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Under American Eyes: Mark Twain in Bombay

For 230 years, America’s engagement with India, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been characterized by short-term thinking and unintended consequences. Beginning with American traders in India in the eighteenth century, the region has become a locus for American efforts-secular and religious-to remake the world in its image. Even as South Asia has undergone tumultuous and tremendous changes from colonialism to the world wars, the Cold War and globalization, the United States has been a crucial player in regional affairs.
In the definitive history of the US involvement in South Asia, The Most Dangerous Place by Srinath Raghavan presents a gripping account of America’s political and strategic, economic and cultural presence in the region.
Of the many interesting incidents and lesser known anecdotes in the book, one interesting narrative is Mark Twain’s visit to Bombay. Here is an excerpt from it.
On a sunny morning in January 1896, the visiting American— decked out in a white suit and straw hat—took a stroll on the outskirts of Bombay. On seeing a row of Indian washermen sweating it out, he asked his guide, ‘Are they breaking those stones with clothes?’ Samuel Langhorne Clemens had kept his sense of humour despite the fact that he had practically been forced to travel to India. A failed venture with a typesetting machine and the bankruptcy of his publishing firm had left Mark Twain ensnared in a web of debt: of over $1,00,000. To shake this off, the fiftyyear- old writer had embarked on a year-long lecture trip covering a hundred cities in Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the British Isles, Ceylon and India.
In Bombay, Twain’s first appearance was in the Novelty Theatre before an overflowing audience worshipping ‘at the shrine of the world’s great humourist when he made his debut before his first Indian audience’. Twain spoke of, among other things, how there were 352 different kinds of sins, so that ‘the industrious persons could commit them all in one year and be inoculated against all future sins’. He told stories, some apocryphal, about George Washington and other great Americans, and also read a chapter from Tom Sawyer. Twain lunched with the Governor in his official residence and met Jamsetji Tata over dinner.
Like many well-informed Americans of his generation, Mark
Twain had thought of India as a land of fantasy: ‘an imaginary
land—a fairy land, dreamland, a land made of poetry and moonlight
for the Arabian Nights to do their gorgeous miracles in’. Ahead of his trip, he had written jocularly to Kipling, ‘I shall come riding my ayah with his tusks adorned with silver bells and ribbons and escorted by a troop of native howdahs richly clad and mounted upon a herd of wild buffalos; and you must be on hand with a few bottles of ghee, for I shall be thirsty.’3 After spending two months in the country and visiting over sixteen cities and towns, Twain concluded that India was the most interesting country on the planet. But his view of India was a tad more realistic: ‘This is indeed India—the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle . . . the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.’
Twain was a curious and sympathetic traveller. The people, he wrote, were ‘pleasant and accommodating’. ‘They are kindly people . . . The face and bearing that indicate a surly spirit and a bad heart seemed rare among Indians,’ he added. The sight of an Indian servant in his hotel being needlessly struck by a European manager reminded him of his childhood in the American South and the stain of slavery on his own country. The ‘thatched group of native houses’ along the Hooghly River took him back to ‘the negro quarters, familiar to me from nearly forty years ago—and so for six hours this has been the sugar coast of the Mississippi’.5 Even Indian religion and spirituality, of which he had had no high opinion, Twain encountered with an open mind. On the massive Hindu religious festival in Allahabad, he wrote, ‘It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that.’ Meeting an Indian saint in Benares, Twain gave him an autographed copy of Huckleberry Finn and noted his admiration for men who ‘went into the solitudes to live in a hut and study the sacred writings and meditate on virtue and holiness and seek to attain them’. Twain had heard of the storied tradition of ‘thuggee’ or ritual strangling as a boy in America and wrote at inordinate length about it in his account of the passage through India. Nevertheless, he also observed, ‘We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization.’
All the same, Twain’s views of India were shaped by a sense of civilizational hierarchy. While India was ‘the cradle of human race, birth place of human speech’ and so forth, it was a civilization that had no notion of ‘progress’: ‘repeating and repeating and repeating, century after century, age after age, the barren meaningless process’. India had been the ‘first civilization’ and remained stuck there. If this was redolent of Britain’s ideological justification for the conquest of India, Twain more explicitly endorsed the political rationale of the Raj: ‘Where there are eighty nations and several hundred governments, fighting and quarrelling must be the common business of life; unity of purpose and policy are impossible.’ The beneficence of British rule flowed logically from these premises. ‘When one considers what India was under her Hindoo and Mohammedan rulers, and what she is now; when he remembers the miseries of her millions then and protections and humanities which they enjoy now, he must concede that the most fortunate thing that has ever befallen that empire was the establishment of British supremacy here.’

