Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia
The End of War in Sri Lanka:
Reflections and challenges
edited by Groundviews.org, 2010
To mark the one-year anniversary of the horrific end to the three-decade long ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the feisty, thought-provoking website groundviews.org opened their platform to writers and thinkers to reflect on the occasion. Over the course of a week in May 2010, some 80,000 words were published by nearly 40 authors, including academics, activists, politicians and a few anonymous concerned citizens. The organisers have now come out with a high-quality, Ford Foundation-funded, printed archive of this laudable flush of emotion and analysis.
While there are a variety of tones in the collected pieces, what comes across most clearly is the ferocity and confusion uniquely inherent to a civil war – that most inappropriately named thing. Indeed, a year after the end of the war, the wounds, far from beginning to heal, seem to have become even more of a festering wound for many. While this anger is powerfully expressed and analysed from a multitude of vantage points, the material collected here ends up feeling as though it is skirting around an important element of this complex story. Beyond a few references, where is the dissent to the dissent?
This is not to call for a statist or majoritarian view, which the Groundviews editors would undoubtedly, and rightly, note is being widely circulated elsewhere. Rather, this is to ask for a fuller reflection of where the country currently finds itself – an honest, holistic appraisal of the roiling currents that will determine the country's future. (Carey L Biron)
Sahib's India: Vignettes from the Raj
by Pran Neville
It cannot be overstated that the British did irreparable damage to India. But what is more disgraceful is that they had a hell of a time doing it, if this book is to be believed. The vignettes shed light on the rather luxurious cultural and social life of the British, from when they were employed by the East India Company till they came to rule the Subcontinent.
The most frequent lines seem to want to evoke in the reader a whimsical stare followed by, 'Ah, the good old days.' And that they were – waking up to five servants, one of whom slips some feathery slippers on your feet; gambling; 'nautch' parties; and entertaining desi and pardesi women, all while your hookaburdar stands outside preparing a spiced chillum for you. Wow!
Except that, at times, one wants to cringe. But Neville's prelude, thankfully, does not serve as an apology for the Britishers' extravagances. Instead he sensibly writes, 'The essence of history is not merely the study of events but also what people thought and said about them.' Especially interesting reads are chapters about thugs and dacoits, and a censored book on female eroticism written by a devadasi that has yet to be translated into English. (Meher Ali)
Prince of Ayodhya
by Ashok K Banker &
Banker's popular Ramayana series, in graphic format, is proposed to run into eight volumes, and this is the first. It all begins when Prince Rama dreams of Ravana threatening to conquer Ayodhya; dark days lie ahead. So, Rama and his brother Laxman set off with Viswamitra to save Ayodhya from the 'greatest crisis in Aryavarta Ithasa', travelling from their homeland to Bhayanak-van (terrible forest).
Retelling a complex epic such as the Ramayana in small bursts of text – the kind that can fit into comic-book thought-bubbles – is not easy. But the book does a rather commendable job of condensing the first part of the tale into less than 100 pages. Even more commendable is that the reader is still able to understand the gist of the tale's many turns – hopefully without offending Valmiki. As for the graphic side of things, the protagonists and antagonists, saints and demons, look no different from the characters Ramanand Sagar's original TV series. This is a nice little addition to the meagre collection of Southasian graphic novels, but it is high time we come up with some fresh contemporary storylines. (Amrisha Vaidya)
The Buddha and Dr Führer
by Charles Allen
One of the more fortunate by-products of the British colonialist enterprise was the uncovering of the Subcontinent's pre-Islamic past. Though often influenced by an Orientalist worldview – portraying non-Western cultures as somehow 'below' the West – British administrators and archaeologists (the two categories often overlapped) succeeded in uncovering major historical figures such as Ashoka and the Buddha.
Allen focuses on the colonial attempts to uncover the historical roots of Buddhism, many of whose historical monuments had been destroyed and forgotten under a resurgent Hinduism. The pacy narrative begins in 1898 on an estate in the Indian Tarai, with the discovery of a stupa containing reliquary vases containing, among other things, the purported remains of the Buddha himself. From here, the author casts his eye over other archaeological excavations at Buddhist sites. The chicanery sometimes associated with these enterprises – in the case of the eponymous Anton Fuhrer alongside British administrator-archaeologists, German researchers and a maverick Indian archaeologist – make for a fascinating tale. (Vidyadhar Gadgil)