Pinned Post - Flipkart vs Amazon Series

Flipkart and Focus 4 - Beware the Whispering Death

The fourth part of my series on Flipkart and its apparent loss of Focus and its battle with Amazon appeared in DNA on April 20th, 2015 . ...

Jun 30, 2012

The Parliamentary System-Arun Shourie-Review

The Parliamentary System
By Arun Shourie
cover image: Rupa & Co

The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie

5 stars
This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.

Elected But Not Representative. 1975 and 2011. A Tale of Two Years.
Arun Shourie's twenty-first book, published in 2007, is even more relevant today than it was when first published. Current events have made this a must-read for every concerned citizen.
This book is divided into three sections. Each is related to the other, but also distinct in what it covers.

Let's look at the first section. Are our elected parliamentarians really the voice of our people? If you look at the table on page 29, a most distressing sight awaits you. "99 percent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them. Almost 60 percent got in with the endorsement of less than 30 per cent of electors in their constituencies. ... Even if we consider only the electors who actually turned out to vote, 60 per cent of the members got in on a minority vote." This means that nearly two-thirds of our Parliamentarians have won from their respective constituencies despite having less than half the people who voted vote for them! If you look at the entire eligible electorate, the number is a staggering 99%! In essence, there are less than six MPs in the Lok Sabha that have won by polling more than half the votes of the entire electorate in their constituencies! When our parliamentarians talk about speaking for the people, it is manifestly not the case. Forget the nation, they cannot even claim to speak for the eligible electorate. They speak for a minority, a tiny one at times. One can always blame voter apathy for the low turnouts, but to cast blame wholly on low turnout is to turn a blind eye to the larger issues at play.

A problem that has emerged in the last twenty years or so in Indian democracy is the rise of marginal, regional parties that have exerted a disproportionate influence at the national level. The problem with the Congress party, that has been in power in all but thirteen of the sixty-five years following India's Independence in 1947 (1947-77, 1980-89, 1991-96, 2004-present), has been the utter ruthlessness with which it crushed and compromised democratic institutions and put in a place a system of cronyism that grows more pernicious by the day - more on that later in this review. The problem with the decline of the two major national parties, the Congress and the BJP, as evidenced in their declining share of seats and votes at the national level, has been that either party has to rely on the support of regional, minor parties, to reach the majority mark in the Lok Sabha. These smaller parties in turn have used their peculiar position of influence and opportunity to loot the nation with impunity, and to often hold critical economic and social reforms hostage to their own agendas.

Take the General Elections to the Lok Sabha. In 1999 the Congress Party polled 28.3% of the votes, winning 114 seats. In 2004 it polled 26.7% of the votes - less than in 1999, yet it won 145 seats. Being a national party it is reasonable to assume that it would have contested in approximately the same number of seats in both elections, so the decline in percentage of votes polled cannot be attributed to a decline in the number of seats it would have contested. The BJP fared no better, or worse. In 1999, it polled 23.6% of the votes, netting it 182 seats. In 2004 it polled 22.2% of the votes, yet its tally of seats fell to 138.

The situation is no better even at the state level, where one would assume that regional parties would dominate. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, in 59 seats in the state of Uttar Pradesh, not a single candidate polled more than 20% of the votes of the total electorate. Some polled as low as 11, 12, 13, and 14 percent of the electorate votes. Considering that only about 60% of the population is eligible to vote, these candidates had the votes of less 6-7% of the total population in their respective constituencies. For them to speak as though representing the will of the entire people is ludicrous.

Even if we look at the state level, like the 2004 Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections for its 294 members for instance, the Telugu Desam Party polled 37.6 per cent of the votes, and won 47 seats. The Congress party polled 38.6 per cent of the votes, and won 185 seats! A mere one per cent difference in votes polled resulted in an almost four times the number of seats won!! Most observers have credited the Congress victory to astute calculations in the way their party nominees were decided on the basis of caste and religion, and not on intrinsic merit or track record of achievements. The results have been incontrovertibly successful.
"Nor is the pandering confined to caste groups and religious groups. The number of traders who would have to pay more if Delhi's Rent Control Law is modernized must be a minuscule portion of Delhi's electorate. Yet, they have been able to bend the entire political class to prevent for a decade the Act which has been passed from being notified!" [pg 59]
"Never is the political class as unanimous as it is when doing the wrong thing." [pg 59]
The consequences can be dire for the country. Arun Shourie quotes from Mancur Olson's "Power and Prosperity" (Kindle edition) to this end - "Mancur Olson distinguished between a stationary and a roving bandit." He observes what happens when politicians who have little mass following, little appeal among the electorate beyond the narrow confines of one or two districts, and who are certainly not in the noble field of politics for the betterment of the people.
"... the ones who form the smaller groups can loot the most and with the greatest impunity, as predation by their members will affect the total the least! Those who are most incompetent, who are most unpopular, will also loot with abandon as in their own eyes they are least likely to return. And so will the ones who are most secure, the ones whose return is not affected their loot - recall the number of ministers and their controllers who are returned by their caste-followers irrespective of their performance, and think of what they do in office." [pg 23]
He provides the examples of the Akali Dal in Punjab, the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the Janata Dal in Karnataka, and other parties that have little to no influence or votes beyond their respective states, yet exercise inordinate control over proceedings at the national level. The problem is not unique to the Congress. The BJP has had to face the same pulls and pressures from smaller parties with which it had to ally to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha in 1998 and 1999.

"Political leaders are most reluctant to take any step that might cause offence to the lower bureaucracy, the police, primary school teachers, for instance, as these groups can have a devastating effect at the time of elections." [pg 60]
"I remember Arif Mohammed Khan describing to me the Cabinet meeting at which V.P. Singh's Government lunged for the Mandal Commission's ruinous proposals. He recalled one Minister telling V.P. Singh, 'Sir ise laagoo kar dijeeye, bees saal ke liye koi hamen sarkar se hila nahin sakegaa.'" [pg 60]
Interesting point that "The true center, that is the left wing of the right combined with the right wing of the left, is never mobilized at all.Yet this central body of opinion probably corresponds best to the wishes of the electorate as a whole." [pg 67]

Arun Shourie has several prescriptions that could address this critical problem - that of a lack of true representativeness of our parliamentarians, and that of the narrow, sectarian base that they exploit to come to and retain power. A lottery system, multiple preferences for voters, a negative vote, barring a person from contesting elections against whom a court of law frames charges, de-recognizing a party that fields candidates with criminal antecedents, and so on. Each has its merits, and each has its demerits. The biggest stumbling block is that to get these reforms debated and passed would require the cooperation of the very same politicians whose power and influence would be undercut by the legislation!

To cover the second section of the book, let's go back in time.

To 1975. But before we do that, let us also establish a frame of reference from the current, so that what we talk about what happened in 1975 can be put in proper perspective. In 2011 the country was rocked by nationwide protests - all peaceful, where millions of middle-class Indians, typically pilloried as the most apathetic among all voting classes in the country, took to the streets in support of Gandhian Anna Hazare's call and to protest the rampant corruption and scandals that had rocked the country and the establishment of a strong and independent Lokpal (legal ombudsman) authority. During debates and arguments that ensued in the print and television media, several politicians, mostly from the ruling UPA alliance and the Congress party, made the argument that Parliament was supreme. Parliamentarians were therefore supreme. To pressurize Parliamentarians into passing a law to curb corruption was therefore tantamount to challenging the supremacy of Parliament. Citizens could request, they could petition, they could plead, but they could not demand. The voice of the citizenry should cease, in a manner of speaking, to be vocal after it had cast its  ballot. To oppose Parliament, and its elected representatives, was to oppose the country and democracy itself.

Therefore, let us go back in time, to 1975.

On 12 June 1975, Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court held Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, guilty of corrupt electoral practices on two counts. The Supreme Court granted her a conditional stay on 24 June 1975, permitting her to continue as Prime Minister. The appeal was to be heard on 11 August 1975.
"On 4 August 1975, members of the Lok Sabha suddenly received 'Election Laws (Amendment Bill)'." The bill was specifically worded to save Mrs. Indira Gandhi from the High Court's judgment.  "... to nullify the ground in Justice Sinha's judgment." Furthermore, Parliament "was asked to legislate that these 'clarifications' shall apply with retrospective effect in regard to any election that has been held before the commencement of the Act." [pg 117]
Furthermore, these 'clarifications' were put out of reach of the courts altogether by putting them into the IXth Schedule.
"Hence, from now on, even after a person has been pronounced guilty, the matter will go to the President. he shall decide whether the infraction is grave enough to merit disqualification."
A lone voice of dissent arose from Mohan Dharia, who, despite being shouted down by fellow Parliamentarians, gave voice to his concerns:
"... there is no doubt in my mind that the Bill in the amended form has been brought forward ... to circumvent the issues which have been held by the High Court in favour of the petitioner and against the Prime Minister.
You cannot cow me down that way. So, my submission to the House is that this Bill is nothing but surrender of parliamentary democracy to the coming dictatorship and therefore I oppose this Bill vehemently."
Mohan Dharia's protests were dismissed as "completely irrelevant and besides the point" by Gokhale. "Parliament is supreme," said communist leader Indrajit Gupta.

These chilling words were spoken by Gokhale, words that were to find echo almost forty years later (emphasis mine).
"I agree that we might have to have an overall look, may be, even at the Constitution itself, to see that no future situations arise where the final word of Parliament itself is challenged." [pg 121]
A cynic may argue that the failure of the Congress Party to act out its noble intentions in 1975 are what led to the needless disparaging of Parliamentarians in 2011!

