Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

What we read in 2015

Mint's editors, writers and columnists pick the best book they read in the year gone by

Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment by Akeel Bilgrami

Publisher: Permanent Black, 2014

Readers with only a passing knowledge of the intellectual history of the last century will no doubt be aware of the late Edward W. Said. The Palestinian-American scholar, writer, and activist turned literary criticism entirely on its head and brought a once stuffy field to the cutting edge of an inter-disciplinary study of culture, politics, and society.

In the wake of Said’s path-breaking work, many leading younger scholars drew inspiration from him and continued on the path that he had trodden. Interestingly, many are Indian-born—notably Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The very finest of these, in my opinion, is Akeel Bilgrami, born in Bombay (as it then was), educated at Elphinstone, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and Chicago, and who now teaches philosophy at Columbia, where he enjoyed fruitful interaction with Said.

This book is a collection of a dozen essays, spanning the last decade or so, many previously published, but expanded and enriched for this collection. Space does not permit me to elucidate the arguments in depth, but suffice to say that Bilgrami explores powerfully the inter-weaving of the triple themes in the title, and the collection, fittingly, ends with a moving and heartfelt personal tribute to Said himself.

As Bilgrami writes: “Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures." Likewise, Bilgrami’s collection of essays offers considerable pleasures but also many intellectual challenges on vital questions of our time.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

****

The Arrow Impossibility Theorem by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen

Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2014

In 1951, a young economist named Kenneth Arrow wrote a paper that has had profound implications about how to think about society. Arrow showed that aggregating individual choices into consistent social choice is not as easy as it sounds. There is no voting rule that satisfies the four key axioms of decisiveness, consensus, non-dictatorship and independence. I remember the wow moment when I was first introduced to the theory at university.

Arrow curiously called it the general possibility theorem, but it has since then more accurately been named the Arrow impossibility theorem. This short book, only 150 pages, features lectures by two Nobel economists, Amartya Sen and Eric Maskin, who have added to the modern literature on social choice that began with Arrow, though the genesis of the voting paradox can be traced back to the 18th century French thinker, Marquis de Condorcet. There are additional contributions in the book from economists of the stature of Joseph Stiglitz, Partha Dasgupta, Prasanta Pattanaik and Arrow himself. There could be no better introduction to a branch of economics that deserves to be understood more widely, despite its rather glum implications.

Sen is one of the most important thinkers on social choice, and his technical work here has been unfortunately overshadowed in the popular imagination by his research on issues such as famines. He famously collaborated with Arrow and the great political philosopher John Rawls to teach a course on social choice at Harvard. His main contribution to the book is a very lucid explanation of the Arrow paradox—or how voting rules do not lead to clear results. Maskin takes the matter forward by using his insights into game theory to design rules that take us closer to a result that reflects social choice though never quite achieving the ideal.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is Executive Editor of Mint.

****

Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia by Michael Buckley

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

The sharpening Asian competition over natural resources has contributed to aggravating inter-country disputes over resource-rich territories, including in the South and East China seas, where the disputed Spratly and Senkaku islands occupy a land area of only 11 square kilometers, but are surrounded by rich hydrocarbon reserves beneath the seabed. In water-stressed Asia, with water security becoming the hottest issue, water-rich territories are at the center of geopolitical tensions and internal security challenges. Buckley’s book focuses on the 21st century’s most critical battleground, Tibet—Asia’s “water tower". By annexing Tibet in 1951, China changed Asia’s water map to emerge as a hydro-hegemon with no parallel in the world.

Buckley warns that Tibet, after witnessing waves of genocide since the 1950s, now confronts ecocide, with China accelerating plans to dam and divert Tibetan rivers and siphon off the plateau’s mineral wealth. Yet, he bemoans, there is little international spotlight on this ecocide. Buckley argues that Asia can ignore what China is doing in Tibet only at its own peril. He says, “We have only one Tibet. There are no backups, no second chances. If the water resources of the Tibetan plateau should be blocked or diverted or become polluted, then Asia will tumble into chaos."

By forcibly absorbing Tibet, China enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and opened a new security threat for India, with Chinese armies stationed on the Himalayan borders for the first time in history. In the coming years, China’s dams, mines, and armies in Tibet, as the book indicates, are likely to increasingly affect Asia’s rivers and environment and regional stability.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.

