No true warrior would stand for this barrage of insults. Certainly not Arjuna. He “angrily grasped his sword”, ready to kill Yudhishthira.

Let us pause and ponder. Why would Arjuna, the ideal Pandava in so many respects, who had a little over two weeks ago received the timeless wisdom of the Gita from Krishna, lose control so much? How did matters escalate to the point that these two brothers, the epitome of filial love, would hurl abuses at each other?

To answer this question, ask this: Aren’t we more likely to lose our temper when tired and exhausted, say after a long week and day at work, at the slightest of provocations? Think about it; you are more likely to let out an obscenity at an errant driver when you’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour on a Friday evening than when out on a leisurely weekend drive to, say, the river-side resort at Kabini. Why is that?

The answer may lie in something called “ego depletion”. It is a relatively new idea in the field of social psychology, less than twenty years old (in case you are inclined to snigger, do remember that even the term “big data”, as applied in a software context, has been around for almost fifteen years—science moves slowly), but has been used to explain various seemingly odd phenomena—why we are more likely to gorge on pizza and beer on a Friday evening after a long week of stress rather than on a Sunday evening after a restful weekend.

Self-control, or willpower, can be compared with a muscle—every decision we take that requires us to make a conscious choice tires that muscle. Unlike normal physical muscles however, more use does not seem to make the muscle of willpower stronger. Therein lies the rub. The daily stress of more than two weeks on the battlefield of Kurukshetra took a toll on the warriors. The anger and frustration that would have been kept under control on day one was no longer under check by day seventeen. The slightest provocation would have sufficed. Ego depletion had set in. Even though Dharmaraj knew better than to snap at his brother Arjuna, and so virulently, the psychological toll of war had withered away self-control.

Even as this saga was unfolding, a somewhat bemused Krishna had been a silent observer. Now that Arjuna had grasped his sword, it was time for Keshava to step in. Did Arjuna behead Yudhishthira? Obviously, we know the answer is “no”, but how did the situation get defused? That is a topic for the future. Till then, keep that ego muscle well rested, lest it deplete.

Note: The events of the Mahabharata described here take place in the Karna-Vadha Parva, which is only parva in the Karna Parva. In the major parvas, Karna Parva is the eighth parva, while in the minor parvas, Karna-Vadha Parva is the seventy-third parva. The source and excerpts are from Dr. Bibek Debroy's "Mahabharata", Vol. 7, an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, and published by Penguin India in 2013.

You can read my reviews of all the volumes of the unabridged Mahabharata published here.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Tales from the Mahabharata - 1 Unintended Consequences

The first installment of my series, "Tales from the Mahabharata", appeared in the Swarajya magazine, on September 30, 2014.

The article as it appeared:
Unintended consequences – tales from the Mahabharata
While everyone has their favorite story or episode from the Mahabharata, and most have more than one, I have found the theme of unintended consequences to be the most fascinating one. Actions taken not only have reactions, but unlike the Third Law of Motion, actions also have quite unexpected results at times.

The story of Abhimanyu and how Jayadratha became the stumbling block in the efforts of the four Pandava brothers to rescue him from within the fearsome chakra vyuha is well known. If not, then that is a topic for a future article! Here I will talk about a little known but equally potent illustration of unintended consequences from the Mahabharata.

That Indra was an insecure god is well known. That he also needed to be taught lessons in humility is also well known. Prajapati Kashyapa was conducting a yagna to obtain a son. At this sacrifice, Indra, among others, was given the task of fetching firewood for the sacrifice. On his way back with “firewood that was as large as a mountain”, Indra spotted the tiny as a thumb valakhilya rishis struggling to carry a single leaf of a palasha tree. The vain Shakra (Indra) “contemptuously” laughed at them, “stepping over their heads”.

Now, if you don’t do one thing it is make fun of the learned – “their words are like poison, their anger is fearsome”. Indra should have known. But didn’t.

The angered valalkhilya sages decided to teach Indra a lesson. They initiated a sacrifice of their own, one that would create another Indra and who would “bring great fear to the present king of the gods.” An understandably alarmed Indra approached Kashyapa, requesting his intercession.

Sage Kashyapa agreed, and intervened on behalf of Indra, requested the valakhilyas to not create another Indra, as it would disturb the order that Brahma had created by appointing the current Indra as “the lord of the three worlds.”

The valakhilyas agreed. But like an arrow that had been fired, a sacrifice could not go in vain. An Indra had to be born. Knowing this, Kashyapa suggested that the valakhilyas instead create an Indra for the “winged beings.” The valakhilyas agreed to this too. Thus Garuda was born as the king of the birds and skies, and Indra’s throne stayed secure.

But where is the twist?

You may have guessed; Garuda was born to Dakhsyani Vinata, Sage Kashyapa’s wife!

The valakhilyas told Kashyapa as much – that their act of creating an Indra was also something that the sage himself wished for, since he had also been conducting the sacrifice to obtain a son – remember the sacrifice where this whole fracas began?

Both Indra and the valakhilya sages served at Prajapati Kashyapa’s sacrifice. The sacrifice was to beget a son for Kashyapa. Indra’s folly led to the valakhilyas conducting their own sacrifice to create another Indra, as Kashyapa’s son. Kashyapa’s intervention resulted in a diminished Indra (in some ways at least), Garuda, being born.

