Jaya Posts

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men” by Katrine Marcal, translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming

Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.

Her name? Bertha.

How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!

There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.

Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.

It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.

1 August 2021

“India: A Story Through 100 Objects” by Vidya Dehejia

India: A Story Through 100 Objects by Vidya Dehejia ( Roli Books ) is as the title describes it. A subjective curation of select objects through the ages that define the concept of India. Geographically, it is the only “subcontinent” in the world. It is perhaps for the first time since 1947, when India gained its Independence from the British, that the country has “well-defined” international borders and three distinct countries constitute the subcontinent— India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ( 1971). It is a complicated and an extraordinarily beautiful nation that has over centuries survived attempts to control it one manner or form but the heterogeneous composition of its peoples has enabled India ( and now its neighbours) to develop a phenomenally rich cultural history. Lest we forget, the bedrock of Indian culture lies in syncreticism. It cannot be ignored.

The first time an attempt to create a “world history in 100 objects” was by the then British Museum director, Neil MacGregor. It was done in collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to coincide with a 100-part radio series. Since then, at least in modern times, it has become very fashionable to make these presentations of bundles of beautiful objects to define a narrative. It is also a comment on the times when digital technology and the Internet are constantly seeking small morsels of information that balance an image and text. It is easily consumed and shared. But it has its challenges as evident in the first assumption made by such a title to tell a story by identifying a handful of iconic objects is ambitious. A lot depends on the subjectivity ( and objectivity) of the curator. Wading through a lot of information, much of which is not necessarily easily available to the public, is a fine balancing act for the curator as they attempt to create a narrative between that which is known and familiar in collective memories and that which is not. It is essential to have examples of both. But it becomes tricky when upon close analysis of these narratives, it becomes evident that there is less objectivity by the curator than promoting that which they hold dear in terms of their thought processes. Be that as it may, a firm ( and potentially contentious) curation offers a point of view that the reader may or may not agree with, but will never forget. It is critical to have these conversations about what constitutes or defines a historical narrative through objects.

Stunningly illustrated books such as Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects or the recently published Vidya Dehejia’s India: A Story Through 100 Objects are exceptional examples of coffee table books. They are a pure delight to behold. Vidya Dehejia’s book is of a wonderful dimension that is easy to hold despite its heaviness. It has a scrumptious prussian blue background that enhances the gold and ruby falcon printed on it. Its gorgeousness is enhanced by the fact that no expense has been spared in replicating the dust jacket design upon the hardback cover too. It is truly a joy to behold.

Vidya Dehejia is the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University in New York, and the recipient of a Padma Bhushan conferred on her by the President of India in 2012 for achievement in Art and Education. She has to the best of her abilities attempted to curate a concept of India in 100 objects. It has some lovely examples as the photographs with this post illustrate. These include Maratha helmet, Kettubah or Jewish Marriage Contract, bust portraits of Jahangir and Jesus, Chola temple walls as a public records office, the Chowri-bearer, image from an illustrated Quran, the red mottled sandstone sculpture of Kanishka from the Kushan period etc. Yet, at the same time it feels mildly oppressive to read a book that attempts to imagine the history of India from the perspective of an outsider and capitulates to the present dominant discourse. Most of the examples used in this book are from private collections or museums found abroad. Rarely are the Indian museums that have a fine, albeit scattily arranged collections, ever used. It is inexplicable. Why is there the need to browse through foreign collections to define India? It makes sense to have some good examples but if the purpose of this book is to also encourage and define what is India, and instil pride in our nation, then acknowledging our collections would have been appreciated. Instead, the reader is left wondering if there is any good left in our country, if our treasures have been plundered over the centuries and taken overseas? Also, by constantly underlining explicitly or implicitly that the concept of India elides with the idea of Hinduism is jarring. It begins with the introduction where the author lays put her rationale for using BCE and CE ( Before Current Era and Current Era) instead of the oft-used BC and AD ( Before Christ and Anno Domini) as it is “inappropriate for India”. This statement is unnecessary. Many scholars abroad too use BCE and CE without offering any explanation. It is fine. It is the accepted norm in a secular framework. But by specifically mentioning that this terminology is not appropriate for India, at a time when everyone in the country is sensitive about their faith and violent communal clashes are on the rise, perhaps a little sensitivity could have been exhibited by such an eminent scholar like Vidya Dehejia? This slip becomes a red flag for other details on the book such as not acknowledging the printing presses that came to India with the Jesuit priests in the sixteenth century, even though there are plenty of sections in the book on the written word and illustrated manuscripts. It is challenging to include a broad scope in 100 objects but surely a keener eye could have been employed to acknowledge the vast diversity and inclusivity that is India?

India: A Story Through 100 Objects by Vidya Dehejia is a fine book that is beautiful to behold, and ideal to gift. It is worth considering as a wedding gift and of course as corporate/individual gifts to be distributed during festivals such as Raksha Bandhan and Diwali. Given the ongoing pandemic, it can easily be procured from bookstores and online marketplaces and shipped to various destinations. It is really worth possessing and sharing some of this love with others too. It makes for an excellent conversation piece too.

Buy it. Read it. Share it.

