Thursday, March 5, 2020

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor, the last of the greats, as it were. His reign lasted nearly fifty years, I was not aware of that somehow. What I have been made consistently aware of in popular local media, is that he's a much-hated figure in Indian history; known more than anything else as an intolerant anti-Hindu tyrant who destroyed many temples. It's been repeated so often that I never actually stopped to wonder if it were true. A great example of history being bent into a political weapon. 

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke aims to distinguish fact from propaganda. The book begins with a chapter long disclaimer stating what the book is and isn't. It then spends another chapter telling us how it wants us to use the information presented to view Aurangzeb impartially. I am no expert, but I feel that no compelling content should require so much contextualising. The author is so busy making her case, when she could have let the content speak for itself - then again, maybe the issue is that the content is unable to stand on its own.

“I wish you to recollect that the greatest conquerors are not always the greatest kings. The nations of the earth have often been subjugated by mere uncivilized barbarians, and the most extensive conquests have, in a few short years, crumbled to pieces. He is the truly great king who makes it the chief business of his life to govern his subjects with equity. —Aurangzeb, writing to the recently dethroned Shah Jahan."

I liked more than a few things I learnt about Aurangzeb through this book. We all know that Aurangzeb earned much scorn, during and after his times, for overthrowing and trapping Shah Jahan at the Red Fort while he was still able. What I did not know was that Aurangzeb was plagued by guilt for these actions, especially in the latter part of his reign. The author quotes letters penned by the king to various trusted sources and his obsession with his "impending judgement" is revealing.

I had no information beyond Shah Jahan's imprisonment about the war of succession between his sons. Aurangzeb was not the heir apparent. It's interesting how he hounded, murdered and drove out his brothers in the pursuit of the crown. As the author puts it, given the choice, any of his brothers would have done the same. 

I am fascinated by the fact that the emperor asked to be buried in a simple tomb without the pomp and glory of the Mughal tradition. The detailing of his love for mangoes, dislike for courtly music and bias for his grandsons makes the king more than a caricature to sway historical narratives.  

The driving argument of the book is that we fail to see Aurangzeb as a product of his times. Colonial politics carved out the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and enmity that was close to absent to during the Mughal times. It is therefore unfair to judge Aurangzeb through that lens. Though more pious than his predecessor and his brother, he was not a Muslim king. His motivations for controlling religious practices of either Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh communities were political. He was a brilliant military and political tactician. Politics and religion are viewed as largely and purposefully separate in the modern world. This distinction did not exist in Aurangzeb's time. The head of the state, the ruler of the empire was to take it upon himself to do God's work. Therefore, his interest in religion was not interference as it would be in the modern mould. 

What the author has proved with a shadow of doubt is also that Aurangzeb was ruthless and power-hungry. His ambition often stood in the way of his sense of justice. Needless to say, it is this hunger for power that makes it so easy and compelling a narrative to cast this emperor as a soulless villain. Consider this example used by the author to show his lack of bias towards religion - paraphrased, a group of rebels caught by Aurangzeb's army were to be punished differently, the punishment for the Hindus being more severe than that of the Muslims. Aurangzeb did not make such religious distinctions when doling out punishments. Instead, he ordered all their heads to be chopped off. It is difficult to contextualise any actions and eliminate our internal biases (products of our own time) when judging historical characters. 

The tragedy is that with a man as ruthless as Aurangzeb, there's little incentive to see him as anything other than the devil himself. The author urges us to understand that this emperor was no more cruel than was expected in his times and she asks us to ease up on the ill judgement of his character. The book reiterates then that he was cruel and formidable. But, an honest treatment of history must make the distinction that this cruelty did not stem from a religious bias. This is an important point, and I'm glad it was presented so passionately by the author. I appreciate what the book hoped to achieve, I just wish there was more content. What we have is interesting, informative, but is it really enough to build empathy?

"Too great is the grief of this world, and I have only one heart bud - how can I pour all the desert's sand into an hourglass?" - Aurangzeb 

Monday, January 6, 2020

Reading Goals of 2019

Let's see how I fared:

1. To discover more women writers
Status: goal met

There was a time I only read books by men, barring a few exceptions like JK Rowling or Anne Rice. I don't know if this was a coincidence or influenced in some way by the kind of books I was surrounded by in bookstores, libraries and recommended lists. My favourite authors still happen to be men, but that is just circumstantial. This year though, I've consciously documented whom I've been reading - books by men, women and both here is for a book co-written by a man and a woman.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Favourite Books I Read in 2019

I saw someone post a list of their favourite books of the decade and while I would love to write a post quite as grand as that, it seems like an impossible task. I was 17 a decade ago and I honestly couldn't look at the books I read at 18-19-20... now, through the same lens as I did then. So I'll go with the Top Ten Tuesday standard, Ten Favourite Books of the year 2019 (how convenient that the last day of the year is a Tuesday.) I will be writing a detailed year in review post next week (yes, another new year's attempt at blog revival as it were.) So today's just a plain and simple list.

