“An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” by Shashi Tharoor

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Author– Shashi Tharoor

Genre– Nonfiction/ History

About the author

Shashi Tharoor is a member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. He previously served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and as the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs.

He is also a prolific author, columnist, journalist and human rights advocate.

He has served on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. He has also served as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and the Advisory of the Indo-American Arts Council, the American India Foundation, the World Policy Journal, the Virtue Foundation, and the human rights organization Breakthrough

Tharoor has written numerous books in English. Most of his literary creations are centered on Indian themes and they are markedly “Indo-nostalgic.” Perhaps his most famous work is The Great Indian Novel, published in 1989, in which he uses the narrative and theme of the famous Indian epic Mahabharata to weave a satirical story of Indian life in a non-linear mode with the characters drawn from the Indian Independence Movement. ( Ref: Good Reads author information)

My review

Tharoor mentions what the American historian and philosopher Will Durant  wrote about Britain in 1930, ‘Britain’s conscious and deliberate bleeding of India… [was the] greatest crime in all history’.

In this book, Tharoor has made an impressive case against the empire apologists giving the lie to their claims on benevolence to the empire subjects, and the purported dividends accrued by Indians over the period of colonialism and post-colonialism, shattering the myth of ‘enlightened despotism’ of the empire through his concise, well-scrutinized, trenchant and to the point onslaught. This book followed his famous Oxford speech advocating the cause of reparation by Britain, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by his opponents, daring Britain to take on board its historical responsibility of colonial excesses and depredations.

The British Empire in India began in 1600 as a commercial project in trading silk, spices, and other commodities by the East India Company and which changed into a rapacious and savage enterprise subjugating the natives, misappropriating their wealth and land and trampling their self-respect, identity, and honor under the jackboot of colonialism. What ensued, later on, was organized plunder thrusting a rich civilization into the edge of a precipice, engendering a yawning gap of pecuniary disadvantage with its world share of GDP going into a free fall. When the British acquired the reigns from the Mughal empire, India’s share of world GDP had been 23% and by the time they left, this dropped down to a mere 3%.

Britain’s industrial revolution flourished from the ashes of Indian industries. A well planned and systematic de-industrialization of the textile and steel industries was carried out which put an end to the manufacturing while force-feeding Indians with British exports. Similarly, India’s pioneering shipbuilding industries were forcefully shut down and done away with completely. The ryots(peasants) were saddled with exorbitant taxation, and the local princes were extorted in return for tutelage. All the while, the drain of resources continued unabated to London. India continued to be the gold mine of the empire, the officials vying for the coveted ICS post, ensuring an extortionate salary and pension, all fleeced from the Indians. Whatever developments, in the form of railways, bridges, dams, etc were meant for the commercial benefit of the empire.  History provides us with the axiomatic corroboration, the Jallian Wallah Bagh massacre, forced displacement of the masses, and the Bengal famine to name a few.

Two hundred years of pillage, chicanery, liquidation, and deindustrialization is patently writ large in the annals of colonialism for any cognizant soul, let alone historians and Indian nationalists, to take the apologists for granted in all their conscience. Thus, the import of an adroit orator, wordsmith, and a debater like Tharoor who can deftly weigh in on, driving a coach and horses through the vindicatory assertions of empire apostles by the tenor and trenchancy of his debate substantiating his counterpoints through good sense, wit and researchful sedulousness.

Apologists’ claims of giving India political unity, endowing liberal democracy, freedom of the press, the Parliamentary system, and rule of law are extirpated by his political arguments and Argus-eyed spadework. The most consequential and lingering legacy of the empire in India indubitably is the partition of India, which is a corollary of the British policy of ‘divide et impera‘(divide and rule) on the basis of communalism and politicization of religion and is a case in point. Also, the myth of enlightened despotism advocated by the apologists has been thrashed by counterclaims on the contrary, and their absurdist contentions laid bare. The statements of bequeathal of the alleged British properties like railways, tea, English language, British education, and cricket, as a means of enriching and civilizing a motley amalgam of paganistic wogs, is anatomized, and their alleged altruistic intentions debunked by statistics that run athwart professions.

The arguments against the empire are as blunt, incisive, and muscular as they are equitable. He has objectively endorsed the obvious positives of the Raj, unintentional and corollary to the colonial prosperity though, in the coda. There, still, are Indians oblivious to the dimensions of colonialism foisted on their ancestors and how most, but not all, of the current strifes, ill governance, and policies are a direct sequel of colonial misrule, for whom this book could be a reference work. The ideologies of Gandhism are brushed past in relation to its unrealistic nature in the context of present-day conflicts, concomitantly emphasizing its relevance as an abstemious force that triumphed in defenestrating the imperial regime.

Though conversant with the historical facts, there is a minority of empire sympathizers who turn a blind eye to it and condones this Milton’s Satan of sorts rephrased as ‘The Brown Mans’s Burden’. Nostalgia for the yesteryears of the empire has been a significant contributor to the 52% YES vote for Brexit, which is hauling the nation to a cliffhanger, being condemned to the uncertainty of dallying in the back of the queue being laid out by some allies.

However sublime the tenets of Gandhism, yet, an average man in the street belies pretensions of moral high ground or political correctness and might even savor the frisson of schadenfreude while he catches wind of what could be perceived as the day of reckoning in the form of TATA steel’s pull out of Britain or the looming misgivings post-Brexit. For exposing us to a game like cricket, even incidentally, Britain has scored a point in Indian minds, though the rules of the gentleman’s game had never been emulated by the empire in the real-life experience.

