Secularizing Islamists?
Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan

by Humeira Iqtidar
University of Chicago Press, 2011

Of late, there has been an efflorescence of academic work on Pakistan. From Junaid Rana's Terrifying Muslims to Saadia Toor's The State of Islam, we have much to celebrate from the world of Pakistani letters. Along this grain, Iqtidar's book is a sophisticated ethnography of the two leading political Islamist organisations of Pakistan. Rather than come at the two Jama'ats to pillory them, for which there is already adequate work, Iqtidar examines the ways in which these groups are forced to accommodate themselves to the secular tide of modern society – and the role women play in this process. A very smart and engaging book. (Vijay Prashad)

Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's anguish 
by Arshia Sattar
Penguin, 2011

Reflecting back on the rise of the Hindu right and its co-option of the Ramayana, Sattar discusses the tension between text and scholar. 'What were we, those of us who worked with the Rama story and were of a liberal (if not always and entirely secular) bent of mind, to make of this?' she asks. 'Was the story the Hindu right had taken as their own the same story that we were telling?' It was only after 'years of silence', the author notes, that she re-engaged with the text.

Sattar's approach to the Ramayana is unconventional and surgical. She asks the reader to think of Rama as less of a god and more of a literary character; in doing so, we find him transformed. 'If we approach him as a literary character struggling to come to terms with the hand that life has dealt him,' she writes, 'we can try and enter his mind, try and see the events of his life as he might have seen them.' Lost Loves thus becomes a layered reading as well as a process. Whereas Sattar asks us to contemplate, with Rama, his life choices (the central one being the fate of his wife and companion-in-exile, Sita), she simultaneously brings him down from divinity, making him accessible. In her hands, he is a prejudiced, tragic literary figure, similar perhaps to Oedipus as he challenges but also succumbs to his destiny.

Yet it is debatable whether religion can really be extricated from the Ramayana or from Rama's life. Can Rama even be considered a literary character, after all that modern history has ascribed to him and to his text? In fact, what if Rama did know that he was god – would his story, decisions and actions suddenly seem uninspiring, his character banal? (Meher Ali)

The Greatest Show on Earth
edited by Jerry Pinto
Penguin, 2011

If there is one passion and common language shared across Southasia, it is Bollywood, in all its splendour and absurdity. Pinto has previously written books on Bollywood posters (with Sheena Sippy), the popular Bollywood star and original item-number girl Helen, as well as on the ethereally beautiful Leela Naidu, who had worked with the best of directors. The collection he has put together is the perfect introduction to the wonderland of Bollywood.

This rollicking romp through the last 80 years of Bollywood has a huge cast of characters. Apart from current biggies such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan, and marquee stars of yesteryear like Meena Kumari and Guru Dutt, we have fascinating vignettes of additional characters including Fearless Nadia, the whip-wielding, horse-riding heroine of stunt movies from the 1930s, and Dara Singh, the 'World Wrestling Champion'. The range of topics and tones is equally eclectic – gossipy, salacious, thoughtful and serious. There are even a few that attempt to 'deconstruct' Bollywood, groaning under the burden of their own ponderousness, and sometimes even getting their basic facts wrong.

But that is a minor quibble. As Pinto says, 'For a true fan of the movies, watching them is never enough. Reading about that other universe and its stars is part of the syndrome.' So, all you fans out there, get reading! As for the rest of you, if this anthology doesn't make you a fan – at least of reading about the movies if not watching them – nothing will. (Vidyadhar Gadgil)

Summer Pasture
by Lynn True, Nelson Walker
& Tsering Perlo
Kham Film Project, 2010

Most of the shots in this documentary are long shots – of the rolling steppe of eastern Tibet, of the inhabitants' sense of time and place and identity. However, the crux of this film, about a young nomadic yak-herding couple and their infant, comes in the short shots, those that take place within the family's temporary yurt. This is where we come to know of the actual rhythms and textures that make up life on the summer steppe – when to change the prayer flags, what drives the mother yaks particularly crazy.

Summer is when the milk flows freely and life is fairly easy. But it is also a time for rumination, for making the butter and cheese that will (hopefully) last through the cold months, for looking to the future. Most importantly, it is inside that we see the two young parents, Locho and Yama, caring for their newborn daughter – and trying to decide how best to raise her.

