Film

Thoughts While Watching WONDER WOMAN

    1. My friend is freaking out about us not getting to the theatre on time even though AMC famously starts the show after TWENTY WHOLE MINUTES of advertisements and trailers. Double whammy of shameless capitalism inside and outside in the popcorn queue. THIS IS WHY YOU NEED AN INTERMISSION, AMERICA! But I’m grateful for the buffer. Thanks AMC.
    2. Gah, the dude at the door forgot to give us our 3D glasses. Minutes before the start of the film I’m running down the escalator to the ground floor. But that’s OK because trusty ol’ AMC also devotes three hundred seconds to turning off cellphones. And really driving the point “we’re awesome” home.
    3. And so it begins! I have goosebumps.
    4. The wide angle camera shot of what looks like the Great Wall of China. Oh it’s Themababababa. OK island. You are cool because your name is complicated.
    5. THE AMAZONS! Such a time-waster this back story is. WHERE IS CHRIS PINE?
    6. There he is.
    7. “We are the good guys, the Germans are the bad guys”
      Heh heh heh.
      *slowly sinks into popcorn and avoids making eye contact with German friend*
    8. The Amazon warriors kicking some major dude ass is oddly satisfying. I was concerned about Wonder Woman wearing a skirt-armour but looks like the frock-uniform was all the rage in the early 20th century.
    9. Ah, 20th century Britain. You are beautiful.
      Must. Remember. Not. Think. Of. The. Indian. Blood. Spilt. Building. It.
      Is that treachery? Nah, probably just sedition.
    10. This woman is breathtaking. Come on Chris Pine, GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER.
    11. I’m told that Chris Pine has an actual name in this movie that is not Chris Pine.
    12. Wonder Woman, Amazon with no knowledge of the human world, bedecked in American colours and symbols. Uncanny.
    13. Wonder Woman’s dress is very very distracting because her derrière, protected by three tenuous pieces of fabric, is constantly threatening to moon the audience.
      Side Note: A quick search says that the radical idea of Wonder Woman wearing pants was tossed around and then tossed out. I think it was to ensure that I spent at least part of this movie in equal parts cold sweat and amazement that neither the (strapless!) top slips nor the bottom slips up. She really is magical, isn’t she?
    14. THE LASSO OF TRUTH!! And the special effects are brilliant.
    15. I love the moment where he’s all, “Come damsel, let me protect you”. Then Wonder Woman beats up everyone and his expression changes to an astonished, “Please damsel goddess, protect me!”
    16. The actress is amazing, so I shudder to say this, but in some scenes she looks so demure and dainty rather than powerful. I wish they had done a little less getup and a little more Geeta.
    17. They stop at a village along the way to find Ares and take The Most Convenient Photograph in DC History. It means someone, most likely Chris Pine or everyone, is going to die. He does.
    18. Why is Remus Lupin bothering to reveal himself as Ares when he knows that Wonder Woman is the God Killer? She’s going to beat you, dude!
    19. And she does.
    20. What does Batman have to do with Wonder Woman? Should I have watched Batman v. Superman?
    21. Update: I watched Everything Wrong With Batman v. Superman instead.
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Art · Language

Light of My Soul

प्यार में जुनून है पर दोस्ती में सुकून है ।

Love is passion but friendship is peace.


Farewell, remember me in your dua as I depart,
Savour the taste of my name on your tongue,
Treasure our moments in the vaults of your heart,
Cherish my salam in every missive that is sprung.

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
My beloved, my beloved.

My absence in your mehfil
Isn’t cause for sadness–
For to the brim it’s filled,
With paeans of our closeness.

How many of my morning suns
Basking in the warmth of your angan,
Did sink below the horizons?

Your darkest nights: my burden to bear
My Shining Star I leave in your care,
Oh my darling, oh my beloved!

From your beautiful face away
My twisted path wends
Many miles must I stray
For now, for us, The End.

Sandal am I,
A fragrance in my wake.
My dearest possessions are last
A lifetime of dreams amassed,
Left under your pillow; your keepsake.