Book Review- ‘That was Dachau’ by Stanislav Zamecnik

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Author–            Stanislav Zamecnik ( Czech historian, Holocaust survivor)

Genre–              Non-fiction/ History

(‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’…..     Primo Levi)

Review

I bought this book while on a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site( created in 1965), Bavaria, Munich during the 2016 summer.  A must-see place for history lovers. The camp is a bit of a harrowing repository of the Dachau archives, houses a museum which really is a time machine, whereby one can hark back to Third Reich and it’s barbarity. I could literally feel the terror while being guided through the camp( the museum is set in such a way). One of the sites which made me stuck as if in a nightmare, was the crematoria where the gassed and poisoned prisoners were burned up. Words definitely fall short for the kind of utter insensibility and cruelty of The Third Reich.

About the book, the author, Stanislav Zamecnik, himself a Holocaust survivor, has stunningly captured the details, shored up by statistics and ample evidence. He has done a painstaking and arduous job of research which is commendable. The fact that he had done this despite the sanction imposed on him by the authorities in the wake of The Prague Spring, which prohibited him from working as a historian, in itself is one of the reasons which make it a must-read for all, in particular, The Third Reich history pursuant. He was imprisoned in Dachau for almost four years. His mission in life was to preserve the memory of Dachau, and he committed himself to the redevelopment of the Dachau Memorial and the permanent exhibition there recreating the realities, leaving his indelible mark on the International Committee of Dachau.

The camp was opened on March 22, 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, 2 months after Adolf Hitler took power, the first one of a series of death camps to follow. It went on to become the instrument of the Nazi extermination regime and the prototype for the other death camps. Dachau was the only camp that remained in operation from 1933 until 1945. Located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory, it was intended to house political prisoners at first and later expanded for forced labor and to house Jews from Germany, Austria and other countries that Germany invaded. There were more than 40,000 documented deaths (murders plus death from hunger, malnutrition, overwork, and diseases) out of the 200,000 imprisoned from all over Europe at the site and its subsidiaries.

The entrance gate carries the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free). Dachau’s close proximity to Munich, where Hitler came to power and where the Nazi Party had its official headquarters made it a convenient location. Initially, Hitler imprisoned intellectuals, artists, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, handicapped and homosexuals for the slave labor for manufacturing weapons for Germany’s war efforts. Later, some of the prisoners were used for brutal medical experiments by the Nazis( There is a touching book about how the Nazi doctors ruthlessly did irrational, unethical, inhumane and brutal experiments- Doctors From Hell by Vivien Spitz- I had read this some time back, hope to re-read and write the review sometime soon).

The first commandant of Dachau was the SS officer, Hilmar Wackerle. A Munich schoolteacher Sebastian Nefzger was killed by the SS officers, who reported the death as a suicide. The Autopsy revealed the cause of death as strangulation and the public prosecutor in Munich, therefore, charged the camp commandant Hilmar Waeckerle and other SS officials in the camp with murder. Himmler was forced to remove Wackerle from his post. But on May 25, 1933, Hitler exempted Dachau from judicial oversight and authority and the SS were given unlimited authority over the camp prisoners. Later, all the camps would be removed from the judicial oversight.

Theodor Eicke, who replaced Wackerle as the camp commandant on  October, 1933, brought in severe punishments including systematic beatings and summary execution for rule infringements or escape attempts. Any attempts at sabotage, escape or political agitation were met with summary execution. Later, this system would be followed for all the other concentration camps run by the SS.

Dachau camp was expanded in 1938 by the construction of an SS military training base by demolishing a WW I era munitions factory. The prisoners were made to work 24/7 for the reconstruction. During the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, about 30,000 Jews were summarily arrested and incarcerated in the three concentration camps, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed, burned or vandalized and they were dragged off the streets and homes to the camps, almost 11,000 of them ending up in Dachau.

In 1939, all the prisoners in Dachau were transferred to Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Flossenbeurg camps. The facilities at Dachau were used by the Waffen-SS for training the Death-Head’s Division. The camp would resume operating again in 1940. From 1941 onwards, the SS doctors started selecting the weak, ill and disabled prisoners, who would be transported to Hartheim and get killed there. As more numbers of prisoners started getting executed in Dachau, four crematoria were built along with the construction of a gas chamber. As a part f their plan to Germanize Occupied Poland and undermine the Catholic Church leadership there, more than 2700 clergy were arrested and incarcerated in the “Priest barracks” of Dachau.

SS doctor Sigmund Rascher conducted his infamous cold water freezing experiment on the prisoners, with methods of reviving them after they had been forced to remain in ice- cold water for hours. This was meant to help revive the German Air Force pilots whose planes went down in cold water. Out of 300 test subjects, one-third died. Numerous other prisoners were used for other medical experiments as well. A 1943 Typhus outbreak in the camp forced the SS to quarantine the prisoners and stop the forced labor. Almost 1000 died as a result of the disease.

While the prisoner numbers increased many subcamps sprang up around Dachau in Southern Germany and also in Northern Austria. On April 26, 1945, just three days before the liberation of the camp, the SS forced about 7000 prisoners on ‘The Death March’ to Tegernsee. It lasted for 6 days, while the SS shot the weak on the way, while many died of exhaustion, hunger, and exposure. The surviving prisoners who arrived at Tegernsee were liberated by the American Forces on May 2, 1945.

The Dachau Camp was liberated by the US Forces on April 29, 1945. As they arrived in the camp, they found more than 30 coal cars filled with decomposing bodies and more than 30,000 prisoners in the camp.

As a part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution‘ to ‘The Jewish Problem‘ many more were exterminated in the other concentration camps. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site was opened in 1965. The International Monument at the Memorial Site holds a sculpture by Nandor Glid, the Yugoslav sculptor and Holocaust survivor whose father and many other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. The sculpture is a poignant pointer to the Holocaust. It is made of dark bronze. It features short strands of barbed wire on which skeletons are hanging with their heads dangling sharply. On either side of the sculpture are concrete fence posts which closely resemble the ones actually used to support the barbed wire fence around the camp. Underneath the sculpture is the dates 1933 – 1945, the years that the camp was used as a concentration camp for anti-Nazis.