****

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2014

Amongst the dozens of good books I read in 2015, this is the one that stood out. The world’s leaders are grappling with large, systemic problems—the global climate, socio-political atrophy causing terrorism and mass migrations, strained global trading systems, and persistent poverty. Each of these problems has many causes, and there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Collaboration is required amongst many disciplines and cooperation amongst many societal actors. Reductionist scientific thinking, which breaks complexity into separate parts, and which seeks to understand the mystery of the whole by understanding each part, is unable to comprehend such systemic challenges.

Capra and Luisi have recorded the history of the other scientific way of understanding behaviours of systems—the emergent science of ‘systems thinking’. The systems view looks at relationships between diverse parts of systems and at their ‘emergent’ properties that are different to the properties of their parts. Systems sciences have a fairly long history but have so far been sidelined by the dominant paradigm of reductionist scientific thinking. The ability to take a systems view has now become imperative for policymakers and business leaders. A systems lens will also enable all citizens to make sense of the world of which they are a part. A systems lens must be used as an alternative to the reductionist lens we are taught to use from our early days in school. Einstein said that we cannot solve the problems we have with the same thinking that caused the problems. This book is about a different way of thinking.

Arun Maira is a former member of the Planning Commission.

****

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Publisher: Crown, 2015

It is a special privilege for a son to be able to discuss books with his father. My father, a man of few spoken words, was fully engaged when I spoke to him about Superforecasting. Not given to hyperbole he agreed heartily when I commented that it was the best non-fiction book of 2015 that I had read.

The book begins with a short, captivating line, as all good books should. It says, “we are all forecasters". Indeed we are. For big decisions and small, we embed a forecast either explicitly or implicitly. The book lays bare the art and science of prediction. It tells the story of the Good Judgment Project, a programme initiated by the author Tetlock and his partner Barbara Mellers that invited volunteers to sign up and forecast the future. Tetlock reveals that the best forecasters in his volunteer group—called superforecasters—have measurable insight. This insight comes about not because of what they thought, but how they thought. The early chapters talk about forecasting and measurement in a precise and logical sort of way. The latter chapters make for fascinating reading by pulling it all together. Superforecasters are cautious, humble, non-deterministic, intellectually curious, reflective and numerate. The book closes with a must-read ten commandments for aspiring superforecasters.

My father possessed many of the qualities that Tetlock refers to in this book. It was the last book he read and we shared before he passed away this December. He would have appreciated the delicate irony that it was about forecasting.

Narayan Ramachandran is a Mint columnist and son of Late V. Ramachandran, Padma Bhushan awardee and Member of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.

****

Creating a New Medina by Venkat Dhulipala

Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2015

Rajni Kothari’s obituary penned by Shiv Visvanathan for The Hindu contained an interesting anecdote. A Marxist scholar critiquing one of Kothari’s works once pointed out that the latter had forgotten to mention the word “class". Unfazed, Kothari responded by confessing his omission of “cucumbers" as well. Class as a political fault line has received much less currency in India than caste and religion.

In his magisterial contribution to India’s partition historiography, Creating a New Medina, Venkat Dhulipala offers, among other things, a delightful account of a series of by-elections held in 1937 for Muslim constituencies in the United Provinces (UP). A litmus test for both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League (ML) to prove their support among Muslims, the elections saw the ML playing the religion card and the Congress responding by emphasising class issues through its Muslim Mass Contact Programme. As history has recorded, religion trumped class and the Congress lost the battle.

Dhulipala’s book is rich with such delightful accounts. Every page is a revelation. But there is a grand narrative woven around these accounts. Pakistan was neither a vaguely understood concept nor merely a bargaining chip that would be used by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Dhulipala’s narrative is a direct challenge to a piece of wisdom that has, so far, been accepted without much contestation. A gripping narration of vigorous debates on Pakistan at multiple levels of society in UP, including between two sections of Deobandi ulama, makes it an engrossing read.

The space I have here is too limited to bring out the complete treasure hidden in Dhulipala’s book. All I would say is—go for it.

Kunal Singh is Staff Writer (Views) at Mint.