It is time.
I take the cloth.
And leave you behind
My heart, my soul, my beloved.

 

“Unrequited love is different.
It’s a love that isn’t shared.
It is mine. Only mine.”

Books · World

The World in Books, 2016

 

 

2016 is almost long gone but not quite.

Cups of hot adrakwali chai accompanied my quest last year to try to read more books from around the world.

before-2016

The more I read, the more I was chagrined at my surprise at finding similarities among people from countries that were not my own. I was often disillusioned about the news, that tends to focus on the worst of us, and lumps together large tracts of land whose cultures are quite distinct.

countries-after-2016

The highlights of my journey were:

10. The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkey

A book by Elif Shafak, an author so eloquent that she’s featured on this list twice! A beautifully written book that is a personal narrative of two girls and their parents set against the backdrop of Turkish and Armenian relations. The book was in equal parts a joy to read and a treasure trove of historical perspective.

9. Maus

Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a sensitive and personal narrative of Jews in Nazi Germany. The German Jews are characterized as mice and the German Nazis as cats. It is also a biography of Art Spiegelman’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany with a combination of quick-thinking, sheer grit and a healthy dose of luck.

8. The Kite Runner

A heart-wrenching story of two boys and their lives together and apart. If there’s ever a book that I have wept over, it is this one.

7. I am Malala

Who is Malala Yousafzai? Why did she win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why does the Taliban have a death wish for a (then) fourteen-year-old?

“Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”

The story of a brave young girl fighting for education and the peace and the problematic appropriation of her story to continue cultural stereotypes.

6. Wonder

How does one describe Auggie Pullman?
The most real character, the most heartwarming story, the best pick-me-up to convince yourself to Never Give Up, Never Give In.
I got Wonder for my little sister and ended up falling in love with little Auggie too.

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

5. The Forty Rules of Love

Love and history. Elif Shafak masterfully intertwines the two again in parallel stories that mirror each other. And guides you to an appreciation of the great poet and Sufi saint Rumi, not just for his wisdom, but also as a person.

“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”

4. Nehru: The Invention of India

If politicians were meant to be leaders and leaders are people who are meant inspire you, whose actions are meant to be examples, who you look up to and hope to emulate, then both the subject and his biographer would top my list.

A cheeky play on the title Nehru’s autobiography, “The Discovery of India”, Tharoor once again writes an eminently readable book on the history and politics of India.


This is it. The inner sanctum. The top 3. All of them were equally brilliant in different ways and did what a great book is supposed to do: Change one’s life.

3. Palace Walk

Literature is an art and you see why when Mahfouz writes. Every word is a brushstroke, every carefully crafted turn of phrase observed with painstaking precision the edging of detail, and the story blooms into an exquisite masterpiece, a work of art.

The story of Egypt on the brink of forcefully ejecting the ruling squatters.

2. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.”

His words and paintings speak for themselves. Is there anything left to say?

1. Persepolis

The book that started it all. The revolution in Iran, the internal struggle of a liberal population stuck in a conservative country, a love note to a land of immense history and culture, and in the midst of all that, the ecstatic highs and depressing lows of growing up and figuring life out. Marjane Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of her memories of her beloved homeland, flaws and all, love and torture, too-quick marriages and political coups, Iranian autocracy and British-American chicanery, is a must-read.

Read one book this year. Make it this one.

Art · Books · World

A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters

“In the morning it was so beautiful on the road to Turnham Green – the chestnut trees and the clear blue sky and the morning sun mirrored in the water of the Thames; the grass was sparkling green and one heard the sound of church bells all around.”

Vincent had been an art dealer in The Hague at 16. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, who was secretly married to the previous lodger. He grew lonely and religious, was transferred to Paris at 22, was fired at 23, moved to England as an unpaid supply teacher, which is where he wrote this letter from to his beloved brother Theo.

