what i’m reading


[2019-09-29] Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help (2016)

We have an instinctive suspicion of do-gooders—in the sense of people who renounce themselves, friends, and family to go to the aid of complete strangers. (Think Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.) Saints seem to lack something that makes use human: our partiality toward those close to us, physically and genetically. MacFarquhar blends moral philosophy and literature with journalistic profiles of people who have undertaken acts of extraordinary charity: setting up leper colonies, adopting more than a dozen children, going to war zones to help pregnant mothers give birth. The book is excellent. Its excellence lies in its nuance. There’s no rush to judgment, no prescription for how to live a good life. Whether you subscribe to effective altrusim (Singer comes up a lot) or Franciscanism, doing tangible good in the world as an individual is incredibly challenging. People who become too obsessessed with doing good are hard to like, even though (and perhaps because) their arguments make so much sense. MacFarquhar brings up the Freudian critique of do-gooders: that they’re masochistic and in it for their own pleasure. Several of her subjects consider whether they should take the highest paying job they can get—like becoming an investment banker—and give away everything they earn. None do because they would find the work too tedious.

[2019-09-22] by Venkat Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India (2014)

How and why did the idea of Pakistan gain a mass following from the late 1930s? A dominant view since the publication of Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman is that, really, it didn’t. To simplify Jalal’s thesis, the Pakistan we know came about as a result of a bargaining ploy by Jinnah gone wrong. What Jinnah actually wanted was a federated structure very similar to the offer made in the Cabinet Mission Plan, but this was nixed by the Congress High Command, leaving him no choice at a very late stage but to accept full partition. In Rushdie’s well known phrase, then, Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined.” Dhulipala says this Jinnah-centered view of Pakistan’s origins is totally off. The idea of Pakistan was debated the length and breadth of the United Provinces—the cultural heartland of South Asian Islam pre-partition—after its introduction at Lahore in March 1940. He mines the archives for pamplets, records of town meetings of the Muslim League, speeches, and especially the writings of renegade members of the Deoband ulema to make his case. The theological arguments were eye-opening. The debate between Sayyid Hussain Ahmad Madani (preaching muttahida qaumiyat or the Congress composite nationalist vision on the side of the JUH) and Shabbir Ahmad Usmani (founder of the pro-Pakistan JUI, though keeping distance from the League) is brilliantly done in chapter 7. Earlier in the book, the description of KM Ashraf’s leadership of the Muslim Mass Contact Campaign lays bare how difficult it became to sustain class-based arguments for Hindu-Muslim unity after Congress took power in the provinces in 1937. The very literal analysis of Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Pakistan in chapter 3 was tougher to wade through. Elsewhere, we hear blow by blow accounts of by-elections in the 40s: taken as critical barometers of public sentiment on Pakistan in what was otherwise an information desert prior to the 1946 elections. The book is long and dense, and probably best read in parts. Outstanding nonetheless.

[2019-09-09] Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan (1956)

A justifiably celebrated novel about a Sikh village in Punjab at the time of partition. In disturbing detail, the book narrates the ease with which communal hatred is engineered in the remote village of Mano Majra—where Muslim renters have lived in harmony with Sikhs for generations—in the days following the muder of a moneylender and the arrival of a “ghost train” from Pakistan, filled with corpses. The hypocrisy, incompetence, cunning, and corrpution of the police come under harsh scrutiny. Jugga and Iqbal, one an unlikely hero, are richly developed characters. The descriptions of the monsoon and the Sutlej river are captivating. The recurring metaphor of the train schedule was very cleverly done. It’s a harrowing yet believable depiction of how quickly reason, embodied in the lonely figure of Meet Singh, is jettisoned when the going gets (extremely) tough.

