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Review of The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi

Review of the Sialkot SagaThe Sialkot Saga is a story spanning multiple generations. It is truly a saga unraveling various historical events happening in the Indian subcontinent and how they affect the two protagonists of the story, Arvind Bagadia and Arbaaz Sheikh.

Although it is a linear story, there are small breaks as one is repeatedly taken to ancient India, India in the Middle Ages and then to modern India to create the context. There is an underlying theme the story tries to tell, which is revealed in the end, but until you have reached a particular point, the reader is confused what genre Ashwin Sanghi is trying to cater to.

Normally in order to write reviews I take notes while reading books these days but in order to write the review of The Sialkot Saga I missed taking notes but this is primarily because I never thought that I would write the review of this book. I didn’t even hope to complete it. I thought I would read it for a few days and then move on to another book, forget about writing a review. Once I started reading it, I literally couldn’t put it down (although as it normally happens with me, it took me a complete week of intermittent readings to complete it).

The Sialkot Saga is a big book. It begins with Emperor Ashoka having a conference with his wise men about the written script of wisdom that has the capacity to shape destinies of not just individuals but nations. That script is like a template and only those with a particular mental and physical capacity can inherit its ingredients.

The novel is divided in various sections and “books”. After knowing about this small incident involving Ashoka you’re taken to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. A train leaves Sialkot, a province in Pakistan, and by the time it reaches Amritsar, all its passengers are massacred but, seemingly, one small kid, who is saved by a lower-ranked policeman, desperately trying to find survivors.

For a while, two stories go parallel: that of Arvind Bagadia whose father is an averagely-successful Mardwadi living in Calcutta, and of Arbaaz Sheikh, whose father is a dock worker in Bombay.

Whereas Arbaaz Sheikh grows in a hostile environment surrounded by bullies and ruffians, Arvind Bagadia, although lives a comfortable existence, is in a constant state of unrest because he sees his father being treated shabbily by the more affluent Marwadi community. Arvind wants to grow extremely rich.

Arbaaz Sheikh, while trying to fight his street battles, is pushed towards circumstances and individuals that introduce him to the underworld of Bombay.

Arvind has an uncanny ability to find opportunities to make money, and not just loose change, but tons of money. Arbaaz is courageous and can see an opportunity when he comes across it. By the time they are in their late teens their fathers are dead and they have made their names in the fields of business and crime.

The ways Arvind and Arbaaz make money are not very different. Arvind cons people by rightly predicting political and economic turn of events in the country and Arbaaz rises financially by directly becoming the left hand man of an underworld don who is like the Godfather, the sorts that helps people in distress and in return, expects to be helped by them when the time comes.

As I have written above, there is an underlying theme. In between you’re taken to the various periods. For example, in the beginning the story begins with Emperor Ashoka talking about this mysterious script and how it is to be passed on to the future generations. Then you have different kings and emperors like Krishnadev Raya, (in between many more) and Maharaja Ranjeet Singh some way or the other using the script to give shape to great acts of worship and human well-being.

The plot also moves parallel to the various happenings in the country since the independence. So you’re constantly told about when particular politicians become ministers, when particular parties come to power or lose power, when particular constitutional amendments are made, wars with China and Pakistan, the rise and fall of Indira Gandhi, the rise and fall of Atal Bihari Bajpayee, the Kashmir problem, the various floods and earthquakes in the country, criminals like Billa-Ranga, stockbrokers like Harshad Mehta, various terrorist attacks,  and so on. If you have read The Midnight’s Children at least in this regard you will find a great similarity.

The story is not about a particular incident, as is the name of the novel, The Sialkot Saga, it is a saga. So these are two complete stories of two individuals, drawn towards each other in extremely hostile environments. They have a disliking for each other the moment their destinies bring them face-to-face. Till the end of the story, there is a conflict going on between them. From childhood they grow young and from their youth they grow old, but their rivalry never stops.

The Sialkot Saga is a mix of legends, mythological epics, the vast historical heritage of India, the modern history of the country, the underworld and the business world, culminating into the realms of the treatment of untreatable ailments, and eventually, immortality.

Reading The Sialkot Saga was a great experience although I was constantly being drawn to other books (which means I didn’t leave the book midway as a normally do when I come across a better book). I must confess that the book would have been better written. Considering the vast repository of knowledge Ashwin Sanghi has used, a better writing style would have definitely created a gem. Nonetheless, his comprehensive research makes up for the lack of the ability to come up with a fluent language. I’m very happy that I read this book and discovered Ashwin Sanghi. I am definitely going to read more of his books and if you ask me whether you should read The Sialkot Saga, it depends on your taste, but if you want to read a book for the sake of entertainment and a bit of intellectual stimulation, I definitely recommend it.

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Review of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

the eye of the world – reviewI first started reading The Eye of the World when I was in college. I don’t remember ever completing it, but I remember feeling this deep connection with the book, especially with the boy with yellow eyes and the red sun moving across the world that is being depicted in the story. Ever since then I had been desiring to read the book.

A year ago I googled the book and found out that there are actually 12 books and The Eye of the World is the first of the 12-part series. Totally hellbent upon reading all the 12 books I did some research and downloaded the e-book versions of all the 12 books and then converted them to the Kindle format using Calibre.

I’m not a big fantasy-fiction fan and when I started reading The Eye of the World, I realise that it is an out and out fantasy-fiction story and I don’t know why or how it didn’t register before, although I knew what sort of story it is. So I kept reading and abandoning it throughout the year.

Of late I have been reading a lot of non-fiction. Non-fiction is a different genre and although you get to know a lot about the topic you are reading, it can get a bit drab. For a change I wanted to read a story. I’m working on my own collection of short stories and for a few months I would like to immerse myself in either fiction or at the most, autobiographical-fiction.

