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The Sceptical Patriot-Sidin Vadukut :41/52

Ok. Dinanath Batra, your move.

I somehow don’t like Sidin. Maybe because I found his Dork book  painfully unfunny or maybe because he didn’t reply to me on Twitter once. But I find him overrated (As an author. I still like his tweets). So I was not planning on liking this book and was gleefully looking forward to tear apart all those glowing five star ratings. Too bad. I liked it. I won’t give it Five Stars, but maybe I’ll give it a Perk.

You’re not a True Patriotic Indian if you haven’t received one of those emails with India Facts that you have to forward to all True Patriotic Indians if you are a True Patriotic Indian. You get bite sized pieces of those facts on Whatsapp these days.  I delete such emails without opening them and have even sent some of my Patriotic friends permanently to the spam folder. So just when I was about to tick the box that said False Patriot against my ‘Level of Patriotism’ , Sidin thankfully gives me another option . One that I can comfortably tick, guilt free: Sceptical Patriot.

Yes, the book does meander and digress a lot. There’s quite a bit of unrelated personal stories that gives the book a blogposty feel.  But forgiven. He doesn’t claim to be writing as a fuddy duddy serious historian and some chuckles are needed to break the academic feel of the topics. There is so much that has been covered and it seems really researched, not just Google researched. Was Sushruta the person behind Michael Jackson or Sridevi’s nose? Did Marconi steal the thunder from Jagdish Chandra Bose? Should we blame ancient Indians for placing Zero in the dangerous hands of Kapil Sibal? Was the whole world at Takshashila long long long before they were at Shardha University? (And oh. Takshashila is not in Bihar). Was ancient India richer than Mukesh Ambani or Sonia Gandhi? Would I have been less intimidated by computerese if my developers used Sanskrit instead of Java? All these questions have answers. Interesting answers. Medicine, economics, physics, history, geography, the range of topics covered seems a bit ambitious. But everything is served in Baby Bear portions, just right. The scorecards at the end of each chapter had me nodding in agreement.

But he has been too politically correct. Come on Sidin, waiting for spicier topics in your next book. Like Tejomahalaya or this or this. And while you’re at it, please tell me what will happen if I drink Coca Cola with Mentos inside the ATM and then enter my PIN backwards.

And then maybe this

Ragtime- E L Doctorow :32/52

Is it history? Is it fiction? Is it historical fiction? Fictional history? Well, it is a little bit of everything. And then some.

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The twentieth century has just been born and current events are creating history. The New World is filling up with immigrants from across the world, immigrants pouring into the streets with their hopes and shattered dreams; the lucky ones sleeping in one room houses without heat, the unlucky ones dropping dead on the streets. Socialism and anarchism are trying hard to make their mark in America,  the champions of the causes are being silenced with quick efficiency. Freud visits America and hates it. A young father ties his daughter to his waist, terrified that he will lose her, as he cuts silhouettes and sells them in street corners. Evelyn Nesbit’s husband has just killed her lover. She entertains herself with acquired motherhood, and becomes obsessed with taking care of the little girl. Emma Goldman is making fiery speeches across the country and takes a heartbroken Evelyn Nesbit under her wing, trying to make an independent woman of her.

The moving assembly line has just been discovered and and  workers with unused brains are churning out cars by the dozen. The rich and famous are getting their dose of entertainment through disfigured human beings. Harry Houdini is at his peak, insecure and disillusioned that he is not actually doing something useful for society, mourning his dead mother like a madman. J P Morgan is convinced that Henry Ford is an Egyptian god reincarnated. And in this America, in a small town called New Rochelle there lives the family of Father, Mother, the boy, Mother’s Younger Brother and ailing Grandfather.

Father’s long absence during his North Pole expedition with Peary has tilted the equations and Mother develops a newfound confidence and a taste for Egyptian furnishings. Father is confused, angry but helpless against the circumstances. Mother’s Younger Brother, as directionless as a loose kite, looks for answers in Evelyn Nesbit’s bed at first and then he discovers his true calling in fighting someone else’s battles. A brown baby is dug up from the earth, alive. The baby’s mother comes looking for the baby and the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, comes looking for both of them.

You know that cliched saying about terrorists not being born, but being created by you and me? That. Coalhouse Walker is this negro who doesn’t realise that he should behave like one. So when some jealous white firemen bully him and vandalise his car, he does the right thing: he goes to the authorities. But the snowball becomes an avalanche and before you know it, he is bombing firehouses across the city to be heard, to have his only demand of getting his car fixed and the vandal arrested met. And finally, he takes us back to J P Morgan’s library; but this time, instead of Henry Ford for company, there is dynamite.

