Bitter realities | BLOOD ON MY HANDS by Kishalay Bhattacharjee


2 STARS

I found this book through a string of articles I was reading on the Kashmir issue and the Indian Army’s role therein, which was in continuation to reading Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children a few months ago. While browsing these articles I came across one that referred to this book, detailing a disturbing confession by an unnamed army officer about staged encounters and extra-judicial killings by the Indian Army in disturbed areas like Kashmir and the North East.

Having grown up as an army kid myself, the details in the article were not only disturbing, but also unbelievable, and I certainly wanted to know more.
The book succeeds in making the reader understand the reality and existence of these staged encounters, and also explains why they take place. It describes how the “system” is wired to compel some individuals to resort to desperate measures to justify their existence or demonstrate their effectiveness. In shocking detail it relates how promotions, citations and awards are linked to body counts for those serving in these delicate areas, and how numerous innocent and unsuspecting lives have been lost in a bid to have the numbers add up.
Most do not succumb to this pressure, but some have and do, and this book is about those few…

The book also delivers perspective on the grey areas of military presence in Kashmir and the North East and why the conflict never seems to end. The army isn’t the lone perpetrator here – there is a well oiled organised mafia involving the local police and militant groups that traffic human lives for money, creating win-win situations for everyone but the victim, who is declared to be a gunned down terrorist. This quote from the confession makes the situation chillingly clear –


Militancy at any cost must be kept alive, even if it is on life support. You see the entire architecture of corruption and promotion will collapse if there is peace.

It is a bitter and dismal realisation to arrive at, since the army has always been lauded to be the most honourable and upright institution in the country, and more so when one has been a part of the institution, even if in a small way.

While this book had a significant impact on me, I give it 2 stars because I felt it could have been better written and documented. The writing felt rushed and amateur, especially in the confession chapters which read like direct transcriptions of the conversations, and which I feel could have been more nuanced and better written. The confessional narrative sort of digresses into various anecdotes and incidents and the author could have structured those better instead of just putting them down like they were told. References to certain incidents are easily traceable online and it would have been good if those were substantiated with evidence that is publicly available, and also lend credibility to the officer’s claims.

In any case, it is still a book worth reading once, to be mindful of some of the bitter realities of one of the most celebrated institutions of the country.

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Gendered aspects of the Kashmir conflict. BEHOLD, I SHINE by Freny Maneksha


Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir's Women and ChildrenBehold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish this book was more well known and more widely read than it appears to be, even though it is written by a well established journalist who has a significant body of work.
So, I am glad to have chanced upon it during one of my browsing binges on Amazon.

The author seeks to explore the assumption that women in Kashmir have not suffered the brunt of direct violence as much as men have, and in doing so brings out stories and experiences from Kashmiri women, old and young, which tend to be more difficult to access not only due to the prevailing ‘haalat‘ or circumstances but also the deeply entrenched patriarchal social structures that they live within.

In the wider context of the ‘Kashmir issue’, the author tries to answer questions like:
– does militarisation harden patriarchal structures?
– what happens to a woman when her husband ‘disappears’? does it change her status in the home?
– does she have the right to accept or refuse remarriage?
– how has the conflict impacted their freedom to safely move in open spaces?
– how does a male dominated society view women who have been assaulted and seen to have brought ‘dishonour’ to their family or community treated?
– how do women deal with and under these situations?

Through first hand accounts of tragedy and resilience, one begins to understand how deeply the conflict has impacted lives of women and children, who are left behind to fight for information, justice and closure – many of whom have been doing it for decades.

As someone who wasn’t too familiar with the history of the Kashmir conflict and why it continues to persist, I feel the book provides a fairly objective understanding and historical context. It also helps one understand why Kashmiris view India’s presence there as an ‘occupation’ and why they continue to fight for ‘azadi‘. I learnt about ‘Ikhwanis‘ for the first time through this book too – captured/surrendered militants turned into pro-government gunmen, nursed by the State and turned on civilians to extract information, often savage in their methods. This created a severe atmosphere of distrust and suspicion amongst Kashmiris, who no longer knew who they could trust or confide into.

As I read these stories, one thing that stood out for me in almost each one, and which is summed up in the very last chapters is the gender divide – that despite all the voilence and the loss of loved ones that families endure, instead of coming together to support the women (especially daughters in law), who are either victims of sexual assault or half-widows (whose husbands have ‘disappeared’), archaic patriarchal norms kick in stronger at such times and many women are abandoned or asked to leave, as they now bring dishonour to their families. Women who refused to back down from investigating the disappearances of their husbands or sons are also seen as trouble makers and asked to leave.

The book does well in disclosing and highlighting the gendered aspects of the Kashmir Conflict. It also makes one aware of how removed we are from the Valley’s struggles even though we have been hearing about them for over two decades, and how despite the political narrative and the means of maintaining control, we must consciously ‘humanise’ our awareness about the conflict and the people who bear the brunt of being the collateral damage in the proverbial crossfire.

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How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – INFERIOR by Angela Saini


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the StoryInferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As far as we’ve come into the ultra-modern 21st century, we are still women living in a man’s world.

Inferior is a well timed book that explores why the gender dynamic works the way it does, across cultures, generations and professions.
How did women come to be in the social positions they currently live in?
Who decided what roles men and women must have? And what were these based on?
Why are women believed to be inferior to men?
Are we biologically built to be lesser humans?
Do our brains have lower intelligence capacities?

Through really extensive research spanning neuroscience, psychology, medicine, anthropology and evolutionary biology, Angela Saini delves deeply into the question about women’s position in society, revealing hard scientific evidence that somehow never gets the limelight, but definitely questions the one-sided superiority argument that has favoured men in areas dominated by men.

The book lends a lot of perspective to the historical and social constructs, where “women have been systematically suppressed over the course of human history by men and their power structures“. It take a critical look at how we came to develop these traditional gender stereotypes of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother, and if these are really part of our biological makeup. I think it’s a really interesting and important study into our evolution as the “social animals” we so like to label ourselves.

My favourite chapters in the book were Chapters 1 and 7 because they present such interesting insights into the patriarchy led socio-cultural control system that confines women within a desirable boundary of acceptable behaviour. These are norms that define our “character” or “characterlessness” for that matter, and we all still live by them today.

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Best of 2017: Non Fiction


I read some amazing non-fiction in 2017, ranging from memoirs to behavioural science to psychology and health. Even though reading 14 non-fiction books in a year has been a major achievement for me, a first infact, I regret not being able to cover a lot more of the exciting stuff that is being written and published almost every week!

With renewed vigour to read a lot more in 2018, here are the 4 books that compelled me to think and stayed with me in 2017.

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THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg

I enjoyed this thoroughly researched, well written and extremely interesting so much, I still haven’t stopped talking about it to people, months after having read it.
If you’re curious about the neuroscience of how habits work and manifest themselves through our daily routines, and want to really understand the key to altering or developing habits, then this is a great book to read. It is simply written and full of case studies from neurology, business, marketing, analytics, crime, religion, disasters /crises – – illustrating how habits are used by organisations and systems to influence beliefs and attitudes to elicit desired behaviours. You’ll read about Pepsodent, Alcoholics Anonymous, Target’s marketing analytics, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and much more!


51PF0757JNLBETWEEN TWO WORLDS: ESCAPE FROM TYRANNY: GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF SADDAM by Zainab Salbi

This is an intimate, revealing and disturbing first hand account of life inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and what it was really like for the people who were loyalty bound to the tyrant. Zainab Salbi’s father was appointed Saddam’s personal pilot, and someone who Saddam considered a dear friend. Fear made his friends acutely loyal. As much as this book is about how Saddam impacted Zainab and her family, eventually forcing it to break apart, it is also a chilling portrait of the man himself. Of all the stories one had heard about his savagery and ruthlessness, there is still more, and that in itself makes this book a remarkable read. To appreciate and understand Salbi’s struggles, her grit and determination to break out of a life controlled by fear and psychological manipulation, having a complete perspective on Saddam is imperative.