The life of the nomad is hard, after all, but Locho tells us that it is also free and honourable. The Chinese government is far away in this subtly political film, but not absent. Rather, the state and its rules constitute one side of the oldest of dichotomies: that of the town versus the country. 'We're Tibetans in the nomad area,' Yama says. 'But outside we're treated like yaks.'

Still, the pull of the city is constant. Throughout Summer Pasture we are introduced to the spectrum of nomads: those who will always be nomads, those who have recently moved to town, and those who are waiting to get together enough money to urbanise. Throughout, also, we are told – lyrically, ardently, honestly – that Locho and Yama will remain nomads forever. At the very end, however, the truth comes out: they will remain nomads only for another six years, Locho admits, until the time their infant is old enough to go to school. And that's that. (Carey L Biron)

Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams
by P G Bhaskar
Penguin, 2011

Stock prices, shares, investment, exchange market – economic entities that epitomise instability, perhaps. With the looming risk of loss that hangs heavy in the world of private banking, Bhaskar transports readers back to a time when the recent devastating economic crisis shook the world. We follow Jaikishan 'Jack' Patel, now based in Dubai, along his professional rise: going into private banking rather than the family business, he soon becomes a highly successful financial adviser. Interestingly, Bhaskar being a banker himself, his book extends into the lived side of Jack's profession as well: awkward client meetings, first-timer mistakes, balancing professional and private life. Amidst the chaos, Jack even manages to find a life partner, one whose love remains despite all of the change. Overlooking a slight tendency towards economic jargon, the story is commendable in its ability to entwine together the technical side and the reality of being a private banker. (Shazia K C)

Hello, Bastar: The untold story of India's Maoist Movement
by Rahul Pandita
Tranquebar, 2011

To the lay reader who follows the Naxal movement in the Indian press, Hello, Bastar might be treading familiar territory. But that is precisely the usefulness of this journalistic account: it reassembles in one place the characters, history and arguments of the Maoist movement in India – and then some. Although it is not immediately clear reading the text, Pandita draws from considerable access deep in the Maoist leadership, apart from extensive experience on the ground. Oftentimes he relates in dry, unostentatious bulleted prose remarkable details of the organisation, its current make-up, values and aims. While some chapters make the best of the possibilities of long-form journalism, Pandita especially excels in the narrative description of the guerrillas he followed in Chhattisgarh and the Adivasis they encountered.

Pandita's flaws are mostly literary and an overcautious approach to analysis given the extent of his investment in the subject. His main takeaway is that the poor and corrupt penetration of the government in the Naxal corridor is responsible for the disaffection of India's dispossessed. It also provides an opportunity that Maoists take advantage of – not simply in the form of brutal justice against 'class enemies', but by providing its own reportedly successful parallel services, including education and medical care.

Perhaps most compelling is an account of the Maoists' 'urban agenda', in which Pandita discusses the leadership's evolving emphasis on India's cities and its proletariat. Here, one senses that the long-fought contest between the state and the rebels will continue to assume new directions and dimensions – in addition to the conditions and complications we are already familiar with, and which have been widely explored elsewhere. (Alston A D'Silva)

Of a Certain Age: Twenty Life Sketches
by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Viking, 2011

A line in the introduction here sets the scene for the remainder of the book: 'No one knows why one fascinates another.' Gandhi's prose here is simple, his reasoning as to why he has chosen sketches of these particular 20 characters a humble one – if absent of detail. If only the book remained as clear. For whom is this collection intended? What was Gandhi's intention in creating this work?

Of course, these are 20 national figures connected by 'a certain age' – 20th-century India – and by their connection to the author. They have all left their mark on modern India, and Gandhi provides details of their lives in compassionate, if sometimes overbearing, prose. The chapter on the composer Pyarelal, for example, is a subtle and beautifully written recognition of one man's dedication to detail. Conspicuously lacking, however, is a way of bringing the 20 figures together in any deeper way.

The two chapters that discuss Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar provide a taste of what could have been, with narrative links between the lives of two women with heavy influences on Indian ideological and material culture, but who remained unconnected in real life. Other chapters hint at the way in which the individuals in question were in the orbit of Mohandas K Gandhi (Gopalkrishna's grandfather), but only to show how they are also independently praiseworthy. In general, though, the sketches read as 19 thoughtful, and often pretty, obituaries of former political figures – subtle tributes, but not much beyond that. (Kabita Parajuli)

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