Friday, September 25, 2015

When it becomes impossible to go on: How can we stop suicides?

(Published in, on September 25, 2015, retrieved from

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Towards the end of Suicide Prevention Month, yet another student of IIT Madras was found hanging in his room.

Nagendra Kumar Reddy was on scholarship; he had topped his class the previous year. By all accounts, he had a promising, lucrative career ahead of him. But it has been speculated that the reason he took the extreme step was that he had not cleared the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) on his second attempt.

Every time someone commits suicide, we wonder why. The person seemed so happy. The person had such a loving family, and so many friends. Even by the complicated parameters of success set by Facebook – a lucrative job, a beautiful and accomplished partner, a cuddly dog, a child or two, and frequent holidays on the beach – most people seem to be making it. And, yet, an extraordinary number of people are depressed.

What is it about the times in which we live that makes life so terrible, that makes us want to give up so often?

The whole world was stunned when Robin Williams, who became a spokesperson for depression even while he made us laugh, ended his life. He seemed to have it all – a stellar acting career, a supportive family, and professional help with his depression. And yet, he found himself in such a dark place that he could not find a way out. We will never know what pressures he faced, what made him want out of it all.

How many of us are equipped to deal with our own bouts of depression, or those of our friends? Most often, we only end up making depressed people feel guilty about their situations – to laypeople, depression appears to be a state of mind, not a chronic condition. To tell someone that he must count himself lucky for all that he has may further exacerbate the problem, because it invalidates his depression.

One of the most critical steps we need to take in tackling depression, and therefore suicide, is to remove the stigma around psychiatric counselling.

Every so often, celebrities speak out about their problems with depression and mental illness. But visits to the psychiatrist are not the norm in this country, if they are anywhere in the world. To go to a psychiatrist is to admit that one is not able to handle pressure, which is seen as a failure in itself.

Perhaps one solution is to make counselling compulsory in all schools, colleges, and workplaces. If one has nothing to say or share, one could just have a chat about the weather and politics with a qualified counsellor or psychiatrist. But for as long as counselling remains optional, people will hesitate to consult a professional, even when they have access.

Some years ago, a study earmarked isolation, competition, and academic pressure as the most common reasons for student suicides at premier institutes.

These are never going to go away. Work pressure is never going to go away either. Even if you don’t go to work, Facebook is watching.

Over the decades, we have fostered an environment where one’s success is measured relative to everyone else’s. We need to be more intelligent, richer, more ruthless, and wittier than everyone else. We also need to be happier than everyone else.

Under such circumstances, it becomes very easy to feel guilty for being a disappointment. It becomes easy to feel that one has let down oneself and one’s family, that one is a financial or emotional drain on everyone else, and that the world would be better off without one.

We don’t have the mechanisms to talk about why happiness has become so elusive. To admit that we need help means we are not as strong as everyone else. To admit that we are not happy means we are dropping out of the race.

And so, in our moments of distress, instead of turning to professionals, we turn to those we know and trust, hoping to hear a few words that click, something that will make us snap out of it. For many of us, this is enough.

But there are some who cannot “snap out of it”. I recently read a tweet about how asking someone who is clinically depressed to “snap out of it” is like asking someone who is deaf to listen harder. And these people, who are as perfect and imperfect as the rest of their colleagues but plagued by something beyond their control, need to be able to speak about their problems in a safe environment, without being made to feel bad about themselves.

Mandatory counselling for everyone may be a good start.

Can Hinduism survive the BJP’s Hindutva?

(Published in, on September 14, 2015, retrieved from

For centuries, perhaps millennia, Hindus have taken pride in the tolerance and resilience of their religion, recognising that those two characteristics complement each other.
It is the only ancient religion to have survived the zeal of newer ones. The Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Nordic religions have now been consigned to mythology, but Hinduism is alive. However, the violence and zealousness of Hindutva, which claims to be protecting Hinduism against the onslaught of the Abrahamic religions, has distorted Hinduism beyond recognition and could do more damage to it than any other religion has.

