Book review by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: The Hindu Way – An Introduction to Hinduism
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph; 2019

​At sixty-four (though he does not look his age), the last thing you wish to remind readers about Shashi Tharoor, diplomat, litterateur and now politician, is that he was once a prodigy. But indeed, he was. An outstanding achiever in college, he graduated with history in 1975 from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, where he was elected president of the student union, and also helped found the Quiz Club. By 1976, he had an MA in International Relations from The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the US. In 1977, he earned a master’s in law and Diplomacy, and in 1978, at age 22, he was awarded a Ph.D. at Tufts. After a three-decade old career with the United Nations, Tharoor decided it was time he tried his hand in politics. At the UN he has played referee; it was time to actually start playing the game by taking to the field. Sought by all political parties, he decided to join the Indian National Congress. He has since won two consecutive terms to the Indian Parliament from his parent state of Kerala.

The Hindu Way, his twenty-first publication, embodies a bit of everything that represents him. It reveals the extent of his scholarship and knowledge, especially on a subject that is difficult and complex and diverse (Hindu philosophy presents deep challenges even to lifelong scholars). It marks out the territory he wishes to reach by way of an international readership that might be interested in discovering the tenets of Hindu thought. And most significantly, it foregrounds Tharoor the politician. More on the third and final assertion later, for that is almost the real story within this story. And nothing​, ​ please​, ​ on the numerous controversies that have underlined his journey through public affairs; this is a book review, not a vanity piece.

Among his numerous nonfictional works, perhaps the most interesting and widely regarded ​is​ the 2016 book that emerged from the 5 million YouTube views his Oxford debate participation of 2015 earned, wherein he tore into the colonial exploitation of India with panache, marshalling facts and subtle arguments to disrobe all pretence that British rule in India might have donned.  An Era of Darkness (2016) published in the UK as Inglorious Empire (2017) solidified an opinion held by many – Tharoor’s years spent with the UN were not wasted; he brings great nuance and arguments into the public sphere with linguistic elegance that is matched by few. In 2018, he published Why I am a Hindu. The Wikipedia entry on the work is spot on, “Tharoor intended the book to be a repudiation of Hindu nationalism, and its rise in Indian society, which relied upon an interpretation of the religion which was markedly different from the one with which he had grown up, and was familiar with. In seeking to address this concern, he wanted to position the debate as one within the Hindu faith, and therefore wrote about his own personal identification with the religion.”

Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2017

Mark Tully, like the organization he worked for, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), where he was bureau chief, is almost a household name in India. He straddles two worlds in one, as evident in the present collection of seven short stories, Upcountry Tales – Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India. He is in a sense the outsider looking in. He is also the insider looking out. He’s British, and he represented the BBC for thirty long years, a media organisation both respected and disliked by the Indian establishment for its insightful and, therefore, often embarrassing, reportage. But India is also his chosen land, where he was born and spent his early childhood, and where he continues to live after his bitter parting with the BBC in 1994. He is, to borrow and twist a little from writer-critic UR Ananthamurthy’s definition of arguably a far great person, a ‘critical outsider’ (Mahatma Gandhi is referred to by Ananthamurthy as a ‘critical insider’).

Tully’s early books are documentary tracts. No Full Stops in India (1988), his third work, however, comprises a collection of journalistic essays that mark his interest in the changing contours of an India in the remaking. Upcountry Tales is historically located in exactly that period — the 1980s. His other collection of short stories, The Heart of India, was published way back in 1995. He continued with his interest in getting under the skin of the India experience with titles like India in Slow Motion (2002), written in collaboration with Gillian Wright, his partner. Tully later wrote India’s Unending Journey (2008) and Non-Stop India (2011). These books together gather around them an agglomeration of engaging themes — about an India being churned from within and without, and an outsider/insider trying to decode and disseminate that churning.

Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018

Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.

 

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By some existential quirk of fate it seemed I owed him money. Owed Kasim that is. Yes, deep down within I always felt I owed him money. I did not remember from when, or even how. Did I run up some losses for him in business? Did I take something precious from him that had to be paid for? I did not know then. I do not know now. But I felt then as I feel now, I owed him.

Kasim was generous. He never insisted that I pay. Not that he did mind when I did. In fact, he had a shrewd mind. He knew I would pay. When you owe someone money, and you are the decent sort, you do pay, don’t you? Kasim knew that. So he made it seem like he never really had his mind on the money. Why bring in money matters when you don’t need to? Well, in any case I paid him regularly. Somehow, the debt never seemed to get repaid. There was no cut-off date in our contract, it seemed.