First I started reading The Ambassadors by Henry James but I didn’t like his writing style. I got bored. Randomly I started reading The Eye of the World. I started reading it in the middle of the last week and by Saturday evening, I had finished the book. It was after a very long time that I read a book at such a stretch. Going by my normal pattern, I would have completed the book in a month.

As mentioned above The Eye of the World is fantasy-fiction. While reading it I never intended to write a review so I didn’t take notes, but this afternoon, I decided otherwise.

The story is about an imaginary world where there have been lots of battles between good and evil and the world has been “torn apart” a few times, literally, as in, the planet being turned into multiple pieces. There is a dark Lord repeatedly referred to as Ba’alzamon who is constantly trying to take over the world and rule over men and whatever other forms of species and lives that inhabit the earth. The story begins with one of the legendary kings who took on Ba’alzamon and died a horrible death along with his kith and kin. The world after that lived in a prolonged dark age until another group of good people chased the dark one away and restored normalcy.

Aside from constantly wanting to rule the world till eternity the dark one is also constantly gathering “servants”, people who would follow his every command and would help him take over the world. There have been legendary battles over a period of many thousand years and when they talk of the histories of cities, towns and villages, they talk in terms of 2000 years, 3000 years of 5000 years. The biggest battle lasted for 1000 years.

There is a Wheel that weaves the web of life and every human being or magical being or trolloc (mutations of beasts and humans, normally constituting a major part of the military of the dark one) is an individual thread. Maybe this can be equated with the Kaal-chakra that we have in India which is basically the same concept.

After the initial prologue of the valiant king dying a horrible death along with his wife, kids and brothers, the story begins in a village called Edmond’s Field where simple folks live simple lives. These are olden times. People use bullock carts to travel from one village to another or from one city to another. They are mostly farmers, sheepherders, innkeepers, blacksmiths and peddlers. Although the villagers have councils of men to decide daily affairs the primary control rests in the hands of women and every village has a woman called Wisdom who is basically the doctor. She uses semi-medical ointments and herbs to cure almost every illness the village folks may have. Many magical properties are attributed to their ways of working.

Spring seems to have abandoned the world. Flowers don’t blossom. There is no hay for animals. There are no geese in the wilderness. Cattle has stopped reproducing and there is almost a situation of famine everywhere. Still, conditions are not as bad as they are bound to get later on. So there is a festival going on in the village and people are coming from distant places to seek not just business opportunities but also to participate in joyous festivities.

During ongoing festivities, an Aes Sedai arrives at the village, to everybody’s annoyance. Although Aes Sedais are not considered outright villainous, people like to maintain a distance because they are known to be manipulative and they are known to use people and take advantage.  They are witches, but mostly good witches, not the sort of horrible-looking witches we normally see in children’s books and horror movies.

There are three boys, in their late teens, in the village: Rand al’Thor, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara. As soon as the Aes Sedai arrives in the village, she wants them to be careful as their lives are in danger. Nobody takes the warning seriously simply because nobody likes to believe an Aes Sedai.

The village Wisdom is a young woman named Nynaeve al’Meara who is supposed to worry for everybody in the village. She resents the fact that someone from the outside comes and starts showing concern for the boys of the village while she cannot detect the danger. There is another girl around the age of the boys named Egwene al’Vere who is, in an unspoken manner, in love with Rand, and is being apprenticed by Nynaeve to be the next village Wisdom. A Wisdom cannot marry so she is in constant conflict with the abilities of being a Wisdom and the desire to be a normal woman who can fall in love and get married.

While the festivities are going on, a gang of trollocs attacks the village and specifically targets the three boys mentioned above. The Aes Sedai, along with her battle-hardened warden, has specifically come to the village to help the boys because she knows that Ba’alzamon is looking for them. All these three boys are important threads of the Wheel and in fact, Rand is at the centre of the battle of good and evil that is about to take place and that is going to decide whether the world is going to survive or get destroyed and get enveloped by the dark force for ever.

By the way the attacks happen, the boys can make out that they are the primary targets so when the Aes Sedai suggests that they are not safe in the village and they must flee to a place called Tar Valon at that very moment they see no point in thinking otherwise. Although the Aes Sedai can repel the attack with magical powers and with the help of the very strong warden called Lan, she says that the village is going to be attacked again and hence, they shouldn’t wait another minute.

While they are running the village Wisdom joins them saying that she cannot let the boys of the village be taken by an Aes Sedai without adult supervision. Egwene too joins them because one, she doesn’t want to let Rand leave the village on his own and two, she is being prepared to be the next Wisdom and the Aes Sedai feels that she too is a part of the unfolding pattern.

From then onwards, the story is all about reaching Tar Valon, a place which is the hub of the Aes Sedais and safe from the trolloc army as well as the power of the dark one. They go through innumerable adventures while trying to reach Tar Valon. Most of them get separated and have to find their own way to the place, discovering a lot about themselves and about each other in the process. They reach, or almost reach Tar Valon but then they discover that it is just a small part of the story, and their main battle awaits them somewhere else.

The story is full of magical fights, demonic creatures, nightmares replete with the visitations from the dark one, pursuits by the dark friends, existential and philosophical conflicts, evil places beyond human imagination, curses that don’t kill you but make you crave death, talking wolves, murderous ravens and all sorts of beings that constantly give you a feeling that you are not reading about the regular, good old earth, but a distant planet that is almost like earth, and is being constantly destroyed and rebuilt over its long history of many thousand years.

Robert Jordan is often compared to JRR Tolkien and the epic work of 12 books is considered as good as The Lord of the Rings, though not as famous.

The long harangues of the dark one may put you off sometimes but otherwise, it is an engaging story. It is written very simply and it flows with ease. You don’t get any literary experience, to be frank, but if you want to spend a couple of days reading a good story that is quite engrossing and full of magical happenings, I recommend it.

Will I be reading the remaining 11 books? I haven’t decided yet. I’m short of time. I don’t want to spend lots of time reading the same sort of story for the next 11 books. I would rather read 11 different stories. But if you don’t mind spending a year reading a single story, then you’re going to enjoy this series, assuming the next 11 books are also of the same quality.