Had sage Kashyapa known in advance what his intercession would lead to, would he still have done what he did? Why would, you may wonder, he knowingly act in a manner to harm himself? Would Garuda not have been born then?

Or is history really immutable, and finds and has its way, despite the knowing and unknowing intentions of the best and the wisest? Does the below immortal shloka of the Gita, itself a part of the Mahabharata – play itself out over and over again in the epic that is the Mahabharata?

“कर्मणयेवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि।” –

And that, may well be the most profound lesson of the epic with a lakh shlokas.

Note: I have used Dr. Bibek Debroy’s “Mahabharata”, Vol. 1, an unabridged English translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India in 2010, for reference. The story here is described in the Adi Parva. Specifically, Chapter 27 of the Adi Parva, and the Astika Upa Parva.

You can read my reviews of all the volumes of the unabridged Mahabharata published here.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Spines of the Mahabharata - 2

When I wrote "The Spines of the Mahabharata Books" in Feb 2013, only the first six volumes of Dr. Bibek Debroy's unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata had been published. The seventh volume (my review) was published in June 2013, while the eighth (my review) was published in late November 2013 - this one was somewhat delayed because of issues with getting the binding right I believe. So I thought it was time to update my post, actually write a new one, covering the spines of these two volumes. The ninth and tenth are going to be published in November 2014, so there is some time to go before that event.
As I had written, each volume of the series contains a motif that is associated with the content in the volume. You can read my earlier post, "The Spines of the Mahabharata Books", for a description of the spines of the first six volumes. As you may recall, especially if you read my reviews, the seventh volume marked the end of the Mahabharata war, with Karna killed on the seventeenth day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, beheaded by an arrow shot by Arjuna at an unarmed Karna who had got down from his chariot to extricate its wheel that had been mired in mud. Hence the spine of the seventh volume has an illustration of a wheel partially submerged in mud. Given the inclination to avoid persons on the spines, the fifth volume was the sole exception, Duryodhana's battle with Bhima was therefore not a candidate.

What about the eighth volume?
My personal inclination would have been to see a tree with an owl and crows. Why? As a dejected yet seething with rage Ashwatthama spent the night in the forest, thinking of how to avenge the death of his friend Duryodhana, he saw a lone owl descend on a tree full of sleeping crows, and massacre them without remorse. This seeded the thought in his mind that led to the midnight raid on the Pandava camp by him, Kritavarma, and Kripa. But a substantial part of the eighth volume is also Bhishma's deathbed advice to Yudhishthira, lying on a bed of arrows. Hence the eighth volume has an illustration of arrows on its spine. Dr. Debroy was also of the opinion that not many people would know of the story of the owl and crows.

Which leaves the ninth and tenth volumes to speculate about. The tenth is an easy one, I hope. It has to be imagery from the Mausala Parva (मौसल पर्व) - perhaps the fateful club that was to be the undoing of the entire Yadava race, the instrument through which Gandhari's curse would be effected. Or, then again, it could contain an image of a dog - Sarama - which accompanied the Pandavas on their journey to heaven.

And what about the ninth volume? The ninth volume will complete the Shanti Parva, and be somewhere in the Anushasana Parva, so some imagery from either of these two Parvas will be needed. I wait.

My reviews of: Vol 1Vol 2Vol 3Vol 4Vol 5 (and also this), Vol 6 (and this and this too), Vol 7, Vol 8

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India

Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India, by Pinki Virani

5 stars

My review of this book appeared in DNA on the 29th of July 2014 here: 
Book Review - Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India

Below is the entire text of the review:

Each passing day brings into the headlines another sordid story of a child being abused somewhere in the country. After the initial scandal and outrage, the media scatters to find its next new titillating tale to expose, the public finds distraction in the latest sporting tamasha – consoling itself that such things could not possibly happen to people like them, self-proclaimed experts crawl out of their holes to appear on television debates and blame everything on the wanton promiscuity of the west or the patriarchal oppressiveness of the Hindu society – depending on which deep end of the ideological spectrum they have gone over, while the family of the victim is left to pick up the scraps of normalcy in their lives even as they deal with the subsequent abuse of their humanity at the hands of the police and judiciary.

It is in this context that I was reminded of Bitter Chocolate by Pinki Virani, a short primer on child sex abuse (CSA) in India. Even though the book was written more than a decade ago, little seems to have changed in India. Little seems to have changed for the better, while the access to technology seems to have worsened the situation.

Ignorance of the law or the precedents of judgments is as rampant as ever, despite the overwhelming deluge of information that social media and technology is supposed to make available at our fingertips. For example, how many know that there is a ruling from the 1983 case of Bharwada Bhogibhai Hirjibhai versus the state of Gujarat, “which very clearly opines that if a child maintains it has been sexually abused, corroboration to this effect need not be sourced, the case can proceed beyond looking for technicalities.

Ignorance on the part of the average citizen could be understood, if not condoned, but what do you say of a learned judge of the Supreme Court, the apex court of India, when the learned lordship proclaimed in a case in May 1996 that “mothers who allege such crimes against the father of the child are ‘mentally sick’ and are ‘unnecessarily spoiling the child’s future prospects for marriage and a happy life.’” Lest one be tempted to limit this lack of sensitivity only to the subcontinent’s shores, it would be pertinent to quote Alred Kinsey, noted author of a study on human sexuality, who wondered and found it “difficult to understand why a child... should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched”.

