From the history of money to Gandhi: Best non fiction books of 2013

Vivek Kaul
 It is that time of the year when the media goes on an overdrive making top 10 lists on various things that happened in the year that was. So here is my list for the top 10 books in the non fiction category for this year (The books appear in a random order). Also, let me confess at the very beginning that this list is slightly biased towards books on economics and finance, which is what I love reading the most. 
1) The Undercover Economist Strikes Back – How to Run – or Ruin – an Economy – -Tim Harford (Little, Brown Rs 599)
Tim Harford is my favourite writer when it comes to the non fiction category. His entire focus in anything that he writes is to ensure that the reader understands what he is trying to say. Not many writers make that kind of effort. And that possibly explains why Harford’s books like 
The Undercover EconomistThe Logic of Life and Adapt, have been bestsellers.
In his new book, Harford tries to explain macroeconomics and the financial crisis that is currently on to the lay reader, in very simple English. In fact, Henry Hazzlit’s 
Economics in One Lesson (first published in 1946) remains my favourite book, when it comes to books which explain the dismal science in a language that everybody can understand. Harford’s The Undercover Economist Strikes Back now comes a close second.

2) Calcutta – Two Years in the City – Amit Chaudhuri (Hamish Hamilton, Rs 599)
My favourite Bengali author is Mani Shankar Mukherjee. His translations in English, appear under the name of Sankar. I discovered Sankar’s writing a few years back when someone recommended his book Chowringhee to me. Since then I have read a few other translations that have appeared in English. But I have read close to seven or eight translations of Sankar in Hindi. In fact, whenever I discover a bookstore which has Hindi books, the first thing I tend to ask them is do you have any books of Sankar? Nobody writes about life and its frailties like Sankar does.
Amit Chaudhuri, I feel comes a close second to Sankar, when it comes to writing books set in Calcutta. I have tremendously enjoyed reading his novels over the years. His new book Calcutta -Two Years in a City is about the Calcutta that was, the Kolkata that is and the Kolkata that will be. Given the fact that Chaudhuri hasn’t lived in Calcutta all the time (he spent a large part of his childhood in what was Bombay and since then has lived a lot in Great Britain) and neither has he left it completely, only to come back during Durgo Pujo, the book doesn’t get overtly nostalgic (like a lot of Bengali authors tend to) about the city. So, for example you will find very little of Satyajit Ray and Mother Teresa in the book. But you will find a lot about Bihari labourers who come to the city hoping to make it in life.
Chaudhuri also chronicles the change in Kolkata quite well. Older British buildings being demolished to make way for newer apartments. Oxford Book Store, the city’s most famous book store, now storing fewer books and more of CDs and stationery. The famous city eatery Flurry’s also makes an appearance.
If there was a book that I would want to read on a relaxed rainy afternoon (or a chilly foggy morning) with a cup of tea and a couple of samosas by my side, this would be it. (Another book that I would like to mention here is Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats – A Short Biography of Patna. Having grown up in erstwhile Bihar I loved reading the book. My only complain with the book is that it ended just as I was starting to enjoy it) 

3) Who Owns the Future? – Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane – Rs 850)
This is a fascinating book which raises many questions about the digital revolution that is currently on. One of the major questions that Lanier asks is what makes a few websites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter etc, so valuable? As he writes “its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to their network without being paid for it. Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they do, only a small number of people get paid. That has the net effect of centralising wealth and limiting overall economic growth.”
Lanier also asks whether we are becoming too dependant by concentrating our digital lives around a few companies. As he writes “Suppose Facebook never gets good enough at snatching the ‘advertising’ business from Google. That’s still a possibility as I write this. In that event, Facebook could go into decline, which would present a global emergency…If Facebook starts to fail commercially, suddenly people all over the world would be at the risk of losing old friends and family ties, or perhaps critical medical histories.”
