It is that time of the year when newspapers, magazines and websites get around to making top 10 lists on various things in the year that was. So here is my list for the top 10 books in the Indian non fiction category (The books appear in a random order).
Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles – Ruchir Sharma (Penguin/Allen Lane -Rs 599)
The book is based around the notion that sustained economic growth cannot be taken for granted.
Only six countries which are classified as emerging markets by the western world have grown at the rate of 5 percent or more over the last 40 years. Only two of these countries, i.e. Taiwan and South Korea, have managed to grow at 5 percent or more for the last 50 years.
The basic point being that the economic growth of countries falters more often than not. “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence,” Sharma writes in the book.
When Sharma said this in what was the first discussion based around the book on an Indian television channel, Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the deputy chairman of the planning commission, did not agree. Ahulwalia, who was a part of the discussion, insisted that a 7 percent economic growth rate was a given. Turned out it wasn’t. The economic growth in India has now slowed down to around 5.5 percent.
Sharma got his timing on the India economic growth story fizzling out absolutely right.
The last I met him in November he told me that the book had sold around 45,000 copies in India. For a non fiction book which doesn’t tell readers how to lose weight those are very good numbers. (You can read Sharma’s core argument here).
In the Company of a Poet – Gulzar In Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir(Rainlight/Rupa -Rs 495)
There is very little quality writing available on the Hindi film industry. Other than biographies on a few top stars nothing much gets written. Gulzar is one exception to this rule. There are several biographies on him, including one by his daughter Meghna. But all these books barely look on the creative side of him. What made Sampooran Singh Kalra, Gulzar? How did he become the multifaceted personality that he did?
There are very few individuals who have the kind of bandwidth that Gulzar does. Other than directing Hindi films, he has written lyrics, stories, screenplays as well as dialogues for them. He has been a documentary film maker as well, having made documentaries on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is also a poet and a successful short story writer. On top of all this he has translated works from Bangla and Marathi into Urdu/Hindi.
In this book, Nasreen Munni Kabir talks to Gulzar and the conversations bring out how Sampooran Singh Kalra became Gulzar. Gulzar talks with great passion about his various creative pursuits in life. From writing the superhit kajrare to what he thinks about Tagore’s English translations. If I had a choice of reading only one book all through this year, this would have to be it.
Durbar – Tavleen Singh (Hachette – Rs 599)
Some of the best writing on the Hindi film industry that I have ever read was by Sadat Hasan Manto. Manto other than being the greatest short writer of his era also wrote Hindi film scripts and hence had access to all the juicy gossip. The point I am trying to make is that only an insider of a system can know how it fully works. But of course he may not be able to write about it, till he is a part of the system. Manto’s writings on Hindi films and its stars in the 1940s only happened once he had moved to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. When he became an outsider he chose to reveal all that he had learnt as an insider.
Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is along similar lines. As a good friend of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, during the days when both of them had got nothing to do with politics, she had access to them like probably no other journalist did. Over the years she fell out first with Sonia and then probably with Rajiv as well.
Durbar does have some juicy gossip about the Gandhi family in the seventies. My favourite is the bit where Sonia and Maneka Gandhi had a fight over dog biscuits. But it would be unfair to call it just a book of gossip as some Delhi based reviewers have.
Tavleen Singh offers us some fascinating stuff on Operation Bluestar and the chamchas surrounding the Gandhi family and how they operated. The part that takes the cake though is the fact that Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife were very close to Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, despite Sonia’s claims now that she barely knew them. If there is one book you should be reading to understand how the political city of Delhi operates and why that has landed India in the shape that it has, this has to be it.
The Sanjay Story – Vinod Mehta (Harper Collins – Rs 499).Technically this book shouldn’t be a part of the list given that it was first published in 1978 and has just been re-issued this year. But this book is as important now as it was probably in the late 1970s, when it first came out.
Mehta does a fascinating job of unravelling the myth around Sanjay Gandhi and concludes that he was the school boy who never grew up.
