Saturday, December 30, 2017

Reading in 2017

Cuckold - Kiran Nagarkar

It baffles me that Kiran Nagarkar doesn’t get the coverage that other Indian authors of English get. For me, Cuckold, is right up there with Midnight’s Children.

“Being in the right has got nothing to do with courage or exceptional bravery. The forces of evil will fight just as enthusiastically or fiercely as the armies of righteousness.”

Everybody Lies - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Reading) 

Only 7% of the people who started Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow are believed to have finished it. That number for Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is 3%. How do we know this? Not through surveys, but the number of highlights people make while reading these books on Kindle. Everybody Lies tries to understand the human psyche through a surprisingly rich and revealing source, out collective online behaviour.

The Lost River - Michael Danino

Marking the one time that actual history agreed with most WhatsApp forwards on the topic, Danino comes to the conclusion that Sarasvati was an actual river that flowed through the northern plains, and its drying up could have shaped our destiny in a profound way.

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

Couldn’t get past the first few pages of The Buried Giant but this one was unputdownable.
“I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know - Joseph Romm

In the age of trump and similar bozos ascending everywhere to positions of civilizational influence, I wish I could somehow make this book compulsory for everyone.

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent - Pranay Lal

This book traces the journey of the Indian tectonic plate from its separation from Gondwana to its current uncomfortable union with the European plate. Lal so intimately brings to life the history of this land that at various points while reading the book I wondered why we haven’t cordoned off the entire subcontinent and declared it one mega museum.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow - Yuval Noah Harari

It may not count as a scholarly work, but I found Homo Deus to be incredibly though-provoking in so many of the disciplines it tackles.

Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor

Wrote a more detailed post on this one.

The Periodic Table - Primo Levi

Last year I fell in love with Primo Levi and the romance continued in 2017. In The Periodic Table Levi combines his musings on science and otherwise in the most delectable manner.

“[T]he chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidotes to Fascism … because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness like the radio and newspapers.”

Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth - Audrey Truschke

It’s not a coincidence that I’ve read so much Indian history these last two years when there has been such a broadside on historical facts. I almost feel like it’s every liberal’s duty to educate himself to counter the relentless rewriting of history that’s been happening in our country.

“In reality Aurangzeb pursued no overarching agenda vis-à-vis Hindus within his state. ‘Hindus’ of the day often did not even label themselves as such and rather prioritized a medley of regional, sectarian, and caste identities (for example, Rajput, Maratha, Brahmin, Vaishnava). As many scholars have pointed out, the word ‘Hindu’ is Persian, not Sanskrit, and only became commonly used self-referentially during British colonialism.”
Other books that I enjoyed:

...and the one that didn't make much of an impact.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Camping in Yak country

We just returned from a trek to the Goechala pass in the Khangchendzonga national park in Sikkim. In a trek that packed so much goodness - breathtaking views of the Himalayas, exotic birds, an intense football game at 16k ft above sea level, night skies to kill for, fantastic crew and companions, the best camp food I’ve eaten - it would normally be hard to pick a favourite half hour, but strangely, in this one I can.

On the 6th morning of the trek we summited the highest point on the trail and returned to our campsite, Lamuney, which is in a narrow valley sandwiched between near-vertical rock faces on the west and a patch of shrub jungle and mountains on the east. Due north, the world’s third highest peak, Khangchendzonga towers over the campsite. A stream flows from the northern direction through the camp, and a walking trail runs right next to it. Our tents were pitched on either side of the walking path. Just after lunch-time, when most of us were napping in our tents we heard some commotion outside.
The crew were excited about a flock of Himalayan Blue Sheep approaching directly towards us. The reason for these shy animals walking uncharacteristically towards humans was directly behind them. The sheep were making way for a herd of Yaks that were headed in our direction too. When the blue sheep found themselves too close to us they waded off into the shrub jungle, but not before a few moments of indecision.

They started off as details on a magnificent backdrop but soon the herd of Yaks arrived within ten metres of our tents and filled the frame with their imposing bulk. After the initial excitement of getting to photograph them from such close range passed, we realised we were locked in a tie. The yaks were unsure about how to go past us and we had no idea how, or whether, to react. So we stood there staring at each other. The Alpha male in the herd tried to resolve the awkwardness with some territorial displays, such as kicking the earth, and head-bumping some nearby mound. The females were a little more on edge, probably because they were protective of their lone calf, which, oblivious to the inter-species standoff, was running around bullying the blue sheep. A tentative mock charge by one of the females reminded us we were firmly the underdogs in this equation. Only the confidence of our sherpas allowed us to stand there for as long as we did. Eventually we got into our tents trusting that the Yaks would go past our camp. Over the next tense couple of minutes we could sense the half-ton giants saunter past us, mere inches across the thin walls of our tents.