The only reason I call myself Hindu is that I like belonging to a religion which has no rules. Nothing is banned in the doctrines of Hinduism, which are clearly unknown to the sanghis who bay for the blood of anyone who goes against their stringent interpretations of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’. Do they even know that this ‘culture’, enshrined by the Indian Penal Code, is a legacy of their former colonial masters, bequeathed to them along with Victorian prudery?

This is not my Hinduism.

My Hinduism does not impose restrictions on intoxicants.

My Hinduism does not impose restrictions on food.

My Hinduism does not impose restrictions on sex, with all its adjectives.

My Hinduism does not impose restrictions on the worship of any god.

People are classified according to their inclinations, perhaps, but there is place for everyone.

That is why Hinduism was able to survive conquests and hostile religions. It adapted itself to become acceptable to large numbers of people. It allowed people to be themselves, without being judged or condemned for it. It allowed people a chance at redeeming themselves. It taught people to accept punishment for their wrongs.

This is not the Hinduism I recognise in today’s Hindutva.

This Hinduism believes that there are types of sex which are against the laws of the gods. It does not accommodate sex between people of the same gender. It refuses to see gender as non-binary. It claims these are “against Indian culture”. Before there was an India, there was a world that is evoked in the texts that these very proponents of Hindutva call sacred. Do they not know the story of Iyyappa’s birth? Do they not know the story of Aravan? Do they not know the story of Brihannala?

This Hinduism believes that a scholar of literature and epics should not be allowed to examine the Ramayana on the grounds that he was Muslim. M M Basheer was harassed and abused by goons from an outfit called the Hanuman Sena for writing this column in Mathrubhumi. And this daily, with fifteen editions and a circulation of 1.5 million, decided to “postpone” his next column in the series, though the writer himself has told the media that he has finished the series and will not be cowed down by the pressure.

An attempt to silence a writer, by objecting to his treatment of ‘gods’ as characters, and objecting that he does so because he is not a Hindu, comes from an asinine understanding of the foundation of Hinduism.

The Hindu gods are fallible, and that is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of Hinduism. Shiva’s rage and pride have caused him grief on several occasions. Brahma is not worshipped except in a few temples because, depending on which myth you believe, he angered either Saraswati or Shiva. Vishnu, in several of his avatars, commits mistakes that humanise him. As for the demigods, there are numerous stories of crime and punishment, of which Indra’s tryst with Ahalya is arguably the most famous.

Basheer is not the only victim of this idiocy. A similar controversy broke out over A K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana.

Valmiki’s Ramayana and Vyasa’s Mahabharata are layered texts, which are open to interpretation. To say that these can be read only by certain people and only in a certain way is to go against the basic tenets of Hinduism.

This Hinduism, claimed by the Hindutva outfits that have been emboldened by the new central government, believes in a selective ban of meat. Fish, apparently, can be sold because they are not ‘slaughtered’ and ‘die when they are out of water. Whereas the life of a cow is somehow more precious than that of a chicken or buffalo or goat or pig.

I am vegetarian because I believe it is cruel to kill animals for food, pleasure, or accessories. I would throw myself behind any ban on their flesh or skin. But to selectively ban meat, and to do so under the banner of Hinduism, does more harm than good.

This Hinduism believes that consenting adults should not have sex unless they are married, and that consent does not matter once people are married.

This Hinduism believes that people should not drink alcohol.

This Hinduism believes there is no space for debate.

This Hinduism is the most dangerous enemy the religion has faced so far.

The only reason Hinduism, in its truest form, which derives not from a single text or a single infallible god but multiple sources and stories and trends, remains relevant is that it adapts.

If it is appropriated by bigots who will force it into the rigid rules of their tiny minds, it will cease to be relevant to most of its current followers.

The biggest test Hinduism has faced in India will be Hindutva. Can it survive the sanghis?