****

India: a sacred geography by Diana Eck

Publisher: Harmony Books, 2012

I finished reading Diana Eck’s India: a sacred geography earlier in the year. I probably began reading it in 2014. Hence, my recollection about the details is a little hazy now. If anyone had any doubt about the Hindu civilizational unity of India, this book would dispel it. It does so rather effectively and persuasively and with transparent emotional sincerity. Even now, many think that there was no ‘India’ before the Brits came. That is patently political and historically wrong. This book, without attempting to refute it directly, does so by the way it captures how the Hindu pilgrims of India had a very clear idea of the civilizational unity of the country. The chapter that describes the meaning of India as ‘Jambudvipa’ is a must-read for all the self-professed ‘Left-Liberals’ of the country.

In the book, I found an interesting reference to the exchange of letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Premier Chou En-lai in 1963. The letter by Nehru had asserted spiritual sanction for the antiquity of India’s claim to the Himalayas as the Northern border. While Eck had cited this from another publication, she noted that Nehru’s sensibilities were significantly grounded in the symbolic sacred geography of India.

While many writers claiming to be devout Hindus, wanting to appear fashionable and acceptable to the West, describe the Shiv Linga as a phallic symbol, Diana Eck cites various texts to offer the spiritual interpretation of the Shiv Linga as the ‘Shaft of light’ that had to be reduced to a manageable form and size for humans to comprehend it.

While her subsequent political activism followed fads and fashions, the book remains an important read for Indians to understand that the Idea of India existed long before the invaders and colonisers arrived.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a Mint columnist.

****

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2013

In a back-of-the-mind way, I knew his name for years. But perhaps I first started paying attention to him with a spectacular photograph he took, of huge swirls in the sea off the coast of Mumbai: click here.

If you cannot follow that link, let me explain: each swirl is itself the size of the city. So Chris Hadfield did not get his shot from a tall building, nor even from an Indigo flight swooping in to land. No: Hadfield was an astronaut, and spent months on the International Space Station. While up there, he took and tweeted a slew of awe-inducing photographs of this magnificent planet we inhabit.

In some ways, that endeavour embodies the spirit of this terrific book Hadfield wrote after retiring. Reading it, you understand fully how passionate and dedicated he was about his life’s work. He knew as a child that he wanted to be an astronaut, and he worked incredibly hard to become one. There were years of training and waiting, heartbreak and sometimes uncertainty about whether he’d make it into space at all, or again. Yet he never loses sight of that childhood dream. That’s all in the book, and itself makes riveting reading.

But he also never forgets how remarkably fortunate he was to see the world as only a vanishingly tiny fraction of humanity ever will. Of the first time it happens, he writes: “How is this possible? What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww."

That’s so right: this is an elongated wow kind of book.

Dilip D’Souza is a Mint columnist.

****

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse

Publisher: Barrie and Jenkins, 1974

This year I revisited an old favourite, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse’s “Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen" that first lit up my life nearly 40 years ago when I was a callow youth. Over the years I have read bits of this little masterpiece but this year I read all 167 pages of it again and marveled at the sheer joie de vivre of the world of Wodehouse’s books.

What with the death of a father and a minor skirmish with a couple of arteries in the heart, it hasn’t been among the best years of my life. But the world of Eggesford Court reminded me that all troubles are temporary. “A touch of the wee sleekit cowering beastie is unavoidable when you’re up against it," declares Bertie Wooster, the hero of many of Plum’s best and a man who constantly battles the vagaries of life which include aunts who, well, aren’t quite gentlemen.

Just in case in our world of over seven billion, there are still some poor souls who don’t know the story of Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, here’s a summary: Bertie develops pink spots on his chest, and turns to the country for some much needed R&R. Sadly a whole host of unwanted friends and family happen to be in the same neighbourhood, among them ex-girlfriends, their current boyfriends, and of course Aunt Dahlia! Sparks fly, racehorses fall in love with cats and after all manner of malarkey, peace is restored.

It is the joy of the oft-enjoyed tale as well as the comfort of knowing that some things in life are truly unchanging.

Sundeep Khanna is Executive Editor of Livemint.com.

****

Misbehaving. The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H Thaler

Publisher: WW Norton and Company, 2015

We take the modern market economy with its existing rules of the game as a given. Most of us busy with other professions do not realize how deeply these rules of the game are affected by ideas cooked in Western Econ and Law labs. While challenges to the existing structures from outside the bell jar of the affluent West are easy to dismiss, it is not so smooth when dissent, proof and the beginnings of a new theory arise out of your own lab. This one in the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, also known otherwise for its market fundamentalist leanings.