Over dinner that evening we couldn’t stop talking about our conference with the yaks. I guess the staring match had added to the adrenaline already released from that morning’s hike. It’s strange how the unanticipated moments in a travel are the ones that stick the hardest in one’s memory. And as unanticipated moments go, a yak face-off is as absurd as it gets.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Farm Diary - Fauna

Krishna, our caretaker,  had come to the farm to collect mangoes early this morning and had noticed that a string of trees next to our farm had mysteriously shed their mangoes overnight. While surveying the fruits strewn on the ground he had noticed the unmistakable foot prints of elephants. Flustered, he had rushed back home, not wanting to risk a confrontation with the giants if they still happened to be around.

He returned later in the day and could discern paw prints of at least three separate individuals (he explained the difference between the marks but it escaped my untrained eye). The prints suggested that the elephants had come all the way up to our fence, and had turned around.  This was our closest brush with wildlife. A few months ago, on a trek to a mountain behind our farm, my friends and I had seen some carnivore's dung; our best guess was that it was a leopard's. The villagers tell tales of ferocious sloth bears that live in the forests behind. All I had seen were rabbits, mice and the occasional boar. Until today! While walking through the brush this snake slithered past us a mere 2-3 feet away. Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with snakes to identify the species, but my best guess is that it didn't look like any of the poisonous varieties that inhabit our country.

Snakes under our trees and elephants right across the fence. Our next camping trip, I have a feeling, is going to feel a lot more exciting!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Turtles of Rushikulya

Nearly three decades ago, a turtle researcher walked the coasts of Odisha as part of his work on the Olive Ridleys that nest in this region. His travels took him to an obscure village near where the river Rushikulya meets the sea. He recruited a 13-yr old, Rabindranath Sahu, to assist him in his research. The boy had been used to the turtles visiting his home once a year but hadn’t paid much heed to them. In that momentous spring spent with the researcher the lad became aware of the unique role the beaches around him played. In the manner in which destiny is thrust on some people he was to become an unwitting conservationist and, at least in my view, a hero.

Turtles have been coming to this coast probably longer than humans have inhabited this area, and for as long as they existed together, people and turtles honorably shared the space. Developments in the last century upset the equilibrium and affected every stage of the turtle life cycle: trawlers that replaced traditional boats decimated adult turtles, nylon fishing nets - even discarded ones - trapped a lot of the hatchlings and caused them to die on the beaches, and finally as humans started seeing everything in nature as an economic resource, turtle eggs became fair game too. A lot has improved since Mr Sahu’s initiation into turtle conservation. Trawlers are restricted in breeding and hatching seasons and people no longer dig out turtle eggs. This year, nearly 4 lakh females arrived on these beaches to lay their eggs, a high watermark since some sort of record-keeping started a few decades ago. Of course, not all of the success is attributable to Mr. Sahu, but he has managed something that is, maybe, the hardest part of conservation: he won his people over and made them aware of their special place in this biospheric drama that spans continents.
Yet the balance is still fragile and the turtles face a lot of dangers. Both adults and hatchlings still get caught in fishing nets. Eggs in the loose sand are easy pickings for stray dogs. Turtle hatchlings, which are believed to rely on light from celestial bodies to orient themselves, get thrown off by sources of artificial light that dot the beaches now. Many of the hatchlings spend their reserve energy walking in the direction away from water and end up dying. Habitat loss continues, and there’s always the spectre of mindless “development” that hangs around everywhere in the third world, that could decimate populations.

For now, the scenes on the beach are heart-warming. Sahu and his merry men walk the sands guarding the nests and cleaning the beach of discarded nets and debris. The locals - mostly kids and villagers - participate too, rescuing trapped hatchlings and helping them on their way to the sea. All this is thanks mostly to Mr. Sahu’s proselytising efforts. He carpet bombs his message to the kids in the area, spending a lot of his time and even some of his money in breeding successors for his work. And just like with the species he is protecting, if one in a thousand of his eggs hatch, the beautiful annual drama on these shores will continue.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Our national jester is known to tweet the most inane thoughts. This time was no different.

While still lamenting C-bag’s philistine ways, I was thinking of the answer to the question of “What do historians do?” and it struck me that I know so little about the process of how history is compiled. At the time, I had filed in my mental cupboard somewhere the wish to come back and learn about that process. My curiosity was finally addressed by Charles Allen’s Ashoka.

For someone who now holds such a prominent place in the pantheon of our past rulers, Ashoka was relatively unknown in our mainstream culture till nearly the beginning of the 19th century. Ashoka describes the painstaking incremental process of fitting together discoveries that eventually converged into the view we now have of that complex emperor. This book is as much about Ashoka as the historical process. For me it was fascinating how multi-disciplinary in nature History really is; numismatics, archaeology, theology, linguistics, all come to the fore. Above all, I found the palaeography of Pali to be the most remarkable aspect of the unlocking of Ashoka’s story. As we developed our understanding of Pali (along with the deciphering of the Brahmi script and the Prakrit language) our picture of Ashoka and his ideas kept getting richer. There were all sorts of personalities that played a part; travellers from China, kings of Sri Lanka, monks of Tibet. Above all, our white masters took time out between all the exploitation for the pursuit of knowledge about a foreign country. I’m really grateful they did that.

