Arts & Culture Books Interview

‘I decided to figure out my faith’

Award-winning author and columnist Shoba Narayan is a graduate from the Columbia Journalism School with a Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship and writes on food, travel, fashion, and art and culture for a slew of International and Indian publications like the Conde Nast Traveller, NYT and Brunch. All her four books are firmly rooted in Indian culture, as is her latest offering, “Food & Faith – A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India”, (HarperCollins) that she says actually helped her figure out her faith...writes Vishnu Makhijani.

“After being an atheist as a teenager, agnostic in my twenties and thirties, I turned to religion late in life. As the mother of two young daughters, the daughter of fairly religious, traditional, South Indian parents and in-laws, I had to come to terms with my religion, and indeed, all religions. Instead of avoiding and disdaining faith, I had to find a way to include it in my life. For my children’s sake. For my parents’ sake,” the Bengaluru-based Narayan told IANS in an interview.

“Around the time I began visiting temples to write about their sacred food (prasadam and its different connotations), I decided to figure out my faith. I wanted to figure out how I felt about the Hindu rituals and practices that I had dismissed as being patriarchal. I re-read the marvellous and imaginative Hindu myths that I had heard from my grandmother as a child. And I talked to many experts about my religion.

“Food seemed like an innocuous way to do this. Sacred food as a way of fusing a secular identity with spirituality in some form: that was my plan. What I didn’t know, what I didn’t anticipate, is that once you step into the realm of faith, your heart and emotions open in ways that you cannot predict or control. You’ll see when you read the book,” Narayan explained.

It’s a book largely – but not only – about Hinduism “written by a (sceptical) Hindu who seeks to answer larger questions about faith. Like the following: What is the role of religion in your life today? Do you pray? How do you pray? Do you commune with the divine through rituals? Is it through chanting verses in Aramaic, Arabic or Sanskrit?”

“Or is it a comforting routine – going to the mosque, church or temple once a week or month? Is religion part of your identity? Or is it something that you seek to distance yourself from? Is it an occasional activity that you do out of habit or because your parents ask you to? Or is it simply a connection with your heritage, home and ancestors?

“Do you think religion is a private act or can it be part of the public discourse? Are these questions making you uncomfortable? These are the questions that came up during the many pilgrimages that I undertook. These are the questions that I sought to answer in my writing,” Narayan elaborated.

And what a sweep it covers! Embracing shrines in Amritsar, Ajmer, Mumbai (the Bene Israelis), and Goa, besides the prominent Hindu temples, the book explores the powerful and intimate intertwining of food with faith, history, myth and identity.

A considerable amount of research has gone into its writing.

“I started with a simple calculation. I would visit those temples that had good prasadam or sacred food offerings. These are, literally, foods for the gods, which belong to a time, place and a specific deity. After offering it to God, the devotees partake of this ‘gracious gift of God’,” Narayan said.

“Using food as an anchor and guide seemed like a good way to parse the hundreds of thousands of Hindu temples in India, each with specific creation-myths, rituals and, yes, recipes. If nothing else, I would eat well,” the author added.

An interesting thing happened as she traversed the world of Hindu temple prasadams.

“I discovered that while the food was interesting, my journey also prompted larger questions about faith and its place in our lives and society. And that is what this book eventually became: a pilgrim’s quest into the world of faith told through food,” Narayan said.

Quite naturally, the writing of the book had a profound impact on her.

“I am a Hindu. It defines who I am, perhaps not as much as feminism, and certainly not as much as being a writer or a mother. But if I had to list out the top five things that are part of my identity, it would be part of the list,” Narayan said.

At the same time, there was the reaffirmation that “all religions share broad strokes. They talk about developing courage, character and tenacity to cope with the ups and downs of life. Faith, at its best, is about giving strength and succour. As it turns out, the religion that I was born into, Hinduism, has answers for many of the above questions. It is also an imaginative faith, full of myth and folklore, rituals that incorporate lights, lamps, flowers, music, dance and sacred food.”

We may pray to Jesus, Ram or Allah, “but at the end of the day, we are all children of God. We each have many identities. Religion is one, but there are others. We are each of us son/daughter, spouse, sibling, friend and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work, and I would suspect that most of my readers are the same way”.

“I am attracted to the beauty of Hindu rituals, to its pujas, pomp and circumstance. At the same time, I like Christian gospel music, Buddhist philosophy, Sufi poetry, Jewish literature, Sikh generosity, Parsi identity. In India, we are lucky enough to be able to experience them all.

“So yes, I am Hindu. I like my faith, but please, that’s not all I am.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a frig-full of prasadams (sacred food) that I need to eat,” Narayan concludes.

