A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia

Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.

Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us all feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.

The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .

If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.


During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest of this journey through my reading lens. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Journey through 20th century Russia”

Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Capital: the Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta

Katherine Boo Capital

“He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent, yet beautiful at the same time?”

Chris Abani

Quoted in “The Planet of Slums” by Mike Davies

India’s recent spurt in urbanization pales in comparison with that of China, where the urban population has increased from 26% in 1990 to 50% in 2010. During a similar 20 year period India’s urban population went up from 25% to 31%. However, it is a significant shift when seen in the context of the pace of the preceding 90 years — it took 90 years for it to increase from 11% in 1901 to 25% in 1991.

According to a recent report, an astonishing 49% of India’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the super rich.

Behind these statistics are the lives of the people and individuals who are living through these transformative years. Two recent books, focused on the two largest cities in the country–Delhi and Mumbai, explore these lives in the times of this transition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is by an American journalist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Katherine Boo married to an Indian and the other Capital: The Eruption of Delhi is by the British-born writer of Indian descent, Rana Dasgupta, who is married to an Indian as well and now lives in New Delhi. The contrast between the two books is remarkable- Boo explores the lives of the poor in one of Mumbai’s slums while Dasgupta converses with the rich and super rich of the country’s capital city.

Katherine Boo’s tells us the humane stories that we just don’t hear any longer in the mainstream media or even popular cinema. The characters in Boo’s book live in Annawadi. This Mumbai slum of 335 huts and 3,000 residents is next to the international terminal and surrounded by four 5-star hotels, is home to people segregated by boundaries of caste and community. There is a Tamil dalit community in one part, a Maharashtrian in another and a Muslim section, all cramped into the one acre area. Continue reading “Half slum, half paradise: Two tales of the Indian city”

The Year Gone by- 2014



2014 for me was the year of reading long e-books, on Kindle as well as books borrowed from the local library using Overdrive. I finished not one, but 3 books, each more than 300 pages long. For someone who has struggled for the last few years to use an e-reader, it is a feat in itself.

The most important book of the year was undoubtedly “Kanshiram” by Badri Narayan, and the first long book read on the kindle app.

The biography was long overdue about the man who single handedly was responsible for changing the face of North Indian politics and bringing Dr BR Ambedkar to the center stage. The lingering image that I have carried from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar is when he spent a night under a tree because, despite his appointment to the court of the prince of Gaikwad, no one in the town was willing to rent out a house to him because of his belonging to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste.

The image that I carry from Badri Narayan’s book is that of Kanshiram sitting on a stack of the paper that he brought out and carried around on trains scouring the length and breadth of the country.

On a related note, “The Chamcha Age” by Kanshiram (available as a free pdf), was an eye opener. This is the closest to a ‘theoretical’ tract that Kanshiram ever wrote and provides a glimpse into his critical take on contemporary Dalit politicians and the subsequent praxis of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Continue reading “The Year Gone by- 2014”

Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India

Bipan Chandra
Bipan Chandra (27 May 1928 – 30 August 2014)

It is natural for Bipan Chandra who died last week on August 30, to be best remembered as the author the NCERT text book “Modern India”, but his work as a historian went far beyond that.

His PhD thesis, later published as “The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880-1905”, as well as “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” and “India’s Struggle for Independence” provided new vistas for research and understanding of modern Indian history.

The latter two works were particularly significant and hotly debated. “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” was the first work dedicated to the study of communalism, and “India’ Struggle for Independence” used Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution and counter hegemony to understand India’s struggle for Independence. Continue reading “Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India”

Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review

9780670085095Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan Published by Penguin India 2014

Dalit politics in the late 20th century India owes its rise to the vision and work one man–Kanshiram.

The bedrock for this movement was laid in the mid-20th century by its tallest leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Despite his brilliance and lifelong commitment to the cause of the dalits, Dr Ambedkar had been largely forgotten in the national consciousness till the rise of the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and then the Bahujan Samaj Party- both creations of one man, Kanshiram.

Born in a Ramdasia Sikh family in Punjab, Kanshiram was named after a local baba who apparently predicted that he would grow up to be a big leader. He grew up more or less unaffected by the stigma that his caste was subjected to in most of the country.

Kanshiram’s eyes opened to the reality of caste oppression when he was employed with a government research laboratory in Pune. Spurred by the extant Dalit movement, primarily led by the Mahars in Maharashtra, he went on to dedicate his life to the cause that he took upon himself. He decided not to marry or have any relations with his family. His encounters with his family back in Punjab were sporadic, and interspersed over many years. For a long time, his parents and siblings did not know his whereabouts.

There is limited first-hand information about Kanshiram–he left behind no autobiography or work except a very short pamphlet titled “The Chamcha Age.” Badri Narayan has collected the facts of Kanshiram’s life from accounts of some of his associates and later, with the BSP’s emergence as a major political force in the late 1980s, from the media. Continue reading “Kanshiram- Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan: A Review”

Now, who will tell the tale

My obituary on Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6, 1927- 17-April-2014), at DNAIndia.

My Nobel is in the pocket of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” (Carlos Fuentes) said, adding, “the prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez was for my whole generation. We celebrated. We will go on celebrating it.”

With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death last week, a day before Good Friday, the world lost the most well-known Spanish writer after Miguel Cervantes. Gabo to his admirers, Marquez was the star of the Boom generation of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 40, his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published. This book catapulted him to world fame, selling 50 million copies worldwide since.

Continue reading “Now, who will tell the tale”