“Intellectually Sanjay had never encountered complexity. He was an I.S.C and at that educational level you are not likely to learn (through your educational training) the art of resolving involved problems… He himself confessed in 1976 that possibly his strongest intellectual stimulation came from comics,” writes Mehta.
The book goes into great detail about the excesses of the emergency era. From nasbandi to the censors taking over the media, it says it all. Sanjay was not a part of the government in anyway but ruled the country. And things are similar right now!
Patriots and Partisans – Ramachandra Guha (Penguin/Allen Lane – Rs 699)
The trouble with most Delhi based Indian intellectuals is that they have very strong ideologies. There sensitivities are either to the extreme left or the extreme right, and those in the middle are essentially stooges of the Congress party. Given that, India has very few intellectuals who are liberal in the strictest of the terms. Ramachandra Guha is one of them, his respect for Nehru and his slight left leanings notwithstanding. And what of course helps is the fact that he lives in Bangalore and not in Delhi.
His new book Patriots and Partisans is a collection of fifteen essays which largely deal with all that has and is going wrong in India. One of the finest essays in the book is titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri. This essay on its own is worth the price of the book. Another fantastic essay is titled Hindutva Hate Mail where Guha writes about the emails he regularly receives from Hindutva fundoos from all over the world.
His personal essays on the Oxford University Press, the closure of the Premier Book Shop in Bangalore and the Economic and Political Weekly are a pleasure to read. If I was allowed only to read two non fiction books this year, this would definitely be the second book. (Read my interview with Ramachandra Guha here).
Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India – Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya (Vintage Books Random House India – Rs 399)
This little book running into 185 pages was to me the surprise package of this year. The book is along the lines of international bestsellers like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist. It uses economic theory and borrows heavily from the emerging field of behavioural economics to explain why India and Indians are the way they are.
Other than trying to explain things like why are Indians perpetually late or why do Indian politicians prefer wearing khadi in public and jeans in their private lives, the book also delves into fairly serious issues.
Right from explaining why so many people in Mumbai die while crossing railway lines to explaining why Nehru just could not see the obvious before the 1962 war with China, the book tries to explain a broad gamut of issues.
But the portion of the book that is most relevant right now given the current protests against the rape of a twenty year old woman in Delhi, is the one on the ‘missing women’ of India. Women in India are killed at birth, after birth and as they grow up is the point that the book makes.
My only complain with the book is that I wish it could have been a little longer. Just as I was starting to really enjoy it, the book ended. (Read my interview with Vivek Dehejia here)
Taj Mahal Foxtrot – The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age – Naresh Fernandes (Roli Books – Rs 1295)
Bombay (Mumbai as it is now known as) really inspires people who lives here and even those who come from the outside to write about it. Only that should explain the absolutely fantastic books that keep coming out on the city (No one till date has been able to write a book as grand as Shantaram set in Delhi or a book with so many narratives like Maximum City set in Bangalore).
This year’s Bombay book written by a Mumbaikar has to be Naresh Fernades’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot.
The book goes into the fascinating story of how jazz came to Bombay. It talks about how the migrant musicians from Goa came to Bombay to make a living and became its most famous jazz artists. And they had delightful names like Chic Chocolate and Johnny Baptist. The book also goes into great detail about how many black American jazz artists landed up in Bombay to play and take the city by storm. The grand era that came and went.
While growing up I used to always wonder why did Hindi film music of the 1950s and 1960s sound so Goan. And turns out the best music directors of the era had music arrangers who came belonged to Goa. The book helped me set this doubt to rest.
The Indian Constitution – Madhav Khosla (Oxford University Press – Rs 195)
I picked up this book with great trepidation. I knew that the author Madhav Khosla was a 27 year old. And I did some back calculation to come to the conclusion that he must have been probably 25 years old when he started writing the book. And that made me wonder, how could a 25 year old be writing on a document as voluminous as the Indian constitution is?