The brutally sad fact is that much of CSA is perpetrated by those who are trusted by the children. Be it uncles (or aunts – remember that even women can be child abusers), or cousins, or the household servant, or even some elder in the family. This then begs the question: how do you teach your child to not trust even your relatives? The chapter “Prevention than cure” has a number of such suggestions, like “be alert to small changes in behaviour”, “do not force your children to hug and kiss others”, “teach your child to speak up and ask several questions if it is not comfortable with what is being done to, or around, it”, “teach the child the difference between a ‘good touch’ and a ‘bad touch’”, “know where your child is at all times”. In this age of dual income parents, the child is often left to the care of the aayah, or in the company of other children, or at a post-school day care – knowing where the child is is not the same as trusting who the child is with.

While Goa has for long been the child sex abuse capital of the nation, attracting paedophiles from civilised countries like “England and Germany, avuncular looking men distributing foreign chocolate”, other parts of India are not safe either. International networks of paedophiles work together and “share information on the safest places to visit in the world.... India and other South Asian countries are slowly replacing South East Asia as the venue of choice for the tourist sex industry...

This was more than a decade ago. In the intervening years, has there been an increase in prosecutions against paedophiles? Hardly, one would say. Indeed, with the dramatic rise in the overt sexualisation and objectification of teenagers in Indian films and advertisements, and the coterminus acceptance of “freer” sexual mores, it should come as little surprise to anyone if the incidence of CSA also shows a corresponding increase in India.

Perhaps the single biggest cocoon of denial that people wrap themselves in comes in the “people-like-us” colour. These things simply cannot happen to people like us. Certainly not “in a high-rise at Mumbai’s upmarket Cuffe Parade”, where the mother walked out on the marriage and her two children after “she caught them red-handed in their bed, with a pretty boy from the neighbourhood.

Part 3, titled “Notebook Three” is perhaps the most useful. Some of the sections in it are “prevention than cure”, “dealing with disclosure”, “child protection units”, “exit cycle”, “to the victim”, “healing yourself”. There is a list of books for further reading, and a list of helplines in eight cities.

The book is short – and even though you would wish that such a book were as short as possible, it really needs to be much longer. There are so many aspects of CSA that need to be examined, brought to light, and explained that a book several times this one’s size may still be insufficient.

The psychology of the perpetrators, the lifelong psychological devastation it wreaks on the victims, the mindset of a society that first refuses to acknowledge the crime and subsequently wants to hush the whole thing up, the sorry state of the existing legal framework, and so much more. These issues are touched upon this book, but in all fairness deserve more coverage. This book is a start, a depressingly frank start, but it needs to be followed up by much more.

And above all, this book must be read by everyone.
We owe it to ourselves.

Publisher: Penguin
Published: Oct 2000
ISBN-13: 9780140298970
ISBN-10: 0140298975
Pages: 248 Pages

Buying Info:
Amazon IN
Kindle e-book US | IN
Indie Books, Powell's, Flipkart

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Vashi Creek Bridge

This photo is of the Vashi Creek Bridge that connects mainland Mumbai with Navi Mumbai. Taken early in the morning, even as the hot summer sun beat down through a haze of smog, pointing the phone's (a Nexus 5) camera slightly up and towards the sun caused the shot to underexpose a little, providing an nice silhouetted look to the composition.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Truck Signage - Wives and Families

As far as truck signages go, this one attempts to combine messages on marital fidelity, family planning, and female figure consciousness, and of course, spiced with patriarchal seasoning.
बीवी रहे टिप टॉप, दो के बाद फूल (sic) स्टॉप |

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Photo - Barren Tree

It's a long, hot, scorching summer.
The monsoons are supposed to be here.
It is supposed to be raining.
It's supposed to be cool.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Accidental India, by Shankkar Aiyar

My review of Shankkar Aiyar's book, "Accidental India", was published in the DNA on May 22nd, 2014. Except for the review's title and sub-title - "Should I Be Stupid Just Because the Government Is?"
Funnily enough, in India that was a fact of life and not an absurdity for several decades. - the review was published in its entirety.

This, below, is the review as it appeared in the DNA:

The opportunities that India has squandered, either through indolence or apathy, either individually or collectively, are far too many to be counted. Then there are the quirks of fate that have convinced Indians that perhaps the gods had it in for India – like Lal Bahadur Shastri’s untimely demise just when it seemed India would break free of the socialist straitjacket that had been imposed on the nation, or Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel being asked to make way for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s first prime minister despite being the more qualified and better person on every count, or the most unexpected loss of the NDA in the 2004 general elections just when the nation had found a new, confident, and resurgent voice. The list goes on. Perhaps the most public of all humiliations would have been the shipping of Indian gold reserves to England as surety for a paltry loan of $400 million from the Bank of England. But as in every dark cloud, there proved to the silver lining. An accidental silver lining of sorts.
Shankkar Aiyar’s book, Accidental India, has even more relevance in today’s environment, given the trend towards consumption of real-time information in an abbreviated manner (read social media, especially Twitter) which encourages an almost junk-food style of an information diet – quantity without much value. This book looks at seven “accidents” that shaped India’s post-independent socio-economic landscape, for the better, and substantially so.
The nationalisation of banks in 1969, the Green Revolution of 1964, Operation Flood that started around 1949 but took off only in 1970, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme of 1982, the software revolution that traced its roots to 1990, the Right to Information of 2005, and the economic liberalisation of 1991 – each owed their origin to happenstance for the most part.
The most known and the most accidental of these seven has to be Verghese Kurien’s case. Kurien received a scholarship from the government of India to study dairy engineering at the Michigan State University (MSU), but studied metal casting, metallurgy and nuclear engineering instead. On returning to India, he was required to serve out a bond at Anand in Gujarat as part of the scholarship, where, by his own account, he whiled away much of his time, and almost left after the bond period.
Kurien stayed back in February 1950 back at the request of Tribhuvandas Patel, and ended up staying for the rest of his life. The results? The triumvirate of Kurien, Tribhuvandas Patel, and Harichand Dalaya – with Maniben, Sardar Patel’s daughter, as their “spiritual compass, philosopher, and guide” – would see India’s annual milk production rise from 17 million metric tons in 1950 to 66 million tons in 1996. The nationwide replication of the “Amul” model in Kaira would be undertaken at the behest of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who asked Kurien to create a national grid of “Amuls” across the country – “Make this your mission and whatever you need for it, the government will provide.”
It can be said at least three of the “accidents” – the Green Revolution, economic liberalisation of 1991, and the software revolution – owed their beginnings to the socialist straitjacket that was cast on to the Indian economy after Independence. The stifling and overbearing intrusion of the state and its bureaucrats into every sphere of the economy made any large-scale innovations next to impossible.
Indian businesses spent more time lobbying for permits and quotas in Delhi and devising ways to circumvent arbitrary limits on production than optimising their manufacturing processes or building the scale to compete globally. Consequently, “between 1960 and 1979, the per capita income of Malawi grew by 2.9% while that of India grew by an abysmal 1.4%.” Despite being an advocate of the poor, it was “the Congress party’s conviction that any initiative to improve agricultural growth should not lead to the enrichment of the rural rich” that led to the impoverishment of the rural economy, where three-fourths of India lived for much of the period post-Independence.
While the economic liberalisations took birth during the waning days of the under-appreciated Chandra Shekhar government, and the ever resourceful Subramanian Swamy, it would rest upon the Congress leader Narasimha Rao to nurture these reforms through the turbulent early years. He was assisted by Manmohan Singh, who “owed his survival to his ability to make a distinction between his opinion and the expediency his political masters expected of him.”
The roots of what perhaps can be called the single biggest economic planning disaster of the 20th century could be traced to India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, who believed it was “inevitable” that “the State which will survive, not that group which represents the profit motive in industry in its pure essence.” This, despite the (yet again) prescient warning of Sardar Patel, just months before his death, that “a government which engaged itself in trade would come to grief.”
Few would know that the Industrial Policy Resolution, moved by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, “the minister for industry and supplies,... the first week of April 1948, some six years after the Bombay Plan was first presented to the Congress,... restricted the role of the State to just three sectors – munitions, atomic energy and railways.” This itself represented a significant reining of the “hardline socialists”, who wanted a much more substantive role for the state, and was in no small part due to the “influence of Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.”
However, quickly and inexorably, the State, under Pandit Nehru and his chosen “high priest of planning”, PC Mahalanobis – described by industrialist GD Birla as a “statistician devoid of a sense of economic organisation” – would extend its reach deeper into industry. The American economist Milton Friedman would wryly observe, “One gets the impression, depending on whom one talks with, either that the government runs business, or that two or three large businesses run the government.”
The results were wretchedly predictable. India faced its first foreign exchange crisis in 1957. From 1950 to 1965, there was “only modest improvement in average living levels, and virtually none in the Third Five Year Plan.” Truly a generation brutally sacrificed at the altar of socialism.
Each chapter in Aiyar’s Accidental India provides one with not only an engrossing and fast-paced account of the “accident”, but expertly intertwined in the narrative is a succinct commentary of the political backdrop that influenced events as they happened – none more effectively than in “Das Kapital”, the chapter on the nationalisation of banks in 1969. Or even with “The Da Vinci Code”, the chapter on the origins and long drawn out birth of the Right to Information law. Though the developments are relatively recent, people will be surprised to learn of some of its lesser known facets, like its Indian origins from a lost in the mists of time “jansunwai” in Kot Kirana in Rajasthan 20 years before the birth of the first ever Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden in 1776 – the battles to obtain the right to freedom has been a painful one.
Despite having an inglorious, though some may say well-deserved, reputation for being the most somnolent of PMs India has seen, it was HD Deve Gowda who appointed a “Working Group headed by HD Shourie [father of Arun Shourie] ... to examine the feasibility and the need to introduce a full-fledged right to information bill” in January 1997. Metaphorically speaking, one’s eyes may pop out on reading that Digvijay Singh, then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, was one of three influential CMs to speak out in support of the Right to Information as a means of checking corruption. The NDA government dragged its feet, despite some exhortations by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and some maverick interventions by the likes of Ram Jethmalani, for six years. The Freedom of Information bill received presidential assent in 2003, but the NDA government delayed formulating the guidelines needed to make the bill operational. It fell upon the newly elected UPA government to finally pass a modified and much strengthened Right to Information bill, which became an act in June 2005. This act has been used to shine a light on corruption and misdeeds all over the nation. Whether it has succeeded in curbing corruption remains a debatable question, but the act has been a welcome start.
In summary, this book packs a punch. I recommend this book for several reasons. It has an innovative selection of “accidents” as the underlying theme of the book – which in my opinion is a first. I don’t remember coming across any other book with a similar leitmotif. While the themes by themselves are excellent, the author has blanketed these with a superbly researched and in-depth look at both the politics and economics of the time.
It may be of interest to many that despite Nixon’s almost psychopathic antipathy towards India, it was during his regime that “Indian officials negotiated with Ambassador Daniel Moynihan and got interest payments due to the US—to the tune of over $4 billion—written off. This creation of money, studies by economist BR Shenoy have revealed, fuelled inflation and amounted to 35% of the deficit financing between 1962 and 1971.” Or that it was Morarji Desai who was a staunch opponent of the nationalisation of banks, while Chandra Shekhar – one of the “young Turks” – was in favour. Yet it was Chandra Shekhar who initiated the economic reforms of 1991. Such is life in politics and economics! The book is sprinkled with such nuggets. A must-have for anyone wanting to understand India’s erratic journey towards economic salvation.