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Arts & Culture Books

‘Freedom In Exile’ Translated Into Assamese

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s second autobiography ‘Freedom in Exile’ has been translated into Assamese by eminent writer Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, a recipient of the Padma Shri, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) said on Monday.

Published by Bhaskar Dutta Baruah, the Assamese version of the book is titled ‘Prabasat Mukta’.

First published in 1991 in the US, ‘Freedom in Exile’ as explained by the spiritual leader, was written simply to oppose China’s narratives about the history of Tibet and the title of the book is the connotation for freedom His Holiness and his fellow Tibetans received from India.

The autobiography gives a detailed account of his birth, his selection as the highest spiritual leader of Tibet, the crashing of Tibet-China relations, and his subsequent exiled life in India.

In the book, the Dalai Lama has candidly shared about his relationship with the Indian government, including his relationships with Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi while detailing the latter’s support towards the Tibetan diaspora and the struggle they faced in the beginning.

Through the Assamese version of the book, the Nobel Peace Laureate states his sincere hope that the translation done by Thongchi will enable the Assamese readers to understand the tragedy of Tibet better and in addition the significance of the non-violent and peaceful struggle of the Tibetan people for freedom and dignity.

Readers can buy the book online on Amazon.

In 2017, His Holiness’ first autobiography ‘My Land and My People’ was published in Assamese language, titled ‘Mor Desh aru Mor Manuh’.

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Arts & Culture Books Interview

‘The Lost Homestead’: A Cathartic Narrative

A film on India’s last Viceroy triggered a series of journeys to the sub-continent as Marina Wheeler attempted to come to terms with its partition in 1947 and the trauma that it caused to her mother. In this she succeeded admirably but could be treading on thin ice when it comes to what exactly caused the upheaval…writes Vishnu Makhijani.

“You are right that Partition was a traumatic event for our family (and indeed many others, including your own). My mother did not speak of it as a young woman, as her father had decreed that none of the family were to do so. After leaving India with my father, I feel the pain and sorrow of it was parceled away, along with the sadness of this ‘second displacement’, as she put it,” but the story nonetheless had to be told, Wheeler, a London-based barrister and ex-wife of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, told IANS in an interview of her book “The Lost Homestead” (Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette).

Her search led to six trips to India and two to Pakistan over two years.

“Yes, my journey was cathartic and brought some peace to us both. Talking to me and reading my text, I feel, helped my mother to come to terms with what had happened. It also helped me understand her better, which was a wonderful thing, at the end of her life,” Wheeler added.

“By November 2017, when I set off on my travels, the story had begun to take shape,” Wheeler writes in the book, which is subtitled “My Mother, Partition and the Punjab”.

“I could see two parallel stories I wanted to tell. Two stories of freedom. One of India’s, its fight for political freedom, for self-determination and its people’s right to govern themselves. The second was my mother’s, her quest for personal freedom, for autonomy and the ability to decide her own future,” Wheeler writes.

Over the course of these two years, her mother Dip (Deep), “spoke more openly about Nehru than about personal matters. Often she left me to read between the lines, into the gaps and the silences. She invited me to interpret, which I have faithfully done”.

“I filled in the picture with the writing of others. Wonderful books – by journalists, or scholarly works with footnotes, the product of years of research. I also read novels and attended lectures and literary festivals. I met people, knowledgeable generous people, who guided me on,” Wheeler writes.

So far so good.

As British India descended into chaos with its division into two countries was announced, the violence and civil unrest escalated for months. With millions of others, Wheeler’s mother Dip and her Sikh family were forced to flee their home in Pakistan.

Wheeler weaves her mother’s story of loss and new beginnings, personal and political freedom, into the broader, still debated, history of the region. The book follows Dip when she marries Marina’s English father Charles Wheeler of the BBC and leaves India for good (the second displacement) for Berlin, then a divided city, and on to Washington DC, where the fight for civil rights embraced the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi.

Where, however, the book falters is on the very act of partition.

Having begun with Gurinder Chadha’s film “Viceroy’s House”, Wheeler writes that aside from “quibbles about acting and plot”, she was “troubled by something more serious: how the film dealt with the foundational, historical question: Why partition? The answer, it claimed, was that, unbeknown to Lord Mountbatten, the outgoing Viceroy, Britain had a secret plan to partition the country, to secure oil supplies and advance its own geopolitical interests in the brewing Cold War with Soviet Russia”.