But reading the book set my doubts to rest, proving once again, that age is not always related to good scholarship. What makes this book even more remarkable is the fact that in 165 pages of fairly well spaced text, Khosla gives us the history, the present and to some extent the future of the Indian constitution.
His discussion on caste being one of the criteria on the basis of which backwardness is determined in India makes for a fascinating read. Same is true for the section on the anti defection law that India has and how it has evolved over the years.
Lucknow Boy – Vinod Mehta (Penguin – Rs 499)
One of my favourite jokes on Lucknow goes like this. An itinerant traveller gets down from the train on the Lucknow Railway station and lands into a beggar. The beggar asks for Rs 5 to have a cup of tea. The traveller knows that a cup of tea costs Rs 2.50. He points out the same to the beggar.
“Aap nahi peejiyega kya? (Won’t you it be having it as well?),” the beggar replies. The joke reveals the famous tehzeeb of Lucknow.
Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy starts with his childhood days in Lucknow and the tehzeeb it had and it lost over the years. The first eighty pages the book are a beautiful account of Mehta’s growing up years in the city and how he and his friends did things with not a care in the world. Childhood back then was about being children, unlike now.
The second part of the book has Mehta talking about his years as being editor of various newspapers and magazines. This part is very well written and has numerous anecdotes like any good autobiography should, but I liked the book more for Mehta’s description of his carefree childhood than his years dealing with politicians, celebrities and other journalists.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo (Penguin – Rs 499)
As I said a little earlier Mumbai inspires books like no other city in India does. A fascinating read this year has been Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Indians are typical apprehensive about foreigners writing on their cities. But some of the best Mumbai books have been written by outsiders. Gregory David Roberts who wrote Shantaram arrived in Mumbai having escaped from an Australian prison. There is no better book on Mumbai than Shantaram. The same is true about Suketu Mehta and Maximum City. Mehta was a Bombay boy who went to live in America and came back to write the book that he did.
Boo’s book on Mumbai is set around a slum called Annawadi. She spent nearly three years getting to know the people well enough to write about them. Hence stories of individuals like Kalu, Manju, Abdul, Asha and Sunil, who live in the slum come out very authentic. The book more than anything else I have read on Mumbai ( with the possible exception of Shantaram) brings out the sheer grit that it takes to survive in a city like Mumbai.
So that was my list for what I think were the top 10 Indian non fiction books for the year. One book that you should definitely avoid reading is Chetan Bhagat’s What Young India Wants. Why would you want to read a book which says something like this?
Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does… In this technology-driven age, do you really think America doesn’t have the information or capability to launch an attack against India? But they don’t want to attack us. They have much to gain from our potential market for American products and cheap outsourcing. Well let’s outsource some of our defence to them, make them feel secure and save money for us. Having a rich, strong friend rarely hurt anyone.
And if that is not enough let me share what Bhagat thinks would happen if women weren’t around. “There would be body odour, socks on the floor and nothing in the fridge to eat.” Need I say anything else?
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 26, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
Late last night while flipping television channels I saw TV Mohandas Pai, a former CFO and HR Head of Infosys, advocating ‘chemical castration’ for rapists. A leading television anchor also ran his show yesterday around the theme and instigated his celebrity panellists in trying to get them to advocate chemical castration for rapists in India. That is the problem with arguments that emerge due to the heat of the moment. My heart is also thinking along similar lines. It even goes to the extent of telling me that the rapists should be stoned to death. But my head tells me even that won’t make a difference.
Any solution is as good as the system that executes it. In a country like India if anything like chemical castration for committing rapes becomes the order of the day and the police are pushed to solve rape cases faster, what are they likely to do? More often than not they will get hold of some random guy (the homeless, the slum dweller or probably just about the first person they can get their eyes on) beat the shit out of him and get him to confess to it. How do we ensure something like that does not happen? There is absolutely no way to do that.
