What we read in 2016
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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
By Jonathan Haidt, Publisher: Vintage, 2012
I have read a few interesting books this year. Although Shankkar Aiyar’s Accidental India was published in 2012, it is arguably the best book on the post-independence Indian economic history. Then, there was Martin Ford’s The rise of the robots. Earlier in the year, I read Other people’s money by John Kay. There was Mervyn King’s Alchemy. During the summer, I read Scott Adams’ How to fail at everything and still succeed. Finally, it was The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.
I will pick Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind as my best book of the year. The book is well written and well structured. It has three parts and each chapter has a good summary of the key concepts and messages of that chapter.
It holds a mirror to Liberals and Conservatives (as per American definitions) alike, more so for the former than the latter. Coming from a member of the Liberal fraternity, the message is that much more credible. Further, it is underpinned by solid research. In a year marked by a very bitter Presidential campaign and the rise of extreme political correctness in American campuses, a book in which a Liberal questions his own worldview was a breath of fresh air.
There is more to equality than simple fairness and there is more to morality than simply not harm. These two are inadequate foundations for societies to evolve and to thrive.
More importantly and finally, the author has walked his talk and formed the Heterodox Academy to promote plurality and diversity of views on American campuses. My best book of the year, therefore, is The Righteous Mind.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is Mint columnist and an independent financial markets consultant based in Singapore.
By David Bohm, Publisher: Routledge 1996
Oxford Dictionary christened 2016 as the post-truth world. It is for a reason: Emotions and not facts rule the outcomes of public debates; and ironically, at a time when we are equipped with an unprecedented variety of tools to communicate with each other in real time.
What explains this contradiction?
The late physicist David Bohm offered a simple explanation: we have stopped listening to each other. And the genius of Bohm is that he talked about this in an era when the Internet was yet to be invented and the idea of dark social media didn’t exist.
Take for example his observations on the information overload as media began to find its feet in the 1970s: What appears on the radio and television, as well as in the newspapers and magazines, is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.
It is not just that Bohm was prescient. Instead, his work is the revelation of a long happening trend in society; the growth of new media has only accelerated this trend.
A slim book, this work of Bohm — it can be picked up from Amazon (personally, I prefer the Kindle edition)—is not an easy read. The content is profound and would need to be re-read several times to grasp the import—not complaining, just saying. It is carefully compiled from a range of works, talks and seminars by the physicist.
Though still only midway through the work I already have my New Year resolution: listen to others.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor at Mint
The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
By Sanjeev Sanyal, Publisher: Penguin 2016
At the height of the struggle between the imperial Habsburg Empire on the one hand and the Protestant coalition comprising the small states of Sweden, Prussia and the north German princes on the other, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu and of Fronsac, was expected to side with the former. The Protestants, after all, had challenged the papacy which was the source of legitimacy for the French throne. But Cardinal Richelieu realized that French strategic interest lay in containing the rise of the Habsburg Empire, not in becoming a bulwark for religion. What was rare in Central Europe was commonplace in the East.
But we tend to miss this point when reading history through Eurocentric narratives and templates provided by the West. In The Ocean of Churn, Sanjeev Sanyal tells us about how geopolitical interests would often trump ethnic loyalties—in aligning the Sinhalese kings with the Pandyas to drive away the Cholas in the 11th century.
But the history of Indian Ocean, especially before the entry of Europeans, has received short shrift from the academic community. And likewise, after their exit, it appears, Sanyal observes, “as if history subsequently stopped for the locals.”
Sanyal’s major contribution is in picking up small details – about individuals, families, clans, myths, and urban landscape that tie the Indian Ocean together. He resurrects characters now forgotten by history – from Marthanda Varma of Travancore who defeated the Dutch to Rash Behari Bose, one of the key architects of the 1915 Ghadar uprising. The book is written in a simple, lucid language providing much respite from onerous academic tomes.
Kunal Singh is staff writer (Views) at Mint
The Fear of Freedom
By Eric Fromm, Publisher: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941
I couldn’t have picked up Erich Fromm’s classic at a better time—when words like “Nazism” and “Fascism” are thrown around with careless abandon even in robust democratic nations, when ostensibly open and free societies around the world seem to be turning inwards. Economics and politics offer some answers, of course, but it is Fromm’s psychological analysis that helps connect the dots and take in a fuller, more nuanced view. Published during the Second World War in 1941, the book focuses on Nazi Germany but its lessons and observations are relevant even today. Of particular interest is Fromm’s explanation of why Adolf Hitler enjoyed the support of a large number of Germans. The author’s views on organised religion and how it responds to social needs, on how individuals respond to oppression, authority and freedom generally serve as an eye-opener.
A third aspect that strikes a chord is Fromm’s investigation into human individuality (or the lack thereof). He bemoans the inability of the modern man, who he describes as ‘automaton’, to think for himself, instead allowing himself to be herded around like sheep. Fromm’s comments have much significance at a time when much social currency has been invested in the idea of individuals thinking out-of-the-box and coming up with ‘the next big thing’, when personalised apps and social media feeds are all the rage—and yet there is little around us, in terms of genuine ideas or experiences, that’s new or different, for the modern man is indeed “starved for life”.
Mayuri Mukherjee is senior content creator at Mint
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi, Publisher: Random House, 2016
The book that had a profound impact on me is a book that I could, a month after reading it, barely recall. Let me explain why.
I read Paul Kalanithi’s transcendent death memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, through a fog of tears seated at my mother’s bedside as she lay dying. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this book. But it was fortuitous that I read it at a time when I had so many questions about death, letting go and acceptance and could not find one person who could provide clarity.
My mother was 83. Paul – you have to be on first name basis with a writer with whom there has been such an intimate connection – was 36 when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. How does a brilliant neurosurgeon become a patient? How does a man concerned with the fundamentals of a moral life come to terms with his mortality?
My mother died soon after I finished the book. Because I had read it at such a stressful time, I forgot the detail in the months that followed. I tried to pick it up again several times through the year, but like a piece of music that takes you back to a specific place and memory, I simply could not. And then, last week, I turned to it again, and it all came back. Paul’s book spoke to me because through it I found some measure of solace. At a most difficult time, he was my shepherd, guiding me towards understanding, and eventually, acceptance.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor at Mint
A free thinking cultural nationalist: A life story of Rahul Sankrityayan
By Alaka Atreya Chudal, Publisher: Oxford University Press
Rahul Sankrityayan was born Kedarnath Pandey in a poor Brahmin family in an Uttar Pradesh village in 1893. His only formal education was at the local primary school. It is a testimony to his intellectual passion that he was twice appointed a professor of Indology at Leningrad University. His quest to understand the cultural roots of the Indian nation took him to countries such as China, Soviet Union, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Iran. There are striking parallels here with another intellectual wanderer, the self-taught scholar Dharmanand Kosambi who ended up as a faculty member of Harvard University.
Sankrityayan was, in turns, a Vaishnav sadhu, an Arya Samajist, a Buddhist monk and a communist. The journey was not without controversy. Sankrityayan’s campaign to make Hindi the only national language angered scholars from other Indian languages. His call for Muslims to Indianise their religion led to his sacking from the communist party.
Alaka Atreya Chudal has argued in this book that there is actually a common theme in the fascinating story of this ghumakkar raja — or king of the wanderers. She identifies Sankrityayan as a cultural nationalist at a time when a new nation state was being conceived. Her biography sheds light on not just an intellectual giant but also his turbulent times.
One last thought: It is high time that a new English translation of Sankrityayan’s Volga Se Ganga — a monumental history of the Indian people from 6000 BC to 1922 AD, told in 19 stories — is published in a country that has unfortunately forgotten Sankrityayan.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor at Mint
Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization
By Branko Milanovic, Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2016
If there is one book you want to read to understand the tumultuous events of 2016, it has to be Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Using clear prose and armed with tonnes of data, Milanovic presents a fascinating tale of the rise and wane of global inequality to identify very precisely the winners and losers of globalization within and across countries. In doing so, he revisits some of the hoary assumptions about inequality in economics, and raises disturbing questions about the stability of democratic capitalism.