Review of The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra

The Battle for Sanskrit review

Today I was ranting on Twitter about a video that they showed on Zee TV. The CCTV footage shows 5 goons barging into a class and beating up a student. The rest of the class quietly moved aside. Nobody intervened. The same thing is happening with our culture and history. Intellectual goons have barged in and they are doing whatever they want to do. They are interpreting our tradition and literature in whichever manner they want to do, and we are just standing there, either cheering for them or just throwing our hands in the air. Yes, there are some individuals like Rajiv Malhotra who have intervened. In the CCTV footage, you can see that although the entire class mutely watches the student being beaten up, the class teacher intervenes. He snatches a stick from one of the goons and then chases the goons out of the class. Maybe Rajiv Malhotra is doing the same thing while the rest of us just stand by the side due to ignorance, fear, or plain indifference.

If you have had prior experience of reading books by scholars like Rajiv Malhotra and Arun Shourie by now you know that the field of Indology has been a free for all battleground where only one army gets to fight. The history departments in various Indian universities have been run over by unapologetic Marxist historians and anybody from the West can appear suddenly like an enlightened avatar and start interpreting Indian mythology and Sanskrit literature.

We have seen how the so-called intellectuals like Wendy Doniger have wrecked havoc with the way the rest of the world (which basically means the Western world and western-influenced Indian world) interprets India’s great literary works.

Sheldon Pollock is one such intellectuals, who has taken upon himself to “detoxify” the Sanskrit grammar and make it more acceptable to the contemporary ethos of pluralism, secularism and whatever isms Marxist scholars like him can conjure up. He wants to be the Oracle of everything Sanskrit. He wants the world to look at Sanskrit through his lens. He thinks that only he knows how to properly study Sanskrit without getting affected by its inherent “toxic” grammar that conditions its indigenous adherents into mistreating people of low castes, women and, surprise, surprise, Muslims.

The book The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra is an attempt to raise red flags on various claims and interpretations Sheldon Pollock has used to draw not only certain conclusions, but has also attempted to turn those conclusions into gospel truths that are to be used by Sanskrit scholars and intellectuals who follow him. The purpose of this book is not to create counter-literature, the purpose of this book is to highlight the problem areas so that Indian scholars can create counter literature and set the records straight.

In case you don’t know who is Sheldon Pollock, he is a big name in the field of the study of Sanskrit. Whenever a world-class Sanskrit scholar is sought, he is the go-to guy. People swear by his name. It is claimed that he knows Sanskrit like nobody else, not even the traditional Indian Sanskrit scholars, so great is his stature. He has written a famous book called The Language of the Gods in the World of Men and Rajiv Malhotra has extensively quoted the contents from the book in order to prove how patchy his conclusions are.

But if many of his conclusions and interpretations are wrong, how come he is such an authority figure, a person less acquainted with such a murky world of scholarship may ask?

This, is a big problem.

This, is the problem The Battle for Sanskrit tries to deal with. Instead of working as a true Sanskrit scholar trying to study a language, Sheldon Pollock has worn the cloak of a political activist who thinks that recognising the inherent sacredness of Sanskrit means encouraging the Hindutvavadi elements among Hindus. By nature, Pollock thinks, Sanskrit has been used to oppress people. It has been used to augment the power of Brahmins and strengthen the kings.

He believes, and this is not an exaggeration, that nothing good has come out of Sanskrit or Hinduism, and whatever good has manifested in these realms, it has come from external sources and influences. Here’s a glimpse (quoting from The Battle for Sanskrit):

  1. Greek theatre existed in Ghandhara (which is now in Afghanistan) and influenced Indian theatre. Thus, Sanskrit drama, might have been an adaptation of Greek Theatre.
  2. Greek sculpture was copied by Indian artisans in Afghanistan.
  3. The Sanskrit work written in India on horoscopes was translated from some lost Greek text. Thus Indian jyotish was shaped under Greek influence.
  4. A major Indian work on architecture was copied in almost every detail from a Greek text.
  5. A particular South Indian and Sri Lankan goddess was a result of a cultural transmission from Greece.
  6. Even the Ramayana might have been influenced by a translation of a work by Homer.
  7. Ashoka’s royal inscriptions were an idea borrowed from Persia.
  8. In mid-2nd century CE, Indians translated Greek astrology into Sanskrit.
  9. The ‘doctrine’ of omens and portents was borrowed from Mesopotamia.
  10. The Greek work on architecture, Vetruvius, was adapted into the standard work on Hindu architecture, The Manasara, in the 6th century CE.
  11. The Vedas are nothing but senseless hymnology and sometimes just random sounds with no meaning.
  12. Writing came to India with Buddhism – before Buddhism writing didn’t exist.
  13. Since writing came after Buddhism, Valmiki wrote the Ramayana and Vaid Vayasa wrote the Mahabharata after Buddhism and consequently, many of the portions of these epics have been borrowed from the Buddhist Jataka tales.
  14. So on and so forth…

His basic idea is, and I’m not exaggerating, that nothing good ever came off Hinduism, Sanskrit and basically everything that directly or indirectly has to do something with Hinduism and Sanskrit.

All the good things that happened in this part of the world either happened by fluke, or through foreign — mostly Greek, Muslim and Buddhist — influences. And just as an extra precaution, even if the Buddhists (Buddhists were originally, after all, Hindus) did something positive, they had to be Shakas and Kushans who came from distant lands.

The problem is not what Sheldon Pollock thinks of Sanskrit, the Indian civilisation and Hinduism, the problem is that he has enough influence to be taken very seriously (and he IS taken very seriously) by reputed universities, international bodies and boards and scholars. As mentioned above, his work, however faulty, is quoted in other works and these works are quoted in other works and this is how the web of faulty interpretations and conclusions spreads beyond repair.