The debate that followed in Parliament has to be read to be believed. The faces may change. The style of the language may change. The content does not. The servility does not. The demand for complete subservience from the ultimate One does not diminish. The craven desire from the sycophants to outdo each other in their show of truckling to the One does not change. Each Congress parliamentarian was louder than the other in proclaiming his support for the Bill, and each more vituperative in voicing their contempt for the judiciary.
"It is a joke that the Prime Minister of a country was sought to be removed from office and debarred from contesting an election because of what a single judge said in one of the High Courts of the country and simply because he has held her guilty of corrupt practices under an Act which was passed 22 years ago? Are we to accept that position?
To my mind it is a ridiculous machinery under which they are subjected to judicial scrutiny while they are elected by a vast majority of the people and electoral colleges..." [H.R Gokhale, Law Minister, Rajya Sabha, 6 August 1975]
Lest some members from the left of the political spectrum claim that they have always been in favor of a democracy and the supremacy of the law of the land, here is something to consider, from the mouth of Indrajit Gupta, esteemed leader of the Communist Party of India:
"In many other matters, the jurisdiction of the court should be taken away ... We cannot leave it to the vagaries, prejudices, biases, the learning and knowledge of these judges, or for that matter, the collective body of judges." [Indrajit Gupta, CPI Leader, Rajya Sabha, 6 August 1975]
The speeches that were made in the august house of Parliament, by the even more august members of Parliament, when debating this Constitution Amendment bill, should be prescribed readings for every student of Civics.
"Speakers were soaring higher and higher, both in proclaiming sovereignty of the people, as well as in demonstrating loyalty to the highest symbol of those people, the emodiment of sovereignty, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The next speaker outdid them, doubly so."
'kya constitutional framers to yeh pata tha ki aises ghatiya aur kamine judge bhi is desh mein ho sakte hain?' (क्या constitutional framers को यह पता था कि  ऐसे घटीया और कमीने judge भी इस देश में हो सकते हैं?)
'In fact, I am of the opinion that this judge could be an agent of the CIA or he is mad. Either his place is in America or in the lunatic asylum in Agra.'
Such fecundity, clarity of thought, and preciseness of delivery has rarely been seen or heard in Parliament. Arun Shourie, regrettably, omits the name of the distinguished parliamentarian.

Swaran Singh, a mild mannered person, was equally mild-mannered in his prose.
" 'If the Constitution stands in the way, or anybody stands in the way that person would be wiped out, that institution would be wiped out, but the things must change.' " [Pg 157. Parliament, 26 October 1975]
No one should accuse our parliamentarians, or at least those belonging to a certain party, of not being capable of acting with alacrity. Should the occasion, and more importantly, the need, arise, they are not averse to moving with a speed that can only be called 'greased lightning', to use a hackneyed phrase.
"Mrs. Gandhi's appeal was to be heard by the Supreme Court on 11 August 1975. The "Government rushed the 39th Amendment to the Lok Sabha. This sweeping Amendment was passed within two hours. The very next day, it was rushed to, and passed by that other limb of sovereignty, the Rajya Sabha, The next day was Saturday. No problem. State legislatures were summoned for emergency sessions. They endorsed the amendment! On 10th August 1975, the President gave his assent. So, literally a day before the hearing was to begin, not just the law on the basis of which the Supreme Court was to judge the appeal was changed, the Constitution itself was changed ruling the Supreme Court to be completely out of court!" [pgs 126, 127]
Among the surfeit of Constitution Amendment Bills that were brought to Parliament, the common refrain was the same (emphasis mine, on top of the Congress Party's emphasis)
".. we are reasserting with all emphasis that the Parliament is supreme and there are no limitations on Parliament in respect of the amendments of the Constitution." [pg 152]
Not to be left behind was the "ever-law-abiding A.R. Antulay" - "Why should there be the power for the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution? why should they have the power of judicial review even of ordinary legislation." [pg 167]

The icing on the cake to this charade was provided by the Supreme Leader, the Chosen One, Mrs. Indira Gandhi herself. Note her words carefully, and compare them with the words used by Congress Parliamentarians and several in the media when complaining about the audacity of the common man to question its elected representatives.
"To non-cooperate with Parliament is to non-cooperate with the people." [pg 158]
The justices of the Supreme Court of India, who heard the appeal against these Constitution Amendments, were however made of sterner stuff.
Justices K.S. Hegde and A.K. Mukherjea pointed out, "... one cannot legally use the Constitution to destroy itself." [pg 181]
" 'Two-thirds of the Houses of Parliament need not necessarily represent the even the majority of the people of this country. Our electoral system is such that even a minority of voters can elect more than two-thirds of the members of the either House of Parliament.
Therefore the contention on behalf of the Union and the states that the two-thirds of the members of the two Houses of Parliament are always authorized to speak on behalf of the entire people of the country is unacceptable.' " [pgs 181, 182]
" were ... the President to sign his approval of these amendments, he would be violating the oath he took upon entering office, the judges reminded all concerned. For when he enters office, the President takes the oath to 'preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.' 'Does the oath to merely mean that he is to defend the amending powers of Parliament?' the Judges asked. [pg 182]
The betrayal to democracy of the Congress Party and the Parliament of 1975 that went along with the subversion of democracy and the shameful attempts at emasculating the Indian Constitution represented little more than depriving India and Indians of their independence, less than thirty years after she had gained it from the British.
Dr. Ambedkar's words, as he delivered this closing speech as the Constituent Assembly met for its last session, are worth reproducing from the book in some detail here (bold emphasis added).
"The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lost it a second time? ... What pertubs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. In the invasion of Sindh by Mohammed-Bin-Kasim, the military commaders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mohammed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their king. It was Jaichand who invited Mohommed Gohri to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the events as silent spectators." [pgs 70-71]
['Constituent Assembly of India Debates', 35 November, 1949, Book VI, Volume X, og 977-78]
It could be argued, by a a miscreant of a mischievous bent of mind of course, that in the last few decades, the only President to have truly upheld the dignity of the post of President would have to be Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. But we won't say that. Nor would it be appropriate to claim that Mrs Pratibha Patil has been more loyal to the party than to the post of President. These claims would simply not hold up to the close scrutiny of the loyals.

Even the Supreme Court has been manned by judges who have questioned the validity of the argument that the Indian Constitution has a "basic structure" that cannot be tampered with. "... there has been a continuous stream of judges, all of them happen to have been hailed as progressives, who have scoffed at the very notion that the Constitution has a Basic Structure which cannot be violated." [pg 201]

This is third part of the book, and I am not going to cover that in this review, long enough as this review has become. Perhaps in the future.

Book Details:
Hardcover: 265 pages
Publisher: Rupa (February 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 8129111926
ISBN-13: 978-8129111920

Buying Info:
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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Jun 25, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 5, by Bibek Debroy - Part 2

Mahabharata, Vol. 5, translated by Bibek Debroy 

(KindleFlipkartAmazonThisYaThatmy review on Amazon)
Peace Runs Through a River of Gore and Blood
5 stars
This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.

Review, Part 2 (Part 1)
(Updated Oct 31, 2012)

This is the second part of my review of Vol 5 of the Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy. The first part of my review covered the Amba Upakhyana Parva, and ended with the transformation, a permanent one, of Shikhandi from a woman to a man, thus fulfilling the first part of Shiva's boon to Drupada, of having a daughter who  would later turn into a man.

Bhishma Parva is notable for three reasons. The first is that the proper war at Kurukshetra begins in this parva. Second, Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna, Bhagvada Gita, is contained in this parva. Thirdly, this is the first parva where descriptions of war are described in the most gruesome of terms. There is a hint of the terrible effects of war in the Khandava-dahana parva, but this parva excises none of the horrors of war. The parva begins with the warring sides agreeing to the rules of the war. By the time the eighteen days ended, every single rule would end up being broken, either by the Pandavas or the Kauravas. Some accuse the Pandavas of being the first to break the rules of war, by fielding the once-woman Shikandi against Bhishma, while others accuse the Kauravas of breaking the rules of war, when seven warriors ganged up on the lone Abhimanyu.
"Those who engaged in a war of words would be countered with words. Those who had withdrawn from the midst of battle would should not be killed under any circumstances. ... Any striking should be in accordance with appropriateness, valor, energy and age and after issuing a challenge had been issued. It should not be against one who was unsuspecting or distressed, or was engaged in fighting with another, or was distracted and retreating." [Jambukhanda-Vinirmana Parva]
Sage Vyasa offered divine sight to Dhritarashtra so he may witness the battle, but the King refused. Sanjaya instead was bestowed with the divine sight. The sage delivered some plain talking to the blind king, Dhritarashtra - "Death himself has been born in the form of your son" alluding to Duryodhana.

There are several shlokas that follow that describe the island of Sudarshana, which seem out of place in the narrative, and are also "... difficult to understand" as Bibek Debroy notes. Similarly, Bhumi Parva seems incongruous, and can be skipped over without losing context.