1 August 2021

“My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan” by the Frontier Gandhi, translated from the Pashtu by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada

My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan by the Frontier Gandhi ( Roli Books) has been translated from the Pukhto by ex-bureaucrat Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. This book recounts the life of the freedom fighter till 1947 when the subcontinent gained its Independence from the British colonial rulers. Considering Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan ( as some Indians like to call him) lived till 1988, nearly 47 years of his life is missing from this text. Nevertheless it is an important book as it maps a part of history, especially of a community, of the North-West Frontier of British India ( now in Pakistan), of which not sufficient is known. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and like his non-violent movement, Frontier Gandhi too started the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement from 1930-47. They were the key allies of the Congress who formed three governments in the NWFP. The original Pashto edition was first published in 1983 when Bacha Khan was 93 years old.

This is a seminal piece of writing. It has to be respected for the text that was created when Frontier Gandhi chose to dictate it. It captures that moment in time and has an authoritative air about it. Definitely, a tenor as if it is being spoken out aloud for the benefit of a larger audience. Whoever took the notes and compiled it into this book, probably never fact checked or assessed the manuscript for internal consistencies.

For instance, these conflicting comments about weddings and consent. P. 2 “We do not marry our children to wealth as we consider decency, capability and dignity more important in a marriage. Nor do we marry them without their consent.”

P.33 “Our weddings are very joyous occasions. With the coming of age of a boy in the family, a search for a fiancee for him would begin. No one asks for the consent of the girl or the boy.”

It makes him an unreliable narrator if he slips on a simple fact like this but it is also hard to doubt his testimony about participating in the freedom struggle that has been recorded in this book.

Important book!

1 August 2021

“Gender Swapped Fairy Tales” by Karrie Fransman & Jonathan Flackett

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman & Jonathan Plackett ( Faber & Faber) is a retelling of the fairy tales by swapping the genders of the main characters. The Andrew Lang versions, published between 1889-1913, were compiled with his wife Leonora Blanche Alleyne’s assistance and have been chosen for this twenty-first century retelling. The stories in this particular volume include the oft anthologised fairy tales — “Beauty and the Beast” (“Handsome and the Beast”), “Cinderella” ( “Cinder, or the Little Glass Slipper”), “Princess and the Pea” ( “How to tell a True Prince”), “Jack and the Beanstalk” ( “Jacqueline and the Beanstalk”), “Rapunzel” ( “Mr Rapunzel”), “Sleeping Beauty” ( “The Sleeping Handsome in the Wood”), “Thumbelina” ( “Thumbelin”) etc.

Creative technologiest Jonathan Plackett recounts bedtime storytelling by his father who in order not to be bored-out-of-his-mind reading out aloud fairytales to his children, chose to swap the genders of the characters in the books. It made the torturous exercise far more entertaining for him. This tiny aspect of storytelling stayed with Jonathan who as an adult, a husband and now a father himself, chose to explore a world “where little girls can be powerful and where little boys can express their vulnerability without anger”.

I wondered if it would be possible to create a computer algorithm that swapped all gendered language in any text, turning “he” to “she”, “Mrs” to “Mr” and “daughters” to “sons”. After some surprising and pronounced battles with the oddities of the English language, I managed to create an easy-to-use computer program that could swap the gender of any text you threw at it. … Right before our eyes, fascinating new characters were created and stereotypes were laid bare. We saw princesses in shining armour racing to rescue their sleeping princes. Kings sat by windows sewing and longing for a child. Kind-hearted young men were rewarded for looking past the flaws of beastly princesses. The stories took on a new dimension, effortlessly highlighting the gender biases within the original text.

Comic writer and artist Karrie Fransman is Jonathan’s wife and illustrator of Gender Swapped Fairy Tales. She writes:

Fairy tales are the ideal genre to gender swap. They are some of the earliest stories we are exposed to as children and form the very building blocks of storytelling. They allow us to live out fantasies, inhabit roles and defeat monsters. Most importantly they teach us the difference between good” and “evil” and about the moral codes that govern our society: that boys should bravely scale giant beanstalks to claim what is rightfully theirs, or that little girls should be wary of talking to strangers in dark woods. However, these tales also contain all the magic and possibility of fairy dust. If we can imagine a world where harps sing and rats transform into coachmen, can we not ( with a little help from a gender-swapping algorithm) also imagine a world where kings want kids and where old women aren’t witches?

The fairy tales that have been retold in this book are very familiar to everyone. They get transmitted orally but have also been popularised by hand-sketched frame-by-frame animation films especially by Disney from the 1950s onwards. It is one of the biggest money spinning ventures for Disney, so much so that the studio is in the twenty-first century releasing films made with real people or computer-drawn animation that is as close to the authentic real person/animal. Television series of the 1980s like “Fairy Tale Theatre” were also an extraordinary success. They featured well-known actors, musicians and celebrities of the day in the fairy tales. Delightfully remade but did not veer from the traditional plotline that had been passed through the generations, at least since the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen had collected the tales in the nineteenth century. Fairy tales/folk lore are an integral part of oral storytelling, so they have ample flexibility built within for retellings. Hence, it was no surprise when the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories were a runaway success in the early part of the 1990s as well. Keeping this in mind it is obvious that the gender-swapped tales would be equally amusing. They are a reflection of the age we live in — where people are more sensitive to gendered perspectives, especially with the #MeToo movement. There have been many, many womens movements in the past but the #MeToo movement was the first time that it united individuals across the globe in this manner. It began with the premise of women being sexually harassed but it is has now grown to include a range of women-related issues. It is the shorthand of being aware of the complexities of gender issues vis-a-vis women.

