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Thursday, 4 September 2014

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 04 September, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.
For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article. 

A good friend has honored me by asking me to participate in the “Ten Books Challenge,” also known as the “Book Bucket Challenge,” a title derived from the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that went viral on social media to raise awareness for ALS. Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge was just a fad for many, enough people were moved to contribute money to the ALS society. The Ten Books Challenge has no such do-gooder motive underlying it – the motive is purely that of intellectual pleasure; as a result, I will not have the smug satisfaction of having solved a pressing medical problem like ALS by writing this article, but I sure hope I will give you some intellectual satisfaction and, perhaps, some good books to read to boot.

The basic idea of the Ten Books Challenge is for you to name the ten books that have mattered the most in your life, had the greatest influence on you, or gave you the greatest enjoyment. After you have named your list, you are expected to nominate (challenge) others to name their ten best books – and in this way more and more people get to know about all the great books that are out there to read and enjoy.

So, here's my list. Before that, I want to mention a couple of ground rules that my friend laid down and I agreed to. One was that you should only list books you have completely read, not those you have read just a chapter or two of. This does eliminate some great books from my final list, though I refuse to be defeated – I will mention here which those books are that I could not put down in the final 10 but which, I am sure, if I had finished reading them, would belong in that list. Fortunately for me, many others have mentioned some of the books that I have not fully read, so I don’t need to worry. I will only mention here a couple that deserve special attention.

Among the books that I have not yet fully read but that I think are magnificent reads, Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” occupies pride of place. Since I have only read 1/4th of this massive and magnificent treatise, I cannot include it in my list, but it would be a crime if I did not say a few words about the magnificence and eloquence of this masterpiece.

We must understand that Gibbon was not the first person to write about the Roman Empire. So many had written before him - people like Plutarch and Suetonius. What makes Gibbon so engaging in a book that is so huge and so vast in scope that it can tax the most patient of interested readers is his style. Gibbon actually writes in a very idiosyncratic way, giving full rein to his opinions about, say, what Plutarch said, what Suetonius said, why we may or may not rely fully upon them, or what we should make of the early Christians, or where the Romans failed or where Constantine could have done better. One may think a historian ought not to inject his personal opinions on these matters, but interestingly, the book reads so much better because of these! Even though I would disagree with his strongly-stated position on the superiority of Christian culture to everything else on the planet, his strong advocacy of his position actually adds to the enjoyment rather than detracts from it.

Another book that I cannot include in the list for my incomplete reading of it is KA Nilakanta Sastri's awe-inspiring History of South India. ANY history of South India cannot but reference this amazing work; so thorough is his study. Sadly, I have only read it in pieces so far.

The second ground rule that my friend laid down was that it would not be enough for you to simply name your most important books – you also had to say something about them, so that the reader would understand what made that book so special for you – and, as a consequence, motivate him or her to read that book. After all, book awareness is the main motivation for this challenge. It is this second ground rule that was the reason for this article; for, once I started writing why I liked these books, my response became too long for a facebook comment, and so had to be captured in a blog article.

A list of just 10 books is very difficult to come up with; there are so many great books out there. What I have included has been partly been influenced by what others have included in their lists. This is one reason why I feel comfortable omitting both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins from my list.

Without further ado, then, let me begin my list.

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead is one of the seminal books of modern literature; a book that actually touches many different themes with amazing precision and succinctness. Rand actually intended it to be a message about the importance of the individual and of capitalism, and as a prelude to her more comprehensive defense of capitalism and rant against communism that was the unwieldy, sloppily written, and boring Atlas Shrugged, but the Fountainhead was much more than just a novel about individualism and capitalism. 

For me, the most powerful message in the Fountainhead was the emphasis on integrity and what it means to have integrity - in an intellectual, an artistic sense. I understood for the first time after reading this that integrity doesn't simply mean honesty - in the sense that you don't cheat someone of their money or steal things at work ... that it has to do with having a consistent worldview in whatever you do. 

The writing in the Fountainhead is first-rate; the dialogues are electric. Some you have to read a few times before you fully get the different angles. Delightful. Here is an example (I have excerpted parts of this long dialogue from the book, with omitted portion notated by ellipses):

Ike slammed his manuscript shut and took a long swig of air. His voice was hoarse after two hours of reading aloud and he had read the climax of his play on a single long breath…

Lois Cook, hostess, raised her arms, twisting them, stretching, and said: “Jesus, Ike, it’s awful.”

“This is a great play,” said a voice. The voice was slow, nasal, and bored. It had spoken for the first time that evening, and they all turned to Jules Fougler…He was an eminent drama critic.

“This is a great play.”
“Why?” asked Lancelot Clokey.
“Because I say so,” said Jules Fougler.
“Is that a gag, Jules?” asked Lois Cook.
“I never gag,” said Jules Fougler. “It is  vulgar.”
“Send me a coupla seats to the opening,” sneered Lancelot Clokey.
“Eighty-eight for two seats to the opening,” said Jules Fougler. “It will be the biggest hit of the season.”

“All right, Jules,” said Lancelot Clokey, “it’s all very witty and smart and you’re sophisticated and brilliant as all get-out – but what do you actually want to praise that crap for?”
“Because it is – as you put it – crap.”
“You’re not logical, Lance,” said Ike. “Not in the cosmic sense you aren’t. To write a good play and to have it praised is nothing. Anybody can do that. Anybody with talent – and talent is only a glandular accident. But to write a piece of crap and have it praised – well, you match that.”