Behavioral Econ professor and pioneer Richard Thaler brings over 40 years of work together in this book that should be read as a text book of a new stream of Econ–Behavioral Econ. In this world people are not machines (Econs) but humans, we make mistakes, are irrational and actively do things that harm us financially. In this world, the efficient market hypothesis is dead and prices are not always right. In this world, governments and policymakers use choice architecture to nudge citizens towards better choices, without taking away the active choice set. My takeaway from the book: if neo classical Econ lead us towards a ‘buyer beware’ market place, Behavioral Econ leads us straight to a seller beware market, especially in complex markets such as finance and medicine.

Monika Halan is editor at Mint Money.

****

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Publisher: Profile Books, 2015

The best new book I’ve read this year is Mary Beard’s SPQR. That the book is excellent is ably supported by the near-universal praise it has received from reviewers. This history of ancient Rome combines scholarship with writing that jumps off every page with humour and, most notably, a vigorous, infectious enthusiasm. Why am I having so much fun reading a book about ancient Rome written by a scholar? Surely there is a compromise here somewhere? There are none. SPQR is also a stunning lesson in how to tell complex, multi-threaded, ambiguous histories. Beard instead of shunning the ambiguities and narrative gaps in documented Roman history embraces it with both hands. This is a book I have enjoyed for its content. And now I will draw inspiration from its form and mentality for months and years to come.

Sidin Vadukut is a foreign correspondent with Mint.

****

Kissinger. Volume I. 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson

Publisher: Penguin Books, 2015

This is a book that all students and practitioners of international relations should study carefully. While the second volume is eagerly anticipated, this first volume already is one of the finest takes on a brilliant mind on which much ink has already been spilled. Kissinger’s imprint on contemporary global politics remains unmatched and this comprehensive and riveting account of Kissinger’s life (till the age of 45) by Ferguson is a revisionist one. It allows us to examine the complexities inherent in foreign and national security policymaking from the vantage point of a master strategist and still appreciate the human vulnerabilities as the profound and the mundane collide.

Harsh Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

****

Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul

Publisher: Harper Collins, 2015

One of the most despicable developments in Indian politics recently has been the degeneration of political debate into a high decibel mud-slinging match, especially on electronic and social media. This caricature of a debate is a serious threat to evolving meaningful public opinion on serious issues for the common person interested in context or facts.

It is in such a milieu that Akshaya Mukul’s book gives one a reason to cheer. Mukul has done meticulous research work on Gita Press—an important religious publishing house for Hindus, established in the 1920s—to trace the evolution of Hindutva politics around issues such as beef ban, vilification of Muslims, discouraging equal rights and education for women etc. Many of these have resurfaced in the political discourse today.

The book may not have unearthed any information different from what has been already written by academic scholars about Hindutva politics in the country. Most of it is just a factual narration of writings published in Gita Press’s journal Kalyan. Its worth lies somewhere else. By choosing Gita Press as the peg for his story, Mukul has demonstrated how interlinked religion, politics, media and culture have been in the growth and evolution of Hindutva politics. It also underlines the power of vernacular medium in propagating these ideas.

One can either become indignant by reading how regressive values are firmly rooted in what is probably India’s most respected religious publishing house for the Hindus, or wonder how much electoral politics can contribute to changing such value systems without parallel interventions of a similar variety.

Roshan Kishore is a data journalist at Mint.

****

Hubris by Meghnad Desai

Publisher: Yale University Press, 2015

Why did most economists fail to predict the 2008 crisis? This famous question posed by Her Majesty at the London School of Economics serves as the catalyst for Meghnad Desai’s most recent book. The short answer is because the economics profession had been imprisoned by a paradigm stuck in equilibrium analysis. The long answer is Desai’s book, which argues that capitalism is best understood as a system in constant disequilibrium. His second chapter is a tour-de-force on the analysis of business cycles, and traces the history of this subject. Apart from Smith, Ricardo and Marx, he highlights the very important contributions of Knut Wicksell and Joseph Schumpeter in understanding disequilibrium and cycles.

Desai brings back the long cycle analysis of the now forgotten Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff, whose theory of long cycles combines both political and economic variables. Modern statistical techniques now make it possible to provide stronger foundation for long cycle analysis. Chapter seven delves into this in detail.