“Really? This didn’t tally with what Dip had told me or anything I’d read (which, at that stage, was not a great deal). But if it wasn’t true, why would the film say that it was? I understand that people can perceive the same events in radically different ways. But allowing for interpretation, judgement and opinion, there is still a place for hard fact. Did any serious historians support a secret plan thesis? I wanted to know,” Wheeler writes.

Admitting that Mountbatten’s role and the decision to partition India, as she discovered while researching the book “remains very contested”, Wheeler said during the interview: “I try, in the book, to stand back and report the areas of dispute and contention, only committing myself to an account where it seemed to have a solid historical base.”

“I didn’t find support for the thesis that the British planned partition early in the century (as some historians contend), indeed the consensus – as I read it – seemed strong that for the British and Indian leaders, partition was an option embraced at the eleventh hour to avert civil war. This was after other options, including the 1946 Cabinet mission plan, had failed to win the required support.

“I am well aware that while I read as extensively as I could, I am not a historian and am committed to keeping an open mind about these (and other!) historical events,” Wheeler said.

A potential civil war is thus a new element that has been introduced (though the possibility has often been alluded to).

Narendra Singh Sarila, on whose book Chadha’s film is based, does write that “the British favoured partition and workd successfully to achieve it because they did not trust a Congress government to provide a bulwark against Russian incursions into the area, adding that the general view was that “only a strong independent Pakistan could be relied on to protect the Himalayan frontiers and the rich oil fields of the Middle East” – but this just another of the many theories on the issue.

The debate is unending, but let it not detract from the true value of “The Lost Homestead” in recording what might otherwise have been lost to history.

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Enriching Modern Literature With Poetic Expressions

As more and more female poets publish their works as collections and anthologies, it enriches modern literature with just as many voices and expressions of human emotions.

Here are four Indian poetesses you need to discover:

‘The Stitched Heart’ by Neelam Saxena Chandra

Life is bubble-box of experiences. Sometimes, you are victorious and your sheen has that golden glow. At other times, you lose. You are hurt by your own failures, or someone or some incident may give you enormous pains, making you feel emotionally crippled. Your heart often has to be stitched for you to live again. Stitching of heart is like Kintsugi, you tend to be far stronger than you originally ever were. ‘The Stitched Heart’ is a collection of fifty poems written by Limca Book of Records Holder, Neelam Saxena Chandra, that will help you grow to be tougher.

“In the earlier days, much emphasis was laid upon parameters such as rhyme and syllables. However, the present era poetry is tending to move towards free verse. However, as a poet having published 32 poetry books, I don’t give much importance to the style and form. What is more important to me is the central theme, the imagery, the flow and the manner in which the poet presents his/her views. In fact, certain times, in order to rhyme the words, the emphasis on the theme is often lost and during such times, I prefer free verse. I began with writing rhyming poems just like most of the poets, but now prefer free verse as a matter of choice,” says the poet.

‘Thera-poetic Bliss’ by Shambhavi Singh

Every human being has an innate desire to be heard and to be understood. But the comprehension of the same lies in the nuances of the emotions. The ones that are evident as well as the ones that are swept under the carpet. But who will listen, when everyone is going through the same thing? ‘Thera-poetic Bliss’ is a beautiful journey of self-discovery, the one that will listen to you as you read it and the one that will speak to you as your soul resonates with the blissful silence.

Each poem in this book is a continuation of the previous one, and yet, it is independent of what it resonates, woven like delicate threads of silk into a luscious fabric of hope.

‘Dariya-e-Ehsaas’ by Manisha Yadava

“‘Dariya-e-Ehsaas’ in English means ‘Emotions of a River’. This book is for semi Hindi literate reader, one who understands and can speak Hindi fluently, but cannot read with ease. That’s the second good thing about the book. All the poems are published in Hindi as well as English fonts so that any poetry lover can also taste the fragrance of poetic charm. Some of my personal favourites are: Tanha Ishq, Masoom Aankhen, Stree and Insaniyat, Woh ajnabee, Jashn-e-azaadi and Mrityu. This is an amalgamation of heart touching poems. One after the other, the poems grip you in emotions. The feel of the poetry is subtle and refreshing,” says the poet.

‘The Secret In My Blood’ by Akanksha Agrawal

‘The Secret In My Blood’ is a lattice of emotions expressed by a woman through her being that is analogous to life. It touches upon the tumultuous journey from a girl to a woman. The poetry renders a vignette that illustrates yearnings, the joy and ecstasy of passion and love. The poems depict the fervour and rhapsody between a man and woman with vivid characterisation. The book is spread across three parts – Ovulating in Emotions, Bleeding in Love, and Fertile to Fly.