Be that as it may, the authors of Gender Swapped Fairy Tales are acutely aware that they are not suggesting that there are only two genders to swap.

For the purposes of this discussion, we view the term “sex” as focussing on the body and “gender” as socially constructed. Most cultures divide genders into “feminine” and “masculine” and all the social roles, norms and behaviours that separate them. However, these days people are increasingly becoming comfortable inhabiting the space in between these dichotomised ideas of “feminity” or “masculinity”. We have people who identify as gender non-binary, queer, transgender, gender fluid, agender or other-gender and more. But the division of “feminine” and “masculine” is still prominent in most people’s minds and also in language. By swapping these two dominant gender constructs, we want to disrupt this binary and ask people to question what assumptions we make about gender in society.

The retold stories in this volume are amusing to read. They are a joy to read especially when seen in juxtaposition to the brilliantly bright illustrations that are very reminiscent of Soviet books for children. This includes the little details that are laid out in the design of practically every page. It is an expensive book but it is worth buying. For those familiar with Andrew Lang’s stories, this book may become problematic to read but for those who are unfamiliar with scrumptious editions of the fairy books, these stories would be delightful as they reflect the popular sentiment of our age — letting people be exactly what they wish to be without being yoked into social expectations and behaviour.

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales is a beautifully produced book. It is stunning to hold. There is a creaminess in the quality of paper used, the hardback opens beautifully without getting scrunched in the middle or requiring force to push it open, the inking of the illustrations is rich, bright and clear. It is an excellent addition in a personal collection or a school library. It is definitely worthy of being gifted to children and adults alike. Do it!

31 July 2021

“Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography, and the Self in Muslim South Asia” by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley

It has been many, many months since I read historian Siobhan Lambert-Hurley’s Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography, and the Self in Muslim South Asia ( Stanford University Press, 2018). In Elusive Lives, she locates the voices of Muslim women who rejected taboos against women speaking out, by telling their life stories in written autobiography. It is very challenging to sum up quickly all the various arguments she presents or the close textual analysis of published and unpublished writings she accesses. She has used rare autobiographical texts in a wide array of languages, including Urdu, English, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Malayalam to elaborate a theoretical model for gender, autobiography, and the self beyond the usual Euro-American frame where gender theorists have long articulated a “difference” model applicable to women’s autobiography by which their self-expression was unique in form, style, and content when compared to that of men.

This book deserves to be read from cover to cover but I am going to post some extracts here to highlight some of the very powerful ideas it proposes.

…David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn identify autobiographical writing “in the sense of a sustained narrative account of one’s own life” as emerging in South Asia in the late nineteenth century and becoming more “common” only in the early twentieth century — in other words, after the establishment of colonialism proper in 1858 and the spread of a key technology for book and journal distribution in the form of the printing press. As Ulrike Stark has traced in meticulous detail, print technology was well established in India by the late eighteenth century, but it remained largely in the hands of missionaries and British colonists in their coastal headquarters at Calcutta and Madras. It was another century before the print “boom” really took off, as technological innovations and the growth of the Indian paper industry reduced the cost of printing sufficiently to make it accessible to the Indian middle classes — who could then read, write, and circulate published autobiographies alongside other genres. The spread of autobiography mirrored the trajectory of print in the high noon of colonialism. ( p.3-4)

Autobiography functions as a vehicle for sharif redefinition above all, but also nationalism, historicism and didacticism, literary creativity and performance are higlighted alongside a more general impulse: to narrate a life momentous for Muslim women living at a particular time and place. ( p.22)

The first observation is that South Asian Muslim women writing autobiography do tend to focus on the domestice over a public persona, but since the home continued to structure their lives throughout my historical period, it might be counterintuitive to expect otherwise. Furthermore, if authors did have a career outside the hojme, they wrote about that too — just as their menfolk ofter wrote about their families or personal networks. A second observation,then, is taht the relationality is at the heart of autobiographical writing in Muslim South Asia, irrespective of gender. A third observation is that women’s writing is often fragmentary, but that quality may be as much as inheritance of a longer autobiographical tradition ( for example, roznamcha or akhbar), or a feature of the publication process, as a reflection of women’s historical lives. A fourth observation is that while modesty is a trope in the life writing of many women ( and some men too), it is not necessarily predicated on an absence of self-assertion. A fifth observation turns from “difference” to change over time. Clearly, how these authors constructed their identities, and in what language ( or form of language) they did so, was contingent on historical moments defined by some of the major events and processes of the modern era, not least among them imperialism, reformism, nationalism, ans feminism. As time progressed, so did women’s preferred autobiographical forms and their handling of certain topics — most notably intimacy, sexuality, and illness. Hence, a sixth and final observation is that the collectivities to which womenin Muslim South Asia belonged — clan, community, country — did not undermine a sense of self so much as frame their multiple and varied expressions of interiority. (p.24-25)