The other point here is that the police and the judiciary the way they have evolved in India cater more to the rich and powerful rather than to those who ‘need’ the system to work for them. How do we ensure that solutions like ‘chemical castration’ will not be abused by the rich and the powerful?
Someone very close to me for the last two years has been caught up fighting a false case registered against him in New Delhi. It takes is a bribe of Rs 15,000-20,000 to the local thanedar to get a false first information report (FIR) registered. And it takes Rs 500-1000 to the babu at the court to ensure that the case does not come up for hearing, every time it is scheduled. And this in a place like Delhi, which is the capital of the country. Imagine what must be happening in small towns and villages across India? The police in this country have sold out lock, stock and barrel and they shouldn’t be given any further ways of creating more problems for the citizens of this country.
What is interesting is the speed with which Delhi Police has acted in this case and managed to round up most of the rapists. The Delhi High Court has taken suo motu cognizance of the gang-rape and asked the Delhi Police to explain how the offence remained undetected.
Yes the citizens of this country are up in arms against what has happened but that I don’t believe is the real reason why the police and the judiciary have acted with such speed. The only reason for showing the speed that the system has is that the rapists come from the lower strata of the society. They are the ordinary citizens of this country.
As The Times of India reports “The accused have been identified as Ram Singh (33), resident of Ravidas Camp at Sector 3, R K Puram (driver of the bus, DL1PB-0149), his brother Mukesh, 24, (who was driving during the gang rape), Vinay Sharma, 20, (an assistant gym instructor in the area), Pawan Gupta, 18, (fruit seller), Akshay Thakur, 26, (bus cleaner) and another cleaner, Raju, 25.”
If the accused had been the sons of the rich and powerful the entire administration would have by now been working towards getting their names cleared.
The molestation charges against SPS Rathore, an inspector general of police were never proved. He got away with more than a little help from his friends in the government. Manu Sharma, son of Congress politician Venod Sharma, was first acquitted for the murder of model Jessica Lal. With the hue and cry that followed the judgement was overturned and Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2009, Sharma was allowed a parole of 30 days to attend to his sick mother and other matters. His mother was later found attending public functions and Sharma was found partying at a nightclub in Delhi.
Matinee idol Salman Khan had rammed his Toyota Land Cruiser into a bakery in Bandra on September 28,2002, killing one person and injuring four others. The case has dragged on for ten years now. Recently, cop turned lawyer-activist YP Singh revealed that the “Police had deliberately not taken the job of issuing summons seriously. Also, Salman was absent 82 times when summoned by the court.” This is what the rich and powerful in this country can do. The police is at their beck and call. Loads of rape cases go nowhere because the rich and the powerful who are the accused simply bribe their way through the system. When the accused go unpunished or justice takes a long time to be delivered, it makes rape a way of life for Indian men.
That brings me to my final point, the male:female sex ratio in India. As Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya write in Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India “In 2011, the Census estimates that there were 914 girls for every 1,000 boys for the ages 0-6. This is even worse than in 2001, when there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys. More pointedly, this ratio is the worst ever since the country’s independence in 1947…In nature, with no sex selection the observed sex ratio is approximately 1,020 males for every 1,000 females.”
What this tells us is that as a country we have a ‘son’ preference. And that leads us to sex-selective abortion and even female infanticide. In simple English we kill our girls before and just after they are born. Delhi and the neigbouring state Haryana have among the lowest sex ratios in the country. And it just doesn’t end there. Debraj Ray and Siwan Anderson have carried out research to suggest that most women who go missing in India do so as adults than at birth or as children. That explains India’s highly skewed sex ratio in favour of men.
Dehejia and Subramanya talk about the research of Ray and Anderson in their book. As they write “They show that about 12 per cent of women in India are missing at birth: they are probably missing due to sex selective abortion or infanticide. Another 25 per cent perish in childbirth. But that’s only a little more than a third of the total. Another 18 per cent go missing during their reproductive period, which picks up among other things deaths during childbirth. But a massive 45 per cent of the total number of missing women go missing in adulthood, something which by definition cannot have anything to do with sex selection.”
