Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: "India After Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha

What makes "India After Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha an absolute must-read is the beautifully balanced way in which he celebrates the survival & success of democratic India and at the same time acknowledges the numerous shortcomings and the failures we, as a nation, had to endure. 

It is a 900 pages worth of astutely researched, carefully backed piece of work. And despite its size, it leaves you wanting more & believe it or not, actually feels rushed at some places. Ramachandra Guha comes across as a no-bullshit academic historian but still the writing feels so spirited that you can't help but get swept away in the whirlwind of pride, patriotism and sometimes shame, anger and helplessness.

The first 75% of the book is a detailed account of India's journey from the day it became independent till the early 1990s. Guha presents his facts fairly objectively, citing references, sometimes actual excerpts from speeches, sometimes actual text from the Indian Constitution. He doesn't shirk away from talking about all the politically incorrect & not-to-be-discussed-at-a-dinner-table topics. For someone only exposed to carefully doctored & disgustingly selective school-level history text books while growing up and then the extremely partisan & laughably mediocre and sensationalist news in the later years, this no-bars-hold "expose" of Indian history comes across as a breeze of fresh air. Yes, it has the stench of regionalism, of communal & religious riots, of nepotism, of corruption, but it also carries with it the echoes of practicing secularism, of unifying princely states, of industrial, agricultural & service sector revolutions and yes - of winning four Indo-Pak wars. 

The remaining 25% of the book consists of independent essays by Ramachandra Guha about broad topics like 'riots', 'elections' etc. Unfortunately, it is in this portion of the book that Guha gives up the previous objective stance and takes on his semi-socialist, anti-right-wing, nehruvian stance. Nothing wrong with that since he clearly mentions that these essays are his personal opinions. And instead of reading oversimplified "BJP bad, Congress good and I am the best" journalistic views, Ramachandra Guha gives credit when its due. This I like. Anyone would be more willing to read something they don't agree with wholly if the writer is brave enough to also openly acknowledge the lack of a clear  black and white. Yes, the book has a certain pro-Nehru tone, but I felt the majority of the book is fairly objective.

So do go ahead and give "India After Gandhi" a read. 
Neither is there an over-emphasize on India's poverty to garner western attention nor is there a one-sided sing-song praise of the Indian State.
Neither is there a sugar-coating of our religious, communal, linguistic conflicts nor is there a glorified account of our solidarity, unity & harmony.

All in all, 5/5 from me.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' by Philip K. Dick

I found "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" to be one of the most riveting pieces of science fiction storytelling. Granted it has some flaws but the way it has juxtaposed numerous (and scarily believable) science fiction ideas with the question of 'what is empathy & what it means to be human' is; simply put; amazing.

The story paints a very dark & depressing future for the Earth and mankind. It is a future where almost all humans have emigrated to Mars because of after effects of a global war and some of the surviving humans on Earth are suffering from horrible radioactive abnormalities. It is a future where a multitude of animal & bird species have become extinct and where artificial intelligent beings with an organic human exoskeleton or 'the androids' are amongst us. 'Rick Deckard', the protagonist, is tasked with 'retiring' i.e. killing six 'rogue' androids which have escaped from Mars colonies to Earth.

Even though the premise is essentially an action story, Philip K. Dick (PKD) has woven elements of philosophy & identity crisis very beautifully. A number of future contraptions/concepts described in the book seem like something the future human generations will build, but at the same time these 'devices' are used as a great metaphor to our thought process and how we perceive ourselves and our place in this world. A collective empathy based pseudo religion (PKD calls it 'Mercerism') seems like a scary not-too-distant future considering the effect social networks have on our moods & emotions even today.

That being said, I do feel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" loses steam in some of its plot-points. Some things feel rushed while other things get introduced and they don't really amount to anything in the whole scheme of things. But these complaints are few & to me it did not reduce the quality of the book. Similar to PKD's other work, this story also has a trippy, hallucinatory undertone at a couple of places. 

All in all, a must-read if you are into science fiction - 5/5 from me.