“Ike has stated his reasons,” Fougler continued. “And mine. And also yours, Lance. Examine my case, if you wish. What achievement is there for a critic in praising a good play? None whatever. The critic is then nothing but a kind of glorified messenger boy between author and public. What’s there in that for me? I’m sick of it. I have a right to wish to impress my own personality upon people. Otherwise I shall become frustrated – and I do not believe in frustration. But if a critic is able to put over a perfectly worthless play – ah, you do perceive the difference! Therefore, I shall make a hit out of – what’s the name of your play, Ike?”
“No skin off your ass,” said Ike.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s the title.”
“Oh, I see. Therefore, I shall make a hit out of No Skin Off Your Ass.”

The Mahabharata, by Veda Vyasa, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli

The Mahabharata is probably the most interesting epic ever written, with an amazingly complex plot that makes things like the Greek classics of Homer look weak in comparison. Even though the book arises from Hinduism, the story is far less religious and far more secular than one might think. It is first and foremost a lesson in ordinary morality, or dharma, that one learns by observing the actions of different characters. The Mahabharata is, in my view, superior to the Ramayana, the other major Hindu epic, because characters in the Mahabharata have a lot more shades to them. It is even hard to tell who the good guys are and who the bad ones are. No one comes out clean - even Krishna, allegedly a god, does some fairly dishonorable things. The great thing about the Mahabharata is that most things are in grey. Was Kunti right in discarding Karna? Was Arjuna correct in killing Bhishma and Karna in unfair ways? Was Duryodhana himself all evil or was he a wronged inheritor of a kingdom? I have been fascinated by these questions all my life, and have written about them in many blog and quora articles just in the last year or so - and rest assured I will write a lot more. Nothing is clear-cut in this epic. But discussing and understanding what is described there can help rectify your inner moral compass.

One of the highlights of good literature is that it recognizes that nothing is black and white. In a good work of fiction one sees flaws of the hero in addition to his virtues, and virtues of the villain in addition to his flaws. So it is with the Mahabharata. One prime example of this is Duryodhana’s final speech to the Pandavas, in which he makes a reasonable claim that, although vanquished, he is better off than the Pandavas. Take a look at this passage which highlights how the Kauravas were vanquished unfairly, and how Krishna rationalizes the means by the ends:

"'Duryodhana said, "I have studied, made presents according to the ordinance, governed the wide Earth with her seas, and stood over the heads of my foes! Who is there so fortunate as myself! That end again which is courted by Kshatriyas observant of the duties of their own order, death in battle, hath become mine. Who, therefore, is so fortunate as myself? Human enjoyments such as were worthy of the very gods and such as could with difficulty be obtained by other kings, had been mine. Prosperity of the very highest kind had been attained by me! Who then is so fortunate as myself? With all my well-wishers, and my younger brothers, I am going to heaven, O thou of unfading glory! As regards yourselves, with your purposes unachieved and torn by grief, live ye in this unhappy world!"'

"Sanjaya continued, 'Upon the conclusion of these words of the intelligent king of the Kurus, a thick shower of fragrant flowers fell from the sky. The Gandharvas played upon many charming musical instruments. The Apsaras in a chorus sang the glory of king Duryodhana. The Siddhas uttered loud sound to the effect, "Praise be to king Duryodhana!" Fragrant and delicious breezes mildly blew on every side. All the quarters became clear and the firmament looked blue as the lapis lazuli.

Beholding these exceedingly wonderful things and this worship offered to Duryodhana, the Pandavas headed by Vasudeva became ashamed. Hearing (invisible beings cry out) that Bhishma and Drona and Karna and Bhurishrava were slain unrighteously, they became afflicted with grief and wept in sorrow.

Beholding the Pandavas filled with anxiety and grief, Krishna addressed them in a voice deep as that of the clouds or the drum, saying, "All of them were great car-warriors and exceedingly quick in the use of weapons! If ye had put forth all your prowess, even then ye could never have slain them in battle by fighting fairly! King Duryodhana also could never be slain in a fair encounter! The same is the case with all those mighty car-warriors headed by Bhishma! From desire of doing good to you, I repeatedly applied my powers of illusion and caused them to be slain by diverse means in battle. If I had not adopted such deceitful ways in battle, victory would never have been yours, nor kingdom, nor wealth! Those four were very high-souled warriors and regarded as Atirathas in the world. The very Regents of the Earth could not slay them in fair fight! Similarly, the son of Dhritarashtra, though fatigued when armed with the mace, could not be slain in fair fight by Yama himself armed with his bludgeon! You should not take it to heart that this foe of yours hath been slain deceitfully. When the number of one's foes becomes great, then destruction should be effected by contrivances and means. The gods themselves, in slaying the Asuras, have trod the same way. That way, therefore, that hath been trod by the gods, may be trod by all. We have been crowned with success. It is evening. We had better depart to our tents. Let us all, ye kings, take rest with our steeds and elephants and cars."

Hitler and Stalin – Parallel Lives, by Alan Bullock

This is an incredible journey through late 19th and early-to-mid-20th century politics, focusing on the two people who irreversibly changed the world as it existed after the First World War. The story of the two pivotal personalities who were responsible for the post-WWII world is fascinating, if not for anything else, simply for the fact that it ended the supremacy of the colonial powers Britain and France, and ensured the rise of the USA and the Soviet Union as superpowers.

This book is the product of a lifetime of study by the author. Bullock published his study of Hitler, titled, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” in 1952, fairly soon after the end of the Second World War. In spite of the book being published so soon after the war, it survived the test of time. Hitler and Stalin – Parallel Lives was a book that was written after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with new sources from behind the Iron Curtain finally in view. I vividly remember how, as a student at the University of Utah in December 1991, after reading many WWII books that the library had, I found that this book was due to come out sometime in January 1992, and that the library had pre-ordered a copy. The librarian told me that I could put in a request for the book right then, and I would be notified when the brand-new book finally made it to the library…that’s precisely what I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. More than 10 years later, I bought my own copy.