Soon after, he followed the proprietor of the boarding school to Middlesex, had a falling out, became a Methodist minister’s assistant, worked at a bookshop where he translated passages from the Bible to English, French and Dutch because he was bored, decided to become a pastor at 24, failed a theology exam in 1878, became a missionary in Belgium at 26 and said wrote this to Theo in 1880:

What the molt is for birds, the time when they change their plumage, is what adversity or misfortune is for us humans, a difficult time.

Does what happens inside show on the outside?
There is such a great fire in one’s soul, and yet nobody ever comes to warm themselves there…

05540ddfc943fd10f329ffdcccc5d18eHe spends much of his time talking about figures, constantly criticizing his own work, practicing and copying great artists, observing the world around his with a keen eye and sharp pencil. He even goes to a local veterinary school “to get hold of the anatomical illustrations” of various animals so he can draw them better.

But I hope that these thorns will produce white blossoms in their day

In 1881, at 28, Vincent proposed to Kee, his recently widowed cousin who was seven years his senior and had an eight year old son.

“nooit, neen, nimmer,” she replied. No, nay, never.

Poor Vincent and his heart filled with passion!

Vincent’s unflinching dedication to his craft is an inspiration.

I feel and know for sure I will make progress. But it is only by working hard; “not a day without a line,” as Gavarni said.

In October 1881, Vincent finally felt like he was getting somewhere with his art. Funnily enough, this is what he says:

The battle with nature sometimes has something of what Shakespeare calls the “taming of the shrew”. In many things, but certainly in drawing, I believe that holding on tight is better than giving up.

Do you ever feel like History is just one big blob of The Past? Like everything before your Watercolors Van Goghlife happened in an almost coexisting parallel whole, so it’s strange to think of a great painter like van Gogh referring to a great playwright who had been dead about two and a half centuries before he was born! Vincent probably regarded Shakespeare like you or I, a famous name, to be read and quoted but not quite flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, emotions and frustrations, exactly like us.

Vincent was spending quite a lot of time at Mauve’s, a cousin who was a successful painter and one whom Vincent hoped to emulate. Mauve seems to have supported Vincent a great deal, encouraging him to experiment with sketching and watercolours.

Mauve says that the sun is beginning to shine for me, but it is still hidden in the mists.

Vincent went to visit his parents for Christmas and argued with them over his continued pursuit of his cousin Kee, to which they said his “persistence is disgusting”. He also fell out with Mauve  over the direction of his work and moved to The Hague by early 1882. There he met Sien, a pregnant alcoholic prostitute with a five-year-old daughter.

Explaining his situation to Theo, Vincent remarked that since he was getting nowhere with Kee and as he wanted to help Sien, he “must set about it more seriously”. He wanted to marry her, but it would seem that Theo talked him out of it.

cradle-18821

What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an eccentric, or a disagreeable fellow… the lowest of the low.

… I would like to show through my work what is in the heart of such an eccentric, such a nonentity.

zeegezicht-bij-scheveningen“There was so much wind that I could hardly keep upright and could barely see anything because of the blowing sands.” – Vincent liked to paint out in the open. A classic impressionist technique.

There is something infinite about painting-

By September 1882, at 29, Vincent was getting himself quite a reputation for being a mad, eccentric painter. I almost imagine him as a mad scientist, attacking the streets armed with pad and pencil, leaving behind a flurry of alarmed onlookers.

I am so covered in paint that some has even got onto this letter.

Whether as an aspiring minister or painter, sensitive Vincent had a soft spot for the poor, the downtrodden. He was attracted to helping people out of their misery, which is perhaps why he took to Sien too. “… as the lottery leaves both of us completely cold. But this little group of people – and their expression of waiting – touched me, and while I drew it began to get a greater, deeper meaning for me than at first.”

In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but rich because I have found my métier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.

Isn’t that what we are all looking for? Happiness, something to live for.

At 30, Vincent in possibly a strange mood, wrote to his brother saying that he thought his “physical body will last out for a certain number of years… say, between six and ten.”

After wandering through many cities, jobs and loves, Vincent ended up in Drenthe. He seems to have found peace there, if briefly.

Coming events cast their shadows before, says an English proverb.