The Tyranny of the License-Permit-Quota Raj – An Excerpt:
By definition, a small-scale enterprise could not install machinery worth more than 10 lakh whereas the cheapest import cost 12 lakh. So the first step the entrepreneur had to take was to under-invoice his imports. The second challenge was to manage the problem of scale. The number of cassettes that a small-scale unit could produce was capped at 20,000 a year while the machine actually produced 20,000 in a week. So what did one do with the machine for the rest of the year or fifty-one weeks? The way around the problem was tedious, explains Mumbai-based Shravan Kumar Sharma, financial consultant and auditor. The entrepreneur would lease licences, under various names, to put his installed capacity to full use. He would approach the regulatory authority that issued the permit—in this case the Department of Electronics in Delhi—and choose a place designated as a destination by the State for small-scale electronics, say Chiplun in Maharashtra. He would then obtain a Small Scale Industries (SSI) licence. The next steps would entail renting a place in Chiplun, which is near Ratnagiri, driving to Ratnagiri, and registering the business to get a provisional SSI certificate. This would then be stamped by officials in Chiplun, following which the stamped copy would be sent to Delhi with a fee of 100. The entire process would take from six weeks to three months. He would then have to repeat the process fifty-one times, under different names, even though the address for the manufacturing unit would remain the same in order to acquire licences to produce 20,000 cassettes every week. A very high duty—330 per cent—was imposed on imported video cassettes. So if the entrepreneur could work the system, he could make a lot of money very quickly. In fact, the accumulation of SSI licences in itself became a small-scale industry.”

Buying Information:
Amazon: US, India, India paperback, Kindle e-book
Flipkart: book, ebook
5 stars

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mahabharata, Vol 8

Mahabharata - Volume 8, Translated by Bibek Debroy

5 stars
I wrote a short review of Dr. Bibek Debroy's volume 8 of the translation of the Unabridged Mahabharata. It was published in the DNA newspaper's website, at Book Review: 'The Mahabharata' Volume 8 translated by Bibek Debroy | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis (DNA tweet). My thanks to Harini Calamur.

The full text of the review:

“Impose taxes so that both the king and the producer have a share in the outcome of the work.” Sage words, one would say. What would you say if I told you these words are from the longest parva of the Mahabharata, and not from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, as you may have been tempted to guess?

Few people know that the longest parva in the Mahabharata is the Shanti Parva. It, along with the subsequent Anushasan Parva, is also the most ignored in most retellings of the epic. Even Devdutt Pattanaik’s excellent Jaya gave short shrift to these two parvas – which together add up to more than 19,000 shlokas and form almost a quarter of the unabridged epic. Without getting into the reasons, this alone makes the eighth volume of Dr Bibek Debroy’s ongoing translation of the unabridged Mahabharata, published by Penguin India, and based on the Critical Edition published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a must-read. It is also the longest volume of the series thus far – clocking in at more than 700 pages. It covers the entire Souptika and Stree Parvas, and from the Shanti Parva it contains the entire Raja Dharma and Apad Dharma upa-Parvas (sub parvas), and 1,000 shlokas from the Moksha Dharma Parva. This book then contains a whopping 8,500 verses.

When Arjuna was faced with a dilemma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he had Krishna as his charioteer, who imparted the profound wisdom of karma in a concise 18 chapters known as the Bhagvad Gita. Arjuna’s dilemma happened before the war, when he could see the terrible cost that would have to be paid for the victory of dharma over adharma. Yudhishthira found himself in the horns of a similar dilemma after the war. Indeed, during the war, he even berated Arjuna for what he perceived as cowardice, leading to a potentially fatal altercation between the two brothers. It was averted only through the deft intervention of Krishna. This is described in chapter 48 of the Karna-vadha Parva (covered in volume seven). Even when Duryodhana wanted to give over the kingdom to Yudhishthira and leave, Yudhishthira was clear that this was a fight to the finish, stating, “If, between the two of us, both of us remain alive, all beings will be uncertain about who has emerged victorious.” This is described in the Tirtha Yatra Parva (volume seven).

