Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

Why I am a Believer: Personal reflections on nine world religions
edited by Arvind Sharma
Penguin, 2009

Who can argue with 'personal reflections', by nature subjective and built on a foundation of 'because I feel that is so'? Yet this is why one so often has to swallow broad generalisations about the charity of Hinduism, the purity of Jainism, the compassion of Sikhism, the pluralism of Islam, and the meditative aspect of Buddhism with nary a burp. Never mind that some of the most violent, unjust and vicious acts in history have been perpetrated in the name of these very faiths. In this new work, we are asked to behold the teachings of nine of the major world religions in their 'purest' form. Mystical experiences, coping with death and loss, dealing with trauma, a quest for truth and a belief in the healing powers of religion all go into making true believers of the writers in this collection.

But let cynicism (or staunch atheism) not come in the way of appreciating well-crafted arguments in favour of what might seem to be barbaric rituals. Sandhya Jain, in "Why I Am a Jaina", for example, convincingly explains sallekhana, a "uniquely Jaina propensity to proactively embrace one's approaching demise", and contrasts the media prejudice towards this practice with the empathetic coverage of euthanasia. Vincent Shen on the Confucian tradition and Bede Bidlack on Daoism are both educative, providing insights into lesser-known spiritual traditions. Harvey Cox's "Why I Am Still a Christian", presenting the 'temptations' of other faiths, including atheism, provokes readers who pride themselves on their rationality to delve into ignored spaces of the psyche, and examine one's individual relationship with divinity. (Laxmi Murthy)

Selected Essays
by Rahul Sankrityayan
People's Publishing House, 2009

Reprints are not always the most exciting books, especially when they are simply designed to maximise the notoriety of an author. But in this case, the publication of Rahul Sankrityayan's essays on Tibetan Buddhism (out of print since 1984) is to be cherished. Rahulji (1893-1963) travelled to Tibet between 1930 and 1935, where he collected over 89,000 shlokas in several hundred manuscripts. As he annotated and translated these works, he wrote the series of essays that are collected here. For an aficionado of Rahulji's work, this is a treasure trove; for others, it remains of significant interest. (Vijay Prashad)

Developing Alternative Media Traditions in Nepal
by Michael Wilmore
Martin Chautari, 2009

At the centre of this thoroughly academic work, stripped of its theoretical contextualisation, copious footnoting and assessments through the lens(es) of past social-science-based explorations of 'alternative' (or, goodness, 'indigenous') media, there rests the oddly uplifting story of Buddha Ratna Shakya and his son, Mahesh. Back in the early 1980s, the two were in the process of expanding their electrical-repair business in Tansen, in Nepal's Palpa District, when a travelling electrical engineer arrived in town to install the area's first telephone lines. While there, he showed the Shakyas how they could connect a videotape deck to the neighbours' television sets – thus setting the father and son on the road towards bigger and better (though, from the sounds of it, still long-jerryrigged) equipment, to become Nepal's first cable-television broadcaster.

In fact, the story goes back much further, and Wilmore does an interesting, though cursory, job of offering some historical contextualisation for why Tansen, and the Shakyas themselves, were well-placed for their eventual 'fate' on the cable-television front. Interesting titbits abound through much of the rest of the work, too; but beholden to his academic moorings, Wilmore final work is uneven and largely inaccessible to most readers. For a book exploring media happenings from decades ago, it is unclear what non-academic readers will get out of the work in today's much-changed context. A full narrative exploration of the Shakyas and their moorings, however, would be of interest to any reader interested in rousing tales of righteous bootstrapping. (Carey L Biron)

The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi
by G P Deshpande
Tulika, 2009

GPD has written a stimulating, long essay (just more than 100 pages) on three exemplary Marathis: J G Phule, V D Savarkar and Vinoba Bhave. An analysis of their ideas is of course at the centre of the author's assessment of the long century of Marathi letters. But he also makes a much more important point here, which is that it is not simply their ideas that matter. What one has to consider is the language in which they appear. "India's history is the history of its nationalities," Deshpande writes, and one has therefore to tend to the universe of the ideas of these nationalities, written in their languages. This is essay-writing at its best. (VP)

Dork: The incredible adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Varghese
by Sidin Vadukut
Penguin, 2010

Based on Vadukut's output of satirical blog posts from his roost at Domain Maximus (, where he lampoons office life and corporate culture, Dork makes a fairly good transition to print. Undoubtedly, his subject is ripe and ready for a send-up or takedown, and this MBA-NIT graduate, former office drone and now editor at Mint is certainly uniquely positioned to the task. In his debut work we follow the exploits of one Robin Varghese as he struggles to ascend the heights of a middling consultancy firm. 'Inspector Closeau in an office' makes for a sufficiently accurate shorthand to describe Varghese, as he blunders through his assignments and relationships, as his outsized ego makes for an entertaining if unreliable narrator.

The novel takes the form of diary entries, easing somewhat the translation from its blog source. Like the junk mail you relegate to your spam folder, the content is funnier than we might allow ourselves admit. However, the material strains to fit the demands and dimensions of a novel. The same shtick repeated a few times over earns drastically diminishing chuckles, and one wonders what possessed the minds at Penguin India to offer a trilogy based on this character. (Alston A D'Silva)

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian