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Mr. Anuj Ghai (London, U.K.)
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Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India
Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India
Price: £24.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and well-argued, 8 April 2014
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Vajpeyi’s ‘Righteous Republic’ is a challenging, but extremely rewarding read and an important contribution to the growing body of Indian intellectual scholarship. The book has as its primary aim the explication of the term ‘swaraj’ or self-rule. In critiquing both past and present scholarship in the area, Vajpeyi argues that scholars have focused inordinately on what the concept of political sovereignty entailed for India’s founding fathers without paying sufficient attention to the first portion of the term, namely the self. How exactly did India’s leading nationalist thinkers conceive of the relationship between self and sovereignty? What did the swa in swa-raj mean to them and how did they go about conferring content on that term? These are hugely important questions but have, as the author persuasively argues, been inadequately addressed in much of the literature on India’s intellectual history. In reading the search for the self through India’s founders, Vajpeyi focuses on five thinkers: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore.

The author argues that the search for the self ‘took the form of an attempt to recover a line of moral inquiry from a welter of Indian traditions’. Vajpeyi suggests that traditions are text-centric; that is to say, texts constitute the building blocks of tradition. This characterization of traditions as text-centric may come across to some readers as inordinately parochial buts its persuasiveness as a characterization need not detain us here- what is important is that once Vajpeyi characterizes traditions in the way that she does, she can then proceed to argue that the best or most insightful way of tracing the founders’ search for self is to examine the manner in which they engaged with particular Indic texts of premodernity. Vajpeyi writes: ‘Rather than trying to figure out where the five founders stood with regard to the idea of “Tradition” as such, I examine particular intellectual engagements with traditional texts that each one undertook, and bring out the categories of selfhood that emerged from these acts of interpretation’.

So what are these texts that India’s founders are said to have engaged with in their attempt to search for the self- the self whose political sovereignty they all struggled to reinstate. Vajpeyi argues that Gandhi’s search for the self is brought out most clearly and compellingly in his engagement with the Bhagavad Gita; Nehru’s search is clarified by looking at his engagement with the texts and artifacts of the Mauryan Empire. Kalidasa’s Meghadhuta is the relevant text for Rabindranath, Abanindranath’s search is reflected in his conceptualization of Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal and finally; Ambedkar’s agonizing search for the self is best explicated by examining his engagement with the classical texts of Buddhism.

The claim that the political foundations of modern India derived from classical and historical Indian intellectual traditions is not a new one; the beauty and importance of Vajpeyi’s book, however, lies in its meticulous explication of the ways in and terms on which which India’s founders engaged with the rich knowledge traditions of their past. In fashioning a sense of Indian selfhood, these leading thinkers utilized the vocabularies, themes and concepts embedded in the text-rich traditions of India’s past, employing them in inventive ways to address problems that those traditions had probably not envisaged themselves. The founders engagement with Indian texts of premodernity and their employment of indigenous conceptual categories and idioms to deal with the ‘crisis of the self’ and the issue of political sovereignty enabled them collectively to formulate their values and visions in ways that were intelligible to the Indian masses who although themselves participants in the swaraj project lacked the resources by which to articulate the precise nature of their existential predicament.

Vajpeyi’s book is a thoroughgoing attempt to demonstrate the ways in which India’s rich intellectual, aesthetic and moral heritage influenced the Indian founders collective search for selfhood. In this attempt, the book succeeds masterfully.


Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
by Tony Judt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Deeply prescient., 7 April 2014
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In this deeply prescient anthology of essays, Judt warns readers against the temptation “to look back upon the twentieth century as an age of political extremes, of tragic mistakes and wrongheaded choices; an age of delusion from which we have now, thankfully, emerged.” He persuasively, and quite passionately, reminds us that the past is pregnant with lessons and warnings that we ignore at our peril: moving forward successively requires, Judt argues, an intimate familiarity with the failures and achievements of the past and the humble if not also unsettling recognition that our present century is as fraught with dangers and uncertainties as the last. Drawing upon a remarkably broad array of figures and themes, Judt explores the past with the aim of illuminating the present. With deep sensitivity to the writings of his subjects and the idiosyncrasies of his themes, he demonstrates the relevance of the past to the predicaments of our time and in so doing reminds us of the deep and inalterable continuities that bind generations (in their predicaments) seamlessly together. His essays on Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Said are particularly good and demonstrative of his acuity as a commentator and modern historian.