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Exploring homosexual love in war-torn Afghanistan

Nemat Sadat, US-based Afghan-American activist and journalist, whose well-received debut novel ‘The Carpet Weaver’ explores homosexual love in the war-torn Afghanistan of 1970s, says his literary muse was his own rejection at the hand of most friends and family after coming out of the closet.

In a chat with IANSlife, Sadat dives deep into the socio-political climate of his book’s setting, the beginnings of his book, and his literary plans.

‘The Carpet Weaver’ is your debut novel, it took almost a decade to come out in flesh after you conceptualised it. How and why did you decide to go ahead with it?

Sadat: Barack Hussein Obama was the trigger for me to start the book. It was June 3, 2008. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Journalism at Harvard University Extension School. News broke out that Obama had secured the primary democratic nomination, edging out Hillary Clinton from the presidential election race.

I was so energised and figured if a biracial black man can come this close to become the Commander-In-Chief of the US and the leader of the free world, then I too could write a novel. The very next morning my life changed forever, I walked to a Starbucks inside of the Galleria Mall, sat down, and began writing the novel that was bottled up deep inside me. Eleven years later, the fiction project I started would get published in book form as ‘The Carpet Weaver’.

‘The Carpet Weaver’ is an incredibly ambitious novel, especially for a debutant. I had to orchestrate a symphony of words to capture the beauty of life amidst all the ugliness that my protagonist goes through. Kanishka’s journey is seeped in identity crisis, religious conflicts, and so many horrifying aspects of the human world. It was challenging to have Kanishka confront so many pressing issues and still convey moments of serendipity in an authentic manner that organically fit into the story. This required many dozens of drafts and countless rewrites.

The book illustrates what it is like to be gay in an Afghan community, and the picture it paints is not pretty, with homosexual men being labeled and shunned as ‘kuni’ and experiencing mental and physical violence, and the fear of being ostracised. How much of it stems from your personal experience?

Sadat: The Carpet Weaver’ is an #OwnVoices book, meaning Kanishka represents a marginalised group that I, as the author, belong to. We both identify as gay, refugee, Afghan, and ex-Muslims. Our core values are aligned and had I embarked on Kanishka’s quest I’d probably end up making the same decisions he made. But the similarities really end there. Unlike Kanishka, I did not grow up in Afghanistan or live in Pakistan. I was neither a weaver nor a prisoner in an internment camp.

That being said, of course, my own life journey, being rejected by most of my family and relatives after coming out inspired my literary muse. I was drawn to writing fiction first and foremost as a radical escapist fantasy from the repression I had faced. I languished both in the closet and the shadows and felt that I needed an outlet for my suffering. Writing seemed like a sure way to satisfy an emotional void in my heart and liberate myself from the mental shackles forged by both homophobia and homesickness.

At times, the story also questions the rigidity of religion in societal acceptance of homosexuality. Was it hard to write about?

Sadat: Writing about the social acceptance of homosexuality was the easy part. I felt it was true to Kanishka’s character to be a gay man who questions the authority of his inherited faith especially when the adherents of his own religion�regardless if they are Shia or Sunni�do not tolerate someone like him who don’t conform the patriarchal structure. What I worried about was how my book would be received and if devout people, particularly Muslims would react negatively to my book especially in light of the heightened religious conflict in India over the past few year.

Nemat Sadat

Thankfully, I’ve received nothing but love bombs. I had a hijabi Muslim woman request a signed copy after she and her husband recognised me and bought a copy of ‘The Carpet Weaver’ at the Chennai Book Fair and another hijabi Muslim woman and her daughter took a selfie with me after they bought my novel at the Kolkata Literary Meet. I’ve been met with the same kind of adoration and affection by Indians of all religious groups and this truly shows to me the power in India’s diversity rests in the pluralism that exists in the country’s literary scene and publishing world.

In brown cultures, conversations around personal identity, whether it’s about political beliefs radically different from the norm, or sexuality – whether it’s about men loving men, or a girl being open about her sexual desires (as in the case of Lamba) – can be difficult. Your thoughts.

Sadat: I’m unapologetic about advocating for women’s empowerment and balancing power and rights are evenly distributed along gender lines. I believe in universal human rights and get appalled when I hear advocates of women’s equality champion it in white majority countries but then speak in terms of cultural relativism when it comes to brown or black majority countries. To me this is regressive and a soft form of bigotry in itself.

Then of course you have the extra cloak of patriarchy that exists in collectivistic brown-majority countries where an individual is told�either directly or in unspoken words�to inhibit themselves and sacrifice who they are and their aspirations, beliefs, and desires for the sake of their community. This creates limitations and unmet needs and exacerbates a person’s identity conflict.