So, what actually is to be included in my life history archive? I startedmy fieldwork wondering if there was anything out these to be found; and throughout, I continued to face skepticisim at the idea of Muslim women writing memoirs. Without doubt, these sources can be difficult to find. While the colonial archive and its successors threw up some material, much more fruitful was the experience of getting out onto the streets and into people’s homes and lives. Through this more holistic approach to research, I colelcted literally hundreds of books, manuscripts, articls, and words relevant to this study of autobiographical writing — whether called “autobiography” or “memoir”, ap biti, biti kahani, or khud navisht, atmakatha or atma jibani, or, in more specific forms, roznamcha or safarnama. Yet, as I have sought to show, a constant problem was how to fit these real-life historical sources into the theoretcial boxes dreamt up by academics usually within the context of a Euro-American literary tradition. In the course of this chapter, then, I have traversed from autobiographical biographies and biographical autobiographies to travelogues, reformist literature, novels, devotionalism, letters, diaries, interviews, speeches, and ghosted narratives. In the end, I draw a line — if a hazy and traversable line — at the constructed life: no novels, but more autobiographical biographies and the biographical autobiographies; the autobiographical fragment; the written-made-oral ( including some film), but not the oral-made-written; the published “diary book”, but not diaries or letters; the spiritual, but not the ghosted; and the travelogue where relevant. I have thus evolved a definition for autobiographical writing that emerges from the specific experience of a historian crafting a unique archive from which to study gender, autobiography, and the self in Muslim South Asia. Having done son, I now turn from from what to who. (p.55)

Like diarists and autobiograhers in other places and times, Muslim women in India who produced personal narratives tended to be educated and often highly so– notably, at a time when few others were. Not only did they know how to read and write, but they also possessed the ability to analyze their own experiences and use them to construct a coherent narrative, often representing an individual life. Yet what this reading of Muslim women’s autobiographical writings also points to is the importance of the struggle for education: the ultimate desire to learn, even if it is denied. ( p. 75)

Also complicating autobiography’s geography were regional imbalances. Pakistan has experienced its mini memoir boom in recent years, in part fueled by the publishing interests of Oxford University Press’s managing editor in Karachi, Ameena Saiyid. She has been responsible for commissioning new memoirs by men and women alike, while also reissuing many previously published titles — some of which date back to the nineteenth century. Many Pakistani autobiographies were written by women who began their lives ( and life stories) elsewhere in South Asia before Partition transformed them into mohajirs, or migrants, most often to Karachi in Sindh, though also to Lahore. Jahanara Habibullah, for instance, dedicated twelve of her thirteen chapters in Remembrance of Days Past ( 2001) to her early years in the princely state of Rampur in north India, even though she spent the latter half of her life in independent Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s provinces — especially Punjab, but also Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — have nurtured their own female autobiographers before and after 1947. As an early example from west Punjab, we may recall how Piro used her lyric autobiographical episode, composed sometime in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, to narrate her move from a brothel in Lahore to her Sikh guru’s dera, or abode, Chathianwala. Later authors rooted their narratives in particular cities and villages– from Baghanpura, Rawalpindi, Wah, Bhera, and Meerwala in Punjab to Larkana, Hyderabad, and Kharjal in Sindh — while tracing family, tribal, or clan lineages as far back as the eleventh century.

But for all this proliferation in the northwest, autobiographical writings by Muslim women were still far more abundant in the original Pakistan’s eastern wing. In fact, Bangladesh proved to be a gold mind of resources for this project. By the end of a research trip in 2006, I had collected so many books and photocopies– from Dhaka University library, bookstores, and personal collections– that I actually had to buy a new suitcase… (p.101)

the autobiographical act is actually far more complicated than a woman sitting alone to craft an unmediated story about her life. …South Asia’s Muslim women produced autobiographical narratives with specific audiences in mind — from an audience of one to international distribution — with varying consquences for style and content. Gendered audiences inspired gendered narratives, their topics chosen to satisfy the domesticated interests of a fictionalized sisterhood. An autobiography for real family, on the other hand, could inspire intimacy and self-censorship in equal measures. …the literary milieu was as influential in shaping a narrative’s form and content, whether that narrative was circulated as a manuscript,a journal article, or a book. In each case, the process of production introduced new actors — editors, translators, cowriters and publishers — who were complicity in the construction of the autobiography. …The framework of performance offers an effective means of theorizing this relationship by underlining how concepts of selfhood may be “staged” in autobiographical writings. By regarding the author as a performative subject — an artiste acting out her life story on the page — this approach enables an appreciation of how each rendition of a life story may be tailored to and by audience, literary milieu, or historical moment. ( p.153)

The book is available at Stanford University Press: https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29187

25 July 2021

“Rajinikanth: A Life” by Vaasanthi

Rajinikanth is a superstar who rose from being a porter/coolie and a bus conductor to achieving godlike status in Tamil Nadu. He has over 150 films to his credit, many of them blockbusters, and at the age of seventy he still plays a hero! With nearly forty years of stardom, his career coincided with the Dravidian self respect movement promote atheism, his fans venerated him as ifbhe was a god by worshiping his cut-outs and bathing them in milk and beer. He has tried dabbling in politics by commenting on the policies of various chief ministers, being fairly outspoken on the river Cauvery water sharing between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and so on. In 2017, Rajinikanth announced that he would form his own political party and contest all 234 seats in the 2021 assembly elections. It created a frenzy. His fans were delighted as this was the day they had been waiting for. Tamil Nadu has a history of having actors-turned-chief ministers. So this avatar of Rajinikanth would not be out of the norm. But his political detractors considered him to be naive and there were others who were convinced he would align with the BJP, a right wing party, thereby giving the party a foothold in the state. Ultimately, after three years, Rajinikanth announced his retirement from politics citing health reasons.