We need to re-examine our reservation policy

(Published in, on August 31, 2015, retrieved from

For the past couple of weeks, social media has been dominated by two things – the infamous Indrani Mukerjea case, where the family tree appears to be of national interest; and the demand by the Patels for reservation. We’ve seen videos of policemen vandalising vehicles. We’ve seen the shells of burnt buses. And we all have an opinion on the Patels’ contention.

Hardik Patel and his antics – including his promise to spread his demand for reservation across the country, and across various communities deemed privileged by caste – are a symptom of a disease that has been fostered in India for decades: the idea of quota-for-vote.

Reservation came with the caveat that its usefulness and validity would be examined every few years. However, since the inception of class-based quotas, the term has morphed to ‘caste-based’ quotas. At one time, class may have been synonymous with caste. This is not the case any longer. But it doesn’t suit any politician, or any government, to acknowledge this, since vote bank politics suggest that it is wise to keep communities, rather than classes, happy. There are other ways of appealing to the economically backward, after all.

The thought behind reservation was that those who come from families which have been educated for generations have an unfair advantage over those who are first-generation learners.

There is some credence to this idea. But in exploiting the political mileage that this allowed, our parties have ensured that the principle is all but lost. When you have economically well-off communities, which have been educated for generations, fighting in the Supreme Court for the removal of the ‘creamy layer’ rider, you know that there is something very wrong about the approach we have taken to reservation.

A while back, we had the Maratha caste agitating for a reservation quota. Members of this caste are believed to own more than three quarters of the land in Maharashtra. Most of the state’s Chief Ministers hail from the Maratha caste. Government jobs and education institutions are dominated by Marathas. And yet, they saw fit to ask for a caste downgrade from ‘Forward’ to ‘Backward’.

Today, the Patels say that ninety percent of the community is economically weak, and that this is the case with most communities that are considered ‘Forward’.

In Tamil Nadu, which sought to remove the hegemony of Brahmins in educational institutions and the workforce by rapidly increasing the reservation quota for all other castes, the reservation stands at an unconstitutional 69 percent. Of this, the quota for Schedules Tribes and Schedules Castes is under 20 percent. The data on economically underprivileged people who benefit from the reservation has not been enumerated.

An attempt in 1979 by then-Chief Minister M G Ramachandran to exclude the ‘creamy layer’ from reservation and move towards an economical status-based reservation system backfired. His candidates suffered such a sound defeat in the Lok Sabha elections that he announced an increased reservation quota for Backward Classes. The trick worked. MGR won the next Assembly elections, and stayed in power.

The problem facing India now is that reservation by either caste or class is not necessarily valid.

We need to go back to the original principles that governed reservation quota.

One solution may be to determine how many generations of a person’s family have been educated, and to what extent, and see whether that person is a deserving candidate for the reservation quota.

Reservation, after all, is not about scholarships alone. It is about access to education.

But to examine reservation from the grassroots level will not suit politicians, because that would necessitate that it is accorded not on a group-basis, but an individual one, and so it is not conducive to vote bank politics, which have served them rather well.

At the moment, politicians who must deal with agitations for reservation in their states are working to find stopgap solutions. Every time a caste creates a ruckus, the government throws them a bone, hoping that they will be satisfied until the next election comes round. This is best illustrated by the treatment of the Gujjar community’s demands in Rajasthan.

This attitude is inimical to the idea of India, leave alone the idea of reservation.

If our aim is to create a class of citizens who are equipped to enter the workforce, we need to re-examine the criteria under which a prospective student or employee qualifies for a reservation quota.

Our long-term aim must be to eliminate reservation. Naturally, this will require that we eliminate the need for reservation, by guaranteeing everyone equal access.

At the moment, this doesn’t seem to be just a distant dream; it seems impossible, because it is inconvenient to those in power.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Indrani Mukerjea case: Why are we addicted to sleaze?

(Published on August 28, 2015, retrieved from

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Just as the debate around the Aarushi murder case has been stoked – again – we now have a new murder case, where a parent has been accused.

The arrest of Indrani Mukerjea on a murder charge in the Sheena Bora case has left us with a trail of newspaper and web articles examining the sordid relationships and intrigues in the media mogul’s family. There are even YouTube videos for those who need graphics to understand the facts of a case.