 

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On the west side of the monument  is a wall whose inscription in English reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”
The letters on the east side of the monument wall say “Never Again” in five different languages. In front of the wall is a box of ashes of the victims of the Dachau concentration camp, which was placed here on May 7, 1967, the same day that the Jewish Memorial building was dedicated. These were ashes that were found in red clay urns when Dachau was liberated.
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The International Monument has a wide ramp which slopes down to the base of the sculpture designed by Nandor Glid. On the west side of the ramp is another sculpture which features a bas relief depicting three links of a chain held together by bars in between. This signifies the unity among the prisoners, many of whom were left-wing political prisoners who shared the same beliefs. On the links are enameled triangles in the colors of the cloth badges worn by the prisoners on their uniforms to identify their prisoner classification.
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Red triangles were worn by the Communists, Social Democrats and other political prisoners and blue by the foreign workers, mostly Poles, who were brought to the Dachau camp. The Jews always wore two triangles with a yellow triangle on top of another color, usually red which signified a political prisoner.
Why we should read about the Third Reich and the Holocaust?
The Italian- Jewish Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi, in his autobiographical trilogy ‘If This Is a Man‘, tries to find the reasons for the human barbarity.
Logical thinking and reasoning prompt us human beings to ask questions. Discerning the answers cogently and sizing up the present and future, linking them to the past, requires one to dig deeper into the graveyards of history.
I admit that the read was depressingly bleak. Yet the pages sufficed as steps of knowledge, as answers to how a civilized nation could descend into savagery of this magnitude, how complacence and denial are akin to abetment of organized crime, why only a few were audacious enough to stand up to the ordeals, how a far-right ultra-racist minority could amass the instruments of governance to systematically mass murder an entire race by kindling the smoldering hatred with the aid of warped history, spurious politics, and apocryphal pseudo-science, or, how the social, political and economic environments join forces in the origin, re-incarnation or morphing of one among us into a Frankenstein’s monster.
The answers teach us many things. We learn to pay heed to the forewarnings from society, we try to respect diversity, fend off ‘otherization’, above all to question the unsavory, shady deviances. We learn to react individually and collectively. To teach is to learn and to learn is to question. And learning about the Reich and the Holocaust invariably prepares our mind for questioning, to understand the responsibilities in crimes of not only the men at the top of the ladder, but also the nameless, faceless cohorts at the lowest rungs of the society,  to have the courage of our convictions, to speak out when something is not right. The German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller‘s post-war confession stays ever- relevant, in particular,  in the present times. The following poetic form of his quote is engraved at the  New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

‘ First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’.

 

As Primo Levi observes, ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’.

 

Ref:

Book review-‘ Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Stalina’ by Rosemary Sullivan

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Author- Rosemary Sullivan

Genre- Nonfiction/ Biography

Literary Awards
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Nominee for Shortlist (2016),
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Biography (2015),
RBC Taylor Prize (2016),
Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction (2015)
My Review

An unambiguously commendable feat from the author, Rosemary Sullivan, an irresistible and mind-blowing biography of Svetlana. The book stands out as a meticulously chronicled, assiduously researched, and intensively scrutinized memoir of the only daughter of Joseph Stalin. There are a handful of memoirs of Svetlana, out of which this one proffers an itemized elucidation of the identity and idiosyncrasies of Svetlana and the rationale of her actions matter of factly, in their historical, cultural and emotional contexts.

It literally upended my preconceived and prejudiced notion of her identity and disposition as a fairy tale princess reared on the lap of opulence by a cult figure loathed by many and revered by some. I still remember having gone through an article about her which had appeared in an English daily in 2011, the year of her death, which bears testimony to how the media can distort the facts and figures to a consummately grotesque way to the point of an egregious read, besmirching a person with presumedly concocted veracity claims, which is simply beyond the pale for any conscienced soul.

This book puts right the garbled facets of her personality for those who had misread her before and puts up a spellbinding read for those new to explore her. The author has methodically scoured through a treasure trove of references which include biographies, Svetlana’s personal missives, word of mouth accounts by Svetlana’s daughter, relatives, friends and a lot more.

The transfiguration of her life from one of facile comfort to an out and out destitution, the precariousness of her cardinal resolutions including the moment of her defection to the U.S, the capriciousness which very often than not presided over her reason, vacillations of her psyche, mercuriality of conduct, the incessant hankering for unmaterialistic and unconditional love which elicits extreme poignancy in terms of the tragic turn her relationships took without exception, occasional imperiousness that paradoxically reminded her friends about her pedigree, even as she tried every bit to steer clear of Stalin’s shadow until her last breath…. all these make the book a compelling read.

Though she had been trying hard to erase those scorched memories by running away from everything that had the stamp of Stalin, reading between the lines, I felt, she had always harbored an iota of tenderness for Stalin and this is somewhat obvious from her own memoir( NYT best selling memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which is a very interesting read) in which she doles out an equal share of responsibility of his atrocities to his accomplices and lackeys who had been complicit and persuasive in his acts.

The memoir is eminently readable, riveting, transfixing, revealing, enlightening, poignant to a certain extent….. worth the time one spends for it.

Book review and analysis- ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

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Author– Virginia Woolf

Genre and subgenre– Nonfiction/ Essay/ Feminist literary criticism/ Modernism

Themes– Position of women in fiction and real-life/ Sexist attitude in or towards literature/ Effect of the gender of the writer on their characters or theme or style/ Critical analysis of patriarchal society/ Women’s rights/ Materialistic approach to intellectual freedom and hence literary freedom/ Freedom for creativity in the form of private space as opposed to confinement in a common environment vis-a-vis Edwardian, Elizabethan, and Victorian women.

Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own‘ is one of the earliest and iconic texts of feminist literary criticism. It is an extended essay based on two lectures that she delivered on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’ at Newnham College and Girton College( two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) in 1928.

It is interesting to note that the essay begins with a ‘But’- emphasizing the contrarianism in the topic of women and fiction. She explores her famous argument/ opinion, ‘ A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction‘, and develops and amends it freely through her ‘train of thought‘ method similar to the modernist ‘stream of consciousness‘ method used by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner and utilized by Woolf in her novel,’To The Lighthouse‘. While developing her argument, she cautions the audience to be wary of lies that might flow from her lips amidst truths and facts and to parse the prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and limitations of her argument before drawing one’s own conclusion. And she indicates that fiction might have more truth than fact. The methodology used is historical and sociological analyses, fictional hypotheses, philosophy utilizing symbolism, and motifs. ( Enjoy the brilliant symbolisms as in the other Woolf works)

Woolf invents a fictional narrator, Mary, to serve this purpose ( Woolf tells us that her name does not matter), and a fictional University of Oxbridge. It is the character, Mary who takes the arguments forward on the course of visiting the fictional colleges and The British Museum while scouring documents for asserting her arguments.

Review and analysis

The essay starts with Mary sitting on the banks of a river near the college, lost in serious thought about women and fiction. Woolf compares the thought as ‘letting its line into the stream‘, and idea as ‘ a small fish tugging at the end of one’s line, a sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating‘.

Mary, intent on developing the thought, slowly walks over the grass turf of the college, while she is being intercepted by the Beadle with horror and indignation. He literally (and figuratively) shows her path as the gravel and not the turf and stresses that only Fellows and Scholars( all men) are allowed to use the turf. Though the turf is better than gravel for walking, it has been protected as an all-men privilege that has been rolled out in succession for the past 300 years and the interruption sends her little fish( idea) into hiding. She thinks of literary geniuses like Charles Lamb and Thakeray who had set their feet on that ground hundreds of years ago. She opens the library door and is again being intercepted by a gentleman who tells her that ladies were not allowed, but with a Fellow of the college or with a letter of introduction. Mary vows never to enter there again- ‘ let it sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again.’

She passes a chapel watching a congregation flow inside and hesitates to enter, lest she might be denied entry again.  Reflecting on the amount of money, gold, and silver that might have flowed into the basements of these buildings from the coffers of kings, queens, and nobles during yesteryears, nowadays donated by wealthy civilian men ‘when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come’, who endows chairs, lectureships, and fellowships. She goes to lunch, describing the gourmet food on display that she compares with the minimal dishes for dinner in a women’s college. Suddenly she sees a tailless Manx cat walking across the quadrangle and feels something is lacking. The tailless cat is symbolic of the post-war period that changes the music of pre-war England to meaningless regular conversations. It might also be symbolic of women as second-class citizens, lacking the qualities of men and so unwelcome on the grassy lawn. The luxurious lunch is symbolic of the wealth possessed by aristocratic men whose thoughts and conversations are unimpeded unlike the dinner at the women’s college which is striking and representative of the inequalities endured by women for centuries from a patriarchal society.

The narrator searches for answers in the British Museum, London by scouring the section on women and fiction, hoping to consult the learned and the unprejudiced, thereby straining off personal, accidental, prejudiced impressions and so to reach the pure fluid, ‘the essential oil of truth’. Here, she finds institutionalized sexism, the books about women were written by men and never in the other order. Instead of answers, she starts thinking more questions, primarily why women were poorer than men. She evokes the famed authors belittling women, citing Samuel Butler (‘ Wise men never say what they think of women’), and Alexander Pope (‘ Most women have no character at all’). Napoleon thought them incapable, Mussolini despised them. Yet, some like Dr. Johnson and Goethe honored them.

Figuring the truth running through her fingers, it seems a pure waste of time to consult those gentlemen who specialize in women. ‘One might as well leave their books unopened’. She draws a figure of Professor X engaged in writing ‘ The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex‘ as if he were killing a noxious insect, looking very angry and irritated. The figure itself was a reflection of the narrator’s anger upon seeing the title of his creation. She wonders how anger had snatched her pencil while she dreamt-‘Had anger, the black snake been lurking among the other emotions?‘. She wonders if the book had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.

She reads a newspaper at lunch, pervading with misogynist, patriarchal condescension and notices the presence of the professor in it in the guise of the editor, sub-editor, foreign secretary, Judge, shareholder and so forth. It was his money, power and influence talking. But, still, he was angry and this perplexes her. She concludes that one would not have been angry if the professor had written dispassionately in an unbiased manner using indisputable proofs. He might well be concerned with his superiority while insisting emphatically upon the inferiority of women. Had he been objective by not utterly focussing on the inferiority of the other sex, he would have attained the freedom of thought for literary creation. Woolf, in the same manner, remains detached from the essay in an impersonal manner, by creating a fictional narrator, though she gives voice to the narrator, and ultimately could think objectively without personal prejudices.

