Posted in book review, india, writing

Book Review: An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor

History is in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present.

The sun never set on the British Empire because even God didn’t trust the British in the dark.

 -Shashi Tharoor

Although colonialism is an issue of the past, people belonging to former colonies (including me) have a certain resentment towards our erstwhile colonists about the way in which they have downplayed the whole issue of imperialism. Coming from India and now studying in the Netherlands, I frequently broach the topic about colonial history with my Dutch and Spanish friends, and I am surprised to hear that they know very little about that part of their history. So along with the entire country, I got very excited when the Oxford Union debate video of Shashi Tharoor-a well known Indian author and parliamentarian- on whether Britain owes reparations to India, became viral on social media. The video received huge positive response and motivated the author to write a book on the topic, aptly titled An Era of Darkness.

In the book inspired by the reactions to a speech, the author explains in his eloquent style the systematic plunder of India by the East India Company. Not set in chronological order, the author talks about the political, economic and social impact of the British rule on India and its citizens in different chapters in the book. He gives facts to counter the view of the apologists of colonial rule saying that there are many countries in the world which had railways, democracy and the rule of law without having the need to be colonized. The book is an easy and interesting read, whereby the author takes you along a historic journey and you do not feel as if facts are merely thrown at you, as is the case many times in books dealing with this topic.

The book has left a deep impression on me and although I agree with the author that the present cannot be held accountable for the past, I believe that the one pound per year remuneration for 200 years as suggested by the author as well as the public acknowledgement by the British royalty or the parliament on the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 2019 would be atonement enough to appease the Indian public.

P.S.: The link for the debate that led to this novel can be found here: Debate


Posted in book review, india

Book Review: The Emergency-A Personal History

Emergency was undoubtedly the darkest phase of Indian democracy. What made it all the more remarkable was that there was no precedent for such a bold step before the event, nor has there been one after. The move shocked the country because of the instantaneous and harsh implementation and also as no one believed the daughter of Nehru-an upholder of democratic values-would behave like a dictator. Indeed many people have compared Indira in the emergency period to Hitler, but as the author of the book mentions, she went one step ahead of Hitler and tried to installed her son as her political heir and successor.

According to the author, there were three main events that contributed to the decision of Indira Gandhi to announce an internal emergency. Mind you, there was already a state of external emergency in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The first reason was the death of D.P.Dhar, one of Indira’s closest advisors. Then came the news that her party had lost the elections in Gujarat. To make matters worse, Indira was stripped of her membership in the Lok Sabha in response to the Election Commission finding certain irregularities in the process, chiefly the improper use of a public servant in the campaign and the use of more money than the permitted amount. These events led her to proclaim the emergency and begin one of the darkest phases in Indian democracy.

The author presents evidence to the fact that while people think the emergency decision was taken in a few days, it was infact the culmination of several events that took place since 1971. There was an increase in the power of Indira Gandhi, both within the party and outside. She began removing CMs (Chief Minister-the head of the government in a particular state) from their post unceremoniously, particularly those who were showing some hesitation in accepting and blindly following her orders. She abolished the privy purses of the princely states and thus went on the wrong side of many princely families, in particular that of Gwalior. Indeed, the Rajmata of Gwalior was one of the first high profile prisoners in the jail following the imposition of the emergency. Another event which convinced the opposition of her growing clout was the installation of a junior Supreme Court advocate as the Chief Justice, bypassing several people who were senior. People saw this as an indication that she wanted a judiciary that was subservient to the government, but her supporters maintained that she only wanted both of them to have the same ideology.

The author, being a close relative of Subramaniam Swamy-one of the firebrand politicians of this country-devotes substantial space to his work in mobilizing the opposition in the country and the support for the opposition in the USA to defeat the ruling party. The contributions of Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes are also mentioned in detail. JP, a leader of the masses hailing from Bihar, was close friend of Indira’s family, with her mother and JP’s wife regularly exchanging letters. The trouble between JP and Indira started from the time of 1969 elections, with Indira feeling that JP wanted to wrest power from her hands, while he was against power in the hands of a single individual. The author mentions how JP was kept in squalid conditions in the jail, mostly in solitary confinement and was denied access to a doctor even when he complained of severe stomach pains. The festering rats, the heat, poor food quality and lack of communication with people, took its toll on the politician and he died soon after.

The story of George Fernandes is not too different. He led a revolt of the railway union and a warrant was issued for his arrest. When the police could not find him, his brother was arrested and tortured for months.

But probably the main man of the emergency was Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira Gandhi. His controversial projects which included development of a small sized car for the Indian public and the mass sterilization program built resentment against the ruling party and prompted Indira Gandhi to call for elections in 1977 and lift the emergency.

Emergency was indeed a dark phase in the strong democratic traditions of Indian democracy. It exposed what corrupt politicians, hellbent on maintaining their strong hold on the government and not let the opposition win could do. Never was there a precedent for such an initiative and as a responsible citizen, I hope there never will be.