This book looks at the parallels between Hitler, as the absolute leader of the Nazi party, and someone who tried to create the ethos of a German “volk,” with henchmen like Himmler and Goebbels; and Stalin, as the absolute leader, the “General Secretary” of the Soviet Union and the unquestioned master of the Communist Party, who tried to perpetuate the myth of the Russian “vozhd,” with henchmen like Lavrenti Beria; the different ways by which they acquired and held on to power; and how they each attemped to create their “new order” in the lands they conquered. It looks at the parallel between Hitler’s early diffidence, during which he allowed his generals more flexibility, and his later rigidity after his earlier successes, when he would listen to no one but himself in spite of defeat after defeat; and Stalin’s early rigidity and distrust of his generals, his repeated losses that led him to understand that he needed to trust the professionals if he wanted to win, and the ensuing successes; the way they exercised control within their parties; and the mistakes made by both men when they insisted on “absolute victory” and “no retreat.”

While the book draws parallels between the two dictators whenever possible, it also does a good job of contrasting the two leaders and their progress. For instance, it documents clearly the rise of Hitler after 1923 and the Beer Hall Putsch, the way he manipulated all the politicians in Germany, including the venerated President Hindenburg; the way he double-crossed his deputy Rohm in exchange for the army; his suppression of the Jews, Communists, and Labor Unions in his relentless drive for supremacy in Germany; his hesitant steps against Poland as he was worried about France invading his rear; and his insane obsession with eliminating the USSR. And, similarly, it discusses Stalin’s rise as a lieutenant of Lenin, his usurpation of power while Lenin was incapacitated, his ruthless elimination of rivals such as Kirov, Bukharin, Ordhzonikidze, and Trotsky; his suppression of ethnic minorities such as the Georgians and the Tatars; the brutal land reforms that he executed, both under Lenin and later, which resulted in the deaths of millions of “kulaks” (middle-class landowners); the deep suspicion with which he regarded the military, which resulted in the elimination of 80% of the generals; and the gradual way in which he started letting go in military decisions and yielding to professional advice that ultimately allowed the Soviets to win the war. Another contrast was the fact that Hitler was a highly public figure who achieved things based on his charisma, whereas Stalin was a shadowy figure who operated through the bureaucracy which he manipulated, and Bullock brings this contrast out very well.

This is a masterpiece in the realm of political biography, supplemented by many interesting photographs.

The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng, by Harrison Salisbury

This is the book that first taught me about the Cultural Revolution in China. I had never read much about Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping until I read this book. It is a gripping, first-hand account, by an American journalist, of that period of China’s history when Mao and Deng ruled, based in large part on first-hand accounts from survivors of that period and from testimony that was uncovered during the trial of the Gang of Four. You learn about Daqing and Dazhai, the pride of Maoist industry (oil) and agriculture, respectively, as well as the giants of China’s 1949 revolution – people like Peng Dehuai, Liu Xiaoqi, He Long, Zhu De, Lin Biao, and others.

The book clearly shows how the “cultural revolution” was a cynical attempt by Mao to wipe out all possible opposition to him in the wake of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s collectivization programme; how it completely ruined China; and how Deng Xiaoping brought back China from the abyss into the prosperity in which it lives today. It talks about the infamous Red Guards, the youth brigade that Mao had do all his dirty work for him during the cultural revolution, including the torture of those suspected to be “enemies of the state”; the various tortures that were routinely conducted by these mobs, including making people lie in the “airplane position” for hours, the endless beatings, the immersion in fermenting pools of human excrement; and how Deng Xiaoping skillfully stopped the destruction of China, quietly put the leaders of the cultural revolution behind bars after Mao’s death, and brought prosperity to the land. This is a story of an entire lost generation.

This book brings alive the inner politics of the China of the Mao era; the palace of Zhongnanhai; Jiang Qing and the Gang in the Cultural Revolution; the horrible persecution and deaths of Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, and many senior leaders during Mao’s paranoid years; how the pragmatist, Deng Xiaoping, survived the toughest purges of Mao because he was “a man who could get things done”; Deng’s famous “One nation, two systems theory; how he changed and liberalized China’s economy even as it was in the grip of Communist madness; and how he ultimately took the steps that have today made it a world superpower.

The sweep of this book is breathtaking, and China comes alive through the years in the pages of this book even if you have never visited it. Salisbury often focuses on individual stories in telling the bigger story, and the human element is never far away in his retelling of the story. I doubt if there has been a better portrait of Mao Zedong than the one that Salisbury has sketched. There are also many photographs that help us to relate with the principals.

When I was living in the US, I sometimes met Chinese friends and used to discuss politics with them. They were amazed that I knew so much about Chinese history and politics and that I could converse with them so accurately about Mao, Deng, and the cultural revolution. The achievement is not mine; it is that of Salisbury, who was a veteran journalist for the New York Times, at one time chief of its Moscow bureau, and who also reported from China during the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince is often called a children’s book. While children can relate to it, it has the unique distinction of being a book that can appeal to people of all ages. It has something to offer everyone, because the messages in the book are highly layered. This is a deeply philosophical book for the adult reader, and its import cannot be understood in one sitting. It is a very small book, and you could easily finish reading it in one afternoon. But it is a book that should keep you thinking all your life.