The Bhagavad Gita Parva (sixty-third sub-parva, and the third parva in the Bhishma Parva) does not begin with one of the most recognizable shlokas of all, "dharmakshetrey kurukshetrey, samaveta yuyutsavah... ." Instead, we are told that Sanjaya rushed from the battlefield to Dhritarashtra to inform him that Bhishma had fallen in battle. We can therefore surmise that this would have been on the night of the tenth day, or perhaps on the morning of the eleventh day of battle. Or maybe not, because Sanjaya goes on to mention the end of Drona later on, as he starts to recount the eleventh day of battle. It is not clear, at least to me, at this point, when exactly Sanjaya returned to Hastinapur. Dhritarashtra is shocked and grief-stricken, and wants to know about the battle.
Thus begins Sanjaya's description of the battle.

In chapter 877 we get to read about the standards of some of the warriors in the battle. Bhishma's, for instance, had "a large palm tree with five stars", while Drona's "had a golden altar ... adorned with a water pot and the sign of a bow". Duryodhana "had a bejewelled elephant", while Jayadratha had "a beautful silver standard, marked with the sign of a boar."

It is chapter 883 that sees the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, with these words, "Dhritarashtra asked, "O Sanjay! Having gathered on the holy plains of Kurukshetra, wanting to fight, what did my son and sons of Pandu do?"
I will leave out the Gita from this review, except to draw attention to a couple of points. The first is that the Gita translation in this volume is more than a translation. While Bibek Debroy adds footnotes on several pages in the translation, sometimes to clarify, sometimes to add an explanatory note, or sometimes to point out an inconsistency or perhaps error in the Critical Edition, these are relatively sparse. In the Gita however, the footnotes are copious. There are pages where the footnotes take up more space than the translation itself. To call these chapters a translation would be incomplete. I would rather describe them more as an "annotated translation".
The second point is that it is not a straightforward case of an annotated translation either. There are several footnotes where Bibek Debroy makes us aware of, or draws attention to, the fact that while the Gita itself may be the spoken words of the Lord, they do have a subtext, a context, to them that we should be aware of. For instance, one footnote, #157 to be precise, notes, "The expression without finding fault is significant. There must therefore have been opposition to this view or teaching. For instance, there was the school of sannyasa or renunciation, which advocated the giving up of all action."
In some ways, Vol. 5 can be read only for this annotated translation of the Gita.

After the Bhagavad Gita parva begins the Bhishma Vadha sub-parva. This is a long parva, and describes the first ten days of the battle. It contains close to 4000 shlokas. While this parva has vivid and detailed descriptions of the battle, brutally frank at times, especially when describing the mayhem that takes place, these descriptions are are also sometimes repetitive. It is somewhat difficult to get an estimate of the relative strengths of the two armies as the days progressed. We are however told of which army had the better measure of the other at the end of each day, with some exceptions.

Before the proper war could begin, Yudhishtra "removed his armour and cast aside his supreme weapons" and proceeded on foot towards the Kaurava army, which brought cries of alarm from his brothers and the Pandava camp, and shouts of derision from the Kaurava army. Yudhishtra however was seeking blessings from his elders, and more importantly, and cunningly perhaps? asking some key questions. "We are inviting you to fight with us. O father! Grant us the permission. Give us the blessings."

Bhishma's anguish at having to fight on the side of the Kaurava army wass evident as he lamented, "The Kouravyas have robbed me through wealth."
The question that Yudhishtra asked Bhishma was, "How can an enemy kill you in battle", while he asked Drona, "How can we vanquish you in battle?" Bhishma was not in the mood to oblige, just yet, and he brushed off Yudhishstra, saying "I do not see anyone who can defeat me in battle. The time for my death has not arrived. Come to me again later." Drona was more helpful, "As long as I am fighting in battle, you cannot be victorious. ... Except when I am ready for death and have withdrawn myself from weapons and my senses, no warrior can kill me in battle." Vol. 6 will reveal the details of how an elephant came to be killed, how Dharmaraja came to utter a lie, temporarily discarded his dharma, and how the guru came to lay down his weapons.

Krishna once again appealed to Karna, Radheya, "Until Bhishma has been killed, come over to our side. O Radheya! If you perceive both sides to be equal, after Bhishma has been killed, go fight again and help Dhritarashtra's son." Krishna perhaps perceived that Karna would be burning up at the thought of not taking part in the battle. The prospect of fighting alongside Arjuna would have been too much for Karna however. Karna was anyway not a mercenary of sorts that he would have cared for fighting for the sake of fighting. Karna anyway, as we all know, refused.

As the fighting begins, so do the killings. As the killings happen, accounts of sufferings also arise. As you read this parva, it also disabuses you of any notion of war as an antiseptic, sanitized affair, settled with the discharge of celestial weapons fired from afar that bring down soldiers from either army. No. The gore and horrors of war are brought in such vivid terms that it would be a rare soul who will read these chapters and not feel revolted by war. To that extent the war comes off as a terrible price to pay for peace, as it should.
"Driven by the desire to kill, the warriors could not distinguish between their own and those of the enemy. ... the men called loudly for their relatives, their sons, fathers, brothers and kin, their maternal uncles and nephews. In that field of battle, some others called for others. ... Their thighs were broken and their hands and arms torn apart. Their sides were shattered. Some were still alive and could be screaming from thirst. ... With the heads sliced off, some supreme among men still stood, with their bows raised and holding weapons."

Arjuna, when not fighting Bhishma, is a terrible sight to behold, and the destruction he wreaks is terrifying.
"Kiriti made an extremely terrible river flow on the field of battle. The blood was the bodies of men wounded by weapons. The foam was human fat. Its expanse was broad and it flowed swiftly. The banks were formed by the dead bodies of elephants and horses. The mud was the entrails, marrow and flesh of men. ... The moss was formed by heads, with their hair attached. ... The bones of men, horses and elephants were the stones. A large number of crows, jackals, vultures and herons and many predatory beasts like hyenas were seen to line up along its banks."

Dhritarashtra, as he listened to the account of the battle from Sanjaya, sometimes despaired, sometimes accused Sanjay of being partial in his account of the battle. Either way, he remained stubbornly steadfast in refusing to accept the karmic cause of this terrible battle. He is, in some ways, the antithesis of Krishna. "It is my view that destiny is superior to human endeavour" - he repeats often.
"You always tell me that the Pandavas are not being killed and are happy. O Sanjaya! You tell me that those on my side are devoid of manliness and have fallen down, or are falling down, or are being killed. ... I do not see any means whereby the Pandvas may decay and those on my side are able to obtain victory in this battle."

"Such a preparation on earth has never been seen before, by men, or by the immensely fortunate and ancient rishis. ... It they should be killed in battle, how can that be anything other than destiny?"

Sanjay, on his part, kept reminding his king as to where the blame truly lay, and that fate was not to be blamed for this massacre. "Nothing was accomplished because of mantras and nothing was caused by maya." "It is because of your own sins that you have confronted this calamity."

Yudhishtra is Dharmaraja, but as I read Vol. 5, yet the sight of reversals gets him ruffled. He wants victory, but doesn’t seem to trust Arjuna to have the heart to do what is required to achieve it. A conflicted soul.
After the end of battle on the first day, where Bhishma had had the better of the Pandava army, Yudhishtra lamented to Krishna, "He consumes my soldiers with his arrows, like a fire consumes dry grass. How can we possibly glance at the great-souled one? He is licking up my soldiers, like a fire fed with oblations. ... Without a boat, I am immersed in the fathomless waters of Bhishma."
And then, he vented some frustration at Arjuna also. "I see Savyasachi stationed in battle, as if he was a neutral spectator. Bhima alone remembers the dharma of khshatriyas." These were strong words from the eldest Pandava. It is not as if Yudhishtra was over-optimistic of their chances of victory either. Before the fighting began, he had been "overcome with grief" upon seeing the massive Kaurava army, to which Arjuna had replied and consoled his brother, "I do not see any reason for despondency. You have the lord of the universe and the lord of the thirty gods and because of this, you are assured of victory." At the end of the ninth day, when it was clear that Bhishma would soon destroy the entire Pandava army if left unchecked, Yudhishtra again lamented, and asked Krishna, "... tell me what I should do. O Keshava! But this should be without contravening my own dharma. ... O Madhava! As you had promised, help us, but without taking part in the fight.

Arjuna's heart seemed to be less than fully committed to the battle, as Yudhishtra had observed. Though he fought, he was less than effective against his grandsire, Bhishma. On Day 3, Bhishma had been in devastating form, and there was chaos in the Pandava army. Despite Krishna's exhortations to fight, Arjuna was "mild". "Krishna witnessed Bhishma's valour in the battle and saw the mildness with which the mighty-armed Arjuna countered him. ... Bhishma was killing the best of the best among the soldiers of Pandu's son. Bhishma was like the fire of destruction amidst Yudhishtra's army. The lord Keshava, the destroyer of enemy heroes, could not longer tolerate this."
Krishna decides to take matters into his own hands, literally. "I will kill Bhishma and his followers and Drona. ... I will kill all the sons of Dhritarashtra... Vasudeva's son discarded the reins of the chariot and raised the chakra in his hand." Though Bhishma welcomed the lord, Arjuna tried to restrain Krishna. Such wass Krishna's strength and anger, that "Vishnu dragged Jishnu after him with great force. ... Partha forcibly grasped him by the feet. O king! Thus grasping him with force, Kirit succeeded in stopping him at the tenth step." It is interesting that this show of anger from Krishna did not have its effect on Arjuna for long. On the ninth day, less than a week later, the same drama repeated itself, in almost identical fashion.