The images with this post are from his comments on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. The Act granted citizenship to undocumented members of six minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Parsis — from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who had migrated to India on account of religious persecution before 31 Dec 2014. The Act excluded Muslims. Rajinikanth publicly declared his support for the Act. After much intervention by civil society groups, individuals and push back from political analysts, Rajinikanth posted on Twitter (2 Mar 2020), “I am willing to play any role in order to maintain peace I the country. I too agree with their [Muslim leaders] comment that a country’s prime objective should be love and peace.”

Vaasanthi is a bilingual freelance writer, journalist, novelist and translator from the Tamil into English. In her biography of this superstar, Vaasanthi, tries to map the ascent to stardom as well as try and understand the intricacies of what makes Rajinikanth what he is. Given that she is able to straddle the English-speaking world and Tamil society, she is the ideal bridge in conveying to rest of the world on what is so special about Rajinikanth. She is able to put aside any inclination to turn this biography into a hagiography as most Tamilians would find it challenging to have a rational perspective on the actor. It is impossible to explain in words. It has to be seen to be believed. The extract from the book is a fine example of how well Vaasanthi is able to create a narrative and explain the compulsions that drive Rajinikanth. The CAA is a tricky space to comment upon but Rajinikanth opted to do so. Yet, he has lived his life sufficiently in the public eye to probably recognise the folly of his hasty announcement and how it may affect electorate sentiments as at that time he was still contemplating entering politics. So he did not exactly take back his words but he came forth to support the Muslims. It was a quick comeback but politics is not like cinema. Fans can be mollified, politics affects people at multiple levels. It requires astuteness, wisdom, knowledge and deep understanding of issues rather than glib PR stunts.

Nevertheless, this is a book that will appeal to Rajinikanth fans, political scientists, journalists and perhaps a few academics. Understandably it is embedded in the socio-political space of Tamil Nadu and it is not always easy to comprehend. Sadly, this book lacks pictures. Except for the technicolour cover design, there are no other images.

25 July 2021

“Redesign the world” by Sam Pitroda

Entrepreneur, policymaker and telecom specialist Sam Pitroda has recently released Redesign the World: A Global Call to Action. In it he outlines his theory that for more than seven decades the world has continued on foundations that were established immediately after the Second World War. For instance, institutions like the Bretton Wood twins, NATO and WTO, among others were established, but he argues have now outlived their utility. Instead he believes that in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been offered the opportunity to take humanity to the next level. It can be achieved in multiple ways such as reviewing the emphasis in existing economic models, internet economy, inclusivity and innovation. He too, like many other policymakers and thinkers, advocates the significance of the family. This is a book that straddles the experiences of India and the United States. Pitroda writes sharing many examples from both countries. Some may be applicable in India, some may not be. Hopefully it is the cross-pollination of stories and case studies that may influence future constructive decisions.

In 1984, Pitroda was invited the newly appointed prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to draft a telecommunications policy. Pitroday helped start the Center for Development of Telematics C-DOT, an autonomous telecom R&D organization. It was the first time that the Indian government had put in place a digital policy. As advisor to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Pitroda headed six technology missions related to telecommunications, water, literacy, immunization, dairy, and oilseeds. He founded and was the first chairman, of India’s Telecom Commission. In Redesign the World, Pitroda offers many perspectives and touches upon various areas that could do with a revamping. But it is the chapter “Tipping Point” that is fascinating as that is his strength — technology. He outlines the difference between “science” and “technology”.

Science exists in a framework of truth, trust, reason, rationality, repeatability, reliability and open debate. Science is at the core of our unending curiosity to discover nature and improve human existence. It is not about blind belief in stories and glories of the past, nor about superstition, race, religion, caste, cult, charisma, personality or autocracy. We have seen that scinece has the power to revolutioanize societies, change mindsets and human habits, and transform work and behavior…There is a difference between science and technology. Science is the fundamental knowledge …Technology is about applying sicence, from which many countries have benefited and delivered the products and services that people want. Technology, like human beings, has a life cycle. It is conceived with an idea in a person’s mind which then takes birth as a product or a service. As people use it, the technology reaches adolescence. As demand and production increase, technology matures, ages and then enters decay, finally dying a natural death. Each technology goes through this life cycle and has a selfish system with its urges and aspirations. Technology, like nature, is also a tremendous unpredictable force.

Pitroda, the specialist that he is, is undestandably worried about how technology solves many problems and also creates some of its own — increasing inequality, income inequality, and digital divide / information barriers. It is yet to solve hunger, poverty, violence, health, environmental blunders, etc. He acerbically points out that this is partly because the world’s best brains are busy solving the problems of the rich, who do not have problems to solve. As a result, the issues of the poor do not get the attention they deserve.

When an expert like Sam Pitroda raises a warning flag about using technology appropriately, then it is perhaps wise for others to sit up and listen. Over reliance on it can spell trouble as the conflict between man vs technology is still in a nascent stage. We certainly do not know enough about the potential and impact that technology may have on humankind. Certain mappings are making it visible for now but it is still insufficient data. Food for thought, perhaps?