Coomi Kapoor captures the essence of the public during the emergency having lived through it and experienced it. She tells about the imprisonment of her husband, and that of her relative Subramanian Swamy. She tells about countless other people who were tortured and imprisoned in unhygienic conditions in the name of emergency. This book is a must read for all those interested in Indian politics and the emergency in general.

Posted in india, short story

The Operation

My mother has not spoken to my father for the last eight years, and for that he is truly grateful.

My mother had always been a lively and bubbly person. She had the ability to talk throughout the day and not tire one bit. She even used to talk in her sleep. We had a running joke about it in the family, that she doesn’t let my father talk, even while sleeping.

The year was 2008. I still remember it as if it was yesterday. I had just passed my Class 11 examinations and was enjoying what would probably be my last few days of rest for the next year or so as I would be preparing for my engineering entrance examinations. My mother was cooking when I suddenly heard a crash. On entering the kitchen, I saw my mother lying face down with a trickle of blood coming out from the side of her head. I immediately took her to the nearby hospital.

‘There is nothing to worry about’, the doctor told us after examining mother for an hour or so. By this time, my father had also arrived at the hospital from the office. We were advised to let her rest, ‘maybe it is the stress that caused her to faint’, the doctor said.

We took her home and did all the housework ourselves. We took turns to cook for her. Slowly, she started feeling better and gained back her strength.

All was well for a few months and mom and dad decided to take their annual holiday in Nainital, a hill station in northern India. A few days after they had left, I got a call on my cellphone from my father in the afternoon. I remember thinking it strange that he was calling me at this time of the day since he knew that I had my regular lectures. It turned out that my mother had a blackout and had fainted in the hotel room. Since the hospitals in Nainital were not equipped to handle that kind of emergency, she was immediately airlifted to Delhi after initial treatment. My father asked me to come to Delhi as soon as I could. He did not tell it to me then, but I knew that this time my mother had more pressing problems than just “stress”.

My father came to pick me up at the Delhi airport the next day. We both were silent on the journey to the hospital. As soon as we reached the hospital gates, my father took my hand and told me that my mother had undergone a major operation last night and was kept under observation for 48 hours. Even my father had not seen her since she was wheeled out of the ICU.

In the hospital, we tried to keep ourselves occupied by reading the magazines or playing games on the mobile, but our thoughts would inadvertently turn towards our mother and what the problem with her was that was making her sick. Tears welled in my eyes and I made an excuse to go buy something to eat so as not to let my father see me in that state. God knew he had enough troubles already.

Three days later, we were allowed to visit our mother in her room. The doctor told us not to be with her for long as she was weak after the long operation. We were told that there was a severe blood clot in her brain probably due to some fall that she had sustained. He asked us if she had fallen on her head in the recent past and we replied in the affirmative. The doctor then said that the clot was probably due to that fall and had she not been operated on sooner, she might have lost her life. The clot was putting a lot of pressure against her brain, he said.

I went inside the room where my mother was resting while the doctor took my father aside to speak with him. She was weak, that was my first thought on seeing her. I was not used to seeing my “talkative” mother keep silent for so long. I placed my hands on her face and ran my fingers through her hair. I stayed that way for some time; just willing her to say something, even mumble a few words. After an hour or so, I kissed her on the brow and left the room. She had not woken up yet.

I found my father sitting on the bench outside her room looking distraught. I sat down near him and held his hand. He just held me tight. We sat there that way the whole night, arm-in-arm, no one saying a word, drawing comfort in each other.

The doctor had taken my father aside and told him that although they had succeeded in removing the tumor from her brain, there was still a part of it that was inaccessible to them. And so they were going to try another operation in a week’s time. The operation was going to be tricky, the doctor told him. The remaining part of the tumor had lodged itself in that part of the brain that controlled speech. Any wrong move and the consequences could be fatal.

My mother woke up later that day, and was I happy to see her. I hugged and kissed her. She was her own self then, talkative and bubbly, although she was having trouble speaking long sentences. I remember telling this to my father and he said that it was a consequence of the operation and not a thing to worry about.

Over the next few days, my mother regained her strength. The date of the operation was drawing near. Over another routine examination, the doctor told my father that the operation needed to be performed as soon as possible because the tumor was starting to put a lot of pressure on her brain. One day before the scheduled operation date, my mother blacked out. Immediately she was wheeled into the ICU and her operation commenced.

The doctor came out of the ICU a couple of hours later to tell my father that her condition was serious. The tumor had put a lot of pressure on the brain and when they tried to remove it, it had burst and there had been lot of internal bleeding. There was very little chance that she would survive, he said. In any case, if she did, she would lose her voice. And then he went inside the room, leaving us to contemplate the meaning of it all.

The operation lasted close to a full day. At the end of it, the doctor emerged from the room, thoroughly fatigued. Then he saw us sitting nearby and smiled. A nurse wheeled my mother out from the operation theatre and my father and I ran to hug her.

My mother has not spoken to my father for the past eight years, and for that, he is truly grateful.