Sheldon Pollock is so influential that

  1. A Columbia University chair in the name of Adi Shankara is being set up with the help of rich NRIs and he is possibly designated to head it as the most deserving and influential Sanskrit scholar.
  2. He is the editor of the Murty Classical Library — an initiative to translate and publish classics of Indian literature. Rohan Murty, the son of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, has “gifted” $5.2 million to the project.
  3. Pollock had previously edited the Clay Sanskrit Library
  4. From the Government of India he has received the Padma Shri and the Presidential Certificate of Honour for Sanskrit.
  5. Some administrators at Sringeri Peetham, which was established by Adi Shankara himself, want to appoint Sheldon Pollock as a sort of ambassador of the legacy of the peetham.

And this is just a small glimpse of the power he wields. Tragically, the power that he wields doesn’t come from the fountains of knowledge and wisdom and genuine scholarship, the power that he wields comes from political activism, agenda-driven scholarly interpretations and the collective umbrella of Hinduphobia.

This background was essential to understand why Rajiv Malhotra has written the book The Battle for Sanskrit.

If The Battle for Sanskrit were to be the Ramayana, then Sheldon Pollock would be its Ravana, the main villain.

Even if not the main villain, he definitely is the central theme of the book. Rajiv Malhotra has written the book to raise awareness and awaken Indian scholars to the danger the Indian Sanskriti has been put in due to internal hubris and western-Pollock-influenced intellectuals. He doesn’t just criticise Sheldon Pollock and points out factual errors, he also puts a big blame on Indian scholars who have either been underplaying the attack by American Orientalism and western Indologists or are too hubris-ridden to counter-attack in an intellectual and scholarly manner.

The book begins with the account of how Rajiv Malhotra makes an effort to reach out to the stakeholders at the Sringeri Peetham to request them to reconsider their decision to anoint Sheldon Pollock as the representative of the Peetham. Rajiv Malhotra thinks, rightly so, that the person representing the Peetham should be someone who is actually living within the traditional framework of Adi Shankara’s philosophy, rather than someone who is just reading and writing about it as an outsider.

From there on the book segues into the way Sheldon Pollock has totally remodelled the field of Orientalism and has dumped everything that has gone wrong with Indians in general and Hindus in particular , yes, you have guessed it right, on Hindus.

When the Muslims invaded India they absorbed by osmosis the inherent violent nature of the Hindu society and in fact, if you believe Pollock, it weren’t the Muslims who were the aggressors, it were the Hindus. In fact, most of the Sanskrit literature was created by Hindus, according to Pollock’s bizarre logic, to torment Muslims. The Muslims were the rakshasas in the Ramayana and since the Ramayana justifies slaying rakshasas, Hindus found it justifiable to carry out atrocities upon Muslims.

Pause for a while, because you’ll need some time to digest.

In a Tehelka interview Sheldon Pollock said, “The Mahabharata is the most dangerous political story I think, in the world, because it is this deep meditation on the fratricide of civil war.

He dislikes the notion of Sanskrit gaining prominence in the contemporary world so much that in the same Tehelka interview he says, “You know this whole spoken Sanskrit movement fills me with a kind of nausea.”

It’s not just Muslims who learned to be violent from the Hindu society. The English imperialists took cues from the inherent imperialism among the Hindu society.

You might already be aware of the theory that it was the Hindu philosophy that laid conditions for Nazism in Germany and consequently, the Holocaust. Our scholarly Pollock subscribes to this theory wholeheartedly. The connection between Hinduism and Nazism manifested because people like Max Muller interpreted the Sanskrit texts according to their own warped views and religio-political pursuits…it’s an entirely different story and you must read it to get a clear perspective on the issue.

Even the roots of western oppression can be found in Sanskrit, according to the team of Sheldon Pollock, without throwing light on whether it was Sanskrit that was responsible for the oppression of African slaves, the native Americans and the Australian aboriginals.

So there you have it. A prominent scholar who has access to massive funds and biggest universities in the world is spreading canards (I know, it is a loose word but I don’t want to beat around the bush) about India’s ancient texts, and not just spreading them, but converting them into texts that are further used to create school and university books. He needs to be countered wholeheartedly, with full force, and The Battle For Sanskrit aims to ignite a sense of awareness and a sense of urgency among Indian scholars.

Why is it so important to counter this cabal of intellectuals and scholars? What’s the big deal if the scholars like Pollock go on twisting the Indian classics unquestioned? First of all, when our traditional ideas are translated in the West, in most of the cases they are taken out of the context, totally disconnected from the source. There can be many reasons, but one of the reasons is that the scholars who are trying to study the Indian tradition, the Indian sanskriti, they use a totally different model. They use the same scholarly models they have used to study Greek and Latin cultures.

This is a small problem actually. The bigger problem is the way the entire Hindu community is being portrayed as a highly biased, repressive entity that thrives on exclusion and casteism.

Rajiv Malhotra cites a poem taught in American schools:

The rulers who control all knowledge,
Claim the Ramayana to be India’s history
And called us many names – demons, low castes, untouchables.

But we are the  aborigines of the land.
Listen to our story.
Today we are called the dalits — the oppressed.
Once the Aryans on their horses invaded this land.
Then we who are the natives became the displaced.
Oh Rama, Oh Rama, You became the God, and we the demons.
You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey,
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.

Pay attention that bad-mouthing Hanuman would be counter-productive here because Hanuman lived in the forest, where the tribals live/lived.

The poem goes on…

But poverty grew and to divert the poor
From their real need, a new enemy was found,
Muslims were targeted and ‘taught a lesson’.
To destroy Lanka, Oh Rama, you
Formed us into a monkey army.
And today you want us,
The working majority,
To form a new monkey army
And attack Muslims.
Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.
Be warned, you purveyor of a self-serving religion.
We will be monkeys no more.
We will sing songs of humanity
And we will make you humans as well.

The theory that some alien race called the Aryans invaded the indigenous people have been scientifically debunked but look at these Marxist, agenda-driven historians are not letting go of their baby.

