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Intellectual Order in a Chaotic World

By January 2, 2018No Comments

Source : The Indian Express

Reading philosophy, history and violence in 2017


Here is a quick, selective, quirky and personal take on some of the more interesting books of 2017. For starters, Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield’s Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance (OUP) is an unusually interesting book looking at the intellectual identity of philosophy in colonial India. For all their anxieties, intellectuals of that period come across as far more confident and creative than the post-colonial generation, and unravelling this paradox might also offer a clue to what ails Indian intellectual life.

This was a year for discovering new translations of our many Ramayanas. The poetic cadences are difficult to capture, but there were three heroic attempts. Bibek Debroy’s two-volume translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana (Penguin) would convince you that his real talent is being wasted in the Niti Ayog. Arshia Sattar’s interpretation of Uttara Kanda — Uttara: The Book of Answers (Penguin) — reads well, reminding you that the Ramayana’s power is often in the questions, not answers. The first two volumes of Philip Lutgendorf’s translation of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitramanas (Harvard University Press) in the Murthy Classical Series provide us with the first scholarly translation into English in a generation. But the translation makes you realise how much of the effect of Tulsi is in audible recitation; it is meant to be sung, not read. So, have Chhannulal Mishra playing in the background as you read the text.

But, if you want to escape from the ideal to the real, Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard University Press) is a scholarly tour de force covering a neglected theme in Indian history. Political violence, albeit of a very different kind, is the abiding theme of the one subject on which there was a truckload of books in 2017: the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

This was a big year for books on Russia and it was instructive to revisit the subject after years. The acclaimed novelist China Mieville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso) had gripping narrative power, if not the best political judgment. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (Princeton University Press) is a massive, page-turning, almost novelistic take on the Revolution seen through the life of one Moscow apartment complex. It paints a vivid picture of what living messianic utopianism feels like, even if it is not quite the whole story of the revolution.

But the most powerful book was volume two of Stephen Kotkin’s biography, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler (Penguin). The meticulousness of the research, the sense of judgment, the deep historical insight and psychological sophistication it deploys in its portrait of Stalin taking Russia down the path of evil, make it one of the all-time great political biographies. If you want to round off your Russian century, you could add William Taubman’s informative but tepid Gorbachev (Simon and Schuster) which made both Russian history and Gorbachev seem less interesting, and Masha Gessen’s The Future is History (Granta), a bracing, if somewhat deterministic, take on the totalitarian legacy of Soviet history and that enigmatic character who imperiously struts across the world stage these days: Vladimir Putin.

On more academic matters, Roger Backhouse’s Founder of Modern Economics: Paul Samuelson (Volume I: Becoming Samuelson, 1915-1948), was a surprisingly riveting read. It is nothing less than an intellectual history of the making of modern economics. And, in an era where scepticism of economics as a discipline is rampant, it was sobering see great intellects, at the top of their game, trying to snatch a modicum of intellectual order from a chaotic world. Rigorous empirical analyses of issues in politics can be found in an exciting new series edited by Ashutosh Varshney for OUP. Two volumes were published in the series this year: Francesca Jansenius’s Social Justice Through Inclusion: The Consequences of Electoral Quotas in India, and, Simon Chaurchard’s Why Representation Matters, The Meaning of Ethnic Quotas in Rural India. These books, and the series as a whole, fill a huge vacuum in the social sciences of India. Victor Mallet’s River of Life, River of Death (OUP), was a reminder of the multiple failures that have now rendered a whole ecology, and with it, a civilisation, precarious.

Sujatha Gidla’s An Ant Amongst Elephants (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) is being justly praised for its searing directness about caste. But the book is being read narrowly as a book about the Dalit experience. It is of much wider interest, particularly on culture and the contradictions of left-revolutionary politics in Andhra, seen through the life of KG Satyamurthy, the author’s maternal uncle. It is also good on the alienation of Indian college life. In literature, Emmanuel Carrere’s genre-defying and controversial The Kingdom is not just a take on faith and fanaticism, but also on the way in which Christianity was written. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is an effective meditation on the contemporary predicament of displacement.

Finally, as the year ended, Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch (Penguin), arrived. It is an erudite, lightly carried meditation on, and with, Joseph Conrad. It is beautifully written, with an enviable finesse. But it leaves you wondering — what is this restlessness that drove Conrad all around the world and then led the author to follow his trail? Perhaps, this restlessness is at the heart of authorship and readership, as much as it is the soul of adventure.

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