First came the allegation that Sheena Bora was killed because she was in a relationship – of course, the media called it ‘having an affair’ – with Indrani Mukerjea’s stepson Rahul, her husband Peter Mukerjea’s son from an earlier marriage.

Then, came the revelation that Sheena Bora was not Mukerjea’s sister, as initially reported, but her daughter who had been passed off as a sibling, along with Mikhail Bora, her son from a first marriage that had been kept secret.

Her second husband, Sanjeev Khanna, with whom she has a daughter, has now been arrested. 

The police have set out several theories, including that Khanna and Indrani Mukerjea killed Sheena Bora to ensure that their daughter inherited a fair share of the Mukerjea fortune.

The media has set out several more theories. Tehelka, in an article which has since been removed, suggested that the motive for murder may have been money that was siphoned off by the Mukerjeas from one of their channels and deposited in Sheena’s account. The Indian Expresssaid Indrani Mukerjea was impersonating her daughter for a year after her death, and making calls to friends as well as Rahul. India TV, as is typical of most of our news channels, decided to put up a slideshow proving that Indrani Mukerjea was a “party lover and globe trotter”. Because, clearly, that means something. What does it mean? We’re not sure. Maybe that Indrani was not super maternal, because what mother loves parties and globe trots, eh?

What disgusts me is the relentless discussion of Mukerjea’s and Sheena Bora’s personal lives. There have been those who have done the math, and suggested that 43-year-old Indrani was an ‘unwed mother’ when she had Sheena, who was 24 at the time of her death in 2012. And there are those who delight in the fact that Mukerjea has been married to three different men, and has children with two of them.

The country’s obsessive interest in the case, and the willingness of the media to dig deeper and deeper for murky details of who was having sex with whom, points to India’s preoccupation with sexual escapades that are most likely irrelevant to the case itself.

Forget the courts, we will conduct our own trial, we seem to think. And we will base all our theories on sexual jealousies.

This aspect of the Indian media consumer was best illustrated in the Aarushi Talwar case, where most of the country was eager to believe she was murdered by her parents for having an affair with their servant Hemraj. As if that was not enough, there was also a popular theory that both Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were having extramarital affairs. Of course, this evolved quite naturally into their being part of a wife-swapping party circle.

The media reports on the Jiah Khan death case dealt mainly with what appears to have been her turbulent romantic relationship with Sooraj Pancholi, the son of actor Aditya Pancholi. That also gave the media the opportunity to recap Aditya Pancholi’s alleged affairs with various actresses.

And, of course, there was the infamous Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor death, where everyone was anxious to believe Shashi Tharoor had killed his wife because of her discovery of an affair he was having with a Pakistani journalist.

To have an opinion about a person involved in a murder case, or to have a theory on the case itself is one thing. But to broadcast it as if it were fact is quite another.

In the case of the deaths of women, and especially women from celebrity families, we seem to gravitate towards the idea of a crime of passion, or an honour killing.

If this could have been caused by a forbidden relationship, all the better.

The nonexistence of proof is irrelevant to our conclusions.

Or, there is that one word explanation for why no proof exists – ‘connections’. A family that is ‘well-connected’ could have disposed of the proof, and so we feel like master investigators, dissecting their lives and possible motivations.

It is natural for a murder case to generate excitement and interest. But it is a symptom of the ugliness of media coverage, and of its consumers, when the focus is entirely on the sex-and-sleaze aspect. 

What freedoms do we really have, Mr Prime Minister?

(Published on August 15, 2015, retrieved from

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As Narendra Modi wipes his forehead, under the many folds of his grand turban, and his audience flutters newspapers in a futile gesture against the Delhi heat, and we watch from home with ironic smiles, it occurs to me that our Prime Minister’s energy seems to be, for once, flagging. Since he took over the most powerful seat in the country last year, his speeches have begun to sound less confident and more hollow in their jingoism.