Everybody Loves a Good Drought (20th anniversary edition), An Excerpt

Palagummi Sainath has been a journalist and reporter for thirty-seven years and has covered rural India full time for twenty-five of those. His book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, is the established classic on rural poverty in India. Twenty years after publication, it remains unsurpassed in the scope and depth of reportage, providing an intimate view of the daily struggles of the poor and the efforts, often ludicrous, made to uplift them.

Here’s an excerpt from the new introduction to this critically acclaimed work.


One of the first things people who have read Everybody Loves a Good Drought ask me is: ‘How did you come to give this book its name?’ I didn’t. I just grabbed the idea from Ramji Lakhan. He was a peasant activist who organized agricultural labourers to fight for their rights in Palamu (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand).
‘We have a great drought going here,’ he told me. ‘The big people are making much money out of it. And the Block Development Officer (BDO) has gone to harvest the Third Crop.’

I was mystified. ‘I know of the kharif crop, harvested in autumn after the rainy season. And I know of the rabi, sown in winter and harvested in spring. But what is this Third Crop?’
‘Drought relief,’ said Ramji. He’d been hoping I would ask. ‘The money that comes in as relief makes the powerful richer than they were. It’s quite a good business. We like a good drought here.’

He called the BDO the BTDO, or Block The Development Officer. ‘No work takes place unless he gets his cut.’ But he did not use the term Third Crop in English. He said teesri fasl. And that remains the title of the Hindi edition of this book.

Another common question: ‘Have things changed in these districts since you wrote this book?’ Yes. Not always for the better, though. The women stone-quarry workers of Pudukkottai, who drew inspiration from their strength as a collective, changed their world for the better. For many others living in the regions the book’s stories come from, things got a lot worse. For a reason Ramji Lakhan understood very well even back then: growing inequality.

An India was emerging where new inequalities were feeding into old ones. Not by accident, but driven by human agency. Even in the year 2000, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook, the top 1 percent of the Indian population held 36.8 percent of the total household wealth. By 2016, their share had risen to 58.4 percent, far ahead of their counterparts in the United States, whose share of wealth in their nation was 42.1 percent.

That also means the top 1 percent of Indians held a greater share of wealth that year within our nation than the top 1 percent of Americans ever did within their own. The same year, the Databook shows, the bottom 10 percent of Indians saw their share fall from 0.1 to -0.7 percent––suggesting that many millions whose assets were far lower than their liabilities were sinking further into debt.

The next two deciles, just above the -0.7 group, recorded shares of 0.2 and 0.5 per cent, respectively. Club those three together and it means the bottom 30 percent of the Indian population own next to nothing.
In the year 2000, Forbes listed nine Indians who were dollar billionaires. In 2011–12, when our Socio Economic and Caste Census found that the main breadwinner in 75 percent of rural households take home less than Rs 5000 a month, Forbes said we had fifty-five dollar billionaires. This year, India logged 101 dollar billionaires in the Forbes 2017 list. We now rank number four in the world in that distinguished line-up. But we also rank 131 in the United Nations Human Development Index.

This is where we needed the media to ‘signal the weakness in society’. Instead, they celebrated this inequality. Unique success stories, and those on super celebrities, took centre stage. And we focused on how wonderful we were. A small part of the population surely did very well. Clinging to our delusions meant trashing the integrity of the data we gathered on ourselves. We did this with poverty numbers. We do it with farm suicide data.


6 Statements from ‘Demonetization and Black Economy’ that are point on about demonetization

Arun Kumar is the country’s leading authority on the black economy. In his recent book Demonetisation and the Black Economy he gives a lucid account of demonetization along with its effects on the economy.

Here are six statements by Prof Kumar which describe impacts and effects of demonetisation.

5 Things You Should Know About the Power Couple, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha

Rajat Sethi is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and Harvard University. Shubhrastha is an alumnus face of Miranda House, Delhi University. Both of them are actively involved in impacting politics in  various North-Eastern states of India.
Their book The Last Battle of Saraighat is the first-ever account of BJP’s landslide victory in the 2016 Assam legislative assembly elections.
Here are five things you should know about the power couple:

Aren’t they fascinating?