Highly advanced genetic coding analytics techniques have been used to verify that there hasn’t been a major change in the genealogy of the people living in this region for the past 9500 years whereas, according to the very same scientists who use and promote the Aryan Invasion theory claim that there was a big incursion around 3500 years ago.

They also claim that the sudden Indus Valley Civilisation downfall was due to the Aryan Invasion – recent palaeo-climatic studies have revealed that the Indus Valley civilisation might have perished due to a 200-year long drought caused by a monsoon aberration.

Still, it is the Aryan Invasion theory and hence, the victimhood theory that rules the roost – opinions are made, educational books are written, course material is prepared, lectures delivered, conferences are organised and grants are given on this faulty theory.

So yes, it isn’t just about a few misguided scholars propagating falsehoods knowingly or unknowingly, it is about the impact these scholars are making. Great damage has already been done and it might already be too late, but doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Another reason why we need to sit up and take note of this blatant exploitation of our intellectual wealth is that due to our own indifference, we are having to import our own knowledge that has been regurgitated. Just imagine, our scholars have to visit universities like Columbia and Oxford in order to study our own epics. Now while writing this, I remember that the Hindi teacher in my class had gone to the US to do her PhD (don’t remember whether it was on Tulsidas or Kalidas)!

Scholars like Sheldon Pollock are recreating the scholarly realms according to a western point of view, to be sold to a Western audience and the Western-influenced Indian audience in a highly digestible format.

Rajiv Malhotra writes that the centres of Sanskrit studies had shifted out of India into Europe and from Europe they moved to the US. Most of the academic Sanskrit research is going on in the US universities. They are mining our intellectual wealth and if this trend continues, India will remain an importer of knowledge about its own civilisation rather than being at the helm of the discourse concerning itself.

The Battle for Sanskrit is full of reasons why Indian intellectuals who are living within the traditional parameters should be the primary interpreters, interlocutors and disseminators of our heritage rather than the Western intellectual prestidigitators who are running their own religious, cultural, ideological, political and even commercial agendas under the garb of scholarly pursuits.

Take for example how the mid-80s telecast of the Ramayana epic is often held responsible for the early 90s flux among the Hindus, and hence, through guilt-by-association the entire epic is painted with the strokes of religious hatred and divine-vs-demons (Hindus vs Muslims/Christians/Dalits) theory. Progressive Hindus are advised to be cautious of the inherent violent and racist nature of the epic. Even the fringe VHP is brought into the fold and Pollock says that the organisation draws lots of inspiration from the Ramayana.

In this regard Rajiv Malhotra quotes an incident of how these intellectuals write questionable materials and then quote each other to further each other’s careers: in March 1993 US academics Lloyd and Susan Rudolph published an article in the New Republic titled “Modern Hate” in which they discussed how the BJP had hijacked Hinduism and the Ramayana (PDF link to the article).

…In January 1987, an eighteen-month-long serial of the Ramayana based on the manas began airing at 9:30 AM, prime-time, on state-run TV.

…10 months after the Ramayana megaseries, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Coucil) called on Hindus throughout India to make holy bricks, inscribed with Rama’s name, for use at Ayodhya. They are, at the site of Rama’s birth, on the place of the Babri Masjid, they would build a temple to Rama.

In the article the Rudolphs have used Sheldon Pollock’s divinization-dominization theory to prove how the Ramayana can be used/is used, to incite violence (due to its inherent toxicity).

You will find it quite fascinating that Susan Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolf were awarded the Padma Bhushan and Sheldon Pollock the Padma Shri by the Congress-led UPA government.

Pollock had started his own projects on the Ramayana in the early 80s with his own conclusions and inferences and he was never rebutted, neither by his own western fraternity nor by Indian intellectuals. It took just 9 years for his ideas to become mainstream.

In 1996 the prominent French political scientist Christophe Jafferlot quoted the Rudolphs in the book that he wrote on Hindu nationalism:

…Thus, the broadcasting of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as Lloyd Rudolph has suggested, was ‘playing a leading role in creating a national Hindu, a form of group consciousness that is not hitherto existed’.

Again, this is just one example of how a particular vested interest formulates it totally misplaced theory and then how multiple intellectuals quote this story to validate it and to perpetuate its existence. The lie, after a fierce cycle of repetition, tragically, becomes the truth.

The main argument of Sheldon Pollock, which Rajiv Malhotra disagrees with throughout the book, is that rather than being a language that encouraged social interaction, Sanskrit was used as a principal instrument of domination in active collusion between the Kings and the Brahmins. Sanskrit facilitated the “othering” of non-Aryan and non-Brahmin communities. It was used to produce and disseminate literature that would make the kings divine (Rama) and the people who went against the wishes of the king shudras and malechhas (demons).

The Brahmins were the creators and propagators of this Sanskrit-supported myth. The grammar of Sanskrit, Pollock claims, was constructed in such a manner that people who used the language and internalised its texts would automatically be biased against communities and cultures they deemed inferior.

Pollock says that Sanskrit was never used by common folks. In fact, he says that the language went mainstream only after Buddhists invented writing and people began to write in Sanskrit. He pays no attention to the oral Sanskrit tradition that had existed thousands of years prior to writing becoming mainstream.

By the way writing came to this part of the world a few thousand years before Buddhism. Even the Indus Valley Civilization is known to have a script that still hasn’t been deciphered, and the Indus Valley Civilization existed in around 4500 BC.

Sheldon Pollock believes that Sanskrit as an active, spoken language, has no business existing. Like other classical languages like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit should be confined to scholarly museums, only to be learned and interpreted  by a particular clique of scholars, as a dead language. It should be quarantined. He wants to create an army of western and Indian intellectuals and scholars that will help him detoxify the language and make it more acceptable to modern ethos of secularism and tolerance.