The book is a joy to read for its sheer historic sweep, giving context of major economists and their works, from Smith all the way even to Thomas Piketty. It also adds new insights into the dynamics of disequilibrium. Finally the title refers to the mathematical arrogance of the “modellers" who got the 2008 crisis so wrong. Lucidly written, the book is a must read both for those seeking theoretical or historical insight into modern macroeconomics.

Ajit Ranade is a Mint columnist.

****

This Unquiet Land — Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt

Publisher: Aleph Books Company, 2015

They say journalists write the first draft of history. Barkha Dutt’s book is not just history, but an impassioned eyewitness account of the upheavals of the past two decades in India. It’s an incredibly frank and unflinching portrayals of the major fault lines in modern India—the constant clash of modernity and tradition. Most of the events described with empathy and juicy details, are personal encounters. But Dutt remains a dispassionate chronicler and doesn’t let any personal bias colour her description. She was one of the rare journalists embedded in the Kargil conflict, hence that chapter is gripping and heartfelt.

But it’s the material on a woman’s place in modern India, from Bhanwari Devi to Nirbhaya, from Ismat Chughtai to Sunitha Krishnan, that touches you and is most insightful. It is marvelous how a roving reporter and award-winning anchor found time to dwell and write in-depth analyses of issues like gender equality, terrorism, Kargil and Kashmir. If you missed watching TV for the past two decades, or want review those highlights, this book is a must read.

Ajit Ranade is a Mint columnist.

****

The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam by Akbar Ahmed

Publisher: HarperCollins, 2013

I recall a conversation with a US marine returning from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007. There was no insurgency, he said. There were a thousand insurgencies; men in neighbouring valleys could have different reasons for resisting NATO forces based on tribal loyalties. Policymakers have, on occasion, paid lip service to this ground reality of America’s global war on terror, but little more. Akbar Ahmed shows the folly of that in the most enlightening deconstruction of US warfighting efforts post 9/11 I’ve had the pleasure to read.

The core conflict, as he sketches it out, is between the centre and the tribal periphery in Muslim nations. Centuries of that struggle had resulted in a modus vivendi, upended by US-led military interventions that have been co-opted and used by traditional elites in the target countries. The result? Festering resentment and blowback among the tribal societies of the periphery—the thistle of the title, a metaphor culled from Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, representing the resilience and fierceness of tribal tradition—who find their sense of “nang" (honour) and egalitarianism violated by elites backed by impersonal American might for reasons alien to them. In the process, modernity as a concept becomes suspect, a tool of the enemy.

A former political agent in Waziristan, Ahmad combines that practical experience with a synthesis of anthropological and historical insight; he backs up his thesis with 40 studies of tribal culture ranging from tribes in South Asia and North and West Africa to those in Southeast and Central Asia. Others have made the argument before; I haven’t come across any that drill as deep as he does. One needn’t always agree with him—there is a sense that his sympathy for tribal culture leads him to sometimes overlook its excesses—to see the dangers of conflating regional struggles with global militancy.

Vikram Sinha is Editor (Views) at Mint.

****

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere by Christopher Hitchens

Publisher: Verso, 2000

After the murder of the Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi and later the Dadri lynching, writers from across India began returning their awards and honours to the Sahitya Akademi and to the government, protesting their silence. The government and its supporters responded petulantly. They condemned and ridiculed the writers, and called them politically motivated.

These neo-patriotic critics showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a writer. To make sense of that outrage, I returned to the late Christopher Hitchens’s collection of essays in which he examined the role of writers and the power of an argument. His title was inspired by the English poet Percy Shelley’s statement that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The book has 38 essays about writers, including Hitchens’ favourite George Orwell and Oscar Wilde, as well as H.L. Mencken, Anthony Powell, and unsurprisingly, Salman Rushdie. Hitchens isn’t always adoring: he does not spare Kipling for his racism and T.S. Eliot for his anti-Semitism. And he skewers Tom Clancy’s vacuity and Tom Wolf’s desire for sensationalism.

The central contention of these essays is that something is surely wrong if everybody agrees on everything. There has to be room for dissent. The essays effortlessly connect art and literature with politics and reveal the author’s prodigious knowledge, memory, talent, and persuasive power. Hitchens reminds us why a society willing to silence its writers into submission if they speak out would also be willing to sacrifice its freedom when the leadership demands.

Salil Tripathi is a Mint columnist.

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