I already feel like I will read this book again.

 

25899336WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I will not be saying a lot about this book except that it is definitely one that you must read if you haven’t yet. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, When Breath Becomes Air has been one of the most talked about and appreciated books in 2017.

Written by a terminally ill neurosurgeon, who, finding himself on the opposite end of the table, looks back at his long and arduous training to become a neurosurgeon and comprehend what really lends meaning to life.

 

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DEAR LEADER: FROM TRUSTED INSIDER TO ENEMY OF THE STATE, MY ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA by Jang Jin-Sung

The two things we’ve seen mentioned together the most this year are Trump and North Korea. North Korea has always been a topic of interest for me. I find this book fascinating and absorbing because the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they manage to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question. In an article with the Guardian, he describes the
regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the centre of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

 

With that I wrap up my thoughts on my top 4 non-fiction favourites from 2017. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought about them!

Until then, happy reading!

Book Review – I Accuse-: the anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 by Jarnail Singh


I Accuse-: The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984I Accuse-: The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 by Jarnail Singh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember the journalist who threw a shoe at P Chidambram at a press conference a few years ago? That journalist, Jarnail Singh, is the author of this book. He was just an 11 year old kid, a resident of Lajpat Nagar, when he witnessed the vicious violence against the Sikhs in Delhi in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Many books have been written on the incident and the long pending justice that is still awaited by its victims and survivors more than 30 years later. I have not read most of those books, but there is something very emotional and personal about this one. For Jarnail Singh, this is too close to heart. The narration of first person accounts is simple but direct. It is difficult not to picture the carnage, the brutality and inhumanity of the unimaginable attacks. Men turned to monsters.
More than 30 long years later, the victims’ families continue to live in the long shadow of the attacks , their lives upended, their futures ruined, relegated to peripheral rehabilitations, survivors still struggling to survive, though many have succumbed.

The administration’s evident involvement and yet painfully slow and reluctant action to bring justice is outrageous. Khushwant Singh writes in his foreword to the book, that it is a must read for all those who wish that such horrendous crimes do not take place again.
And yet we see more examples of the same things happening today. Human life continues to hold little value in the face of what is manufactured belief, asserted boundary, wrenched legitimacy.

Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran – Marina Nemat


Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside a Torture JailPrisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside a Torture Jail by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It amazes me to read stories from around the world that reveal how in the name of religion, power, politics, revolution…. innocent people who choose not to comply end up paying such heavy prices to maintain the most basic of liberties.

It is not that I live in an idealistic world, oblivious to the realities and sufferings that result from war and violent conflict – but when one reads in such detail, the ordeal of an individual who survived a conflict, the gravity of what he/she endured really hits home. From a statistic, this person turns into someone who you get to know almost as intimately as your own family and friends, and it is that connect that provides such perspective into the silent suffering and strength of millions trapped in conflict zones.
I think with war continuing to carry on in so many parts of the world for so many years, one dismisses it as an event beyond one’s control and in the process also loses sight of all the lives that are changing and getting lost everyday.

This is an important story, one that took so much courage to tell.

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Book Review – ONE CHILD by Mei Fong


5/5 STARS!!!!

An account of what may possibly be the world’s most extreme social experiment in modern times, ONE CHILD tells the story of China’s one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. The policy was phased out last year, in 2015, and this book takes a look at what this policy has really meant for the people of China, how it was implemented, and how it will take a long time for the country to recover from its impact. 

Two of the most striking emotions that I have associated with China from whatever I have read and heard in the past, and more strongly through this book now, are fear and control. The way the Communist Party and government system control the country down to the last and remotest person is disturbing. Several instances in the book show how people were bound by the one-child rule, breaking which brought about a slew of fines and punishments, economically debilitating an already poor population and leaving them with nearly no choices of a fair recourse. It was non-negotiable. 