25 July 2021

Riad Sattouf’s “Esther’s Notebooks: Tales from my ten-year-old life” , translated by Sam Taylor

Award-winning French cartoonist, graphic novelist, and film director of Franco-Syrian origin, Riad Sattouf’s cartoon strips revolving around a chatty little girl called Esther’s Notebooks have won him acclaim far and wide. Originally published in French, these cartoon strips were based on the cartoonist’s weekly conversations with the daughter of his friends. The stories revolve around the little girl’s day at school and the zillion questions that she has to ask of people around her. Every episode is short and told in first person. Sattouf began these cartoons in 2014-15. Subsequently, they were collected into five volumes. The first volume has now been translated from the French into English by Sam Taylor and published by Pushkin Press. An animation series based on the books has also been launched.

In the first volume, Esther’s Notebooks: Tales from my ten-year-old life, Sattouf captures the child-like sentence constructs beautifully. He also manages to capture the wide-eyed wonder of children about the world around them and their propensity for asking the most uncomfortable questions. The language used in the cartoon strips is abrupt, at times lacks prepositions, but is pitch perfect as regards a ten-year-old’s speech. It is impossible to tell if this is a characteristic of the English translation or was it like this in the original English. The stories capture the child’s growing awareness of her environment including cultural details. Each cartoon strip is a chapter in the book and has a descriptive title exactly as children would introduce a story — relying upon the core words and no more. For instance, “Gunfire”, “Mums and Dads”, “The Charlie”, “The Gym”, “Breasts” and so on. A range of topics are covered in the stories. These range from racism ( Rebeus and Renois), religion, politics, separated families, grief, social divisions, gaming addiction, pornography etc. It is curious and yet it is perfect as to how many of the strips are set in the playground. It is true that children acquire much of their “knowledge” through their peers and through play. But in this book it works beautifully as the playground offers the lanscape for maximum number of stories and scenarios to swirl around the protagonist. The deadpan delivery of the little girl while narrating incidents is extraordinarily well done. It is almost as if the cartoonist is channeling the little girl and presenting to the readers her descriptions as is. The biggest gift that Sattouf bestows upon this form of storytelling is that he conveys without judgement all that the little girl tells him including the confused sidestepping of her teacher with regard to the Hundred Years War.

Esther’s Notebooks lays bare how much the children are acutely aware of or know about. Sometimes out of sheer ignorance and innocence they mouth words, behaviour and attitudes. But the dumbing down of children or shutting them down completely as the teacher did when asked but the Hundred Years War or when the little girl asks very loudly at the family dinner table about the website “Youpaurne” ( she had overheard referenecs to “youporn” in school), her family can only sputter in embarassment. It is probably an age-old tactic to shut kids down in this manner or choose to ignore them but in today’s day and age, it is a dangerous precedence to set of misinformation. More so as kids of today have multiple ways of accessing information. Apart from of course not recognising the child as an individual in their own right. It does not matter if they are young in years. They are bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to make sense of this crazy world. This is where the talent of Sattouf lies to convey as precisely and unfiltered as possible what the little girl utters.

The popularity of these comic strips in French and now in English are a testament to how kids want their reality reflected. Adult readers of these comic strips also enjoy the sharpness with which the stories are told, not mincing words on various issues. Perhaps Sattouf’s stint as a cartoonist for the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo helped polish his skills at storytelling. The child may speak innocently or out of sheer ignorance but the rapidity with which the adult storyteller hones in upon precisely those scenarios that may startle adult readers comes with years of practice. Otherwise it is impossible to pick out that which is necessary from the conversaton that children make as they tend to prattle on endlessly.

Esther’s Notebooks ( Vol 1) is utterly fantastic. It is worth buying and spreading the joy with others too.

22 July 2021

“Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest” by Suzanne Simard

One of the first clues came while I was tapping into the messages that the trees were relaying back and forth through a cryptic underground fungal network. WhenI followed the clandestine path of the conversations, I learned that this networkis pervasive through the entire forest floor, connecting all the trees in a constellation of tree hubs and fungal links. A crude map revealed, stunningly, that the biggest, oldest timbers are the sources of fungal connections to regenerating seedlings. Not only that, they connect to all neighbors, young and old, serving as the linchpins for a jungle of threads and synapses and nodes. I’ll take you through the journey that revealed the most shocking aspect of this pattern — that it has similarities with our own human brains. In it, the old and young are perceiving, communicating, and responding to one another by emitting chemcial signals. Chemicals identical to our own neurotransmitters. Signals createdby ions cascading across fungal membranes.

The older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own kin.

The old trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children. It is enough to make one pause, take a deep breath, and contemplate the social nature of the forest and howthis is critical for evolution. The fungal network appears to wire the trees for fitness. And more. These old trees are mothering their children.

The Mother Trees.

When Mother Trees — the majestic hubs at the cener of forest communiation, protection, and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their kind, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.

After a lifetime as a forest detective, my perception of the woods has been turned upside down. With each new revelation, I am more deeply embedded in the forest. The scientific evidence is impossible to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing.

This is not a book about how we can heal the trees.

This is a book about how the trees might save us.