In this short book, Milanovic is able to clearly outline both the gains and the losses of globalization, and highlight the progress the world has made in bridging the global income gap. That progress has been driven by emerging markets such as China and India, which have lifted a large proportion of their populations above poverty and added significantly to the ranks of the global middle class. The pains have been felt largely in the advanced economies where the incomes of the middle class have stagnated, fueling discontent. Written before Donald Trump was elected to be US president, Milanovic argues that the reaction to the discontent may be in the form of populism in many places.
While one may not agree entirely with Milanovic’s theorizing and policy recommendations, his careful analysis of the facts deserves our attention. And his skilful and almost dispassionate narration makes the book a compelling read.
Pramit Bhattacharya is data editor at Mint.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan
By Sebastian Mallaby, Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016
Anyone who is interested in the world of money and finance is unlikely to miss this impressive biography. After all, Alan Greenspan as the chairman of the US Federal Reserve was the most influential player of this world for 18 long years. The book is the result of five years of research by Sebastian Mallaby who had almost unlimited access to Greenspan. It beautifully tracks the transformation of Greenspan, and with him the world of money and finance. Greenspan showed enormous flexibility and pragmatism over the years—one of the reasons why he survived for so long in such a powerful position. Consider this: From being a believer of gold standard, with changing times, he adopted inflation targeting which basically means that the Fed will work to reduce the value of the dollar by 2% every year.
Greenspan, once regarded as a hero for maintaining price and economic stability, is now seen as a villain, directly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. Mallaby rightly notes that there was very little that Greenspan could have done in terms of tightening regulations in the financial sector for a variety of reasons.
However, he asserts that Greenspan could have used monetary policy on which he had full control to avert the crisis. Arguably, the policy was more focused on price stability and ignored financial stability. But this debate remains unsettled. It’s not clear whether the Fed was actually in a position to avert the crisis though monetary policy tools without substantially damaging the economy. And if it was indeed possible, why the man who knew about financial stability more than most people did not act. Maybe, it’s still wise to wait for the last word on Greenspan and his presumed role in the making of the 2008 financial crisis.
Rajesh Kumar is deputy editor (views) at Mint.
The adivasi will not dance: Stories
By Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2015
Last year, a good portion of news analysis and debate was devoted to whether beef eating should be banned in India. It was at that time I saw a headline on a news website: How the Sorens stopped eating meat in Vadodara.
It was an excerpt from Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book. The story was about a Santhal family which had moved to Vadodara, was advised not to cook non-vegetarian food in a city obsessed with purity, and suppresses the fact that it was tribal. The story held up a mirror to our times when housing societies keep people out because of dietary preferences and food habits are becoming a political issue.
That turned out to be just the first of a collection of 10 fine short stories on the Santhals. The stories are bleak; they talk about Santhal women selling themselves for two pieces of bread pakora and Rs 50, of a community hounded out of the fecund jungles where it lived for centuries in the name of power production and development, of the need for a marginalized community to keep its identity in check.
The titular Adivasi in the book didn’t dance (in front of the president who had arrived to inaugurate a power plant) precisely because of the disenfranchisement suffered by his people.
That said, the stories are narrated with empathy and sensitivity, and Shekhar manages to find humour in many a situation. The Santhals couldn’t have asked for a better voice.
Ravi Krishnan is Mint’s Mumbai bureau chief.
Hashimpura, May 22: The forgotten story of one of India’s biggest custodial killings
By Vibhuti Narayan Rai, Publisher: Penguin Books, 2016
“No one who has been asked by an intelligent American student whether the phrase Second World War meant that there had been a First World War is unaware that knowledge of even the basic historical facts of the century can be taken for granted”, says historian Eric Hobsbawm in his classic The Age of Extremes.