The same argument stands true for Gmail as well. For most of us it is a repository of a large amount of information, communication and documentation, that we need to keep going back to time and again. In that sense, these websites are becoming more like electric utilities as every day goes by. Who Owns the Future raises some fundamental questions that do not have easy answers. 

4) Gandhi Before India – Ramachandra Guha (Allen Lane, Rs 899)
Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth, was one of the first non fictions books that I happened to read. And as a young adult I found it very boring. Over the years I have been told that the Gujarati original is inherently more interesting and the translation in English, doesn’t quite work as well as the original (Gandhi translated the book himself). Also, the other complain that I had with Gandhi’s autobiography was that it does not get into much detail about his years in South Africa.
Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India addresses both the issues that I had with the autobiography. Guha’s research is top notch and he establishes in great detail that it was the years that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spent in South Africa, was what made him Mahatma Gandhi. Interestingly, Guha also tells us that Rabindranath Tagore was not the first man to call Gandhi a Mahatma. It was his doctor turned jeweller friend Pranjivan Mehta. The book also talks about the sacrifices made by Gandhi’s immediate family to help his struggle in South Africa. His eldest son Harilal regularly went to jail. Even his wife Kasturba went to jail for the cause. His nephews were also a part of his struggle.
This book is a must read for every Indian in order to realise how great Gandhi really was. 

5) Battles Half Won – India’s Improbable Democracy – Ashutosh Varshney (Penguin Viking, Rs 599)
The book’s subtitle tells us what the book is all about. As Varshney puts it “the odds against democracy in India were extremely high”.
Democracy came to West after the industrial revolution which ensured that incomes had reached a substantially high level. In the Indian case, democracy as a form of government was adopted when only around 15-17% of the population was literate and the per capita income was very low. In fact, many countries that emerged from decolonization adopted democracy as a form of government. But of these countries democracy survived only in India, Mauritius, Belize, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Each of these countries other than India are very small and have a higher income than that of India.
Also, research shows that democracies that have an economic growth rate of lesser than 5% per year collapse at a higher rate than democracies that have an economic growth rate of higher than 5%. As Varshney puts it “India’s economic growth rate has been higher than 5% per annum since 1980, but in the period 1950-1980, Indian economy grew at only 3.5% per annum.” Given these reasons, it is very surprising that democracy in India has not only survived, but is thriving. The recent success of the Aam Aadmi Party clearly proves that.
To know the reasons behind why democracy has survived in India, Varsheny’s book is an excellent read. 

6) Emergency Retold – Kuldip Nayar (Konark Rs 295)
The only period since independence when India has not been a democracy was the period between June 26, 1975 and March 21, 1977, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, got the president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency.
Veteran journalist Nayar writes about the period in Emergency Retold. The book was first published in 1977 under the name The Judgement. The paper back edition was released this year. Nayar’s book reads like a political thriller. It starts on June 12, 1975, when Justice Jagan Mohan Lal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign in the 1971 Lok Sabha election. Two weeks later Indira Gandhi got the President Ahmed to declare a state of emergency.
Nayar goes into great detail about how this was done. One of the interesting things he points out was that a copy of the censorship rules and details of the machinery required to implement them in Philippines, was provided to Sanjay Gandhi, by a businessman fried of his Kuldip Narang, who in turn had got it from his friends in the American embassy. The book is full of such interesting trivia from those times. In the end, it is also a grim reminder of the cost that India has had to pay for keeping the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in power for large periods of time since independence. My only complain about the book is that there are just way too many typos.

 7) 40 retakes – Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed – Avijit Ghosh (Tranqubear, Rs 395)
This book is really the joker in the pack. I read it early October on a day I was very bored and finished reading it under four hours. 
40 Retakes is a book on 40 brilliant movies which flopped or did not pass the critics’ test over the years. Given the number of Hindi movies that get made every year, it would have been very difficult to arrive at the list.