The book shows how the policy has affected not just the parents who were forced to adhere to it, but also its impact on the children who were born as the one-child generation. There are horrifying instances of in-human forced late-term abortions, and sad tales of parents losing their only child to natural disasters – like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of thousands of children, who were at school at the time, due to the poor quality of their school buildings. In the aftermath of such incidents, the desperation of parents scrambling to register themselves to have another child, as they would be eligible again, is heartbreaking. 

But there is also a very economic and pragmatic reason driving them to make such desperate scrambles to have children. As the author states, everything in Chinese society is geared towards marriage and family, and being unmarried or childless placed you very low on the societal totem pole. (There are labels like “leftover women” for those who remain unmarried after 25, and “bare branches” for men who are also unmarried after the designated ripe age. There are “bachelor villages” because of an extremely lopsided gender ratio, that was further exacerbated by the one-child policy, which encouraged people to be even more choosy about having their “one-child” as a boy.) 

People who broke the one-child rule or did not have any children, could not claim several of the benefits that the state offers – they simply became ineligible. Without any progeny, people found it difficult to buy even burial plots for themselves. Also, as the ratio of the older generation in China increased, and with expensive hospice care, having a child to look after you in old age became a critical requirement and investment. 

Other discriminating policies like hukou, which prevents migrant populations from overpopulating cities by making them ineligible to government benefits that a resident would normally get, show how difficult life is in China for the economically weaker class.  

There is a very interesting section early in the book, that talks about how the Olympics were also one area for the authorities to exercise population control to bring glory to the country – – where selective breeding to raise more talented humans was a central part of the elite sports program. 

Held very soon after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were China’s opportunity to dazzle the world, and they likely did. But some of the facts about how they did this has been an eye-opener – from spray painting the city’s dry grass an emerald green, to deploying 25 control stations to fend off rain clouds approaching the Bird’s Nest stadium, to the computer generated imagery of the fireworks one saw on TV – – it shows how China can and will go to any extent to paint a picture of perfection. 

Ironically, after three decades of making the one-child policy mandatory, the Communist Party is now having trouble making people choose to have two children – With such high parenting and child rearing costs, most middle-class Chinese now prefer to have only one child. 

There’s a lot more that the book covers that is interesting, insightful and informative and I would recommend everyone to read it, just to know a little bit more about this intriguing land of smoke and mirrors and the struggles of its people.

Featured Image Source: Amazon.in 

The Blood Telegram – Book Review


***** 5 STARS

The Blood Telegram may possibly be one of the most important and well written books I’ve read on modern Indian history so far. As someone who is almost always incurious, indifferent and unenthusiastic about politics (national and world) in general, reading this book has been a revelation on international diplomacy as well as a completely new perspective on the maneuverings that take place in the highest offices of the world, and the decisions that set in motion a series of incidents that alter the future of generations to come.

I’ve read this book like the history student I never was, completely absorbed in the details, wanting to take down notes, watching simultaneous interviews on YouTube (bringing to life the pages of the book) and constantly resisting the urge to underline complete paragraphs on nearly every page in the book. In the end, I had to make an exception to my ‘no markings in books’ rule – to highlight passages that I knew I was going to want to refer to again.

 

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My interest in modern Indian history is a fairly recent development, sprouting in the last couple of years mostly because of the extensive research I did for a project at work. Before this, my world view was limited to what we studied (or were taught) in school, which was nothing short of propaganda that the ruling party wants to feed you, and therefore hardly worth basing lasting opinions on. And so for a long time, reading history was not even on my radar.

It is laughable that up until now, I did not even know that the major part of the 1971 conflict was actually on the eastern side! It is the western side of the war that I’ve always remembered hearing about and being born just over a decade after this war, it is appalling to realize how little I knew about ‘India’s greatest triumph’ and what led to it.