How Assam Happened—An Excerpt from ‘The Last Battle of Saraighat’

In ‘The Last Battle of Saraighat’, political campaigners for the BJP in the North-East, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha take you behind the scenes of the BJP’s landslide victory in the 2016 Assam legislative assembly elections. In the book, they  provide details of the election strategies and explain the rise of the party in the North-East.
Here’s an excerpt chronicling the win of BJP in Assam.
Assam celebrates three different Bihu festivals, each one of which coincides with a distinct phase in the farming calendar. Kati Bihu, the first in the series, is observed in October and is marked by solemn prayers to save the paddy crop from insects and evil sights. Bhogali or Magh Bihu is all about food and is celebrated in January at the end of paddy harvesting period when the granaries are full. The last Bihu in the calendar is called Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu, which marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year when the field is prepared for the next season of paddy cultivation. It is the most widely celebrated and colourful festival in Assam.
Every five years, the Assamese farming calendar closely coincides with the campaign calendars of political parties. The body politic of Assam is promised new dreams every time. This interesting tradition was captured in a 1992 song by Bhupen Hazarika on Bihu. Sung to the tune of a lullaby, it makes a plea to Bihu: Please do come once a year and wake up mother Assam, and even in these dangerous times, please O Bihu, come and give the Assamese body and mind its ritual bath.
Bihu is indeed a ‘national birthday—the day of renewal when the Assamese polity takes stock of its past and future’.
In the Bihu of 2016, the electoral curtains were to drop and a new polity was to emerge.
Armouring for the Battle
By the end of December 2015, BJP had almost all the right ingredients in place to project itself as the sole and credible political challenger to the incumbent Congress government in the ensuing assembly elections scheduled for April 2016. Anti-incumbency against the Tarun Gogoi–led Congress government was quickly building up. The BJP now appeared stronger as an Opposition in Assam. It had a face. It had the narrative. The party also had the required momentum to oust the incumbent.
But a deep emotional connect with the people of Assam was amiss. BJP had so far been only a marginal political player in the state and electorate were still finding it hard to relate with the party as its political choice.
On the other hand, the Congress had a well-oiled foundation and a veteran leader in Gogoi, who had led the state peacefully for fifteen long years. Assam has traditionally been a strong Congress bastion. Out of the nearly seven decades of independent India, the Congress was in power in Assam for nearly six decades. Winning Assam would have meant that the Congress was able to hold on to its turfs after its decimation in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Losing Assam would have implied a nosedive for the party nationally.
With the political ground that the BJP had covered over the past two years, it could not afford to lose the Assam battle. The next four months of electioneering were critical to tilt the balance in its favour. After the humiliating defeat in Delhi and Bihar, Assam was a test of the BJP’s confidence. It would also signify if there was a sense of trust for the party among the masses and if the Modi wave still reigned high in urban as well as far-flung rural centres of India. For the BJP, it meant finding a foothold in North-east India and marking its presence in a sensitive borderland. For the central government under Modi, Assam, if claimed, would have become a pivot for the Act East Policy. So, for all reasons—political and developmental—Assam was a catch!

5 Things You Should Know About the North-East of India

The Last Battle of Saraighat looks at Assam as a case study to explain the rise of the BJP in the North-east and throws light on the key political issues of the region. In this book, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha outline the political history of the north-east region of India and provide details of election strategies employed by the Bharatiya Janta Party to win the 2016 Assam legislative assembly elections.
Here are five things you should know about the northeastern part of the country:

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Things You Need To Know About Ravi Subramanian

An author, a banker, a columnist — Ravi Subramanian dons many hats and juggles multiple roles successfully while writing amazing books! Subramanian has not only written several books on his area of expertise — money, but also recently, a gripping thriller. Ravi Subramanian is definitely a man of many moods.
But did you know these facts about the author of In the Name of God?

And now, Ravi Subramanian is ready with yet another book on money, this time, for his younger readers. We know you’re super excited about My First Book of Money too!