It’s why I chose to create Lamba. The common stereotype about an Afghan woman is that she is a victim of domestic violence and totally subservient to men. I wanted to create female characters in my book to show the side of Afghan girls and women that is more complex are closer to the reality of Afghanistan’s golden age of the 1970s when the book starts. Lamba, like Rustam, represent the sexual loopholes of Afghanistan that exists especially in the chaotic underground where debauchery takes place. Lamba publicly conforms to mainstream Afghan culture but she holds her ground and exercises her free will by discovering her sexuality and exploring the virtues of sensual pleasure.

Please share a bit about your multi-city book tour and how Covid cut it short.

Sadat: I arrived to India on my sixth trip to India since the release of ‘The Carpet Weaver’ on January 3rd of this year. I planned to spend the entire year embarking on a 55-city book tour and traveled to bookstores, book fairs, litfests, and university campuses in Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Ranchi, Kochi, Bangalore, and Mumbai when I had to cut my trip exactly two months later on March 3rd and had to flee the country with the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While I was Kochi promoting my book at the Krithi book fair, I met and pitched my book to Shahshi Tharoor who took a copy of my book with him and tweeted about it to his 8 million followers on his Twitter. Later that evening he pasted two photos of us together and wrote, “Had a serendipitous meeting at Krithi with gay Afghan author Nemat Sadat, whose first novel The Carpet Weaver’ is making waves and has propelled him on a 55-city tour through India. Great to see young Afghans finding a new literary voice.”

About your upcoming literary plans.

Sadat: I have five more novels in the pipeline for now. I started writing my second novel from the confines of my mother’s home in San Diego after the global economy shutdown and many people around the world went into lockdown. It was my way of trying to stay sane by limiting my intake of news. The working title to this project is ‘Keeping Up With The Hepburns’, which is set in the present-day America of President Donald Trump. My hero, a young gay vegan Afghan has a spiritual awakening after he meets his twin flame. There’s also an Indian and European plot twist.

Once it is safe to travel and socialise again, I hope to return to India to continue promoting ‘The Carpet Weaver’ and launch my second novel. I’m only published in India. But I hope to land a US and UK book deal and translation rights in multiple languages) and film rights for both ‘The Carpet Weaver’ and ‘Keeping Up With The Hepburns’ in 2021. I have my eyes in sight for a worldwide book tour to 250 cities in 50 countries in 2022, with at least several dozen cities across India.

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‘I Enjoy Writing For Children’

A prolific author and philanthropist, Sudha Murty is quite content at often being addressed as “Mrs Narayana Murthy”, as she presides over the Rs 400 crore Infosys Foundation that works among the less privileged sections of society and practices what she preaches — that “money alone does not bring satisfaction” and that “satisfaction comes from the heart”….writes VISHNU MAKHIJANI

And it is from the heart that she has penned close to 40 books in Kannada and English, some of them translations and the bulk of them for children, with her latest offering “Grandparents’ Bag of Stories” (Puffin), an ode to keeping your spirits up in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – a story a day keeps all troubles away – to be released on Children’s Day, November 14.

“My journey has taught me so many things, particularly to understand the difficulties of the human being. I enjoy writing for children…..they make me aware and to be sensitive to many, many issues,” Murty, the mother-in-law of Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, told IANS in an interview.

Tracing her journey in the world of writing, she said it “started when I was very young. I used to write in Kannada and changed to English only when I was 50 years-old (she is now 71)”.

“English translations, or writing in English, both helped me a lot because I could reach out to more people; a lot more people can read (English than Kannada),” Murty added.

Does she write to a pattern?

“I don’t plan anything about what is the road ahead for me. When my experiences are full, and I cannot just keep it in my mind then I start writing. I don’t plan, that I should write this book or that book but I always look at what I have and whether I will be able to pen down with more honesty and more compassion,”

To that extent, Murty’s latest book is an exception in that it is follow up to the iconic and one of her best-loved books, “Grandma’s Bag of Stories”, that has sold over 300,000 copies. Featuring fascinating tales and endearing characters, especially the grandparents – who exemplify comfort and nostalgia of childhood stories and profusely illustrated by Priya Kurian, the book contains positive and timeless stories that inculcate values of compassion, resilience and sharing. It’s an absolute must-have for every young Indian reader’s bookshelf.

It’s 2020 and children are stuck indoors as the novel coronavirus has found its way to India. A nationwide lockdown is announced, and amidst the growing crisis, Ajja and Ajji welcome their grandchildren and Kamlu Ajji into their house in Shiggaon (Murty’s birthplace).