Bhima alone was the warrior who approached this war with a clear mind, free from doubt and confusion. He set about methodically destroying the Kaurava army.
"He killed some with his legs. He brought down others and pressed them down. He beheaded some with his sword and frightened others with his roars. The force of his thighs brought others down on the ground. Others fled on seeing him, dying out of terror. ...
We saw dead elephants strewn along whichever path Bhimasena took, like mountains. ...
His body was smeared with fat, blood, lard and marrow. Vrikodara whirled his club, drenched with the blood of elephants. He seemed to be as terrible as Pinaki, the weilder of Pinaka."
On Day 6, Bhima, leaving his charioteer Vishoka behind, "descended from his chariot and grasped a club. With this, he began to kill the soldiers of the sons of Dhritarashtra, which was like a great ocean." In some ways, I am more inclined to think of Bhima as the true karmayogi in the battle.

Duryodhana is dismayed that his eleven akshaunis and the mighty warriors in his army were unable to get the better of the smaller Pandava army. He coaxed, chided, and remonstrated with the commander of the army, Bhishma, almost every single day of the battle. 
On the night of the eighth day of battle however, Duryodhana could take it no longer. He consulted Karna, Shakuni, and Duhshasana. Karna suggested that "Let Bhishma, Shantanu's son, withdraw from this great battle. ... I will kill the Parthas." Bhishma was naturally pained at this suggestion, and "Overcome with grief and anger, he thought for a long time." Bhishma resolved to "kill all the assembled Somakas and the Panchalas", except Shikhandi. Duryodhana asks his brother to make sure that Bhishma was adequately protected from Shikhandi, lest "Shikhandi not be like a wolf that kills a tiger."

On the night of the ninth day, Yudhishtra and others approached Bhishma, who himself told them the way to remove him from battle. Now that it had been decided that the tenth day of battle would see Shikhandi fight in front of Arjuna, and that the decisive battle with Bhishma would take place, Arjuna "was tormented by grief" He asked Vasudeva, "As a child, I used to play with the great-minded one. .. I used to sully the great-souled one's garments with the dust on my body, when I used to climb onto his lap as a child." A heartbreaking moment for Arjuna.

On the tenth day, as Shikhandi advanced towards Bhishma, and showered him with arrows, Bhishma did not retaliate. "Gangeya glanced at Shikhandi with anger blazing in his eyes. ... He seemed to burn him down the look in his eyes."

Despite all the fighting, it was only towards the end of the tenth day of battle that Bhishma finally fell, not to Shikhandi, but to Arjuna's arrows. He spoke to Duhshasana, "They have been shot in a continuous stream. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows. They have penetrated my firm armour and have mangled my inner organs. They have struck me with the force of clubs. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows. ... These are Arjuna's arrows. These cannot be Shikandi's arrows."

On the night of the tenth day, there was a stream of visitors to the fallen Bhishma. One of them was Karna. Bhishma told Karna of his parentage, "You are a Kounteya. You are not a Radheya. I have known this from Narada and from Krishna Dvaipayana and Keshava. ... I have spoken harsh words towards you for the sake of reducing your energy. It is my view that you hated the Pandavas without any reason." How did Dhritarashta's react to this stunning piece of news. Remember that this is Sanjaya’s account of the battle to Dhritarashtra. Surely the blind king could not have been but affected by this news. One of the three pillars of Duryodhana, along with Duhshasana and Shakuni, Karna was the trunk of the tree that was Duryodhana. What did Dhritarashtra think of this event? We never do learn of Dhritarashtra’s reaction.

Drona took over as the commander of the Kaurava army after Bhishma fell. Karna also joined the Kaurava army. And the battle continued.

The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune), for his translation. The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of my writing this review of the fifth volume, five volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 5, published in June 2012. The sixth one has been completed, and is scheduled for publication in November 2012.

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. Consider this. In the early 1980s, while at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the author wrote a paper where he did a "statistical test on the frequency with which the five Pandavas used various weapons in the Kurukshetra war." Yes. Different.

Disclosure: I received this fifth volume of the Mahabharata translation ex-gratis from Penguin Publishers India, due in no small part to the translator, Dr. Bibek Debroy, who read my reviews and was kind enough to appreciate them.

Book Details:
Publisher: Penguin
No. of Pages: 632
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Publishing Date: 2012

Vol. 5 Kindle Excerpt:

Mahabharata, Vol. 4
Amazon, Kindle, India PlazaFlipkart
My blog post
My review on Amazon

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jun 24, 2012

Magic Tree House #1: Dinosaurs Before Dark - My Review

Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House, No. 1) (Book & CD) (Kindle, Box Set)
Mary Pope Osborne (Author), Sal Murdocca (Illustrator)
A Magical Book, a Magical Adventure, Can't Wait to Dive Into the Rest
5 stars
This is a magical adventure book. Jack and Annie are siblings. Jack is eight-and-a-half, while Annie is seven, and very precocious. Their adventure begins in a tree house they discover near their house. Finding a tree house is cause for excitement. Finding books inside the tree house is even better. Books that make their wishes come true is truly magical! Their adventure begins when the book takes them back, 65 million years in the past to be precise, to a world where dinosaurs roam the world! There they see, and even pet, a plant-eating dinosaur, a pteranadon. They come dangerously close to a meat-eating dinosaur, the terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex. How Jack and Annie escape from the dinosaur, and back to their tree house, and then back to their world of today is the rest of the adventure.

The author's style of writing is simple, conversational, and invites you to dive into the book, into a magical world. There is also a subtle amount of learning that the author cleverly inserts in. I need to read more adventures from the series to better understand how much and how effective this is.

This was the first "Magic Tree House" adventure I read, and this is also the first story in the series. This is a very satisfying read, and I suspect children should be able to finish off this book in an hour or two. There are gray illustrations that are liberally sprinkled throughout the book and help the reader visualize the adventure.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jun 17, 2012

Mahabharata Vol. 5, by Bibek Debroy - Part 1

Mahabharata, Vol. 5, translated by Bibek Debroy

(KindleFlipkart, Flipkart e-bookAmazonInfiBeam, BookAdda, Landmark, my review on Amazon)
Amba and Shikhandi, and Bhishma - A Chapter, Begun in the Court of the King of Kashi, Will End on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra
5 stars  This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
Review: Part 1
(Edited Oct 31, 2012)
First off, let’s go over what the fifth volume of the unabridged translation of the Mahabharata by Bibek Debroy covers. It contains sub-parvas sixty through sixty-six. It completes the Udyoga Parva (fifth Parva) with the "Amba Upakhyana" (or "Ambopakhyana") sub-Parva (60th sub-Parva).  It contains the entire "Bhishma" Parva (sixth parva), which in turns contains the "Jambukhanda-Vinirmana", "Bhumi", "Bhagavad Gita", and "Bhishma Vadha" sub-Parvas. Volume 5 begins the "Drona" Parva (seventh parva), and within it contains the "Dronabhisheka" and "Samshaptaka-vadha" Parvas (sixty-fifth and sixty-sixth sub-parvas, respectively). This volume therefore covers the first 10 days of the Mahabharata war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The only major warrior to fall in the first ten days is Bhishma. Fittingly enough, the volume begins with the story of Amba, the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi, and how she was reborn as Shikhandi, and how she turned into a man, permanently. The word ‘permanently’ is pertinent, as I will explain. Amba, reborn as Shikhandi, was responsible for Bhishma's death on the battlefield.

There are two tales, a sermon, and ten days of war described in this volume. And oh yes, more death and gore than you can count.

Once the battle has begun, I was treated, in a manner of speaking, to some gory descriptions of the carnage wrought by the war and by warriors like Bhima. Some of the passages however became repetitive, and after some time I found it difficult to distinguish one day’s battle from the other. The descriptions of the days’ battles take up a bulk of the book, and each day’s battle is described in two-three chapters. While there is no hard and fast rule followed, you will however find that one chapter describes the beginning of the day and the battle, while a second chapter will describe the battle till afternoon, while the third chapter will take us through the end of the day’s battle. There are descriptions of vyuhas designed by the commanders of the Kuru and Pandava armies, but what significance they have on the outcome of that day’s battle is also not clear. We know that the chakra vyuha on the thirteenth day will prove to be fatal to Abhimanyu, but that’s only on one day.

Let us look at the two principal stories that are described on the eve of the war, in the "Amba Upakhyana" (or "Ambopakhyana") sub-parva. As I had written, Vol, 4 ended on the tantalizing note of Bhishma about to begin why he would not attack or kill Shikhandi.

Before we can hear Shikhandi’s story, we need to know Amba’s tragic story.

The only reason why Amba, the eldest daughter of the King of Kashi, was rejected by Shalva seems to be ego. Shalva could not bear to see the woman he loved be carried off by another, even as he felt himself powerless to fight the mighty Bhishma. The short of it is that Bhishma had gone to the king of Kashi, where the king's three daughters were being offered for marriage as "viryashulka" (and not in a swaymvar, as is mistakenly thought; the concept of viryashulka itself is less than wholesome to my mind), put them on his chariot, defeated the gathered princes and kings, and brought them to Hastinapur for marriage to his step-brother Vichitravirya, son of Satyavati. Amba however wanted to marry Shalva, and Bhishma agreed, sending her to Shalva, accompanied by maids and brahmanas. Shalva however was an angry, defeated, petulant, and frustrated man. He took out his frustration on Amba, and refused to marry her. "You were won by Bhishma and seemed to be delighted then." No amount of persuading or pleading by Amba worked, and Shalva abandoned Amba, "the way a snake discards its old skin." He did however, at the end of Chapter 835, admit the reason behind his rejection - "I am frightened of Bhishma. You are Bhishma's property." That is neither a chivalrous nor a very decent attitude to take. Nonetheless, it is what he did, and Amba was all alone and confused. In frustration, she blamed Bhishma, her father ("whose intelligence is foolish"), herself, Shalva, and even the creator. She was then advised by brahmans against staying on in the forest ("On seeing you alone in this deserted and dense forest, kings will solicit you"), and nor did she want to back to her father ("I will be disrespected by my relatives"). Eventually, a learned brahmana, Hotravahana, advised her to go see the great Parashurama. After listening to Amba, Akritavrana, Parashurama's follower, asked her to clarify what she wanted of Parashurama - Shalva to be asked to take her back, or Bhishma to be vanquished. One course of action would have been to right a wrong, the other to avenge a wrong.