Rajiv Malhotra on the other hand says Sanskrit is very much alive. There are many scholars actively using Sanskrit to create literature. It is being spoken in many spheres. The only problem is, it is not as prevalent as it deserves to be.

Even in ancient times Sanskrit was widely spoken. There are ample proofs of Sanskrit being used by common people. Rajiv Malhotra mentions Chamu Krishna Shastry who has compiled textual evidence showing that Sanskrit was spoken by common people in ancient times.

The celebrated Sanskrit grammarian Panini created separate lists of Sanskrit words that were used in Vedic rituals as well as the words used in day-to-day interactions. Patanjali, another ancient Sanskrit grammarian, has listed many Sanskrit words used by farmers, and even ruffians, gamblers and tricksters!

He contends that if ancient languages like Mandarin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese and Persian can remain mainstream, why can’t Sanskrit?

We shouldn’t rescue Sanskrit from the clutches of American Orientalists simply because of its exotic value or because of a hollow sense of pride; it actually contains a wealth of knowledge, and this knowledge is already being mined by Western scholars to make it their own. Concepts of science, abstract philosophy and mathematics yet unknown to the mankind are preserved in our ancient Sanskrit texts. There will come a time when we will be using our own knowledge as Western concepts without even knowing it that they come from India.

Often while reading the book you wonder, “if this, this, this is wrong, then what is right?”

Although in many instances Rajiv Malhotra has quoted counterarguments by other scholars, he hasn’t provided many rights to the wrongs propagated by the likes of Sheldon Pollock and he has specifically mentioned that.

The Battle for Sanskrit is not a pointwise rebuttal, it is an attempt to raise red flags.

He pinpoints problem areas where traditional scholars must focus on and come up with counterarguments.

He also stresses upon the importance of inculcating and nurturing a tradition of purvapaksha —  the practice of studying and understanding the point of view of other fields of thoughts, religions and scholarship.

During a conversation with Rajiv Malhotra, Sheldon Pollock points out that it is not his problem that he is never countered. And he is right. If he is not countered, if his mistakes are not pointed out, if his claims are not debated, why would he try to change the narrative that is reaping so many benefits for him? Unless his point of view becomes a liability for him, he is not going to admit that he is wrong.

Scores of religions came to India but we never studied them, we never understood them. The British came to India and wrote hundreds of books on our culture, social norms and economic disparities. Our writers and scholars didn’t study them, didn’t write treatises on them. Syrian Christians came to India almost 700-900 years before Islam but nobody in India tried to understand them. The same was the case with Islam. We have never had our own historians visiting foreign lands, observing the norms and writing about them. We have always been the subjects. We have never been the observers. This is also one of the wrongs that Rajiv Malhotra thinks we should  right.

In order to create scholarly literature our intellectuals and scholars, while remaining steeped in our own traditions, need to adopt modern models and acquaint themselves with contemporary scholarly vocabulary, terms and definitions. They need to fully understand Christianity, Islam and other religions according to the traditional ways of analysis and deduction which is much holistic and broad minded compared to Western contemporary methods. We need to have our own subject matter experts on other religions and methods of learning.

Again, in The Battle of Sanskrit you may not find many solutions to the questions that trouble you. This is not a solutions book; it’s a red flags book. It points out where the problems are. It gives our Indian traditional scholars a point of reference, from where they can start and what direction they can follow if they want to follow.

Should you read this book? Yes.

Review of Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli

Review of Matsyagandha by Narendra KohliI don’t exactly remember how I ended up ordering Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli. One of these days I was trying to find something from Maithili Sharan Gupt and ended up ordering Matsyagandha and Baton-Baton Mein – on Flipkart they have listed Bato-Baton Mein by Maithili Sharan Gupt but when I got it I discovered that it is actually written by Manohar Shyam Joshi of the Hum Log fame.

Anyway, there are two Hindi writers I can read any given day: Narendra Kohli and Amritlal Nagar – I have written about both these writers on this blog previously on this link. Narendra Kohli turns the stories of Indian epics into real-world stories. For example, he has written two volumes of Abhyuday; it’s Ramayana written in such a manner that there are no miracles involved. All the people in the story are normal human beings achieving normal feats and dealing with extraordinary circumstances as human beings rather than divine beings. So he actually explains how Hanuman, a very learned and physically strong individual, crosses the sea from that part of the Indian Ocean that is not very deep and reaches Sri Lanka without drowning. Similarly, Ravan, his army and his brothers are not demons, they are just people who have turned so materialistic due to prosperity that the only objective of their lives is to consume and indulge.

Matsyagandha was found floating in a jute basket, in the river Ganges, by a group of fishermen. Since she couldn’t be sold as fish, the men handed the infant girl to the village head, Dasraj. When she was found she was wrapped in very expensive garments. She was extraordinarily beautiful so both Dasraj and his wife assumed that she must had been a princess and due to some circumstances, she ended up floating in the river. The childless couple started raising her as their own daughter hoping that one day they would be able to return her to her family and get rewarded for keeping her alive. Just like other village folks, she went to fishing expeditions and she spent so much time among fish that she started smelling like fish and hence came to be known as Matsyagandha (matsya in Sanskrit means fish and gandha means smell)

The story begins with the Prince of Hastinapur and the son of Shantanu, Devavrat, coming to Dasraj and asking her daughter’s hand for his father who is smitten by her extraordinary beauty and cannot get a single moment of peace. Moved by the pain the longing was causing his father, Devavrat decides that no matter what, he is going to fulfil his father’s desire.

Dasraj knows that had Devavrat wanted he could have simply kidnapped Satyawati (Matsyagandha’s real name) but due to his Dharma (a strong sense of right and wrong and an undying desire to follow the age-old conducts of his long and illustrious lineage of Kuru ancestors) he wouldn’t do so. He asks the Prince, “Would you still be so cordial and friendly if I refused the hand? Wouldn’t you simply kidnap her? After all what can I do? I am simply a fisherman and I don’t have the sort of mighty army you have.”

