Tag Archives: Humanities

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani Title: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Author: Sunil Khilnani
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241208229
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 636
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” is one of my long-standing favourite books on Indian history (well of whatever is there in it) and civilization. Till “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” came along. Not that it is any better by any stretch of imagination than “The Idea of India” but I quite like the concept. So what is the book about? Just what it says – India in 50 people – their lives and their journeys as the country progressed or declined – a mirror of our times so to speak. The concept is terrific and so is the writing, at the same time, there are some places where the book falls short.

Mr. Khilnani however picks some very obscure people for the book – which again I think is okay, given the timeline he covers and what he wants to communicate, however, there is something which is amiss in the book – the time spent on each personality. I wish there was more written on each of them which is not the case, only because Khilnani’s writing is par excellence.

Now coming to the personalities from Aamchi Mumbai or the state of Maharashtra as well. There are only 8 of them – nonetheless – I thought there could have been more from our city; however we will make do with these eight.

The eight personalities are: Shivaji (quite an obvious one, isn’t it? – the warrior king and about how he changed the course of the state of Maharashtra), Jamsetji Tata (another obvi choice), Annie Besant (her role in Mumbai wasn’t all that much, but still noteworthy, given the educational institutions set up by her and the time she spent in the city so much so that people mistook her to be Indian and from Mumbai), Manto (one cannot forget the time he spent in India and most particularly in Mumbai working with Bollywood – given he was also a screenplay writer), Raj Kapoor (need anyone say more when it comes to him – the first true blue showman so to say, and yet Khilnani has such an unbiased perspective which I personally loved and enjoyed), Ambedkar (the man who no one will ever forget and his role in starting the Dalit movement – this is my favourite piece in the entire book – only because there is so many layers which have been uncovered where the man is concerned and that too only in about five to six pages), M.F. Husain (one of India’s most prolific painters) and finally Dhirubhai Ambani (I shouldn’t have to say anything at all about him, should I?).

So these are the personalities – the purpose of the book is to trace their lives and see its relevance in not only shaping India as a free country but also their ideologies communicated through their work and made a lasting impression on people’s minds.

“Incarnations” as a book to me is complete in the sense of an idea or a concept but again there had to be more personalities – a 100 of them would perhaps been ideal. Mumbai was a terrain has also perhaps not been explored that much because of the restriction to 50. The book reads slowly (of course) and it will take some of your time before you are done with it. What I also found quite magnificent was the way in which the illustrations are handled – some are prints of paintings, some posters and some in the form of maps, which gives the book its very layer dimension. “Incarnations” is a very relevant book for our times and the world we live in. It is time to go back and trace our civilization and history through people who lived then and the difference they made.

The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War by Aditya Iyengar

The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar Title: The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War
Author: Aditya Iyengar
Publisher: Rupa Publications
ISBN: 978-8129134752
Genre: Fiction, Myths
Pages: 260
Source: Author
Rating: 4/5

I have always maintained that mythology must not be tampered with. I am sort of wary of the idea of retellings (so-called) and drifting away from the original or the real deal. It somehow scares me to read something like that. Having said that, I was quite taken by surprise by a book that had a retelling (of sorts) and somehow also stuck close to the original plot (had no choice given it was the Mahabharata).

Aditya Iyengar’s “The Thirteenth Day” is about the thirteenth day (well of course) but it a part of the war that is known only on the surface to most. It is the day when Yudhisthira, Radheya and Abhimanyu collide on the battlefield and what is the past and present to that day. It is about Abhimanyu majorly and how the story moves ahead using the “chakravyuh” as the core metaphor (at least that is what I interpreted from it).

There have been a lot of retellings of the Mahabharata – there is no dearth of stories out there on the epic. Then why must you read this book?

The book is no frills. It is simple, clear and tells a story that is riveting and keeps you hooked. What else do you need from a book?

The narration is in first person, which I am most comfortable with and might I add that it is most difficult to write a book in first person. The danger of losing the plot or the readers’ interest is quite high. However, Aditya never manages to do any of that at any point.

The thing with retelling or writing a story from the Mahabharata is that your research has to be five folds over and nitpicked. If that is not then, then you have already set yourself up for failure. But this book doesn’t do that. The research is thorough – so much so the minor characters also stand out and sometimes have their own stories to tell. There is also the element of surrealism (in some places) and it doesn’t at any point become an impediment but only helps the story move ahead. There are a lot of layers and sub-layers to Mahabharata. One cannot write about it and not be swayed to include some of them, which is what also happens in this narrative and that works for the book at every page.

The reason I am not talking much about the plot is that I would really want more people to read this book and experience it for themselves. A read that I would urge you to pick up because it is a fresh voice and tells the old tale with that voice harnessed all along.

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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison Title: The Empathy Exams
Author: Leslie Jamison
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 9781555976712
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 226
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There is a certain lack of empathy in the world. That is the conclusion I have come to given my interactions with most people and I wish it were different, but sadly it is not that way. There is cruelty everywhere – offline and mostly online. There is this sense of superiority that comes with making fun of someone, assuaging one’s insecurity I guess, and the fact that maybe you cannot do but bully someone or a set of people, just to show who the boss is. I have never understood this behavior and never will I guess.

There was also this Twitter incident that occurred last week and that clearly showed that we do not live in a world with enough empathy. There are bullies. There are people who mock. I know I am coming across too strong in this review, but a fact is a fact is a fact and there is nothing we can do about it, or wait, there actually is. We can try to be kind. We can be more empathetic. We can understand people – bit by bit and not be insensitive and unkind.

“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison is a book that opened up a lot of these thoughts stuck in my head – page after page and I loved every bit of it. Jamison talks about empathy through her life-situations and what she has gone through. While reading the book, there were so many thoughts that ran in my head and I just could not stop thinking about how we are unkind and insulting most of the times. Being a Gay man, I have faced it way too many times and I know how it feels. It feels terrible. Jamison’s book takes center stage on this and begins to uncover layer by layer on the whats, whys and why-nots of empathy.

“The Empathy Exams” is a personal book. Jamison makes the reader experience empathy, she talks about her wounds and her life (baring it all out in front of the readers, which is one mean task to do, according to me), and how it really is to be empathetic. The writing is real, raw and extremely honest. Leslie makes us realize the limitations of empathy and why is it so important for us to not let it be restrictive.

Why did the book resonate with me? Like I said, we have forgotten what it is like to be considerate, to be kind, and we just want to be mean. The book made me think of everyday situations and how we choose to deal with them and to me that is something. The fact that a book can do that to you and those ideas stick with you long after you have finished reading the book. “The Empathy Exams” is an introspective read and will tell you a lot more about you as a person than you have ever known. Read it and learn from it. I will try to. Every single day.

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