From stitching masks, sharing household chores, preparing food for workers to losing themselves in timeless tales, the lockdown turns into a memorable time for the children as they enter the enchanting world of goddesses, kings, princesses, serpents, magical beanstalks, thieves, kingdoms and palaces, among others. The myriad stories told by their grandparents become the biggest source of joy, making the children compassionate, worldly-wise and more resilient than ever.

“It was wonderful to work on this book during the lockdown period due to Covid-19. It was a joy to create something memorable and positive for the children, especially in this unprecedented time when most of us are restricted to home,” Murty said.

“Writing this book was a delight and took me on a trip down memory lane where I once again became a child listening to stories from my grandparents and spending time with my cousins. I hope my young readers enjoy reading this book and find themselves having fun in this new world of simple and enchanting stories,” she added.

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‘The South Caucasus’: A Bird’s Eye View Of Immensely Diverse Region

The timing could not have been more perfect: The South Caucasus: Transition from Subjugation to Independence by Ambassador Achal Kumar Malhotra, just published by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) not only plugs an important gap in domain knowledge in India, but becomes instantly compelling coming as it does against the Armenia-Azerbaijan war which has caught the attention of Indians for the first time.

It is surprising that the region of the South Caucases – so strategic in location, sitting on the cusp of Europe and Asia on important energy and freight transit routes, so mythical in beauty, so chequered in history, so diverse in its ethnic makeup, and so endowed in natural resources — figures so little on India’s strategic radar. As a corollary little literature is available on the region and its three states – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The author has served as India’s ambassador to both Armenia and Georgia and this is arguably the only book on the South Caucases published in India. Of course, the author acknowledges that the book is only a bird’s eye view of this immensely diverse region. But it comprehensively traces its evolution over the past 150 years, which includes its multiple transitions from subjugation under the then medieval powers — the Persian, the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia — to finally independence for all the three states in 1991, rising from the debris of the former USSR.

Malhotra succinctly puts it: “…in the course of seventy years of Soviet rule, the South Caucasus region underwent difficult times…….. Overshadowing their individual identities as Armenians, Azerbaijanis or Georgians. Freedom of speech and religion was severely curtailed.”

The book’s main focus of course remains the region’s modern history, and it explores and analyses the circumstances under which the three states charted such distinct domestic trajectory. Georgia and Armenian are chaotic democracies while Azerbaijan continues to see dynastic rule of the Alieyev family. Their foreign policy orientation is similarly diverse: “Armenia and Azerbaijan opted in favour of joining the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as founding members, whereas Georgia opted out.”

Georgia is determinedly Eurocentric – especially after its 2008 war with Russia — and longs to be included in EU and NATO; Armenia is resolutely pro-Russia but has cordial relations with the Western world, while Azerbaijan keeps equi-distance from both the West and Russia but as the resuscitation of the conflict with Armenia proves has decided to move into the Turkish orbit under the slogan ‘Two states, one nation’.

In tracing the region’s modern history, Malhotra has successfully introduced the reader to the many conflicts that emerged in the post-Soviet space, all having their genesis in the Soviet Union: in the arbitrarily drawn borders ignoring ethnic and other crucial linkages, resulting in enclaves clamouring for the right of self-determination as the USSR collapsed. Therefore, “Despite being geographically contiguous, the region remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, widely varied and individualistic republics.”

Of these the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is most known to us because of the recent flare-up that may just have ended with Armenia agreeing to an agreement which its Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan described as ‘painful’.

Written though it was before the current round of violence broke out between the two neighbouring states, Malhotra’s words seem prescient today: “So can we presume that the status quo suits all: those who are in conflict and also those who are involved in resolving…It cannot be ignored at the same time that Azerbaijan, backed by revenues from energy resources, is spending considerable funds on its military build-up; it could possibly be nurturing the idea of recovering occupied territories by use of force at some appropriate time……”

But there are other frozen and simmering conflicts in the region �- of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which broke away from Georgia and have been recognised as sovereign states by Russia alone.

The volume ends with two chapters on India’s footprint the region. It summarises the centuries old ties that bound India with the region, but the current state of India’s bilateral relations the Caucasian states reflects the changed circumstances and current geo-political realities.

“India has been guided by the degree of inclination shown by these countries in reaching out to India (and) ……how each one has responded to India’s concerns and interests such as on the Kashmir issue, India’s nuclear policy, and its aspirations to be elected as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. At times India has found itself constrained by the need to maintain a balance between two conflicting countries in the region, e.g. Armenia and Azerbaijan. Finally, India has also had to take into account its strategic partner Russia’s sensitivities in the region, particularly….. Russia’s strained relations with Georgia.”