Parashurama was reluctant to take up arms, saying, "But I cannot take up weapons in any way, unless I am instructed to do so by brahamans. That is my resolution." Amba and Akritavrana argued back and forth with Rama (Parashurama). Finally, Parashurama agreed, but not to do outright battle against Bhishma if it could be avoided. He wanted to first try and persuade Bhishma, but was also clear that should Bhishma not agree to his request, he would slay Bhishma - "... I will kill that insolent person. The arrows that I unleash do not remain in bodies." Irresistible force.

Bhishma was in a dilemma because Parashurama had also been his teacher, his guru, "... you yourself taught me the four kinds of weapons." The four kinds of weapons, Bibek Debroy, the translator, tells us are "mukta", "amukta", "mukta-amukta", and "yantra-mukta" (it's quite an intelligent taxonomy when you read about it in the footnote). A guru therefore cannot be killed. "...I cannot kill a preceptor in battle, especially one who is a brahamana..." Bhishma however also had to face the realty that Parashurama was promising to vanquish him in battle. His kshatriya dharma was clear. "If one sees a brahmana with an upraised weapon ... dharma is clear that no sin is committed from killing a brahmana."  And he was also quite self-assured, some may say arrogant, about his prowess. "You have often boasted in assemblies that you have exterminated kshatriyas from the world. But listen to my words. At that time, Bhishma had not been born and there were no kshatriyas like me." Immovable object.

After several days of fierce battle between the two, Bhishma one night prayed that he may find a way to defeat Parashurama. Early in the morning brahmanas come to him in his sleep and advise him to use the "Prajapatya" weapon, also known as "prasvapan", created by Vishwakarma, and which could put anyone to sleep. Note that a similar weapon, by a different name, was used by Arjuna against the Kurus during the Go-Harana episode. The next day, as Bhishma got ready and aimed that weapon at Parashurama, the celestial sage Narada appeared before him and advised him not to discharge the prasvapan weapon. Bhishma acceded, and accordingly withdrew the weapon. Parashurama considered that to be his defeat, since, Bibek Debroy, the translator, writes in a footnote, "Bhishma had voluntarily withdrawn the weapon and in a way, Parashurama had been defeated."

Left without any possibility of anyone defeating Bhishma now, since even the mighty Parashurama had failed, Amba performed terrible austerities for twelve years, and finally Shiva appeared before her. He told her that she would be born as "a maharatha in Drupada's lineage."
Upon hearing this, Amba could wait no longer, and made "an extremely large funeral pyre and set fire to it." The text brings out very vividly the terrible nature of the hatred that Amba harboured against Bhishma - "When the fire was blazing, with rage igniting her senses, she said, 'This is for Bhishma's destruction.'" and "entered the fire." The fire of vengeance that had been burning inside Amba for more than a decade now culminated in literally consuming her. And thus ended one chapter.

The tale of Shikhandi is an equally painful one, though not one with such a fiery end. Shikhandi was Amba, reborn as Drupada's daughter. Why Drupada wanted a son who would kill Bhishma is not clear. Perhaps, as some translations have suggested, he wanted to wreak vengeance not only on Drona, but also on Bhishma. After all, it was Bhishma, the patriarch of the Kurus, who had appointed Drona as the guru of the Kuru princes, and therefore could have been seen by Drupada as also culpable. It is another matter that all three of Drupada's children, Shikhandi, Dhrishtadhyumna, and Draupadi, end up living fairly tragic lives.

Lord Shiva, also known as "Shambhu", granted the boon of a son to Drupada, but not in a straightforward way. Why Lord Shiva chose the circuitous way of granting Drupada’s wish is not clear. He told Drupada that he would have a daughter who would later turn into a man. After a daughter was born to Drupada's queen, Drupada had it proclaimed that "A son has been born to me." and also "... concealed the facts and had all the rites performed for a son, as if he had a son." Perhaps Drupada had hoped that the daughter would turn into a man shortly after birth. That did not happen, and the girl came of age. Drupada decided to get her married, to a woman - such was the desperation of the man - the daughter of the lord of Dasharna. One wonders just how did Drupada think the fact of Shikhandi's gender would remain hidden, especially after her marriage! And find out the truth did her wife. One can imagine the anger of King Hiranyavarma at this terrible deception. He promised to "kill King Drupada, together with Shikhandi."

It is perhaps fitting that the Mahabharata allude to Drupada's character in this episode, when it says, "King Drupada was timid by nature. In addition, the lord of men was guilty." Guilty of deception. He approached his queen for help, who sought somewhat to take the blame upon herself. When Shikhandi learned of these troubles his parents were facing, she "was overcome with grief" and "made up her mind to kill herself" and left the capital of Panchala (now modern day Aligarh) for a "deep and deserted forest." There a yaksha named Sthunakarna took pity on her, and in a most extraordinary act of generosity, offered this exchange - "For a limited period of time, I will give you my male organ. But I tell you truthfully that when the time is over, you must return to me. ... I will bear your female organs." Shikhandi agreed - "When King Hemavarma has returned to Dasharna, I will become a maiden again and you will become a man." And thus was Shikhandi able to help out his father and also pacify his father-in-law. This exchange, however, was temporary, right? Did it become permanent? Yes. It did. It so happened that one day Kubera, the god of wealth, came by Sthuna's residence. Kubera was incensed on hearing what had happened, and cursed Sthuna, ".. you have committed an act that has never been done before. Therefore, from now on, you will be a woman and not a man." The only concession he offered was that "When Shikhandi has been killed in battle, the yaksha Sthuna will regain his old form."

And so it came to pass that Bhishma told Duryodhana why he would "not shoot arrows at a woman, one who had earlier been a woman, one who has the name of a woman and one who has the form of a woman."

Duryodhana then asked Bhishma and others how much time they would need to destroy the Pandava army. Bhishma and Drona both estimated one month, while Kripa estimated it would take him two months. Ashwatthama estimated ten nights, while Karna thought he could decimate the Pandava army in only five nights. This elicited a scornful retort from Bhishma, "You are capable of saying a lot and saying anything that you want."

Thus ends Udyoga Parva.
And begins Bhishma Parva.

I had thought of putting up the entire review in one post. That proved to be difficult for two reasons. The first is that I have not yet finished reading Volume 5, and it is already Sunday night. I wanted to put up a review this weekend. If I did not, I would have to wait till the next weekend to do so, or longer. A partial review, that stopped at some logical point, would have to suffice for this weekend. Second, Bhishma Parva contains the Bhagvad Gita parva, which I do not want to include as a section in a review. Far be it from me to claim that I will be able to understand the Gita, but I do want to reserve some blog posts exclusively for that.

There you go.

Bibek Debroy, the translator, is an economist with a difference. Consider this. In the early 1980s, while at the Presidency College in Kolkata, the author wrote a paper where he did a "statistical test on the frequency with which the five Pandavas used various weapons in the Kurukshetra war." Yes. Different.

The author has followed the Critical Edition from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune), for his translation. The entire series is expected to run into ten volumes, and so far, at the time of my writing this review of the fifth volume, five volumes have been released, with each volume appearing roughly every six months, the most recent one, Vol. 5, published in June 2012. The sixth one, the author informed, has been completed, and is scheduled for publication in November 2012.

Disclosure: I received this fifth volume of the Mahabharata translation ex-gratis from Penguin Publishers India, due in no small part to the translator, Dr. Bibek Debroy, who read my reviews and was kind enough to appreciate them.

Book Details:
Publisher: Penguin
No. of Pages: 632
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Publishing Date: 2012

Vol. 5 Kindle Excerpt:

Mahabharata, Vol. 4
Amazon, Kindle, India PlazaFlipkart
My blog post
My review on Amazon

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jun 10, 2012

Review - Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Mara Hvistendahl

(Amazon, Kindle, Flipkart, Flipkart e-bookBookAdda, LandmarkThisYaThat, Powell's, My review on Amazon)
5 stars  This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.

"‘Think clear’ about birth control, and you will remain here until you do."
This book, a Pulitzer finalist in the non-fiction category in 2012, is a grim tale about the history, consequences, and the roles of governments, societies, and aid organizations in the race to slow down population growth and the catastrophic effects it has had on unborn girls and on society in general. The results have been uniformly disastrous, with the worst yet to come. As far as prescriptions go, the outlook is perhaps just as bleak.
The book is organized into three sections, "Everyone Has Boys Now", "A Great Idea", and "The Womanless World", and each section in turn focuses on one specific aspect of the issue, whether it is the parents, the doctors, the economists, the geneticists, and so on.