India: the road ahead
India: the road ahead
by Mark Tully
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Great read., 4 April 2014
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This review is from: India: the road ahead (Paperback)
I’ve always enjoyed reading Mark Tully’s political commentary on India and I think his books provide a balanced and honest insight into the changing political and social landscape of the country. ‘India: The Road Ahead’, is his latest book on the subject and what follows is my review of some of its chapters.

The first chapter provides some useful insights into the Maoist insurgency that continues to threaten India’s civil society and internal security apparatus. Tully’s approach to the problem is nuanced, identifying as it does, a range of issues that underlie the Maoist problem. More specifically, his own journey to Chhattisgarh, a particular hotbed of political violence and instability, proves how resistant the Maoist problem is to simple analysis.

The place and treatment of Dalits or former ‘untouchables’ in the Indian social fabric forms the subject of the second chapter. Again, Tully’s approach here is nuanced, resisting as he does, the temptation to view the issue solely in terms of a conflict between caste-conscious Hindus and Dalits. India’s Constitution officially prohibits caste discrimination, but as Tully in this chapter demonstrates, India’s continued [mis]treatment of Dalits leaves much to be desired. The chapter reveals the potency of education as a powerful force for change in Indian society; the growing number of Dalits enrolling in educational institutions serves to empower the community, granting them an important voice in the political and social realm. There is also, as the chapter aptly illustrates, growing evidence to suggest that the Dalit community are now ‘fighting back’, at least in the sense of resisting mistreatment and fighting for the rights that the constitution guarantees for them. National icons and leading figures often play prominent roles in the betterment of oppressed minorities and tend to exert indelible influence in the self-consciousness of an oppressed group. Tully’s second chapter demonstrates that the Dalits are no exception to this trend; Dr. Ambedkar, for instance (one of the leading architects of India’s constitution) serves as a moral guide, preceptor, role model and even god for the entire Dalit community of India. The growing influence and prominence of Dalit politicians is also empowering the community politically and has finally given them their long-lost right to political expression. India’s government does seem to be taking the issue of caste discrimination seriously and it appears as if change is, slowly but surely, arriving.

Tully’s fourth chapter deals with the politically contentious issue of India’s secularism. Secularism lies at the heart of India’s constitution and has indelibly affected the trajectory of Indian politics post-Independence. The intense diversity of India’s religious landscape, in effect, means that secularism was India’s only realistic option; any alternative (such as a Hindu India) would invite social and political alienation (of India’s religious minorities) and generate communal tension and disharmony. India’s secular credentials, however, leave a lot to be desired. On the one hand, those parties that parade themselves around as custodians of India’s sacred secularism (read the Congress Party!) have, rather ironically, done more to damage the secularist ideal than any of their ideological opponents. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar, for their part, have also contributed, no doubt, to the occasional dismantling of India’s secular fabric by communalizing societal tensions through exploiting Hindu sympathies. Interestingly, Tully’s third chapter demonstrates, quite incisively, how the nature of India’s ‘vote bank’ politics problematizes its attempt to secularize political and social discourse. India’s political discourse must move beyond the basic and misleading dichotomy, popularized by many in the Congress ranks, between a Congress-backed secularism and a BJP-backed communalism; it impoverishes the intellectuality of the political realm and hinders progression on the societal front. The Congress Party, in particular, must strengthen their commitment to secularism by introducing a degree of consistency in the way they apply the ideal; a secularism that recedes to the background when it comes to issues relating to minority groups is a pseudo-secularism at best. The BJP, for their part, have little choice but to reconsider their alignment with the Hindutva movement if they are serious about broadening their political support base for the upcoming general elections.

India’s exciting progression towards economic super-power status is the result of a favourable combination of a number of important factors including; congenial demographics, a functioning democracy and a strong and stable civil society. If, however, I were asked to identify one factor, without which India’s economic growth would be seriously hindered, I would have to select the nation’s proficiency in English. In this increasingly globalized world, literacy in English bestows a wealth of opportunities, both commercial and personal, without which growth on the global stage would simply be unobtainable. India’s growth story is often compared to that of China’s; this comparison is misleading for a number of reasons, not least because, any attempt to compare both countries inevitably ignores the great political, cultural and demographic differences that separate both countries. Having said that, as things stand, China’s economic growth appears to be accelerating at a higher pace than that of India’s and at least for the foreseeable future, there is little reason to expect any alteration to this status quo. There is, however, one yardstick on which India does fare better than China; that is, of course, in its proficiency in English. India’s attraction to English heightened as a result of the emergence of India’s outsourcing industry; suddenly there was a greater recognition among Indians that English was the language of upward mobility and interestingly enough, this aspiration for English is now cutting across income classes all over India. Remarkably then, in such a short period of time, English in India has gone from being perceived as a ‘colonial relic’ to a language of international business and a powerful key in opening up geographical borders and gaining access to markets.