So, there he stands, making his promises – electricity to all the villages; healthcare at one rupee a month; subscription to various government schemes at 90 paise a month; employment to the entire country. He urges the people to give up their gas subsidies.

Then, seeming to run out of things to say, and seeking to evade the charge that promises are easy to make and hard to fulfil, he acknowledges that every government introduces schemes and inaugurates them with lamp-lighting ceremonies. But what makes his government different, he assures us, is that they are committed to their promises. As an example, he tells us that they have built toilets everywhere in the months since he stood at the Red Fort and spoke of toilets.

However, every promise he made today is rather noncommittal. We are to ‘expect good news’ about the One Rank One Pension (OROP) demand of Army veterans. Shortly after he said that he had not quite examined the complexities of OROP and would have to give it some thought, he ‘assured veterans under the tricolour’ that there would be good news. But we don’t know what this good news is.

Even as he stresses the importance of farmers to this country, and the urgency of tackling farmer suicides, the most significant action towards that end comes across as a token gesture – the renaming of the Ministry of Agriculture, which will now be called ‘Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare’.

The audience claps listlessly when he says, even as the protests over (Lalit) Modigate and Sushma Swaraj claim headlines in the national dailies, that there has been no corruption charge against his government.

As we celebrate the sixty eighth anniversary of our independence, I wonder what freedoms we actually have.

Recently, journalists have been deprived of the freedom to do their stories about inmates of jails. Equally, the inmates of jails have been deprived of the freedom to have their perspectives heard. No interview with a convict can be conducted unsupervised or uncensored. A journalist’s best material may be confiscated. There will be no proof of a conversation that goes against the story that the authorities want to put out.

We may soon be deprived of the right to browse the internet as we know it, if the telecom companies have their way.

That might well suit the government, which sought to ban us from watching porn, and then relented. Apparently, the only ones who made gains from this little back-and-forth were traders of pornographic DVDs and, of course, columnists who raged against the ban.

We don’t have the freedom to write, paint, or create anything we want, without the danger of our books, art exhibitions, and films being banned.

We don’t even have the freedom to love anyone we want. Our country subscribes to the ridiculous idea that sexual relationships can only exist between men and women – even worse, it subscribes to the idea that they can only exist between men and women who are married to each other.

In this country, it is technically legal to rape your spouse, whereas the police can hound you for having consensual sex with a partner.

Our fundamental right to equality is a joke, when the question of whether you are punished for a crime or whether you get bail is decided by who the victims were, and how famous you are.

The right to assembly is denied in all areas deemed ‘conflict zones’, on any ‘sensitive’ day.

The right to life and liberty does not exist in any area where the AFSPA is in force.

The fact that our towns and cities are segregated into ghettos, the fact that khap panchayats reign supreme in villages, the fact that ‘honour killings’ so often go unpunished, are testament to the fact that we are our labels.

For as long as we don’t have the freedoms that our Constitution guarantees us, our claim of being independent is as pointless as the tired efforts of those at venue of the Prime Minister’s speech to stir a breeze with their newspapers.

Book Review: Of Love and War

(Published in, on August 7, 2015, retrieved from

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War
By Raghu Karnad (Harper Collins, 300 pages, Rs. 550)

In a world where titles are classified by genres and sub-genres, and their makers fastidiously divided into writers of fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry, fantasy and pulp, there is some joy in reading a book that reminds us there are only two kinds of writing – that which lingers like petrichor, and that which fades from the mind once the covers are shut.

The most beautiful books make one mull over things that they don’t explicitly address. What is branded as a family memoir, and a story of India’s role in the Second World War, is really a contemplation on heroism and circumspection, ambition and content, purpose and futility, dogma and desire, and – as the author says in another context – “high life and piteous death”.