I am no expert on the Hindi cinema of the 50s, 60s and 70s, but have watched a fair bit since the 1980s. Some of my favourite movies like Prakash Jha’s 
Hip, Hip, Hurray set in Ranchi and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh set in Pahalgam are a part of the list.
Kabir Kaushik’s 
Sehar and Tigmanshu Dhulia‘s Haasil, probably two of the finest movies set in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, also make the cut. Ketan Mehta’s terribly underrated Aar ya Paar, a movie which I fell in love with when I first saw it, even though it was a rip off of a James Hadley Chase novel, is also a part of the list. Anurag Kashyap’s Gulal, Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh and Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi make it to the list as well.
A movie which should have been on the list is Kundan Shah’s 
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, which I feel is the best Shah Rukh Khan movie till date. At the risk of getting booed I would like to say that Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is Kundan Shah’s finest film. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was made on the editing table.
Navdeep Singh‘s Manorma Six Feet Under, should have been a part of the list. It’s a terrific re-working of Roman Polanski’s China Town
8) When the Money Runs Out – The End of Western Affluence – Stephen D King (Yale University Press, Price not mentioned)
Economists who work for financial institutions are expected to be optimistic about things. But doesn’t seem to be the case Stephen D King, who is the Group Chief Economist at HSBC. In When the Money Runs Out, King points out that there is a lot that is wrong with the way the financial systems all over the Western world have evolved. The fundamental point that he makes in the book is that the ability of the developed countries to keep generating a reasonable economic growth has gone down. There are economic and political implications of the same. When the West was growing the governments promised a lot of benefits to its citizens. They are no longer in the situation where they can afford to pay off these benefits.
Most developing countries instead of getting used to the new low growth scenario have responded to it by printing huge amounts of money, in the hope of creating more economic growth. King calls them stimulus junkies. He discusses in great detail why its not so easy to suddenly stop or go slow on money printing, something which the Federal Reserve of United States has been trying to do for a while.
Anyone looking to understand how the current financial crisis will evolve in the years to come, should be reading this book.

Money – The Unauthorised Biography – Felix Martin ( The Bodley Head, Rs 599)
Over the last few years, the history of money has fascinated me a lot and I have read scores of books trying to understand how money actually evolved. But my journey on the history of money ended with this book. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to understand on what money really is?
Mofussil Junction – Indian Encounters 1977-2012 (Penguin Viking, Rs 599)
As they say, save the best for the last. If there was one book that I would have read this year, it would have to be Ian Jack’s 
Mofussil Junction. The book is a fantastic collection of short write-ups and essays on India. In fact, Jack’s prose at times makes you feel that you are reading some classic fiction.
My favourite essay in the collection is Somewhere 
to Call Their Own. The essay deals with Anglo Indians who decided to settle down around 1500 feet up in the Chota Nagpur hills, in this town called McCluskiegunje, near Ranchi. The most interesting character in this essay is an Anglo Indian girl called Kitty Memsahab, who actually sells fruits at the McCluskiegunje railway station to make a living.
As the concluding lines of the essay go “Down at the station I saw Kitty again…Now she was preparing a basket of oranges for the evening train and joking in Hindi with brewers of country liquor. She seemed to have made her peace – perhaps not with India, which is too large and complicated an idea, but at least with that small part of it where she was born.”
Reading about Kitty reactivated an old memory about a story that the India Today magazine had done around her sometime in the late 1980s. I have vague memories of the magazine carrying a photograph taken from inside a train showing a white woman selling bananas. 
This 2013 story that appeared in the Mint suggests that Kitty might still be selling bananas.
I also loved the epilogue of the book tremendously. Here Jack talks about a person called Major that he used to know in what was Calcutta. As the concluding lines of the book go “I got divorced soon after and with no in-laws to visit I didn’t see Kolkata again for nearly twenty years. The Major died – I’m not sure how. Smoking while walking could have been a contributory cause, it being a rule he often ignored. I miss his uncomplicated, upcountry curiosity: why, how, where, when? I miss his mischief. I mourn those figures slithering in the Hooghly’s mud, happy to make fools of themselves, once upon a time.” As I said, fantastic prose.