[2019-09-05] Jennifer Seely, The Legacies of Transition Governments in Africa: The Cases of Benin and Togo (2009)

The third wave of democratization in Africa kicked off in Benin in 1990, under the auspices of the National Conference. This was a kind of estates general, and indeed was directly inspired by the French model. (1989 was the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, and celebrations of it appear to have played some role in stirring agitation against autocracies in the former French colonies.) After visiting Benin in June, I was eager to learn more. Seely nicely contrasts the different democratic trajectories taken by Benin and Togo, delving into the back stories, the details of the transitions, and the aftermath. She says we should not see transitions as perfect successes or failures; the book rather aims to understand why Benin’s has been relatively more successful overall in bringing about inclusive and accountable institutions. A big part of the answer, Seely writes, is traceable to what happened during the conferences the transitional governments. Dynamics there—patterns of cooperation or conflict between incumbent and opposition, the forbearance of the military, debates over the constitutional architecture—reverberated through the next 20 years, shaping “actors, institutions, agendas, and strategies” as the new regimes unfolded. The comparison is fruitful. It is quite fascinating that Benin, which operated as a hardcore Marxist-Leninist dictatorship under Mathieu Kerekou, came out as a poster-child democracy in the 90s, while the historically pro-capitalist Togo made little democratic progress. I wasn’t completely sold by the argument; what happened during the conferences and transitional governments itself seemed epiphenomenal to interests and power distributions as they existed right before the transitions started. Teasing out the independent contributions of the transition is also complicated in this pair of cases by the fact that Togo neigbors Benin and was learning directly from its experience, in real time. Yet I gleaned a lot, and the volume of rich interview material—apparently from most of the key elites involved in the transitions in both countries—is impressive.

[2019-09-01] Wendy Pearlman, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (2017)

This should be required reading for everyone living in Western Europe and the US. Pearlman, an academic at Northwestern, interviewed hundreds of Syrian refugees, asking them about life in pre-war Syria, experiences of the conflict itself, their tales of migration and flight, and the new lives they’ve tried to build away from home. Besides an introduction, the book consists entirely of short excerpts from the raw interview transcripts. Students of civil war could conjor many hypotheses about about rebel governance, motivators of participation, effects of regime failure to signal commitment to meaningful reform etc etc, based on these. The terror of the war is palpable throughout: civilians needing to cross from liberated to government zones in Aleppo were subject to shootings at random by loyalist snipers. Some of the stories told about the journeys out of Syria are heartbreaking: from Sudan across the desert in jeeps, pursued by Egyptian soldiers; 20 days’ trekking through south and central Europe into Denmark; the kindly Macedonian policeman who shielded a migrant family from local mafia for a few hours so they could get some rest in a cave; two estranged brothers who cling to one another in a leaking wooden boat, expecting it to sink that night. Touching too is the urgency the respondents express to integrate into their adopted countries. Some marvel at the quality of public services (German schools where teachers teach until kids actually understand things), even as they feel guilt about drifting into consumerism as families and comrades back home still suffer. In “Reflections,” exiled revolutionaries are remorseful about having opened Pandora’s box, and for the killings they’ve perpetrated. Yet living morally is a luxury, they say: institutions and societies that enable people to daily do what’s right rest on the violent struggles of the past, and the atrocities they involved. It was also sobering to read of so many from Hama and Aleppo, places I visited as a college student in 2006, much of which are now rubble. Could American attitudes toward refugees be improved by holding public readings of this book?

[2019-08-26] Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008)

Already a classic of the dictator novel genre. It satirizes the life and death (in a plane crash, or by worms, or poison…) of Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq. It’s an easy read, with funny portraits of the paranoid Zia, his wife, the American ambassador, ISI and army chiefs, and others in the higher echelons of Islamabad society. Alas, there’s not much here to reconfigure popular perceptions of Pakistan as a place of Islamism and militarism. Very touching is the love story between protagonist Shigri and co-conspirator Baby-O. I laughed out loud during the scene in which Zia, determined to meet his subjects, sneaks out of HQ disguised in a shawl, only to be immediately taunted by a policeman.

[2019-08-25] Barbara Metcalf & Thomas Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India (2004)

I last read this book on my first trip to India in 2007, and re-reading now as a quick refresher on the earlier history. It’s very well done, if, perhaps tilted toward high politics, with less emphasis on the lived experience under company rule and colonialism. (The post-independence chapters are definitely better in this respect.)

