Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’

November 25th, 2014 No comments


If you read one book this year, it should be not even the book itself, but the introduction to the book: Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, attached to the reissue of a lost classic, Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables at the time of Indian Independence.

In cool and merciless prose, Roy blows away the cobwebs that obfuscate all discussion of this most shameful aspect of Indian life.  There are still around 100 million Untouchables, or Dalits as they are now more commonly known  – and , as I saw when interviewing her some 15 years ago in Kerala, it is a prejudice that is practised in India by Christian and Muslim communities as well as Hindu ones.

You can watch The Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited and be blithely unaware of the realities of caste as a system that still preordains life for so many and so narrowly.

As she asks: ‘Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectual challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure?  Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarianism, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.’

The introduction, at 125 pages, is longer than the book it presents.  In any other writer this might be presumption; with Arundhati Roy every last word is justified.  She has already proved herself a formidable polemicist, but this may have been her most important contribution to the debate about India’s future – and one which has already stirred up a great deal of controversy, both because she attacks Gandhi and because some Dalit radicals have complained – unfairly in my view – that she has tried to appropriate their voice.

‘The Doctor and the Saint’, as an introduction to Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, has just been published by Verso in the UK.

The Indian edition by Navayana has the best cover – as here – and has been carefully priced to make it accessible to a wide readership, although there have been problems finding distributors for it in some states due to its controversial nature.  I bought it on my last day in Delhi and read it in the next 24 hours as I travelled back to the UK, learning more about India than I had in the previous two weeks in the country.

One of the Last Few Polymaths

June 24th, 2014 No comments

p01l974wReading Michael Wood’s excellent A South Indian Journey (first published as The Smile of Murugan) and as ever by Michael’s work, impressed. He really is one of the last few polymaths, equally at ease writing about South American conquistadors or Anglo-Saxon chronicles. And filming them as well – ‘The Story of India’ for the BBC a few years ago was a tremendous achievement; and now he’s taking on China for a 2-year film project! Respect…


March 11th, 2013 No comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of panspermia: the theory that Fred Hoyle and others put forward almost 30 years ago that – very broadly put – life was distributed across the universe by meteorites.

It’s often been ridiculed by other astronomers and physicists – let alone biologists – for being simplistic, but that surely is part of the charm: we should look for an elegant simplicity in our scientific solutions.

So the news that scientists, including a former colleague of Fred Hoyle’s, have identified biological matter in the heart of a meteorite that recently landed in Sri Lanka, in December, should have attracted much greater attention than it has.

This judicious and weighted article in the August M.I.T Technology Review puts the case.

My more frivolous case for panspermia is below:are 

The first Big Bang:

panspermia flood

through space, lactating

fireworks against the black;

meteorites cross-pollinate


between planets,

extremophile bacteria

clinging to the rocks

like a rodeo:



The Earth got lucky –

we were fertilised.

But what I want

to ask the Universe

is this:


‘How was it for you?’

Getting Through Customs

November 20th, 2012 No comments

Regular readers will remember my review of Howard Marks’s book about his adventures and high times in the drugs trade, which I suggested signalled a new form of travel book – the ‘how am I going to get through customs’ genre. Another remarkable example of this was Marching Powder, ghost-written by Rusty Young about the hair-raising experiences of a drug dealer in a Bolivian jail and set to be a major motion picture, with Brad Pitt’s involvement.


Now comes Mark Dempster’s Nothing To Declare, ably ghostwritten by Matthew Huggins, which is considerably grittier than either of the above.  Dempster does slightly less glamorous travel – though there is a funny bit where he tries to cross the Himalayas to a Nepalese village when stoned which is clearly not recommended in the manual – and is more Sweeney than Miami Vice.

Connoisseurs of the genre will still notice one or two similarities:  there is always a moment when, just like the hero of Goodfellas, paranoia overtakes the life of Riley and the helicopters start circling overhead.

Dempster also does the ‘it’s just become a day job shtick’ well, when he describes ‘the same daily routine, the same grind: up at eight, drink, stock up on Crucial Brew, deal, opium, drink, deal, smoke hash, deal, line of coke, deal, line of coke, Brian [his main supplier], bottle of wine, Sprog [bodyguard and drinking mate, trouble], fight, opium, drink, sex with girlfriend Lesley, drink, drink, drink, drink – pass out. That was it – days into weeks into months until a whole year had vanished.’

Thinking of doing a hard-core writers book which would describe my day, which also begins at eight but otherwise has few similarities: cup of tea, watch a rerun of Frazier on Channel 4, bacon sandwich, few e-mails, cup of coffee, write as much as I can before I get bored, phone girlfriend, pop over to deli across the road for a chat, have a Scotch egg or pork pie for lunch if I’m feeling like something extreme, salad if I’m feeling healthy and trying to go clean, do some more writing, do some more e-mails, uh, take some exercise, and let’s face it no one has got this far in the paragraph because it’s so dull….

This book reminds me a bit of those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where every speaker tries to outbid the last one by declaring that ‘you think that guy did bad stuff – wait until you hear what I did!’

Dempster is quite remarkably candid – and often funny – about his lowlife, which does hit some truly frightening lows by the end. It never quite addresses the mystery of why some people feel the need to get so wasted – ‘an addictive personality’ is a very loose concept.  But it certainly describes the consequences well.

Bombay Mix

March 30th, 2011 No comments

I’m in Mumbai where the taxi drivers are not unnaturally obsessed with the imminent World Cup match between India and Pakistan.  But however open to it as a sporting occasion, the cricket hasn’t mellowed their feelings on booting as many Muslims as possible out of India. 

 I have two drivers in a row who, unprompted, volunteer their ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ thoughts – although perhaps the continuing high security around the Taj Malabar hotel serves as some sort of prompt, a visible reminder of what is referred to here simply as 26/11. 

Gandhi's statue in Mumbai

I want to show my 11-year-old son Gandhi’s house.  The elderly taxi driver is not impressed. ‘Gandhiji!  he snorts.  ‘Div-id-ed the country.’ (He stresses “divided” so hard the word almost falls in half).  “I don’t like him at all.  My family had land in Northern Bengal (now Bangladesh).  We lost it at Partition.  So now I am a taxi driver.’   And appreciation of Gandhi in India is often less fervent than the casual Western visitor might presuppose.  I have heard similar views expressed from Kochin to the Himalaya.  His ideals of ecumenical pacifism, vegetarianism, let alone his much debated celibacy, are not shared by many. 

There is a revealing exchange of correspondence in the Gandhi Museum with the man from whom many of his ideals came from, Tolstoy.  Gandhi is in some ways the disciple, who had collaborated at the Tolstoy farm in South Africa – yet in the letter he comes over bossily, as the one demanding attention, while the gentle Tolstoy, who by this stage, 1910, was very frail, goes out of his way to placate Gandhi by saying that he has read a biography of him.  

In some ways, how much more quietly impressive does the current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, seem, the architect of India’s financial recovery in the 1990s and now a sane advocate of dialogue with Pakistan – over a game of cricket, if that helps.