Armenia is the country that India has the closest relations with, encapsulated by the 1995 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation. But trade relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia overshadow that.

The book flags an important issue that Indian policymakers will need to seriously reflect on and formulate policy for a complex region where new players – Turkey, Iran, China — are entering the fray with increasing implications for India’s own defence, security and connectivity.

This volume could not have come at a better time.

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Sood Recounts Experience Through ‘I Am No Messiah’

 Actor Sonu Sood, who had earlier announced that he was writing a book recounting his experience of helping migrant workers during the Covid lockdown, has now revealed its title.

Titled “I Am No Messiah”, the book will be written in first person, revealing the emotional challenges the actor faced while extending help.

“People have been very kind and have lovingly named me messiah. But I really do believe that I am no messiah. I simply do what my heart tells me to. It is our responsibility as human beings to be compassionate and help each other,” Sonu shared.

Sonu Sood.

The book, which will be co-written by Meena Iyer, is expected to be out in December.

“I want to thank god for making me a catalyst in helping the migrants. While my heart beats in Mumbai, after this movement I feel a part of me lives in the villages of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Uttarakhand and various other states, where I have now found new friends and made deep connections. I have decided to put these experiences and stories that are embedded in my soul forever, in a book,” Sonu had previously said.

Also Read-Naoroji: A Chronicle Of The Pillar Of Indian Nationalism

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PRINCESTAN: How Nehru, Patel And Mountbatten Made India

Winston Churchill’s diabolical plan for the vivisection of India into Hindustan, Pakistan, and Princestan roped in defiant princes like Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal who, as Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, tried to build a consensus for the princes to stay out of a Congress-ruled India. What egged him on in his role as saboteur was the promise of prime ministership or governor generalship of Pakistan by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The Nawab acted as a stalking horse for the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose intention was to stay independent of both India and Pakistan, and moved in tandem with Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir and Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer of Travancore.

What they were planning clashed headlong with Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of an India that would include the territories under British rule as well as princely states, both big and small. In this, he was backed by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and, of course, Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon.

A word about how Mountbatten handled this. The Nawab of Bhopal was apprehensive about being a part of Congress-ruled India. He resigned as Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes and announced that he would be free to choose the destiny of his state when the British left India. This is also pretty much what he conveyed to Mountbatten. The Viceroy’s position on the matter was clear. He noted that while the Independence Bill provided that any state that decided not to join either dominion, the British would consider a separate relationship with it, in effect he would not act on any representation to him from the princely states in this matter. This is how he shut the door on the Nawab of Bhopal and others like him.

For the record, it might be said that the princes were under great pressure and wanted to retain their hereditary rights and privileges in a new democratic India.

Veteran Editor Sandeep Bamzai in his book “PRINCESTAN: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten made India”, tells the rivetting story of how Nehru got hold of a bombshell of a letter from the Nawab of Bhopal, secretly handed over to Jinnah before he left for London to meet Churchill. The letter provided explosive details of how some Indian princes, working hand-in-hand with the Muslim League, planned to keep their British connections either as individual entities or as part of a combined state on part of Pakistan. Ultimately, the plan to balkanize India went up in smoke.

Bamzai, providing access to other great acts of sabotage against India helmed by Churchill, details a ‘private’ letter from Churchill to Jinnah, where the British Prime Minister exchanges a coded signature for his messages to Jinnah and seeks a similarly secret name from Jinnah so that they could communicate on their plans without being discovered. However, those plans never worked.

Writes Bamzai, who is CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Indo-Asian News Service: “Nawab of Bhopal’s plan as a saboteur in conjunction with Travancore and Jinnah had been foiled, the vagrant princes subdued.”


Despite Lord Wavell and Political Department boss Sir Conrad’s best efforts, Travancore too slipped out of their grasp. Sir C.P., the canny Dewan of Travancore, like Pandit Ram Chandra Kak in Kashmir — deputies who called the shots on behalf of their respective rulers — had been muted. Both smartly established lines of communication with the Nizam of Hyderabad, who in turn used the Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, the Nawab of Bhopal, as the conduit to Jinah. Nehru, realizing that incalculable damage may be done to India, asked Blitz and (K.N.) Bamzai to hold on to their expose on monazite sands deliberately.