Living alone, desperately trying to hone his craft to such an extent that he could sell it without stooping to paint portraits for rich patrons indoors, the bread and butter for painters in those days, unlucky in love and dependent on his brother’s goodwill, that was Vincent in the winter of 1883. In the end, his loneliness drove him back to his parents.  Taking care of his mother after she had broken her leg led to somewhat of a reconciliation after their long months of rancour over Kee and Sien.
Theo, as an art dealer, mentioned to Vincent the new-age artists who were taking the Parisian world by storm: The Impressionists.vincent_van_gogh_-_avenue_of_poplars_in_autumn_-_google_art_project

… a lane of poplars with their yellow autumn foliage, where the sun makes occasional bright patches on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows cast by the trunks. At the end of the road, a little farmhouse with the blue sky above shining through the autumn leaves.

By the end of the year, Vincent had moved to Antwerp, when public opinion had turned against the eccentric painter after one of his models, an unmarried girl, had become pregnant. “Antwerp is certainly a very strange and beautiful place for a painter. My studio is quite bearable, particularly because I have pinned a set of Japanese prints on the wall…”

rainHe enrolled in an art school while there but disagreed with the teacher, who was focussed on classical drawing while Vincent preferred to exercise his self-taught creativity. He eventually quit and moved in with Theo. “Don’t be cross with me for arriving so suddenly…”

In Paris Theo introduced Vincent to Impressionists like Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. He seems to have added bright colours to his palette, inspired by brilliant Japanese art.

As for me – I can feel the desire for marriage and children slipping away… And there are times when I already feel old and broken…

I hope to progress to a point where you can show what I do confidently without having to compromise yourself. And then I’ll move away somewhere down South so I can get away from all these painters who disgust me as men.

1888-11-1A year later, Vincent stayed true to his word. He moved to and fell in love with scenic Arles in southern France.

The countryside here seems to me to be as beautiful as Japan in terms of the limpidity of the atmosphere and the brightness of the colours.

“I’m having a lot of trouble painting because of the wind, but I fasten my easel down with pegs knocked into the ground and carry on working; it’s too beautiful not to.”

I must also do a starry night with cypress tress or perhaps over a field of ripe wheat…

4995d8ee-1c75-4c29-a1d7-43c42d90fb9e

“A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with irises with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willow trees, and a strip of blue sky.”

How keenly Vincent observed the world!

A small town surrounded by countryside filled with yellow and purple flowers – you can imagine, very much a Japanese dream.

“I’m totally convinced of the importance of remaining here in the South and of the need to exaggerate colour even more-”

Vincent, when writing to John Russell from Paris talks about the painters that he met in his time there – Manet, Bernard and Gauguin, who are friends and Monet, whose paintings Theo greatly admires and sells. Vincent longs for his friends, especially Paul, to join him in the wondrous South.

The sunflowers are progressing;

Vincent frequented a night café, which was a good place for the homeless to stay warm at night. The “night prowlers” he calls them.

I often think that night is more alive and more richly colored than day.

By the end of 1888, after months of pleading, Vincent had finally got Gauguin to come South to Arles.

“Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a very fine picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase but – he prefers mine.” [Monet’s and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Gauguin’s painting of Vincent painting his sunflowers]

Vincent excitedly set up an extra bed for Gauguin and making his two chair paintings: Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair. Things were off to a solid start when they began painting together, but they soon started quarrelling because Vincent wanted the haughty Gauguin to treat him as an equal. He made matters worse because he feared that Gauguin would desert him.

One rainy night, the two of them were shut up in the Yellow House toget1024px-vincent_van_gogh_-_self-portrait_with_bandaged_ear_2818892c_courtauld_institute29her. Gauguin claims that Vincent grew very agitated at the prospect of his leaving and came at him with a razor. Gauguin left The Yellow House that night, never to return. Vincent mutilated his ear with a razor and had it delivered to a woman at a brothel that the two of them frequented. He was found the next morning by a policeman and taken to the local hospital where in his waking moments he asked to see Gauguin. Gauguin notified Theo and left town, telling the officer that his presence would only agitate Vincent further. Theo, who had just proposed to his future wife, jumped on a train to Arles on Christmas Day, rushing in to see his brother. Vincent didn’t attend Theo’s wedding.