In his prologue, Raghu Karnad describes his book as “forensic non-fiction”. Something about the term reminded me of palaeontology. The phrase sounds clinical, and belies the dedication, personal investment of time and energy, and the against-all-odds belief in an elusive end-product that one needs to muster, in order to pursue the stories of those who are extinct. It requires one to dig carefully and patiently through archives in libraries and museums, anxious about missing the wrong detail as much as recovering an ill-fitting one; to piece the fragments just so, each in the right place, with only vague clues and patterns for guidance; to follow each lead to its natural end in the valiant yet vain hope of being able to determine the shapes, sizes, features, voices, manners, charisma, and proclivities of those who are no longer with us. Specifically, for this book, it must have involved hours of sifting through the hazy, and perhaps sentimental, memories of the contemporaries of its subjects, politely waiting for a spark.

Perhaps this is why the story lends itself to a genre that is not exclusively fiction or non-fiction, a genre that was mastered by Bruce Chatwin. The safer option is to fictionalise the events. But, as anyone who has read The Songlines will testify, there is something to be said for inhabiting a space between fact and fantasy, for imagining a day in the life of an Ancestor in Dreamtime even as we are looking at dot paintings. Because, isn’t that exactly what we do in real life, look at things and extrapolate them to our lives and the lives of others?

In its scope, and occasionally in its style, Farthest Field is somewhat reminiscent of another favourite of mine – ceramicist Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a whimsical yet precise meditation on objects of beauty, ownership, inheritance, and secrets. That narrative was united by memorabilia, a netsuke collection that was passed down generations of a family that was constantly displaced. In Karnad’s book, though, it is the loss of concrete souvenirs that holds the narrative. Both memoirs are characterised by a longing to forget rather than remember, to escape across state borders and national boundaries, to forge new families in new homes because it is impossible to go back to the old ones, until one descendant decided to stop, turn, and trace a journey back. However, Edmund De Waal was a celebrated artist when he wrote the book, and he was prone to almost careless, eye-rolling interludes where he would lightly remind us that this was a solipsistic recasting; Karnad, sensibly, offers perhaps a more gracious – if reverent – account, where he is not the centre of his world, but an enabler, allowing his ancestors to grow into characters, keeping himself in the background even when he is reconstructing imaginary scenarios. It is our awareness of the author’s personal connection to the men whose memories he seeks to immortalise, without having to suffer reminders every so often, that adds a layer of poignancy to the book.

It takes immense skill and some natural flair, a love of language and stories, the ability to transcend the rigid rules of journalism while respecting those of veracity, to fill in the lives of people who are so removed from one that they need to be completed by imagination and research. Karnad is equal to the task of doing right by this genre.

Another seeming incompatibility arises with the heavy horror of what is unfolding juxtaposed with the lyricism of the language in which it is recounted. The humour is often macabre, but how else can one deal with the irony of a second act of cruelty relieving the effects of a first? Take, for instance, this sentence: “Gasson sent in a platoon of Malabar Special Police to shoot dead the lions, tigers and panthers, as well as a single polar bear, which may alone have been grateful for it.” Elsewhere, Karnad speaks of mules being dropped with parachutes into warzones, to their detriment – but also to their salvation, for these were mules whose vocal chords had been surgically removed to keep them from baying and revealing the army’s positions to the enemy.

One of the greatest successes of Farthest Field is the way in which it re-orients figurative language, which has so often been robbed of vividness by tired idioms, strained exotica, and deliberately incongruent imagery, in which hugely successful authors dabble. In Karnad’s clever prose, the images unfurl so deliciously and intuitively that one has several moments akin to that where, in reading T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, one realises that despite the imagery of the yellow fog, there was no actual cat. To quote examples would ruin the surprise of the metamorphoses, where the sound of billiard balls clicking against each other, or the sight of raindrops slithering down taut cables, transform into scenes one would not normally associate with them. It is these layered images, fresh metaphors, and sparkles of poetry that make the book so much more than narrative non-fiction.

One could easily get impatient with prose that borders too much on poetry, but Karnad tempers his writing with mischievous wordplay – specifically, in a section about the use of mepacrine – that makes one smile at the departure from the high-flown literary metaphor that dominates the narrative.

Descriptions of battle formations are broken by time-outs of sorts, where the author speaks of how, in the middle of an urgent and brutal skirmish, there was a bureaucratic holdup, thanks to indecision over an army division’s sign – a boar’s head was overruled, as officers were concerned that Muslim soldiers would refuse to fight under the banner.