The story of the Little Prince is a fantasy, and it revolves around a pilot whose aircraft has crashed in the Sahara desert, and who, while trying to repair his plane, meets a little prince from another planet. The prince has travelled to various planets on the journey from his home planet to Earth. The pilot has various conversations with the little prince that help him (and us) understand what is important in life.

The book is written and illustrated by de Saint-Exupéry. The illustrations are beautiful, even though they are simple pencil sketches, and the story is exquisitely beautiful in how it explains ideas. In my humble opinion, if you can fully understand The Little Prince, you will understand life. One can write a doctoral thesis on this book.

Take this passage as a representative example of the power of this book. One of the planets the prince has visited is a small planet and only has a king as its resident. The king is lonely and wishes to have a subject to give him someone to rule over.

The little prince looked everywhere to find a place to sit down; but the entire planet was crammed and obstructed by the king’s magnificent ermine robe. So he remained standing upright, and, since he was tired, he yawned.

“It is contrary to etiquette to yawn in the presence of a king,” the monarch said to him. “I forbid you to do so.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself,” replied the little prince, thoroughly embarrassed. “I have come on a long journey, and I have had no sleep…”

“Ah, then,” the king said. “I order you to yawn. It is years since I have seen anyone yawning. Yawns, to me, are objects of curiosity. Come, now! Yawn again! It is an order.”

“That frightens me … I cannot, any more …” murmured the little prince, now completely abashed.

“Hum! Hum!” replied the king. “Then I – I order you sometimes to yawn and sometimes to – 

He sputtered a little, and seemed vexed.

For what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience. He was an absolute monarch. But, because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.

“If I ordered a general,” he would say, by way of example, “if I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault.”

“May I sit down?” came now a timid inquiry from the little prince.

“I order you to do so,” the king answered him, and majestically gathered in a fold of his ermine mantle.

How many people in your life can you relate to in this story? How many at your job? How many lessons can you extract from this story?

A History of the Sikhs – in Two Volumes, by Khushwant Singh

This is a book of great scholarship by the late Sardar. It traces the history of the Sikhs right from the time of Nanak to that of Barnala and Rajiv Gandhi. It talks about how the Sikh faith was started; about the ten gurus starting with Nanak and ending with Gobind Singh; about the struggles of Banda Bahadur; about how they were persecuted by the Mughals; about their struggles with the Afghan rulers like Dost Mohammed and Shah Shuja; about the great massacre called the “ghallu ghara” that occurred when Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan attacked (which was the first time that the Golden Temple had been desecrated); about how they actually prospered under the repeated invasions of Abdali, who could never defeat them completely but curtailed the power of the Marathas; about the politics of Mir Mannu, the Mughal governor of the Punjab; about how they reached their zenith under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh; about how they disintegrated in the power struggle that ensued after the death of Ranjit Singh and lost to the British in the two Anglo-Sikh wars; about how the Sikhs were marginalized in the freedom struggle; about how the biggest losers of the partition of the Punjab in 1947 were not the Hindus or the Muslims, but the Sikhs; about how the Sikhs agitated for a Punjabi Suba, a Sikh homeland, after independence; about how the state of Punjab was formed; about the Anandpur Sahib resolution; about the agitations of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; about Operation Bluestar and the storming of the Golden Temple; about the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi and the subsequent blood-letting in Delhi and other parts of north India against the Sikhs; and about how the Sikhs have continued since then.

Volume 1 covers the period from the start of the Sikh faith and until the death of Ranjit Singh; and Volume 2 starts with the disintegration of Ranjit Singh’s empire and ends with the aftermath of the Punjab accord. No facet of Sikh life is left out in this magnificent and incredibly ambitious work, for it covers not only military history, but also social, religious, and cultural aspects in great detail – Sahaj and Keshadhari Sikhs, Namdharis, Radha Soamis, Nirankaris, Kukas, the impact of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and the Arya Samaj, and so on; revolutionary movements like the Ghadr party; the impact of the green revolution and of the revival of Punjabi agriculture; the structure of land ownership and land reform; and so many more aspects that I cannot discuss all of them. It is well worth buying to learn about this great tradition and its history.

The book is also so well-written that I can read it again and again. Khushwant Singh writes with authority and empathy, with logic and clarity. One of my favorite parts in Volume II was the anti-Sikh riots following the death of Mrs. Gandhi. This is one of the best accounts of what happened, if you really want to know about it.

Panchatantra – Translated from the Sanskrit by Arthur W. Ryder

This has been a favorite of mine ever since I first picked up a copy from the used book shops on the footpaths surrounding Kings Circle (Maheshwari Udyan now) in Mumbai, almost 30 years ago. My first interest in the Panchatantra came, of course, by way of Amar Chitra Katha comics, in which selected tales from the entire collection were illustrated. Then I took up Sanskrit as a subject in school in Standards IX and X. One of the stories in the Sanskrit textbook was the story of the Monkey and the Crocodile. The monkey’s name in Sanskrit is “rakta-mukha,” which means “blood-face,” and the crocodile’s name is “karuda-mukha,” which means “ugly face.” I was fascinated by the way the story was told. This actually happens to be the opening of the fourth of the five books that constitute the Panchatantra. The Panchatantra is comprised of 5 books, titled “The Loss of Friends,” “The Winning of Friends,” “Crows and Owls,” “Loss of Gains,” and “Ill-Considered Action.” As the Panchatantra itself says, these five books were composed by one Vishnusharman, an 80-year old Brahmin, who was asked by the king of the kingdom called Maidens’ Delight. It was ruled by a king called Immortal Power, who had three sons: Rich-Power, Fierce-Power, and Endless-Power, and they were all supreme blockheads. So the king wanted someone to make them wise in the art of living, and this Vishnusharman took up the challenge, saying that “If I fail to make your sons, in six months time, incomparable masters of the art of intelligent living, then His Majesty is at liberty to show me His Majestic bare bottom.” Why the majestic bare bottom was such an insult is not clear, but the story goes that Vishnusharman made them learn these five books and understand their morals, and delivered on his promise.