His neighbours wanted “le fou roux” (the mad redhead) out of their vicinity. Suffering further lapses, Vincent decided to go to an asylum in Saint Rémy.

img_0500

I now have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry night.

“The cypresses continue to occupy my thoughts… I’m amazed that they haven’t yet been done in the way that I see them.”

They have beauty of line and proportion like that of an Egyptian obelisk.

In 1889, at 36, Vincent exhibited his art in Paris to favourable reviews from critics and fellow artists, that he couldn’t accept despite Theo’s reassurances. vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossom_-_google_art_projectHe was also getting tired of his time alone and missed his friends from the North.
A few months later, Theo had a son whom the couple named Vincent. The proud uncle immediately set about painting the almond blossoms to commemorate the birth of his namesake. He exhibited his work in Brussels to even greater acclaim and the only painting that he sold in his lifetime. He moved North to Auvers and became good friends with his doctor and amateur painter, Dr. Paul Gachet. He continued to paint his ‘translations’, his reproduction522 of the works of famous painters in oil paints, in his inimitable style. In the seventy days that he stayed in Auvers, Vincent produced seventy paintings.

“Dr. Gachet says that he thinks it very unlikely that it will return and that everything is going very well.”

Sad yet gentle, but clear and intelligent – that’s how many portraits ought to be painted

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-56-19-pm

“The flowers are an avalanche of roses against a green background and a very large bunch of violet-coloured irises against a yellow background and against a pink background.”599px-van_gogh_-_country_road_in_provence_by_night

“I still have a cypress tree with a star from down there, a last attempt – a night sky with a lacklustre moon, a slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque shadow cast by the earth – a star of exaggerated brightness if you like, shining soft pink and green in an ultramarine sky with clouds scurrying across. At the bottom of the road lined with tall yellow canes, behind them the blue foothills of the Alps, an old inn with windows illuminated orange, and a very tall cypress tree, very straight and very sombre.”

His words, like his brush strokes are in full colour, bright, passionate, emotional, frenzied, and poetic.

I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be other than a mere dealer in Corots, that through me you have your part to play in the actual production of certain canvases, which even in the midst of this disaster retain their calm.

– Unfinished draft of a letter from Vincent to Theo found on his body when he shot himself on 27th July 1890.

Heartbroken, Theo followed him to the grave a few months later. The brothers were buried side-by-side.

Vincent van Gogh’s story tugs at my heart strings.

Why care about a man dead over a century ago? Because his story is a familiar one. Van Gogh is perhaps the greatest painter known today. Yet, he died of hopelessness, guilty for living off his brother who loved him beyond measure. A man of great passion who couldn’t find someone to love. His life serves as a reminder that how ever insignificant you may think you are, you make a difference to someone’s world, more than you can possibly imagine.

Books

Land of the Seven Rivers

“A Brief History of India’s Geography” proclaims the strapline, which was why I picked the book during my usual travel tradition of stocking up for a long flight at the airport bookstore. How much do natural elements such as terrain or weather inform the evolution of a civilization? Prisoners of Geography tackles this question head-on while Seven Rivers uses it as the guiding principle in tracing India’s history from 5000 years ago. While my initial reservations about reading yet another narrative of history bound by 70-year-old borders were not entirely allayed, Sanyal does make an attempt at looking beyond the boundaries of northern Indian history to extend occasionally to present-day Pakistan, southern India and the islands of South-East Asia.

The name of the book comes from the description of the “Sapta-Sindhu” region in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas. It’s primarily North India and some part of Pakistan (though Sanyal argues that it’s just Haryana and Punjab). It gives you a taste of the geography that the book hopes to cover. The central premise is the question: Who are the Indians?