Anderson and Ray come up with some more information. “They find that it’s only in Punjab where the majority of missing women are at birth: in fact it’s as high as 60 per cent of the excess female mortality in the state…Two other states show up as having a majority of of their women missing at birth or in childhood (before the age of 15) and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that they’re Haryana and Rajasthan.”
Hence, we kill our women before birth, after birth and keep killing them as they grow up. In a society like this it is not surprising that men grow up with terribly demented minds and commit heinous rapes like the one in Delhi.
People are appalled. And they want instant justice. Chemical castration. Public hanging. Stoned to death. Anything will do. But what has happened is sheer reflection of the way India has evolved. Women being raped day in and day out is a story of Indian evolution.
And evolution cannot be undone.
So we might take to the streets to protest.
Have candle night vigils.
Protest on Twitter and Facebook.
Call for chemical castration.
Face water cannons from the police.
Sing ballads against the government.
Breakdown and cry while speaking in the Rajya Sabha.
But things won’t change.
As Arvind Kejriwal keeps reminding us “poore system ko badalna padega”. And that of course is easier said than done.
And in a day or two when our conscience is more at peace with itself, we will go back to living our lives like we always have. Because we are like this only.
Meanwhile women will continue to be raped.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 20, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
The India growth story as it was originally envisaged to be, is more or less over. Days when 8-9% growth was taken for a given are gone. The gross domestic product (GDP) for the period July 1 to September 30, 2012, grew by 5.3%. GDP growth is a measure of economic growth.
Further, what is true about India, is also true about China. As Ruchir Sharma head of Emerging Market Equities and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management told me in a recent interaction “As far as China was concerned the growth expectations were too high out of China. People kept expecting China to grow at 9-10%. But there has been a reset of expectations. This year the growth rate is going to be 7.5% officially. Some suggestions have been made that the actual number would be lower than that if you look at the corresponding data.”
As was the case in the past, expectations are that China will continue to grow at a much faster rate than India. To me this raises the question whether countries with authoritarian governments, or countries with lower levels of democracy or even countries run by dictators, do better during the initial few decades of economic growth than countries which are democracies?
Or to put it simply is India’s democratic form of government slowing down its economic growth? This is a question that makes for engaging discussion in the business circles of Mumbai and the power circles of Delhi. Would have done better if we were more like China or Singapore, than the way we actually are, is a question which is often asked?
Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya discuss this question in some detail in their new book Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India(Random House India, Rs 399).
As they write “When you look back on the history of the twentieth century – in fact through human history – you notice periods of very high economic growth are associated with autocratic, not democratic regimes. Just think of Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet or the ‘miracle’ economies of East Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Starting in the 1960s these four economies went from being poor to being rich in just over a generation. The first one was a British colony, the second an oligarchy, and the latter two essentially one-party states. It’s true that Chile, Taiwan and South Korea democratised – but that was after they’d experienced a generation of rapid growth, not before.”
As Dehejia told me in an earlier interview “You need to have some sort of political control, you cannot have a free for all, and get marshalling of resources and savings rate and investment rate, that high growth demands.” And this is more possible in an authoritarian regime than in a democracy.
The same stands true for China now. It has had a generation of fast economic growth without any democracy. The country is ruled by one party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Richard McGregor, the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers told me in an earlier interview “The CCP is basically a political machine, as well as being a permanent governing party. As a political machine, it does not consider that its internal mechanisms should be open to public view. The top leaders are unveiled to the country at the end of five years and very little is revealed in the process. After the 2007 Congress, the nine men – and they are all men – walk out onto the stage, all wearing dark suits and all but one wearing a red tie; they all displayed slick, jet-black pompadours (a style of haircut), a product of the uniform addiction to regular hair dyeing of senior Chinese politicians; and they had all worked their up through the same system for all their lives.” Conformity is the name of the game.