And back to current events of the day, Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated. The rest, as they say, is history.

A patchwork quilt. Loved it.

Thank you The Visitor for the recommendation.

 

 

 

No god but God- Reza Aslan : 18/ 52

A beginner’s guide to a misunderstood religion.

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Zealot was easy since I had a background of Jesus’ life and I knew most of what the author was talking about. But my only relationship with Islam has been using the pages of the fat translated Quran at home to press flowers. So reading Reza Aslan’s No god but God was Islam 101 for me. And I read it with no prejudice, no preconcieved notions.

Though it is seemingly written from a neutral standpoint, it did seem like the author was offering excuses rather than explanations at times. Parts like the one about Muhammad placing his hand on the statue of Jesus that was inside the Kaaba and asking his followers not to destroy it made it obvious that he was writing for the Western Christians ( Much like how he wrote about how Jesus’ death was toned down to cater to Roman sensibilities in Zealot! ) Another thing that struck me in this book was that right from the beginning, the reader is made to feel sympathetic towards Ali and made to believe that he was given a raw deal. Maybe I’m assuming too much, but this was the Shia in Reza Aslan writing  (Edit: There is a stronger reaction. Haha)

But he has also played it safe, not offering any controversial explanations and instead just stating facts as they are. Like I would have loved to get a logical explanation about why it is mandatory to read the Quran in Arabic even if you don’t understand the language. It is a stupid rule. But it was  mentioned as just a thing and no logic was offered. Much has been written all over the place about women and the veil, so I guess that is why there wasn’t much explanation about it in the book. But going by the story of Muhamad losing his wife in the desert and suspecting her after she returns ( much like the other insecure man-god Rama), I draw my own conclusions.

The parts upto the death of Muhammad were easy to read and understand, but after that it got a little confusing. Many names didn’t stay in my head and I had to go back to check who was whom and who supported which faction. There were a lot of references and I kept losing track about which school of thought they came from. I’ve never considered Sufism a religion, I’ve thought of them more cultish, like the yoga guys or the Hare Krishna guys and the chapter on Sufism confirmed it. Somewhere in the middle, it became a mixture of history, politics and religion and it became too much to comprehend. I would have preferred to read about Shia beliefs and Khomeni separately rather than in the same chapter. Khomeni is history, Shiism is religion. Same thing with the Sepoy mutiny, colonialism and the rest of the final chapters.

I liked the book a lot,  it was very informative and enlightening.  And I must read it a second time to appreciate it better.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan : 6/52

I saw just a passing mention about this book while scrolling through the Jaipur Literary Festival tweets and I got it. I’m glad I did.

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I like this Jesus. The Angry Young Man. Almost like a Naxalite ( gasp!) The supporter of the poorest of poor, the voice against the rich priests. The one who performs miraculous cures for free and puts the big religious miracle workers out of business. The one who contradicts himself, preaching peace at one point and asking his disciples to sell their cloaks to buy a sword at another. I like this Jesus more than the one we’ve read about in the Gospels all these days. The Zealot Jesus was so much better than the scrubbed clean of his fiery zeal and embellished with the god aura version of him.

Reza Aslan does not deny anything from the Bible, nor does he tell you anything new. I was surprised that there was not much dedicated to Jesus’ marital status, the hot topic that was done to death during the Da Vinci Code drama. It just gets a mention,nothing more.  There’s a lot of history. The Jewish Revolt, their society and customs those days, their relationship with the Romans, the brewing unrest and the Zealot Party formed the solid foundation for the book. He has also gently poins out to several inaccuracies in the Gospels, starting right from Jesus’ actual place of birth to why it turned out to be a Pontius Pilate apologist at one point.  The way the Gospels conveniently mapped Jesus’ life with what was prophesied in the earlier books and all that was safely glossed over and scrubbed out if the Bible has been explained.

John the Baptist (kind of Karnalike, deserved more credit) and Jesus’ brother James should have really got their rightful due. The way they’ve been written out of the Bible is unacceptable. The What Ifs. And Paul, I Googled him and saw some being called names in some forums.

I guess God will give me brownie points, I have read more of the Bible for reference in the past six days than I have ever read all my life.

Made me more cynical, but this book is a Must Read