The Birth of Parvati, An Excerpt from The Man from The Egg

Sudha Murthy in ‘The Man from the Egg’ weaves enchanting tales about the holy trinity in Hindu mythology. Consisting of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the trinity is responsible for the survival of the human race and the world.
Here’s an excerpt chronicling the birth of goddess Parvati:
Taraka was a powerful and ambitious asura, and a devotee of Lord Brahma. One day he began a severe penance for Brahma, living on a mountain for a long period of time. pleased with Taraka’s devotion, the creator appeared before him.
‘O my lord!’ Taraka cried. ‘my life’s purpose has been fulfilled now that I have felt your presence.’
Brahma smiled. ‘tell me what your heart desires.’
‘I want to live forever,’ replied Taraka.
‘My dearest devotee, you know that such a boon is not possible. why don’t you ask me for something else?’
Taraka thought for some time. ‘I don’t want to die at the hands of just any man or god. if i must perish, I would rather it happened at the hands of the son of Shiva,’ he said, knowing full well that Shiva, grief-stricken by the loss of Dakshayani, was far from even the thought of marrying
again. So, the boon would actually make Taraka invincible and keep him safe from Yama, the god of death.
Brahma understood Taraka’s intention. nevertheless, he said, ‘So may it be.’
His penance now complete, Taraka descended from the mountain and returned to his abode. Over time, he created a powerful army headed by ten cruel generals. and then he went on a rampage, conquering kingdoms, abusing living beings on earth as well as the gods above. he terrorized them all so much that everyone began praying to Lord Vishnu.
Vishnu heard their pleas. ‘Shiva and parvati’s son will be the cause of taraka’s doom,’ he declared.
Himavat or Parvatraj, the king of the Himalayas, had a wife named Menaka. the queen really wanted a daughter who would grow up to become Shiva’s consort. when Menaka heard about Dakshayani, she instinctively knew that Shiva’s wife would be reborn as her daughter. She thus decided to go into deep meditation, convinced that destiny would soon take its course.
Menaka gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom she named Uma. as Uma was the daughter of Parvatraj, she was also known as Parvati, or Himani (from her father’s other name, Himavat), or Girija (meaning the daughter of the king of mountains), or Shailaja (meaning the daughter of the mountains).
Parvati was a charming child and unusually devoted to Shiva right from her birth. Even as an adult, she was always found either praying to Shiva or just talking about him. News of her beauty and intelligence spread far and wide. Though suitors came in hordes with the hope of winning her heart, Parvati could only think of Shiva and refused to entertain the
idea of marrying anyone else.
The devas were watching all this with great interest. they eagerly awaited the arrival of Parvati and Shiva’s son—the harbinger of Taraka’s death.
Shiva, on the other hand, deep in meditation atop the cold mount Kailash, remained unaware of what was going on. much to the concern of her parents, a determined Parvati made the arduous journey to Kailash and began serving Shiva. She took care of his surroundings, brought him fruits and made garlands for him every day. She wanted to be there the moment he opened his eyes so they could marry as soon as possible.
The gods sighed with relief and hoped that Shiva would soon awaken from his penance.
Days, months and years passed but Shiva showed no signs of emerging from his meditation. if he did not open his eyes, he would never see Parvati, which meant that he wouldn’t marry her or have a son. and if the current state of affairs continued, Taraka’s cruel reign would be the end of everybody.
Frustrated, the gods decided to take matters into their own hands. all the realms were in grave danger. they had to intervene and force Shiva to awaken, but who would take the risk? no one dared offer to be the one to disturb Shiva’s penance and become the target of his infamous temper.
Everyone knew that when he was extremely angry, his third eye would open and immediately spew a great fire that destroyed everything in its path. And yet the task needed to be done.
the gods decided to approach the diplomatic Lord Vishnu and beseech him to find a way to guarantee Shiva and Parvati’s marriage.
‘All right, let’s see how things turn out,’ Vishnu said with a mysterious smile.

6 Important Milestones of the India-China Relationship

Frédéric Grare in India Turns East reflects on India’s ‘Look East’ policy. The policy was initially aimed at reconnecting India with Asia’s economic globalization. However, as China moved to gain an assertive position, India’s policy has evolved into a comprehensive strategy with political and military dimensions.
Grare also throws light on India’s long and difficult journey to reclaim its status in a rapidly changing Asian environment increasingly shaped by the US–China rivalry and the uncertainties of US commitment to Asia’s security. 
Here are 6 milestones that define the India-China relationship.

Tell us which aspect of the relationship between India and China astonish you the most.

5 Quotes that Show Indira Gandhi was the Iron Lady of India

Indira Gandhi is not only remembered as the only woman prime minister of the country but also as a political leader with nerves of steel. She broke the conventional, democratic ruling method that her family had been using and adopted a somewhat authoritarian way of ruling the nation.
Nayantara Sahgal in her book Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power answers the questions everyone ponders upon about her rule.
Being Mrs Gandhi’s cousin, Sahgal articulately talks about her individualized style of functioning in politics and the changes the country went through during her rule.
Here are five quotes that show why Mrs Gandhi was called the Iron Lady of India:

Read more about Indira Gandhi’s political regime in Nayantara Sahgal’s Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power.