Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

Dateline 1857:
Revolt against the Raj

by Rudrangshu Mukherjee & Pramod Kapoor
Roli Books, 2008

From one of the most well-informed historians of the 1857 uprisings comes a lush picture book and essay to help us commemorate the 150th anniversary of the events that ran from 1857 to 1859. Maps and pictures help the reader navigate the event. Mangal Pandey is dethroned, but in his place is the uprisings' vibrancy – in slogans such as this, from Jhansi: "The people are God's, the country is the Badshah's and the two religions govern." The only problem is the book is physically unwieldy: 17x11cm. (Vijay Prashad)

My Guantanamo Diary:
The detainees and the stories they told me

by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan
PublicAffairs, 2008

Khan, an Afghan-American, was one of the main interpreters for the men in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. Her book is a cry from the heart. She saw in these men, mostly innocent, the faces and gestures of her own family members, grandfathers and granduncles, uncles and cousins, loving and chiding, here behind wire and mortar, held down by the brutality of the US 'war on terror'. The iguanas of Guantanamo, she acidly points out, have more rights (through the Endangered Species Act) than the 'enemy combatants' behind the wires. (VP)

Constellations of Violence:
Feminist interventions in South Asia

edited by Radhika Coomaraswamy & Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham
Women Unlimited, 2008

The essays in this volume explore, and in the process debunk, the standard international interpretations of violence against women in Southasia. Examining the so-called universal concepts of victimhood and individualism, the attempt here is to contextualise campaigns spearheaded by women's movements in specific regional locales. This critical exercise opens up spaces for reflection, while simultaneously making the silences heard. Trafficking in the region and prostitution in Nepal, recruitment of child soldiers in Sri Lanka, the politics of rape in Punjab province, sexual harassment on university campuses – are all entry points by which to question overly comfortable assumptions about violence against women. This work, albeit in jargon-heavy text, is a significant contribution to feminist scholarship from Southasia. (Laxmi Murthy)

The Open Road:
The global journey of the 14th Dalai Lama

by Pico Iyer
Penguin, 2008

Regardless of whether or not the world actually needs another book about the Dalai Lama, there will certainly be a readership for this new work by Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer. There would have been anyway, but Iyer, the longtime Time correspondent and writer of copious travelogues, seems to have fortuitously published his ode to the Tibetan leader during what has turned out to be the single most momentous year in Tibet in decades.

Regardless, this was a work long in the making, as it turns out that Iyer has, for much of his life, been in relatively close personal contact with the Dalai Lama, a friend of his father's, the Tamil theosophist Raghavan Narasimhan Iyer. Being able to draw on decades of such proximity allows Iyer to offer some truly moving insights into both the figure and the individual of the Dalai Lama – as a man, a monk, a Tibetan and a politician, as well as one of the most widely recognised voices of peace in the world today. It is often easy to forget that the cultivation of such a respected persona has been the life's tireless work of just one man, Lhamo Dondrub, the fifth of 16 children born in a small village in far eastern Tibet.

The Dalai Lama's other great achievement, inseparable from the first, has been to maintain the somewhat esoteric issue of Tibet as one that people around the world can continue to consider their own. The protests this year following the Olympic torch brought this issue front and centre, as has the special meeting of Tibetans in Dharamsala, convened in late November by the Dalai Lama to figure out which direction the Tibet movement should take.

According to Iyer's reading, calling this meeting would have been a characteristic move for the aging monk, who has "made [saying] 'I don't know' one of the great cornerstones of his optimism … The Dalai Lama reposes his faith on such surprises – the sudden result of what has been building invisibly for years – as if to say, as he put it once, 'Until the last moment, anything is possible.' " By the end of the special meeting, the attendees had voted overwhelmingly to continue to back the Dalai Lama's approach to dealing with China – publicly committing to continue to put their faith in the timeless idea of 'I don't know.' (Carey L Biron)

The Ascent of Money:
A financial history of the world

by Niall Ferguson
Allen Lane, 2008

In Ferguson's own words, money is indeed portable power. Shocked by the global financial meltdown and the ongoing recession in some of the world's largest economies, this new work is more than timely, it is informative – an impressive historical account of past and current civilisations' attitudes towards money and finance. With financial institutions falling like cards, it has become imperative for Southasians to understand where the real economies begin and the virtual ones end. However, the author's implication that unwise borrowing – and not lending – is the problem displaces his explanation of how global finance is intricately linked within a web of complex transactions among financial behemoths. His notion of 'natural selection' in the financial system is also a cause of worry for those vying for greater regulation of the system. The book is an engaging read, however, and a must-have for the new generation of Southasians opting to pursue high-level finance. (Shiven Thapa)

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