One of the delightful things about this book is that as in the original Sanskrit, the book is in verse. The book was written sometime in 1930 by Arthur W. Ryder (translated), and he has really kept the meter of Sanskrit in mind. Consider this example:

Those who seek, through treason, friends;
Seek, through humbug, righteous ends;
Property by wronging neighbors;
Learning’s wealth by easy labors;
Woman’s love by cruel pride –
These are fools, self-stultified.

Or this one, to illustrate the importance of vigor in life:

As frogs will find a drinking-hole,
Or birds a brimming lake,
So friends and money seek a man
Whose vigor does not break.

Or this, on kingship and counselors:

No king should ever delegate
To one sole man the powers of state;
For folly seizes him, then pride,
Whereat he grows dissatisfied
With service; thus impatient grown,
He longs to rule the realm alone;
And such impatient longings bring
Him into plots to kill his king.

Or this, on the virtues of alliance with the strong:

Who is there whom a friendly state
With great folk does not elevate?
The raindrop, hiding in a curl
Of lotus-petal, shines like pearl.

And I will end with this quote, which would apply to all Indians who leave India to settle abroad:

The man whose mind is money mad
From all his kinsmen flees;
He hastens from his mother dear;
He breaks his promises;
He even goes to foreign lands
Which he would not elect
And leaves his native country. Well,
What else do you expect?

The book is written in a “story-within-a-story” format, and these can go several layers deep. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, I recommend this book to one and all, and to people of all ages and cultures.

The Annihilation of Caste, by Dr. BR Ambedkar

To my mind, Dr. Ambedkar was the greatest modern Indian intellectual, towering over all other Independence-era Indian intellectuals. His enormous accomplishments and literary achievements are extraordinary on their own; but, coupled with the knowledge that they were gained while fighting almost insurmountable barriers, leaves me with no doubt that he was the greatest Indian of the last 150 years.

Dr. Ambedkar was born into the untouchable caste of Mahars, and it was an incredible achievement for him to even learn to read and write. But he went far beyond that, going to England and America and getting doctorate degrees at great Universities like Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

He was a bitter critic of the caste system, having personally experienced the inherent injustices in it. For a long time he tried to reform it, personally leading agitations to open temples to untouchables and remove restrictions on untouchables that prevented them from using common facilities such as wells. But after a long struggle, he realized it was no use, that Hinduism would never change itself to adapt itself to modern times, and casteism would live in the minds of Hindus as long as Hinduism lived. He was invited to address a meeting of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Society to end caste discrimination), for which he composed a speech titled “The Annihilation of Caste.” In this speech he highlighted the injustices of the caste system, talked about how Hinduism was incapable of change, and in the end announced his decision to leave the fold of Hinduism. The Mandal thought this was too extreme for their audience, and essentially withdrew the invitation to Dr. Ambedkar to address them. Hence, Dr. Ambedkar decided to publish the undelivered speech on his own.

I personally feel this speech is the most thorough critical look at Hinduism, and when you read this work, you get a sense of the enormous intelligence of Dr. Ambedkar. I dare anyone to come up with a counter to ANY of his arguments. It is BRILLIANTLY argued. I was left in awe when I finished reading this. This is the work of a man of profound clarity and vision. He has also clearly studied the Hindu scriptures very well, and is very well acquainted with them. Very few can see so far and look so deep. Let me list the different headings of the different sections of his speech, so the reader gets an idea of the development of his essay:

1.       Introduction: Why I am an unlikely president for this conference
2.      Why social reform is necessary for political reform
3.      Why social reform is necessary for economic reform
4.      Caste is not just a division of labor, it is a division of laborers
5.      Caste cannot preserve a non-existent “racial purity”
6.      Caste prevents Hindus from forming a real society or nation
7.      The worst feature of the caste system is an anti-social spirit
8.     Caste prevents the uplift and incorporation of the aboriginal tribes
9.      The higher castes have conspired to keep the lower castes down
10.  Caste prevents Hinduism from being a missionary religion
11.   Caste deprives Hindus of mutual help, trust, and fellow-feeling
12.  Caste is a powerful weapon for preventing all reform
13.  Caste destroys public spirit, public opinion, and public charity
14.  My ideal: A society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity
15.   The Arya Samajists’ “Chaturvarnya” retains the old bad caste labels
16.  “Chaturvarnya” would face impossible difficulties in practice
17.   “Chaturvarnya” would be the most vicious system for the Shudras
18.  “Chaturvarnya” is nothing new; it is as old as the Vedas
19.   Caste among Hindus is not the same as “caste” among non-Hindus
20.  The real key to destroying caste is rejection of the Shastras
21.   Internal reform of the caste system is virtually impossible
22.  No reformers, and no appeals to reason, have so far succeeded
23.  Destroying caste would not destroy the true principles of religion
24.  A true priesthood should be based on qualification, not heredity
25.   If Hindu society is to progress, its traditions must be able to evolve
26.  The struggle is yours; I have decided to leave the Hindu fold

The amazing thing about these headings is that they are so neatly and logically structured, that the conclusion of one inevitably leads to the beginning of the next – so much so that by the end, when you are done reading it, you get the distinct feeling that the author completely nailed the argument – crossed every t and dotted every i. The available pdf version on the internet (courtesy Columbia University) also contains a rejoinder to Babasaheb’s speech by Mahatma Gandhi, and Ambedkar’s response to the Mahatma’s rejoinder.