In 1987, more than 40 Muslim men were arrested from Hashimpura, a locality in Meerut, and subsequently shot dead by members of an armed police battalion. This happened in a place which is less than 100km from India’s national capital. Twenty-eight years later, all the accused were acquitted.
Vibhuti Narayan Rai’s account of what followed the massacre is as authentic as it can get, because he was the Superintendent of Police of the district where the crime took place. However it is not just facts that Rai brings to the table. The book also offers an insight into the role of those tasked with ensuring that justice was delivered. “It took me nearly five to six years to realize that my belief that the killers would receive exemplary punishment for such a heinous act would remain just that—a mere belief,” he writes.
Those who are worried by the current rise of divisive politics must acquaint themselves with the history of communalism and the associated miscarriage of justice in India, lest they end up like Hobsbawm’s “intelligent American student”.
Roshan Kishore is staff writer at Mint.
The plot against America
By Philip Roth, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
When reality seems so bizarre that it feels fictional, might fiction offer an insight into reality? A novelist’s truth often goes beyond facts and helps us understand reality with fresh eyes. And so, to understand the astonishing rise of Donald Trump, in March I re-read Philip Roth’s outstanding and prescient novel, The Plot Against America, which offers a parallel reality where the flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who is anti-Semite, wins the 1940 Presidential election and sides with the Nazis in the Second World War.
Roth’s novel has been compared with Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 classic It Can’t Happen Here. As America sleep-walked through the divisive election, Lewis’s phrase became a leitmotif among those who wished that their hope would triumph over what was happening.
In Roth’s alternative universe, Franklin Roosevelt loses in 1940 to Lindbergh, who signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler, invites his foreign minister to the White House, and American isolationism turns into full-scale Nazification: Jewish children are forcibly taken to other families for re-education and a gossip columnist who opposes Lindbergh is murdered.
The Plot Against America was timed with George W. Bush’s second coming, and many saw it as an allegory. And though Roth disliked Bush, he maintained that his novel was exactly what he wrote it as -- about the United States in the 1940s, seen through the eyes of a small boy, when as the novel began, “fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.”
Natural order is restored in the novel towards the end, but not before shocking the readers about what can happen when a demagogue takes over, racists march in cities, and minorities feel besieged. Democracy and its institutions are fragile, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Otherwise, as Roth warns, the unexpected can become the inevitable.
Salil Tripathi is Mint columnist and a writer based in London.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi, Publisher: Random House, 2016
There is a breathless connection between breath and air. We draw our breath from the seemingly abundant air, an existentialist impulse that runs in a rhythmic loop. Till life exhales for the last time. Between life and death, the two tallest, deepest words in the language cosmos throbs a similarly breathless relationship. We inhale-exhale unnoticeably, till an unexpected storm gathering the dust of life forces us to gasp. Breathlessly then, life and death want to become one.
After he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer at the age of 36 and till his woefully burdened lungs and insightful brain hung their boots at the age of 37, American neurosurgeon of Indian origin Dr Paul Kalanithi wrote a poignant memoir. When Breath Becomes Air was written precisely when Paul’s life and death got fatally attracted to each other.
Dedicated to his daughter Cady, who he and his wife Lucy Kalanathi --also a doctor --decided to have in their gravest phase, the book is a literary meditation of life-affirming observations written from the front row of death. Paul, also a student and devotee of literature was a fine mind, a writer-in-waiting who transformed into a probing author when death came calling. The book is layered with pragmatic fluidity and philosophic realism without a gasping tone.
A neurosurgeon in the final year of his residency at Stanford University in the US, Paul had for all this time been preparing to finally “live” life away from the pressures of medical studies and duties. But lung cancer shrank time and choices. Paul reflects on pain, oncological options, clinical trials, marriage, stamina and willpower, caregiving, love, his deep familial bonds and his poetic romance with Lucy. Everything survives. Paul dies. Prematurely, peacefully, surrounded by his family. Cady is eight months old.
Paul’s unfinished manuscript was posthumously completed by Lucy who also wrote the memorably moving epilogue. Reading the book was the longest I held my breath this year.