PS: If I could extend this list, the two books that I would put in are Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya’s 
India’s Tryst With Destiny and Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen‘s An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Another book that I would like to add to the list Neil Irwin’s The Alchemists – Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers.
An edited version of this article appeared on on December 27,2013
 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Ramachandra Guha: The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is clearly on its last legs

Ramachandra GuhaVivek Kaul  
Ramachandra Guha is one of the foremost Indian historians of this era. In his latest book Gandhi Before India (Allen Lane, Rs 899) he chronicles the early life of Mahatma Gandhi. The book focusses on the years Gandhi spent in London and South Africa and how they shaped his ideology and philosophy. Indians who have grown up watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi are largely unaware about this part of his life. Hence, the book is a must read for every Indian who wants to know what turned a lawyer called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi.
Guha feels none of the political parties of today follow the principles of Gandhi, even though they claim so. “Various politicians and political parties claim to speak in the name of Gandhi: the Congress because he was in that party for a very long time, Narendra Modi because he was also a Gujarati, the Aam Admi Party(AAP) because its main leaders were, like Gandhi, professionals who became social activists. All these claims are dubious. The cronyism and corruption of the Congress is worlds removed from Gandhi or Gandhism; as is the megalomania and sectarianism of Mr Modi. As for the AAP, their claims to be Gandhian in inspiration are nullified by the negative nature of their politics, which is based so completely on carping attacks on other parties,” he told Firstpost in an interview. 

Intellectually who are the people who had the foremost impact on Gandhi in the years that he spent in South Africa?
Gandhi’s main mentors were a Gujarati poet and thinker, Raychandbhai; the pioneering Indian nationalist and social reformer, Gopal Krishna Gokhale; and the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. He had an extensive correspondence with all three. Gandhi also spent a great deal of time with Raychand in Bombay in 1891-2, and with Gokhale in Calcutta in 1902 and again in South Africa in 1912. Tolstoy he never met, but perhaps it was the Russian who had the greatest influence on his moral and social philosophy. The idea of religious pluralism was common to all three of Gandhi’s mentors; the idea of ending caste and gender discrimination he got from Gokhale; the practice of abstinence and a simple life from Raychand and Tolstoy. Non-violence was in part an adaptation and refinement of Tolstoy’s pacifist ideals.
You also point out that Rabindranath Tagore was not the first man to call Gandhi a Mahatma. It was his doctor turned jeweller friend Pranjivan Mehta. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well as the kind of relationship Gandhi shared with Mehta?
This remarkable associate of Gandhi has been treated most casually in earlier biographies. But, as I show, their relationship was absolutely fundamental to the making of the Mahatma. Gandhi and Mehta spent time together in London, Rangoon, Durban; and wrote to one another at least once a week all through the period he was in South Africa. Mehta was the Engels to Gandhi’s Marx: that is to say, his closest friend, his most steadfast and consistent patron, and the first man to recognize and proclaim his greatness.
One of the most moving parts of the book is the relationship that Gandhi shared with his sons particularly Harilal, his eldest son . Do you think he failed as a father?
Gandhi had excessively high expectations of both Harilal and his second son Manilal. He wanted them to be perfect satyagrahis, perfect brahmacharis. He can certainly be said to have failed as a father. This is not uncommon—writers, artists, activists obsessed with their calling often their spouses and children very badly indeed.
You write in great detail about the family of Gandhi being a very close part of his struggle in South Africa. Even his wife went to jail for the cause. What intrigues me is that none of his sons or nephews played an active part in Indian politics once Gandhi returned to India. Why did that happen?
Yes, in the context of Indian politics today, Gandhi’s refusal to promote his family to positions of power and authority is remarkable. He even willed all his writings to a Trust of which none of his sons were members, thereby denying them any financial benefits from what he knew could be a very profitable legacy.
Would it be fair to say that Gandhi wasn’t born great, but became great through a series of events and experiences?
Gandhi certainly had great physical and moral courage. He had a tremendous capacity for hard work. He had an unusual ability to cultivate friendships across social boundaries. He was curious about other ways of living and thinking. Even so, had he succeeded as a lawyer in Bombay he would never have become a major political figure. Had he not lived in the diaspora he would not have appreciated the religious and linguistic heterogeneity of India. So, in this sense, it was a series of accidental encounters that helped grow Gandhi as a leader, thinker, and social activist.
Has Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha been abused in independent India (particularly politicians deciding to go on a fast for anything and everything)? How relevant is the philosophy of Gandhi in India of today?
Yes, of course, politicians have made a mockery of Gandhian techniques of protest by their one-day fasts and their dharnas and rasta rokos. However, Gandhi’s ideas do in many ways remain relevant to India and the world. His principled opposition to violence, his promotion of inter-faith harmony, his precocious environmentalism, and his practice of an open and transparent politics are all worth studying, and perhaps emulating in some part, today.
Do you see any political party in India being close to the principles that Gandhi had espoused? Various politicians and political parties claim to speak in the name of Gandhi: the Congress because he was in that party for a very long time, Narendra Modi because he was also a Gujarati, the Aam Admi Party because its main leaders were, like Gandhi, professionals who became social activists. All these claims are dubious. The cronyism and corruption of the Congress is worlds removed from Gandhi or Gandhism; as is the megalomania and sectarianism of Mr Modi. As for the AAP, their claims to be Gandhian in inspiration are nullified by the negative nature of their politics, which is based so completely on carping attacks on other parties.
But there must be some people who still follow Gandhian principles?
The spirit of Gandhi animates many non-party social movements and groups. Remarkable Indians such as Chandi Prasad Bhatt, founder of the Chipko movement, and Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA, are outstanding exemplars of Gandhian practice. Other activists working away from the media gaze in the spheres of rural health, primary education and similar spheres are also deeply inspired by Gandhi. A flavour of how Gandhi lives on in civil society movements in India is captured in Rajni Bakshi’s excellent book Bapu Kuti.
In a recent interview you said “My fantasy is BJP without the RSS and the Congress without the Gandhis.” Do you see the country getting anywhere close to that fantasy?
Not immediately, but there are some slight signs and indications that my fantasy is perhaps a few small steps closer to being realized. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is clearly on its last legs. The charisma of the family is fading: fewer and fewer voters remember Indira or even Rajiv. Rahul Gandhi lacks ideas as well as energy. Many people in the Congress are exasperated with his lack of initiative and his penchant for making howlers. If the Congress does very badly in the next elections, then it will be hard for the family to assert its leadership in the manner it has been accustomed to in the past.
What about the BJP?
In organizational and ideological terms, the BJP remains closely tied to the RSS. But again, young voters have no time for the medievalist mind set of the RSS. Many of them are flocking to the BJP because of their disgust at the corruption of the Congress, not because of any attraction for the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. In my lifetime (I am now 55) I may not see my fantasy being fulfilled. But I hope the Indian experiment with democracy and pluralism extends into the lifetimes of my children, grandchildren, and beyond. So I am not so despairing!
In the first chapter of your book you write that “of all modern politicians and statesmen, only Gandhi is an authentically global figure.” Could you please elaborate on that?
Gandhi’s name is still invoked, often positively and sometimes negatively, all across the world, sixty-five years after his death. His ideas on non-violence, religious harmony, and environmental prudence are actively debated in countries he never even visited. No other 20th century leader, not Churchill, not Roosevelt, not Stalin or Lenin, has had anywhere this kind of salience or influence. That is why I maintain that Gandhi is the most interesting and important political figure of the modern world.