*******

Academic and “forest detective” Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is a blend of memoir and deeply scientific investigation on how forests are nurtured, regenerate and sustain themselves. Her curiousity was piqued when she began working as a commercial logger. At the company, she was tasked with clearing sections of a forest for harvest. As per the law, tree saplings had to be transplaned onto the site that had been cleared. But as per the strategy of the firm, monoculture was advocated, especially of those trees that were commercially viable and quick to grow. Anything else that grew in the location was stripped. This experience was completely at odds with what she had learned while watching her grandfather and rest of the clan work as loggers. They would carefully identify the tree to be felled and leave everything else around it undisturbed. She realised that there was some merit in the old-fashioned system of logging but it was not going to be appreciated by commercial firms as it was too tedious and time consuming. She was further intrigued by the fact that when she was entrusted with the chore of planting and supervising the growth of the saplings, they would be weak and wither. When she uprooted the fledgling plants, she noticed that the roots were pale and struggling to survive. It was inexplicable as these saplings had been planted in the middle of forests, rich in minerals and other essential nutrients. So there had to be some other reason for the saplings dying.

Simard resaerched this aspect of forest regeneration extensively. During the course of her work, she faced a number of hurdles including gender discrimination and disbelief at her preposterous theory of gendering trees in such a manner. She faced resistance. Her instinct told her that there was more to the commonly accepted narrative. She had a band of faithful friends and some relatives who assisted her in carrying out experiments. It was arduous work as it required trekking through mountainous terrains and camping at night in bear infested country. But she persevered. So much so that she has become an iconic figure. Filmmaker James Cameron’s “Tree of Souls” and “Avatar” acknowledge her as does novelist Richard Powers whose Pulitzer winning Overstory has a character based on Simard. Scholar Merlin Sheldrake in his fabulous book Entangled Life discusses at great length the fascinating networks created by fungi/lichens. Sheldrake’s research overlaps with what Simard has spent decades trying to explain that the mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic relationship between the fungi and the plant root system. It is over 450 million years old. But this mutually benefical system helps the fungi and plants to grow and survive. It is critical. This is precisely the reason why the trees logged by Simard’s ancestors helped in regenerating the forest but those propogated by the commercial loggers and their emphasis on monoculture, were the death knell for the forest.

In today’s day and age, this narrative of recognising the existence of a Mother Tree and the many functions it serves within a forest are easy to accept. The zeitgest is such that womens perspectives are given a patient hearing and even acknowledged. But this was not necessarily the case when Suzanne Simard began her research. The time period of this book, the research it documents and Suzanne Simard’s own evolution as a woman/logger/forester/academic/mother/scientist more or less coincide with the growth of womens movements around the world. Feminists have existed ever since Mary Wollstonecraft publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ( 1792) but the change in patriarchal systems and ways of thinking is far from over. This is exactly the resistance Simard faced in her work. It is minutely documented in her book except that she is keener to focus on her scientific research and share it with her readers than dwell for too long on personal matters. So while the book is fascinating to read for her unique research, it becomes a little tedious to read as it is unequal in its treatment of issues. The author lacks the sharp awareness that she has about her discipline vis-a-vis debates surrounding feminist/womens issues. A smattering of knowledge, the right vocabulary and insight would have sharpened the storytelling. Instead it plods. It lacks the lightness of touch as in say Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl or even Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. Both the books are very technical and yet they do a fine job of balancing the personal/memoir with the science.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read Finding the Mother Tree. It is an excellent book and the dissatifaction in the uneveness of telling stems from the high expectations the scientific explanations created in the reader.

Read it.

22 July 2021

“Billie Eilish” by Billie Eilish

My daughter hugging the book “Billie Eilish” tightly.

Billie Eilish started publishing music with her brother, Finneas, as a teenager. The duo is immensely popular. Billie Eilish is a multiple Grammy winner. She is 19. She has published her auto-biography called Billie Eilish. It is a photobook. It also shows stills from her music videos that she mostly directs herself. It is a photo-documentation of a pretty little baby to a superstar in less than two decades. She is young enough to have photo albums to browse through of her childhood and recall memories. Her dog that she rescued when Billie was six years old, is still living with her. Her parents and brother accompany the singer everywhere. Her father is an integral part of the crew. There are many photographs of her with her family and they do not seem to be posing for the sake of a family album memory. They are a team. It is evident.

Listening to her music is quite something. The words can be dark. But the arrangement is curious. It is a cross between performance poetry and recitation. The music tracks seem to have a life of their own too. The effect is enhanced when Billie Eilish is seen performing on stage or in her music videos wearing outrageously loud colours. It requires immense confidence about oneself to wear such bold colours. Musicians have been known to perform wearing dramatic costumes while performing in front of audiences, but there is something electric in the colours that Billie Eilish chooses, especially the fluorescent shades.

Some of her tracks like “Lovely” and “Bad Guy” have had 1.2 B and 1.1 billion views on YouTube, respectively. The combined views of two songs are nearly double the population of India! Her first song “Ocean Eyes’” (365 million views) sounds very much like Sam Smith. It was her first song. Her brother had written it for himself but realised that his younger sister did a better job at singing it. They recorded in their bedroom and uploaded it on SoundCloud. It went viral. In fact, the breakthrough achieved by many of the modern pop artists is phenomenal —whether it is Dua Lipa, Charlie Puth, Shawn Mendes, Arctic Monkeys, Justin Bieber, and Ed Sheeran. All of them have the common factor of using social media platforms to release their music. Once the tracks went viral, the record companies via their scouts signed them up. Billie has amassed over 54 million monthly listeners on the streaming service Spotify and over 50 million followers on Instagram. Her meteoric rise is similar to that of Liam Payne, One Direction, who at the age of fourteen years old also became a superstar and was banned from playing football in his own school field, as he had fans gawking at him from the boundary wall. He revealed this in a podcast with Steven Bartlett.