She uses the ‘looking-glass‘ metaphor here-‘ Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and the delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’. So, if she begins to criticize men, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks. She emphasizes the power of money/ inheritance on the freedom of thought, something valuable than the right to vote-‘ Remove the protection from the other sex and expose them to the same activities and exertions, make them soldiers and sailors…..’. Woolf stresses money as a means of personal freedom and thus creativity and the aesthetic ideology is conveyed as metaphors of the brilliant light on the sky as ‘ a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes, a tawny monster roaring with hot breath……’

The narrator is perplexed with the perennial puzzle of why no women wrote a word of that extraordinary literature or why the details about the life of women are completely absent from literature during the Elizabethan period. Woolf uses the metaphor of the spider web to describe the imaginative work needed for fiction, its intricacies, attached as it is to the various points of realities of life. Creating fiction is totally unlike the dropping of a pebble as science may be. The narrator finds a book titled ‘History of England’ by one Professor Trevelyan, in which issues like wife-beating, lack of freedom to choose a husband, marriages made out of family avarice and not personal affection are discussed. He mentions a paradox in which fictional women, Shakespeare’s heroines, for example, were never wanting in personality and character. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, Rosalind….. all of them have burnt like beacons in fiction. Thus a queer, composite individual emerges who has the highest importance in imagination, but worthless in reality, ‘ An odd monster that one made up by reading historians first and poets afterward, a worm winged like an eagle.’ One needs to think prosaically and poetically to conjure up this queer creature. She is a passing shadow, whisking away into the background, concealing, a wink, a laugh, sometimes a tear.

Thinking of an old gentleman, a bishop, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or future, to have the genius of Shakespeare, she conjures up an imaginative character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, with the same genius as himself. The privileges consigned exclusively to the male sex transforms him to the Bard, while she, struggling to surmount the obstacles, is nipped in the bud. Thus she concludes that a genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people except for some rarities sometimes. She mentions Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Robert Burns as novelists who transcended the many barriers to create fiction. Chastity was something to be guarded, in addition, that anonymity was the preferred mode of escape from slander- Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand….. and many others were victims of this inner strife. With this, the narrator asks a pertinent question- what is the state of mind that is propitious to the state of creation?

Though we do not know what Shakespeare, Carlyle, Flaubert or Keats went through while composing their masterpieces, the narrator presumes from the enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that ‘to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty’. Both material circumstances and the physical and psychological environment might have impeded them at their task. “ And mighty poets in their misery dead”- William Wordsworth( Resolution and Independence, stanza 17.

And the obstacles might have been formidable for women writers without a supporting income or a room of her own. The world was indifferent to Keats, Flaubert, but outright hostile to women writers. This presumption and declaration of the intellectual inferiority of the female writers and outright environmental hostility must have ‘lowered her vitality and told profoundly upon her work.’ Nick Greene had said that a woman acting reminded him of a dog dancing. Here, she offers a slice of advice to writers to ignore the criticisms leveled against their works. Still, she maintains that it is the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them and that it is the nature of an artist to do this. ‘ Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others’.

The actual gravestone text of John Keats reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’

Here, Woolf brings out the light symbolism again. She writes, ‘ the mind of an artist in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him must be incandescent like Shakespeare’s mind. There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.’ The works of Shakespeare do not reveal any personal grudges compared to those of Ben Jonson or Milton. Hence the unimpeded flow of Shakespeare’s poetry. His mind was incandescent. Woolf is at odds with criticism, which dilutes the incandescence according to her. Contemporary feminist and minority literature theorists disagree. They use protest literature to reclaim their voices.

Discussing the freedom of female writers, the narrator mentions about aristocratic women who would take advantage of their comparative freedom and comfort to publish something without the risk of being stamped as a monster or witch. She mentions Lady Winchilsea who wrote poetry during the 17-th century, who was noble by birth and marriage, childless, all fruitful environs for her writings to flourish, still the indignation was palpable in her poems. Alexander Pope or Gay is said to have satirized her as ‘ a bluestocking with an itch for scribbling’. The incandescence in her is consumed by hatred for the opposite sex.  Woolf equally mentions this point for both male and female writers. Another gifted female writer, Dorothy Osborne, out of sense and modesty, wrote letters instead of books. And the narrator discusses the works of Aphra Behn( Oroonoko,  The Rover), which was a turning point in female literature. She, after the death of her husband, wrote to make a living and raise her children.

Aphra Behn thus changed the landscape of female literature and in the later 18-th century women began talking, meeting, writing based on the solid fact that women could be financially independent by making money by writing. ‘ Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’. Middle-class women began to write. Here, the narrator turns her attention to the four famed female writers- Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. Their masterpieces definitely echo the collective voices of the female writers who came before them like Fanny Burney, Eliza Carter, and Aphra Behn.

She saunters to the section of 19-th century literature by women and wonders why all of them were novels but not poetry, with a few exceptions. Nothing seemed congruous about the four writers mentioned above except for the fact that all wrote novels, all four were childless. A middle-class family in the early 19-th century possessed only a single sitting room and amidst the interruptions cutting short their concentration, it would have been easier to write prose than poetry or play.  Jane Austen is said to have hidden her manuscripts while there were visitors to her house. Their only training was in observing the character and analyzing the emotions, naturally, the prose for fiction came easily to them. Still, they might have been capable of other pursuits like poetry, play, history or biography, could they been given a room of their own. Jane Austen and Shakespeare share the qualities of writing without hate, bitterness, protest or without preaching. In fact, they had consumed all their impediments.

Opening chapter twelve of Jane Eyre, the narrator’s eye gets stuck at the sentence ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. She wonders what they were blaming Charlotte Bronte for. Laying the book beside Pride and Prejudice, the narrator infers that Charlotte Bronte has more genius in her than Jane Austen, still, it is not being expressed whole and entire as a result of her indignation and rage that deforms and twists her characters by infusing herself into the pages. She reflects on the range of freedom of life circumstances offered to men and even they commit sins, never do they need to seclude them from the righteous or else Tolstoy could scarcely have written ‘War and Peace‘. Life conflicts with something that is not life in a novel. What holds the work together among the readers is its integrity. It is the ‘invisible ink that nature traces on one’s mind, a premonition which these great artists confirm’. This is what makes War and Peace a masterpiece, she concludes. On the other hand novels with bright colors and dashing gestures bring to light only a faint scribble on the mind, a blot over there, a failure that comes to grief somewhere.

The narrator wonders how the sex of the writer interferes with the integrity, how the imagination falters under strain, confusing the insight to distinguish between true and false. Anger was clearly impeding the integrity of Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’. She left it in the midst to attend some personal grievance. Anger tugged her imagination, swerved and deflected it from its path. But, there were many more, ignorance for instance. She draws the portrait of ‘Rochester‘ blindly, in the dark, we feel her fear, a ‘buried rancor smoldering beneath her passion, contracting those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain‘.

And next, the narrator links the difference of value among both sexes, transferred from life to fiction, ad how the critic evaluates the significance of the work according to these. For instance, football and sport are ‘important’ while the feeling of women in a drawing-room, what she does, how she feels is not. Woolf thus vindicates writers like Charlotte Bronte, who had to fend off these barbs by aggression or conciliation, docility or diffidence, anger or emphasis depending on what her temperament dictated. The flaw in her work comes from her head, from the center- ‘ Think of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others’. The kind of genius and integrity to ward off the criticism in the midst of a patriarchal society without withering is a commendable feat. Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte did that. They wrote as women write and not as men write, a feather in their caps. They were deaf to persistent admonitions, pedagogueries, patronizing speeches. She quotes Egerton Brydges, the English bibliographer, and genealogist- ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex’. This sentence was written not in 1828, but in 1928, the narrator stresses. She calls those defiant women novelists, firebrand, to say to themselves that literature is open t everybody. ‘Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no bolt, no lock that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’.

Now, she comes to another difference between men and women writers- the absence of sufficient precedent for women writers and the mind of the two sexes. The pace/ stride of a man’s mind is too unlike her own to use any of his words or style, ‘The ape is too distant to be sedulous’. There is no common sentence ready for use. Thackeray, Dickens, and Balzac created their sentences with their own tint without ceasing to be common property. A man’s sentence is unsuited for women’s use. Charlotte Bronte, a genius, but she fell with clumsy use of the words. Geroge Eliot committed atrocities with them. It was Jane Austen who with her freedom and fullness of expression, shaped the words into her own squares, circles, arcades, and domes. So, with less genius that Charlotte Bronte, she got said more. She could build sentences and not just write. Thus, all the other forms of literature except the novel were shaped and hardened by her male peers by the time she started to write. Only the novel was pliable, young and soft in her hands to be shaped into one that she desired. Woolf laments that poetry was still denied an outlet from women. She hopes for a future where they would compose epics in verse or prose when she will be free to use her limbs to knock them to shape. Woolf herself provides the example by not just copying the Modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ style, but, modifying it into a free indirect discourse in her novel ‘ To The Lighthouse’. One of the great English stylists, she shaped her works with wit, elegance, and focus into natural cut out sentences.

The narrator finally gets to the shelves of contemporary writers, men, and women, she finds that women no longer write solely novels. There are Jane Harrison‘s books on Greek archaeology, Vernon Lee‘s books on aesthetics, Gertrude Bell‘s books on Persia. There are poems, plays, and criticisms, history, biography, and philosophy. She has begun to take writing as an art, something for a living and not solely as a means of self- expression. Here she creates a fictional author, Mary Carmichael who wrote’Life’s Adventure’, her first book. The narrator starts reading and wonders if the author has a pen or a pickaxe in her hand. The sentences lacked the melody of Jane Austen, to read her was like ‘out at sea in an open boat’. Maybe, she was being too conscious of the flowery prose in female literature and wants to provide a superfluity of thorns instead? The sentences and sequences were broken. Then she stopped at the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ and the immense change struck her. Sometimes women do like women, she thinks and muses how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered if Cleopatra liked Octavia instead of feeling jealous of her. Excepting a few like Diana of the Crossways, in Racine and the Greek tragedies, almost without exception women were shown in relation to men. Even Proust is hampered and partial in his knowledge of women as a woman in her knowledge of men. Carmichael’s female characters like each other, they share a laboratory and are working mothers. So much has changed in the course of years in female literature. Woolf once again uses the light symbolism, of Carmichael lighting a torch in the half-lights and profound shadows inside serpentine caves. The narrator watches curiously as the author captures ‘the unrecorded gestures, unsaid or half said words, which form no more than the shadows of moths on the ceiling when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and colored light of the other sex’. 

The narrator heedlessly starts to praise women as ‘infinitely intricate’. ‘highly developed’ and so forth, but realizes the absence of yardsticks to measure the qualities of a good mother, devotion of a daughter or fidelity of a sister. Yet, greats like Goethe, Carlyle, Cowper, Sterne, Shelley, Voltaire, and Browning have for one reason or other admired, sought out, lived with, confided in, made love to, written of or trusted in women, and not all could be said as platonic. And from these relationships, it was not just flattery, comfort or pleasure that those men sought, but some stimulus for renewal of creative power which only the opposite sex can bestow. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to be a contemplative novelist rather than a naturalist one as she needs to draw a lot of pictures of characters from the drawing-room to the street. Each gender has a blind spot ‘the size of a shilling on the back of their head‘ but through mutual observations, they can gain full enlightenment. The narrator dares the author to go behind the head of the other sex and point out the black spot. Reading further, the narrator compares Carmichael to other authors and notices that she had no love of nature, the fiery imagination, the wild poetry, the brilliant wit or the brooding wisdom of her predecessors. Nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked— fear and hatred to men had gone, or if present in traces were shown in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to be caustic or satirical. She had that capacious sensibility that brought buried things to light and she mastered to write as a woman without conscious of being a woman. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to do her best in the test, to ignore the bishops, deans, professors, patriarchs, and pedagogues warning and shouting at her, to not stop or curse, to not laugh or fumble, imploring her to think of jumping over the fence and she flew like bid over the fence. But, there were many fences beyond the first one, and though her staying power was doubtful, she did her best considering she was no genius, but an unknown girl writing her first novel without a room of her own or five hundred bucks a year income. Give her these and in another hundred years, she will be a poet.