1.  Girl at War by Sara Novic: This is a book written by a Croatian writer about a young girl who loses her family in the Serbo-Croatian War. It exposed me to a part of the world I knew nothing about and with the glaring honesty of a ten-year-old narrator. Ana Juric, the main character, is rescued out of the war zone and adopted by an American family when she is ten. She grows up American, in denial and finally, mid-way into the book, unravels her past even as she comes to terms with it herself. A scene that still haunts me: this tiny little girl, convulsing in pain and vomiting as she has her first dinner with her new American family - she's never known what it is to have a full stomach. She can't bear it.

2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, it took me 27 years to pick this up and I'm not unashamed to admit it. Where do I even begin with this? I don't know what I was waiting for. Reading The Lord of the Rings sometime in May and and binge-reading up on Tolkien for the rest of the year has sufficed to transform my entire outlook on fantasy fiction -- one of my favourite genres at that. I don't think there is a greater quest in fiction nor a greater character than Sam. But that deserves more than a mention on a list, doesn't it?

3. What the F*: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen: It's not often that a non-fiction makes it to my list of favourite anythings (aside: it's fascinating how favourite is underlined in red for its UK spelling, but 'anythings' isn't.) I've annoyed everyone I know and would care to listen to exasperation singing praises of this book, so all I'm going to do is copy the book description from Goodreads. "Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time." There's no scope for being prudish while reading this one.

4. Columbine by Dave Cullen: Another non-fiction... what is happening to me. Now for the record, gun violence is as distant a reality to me as possible and that gives me the luxury of taking this book in a different vein than many other readers would. Takeaways for me, from this critical reporting of the Columbine massacre: compassion fatigue, misrepresentation of facts in the media, the celebration of a school spirit, urban myths and people juicing the tragedy for personal propaganda. The biggest trigger for me, as a school teacher, was just how much "in charge" a teacher is of her students' safety. Foremost, I think we, as a thinking and feeling society, must read this book to see how a small twist of facts can colour an entire story; and how important it is to look for facts in the face of compelling emotion.

5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I rarely pick up series, and even when I do, I hardly ever like the first book. Seraphina is a glaring exception to this rule. The beautiful medieval/steampunk story redeems its genre of young adult fantasy. Seraphina is the story of a girl who is part dragon, and her attempts to fit into the class ascribed to her by a society which doesn't understand or accept her full potential.

6. The Elephant Whisperer by Laurence Anthony: This was my first book of the year, and a memorable read. This is the true story of an Australian-African conservationist and his efforts to to rehabilitate a herd of wild elephant in the Thula Thula nature preserve in South Africa. Laurence Anthony loves elephants, that much is clear from the first chapter; but what becomes increasingly, and amazingly, evident over the course of the book is that these elephants love Laurence Anthony too. What we get is a strange tale of patience, hard work and the careful and precarious bonding between one man and one alpha female elephant, who work together to protect the lives of her precious pachyderm family. It's unforgettable. You learn about the intricate nature of elephant societies, their unmistakable intelligence, South African jungle laws and most importantly, the power of family.

7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It's becoming increasingly hard to pick favourites in a year that was so rewarding in terms of reading. Yet, I cannot forget this particular book that had the most compelling set of characters of all the books I read this year. It's the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple and their struggle to settle down in New York city. It is also about the American family they work for, and how the financial crisis of 2008 shakes their perfectly built world to the core.

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Let's be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love this book. It proudly proclaims to be a "YA" book and I have my biases about that. It also takes a line with so much power and cultural connotation as its title, I was certain it would be difficult to live up to the name. I was wrong. The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who at the very opening of the book, witnesses a police officer shoot down her best friend Khalil. As the whole nation is taken up in a speculation game, the only person who knows the truth is afraid of getting involved. This is a complicated story of race, identity, violence, friendship, and risking the facade of normalcy to protect and celebrate your roots.

8. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie: Oh, but this book is an epic, a story spanning nations and generations. The surprised outrage of America at the time of 9/11. A young Muslim couple in love facing the Partition of two nations in an old, old Delhi. The bombing of Nagasaki and the far-reaching injuries of this war on the minds and bodies of the people. It's set in Pakistan, and Japan, and Afghanistan too, and sheds light on war from any and every perspective, every generation and language. The storyteller is intelligent, unbiased, and compassionate and demands the same of her reader.

9. Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly: So, this may seem misplaced in an increasingly more serious list, but I abso-freaking-lutely loved this book. This is the premise: it is the greatest bounty hunt in history. The targets are the finest warriors in the world-commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today. On this list is the name of the US Marine Shane Schofield, who is not only a target but also quite possibly the only man who can stop this bounty hunt, if he doesn't get killed first. Reading Matthew Reilly's book is like watching a well made action movie. What Reilly lacks in terms of language or depth of character, he makes up for in speed and a kind of detail that is almost screenwriter-ish but in a good way. I won't be able to read these books one after the other, but it's perfect if you're in the mood for some entertainment.

10. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: The hardest pick of all that brings the list to a close. The Hired Man is yet another book set in Croatia, and a psychological dissection of war, when it comes unannounced and alters reality as you know it. This book takes you in the mind of a man who has suffered mysterious evils at the hands of an unnamed war, and the lifelong repercussions it has on his psyche. It's the story of a small town and its culture being silently rewritten by its scant inhabitants to account for the damages that were caused to them, about how the world has somehow moved on to the future while they're still grappling with a new present. An American woman and her two kids move into a house in small town Croatia. The woman hires a local man to help out with the refurbishing of what she wants to turn into a holiday home, and this man, our narrator, tells us the history of the house. A haunting read. The author hammers into your mind and turns the screw just when you least expect it.


That's it for now, which were your favourite reads of the year? 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sleeping Beauties by Owen King and Stephen King

Summary: In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, and the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

World War Z by Max Brooks


To be honest, I did not imagine it would be this hard to keep my only New Year's resolution for 2019 - to write a blog post a week. And yet, here I am, two months into the year and already failing. It's just that I have been so incredibly busy that it's been difficult to make time to open a book; let alone write about it! And even then, in spite of all the hair-pulling, fist-clenching, make-it-stop-screeching kind of busy that I've endured over these past few weeks, I've somehow, at the back of my mind, been chewing on this book. What follows is not my best review; rather a post-midnight spew of thought, but it's better than nothing (so I tell myself.) 

World War Z by Max Brooks is a book I've wanted to read for a long time. I'd read about it initially on the book blogging circles, many years ago, and eventually heard about the movie as well. And yet, nothing; I mean, nothing, could have prepared me for the ride that was this book. The most concise and precise review - what on earth. My reaction was as simple and as complex as that! It is easily one of the strangest, most accurate books I have ever read, and it blew me away.

The words "zombie apocalypse" bring to mind a very specific image, isn't it? A story in the style of 28 Days Later - lone survivors, lost and hunted, and the rapid breakdown of society as we know it. Stories of apocalyptic outbreaks are almost always from a singular perspective - one man, family or group of strangers against the countless armies of the infected. This is what I expected from World War Z by Max Brooks, which has always been in the "zombie apocalypse" category. 

But World War Z is no 28 Days Later. It's not a survivor's drama-tragedy. It's biting sociopolitical satire.The harsh realities and inner workings of different spheres of society, politics, geopolitics, economics, military are exposed. Written in the form of an "oral history," that is, a series of interviews of people directly involved in a "Zombie War" that nearly eradicated all of humanity. From the very first Patient infected with the virus that reanimated the dead, to survivors across the world fleeing to the icy regions where zombies turn ineffective; soldiers from the countless armies fighting against the attacks; even the government bigwigs involved in making the plans of evacuation and counter-attack; reporters covering the mass outbreak of disease; media seizing the day to publicise anthems of hope; right up to big pharmaceutical companies manufacturing fake antidotes! 

Each interviewee has his own voice, and tone - cold, reflective, morose, shattered, clinical. The book ties all the perspectives together into a loose narrative over a few years. What we end up with is this haunting, realistic case study of what would happen if the human race were to systematically fuck itself up to a great big fall. Does it end on a sweet ray of hope? Hardly. There are places and stories which spark a light of hope in your hearts, but one that is easily squashed moments later. I mean, you can always draw inspired conclusions about this indelible nature of the human race, our ability to push through and emerge victorious in times of great strife. But we'd be fools to ignore who got us into that struggle in the first place. 

Many chapters are imprinted on my mind and I don't think I'll ever forget them. But they're best read, not described. To give you a taste... 

"They say great times make great men. I don't buy it. I saw a lot of weakness, a lot of filth. People who should have risen to the challenge and either couldn't or wouldn't. Greed, fear, stupidity and hate. I saw it before the war, I see it today. I don't know if great times make great men, but I know they can kill them."
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"A lie? It's okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that's not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. "We're going to be okay." That was our message... There's a word for that kind of lie. Hope."
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“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and "They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine.”