Causes for the declining gender ratio can be traced to economic prosperity, but only to an extent. Religious and cultural explanations do not hold up to close scrutiny. The role of Western institutions and aid agencies has been largely unexamined, who played a pivotal role in funding early abortion programs in developing countries, and actually providing the cover needed by governments to actually suggest gender-based abortions as a way of controlling overpopulation. The consequences of a world without girls are myriad and dark. A surfeit of men leads to exploitation of women, where some are sold off as brides, others are kidnapped and forced into marriage, while others are kidnapped and forced into the flesh trade. Men, left to their own devices, are more prone to violence and crime, live shorter lives, and suffer disproportionately from depression.

If there is one lesson that can be learned from this book, it is perhaps that of unintended consequences. Even with the best and noblest of intentions the consequences of actions can sometimes be tragically unforeseen. In a problem as vexing and complicated as population growth, the decidedly hasty acts of governments and institutions have had the consequences of hastening the disappearance of over 160 million girls in the world. That more than twenty-five times the number of people who were done to death in concentration camps by the Nazis.

In my opinion, it is somewhat of an injustice that this book did not win the Pulitzer Prize, such is the lucidity of writing and the  importance of the book. This book must be required reading for international aid agencies, for governments around the world, not to mention people in the medical profession, and lastly parents. In the developing as well as the developed world - there are no blameless actors in this tragedy, except the girl children not allowed to be born, and those that have been born and are looking at a bleak future.

In summary, this is perhaps the best, and the most important, book I have read this year, and I cannot recommend this enough to all.

Review in detail

How do you even get to know in a society that the girl child is not being allowed to be born – either through infanticide or by the aborting of a female foetus? There are several ways in which this can be inferred, even without searching for physical evidence of the crime. The biggest piece of evidence is statistical. There is the historical and natural distribution of boys and girls that has held remarkably constant throughout history, some explainable and unexplained anomalies notwithstanding.
"For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ratio at birth. The ratio can vary slightly in certain conditions and from one geographic region to the next. More boys are born after wars. More girls are born around the equator, for reasons we don’t yet understand. … anything between 104 and 106 is considered acceptable"
The fact that "more boys are born is itself a form of balance, neatly making up for the fact that males are more likely to die young." 
Another item is the gap between the first and the second child, especially if the latter child happens to be a boy – this means there is a strong chance that there may have been a girl foetus that was aborted somewhere along the way between the two births.

Also on hand as evidence is the ratio for second and third and fourth births. "In 1989, at the height of South Korea’s sex selection binge, the country’s sex ratio for first births was 104—just about normal. For second births it was 113, for third births it was 185, and for fourth births it was 209." If sex-selective abortions were not taking place, there is no reason for the ratio for second and subsequent births to be so skewed.

This is important to remember, because, "In 2007 South Korea reported a normal sex ratio at birth for the first time in over twenty years, becoming the only formerly imbalanced country in the world to wipe out sex selective abortion."
Huh? This is terrific news, right? Gender imbalances can correct themselves over time, as nations develop and grow richer, right? Well, only partly true if at that. And remember that "Sex selection was always something Korean couples turned to for second or third births." Therefore, "Doctors and demographers alike now cite the low pregnancy rate as the primary cause of South Korea’s balanced sex ratio at birth."

And this is very convenient for institutions like the World Bank and others that funded and encouraged gender-based abortions in these countries for decades.
"If Asia’s gender imbalance is on track to disappear, there is no need to acknowledge the role Western organizations played in causing it—like, for example, the $30 million the World Bank earmarked for population control in Korea during a period of entrenched coercion. And there is no need to delve into messy abortion politics and risk a difficult discussion about women abusing choice."
Anyway, moving on with the review…

Is religion, culturally regressive traditions, or race to blame for gender imbalances? No, Not really. Both Confucianism and Hinduism reserve the most terrible of fates for those who kill fetuses. As does Christianity condemn abortions. Nor does culture account for these imbalances. You have gender imbalances in regions as dispersed as India, China, Vietnam ("which wasn’t supposed to be patriarchal enough to avoid having girls"), the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and so on. Easy, stereotypical explanations will have to go out the window. They won’t do.

For all the hand-wringing over Asian cultures obsessing over the gender of the unborn baby, it was Acu-Gen Biolab, a US company that came out, in 2005, with a kit priced at $275, called "Baby Gender Mentor", advertised as "99.99 percent accurate" at predicting sex at five weeks. Go figure. It is another matter that the company had to file for bankruptcy after a spate of lawsuits.

Rising economic prosperity is a big causal factor in gender imbalances. As is education. Paradoxical but true – "According to India’s 2001 census, women with high school diplomas and above who gave birth over the previous year had 114 boys for every 100 girls. Among illiterate women, by contrast, the sex ratio for recent births was just over 108—still skewed, but much closer to normal". There is a link to technology too, expectedly. Rising economic prosperity and the concomitant access to technology go hand-in-hand - "sex selection typically starts with the urban, well educated stratum of society. Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology".

Overenthusiastic governments, coercive regimes too have played a role. The role of Western governments and elitist institutions turns out to be hitherto mostly unexamined, and more ominously, more critical in the disappearance of 160 million girls that previously thought.

A researcher who figures a lot in the early sections of the book is "Christophe Guilmoto, now a senior fellow at the Institut de recherche pour le développement in Paris. …  In 2005 he calculated that if Asia’s sex ratio at birth had remained at its natural equilibrium of 105 over the past few decades, the continent would have an additional 163 million females." Even before that, however, it was Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, who had written an essay in The New York Review of Books, titled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing", which had served as a "wakeup call" for western governments and researchers. Some were so aghast at the number "that they concluded it must be the result of girls going unregistered", while others went for the fashionably and stereotypically acceptable but egregiously "false accounts of female infanticide and widespread abandonment of girls in India". "Others dreamed up still more fanciful explanations."
Even "Asian scholars working on the ground, meanwhile, talked to average people extensively and then offered up narrow conclusions that explained sex selection as the product of local practices and traditions. In India they looked at the convention of dowry, which made daughters expensive; in China they focused on the one-child policy, which meant parents had limited chances to have a son."

Fertility, or more accurately, rapidly dropping fertility rates, is one cause behind this gender imbalance. "In the late 1960s, the average Asian woman had 5.7 children. In 2006 she had 2.3".

This means that as family sizes go down, the chances of a girl being born diminish rapidly after the first birth. How so? "… very few abort because of the fetus’s sex during the first pregnancy. We know this because around the world the sex ratio at birth jumps abruptly with birth order. In 1989, at the height of South Korea’s sex selection binge, the country’s sex ratio for first births was 104 - just about normal. For second births it was 113, for third births it was 185, and for fourth births it was 209" - such high ratios are as clear an indication as one needs to know that gender-based abortions have been pervasive for second, third, and fourth births.

Women empowerment has also contributed to this epidemic. Paradoxical, again, but not really so when you think about it. "... women are hardly immune from a craving for status, even if it comes at the expense of their own kind. … Development, remember, was supposed to improve the lot of women—and in many areas it does. But when it comes to reproduction, the opposite happens: women use their increased autonomy to select for sons."

Why did fertility rates drop? Why did they drop so fast? What was the technology that aided this decline? Who were the actors in this drama? One explanation for large family sizes, that the author does not include in the book, could be high rates of infant mortality through much of history, till the advent of vaccinations. High infant mortality rates meant that most families tended to go for safety in numbers, knowing that the chances of one or more of their children dying before they achieved adulthood were high. Entrenched ways of thinking would take decades, if not longer, to fade away.

Drops in fertility rates did not arise solely because of rising economic prosperity. The alarm bells about the dangers of over-population were raised first not in developing countries, but in developed countries. And the means to deal with this "population bomb" were developed in the developed world, and then thrust down the throats of the developing world, aided, by more than willing governments.

And thus begins this very sordid chapter in the tragic epic.
As Western powers saw Asian, African, and Latin American countries gain independence, they also started to see the ghost of communism lurking in every such country. And for reasons best explained only by these Western intellectuals, they saw a correlation between over-population and communism. Somehow, the equation went somewhat like this: population = poverty; poverty = communism; communism = evil; therefore control population growth. Hence, to combat communism, it became necessary to "convince" these countries to cut down their population growths.

""We are not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control," Moore and Clayton once confided to Rockefeller. "We are interested in the use which Communists make of hungry people in their drive to conquer the earth."" 
Hugh Moore was the millionaire inventor of the Dixie Cup. John D. Rockefeller III was heir to the Rockefeller family fortune, while Will Clayton was former undersecretary of state.

The India Story
Since India is home to the world’s second largest population (currently more than 1.2 billion), and also an underdeveloped country – at least in the 1950s and 1960s (and the 1970s and 1980s too; it now proudly calls itself a "developing" country) it was a basket case of socialism, statism, and dynastic rule, it has been and was the focus of the kind attentions of several development agencies. But the story, it turns out, begins even earlier. How far back do we need to go? To the good old days of the British Raj, when the sweet air of Imperialism pervaded the subcontinent, and the writings of the scholars of the Raj left no stone unturned to find evil in the colony’s culture, its religion, and its people. Where they could not, they manufactured it.

"…British military historian John William Kaye, who succeeded John Stuart Mill as secretary of the East India Company Political and Secret Department", was one such luminary, and he had "infinite energy for detailing Indians’ faults, and he devoted an entire chapter of his book to female infanticide." What brings a wry smile is the author’s observation that "But England’s imperialists took care to distinguish India’s baby killings from the abuses that occurred on their own turf. "In this Christian country, it is to be feared that the dark crime of infanticide is painfully on the increase," Kaye wrote of England. "Still it is only a crime - incidental, exceptional. In some parts of India it has been, for many generations, a custom.""