In the final chapter, the narrator discusses  ‘the unity of mind‘, a hypothesis that she puts forth, the mind having both male and female components in both sexes and which need to be united in harmony in order to attain satisfaction and happiness. She refers to Coleridge‘s saying that ‘ a great mind is androgynous‘. She infers that a purely masculine or feminine mind could not create. By the term androgynous Coleridge had meant a resonant, porous mind transmitting emotion without impediment, naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. Shakespeare’s mind could be taken as an example, but, it is difficult to say what he thought of women. She thinks of how much harder it is to attain a state of mind now than before, that does not think specially or separately of sex. The books by the men on women on the shelves is an example of this. She blames the Suffrage campaign for this, one which roused self-assertion in men by challenging them. The response has been excessive since they had never been challenged before.

She reads a novel by a well-respected male writer, written clearly, strongly, using a free mind, but balks at the self- assertive ‘I’ that pervades the novel. This feeling of superiority, that hides the other sex in its shadow impedes the creative energy of the author and he is protesting equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority, The narrator hints that Elizabethan literature might have been different if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century instead of the nineteenth. Thus, the author writing with only the male side of the brain will never be understood by female readers, the sentences fall plump to the ground. But with Coleridge’s sentences, the mind explodes and gives birth to all kinds of ideas and this sort of writing has the secret of perpetual life. She notices that the works of Kipling and Galsworthy cannot find in them the fountain of perpetual life, they lack the suggestive power and cannot penetrate deep inside the mind.

Woolf stresses the necessity of financial independence in creativity, the symbolic five hundred bucks a year and a lock on the door for the power to contemplate. She quotes the Cornish writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch next. ‘ Poetical genius bloweth where it listeth and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth’. ‘ The poor poet has not in these days nor has had for 400 years, a dog’s chance…..a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom’. Intellectual freedom depends on material things and poetry depends on intellectual freedom.  Of all the great poets of the last few hundred years only Keats, Browning and Rossetti had not attended university. Of these three poets, only Keats was not well- to do and he died young. Women had even less intellectual freedom than sons of Athenian slaves. And women have always been poor.

Thus, Woolf makes her case on stressing on the material aspects of life- a room of one’s own and 500 bucks a year- for intellectual freedom. She urges women to write and read. And she explains that when she asks women to earn money and have a room of one’s own, she means for women to live in reality. She exhorts women to utilize the privileges of education, to bear fewer children, to escape the common sitting room and write what one thinks is right. Judith would come again ‘if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile’.

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Book Review- ‘Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future’ by Svetlana Alexievich

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Author– Svetlana Alexievich

Genre– Nonfiction (Personal narrative/ Biography)

Introduction

The book is about the Chernobyl disaster, by the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Laureate. At the time of the disaster, she was a journalist living in Minsk. It is a product of interviews with more than 500 eyewitnesses who have had direct experience dealing with the disaster and rendered as monologues in her polyphonic writing.

Review

The book proffers a verbatim account in the form of monologues from the living, breathing relics of Chernobyl, an exceptional product of almost three years of close encounter and interaction with the victims of the disaster, aka Chernobyl people. The author is unique, given her polyphonic writing boring straight through the minds and hearts of readers, proffering fervent accounts that would leave anyone, with no more than a skin-deep grasp of the disaster, totally flabbergasted.

The most consequential technological disaster of the twentieth century has often been linked to Ukraine and Russia, regardless of a fall out of 70% upon a small landlocked Eastern European country Belarus despite it not having any nuclear power stations on its own. The disaster left enduring scars on the future generation in the form of cancers, genetic mutations, mental retardation, congenital anomalies, and many neuropsychiatric disorders.

The area within several kilometers of radii around the reactor was designated as contamination zones where background radiation levels shot off the limits of any conceivable values in the Geiger Counter. One can’t but feel deeply offensive making sense of the egregious and hideous response of the Soviet Union towards the disaster and its own people. Young conscripts and reservist clean up workers were drafted to the contaminated zone for many months to clean up the area without proper protection, where even machines and robots came to a halt. They were given false assurances on the level of radiation but the truth was that most of them were pitifully benighted to the gravity of the disaster, let alone the effects of radiation or nuclear physics gone berserk.

Many statistics are still classified. The communist propaganda machines churned out unenlightened and ill-advised media announcements treacherously providing a false sense of security to the masses. They devoured these along with cesium, strontium and plutonium-laced food washed down with radioactive drinks, inhaled radioactive dust, and splashed around in radioactive rivers and streams.

Most of the cleanup workers died from acute radiation sickness or other long-term effects of radiation. Those that were left behind were afflicted by deep-seated emotional and physical scars. A hasty trial of the perpetrators in Chernobyl during 1986, discernibly without international media presence, settled for scapegoats instead. Even now, nobody knows what is happening inside the reactor number 4 covered by a sarcophagus called Shelter Object and recently replaced by a new one made of high-quality steel capable of withstanding gamma radiation called The Arch.

The poignancy of the monologues is manifest and the barbarism of the regime is abstrusely homicidal into the bargain. A stroll through the zone is striking with respect to the spillage of cemeteries. The masses that had been fed and nurtured by decades of Soviet ideology and upbringing were within easy reach of the regime and they acquiesced docilely to their demands to ‘ contain ‘ the fallout of an unprecedented catastrophe. What these unarmed soviet androids took home from the regime in return were unbefitting and unworthy of life vis-a-vis the intimidating scenarios they would, later on, stand up to.