Devavrat assures Dasraj that under no circumstances he is going to kidnap Satyawati because a woman is kidnapped only if her household can put up an equal fight.

Dasraj then raises the question of Shantanu’s age. There was big age gap between Satyawati and Shantanu, and what will happen when Shantanu dies? Won’t Satyawati then be reduced to a mere minion and her children the children of a minion?

“What do you want then?” asks Devavrat.

“Well, like any farther, I want my daughter to remain the queen for as long as she lives, and I want her children to become the heirs to the throne, and you being so mighty and strong, how is it possible? You are as capable of being the heir to the throne of Hastinapur as a human can be without being a god, how is it even possible that my daughter will remain the queen and one of her sons will be the king of Hastinapur? I want the eldest son of Satyawati to become the King of Hastinapur,” says Dasraj.

“This is not an issue,” says Devavrat casually and instantly. “I give you my word that I will forsake my claim to the throne and one of the sons of Satyawati will be the king of Hastinapur.”

Dasraj isn’t content with what Devavrat promises, so he goes further, “But is it fair to give your word when your son isn’t even born? How can you make a promise on his behalf? What if, when he grows up, he refuses to accept your word and rightfully claims the throne? And being the rightful descendant, the army and your people will be on your son’s side and the fate of my daughter and her sons will be sealed forever.”

“The sun, the earth and the air be my witnesses, I take the pledge to remain celibate for the rest of my life. I shall never marry, I shall never have my own wife and I shall never have my own children,” declares Devavrat and there is all-round panic among the ministers and the army accompanying him.

Henceforth, Devavrat, due to his Bheeshma (extraordinary) pledge, comes to be known by the name of Bheeshma.

But the story is about Satyawati, Matsyagandha.

Before becoming the attraction of King Shantanu Satyawati falls in love with an ascetic but highly renowned Sage Parashar. They have a son out of wedlock but Dasraj manages to convince Satyawati that she is meant to spend her life in the palaces, not in the modest surroundings of a hermitage. She hands the infant son to Sage Parashar and decides to lead the path of materialistic pursuits shown by her father. The rest of the story follows.

Satyawati becomes the queen but she hasn’t been brought up as a princess so Shantanu is quite uncomfortable living with her. But then he reconciles that when he desired her, he desired her for her body and not for her wisdom, upbringing and intellect. On the very first night when Shantanu satisfies his lust with her, she comes to understand that she wields total control over him and hence the downfall of the Kuru clan begins.

Satyawati can never understand how someone like Devavrat who commands so much power and respect can suddenly give up everything just so that his father can get the woman he wants for his bed? Why would he let her eldest son get the throne of one of the mightiest empires in the world? There must be some catch. He must be scheming something. He must want her downfall. Someday, he would slaughter her and her children when Shantanu would be no more. She constantly conspires against Devavrat. “Consider Devavrat your biggest enemy,” had counselled Dasraj when she was leaving and she constantly thinks that he is her biggest enemy.

Her own conceit, her own doubts and her own sense of insecurity bring her to the precipice of ruin. Totally detached, Bheeshma is there, but only as a caretaker and a protector until a worthy king emerges out of Satyawati’s lineage. He is tied with his woe. Satyawati, due to her character flaws, fails to raise sons who can defend themselves as well as their empire.

Matsyagandha is a tragic story although it is not even the beginning of the Mahabharata that we are familiar with, yet. She sows the seeds of the destruction that is wrought upon the Kuru clan by always mollycoddling her sons and grandsons, totally undermining the age-old traditions of righteousness, values, hard work and principles. She thinks that being a king or a prince means constantly living in the lap of luxury and abundance, weakening her progeny physically and mentally in the process.

She is Matsyagandha – the one who smells of fish and the smell of fish always makes the surroundings difficult to bear. The smell of fish is like the rotting flesh. True to her name, she brings a rot that can never be reversed.

But to be fair, she is not solely responsible for the destruction described in the Mahabharata. If she is the rot, who introduces the rot to the family? Shantanu. Just because he cannot control his impulses.

Matsyagandha is a very well written book by Narendra Kohli. Without being preachy or righteous he imparts the ancient values of Dharma in a manner you can easily fall in love with. Reading a good writer is like listening to classical music, as I often comment in my various writings. The words, the language, the sentences, they sound like music, so beautifully they are written. It’s a book to be read in one sitting, as I did. Do read it. In order to fully enjoy it, your command over Hindi must be good, though.

Book review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I started reading Norwegian Wood with two misconceptions: like most (at least the ones that I have read) books by Haruki Murakami the story would revolve around something bordering on paranormal or some parallel, inexplicable existence from which the characters of the story keep coming in and going out, and the backdrop of the book would be Norway. It is a totally normal story, with normal characters, living in Japan (mostly Tokyo), and they never go to Norway.

Norwegian Wood, as I discovered while reading the book, is a famous song by the Beatles. There is no particular reason why the title of the book is Norwegian Wood aside from the fact that one of the characters keeps on singing or playing the song with no particular impact on the story of the novel, and the name appears on the very first page of the novel, triggering the entire sequence of storytelling. The titles of famous Western compositions, by the way, are a recurring appearance in the Murakami books. This could be because a major part of his life was spent in Europe and America.

I started reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami by accident. Although I had purchased the book long time ago and stored it on my Kindle reader, I never got down to reading it because these days I’m mostly reading non-fiction. I had just finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi and I wanted to read something heavier so I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It so happened that when I started reading The Myth of Sisyphus I was sitting in the playground of our building with lots of kids playing around and lots of ladies chattering, sitting in the sun. Although I wanted to read, I couldn’t focus. The essay kept referring to some abstract philosophical concepts I don’t understand. Besides, the first essay in The Myth of Sisyphus deals with why people commit suicide. Sitting in that playground, with my daughter taking rounds on her new bicycle and seeming to be on cloud nine, around 20 kids playing around me and the cheerful ladies enjoying the sun, I wasn’t exactly feeling like reading a dismal subject with so much philosophical analysis. I closed the book and then randomly tapped on Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

It is an autobiographical book although not exactly the story of Haruki Murakami as suspected by many readers. It doesn’t even tell the story of a complete life. It is the story of a boy, Toru Watanabe, and his romantically turbulent days even before he turned 20. It’s just about a couple of years. Is it a love story? It depends on how you take it. Haruki Murakami in one of the interviews about the book said that it is no way a love story. Toru Watanabe starts telling the story 18 years after the incidents unfolding in the story happened.