Eilish signed with Darkroom/Interscope in November 2016 just ahead of her fifteenth birthday. Darkroom/Interscope Records is the label for artists including Eminem, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Maroon 5, Selena Gomez, and U2. It noticed this new young singer and snapped her up. A comment of Billie Eilish that stands out while negotiating and signing the contract was that no one knew how to talk to or direct a child, which is what she was, a fourteen-year-old. It is precisely why she took over the direction of her music videos. Apparently, she always uses real stunts. No special effects. It is admirable if you see some of the videos with the feathers sticking to her in the black goo. She sat through the make-up sessions.

She has mostly been home-schooled while her parents who were musicians also managed their professional commitments. Billi Eilish pours her heart and soul in her music and the videos accompanying it. Take for instance, the anime-inspired videos such as “You Should see me in a Crown”. It is a “creepy video” as my eleven-year-old daughter describes it, but it does not stop my daughter from listening to Billie Eilish’s music.

The self-confidence and assuredness of this young singer is quite something. It is evident even in the simple title of her book — Billie Eilish. It took Elton John, in his seventies, to entitle his memoir, Me. Billie Eilish has not even completed her second decade and her autobiography is Billie Eilish.  In 2020 Eilish became the youngest artist ever to write and record a James Bond theme song. According to a Reuters article, she is quoted in clips of the audiobook as saying:

It’s funny like, I think a lot of people think that when Ocean Eyes’ came out, suddenly I was a superstar and quit everything and just became like famous… and it did not work like that at all… Yeah, my life stayed the same for a while. I was still dancing hours and hours and hours a day. And I was in choir still and I was doing all the same things I did. I was in circus class.

Listen to the track she released during the pandemic in Nov 2020. It is called, “No Time to Die”. It is the theme song to the forthcoming James Bond film with Daniel Craig. She credits Amy Winehouse for being a major influence on her music and yet this is a song that is soooo Billie Eilish. It cannot belong to anyone else! Read the photobook. It is a lovely documentation of a child/superstar born in the digital-informative-picture-rich age. Every step of her life seems to have been documented. It will be definitely popular with her fans and for those beyond who are curious about this popstar. The beautiful layout, with no expenses spared on the quality of production especially of the images, is a testament to the popularity of BillieEilish. The publishers will more than recover their cost in the making of this book and it will be well deserved. There are plenty of videos and images available online but there is magic in holding a print book consisting of stills. Billie Eilish exploits this old-world charm of browsing through images in hard copy, almost as if it is an invitation to view her family album and thus, gives her fans what they constantly desire – an intimate look into the singer’s life beyond the stage and recording studio. Very well done!

On 29 July 2021, Billie Eilish released her second album — Happier than Ever. It has met with praise from critics. Listen to it. Every track has its distinctive style. The words are astonishing as the young pop star has addressed her superstar status, the trolling she has faced, the titles of the track are very revealing too in terms of what she is feeling/experiencing. The musical arrangements are distinctive in every track. They do not merge into each other as a blur. The opening bars of “Halley’s Coment” begin with the piano chords sounding almost like the begining of a hymn. Curious that she should name a song after a comet that is known to appear periodically in the earth’s orbit and can be seen with the naked eye. Halley’s Comet’s claim to fame is the tail that it leaves in its wake, similar to other comets, except that this one is visible like a puff of cotton ball. Much of this analogy is applicable to Billie Eilish too with her phenomenal presence in the music world, sharp and illuminating, leaving an ephemeral trail of stardust in her wake.

The album’s tracks are characterised by her trademark whispering-style of singing. When she first burst upon the music scene, her songs tended to be indistinguishable from the popular artists of the day such as Sam Smith. Whereas in this album, most of the songs feel as if they hear hearkening back to a musical era with very distinct brands of music. The title track, “Happier than Before” feels like a song from the black-and-white film era. The choral arrangement in the opening of “Goldwing” sounds like traditional Church music. “Getting Older” has a rhythmic, gentle but firm beat that is much like the music one associates with Billie Eilish, yet has made me Thurberish with its strumming. There are examples of a range of musical styles in this album that do not make it dull. The titles leave one wanting to ask a million questions whereas the arrangement of the songs remain understated. In fact, this is exactly the feature that critics are pinpointing as being the reason for her fan base being underwhelmed. Yet, there is an addictive quality to the music. The lyrics continue to be dark, sombre and come with parental warning for their explicitness.

Hear the album. It is very good. Read the book too. It will help add a dimension to the singer.

Then watch the new BBC documentary called “Up Close” where she opened up about her frustration with trolls and internet criticism with the BBC’s Clara Amfo. “What is the point of trying to do good if people are just going to keep saying that you’re doing wrong,” Eilish tells Amfo. The film uses some of the images that appear in the photobook as well.

22 July 2021
Updated: 2 August 2021

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