I will illustrate the precision of Dr. Ambedkar’s language and the severity of his logic by quoting a passage from his treatise. This is from the start of the section titled “Chaturvarnya would be the most vicious system for the Shudras”:

[1:] Assuming that Chaturvarnya is practicable, I contend that it is the most vicious system. That the Brahmins should cultivate knowledge, that the Kshatriya should bear arms, that the Vaishya should trade, and that the Shudra should serve, sounds as though it was a system of division of labour. Whether the theory was intended to state that the Shudra need not, or whether it was intended to lay down that he must not, is an interesting question. The defenders of Chaturvarnya give it the first meaning. They say, why need the Shudra trouble to acquire wealth, when the three [higher] Varnas are there to support him? Why need the Shudra bother to take to education, when there is the Brahmin to whom he can go when the occasion for reading or writing arises? Why need the Shudra worry to arm himself, when there is the Kshatriya to protect him? The theory of Chaturvarnya, understood in this sense, may be said to look upon the Shudra as the ward and the three [higher] Varnas as his guardians. Thus interpreted, it is a simple, elevating, and alluring theory.

[2:] Assuming this to be the correct view of the underlying conception of Chaturvarnya, it seems to me that the system is neither fool-proof nor knave-proof. What is to happen if the Brahmins, Vaishyas, and Kshatriyas fail to pursue knowledge, to engage in economic enterprise, and to be efficient soldiers, which are their respective functions? Contrarywise, suppose that they discharge their functions, but flout their duty to the Shudra or to one another; what is to happen to the Shudra if the three classes refuse to support him on fair terms, or combine to keep him down? Who is to safeguard the interests of the Shudra—or for that matter, those of the Vaishya and Kshatriya—when the person who is trying to take advantage of his ignorance is the Brahmin? Who is to defend the liberty of the Shudra—and for that matter, of the Brahmin and the Vaishya—when the person who is robbing him of it is the Kshatriya?

[3:] Inter-dependence of one class on another class is inevitable. Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the matter of his vital needs? Education, everyone must have. Means of defence, everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his neighbour is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and disarmed? The whole theory is absurd. These are the questions which the defenders of Chaturvarnya do not seem to be troubled about. But they are very pertinent questions. Assuming that in their conception of Chaturvarnya the relationship between the different classes is that of ward and guardian, and that this is the real conception underlying Chaturvarnya, it must be admitted that it makes no provision to safeguard the interests of the ward from the misdeeds of the guardian.

[4:] Whether or not the relationship of guardian and ward was the real underlying conception on which Chaturvarnya was based, there is no doubt that in practice the relation was that of master and servants. The three classes, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, although not very happy in their mutual relationship, managed to work by compromise. The Brahmin flattered the Kshatriya, and both let the Vaishya live in order to be able to live upon him. But the three agreed to beat down the Shudra. He was not allowed to acquire wealth, lest he should be independent of the three [higher] Varnas. He was prohibited from acquiring knowledge, lest he should keep a steady vigil regarding his interests. He was prohibited from bearing arms, lest he should have the means to rebel against their authority. That this is how the Shudras were treated by the Tryavarnikas is evidenced by the Laws of Manu. There is no code of laws more infamous regarding social rights than the Laws of Manu. Any instance from anywhere of social injustice must pale before it.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

For sheer pleasure, if you wish to be transported to another day and age, and you have time to kill, I can recommend nothing better than this wonderful yarn by Vikram Seth. The story is set in north India in the 1950s, just after independence, and revolves around Lata Mehra, a young woman for whom a suitable groom is desired for marriage. Lata’s life, and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s attempts to find the ideal mate for Lata, are the subject of this vast tome, with plenty of side alleys in which Vikram Seth weaves magic around the accompanying cast. If there is one book I’d want to curl up with and just chill, this would be it. Seth is an amazing storyteller.

The story has a few prominent families: the Mehras, among whom Lata and Mrs. Rupa Mehra have already been discussed, but also include Lata’s siblings – her elder sister Savita, her elder brother Arun, and her other brother Varun; the Kapoors, who are related to the Mehras through Lata’s elder sister Savita, who is married to Pran Kapoor; and the Chatterjees, who are related to the Mehras through Meenakshi Chatterjee, who is married to Arun Mehra. Meenakshi’s father is Justice Chatterjee, and the others in her family are Mrs. Chatterjee and her siblings, Amit, Dipankar, Kakoli, and Tapan. The Chatterjee family is probably the best fleshed-out family in the book. There is also the family of the Nawab of Baitar in the story, a close friend of Mr. Mahesh Kapoor, Pran’s father – the Khansahib and his children, Imtiaz, Firoz, and Zainab. The story is set in the fictional town of Brahmpur, located somewhere on the Ganga between Benares and Patna, and in which Pran Kapoor is an English professor who quotes Joyce, while his brother, Maan Kapoor, is a jobless rake and easily the most colorful character in the story. They also have a sister, Veena, who is married, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, are well-known in the town as respectable, well-off citizens. Maan likes to frequent a brothel run by a bai (courtesan) named Saeeda Begum and enjoys Saeeda’s company. His close friend is the son of the nawab, Firoz, who has a crush on Saeeda’s sister Tasneem. There is also a side story involving the sarangi player for Saeeda begum, Ishaq Khan, who decides one day that he will give up playing the sarangi to focus on vocal music, and learn from the great Ustad Majeed Khan, who initially dislikes him because of a quarrel that involves the Muslim caste system, but gradually finds out that Ishaq is that perfect disciple he has been seeking all his life, to whom he can impart all his art.