Nehru finally got an opportunity in the form of the Nawab of Bhopal’s top-secret letter, handed over to Jinnah prior to his departure for London to meet Churchill. The letter, considered a bombshell, hinted at a commitment on the part of the Indian princes, in conjunction with the Muslim League, of the maintenance of the British connection — either as individual units or as a combined state on part of the state of Pakistan, akin to a Confederacy (as mentioned earlier). Confirmation of this move come through another devastating letter marked ‘PRIVATE’, penned by Churchill to Jinnah dated 11 December 1946:

I should greatly like to accept your kind invitation to luncheon on December 12. I feel however, that it would be wiser for us not to be associated publicly at this juncture. I already greatly value our talks the other day and now I enclose the address to which any telegrams you may wish to send me can be sent without attracting any attention in India. I will always sign myself as GILLATT. Perhaps you will let me know what address I should telegraph to you and how you will sign yourself.

Kevadia (Gujarat): The ‘Statue of Unity’ that was unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in honour of country’s first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Kevadia, Gujarat on Oct 31, 2018. (Photo: IANS/BJP)

It was later learnt that GILLATT, an Englishwoman, was Sir Winston’s secretary and the address was her London home. Obviously a channel had been kept open between Jinnah and Churchill and others interested in British India. In his speech to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on 7 July 1946, and then again three days later in a press conference, Nehru spoke about the issue of minorities and how it was a domestic problem and how British interference in it was not desired. This gave Jinnah the opening he was looking for, and he withdrew the Muslim League’s acceptance to the Mission Plan on 29 July 1946. Nehru got the opportunity he was looking for, and as mentioned earlier, went on to highlight the plan to balkanize India and export monazite sands from India. While denouncing the move, he made a veiled reference to the source of his information and said that it was a friend who had given him the information.

Nawab of Bhopal’s plan as a saboteur in conjunction with Travancore and Jinnah had been foiled, the vagrant princes subdued. Jinnah however continued with his furtive plans, his public pronouncements completely at variance with his secret dealings and machinations.

Also Read-Naoroji: A Chronicle Of The Pillar Of Indian Nationalism

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Naoroji: A Chronicle Of The Pillar Of Indian Nationalism

Mahatma Gandhi called Dadabhai Naoroji the “father of the nation,” a title that today is reserved for Gandhi himself. Naoroji by Dinyar Patel examines the extraordinary life of this foundational figure in India’s modern political history, a devastating critic of British colonialism who served in Parliament as the first-ever Indian MP, forged ties with anti-imperialists around the world, and established self-rule or swaraj as India’s objective. It is the first comprehensive study of the most significant Indian nationalist leader before Gandhi.

Naoroji is the first full biography of Dadabhai Naoroji. Born in India in 1825, Naorojimade his mark on both Indian and British politics: he was a founding member of the Indian National Congress as well as the first British MP of Indian origin. An activist throughout his life, he pioneered devastating critiques of British colonialism, served in the British Parliament as the first-ever Indian MP, he forged broad ties with anti-colonialists around the world, and established self-government or swaraj as India’s ultimate objective.

In this intensively researched biography, Patel chronicles how Naoroji’s political career evolved in three distinct phases. As a young man, he embarked upon a sustained economic critique of colonialism, formulating the drain theory, which held the British Raj directly responsible for India’s crippling poverty and a cycle of devastating famines that killed millions of Indians. His ideas upturned the conventional wisdom of the time that colonialism was beneficial for Indian subjects—and put a generation of imperial officials on the defensive.

Naoroji attempted to influence the British Parliament to institute necessary political reforms for India. Having moved to England, he immersed himself in British politics, forging strong links with socialists, Irish home rulers, suffragists, and critics of empire. With these allies, Naoroji clinched his landmark election to the House of Commons in 1892, winning the seat of Finsbury Central. This event was noticed by colonial subjects around the world, with support pouring in from Ireland and South Africa.

Despite his election, Naoroji had to battle against entrenched scepticism. He became disillusioned with parliamentary politics, and radicalised considerably in his later years. He strengthened his ties with British and European socialists, reached out to American anti-imperialists and Progressives, and fully enunciated his demand for swaraj, self-rule. Only self-government, he declared, could remedy the economic ills brought about by British rule in India. Patel’s biography chronicles the life and political beliefs of an extraordinary figure, tracing his influence on Indian politics, where his work inspired both Gandhi and Nehru, and the changes he brought about in British-Indian relations, as he catalysed the forces of anti-imperialism.

Dinyar Patel is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. Whilst researching this book he worked in archives in four different countries, in particular consulting the Naoroji papers at the National Archives of India. Here he worked through about 15000 documents, personally cataloguing some of these and piecing together fragments of letters.

Patel has also previously written pieces on Indian history for both BBC News and The New York Times.

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