However, the breadth and depth of India’s English-language capability may turn out to be a mixed blessing. It would be imprudent to deny the fact that this capability has conferred on India, advantages and benefits that have been indispensible to its sustained and impressive growth over the last decade or so. The issue, as Tully writes in his seventh chapter of the book, is that India’s greed for English may come at a cost to the nation’s existing repertoire of languages, which could soon be wiped away if steps are not taken to ensure their preservation. The chapter is interesting since it demonstrates the crucial role that language plays in the cultural identity and self-consciousness of a region.


India's Unending Journey: Finding balance in a time of change
India's Unending Journey: Finding balance in a time of change
by Mark Tully
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Great read., 4 April 2014
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The highly personal feel to 'India's Unending Journey' and the discursive nature of the text makes it a particularly engaging read. One can't help but participate actively with Tulley in seeking to identify solutions to what are complex but deeply relevant problems/issues. The issues identified by Tulley for discussion in this book are remarkably relevant today given the nature of economic systems around the world and the continued danger that terrorism and militancy pose to the integrity of civil society. This book provides a useful first insight into the startling and yet reassuring heterogeneity that characterizes much of Indian society and in that respect invites the reader to explore the riches of India's great civilization for him or herself.


Singing Krishna: Sound Becomes Sight in Paramanand's Poetry
Singing Krishna: Sound Becomes Sight in Paramanand's Poetry
by A. Whitney Sanford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.72

5.0 out of 5 stars Fine scholarship., 4 April 2014
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'Singing Krishna' is beautifully written; rich in detail and emotion, this study of Paramananda's classic poetry deserves to be called a classic in its own right. The author's familiarity with the theology and textual background of Braja devotional poetry enables her to identify the nuances and subtleties of Paramananda's poetry which would otherwise go unnoticed to the uninitiated. Sanford's guiding commentary on the poetry enables the reader to participate in the enactment of the poetry themselves and provides them with the framework and apparatus with which they can explore their own connection (and perhaps, place) in the poetry. <br/><br/>It's difficult to find anything in the book that warrants major criticism. It would, however, have been useful if the author had provided a transliteration of the poetry- this would enable the reader to read the poetry in its original language. Since this work purports to explicate the role of Paramananda's poetry in the ritual cycle of Krishna's service, it would have been that much more useful if the author had drawn more explicit connections between the periodic ritual performances and the poetry. All in all, a wonderful work that I thoroughly recommend.


Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaisnava Theologian: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinada, Vaisnava Theologian
Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaisnava Theologian: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinada, Vaisnava Theologian
by N.Shukavak Dasa
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent., 4 April 2014
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‘Hindu Encounter with Modernity’ is an excellent work of scholarship that sheds light on a Thakur Bhaktivinoda that we tend to hear little of. To be sure, we do have a tremendous amount of material on Thakur Bhaktivinoda and so Shukavak Dasa’s book is not a breakthrough in this respect. However, and this is an important qualification, much of that material tends to be hagiographical in nature and so naturally this prevents us from accessing the true and honest life of the Thakur. Shukavak should be credited for going to great lengths to authenticate the material relating to Thakur Bhaktivinoda’s life and of course for resisting the temptation to explain away compromising incidents of the Thakur’s life by taking recourse to mystical or esoteric explanations. This is, quite easily, the best and most reliable book on the life of Bhaktivinoda and so in that respect it is a must-buy for those interested in this dynamic 19th century theologian. <br/><br/>‘Hindu Encounter with Modernity’ is not, however, simply a biography. Instead, by examining the work of Thakur Bhaktivinoda and by analysing the social and intellectual milieu within which the Thakur grew up, Shukavak presents us with a unique glimpse of the Thakur’s innovative theological style. He shows us how Bhaktivinoda sought to resolve the tensions between traditional faith and modern critical thought and how his vision, ultimately, transcended both his culture and his time. As Thomas Hopkins writes, great religious thought must be synthesized in the mind of a spiritual genius. Shukavak leaves little doubt that Bhaktivinoda was such a genius. <br/>


Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna
Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna
by David L. Haberman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.77