Shefalee Vasudev is fashion and style editor at Mint.
The Rise and Fall of Nations
By Ruchir Sharma, Publisher: Allen Lane, 2016
Ruchir Sharma’s “The Rise and Fall of Nations” is the finest book I have read in a long time. It informs, intrigues, and most of all, finds connections between apparently random global events and while Sharma is never snug in declaring patterns, these emerge organically from his vast research, the outcome of some 25 years of crisscrossing the world as head of emerging markets and chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. These travels produce some striking insights – the good and bad billionaires bit for instance which leads Sharma to one of his more incisive observation, the difference in the lifestyles of billionaires and the ways in which they display their wealth in Russia and Poland gives us enough indicators of how the two countries are poised to meet future challenges.
Equally, he uses his perspicacity to dispel myths – that increasing prosperity leads nations towards democracy. Even as the global economy grew rapidly, the number of countries registering a decline in political rights outstripped the number posting a rise. Eventually his 10 rules as a guide to judge a nation’s fortunes may seem a bit too pat or even forced but they serve as a wonderful guide for anyone who likes to travel. Want to check out what a people think about the authority of their government? Check out the number of goods being sold off the books for as Sharma says “the black economy is the ultimate expression of public disdain for the state”. Now you know why Narendra Modi is going after the black economy in India.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint
Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science
By Dani Rodrik, Publisher: Norton, 2015.
This is a fun and instructive little book on the use — and misuse — of economic models by economists, policy makers, and policy advocates, but most especially academic and think tank economists, which are the book’s principal target (and target audience). Rodrik’s starting premise is that economists go wrong when they assume that a single, universal model — along the lines of the natural sciences — can be applied to every problem; rather, what is needed, he argues, is a series of different models, each suited to a specific set of circumstances. What is lost in generality is gained in terms of context-relevant specificity, and prevents, he believes, economists from mis-applying their models and coming up with wrong and potentially even dangerous policy implications. A good economic model, for Rodrik, is a stylized schema which elucidates the essential causal mechanisms that the economist believes connect causes and outcomes. Somewhat akin to economist Deirdre McCloskey, who has written extensively on the rhetoric of economics, Rodrik sees economic models as fables, which crystallize a “moral” — or, in this case, a causal story. This book will be of great interest not only to teachers of economics, but practitioners of economic policy analysis, in universities and think tanks alike. It will also be of interest to the general reader who has a basic familiarity with, and interest in, the problems of economics.
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.
Note: This review originally appeared on the blog of IDFC Institute, a Mumbai think tank, where Dehejia is a senior fellow.
Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy
By Shivshankar Menon, Publisher: Penguin India, 2016
Books by former diplomats invariably fall into two categories. The first is a kiss and tell pulp biography, which focuses on style over substance, pomp over circumstance and personalities over issues. The second is a scholarly and intellectual tome with a narrow emphasis on foreign policy challenges and responses, which downplays the role of individuals and singular events. It is a rare treat to find both aspects neatly dovetailed in one highly ruminative and entertaining volume. Shivshankar Menon’s maiden effort accomplishes this feat with aplomb (though readers looking for titillating exposes will be disappointed).
Instead of the traditional tour de force approach, which tries to cover every aspect of India’s foreign policy and ends up doing justice to none, Menon deliberately focuses on only five areas: China (through the border agreement); the United States (via the civil nuclear agreement); use of diplomacy and force to deal with weak states, cross-border terrorism (emanating from Pakistan) and intra-state conflict (with the proximate experience of Sri Lanka); and India’s nuclear strategy and world order. In choosing these five issues the book underlines that India’s future in the evolving global order is directly dependent on how effectively it deals with them.
While the book provides a ring-side view and new insights on how India dealt with these set of crucial challenges, it’s real contribution lies in providing a glimpse into the black-box of Indian foreign policy decision making. However, the book offers only a glimpse: it conceals far more than it reveals. In doing so it unveils a secret: India’s foreign policy might be a mystery even to those who are responsible for it.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a Mint columnist,visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.