The Western nations which grew at a very fast rate towards the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century also had very little democracy back then. As Dehejia and Subramanya point out “All of the rich countries of the West achieved rapid growth and economic development when they weren’t democracies. Just think of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. While it’s true that Britain was a parliamentary democracy it came with one catch, the fact that most people couldn’t vote. Franchise restrictions based on property ownership meant that the poor and the lower middle class were prevented from voting.”
The same stands true about the United States of America as well, the biggest economy in the world right now. “Britain was really an oligarchy, not a democracy, and so too was the US and every other Western country that industrialised and got rich.. The US, for example, legally enfranchised the African-Americans after their emancipation from slavery, but this was ‘offset’ by franchise restrictions that meant most Southern blacks couldn’t participate in the political process until the civil write movement of the 1960s. And let’s not forget that women didn’t get the vote in all of these Western countries till very late – well into the twentieth century in many cases,” the authors point out.
India on the other hand was a unique case. As Dehejia told me in an earlier interview “The India story is unique. We are the only large emerging economy to have emerged as a fully fledged democracy the moment we were born as a post-colonial state and that is an incredibly daring thing to do.”
This despite the fact that the Constituent Assembly which drafted the Indian Constitution had been elected under a very limited franchise by 5 to 10% of the Indians at the top of social and the So has Indian economic growth suffered because we are a democracy? Dehejia and Subramanya point out the research of William Easterly, an economics professor at the New York University. “The historical data on growth over time in many different countries that Easterly has analysed show that if you’re a fast growing country then there’s a 90 per cent chance that you’re an autocracy. The problem is that you should be asking the reverse question: if you’re an autocracy, what’s the chance that you’ll be a growth success? The answer to that question is an underwhelming 10 per cent?”
What that means is that fast growing countries are almost inevitably autocracies but not all autocracies are fast growing countries. An excellent recent example is Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe who now functions like a dictator. “What was once a break basket has now become a basket case,” write the authors. The continent of Africa is full of authoritarian regimes which have made a mess of their respective economies.
Closer to home under General Zia-Ul-Haq, Pakistan first turned into an Islamic state and now has turned into a full fledged terrorist state. The horrors that Pol Pot perpetuated as the dictator of Cambodia are well known.
And the biggest example of an authoritarian regime gone wrong was Adolf Hitler. Hitler first rode to power on popular discontent and then used a lot of Keynesian economics ( which John Maynard Keynes was still in the process of formulating) to create economic growth by building roads and then lead his country into a disastrous World War.
So yes, fast growing countries are authoritarian regimes but as explained above things can go terribly wrong as well under these regimes. Hence, we really don’t know which way will the authoritarian regimes go, towards economic growth or towards social disaster.
But then why does the myth of authoritarian regimes always creating economic growth prevail? This is because of what is known as the ‘availability heuristic’. “This refers to the fact that human beings tend to attach too high a probability to an event that’s very vivid in our minds. A classic example is natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes. Because they’re splashed all over the news on the rare occasions they do occur, people always think they’re far more likely than they really are,” write the authors. “Compiling data from news stories in the New York Times from 1960 to 2008, Easterly shows that successful autocracies are heavily over-reported compared to failed autocracies. Compared to a little under 6,000 stories on failed autocracies and about 15,000 on those in the middle, there were a staggering number of stories – more than 40,000 on autocratic successes. So if China has been on your mind rather than Zimbabwe you’re not entirely to blame,” they add.
Hence, India’s democratic form of government may impact its economic growth to some extent but it saves us from other problems as well. “What the data do show is that autocracies have many more highs and lows than democracies: they tend to be spectacularly successful or unmitigated disasters. Democracies generally are found somewhere in the middle. India, for example, hasn’t yet achieved Chinese-style double digit growth rates, but nor has it ever had negative double-digit growth as in Zimbabwe,” write Dehejia and Subramanya.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 3, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])