The interview originally appeared on on November 6, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

What Karnad just found out: India is a nation of holy cows

Vivek Kaul
Two-thirds of the way through singing Kolaveri Di, Dhanush sings a few words which you notice if you are the kind who listens to the lyrics of songs very carefully. He sings “cow-cow holy cow, I want to hear now”.
These few words can be used to best describe the situation which prevails after Girish Karnad said “Tagore was a great poet but a mediocre and second-rate playwright.” Not surprisingly the Bengali bhadralok are up in arms.
There are five holy cows that the bhadralok have and it’s best that people stay away from criticising or critiquing them. Here is the list.
Mohun Bagan is the best football club: This is not much of a holy cow now but in the eighties and till the mid nineties any criticism of this football club could have got you lynched. Then came ESPN-Star Sports and Bengal realised that their football is a slow motion version of the real football played in Europe.
Rossogulla/Sondesh is the best sweet: This can lead to minor battles especially if you have a bong girl friend who loves her food. She will never come around to appreciating the pleasures of eating Mysore Pak. Another version of this debate is whether the Hilsa is the best mach i.e. fish in the world?
Sourav Ganguly is the best cricketer: I realised how strong this holy cow was when in the late nineties India was struggling to find a good wicket keeper and a Bengali colleague of my father suggested that “Sourav se wicket keeping kyon nahi karata hai?(why don’t we get Sourav to keep wickets?” In a land of few heroes Sourav could do no wrong.
Manika Da is the best director: Manik Da was the daak naam or nickname of the great Satyajit Ray. I have watched almost all of what Ray directed and watching his movies has been a brilliant experience. But Pather Panchali isn’t my favourite Ray movie (Now did I do a Karnad here?).
In fact I loved the sequels Aparjito and Apur Sansar much more. My favourite Ray movies are the ones he made in the seventies. The Calcutta trilogy of Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) remain perennial favourites. And I can watch Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) over and over again.
Ray was a rare director whose movies were much better than the books and stories he based them on. Anyone who has read Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Pratidwandi and Aranyer Din Ratri and watched Ray’s movies based on the books would realise that. The same is true for Sankar’s Seemabadha and Jana Aranya, and Prem Chand’s short story Shatranj ke Khiladi. Also I am not getting into the debate of whether Ray’s Charulata was better than the original novel written by Rabindranath Tagore.
Nevertheless, a lot of what Ray directed after Hirok Rajar Deshe in 1980 was very mediocre and nowhere near his best. But I wouldn’t recommend you say anything like that in and around Kolkata.
Rabindranath Tagore is the foremost intellectual: This is the holiest of holy cows for the Bengali bhadralok. Tagore cannot be criticised. Any criticism of Tagore, reasonable and unreasonable, is totally unwelcome. Girish Karnad is finding that out now. A stream of Bengali intellectuals and politicians have queued up to criticise Karnad. The basic argument is that what does Karnad know of Bengal? Even the criticism on Twitter and Facebook has been scathing. A struggling actor who happens to be a Bengali had this to say on his Facebook page “Karnad calls The tagore a second rate playwright!!coming from a mediocre actor and a boring playwright..I have said it..!moving on..”
Another interesting comment that I came across on my Facebook page was “Even Poonam Pandey and Sherlyn Chopra know how to seek attention. Girish Karnad would do better in taking a lesson from them.”
The backlash on Karnad’s comments raises several questions. Is any creative person above criticism? Even Tagore. Also Tagore was not a one dimensioned intellectual. He was a poet. A novelist. A playwright. A musician and even a painter. His interests were not limited to one particular domain. But that does not mean he was the best at all the things he did. And that’s precisely the point that Karnad was trying to make.
As he said “He was a great poet certainly, one of our greatest. And he got the Nobel Prize in 1913 when most of our modern literature was still in the state of formation. His greatness as a poet is there, his greatness as a thinker is there… he wrote plays, he certainly was a pioneer in breaking away from the unexciting commercial plays…he didn’t direct great plays. The point is he was a mediocre playwright.”