In a country as big as ours I’m certain there are still pieces of the jigsaw waiting to add details to the stories we know. Think about it; millennia of unbroken civilisation! Every inch of our current land most have a story or dozen to tell. That brings me to the tweet I mentioned at the top of the post. I’m just not sure enough of us are interested in unearthing them, or if enough of our kids even know it is an option to be a historian, and even when they do, if there are avenues to pursue that vocation. We’re all too busy trying to get into IITs or sweating it out in B-schools turning ourselves into anonymous generalists. I do hope that once we get into higher income brackets as a nation we’ll find the inspiration to devote a greater proportion of our resources in learning more about our incredible past.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Scrub Jungles Around Hampi

Our guide on the safari through Daroji sanctuary pointed at this Painted Sandgrouse from just about 3-4 metres away. It still took me a full two minutes to spot this beautiful male.

Once I located it, I couldn't believe I let something this striking escape me. This uncanny camouflage perfected over millenia of natural selection seems to be a primary defence mechanism. This individual was so confident of its ability to blend in that it stayed motionless even though we had got to within an arm's length of him (without we realizing it, of course). Once he -yes, they are sexually dimorphic- did figure out that we had spotted him he used his other defensive technique- he sprang out of his squat and took off at an enormous speed. Before my eyes could focus he had dived in and become one with the earth again.

That seems to be a common trick with terrestrial birds. I've seen Nightjars use that method - trust your camouflage but have a backup plan. More than a handful of times I've been startled by the heavy flight of bushquails who took off from almost near my feet with me having no idea that they were there.

Our trip to Daroji was full of such finds. A painted spurfowl that blended in into the red soil, fledling Eagle owls on the rock face of a canal wall, rock agamas that seemed like extensions of rocks they were sitting on. I remember another not-so-popular protected scrub near Chitradurga, Jogi Matti, that seemed to have a tale to tell in every square metre too. Yet, both these places don't seem to woo enough tourists; in both cases the staff outnumbered the visitors. We seem to have an inherent bias, surely reinforced by marketing, to associate 'Nature' with only places that are evergreen, but these dry environs have their own rich stories. Just like with the Sandgrouse, though, if you're not looking out for them you'll walk past without finding them.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Was watching the farewell speech, and realised the Obama groupie in me is still alive. I'm going to miss him.

I often wonder about how Obama's legacy will age. He didn't really deserve the Nobel prize. He didn't do as much as the heady days of 2008 promised. Gitmo is still on and troops are still in Afghanistan. A lot of his fragile wins, achieved through executive action, may be rolled back by the strange man that succeeds him.

And yet, on so many issues - global warming, same-sex marriage, race relations, universal healthcare - he was, in my opinion, so far on the right side of history, I predict that even though we'll see an undermining of his impact in the short run, the world will come around to giving him his due. Everything else apart, his effortless charm, humour, decency and kindness do have that timelessnesses about them. He may have made those qualities cool again. That part of the legacy may be safe after all. And that may be the only sort of legacy that matters in the end.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Reading in 2016

The decreased commute time this year that came with moving to an office closer to home had one more benefit; my reading output. World War 2 continued to dominate my reading this year. Each of these books about the subject threw a different light on the crazy war. 

If This Is A Man/The Truce - Primo Levi: The first time I heard of Primo Levi was during a visit to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam. A plaque there carried a quote by Levi 'One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.'. The haunting simplicity of those words had stayed with me, and Levi's name had stayed in my reading wishlist. "If This is a Man/The Truce" lived up to the expectation that those words had created in my head. Bringing a chemist's objectivity to his observations in Auschwitz, Levi manages to make this account heartbreaking even for someone like me who has read dozens on the subject of Holocaust. The Truce, the second part of this twin edition, was a bigger revelation for me. I had always thought of the war as a string of horrors that abruptly ended in 1945. As The Truce reveals, for the survivors, the tragedy continued for the several months more that it took them to find their way back home and to slip into normal (if it could be called that) lives. 
Suite française- Irène Némirovsky: Irene Nemirovsky planned for this to be a 5-part novel. Only the first two were discovered and published by her daughters several years after Nemirovsky's death. The novel's jewish author met her end in a concentration camp.

The next two, one a non-fiction and the other a historical fiction, documented the role of my own country in the world war. Most history that we study in Indian schools tend to be flattened out narratives convenient to whatever party is in power at that moment. These two books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the subcontinent's role in the wartime period better. 

ಮರಳಿ ಮಣ್ಣಿಗೆ - ಕೋಟ ಶಿವರಾಮ ಕಾರ೦ತ (Marali Mannige - K Shivarama Karantha): Each year I make an attempt to read at least one book in my native tongue. This year I managed an all-time classic. At the risk of sounding parochial, no English writing does justice to the rhythms of this land as the local masters. 

Other top recommendations

The rest that didn't make as much of an impression
From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast - Karthik Shanker (Actually, this one made just enough of an impression to book my travel to the famed turtle hatcheries in Odisha.)