Toru, when in school, had a best friend named Kizuki and Kizuki had a girl friend named Naoko and life have woven around them psychological and behavioral circumstances in such a manner that outside of their small circle they don’t interact with anybody else. Despite being the third person in the group, Toru never feels that he is intruding or he is just being tolerated because he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

Kizuki suddenly kills himself at the age of 17 and the worlds of Toru and Naoko are totally changed. When together, they never talked to each other and completely lose contact with Kizuki out of the picture. After Kizuki kills himself Toru finds it impossible to keep living in the same town so for his college education he comes to Tokyo and starts living in a dormitory. Since his childhood the only friend he has had was Kizuki, and he is never able to forgive his friend for killing himself like that, just like that. Nobody knows why Kizuki killed himself.

Many months pass like that and one day, while travelling in the train, he bumps into Naoko who was also forced by Kizuki’s memories to leave home. She asks him if he would like to walk with her and having nothing pressing to do, he agrees. Long walks in the city and in the wilderness become a routine. They don’t talk much. She keeps walking randomly and he keeps walking behind her, whenever they decide to go on walks. Toru always considers Naoko Kizuki’s girlfriend and Naoko also treats him like he used to be, Kizuki’s best friend. The scar that Kizuki has given them acts like a strong bond, something only they share with each other.

In between the narrator describes the university agitations going on in the late 60s and the students’ obsession with socialist ideals without understanding them or assimilating them.

While living in the college dorm Toru comes across another friend named Nagasawa who reads the same books Toru reads. Nagasawa is flamboyant, is a habitual womaniser and is totally unapologetic of his lifestyle. This is the quality that draws Toru to him and during many of their excursions, Toru ends up sleeping with different girls.

Naoko is older than Toru so her 20th birthday falls way before Toru’s 20th birthday. They celebrate the birthday at Naoko’s place and end up making love. Toru doesn’t know what to make of their new-found intimacy, but this incident brings them closer and although it isn’t mentioned in words, they begin to love each other. But the next day Naoko leaves saying that she cannot cope with the pressure of Kizuki’s death. Her parents send her to a new age sanatorium or mental health retreat.

He writes multiple letters to her, to her parents’ place, hoping that they would forward them to wherever she is, but no reply comes for months.

While Naoko recuperates in the sanatorium Toru bumps into this mysterious girl called Midori who comes and goes according to her whims. Although she has a boyfriend, she’s drawn to Toru due to his straightforwardness and aloofness. While attending university she runs a small book shop left to her by her father who, she says, has left both the sisters and moved to Honduras after their mother’s death from brain cancer.

Just like Naoko, it’s Midori who takes constant initiatives and keeps inviting Toru for outings and eat outs. Once he visits her place above the book shop and while sitting on the roof they watch a neighbor’s house on fire, play guitar and kiss each other while Toru reminds her that he loves another girl.

While going through various twists and turns with Midori Toru receives a letter from Naoko and it is in this letter she reveals that she is recuperating in a mental health retreat in the mountains. She apologises for vanishing like that and reassures him that she has been trying her best to gather her energies and contact him and until that happens, he should do with the occasional letters.

In one of the letters he asks her if he can visit her and she says yes.

At the mental health care center he is greeted by a cheerful and aged Reiko who is Naoko’s roommate. As per the rules of the place he cannot meet Naoko alone and Reiko has to remain present during all the interactions.

Reiko has her own story and reasons for being at the sanatorium for the past 7 years and in between she tells him her story. It’s at the sanatorium that both Naoko and Toru confront the memory of Kizuki and how his death has affected both of them. Naoko tells him about her sister who had also committed suicide and how she had discovered her sister hanging from the roof. She tells him that she can hear Kizuki and her sister calling her and urging her to join her. During his stay, Reiko, Naoko and Toru go on a long trek and Reiko urges Toru and Naoko to go for a walk alone, against the rules of the sanatorium. During the walk Naoko tells him that despite having been boyfriend-girlfriend since an early age, she and Kizuki had never been able to have an intercourse and she would always release him with her hands. So when Naoko and Toru made love on her 20th birthday, he was the first man ever to enter her. While on the walk, the kiss each other, admit for the first time that the love each other.

He gets caught in the whirlwind of life when he comes back from the sanatorium in various incidents keep bringing him close to and pushing him away from Midori with various intervals. Midori now doesn’t disguise the fact the she is in love with her and he constantly tells her that he is in a complicated relationship that cannot be explained, without ever talking about Naoko.

Eventually, there comes a time when he cannot decide whether he should wait for Naoko who is constantly being drawn to another world by her dead sister and a dead Kizuki, or move on with a highly desirable Midori who is deeply in love with him but is quite hotheaded and can push him over to the embers if she is displeased.

This is not the end of the story but while reviewing the book I wouldn’t like to reveal exactly what happens. When you’re reading the story, it seems that Toru is the only person in the story who seems to have what you may call a “normal” upbringing or past. Otherwise everybody is broken one way or another.

What’s the message Haruki Murakami tries to convey through the novel? There is a compelling sentence in the story: Throughout our lives we are nurturing death.

Incidentally, the book I chose to read in place of The Myth of Sisyphus because I didn’t want to read an analytical essay on why people commit suicide, tells the story of a few characters who either commit suicide, or are deeply scarred by those who have committed suicide. Quite strange.