And Karnad does know a thing or two about writing plays having written several plays himself. He also won the Jnapith award in 1998, which is the highest literary award conferred in India.
Tagore was a great poet. But whether he was a great musician, painter or playwright remains debatable? And this debate or discussion one cannot have with the Bengali bhadralok. As George Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity states “People’s understanding is inherently imperfect because they are a part of reality and a part cannot fully comprehend the whole.”But why blame only the Bengalis. India as a nation is full of holy cows who cannot be critiqued. And here are some of the bigger holy cows whose criticism can get you into trouble.
Narendra Modi is the best leader:  There are three ways to get people to read things on the internet in India. Criticise the Congress party and the UPA. Praise Narendra Modi (or NaMo as his fans like to call him). And the third and the best way is to criticise NaMo. That will unleash a barrage of negative comments on the website, with a lot of them bordering on abuse. But yes the website will get a huge number of hits, something that it has never seen before. The broader point being that any criticism or even an objective evaluation of his persona is immediately run down. But there are chinks even in NaMo’s armour starting with an abandoned wife and the fact that he doesn’t really come across as a team man and likes operating on his own most of the time.
Mahatma Gandhi: The father of the nation was a great man. But he had his weaknesses. The Mahatma did not have a great family life. And his eldest son Harilal converted to Islam. His opinions on sex for a family man were slightly weird. As an article in The Independent points out “It was no secret that Mohandas Gandhi had an unusual sex life. He spoke constantly of sex and gave detailed, often provocative, instructions to his followers as to how to they might best observe chastity. And his views were not always popular; “abnormal and unnatural” was how the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, described Gandhi’s advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls.”
But any discussion or debate which does not show Gandhi in positive light is likely to create trouble.
Jawahar Lal Nehru and his relationship with Edwina Mountbatten: As Ramachandra Guha wrote in The Hindua few years back “The Indian public in general, and the Indian press in particular, has shown a keen and perhaps excessive interest in the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. That they were intimate is not to be doubted — but did the bonds ever move from the merely emotional to the tellingly physical?”
Universal Studios was supposed to make a movie on the relationship but they later shelved the project. As The Telegraph reported “The Indian government had given permission for the movie, Indian Summer, starring Cate Blanchett and Hugh Grant, to be filmed on location there but only if physically intimate scenes were removed.” This is another holy cow which cannot be questioned.
Shivaji Maharaj: In the state of Maharashtra any critique of the great king who fought the Moghuls like no one else did can get you into a lot of trouble. As James Laine who wrote the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India found out a few years back. Those who wanted the book banned felt that the book insulted Shivaji. Those who read the book felt that it was not a book about Shivaji but more a book about how Shivaji’s legacy has been hijacked by various castes and communities in Maharashtra to further their own ends.
Sachin Tendulkar is the best cricketer:  This for a very long time was even holier than the holy cow. Any criticism of the great man was likely to attract trouble irrespective of the fact whether you were in Mumbai or Muradabad. But things have changed over the years and people are more open to the God being criticised. Nevertheless, any criticism of Sachin can get you a lot of abuse, as I found out when I wrote this.
Islam: Any criticism of the religion can create major trouble as Salman Rushdie found out. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was released on September 26, 1988 in the United Kingdom. Madhu Jain, a journalist working for India Today reviewed the book for the magazine. As she wrote in a recent column in the Openmagazine “It all began with my review of The Satanic Verses, published on 15th September 1988 in India Today­ (probably the first review of the novel.)…Unfortunately, the editor of the books pages of the magazine at the time, who later went on to edit a national daily, plucked some of the more volatile extracts from the novel—those about the Prophet’s wives—and inserted them into the book review. Not too long after the IFS bureaucrat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin read the excerpts (not the book as he admitted ) and demanded that The Satanic Versesbe banned. Protests erupted in India and Pakistan. In Karachi, a few protesters died when they were fired upon. It is believed that Ayatollah Khomeini watched this on television and ordered the fatwa.”