Lata has three main suitors: Kabir Durrani, from her college, a college cricket player; Amit Chatterjee, a poet of renown; and Haresh Khanna, who works for Praha, a Czech shoe company clearly modeled after Bata. Which of these will she pick? Kabir is clearly a strong favorite, one would think, because he is a college sweetheart; Amit is a recognized poet and very romantic but his head is always in the clouds.  Haresh is very practical and has a stable job with Praha, but seems very boring – all he can talk about is shoes and his job. His only qualification is that he adores Lata.

Seth’s strength is his ability to describe things vividly, and one feels actually transported to Brahmpur as one reads the novel. The relationship between the Ustad and the shagird (teacher and disciple), the relationship between Maan and Saeeda, the dynamics and banter in the entire Chatterjee family – all these are sketched in exquisite detail. Lata’s dilemma as she has to choose between her three suitors is quite evident, and suffice it to say that the ending surprised many.

Some of the characterizations showed incredible skill, sensitivity, and understanding. The relationship between the Ustad and Ishaq showed a keen awareness of the social structure of Muslim musicians in North India. There is a passage where Seth describes a concert that the Ustad is giving – a concert that appears to be the perfect musical performance – as the audience is one with music. It is stirring.

Above all, an author has succeeded when the reader CARES about what happens to the characters, and Seth succeeds beyond belief in this aspect. We care about what happens with Maan – we love his rakish self but hope things turn out well for him; we wonder what will happen to Firoz and Tasneem; we keep rooting for one person or another as Lata’s ideal suitor; and when the ending is different from what we imagined, we are upset!

This book is a triumph of fiction. At over 1500 pages, it is long, but while re-reading it, it sometimes seems that it is not long enough, for one could read it over and over again. I have probably read it fully twice at least. Most of what I have written above is from memory – a friend borrowed my copy more than 10 years ago and never returned it.

American Caesar – Douglas MacArthur, by William Manchester

It must be clear to the reader by now that I have a fondness for military history and biographies, for this is the third biographical book I have listed, after Hitler and Stalin and The New Emperors. I was hoping to avoid this, and instead talk about Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth instead, but I realized I was pathetically informed on the topic, even though I had read and understood that one book, to write a review of it. I could mention it in a list of favorite books, but I am not well-equipped to write a review of it. I need to read a lot more on the subject before I can talk intelligently about evolution. If I make another list in a few years, I hope to include it. So I decided to go back to an area that I can write about with more authority: history.

MacArthur has long been a fascination for me. I saw the movie version starring Gregory Peck before I read this book, and for a long time I had watched programs on the History Channel talking about the Korean War and the famous Inchon landings, and about Truman firing MacArthur for insubordination. This was, after all, the man who took charge of South Korea after the North Koreans invaded in 1950, found a country unprepared for the aggression of the North Koreans (supported by the Chinese), and found himself in an unenviable position – the entire American garrison confined to the perimeter of Pusan and gradually being choked by the North Koreans. In such a circumstance, the stroke of genius that MacArthur had, in planning and executing an audacious amphibious landing on Inchon, on the OTHER SIDE of the Korean peninsula, to choke off and encircle the North Koreans, should and will be remembered as one of the greatest military achievements in modern warfare. Unfortunately, the victory went to MacArthur’s head, and he kept moving northward and into North Korea, until he reached the Yalu river. The Chinese would never accept American soldiers on their border; and this provoked Mao to send a million troops across the border, sending MacArthur and the outnumbered American army scurrying back in an inglorious retreat. But the retreat, which was caused by MacArthur’s vanity and unwillingness to heed intelligence reports, does not take away from the brilliance of Inchon. Eventually, of course, he was fired for insubordination by Truman (because he advocated the use of nuclear bombs on China in spite of warnings by Truman not to do so – Truman worried that such actions would trigger a third World War) and replaced by Matthew Ridgway, who stopped the retreat and established the stalemate along the 38th parallel that continues to this day.

So I had always wanted to read in detail about him – in as unbiased a manner as possible. I also remember having discussions about him with a Chinese lab-mate of mine at Utah, and learned that the Chinese had a negative opinion of him, no doubt because they, in essence, “defeated him” when he over-reached in the Korean War. My friend also pointed to Corregidor, where MacArthur had to flee the island to safety aboard a submarine that took him to Australia in 1941 in the face of the advancing Japanese during WWII, as evidence that he was over-hyped by Americans. The American debacle in the Philippines was, as in Korea later, because of MacArthur’s fatal weakness – an inordinate self-belief and an unwillingness to believe intelligence reports he didn’t like. However, in the four years that ensued, MacArthur largely redeemed himself for his failure in the Philippines, and kept his promise to return to the Philippines in the now-legendary island-hopping campaign – although, in my view, this was only partly his achievement. He probably could never have achieved this without the great successes of the American navy in battles like Coral Sea and Midway. But while the Pacific War in WWII was a combined effort of the army, navy, and air force, this should not take away from MacArthur’s immense contributions in the war.

Manchester explains in the introduction why he compares MacArthur to Caesar:

Most of all, MacArthur was like Julius Caesar: bold, aloof, austere, egotistical, willful. The two generals surrounded themselves with servile aides-de-camp; remained long abroad, one as proconsul and the other as shogun, leading captive peoples in unparalleled growth; loved history; were fiercely grandiose and spectacularly fearless; and reigned as benevolent autocrats.