Q.E.D. Our evil is an aberration, yours is a custom - you have got to love this line of thinking.

What would have been most depressing to Kaye, the eminent historian, however, would have been the concession, "in his curmudgeonly way that there was no link between infanticide and the Hindu faith: "It is almost the one exceptional case of a barbarous custom, that has not the sanction expressed or implied, by precept or example, of the monstrous faith which these people profess.""
At least let us be appreciative of the gleeful choice of the epithet "monstrous faith" applied to Hinduism. Like the exception that proved the rule.

But this is not the end of it. No. Had the Indian summer-heat-induced delusional ramblings of the distinguished colonial gentleman remained just that, things could have been dismissed as not relevant to the present. However, ignorance, when combined with racism, led to some rather tragic consequences in the Indian subcontinent that was ruled by the British for two hundred years.
"Marriage practices change over time, of course. Bride-price and dowry have long fluctuated with economic cycles. But the colonial surveyors treated the Indian marital practices they encountered as if they were static, … As time went on, the idea that some castes and tribes had always killed girls evolved into doctrine. The report that accompanied the 1901 census, which found continued evidence of girl killing, explained that some castes had a tradition of female infanticide dating to "olden times." The 1921 census went one step further, classifying India’s castes into those that killed their daughters and those that didn’t. …Western officials, philosophers, and writers were swept up in a search for proof that the darker, southern inhabitants of the world needed to be civilized. …No custom was too obscure, no native crime too sensational."
"Flabby analysis of subcontinent history persisted well into the twentieth century. According to the historians Barbara and Thomas Metcalf, the idea that "because India was ‘timeless,’ the village and caste organization of colonial or even contemporary India was a guide to its historical past" remains one of the central misperceptions in histories of India."
If overpopulation was a concern for the British colonialists, they have to be lauded even more for their humane concern for the subjugated natives. When Sir Winston Churchill was not gorging on seven-course meals and diverting food grains from a famine-stricken Bengal for his citizenry, you had equally distinguished luminaries dishing out equally genocidal prescriptions. "In the courses on political economy Thomas Malthus gave at Haileybury, a college set up by the British East India Company to train colonial officers, he taught students that aiding the starving during Indian famines would boost overpopulation."

A heady concoction of sloppy research, recidivist racism, an abiding faith in the impeachability of imperialism, and an equally visceral contempt for the natives all combined to produce colonial interventions of such stupendous stupidity that the tragic consequences are being borne by the colonies even today. "Imprecise and wrong-headed categories became exact and prescient with time. "The prescription for these societal ills was, almost without fail, intervention."

When, after independence from the British colonialists, Indian researchers started to pore over the "meticulous records in archives in Bombay" (now "Mumbai") and Delhi, what they found was:
 "no less than remarkable: the British tax collection drive that occasioned Jonathan Duncan’s discovery of female infanticide had actually helped cause the crime. … In 1793, as it consolidated its power in the interior, the East India Company overhauled India’s system of land administration, introducing stricter, more delineated property rights. The new order was essentially medieval feudalism transported to India, where such an arrangement had never before existed. Women had once held property rights, but now they were excluded from owning land." (Metcalf and Metcalf, Concise History, 91.))
Apart from the burden of dowry that daughters entailed, "with taxes higher than before, having a daughter could mean losing the family land. … The choice these families made, to kill rather than accept diminished status, was hardly noble. It is important, however, to note that they made it in the face of rapid change - not because of tradition."
"But as the British tightened their control over India, female infanticide spread to other groups. First it worsened among the Rajputs, spreading from the top-ranking subcastes to less powerful ones. Then in 1795, when the first land reforms were introduced, the Rajputs lost 40 percent of their land. To make up for the loss they began demanding higher and higher dowries from the castes below them. Female infanticide then trickled down, catching on among lower castes as well."
It would take the British colonialists almost 80 years to unveil "the Female Infanticide Act in an effort to abolish the practice they had unwittingly encouraged.", which also helped cement the taint that Indians practiced infanticide, and that too to such an extent that it required a special law to curb it. Here’s a tip of the hat to the venerable old empire.

Moving on, and to more modern times…

Speaking with Dr. Puneet Bedi at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, the question that arises is, "What if the indiscriminate elimination of girls was planned—not by individual parents thinking only of themselves but by some larger force? And if the Indian and U.S. governments and leading Western organizations played a role in that planning?"

And thus begins a new chapter in this book.
 "Following the 1952 Conference on Population Problems in Colonial Williamsburg, Western activists had seized on the idea that if a family planning approach worked in India, with its mushrooming, impoverished population, it might work anywhere in the world."
"In 1975 the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country’s most prestigious medical school, unveiled India’s first amniocentesis tests at its government teaching hospital."
Since Indians wanted boys, if the abortion of female fetuses was somehow facilitated, then these under-developed nations could stop breeding more of their own kind. Problem solved. Thus the help of our Indian medical professionals was enlisted to set India on the path of redemption.
"Shortly after the amniocentesis tests began, several AIIMS doctors published a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics explaining the project as an experimental trial with potential to be introduced on a larger scale. Indian couples clearly desired sex selection, wrote Dr. I. C. Verma and colleagues. And that interest, if tapped more widely, could be a boon for India - and the world: In India cultural and economic factors make the parents desire a son, and in many instances the couple keeps on reproducing just to have a son. Prenatal determination of sex would put an end to this unnecessary fecundity. There is of course the tendency to abort the fetus if it is female. This may not be acceptable to persons in the West but in our patients this plan of action was followed in seven of eight patients who had the test carried out primarily for the determination of sex of the fetus. The parents elected for abortion without any undue anxiety." (C. Verma et al., "Prenatal Diagnosis of Genetic Disorders," Indian Pediatrics, May 1975, 384.)
To understand how Western institutions and governments financed this sex-selective abortion orgy, you have to go back to "the mid-1960s, when Sheldon Segal, head of the Population Council’s biomedical division, headed to Delhi for an overseas post. … the World Bank wielded so much power in India that it could determine the duties of Indian government cabinet members - and recommended that the colonel (Lieutenant Colonel B. L. Raina, the former Army Medical Corps officer who had become India’s director of family planning. Before Segal arrived, Raina had been responsible for both population control and maternal and child health) give up the maternal health focus and make population issues his "unconditional first priority.""

Giving money to countries like India with "no strings attached was a bad idea".  "At the 1952 Colonial Williamsburg meeting, Rockefeller Foundation representative Warren Weaver had cautioned that India was in danger of becoming 'nigger rich.'" Such concern for India and Indians was heartwarming, and we as a nation should remain eternally grateful for that solicitousness displayed. Not that such attitudes were the exclusive preserve of such people. Indians were not going to be left behind. "The racism and eugenic logic of the population control movement resonated with India’s upper classes, who feared a high birth rate among the poor."

Sheldon Segal could well have been a modern day politician, and a very successful one at that. He wrote in his memoir that sex-selective abortions at AIIMS "shocked and upset" him. "What he neglected to mention is that shortly after his stay in India he went on the record promoting sex determination as an effective method of population control."

A natural, and logical, extension of government-funded sex-selective female abortions was, you guessed it, forcible sterilizations of "poor men"! Our beloved leader, the greatest of great Indians, Shrimati Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, declared a state of Emergency on June 25, 1975, her brave son and equally passionate lover of democracy Sanjay Gandhi took charge of this noble mission of sterilizing Indians, and his loyal bureaucrats set about fulfilling the lord-and-master’s dictats. "Nearly two thousand men died from botched operations. … By the time democratic rule was restored, 6.2 million Indian men had been sterilized in just one year - fifteen times the number of people sterilized by the Nazis." This goes on to show what a determined government and dedicated bureaucracy can do. No wonder there are some who wish and long wistfully for those halcyon days of yore. If you think I am joking, funnily enough, I am not. "As late as 2001, the anthropologist Barbara Miller found that many Indian intellectuals remained loath to criticize sex selective abortion because "it serves as a quiet way to deal with ‘overpopulation.’"

"Western experts later distanced themselves from the excesses of the Indian Emergency, but records from the time show that many advisers supported, if not cheered, India’s fling with despotism."

Much of the general population’s notions and fears about overpopulation, and more specifically, overpopulation in poor, underdeveloped countries, countries like India and China were informed by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, "The Population Bomb", where he wrote with prose designed to elicit revulsion from the Western reader, about his family trip to India (where else) and where they experienced the horrors of a poor nation breeding like rabbits, and "People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.", and worrying, as any self-respecting intellectual would, "Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened." And why wouldn’t they be? "Indians, he implied, were "multiplying like rabbits."" And where would these starving, poor, defecating, urinating, teeming millions "turn but to America’s wealth?"
"Among the policy prescriptions described in The Population Bomb was an increase in funding for sex determination research. "[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males," Ehrlich wrote, seven years before doctors at AIIMS introduced sex determination to India as a family planning tool, "then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.""
Even before Ehrlich’s literary, scientific, and social masterpiece was published, "sex determination as a method of population control" was probably first espoused in October 1967, at a conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the "American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development" to "explore cutting-edge research in family planning."

Such research and such methods were categorized as being "high" in ethical value by none other than "Berelson, the Population Council president who had chaired the 1967 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development meeting". Ensuring "child health" by killing the child off in the womb itself must surely be one of the most ironic ways to fulfill a mission statement.