This is why ‘The Blood Telegram’ came as such an important lesson for me on not just the 1971 war and the history of the birth of Bangladesh, but also as a lesson in world politics, the Cold War context, international relations, foreign policy and the hidden motives that define the realms and repercussions of international conflict. 

Gary J Bass’ research is detailed and expansive, and while there is always the danger of the author’s opinion coloring the inferences in the narrative, I think he dealt with every aspect as objectively and un-biasedly as is possible, basing all his interpretations and conjectures on hard facts. This is one of the reasons I am so taken by the book, because every fact literally comes from the horse’s mouth.

The one thing this book would not have been possible without, is the Nixon White House Tapes. Another fact that was news to me. I find it hard to believe that in the era of the Cold War, when secrecy and confidentiality were paramount, a US President would decide to have his office bugged and all his conversations and confidential meetings recorded. A tradition that continues to be practiced even today. In the Indian context, I can totally picture the author and his researchers diving into archival records and microfilms at the Nehru Memorial Library – a place I think is frozen in time from the 70s… and one I have spent several blissful days doing my own historical research in. Oh what a pleasure it would have been to be a part of the research team for this book.

In the end, we are ruled by our personalities, our temperaments, identities and insecurities – and I think what hit me most from the book was the interface it provided with Nixon and Kissinger in their revealing closed door conversations. Ultimately, it was their convictions, preferences and personal opinions that largely affected the outcome of the events in 1971, which despite numerous warnings and evident indications did not waver – and set the stage for a continuing conflict between India and Pakistan.

A #highlyrecommended book for anyone who would like objective and detailed insight into one of the largest but forgotten conflicts of the Indian subcontinent.

The 2016 Compulsive Collector’s Reading Challenge


I’ve already set myself a challenge to read 30 books this year (last year I managed 27). But the real challenge I’m setting for myself is to complete this target by reading from the books I already own.

Like most book lovers, I love to collect books – to be surrounded by books on my shelves, in my bag and in my iPad. I labor for hours online, reading several reviews and book lists to find the in best crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, and discover the most interesting true life, historical and autobiographical non-fiction. And while I keep hoarding this absolutely great stack of books (which I also fondly gaze at everyday), whenever I need to pick one to read, I almost always choose a completely new one, that was never even a part of this pile. I am greedy like that, yes. I only seem to want more and I never want to share! 😛

Having 10 unread books sitting in my book rack already, and 44 others in my iPad, did not stop me from bringing 15 more into my heart and home from the Delhi World Book Fair this weekend. Though I will say that I got these at throw away prices and at least I am not guilty about spending the month’s salary on them!

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So with that firm resolve, here’s my 2016 Reading the books I own Challenge.

Indian History

  • White Mughals
  • The Blood Telegram
  • Delhi: A Novel

Non Fiction

  • Geisha
  • Daughter of China
  • The Book of General Ignorance
  • Gangs
  • The Girl with 7 Names
  • Quest

Fiction

  • The Seventh Secret
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • That Thing Around Your Neck
  • Jailbird
  • 14 Stories that Inspired Satyajit Ray
  • Americanah
  • The Accidental Tourist
  • Snow Flower and the Secret fan
  • Kafka on the Shore

Crime / Thriller

  • American Assassin
  • Naoko
  • Salvation of a Saint
  • The Case of the Missing Servant
  • K is for Killer
  • The Beautiful Bureaucrat
  • Red Queen
  • Six of Crows

Classic / 18th Century

  • The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Wolf Hall
  • Bring Up the Bodies

Graphic Novel

  • Fun Home

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And that’s it!

I will be working really really hard to stick to this list. I’m sure I’ve missed a few interesting ones, but if I ever want to switch one around, I promise to switch it with one from my existing stack only. Wish me luck!

Do you have a compulsive book collection condition too? I’d love to hear how you deal with it. Until then, Happy Reading!