Sometimes, the author pulls us back from the theatres of war to the homes of the soldiers’ relatives, so fraught and distracted that the one journalist in the group “used the dinner table to rehearse his editorials without interruption.”

This technique gives us breathing space, where we ponder the vanity in man’s desire to conquer the world – a world made up of land whose topography is so unchangeable and unforgiving that the areas of conflict-then remain the areas of conflict-now, providing means for different locals and troublemakers to hide and escape from different aggressors and self-righteous invaders, three generations down. The actors have changed, and their masters have changed, but the stage remains the same.

Loneliness is a motif that runs through the book. In some ways, it reminded me of the exquisite Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam, which tells the story of people who volunteer to wait for disaster – some to escape their circumstances, and some driven by their circumstances. Isn’t volunteering for war stripped of heroism when it is a mercenary act, a paid service in which a soldier risks his life without the inspiriting rush of defending his homeland? What must it be like to never have a chance at atonement? What must it feel like to suffer the humiliation of receiving glory and gratitude when one has made no real sacrifice?

The book makes us think about two kinds of death – the preventable, ignominious exit wrought by disease and cruel conditions; and the hero’s martyrdom, at the hands of the enemy, which is almost vindication for the pecuniary concerns that spurred it.

It also makes us think about two kinds of war veterans – the ones who, in their nineties, glance back at their youth, exaggerating its exploits and daring, evoking the ostentatious charm of the early twentieth century with antiquated words; and the ones who will never grow old, frozen in photo frames and enlivened in the memories of those who outlive them, from which they can only emerge in passive sputters, for they will never be as real to the tellers of their stories as they were to themselves.

Ironically, the young man to whom most of these musings are attributed eventually has to choose both the kind of death he wants and the kind of veteran he wants to be.

There is something incredibly sad about people who will forever retain the jauntiness and abandon and optimism of their youth, deprived of the chance to become surly and crabby seniors, raging at the depravity of the generations that followed them. Just as it is amusing to look through the black-and-white photographs taken in the youth of today’s nonagenarians, it is haunting to imagine the old men that those who died in the war may have loved to have become.

Particularly heartbreaking is a letter written by a young soldier to his sister. It makes one wonder at the turns our lives take, at how generosity can be one’s undoing. One is struck by the immense understanding two lovers reserve for their families, whom many people would dismiss as callous, and guilty of the subsequent disruptions in their lives. Their story strikes one as the saddest of all, because a little more sympathy on their families’ part and a little less on their own could have given it a very different trajectory. 

Karnad captures the human propensity for self-involvement, so that the most irrelevant external events can be transformed into messages the universe is sending us – a slogan at a student protest outside the window, for instance, could seem prophetic when one is in a trough, wondering whether one has made a mistake in choosing a particular path.

But a book that tells part of the story of a war must necessarily extend beyond the personal and into the political. When imperialism is involved, and especially when one is on the wronged side of history, one has to make a judgment call in writing – is it all right to indulge in the immersive reporting made fashionable by John Pilger, to take a step back every now and then and comment on, even seethe at, the exhibits of colonial cruelty; or must one keep up a pretence of neutrality? Karnad shows insight into the mistakes made on both sides. Case in point: “This was what the Congress could never stomach, that their right to govern India must follow from their ability to do so.”

What is admirable about the book is not just what has gone into it, but what has been left out. When one has done a colossal amount of research, and it is evident from the notes and Bibliography that Karnad has, it can be tempting to crowd the book with information, or to prove to the world that one has indeed done one’s homework. It is a mark of the author’s confidence and literary sensibility that, even in his first book, he has been judicious with using his research, to inform his writing rather than display his diligence. What he believes may be interesting to the reader is tucked away in notes and appendices.

My only quibble, and it is a minor one, is that I would have loved annotations for some of the more outlandish bits of information. How, for instance, did the author know that soldiers volunteered to lean against barricades to keep their mules from getting unruly on an airlift? I’m inclined to think, though, that an author is entitled to use his discretion in determining how fastidious the annotations should be.