"Others displayed more foresight. In 1973 British microbiologist John Postgate predicted dire side effects, particularly for the women born into a society awash in testosterone, of widespread sex selection." 
"the list of abortion’s early champions reads like a directory of the Republican Party. …
The legalization of abortion abroad, then, came about with support from both sides of the American political spectrum."
As opposed to the view propagated in the press that people from Asia tended to be "morally pragmatic, entirely unbothered by the termination of a pregnancy and free from the ethical hand-wringing that surrounds the beginning of life in Judeo-Christian countries" the truth was, again, different.
"Throughout Asia, abortion was frowned on. Where it was performed, it was a hushed, shameful affair. … But resistance to abortion wasn’t merely the outgrowth of religious baggage. It also stemmed from popular notions about femininity. Across Asia in the mid-twentieth century, cultures rewarded women for becoming mothers."
Elsewhere in Asia similar population control efforts were underway, with or without Western interventions, financing, and coercion. "By 1977 doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth—the highest documented rate of abortion in human history."

"As family planning organizations made inroads in new nations, Western advisers became bolder. Some even extolled abortion as preferable to birth control. "Early abortion is safe, effective, cheap and potentially the easiest method to administer," wrote IPPF medical director Malcom Potts in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1976. "To call it ‘a second best’ or ‘a back-up method,’ as is so often done, is to believe a mythology ... which runs directly counter to the needs of women, the welfare of existing children and the future prosperity - or maybe survival - of mankind."
Steven Mosher (Amazon), an anthropology student in Stanford University’s PhD program, who was later expelled by the University, ostensibly due to pressure from the Chinese, and who later went on to become a strong proponent for chipping away at abortion rights and saw banning pre-natal sex-based abortions as an incremental step towards an outright ban on abortions, documented coercive methods on display in an agricultural commune in the Guangdong province in China in 1981, where he heard a pregnant woman being told by He Kaifeng, a commune cadre and Communist Party member, "You are here because you have to ‘think clear’ about birth control, and you will remain here until you do."

Such coercive methods did not go unrewarded by the international community. "In September 1983 the organization (United Nations Population Fund - UNFPA) jointly awarded Qian Xinzhong, the former People’s Liberation Army general charged with administering the one-child policy, and Indira Gandhi, who had overseen both India’s mass sterilizations and the AIIMS sex selection experiments in the 1970s, with the first United Nations Population Award."

Yeah, go figure.

Let us now turn to the consequences. The first is quite straightforward - lesser number of girls. That was simple. But there are several other consequences, mostly unintended, that have arisen as a result of these missing 160 million girls.

"Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent."

If you don’t have enough girls of marriageable age in your community, village, town, province, or country, what do you do? There is a wealth of choices. The author lists some: remain single, marry younger and younger and younger girls, turn to homosexuality, employ the services of prostitutes, engage the services of male prostitutes where there aren’t enough girls left even to kidnap and coerce into prostitution, buy brides, kidnap girls and force them into marriage, get a single girl married to several men, and so on. Each alternative is more enticing than the other, and surely society and men cannot be complaining about such an embarrassing wealth of options.
"For a mere $10,000, a man could buy a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, hotel, meals, transportation, and a wife. … Scholars call them marriage migrants; locals simply say foreign wives; you might think of them as bought brides."
"In South Korea over a thousand international marriage agencies have registered with the government."
"Marriages to foreigners accounted for nearly 11 percent of all 2008 weddings in that country."
How bad is the situation getting? Or "better",  I should say, since society and nations and international agencies have been worked in concerted tandem to kill off girls for so long, not deliberately, obviously. "By 2013, one in ten Chinese men will lack a female counterpart. By the late 2020s, a projected one in five men will be surplus."

Some economists have turned their ever sharp brains to this problem, and some, like Gary Becker, have posited that the situation is actually not so bad for the girls that do survive. Because, according to the laws of demand and supply, more demand and lesser supply will lead to an appreciation in the value of women. Right? Please say yes. No? Why? Because, as other economists and management gurus will tell you, if there is so much value attached to something, then surely someone will try "to capture it." Value appropriation is taught in almost every class in business school. Why should that not hold true in the real world too? Too crude for your liking? Well, you can’t hunt with the hound and run with the hare, or something to that effect, I could say.
"Asia’s thriving sex trade cannot be blamed on the gender imbalance alone. In recent years economic growth has also brought more personal and social freedoms, relaxed sexual mores, and a hyper-commercialization of nearly everything. Combine those three and you get a continent-wide realization that sex sells."
So, while the author concedes that gender imbalances are not the sole cause for the rise in prostitution, she also offers historical evidence to back up the claim that "historically prostitution thrives in places where men outnumber women."
For example, "In nineteenth-century France, brothels flourished in the wake of industrialization, which spawned an urban migration that left cities full of men."
"A similar trade is flourishing in India, which, like China and Vietnam, has a long history of human trafficking. The flow of women from poor areas in the east to the male-dominated northwest began centuries ago, says Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi who studies the issue."
"Parents of daughters in some corners of the world face an unenviable choice: sell their girls to traffickers and send them off to join the female underclass, or guard the girls closely to protect them from kidnappers."
Men, if left to their own devices, perpetrate all sorts of indignities on women. But they are too large-hearted to restrict their attentions to women only. It is an entire society that bears the burden of their numbers.
"…while today it may be politically incorrect to suggest that gender and violence are linked, crime statistics show that this particular stereotype is irrefutably true."
"By applying complex formulas to this finding, Edlund and her colleagues found a clear link between a large share of males and unlawfulness, concluding a mere 1 percent increase in sex ratio at birth resulted in a five-to six-point increase in an area’s crime rate."
The same holds true in India also. "The best way to predict whether a certain part of India has a high murder rate, indeed, is to look at its sex ratio. Even a high poverty rate doesn’t correlate as strongly."
"Scientists have long known that married men have lower levels of testosterone than single men and that fathers have lower levels of testosterone than childless men."
The numbers speak.
"… the contrast is stark: bachelors between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five are three times as likely to murder another man as a married man of the same age."
And why look at modern society along? Even three thousand year old tales, apocryphal though they may be, tell similar stories.
"While the tale of Rome’s origins is apocryphal—we know that if Romulus existed he was probably not raised by a she-wolf—it nonetheless suggests that anxiety about the pernicious effects of a shortage of women appeared early in Western civilization."
And lastly, we turn to the USA.
"But to truly understand the history of single men and violence, we might look at America."

To say Americans have a fascination with guns would be a gross understatement. According to a Wikipedia article ( an estimated 44 million gun owners were said to possess just under 200 million firearms. This fascination with guns can be traced back all the way back to the days of the Wild West, so incorrectly romanticized in movies.
"Recently, however, historians have put forth another explanation: the United States is torn by violence today because the geographical and industrial frontier zones that shaped so much of American identity were predominantly settled by men."
"A sex ratio map of the United States in 1870 looks like one of China today. In a large swath of America, including most of the land west of the Mississippi River, there were over 125 males for every 100 females in the total population. California had a sex ratio of 166. In Nevada it was 320; in Idaho, 433. Western Kansas counted an astounding 768 males for every 100 females."
As with modern societies today that display gender imbalances, a surfeit of males resulted in a surfeit of prostitution. The justifications were quite ingenious though.
"Many western towns openly tolerated prostitution in the belief that access to prostitutes would prevent men from assaulting "respectable" women."

Other consequences were just as similar – brides were bought or "loaned" from Native American tribes.

Today, there is a new technique, "Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD", available for sex-selection, and "is an add-on to in vitro fertilization, which an increasing number of Americans now use to have children. Once the woman’s - or a donor’s - eggs have been retrieved and fertilized with a man’s sperm and the resulting zygotes have completed the cell division that yields eight-celled embryos, a single cell is removed from each embryo and tested for defects, disabilities, or a propensity toward certain diseases. ... But lab technicians can also identify sex chromosomes and separate XY embryos from XX ones, thereby screening for sex..."

So, let’s see how to frame this. Gender can be detected before birth. Gender can  also be selected using this technique. "And like doctors in Asia who perform sex determination tests and sex selective abortions, America’s practitioners of sex selection say refusing to do it is not an option. ... Only the language surrounding America’s breed of sex selection is different. Americans don’t talk about gender preference. We say "family balancing," a term that implies couples have an inherent right to an equal number of boys and girls. We talk about "gender disappointment..."

But there is a BIG difference, surely one can see that. In Asia and elsewhere girls are being aborted because they are "expensive", and societies prefer boys. But in the West people want girls. That is so different, right? Sure. Why not. But think about it. "But when it comes down to it these reasons have one thing in common: Americans who select for sex are intent on having girls because of preconceived notions of how a girl will turn out."

In the final analysis, this book is an important book for the simple reason that it forces us to abandon long-held misconceptions about gender imbalances in developing nations. It also sheds light on the role of Western interventions, and should be cause for re-examining the uncritical eye with which Western analyses and so-called expert opinions are consumed by people. What works for the West may not work for India. What the west thinks may be because of its own selfish reasons, and we ought to be more critical in examining prescriptions dished out than we are. None of this, however, should deflect from introspection into our own mores and attitudes towards the girl child and women in general, which are in dire need of correction and improvement.

Author website (

Publisher's page for book
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: PublicAffairs; Reprint edition (May 1, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1610391519
ISBN-13: 978-1610391511

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population

The author, @MaraHvistendahl's tweet of appreciation to my review:

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.