India became the first nation to ban the book on October 5, 1988, after Syed Shabbudin, a member of parliament, petitioned the government to ban the book. Rajiv Gandhi, the political novice that he was, banned the book immediately.  Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa on Feb 14, 1989, Valentine’s Day.. Rushdie had to go into hiding after that and his been unwelcome in India since then. He had to pull out of the Jaipur Literature Festival last year.
MF Hussain: This is an interesting story. Hussain had to live a large part of his later life in exile given the large number of court cases pending against him in various parts of the country for hurting the sentiments of Hindus through his paintings. This included drawing several Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. Those in his favour say that artists need to have their freedom of expression, which is true.
But let me reproduce a paragraph from a piece  that Shobhaa De wrote on him in The Times of India during his exile in Qatar. “Dressed in traditional Emirati gear, the painter is wearing socks , but no shoes. Mustafa, his handsome third son explains this is to respect local sensibilities regarding bare feet,” wrote De. Hussain had always walked bare foot but he was respecting the local sensibilities in Qatar and wearing socks. If he could respect local sensibilities in Qatar, couldn’t he do that in India as well? But any criticism of Hussain can get the so called intellectual class in Delhi and Mumbai ganging up against the person who dares to criticise Hussain.
The Gandhi family: During her peak any criticism of Indira Gandhi was unwelcome. Nayantara Sahgal, her first cousin, wrote a book Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power, which was   very critical account of Indira’s tenure as India’s Prime Minister. The book written in 1982 was only released in India earlier this year. This trend has continued and any criticism of the Gandhi family is largely unwelcome. Arvind Kejriwal recently broke this trend by taking on Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law headon.
Rajinikanth: Try criticising India’s highest paid actor anywhere south of the Vindhyas and see what happens. Manu Joseph the editor of Openwrote a column on the superstar in which he said “He has no talent, an unremarkable body, and has had no hair for much longer than we realise. When he puts his right elbow on his left palm and the left elbow on the right palm, he demands that everyone accepts it as dance. And his ability to toss a cigarette in the air and grab it with his mouth is attainable even to my mother. Have no doubts, even to Tamilians he looks grotesque in leather shirts and pants and previously unseen shoes. I have watched his films in the cheapest theatres in Madras and know exactly what happens when he makes his grand entry, boots first. The screams and whistles in the theatre are not the awe of respect, but an expression of love for a beloved clown. Nobody in those theatres knew why they were reacting in that manner to him.”
Almost all of what Joseph wrote is true but read the comments that followed his article to see how the people reacted to his critique of the star.
Ambedkar and reservation: BR Ambedkar and the reservation policy first initiated first by VP Singh and then carried forward by the United Progressive Alliance government is a bigger holy cow than even Rajinikanth. You might get away by critiquing Rajinikanth but expect no such mercy if you get around to criticising Ambedkar or the reservation policy.  Arun Shourie, wrote a book titled Worshipping False Gods in which he challenged. Ambedkar’s contribution to Indian Independence. As Shourie wrote “There is not one instance, not one single, solitary instance in which Ambedkar participated in any activity connected with that struggle to free the country. Quite the contrary–at every possible turn he opposed the campaigns of the National Movement, at every setback to the Movement he was among those cheering the failure.”
Of course this did not go down well with people. As Rediff reported “Some Congress MPs did, however, burn copies of the book outside Parliament House, and called for a ban.”
The Holy Cow: Yes. The holy cow is the ultimate holy cow in the country. And every few years close to the elections the issue is resurrected with demands to ban their slaughter. Ironically enough India is set to emerge as the largest exporter of beef in the world.
The moral of the story is that India as a country has too many holy cows that one cannot critique and criticise. We make heroes, we worship them but we never get around to analysing them. As the Channel V ad went in the good old days, we are like this only.
The article first appeared on on November 10, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])