After the war however, Yudhishthira did not want to ascend the throne over the bodies of his relatives who had lost their lives in the war. Such was his adamance that even the combined entreaties of Arjuna, Bhima, Droupadi, the other Pandavas, and even Krishna could not budge him. And this thus is the start of the longest parva in the epic Mahabharata – a gargantuan 13,000 shlokas, most of which are in the form of lengthy question and answer sessions between a dying Bhishma and the newly anointed emperor Yudhishthira.

It is a veritable storehouse of statecraft, fables, while also shedding light on cultural mores prevalent at the time. More than anything, readers will find the animal stories embedded in this parva the most informative and entertaining, and would have encountered these in other books and collections. The Amar Chitra Katha series come to mind. Like the story of Lomasha the cat and Palita the rat, who came to spend one night together because of hunters, a mongoose named Harika and an owl named Chandraka. This story alone is perhaps worth the price of the book. It uses this fable to elucidate who should be treated as an enemy and who as a friend, and the value of partnerships, even those formed in times of distress and compulsion – “If someone wishes to cross a deep and great river with a piece of wood, the wood takes him across, and he takes the wood across too.” And while political parties may find much to rejoice in this particular statement – “There are well-wishers in the form of enemies. There are enemies in the form of friends.... there is no friendship that is permanent. There is no enmity that is permanent” – the tale was stating a pragmatic fact of life.

Similarly, it came as a revelation of sorts to read that the book has more than a line of advice for rulers on how to deal with whistleblowers. Their identity should be protected and their safety guaranteed. This sage piece of advice would not be out of place in manuals for modern administrators. That it is from a 3,000 year old book makes it that much profounder. The advice to the king is straightforward – “Whether a person is paid or is not paid, if he comes and tells you that the royal treasury is being destroyed and depleted by a minister, you must hear him in secret and protect him from ministers.” As is the warning that such whistleblowers are at grave danger from the ones they seek to expose – “Ministers tend to kill such informants. All those who destroy the treasury work collectively against the one who protects the treasury.”

I could go on and on about the book, but I will end with two pieces of advice. First, do not be daunted if you have not read the first seven volumes. The story of the Mahabharata is not likely to be unknown to you. You will not lose much by picking up this eighth volume. Second, the animal fables, the stories, the advice on statecraft - all make the book quite an enjoyable read. It is a Mahabharata that you have probably not encountered before. Be prepared to be surprised, yet again, by the most epic of epics.
Book details:
ISBN-13 9780143100201
ISBN-10 0143100203
Publisher: Penguin India

Amazon US | UK | CA | IN
Kindle e-book US | UK | CA | IN
Indie Books, Powell's, Flipkart

My reviews of: Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3, Vol 4, Vol 5 (and also this), Vol 6 (and this and this too), Vol 7

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Indus Valley (Smart Green Civilizations)

Indus Valley: Key stage 2 (Smart Green Civilizations)
2 stars
Kid-friendly introduction, but marred by selective omissions. Also leaves out the truly spectacular achievements of the people

One-line review: Parents are advised to read out and share this book with children, but are also forewarned that they will need to spend considerable time in correcting the several errors - of commission and omission - in the book.

Longer Review:
The Indus Valley Civilization, more accurately known as the Indus Valley Saraswati Civilization, was the largest and most advanced ancient civilization that existed. This short illustrated book does a good job of introducing the reader - children - to this civilization. It tells us that the Indus people were the first to develop the concept of urban town planning, and were the first to trade with the world. The generous availability of wells meant that people were never far away from access to clean water. Children will like the simple and full-colour illustrations in this book, and the easy style of writing. At the bottom of each page is a short line that has a lesson on environmentalism.

However, this book also falls into the trap of sticking with discredited falsehoods for the sake of political correctness. A few examples will suffice. While the book briefly touches upon the discovery of the pashupati Shiva at the site, it fails to mention that the Indus Valley civilization was the birthplace of Hinduism, and that most likely the Rig Veda was written during the heydays of this civilization.

The book does not mention that more than one-third of all sites of the civilization have been unearthed near the banks of the now dried up Saraswati River. Any book, even one for children, that leaves out this fact does its credibility little good. Evidence pointing to the existence of this river, long suspected on the basis of literary, archaeological, and scientific facts, has opened up a valuable new chapter in the understanding of the roots of Indian civilization. This book owed it to its children audience to have brought this up.

Perhaps the most egregious act of political correctness is when the book mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory as one that enjoys mainstream acceptability. Worse, there is an entire two-page illustration with hordes of these mythical "Aryan" invaders massed outside an Indus Valley settlement. The Aryan Invasion theory has long been discredited, and even Western and Communist historians have had to, albeit grudgingly, abandon the Aryan Invasion Theory. This theory today has as much credibility as the Flat Earth theory. For this book to include it as a plausible explanation for the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization is a shocking act of negligence, ignorance, or worse.

© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Motilal Banarsidas, Bangalore

I had reason to be in Jayanagar a few months back, with 15 odd minutes to spare. I was across the road from the Motilal Banarsidas bookstore, and my feet found their way, along with the rest of me, to the store. I have been to the store a few times before, and every single time have exited the store with a book in tow - that is also the story of my ingress and egress from most other bookstores I frequent, come to think of it. I had posted photos of the store in 2007 (blog post), so I am not going to write about its history or stuff...

Since I have started reading Dr. Bibek Debroy's translation of the unabridged Mahabharata, I have been fascinated more and more by this book, An Index to the Names in Mahabharata by S. Sorensen, 8120820118, 9788120820111 at Mlbd Books. For a book written more than a hundred years ago, it is a stupendous work that has not been rivaled or surpassed. As far as I can tell, there is no other book of its kind attempted since. If you may be wondering why should there be a book on the names in the Mahabharata, then you should take a close look at the unabridged epic.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mahabharata Ch 61-65, Adi Parva, Sambhava Parva

[Ch 59-60 « Ch 61-65  » Ch 66-70]
Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Sambhava; Chapter:61; Shlokas:102
Janamejaya now wanted to hear from Vaishampayana about the divine origins of the warriors. Vaishampayana told him that the danava Viprachittihad became Jarasandha, Hiranyakashyipu Shishupala, Prahlada's younger brother Samhrada as Shalya, the asura Bashkala as Bhagadatta, the asura Svarbhanu as King Ugrasena, and so on.

Vaishampayana continued, and said that Drona was not born from a womb, and was a part of Brihaspati, while his son Ashvatthama was "born from three parts of Mahadeva that merged into one - yama, kama, and krodha." Kripa was born from the group of rudras, Satyaki, King Drupada, Kritavarma, and rajrishi Virata were born from parts of the divine maruts. Duryodhana was born from Kali's part, while his brothers were born from Pulastya's sons.

Mahabharata Ch 59-60, Adi Parva, Sambhava Parva

[Ch 57-58 « Ch 59-60  » Ch 61-65]
This chapter marks the start of the Sambhava Parva. This parva contains 2394 shlokas and 65 chapters.
"The word sambhava means what can originate or be in existence. Hence, this parva is about the origins of the core story. It is one of the longest parvas."
Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Sambhava; Chapter:59; Shlokas:54
Janamejaya asked Vaishampayana to recount to him, "from beginning and in detail," accounts of the births of the gods, gandharvas, etc... Vaishampayan said that Brahma had six sons. One of them, Marichi, was the father of Kashyapa. Daksha's daughters were Aditi, Diti, Danu, Kala, Anayu, Simhika, Muni, Krodha, Prava, Arishta, Vinata, Kapila, and Kadru.
"From Aditi were born the twelve adityas... Dhata, Mitra, Aryamana, Shakra, Varuna, Amsha, Bhaga, Vivasvana and Pusha. In the tenth place was Savita, the eleventh was Tvastha and the twelfth was Vishnu."

Mahabharata Ch 57-58, Adi Parva, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva

[Ch 54-56 « Ch 57-58  » Ch 59-60]
Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Adi-vamshavatarana; Chapter:57; Shlokas:106
In this chapter Vaishampayana primarily describes the birth of Satyavati and her son Dvaipayana. He described Uparichara, also known as Vasu, and a descendant of the Puru lineage, who conquered the kingdom of Chedi, and then retired to practice austerities in a hermitage. This caused a fearful Shakra to try and "wean the king away from his austerities." Indra praised Vasu and offered him many things, including a flying chariot that among mortals only he would be able to fly in, and a garland known as "vaijayanti", and also a "staff made of bamboo to protect the good and the peaceful." Thus Uparichara continued to rule Chedi. Uparichara had five sons - Brihadratha as king of Magadha, Pratyagraha, Kushamba, Macchilla, and Yadu

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Blood Telegram, by Gary Bass

The Blood Telegram, by Gary Bass

Warning: graphic language. Discretion advised.

4 stars
One-line review: While it shines a light and lays bare an ugly passage in American diplomacy, it also somehow disappoints a bit. The true horrors of the East Pakistan Bangladesh genocide are somewhat missing.

Short review: The forced exodus of ten million Bangladeshis in 1971 - ninety percent of whom were Hindu, the genocide of an estimated three million Bangladeshis, and the rape of close to half a million women - were all small prices that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon paid in exchange for the opening of bilateral ties with China, and in the process getting their names enshrined as visionary statesmen. Henry Kissinger would go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize - a more damning indictment of the elaborate farce that is the Nobel Prize would be hard to find. Archer Blood, consul general in Dacca (as Dhaka was then called) and the "ranking diplomat of the United States in East Pakistan", would protest in the strongest possible diplomatic terms the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan army on the citizenry of East Pakistan. He would be ordered to "request home leave and transfer back to the State Department - in other words, unceremoniously sacked" - just one step short of being fired - spend the next decade in a desk job - hiding from an omnipotent Kissinger, his career finished for all practical purposes.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Canada, US, India - Indulging a passion for photography

Three photos, three countries, same year.
The first is from the Canadian city of Fredericton, which also happens to be the capital of the province of New Brunswick. I have a couple of posts on the town, where I spent two months. A most interesting period of time I spent, in what was one of the most eventful years of my life thus far. Spending January and February in Canada means braving lots of cold weather. Cold as in 20 degrees below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, that's close to -30C. Cold as in wind chills of upto -45C. It is a whole different world of cold at those temperatures. Like hell-freezing-over kind of cold. But it makes for gorgeous photographs.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Best of 2013 - Reading and Reviewing Recap

I list here the ten best books that I read and, or, reviewed in 2013. Along the way, I have also mentioned some other books that I read and, or, reviewed.