And one can forgive much in that rare book which is so delightful one is loath to finish it, because it is near impossible for one’s next read to match the last. Farthest Field definitely qualifies for that description. A brilliant first book can often set the bar too high for the author’s own good. However, in Karnad’s case, one only looks forward to the rest of what promises to be a luminous career.

If you're livid about Cecil, ask yourself these questions

(Published on August 3, 2015, retrieved from

(Picture Courtesy:

A lion in Zimbabwe was shot dead by an American dentist. And now, suddenly, everyone on Facebook cares about hunting.

They want the dentist put away forever.

They want hunting to be banned.

They want Glenn McGrath fired by BBC Sport, not for his insipid commentary and drab presentation skills, but for a safari on which he killed animals seven years ago.

Hell, Cecil is not even a lion anymore. He is Everyman and Everywoman, and has become an allegory for everything from homelessness to sexual abuse to colonialism.

It’s almost as if we didn’t live in a world where crocodiles are bred for making handbags, and as if we’re not more enraged about Oprah Winfrey being dismissed while trying to buy a handbag by a racist shopping assistant than about her buying a handbag made from an animal that was killed for the cause; as if we didn’t live in a world where everyone wears leather and snakeskin belts and shoes, while making noises about fur; as if we didn’t live in a world where billions of animals are reared for the sole purpose of populating dining plates; as if we didn’t live in a world where the summer solstice is celebrated with the mass slaughter of dogs; as if we didn’t live in a world where whales are hunted, flouting all laws; as if we didn’t live in a world where endangered animals are poached so that parts of their body can be worn as good luck charms or thrown into quack medicines or plastered on walls; as if we didn’t live in a world where a sadistic pervert is making ‘art’ by pouring molten aluminium into anthills and selling it, with much success, to idiots who subscribe to the idea of making pretty objects by killing ants in the cruellest manner possible.

Yes, what happened to Cecil is horrible, and it makes sense for someone like Jane Goodall – a conservationist who has done much for the safety and welfare of animals, and a vegetarian – to point out how awful it is.

But, if you’re not against all the practices stated above, why does the killing of Cecil matter so much to you?

Is it because the dentist flouted hunting laws?

Is it because the lion is so magnificent, as an animal?

Is it because this particular lion had a name, and was much-beloved?

Because, really, how are people who hunt animals for sport so much worse than people who eat animals despite having other options?

The outcry over Cecil reminds me of the hysteria over the Yulin dog-torturing festival, or whatever its official name is. Of course, when called out on their hypocrisy, those who eat animals but were shocked by the festival came up with this moronic defence: “It is not about the fact that they are being eaten, but about how they are tortured before being eaten.”

So, it would be totally fine, I suppose, if the dogs were treated like chicken? You know, kept in crowded cages with their beaks cut off so they won’t peck at each other’s eyes? Or genetically modified, to grow big and fast, so they could meet the demand of the industry? Or ground to death on conveyor belts? Or boiled alive, as most animals in slaughterhouses are, since the production rate precludes time being invested in ensuring that the animals are properly stunned?

If you use silk, how is that different from fur?

If you go to zoos, are you not endorsing the idea of keeping animals in captivity, in enclosures that are a fraction of the size that they need? Are you not contributing to the callousness with which animals are brought from their natural habitats into alien environments, for the amusement and entertainment of people like you? Take a look at the number of zoos that house polar bears, around the world.

How do you feel about the capture and domestication of elephants? If you’re not sure, Google videos of elephant capture. Try and sit through videos of baby elephants being broken. Think about the fact that this happens either because humans have encroached into their territory, and now want them cleared away, or because they are being groomed for service in circuses and temples.

The case of Cecil is barely different from the cases of billions of animals worldwide, who are subjected to various forms of human cruelty by people who don’t care. And if you are one of these people, you are barely different from Walter Palmer, the man who murdered Cecil.
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