Manchester’s account of MacArthur is not hagiographical, and that is why it shines. Manchester talks at length, for instance, about MacArthur’s devotion to his mother, a devotion that ruined his own first marriage, and talks of her huge role in making him who he became – she was responsible for the great ambition that MacArthur possessed; he talks about MacArthur’s fondness for sycophancy; his pettiness at times; his paranoia about everyone, ranging from George Marshall, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the generals of Europe to Truman; his vanity, strutting, and peacockery; and his insatiable need for reverence. But he holds that these cannot be held to overshadow the man’s great abilities in warfare, his incredible intelligence, and his remarkable accomplishments, both as wartime general and as peacetime administrator.

But reverence MacArthur could command; love he could not. He tried politics after he was fired by Truman, but was unsuccessful, unlike Eisenhower. Manchester describes the comparison between the two generals thus:

His contemporaries then were far more impressed by his former aide, Eisenhower, with his friendly nickname, his infectious grin, and his filling-station-attendant’s tunic. Ike asked to be liked, and he was; MacArthur demanded that he be revered; and he wasn’t. He had no diminutive. Even his wife addressed him as “General.” Paul V. McNutt, US High Commissioner to the Philippines in the 1930s, said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to call President Quezon ‘Manuel,’ but I never called the General ‘Doug.’”

Had anyone done so, the response would doubtless have been arctic. An officer who was a cadet when he was superintendent of West Point remembers: “He’s the only man in the world who could walk into a room full of drunks and all would be stone-sober within five minutes.” But only levelers will think this pejorative. John Gunther’s chief impression was of his “loftiness and sense of justice. He is that rare thing in the modern world, a genuinely high person.”

Most people in the world, and that included me, are aware of MacArthur only because of his exploits in the Pacific War and in Korea. So this book was a revelation for me, as I realized that the Pacific War in WWII began when MacArthur was already in retirement – that, by the time the war began, MacArthur was the Military Advisor to the Philippine Government, having retired from the US Army as a five-star general, as the highest-ranking officer of the Army – the Chief of Staff of the US Army – after a brilliant career which included getting the Distinguished Service Cross twice and the Silver Star seven times for his achievements during WWI, and after having been nominated twice in his career for the medal of honor. So his achievements in both WWII and Korea happened after he came out of retirement. It is doubtful if we will ever again encounter such a glorious career for a military man. As Manchester says in his introduction,

Unquestionably he was the most gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced. He was also extraordinarily brave. His twenty-two medals – thirteen of them for heroism – probably exceeded those of any other figure in American history.

This is a remarkable book about a great general, and an absolute page-turner. I still remember vividly the section where Manchester talks about how MacArthur convinced the Pentagon to back him in his proposed amphibious plan to land at Inchon, and I will conclude this review with that. Manchester reports that the Pentagon sent a team including a senior general and a senior admiral to dissuade MacArthur from what they thought was a very risky plan. MacArthur held a conference with the visitors and his aides in his palace in Japan, during which he first heard the two men out and then presented his vision. The audience included MacArthur’s chief of staff, Ned Almond, Rear Admiral James Doyle, and Rear Admiral Forrest P. Sherman. Manchester writes, in a passage that shows the towering power of personality the General must have had:

Finally, after nine critics had completed an eighty-minute presentation, MacArthur rose. Afterward he wrote: “I waited a moment or so to collect my thoughts. I could feel the tension rising in the room. Almond shifted uneasily in his chair. If ever a silence was pregnant, this one was. I could almost hear my father’s voice telling me as he had so many years before, ‘Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.’”

Of the thirty-minute performance which followed, Doyle said, “If MacArthur had gone on stage, you never would have heard of John Barrymore.” The General began by telling them that “the very arguments you have made as to the impracticabilities involved” confirmed his faith in the plan, “for the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt.” Surprise, he said, “is the most vital element for success in war.”

The amphibious landing, he said, “is the most powerful tool we have.” To employ it properly, “We must strike hard and deep.” Inchon’s hurdles were real, “but they are not insuperable.” He said, “My confidence in the Navy is complete, and in fact I seem to have more confidence in the Navy than the Navy has in itself.” Looking at Sherman, he said: “The Navy has never let me down in the past, and it will not let me down this time.”

He paused dramatically. Then: “Are you content to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse? Who will take the responsibility for such a tragedy? Certainly, I will not.”

By pouncing on Inchon and then Seoul, he said, he would “cut the enemy’s supply line and seal off the entire southern peninsula … by seizing Seoul I would completely paralyze the enemy’s supply system – coming and going. This in turn will paralyze the fighting power of the troops that now face Walker. Without munitions and food they will soon be helpless and disorganized, and can easily be overpowered by our smaller but well-supplied forces.”

Pointing to Inchon on the wall map, he said, “Gentlemen, this is our anvil, and Johnnie Walker can smash against it from the south.” If he was wrong about the landing, “I will be there personally and will immediately withdraw our forces.” Doyle, stirred, spoke up: “No, General, we don’t know how to do that. Once we start ashore we’ll keep going.” MacArthur had reached them. When another man pointed out that enemy batteries could command the dead-end channel, Sherman, intractable till then, sniffed and said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to take a ship in there.” The General snapped: “Spoken like a Farragut!”  He concluded in a hushed voice: “I can almost hear the ticking of the hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die…Inchon will succeed. And it will save 100,000 lives.”

It was almost a minute before his audience shifted in their chairs. Then Sherman said: “Thank you. A great voice in a great cause.” The admiral told Shepard that he thought the General had been “spellbinding,” and he said to another officer, “I’m going to back the Inchon operation. I think it’s sound.”