Sanyal begins the answer to this question, which takes him the rest of the book, with the Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization. He focuses on the geographic reasons for the establishment and decline of the civilization. He expertly intertwines Vedic mythology with established history, although in a couple of places the lines are uncomfortably blurred. This isn’t the work of an academic historian or geographer, though; it is the deep-rooted interest of an economist and captivating writer.

Sanyal proposes an interesting theory: that the Harappan civilization could have been home to the people who composed the Rig Veda. He bases his theory on the River Saraswati. The Rig Veda describes the Sarawati river as “great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers” and is called the “inspirer of hymns”, suggesting that the Rig Veda was composed on its banks.

The Rig Veda places the Saraswati river between the rivers Yamuna in the East and Sutlej to the West. Since no modern Indian river fits the description, it was believed that the Saraswati was a mythival river. It is supposed to be “invisible”or “underground”, reminding me of the River Alph from Kubla Khan:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The Saraswati is even supposed to drain into a samudra or sea!

The Rig Veda also does not mention “iron”, says Sanyal, indicating that it must have been composed during a Bronze Age civilization. Sanyal makes the case that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which is a seasonal river between the rivers Yamuna and Sutlej, could be the river Saraswati of the Rig Veda.

Apparently, satellite imaging of the area has shown that the river was much larger. It seems that the Yamuna and Sutlej were its tributaries and that they changed course due to the tectonic activity of the unstable Himalayan region.

If the Ghaggar is the river Saraswati and
if most Harappan settlements were along its banks and
if the drying up of the river caused its eventual decline and
if the Rig Veda was written in the Bronze Age when the Saraswati was a mighty river with no knowledge of it drying up, which is mentioned in the subsequent Vedas,
then it stands to reason that the people who composed the Vedas were part of the Harappan civilization.

Setting aside the questions that I have about horses, lions and the Great Bath, first the question is checking the veracity of the claim about the River Saraswati. Sanyal’s writing style is simple and effective, encouraging me to continue reading about the history that he talks about, which I think is a win for the narrator, no matter the outcome.

So, about the River Saraswati drying up and causing the Harappan civilization to decline, this is a paper that I found published in Geology (2012). The paper says that it is true the Yamuna and Sutlej were tributaries of the Ghaggar-Hakra:

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-15-06-56

BUT

Our data show that the Yamuna likely flowed west, not east as it does now, at least prior to 49 ka.

“ka” is the geological term “kilo-annum”, meaning 1000 years. This says that the Yamuna did flow west about 49000 years ago. In context, the Harappan civilization is dated to about 5000 years ago.

While drainage from the Yamuna may have been lost from the Ghaggar-Hakra well before development of the Harappan Civilization, flow from the Beas and Sutlej may have been more recent in Cholistan, if still prior to 10 ka. Loss of these rivers might be expected to have had a catastrophic effect on sustaining settlement in this region, but our evidence argues against this.

Water in the small Ghaggar-Hakra (or Sarasvati) River would have been further reduced by monsoon weakening from 4.2 ka (Enzel et al., 1999; Staubwasser et al., 2003; Wünnemann et al., 2010), but evidence for dramatic changes in water sources was much earlier. While drainage capture is dramatic in the eastern Indus Basin in the late Quaternary, it appears to have occurred prior to human settlement and not to have directly caused the Harappan collapse.

Could this small river really have been the mighty Saraswati from the Rig Veda?

There is an alternate theory that says that the early references to the Saraswati in the Vedas could be the Helmand river in Afghanistan. Avestan and Sanskrit are closely related Indo-Iranian languages with a phonetic shift, so “sapta-sindhu” in Old Sanskrit is “hapta-hindu” in Avestan. The Helmand river in Avestan is called the “Haraxvati”. Could it be?

While Sanyal has curated interesting moments from India’s history, his work doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny by an amateur. This makes me distrust his claims. The two people that he mentions frequently in the book are Michel Danino and B.B. Lal. Danino is the author of “The Lost River: On the Trail of the Saraswati”, which is probably quite informative, but I’m distressed that it is the sole reference for several statements made by Sanyal.