The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, by Michel DaninoLet us start with Indology. I was supremely gratified that I not only got serious - or at least semi-serious - about the topic but also got to read about half a dozen really, really, finger-licking good books. Note to kids: do not try this at home; the finger-licking, that is. Reading? By all means. Not all books were equally awesome, but many were very, very good. Land of the Seven Rivers, by Sanjeev Sanyal was the single best book in this genre that I read this year. I say "this year", because The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, by Michel Danino is even better, and by far the best book I reviewed this year. I say "reviewed", because I read this book in January of 2012, but got down to reviewing only this year. And while on the topic of the Saraswati River and the Harappan Civilization, I would be remiss if I didn't mention The City of Dvaraka, by S.R. Rao - perhaps the single most important excavation in the twentieth century, and written by the famed archaeologist who led that excavation - India's first marine excavations to uncover the four thousand year old ancient port city of Dvaraka (modern day Dwarka). Sanjeev Sanyal's Land of the Seven Rivers was on its own a wonderful book, and more so when you compare it with his first book - The Indian Renaissance: India's Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline - that had its heart in the right place, but was dry and unengaging.
Then there was India's Bismarck, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, by Balraj Krishna, a short but lucid account of the great Sardar Patel's immeasurably invaluable contributions to a unified India. This book's review was perhaps my most read review of 2013, gathering close to 300 Facebook "Likes" on Centre Right India.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, by Devdutt Pattanaik

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, by Devdutt Pattanaik

4 stars

One-line review: Enrichening, but not as spectacularly successful as 'Jaya'.

In recent times, Devdutt Pattanaik has been the most prolific and successful mythologist-author in India. For almost a decade now, he has explored almost every facet of Hindu mythology, from a rapid-fire look at the spectrum of Hindu mythology in "Myth=Mithya" - that became his most successful book, to gods and goddesses in books like "7 Secrets of Siva", "7 Secrets of Vishnu", "7 Secrets From Hindu Calendar Art", to even dabbling in fiction in "The Pregnant King", and more recently to books targeted specifically at children - "An Identity Card for Krishna", "Shiva Plays Dumb Charades", etc... In 2010, he plunged into a very imaginative and well-researched retelling of the Mahabharata - "Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata". The results were spectacularly successful. The book became a blockbuster bestseller.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

India's Bismarck - Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, by Balraj Krishna

India's Bismarck Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, by Balraj Krishna

One-line review: His stupendous achievements dwarfed only by the apathy of an ungrateful polity and dishonest historians.

Short review: Unless we learn the path we took and who led us down the path, we can never truly hope to correct course and tread towards a brighter future. Blind hero-worship of flawed frauds and idolatry of insidious ideologies cannot ever be the basis of writing history. That is hagiography. This short book on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the iron man of India, is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding what was, what happened, and why we are here. If we today breathe in a united and independent India, we have one person - Sardar Patel - to thank more than anyone else.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mahabharata Ch 54-56, Adi Parva, Adi-vamshavatarana Parva

[Ch 51-53 « Ch 54-56  » Ch 57-58]

This parva tells the story of the "partial incarnations" (from "vansha" and "avatarana") of the characters in the Mahabharata.
Parva:Adi; Upa-parva:Adi-vamshavatarana; Chapter:54; Shlokas:24
Upon hearing of Janamejaya's presence at the snake sacrifice, Krishna Dvaipayana, the son of the virgin Kali and Shakti's son Parashara, went there. Krishna Dvaipayana, once born, mastered the Vedas, Vedangas, and Itihasa, and was the first to divide the one Veda into four parts.
When he entered the sacrificial arena, Janamejaya offered a golden seat to Vyasa and paid him his respects. After that Janaejaya asked Krishna Dvaipayana to narrate the story of the Kurus and the Pandavas, the reason behind their quarrel, and the great war. Krishna Dvaipayana asked his disciple, Vaishampayana, to "relate in full, exactly as you had heard it from me, the account of the ancient quarrel between the Kurus and the Pandavas."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

4 stars

One-line review: Ghastly ghosts and a Good Old Western Shootout

Review: (minor spoilers)
One of the most anticipated sequels in recent times, Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep", a sequel to "The Shining" thirty years in the making, is one good yarn - better if read on its own merits. If compared with the iconic "The Shining", it will fall short. This one does not match the sheer claustrophobic terror of the original.
"I ain't got any relatives. Unless you count the ex, and if I was on fire she wouldn't piss on me to put me out” 
Dan Torrance, the boy with the double-edged gift of the "shining" - that allowed him to look into people's minds as well as into the future, though somewhat hazily, had escaped from the Overlook Hotel with his mother, and with help from the Overlook's chef, Dick (Richard) Hallorann.
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