[2019-08-19] James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age (2018)

A sort of sequel to Luce’s In Spite of the Gods. (Both were India-based FT journalists.) Combines anecdotes and vignettes about India’s contemporary robber barons, with a more workaday recounting of the country’s political trajectory since 1991. The later chapters on corruption and cricket stood out. Crabtree makes the case that politicians in the south are corrupt yet developmental stationary bandits (YSR), whereas in they north they are predatory roving bandits (Mayawati). With crony capitalism run amok, he argues that India is crying out for a Progressive Era—if it is to avoid lapsing into “Bollygarchy.” I expected a bit more on the billionaire class itself, but oddly this doesn’t form the major part of the book.

[2019-08-16] Walter Andersen & Shridhar Damle, The Brotherhood In Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh And Hindu Revivalism (1987)

An old account of the Hindu Nationalist RSS, detailing its nineteenth century intellectual roots in the Hindu reform movements, and its emergence in Maharashtra under Hedgewar. Chapter 3 has a riveting description of the structure of the RSS and its modes of indoctrination. Then onto more history of the RSS during the Emergency (it consolidated and flourished underground, as it had during the ban following Gandhi’s assassination), its part in the Janata coalition’s downfall, and its role in the ethno-nationalist upsurge of the 80s. The organizing theme of much of the book is the internal debate over how far to become embroiled in politics. Activists and cadres have invariably demanded greater engagement; the leadership has assented to their demands more often than not, so as to install guardians of RSS interests in power. But with that comes the risk of inviting political retribution when these guardians are out of office, and diverting focus from the core mission of character-building. It struck me that the dilemma is identical to that faced by the Catholic Church as it was deciding how to respond to anti-clericism in 19th century Europe (Kalyvas’s Christian Democracy book).

[2019-08-12] Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (2011)

Political order has three pillars: rule of law, political accountability, and state capacity. At some level, the book charts the emergence of each pillar across regions prior to the French Revolution. Fukuyama agrees with Huntington: the three don’t necessarily go together. The book is choc-a-bloc with ideas. I learned a lot from the discussions of legal history. I didn’t know anything about medieval Hungary before. (Fascinatingly, Hungary had its own version of the Magna Carta, but the feudal elite became too powerful vis a vis the king, enabling them to exploit population and resources without restraint, which was in some ways worse than monarchical control.) The India chapters push the proposition that the country’s strong society—emanating from its Vedic caste structure and totally decentralized Brahminical religious leadership—provide the foundations for democracy today. The retelling of the English revolution was confused, and the causal arrows very unclear. The attempt at offering some biological microfoundations for various parts of the story was cursory and too self-assured. Overall, the book displays an awkward tension between wanting to make highly general claims and throwing its hands up and saying “there are infinitely many paths to get to political order and democracy.” So the book is less than the sum of its parts.

[2019-07-22] John Monaghan and Peter Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction (2013)

This slim volume talks about the anthropologist’s craft, some of the challenges that ethnographers commonly encounter in the field, and introduces some of the major figures of social anthropology. The genealogy of the concept of culture taught me a lot—I hadn’t really pieced it together before from the parts of Weber, Boas, Malinowski, and Geertz I’ve read—but the rest was (of course intentionally) surface-level.

[2019-07-20] John Dower, Embracing Defeat (1999)

What did Japanese society look like during the post-War occupation? This is one of the most fascinating histories I’ve read on any topic in a while. The first half addresses the food shortages, prostitution, and black marketeering that characterized the initial phase of the occupation. The second half—which is even better—focuses more on notions of responsibility (almost wholly evaded except by a very select few on the left), constitution-writing (incredibly, drafted by a team of non-expert Americans in a matter of days), war trials, and the attempts by all parties to shield the emperor from blame for the war. MacArthur, while intent on constructing a democracy “from above,” saw the emperor as a stabilizing force. Hyped-up fears of communism pervaded much of the decision-making.