On B. B. Lal, this is how Sanyal introduces him: “The archaeological evidence suggests that they [the Harappans] slowly drifted east and south, and that their culture and genes lived on in India. However archaeologists and historians disagree bitterly on this. Romila Thapar, an eminent historian, is of the opinion that the ‘material  culture shows no continuities’. In contrast, B. B. Lal, a former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and one of India’s most celebrated archaeologists, argues that ‘many of the present day cultural roots are rooted in the Harappan civilization’.

I can’t help but feel that Sanyal doesn’t particularly care for Ms. Thapar and greatly admires Mr. Lal. This could also be because he elaborates the similarities between Harappan and Indian cultures but doesn’t bother to explain why Ms. Thapar has a different opinion. Romila Thapar is a recipient of the international,  prestigious Kluge prize awarded to “individuals whose outstanding scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has shaped both public affairs and civil society”. Having heard of neither of these people before reading this book, I am more curious about what the Indian woman who has been the visiting professor to Cornell, Penn and College de France, has honorary doctorates from universities of Chicago and Oxford among others, and who has been offered the Padma Bhushan twice but has declined because she does not accept non-academic awards has to say over the man who has a graduate degree in Sanskrit and the Vedas and who obviously views the world through those lenses as his works are about proving the “historicity” of the Hindu God Lord Ram, or proving that “Aryans” are indigenous to India through the Vedas. It isn’t that I don’t think interesting historical nuggets can be gleaned from these ancient texts, I take umbrage at using them as the basis for conducting archaeological research. You shouldn’t start off with “The Mahabharata happened because the ancient texts say so; let’s set out to prove it”. I think it is going to take a lot of digging to understand both sides of the argument especially because I’m predisposed to one and am frustrated that the only proof that the other offers is the Vedas. As Sanyal says in his book, it’s like trying to understand the history of the Holy Roman Empire by reading the Bible (and taking what’s written in it as historical fact).

The best of the rest of the book is when Sanyal talks about peninsular India. While the river civilizations of the North were constantly in turmoil with invaders often seizing the throne (the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Mughals), the southern part of the present-day country flourished because of trade. With the predictable monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, these kingdoms traded with the Arabian Peninsula, the islands to the south and China. “The Monsoon Marketplace”, as John Green calls it:

It is interesting and refreshing to read about peaceful cultural exchange, along with the goods they traded. Islam entered India not by the sword, but with the building of the Cheraman Juma Mosque in the 7th century by a Chera King (map of the kingdom below)  who was said to have converted after meeting Prophet Muhammad in Arabia; Syrian Christians, said to be the followers of St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, who came to India, are an important part of Kerala’s population even today; and the Cochin Jews are supposed to have arrived with King Solomon’s merchants! A neat little stock to add to the land of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.

It’s also a relief to see this side of Indian history:

Vijayanagara, Chera and Chola empires

Rather than this more mainstream one:

Maurya, Gupta and Mughal empires

I’ve always wondered what was south of the kingdoms from the maps in history textbooks. None of these maps are in Sanyal’s book unfortunately, which is a shame.

The bits that I particularly enjoyed are the travellers that Sanyal introduces: Fa Xian, a buddhist monk rediscovering the lands of the Buddha, John Mandeville who said the place was ruled by a Christian king John Prester (and who perpetuated the myth of the the mystical East,  home to women with heads of dogs. You would think these stereotypes were a thing of the past, but you’ve clearly not watched Doctor Strange) and of course, Crash Course favourite, the intrepid Ibn Battuta, one of the world’s greatest travellers:

The rest of the books focusses of Delhi, which isn’t quite as interesting to me because it seems like anyone who talks about Indian history starts and ends with Delhi. Not that the history of Delhi, or the 7 other cities it’s built on from Qila Rai Pithora to Shahjahanabad and that’s not counting the mythical ones like Indraprastha, isn’t fascinating, it’s just that I wish I had a more complete picture of the rest of the country.

Overall I quite enjoyed the rich and accessible content of Sanyal’s book. Personally, it could have done with a few more maps and a lot less of Vedic texts as history but the mercantile adventures made up for it!