5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate scholarship., 4 April 2014
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Beautifully written and evocatively described, 'Journey Through the Twelve Forests' chronicles Haberman's participation in the circumambulatory exploration of the Braj region in North India. The 'Ban Yatra' or the 'Journey Through the Twelve Forests' constitutes an important and well-established circular pilgrimage that takes pilgrims around a group of sacred forests in the region of Braj; the sanctity of the forests derives from their association with Krishna, the blue-hued, amorous Hindu deity who is said to have taken birth in this region many thousands of years ago. As the pilgrims progress in their circumambulation or journey around the forests, they invariably come across a multitude of important shrines that stand to commemorate various lila-sthans or areas of Krishna's activity; typically these sacred structures/spaces were 'discovered' or erected in the late 15th and 16th centuries. This process of discovery or creation helped concretize the 'mythical' realm of Braj and provided an important impetus to the development of the fledgling Bhakti movements of the region. Importantly, this historically and theologically tumultuous period in India, witnessed an impressive literary outpouring whose effect was to enhance the standing and devotional appeal of Braj Vaishnavism; the growing sacralization of Braj, in the meanwhile, increasingly provided pilgrims with a palpable sense of Krishna's divinity and in so doing, transformed the region early on so as to make it a/the key center of Krishnaite worship.<br/><br/>Haberman's own participation in the journey is poignantly described and his personal and sensitive account of his challenging experience provide readers with unparallelled access to the spirit and feel of the Yatra. Moreover, his revealing interviews of the pilgrims sheds new and important light into the anthropology of pilgrimage and in that sense constitutes an exciting anthropological point of departure.<br/><br/>This book will be of particular interest to those with some degree of familiarity with Indian religious practice/philosophy.


Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny
Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny
by Mikhail Gorbachev
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.81

3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing extraordinary., 4 April 2014
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A pleasant and insightful read. Unfortunately, contrary to the author's submissions, this book does not break any new ground. There is very little here that's not already widely available in the public domain- the fact that the author was not even able to interview the subject of her biography seems to add somewhat to the 'unoriginal' feel of the book. More damagingly though for the author is the fact that this book is so so uncritical; it is deeply sympathetic to Mrs. Gandhi and quite frankly, reads more like a hagiography than a biography.<br/><br/>Other than the interesting sections on Sonia's early life in Italy and Cambridge, this book adds very very little to what we already know of the President of the Congress Party.


The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda's Reinterpretation of the Vedas
The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda's Reinterpretation of the Vedas
by Anantanand Rambachan
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Great scholarship., 4 April 2014
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The first of its kind, Rambachan's critical study provides a fresh insight into the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Given the profound influence that Vivekananda exercised on the evolution of Hindu doctrine in the late 19th and early 20th century, the paucity of critical writing on his theological contribution is somewhat surprising; nevertheless Rambachan's perceptive analysis goes someway in helping to address this scholarly lacuna and for that, at least, his book and contribution deserves recognition.<br/><br/>As a modern-day proponent of Advaita Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda is sometimes described 'hagiographically' as the 'new Sankara'; after all, like Sankara, Vivekananda thought of non-duality as the zenith of religious experience and the ultimate import of India's sacred religious literature. However, beyond that, the comparison between the two thinkers begins to weaken. Rambachan argues persuasively, for example, that Vivekananda's approach to scriptural exegesis departs, quite significantly, from that of Sankara's. Both thinkers differ substantially on their normative appreciation of the Vedas; whereas, Vivekananda tends to argue for the normative supremacy of anubhava (or the experiential approach) Sankara maintains that in the absence of the Vedas, authoritative knowledge of God is simply unobtainable. Interestingly, Vivekananda's preference for religious experience over and above study of the Vedas enables him to ignore the doctrinal differences that divided and continues to divide many Hindu communities; but this, if you like, intentionally self-cultivated 'ignorance' is convenient for him since the idea of a divided Hindu is ultimately anathema to his political ambition of uniting India along religious lines. As Rambachan seeks to make clear throughout his text, Vivekananda's political ambitions are closely and inextricably intertwined with his religious project and the two really ought not to be artificially isolated. Seeking to study the latter without appreciating the former will only result in confusion and distortion. More controversially, Rambachan goes on to make the, more questionable, point that Vivekananda's depreciation for doctrine and his somewhat liberal hermenutical approach has ultimately affected, and adversely so, the state of Indian scholarship on Hinduism. All in all, a very, very good study of one of India's greatest modern Hindu proponents.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
by Katherine Boo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable., 4 April 2014
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A remarkable read and quite simply the best book that I have read on contemporary India. The book triumphs in its stark and unembellished portrayal of life among India's urban slum-dwellers; the real-life stories and accounts presented are poignant and at times deeply harrowing and they succeed in bringing to life the experiences of Annawadi's precarious and powerless residents. In its critique of economic inequality this book is damning, and timely.


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