Two other disasters concurred with the cosmic explosion of Chernobyl, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fizzling out of ‘sovietness’ ingrained in the psyche of the masses. Until the disaster, they had reckoned science, scientists and communism in the upper echelons of their collective consciousness, they were indoctrinated on the amicability of the atom, the immense expanse of the space to be hegemonized and they had unwavering certitude in the Soviet ‘mandarins’. With Chernobyl, the Soviet ethos too breathed it’s last.

The Zone, as it is known, will remain uninhabitable for years to come, carrying the markers of the radionuclides everywhere surrounding it, even more so as a cataclysm of the minds of the Soviet people. This is nothing like the events that are apparently comparable to, far apart from natural disasters or wars that could be consigned to the dustbin of history, where a distinct demarcation is possible between past, present and future.

With Chernobyl, the demarcation is blurred and they blend into the realm of eons inscrutable to us, common men. For that reason this book is synchronistically a requiem for the past and a chronicle of future.

Book Review ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot

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Author–        Rebecca Skloot

Genre-          Nonfiction/ Biography

                              Rebecca Skloot in her debut science-based biographical non-fiction deals with the journey of Henrietta Lacks, contributor to the famous He La cell line, to immortality. She also discusses the early stages of tissue culture, how the He La cells transformed the fields of cytology, cancer research, virology, genetics, chemotherapy through years of research, it’s implications in almost every area of medicine, tribulations endured her posterity and the ever-relevant topic of ethics in scientific research.

Early and mid 20 th century medicine had been so overshadowed by racism and permeated by the insidious and festering ideas of eugenicist theories that the essence of medical science had often been jettisoned by parochial, condescending physicians and researchers. As we navigate Henrietta’s biography, it is interesting to mull over the paradox of ‘benevolent deception’ touched upon by the author, the term itself being self-contradictory. Nevertheless, whether her gynecologist Dr. Jones and John Hopkins researchers and physicians had been benevolent enough not to add oil to the fire of cancer diagnosis by withholding it’s sinisterness from her thus aiding and abetting her death or whether they had been unwittingly naive and deceptive in misdiagnosing the type and extent of malignancy is debatable, given the incipiency of cancer management and research then. Much more contestable is the justifiability of procuring and harvesting Henrietta’s cells without the knowledge or permission of her near and dear, the diverse sentiments of which are dealt with in the epilogue, shedding light on the ethicality of tissue research, by platoons of pro and anti-tissue ownership rights crusaders.

The bigoted and invidious practices towards patients in the first half of the twentieth century had been much lofty as to tilt the equations of ethics and norms away from a soi-disant plebeian race to such an ignoble extent that the boundaries of conscience, ethics, and oaths were routinely transgressed in delivering care to the indigents. Yet, ethics has always been a thorn in the flesh of medical history. An example being the sensitive issue of euthanasia where ethical dilemma of decision making contravenes legality. Other downsides from the medical fraternity’s perspective are the liability on the physician to bring forth the burden of proof or the denial of the benefit of doubt from the public even though life-saving decisions need to be prioritized and executed in good faith.

In this context is the need for physicians to be proficient in juggling the priorities, treading the fine line of mental maths, a sort of acrobatics for which many of the noble jugglers are ill-trained, at best. Most of the medical schools do not cater to the topics of ethics and etiquettes in their curriculum or those that include them just makes a passing reference over a few sessions. The gravity of the topic rationalizes the incorporation of these as a distinct subject.

In Henrietta’s case, she inadvertently lent her hand and cells to medical innovations that turned out to be the elixir of life for many, in the process growing to a cause celebre in the history of tissue culture. Though medicine has come of age and the past specters of puritanical eugenic misadventures exorcized, ethics is still a hot-button issue, it’s complexity being shaped by determinants like subjectivity, intangibility, unfathomableness, religious, geographic and cultural influences.

Since the progression of science is far-fetched without pushing the limits, often the black and white facileness ought to be smudged to grey zones and hard and fastness tweaked to pliancy so as to fit into the tailor-made molds of necessity and enterprise in the course of research-based furtherance. While there are specific laws regarding human experimentation for research that sprouted from the Nuremberg trials and these are universal, regulations for tissue research is still somewhat murky and in its infancy.

That doesn’t mean, as a physician or researcher, one has done with it once the patient or subject initialed the consent form. Their accountability only begins there, in seeing to it that by pushing the limits they are never crossed, by holding on firmly to the pledge of ‘ Do No Harm’.

Copyright © deepanairrp

Review on ‘After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters With Kurdistan’ by Jonathan C. Randal

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A candid, in-depth and incisive sketch on the geopolitics of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, expounding their strife with national and international actors in carving out a separate entity of Kurdistan.

I was intensely drawn to the plight of Kurds during the course of reading the extensive reportage in print media for the past few years. That they had been hunted, used and abused at every possible opportunity, hoodwinked by their one- time confidantes like the Shah of Iran, inveigled at pivotal moments by their most trusted ally and advisor, the US, and most of all, that they had once been strange bedfellows with their arch enemy Saddam Hussein, seemed something beyond me. Thus began my search for an unbiased account of these mountain people and I happened to chance upon this book during an exhibition. Randal, a W.P correspondent, who owing to the nature of his job has had a first-hand grip on their history and geopolitics and had been endowed with numerous windows of opportunity in getting to know plebeian and patrician alike, has taken great pains in getting down to the nuts and bolts of Kurdish issue during his wartime reporting. 

One ought to be patient right through, that’s the only catch, yet worth the read!